#red onions #local #fresh #products

Baby it’s cold outside!

Tis’ the season to get cozy around a warm fireplace and dive into a delicious hot bowl of soup, while watching the bright yellow leaves being blown by the wind outside. It’s everything you need, to warm up a chilly winter day!

Ok, I know it might sound dramatic a little bit, but seriously, with the cold windy and rainy days we’ve had lately, the temperatures went down even here, in the ever-sunny Tuscany. We’ve even had a couple of snowflakes, mostly over the hilly areas. But hey, it’s December! So while Nature is making its way into the long winter slumber, the rhythms slow down and we can enjoy our home and family gatherings a little bit more. It’s one of our favorite things about the cold season.

fireplace-wood-bread-soup

In older times, a chilly winter day in the countryside was often warmed up by a pot of hot vegetables soup, the ‘ribollita’ or ‘minestra di pane’ (bread soup). A typical peasant dish made from scratch, that deepens its roots in the Middle-ages. Farmers used to prepare a big batch of this hearty vegetable and beans soup, usually on a Friday so they would eat it over the weekend. That’s because not only did they had to make it last for as much as possible to feed the entire family, but it turned out to be even better the day after. So initially they ate the soup with a lot of white Tuscan bread chunks dipped into it (‘minestra di pane’- bread soup) and then re-boiled the leftovers the day after (‘la ribollita’ – the re-boiled bread soup).

bread-soup-dish-ribollita

To this day, the Tuscan bread soup still remains the best way to keep us warm during the cold season and load up on our daily helping of vegetables, because of its perfect combination of carbs, legumes and veggies.

The main ingredient, the one that and gives the whole character to this dish, is the Tuscan kale (or lancinato kale). It’s mandatory for an authentic taste, because you can’t name it ‘ribollita’ if you don’t have the black-leaf kale. We call it ‘cavolo nero’ (translated black cabbage), and it’s a leafy, dark-green type of cabbage, packed with more than 50% of the RDA of vitamins A, C and K, and rich in antioxidants and other essential nutrients, not to mention it’s very low in calories. You can find this super ingredient in every Tuscan farmer’s orchard, from November through spring and it’s best eaten freshly picked, during the cold season.

tuscan-black-leaf-kale

So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the best recipe of ‘Tuscan bread soup’ you’ll ever have. This has been passed down through generations and it’s part of our family’s comfort food cookbook. It’s so simple you can’t go wrong, and so delicious that it’ll fill your house with that special dinner smell that’ll make your tummy rumble.

You’ll need:

a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil freshly cold-pressed

300gr of dry borlotti beans

400gr of Tuscan kale

3 carrots

3 potatoes

1 red onion

1 celery stalk

1 twig of thyme

2 cloves of garlic

2 thick slices of Tuscan prosciutto pork ham

bread-soup-recipe-ingredients-ribollita

In a large pot over a livery fire, pour a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil and add the prosciutto, the carrots, the celery and the onion well chopped. Cover with its lid and stir-fry for about 5 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables cut into pieces, the thyme and the beans. Make sure you keep the pieces quite small, the soup should be thick but not chunky. Now pour in at least 1 liter of hot water and 3 four-fingered pinches of salt. Lower the flame, and cook for at least 90 minutes, covered with a lid. Serve this soup piping hot, with a grinding of fresh pepper and chunks of Tuscan white bread dipped into it, stingily rubbed with garlic and generously sprinkled with Tuscan extravirgin ‘olio novo’.

bread-soup-cold-ribollita-dish

A night in the fridge will encourage all the flavors to blend together beautifully and all you’ll need to do the next day is bring the whole pot to a boil again, and enjoy a hot bowl of wonderful ribollita.

The season is just right to taste this Tuscan basic recipe, so why not give it a try and amaze your family with a new delicious and super-nutrient dish that will delight your senses and warmup your winter holidays!

Oh, and remember: when in Italy during the summer months, please don’t ask us for a pot of ribollita, it’s definitely off season! Have a holly jolly winter everyone!

L’Olio Novo

The Tuscan Green Gold, from the farm to the fork!

Autumn isn’t only about roasting chestnuts and sipping red wine by the fireplace. There’s pretty little time to just sit around, when living in the Tuscan countryside. So between the golden autumn leaves and the first winter chill, as soon as we’re done with the vine harvest, we must get our strength back and be ready for a new adventure: the olive harvest.

Pretty much like every other year, we start picking olives in our farm, around the mid of October, and just before the first chills of November. Anciently it was used to wait for the olives to be fully mature before harvesting. But the weather wasn’t always merciful with crops in late autumn, so to protect them from the early frosts, over the years people have traditionally developed the custom that we all know today, to harvest olives earlier: before they are fully ripe.

olio-novo-tuscan-olive-harvest

This tradition, has become an essential part of our territory’s reputation worldwide, for it has given us a unique product of excellence: “l’olio novo” toscano (the freshly pressed Tuscan extravirgin olive oil). Unique because the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the PDO extravirgin olive oil are mostly related to the climate of the growth area, which influences directly the quality of the phenols, the bitterness and sharpness of the taste.

So harvesting olives before they are ripe, means the level of polyphenol they contain is still high. And although, unfortunately for us, that implies a lower quantity of product, it’s actually just what it needs to obtain the perfect contrast of that intense bitter and peppery taste, so typical of the Tuscan extravirgin olive oil. However, the final result for each batch of oil, also depends on many other elements, so much that it’s almost impossible to have two different productions with the same taste, even within the same area.

olive-tree-harvest

As we always do in our farm, harvesting olives turns into a family fun activity. Being a farmer is a rather tough physical effort and any extra hand is always welcome; so traditionally during the olive harvest, close relatives and friends or neighbors from the nearby farms gather to offer their help and spend some lighthearted days together in the open air, enjoying the breathtaking view over the Tuscan hills. Everyone takes part in the process and being able to follow the product from the olive grove to the fork, is really exciting for all.

tuscan-olive-harvest-family-fun

The day starts very early in the morning, when armed with rubber boots, comfy clothes and tools of the trade, we reach our small olive grove and start collecting the greenish-purple little gems. What we love the most about it, is that our family still preserves the tradition from generations, and a day of hard work in the farm, easily turns into a celebration. We love to recreate the old fashioned charm of living in the countryside, just like our grandparents used to: understanding the importance of this moment, giving thanks for nature’s richness and sharing the sweat, the laughter, the food and the wine, until the work is done! My grandfathers used to tell me about their harvest gatherings, describing those moments as the most important in the life of a farmer, for socializing and opening up with others on everyday life, by sharing the labor and the table.

tuscan-olive-harvest-view

Our busy day harvesting olives comes to an end only after sunset, always following nature’s course. Depending on the size of the olive grove, it may take from one day to an entire week to finish, so we store the harvested pods in plastic boxes, or on the floor of a cool and well ventilated room, until we can take them to the mill for the pressing, but usually no longer than 48 hours.

olives-tuscan-extravirgin-oil

The mills in this area are quite a few and larger farms even have their own. We take our harvest to a very old mill nearby, that uses the traditional “cold pressing” process, to obtain the best expression of the extravirgin olive oil. First, olives are washed in cold water, removing as much leaves as possible. All that’s left is being then crushed together by a giant milestone and stored in stainless steel tins.

olive-harvest-fresh-extravirgin-olive-oil

Now this is what we actually call l’olio novo” (the new oil) here in Tuscany! It’s the freshly squeezed, unstrained and unprocessed extravirgin olive oil, that we all go crazy about. It’s the base ingredient for all our traditional cuisine dishes, and worldwide recommended for its well-known promoting nutrients and overall health benefits. We use it in our kitchens everyday: fresh drizzled over a salad, cooked in most dishes, sometimes as a healthy substitute for butter in cakes and even in the pan, for a healthier frying. But when it comes to the fruity, peppery pungent freshly squeezed olive oil, the first thing that comes to mind is “la fettunta” (the greasy slice): the Tuscan traditional, healthiest and most simple dish ever, and the best way to enjoy to the fullest, the amazing flavor of “the new oil”.

tuscan-extravirgin-olive-oil-fresh

As soon as we bring the “green gold” back home, we just can’t help but drizzle it on a piece of Tuscan toasted white bread (unsalted); just like that, nothing else added, no other confounding ingredients, just our own special extravirgin olive oil… and this is when we realize that once again, all the sweat and the hard working was all worth it!

Certaldo’s Sweet Red Onions

In the XIV century, in one of his most famous novels (VI, 10) from The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote:

Certaldo, as you may have heard, is a castle of Val d’ Elsa situated in our county, which, however small it may be, was once inhabited by noblemen and men of substance; and thither, for that he found good pasture there, one of the friars of the order of St. Anthony was long used to resort once a year, to get in the alms bestowed by simpletons upon him and his brethren. His name was Fra Cipolla (Friar Onion) and he was gladly seen there, doubtless due as much to his name, as to other reasons, for thus it was known that the soil of those fields produces onions, that are famous throughout all Tuscany.”

red-onion-certaldo

This is just a small evidence that Certaldo’s red onion, has been known from way back, even before the middle-ages. We’re talking about a slow food presidium and product of excellence of our territory, which you can find in two varieties: the Stantina, a round purplish onion, with succulent flesh that’s best eaten during the summer months, and the Vernina, the bright red and sour tasting type, harvested from the end of August all through the winter season, and symbol of Certaldo.

red-onions-certaldo

But if we look even further back, way prior to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, the red onion had already been adopted as a symbol of the hardworking strong spirit and sweet temper of Certaldo’s inhabitants, and thus represented on the town’s pennant. So it dominated the white side of the two-tier shield, with the motto: “By nature, I am strong yet sweet and everyone here likes me, those who work and those who sit”. However, in 1633, the Priors running the burgh, decided that it was an unworthy crest for their town, and replaced it with a rampant lion. Later, in the XIX century, the city council would have re-established the original crest that you may see today on our town’s flag.

Ancient mural of Certaldo’s first crest, representing the red onion on a two-tier shield – Source: Wikimedia.org

Anyway, don’t expect to come across onions at every corner, when visiting Certaldo. Almost every farmer here grows its own, for their families’ consumption or local trading. So if you’re curious and looking for these sweet red gems, your only chances are the weekly local markets on Wednesday and Saturday, or the annual Sagra della Cipolla (The Onions’ Festival).

Since we are very proud of this marvelous product of our area, we keep the tradition alive, by celebrating it every year, with a week-long festival. It’s being held in the old burgh of Certaldo Alto, every year around the end of August, when our farmers harvest the Vernina type. Every evening, we gather together to taste the exquisite dishes prepared with the red onion, following ancient recipes that have been passed down through generations. There are people that live here, sitting together with others that came from different counties, or even tourists; banqueting, enjoying the good food and lots of Chianti wine from the local producers, accompanied by theater plays or themed performances.

red-onion-dish-food

Keeping the old recipes and traditions alive is the main purpose of this event, but we also like to look forward to the future generations. So on the second-last day, the festival hosts a food competition between the town’s quarters, which anticipates The Calambur: Certaldo’s medieval Palio, due to take place a few weeks later. During the food competition, every quarter has to come up with a new and creative dish, made with red onions. A committee made by people of the public gets to taste and decide on the best recipe. This year’s competition is not going to be a simple one, as they have to create a desert! I bet you’ve never thought about onions for desert, but let me tell you that you might just be surprised by the genius recipes and mixture of flavors that these people have come up with, over the years.

They’ve gone from making the ordinary soup, pasta and meat dishes with the red onions, to pickling, canning, making jam and jelly, adding them to chutneys, sweet and salted pies and even using them as homeopatic medicine, following ancient remedies left down by our grand-grand-parents. Practically, if you love red onions like we do, you can do just about anything with them!

At the Cooking School we make our most famous -handmade- Certaldo’s Red Onion Jam. It’s a family tradition, that has been taken forward for generations. It has a bitter-sweet taste and pairs perfectly with local pecorino cheese and salami, or Giuseppina’s special pork tenderloin in old-style dry marinade… to die for!

So if all this onion talking has captured your curiosity and you might want to try some onions for desert, here’s a special treat for you. It has been created and shared by a friend of mine and I’m telling you: if you’re into onions, you have to try this one!

caramelized-red-onions-sweet-pie-walnuts

red-onions-wine-caramelized

Did we get you mouth-watering yet? Then here’s the recipe for you!

Red wine caramelized onions & dark chocolate tartlets

Finely chop 2-3 sweet red onions from Certaldo and add them in a pan with a small piece of unsaltened butter and 2-3 generous tablespoons of muscovado brown sugar. Put it over low heat until softened but not brown. Add a glass of Chianti red wine, a pinch of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, a few cardamom seeds and some pink pepper granules (or any other spices you prefer). Allow the liquid to cook off and the alcohol to evaporate, and then add in a chunk of dark chocolate. Set aside and prepare your favorite recipe of shortcrust pastry. The one you see, had a touch of rustic taste, due to replacing half of the plain white flour with buckwheat flour. Blind-bake your pastry in a preheated oven, let it cool before removing it from the pan and fill each pastry case with the caramelized onions. Add some chopped walnuts and top with goat cheese creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream. Enjoy!

Have you tried this? Post your photos in the comments below and let us know how it was!