Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

Lightening the winter burden February 3, 2012

Filed under: Garden,Recipes — contadina @ 4:40 pm

So how was the weather for you yesterday? Did it herald the arrival of spring or was it a sign of a second winter?

February 2nd is Candlemas Day, or Groundhog Day in North America, and marks the midpoint of winter; halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox, so it’s not hard to figure why it has spawned so much weather-lore around the world.

Known in pre-Christian days as the Festival of Lights; it was a celebration of the increasing strength of the life-giving sun as winter gave way to spring.

Never known to miss a trick for turning pagan festivals into Christian ones, the festival became Candlemas, where a mass was said for the candles to be used by parishioners the following year.

Alternative names for the day are: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I wonder if these hark back to the pagan Imbolc festival, which comes from a term for sheep’s milk, and is a reference to the first milking of the ewes in the spring. Imbolc is a fire festival and also a day of purification and beginnings. February comes from the Latin februare, furthermore, which means to purify and in Roman times February was a time of cleansing and purification.

Although there are slight variations across Europe, Candlemas proverbs pretty much all say the same thing…

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

The use of animals, most notably groundhogs in North America to predict the arrival of spring or a second winter on February 2ndcan be traced back to ancient Rome. When conquered by Romans, the Teutons picked up on the

Our resident groundhog decides to keep her own council

tradition, and concluded that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, a hedgehog would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of bad weather. If no shadow is seen, then spring will come early.

German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition but used a groundhog rather than a hedgehog. Having never met a groundhog I couldn’t say whether the similarities are physical or relate to their hibernation cycles.

Wolves, badgers and bears also feature in many Candlmas celebrations/superstitions, performing much the same task as the groundhog.

At Putignano in Puglia a Bear Festival is held on February 2. If the weather is good, the bear (a costumed actor) builds a haystack to protect himself from the coming bad weather; if the weather is inclement, however the bear can relax because the weather will be good from then on.

Another Puglian take on the use of the natural world to predict the weather on Candelora (as Candlemas is known in Italy) is the laying of eggs. In local dialect, osc’ e a Cannlor e tutt l’ jaddin zeccn all’ov translates as on Candlemas day the hens begin to lay. I found similar old English proverbs refering to geese, with the gist meaning that good geese lay on Candlemas and if they haven’t laid then they won’t until St Valentine’s Day.

Carnival at Putignano

Eggs are a symbol of spring, rebirth, and fertility, which ties in rather nicely with the over-riding theme of all the Christian, pagan and secular celebrations held on February 2nd. In Ireland it is known as Brigit’s Day, in honour of the great Irish Goddess of fertility called Brigit, funnily enough.

With all these thoughts on new beginnings and fertility, we made a pact with a neighbour yesterday to hold a seed swapping party at the end of the fava (broad bean)  season. We’ll hold the Festival of Fave once the beans have dried at the end of May or the beginning of June. Guests will swap any seeds they like, not just fava beans, but the reasoning is that swapping of the same variety with other gardeners will help maintain a healthy stock of seed.

Whilst Tuscans are known as bean-eaters, in Puglia the preferred staples are fava beans and chickpeas. Fave are refereed to as la carne dei poveri, or the meat of the poor. An octogenarian neighbour confirms how important they were to the poor in Puglia as when he was growing up he ate pureed fava beans for breakfast, dinner and tea.

Ncapriata is a puree made from dried peeled fava beans (with or without a potato added), dressed with olive oil and eaten with cooked bitter greens, preferably wild chicory. It’s a Puglian staple and is one of life’s simple pleasures, which definitely helps fill the hungry gap when the garden is less productive.

Everywhere you go in Puglia, people have their own variation on this recipe, but this is the favoured method in Ceglie and the one, which will feature heavily in the Festa di Fave.

First soak your beans overnight and then remove skins before boiling for around half and hour if using a regular saucepan or around eight minutes if using a pressure cooker. The use of a pressure cooker is probably sacrilegious as the dish is generally made in terracotta jugs nestled next to a fire.

Fava beans and chicory = a taste sensation

Drain the beans and then add some chopped peeled potatoes (a couple of large potatoes for every 500g of dried beans) to the pan before returning the beans. Salt and cover with water (not too much mind as you don’t want a watery mix). Cook until the beans are soft and the potatoes disintegrate. I use a vegetable to mill to puree the mix but you could use a potato masher or ricer or go the traditional route by pummelling it with a large wooden spoon. Season with salt and lashings of Puglian olive oil.

Whilst the beans are cooking you need to wash and cook your wild chicory. If you can’t get hold of wild chicory then any mix of bitter greens, such as dandelion, rocket and chard will do. It takes around 20 minutes to braise or steam the chicory but it’s a good idea to change the water midway though cooking to leave a hint rather than an overpowering bitterness. Alternatively, strain the chicory really well before sautéing with garlic in olive oil.

Serve either side by side on a plate or mix the greens and pureed beans together, just remember to check seasoning and use lashing of good green oil. Embellishments are optional and include red onions marinated in vinegar, bread chunks, fried or pickled green peppers, steamed lampascioni, fried black or green olives, and other condiments.

Puglians really love their fava beans, so in the summertime pureed fava beans often appear with the classic Puglian stewed peppers with onion and tomato dish called pepperonata. The bitterness of the greens and the sweetness of the peppers cut through the creamy/nuttiness of the beans perfectly. So simple and yet so sublime.


A windy start to the year January 7, 2012

Filed under: Garden,Recipes — contadina @ 4:49 pm

It’s been a pretty wild and windy start to the New Year for us down in the heel. Walking up the lane with the dogs earlier I spotted countless almond and ancient olive trees, which have cracked and lost branches in the strong winds we had yesterday and one olive tree had become completely uprooted.

This highlights the importance of pruning the trees well and regularly feeding them. It could be coincidence, but the damaged trees were either on land regularly poisoned with weedkiller or they were on abandoned land, where the trees are large and unwieldy. Abandoned trees become too dense at the top causing too much wind resistance.

The only damage we suffered was a rather large split in our three-year old mimosa tree. Finger’s crossed though, some rather swift action with some grafting paste, an old rag to bandage the wound and a haircut should save the tree.

Gaia inspects the damage

One the subject of wind, we’re now into the fartichoke….er…artichoke season…

The artichokes, which grow so well here are the best I’ve ever tasted and Carciofo Brindisino (globe artichokes from the Brindisi region) recently received PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status. Our Christmas visitors from London were astounded by the price of them in the market €2 for 10; apparently it’s more like 2 for 10 in the UK.

For Jane and Jules and anyone else who is interested, here is a little tutorial on preparing artichokes hearts to be used in a variety of recipes.

First wash your artichoke, then cut off the stem (you can still eat the stem, but not today we won’t).

Preparing artichoke part 1

Then cut the artichoke just below the halfway mark (you can cut it a wee bit higher but you run the risk of including inedible stringy bits in your finished dish).

Preparing artichoke part 2

Then break off the tough outer leaves (once again, don’t be shy to take off more than you think as you really don’t want any tough, scratchy bits remaining).

Preparing artichoke part 3

Next cut it into quarters. If there is no hairy heart pop them into water, which contains the juice of half a lemon to stop them turning black.

Preparing artichoke part 4

If there is a hairy choke, cut it out before popping it in the water. Smaller artichokes, when fresh, don’t always have a hairy choke.

Boil enough water to cover the artichoke hearts with the juice of the other half of lemon and pop the artichoke hearts in and boil for a few minutes if you are using small artichokes and about 10 minutes for larger ones.

Drain and leave to cool, before either popping under oil as anti-pasti (great for putting on pizzas and in salads too), dipping in batter and frying tempura style or chopping or using whole in any other recipes.

To serve whole, cut the tough tips of the leaves off with scissors, holding the stalk to keep the artichoke steady. Using a knife, slice the base off, so that it will sit upright, before trimming off the pointed top (the younger the artichoke, the less you’ll need to cut off). Pull the pale centre leaves out, and then scoop the choke out with a spoon, without disturbing the heart underneath.

As before, drop each one in a bowl of water to which lemon juice has been added. Cook them in a pan of boiling salted water for 35-45 minutes (when they’re ready you should easily be able to pull out a leaf). Drain upside down.

To eat pull the leaves off and dip them in hollandaise sauce, garlic mayo, melted butter or garlic butter etc, drawing the leaf through your teeth to remove the tender flesh before discarding the rest.


Pickled in Puglia August 6, 2011

Filed under: Pergola,Recipes — contadina @ 7:18 am

As promised, here is the recipe for the “better than Branston chutney”. If you like this spicey style of dark chutney with a good good mix of fruit and spice, I promise you’ll never buy another jar of Branston again. I doubled up the ingredients listed below to make 10 decent sized jars.

I can't believe it's not Branston

3 lb purple plums (damsons would work just as well)
2 heaped teaspoons ground ginger
2 small cinnamon sticks
1 oz allspice berries (I didn’t have any, so put 1.5 tsp of ground allspice in)
1 dessert spoon of cloves
2 pints malt vinegar (I used a mix of white wine and red wine vinegars and balsamic)
1 lb cooking apples
3 large onions
3 cloves garlic
1 lb seedless raisins (I used sultanas)
1 lb soft brown sugar I’ve seen similar recipes, which add another 1lb of sugar, but I think chutney shouldn’t be overly sweet – it needs a bit of sweet and sour!
2 tablespoons sea salt

De-stone plums and put fruit in a big pan. Core the apples but leave the peel on, and finely chop them by hand or in a processor. Then process the onions. Add both to the pan. Crush the garlic and add that, followed by the ginger, raisins, sugar, salt and the vinegar. Stir thoroughly. Wrap the cinnamon, allspice (if using whole) and cloves in muslin and pop in the pan.

Bring everything to the boil, then lower the heat and let the chutney simmer very gently for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, but more often towards the end to prevent it sticking to the bottom. When almost all the vinegar has disappeared and the chutney has thickened pour it into the hot, sterilised jars. Cover each with a waxed disc and seal tightly.

Leave for at least a couple of months, but the longer you leave it, the more chance the flavours have to mellow and mingle. It’s a shame we finished the final jar of last year’s chutney a couple of weeks ago as I’d have been able to show you how dark it gets. I also introduced a new taste sensation to our merry band of helpers who now enjoy the sublime combination of chutney with houmous.

Elsewhere, the screed has been laid for the new pergola and we’ve had two large pallets of stone slabs or chianche de Trani delivered. We cemented some rebar into the floor to be used to form legs for a 3-metre long stone banqueting table. I know it’s not very green to build a cement floor but we did, at least get to reuse  old blocks to create the form and got rid of a mountain of old flooring rubble. You see chianche floors in many trullis and courtyards as well as roads in the old parts of towns.

Jamie ensures there is a level playing field

From my limited research it seems that limestone flooring in Puglia has been popular since at least the Middle Ages.

If you click on the photo, you’ll see some of the chestnut poles we will use to build the pergola structure with. We get them from a guy who copices a 7-hectare chestnut wood in Calabria. He can supply poles of almost any dimension, so we also picked up some thinner ones to be used to make an outdoor shower cubicle with.

The fencing also comes up to the house now, so the dogs are just getting used to not being able to run over to next door’s to chase birds.


Pergola and pomodori – many hands make light work July 30, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Pergola,Recipes — contadina @ 6:53 am

Just a quick update, as I’ve been too busy to blog. Some cooler weather has meant that, with the help of our current helpxchangers, we’ve managed to get quite a lot done.

The girls soon move our rubble mountain

Breaking rocks in the hot sun

First off Amy arrived and she spent a week helping Jeremy cement posts and the top of the wall, which comes up to the house. She’s also been great helping around the house and helped me jar some more passata.

Then Jamie and Carlena arrived and together with Amy they managed to move our mountain of rubble (from when we had to dig up and relay a couple of floors) to become the hardcore base of our new pergola floor.

Jamie and Jeremy then had fun smashing all the rubble and found that compacting it with our roller-assisted rotavator (gas bottles filled with water) worked a treat. Next week they’ll lay the screed and it’s big enough for a table to sit twelve and a decent dance floor.

You put this here for us right?

The first sand delivery to lay the pergola screed

The girls meanwhile made our final batch of passata – bringing the grand total up to 140 bottles to keep us going throughout the year.

Each time I make passata there is slightly more than my giant water-bath will hold, so I’ve also made tomato ketchup and tomato concentrate.

estratto drying on the trullo roof

Tomato flavours intensify in the sun

Sun-reduced concentrato as it’s called in Puglia or estratto di pomodoro, as it’s known in Sciliy,  is so rich in intense flavour and colour that it puts any shop bought tomato concentrate to shame. To make, just pour passata into shallow dishes and cover with sea salt. It’s traditional to spread it out on wooden boards, but shallow dishes are easier to clean. Leave out in the sun each day and remember to bring in each evening. Keep stirring it to help the sun dry the paste faster. In our last heatwave it only took me two days to make estratto. Once it has become a deep, dark red colour and taken on the consistency of clay fill small jars with it and cover with olive oil. The jars will keep for a year but store in the fridge once opened, always covering with a layer of oil.

We’ve another heatwave on the way so I’ll sun-dry some tomatoes to store dried and under oil, and so complete this year’s tomato odyssey.

store under oil and liven up your sauces and soups

After two days this is the result

I’ll be making some “it’s much better than Branston” chutney today with our purple plums so remember to tune in next week for the recipe as it’s seriously good (I’ve got quite a few Italian’s hooked on it).


You say tomato, I say potato July 16, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,Recipes — contadina @ 6:09 pm

It's too bloomin hot

You’ll have to forgive my slackness on the blog-front but it has been seriously hot here for the past couple of weeks. We’ve had several days in the mid-40s while most days have been in the upper 30s. With nightly temperatures never dropping below 25˚ C it’s left us feeling pretty lethargic.  The only ones with any energy around here are the cicadas who are beginning their enthusiastic chatter at 5am, and that’s too damn chirpy for me.

Lots of lovely tomatoes

The heatwave has meant that we’ve managed to start jarring passata earlier than usual. Yesterday we made 26 bottles from around 40 kilos of tomato. You may think this doesn’t sound like a good return of tomato to sauce ratio; but the trick to making good tomato sauce/passata is to lay the tomatoes out for a couple of days before processing them, so their flavour intensifies and they aren’t too watery.

After cooking them a little to break them down, it’s also best to scoop them out with a really large slotted spoon or colander before running them through a passata mill. By not including any watery juice, you can be assured of lovely thick sauce, which is intensively flavoured.  For further details, you can check out last year’s passata-making blog.

I’m hoping to make at least 150 jars to last us the year, so we’ll be buying a couple of 20-kilo crates every few days. We’ve quite a few helpxchangers coming over the next month, so I shan’t be short of passata-making assistants. We’ll still add our own tomatoes, but at €8 a crate, this saves our precious water supply. You may have noticed that I seem to up the amount I make each year, but homemade passata is infinitely better than any you can buy in a supermarket.

We sampled the leftover passata with spaghetti, french beans and cacioricotta. Just boil the beans with the spaghetti, drain and then mix some cacioricotta and then sauce in before eating. Cacioricotta is a southern Italian speciality and is made from a mixture of ricotta and either sheep or goats cheese or a mixture of both. It’s quite salty and strongly flavoured but imparts a wonderful creaminess to pasta dishes. If you ever see some for sale I seriously recommend you buy some as it works really well with any tomato-based sauce.

Fagiolini con pomodoro e cacioricotta

We dug up the Spunta potatoes a few weeks back and I can report that they have a really good flavour and consistency. So far I’ve only used them for potato salad and pasta alla Genovese and they worked well in both recipes. We didn’t get any monster-sized spuds and it was an average yield, but we pretty much just stuck them in the ground and left them to their own devices owing to focussing all our time and energies to repairing the front walls. We’ll definitely grow them next year, only with lots of manure and see if we can’t get a bumper crop of monster-sized potatoes.


The great wall of Ceglie June 26, 2011

Filed under: diy,dry stone walling,Garden — contadina @ 9:26 am

We (royal we being used here as it was all Jeremy’s hard work) have finished the front wall repairs, complete with new fence; built some pillars and added our wombled gates.

The front wall in all its glory

The gates still need a good clean, some anti-rust treatment and a lick of paint, as well as some bolts to the ground and we still need to add a course of blocks and something to top the gateposts; but our land is secure at the front and the dogs can’t chase cars going up the lane anymore and we’re one step closer to being able to keep livestock.

Work began on January 2nd, when an obliging neighbour shared his dry-stone walling skills with Jeremy. After almost six months dry-stone walling (not continuously I might add) I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade learnt on the job.

As I blogged back in January dry-stone walling is like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you start out with large flat-faced rocks on the outside, graduating to medium-sized rounded rocks as you build inwards, filling any gaps with smaller rocks.

Big stones, preferably ones with a flat face on at least one side, make up the outside faces of the wall on either side.  They often need slivers of stone to hold them in position and many need chipping to size. Then the inside of the wall is filled with medium-sized stones or larger stones which don’t have a flat-ish side.  Smaller pebbles are put between the in-fill and the faces as further support.  It is quite important that some of the facing stones extend back into the in-fill to tie the whole structure together.  As we needed a fence on top of the walls, Jeremy put a layer of cement on top of the wall.  This also helps bond the wall together.

Flat-faced stones on the outside

As he was building much of the wall in winter and spring, however every morning he spent laying the cement, seemed to attract rain or snow in the afternoon.  Not such a problem for the cement per se, but it left the top of the cement resembling a gravel path, so when it was all dried out, he had to paint the top of the cement with what’s called a slip – just water and cement – to seal it.  The slip has the added benefit of filling any little cracks in the cement that would otherwise hold water, which in a frost would expand and break up the cement bond.

Repairing the front wall was a mammoth undertaking and Jeremy’s going to continue to begin working on the side walls up as a far as the house and then take a long deserved break from breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Stone-walled chicken run

He’s definitely got the dry-stone walling bug though, as he’s just built a new chicken run using a dry-stone wall base, with the very able assistance of our recent Ozzie helpxchangers (thanks Kate, Ross and Tali). In this particular instance dry-stone walls were preferable to using blocks as they allowed us to compensate for a slant in the land. I think it looks mighty fine too, and it rather puts the adjacent run to shame, so we’ll have to give that a dry-stone makeover once we finish repairing the rest of the walls around our property. Ho-hum, only around another 800-metres or so to go!

And just because I can, here’s one last shot looking down the drive at one of the walls. We were a bit worried the fencing would spoil the walls but it hasn’t altered our panorama any and it looks rather grand.

Pretty as a picture


Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries June 2, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Recipes — contadina @ 6:48 pm

A morning's cherry picking

I apologise for my back in Blighty blog-break; although, it was great to catch up with family and friends and I covered a fair amount of London and the southeast on my travels.

As ever, my travels enabled me to visit a good selection of charity shops, where I managed to get myself a rather fetching “Year in Provence” outfit and a suitably Monty Don-ish summer ensemble for Jeremy. If only we had the time to float around the garden, glass in hand, marvelling at exotic flora.

In my absence, Jeremy continued his mammoth wall-building project and we had our wombled gates fitted today. A dry-stone wall maestro is coming at the weekend to join the now finished walls to Jeremy’s new pillars and then we only need to attach the fencing to posts that are already in place.

You’ll have to wait until then for pictures though as Jeremy has forbidden photos until the job’s finished. I think all this wall building is doing to funny things to him. He was going to stop the car yesterday to pick up a random rock he took a fancy to.

Since I’ve been back I’ve been preserving like crazy. The freezer is full of peas and cherries and we’ve enough cherry jam to last the year.

Able-assistant, Gaia

The first few bunches of oregano are drying and I’ve also begun to harvest the first capers and will continue to do so every few days until they stop producing in a few months time.

Like olives, capers need curing before eating. There are a variety of methods to do this, but this is the recipe that I favour. Leave capers in water for 48-hours changing the water after the first day. Then cover with rock salt for two days, squeezing the salty-caper mix gently every now and then.

Day five, rinse and cover in white wine vinegar for two days. Place in a jar and cover with a fresh vinegar/brine mix. I keep adding to a jar until its full. Just make sure the capers are fully covered in liquid. They’ll keep for a couple of years but store in the fridge once opened.

Courgettes have also started producing prolifically so they are featuring in most meals.

Elsewhere in the garden, a few green tomatoes have appeared, so it hopefully won’t be too long before we can enjoy them, but we’re probably a month away from seeing any other vegetables, other than salad crops, appear on the table.

On the fruit-front, a variety of figs (Colombri in dialect or Processotto in Italian) should be ready in a few days. I keep giving them a quick squeeze but they are not quite soft enough yet.

While the Morello cherries are pretty much all done, we’ve a few variety of red cherries that we’re enjoying now. I’ve had a couple of able assistants; although Gaia seems to have understood the phrase cherry picking, Piglet, meanwhile, needs to hone her technique a little, as she just shuts her eyes and opens her mouth before launching at them. Sometimes she gets a cherry, other times it’s just twigs and leaves. We’ve one other variety which fruits a little later that I’ll use to put under grappa (sotto spirito). Unfortunately I only know it by its name in dialect, which is cuore delle donne (ladies hearts). It’s, not surprisingly heart-shaped, has a firm skin and is great for steeping in alcohol and cherry-flavoured grappa really helps provide a warming kick in the winter months.

Piglet's more comedic approach

No thoughts of winter now though, I’m just off out to pick some more cherries.