Summertime Foodstuffs in Loro Ciuffenna

The unbearable heat has ripened up the first round of summer crops. On the slopes of Pratomagno in Tuscany after a cool spring that forced us to plant our gardens late, a suffocating haze hovers in the afternoons. For weeks now we’ve been sleeping in any spot with a cross-breeze, parking under olive trees to take advantage of the shade, and eating cool foods like panzanella, vitello tonnato, and rice salad.

The gardens are offering up cucumbers to marinate into cool, refreshing salads, and tomatoes for insalata caprese, fresh pasta sauces, canning, roasting, and eating in huge bites with just some salt, oregano and olive oil. There is lettuce, garlic, onions, hot peppers, bell peppers, parsley, celery, basil, carrots, eggplant, fresh beans that will be hearty dried beans in winter, and loads of zucchini with brilliant yellow flowers. Piero fries the flowers, which he calls topi, with an anchovy inside and in a light and crispy batter.

Piero is my randy 80-year old neighbor, and he serves these at his cool shady refectory table, where we huddle by the outsize fire in winter, and take refuge from the heat in summer. I serve them as an antipasto, but for ol’ Piero, they’re a meal all to themselves along with bread and a few lowball glasses of his inky black homemade wine. For dessert he picks a few plums, bloomy pink on the outside, sweeter than sweet and crimson red on the inside.

My garden offered up just the right ingredients for a bella Pasta alla Norma, and having just gotten back from Sicily, I decided to whip one up (it’s practically the national dish of Catania). Plus I hand-carried a big chunk of ricotta salata I snapped up in the market in Catania, and Pasta alla Norma is just about the best way to use it. Pasta alla Norma is quick, fresh, and bursting with flavor. The minimum of ingredients, all of which are at the height of their flavor right this minute, are brought together with some good olive oil and eccola, a super tasty meal. So I served it first to Pasquale, who brought over a cold bottle of a Calabrese rose’ – a perfect match. I think he got bored with my litany of how each and every single ingredient had come from my garden, been hand-carried from Sicily, or made by a friend.  Oh, I love the litany: tomatoes, basil, garlic, eggplant and olive oil made by me, salt and cheese hand-carried from Sicily, pasta made by my friend in Strada in Chianti.

I made it again for our World Cup dinner (Forza Azzuri! Campioni del Mondo!). We had a crowd, everybody pitching in a little something – cantaloupe with prosciutto, an insalatone (big salad), and watermelons. One friend brought a pasta; she’s German, and when I saw her open up the little jar her sauce came in I thought: German girl, ought to know better than to make pasta for a bunch of soccer rabid Italians. Cheeky of me, seeing as how I’m just as foreign as she is. And add to that, that my very own team lost ages ago and hers came in a fairly respectable third.  Anyway, I was fully rooting for Italy, but not with so much fervor as to not notice that my Pasta alla Norma was licked clean while the German sugo from a jar was still available in abundance.

I do love the Pasta alla Norma, but the tomatoes start to wear thin. How much pasta with tomato sauces can one person eat, and really – there are such better things to do with the tomatoes. Norma in BiancoSo as to take advantage of the great eggplants and expose their flavor to the fullest, I whipped one up in bianco, all white, which is to say leaving out the tomatoes. I added mint and almonds to the mix though, and with the good spicy olive oil, it’s a rich and tasty plate of pasta. I served that one to my friends visiting for a weekend by the pool as an escape from the broil of Florence. I had no doubt that the American and Swedish folks would eat it happily, and Pasquale is already used to my little fantasias in the kitchen; however, I was happy to see that Federico, the lone Tuscan in the room cleaned his plate – twice.

I spared everyone the litany of fresh and hand-carried ingredients, but when Federico mentioned the excellent consistency of the pasta – off I went. The pasta I use is made by my friend Giovanni Fabbri in his family’s pasta factory. They make it with organic Tuscan wheat; it’s not overly ground and it has a great flavor. It’s dried in a days-long process at a very low temperature that ensures the gluten remains active, hence the mouth-watering consistency. It’s sort of a shame to put sauce on it at all.

When the heat breaks, and it will, the temperate Tuscan summer we all know and love will descend upon us anew with cool evening breezes coming down off the mountain. We’ll all take a sweater with us when we go out, blankets will get pulled from the end of the bed where they’ve been exiled for weeks, and the fireplace in the living room will be burning bright. The windows will be opened, and the cool cross breeze will feed the flames to make coals for the barbeque. Right there in the living room I’ll grill some pork ribs (pork being the national dish of Tuscany) prepared following the unwritten Lorese three-ingredient rule (I live in a village called Loro Ciuffenna, hence Lorese). Less is more in these parts, and if you tart it up no one wants to eat it. And really, why bother? The materia prima (primary material or ingredients) is so good that elaborate preparations are not necessary. One of my friends here in Loro Ciuffenna ate barbequed ribs once in the U.S.A., (here pronounced ooza) and still amazes large groups of people with stories of that “marmalade” slathered all over them. The concept of barbeque sauce does not exist, nor is there any need for it to.

I happily drive the 30 minutes over to Arezzo to my favorite pork butchers to get the ribs, which are known as rostinciane in Florentine and costoliccio in Aretine – I have to remember these things when I’m shopping. The meat can’t be any better, so there’s no need to do much to it. I rub it with loads of salt and dried wild fennel seeds that I plucked myself off the side of the mountain – sorry, I can’t resist – and let them sit while the fire reduces itself to coals. I pull some coals out toward the front end of the fireplace, set the footed grill contraption on top, and off they go. When they’re done, 15 or so minutes later, I quickly put them onto a platter, and while they’re still in cooking mode I douse them with some of that good olive oil. All you need to add for a perfectly nice dinner are some fresh tomatoes, a few slabs of dense and hearty wood oven-baked bread for soaking up the oil, and a bottle of hearty red wine.

Piero adding oilThe high-quality extra virgin olive oil, besides being heart-healthy and flavorful, is also versatile – you can use it anytime, anywhere. It works from the beginning of your recipe preparation to the end, for savory or sweet, and as an ingredient or a condiment. It enhances the flavors of the ingredients around it, creates a richness, and it’s the secret ingredient that makes a simple plate of pasta with only three ingredients, one of the most rich and savory meals you’ve ever put in your mouth.

Until the temperate climate resurfaces, the only grilling being done around here is by Piero. He lights a fire next to some stones in a corner of his garden – tonight he was having a pork chop and some freshly harvested eggplant. Olive oil on it and onto the grill; when it’s done, another drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and that’s that. Si mangia.