Polenta with Seeds, Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto {vegan}

Announcement:my countryside apartment is up on Airbnb!

It is funny how sometimes, when you are absolutely firm on the decision that you do not like something or someone, life finds a way to make you change your mind.
This is the story about how life decided that I had to like polenta, when in fact I never did.

Some three years ago, when I was working an office job, a freelance guy who was in charge of developing a new app walked in and sat at the desk next to mine.
His name was Daniele, and the first thing we noticed, aside a pair of square glasses framing a constantly smiling, kind face, was his strong accent. His way of speaking made me smile: he was from Vicenza, in northern Veneto. I loved that accent, which felt so close to my heart and to a family heritage I hadn’t explored as much as I wanted to. We quickly became friends.
In August, he invited me to go on a tour of Veneto with him for a few days (there is the chronicle of this on the blog!). We visited Vicenza, Verona, Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, Soave, Marostica, and ended up in Caorle, a quiet sea town where some friends held a wonderful dinner at their home. There, they served us polenta instead of bread.

Before I go on, I should stress just how different each region of Italy is. The Triveneto, the part of Italy that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire and that finds its forte in making the best polenta in the country, is entirely different from the rest of Italy in architecture, language and gastronomy. Triveneto, which includes the ‘Venezia Euganea‘ (Veneto and Venice), the ‘Venezia Tridentina‘ (Trentino Alto-Adige, the region on the Alps), and the ‘Venezia Giulia‘ (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the north-easternmost part of Italy) has a tradition of polentas of all kinds, colors and consistencies, which are completely unknown to the rest of Italy. And I mean, unknown.

I had already noticed how Veneto definitely lacked decent bread and pizza (sorry Venetians, it’s just how it is), so, at that party, I grabbed a bite of polenta out of politeness, and as soon as I put it in my mouth I couldn’t believe what I tasted.
The consistency. The flavor. Everything was so intense, so much more intense than what I was used to at home.
Polenta, being the epitome of the poor man’s food – even more so than bread alone, had been present in my household of farmers for years and years and years. The point of it was always dousing it in sauces, wether it was meat sauce, mushroom sauce, bean stew, clam ragu, or any other tomato-y, oily, delicious condiment. My mom bought the only polenta she easily found at the supermarket, the kind of flavorless pre-cooked polenta ready in 5 minutes.
Still, even though polenta was definitely present in the traditions of Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany, I had never had a polenta like that, which was just delicious on its own.

Seed Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural CookingSeed Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto | Hortus Natural Cooking
I have not seen Daniele in a while, but sometimes I miss that warm feeling that irradiated from his calm smile, and the polenta he, his friends and his family had offered me. One night, his dad came home late and we happened to come back from a bar we had visited, and all he had for dinner was a plate of green beans from the garden, dressed with some oil from the Garda lake, and polenta. No more.
Those days I spent in Veneto, it rained a lot. Yet, I started associating polenta to that feeling of welcome, warmth and kindness, like the sun coming out after a big storm, like the burst of flowers in bloom when spring is in full swing. I felt a little fire kindling inside my heart, and I left veneto with a bag of that same polenta I had in that house on the sea in Caorle.

Then I met Zaira. At her home, I tried white Venetian polenta for the first time. When we went to S. Stino di Livenza to shoot a job for a client, we tasted the most delicious polentas from ancient varietes of corn: red polenta, white polenta…as well as al the other Venetians, including Valeria (who has a book coming out soon!!) who is definitely a great resource for polenta.
But this is a story for another time.

What made my love for polenta come full circle was Marco.

Seed Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural Cooking

He is a chef and gastronomy specialist, hailing from Udine, in Friuli, but living in Parma. He had something that reminded me of Daniele: the same square glasses framing his face, the same kind smile. When he takes off his glasses, his short-sighted eyes go from tiny licorice-black pepitas to large, deer-ish irises. I love looking at him in the eyes when he talks about food: they light up, and their light reminds me of the sensation of that little warm fire kindling inside my heart.
La polenta va bene con tutto, he says, in his nordic accent which is slightly reminiscent of that of Veneto, but slightly sweeter. Polenta goes with everything.
Even his name seems to hint at his bond with polenta: Furmenti, his last name, reminds me of the word furment, which in Romagna dialect indicates the kind of coarsely ground corn used to either make polenta in ancient times or to feed the hens. So I have been calling him Polenta since day one. Funny, isn’t it?

He works at Podere Stuard, the place where I took these incredible photos. Podere Stuard is a large farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, but minutes away from Parma, surrounded by greenhouses, fruit orchards and freely scuttling hens, turkeys and roosters, all of which – veg, fruit and animals – of heirloom varieties and races. They grow over 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and chillies and rediscovered some incredible forgotten varieties of delicious produce. The farmhouses here are a strange architectural mix of those found in Emilia, square and almost castle-like, and those found in Veneto, with large arched porticos called barchesse. Under the Podere’s porticos, herbs, garlic and chillies hang to dry. I can see Marco working on the kitchen through the old glass door under one of the porticos. In this spring bursting with flowers, the warmth of the sun feels very similar to that polenta feeling I got in Caorle.
‘In Friuli, polenta is made in a copper pot,’ he explains. ‘Technically, polenta is only properly made when it completely detaches from the pot and creates a crust, rather than sticking. It is stirred with a long wooden oar-like spoon, and it is cooked over an open fire in a fireplace or over a traditional stove. When poured over a wooden board – or rather, unmolded, it is left to set a bit and cut with a cotton thread – it would stick to any knife. My grandpa was the one who always did it. To us, it was a ritual.
To us, people from Friuli, polenta made in a copper pot and cut with cotton thread is what fresh pasta made with a rolling pin and fresh eggs is to you in Romagna’.
And once again, ‘food’ is what we had as kids. In our memories, we are all brothers.

Seed Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural CookingSeed Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Pesto | Hortus Natural CookingPodere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural Cooking

Marco loved polenta so much that he somehow made my love for it explode as well, like a girl who is sold over a grand gesture from her guy at their third date.
I wanted to try polenta with a fully vegetarian/vegan sauce for the longest time, and I think I really nailed this one. I used a simplified recipe for a ragu made with spring vegetables that my mom usually makes for tagliatelle, and added seeds to the polenta for added protein and nutrients.
This recipe looks long, but it is super easy to make. You can even make the spring ragu and pea pod cream in advance, or, if you cannot be bothered to make the cream, use some good pesto of your choice. Do not even think of using instant polenta. Try and find stone-milled polenta: the best quality one will have several black speckles, meaning it is whole and stone-milled. If you really cannot find polenta, you could try this recipe with grits. I am sure it is not the same, but I don’t see why it could not work. I got my polenta from Podere Stuard’s shop, produced by Pederzani.
This recipe would be even better if you let the polenta set, then cut it into slices and griddle it, so that it will get crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Then spoon the cream/pesto and ragu on top as if it were bruschetta.
It is an earthy, abundant, and delicious dish!
Marco says he would like to steal the recipe for a vegan dinner he is planning.
Coming from the king of polenta, it sure is more than flattery.

Seeded Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Cream
Serves 2-3
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
  • 600 to 620 ml / 2½ cups water
  • 100g good quality polenta (see above)
  • A scant ¼ cup mixed seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame...)
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • (For a non-vegan version: 3 heaping tablespoons grated pecorino or parmigiano)
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • ½ small onion
  • 200g shelled fava beans
  • 200g fresh peas, shelled
  • 5-6 wild asparagus spears (optional)
  • ½ cup vegetable stock (or water plus ½ teaspoon veg bouillon)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • The pods from the peas
  • ½ small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • ¼ cup packed basil leaves, chopped
  • 3-4 long chives, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Extra virgin olive oil (preferably garlic or basil flavored)
  • Fresh chives and chive flowers
  • Shaved pecorino or parmigiano (skip if keeping vegan, and use toasted seeds instead)
  1. Add the olive oil and garlic to a pot and heat the oil on medium low, until the garlic sizzles slightly and flavors the oil.
  2. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent.
  3. Add the fava beans, peas, asparagus if using and stir well. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the stock/water and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, about 10 minutes. Check for salt.
  1. If you cannot be bothered to make this, use any good pesto instead of this.
  2. Remove all the strings from the pea pods. Add the pods, onion and stock to a pot and bring to a boil. Cook until the pods are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the stock, and blend with the basil, chives and a good pinch of salt. Add a little stock of the cream seems to thick, but we are aiming at a fairly thick consistency.
  3. Pass the cream through a sieve, pushing it with the back of a spoon, to get rid of all the stringy parts of the pods.
  1. Add the water to a pot and bring to a simmer - not a boil. When bubbles appear on the bottom of the pan and the water smokes, start adding the polenta, little by little, and whisking constantly and vigorously. This is important to avoid the formation of clumps. Bring the heat to low and stir well. Add the seeds, oil and salt, and stir well again. Let the polenta cook for about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes. Refer to the instructions on the package for exact cooking time. If you want to use cheese (super tasty addition) stir it in when the polenta is almost ready. When the polenta is ready, immediately transfer it to a serving dish. If you time things right, you should have all three parts of the recipe ready at the same time.
  2. If you're not keeping the recipe vegan, add a couple tablespoons of grated pecorino or parmigiano when the polenta is done cooking, and stir it in. Delicious!
  1. Spoon the pea pod cream (or a little pesto if not making the cream), then the spring ragu on top of the polenta. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil, preferably basil or garlic or lemon flavored, and chopped chives and chive flowers. If keeping vegan, sprinkle some toasted seeds. Otherwise, some pecorino or parmigiano shavings would be great!

When you eat polenta, I hope you will think of this warm feeling. I hope you will feel that soft warmth of spring, when everything feels velvety and tepid, like the feathers of the chicks and petals of every flower. Think of those elderly people from Veneto and Friuli stirring polenta over the coals.

And think of those who are their grandchildren. I am sure that you can feel a little bit like them at every bite, and I am sure the polenta will be tenfold as delicious.

Podere Stuard, Parma / Italian Countryside | Hortus Natural Cooking

‘Tortelli d’Erbette’ (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma

Listening to:
Va Pensiero – ‘Nabucco’, Giuseppe Verdi
E’ Strano…! Sempre Libera – ‘La Traviata’, Giuseppe Verdi

This is the story of a young boy, and of a man who believed in him to no end.
He was a son of farmers, just like me. And he was a kid with a talent for music. Still, his life as a kid must not have been easy: His father ran a little restaurant in Busseto, a small village in the countryside around Parma, where life was slow and people dwelled in routines. The young boy partook one of the most important ones of those routines, and started playing the organ during mass.
One day, a man from a rich family heard him play. The man was so passionate about music, and so moved by the boy’s talent, that he endorsed his music studies and sent him off to Milan, to try for admission at the Conservatory.
He failed. He was applauded by some. But alas, he failed.
I like to imagine that, when he got back home, he was greeted by his mom’s homemade tortelli d’erbette, doused in butter and Parmigiano and stuffed with fresh ricotta and young greens. That bowl of warm, buttery pasta must have been so comforting after such a let down. 

'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma

This story could be totally be set in this current day, in this very moment. But it is not.
This happened in 1831, and the boy was not admitted because, were he to move to Milan, he would have been no more than an immigrant from the Dukedom of Parma into the Austrian kingdom. He was not rich enough, relevant enough and, however remarkable, belonged to a different ‘category’ of people.
That boy was Giuseppe Verdi. The Giuseppe Verdi who authored operas like La Traviata, Il Rigoletto, Aida, Il Nabucco, and many more. He wrote some of the best arias and chorals the world knows today, and has been performed in all theaters worldwide. It is still today.
Eventually, he got into the Conservatory. But he only did because that one man kept believing in him to no end, and was willing to stake a lot of money on his talent.
I wonder how it would have been today. I wonder how his life as an immigrant could be. I wonder if he would have succeeded. I wonder what beauty the world would have failed to witness if had that man not believed in him to no end.
I am sure that, if the same were to happen today, things would not have been much different.

'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma

Come to think of it, things are not much different in Busseto, too: it still is a quiet village – exactly what you would expect from the average Italian town, with old men with a local newspaper tucked in their pockets, their heads covered in hats – likely a borsalino or a coppola (still those same from the 1800s!), sipping espresso while waiting for their favorite osteria to open for the day, or for their homes to be filled with the smell of pasta sauce and baking. The church bells toll heavily, their mighty voice echoing through the village and into the countryside, raising clouds of birds flying like dust into the air. I like to think it hasn’t changed much since the 1800s and, in fact, I am sure it has not. Verdi’s father osteria is still there, serving the best products of one of the world’s capitals of food. And the recipes they cooked then are the same they still cook today. Tortelli d’erbette are still widely served in every restaurant and it is a tradition to eat them for the summer Solstice (though this is an other story entirely).
Today, Milan’s Conservatory is called ‘Giuseppe Verdi’.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking that if a ‘me’ were to have lived in Verdi’s era, I wouldn’t have been much different, either. I am sure I would have worn the same long skirts I love wearing today. And I am sure I would have loved cooking even more, and surely would have had more time to do it (in both a good and bad way,of course, but this is, again, another story entirely). I am sure I would have found a sweet man who I could trick into taking me to the Opera, even if he didn’t like it (I wonder what could have he liked instead?). Or maybe I wouldn’t have quit singing in that life as I did in this, and would have met Verdi in some Opera theater. But then again, I surely would not have had enough money to study to become a singer, so I would have sung his Traviata alone in my kitchen, while preparing these ravioli. Maybe I would have had someone who believed in me to no end, just like I do in this life.
And I am sure that, just as I do today, I would have though that singing Verdi while making ravioli is not a bad life after all.

'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma

I covered how to make ravioli, or tortelli as they are known in the Parma area, in my last post. Now it is time to add the most traditional dressing there could ever be: butter and Parmigiano. Once you have the ravioli ready to go, this recipe comes together in a cinch. One thing I do not think I mentioned is the kind of grain I used to make them: I used a blend of local whole wheat, a little semolina flour, and some whole flour made from an ancient grain called ‘Grano del Miracolo‘ (triticum compositum), once cultivated in Parma and that has now been rediscovered in that same area. It was thus called, ‘the Miracle Grain’, because each strand would produce a double cluster of wheat grains rather than just one. Crazy, right?
Or just a little miracle, just like Verdi’s success.


As always, use top-quality ingredients to make these. Ancient grains aside, I used greens from the garden, local grass-fed dairy and the best Parmigiano I could source from Parma’s hills. The recipe is a mix from what my mom, Marco, and this old recipe book taught me, so three absolutely respectable sources.

'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli)
Serves 4
Cuisine: Italian
  • See previous post, linked above.
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons butter (70 to 90 g)
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
  • Rosemary flowers to garnish (optional)
  1. Make the pasta according to the instructions in the link above this recipe box.
  2. Once the tortelli are ready, cook them straight away in plenty of boiling, salted water until cooked. It could take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how thin the pasta is. Do not overcook them - keep them slightly al dente.
  3. Melt the butter on a pot. If you like, you can make it turn slightly brown, swirling it often so that it does not brown.
  4. Drain them and add to a large bowl. I personally prefer to use a little less butter and add a tablespoon of olive oil at this stage. Add the butter and toss well, shaking the bowl and turning delicately with a serving spoon. Be careful not to break them. Add the grated Parmigiano and mix delicately, then serve immediately. If you have some rosemary flowers on hand, they add a lovely aroma and touch of color.


NOTE: I think that having these with extra virgin olive oil and a little less cheese could be an option, too. Maybe a little lemon zest, too. A perfect 5 minute pasta to tidy you up when you’re feeling down (or not).

'Tortelli d'Erbette' (Ricotta & Chard Ravioli) from an Old Immigrant from Busseto, Parma

A Venetian Celery Risotto, & A Freaky Raku Giveaway!

Veneto, a land situated in the northeast Italy of which the large plains turn abruptly into mountains or meet the north of the Adriatic, is a land of misty dampness, blessed with some of the best vineyards in Italy, and with beautiful cities, reminiscent of the Austrian empire that once ruled this area. Veneto is a land of villas, of ghosts of lords who ruled over them and whose presence almost seems to linger amidst the fog. It is a land of canals and ancient royalties, of shipyards and seafood and the preserving culture connected to it.
Amidst this wonder, Venice stands alone, yet blends beautifully into the common traits of Veneto.
And, in this regard, Venice – just like all of Veneto, is a land of rice.
The abundance of water, fog and dampness made it a perfect spot to grow rice, making the whole region famous for its risottos.

My great-grandmother, a native of Chioggia, right off the coasts of Venice, has spent her life bent over a rice field, her feet constantly wet, picking fresh grains of rice.

So, even though Veneto indefinitely not the only place in Italy famous for risotto, to me this special preparation will always connected to this region.

After writing my little post on how to spend a winter day in Venice, I was inspired to replicate a Venetian recipe and, even though there are several to choose from, I could’t help but think of risotto once again.
In venice, risottos tend to be soupier, or ‘all’onda’, as we say (literally ’at the wave’, romantically recalling, I like to think, its proximity to the sea. 

The recipe I chose to share this time is so simple I almost felt it wasn’t worth sharing. I found it in a book called ‘A Tola coi nostri Veci’, which in venetian dialect means ‘At the Table with our Elderly People’, and is an old book of recipes from Veneto, entirely written in Venetian dialect! 

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini

When I talked to Zaira, she confirmed that this recipe is definitely very popular amongst Venetian people, and that her parents still prepare it quite often. After Zaira’s confirmation, I felt even more attracted to this recipe. Risotto is meant to be a simple, fuss-free comfort food, which takes pride in its creaminess and texture rather than its ingredients: you will find that most traditional risottos have as little as five ingredients, and usually one defining vegetable. Choose these ingredients wisely, and your risotto will be worthy to be served to royalty. 

In the case of this risotto, the one vegetable that defines it is celery.
In my home, celery has always been a rather neglected vegetable – save for its classic use in mirepoix along with carrot and onion. Anise-y flavors have started grow on me just recently, but even so, my favorite way to enjoy celery was cut into sticks and eaten raw with extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic and a touch of salt.
It was a Hungarian lady I was working forth years ago who taught me how to use it: she would use it in stir-fries, in stews, roasted with cheese, braised. She would use the leaves to add flavor to soups and to make pesto (a recipe I will definitely share at some point).
In this risotto, the celery adds a hint of freshness and turns wonderfully aromatic along with the shallots. For this recipe, use the tender heart of white celery if you can find it. Otherwise, just use the heart from regular green celery – leaves and all. 

Last year, I wrote a guide on how to make the perfect risotto. Give it a read if you need some extra guidance, but this recipes is so simple that it does not need that much preparation. 

Butter and cheese, which are of really high quality in northern Italy thanks to our free-range, grass-fed pastures, are paramount in this preparation. Choose high quality butter and real Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, which you will very likely find in most cheese counters. 

I have recently discovered the most wonderful way to finish risotto, thanks to a friend of Gabriela who kindly invited us to dinner in their home in Bologna, and who works as a chef: he prepared a beautiful pumpkin risotto – common preparation in all of northern Italy – then finished it by stirring in some baccalà mantecato. I discovered that this preparation, which is a very Venetian one indeed, is used to finish risotto a wide area of the Padan plain, from Parma to Mantova and all the way to Veneto. Its creaminess melts into the risotto perfectly, and its high-fat content makes for the best of Sunday dishes for a winter day. If you can find or make baccalá mantecato, it is a treat well worth the effort. I believe that cod brandade would be a good choice as well, should that be easier to find or make.

NOTE: sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find semi-brown risotto rice, which has a little more nutritional value. Unfortunately, brown rice does not really turn creamy, so using risotto rice for this recipe is really important. 

NOTE 2: The cheese you see pictured is actually neither Parmigiano nor Grana. It is Pecorino Romano, which is one of the tastiest cheeses in existence but probably a little too strong for this risotto. Please forgive me for forgetting to stock up on Parmigiano!

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini



There is no one who embodies the essence of Venice like Zaira and her family: the art, the Old Masters, the elegance, the slight air of mystery, the ancient-yet-perfectly-modern style, the overall feeling of noble decadence of the furniture of their home, the neutral grey and blues of their clothes, and humble yet poised warmth of their table. I am convinced that there is an old Venetian duke in the shadow of their past lives. 

The same simple elegance shows through the beautiful ceramics she and her boyfriend Francesco craft under the name of The Freaky Raku. I am honored to be able to use their ceramics in my posts, and I am honored to give one away to you  – specifically, the speckled bowl you see in this photo. 

Follow @valentinahortus @thefreakyraku @thefreakytable on Instagram to be kept posted!

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini

Look out for a post on Instagram about it in the next couple of days! 

And now, onto the recipe!


Venetian Celery Risotto
Serves 4
Recipe type: Risotto
Cuisine: Italian
  • 50 g (a little less than half a stick) butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small shallots (weighting about 60g / 2.5 oz.), finely chopped
  • The heart of a white or green celery, with its leaves (use about ¼ packed cup leaves), finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 320g Risotto rice, preferably ‘Carnaroli' or 'Vialone nano’ varieties
  • ¼ cup Marsala wine or white wine
  • 1 lt / 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt
  • 60g / 2.5 oz grated Parmigiano or Grana cheese, or more to taste
  • A touch of grated lemon zest
  • Chopped parsley
  • A good tablespoonful of baccalá mantecato or cod brandade
  1. Melt the butter and oil in a pot, preferably a sautéuse or a pot with a handle and tall edges.
  2. Add the shallots and stir-fry for a couple minutes, until they turn translucent.
  3. Add the celery and sauté for couple minutes, stirring every now and then.
  4. Add the tomato paste and melt it in the fat. Stir it for a minute or so, until the tomato usefully blended into the mix. You can use as little tomato paste or as much as you like: I used very little, as I wanted my risotto more on the white side, but adding a full tablespoon makes for a very tasty risotto.
  5. Add the rice, and stir it around for a minute to toast and release the starch. Add the marsala or wine and let it evaporate. If you do not have any wine, feel free to skip this step.
  6. Start adding the stock: add one cup first, and wait for it to be fully absorbed before adding the next. The liquid should simmer slowly, on a medium-low fire. To stir the risotto, swirl the pot rather than mixing with a spoon, so the risotto will have the best consistency. Only use a wooden spoon every now and then to check the bottom and make sure it doesn’t stick. Add salt to taste - use about ½ teaspoon.
  7. The rice should be left slightly ‘al dente’, but it should not be tough. A regular white rice will take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook. Once of the stock has been absorbed and the rice cooked, you should be left with a creamy risotto that is slightly on the soupy side. If you’d like it more soupy, add half a cup more stock.
  8. Stir in the cheese to finish the risotto. Check for salt, and adjust to taste. If you like, you can finish with a touch more oil or butter.
  9. This super simple risotto can be finished in a variety of ways. Stir in lemon zest and/or parsley, which complement the buttery, cheesy flavor perfectly with their hint of freshness. Or, try my favorite way to finish this risotto and make it even more Venetian: add baccalá mantecato, or cod brandade, whichever you can find or make the easiest.



~ Valeria Necchio has several risotto recipes from Veneto: check out her recipe for Risi e Bisi (rice with peas), Risi e Suca (rice soup with pumpkin), and Risotto with Girolles and Speck.

~ Emiko Davies has a wonderful recipe for a ‘Risotto in Cantina’ (Cellar risotto), made with wonderful white wines from Veneto, along with a story of how it came to be. 

~ Giulia Scarpaleggia has a recipe for one of the best risottos out there – though it may not be exactly in season right now: whole wheat risotto with wild asparagus. And, speaking of spring risottos from Veneto, Skye McAlpine has a recipe for vegetable and mint risotto up on her blog. 

~ Aside my basic risotto guide, last year I also published a simple Fennel Risotto, another Venetian recipe. 

~ Zaira has a plethora of Venetian recipes up on her blog, none of which are risotto but all of which have a little bit of Venice in them, I believe. Plus, they are all served in beautiful Freaky Raku dishware, of course. 

A little final note
I believe that my true calling, as well as the true calling of this blog, is to share the story and recipes of Italian food. Much as I love researching vegetarian and vegan recipes, sometimes I feel like this restriction is limiting in regards of the stories I would love to tell. After all, I eat close to no meat at all, but I am no vegetarian: I grew up next to the sea, and fresh seafood on the table is still a thing in my household.
Of course, I won’t suddenly go showing meat on the blog – the main focus of this blog will still be vegetables and whole foods –  but I will suggest pairings or flavor accents that belong to the omnivore world – like I did here with the Baccalá, because that’s what I do in real life, and I hope you do not mind. 

Napoli, Malvarosa, and a Lemon & Limoncello Tiramisu

{NB: Testo in Italiano a fine post}

We tend to underestimate time and overestimate distance.
This is something I realized early in life. Still, the very idea sometimes slips off my hands. How many times have we thought a task would take longer or less time, and how many times did we dread a journey that ended up being much shorter than we thought it would?
Still, I believe that the best experiences happen when time and distances are forgotten.

There are instances and places where time and distance seem to forgo the laws of physics. Or, even better, there are instances and places when losing both is not necessarily a bad thing, and might even lead to something new and better.
Naples is indeed a great example of the above, and so are the three days I spent at the Malvarosa Food Blog Awards, with all the wonderful people I had the pleasure of meeting.
In Naples, time froze and distances receded, curled up onto themselves into an infinity circle. What we lived was a series of little miracles, because Naples IS a series of little miracles: the traffic, the people who marry young, large families and a city life that has never felt so small town-like. Naples is noisy, and the smell of fried food caresses each alley and each glorious ancient palace. The uneven sampietrini press against the soles of your shoes, and the streets are filled with painted walls, yelling fishmongers, artists and beggars, songs and prayers. People dance randomly as soon as they hear the first note being played. The fragrant smell of lemons and basil lingers on every restaurant’s door, announcing the best pizza you will ever have. Naples encloses the warm colors of the Mediterranean. The whole city is filled with churches, saints, and superstition. The city teems with people at noon but empties up at 2 PM, when a ragú that has been cooking slowly for 8 hours is ready to be served with pasta, and calls to the table first and the couch afterwards.

But first and foremost, Naples’s biggest miracle is its cuisine.

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Via dei Tribunali smells like fried mozzarella, torn basil, toasted coffee, fresh cream and any other luxurious smell you could connect to the idea of calories. Oh, if I could properly convey the idea of these smells! Those who never had an Amalfi or Sorrento lemon or a Vesuvius tomato have never had a lemon or a tomato. It must be the sun – at least, that’s what the people there say.
Amongst the many delicacies we tasted, some left me more slack-jawed than others. Here are some random thoughts I connected them to.

Pastiera, a cake made with a shell of pate sucrée which encloses a stuffing of ricotta cheese, candied orange, orange flower water, sugar and cooked wheat pearls, and sfogliatelle, pastries made of many, many layers of crisp, paper thin puff pastry which encloses a lemon-flavored ricotta fillings, are two of Naples’ prides and glory. Their smell of citrus enclosed within seems the mirror of the city that created them, and is the only instance in which Naples knows how to measure things: just one drop more of citrus water, and their smell flavor becomes more scented, and their scent becomes a bouquet of flavors.
Sfogliatelle and Pastiera are thus tied in marriage by a bond made of citrus flowers. 

{IL BABA’ – Salvatore Gabbiano}
Babá, a pillowy leavened pastry drenched in syrup and rhum, has always been my mother’s strongest craving. She, whose childhood was plagued by hepatitis and hormonal imbalance and always had to watch her diet, always averts her eyes whenever she walks by a pastry shop.
I told her about the wonderful babás we had, made by Salvatore Gabbiano, and how different they are from the alcoholic mess they sell away from Naples. I told her how light and fluffy they are, in spite of bearing a whopping 20 egg yolks for just one kilogram of flour.
Mom, I know you never had any time in your life to worry about yourself. I will take you to Naples and there you will be able to let go of your pains and fears of fat for a couple of days, and those babás stuffed with custard and cherries will be like the sponge that sated Christ’s thirst. I am sure that the first bite will move you to tears.

{LA PASTA – Peppe Guida}
I always imagined pasta as something almost sexy: I imagine it to be a woman with a generous decolleté, on which you can safely rest your head. In Emilia Romagna, egg pasta is a young goddess on earth, lost in an industry that forgot how to handle her the way she deserves. Gragnano pasta, on the other hand, is a pale woman, aristocratic but with humble origins. Starch covers her like face powder and she will only accept to be courted by the bronze of a pasta machine and the gold of the sun. I look at it and I realize I never fully understood it. Then I look at Peppe Guida cooking it, almost as if he were talking to her: a man who can make the best pasta I have ever had with barely three ingredients definitely understood it, and can certainly help others understand it. 

{IL POMODORO – Maurizio De Riggi}
First son of the mediterranean, and the very head of its legacy: down south, tomato varieties are many, ranging from red and yellow Vesuvius tomatoes, to small and pear-shaped ‘piennolo’ tomatoes, hung in cellars until Christmas when they are used for making tomato sauces for the holidays. Chef De Riggi combined their flavors in a simple, yet romantic way, creating flavors as new and young as he is. His vision married under His Majesty the Tomato flavors that I did not think could go along – capers and raisins, lemons and strong aged cheese – and turned them into twin souls that just happened to meet on the tip of a fork. 

{LA PIZZA – Ciro Oliva}
Pizza may very well be the proof that the circle is the simbol of perfection, and Italians know how to make it perfect even when the edges are uneven.
Ciro Oliva, 23-year-old pizza master at the restaurant Concettina ai Tre Santi, knows every rule of a 800˚ oven. He flattens out his dough in seconds – a show worth paying a ticket for – then tops his pizza with tomato sauce and Vesuvius olive oil, which is extremely fruity and perfumed. He slices up garlic for marinara pizza, which flirts with the tomato and lends it its flavor. he crowns his pizza with freshly torn basil, picked straight from the bush. After a few seconds of baking, the flavors literally explode in your mouth after the first bite.
And I don’t even care for people who state that pizza marinara should only be topped with oregano and not basil. The queen of pizza can choose the crown she best sees fit.

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Do go and visit Naples. Go, and forget everything about time and distances. Naples is all about traveling light: lose your way, drop your prejudice, forget your idea of time, and leave your idea of city streets. Maybe you’ll be as lucky as I was and, great food aside, you’ll meet people like Rossella, Massimo, Alessandro, Angelina, Gabriela, Giovanna and their beautiful smile, or someone like Marco and his incredible poise. You will surely find people who’ll keep the door open for you and let you into their homes. And much, much more.

Marco stuck with me until the last train. And before we parted ways, in those last few seconds our eyes met, I couldn’t help thinking that our journey did not really have a destination. Rather, it was a circle, and within were enclosed all our ideas of time and distance. Our anxious attempts to find goals and destinations in each aspect of our lives got lost amongst the streets of Naples – just like we did in Via dei Tribunali, when we had no idea where we were headed, and all was perfectly fine.

I looked Marco in the eye and I got the impression we were thinking about the same things. Neither him nor me really wanted to come here at first, sure as we were we had little time and were too far. But maybe there aren’t enough time or miles that can keep us apart from our destiny. I like to think of this as a miracle we never quite believe in, until, at last, it happens. Just like all those little things in Naples.

We hugged tight, and our parting marked the way out of our blissful infinity circle.
On the train back, time started to unfold again and space stretched back out like Ciro’s pizza dough. The faces of all those people I met started to blur into the scenery out of the Rome-Perugia train. The day turned into night and the air got cooler. I would have gone back to my usual pattern of underestimating time and overestimating distances.
My trip back home was shorter than I thought.  

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This simple, quick recipe was born after receiving the most beautiful, large green lemons from Procida, a kind gift by Gabriela (Unaelle), who picked them from her garden. They are the sweetest, juiciest lemons I have ever tasted. Make sure you have access to good quality citrus for this recipe. I doubt you will find Procida or Amalfi lemons abroad, so do try this with Meyer lemons if available in your area. It is a simple recipe I saw while watching ‘Dans la Peau d’un Chef’, a french show where I saw it being made by chef Ciro Cristiano. This is my adapted version. This lemon dessert was also inspired by the workshop about Babá we had with chef patissier Salvatore Gabbiano. His ‘Delizia al limone’ made with babá dough is probably the best dessert I have ever had (and that’s a big statement).

Keep in mind that this recipe uses raw eggs. If you are not sure of the freshness of the eggs or do not want to consume raw eggs, skip them altogether.
You can use 100 g more mascarpone and 100g more cream instead.

'Lemonmisu' - Lemon Turamisu
Makes 6 small jars
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Italian
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 heaping tablespoons sugar
  • Half a vanilla bean
  • Grated tonka bean if available
  • The juice and zest of one green lemon (adjust to taste)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) creamy ricotta (use buffalo ricotta if you can find it!)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) mascarpone cheese
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) whipping cream
  • ½ cup / 125 ml limoncello
  • ¼ cup / 50 ml water
  • 12 Savoiardi cookies
  • Lemon zest and powdered sugar to finish
  1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites into two separate bowls. Set the whites aside.
  2. Add the sugar to the yolk and whip them with a hand or stand mixer until pale, fluffy and tripled in volume.
  3. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add to the yolks, along with the tonka beans if using. Add the lemon juice and zest as well.
  4. Sift in the ricotta and whip it in until incorporated with the eggs. Beat in the mascarpone as well.
  5. Whip the cream until stiff and gently fold it into the mix, then do the same with the egg whites. Make sure the mixture is fluffy and evenly folded. Taste and decide wether you want more lemon flavor or sweetness.
  1. Prepare 6 clean jars.
  2. Add the limoncello and water to a bowl. break the savoiardi in two, or to fit the size of the jars you are using.
  3. Quickly dip the in the limoncello water - they will absorb liquid very quickly - and arrange one on the bottom of each jar. Top with the cream, and repeat with the remaining cookies, then repeat with the cream.
  4. Top the Lemonmisu with grated lemon zest and powdered sugar.
  5. If not eating straight away, store in the freezer and take them out 15-20 minutes prior to serving.



Finally, some thanks are in order.
The bonds we created during this short time together are indescribable and a true, miraculous blessing. Some people I already met again, some I have plans to meet again in the future, some I have the strong feeling I will be seeing again and again for a long time to come. I have never felt so blessed and grateful. Thank you to…

Those Who Were There:
Angelina – Angelina in Cucina ( You’re the bomb girl, and I am happy I ended up in your range of explosion!)
Alessandro – Fancy Factory  (That little time we had together on the train left me with more than you can think. It is good to meet people who leave you more inspired than you were before.)
Giovanna – Like Eat (You owe me a bowl of Pho, but I’d first and foremost come visit you in Milan to see your smile again!)
Daniela – Cucina, Libri e Gatti (You’re cool girl. Very cool.)
Chiara – Chiara Giorleo Wine Guide (It was so inspiring to meet a woman who is so prepared and has such authority in the wine industry. You were a true inspiration.)
Marco – Il Piccolo Artusi  (We did not know we would meet on this trip, but we both hoped we would. I have been wishing to meet someone like you for years. You are living proof that destiny comes knocking at our door when the time is right.)
Melania – Chicchidimela (I could feel your presence way before we met. Thank you for being such a longtime supporter of my blog – it was sweet meeting you!)
Gabriela – Unaelle (Thank you, because I know that your friendship did not end when we parted ways at the station and we will be seeing each other again and again.)
Benedetta – CiaoDolce (I knew you were cool from Facebook, but when I saw you standing a whole day on a pair of beautiful heels I had one more reason to find you awesome!)
Sonia – Sonia Paladini Spunti e Appunti Per Vivere Meglio (You are such a pro! I loved our business conversations and learning about your work!)
Arianna – Aryblue / Anna – Travel Fashion Tips / Stefania – Dolcissima Stefy / Teresa – Scatti Golosi / Sara – Ortaggi Che Passione / Rachele – Solo Un Chicco di Caffé / Paola – Le Mie Ricette Con e Senza (I wish we had more time to bond, but it was a pleasure to learn about your blog and I was happy to chat with you during the little time we had. I wish you luck for every thing that is going to come forth for you!)

Those Who Weren’t There but Were Fondly Missed:
Giovanna – RossoFragola
Daniela – Timo e Lenticchie
Vatinee – A Thai Pianist
Cristina – Contemporaneo Food
Sara – Cucina Con Sara
Anna & Erminio – The Chocolate Corner Design
Julia – Polpette Magiche
Francesca – Beauty Food Blog

The Chefs:
Alfonso Crisci
Maurizio De Riggi
Salvatore Gabbiano
Peppe Guida
Ciro Oliva

Our Sponsors:
Pastificio Dei Campi
Farina Mulino Caputo
Sannio DOP
Regione Campania
Il Pomo D’Oro di Ercole

And the Malvarosa Team and Rossella and Massimo, who made the magic happen.



Napoli é essa stessa una serie di piccoli miracoli che si susseguono: il traffico, le leggi tra famiglie, i matrimoni giovani, la vita di città che sembra di provincia. Napoli é il chiasso, l’odore di fritto che accarezza la gloria dei palazzi Borbonici, i sampietrini sconnessi che premono sotto le suole. Napoli é le pareti dipinte, le maioliche colorate, i mercatari urlanti, i musici che chiedono elemosina, l’odore di limone e di basilico – fragrante, inebriante, onnipresente sulle soglie dei ristoranti. Napoli é la pizza buona, i colori caldi del mediterraneo, le ragazze con le gonne corte, i fianchi larghi, i capelli scuri. Napoli é le chiese, Napoli é i giorni dei Santi, Napoli é la smorfia, Napoli é le strade strabordanti di gente a mezzogiorno e vuote alle due, quando il ragú, sul fuoco dalle otto della mattina, richiama prima alle tavole e poi ai divani. Napoli é il mare, le luci sull’acqua, le canzoni per strada.

E, forse più di ogni altra cosa, Napoli é la sua cucina.

Via dei Tribunali sa di fritto, di basilico e di quanto più lussurioso si possa attribuire al concetto di caloria. L’elegia dei sapori, a Napoli, é elevata ed altisonante. Ah, poter raccontare gli ingredienti di Napoli! Limoni, olio e pomodori, intensi come non ne avevo mai sentiti. Chi non ha mangiato un limone di Amalfi o di Sorrento non ha mai mangiato un limone. Chi non ha mai mangiato un pomodoro del sud italia non ha mai mangiato un pomodoro. Sará il sole, mi dicono. 

Ecco qualche pensiero volante sulle cose che più mi hanno colpita di una cucina che richiede più e più visite – prima per impararla ed esplorarla, e poi, semplicemente, per riviverla.

Il vestito di pasta frolla della pastiera, e la consistenza di decine di sfoglie croccantissime di una sfogliatella, carapace che cede in briciole e lamelle sotto sotto i denti, entrambe a difesa di un ripieno morbido e granuloso di ricotta dolce con quel profumo di agrumi che dal fuori della città entra nell’anima di tutto ciò che la abita – la sua natura mediterranea fuori e dentro ogni cosa – nell’unico contesto dove a Napoli c’é misura: una sola goccia in più o in meno d’acqua di fiori d’arancio o di limone, e il sapore si eleva a profumo e il profumo si eleva a bouquet. Sfogliatella e pastiera, uniti in un destino dal bouquet di fiori d’arancio.

{IL BABA’ – Salvatore Gabbiano}
Il babá, peste e sogno proibito di mia madre che, condannata da epatite e ormoni alla croce della dieta vita natural durante, girava gli occhi passando davanti ai vetri delle pasticcerie.
Le ho raccontato che il suo sogno non é quella spugna troppo alcolica che si trova su da noi, ma una nuvola leggerissima, umida e non intrisa, nonostante il burro e i 20 tuorli di uovo.
Mamma, tu che nella vita hai solo goduto di prenderti cura delle paure degli altri, e dovrai attendere la scomparsa di qualcuno prima di poter finalmente tirare – o esalare – un sospiro: ti porterò in vacanza a Napoli quando, per un paio di giorni, potrai concederti di abbandonare la paura di morire grassa, e quel babá con la crema e le amarene sarà come la spugna di acqua e aceto che solleva la sete del Cristo, e il tuo corpo lascerà la croce. Sono sicura che il primo morso ti fará piangere di gioia. 

{LA PASTA – Peppe Guida}
Nel mio immaginario, la pasta ha sempre avuto un’accezione erotica: una donna dal seno abbondante su cui poggiare la testa. Dall’Emilia Romagna, dove vengo io, e la pasta intrisa d’uovo é una giovane Dea terrestre, costretta a farsi prostituta della grande distribuzione per il declino della capacità di amarla e maneggiarne le rotondità. Ma la pasta di Gragnano sembra un’aristocratica pallida, ancella della gloria Borbonica ma nata povera, con l’amido che la ricopre come cipria, e che accetta solo il bronzo delle trafile e l’oro del sole.  Osservo questa dama e mi rendo conto di non averla mai capita. Poi guardo la bellezza di Peppe Guida che la corteggia, come se le stesse parlando: uno che sa fare la pasta più buona di sempre con soli tre ingredienti la pasta l’ha capita e, soprattutto, la fa capire. 

{IL POMODORO – Maurizio De Riggi}
Primo figlio del Mediterraneo, e patriarca della sua stirpe. Al sud la varietà é ampia: I Vesuvio, i pomodorini del Piennolo, il San Marzano giallo. Chef De Riggi li combina in modo semplicissimo, ma in un modo che mi ha ricordato qualcosa di romantico, un sapore giovane come lo é lui. La sua visione ha unito sotto il beneplacito del pomodoro sapori con personalitá diverse – capperi e uvetta, castelmagno e limone – facendole andare d’accordo e trasformandole anime gemelle che si incontrano su una forchetta.

{LA PIZZA – Ciro Oliva}
Forse la prova che non a caso il cerchio é il simbolo della perfezione, e che gli Italiani, maestri nell’essere rustici, sappiamo rendere perfetti anche cerchi non perfettamente tondi, come la pizza di Ciro oliva.
Ciro conosce tutte le regole di un forno a legna che cuoce a 400 gradi. Stende la pasta in pochi secondi con una maestria che agli stranieri potrebbe far pagare il biglietto solo per assistere, poi battezza di pomodoro e abbondante olio del Vesuvio, profumatissimo e fruttato. Poi l’aglio per la marinara, a fette grosse piuttosto che tritato fine, che corteggia il pomodoro e cede leggero il suo sapore all’unto. Incorona di basilico rigorosamente spezzato a mano. Dopo pochi secondi di cottura e il primo morso, gli ingredienti esplodono – letteralmente, esplodono – in bocca. E non mi interessa se dicono che sulla marinara il basilico non ci va. Il re dei cibi di Napoli può scegliere la corona che più gli piace.              

Andateci, a Napoli. Andateci e lasciate perdere tempo e distanze. E’ tutto un perdere: la strada, i preconcetti, il tempo, l’idea el tempo, l’idea della strada. Magari sarete fortunati come me che, oltre ai sapori di cui sopra, ho trovato Angelina, Gabriela, Giovanna e i loro splendidi sorrisi. Ho trovato Marco e la sua incredibile presenza. Ho trovato persone che mi hanno perso porte come se fossi di casa. E tanto altro.  

Marco mi ha accompagnata fino all’ultimo treno. E prima di ripartire, in quegli ultimi secondi alla stazione in cui l’ho guardato negli occhi, ho pensato che nel viaggio ci fosse qualcosa che non é mai un traguardo, ma un cerchio, come quello in cui sembrava essersi chiusa la distanza, come quel tempo che si rannicchiava per fermarsi. L’ansia mondana e ancestrale di raggiungere uno scopo si é persa tra le strade di Napoli, lasciatasi camminare dalle gambe e dal luogo e non da delle tappe imposte. Come quando camminavamo in via dei tribunali e non sapevamo dove stavamo andando, ed era la cosa più bella.

Ho guardato Marco negli occhi e ho pensato che forse stessimo pensando alle stesse cose: Che né io ne lui volevamo venirci, in quel sud sconosciuto, convinti di non avere tempo e convinti che fosse un viaggio troppo lungo. E che in fondo non ci sono mai tempo o distanze per un destino che ci spetta, anche se a questo piccolo miracolo non ci crediamo mai fino a che, ogni volta, succede.
Come a Napoli.  

Il nostro abbraccio, stretto stretto, segna il varco di confine fuori da quel cerchio d’infinito.

Sul treno che si allontanava dalla città il tempo rincominciava a srotolarsi, a stiracchiarsi e rinvenire dalla sua criogenia, le distanze a ridilatarsi come la pizza di Ciro. I visi di tutti svanivano fuori dal finestrino sul tratto Roma-Perugia. Il giorno diventava notte e l’aria si faceva più fredda. Sarei tornata a sottostimare il tempo e a sovrastimare le distanze. 

Il viaggio di ritorno, sui regionali, fu più breve di quello che pensavo.  

Inevitabilmente, con alcune persone ho legato particolarmente e con altre ho avuto meno modo di parlare, ma ringrazio tutti i partecipanti per la possibilità che ho avuto di conoscerli. E in particolare:

Angelina – Angelina in Cucina (sei una bomba e sono felice di essere capitata nel raggio della tua esplosione!)
Alessandro – Fancy Factory  (Quelle due chiacchiere sul treno mi hanno lasciato più di quello che potresti credere. E’ bello conoscere persone che ti lasciano più ispirati di prima.)
Giovanna – Like Eat (Mi devi del pho! ma verrei a Milano più per rivedere il tuo sorrisone!)
Daniela – Cucina, Libri e Gatti (Sei fighissima!!)
Chiara – Chiara Giorleo Wine Guide (Incontrare una donna con tale conoscenza ed autoritá nel campo dei vini é stata un’esperienza che mi ha ispirata tanto!)
Marco – Il Piccolo Artusi  (non sapevamo ci saremmo incontrati ma lo speravamo entrambi. Sei la prova che le nostre fette di destino arrivano quando é il momento.)
Melania – Chicchidimela (Ho sentito la tua presenza da ben prima di vederci. Grazie per aver sempre seguito il mio blog!)
Gabriela – Unaelle (Grazie perché la tua presenza non é finita sul treno di ritorno, e so che ci vedremo ancora e ancora.)
Benedetta – CiaoDolce (Sapevo che eri forte, ma dopo averti visto una giornata intera sui tacchi ne ho avuto ulteriore conferma!)
Sonia – Sonia Paladini Spunti e Appunti Per Vivere Meglio (Sei una vera professionista! E’ stato bello parlar d’affari e dei tuoi lavori Parmigiani!)
Arianna – Aryblue / Anna – Travel Fashion Tips / Stefania – Dolcissima Stefy / Teresa – Scatti Golosi / Sara – Ortaggi Che Passione / Rachele – Solo Un Chicco di Caffé / Paola – Le Mie Ricette Con e Senza (Avrei voluto avere piú tempo per parlarvi, ma é stato comunque un piacere venire a conoscenza dei vostri blog. Spero che il futuro vi porti il meglio!)

E un ringraziamento speciale a Massimo e Rossella, per aver organizzato e creduto in tutti noi. 

In Solopaca, a Story of Wine and Hope, and a ‘Pancotto’ with Rapini & Beans Recipe

{NOTA: testo IN ITALIANO in fondo al post!}

‘It is going to be cooler in Sannio, where we’re headed,’ said Gabriela, who was born in those lands. ‘And windier. It is right under the Apennines; the chilly wind rolls down from the hills.’

We had been picked up in Naples and boarded on a bus towards an undisclosed location in Sannio, in the Benevento provence. The night is dark in the Campania countryside – much darker than what I am used to in Romagna, where Rimini keeps the coast alight like a bonfire.

We had been randomly sorted with a draw to stay the night and the following day with seven winemakers in pairs of two. We were a group of 15 bloggers from the Malvarosa Blog Awards, eager to learn about our fate for the night. 

We had no idea who we would have ended up with. For the moment, I only knew that Marco was to be my travel companion. I instinctively asked to pair up with him, and he gracefully let himself be chosen by me. All I knew about him was that he was a chef and wine connoisseur (and hailing from Friuli, a region famous for its wine, so he was bound to know a thing or two about winemaking) and that I liked him the moment I saw him, and this was enough for me to pick him amongst all others.

We got off the bus at 21.45 and were greeted by Carmine, Pasquale and Almerico from Cantina di Solopaca, three kind, smiling souls who took us to dinner and arranged a wine tasting with the best from their cellars, Cantina di Solopaca. And Solopaca is the name of the village we landed in.

'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural CookingSolopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural Cooking

{Ceramic bowls by The Freaky Raku}

“He’s the odd one out,’ said Pasquale, whose name fits perfectly amongst the most commonly used in the south, when I made a comment about Almerico’s exotic-sounding name. ‘He has quite a nordic name.’
Pasquale and Almerico, like many people from the south, have warm, dark eyes, which bend slightly downward. You can tell southern eyes, deep and beautiful, amongst thousands.

Solopaca is an ancient village where the pace is still slow: the people here belong to that generation who does not need to check their watch. their rhythms are within the earth: they can feel them as if they were prophecies rather than numbers on a calendar, and farmers dance their pas-de-deux with the seasons. Saints and Holy Mary statues adorn nooks and crannies on the walls and represent the local fairs and festivals.
It feels like, in Solopaca, God still walks the land.

In late October, the lemon trees in every garden are studded with emerald-green fruits. The wind rolls down from the hills and perfumes the air with their scent, while their leaves sound like strings as they rub against each other. All else is silence, lying over the vineyards as if it were made of gauze.

‘This isn’t Naples,’ says Almerico when the topic shifts towards the local culture.
‘It’s different here. We are close, but we are different. The scenery is different. The people are different.’

The things I wish I could tell you about them and this land, I cannot explain through writing. I wish you could hear their melodious accent and their dialect, just the way I hear it when I compare it to other Italian accents. I wish you could feel the same little tug my heart feels after each sentence they utter in that funny, sometimes rough, yet romantic way of speaking. I wish you could laugh in the same way I do after each of the many words we do not know the meaning of.

‘For example, ‘a’cazzimma’. You know what that means?’
“I’m not sure I do…’
‘Well, I’m not telling you.’
‘Why not?’
‘because this is what a’cazzimma is: when someone doesn’t want to tell you something you want to know.’

Almerico pours our last wine into our glasses.
‘This is Intenso, our Moscato,’ he says. I smell the glass and the perfumes that reach my nose are extraordinary. The tasting is even more surprising: ‘Intenso’, which means ‘Intense’, is the right word. It is a sweet, mellow wine, with tones of peach, rose, citrus. It is intense like this land – like the Mediterranean, like the smells I imagine could come from King Salomon’s gardens, from Campania’s lemon groves, from warm, sun-bathed orchards.


'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural CookingSolopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural CookingSolopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking


The day after we took a walk through the cellars.

Solopaca’s Cellars are collective cellars, meaning that they gather grapes and dreams of over 600 winemakers who all work together to make wine collectively and support each other. They produce local wines with local grapes: Aglianico, Falanghina, Greco. 

Last year the Benevento province, where Solopaca is, was shaken by a disastrous flooding which destroyed fields, vineyards and factories. Solopaca’s cellars were amongst the victims, and one morning they just woke to find the cellars completely submerged in water and mud.
I imagine them, devastated and with their hands deep in the mud, digging and searching for every single drowning bottle. Thousands of euros worth of products and land, destroyed within minutes.  

I thought that fate must have played a ‘Cazzimma’ on them. When fate arrives like a tsunami it is surely not going to warn you beforehand.
But it is when standing with your legs in dirt that you realize that reality is not always within your grasp and, when you decide to play against an unknown destiny, you need to have several aces up your sleeve. Theirs was a social campaign made by Almerico and a company called Mumble, who developed a hashtag called ‘dirty but good’, with the goal of selling all the muddy bottles that could not be sold in stores anymore. The campaign worked like a charm and they sold every single bottle within a few hours.

That day, in Solopaca they remembered that men were biblically born from mud and, in this instance, it was mud that made them come together again as men.
I think again of the Intenso wine and of its southern garden-like bouquet.
A young priest once told me that forgiveness is offering our faults to someone who can make them new and clean. 

Solopaca’s Cellars had offered those dirty bottles as if they were a part of the evil that ailed them. They were cleaned and renewed and, little by little, tragedy would have washed away like the long, silky flavor of their Intenso, until only the memory would have been left. 

And this wine, tucked into a dirty bottle, makes me think that making the best out of fault and evil isn’t an everyday thing. It makes me think that cellars are dark and shadows, and every light would have highlighted the scars on the wall left by the flood. It makes me think that it takes silence to aknowledging the God that still walks in Solopaca, and in vineyards and in cellars silence is king. 

Cantina di Solopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural CookingCantina di Solopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural CookingCantina di Solopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural CookingCantina di Solopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural Cooking

And it is nice to know that those hands which gave a reason to their suffering are the same hands that produce this wonderful wine. The hands that tend to these vineyards are hands that unknowingly caress God’s head.
And it is here in Solopaca, where God still walks the land, that we can be certain that, however big our sins, salvation lies in knowing we can be made anew again.

All of Italy, which has been scarred by floodings and earthquakes for years, knows it well.

When we visit the shop, we find out that the Intenso sells for only 5 euros. That’s crazy. That little wonder sells for so cheap.
Marco thinks I’m right. If he says so, I trust him.

We leave Solopaca in the sunny afternoon, taking with us a few bottles of wine and and unfathomable nostalgia within. Which is funny, as we did not stay that long or did anything special. But what we experienced was enough to leave a mark.
The scent of lemons persists in the air.
Back on the bus, as dust penetrates into our nostrils, I imagine how forgiven sins could smell like.
It must be peach, roses, and citrus.

'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural CookingCantina di Solopaca, Campania | Hortus Natural Cooking'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking

This recipe is inspired by a delicious ‘pancotto’ we had for dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Casal Di Gioia. Pancotto is a peasant dish, very common in all of southern Italy, made out of leftover greens, stale bread and olive oil.  It was served with a simple cream made out of a kind of local beans called ‘Fagioli della Regina’ (the Queen’s beans), which was made delicious, I suspect, by quality extra virgin olive oil alone.

I did a little research and came up with the recipe, which is quite similar to what we had at the restaurant and is so simple that all the goodness of it is found in the ingredients: use whole wheat sourdough, good quality extra virgin olive oil, and this no-fuss dish is bound to be an unexpected success. 

'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans Recipe
Serves 4
Cuisine: Italian
  • 8 cups vegetable stock (or water with an organic bouillon cube)
  • 900g (2 lbs) rapini, trimmed
  • 250g (a little over ½ pound) stale whole wheat bread, preferably sourdough
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and cruched
  • 6 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
  • 2 cups cooked Borlotti beans, divided
  • 5-6 basil leaves, finely chopped
  • Salt
  1. Bring the stock to a boil and add the rapini. Boil until soft, about 10 to 13 minutes depending on the freshness of the rapini. Drain, reserving the stock, and let cool.
  2. Tear the stale bread in a bowl and pour over a couple cups of stock. Soak for a couple minutes, then squeeze the excess liquid (make sure it is not too hot!) and add to another bowl.
  3. Squeeze as much excess water off the rapini as well, chop them roughly.
  4. In a pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic. Add two fat pinches salt. When the garlic gets fragrant, add the rapini and sauté until they soak up the oil. Add to the bowl with the bread, along with one cup of the beans. Add another drizzle of oil and the basil. Mix well, taste for salt, and adjust seasoning to taste.
  5. Oil 4 ramekins and press the mixture into them.
  6. Blend the remaining cup of beans with about ⅓ cup leftover stock and a tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Add a little more stock if the cream is too thick.
  7. Add 3 tablespoons cream of beans to 4 small plates and reverse the Pancotto in the ramekins onto them. Finish with extra cream of beans and a few more drops olive oil.
  8. It is delicious cold as well and will taste even better the day after.

Thanks Marco, for you unexpectedly keep walking with me even now that our trip is over.
Thanks Consorzio Sannio Tutela Vini – what you do is special.
Thanks guys from Solopaca, for your beautiful eyes.

{Versione Italiana sotto la foto}

'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking

‘Fará piú freddo nel Sannio,’ dice Gabriela, che in quella terra ci é nata. ‘E ci sarà il vento. E’ proprio ai piedi degli Appennini.’
Eravamo stati sottratti da Napoli con un autobus, e stavamo dirigendoci nell’interno del Beneventano, verso destinazioni a noi sconosciute.  La notte nella campagna campana é nera, ben più buia della baia Romagnola alla quale sono abituata, dove Rimini illumina la costa come un falò.
Eravamo estratti a sorte: sette viticoltori diversi, che noi non conoscevamo, ci avrebbero accolti per la notte in gruppi da due.
Non sapevo ancora dove saremmo finiti, ma sapevo che Marco sarebbe stato il mio compagno di viaggio. l’avevo scelto io, d’impulso, e lui si era graziosamente lasciato scegliere. Di lui sapevo che era gastronomo e conoscitore di vini (Friulano, buon sangue non mente) e che mi era piaciuto il momento in cui l’avevo visto, e questo bastava. 

Io e Marco, scaricati dal bus alle 21.45, veniamo raccolti da Carmine, Pasquale ed Almerico della Cantina di Solopaca, tre anime gentili e sorridenti che ci portano a cena per farci assaggiare i loro vini.
‘Lui é l’eccezione’ dice Pasquale, il cui nome si incastra tra quelli indigeni del Sud, al nostro commento sul nome esotico di Almerico. ‘Il suo nome é nordico.’
Pasquale ed Almerico, come tanti altri al sud Italia, hanno occhi caldi e scuri, che tendono leggermente all’ingiú. Sono belli, gli occhi del sud, e si riconoscono subito.

Siamo finiti a Solopaca, nella cantina sociale del posto.

Solopaca é un villaggio antico, dal passo adagio. Qui le persone appartengono a quella generazione che non ha bisogno di guardare orologi: I ritmi sono tutti li, nella terra, e si sentono come profezie piuttosto che come numeri su un calendario, nel pas-de-deux che i contadini ballano con le stagioni. Tra i santi che celebrano gli onomastici e le madonnine incastrate nelle anse sui muri, si dipanano le feste religiose di paese.
A Solopaca, Dio esiste ancora.
I giardini della Campania, in tardo ottobre, traboccano di limoni verdi.
Il vento che dalle montagne soffia attraverso le piante di agrumi ne porta il sentore leggero, e le foglie che sfregano nella brezza sembrano suonare come violini. Il resto é silenzio, che si appoggia sulle vigne lieve come una tela di garza. 

‘Qui non é Napoli,’ dice Almerico, parlando della cultura locale.
‘Qui é diverso. Siamo sí vicini, ma é diverso. Il paesaggio é diverso. La gente é diversa.’
E quanto aveva ragione, ma quanto é difficile raccontarlo! Se si potesse descrivere questa terra in maniera efficace! Se riuscissi a spiegarne la bellezza a parole! Se potessi parlare del loro accento melodioso e del loro dialetto, grezzo e romantico che, come i limoni nei giardini, mi ricorda le canzoni antiche de L’Arpeggiata. Se potessi raccontare le risate dopo ogni parola di cui non conoscevamo il significato.
‘Per esempio, ‘a’cazzimma’. Sai cos’é a’cazzimma?’
‘Non credo…’
‘E non te lo vojo dí.’
‘Ma perché?’
‘Perché questa é a’cazzimma: quando qualcuno non ti vuol dire qualcosa che vorresti sapere.’

Almerico versa l’ultimo vino nei bicchieri.
“Questo è l’intenso, il nostro moscato,” dice. Annuso il bicchiere e i profumi sono straordinari. Ma, portato alla bocca, é ancora piú sorprendente: intenso è la parola giusta. È un vino dolce meraviglioso, con un bouquet di pesca, rose, agrumi. È intenso come questa terra, intenso come il mediterraneo, come i profumi che immaginavo si esalassero dal giardino di Salomone nel suo Canto Biblico e dai giardini della Campania, di freschi fiori e frutta. 

Il giorno dopo facciamo un giro per la cantina.
La cantina di Solopaca è una cantina sociale tra le più antiche in Campania. Raccoglie le uve e i sogni di oltre 600 viticoltori, che faticherebbero altrimenti ad avere una produzione propria. Producono vini del posto come Falanghina, Greco, Aglianico da vitigni autoctoni.
Qui la storia è che l’anno scorso, nel Beneventano, ci fu un’alluvione che distrusse campi, vigne e industrie. Tra i tanti affetti ci fu la Cantina di Solopaca, che una mattina si svegliò totalmente sommersa nel fango del fiume vicino.
Me li immagino, quelli della cantina, devastati e con le mani prima tra i capelli e poi in mezzo al fango, a tirare fuori ogni singola bottiglia ormai invendibile. Migliaia di euro di vigna e prodotti distrutti, insieme alle famiglie che se ne prendevano cura.

Mi venne da pensare che il destino gli aveva fatto una cazzimma. Quando arriva come uno tsunami, mica te lo dice.
Ma é con le mani e gambe nel fango che ci si rende conto che la realtà non è sempre nelle tue mani, e quando si apre una partita con un destino che non ti aspetti bisogna mettersi a giocare. Nel gioco col fato avverso, l’asso nella manica fu una campagna social: Almerico e l’agenzia Mumble se ne vennero fuori con l’hashag #sporchemabuone che, con il passaparola su Facebook, fece vendere le migliaia di bottiglie infangate nel giro di poche ore. 

A Solopaca quel giorno si sono ricordati che è dal fango che l’uomo biblico è nato e, nell’aiutarsi a rialzarsi, è stato il fango a far tornare uomini gli uomini.
Ripenso all’intenso e penso al suo bouquet che sembra un giardino del Sud. Poi penso ad una cosa che mi disse un prete una volta: che il perdono non é altro che offrire il nostro male per farlo nuovo.
Con quelle bottiglie sporche, la cantina di Solopaca aveva offerto un brandello del loro male per ricucirne gli strappi e, poco alla volta, la crisi sarebbe scivolata via, come il gusto lungo e setoso del loro Intenso, fino a diventare persistenza di sfondo e ricordo cristallino. 

Quel vino, che già di per se era poesia, mi sembrò ancora più fine. 

Questo Intenso, una meraviglia racchiusa in una bottiglia sporca, mi fa pensare che tirare fuori il meglio dal male, e dargli volto e ragione, non è cosa da tutti. Mi fa pensare che una cantina è fatta di buio e di ombre ai quali gli occhi prima o poi si abituano, ed ogni luce avrebbe evidenziato le cicatrici e lo sporco sui muri, a memoria perenne di quell’invasione barbarica del fiume vicino. Mi fa pensare che per accorgersi di quel Dio che ancora si sente a Solopaca ci vuole silenzio, come prima degli attacchi d’orchestra, e nei vigneti e nelle cantine il silenzio é sacrale.
Ed è bello sapere che quelle mani sporche di fango, che hanno dato volto e ragione al male, sono le mani che producono questo vino, e non c’è altra spiegazione se non che le mani che coltivano queste vigne sono mani che poggiano sulla testa di Dio e non sanno di carezzargli il volto. 

Ed è qui, in questo posto dove Dio esiste ancora che permane la certezza che, anche nel peccato, la salvezza non è che la consapevolezza di poter essere rimessi a nuovo.
L’Italia tutta, segnata da sempre da terremoti e alluvioni, lo sa bene.
Nel negozio scopriamo che l’intenso cosa solo 5 euro. Sono matti. È meraviglia regalata.
Marco mi dá ragione. Se lo dice lui, mi fido. 

Lasciamo Solopaca nel pomeriggio assolato, con qualche bottiglia di vino e qualcosa di indescrivibile dentro. Che è buffo perché nemmeno abbiamo fatto chissà che, ma ce ne andiamo con un senso di nostalgia che pesa a sufficienza da lasciare un solco persistente. 

Nell’aria rimane il profumo dei limoni.
Sull’autobus, con la polvere che entra nelle narici, immagino l’odore dei peccati perdonati.
Ha un bouquet di pesca, rose, agrumi. 

Grazie Marco, perché non credevo che mi avresti accompagnata anche una volta finito il viaggio.
Grazie Consorzio Sannio Tutela Vini, perché fate cose speciali.
Grazie ragazzi della Cantina, per i vostri occhi.