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.

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the Countryside

The first time I had nettles, I cannot say wether I was more smitten by the fact that I was eating one of the weeds that I least imagined to be edible, or by how good they actually tasted.

We had been wandering around Gradara, walking along the castle walls, in search of a spot to have dinner, one night we decided to venture out without a reservation. We stopped at a dimly candlelit place with wooden ceilings and ancient terracotta tiles, not much different than all other restaurants in the premises. Its mighty white stone arched door welcomed us with a sign bearing a name too fascinating to ignore, ‘Il Bacio’ (the kiss). In its rustic menu, In between the piccione arrosto, gnocchi di zucca with sage and pecorino fondue and formaggi di fossa, that peculiar nettle and cannellini soup stood out, glimmering like a jewel in our minds. 

I was very young a the time, and that flavor stuck with me like not many others ever did. I just remember that I loved it.

Fast forward to several years later, we were wandering through the heart of a sunken green valley nestled in the heart of the Sibillini mountains where a bosom-like hill rises, on which top sits the town of Castelluccio di Norcia.

Again, we wandered its narrow streets until we eyed a quaint spot, its outer stone wall lined with wooden shelving displaying all sorts of local legumes, and a menu that was to die for: in what was a chilly evening after a long day of walking through hills and fields we could not resist the calling of baked lentils with truffles, greens braised in garlicky olive oil, bruschetta and, again, that flavor I tasted years before and never encountered again: farrotto all’ortica (nettle farrotto). 

‘Let’s go in,’ I commanded.

And oh, was it a great decision. 

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the Countryside

As we stood in awe before our meal, the owner of the restaurant came to our table to greet us. 

“The nettles, and the wild herbs, we all forage them by hand here, in the slope of the hill. There is no traffic here, no cars, and no smog. There is nothing but us and the hills, and nature offering us some of the most delicious wild herbs you will ever find. You will not have greens like these anywhere else in the country: they are the best you will ever have.”

He was right. Up to date, I could not find any other that could prove him wrong.

That meal triggered all the fond memories I had of that soup in Gradara, which I never saw on a menu again. 

Nettles grow along countryside paths, in ditches and shady areas, in any place that is at least partly sheltered from the sun and where it can collect the fresh dew of spring and early fall mornings. Its edible companions are mallow, borage, poppy leaves, and mustard greens, which we all forage in spring and early fall.
These wild herbs are disguised Cinderellas of the fields that turn into royalty in the kitchen, with nettles being the queen. 

‘Urtica dioica’, the name of nettles – which I believe to be just as elegant as its flavor and looks, comes from the latin ‘urere’: to burn. And burning referred not only to its feeling on the skin but also on the soul, as ‘dioica’ meant ‘dual’, which not only explained the fact that nettle flowerings can be either female or male, but alluded to coupling in general, as those very seeds were known as a potent aphrodisiac. 

In any dish, nettles are a beautiful lady in simple clothing, a lady that charms you with elegant gestures and composure rather than womanly frills. And though there are many ingredients nettles can make love to, there are not many she will accept, as its delicate taste can silently yet assertively turn down other flavors, like a woman who knows what men she wants to turn down. Garlic is too powerful – better a milder flavor like garlic scapes or, if using garlic, ver little of it is enough. A touch of Parmigiano, if in moderate measure, could be allowed to court her, but no other potent cheese should be allowed to dumb down its slightly minty, mildly chlorophyll-y flavor, which is reminiscent of spinach, but with a sweet edge.

I strongly believe that nettles need wine as part of their dress-up and added nobility. What is best than wine, the simplest of treats yet most sophisticated of flavors, to charm a lady?

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideNettles have strong detoxing, diuretic and gut-cleansing properties. Maybe this is one of the reasons why this herb has always been regarded as almost magical: its burning became an ancient symbol of thorough cleansing, as if it were spiritual fire.
I find comfort in this ancient wisdom, where symbols explain life. Elderly women today still say that the burn from nettles is not to be feared, for its burning is the perfect metaphor of life: if swiftly and readily embraced in favor of a greater good rather than avoided at all costs, can cleanse rather than scar, and extinguish all that ails and all that sickens. 

So, just as the nature of this herb, nettle dishes tend to be simple, fuss free, healthy, yet extremely elegant. 

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the Countryside

This pasta is incredibly quick to make, it can be easily made vegan if you forgo the cheese (though a sprinkling of really good pecorino really hits the spot here) and can be made gluten-free if you choose gluten-free pasta and use brown rice flour instead of whole wheat flour for the sauce. 

If you cannot find nettles, substitute raw baby spinach or preferably a mix of raw dark leafy greens

I decided to make my own pasta with the lovely flours from Molino Ariani, but feel free to use your favorite pasta. I made ‘chitarrine’, which is like tagliolini, but thicker. The name ‘chitarrine’ means ‘little guitars’, as this pasta is supposed to be reminiscent of guitar strings, and it is a pasta cut typical of le Marche region.

If you want to make your own pasta, follow the instructions on this post.
If you want to go full Italian, but want vegan pasta and/or do not feel like making your own,here are some of my favorites off of Amazon:
Buckwheat pasta options off Amazon
La Pasta di Aldo – Filini
Mancini – Spaghetti alla Chitarra
Garofalo – Whole wheat spaghetti

Or (I am going to say something that would sound like profanity to the average Italian, but works): just use organic soba noodles

I prefer to briefly sauté the nettles to make them softer and give the shallot a caramelized flavor, which is exalted by deglazing with the wine. I think the extra effort is absolutely worth it for added depth of flavor, but if you’re feeling lazy and/or want to forgo the wine, just add all the ingredients except the wine to a food processor and you will be fine. 

Once made, the pesto goes really well with any pasta, but I love how the slightly smoky buckwheat flavor complements the sweetness of the olive oil and hint of minty chlorophyll flavor of the nettles and keeps well in the fridge for well over a week. 

If you are not making your own pasta, this recipe comes together in the time it takes to boil the pasta water and is healthy, provided you use good ingredients.

NB: Always handle nettles with GLOVES! Once thoroughly rinsed or cooked, nettles become harmless.

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Pesto
Serves 2 to 3 (recipe works perfectly if doubled)
  • 130 g (4.5 oz) semolina flour
  • 70 g (2.5 oz) buckwheat flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 small shallots, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
  • 50 g young, picked and rinsed nettle leaves
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • ¼ packed cup basil leaves
  • 4-5 sprigs parsley
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • ½ garlic clove, peeled
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • olio evo
  • A handful pine nuts
  • Grated Grana or Parmigiano
  1. Follow the instructions on the post linked above if making your own tagliolini. If you feel like living dangerously, use a ratio of 100g (3.5 oz) semolina + 100g buckwheat flour for a stronger buckwheat flavor.
  1. Add the olive oil (or butter) and shallots to a pan and sauté on a low flame for 5 minutes, until the shallots turn gold. Add the chopped nettles, sauté for a minute, then deglaze with the wine. Bring the flame to medium, boil off the wine.
  2. Transfer to a food processor, and add the basil, parsley, pine nuts, garlic, and salt. Process until you obtain a paste. Slowly pour the extra virgin olive oil in a streamline while processing, until the pesto turns smooth. Transfer to a jar. This pesto is great with any pasta, in panini, or as a pizza topper.
  3. bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add a scant tablespoon coarse salt and boil the pasta for the time indicated in the package. When draining, reserve some pasta water.
  4. Toss the pasta in the pot with the pesto, adding a couple tablespoons pasta water if you want it looser or do not want to use all the pesto. Just eyeball the quantity and add as much pesto as you like.
  5. Serve with the pine nuts, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and grated cheese to taste (or leave it out for a vegan version, if using vegan pasta).

NOTE: Castelluccio and the Sibillini mountains are two of the areas affected by the huge earthquake that hit central Italy on August 24th. With hundreds of deaths, hundreds of wounded and thousands still homeless, this earthquake was a true calamity. All the houses need to be rebuilt and there is still help needed.
To donate, visit the official ‘Un Aiuto Subito’ website to make a donation (scroll to the bottom to donate) or visit the Italian Red Cross website.

NOTE #2: apparently I won the Saveur awards! Thanks for all your precious support, Hortus would be nothing and I would not have grown as a person and as a professional the way I did if it weren’t for every single one of you. I will forever be grateful to all of this great blogging world and all the people who walk in it.
Congrats to all the other finalists, winners and participants!

Thanks to Molino Ariani for the flours;
Weck + MCM Emballages for the jars;
And Baule Volante for the sponsorships and support!

And thanks to Paolo for taking my picture (and several others!) and for lending me his 135mm and his company!

Buckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the CountrysideBuckwheat Pasta with Nettle Sauce: the Green Jewels of the Countryside



A Green Pear Juice and a Mojito Detox Water + a Catskills Workshop Announcement!

Me and Christiann Koepke will be hosting a 3 day retreat in the Catskills, at the border with upstate New York, from October 28th through the 31st.
For all details and signup, click here.

We’ll be nestling into a beautiful home on 225 acres next to a private lake, baking and shooting all weekend, finishing off our creative days with mulled wine and warm dinners. This Autumn Harvest Retreat will center around fall baking, spices and all things cozy and warm and certainly is not one to miss…
{ To read Christiann’s post about it, click here. }
Book your spot soon as this is selling fast!

There’s still a week to vote for the Saveur awards!
If you’d like, you can support me, or anyone you like, here. You can vote every day!

This post is made in collaboration with Smeg 50 Style. If you are in Italy, head over to their website to find out how to win this gorgeous Juicer!

Thanks to Weck & MCM Emballages for the jars!


If you have been following me for a while, you will probably remember about my recovery from hormonal issues caused by polycystic ovaries, which mostly happened through food. You can read about it in this post, but, to sum it up, as long as I follow a low glycemic index diet, I am all good (see all that beautiful pasta that I photograph? If I want to be at the top of my shape, I can’t eat it).
This is why, though I was always interested in trying one of those emerald green concoction, I never approached juicing. I had my first green veggie juice at the Pressed Juicery in Los Angeles, I thought it was absolutely delicious, and that was it.

Because they are stripped of the fiber, juices are mostly sugar, especially if they are made from fruit alone. I hate the fact that they are stripped of all the fiber, which my system needs very, very much to balance out any carbohydrate I feed it. My body and foods that are just carbs without any fat or fiber really do not go along: I start feeling sluggish and bloated, even if all I ate was half a slice of whole wheat bread.
Furthermore, I am now back on the fitness regime I was on last year and that I strayed from, so now less than ever I thought I would be willing to give juicing a go.

Therefore, when Smeg approached me to try out their new juicer, I had all the reasons to say no to them. But I remembered the green juice that I had, and my curiosity to test out a few drinks with veggies and citrus, and decided to say yes. Turns out that I had tons of fun with it, and really love the idea of using it for flavored waters.
And I love the rich, luscious green I captured in these shots.

Green Pear Lemon Juice | Hortus Natural CookingGreen Pear Lemon Juice & Mojito Detox Water | Hortus Natural CookingMojito Detox Water (Lime, Lemon, Mint, Ginger) | Hortus Natural Cooking

Because I am a complete noob in the juicing world and needed some guidance, I referred to an awesome blogger turned friend of mine this summer. His name is Antonio; he is an holistic practitioner who went through a really bad case of Chron’s disease, and literally saw death in the face. He recovered thanks to clean food and now has a lovely Facebook page that you should all visit.
He is the king of juicing and gave me some advice about making juices, like adding at least a bit of apple and a wedge of lemon to make them more fragrant.
So thank you, Antonio! You’re the best!

The first juice takes advantage of the crunchy, beautiful, fragrant pears from our garden. It is a concoction of spinach, pear and lemon with jasmine and elderflower scented ice, which is sweeter than I thought it would be and where the spinach can be hardly tasted at all. One of the most delicious juices I have ever had.

The second one is aptly named after one of the most popular drinks in Italy. The combination of limes, lemons, mint and a huge chunk of ginger makes it taste exactly like a mojito, but without the sugar. I can see this going totally well with my fitness regime. Drinking lemon and ginger first thing in the morning actually works as a cleanser to some extent, and this one will not only burn fat – it will also probably burn your throat and eyes should a drop of it go where it shouldn’t. It is a bit harsh, but I love that extremely refreshing burn – it is the most perfect wake up drink.

pearGreen Pear Lemon Juice | Hortus Natural Cooking


(Makes one big mason jar, or 2 small ones)

1/2 cup Elderflower juice
1 cup brewed and cooled flowery tea, such as Jasmine green tea
1 crispy apple
2 medium crispy Williams or Nashi pears
Half a lemon, Meyer if you can find them (use one whole if they are small)
A tiny piece of ginger if you like

Combine the elderflower juice and tea and use the mixture to make ice cubes.
Wash and cut all the fruit into pieces that will fit into your juicer, and remove the peel from the lemon. Start the juicer and drop in one piece of fruit at a time.
Serve with the flowery ice cubes. Wait for them to melt a little bit – the flowery scent will get stronger as they melt.

Green Pear Lemon Juice | Hortus Natural Cooking
Green Pear Lemon Juice & Mojito Detox Water | Hortus Natural CookingGreen Pear Lemon Juice | Hortus Natural CookingGreen Pear Lemon Juice | Hortus Natural Cooking


(Makes 2 tall glasses)

1 medium cucumber
2 limes
2 lemons
1/2 tightly packed cup mint leaves
2 fat thumb sized pieces of ginger
Ice-cold filtered water
Ice cubes to serve

Cut the cucumber and citrus into manageable pieces, and remove the peel from everything. Add the limes through the juicer first, then the mint and then the cucumber, so that it will push all the mint leaves down. Add the ginger and then the lemons last.
Divide into two tall glasses, and fill each with water. Serve with lemon slices and ice cubes.
If you feel like it is a little too harsh, add some honey or brown sugar to your heart’s content (but then it is not detox anymore!)

Mojito Detox Water (Lime, Lemon, Mint, Ginger) | Hortus Natural CookingMojito Detox Water (Lime, Lemon, Mint, Ginger) | Hortus Natural CookingMojito Detox Water (Lime, Lemon, Mint, Ginger) | Hortus Natural Cooking

A ‘Thicket’ Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad

Read Eva’s post here | Read Christiann’s post here | Read Danielle’s post here

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When I was in middle school, as I moved the first steps towards  a personal quest to improve my art skills, everyone started buying large, beautiful 32-color watercolor palettes. I, who inherited my brother’s half-used pastels and a charcoal or two, looked longingly at those Caran d’Ache’s palettes like a kid watching his teammates from the bench, wishing to join in the game.
One day, my teacher gave me a little case, which turned out to be a 6-color watercolor palette, and posed me with a challenge.
“You only need three colors to make thousands of others. The best artists can make do with what they have.”
Unappealing as it sounded to a 13-year-old back then, I have lived by this rule ever since. That 6-color palette was my first approach to understanding that there is too much we think we need when we actually don’t.

A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad

Like Thoreau in the woods in Walden, my decision to go to Portland was driven because I felt like I was making a mess of too many colors and needed to find my essential palette once again, to clear the confusion as to what was essential to my life and what was not – much like when, to test for allergies, they have you remove all possible allergens from your diet to find out what exactly is harming you.
I found my liver poisoned, and my head too light. This time in the woods cleansed me as by the hands of a miracle worker.
It always surprises me how, in spite of our ability to learn and adapt as humans, we constantly need to rid our lives and minds of clutter we accumulate again and again.

The world is full of people who cannot get rid of this clutter, which ends up blocking their ‘light’ – their potential to shine bright, and end up burnt and consumed, and can do no more than blindly answer any dull commands from any external impulse from a colorless world.

But this secret supper, in these woods, with this people, was a rainbow I had hardly ever seen before.
Seeing Eva and Christiann running around like whirling dervishes in their endeavor to paint their world of beautiful colors, were some of the most inspiring people I have ever had the luck to meet. That world of floating beauty, that they seem to bring to life in such an ethereal, feather-light way, yet so real and dotted with beads of sweat for the hard work that it takes to bear on their shoulders, is the world I wish I could paint. They are the colors I wish I could paint my soul with.
Nothing was excessive, yet everything was a feast. All they put together was perfectly balanced.

A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad

I need not tell you much about what happened during the day – you can read everything about the great food and menu, the great drinks, and the crazy weather in the recap posts linked above.

But I can tell you that, like Thoreau in the woods, I came to understand many more things about painting life with the little colors that are necessary, but which are exactly the ones you need.

I’ll never be able to thank enough all the wonderful people I got to meet and talk to during this incredible event – Lena, Holly, Maki, Emma, Alanna, Aaron, Alex, Nikole, Dawn, and many others.
I can’t wait to go back to the woods. Thank you for the heaps of dishes, eating leftover ice cream, chatter about the future, warmest welcome one could possibly hope for.

A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush SaladA 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad

I was about to say that registration for the next supper, ‘Ebb & Flow’ is open, BUT nope, nevermind. Everyone liked this world of beautiful colors so much that tickets sold out in 10 minutes! Mi girls rock! So  sign up for the newsletter to be notified when registration opens for future events.

A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad
A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad
A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad

And, after all this beauty, I made a lame attempt at reproducing one of the delicious recipes Mona and Jaret, the awesome duo that catered the event, prepared – a fattoush salad of sorts. Seriously, what they prepared was so incredibly good! So do not take my version too seriously. It is good in its own right, but theirs was perfection.

The fun fact, and the choice to convert this salad to a gluten-free version, derived not only from the fact that I don’t eat much bread and I can’t find pita here anyway, but also that at this dinner I met, for the first time in my life, two people who are allergic to gluten (one of them being Christiann). All of a sudden, gluten-free became a reality. Though I eat very little gluten myself, and I don’t really eat many grains, I know no people who have problems with gluten here in Italy. For the first time, this food allergy became a *real* reality, and now I feel challenged to try even more gluten-free versions recipes like pastas and breads and somehow manage to avoid loading them with white carbs or starches (and on this matter, I am especially proud of the pancakes from my last post).

I love how this fattoush recalls the idea of panzanella (for which you can see my recipe here!), in which the bread soaks up a delicious, slightly tart dressing. I think that the quality of the pita or crackers kind of makes this salad. I am using some delicious seed crackers made my a local bakery.
Also, if you can find those fresh, crispy French breakfast radishes, go ahead and use them. The only kind of radishes I can find here suck.  SO scour the stalls of your local farmer’s market and use the freshest ingredients you can find, and you’ll end up with one of the most delicious salads of your life.

I also suggest adding some goat cheese or feta at the end (but leave out if vegan). I had the chance to try Vermont Creamery‘s cheeses, which are all beyond awesome, but I think that their apricot & thyme goat cheese would be a stunner here.

A 'Thicket' Secret Supper in Portland, and a Northwestern Fattoush Salad
  • ½ lb snap peas (I used green beans)
, trimmed
  • Either 2 whole wheat pitas, or your favorite gluten-free crackers (I used some locally made seed crackers)
  • 2 tsps olive oil + pinch salt for the green beans and pitas
4 cups mixed greens like sorrel, baby spinach, pea shoots, arugula…
  • A large cucumber or 2 medium ones, finely sliced
A bunch radishes (use french breakfast radishes if you can find them), finely sliced
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels
  • 1 cup mixed basil, parsley, mint, finely chopped
  • Edible flowers for garnishing
  • 2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil, more or less to taste
  • 2 tbsps kefir or buttermilk
, or low fat yogurt, or plain unsweetened soy yogurt
  • The juice from half a medium lemon
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2 heaping teaspoons sumac
  • 1 scant teaspoon salt
  • Pepper, to taste
  • Extra, but leave out if vegan: some crumbled goat cheese or feta
  1. Heat a pan (preferably cast iron, but nonstick will do just as well) with 2 teaspoons olive oil over a medium-high heat. Add the snap peas and a pinch salt - they should sizzle when you add them in. Sautée them until nice and golden, almost slightly charred, for about 5 minutes. They should still be crispy. Transfer to a serving bowl, and let them cool down.
  2. Brush the pita with a little olive oil and, In a grill, or in the same pan, grill it/toast it until crisped up on the outside. Cut into wedges. If using crispy gluten-free crackers, there's no need to do anything to them - just break them into smaller pieces.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl except the flowers.
  4. Add all the ingredients for the dressing to a jar, and shake it well to mix. Pour the dressing on the salad and toss well to mix. Add the pita or cracker pieces to the salad, and let it sit in the fridge for about 30 minutes to let the pita or crackers soak up the dressing.
  5. Drizzle on some extra olive oil and pepper to taste. Toss and serve immediately.
  6. You can assemble the salad a day before, but add the pita and dressing only the day you are going to serve it, or it might get too soggy.

And check out Mona + Jaret’s Instagram for some serious salad inspiration!

And finally, a shoutout to the sponsors, which are absolutely worth mentioning as they kindly provided so much incredible and tasty things, without which this supper would not have been the same.
Hood River Guest House – @hoodriverguesthouse – Venue 
Mica de Marquez Ceramics – @mimi_likey – Handmade ceramic place settings
Will Leather Goods@willleathergoods – Hand woven rugs + pillows
Selva Floral@selvafloral – Floral design
Tournant PDX – @tournantpdx – Menu crafting + cooking
Amy Rochelle Press – @amyrochellepress – Custom printed linen menus
Commonweath – @commonwealthpdx – Furniture rentals + accessories
COR Cellars – @corcellars – Alba Gewurztraminer/Pinot Gris wine
Syncline – @synclinewinery – Mourvedre wine
Analemma – @analemmawines – Atavus Gewürztraminer wine
Sudan Farms – Local farm-fresh lamb
Rubinette Produce – @rubinetteproduce – Local farm-fees produce
House Spirits – @aviationgin – Aviation Gin
Vermont Creamery – @vermontcreamery – Goat’s Cheese + Cultured Butter
Red House – @redhousevt – Waxed canvas flower satchel
Dona Chai @dona_chai – Chai concentrate take-home gift
The Bitter Housewife@thebitterhousewife – Aromatic bitters take-home gift
Domestique – Aprons for the Secret Supper team members
Falcon Enamelware – @falconenamel – Bake set pans , serving trays


A Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima!

It has been almost 4 years since the last time I was in New York.
It is a strange feeling, knowing I will be back in the city that I have always called home, with yet another challenge but with a totally different mindset.
When I left the city, I left with a slap in the face that had started to awaken me and see who I really was. Though it is still a long work in progress, I can definitely say I’ll return as a different person.

I will have people to see, things to do, and be busy with other workshops before reaching the city (so excited to see Christiann Koepke and Eva Kosmas Flores in Portland, Betty Liu in Boston, and Haruka & many others in NY – 4 of my favorite people in one hit! I can die happy) but I will be mostly here for a vegan, matcha-mediterranean-fusion workshop with Kelima K, a bridal atelier in Soho.
They reached out to me and I am flattered and excited to host this event with them!

I asked some New York friends, such as Summer from O&O Eats and other blogger friends to tag along and take photos, so it will likely not be only me.

Book your spot here!
Spots are limited, so make sure to reserve your spot now!

This matcha mille-crepe cake with coconut cream is one of the things we will be making together, surrounded by flowers & Kelima’s beautiful creations.

A Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima | Hortus Natural Cooking
A Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima | Hortus Natural Cooking
A Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima | Hortus Natural Cooking

Some details:

When + Where
Sunday, June 26th
From 2.30 PM

@ Kelima K. Atelier

We will be doing & talking about:


The workshop will feature vegan and gluten free treats with a Japanese flair. 

Gain amazing food photography and styling knowledge and instruction, as well as blogging, social media, and marketing tips.

The workshop will also include a tea tasting, with beautiful matcha teas from Japan.

The personal collection of kimonos from the designer Kelima K will be on view.

Complimentary admission to our after party, with samplings of Valentina’s delicious food, Kelima’s green teas, and cocktails for all, is included for all workshop attendees.

A Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima | Hortus Natural CookingHandcrafted Couture Soho NY Kelima K She will be loved dressesA Matcha Mille Crepe Cake for my New York City Workshop with Kelima | Hortus Natural Cooking

For more info, do not hesitate to contact me. Or directly register here
Spread the word and hope to see you there!

Kelima K. Atelier
+(1) 212- 334- 6546

Handcrafted Couture Soho NY Kelima K She will be loved dresses