A Fennel Orange Salad

from my Cookbook

'Naturally Vegetarian'

Napoli, Malvarosa, and a Lemon & Limoncello Tiramisu

Adventures in Naples - Lemon & Limoncello Tiramisu | Hortus Italian Cooking{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

'Pancotto' with Rapini & Beans | Hortus Natural Cooking{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 diSolopaca. And Solopaca is the name of the village we landed in.

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

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom ‘Lenticchiotto’

I have always lived right on this border between Marche and Romagna, twi places so different you could barely believe they are neighbors. As a result, Gradara is a cultural limbo which dialect and lifestyle is clearly romagnolo, but with an accent that has a slightly different edge. It is far from the Marche Apennines, and far from the Padan plain that from Romagna fades into Emilia. Our culture, near yet far from everything, seems to reside within us like sheep within a fence.

But how far are we from the heart of Marche, really?

Sometimes, I think it is a matter of seasons.

Romagna is the halcyon of carefree summers; the shores of its beaches filling up with tourists who hold cones of piadina stuffed with grilled seafood, line up at trattorie to eat passatelli and rustída, and assemble tables outdoors to celebrate the good weather with Sangiovese wine.

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingMarche, Italy by Paolo Vecchiotti

(Photo by Paolo Vecchiotti)

Marche shines during the fall, when its lush forests and tall mountains turn every shade of red, from burgundy to orange-ish, and its ground is scoured by hunting dogs at the search for truffles and porcini mushrooms. It is a majestic, melancholic scenery – a much less festive, more meditative one than that of Romagna. It is a scenery that sits beautifully in its own silence, like a hermit atop his mountain.  

Marche were so different from Romagna and its festive noise. Marche are the kid sitting at the far end of the classroom, the one with thick glasses, considered by few but who is the smartest of the group. Marche are the beautiful, shy girl sitting at the edge of the dance floor, confident she does not really need a knight – a confidence that scares away all the boys but makes them all the more attractive.

In their dim silence, Marche disclose the wildest beauty for those who open their eyes and see through them. The grandness of its mountains is difficult to capture with a camera: the only way to really experience it is be in the midst of them.

I loved repeating the romantic names of their medieval towns to myself: Amandola. Cupra Montana. Castelsantangelo sul Nera. Arquata del Tronto. Names that are long and subtly elegant, as if they belonged to royalty. 

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural Cooking

I have always felt like a welcome visitor in this land, with my strong Romagna accent that always immediately gave away my alien origin. The years I spent as a student in Urbino, where my mom’s family came from – when on the other hand, funnily enough, my father came from Cesena, the heart of Romagna –  made it feel like a second  home. Its proximity made it a frequent protagonist of my many Sunday trips.

In the dancing ruckus that are Romagna and its people, I turn my eyes to Marche when my spirit needs some quietness. 

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingMarche, Italy by Paolo Vecchiotti

(Photo by Paolo Vecchiotti)

This post was born as a collaboration with Amío Pulses. I am grateful of how I was reminded of the importance of the humblest of foods – foods that have been called ‘the poor man’s meat’ for their nutritional content and that never failed to satisfy a single man or woman throughout this country’s history.  The ingredients in these recipes are all deeply rooted in the gastronomy of Marche: porcini, lentils and truffle are the halberd of the region’s fall cooking. 

We might not know where we belong, or not feel fully Marchigiani. We might speak Romagna dialect and eat ciambellone instead of ciambelle al mosto. We might be on or beyond the borders.

But give us a bowl of legumes, and we will know we are never quite too far from the heart of Marche. 

Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto'
Serves 4
Cuisine: Italian
  • 10g dried porcini
  • 4 tbsps olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
  • 1 small shallot, finely chopped
  • ½ small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 lb / 450g mixed 'western' mushrooms (button, cremini, porcini), cleaned
  • Salt & pepper
  • 100g lentils
  • 100g risotto rice (brown or white)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Vegetable stock
  • 50 to 80 g grated Parmigiano or Grana or Pecorino cheese
  • A handful roasted chestnuts, optional
  • 1 to 3 Teaspoons truffle paste, optional
  1. Soak the dried porcini in boiling hot water for 5 to 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the shallot and onion. Let the onion turn gold, about 10 minutes.
  3. Dice the mushrooms and add to the onion. Squeeze the porcini from their water, mince them, and add them to the pot - keep their water. Sauté for 5 minutes, and a good sprinkling of add salt and pepper. Stir and add the filtered porcini water along with some veggie stock, so that you have ½ cup liquid. Let the lentils cook until you cover the difference with the rice cooking time (lentils should take 30 minutes, rice should take 20). Once ready, stir in the rice, making sure there is not too much liquid in the pot when you do. Stir for a minute.
  4. Add the bay leaf, and add enough stock to cover everything. Cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Uncover and simmer until most of the stick has been absorbed, 10 more minutes. Stir every now and then. If the lenticchiotto dries up too much, add more liquid.
  5. It will be ready when both the rice and the lentils will be soft and will have turned creamy.
  6. Stir in half the cheese, and the truffle paste if using. Check for salt and pepper. Add the remaining cheese evenly on top, and broil until gold and bubbly.
  7. Garnish with roasted chestnuts if you like.

Read Zaira’s post with Amío pulses (Corona Beans Cupcakes)
Read Giulia’s post with Amío pulses (Chickpea Butternut Soup)
AMIO lentils | Hortus Natural Cooking

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