Not just for Halloween..

Pumpkins are in season, so in the spirit of making hay while the sun shines… or is that making soup while the fog surrounds? Here’s our family favourite recipe for warming pumpkin soup that features in our book ‘Venice – Recipes Lost and Found‘ :-
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Zuppa di Zucca
Pumpkin Soup
This soup was served to us at the restaurant of the same name, La Zucca, in tiny backstreet in Venice where they serve mainly vegetarian food and primarily those dishes are made with pumpkin. There are paintings of pumpkins on the walls and pumpkin-coloured paper placemats too. The food is different to the typical Venetian food and it has a really good following so if you plan to go make sure you book in advance. This soup is loosely based on their recipe and I think it does help to find the best quality pumpkin (not the Halloween type, they are too watery and have no flavour) you can. In Venice, they mainly use the mantovana pumpkin variety, which is squat, large and pale green.  Remember to save your peelings to add to other vegetable off cuts if you are making a stock.
Serves 6–8
6 tablespoons best quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) pumpkin (around 1/2 butternut squash), cut into 3 cm (11/4 in) cubes
1 carrot, cut into 2 cm (3/4 in) cubes
1 stick celery, cut into 2 cm cubes
2 white onions, cut into 2 cm cubes1/2 red chilli (chile), finely chopped
1.2 litres (2 pints 9 fl oz) vegetable or chicken stock (bouillon)
400 g (14 oz) tin cannellini beans, drained, or 350 g (12 oz) cooked beans from dried
handful of kale, chard or spinach
salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g feta cheese, optional
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the garlic, pumpkin, carrot, celery and onion. Reduce the heat, cover with the lid and sweat for 20 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. Add the chilli (you can add more or less according to your taste) and fry for 2 minutes.
making soup
Pour in the stock, increase the heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Italians tend to purée roughly a third of their soups to thicken them. This used to be done with a passetutto but you can use a stick blender instead, I did. Stir in the beans and kale. Cook for 2–3 minutes until the kale is soft. Season to taste and serve with a swirl of your best olive oil, a little black pepper and (though not strictly Italian) a crumble of feta cheese.
soup made 2
You can buy ‘Venice – Recipes Lost and Found’, which includes a whole range of Venetian recipes both historic and modern day, online here.

Prosciutto Di Parma

Parma ham is a type of prosciutto (pronounced proshooto) a word derived from the Latin perexuctus, and the modern Italian verb prosciugare meaning ‘to deprive of all liquid’, because the hams are salted and dried. This preserving process dates back at least to the second century B.C. and thought to have used by the Romans and Etruscans.  It was the Gauls, however, living in the mountain regions, who became expert prosciutto-makers and sold hams to the Romans.  The mountain air and breezes supposedly give prosciutto its sweet flavour. Today, air-cured hams are produced in many northern areas of Italy but primarily in Emilia in the provinces of Parma and Modena and in Fruili at San Daniele. The hams from different areas have different flavours and most Italians have a preference. San Daniele and Parma ham are known as dolce for their sweet flavour. The hams of Tuscany and Umbria are known as salato for their saltier, more savoury flavour, because they use more salt and pepper and sometimes other spices or garlic in the curing process.  Prosciutto di Norcia is sometimes lightly smoked which alters the flavour of this ham from the others.
On a trip around a prosciutto factory in Parma I was impressed by how many staff were working there – no wonder the ham is so costly!  It was like a scene from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ with the incredible attention that was given to these slabs of meat. It struck me as an employer what an incredible amount they must spend on wages. It is made under such strict guidelines that everything has to be monitored by humans using limited machinery to speed up part of the processes involved in preparing the hams to be hung.
Prosciutto di Parma is made from nine month old pigs weighing a minimum of 150 kilos.  They have to have been bred in eleven of the northern and central Italian regions and kept on a carefully controlled diet.  Markings on the leg applied at the slaughterhouses will denote the farm and region they came from and the month they were killed.  However the curing has to happen in the traditional production area near Parma.  Salt is the only preservative used, no chemicals are allowed.  During the processes of salting and hanging the hams will lose almost a third of their weight which is why the flavour is so concentrated.
The legs are trimmed at the slaughterhouses into a chicken leg shape and then sent to the curing houses.  Here they are salted and hung for 6 to 7 days in a refrigerated chamber which has 80% humidity.  After this they are given a second salt and hung in dry conditions for 15 to 18 days.  Here they start to dry out and lose up to 4% of their weight.
The next phase of the curing process is called “resting”, the legs are put in another cold store room for 60-70 days with 75%humidity. These stores are often aired naturally so the temperature and humidity are dictated by nature.  Here they lose up to 10% of their weight.
The hams are then washed over the period of one week with warm water to eliminate excess salt. They are then in the pre-curing phase which is carried out in large rooms with windows on either side, where hams are hung on special wood frames called “scalere”. The airflow regulation is very important. This phase lasts about 3 months.
After the curing phase the ham is beaten to improve its round “chicken leg” shape. Sometimes the bone is covered in pepper to keep the contact area dry. Weight loss during this phase is up to 10%.  Then after months of hanging, in a scene which looked like chiaroscuro painting from Caravaggio, the bone, any cuts and the uncovered muscle is then slathered with suino – lard, salt and pepper by two ladies under a heat lamp. The greasing softens the external layers, stops them drying too rapidly and also allows further humidity loss.
In the seventh month, the ham is transferred to the “cellars”, rooms with less air and light. The controller uses a tool – a horse bone needle (a long needle carved from a horse’s lower-leg bone which is extremely porous), to plunge into 5 different parts of the ham and sniffs it to determine the ham’s level of maturity.  The weight loss during the curing is about 5%.
At the end of the minimum 12 month ageing period the ham has shrunk by a third and acquired its unique and delicate aroma. Only then are the hams ready for the official stamp of certification, the Ducal Crown which is fire branded onto them.
I came away from my visit with great respect for the producers of Parma ham.  This European Community certification system helps protect the names of high-quality European foods made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region. In addition to providing legally binding name protection for these products, the PDO system helps consumers, retailers, chefs, distributors and culinary professionals distinguish between authentic products and their many imitations.  If people constantly use cheaper and inferior products these careful methods of production and a quality product such as Parma ham will disappear off our shelves.
Katie’s Tips:

  • How to store Parma ham – if it is whole keep it hanging outside the fridge in a cool room.  If it is already cut, wrap it tightly to stop it drying out and keep in the fridge.
  • The ends of Parma ham that are too small to go through a slicer are often used to give flavour to a soup or stock.
  • Lay any slightly dry slices in a hot oven for a few minutes to crisp them up and then use them as a garnish on soup or to introduce a crunchy texture to a dish.
  • I couldn’t believe what a difference it made to the ham when it was cut into paper thin slices.  It melts in the mouth in this way.  Many Italians have small domestic slicing machines in their houses so that meats can be sliced freshly at home.
  • Don’t be put off by the visible white fat, this helps make the amazing texture and flavour to prosciutto, whatever you do don’t peel it off and leave it on the plate, the Italians will never forgive you!
  • Eat the ham with warm bread or better still Torta Fritta, also known as Gnocco Fritto; little squares of hot pastry that help the fats to melt instantly releasing a wonderful smell as you put it to your mouth.
  • Do as the Parmese do, drink chilled Lambrusco or sparkling Malvasia with Parma ham, the wine’s acidity cuts through the fat and matches perfectly the flavour.
  • Try San Daniele with hunks of Montasio cheese and a glass of Tocai or Prosecco. There you will have all the flavours of one region to enjoy.
  • All prosciutto goes well with fruit particularly melon or figs but make sure you eat them when they are in season and have the right balance of sweetness and acidity to match the hams.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard straw coloured cheese made from raw cow’s milk.  It is commonly used as an ingredient in grated form but is also wonderful to eat on its own in small pieces or shavings.  Parmigiano isn’t salty but is ‘umami’ meaning savoury – this is due to the amino acids breaking down in the slow maturation. Foods such as these act as flavour enhancer to other foods which is why it is used so frequently in Italian cooking.  It is a very healthy, vitamin-packed cheese which gives you a “buzz” of energy when eaten, so much so that some people say it is an aphrodisiac. It is easily digested due to the amino acids present and it can actually help other foods to be digested more easily too.
The cows that provide the milk are kept in strictly controlled environments, often inside and are fed on grass or hay primarily, concentrated feeds have to be prepared with a list of specific ingredients.
Parmigiano Reggiano
Production of Parmegiano-Reggiano is exclusive to the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena and Bologna (on the left side the Reno river) and Mantua (on the right bank of the Po River). It is a PDO under European Union regulations meaning Protected Designation of Origin so to be Parmigiano Reggiano it has to come from these particular areas and be made by approved rules.
There are approximately 3,900 dairy farmers round the hills and valleys of Parmigiano-Reggiano that supply the milk to around 420 “caseifici” or cheese factories where the wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are made. The traditional methods for making cheese are safeguarded by Consorzi o of Parmigiano-Reggiano.  These methods, some staying the same for over nine centuries, may not be time or cost efficient but ensure that their cheeses are made to the highest quality, using the best milk in each area.  This helps explain the cost of these cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano
Morning and evening milk
Parmigiano Reggiano is made from a combination of morning and evening milking. The evening milk separates naturally overnight allowing for part of the cream to be skimmed off.  The milk is then mixed with the morning whole milk and the whey from the previous day in heated copper cauldrons.  After the addition of with rennet; it is churned and left to coagulate. The solid mixture, the curd, is then broken up in grains and then it is whisked and heated.  The grains are collected in large sheets of cheesecloth to become the cheese.  This is lifted to allow the liquid whey to be drained off.
As with the tradition of the original shepherds they make a sign of the cross on the cheese at this stage almost to bless it and wish it on its’ way to becoming a ‘good’ Parmigiano-Reggiano (to produce a dodgy cheese wastes a lot of money!).
Parmigiano Reggiano
The mass of curds is divided into two pieces: these are called twin cheeses.  Each one is wrapped in cheesecloth and placed in a circular mould called a “fascera”.  In the afternoon, the cheesecloth is removed and a special plastic stamp is inserted between the cheese and the inside of the mould. The stamp forms a number of impressions on the sides of the wheel, denoting the number of the caseificio, the production month and year and the pin dots that form the words Parmigiano-Reggiano.
After a couple of days the mould is peeled off, leaving the precious embossed name of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ . After resting a few days in a steel mould, the cheese is given a bath in salty water for 20-25 days before being taken to the enormous rooms where the wheels are aged. Each cheese, and there could be thousands in one room, has to be cleaned and turned manually or robotically every 7 days.
Listen to your cheese
It is during this time when my favourite stage of the process occurs. ‘I battitori’ emerge, men who have been training for two years to test the quality of the cheese by beating it with little hammers and listening to the sound it makes.  I couldn’t help thinking it must be repetitive and that they long for one to be a bit wonky sounding so that they can show off their skills and say “mamma mia, we have a dud one over here, come and listen!” Reject cheeses have their names scored off the outside so that they cannot be sold under the name Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano
Each wheel of the Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for the minimum of 12 months, at this stage the young cheese has a mild and milky flavour.  They weigh approximately 39 kilos each.   The most popular ages are 24 and 28 months when they have reached the perfect ages to be eaten.  Cheese enthusiasts describe the flavour at this point as melted butter inside and the crust of the cheese as dry fruits and nutmeg.  I tasted young Parmigiano-Reggiano, softer and less crumbly than its older sister.  I thought it delicious and don’t know why it is not available here.  On the other end of the scale, an equally delicious but completely different three-year old cheese is full-flavoured and fruity with a creamy crumbliness.  I think we are so used to eat this cheese as an ingredient it is worth seeking out the different ages of maturity and tasting them on their own.
Parmigiano Reggiano
Katie’s Tips

  • Always buy Parmigiano Reggiano fresh from the block and grate it yourself rather than buy the ready-grated kind.
  • How to store it – wrap it tightly in baking parchment, muslin or cling film.
  • Another tip is: Don’t think of it just for cooking, children in Italian nurseries are given little lumps of cheese as snacks.  It gives energy and sustains their appetite until lunchtime.
  • Try pouring a rich aged balsamic vinegar over small pieces of cheese and passing them round with glasses of red wine.
  • Keep the rinds that cannot be grated easily and put them into stocks for extra flavouring.  They won’t melt but will add a wonderful flavour.
  • Another great tip is if you scratch off the very outer layer of cheese so that the spotted name disappears you can grate all the rest and therefore not waste any of it.  Mix the harder grated cheese with the softer part from the centre so as the tastes will differ.
  • There is a special knife for cutting Parmesan called a “coltellino a mandorla”  due to the almond shape of the blade. It is perfect for breaking the cheese and digging it out rather than slicing through it.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Olive oil – Just like wine – a sublime grand cru or quaffable plonk?

When you think about choosing an olive oil think about how you would choose a wine- an expensive fine wine at one end of the scale to savour with something special or everyday, quaffable ‘plonk’ at the other.  In my kitchen I have little bottles of single estate extra-virgin olive oils, I buy them when I am in Italy or from Italian deli’s – I know their cost and I use them accordingly. I swirl them onto hot soup, dip bread into them and love them on tomatoes, scrambled eggs and avocados with a little salt. Just heavenly. I also have bigger bottles of extra-virgin olive oil made from a blend of olives from different areas. They are cheaper and I use these for cooking.
The colour, the fragrance and most importantly the flavour is determined by a vast range of factors.  The variety of olives grown, where they are grown, the quality of the soil and as always the weather during the growing season all play a part to give each oil its unique character.  Regional differences in oils therefore apply and within each group of regional oils, there will be further differences but to generalise some examples would be that Ligurian oil is delicate, Tuscan is robust and fruity, Sicilian has a spicy kick and Pugliese is robust and peppery. As with wine it is best to match the oil to a food that is similar in strength of flavour.
Four bottles of oil from one olive tree
There is still something magnificent about the process of making olive oil even though it may have developed far from the early days of production when donkeys pulled giant stone grinders.  I went to the Filippo Berio plant in Tuscany and watched the first oil of the season being made.  To witness the gleaming machinery go into action on a vat of fruit picked that morning was amazing as the first absolutely luminous green oil poured into the first bottle.  We tasted it within seconds of being made on a spoon, it was as powerful in flavour as it was vibrant in colour. Then we ate it poured over Ribollita (thick Tuscan vegetable soup) to celebrate the new season just as Tuscans have done for years. There is a Tuscan word “fett’unta” meaning “oiled slice” which refers to the slice of bread used to dip into the oil, often rubbed with garlic – the forerunner of bruschetta.
The production is about separating the ‘pomace’ (the solid matter from the skin, pips and flesh) and the water from the oil. The olives that we saw being picked in Tuscany were on the turn between green and purple.  It is this mixed batch which is important to create the right flavour.
Olive oil
The harvested olives are separated from their leaves and then washed.
Olive oil
After being  milled to a paste the liquids are separated from the solids, traditionally by a hydraulic press or now usually by a centrifuge. The oil and water is then separated by a second centrifuge.  At the end of it all it will have taken around 5 kilos of olives for every litre of oil produced, that’s around four bottles of oil from one tree.
The separated extra-virgin olive oil from the first pressing is bright and luminous.
Olive oil
The leftover pomace is collected as used as fertiliser to improve the ground, nothing is wasted.
Olive oil
So what do virgins have to do with it all?
Well “extra-virgin” just refers to the oil’s purity, being the first cold pressed oil to be made from the olives.
When heat was used more frequently to separate the oil, the “cold pressing” was really important and made that oil stand out from the rest.  Heat is the enemy of flavour here and fortunately the steam and hot water processes that used to make this separation easier are now confined to history. So all the oil we know as ‘virgin’ is entirely cold pressed these days.  It is often not even mentioned on labels any more so don’t choose one just because it states “cold pressed” on the label, they all are.
The grading of olive oil is based on acidity – the lower the better. Higher acidity compromises the flavour of the oil.  Some of the best Italian extra virgin oils have an acidity of less than 0.1% but this is difficult to find outside Italy.
Now for some definitions set by the IOC, the International Olive Council:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – considered the best, least processed, taken from the first pressing of the olives, less than 1% acidity. It should have no defects and have a fresh flavour of olives. It should not be extracted with the aid of chemicals and should be produced under the temperature of 30oC.  Any higher temperature would degrade the oil.
Virgin Olive Oil – has up to 2% acidity. This will be refined before being sold or if designated not fit for consumption will be known as lampante virgin olive oil.
Refined Olive Oil – has up to 0.5% acidity.
Olive Oil – undergoes processing, such as filtering and refining, often blended with refined and virgin olive oil – up to 3.3% acidity
Olive Pomace oil also known as Olio di Sansa – chemically extracted from the remaining olive pulp after the other oils have been removed, refined and then blended with virgin olive oil. Up to 0.5% acidity.
To taste oil
Firstly know that colour doesn’t matter. Professional tasters are often given blue glasses to taste oil as the colour disguises any natural colouring of the oil. A deep green oil is no better than a golden yellow one.
Flavours vary considerably. Many much sought after extra virgin oils from Tuscany and Southern Italy have a very peppery taste and can be beautifully pungent. In contrast there are those with a mild fruity taste or a herby scent. Just like wine you can find a whole host of background flavours from grass to tomatoes, hints of lemon or even a tinge of artichoke. And like tasting a wine swirl a small amount around in a glass in the warmth of your hand.  The heat will gradually release the scent of the oil.  Smell the oil first and then take a small sip.  Swill it around your mouth tasting it in all parts of your mouth and finally swallow.  Concentrate on the flavours, is it pungent and peppery, is it fruity (like tomatoes), or bitter?  Does the flavour last after you have swallowed it and most importantly did you like it?  Don’t be surprised if the oil makes you cough, that doesn’t mean its bad and it frequently happens on our olive oil tasting sessions. If however, the oil tastes bitter and unpleasant that means it has a defect and should be discarded.
Good for your sex life and makes you live longer?
Olive oil is the healthiest oil in our opinion (rapeseed producers may not agree!) with no cholesterol and it is rich in vitamins. Apparently olive oil can act as an aphrodisiac as the Vitamin E contained in it can boost your sex drive – that would explain the Italians!. Studies in Mediterranean countries have shown that the rates of heart disease is lower than other parts of the world. Many feel that this can be explained by the high olive oil content in the diet of the region. It is certainly an excellent source of antioxidants which help deter the effects of ageing and protect against heart attacks.
Katie’s Tips for using and storing:
People always ask me at our cookery school how to choose an olive oil.  If tasting is not an option my advice is to be guided by price in reputable shops.  After that it is personal taste, if you like an expensive oil use it for drizzling over soups and pouring over salads to get the most from the flavour.  A good reasonably priced oil from a known producer will be perfect for cooking. 
We use three oils in our restaurant kitchens:-  A good quality extra-virgin olive oil that is not too piquant in flavour is used to shallow fry and roast fish, meat and vegetables.  We also use this for salads.  For deep-fat frying we use a sunflower oil as it has a higher smoke point.  Finally our best extra-virgin packed with robust fruitiness is used for drizzling over food after it is cooked, such as soup or steak.  It lends a lovely finish to a dish, a glossy appearance and an appealing aroma as the food arrives in front of the customer. 
Store your olive oil in a cool dark place and definitely away from direct sunlight as heat can cause the flavour to change, but not too cold as it will solidify.
Once a bottle of oil is opened it starts to oxidise.  To enjoy at its best use within 6 to 8 weeks.
Colour has nothing to do with flavour or quality – green olives make green oil, riper black ones make  golden oil. Professional olive oil tasters use blue glasses so that the colour doesn’t distract them.
Use the stronger flavoured oils with care, they can dominate delicate flavoured fish or meat but be perfect to drizzle over pasta
Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point so we don’t use it for deep fat frying or when very high temperatures are required.