It’s TT’s birthday. Or, at least it was earlier in the week when she turned 3. We’re holding her party at the weekend instead, so all the people we’ve invited can come into the verdant vineyard covered hills east of Turin, known as the Monferrato, for part of the day.
I’m running around, trying to get everything ready for the guests due to come in less than half an hour. Our choice of venue – TP’s family’s newly-renovated nineteenth century cascina or farmhouse – is still not ready, at least from my home cook’s point of view. I mutter under my breath to my parents and aunt and uncle visiting from Australia about a litany of items that are lacking or unsatisfactory. The plastic spoons that are impossibly large to stir in the coffee cups we’ve brought along for the day. The bread knife we’ll have to use to cut the birthday cake. The cake server I forgot to bring from our flat Turin. The table we still haven’t bought for the kitchen. The resulting lack of workspace. The play tent and tunnel for the children that’s still lying on the kitchen floor, nylon, poles, and mesh-panels thrown down in frustration after trying to make sense of the instruction manual. TT who has suddenly decided to become clingy when I need to organise plates, cups and napkins on the tables in the adjoining salotto, the former stable for the cattle TP’s ancestors raised.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been too frantic. My mum and aunt were quick to find solutions to the problems I’d been ungratefully complaining about, and simultaneously, keep TT entertained. TP, my Dad and uncle took one look at that instruction manual that had infuriated me and managed to assemble the tent and tunnel just before 10.30, the time we had indicated for our guests to arrive. Only the Anglophone families with kids arrived then anyway. In true Italian style, the rest of our guests all came when it suited them, around and in some cases, well after 11am.
As for the perceived missing pieces of the puzzle, they were gradually found when we returned each weekend thereafter. Every Saturday morning, I’d bring a little something along, from saucepans to ladles, to make food prep and cooking easier. I also began stocking the kitchen cupboards with salt, sugar, oils, pasta, flour and other items I deemed essential. New furniture, including beds and a mahogany-coloured kitchen table I’d spotted at a furniture shop near our home in Turin, were delivered, fulfilling my wish for extra workspace. Rummaging through the adjoining sheds and cellars, we rediscovered old bits and pieces which just required a good dusting, sanding down or hammering to be used again. ‘I could turn these into hooks for the pans you want to hang!’ my Dad exclaimed excitedly, while inspecting the antique, wrought-headed nails in his hands.
We took time to add those decorative touches that make a place feel more like home too. I picked large bunches of the meadow sage growing to great heights around the property, tied them together with some string and hung them upside to dry from the old hooks on the brick, barrel-vaulted ceiling in the salotto, a legacy from that room’s stable days. TP hung the sepia-coloured portraits of his nonni and bisnonni above the stone staircase overlooking the kitchen. I took pleasure in their presence as I pottered around the cucina, imagining what they would have made in that very room over a century ago. The icon of San Domenico Savio, namesake of the village, Mondonio-San Domenico Savio, also went up in a similar position to where it had always hung, pre-renovations.
During those precious late spring and summer weekends away from the unrelenting heat of the city, we also harvested the fruits and vegetables that grew around the property. Sweet and sour cherries that came and went all too quickly, to TT’s disappointment, in late May and early June. ‘Cherries?’ she would ask longingly, pointing to one of the trees, as our car pulled into the driveway at the cascina‘s entrance, well after there were none left to pick. Luckily, she seemed to accept my explanations about food and their seasons. Then there were the green walnuts I picked to make the 19th century Savoy court cook Giovanni Vialardi‘s walnut liqueur in the lead up to Midsummer or Saint John’s Eve. After, our ox-hearted tomatoes grew so gnarly and cumbersome that we often found ourselves picking them off the ground, covered in dirt, after falling off their stake-held vines. Finally, our plums ripened; tiny violet beauties known in Piedmontese as Ramassin in July, followed by plumper, yellow-fleshed Santa Clara in August. Their numbers more than made up for the relative lack of that other member of the Prunus genus earlier on. TT sought and ate them with the same gusto as she did those precious few graffioni and griotte that signalled the beginning of summer.
And, of course, we cooked and, in some cases, preserved what we harvested around the farmhouse we’re slowly bringing back to life. Cherry clafoutis made the purists’s way – with unpitted cherries. Jars of passata or tomato puree for our cooking needs in the colder months. Oven-dried tomatoes when I tired of making the latter. My two favourites though were made with the Ramassin and Santa Clara plums TP went to great heights to pick from the tops of our trees. If you’d like to know about some of the other things I made this summer, at the farmhouse and in Turin, do sign up for my new quarterly newsletter devoted to seasonal eating. In the meantime, I leave you with a simple tart and a jam to spread on some buttery pan brioche for breakfast or afternoon tea.
Crostata di prugne (Plum Tart)
Instead of making a jam-filled tart, one hot July day I came up with the idea of halving, pitting and coating our Ramassin in a spoonful of sugar and white wine and then enveloping them in Pellegrino Artusi’s pasta frolla or shortcrust pastry. The tart also works wonderfully with larger varieties of plums and quartered fresh peaches, like Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen recently made.
- For the short-crust pastry
- 250 g flour, sifted
- 125 g butter, chilled and cubed
- 110 g caster sugar
- zest of 1 organic lemon, freshly grated
- 1 whole egg, plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten (you may wish to use the remaining egg white to brush on top of the lattice for a shinier finish)
For the filling
- 500 g ripe Ramassin plums, halved and pitted
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp white wine
Place flour, sugar and chopped butter in a large bowl. Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour and sugar until you have a mixture of fine crumbs and the butter is no longer visible. Add the grated lemon zest. Dust your hands and mix in the beaten egg until you have a smooth and elastic ball of pastry. Cover dough with cling film and leave dough to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.
Prepare filling by mixing the pitted and halved Ramassin plums with the sugar and white wine in a large bowl.
Remove dough from fridge. On a clean, flour-dusted work surface, roll out about two thirds of the ball to cover a greased and dusted baking dish (I used a dish with a 26 cm diameter and a depth of 3cm). The dough should be about 3mm thick. Use a pastry wheel or knife to remove any overhanging dough. Fill the crostata with the marinated plums. Roll out the remaining dough and, with a pastry wheel or knife, cut long strips with a width of 1.5cm. Place strips in a criss-crossed fashion on top to create the lattice. Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 30-35 minutes or until the crostata is golden brown and its crust has begun to pull away from the edges of the baking dish.
Confettura di prugne (Plum Jam)
As Italo-American food writer Domenica Marchetti says in the introduction to her lovely book, Preserving Italy: ‘The art and craft of preserving is an ancient one, born of necessity and essential to all the world’s cuisines’. Whenever harvesting is on the agenda, I make a beeline for this title, which includes a variety of recipes for all sorts of preserves. Not only are there jams and jellies, but also preserved meats, pickled vegetables and even infused liqueurs like the above-mentioned one made with green walnuts. The recipe below is my own, but I owe much of the safety information I’ve indicated for sterilising jars and water-bath canning to her book and other sources she has indicated.
Ingredients (makes about 8-10 Bormioli Quattro Stagioni jars with a 150mL capacity)
- 2 kg freshly harvested plums, a mix of ripe and barely ripe, about 2kg
- Sugar (amount depends on the amount of pureed plums you have after putting them through the food mill, see method below)
- juice and zest of 1 organic lemon
Wash and dry plums, ensuring that you discard any specimens that are bruised and less than prime condition. Halve, pit and place in a large stainless saucepan, Add a half a ladleful of water to the pan, cover and allow to simmer until the plums begin to release liquid and soften. Pass the plums through a food-mill set above a mixing bowl in batches until obtaining a smooth puree. Weigh the puree and do the following maths: the amount of sugar should be at least sixty percent of that of the fruit (e.g. if you have 1700 g of puree, you’ll need 1020 g of sugar because 60/100 x 1700 = 1020). Transfer puree back into saucepan. Stir in sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest and leave to macerate for 1 to 2 hours.
Cook on low-medium heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Raise heat slightly. The mixture will start to boil. Let it cook, at a lively simmer, stirring often until thickened and a darker hue. Once you’re able to drag a path through the bottom of your saucepan, use the freezer plate method to test if the jam is at setting point.
Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterilised jars (I use this sterilisation method). You may want to line these with a funnel to make this task easier. Wipe jar rims clean with a clean, damp cloth if necessary, and screw lids onto jars.
Place jars on the bottom surface of a tall stockpot. To keep in place and prevent breakages, wrap tea-towels around the jars. Fill stockpot with hot water, ensuring that the jars are covered by 5-6 cm of water. Cover and bring to boil, leaving the jars to process for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and leave jars to cool in the water. When cool enough to handle, remove jars from pot and set on a a clean tea-towel to cool for 12-24 hours. During this time, you’ll start hearing that satisfying ping sound, indicating that the jars are sealing. Press your finger at the lid’s centre to test your jar’s seal. If it is concave and does not flex back up, it has sealed. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Any unsealed jars should be stored in the fridge and consumed within two weeks.