Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Italian Cookery Course - Day Four, Tuesday 13th May

We had swapped the morning and afternoon activities around today, as there were thunderstorms threatened for the latter part of the day. Hence we had a 10.00am start for a tour of Portico di Romagna – after breakfast of course!
Ulla, the Danish wife of Mateo, who also runs the Language School, was our guide for the morning. She had a very in depth knowledge of the village, and her English was also excellent. A Dane, lecturing about an Italian village in English – hmm. One of the first things we learned was how the family came to be here. It is Marissa's home village – her parents still live here. She met her husband Gianni when she went to study in Florence and stayed with her Aunt who owned a restaurant. Gianni was working in the kitchen – she gave up her studies to marry, and when they had a family moved back here to the country. They originally leased some rooms in the convent, which is next door to the hotel, and had a restaurant only. They eventually bought the bulding next door, converted it to a hotel, and kept the name the same as they had it in the convent – Al Vecchio Convento. The rooms in the basement which are used as the breakfast room and leading to the garden did belong to the convent, so it is a bit of poetic licence to say that the hotel is a converted convent.
We walked through the little alleyways down to the pointed bridge, and heard all about how the village used to close off the entrances to the alleyways for fortification. There are four watch towers that could signal to the tower in the village that was near to the bell tower, so an early warning signal could be sounded to close off the village to invaders. The Americans bombed here in the war, and some damage was done. The Germans retreated to around this area, but got no further. We then went into one of the houses in the little alleyways – four storeys high, but very long and narrow. It belonged to an old couple with an extremely ugly dog called Heidi – the dog was at home but the old couple weren't. Everyone keeps their keys under the mat, so we went in anyway! Very dark, and full of old people's tut, but a lovely balcony overlooking the river.
We then went up to the middle part of the village where the hotel is, and then up again to the upper part of the village. We were then on the same level as the bell – felt like putting some cotton wool around it. Apparently, the dinging of the bell at three minutes past the hour was a “snooze effect”. It was meant for the men out in the fields, if they didn't catch how many dings there was the first time around, they knew they could count them again in three minutes time. Surely they have all got mobile phones and watches now, so that practice could be made redundant!!
We then got in the minibus to go to the local volcano. Having just seen the film “Pompeii”, this was not quite the same. We went six kilometres up the hills at the back of the village, one hundred yards down a small footpath, and came to what looked like a pile of bricks with fire coming out of the top. It was a fracture in the rock where methane gas escapes, and was permanently alight. The clouds had gathered overhead, and it was a bit windy up there, so the fire was rather welcome. But couldn't really call it a volcano. Not in anyone's language. We had the option of walking back down the hill – Paul & I were the only two takers. The clouds didn't look that angry yet – and it was all downhill. It was actually an extremely pleasant walk, and in parts the sun came back out. There was a bench part of the way down with a bunch of sticks with a note attached. Jenny had got out of the minibus and left it for us – and another bunch of flowers a bit further down. We had apparently missed all the arrows she had made with twigs to make sure we didn't get lost though. As there was only one road down, we managed without!

We made it back to the village in an hour and a quarter – and it was really what we needed to try and balance out all of the food we are eating. As soon as we got back lunch was served – and then the thunder started to rumble in the distance. Whilst we were in the kitchen for our next lesson the rain came down in abundance.

Today, we made Tuscan Liver Crostini – but without the crostini. We had Mateo and Maximillian today – I think he thought after yesterday he probably couldn't handle us lot on his own! Mateo made brioche instead – the brioche looked nice, but the liver and chicken mixture in the pan looked absolutely disgusting. It didn't smell too great either – and boiled in the pan most of the afternoon. Back to that later. A lady came in with a huge Foot Locker bag full of peas. We had to shell all of them – well, the ones that went in the bowl went in the bowl and the rest we ate. They were so sweet and tender. We then made potato gnocchi. We had to peel a great big box of potatoes, that went into a huge saucepan to cook. Fifteen minutes – we decided that whenever we asked Maxillian how long things took to cook, the answer was fifteen minutes. It wasn't usually – I think this was just his stock answer. About thirty minutes later they were done, and then had to be put through a potato ricer. Eggs were cracked in a hole in the middle – that actually looked more like a volcano crater than the volcano did this morning – and parmesan cheese was added. It seems that parmesan is added to almost everything. This was then mixed in with a little flour, and then cut and shaped into “human” size pieces. Think that word may have got a little mixed in translation. Small bits. Then your thumb had to make a hole whilst sliding the other side down an implement or a fork to give it ripples. Can't see me doing this at home!
The meat part was Lamb Villeroy. Small three month old lambs were slaughtered for this meat – having only ever fed on their mothers milk. Good tasting meat apparently – although each chop looked as if it would give you one mouthful. Gianni then came and joined in the fun. He doesn't speak a word of English, so he just got on with making a roux for the top of the lamb. The chops had been seared in a hot pan, cooled, then this roux (which also had a load of cheese in) was spooned on to the top. This was cooled again, and then dipped in egg and breadcrumbs ready for deep frying later. With three chefs in charge in the kitchen now, things were not going as smoothly as they did yesterday.
Mateo then made biscuits that had to be cooked three times. In actual fact, when they came out of the oven the first time, they had to be cut, and nowhere near as much went back in the oven as came out. It was rather delicious. They were far better being cooked only once! Giovanni then blitzed the liver mixture, and it really did look like something the cat had brought up. Not sure I am going to like that. It was 7.30pm! Where does the time go?
Quick shower and time for dinner. First course was the liver stuff on the brioche. First time there were not clean plates all round. Don't think that one was a hit. We then had the potato gnocchi with a gorgonzola cheese sauce – not too bad. The lamb chops were lovely – but there was one bite of meat to each chop as I had suspected. The coating was delicious though. Then came the biscuits – with a sweet wine in which they were supposed to be dipped. I think most people agreed – they shouldn't have gone back in the oven the second time. Time for bed – this cooking lark is exhausting!

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