Industrial v Artisan – What’s the real difference?

Vegetables_in_oil

One of our Italian antipasto producers sent us this simple comparison that pointedly illustrates just how much they differ. This example is for vegetables in oil:

INDUSTRIAL PROCESSING

Starts with 100kg of fresh product.

To conserve the product in jars they add water, salt, vinegar and chemical preservatives together with oil from unknown origin (i.e. uncontrolled).

After processing they get around 300kg of finished product. The main ingredient is water.

You’ll find hundreds of these products sitting on supermarket shelves

ARTISAN PROCESSING 

Starts with 100kg of fresh product.

The fresh raw materials are dried naturally in the sun until they reach 5% of their original weight.  After drying and a quick hydration in hot water for a few minutes, natural flavourings are added (often origano, garlic, basil, chilli, mint) and locally produced extravirgin olive oil. Finally it is put into jars and sterilised.

After this type of processing around 10kg of finished product is obtained. That’s 30 times less than industrial. The main ingredient is the vegetable, full of flavour!

We know which we prefer: www.mediterraneandirect.co.uk

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How to Avoid Pasta Disasters!

pasta_mediterraneandirect

There are a number of common stereotypes in Italy concerning various facets of British food in general, but the one which is guaranteed to generate the greatest hilarity is the way some of us Brits cook pasta!

This is mainly fuelled by Italian language students who’ve stayed with British families and gleefully and sadistically convey stories of “pasta disasters” to horrified friends who are just about to set off.

They include cooking a mountain of pasta in a tiny saucepan; switching the heat off after the recommended time but leaving the pasta in the hot water or even bringing the pan of cooked pasta, complete with hot water, to the table for people to help themselves! The few strands of spaghetti as a side to roast beef and 2 veg always leaves them howling in laughter.

So, in an attempt to halt these frivolous tales, here are a few tips for preparing pasta just like Mamma:

First of all, remember in Italy, pasta is a starter so you wouldn’t prepare huge quantities. However there’s nothing wrong with having it as main dish.

  • Always use the biggest pan you can find.
  • Use 1 litre of water per 100g of pasta.
  • Use 10g of large sea salt per litre of water.
  • Add the salt when the water is boiling otherwise it just takes longer to boil.
  • Wait till the water is boiling vigorously before adding the pasta.
  • Stir the pasta straight away with a wooden spoon.
  • Don’t cover the pan but keep the water boiling.
  • When the pasta is al dente, strain immediately. Use the cooking time on the packet as an indication and always test yourself a minute or two before the suggested time.
  • Now, hands up. Who, at this point, would pour the sauce onto the pasta and mix in? Bring the pasta to the sauce, not the other way around.
  • A big difference between UK and Italian palates is found in the quantity of sauce used. Brits are very saucy and tend to submerge the pasta in huge mounds of the stuff. As a local Italian chef we know used to say, “if you want to eat sauce, use bread”.
  • Good Italian pasta sauces can be extended a little by adding olive oil and a little of the cooking water, but it is the pasta quality itself that really makes the difference

Take a look at these excellent pastas which guarantee outstanding results every time.

pasta_from_mediterraneandirect

Colomba Easter Cake

WHAT IS COLOMBA CAKE

Colomba cake is a wonderfully fragrant leavened cake, shaped like a dove, Colomba in Italian. It is similar to Panettone and contains candied fruit (orange and apricot), almonds and glaze icing.

For centuries, after Easter Sunday lunch, Italians have been scoffing down Colomba cake as well as chocolate Easter eggs, both symbols of love, peace and rebirth.

 

BRIEF HISTORY

You can tell something is really good when it’s been around for so long that no one really knows how it sprang to life and fantastic legends are handed down over time. The Colomba is no exception.

Legend has it that in medieval times, Barbarians led by King Alboino invaded Italy and held siege over Pavia.  After 3 years, on Easter Saturday 572(?), the city finally succumbed and a rather infuriated Alboina entered. Just as he was preparing to raise the city and kill all the inhabitants, a number of people arrived bearing gifts of submission. An old artisan baker brought some sweet bread in the form of a dove. “Sire, I give you this dove as a sign of peace for Easter Day” The King took one bite and was so impressed he swore an oath “in honour of this dove I shall respect this city and its inhabitants.”

Colomba cake is also linked however to another legend during the battle of Legnano in 1176 where the League of Lombard Councils was victorious over Federico Barbarossa. To celebrate, a Lombard baker made some sweet, dove-shaped bread as a gift to the three white birds, the highest symbol of protection which were inscribed on the Lombard insignia. Well, there you go!

Delicious Colomba from the Fiasconaro bakery, Sicily.

The first ingredients were very simple: eggs, flour and yeast. Only in the 19th century did the form as we know it today come to life, when a sweet bread similar to Panettone came onto the market. Its popularity reached the masses in the 1930s as a classic for Easter. Since then there have been many varieties of Colomba with different fillings and toppings, some working better than others!

And Where Can I Find a Good One?

The best ones we’ve ever tried (and we’ve tried a lot! 🙂 ) come from the Fiasconaro Brothers bakery in Sicily. The select ingredients include Avolan almonds, Normandy butter, fresh Sicilian Candied Oranges bathed in aromatic Marsala and Zibibbo wines and the finest Manitoba Durum Wheat flour.

They all enjoy an extraordinary fragrance, lightness and a moist texture you can only experience with cakes literally fresh from the oven… Try them out right here!

 

 

 

 

What are Preserved Truffles?

Brief Guide to delicious Preserved Truffle Products!

As is the case with most foods, you can’t beat fresh. However, fresh truffles require careful planning because they aren’t cheap and you’ll only get a window of a few days to consume them. They’re also seasonal, so you might only be able to enjoy your favourite truffle for 2 or 3 months a year.

If you prefer to take things a little easier, but still crave the truffle experience, then preserved truffles are definitely the way forward.  With shelf-lives extending up to 4 years, you can enjoy them all year round in stress-free bliss!

Preserved truffles can also be a relatively inexpensive way of savouring truffles perhaps for the first time and the sheer range of products available means they are a great way of experimenting with different dishes.

They won’t match fresh truffles, but if prepared correctly and alongside other quality ingredients they can be absolutely exquisite.

How are preserved truffles prepared?

The majority of unsold fresh truffles (yes, some actually do go unsold – usually small, irregular shaped or cut pieces) are rushed off to small workshops to be transformed into a myriad of delightful concoctions.

They may be left whole, chopped up, sliced, blended or infused. If carried out correctly, the transformation process doesn’t alter the innate corporeal flavours of the truffle.

What type of preserved truffle products are there?

Preserved truffles can be broadly divided into 3 groups:

1. Real preserved truffles

All the classic white and black Italian truffles can be found in preserved form. They normally rest in their own juice with a little salt. They can also be found in carpaccio form or ready sliced.

2. Products which deliver the magical truffle flavours to other dishes

These include truffle oils, truffle butter, truffle juice, creams and sauces. Very popular with restaurant chefs all around Italy.

3. Ready to use creations

These are classic products with truffles added during their preparation and can be consumed as they are. This range includes literally hundreds of items, e.g. honeys, bruschetta, pestos, dry pasta, pasta sauces, cheese, patés, chocolates, biscuits, cakes, salt, polenta, beer, liqueurs….

Watch out for the Truffle Scams!

Unfortunately, as with most desirable products, there are certain unscrupulous companies who try to swindle their way onto our tables. Some use chemical flavourings instead of truffles and others cheaper, far  inferior truffles from Asia labelled as Italian. Truffle oils* in particular have gained a poor reputation for their artificial flavour. Our advice is to buy from trusted suppliers/producers.

*A lot of confusion surrounds truffle oils. The ones to avoid (or at least be aware of) are oils with chemical flavourings. However even the best truffle oils often contain natural truffle flavouring. This is because the lovely truffle fragrance tends to diminish relatively quickly in oils and the flavouring is used simply to keep it fresh and vibrant for as long as possible. The taste they confer to dishes is entirely down to the real truffle infusion which remains much more stable over time.

Award Winning Truffle Pesto

We have one of the largest ranges of preserved truffles in the UK including a number of award winning products – Please come in and have a look around.

Balsamic Vinegar and Truffle Glaze

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Guide to Italian Truffles

What are Truffles?

“Truffles, the Mozart of mushrooms.”

Gioacchino Rossini, Italian Composer(1792 – 1868)

Exotic, seductive, precious and hugely desirable. The appeal of truffles is undeniable. These mysterious mushrooms are as elusive as they are captivating and their timeless allure and rarity make them the culinary equivalent of gold.

But what are they exactly?

Truffles are the fruiting bodies of a subterranean mushroom, a hypogean fungus, called mycelium. Belonging to the order of tuberales (ascomycetes), they develop a mycorhizic symbiosis with ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ….

..Truffles are actually underground mushrooms which grow on the roots of certain hardwood trees, most commonly oak, willow, poplar, chestnut and hazelnut.

But before you go rushing out and digging up the neighbour’s weeping willow, remember truffles need 3 essential conditions: the right soil, the right climate and the right tree. These elements all come together in certain areas of North and Central Italy.

How do you find them?

Truffles are located by their smell and pigs have the best “nose” for them. The problem is, when they find one they tend to wolf it down and let’s face it, taking a sounder of swine into the woods for a few hours can be a bit tricky, not to mention messy!

Dogs are now much more popular, despite the fact they have no natural ability to smell truffles! Truffle hunters used to train their dogs by hiding pieces of Gorgonzola around the place for them to dig out, nowadays some truffle oil on bread does the job nicely. The most widely used breed is the Lagotto Romagnolo, chosen for their agility, digging prowess and dedication to the job.

Once trained, the hunter and faithful pooch will head off in the early hours armed with secret notebook akin to a treasure map with frenzied scrawlings of hidden paths, number of paces, the lay of the land, the soil conditions, the weather conditions and even the lunar cycle. (Some say truffles always grow again in the same place and under the same moon and that the best day for hunting truffles is the 5th morning after the full moon! Others say that’s nonsense..).

Types of Italian Truffles

Truffles can be divided into two main categories, black and white.

The White Truffle (Tartufo Magnatum Pico)

Season: Sept – end Dec
Il Re dei Re! The King of Kings, the white truffle. The most famous and delectable of them all and by far the most expensive! Truffle prices vary on a daily basis and even have their own bourse where Italian white truffle prices can reach £6000/kg.

Use: It is served in thin slivers on many first courses (eg. pasta dishes, risotto) and main courses (white or red meat, fish, egg dishes, potatoes etc.)

Black Winter/ Precious Black/ Perigord (Tuber Melanosporum)

Season: Dec – mid March
This black truffle comes under various names including the sweet rare truffle, precious black, Norcia truffle, Truffle de Perigord and, after the white truffle, is considered the most valuable and desirable. Renowned for its complex, slightly sweet notes and earthy undertones, it’s the most aromatic of the black truffles. Prices can reach £1500/kg for fully mature, whole, round pieces.

Use: It has many uses in international cuisine. Like the white, it can be shaved directly onto just cooked dishes of pasta, rice, meat, fish, potatoes and omelettes. It can also be added at the end of cooking so the heat will bring out all its flavour.

The Summer truffle (Tuber Aestivum)

Season: March – September
This black truffle is found in relatively large quantities and is widely used in preserved form or infused into oils, butters and creams. Prices vary from £80 – £300/Kg

Use: Best when added whole during cooking (like a rather expensive stock cube!).

Autumn Black (Tuber Uncinatum)

Season: End Sept – end Jan
Another black truffle, quite similar to the summer truffle but has a more decisive, intense aroma and flavour. Fresh prices can vary between £ 200 – £ 800/Kg

Use: great with tagliatelle, frittate or shaved onto potatoes.

The Spring White or Bianchetto Truffle (Tuber Borchii Vitt.)

Season: Feb – May
Cheaper than the white truffle, it has a strong musky/garlic-like aroma, which adds its own unique depth to many dishes. Price £ 250 – £ 600/Kg

Use: Can be used during cooking or shaved directly at the table. Try it with Polenta or on Bruschetta.

More to read? – How about our Guide to Preserved Truffles Products

Looking for fresh Italian truffles? check out our service here.

Here you can find our vast range of delicious preserved truffles.

Brief Guide to Italian Flour – Which One to Choose.

Italian Flour = Confusion!

Italian Flour = Confusion!

If you’ve ever wondered why your puff pastry has the lightness of a dumpling or why your pizza base looks like it’s been through the shredder, then it might be you’re using the wrong flour!

It seems where Italian flour is concerned, confusion reigns! A quick surf around on the web will give you totally contradicting info. So here’s a basic guide to give you the idea.

The 4 main classifications of Italian flour you’re likely to come across in the UK are designated 2, 1, 0 and 00. They are classified according to fineness of grind, with type 2 the coarsest and 00 the finest. The majority of Italian bakers and pizzaioli (pizza chefs) will often use a blend of different flours to benefit from the specific characteristics peculiar to each; firmness, elasticity, lightness, strength, crispiness, fluffiness etc.

00 Flour from Altamura.

00 flour is from the central part of the grain and is pure white. It is ideal for the most delicate jobs such as pastries, brioche, desserts, soft bread and some fresh pasta. 0 flour contains a part of the husk, the outer layer of the grain and is slightly darker and coarser. It’s extra strength makes it perfect for most bread and pasta and many use it successfully in pizza base.

The more the outer layer is used, the darker and courser the flour gets. Types 1 and 2 have good firmness and strength, suited to pizza base and bread, but are more often used blended with lighter flours. If all the outer layer is ground, we get wholegrain flour which is, as the name suggests the entire grain.

 

Semola di Grano Duro

Another very common Italian flour is Semolina or Semola di grano duro. This is a coarse flour ground from durum wheat which is hard and non elastic, perfect for classic dry pasta. Semolina flour is also blended with other flours to add crispiness to bread or pizza bases.

In summary:
Use 00 flour for fresh pasta, pastries and cakes and béchamel
Use 0 flour for fresh pasta, bread and pizza base
Use types 1 and 2 also suited to bread and pizza base (often good to combine 0 and 1 or 2)
Use Semola di Grano Duro for dry pasta and special bread or add to pizza base.

Pantondo – The Amazing Recreation of a 12th Century Tuscan Spiced Bread

Ahh there’s nothing we like better than fine gourmet food with a great story behind it!

Pantondo is the result of a collaboration between a group of medieval historians from Florence University and the Belli family, expert artisan confectioners from Prato, Tuscany. The idea was to create a product which faithfully reproduced a recipe from the 12th century.

The historians had come across various manuscripts dating back to that period which described a Special Bread “peppered” or “spiced”. Similar bread was also cited in the private diaries of illustrious Tuscans such as Lorenzo De’ Medici, Michelangelo Buonarotti (Michelangelo) and Giorgio Vasari.

How did it Originate?

Spice trading was big business in 12th century Italy as merchants brought back many unusual and wonderful ingredients from the Orient. Most of these found their way into the great Benedictine Abbeys of Central Italy, where Italy’s finest chefs plied their trade surrounded by an abundance of some of the world’s best raw materials. It is in these abbeys where Pantondo most probably originated.

As was the norm at that time, Italian gastronomy was imbued with symbolic references and the individual ingredients of the Special Bread were no exception; e.g. honey, the food of the Gods par excellence is combined with the white almond, a symbol of purity.

Its popularity grew with pilgrims and travellers crossing the Appenines from Florence to Bologna and the North. It was long-lasting, tasty and nutritious and could also be made pocket-size!

Testing Times

Initially, the experiment to recreate the bread encountered a number of difficulties. As you might imagine, the recipe wasn’t written as today, with a nice list of ingredients, correct proportions and step by step instructions! The historians found references to a “sweetmeat” which seemed to form the core ingredients of the bread and had to examine numerous documents to trace them.

A long series of trials were then held at the Belli family bakery to estimate the proportions and to determine the best leaven (crucial to the success of this type of product). The Belli family’s experience of using a “live” mother leaven was a critical factor in this experiment.

After testing different quantities and combinations they finally came up with what everyone believes to be the most faithful recreation, a stunning bread-cake featuring a mix of spices, honey and white almonds. Its delightful wrapping is also based on the traditions of the time.