Friday, 30 September 2011

Italian Supermarket Fun: i Puffi @ Billa

A trip to the Billa grocery store in Ventimiglia these days is even more interesting than usual.

Along with cheap pasta, a huge variety of Italian cheeses and great reusable shopping bags, until the end of October there's added incentive to battle the crowds to shop there:  the i Puffi promotion.

i Puffi is Italian for the Smurfs and Billa has launched their i Puffi promotion to coincide with Italian opening of the new 3D Smurf movie. As it turns out, Italians are crazy about the Smurfs.  Who would have guessed?

Here's how the promotion works.  For every 10 that you spend in Billa, you get a packet of 5 i Puffi stickers depicting scenes from the movie.  For 3.90 (2.90 if you're a Billa fidelity card holder) you can buy a really nice hard cover album in which to stick your stickers.  
Of course I bought an album and started pasting in my i Puffi stickers last night and I had a grand time. I even learned a bit of Italian in the process.  I'll let you know when it's full.

In some of the packets, lucky shoppers will find special cards for prizes like  stuffed Smurfs or vouchers for store credit but the grand prize is what keeps me going back:  free shopping at Billa for an entire year.  I'd love to win that. 

Think of all that free pasta!



Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Classic Swedish Baking: Jelly Roll Slices with Berries and Cream

During a "let's catch up" drink this Friday, my Swedish friend surprised me with a lovely gift from a recent trip to her native Sweden:  a classic Swedish baking book entitled, Sju Sorters Kakor by Ica Bokförlag. 

After a bit of research and setting up a short cut key for an umlaut, the whole sweet picture came into focus.

Sju Sorters Kakor was first published in 1945 as the result of a baking contest held after the end of World War II and since then 3,657,000 copies have been printed.    In 2008 it was translated into English and was renamed, "Swedish Cakes and Cookies."  My Swedish friend translated it as, "Seven Kinds of Cookies" even though there are far more than that in the book.
Some of the goodies from Sju Sorters Kakor
The minute she gave it to me I flipped through it and became inspired.  I know nothing about Swedish baking so here was something new to explore and play with.  There were so many interesting recipes that I'd like to try but the first one I chose is Rulltårtsbakelese Med Bär or Jelly Roll Slices with Berries and Cream.  It's a pretty cake that could be served at a formal tea or as a luncheon or dinner dessert.

I translated and interpreted the recipe from Swedish, added some vanilla and salt to the sponge and some details to the method for clarity but the essence and final product remain the same.  I was stymied by one word however, Vispgrädde.  My Swedish friend says its a thick cream with a fat content of 40%.  Yowza!  I wish I could find Vispgrädde here in France!

The biggest difference I found between Swedish and English recipes was that Swedish measurements are in decilitres (dl) which is a liquid measure.  One dl = 100 ml.  If you have a liquid measuring cup you should use it.  I've left the "dl" measurements in the recipe so you can measure in Swedish too.

When was the last time you made something from Sweden?  Give it a try - it's delicious!

Rulltårtsbakelse Med Bär  
Jelly Roll Slices with Berries and Cream

Serves 10-12
Preheat to 250ºC/480ºF then bake at 200ºC/390ºF for 5 minutes
The original recipe in Swedish
1 - 12" x 16" (30 x 40 cm)  jelly roll pan
Wide parchment paper
Medium offset spatula
Hand held beaters, whisk or stand mixer
Piping bag with the tip or your choice

For the Sponge Roll 
3 large eggs
2dl or 200 ml or 174g granulated sugar  
2dl or 134g all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2dl or 46g milk or cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2dl/280g seedless black currant or seedless raspberry jam or 
2dl/280g strawberry jam

3dl/ 720g whipping cream
1dl/55g powdered sugar 

2 pints fresh berries such as raspberries, red currants, strawberries, blackberries or a combination
2 teaspoons powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Anna Maria's Health Food Shop

Anna Maria di Cane

When I became vegetarian at age 17, my mother thought I was just going through another teenage phase so she indulged me by clearing some space in the kitchen cupboards for my little cache of vegetarian basics.

I've always thought of that cupboard allowance as a very supportive gesture on her part considering that she probably saw all of those jars of grains, nuts and seeds as a bit strange.

Well, that seems like a lifetime ago and meat has not crossed my lips since then unless you count an unfortunate pot sticker incident at Harvey Nichols in London 10 years ago.

This may sound strange but whenever I travel I love to explore health food shops, hoping to find fun things that I've never seen before.  It's always interesting to see how vegetarian food varies by culture.

In Germany and France for example, along with an astounding array of high quality dairy products, their coolers and freezers are filled with meat-free versions of wieners, burgers and patés in any flavour you can imagine.

Curiously, the French also produce some of the most delicious and high quality soy milk products I've ever had outside of Kyoto.
Naturalia in Ventimiglia
In China and Singapore, fake meat products made of seitan seem to dominate, especially things that are shaped and flavoured like fish and seafood, with scales and all.  Dining in a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong last year, the salmon sushi that the waitress delivered to the table next us looked so real that we double checked with the hostess that the restaurant was indeed vegan.  It was.  I've always regretted not ordering some of that sushi. 

In general, I have a "give it a try" policy for fake meat products although I've drawn the line at seitan shrimp.

Closer to home, whenever I make my frequent visits to Ventimiglia, I love to pop in to Anna Maria di Cane's lovely Naturalia health food shop to buy goodies from her varied prodotti biologici or organic products.  As you can see from these photos, she carries a bit of everything and true to Italian culture, a huge array of cookies and crackers made of every grain imaginable.  She even accepts special orders and she's always gracious and patient with my limited Italian and willing to speak French when I'm struggling.

Lucky for me, her shop is directly across the street from Ventimiglia's huge produce market so after loading up on all the goodies there, her shop is the icing on the cake:  a gluten free, organic one, of course.

Prodotti Biologici
Via Roma 10/A - 18039 Ventimiglia (IM) ITALY
Tel 0184 35 19 19


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Prince Albert's Honey

A dear friend of mine and frequent house guest who knows what a foodie I am, recently surprised me with a rare little something that was manufactured right here in the Principality of Monaco.

She was one of the few lucky recipients of a jar of the first batch of honey or "Lot 001" from HSH Prince Albert's new private apiary in Monaco's Fontvielle neighbourhood and here it was, on our breakfast table.  

After profuse thanks, I grabbed a spoon, dipped it in the jar, and popped it in my mouth.  The honey was quite thick, almost resinous, with a fruity but not floral flavour, and a dominant finish of pine.  Two words would sum it up:  delicious and intriguing.

Of course the minute I finished licking my spoon I shot over to Fontvielle to see the Prince's apiary for myself.

The Prince has always been ecology-minded, introducing forward thinking green initiatives for the Principality and here was one delicious one under way right within our own borders. 

The Prince's rucher or apiary, consists of 6 ochre hives snuggled into a lovely, lush garden on the roof of  La Musée des timbres et des monnaies, or Museum of Stamps and Coins, just to the west of the Jardin Animalier or Monaco's Zoo.  It was obvious once seeing the vegetation on the roof top garden why the honey tasted the way it did:  It was dominated by umbrella pine trees.
As it turns out, urban bee keeping is taking off world wide. Case in point, amidst  the  towering skyscrapers of Hong Kong in what must be the world's most hostile environment for bees, designer Michael Leung has become Hong Kong's first urban bee keeper.  Mr Lueng founded his company, HK Honey in July 2010 and along with his network of Hong Kong bee keepers they produce enough honey to create an exclusive range of honey- based products to keep his shop stocked year round.  In true Hong Kong style, he also designs chic hives.

Hopefully the Prince's apiary will continue to be a success and he'll make enough honey to sell to others or at least bestow a jar or two upon we humble residents.

I'll be one of the first in line.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Sospel's Harvest Celebration and Discovering Donkey Milk

I left Canada earlier than usual this year which meant that I didn't have a chance to indulge in one of my favourite fall traditions:  visiting as many Ontario agricultural fairs that my tolerant husband will let me drag him to, poor man.

So last Sunday when I spotted a flyer for the Fête Agricole Sospel, and after a bit of sweet talk, we jumped in the car and off we went. 


Sospel is about 12 km inland from Menton as the crow flies but it takes about 40 minutes to drive there.  Why?  The road is like a roller coaster, all hairpin curves, up and down mountains through a beautiful forest and past little villages perched on cliffs, some of them enveloped in frothy clouds. 

Display of Local Produce
With a population of  about 3,500 it's a charming and quiet place with little cafes, shops, and the imposing but beautiful Cathedral St Michel which was completed in 1762.  

Sospel is also a handy launch point for peaceful and sometimes challenging hikes along the Roya and Bevera rivers.  We've often hiked with friends to the pretty little Italian village of Olivetta from here.

Sospel is also home to my favourite sospellois, or resident of Sospel,  Gilbert, who produces reliably fresh eggs and sells them in the Monaco outdoor market.  He is one of Sospel's many producers who take advantage of the free irrigation provided by the Bevera river.

As with all little adventures, this one led to a new discovery:  lait d'Anesse or donkey milk.  The producer, Stephane, makes lovely soaps and creams from his donkey milk which he told us is quite sweet tasting, a bit like almond or coconut and about the same composition as human breast milk. 

Apparently, female donkeys produce far more milk than their foals need so the extra sometimes goes to hospitals to be consumed by patients who are lactose intolerant and into cosmetics such as creams and soaps. 

Clearly, much more research is needed here and at the first opportunity I'll make a special trip to Stephane's farm to try some donkey milk followed by a post all about it of course.

I think the spirit of the Agricultural Fair generally remains the same world-wide:  a showcase and celebration of all the good things that were produced in the season by the dedicated people who produce them.

"Natural Care from Donkey Milk"
"Soap Made From from 30% Donkey Milk"

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Ladies of the Ventimiglia Market

I returned to the south of France yesterday after my annual summer visit to Canada and the first thing on my foggy, jet lagged mind this morning was the food market in Ventimiglia, just across the French border in Italy.  I couldn't wait to get there to see my regular vendors, scoop up their seasonal products and get caught up on the local gossip.

Driving to Ventimiglia is an adventure in itself.  The road is really narrow by North American standards and it curves this way and that, up and down, on the edge of a cliff high above the coast with puffs of  iridescent pink and red bougainvillea clinging to stone walls on one side and breathtaking views of the Mediterranean on the other. 
Two of my Favourite Ladies, Barbara and Tiziana
Add to the mix some crazy Italian drivers for whom the centre line is merely a suggestion, and the journey can be a nausea filled nightmare for some but for me it's a thrilling 20 minute chance to imagine what to buy,  what to make with it, whom to invite over to share it with and, of course, where the heck to park when I get there.

The market is very popular and always crowded especially on Fridays when the huge outdoor "dry goods" market pops up with hundreds of vendors and snakes through the town and lines the seaside road.

There are about 60 permanent vendors in the covered market.  Most of what they sell is from Italy:  bread, cheese, meat, pasta, wine, fish, fruits, vegetables and dry goods but the first thing I do when I arrive is bolt to the northeast side of the covered market. It's always my first stop.  I've nicknamed this part of the market, "Ladies' Row" since most of the vendors here are women who sell what they grow themselves and what they grow is always fresh, photo worthy and fabulous.  Eggs, cheese, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whatever else that they found in their gardens, on their trees or in the hen house is on offer.  On Saturdays, so many people come here to shop that some of the women bring their husbands, daughters and sons to help them deal with the thick, pushy crowds.  I always find this gesture romantic and charming amidst the chaos.
"Ladies' Row" on a Quiet Weekday
Barbara's Excellent Products
This early in the fall season,  not one particular fruit or vegetable dominates the market scape and a little bit of everything is available.  This morning I even saw a few porcini which have arrived a bit early due to July's cool and rainy weather.

What excited me on Ladies' Row this morning were the return of the fresh beans from Pigna, a small pretty, 13th century Italian village inland from Ventimiglia in the Ligurian hills.

Pigna beans are available here early in the fall, stay for about a month and then poof!  Like a phantom they vanish.  After that you can only find them dried, in little 200g canvas bags with brown lettering at triple the price of the fresh ones.

As with most things, the fresh ones are better than dried:  they taste buttery, sweet, and dissolve  in your mouth.  I gathered up about 2 kilos of them.  After cooking they freeze well.

I also found some tiny, sweet datterini tomatoes and fresh basil and some Mozzarella di Bufala from my favourite cheese vendor on the far side of the market

So to celebrate my first day back in Liguria and the south of France, for lunch I whipped up a simple Insalata Caprese with Fresh Pigna Beans, prepared to capture the best of the season.

Ahhh, it's good to be back.

The First of the Beans from Pigna
Tiny Datterini Tomatoes

Inslata Caprese with Fresh Pigna Beans

If you can't find fresh Pigna beans just use any fresh white bean that's available where you are or use dried ones if you can't find fresh.  Please, promise me you won't use canned beans...

Serves 4

1  3/4 cups (220g) shelled Pigna beans, about 420g in the pod
2 cups small plum, datterini, or cherry tomatoes
1 large Mozzarella di Buffala
5 teaspoons of olive oil, preferably a fruity one from Liguria
black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
fleur de sel
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
10 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces


1.  Shell the beans and boil them in salted water (2 teaspoons per 4 cups (1 litre)) until tender, about 25-30 minutes.  If you are using dried beans you should cover them in water and soak them over night.  Next day boil them until tender.  

 2.  While the beans are cooking, blanch and peel the tomatoes.  

Place the tomatoes in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. After 2 minutes, drain and cover them with cold water and a few handfuls of ice.  Let them sit for about 5 minutes and then drain them.  Using a knife, cut a small slice off the stem end and pull the skins off.  They should slip off easily.  If not, repeat the blanching process from the beginning.

Slice the peeled tomatoes in half, lengthwise if you're using plum tomatoes, and toss them in 1 teaspoon of olive oil, a pinch of fleur de sel and then add the torn basil leaves.  Set aside.

3.  Once the beans are cooked, drain them and while they are still warm, mix in about 2 teaspoons olive oil, a few grinds of coarsely ground black pepper and the minced garlic. Add salt and lemon juice to taste .  Mix well and set aside.  Once the beans have cooled completely, stir in the parsley.  Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

4.  Slice the Mozzarella di Buffala in any bite-sized shape you wish. I cut mine this way:  slice it lengthwise in half and then slice each half lengthwise into four wedges.  Cut the wedges crosswise into 6 pieces.  You should have 48 bite sized pieces.  Add the mozzarella to the tomatoes and toss to coat with the liquids in the bowl.  Adjust seasonings.

5.  Divide the salad and beans amongst the 4 plates as arrange as you wish.  Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and sprinkle each serving with a bit of fleur de sel.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Jelly Moulds off the Beaten Path

Yesterday was my last Sunday in Canada before I crossed the pond to head back to the south of France to snuggle into our seaside shack for the winter.  

So with time nipping at my heels, my fab friend Sean and I planned a last hurrah visit to one of our favourite flea markets, McHaffie's, about a 45 minute drive from Ottawa.  Little did we know that the real find for me was just a few kilometres away.

Driving back to Ottawa we spotted a small hand made "Garage Sale" sign on the side of a dirt road so of course we veered off the highway like ferrets to see what was up.

I'm glad we took the detour.  When we arrived at the sale we found the driveway sprinkled with moulds and bake ware. There were so many to choose from that the vendors encouraged us to take them all off their hands.  Very tempting, but cooler heads prevailed! 

I scooped up a modest 40 little jelly moulds for a mere 10¢ a piece.

I'll use them to make jellies and with enough butter and flour they'll be great for making pretty little cafe cakes.

You just never know what a little last minute detour may bring.