Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meatballs with porcini

This is another recipe from Maxine Clark’s “Flavours of Tuscany”, as always slightly altered. My kids had rejected the porcini option on my pizzas and had also avoided them in the rabbit stew, but I was determined to smuggle them in somehow and meatballs seemed the ideal vehicle.

250g each of minced pork and beef (500g in total)
a handful of dried porcini, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, and finely chopped
1 egg
4 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon of salt

250 ml of passata (sieved tomato)
1 glass of red wine
fresh basil


  1. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Remove bowl from fridge, shape the mixture into small balls, and fry in batches until browned all over.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the wine to boiling and simmer for a few minutes to remove the alcohol. Then add the passata and a little salt.
  4. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce, cover and cook over a low heat for another 10 minutes (there should be enough sauce to coat the meatballs, but not much more).
  5. Before serving, spring with a handful of finely chopped basil leaves.

War memorials
I’ve always been intrigued by war memorials in Scotland, with their long lists of the local dead in the First World War, and their somewhat shorter lists for the Second World War. In small villages in the highlands and islands, where levels of recruitment to Scottish infantry regiments were high, the numbers of dead in the First World War must have represented a huge proportion of the active male population, and it is hard to read through the names and not think of the families which were decimated as a result.

In Italy, commemorating the two world wars of the 20th century has been more difficult. The First World War, at least in Italy’s collective political consciousness, was a war which Italy lost, despite technically ending up on the winning side. The war was never particularly popular with the Italian people, and her war dead of approximately 1 million brought only minimal territorial gains along the border with the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The First World War memorials in Bagni di Lucca date from the Fascist period, who were pretty quick off the mark. This one, with the simple legend “Ponte a Serraglio. To her sons who fell for the Fatherland” was erected in 1923, only a year after Mussolini seized power.

Bagni di Lucca does not appear to have any ‘official’ memorials to Italy’s dead in the Second World War, although there must surely have been significant numbers, given Italy’s involvement in the North African, Eastern and Balkan theatres. The nearest thing is a statue of a local carabiniere who was executed by the Germans. He had offered himself up to the occupying forces when they had threatened to carry out mass reprisals for a partisan operation. However, this is celebrated as an act of individual heroism, with an emphasis on the carabiniere’s innocence of the act to which he confessed.

More controversial are plaques like the following, which commemorates the imprisonment, torture and murder of 13 local partisans by the Nazi-Fascists (a term which stresses the complicity of Italian Fascism with the crimes committed in German-occupied Italy.)

This plaque is fixed on the wall of an interesting building on Via Serraglio, and can just be seen directly above the car in the photo below. The plaque on the left commemorates a now-forgotten “English writer and animal lover” who apparently stayed in the building for a few months back in 1905.

Green beans

Before I got to Bagni di Lucca, I was looking forward to shopping in the local market every Wednesday and Saturday. As it turns out, the ‘market’ is actually just a couple of large fruit and veg stalls, a rosticceria stand, a deli stand (where I bought my porcini) and a slightly odd assortment of hardware and clothes. I got some great green beans at one of the veg stalls. In the UK, green beans are almost always prohibitively expensive and never seem to taste that great so I’ve given up buying them. These ones were absolutely perfect. I just steamed them and dressed them with plenty of olive oil, some lemon juice and some salt.

The walk to market was also good.

Coniglio alla cacciatora: rabbit with tomato and wild mushrooms

For the last four years we’ve been spending September to June in Cadiz and July and August in Edinburgh, but this year we decided to break with tradition and spend the autumn in Tuscany. We’ve rented a house in Bagni di Lucca, about 20 miles north of Lucca up the Lima valley. Before going, I had a quick browse in the local bookshop and bought a copy of “Flavours of Tuscany” by Maxine Clarke. It’s beautifully illustrated, the recipes are not too fussy, and there aren’t too many of them. I’ve only been here for a week, but I’ve already cooked half a dozen things from it, all of which have turned out well.

1 large rabbit, jointed
½ bottle of red wine
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
a handful of springs of fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon of salt
olive oil
a handful of dried porcini mushrooms
1 kg of fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons of tomato puree
100g whole black olives
fresh parsley


  1. Put the rabbit pieces in a large bowl with the wine, garlic, rosemary and salt. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours (and overnight if you have time).
  2. Put the dried porcini in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for half an hour, then remove the mushrooms, keeping the liquid for later.
  3. Remove the rabbit pieces from the marinade, keeping the marinade liquid for later, and setting aside the rabbit’s liver.
  4. In a large pot, heat plenty of olive oil, fry the rabbit pieces quickly to brown them, then add the marinade liquid, the tomatoes, the tomato puree and the porcini. If necessary, add enough of the mushroom liquid so that the rabbit pieces are just covered.
  5. Bring to the boil then simmer very gently for two hours until the rabbit is completely tender.
  6. Quickly pan-fry the liver and put on a separate plate.
  7. Serve with plenty of crusty bread.

Wild mushrooms

Fresh porcini are only just starting to appear in shops and restaurants as I write this (early October), but I bought some dried ones at the little market. I’m not sure what the going rate for porcini is in the UK, but these were just under 20 euros the kilo, which works out at about 2 euros for 100g. This might sound expensive, but if you remember that the dried mushrooms bulk up when soaked and that they have a lot of flavour, then they’re not such a luxury item. 50g or less is enough to add plenty of flavour or character to quite a large dish (25g if you’re cooking for one or two), so this works out at about 25 cents worth of porcini per person.

Safety tip
The taxi driver who brought us from Pisa to Bagni di Lucca was a keen mushroom collector and told me that you should always disturb any piles of leaves with a long stick before putting your hand into them to pick mushrooms, just in case there are any adders lurking in them.