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Our friend Keith Richmond has a thousand olive trees in the Tuscan hills, south east of Florence.

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Keith shows off tomato bruscetta at a local restaurant in Radda in Chianti.

Every November he harvests his olives and wins prizes with the rich green oil they produce.

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He recently picked up a gold medal in Los Angeles and another important prize in Germany.

We first met him at an olive oil tasting demo in Florence and were smitten with his passion for this miraculous product and his beguiling way of expressing it.

He knows his subject.

I thought I’d ask him to write a brief note about the tricky task of choosing a good olive oil.

He obliged with this:

It occurs to me that, since you mention extra virgin olive oil so often in your recipes and recently extolled the virtues of the Mediterranean diet in your blog, some of your readers may like to have some pointers on how to select an olive oil of good quality.

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The supermarket shelves are loaded with olive oils of questionable quality, many of which may be suitable, I imagine, for frying or cooking in general. Price is certainly an important first indicator: cheap oil is, well, cheap oil – and you get what you pay for!

When taste and flavour are indispensable you have to go to the top of the range. Ideally you should know the grower and how the olives are processed. Obviously that is seldom possible, so the best alternative is to head for the more expensive olive oils on the shelf. You are more likely to find an olive oil of good or even exceptional quality in that way, especially if the label indicates that the olive oil is organic (‘biologico’ in Italian, for example) and that it is (for Italian olive oils at least) IGP or DOP, a sort of appellation controllée. This means that the olive oil has passed rigorous olfactory and chemical tests and is reliable.

Pay attention to the ‘best by’ date. This should never exceed 18-24 months after the year of production. Oils can still taste good after that date but will have gradually lost most of the characteristics beneficial to health. Also, you have no idea how the olive oil has been stored, so keep your distance from ‘old’ olive oils.

Your readers in North America would do well to consult a web site and blog run by Tom Mueller (www.truthinoliveoil.com). He gives a lot of sensible advice on a variety of oils that are available in the US especially.

I’ll be happy to answer any queries. Keep cookin’, best, Keith

This is meant as an introduction to his excellent site–which is worth a visit.

http://www.boggioli.com/

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Keith and Helen Richmond also offer excellent holiday accommodation on the farm.

http://www.boggioli.com/the-farm/hospitality/

 

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Consulting the oracle…

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Olive picking resumed yesterday, Wednesday, after rain stopped play for two days–(sounds like the English cricket season!)

We arrived here Sunday night after driving down the Ligurian coast in a storm.

A brief and beautiful pause in Santa Margherita Liguria, Sunday morning–

soon proved one of Mother Nature’s teases as the rain began in earnest again on the road to Florence.

Footage of flood devastation on the Tuscan coast reminded us of America’s East Coast troubles–still terrible for many.

Our friend, Keith, didn’t apologize for the uncharacteristic Tuscan gloom.

You brought the rain and wind with you–from home!

It’s true, it tagged onto our coattails in Provence and followed us all the way.

But today all that is forgotten as autumn returns to its golden glory.

Keith’s team of five work their tough eight hour day on the steep terraces–the clickity-clacking of the picking poles playing constantly in their ears as the pretty little olives, green and all shades of purple, rain down from the trees and onto the nets.

A tree yields a litre of oil, roughly–Keith says.

He has a thousand trees. It takes a couple of weeks to harvest his crop, depending on the weather.

Then our job begins.

Gently lifting up the nets after the trees have yielded up their treasures, we help guide the olives into piles.

We pull out any twigs and small branches that have fallen and gather the olives into the plastic paniers, ready to go to the frantoio to be processed  in the morning.

Alba–a willing helper.

They had four good days last week though the rain has lowered the percentage of oil in the olives, plumping them up with water.

It doesn’t affect the overall quality of the oil–just the yield.

The liquid gold seems even better than last year.

My hands I notice smell of sea water–that slightly salty tang.

Must ask the master about this.

Exhausted olive worker, is now retiring to the shower!

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Something to do on a slow day.

Today for example!

Up ’til late watching the Olympic closing ceremony last night–lazy morning catching up on life with house guests–sunny but mild outside–prospect of more talk and lunch under the fig tree–slices of fritatta with a green salad and a plate of brilliant red tomatoes, sliced, with olive oil and torn up basil leaves, setting us all up nicely for an afternoon siesta.

Patience is the extra ingredient that makes the difference between dry and moist frittatas.

In this case patience to melt the sliced onion slowly and not to rush the cooking of the omelette.

A simple classic frittata from one of my favorite old cookbooks: Marcella Hazan’s 2nd Classic Italian Cookbook.

6 tblsps olive oil

450gms/1lb red onions–sliced thin

5 eggs

50gms/2oz parmesan–freshly grated is best

salt and pepper

  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the onion.
  • Sauté over a low heat until the onion starts to caramelise and that pleasing scent wafts over the kitchen.

  • Turn off the heat and prop up the pan at an angle to allow some of the oil to drain off.

  • Choose a 10″/26 cm pan that goes under a grill to make the omelette.
  • Spoon out the drained oil (probably about 2 spoonfuls) into the pan.
  • Whisk the eggs together in a bowl.
  • Add the cooled down onion and parmesan to the egg mix.

  • Mix and season well.

  • Heat the saved oil in the pan–(2 tablespoons is what you need to cook the omelette, so add a little extra if there’s not enough of the saved.)
  • Add the eggs and spread the mix out evenly in the pan.
  • Turn the heat to the lowest (use a heat diffuser or two if you need to) and cook for about half-an-hour.
  • Heat the oven grill to hot.
  • When there is just a pool of loose egg mix left on top, place the pan under the grill for about a minute.
  • The top should be lightly colored.
  • Ease a spatula under and round the omelette and slide it on to a serving plate.
  • Slice as needed.

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Spatchcocked chicken, roasted onion and sweet potato and a new courgette/zucchini dish

Joy!

We sat on the terrace last night and ate this simple meal, while Beau played tag with the cows…

and the harvesters were hard at it in the field beyond the road.

Just the three of us–our friend Romaine came back with us from London.

The chicken she and Meredith bought would serve six and there were more onions and an extra sweet potato in the basket for unexpected guests.

The kilo of courgettes–slow cooked and melting–would easily stretch to six.

Happy to be home–we tucked in.

The courgettes/zucchini recipe is from Skye Gyngell’s version in her book  How I Cook.

It is cooked slow and is mushily delicious with a little kick from the chili.

 Slow cooked courgettes/zucchini with garlic and mint.

for 4 

1 lb courgettes/zucchini--sliced thin

2 garlic cloves–sliced thin

1 small dried red chili–chopped

a handful of mint (if you have it)-chopped

salt and pepper

1 tblsp olive oil

  • In a medium pan,  gently soften the garlic and chili in the oil.

  • Add the sliced courgettes/zucchini and turn them over in the oil to coat them thoroughly.
  • Season generously with salt and pepper.
  • Turn again to distribute the seasoning.
  • Cover the pan and cook for forty minutes on a very low heat.
  • Uncover and fold in the mint, if you have it–which we have, but I forgot it!

I made it again today with a pound (500 grams) of the courgettes and we enjoyed it tepid as a salad.

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“I’m putting away my winter wardrobe,” Meredith says this sunny morning.

About time–it’s the first of June!

Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be outmy Mother liked  to quote.

(I’ve read that the MAY in question refers to the blossom of the May Tree which would keep the month of May still merry!)

In France–further south–they say:

En Avril, ne te découvre pas d’un filmais en Mai,  fais comme il te plaît!

[April's not to be trusted so don't  take off a thread ; in May though, do as you please!]

Anyway it was a relief to see the stalls of the organic market in Castres featuring spring vegetables yesterday–at last.  The very cold spell in March followed by a very wet spell has skewed the timing and made life difficult for local producers.

I need a starter for the guests tonight and the small pile of silky green beans I bought will make a perfect prologue to the tangy chicken tagine to follow.

In summer some ripe cherry tomatoes briefly sautéed in garlic and olive oil then squidged in among the beans makes a colorful and tasty first course– but it’s too early for them. The anchovy sauce alternative is a risk as some people cannot abide anchovies!

So I looked for another idea in The River Café’s Pocket Vegetable Book and found a mustard  sauce.

We had a trial for lunch–and both agreed it was a shame to mask the taste of the first green beans of the season with anything but salt and a splash of good olive oil!

Here’s the sauce, though– just in case…

for four

1 lb fresh green beans

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

juice of a lemon

1 tablespoon parsley–chopped

4 fl oz/125 ml olive oil

Salt and pepper

  • Make the sauce by whisking the mustard in the lemon juice and vinegar and seasoning with salt and pepper.
  •  Add the olive oil in the manner of making mayonnaise–slowly whisking it into the mix.
  • Cook the beans in boiling well salted water until they are just tender.
  • Put them in a serving bowl and fold in the sauce.
  • Sprinkle over the parsley.

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Two friends came round for supper last night and I tried out a spicy chicken dish.

It didn’t pass muster with Meredith and our friends were polite but didn’t exactly rave!

I shall try again with it because it’s simple and quick–which of course could be the reason it was disappointing!

I served a yogurt sauce with it, which is I think is useful and tasty.

I noticed Meredith tucking into it this lunchtime with the fennel salad..!

Yogurt sauce for 4

3 x 125ml pots of no-fat organic yogurt

1 teaspoon cumin powder

garlic clove–pulped in half a teaspoon of salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 a teaspoon salt

  • Whisk the yogurt smooth–(if you want to make it a bit thicker let it drain through a sieve into a bowl for half an hour or so).
  • Pulp the garlic in the salt in a pestle and mortar.
  • Add the cumin and mix it in thoroughly.
  • Fold in the olive oil.
  • Add this mix to the yogurt and whisk well in.
  • Refrigerate until you are ready to eat.

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My first posting on this blog was a year ago today–7th of February 2011!

Poaching Eggs–was a homage to one of my food heroines, the formidable Elizabeth David.

I can’t remember exactly the weather that day but it may not have been so different to today’s–which is nose-endangeringly cold.

So a long nod of thanks to everyone that has visited and those that continue to visit and thanks too for  the comments–they are all read and much appreciated.

AND special thanks to my in-house photographer and editor with whom discussion is always lively and from whom I learn a lot!

Here’s a salad to celebrate.

Seasonally crunchy (not much choice from the locals this morning)–with a juicy orange and some sunflower seeds, to put one in mind of seasons to come.

It got the nod at lunch today from Meredith–(though not the mackerel fillet that it accompanied–next time I’ll use less smoked sweet paprika!).

For 2

1 large fennel bulb–outer leaves removed, stood upright and halved through the middle, each cut half laid flat and halved again, then sliced very thinly

celery stalk–sliced thinly

half a small sweet red onion–sliced thinly

1 tablespoon of sunflower seeds–dry roasted in a frying pan on the stove top

1 tablespoon of parsley–chopped

a few shavings of parmesan

1 juicy orange–carefully peeled (lifting off the white pith), halved and sliced thinly

salt for sprinkling

1 tablespoon best quality olive oil for dressing

  • Mix the first seven ingredients together with care in a favorite bowl.
  • Sprinkle with salt and the oil–add more oil if you like.
  • Lightly turn everything over.
  • Check the seasoning and serve.

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Another bean soup–can’t have too many in my opinion!

Interior insulation for the post prandial walk on a chilly winter day.

This satisfying soup is based on one in Elizabeth Romer’s lovely book, The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Family.

Her account of the Cerroti family’s daily existence is a good read and full of authentic seasonal recipes.

Serves 4

4 tbsp olive oil

2 onions – chopped small

2 sticks of celery – chopped small

3 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

100 g/4 oz smoked bacon/pancetta – use unsmoked if you prefer – chopped small

4 tbsp parsley – chopped

1 x 450 g/16 oz can tomatoes – drained and chopped

350 g/12 oz tinned/jarred white beans – drained, rinsed and puréed–use the best quality beans you can find–it makes a difference

570 ml/1 pint/ vegetable stock – more if you like (I use organic veg. stock cubes)

150 g/6 oz “short” wholewheat pasta – (i.e. penne or farfalle, not spaghetti)

salt and pepper

freshly-grated parmesan

  • Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan.
  • Add the onions, celery, garlic, bacon and parsley, and turn them in the oil.
  • Cook them over a gentle heat until the vegetables are tender and the bacon is colouring up – this is the “taste engine” of the soup and needs some time – at least 20 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes and mix them in and allow to meld for a good 10 minutes.
  • Add the beans and mix in.
  • Cook gently for 10 minutes.
  • These stages are important for a good depth of flavour and shouldn’t be rushed.
  • The soup should look beautiful now – with a warm glow.
  • Add half the stock and let it meld in.
  • Add the pasta and the rest of the stock and cook the pasta in the soup.
  • It may take a little longer than pasta normally does (I put a lid on at this point to help).
  • Be careful that this thick and unctuous soup does not stick and burn.
  • If you prefer it looser, add more stock and cook on a little to incorporate it.
  • Check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste –remembering that the bacon and stock can be salty.
  • Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and swirls of olive oil.

(This nourishing soup is included in my cookbook–Delicious Dishes for Diabetics–a Mediterranean Way of Eating.)

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I’ve decided on single word resolutions for 2012–which beckons.

My first is SIMPLIFY!

Something simple–for New Year’s Eve perhaps…?

I’m spatchcock-crazy at the moment.

To spatchcock or spattlecock or butterfly is to remove the back and breastbones of a chicken (simply and effectively demonstrated in this video) or any other bird (I just watched someone spatchcock a turkey!) in order to open it up and flattened it out–as you might do a book. This allows the bird to cook more quickly and evenly.

Spatchcocking is an easy and oddly satisfying technique. All you need is a pair of poultry shears or strong scissors and the nerve to try it!  (Or your friendly butcher might do it for you….)

Earlier this week I had two spatchcocked birds in the fridge–a chicken and a guinea fowl–and two recipes I wanted to try.

I took  the guinea fowl out to make this dish–inspired by a recipe in The River Café Classic Italian Cookbook .

We ate it thinking “How good this spatchcocked guinea fowl tastes!“.

The next day I went to the fridge to get the chicken, to marinade it overnight for the other recipe–and found the guinea fowl!

We’d eaten the chicken thinking it was guinea fowl!

I put it down to Christmas fever.

Ideal for serving four people–the bird (whichever comes to hand!) divides easily into quarters thus dispensing with the need to carve.

You could use chicken or guinea fowl quarters instead.

1 chicken--spatchcocked

2 lemons–halved

3 tblsps olive oil

6 bay leaves

salt and pepper

set oven to 200C

While the oven is heating–

  • Squeeze the juice from two lemon halves into a pan, halve them and leave the quartered lemon in the pan with the bay leaves.
  • Rub the skin of the chicken with the two remaining lemon halves.
  • Lower the spatchcocked chicken over the lemon halves and the bay.
  • Season well and spoon the oil over the chicken.
  • Add the other two lemon halves to the pan.
  • Cook–covered–on a low flame for 30 minutes.
  • Uncover, spoon over some of the juice and place in the upper part of the pre-heated oven.
  • Cook on for 40 minutes–checking and basting a couple of times.

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Lamb chops, borlotti beans and broccoli.

We eat relatively little red meat.

Meredith bought these lamb chops on Tuesday from Monsieur Fraisse, the butcher in Lautrec. “They looked particularly nice….

The beans are from Italy, bought in jars. They grow in beautiful red spotted pods–the beans turn brown when cooked.

The broccoli I bought from the organic market in Castres, yesterday afternoon.

For 2

4 lean lamb chops

3/4 sprigs of rosemary–needles removed

2 garlic cloves

3 tablespoons olive oil–a little more if you need it

salt

—————-

1 tin/jar of beans–drained but the liquid retained (of course these can be white or borlotti)

sprig of sage

a clove of garlic–chopped

1/2 an organic vegetable stock cube

the other 1/2 an organic vegetable stock cube dissolved in 250 ml/1/2 pint of hot water–(use this instead of or in addition to the liquid from the beans)

———–

1/2 lb/ 250 gms  broccoli–washed, stems shortened and cut into eatable florets

salt and pepper

olive oil

  • An hour or two before you eat  “pestle” the rosemary needles up  (i.e. smash up!) with the garlic and a pinch of salt in a mortar and add the oil–this is the marinade for the chops.
  • Pour this fragrant mix over the chops in a bowl and turn everything to coat the chops with the marinade.
  • leave initially in the fridge–covered; then take them out an hour before cooking them.
  • Heat a grill to medium.
  • Season the chops and put them on the grill.
  • Timing depends on your taste and their thickness–3 to 4 minutes a side and they’ll retain some pinkness.
  • While they cook gently sauté the garlic and sage in the olive oil in a small pan until the garlic begins to colour.
  • Add the half stock cube (give it a stir to dissolve in the oil).
  • Add the beans.
  • Stir the mix and add a little of the bean liquid or the stock.
  • Cover and cook on for 5 minutes or so.
  •  In another pan, steam the broccoli covered until tender but not overcooked.
  • Serve with olive oil and salt on the table.

Interested customers watching M. Fraisse working on lamb chops

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