Friday, 16 September 2011

The Virgin's Girdle, Farro & last love of Elizabeth Taylor

Many significant churches in both France and Italy are hosts to relics, items belonging to persons of religious significance. These are often bones, but in Prato's case the relic is no less than Mary's girdle. Displaying it to the community each year is a very big event, and culminates in the Archbishop displaying the girdle from a speaking platform in the duomo, above the piazza crammed with thousands of people. Banners are hung from windows all around the piazza and proceedings are beamed onto an enormous screen so no one misses out.

Before this, however, hundreds dress in medieval costume and a procession makes its way through the streets as dark falls - musicians, archers, flag flourishers, stilt walkers and trumpet blowers.

I need a stronger flash. . .

Spectacular, and the Monash terrace provided fifteen of us with a great view -we all contributed something to eat and celebrated the occasion.

I made focaccia (which I'm happy to say a number of people want the recipe for - see previous post for the recipe) and also a farro salad, which also disappeared quickly.  Farro is regarded as the 'mother of all grains', the original ancient grain from which all others issued forth, including rice, barley, wheat and rye.  It's very popular throughout Italy and is enjoying growing popularity world -wide these days; it's sold as a whole grain, and when cooked has a nutty, chewy texture that is a platform for almost any flavour you can think of - sesame oil, toasted nuts, roast or raw vegetables, fruits, lemon and of course extra virgin olive oil.

Farro is very low in gluten, a useful thing to know.  I used farro perlato, where the hull of the grain has been removed so there is no need to pre-soak (actually perlato was the only kind I could find in the supermarket here). Just cover with about 7 cm water, bring to simmer point uncovered, and simmer for 6-10 minutes or just until the texture of the grains are chewy but not raw tasting or tough. Drain immediately, refresh under cold water and drain again. I added roasted eggplant, red capsicum (raw), diced apple, toasted walnuts and almonds, red onion slices, diced feta cheese and lots of chopped flat leaf parsley. Then I tossed in a garlic, lemon, honey and rosemary dressing.  Obviously farro can  carry flavours such as curry, mustard, orange, spices, mint or coriander just as well, and heaps of different chopped vegetables and/or fruits.  It's also great thrown into soups, just as it is.

It was quite a big bowl full!
I've not met anyone who doesn't like biscotti, but here in Prato they have a special claim to fame. Not only did these famous twice-baked biscuits originate in Prato - the first documented recipe for them is centuries old and preserved in the State of Prato - but Elizabeth Taylor was especially fond of biscotti di Prato, or cantuccini as they are called here.  They come in all flavours, and are centre stage in most food shops and bakeries; the Antonio Mattei shop has been doing a great trade in making, marketing and exporting them for generations.

Traditionally, cantuccini is either dunked in vinsanto, a rather sweet wine similar to a marsala; or served with vinsanto on the side (I'm sure the Roman legions weren't too concerned with such  niceties, though, and ate them more because they keep a long time).  They're the perfect finish to a meal - not heavy or intrusive but they have loads of texture, taste and are so simple to make.

I'm getting behind on these postss, so much happens; but the next post will be about an outstanding trattoria, La Fontana, and us walking the Cinque Terre.

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