Polpette di Tonno – Tuna Fish-balls

I wrote this post on 18 September 2011 – Golly ! that is eight years ago.  And my feelings for September continue to be roughly the same.  Not my favourite month.  End of Summer.  Sigh.  The recipe, too, continues to be the same.  Reassuring.  Easy to make, and that’s a good thing.  And good for parties.

Sabaudia

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An Indian summer … although we’re half way through September … it’s so easy to enjoy the heat but too late to pretend not to notice that the days are getting shorter … and busier … and that any day now it will get brrrr-cross-your-arms-and-slap-your-shoulders-nippy and we’ll start having to wear sweaters and what have you and don slippers indoors instead of traipsing about bare foot.  It is as if a whisper of seasonal melancholy were subtly knocking at my front door. For someone who loves summer as much as I do, September is a very challenging month and can see me veering towards a moany-groany, want-to-run-away frame of mind.

This year I decided I would be grown up about it and do my best to stretch the summer’s feel of freedom as much as I could.  I tried to organise myself so that I could work in ‘chunks’ … and thus it was that a few days ago, I was able to scamper off to the beach at Sabaudia for most of the day.  It took us one and a half hours to get there but, as always, it was worth it. There were very few people about, now that people are back at work and children back at school.  The breeze was caressing as only a zephyr can be, the sea was still warm enough for me to swim in (I am such a wimp about cold water!) and it was all I could do to tear myself away and head for home as the sun began to set.  Aaaah.  Sigh …. isn’t the sun setting over the sea one of the most compelling sights to behold?

Ultra-organised, smug lady had prepared some vegetables the day before (a potato and celery purée and roasted bell peppers), had bought gorgeous fruit on the way to the beach, knew that wine was cooling in the fridge, so it was only a question of buying some chicken or meat on the way home and dinner was going to be a snap.  But, repeat, I had a very hard time of wrenching my body and soul from the siren call of the sea with the result that all the shops were naturally closed by the time we finally did drive past them.

I didn’t feel quite so smug then, as I took on the slim prospect for our main course that evening, knowing that just like Mother Hubbard, I was going to find the cupboard woefully ‘bare’ when I got there —  the ‘cupboard’, these days, naturally being the fridge and the freezer.  But thank goodness for Nursery Rhymes because I realised that there was indeed one food in my cubbyhole cupboard that was going to save the day: tuna fish packed in oil! Polpette di tonno … i.e. meatballs made out of tuna fish (technically the tuna doesn’t qualify them as ‘meat’-balls … but what else can one call them in English? croquettes? ugh).  How about … fish-balls?

The ingrdients: salted capers (which need to be rinsed and drained a few times to be rid of the excess saltiness), lemon zest (the zest you see came out of the freezer), parsley, two tins of tunny fish packed in oil (and please note that it wasn’t the top quality kind but still, a good kind), and last, and in the case of any kind of polpette, never least … the moistened bread (again, as I wrote in the other post on meatballs, ‘plastic’ white bread serves very well). You will also need an egg to bind the polpette mixture, bread crumbs to coat them and, optional, some grated parmesan cheese.

The tuna is drained of its oil and gets plopped into the blender …

Add the other ingredients.  Ordinarily, I would have chopped up the lemon zest before adding it for a ‘finer’ and more understated taste.  But that evening I was in too much of a hurry … and too hungry!

Freshly milled white pepper …  (Don’t ask what the coffee is doing in the photo … I expect it was lurking about near the stove when we got home and nobody bothered to put it back where it belongs).

Process the mix being careful not to ‘overwork’ it … it must not go all liquid-y.   Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and …

Add the grated parmesan cheese if you think you are going to like it.  We do and we did.

I put in about 4 heaped soup spoons.

One egg.  Mix everything up very well and if the consistency is not thick enough, add some bread crumbs to ‘toughen’ it up.

Shaping the polpette di tonno …

Coating them in bread crumbs …

All those polpette from just two tins of tunny fish!

Fry the polpette in plenty of oil and in small batches.  Remove with a slotted spoon and let them rest on some kitchen paper before serving.

I served the polpette over a purée of celery and potatoes (which I had made the day before), together with the peperoni al forno (which I had also made the day before):

Please note the size of the garlic … it is cut very ‘big’.  The garlic imparts an inimitably pleasing flavour to the overall taste of the dish and is thus very necessary.  However, not everyone, including myself, actually likes to eat the raw garlic itself.  The bits of garlic are large enough to be espied by even the most near-sighted diner and hence he or she can safely shove it out of danger’s way, to the far end of the plate.

The impromptu meal brought on by my stubborn desire to tarry a while by the sea reserved another surprise.  I remembered that we had some Canadian wild salmon in the fridge, which we ate accompanied by toasted bread and butter.  So … what was going to be a very ordinary though perfectly good supper turned out to be a bit of a feast.

It was half past nine by the time we sat down to eat.  Very late.  Very very late. The sort of naughty ‘late’ that seems fitting only during Summer, when time flows more slowly, ‘a misura d’uomo’, as they say in Italian, meaning ‘suitable or appropriate for man’.  And for yet another evening, I was able to ignore the whisper of seasonal melancholy subtly knocking at my front door.  It will bang loudly soon enough …

Salame di Tonno / Twice-cooked Tuna Rounds

INGREDIENTS

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Did you know there is a semantic relationship between cod and salami in the Italian language?  I only just found out myself.

In Italian, calling someone a dried cod, i.e. “baccalà” is not a compliment.  The same can be said for name-calling someone a salami, in Italian “salame”.  Basically, you’re telling a person they are not very bright, that they are ‘thick as a plank’, rigid or just plain stupid in their thinking or acting.

I discovered that in the 1400s both pork meats and fish were sold by butchers (?) called “lardaroli”, meaning that both cured meats and salt cod were sold at the same store.  Both were salted.  And the word “salame” derives from “salamen” which itself deries from the Latin word for salt.  It turns out that these fish were salted, historically speaking, before meats were.  And if you look at a salame, well … it’s going to be pretty ‘stiff’, just like an entire salt cod.

Anyway.  About the recipe that I have dubbed “salame di tonno”, i.e. tuna salami.  Some Italians would call it a “polpettone” instead, the same word to describe a meat loaf.  I stick and abide by salame, because its shape is just like that of a salame – only it’s made with tuna, the kind of tuna that cames already cooked and preserved in oil in a glass jar or a in metal tin/can.  The kind that is stocked in every Italian larder to be eaten all year round, especially for those ‘just in case’ moments, when there doesn’t seem to be much other choice to which to resort.  And extremely often for the Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner.

Duing the warmer months of the year, this kind of tuna is often served with beans and for those brave enough, with slices of onion too.  This kind of tuna can also be added to salads.  It can be used to make little tuna meatballs.  It can be used to stuff tomatoes. And, for the rest of the year, this kind of tuna will be used to make a pasta.  You can see how indispensable this food item really is.  The next two posts are going to be about tuna pasta.

It was my sister-in-law Nadia who taught me how to make a tuna salame.  And the first thing that shocked me was the addition of a cheese – parmesan – and eggs to the recipe.  In Italy fish and cheese/dairy do not usually do a meal tango together.  The second ‘shock’ was that the recipe entailed cooking the already-cooked tuna … again.  How strange.  Once I tasted the end result, with a great deal of groaning over its goodness, all those ‘shocks’ melted away, never to return.

An added bonus to this recipe, is that it can be made in advance and even frozen.  I hope I am able to encourage you to make it.

DIRECTIONS

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Start by draining the tuna by placing it in a colander.  The oil that gets drained is usually of poor quality so just chuck it.

3Place the drained tuna in a bowl.

456Add some lemon peel/zest and some salt and pepper.

7Mash everthing up with a fork.  By the way, you could put everything in a food blender if you preferred.

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9Add 1 whole egg per jar of tuna and combine with the fork.

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11Add 1 tablespoon of grated parmesan per can of tuna.  You could add a little more – you’ll have to taste and decide for yourself.

1213The same idea with the breadcrumbs.  Basically, you are going to add as many breadcrumbs as it takes to make the texture a firm one.

14Here we are – done.  Repeat, you can do all of this with the help of a food processor.  In which case you will have a more ‘refined’ texture.  Both are admissable, both are good.

PREPARATION BEFORE COOKING

1516Place the tuna on some parchment paper and shape the ingredients into a salame.  By the way, I did not do it in this photo but I would now recommend that you wet the parchement paper first – it makes everything a lot easier.  Proceed as follows, it’s basically common sense.

171819Now place the wrapped salame on a sheet of aluminium foil.

20The place it on another sheet.

21Done – nice and snug and hopefully watertight.

COOKING

Place in a pot of boiling water and cook for 20 minutes.

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By the way, it used to be traditional to wrap and cook the salame di tonno in a clean tea towel.

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Remove fromt the pot and remove the aluminium sheets and parchment paper too – careful they are very hot.

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At this point, once the salame has cooled down enough, you can wrap it in some parchment paper and freeze it or put it in the fridge for later use.  Wait for it to be completely cool before attempting to slice it.

HOW TO SERVE

Home-made mayonnaise is the classic option.  Any salsa of your choice would be excellent too.

Below are some other ideas.

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Unlike my dear gastronomic friend Phyllis Knudsen, I just adore anchovies.  So I added some to the slices before slathering a home-made salsa verde concoction over them.  So rich, mmmm.  Yep, a little decadent.  This was last year.

The other day I made a mayonnaise with fresh tarragon.  I never know what to do with tarragon so this was a welcome ‘input’ for me. (FYI I have tarragon growing in a pot on my balcony.  The only reason there is plenty of it is that tarragan doesn’t need much tender loving care to grow, it just ‘grows’, phew.)

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IMG_4347.JPGIMG_4350This mayo complemented the tuna salame very well.

Last, here it is served with tomato and some rocket/arugula – plain and simple.

IMG_4356IMG_4358The sky is the limit for any sauce you might care to add – the tuna will hold its own in terms of flavour.  It is robut without being too ‘heavy’ if you know what I mean.

Since it can be made in advance, it’s a great idea for parties.

Bread Salad – Panzanella

I wrote about a ‘special’ panzanella on this blog four years ago – ‘special’ because it added an ingredient that is not normally associated with a panzanella, in this case squid.

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/antipasto-squid-panzanella-inspired-by-ristorante-pepenero-in-capodimonte/

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More recently, I read such a beautiful post about panzanella by Judy Witts Francini (of Divina Cucina fame) that I thought to myself: what IS the point of writing another one, you’d only say more or less the same things.   The one panzanella she didn’t mention is the one we make near Rome (panzanella romana), the one my grandmother would prepare for me as an afternoon snack (merenda).  Basically, it was just a lot of chopped tomatoes placed over a slice of bread, and seasoned with salt and olive oil.  Delicious.

The good thing about panzanella is that it can be prepared ahead of time and is actually great for parties.  Here is a photo of a huge panzanella I made last summer on the occasion of my sister-in-law’s birthday.

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And now, without further ado, but with imagined roll of drums and blaring of trumpets, here is the link to Judy’s post:

Panzanella – Why Tuscan bread is Saltless

A Duke, Some Ladies, Lots of Hats and An Afternoon Tea in Frascati

I have written fewer blogs last year for reasons that aren’t worth going into here but I do, I very much do, want to write a beginning-of-the-year post as a way of wishing all of you a very good one.  It’s a bit of a long ramble and might not be to everyone’s taste so if this is where you stop reading, again: HAPPY NEW YEAR and may it herald a lot of positive things for everyone !

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nice photo of frascati

The photos above and below are of Frascati’s Piazza San Rocco – easily my favourite piazza there …  overlooking Rome, and for good reason.

1.JPGChristmas and the New Year’s festivities have come but not altogether ‘gone’ because decorations linger, including the kind that are not necessarily in the best of taste with their overblown brightness and blingyness; they still adorn our rooms, and we don’t mind any clutter they’ve ushered because the days are still short and dark. And cold.  Even here in Frascati/Rome. I want to start the year on a high note, I want to think about good times, spent with family, friends and new acquaintances.  And so festivities come to mind: birthdays, usually, weddings, sometimes, parties, for sure!, Christmas naturally, New Year’s, and not forgetting last-minute get-togethers that can be rustled up in no time at all.  Often the latter are the most fun of all, and spontaneity and the unexpected can throw in that fillip that no planning, however well thought out, can hope to bring to an occasion.  It’s then we feel so ‘alive’, isn’t it.  It’s then, the day after, that we relish the memory, the camaraderie and the laughter, the high jinks of it all, often supported by tasty food and copious amounts of a favourite tipple.  I don’t know about you but “wine o’clock”, the hour or so before supper, is nearly always my favourite time of day.  If I am not clamouring after a glass of wine when supper is nearly on the table, I worry whether I am coming down with something.  (Can’t drink wine during the day, however, makes me too sleepy.)

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So, you must be thinking, can this gal have any fun without wine? Aha! And the answer might surprise you.

I have two favourite meals.  One is breakfast.  Only for years now I’ve not been eating breakfast, just drinking coffee.  Even so, I think of breakfast as one of the nicest times of day, especially on holiday, or when staying in a hotel.  A good breakfast has all the ingredients to make you want to look forward to the unfurling of the day’s events.  Toast, first and foremost.  Nice marmalade or jam.  Eggs, bacon, sausages, kippers, salmon, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes.  Fruit and fruit juice.  A croissant or a cornetto here in Italy.  Pancakes.  Crepes.  French toast. Breakfast cakes.  Yogurt.  Good quality loose leaf tea. Coffee.  It’s a feast, and the day has only just started.

The other ‘meal’, if that’s what we want to call is, is Afternoon Tea.  Yes, I used capital letters.  As someone who does not have a sweet tooth and rarely has dessert, isn’t it ‘strange’ that I just cannot resist the sheer beauty, the sense of occasion, the frivolity of a proper Afternoon Tea.  One tends to pick up more than one motto in life, or change it as our natures evolve, but there is one that has stuck in my chords for decades now, and that is Voltaire’s “le superflu, chose si nécessaire”.   Damn right, he was, to say that the superfluous is so very very necessary in our lives.  (By the way I love caviar too and can’t afford it  but I think I would favour an Afternoon Tea over caviar if I had to choose.  On the other hand, just think of the naughtiness of serving caviar at an Afternoon Tea, tee hee!)  Who can have a long face at an Afternoon Tea, hey? Who? It’s like chalk and cheese, impossible.  A normal breakfast can be just that: normal.  Afternoon Tea is always special.

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Cast of Characters

And so it was that three friends, Michelle, Victoria and I decided to organize an Afternoon Tea party nearly four years ago now.  At a tearoom run by Giancarlo delle Chiaie here in Frascati.

Now, the first thing to bear in mind is that Frascati is famous for its white wine and the fact that we have been making wine around these parts for three thousand years or so (Frascati was the very first wine in Italy to receive the formal DOC certification in 1966).  The second is that there is no such thing as Afternoon Tea in Italy.  Some Italians, true, do like their tea and but  most would considerate it a beverage that is de rigueur only when illness sets in.  I’ll never forget when I offered my father-in-law to be a cup of tea.  He looked very puzzled and answered something like, “No thank you, I’m fine.”

So imagine my surprise when Giancarlo opened a tearoom in Frascati back in 2009.   Frascati is famous for its wine taverns, known as “fraschette” or “cantine” or even “osterie”, and casual outdoor eating during the warmer months of the year.  It’s all very laid back and convivial and the opposite of posh. Trestle tables are set up outside in the streets and piazzas and the tablecloth is made out of paper.  The wine is served in sturdy glasses, forget about stems.  The wine comes in a carafe not in a bottle.  The atmosphere is ‘animated’, aka pretty much loud or raucous.  You get the picture.

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The above photo is the view of Piazza San Rocco from Giancarlo’s Tearoom

Our Giancarlo, who was an acquaintance when he opened and has now become more of a friend, is not exactly a fan of mega decibel banter and such plebeian cavorting when it comes to the enjoyment of life.  And that’s putting it mildly.  It’s not that he is a snob.  No, it’s more like he has standards and bad rustic just doesn’t do it for him.  He was outraged, for instance, by another Giancarlo (a former professional football player) who runs a wine tavern with trestle tables outside on the quaint and historic Piazza San Rocco, at the bottom of the bishop’s mansion, just across from the tearoom.  (Such a delight to eat al fresco there in Summer, the atmosphere is amazing.)

Tearoom Giancarlo simply could not forgive wine-tavern Giancarlo for having placed neon lighting above the trestle tables, his disapproval was total and gave him a case of ‘après nous le deluge’ big time.

He dresses simply and somewhat soberly.  His tearoom, however, belies the understated approach to his day to day attire.  It is housed in a former wine cellar to the side of the Piazza San Rocco, close to our town’s historic and oldest church.  It was not a large wine cellar at that (if you want to know, it belonged to my cousin Teresa’s grandmother, after whom she was named, and cousin Teresa remembers helping out her Nonna with the wine making, imagine that!).

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The entrance to Giancarlo’s Tearoom

Remember the law of Physics about Nature abhoring a vacuum?  If ever proof were needed, Giancarlo’s place would fit the bill with bells and whistles.  This cosy-sized tearoom positively drips with gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and candelabras, not to mention assorted bone china plates, cups, tea pots, even a Russian samovar, various paintings and lithographs, and the paint is all about green and gold.  Whilst a seasoned minimalist would suffer a serious attack of furnishing overkill upon entering, I and many others find it welcoming and full of atmosphere.  There is even a piano.  And that’s because Giancarlo is a musician, a professional organ player, as is his younger brother.  Giancarlo runs a choir too.  He will sometimes play the piano for us.

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Most of the time he is too busy.  He runs the tea room all by himself, making and baking all kinds of deliciousness, cakes and even small chocolates.  He would have fitted in beautifully at the court of Louis IV – indeed, Giancarlo was involved in a one-day event held at nearby Villa Mondragone in 2004 where actors dressed the part as king, queen, courtiers/courtesans, musicians and servants and what have you and disported themselves accordingly.  Giancarlo organized, oversaw, played and conducted all the music, and he waxes lyrical over it to this day.  He pines for the mountains and the cooler weather, whereas Michelle and I, who frequent his tearoom in the evenings when it’s time for a glass of wine as opposed to a cuppa, are just the opposite.  Michelle taught him how to make Pimms, by the way.  He taught himself how to make scones, there you go.

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Now Michelle (in the above photo) who is English and has lived in and around Rome for decades, enough to speak Italian like a native, is one of those people who are hard to describe.  She does not fit into a neat category. She is a dab hand at just about anything, and a quick thinker to boot.  For the purpose of this blog post let’s just say she single-handedly set up an invaluable website called “www.Easyfrascati.com” and is a trained sommelier, collaborating with the oldest wine estate in the area, the Principe Pallavicini.

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Vivacious Victoria, for her part, lived in New York working for MTV; she left her fast-paced action-packed life for the obvious reason (her hubby like mine is Italian) and heads a group called “Welcome Neighbour of the Castelli Romani”.   It was she, also, who set up another group called “Culture Club of the Castelli”, which includes me and Michelle (both groups are on facebook).  And the three of us do enjoy organizing cultural events that will always include food and wine somewhere along the way.

And now we come to the last person in this cast of characters.

The name of the tearoom is “La Stanza del Duca”, which translates as “The Duke’s Room”.  The duke in question is – or was rather, bless him he died in 1807 – Henry Benedict of the royal house of Stuart.

His grandfather James II was the king who his lost the throne on account of being catholic, and his daughters, Mary and then Anne, subsequently and in turn became Queens.  Prince Henry’s father James III was known as the “Old Pretender” to the British Throne. His brother was known as the “Young Pretender”, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie.  I don’t want to bore you with too much history and the Jacobite rebellions but basically our Prince Henry couldn’t be bothered about claims to the throne and contented himself with being a jolly good cardinal.  He was born a prince and the grandson of a crowned king, and was a direct relative even of Mary Queen of Scots. But he was best known as Duke of York, the title that was bestowed upon him (in the Jacobite Peerage) by his father.  He and his brother were both born in exile in Rome, and both were buried for a short while in Frascati’s St Peter’s cathedral.  And that’s because Cardinal Duke of York Henry Benedict was bishop of Frascati, amongst other things, and lived here for decades.  He was very much loved and respected for all the good works he did – and of course, he lived in the Bishop’s palace just across the road from the tearoom bearing his moniker!

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THE AFTERNOON TEA – PREPPING

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Ssssh … don’t say I said but I do have to say it.  Italians, or rather some Italians just to be on the politically correct side of the equation, find it hard to let their hair down on social occasions that are not within the strict perimeter of their homes or family/close friend connection.  Socially speaking, they tend to be on the shy side that way.  Instead, Brits, Americans and Scandinavians ‘make friends’ much more easily. Brits in particular tend to like dressing up and acting silly at parties, that’s what parties are for surely?  So Michelle, Victoria and I came up with a very cunning plan.  We decided to host the Afternoon Tea Party during the week of Carnival/Mardi Gras, just before Ash Wednesday when Italians find it all right to dress up (especially the children) and act silly or even be a little on the boisterous side if need be.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to convince our guests to dress up but we did insist on everyone wearing a hat and set up a prize for the most ingenious or original one.  We therefore called it The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

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When people ask me why I  like Italian food so much, I answer sincerely that I love so many other cuisines of the world too, don’t get me wrong.  That said, every single time I cook Indian or Thai or Lebanese or even British food (think Sunday Roast), I am reminded of how quick (super quick!) it is to rustle up an Italian meal compared with other nations’ food.  Thus, I knew that an Afternoon Tea was going to be mega planning, shopping, and hard work, with close attention to detail.  As did both Victoria and Michelle.  I am not very good in the sweet department so I invited another good friend, Italo-Australian Liz, who is easily the best home cook I’ve ever come across, to come on board.

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Artistic Michelle came up with the invitation card within seconds of being asked.  Victoria was all about ensuring that our ladies went home with a goody bag on top of everything else and all in all, this was one of the most arduous events I have had the pleasure to be involved in (please excuse my split infinitive).

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Sandwiches, good ones, are the backbone of an Afternoon Tea and these require good butter.  Liz was visiting her daughter in Oslo just days before our event so I asked her to kindly bring over some good Norwegian butter as well as –  yes, please don’t laugh – cucumbers.  Again Sssssh! I say this in ultra hushed tones but … If there are two, and only two, food stuffs that are sadly disappointing in Italy then these must be butter and cucumbers.  The latter are often almost bitter and hard to digest.  And I always buy Lurpak here because Italian butter is just so, well, ‘unbuttery’. In fact, when family or friends come over from England and ask what they can bring, I always ask for butter which I then freeze (including gorgeous unpasteurized French Butter).    Oh, and …  and Liz also had to bring over some dill from Oslo, because dill is really hard to come by in Rome.

 

Our guest list of 24 (all ladies except for one husband who loved the male/female ratio) was composed of people we knew or friends of friends and eight nationalities were present: Italian, English, German, French, Russian, North American, South African, and Argentinian (plus Norwegian salmon, butter, dill and cucumbers).  We charged the token sum of twenty euros a head and everyone had a delightful, and I mean delightful time, and it was worth all our efforts.  Michelle’s hat was by far the most original but we decided it would not have been ‘proper’ for the organizers to win the hat prize.  There were runner-up prizes too …

 

Giancarlo was blown away by our organizational skills and the ‘correct’ tone of this happy party (lots of fun but done with style, none of that faux rustic nonsense). But the cherry on the cake, for me at least, since I am a romantic at heart, was the fact that a real British Duchess was amongst our guests enjoying the gathering to the hilt.  At one point, with no one noticing, I raised a glass of prosecco to Henry Benedict, Cardinal Duke of York, and smiled within.  I bet he was happy to see such frolicking going on so close to his erstwhile much-loved home.

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That’s me on the left, having a good laugh with Victoria.

The photos (all the good-quality ones that is) of the food and people at the party were taken by Michelle Aschacher, Leanne Talbot Nowell and Diane Epstein … all of them fabulous photographers.

Again, Happy New Year Everyone !

16Giancarlo donning a Cardinal’s hat … what else!