My grandmother – nonna Carolina – came to Australia several times. The first time was in the late 1950s. Three of her children were here: her sons, Fidenzio and Livio, plus her youngest daughter, Livia. She boarded the ship in Trieste and sailed to Melbourne, leaving behind her husband, two married daughters and two grand daughters. She didn’t know a word of English but by all accounts, managed just fine on the ship for the month that it took to sail to the other side of the world.
She stayed in Australia for six months, spending time in the houses of each of her children. My father and my uncles, zio Fide and zio Livio had bought adjacent blocks of land and built houses on them; they all had large back yards and cut out doors through the back fence so they could easily drop in to see each other; an Italian village of sorts in Box Hill South. Mamma tells me that nonna settled right in, joining the family on their scampagnate (trips to the country) and was sad to leave Australia and half of her family when she boarded the ship to return to Italy.
The second time she came to Australia was by plane in the late 1970s when my sister got married. Nonna was nearing 80 by then and the journey took about 30 hours. She was travelling with my aunt Clara and my uncle Mario. I remember getting up at the crack of dawn to meet them at the airport and impatiently waiting in International Arrivals, hoping to spot them as the automatic doors opened and closed. Tired-faced travellers pushing trolleys stacked with suitcases emerged through the doors, but we could not spot our relatives. The crowd was thinning out and as this was decades before mobile phones and the internet, we couldn’t be entirely sure they had even boarded the Alitalia plane in Rome.
They were among the last to appear. They were well, the flight was long and they were weary as expected; the delay had been caused by nonna, who had been held up by Customs because of a bag of radicchio seeds. This was in the days before you could easily find varieties of Italian vegetables in Australia and my father had asked Clara and Mario to bring over some seeds so he could grow radicchio in the backyard. Nonna had been charged with carrying the seeds in a small plastic bag; she had packed them in her suitcase. I don’t know why Customs decided to search through the luggage of an elderly Italian nonna, but they readily pounced on the bag. She was questioned (in English) and replied in Italian. A bilingual fellow traveller eventually helped overcome the language barrier and needless to say, the seeds were confiscated.
The wedding was a joyous occasion, made all the more special by having Italian family join us. My nonna (standing on the far right next to my mother Livia in the photo below) was especially happy and if asked would recount how the waiter at the wedding reception saw that she was on her own at the table so brought her a bowl of whipped cream. He must have know how much she loved cream and she proceeded to eat the whole bowl. The cream was of course for the table to share with their cake, but we never let on that it wasn’t her special dessert.
I adore red radicchio not only for its vibrant colour but for its bitter flavour. I qualify it with the “red” as radicchio can also be green, yellow, white or pink and is part of the chicory (cicoria) family. The “radiceto” that I grew up eating is actually called “cicoria zuccherina di Trieste” or sweet chicory from Trieste, a sweet leafy salad green that grows progressively bitter as the plant matures. There are many varieties of red radicchio: Treviso, Chioggia, Verona (all names of towns in Veneto); the leaves of the head of the radicchio of the three varieties are a different shape and they have differing degrees of bitterness. Here in Melbourne the red radicchio I can more easily find looks like the round Chioggia variety, and it is just labelled “radicchio”. My favourite red radicchio is one I cannot find in Australia – there is an image of it below on the left, radicchio rosso di Treviso Tardivo, with thick central white spines and distinctive curls at the tips of the leaves. It is called “tardivo” because it if found in late winter.
In winter I always have a head of radicchio in the fridge. I love eating it in a salad (with some thinly sliced ripe pear) but also making a risotto with it (and using red wine with the stock), or grilling it (and drizzling it with aged balsamic vinegar) or making it the hero of the filling in a vegetarian tart. Using store-bought shortcrust pastry makes this tart much quicker to make, though I like making my own using half spelt flour and half plain and it gives it a slightly nutty taste. I have played around with the tart filling a bit, adding more or less balsamic vinegar and brown sugar, to balance the bitter/sweet/acid tastes. If you find radicchio too bitter, soaking it in water (for up to a couple hours) will remove the bitterness, and in this case you may like to reduce or omit the sugar (the balsamic vinegar is a bit sweet anyway). The tart has a lovely balanced taste and makes a great variation to my usual ricotta and greens pie; it makes a lovely Sunday night dinner and cold leftovers are perfect the next day.
So this recipe is for my nonna Carolina, a Veneta through and through, lover of polenta, radicchio and (if you believe my mother) doing the washing. I think the latter is borne of a memory of my nonna always washing the clothes and linen for her five children and for the in-laws. Judging by the outdoor clothes lines strung outside windows or between buildings in Italy some might think that Italians rather like doing the washing, or maybe it is just that they are very clean. And the older I get the more I love the smell and look of freshly laundered linen on the line; I can’t help it, it must be in my genes. Just stop me if I start eating whipped cream!
PUGLIA APRIL 2019: I am so excited to be hosting a food and wine tour of stunning Southern Puglia with my friends at Southern Visions Travel in late April 2019. This is a six night tour that broadly follows the path I did to research my second cookbook Adriatico. We will be visiting Santa Maria di Leuca, Otranto, Lecce, visiting wineries, making pasta in a castle, octopus fishing and staying at a couple of stunning masserie. Click here to read more about it on my website or visit the Southern Visions Travel website.
TRIESTE SEPTEMBER 2018: there is ONE PLACE LEFT for the tour I will be running of the corner of Northeastern Italy that I call my second home. Click here to find out more.
ADRIATICO: Next week I will be going through the final edit of my second cookbook Adriatico, a food journey along the eastern coast of Italy, from the tip of the heel of the peninsula in Puglia to the top of the boot in Trieste. The book goes to print mid May and should be available in late September 2018. It has been a year in the making and my publisher Smith Street Books has been wonderful in pulling the design together. I cannot wait to hold it in my hands.
COOKING CLASSES: I have added more cooking class dates to 2018. I run the classes in my kitchen in my home in North Fitzroy and most are hands-on. I have added a few more of the ever-popular Pasta 101 and Let’s make Gnocchi classes and have lots of spots for the Sweet Italian class (we will be making lemon taralli, chocolate mostaccioli and cannoli) and a couple for the Apple Strudel masterclass. Hope to see you there!
150g unbleached white spelt flour
150g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, cut into small dice and cold from the fridge
1 large egg
1/4 tsp salt
3-4 tablespoons milk or water, cold from the fridge
(or you could use 450g store-bought shortcrust pastry)
2 small leeks
1 head red radicchio
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
15g unsalted butter
2-3 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 – 1 tsp brown sugar
100g cream or plain yoghurt
25g parmesan, grated
1 tsp thyme leaves (plus extra for garnish)
To make the pastry, place the flours and salt in a large bowl and whisk to remove lumps. Add the butter, working it into the flour with your finger tips until it resembles wet sand. You could also use the pulse function on your food processor to do this step. Drop in the lightly beaten egg and two tablespoons of the milk, mixing with a wooden spoon (or your processor) to bring it all together. Eventually you will need to use your hands to shape it into a ball, adding the extra milk if needed. Knead briefly to make the dough homogenous then flatten it into a thick disc with the palm of your hand. Wrap and place in the fridge to rest for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 190C. Prepare a 25cm diameter pie tin (mine had a removable base) by lining the base and rubbing butter on the sides to prevent the dough from sticking. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll out so that it is about 3mm thick, and drape it over the base and sides of the tin, trimming the excess. Prick the base all over with a fork and put in the fridge for 15 minutes to chill.
Trim the ends of the leek and slice thinly; wash and drain then set aside. Separate the leaves from the radicchio head and cut away the thick white spine at the base of the leaves. Rinse then drain and cut into thin strips. You will need about 180g radicchio. Soak the radicchio leaves in water if they are too bitter for your taste, anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.
Remove the pie base from the fridge. Place pie weights or dried beans (I used chick peas) on baking paper on the base and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and bake for a further 10 minutes.
While the base is baking, sautè the leek with the oil and butter in a large frypan until starting to soften. Increase the heat, add the wine and cook for a few minutes so that most of the wine evaporates. then add the radicchio and cook for a few more minutes until reduced in volume and softened. Add the sugar and stir though, then add the balsamic vinegar. Taste the mixture, adding more balsamic or sugar if needed; then add salt to taste. Set aside to cool.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs, cream and grated Parmesan cheese, adding salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
Place the cooled vegetables in the pie case, making sure it is not overfilled and then carefully pour in the egg mixture. Scatter on the thyme leaves. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the filling has set and the top of the tart is golden. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs and serve warm or at room temperature accompanied by a green salad.