Market day, every day in Pisa!

August 26th, 2006

When in Pisa, see the Leaning Tower, the famous Torre pendente. But the trick is in the timing – better early in the morning than in the noonday heat. Arriving with throngs of other travellers in high summer, we gazed, amazed, roasting with all the rest: Pisa’s splendid marble Duomo and the majestic, round Battistero are indeed wonders to behold. This assembly of architectural wonders are clustered together on a flat field, called the Camposanto. It may have been a distortion of the hard, shimmering Tuscan sun, but it even seemed that the elegant Baptistry was at a slight tilt. Someone in the crowd behind me, perhaps a bit tired of the scene in general, piped up:  “What else is there in Pisa?”

I was looking for a market and signs that life goes on beyond tourist zones, so we returned to Pisa on a cooler morning to see more of this important Tuscan city. Italian towns often hold their market day once or twice a week –or even once a month for antique markets. Waves of flapping, pointed-edged skirts and fringed tablecloths frequently dominate weekly markets, interspersed with house-wares and fishing tackle. Pisa has an arcaded space for the shirts, jeans, pots and pans, but an adjacent open air food market dominates the Piazza dele Vettovaglie, supplying shoppers with fruit and vegetables every day. The vendors’ stalls are spread across an intersection of walking streets at the heart of Pisa’s old town, tucked in between the university buildings and the banking and shopping arcades.

In the middle of the Piazza, I took a deep breath: melons lined up shoulder to shoulder, trays of just-picked peaches and little green local pears, ‘Pere Cosce‘, perfumed the air. Come closer for a sample sliver of sun-ripened melon, Grazie! Vendors arrange red bell peppers, onions large and small, fringy fennel bulbs, and perfect oval tomatoes –all in rows and ready to grill for antipasto platters. Fragile zucchini blossoms are sold on a few stalls, others display new garlic and potatoes. The Tuscan passion for parsley can be satisfied with healthy bouquets of prezzimolo. Ever on the move, I settled for a chunk of foccacia and a box of plums, then continued to explore this historic city.

Pisa’s past as a major maritime power, the rival of mighty Genoa in the 13th century, set the city apart, not only in commerce but as a crucible for artistic activity. Influential architect and sculptor, Giovanni Pisano was the first in a line of Pisa’s artists who worked in Italy’s early gothic era. The city of over 90,000 people is still a busy crossroads (the airport close to the center now has connections to New York), continuing in its tradition of trade and industry.

This quick taste of Pisa acted as an appetizer –our next visit will be on a Wednesday to take in a farmer’s market with more medieval ambiance, set in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.

What else is there is Pisa? Beyond the tower and impressive Piazza dei Miracoli, dip into Pisa’s history, stroll under the arcades and along the Arno, cross the broad Piazza dei Cavalieri to a neighborhood trattoria on a summer day….and don’t miss the market!

Notes: The city literally lights up in the middle of June with a festival for Pisa’s patron saint, Rainier, with Luminara.  Lamps and candles light the Arno, and torches line the streets where music and dancing precede a splash of fireworks against the summer sky.  Also note that Pisa has a monthly antiques market (along with Arezzo, is one of the best spots for Tuscan collectibles and antiques).

Best Bites, Pisa: I studied the menu posted outside Osteria dei Cavalieri, just a few steps from the historic Piazza. It was appealing, but crowded with locals in mid-July, graduates celebrating their last day at the university.  Instead, we booked a table at La Clessidra (The Hourglass), via Santa Cecilia 34, a quiet wine shop serving honest (and inspired!) dishes paired with Tuscan wines.  A memorable primi (first course) combined paper-thin slices of smoked tuna, surrounded by carrot ‘spaghettis’ ribbons, all subtly dressed and topped with chopped almonds. We will return –in a cooler season –for more bites of Pisa’s inventive cuisine.

Recipes & tips: Almond crusted roast lamb

August 17th, 2006

Gigot! Festive and easy is the best description for this variation on simply roasting a lamb leg for a special occasion dinner. An herb-crumb crust made with ground almonds seals in the juices as the gigot roasts.


1 small leg of lamb, about 4 1/2 lbs/2 kg. (to serve 5 or 6)
1/4 c./56 ml olive oil, sea salt & freshly ground pepper.

For the crust: 1 egg beaten with 2 T. Dijon mustard (do not use a sweet mustard)
8 T./160 ml cream mixed with 1/2 cup crushed or ground almonds
5 T./90 grams fine breadcrumbs mixed with chopped thyme & sage

Preparation: Preheat oven to 426°f/210°c. Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan, rub the leg with seasoning and brown the lamb on all sides. Transfer it to a roasting pan. Make the crust by mixing the ingredients together. Then spread this paste over the lamb. Insert a meat thermometer and roast for 45 to 60 minutes, depending on how rare you prefer the lamb. Before serving, allow 10 minutes for the meat to rest before carving. Serve with your choice of seasonal vegetables, steamed or creamed, and a light rice pilaf. With each serving, include a strip of crust on top or beside the lamb. Garnish with flowering thyme, sage leaves or sprigs of lavender.

This recipe is adapted from La France Gourmande, the May Fête de l’Agneau in Pauillac, Gironde. A fine Médoc red, a Pauillac or St. Julien, is always a good wine choice for gigot.

Munching & Musing: Coffee & Café Culture

August 13th, 2006

I didn’t grow up in a café culture. Coffee, yes – café, no. Grandma mixed an egg with freshly ground coffee and set it on the stove to percolate. Mom plugged in a coffee maker and we listened to it “perc” until brewed and ready. Gramps carried a thermos of coffee to the leathergoods shop with his lunch of smorrebrod on firm, dark Danish rye bread. Mingled with my memories of coffee aromas, I recall a stream of places, people, and seasonal sweet treats “to go with coffee”. Rarely was a cup of coffee poured without an an accompanying slice of nut bread, lemon cake or – at Christmas time – a raft of cookies that seemed to float out of a round tin box. In the upper midwest, coffee always came with one or more little temptations.

Coffee time, ten in the morning and again about three in the afternoon, was cause for a party. On summer mornings, Mom would ask a few neighbors in, bake a blueberry coffee cake and set the table on the porch. But coffee in a café was not in the routine. Oh, sometimes I would tag along with Gramps if he had errands, which might include a stop at the Sugar Bowl Café on Main Street in Storm Lake, Iowa….no lingering coffee stop, just a pause, sitting on revolving stools at the soda bar, coffee for Gramps, Dr. Pepper for me. When lunch time rolled around, Gramps’ first gesture was to twist the red cup-cap off of his thermos, pour some coffee, then unwrap the waxed paper holding his open eggsalad sandwiches and pickles. All of this was set on his broad roll-top desk in a corner of the shop. Before, during and after lunch the thermos cup was replenished.

During my teen years, I was offered an occasional Sunday morning cup of coffee with Mom, but the taste came slowly. The best was a ritual cup of egg coffee at Christmas with Grandma, alongside a china plate of fatigmann bakkelse and mandel kranser (Tak!). All of this would seem odd to my neighbors in southwest France. Even workers helping to renovate our old stone house decline the offer of a cup of mid-afternoon coffee. Coffee is for breakfast, for after lunch or dinner. To create a party around coffee? “What an interesting American habit!” my French friends exclaim. Some would stop at the corner café-bar to chat with a friend after the market and “take” a cup of coffee, but one -no refill, merci. One cup suffices. I put my Minnesota mugs away for tea or tisane, and line up little three-sip sized cups, adjusting to cultural differences.

While traveling in Italy, I stand up at marble-topped coffee bars along with the regulars to sip a bracing dose of caffè that would fill a thimble, taken quickly – no time for a refill. Like Gramps’ stop at the Sugar Bowl, in haste. It seems that everyone in Italy stops for their morning coffee in a café-bar, leaving me to wonder if anyone takes time to make coffee in their own kitchen. Perhaps an exchange of pleasantries about the weather or soccer games with the barman as he wipes clean cups is more sociable than a chat with the cat at home. Coffee, café, caffè – any are still best with something to bite or dunk, whatever the time of day or setting. Memories of coffee savored in the past, by the window in Mom’s kitchen or perched on a stool by Gramps’ old desk, linger with me in Siena as I duck into Pasticceria Nannini for a toothsome, almond-sweet Ricciarelli. And make that a double caffè macchiato.

(With apologies for the Danish, any misspellings, no slashes through the O, no tiny circles floating over the a)

Inside the almond story: #1 A balancing act

August 11th, 2006

Growing almonds is essentially a balancing act. During interviews with growers in the French Roussillon region, that becomes very clear. In spite of its ancestry and basic nature as a Mediterranean tree, the almond does need water – not in excess, just a little at a time – ideally in drip irrigation five times a day. The tree’s long tap root and ability to survive drought in poor soil is a plus, but to produce high quality almonds in good quantity, the soil and water are a grower’s main preoccupations. California almond trees are irrigated, grown in thousands of acres of enriched valley soil, hence tons of almonds flow with regularity onto the world market. Spanish irrigation in groves is scanty, partly due to the rocky terrain and terraced planting, so the trees are subject to greater shock in dry years. Sicilian growers are installing more irrigation systems in spite of their irregular terrain, a Herculean effort that we witnessed in the rugged hills around Noto. On Apulian slopes across southernmost Italy and in groves overlooking the coast of Crete, almond trees grow – some with the advantage of irrigation, some without.
“The almond tree has a memory of three years” explains Giles Gibbs, a Roussillon grower whose verdant almond orchard near Thuir is a case study. If an overly dry summer causes fruit to drop one summer, it will do the same the following year. It sheds fruit that cannot be nourished, a shock that takes three years of care to restore normal bearing and a decent crop. “To nourish one almond, it takes sixty healthy leaves”, adds the affable, lanky engineer turned almond grower. We follow him between trees lush with leaves, their branches loaded with plump green almonds, giving no evidence of ‘fruit drop’ problems. “A healthy tree doesn’t need frequent pruning”, Gibbs remarks “…if they are fed well enough, we just remove lower branches every three years”. We stop to inspect the ground around a trunk, evidently spread with some dry organic matter. Non-composted marc de raisin (the residue remaining after grapes are pressed) is collected from local grape growers and serves to change the soil composition, resulting in a more water-retentive structure. It seems a natural balance, a symbiosis using the residue of one crop, grapes, to nourish a new crop, almonds.

Gibbs does not sell green almonds. It is such a short phase of the almond’s year, and one with a limited market. Only a few growers in the Roussillon appear to be organized to pick and sell the delicate green nuts. Their principal market is in the middle east, or Arab grocers in Paris or Provence. These clients want the choicest almonds, which command a higher price. Green almonds are picked by hand, are fragile, spoil within a few days if not kept in a cool, dark place, and are thus more problematic to keep and to ship. A handful of inventive chefs order green almonds and turn them out onto refined platters, from octopus with green almonds on the Costa Brava, to spiced Provençal peaches bathed in almond milk. In open air markets across the south of France, finding green almonds is a matter of serendipity, the chance that a grower took time to gather a few – with a regular, very particular client in mind.

Always, the question of balance comes into play as the grower decides which direction to steer his or her time, trees, land and production: to hand pick green almonds for a high end, middle eastern market, or to aim at the volume market of dry almonds for pastry makers and confectioners, for local restaurants or to be shipped abroad. These considerations, along with the vagaries of each season’s weather, may tip the balance for almond growers anywhere in the world – all affecting how and when the ordinary market shopper can enjoy baking an almond gâteau for Sunday lunch.
(excerpt adapted for vagabondgourmand from Ah, Almonds!)