Tag Archive for: Italy

Under the radar? That’s definitely Abruzzo. It’s the poor touristic relation of Toscana, Umbria, Piemonte and yet this predominantly rural Italian region has so much to offer. Three National Parks, one Regional Park and several natural reserves are home to an unprecedented 75 per cent of Europe’s flora and fauna species. The slow food on offer, washed down with the local soft Montepulciano reds, is reason enough to visit the scores of  ancient hilltop villages.

Take lentils. The medieval town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio holds a festival every September in their honour, the Sagra delle Lenticchie, and is campaigning to win them DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) status alongside such iconic foodstuffs as Parmesan, Balsamic vinegar of Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and the like.

I source my Abruzzo lentils (via the wonderful Ham and Cheese Company in Bermondsey) from the Casino di Caprafico 100km south east which accesses the same scrubby terrain that somehow brings out the iron-rich best in these tiny legumes. Easily the equal of France’s acclaimed Puy lentils. The same deeply traditional operation also yields my go-to new season olive oil. The head honcho is Giacomo Santoleri. Let Ham and Cheese Co tell his story:

“Giacomo Santoleri was an engineer before turning to agriculture 20 years ago. His Caprafico farm is on the eastern slopes of the Maiella National Park, close to the town of Guardiagrele and there he has chosen to grow a range of heritage grains to mill for bread and pasta. Pasta from his barley and emmer (farro) is a long way from the uniform white mono flavour of pasta made from high yielding wheat varieties and it is also much healthier; emmer is known to be good for the heart and immune system. It is high in antioxidants, fibre and protein. Like many heritage grains the plants are strong and sturdy and can be grown without the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”

And the Caprafico lentils?

“Giacomo grows ancient grains and pulses on the Caprafico plain in Abruzzo. These lentils are sown at the end of March on poor, chalky soil and they thrive in the harsh mountain temperatures of the Maiella National Park. Surviving these adverse conditions gives the lentils lots of flavour

“The lentils ripen at different times depending on their altitude but the majority are harvested during August. Harvesting takes place by hand because the lentils grow so close to the ground that mechanised harvesting can destroy up to 40 per cent of the harvest. Inside the cloth bag are 500gs of the most beautiful, speckled lentils. Cook them with a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery then stir them – still firm – into some softened dice of the same vegetables. Top them with a sausage or poached egg.”

The form the perfect base for toothsome New Year’s Day treat, Cotechino, sausagey subject of one of my Italian Food Trail pieces, but with my latest lentil batch I have wilfully ditched seasonality.

Just as summer is almost convincing Yorkshire it is Abruzzo I’ve assembled in my garden the ingredients for a decidedly autumnal Lentil and Chestnut Soup, loosely adapted from a Rachel Roddy recipe. It was an excuse to use up two vacuum packs of hulled chestnuts that had lain too long in the store cupboard. Plus I had an excess of chicken broth in the freezer and a surfeit of herbs from the garden.

Lentil and Chestnut Soup


4 tbsp good olive oil

1 onion,

1 carrot

1 stick celery,

100ml Noilly Prat

3 tomatoes, skinned and diced

Ready cooked chestnuts, broken up

2 litres of chicken broth/water

Parsley, chervil, dill, marjoram or other mixed fresh herbs.

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper, to taste


In a large pan heat olive oil over a low flame, add chestnuts, stir for a minute then add vermouth and let it bubble for a couple of minutes.

Rinse the lentils and add to a separate pan with chopped veg, herbs and stock water mixture. Simmer for an hour or so over a low heat until the lentils are tender Unlike red lentils they keep their shape). Remove bayleaf. Take out half the mix and blend roughly before returning to the lentil pan along with the chestnuts and a splash of good extra virgin olive oil. Caprafico would be perfect.

What have Panzanella, Pancotto, Ribollita and Bolton Brewis all got in common? And why are they trumped by the ultimate Wet Nellie – described by Parkers Arms chef Stosie Madi as part of the DNA of the UK’s No.1 gastropub? The answer is stale bread.

Frugality made delish by using your loaf, not binning it. Well, maybe not in the case of the Brewis. which I first encountered when celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rhubarb and Black Pudding, Matthew Fort’s year in the life of Paul, Heathcote’s Longridge restaurant. Like the eponymous black pudding, tripe or Eccles cakes, Brewis might, in Fort’s words, be proof of ‘Lancashire remaining true to its own regionality’, but it’s a desperate culinary remedy in its most basic form – hot water pored over hard bread scraps to make a mush come soup, seasoned with salt and pepper or whatever is to hand. 

The French for gruel is brouet. So it’s not just a Lancashire thing. It crops up in that 1869 tale of Devon derring do, Lorna Doone. The author, RD Blackmore says of one numpty character “She can’t stir a pot of brewis.” Cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland and you’ll find a ‘deluxe version’ – Fish and Brewis with Scruncheons, combining hard tack and salt cod.

All of which is not a far remove from Italy’s Cucina Povera, which lifts making do on the poverty line to a different level, celebrating the rustic virtues of enhancing plain wheaten staples with herbs, foraged weeds, unmentionable meat parts and the like. The perception is the peasants of the Mezzogiorno and the Abruzzo liveD their lives in one long Dolmio ad. Our tables never recovered from the Industrial Revolution.

As it happens, I’m about to spend a few days among the Tuscan vineyards, where the diet may well be on the rich side. Yet, I’ll be looking out for Panzanella, a Tuscan and Umbrian chopped salad of soaked stale bread, onions and tomatoes, liberally doused with Extra Virgin or Pancotto, which has a variant in Campania utilising escarole or chicory with garlic and chilli. Tastier than either of these is Ribollita, a blend of Cavolo nero, red wine vinegar, cannellini beans, parmesan rind and carrot that strays into hearty territory. Closer to German Brotsuppe.

Guilt over leftovers is universal or should be and crumby ingenuity stretches beyond bread soup. Witness the aforementioned Wet Nellie, whose appeal extends from Liverpool into deepest Lancashire and finds its true haven at The Parkers Arms in The Trough of Bowland. Don’t dare to write it off as just a simple niece of Bread and Butter Pudding. in the hands of Stosie Madi and its true champion, business partner Kathy Smith, it’s a thing of beauty. Check out this video of its making.

So what makes up a Wet Nellie, perennial Parkers dessert fave? Let Stosie explain: “ We keep all left ofter sourdough, pastry, cakes etc using an electric mixer we make chunky crumbs. We then add our spice mix, ur own candied citrus mix, our own citrus syrup. Mix in lots of good candied cherries, dried currants and raisins. Now allow 48 hours before checking taste and texture. Add more syrup if dry; more crumbs if too wet. Fill cooked shortcrust tart cases and bake until golden. Serve with marmalade ice cream or maybe duck egg custard. It’s on the menu because it is a historic Lancs pudding.”

Beats Bewlis any day.

Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.

No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.

Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.

Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”

At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.

Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.

Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.

So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is  is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing. 

I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.

The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.

Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…

Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves

800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt

Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.

Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.

Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.

Serves four

The best gifts come in pairs. In the run-up to Christmas the most perfect grazing bolthole has sprung up down the road, from which a portal has opened to a cornucopia of Italian artisan wonders. Living the edible dream as just bottled, grassy new season olive oil from the Abruzzo, Sicilian capers packing a volcanic punch and a whole Tuscan finocchiona (fennel salami) from Cinta senese pigs arrived in the post the other day. All the way from some enlightened middle men in Bermondsey.

Buon appetito then. But first back to that handily placed bolthole. It’s in Hebden Bridge in a former bank building and it’s called Coin. What’s behind the bar’s name? I suggest to co-owners Oliver Lawson and Chloe Greenwood it might be a reference to the ‘The Cragg Vale Coiners’. Up the hill in Heptonstall Shane Meadows is currently filming The Gallows Pole – a BBC adaptation of Ben Myers’ novel about real life 18th century counterfeiters in the Calder Valley. 

Already there’s a craft beer bar in nearby Mytholmroyd named Barbary’s after the alehouse the gang frequented. Or maybe Coin as the French for corner to match the site whose lofty windows look out on two streets? And, of course, in its previous incarnation as Lloyds Bank plenty of small change passed across the counter.

Oliver, poker-faced, agrees it might be any or all of those. He’s more forthcoming about the origins of the charcuterie board we’ve ordered along with a £10 trio of Lindisfarne oysters  and schooners of Garage IPA from Barcelona. 

The imports he’s most proud of are the finely sliced finocchiona, mortadella, coppa and prosciutto di San Daniele that circle a wedge of the bar’s home-made pâté de campagne on our platter. Having worked for the likes of Mana in Manchester and (along with Chloe) the Moorcock at Norland he has a fair handle on quality ingredients and that’s even more important when kitchen facilities are limited.

It’s a similar scenario at Flawd at New Islington Marina, Manchester. As part of their small plate offering Flawd source their cured meats from Curing Rebels in Brighton. It would have been easy for Coin to rely on local stars  Porcus in the hills above Todmorden, but ‘Slow Food Movement’ explorations in Italy left them smitten with the quality they found. 

“We wanted to do something different to anything else in the area,” Oliver tells us as he adds a house pickle accompaniment to the table. “The charcuterie prices are pretty much the same that we would pay for their British equivalent.”

The 100g meat plate is £13.95, a plate of five cheeses (two French, one Swiss, a Cheddar and Todmorden’s very own Devil’s Rock Blue) a tenner, while simple small plates range from £5.50 to £9.50. Our meal eventually costs me an extra £90 on top. Why? Because I was so enamoured of the charcuterie we were served that back home I placed my own order with the UK suppliers and friends of Oliver and Chloe, The Ham and Cheese Company. Formed on a Borough Market stall 15 years ago, they now work out of wholesale maturing rooms in a Victorian railway arch in Bermondsey. All they sell is from a network of small, ultra-sustainable, independent producers from across Italy (plus there’s a small Basque presence also).

The operation has a huge fan base among top London chefs specialising in Italian cuisine – Theo Randall, Joe Trivelli of the River Cafe and Murano’s Angela Hartnett, who says: “What I love about Elliott and Alison is their ability to source the most incredible salumi straight from the producer. The best I have tasted – plus my mother (with Italian roots) agrees!”

What really sold Ham and Cheese Co to me was a blog by Alison on the website entitled The Ethical Abbatoir. Its mission statement is immediate: “The first thing we ask a potential new producer is the number of pigs they slaughter a week. We know that this will often tell us more about the producer, their philosophy, and the quality of their product, than any other question.” This blog piece features their San Daniele provider, Prolongo, a family business that is so wedded to tradition (natural drying and ageing, salting, massaging and larding) that they only produce 7,000 hams a year).

It’s harder to work this way in the UK because the tradition of small-scale animal slaughter that these Italian producers sustain has all but disappeared. 

Not feeling able to run to a 2.3kg whole rare breed Mora Romagnoli mortadella from Aldo Zivieri, I had settled on a more modest finocchiona from Carlo Pieri, who has a small shop in the Tuscan village of Sant Angelo Scalo near Montalcino. He works just four pigs a week and uses a local abattoir he invested in to save it. His octogenarian mum picks all the wild fennel seeds and fennel pollen that season Carlo’s salumi. Check out my paean to fennel pollen.

As it turns out I end up accepting a substitute. Elliott tries to ring me, then texts the news that the next delivery from Tuscany is a week away; I can wait or try, at the same price, a new producer’s fennel salami, 50g smaller but normally more expensive, made from Cinta Senese, the queen of Italian pigs (above), so I’m actually getting a better deal. 

And so it proved. A perfect blend of creamy fat and sweetly cured flesh, the one from the Rosati family’s Azienda Agricola Fontanelle was remarkably even better than the Pieri we first tasted at Coin. We paired it with buffalo mozzarella and doused them in that ‘green’ olive oil I mentioned.

A final word, especially relevant as no shows proliferate across hospitality, by all means do as I did, and work your way through the producer pen pictures on the Ham and Cheese website, revealing a glorious food culture. Maybe even place an order. But do support a small indie like Coin, launching at the most difficult of times. 

I’m going back as soon as I can to road-test the rest of the menu and a whole raft of natural wines. As usual I’ll be making my own Negronis this Christmas, yet I also intend to try one of Oliver and Chloe’s. Before tackling another charcuterie platter, naturally.

Coin, Albert Street, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX7 8AH. 01422 847707.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels were set in a gritty, poverty-stricken Fifties Naples still recovering from the War. I came later than most to the best-selling saga of Elena and Lila, then devoured its 550,000 words with all the gusto I had brought to road-testing the pizzas of that chaotic, hypnotic city. 

Seventy years ago, as now, an idyllic escape route was offered by the hour ferry ride across the Gulf to Ischia. It was on a moonlit beach there that Elena lost her virginity in The Story of a New Name. My solo visit to this 17-square mile island out in the Bay of Naples was less life-changing but quite unforgettable.

Ischia teems with other ghosts – cinematic, musical and literary. This volcanic outcrop of hot springs and mud treatments may lack the sheer chocolate box glamour of rival Capri, but what an exotic, sometimes louche, backdrop it has been to the lives of numerous creative mavericks.

Capri boasts homespun Gracie Fields; Ischia WH Auden, William Walton, Luchino Visconti and their luminous guests. OK, much of this celebrity action was back in the Fifties and Sixties, when it was not the developed tourist destination it is today. The same is true of so many Mediterranean boltholes, yet against the odds Ischia retains a special dolce vita allure.

It helps that it has acted as location for at least 30 movies. It also hosts two annual film festivals. I gasped when I first reached Ischia Ponte, the picturesque extension of the island’s capital, Ischia Porte, and gazed upon the iconic citadel, Castello Aragonese, rearing 300ft above the sea across its causeway. Instantly recognisable from film noir The Talented Mr Ripley, where Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow play out their sardonic, sun-kissed endgame.

Off-screen movie melodrama came to Ischia four decades before when Richard Burton and Liz Taylor conducted their very open and controversial public affair on the island during the filming of Cleopatra in 1962. At the Bar Mara Caffe Internazionale in Forio town there’s no recognition they were once visitors alongside a starry cast that included Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis.

The regular presence at Maria’s Cafe of great English poet Auden is marked by a framed photo with then owner Maria Senese, while other visitors have terrace tables named after them. I sipped a wheat beer with my legs under ‘Truman Capote’. Auden lived nearby in the summer with boyfriend Chester Kallman, forming a gay enclave that sometimes scandalised residents of this workaday port.

There is no trace left of the house they rented, so I pursued my quest for Ischia’s bohemian past by walking north along the coast back to my hilltop hotel base, San Montano Resort & Spa via two surviving monuments to artistic giants. It was a stiff climb up to the pine-clad Zaro promontory in the north east of the island that is home both to film director Luchino Visconti’s Moorish-style villa, La Colombaia (The Dovecot), and Oldham-born composer Sir William Walton’s world famous garden, La Mortella (The Myrtles).

La Colombaia, set deep in forested grounds, was rescued from a decade of neglect and relaunched as a museum and international school of film and theatre 20 years ago. In these difficult times the whole complex is closed, possibly for good. The ghosts remain. Here the rampantly bisexual director held open house. If walls could tell tales. When Aristotle Onassis ditched Mara Callas for Jackie Kennedy, here Visconti comforted Callas, who he had directed in La Traviata at La Scala. All three were his friends and frequent house guests.

A couple of miles away is a place with an altogether less turbulent past. The gardens of La Mortella were 50 years in the making. In 1958 Lady Susana Walton started transforming a quarry on the property her husband Sir William had bought, opening it to the public in 1991. Today, run by a private foundation, it is a spectacular sub-tropical and mediterranean garden featuring a working concert amphitheatre, a museum devoted to the composer (best known for Facade and Belshazzar’s Feast) and his pyramid-shaped tomb overlooking the sea. I liked the risque murals in the quasi pagan ‘Temple of the Sun’ and the world’s largest water lily, the gender-bending victoria amazonica, that flowers in the morning as a white petalled female and later in the day reopens as deep crimson petals and male organs. 

If you visit one attraction in Ischia, make it La Mortella, but note it is shut to the public from until April 2 2022. During the winter month the garden can be visited via a guided tour each Thursday. You must book in advance.

I was lucky it was an hour’s walk away from marvellous San Montano,which itself boasts a spectacular outlook in all directions. Down to its private beach 100m below or along the coast towards Ischia Porte. Perfect for sunrises and sunsets. My room with its own balcony shared these sublime vistas.

It is such a haven much of the clientele seemed happy to while away the afternoons around the fabulous pool complex or make full use of the light-filled Ocean Blue Spa with its hand-made Vietri tiles before dining in formal but relaxed style al fresco on the terrace. Dishes featuring plenty of fish, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, salad and herbs offered a deft take on traditional local cuisine. The local produce is magnificent.

A dinner excursion down to Lacco Amena town was exciting, too. Here at the island’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Ristorante Indaco locally-born chef Pasquale Palamaro offers challenging tasting menus. It is situated in the L’Albergo della Regina Isabella, the only hotel on the island with its own beach – and a sense of a glorious celeb past. 

Both hotels have fabulous wine lists showcasing Campania on the mainland and Ischia’s own specific grape heritage. Key local producer is the acclaimed D’Ambra winery, which has championed varieties native to the island such as Biancolella, Forastera, and Rilla white varieties, and Piedirosso and Guarnaccia for reds.

I tasted the range in the company of Andrea d’Ambra, who is assisted in th winemaking these days by his daughters Marina and Sara, then went on a vertiginous car ride up  to the Frassitelli vineyard that is their pride and joy, four hectares clinging to a mountainside 600m up en route for Monte Epomeo, the slumbering volcano that dominates the island. Great walking all around, aided by a colour-coded footpath network.

Frassitelli, the flagship white produced here from Biancolella, also hits the heights. Peachy on the nose, it is piercingly fruity, with a hint of salt, on the palate. Visconti helped design distinctive labels for D’Ambra when they were finding their feet in markets beyond the island.

 Visible from the vineyards on the southern coast is Sant’Angelo, loveliest spot on the island. All whitewashed cubes and pricey boutiques and fish restaurants, it lies on an isthmus in the lee of a volcanic hump (they are everywhere – Lacco Amena has a tufa outcrop called Il Fungo because it resembles a mushroom. 

Here most of all on this lush, less developed side Ischia lives up to its sobriquet of the Emerald Isle. No cars or buses are allowed in Sant’Angelo, so it is a tranquil spot to people watch on the beach or grab a beer and a pizza.

I covered so much of the island on foot there was no time left to take to the hot springs. Those in the know recommend Negombo, which is next door to San Montano’s private beach. This ‘thermal garden’ covers 22 hectares with a variety of mineral baths, jacuzzi and Turkish bath. You buy a day pass. Probably a great place to relax and gather your strength before being ferried back from vibrant, villagey Ponte Ischia (below) to the urban maelstrom that is Naples.

Getting there

I flew into Naples and then travelled to Ischia by Alilauro hydrofoil on the 9th at 2.35pm (alt 3.30). Get there 45 minutes before and tell them you have luggage. Alilauro ticket office is at Molo Beverello (Napoli’s Port).

A version of this article first appeared on Manchester Confidential.

Priest Stranglers and Little Sparrows are not quite the odd bedfellows they sound. Both find common ground in the North Italian city of Trento (above), glorious gateway to the Dolomites. The Trentino has always been wrangled over by Italy and Austria; reaching its blood-stained apogee during the Great War. Witness the trenches and obsolete weaponry that still litter the mountain ridges. 

A benevolent legacy, though, is the intermingling of Germanic and Italian Alpine cuisines. That’s why you’ll find Strangolapreti (stranglers) and Spätzle (sparrows) sharing equal billing on the menus. The former, also known Strozzapreti, are usually a twisty pasta made up of just flour water and salt – but no eggs. Legend has it these were taken by the Church as tithes, leaving the peasants to fulminate against ‘priest-chokers’ or ‘priest-stranglers’ in anti-clerical hotbeds such as Emilia Romagna. Or maybe it’s just a reference to how you shape them by hand.

Up in Trento my Strangolapreti turned out to be a delicious local variant – spinach gnocchi. In truth, they weren’t a far remove from the Spätzle, noodles which do benefit from the presence of eggs. In the Swabian-German dialect the name translates as ‘little sparrows’, which they resemble in flight when shaped by a spoon in the traditional way.

From its South West German birthplace the dish has flown across all the Alpine regions, establishing itself everywhere and, most handily, is now nesting in a restaurant in Manchester, paying its own homage – The Spärrows.

Up on Red Bank chef/co-owner Franco Concli stays true to his own Trentino roots by making the Spätzle the traditional way, hand scraping them off the floury board and dropping them into simmering water. They are available both as savoury and, very apres ski, as a sweet, with cinammon, brown sugar and butter.

I like both the Spätzle and Gnocchi served simply with butter and sage (£7 for 110g), but on a recent visit chose the £9 version with guanciale (cured pork cheek), which was fabulously soothing. So too was a special of beetroot-tinctured agnoletti filled with ricotta and lemon. 

Russian style pelmeni dumplings with beef/pork garlic breadcrumbs (£8.50) were less satisfying. I should have gone for the Polish pierogi, little dumplings filled with melted cottage cheese and potato with soured cream and sauerkraut, a favourite from The Spärrows’ early days in a small archway near Manchester’s Victoria Station.

Since then the drinks list has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of co-owner, Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock. It is as focused as the cool but cosy fit-out of a much larger arch space. A sake and spirits expert, she has been very canny with a wine list that majors in the very Alpine territory occupied by most of the food. Reds such as Lagrein, Teroldego and a Pinot Nero, are all there, from the Trentino/Alto Adige with their better known country cousin, Zweigelt from Austria. Its producer Sepp Moser also supplies the well-priced house white, a moreish Gruner Veltliner (the thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc).

It all takes me back to Trento. I was in town for the annual Mostra dei Vini, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used. Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).

The jolly fest was held in the stunning Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier Gothic-Venetian loggia.

The castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged  in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. As I write this piece on our own Remembrance Day I’ve opened a bottle of Teroldego to salute the fallen on a front that most Britons have never heard of.

The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank (Green Quarter), Manchester, M4 4HF. 0161 302 6267. Word of warning: access is via a plain door with minimal signage.

Darkness at noon, torrential rain battering the skylight of my attic office. Can’t get out of my head how many private jets flew in the world leaders to that climate change summit in Glasgow and how ironic that doomsday weather has crippled the rail line up from London.

My antidote to all this gloom? Make a Tiramisù, obviously. In honour of Ado Campeol, whose Treviso restaurant, in North East Italy, was the birthplace of this modern Italian ‘classic’. If Neil Young is the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, Ado, who has died at the age of 93, is the ‘Godfather of Claggy Chill Cabinet Desserts in Restaurants With Checkered Plastic Tablecloths’.

Retro flashbacks. It doesn’t have to be like this, as I rally my tiramisù resources. Rum? Check. Marsala? Check. Eggs and sugar? Check. Dark (but not too dark) chocolate? Check. But just a small amount, augmented by cocoa powder. No espresso machine, but I’ll concoct a wired-up batch of dark roast Monsoon Malabar. OK, it will require a trip out, dodging the toppling trees, to garner a couple of tubs of mascarpone and some boudoir finger biscuits (or their equivalent. I’m tempted to factor in too, some Amaretti that have been a store cupboard fixture for too long, but would that be sacrilege?

Not really. Even a dish less of a parvenu than tiramisù, which dates back to those checkered seventies, is not set in stone (check out various versions below). It’s why every nonna across Italy treasures her own special ragu recipe. 

How many of those ragus, mind, have claims to aphrodisiac effects? This promotable urban myth stems from the word tiramisù, literally translated as “lift me up”, from the Treviso dialect’s “tireme su”. There’s a quite wonderful ‘heavy breathing’ Australian article, tracing the dish back to Treviso’s historic warren of brothels.

“For centuries, up until 1958 when brothels were shut by the government, the cake was served to reinvigorate exhausted clients inside so-called “casinos” (closed whorehouses) non-stop: Before, during and after heavy and multiple sex sessions to keep them going and the money flowing.”

The Campeols are sticking by their more edifying version of tiramisù’s origin. Aldo’s son Carlo, who now runs the Campeol family restaurant, has recalled: “When my mother Alba was breastfeeding me a few years earlier, she had turned to mascarpone mixed with sugar and biscuits soaked in coffee to keep her energy up, which is traditional in Treviso. Then, with her chef, she turned those elements into a pudding.”

According to that chef, Roberto Linguanotto, it was all down to an inspired accident while making vanilla ice cream. He dropped some mascarpone cheese into a bowl of eggs and sugar and, wowed by the pleasant taste, he told Alba. The pair then perfected the dessert by adding ladyfinger sponges soaked in coffee, and sprinkling it with cocoa.

The dish was never patented, pressure to win EU certification to validate (or ossify) the original recipe has been in vain and rival claimants have occasionally surfaced. That’s alway the case with these Eureka! moments in popular cuisine. Take universally revered ‘Indian speciality’ Chicken Tikka Masala. Tikkipedia (sorry Wikipedia) dates its creation back to the start of the Seventies and Glasgow’s Shish Mahal restaurant, where proprietor Ali Ahmed Aslam improvised a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices after a customer complained his Tikka was too dry. Apocryphal? Definitive?” Who knows?

Similarly, in my travel memories of Berlin I name checked Kadir Nurman as the creator of the donner kebab (again in those fertile early seventies), but other Turkish immigrants to Germany have also staked their claim, apparently), while the invention of Berlin fast food rival Currywurst is attributed to one Herta Heuwer way back in 1949. She was a dab hand with ketchup and curry powder sourced from British squaddie stationed there.

But back to my tiramisù, which has been chilling nicely while I have meandered through this maze of modern culinary classics. Alcohol wasn’t originally included in this family friendly recipe; now it inevitably features. My version, which I’m sampling contentedly, does. Laced with rum and marsala (oh and there was an inch of brandy to use up), it turned our really well. Now the sun has even come out. Saluti! 

Finnochio’s, a San Francisco night club, famed for its drag queens, just failed to make it past the Millennium, having traded for decades on the Italian slang word for homosexual, rent boy even. Why the generic name for fennel took on queer connotations I have no idea; I’m just happy to pay upfront for the culinary satisfaction Finnochio always brings – in all of its forms.

In particular I’m hooked on fennel pollen. It’s a speciality of Tuscany, but it is taken to the next level in Calabria, Italy’s deep south, where they call it “the spice of angels”. It soars way above earthbound fennel seeds.

Calabria, source of the finest wild fennel pollen, dubbed ‘spice of the angels

Hand harvested, like the equally labour intensive saffron, and dried in the sun, it comes at a premium (around £16 for 15g). Understandably, each flower head will only yield about a ¼ teaspoon of creamy yellowy pollen at the most. Yet it offers a defining taste of the Mediterranean summer with a little going a long way. A pinch will provide an explosion of liquorice, anise and citrus, which used sparingly, can add an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes. 

Combine it with Himalayan pink salt to create a rub for pork, use it to energise an orange and olive oil cake or simply finish off a pasta dish with a dash. I add it to stocks and soups obsessively.

You could, of course, harvest your own but wild fennel is not at its most intense in my Yorkshire hinterland. And bear in mind, ye who balk at picking wild mushrooms, fennel and poisonous hemlock (remember Socrates) are both in the same carrot family, sharing distinctive umbrella-shaped flower clusters; those of fennel are yellow, hemlock white.

If you’re still keen peruse these instructions by Californian master forager Hank Shaw, one of my go-to gurus in all things wild.

As an alternative, two reliable online sources of authentic fennel pollen are Spice Mountain and Sous Chef.

Fennel pollen and Florence fennel bulb are related but offer different culinary properties

So how does the pollen relate to fennel bulb?

A perennial home favourite of mine has been a fennel risotto with vodka (recipe here) from the River Cafe cookbooks, enhanced of late by the addition of my beloved pollen. It uses those white bulbs we know as Florence fennel, dubbed ‘pregnant celery’ by the writer Maggie Stuckey and adapted to be used as a vegetable, particularly good with fish.

Both wild and domesticated fennel are he same plant, Foeniculum vulgare, the feral stuff only differing because it rarely sets a bulb. Fennel is tough, appropriately enough for giving its name in Greece to Marathon (the place with much fennel). It is herbaceous, meaning it “dies” every year and regrows from the root in spring.

All that rebirth stuff chimes with the mythological (and health promoting) status of finocchio. It was inside a stalk of dried fennel that Prometheus, defying Zeus hid a charcoal lump from the chariot of the sun to bring the gift fire to humankind.

My little pot of fennel pollen is my own gift of pagan sunshine that keeps my kitchen civilised throughout the dreary winter.

One of my early lockdown treats, my alternative to baking banana bread and sourdough (or hoarding more loo rolls than my neighbours) was to order a small sample of English truffle from The Wiltshire Truffle Company, shaving the precious tuber into scrambled eggs, its heady aroma permeating the kitchen.

Since when I’ve moved onto more and more arcane foodie explorations – bottarga, colatura d’alici, mostarda di cremona, cottechino. There’s an Italian theme developing here, so if I want to resume my truffle fixation I should really hang on until next autumn when the white truffles of Alba in Piedmont make their seasonal bow. 

Not that seasons are crucial in our global society. The Wiltshire suppliers don’t just confine themselves to Italy, France and the ‘full English’ they’ve done so much to promote. Their latest mail-out trumpets the arrival of Australian winter truffle, akin to Périgord truffles from South West France – “widely considered by leading chefs to be the best black truffles on the planet”. Big claims and you could compare these Aussie beauts with the company’s regular shipments of Italian summer truffles from hunters in the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. If your funds run to it. Truffles are wallet-busters. At auction the most prized varieties could cost you over £5,000 per kilo.

A local truffle trader on the streets of Alba

The most exciting and affordable way to encounter them is to visit Alba at peak Truffle Festival Time. OK, it hosts auctions flogging the most perfect specimens to connoisseurs and entrepreneurs across the world, but even the smallest cafes offer affordable menus showing their pride in the product. I know I’ve been there. And also, cutting out the middle men, I’ve trekked with hunters in the ancient forests as they unearth secret truffle patches with their specially trained dogs. Ditto in Oregon, USA, where I was invited to an altogether more academic Truffle Festival…

• There’s a documentary in cinemas, The Truffle Hunters, which is set around Alba and another UK online truffle merchant called TruffleHunter, which has a fine reputation. They’ll also sell you a professional standard truffle shaver. I’m wary of much that passes as truffle oil; truffle butter can be a better bet for a cheaper option to the real tuber.

But first, what exactly makes the white truffle so special?

Truffles are the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus usually found in close association with the roots of trees, their spores dispersed through fungivores (animals that eat fungi). Hence it was traditionally pigs that were trained to hunt these coveted delicacies. These days it’s more likely to be dogs. White truffles are more highly prized than the black. Growing symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar and beech and fruiting in autumn, they can reach 12 cm diameter and 500g, though they are usually much smaller, between 30g and 110g. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling which releases their powerful scents, not appreciated by everyone (let’s call it olefactory Marmite). There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year.

Fresh truffles should be consumed more or less immediately although they will last for up to seven days in a domestic fridge.

Once upon a time in Alba 

I’d never associated hedonism with tramping through thick forest undergrowth in the dusk. Peering to see if a lean setter-cross has found the ideal tree root to dig frantically under. I am not alone here in the heart of Alba truffle country in an October unseasonally warm. Around me 15 other paid-up ‘Hedonistic Hikers’, cameras at the ready, also await a tuber epiphany. 

Our guides, trading under the name Hedonistic Hiking, are proud to include an authentic white truffle hunt in season as part of their ‘Jewels of Piedmont’ (Piemonte) walking tour. It’s not everyone’s idea of holiday heaven but it sets serious foodies salivating. Those who know what the fuss is all about when the autumn mists that give their name to the famous local grape variety, Nebbiolo vines coat the valleys of North West Italy’s Langhe region and the autumn wine harvest is nearly over. It’s now Truffle Time, all the way to Christmas.

The following day we’ll indulge in an early evening aperitivo and do the ‘passeggiata’, strolling around the truffle-scented squares and alleys of regional capital Alba, where the annual Truffle Fair is on to celebrate – and auction off – this lucrative delicacy. 

Still for the moment, at the gourmet equivalent of the coalface, there’s work to be done. 

Truffle accessories aren’t strictly necessary

Our truffle hunter, Marco Varaldo, expresses faith in his rookie hound, Laika, so new she doesn’t feature in his publicity material. Marco has a day job, but hunting for the lucrative truffles, with their intoxicating, almost aphrodisiac scent, is his passion. 

The white variety, the ‘tartufo bianco’, rarer and more expensive than the black and found mostly famously in this corner of Italy, is revered the world over by gastronomes (and expensive restaurants). Admiration isn’t universal – their earthy assertiveness nauseates some sensitive palates. I’m not in that camp.

The white truffle can’t be artificially cultivated. This is part of its unique appeal. They are sought for in certain jealously guarded locations, hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees. You train your dog to recognise the pungent aroma and then snuffle them out of the soil and leaf mould. It all seems a mite random as Laika zips and zig-zags around, scattering leaf mould, but then…

The novice truffle hound comes up trumps

I don’t know what the Piemontese for Eureka is, but it is time to yell it. The pooch apprentice has struck gold – ‘white gold’. Marco quickly straddles Laika, snatching a knobbly clay-covered lump from her jaws, pocketing it and rewarding the dog with a far less expensive treat. We clamber to see what the fuss is about. Marco delicately brushes the muck off the white truffle and we all commune with its pervasive perfume.

Over the next couple of hours we collect further specimens and, later, part of the haul, assiduously shaved over the local tajarin pasta, will be the centrepiece of our supper at a little local restaurant called Mange. When truffles are abundant, near the source, they can be a surprisingly democratic treat. Just a few slices elevate a local beef dish, below.

Truffle heaven on a plate. It doesn’t get much better

We were staying in La Morra, which follows the pattern of all the settlements in the Langhe, which recently attained World Heritage Status. They sit on a hilltop above the vines, dominated by a castle, a church, usually both, and offer ample opportunity to taste the wines that have made this corner of Piemonte famous – Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco (in one small enclave) and, above all, Barolo. 

One of of our walks, from our hotel, the Corte Gondina, to Barolo village itself, took in the family-run winery of GD Vajra at Vergne. I’ve been there before in the early summer to taste their excellent wines and, now the harvest complete, was welcomed back like an old family friend. Piemonte’s like this. It doesn’t feel like some calculating tourist honeypot. You meet it on its own terms. Just like the truffle.

The Ponzi vineyards at the heart of Oregon’s wine country

Oregon’s wine country is also home to truffles (and another festival)

The Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is the epicentre of Oregon wine, notable for Pinot Noir that can arguably rival Burgundy’s silkiest reds. And where there’s great wine there’s usually a thriving food culture. Yet until I was invited to join the The Oregon Truffle Festival I had no idea the rolling hills around McMinnville are also home to both black and white varieties plus four Oregon natives. 2021 pandemic strictures meant it has gone virtual (you can pick up goodies via an online marketplace – truffle stout anyone?).

Truffle hunting Oregon style and there’s a reward here

All this is obviously off a normal tourist’s radar, but rolling Willamette Country’s wineries and fine restaurants aren’t. McMinnville makes a fine base for exploring. Stay in its red brick historic district, perhaps at the oddball Hotel Oregon, which has a rooftop bar and is decorated with relics of the building’s 115-year history and the town’s famous 1950 UFO sighting. You might also run into the ghost of a former resident, nicknamed John.

As in all the towns along the route, I grabbed a craft beer, this time at the convivial Golden Valley Brewery and Tap before sampling a festival special truffle vodka and local wine at the Elizabeth Chambers Cellars, one of many tasting rooms in the town. 

You’ll probably find it more fun to drive out to one of the country wineries to do your sampling. It sounds boringly generic but Willamette Valley Vineyards offers exceptional quality. Wine and truffles – the perfect marriage either side of the pond.

Truffle carpaccio – our festival reward