virtual walking tours

Easing back into real life after a holiday is always tough, especially after an extended vacation of endless summer days in a sunny daze. What I find is a healthy alternative to pining for white-sanded beaches while curled up in a ball in a dark room is going on virtual tours of my favourite places on Google Maps.

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Portovenere

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Rugged and rocky beaches, twisting cobble roads and gelato stores on every corner; Portovenere is my favourite hidden Italian gem. It sits on a shagged outcrop, nestled high above the Mediterranean in Northern Italy – just down the road from the picturesque (and tourist-saturated) Cinque Terre. As the coast continues from Riomaggiore, the railway veers into La Spezia, taking the tourists with it, making a cramped bus trip the easiest way of reaching Portovenere. Snack on focaccia and breathe in the warm, salty air – if you’re lucky, you might even see a wedding in the shady piazza.

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Lisbon

Lisbon is a city of great variety; flat coastal promenades and buildings perched on hilltops, wide open plazas and windy little side streets. Essentially there is something for everyone. I love walking along Avenida Ribeira das Naus; watching the ferries crossing the harbour, revelling at the Praça do Comércio and visiting the markets. The best thing about visiting the city on street view is that you avoid all of the throngs of tourists!

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Vienna

One day in Vienna and you are without a doubt that that this city was once the centre of Europe; the opulence and elegance of each buildings’ façade is unlike anything I have ever seen. Even though it’s not as easy to virtually walk about the city as most other places, it is one of the easiest places in the world to just sit and stare at the chalk-white buildings and watch the world go by.

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limoncello granita

We all know Italy as the land of pizza and pasta, beaches almost as beautiful as the people and so much sunshine it seems unfair to the rest of the world. It is one of the most widespread and well-known food localities, and we all have a favourite Italian dish which has no doubt, been bastardised by inauthentic interpretation. But there is so much more to discover than pizza and pasta; it is a nation of food just waiting to be discovered.

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Woody smoke fills the air, competing with the noise of the restaurant crammed to the brim with patrons giddy off wine and delicious food. An evening in the Ligurian countryside is always an evening of discovery; a hearty meal of panigacci (see above; a dish that I am too timid to ever attempt to recreate!) followed by this boozy little treat: Limonita.

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Pale and tangy, slushy with a little crunch, limonita is essentially a limoncello granita. Icy and easy to drink, it is a great after dinner digestive on balmy summer nights – and so easy to make at home!

I have had to do a little experimentation with this recipe because nothing I have found on the internet sounds anything like the way it was explained to me – although that could just be due to a lack of a common language. You might want to adjust the quantities of each element, but this is how it got my tastebuds tingling.

Step one: fill a champagne flute with crushed ice.

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Step two: add a shot of cream.

Step three: add a shot of limoncello.

Step four: add a tiny dash of vodka.

Finally, give it a bit of a stir and you’re ready to go!

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The trick is to get the balance of cream and ice just right; it is essentially a dessert drink, so fresh and creamy that you should be able to close your eyes and feel like you’re drinking ice-cream with the zesty lemon flavour lightly prinking your tongue.

If you are in the mood for a for something with a little more punch, you can make a dairy-free version; replace the cream with a shot of vodka and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and away you go.

oh oh limoncello

“So you just shot it?” “Yeah, that’s how we do it in Italy.” My introduction to limoncello, followed by an acidic burning sensation lancing down my throat, a sensation I can only imagine is not too dissimilar to gasoline. Save to say, you aren’t actually meant to shot limoncello, and a gaggle of Italians chuckling at the sight of two spluttering tourists confirmed that it was not how they do it in Italy.

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Limoncello is sweet and syrupy, glowing yellow like the warm Italian lemons which lend it both its name, and its tang. Served ice cold, the subtle aromas are perfectly refreshing on a balmy summer’s night. Aromas that I found out the hard way, are followed up by a brick wall of hard liquor – commercially brewed with an alcohol content our about 24%, many Italian nonni consider themselves limoncello-producing connoisseurs, who opt for a staggeringly higher number.

Even though limonello is seen as an exotic after-dinner liqueur, it is by no means difficult to produce – I tried it, and here’s proof.

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Step one is relatively easy, buy a big jar, some lemons and some alcohol. Any kind of alcohol. Okay, not quite, but almost – any non-flavoured, clear grain alcohol. I chose vodka because the alternative was gin, and gin is reminiscent of rather awful university days. If you are feeling like a bit of a big spender, opt for 100 proof; 80 proof will give you a slightly different end product but will do (that’s what I did, so I will talk about those difference later).

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With a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove the rind from one lemon for each 100ml of alcohol you are using. Things to take into consideration include, but are not limited to, the size of your jar – mine was a 500ml jar so I used 400ml of 80 proof vodka and therefore, 4 lemons.

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Make sure you have included as little of the lemons’ pith as possible, dump your lemon rind into your jar and plonk the vodka on top. Screw the lid on top of the jar, place it into a dark cupboard and there, the hardest part is done.

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Give the jar a swirl at least once a day to get the flavours mingling- they will be well mingled in around for days, but they longer you leave it, the deeper and more infused it will become. I waited a month, I dare you to do the same.

Once you are sick of waiting, buy a funnel and make sure you have drunk the leftover vodka so you are left with a nice, big, empty bottle. Strain the warm, golden liquid and transfer into the bottle – take a moment to truly take in its beauty. Then take a moment to make some sugar syrup. The amount of sugar syrup you will need depends solely on your tastebuds and partly on the strength of the alcohol you used. If you used 80 proof (like me), you will need to use less than if you used 100 proof, otherwise you risk making it too sweet and altering the chemical balance which can lead to you limoncello freezing solid (also, like me). Using the previous lemon algorithm, begin with 1/8 cup of sugar, and 1/8 cup of water per lemon – you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.

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Heat the syrup until the sugar has dissolved and leave to cool slightly before adding to the lemony liquor. Once it has cooled, pop it in the freezer until it is ready to serve. Chances are, if you used 80 proof it might still freeze, if that happens, just keep it in the fridge and serve with an ice cube.

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So, how do I think this little experiment went?

failure: technically
success: practically
delicious: obviously

place the peppers in the pan

I must be in a very Italian mood at the moment because last night I had the biggest craving for Peperonata that I don’t think I would have made it through the night if I hadn’t made it immediately… so I did. Peperonata is an Italian stew made with bell peppers, with a consistency somewhere between a pasta sauce and a chutney, it is a real comfort food that works well in so many situations.

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I wish I had a wonderfully exotic story for where I first came across this little beauty, but in fact I actually tried it for the first time at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market in New Zealand many years ago. However I was reintroduced to it in Italy, where I learnt to make it, and it was surprisingly easier than I had originally thought.

What I love about this recipe is the simpleness of it; essentially one main ingredient – bell peppers, yet it is packed with so much flavour. The original concept of this recipe was to use a large amount of peppers at once, at times when they were in abundance or excess. This is not so much the case anymore with most vegetables being accessible all year round, but it’s nice to have these kinds of recipes in your arsenal when certain vegetables become really cheap.

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Start off by cooking one finely diced onion and several smashed cloves of garlic in olive oil. I sometimes add a tablespoon of sugar to give the dish a bit more sweetness, stir occasionally until the onion is soft and slightly caramelised. Cut five bell peppers into large square shape pieces; about eight per pepper. I used red peppers but you can use any colour, a mixture of different coloured peppers will give you a nice vibrantly coloured dish at the end. Place the pepper pieces into the pan, skin-side down until they begin to blister; this should take a couple of minutes. Add one cup of red or white wine, a dash each of apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar. Using red wine will give the dish a fuller flavour so it depends on how your plan on serving it. For a tarter taste, substitute the wine for red wine vinegar.

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Once the wine and vinegars have been absorbed, add pepper, a teaspoon of rock salt and your choice of herbs. I used rosemary, thyme and a bay leaf. Depending on the season, your timeframe or your pantry, add a can of tomatoes or six fresh diced tomatoes and simmer until it has reached a consistency that you like the look of.

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Serve with pasta, on toasted bread like bruschetta, or on the side of a juicy piece of steak or fish.

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fifty shades of yellow

I have posted a recipe like this before, but this version is a little bit more decadent. I am going through a bit of a phase inspired by macarons (stay tuned!), not only the crunchy chewiness of them but also the sweet and savoury dichotomy that the ground almonds adds. And as we come into summer I begin craving all things Italian; pasta, tomatoes covered in olive oil, and polenta.

Vernazza - Liguria, Italy
Vernazza – Liguria, Italy

Polenta is one of those ingredients which a lot of people aren’t too fussed over. Rightly so, often it is not prepared in the most interesting of ways; needing to be cooked in milk or served with a lot of cheese to gain any memorability. This method of cooking is very heavy – the opposite of what you want in summer. In this recipe that I have borrowed from Nigella Lawson, polenta (along with ground almonds) is used as a substitute for flour, which makes for a lighter, less stodgy batter. The polenta balances the sweetness of the almonds and the lemoncello adds a bit of tartness, which never goes amiss.

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Nigella’s recipe calls just for lemon drizzle over top, while I served mine with cinnamon whipped cream for presentation. I know what you’re thinking; whipped cream, lemoncello and sweet almond meal batter – how decadent is this going to be?! That’s a fair enough thought, the lemoncello can be substituted for lemon juice, the whipped cream can be omitted and this cake is meant to be 16 servings, so small slices is key. Everything in moderation!

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Beat 200grams of butter with 200grams of sugar. If you don’t have a pair of kitchen scales (I seem to have misplaced mine), 200grams is just less than 1cup. Mix 200grams of ground almonds and 100grams of polenta, 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder is optional here. Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the butter. Mix, add an egg, mix and repeat. All up that equals three eggs, but one egg can be swapped for half a banana although eggs will make a fluffier batter. I used one egg and one banana. Mix through the zest of one lemon, transfer to a cake tin and bake at 180°C for 40 minutes.

a lot of beige
a lot of beige

While your cake is baking, gently heat 125grams of sugar with 4tablespoons of lemoncello (or lemon juice) and a dash of vanilla (which can also be omitted if I am being too decadent for your tastebuds). Bring to the boil and simmer until your cake is done. Softly poke the top of your cake with a fork or toothpick and pour over the syrup. The syrup will infuse through the cake, making it moist with a lovely lemon zing.

I topped mine with whipped cream and some dried orange and lemon zest. Other options include candied fruit of freshly picked spring flowers.

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the cheese diaries

Hobbies are a good thing to have, we all need hobbies. I have been reading a lot lately about artisanal cheese makers and the ever-expanding market in which these cheese makers have found themselves in. So, to mark two years since I arrived in France, I decided to try my hand at home-crafted cheese. I have his romantic idea of moving to the countryside somewhere and becoming an artisanal handyman, where I would make cheese from the goats I milked, and make jams and preserves from the fruit on the trees that I prune and tend to.

Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain
Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain

Obviously, with this post celebrating ‘French-ness’ I should be making a French cheese; camembert, gruyere, reblochon, etc. But these cheeses are pretty difficult to make and I don’t want to start my cheese making career off with a failure, so I think I will just work up to that.

To start off with, I decided to make ricotta. Ricotta is an Italian cheese similar to the Spanish ‘queso fresco’. The name means ‘re-cooked’, i.e. the milk is heated to a higher temperature than other cheeses. The milk being heated to a higher temperature means that ricotta is not a live culture cheese, it does not need time to develop mould over time in order to gain its flavour texture and of course, its smell. Cheeses like ricotta, feta and queso fresco can all be eaten the same day they are made. This is good news if you have a short attention span and love cheese.

nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta
nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta

Cheese production can be on as small or as large of a scale as you want it to be, for this reason instead of a recipe, I will give you somewhat of a maths equation… for every 1 litre of milk, you will need 7.5mls of rennet or other acid and 1.5 cups of boiling water.

Firstly, let’s talk rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that curls milk, it is naturally produced my calves to solidify milk particles and make them digestible. Rennet is also the reason why some vegetarians do not eat cheese- as it is an animal by-product. There is such thing as vegetarian rennet if you want to make vegetarian cheese. When I learnt to make queso fresco in Spain, we used lemon juice as the acid does a similar job. I experimented with a mixture of rennet, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar.

ALWAYS sterilise your equipment
ALWAYS sterilise your equipment

Rennet is a sure-fire way of knowing your ricotta is going to work out and the concentration is always going to be the same. Lemon juice doesn’t have this consistency as one lemon is going to vary from the next. Apple cider vinegar creates a nice tart and dry ricotta, so it is perfect to use if you want to cut the ricotta into slices. If you are more partial to crumbly cheese, then I suggest you use lemon juice.

Ricotta can be served sweet or savoury. For the sweet version, add a teaspoon of sugar to your milk, for savoury, add a teaspoon of salt. I did both versions and both are delicious, I also added a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon to my sweet ricotta.

Place your milk in a large saucepan and warm on a very low heat; you only need it get it to about 22°C – or just below room temperature. If you have a milk thermometer you can use it, if not use your judgement after a couple of minutes. With a cheese like ricotta, the creamier the better! So use full fat milk, the highest fat content I could find was 4% so I suggest you look for something similar.

Next, take it off the heat and add your rennet or acidifier. There is no need to stir it as the curds will automatically cling to each other. Leave the milk to curdle for at least an hour.

curds and whey
curds and whey

After an hour, a large clump of curds will have formed in a sea of whey. Cut through the curds with a wooden spoon and pour over the boiling water; this will help separate the curds and the whey even further. Leave for an additional ten minutes before straining the curds through a cheese cloth and placing it in a mould to set. Discard the whey if you like, but it is very high in protein so it can be added to a smoothie for a bit of a health kick!

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Place the mould in the refrigerator for another hour to get rid of as much liquid as possible, now it is ready to eat! You could also place it is a bath of high concentrated salt water for several more hours if you want to turn it into feta (highly recommended also).

What I love about ricotta is that it is so versatile; eat it as it is, incorporate it into a salad, use as the base ingredient of a cheesecake or spread on toast with a drizzle of honey.

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My next entry into my cheese diary will be a harder cheese, I am not sure what though. My two choices are blue vein cheese or camembert, camembert will be a bit more difficult, but do you think I am up for the challenge? What do you think?

la dolce vita

AUTHOR’S NOTE: There is not really anything sweet in this post as the title would suggest. If anything, my recent trip along the coastline of Liguria, in Italy, was completely salty. The Mediterranean Sea, the fresh focaccia bread, the cured meats; essentially it was perfect.

Our trip was somewhat spontaneous, aside from the fact that it had kind of been in the works since February, we had planned very little else. All we knew was that my friend was going to be in Florence on this day and I found a cheap ticket to Genoa for the same day, so we knew we would at least be in the same country. So the day before I was set to leave we Skyped to make a bit more of a plan; we would meet the next day in La Spezia, I would send out some requests on the website CouchSurfing and hope that someone replied and would let us stay with them. My friend had no phone and I would have no internet access until unless I managed to find some McDonald’s wifi or something, so we really had to just hope that the other person would be there when we arrived.

So, feeling a little nervous about the whole situation I headed to the station at 6am and headed to Genoa, where I got a train to La Spezia. A train that was meant to take 90 minutes but ended up taking 2 and a half hours, thanks Italian train system, you’re a winner! But that was okay, we found some free wifi and were disappointed to find that no one had replied to our requests, maybe it was because we sent the requests about 18 hours before arriving, oops.

Luckily, my friend remembered that she once met this guy who lived nearby, we contacted him and we could stay with him and his family from the next day. We then happened to find two Norwegian backpackers who were in the same situation as us and the four of us managed to find a nice little hotel we could stay at for the night at a very reasonable price. It looked like everything had really fallen into place!

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The next few days were spent lying in the sun, swimming in the sea (which was at a perfect temperature), eating a lot of amazing food and struggling to communicate with our friend’s family who spoke no/very little English.

LA Spezia is the gateway town to Cinque Terre, ‘Five Lands’; a collection of five isolated little towns on the coast, overlooking the sea, full of beautiful old buildings and amazing views. The towns are linked by little paths which you can walk if you have the time and energy, otherwise the train goes past every town pretty regularly. Each town has it’s own unique feel and attraction. Montorosso is the biggest, the most touristy and has a proper sand beach.

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Vernazza is know for having a beautiful church that overlooks the water, it also has a collection of nice little boutiques and shops. However, I would recommend climbing across the rocks past the marina area and swimming there, it is less crowded than Montorosso and the water has less limestone in it, so it doesn’t hurt your eyes so much.

Riomaggiore is full of little pathways so it is the easiest to explore, it is also full of little restaurants and takeaway places specializing in seafood, such as the Mamma Mia! Takeaways which was a personal favorite, mainly based on the name. It is also the starting point for the Via Dell’Amore, or the Road of Lovers, the shortest, easiest and apparently nicest walk. Unfortunately it was closed so we could only look at the walk.

This path joins Riomaggiore with Manarola. This was the last town we went to, after a five minute stop at Corniglia, so we arrived as the sun was beginning to set. The sunlight reflecting off the water was amazing and I would say this was probably the most beautiful of the five towns.

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Liguria is the birthplace of pesto and focaccia bread, so obviously the food is amazing, and we were staying with an Italian family so everything we ate was authentic! We had a Sunday afternoon picnic in the sunshine, at a 300 year old house with a 90 year old grandfather up in a small mountain village but the absolute highlight was discovering panigacci.

Panigacci is a dish that is traditional to LA Spezia, you will find it nowhere else in Italy. It is essentially a pancake but it can also be boiled at eaten like any other kind of pasta. When I first saw it I thought that it looked pretty easy to make and I mentally added it to my list of things to attempt but I was then warned that not only is the batter extremely difficult to get right, the cooking process involves heating terracotta plates in a fire and then layering the mixture in between them all, and knowing how long to leave them without burning it, so I decided to just enjoy it this once and not make it ever.

It was truly a versatile dish, we ate a three course meal with each dish containing panigacci. First we had it boiled and served with a variety of sauces, then the crispy pancake version with cheese and cured meats and even as dessert! The crunchy pancakes served with nutella was delicious!

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Such deliciousness topped off with a nice glass of limonata, perfection!

If anyone is brave enough to attempt making panigacci I would love to hear about it!