Friday, 27 March 2015

La Sacra di San Michele, Piemonte

If you were to ask me where my favourite place in Italy is, I'd probably say anywhere in the North mountains. Whilst the Dolomites absolutely stole my heart forever and ever, Piemonte really is not lagging far behind (it helps that it's an absolute cheese fest over there too). 

In December last year, Michele and I took a trip to the Sacra di San Michele (or Saint Michael's Abbey). As we rounded a corner and came out from behind a hill, we could see this formidable building looming ahead on the crest of a hill. It looks more like a creation in a computer game than a real abbey and is much more impressive in real life I assure you!

It was pretty empty when we got there, with it being early December. We have this terrible habit of saying that we're going to eat on the road and then being awful snobs and not stopping off anywhere because we don't like the look of the restaurants we pass. This was one of those days and as we progressed up the windy road and into the mountains where our pickings became all the slimmer for our fussiness, passing closed osteria after closed osteria, my rumbling stomach became more and more anxious.

Luckily there was a small cabin-like cafe open just metres from the Sacra and we took refuge from the cold in there, eating excellent rolls stuffed with Toma (a Piemontese cheese), anchovies and salsa verde. They also sold Guido Castagna chocolates which, if you haven't already stocked up on from nearby Torino, you should definitely try.

The building itself is jaw-droppingly impressive up close. However these awe-inspiring heights just made me feel incredibly sorry for the hoards of pilgrims who would have walked miles and miles to reach the Sacra and after having climbed partway up into the mountains would have been faced with even more stairs!

And then even more stairs!

This stairway was called the Scalone dei Morti or the (Big) Stairway of the Dead and until recently it was lined with the skeletons of monks to illustrate this. I'm pretty sure most of the pilgrims were ready to join them having trekked all this way, just to be faced with more stairs.

Once you've made it to the top you can relax for a while and take in some of the breathtaking architecture, sculpture and scenery such as the beautiful Porta dello Zodiaco above.

And the sensation of being in a video game or some kind of fantasy novel persists.

Back when Michele was still sporting a moustache from Movember! He now has a fully-fledged bushy beard once more.

Walking around the building, you get the most fantastic views of the Alps. I love hiking but I'm pretty glad we were wrapped up warm and sheltering by the Abbey rather than being out on the peaks that day.

It's an incredible place; where the Abbey fuses with the rock, you get a real sense of man meeting nature and the two forces adapting around each other. Monuments in the cult of St. Michael are typically positioned in hard to reach places (St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall for example) and can be plotted on a straight line across Europe.

Some parts of the Abbey show the centuries of abandonment (from 1622 - 1835). The site is believed to have been occupied since Roman times where it is thought to have been used as a military stronghold. Whilst the exact age of the Abbey itself is still under speculation, there is evidence that some parts were constructed as early as the 10th century due to the Byzantine influences in the crypt. But whether you're a history nut or somebody who just loves the timeless feel of buildings older than we could really, truly comprehend, it's a real treasure of the North.

We were pretty lucky to have the entire place to ourselves (bar the occasional monk passing through the halls) and I would definitely recommend visiting in off-peak times. On the other hand, our trip to Piemonte last March (which I still haven't blogged about, ohmygod) proved that the region is probably best April-September when everything is actually open.

During off-peak months, the Abbey is closed on Mondays but otherwise is open all year round.
More information can be found here:

Monday, 2 March 2015

Eating without sugar

I briefly mentioned in a recent post that I've given up sugar for Lent.

This has caused all manner of confusion for me and my housemates. Although I'm the one who called it, I have since passed all responsibility into their hands (they're kind of acting as my Lent managers). I originally specified that it was a complete cutting out of cakes, chocolate, biscuits, tarts, desserts, puddings... basically everything that is good in the world. I'm eating fruit (and so much of it now I can't have any of the aforementioned!) and obviously things like porridge oats are allowed so I've been having fruity porridge made with nut milk for breakfast which is sweet enough to make me feel like I'm cheating.

Which brings me to this dilemma: am I allowed to eat sugar-free goodies? What if we made a crumble made with apples, ripe plums, porridge oats, coconut oil and raisins? Would I be allowed to eat that or does it count as a dessert under my Lent specifications?

I have no idea, they have no idea and most likely, neither do you. But I think I might go for it because we have a punnet of plums that are decidedly wilting.

The closest I've been to breaking the rules was over the weekend. I went on a camping trip to the New Forest with the university's Expedition Society. It was such a great trip and so much fun but the cold weather, sheeting rain and long hikes meant that our appetites were up. Which was all the more tragic when we ran out of gas and couldn't find any more for the camping stove. The only food we had that could by eaten raw by that point was a packet of hot cross buns and some cheese - so I turned a bun into a cheese sandwich and crossed my fingers that nobody was watching (Jesus didn't get to bend the rules in the desert, as my housemates would remind me - we're not religious but they like to evoke the desert whenever they can).

Here are some other ways to keep yourself going when you've given up the good stuff:

  1. Fall in love with fruit and vegetablesAs a vegetarian this one has been pretty easy for me but it's been made even easier by my recent decision to set up a regular delivery from Riverford Farm. I bought one of their cookbooks on a recent trip to Totnes when my Mum and sister came to stay and was setting up a standing order that evening. My small fruit and veg box costs around £13 a week - as long as I keep my cupboards stocked with the essentials (pasta, oil, stock, tins of beans etc.) this will be all the shopping I need to do! It was so exciting waking up last Friday to see the box nestled just behind the garden wall, who knew organic produce could feel like Christmas come early?
  2. Get creative with your baking
    Just before Lent began, I was in my brownie baking prime. Some friends baked the most incredible brownie for my birthday in January and once I'd prised the recipe off them, I set about making it as chocolatey as I could (i.e, how many chocolate chunks could I add before the mixture was barely coating them). Now I've turned my hand to bread and am pleased to announce that my first loaf/giant bun thing was a success! This time I stole the recipe off an Italian friend who is the most gifted baker I've ever come across (he could make serious money from his focaccia!) Mine wasn't quite as fantastic as his but my olive, smoked sundried tomato and oregano bread was delicious with a drizzle of oil and a chunk of grana padano
  3. Say hello to spices
    Last time I gave up sugar (to show Michele I could do it and that I wasn't an addict - I lasted two weeks) he introduced me to the concept of sprinkling cinnamon on sliced oranges. It's an instant favourite and tastes like summer and Christmas all at once! Even better it feels like such a treat and I like to top my plate with a scattering of blueberries added flavour.

It's only a couple of months until Easter now but whilst I used to be counting down the days until my chocolatey reawakening, I'm actually not too bothered about eating the things I've cut out. Perhaps this could be the start of a permanent change?

Actually scrap that. The existence of dark chocolate digestives says: probably not.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Pancake Porn

So after my last, very brief post at 8 this morning whilst I was still in bed and debating how long I could leave it before getting ready for my 9am lecture... I had a look at some of the pictures from last year's Pancake Day and decided to post them up here.

On the day itself, I had a (very) little party at mine and Michele's flat. There was a public transport strike in Milan that day so half the guests couldn't make it but Martina cycled over and Mollie turned up a couple of hours later after a lengthy battle with the few buses that were still running and a massively-congested, car-ridden Milan (that's commitment!)

I started off with a savoury version of the big, fat American-style pancakes I love so much - broccoli and parmesan fritters. These bad boys were so good I was eating the batter raw.

I made sure we had a good selection of toppings for everyone to choose from. There were fresh berries, oranges, mascarpone, maple syrup, pistacchio cream, dulche de leche, Nutella and fruity jams.

So naturally things got pretty messy pretty quickly as we scrambled to see just how many toppings we could cram onto one pancake.

How I think I look when I'm eating...

...and how I actually look

Once the initial frenzy had died down and we were consuming pancakes at an acceptable rate, I dressed a stack up for Michele's Dad who lives in the apartment downstairs.

Much to the disappointment of my guests!

I'm so excited about making these again later tonight, just sad that I won't be with Michele, Martina or Mollie for another night of giggles. I miss living there so much!

If you want my basic pancake recipe for tonight, click here (if it's not too late - it's almost 6pm here which means most Brits will have had their dinner and will be supping on their evening cuppa if stereotypes are to be believed).

I'll be smothering mine with mascarpone, drizzling them with honey and scattering a handful of blueberries over the top with a good grating of orange rind on the top to finish it off. Luckily most of the guys coming over tonight prefer crepes meaning I'll be able to leave the crowds to my crepe-o-phile flatmates and spend the evening catering for myself (ha). 

Happy pancake day!