Thursday, December 31, 2009

First Kiss for a Happy New Year

Wishing you an (early) bright and happy start to the New Year - by way of W. Bougereau's 1890 il Primo Bacio (otherwise known as l'Amour et Psyché).

Brings back happy memories, for me, of wandering the cobbled streets of Citta di Castello (where I was studying Italian a few years ago) when I purchased this lovely (post card) image from the Duomo shop. Tanti Auguri! Buon Capodanno!

PS image in the public domain - see Wikimedia Commons - as the copyright has expired.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas spice tea

Instead of buying costly commercial herbal teas, why not make your own deliciously healthy, warming blend? I love the seasonal spice notes of cinnamon and ginger and regularly buy tea bags that feature their flavours.

Sometimes though, I crave something more naturally potent; so, on impulse and in the mood to christen my new teapot, I decided to experiment. I peeled and chopped a 6cm piece of fresh root ginger and broke a cinnamon stick into smallish pieces. Into the pot they went, with boiling water poured over...

I left them to infuse (and enthuse) for about 15 minutes and the result was a brilliantly warming, naturally sweet and spicy 'tea'. Yum! As good once it's cooled, as it is hot; since both the ingredients are woody/roots they can be topped-up with water again up to three times. Cheers and good health!

PS When I do enjoy commercial varieties, Pukka and Hari Tea feature in my favourite mug.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lord Seb's top running tip

This is one item that comes firmly under the category of things I wish I'd known earlier...

Listening to Lord Seb Coe, on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, the other day, I was intrigued to hear him talking about the way his father trained him, to enhance his medal-winning running prowess. Seb related how he was set super-challenging tasks running up hills but emphasised how his dad would always collect him in the car, rather than ever allow him to run down hill. Lord Coe explained how downhill running is when the majority of damage occurs to joints, through jolting/jarring.

It completely brought home, to me, how I had hurt my back - cue violins - through downhill running in Richmond Park, a couple of years ago - something I'm still 'paying' the consequences of, today. How I miss my regular long runs and super-fitness. My schedule is now mostly at the gym (not such great scenery)... Hope Seb (and I) can prevent some of you from incurring avoidable damage...

PS Pic shows Richmond Park (just beyond Ham Gate) in all her winter glory

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top toasty tip (for girls)

Brrr, if you're in the UK, you've probably heard the weather reports and felt the chill. And it's going to get even more wintry over the next few days. That's fine and dandy if you relish playing in the snow (and I'm a happy bunny if the torrential rain stays away and allows the sun to make an appearance) but it's not so great if you want to keep the fuel bills down. Why not make like the Scouts or Girl Guides and be prepared...

One of my best recent finds was a pair of these cutsie slipper booties from Gap. Super-comfy and cosy, not desperately un-stylish (or too old-fogey slipperish) and a good buy at £15. Useful Xmas gift too, boys!

PS Pic courtesy of

Sunday, December 13, 2009

All the colours of the train

I'm not usually in the habit of extolling the virtues of graffiti. But I admit that I was rather taken with the colours and artwork, on the train, I spotted at Catania station... Che ne pensi?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Perfect pasta (with pistachios)...

Three confessions: first, I admit to not being the world's greatest pasta fan; second, all that changed on my recent trip, in a village just outside Catania; thirdly, I omitted to take a photo of the dish but here's one of the featured (locally sourced) ingredients...

However, I can still tell you all about it, more than whet your appetite and offer some inspiration for at-home experimentation (or just gustatory jealousy).

On my second evening in lively Catania, I headed-off with local wine expert, Glauco, on a whistle-stop tour of must-see venues. For cena, Glauco's first choice was closed (time of year, or just the fact that it was a Tuesday evening) so we ended-up in Giarre, at La Spiga.

There was a happy buzzing atmosphere in the pizzeria with large family tables and adult-only groups enjoying each others company, good food and wine accompanied by the all-important, on-screen calcio (football). Sometimes, I take all my time making my choice but I had no such trouble on the unintimidating menu. Nothing for it but to jump straight in at the twisty Strozzapreti (literally translated as choke - or strangle - the priests!) cooked with baby tomatoes, chunks of swordfish and aubergine, scattered with a generous top-layer of ground pistachios. Served piping hot, it more than lived-up to my expectations. Packed-full of local flavour, it was a genuine Sicilian savoury delight.

A good lesson in eating local and relishing inventive flavour combinations. Swordfish is plentiful and fished locally. Aubergines are prized and adored in Sicilian cuisine. Tomatoes are sweetly nutritious. The pistachios are from nearby Bronte - as shown in the photo pack pictured above, purchased from Catania's wondrous daily market - ground to a powder. They're prevalent throughout Catania in a plethora of sweet and savoury delights (notably ice-cream, biscotti, pizza and pasta). Buon appetito!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fruits of Etna

It's not just through its dramatic omnipresence and black lava stone that magnificent Etna has an impact on the lives of locals. The particular climate it endows upon the surroundings are perfectly suited to producing prime varieties of vitamin and mineral-rich fruits.

If you look carefully at the central box in the photo, taken at Catania market on the last Saturday in November, you'll see the words Frutta dell'Etna. The fichi d'India, (anglicised as prickly pears rather than Indian figs) it houses, are an eastern Sicilian delicacy.

Related to the cactus family, they need to be peeled - and handled - with care, prior to being enjoyed. Available in a range of hues, some prize the white-fleshed variety above the peachier-toned examples. I relished every mouthful of the deep pinky-plum fruit I devoured.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Full Sicilian

Oh yes! There's no stopping me... I liked it so much the first time around that I just had to go back. An (almost) irresistible offer at an alluring hotel in another part of the glorious Mediterranean island meant I just couldn't refuse. So, at the end of November, I repacked my summer clothing and headed off to Catania (Sicily's second city) for a five-day sojourn.

As soon as I saw the panoramic views of all-dominant Etna (from the window seat of my flight) a broad smile was evident on my face. Yippee! No more sodden, grey London but a beautifully temperate Sicilian, sun-blessed sky. Even the fact that there were no buses running into town (so I was forced to break my budget and splash-out on a cab) didn't really suppress my mood.

It was a brief (but 25 Euro ride instead of the 1 Euro bus fare) into town; I enjoyed chatting to kind, patient cabbie, Roberto and even learnt some enhanced pronunciation skills along the way.

No sooner had I deposited my bag in my attractive hotel room on the Via Etnea, I was bursting to get out of the door and explore. (I needed a bottle of mineral water subito, anyway...) Darkness had just fallen so it probably wasn't the best introduction to the bustling main street but soon I was to fall under the spell...

Pic shows the lava stone Fontana dell'Elefante on the central Piazza Duomo (just down from the Via Etnea).