Sunday, September 12, 2010

A country summer birthday lunch (3)

I wanted to recreate Elena's ragu for my birthday lunch main course. Elena is the mother of my Italian friends Guido and Paolo. Their farm, Petralta in Umbria, was my inspiration for the country house (I'll post about it soon).  I cannot think or write about the food at Petralta without reverting to fawning adjectives. The memory of that food is seared into my soul... and my hips.

Elena's ragu with homemade tagliatelle featured during my first stay at Petralta (with friend Nina) ten years ago.  Following the ragu that night was chicken, zucchini slices and flowers, and sage leaves all battered and fried in pig fat.  Dessert was plum tart. Dinner was washed down with home made wine and a very strong walnut liquor called nocino which Nina and I subsequently became extremely fond of owing to its ability to extend festive energy late into the night.

As part of our strategy of ingratiating ourselves into the family, Nina and I had been allowed into the kitchen to watch dinner preparations. These started at 2pm and ended at 9pm and were punctuated with copious breaks for espresso, gelato and checking the dictionary. Alas, because of the language barrier my recipe for the ragu was annoyingly vague: "add finely chopped onion, garlic, oil, carrot, fresh parsley and another herb we can't pronounce to finely chopped chicken liver." According to Elena, who has been cooking traditional Tuscan food since she was eight, the ragu must be done in stages with much simmering of each.  After the mysterious herb stage was wine and a chicken head. Then tomato puree, dried porcini, and stock, more simmering, then the rest of the chicken offal. The taste? [Insert fawning adjective here].

My plans to recreate Elena's ragu were derailed by my inability to purchase a chicken head.  My naively hopeful request to my butcher for "One chicken head from an organic chicken, preferably a heritage breed please," was unsuccessful. Apparently it's illegal to sell chicken heads in the fair cosmopolitan city of Melbourne.  So, I left with duck legs and duck liver. 

Lacking a proper recipe, my plan was to recreate Elena's stages as best I could while slow cooking the ragu for at least four hours to make sure that the meat had totally melted off the bones. (A trial run the weekend before revealed that two hours was not nearly enough to get that thick ragu texture). Aside from a small panic in hour two about the liver quantities, it turned out fabulously.  I served it with bread and garlic butter (made with home-grown garlic and garlic chives) and parmesan Reggiano.

Dessert was strawberries macerated with sugar and red wine and my home-made french vanilla ice cream. (I've written about that previously, click here if you want ice cream making tips).

We finished with chocolate birthday cake courtesy of my friend Andrew.

It was a great lunch. I'm already planning for this year's one in November.

Read more about the lunch here and here.

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