The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

When people talk about eating local food, the first thing that comes to mind is often produce-related — shopping for fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or joining a community-supported agriculture group, or CSA. While those actions do help support a local food economy, an event I recently attended made me realize how much broader the idea of being a “locavore” has become.

“Let Us Eat Local” is an annual benefit for Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on making good-quality food accessible across the city by promoting community gardens, CSAs, urban farms and the like. Its tasting event brings together chefs, bartenders, farmers, fish and meat purveyors, beverage producers and representatives of other New York-area culinary businesses to showcase the region’s bounty.

Local food not just about fruits and vegetables

Although I’ve attended this fundraiser before, I was struck by the sophistication and “big-tent” feel of this year’s iteration. Not surprisingly, the event included some of the city’s stalwart veggie-focused and vegan eateries, but their tables were just a stone’s throw from those of Jimmy’s No. 43, known especially for its meat and beer offerings, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose founding chef, David Chang, famously delivered the line “Let’s put pork in every f****** dish” when he appeared as himself on the HBO show “Treme.”

There were also farm-to-table brunch spots and an Italian perennial, but the remainder of the restaurant lineup was filled with some of the heaviest hitters on New York’s fine-dining scene — tony Michelin-star recipients and Zagat-list toppers such as Blue Hill, Esca, Gramercy Tavern, Perry St and Riverpark. The sheer preponderance of these types of places made it clear that local food is no longer the sole domain of the ascetic or preachy.

Some of the most intriguing participants were the artisanal craftspeople whose wares defy the pious crunchy-granola expectations that (often unfairly) get pinned on anything relating to sustainability. It’s nice to see the movement become established enough to let down its hair and have some fun. Here are three examples of products that break the mold:

Mixing it up

The next time you sit down to a meal of organic local produce, cheese and poultry, consider pairing it with a glass of soda. Wait, what? At first glance, soda might seem like a strange bedfellow, but when you taste the syrups produced by Anton Nocito’s P&H Soda Co., the combination makes perfect sense. Eschewing extracts, Nocito creates his blends in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn using only sustainably sourced whole ingredients. In addition to six year-round varieties — cream, ginger, grapefruit, hibiscus, lovage and sarsaparilla — he experiments with flavors such as the tart, aromatic lemon verbena he served at the event.

The P&H Sodo Co.'s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

The P&H Sodo Co.’s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

Available at retail locations and via the company’s website, P&H’s complex concentrates can be mixed with seltzer to your desired level of sweetness, but they’re also terrific in cocktails, which is how they’re being used at some of New York’s hottest bars and restaurants. Looking to put a spin on the classic margarita? Nocito recommends adding a little of his hibiscus syrup, which is made from a blend of dried hibiscus leaves, organic ginger and cane sugar.

Worth her salt

If you’re making the hibiscus margarita with P&H syrup, you might want to rim the glass with New York sea salt, produced on a rooftop high above Manhattan. Although Urban Sproule did not have its own table at this year’s event, Sarah Sproule’s company was represented in the evening’s gift bags, which included small tins of her “Virgin” salt. (She also produces several infused varieties, such as celery and grilled ramp.)

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

The idea for the venture came to the young chef when she was doing weekly cooking demonstrations at the Union Square Greenmarket. As she prepared dishes using market ingredients, she dreamed of topping them with her own locally made seasonings. The seawater she uses is gathered 30 miles east of Montauk, Long Island, by two area fishermen and transported to a building in Chelsea, where it is brought up to the roof (16 floors by service elevator, plus two flights by stairs) and placed into an evaporation house. Once the crystals form, the salt is harvested by hand and baked by the sun before being infused or packaged in its pure form.

Your pick of pickles

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

One of the veterans of New York City’s resurgent artisanal food movement, Rick’s Picks has been brining local produce for the past decade. Based on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood filled with pushcart pickle vendors a century ago, founder Rick Field has helped transform the image of this ultra-traditional food-preservation technique. His product line — which includes “Phat Beets,” “Hotties” (Sriracha pickle chips), “Smokra” (pickled okra) and “Pepi Pep Peps” (pickled red bell peppers) — is clearly marketed to appeal to those who would breeze right past the supermarket Vlasics and B&Gs. These are not your Nana’s gherkins.

While you could certainly go the conventional route and top your next burger with the company’s gently sweet “Bee ‘n’ Beez” (bread-and-butter pickles), the promotional postcard handed out at the event also featured this recipe for Pickletinis.

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Ginger Apple Honey Pie from Bubby’s Restaurant. Credit: Sofia Perez

Pickletinis

Recipe courtesy of Rick’s Picks

Yield: Makes 1 drink.

Ingredients

2½ ounces gin

½ ounces dry vermouth

½ ounces Rick’s Picks Classic Sours brine

1 Classic Sours spear

Fresh dill, for rimming the martini glass

Directions

Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice cubes. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the Classic Sours spear. Rim the glass with fresh dill.

Main photo: Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

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A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter

For the British, tea is not just a hot beverage; it is a meal. The most delightful meal of the day, in fact, but the word embraces a wide variety of meals and occasions. It can be served at any time between 3:30 and 6 in the afternoon, around a kitchen table or in a drawing room with elegant chairs. Whether afternoon tea, high tea or some more exotic variant, confusion often arises as to exactly what each involves. The only constant is the tea (to drink).

In the second half of the 20th century, tea, as a meal, declined. This was partly because cakes and other teatime goodies received bad press health wise, and partly because the lives of Britons became more hurried, often to the point where we no longer even stopped for a cup of tea, let alone a proper meal. Recently, this trend has reversed. We are more interested in baking, some healthier ingredients have moved to the fore and the importance of family meals has been widely recognized.

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge at left to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J. M. Hunter

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Tea as a drink was fashionable in Britain by the late 17th century, but it did not refer to a meal until 1840 when Anna, the duchess of Bedford, felt a “sinking feeling” and ordered cake to be served with a cup of tea. At this time, a long gap without food occurred between a light lunch and a late dinner. Anna was a close friend of Queen Victoria and influential in aristocratic circles, so tea and cake rapidly became very popular. The queen herself enjoyed a meal at teatime (Victoria sponge, a pound cake sliced in half and filled with jam, cream or both, is named in her honor). It began as a meal of the leisured classes, those with the time and money to be able to sit and relax during the afternoon. It was often called “low” tea, as the participants sat on comfortable low chairs in elegant drawing rooms. With time, the meal developed and sandwiches were included, typically finely sliced cucumber between paper-thin slices of bread. A wide range of dainty cakes and pastries followed. Cream teas with scones, clotted cream and jam originated in Devon and Cornwall, where clotted cream is chiefly made, but are now available countrywide.

The 19th century Industrial Revolution in Britain brought about the rise of “high” tea, spurred by urbanization. Builders and factory workers often worked considerable distances from their homes and returned hungry in the early evening. They fell into the habit of taking a meal at about 6 p.m. sitting around a table, usually in the kitchen. This was a much more substantial affair than the low or afternoon tea of the aristocracy, and it became known in contrast as a high tea. Everything was placed on the table at once, including pies and cold meats, tarts and salads, jam, honey, toasted tea cakes and hearty fruitcakes. The richer the household, the more there typically was. One of the best types of high tea is in a farmhouse kitchen, with homemade bread, newly churned butter, and a feast of fresh and simple food.

An article in the Daily Telegraph of 1893 describes it perfectly: “A well-understood ‘high tea’ should have cold roast beef at the top of the table, a cold Yorkshire pie at the bottom, a mighty ham in the middle. The side dishes will comprise soused mackerel, pickled salmon (in due season), sausages and potatoes etc., etc. Rivers of tea, coffee and ale, with dry and buttered toast, sally-luns, scones, muffins and crumpets, jams and marmalade.” A light supper, such as a sandwich, followed later in the evening.

High tea is often associated with northern areas of England, where it is called “meat tea,” and Scotland, where it is simply called “tea.” “Tea” meant the same thing in Australia and New Zealand. This could cause misunderstandings when guests were invited to (afternoon) tea but turned up several hours late, expecting a more substantial meal.

A glance at the table will quickly show which type of tea is being served. Even the china is different. Afternoon tea uses fine china cups and saucers, usually filled with fine tea, while high tea uses mugs and a large brown teapot, usually filled with a stronger brew of tea.

Strictly speaking, afternoon tea fills the gap between lunch and dinner, but it’s rarely vital to one’s survival. High tea, on the other hand, is a necessary meal, eaten when typically artisan workers return. Nowadays the divisions are blurred, with food such as scones and sponge cakes appearing at both meals. The very adaptability of tea has caused this confusion, but whatever we call the meal, it is one that we British believe we would be much poorer without.

Main photo: A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.

My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.

“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.

San Marzano tomatoes

The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.

Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.

What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”

The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.

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Antonietta's plum tomatoes spread out on the garage floor to ripen before canning. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.

“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.

Stocking the larder

A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.

For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.

Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Peach and black currant gelato stuffed in brioche for a traditional Sicilian breakfast. Credit: Sue Style

For sheer decadent deliciousness, gelato with brioche is hard to beat. Where on God’s earth did such a gorgeous idea ever take root? In Italy’s Sicily, that’s where. And it’s not even some kind of exotic dessert, reserved for high days and holidays. Sicilians eat gelato con brioche for breakfast.

Long before we left home for our late September break on the island, excitement at the prospect of trading up from yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal and toast to lashings of ice cream sandwiched inside a sweet, buttery bun began building up. In idle moments while planning the trip, we pondered which flavors we might go for: darkest chocolate, Nutella, coffee or pistachio? Or maybe mango, peach, strawberry or blueberry? And could Sicilians routinely break their fast on ice cream and brioche, or had we been fed an urban myth?

That first morning in Sicily, we piled into the car and drove to the city of Ragusa Ibla to find out. Threading our way through the cool, shaded streets on the way to the center, we happened upon chef Ciccio Sultano drawing on an early-morning cigarette outside his world-famous restaurant, Il Duomo. Could he point us to the best place to get gelato? Ma certo (of course). It all depended whether we wanted a cafe, where we could have the full works seated at a table, or a gelateria, where it would be breakfast on the hoof.

We chose the cafe option and settled down at pavement tables on the square below the Duomo, etched in dazzling white like a gorgeous Baroque birthday cake iced in white against an azure sky. At any moment, we expected police cars to screech to a halt and for Inspector Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri’s famous Sicilian serial cop (the TV series was filmed here), to leap out with his uniformed team in hot pursuit of some hapless criminal.

We placed our orders and leaned back expectantly. After a gentle pause, breakfast arrived. Cappuccinos with smileys traced in frothy milk, freshly squeezed orange juice, a couple of cannoli front-loaded with ricotta and candied fruits, and the long-awaited pièces de résistance: cushions of warm, softly yielding brioche cradling sinfully smooth, ice-cold gelato. We wrapped our hands around them, took a bite, moaned in pleasure, munched again. Heaven.

Pick a bold flavor for gelato con brioche

I could hardly wait to get home to try reconstructing the experience. Two things to keep in mind for gelato con brioche. First, choose ice creams that are assertively flavored and richly colored — vanilla just doesn’t do it. I’ve given two recipes, one for palest peach, the other for deep purplish black currant, but you could just as well buy gelato (but one that believes in itself).

For the peach version, it helps to have an ice cream maker because it freezes rock hard; for lack of such a kitchen toy, make the gelato mixture, freeze it till semihard, then either tip it into a food processor and whisk it up till smooth or beat it like crazy with a hand-held mixer. Then return it to the freezer.

The black currant one can be made without an ice cream maker as the egg yolk-sugar syrup combination gives a softer, smoother ice that doesn’t need churning or beating as it freezes.

Then the brioches. These should not be the French-type Julia Child variety with a little topknot perched on top, which would be hard to cleave in two and even harder to fill with your gelato. You need a flattish, sweetish, buttery, eggy, burnished bun (think along the lines of a burger bun, but nicer) that can easily be opened up, stuffed with ice cream — ideally with both your chosen flavors — reassembled and eaten on the hand. For breakfast.

Peach Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: None

Total time: About 20 minutes, plus several hours to freeze

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) ripe peaches (yellow or white fleshed)

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

8 ounces (250 grams) Mascarpone

5 ounces (150 grams) Greek yogurt

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. Put the peaches in a bowl and cover with boiling water.

2. Count to 10, then pour away the water and peel the peaches. Remove the pits and chop the flesh roughly.

3. Put the chopped peaches in a food processor with the sugar and lemon juice and process till smooth.

4. Add the Mascarpone and Greek yogurt and process again.

5. Freeze in a metal container for 2 hours or until the ice cream begins to harden around the edges. Beat with a hand-held electric mixer or hand-held blender to smooth it out and prevent ice crystals from forming. Return to the freezer to harden and beat/blend again after another couple of hours.

6. Remove from freezer to fridge at least an hour before serving so it softens up.

7. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Black Currant Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: About 40 minutes, plus several hours to freeze the gelato

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Blackcurrant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Black currant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) black currants

8 ounces (250 grams) sugar

3 egg yolks

1¼ cups (300 milliliters) whipping cream

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. For the purée, wash the fruit and put it in a pan with 4 ounces (125 grams) sugar and 3 tablespoons of water.

2. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes, just enough so the juice runs. Don’t overdo this step; you don’t want jam, but fresh-flavored ice cream.

3. Push the fruit through a sieve, pressing hard to eliminate pips, and let the purée cool.

4. Put the remaining sugar in a small pan with half a cup of water and heat gently till the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear, not cloudy.

5. Raise the heat, bringing the syrup to a rolling boil, and continue boiling for about 5 minutes to the “thread stage”: dip a fork into the syrup and allow it to cool briefly (so you don’t burn yourself), then pinch a drop or two between finger and thumb repeatedly. As you separate finger and thumb, the syrup should form a slender thread.

6. Remove syrup from the heat and allow the bubbles to subside.

7. Using a hand-held electric mixer, start beating the egg yolks in a bowl then pour in the hot syrup in a steady stream. Continue beating till the mixture is pale, thick and doubled in bulk (about 10 minutes).

8. In a separate bowl, beat the cream till stiff.

9. Fold together the purée, egg mixture and cream, lifting and folding with a wire whisk to make sure they are well mixed.

10. Pour the ice cream into a suitable receptacle (a recycled ice cream container or metal bowl, for example) and freeze.

11. Remove ice cream from freezer about 10 minutes before serving.

12. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Main photo: Peach and black currant gelato stuffed in brioche for a traditional Sicilian breakfast. Credit: Sue Style

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pumpkin carbonara

Succulent summer tomatoes are a distant memory, but luckily wonderful pasta sauce can be made with fall’s beautiful bounty of pears and pumpkins.

My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” during which I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. Now, I’m always on the lookout for fruit and pasta pairings when in Italy and constantly pester my Italian friends to send me recipes. In Italy you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.

 Pears and pasta

I’m especially partial to pears as they stand up nicely when cooked and add a savory sweet fresh flavor. Grating fresh pear onto pasta tossed with simple jar tomato sauce makes it taste delicately sweet. Adding diced pear to a simple mac ‘n’ cheese adds crunch and a surprisingly almost wine note to a simple dish.

“Open” ravioli with a meat and pear sauce. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Pear is a popular ravioli filling as it pairs so wonderfully with cheese. A classic pear ravioli from the Lombardy region is casconcelli, a decadently delicious, very unusual ravioli, made with an odd but oh-so-tasty assortment of ingredients: sausage, roast beef, raisins, crushed almond cookies and pears. Making ravioli can be a little daunting, so I was thrilled to discover that in Italy they often use the ravioli filling as condiment for dried pasta! Called ravioli aperto, or “open ravioli,” it uses ravioli filling as a sauce, as was popularized by the famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who first introduced it back in the ’80s. Nowadays, many Italians, pressed for time, forgo ravioli-making and turn the filling into a free-form sauce for pasta. The flavors are the same and it saves time.

“Open” Pear Ravioli (Casoncelli alla Bergamasca “Aperto”)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

The pear filling for casoncelli, ravioli from the Bergamo section of Lombardy, makes an exceptionally tasty, very unusual sauce for any shape of dried pasta.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 sweet sausage
¼ pound roast beef, thinly sliced then cut into strips
1 garlic clove, minced
3 to 4 small fresh sage leaves
1 large pear, thinly sliced with peel left on
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 cup chicken broth
1 pound calamarata or any shape pasta
Zest of ½ lemon
Grana padano or other aged cheese
Ground cinnamon
Nutmeg
½ bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 amaretti cookies, crushed, optional

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat.

2. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the meat from the sausage casing and crumble into the pan; cook until browned.

4. Add the roast beef, garlic, whole sage leaves, pear, raisins and broth.

5. Cook the mixture until the pears are soft, about 5 minutes.

6. Meantime, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until almost al dente.

7. Drain and toss into the sauce. Stir well and cook, adding cooking liquid, if needed, until al dente.

8. Stir in the zest, ⅓ cup of grated cheese, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and minced parsley to taste, until well amalgamated. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with more shaved or grated cheese and a sprinkling of amaretti crumbs, if using.

Pumpkins and pasta

In Italy all sorts of pumpkins and fall squash are incorporated into pasta sauces, lasagna, ravioli and gnocchi. You can add diced roasted pumpkin to meat sauce or layer it into lasagna for a savory touch of fall. You can top virtually any pasta dish with thin slices of fried pumpkin for a pop of texture and sweetness.

Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara – hot pasta tossed with raw egg to create its own creamy sauce, punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta and a shower of grated cheese.

It would be difficult to improve on that magical combination of simple ingredients, but by substituting caramelized onions and pumpkin in place of the pancetta, it not only turns it into a vegetarian delight, but creates an even more creamy sauce.

Pumpkin Pasta Carbonara

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Ingredients

1 large onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil
2 cups diced pumpkin or kabocha squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, any shape
2 eggs
Pecorino or other aged cheese

Directions

1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until the onion is very soft, about 8 minutes, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until golden and caramelized, about 4 more minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.

2. In the same pan, adding another tablespoon or 2 of oil, fry the squash until tender and golden at the edges, about 8 minutes. Return the onions to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and keep warm.

3. In a large serving bowl, beat the eggs with 2 heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese.

4. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in the egg mixture, stirring until creamy, then stir in the hot onion-squash mixture. Serve topped with grated or shaved cheese.

Main photo: Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

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