Risotto con Funghi Freschi – Risotto with Fresh Mushrooms

italiaoutdoors-risotto-dolomites-cycling-tourOn our late summer and fall tours, whether we are hiking in the Dolomites or cycling through Tuscany, a wide array of lovely mushrooms appears on our dinner menus or impresses us as we visit an outdoor market. The varieties differ from region to region and month to month, but are becoming increasingly available year round with cultivation. But in Italy, where foraging is still practiced by many, wild mushrooms are front and center in the autumn markets.

mushroom-variety-italy-custom-ski-toursMushrooms, found wild in the forests, are used in the cuisines throughout Italy, from Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto to Tuscany and Umbria. Wild mushrooms have been prized since ancient times; the Pharaohs of Egypt controlled their distribution, and they were referred to as “food of the gods” in ancient Rome.

Caves are used for cultivation in Trentino-Alto Adige, but the many woodlands are also a source of a huge variety of wild mushrooms. These include well-known wild varieties like chanterelles, honey mushrooms, morels, yellow trumpets, porcini and chiodini, but also many lesser-known: penny buns caps, pine mushrooms, parasols, russulas, Caesar’s agaric, and even 12 different species of Trentino black truffle.

italiaoutdoors-mushrooms-box-private-hiking-tourDue to the limited growing season of the wild varieties, their availability was limited until the French developed methods to cultivate them. In the late 1800s, entire families from Venice traveled to France to work in the mushroom farms in the caves near Paris, and learn these techniques. These families returned to the Veneto and began their own mushroom farms. These first farms were located in the caves around Costozza, as these possessed the optimum humidity and temperature for mushroom growth.

Production in caves results in fewer mushrooms per foot than indoor cultivation of these mushrooms, but the cave environment yields a superior quality. The micro climate of the cave enables the production of a much more ‘natural’ mushroom, with a taste and smell more similar to it wild counterparts. Many grottos used for mushroom cultivation are located in the Berici Hills near Costozza, but also are found in the area of Cismon del Grappa and Sovizzo.

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Proud of his foraged mushrooms!

During autumn time in Tuscany and Umbria, we spot locals emerging from fields and forests, holding onto a wicker basket loaded with lovely wild mushrooms. These regions are home to a large variety of edible (and inedible) mushrooms, including the well-known porcini. Here, we find mushrooms in all sorts of dishes, from our antipasti to tagliatelle pasta and risotto primi to main courses. As well as the porcini variety of mushroom, which can be found in areas such as Maremma and Mugello, look for the rarer prugnolo variety,

Here is a lovely risotto recipe from Sudtirol/Alto Adige that I’ve translated and adapted. It calls for fresh chanterelles, but a nice mix of fresh mushrooms, or even some reconstituted dried mushrooms would work well – rinse the dried mushrooms, then soak for about 30 minutes in hot water to cover. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid, and add the mushrooms to any fresh ones you may use. Add the soaking liquid to your broth in the recipe below.

italiaoutdoors-mushrooms-private-hiking-tourRisotto con Gallinaci Freschi

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, cut into 1/4” dice
6 ounces fresh chanterelle mushrooms; or fresh mixed mushrooms
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano rice
4 1/2 cups beef broth
1/2 cup white wine
2 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup grated grana cheese
parsley

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan.  Add the onions and mushrooms and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms are beginning to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large saucepan, heat the stock, keeping it just below a simmer.

Add the rice to the sauté pan with the mushrooms. Stir for about 1 minute, until the grains are coated with the fat and liquid in the pan. Add the wine, and simmer slowly, stirring frequently, until it has evaporated.

Add a ladleful of the hot stock and again simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting until the stock is absorbed before the next addition of stock. Continue until the rice is al dente. The stock may not all be used.

When the risotto is done, stir in the cheeses and season with salt to taste. Pour into a soup tureen and serve, garnish with the fresh parsley.

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Posted in Gluten Free, Mushrooms, Risotto, Travel, Trentino Food, Tuscany, Umbria, Uncategorized, Veneto, Veneto Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Bassano del Grappa – From Grappa and White Asparagus to Hemingway and Palladio

bassano-view-north-hiking-tours-italyBassano del Grappa is a beautiful town we visit often on our cycling adventures and hiking tours. Bassano has played a critical role in the history of the region, inspired artists from Palladio to Hemingway, and its singular terrain produces some remarkable foods and wines. Located in the province of Vicenza in the Veneto region, the city lies at the foothills of the Prealps, where Brenta river emerges from the southern end of the Brenta valley (Canale di Brenta) and begins its traverse of the lowlands past Vicenza and Padua on its journey to the Adriatic.

bassano-ponte-alpini-view-hiking-tours-italyFirst colonized by the Romans around the 2nd century, the name Bassano comes from the Roman family Bassianus who began an agricultural estate here. Throughout history, the town survived rulers from all sides – first Vicenza, then a period as a free commune under the Ezzelino family, renowned for their cruelty, followed by Milan, Venice, and eventually becoming part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

poli-tasting-hiking-tours-italyOriginally the town was known as Bassano Veneto. The artist Jacopo Bassano lived most of his life in this town, and took it as his last name. The town is also famous for the renowned Italian digestif, grappa, made from distilling the remains from the winemaking process after pressing: grape skins, seeds and stems, called pomace. It is commonly believed that the spirit was named after the town, but the town itself was not called Bassano del Grappa until 1928, long after the spirit was invented.

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Walking tour at summit of Monte Grappa

Bassano was located right on the front line in both World Wars. During the first World War, terrible battles ensued on neighboring Monte Grappa, where the Italian army regrouped after their devastating loss at Caporetto and made a heroic last stand against the Austrians. At the top of the mountain lie the remains of over 12,000 Italian troops and over 10,000 Austrian and Hungarian troops who lost their lives during this battle. In 1928, the name was changed to Bassano del Grappa, in memory of the soldiers killed. Ernest Hemingway resided in Bassano during his days as an ambulance driver during WWI. His experience here provided inspiration for his novel “A Farewell to Arms. ”

bassano-war-memorial-hiking-tours-italyIn World War II, after the Armistice, the city was invaded by German troops, who killed or deported numerous inhabitants. Memorials to these fallen heroes line a row of trees just outside the old town center. The most famous symbol of the town is the beautiful covered pontoon bridge, designed by famed architect Andrea Palladio in 1569. This bridge has been destroyed many times, most recently during World War II. The Alpine soldiers raised money and paid for the rebuilding of the bridge, known as the Ponte degli Alpini. Other sights to see include the Cathedral, the Palazzo Michieli-Bonato and Palazzo del Municipio, both with frescos by Jacopo Bassano, and the Town Museum with ancient archaeological remains, and works by Canova, Durer, Spagnoletto and Rembrandt.

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Enjoying Nardini spritz on Ponte degli Alpini

Bassano is also renowned for one of the rarest delicacies in Italy, its white asparagus that appears between mid-March and mid-June. The oldest legend attributes its introduction to the area by Saint Anthony of Padua, who was very fond of the vegetable and spread knowledge of it to Bassano. Here, it found its ideal environment in the sandy, soft, well-drained and calcareous soil along the Brenta River. In the 1500 and 1600s, the white asparagus of Bassano was prized, and reserved for the banquet of the Venetian nobility.

white-asparagus-hiking-tours-italyOn a recent private bike trip, we were able to enjoy the real thing throughout the week, and made a wonderful, simple roasted white asparagus in one of our cooking classes. But I also found a way to take a little taste of this delicacy home with me; a family producer in Bassano that makes their own canned sauces and pestos called “Specialita in Gamba, Produzione propria e spaccio di conserve aglio e peperoncino”, Production and sale of canned garlic and chili.

AOP-market-hiking-tours-italyThis beautiful shop is right in the center of Bassano, with Mom and Dad preparing the sauces, and the son greeting me and offering me many tastes of their wonderful products. I returned later with our trip guests, and more sampling. They had many tasty sauces; there most popular being AOP (Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino – garlic, oil, and hot peppers), but also a radicchio, a garlic pesto, a horseradish sauce (cren), a sauce for bigoli which I can’t now recall exactly what it contained, and a white asparagus ‘pesto’ which made its way back to the US in my suitcase. They also pickle and preserve whole garlic, shallots, and mixed vegetables. Their products are very attractively displayed on wooden shelves, with strings of dried peppers hanging along the ceiling, and large baskets of garlic and shallots around the store. A leg of prosciutto is on a carving rack, its only purpose to accompany their sauces during tastings. Well worth a stop, and I will be experimenting with my own version of AOP when I return home.
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For dinner, there are many choices to be had here. For those looking for a nice, simple dinner I recommend Osteria La Caneva, right around the corner from Piazza Liberta. A very local establishment, with only about 6-7 tables, with a few more on the street outside, and the menu written on a chalk board.  Try the pasta fagoli, much better than many versions I’ve had at much more upscale locales;  or the fettucini with funghi and morlacco, a soft cheese produced on the Morlacco plain of Monte Grappa.

ettucine-morlacco-hiking-tours-italyAnother restaurant that serves traditional local foods is Antico Ristorante Cardellino on Via Bellavitis. Featuring “La Cucina della Memoria” – cuisine from times past – they use local ingredients including radicchio, white asparagus, asiago cheese and mushrooms in their classic regional dishes. Enjoy the house specialty, baccala vicentina, or bigoli con anatra or risotto con radicchio.

garganega-wine-hiking-tours-italyWhat wines should you try on a visit to Bassano del Grappa? The Montello e Colli Asolani DOC, the Vicenza DOC and the Breganze DOC are all right nearby, each with some wonderful wines to sample. A perfect aperitif to have with your antipasti would be a Colli Asolani Prosecco from Bele Casel or Villa di Maser.  A white wine to try would based on the local Garganega grape, a nice one is made by Contra Soarda, their Il Pendio which is a blend of Garganega and Vespaiolo. For red wine fans, the Il Saggio from Contra Soarda is a very intense, medium bodied wine, a blend of Carmenere, Grupello and Marzemino. Bordeaux blends from the Venegazzu vineyards of Montello, such as those made by Gasparini, are also worth a try. Finally, the well-known Breganze  winery Maculan has its Brentino, another Bordeaux style blend, as well as some tasty sweet dessert wines such as the Dindarello and Torcolato.

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Grappa at Poli

And, of course, no visit to Bassano is complete without a tasting of the local digestif, grappa. The only distilled spirit produced from the grape pomace, there are two famous producers located in Bassano, right on or near the Ponte degli Alpini. Nardini is on the bridge itself, and you will often see the locals gathered inside and spilling out onto the bridge enjoying a drink. Across the street is the producer Poli, where you can taste a few varieties of grappa after you visit their grappa museum to learn how the spirit is made. You can also ‘smell’ many of their varieties – they have about two dozen or so stations that deliver a whiff of various flavors at the push of a button. A good way to experience the flavors without the alcohol!

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Insalata di Barbabietola con Mele e Formaggio di Capra – Beet, Apple and Goat Cheese Salad

beet-salad-cheese-private-hiking-tours-italyOne of my Christmas gifts this year was Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook, “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine”.  This is a great addition to my library of Italian cookbooks, with a comprehensive overview of ingredients and techniques. Of course, I couldn’t wait to try it out, and post-holiday I gravitate to lighter fare. The first recipe I tried is Insalata di Barbabietola con Mele e Formaggio di Capra, a beet salad, using both the beet root as well as beet green, apple and goat cheese. The one area I find this cookbook lacking, however, is sharing the diverse nature of Italian cuisine. Italian cuisine is presented as a unified entity rather than an intriguing collection of regional cuisines, each expressing the unique history and culture of a region. On more than one occasion I have overheard a restaurant owner in Italy inform a diner that their request for pesto or grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese cannot be accommodated – “we don’t serve that here”. All passionate Italian chefs believe their home region’s cuisine is, of course, the best!

bassano-private-bike-tours-italyThis recipe, if I had to attribute it to an area in Italy, combines products native to the Northern regions. The picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa is a frequent stop on our Bike the Wine Roads tours in Italy. Close to the Prosecco hills, Breganze wine zone, as well as the lovely Valsugana bike path and the challenging Monte Grappa, Bassano offers some amazing culinary specialties as well. It is best known for its prized white asparagus, but Bassano has also given us beets. Here in the US, we find a variety of beet called the Chioggia beet, with its distinctive white and rose rings. Supposedly this varietal arrived in the US from Italy in the mid-1800s, and were originally called Barbabietola di Bassano (beets of Bassano).

beets-private-hiking-tours-italyNortheast Italy produces a wide array of apples, from Val Venosta in Alto Adige, Val di Non in Trentino, and also the Veneto and Friuli. But these regions don’t produce much goat cheese – there are many wonderful cheeses here, but made from the milk of cows that flourish in the alpine pastures of these regions. Moving east into Lombardy and then Piedmont, you will find more sheep and goats than cows, especially at lower elevations, and this is reflected in the cheeses – here you will find goat cheese, ewe cheese, and cheeses that combine the milk of two or more. Piedmont is one of the premiere cheese producing regions in Italy, with goat milk cheeses such as Robiola, Caprino di Rimella, and Caprino Ossolano. So a salad such as this would likely have a cow milk cheese in Trentino or the Veneto, and a goat cheese when served in Piedmont.

beet-salad-top-private-cycling-tours-italyInsalata di Barbabietola con Mele e Formaggio di Capra

(Adapted from Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, by Lidia Bastianich)

10 or 12 small yellow and red beets with greens attached (about 3 pounds total)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium tart crisp apple
4 ounces or so slightly aged goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the beet greens, leaving about an inch of stem on the beets. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil, drizzling with a bit of olive oil before sealing them up in the foil. Roast until tender when poked with a knife, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven and let cool.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Rinse the greens and trim off any very tough parts of the stems or blemishes on the leaves. Trim the softer stems, and keep separate from the leaves. Cut the stems into 1 inch pieces. Roughly chop the leaves. Add the stems to the boiling water and cook 5 minutes. Add the leaves and cook until tender, about 5 more minutes. Drain well, rinse with cold water to halt the cooking. Squeeze to remove excess water, place into a large bowl.

Peel the beets and cut into wedges. Add to the greens in the bowl. Cut the apple into matchstick size pieces, leaving the peel on. Add to the beets and greens.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Toss the dressing with the beets, apples and greens. Spread on a serving platter and top with the goat cheese.

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Exploring Bolzano – Gateway to the Dolomites

hills-bolzano-cycling-toursNestled within picturesque green hills lies Bolzano, Italy – the capital of Alto Adige/Sudtirol, and the gateway to the Dolomites. It’s an easy destination to get to, with its own airport, or a couple of hours drive or train ride from Venice to the south, Innsbruck, Austria and Munich, Germany to the north. And its proximity to the heart of the magnificent Dolomite mountains make it a perfect base for ski holiday or summer bike tour.
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Bolzano is small and welcoming, with many attractions within a short of walk. Originally a Roman settlement, the town became an important trading post on the Transalpine Augsburg-Venice route over the Brenner Pass, within the Holy Roman Empire. Beginning in the 14th century, a large market was organized four times per year for merchants traveling through the Brenner Pass. A Mercantile Magistrate was founded in 1635 by the Austrian duchess Claudia de’ Medici. During every market season, two Italian and two Germanic officers, appointed among the local merchants, worked in this magistrate office. This established Bolzano as a cultural crossroad in the Alps.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, immigrants arrived from Bavaria to the north, and the area has been settled by German populations since then. Before World War 1, Bolzano was part of the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol, and became part of Italy at the end of this war. This cultural heritage is still prevalent throughout the region, from its bilingual street signs and town names, to its foods of wurst and spaetzle, to wines such as Vernatsch (Schiava) and Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir).
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A great place to start in Bolzano is at Piazza Walthur, named for a 13th-century German minstrel. There, you can sit at any one of a number of cafes, enjoying a prosecco, people-watching and soaking up your surroundings – steep hills that tower over the city, and the majestic Duomo, with it’s campanile dating from the 16th century. Don’t overlook the small wine ‘door’, decorated with details of grapes and vines. Historically, the church once had the exclusive right to sell wine from this doorway.

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Castle Runkelstein

The town’s most famous attraction, Ötzi the Iceman, dates from about 3300 BC. Ötzi, and a nice collection of his household goods, clothes, and tools (more interesting than Ötzi himself) are on exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Bolzano’s modern and contemporary art museum, the Museion, opened in 2008. A short distance outside the town lies some lovely castles, including Castle Maretsch, Runkelstein Castle and Firmian/Sigmundskron Castle.

porticos-bolzano-hiking-toursWhen you are ready for some shopping, you can find a wide variety of shops from local handicrafts to designer clothing, all along the porticoed streets. These covered walkways make shopping a pleasant experience rain, shine, or snow. Several of the these streets end at Piazza delle Erbe, the central market of Bolzano. As a chef and insatiable foodie, this is my favorite place to shop, where I can loose myself exploring the fresh produce, local salumi and cured meats, and specialty cheeses. All of this beautiful food makes me hungry, but fortunately there are a couple of wonderful restaurants right here on the Piazza.

produce-market-bolzano-bike-tours-italysalumi-market-bolzano-bike-tours-italyHopfen & Co. is a what we in the US might call a brew pub. It offers an nice selection of local foods, accompanied by their homemade Bozner bier. The first floor consists of a couple of small rooms, the first one dominated by their large bar. During the warmer months, you will see most of the action at their pleasant outdoor tables. They had a dark, lager, and weiss beers, as well as a small selection of local wines, including Lagrein, Santa Maddalena and Teroldego.

hopfen-bolzano-hiking-toursThe menu included some traditional sausages, including wurstel bianchi and salsicce di noremburger, and dishes like homemade gnocchi, canderli, spaetzle, goulash, stinco di maiale (pork shank), and veal liver with rice. I very much enjoyed my spaetzle, prepared with bacon and cheese, and served in a saute pan. It was accompanied by some of the best bread I’ve had yet in Northern Italy; a basket of assorted lighter rye breads, one with strong caraway, another with more of whole grain texture.

canederli-antipasti-bolzano-hiking-toursRight next door is another great dining destination, Vogele. A more upscale ristorante, serving a mix of traditional fare as well as more Mediterranean dishes. Antipasti included prosciutto with melon, mozzarella with tomato and grilled zucchini, and cavatelli with octopus to mixed grilled meats with sauerkraut and potatoes. Also on the menu, a variety of canderli with sauerkraut, ravioli stuffed with fish served with a prosecco crema, and tagliatelle with fresh local mushrooms.

speck-antipasti-bolzano-hiking-toursDuring my last visit, we began with a beautiful platter of the local cured ham, speck – a smoked prosciutto, served with horseradish, butter, and pickled onion. We enjoyed a sampler of canederli, a rounded dumpling made from stale bread crumbs and flavored many different ways. Our sampler included a beautiful beet canederli, served with a tangy horseradish sauce, a mushroom dumpling with a ragu, and a very typical spinach canederli served in a brown butter sauce. Other favorites included goulash with canderli with speck, a veal cutlet with oven fries, and a grilled orato, a white fish native to the Adriatic.

While in Bolzano, take advantage of its long history as a wine town, and visit a few local spots to try the region’s specialties. One spot in Bolzano proper is Cantina Convento Muri-Gries, This facility that houses this winery and convent dates back as far as the 11th century, when the Earl of Bolzano built a stronghold in an old ‘chellar’ (or cellar) to protect himself from the Bishops of Trento. In the 1400s, the then ruler of Tyrol, Earl Leopold, gave the estate to a group of monks, who had lost their monastery due to a flood. The facility has been a monastery ever since, being taken over by Benedectine monks from Muri in the Swiss Alps in 1845.

muri-gries-bolzano-bike-tours-italyThe Benedictines are a pretty serious bunch when it comes to their wines, and as the monastery entered the 20th century, there was a re-dedication to the production of quality wines. They started exporting their wines to the German speaking countries to the north, focusing on local varietals and styles like St. Magdalener, Malvasia, Lagrein, Kretzer and Gewurztraminer. Stop by their little tasting room to sample a few, and purchase some bottles for back home, as they are difficult to come by here in the US.

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Christmas Cookies – Holiday Treats Inspired by our Italy Adventures

decorating cookies ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineOur Italiaoutdoors cycling and hiking tours bring us to many regions in Italy, each with its own unique culinary and holiday traditions. Here are a few Christmas cookie recipes I’ve developed over the years to recapture the flavors of my Italy adventures during the holiday season.

cookies top view bike and cooking tours italiaoutdoors food and wineOur culinary bike trips include cooking classes where we have made the classic Italian layered dessert, Tiramisu. Tiramisu is of relatively recent origin. There are various stories; some claim it originated at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso, and was named after the maiden name of a daughter-in-law of a famous confectioner. Other stories place its origin in Siena, where it was created to celebrate the visit of Cosmo III. One anecdote places its origin at a brothel, where its purpose was to provide a bit of a boost to weary clientele. This may be more legend than fact, but it is certainly the most memorable.

I thought it would be interesting to apply the wonderful flavors found in tiramisu – espresso, coffee liquor, marsala, chocolate, ladyfingers, and mascarpone – to a Brandy Ball type cookie. Coffee, sugar, booze, and chocolate. Not much to go wrong there. I replaced the ground cookies in Brandy Balls with crushed savoiardi (ladyfingers); the brandy with a mix of kahlua, marsala and espresso; dusted with cocoa and sugar; and included hazelnuts as the nut.

Tiramisu Cookies

amaretti grappa balls ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineAnother version of this old favorite, Brandy or Rum Balls, inspired by the flavors of Italy, made from ground amaretti cookies and flavored with grappa. Amaretti cookies are traditional to Saronno, in Lombardia. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, a Milanese cardinal visited the town. A young couple created this original dessert for him, cookies made of egg whites, sugar and crushed almonds and apricot kernals. The cardinal was so pleased with the treat he blessed the couple with a long and happy marriage.

Amaretti Grappa Balls

biscotti coffee grappa custom bike tours italyChestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. During our fall Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige bike tours, chestnuts are just coming into season. We enjoy chestnuts in pasta, in risotto, in soups and desserts. In fancy ristorante, local trattorie, and sweet chocolate and chestnut treats from a roadside table we passed on a bike ride. During the holidays, when I can find chestnuts here at home, I’ve been looking forward to trying a few of these recipes. A chocolate chestnut holiday biscotti brings me back to my cycling excursion and the homemade chestnut cookie that powered me through the last few miles.

Biscotti di Marroni

cookies in tree 1 ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineDecorating with sweets has been a part of Italian cuisine since the 16th century. Even before this time, the shapes of breads and all the many shapes and sizes of pastas were not just random, but often created to replicate something – be it the rounded shape of panettone in honor of the church domes of Lombardy, to the scroll shaped X of  the Coppia Ferrarese breads, alluding to the adventures of the Duke of Ferrara, to the cappellacci pasta, named for their resemblance to straw hats worn at the time.

Christmas Cookie Ornaments – Almond Shortbread Cookies

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