Just like any other story, this one also arises from sudden inspiration. A fleeting flash of light happening by chance and unexpectedly, like a storm catching you by surprise.
I’ve been more in Tuscany than in Venice lately, continuously moving up and down from lagoon mist to green Maremma hills, as I have always done since I was born. What makes me trace over and over my Tuscan steps – the same steps I took along the Medieval alleys of a small village to reach the kindergarten when I was a child – is that I have discovered a comfortable and silent dimension which makes me more receptive and inclined to creative fits of all kinds.
I don’t do anything, ideas simply arrive by surprise or by chance.
A few days ago I was roaming a eucalypt wood searching for small branches to burn in the stove. The May air was already warm during the day but turned into very cold wind at night. I walked among rustling leaves, breaking small branches and watching the hill in front of me, where the ruins of my dream house lay. I have seen it crumbling and falling down during all these years. When I was a child I used to climb up there and explore the place; those were incredible adventures and I always went back home with bruises in my knees and leaves in my hair. The house is on top of a real Tuscan hill surrounded by olive trees and from its wonderfully privileged and raised position you can see my most sacred and cherished place in the world: an ancient Etruscan lake.
The big stair carrying to the first floor is no longer there, nor are the arches creating a sort of beautiful patio at the entrance of the house. The house was suddenly abandoned – maybe before the 1980s – leaving traces behind, like some piece of furniture and an embarrassing wall paper. Going inside is like violating a forbidden and exciting place, something like entering someone else’s house without asking permission. Italy is full of places like this one: abandoned beauties, ancient ruins and half-collapsed dream houses. They say that it is too expensive to fix them and that they are not worth restructuring nor demolishing, so they just lay there, like bare skeletons.
Nature takes its course and slowly regains possession of what remains.
Where the kitchen of the estate used to be, a maritime pine has uprooted almost all the tiles from the floor and has broken part of the roof with its tree-top. Mulberry brambles have burst open the windows, thus obscuring light like heavy curtains… while brilliant grass carpets cover every inch of the floor, just like a green moquette… but they are nettles!!
Beautiful stretches of young little leaves, protected by this place where they have grown unperturbed.
Once again, among the fragile and unstable walls of this house I daydream how beautiful it would be, if someone fixed it. Each time the same movie, like in Titanic, when the submerged ruins of the ship become – with a flashback – the luxurious assets they were before. I dream about the kitchen, the temple of the house, taking shape in my mind’s eye: I would put the table here and long wooden shelves there… This place always makes my imagination soar and it is exactly in these moments that ideas arrive on their own accord.
With its tons of green stuff as the only available ingredients, my imaginary kitchen suggested a nettle-based menu.
A light but substantial first course – here it is! – and a classical dessert which I revisited in “Freaky” style to use the color and properties of these beautiful wild plants. Panna cotta is a very popular Italian dessert I am not crazy about, because I am used to seeing isinglass – an indispensable ingredient which nevertheless can be substituted by vegetal products – in ateliers (where it is used as a binder to make paints) rather than in the kitchen… and this worries me a little. Anyway, since the painting cupboard is more handy to me than my kitchen in Venice, I prepared it by following the traditional recipe, although in my version you have to add nettles! We found out that adding nettles was a very good idea, not only for aesthetic reasons – their brilliant color is always up to expectations – but also because its taste reminds of pistachios – at least that’s what my Mom stated.
All that I can say – apart from inviting you to eat it because it’s really good! – is that it reminds me of the green and natural carpet floor of a house which one day will no longer exist.
- (Serves 4 – small portions)
- 250 ml fresh cream
- Fresh nettles (top part) – about one full colander to obtain about 150 g of boiled and squeezed nettles
- 1 isinglass sheet (5g)
- 4 tbsp icing sugar
- Organic lemon peel
- 20 g unshelled pistachios
- Cut the isinglass sheet (you can substitute it with agar-agar) into pieces and let it soak in cold water for 10 minutes.
- Wash the nettles wearing gloves. Boil the quantity of water you need to boil them in a big pot, then pour them into the water as soon as it reaches boiling point and cook them for 5 minutes. Drain the nettles and let them chill.
- Squeeze boiled nettles as much as possible and whisk them by using an immersion blender, until you obtain a dense mixture.
- Whip the mixture with cream, icing sugar and grated lemon peel in a small pot.
- Place the small pot on low heat and continue mixing without reaching boiling point.
- Squeeze isinglass and add it to the mixture, cooking it until isinglass has completely melted.
- Pour the hot mixture into small cups and let it chill for at least one hour, before placing it in the fridge to stiffen for at least 3 hours.
- When it’s stiff, garnish it with grained pistachios.