Wednesday, 23 April 2014

San Giorgio, Il Drago e La Principessa (St George, the Dragon and the Princess art project in Ferrara)

If you visited Ferrara, Italy, in the last couple of weeks, you wouldn't fail to notice an amazing exhibition project spread through the town - Saint George, the Dragon and the Princess. Twenty five Italian artists and ten artists from abroad were invited to reinvent the tale of St George slaying the dragon. This splendid parade of sculptures appeared in the historical squares and museums of Ferrara.
As the page dedicated to the project explains "St George... became protector of hundreds of cities and nations for his exploits... St George, the warrior Saint, was not only known and worshipped in Europe but, due to his origins in the Cappadocia, is considered the prophet of those far Muslim lands. St George is an important figure connected with Christianity and the Islamic culture, moreover he is the symbol of the struggle of the human beings against hostile elements and the titanic fight to save the defenceless... the Dragon (is) the symbol of the nature, severe plagues, earthquakes... the Princess (is) the symbol of the population, the helpless and the weak..."
St George is also the protector of the city of Ferrara.

We were on the way to our favourite cafe Leon 'Oro, when I stopped in my tracks. There it was, an unexpected modern sculpture of St George, right next to the cathedral.
It is the most unusual interpretation. Both the saint and his horse are missing limbs, but stand proudly and defiantly. Claudio Nicoli's work stands gracefully amidst the multi-coloured throng, a mix of tourists and locals. As there was nobody to ask, I thought of it as a testament and homage to people with disabilities, whose lives are challenging.

Claudio Nicoli's work
On the other side of the cathedral, Francesco Bombardi's mystic creature, half-human, half-chrysalis mournfully floats above the pebbled square. I would have dearly loved to ask the sculptor how he interpreted his own piece. There is quite a lot of general information on the project online, but I couldn't find any interviews where the artists talk about their ideas.

Francesco Bombardi's sculpture

This melancholic princess made me think of the Lady of the lake. My mother-in-law thought she was a dragon. But of course, that's the pleasure of the art for the people, you can have so many opinions. Is she a princess being consumed by the dragon? Are the dragon and the princess merged together?

Further along, by the castle, there is an amusing ironic trio by Marcello Magoni. While St George is valiantly fighting the dragon, the Princess is totally absorbed in her mobile. Perhaps she is taking selfies, or is posting updates on Facebook?

Marcello Magoni's ironic sculpture
A few metres away, there are two more exhibits. One is a beautiful set of blocks by Paola Grizi. The top block has a carved eye, which might allude to Botticelli's Venus. As you can see, it is not a big piece, as my son Eddie demonstrates. He loved running around the modern art works. They are in harmony with the old squares and parks.

Paola Grizi's art

The next art piece is by Carlo Zoli. It is a splash of colour. The elegant black dragon is pierced by a spear, the faces above him are mournful, solemn and blood-splattered.

Carlo Zoli's work

I got really excited and wanted to see all the works in the project. It was a bit like an Easter egg hunt. In the end we didn't quite manage to see all of them, as some were still in progress, some were a bit out of the way. Some were monumental, some fitted on a small table.

Paola Paganelli placed her unconventional group in Palazzo Schifanoia's courtyard. It is a big leafy green space. My boys were happy to run around, on the carpet of pretty little daisies. The princess and the dragon as powers of nature looked like mystic wicker baskets, while St George appeared as a construction set of big rusty shapes.

Paola Paganelli's work

Giovanni Andriollo has truthfully followed the classic traditions of the old masters. His St George is skilfully carved, dark, solemn, and wouldn't look amiss in any church.

St George by Giovanni Andriollo
While Andriollo's art followed the classic art, Mario Storno has also ventured into the domain of the art history.
His composition reminded me of the sacred wooden sculptures of my motherland, the celebrated Perm Gods, a collection of unique 3D icons.

My personal favourite was an erotically charged work by Nicola Zamboni and Sara Bolzani. The princess is reminiscent of Diego Velazques' The Rokeby Venus. She is all surrender and a very feeble attempt at defending herself against San Giorgio's mighty spear. The symbolism of the spear is all too obvious.

Zamboni-Bolzani's work

The Princess, reclining as an image of sensual languor, might seem like a victim at the first glance. But there is a hint of a smile on her lips, and she knows that she is a conqueror.

St George appears very fierce and determined, but also rather un-saintly with his manly display of weapons and lust for battle.

The range of styles and ideas was astounding, from solemn classic to modern ironic interpretations.

I loved the minimalist simplicity of Giorgio Carnevali's black wrench dragon breathing fire. Very imaginative.

Eddie was much taken with a Lego group by Riccardo Zangelmi. It is an elaborate work made of Lego bricks, colourful and inspired.

He also absolutely loved a dragon made of green bottles, its coils cutting through the lawn like the sea waves. This is a work by talented Alberto Gambale.

A little sign by its side made me chuckle. It says: "Attention! Do not come near. The dragon is nervous".

I cannot possibly show you all the photos I have taken, as my post would be a mile long.

For more information and photos, visit San Giorgio page on Facebook.
There is also an excellent album of photos by Alberto Scuarcia.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

In love with cafe culture

I've been thinking about cafes recently, and realised that my family and I are true cafe-aficionados. A lot of our outings are inseparable from having a treat in different cafes all over the places we travelled to, and locally.

I don't know if it makes me an odd case, but I have very fond memories of special places and treats I had there, actually from my own childhood days, when my Dad used to take me to a cafe-canteen. Not that I had a coffee in those days, it would have been a child-friendly drink and a slice of cake or a pastry. I felt so grown-up and enjoyed our outings a lot.
Later, in the era before the kids, my husband and I used to drop in the local cafe for a quick cup of coffee, or even a buy a takeaway cup to take to the office.
And my boys have been to so many cafes with us since their early days. Our favourite local haunts are cafe Nero and a local chain called Huffkins, both excellent in their own way.
While my husband and I love our cup of latte or cappuccino, the boys munch on palmini biscuits and croissants.

Eddie in Cafe Nero

And of course, every time we stay in Italy, we have a daily "worship" at the local cafes. The Italians love their coffee. If you have time to lounge, you sit at the table and read a newspaper, if you are in a hurry, have an espresso and a quick pastry just by the pastry counter (and it costs less as well this way). There is a huge cultural tradition of going to the cafes. The cafes in Italy deserve a special mention, many of them are little kingdoms of gastronomic delights. You cannot possibly resist the temptation. The displays of pastries, both sweet and savoury, are a real feast for eyes.

One of the local cafes in Ferrara, Italy

The coffee comes served as you like. My preferred choice is either latte or cappuccino. I cannot drink a pure espresso, like many Italians do. For me it's almost lethal, or like a rocket fuel, if I drink one, I feel like launching into the open space or running a marathon. I love my coffee milky and foamy.

Of course, all these pleasures come at a cost, and going out for a family of four is getting pricier and pricier. We have a decent coffee machine at home, and my husband can make a wicked cup of coffee. I often joke that if he loses his job, he could always apply to become a barista, as he's very good at it.

For those who want to enjoy a decent cup of coffee without spending a fortune, there is an opportunity to have a real Italian experience at home. Have you heard of Caffe Cagliari? This is an authentic Italian coffee company, with an over 100 years of experience. I always find it fascinating when the family business has been preserved by many generations. Nowadays it is Alessandra Cagliari, the great great grand daughter of the founder who handles the packaging and marketing side of the family business.

If you are an owner of a Nespresso machine, Caffe Cagliari make coffee capsules which are Nespresso compatible capsules. They promise that every single cup of their coffee is "exquisite masterpiece, the result of more than 100 years of knowledge and tradition".
The qualitative and sensory standards of Espresso have been certified by the Italian Espresso National Institute (INEI) which protects and promotes Italian Espresso.
There are five varieties of Caffe Cagliari coffee: Espresso Ristretto, Elite, Crem Espresso, Grand Espresso and Deca, priced at £2.99 for 10 capsules, that's about 30p for a cup of coffee. They vary in strength (knowing me, I'd go for the lowest strength).

Image credit: Caffe Cagliari

This makes me think of my husband's late Nonna Elsa, who loved her Espresso. I remember visiting her granny flat at her daughter's house. She would come out and shout at the top of the stairs "Pronto!", inviting us over for a cup of coffee. She served this strong black lava in dainty little cups. I would look at her, and be amazed how the little old lady could drink such a strong brew.
That's the power of coffee, it brings back lots of memories of places and people you know and cherish.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. All opinions are mine.

Alpha and Omega 3: The Great Wolf Games DVD

When the weather is far from perfect, and we cannot go for long walks or play and dig in the garden, we enjoy watching movies together. If you've watched Alpha and Omega 1&2, you might be pleased to know that the third episode - Alpha & Omega 3: The Great Wolf games - is out on DVD on 14 April, just in time for Easter. It comes with a cheerful promise of the "biggest adventure is yet to come".

The official blurb informs us:
"Join the pack in this wild, warm-hearted and totally pawsome adventure starring everyone’s favourite alphas and omegas! It’s time for “The Great Wolf Games,” when all the alphas in the packs set aside their differences for some friendly competition. When an unexpected accident puts many of the star alpha wolves out of commission, a new team is assembled that includes forest friends not in the pack. Can Coach Humphrey lead his ragtag group of “underdogs” to victory? Find out in this thrilling movie that will leave you howling for more!"

Eddie and I cuddled on the sofa together, with some Dairylea Dunkers and Hula Hoops, and giggled at the antics of three wolves: Stinky, Claudette and Runt who have found the most unusual team mates. The little bear with the bird issues and the bossy little porcupine join the team. Who will run the fastest? Will they win? Well. you'll have to watch to find out.

This animation will most likely appeal to pre-schoolers and primary school kids (as well as their parents). It is amusing and entertaining, and also teaches the youngsters about fair play and teamwork, and even gender discrimination in sport (I was definitely rooting for Claudette).
It is 43 minutes long, which is just about right for the younger audience with the short attention span.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the DVD for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are Eddie's and mine.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Venison stew with juniper berries and Maille mustard (Maille culinary challenge)

I do love a good mustard, and have a selection of different mustards at home. I enjoy a generous spread of mustard in sandwiches, I add them to stews and sauces, and even chips. Dijon and honey mustards are among my top choices, and a jar doesn't last long in our house. I was thrilled to be invited to take part in Maille Cooking challenge, as Maille is one of my favourite brands.
Foodie bloggers were asked to create recipes which incorporate Maille products:
"Bring on the Maille flavour and demonstrate your cooking ability by participating in our “Maille Culinary Challenge”. In the months of March & April we are inviting you to share your inspired recipes and ideas for incorporating Maille products into your repertoire".
Each blogger had a chance to choose two products from the list, and believe me, it was a difficult choice, as there were lots of tempting choices.
And when I visit their online shop, I feel like buying the whole lot. Just seen their new Limited edition Spring-Summer collection, and it is absolutely gorgeous (Doesn't Morello cherry & almond
mustard sound divine?!).
So far I have been avoiding to read what the other bloggers have chosen, as I don't want to be influenced by anyone's recipe or selection. I picked two grand products: Maille Aged Balsamic Vinegar and Mustard with Honey and Aged Balsamic Vinegar.
My entry for the challenge is Venison with Juniper Berries & Maille Mustard

Venison stew with juniper berries and Maille mustard
500g venison, cubed
1 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp olive oil
1tsp juniper berries
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (I used Maille)
3 tbsp Maille balsamic vinegar & honey mustard
400ml red wine
1 small onion
12 dried apricots
2 blood oranges
a bunch of fresh mint

Start with dusting the venison with the plain flour. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a big frying pan, add the venison and brown the meat on all sides. It will take about 5 minutes. Put the meat in a deep casserole/Pyrex dish. Add the juniper berries (some whole, some crushed) as well as the balsamic vinegar, mustard and red wine. Slice the onion finely and give it a quick fry in the oil with juices left from the venison, once it has turned golden brown, add the onion to the meat. Place the dried apricots and sliced blood oranges (both zest and slices). Add a half of chopped mint. Pour water on top to cover the meat. Put the lid on the dish. Cook in the oven preheated to 180C for an hour and a half to two hours.
Chop the remaining mint and add at the last minute, stirring through the sauce.
I served the venison with homemade chips, but it would go nicely with the mashed potatoes as well.

For the challenge I picked two Maille products, the first one was an Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Oak-aged balsamic vinegar with notes of caramel is a versatile product, which enhances both sweet and savoury dishes. I always get a bottle of an aged balsamic vinegar whenever we go to Italy, and I was surprised to discover that Maille has its own branded balsamic vinegar. I associated Maille with a variety of mustards, but their expertise of vinegar-making goes over 265 years back.
It is a tasty vinegar, which makes even a humble salad sing.
Or serve it drizzled in the olive oil with bread to dip in, simple and delicious.

The second product was a Mustard with Honey and Aceto Balsamico di Modena. It is quite runny, like a thick yogurt, dark-coloured, fruity and fragrant. Perfect for salads, or adding to meat dishes.

The sauce is enriched by the flavours of the balsamic vinegar and mustard, and the juniper berries and apricots give it a sweet note. It is a delicious stew.
I used the last of the blood oranges from my Abel and Cole box. Now we'll have to wait until the new season. They are so much more exciting than the standard oranges.

The dried apricots absorb the meat juices and wine, while the meat acquires the flavours of all the ingredients in the dish.

And if you like it even fruitier, scatter some pomegranate seeds over the meat.

Disclosure: I received two Maille products for the purposes of taking part in the culinary challenge. All opinions and recipe are mine.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

New Schwartz Perfect Shake herb & spice blends

Schwartz, the UK's leading herbs and spices brand, has recently added three new flavours to its Perfect Shake range - Pasta, Spanish and Chips. I was amazed to discover that there are 27 varieties of Perfect Shake. That's a whole lot of various meals sorted, to please all tastes and palates. Perfect Shakes are truly versatile, and can be used to suit many cuisines and occasions, from easy midweek meals to more formal dinners.
I have recently tested two of the new flavours, Chips and Spanish.

Perfect Shake Chips is a seasoning blend with paprika, onion an garlic. Among its ingredients you will find salt, paprika, dried onion, garlic granules, sugar, black pepper etc. It has a bright terracotta colour. This seasoning is finely ground, and is a versatile blend which can be used with chips, potato wedges or any other roast vegetables. It was great with baby potatoes, roasted with the olive oil and sprinkled liberally with Perfect Shake.

It worked perfectly with home made chunky chips (just slice the potato lengthways, add the olive oil and the spice blend and roast for half an hour).

I served these chips with the venison & dried fruit stew, but they will be as nice with just an egg, or sausages, or both indeed.

Perfect Shake Spanish is a seasoning blend with smoked paprika, red and green bell peppers, onion granules, garlic granules, dried tomato, black pepper, rosemary, bay leaves and more.
I first sprinkled it over the roast butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and the sweetness of the vegetables was enhanced by the smokey flavours of paprika and peppers.

It is lovely in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. For example, just the other day I cooked a quick chicken and sweet pepper stir fry with the Spanish Perfect Shake. I also added a tomato, a finely chopped clove and garlic and squeezed juice of one orange. In almost no time at all our dinner was ready.

I have recently tried it in the recipe for beetroot fritters, and the combination of flavours was very nice. Beetroot works really well with paprika, tomato and garlic.

Schwartz Perfect Shake range is available in all major supermarkets at £1.63-1.82.
For more information about the range and meals inspiration visit Schwartz.

If you haven't tried this range yet, I run a lovely little giveaway on my blog at the moment (closing on 30 April). The winner will have a chance to win some tasty Schwartz Perfect Shakes and Flavour Shots.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Venice Mini Collection by Biscuiteers: una meraviglia!

Venice, a glorious city with its unique singular setting, rich Byzantine heritage, a cosmopoiltan character and original visual world, has always attracted admirers of art and has inspired many artists, poets and craftsmen. I visited Venice several times, and was left in awe with the city's breathtaking architecture, shimmering canals and the sparkling expanse of the lagoon. If you've ever travelled through its distinctive realm, you will be thrilled to see a marvel of sugar and baking craft from Biscuiteers - its Venice Mini Collection.

Everything is about the great aesthetic here. A sturdy tin is decorated with the scenes of Venice, a carnival mask and gondoliers.

Open the box to discover its treasures, layer by layer. The pink tissue paper is a lovely touch.

Biscuits themsleves are vanilla-flavoured (and they are very tasty, but we'll get back to it later).
Venice Mini Collection is a keepsake tin in the true meaning of the word. I am definitely keeping this tin, once all the biscuits are gone.
The art of icing is amazing. You get nine differently shaped and decorated biscuits: masks, a gondolier, iconic sites like St Mark's lion and Rialto Bridge, and a plate of spaghetti as well.

This tin costs £30, not cheap, but if you think about it, each biscuit is individually decorated, with great attention to detail. I have done icing biscuits myself, and know how time-consuming it can be. So, if you take into account the time and craftsmanship gone into creating just one tin, then £30 is a very reasonable price. Plus, it would make a wonderful gift for any occasion.

My little man Eddie was most taken with the spaghetti biscuit, as spaghetti is one of his favourite meals. He was amazed to see the tiny fork tucked into a plate of pasta with the tomato sauce and basil leaves.

Each biscuit is a work of art.
And they taste great as well, not too sweet, with a lovely flavour of vanilla. I offered one of the biscuits to a friend, with whom we had coffee earlier today. She absolutely loved it, and said she was going to buy this tin for her Easter lunch and share it with her family. We both marvelled at the beautiful elegant designs.

If you were lucky to receive one of Biscuiteers tins as a gift or treated yourself to one, and have kept the tin, there is  wonderful creative competition What's In Your Tin? going on. The Biscuiteers say:
"We want you to show us how you use yours, then we'll place your picture in our gallery and send the best entry a ginger of your choice every week! The overall winner will receive our brand new Venice Collection".
How does this sound? Do you keep your crafting stash in it, like ribbons and buttons? or perhaps a stamping kit? Did your little girl has squirreled it away to keep her treasures?
This is a kind of competitions that I enjoy taking part, and I plan to join in once none of the luxury biscuits are gone.

Biscuiteers also run masterclasses on icing and decorating the biscuits. That sounds like an amazing day out for me. One day I will treat myself to an icing lesson. In the meantime, I have a lovely Biscuiteers Book of Iced Biscuits to drool over (I got one from The Book People, hurry, before they all get snapped).
The beauty of Biscuiteers products is exceptional, and they have a splendid selection to suit all tastes and occasions. Just have a look at their Easter eggs biscuits, which can rival grand old Faberge himself. And among the latest releases you will find adorable Mr Men and Little Miss biscuits. Who needs flowers when you can have such wonderful treats?!

Disclosure: I received a Venice Mini Collection tin for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Lamb shanks with dates & pomegranates for Virtual Blogger Come Dine with Me with Russell Hobbs

If there's a culinary challenge, I don't need to be invited twice. Especially when there is a chance to test a new kitchen gadget and work together with my blogger friends. To celebrate the launch of their new Illumina range, Russell Hobbs invited me to take part in Virtual Blogger Come Dine with Me cooking challenge. If you follow Russell Hobbs on Facebook, you must have seen the images of menus created by foodie bloggers in the last few weeks. This week the Three Musketeers, aka Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews, Alison from Dragons and Fairy Dust and I, your humble servant, are doing an imaginary menu. I so wish we could meet up in real life!

Cheryl has totally rocked it with her delicious starter of Briouates (hope that's the correct spelling, that's quite a mouthful to pronounce). It's a Moroccan dish, a kind of pasties made with filo pastry, and I will be definitely making my own, now that I have seen Cheryl's recipe.
I know Alison has a mouthwatering dessert coming on Friday, and I am looking forward reading all about it.
I cooked the main dish. And here it is, my entry for Virtual Blogger Come Dine with Me with Russell Hobbs: Lamb shanks with dates & pomegranates.

In one of February Weekend issues (The Guardian, 15/02/14), Yotam Ottolenghi exclaims: "Meat and fruit on the same plate? You'd better believe it". Not sure what's the novelty though. Meat and fruit have been paired for thousands of years, in many cuisines and cultures. Even in my childhood, when the Soviet shops haven't had much of a variety of foods, my Mum often cooked dishes which combined meat and fruit, mostly dried, like apricots, prunes, raisins, figs, apples. So, for me personally this is something very familiar. And if we move to the warmer climes, what about the famous combination of ripe melons with paper thin prosciutto slices? Or lamb tagines of the Eastern cuisines? Fruit, both fresh and dried, gives the meat the touch of sweetness, while the fruit itself absorbs the meaty juices and flavours, a win-win combination.

Lamb shanks with dates & pomegranates
2 lamb shanks
1 tsbp plain flour
2 onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, sliced
1 tsp ras el hanout
sea salt with rose petals
a few sprigs of fresh mint, chopped
1 cinnamon stick
15 dates
8 dried apricots
100ml rose wine
1 tomato, sliced
1tsp ground ginger
more fresh mint and half a pomegranate
to serve with mashed potatoes: 2 medium potatoes + 2 heaped tbsp creme fraiche

Start by dusting the lamb shanks with the plain flour and browning them in a frying pan with the olive oil (it takes about 10 minutes). Chop the onions and slice the carrots. Remove the lamb shanks out of the frying pan and put them in a Pyrex dish. Fry the onions and carrots in the oil and juices from lamb for about 10 minutes on low, until the onion is golden brown. Add the onions and carrots to the dish with lamb shanks.
Season the shanks well with the sea salt (I like to use the sea salt with dried rose petals, but this is optional). Add the cinnamon stick, ras el hanout, mint, dates, dried apricots, tomato, ginger and rose wine. Pour enough water to cover the shanks with all the other ingredients.
Put the Pyrex in the oven preheated to 180C and cook for half an hour. Then stir the contents a bit, cover the dish with the lid and cook for another hour and a half. If you want the dates to be chunkier, add them at a later stage, as being cooked for two hours, they almost dissolve into a sticky sauce.
Serve with the mashed potatoes made with creme fraiche.
When serving, add more mint and scatter a generous helping of pomegranates.
This is a veritable feast for eyes and palate. The lamb is very tender, and the sweet sauce of dates and spices is perfect with lamb.

As part of the challenge I received a new kitchen appliance from Russell Hobb's new Illumina range - Illumina Food Processor - which is a stylish modern gadget with unique colour features. It has a set of 4 different speeds and settings for slicing/shredding/grating, dough/cream, blending and chopping/processing. Depending on the speed you choose, the colour of the ring changes, that is so neat.
It has a capacious 2.3 litre processing bowl with safety locking lid, as well as a 1.5 litre blending jug which is perfect for making milk shakes and smoothies.
It is very easy to use and as easy to clean.

It took seconds to do a "tearful" job of chopping the onion. No more tears. I also sliced carrots for this dish. And just yesterday I posted a recipe for beetroot fritters, where again I was glad to use the food processor to shred the beets, carrots and onion.

Russell Hobbs says: "Consumer insight, years of development and expert know-how within Russell Hobbs has now resulted in the launch of Illumina – the enlightening new food preparation range which uses colour control technology to help make cooking and home life easier.
Every product in the new five–piece collection features an innovative colour control light ring which changes colour to represent speed with clear guidance on which setting is best for different food types, helping to take the guess work out of cooking"

You can find more about Illumina range on Russell Hobbs site.

Disclosure: I received the shopping vouchers to cover the cost of food products used in the recipe, and the Illumina Food Processor for the purposes of testing and taking part in the culinary challenge. All opinions are mine.