Sunday 27 May 2018

Ciacce, calzone and focaccine

Here are some new savoury recipes I experimented with last winter, some of them with the great help of my mum who gave me some good tips.

Piccoli calzoni (small ‘trousers’)
Calzone is made with pizza dough folded over and filled with whatever you like, usually with mozzarella, ham, ricotta and tomato sauce. I made little ones using different ingredients for the dough.
For the dough you need: 250 g of raising flour, 1 egg, 1 tbsp of melted butter, salt, 100 ml of lukewarm water.
For the filling you need: 100 g of ham, 100 of mozzarella, 1 egg, pepper; or prosciutto and mozzarella; or mushrooms and mozzarella; or courgette and mozzarella.

Mix the ingredients for the dough and let it rest for half an hour. Then prepare the filling. Grind the ham and mozzarella in a blender and add one egg and pepper. You can also prepare other fillings as suggested above, always add the egg and, if you like it, some pepper. The courgette and the mushrooms need to be chopped and cooked separately in advance in a pan with some oil and salt before being ground and mixed with mozzarella.
Roll the dough out and cut round shapes using an egg ring or any other ring shape you have (a glass or a mug for example) and fill it with the mixture you have prepared. Fold the dough sheet over and seal it damping the edged with water. Mark the edges with the tines of a fork. The calzone should have the shape of a half moon. Set the little calzoni on a greased oven tray and bake for 20-30 minutes at 200° C.

Ciacce or fried pizzas
This is a recipe from Tuscany; my mum and her sisters used to prepare ciacce in November during the olive harvesting time, so the workers could have some warm nourishing food when they came back from the fields. They can be savoury or sweet and are not baked but fried in a pan.
For the dough you need: 250 g of self raising flour, 1 egg, 100 ml of lukewarm water, half a tsp of salt or sugar, 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, and sunflower oil to fry.
Mix all the ingredients and let the dough rest for half an hour. Form small balls and roll them out in sort of small round pizzas, make little holes taping the pastry with the end of a fork and fry them in oil. When ready, sprinkle the top with salt and rosemary or oregano, or sugar for the sweet ones. You can have the savoury ones together with cheese, ham, salami, mortadella or prosciutto; the sweet ones can be good with nutella or cream.

Focaccine (small flat bread)
Focaccine are similar to ciacce (they can be savoury or sweet)  but the ingredients for the dough are different and they are baked.
For the dough you need: 200 g of strong flour, 200 g of plain flour, dry yeast (a sachet, 7g), 300 ml of lukewarm water, 2 tsp of salt (or sugar), 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil.
Mix all the ingredients and let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a damp cloth for about two-three hours, it should double its size.

Roll out the dough and cut out circles using an egg ring or a glass. Set them on a greased oven tray and season them adding on top, for the savoury ones, rosemary or pancetta cubes, grated cheese, black or green olives, chopped tomatoes, or simply sprinkling some salt on it. For the sweet ones you can sprinkle some golden caster or Demerara sugar on top, add pine nuts or mixed peel, sultanas or raisins, chocolate chips or dried fruit. Cover them with a film and store in a warm place for one more hour. Bake for 20-30 minutes at 200° C.

My mum and I made homemade tortellini for New Year’s Eve preparing the dough and the filling and cooked them in stock.
For the dough you need: 500 g of plain flour and 6 eggs.
For the filling you need: 100 g of minced pork, 100 g of minced beef, 1 egg, salt, pepper and nutmeg, 2 slices of mortadella, 1 tbsp of grated parmigiano.
Prepare the dough mixing all the ingredients and let it rest for half an hour. Prepare the filling cooking the meat in a pan with some oil and grind all the ingredients in a blender.
Roll out the dough and cut squares measuring on each side 2-3 inches (it depends on how big you want your tortellini), put a little bit of the filling in the centre of the square and fold it over forming a triangle. Wrap the triangle around your index finger, seal the two apexes (damp it with water if needed), and fold over the third apex. Here you are your perfect (or imperfect, which is good) tortellino. You can cook them in stock, as we did, or in water, drain and season it with tomato sauce or cream, and plenty of parmigiano.

Sunday 20 May 2018

The Royal Wedding

Beautiful and authentic are the two words that encapsulate Harry and Meghan’s wedding.

I tuned in on Twitter from 7 am on Saturday and at 9 am on BBC 1 following all the interviews with people coming from all parts of the UK and abroad. Some of them didn’t even sleep the night before to keep their position along the procession route. The children interviewed speculated on Meghan’s wedding dress hoping in some lace and maybe a long train. Later on representatives of charities advocated their mission and commitment to their cause, the right moment and place for it indeed, as both William and Harry, as well as their mother Diana before them, support less privileged people on many fronts.

I enjoyed admiring all the elegant, quirky and slant hats that catwalked along the path towards St. George’s Chapel. Celebrities and Royal family members promenaded on the cobbled pavement in gorgeous outfits, unusual colours and high heels. I couldn’t help picking my favourites, Victoria Beckham in her midnight dress with a daring cut on the front reminding of Fontana’s canvases and Amal Clooney in mustard yellow with matching dish-shaped hat standing out with her tall slender figure. The Queen was in lime colour so suitable for the sunny glorious day. And the Duchess of Cornwall’s hat was absolutely the best.

As the commentators pointed out, it was a modern kind of wedding, highlighting diversity and at the same time simply stating that two people in love with each other were coming together from very different backgrounds. It was in Prince Harry’s eyes, in Meghan’s smile and in their holding each other’s hand.

Prince Harry looked happy and rightly tense, and Meghan was just herself in a simple minimalist white dress enriched with the lacy extra-long veil and the precious tiara.

The ceremony was deeply emotional in its simplicity, genuine in every detail. I was moved by the appropriate choice of music, especially the gospel song, the readings and the passionate words of Bishop Michael Curry on the power of love. I found there was a good balance between English etiquette and American flavour.

It was a magnificent celebration of love and authenticity, and I felt moved and extremely proud of them. May their days together be happy and long lasting.

Hurray for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex!

Friday 11 May 2018

Eurovision Song Contest 2018

The Eurovision Song Contest intrigues me every year, I never miss the final, which is tomorrow night. The show tends to be a bit tacky and cheesy at times, with singers wearing eccentric outfits sometimes inspired by their country’s tradition and folklore, or interpreting the song with exaggerated bright colours and the addition of  plastic implements, or else with huge romantic gowns spreading across the whole stage.

Great songs won in the past, such as ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’, Céline Dion’s ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’, Johnny Logan’s ‘Hold me now’, or Gigliola Cinguetti’s ‘Non ho l’età’.

I liked last year’s winning song, Salvador Sobra’s ‘Amar Pelos Dois’, its romantic tune and sweet lyrics, his downplayed performance and ordinary look. It was a surprising and well deserved victory. I was supporting the Italian song, of course, Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentalis Karma’, which I reviewed here
An unusual song as well, but less reassuring than the Portuguese one.

This year I am supporting Italy again, and rightly so. The singer-songwriter Fabrizio Moro is an award winning singer, he won the Newcomer’s Section of the Sanremo Music Festival in 2007 with the song ‘Pensa’ (think), a successful rap-inspired piece. It is a song against violence (‘think before shooting’, the lyrics say, the video clip is here: ) and organized crime, which means Mafia in Italy. This year Moro and Ermal Meta won the Sanremo Music Festival with the song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (you did nothing to me) and they will represent Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon with this song.

I am very excited because this time Italy really deserves to win. This is not the usual song about love or having fun; on the contrary, it is a very serious one about war and its consequences and backlashes, that is terrorism, emigration and poverty.

The rhythm reminds rap once more, with clear wording and a catchy tune. The title, ‘You did nothing to me,’ is an ironic and tough reply to the devastating effects of violent deaths caused by terrorism and war. The lyrics are deeply significant and moving at the same time. For me the most striking line is: ‘non esiste bomba pacifista’ (a peaceful bomb doesn’t exist); it is a stark statement that reveals our equivocal and unfortunately unsolved way of dealing with the concept of World Peace.
Here is the video clip with English subtitles:
And may the best song win!

Monday 7 May 2018

Exhibitions: ABBA , ‘Living with Gods’ and more

The Abba exhibition at Southbank was an emotional adventure. Since we had spent a year in Stockholm in 1998, we developed a fanatic passion for Abba songs and charisma. The exhibition was organized in ten spaces starting in a dark room with a mirror disco ball hanging from the ceiling and a super trouper (a type of spotlight) on a corner. The song was, of course, ‘Super Trouper’ (1981), its addictive rhythm and revealing lyrics filling the space. We felt like a number one at least for the time the song lasted.

The different rooms showed the stages of Abba’s career from the 70s till the 80s, when they took a’ temporary break’ that hasn’t ended yet. It was interesting to see a dreary living room of the 70s with Beano comics and books on The Well Dressed Woman and The Farm and The Village on the shelves, as well as TV programs on petrol crisis and strikes wildly going on in Britain. Then you turned on the radio and there was pop music, Abba and other singers cheering you up, showing you the brighter side of life, giving you hopes in a better future.

In 1974 they won the  Eurovision contest with ‘Waterloo’, a powerful piece where a big historical event (Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo) is related to ordinary people’s life, that is surrendering to the loved one, which is a sort of win-win situation, or, as they say, ‘I feel like I win when I lose’. This was the beginning of real success which brought a lot of hard work and money. They became very popular not only in Europe but also in the USA, Canada and Australia. The international tour in 1977 saw people shouting ‘we want Abba’ in Sidney in the heavy rain absolutely captivated by them.
In the recording room I had a go singing ‘Dancing queen’ together with my husband and a group of visitors, it was entertaining and easy, tremendously enjoyable.

In the last room we watched Abba videos, including hilarious parodies and remakes, sitting in comfortable business class airline seats. Back home we played the Abba Gold CD full blast.
What I especially like in their songs, a part from the irresistible music, is the fact that they convey a straightforward message that is mainly centred on relationships (love relationships, as it is typical of pop music), not just looking at the bright side. Their lyrics also connect what seems big and important and bring it back to the ordinary.  Examples are in ‘Waterloo’, as I said before, but also in ‘The Winner Takes it All’, when it says: ‘The gods may throw the dice/their minds as cold as ice’; or in ‘Fernando’, about fighting for liberty in the Mexican revolution; and in the apparently desecrating prayer of the lonely woman: ‘gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight’.

At the British Museum we visited ‘Living with Gods’, an engrossing exhibition on how all cultures and civilizations interpret their everyday life through beliefs that go beyond reality, that is the tangible world around us, towards a symbolic, often transcendent, dimension. It is apparently an undeniable characteristic of being human, or, for some of us, it is a need.

In the first room there was an interesting 40,000 year old ivory sculpture of a Lion Man (a man with the head of a lion) found in Germany, probably symbolizing courage, or the spirit of courage.
The captions of the exhibition explained that rituals and myths help people make sense of reality, decrease anxiety and form strong social bonds in the community protecting the individuals. Recurring symbols in most religions are the elements of life: light, water, earth and fire (metaphors of supernatural forces), which imply a transformation in human life. These elements have also a double meaning, they can signify destruction as well as renewal (e.g., water is essential to life and means resurrection, but also causes death).

The different rituals are linked to the climatic, geographical and historical circumstances of certain populations. For example, the fire that had to burn constantly in the Zoroastrian temples was a practical way to preserve this important element for the whole community. Furthermore, prayers and meditations help relax, reduce stress and give confidence. This makes it easier to cope with everyday disappointments and sufferings, as life is not only joy and rewards. On the other hand, amulets, pictures and statues are the physical representations of these beliefs, a material equivalent that makes the abstract real.

The conclusion seems to be that religion and spirituality are not a surplus but are a well established (and maybe necessary) part of our identities; they are also socially and politically important and exercise power and control on people. The emphasis of the exhibition was on the fact that the different religions are linked to specific cultures, therefore, they are not meant to be absolutely true; tolerance and respect is consequently the main implied message.

At the end there was a display of different ‘religious’ symbols, like the Buddha ( an example of rejection of materialism), communist ceremonies and the cult of personality in China and Soviet Union, the Lampedusa Cross (symbolising different religions coming to Europe), and a seemingly contradictory quote by Albert Einstein: ‘The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science’.

We also had a quick tour in the new Asian refurbished wing (room 33) starting from the wrong end; it was astonishingly rich of artefacts and full of Chinese tourists, similarly to what we always do heading to the Mediterranean civilization rooms in museums. At the end (or beginning) of room 33 there is an incredible Hindu stone temple. I read in the captions that the name Hinduism was given by the British to the multiple Indian religions that comprehended more than three hundred million deities. A substantial number compared to the one God of the monotheistic religions, which stresses once more the different characteristics from one culture to another.

We ended our tour at the British Museum with the temporary free exhibition ‘Violence and Beauty, reflections on the war’. As the few pieces in display showed, combat scenes  are brutal but attractive, they represent power and beauty, humanity and survival. Giving up the fight voluntarily (a sort of conscientious objection) was represented in the Assyrian carved relief dating 645-635 BC; it could mean assured death.

My daughter left for Japan at the beginning of March, so we decided to have a last outing in London before her departure. We went to the V&A to experience the new gorgeous member’s room, where we had an excellent lunch at moderate prices, and browsed in the shop. Then we headed to Tate Modern to see the exhibition of Modigliani. It was extraordinary; I had never seen such an exhaustive display of Modigliani’s art before, most of the pictures coming from private collections. You can read my review of the exhibition here:

To end the day, my daughter and I had a quick dinner at Capricci, a small but elegant Italian deli just outside the Tate Modern. We were in a hurry (we had to be at Southbank by seven for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Nicola Benedetti) and so we had to rush out before dessert. The food was excellent and they have some special products like cantucci with candied orange and extra dark chocolate, or with pistachio and walnuts, and paste di meliga, specialities you can’t find easily in the UK. It was a perfect day.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Exploration and invention. Picasso: Paper & Clay at the Lightbox in Woking

The prolific and versatile traits of Picasso’s talent are manifest in the current riveting exhibition at the Lightbox in Woking. It gives a clear-cut vision of  Picasso’s artistic development focusing on his printing and ceramic works and highlighting his experimental technical approach, innovative both in forms and subjects, and amply contextualizing the different works of the artist’s multi-faceted career.
Though the works are not in a chronological order, the captions summarise effectively the different stages of Picasso’s artistic development, explaining the main characteristics of, for example, Cubism or the Blue period, contextualising each picture within the artistic movement of the time and highlighting Picasso’s innovative contribution.

Moreover, there have been two photographic exhibitions as well; photos of Picasso taken by the professional photographer Lee Miller, and by an amateur, Stanley Stanley. This is an opportunity to see a different aspect of the great artist.

An overview of the main stages of Picasso’s development are present in the timeline introducing the exhibition. Good examples of his work are in the etching of ‘The frugal meal’ (1904) testifying the sombre Blue period, possibly influenced by the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas and of Picasso’s life as an art student in Paris, with angular elongated figures and sad expressions; or in the ‘Woman’s face’ where the figure is both seen in profile and frontal view, giving a surrealist, 3D impression.

The essential quality of his drawing technique, where the line is reduced to the basic and yet expresses a total vision of the subject, is clearly shown in the etching of the ‘Woman with a book’ (1918-19), which recalls the works of the Renaissance masters, with simple lines suggesting the folds of the dress and the stress on the hands holding the book. These characteristics emphasise Picasso’s innovative interpretation as well as his legacy from previous masters; they also underline his tendency to simplify his figures, not in the sense of making his work easier, but in the sense of making it more essential and effective. The exhibition highlights very well this quality of the artist’s work both in the pieces exhibited and in the explanations.

The other important feature emphasised in the exposition is Picasso’s incredible ability to experiment and mix different media, evident both in the printing and ceramic works on display. He began his apprenticeship in printing at Fernand Mourlot’s studio in 1945 where he used to spend whole days and late into the night experimenting with different techniques - engraving, linocut, drypoint, etching, lithograph and aquatint, mixing the different methods or inventing new ones.

His pioneering attitude, a constant feature of his artistic career, enabled him to create a new figurative language. Especially in the posters he produced at Vallauris, a village in the Côte d'Azur where he lived in 1948-1955, the colours and the figures communicate a message that intended to attract the interest of the viewer and was easy to remember.

For him, printing was not simply a way of reproducing images but an exploration of his never-ending creative process; he did not totally rely on ready-made traditional approaches but reworked the printing blocks. For example, ‘Le banderillero’ (1959) shows in four stages how he reprinted the paper with different colours.

Another important example of this innovative creative approach is in the ‘Portrait of Jacqueline Roque’ (1958) where the lithograph is produced from an inked stone in which he scratched the white contours against the black, reversing the traditional technique of drawing in black on a white background. The effect is surprising in the shadowing of the face’s features giving a sensation of depth and rich texture. In other works he combined etching and aquatint or etching and drypoint.

His eclectic, fruitful approach not only allowed him to experiment with different materials and techniques but also produced original mixed works both in subject and in form. For him art work was a way to penetrate and understand mankind and the world, in his search for a new conception of art. 
Picasso saw himself as a revolutionary and art was his tool to make men and women freer. At the same time he thought that art was not an imitation of nature but a lie, a necessary aesthetic lie. Thus, art is not simple decoration  but an exploration of an idea of the world which is essential to understand and influence society. The writer Gertrude Stein, who supported and funded him in the early years of his artistic life, said that through his art work Picasso communicated “the truth which only he can see”.

In addition to the etching and the engraving examples of the Vollard Suite, a series commissioned by Ambroise Vollard revealing a neo-classical taste with Greek and Roman themes in part autobiographical, the exhibition also shows his commitment to the theme of peace with one of his famous doves he made to support the French Communist Party.

When he moved in Côte d'Azur after the second world war, he was a famous and rich artist. At Vallauris he started to work in the Madoura ceramic studio owned by Suzanne and Georges Ramié. In the area they had been producing ceramics since the time of the Romans and Picasso both learned from the traditional craft and experimented with new forms and subjects inspired by primitive African and Iberian art, as had already happened in his paintings since ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907). In the first year he produced about 2,000 pieces triggering a new flourishing of the ceramic trade in Vallauris.

The exhibition shows standard plates he marked and modified before they were dry and then decorated and glazed with different coloured slips. Similar subjects, like a bullfight, a picador or a goat, are presented with different experimental techniques. In the vases he used to combine different pieces in a sort of collage, merging the decoration with the shape. This is evident in the animal-shaped vases, like the ‘Owl with feathers’ or the ‘Dove’. Eventually he hoped to produce a plaster mould to make more affordable ceramics. Some of the works exhibited were on sale, ranging from £ 2,000 to £ 30,000.

At the Lightbox there is the opportunity for both children and adults to create your own drawing with paper and pencils, imitating Picasso’s work, together with two lightboxes with coloured plastic shapes with which to play and explore the master’s work.

On the second floor of the gallery there’s the exhibition of Picasso’s photos taken by Lee Miller (open until 17 June). Lee Miller and Picasso met in 1937, and then again after the war. She took more than a 1,000 shots for her husband Richard Penrose’s biography of Picasso; they show the artist in his villa and at work, his powerful personality and inexhaustible creativity apparent from the pictures.

At the Art Fund Prize Gallery until 29 April there were some photos that Stanley Stanley took of Picasso, his daughter Paloma and the art dealer Ernst Ascher in Golfe-Juan where Stanley met the artist by chance on the beach. The photos showed the artist relaxing at the seaside and having fun with his friends. Stanley never met Picasso again but the artist gave him a ceramic plate that Stanley cherished till his death.

The main Picasso exhibition is at the Lightbox until 24 June