I love Tuscany in August. I returned from a whirlwind trip Down Under last week to discover everyone had disappeared. Okay, that sounded a little ominous. Disappeared in a good way. August is the traditional holiday season in Italy. The entire country grounds to a halt for a month as the locals practically live at the beach. It can (and has been) very frustrating. A couple of years ago we were days away from moving into our newly renovated house when August rolled around and all our tradesmen went on holiday. I remember sitting in my almost finished kitchen feeling absolutely murderous. I was so desperate to move in that I almost contemplated installing the oven myself!
With no renovations in the cards this year, I find myself loving the August peace and quiet. Manciano is by no means a bustling city, but the lack of locals is really noticeable. The streets are sleepy with only a handful of senior citizens sitting in the shade gossiping about their neighbours and the infernal roar of dirt bikes (a real problem in our town) is blessedly absent.
Those of us left behind are on auto pilot. Every movement is slow and pensive with plenty of breaks to reflect on the blessed breeze that has rolled into town after some truly infernal days. It’s really nice. Especially since I have oodles of time to raid my father-in-law’s vegetable patch while they’re up north basking in cool embrace of Trentino.
Imagine my surprise when I wandered down there last week and had the ultimate Jack in the Beanstalk experience. F-I-L found a handful of sunflower seeds at the local supermarket and planted them smack bang in the middle of his vegetable patch not really expecting much. Now they’re three feet tall and intoxicatingly beautiful.
I could’ve stood there and stared for a lifetime, but I had summer veg to collect.
It is far too hot to cook. So I’ve been playing around with quick and easy Italian summer salads that are satisfying and flavourful. After much experimenting, my seasonal favourite is this play on the traditional prosciutto and melon starter. It’s a big one in our household. F-I-L grows his own cantaloupe (called popone in the local dialect) and they eat an entire melon every lunch throughout summer. Much to their annoyance, I only like cantaloupe when it’s wrapped in prosciutto or parma ham… and so the foundations of this salad were born.
I’m not reinventing the wheel here. Rather I’m making two very delicious ingredients all the more seasonal and decadent. You can use whatever veg you have on hand. I pilfered fennel, radish, witlof and cucumber from the garden. They’re all super crisp with spicy and bitter notes that play on the sweetness of the cantaloupe and the richness of the burrata cheese.
Burrata! A couple of years ago, my brother and I had our first taste of burrata at a very fancy restaurant in Melbourne and it blew our mind. Burrata is like mozzarella’s sexy, smart and all around superior cousin if that cousin was raised on a diet of thick double cream. It looks like your traditional mozzarella, sparkly white and luscious, but when you tear it open, its insides ooze out into a puddle of cheesy deliciousness. Pair those juices with Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and a balsamic glaze and you have one out-of-this-world dressing.
Burrata & Tuscan summer veg salad
1 ball of burrata cheese (or mozzarella, if you can’t find burrata)
combination of seasonal vegetables. I used fennel, radish, witlof and cucumber
6-7 slices of parma ham
handful of toasted pine nuts
1 cantaloupe, wedged
handful of basil leaves
aged balsamic vinegar (preferably from Modena)
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, to serve
I use a balsamic glaze as the base for my dressing. It’s not essential, but reducing the balsamic vinegar ups its intensity and adds a caramel depth to the salad. It’s super simple to make. Just reduce a cup of good balsamic vinegar in a small pot over medium heat until thick and syrupy (about 15 minutes). Leave to cool and combine with your extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, set aside.
To make the salad, slice your vegetables and arrange on your serving platter with the cantaloupe wedges. Wrap the parma ham slices loosely around your fingertips to create ‘roses’, if your feeling fancy.
Using your hands, tear big chunks of the burrata cheese and scatter over the salad with the basil leaves and pine nuts. Serve with drizzles of your dressing.
Obviously this salad is delicious on its own, but serve it alongside grilled chicken or a medium-rare steak and you have a new summer barbecue staple.