I love my winter holidays in Italy. With a husband who also doubles as the assessor for tourism, you tend to put in a lot of hours volunteering for our annual Christmas festival. I feel like Jackie Kennedy sans the Chanel suits, incredible state dinners and Marilyn Monroe sex scandals. Sarcasm aside, it’s nice to be part of the small town spirit. It’s so different from what I’m used. We have amazing festivals in Melbourne, but the sense of community and camaraderie isn’t there. Plus I would have never volunteered to be on a festival committee! Psh, not when I could have been shopping…
I’m not actually in Tuscany for Christmas. I head home on the 19th, but I’m trying to soak up as much of the winter wonderland as I can. So while on a break from all the festival prep over the weekend, I convinced Giulio to go for a walk in the woods behind his parents’ house to look for a Christmas tree. I’ve never had a real tree before. Pines aren’t exactly native in Australia. Technically they’re not Tuscan either, but someone planted a whole bunch of firs or ‘abete’ as they’re called in Italian behind our house and I’d knew I’d find just what I was looking for.
Axe in hand, complaining husband in tow – I would like to pretend that he enjoyed this winter walk as much as I did, but really he just moaned about how much work he has to do – we set off into the woods. Southern Tuscany is gorgeous in winter. I’m not one for cold weather, so these mild days are perfect for me. There’s a hint of chill in the air, just enough for all the leaves to turn golden brown, but it’s still warm enough to wear a thick knit jumper with the sleeves rolled up and no jacket. My hatred of winter jackets is well documented. It’s a complex, I know.
It very rarely snows, which as far as I’m concerned is a good thing, and everything around you is breathtakingly quiet and peaceful. It’s almost as if the entire countryside is in hibernation!
Tree cut, we took a moment to look at our surroundings. We’re hoping to build our family home on the land. It’s not much, but it’s our own little slice of Tuscany, complete with vipers, wild boars and a slowly encroaching forest of holly mixed with one or two chestnut trees and a few pines. But more on that to come.
After we had cut down the tree, we carried it home and decorated it. It’s only a little tree, so I kept the decorations to a minimum – just my advent calendar, a few golden balls and one string of lights. It’s a far cry from my family Christmas tree, which is weighed down by so many decorations, it is both a fire risk and a risk to the house’s foundations.
By the time we had finished, it was dark and chilly and I wanted something soothing for dinner. Our wintry walk hadn’t been that cold, but I always find I crave comfort food on Sunday evenings, especially when it’s raining outside and the heaters are up far too high (our gas bill is a nightmare).
This simple potato and beef stew might seem like it has Irish roots, but it’s actually one of my family’s old Calabrian recipes. When my grandmother lived in Italy, meat was naturally hard to come by. Our family definitely wasn’t rich. In fact, I visited my Calabrian relatives a few years ago and they still ate meat sparingly, if anything out of habit. These days, my grandmother still makes this stew, but she uses choicer cuts of meat. It’s a vast improvement because she used to stew this for hours. Now, I can get the same rich tomatoey flavour in little more than half an hour.
As far as Italian dinner recipes go, this is the ultimate one pot dish. Just throw in your meat and veg, add a good lug of wine and leave to happily bubble away on the stove while you warm your toes by the fire or catch up on wrapping a few presents. Since it already has potatoes in it, I don’t think you need to serve it with anything other than a lovely salad of winter greens and a few slices of good Tuscan bread. It’s a family favourite and I hope it becomes your’s too!
carne in umido
4 sebago (starchy) potatoes, cubed
1kg beef chuck, cubed
½ cup dry white wine
750ml tomato puree, see p.x
1 medium brown onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ stalk celery, chopped
½ red capsicum, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled and left whole
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the beef and cook for 4–5 minutes or until browned. Add the white wine and cook for 3–4 minutes or until evaporated. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the potatoes and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Add the potatoes. Continue cooking for 25-30 minutes or until the potatoes and meat are tender. Serve with crusty bread. Serves 4.