Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Napolean Lives Here: the strangest museum in the world

Whenever I drive south of my village in Valle d’Aosta, I’ve passed by a bizarre site.  It almost seems like a junkyard, but not quite.  It is a lot on the side of the road filled with strange constructions made of scrap metal, ancient industrial fans on tall polls with brightly colored paint peeling off of them, creepy life sized dolls looking over the road, dressed in decomposing rags.  There’s a big, peeling, hand-painted sign declaring it a museum, but to tell the truth, I never really got up the courage to check it out.  It’s not a place locals tend to stop at.  

We parked the car, and cautiously approached the roadside ‘museum’.  There were crudely hand painted signs dangling on the fence surrounding the rusted fence, declaring it to be world famous.  It was filmed by some Russians.  The TV channel Sky apparently transmitted it.  Someone wrote about them on the internet.  

Oh, and Napoleon lives there.  
We made our way in, and couldn’t believe our eyes.  If it seemed bizarre from the outside, that was nothing compared to being within the labyrinth itself.  The artist had built reproductions of many of the regions 152 castles, each about the size of a car.  Exact reproductions, created with scrap metal from a condemned beer factory.  There were creepy old mannequins of children standing everywhere, some missing one or both of the staring eyes, dressed in tattered clothes from decades past.  There was a weedy flower bed that had decapitated doll heads sprouting out of it.  There were nativity scenes.  But not your standard variety, 15 nativity scenes crammed into a small space, in a small cave, with ski lifts, all covered with a thick layer of dust.  A creepy life sized Santa doll with a maniacal look in his staring blue eyes, behind a dusty and half shattered window.  There was a metal chicken on a poll that waved in the air, and fans from the insides of ancient cars spinning in the breeze.  Chickens lived in the heart of the museum, in a scrap metal structure topped with what looked like a life sized Edward Scissorhands doll, and his friend, creepy bald doll.  Photos really can’t capture what this place is like.
I think this doll needs a bath
Who knew Jesus was born under a ski lift?
The original Edward Scissorhands
After wandering around for a while, a wizened old man suddenly appeared on the path in front of us.  He was hunched, had no teeth, and slowly made his way toward us.  At this point, he introduced himself as Carlo Tassi, owner of the museum, artist, and inventor. He was thrilled to have visitors, and enthusiastically and somewhat incoherently told us about his museum, is nose mere inches from my own, spraying globs of spit on my glasses as he spoke.  
But it was so worth it.
He told us he was 84 years old, and had been working on his museum for more than 30 years.  He  asked us if we saw his castle, Fort du Bard, because his mother was born there.  We looked behind us, and sure enough, there was an exact reproduction of the famous Fort, which was built hundreds of years ago by the Savoy family.  
Fort du Bard, made from scrap metal

 He then turned is back, and beckoned us to follow him, through a locked gate that looked as if it had been wrought from the center of the earth over a thousand years ago.  I think perhaps that was the case. 
He had a series of garages, which he opened and showed us the contents.  You wouldn’t believe it.  He had larger-than-life bronze statues.  A gold cash register.  A massive bronze statue of a lion, which he affectionately petted so often that it’s nose was getting worn down.  Intricately engraved Roman helmets.  A washing machine from the 1950’s.  A *real* ball and chain, from about 2000 years ago.  One of the original espresso machines.  Oh, and about 20 lances and head-axes from the year 900.  He even showed us how to use the lance, and how to properly behead someone.  And insisted we try them out.

We got to play with the 1000+ year old weapons

I perhaps had a bit too much fun!
We were given a lesson on how to properly use a lance to stab someone
We also learned how to use a vintage washing machine.
And then we met Napolean.  He has a freaking bronze statue of a pointingNapolean, on his rearing horse.  Carlo claims it was original, from Paris, and worth a fortune.  I asked how he got it, and he responded, ‘who knows?’  Every morning he opens up the garage, and wheels Napolean to a balcony overlooking the busy road below, so that he can greet the cars as they pass by. 
The real Napolean likes to wave at cars.
 I highly recommend everyone visit Carlo Tassi’s museum.  I promise it is like nothing you have ever seen before! Thanks to Barbara Swell for the fabulous photos.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Jam Making for Jamaphobes

It's jam season!
Yum! Plum & star anise jam on top of local goat toma and organic walnut sourdough bread baked in a wood fired oven

Actually, it's been jam-making season for quite some time, but I've been too busy canning to write about it.  Even as I'm writing, I hear the plums insisting that I turn them into jam.  Ok, not really, but they are sitting there on the table, looking very tasty, and if they could talk, they would be saying 'Annie...Annie.... please take out our pits and make us into tasty jam!  That star anise over there would go really nicely with our juicy flesh....."

A lot of 'young' folks seem to jam-phobic.  People of our parents generation make the jam, and we eat it, for the most part.  However, making jam isn't difficult at all, and today I'll give you some guidelines on making delicious jam.

There are different types of jam out there.  I like following the French 'confiture' method, which you can read all about in Christine Ferber's book, 'Mis Confitures'.  She's the queen of jam, and recently when I was in Annecy, France with my mom, we both stopped in our tracks and simultaneously screamed like teenagers at a Backstreet Boys concert (do they even exist anymore?) because we saw some of her jam in a shop window. So, of course we bought some.

There are different types of jams, and different ways of making them.  Here are the things to think about:

-  Do you like you jam chunky, with big pieces of whole fruit, or smooth jam, or somewhere in between?
If you like it chunky, leave small fruits (like strawberries) whole, or cut into large chunks.   For smooth jam, cut fruit into medium sized pieces and blend jam with a stick blender right before canning.  For somewhere in between, cut fruit smaller or give your jam a short burst with a stick blender. 

-  How sweet do you like your jam?
In the US, I think many people do equal weights of fruit and sugar.  Christine Ferber's are nearly that sweet.  In Italy, I've learned to appreciate less-sweet jam, so I usually add 500 g sugar per 1000g fruit.  I go up to 650g or so for less sweet fruit, but I don't go under 500 g because I think the consistency becomes compromised and you have to overcook the fruit to get it concentrated enough to can.  I think 650 g sugar per 1000 g fruit is a good starting point,giving a good balance between sweetness (not overly so) and consistency.

- Do you want it for breakfast, or to go on cheese or meat?
I didn't really know about cheese and meat jams before I moved to Italy.  And boy am I glad to discover them!  These 'savory' jams aren't necessarily any less sweet, but they have herbs and spices in them that make them pair well well cheeses and meats.  With bleu cheese, I love apple & liquorice jam, and with Fontina I love plum & star anise jam, and for goat cheese I go for thyme jelly, for example.  Black pepper, rosemary, liquorice, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, thyme, fresh mint.... there are no limits to how creative you can get!  I like to use those things to cover up fruit flavors that I don't love (like plum, gross) so that I end up with jam that is tasty even if I don't usually like that kind of jam.

Ok, lets get down to business.

You need good, ripe fruit.  If the fruit doesn't taste great by itself, it won't make great jam.  The riper the better. The following method can work with pretty much any fruit.  I go by weight, because that is the most reliable, and will give a recipe based on 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of fruit, which is easily multiplied.  Also, no pectin. You really don't need the stuff. It is the jam making equivalent of using a store-bought frozen pie crust.

Big pot: ideally you should use something that is wider than it is tall.
Biggest pot you own (for sterilizing your jars)
Big spoon
Stainless steel strainer (for berry and other delicate fruit jams)
Thermometer (optional, but highly recommended)
Kitchen scale
2 little plates
Jar lifter (optional)
Jam funnel (optional)

Base ingredients:
1 kg fruit, peeled if necessary, and cut up
500-750 g sugar, depending on the fruit and your tastes
juice of one lemon

1) Mix it all together in a bowl, cover, and leave it refrigerated overnight.  If you can't wait, you can leave it for a couple of hours and it will be ok.  We are doing this so that the sugar goes into the fruit, and the water goes outside of the fruit.  This will help our fruit stay whole, so that it doesn't turn to mush.Really juicy fruit (like peaches) can be left for an hour and be ok to use, but little plums (like in some of my demo pictures) really need to be left overnight.
I like to cut my fruit into chunks like this
2) For berries, the next day, bring the mixture to a simmer for 10 minutes, and then cover and refrigerate overnight.  For everything that isn't a berry, just go onto the next step.

3) Put water (enough to cover your jars) in the biggest pot you own and put over a flame.  You want this to be boiling when you finish your jam, so plan accordingly.  Also, get your clean jars and clean never-before-used lids ready.  If they've been used, they won't seal.  I find I get about 4 large-ish normal jars per kilo of fruit, depending on if it is a high pectin fruit or not.  And put some small plates in the freezer. 

4)  For berries and other delicate fruits (I do this with peaches and figs, too),  strain out the fruit from the liquid.  Put the liquid in your pot over a medium flame, and in a while we will use the fruit, but not yet.  After a while it will start to make some foam, some fruits are worse about this than others.  Berries foam up like crazy.  With a big spoon, spoon off the foam, because we don't want it on there.  Stir regularly, making sure that it doesn't scorch.  After a while the liquid will stop foaming and it will go a little darker.  If you have a thermometer, when your syrup has reached 105 C (221 F), it should be nearly ready.  Otherwise, when your liquid has that dark-ish translucent look to it and starts to look syrupy in thickness (should take between 30 and 50 minutes), add your fruit back in and cook for about 10 minutes more.  Don't forget to gently stir! At this point I might zap it with the stick blender and add in whatever herbs or spices I'm mixing in, tasting as I add.
Peaches can be cooked all together, or strained out and added in later.  If the peaches are super ripe and falling apart, I strain them out and add the fruit in at the end.
This is what it looks like when it foams.  At this point start spooning off the foam.
After I spoon off the foam, and it cooks a bit more, it starts to get translucent looking

5)  After 10 minutes, take one of those plates you put in the freezer, and put a drizzle of jam on it.  let it sit for a minute or two and run your finger through it.  If the jam doesn't fill in your finger tracks, it's probably ready. It is ok if the jam partially fills it in after a while, you just don't want it completely liquid.  It can take making jam a good few times before you figure out exactly when it's ready.  Undercooked is better than overcooked, though.
I'd call this jam done
 Here are two super useful tools.  They aren't strictly necessary but I don't make jam without them:
Jar lifter and jam funnel
6) Ladle your jam into your clean jars.  The jam funnel is great here because it is fast and clean.... if you get water, condensation, or jam on the lip of your jar, it won't seal.  A more 'ghetto' and time consuming alternative, if you don't have stellar aim with a ladle, is to press aluminum foil around around the lip of each jar and spoon the jam in. Don't forget to take off the foil!  You want to leave at least a finger's breadth of air at the top of the jar.
Filling the jars with my super handy jam funnel

7) Cap immediately!  If you put the lip on immediately after putting the jam in the jar, the glass is still cool enough to tough without burning yourself.  Make sure to tightly close them.  Each country has a different sort of jar and lid system, so figure out what you have and make sure you know how to use it. Sometimes there are little tricks to making the lids close right.  The ones I get in Italy, I have to turn the lid a few millimeters counterclockwise until I hear a 'click' and then turn the lid clockwise to close.  I've heard people say that you should never put hot jam in a cool jar, but I've never found this to be the case, and none of the many professional jam makers I know have ever had a room temperature jar burst from hot jam.  If you are worried about this, you can warm your jars in the oven or in some boiling water, making sure they are dry when you put your jam in.

 8) Using the other handy-dandy tool, I put my closed jars in the boiling pot of water I prepared.  Make sure that there are at least 2 inches of water covering the jars.  Boil them for 10 minutes.  This is VERY important, it sterilizes your jam and your jars so that funk won't grow in them.  Take your boiled jars out, and let them cool without being disturbed.  Depending on your lid type, you will probably hear 'POP.... POP' as they start sealing. Please don't touch the tops or you won't be able to tell which ones have actually sealed!  Leave them be overnight and the next day check to make sure that the pop up thingy on the lid is sucked down towards the jar.  If you press the top of the lid at this point and there is some give, it's not sealed, so you need to refrigerate it.  Otherwise, keep in a cool dark place until opened!

Oh yes, and don't forget to label them.  I used to think that I'd remember which jam was which but let me tell you, you can't!  Happy jamming everyone!