Friday, December 13, 2013

Stresa Travel Recipes: Sweet Treats for Christmas!

This year for Christmas I decided to make some homemade gifts for friends and settled on mini cestini of sweet treats: soft almond and hazelnut nougat (torrone morbido alle mandorle e noci), rum and raisin fudge and cantucci (biscotti).

The finished product
I searched through a lot of recipes online and settled on the collection that follows. For the nougat and fudge you will need a food thermometer. After reading around a bit I settled on the Silikomart Thermo Choc which I ordered direct from their website. It is the first time I've done any cooking that required such precise temperatures and, being built into a spatula, I found it very easy to use (and being silicon, very easy to clean too!).

Soft Almond and Hazelnut Nougat (Torrone Morbido alle Mandorle e Noci) 

My nougat slab
The original recipe is here (with much better photos than mine!) and as it is in Italian, here is the translation:

I read plenty online about making nougat and the best tip I found was to have all the ingredients weighed out before you start, because once you get going you need them quickly.

250g orange blossom honey
100ml water and 410g sugar
40g egg white (here that worked out at 1.5 medium egg's worth)
600g nuts (I used about 500g almonds and 100g hazelnuts)
Grated zest of one orange
Rice paper

Hand whisk
Wooden spoon at the ready!
Food thermometer

1. Preparation is key! Weigh everything out. Lay out some grease proof paper on your worktop and then put your rice paper on top. To give you an idea of the size you need I spread my nougat over rice paper measuring 28x36cm. Heat the oven to 180°C and put the nuts on a baking tray and toast until just going gold.

2. Whilst the nuts are toasting whip the egg white in a large bowl. I did it to medium peaks.

3. Put the honey in a pan and heat it to exactly 120°C. Take it off the heat and stir it to cool down a couple of degrees. With your hand whisk going drizzle the honey into the egg whites and beat for a further 5 minutes. At this point I got the nuts out the oven and put them in a separate bowl.

4. Heat the sugar and water to a syrup and continue heating until 147°C. Then with your hand whisk going drizzle the syrup into the egg white and honey mix and add the orange zest. Keep whisking and it will start to stiffen. At a certain point you will need to swap to the wooden spoon or your whisk motor will burn out!! At this point add the nuts. Keep beating (great biceps exercise!!).

5. When it is stiff and gluey spoon it onto the rice paper. Wet your hands and with your hands still wet press the nougat to spread it out over the rice paper (if you don't wet your hands you will stick to the nougat). Cover with rice paper and use a rolling pin to get an even thickness of about 1.5cm.

6. Leave to cool completely before cutting. The original recipe said 1 hour but I left mine overnight as it was still a bit soft after an hour. My tip for cutting it - have a glass of water handy and dip your knife in every now and then. I used a non serrated knife to cut it. Also be decisive when cutting! Otherwise it squashes!! NB it does not need to be refrigerated to set.

Enough nougat to feed an army!
Rum and Raisin Fudge

The basic fudge recipe is here in English. I added a good handful of raisins soaked in rum :) My tip here really is to do exactly as the recipe says. After beating it your arm will be ready to drop off so you might want to call in some extra muscle to help at that stage. Heating it to the exact temperature in the recipe and beating it exactly like it said, I had no problem setting the fudge at room temperature.

Cantucci (Biscotti)

The original recipe is here and this time I followed with no additions of my own. My tip for making these biscotti is to cut decisively and with a non-serrated knife as the dough is very delicate at the cutting stage. When I put the biscotti back in for the second bake, I found I needed a tad longer than 15 minutes to get them to harden but I guess that will all depend on your oven.

Have you made any homemade gifts for Christmas? We'd love to hear your recipes!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stresa Travel Recipes: Halloween Pumpkin and Chocolate Loaf

Yep, it's Halloween and I'm following last year's pumpkin recipes with a sweet treat for this year! I love baking and make a cake each week to enjoy as merenda in the office every afternoon. The main part of this cake comes from the Leeks & Limoni blog but with a little less sugar, added chocolate and some Halloween inspiration. It makes a nice moist, stodgy cake!

I tend to make most cakes in a loaf tin as it is easier to portion up and pack to bring to the office, but the original recipe calls for a 24cm diameter cake tin. If you want to go all out with the Halloween theme you could always add orange coloured frosting and/or chocolate spider webs :)

At the market here I can't get the traditional large round orange pumpkin so I used my usual squat green-skinned type of squash in my first run through and a mix of that and butternut squash in my second go..

The finished sticky, stodgy, chocolatey, Halloween pumpkin loaf 
350g pumpkin/squash (weight peeled and deseeded)
200g self-raising flour
4 medium eggs
100g butter, melted
150g caster sugar
40g unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Zest of 1 orange
0.25 tsp grated nutmeg (the nutmeg I have is in a jar with a built in mill so I gave it a couple of twists)
40g dark chocolate drops

Heat the oven to 180°C/356°F and line your loaf or cake tin.

Firstly make your squash purée. I made mine by chopping up the squash into 2.5cm chunks and using a pressure cooker. Mash the cooked squash until smooth and leave to cool.

Whisk the sugar and eggs together in a bowl until creamy and increased in volume. Fold in the sieved flour, cocoa and spices. Add the melted butter and squash purée and mix until everything is combined. Add the chocolate drops and orange zest.

Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. I followed the advice of the Leeks & Limoni blog and covered the cake with foil for the last 10 minutes to stop the top from burning.

Cool in the tin for about 15-20 minutes before turning out to cool completely on a wire rack.

Let me know if you give the cake a go and if you add any Halloween twists of your own!

Sarah, Viaggi Tomassucci

Friday, October 25, 2013

Stresa History: The Mottarone Railway

At 12.55 on the 13th May 1963 the Stresa to Mottarone Railway trains rolled into the depot for the last time. Ever since I first saw the beautiful posters advertising the railway I've been fascinated by it. As any of you that have chatted with Luca in the office will know, he's a bit of a railway geek, and I guess some of that has rubbed off on me! So I thought I'd share some of the history of the railway with you, along with some old photos of Stresa, which I always find interesting.

So why the need for a railway?
Mottarone was already becoming popular with writers and travellers at the end of the 1800's and was mentioned in the 1869 Baedeker Guide. However, it was difficult to reach the summit and was a tricky 4 hour hike up from Stresa. By 1885 there were already discussions about how it could be made easier for all visitors to reach the top and enjoy the panoramic views.

The brains behind the railway and early planning
The first plans for a railway were presented by local engineer Tommaso Tadini at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in 1888 and people loved it. Despite the banking crisis of 1890, Tadini persevered and a chance meeting with engineer Alessandro Scotti at the Caffe Bolongaro in Stresa pushed forward his plans. Scotti was director of the first electric power plant in Europe in Milan and together they discussed funding, logistics and the engineering challenges of the railway.

The depot at Stresa Railway Station with the Stresa - Mottarone train
Final approval and construction
The final project, based on Tadini's original plans, was approved in 1905. The railway would be a combination of rack and pinion and adhesion and in 1908 the "Società Ferrovie del Mottarone" was formed. The Borromean family, who own land at the top of Mottarone, made it available for tracks to be laid and stations to be built. In 1909 everyone signed on the dotted line and 20 years after the first project was presented, construction got under way.

Stresa ferry station square where the train started (left of photo)
The Inauguration
Construction was quite fast and the first train took journalists and railway workers from the ferry station square in Stresa to the summit of Mottarone on 11th July 1911. The first public services started the next day with a big four day long inauguration held in September. Inaugural celebrations included concerts, gala dinners and lunches, a swimming competition, a regatta and a football match.

The station at Mottarone (when you walk out of the cable car station the building is still there, on the left, opposite Hotel Eden)
Facts, figures and curiosities
  • The railway ran on a one metre gauge track
  • The climb from Stresa to Mottarone was 1,182 metres (3,878 feet) and the difference in temperature used to ruin the paint work on the carriages
  • The first return ticket in 1911 cost 9 Lire
  • In its heyday in 1945 the train carried 108,000 passengers in a single year, due to the high amount of Milanese evacuees living in Alpino
  • The train was used to transport snow from Mottarone to use in ice-boxes in Stresa
  • When the snow conditions were right you could ski almost all the way down into Stresa and in 1935 Mottarone had a ski jump built and hosted the first ever grand slalom
  • To make way for the train to run through the centre of Stresa, the River Crée was bricked over, so remember, when you walk up Via Roma (from Hotel Milan Speranza up past the supermarket) there's a river running beneath your feet!
  • The stops were Stresa Ferry Station - Stresa Train Station (where you can still see the remains of the depot) - Vedasco - Vezzo/Carpugnino - Gignese/Levo - Alpino - Borromeo Saint Eurosio Church - Mottarone
  • The journey was 9.9km (6.2 miles) and took 65 minutes
  • You can see one of the original carriages at the Transport Museum in Ranco

1921 The train coming up Via Principe Tomaso (view looking down towards the lakefront, the train is between where Hotels Milan Speranza and Au Lac now stand )
So why did it all end?
There's no doubt that a narrow gauge railway heading up Mottarone would be a huge attraction today, but in the post war years infrastructure was improved and the road between Alpino and Mottarone was tarmacked. More and more people owned cars and passenger numbers on the railway dwindled. In 1959 the Minister for Transport declared that the railway was losing too much money and that a cable car should be built. So the railway was dismantled, a replacement bus service introduced and, in 1970 the current cable car started service.  

A little help from our friends
I'd like to give a big thank to Andrea Lazzarini, local historian and owner of publishers, Scenari Editoria & Communicazione for the use of his images in this post. I also got a lot of the background from his book 1911-2011 Ferrovia Elettrica Stresa - Mottarone . His books about Stresa, Baveno and the local area, including one in English, are available at the online store. His books are also available at the Leone bookshop in Piazza Cadorna, Stresa. All photos remain his property and permission for use is requested.

Sarah, Viaggi Tomassucci

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stresa Travel Recipes: Mushroom Risotto

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I posted but on Thursday I was handed the perfect excuse to get back at it: freshly picked mushrooms from the slopes of Mottarone :)

Andrea drives for the local bus company that we use for all our bus services so you may well have met him on an airport transfer or one of our excursions. From his Facebook photos he is also a bit of a foodie at heart! I had had to turn down a previous offer of mushrooms as I wouldn't have had the time to give them the care and attention they need, but Andrea had promised to bring me some the next time he went out picking.

A wonderful gift!
True to his word I got a call on Thursday and he arrived at the office with some beautiful mushrooms for me. I love mushrooms. Anyone that knows me knows that I always, yes always, have porcini on my pizza. But these were something else! A wonderful earthy smell, freshly picked and in wonderful condition.

In my lunch hour I set about cleaning them up and getting them ready for the evening. I rested them on kitchen paper and used an old toothbrush and more kitchen paper to get the dirt off them without any damage. I trimmed the woody ends with a tourne knife.

All cleaned up and ready for the pot
So what to do with them? For me it had to be risotto and here's how I made it:

First of all I got all my ingredients ready: sliced mushrooms, a little diced onion, simmering chicken stock, carnaroli rice, olive oil, butter, parmesan or grana cheese, salt and pepper.

My mountain of sliced mushrooms
Put some olive oil and a knob of butter in a large, deep, heavy bottomed, non-stick frying pan and sauté the onion (and some garlic if you wish). Add the rice and toast it gently for a couple of minutes (you may wish to add a splash of white wine at this point). Add the sliced mushrooms and mix.

Now it's time to start adding the stock, which you should keep simmering, one ladle at a time. Wait until the stock is absorbed, add the next ladle and keep the risotto moving!

Adding the stock a ladle at a time
Once the rice is almost cooked - translucent but with a little white bit in the centre - stir in some grated parmesan or grana cheese. 

Grana cheese
You will need to add a little more stock to loosen the risotto and just finish off the cooking of the rice. Season to taste and serve with more parmesan or grana cheese.

The finished product!
I have to say that risotto made with fresh mushrooms like this is something special. I normally have dried porcini and the standard white mushrooms from the supermarket to work with and even though they make a grand risotto, this was a touch above!

More mushroom info:

I recently came across an article in Italy Magazine which is about a local "fungaiolo" from the nearby town of Oleggio. You can also find recipes and all things mushroom on the Mushroom Council website. When I don't have mushrooms like these to work with I use the risotto recipe from the first River Cafe Cookbook which I found online here.

And finally:

I happily accepted these mushrooms from Andrea as I know and trust him. Never go mushroom picking without an expert or accept mushrooms from someone who doesn't know what they're doing! 

Buon appetito!

Sarah, Viaggi Tomassucci

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stresa Travel Notes: The Alpine Gardens - An Unsung Hero!

***Update April 2015: Unfortunately the cable car has been closed since October 2014 as it must undergo an extensive refit required by Italian law. A potential reopening date is yet to be established***

I read a pretty bad review of the Alpine Gardens online recently and they come 9 out of 10 on the Tripadvisor list of things to do in Stresa. I guess it all depends on what people are expecting, but I have decided to dedicate a blog post to the gardens and hopefully persuade you that they are worth a visit.

The gardens are a very easy 450m walk from the Alpino cable car station and entrance is just €3.

Map of the Alpine Gardens
When you enter the gardens there are large beds and rockeries beautifully laid out with various plants and flowers and a pretty little cottage. 

Large flower beds and rockeries
We headed straight for the path that winds its way up above the entrance and cottage to the belvedere viewpoint. There are several benches along the edge of the viewpoint where you can enjoy the peace and quiet and the vast panoramas over Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands. I could sit here for hours!

The Belvedere Path

The Belvedere Viewpoint
Following the path round through the trees and lawns you enter the marshy area where you cross the wooden bridge over the pond to join the woodland path. On previous visits we have seen dragonflies darting around the pond in the marshy area. 

The Marshy Area
The woodland path takes you down below the belvedere and through the cool, shady trees before climbing back up towards the cottage. Just before you reach the cottage you'll find a collection of rhododendrons and it is here we spotted two familiar faces making their way up to the viewpoint: our guide, Barbara, and her twin sister Sylvia! After waves and hellos they continued their hunt for a flower they had seen on the Simplon Pass.

The Woodland Path
We returned to the start of our route around the gardens and took some time to walk among the flower beds and look closer at some of the plants and flowers:

Feeling very relaxed after a peaceful walk around the gardens we strolled along to the cable car station where there is a little bar. For us, a drink and an ice-lolly, but they also serve sandwiches, salads and plates of cold cuts and cheeses.

The Alpine Gardens maybe be simple, but they are beautiful, tranquil and offer a wonderful, fresh respite on a hot summer day as well as a fantastic view! So, for the cost of an ice-cream, you can pass a very pleasant 45-60 minutes on your way up to Mottarone.

You cannot take picnics into the gardens but there are plenty of grassy spots to eat your sandwiches near the cable car station and at the top of Mottarone. 

Have you been to the Alpine Gardens? What did you think?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stresa Travel Notes: Mottarone - show-stopping views and more!

***Update Feb 2015: Unfortunately the cable car has been closed since October 2014 as it must undergo an extensive refit required by Italian law. A potential reopening date is yet to be established***

Enjoying the fresh air and view at Mottarone
Last Sunday, with an afternoon to spare, we watched the opening laps and tyre drama at Silverstone then set off up to Mottarone. Only having a short time and wanting to be flexible we decided to drive up, but if you don't have a car you can take the cable car.

The cable car arriving at Mottarone
The cable car takes 20 minutes from Stresa Lido to Mottarone, with a change half way at Alpino (where you can visit the Alpine Gardens). The cable car journey is just amazing with the views across Lake Maggiore and beyond literally opening up before you. A return ticket, including the chairlift right to the summit costs €18.00, but if you pop and and see us at our travel office we'll give you a €0.50 discount ;)

Taking the chairlift to the summit
The car journey takes about 40 minutes and takes you through the village of Vezzo before you join the winding road up to the Mottarone cable car station. With the car windows open the scent of pine trees filled the car as we passed through the woodland scenery. As part of the top part of Mottarone is owned by the Borromeo family the last part of the road coming from Stresa side is a toll road. The toll for a car is €7.00 (keep hold of the ticket as they collect it from you on the way down).

The woodland walk to the summit
The final climb to the summit
Once we had parked near the Mottarone cable car station, and after a quick look at the cable cars coming up, we set off on foot to the summit (you can also take the chairlift as the last part is fairly steep). The road winds gently up through the woods until you reach the foot of the "peak" of Mottarone. From the top, on a clear day you can see Mount Rosa and several lakes including Maggiore, Mergozzo, Orta and Varese. You can also see Malpensa airport in the distance!

Mountain panorama
Enjoying the view of Lake Maggiore
But Mottarone is more than "just" the amazing views. For walkers there are several routes around the upper slops of Mottarone as well as a walk all the way back down to Stresa. You can enjoy a sunbathe and a picnic or even a ride on Alpyland Alpine Coaster (the latter comes highly recommended from me!!). There are also several bars and restaurants where you can savour typical mountain food on the sun terraces.

Restaurant sun terrace
Ready, set, go!!! Alpyland
So what did Luca and I do? Well we only had a short time so we enjoyed the fresh air and the views, watched happily screaming people zip down on Alpyland, had an ice-cream and bought some devine goat's cheese from an impromptu stall.. We also planned some future walks for the next time we decide to take a trip up Mottarone.

Mountain restaurant nestled in the woodland
Making a day of it - sunbathing and picnics on Mottarone
Have you been up Mottarone? Did you do one of the walks or experience the thrills and spills of Alpyland?