Forget cats and dogs…or even men…it was ‘raining’ oranges the day we joined the famous “Battaglia delle Arance” or “Battle of Oranges” that marks the end of carnival time in Ivrea, Piemonte. Along the lines of Siena’s “Palio” or the “Sagra del Torde” of Montalcino every ‘quartiere’ of the city competes to be crowned the best and strongest for that year – in Siena there are horses, in Montalcino bows and arrows – but in Ivrea – it’s oranges.
Each squad (I liked the Castle squad for the colours!) travels through the city on horse-drawn carriages stopping at every main piazza for intense and fierce orange-throwing battles.
Vin brulé fuelled the six thousand or so of us onlookers who tried – not always successfully – to dodge the lethal tarocco blood oranges. If you’re fast enough you make it behind the safety nets otherwise….too bad! I was in the ‘too bad’ category!
There are various safety suggestions for the day like not throwing oranges at the horses and wearing rubber boots or shoes that don’t slip and are easy to wash. Sound advice as by the end of the day you’re wading ankle-deep in a muddy marmalade slush breathing air perfumed with a heady mix of oranges and horse shit….which, I have to agree with some of the residents is surprisingly pleasant, sort of organic with a spicy flowery overtone!
Speaking of flowery overtones, we had a very different festa the other day….’Festa della Donna’ where all of us women were ‘bunched’ with yellow mimosa. I thought I’d incorporate this idea of bunches of flowers into a recipe for a simple festive lunch and opted for the edible dandelion. These light crepes are based on the Vietnamese sizzling pancakes, Bánh xèo, but with orange zest and filled with asparagus and local bitter herbs.
‘Bitter’ is one of the five important tastes in Asian foods – and not only in Asia. Bitter herbs are mentioned in the Bible and are still an important food at the Jewish Passover feast where they are called ‘maror’ and symbolize the quality of forgiveness in every person.
On a more mundane, but no less important level we should try and introduce more bitter herbs into our diet as they’re full of enzymes to support our digestion system helping us reduce weight, regulate our blood sugar and generally lighten and detoxify our bodies.
Here I’ve used a mixture of dandelion leaves, dandelion flowers, rucola or rocket, coriander and mint. But you could use any mixture of other bitter herbs including endive, sorrel, sow-thistle, radicchio and romaine lettuce. Sow-thistle looks similar to dandelions and is so called because it was fed to lactating pigs…..always something new to learn! In Italy I’ve been told, traditional stories often used the magic words “Open Sow-Thistle” as opposed to “Open Sesame”. And on that note…..here’s the recipe..
Makes: 8- 10
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Bitter Herb & Asparagus Filling
1 bunch young dandelion leaves
1 bunch rucola or rocket
1 bunch fresh mint
1 bunch fresh coriander
A few chemical-free dandelion flowers, the younger the better as they’re less bitter
1 bunch fresh asparagus
Freshly grated horseradish (if not available use a jar of horseradish cream)
First wash all the herbs well, pick out any lengthy stalks and put into a bowl
Remove the woody stalk ends of the asparagus and bring a small amount of salted water to the boil in a large fry-pan. Blanch the asparagus for about 2-3 minutes, remove from the heat and put immediately under cold running water. Put aside and leave to cool.
Orange Ginger Dressing
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
Juice of half orange
½ tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
Mix well together. I put all the ingredients into a small glass jar, close the lid and give it a good shake. Of course if you don’t want a dressing with an Asian twist just make any dressing of your choice.
I always find the first one or two pancakes aren’t great – but after that the right heat and rhythm seem to kick in!
100g rice flour
1 Tbsp orange zest
½ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp salt
250ml – 300ml coconut milk ( I found I needed the 300ml but start with 250ml)
½ – 1 tsp olive oil
Take a bowl and mix the flour, orange zest and turmeric together
Beat in the egg and then whisk in the coconut milk until you have a smooth pouring consistency
Allow to rest for about at least 30 minutes
Heat a small non-stick fry-pan (mine is 20cm) and add about ½ tsp olive oil. I then keep the pan slightly oiled with a wodge of oiled kitchen paper.
Take a ladle, fill it about half full of batter (about 3-4 Tbsp) and pour into the fry-pan. Tip and swirl the pan around until the batter covers the bottom.
When crisped and lightly coloured turn – or flip – over and do the other side. Remove to a plate and continue with the rest of the batter.
When finished toss the bitter herbs with the dressing. Take each crepe and lay 2 asparagus stalks, a handful of the dressed herbs and one or two dandelion flowers in the middle and fold over each side to make a cone shape.
Serve on individual plates with bowls of extra dressing and some grated fresh horseradish. Horseradish is another bitter herb so it goes beautifully with these.