Bagnaia . . . A peaceful corner on the Island of Elba

THE BEACH OF BAGNAIA

You have probably heard about Isola d’Elba – the Island of Elba – the third largest island of Italy and the largest of the Tuscan Archipelago. It is covered with lush vegetation and it is considered to be the greenest island of the Mediterranean. Rich in history, the island was most notably Napoleon’s place of exile. Today, the island is a coveted tourist destination, lined with a beautiful coastline and lively towns.

My post today, however, is about a small seaside village located between the towns of Portoferraio and Rio Elba. It’s the village of Bagnaia, a little gem, away from the crowd and traffic.

ISOLA D’ELBA

Located on the North Coast of the Island, Bagnaia lays at the feet of the Monte Volterraio, on a bay across from Portoferraio that is visible from Bagnaia’s picturesque pebble beach. From the beach you can also spot the island of Capraia and the French Island of Corsica.

Portoferraio – on the hill Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini

BAGNAIA and MONTE VOLTERRAIO

Most importantly, while sipping your aperitivo at the beachside bar you will be mesmerized by one the most beautiful sunsets. The red sky with the sun setting between the Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini and the small island of Scoglietto are simply breathtaking. Have your camera ready, as you will want to take many, many pictures!

The protected bay of Bagnaia offers a public beach, a private beach with bathhouse – Lo Scoglietto – two small piers, and a sailing school.

Even in August, renown in Italy as mese delle ferie (month of summer holidays), Bagnaia holds true to its family style profile. Filled with children splashing in the pristine water, proud grandparents spoiling their young grandkids, and games of Burraco (a popular Italian card game) being played under the ombrelloni (beach umbrellas), it is evident that Bagnaia is a destination for families.

The beach from the water

A midday snack is readily available right on the beach at the bar/restaurant Il Faro, or just off the beach, where the Snack Bar Villa Maria, the Bar – Ristorante La Rustica, and the Mini-Market (small grocery/deli store) would be happy to prepare you a delicious panino con prosciutto e mozzarella.

But if you are craving for cecina or pizza, simply hop on the “taxi boat” and in 10 minutes you will reach Portoferraio. Off the boat, head to Pizzeria il Castagnaccio, in Via del Mercato Vecchio. Here, Vincenzo sforna (take out of the oven) hot cecina, pizza, and castagnaccio for carry out or dine in.

Wood burning oven at Il Castagnaccio

Pizza at Il Castagnaccio

At lunch time the beach of Bagnaia is almost deserted as the families head home for pranzo (lunch) and a riposino (after lunch nap) – which makes sense since in Italy every mother will tell her children to wait three hours after eating before swimming.

Photo courtesy of my son’s friend Teresa

The afternoon is the perfect time to rent a kayak and explore the coastline. Or, with a boat or a gommone (zodiac) you can reach the nearby beaches of the Secche, Ottonella and Ottone.

But, if you are in search of a pristine swimming adventure, take the short boat ride directly across from Bagnaia to the Scoglietto di Portoferraio. Swim with a myriad of fish in the crystal clear water- thanks to a fishing restriction in place at this protected island- or, climb the rocks to reach the faro (lighthouse) on the island summit.

The lighthouse of the Scoglietto

Fish . . . a lot of them!

Once a week, on Saturday, in the square of Bagnaia there is the mercatino (open market) where the stands of fresh fruit and vegetables alternate with tables selling clothes, bathing suits, and cover –ups (did I mention that in Italy women change their bathing suit 4 times a day?!). You can practice your bargaining ability here; however, I don’t think anyone would have beaten my mom’s skills in this area (she even bargained with an American Indian at Niagara Falls . . . remember, my mom did not speak English!). The highlight of the mercatino is the food truck of “Pollo allo Spiedo e Patatine Fritte” (roasted chicken and French fries). Even if you place your order early in the morning – which is a must- you will still need to elbow your way to the front to pick-up your coveted brown bag.

While Bagnaia offers a wonderful beach getaway, it is not a place for those seeking exciting nightlife. The evenings are quiet; villeggianti (vacationers) stroll through the small piazza to enjoy gelato, after dinner drinks and caffè. Friendships are formed between families who vacation here year after year, and as such, large group dinners are had. Following dinner, many vacationers enjoy the live performances that take place in the piazzetta a few times a week. The nearby Pizzeria-Ristorante Bounty (also a Bed & Breakfast), once a week offers a theme evening with culinary highlights. Last year our group of 40 attended the “Alla brace “ (on the fire spit) where various meats were grilled in a wood fire oven and on a giant grill to be served with a variety of homemade side dishes and freshly baked bread.

Nearby towns such as Capoliveri, Porto Azzurro and Portoferraio, which offer a more active nightlife and trendy shops, are easily reachable by car.

Capoliveri

Porto Azzurro

Although two Alberghi/Bed & Breakfast are located in the square, I would suggest to stay at the Residenza Sant’Anna del Volterraio. Within the Residenza are the Apartments Sant’Anna and the Hotel Locanda del Volterraio. My brother has been a guest of the Residenza for the past 17 years, and he has rented the same apartment every year. I have been personally a guest of both the Locanda and the Residenza several times. Last year my brother and his wife hosted me for three weeks at the Residenza . . . how lucky am I?

Residenza Sant’ Anna del Volterraio

Entrance to the Residenza –
Photo courtesy of Teresa

Although it is only a 10 minute walk from the beach of Bagnaia, The Residenza Sant’Anna del Volterraio is part of the municipality of Rio Elba. The Monte del Volterraio, with its homonymous medieval castle, overlooks the Valley below where in an area of 3 hectares lays this complex surrounded by beautiful gardens. Secular olive trees dot the landscape, the pink stone structures covered with vines blend seamlessly with the lush green vegetation, which is softened by the colorful oleanders. The complex also offers 2 tennis courts, one beautiful adult pool, one children’s pool, a solarium, and a wellness center. The original Napoleonic Villa Sant’Anna houses a bar, a TV room, a sauna, shower and dressing rooms.

Volterraio and red oleander – view from the apartment

Olive trees and Villa Sant’Anna

Blending with nature

Within an orange and lemon orchard lays the restaurant, Il Giardino degli Aranci. I must admit that I have not experienced the restaurant’s cuisine; my son, however, tells me that he has enjoyed a tasty dinner while visiting his uncle. The restaurant also hosts – in its giardino (garden) – evening events for kids and families.

The restaurant Giardino degli Aranci

The complex is completely car-free, however, covered parking is provided.

There are 6 apartment types, ranging from 2 to 8 beds, but they all have an independent entrance and a patio. The apartments are spacious, simply furnished, but functional and comfortable. I shall say that they start showing their age and some renovations are due. The apartments do not have air conditioning, but fans are provided. Also no Wi-Fi connection is provided. In the evening it is particularly pleasant to sit outside on the patio (furnished with table and chairs) under the summer starry sky.

The Hotel Locanda del Volterraio is composed of 18 double rooms, all with independent entrances and balconies. Unlike the apartments, the hotel rooms have air-conditioning and Wi-Fi Internet (from the lobby). They also boast nice new furnishing. From the balcony you will enjoy great views of the hills and of Monte del Volterraio.

The nightly rate at the hotel includes breakfast, which offers a very diverse spread of food: fresh baked croissant and brioche, fruit tart or torta, cereals and granola are also available. You can also enjoy toast with the assortment of jams, honey, butter or NUTELLA that adorn each table. They also offer a large selection of fresh fruit, however, it appears that your choices are limited if you don’t show up early. Orders for espresso, cappuccino, latte and also American coffee are taken at the table.

I asked my son’s friend, who along with her sister, joined him and his girlfriend at Elba and lodged at the Locanda, to share her opinion about her experience; she used one word: AWESOME! She also noted, confirming my opinion, that the staff was kind and attentive.

The 10 minute walk from the Residenza to the beach is pleasant; the scent of oregano and wild fennel accompanies you along the way. Blackberry bushes border the path and you can also attempt – like my brother – to pick up prickly pears along the way.

Lastly, if you are in the mood for hiking, Bagnaia offers some good trails. From the piazzetta you can follow the uphill road toward Nisporto. You will enjoy some beautiful views of the coastline from up above.

VIEWS FROM MY MORNING WALKS

View of Residenza Sant’Anna from the hill across

Last year every morning I went a little farther. On one particular morning I woke up at 6:30 and as I started my walk I decided to reach Nisporto, 5 miles away on an uphill terrain. I went all the way up above Nisporto, then I decided to go down to sea level. While the beach at Nisporto was enjoyable to reach, the trek back up the hill to reach Bagnaia was anything but that.

THE YELLOW PATH OF MY WALK TO NISPORTO – BELOW IS THE ELEVATION PROFILE!

Thankfully, I made it all the way back and to reward myself I stopped at the Bounty for a custard cream stuffed brioche!!!

Ciao from Elba!

Have you ever been to the Island of Elba?

Where is your favorite little gem in the world?

Eggplants are at their best . . . time for my Parmigiana di Melanzane

DINNER LAST NIGHT: PARMIGIANA DI MELANZANE

Few days ago, I told the world I was “in ferie” (summer holiday), however the reality of August being almost over, made me realize that I had things to share that could just not wait. This means that you will be reading a little more of me before the month is over . . . I hope this is good news!

Truly, there is not better time than August to share the recipe of the “Parmigiana di melanzane”. Eggplants, indeed, are at their best in August and the Parmigiana is the symbol per antonomasia (par excellence) of Ferragosto – no Italian Holidays’ history lesson today, I will save it for next year!

As for many Italian dishes there are several variations of the Parmigiana; some fry the eggplants without dredging in the eggs; some, hoping in a less caloric recipe, bake the eggplants rather than frying them; others, completely ignoring the calories, fry the eggplants twice: two slices of previously fried eggplants are assembled like a sandwich with the mozzarella in between and then fried again.

The Parmigiana was probably one of my mom’s specialties – for sure my husband’s favorite – she visited in USA twice and both times she baked her Parmigiana for our American friends . . . they still rave about. So guess what? I use my mom’s recipe – I know you have heard that before.

My mom, for special occasions, used the ragù sauce – recipe here – to dress the Parmigiana, however, the dish is just as delicious using a simple salsa di pomodoro (tomatoes sauce). The use of the ragù would add 4-5 hours to the recipe making it a lot less appealing. Even without using the ragù, this dish is not for you if you are pressed for time. Please don’t give up, plan in advance and I promise, that after your first bite, you will not regret the time spent in the kitchen.

The Parmigiana di melanzane has always been the dish of the convivial table, friends and family sharing earthy food, warm bread and good wine. It reminds me of the tavolate estive (summer gathering at the table) in my sister-in-law-garden, under the shade of the wisteria and surrounded by the vineyards whose grapes, would soon be ready for harvest.

When two nights ago, I decided to finally jot down the recipe, I realized that my pictures from the Parmigiana di melanzane’s file were all lost during my iPhoto crash . . . Have you read my previous post? While this realization was for me cause of despair, it was, on the contrary, cause of immense joy for my husband, who immediately realized that I would make Parmigiana for last night dinner! He was right; I could not post my recipe without my pretty step-by-step pictures.
Enough said, here it is from mia cucina (my kitchen)

Ricetta

PARMIGIANA DI MELANZANE

COSA SERVE (What is needed):

2 pounds of long eggplants – use Italian type if possible or baby eggplants

2 pounds tomato purée

2 eggs

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 whole mozzarella – usually ¾ pound – cut into ¼ inches thick slices

1 cup of grated Parmigiano cheese

1 medium onion finely sliced

salt

1 bunch of basil

COSA FARE (What to do):

  • Wash the eggplants and dry. With a vegetable peeler, peel the eggplants leaving one unpeeled strip between peeling.

Obviously, this morning I found neither Italian eggplants nor baby eggplants.

  • Slice the eggplants lengthwise into ¼ inch thick slices.

  • Layer the slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt, put something heavy on top and let them release their bitter juice for 1 hour minimum, if using Italian or baby eggplants and up to 2 hours if using larger sizes (beware of the many recipes that suggest to let the eggplants to drain for only 20 -30 minute, it is not enough).

Look at the bitter juice!

  • Meanwhile prepare the tomato sauce: in a saucepan heat the oil then add the onion and cook until translucent (my mom, from time to time, would let the onion cook until it was brown and almost crunchy – not burned – she would then spoon it off the oil. Hard to believe, these crunchy fried thin slices of onions are actually delicious on a little piece of bread!).
  • Pour the tomato purée, bring to boil, add salt, and few leaves of basil – hand chopped, no such thing as chiffonade in my house. Stir, lower the heat, cover and let cook for twenty minutes or until thickened.

  • Preheat oven at 400 degree.
  • Rinse the eggplants and pat dry. In a wide, shallow bowl slightly beat the eggs with a little salt. Also, prepare a tray with flour. In a skillet, heat ½ cup of oil. Also, have a tray, lined with paper towel, ready.
  • Dredge each slice of eggplant in the flour first then in the eggs.

  • Immediately fry the eggplants in the hot oil until golden on both sides.

  • Spoon them out and let them drain on the paper towel. TIP: If you have a young man like my son, keep him out of the kitchen; my son kept stealing the fried eggplants every time I would turn around. Result? I ended up with few slices short for my last layer.
  • Time to assemble: Cover the bottom of a baking pan with a little tomato sauce then cover with one layer of eggplants.

  • Cover with the mozzarella, then a thin layer of tomato sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano cheese. Repeat the steps ending with the layer of eggplants (TIP: change the direction of the eggplants for each layer. This will allow the Parmigiana to hold its shape once you cut and plate).

  • Cover the last layer with tomatoes sauce and sprinkle with Parmigiano cheese. Few fresh basil leaves will make it look pretty.

  • Ready for the oven . . . Bake for 30 minutes.

I wish you could smell my kitchen…

Oops, I forgot the timer and I left mine in a little longer, can you see the brown spots?

  • Turn the oven off and let the Parmigiana rest in the oven for at least 45 minutes. Remove form oven and let it rest for one additional hour. The Parmigiana is one of these dishes that develop its full flavor during resting time. So plan in advance, your Parmigiana will be even better if you prepare it the night before.

TIME FOR PLATING!

. . . AND TASTING!

Despite the few missing slices and the little overcooked top, my Parmigiana was buonissima!

As you can see, not much leftover!

One last thing . . . Please, don’t serve the Parmigiana on top of spaghetti!

Note: Also try the less traditional Parmigiana di Zucchini. The procedure to follow is the same, but the zucchini do not need to drain under salt.

Coffee Ginger Semifreddo . . . A sweet treat to beat the Summer heat!

MY COFFEE GINGER SEMIFREDDO

Few weeks ago, in a previous post, I showed you pictures of my Coffee-Ginger Semifreddo and I promised my recipe. With outside temperature reaching 105 degrees, here it is the perfect treat for these scorching days of Summer.

Semifreddo (literally half-cold) is a semi-frozen dessert, predecessor of the gelato. It is defined as “ dolce al cucchiaio” (dessert for spoon) and it is best served at a temperature between 14-21 degree.

Ricetta

MY SEMIFREDDO AL CAFFÈ E ZENZERO

Coffee and Ginger Semifreddo

NOTE: The recipe is divided into two sections: ginger semifreddo and coffee semifreddo.

Ingredients for Ginger Semifreddo:

1 cup. mascarpone cheese (at room temperature)

3 fresh eggs

10 tablespoons sugar

¾ cup heavy whipping cream (very cold)

2 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

Spray a 9 by 5 by 3-inch metal loaf pan with non-stick spray. Line the pan with plastic wrap or parchment paper allowing the excess to hang over the ends and sides.

First make the ginger syrup. In a small pan melt (on low heat) 6-1/3 tablespoons of sugar with 4 tablespoon of water and 2 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger.

Let simmer for five minutes, remove from stove and let steep for five more minutes.

In a medium glass bowl, break the egg yolks with a fork; passing through a sieve, add the ginger syrup and a pinch of salt and whisk together until smooth. Put the bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.

Whisk until the egg mixture is pale, thick and creamy, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Put the bowl into a larger bowl of iced water and with an hand held electric mixer beat until fluffy and completely cool.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the 3/4 cup of heavy cream with the mascarpone and the remaining sugar at medium-high speed until soft peaks begin to form.

Start folding the whipped cream-mascarpone mixture into the cooled egg-yolk mixture (do not pour all at once, start with 1/4, fold it in then add more) and with a spatula mix gently until no streaks remain.

Spoon the mixture onto the prepared loaf pan, spreading in an even layer.

Oops, forgot to take picture . . . this is the second layer!

Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the semifreddo and place into freezer for one hour.

SECOND STEP: Preparing the coffee semifreddo.

Time the second step of the semifreddo so that the coffee semifreddo will be ready for the freezer not before the one hour mark from the time you place the ginger semifreddo into the freezer.

Ingredients for Coffee Semifreddo:

¾ cup heavy whipping cream

12 tablespoon of sugar

¼ cup brewed espresso

4 eggs

In a small pan melt (on low heat) 6 -1/3 tablespoons of sugar with the ¼ cup of espresso. Bring to boil and then simmer for five minutes, remove from stove and let cool.

Repeat same step you followed for ginger semifreddo: In a medium glass bowl, break the egg yolks with a fork; add a pinch of salt and start whisk while slowly pouring the coffee syrup. Put the bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.

Whisk until the egg mixture is, thick and creamy, about 10 to 15 minutes. Put the bowl into a larger bowl of iced water to cool completely. Use the hand held electric mixer to beat the coffee cream until light and fluffy.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with 3 tablespoons of sugar (also add a pinch of salt) until firm, like meringue.

Gently fold the egg whites into the coffee cream.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream and the remaining sugar, until soft peaks form.

Fold the cream into the coffee mixture and with a spatula mix gently until no streaks remain.

Remove the ginger semifreddo from the freezer, remove the plastic film from the top and quickly Spoon the coffee mixture over the ginger semifreddo.

Spread in an even layer, Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the semifreddo and place into freezer for at least 4 hours.

Remove the plastic wrap. Invert the semifreddo onto a platter and peel off the parchment paper.

You can sprinkle the top with finely chopped crystallized ginger, a dust of ground coffee or dark unsweetened chocolate powder.

Cut the semifreddo into 1-inch slices or 2-inches squares and serve.

NOTE: You can add an ingredient of your choice between the two layers of semifreddo, such as crushed amaretti, chocolate covered coffee beans, ground crystallized ginger, and so on.

I tried to prepare a sheet of dark chocolate but I need to work on this preparation a little more, I will, however, show you my attempt.

It was my intention to create two sheets of dark chocolate, one to line the bottom of the loaf pan (it would then become the top of the semifreddo) and one between the two layers of semifreddo. I gave up to the bottom part as I could not get a clean-cut of the sheet of chocolate. I did, however, use the pieces of chocolate’s sheet between the two layers of semifreddo. I figure that none would know that it was not perfect . . . I forgot that the whole world would know after reading my blog!

Here it is My attempt at making sheets of chocolate:

Melt some dark chocolate in a small pan sitting on top of  pan with simmering water.

Add some chopped crystallized ginger.

Spread the mixture about 1/8 inch thick on parchment paper.

Cover with parchment paper and chill in the refrigerator until no longer soft, but not hard.

Using a sharp knife I tried to make a clean-cut.

Clean cuts? Not this time!

As you can see I was not successful so I only used the cutouts in the middle of the semifreddo.

I will keep practicing and I will share more tips.

For now enjoy my scrumptious semifreddo!

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