May Day recipes



A couple of days after my May Day fall from a tree, a Roman friend, Paola Sortino, sprung me from the hospital and took me back to her home where another Spring party was in full swing.  Paola collected a basket full of black locust flowers and set about dipping them in batter and deep-frying them.  They looked lovely and were delicately crunchy, but it was only several years later- once my brain recovered from the hard blow it received and I had regained my sense of smell- that I was able also to taste and so enjoy the flowers’ sweet perfume.


6 black locust racemes

6 large elderflower umbrels

1 egg

250 ml cold beer

110 grams of flour

1 pinch bicarbonate of soda


1 liter of sunflower oil

Whisk together the egg, beer, flour, bicarbonate, and half a teaspoon of salt in a bowl.  Place in refrigerator for one hour.  Collect flowers and inspect for insects.  Do not rinse the elderflower umbrels as they will lose their flavor.  Heat the sunflower oil in a large frying pan.  Drop a little batter in the hot oil.  If it splutters, the oil is ready for frying.  Dip the individual flower clusters into the batter and then place one by one in the hot oil.  Cook until golden- not more than one minute.  Remove and drain on kitchen paper.


Over one spring and summer I worked at renovating my home in town with Angelo Savelli, a very capable and knowledgeable builder from the local town of Pitigliano.  We laid floor tiles, built walls, plastered and rebuilt fireplaces together.  Angelo usually wandered down to the valley with a large sack after lunch to gather food for his rabbits.  Sometimes he would bring back something good for me to eat as well.  On one occasion he arrived with a fistful of lupoli- wild hops.  He suggested that I make an omelet with them, and it was very good indeed.


300 grams hop shoots

8 eggs

Finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

Wash the hop shoots, chop into small pieces and place into a medium sized frying pan with 100 ml of water.  Add the chopped onion, cover and simmer for 4 minutes.  Remove cover and continue to cook until the water has evaporated.  Add olive oil and fry the hops and onion mixture for 3 minutes or until golden.  In a bowl beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper.  Stir the eggs into the hops mixture.  Cover and cook on a medium heat for 4 minutes.  Flip the frittata onto a plate and then slide back into pan to cook the other side for another 2-3 minutes.  Slice into individual portions and serve.


The first genuine Italian risotto I had was prepared by Ferne Mele, a friend from the Northern Italian city of Milan.  Risotto alla Milanese is delicately flavoured, and brightly yellow-colored, by saffron- a spice derived from the stigmas of crocus flowers.  Such a rarified dish still would not be found on a Tuscan country table, but in making my recipe I have, other than the rice, relied upon local ingredients and methods.  For one, if I can find the creamiest of the Risotto rice- Roma- I only use olive oil (sacrilege to butter captivated Northerners.)  Wild asparagus, which I find in an abandoned field nearby to the garden, is a wonderful accompaniment to the risotto.  However, if I really want to confuse the refined taste of a Northern Italian I’ll sometimes make my risotto with nettle tops, which gives the dish a subtle and delicious nutty flavor and a pale green hue.


2 liters broth- meat or vegetable

500 grams asparagus- trimmed with the tough end set aside for broth

600 grams preferably riso Roma.  If not, Carnaroli or Arborio.

150 ml white wine

1 large finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

20 grams butter (if the rice is Carnaroli or Arborio.)  No butter needed if the rice is the Roma variety.

75 grams freshly grated parmesan

Salt and pepper to taste

Each asparagus spear should be individually snapped into two pieces.  The tops will be used for the risotto and the woody ends for making the broth.  Bring the chicken or vegetable broth to a boil, add the asparagus ends and simmer for 20 minutes.  Coarsely chop the asparagus tops and put them in a pan with half a glass of water.  Bring to the boil, cover and cook until the asparagus is just tender.  Drain and set the asparagus to one side.  Put the olive oil and the onion into a wide heavy bottomed pan and gently fry until soft. Stir in the rice so that the grains become very lightly toasted and coated with the oil.  Pour in the glass of wine, stirring until absorbed.  Now add a ladle of the hot broth, and turn the heat down to a simmer.  While gently stirring the rice gradually add the broth a ladle at a time until it is all absorbed.  Once cooked, in about 15 minutes, the rice will be creamy and slightly firm.  Remove from the heat and stir in the butter (if needed), asparagus tops and grated Parmesan cheese.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately.


My own crop of lavender brought back the memory of a meal I had many years ago at a Provencal farmhouse surrounded by fields of purple-blue lavender and yellow sunflowers.  I don’t remember my French host’s name, but I do seem to recall that he served lamb chops grilled with the freshly gathered lavender- or it may have just all been a dream.  Nevertheless I have discovered that lavender goes wonderfully with lamb- a superior substitute to the more customary rosemary.


2 kilos leg of lamb on the bone.

3 fresh lavender sprigs

3 sliced garlic cloves

Olive Oil

Salt and pepper

Make 15 small 2 cm. deep incisions into the leg of lamb.  Strip the leaves from one lavender sprig, and along with the garlic slices, insert them into the incisions.  Season with salt and pepper.  Heat two teaspoons of oil in a large pan and then fry the lamb until browned on all side.  Place the lamb in a roasting pan with the two remaining lavender sprigs and cook in a pre-heated 180 C. oven for about 75 minutes, basting every 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 15 minutes before carving.  Serve with a wild greens salad.



Giacomo Castelvetro, in his 17th century The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy decries the barbaric English way of preparing salad leaves: poorly washed, improperly dried and “so saturated with vinegar that they cannot take the oil, while the rest are quite naked and fit only for chicken food.”

600 grams of mixed wild and garden greens, including tender oak leaf or the hearts of other lettuce, arugula, salad burnett, fennel shoots, and a few leaves of lemon balm, tarragon and mint.

A smattering of edible flowers like primroses, violets, rosemary and borrage.

Extra virgin olive oil

Wine vinegar


Castelvetro wrote that the oil must be added first and well mixed with the salad.  Then the vinegar is added and stirred again.  He quotes an old adage: Insalata ben salata, poco aceto e ben oliata.  Salad well salted, a little vinegar and well oiled.  “And whoever transgresses this benign commandment is condemned never to enjoy a decent salad in their life…”


Clara Ceci moved from Milan into her apartment in Sorano, which is in the same 13th century “condominio” as mine, only about a year before I first arrived.   She has always been welcoming- and I have probably eaten as many times in her home as I have at either of my Aunties Annetta or Ivana.  Clara is fond of making sweets, and so I consulted her when I wanted to make a cake with strawberries and elderflowers for the Primo Maggio feast- and this was the delicious result of our collaboration.


6-8 elderflower umbrels

150 grams butter

100 grams sugar

2 eggs

150 grams flour

1 teaspoon yeast

1 pinch salt

1 handful fine breadcrumbs

12 big strawberries

In a bowl put most of the sugar- leaving aside about a tablespoon- the two beaten eggs, a pinch of salt and the melted butter.  Blend well with a wooden spoon.  Slowly mix in the sieved flour and, at the last, the baking powder.  The mix should be somewhat liquid. 

Wash and then finely slice the strawberries.   Inspect the freshly picked elderflowers for insects, but do not rinse them.  Strip the flowers from the stems, and stir them in to the batter.  Butter a 22cm. baking pan, and cover the sides and bottom with the finely ground breadcrumbs.  Pour the cake mix into the pan and decorate the top with the strawberry slices, and dust with the tablespoon of sugar.   Bake in a 180 C. oven for 30 minutes.  Check with a toothpick for doneness.



Marjorie Rothwell, my British grandmother, would win top prizes at the local county fair for her flower arrangements, fruit jams and wines made from dandelions, apricots or elderberries.  My elderflower cordial is derived from instructions I found in her old compendium of recipes. 

50 Elderflower umbrels

1 kilo white sugar

1 kilo brown sugar

3 sliced lemons

75 grams citric acid

2.5 liters water

Choose 50 of the biggest and whitest, freshly picked umbrels, or flower clusters.  Remove any insects from the umbrels, but do not rinse the flowers, as much of the flavorful pollen would be washed away.  Strip the small white flowers from the umbrels, placing them in a large ceramic or metal bowl- removing as much of the acrid green stalks as possible.  Add the halved and thinly sliced lemons to the bowl.  In a pot bring the water to a boil, and then pour in the sugar and citric acid, stirring until dissolved.  Immediately pour the hot water over the flowers and lemons and stir.  Cover the bowl and place it in a very cool pantry or refrigerator for four days, stirring the mixture twice daily.  Sieve the mixture, and then strain the liquid through cheesecloth or cotton gauze.  Pour the cordial into 50 cl plastic water bottles, putting one or two in the fridge and the rest in the freezer for future use.  Diluting the cordial with about 10 parts water makes a wonderfully refreshing summer drink.  My friend Vanessa Buxton, when she passed through Sorano and discovered my mixer, suggested what has become my favorite cocktail: elderflower cordial, soda water and gin, served with lots of ice cubes and a sprig of fresh mint.


Years ago in Sorano Fidalma herself prepared every dish in her small eponymous trattoria, and I kept going back for her very tasty artichoke and beef rolls.  You can still have the involtini di carciofi at what has become a much bigger restaurant, but now that I know her recipe I tend to prefer to make this very simple dish myself at home.

750 grams rump steak very thinly sliced into 12 strips

9 small artichokes

4 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

150 ml wine

2 pinches of marjoram

Salt and pepper

To prepare the artichokes break off at least two layers of the tough outer leaves, leaving the paler core.  Trim off and peel the stems.  Cut one centimeter from the top of the artichokes, and quarter.  Heat one tablespoon of oil in a pan and add all the stems, artichoke quarters, chopped garlic and marjoram.  Fry gently for three minutes.  Add half a glass of water and cook until tender.  Lay out the beef slices and season with salt and pepper.  On each strip place three artichoke pieces.  Roll up and secure with a toothpick.  Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, heat up and then fry the rolls until brown on all sides.  Remove and place on serving platter.  Add the wine and stems to the pan. Quickly reduce until the sauce is slightly thickened, and then pour over the involtini.


I occasionally enjoyed a plate of warm lentils on arugula at La Gamelle, a French bistro that once was on Grand Street in Manhattan.  My twist is to add red peppers and pecorino cheese, which I think makes the dish even better.

300 grams lentils- Italian Onano or French Puy

2 large red sweet peppers

250 grams arugula

1 sprig savory

1 small white onion

2 cloves garlic

Pecorino cheese

Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper

Rinse the lentils and leave to soak overnight in a large pot covered with four fingers of water.  Finely chop the onion and garlic and fry gently with a tablespoon of olive oil.   Add the soffrito and the savory to the pot, making sure that the lentils are covered with two fingers of water.  Place the pot on low heat for about two hours, or until the lentils are just tender.  Season the lentils only a short while before they have finished cooking.  Leave aside to cool.

Halve the peppers and cut out the core and seeds.  Place on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and put in a 200 C oven for 10 minutes.  Remove the peppers from the oven and allow them to cool  in a   covered bowl.  Peel off the skins, and slice the peppers thinly.  Mix the peppers with the warm lentils.  Divide the arugula evenly between the six plates and spoon over the lentil mixture.  Garnish with shavings of pecorino cheese, and a healthy drizzle of olive oil.


In addition to traditional pastries from Sorano, Mario Lupi also makes some “classic” Italian desserts in his local pasticceria- but his Ricotta tart is the best I have ever had, and this is his recipe.


300 grams flour

200 grams sugar

150 grams butter

2 whole eggs

2 tablespoons milk

7 grams baking powder

Zest of 1 lemon

Ricotta filling

200 grams ricotta

60 grams sugar

2 drops vanilla essence

1 pinch of cinnamon

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon dark rum

In a bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, milk and melted butter.  Add the lemon zest.  Sift together the flour and baking powder and then stir into the liquid mixture until a soft dough has formed.  Allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes in a refrigerator.  In the meantime prepare the ricotta filling by mixing with a fork the ingredients (ricotta, sugar, vanilla essence, orange juice and rum) to make a smooth paste.

Take two thirds of the dough and push it into the bottom of a buttered and lightly floured baking tin- to about a 1-cm. thickness.  Place the tin a 180 C oven for about 15 minutes.  Remove the tin from the oven and allow to cool, before evenly spreading the ricotta mix over the crostata base.  Roll out the remaining pastry to about a ½ centimeter thickness and then cut into strips to fit the top of the crostata in a crisscross pattern.  Return the crostata to the oven and bake for a further 15- 20 minutes.


500 grams sweet ricotta

40 ml sambuca liqueur

3 tablespoons icing sugar

3 teaspoons pulverized Italian roast coffee

12 strawberries sliced into small pieces

Whisk together the ricotta, sugar and sambuca until creamy, then place in a refrigerator for 1 hour.  Apportion the ricotta onto six dessert plates, sprinkle each with a half a teaspoon of coffee and then garnish with the strawberries.