Tozzetti – biscuits from Lazio

My friend Tamara lives in Lazio, north of Rome, below the Monti di Cimini range which is full of hazelnut trees.  We chat most weeks – she to improve her English, and me to improve my Italian (she is better and more confident than me).  Perhaps, inevitably, we often talk about food – and she shares some of the very very localised versions of recipes specific to the area, m and even to her village.

Tozzetti is the name used in Lazio and Umbria for the twice baked (biscotto) biscuits that elsewhere in Italy are known as Cantucci (although Artusi calls them biscotti croccanti, or crunchy cookies).  The recipes are all similar; flour, sugar, eggs, nuts, usually almonds, sometimes aniseed, sometimes candied fruit – you bake the loaf, allow to cool, and then slice and rebake, to completely dry the biscuits out, so they’ll keep for ever, ready to be dipped in Vin Santo, and enjoyed.

See here, then is Tamara’s recipe, specific to the region of Tuscia, within Lazio.  It is the same, but different from other twice cooked biscotti recipes, the aniseed liqueur, yeast (which I’ve never seen before) and the thing that truly  sets it apart, is the use of the Monti di Cimini hazelnuts, instead of almonds.

Ingredients

100ml of extra virgin olive oil

400 g of hazelnuts

4 eggs

800 g 00 flour

400 g caster sugar

200 ml milk

7g fast action yeast

10 tablespoons of Mistrà. (This is an Italian aniseed liqueur, I substituted Pastis, which is easier to come by)

Zest of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon of baking soda. (replace with Baking Ammonia if you can find it)

Method:

First toast the hazelnuts in the oven until they begin to brown, then rub them in a dry tea bowl to remove most of the brown skins

Beat the eggs and the sugar to a cream 

Add the rest of the ingredients, except the hazelnuts, then the sifted flour with baking soda or ammonia.

Finally add the hazelnuts and mix well.

Form the dough into two rough loaves and place on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper and bake in a preheated oven at 180 °/Gas mark 6 until they are just golden.

Remove from the oven and wait for them to cool (ideally overnight), this is because otherwise they could crumble.

Once cooled, cut them crosswise, into slices of about 1cm thick (if the dough is still warm, the slices will crumble).

Put them back in the oven at 150 °/Gas Mark 2 to let them brown a little ( you’ll need to turn the slices to brown booth sides) . As soon as they are down, switch off the heat, but leave them in the oven, to cool, with the door ajar.

Stored in an airtight container, these will keep for two to three weeks, but if they go soft, just reheat them in the oven, to dry them out again.

Learning to love the wobble

BONET

I’m going to need a bigger plate

So many food likes and dislikes can be traced back to childhood encounters, experiences that fix an immoveable opinion. The lottery of school dinners in the 70s was the arena where I learnt to be faddy about what I ate, approaching meal times with suspicion and trepidation. I can remember a particularly vivid nightmare, where I was served up a stew of slugs – even today I can viscerally recall the muscular sliminess that I tasted, jolting me awake.

Puddings were where the high stakes games were played – there was so much that could go right, or go awry.  A glorious day would be chocolate cracknel (I think just cornflakes and chocolate balled up by a ice cream scoop), with mint custard; conversely the mood could sink to untold lows if it was creme caramel, anaemic wobbling rubber in a pool of brown tears.  Its sweetness could not hide its mediocrity. It was the taste of disappointment.

As an adult, as a cook, I have never overcome my childish impressions of creme caramel – never been tempted to revisit, retaste and potentially unlearn my prejudice.  However, today, in a surprising development, I have segued in its general direction, almost by mistake.  But first you have to put everything I’ve said so far, out of your head.  Instead think of almonds; amaretti and amaretto, think fresh caramel and chocolate.  Think patience and sensuality.

This is Bonet, a pudding of the Piemonte, in the north of Italy.  It’s easy to make, although requires precision (not one of my main attributes, but with guidance, I pulled it off).

How I discovered this wonderful, silken thing is in itself a result of new experiences and changes to life brought about by the lockdown across the world. Exactly a year ago today – 16 November 2019, I was in Rome to learn about artichokes with Rachel Roddy and Carla Tomesi at the Latteria studio. It was a wonderful weekend of food, storms and art – which I wrote about here. I’d never met Carla before and was bowled over by her knowledge, humour and the way she made everything look so effortless, but was so keen to pass on everything she knew.

Come the new year, the lockdowns that rolled across the world and the explosion of Zoom, Carla came up with idea of having an occasional catch up, anyone was welcome – to talk about food, what we were cooking, which ingredients we couldn’t get hold of. And over the months, Carla’s chit chats have grown, people dropping in and out from across the world and across timezones. On these Sunday afternoons (or mornings for some of us), strangers from Italy, France, the UK, Canada, America, Mexico and more, sit for an hour, often longer, and become friends. There are regular faces, reunions, people ‘meeting’ for the first time after months of Instagram messaging – it is one of the positive things in the year that I have valued the most.

Often, Carla will send out a recipe beforehand, so those who want to, can cook along with her – learning new techniques and flavours. There is a lovely companionship to be had, knowing that we are simultaneously preparing the same dish in numerous countries and across thousands of miles.

And this then is how I came to discover and make Bonet, overturning my dread of wobble on the anniversary of the day that I met and began learning from Carla.

Bonet

For the caramel 

200g caster sugar

6 tablespoons of water

For the custard

1 litre full fat mill

25 amaretti biscuits crushed.

5 medium eggs

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

4 tablespoons caster sugar

Ameretto liqueur

You can either make individual puddings in ramekins, or one large one a 20cm pie dish.

Set the oven at 160 C or Gas mark 3

The caramel

Make your caramel by putting the water and sugar in a pan on a low heat. Without stirring, until it starts to colour, allow it to simmer and then melt. It can easily burn, so watch carefully, you’re aiming for something the colour of a ginger nut.

When it’s ready, use the caramel to line your pie dish, or ramekins.

It’s very hot, but will set quickly, so work fast but carefully – wearing gloves if you’re nervous.

Roll the dish around (like you’re sieving for gold), and the caramel will coat the sides as you tip it, setting into a solid, glassy finish.

You can do this bit in advance, which has the added advantage that, as the caramel cools – it starts to crack like breaking ice, which is both exciting, and strangely beautiful.

The custard

I assembled everything in bowls beforehand, which made everything very simple, and meant I could work quickly.

Start by heating the milk and sugar, and whilst this is happening, beat your eggs.

While whisking, pour the boiling milk over the eggs, and keep whisking til they’re well mixed.

Now sieve this mixture (which will remove any bits of egg white that didn’t get beaten in).

Pour the sieved mixture over the crushed amaretti (I blitzed them in the blender to get a fine powder) and leave to soak for five minutes.

Resieve the mixture, to remove any larger bits of biscuit.

Now into the sieved cocoa powder add a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, stirring together to form a paste, and getting rid of any lumps.  Then add the rest of the mixture and stir thoroughly.  One final sieve will remove any stubborn lumps of cocoa powder.

Fill your pie dish or ramekins and place them in a water bath in the oven. (A deep roasting tin is ideal), fill the water to just over half way up the side of the pudding dish.

Check after 20 mins for individual puddings, 40 mins if you’re making a large one. It is ready when you have a set wobble – my oven is always cooler than it says it is, so mine took over an hour to set.

Ideally, you make this the day before, so once it’s done, allow it to cool, and then refrigerate.

Serve by placing your plate over the dish and flipping them over quickly – revealing your triumphantly glazed, milky decadent Bonet, luxuriating in its own bath of delicious caramel.

As you can see from the photo – I need a bigger plate!

Vincotto, the nuns’ way

I have been meaning to make vincotto for a while – but the essential ingredient (grape must – the juice of freshly crushed grapes, destined to be fermented into wine) is hard to come by in Birmingham. And I wasn’t going to buy all the grapes in the market, to make my own grape juice. Occasionally I do draw the line somewhere when it comes to experimental cooking. With a pedigree going back to the Romans, this is essence of grapes, caramelised, brown rather than purple and concentrated down to about a fifth of its original volume.

Anyway – a heads up from italianhomecooking that Waitrose now sell the good stuff; fresh merlot juice, by the litre, green lit my latest trip into the unknown.

I have a wonderfully eccentric book – La cucina dei monasteri, by Sebastian Papa from 1981. A little treasure chest of collected recipes from the convents of Southern Italy and Sicily. I’ve written before about these convents that preserved so many recipes that would probably have been lost. And this book is fantastic in that it gathers them together, ensuring their continuity. To be fair, often, they aren’t recipes, so much as recollections and descriptions, so you need to exercise both imagination and caution when trying things out. For me, it’s also a way of practicing my Italian (still as terrible as ever) as I have to translate the recipes before I can begin my experiments.

And so the ‘recipe’ for Vincotto, or Vino Cotto, as it’s named in the book.  This concentrated syrup of grapes is a sweet preservation for use as an ingredient or topping in numerous ways – on meat, on ice cream, on cheese, straight from the bottle, illicitly.  Italians get a bit dreamy eyed about their vincotto – I think it must trigger the memory button in their brains and transport them somewhere sweet, sticky and delicious.

The nuns of the convent attached to Sant’Andrea Apostolo all Vergini in Palermo (long gone, it was destroyed in the war) made their vin cotto rather more luxuriant that the standard method (which is just juice, reduced to syrup, by cooking). Their version adds dried fruit to increase the flavour (and although their method suggests leaving the fruit in the finished syrup, I hoiked mine out, as I’m planning on adding it to my Christmas mincemeat).

The syrup, kept in the fridge will (in theory) last for months.  But its star qualities will give it a much shorter shelf life in this house I suspect.

Below is the translated recipe from Papa’s book. Replace the must with sweet grape juice if you don’t have access to a vineyard. The dried pear and peach are probably not essential if you can’t find them – but I tracked some down in my local deli. I used two litres of juice which gave me 300ml of vincotto – 10 litres is fine if you have an Italian sized family, or are going into the convent business.

Yes it takes two days; no I don’t know if the wood ash is really necessary (can anyone enlighten me on why this is included)? But, the end result is, as the book says “buonissimo”.  Give it a go.

From La Cucina dei monasteri

“Boil 10 litres of must and be careful when it boils, because it boils over, like milk.

Remove from heat and let it cool. When it’s barely warm, almost cold, add two fists of ashes: and if the ashes were wood it would be much better.

After having mixed well, taste to see if the flavor is still tart, like unripe things, if so add another handful of ash. Cover it and let it rest in the same container overnight.

Ideally use a terracotta or enamelled iron pot. The next day filter and starts cooking again.

Chopped orange peel is sweetened and boiled in water. The first water is thrown away and replaced, keep cooking until the skins have lost their bitterness: it’ll take four changes of water. In the wine that has been boiling for more than an hour, these pieces of orange are addded with various quantities of dried fruit: pears, peaches, and apricots, but not plums because they are sour.

To see if the wine is cooked, pour a teaspoon on a plate and divide the drop of wine with your index finger. If the two parts remain separate, the wine is cooked, if they come together immediately, the wine asks for more cooking

Leave to cool and bottle together with the fruit. It’s really good.”

How to ruin a British summer

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Last week it was in the 30s.  Bournemouth beach was the scene of a national scandal.  We were both in lockdown and not in lockdown.  The frisson of something about to snap hung in the clammy air.  Deluges and thunderstorms were promised, but never showed up.  So I came to the rescue and wheeled out my sure fire, rain making, cloud busting box of tricks and made a granita.

Granita, which I wrote a different piece on last year, is painfully, indelibly linked to the sun and heat of Sicily in July.  The month when only fools visit.  It is served, melting before your eyes – an ice that is a drink, a breakfast.  Fleeting.  The brain freeze lasts longer than the thing itself.  There is so much that I am missing about Sicily at the moment.  But granita is the thing that makes me cry when I think of being there; I don’t know if it is the freeze shudder amid the heat, or the race to eat before you drink, or memories of piazzas and castles; rubbish and stale dog piss.  Granita in the UK is not granita, for me.  It is the same, but not.  A granita needs the setting, the temperature, the Italian voices, to become itself.  Here, even in the most authentic of venues, it is just flavoured ice, reminding me that I am not in Sicily.

But, I make it anyway.  Because I am a sentimental fool.  I live in hope of hot days and sticky nights.  I remember a house on Alicudi and a theatre bar in Palermo.  I never think to make it until the temperature rises, and then, once that whim has grabbed me, and the juice or the syrup is freezing and being forked to shards, the wind switches to the west, the clouds roll in, drizzle, usually settles for a week or so.  The moment for a granita breakfast slips through my fingers.  Again.

Last week was such a moment.  And to make sure that I lost it, I went the whole hog and tinkered with two entirely Sicilian flavours, almond and jasmine; expensive and hard to source, this is a luxurious treat.  But it doesn’t need to apologise for itself.

A jasmine syrup made with heated sugar water and fresh jasmine flowers, and an almond milk, from blanched and blitzed almonds soaked in water for 24 hours, with just a smidge of extra almond essence to compensate for the Californian blandness of the dried almonds.  You freeze, fork over, creating crystals of pure white snow. Refreeze, refork – this is not a smooth sorbet, but something that, in its heartbeat of existence, should be gritty, like Sicily.

Done, your granita is ready.  Imagine marzipan, crystallised and frozen.  If you like marzipan, you will be in raptures over this.  The jasmine perfumes it, raises the almond’s game.  And it is gone.

Now imagine eating this in Piazza della vergogna in Palermo in 40 degrees.  Feel free to have a little cry about not being there.

Almond and Jasmine Granita

The Jasmine syrup

For this you will need fresh white Jasmine flowers (the summer flowering, Jasmine officianalis, not the yellow, winter variety, which is poisonous).  Some recipes say 50g, some say half a kilo.  Frankly, half a kilo of jasmine flowers is a tall order in Birmingham, so I cut my cloth accordingly.

So, with as many flowers as you can muster, soak them over night in cold water, 750ml if you’ve somehow managed to find your half a kilo, considerably less if you live in Birmingham and have a small garden with a smaller jasmine plant.  Meanwhile, make a sugar syrup by boiling 250 ml of water with 325g sugar until the sugar is dissolved (frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature).  Again adjust the quantities according to the abundance of your jasmine.

In the morning, mix the cooled syrup and the strained jasmine water.

The Almond Milk

Most recipes you read will err towards a conservative amount of almonds – I up the anti – because it was drilled into me that British (imported from California) almonds are sad and flavourless things.  That only Sicilian almonds truly taste of almonds.  So ingrained is this now, that I go full on cyanide I’m afraid, so I would advise on tinkering until you get your preferred intensity and life expectancy.

Blanche 500g almonds (pour over boiling water, leave them to soak for ten minutes then slip them out of their brown skins).  It’s a mindless job, but passes soon enough if you do it with the radio on or whilst chatting.

Rinse the almonds and then blitz them in a food processor.

Add them to one litre of water, with the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon of seriously good almond essence (bitter almonds if you can get it) and (if you like it) a cinnamon stick.

Leave everything to soak for 24 hours in the fridge, and then strain the milk.

(This can now just be drunk, like ambrosia, if the heat is really unbearable and you can’t wait for it to become an ice)

The Granita

Unite your jasmine syrup and your almond milk.

If you’ve done the full recipe – you’ll have two litres.

A granita should be scratchy and crunchy, so don’t put this into an ice cream maker – which will give you that refined sorbet.  Instead, put the mix into a container, freeze it, and come back every now and then to aggressively fork it over.  You want shards and crystals – you want the water to freeze and split and sharpen.

When it’s completely frozen and broken, it’s ready.  Wait for a hot, hot morning.  Serve it in your daintiest, campest glasses.  Watch the clouds roll in and the heavens open.

Why I stopped then started writing again

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I last wrote anything on here in January (the 15th) – nearly three months ago. Writing is a craft I am learning.  To become a good writer, you have to write, write some more, keep writing.  “Write every day” my friend Rachel tells me.  But I stopped.  The words dried up.  Or rather they bottle necked.  I had plenty of words.  Too many words, but there was no sense or reason to them.

The Sicilian and I finished.  After nearly four years.  On the shortest day of the year.  

It was something that had been approaching for months.  I thought that watching its slow and steady approach towards us would shield me from a Titanic moment.  It turns out I was wrong.  I may not be Leonardo di Caprio in this version, but I had a damn good go at being Kate Winslet.

For three weeks, I was fine.  I stumbled through the horror of my dysfunctional family Christmas, I hosted New Year.  There was sadness.  Relief.  

On the 16 January, I found myself at work, in front of the computer.  Crying.  Crying uncontrollably.  Overwhelmed by loss, regret, coulda woulda shoulda, self loathing and doubt, emptiness. Hating my job, my life, myself.

I spent a week on the sofa.  Sometimes in foetal position.  Sometimes not.  I wrote furious, vitriolic, crazed messages that helped no one and produced no answers.  The GP ordered therapy and told me to call urgently if I had any suicidal thoughts.  Dark days.  One night I sat crying on a wall for an hour.  I stopped eating and lost 8 kilos. The dogs got edgy and clingy.  

And for three months nearly, I was off work.  I thought that I would use my time to be productive.  To make the allotment the best in the country.  Become fluent in Italian.  Visit Florence and Rome.  Finish the book.  Decorate the house.  But I did none of these.  I sat.  I gardened a little. I walked the dogs. Every week I would meet my boss for a coffee and try not to cry. The thing that was furthest from and closest to my mind was writing.

I discovered that depression is exhausting and jealous.  It demands all your energy, it allows no room for anything else.  

Fortunately grief and madness faded.  Time did its cliched work.  There are still scabs that I mustn’t pick at and I will have scars, that I shall wear stoically, if not proudly.  And I am left with the need to write, but without the knowledge of what to write about.  Who wants to read the guesswork of some guy from Nuneaton fumbling his way through another culture’s food?  Remember that self doubt I mentioned?

Friends reminded me to cook. To keep up the journey.  To claim it as wholly mine.  Rebrand it if you like.  It was difficult.   I had to stop reading Anna del Conte’s biography, there was too much to remind me of another life.  There were many books I couldn’t finish.  Couldn’t start.  Recipes I couldn’t cook.

Just as Lombardy was starting the most localised of lockdowns, I went to visit my friend Stefano in London.  I went to Borough Market and, as citrus season was in full swing, bought bergamots and citron.  Something began to tilt.  These were wholly mine, and what I did with them was down to me and to no one and nowhere else.  I cooked more, I made the boobs of St Agata,  blood orange curd, bergamot marmalade, candied citron, Agra dolce everything, polpette.  I cooked English food, French food, Sicilian food.  I had a few dates, I met a guy for one evening who’s great (apart from living in Amsterdam, damn this lockdown!).  

As we know, the world then went to pot.  On a Friday (the morning after my date with Mr Amsterdam), my GP and I decided I was well enough to return to work.  On the Monday, the University where I work shut itself down and physically locked the gates.  Officially I work from home, but it’s hard to operate a laboratory remotely.

And then I became ill.  The worst flu I’ve ever had.  Temperature, coughing, fatigue; began to get better and then 8 days in relapsed and spent nearly 48 hours asleep.  This being Britain, I shan’t find out if this was just flu, or the new thing.  I kept out of circulation, a friend walked the dogs.  

This was a month ago now.  Through it I cooked only with what I had in the house.  Things grown on the allotment from the freezer, or pickled or jammed.  Despite the illness, it was a fun experience. On the days that I had the energy, I had the time and the resources to eat wonderfully; alone, yes, but wonderfully.   When I emerged from my isolation, I found the shops stripped bare.  No eggs, no flour, but thankfully, still gin.  So I carried on cooking from my reserves, and kept returning to Italian and Sicilian things of three or four ingredients.  Beans and vegetables, pasta and tinned sardines, stale bread turned into bruschetta with peas and broad beans.  I found cherries bottled in vodka and orange wine.  I made a crostata with marmalade.  Risotto got deep fried as little not arancine.  I found a magnificent sacred heart of a cotagnata from last November.  And I started to plant seeds – this year’s crops for next year’s stores.  My peach tree had two flowers on it.  

The world today is one of sadness, loneliness and strangeness.  But these things in my freezer and cupboards have at least given me some hope again.  The remind me that my past is not all waste and loss.   With hope comes a voice.  The bottlenecked words might have found a release.

So this is not a blog about Sicilian food written by the partner of a Sicilian, rather it is a blog about mostly Sicilian food – the growing and cooking of it, written by a single, adopted-Brummie, because he is greedy, loves the sun, and likes to grow and cook things.  

Today (Good Friday), I made an utterly English Simnel Cake.  It has some of that Borough Market candied citron in it (very Elizabeth David), candied ginger (for extra medieval).  I ballsed up the crystallised flowers, because there is no caster sugar in the shops.  They cracked and shattered, but now is not the time to be wasting eggs to have another go.  I also made the marzipan lamb of Sicily, one of the campest, most delirious things in the world – Jesus as marzipan; my middle aged long sightedness means he ended up all googly eyed, with a distinctly home made look.  My kitchen was both English and Sicilian today.  Two places that my healing Irish heart is very attached to.  Suddenly there were words again.

Roman Holiday (Part 2)

I mentioned in the last post, as an aside, that I’d bought two citron in Testaccio’s market on my flying visit to Rome. Because my hand luggage of books and artichokes needed filling out, and because who knows if I’ll be able to bring wonderful things back from European markets, once Brexit gets done and throws up the walls of insularity around little England.

Citron are the Neanderthal throwback of the citrus world.  One of the ancestral species of citrus fruit who’s genes went rogue, diversifying and hybridising into the pantheon we have today.  They are beasts, swollen, pock-marked, without symmetry, or grace, or panache.  It is unlikely you will ever encounter one in the UK; another fantastic thing that doesn’t make it over the Channel.  But, if you are in Italy in the winter, and you visit a market, you may spot them; steroidal lemons hulking in an almost visible haze of citrus tang.  They’re called Cedro (pronounced Chedro) in Italian, and first impressions can be baffling and confusing. But buy one anyway, and smuggle it back for the thrill of it.

Slice open your citron/cedro, and what you’ll find is several inches of thick white, spongy pith, dense and softly corky, encasing an entirely normal, lemon-sized heart of flesh.  This flesh is the least important part of the whole thing, indeed, most recipes tell you to just discard it immediately.  So, flesh discarded, you’re left with the meat.  You’re not in Kansas anymore.

Now, I bought mine for a specific reason – to practice the dark arts of candying. I have been trying (and mostly failing) to produce crystallised fruit for four years now. It’s a long and drawn out process of sugar syrups and repeated heating and coolings. It involves commitment and attention to detail. Ask the Sicilian, neither of these could be truthfully be included in any list of my attributes. I have managed to turn many clementines and lemons to caramel and marmalade, but never have I produced a solid slab of fruit turned sugar to adorn my cassatas.

But when citron is involved, it all gets a hell of a lot easier.  All that pith, I think it evolved to be candied.  It is the Candying 101 of the candying world.

The process is simple, you take your citron, prick it all over, and then soak in cold water for a week, changing the water every day. This removes any lingering bitterness it may possess about having been relocated from Rome to Birmingham.

Get a big pan of water on the boil and now peel your citron; try to keep as much of the pith and peel intact as possible, aim for hunky chunks.  Slide these into your boiling pan and let them simmer for 20 minutes.  You’ll see a change, the pith will shift from opaque white to the creamy translucence of the cartilage you dig out of a roasted chicken.  The yellow ping of the skin will dull, but, worry not, the flavour won’t

Make up a sugar syrup by dissolving 300g of sugar in 1 litre of boiling water and slip your cooked citron into it.  Immediately turn off the heat.  Now walk away for 24 hours.

For the next week, you’ll be living a deja-vu existence. Take the citron out of the syrup, bring that back up to the boil. Return the citron, turn off the heat and walk away.

At the end of the week, the syrup will be so concentrated that (science alert) it will have sucked all the water from the citron, and replaced it with liquid sugar.  Osmosis will have worked its magic.

Take the slabs of sugar fruit from their bath, and let them drain and dry in the air for a couple of days.  They will now keep indefinitely – sugar is a marvellous preservative, nothing will dare touch these babies. If you can leave them for a few weeks, all the residual water will dry off, and you’ll have solidity, sourness, sweetness. Alchemy.

And what to do with them?  I’d advise having some adventures.  I found an Elizabeth David piece about Christmas Puddings and the importance of candied citron – she was such a show off, but I made it anyway; I gave some to a friend who wants to make a Tudor mincemeat; I sent some to an instagram friend – because I love instagram and the people on it and good things should be shared.  I made a Sicilian conserve that I’ve been wanting to try for ages.  And the rest, the rest – that is reserved for a cassata of cassatas.  I can’t wait.

Like a kid in a sweet shop

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I forgot to ask the name of the shop,  or to take a photograph for posterity via social media.  I was too excited and made giddy by discovery.  It’s a Brigadoon of a place.  Fading from memory now, its only chance to be kept vivid coming from my keyboard. 

The shop is a stone’s throw from the original Palermo home of the Frutta di Martorana (hand painted marzipan fruits), carved out of the back wall of the Chiesa di Santa Catarina. There is a tiny workshop where a man and woman – perhaps married, perhaps brother and sister, make moulds out of Plaster of Paris for creating 21st century marzipan fruit.

Although, these have become ubiquitous across much of Europe – from the dust of Spain to the drizzle of a British Christmas, it was here, just a few metres away in a convent, the Monastero della Martorana, where nuns created the first of these edible jokes, to decorate the bare, winter branches of trees in honour of a visiting bishop, or cardinal, or pope.  It’s a fey tale, I hope it’s true, as it might indicate that the convent life was not as grim and restricted as the heavily barred and caged windows imply. 

The nuns have mostly gone now, they’ve broken free from their holy prisons, but the tradition of giving these marzipan fruits has remained – initially to expectant children on All Saints Day (November 1st), but now you can see them year round in the pasticerrias, piled high like a greengrocer’s display, garish treats for a very sweet tooth.

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But we found the source, by accident, on via degli Schiopettieri.  The studio is almost anonymous.  A subdued sign says ‘Decorazzioni in Gesso.  B Ferrante’.  If they’re closed, it’s a pulled down grey shutter, graffiti and parked vespas.  But when they’re open, they spill out onto the street, piling racks and crates of bone white moulds into the sun.  Even in October, in Palermo, the sun can cook the unwary.  And these forms are wondrous, not just the ordinary pears, figs and chestnuts. Here there are heads of artichokes, split pomegranates, bunches of grapes,  clusters of cherries.  And then as you look closer there are cracked sea urchins, ferocious weaver fish, sardines and strange exotic species that defy identification.

Inside Snr Ferrante paints the dried moulds with a sealant, kept heated on a single electric ring, in a can that predates possibly all of us, encased in layers of historic drips.  This resin is dissolved in neat alcohol, so the tiny, dark, cramped studio space smells like a pub at closing time.  As he brushes the molten varnish inside the moulds, it looks like a glossy smear of nicotine.  Shelves reaching to the ceiling are stacked with parcels wrapped in brown paper, reached by his sister/wife precariously perching atop a wobbling three legged office chair.  Between them, they know the contents of every parcel, with a certainty that must come from decades of close proximity.

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This is a true Aladdin’s cave – bleached jewels of gesso for the taking at just two euros each.  It is out of time and out of kilter with the rest of the world.  How can they make a living with something so fragile, so unique to its place?  Defying mechanisation, a simple, hand made process lives on in a back street of Palermo.

We leave, clutching a bag of treasures, including the artichoke and the sea urchin – but also a scallop shell mould so we can bring The Chancellor’s Buttocks back to the UK  (a story for another day), and a giant Easter lamb mould, to make a dentist weep and destined to be packed with homemade pasta reale, its almond fleece encasing a pistachio heart.

There wasn’t room in the bag for any more, so I will have to go back, not least, for the spiky, dangerous fish.  I want to produce a fantastical still life from marzipan, all sea urchins and scales and sugar. 

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An exercise in lunacy

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Just to reiterate.  I am not Sicilian.  Or Italian.  I’m half British, half Irish, from the most mediocre of small towns in North Warwickshire.  The late and wonderful Terry Wogan used to joke about its mediocrity.  It is that mediocre. 

But the other half is Sicilian.  It’s complicated.  He lives in London, I in Birmingham.  He likes clubbing.  I like slippers and cocoa.  And although he is on a near permanent diet (all those decades of pasta start to catch up eventually), a passion we share is our food and the cooking of it.  When we got together, I can hand on heart say that I’d never encountered Sicilian food.  I think I had heard of Cannoli, perhaps Sicilian lemons were on the radar.  That’s it.

Here we are, getting on for four years later, and it seems that I’ve accidentally (and only partially) imbibed from some sort of Mediterranean fount of knowledge.  It hasn’t gifted me with even a basic grasp of the language; I still burst out in a heat rash within 24 hours of arrival in Palermo, and I shall never get used to all the shouting that passes as conversation.  But now I can turn out a passable cassata, turn sardines into songbirds, and have just planted a mulberry tree in the hope of one day granita.

There should be limits though.  Birmingham is not Palermo, the flavours that I mimic can never be as strong, as strident, as Sicilian. They are faded facsimiles.

But I am stubborn.  Some things are too ridiculous not to try.  Too impossible.  Too of the South.

Astrattu is one of these things (a quick word here on the name.  Astrattu in Palermo, Estrattu or ‘strattu everywhere else – dialects, abbreviations, urban v rural.  Things I’m sure I’ll never get to the bottom of).

In August, as the tomato crop is taking over Sicily, and the summer is at its most stifling, the crimson abundance is transformed by time and that damn heat into a concentrated, turbo charged fraction of itself.  Boiled, sieved and salted, litres upon litres of pulped tomatoes are spread out on boards to bake in the sun.  Fingers create furrows that drain away leaking water, and gradually, the sloppy pulp thickens, darkens, stiffens.  The tomato sunburn turns iron oxide, knee scab red.  What was once liquid, spread over table after table, is now reduced to the corner of a single board, scraped up and squirrelled away to add intensity and umami from the smallest of additions.

Perhaps it is the essence of Sicily? There is nothing quite like it.  Don’t even imagine that it resembles the puree you get in tubes.  It is scarcely even tomato anymore, it has had an apotheosis.  You can smell its power.  The brave spread it on toast, for a hit of salt tang shudder.

So, obviously, wearing my Irish stubbornness and pigheadedness like badges of honour, I chose to take this task, the one that demands at least three days of continuous and unrelenting heat, and make it Brummie.

The Sicilian’s usual mild amusement was replaced by out and out incredulity.  Having lived through four of our summers now, he is beginning to understand what drives British fatalism.  The idea of it hitting 40 degrees, of there even being three days of continuous sun, of being able to grow enough tomatoes, all was folly.  Everything was against me.  Crushing failure was certain.

But, I had a secret weapon.  I had my poly tunnel. 

The idea that I could achieve the impossible first dawned on me last year during that rare, glorious summer.  A friend was in charge of watering said tunnel whilst the Sicilian and I were on holiday in Palermo, and she regaled us with tales of nearly fainting from the heat inside, when we returned.  Admittedly she’s a red head, and wilts as soon as it gets above 25.  But it sparked my imagination.

And then, on cue, over an August bank holiday weekend, a plume of heat rose northward from Africa, bathing Birmingham in the kind of warmth that makes us break out our worst clothing and drink too much cider on a school night.

I started small.  Just two litres of tomatoes and a large wooden tray, balanced precariously on the arms of a camping chair.  Heath Robinson sprang to mind, not the slopes of Etna.  Wobbling like the chair, I began to doubt my sanity, as paste dribbled over the edges and a cloud passed over the sun.  I left for the day, expecting disaster in the morning, and a puddle of red spatter on the floor.

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But the next day, the Sunday, there was indeed movement, a definite trend towards a thickening, my finger furrows stayed put, and there was  clotting in places.  And so over the next 48 hours, it progressed.  Next up I could spread it like putty, and then it began to crack, like damp mud in hot sun.  Two litres finally became a smear, which bundled together was no bigger than a golf ball.  It had that metallic whiff of fresh cuts and the best sun dried tomatoes.  Somehow, for 36 hours, the gods of Sicily had decamped to a poly tunnel in the suburbs of Birmingham.

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Will I ever make it again?  Unlikely.  You have to be ready at the drop of a weather forecast to attempt your astrattu, it’s cheap as chips in Palermo, and they don’t seem to have a problem with you sticking it in your hand luggage.  But, then again,  in a future, legendary summer, when the tomato crop is running away with itself and red headed friends are going giddy, maybe I will.  Because, now I know I can.

Jars of Darkness

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Pickled Walnuts are now counted among the things I didn’t know I was missing from my life.  

I admit that the pickling of walnuts was never on any bucket list.  I do have an inordinate soft spot for beetroot, and onions, and piccalilli, but unripe walnuts?  It’s not a natural jump I’d make.  Indeed, I’m surprised anyone made that jump.

Before they’re ripe, green walnuts are unassuming, misshapen and lumpy.  A thick spongy skin encasing an embryonic brain of a nut, itself milky white and a little repellant.  And they don’t want to be picked – they fight back with a seemingly innocuous juice that hits the air and turns into a staining dye of legendary persistence.

It doesn’t end there, the finger blackening chemical is called Juglone and it harbours even more sinister intentions.  Spread throughout the leaves, bark and roots of the walnut this thing is also toxic, and deployed to literally weed out the competition.  The Romans cottoned on to this particular charm offensive and worked out that green husks meant fishing could be a whole lot easy.  If you poison the water, the whole rigmarole of line and rod is redundant.  Walnuts therefore, are so toxic, that they’re a natural and non explosive method of dynamite fishing.

So, as I say, when it was someone decided to take these particular talents, and then add vinegar, is a puzzle.

However, someone did, and it caught on.  Pickled walnuts are ensconced now in the lexicon of slightly odd, but utterly delicious foods.  I have a friend who adores them, and describes them as multi sensory luxury, their spiced nuttiness enhanced by having to ‘fish around for them in that jar full of darkness’.

Making them is easy (although takes weeks and months of waiting), the hard part may be finding your green walnuts in July.  Grey squirrels love them (apparently immune to death by juglone), so even if you know someone with a tree, there’s no guarantee of a crop.  I found an online supplier in Ludlow Vineyard, who sells and sends them out to you by the kilo, and I know of people who bring them back from holidays in Greece in their hand luggage.  

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Pickled Walnuts

Begin by pricking your walnuts with a needle (you may want to wear gloves, I ended up with what looked like a nicotine stained finger for weeks) and then mix up a brine bath of 500ml of water and 200g salt.

Soak the nuts in the brine for a week, then drain, and repeat in a fresh mix for another week.  Wherever they touch the air, they will blacken, the water will also turn the colour of an oil slick .  Don’t be alarmed by its morbid murk.

After these two weeks, drain them and rinse them, then lay them out on kitchen roll to dry for two-three days.  Once dry, they will have turned entirely black, as that poison oxidises.

Mix up a batch of pickling liquor with 1 litre of malt vinegar, with 1cm fresh ginger, a small dried chilli, 2 star anise, a stick of cinnamon, 2-3 cloves and a generous teaspoon of whole black peppercorns.  Add 100g soft brown sugar and bring it to the boil on the hob.

Finally add the walnuts and simmer for ten minutes maximum.

Then spoon the nuts into sterilised jars, and top up with pickling liquid.

Like any pickle, they’ll improve with age, and are ready after a couple of months, but over a year, and they may start to disintegrate into their dark void.

Those unprepossessing lumps you took under your wing in July are now softened and spiced, a natural pairing for cheese or cold meat.

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Beans (Broad/Fave) and a quick dinner

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The first week of June and we’re on the cusp of Broad Bean season (Fave in Italy).  Mine are late this year, and will be a few weeks yet.  When they come though, the sheer abundance of broad beans ensures that there’s always a surplus and always a freezer drawer dedicated to them.  After the initial gluttonous rush of sweet, tiny proto fave around midsummer, there’s a year long supply of fatter, starchier siblings kept on ice.  Each has their merit.  The youngsters for their joie de vivre, the oldens for their persistence and reliability.  Keep them too long in the frost, and they start to lose their green zing, battered into submission by prolonged cold, so I try to remember to root out any hangers on from the previous spring before the next generation arrives.  These tough things need to be derobed to make them more enjoyable – scald them in hot water and then plunge into cold, this makes them easy to squeeze free from their leather jackets.  In small quantities, this isn’t too onerous, with the added fun of being mildly indecent when rogue beans squirt jets of water at you as they’re popped out of their skins.

As with everything, peak broad bean season here is several months after peak fava season in Sicily.  They are the first of many delayed gratifications you’ll experience when trying to grow a Sicilian kitchen on the wrong island.  Unless you’re outstandingly well located, organised, urban and sheltered, the broad beans won’t be making their first appearance this side of Canale della Manica until the latter half of May, at the earliest. The battle is now on. You will want to eat them at their smallest and sweetest before their skins turn tough and bitter.  They will want to fatten, coarsen and brazen it out – fighting for the next generation.  Catching them at their sweetest is one of the joys of vegetable garden in early summer, alongside with peas from the pod, your own woefully spoilt asparagus, and netted cherries thwarting the blackbirds.  They marry perfectly with peas, oil, mint or fennel.  There’s a lovely lunch of sharp cheese (salted ricotta perhaps), mixed in with mint, beans and peas to top toast.  Posh beans on toast.

But I am digressing – there is much to write and say about the joys of the broad bean in the first flush of its youth, but not here. Not today.  Maybe in a couple of weeks, when mine start to make an appearance.

Today is for that emptying the drawer period.  The time that comes before.

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This is a recipe that is an adaptation of a much grander (and more expensive) version, simple enough for a week night tea and good enough for showing off too.  It is excellent for the time when you’re winding down last year’s stores in preparation for the fast approaching glut of new things.  Despite this, it has an intensity of summer to it that belies the inelegant, back of the cupboard, bum in the air search for those need to be used up ingredients.  Oily fish and tangy sweet acid tomato, fresh medicinal aniseed and the resolute health giving greenness of the beans.  Four essential flavours that, for me, work perfectly.  It’s a pasta dish, so don’t strive for impossible and instagram worthy beauty, rather pile it up, rolling with steam and dive eagerly in.

Tonno, finocchieto e fave

(For two, as a light meal)

One tin of tuna in olive oil

300 ml passata

2 tsp fennel seed

One bay leaf

Bunch wild fennel fronds

100g broad beans

2 cloves garlic

1 Onion

1 stick celery

150-200g Linguine (depending on appetites)

Start by chopping the onion and celery, as finely as you can, as though for a sofritto

Fry them with the fennel seeds (without colouring) in olive oil, and then add the garlic and bay leaf.

If you need to skin your broad beans, do this whilst your waiting for the vegetables to cook.

When they’re done, add the passata, plus the same amount of water, bring it up to a simmer, and then add your tuna, breaking it into loose chunks.  The better the tuna, the chunkier it will remain.  

Also add your broad beans, a handful for each person. You can keep this sauce cooking on the lowest of heats, reducing (but not even simmering) until you’re ready to serve, but watch that it doesn’t reduce too much.  It needs to stay saucy.

Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat, get  your pasta water boiling and then salted.  

Chop your wild fennel and add to the sauce.

Cook your linguine for 6-7 minutes and just before it’s done, turn the heat up under the sauce.

Drain the pasta, throw it into the sauce, with a splash of pasta water and mix everything with abandon until the pasta is coated with sticky, oily sauce and dotted through with vivid beans and chunks of tuna.

Eat (it goes very well with a bone dry cider).