An exercise in lunacy

IMG_6320

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’ll 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 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 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 we were on holiday in Palermo, and 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.

IMG_6244

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.

IMG_6269

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.

Favourites and more frying

g31w104ZQ+qvExzR+Wu5qg.jpg

Artichokes encapsulate in their tight buds, the divergence of British and Sicilian food.  Here they are seldom seen, priced as a luxury but rarely treated with respect.  We are charged a fortune for an unopened flower, all too often a bashed and wilted version of its youthful self.  There’s a terribly chi chi store in Mayfair that likes to arrange them in vases, for which conceit you can add on an extra three quid.  And then when it comes to the cooking them, we seem to be impossibly wedded to boiling and effeteness, painstakingly dipping individual petals in hollandaise, until the precious heart has gone cold and clammy.

In Sicily, (and throughout Italy) on the other hand, they are ubiquitous from new year to easter (their season is earlier than our’s).  They are abundant and cheap, the markets pile them high and you buy carrier bags full of them for a few euros.  And there are different varieties and sizes; small elongated purple ones for braising, choke free varieties, swollen steel grey green spheres.  There is even a festival dedicated to artichokes in the village of Cerda, east of Palermo.  They are a delight of spring and central to the food of Easter festivities.

They are my favourite vegetable, unequivocally.  Even asparagus or freshly podded peas can’t compete.  Sweet and minerally, they also create a physical tingle on the tongue – almost as though temporarily anaesthetising it.  But equally, many people remain unimpressed.  The leaf tearing mundanity never compensated for by the merest mention of flesh from their bases, and then the itching powder nastiness of the choke that has to be dealt with before that stone cold heart.  This is why other recipes might convert, ones that don’t demand such investment of time for relatively little reward (if you don’t love artichokes as I do).

Unless you have the luck and finances to be able to shop at Borough Market, the only way most of us in Britain can guarantee enough artichokes to allow culinary frivolity is to grow our own.  As plants they can be ferociously temperamental weaklings, or verdant to the point of being rampantly intimidating.  When young, they can be mown down by slugs, drained of life by blackfly and succumb to trench foot in a cold and damp winter.  But, established clumps are an impressive thing, up to two metres of silvered, scrolling serrated leaves, topped with spiky, prehistoric flower buds, that, unpicked, explode into an imperial purple inflorescence of bee magnet. 

My experience has mostly been of the weaklings.  I have struggled to get them growing on the allotment.  It is exposed high on the side of a valley, and few make it through the winter.  I think the problem has been that I’ve been relying on bought, seed-raised plants.  Which I have discovered, are unreliable and widely variable in vigour and hardiness.  So, the best plan of action is to seek out a friendly fellow enthusiast who has a clump that has proven its worth in both longevity and productivity, and in the spring (March and April), take a cutting of the shoots that appear around the sides of the clump, leaf and root together.  These small clones will still need some love and devotion in their first year.  But good genes should kick in, and if raised in a fertile, sunny, well drained spot, kept free of strangling weeds, and protected with a winter mulch from the worst of the wet and cold, begin to reward in a couple of years with a reliable bounty of loveliness.

Back to the eating of them then.  This is a simple Roman, not Sicilian recipe.  It involves deep frying, which as you know I am very fond of, and salt (ditto).  The name is supposed to come from the time when Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a limited area of the city, and with space at a premium, fried their food on stoves. Artichokes were disdained by their Catholic neighbours, and so the dish, and its cooks conjoined. All a bit tenuous I know, but I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

u+rukxPVT9ayWNqup1ywDw

Carciofi alla guidia (Jewish artichokes)

Fill a fryer, or large, deep saucepan with oil 5-6cm deep and heat.  Olive is expensive, and this requires a profligate amount, so unless you’re determined to be authentic, a milder vegetable oil will be just fine, but make sure it’s clean, as old, well used oil can make the food taste bitter and burnt.

  

At this stage, you don’t want chip pan hot, so keep it on a low to medium heat.

Ideally, you want a variety of artichoke that is not spiny, and if all you have are very large and tough ones, they may need steaming beforehand, for maybe 10-15 minutes.

Leave the stem on your artichokes that they come with, taking off just a few millimetres at the base if they’re very dry.  You can also peel very large and stringy stems, just to make them a little more edible.  Trim off the very toughest outer petals and if they’re very prickly, take a sturdy knife and trim the tops off.  

Take your artichokes slide them into the oil.  If you get a ferocious and explosive sizzle, it’s too hot, so take them out and turn down the heat. The artichokes need to cook gently, poach almost, in their bath .  A steady stream of small bubbles is the desired effect, rather than Yellowstone hot spring.  This slow process penetrates through to the heart of the artichoke ensuring it’s cooked throughout.

After ten-fifteen minutes, remove them and let them cool and drain on kitchen paper.

Now it’s chip shop time.  Turn the heat up and open all the windows.

Take your cooled artichokes and splay the petals out to open up the flower.  If they contain an inedible choke, remove that now.  Turn them upside down, and press them down to flatten them out.

Wipe all the oil off your greasy hands, and generously season the splayed out bloom with salt, getting into all the nooks and crannies.

When the oil is hot enough (I have an old fashioned jam thermometer that handily has “Deep Fry” marked on it), return your artichokes to their doom.

This will only take a few minutes, between three and five.

The hotter, faster oil takes the cooked artichokes and turns them to a crisp thing that you can eat in its entirety, no faffing around breaking off individual petals, no overflowing bowls of detritus.  If you’re able to find, or grow them, I urge and implore you to try cooking them this way.

Jars of Darkness

IMG_6007

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.  

IMG_6008

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.

IMG_6021

Nuns and Frock Coats

fullsizeoutput_635

In Bitter Almonds, the biography of pasticerria owner Maria Grammatico that she wrote with Mary Taylor Simeti, there is a section of recipes at the back of the book. These are the ones practiced in the time warp convent where she lived and worked as a child and young woman just after World War 2. In a time a grinding poverty, and starvation, the convent acted as a kind of workhouse, offering a degree of physical, if not emotional, shelter for destitute and orphaned girls.  In exchange they helped to make the pastries and sweets that the nuns then sold to supplement the convent’s dwindling income.  It’s a strange and compelling book, a snapshot of something unique to Sicily, typically both troubling and beautiful.   Some of the recipes laid out are familiar staples of Sicilian culture across the island; cannoli, cassata.  Others are more esoteric, and with no pictures to guide you, these are recipes that you have to take on trust and run at with blind faith if you attempt them.  

There is something other worldy about this book, in its recounting of a vanished existence slowly dying.  A way of living that had outlived its purpose, becoming embittered and resentful in the process.  The nuns may have disliked that Grammitico took her training and repurposed it for her own and her family’s benefit, but it is likely that without her steel, much of their knowledge, and with it, the pleasures given, would have vanished, along with the silverware of the closing churches and monasteries around them.

This recipe, for a liqueur called ‘Rosolio alle erbe’ has been on the ‘to do’ list for a while.  It needed summer to come, to let me grow the herbs .  It doffs caps to all those famous and monetised liqueurs from monasteries across Europe, from Benedictine to Buckfast.  That they drink it (or something similar) in The Leopard reinforces its archaic mystery.  Anything whose colour prompts a writer to summon the word ‘bilious’ is a thing of both awe and trepidation, and to my warped and curious imagination, demands I give it a go.

The steeping rapidly leaches all the vibrant chlorophyll green out of the herbs, staining the alcohol a deathbed jaundice.  The smell when you come to add the sugar is equally challenging, ‘silage’ I think, might capture it 

At this stage, I began to lose my faith.  Both in the nuns and in Maria.  Apparently, this cordial used to be served at weddings.  My suspicion was that it was used to clear the room at the end of the night.

So like an unwanted raffle prize, it was shoved in a cupboard and almost forgotten, until two months on an adventurous friend demanded to try this oddity.  Out came the little French, hand engraved glasses.  If we we’re going to do this, we’re going full on Lampedusa.  I’d taken the recipe at its word and added some artificial colouring to recapture that biliousness, creating a gothic scene of dainty glasses cupping a dangerous, arsenic shot of poison.  It’s a drink so visually strident that it induces a simultaneous sense of theatre and malice.  The two months of abandonment had also worked wonders.  Silage was gone, to be replaced by a strange, sweet medicinal elixir – the whiff of fermented weeds had vanished to be replaced by something potent, romantic, that smelt and tasted like the inside of a cedar wardrobe from an EM Forster story.

1 lire 40% vodka

20 fresh bay leaves

Cinnamon stick

25 leaves of lemon verbena

6 leaves of spearmint

2 cloves

a thumb sized strip of lemon rind

Mix all the herbs and vodka in an airtight jar and leave to infuse for two weeks in the dark.

Then strain out the herbs, and add a sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 kilo of caster sugar in one litre of water, and simmering for 10 mins, until it’s reduced to about 3/4 litre.  Cool and then mix into the vodka.  

If you like, you can add green food colouring, but it’s not essential.

Bottle, and store for at least two months before drinking, ideally in a frock coat, and sporting a handlebar moustache.