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.

Torta Angelica, because, well, why not?

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This came from a birthday surprise and a challenge.

Last month, my locked down, low key birthday rolled around.  Expectations were necessarily watered down.  The plan had been to go to see the new James Bond at The Electric, and drink cocktails delivered to out seats.  Instead I zoomed and made a cassatina.  You can call this taking pleasure from the small things, or clutching at straws.  Take your pick.

Then, like a foundling on the doorstep, a bag of bread flour turned up, a gift from my oldest friend.  Wrapped in a translucent, blue plastic bag, it was the best present I had could have imagined,  a thing of near mythic status, there, in my kitchen, promising me carbohydrates and joy.

It felt sinful to use, as though squandering a precious resource.  I dithered about what to make.  How to celebrate my new found wealth?

A suggestion was given, the enabler of my 2nd hand cook book obsession, thepastrysuffragette, invited me, perhaps challenged me is better, to turn my hand to a Torta Angelica – the angelic cake.  He had seen my efforts in candying my allotment Angelica – and although not a component of the original recipe – the word play made it a natural fit, and not so far from the spirit of the thing as to be total blasphemy.

The recipe is in Pane e roba dolce, by Margerita Simili (Bread and sweet stuff, literally), it sounds and looks fiendishly complicated, but isn’t.  This is a celebratory cake, so Christmas and birthdays, or just because.  And it’s yeasted, so think panettone or brioche.  And I have to say, it looks amazing, I was astounded that I managed to pull if off, first attempt, baking blind.

In the oven, it bloomed and blossomed, after the hours of cosseting, proving, rising, and plaiting I was rewarded by something wonderful, the size of a baby, golden and fluffy; the house filled with the incomparable scent of cooking, melting chocolate and those nibs of Angelica winked through the folds like emeralds.  This was one of those bakes that make you clap with joy, and thank the gods for wonderful recipe writers, who guide you perfectly through uncharted territory.

Torta Angelica

Step 1

Make up a Biga.  

This is a yeast culture used in Italian baking that adds more nuance to the the final bake, and opens up the texture.

80g bread flour

1 teaspoon sugar or honey

I teaspoon of dry yeast ( I used an osmatolerant yeast, another gift from Italianhomecooking – which is ideal for sweet breads, but given the state of yeast in the UK at the moment – use whatever you can get)

40ml water.

Mix this together as any dough, kneading for five minutes and then letting it prove for two hours.

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Step 2

The sweet dough

220g Bread flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

120ml full fat milk (at room temperature)

2 large egg yolks (also at room temperature)

45g caster sugar

50g butter (at room temperature)

Mix all the ingredients except the butter (I used my food mixer with the dough hook attachment)

Once combined, add the butter, a little at a time.

Then repeat this process with your biga mix and knead everything for 5 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or cling film, and leave the dough to prove for 3 hours, until it has doubled in size.

Step 3

Assemble the Torta

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out into a rough rectangle shaped – approx 50cm x 30cm. Brush freely with 20g melted butter. And scatter over 120g chocolate chips (add Angelica if you like, or sultanas and chopped nuts.

Roll this up like a Swiss roll.

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Then, with a sharp knife and a lot of confidence, slice the whole thing in half down its length.

You’ll have two layered strips now, which you plait together to form your braid, joining the ends together to form a circle.

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Cover again, and leave this to prove again for at least an hour.

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Bake in the oven at 180C / Gas mark 4 for 20-30 minutes – keep an eye on it, as the high sugar content may make it scorch (as mine did), so be prepared to add a tin foil hat half way through the bake, if you have a ‘hot’ oven.  It will double in size – become a cake behemoth – don’t be alarmed, that’s your biga magic.

Whisk it out of the oven when it’s cooked (tap the base to see if it sounds hollow, and cool it on a rack.

I then made up a lemon icing (icing sugar, lemon juice) to drizzle over.  This is just my preference, as I find plain icing too sweet, but you could also do a non lemon, vanilla flavoured drizzle.

The finished thing is massive – too much for one stay at home baker (half went to the next door neighbours).  But save this recipe for more sociable days and give it a go.  People will think you are a genius, which is never a bad thing.

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Un buon pranzo

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You may have read my account of a weekend in Rome last October. The weather was apocalyptic, I had a full on head cold, but the day of artichokes at Latteria Studio learning so much from Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, was an antidote to everything.  A feast of knowledge and a bloody good lunch to boot.  I have written at length and often about my unseemly love of artichokes, so I shall spare you a repeat here.

In some ways, it was a kind of a torture – spending that weekend surrounded by most loved vegetable flowers; everywhere I looked, they were on offer. And knowing that when I came back to Birmingham, it would be to an artichoke drought, broken only when (and as it turns out, if) I could get down to London’s markets, or when my young allotment plants decide to throw up their own flower buds (I’m still waiting for anything that you could tentatively call a ‘glut’).

I went to be shown a myriad ways to cook with artichokes, in the full knowledge that buying the quantities needed for some the recipes would bankrupt me, especially if I had to get them singly and cellophane wrapped from Sainsbury’s.

One dish in particular stuck in my food brain,  niggling away with thoughts of “will I ever have this again?”  Artichoke lasagna.  A vegetarian layering of pasta, cheese and artichokes.  Spanking hot and with a glass of teeth achingly cold white wine, this will be my death row meal (well, one of them).  Whilst it’s a dish for winter and early spring in Rome, here, if you’re reliant on your own crop, it’ll be a summer treat.  I have been missing this dish since October, dreaming of a day when I am rich enough to not care how many artichokes I have just bought, or somehow, have managed to persuade someone to give me gainful employment in Italy, so I can move there, just for the artichokes.

But then in the perverse way of the world, the UK want into lockdown, the panic buying stripped the shops, and bafflingly, this provided me with the wherewithal to finally break my lasagna fast.  I was told of delitalia, an Italian catering supplier that a) had flour, a lot of flour and b) was now doing domestic deliveries to Birmingham. Of course there was a small catch, just a minor detail; you still had to place catering size orders.  My cupboards and freezers are already overflowing with food from the allotment and ingredients I thought I ‘needed’ at some point.  And it’s not that I’m a hoarder, just that I’ve always regarded Best Before dates as mere guidance for the wise.  So, whilst the product list was temptingly extensive, I had to restrict myself to things that I really would use, and would buy anyway over the next year.  Flour yes, I’m already a third of the way through it (and have turned into the go to ‘flour man’ for my isolating neighbours), oil yes – 5 litres of olive oil will see me through the next year.  And then there they were, jumping out at me as though lit in neon; frozen artichokes, prepared and raring to go.  Minimum order, 5kg.  Yes, I am that much of an idiot.

A freezer drawer was cleared (I had to eat a lot of ice cream that week, a hardship) and now I have what should be a year’s worth of my favourite vegetable, but realistically, I don’t think they’ll see out lockdown.

As they arrived, my first artichoke flower formed on one of the allotment plants.  This I prepped, battered and fried – I wanted to memorialise its perfection.  It was literally a taster, for the main, the lasagna.

I urge you to find a way to make this (even if it means having to buy catering quantities of flour and olive oil).  The version I ate in Rome was Rachel’s, and my memory of the details is not perfect.  So when I get hold of the real thing, I may come back and do an update.  The potatoes were an addition suggested by Italianhomecooking – and he is right, the additional texture brings another bauble to this dish.

As I write this, I am reheating the half I did not eat last night, for my lunch.  There will be some bread too (I have to get through that flour after all) .  It will be just as good second time round I know. All sweet anaesthetic on the tongue artichoke, cheese and carbs.  Un buon pranzo.

Artichoke Lasagna

(This made enough for two large portions)

The recipe will get refined over time – as I was making this up as I went along.  If you are lucky enough to have access to abundant and affordable fresh artichokes, substitute those for the frozen ones, prepped into quarters, as shown in the photos below.  If using frozen ones, check them, some may still have a few tough petals attached, which can take all the fun out of them.

 

Artichokes

A cereal bowl’s worth of prepared artichoke hearts (defrosted)

One small onion, chopped.

1 garlic clove

Salt and pepper

Glug of white wine.

Oil

Put the oil into a large frying pan (which has a tight-fitting lid) and as it warms, add your artichokes,  onion and crushed garlic, and once they start to fry, throw in the wine, quickly turning down the heat, and slipping the lid on.  These need to cook until the hearts are tender and yield easily when stabbed with a knife.

Remove from the heat and blitz 2/3 of the artichokes into a puree with blender (check the seasoning), keep the remaining third whole.

Bechemel Sauce

Flour 25g

Butter 25g

Milk (I used 700ml)

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter, and then add the flour, cooking it, but not allowing it to brown.

Gently, very gently, add milk.  A tiny bit at a time to begin with.

The starch in the flour will suck upon the milk and swell like something from a sci fi film.  If you add too much milk, it’ll be impossible to get rid of any lumps.

When all the milk is absorbed and and you’ve beaten the flour paste into smooth submission, add a spot more milk. Repeat the process patiently, and you’ll end up up a smooth, glossy white sauce the consistency of expensive emulsion paint.  Seaso again, this is vital, as this sauce, together with the ricotta, could make a bland filling if you’re not brave with the salt here.

The rest

Lasagna sheets (I used premade, dry, as I had some in the cupboard, left by a former lodger (the wonderful Simon, who named his son for me), but if you prefer to make your own fresh, go ahead).

3 floury potatoes (peeled, boiled and sliced)

Ricotta (one tub)

50-75g (or as much as you like) Parmesan or Pecorino if you can get it.

Assemble your Lasagna

In a deep pie dish, place a third of your potatoes, artichoke hearts, and the puree.  To this add a third of the ricotta and grated parmesan. Pour over a quarter of the bechemel, season. Add a layer of lasagna sheets.

Repeat another layer of vegetables, cheese and sauce, top with more lasagna sheets.

One final layer, and then pour the last of the béchamel over the lasagna sheets.  You can grate some more parmesan over this if you like.

Into the oven at gas mark 4, for 30-40 minutes, until it is bubbling and golden.  Ideally some of the lasagna sheets will have started to curl and crisp up, for another layer of crunchy texture.

Eat straight from the oven, or reheat the next day (assuming you have leftovers).

Relearning to make pastry 

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I could write about strange days, and new norms.  But I don’t want to.  All the conflictions of guilt, gratitude, anxiety for the future, loneliness, community;  there is nothing special or unique about my lockdown life.  Nothing that deserves to be heard before other, more urgent stories.  And there is an edginess, a tetchiness about, with short fuses and misunderstandings abounding.  Food seems frivolous to some, writing about it almost provocative.  So, as ever, I am in two minds.

But within this, there is some continuity.  This is a food blog, it has always been a food blog.  Its context and content may have shifted over time, as they will continue to do.  But the food component is presumably why people read it, why those of you who follow me, subscribed for the updates.  

So, tentatively, I stick with it, and it remains mostly about my journey, discovering Sicilian, and more widely, Italian food, one that’ll keep me on my toes for a few decades yet.

I am hampered in this journey by my woeful, state schooled, British ineptitude at languages (only the rich need to speak another language in the UK).  Try as I might, Italian doesn’t sink in,  despite the hours of lessons and practice.  My ear doesn’t hear words, or even intonations, only white noise.  Every day I practice with an app that asks me to translate strange phrases like ‘the ant is in the sugar’ (la formica è nello zucchero, if you’re interested), but the moment I’m asked a question in Italian, the vocabulary and grammar all drain away.  The plan was to go and spend some time there, do an intensive course, only hearing and speaking Italian, to break that caught-in-the-headlights panic.  Obviously, this plan is now on hold indefinitely.  So other routes must be taken.

A friendship of cooks has established between myself and the much more knowledgeable and productive Italianhomecooking, who shares his knowledge freely, willingly, funnily, sometimes sternly.  But  it’s great.  He’s very good at suggesting avenues to explore, books to be read (or not read), the dos and the don’ts of Italian food.  So I turn to him often for suggestions, and most recently he (having been told the contents of my fridge) challenged me to make a tart of ricotta and cherries, but, and there is a catch, I had to find Pellegrino Artusi’s 19th century recipe for pastry, la pasta frolla, in Italian, translate it, and then make it as the case for my tart.

Pellegrino Artusi literally wrote the book on Italian food.  Just a few years after unification, ‘Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well’, was the first publication that attempted to cover the diversity of this new nation’s food culture.  This was 1871, and my Italian is not even up to 2020 standards, let alone 19th century ones.  But I discoverthat he had three recipes for sweet pastry – two containing lard, all with illicit amounts of butter and sugar.  There is some talk of not working the dough too much because of the risk of burning (I check, confused, but this is a saying, if not an actual thing), of using the knife, egg washing the crossed lattice on the finished tart.  So I think I have it, it takes a while, and I learn a new word (tuorlo, for yolk), and I think I am ready to start my tart.

The pastry, even after chilling, is dangerously unwieldy, I have to use profligate amounts of flour to stop it sticking to everything, but I get there.  My cake tin is lined, with an eggily golden case of impressively smooth pasta frolla (the secret is to use icing, not caster sugar).

Into it goes a batter of ricotta, sugar, eggs, and then, like a clafoutis, two big helpings of boozy cherries, hauled out of their embalming fluid.

It’s the first time I’ve cooked a sweet ricotta tart, so I’m very much guessing on the timings.  I watched it hawk like – at the moment that there was a hint of golden, and the wobble of the eggy ricotta was about to set firm, I whisked it out of the oven, guessing it would continue to cook under its own steam for a few more minutes.

My tart, which would have been a crostata if I’d applied Artusi’s egg-washed lattice on top, was, I am happy to say, fantastic. Sweet, tangy, and, yes, tart from the resurrected cherries.  The pasta frolla was perfection.  I have never had much luck with sweet pastries, they’re always a bugger to work with, and don’t take well to blind baking, tending to slump into a sulky pastry car crash.  But this was intact (supported by its ricotta interior), golden, crisp – as though someone else, not me, had made it.  Old recipes needing translation, are not something I would usually embrace.  There’s very little in Mrs Beeton that I would want to cook, and if I had to translate them first, I would have even little faith.  But, it turns out, this Artusi knew his pasta frolla.  This will be my go to tart pastry from now on.  I’ve bought Science in the Kitchen based on this one recipe, although admittedly, the English translation…for now, let’s not carried away.

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Ricotta and Cherry Tart (Torta di ricotta e ciliegia)

Artusi’s pasta frolla (the one without the lard)

250g plain white flour

125g cold butter

110g sugar (ideally icing)

1 whole egg

1 egg yolk.

  1. Cut the butter into small cubes and work it quickly into the flour.  Starting using a knife, then with your fingers.  Is it just a British saying about the best pastry chefs having cold hands?
  2. Mix in the sugar
  3. Add the beaten egg and yolk, and with the knife again, mix everything together, before forming the dough into a ball.
  4. Wrap this up and put the dough into the fridge for at least an hour – but next day is even better I’m told.

Turn the oven on, Gas Mark 4, 180 degrees C to preheat. (ok, on reflection, this is either too hot or the timing is too long. A gentler bake is required, that’ll set the filling but barely colour the pastry at all – best adapt for your own oven).

Ricotta and cherry filling.

500g ricotta

50g sugar

2 medium eggs (large ones may make the mixture too sloppy, and if you want to make a lattice top, the cheese won’t be able to support the weight.

75g Cherries (ideally, preserved in alcohol of some description and drained), or you could poach fresh cherries, or use tinned ones.

Mix the sugar, eggs and ricotta to a smooth batter.

Assembling the tart.

Roll out three quarters of your chilled pastry dough on a very well floured surface.  As soon as it starts to warm up, it will become sticky, so, the flour is essential.  You want it to be roughly 3mm thick. 

Use the pastry to line a 22cm Victoria sponge tin, that you’ve greased with some butter, then trim any overhang.

Put the tin on sturdy baking tray, and then pour in your ricotta batter, before scattering in your cherries.  75g is a guideline, just keep going until the batter has filled the pastry case.

Now you have two choices:

  1. bake it as is.  A British tart with Italian touches
  2. Use the remaining pastry, roll out then cut strips of 1-2 cms, but try to keep them all the same width.  Then use these to form a criss cross pattern on top  of your tart.  Brush this with a beaten egg, and you now have a very Italianate Crostata.  

Both versions go into the oven for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour (my newish oven I am learning is very casual about sticking to the Gas Mark it’s set to, so everything always takes longer than the recipe says).

When the wobble has almost stopped, your tart is done.

Lovely warm, or cold, this doesn’t hang around.

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.

Roman Holiday

I’ve not long come back from Rome, my first visit.  Yes, it overflowed with art, history, architecture, treasures, but, let’s be totally honest, I went there for artichokes, globe artichokes, by the bushel.

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It vexes me that they are treated with such apprehension and confusion in the UK, that you can’t buy them easily or cheaply (even though their season is nearly six months long). We can fly insipid blueberries and asparagus in from South America, year round, but seldom manage to haul a few loads of thistle heads the short distance from southern Europe.

Not that they even need to come that far, mind. They can grow perfectly well here in the UK, if you pick the right spot and the right variety. And I do grow my own on the allotment, across a shorter season and in constant fear of hard, claggy winters; but they are temperamental and I’m definitely a long way from self sufficiency. Consequently my knowledge on how to prepare and cook these most delicious of never-to-blossom flowers, is woefully inadequate.

So I went to Rome.  Needs must, and all that.

Two Roman cooks, Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, do many wonderful things with words, food and people, one of which is a day devoted to the artichoke.  The buying of, the prepping of, the cooking of and, oh my, the eating of.  I have been waiting for this day to reappear in their calendar since I first spotted it last spring, right at the end of the artichoke season.

And I have been squirrelling my pennies away into a special artichoke piggy bank, and raiding the replacement car fund (again), for the sake of my peculiar passion. And so, finally, two weeks ago, I jumped on a plane and found myself in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse district of Rome; I am full of cold and anticipation.

The weekend was apocalyptic – storms and rain the like of which I’ve never encountered. The kind that blows open the windows and billows the curtains of your AirB&B. Gothic, sprang to mind. And given that I was staying two minutes from the Protestant Cemetery, with its slew of Romantic Poets, all seemed very appropriate.

Rome with a view

It being Italy, I feasted on the first night; artichokes, of course, braised with lemon and butter; pasta with crab, wonderful parmesan by the chunk and grapes of Canaan. But this was just a prelude. The antipasto before the Saturday, which dawned with me overflowing with cold, deaf in my right ear and missing both my senses of smell and taste. A great start to a day of cooking and eating.

Purely by chance, I’m staying less than a minute from the mercato di Testaccio, where we’re meeting. So, I’m there, early of course, brimming with excitement and influenza. It is, as to be expected, a grotto of wonderful things. The market is, let’s be kind, late century modern, I’m guessing 90s. Purely functional, a hollow box in the terracotta shadow of the Monte di Testaccio. But inside is the meat and the marrow. Charcuterie, cheese, bread, vegetables, flowers, fruits, wines, oils. There is mundane, there is high end. It’s not huge, but, Lordy, it is bountiful.

Dogs in Markets; two of my favourite things

And we meet up – six artichoke fans, and Rachel, who is all height and exuberance, and we buy bags of artichokes, taste olive oil (I sneak in a couple of Citrons to fill up my hand luggage; another story, another day), and then make our way through the old abattoir, over the river to the Latteria Studio – a cookery school that is also, as near as damn it, my perfect kitchen. And if I can have a resident Carla, all knowledge, droll and raised eyebrow, I shan’t complain.

In a laid back whirl of prep and information, we trim and tidy 36 artichokes. These then are chopped and sliced to be braised, pureed, battered, soused. Carla makes focaccia, and makes it look easy, studding it with sweet grapes and dusting with cinnamon. Rachel pours cocktails, Cynar (more artichokes) and Prosecco. My cold improves instantly. There are eggs and oil to be whipped for mayonnaise, pasta to be rolled for lasagna. A caponata of artichokes emerges, all agrodolce Sicilian, and wonderful. A jammy cake of polenta and oranges sashays from the oven, to be joined by buttered, drunken pears baked in their own steam. We eat. We eat well.

A day of cooking is always fun, but cooking in good company, being taught by cooks whose knowledge and enthusiasm is endless, followed by a late and long lunch together, is definitely worth travelling to Rome for. Hell, it may even be worth moving to Rome for.

As dusk unfurled, and in the ceaseless rain, we tripped our way back down the hill, over the river and went our separate ways, six very contented and dedicated fans of the artichoke. There was, I knew, still a little room in my hand luggage. So I stopped at the supermarket, and bought just a few more artichokes, to squirrel back to Birmingham.


Parmigiana, and official birthdays.

This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona.  Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style.  Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours.  So despite demurring and equivocating,  I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.

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My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham.  The entrances are out of the way and hidden.  You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids.  These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space.  They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation.  There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas.  There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds.  And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias.  Most importantly though, aside from all this controlled and shambolic verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety. 

I decided to do the food.  I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas.  I thought it a no brainer.  Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was the small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.  

But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day.  Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores.  Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).

It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event.  I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.

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If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma)  If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take.  You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.

It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots.  It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides.  Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella  When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.

Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day.  When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that  you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.

Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).

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There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts.  Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity.  It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,.  The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose.  Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.

  • 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
  • Olive oil (be generous)
  • 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
  • Fresh basil
  • 100g Parmesan, grated
  • Black pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 litre passata
  • Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).

Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices.  They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture.  You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.

Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown.  Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.

Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking. 

Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan,  black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything.  Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.

Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.

Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)

Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally.  And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.

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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.

Favourites and more frying

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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.

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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.