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.  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 outside, piling racks and crates of bone white moulds to in 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 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 brushed 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.  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 pistachio heart.

There wasn’t room in the bag or any more, so I will have to go back for more, not least, 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).

Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines

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The clue here is the name.  Wild.  Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs.  If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles.  My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento.  There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel. 

But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall.  Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring.  Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food.  Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities.  And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential. 

The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes.  An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb.  And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved.  A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing.  They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else.  Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting.  Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.  

As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep  tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air.  Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back.  All energy is diverted to height and flowers.  So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.

There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food.  It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff.  And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime.  Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta.  This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day.  The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and  tricky to eat.  It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility.  But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.

Pasta con le Sarde (for four)

Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)

Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)

25g Pine nuts (toasted)

25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)

25g Chopped almond flakes

75ml Olive oil

Breadcrumbs

4 Anchovies

450g Bucatini

Saffron

Onion

Garlic.

If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out.  If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you

Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes.  Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).

If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest.  Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).

Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.

Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside.  Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.

Continue reading “Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines”