Watermelon not-jelly for hot summer days

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Gelo di melone

I still get the shivers thinking about the food of my 70s British childhood.  Knowing now that the entire country (apart from Margot and Gerry Leadbetter) was skint,  doesn’t take the edge off some of the horrors that found their way out of our suburban kitchen and onto the dining room table.  None of this was helped either by my mother’s self-confessed inability to cook.  So there was lots of grilled liver, boiled mince and beef cuts that may as well have been cow hide.  Puddings at least offered some form of respite, mum could throw together a decent crumble or rice pudding, and there was always the rare decadence of a butterscotch angel delight.  Some days though, the fates would conspire against me, and pudding would be a milk jelly a lesson in how ruin a perfectly good thing

Milk jelly:

Ingredients:

Jelly (any flavour), Milk (a pint)

Dissolve the jelly in some hot water.  Add milk.  Leave to set. Regret

So why start reminiscing about rogue puddings, when I’m supposed to be talking about a melon jelly?

Well, it’s because, when first described to me, I had a panic attack flash back to my childhood and visions of that bowl of cloudy blandness.  A wonderful jelly ruined by good intentions.

Gelo di melone is a set jelly made from watermelon. Its similarity to milk jelly ends there. For one, it’s not a jelly. There is no gelatine, the effect is obtained by cornflour.  It’s a cloudy blush red,  with added chocolate and pistachios.  It is delicate, grown-up, reserved for the hottest of hot days in July and August.   You can buy it in little plastic cups from Pasticceria Cappello on Via Colonna Rotta in Palermo, or you can make it yourself, which is probably easier for non-Palermitans.

Ingredients

One small watermelon (you’re aiming for around a litre of juice)

100g caster sugar

Cinnamon stick

75-100g cornflour

Jasmine flowers

Chopped pistachios

Chopped dark chocolate

Take your water melon, peel and blitz it. Don’t worry about the seeds, you sieve the pulp to get the juice.

Now add the sugar

If you’re feeling very romantic, you can make a chain of Jasmine flowers by threading them onto cotton and add them (or use a small hint of jasmine essence, if you’re feeling less prosaic).

Now add the cornflour, premixed into a paste with a little of the juice.  

Put the pan on the hob on a medium heat and start to cook – stirring, stirring, stirring.

Don’t stop stirring and don’t let anything stick to the bottom of the pan.

Alchemy happens – suddenly, in a few short seconds, the whole thing will condense into a thick, opaque,  sputtering, camp essence of pinkness.  

Cook for a little longer. Don’t stop stirring.

Decant into your chosen serving dishes (individual little glasses work well) and leave to cool.  

It’ll set slowly into a firm wobbly not-jelly.

Just before you serve it sprinkle chopped dark chocolate (it’s supposed to resemble the seeds that you sieved out earlier) and green pistachio nibs (because it’s Sicilian, and pistachios are ubiquitous).  No one you give this to is likely to have ever tasted anything like it in their lives, they will thank you profusely.

Snails as bar snacks

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The first time I learnt how to cook snails, it was purely theoretical. I was in my early 20s, in Provence, in June. Everywhere you looked in the sun dried landscape, the bleached shells of snails clung to stems of desiccated weeds, looking totally incongruous to a northern European eye.  I was used to snails which roamed with gay abandon for most of the year, unconcerned by our weak Summer sun, sliming at will, rain or shine, plundering the best efforts of every suburban gardener.  But here, in this small village outside Aix, these snails seem to have been caught unawares by spring –  forced to hunker down in situ and wait for far off autumn.  This lack of foresight, apparently, made them easy pickings – literally.  So, first, catch your snail, that, let’s face it, is the easy part.

Now comes the prep.  The problem with foraged food, is that you’ve no idea where it’s been, or what it’s been eating.  It would be so much easier if snails only snacked on choice herbs – delicate thymes and fennel perhaps? But they’re not so obliging, so they need a purge.  You take your gathered snails and dump them into the sink.  Fill the sink with water, and leave overnight.  This trick has two outcomes.  When you come back to the kitchen in the morning – the first task is to look in the sink, and remove any dead snails.  A bit like shellfish, if they don’t make it through the ‘are they alive’ test, then you don’t want to be eating them.

Next, gather all the living snails.  Their dunking will have cleansed them of any undesirable leftovers, and they’ll have proved their vigour by helpfully escaping all over the kitchen – up the walls, on the ceiling – you name it.  Now, I can’t help feeling that this method is fundamentally flawed.  But the French matriarch who passed on her snail-based wisdom was adamant that this process was the only way.  So who was I to argue?

And then onto the escargot – cooked in butter and garlic – your snails are transformed into the infamous delicacy of a thousand caricatures.  And here’s the thing. They’re not much of a delicacy, more an oversized chunk of garlicky protein.  I’ve had them from a jar; in a fancy restaurant in Lilles; freshly prepared near Poitiers, and I just don’t get escargot.  They’re not unpleasant, but then neither are they a thing of wonder unleashing some sort of Proustian rapture

But then I discovered snails again, in Sicily.  Here they are very much a humble food, served in summer – a bar snack to be eaten with cold beer.  Or you can buy nets of them at the market, to take home and prepare yourself.

These southern, Mediterranean snails are an entirely different kettle of fish.  Much like a lot of Sicilians, these snails are tiny, the size of winkles, rather than the great lumpen molluscs associated with escargot.  But they have that same sun-bleached look of those long ago Provencal ones.

Prepping has its similarities too, but with a far more practical modus operandi.  Big pot, filled with water and with a rim of salt just above the surface.  Dunk the snails, which, being sensible creatures will attempt to climb out of the water, to avoid death by drowning.  However, when they encounter the salt, they are forced to retreat to a watery demise.  And the benefit of this method is that they die with their heads and necks extended, making eating much easier.

And the preparation is easy too: white wine, whole garlic cloves, parsley and then steam them in this liquor for a few minutes.  Or you can go to one of those street vendors in a rough part of Palermo where they cook up a vat of the things around arpertivo.  And then buy beer from the bar opposite and eat messily and noisily – sucking the little gems out of the shell, with their juices.  They are sweet and moist and slip down a treat.  You’ll be surrounded by mildly terrifying old men, possessing teeth in various states of decay.  The conversation will routinely be drowned out by vespas whizzing past.  And as is the norm in Sicily, most of the talk will be of the place you had the best snails, where you’re going to get the next snails, and what to have for dinner tonight, tomorrow and next week.

Quinces, Cotognata and Gin

There’s a short period in the autumn, usually a few weeks in October,  when you can buy quinces in the UK.  I’ve never seen them in a supermarket, so you might have to hunt them out – or plant your own tree.  Before Farmers’ Markets caught on, I’d make an annual pilgrimage with a friend to the corner of a rural garden centre, where someone had thoughtfully planted one, and where it fruited reliably and with forgotten abundance.

And they’re a tricky thing.  Yes they come with a heady perfume that will fill the kitchen when you first get them home.  And they have that slighty disconcerting ‘fur’ which rubs off when you stroke them, a characteristic only found in British quinces apparently – coats to survive our notorious summers perhaps? But my God, they’re tough – hard as nails and prone to grittiness.

Perhaps this explains why they have fallen out of favour here.  There’s a lot of effort involved when it comes to quinces.

But, boy are they worth it.  There are recipes for poaching them and baking them – but perhaps the most famous and widespread use of them is for a form of thick set Jam – what we’d call Quince Cheese, here in the UK. In Spain its membrillo, France has its pate di coing and Sicily trumps the lot with its Cotognata.

The recipes are much the same wherever you go – equal weights of quinces to sugar, stewed and sieved and then cooked down with lemon juice to a scalding, burping, lava-like consistency the colour of an Anglo-Saxon garnet and so stuffed with pectin that the cooled paste sets into a hard jelly.

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It’s a thing of joy – it keeps pretty much indefinitely and possesses a fantastic, palate-cleansing, perfumed tartness despite all the sugar. You can slice it and eat it with cheese, or cut it into lozenges and cover in sugar to create your own fruit pastilles. Yes, you can buy it, as with most things – but the process, giving over several hours to peeling, chopping, stewing and stirring, stirring – is surely part of the pleasure? The smell, the gradual chemistry unfolding as the colour intensifies to that deep pink-orangey-red, the commitment to not leave the cooker for a second in case it catches, the trophy burns as the mini volcanic eruptions spatter you with molten sugar.  These steps are as integral as the actual ingredients to the finished cheese/membrillo/cotognata.

So if you’re Sicilian how do you improve on this?  With added baroque of course.

In the backs of kitchen cupboards, often hijacked as ashtrays; or the flea market in Palermo down the hill from the Palatine, you can still find wonky, crudely formed, old molds – specifically for the making of cotognata.  When turned out, you discover that your quinces have been transformed into St Christopher, or the Sacred Heart, a nameless bishop or an angel in flight. It’s an idea of genius – and typical of Sicilian food, that you take something simple, mundane even, and elevate it with an almost effortless flourish.

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And finally, the gin – an inherently British response to quinces.  I’ve been making this for years – so long that I can’t remember were I first saw the recipe.  I do remember that it was one of those years when the sloes failed, to the extent that people were writing to the papers looking for suggestions to fill the Sloe Gin void.  The process is identical.  Take your quince (chopped up, core, peel and all) add to gin, add sugar to taste (there’s no point giving an amount, as everyone is scattered along the line from syrup to near neat gin), leave it alone until at least Christmas, bar the occasional jiggle. Drink