Biancomangiare, fit for a Norman

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British people find this a daunting thing.  It’s best not to tell them what’s in it, lest entrenched prejudices and fears are (justifiably) roused.  Just present it, a fait accompli, raising ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’

However, people from the Mediterranean; Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, rhapsodise over this, tear up at the thought of their island’s version of it. It is memory of a dish. It is a pudding of almonds, pistachios and rosewater. A jelly with no gelatine. Virginal white, like the travertine of Ortigia.  There is wobble, sensuality, opera even.  Am I getting carried away?  Perhaps.  It is, after all just a blancmange.

And with that single word, I can hear the klaxons sounding on five continents.

Images of lurid, set-foam pink frightening the horses.

Stick with me.

Imagine the summer heat of Sicily, the almond harvest has hit the markets, and you are weighed down by their velvety abundance.  What to do?  What to make?

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One of the most refreshing things you can do is to make almond milk (as ever, this is a very, very distant cousin of the stuff you buy in cartons).  You can mix just a few bitter almonds into the mix to intensify the flavour from their added cyanide kick  (not essential, especially if you’re of a nervous disposition).  And then the sun of Sicily, sitting on the same latitude of North Africa, has already ripened those almonds to perfection, imbibing them with a depth of flavour you will seldom encounter anywhere else.

The milk is easy to make in the UK too, take at least 250g of dried almonds and blanche them in hot water.  The word makes it sound fancier than it is. The hot water loosens the brown papery skin around the almonds, so you can pop them out, all creamy white sweetness.  It is not a chore if you do it in front of the TV, or whilst chatting to friends with a cup of tea.  Then blitz the denuded nuts, and soak them in cold water for 24 hours with a teaspoon of almond extract to compensate for any flavour lost in transit.

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Strain the steeping wonderfulness through a clean cloth, muslin if you have it.  The nuts will have lost most of their flavour, but you can still use them in baking, once they’ve dried out. 

The bone china drink you get out is essence of almond.  It is perfumed, and when sweetened and chilled, can transport you to an imagined world of sultans, of Cleopatra, legendary cities and wild adventures.  It smells and tastes like decadence distilled.  And its ability to refresh and restore in the leaden heat of Palermo in August, only adds to its magic.

Can it be improved?  Well yes.  It can be made into a pudding, for sculpting and moulding.  For adding theatre and silliness to a meal.

Take your litre of fresh almond milk, and use a little of it to mix up 70g of cornflour.  To the rest, add 100-200g caster sugar.  This is a sliding scale of Sicilian.  The more Sicilian you are, the more sugar you’ll add.  Grate the zest of a lemon into the sugar and milk and gently warm through to dissolve the sugar.

As soon as this has happened, add the mixed flour and remaining almond milk.  Turn up the temperature, and stir continuously.

Very quickly, it will sputter and bubble, and the milk will thicken to a set custard consistency.

Before you started, you could have had a rummage around the back of the cupboard, pulling out any odd little cake tins or jelly moulds you may have inherited, or bought from Ikea on a whim.  You can lightly grease them with almond oil.  If you don’t own any frivolous cake tins, small glasses will do.

Turn the heat off, and with not a moment to lose, fill your chosen molds with the now scalding milk., which will rapidly become sullenly viscous as the temperature drops.

Once it’s cooled to room temeprature, chill until you’re ready to serve.

Turn it out and decorate as you see fit; chopped green pistachios work, I make a praline with the leftover ground almonds and sugar (then blitz it to a powder). There is a Cypriot version of this that uses rosewater – so the dried rose petals I can get in my local Iranian deli work really well for that.

As a pudding, it’s easy to make, (24 hours of soaking aside), and it’s even easier to make it look special, camp, grand.  But so delicate to taste, a one hit flavour and a smooth, becalming texture.  This is not the blancmange of post war Britain, sucking the joy off the table, but a Blancmange of William the Good and his legendary Norman court.  Something otherworldy.  Something mythical.

Ingredients

  • 250g whole almonds (if you want a stronger flavour, use more, up to 500g if youre especially decadent).  And if you can get fresh, you’re laughing.
  • 1 litre of water
  • 70g cornflour
  • 1 lemon
  • 100-200g caster sugar

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 in honour of a visiting bishop.  It’s a fey tale, I hope it’s true, as it might indicate that 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 ‘Decorazioni 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 defy identification.

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

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

We leave, clutching a bag of treasures, including the artichoke and the sea urchin – but also a scallop shell mould so we can bring The Chancellor’s Buttocks back to the UK  (a story for another day), and a giant Easter lamb, 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 for any more, so I will have to go back, not least for the spiky, dangerous fish.  I want to produce a fantastical still life from marzipan, all sea urchins and scales and sugar. 

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