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.

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

Pasta alla Trapanese

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Summer is struggling.  There are rumours that it will make a break for it later this week and hit 30 degrees.  But today is ‘muggy’ (try saying that with a Brummie accent, the Sicilian finds it comedy gold), windy, cloudy.  A good day to dry your washing, but definitely not a day that could pass for Mediterranean.  That said, it is good enough to eat outside.  Later we are cooking rabbit, marinated in herbs, wine and oil for six hours before the barbecue. But lunch is simpler, as little cooking as possible.  I leave him to it whilst I take the spaniels out.  

Although it’s nearly August, the allotment tomatoes are slow this year, still green and embryonic but the basil is going great guns.  So this is a mix of bought (tomatoes, almonds, parmesan, olive oil) and homegrown (albeit a small contribution from the basil and some garlic). 

This isn’t a pesto, bashed and tormented to destruction, but the ingredients that you would use to make pesto Trapanese (named after its supposed home town of Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast); the flavours are all there, but more distinct and less gritty.  It is not as overwhelming as the jars of basil pesto most of us are more familiar with in the UK, I prefer it.  This is the favourite summer dish of Giovanna, Ale’s cousin, who’s pleas to Eat! Eat! give this blog its name.  He has memories of her making this continuously throughout the Sicilian summer.  So, what for me was a first encounter, was for him a summer norm, familial, so we’re back to that dichotomy of Sicily in Brum again.

We ate this for Sunday lunch with a cold beer and a watchful, expectant audience of spaniels, apparently uncaring that it was vegetarian.  That it is good enough to fool the spaniels indicates just how exceptional it is.  Definitely a summer meal, imagine what it’ll be like when the homegrown tomatoes are ready!

Pasta alla Trapanse

Amounts aren’t set in stone, change them as you prefer – for oiliness, strength of basil or saltiness from the parmesan.

For 4

50g flaked almonds

4 very ripe tomatoes 

1 clove of garlic

50g parmesan (grated)

25g fresh basil

Black pepper

4 tbsps Olive oil

400g dried penne or rigatoni

Put a large pan of water on to boil, and once it is, added enough salt to make it taste briney.

Whilst you’re waiting for this, chop your tomatoes into small 20p size chunks, mix with the olive oil, crushed garlic and a generous pinch of salt in bowl.  Leave them be for a while, as you get everything else ready, the oil and salt will do something to the tomatoes, making them taste stronger, richer, more of summer.

Dry fry your chopped almonds in a heavy frying pan until they are the brown of a Sicilian who has spent the day on the beach, but keep a beady eye on them, as this is perilously close to burning them.  Take them out of the pan as soon as they are done, to stop them cooking any further.

Roughly tear up your basil leaves

Once the water is ready and salted, add you pasta, and cook it for 6-7 minutes.  Check the packet, don’t pay too much attention to it though if it’s telling you 12 minutes.  Although we used Penne today, the Sicilian thinks Rigatoni is better, as it’s larger, and hides more of the ‘not pesto’ chunks inside to surprise and delight.

Once cooked, drain the pasta, then stir through the parmesan, oily tomatoes and basil, along with black pepper.  Serve with a generous crunch  of the toasted almonds over the top.

What starts as a steaming, mouth-scalding dish of pasta in sauce shifts to become a cooling pasta salad as you eat and chat and fend off spaniels,  like some sort of Willy Wonker meal that transforms as you chew.  Textures and flavours dance around each other and alter, the pasta stiffens, the oil is less strident, sweet tomatoes and crunchy almonds come to dominate after the first blast of hot fruity garlic.  If that hasn’t sold it to you, then the spaniels will have your plate.