Spines, death, delicious jeopardy

epine

This is a long way from Sicily, or indeed Birmingham.

Once, someone ate a sloe, possibly expecting a damson-like burst of sweetness.  They got a wincing, puckering, spit it out sourness instead.  They persevered.  Somehow they thought ‘If I add these to gin, it’ll be perfect in the depths of winter’ So they did. It caught on. There must be a thousand and one understairs cupboards where a bottle of this peculiar British stuff is ageing to inky purple perfection. And then it was monetised, obviously, into a vapid version itself, allowing you to buy it off the shelf and forego the pleasure of musty, mouldy autumnal foraging, spiking your limbs on the blackthorns that jealously guard their sloes. And the patience, the delayed gratification of prolonged steeping. You get to forgo that too.

There are people who have deep pockets, or steely resolve. They manage to keep their sloe gin for years; either they make so much or drink so little. But my gin budget is limited and it would be disingenuous to claim I’m abstemious, so my single bottle rarely lasts long past Christmas, leaving me bereft of my British bitter liquer until the following December. Sad, but then that is partly the point of delaying gratification.

However, help has arrived from France, the north I think, with my discovery last year of Epine (literal translation, spine). Not at all like Sloe Gin, this is smoother, colder, more almondy and carries the vague peril of death by cyanide.

Like all members of the Prunus family – the leaves and seeds contain traces of the poison, whose older name of Prussic acid I prefer, it’s more melodramatic, less serial killer. The key word here though, is ‘traces’. They’ll only kill you if you eat enough. So, spend your day in the hills of Italy, snacking on wild, bitter almonds, you may die (believe me, it happened, I remember a childhood news story of a poisoned teacher on a walking trip in Puglia. I didn’t eat an almond for years). Or if you have a rampant laurel hedge, that you prune and decide to shred, the strong smell of marzipan and simultaneous light-headedness are a sign to step back and perhaps take a break.

If I haven’t scared you off, make épine. Now, in April, is the time. You need half a litre (by loose volume) of fresh, green shoots – free from aphids and their insect relatives. Once these shoots have turned woody from added lignin, you’ve missed the window and will have to wait until the purple sloes and the frosts arrive for your foraging hit. Wash your shoots and then add them to a sealable jar into which you pour 1.5 litres of wine (I use red, but rosé works well too), half a bottle of own brand vodka (that’s about 375ml). This stops any unwanted fermenting, as well as upping the booze quotient and making it a liqueur. And finally, sugar. Around 100g – but play with the quantities to hit the sweetness you desire.

Shake, seal and leave, for two weeks. Then strain, bottle, leave it in the fridge,  forgetting about it until there’s a heatwave in June or July. You should be outside, in that heat, as the evening begins and waiting for dinner.  Now you can open your épine.  It is not just an infused red wine, it is something simultaneously both refined, and domestic. There is a sense of something forgotten, delved from the past about it, perhaps a little deliciously illicit. One glass is not enough, and yet, with that vague almondy poisonous peril hanging over it, perhaps, one glass is plenty.

Schrödinger’s Freezer

IMG_5173

The freezer is on the blink. Scarcely a year old, and apparently it needs a new circuit board.

On the plus side, it’s so fiendishly modern that its insulation levels wouldn’t be out of place on the International Space Station. So nothing is rapidly defrosting, rather things are gradually just nudging their temperatures upwards every time I open the door. I have Schrödinger’s Freezer. I have to make lightning strikes in there, playing a 3D memory game as to what is in which drawer and snatching whatever is most vulnerable to the thaw.

I started with the fish, plural. I bulk buy frozen sardines, because, as I’ve said before, I bloody love them. So I had 20 sardines still board stiff, but too many and too good to risk losing to the whims of over complicated fridge electrics. I also wasn’t feeling particularly finicky , so no Sardine a beccafico for tea tonight.

But I remembered something else. Something gruesome, barbaric, straight from a crap horror film, but delicious. If you decide to make these, keep everyone out of the kitchen, and pray your guests don’t arrive early, as few people will be brave enough to try them, having seen the preamble.

Polpette di sarde
(Sardine meatballs).

The Sicilian made these for one of his monumental feasts last year. They were a triumph, hoovered up with gusto, even though they’re a simple fish meat ball, fried until brown all over and then cooked again in a tomato sauce. I’m giving his recipe (that I’ve not seen in any book), which uses fewer ingredients (no raisins or pine nuts – which are often included). There’s also a north African version of these which is spicier.

You will need a sturdy food mill, a heavy, deep frying pan, a hefty knife, and to put aside any squeamishness you may be prone to.

Start by cleaning your sardines. You need to clip off the fins, scrub off any scales and take out the guts. Doing this under running, cold water makes the job mildly less revolting.

Then, take your knife, decapitate each sardine, flattening the remaining body out, so you can fillet out the back bone (These you can discard) Chop your fillet into two or three pieces and, steeling yourself, throw the whole lot, skin and all into your food mill. Get cranking. The kitchen horror story begins, as your fish are ground down and extruded as fine fish paste into the bowl below. This is as far removed from a ready meal as you’re ever likely to get, you will be not quite staring your dinner in the eye as it disappears down the grinder. At the end any of the tougher bones or fins you missed in the cleaning process should be left in your food mill, and you can start turning the fish paste into your polpette. In the UK, we’re very picky about the bits we will and won’t knowingly eat. But if you ever eat fish such as bream or bass with a Sicilian family you’ll see them picking out the eyes, finding the brain, chewing the whole head and spitting out the bones. It isn’t pretty, but these delicacies are good enough to permit the ditching of niceties. OK, so we haven’t gone this far with our meatballs, but there is sound reasoning behind this gothic almost all encompassing process.

The next bit is easy and less troubling.
Add bread (which you’ve soaked in water for ten minutes), beaten egg, garlic, parsley and grated pecorino, to the fish and mix everything thoroughly. The mix needs to be sticky enough to hold together when you form golf ball sized polpette, but not so damp that they stick to you hands. Most recipes will tell you to use breadcrumbs here, because they’re easier and people get breadcrumbs. You can weigh them, they’re orderly. But, they can turn your fish balls stiff, too congealed; by mixing in bread, squidging it with your hands, you avoid stodge. I don’t know why this works, but it does, it makes a big, big, difference.

Now heat up the olive oil and fry your balls when the oil sizzles if you drop a little of the mix into it. You want to brown them all over, so you’ll need to stand over them and turn as they cook. Don’t do this standing over the stove with a fag in your mouth; the other half’s mother would do. Ash does not improve the flavour.

Once they’re done, you can cool and store them in the fridge until you’re ready to cook your tomato sauce. (This also reduces the chances of horrified guests discovering your barbarism).

The sauce can be a simple home made passata, or you can make a more complex one by adding garlic, olive oil and basil. Although, despite this coming from a usually reliable recipe book, the Sicilian was visibly appalled at the idea of pairing basil with fish: “a Sicilian would never put basil with fish! And if they do they’re wrong”.

This is where you need trust your own taste. Being an oily fish. sardines pack a strong punch that’ll see off flavours that might overpower a less strident fish, but, I prefer the plain tomato version, it’s more in keeping with this simple version of the recipe. Plus, you have parsley in the polpette, so it’ll all get terribly confusing if you add basil.

Double up your passata with the same amount of water and then heat your sauce gently to a simmer, it doesn’t need to be ferociously boiling and sending little staining lava bombs of tomato all over your kitchen. Now add the polpette and cook them until they are heated through (30 minutes should be enough) and the sauce has reduced down to a sticky thickness.

Serve, perhaps with a few toasted pine nuts over the top for a bit of crunch. And have your ‘scarpetta’ ready, the ‘little shoe’ of bread to scoop up the sauce.

I was reading up on versions of this recipe (in Mary Taylor Simeti’s Sicilian Food) and apparently, it’s specific to Palermo. Elsewhere in Sicily, especially on the western side of the island, it’s more usual to make your polpette with tuna. So this would be a less gruesome version, using just steak meat, rather than all the bits that refuse to let you forget that this was once a living, swimming, silvery thing.

Ingredients
(makes 12 meatballs, allow two per person as a starter, or four as a main)

20 sardines
200-250g bread (crusts off and soaked in water for ten minutes)
Tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley
25g grated pecorino
1 egg (beaten)
1 crushed clove of garlic
Salt and pepper

500ml passata

25g pine nuts (browned in a dry frying pan)