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 you 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 it 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.

No pressure!

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There are some recipes that I’ve been tip toeing around,  because of their complexity, because of my ignorance; there’s the fear of being branded a cultural appropriater, the knowledge that I’ll get them wrong, but without a reference point to know just how wrong I got it.

So it is with Pasta al Forno.  This is not a formalised recipe, like Pasta alla Norma.  But then, it is THE recipe.  A simple name, ‘baked pasta’, belies a complex, time consuming holy grail of dishes.  YouTube it and there are more Nonna’s out there making Pasta al Forno, than are imaginable.  It is a dish for Sundays, for celebration, a dish of a diaspora, for welcoming home the Prodigal Son. But more than anything it is the domesticity of Italian cooking distilled. It is sacrosanct. I’m terrified of this dish. Because I am not Italian, to attempt this feels fraudulent almost.

But it had to be done. I tried.  And because I’m not Italian, because I don’t have to play by the rules if I don’t know them all, I tinkered, just a little.  Don’t tell the Sicilian.

If you want a lumpen show stopper, something to bring a cheer from the family that will stretch far enough to satisfy the hungriest of teenagers,  this is it.  It is aubergines, ubiquitous to Sicily breadcrumbs, ragù, pasta (of course), more aubergines, cheese, ham, peas (if you like), layered and assembled into something that is satisfyingly homely, maternal and unpretentious despite the effort and detail that goes into it.  You can try to prettify and gentrify but you will fail, and in so doing you will fail to grasp the point of it, as a celebration of abundance, togetherness and sharing.  Only a fool would make this without guests or family to share it with, you’d be eating it for days.

This though is the Palermitan version, or my Palermitan’s version, with added Milanese input.

Of course, there is pasta al forno, and then there is the proper pasta al forno, as made in Palermo.  For starters, there is only one acceptable pasta, anelletti (think spaghetti hoops), most other versions are far less dictatorial.  It was described to me as a ‘leftovers, whatever is in the fridge’ dish, with no real recipe.  I was then told exactly what those leftovers should be.  

So, I’m not going to give recipe of weights and volumes here,  as the scale of this thing should shift to match the size of your personal domestic set up.  

To begin then, start your ragù, ideally the day before you’re making your bake.  (I tend to make ragù in cauldron sized batches that I freeze into meal sized portions – it saves a lot of time and washing up).

Ragù is a complex business.  One that I sometimes feel I have no place or right to start getting involved with.  There are essays and debates and probably wars raging over what constitutes the proper ragù.  The intricacies and complications that have been wound around this sauce are endless.  Perhaps, one day, I’ll write something about these; sticking my head above a parapet for the inevitable onslaught.  But for now, my ragù is a meat sauce – beef or beef and pork mince, with a soffritto of carrots, onion and celery, passata (plus the same volume of water), white wine, garlic, a bay leaf, simmered for hours – as many as you have (as long as it’s above 3).  If it gets too thick, add more water.  I add an anchovy, one of those salted, oily slivers from a tin.  It dissolves and wallops up the umami.  I also add a 50p sized blob of astrattu,  the unique salted tomato concentrate created by the sun on the roofs of people’s homes in Sicily.  This is unlike anything you’ll have come across outside of Sicily.  It isn’t just tomato paste.  It is something other.  You know how a really good sun dried tomato can taste like sweet marmite?  Exaggerate and embellish that thought. This is obviously not an option unless you’re visiting Sicily (although maybe there are places you can find it here that I’ve not discovered yet), so don’t get too hung up on this addition.

 

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My ragù is definitely not canon.  The Sicilian I feel disapproves.  But it’s mine, and I think it’s nigh on perfect.

Once your ragù has simmered its way to a suitably decadent richness, turn it off, cover it and let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours, where, like the best of soups, stews and curries, it will use this time for inner reflection and self improvement.

The next day you are ready to begin.

Slice two large aubergine thinly into steaks and fry both sides in deep, good olive oil until browned.  You can pre salt these slices to draw out some of the water, but make sure to rinse and dry them before frying.  While they’re cooking, oil a sprung cake tin, and coat the inside with breadcrumbs.

Drain the cooked aubergine slices and use them to line the tin, leaving any long edges hanging over the sides of the tin.

Chop a third aubergine into chunks and fry these until brown

Hard boil your eggs

Precook your pasta for half the time on the packet (3-4 mins usually).  Anelletti is a bugger to find in the UK, so improvise – penne is fine, if not Palermitan, I use ditaloni, which is a short tube, still not Palermo style, but hey!  Needs must!

Mix together the pasta and ragù, then layer this with the aubergine chunks, ham and cheese (I mix parmesan and mozarella, but caciocavallo, if you can get it, will add Sicilian authenticity), alternating until you fill the tin, and inserting hidden halves of boiled egg in a symmetrical ring.

Fold over any overhanging aubergine, scatter over more bread crumbs and bake in the oven for 40 minutes.

Best eaten the next day (making this a three day project), this is a rib sticker of a meal.  Hearty and calorific, it takes no prisoners.  But as it is delicious, fantastic, smothering, you will welcome, and embrace your captivity.

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”

Stuffed aubergines – more than a mouthful

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I initially called these Alessandro’s aubergines, although he demurs that they are not his, but Palermo’s, and called Milincianeddi ammuttunati – stuffed aubergines (the milincianeddi are the variety of small aubergines that you use). I like the translation better than the Italian, because my Palermitan is terrible and I can’t pronounce it, just too many damn syllables.

You can’t move for aubergines in Sicily,  they are so ubiquitous and diverse, that they make our single, cellophane wrapped supermarket offerings look nothing less than tragic.  The stalls of Ballarò and shelves of every supermarket are piled high with multiple varieties – each having their own suite of cooking methods and recipes.  You would only ever make parmagiana for instance with the big, purple generic variety we’re familiar with in the UK, but the giant, striped globe Tunisian variety would NEVER be used for parmigiana – these are for steaks.  And if you want to stuff your aubergines, then you go for the small, stretched plum like ones , the deep purple Milincianeddi.

Your stuffing is formed from a very Sicilian trio of mint, garlic and  Cacciacavello cheese.    I read somewhere that the job of stuffing the aubergines was usually carried out by the grandparents, as they had the time and the patience to sit in the corner, making small slits and inserting slivers of herbs and cheese.  Now I have no grandparents to perch in the corner of my kitchen (also, I’m perilously close to my own old age anyway), so this is a job I have to do myself. It’s not that onerous really, and it leaves your fingers smelling minty and garlicky.  Which I am fond of.

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So, in each small aubergine, you want to make maybe 10-12 small slits down, into which you slide a leaf of mint, a sliver of garlic and a piece of cheese.  You need to make sure that they are totally hidden, so that they don’t fall out when you start to cook (although as the cheese melts, it will often bubble out anyway)  The garlic and mint will infuse the impressionable aubergine flesh with their aromas, and the cheese will melt and merge into it, to sublime effect.

In deep olive oil, fry your aubergines, turning them to ensure they’re evenly browned and then when they’re coloured, remove from the oil and put them in an oven dish with enough passata to cover them. Cook them in a medium oven for 20-30 minutes, so that the flavours mingle into the sauce, and then, serve it up with crusty warm bread. The Sicilian prefers do this second stage of cooking on the hob, in a saucepan, but I think that oven baking is more gentle and allows the flavours to blend more evenly. There’s an added extra that you get some additional caramel flavours developing from the crust that forms.  The aubergines will have some bitterness from the frying, but the sweet mint and tomato sauce balance this out, whilst the silky, cooked aubergine will be beautifully enhanced by the garlic and enriched by the cheese.  

Chicory Risotto

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We’re in the gap; when all those root vegetables and brassicas of winter have finally run their course, but there’s precious little on the allotment to take their place.  This is the time of the larder and the freezer; lots of pulses, frozen beans, jars of last summer’s passata.  But, there is fresh vegetable relief in the form of chicory.  Surely one of the easiest crops on the allotment (apartment from their final couple of weeks of molly coddling)?  Even the pigeons leave it alone; sow it in late autumn, and it just grows, shrugs off the winter and sits, waiting to be harvested whilst all around is a blasted heath.

I say chicory; but that’s a word that encompasses a whole raft of salads; leafy greens of varying degrees of bitterness.  I wrote about puntarelle a few weeks ago; very Italian and virtually unknown in the UK.  Italy loves chicory, just as it loves bitterness – think Campari, Cynar and Aperol; in the UK, the embrace is less demonstrative, and we, ever in need of justification, have to make it more fancy than it needs to be, and less bitter than it should be.  So, we torture it, starving it of daylight whilst forcing it into growth, to create tight, pale shoots that are sweeter, tender and more delicate than they would be if allowed to take their own time in the growing.

And then you can make a fancy but anaemic salad, perhaps with some citrus or a raspberry vinegar dressing. It will be terribly UnBritish.  It’ll feel healthy, nobody will really enjoy it, and you will long for the spring famine to finish so that you can eat peas raw from the pod and buttered radishes.

Or you can embrace the Latin, celebrate the bitter, accept that it is only March, and that the peas and radishes will have to wait.  Make a risotto, a risotto that is breathtakingly good, with a punch of flavours that belies its simplicity.

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For Two

  • Two chicory heads
  • Stick of celery
  • One medium onion
  • One medium tomato
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • Butter
  • 50g risotto rice
  • Dry white vermouth
  • Vegetable Stock
  • Pecorino
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Salt & Pepper

Take your chicory heads, slice them in half and simmer it in salted water for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery, tomato and garlic very finely and then fry until soft (but not brown) in an indulgent amount of butter.

Drain the chicory and slice it into thin strips (about 1cm across).

Turn up the heat and add these, and the rice to the onions and celery

Then add a slug of the vermouth and let it boil off (Vermouth is better than white wine in this recipe as it gives a herby tang that complements the chicory).

Now add vegetable stock, about 50ml at a time, you don’t need to obsessively hover over the pan, but check it every two or three minutes to make sure the rice isn’t sticking and to add more stock if it needs it.  After about ten minutes, taste the rice.  I like a bit of bite, some people prefer more of a rice pudding texture.  Go with what you prefer.

Finally, add salt and pepper as you see fit, then dish it out with a generous topping of fresh chopped parsley and grated pecorino.  It’ll be piping hot and salty, the chicory will impart a very gentle mustiness, like the smell of cooked cabbage, but beyond delicious.  

So, there, chicory risotto.  Infinitely better than any ill-conceived salad for a blustery March day.

Sweet & Sour Pumpkin

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In a blog that is mainly about Italian food, this is going to sound very dumb, but this is a  recipe that is really very, very Italian.  And I mean that in a culturally alien, lost in translation way.  I don’t say this to discourage you, but I think it stems from the fact that we only really grow pumpkins to carve in the UK.  Other than that, and Covent Garden soups, we don’t really know what to do with them, they’ve just never quite caught on here.  Then there is the weather against us.  Winter squashes are, by definition, at their best, in the winter.  Their flavour deepens with storage and they store well after their autumn harvest  So the best time to be eating them is in the post Christmas lull, which is not perhaps the best time to be eating cold starchy salads in dingy Britain.  Also, who has fresh mint growing in the garden in February?  Finally, the mint, the vinegar, the sugar.  What the hell?  I just didn’t have enough life-experience to grasp what was happening the first time I tried this. 

Perhaps I should try selling this better.  For a start, there is deep frying involved and anything deep fried is, it goes without saying, good.

The first time I made this unsupervised, I made the stupid mistake of trying to shallow fry my squash, which just doesn’t cut the mustard.  They didn’t brown, they didn’t crisp up; they just soaked up the oil and turned to mush.  I gained new wisdom from the Sicilian: “basically, whenever I say ‘fry something’, I really mean ‘deep fry it’”

So assuming you have fried your squash in profligate depths of olive oil, you will have a plate of golden brown crescent moons of oily squash draining on kitchen paper.

Now, arrange them in a tray and douse with red wine vinegar, before adding chopped mint, salt, sugar and pepper.  It’s hard to give absolute quantities, as each squash, is different, absorbing more oil, needing less sugar, and the mintiness of mint can never be guaranteed if you’re buying it from a supermarket.  Keep tweeking, and don’t be concerned about sticking to hard and fast proportions.

Leave the sweet and sour and herbs to interact for a few hours, even 24 hours, and then eat as an antipasti, with bread (of course, as no Sicilian meal is complete without, at least, the option of bread) to soak up the juices.  It works well with other preserved or pickled vegetables.  I like it with artichoke hearts and cold, oily sweet peppers.

Maybe the first time you try this, you’ll be as perplexed as I was – a savoury dish that is sweet, but  tangy and minty.  But stick with it, work with the pairings, consider the bread to choose; have the patience to let it infuse for a day.  You’ll become extremely fond of this dish, it will become a thing you look forward to making in the dark depths of February,

And if, in February – this cold dish from a hot foreign island seems just too alien, warm it through in the oven – the heat makes it more northern, more acceptable to a Saxon taste.  There are versions that add chilli flakes for extra heat and another Sicilian version that is baked in the oven with onions. I have been known (when the Sicilian isn’t around) to add anchovies. All of these are good, and further justify the growing of rampant winter squashes if you have the inclination and the space.

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One winter squash, peeled, deseeded and sliced into crescents 1-2cm thick.

2-3 cloves of bruised garlic.

Enough olive oil to cover your sliced squash in a deep frying pan.

Fresh mint*

Red wine vinegar (50-100ml)*

Salt and pepper.

*quantities will vary according to the size and absorbency of the squash, and your own tastes.

First put the cold oil and garlic in your big, heavy, deep frying pan.

Turn the heat on, and brown the garlic, then remove it from the oil (hang onto it though).

Fry the squash slices, in batches, in the oil, growing on both sides.   Don’t put too many in at once, as this cools the oil, which stops the squash from browning and they’ll start to disintegrate.

As they cook, drain them on kitchen paper, then arrange them in a serving dish.  Sprinkle over the saved browned garlic, chopped mint, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Cover and leave to steep in the fridge for as long as you can.

Serve at room temperature or warm through – as you prefer.

Curly-wurly Salad

 

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The problem with not living in London or Palermo, is that even with a good market, I can only find British versions of Italian produce.  So the good things found in Ballaro don’t often find their way to Birmingham.  We have to wait til summer for overpriced, wilting artichokes to appear fleetingly, and other things just never appear at all. Height of summer Tenerumi for instance, and in winter, the joy that is (or rather isn’t) Puntarelle. 

Puntarelle is, to put it mildly, heaven.  It’s very Rome, rather than Sicilian, but who cares when something tastes this good.  It’s a kind of chicory – so bitter – you can feel it improving your health as you eat it.  And it marries beautifully with olive oil, anchovies, acid and garlic.  There’s no cooking – just some slicing, soaking in iced water and then tossing in the oily, fishy, garlicky dressing.

When you buy it (I’ve found it in posh greengrocers in London for stupid amounts of money) you’ll bring home a great big, messy, blousey head of salad.  It seems terribly wasteful (especially if you’ve paid Sloane Square prices ), but the first job is to strip off the outer leaves to unearth the secret within (you can keep these, and braise them with pine nuts, for a tougher, less refined dish)

Hiding in the dense heart of your shambolic greens are some strange, paler, asparagus like shoots (proto flower heads, I’m guessing).  This is the delicacy you’re looking for.

Cut them out, and then slice them in half, and then slice these halves into tagliatelle-like strips.

Now, the thing about these bitter greens, is that they can be a tad too bitter, even if you think a Negroni is the best thing in the world.  So, there’s a trick.  Get a bowl of iced water, and soak your sliced shoots for ten minutes, which will draw out the worst of the bitterness.  Don’t leave them too long, as you don’t want to lose it completely.  The fun part of this process is that the slithers curl up in the cold water, so you end up with a curly wurly bowl of crunch.

Dry them, and toss them in a dressing made from pounded anchovies, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice (or red wine vinegar if you’re feeling very Roman).  I’ll leave you to judge the quantities, everyone has different levels of optimum oil/salt/garlic/acid.

It’s a simple salad; bitter, sweet, refreshing, crisp.  And you get to feel super virtuous because of your healthy eating habits.

The trouble is – by the time you factor in the train ticket, and the cost of the damn thing – it becomes the world’s most decadent and idiotic salad.

So I have a plan – Franchi seeds.  I have a vast allotment, some of it is already booked out for the tenerumi, but I’m going to grow some very far north Puntarelle.  I have no idea how it’s going cope with being up at 52 degrees – but it’s a plan – and perhaps I can sate my love of Puntarelle and maybe even make my fortune selling the surplus to fools and their money in Mayfair.