Torta Angelica, because, well, why not?

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This came from a birthday surprise and a challenge.

Last month, my locked down, low key birthday rolled around.  Expectations were necessarily watered down.  The plan had been to go to see the new James Bond at The Electric, and drink cocktails delivered to out seats.  Instead I zoomed and made a cassatina.  You can call this taking pleasure from the small things, or clutching at straws.  Take your pick.

Then, like a foundling on the doorstep, a bag of bread flour turned up, a gift from my oldest friend.  Wrapped in a translucent, blue plastic bag – it was the best present I had could have imagined,  thing of near mythic status, there, in my kitchen, promising me carbohydrates and joy.

It felt sinful to use, as though squandering a precious resource.  I dithered about what to make.  How to celebrate my new found wealth?

A suggestion was given, the enabler of my 2nd hand cook book obsession, thepastrysuffragette, invited me, perhaps challenged me is better, to turn my hand to a Torta Angelica – the angelic cake.  He had seen my efforts in candying my allotment Angelica – and although not a component of the original recipe – the word play made it a natural fit, and not so far from the spirit of the thing as to be total blasphemy.

The recipe is in Pane e roba dolce, by Margerita Simili (Bread and sweet stuff, literally), itsounds and looks fiendishly complicated, but isn’t.  This is a celebratory cake,, so Christmas and birthdays, or just because.  And it’s yeasted, so think panettone or brioche.  And I have to say, it looks amazing, I was astounded that I managed to pull if off, first attempt, baking blind.

In the oven, it bloomed and blossomed, after the hours of cosseting, proving, rising, and plaiting I was rewarded by something wonderful, the size of a baby, golden and fluffy; the house filled with the incomparable scent of cooking, melting chocolate and those nibs of Angelica winked through the folds like emeralds.  This was one of those bakes that make you clap with joy, and thank the gods for wonderful recipe writers, who guide you perfectly through uncharted territory.

Torta Angelica

Step 1

Make up a Biga.  

This is a yeast culture used in Italian baking that adds more nuance to the the final bake, and opens up the texture.

80g bread flour

1 teaspoon sugar or honey

I teaspoon of dry yeast ( I used an osmatolerant yeast, another gift from Italianhomecooking – which is ideal for sweet breads, but given the state of yeast in the UK at the moment – use whatever you can get)

40ml water.

Mix this together as any dough, kneading for five minutes and then letting it prove for two hours.

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Step 2

The sweet dough

220g Bread flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

120ml full fat milk (at room temperature)

2 large egg yolks (also at room temperature)

45g caster sugar

50g butter (at room temperature)

Mix all the ingredients except the butter (I used my food mixer with the dough hook attachment)

Once combined, add the butter, a little at a time.

Then repeat this process with your biga mix and knead everything for 5 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or cling film, and leave the dough to prove for 3 hours, until it has doubled in size.

Step 3

Assemble the Torta

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out into a rough rectangle shaped – approx 50cm x 30cm. Brush freely with 20g melted butter. And scatter over 120g chocolate chips (add Angelica if you like, or sultanas and chopped nuts.

Roll this up like a Swiss roll.

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Then, with a sharp knife and a lot of confidence, slice the whole thing in half down its length.

You’ll have two layered strips now, which you plait together to form your braid, joining the ends together to form a circle.

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Cover again, and leave this to prove again for at least an hour.

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Bake in the oven at 180C / Gas mark 4 for 20-30 minutes – keep an eye on it, as the high sugar content may make it scorch (as mine did), so be prepared to add a tin foil hat half way through the bake, if you have a ‘hot’ oven.  It will double in size – become a cake behemoth – don’t be alarmed, that’s your biga magic.

Whisk it out of the oven when it’s cooked (tap the base to see if it sounds hollow, and cool it on a rack.

I then made up a lemon icing (icing sugar, lemon juice) to drizzle over.  This is just my preference, as I find plain icing too sweet, but you could also do a non lemon, vanilla flavoured drizzle.

The finished thing is massive – too much for one stay at home baker (half went to the next door neighbours).  But save this recipe for more sociable days and give it a go.  People will think you are a genius, which is never a bad thing.

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Un buon pranzo

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You may have read my account of a weekend in Rome last October. The weather was apocalyptic, I had a full on head cold, but the day of artichokes at Latteria Studio learning so much from Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, was an antidote to everything.  A feast of knowledge and a bloody good lunch to boot.  I have written at length and often about my unseemly love of artichokes, so I shall spare you a repeat here.

In some ways, it was a kind of a torture – spending that weekend surrounded by most loved vegetable flowers; everywhere I looked, they were on offer. And knowing that when I came back to Birmingham, it would be to an artichoke drought, broken only when (and as it turns out, if) I could get down to London’s markets, or when my young allotment plants decide to throw up their own flower buds (I’m still waiting for anything that you could tentatively call a ‘glut’).

I went to be shown a myriad ways to cook with artichokes, in the full knowledge that buying the quantities needed for some the recipes would bankrupt me, especially if I had to get them singly and cellophane wrapped from Sainsbury’s.

One dish in particular stuck in my food brain,  niggling away with thoughts of “will I ever have this again?”  Artichoke lasagna.  A vegetarian layering of pasta, cheese and artichokes.  Spanking hot and with a glass of teeth achingly cold white wine, this will be my death row meal (well, one of them).  Whilst it’s a dish for winter and early spring in Rome, here, if you’re reliant on your own crop, it’ll be a summer treat.  I have been missing this dish since October, dreaming of a day when I am rich enough to not care how many artichokes I have just bought, or somehow, have managed to persuade someone to give me gainful employment in Italy, so I can move there, just for the artichokes.

But then in the perverse way of the world, the UK want into lockdown, the panic buying stripped the shops, and bafflingly, this provided me with the wherewithal to finally break my lasagna fast.  I was told of delitalia, an Italian catering supplier that a) had flour, a lot of flour and b) was now doing domestic deliveries to Birmingham. Of course there was a small catch, just a minor detail; you still had to place catering size orders.  My cupboards and freezers are already overflowing with food from the allotment and ingredients I thought I ‘needed’ at some point.  And it’s not that I’m a hoarder, just that I’ve always regarded Best Before dates as mere guidance for the wise.  So, whilst the product list was temptingly extensive, I had to restrict myself to things that I really would use, and would buy anyway over the next year.  Flour yes, I’m already a third of the way through it (and have turned into the go to ‘flour man’ for my isolating neighbours), oil yes – 5 litres of olive oil will see me through the next year.  And then there they were, jumping out at me as though lit in neon; frozen artichokes, prepared and raring to go.  Minimum order, 5kg.  Yes, I am that much of an idiot.

A freezer drawer was cleared (I had to eat a lot of ice cream that week, a hardship) and now I have what should be a year’s worth of my favourite vegetable, but realistically, I don’t think they’ll see out lockdown.

As they arrived, my first artichoke flower formed on one of the allotment plants.  This I prepped, battered and fried – I wanted to memorialise its perfection.  It was literally a taster, for the main, the lasagna.

I urge you to find a way to make this (even if it means having to buy catering quantities of flour and olive oil).  The version I ate in Rome was Rachel’s, and my memory of the details is not perfect.  So when I get hold of the real thing, I may come back and do an update.  The potatoes were an addition suggested by Italianhomecooking – and he is right, the additional texture brings another bauble to this dish.

As I write this, I am reheating the half I did not eat last night, for my lunch.  There will be some bread too (I have to get through that flour after all) .  It will be just as good second time round I know. All sweet anaesthetic on the tongue artichoke, cheese and carbs.  Un buon pranzo.

Artichoke Lasagna

(This made enough for two large portions)

The recipe will get refined over time – as I was making this up as I went along.  If you are lucky enough to have access to abundant and affordable fresh artichokes, substitute those for the frozen ones, prepped into quarters, as shown in the photos below.  If using frozen ones, check them, some may still have a few tough petals attached, which can take all the fun out of them.

 

Artichokes

A cereal bowl’s worth of prepared artichoke hearts (defrosted)

One small onion, chopped.

1 garlic clove

Salt and pepper

Glug of white wine.

Oil

Put the oil into a large frying pan (which has a tight-fitting lid) and as it warms, add your artichokes,  onion and crushed garlic, and once they start to fry, throw in the wine, quickly turning down the heat, and slipping the lid on.  These need to cook until the hearts are tender and yield easily when stabbed with a knife.

Remove from the heat and blitz 2/3 of the artichokes into a puree with blender (check the seasoning), keep the remaining third whole.

Bechemel Sauce

Flour 25g

Butter 25g

Milk (I used 700ml)

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter, and then add the flour, cooking it, but not allowing it to brown.

Gently, very gently, add milk.  A tiny bit at a time to begin with.

The starch in the flour will suck upon the milk and swell like something from a sci fi film.  If you add too much milk, it’ll be impossible to get rid of any lumps.

When all the milk is absorbed and and you’ve beaten the flour paste into smooth submission, add a spot more milk. Repeat the process patiently, and you’ll end up up a smooth, glossy white sauce the consistency of expensive emulsion paint.  Seaso again, this is vital, as this sauce, together with the ricotta, could make a bland filling if you’re not brave with the salt here.

The rest

Lasagna sheets (I used premade, dry, as I had some in the cupboard, left by a former lodger (the wonderful Simon, who named his son for me), but if you prefer to make your own fresh, go ahead).

3 floury potatoes (peeled, boiled and sliced)

Ricotta (one tub)

50-75g (or as much as you like) Parmesan or Pecorino if you can get it.

Assemble your Lasagna

In a deep pie dish, place a third of your potatoes, artichoke hearts, and the puree.  To this add a third of the ricotta and grated parmesan. Pour over a quarter of the bechemel, season. Add a layer of lasagna sheets.

Repeat another layer of vegetables, cheese and sauce, top with more lasagna sheets.

One final layer, and then pour the last of the béchamel over the lasagna sheets.  You can grate some more parmesan over this if you like.

Into the oven at gas mark 4, for 30-40 minutes, until it is bubbling and golden.  Ideally some of the lasagna sheets will have started to curl and crisp up, for another layer of crunchy texture.

Eat straight from the oven, or reheat the next day (assuming you have leftovers).

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 of trees in honour of a visiting bishop.  It’s a fey tale, I hope it’s true, as it might indicate that the 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 ‘Decorazzioni 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 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 pub at closing time.  As he brushed the molten varnish inside the moulds, it looks 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.  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 mould, 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 or any more, so I will have to go back for more, not least, 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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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.

Frying Tonight!

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Why would you cook street food at home?

I don’t mean the street food of a thousand dank food festivals; waffles covered in artery clogging cream and salted caramel, or the piece of meat so pulled that it is all but impossible to answer ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’  I mean the stuff that world over, has been created to be eaten on the hoof, as a ready meal to take to work, and above all, to be cooked in the open air, or at the very least, in a non-domestic setting.  Remember the childhood stigma suffered by the kid that lived above the chippy?  Street food is pungent and clingy.

Homesickness and loss are two reasons to cook it at home, because ‘real’ street food is inherently bound to its place of origin, it can both define and be defined by this.  It is the taste of childhood, normality, home. It reeks of identity.  More pragmatically though, you need open windows, a stiff through breeze,  and the extractor fan to be working at full pelt, without those three preconditions being met, then there is no reason good enough to justify breaking out the deep fat fryer to make Arancine, no matter how wistful your Sicilian other half has become.

Arancine (female) if you’re from Palermo, arancini (male) if you’re from Catania.  And it’s ‘arancheeneh’, NOT ‘arancheeneee’, which I still say every time, to the exasperation of the resident Sicilian and the amusement of my more tolerant Italian teacher (although her patience runs out over my inability to roll my ‘r’s).  For me, the feminine ‘Arancine’ seems right, as they’re supposed to look like oranges (Arance), hence, little oranges (arancine).  Forgive the Italian 101.  This seems to me like common sense, and I’m loyal to my Palermitan.

These are piping hot balls of deep fried rice, surrounding a parcel of (traditionally) either ragù, with peas, or mozzarella and ham.  Dainty, they are not.  The rice has a familiar taste, incongruously rice pudding like (perhaps this is why so many British friends wrinkle their noses at the mention of arancine).  There’s a cafe/bar attached to the Teatro Biondo in Palermo, just round the corner from the tourist hot spot of Quattro Canti. There, you can buy arancine the size of baby’s head, for breakfast.  They sit alongside an alternate riotous excess of cannoli, Genovasi, brioche, countless fruit tarts, marzipan fruits, gelato, more gelato. That Sicilians are not all the size of a house, is astounding.

But the best I have so far eaten was in a tiny backstreet place in Taormina, the cliche of an Italian hill town, with added Etna and Grecian ampitheatre.  Its east coast position places it firmly in the Catania school when it comes to the name, and therefore, you buy ‘Arancini’.  These were through the monumental arch, past the church, past the tourists and past all the street sellers of belts, whirling fluorescent toys, and hair braids.  You had to duck past a fancier restaurant where Americans were sipping monstrously expensive Spritz from branded balloon glasses.  I loved Taormina, I loved all its overt tourist fleecing brashness.  I loved that the Duomo has a black Madonna, painted by God Himself, and wrapped in millennia of silver.  And then, these arancini.

 

The bar is basic, and busy, it reminded me of the chip shop round the corner at home, where queues form early and, in a flight of true Brummie romanticism, are longest on Valentine’s Day.  Similarly, at the cafe in Taormina you queue and you wait under a glaring fluorescent light; there’s a chest high glass display cabinet, which also acts as the counter where you place your order.  I half remember that in there were other offerings, (although none as grand as those in the theatre cafe in Palermo).  But we were here for our little oranges, recommended as the best by Marco, the friend who we were staying with down the hill in less glitzy, less rapacious Naxos.

These arancini need to be assembled and fried to order; the sticky, cold risotto rice, stained gold by saffron, is moulded into a palm shaped cup to hold the filling (we had one ragù and one mozzarella).  Then the rice is formed over to encase its hidden depths.  And this being the east coast, the shape is that of a rounded cone, rather than the sphere of Palermo.  Finally, your dinner is dipped in egg yolk, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried in olive oil until the colour of toasted coconut tobacco (I’m showing my age).

The whole thing only takes ten minutes, so you grab a stool in the alley outside, awaiting your turn, with a beer.  Mostly Italians, or rather, mostly Sicilians, are at the few other tables and stools, or sitting on steps and in doorways.  There’s a homeless guy with his hopeful dog in tow.  They’re looking for the rare tourists who’ve gone off-Baedekar and stumbled down here to bite off more than they can chew. Or, more realistically, for the more charitable locals who know them by name and will perhaps buy them both an arancino and him a beer.  This is in no way an idyll, but it is more human and humane than the coach tour feel of the main streets.  The smell is of hot oil and humidity, there are discarded Styrofoam cartons and empty plastic tumblers of dying froth, waiting to be cleared by an overworked, although largely absent teenager.  The street is wet, but it hasn’t rained in weeks.

With your fingers you break open your ball of scalding, sticky rice to an eruption of musty saffron; the filling is viscous and dangerous, but even in the dark, suffocating, summer evening heat of Sicily, the whole thing demands urgent attention. The suddenly discovered ragù, simmered and honed for hours, smacks you in the face.  It is outrageously confident, shouting ‘I am meat! I am peas! I am sauce!  Eat me!’  In contrast the mozzarella version is, if not more demur, then more subtle, sinful in its richness, smokily infused by the ham – the Fenella Fielding of arancini.  Cold beer in hand to sooth a burnt mouth, inadequate, Lilliputian napkins half catching the leaking oil and oozing cheese, these are a thing to be eaten greedily and shamelessly.  There is gluttony here. This is street food.

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North & South

June 2019 is reminding me that I don’t live in Sicily.  I live in Birmingham.  High latitude, rain catching Birmingham.  This is turning into one of those summers where the temperature lingers around 20 degrees, and it rains, and it rains, and it rains.  This time last year we were about to leave for Alicudi and the embrace of Mediterranean heat: it was all geckos, seafood, swimming and unrelenting sun.  But even in Birmingham, the sun shone kindly, cherries ripened, oyster festivals were visited, grass withered.  But holidays and summer are delayed this year; instead there is rain and grey and depression. 

Britain offers some consolation in one of what the Sicilian calls ‘the northern fruit’; strawberries, bringing the first of the major battles with the local pigeons and squirrels.  Even in the gloom, still they ripen, needing only a few hints of blue sky to suddenly swell and blush to a deeply, sensual scarlet.

They are the most luxurious of fruits to grow. So extravagant in terms of space, maintenance and protection, offering a repayment of a fleeting two weeks of glut and gorging.  The downside of last year’s holiday in the sun meant that we missed the strawberries, they came and went in the time we were away.  I imagine they were incomparable last year, ripened to perfection by that mythically hot summer. 

It is a sadness that strawberries have now become ubiquitous and eternal.  The strawberries of shops are a poor and tortured thing, to the extent that so many people have forgotten, or worse, never tasted, the intensity of a freshly picked, perfume leaking free range strawberry; its intense blood redness is the difference between oil paints and crayons.

The downsides; to achieve fourteen days of life affirmation they need space to sprawl, and nets to ward off rapacious birds and mammals.  But even nets will be stomped on and nibbled through, so accept that some will be lost. Slugs and snails adore them too, so here you must decide which preventative measure (if any) your conscience will allow.  The plants, although easy to look after, don’t like to be disturbed too often, which means your strawberry patch can turn into a weed patch the moment you turn your head, but weeds can also hide some of the fruit from eagle-eyed pigeons.

I asked the Sicilian how they use strawberries at home, because I could only think of Italian gelato, granita and a little tart of custard and glazed alpine strawberries. You see punnets of these alpine berries for sale there – tiny, intense things (so, typically Sicilian), they call them Fragoline di bosco; strawberries of the forest.  But he drew a blank.  I asked another friend from Milan, and one from Rome, with a Sicilian partner – they too came up with the triumvirate, along with a Roman standard of strawberries, lemon juice and sugar.  So perhaps then, when he calls them ‘a northern fruit’, he’s right, perhaps they thrive in our dampness, our scudding leaden skies and disappointment of British summers; they exist to guarantee us wan northerners some unqualified joy during their constrained window.  

Last year I tried to bring back some of those strawberries of the forest, knowing that I would have missed my own fat Brummie versions.  But they didn’t travel well.  A delayed flight and three hours in the car from Stansted, turned them to mush and mould.  They were a reminder that of all the crops, the strawberries are the worst to be away for, there will be no other chances until next year.  They were also a reminder to make the most of the glut, to capture its essence in jams and ices, so that a spoonful can whisk you back to a moment when you were squatting, with stained fingers, searching for the stab of red beneath green, and loading up bowl after bowl with your rewards.

Strawberry and Lemon Granita (for 8-ish)

Granita in Sicily and Granita in the UK are different creatures.  Both should be intensely flavoured – the essence of their ingredients.  In Sicily they are fleeting and transient, melting to chilly cordial before your eyes in the summer heat.  They are a shot of their parts, like a fruit espresso (or in the case of coffee granita, an actual espresso), refreshing and restorative.  In the UK, particular in this summer, they retain their form for longer, but rarely is there heat strong enough to demand granita. In the heat of Sicily granita invokes an emotional as well as a physical response.  Save it for sunny, warm days.  It is too easy to catch a chill in this country and anyway, it works so much better when the air is a little sticky and the sun too hot, and you’re not in a grey British summer.

500g ripe as you can Strawberries

200g Sugar

Juice of one lemon

75ml (or less of water)

Remove any leaves from the strawberries, halve and cook them in a splash of water.  Once they’ve disintegrated, liquidise them.

Bring the water to the boil, then add the sugar and stir until it’s all dissolved.

Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Push the liquidised fruit through a very fine sieve – fine enough to take the seeds out, and then stir your strawberries into the sugar and water.  Finally add the lemon juice and stir.

Taste it.  It should be Type 2 Diabetes sweet, as frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature

Now chill the mixture for a few hours and then put it in a freezer in whatever container you plan to store it in.

If you were to use an ice cream maker her, you’d get a smooth sorbet.  Granita should be gritty and crystalline.

So every hour or so, take the container out of the freezer and scratch it with a fork, to get your icy grit.  One frozen, it’ll keep indefinitely, but I try to make small batches for almost immediateIMG_5784

Once it’s ready, serve it in tiny glasses, the camper the better.