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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Discovering Gelato

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I candied a lemon.  A great, warty giant of a lemon that I grew on a tree in a pot.  It was given a gallon of water a day and a fed liquid seaweed almost as often.  And there, at 52 degrees north, ready for Christmas, was a tree bowed down with my incredible lemons, tucked away for the winter in their protective greenhouse.  It’s a big deal, growing lemons in Birmingham; huge!

The majority of these lemons got the gin and tonic treatment, but I snaffled a couple away for something a lot more special; a week long bath in warmed sugar syrup, that day by day, became more concentrated.  The end result was something of such overwhelming lemon intensity that there I was in danger of becoming transfixed, unable to resist the temptation to gorge myself on the whole thing in one slow-motion go.  Thankfully, and in a rare moment of delayed gratification, I resisted.

The candied lemon began as an experiment because I have a dream of making the perfect cassata, the celebratory Sicilian cake that out-camps pretty much any other cake.  Layers of ricotta, marzipan, sponge, and chocolate sport an elaborate headpiece of iced candied fruit. If you’re thinking Carmen Miranda, you’re not far off.  The drawback is that it’s very difficult to buy the requisite candied fruit here in the UK, there are some close approximations, but not the whole figs, clementines, pears and slabs of summer squash that should be used and can be bought by the kilo in the right shops in Palermo.

So I thought I’d have a go at making my own.  The perfect cassata will have to wait a while, because although I candied my lemons, they weren’t right.  The Sicilian variety are solid, and maintain their shape and colour (with a little help from some food dye).  My lemon, was slightly shrunken, hollow and, as I took my eye off the ball for a moment, it had tipped over the edge from candied to marmaladey, more burnt umber than Mediterranean zing.  Delicious, though, as I’ve already mentioned.  

Whilst I could happily have sliced it up thinly, and eaten the whole thing to myself, furtively, in a semi dark kitchen, I wanted to find a way to incorporate the concentrated flavour into something else, in spite of it being February, an unseasonable gelato wormed its way into mind.

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I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the what separates gelato from Ice Cream.  

The ice creams that I’m used to making all start with a cooked custard of eggs, milk, cream and sugar – to which the flavours are added before the freezing and churning.  Depending on which recipe you’re reading, gelato may be exactly this.  Or something without cream.  Or without cream or eggs, thickened instead with cornflour.  I can sense a prolonged period of experimentation in the offing, but for now, I started with the recipe furthest from the custard base, and went for the cornflour version.

In many ways, it’s actually easier to make than a custard ice cream; you heat the milk, dissolve the sugar and then add cornflour, mixed with a little spare milk, and cook it through until it thickens.  Add in the lemon, stir, cool and freeze.

What comes out the other end is totally different from what I’m used to, and far more reminiscent of the gelato you get on the street in Catania or Noto.  For one, it doesn’t freeze solid, but retains a scoopable softness even at the freezer’s coldest setting.  So it’s instantly smoother and less prone to granularity – and yet, without the cream and eggs, it’s actually lower in fat, which makes it ‘better’ for you. There, who knew that gelato is actually the healthy option.  With its super concentrated lemon kick, I’d created what tasted like the best lemon curd/marmalade ice known to man.

I have friends who think that the time I spend in the kitchen, my willingness to even contemplate spending a week steeping a lemon in warm sugar syrup, marks me out in some way as a lunatic.

Perhaps they do.  But this lunatic now has a tub of the best, first-attempt gelato that home grown lemons can make.