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.

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.