How to ruin a British summer

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Last week it was in the 30s.  Bournemouth beach was the scene of a national scandal.  We were both in lockdown and not in lockdown.  The frisson of something about to snap hung in the clammy air.  Deluges and thunderstorms were promised, but never showed up.  So I came to the rescue and wheeled out my sure fire, rain making, cloud busting box of tricks and made a granita.

Granita, which I wrote a different piece on last year, is painfully, indelibly linked to the sun and heat of Sicily in July.  The month when only fools visit.  It is served, melting before your eyes – an ice that is a drink, a breakfast.  Fleeting.  The brain freeze lasts longer than the thing itself.  There is so much that I am missing about Sicily at the moment.  But granita is the thing that makes me cry when I think of being there; I don’t know if it is the freeze shudder amid the heat, or the race to eat before you drink, or memories of piazzas and castles; rubbish and stale dog piss.  Granita in the UK is not granita, for me.  It is the same, but not.  A granita needs the setting, the temperature, the Italian voices, to become itself.  Here, even in the most authentic of venues, it is just flavoured ice, reminding me that I am not in Sicily.

But, I make it anyway.  Because I am a sentimental fool.  I live in hope of hot days and sticky nights.  I remember a house on Alicudi and a theatre bar in Palermo.  I never think to make it until the temperature rises, and then, once that whim has grabbed me, and the juice or the syrup is freezing and being forked to shards, the wind switches to the west, the clouds roll in, drizzle, usually settles for a week or so.  The moment for a granita breakfast slips through my fingers.  Again.

Last week was such a moment.  And to make sure that I lost it, I went the whole hog and tinkered with two entirely Sicilian flavours, almond and jasmine; expensive and hard to source, this is a luxurious treat.  But it doesn’t need to apologise for itself.

A jasmine syrup made with heated sugar water and fresh jasmine flowers, and an almond milk, from blanched and blitzed almonds soaked in water for 24 hours, with just a smidge of extra almond essence to compensate for the Californian blandness of the dried almonds.  You freeze, fork over, creating crystals of pure white snow. Refreeze, refork – this is not a smooth sorbet, but something that, in its heartbeat of existence, should be gritty, like Sicily.

Done, your granita is ready.  Imagine marzipan, crystallised and frozen.  If you like marzipan, you will be in raptures over this.  The jasmine perfumes it, raises the almond’s game.  And it is gone.

Now imagine eating this in Piazza della vergogna in Palermo in 40 degrees.  Feel free to have a little cry about not being there.

Almond and Jasmine Granita

The Jasmine syrup

For this you will need fresh white Jasmine flowers (the summer flowering, Jasmine officianalis, not the yellow, winter variety, which is poisonous).  Some recipes say 50g, some say half a kilo.  Frankly, half a kilo of jasmine flowers is a tall order in Birmingham, so I cut my cloth accordingly.

So, with as many flowers as you can muster, soak them over night in cold water, 750ml if you’ve somehow managed to find your half a kilo, considerably less if you live in Birmingham and have a small garden with a smaller jasmine plant.  Meanwhile, make a sugar syrup by boiling 250 ml of water with 325g sugar until the sugar is dissolved (frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature).  Again adjust the quantities according to the abundance of your jasmine.

In the morning, mix the cooled syrup and the strained jasmine water.

The Almond Milk

Most recipes you read will err towards a conservative amount of almonds – I up the anti – because it was drilled into me that British (imported from California) almonds are sad and flavourless things.  That only Sicilian almonds truly taste of almonds.  So ingrained is this now, that I go full on cyanide I’m afraid, so I would advise on tinkering until you get your preferred intensity and life expectancy.

Blanche 500g almonds (pour over boiling water, leave them to soak for ten minutes then slip them out of their brown skins).  It’s a mindless job, but passes soon enough if you do it with the radio on or whilst chatting.

Rinse the almonds and then blitz them in a food processor.

Add them to one litre of water, with the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon of seriously good almond essence (bitter almonds if you can get it) and (if you like it) a cinnamon stick.

Leave everything to soak for 24 hours in the fridge, and then strain the milk.

(This can now just be drunk, like ambrosia, if the heat is really unbearable and you can’t wait for it to become an ice)

The Granita

Unite your jasmine syrup and your almond milk.

If you’ve done the full recipe – you’ll have two litres.

A granita should be scratchy and crunchy, so don’t put this into an ice cream maker – which will give you that refined sorbet.  Instead, put the mix into a container, freeze it, and come back every now and then to aggressively fork it over.  You want shards and crystals – you want the water to freeze and split and sharpen.

When it’s completely frozen and broken, it’s ready.  Wait for a hot, hot morning.  Serve it in your daintiest, campest glasses.  Watch the clouds roll in and the heavens open.

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).

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, or cardinal, or pope.  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, piling racks and crates of bone white moulds into 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 pub at closing time.  As he brushes 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 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 mould, to make a dentist weep and destined to be packed with homemade pasta reale, its almond fleece encasing a 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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