I’m writing about this lovely pumpkin olive oil chocolate cake from my new kitchen in London. Now, if I lift my head from the computer screen and glimpse at the little back garden just outside the kitchen door I see a quintessentially English photogram. The weather is cloudy, a bit gloomy, chilly but not cold. There’s a mild wind that makes the vine growing along the wooden fence bounce and dance – a slow waltz, maybe. Earlier I saw a squirrel jumping over onto our portion of pebbles. I suspect it’s hiding its acorns in our yard, but I might need to investigate further.
It feels good to be here. This autumn feeling has a soothing effect on me – it slows my pace, makes me more focused. I have skipped this season twice this year. Now I realise that I missed wishing for the comfort of a woollen blanket, of a pot of stew bubbling on the stove for the good part of an afternoon. I now have many such days to look forward to here. Which is why, so as not to arrive unprepared, with me I brought a few recipes to match the spirit of the upcoming season. Long braises and spiced cakes I am eager to try.
A story about a friend & her Florentine grape focaccia (schiacciata all’uva), in three parts.
Florence, October 2015
‘Firenze Santa Maria Novella,’ said the speaker above my seat. Startled, for I was fast asleep, I grabbed my coat and jumped down. Damn, the umbrella. How can I always forget the umbrella? But no matter, I thought, for I was in Florence, meeting friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we were having lunch in a beautiful place, and it wasn’t raining anyway. Everything was going to be fine.
I saw Rachel first. We arrived at the same time, from opposite directions – she from Rome, I from Venice. We met in the book shop (cookbook section) and instinctively, as if guided by the waft of roasted (burnt?) coffee beans, we slowly nudged towards the bar. The counter was flooded by a stream of commuters. We elbowed a little, pretended we didn’t know what a queue was – wait, who’s first? what? Well, I guess us! – and managed to order and inhale a much-needed shot of caffeine. Emiko arrived short after, and together, we adventured out of the station and into the heart of the Renaissance city.
The day was grey but mild. I soon realised, walking at a good pace, that I had overestimated the autumnal chill. My cheeks – I could feel them – were red with heat. Or was it the excitement? For I was talking about favourite things – food, travel, recipes, cooking, writing – with two of my favourite people, who happen to be wonderful cooks and writers and all-around wonderful humans. What I do know for sure is that I was talking and walking without knowing exactly where it was that we were going. But no matter, for being with Emiko, who knows Florence and its food like the back of her hand, I just knew it was going to be good.
This is a tart that came to happen by means of foraged fruits. For figs aren’t the kind of fruits a Venetian countryman or woman would ever buy. You’ll either pick them from the tree in your yard or go out on in the fields and find some there. I have been doing both, reverting to the second option as soon as our young tree was spent. Even now that the season for figs is coming to an end, I managed to gather enough fruits to try this fig tart twice. After the second attempt, having grown quite fond of its aromatic flair, I was keen to share my impressions (and the recipe) here. I hope I’m not too late, and that you can still find figs where you are, no matter whether in the wild or at the market.
The constellation of mosquito bites on my ankles tells me that this has been a good summer after all. A summer of early mornings spent rocking on a chair with a novel in one hand and a cup of coffee that would inevitably go cold in the other. Of Saturdays at the beach, roasting on the scorching sand of a Venetian shore. And of nights eating watermelon under the pergola, seeds and all, sugary juice running down my forearms. Balmy, humid evenings with the scent of corn wafting through the air; with clear skies and bike rides and peachy sunsets that matched the colour of the drinks in our hands.
I haven’t spent a whole summer at home in Veneto in over ten years. I didn’t realise how much I missed it, not until now that it’s almost gone. And although my main reason to be here isn’t leisure, I had to remind myself to soak it all in, all the small details that frame the idea of ‘home’ – the smells, colours, the light, the heat, the flavours – and that make my stay here all the more timely and, in a way, needed.
The reason I’m here, though, the real reason, is to finish my book – to cook, eat and capture the essence of this region through its food and its landscape. The more I think about it – the more I feel the weight of such an ambitious project – the bigger is the temptation to bike away until no one can find me. Seriously, though, it’s going well. I’m happy to report that the book is getting there. I have submitted the manuscript in July (the event was celebrated with three rounds of Bellini) and the photography is nearly done. It will only take a couple more trips to the fish market and another tour of Venice’s alleys to come full circle.
Meanwhile, this spritz granita: what a thrilling discovery! Having had a good deal of spritz and granita this summer, it recently occurred to me that the two could be combined into a smashing, icy aperitivo. Now, if you are thinking about granita in Sicilian terms, think again: this version has no claim for authenticity. That said, there’s a lot to love about it, and if you like spritz, I suspect you’ll love this frozen version just as much, if not more. In fact, not only does it have the same power to quench some serious thirst; it can really cool you off at once, and make your smile wider and head lighter while at it.
This granita is what I’ve been looking forward to at the end of most days lately. Bitter, cold and zingy as it is, it has the power to pick me up after hours spent at the stove or hunched at the computer. And so, I suspect I’ll keep making it again and again, before summer drifts away.
In the few years before starting the beautiful journey that is writing a cookbook, I have been working for a company that sources excellent fruits and vegetables from the continent. Predictably, what I liked most about my job (which happened to be rather polyhedric in its own right), was the travelling, and that’s because these working trips gave me the chance to visit some very inspiring growers and farms all over Italy.
During one of these rather serendipitous trips, I got to meet an old tomato grower from Liguria. In a market dominated by mass-produced, tasteless tomatoes, seeing that he can still make a living growing heirloom Bull’s Heart tomatoes (outdoors and extensively) was nothing short of enlightening. Even more eye-opening, then, was seeing people willing to pay a premium for them. They all seemed to say they were worth every penny, not just because their flavour was outwardly, but because these wonderful tomatoes reminded them of their trip to the Italian riviera. I could really see their point.