In these quiet days after Christmas and New Year, after the excitement of the holidays has subdued, after the feasts and the family, the chatter and the clinking of chalices, I revert to soup – my safe harbour, my antidote against excess. Soup seems like a good metaphor for these first days of 2017: unshouty, unshowy, soothing. The same could be said for my kitchen windows, which, like my thoughts, have often been fogged, steamy, and heavy with condensation. Perhaps because of this, soup is all I want to eat. And, consequently, it’s all I want to talk about. So there, let’s talk about it.
‘There should be soup all the time, but especially in the winter.’
So writes the wonderful Molly O’Neill in one of her most touching pieces of prose. It’s almost as if she was spying on me; as if she’d drawn a circle on that fogged up window to peek inside my kitchen, and inside my head. Because, you see, I happen to be of Molly’s advice. In January, especially in January, when days are still so dreadfully short, soup should be set on the table often, if not daily, to soothe and comfort. It should preferably be very hot, with vapours coming up in swirls, steaming your face, unplugging your nose and fizzing up your hair. It should, therefore, demand patience. Yes, patience is key: it makes the first spoonful all the more enjoyable.
I spent two weeks at home in Veneto in late October and, in retrospect, it seems to me as if all I did was baking. I arrived the day after my birthday (I’ve officially entered the last year of my twenties) and kicked off all celebrations by firing off the oven. Then, a week later came Mum’s birthday, and with it came more cake. Nothing fancy, you see; nothing whose sight had people going ‘oooh, and ‘aah’, and take their phones out of their coat to snap a photo. No, nothing of the like. In both cases, all I produced was a rather unassuming number; minimal cake affairs that could come together easily, and with barely any washing up.
Practicalities aside, the truth is that neither Mum nor I have much of a sweet tooth. We like cakes, but multi-layer frosted cakes are very much lost on us. Our preference goes towards crumbly fruit tarts and rustic cakes that are possibly not too sugary. Which is why our birthday cakes often look just like any other cake we’d bake throughout the year…only, with sparklers on top.
Incidentally, both birthday cakes happened to have ground almonds at their core. One was an apple frangipane tart (more of which in a future post). The other (this one), a dense flourless white chocolate cake scented with citrus zest. That in both cases I reached out for the jar of almonds might as well be a coincidence. More likely, though, it’s a cake genre that just appeals to me and I’m instinctually drawn to. I might just as well blame it on my Venetian genes.
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.
But first, this cake.
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.