Bruscandoli, or wild hop shoots, are one of those foraged foods that mark the start of spring in Veneto. And although their fleeting season is coming to an end now that the cool rainfalls of April have given way to days of warm May sun, there is still a little chance to get them.
I had no hope of finding them on my usual walk along the canal early this week. It’s been too hot. And yet there they were, pale green leaves and curly stems and delicate tops reaching up towards the sky. There they were, growing through the insidious blackberry shrubs that haven’t yet bloomed, and around the rows of rushes swinging in the breeze. Fragile they are, but also vital, and powerful as they propel themselves higher than anything around them, like a stretched arm, as if to say: “Pick me.”
Some of you might remember when, about a year ago now, I announced I was writing a cookbook. You might remember I said it would be called Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen, and that it was going to be published in July 2017 by Faber. Some of you might also recall the long premise, and the fact I said it had thus far been a rollercoaster of emotions.
Well, the process has now come full circle. And I’m here today to give you a bit of exciting news.
“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”
Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.
Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?
“The main lesson you have to learn is simplicity,” is Anna del Conte’s warning to whoever wants to approach Italian food. “For what you leave out is just as important as what you put in”.
These few words have been resounding in my head for days. I have surprised myself thinking about them a lot. Not just in relation to food, mind, but to other aspects of living, too. What we leave out of our kitchen, of our home, of our lives matters as much as what we put in. Aren’t we who ultimately decide what to include and what to leave out, just like in a recipe? We choose which flavour our life is going to have at any given time. Except, perhaps starting over isn’t as easy as a round of washing up. Or is it?
The glycemic index of this blog has increased exponentially lately. I’ve been baking a lot, I realise – to relax, to energise, for fun. I promise I’ll move to savoury next, but for now, let me tell you about this bergamot polenta cake, for it’s sure worth a mention.
The paradigm from which this cake originates is not dissimilar from this other cake recipe I’ve shared a while ago. This, too, is a flourless cake (if we don’t count polenta as flour), and it has citrus as the primary accent within the flavour spectrum. And yet, the result is completely different, for no other reason than this cake uses the fruit in its entirety (as opposed to just zest and juice), which, of course, changes everything. Add this to the fact that the citrus in question is bergamot (easily one of the most aromatic fruits ever known to men), and you’ll have a cake that is at once seductive and surprisingly simple.