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.
We have been settling into January at the slowest possible pace, trying to hold onto that feeling we brought back from Italy. Calm. Peace of mind. It didn’t last long – back to work and all that jazz – but we still managed to keep weekends on the resting side after all. There was a lot of sitting around, a lot of cookbook flipping, some reading and some walking. There was a lot of baking, too.
This cake is what we baked the most, by far. It’s nothing fancy, really, but it reminds me of the cake my mum used to make when I was little – that silly-easy cake (the only one she knew how to make, really) that takes a pot of yoghurt as a measuring unit. it’s a classic, but also, a cake that bears some uniqueness – in its aroma as much as in its backstory.
Olive oil has been the main cooking fat and source of energies for the Italian regions of the centre/south and of those along the coast, where the climate was mitigated by the influence of the sea. This is, for instance, the case of Liguria, a region of the North-West consisting in a thin strip of land along the Tirreno Sea. Introduced first by Greek and Phoenicians, the cultivation of olive trees has seen a major expansion in the Middle Ages with Benedictine monks, who cultivated olive trees in the form of a local varietal, Taggiasca. Taggiasca olives are small in size and have a delicate flavour, and are still now the main varietal in the Ligurian PDO olive oil.
Exchanges of goods between bordering regions have always been crucial for local populations, especially for those who didn’t have direct access to the sea. Salt, in particular, was a most precious good, utilised for many purposes, but mainly as a preservative. “Salt ways” started from the coast and developed along the inner lands.
In time, more goods started to be transported and exchanged alongside salt. One of them is olive oil. As a matter of fact, the oil produced in Liguria started to be sold, together with salt and other goods such as preserved fish, to the people of Piedmont, who utilised it in various preparations as an alternative to butter. This is especially true for the Southern part of Piedmont, Langhe, a hilly area which wasn’t high enough to justify big dairy farming, but that could count on the oil coming from the South for cooking, seasoning and preserving.
Camille are the mini cakes of my childhood. Mum has always been picky when it came to food. In our home, we didn’t have a lot of sugary things to choose from as a snack – mostly, we got yoghurt or fruit. Sometimes, though, she’d buy some lovely little cakes made with almond meal, grated carrots and orange. I loved them. These are my attempt at reproducing them at home, years later, in a moment of nostalgia.