The pungent leaves of wild garlic are on all the market stalls this month (April). In the wild they are easy to confuse with lily of the valley (poisonous), but crush a leaf between your fingers and the oniony scent will tell you if it’s wild garlic or not. Also known as Ramsons in English, and as ‘bear garlic’ in many other languages (aglio orsino, medvehagyma, bärlauch–its botanical name is Allium ursinum), it goes delightfully with eggs and rice. I use it in risottos and omelettes and to make baked frittata:
Wild garlic frittata
Pre-heat the oven to about 190°C. Lightly grease a flan dish.
Beat together six eggs, chopped wild garlic (plenty of it), a generous slug of milk, grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper.
Pour it evenly into the flan dish and pop in the oven. Take it out after 25 minutes. Ready to eat. Serves 4. Easy as pie.
When I lived in Spain, March was always the month when artichokes would arrive in the market. Later, I found them plentiful around the Venice lagoon. Floating vegetable boats parked in the canals would have buckets of pre-prepared artichoke hearts for sale: fondi di carciofi, the tender centres of small, young ones. I live in Mitteleuropa now and artichokes are thinner on the ground. They can be had, though, if you know where to find them: certain greengrocers always get them in in March. It’s a signal, for me, that winter is over.
There are many ways to prepare artichokes. You can stew them with mint. You can flatten them and fry them, alla giudea, as they do in Rome in the area of the old ghetto. My favourite, though, is the simplest, the way I learned to do it all those years ago in Spain.
Method: Take each artichoke head and cut the stalk off so that it stands flat on a plate. Then turn it over and bash it apart on a hard surface. The idea is to loosen the layers of leaves. Place each one upright on a generous sheet of foil and pull the leaves apart with your fingers. Sprinkle with salt and then drizzle olive oil generously between the layers of leaves. Pick up the edges of the foil and wrap around the artichoke so that it is completely covered. Do this with as many heads as you want to cook. Place in an oven dish, in a hot oven, and bake for 45mins. Remove from the oven and turn onto plates. Open the foil cases and allow to cool. When cool enough to touch, they are ready to eat. It should look like this:
To eat: Peel the leaves off, layer by layer. The bottom nub of each leaf will be tender enough to bite off and eat (NB: This is a messy meal to be eaten in your fingers). Each morsel is tiny but delicious. Finally you will reach a stage when the leaves are too tiny and start coming off in clumps. It is time for the choke. Turn the remains of the artichoke on its side, take a sharp serrated knife, and cut clean through, at the very base of the leaves, so that you miss the spiny choke. The base can then be eaten (about two mouthfuls if you’ve got a big one). Tiny, you had to work for it, but so good. It’s part of the discipline of the whole thing. This is the antithesis of instant gratification. But it’s still very gratifying.
The medlar is a curious fruit. They start appearing in the market in November. They are squishy and unappetising-looking but you can’t eat them until they’ve gone very soft (and in fact are just on the turn between ripeness and decay). If you leave them too long, they start to fizz and their flesh goes sour. Eaten at just the right time and they have an amazingly rich depth of taste, like any fruit that has stored and distilled all the goodness of summer (a rosehip, for example, or a raisin). For this reason, they go extremely well with sweet Tokaj wine.
They are fiddly to eat. I’ve tried a number of methods but always come back to the simplest: in the fingers, no cutlery. Just pinch off the peaked tip at the bottom of the fruit and gently squeeze until the thin skin splits. Then squeeze the flesh, pips and all, into your mouth. There are four pips. Suck them clean and spit them out. It’s messy but delicious. And medlars are good for you. They are packed with vitamins and help with all kinds of metabolic functions such as absorbing iron and processing carbohydrate. Excellent winter fare.
Making cornel cherry jelly today. Here they are in the pan, simmering with some roughly cut up apples, the tartest I could find. Cornel cherries (Cornus mas) are a member of the dogwood family. The berries, rich in Vitamin C, ripen in September, which is when I picked them. Since then they have been in the freezer, which might affect the taste of the jelly. Fridges and freezers have a way of turning flavours comatose. We’ll see. It’s a bitingly cold day today, with a wan sun lighting up the few remaining autumn leaves on the hill opposite my window. Slowly the cloud cover is taking over and colours are getting more ashen. It feels like a the right day to be making a bright red, sticky sweet jelly.
The method is easy.
Weigh the berries. Put them, together with an equal weight of roughly chopped apples, into a pan, cover with water and simmer until soft and pulpy. Then comes the laborious bit: straining it through muslin. I line a fine sieve with a cloth and wait for the juice to drip through under its own weight, then give it a good pounding with a spoon to encourage even more to go through. Some particles will escape through this way, but I don’t mind. I even scrape the bottom of the sieve every so often to clear it, so that yet more can get through. This results in a cloudy jelly. But just using the juice that strains through of its own accord seems a terrible waste in terms of the lovely pulp you have to then throw away.
Having said the method is easy, the results are never predictable. Sometimes it sets beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the sugar ratio and the pectin in the apples I suppose. Anyway, it tastes good with all kinds of roast meat.
The symbolism of the pomegranate is very old. Persephone ate nothing in Hades but six pomegranate seeds. It meant she had to spend six months of the year with her wintry abductor and was only allowed back up to earth for the other six. The pomegranate came to symbolise fertility and rebirth. You can see them littered symbolically across early Renaissance altarpieces, bursting open to show their rows of seeds. In Istanbul street vendors used to offer pomegranate juice, narli sok, from little itinerant carts. It’s a good few years since I was there. Perhaps they still do, perhaps not. An elderly Turk, living in gloomy self-imposed exile in London, told me last week that they do not. Perhaps that was pessimism.
Anyway, from an old recipe book, I found this Catalan winter salad. The pomegranate traditionally ripes on November 1st, All Saints Day. Or is it November 2nd, All Souls. Whichever it is, this is the recipe:
Take a whole cauliflower, not too large. Rinse and cut away the stem and leaves at the base. Cook until just tender in boiling water to which two teaspoons of vinegar have been added. Remove from water and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a salad dish, mix a generous handful of chopped pitted green olives and another of chopped pitted black olives. Add a large fistful of chopped parsley, and the seeds (minus the pith) of half a large pomegranate (or one small one). Cut the cauliflower into small florets and add. Mix gently so as not to break the florets. Add olive oil whisked together with vinegar and salt. Stir again and sprinkle with plenty of freshly-ground pepper.
It’s strangely good.
The quince is not a handsome tree but it bears a delectable fruit. In spring too, its flowers are beautiful. Delicate little white cups tinged with pink. For me, autumn has always meant quinces. I used to have my own tree. Sadly no longer. But my kind old neighbour J—– gives me a bag of quinces every year, from her garden. I love them so much better than the shop- or even market-bought ones, which are huge and smooth. These home-grown quinces are smaller, irregular, full of dips and crevices which make them a task to peel and core. And the skin is covered with downy fluff, as it should be.
But what to do with a quince. There are several things. I’ll jot them down as soon as I get time.
Spinach cooked with raisins and pine nuts, Espinacs amb panses i pinyons, is a classic Catalan dish. Usually it is made in the following way:
Wash the fresh spinach and put into a pan with the droplets of water still clinging to it. Don’t add more water, just boil it slowly until soft and stir in a bit of salt. Meanwhile take a fistful of raisins (be generous with these) and a scattering (again, an ample scattering) of pine nuts and briskly and briefly toss them in olive oil, until the raisins have swelled up and the pine nuts are golden brown. Drain the spinach well, add the contents of the two pans together, swirl together and serve.
This is fine. But in the Fonda Toldrà in Ulldemolins they always added served it in béchamel sauce. It was wonderful that way. I have no idea whether the Fonda Toldrà still exists. It is twenty-five years since I was in Ulldemolins. But now I always make spinach with raisins and pine nuts in a béchamel sauce. I made it tonight. It brought back good memories of cold evenings, ricketty bedsteads, shared bathrooms, wonderful walks to the tiny church of San Bertomeu–and delicious, unpretentious food.