Anyone else doing their travelling via food at the moment – spaghetti with clams to whisk you to Italy, moules frites, France? We thought this bank holiday, since none of us have very far to go we’d take a jaunt to Sardinia by sharing some recipes from Letitia Clark’s first cookbook, Bitter Honey. Not only are her recipes simple and tempting, each comes comes with a beautifully told story from the Mediterranean island the cook and illustrator now calls home:
PASTA WITH BUTTER TO SAVE AND SALVE (Pasta al Burro e Salvia)
I love butter. I come from a family of butter-fiends. My mother eats it in chunks from the pat, with a spoon, and my father spreads it as thick as cheese on his toast. Italian butter is very different to the kind readily available in England. Maybe (probably) I’m just getting old, but I’m sure lots of butter in England doesn’t taste of anything anymore. In my last months before moving to Sardinia, I got into a habit of smelling the butter in shops. I would unfold some of the paper and have a good sniff of the pat inside. It drew some strange looks from other shoppers, but it’s a sound method of judging the quality. A good butter has an unmistakable smell. It should smell of thick, cold, cream: ever-so-slightly cheesy, faintly sweet. I urge you to start smelling your butters. The butter out here smells very strongly, as butter should. It is purest white, always unsalted, and comes in enormous 500g (1 lb 1¾ oz) blocks, wrapped in white waxed paper, like the butter of old. It is a beautiful thing to look at, and to eat. Butter only appeared in culinary use in Italy in the Renaissance, and was initially used by the wealthy, often made into an elaborate table centrepiece rather than being consumed – yes, butter sculptures! To this day, despite its quality and ready availability, the Sardinians very rarely use butter in cooking. When butter is used, it is as an essential flavour in the finished dish, rather than just a means of cooking.
Glamorous it may not be, but I could happily eat this dish every day for the rest of my life. It also demonstrates perfectly the essential (and often overlooked) skill in making pasta sauces, and the first thing everyone learns when they start cooking pasta in Italy; that the pasta cooking water must be added to the finished dish, to both emulsify the sauce and melt the grated cheese into a creamy consistency. Once you have learnt how to do this, you will never look back. The earthiness of the sage is what really grounds this recipe, so don’t be tempted to leave it out. The echo of a ‘salve’, seems fitting too, as this dish is deepest comfort.
For 2 restrained diners, or 1 hungover/fragile one
220 g (7¾ oz) dried pasta of your choice (I like risoni or any ‘short’ pasta best)
120 g (4¼ oz) butter
8–10 small sage leaves
70 g (2½ oz) Parmesan, grated, plus extra to serve
Bring a large saucepan of well-salted water to the boil. Drop in the pasta. Place the butter in a wide, shallow pan and put on the lowest heat. Add the sage and cook for a moment or so to gently to release the aromas. Drain the pasta when it is at your perfect al dente, reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Add half the cooking water and the pasta to the pan with the butter and sage and turn up the heat. Stir and toss well for a minute or so, then add the cheese and toss again and again, until an emulsified and silky sauce forms. If it looks too dry, add more of the cooking water, too wet, carry on cooking. Serve with more cheese.
ALMOND PANNA COTTA WITH RoSé POACHED CHERRIES AND WILD FENNEL (Panna Cotta di Mandorle, Ciliegie e Finocchietto Selvatico)
Panna cotta is a wonderfully gentle, creamy way to finish a meal. It couldn’t be easier to make. There are some lovely rosé wines made in Sardinia, and whilst I rarely drink them, I like cooking with them. They work particularly well with fruit. The gentle flavour of the almonds is cool and luxurious in a pale, wobbling panna cotta. The wild fennel highlights the delicate anise flavours of the cherry and wine, but if you cannot find it then chervil is a good substitute.
200 g (7 oz) whole peeled almonds
550 ml (18½ fl oz/2 cups) single (light) cream
3 strips of lemon zest
80 g (2¾ oz/1/3 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
2 gelatine leaves
300 g (10½ oz) cherries
1 glass of rosé wine
100 g (3½ oz/½ cup) caster (superfine) sugar
zest and juice of ½ lemon
fronds of wild fennel or chervil, to serve
Set the oven to 170ºC (340ºF/Gas 3). Roast the almonds until they just begin to smell nutty, for about 8–10 minutes. Once they’ve cooled a little, roughly chop. In a small saucepan, bring the chopped almonds, cream, lemon zest and sugar to the boil then simmer very gently, stirring occasionally and allowing the almonds to seep their flavours into the mix. After a few minutes, remove from the heat and set aside. In the meantime, soak the gelatine in a bowl of cold water. When it is totally soft, add it to the warm mixture and stir well. The gelatine should dissolve completely (if it doesn’t, warm the whole mix a little again). Strain through a fine sieve into a pouring jug. You can keep the almonds to add to your porridge or muesli the next day). Divide your mixture into ramekins or serving dishes of your choice. Chill in the fridge until set, around 3–4 hours. If eating the next day, cover well and remove from the fridge an hour or so before you want to eat them. Stone and halve the cherries. Place them in a shallow pan with the wine, a splash of water, sugar and lemon zest. Cover. Bring to a simmer and then poach until the cherries are soft but not mushy, around 10–15 minutes. Taste the sauce and reduce to your taste, adding more lemon juice or sugar to your liking. Allow to cool. When ready to serve, spoon the cherries on top of the panna cottas and scatter with the fennel or chervil.
OLIVE OIL ICE CREAM WITH SEVILLE ORANGE ZEST (Gelato all’Olio di Oliva con Arancia di Siviglia)
My love of olive oil knows no bounds, it’s true, but this is utter genius and not a gimmick. The oil lends a smooth and rounded lusciousness to the ice cream and, seeing as olive oil goes well with chocolate, nuts and fruit, this ice cream pairs beautifully with puddings based around any of these (which is most puddings). Here I have paired it with the wonderfully aromatic zest of Seville oranges. If you cannot get hold of these then a mandarin will do.
4 egg yolks
200 g (7 oz/1 cup) caster
500 ml (17 fl oz/2 cups)
double (heavy) cream
250 ml (8 fl oz/1 cup) whole (full-fat) milk
pinch of sea salt
60 ml (2 fl oz/¼ cup) bestquality, fruity olive oil, plus extra to serve
zest of 1 Seville orange
Using an electric whisk, mix the yolks with the sugar until pale and mousse-like. In a saucepan over a medium heat, warm the cream and milk until they just comes to a simmer then pour over the yolks in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Return the mixture to a clean pan and cook over a low heat, stirring continuously, until the custard begins to thicken, enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. If you like, you can use a thermometer to check this, it should read around 72ºC (162ºF). Add the pinch of salt. Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a wide bowl and chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight. When chilled, remove from the fridge and whisk in the olive oil (I use a stick blender for this) until completely emulsified. Churn in an icecream machine and freeze. Serve with freshly grated Seville orange zest and an extra drizzle of oil.
Bitter Honey, Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia by Letita Clark, £26 amazon.co.uk