Whenever I travel somewhere, all be it foreign or domestic, cold, hot or maybe just slightly tepid, I have a wee custom that I try and aspire to without fail whenever I can. I have little doubt that it is a familiar trait shared by gazillions of others across the globe. The indolent purchase of shockingly cheesy items for family members has become a treasure hunt for sarcasm gold. I have them lovingly gift wrapped, then sent to a dear aunt in Killarney. I'm not the only member of our family that plays this unsuspecting little game with her and twice a year when we all traipse across for our annual exophagy rituals, we get to secretly compare the wonderfully tacky trinkets proudly arranged in her glass sideboard in the parlour. Yes, I know it is not a particularly nice trait to poke fun at ones relatives, however she started it by knitting her very own versions of Bridget Jones jumpers as gifts at Christmas since 1977. Stop for a moment if you will, picture the angst we suffered every January entering a school playground with the entire crucifixion debacle picked out in sequins and mother of pearl upon our chests. Other kids received great seasonal gifts, such as tangerines and swirly, clanky things made out of discarded bobbins and bits of rotted wood which had fallen off the roof. One particular year she excelled at her craft and Mr Christ was depicted using actual real nails. It took forever to find the bloody things when they fell out in the washing machine. Being the broadest of my brothers, it was always a The Last Supper scene for me, in full panorama, with Mr Christ having such real lifelike flowing hair that it used to dangle into my free school milk. And you wondered what it actually was that shook my faith in religion? Now that you are glimpsing behind the scenes of my childhood backdrop, you can see why I favour an often lumpen, if not caustic, iambic pentameter to my biblical dietary fibre.
This year the 'extra cheese' award goes to my second eldest son Liam for his remarkably well discovered miniature, illuminated figure of Mary Magdalene fighting a bull. Finished in pure 2 cwt gold diamante stud work, it promises to entertain its audience with thirty second blasts of 'Ave Maria ' in Chinese! Honestly, poor Schubert must continue to spin in his grave. It is a remarkable coup for the Asian design studios of utter tackiness, emphasis for inspiration must surely lay with their growing resentment of the west! I was slightly disappointed to lose out with my holy holographic waterfall scene, complete with ruby red woollen catholic dolphins, interwoven with threads of metal lamé halos, it took most of my powers of acquisition to obtain it. Especially as I had to do glorious battle with a wonderful gentleman, originally from Sicily, but now living in New York. Luckily for me, he opted instead for a rather fetching version of a garish yellow submarine, complete with headlights that flash whenever you touch the conning tower. Exactly how it represents the nation of Espana I am still unsure, but he seemed very pleased with it. I may at one point have suggested that if he looked hard enough he might actually be able to pick out John Lennon, complete with bushy beard, at the controls. However, it could also have been Sean Connery, Kris Kringle or Charles Darwin for that matter.
We continued a further interesting engagement, this time in regard to our accents, when we again rubbed shoulders outside in the street. On noticing my recently purchased brummagem trinket protruding from its near cloistered wrapping, he began the conversation in his best, if somewhat irked eastern coast drawl, by asking me for directions to the nearest Starbucks.
"Turn left onto Avenida Garcia Morato," was my reply, ...three times, until he finally grasped I also wasn't a local inhabitant.
"I like your quaint English accent", was his reply.
"Thank you, so, exactly what part of Canada are you from?"
The words fell from my lips before I had a chance to stop them. The rules of engagement had been set, the gloves were now off.
Like two great rutting mountain stags, snorting and bumping heads in the misty morning Highlands heather, we eventually found common ground without any further need for bloodshed. To be fair, it would have been very ugly if it had turned physical. I was alone, while he had the entire cast of the Sopranos for company. One Glaswegian against so many Italians heavily stacked the odds. I would have at least had to wait patiently while they sent out for their reinforcements. Remarkably, our war of nations had taken place outside of a well known panaderia. The waft of doughy goodness soon melted any hostilities and we became further like children as we stood with our noses pressed firmly up against the glass. I should point out that him being of Roman extraction, his nose made sure that he stood further away from the glass than me. We conveniently forgot that he had commented that the United Kingdom were cowardly limey assholes in not following the infamous panjandrum, Mr O'Balmy, into yet another untenable act of war. I couldn't remember the name of the current UK Prime Minister, a dreadful fop of a man by all accounts, so I glossed over the important fact that the Scots throughout history have probably detested the English more so than the current mob of murderous Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, not forgetting the other suicidal donkey enthusiasts, along with anybody else wearing a ridiculous raggedy bandage hat in Kandahar of late. By way of response he kindly glossed over my frank comment that the entire world now sees America for exactly what Hollywood wants them to be. Shooting scenes for the new Rambo DCLXVI movie. (Well done to all those who worked out the in-joke with the Roman numerals without having to use Google. A somewhat late, but still sumptuous education is money well spent, eh?)
Happily, we did agree on the fact that Mel Gibson did more harm to the Scottish/American relationship due to his dire accent and severe lack of height in the screen portrayal of William Wallace than any other actor in the history of film. I'm still to meet another fellow Scot who didn't squirm in his cinema seat when the wee runt rode out on his stunted horse, his face painted entirely with a protestant flag and then butchered the fictitious line about freedom. With those silly facial expressions he pulled every five minutes, the only way he could have portrayed Wallace any camper than he did would have been to add a smattering of buggery in between the magnificent scenes of Ballachullish countryside (actually filmed in Ireland by the way.) The fact that he is unfortunately a typical agrestic Australian with an unequivocal phobia of Jew-hating, must make for some interesting conversations around many wholesome U.S dining room tables. Apart from the director of the so-called evocative movie Braveheart explaining to his audience, quite nicely actually, how the 'fuck' word was actually derived: Fornication Under Consent of the King, it was all rather bland to anyone looking for something slightly more juicy to get their teeth into. Wee Mel can eat his own heart out should anyone kindly offer to help him down from his wee stumpy pony, because we had also agreed that the fresh loaf of cassata currently being displayed in the bollerya window was without doubt the most extremely enjoyable, aromatic, non farinaceous dessert on the planet.
There are few things as wonderfully evocative as food. Good or bad, just one taste of a dish can catapult you back in time, conjuring up the sights and sounds, even the emotions you experienced. A perfectly ripe strawberry, warmed by the sun, leads itself to reminiscing about idyllic late summer afternoons picking your own berries at a local farm in middle-England. The dry scratch of yet-to-soften bran flakes recalls the sensation of trying to choke down a hospital breakfast after a tonsillectomy when I was nine. Re-fried beans repeatedly remind me of a long weekend mistakenly spent in a drunk tank in Mexico in my youth, a place where no fingernails are too long, no queue for the shower is too short. I won't try to pretend to be the first person to have made this link; there's a whole genre of food memoirs that testify to the power food has to transport us through time and space. I had one of those moments tonight when I made French onion soup, served with the cheese toasts we call crostini when we used to have this dish back in the '80s. The sweet silkiness of the onions, buttery broth and the soup-soaked bread took me back to those Sunday evenings when my auld fella would roll up his sleeves and peel and slice scallions galore to make a huge pot of this classic soup. The house would fill with the aroma of caramelised onions, fresh thyme, bay leaves, stock and a healthy splash of brandy; the kitchen window would steam up and I would start my not-so-stealthy campaign for more crostini and less soup.
But it is from Sicily that I have chosen this particular dessert dish of cassata. Sicily, the land of fresh tomato's, chintz table cloths, great big huge melting scoops of yellow custard-based gelato flavours, including zabaione and crème caramel. And the fruit.... don't get me started on the fruit! So when the rain-fed locusts are not dive bombing your patio garden and eating the sun drenched lizards as they land in your lap after falling asleep in your sitting room curtains, making cassata is a wonderful way to use up some of the dried fruit in your pantry that would otherwise be relegated to use in the cooler months. While this dessert is a straightforward make-ahead mixture of sweetened ricotta cheese and savoiardi (sometimes called lady finger) biscuits, it’s best eaten within 24 hours of making it because of the fragility of the cheese.
Your choice of flavourings is entirely your own. In this case I started with the summer flavours of Seville oranges, fresh honey, dried apricots and vanilla, then added grilled peaches for a perfect end note. The one ingredient you can’t substitute is dark chocolate. But of course. For the ladies, that goes without saying, eh?
You will need:
½ cup pistachios (or substitute for slivered almonds)
½ cup dried apricots;
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1 ½ tbsp honey
1 tbsp mixed peel
1 or 2 drops of vanilla extract
18 savoiardi (lady finger) biscuits;
½ cup of freshly squeezed orange juice
4 nice plump ripe peaches
2 tbsp soft brown sugar or raw sugar
Place the ricotta in a bowl and beat well then whisk until smooth and softened. Roughly chop the nuts, dried fruit and chocolate and add to the ricotta, together with the honey, mixed peel and vanilla. Mix well to combine. Before we go any further I will suggest that a slug or two of a decent brandy improves the recipe even further. Fill half a crystal tumbler and with one quick lunge ingest it without the use of ice for the sake of decency. Replace the bottle and continue to prep.
Pour the orange juice into a large ceramic bowl. For the love of all things holy, please do not use plastic during the preparation as it will in my opinion, taint the finished taste. Dip the flat side of nine savoiardi biscuit briefly into the orange juice. Lay the soaked biscuits in a layer on a serving platter or plate.
Spoon half the cheese mixture over the soaked biscuits and smooth out the surface as evenly as possible. Soak the remaining biscuits, one at a time, in the orange juice and top the cheese mixture, then finally spread the remaining cheese mixture over the top. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for two hours.
Slice the peaches in half (I keep the skin on as I am an unabashed heathen) and remove the stone. Sprinkle with a little sugar and place on a tray. Place under a hot grill for five minutes or until the sugar melts and caramelises the peach. Remove and allow to cool for a minute before slicing the fruit.
Top the chilled cassata with warmed peaches and serve at once with a good dry cider and at the very least a rotund Sicilian-American for company.