My seventh Supperclub event, last Saturday, was full of the sweet, sour and savoury tastes you get from cooking from Sicily, and other places on approximately the same bandwidth as it were: Southern Spain, and the northern shores of Africa. At my supperclub, I cook and share what inspires and delights me, the foods I want to make and eat myself.
I’ve not yet been to Sicily, but I’m so ready to go. The closest I ever got was watching Inspector Montalbano - a (very bad) Italian cop show a few years ago – I had a boyfriend who thought it quite the thing. I tried to suspend my judgement: the most interesting aspect was the evocation of place, and the food. Specifically, some rather splendid cold meals left for Inspector Montalbano to eat by his (old crone of a) housekeeper. That food gave me ideas.
These Southern tastes are huge flavours, breaking through like thunder in a still, warm, oppressive sky. They’re like the popping candy of real cooking: explosions in your mouth. Hardly surprising that they lack subtlety as they’re older than refrigeration; the sourness of vinegar, the spicing of fennel and saffron.
When I’m planning each month’s popup home restaurant dinner, I start with one dish that captures my imagination, and the rest is planned around it. Inspiration for this menu started from an amazingly romantic-sounding savoury goat’s yoghurt granita with preserved lemons, caramelised walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and basil. The recipe’s from Kerstin Rogers, aka Ms MarmiteLover, doyenne of London supperclubs. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever eaten – a burst of soft icy crystals, the sweet, glazed crunch of nuts, the unctuous sour trickle of the pomegranate syrup.
Before Saturday’s supperclub guests ever got to sample the granita, though, they’d started with something more solid. Roasted chicory – bitter, crisping, brown charred leaf-edges curling in the heat of the oven – served with San Daniele ham, and Roman-style black olive and fig chutney, with crunchy roasted fennel seeds.
The main course was Catalan chicken with picada, and saffron orzotto. The chicken’s a Diana Henry recipe (as so many of mine are; I’m a tweaker of recipes, honouring their provenance, and collator of menus; not claiming originality, since I find reading and learning from others a totally indispensable part of the pleasure of cookery. Diana’s my very favourite – she gets the literature, orientalism, adventure and romance of it all).
This recipe uses picada as a thickening agent: it’s a traditional Spanish paste, which flavours as it melts into the sauce and cradles the chicken. There’s white wine, pounded almonds, bread, and sweet biscuits. The casserole ends up rich, golden, plumped with sherry-soaked raisins, scattered with parsley. Perfect food.
You need the dark strength of plain chocolate to round off the sharpness of this menu, with all its sour complexity. I made Signorina Salvini’s chocolate dolce: an intensely rich chocolate mousse studded with amaretti biscuits, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, dried cherries. Scented with amaretto, and served in little, vintage harlequin dishes.
In the 1970s, Josceline Dimbleby (Henry of Leon fame’s mum) inspired my mother to make it for her own dinners. It’s pictured at the top of this post, tweaked and updated for 2014 and the next generation. I considered rechristening it Signorina Sweetman’s; then thought, no. I served the chocolate dolce with pools of double cream. My mother, in contrast, would have whipped hers and sprinkled it with grated chocolate. How we have progressed as a species.