‘Life is full of sweet and sour’

in Food and Wine · 26-06-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments
‘Life is full of sweet and sour’

You’d think getting your hands on a batch of homemade olive oil in Italy would be pretty straightforward. But if you’re in Sardinia and want the good stuff, you’ve got to put the work in, says food writer Letitia Clark.

And by ‘good stuff’ she means olive oil that’s passed to you “in an unlabelled petrol container” and is “amazing”. The trick, it turns out, is to “know people” and develop a “supply chain of friends who have their own olive groves”, she says. Helping out with the harvest boosts your chances too, as does a bit of bartering (“Swap it for wine”).

Clark, author of new cookbook Bitter Honey, has lived in Sardinia for almost three years. Born in Devon, her initial plan was to become a writer, but she got to university and realised she spent all her time “procrastinating and cooking, instead of doing my research and working”.

After attending Leiths cookery school, followed by stints at restaurants including Spring and The Dock Kitchen (where she picked up an interest in Italian-styles of cooking) and Morito in London, she fell for her then boyfriend’s stories of home – Sardinia – a “forgotten pocket of Italy that’s really beautiful and wild and undiscovered”.

Fed up with city living (“The life of a chef is pretty intense”) and as Clark’s interests turned more towards home cooking than restaurant food, they relocated. And although they broke up last year, Clark decided to stay put. “I love everything about [Sardinia],” she explains. “I thought it would be sad to leave and lose everything I’d built.”

Bitter Honey captures some of her feelings for the Mediterranean island, as well as the dishes and cookery techniques she’s discovered living there.

The book’s name, she explains, comes from the rare, slightly bitter honey made by bees from Sardinia’s strawberry trees, dotted with tiny red pompom berries – and the contradiction appealed. “Sardinia’s a bit of a contradiction as well,” says Clark. “Life is full of sweet and sour.”

Now based in little rented place in the countryside, Clark is hoping to open up a B&B at some point, host cookery workshops and grow her own vegetables. But she is careful to avoid presenting Sardinia in the book as offering an Instagram-worthy “fantasy lifestyle”.

“I don’t have an insanely perfect life,” she points out. “I don’t live in an idyll, I wanted to be realistic.” So while the book is sun drenched and golden, it has balance.

Pasta with butter recipe

Ingredients:

(For 2 restrained diners, or 1 hungover/fragile one)

220g dried pasta of your choice (I like risoni or any ‘short’ pasta best)

120g butter

8–10 small sage leaves

70g Parmesan, grated, plus extra to serve

Sea salt

Method:

1. Bring a large saucepan of well-salted water to the boil. Drop in the pasta.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Deep-fried peppers with anchovies and capers

Ingredients:

(Serves 4-6)

500ml olive oil, for frying, plus extra for drizzling

3 large red peppers, deseeded and cut into eighths lengthways

8 anchovy fillets, torn lengthways

1tbsp capers

1tbsp red wine vinegar

Sea salt

A few basil leaves, to serve

Method:

1. In a frying pan over a medium heat, warm the olive oil and then fry the pieces of pepper until they are completely soft and just beginning to take colour. Remove and drain well on kitchen paper.

2. Heap the peppers into a mixing bowl and stir through the anchovies, capers and vinegar. Taste for seasoning. They shouldn’t need salt as the anchovies are salty but if they are insipid, then add a pinch.

3. Stir well and leave to sit for at least one hour – even better, three to four hours. Serve at room temperature, scattered with some fresh basil and drizzled with your best oil.

Blood orange, ricotta, polenta and olive oil cake

Ingredients:

(Serves 8-10)

For the base:

1–2 blood oranges

100g demerara sugar

For the batter:

200ml olive oil, plus extra for greasing

200g caster sugar

Pinch of sea salt

250g ricotta

Zest and juice of 4 small blood oranges

Juice and zest of 1 large lemon

4 eggs

100g polenta

150g plain flour

2tsp baking powder

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin.

2. First, prepare the base of the cake. Wash the oranges and slice them into 2mm discs with a very sharp knife (you can use a mandoline or a slicer if you have them). I leave the rind on, as when cooked like this it becomes edible, but if you prefer you can remove it.

3. In a small saucepan over a medium heat, melt the demerara sugar with two tablespoons water until it has dissolved. Simmer for a few minutes until the syrup begins to caramelise (you should smell and see the colour change to a light amber). Pour your syrup over the bottom of the cake tin. Arrange the slices of blood orange, as many as will fit in one layer in a pleasing pattern, on top of the syrup.

4. To make the batter, whisk the oil, sugar, salt, ricotta, citrus juice and zest together in a large mixing bowl. Add in the eggs one at a time and beat until smooth. Add in the dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40–50 minutes, until golden and just set.

5. Allow the cake to cool for five minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the tin and invert onto a wire rack or serving plate. Allow to cool completely before slicing.

Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark, photography by Matt Russell, is published by Hardie Grant, priced £26. Available now.


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