Sunday, 22 May 2011

Let's hear it for the lemons

Has anyone else been watching Two Greedy Italians on BBC2 over the last few weeks?

Old friends Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo went back to Italy to visit four areas and talk about the food. Okay, they don’t just talk about it – they cook and eat it.

But the trip is not one where gastronomy is a stand-alone motivation: they meet old friends and family, they share stories of their lives before leaving for the UK.

This is not about food in isolation, but about food as a part of life, of love, of family, of friendship. And what it achieves, starting with the title itself, is a sense of vibrancy and earthiness and sensual pleasure that is an absolute joy to behold. There is poignancy in places, but ultimately, this is a celebration.

And the food is simple and gutsy and full of bold flavours.

There was a scene in the second episode when the pair sat there eating lemons they’d plucked from a tree – peel and all.

Now that could leave a northern European quite shocked.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been drifting toward buying more organic fruit and veg than previously. I noticed with organic Jersey Royals that that the flavour was better.

And then there were the lemons I bought last weekend. A softer yellow, knobblier by far than any you’d find in a supermarket and obviously unwaxed. The aroma when you cut into them absolutely sang.

During the week, we squeezed some on pan-fried tuna and some on grilled lamb chops. Lovely stuff.

And when I opened a bottle of Sicilian-style lemonade (made in France) that I’d picked up as an impulse buy, it was a million miles away from most of what I’ve ever tasted that has been called lemonade.

I have a jar of preserved lemons in to try a couple of Morrocan-style salads from Rick Stein’s Mediterranean – that’ll be different. It might not be eating peel in the same way that Carluccio and Contaldo did in the series, but since I’ve never done it before, it’ll still be a whole new culinary experience.

Natives of Asia, lemons made their European debut near southern Italy, no later than the 1st century AD, during the time of ancient Rome, before being introduced to Persia and Egypt.

The first mentions of lemons in literature are in a 10th century Arabic treatise on farming, and trees were used as an ornamental plant in early Islamic gardens.

But it wasn’t until the middle of the 15th century that the first major cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa.

In recent years, lemons have become something that I always have in the house. But I'm only just discovering that not all lemons are equal.

In a fit of lemony enthusiasm yesterday, I bought a load of the organic ones mentioned above.

First, the juice and zest of three went into a first attempt at gelato, the Italian ice cream that uses an egg custard as its base. It's not perfect: letting concentration slip for mere seconds, I barely saved the custard from boiling, and I need to work on the freezing process; it's a tad too icy. But the taste ...

The other thing I did, while The Other Half was biting his nails over a last-kick Challenge Cup victory for the Castleford Tigers at Wakefield, was to have another go at pasta.

Ravioli again, but this time with proper pasta flour – it's much finer. I used 125g of flour to one egg – and a few drops of chilled water. It was much more elastic – which is how you see it on TV – and seemed a little easier to roll.

The stuffing this time was a mixture of ricotta cheese, pine nuts, Parmesan, a little crème fraïche and lemon zest.

The pasta was thinner this time and I used an off cut to check when it was cooked, throwing that in the pan of boiling water with the ravioli themselves.

The sauce was simple – just some sage leaves fried in good butter and a squeeze of lemon to finish. That was not bad at all. Practice will improve my pasta skills, but it was good to try again so soon, while I still have ideas in my mind about what I did previously.

And if lemon had become an important ingredient for me in the last few years, it might just have moved into a higher pantheon of foods with the experimentation of the last week.

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