Category Archives: preserves and conserves

what’s in a jar


My mum makes mincemeat every single year. For years I helped, stirring the ever darkening mass of dried fruit, candied peel, apples, nuts and suet, then squashing it into jars.  I liked the way the house smelt, a spiced and boozy fanfare for festive things to come. We’d have the first batch of mince pies in mid December, the pastry scented with orange zest, still warm from the oven.

My dad would eat whole pies in one gulp, which we thought was hilarious and my mum would say ‘Martin really, you’ll just encourage them‘ Which of course he did. Jar after jar was spooned into round after round of pastry, warm pies presented at every opportunity, to postmen and neighbours, callers, and us, especially us. Of course a mince-pie was always left for father christmas on christmas eve. The next morning we’d find it half eaten and Ben would say ‘It’s icing sugar and Dad did it‘ while Rosie stared at Father Christmas’s snowy footprints.


Then for years I didn’t help. I didn’t eat the pies either. I’d eat a whole jar of mincemeat though, crouched on the cellar stairs when everyone else was in bed. Then I’d feel as dark as the contents of the jar I’d just eaten and furious. Furious with the mincemeat, my with mum for making the bloody stuff, with myself.

It went on for years, mincemeat, like so many things, was something to be battled with, first with steely resistance, then otherwise. Later, it was on a list, two actually, to avoid and gratitude. I can’t remember exactly how it worked? Avoiding things but being grateful for them at the same time maybe! Looking back it all seems so absolutely absurd, comical even, that it’s hard to remember it made absolute sense at the time.


I don’t make mincemeat every single year. However when I do, everything is there, swirling around in the spiced and boozy scent, 41 years of mincemeat, of pans stirred and pans not stirred. I could get absorbed in detail, nostalgic or absurd, but I don’t, enjoying instead the heady vapours and a nip of brandy.

Luca clambers up on chair and demands a stir. His little hands clasp the wooden spoon and flick it upwards and then downwards splattering the stove, an amber fleck handing on his wrist ‘ It’s hot meat’ he tells me.  I feel relieved Luca is a boy and yearn to talk to my mum.  As I spoon stuff into jars and screw on the lids, I remind myself it’s only mincemeat.


Usually I make Jane Grigsons mincemeat (which is turn Mrs Beeton) from English Food. Not having found suet, I made Gloria Nicol’s apple and quince mincemeat, two batches actually, the first back in October. Unlike JG’s recipe the mincemeat is cooked, in cider no less, for about an hour, the result is glorious, thick, rich, fragrant, well-spiced mincemeat to which you add (plenty of) brandy. Purist will not agree, but I think it is just as good as mincemeat with suet.

Apple and Quince mincemeat

Adapted from Gloria Nicols recipe in the Guardian.

Gloria notes this makes 1.75 g of mincemeat. Both my batches filled 3 standard jars and one smaller jar. For those in Rome I bought all the Ingredients from Emporio delle Spezie in Testaccio, it is an Aladdin’s cave of spices, herbs, seasonings, dried fruit, nuts, grains and tea – all sold by weight.

  • 500ml cider
  • 225 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 kg Bramley apples (or mixture of quince and apples), peeled and cored
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100 g dates
  • 100 g currants
  • 150 g raisins
  • 150 g sultanas
  • 100 g candied peel, chopped
  • 50 chopped almonds
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 150ml brandy

Put 3 scrupulously clean standard jars and a smaller one with lids in a low oven to sterilize for 10 minutes.

In a large heavy based pan warm the cider and sugar, stirring to until the sugar has dissolved. Peel, core and chop the apples and grate the quince if using them. Add all ingredients except the brandy, to the pan. Over a low flame let the mincemeat simmer and bubble gently for around 1 hour – stirring every now and then – until the apples have turned into puree and the mixture looks rich and thickened.

Remove from the heat, allow the mincemeat to cool and then stir in the brandy. Spoon the mincemeat into the sterilised jars and seal immediately. Leave for a month – and up to a year – to mature before opening.


Mincemeat tart

Why wait until christmas ? I like my pastry plain, unsweetened and more crisp than crumbly. My tin is a fluted and measures 8″ across.

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g cold butter (or a mix of butter and lard)
  • a pinch of salt
  • iced water
  • a jar of mincemeat

In a bowl rub the fat into the pastry with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and then enough water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth soft dough.

On a floured board roll the dough into a round a little large than the tin. Carefully lift the dough into the tin and press it gently into the base and the edges. Trim the overlapping pastry and set the scraps aside. Leave the pastry case the fridge for 30 minutes.

Spoon the mincemeat into the case and then decorate the top with lattice or a pattern. Brush the pasty with beaten egg and bake at 180° for 30 minutes.

DSC_4879 DSC_4897


Filed under almonds, candied fruit, christmas, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, Puddings, recipes, tarts, winter recipes

What a nice pair


It was a good and unmistakably Roman start to the meal: crisp, bitter curls of puntarelle (chicory) dressed with olive oil, garlic and anchovy, braised globe artichokes and slices of toasted bread zigzagged with olive oil and strewn with salt. The serving dishes were large, the table long and narrow and a lackadaisical mother allowing her child to crawl everywhere, so a fair amount of passing, negotiating and cooperation was required.

Just when it seemed we’d all helped ourselves to everything, and the dishes had found places between the bottles and the bread, Alessandro (sporting his signature chef bandana) brought an almost whole wheel of pecorino romano to the table. My friend Mauro grinned and made it clear where the cheese should be deposited by drumming his fingers on the table before him. He then took the stumpy cheese knife, impaled it, hewed off a lump of pecorino and began eating. We were in Agustarello obviously.


It took me a while to come around to pecorino romano, the ewes milk cheese so beloved of the Romans. It’s a distinctive and surly cheese: strong and with a semi-sharp almost muttony taste about it. If parmigiano reggiano is a smooth sophisticated type with a history of art degree and a flat in Kensington, then pecorino romano is a bit of a rogue with an accent as thick as treacle, superlative record collection and oodles of charm

Most pecorino romano is aged from 8 months to a year and then considered a grating cheese. Once grated, it’s launched liberally, lending its distinctive nature and a salty wink to some of Rome’s most prized dishes: pasta alla gricia, all’amatriciana, carbonara, angry arrabbiata, cacio e pepe and the aromatic trippa alla romana.

Some pecorino romano however, is eaten young, at around about five months – I believe semi-aged is the correct term  – which means it’s less pungent, that it’s softer and milder mannered and makes a good table cheese. A very good table cheese, especially with first fave, the first tender broad beans of the spring.


It’s one of the nicest Roman rituals, one traditionally enjoyed during the symbolic trip to the countryside after winter. A big dish of broad beans still in their pods so that you may peel them yourself is served with a piece of young pecorino romano and a glass of local wine.

Of course fave demand attention! The long, fingerlike pods need to be split down the seam and then the tough opaque coats eased away from each bean before the bright green slivers, tasting somewhere between a buttered pea and asparagus can be eaten with a nub of cheese. Weather permitting we will enjoy this ritual on Monday – otherwise known as Pasquetta or little Easter – in Villa Celimontana. Come! Bring something for the picnic table, a bottle or two and suitable shoes for football. I won’t play football obviously, I’ll sit podding fave and drinking the wine you brought.


Or – but hush and don’t tell the farmer – you could eat your pecorino romano with pear. But I probably don’t need to tell you that! You know perfectly well what good partners hard cheese and pears make ? How nicely the sweet, buttery, vinous character of pear marries with a hunk of sharp, salty pecorino? The pear should be ripe, but not too ripe! An elusive moment I know, but one well worth waiting for. At least I think so.

This week all my pears, that is the bowlful above and a bag full sitting under the counter, reached that elusive moment simultaneously. Having been almost comically enthusiastic, my son promptly decided he didn’t like chair and shouted every time I presented him with a slice, chunk or puree. Determined the pears shouldn’t suffer the all too common fate in this flat, that is deterioration into a soft, sleepy mush that ends up (shamefully) in the bin, I took charge.

There was pear and pecorino romano just so. A salad of thinly sliced fennel, pear and pecorino was good (the faint liquorice nip of the fennel working well with the sweet and sharp) and a pear and prosciutto sandwich excellent. Then, at the eleventh hour, as the remaining pears appeared to give me the same look my son gives me when I’m typing on the computer: that is hopeful but mournful and resigned to my neglect, I made chutney.


Pear and date chutney. I’ve had this recipe in mind for weeks, ever since spying it on a new to me blog called Life in Abruzzo. I have a weakness for chutney, for rich, sweet and sharp concoctions to be smeared onto bread, spooned next to curry or nudged onto cheese, scotch egg, pressed potato or a fat wedge of potato frittata. This recipe is a good as it sounds: a dark, sticky muddle of pear (the chunks of which retain something of their shape and shine through the glass jar) and dates, with a nip of aniseed, a pinch of fragrant and feminine coriander and warm undertones from the teaspoon of pepperoncino. Yes please.

It’s pleasingly straightforward. You chop the pears and dates and then macerate them – or whatever the verb is – for an hour or so in cider vinegar and sugar. Seeds are fried in hot oil until they’re fragrant and your kitchen smells like somewhere else. Onion is added to the seeds and then once it’s soft and translucent you add the fruit et al, bring the chutney to the boil and then reduce it to a burping simmer for nearly an hour. You ladle your dark, sticky, spoon-coating chutney into scrupulously clean jars. I find boiling water and a warm oven does the trick but don’t tell the earnest canners that, they will have me up in front of the preserving judge before you can say not hermetically sealed. But really, around here chutney is kept in the fridge and eaten long before any unsavory types have time to even think about visiting, never mind moving in.

Pear and date chutney and pecorino romano, what a nice pair, and one that fits neatly into a Roman life with English undertones. Just perfect for a picnic (in the kitchen.) Have a good (and long) weekend.


Pear and date chutney

Adapted from Sammy Dunham’s recipe in Life in Abruzzo which was in turn adapted from Lucinda’s recipe. With advice (as is so often the case) from Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Did I mention how much I like Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Two practical notes. Firstly, stir and scrape attentively during the simmering, chutney can be terrible sticker if left to its own devices. Secondly this chutney – like most chutneys –  is best when cooked to a moderate set: jammy and coating the back of the spoon, but still a little runny; if too thick and solid it will dry out. I halved the quantities suggested by Sammy. The recipe below makes three jars

  • 750 g pears
  • 250 g dates (ideally Medjool)
  • 325 g demerara or soft brown sugar
  • 250 ml cider or apple vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped pepperoncino or cayenne pepper
  • 50 ml olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • 1 scarse teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 large red or white onion (yielding about 300 g when diced)
  • salt and black pepper

Wash, core and chop the pears into small chunks. remove the stones from the dates and chop them roughly. In a large bowl mix the pear, dates, sugar, vinegar, and pepperoncino and mix thoroughly (hands are best). Leave to sit for an hour or so, stirring every so often.

In a heavy based pan, heat the oil and then add the seeds and fry (vigorously but not aggressively) for 30 seconds or so or until the seeds are fragrant. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, lower the heat and then saute the onion until it is soft and translucent.

Add the pear mixture, a pinch of salt a several grinds of black pepper to the pan. Stir, bring chutney to the boil and then reduce to a bubbling simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so scraping well round sides and bottom of pan.

The chutney is ready when it is dark, thickish, sticky and coating the back of the spoon.

Ladle the chutney into warm sterilized jars (I wash mine in boiling water and then sit them in a warm oven to dry.) Screw on lids and leave jars to cool. Store somewhere cool and dark. Ready to eat straight away, but better after a week and better still after three (according to Sammy.) Once opened, keeps in fridge for up to a month.



Filed under cheese, chutney, dates, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Rome, Roman food, spring recipes

A certain appeal


I have a thing about orange peel. I’m also extremely fond of the fruit within: in segments just so, with fennel and black olives, squeezed rudely (no smooth and filtered juice for me thank you very much.) But it’s the peel – especially of Sicilian navel oranges –  rugged matte-orange peel with deep pores, pith as-thick-as-your-thumb and the most exquisite heady scent that makes me hum.

I grate orange zest – intensely aromatic and oily – into cakes, biscuits, pastry, salads and soups. I shave orange curls into cocktails, tea and sticky sauces. I chew the half-moon in my Campari and relish the curious dry, bitter, oily gasp that fills my mouth. My Sevile orange marmalade is as chunky as my nephew’s thighs and orange peel dangles in an ungainly manner from radiators so rooms are filled with citrus scent. And then there is candied orange peel.


I am extraordinarily fond of candied fruit per se. I always have been: my young eyes finding the suspiciously red cherry on top much more exciting than the tart or biscuit below, my fat little fingers picking out the opaque orange cubes from whatever they were suspended in. While other children clambered up onto kitchen counters in search of biscuits, I was rummaging in the baking drawer and prising open squat tubs of glacè cherries, angelica and peel bound for mincemeat. I was probably about 12 when my dad bought my mum a tray of Italian candied fruits: pears, oranges, cherries, figs and plums. A glorious tray of whole fruits that had been soaked in syrup until their colour and curves were perfectly preserved in an opaque sugar gown. Sweet, firm and just exquisite.

But I never even considered making candied fruit or peel. I imagined it involved complicated and elaborate procedures, that it was fiendishly difficult and bound to end in disaster. Then I read Molly’s post. A post about – amongst other nice things – making candied orange peel. A post which charmed me (Molly always does) enlightened me and started what was to escalate into a week of simmering syrup. To begin I made two batches of Molly’s thick and thin candied peel: stout match sticks and slim curls which you roll in sugar. Then feeling bold and bolstered by my success I adapted her recipe in order to make larger pieces of candied peel that I didn’t roll in sugar.


I’m bound to make this sound complicated and pernickerty. It isn’t. A flurry of activity demanding your full attention is necessary to get started, but then it’s all about the long, seductive simmer that requires nothing more than a curious prod and satisfied nod every now and then.

You cut both ends from each orange (6 is a good number and make sure they’re unwaxed) and then score the fruit with a sharp knife so you can ease away four arcs of peel. Now you need to blanch the peel three times: that is put it in a pan, cover it with cold water and bring to the boil, drain, recover the peel with fresh cold water, bring to the boil again, drain, recover and reboil. Did that make sense? I hope so.

Having blanched the peel, you need to simmer it in simple syrup (2 cups of water and two cups of fine sugar) until the arcs are tender and translucent. Tentative touch and taste are the best gauge –  trust yourself, you are right. Mine took an hour and 45 minutes. Once your orange arcs are candied, you use a slotted spoon to scoop them from the amber liquid and onto a wire tray set on baking parchment. You leave them to dry for a day and a half by which point they are no longer wet (but still a little bit tacky) and shine like polished leather. Store them in a screw top jar. Don’t forget to pour the amber cooking syrup into a bottle and keep it in the fridge, It’s good on greek yogurt and glorious poured over sliced oranges, slivers of dates and mascarpone (thank you Frances and thank you too for your delightful drawings, they are sheer joy in a world of too many photos)


Of course you can eat the peel just so. I do. It’s heady stuff, the absolute essence of orange really: sweet, fragrant, spicy, oily and acerbic. Not for the citrus faint hearted. It’s good with an espresso and a square of lindt. Or with tea, Darjeeling is particulary nice. You can dip the ends of your fat, fragrant match sticks in melted dark chocolate to make scorzette d’arancia candite al cioccolato (or Orangettes). Alternatively you could (and you should) make possibly my favourite christmas treat – which is saying something considering the throng of heavily fruited cakes, suet-laced puddings, Panetone, profusion of marzipan and gaggle of spiced delights that clammer for attention during my schizophrenic AngloItalian festivities – Panforte di Siena.

Panforte di Siena is a flat, rich, boldly spiced cake, dense with toasted nuts and candied fruit peel that dates back to Medieval times. Don’t let its appearance deceive! A dark, shadowy, curiously bumpy appearance barely concealed by a blizzard of icing sugar, panforte is a most delicious thing. I’ve described it as a cake! It’s actually more like soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat (with a whisper of cake) that’s crowded with toasted almonds, hazelnuts and masses and masses of candied fruit.


It is pleasingly (ridiculously) straightforward to make. You toast the nuts until they are fragrant and (just) golden. You need 300g for the panforte so I suggest you toast at least 500 g so you have some for with an aperitivo. Prosecco please. Then you chop the nuts roughly (very roughly they can almost be whole) and small dice the candied peel. In a large bowl you mix together the flour, cocoa, spices – nutmeg, ground cloves, black pepper and cinnamon – nuts and candied fruit. You note your kitchen smells like Christmas. Hum (bug.)

Now you make a syrup of sugar and honey. You can get involved with thermometers here! Or you can – like me – choose to follow a recipe that simply tells you to warm the sugar and honey gently until they’ve dissolved into a syrup. Now working quickly, you pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and stir until everything comes together into a sticky mass. Now using a spoon and your hands, you press the mixture down into a shallow tin you have lined with rice paper or wafers. You bake your panforte for 30 minutes. Once it is cool you drench it with icing sugar.


For a woman like me, a woman with a weakness for toasted nuts, candied peel, heavily spiced confections and medieval undertones, this is a pretty stupendous slice. Gillian Riley notes that in the 1500s panforte (which literally translated means strong bread) with its strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness was considered an ideal gift for women after childbirth. Now I know it’s been more than a year, but I’m still in need of strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness. Hum.

Panforte di Siena

Adapted from Sapori d’Italia and Le ricette Regionali Italiane

  • 150 g peeled almonds
  • 150 g peeled hazelnuts
  • 300 g best quality candied fruit peel (orange, cedro, melon, lemon)
  • 150 g honey
  • 150 g sugar
  • 1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 /4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 /4 teaspoon of black pepper (optional)
  • 100 g plain flour
  • icing sugar to dust
  • rice paper wafers /rice paper or baking parchment

Preheat the oven to 160° and line a 9″ by 2″ (23 cm by 5 cm) cake tin with rice paper or baking parchment

Spread the nuts on a baking tray and then toast then in the oven until they are lightly golden and fragrant. Chop the nuts very coarsely (very roughly they can almost be whole). Small dice the candied peel.

In a bowl mix together the cocoa, spices and flour. Add the nuts and diced peel. Stir.

In a heavy bottomed pot over a low flame warm the honey and sugar stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and cook the mixture until is just starting to bubble at the edges.

Quickly pour the sugar and honey syrup into the other ingredients and stir until they come together into a sticky mass. Working swiftly scrape the mixture into the lined tin then use your hands to press the mixture evenly down.

Bake for 30 minutes. Allow the panforte to cool in the tin, then remove it carefully and dust really generously with icing sugar. Panforte keeps brilliantly for days. It keeps best (and for weeks) if it is covered or in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.




Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, christmas, hazelnuts, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spiced cakes

Friends, Crème fraîche hurling and poached apricots.

I have a great friend called Romla. We’ve known each other 15 years now. Since the day she roared into the forecourt of The Drama Center London on monster sports bike in full, skin-tight leathers and pulled off her helmet to reveal a mop of rumpled peroxide-blonde hair. It was my first day and I assumed she was a third year. But then, as all the new students gathered, quietly, nervously for the introductory talk, in strode the blonde on the bike and sat in the circle. I decided I really didn’t like her.

This feeling incubated for the whole of the first term. Then for the second term production, an obsure German play called The Rats by Gerhart Hauptmann, Romla was cast as the formidable Housekeeper – obviously – and I, the lowly maid. Most of our scenes involved her mistreating, berating and generally slapping me around. I assumed this would nudge dislike towards loathing. But ironically the hours of rehearsal and the endless slapping – proper hand to cheek stuff, all very earnest, this was The Drama Center afterall – had the reverse effect. We became great friends.

Romla is very good at lots of things. ‘Shes a bloody polymath!‘ A mutual friend once noted. She is also a mean poker player and a superb cook. While we were studying, I spent far too much time at her house – we were students, we all had motley accommodation, all, except Romla. Most days involved her cooking. I’d play sous chef and our friend Tom would camp up proceedings until the usual suspects arrived for a big dinner. Over one such (particularly boozy) dinner soon after we’d graduated, we hatched a plan to subsidize our precarious acting careers by setting up a catering company. Now, if it had been down to me, this idea would have remained exactly that, an idea. But Rom being Rom, and her father’s daughter, meant Romla and Rachel Catering – R&R catering – was established. I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about R&R, because although we were actually quite good, and surprisingly successful to boot, it was all incredibly dodgy, we broke several laws and breached just about every health and safety regulation going.

Amid all the cooking and pirate catering, we all went to stay at Rom’s family house in the south of France, a staggeringly beautiful place, perched on the hillside above Monaco. We ate at the house most nights, sitting on the terrace looking past the glittering lights of Villefranche-sur-Mer at the Ligurian sea, drinking wine worth more than our monthly pay cheques. We felt like Grace Kelly, Joan Collins, F Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Douglas all rolled into one.

Even polymath cooks need a night off; so one evening we went out for dinner. I’d been waiting to go to this particular restaurant. Firstly because the food was famously good and secondly, because this was the place, a few years earlier, that Rom’s ex boyfriend had infamously scooped a ladelful of thick, white, crème fraîche from the vast pot and hurled it, clown style, in her face.

The meal was as promised, terrific. Beautifully simple food, prepared with great care but no fuss, from really good local ingredients. First a vast bowl of raw vegetables; radishes, slim carrots, fennel, artichokes, broad beans and whole hard-boiled eggs to be eaten with aioli. There was a terrine, rabbit I think, little dishes of mushrooms cooked in butter and another of tiny preserved onions, sweet, sharp and delicious. For the main course, we choose between chicken, beef or lamb, which was then cooked on the grill over a wood fire in the center of the restaurant and served with baked potatoes and butter. Next a green salad. To finish, a vast jar of poached apricots and another of peaches was set in the middle of the table, and beside them a large metal pail of the most exquisitely thick, unctuous crème fraîche I’ve ever seen. The infamous crème fraîche. Large serving spoons and bowls were passed around so we could help ourselves.

After the first delicious mouthful, I turned to Romla, I wanted to exchange knowing glances about the crème fraîche, I was wondering if she remembered that she’d told me the story?  She had, and in case I hadn’t, she was poised, ladle in hand and in the middle of a rustic but very fashionable restaurant, with the same force that the housekeeper slapped the maid, she splattered the crème fraîche in my face. Silence descended, thud! I don’t think anyone else at the table knew the story. Everyone looked shocked and uncomfortable, someone gasped, someone else handed me a napkin.  Several people jumped to my defence in a ‘Oh my god, poor little Rachel; big, horrid Romla‘ manner. Romla and I proceeded to laugh for the next two days.

I still think the big jar of poached apricots and the pail of crème fraîche is one of the best and most wonderful puddings I have ever been served. So good and simple, so much nicer than a million fussy things. I often stew fruit – I think we’ve established I have a thing for it – Pears in red wine, prunes in spices and my favourite, Quince with black pepper. But apart from the odd little panful, I have never seriously poached apricots.

Until last weekend. Inspired by Robin at Codfish and Caviar – one of my favouries and one of the first food blogs I ever read – and with advice from Elizabeth David, I put apricots in jars. Apricots are lovely at the moment, they have been for a while, soft, downy, peachy-orange orbs, some of them flushed with pink. We have been eating them just so, splitting them in two at the seam, pulling away the stone and biting into the soft, tender, flesh. Then on Saturday my fruttivendolo, my other Vincenzo, gave me a cracking deal on 3 kilos.

You make a simple sugar syrup by dissolving 450g of fine sugar with 6 cups of water, you add strips of lemon zest, vanilla, whole black peppercorn, cloves and a stick of cinnamon. You poach halved apricots for a few minutes until they are tender but still holding their shape. Finally you divide the apricots between your preserving jars and then reduce the syrup a little before pouring it over the fruit.

As with pears and quinces, a gentle, brief poaching – brief being the operative word, just a few minutes or they will collapse and become mushy – does something wonderful to the flesh of apricots, the texture changes, becoming both firm and tender. After a few days macerating in the light lemon syrup, along with the cloves, vanilla, black peppercorns and the cinnamon, the become heavy and infused with the warm, spicy flavours.

We have been having poached apricots for breakfast this week, 6 or 7 halves each with a big blob of Greek yogurt. Even Vincenzo – who is usually resentful of fruit for breakfast, especially if it the only option – approves. Last night. after supper, we had some with mascarpone which is another thing altogether, indulgent and quite delicious. But, I know crème fraîche is the best partner for poached apricots, the thick, rich, weight of it, the slight sourness. On Saturday when I plonk the nicer of the two big jars in the middle of the table, it will be alongside a big bowl of crème fraîche. Crème fraîche hurling will be optional.

On a practical note, I’d cut some of the larger apricots in quarters. It was a mistake, they don’t hold their shape as well. Halves are best. When buying fresh apricots, look for fruit that is plump, fragrant, and gives a little when squeezed. Poaching time depends on the ripeness of the fruit. My ripe, but firm, apricots took 4 minutes.

Poached apricots in spiced syrup

Adapted from Robin and Gourmet. Advice from Elizabeth David

Fills 2 1.5 litre or preserving jars.

  • 6 cups /1.5 litres filtered water
  • 2 generous cups /450g caster sugar
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 15 thick strips of unwaxed lemon rind (you will need 2 or 3 lemons)
  • 8 cloves
  • vanilla pod
  • 65 ripe but firm apricots

Wash and then cut the apricots in two and remove the stone.

Scrape seeds from vanilla bean with tip of a sharp knife into large heavy based saucepan and add pod, water, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns.

Very gently bring the contents of the pan to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

Now you are going to cook the apricots in two or three batches depending on the size of your pan. Add the first batch of the apricot halves and simmer, stirring once or twice, until tender, 2 to 6 minutes (depending on ripeness).

Using a slotted spoon lift the apricots out of the syrup and into very clean preserving jars. Put the next batch in the syrup, poach and lift into the jars, Repeat, if necessary with the third batch.

Then scoop out the lemon, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon and divide them between the jars. Now bring the syrup to a fast rolling boil and leave it rolling energetically until the syrup has reduced by about a third. Divide the syrup between the jars.

Keep the jars for a few days in the fridge before serving the apricots cold or a room temperature with a dollop of crème fraîche, fresh unsalted cream cheese (homemade or Isigny) mascarpone or thick greek yogurt.


Filed under food, fruit, preserves and conserves, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food


Our first strawberries this year, bought for a picnic on the first of May, were handsome, even featured, seductively heart-shaped, deep red things. They turned out to be terribly disappointing, taut, hollow and quite without taste. The berry equivalents of  tucked, toned, tight, plucked, perfect smile hollywood starlets. Strawberries more adapted to hurling than eating. Hurled they were. Then last week, punnets of scarlet fragole favette, reassuringly inconsistent in shape and size, arrived at Testaccio market from Terracina a coastal town south of Rome. Sweet, tender and as lovely as rose bud lips.

We ate these three just so, plump and juicy fine, quickly enough to avoid putting them in the fridge. I like avoiding the fridge. They only needed a tweak to pull out the green crowns and a wipe with a damp cloth – they were far too delicate to be drowned in water. The larger ones were sliced in two. They didn’t need sugar or lemon but Vincenzo had a twist of black pepper over his, insisting it brings out the flavour, something I am yet to be convinced of.

Talking of drowning, if we’d had some very heavy cream I’d have drowned  my third serving of berries in it, but we didn’t. I didn’t suffer its absence, not considering my imminent trip to London and the extremely large strawberry, scone and thick cream tea I intend to polish off with my sister Rosie and her new little girl, my first niece, Beattie.

On Saturday morning, to assuage my present compulsion to put food in jars I bought three kilos of strawberries to make jam. I have long harboured daydreams of having a cupboard full of French kilner and le parfait jars filled with pickles, preserves, compotes, tomatoes for a year, things under oil, things under alcohol. Vincenzo pointed out this larder was not going to suddenly materialise, and that if I wanted it, it was about time I started.

My mum is a great marmalade and jam maker, a very nice habit I took entirely for granted when I was growing up. I, on the other hand, am a very enthusiastic jam, jelly, conserve and preserve novice with a tendency towards stickiness and setting anxiety. I had a beer for lunch and then approached proceedings with a somewhat louche and cavalier attitude. I was working on the principle that even if it didn’t set, a deep red elixir of good strawberries and sugar, edgy with red currants and lemon juice would be delicious, even if it was poured.

Strawberry jam

Adapted from Jill Normans ‘ New Penguin cookery book‘ and my friend Ada.

  • 2kg strawberries
  • 250g punnet of red currants,
  • 1kg Jam/ preserving sugar,
  • juice of 2 large lemons.

Hull the strawberries wipe them with a damp cloth – wet fruit does not a good preserve make. Drain them well and cut them into pieces. Pull the stalks from the red currants and wash them. Layer the fruit in a large pan with sugar, ending with a layer of sugar. Cover with a clean cloth and leave to macerate for 6 hours.

Put 3 small saucers in the freezer for testing later. Put the pan on a low heat and add half the lemon juice. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Increase the heat, add the rest of the lemon juice and boil – a rolling boil – for 1o minutes. remove from heat

Test by putting a little of the jam onto one of the cold saucers and put it into the fridge for a couple of minutes. Then push the jam with your finger, if it wrinkles it is set. If not, boil for 5 more minutes, remove from heat and then test again. If the jam is still not set, boil for another 5 minutes and test again. It will be set by now!

Wait for 15 minutes then pour the jam – carefully – into warm, clean sterilized jars, cover and seal while the jam is still warm to create a vacuum.

It set. Sour dough toast, lots of butter, sticky, sweet jam with a delightful kick of red currant – my jam, a pot of illy coffee, its scent curling around the flat, imminent arrival of English newspaper and crossword, option of going back to bed at any given moment. All’s well.

A woman in possession of a large quantity of strawberry jam and plans to make more is best advised to make a jam tart. Nothing fussy, a simple not-too-sweet pastry, filled with a puddle of jam. The pastry; 1oog butter, 30g icing sugar, one large egg, 200g flour. To make the pastry; put the butter, icing sugar and egg in a bowl (or food processor) and work together quickly. Blend in the flour and work together into a very soft homogenous paste.

Now working quickly with your fingertips, roughly – this is no time for neatness – push the soft pastry into a pie tin or tart case. The pastry needs to come up high enough to hold a pool of jam, you know the sort of thing I’m sure. Chill the case for 20 minutes or so. Spoon in the jam, making sure it is well within the pastry ridge.

Slide the tart into the oven – the one you have remembered to set at 180° – for 20 minutes or so, the pastry should be golden at the edges and the jam bubbling. Wait at least 20 minutes before slicing into the tart so the jam has time to settle back into some sort of firmness. Eat and Remember how much you like jam tart.

We’re jammin‘ –
To think that jammin’ was a thing of the past;
We’re jammin’,
And I hope this jam is gonna last.


Filed under food, fruit, jams and preserves, pies and tarts, preserves and conserves, recipes

First things first

Pellegrino Artusi the Italian buongustaio and one of the first food writers to gather together recipes from all over Italy, describes antipasti – which literally translated means before (anti) the meals (pasti) – as cosette appetitose, appetising little things to be eaten before the first course.

I’ve seen and tasted wonderfully clever and complicated antipasti, but generally this nice habit appears to be a simple, unfussy and local affair for most Italians. There is always bread, maybe a bowl of olives and probably a few slices of local salami or cured meat. Around Rome at this time of year, you may be presented with a dish of broad beans fave, still in their pods so you can peel them yourself to eat with hunks of salty Pecorino Romano.

Sometimes there’s a local cheese or some vegetables preserved under oil. There might be a dish of fat white beans sitting in a puddle of good olive oil or some marinated anchovies. I’ve often had fried delights, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then plunged into hot oil, or olives stuffed with seasoned sausage meat, breaded and fried until crisp. A favourite antipasti is crostini, small toasts spread with coarse patè, or bruschetta, bread warmed on a charcoal grill (or toaster if you live in an extremely small inner city apartment) heaped with roughly chopped tomatoes or – one of my favourites – simply rubbed with garlic and anointed with olive oil.

I’m immensely fond of such cosette appetitose. On more than one occasion a lack of control and foresight in their presence, nearly sabotaged the rest of the meal. I am an English barbarian afterall.

Three years ago, Vincenzo and the motley crew he drums with, played a concert in Supersano, a town in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It was past midnight when we followed one of the young organisers in a fuel injected panda with a penchant for formula one corners, through the Puglian countryside in search of our post concert supper. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another hairpin bend in a sweaty tour van, we swerved into the forecourt of a Masseria – dictionary definition; a fortified farmhouse or manor farm with a large agricultural estate – which had been converted into an agriturismo and restaurant.

It was an extraordinary, vast, sprawling 16th century stone building, a proud, labyrinthine place. The hour, heat, humidity and our growling hunger were not particularly condusive to thoughtful reflection of the places austere beauty, but it was quietly acknowledged. We were led into paved courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall, then seated at a round table, large enough to accommodate all ten of us.

The meal that followed was one of the most memorable and delicious I have ever eaten.

First the bread, typical of the area, made from semolina flour, firm with an almost yellow crumb, bowls of olives and a salami called capacollo. There were various dishes of preserved and pickled vegetables sitting in pools of golden olive oil; sweet and sour small onion-like lampascioni, purple edged slices of grilled aubergine, soft, sweet red peppers and my favourite, tiny walnut sized artichokes. Then came the deep-fried zucchini flowers, some filled with mozzarella and anchovy, others with sheeps milk ricotta, and the rest just so, crisp and golden on the ouside, soft and forgiving within. That my friends, was the antipasti. It was clear to us all it was going to be a long night.

Next, i primi, two vast platters of home-made pasta, one with cime di rapa the other with a piquant ragu. As we helped ourselves then ate the pasta, they stoked up the charcoal grill in the corner of the courtyard ready to cook lamb, pancetta and fat sausages – I think, by this point everything was blurred at the edges. After the meat came green salad dressed with salt and extra virgin olive oil. To finish we slurped vast half moons of soft, sweet, white melon and bit into soft almond biscuits. We drank wine, lots of it, a Primitivo I think, water from the well in the centre of the courtyard and we ended proceedings with a strictly medicinal amaro.

Almost everything we were served was sown, grown, produced, pickled. preserved, fermented, brewed, baked, cooked at the Masseria.

At some point I (apparently) asked a formidable signora from the kitchen how to prepare the onions, the artichokes, the ragu and the biscuits. I say apparently because I don’t really remember this particular conversation, but I do have the notes to prove it took place. My handwriting, an unruly scrawl, suggests rather a lot of wine had been consumed by that particular point. We finished eating at 3 in the morning. I don’t remember leaving.

So, the first recipe, the carciofi sott’olio (artichokes preserved under oil.)

It’s hard not to admire the vast, unruly heaps of small, purple tipped, baby globe artichokes (carciofi) at Testaccio market. Every year I buy a few to eat raw in salad and every year I promise myself I will set some time aside, buy a few kilo’s to prepare and preserve under oil. This year I finally did. I’ve made two batches. The first was rather straightforward because Vincenzo my faithful fruttivendolo prepared the artichokes. I watched attentively because the next 3kg, the second batch were down to me.

Sleeves up, radio on. Working with half a lemon and a bowl of cold water acidulated with plenty of lemon juice. You take the artichoke in one hand and snap away the outside leaves until you reach the tender pale leaves which are only green/purple at the top. Then with a small paring knife you cut away the small stem and then scrape and cut away tough green from the base exposing the white heart – rub the exposed surface with lemon. Finally cut away the pointed tops and put the prepared artichoke in the lemon water.

You plunge the prepared artichokes (in batches to avoid over crowding) into a fast boiling solution of white wine, white wine vinegar, water and a little salt. Once the water cames back to the boil you let the artichokes roll around for three minutes before lifting them out with a slotted spoon, draining them and lining them up on a clean tea towel to dry for 24 hours.

The following day you tuck the artichokes neatly into scrupulously clean jars, not forgetting to punctuate each layer with a black peppercorn. You fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil so the artichokes are absolutely covered. ‘Cosi‘ said Vincenzo the fruttivendolo as he explained the procedure, holding his fingers about 3mm apart.

Finally you put the lids on the jars – tightly, then hide them away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Carciofi sott’olio (Artichokes preserved under oil)

  • 3 kg small artichokes
  • 500ml white wine
  • 500ml white wine vinegar
  • 200ml water
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • whole black peppercorns
  • a selection of clean sterilized jars with lids

Prepare your artichokes – see above.

In a large pan bring the wine, vinegar and water to a fast boil. Then working in batches so the pan is not overcrowded, add some of the artichokes. Once the water comes back up to a fast boil, cook the artichokes for 3 minutes.

Lift the artichokes out of the pan with a slotted spoon, drain them, squeeze the excess water out of each one and the line them up – with the beautiful side facing upwards – on a clean tea towel to dry out for 24 hours.

The following day tuck the artichokes into scrupulously clean jars in neat, tightly packed layers, punctuating each layer with black peppercorn. Fill the jars to the top with extra virgin olive oil, making sure the artichokes are absolutely covered by at least 3mm of oil.

Put the lids on tightly, then hide the jars away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Once the artichokes are ready, spoon them and some of the oil into a small dish (try not to put your fingers in jar) and serve them as part of your antipasti. They are also wonderful on pizza, tossed with pasta, in a salad, or sliced thinly to tuck in a sandwich

Have a really good week.


Filed under antipasti, olive oil, preserves and conserves, Rachel's Diary, recipes

They call it bright yellow (quite rightly)

lemon Curd

A smooth, translucent semi solid preserve. Colour:  bright yellow. Flavour: aromatic, sharp-sweet. Composition: lemons, sugar, eggs, butter. My sister Rosie’s favourite.

This is where my love of all things sweet and lemony started.

When we were growing up either my mum would make lemon curd, or jars of it with jam pot hats – that circle of fabric secured by an elastic band covering the lid – would be brought back from visits to National Trust houses in Oxfordshire, English holidays or purchased from fragrant ladies wearing flowery skirts, white cardigans and pearl earings at garden fetes. The quivering canary- yellow curd, the unctuous elixir of lemon, butter, sugar and eggs, was one of our favourites, especially at teatime. We’d spread it greedily and extremely thickly on white bread, a combination designed to please, placate and muffle boistrous and noisy (occasionally horrid) kids. Spoon it on toast, dollop it on hot crumpets or eat it straight from the jar with a spoon, sweet and sharp, thick and luscious.

Somewhere along the way I must have heard that making lemon curd was rather tricky, that it’s a temperamental preserve. There were whispers about mishaps, pesky double boilers, stories of curdling and splitting, words like coagulation, emulsification, scrambling and I wasn’t about to have one of my favourites muddled up in any of that nonsense. My Mum wasn’t much help either because she’s always had a beautiful Aga cooker – which I vainly covet – and that’s a whole-different-lemon-curd-story. The long and short of it is, I avoided making lemon curd for many years. Not eating it I hasten to add, I never avoid that.

I should know better than to listen to whispers and stories. It turns out that even Nigel Slater was hoodwinked into believing the scare stories and that making two and a bit pots of lemon curd isn’t tricky at all, even for me, and I’m a master of making things complicated.

You take 4 lemons, unwaxed ones otherwise your lemon curd will be, well, waxy. Leave the lemons at room temperature so they are soft and juicy, then roll them around on the work surface a bit so they are even juicier. You zest them and then juice them. I suppose one of those fancy micro-thing-plane-hi-tec-graters would be perfect for the zesting, far superior to my faithful dinosaur grater which produces a rather chunky, coarse little pile (fortunately I like chunky zest, but I’m not sure Nigel would approve, ‘tut tut, this is not marmalade’ he might say). Whatever your grater and the consistency of your zest, cue glorious, vital, citrus smells around kitchen.

You also need 225g of sugar, 100g of butter, 3 eggs and an extra yolk, oh and a double boiler, which if you are anything like me is rather less intimidating when described as a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. You do need to make sure that the water never boils and the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

But once you’ve made sure all that is in order, it’s all very straightforward. You warm and occasionally whisk the lemon zest, juice, sugar and butter in the bowl suspended over the simmering water until the butter has melted. Then you stir the beaten eggs into the lemon mixture. Now you let the curd cook, tasting, whisking regularly, for about 15 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, feels heavy on the whisk and coats the back of a spoon. Taste.

Now you remove the pan from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools, then you pour it into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal. Once the jars are even cooler, refrigerate them for a few hours so the lemon curd is beautifully set, thick and luscious. Spread thickly on white or brown bread, hot toast with more butter, heap a spoonful on a hot crumpet. You can use the lemon curd to fill little tart cases or (thinking of my sister Rosie ) eat it straight from the pot.

Or very best of all, my favourite pudding of late, you can stir several large spoonfuls of lemon curd into a mixture of 200g of thick greek yogurt and 200g of  double cream. You then divide this thick, very pale yellow cream between little glasses and serve it chilled with shortbread biscuits or, even better, amaretti………. just delicious. I am going to make this tomorrow so maybe I will add another photo. Meanwhile lemon curd on bread for breakfast.

lemon Curd

Makes 2 and a half jars by my reckoning. Recipe adapted from Nigel Slater and Jill Norman and inspired by my friend Kath.

  • zest and juice of 4 medium-sized, unwaxed lemons
  • 225g fine sugar
  • 100g butter, diced
  • 3 medium-sized eggs plus one yolk

Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and butter, into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water – make sure that the bottom of the basin doesn’t touch the water. Stir with a whisk from time to time until the butter has melted.

In another bowl beat the eggs and egg yolk lightly with a fork.

Stir the eggs into the lemon mixture. Let the curd cook stirring regularly, for about 15 -18 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, it should feel heavy on the whisk and coat the back of a spoon. Make sure the water never boils.

Remove from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools. Pour into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal.

It will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

Wishing you all a happy weekend, Easter, Pasqua, holiday, break……

It should of course be Mellow yellow (quite rightly)


Filed under jams and preserves, lemons, preserves and conserves

Quince poached with cinnamon and black pepper


There is an old gnarled quince tree in my parents garden, the house I grew up in, which gave us an abundant crop each year. I have to admit though, probably the greatest pleasure for the Roddy children came from hurling the rock hard windfalls at each other in our boisterous garden antics, I seem to remember mild concussion was the result of one particularly good aim. We also used to pursuade the uninitiated to take a bite of one, smug in our knowledge quinces need to be cooked, then collapse with laughter at the contorted face of the eater as they met with the hard, sour, astringent raw flesh.

Throughout my childhood I willingly helped consume the quince bounty, but I secretly harboured mixed feelings and a certain resentment towards our annual quince harvest. Everyone else had apple pie and strawberry jam, we too had pie and jam, only quince, which were delicious but quince nonetheless, aka weird fruit, read, weird family, what can I say, I was young, I still find it hard to talk about packed lunch embarrassment. One particularly humiliating experience involved my Mum shouting into the garden to offer my friends and I a treat, everyone ran open mouthed into the kitchen anticipating chocolate, biscuits, kit-kats, cake – no, the treat was squares of quince paste….my friends all refused, maybe, somebody even mumered yuck and I nearly died of humiliation. Now I think the fact my mum made and served quince squares is charming, quirky, wonderful even, but at the time, I assure you it was nothing less than devastating.

I harbour no mixed feeling about quince now, my feelings are quite unequivocally those of love.

Quince, the golden apple of Hesperides which was awarded to Aphrodite by Paris, the most exquisite of fruits for the most beautiful of deities. A few quinces in a bowl perfume the room, comfort ‘passions of the heart’ and can mitigate drunkenness according to Pisanelli and Mattioli. I am not sure about mitigating drunkenness ( not that I have ever been a drunk London girl!, what an appalling thought) but I can vouch for the exquisite aroma perfuming my kitchen and certainly comforting me and my cotton socks.

I am utterly spoiled for quince delights here in Italy where it is known as cotogna. In season the market overflows with crates of them and we are abundantly supplied with jams, pastes (cotognata), jellies and delicate relishes from friends and Vincenzo’s family in Sicily, I even have a piece of spanish membrillo hiding somewhere. I have to admit a certain amount of quince inactivity on my part, after all our flat is tiny and with all the generous gifts…ok, these are all excuses, I got lazy, but all that is about to change.

I am nearly ready to embark on a quince paste making session, for this year, the responsibility of the christmas supplies falls to me. I am not bringing coals to Newcastle, the harvest at my parents house was not to be this year, the old quince tree seems to have found the enormous and disruptive renovations at my parents house just too much and has stubbornly refused to produce any fruit. We can hardly blame him, all that rude excavation around his roots. So I will be battling with the joys of customs and cheap airlines to transport a very large quantity home.

I am not quite ready for the paste, I thought I would ease myself back into quince activity gently.  I am starting with this quite delightful recipe for quinces poached with cinnamon and black pepper.quince-21

This is one of my favorite ways to eat quince, gently poached in a light syrup with a stick of cinnamon and a couple of black pepper corns. I love the way quince retains its form and distinct grainy texture even after a nice long poach and the extraordinarily beautiful orange, rose, red colour the quinces take on after being cooked. I like them with a spoonful of thick creamy greek yogurt, a blob of ricotta or a couple of slices go beautifully with some nice cheese.

Like so many of the best recipes this is perfectly simple. You need a bit of clever hand and knife work to peel and core the little blighter, they are hard, and have a habit of shooting out of your hand as you try to get at the core. Once they are peeled, cored and cut into wedges the real work is over, you simply gently gently poach them in a light syrup.

I think they are best eaten the day after you have made them, so the flavours have time to mingle and intensify. You can keep them in the fridge, but let them cool completely before you put them in and remember to take them out and come back to room temperature before you enjoy them, the flavours are more pronounced. If you like, you can always reheat the quinces slightly and serve them warm.

Quinces poached with cinnamon and black pepper.

1 kg ripe yellow quinces (about 4 medium sized ones), 100g sugar, 1 small cinnamon stick, 2 black pepper corns, 1 litre water.

Using a rough cloth wipe away the fuzzy grey coat that cover the quinces.

Rinse the quinces thoroughly and wipe them dry.

Carefully peel and cut each quince into 4, cut away the very hard core and slice each quarter into wedges. Drop the wedges into a bowl of cold water with the juice of half a lemon to stop them discolouring.

In a heavy based pan bring the water and the sugar to a lively boil. Lower the heat and add the quince wedges, cinnamon and peppercorns to the pan.

Leave the pan, uncovered simmering for 1 hour and a quarter.

Check the quinces, they should still retain a distinct shape but be soft to the point of a knife and orange rose in colour, the syrup should be a deeper rose red colour. .

Tip the quinces and syrup into a serving bowl and allow to rest.

Note, if you feel the syrup is not thick enough but the quinces are ready, you can remove the quinces with a slotted spoon and set them aside while you put the syrup back on a lively flame and allow it to reduce a little more before pouring it over the quince wedges.


Filed under food, fruit, preserves and conserves, Puddings, recipes