This year, it rained. Valentines Day. It poured cats and dogs – or as we say in Italy ‘pioggia a catinelle’. We woke up to the sound of water gushing down, and we drifted off to sleep serenaded by that very same sound. Perhaps you could call it romantic. The rain in Venice always seems more dramatic somehow than rain anywhere else I have been before. Largely, because when it rains for a while, the streets begin to flood with acqua alta (high tide) in an apocalyptic fashion; everyone goes about their business in wellington boots, mackintoshes and knee deep in water. The sound of the rain, though, t’s beating down heavily on the roof and the stone grey pavements – that sounds most implacable when we’re at home, holed up by the fire.
Our house, you see, is poised on a back canal, and faces on to what – if you know Venice well – you will know as the walls of the Arsenale. Tall, red brick walls, which have a way of turning a soft shade of pink when the sun sets. Jagged like those surrounding a castle, and barely touched since they were first built back in the 14th century to protect the naval base, that still hides behind them and still calls itself a naval base today. The walls are peppered with these ancient waterbutts that jut out up on high; they gather the rainwater as it falls from the skies then release it in great waterfall-like gushes onto the tops of the boats parked underneath. They have a way of making the most innocuous of drizzle sound like a monsoon. So for me, somehow it never rains in Venice, it only ever pours.
Valentines has never really been our thing. One day as another in my and Anthony’s lives together; an afterthought, perhaps a bunch of Spring flowers, usually a cake of sorts. That said, this year it fell on a Sunday, and all three of us (Anthony, Aeneas – our little boy – and I) found ourselves all in rainy Venice together at the same time. It would have been a shame not to celebrate – at least just a little. We had breakfast at the same little coffee shop where we have breakfast most mornings: freshly baked brioche, still warm from the oven and enveloped in flaky almonds, the kind with the rich almond-paste, marzipan-like filling and the decadently flaky pastry; and brioche topped with sugar crystals and filled with piping hot apricot jam. Then we huddled under our umbrellas and made our way to Piazza San Marco for a second breakfast at Café Florian: hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and fine biscuits (lingue di gatto) for dipping. And there we lingered in the hopes that the rain might pass long enough for us to go for a stroll. It didn’t. So instead we whiled away great part of the day, enjoying the café’s golden, rococo interiors, being plied with more hot chocolate, more whipped cream and more biscuits by the ever-charming waiters in white jackets and bow ties. Il dolce far niente.
Late afternoon, we made our way home where we settled in to cook dinner. Tradition, I believe, dictates that Valentines should be celebrated at a restaurant with roses and fancy hors d’oevres. But celebration for me is ever equated with cooking and eating at home; with meals around our dining table; with lingering over coffee and lazily shuffling upstairs to bed when the last of the grappa has been drunk and the candles have been blown out. And so we cooked for Valentines.
We kept it light. The kind of absent minded cooking, that I find relaxing and calls for no great planning. More an exercise in gentle chat over the kitchen table, punctuated with a little chopping, and tossing together of salad leaves. The kind of impromptu handiwork that has a way of producing the kind of food that everyone wants to eat, what you might call ‘comfort food’.
I made soup. Because rainy days call for soup. Wine soup: white wine, steaming hot beef broth, egg yolks, and a healthy measure of thick cream. It’s a recipe I happened upon by chance among the pages of Corriere della Sera a few months back; and while quite new to me, it has fast woven its way into our repertoire of winter favourites. It is one of those recipes that have an uncanny way of tasting both decadent and comforting at the same time. We ate it with crusty bread, greedily soaking up the juices.
To go with the soup a crisp salad, made with rosa di verona, a variety of radicchio where the leaves are the prettiest shade of pastel pink – my favourite colour, and somehow appropriate for Valentine festivities. The rosa tastes almost indescribably delicate, its season tantalisingly short – so it’s always a treat when we find it at the market. And then, to polish it all off: puff pastry, fennel and pecorino tartlets, still hot from the oven.
Mostly, though, dinner for me was about the pudding: a coffee walnut cake, layered with thick mascarpone icing. Walnut cake is something my mother used to talk about often when I was small – it was the vocabulary of her own childhood, of afternoon teas with crumpets, or shortbread and Earl Grey tea. Served in proper tea cups, with lace doilies. Unequivocally British, somehow walnut cake was one of those things that we would only ever eat when we visited my great aunt in Scotland, which we did once a year, every winter. In this cake, I used mascarpone for the icing, largely because it is easier to get hold of in Italy than cream cheese (though you could just as well use that – or butter for that matter, and make a buttercream). And I find that that mascarpone adds a lovely depth to icing that otherwise can taste a little too sweet for my liking.
The cake, in its rough homemade incarnation, might seem like afternoon tea fare – and, indeed, by tradition it is. But tradition, as we have established, was not to be abided by on this rainy Valentine. So instead I served it with a mocha of hot coffee, steam pouring from its stunted little spout; and it made for a very lovely close to a very lovely dinner. Also quite delightful for breakfast the next day.
So, although I am late in writing, I wanted to wish you a happy Valentine. I hope that you too spent it with those that you love doing what you love to do. And, while I am late to share these recipes – I like to live by the belief we need no excuse to cook a sumptuous dinner, and even less to make it a special affair. So I hope that these as recipes might come in handy for you to enjoy on a rainy winter’s evening. Even if we don’t call it a Valentine.
Zuppa di Vino
(White Wine Soup)
Taken from Corriere della Sera. The key to this recipe is to use a good quality stock. If you can, take the time to make your own, as it is worth it. Otherwise, just buy a good ready made stock from your supermarket or butcher.
Prep Time: 5 mins
Cook Time: 10 mins
1l good quality beef stock
8 egg yolks
150ml single cream
500ml white wine
Pour the stock into a medium sized saucepan, set over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Meanwhile crack the eggs into a bowl, discard the whites (or save them to make meringue) and lightly beat the yolks with a fork or whisk, before adding the cream and whisking until smooth and well combined. When the stock begins to gallop, pour in the wine, and lower the heat a little. Now pour in the yolks and cream, stirring all the while to stop the mixture curdling. Leave on the heat for a few minutes, then serve piping hot with grated parmesan and crusty bread.
Sfoglie di Finocchio e Pecorino
(Fennel and Pecorino Tartlets)
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 20-25 mins
1 medium-sized bulb of fennel
2 tbsps olive oil
120g mascarpone cheese
40g pecorino cheese
320g ready rolled pastry
2 tbsps milk
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Grease a baking tray, and line with baking paper.
Quarter the fennel, and lightly brush the slices on all sides with the olive oil. Heat a grill pan over a high heat, and grill the fennel slices for a few minutes on each side, until they begin to soften and become nicely charred. When they are cooked, set to one side to cool a little.
Spoon the mascarpone into a small bowl, and grate in the pecorino, then mix well together. Add a little salt and pepper to taste. Roll out the pastry and cut into four rectangles, all roughly the same size. Spread the pastry rectangles out on the baking tray, spoon a quarter of the cheese mixture on to the middle of each piece and spread it out, leaving the outer edge (roughly 1-2cm) bare. Now, lay the fennel pieces on top of the cheese base, and press down gently. Sprinkle with a little salt, then brush the edges of the pastry with the milk.
Set the tray in the oven and bake the tartlets for 20-25 mins until the pastry becomes golden brown on top and is crisp underneath. Leave to cool for a few minutes before serving.
Torta al Café e Noci con Crema di Mascarpone
(Coffee and Walnut Cake with Mascarpone Icing)
This recipe is barley adapted from Rose Prince’s heavenly recipe for coffee and walnut cake. I used muscovado sugar in place of the golden caster sugar which the original recipe calls for – as i love the rich, almost liquorice-y flavour it gives to the cake, transforming it, in my view from a teatime classic to a sophisticated evening affair.
Prep Time: 25 mins
Cook Time: 45 mins
FOR THE CAKE
350g muscovado sugar
140g roughly chopped walnuts, and a few extra for decoration
250g self-raising flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds
3 tsps instant coffee granules
FOR THE ICING
400g mascarpone cheese
200g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees centigrade. Grease and line two 20cm wide round cake tins and set to one side. For the cake, cream the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon, until dark and smooth. Stir in the walnuts, then add the eggs one by one, beating until well combined into the batter. Sift in the flour, baking powder and ground almonds, and fold through. Mix the coffee granules with a tablespoon of hot water to form a strong syrup, then pour it into the batter and mix well. Spoon the batter into the cake tins, dividing it equally between the the two and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 mins, or until the cakes feel firm to touch and a knife comes out clean when inserted in the middle.
While the cakes bake, make the icing. Spoon the mascarpone into a large mixing bowl and sift in the icing sugar. Beat together with a wooden spoon, until you have a thick, sweet icing that is very smooth in consistency. Leave the bowl to rest in fridge until you are ready to ice the cake.
When the cakes are done, leave them to cool for a few minutes in the tins, then turn them out on to wire racks to come to cool completely. Spoon roughly half the icing on top of one of the cakes and spread it out evenly. Then, gently sandwich the two cakes together, and spoon the rest of the icing on top. Spread liberally and decorate with walnut halves.