Aeneas is nearly three now, and starting to show an interest in bedtime stories. We read Elmer (the one with the brightly coloured elephant) and Babar (the one with the other elephant); and we read books about dinosaurs (his favourite) and fairy tales with lots of pictures (my favourite). I have always loved books – so I really am kind of over the moon that it is starting to look like Aeneas might love books too. Still, I secretly long for him to be that little bit older so that we can start reading proper children’s stories. You know: The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, Swallows and Amazons, and so forth. All the Enid Blyton books – the Famous Five and the Secret Seven – the books that I remember so fondly from once upon a time when I was small too. The books that I am dying for an excuse to read once again.
There is this one Enid Blyton book – The Secret Island – that I remember reading again and again as a child. The one where the four brothers and sisters escape to set up camp on a secret, deserted island. No grown-ups – nothing but birds and trees and little wild animals – a childish eutopia of sorts. They build a house from the branches of a willow tree, and live off wild blackberries and hazelnuts, fish that they barbecue on an open fire and the odd slice of cake with hot cocoa that they steal from the village just across the water. Something about that always captured my imagination and made me want to adventure.
We have our own little secret island (of sorts) here in Venice: le Vignole. It’s a tiny island not far from the Castello quarter, the eastern tip of the main island of Venice where we live. In many ways le Vignole is picture perfect: open fields, a small lake hidden away at the heart of the island, a few shallow canals that run from one end to another. There are wild blackberries, figs and plum trees; pumpkins and zucchine growing in the ground – messy and tangled, green and dry from the heat of the summer (we only ever visit the le Vignole in the summer). Then there is a little restaurant that has a lot of the campsite feel to it: ramshackle picnic tables, a shady pergola, a higgledy piggledy stall selling an eclectic collection of produce from the fields, and a big freezer full of ice creams. I always think that it feels like a secret island because if you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t bother stopping off – and although you can get there by vaporetto (water bus), the boats go so infrequently that few people actually bother to make the journey. Fewer still who aren’t Venetian.
When I was at school, we used to go to le Vignole on the last day of term before the start of the long summer holidays. To celebrate the end of the year, the start of the holidays; to feel free; to just do something that we didn’t do every other day of the year. It became a tradition of sorts among our classmates. After the water fight in the the campo just outside the main building where all the classrooms were – school always ended with a water fight – we hopped on boats and in a colourful and chaotic convoy of sorts, we would set off to le Vignole for a lunch of seafood and tiramisù. It was something we all looked forward to hugely; and in the last few weeks of term, all we could talk about was who should drive, how many boats we would need and who was going to give a lift to whom.
This year, was the first summer that Anthony and I took Aeneas to the secret island – last summer, we worried about the heat, and the summer before that he was just a dot. Friends were visiting with their two little boys; we wanted to show them our Venice and the secret island – and I am always looking for an excuse for a trip to le Vignole. So, we piled into our little boat, with sun hats and towels, sandwiches and supplies – enough for the very longest of journeys – and made the trip across the water to lunch. The boys ran riot. We grown-ups pondered over what to order (‘the risotto or the pasta?’ – we settled on both; ‘meat or fish?’ – barbequed steak and calamari) and set up camp under a shady tree. There we sat for hours, plied with course after course: spaghetti with lobster, risotto with baby scampi and zucchine flowers (grown on the island), scallops on the shell swimming in fine breadcrumbs and hot butter, and all manner of antipasti. The boys dipped in and out as they fancied, forging their own adventures in between courses. Lunch ended with us feeling very full and very sleepy.
After coffee, we set about exploring the island and happened upon a shady corner of fig trees and plum trees with fruit just ready to pick. We gathered as many figs as we could carry (most of which we ate on the boat on the way home) and a basket full of baby, sweet plums. By teatime we were home: salty, sunburnt, tired and – in my case – longing to read The Secret Island once again.
All of this brings me to the question of the plums. What to do with all the beautiful plums that we picked? A fair number of them we ate just as is – juicy and all the tastier somehow because we picked them ourselves. Some I halved and roasted in the oven with a teaspoon of sugar, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and then served them with crispy roast duck legs. Plum and duck – I firmly believe – is a match made in heaven.
And then for the rest I made this crostata. I poached the fruit lightly in brandy and sugar, then spooned the plums into a shortcrust pastry case, crumbled over a few amaretto biscuits and baked it all in a hot oven. We had the crostata for tea with dollops of mascarpone cheese.
Then bathtime and bedtime – with a few pages of Babar.
Crostata di Prugne Dolci e Amaretti
(Sweet Plum and Amaretto Tart)
FOR THE PASTRY
200g cold butter
60g caster sugar
pinch of salt
FOR THE FILLING
75g caster sugar
2 tbsps brandy
100g crunchy amaretto biscuits
FOR THE GLAZE
1 tbsp caster sugar
To make the pastry: chop the butter into small cubes and toss it into a mixing bowl, sift in the flour, sugar and salt, then rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until it takes on the consistency of sand. Crack the egg into the bowl and knead until a dough begins to form. If needed, add a spoonful of water to bring the dough together. Roll the dough into a ball, cut away roughly a third of the dough and roll it into a smaller ball, then wrap each chunk of dough individually in cling film and pop them in the fridge for 3-4 hours.
To make the crostata, preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and grease a 22cm tart tin with a removable bottom. Roll out the larger ball of pastry on your kitchen worktop to a circle that is a little wider than the base of the tin (and roughly 1cm thick), then lift it gently and lower it into the tin. Press the pastry into the ridges, so that all the little nooks are filled, gently resting any excess pastry over the edges of the tin so that it hangs over rather like a sheet on a clothing line. Take a fork and prick the base of the pastry a few times, then set the tin in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
Halve the plums, scoop out the stones and toss them away. Throw the plumbs into a small saucepan and add the brandy and the sugar, then set on a low to medium heat to cook gently for 10-15 mins, until the fruit begins to soften. Take the pastry case out of the fridge and crumble half the amaretto biscuits into it, spreading them out with your fingers so that the base of the tart is evenly covered in a layer of biscuit. When the fruit is cooked, drain away the excess juices (but don’t throw them away – they’re too good! I mix them with a little prosecco for a summery cocktail) and lay the fruit into the chilled pastry case. Crumble the rest of the biscuits over the plums. Now, roll out the second, smaller ball of dough and cut it into strips (roughly 1-2cm thick), lay the strips across the tart in a criss cross pattern, leaving gaps between each piece so that you can see the beautiful, gleaming fruit peeping through. Lift up the excess pastry that is hanging over the edge of the tin, and fold it back over the ends of the strips lying on top, press down to seal shut. Crack the egg into a cup, lightly beat it with a fork, then use a pastry brush to dab the pastry lattice and the edges of the tart, then sprinkle with the caster sugar.
Set the tart in the oven for 30-40 mins until golden brown on top. When the tart is cooked set it to one side to cool for 5-10 minutes before gently lifting it out of its tin. Serve either warm or at room temperature. Particularly delicious with a dollop of mascarpone.