I blinked and it passed me by. I was busy with the business of the day to day, the doing of this and of that — things that seemed all very important at the time. Then, one morning I woke up and it wasn’t summer anymore. A chill in the air, slight but tangible; the skies thick with misty fog. That haze we have here in Venice, draping the city in a soft grey blanket of sorts. The water – acqua alta – flooding up through the paving stones, as it does at this time of year when the tides are high and the wind blusters. Wellington boots the modus operandi; carafes of iced tea made with sweet peaches a distant memory (so ‘last season’), and thick hot chocolate (with a dollop of zabaione cream, of course) very much the thing of now. Winter rustling in the wings, poised to take centre stage. I don’t know how exactly it happened, but without a doubt: it is Autumn proper now.
I have neglected this blog of late, and I have been feeling badly about it. Rather like when you fall out of touch with a dear friend. You think of them often, but you put off writing because you have so much to say – so much news to share you want to be sure to set proper time aside to do it justice. Then the more you procrastinate, the more there is to say and the more time needed to say it – caught in the whirlwind, months go by without a word. That is very the pickle I find myself in now.
There is lots of news, you see – so much, I’m not even too sure where to begin: I finished writing my thesis, the one about Latin love poetry that I have been working on now for longer than I can remember; I sat my exam, passed, and now somehow find myself on the path to being called ‘doctor’. I have been baking a fair bit: recipe testing, writing and shooting for my new column for Corriere della Sera (which, should it take your fancy you can read both in Italian and English); and of course, keeping up with my column for Food52 about the dos and don’ts of cooking for large supper parties. I was in Milan to speak at the Triennale for Il Tempo delle Donne, and – while it was a fleeting visit – I was there just long enough to sample the most sublime pumpkin, pear and amaretto risotto. Then back in Venice hosting a culinary creative retreat with my dear friend and wonderfully talented photographer, Marte Marie Forsberg (much more on that to follow). Aeneas turned three to a fanfare of twinkling candles, whipped cream, genoese sponge and chocolate custard. In other news: the clocks went back an hour, the days somehow got shorter, and I finally finished reading Anna Del Conte’s beautiful memoir Risotto with Nettles – which if you love food (and don’t we all?), you really should read too. So prettily written and so wonderfully evocative.
While Autumn has taken me rather by surprise this year, now that she’s here I am all a frisson of excitement. Autumn you see, is cooking season. The produce at the market, so plentiful and so inviting in that golden fall sunshine: the crisp apples and the plump pears (with their little stems dipped in red wax, as we do here in Venice, to keep them fresh), the earthy porcini and the almost translucent persimmons. The pumpkins, the squashes, the pomegranates and the plums. That chill in the air, which has you lingering around the oven, warming the back of your hands on its door as cakes bake within. For those of us who enjoy cooking and eating, it really is a very precious time of year.
So, before time passes us by once again, let’s take a moment to talk food. We left off when it was still summer, with a creamy almond and cinnamon biancomangiare, and here I am now skipping and jumping ahead to a white grape risotto. But then, with the dearest of friends you can do that, no? Pick up a conversation weeks later, and have it feel as though nothing between you has really changed. I have been dreaming about this particular risotto, and longing to make it at home, since I first tasted it almost a year ago when staying with friends in the countryside around the Oltrepò region just south of Milan. The whole affair has proved rather an exercise in delayed delectation: I was determined for the grape season to begin proper before attempting to make it at home, and I wanted for the evenings to have that chill to them that calls for the warmth of a good nourishing risotto. I’m happy I waited: cooking, so often, is more than the sum of its ingredients, its the capturing of a mood and a moment.
The recipe itself is simple: a plain white risotto with heaps of butter and parmesan and white grapes added at the end, so that they poach ever so slightly with the rice. You would think it might taste too sweet, rather like a pudding even – but somehow the flavour combination is just right – delicate and subtle and, on these brisk bright days, tastes wonderfully autumnal.
Then there is the matter of the roast chicken. Chicken of course has no defined season – it boasts that same timeless quality of the little black dress. But something about the roasting of it always seems so cozy that I can’t help but associate it with precisely this time of year. The recipe (stuffed with lemon and herbs, then baked on a bed of whole leeks) is my husband’s, as in our house he is always charged with the roasting of chickens. He is very good and roasting chickens.
Finally, a quince cake. Quinces grow locally in the surrounding islands of the lagoon and, at this time of year, are sold by the armful at the market. I find them to be a curious fruit: so tantalising. They have that waxy gleam to them, and that heavenly floral scent that makes you want to bite straight in – but of course, they’re not to be eaten raw. Here in Venice we use them for making what we call cotognata – a quince paste of sorts, sugary sweet and with a sugar crust, moulded into oval figurines that have an almost antique cameo quality to them. It can be fiddly to make – which is partly why I am so enamoured with the utter simplicity of this cake. Light sponge, made with chopped almonds and eggs beaten into fluffy submission. No butter or cream, just a healthy drizzle of brandy (very lovely with the fruit) and a heap of chopped dates. To me, it’s Autumn through and through.
And while I can, I plan to savour it.
Risotto d’Uva Bianca
(White Grape Risotto)
When making this recipe I use seedless grapes for the sake of ease – but otherwise, just scoop out the pips by hand before adding the grapes to the risotto.
Prep Time: 5 mins
Cook Time: 30-40 mins
3 tbsps olive oil
900ml-1l vegetable stock
240g arborio (risotto) rice
75ml white wine
300g white grapes
Drizzle the olive oil into a medium sized saucepan and set over a medium heat. When the pan begins to sizzle, add the rice and stir well so that all the grains are slicked in oil. Leave to cook for a minute or two, until you begin to hear the rice crackling, then pour in the wine and give everything a good stir. Meanwhile set the vegetable stock to simmer in a second pot over a medium heat. As the rice absorbs the liquid, add a little hot stock ladle by ladle, stirring the rice all the while so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. As and when the rice begins to dry out, add more stock. Keep repeating this process – pouring in stock and stirring constantly – for 30 mins or so, until the rice is almost cooked (you want the risotto to have a pudding like consistency, but for the rice itself to still have a bite to it). Slice the grapes in half and toss them into the pot, give everything a good stir and leave to cook for another 5 mins or so, until the grapes soften a little. Just before serving, take the risotto off the heat, spoon in the butter and grate in the parmesan. Stir well and cover. Leave the pot to sit for a couple of minutes, to allow the rice to rest and the risotto to absorb all the beautiful, delicate flavours, then serve while still piping hot.
Pollo Arrosto di Antonio
(Anthony’s Roast Chicken)
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 1 hr
1.2-1.5kg whole chicken
small bunch of thyme and rosemary
2 tbsps olive oil
1-2 tbsps salt
Preheat the oven to 240 degrees centigrade to get it really hot. Fork the lemon and stuff it whole inside the cavity of the chicken with the sprigs of thyme and rosemary, then rest the bird in a roasting tray. Without trimming or peeling the leeks, add them whole into the the tray; quarter the onions (again without peeling) and add that in too. Drizzle the oil over the top of the chicken and rub its skin with the salt. Then set everything in the oven, turn the heat down to 200 degrees and roast for 1 hr 20 mins, until the bird’s skin turns golden crispy and the juices run clean.
When the chicken is cooked set it on a board to rest for 15-20 mins, while you finish preparing your vegetables: tear away and discard the rough outside leaves of the leeks, and the skins of the onions. Chop the leeks into medium sized chunks and arrange on a large plate along with the wedges of onion, to serve with the chicken.
Torta di Mele Cotogne e Brandy
(Quince and Brandy Cake)
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 50 mins
50g pitted dates
4 medium sized quinces
150g caster sugar
200g self raising flour
2 tsps baking powder
icing sugar for decoration
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and line a a 24cm wide round cake tin. Roughly chop the dates, toss them into a small bowl, drench them with the brandy and leave them to sit while you get on with the rest of the cake. Roughly chop the almonds and set them to one side to use later. Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Peel and quarter the quinces, then finely cut the fruit stopping just before the bottom of each chunk so that as they bake in the oven, the slices fan out (as in the picture). Now, toss the quince slices into the bowl of water to stop them browning while you whip up the batter.
Crack the eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar and whisk vigorously until they become, pale, light and fluffy. You want to get as much air into the eggs as you can, as this will make the cake soft and light. Sift the flour and the baking powder into the eggs and keep whisking. Now, drain the dates, keeping all the brandy juices to one side to add to the batter. Toss the dates in a little flour (this will help stop them sinking to the bottom of the cake), then gently stir them into the cake batter using a wooden spoon. Add the almonds. Now drizzle in the brandy and mix until well combined. Spoon the batter into the cake tin, and arrange the chunks of quince (face down with the cut side turned up) in the cake batter, pressing gently down on each piece, so that they rest on the bottom of the tin. Set in the oven to bake for 50 mins, until golden brown on top and a knife comes out clean when inserted in the middle of the cake. Dust with icing sugar before serving if you like – this cake is particularly delicious when eaten still warm.