Our house in Venice isn’t grand and isn’t showy – it’s a quiet little house with dark green shutters and crumbling pink paster walls. Inside it’s higgledy piggledy floors and old wooden beams. It’s the house where we have lived for as long as I can remember – and to me it will always be home; it will always, perhaps for that very reason, hold a magical charm. If you open the windows in the kitchen – tall french style ones that stretch from floor to ceiling – you will find that they lead you out on to a little garden. This is my favourite room in the house. ‘Room’ because while it feels barren and bare in winter, come summer the garden is where we live. That is where I sit out and leaf lazily through cookbooks; where Aeneas plays with his little bucket and spade and the figurine shaped like a ferocious dinosaur. That is where we eat and drink, and linger on after dinner, gossiping, gently sipping liquor, all cozy under the dark blanket that is the nighttime sky. That is where the scene of our family life plays out.
Summer now feels tantalisingly close. And with her will come the scorching heat, the picnics by the beach and the pitchers of homemade iced tea with chunks of almost indecently juicy white peach swimming atop. But now is the time for Spring. The sunshine so precious and warming on bare skin – even if only for a few hours in the very middle of the day, but long enough to eat al fresco. And that sound of birds chirruping at first light, the dawn chorus harbinger of a lighter and brighter everything. Spring comes like a breath of fresh air just as Winter begins to feel long. But best of all, of course, in culinary terms Spring is when things get really exciting. This is the time for the first asparagus of the year (think: lightly steamed then dipped in thick egg sauce), and the wild strawberries (think: drenched in zabaione custard); the time for fresh garden peas, so sweet and delicate I can’t resist but eat them as is and straight from their shell, though Venetian tradition dictates they should be stirred into a creamy risotto, into what we call risi e bisi. I don’t like to play favourites with the seasons, but Spring and the bounty which comes with her, is without doubt a moment that I look forward to all year round.
In our little garden, it is round about now that the lemon trees begin to bear fruit – big, coarsely shaped lemons, the likes of which you can’t find in the shops for love nor money, and which smell like all that is beautiful and happy. I have come late in life to the cooking of lemons. But as is the want of the newly converted, now that I have come round to the cooking of lemons I do so with incomparable zeal; I do so as if there were no other way to cook; I long for life to give me lemons.
Lemon pasta is my favourite of the moment. The inspiration behind this particular dish is the lemon scented tagliolini they sell at our local grocery store – a delicately lemon-scented pasta which I serve with a generous knob of melting butter and a good grating of parmesan. What we have here, however, is a plain tagliolini – egg is particularly good, but frankly any old kind will do – dressed up in a deep lemon-y sauce to give it flavour. Thick cream, lemon zest and lemon juice; then an egg yolk to round everything off. When the pasta is cooked and the sauce is thickened nicely, I toss fine slices of fruit into the pan, so that the heat of the steaming pasta cooks them barely, just enough to tenderise the rind and bring out the flavour, rather as pasta cooks the egg sauce when you make a carbonara. To all of this, I add a little thyme – because thyme and lemon are a match made somewhere roundabout heaven, and because in life we all want more time.
Tagliolini al Limone e Timo
(Tagliolini with Lemon, Cream and Thyme Sauce)
Prep Time: 5 mins
Cook Time: 20 mins
4 tbsps olive oil
220ml single cream
1 gee yolk
small bunch of fresh thyme
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Meanwhile, zest two of the lemons and toss the zest into a frying pan, then add the olive oil and set over a medium heat. Gently fry the zest for a few minutes until it begins to take on a deep, vibrant yellow colour. Now pour in the cream and the egg yolk, mix well with a wooden spoon, then lower the heat and leave to gently cook for 5-10mins, giving the sauce a stir every now and then. Add some salt to the water, and when it begins to gallop, add the tagliatelle and cook as per the instructions on the packet. Finely slice the third lemon ready to add to the pasta – half or a third should be enough, but add more to taste.
When the pasta is cooked, drain in a colander, taking care to reserve a little of the cooking water (roughly 1/4 cup). Squeeze the juice of two lemons into the sauce, add salt and pepper to taste, then toss the pasta into the saucepan. Add the cooking water, throw in the slices of lemon, and toss everything together so the pasta is well covered with sauce. Tear up the sprigs of thymes and sprinkle generously over the pasta.