How To Eat Well
Anna writes-I recently came across a cookbook with a chapter titled ‘how to eat well’. This or something similar is commonly and confidently found in Italian cook books; an art that is lovingly passed down through the generations. It differs from country to country, however, Italy really has earned its position on/or near to the top. When it comes to making an art out of eating, from farming to meal structure it is a well-studied subject throughout the whole country and Venice is no exception.
Ab ovo usque ad mala is Latin for “from egg to apples” and refers to the traditional structure of Roman feasts. Starting with some form of egg dish they would round it off with a piece of fruit, often apples. This of course was limited to the wealthiest classes of society. And whilst being notorious for their extravagant and luxurious dining habits and use of exotic ingredients to show social status, these feasts were also carefully designed to allow maximum consumption with minimal digestive issues. An art form that we have learned a lot from and could continue to do so.
(Just out of interest- The English equivalent would be ‘from soup to nuts’- elegant as ever.)
The notion of a balanced diet recalls a time when the relationship between food and medicine was more apparent in the West (the Eastern world has always had a different perception of food and still very much consider food medicine and a balancing agent), so it’s unsurprising that meal structures were heavily influenced around medical beliefs of the time. Superfoods and intolerances are not necessarily twenty-first century affectations, but recall a culture when food was not just employed to ward off ailments but as a matter of good health and happy digestion, each course having its role to play.
The idea that there are foods or drinks to open the stomach, combinations that will aid digestion, positions in which to sit whilst eating and timings to be observed, is still widely accepted in today’s cultures. However, there are only a few that are almost universally accepted and have stood the test of time: ginger, peppermint, fennel and bitter herbs are amongst them. To testify to this point there are still places in Tuscany where its customary to serve slices of fennel with a sprinkle of salt or a piece of apple after a heavy meal.
Just like the decadent Roman feasts, Venetian dining extravaganzas were also only enjoyed by the few, but during the Renaissance Venice was famed for the complexity and opulence of their banquets. There are accounts of mouthwatering 34 dish menus and extravagant preparations, most notably that of 1574 in honour of the King of France, when everything down to the napkins was sculpted from sugar by the city’s most skilled artists. Impressive, certainly, but perhaps not very appetising…
In the past, most Venetians would only eat once a day, usually polenta with vegetables or legumes. Fish and meat were luxuries, hence the development of cachet, which were a way of eking out precious protein. Today, cachet are seen as a thoroughly enjoyable ‘stomach opener’ (very often this may actually consist of hard-boiled egg with a sliver of anchovy, very Roman) before a delicious meal of antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce + caffe, digestivo (…and breathe). More often than not though however, if you have treated yourself to ciceti, you will skip right to the primo and maybe even skip secondo altogether, depending on how you feel.
Our recipes this week are our own take on Eggs to Apples - for when you want something sophisticated yet light (with a rather delicious savory choux pastry appetizer that surely can’t hurt.) We were also encouraged by the following jolly rule of etiquette:
At a formal dinner champagne may be the only wine served after the service of sherry with the soup.” Amy Vanderbilt, The Complete Book of Etiquette
The rules are not only for the food and if Ms Vanderbilt insists we drink Champagne, we must.
GOLDEN BRIOCHE WITH QUAILS EGG AND MUSHROOM PASTE
Dipped in bloomed saffron and then fried in the melted butter. This sentence alone would surely be a medically advisable feast.
Canape for 8
16 Brioche bread circles, we have used small loaves
50 gr Salted Butter
Saffron threads (bloomed in warm water)
Mushroom Paste/Pate or Sauce, whatever you can get in the supermarket. We found one that was made with thyme and had some creme fraiche
8 Quails eggs
Method: To prepare the saffron brioche, first bloom the crushed saffron threads within a glass with a few ice cubes, this will need to be done approx 30 minutes beforehand. Lightly Brush the brioche circles with the saffron and then add to the heated pan with 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Turn once and remove when golden all over. It will become a bit crispier as it cools. Once the brioche is toasted, transfer to a plate with kitchen paper. In the meantime boil the quails eggs for 2min 5 seconds and then run under cold water. Peal the soft boiled quails eggs and cut them carefully in half. Add a 1/8 teaspoon of mushroom paste, top with half the egg and spinkle with salt and pepper. Enjoy.
ARTICHOKE BIGNE with horseradish and lime
150gr plain flour
1/2 tsp of salt
pinch of sugar
2 eggs medium
2 ladelfuls of white wine/ or stock
2 cloves of garlic
Preheat oven to 200c. In a saucepan on medium heat, melt the butter and milk together, add some salt and a pinch of sugar and bring to the boil. Once the milk boils, take the pan off the heat temporarily and add all of the flour at once, stirring constantly .
When the mix is compact reduce the heat to the lowest and dry the dough in your pan until a film forms at the bottom of the pan.
When done, roughly 3 minutes, spread the dough around the sides of a large bowl to spead up the cooling down process. After a minimun of 10 minutes, beat the eggs in seperate container and add them slowly, and mixing thoroughly before adding more. You are looking for the right consistency and this is a fine line, (Eggs differ in size).
Test for the right consistency: when a spoonful of the mixture is lifted up, it should form a peak that stands and droops slightly, but not completely. If it doesn't, beat the remaining egg and add just enough of it until the dough achieves that slightly droopy peak.
Once you get the right consistency put the choux paste in a pipping bag and prepare your baking sheet. Bake for 13 minutes on 200c. (Optional) Just before removing them from the oven you can prick them all over with a pin to help them to fully dry out and you can baste them with egg yolk to give more shine.
Whilst the chous pastry is cooking, prepare the filling. I intially tried this with truffled mushrooms, but not being the season I decided to use artichokes (end of the season in italy).
Take two artichokes hearts, cook them in a shallow covered pan with olive oil and two ladelfuls of stock or white wine and thyme. Cook until soft, remove and let cool, retaining the liquid. Blend the artichokes to a smooth paste, adding a splash of white wine vinegar, seasoning and adding more liquid if necessary.
Pipe this mixture into the cooled choux pastry and serve topped with horseradish sauce and lime zest.
PEACHES IN MOSCATO WINE
2 chilled glasses of Moscato Wine, or other sweeter floral wine
1 Perfectly ripe peach
Slice the peaches into the chilled Moscato wine and continue with your conversation. When there is a pause in the conversation return to your desserts which will now be satisfyingly melded together in texture and flavour. Follow with a more intense digestivo if it’s an extreme case.