Sometimes we start with the history for the newsletter, sometimes with the ingredients. This week we had a positive glut of bald lemons, so naturally our thoughts jumped to eighteenth century contraception.
Though most civilised inventions, from the sonnet to Nutella, originated in Italy, and of those an extraordinary number in Venice, it was the English who contributed to the gaiety of Enlightenment Europe with the export of condoms. “A little vestment made of very fine skin and transparent”, they travelled over the Alps with Grand Tourists such as Francis Bassett, first Baron Dunstanville (below, by Pompeo Batoni). Venice was one of the essential stops for the generations of Englishmen who treated the continent as a finishing school and who were keen to sample all the delights of La Serenissima without bringing back any surprise gifts.
Francis Bassett, who may or may not have been a condom dealer
Quite why straitlaced England was selling contraceptives to the world capital of sin needs researching- was it a Protestant thing? Or maybe meadow-fed English sheep had superior, more velvety intestines? Anyway, the original versions were re-usable and had to be pre-soaked, which can’t have been very alluring, but the Venetians demanded better quality. Hi-tech versions of what Casanova called “my prophylactic against melancholy”, tied off with ribbons and known coyly as “English riding coats”were hugely popular. The biggest consumers were the brothels and the convents. (Yes). The nun of Murano known as “MM” in Casanova’s memoirs had a stash from which her lover rather ungallantly tried to pilfer; he wrote a poem in praise of them.
Casanova discusses another elegant libertine innovation, a tiny gold “cap”, but the three cousins with whom he tried it out weren’t too keen. A cheaper and more old fashioned method was the use of half a lemon. Indeed lemon was essential to the Venetian sex trade- the juice was used for dying the courtesans’ hair as they sunbathed in their wide-brimmed crownless hats on the rooftop altanas. “Titian” hair owed a lot to fruit.
We have two little lemon trees in the garden at Sugar Street, which are willing in spirit at least, but we seem to get through an extraordinary amount of lemon zest. The shorn fruits then hang around the kitchen looking woeful, whereas in the past we could have sent them to the stews of San Polo, so these zesty, springy dishes are a toast to the democratic pleasures of the gutsy, hard working lemon. We drew the line at illustrating the re-soaked sheep gut.
COURGETTE, SPECK and PISTACHIO LASAGNE
Lasagne gets a bad rap in Venice. Everyone knows the sign outside Antiche Carampane restaurant, in the centre of the old red-light district: “No pizza, no lasagne”, but while much of what’s served here now sadly does come from the giant lasagne factory in the Balkans where they hack off frozen truckloads with chainsaws, lasagne has been part of the original Venetian culinary repertoire since at least the fourteenth century. In this version a lemony béchamel brings out the contrast between the bacon and pistachios.
Serves 8 polite or 6 shameless people.
(This seems like an absurdly huge amount, but six of us recently polished it off quite happily.)
1kg (2 boxes) dried lasagne sheets
1.5 litres béchamel sauce (see below)
300g diced speck or smoked pancetta
2 red onions
4 fat cloves garlic
handful of rosemary sprigs
2 large unwaxed lemons
80g pistachio nuts (bashed about a bit in a pestle and mortar if you can be bothered)
1tbsp olive oil
2 large glasses dry white wine
200g of mozzarella if you’re a purist or 100g mozzarella/100g Emmenthal (so very wrong but gives such a good crust and flavour)
(NB: You can do the béchamel and filling earlier or even the day before and layer up the lasagne just before cooking. However, it’s not a good idea to leave the finished lasagne sitting around uncooked, it will be dry and starchy).
If you can buy ready made Italian béchamel so much the better, otherwise make the sauce with 1.5 litres full fat milk, 150g butter and 150 g flour. Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for a few minutes over a low heat, taking care not to burn, then beat in the milk slowly and cook , stirring or whisking until the sauce thickens. Add a hefty grate of nutmeg, a couple of bayleaves, a glass of the white wine and the zest of both lemons. Reduce to your preferred texture, a thinner béchamel is good for lasagne.
In a large frying pan, set the pancetta or speck to cook off its fat. Meanwhile, chop the onions, and crush the garlic. Tip the cooked pancetta/speck through a sieve and set it aside on some kitchen roll. Halve the courgettes lengthways, halve the halves again and then chop into slices. Heat the oil, add the onions and garlic and leave to soften for a few minutes, then add the courgettes and the rosemary. Turn the heat up and pour on one glass of wine, let it bubble up and then turn the heat down, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Add the pancetta/speck and the pistachios. Season with plenty of black pepper but go easy on the salt as the speck is very salty.
Pre-heat the oven to 220
In a large deep sided roasting tray, cover the bottom thoroughly with a layer of béchamel, then lay over the lasagne sheets. Don't worry if they overlap here and there. Cover with filling, then lasagne, then béchamel for three layers, finishing with lasagne. Pour the remaining béchamel over the top, then add the cheese.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. You want the cheese puffy and nicely browned, not anaemic.Leave to stand for a good ten minutes before serving.
EASIEST EVER LEMON ICE CREAM
This recipe only needs one lemon, ideal for our valiant little tree. We found it in Niki Segnit’s superlative Lateral Cooking, quoted in turn from John Thorne’s The Outlaw Cook. The trick is to use a container large enough that the ice isn’t thicker than 3cm, which obviates the need for churning. (A Tupperware about the size of a paperback book is great). It is just brilliant.
1 unwaxed lemon
180ml single cream (or boxed Italian panna da cucinare)
Zest and juice the lemon. Combine with the sugar and cream in a plastic freezer-box and beat gently until sugar is dissolved. Freeze. That’s it.
This sounds too good to be true but it makes one of the best old-fashioned “ices” you will ever eat. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before eating and slice into lozenges. So chic on a plain white plate.
PRESERVED LEMON AND BLACK OLIVE
I have believed for a while now that a well stocked mind of intriguing sauces, relishes and dribbles will allow the cook to voyage between cultures and seemingly uncooperative ingredients with confidence. An exotic sauce can be the gateway to new flavours, cover mistakes and steal the show. This is one to add to that list. Great as a refreshing salad but also with fleshy white fish, on roasted potatoes or stirred through couscous.
Serves 4 like this, (but a good idea to make double of preserved lemons for later)
2 lemons washed
3tbsp of salt
Water to cover
Olive oil if storing
1tbsp of toasted fennel seeds
4 tbsp Black olives roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery chopped
4tbsp of Olive oil
Pinch of salt
1 tsps of honey (whisk into olive oil before dressing)
Basil leaves (Last minute)
- Ricotta also works well here
Method: Add the two whole lemons to a small pot which has a lid. Add 3 tbsps of salt and then cover with water. Boil till the lemon is easily pierced with a knife and then run under cold water. Remove innards and piff. You have your preserved lemon. Slice finely and then toss together with olives, roasted fennel seeds and the rest of the ingredients. If preparing ahead of time, leave the dressing and fresh herbs until the last minute. I think it is also delicious served on a piece of warm bread with a swish of ricotta underneath.