The Joys of Sharing   (& Some Tea, Cake And Then A Little Supper)

The Joys of Sharing (& Some Tea, Cake And Then A Little Supper)

I was leafing through a cookbook. I spend a lot of my time leafing through cookbooks. Sometimes, while standing at the kitchen counter before the day has started proper, cup of tea in hand and pondering upon all that I could cook and all that we could eat. Other times, I sit in bed with my camomilla after dinner, and read through recipes as if indulging in a wonderfully compelling novel. That kind of leafing through cookbooks – the kind I do in bed with no real method or plan or intention to it – that is one of my most favourite things. It is how I relax. Do you do that too, I wonder? Or is it just a me thing?

Anyhow: Honey From A Weed by Patience Gray. It’s a funny book, really; there are no glossy pictures – the pages, filled with evocative sketches, tell the story of a stonemason living in Southern Italy. Then there are a few recipes added in for good measure. The book is about fasting as much as it is about feasting and the quirks of simple life in a part of Italy where time stopped long ago and has been moving very slowly ever since.

Perhaps my favourite chapter is the ten or so pages dedicated to la merenda, that Italian ritual of afternoon tea. I say ‘afternoon tea’, because while merenda may or may not actually occur in the ‘afternoon’ and rarely involves ‘tea’ as such, somehow afternoon tea seems to encapsulate its spirit, in as much as words of the English language can. Merenda is – as Patience Gray so aptly points out – a very different affair from a ‘snack’, say, which is food snatched; merenda, you see, is food shared. Of course, food shared always tastes best. Don’t you think?

Perhaps my favourite chapter is the ten or so pages dedicated to la merenda, that Italian ritual of afternoon tea. I say ‘afternoon tea’, because while merenda may or may not actually occur in the ‘afternoon’ and rarely involves ‘tea’ as such, somehow afternoon tea seems to encapsulate its spirit, in as much as words of the English language can. Merenda is – as Patience Gray so aptly points out – a very different affair from a ‘snack’, say, which is food snatched; merenda, you see, is food shared. Of course, food shared always tastes best. Don’t you think?

Growing up, la merenda was an important part of daily life. It was a something truly worthy of the la, of that almost reverential ‘the’ that – like an introductory drumroll – precedes its very mention. La Bellucci, la Loren, la merenda.

When I was very little, I attended what is called scuola elementare. Mine was a charming convent school just by the Santa Maria della Salute – which if you know Venice, you know is that extravagant-looking church just on the cusp of the Giudecca Canal, the one with the big onion shaped dome that looms distinctively over postcard landscapes of the city. Our teacher was a petite nun called Madre Adolfa: she spoke softly, softly; her face was creased with age, and she wore an immaculate white wimple. Most days, we finished classes at four o’clock and filtered out into the campo just outside the doors of the school where Mammas and Nonnas waited patiently for their charges, always with la merenda in hand. As if by some unspoken but unbreakable ritual, we children would sit on the steps of the church to eat our merenda – sharing and swapping this piece of cake for that chunk of bread, in that entrepreneurial way that children have – as the Mammas and Nonnas gossiped over coffee in the nearby bar. Fortified by good food, we would then play in the campo until it was time to go home.

When I turned eleven and moved from the elementary school to the senior school, Mammas and Nonnas no longer waited to meet us just outside the big wooden doors. Or when they did it just wasn’t quite so ‘cool’. But la merenda remained a key moment at the end of the school day – after classes we walked together in small groups to the gelateria just around the corner, and then took our ice cream cones to the waterfront at the Zattere, where we would sit basking in that weak sunshine of the winter months. As the cold began to set in, we swapped gelato for a toast con salsa rosa, eaten huddled around a table at the-bar-with-the-grumpy-owner, the one nestled at the foot of the Academia Bridge only a short walk from our school. La merenda was convivial in the truest sense of the word. And when I think back to my school days, these are some of the most prominent and nostalgic memories.

La merenda somehow is almost the most special of family meals, because it centres so specifically around children and the insatiable appetite of the young. It’s not a full meal, in the sense of three courses: it’s a toasted sandwich, a meringue or a slice of cake. And therein lies much of its charm.

This yogurt cake – with a dash of olive oil and a hint of vanilla – is a favourite of mine for la merenda. Mostly because it’s simple and light and the kind of thing that you might eat for breakfast or elevenses, just as well as in the middle of the afternoon. To make it, you take the little yogurt pot as your unit of measurement and toss everything in a bowl together, then mix with a big wooden spoon. Aeneas (all of two and a half years old) and I often make it together – it’s that kind of cake. Add what you will to it: fennel and caraway seeds are particularly nice; Aeneas likes raisins and candied peel. But then he likes raisins with everything. And at this time of year, a handful or two of summer berries are a must. You can ice it or not, it’s delightful either way.

La merenda is precious and special – it is a meal (of sorts, at least), at once indulgent and comforting, that can’t be skipped. Yet, as any good Mamma or Nonna will tell you, it should never come at the expense of lunch or dinner. As much as I might dream of living off cake alone, I know that I would miss my roasts and my wine, my cheese and all the other good things that a proper dinner brings along with it. We can – I firmly believe – have our cake, eat it and then have our dinner too.

So I wanted to share with you my recipe for la merenda, of course, but a few simple dishes for dinner also: roasted duck legs with figs soaked in red wine – at once succulent and crispy, sweet and salty. Duck is one of my favourite meats to cook and to eat, but what I love most about this recipe is how pleasingly simple it is to pull together and how very decadent it tastes once it is done. The duck is a meal of sorts in itself, so rich that it needs little else to go with it; nonetheless an Insalata di Finocchio (light fennel salad with a few browned pine nuts and fresh mint leaves – best doused in olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt) does not, in my view, go amiss. And to finish it all off – a Crostata di Mascarpone e Ciliege con Vino Rosso (red wine cherry and mascarpone tart), with coffee. And then, when all is said and done, the last of dishes washed and dried and put back in the cupboard, perhaps even one last slice of yogurt cake, a little ‘snack’ before bed. Like I said, it is that kind of cake. Somehow, I feel that Patience Gray would approve.

PS Something I didn’t know and only just learned is that the word merenda comes from the Latin for wine merum – is that not rather romantic? Also, I wrote a piece for the latest issue of Where Women Cook about how I came to love cooking quite so much as I do. And I am delighted to have contributed the recipe for my favourite ricotta ice cream with balsamic drenched strawberries on Cup Of Jo this month – you can see it here, should it take your fancy… Xx

Cosce d’Anatra Al Forno con Fichi e Vino Rosso

(Crispy Roast Duck Legs with Figs and Red Wine)

Serves: 2

Prep Time: 10 mins

Cook Time: 2 hrs

Ingredients

  • 5 figs
  • 270ml red wine
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 duck legs
Read the whole recipe on From My Dining Table by Skye McAlpine