“August is a wicked month,” said Edna O’Brien, and how right she was.
In Italy, everyone shuts up shop round about now. The August holiday, called Ferragosto, is an opportunity for shopkeepers to have their well-earned break away from the milling throngs and endless totting up (or whatever it is that shopkeepers do). I think they have a point.
Here in LA, nothing moves or grows. Plants sit and wilt and curl under the warping heat. The cicadas begin their nightly throb. The trees just stand there as if embalmed. I dream of water, the sea, running streams, wet, swishing grass and cooling breezes, chlorophyl.
And ice cream. I first tasted fior di latte – (literally “flower of milk”) as a child in London and spent the next twenty years explaining to people what it was like. “White ice cream,” I called it. I mean, it was white to look at. It tasted white. It had none of the speckled honey-nut of vanilla bean, or the alcoholic whiff of its extract, or worse, its chemical ‘essence’. It was milk-white and I never forgot it. People were confused, as was I, and for a long time I believed I had misremembered it. And then I found it again quite by chance in Venice. Strictly speaking, fior di latte is a gelato, with no eggs and very little or no cream – in fact, there is a cream version called fior di panna. Originally a Sicilian invention, the base, known as crema rinforzata, is a sweet pudding of milk thickened with cornstarch. In its gelato form, it is soft, but dense, almost chewy, cold but melting. It has a surprising warmth, missing in other eggless enterprises, such as sorbet.
Here is the recipe. It’s monastically simple, plain even. For this reason, it showcases herbs beautifully, particularly the woody variety – the dryness and slight astringency of, say, thyme, bay or rosemary is offset by the soothing balm of milk. Citrus peel is also a winner. You still get the endless, uninterrupted whiteness – all evidence is strained out before freezing. You can experiment with different ‘milks’ too. Sheep’s milk is exceptional here, though I have given up trying to find it in LA. It is rich and sweet and highly nutritious and reminds me of the softness of Exmoor, those green hills washed by the sea.
If I were a millionaire, I would board a plane today and go to Minehead in West Somerset, position myself at the front of the queue at the Styles ice cream van and buy every single tub of their delectable sheep’s milk ice cream. I would then eat it standing on the beach looking out over the Bristol channel, and watch the sun sink slowly into the choppy waves. That would be a good August.
Fior di latte
Adapted from David Lebovitz, The Perfect Scoop
500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
250 ml (1 cup) cream*
150 gr (¾ cup) sugar
pinch of sea salt
2 heaped tablespoons of cornstarch
*I have used cream here, but you can forgo it and up the milk quota if you prefer more of a ‘milk ice.’
Warm the milk, sugar and sea salt in a non-stick saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer and make sure everything has dissolved. Turn off the heat. If you are introducing herbs, spices or citrus rind, add them here. Fill the sink about 3cms full with cold water – add some ice cubes to get it extra cold. Whisk the cornstarch with the cream until it has dissolved completely – the best way of doing this is to gradually introduce the cream into the cornstarch to prevent lumps. Stir the cream mixture into the milk and then slowly reheat, stirring frequently until it begins to bubble and froth up. Transfer to a heat-proof bowl and plunge into the cold water, stirring to prevent a skin from forming. Stir every now and then for about 20 minutes, or until it has reached room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge.
Leaving it overnight will really encourage the herbal, citrus additions to give up their flavour. If you are keeping it plain, simply chill for about 2-3 hours. In either case, strain the very cold liquid into the ice cream maker and then follow the instructions. Transfer to an airtight container, place plastic wrap directly on the gelato and freeze. This will keep for a few days, but it’s at its best eaten fairly quickly (on the day, really).
A word about herbs and spices and that
With some of the woody herbs – notably rosemary – a little goes a long way, so you’ll have to do some detective work to discover the right balance. A couple of sprigs of rosemary would be enough to impart quite a strong taste. Thyme can be used more flagrantly (up to 10 sprigs). Bay, sage and lavender also work well. Other herbs are worth investigating too: basil (and other members of the basil family such as cinnamon basil, anise basil etc), mint and also scented geranium (such as chocolate, nutmeg and rose geranium).
Citrus peel – a couple of thick-ish pieces of lemon, lime or orange rind infuse well. You could also try any of these spices – a cinnamon stick, some grated, fresh nutmeg, a clove, a few cardamom pods, some saffron threads, blanched fresh ginger, or a vanilla bean.