This is not so much a recipe as a throwing together of ingredients and leaving them to do their work for a day or so on their own. I know that Christmas day is upon us and this dish can work both as a side with meat, as a compote for cheese, as a pudding and as a sweetmeat with coffee, which is handy. I’m not suggesting that this is all you have, but it frees you up to enjoy the festivities.
We found Yuzu lemons outside a sushi restaurant, where the tree was shedding its fruit. “They smell like aftershave,” said Joe, meaning in a good way. They do have an intensely aromatic zing. Almost but not quite overpowering. And contrary to reports, they gave up quite a bit of juice. This recipe, by Elizabeth David, asks for whole spices where possible. There is no added sugar, the prune having quite a bit of its own, and it’s rich enough without needing any accompaniment, though I have a penchant (as you’ve probably noticed) for crème fraîche.
I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get to Elizabeth David because she was the first food writer I ever read with any real attention. And she is forever associated in my mind with Italy where I first learned to cook. Her book on Italian food was the only one I brought with me to Venice, where I lived and worked for a count and countess, and it proved useful because the dishes I needed to make were rarely complicated. It was always more an assembly of ingredients, and as such utterly exposing in the way that all very simple dishes are. Tomatoes sliced with some ripped mozzarella and some shredded (never cut) basil. Lemon chicken. Asiago and a ripe pear, sliced and eaten off the knife like a circus trick. Peaches, prosciutto, ice cream, a slug of espresso.
Everything was singular. The smell of one thing, its perfume, its downy skin, the rind of this or that cheese. Men carved away at artichokes on the quayside until all that was left was the furry heart. They floated them in buckets of acidulated water and Donatella taught me what to do when I got them home.
Donatella was the housekeeper, though she was also the unofficial stewer and broth maker. She was the one who made stock with a carcass, a few whole carrots, some bay leaves and an onion. She told me how to make sugo for pasta. She was small and round and young, and I think secretly wanted to learn English. Sometimes as we bent over the pots and pans I would translate for her and she would find it very funny. I was 19 and she couldn’t have been much older but she was married with kids. Eventually, she left me to my own devices. I had a small but effective repertoire by the time I left, but I never made pudding. Nobody made pudding, from what I could gather. Ice cream was eaten in the street, and anything sweet was bought in and consumed at breakfast.
I think Donatella would have approved of this dish. When I threw in the bay leaves and lemon rind I thought of her. It takes a certain amount of confidence to leave things be and she was nothing if not self-possessed. I think that’s what I learnt most from her – that the best cooks do less. I hope she would be proud.
Blades of mace sounds like a song by Motorhead. Actually, it’s the lacy covering of the nutmeg, technically speaking the dried aril. It can be used interchangeably with freshly grated nutmeg, added to clear soups and sauces as well as cakes and bread, though it is subtler and more delicate. It is marketed in pieces called blades and has a lovely orange hue reminiscent of saffron. This recipe asks for two blades, but be as free as you dare.
These quills of Ceylon cinnamon are quite different to the tougher Cassia bark we are all used to. They are crumbly and parchment-like and break apart like decaying cigars. They smell noticeably of lemon, are subtler than your average and are very different to the spicy, dry ‘hit’ of cinnamon powder. The only drawback is the bits of wood get everywhere and you end up spitting them out in a rather uncouth way.
Spiced prunes with lemon and bay
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, edited by Jill Norman
500g/1lb large prunes (preferably unpitted)
2 5cm/2ins pieces of cinnamon
2 level teaspoons of coriander seeds
2 blades of mace
4 whole cloves
Rind of one lemon (and add the peeled lemon too)
2-3 torn bay leaves
Put the prunes, spices, bay leaves and lemon in a bowl or earthenware casserole dish. Just cover them with cold water. Leave overnight. The next day, cook the prunes in an uncovered casserole in a low oven, or in a pan over a very low direct heat until swollen but not mushy. About half the cooking water will have evaporated. Take out the fruit and remove the stones. Heat up the remaining juice with all the spices, until it is syrupy. Pour it through a strainer over the prunes. Eat cold.