This recipe comes from Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking by Claudia Roden. It is a small, plain book with no photographs, and at first I afforded it only a few cursory glances. And then I read the introduction and it made sense. I reread it and I was transported. She sweeps through the history of the Mediterranean with such blithe eloquence that all I could hope to do here is a blundering précis of facts and impressions. What has stayed with me is the culinary unity of all sixteen or so countries that nestle around this ‘little inland sea.’ And the sheer amount of traffic.
First there were the colonizers – the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans – who brought their holy trinity of wheat, olives and vines. Then the area was positively over-run by invaders: the Arabs who occupied parts of Spain and Sicily for hundreds of years and introduced new trading routes and cultivated sugar cane, apricots and oranges, pomegranates, dates and aubergines. The Normans and the Republic of Venice also had a go, and then the Ottoman Empire muscled in. And then there were the travellers: traders, troubadours, jongleurs, spice merchants, whole populations uprooted – Tunisians were sent to Palermo in Sicily to build the cathedral, for instance. It must have been a nightmare for Social Services.
What I loved was the idea of the Mediterranean as its own world, distinct from the northern regions of its own countries. So the cuisine of Andalusia would have more in common with southern Italy than with Asturias, say. Provence and Sicily are related. They use the same clay pots and wood-burning stoves. There is olive oil, the juice of lemons, garlic, tomatoes, almonds, quince, basil and wild marjoram. Food is pummeled, slaked, ground with a pestle and mortar, little old women in black keen and worry beads in their gnarled hands, stopping as you pass to ask why you’re not married and how much you weigh.
And that made me think of all the seemingly disconnected events that had happened to me on my travels there. Rather than random or isolated, one event now began to inform the other. So the gesture of the café owner in Paxos in Greece who brought us a bottle of wine and two glasses as we were about to bed down for the night on the beach (with one sheet and two bin bags) was somehow related to the gesture of the boy (whose name I will never forget: Zoran) who boarded my train in Dubrovnik carrying a mattress and shared his lunch with me. The woman who complained we had flooded her bathroom in Corfu was definitely related to the man who ordered me out of his ballet class in Venice. I remember the alleyways in Tunisia and Amalfi, getting lost in darkness, the sounds of bare feet on stone, and the fear it was my stepmother.
There are big differences between the eastern Mediterranean and western, and there are many culinary distinctions between the countries in both regions. But for now, I like to imagine the similarities. We are encouraged in life to unmake connections, to see things as mere coincidence. But in the Mediterranean, it’s the same sun, the same sea, the same fish, the same herbs; all that empire on the chopping board. All those languages in one clay pot.
When it came to choosing a Mediterranean sweet to feature here, I was almost limp with temptation. “My soul responds to a mere vanilla ice smeared out into the thick glass of an Italian ice-cream vendor”, wrote Compton Mackenzie in First Athenian Memories, and despite the turrons, the sfogliatelle and the cassata Siciliana, I think ice cream is always a good place to start.
The honey you use can be characterful and not particularly sweet; remember honey is much more complex than sugar, and can range from treacly, nutty and even mildly bitter. Most honey is polyfloral – meaning the nectar has been taken from different floral sources – and is generally known as ‘wildflower’. Monofloral honey is when the bees have taken nectar from only one plant species (although the jury is out on whether a honey can ever be truly singular, because bees aren’t that picky and like all sorts), and the flavour is more pronounced. Some of the most highly prized honey comes from Sicily: orange blossom, the honey from zagara (the flower of the lemon tree), chestnut and thyme. Sardinian honey from strawberry plants has a uniquely bitter flavour and is light green in hue. This ice cream recipe comes originally from Provence where they use lavender honey from their famous fields. There are fields of lavender here in Mediterranean southern California too, of course, as well as some wonderful urban honey around LA. Happy honey hunting.*
Honey ice cream
Adapted from Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking by Claudia Roden
I suggest pairing this ice cream with something resinous and rich (I want to say lusty), such as roasted figs (go to my recipe here), fig jam, or even better, quince paste (otherwise known as membrillo, recipe here). That said, some poached apricots or plums would also be pretty divine. And some chopped pistachios thrown from above.
As to milk, I used goat’s milk which I know is not to everyone’s taste. If you’re not sure you want goaty ice cream, go for cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk would be a lovely alternative.
4 large egg yolks
150g lavender, acacia or other clear, distinctive honey
150ml double/thick cream (I used crème fraîche)
1 tbs orange blossom water
Boil the milk. If you are using goat’s milk, let it almost come to a boil, but take it off the heat just before. Beat the egg yolks to a pale cream, then beat in the honey, the cream, and then finally a tablespoon of the hot milk. Gradually add the rest of the milk.
Return the mixture to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon over a low heat until it thickens to a light cream. Do not let it boil or it will curdle. Let it cool, stirring occasionally to stop the mixture forming a skin. I accelerate this process by transferring the mixture to a bowl and putting it in the sink filled with some ice cubes and tap water. Stir in the orange blossom water. Cover the bowl with cling-film/plastic wrap and put in the fridge to chill thoroughly. If you have an ice cream maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. This was my route, and the photo above and below is a soft-serve version directly after churning, and then a firmer set, having frozen the churned ice cream for a few hours. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, according to Claudia you can put the bowl directly in the freezer and freeze overnight or for at least 5 hours before serving. You can serve this ice cream straight from the freezer.
I have created a permanent recipe list if you’re interested in finding something specific. I will refine the categories as I go, but for now it’s a start. Hope it helps and you enjoy having a rummage through the archives.
*Addition 2nd June 2013
I found some lovely honey at the farmers’ market today from Bill’s Bees and wanted to share the discovery. I tried their local buckwheat honey which was strong, hearty and malt-like. The orange blossom honey was beautiful and surprising: clear like blown glass, smooth and silky, and floral without being overpoweringly sweet. There was also a small kick of acid when I was least expecting it, right at the end when I was about to ask another question. If you are in the area I would recommend giving them a visit.