Christopher Hirst explores the wibbly-wobbly pleasures of a very grown-up dessert…
“This was the Prince’s favourite pudding, and the Princess had been careful to order it early that morning in gratitude for favours granted. It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth, slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time it reached Francesco Paolo, the 16-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble.”
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
The greatest Italian novel of the 20th century contains two remarkable dishes. The Leopard is renowned for a macaroni pie in which the humble pasta tubes achieve something close to alchemy. They are incorporated into a vast and luxurious creation that bridges the social gulf in 19th century Sicily. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) produces a feast on the page, describing the pie’s steamy fragrance, the lurid cornucopia tumbling from its interior – “chicken livers, the hard-boiled eggs, the slivers of ham, chicken and truffles” – the pasta “to which the meat juices lent an exquisite chamois hue” and, most memorable of all, the “burnished gold” of its crust.
However, whether we would want to eat this table-creaking conglomeration is a different matter. When recreated for a BBC documentary in 2013 by the late Antonio Carluccio, his version (“probably the richest dish that I ever encountered”) resembled a massive pork pie filled with a profusion of pasta piping. Surprisingly, the pastry is sweet, as is the prevailing flavour of the interior. If the thought of this carbohydrate overload is less than appetising, think how much more daunting it would be in a Sicilian August.
“Meals are central to the lives of the characters,” said Carluccio. “Obviously, Lampedusa loved to cook.” Published posthumously, his solitary novel is a compelling portrait of a Sicilian aristocrat in 1860. Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, was based on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather. His world was about to be turned upside-down by the Risorgimento (Italian unification) led by Garibaldi. This violent restructuring scarcely accorded with the Prince’s sceptical views. “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter if a thing is done well or badly. The great sin we can never forgive is simply doing anything at all.”
The central section of the novel concerns the annual migration, involving an arduous journey of three days, of the Prince and his family from Palermo to his country estate at Donnafugata. Local big-wigs are entertained at a lavish party, where the massive pie is the highlight of the meal. Both of the Prince’s palaces are now ruined. A flash-forward in The Leopard reveals that the Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo fell victim in 1943 “to a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn”.
In her book Anna Del Conte on Pasta, the greatest living writer on Italian food explains why the Prince served macaroni as the first course: he knew “quite well that it would be much more appreciated than a soup of foreign origin.” Her recipe, which enables us to repeat the gastronomic diplomacy of the patrician Prince consists of readily obtainable ingredients until you reach “1 white truffle, cleaned and flaked”. This autumnal Piedmontese rarity is a surprising item to find in the Sicilian summer. Circumventing this mystery, Carluccio turned to porcini (always available in dried form) for his version. He described the flavour of the completed dish as “very sophisticated” but you can’t help wondering if timballo del Gattopardo was intended to impress the Prince’s vulgar guest Don Calogero, a parvenu who symbolised the new Sicily.
The second wonderfully strange dish in The Leopard is certainly to the taste of the Prince. Before leaving Palermo, he relishes a rum jelly consumed with a glass of Marsala. Carluccio’s rendition contained well over half a bottle of rum. “What a wonderful pudding,” the amiable maestro reflected, “complemented beautifully by Marsala.” Grown-up jellies, often rich in alcohol, were until relatively recently a favourite dessert. (A large jelly also acts a plot device in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander set in 1800.) In her book Pride & Pudding, Regula Ysewijn says, “During the 19th century, jellies were still reserved for the wealthiest households.” Elaborate moulds of tin-lined copper allowed jellies to grow in scale. “The higher the jelly, the better the wobble effect, which would always be entertaining at a dinner party.” They remained “labour-intensive and tedious to make from raw materials” until mass-produced gelatine came on the market in 1840. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (1861) advocates Russian isinglass made from sturgeon as setting agent but you can bet that grand households in Sicily stuck to the tried and tested calf’s feet method.
In Tudor England, a jelly based on mulled wine known as ypocras enjoyed a vogue with royalty and the upper orders. Wincarnis jelly, a long-gone spin-off product from Wincarnis tonic wine, was a distant descendant. From my childhood, I remember it as being excellent, especially with thick cream. A world away from the sugary concoctions of Rowntrees and Chivers, it was mahogany-coloured and richly flavoured. I’ve recently been reminded of it by a potent wine jelly made by one of our Yorkshire friends. It is splendid enough even for the Prince of Salina, though it’s up to you whether this gelatinous triumph should take a fortified shape.
- 450ml water
- 225g caster sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 juniper berries
- 12 peppercorns
- Half a stick of cinnamon
- 300ml ruby port
- 450 red wine
- 3 tbsp brandy
- 8 leaves gelatine
- 225g raspberries
Put water, caster sugar, bay leaves, juniper berries, peppercorns and cinnamon stick into a saucepan, bring to boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Add soaked gelatine leaves (follow instructions on packet) and stir to dissolve. In a second saucepan, heat port, wine and brandy to a boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove both pans from heat. Pour contents of both pans through a sieve into a bowl and leave to cool for 15 minutes. Divide raspberries between six large wine glasses or dessert bowls and pour in liquid jelly. Chill until set. Serve with double cream.
Illustration: Alison Hirst