This may be the last thought on the appreciation of bitterness in food and drink for a while....or maybe not. (How can I promise such a thing? How can you ask it?)
It is not a fantastical notion to put together two or more bitter foods - fennel and orange salad; olives, fennel seeds and orange zest; radicchio, rocket and chicory salad; endive and anchovy pie (I must give you this recipe for Easter). It's all been done before.
Photo Credit: Tony Lewis for SALife. Recipe: Rosa Matto for SALife.
Bitter endive pie, this one with ricotta salata, anchovies and sultanas.
My friend, Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, has a fabulous blog (and books) about Sicilian food - allthingssicilianandmore - and she has the definitive recipe for Caponata with Chocolate.
Firstly, she cooks the vegetables separately and sets them aside. Then she makes the ‘agro dolce’ sauce. To this sauce, she adds 2 tablespoons cocoa mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar. My preferred recipe, though, is to add just 2 small squares of 70% chocolate to the sauce before adding back all the previously cooked vegetables. The chocolate gives the sauce an edge, not sweetness, and a beautiful gloss.
I am reminded of the recipes in “Like Water for Chocolate” where the writer, Laura Esquivel, gives us a Mexican recipe for mole. Tita adds just a small piece of bitter chocolate to the almond and sesame sauce she serves with turkey to enchant her Pedro.
So too, in countless French and Italian recipes for rabbit or hare, the bitterness of chocolate cuts through the rich, fattiness of the meat and its resultant pan juices.
We are so accustomed to thinking that chocolate is a sweet, almost cloying, ingredient that we forget that dark chocolate is satisfyingly bitter. In fact, I have to admit, sometimes, I find dark chocolate almost too bitter to bear.
When we travelled along the Amalfi coast this last October, we had a much beleaguered driver, Giuseppe. Although we were always at the car on time in the mornings, we were continually late back from touring, had too much shopping, talked far too loudly, sang Neapolitan songs out of tune...the list of our misdemeanours was long.
Each night he returned home to idyllic Maiori, a village clinging tightly to the cliffs of the Amalfi coast between the fishing village of Cetara and Minori with its underground Roman ruins and the world’s best home made pasta. He must have regaled his wife, Carmela, with all our failings because she took pity on us. She sent us biscuits, bread sticks, home grown fruit and a number of recipes typical of their small town - Pasta di Mandorle di Maiori and Liquore Concerto. And then, one day, this wonderful recipe for a dessert dish made with eggplant, candied fruit and chocolate.
Of course, I had heard about it, read the recipes on Google but never trusted myself to get the balance of flavours right. Emboldened by a hand written and, therefore, authentic recipe and supported by my house guests, Rocco and Ester, I made it last night. A revelation. An inspiration.
MELANZANE AL CIOCCOLATO
CARMELA'S RECIPE with my slight MODIFICATIONS
oil for frying, olive oil or sunflower (please don’t use canola)
candied fruit (I used cumquat, but orange or citron would be nice)
pine nuts (or blanched and roasted almonds)
zest 1 lemon
1 egg, beaten
For the chocolate sauce:
100 g caster sugar
400 ml water
40 g cocoa for cooking
225 g bitter chocolate (70%)
Peel the eggplant and slice very thinly (a mandolin is useful here).
Cut the slices very thin, indeed. You will need 12 slices from 1 eggplant to allow one 'sandwich' each for 6 people.
Dredge the slices in flour and fry in oil until cooked right through. Drain on paper towel in a single layer.
Frutta candida: here, cumquats, and pinenuts and lemon zest.
In the meantime, chop the candied fruit with the pine nuts and zest.
Top one slice of eggplant with a little of the fruit mixture and press down another slice of eggplant on the top, firmly, to make a ‘sandwich’. Keep a little of the candied fruit mixture for the garnish.
Take an eggplant ‘sandwich’ and carefully coat with plain flour, next dip into the beaten egg and fry again in the hot oil until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towel.
Sprinkle both sides with the caster sugar mixed to your taste with cinnamon.
To make the chocolate sauce: Completely dissolve the sugar in boiling water, then whisk in the cocoa until very smooth. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until the sauce is smooth and glossy.
Decide if you will serve the dessert as individual serves or in a tray. I prefer to make individual serves but a tray would be easier if you are taking this to a party.
In a serving tray, spread a little of the sauce, then lay down a single layer of the cold eggplant sandwiches. Pour over some more sauce and sprinkle with the remaining candied fruit and pine nuts.
Otherwise, put one or two eggplant sandwiches on a plate, serve the sauce over the top and garnish with reserved candied fruit.
(At the end of her recipe, Carmela suggests that vino cotto could be substituted for the chocolate. An altogether different recipe and one to try on another occasion.)
Photo credit: istock
Carmela also sent us the recipe for Concerto – a highly spiced digestivo from the area of Tramonte. The base concoction is alcohol, lemon peel, barley, sugar and coffee. Then the ‘concert’ of spices – anise, star anise, coriander, juniper, sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and calamus root (calamus is an aquatic plant used in distilleries and perfumeries for its aroma and bitterness).
I despaired that I would not find the spices and envisaged several frustrating searches for sandalwood and calamus; nor do I have easy access to 'pure' alcohol; I do not have the necessary grit and resilience to boil the barley; steep the mixtures; infuse the syrup; filter; and wait several months before bottling.
And then, just by chance, walking the cobbled back streets of Atrani, I came upon a pharmacy that sold the spices, already measured and packed. The pharmacist told me that the Amalfitani still see it as the universal remedy for upset tummies and general malaise.
All I had to do, she said, was....... pulverise all the spices and lemon zest and infuse this in 1 lt of 90% proof alcohol for 40 days. Meanwhile, I needed to attend to the boiling of one kilo barley in 4 litres of water until the grains were tender and then let the pot stand at room temperature for about 2 days - but if the weather was warm, I should keep the pan with barley and water in the cellar.
After careful straining, this cereal water becomes the liquid in which I should dissolve 2.5 kg caster sugar. When this sugar syrup is cool, we need to add 6 cups of strong coffee made in a cafeteria. Now we can add the filtered infusion of spices. After a few months, we can bottle.
Nothing to it, she said, "facilissimo".
Will you attempt to make it? In the words of Rudyard Kipling: “You’re a better man than me, Gunga Din”.