In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present.”
But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food, and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: “ It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.”
Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Are you the ant or the grasshopper? Even though I’ve always secretly admired the carefree bohemian spirit of the grasshopper, which in the original version is a cicada, singing its way through summer, I’m a real ant at heart. I absolutely adore to stock up the pantry with everything that you can bottle throughout the year: tomato sauce, jams and marmalades, candied citrus peels, cooked beans and chickpeas… I take it as a point of honor, the bigger the pot, the better.
I was born in the Tuscan countryside, in a tiny village where you can only buy fresh eggs and a farm chicken once every blue moon, so I learnt from grandma and mum the sheer pleasure and the rough necessity of stocking up the pantry at every possible occasion. It is tomato purée and jams at the end of summer, to jar the generous produce of the good season, orange marmalade in winter.
Working from home, I brought the preserve obsession to a higher level: bottles of chicken broth in the freezer, candied orange and citron peel to make panforte, preciously kept in a tin box, baby artichokes in olive oil, sliced eggplants in olive oil, tomato paste, onion jam for the pecorino, home made mustard for when I crave a gourmet hamburger, limoncello and nocino to end on a high note my cooking classes.
Then the time came to make my first home made alchermes.
A Renaissance spirit, a favourite liqueur of the Medici family, the Tuscan elixir for long life, a pick me up for fragile women. Alchermes is a bright crimson liqueur which is still made today by the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence with the same recipe created in 1743, along with many artisanal and refined liqueurs. It is infused with spices, time and tradition, the recognizable colour given by a handful of dried insects, cochineals, which give also the name to alchermes.
For me, though, this is the ruby red bottle that my grandma would keep in her pantry next to the aniseed liqueur, the unmistakable colour of every birthday cake since I was born, the old fashioned and spiced taste of a bowl of zuppa inglese or of a slice of chocolate sponge roll cake. When I open the bottle of alchermes I don’t smell just history and traditions, but a family ritual of brushing every sponge cake, of drops of crimson elixir mixed in every icing to celebrate our birthdays, the only food colouring we have ever used. This is the colour of blushing zuccotti in the shop windows of the best pasticcerie, the smell of the most traditional and old fashioned desserts of the Tuscan tradition.
Home made alchermes
My grandma’s alchermes was obviously the industrial and commercial bottle that you could buy at the supermarket, full of artificial colouring and chemical aromas. Once I tried the Santa Maria Novella alchermes, though, I understood that I could not come back to the old one. It was time to stock up your pantry with a quintessential Tuscan ingredient: use it to brush sponge cakes, to colour the icing of cakes and cupcakes, to soak biscotti and lady fingers, to add depth of flavour and a veil of history to many sweet recipes.
The most challenging part is to find all the required ingredients, especially the dried cochineals. I found them in Florence at Bizzarri, a most fascinating century old apothecary. The recipe is from Paolo Petroni’s Il grande libro della vera cucina toscana.
- 600 g of alcohol
- 10 g of cochineals
- 10 g of cinnamon
- 10 g of coriander seeds
- 3 g of macis
- 10 cardamom pods
- 4 cloves
- 5 g of orange peel
- 3 g of star anise
- ½ vanilla pod
- 600 g of sugar
- 100 g of rose water
- Crush in a mortar all the spices but the vanilla pod. Cut it in small pieces.
- Fill up a big jar with alcohol and 300 g of pure water. Add the spices and the vanilla.
- Shake it: immediately the liquid will become crimson red.
- Close the jar and infuse for a couple of weeks, shaking it at least once a day.
- After this time, melt the sugar in 500 g of pure water and add it to the jar with alcohol and spices.
- Shake it again and let it sit for another day
- Filter the liqueur through a cheese cloth or a paper coffee filter and collect in a bottle and pour in the rose water. The alchermes is ready to be used.
Recipes with alchermes
Many typical Tuscan dessert recipes include alchermes among the key ingredients. A zuppa inglese without alchermes would be a simple trifle, pesche di Prato would be just brioches and I could not even imagine my birthday cake without alchermes. Here you can find four good reasons to prepare your bottle of home made alchermes.
- Zuppa inglese. The pastry custard is the starting point to make zuppa inglese, literally English soup and basically a trifle, which was made when there was sponge cake or some savoiardi, lady biscuits, an acclaimed afternoon snack, perfect for those days when you needed a boost of energy or an extra cuddle, to be added to the wool blanket on the couch and to grandma’s caresses. The savoiardi are dunked in alchermes, creating a pink layer in between chocolate pudding and custard.
- Sponge roll, or as we call it, rotolino. It is just a simple sponge roll and you can fill it with custard, chocolate, jam, ricotta mousse with coffee… Follow your instincts and you will have great satisfaction! it is usually brushed with alchermes on the inside.
- Pesche di Prato. These so called pesche, peaches, are domes of brioche, soaked in alchermes, and paired two by two, held together by a thick Italian custard, then they are covered with caster sugar, to mimic the velvety skin of one of the most delicious summer fruits. They are not difficult to make, you just need some organization.
- Zuccotto. Zuccotto is a Tuscan semifreddo, typical of Florence. Its origins are related to one of the most clever and influential women of the XVI century, Caterina De’ Medici, a woman belonging to the most important family of Florence, who later became queen of France.
My favourite books on preserves
- Diana Henry, Salt Sugar Smoke: How to preserve fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. It is my go-to book for cured salmon, a recipe I’ve been making every Christmas since I got the book. It is filled to the brim with tasty, reliable, interesting and easily replicable recipes as each Diana’s book. There are many recipes for pickles, jams and marmalades and liqueurs and cordials. I love the salted, cured and potted chapter.
- Domenica Marchetti, Preserving Italy. Domenica’s book is a fascinating guide to canning, curing, infusing and bottling Italian flavors and traditions. You don’t find just recipes to make your own preserves, but also ideas on how to use them, from spaghettini al limone, crostini with spiced tomato jam and ricotta, tramezzini and crostata. When I first leafed through this book I thought: this is a book I would have loved to write, as it resonates at so many levels with my passions and my cooking style. I will cook from this book many recipes to bottle in the next months, I am sure!
- Carol Tennant, Women’s Institute Book of Preserves. The first book on preserves I bought years ago at Books for Cooks in London, still my favourite bookshop in the whole world. Simple straightforward recipes for jams and conserves, jellies, marmalades, curds, chutneys, pickles and sauces. Thanks to this book I learnt to make lemon curd, a tangible sign of my soft spot for British food.
Link Love – What I am reading and cooking in these days
What have you been reading or cooking recently? Share links in the comments!
- I am cooking lots of soups as these days are freezing. This is my favourite, as I always have a jar of cooked chickpeas (see? I am the ant) in the pantry.
- I’ve been making pots of fagioli all’uccelletto, too. I toast a few slices of the sourdough bread that I bake weekly and call this a satisfying dinner.
- Speaking of soups, this article is interesting if you love to whip up soups with the ingredients you find daily in your pantry and your fridge. Soup is a true wonder of alchemy. Together, water, onions and time turn water into broth, bland into savory and thin into thick. But for those results, process is critical: The finest soups layer flavors every step of the way.
- I’m already half way through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Tommaso’s gift for the Befana, and I’m inevitably captured by the magical atmosphere I loved so much in the previous books.