I have always lived in the countryside, in the same house where grandma and dad were born, but for years the countryside was little more than a well-kept garden, an olive tree orchard and a hedgerow of blackberries at the end of summer.
My parents belong to that generation, grown in the ’60s and’ 70s, who did everything they could to get free from the countryside, intended as agriculture: they worked all day, my dad in an office, my mum first in a tailoring company and then at the university canteen, and when they would come back home they had other projects, which certainly did not include taking care of a vegetable garden.
My great-grandfather Piero, he was a real farmer, he would harvest wheat and he also had a large vegetable garden and beehives. Apparently, he made an excellent wine compared to the standards of the times, when for other farmers the wine was just another source of calories.
Grandma Marcella kept a vegetable garden, too, with its rows of tomatoes sprayed with copper sulphate, the artichoke patch and the cucumber corner. I vividly remember the unripe smell of green tomatoes and that unique scent of wet soil. Over the years, however, she let it go, dedicating more time to her beloved flowers. When you enter the gate of the garden now, you see flowers everywhere: mum loves all the roses, grandma everything, as long as it blooms.
Despite this, I grew up in the myth of self-sufficiency, of a family that in the summer would make compotes, preserves and jams. All that unused space, all that countryside, it looked like a waste.
Working from home and shopping at the local farmers’ markets, I started to plant the seed of a different garden in my parents, talking them into growing our own vegetables. This is one of my biggest faults: I have brilliant ideas, then I do not find the time to actually follow up their realization. The turning point was when mum retired.
Last year we planted a dozen fruit trees, which might become a proper orchard when my children will grow up. In the last four years, my parents, supervised by my grandmother’s experience and memories, have been growing a slowly expanding vegetable garden: garlic, onions, eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes… it is just a summer vegetable garden for the moment, but it’s a beginning.
This is the second year that I’ve been trying to grow some plants from the actual seeds and, despite many mistakes, a few weeks ago I planted about twenty zucchinis in the garden: a round yellow zucchini known as zucchina limone, the long yellow zucchini, the Ligurian zucchini and the trumpet courgette, my favourite. I also planted four zucchini which will produce just flowers for the whole summer. I already see myself frying tons of them.
Next to the thriving aromatics and to the strawberries pots, we added two raspberry plants, a red currant and a gooseberry bush. I tried my luck again with rhubarb.
In the evening, Tommaso and I take a walk through the garden, checking the bushes of black currant and gooseberry and the few tomato plants that were born from seeds and that are still in the unstable greenhouse under the olive tree. We look proudly at the zucchini growing in the garden, oblivious to the bad weather. We almost count the new raspberry leaves, and we are rooting for rhubarb. Necessary changes made, we look just like Liz Bennet and Mr. Darcy, admiring the estate of Pemberley, embracing with our eyes all that is growing, despite my negligence and thanks to the attentions of my family. In my eyes there is amazement, and gratitude, for this countryside which is finally productive again.
This is the reason why I’ve always had a fascination for everything that grows naturally in the wild: before a vegetable garden and an orchard there were wild herbs, hedgerows of blackberries teeming with life at the end of summer, pine nuts collected under century old pine trees and the mushrooms that grandma would bring home in a wicker basket.
So, before growing tomatoes and pumpkins with uncertain luck, I searched for wild apples, I foraged wild herbs, I picked acacia flowers and elderflowers.
As I did last year, recently I’ve been mentally mapping elderberry bushes and trees along the roads and on the banks of the local streams, waiting for a rare sunny afternoon for our harvest. As soon as the clouds opened up, showing us a glimpse of blue sky, Tommaso and I got into the car with Noa, excited for joining us in a new adventure. We parked near the Saint Giulia bridge on the river Elsa and we ventured on a muddy road dotted with enormous puddles that Noa repeatedly refused to cross. Then, suddenly, the intense scent of the elderflower. It was finally happening again.
I made a few bottles of elderflower syrup, then I used the elderflower heads to give a unique aroma to a gelato and a panna cotta: I had a feeling they could be good, but I could not imagine how much.
Elderflower panna cotta
You can make this panna cotta without gelatine, as it will set in a bain-marie in the oven thanks to the egg whites. It is soft and creamy, like a pudding. I had already made it a few years ago, for a dinner with friends, then I had completely forgotten about it, always relying on this other recipe, with gelatine.
But that silky texture conquered a piece of my heart, and when I caught the heady scent of elderflowers, the stars aligned and I could see them so well together, that creamy panna cotta and those tiny little flowers, so delicate. To make again that panna cotta, I followed Jasmine’s recipe, which you can find on her blog, Labna.
If you have time, you can infuse the elderflowers in the cream overnight in the fridge, otherwise you can bring to a gentle boil the cream with the elderflower heads just before making the recipe. The scent of elderflowers is elegant, charming, and gives that extra oomph to one of the most classic desserts, making it fresh, seasonal.
Elderflower panna cotta
- 500 ml of fresh cream
- 8 heads of very fresh elderflowers
- 80 g of sugar, + 100 g of sugar for the caramel
- 4 egg whites
- Pour the cream into a saucepan, then add the sugar and the elderflower heads, previously checked to avoid unwanted guests.
- Bring the cream to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar, then turn off the heat and let it cool down.
- Slightly beat the egg whites with a fork until you see some bubbles on the surface, then sieve the cream and pour it onto the egg whites. Stir just enough to mix the ingredients.
- Heat the oven to 120°C.
- Melt 100 g of sugar in a non-stick pan until it becomes an amber caramel.
- Pour the caramel into a loaf pan, wait a few seconds until the caramel sets, then pour in the cream, too.
- Place the panna cotta mould in a larger pan filled with water and bake on the bottom rack for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until it is elastic and compact to the touch. Be careful not to burn yourself when checking the panna cotta!
- Remove the panna cotta from the oven, let it cool down, then stash in the fridge for a few hours, or, even better, until the next day, so that it will be completely set and the caramel will turn into a sauce.
- When serving the panna cotta, dip the pan for a few seconds in a bowl of boiling water, then unmould into a plate. The caramel will run everywhere, so choose a plate which will easily keep the sauce, you don’t want to spill it, it is so good.
Elderflower custard gelato
Just after the idea of an elderflower panna cotta, an elderflower custard gelato popped into my mind. If it could marry so beautifully cream, why not custard? Why not in a gelato? Just like I did for the panna cotta, the elderflower heads release their essence in the cream and the milk which will become a smooth gelato. You can scoop the ice cream on a cone, into a cup or with some strawberries.
Elderflower custard gelato
- 220 g of whole milk
- 250 g of fresh cream
- 8 heads of very fresh elderflowers
- 5 egg yolks
- 125 g of sugar
- 1 tablespoon of orange blossom honey
- The day before. Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan with the heads of elderflowers, until slightly simmering. Turn off the heat and let it cool down slightly.
- Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until light and pale, then add a tablespoon of honey.
- Sieve the milk and cream and pour slowly in a thin stream into the egg yolks and stir constantly with a whisk to prevent the eggs from curdling.
- Put the custard in a double boiler on the stove and heat till 83°C or mix with a whisk until it reaches the first boil. Turn off, cover with cling film and let it cool, then move it into the fridge until the next day.
- The next day. Pour the custard into the chilled ice cream maker and follow the instructions.
- When the gelato is ready, scoop it into a plastic or metal container and transfer it into the freezer for a few hours.
- Remove from the fridge about 10 minutes before serving.
- Elderflower desserts will be the next big thing now that Henry and Meghan have chosen an elderflower Swiss meringue buttercream along with Amalfi lemons for their wedding cake, beautifully executed by Claire Ptak, of the Violet Bakery in London. This article by Bee Wilson for The New Yorker traces the history of royal wedding cakes up to this last one: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Wedding Cake Breaks with Centuries of Royal Tradition. Her royal wedding cake will encourage people to think about things like flavor, provenance, and the seasons – “all of which,” she said, “are actually rather traditional.”
- Now that elderflowers are back in fashion, it is easy to find recipes where they shine through, as in this one, inspired by the royal wedding cake: Simple Elderflower Lemon Cake with Elderflower Whipped Cream.
- Ottolenghi has recipes with elderflowers, too.
- To finish on a sweet and old-fashioned note, what about these floating clouds in elderflower custard with syrup?