The fidanzata joined a ‘GAS’, which stands for Gruppo di Acquisto Solidale: a consumers’ cooperative society. It’s a wonderful thing, enabling the bulk purchase of items which come direct from the farmer to the consumer with no middleman. Fresher produce, lower prices, and everyone benefits. She bought some mandarins for €7.50. Seems reasonable. Continue reading Marmalade in Italy
Being out of the UK and looking back at our traditions, I have to say we don’t half eat some weird stuff at Christmas. Mincemeat? I can’t get it here so I’m making my own, and I promise you, the recipe is disgusting. Artery-hardening beef fat in preserved fruit (can’t find suet so I’m using lard, which isn’t any better)?
And don’t get me started on Christmas pudding.
So if you’re in Italy and you want to introduce your Italian friends into strange British Christmas food gently, rather than jumping straight into suet-based products, what could be better for a traditional Christmas drinks party than some cheesy Marmite straws?
I served these to a bunch of unsuspecting Italians at my birthday party a few months ago. I won’t say they were the most popular thing that I cooked for the occasion, but people ate them anyway and there was no vomiting, wild gesticulation or shouts of ‘porca putana’, which is what would have happened if I’d have revealed the secret ingredients.
It’s almost an insult to put this recipe here because it’s so damn easy, but what the hell.
- Packet of flaky pastry (‘pasta sfoglia’), or if you can be bothered to make it yourself, here’s a good recipe off of Mr Ramsay
- Cheddar cheese (not available in Italy, so I use a hard Dutch cheese like gouda or edam, though neither is as tasty as cheddar)
Heat the oven to 200C.
Unfurl or roll out the pastry to a large rectangle about 3-4mm thick. Don’t worry how big the rectangle is as only the thickness matters. Spread the entire thing with a thin layer of Marmite. Then grate cheese all over. Fold it in half and gently roll it flat again, but not so hard that the cheese/marmite gloop bursts through the pastry. Then cut into strips about 15cm long. Twist each strip a few times and lay them on a baking sheet/baking paper on a tray. If you like you can eggwash them and sprinkle sesame seeds over the top (good for fooling Italians as it disguises the Marmite). Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden-brown. Cool and serve or put in a sealed container. Will keep in the fridge for a few days. If they’re soft when you take them out, just give them about minutes in an oven around 75-100C to crisp them up again.
A recipe of dubious provenance from my friend Hanabanx in New Zealand*.
Cook spaghetti, stir through beautiful black stuff, grate cheese on top, stuff face.
I haven’t tried this and suspect I might only do this with a very small amount, next time I’m home alone.
*Note she does not specify whether she used British Marmite (yum!) or New Zealand Marmite (yuck!). I will try to clarify.
Looks bad, dreadful texture. Instead may I recommend putting scrambled eggs on top of Marmite on toast.
When I was wooing my fidanzata I made her lasagne al forno, which is a bit presumptious given that I’m the English one and she’s the Italian. But she loved it and it won her heart. That and my natural charm and good looks, of course.
Last night I made her lasagne al forno again. She said it was the best I’ve ever made. I have to admit, it was indeed utterly amazing and better than anything I’ve had in a restaurant in Italy.
The secret? I snuck in a little bit of Marmite. But I haven’t told her.
Ingredients for the ragù
- 2 tbsps olive oil
- 1 white onion
- 400g minced beef
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 glass milk
- 1 glass red wine
- 1 tin tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tbsps dried oregano
- 1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper
- 2 tbsps balsamic vinegar
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 heaped teaspoon of Marmite
- Up to 1/2 tube tomato purée
This ragù can be made well in advance. In fact its flavour improves over about 48 hours. If you refrigerate it I recommend re-heating it before making the lasagne in order to loosen it up.
Peel the garlic cloves and put them in the oil whole on a medium heat for a couple of minutes. Finely chop the onion and add to the oil until it is beginning to become translucent. Add the beef and break up the lumps, stirring until brown. Add the glass of milk and turn the heat up, stirring all the time. When most of the liquid has boiled off, add the glass of wine and repeat until it’s mostly boiled off. Turn the heat back down to medium, stir in the tin of tomatoes, then the bay leaves, oregano and black pepper, and simmer gently for around 20 minutes. When it has reduced slightly, stir in the balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and Marmite, making sure to hide the Marmite from any Italians who may be nearby. Surreptitiously return the Marmite to the cupboard. Taste to see if it needs more sweetness (adjust using small amounts of balsamic vinegar) or saltiness (creep to the cupboard and retrieve the Marmite). Remove the garlic cloves and bay leaves. Reduce the heat to low and stir tomato purée until there is no runny liquid visible. Turn the heat off.
Ingredients for the béchamel
- 75g butter
- 50g flour
- 250ml milk
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 50g freshly grated parmesan
Melt the butter. Meanwhile in another pan warm the milk. Stir the flour into the butter until it’s completely absorbed. Cook for a few minutes on medium until the butter is ‘boiling’ out of the mixture and it has turned a golden colour. Remove from the heat and add about 1/3 of the milk. Stir with a whisk until smooth then return to the heat. The mixture will start to thicken, at which point remove from the heat and add another third of the milk. Repeat until all the milk has been used up. If it’s still too thick, keep repeating with the same amount of milk until it’s the texture of double cream. Turn the heat off and stir in about 10 grinds of pepper and all the parmesan.
Ingredients for the lasagne al Marmite
- The ragù
- The béchamel
- About 40 fresh basil leaves
- Spinach lasagne sheets
- 1 ball mozzarella
- 50g grated parmesan
To construct the lasagne
Lightly oil the bottom of a lasagne pan (though with the proportions above I used a 1 lb bread loaf tin. Double all ingredients to fill a larger pan). Cover completely with lasagne sheets. If you have fresh ones, cut to size with scissors. Spread out one layer of ragù to a depth of about 1cm. Cover with a single layer of basil leaves, then cover that with more lasagne sheets. Pour béchamel over the entire layer of pasta to about 1/2cm deep. Then add another 1cm depth of ragù, another layer of basil leaves, another layer of pasta, then béchamel, then ragù, then basil, and then the final layer of pasta. Note that there should be three layers of ragù by now. Pour the last of the béchamel over the top, then top with slices of mozzarella.
Bake in the oven at 180C for half an hour (if using fresh pasta) or 40 minutes if using dry pasta. Ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, sprinkle the grated parmesan over the top and garnish with a few fresh basil leaves, then return to the oven to let the basil leaves crisp and the parmesan brown.
Once it’s out of the oven it’s best to leave it to settle for about 20 minutes. This allows the béchamel to thicken and the pasta to soften even more, which helps when serving. When you cut it make sure you cut all the way through the bottom layer of pasta, as this will keep it together structurally as you put slices on the plate.
Remember, allow your Italian friends to compliment you, but think twice before revealing the presence of the Marmite.
Health warning: if you are using Marmite in a sauce you are serving to Italians, do not tell them you have done so as this may invoke extreme acts of violence or retching. If you insist on telling them, at least wait until they’ve finished and complimented you on your cooking!
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my fidanzata hates Marmite with the kind of passion only Italians can muster. So when I cook with it, I don’t tell her. I wait until she’s out of the room, sneak a dollop of the salty heaven into the dish, stir it in quickly then put the jar back in the cupboard as quick as I can.
When I’m making a ragù (meat sauce), I am conscious of trying to balance the various fundamental flavours against each other, to make a ‘wall of taste’ in the mouth. In case you’ve forgotten, these are:
The strongest note of these should be the umami, then the bitter and sweet in balance with each other, with just traces of salt and sour. It’s impossible to talk about these precisely, but when adjusting the seasonings, in my mind the proportions are something like: umami 75%, sweet 10%, bitter 10%, salt 3% and sour 2%.
I brown the meat with an onion, which induces the Maillard Reaction: proteins cooked in trace sugars from the onion, which provides most of the umami.
Towards the end of the cooking I use two tablespoons of aceto balsamico to provide a sweet tang.
The acids in the vinegar, as well as the tomatoes, provide a little bitterness, and I also add the juice of half a lemon.
The sour is the least pleasing of all these, but a hint is still necessary, so I rely on any dairy products that may be in the final dish (milk and in a béchamel, mozzarella or parmesan – which is another source of umami) to contribute their natural sourness. Then I forget about that bit.
Now here’s the secret: all of the saltiness is contributed by Marmite. Marmite is also high in umami, so it ‘tops off’ the savouriness of the meat in an incredibly pleasing way. Just a heaped teaspoon in a pan is all that’s needed and nobody will be any the wiser – but there will be ‘something about’ the dish that will make it più delizioso than normal…
Amazingly, Marmite has remained in the cuisine of Malaysia, long after the British left. One memorable night in Kuala Lumpur I found Marmite Crab on the menu. Needless to say I ordered it without even considering anything else.
It was very good. Not great, but pretty interesting and memorable nonetheless. The trick with cooking with Marmite is to dilute it heavily.
- Rice or noodles
Ingredients for Marmite sauce
To make a Marmite sauce suitable for dressing fried crab, use the following proportions:
- 20 parts water
- 2 parts Marmite
- 2 parts Maggi seasoning*
- 3 parts tomato sauce
- 3 parts sugar (preferably palm sugar if you can find it)
Hopefully you should be able to convert the above into teaspoons or tablespoons without much mental gymnastics. Mix this up in a jug or a bowl. Don’t worry if the sugar doesn’t dissolve at first – this will happen in the next step.
Cut and fry the crab meat in whichever way you prefer (dredged in flour and then deep fried works well). Drain the meat and pat the oil off the crab meat with a paper towel and then add to a pan/wok and add the sauce. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until you can feel the sauce beginning to get sticky.
Serve over rice or noodles.
It is surprising that it works but it does because the light freshness of the crab meat is overlayed with cloying savoury notes: the umami of the Maggi,the sweetness of the palm sugar, the salty strength of the Marmite lurking beneath it all threatening to burst out with its mighty flavours, but remaining restrained.
My mouth is watering just remembering that Malaysian Marmite meal all those years ago.
*This sauce is a little like liquid Marmite without the salt, and is pure umami in a bottle. It can be found at most Asian food shops and even some Italian supermarkets. If you can, try to buy the stuff made in Thailand, which is made from soya rather than wheat and has a yellow cap rather than a red one, as it has a milder and more pleasant flavour.
This is how the majority of British people ate their Marmite when they were kids. There are many variations, including cheese, baked beans, etc. but this is the fundamental. Master this before getting creative!
- 1 slice bread, preferably white
- 1 lump butter, preferably salted (this is harder in Italy, but the Marmite’s so salty you probably won’t notice)
- Toaster (or a grill)
1. Toast the bread.
2. Butter the bread.
Use a generous lump. If it doesn’t all melt don’t worry, you can put the excess back in the dish.
Make sure it’s covering the bread and all melty and lovely. Now to the denoument!
3. Spread the Marmite.
First dip into a virgin pot. How sensuous. How exciting.
You only need to use a little. Marmite is strong stuff.
Spread the Marmite thin. This may be more than many people can handle. Personally I usually use double, but I’m a masochist like that.
Perfection and nostalgia all rolled into one.