If I had to pick a forbidden fruit, I’d go for citruses. Nothing speaks of Heaven like an orange or lemon garden to me. I expecially have a crush on lemon trees – I find there is something magical and sacred about them. There is a poem by an Italian poet, Montale, that describes the feeling; I know it is out of fashion to talk about poetry, but those lines really give you the idea of what I am talking about.
To complete the picture I’d probably add also a few olive trees – they are so beautiful, and the light silver green contrasts perfectly with the dark, luscious green of citruses.
I was lucky enough to spend my Christmas break near such a place. It was in the Piana di Gioia Tauro, in Calabria. This is not a place like all others. It is the nest of ‘ndrangheta, and you can’t ignore it – as most Italians choose to do – when you are there. Every time I go there, it makes me so angry: this place is beautiful. This place is a stone throw away from being Heaven. The land is rich, the sea is breathtaking. Nature is strong and somehow tropical in its fullness, climate is so perfect to be nearly ridiculous (come on! twenty-five degrees and the whole Europe is freezing with an exceptional ice spell! That is way too much).
A member of my family has access to some land there – where he cold presses the best organic olive oil you can possibly find on Earth. The olives are hand-picked from the trees; the flavour of the resulting oil is pure, it just tastes of olives, without hints of grass or acid or bitter flavours in it. It is a primeval flavour, subtle yet unequivocal on every dish.
But it is not about the oil I want to talk about today. This oil is in each and every of my dishes, the savoury and some of the sweet ones as well. It is the canvas of my cooking.
The land also produces fruits. Oranges were to die for – and we made our best, eating as many as we could, far beyond the sickness point (ok, probably it was a stomach bug, but at any rate I managed to lose all the extra weight I had put on at Christmas in a couple of hellish days…). They were so fresh and sweet and juicy that I could not think of cooking with them, they were just perfect for eating! What I want to talk about today are lemons – they were sweet and their smell was inebriating. I saw them and I thought I had to use as many as I could before leaving. And then I turned to my favourite massive lemon user recipe, when you can’t make sherbet or ice cream: lemon curd.
It was amazing: it even convinced very conservative people that something ‘not strictly traditional’ – where tradition definition of course includes only Calabria – could be good. And you have no idea of how hard this is in Calabria.
A note on the recipe: there are many lemon curd recipes out there. They sound slightly scary like all recipes involving raw eggs and butter, to be cooked over a direct flame! But honestly, it is really simple to make curd, nowhere near as hard as a custard. You just cook it and – lo and behold!- it thickens. You will have to adapt the sugar amount by the acidity of your fruit – by tasting is probably the best way . Some are thickened with a little cornstarch, but I prefer to make it thicker with egg yolks. If you like your lemon curd super smooth, don’t grate the zest in, but if you don’t mind a little grainy consistency, barely detectable, then go for it, it will add an extra boost.
Ingredients (makes about three 300 ml pots):
5 egg yolks
finely grated zest of three lemons
200 ml lemon juice – about five medium lemons
200 gr butter, room temperature
250 gr sugar, or to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl quite well. No need to perfectly incorporate the butter. If you are feeling advenutous, you can make it directly in a thick bottomed pot. If you are more cautious, cook the curd on bainemarie over a pot of simmering water. Mix the curd until it thickens, about five minutes depending on the heat. Put it in clean pots and keep in the fridge. I don’t know how long it keeps, but at least for a week, much longer than normal custard.