My favourite snack is an apple. As a student I used to always bring an apple or two in my bag, and I never stopped to. I think it must have started when I was very young, probably right after primary school. My public primary school was indeed quite a progressive and unusual one. Children had the option to stay at school also in the afternoon (in Italy they spend only mornings at school). There was a canteen providing food for everyone, fresh, locally prepared, healthy food, with a pool of voluntary moms that were allowed to supervise after a careful training on health and safety procedures. My stay-at-home mum was one of them and she was impressed by the quality. I have to admit that as a youngster I was not very inclined to appreciate that, and while I do remember some food with pleasure, my main memory is that of hating the salad because it had so much vinegar in it. At mid mornings and mid afternoons snacks were provided during the long breaks. You were not allowed to bring any food from outside and as far as I remember the rule was enforced. So we all snacked on fruit and milk. Fruit was oranges or apples, usually. And it all started there, I think. If you think about it, this is a great trick to teach children to eat healthily. We were all hungry and so learned to snack on fruit without having to have it cut and cleaned for you by mummy first. We did not need to care that much about advertisement featuring sugary, unhealthy food and drink, since the ‘cool’ factor associated with it could not be boasted at school with your mates, and thus lost most of its appeal.
On a separate note, this school had many more innovative features. There was a swimming pool in it and we had swimming lessons on Fridays – I always hated them, but I guess it must have been a good idea. There was a very big library which I adored, my favorite hiding place where I daydreamed of becoming an astronaut or an archeologist. I have always hated going to school on a Saturday after those years: we had free Saturdays and my parents used to spend Saturday mornings at the market for our weekly shopping. I still remember the fragrance of hot, crunchy bread coming out of the oven, watching my father spot the freshest fish and teaching me how to make the distinction, taking off my gloves to grab an offer of mozzarella, an olive or two, a clementine. But what I really loved of my primary school were the so called ‘complementary activities’. Since we spent so much time at school, we had one morning and one afternoon devoted to something different from normal lessons. The teachers reinvented themselves and taught us about their hobbies, and each child could choose up to four different classes. We mixed up with children from other classes and age groups – something that usually does not happen, since you always stay with the same classmates. I had jewellery making classes, gardening, painting, ikebana, sport classes, but my favourite one was Spanish. I learned a lot of it and when I left primary school I was quite a fluent talker, with just two hours a week of lessons! Since then I have completely forgotten it, though Italian and Spanish are similar enough to allow me to understand most of a slow conversation and book a table for dinner. But I guess some inclination for languages must be born at that time, given that since then I have learned three other languages with not much effort (ahem, aside from German), all while living in Italy and speaking mainly Italian in my everyday life.
Back to apples. Many people underestimate this fruit, perceived as daily and plain. I guess it does taste homely, but this is just positive for me. Like all fruits, apples taste better just picked from the tree, perfectly ripe, but since they keep so well, they do suffer less than other fruits for being kept and transported. Apples are produced in large quantity in Northern Italy, in two beautiful, mountainous regions, Trentino and Alto Adige. It is an experience to go there in spring, when the trees are white and pink from the flowers and the sweet smell is filling the valleys, or in late summer, when line after line of neat trees almost break under the red weight of the fruit, and you can taste actual ‘straight from the tree’ apples, fresh and crunchy. I love to eat them as they are. I don’t have a favourite type and I have grown to love the different varieties you can find around Europe. This simple dessert, barely sweet, but tasting surprisingly complex, is just a step up, and it contains some pear as well because I had an over ripe one that needed attention. You could play around with the flavourings you add. I was inspired by the man selling dried fruit at the market, who insisted I had to taste his raisins and his almonds together. He was right.
Caramelized pots of apples
Note: I used some red apples – not too sure what the farmer is selling – which are a bit tart, but nowhere near as tart as cooking apples, and they keep their shape quite well after cooking. They were sweet enough, especially with the pear, so I added just a bit of concentrated apple juice, a natural, delicious sweetener I found in my organic shop. If you have never tried it, you should: it tastes really great. If you go for a different apple variety, taste if you need more sugar or other sweetener.
3 medium apples (See note above for variety)
1 tablespoon apple juice concentrate (optional)
20 gr raisins
20 gr almonds, skin on
3 teaspoons sugar
10 gr butter
Peel, core and slice the apples and pear (about 3 mm thick).
Take a large non stick pan, melt the butter in it, letting it slightly brown.
Put in the apples and pear slices, and let cook over high heat. Wait a little before stirring so they have time to brown a bit. Turn and brown other sides of the fruit slices. When the fruit is still firm, but a bit brown, add in the apple molasses, if using, and lower the heat to medium. Add in the raisins and the almonds, roughly chopped. Let cook until the fruit is slightly caramelized but not a shapeless mess.
Put into small pots. Dust with about 1 teaspoon granulated sugar each, and burn with a small flame thrower, or under the grill.