Lemons from Liguria (Crostata di Marmellata)

In May, the Eastern Ligurian coast reeks of blossom. Just walking around outdoors, you can’t escape the smell and it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a bit like being in the world’s most amazing garden centre, only there’s this great, glittering expanse of blue in front of you, dotted here and there by a few white boats.

Whenever we visit Italy, my tastebuds seem to get hypersensitive and I return home with a renewed fervour for cooking, baking and tasting. I desperately want to create that freshness that you experience with simple Italian food and while I’m there, I try to dissect everything I eat to unearth the few core flavours of each dish.

I especially suffer from the desire to try and recreate the sweet things I eat in Italy. On our last day in Liguria, I vowed I was going to purchase some little pandolcini that I’d been drawn to everyday in the window of a small panificio. I wasn’t sure whether they would be hard and biscuitty, or soft and bread-like, I just knew I wanted them. Safely stashed away, those babies made it all the way back to Switzerland in one piece, before making it into my mouth the next morning for breakfast.

It was one wonderful breakfast. The pandolcini were biscuit-like, with a flavour similar to many cantuccini that you can buy outside of Italy. However, the texture was softer, akin almost to a British rock cake.

And the main flavours? Blossom, of course. There was orange blossom, fennel seed and there were raisins, pint nuts and several other ingredients I just couldn’t single out.

I’m not sure whether this was typical of the Ligurian pandolce, since all the semi-desperate research I have conducted over the last couple of weeks would seem to indicate the use of yeast (which I’m fairly sure didn’t feature in our little bundles of joy) and quite a lot of other dried or candied fruit.

I think the single answer is to return to Liguria for a bakery-crawl, so I can grill each baker in my broken Italian about what goes into their version of pandolce. My only hope here is that they see me as a naïve tourist and not the recipe junkie that I really am, as I understand that pandolce recipes are closely guarded family secrets, not given away lightly and especially not to strangers.

Another thing I ate on our trip which made firm friends with my sweet tooth, was our agriturismo’s Crostata di Marmellata. I’d like to hazard a guess at the type of marmellata which featured in the one I ate, but I’d probably be wrong. The owners of the agriturismo seemingly grew every type of fruit imaginable. At breakfast, there was a jam with a citrusy flavour which just wasn’t quite lemon and another which was chunkier and orange in colour. Either of these could have been the featured jam in the crostata. But it was the pastry that made it different to just being any jam tart. It was almost too thick and too unsweet, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth in the clingy manner of a digestive biscuit.

And I’m still trying to recreate it. I’ve made my jam from the world’s most fabulous and fragrant Ligurian lemons; it’s just the pastry that eludes me.

For now, I’ve settled on a standard sweet pastry, the recipe for which I dug out of my Silver Spoon Italian cookbook. But until I make one with the perfect pastry, I fear everyone around here is just going to have to keep eating the daily supply of lemon jam tarts that I keep churning out. And I’ll know the perfect one when I make it. Oh, yes. It will taste of breakfast by the sea.

If you should manage to get your hands on some particularly remarkable lemons, then I urge you to try your hand at some simple jam-making. This jam doesn’t involve any special equipment, just a solid pan, a wooden spoon, lemons, sugar and water. And it doesn’t make a great vat of the stuff, just a couple of jars’ worth. I adapted it from a recipe by Tessa Kiros, which features in her book, Falling Cloudberries.

Unwaxed lemons – 3

Caster sugar – 625g

Cut the ends off the lemons and discard them. Slice the lemons very thinly, removing the pips as you go, then cut the slices into smaller pieces.

Put the lemon pieces into your pan, cover with 625ml water and bring them to the boil. Once the liquid reaches boiling point, lower the heat to a simmer and leave it for about an hour until the lemons are completely soft. Give the lemons a gentle stir from time to time and make sure it doesn’t boil too vigorously.

Once the lemons are soft, add the sugar and stir gently until it dissolves. Simmer for another 45 minutes to an hour, until syrupy. You can test to see whether the jam is done by dabbing a small blob onto a saucer and tilting to see if it runs. If it seems a bit sluggish, then it’s done. If it runs freely, then give it a little more time.

I have to confess, when I made my first batch, I did something which is probably considered a little unethical in jam-making circles. Towards the end of cooking, it looked like my mixture still had quite a lot of fairly sturdy peel in it and, not wanting to end up with marmajam, I removed most of the bits of peel and gave them a whizz in the Magimix before returning them straight back to my pan.

Once it was done and still warm, I filled two sterilised jars, put the lids on and turned them upside down until they were completely cold. Most of it has now been used with great success in several jam tarts, but the rest is residing happily in my fridge.

So, to the pastry. Not quite the perfect pastry for me, but it still makes a damn good tart.

Plain flour – 200g

Caster sugar – 100g

Unsalted butter, soft and cut into pieces – 80g

Eggs – 1, plus 1 yolk

Salt – a pinch

Sift the flour into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar. Shape this into a big pile and create a well in the centre, into which you need to add the butter, egg, egg yolk and salt.

Knead the mixture together until combined (but don’t overknead), then wrap the pastry in cling film and pop into the fridge for an hour. While the pastry is chilling, preheat your oven to 180 degrees celcius/gas mark 4 and grease a tart tin with butter.

When the pastry has had its time in the fridge, remove it and set aside a small piece. On a floured surface, use a floured rolling pin to roll out the pastry to a thickness of 3mm and line your tart tin. I can’t provide any useful tips on how to do this. All I can say is do your best, don’t get angry/cry, and use some of the pastry overhang to patch up the rips that you will make. Fill the tart with jam to a depth of about 2cm.

Take your remaining pastry and roll it out. Either cut it into thin strips and make a lattice across the top of the tart, or make your own pattern. Turn the pastry overhang inwards and pinch to form a rim, moistening with a little water if needs be.

Bake for about 20 minutes until light golden brown. When cool, dust with icing sugar and serve.