Coffee, cream, sponge and plenty of booze — Italy’s most well-travelled dessert is authentically Venetian in spirit
Restaurants are a bit of a minefield. Dining out used to be a treat, something I would look forward to and enjoy, but these days going out for a meal has become the proverbial busman’s holiday. I spend so much of my professional day thinking and talking about restaurants that I’m frankly over it by the time I’m sitting in one with a wine list in my hand and a waiter poised with a pad in his.
If this makes me sound spoilt, believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, from that wine list/waiter moment onwards, things tend to go downhill. Every dropped fork, each uncleared table, every neglected wine glass and every forgotten bill registers so loudly and clearly on my restaurant radar that relaxation and enjoyment are distant memories.
You see, I can’t switch off. Even in someone else’s restaurant I’m frequently half out of my seat, on my way to clear a table, saved only when my wife has grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back, bringing me down to earth with, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
My meals out are littered with pitfalls. I tend to over-order, partly through greed but mostly because of professional necessity. (I have to try everything, right?) And then, faced with more food than I know what to do with, I will insist on eating it all because, well, I hate waste. By the time we get to dessert, two things have happened. Firstly,
I’m fuller than Winnie the Pooh after a particularly epic honey binge. And secondly, I’m still processing the savoury elements of what we’ve eaten and don’t want to spoil it with sugar.
Pudding has never really done it for me. It’s an unnecessary coda, tacked on the end of a meal to appeal to amateurs, a sure-fire way to spoil all the good intentions of the preceding courses. In Italy, there is a similar feeling, I’ve observed. Apart from small glasses of sweet wine into which biscuits are dipped, there really isn’t a dessert culture. The one exception being tiramisu.
A surprisingly recent invention, tiramisu emerged fully-formed in the Seventies and became an instant hit
‘Tiramisu emerged fully-formed in the Seventies, and became an instant hit and enduring classic’
and an enduring classic.
Its origins are Venetian and, like a lot of Venetian food, it’s laced with booze. Venice likes its grog. They’ll take their first spritz at
10.30 in the morning, drink Prosecco instead of water, wine with every meal and, in winter, drink their coffee “corrected”. How do you correct coffee? With grappa, of course. (On those occasions I have politely declined a drink in Venice, I’ve been told, “Chi non beve o è un ladro o è una spia” — “people who don’t drink are either thieves or spies”.)
So, here’s a handy recipe for Italy’s most famous dessert. By making it in little 150ml tumblers, you can prepare it all a day before and store them in the fridge. And for that authentic Venetian touch, don’t skimp on the booze.
Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking (Fig Tree) by Russell Norman is published on 29 March
No messing: Russell Norman gets stuck in with his fingers