Cof­fee, cream, sponge and plenty of booze — Italy’s most well-trav­elled dessert is au­then­ti­cally Vene­tian in spirit

Esquire (UK) - - Style - Rus­sell Nor­man

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

For best re­sults, as­sem­ble the dessert the day prior to serv­ing and chill overnight

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