Fruits of the season
Giovanna Eusebi creates a deliciously autumnal fig salad
For my mother growing up in rural Italy 70 years ago, preparations for the autumn and winter months started long before they arrived. While fresh fruit and vegetables may have been in abundance during the summer, people were always thinking ahead and never wasteful with ingredients. Anything that wasn’t used in the summer was carefully preserved for times when fresh fruit wasn’t an option.
My mother’s childhood home had no fridge or freezer and not even a cooker. The majority of the cooking was done outdoors or by the hearth, with tree branches providing fuel for the fire. The trees also provided fuel for the family in the form of chestnuts. My grandmother cooked some of them on the fire, then boiled the remainder in their skins and threaded them onto garlands to be enjoyed later in the depths of winter.
Nothing was bought, everything was grown and reared by the community on their land. People were healthy and lived without any conventional medicine. The food was pure. Material wealth had no relevance to living well in their world. What wer highly valued were skills and experience gained from years of living on the land and understanding exactly what and when nature would provide. Food was shared with families and loved ones without any worry. It may have been scarce, but this simply meant that each meal was truly savoured and enjoyed together.
The biggest extravagance in the colder months was the yearly killing of a pig. Every part of the animal was used. Its hind legs were preserved in salt and
pressed. Its lean meat and fat were cut into tiny pieces by hand then flavoured with crushed coriander seeds and chilli before being made into sausages. The sausage skins were made from the animal’s intestines. The sausage was hung, dried and preserved in fat. The fat of the animal was heated, rendered down and then poured into terracotta jugs to be used for the year ahead. The fat was also spread onto bread, almost like butter. This would often be eaten with olives, which had been crushed by hand when freshly picked, using a stone, then covered in salt for four days and washed before being stored in jars. The “soffrito” – heart, lungs and kidney – would be chopped and cooked with onion and bottled tomatoes saved from the summer harvest.
There were no supermarkets where ingredients could be bought, and no storage facilities such as freezers. My grandmother and great grandmother were constantly thinking ahead about how to best preserve food to see them through harder times. At our restaurant, Eusebi, we change the menu to reflect the seasons, as we want to respect the food that nature gives us throughout the year. In summer, I love nothing better than a fresh tomato salad using incredible locally grown tomatoes with some simple sea salt and olive oil. In winter, it’s about warming rich dishes such as slowcooked beans, which fill your belly and stick to your ribs.
Nothing defines what you eat like the seasons.
Autumnal Fig, Fennel & Orange Salad
This is a super-easy recipe but as with all cooking, it relies on using the very best ingredients. Use the softest, ripest figs and the sweetest little oranges you can get your hands on. To make this dish vegan-friendly, just substitute a little sugar for the honey.
Serves 4 Ingredients
For the orange blossom dressing: 1 orange, zest and juice
5-10ml orange blossom water 30ml extra-virgin olive oil
10g honey (substitute with sugar for a vegan-friendly recipe)
5ml white vinegar
For the salad: 8 fresh ripe figs, quartered 1 bulb of fennel, cut finely (preferably on a mandolin)
1 orange, segmented ½ radicchio lettuce, leaves washed and roughly chopped ½ chicory lettuce, leaves washed and roughly chopped
Pistachios, crushed and edible flowers
1. First, make the dressing. Add all the salad dressing ingredients to a glass jar and shake until emulsified. Add 5ml of the orange blossom water to start with to allow you to adjust it to your own preference. Taste the dressing and then add a little more until you can just taste a hint of orange blossom in the dressing. 2. To assemble the salad, there is no exact science. Arrange the fennel, lettuce leaves, figs and orange segments in a large bowl or on four individual plates. Pour over the dressing just before serving and dress with the crushed pistachio or edible flowers.