I am learning Italian and I love discovering new words, not surprisingly, especially ones about food. Le primizie is a new one for me this week. It means the fruit and vegetables which people can buy out of season. In the UK, we are used to being able to wander into our local supermarket and buy whatever we want, at any time of year. It often doesn’t work like that on the continent; in the local markets you find on nearly every village square, what you can buy is only what is in season. Although supermarkets are catching up in popularity, unlike the UK, it is rare to go into a supermarket in France, Spain or Italy and find strawberries in December.
I very much believe in the idea of ‘eating the seasons’. It seems the most natural and economical way to get the best out of fresh food. Out of season fruit and vegetables will often be such an expensive disappointment. I will always remember nearly fainting at the checkout at my local supermarket one Christmas when presented with a £20 bill for four boxes of fresh raspberries, having been asked to make a raspberry pavlova for a party. Unsurprisingly, they were like bullets and tasted about as appetising. It wasn’t a shock, but a valuable lesson. Just because you can buy something, doesn’t mean you should.
Often, seasonality in particular countries is the important thing. For example, those gorgeous tiny French Gariguette strawberries are perfect right now, but English varieties still have a way to go, despite being on sale already. Do not be tempted, your patience will be rewarded in a few short weeks.
As much as I want to eat fruit and vegetables that are in season, I also want to eat fruit and vegetables that taste delicious, no matter what time of year it is. I therefore advocate the ‘taste and see’ approach. If you like the look of something, it may still taste good, even if it’s not strictly the right time of year for it. If you buy any fresh produce from a market, you can ask to taste it first. Any vendor with pride in their produce will be happy to let you try it; you should be suspicious of one who won’t.
Figs are certainly not something that are in season in early May. The best figs are often the Turkish Black Bursa figs, which are deeply perfumed, jammy and sweet, but they only come to the markets at the end of the summer for a few precious weeks. However, last weekend, I was kindly given two boxes of some tiny, plump, blackish purple figs which looked remarkably like mini Black Bursas. The friend who gave them to me had no idea what they were called or where they came from. They were not bullet-hard and tasted ok, but completely lacked that beautiful honeyed softness that perfectly ripe and in season figs always have.
However, cooking figs changes them completely. Dried figs are eaten a lot in the Middle East, usually to fill in time and compensate until the new season starts. Baking acts as a sort of drying out. They shrink as the moisture evaporates and the texture becomes slightly chewy like a sweet. They taste considerably sweeter when they are baked, as the sugars concentrate during cooking. Cooking these figs was, therefore, the logical option.
Figs and almonds are a beautiful pairing. A frangipane simply acts like a cake mixture, but using ground almonds, rather than flour. It is a great friend in the kitchen as it is so delicious and works with so many flavours. It is also surprisingly easy to make. This tart needs nothing more than a good dollop of sour creme fraiche to set it off. If you haven’t got a friend with a mysterious glut of figs at the moment and don’t fancy paying extortionate amounts for supermarket ones, frozen berries such as blueberries or blackberries work equally well here. You can, of course, buy a pre-made sweet pastry case, but I have included the tart case in the recipe below, if you are so inclined. Do not be scared of pastry, you must be prepared to muck it up several times when you first try it but you will get the knack eventually. You will need a 28″ tart tin: loose bottomed or silicone are best. If you don’t have one this size, see my tip here.
Fig and Almond Tart
For the pastry
225g plain flour
150g cold butter
25g icing sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tbsp ice-cold water
For the filling
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
200g ground almonds
50g plain flour
zest of one lemon
8-10 figs, top of the stems trimmed, cut lengthways into halves or quarters, depending on size
To make the pastry, pulse together the flour, salt and butter in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, then the beaten egg and pulse until just combined and pulling away from the edge of the bowl – add the iced water a tiny bit at a time and only if necessary. If you do not have a processor, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar (or grate it in from frozen), the add the beaten egg. Bring together and add the water if you need it. Try not to kneed the pastry, just bring it together into a smooth ball. Wrap in clingfilm and pop in the fridge for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Roll out the pastry until about the thickness of a pound coin on a lightly floured surface. Using a loose-bottomed 28″ tart tin, gently place on top of the rolled out pastry to check that the circumference of the pastry is at least 6cm wider all around than the bottom of the tin. Lift the rolled out pastry onto your rolling pin and place it over the tin. Carefully ease the pastry into the tin so that it starts to fit into the contours of the tin. Roll a bit of extra pastry into a ball and use it to push the pastry down into the tin. If you use a finger, the pastry is more likely to split. If it does, do not worry, simply use a sliver of excess pastry to glue it back together.
Trim the excess pastry from the edges of the tin. the easiest way to do this is rolling your rolling pin over the top to trim. Chill again for 15 minutes. Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans or dried pulses, and blind bake for 20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, and bake for five to 10 minutes longer, until the base is dried and slightly golden. Leave the shell to cool, and turn down the oven to 150°C.
Now make the filling. Cream the butter, sugar and almonds together. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until combined well. Add the flour and lemon zest and mix well. Spread this mixture into the cool tart case. Slice the figs and place on top, cut side up, pushing the pieces slightly into the frangipane.
Bake for between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes until the mixture is nicely puffed up and the centre is set. The edges will catch a little due to the high sugar content, so you can cover with foil if it looks like it is getting too dark. Allow to cool before trying to remove from the tin to avoid breakage.