As I write this post it is a week since the momentous decision of the UK electorate to vote to leave the European Union (“Brexit”).
In the run up to the referendum both the “Vote Leave” and the “Vote Remain” camps led disgracefully shallow and misleading campaigns. As someone who is proudly European and who sees immigration as a positive cultural influence, I was particularly dismayed at the barely concealed xenophobia underpinning the “Vote leave” campaign’s anti-immigration propaganda.
In my view, the referendum result means the UK has decided to take a culturally backward step, and I believe that ultimately we will end up realising that we have lost far more than we will have gained.
In due course, once I have got over the shock and despondency I feel about this insular decision, I will write about what I see as the long term implications of Brexit for the environment, agriculture and food.
But for now, let me give you an example of what I mean when I talk about positive cultural influences. A couple of weeks before the Brexit vote I was on holiday in Sicily, the largest of the islands of the Mediterranean. Over the centuries Sicily has been colonised many times, and this has made it a crucible of Mediterranean culture. Nowhere is this better reflected than in its unique cuisine: Sicily’s food has clear Greek, Spanish, French, Italian and Arab influences.
Like most Mediterranean cultures, Sicily also has many wonderful, bustling markets where shoppers can buy great food direct from the farmer or producer. This is something we have so little of in the UK. Food markets usually exist on the margins of our food shopping experiences and so many of our food-related choices and activities are controlled by supermarkets and big food corporations.
Of course, supermarket shopping is “convenient”, but it is also a joyless experience compared to the hustle-bustle, sights, sounds and smells of the open air food markets of Sicily and much of Europe.
There are, however, some signs of hope. The local food movement has grown slowly but steadily as an antidote to the bland homogeneity of supermarket and convenience shopping. Here and there, farmers’ markets have sprung up across Britain and the USA, selling some wonderful locally grown and produced foodstuffs.
It may sometimes cost a little more (although quite often it costs less, because the “middle man” is removed from the transaction), but at a farmers market you will find good seasonal, quality produce – artisan breads and cheeses, locally produced fruit and vegetables, herbs and preserves – that you simply won’t find at the supermarket.
You will also experience those sights, sounds and smells which so enrich the food shopping experience, and which are an integral part of those cultures which have a healthier relationship with the food they eat.
If you fancy putting some enjoyment and adventure into your food shop you can find out where and when your nearest UK farmers’ market is held from here, or by googling “farmers’ market” and your area.
On to the recipe, which I have created in association with Suma Wholefoods Cooperative. Under the terms of our arrangement, I select products from the Suma Wholefoods range which Suma provide free of charge. From these I create an original recipe which appears on the Suma website as as well here, on the Circus Gardener’s Kitchen.
Of all Sicily’s outside influences over the centuries, it is arguably the arabs that have had the greatest culinary impact. Along with oranges, lemons, rice and saffron, the island’s arabic immigrants brought pistachios, which feature in a number of unique Sicilian dishes, including a popular version of pesto made with pistachios.
Polpette translates from Italian as “meatballs”, usually served with pasta and a rich tomato sauce. This is my vegetarian version, light and fresh tasting. These polpettes incorporate both fresh peas and powdered green split pea to give an intensified pea flavour and they work beautifully with the pistachio and mint pesto.
For a more healthy version you can bake the polpette in the oven (just brush them with olive oil and bake at 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for around 15-20 minutes).
pea and ricotta polpette with mint and pistachio pesto
200 g fresh peas (shelled weight), or use frozen, defrosted
100 g ricotta cheese
100 g green split peas, ground to a fine powder
30 g cornflour
2 spring onions, finely chopped
zest and juice of a lemon
30 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
10 g fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 free range egg yolk
½ tsp sea salt
groundnut oil, for deep frying
for the pesto
25 g fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
40 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese
150 ml olive oil, plus 2 tbsp for cooking
20 g pistachio kernels
juice of half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1. Put the ground split peas in a bowl with 100 ml hot water. Stir into a paste and set to one side for 20 minutes while you make the pesto and prepare the other ingredients.
2. Put the mint leaves, pistachio kernels, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and Parmesan in a blender and process until you have a thick pesto sauce. Set to one side.
3. Cook the peas in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain and refresh under cold water. Mash half the peas and put in a bowl, with the other peas, the green split pea paste, cornflour, egg yolk, spring onions, lemon zest and fuice, Parmesan, chilli, mint leaves, ricotta and sea salt. Mix to combine thoroughly.
4. Start cooking your spaghetti.While it is cooking, pour the oil into a pan to a depth of about 5 cm. Place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, carefully drop tablespoons of the polpette mixture into the oil. You will need to do this in small batches to avoid overcrowding the pan and lowering the temperature too drastically. Turn the polpette to ensure they are evenly cooked to a lovely golden brown colour. This should take 2-3 minutes. Drain on kitchen paper.
5. Drain the spaghetti through a colander and return back to its empty cooking pan. Add half the mint and pistachio pesto and stir to coat the spaghetti.
6. To serve, place the spaghetti in bowls, topped with a few pea polpette. Drizzle over the remaining pesto.