Victoria Sponge with Strawberry and Fig Leaf Jam
At the beginning of last month I set off for the Agricultural Consorzio up the road where it was announced that the chickens had finally arrived.
We had asked about them in Winter, and been told it wasn’t the season (who knew chickens had a season) so here I was in Spring, hopeful at last to hold in my arms a plump little pullet, and take it home where its painstakingly constructed Chicken Palace awaited.
I arrived at the semi-abandoned Consorzio where a man sat smoking at a makeshift desk, surrounded by small pieces of paper with prices of various birds scrawled on them in black felt-tip (Quaglie: 10 euro etc). I said I was here for three chickens, pre-ordered; one black, one white, one red.
He disappeared into a large storage room to the side, and I tentatively followed him in. There was the muffled ruffle of feathers, and a decidedly birdy smell. Not unpleasant, but definitely feathery. Subdued guttural clucks, or the rolling throat warble which precedes a proper cluck, were coming from a collection of closed cardboard boxes on the ground. The man shuffled about, peering into the various boxes. He emerged with one small white hen, her feet a pale, cowslip yellow, her comb as perfect as a cartoon-crown and the colour of cut watermelon. He stuffed her unceremoniously into an empty cardboard box and then headed to another box further away. From here he plucked the black hen, bigger and more bosomy than the white, with shorter legs and a squat neck and feathers that rippled in technicolour like an oil spill. Next came the red, the most classic of the three, the traditional brown speckled hen; a little plump and frumpy, with a short comb, but bright eyed and alert-looking. Into the box went the three hens, and then into the boot of the car. I drove them the short journey home and then brought them out of their box.
They were to live in the backyard of what we still grandly call Villa Mandorla, The Almond Villa, which is the proposed name for the Bed and Breakfast/agriturismo we are doggedly trying to build and open. So far we have cleared the garden and planted some trees, and now added a chicken palace complete with chickens. As soon as they were out of their box (I lifted them out one by one, marvelling at how docile they were) they began scratching around and exploring, and suddenly Villa Mandorla seemed like a plausible place, not just a pipe dream. There may not be a roof or walls, but at least there are chickens.
I watched them for a while as they investigated their new surroundings. Their heads tilted slightly to one side, eyes beady and gleaming, they had an air of curiosity mixed with slight affront, an almost haughtiness, but wry too, like three feathered Sardinian zittelle, ruffling and puffing their feathers with exaggerated self-importance as they settled into their new home.
I have never thought of myself as a chicken person, but I have become one by default. I grew up feeding my grandmother’s hens and collecting the eggs every morning. It was our greatest treat. As soon as we were down in the kitchen she would pack us off with scrap bucket and egg basket in hand, and then scramble the fresh eggs we brought back for our breakfast. I can still smell the scrap bucket now; a mixture of wet brown bread and potato peelings. Though I loved the ritual and the scrambled egg, I never paid much attention to the animals themselves.
Chicken people are a specific race, my grandmother was one; there were chicken ceramics everywhere in her kitchen, chicken salt and pepper shakers, a ceramic chicken egg bowl. She had a chicken kitchen clock, a chicken printed apron, chicken embroidered cushions. One of her heroines, Deborah Mitford, was a notorious chicken devotee, who – according to popular legend – held dinner parties where her favourite chickens appeared as living centrepieces on the dining room table.
I am not quite there yet, but it is only a matter of time. I have to say, though, that despite – as yet – very little chicken paraphernalia, I have truly succumbed to the charms of my chickens. And their charms are extensive, to no one’s greater surprise than my own.
You see, I had always assumed that chickens were dull creatures; dim, aggressive, flighty, and lacking in individual character. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They have been named by Lorenzo after the Three Greek Fates, personifications of human destiny (or as the case may be, chickenifications of human destiny). The spinner of the thread of life (birth) is Clotho, she who portions it Lachesis (the course of life), and she who cuts it (death) Atropos. In paintings Clotho is usually shown with red hair, Lachesis as blonde, and Atropos as black-haired. It seemed fitting colour-wise to name them thus, character-wise we had yet to discover.
So, they were given their names, and now they have very distinct characters too. They are not dull or aggressive as I mistakenly thought, but curious, personable and with very pronounced personalities. Lachesis is a bully and the most independent and forthright (despite her diminutive size), Clotho a calm, constant, maternal presence, Atropos the most curious and complex. All three of them run to greet us, and all three like to be stroked and held, and close their yellow eyes in pleasure when you do so. Left alone they are quiet, but as soon as they see us they begin clucking and warbling vigorously, as if to recount their news and daily grievances, and to reprimand us for our absence. I am reminded of my toddler niece who behaves in a similar fashion, taking me by the hand and giving me a guided tour of her daily activities and dilemmas, walking me through them one by one, pointing emphatically at inanimate objects that have vexed her and all the while keeping up a chirruping and incomprehensible commentary to explain the Very Great Number of Things that have happened in her little life this morning.
It was, like all beginnings, a little rocky. When they first arrived, fearful and clearly threatened by their unfamiliar surroundings they spurned their luxurious palace in favour of the Nespole tree, into which they clumsily climbed/flew in a series of extraordinarily inelegant movements (all the while displaying that bizarre and curiously bird-specific Maggie Smith-like combination of disdain and circumspection). As the sun set every evening and dusk fell, they would make their way in awkward fashion into the upper branches of the tree, amidst loud flapping of wings and squawks of indignation as they got wedged in various branch-forks on their way up before finally finding a suitable perch and peering down at me, clucking intently.
I was happy they found a safe-haven in the tree, and I did not feel I wanted to clip their wings, which is a common practise to stop them flying, but it did make me worry for egg production. Well, I sighed with resignation, what’s more important, happy chickens or lots of eggs? And besides, they were bringing us so much joy just being as they were. Watching a chicken double-footed scratch, dig and peck its way around is one of the most therapeutic things I know, and creates an instant feeling of what the Italians call unabashedly, benessere, and what we call, a bit woolly, massage-and-spa sounding though it is, well-being.
Besides the enjoyment of being observers in the great adventures of their little chicken lives, the other great benefit is the lack of waste. I have no more green-waste, or umido, to deal with anymore, because all of it goes to the chickens. They eat like horses, and consume almost everything, and the bits which are deemed totally unacceptable (citrus rind, artichoke trimmings) are cast out with angry feet, as they place themselves in their feed bowl and begin digging. Lorenzo, too, has been seduced. I often go down to visit them at sunset to find him mid-embrace, crouched with one under his arm, stroking it gently and whispering into its invisible ear sweet nothings, whilst with forefinger he tickles her under the chin.
But at last to the point of the story. The eggs. So on we went, loving them and expecting nothing from them, hoping like besotted parents that they would fulfil their duties only when and if they were ready. And on they went, spurning the palace and their immaculate hay-stuffed nest box, which I fluffed and plumped daily, ever hopeful. At Easter the flame of hope burned a little brighter, as I thought how appropriate it would have been for them to begin to lay. But on they went, stubbornly nesting in the Nespole, not an egg in sight.
Then, just in time for the Coronation of King ‘Carlo’, they produced their first egg. It was Clotho, of course, and she left a perfect, clean and pale-flesh coloured egg nestled in the centre of the nesting box. I could not have felt more proud. And then, every day since, an egg a day, until a few days later there were two, one smaller than the other; Atropos. Then finally, three, with a tiny white one from little Lachesis.
Lifting the door of the nesting box every morning to find an egg is a feeling that never gets old. I still feel the same sense of happiness and discovery that I remember feeling all those years ago as a child. But now that feeling is iced with pride. Because these chickens are ours. There is truly no better way to start the day.
Go to work on an egg, they say.
Now, we don’t eat eggs for breakfast but we do eat eggy sponges and cakes, even ice creams and custards, and as it was also the Coronation (something I have significantly less interest in than the chickens, though the Sardinian family are – somewhat bizarrely - devout monarchists) it seemed fitting to celebrate both Carlo, Camilla and more importantly Clotho in the baking of that English cake classic, the Victoria Sponge. I wanted to make a jam too, something classic with strawberries, but with a Sardinian spin, so I added fig leaves from the garden, to great effect. It has become my favourite jam.
At last the recipe, and if you have read this far, I commend you, and recommend you both make this jam and cake and then get hold of some chickens immediately, because both cake and chickens are infinitely good for the soul.
Makes 1 cake, serves 8-10
4 eggs, at room temperature
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
220g 00 or plain flour
30g potato flour
250g caster sugar
250g softened unsalted butter
A good pinch of salt
1 packet of lievito (with or without vanilla flavouring) or 3 tsps of baking powder and some vanilla extract
4 tbsp of milk
For this sponge it is important to have all the ingredients at room temperature, otherwise the mix will split. Make sure eggs and butter are out of fridge and in a warmish place before beginning.
Preheat the oven to 180.
Grease and line two 20cm shallow (sandwich) cake tins with melted butter and baking paper, or a single deep 8 inch pan if you don’t have sandwich tins.
Beat the softened butter and sugar together with the lemon zest and salt until pale, soft and fluffy.
Break the eggs into a bowl and add them to the mixture a little at a time, beating well after each addition to make sure they are incorporated.
Weigh out the flour and add the raising agent. Set aside.
Add the flour and raising agent all at once to the mixing bowl and mix briefly until smooth. Add the milk and mix again for a few seconds.
Divide and smooth the batter out into the two tins (or the single on)e, then place in the oven (middle shelf) and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and risen, and an inserted spaghetti skewer comes out clean (if still slightly undercooked in the middle, turn the oven down and continue cooking)
Leave to cool for a few minutes before turning out onto a rack to cool completely.
Spread the jam over the bottom sponge and then spread over the cream to form a billowy but even layer. Place the un-spread sponge on top and top with sifted icing sugar and fresh fruit/flowers of your choice.
If you have made a single sponge, simply cut it in half and fill accordingly.
A medium jar of your favourite jam (or the fig and strawberry one below)
250ml double cream, softly whipped
Fresh strawberries or other fresh fruit of your choice to fill (optional)
Icing sugar to decorate
For the Strawberry and Fig Leaf Jam
This combination came about by happy accident, a tentative foray into food match-making, or playing culinary Cupid. In early May the fig tree began to perfume the garden with the warm scent of its leaves which wafted over as I washed strawberries in the outdoor sink. I decided to try to pair the two ingredients, and this delicious jam is the result. It turned out a very to be a very happy marriage.
This jam has now become a favourite, and is a wonderful thing to give as a gift, as it is somewhat unexpected. I like to set a little fig leaf in each jar, so that they shine through the glass and continue to perfume the jam. Their distinctive cut-grass-and-coconut flavour works brilliantly with the floral sweetness of strawberries.
Note: I usually adjust the sugar slightly depending on how ripe the fruit is.
Makes enough for about 3 jars (1 you’ll use in the cake)
250g caster sugar
4 fig leaves, plus extra to decorate & store
The night before you want to make your jam, wash, hull and halve the strawberries. Cut the lemon into 6 or so pieces and squeeze their juice over the strawberries (remove any pips) then throw the pieces into the bowl too. Add the sugar and the fig leaves, washed and without their stalks, torn into rough pieces. Stir and leave to macerate overnight, covered with a cloth in a cool place.
The next day sterilise your jars, and then remove the lemon pieces and fig leaves from the bowl and discard. Bring the strawberries and sugar to a simmer in a deep pan and cook for around 10-15 minutes, before testing to see if setting point is reached (dribble a little onto a cold saucer and wait for a few seconds. Push it with your finger and if wrinkles appear, your jam is ready).