Kumquat Gelato and a Little Zest for Life
Lorenzo’s granny is ill. It’s a debilitating disease that creeps, and means she is now chair-bound, not really able to move much except her hands and head. She is in the sitting room, propped up in an armchair, swaddled in seventy blankets, a blazing fire beside her, over which her youngest son grills a large fish for her supper. The uncles squabble about whether to oil it before or after.
If you oil it before then you’re frying it, cazzo! The flavour is totally different!
And how do you stop it sticking to the grill then, Porca Madonna! I just put a tiny bit!
Cavolo Andrea, you don’t understand nothing!
Nonna meanwhile is very frail and says little, contributing only to scold Uncle Andrea for drinking too much, and to apologise for not getting out of her chair to greet me. I tell her not to worry, and we all sit around her sweating in the raging heat, listening to the fish sizzling and keeping things as bubbly and bright as some bad spumante. The uncles talk about music (they are both hobbyist rock-musicians/daytime hairdressers) and their near escapes from Omicron. Roberta, younger sister and a chemist, fiddles with sanitiser and assiduously reads the labels of all the medications. Lorenzo’s mum Monica – a middle school teacher - fusses about Nonna’s sitting position and shimmies her this way and that to make her comfortable, fluffing pillows and shaking covers with a Nurse-like brusqueness. Mauro, Lorenzo’s dad, grins at Nonna reassuringly, his face cracking, great nose curved over toothy smile,
Now Amelia, Letitia has made you a special gelato! What do you think about that?!
Nonna smiles at me, weakly, her voice quailing
Thank you Letitia, she says. Sorry I can't get up.
Nonna’s garden has a kumquat tree in it, or Mandarini Cinese, as they are known here. I have always dreamt of a Kumquat tree. They are so jolly-looking. It seems strange that anything should look so perky in mid-January. Considering its slightly sad concrete bed in the garden - which is a jumbled mix yard of Nonno's old Panda, a couple of scraggy chickens, Uncle Andrea's mini parsley patch and two tortoises, the busy little tree is brilliantly bushy and groaning with the pert little fruits, all bright and tight and bouncy, shiny olive-shaped ovals, and so brilliantly, blatantly orange. They are such odd little fruits, seeming somehow more ornamental than edible, almost artificial in their perfection, and yet their smell and flavour is one of the most intense of all the citrus; the truest essence of orange. All that intensity shrunk and concentrated into a tiny, neat and perfect package, exaggerated like bad orange chocolate and making me long for Terry’s chocolate orange, Quality Street and Club bars.
Asides from marmalade I was at a bit of a loss for what to do with these bright little fruits, other than leave them about the house to spread their uplifting scent. Then I remembered an ice cream I’d eaten in England a winter or two ago, made by one of my favourite gelato makers, La Grotta, called Kumquat Custard.
This ice cream had a sort of old-fashioned flavour, like orange cream puddings of the past, a whiff of St Clements cream; a little marmalade-like but also brighter and fresher, gentler than the bossy caramelised-citrus punch of cooked orange. It was beautifully balanced – the soft, eggy sweetness of the custard not overpowered by the spicy zest of the kumquat. In fact, bullying him into giving me the usual analysis (he can no longer eat in peace) Lorenzo pointed out that he loved this gelato, and he doesn’t like any kind of marmalade, or cooked citrus in general. The trick is not to cook the kumquats down with sugar, as you would if making marmalade, and instead just to soften them slightly with a splash of water, and then blitz them into the ice cream base whilst their flavour is still fresh and lively.
I cooked the kumquats in the microwave, as Kitty suggested, and blitzed them with my tiny trusty hand-blitzer, and then I let the mix sit overnight before sieving it and churning it the next day. The sun came out on Saturday and it felt like spring, the little yellow flowers that are a bit like Sardinian buttercups but bell-shaped bloomed beneath the olives and it felt good to be making gelato.
We took it to Nonna’s after lunch on Sunday, and she ate two helpings, and between us all we finished the whole batch. They quickly measured her insulin, and told her it was pureed lentils for supper. She shot a slapstick grimace at me, and stuck out her tongue.
Aha! At least she’s still spiritosa, I said. There’s a bit of zest there yet.
A good gelato can do that to you.
Whilst I often make egg-free gelato, this recipe relies on the classic custard base which uses eggs and then half and half milk and cream. I used mascarpone instead of the traditional cream (I can’t find fresh cream here easily so try to substitute mascarpone when possible) and a greater quantity of milk, which works well, giving that velvety effect that mascarpone can have.
Makes enough for about 6 servings and adapted from La Grotta Ices
A splash of water
3 egg yolks
A pinch of salt
400ml whole milk
Wash the kumquats well and remove any remaining stalks. Prick a hole in each and then place them in a bowl (microwave-proof!) adding a few tablespoons of water. Cover and cook until completely tender, between 5-10 minutes (if you don’t have a microwave you can do this on the hob but over a very low heat and keeping a careful eye, as they catch easily).
Set them aside to cool whilst you make your custard.
Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar (they will not form a smooth paste as this is a large quantity of sugar but don’t worry).
Heat the milk and mascarpone gently until just at a simmer, then pour it over the egg yolks and sugar, whisking continuously. Return the mix to the pan and cook gently until just thick, and coating the back of a wooden spoon (over a low heat this should take around 10 minutes, the mix should just start to bubble and steam, and you need to stir all the time).
Pour into a bowl. Drain the kumquats of any liquid and add them to the custard. Blitz the whole lot with a hand blender, until there are no large pieces left at all. The smaller you can blitz the better, as the flavour will really permeate the finished gelato.
Leave the mix to mature in the fridge overnight (this is not essential, but does make a real difference to the finished flavour).
The next day, strain the mix through a fine sieve and churn in your ice cream maker according to instructions.
Serve, with some extra kumquats on top for decoration, if you like.