Every time Mrs. Fisher offered Mrs. Arbuthnot anything - her cup, or milk, or sugar - Mrs. Arbuthnot offered her macaroons, - pressed them on her with an odd assiduousness, almost with obstinacy.
The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Armin
I was very young when I fell in love with Italy. We won a trip to Europe when I was in primary school, and alongside formative weeks in London, and a memorable weekend in Paris, we spent some time in Tuscany. We lay on the grass in the sun, grilled mushrooms the size of our hands, happened across wild boar as we made our way up the driveway, and ate gelato everyday. It was a trip we still haven't stopped talking about since.
Earlier this month, the family and I returned to Italy. It's been a long planned holiday - the collective celebration of a number of significant birthdays, and milestone anniversaries, and a chance for us to all be together in the same place for the first time in years. It's also the first time we've travelled together as adults - my sister married (with husband in tow) - and all with thoughts and plans on what we wanted to see next. We spent a fortnight folding ourselves into our hire car, with luggage wedged into all the available space, driving off in search of restaurants and villages only half-remembered from previous trips.
On holidays when we were young, my sister Lucy and I spent time at mum and granny's elbows as they cooked, asking to have a stir, or a taste. On this trip, we shared the cooking, and took turns to bring dishes to the table: crisp spring salads, rich soup filled with meat so tender it fell from the bone, carefully shaped ricotta-filled ravioli, perfectly curated platters of meats, cheese, and vegetables. We shopped in local markets, butchers, and bakeries, and came home most days with paper bags filled with tomatoes and focaccia sold by weight.
I eat plenty of Italian food back here in England but, as ever, everything tastes different on holiday. Glossy tomatoes that hold the summer sun underneath their skins. Quivering, creamy burrata. The sting of spicy chillies in a spaghetti vongole. A sharp Parmesan seasoning a paper-thin slice of raw beef. And bitter almonds: their distinctive taste found in everything from biscuits and cakes to liqueur.
During the holiday, I devoured The Enchanted April in the garden, where it absolutely demands to be read. It follows four women as they escape a grey English winter to spend a month in a small, crumbling castle on the Mediterranean. It's a beautiful book, one that has been recommended to me many times, but that I am pleased I saved for this trip. The cook who works in the castle, Costanza, prepares many delicious sounding meals for the women: omelettes spilling fresh green peas from their ends, long spaghetti that the women try to cut with a knife, and plenty of almond macaroons, the 'best and biggest [they] had ever come across'.
Makes around 20
150g egg whites (around four whites)
200g ground almonds
250g golden caster sugar
1tsp almond extract
100g chopped whole almonds
Electric mixer or bowl and whisk
Disposable piping bag (optional)
Mini muffin tray
1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Beat together the egg whites, ground almond and sugar until thick and smooth. Stir in the almond extract.
2. Set aside for five minutes to rest, before pouring into a piping bag. Rest in the fridge for half an hour.
3. I like my macaroons really chewy. In order to achieve this, the batter needs to be quite runny - too runny to effectively shape into biscuits. You can add an additional 50g of almonds, if you wish to roll biscuits out, but I find that baking the macaroons in a mini muffin tray means your batter can be very loose.
4. Squeeze a tablespoon of the batter into each muffin hole. Sprinkle the top of each macaroon with chopped almonds. Bake for around 20 minutes, until lightly golden, and set on top.
Cool completely before serving with tea or coffee.