Soil&Spice Recipe No.13 ; Agnese’s Fennel Village Biscuits.

A note on the handing down of recipes…

Because hairdresser’s salons are the best places to learn about food, recipes, and how to get your husband to buy you a new washing machine just by using a pair of pantyhose and a metal clothes hanger.

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I literally grew up inside a hairdressers’ salon. My mother had opened the place a month or so after knowing she was expecting me, before that she worked in a textile factory. Somehow she had concluded that opening her own business right in the start of a pregnancy was a logical thing to do. At face value it wasn’t, but truth is, she is still open to this very day thirty five years after, and most of her clients have been visiting the shop this whole time. These women, about thirty of them, have become like extended family to us. Even today, when I call my mother I always call her at the shop usually on a Friday morning when my favourite clients would be doing their hair. It’s still comforting to listen to those voices I grew up listening to throughout my childhood.

Along the sweeping oceans of hair I must have brushed with the green broom off the red flecked shop floor there lies a huge data base of recipes I eavesdropped from amidst thousands of conversations held amongst women of all ages, mostly conversations about food and sex. A lot of them had huge families to feed on a tight budget but somehow still had money left over for a haircut and a colour at the end of the month.

There was Lola, a woman who was in possession of three breasts, three breasts with nipples and all! I had learnt this the hard way whilst helping her out to try an outfit since my mother used to use the extra room at the back to sell mink coats and other items of clothing, especially during the holidays. Lola had what I call a letter O body type; fierce red hair on a huge head with a temper to fit, quite intimidating really, but Lola’s face always softened when she spoke of her husband Nettu whom she adored. She would tell us how Nettu loved chestnuts and as a result the way Lola cooked her chestnuts was of an indescribable bounty! Blanched chestnuts would be stewed overnight in clementine peel, condensed milk, dark chocolate, cinnamon and cloves with enough water to keep the whole concoction moist till morning, A lot of families cook chestnuts this way but Lola’s where the best I had ever tasted and I cannot help till this very day but picture that third nipple every time I cook these chestnuts at home during Christmas time.

There was a lady called Georgina who always smelled like soap and talcum powder, her house must have been immaculate. I used to enjoy washing her hair, as doing so added layers upon layers of new scents; Verbeena shampoo bubbles, massage, more shampoo, rinse, condition then dry her up with the white towels which my mother always washed with Marseille soap.

Georgina made the most delicious sun ripened tomatoes, every August at the peak of summer Georgina would make a large batch of these red disks. She would cut the tomato in half, place it on a metal dish, sprinkle salt and pepper on them, cover with cheese cloth and dry these fruits on the roof, taking them inside for the night, this for a whole three weeks! The commitment is commendable. Then when ready she would preserve the dried tomatoes in olive oil, more salt and pepper added. Her Sundried tomatoes had a good amount of flesh left on them, unlike the normal dried tomatoes you find in shops. She always brought my mother a jar every September, and I always ate the whole thing with bread, on the same day sitting in the tiny backyard we had just where the bathroom was.

I used to take breaks inside a cupboard in the shop that used to welcome my naps and sketching with open arms every time I felt like some time out from all the hair. However, some clients would sometimes take me to their house, feed me lunch, and let rest there before walking me back to the shop later in the afternoon closer to my mothers’ closing time which sometimes was as late as nine o’clock at night. I must have been a sorry case but I used to love both the cupboard and the occasional home visits to unknown houses, and most of all the new food, which, unfortunately, wasn’t always as good as my mothers’.

Agnese, a lady I still talk to regularly today, was one client also a friend of my mothers who used to take me to her house. Her food was good, and she had three grown up daughters who were never home during my visits, so I used to get full attention during my stay at Agnese’s house, which at the end of the day was the real treat. Agnese made the best sweet fennel cookies, we call them village cookies, they are sweet and fragrant and decorated with a pastel swirl of pink icing on top; both beautiful and delicious, she always brought some to the shop, they were a real treat.

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I cannot not write about Cikka, the biggest character in the shop, who passed away last year, blind and unfortunately alone in an old peoples’ home. My mother says that Cikka was her very first client, who had gone into the shop to shelter herself from the rain, and remained a faithful customer till the end, although in the last years my mother used to go to her instead of her coming to the shop. Now Cikka did not share recipes, I don’t think she was much of a cook, she was another sort of teacher, Cikka’s speciality was her knowledge of men, and she spoke about how to treat them with such honesty, that I still remember the mesmerized faces of the Saturday afternoon spectators at the shop. In the early nineties, when every woman’s dream was to own an automatic washing machine, Cikka was the one that gave the instructions on how to get one. This is how it basically worked; postpone the washing for a week and making sure your husbands’ cloths are nearly all unwearable with his sweat, stick a pantyhose at the bottom of the old manual godawful twin-tub you want replaced, fill the twin-tub with water and before putting in your husbands’ finest shirts open up an old metal cloths hanger, this will act as both a twin-tub life terminator and tear all the shirts to shreds. When the husband comes home, he’ll find all of his favourite shirts torn by a washing machine that has fortunately stopped working! He’ll be buying that new automatic washing machine believing it was his own idea. This was obviously before a time women went to work and could buy whatever washing machine they wanted to with their own money, but no one can deny the fact that Cikka’s method was both fun and effective.

So many wonderful women have gone through that shop, most of whom have written down recipes on my mother’s appointment diary and brought their food for everyone to taste. Mince pies, Christmas logs, stews, breads, rabbit, as well as Lampuki pies, colourful sandwiches, all sort of soups carried in thermos flasks for my mother to eat for lunch, jars of marmalade and other simple jams, biscuits and innumerable cakes. Today I’ll be sharing only one.

 

Agnese’s Village Biscuits

 

 

Ingredients       

 

200g flour

150g sugar

1 teaspoon Baking Powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

50g unsalted butter

grated orange and lemon zest

pinch of ground cloves

2 tablespoons of Fennel Seeds

one egg

200ml full fat milk

royal icing

 

How To…

  1. Mix the sieved flour and butter until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  2. Add the zest, cloves and Fennel seeds to the flour mixture.  Mix well.
  3. In a small bowl mix egg, sugar, and half of the milk.
  4. Add this mixture with the flour mixture and mix well to make a smooth dough.
  5. Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  6. Line a baking dish with non-stick baking paper
  7. With the mixture form oval shaped biscuits approximately 10cm x 6cm and about 11cm thick.  Sprinkle some castor sugar on top.
  8. Bake them in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Cover with foil whilst cooking.
  9. Decorate with coloured royal icing.

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