On wine-soaked midnight forays to the back of my parents’ fridge there are two grails. The first is the occasional jar of chargrilled artichoke hearts set in fat, begging to be spooned into a frying pan with a liberal sprinkle of black pepper and a garlic clove wantonly, drunkenly mauled through the dreaded pewter crusher and served over a toasted slice from a granary loaf baked by the drag queen who mans (?) the ovens at the weird shop on the corner.
The second, in all its righteous glory, is the coiled flesh proboscis of the peppery, fennely Italian sausage, rich with red wine and little pellets of fat that bubble and squeak as they cook and send jets of purest molten FLAVOUR searing across the most alcohol pickled tongue. It squats, huge and emasculating in one corner of the fridge, half-hidden behind the fruit bowl, merely peeking its blotchy curves into view. With its vac-pack slit open over the sink, it slithers out and uncoils. Feel its heft, smell that fennel, get the fucking grill up to heat and STAT.
O’course, this wouldn’t be much of a recipe if it had just three steps (1. Grill. 2. Salivate. 3. Devour) so I feel compelled to pretty things up a little, and we will do it with a recipe loosely based on a month-long jaunt around the Greek islands with a vague notion of researching the first hints of a book. It was a largely fruitful experience, and I brought back with me the following:
- A new found and, as far as I can tell, entirely solitary love for the rocket-fuel raki.
- A trick with aforementioned rocket-fuel involving lighting cigarettes off my own flaming finger.
- A brief but rather lovely sense of inner peace.
- A tan.
- A head full of unusual Greek recipes so far removed from the limp facsimiles of British canteens and cafes as to seem not Greek at all.
Having fallen asleep on the Syros bus as we left Ermoupolis – a town which tumbles down three hills from three churches towards a typically Swarovski sea – we woke by some silent sandy beach and in panic clattered to our feet and off the bus. After a quick dip and brief, futile attempts to orientate ourselves, we collapsed into the soft white sand for a day of dedicated stillness under the huge Aegean sun. Hours later, and we were hungry, thirsty and discombobulated by over-exposure despite honest attempts at finding shade and comfort. No dust cloud and attendant bus crested the ridge that forms this natural bay, and we were forced to admit defeat. The unpromising taverna that makes up the resort seemed to be staffed solely by an ancient dog which lay immobile at the front step, needlessly tethered to a railing.
Menus were thrown in front of us with one word – “English?” – and we were left to our own devices. But the food…god, the food. Saganaki, cheese fried golden brown and served with thick syrup and lemon juice, recalled Sardinian salty white cheese tortelloni served with honey. Calamari was butter soft and perfectly crisp, whilst dry rusks form perfect vessels for a full-fat creamy feta-like cheese, startlingly bright red onion and plump, fresh mint and aromatic thyme. But pork chops with bubbled brown fat and soft, moist flesh was the main focus, drizzled with a sweet, spicy sauce of pork juices, clove, fennel seed and honey with a hint of oak and lavender. It is this sauce, deeply complex and a gauntlet laid to the naysayers to Greek cuisine, which caught the imagination and it is this sauce which I hope to emulate.
Italian sausage with a honey, clove and fennel sauce
- One long, coiled Italian sausage, or four separate sausages
- About half a pint pork broth, or chicken stock
- About ten fennel seeds
- One clove
- One teaspoon good honey – acacia or lavender honey is best
- Half a lemon
- One clove of garlic
- Black pepper
- Olive oil
Heat a little olive oil in a medium sized, thick-bottomed saucepan over a low heat. With the flat side of a knife, squish the fennel seeds and clove and toss them in the warm oil. Don’t get too much of a sizzle on, but you should be getting a nice aroma out of the pan. Zest the half lemon into the oil – you’ll get a hit of that citric scent straight away. Smash the garlic clove with the flat of your knife, then grind it into something like a paste. Being the slovenly domestic disaster that I am, I prefer to just use the back of a knife with a little salt to provide the necessary rough surface and save on washing up, but a pestle and mortar will probably do the job a little more efficiently.
Chop your sausage into bitesize pieces, being careful not to squash the pieces too much. They should be about the size of your first thumb joint – any bigger and they won’t cook properly. Add the sausage and garlic to the pan and turn up to a medium heat. Stir regularly to avoid burning the garlic. Once the sausage is nicely browned on the outside, stir in the honey, the juice from the half lemon and black pepper. Once the lemon and honey are combined, add a little pork broth or stock at a time, topping up each time the liquid starts to bubble. Once all the liquid’s added, put on the lid and turn down the heat to simmer for around 15 minutes before removing the lid for another 10.
Serve with al dente rice studded with toasted pine nuts and a drink you should know better than to ingest.