Sicilian Biancomangiare – Medieval Purity
By: Francesca Re Manning
A great majority of Italian food has its origins in Medieval times and particularly in convents and nunneries where monks and nuns had the time and resources to grow herbs and vegetables, and to develop and maintain culinary traditions sheltered by heavy walls and often improved for the palate of Popes or Emperors.
It was for both of them that Matilda of Canossa decided to serve a Biancomangiare, White Eating, at her banquet in 1077 to bring back peace between Gregorio VII and Henry IV. The extreme whiteness and simplicity of the dish intended to convey purity and simplicity.
The dish can be both savoury and sweet. The ingredients are the same for both except for the addition of salt and chicken breast (still white) in the savoury version. Given the current high temperatures in most parts of Italy, and certainly in Sicily which claims to be the only region to have continued the tradition of the dish, this is a recipe which is ideal for the Summer as the main ingredient is almond milk – which has cooling properties. It is also a very simple and elegant dish to prepare which makes it even more attractive – particularly when one wants to impress with little effort after a long hot day.
The optional addition of orange blossom water gives the pudding a sense of distant lands, of Kings and Queens resting under trees in shaded courtyard lulled by the water of the fountains. The name itself makes me dream.
Below is the sweet recipe. If you do fancy trying the savoury version, simply omit the sugar and add a pinch of salt and blitzed boiled chicken breast to the mixture. Of course rose water too needs to come out of your list of ingredients!
Recipe for 4 ramekins
250g peeled almonds; 100g caster sugar; 350ml full fat milk; 4 gelatine sheets; 150ml double cream; orange blossom water (1-2 tsp); 1 tsp of cinnamon; pistachios (to decorate)
Prepare the gelatine by leaving the sheets in lukewarm water for at least an hour. Process the almonds and sugar with a couple of spoons of water until you have a thick liquid.
Strain and separate the almond milk from the almond mixture. A possible short cut is to use good quality unsweetened almond milk to skip this step. Add the milk to a heavy saucepan with the cream and orange blossom water (if using it), the cinnamon and the gelatine. For an extra thickness effect, you can also beat the cream beforehand and then add it to the milk.
Bring the mixture to boiling point and let it cook for about 2 minutes. Take off the stove and let it cool until the mixture gets poured into the separate ramekins.
Leave them in the fridge for a few hours and serve it with chopped pistachios on top as a decoration or a few sugar rose petals.