Celebrating the month of love … A lusty fig tart and more …

The month of February is with us and we all think of Valentine’s day and love is on our mind.

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Why do people all over the world love a Mediterranean diet?

After spending most of my life traveling the world, cooking and eating an eclectic mix of cuisines, I am now on a island in the heart of the Mediterranean where nature works its magic on crops, vegetables and produce and everything tastes better than anywhere else. Like many others, I have fallen in love with this island and the very earth and sunshine that nurture our food.

Every season brings anticipation, a new ingredient, a very old herb rediscovered or a new combination of Mediterranean flavors concocted in my kitchen that is going to lead me into temptation and make me unable to resist. I think of the apple and Adam and Eve and the local produce that has been kissed and nurtured by long days and months of sunshine that will stimulate my taste buds to a point where they will explode with pleasure.

Living here has stirred new feelings in me; a city girl at heart, I truly cannot wait until I go on my next foraging adventure in the open countryside searching for ingredients that have long been forgotten. What can be better than fresh produce cooked on the same day it is picked from the tree ? I am convinced that the flavors found in Mediterranean food are like no other.

And now comes Valentines Day and menu planning. What edible delight will ignite sparks and make Valentine’s day special for a loved one? What combination of flavors will set the five senses alight ?

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I decide to use fleshy juicy figs to make a tart, an abundant mix of plated fresh and dried fruits and combine this with the age-old tradition of gifting chocolate to capture the heart of a loved one ….. Most of us get excited when we see chocolate and the taste immediately conjures up a sense of well-being. I also lace in other local ingredients to give our food a Mediterranean twist.

For the tart crust you will need :

Follow the recipe for the sweet pastry.

For the filling :

500g dried figs, chopped up, I like mine in large chunks
Zest and juice of one lemon and orange
1 spoon sugar or 1 spoon honey
1/2 cup wine, whatever is available white, red or rose
1 cup water
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme, do not use the dry variety, simply leave out if not available
6 fresh figs, sliced

Soak the figs in wine with bay leaf, thyme and citrus zest for an hour or overnight in the fridge if you prefer
Place in a saucepan over medium heat with the sugar or honey and water
Stir and keep an eye on it so that it does not stick to the bottom. Add water if necessary, you do not want it too dry.
Bring to a boil and reduce heat and leave on a gentle boil for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Spoon the cool compote into the pastry shell that has been baked blind
Lay the sliced fresh figs on top go the tart and bake in a moderate oven at 160C for 45 minutes. After 30 minutes check the oven and move the dish to achieve an even colored crust.

For the food platters, I managed to find some pomegranates from a late harvest in the North of the Island and I mixed the seeds with white chocolate. These were also vibrant but they need to be consumed on the same day they are prepared. I squeeze open fresh and dry figs until the yellow seeds ooze, I split passion fruit and the rosy rinds of pomegranates. The fleshly crimson seeds fall out and I stuff them into the figs and dip the base in dark chocolate, a mouthful of colored seeds with different textures….

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I also stuff figs and medjool dates with passion seeds, pistachios and other ingredients associated with love.

I add orange blossom water and rose water to chocolate. I coat little bundles of nuts to make bite-size chocolates and add gold leaf, edible flowers and rose petals to decorate plates. Is this going to grab the attention of the lucky loved ones and bring on a Valentine mood to make them feel special? The display is both exotic and romantic and how will anyone be able to resist? With my eyes closed, the aroma alone of the purest chocolate, rose petals and the juicy perfumed flesh of fruit make me dizzy. It promises to make anyone hungry and tempt them to have a taste of the surprise ingredients and forbidden fruit. I try more and more combinations with local carob, thyme honey, cardamon, zucchini flowers dipped in chocolate and different textures to create mysterious mouthfuls with elusive flavors.

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And I devote the rest of the day to truffle making, a variety of flavors and colors, and looking at them on silver platters, these are decadent, to-die-for truffles. The smell of chocolate is making me nearly delirious. I somehow found it comforting to roll all that soft gooey chocolate in my hands. There is an enjoyment about the sensation of all that chocolate in your bare hands without the use of latex gloves; it is nearly like giving each mouthful a personal touch.

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It has been a pleasurable journey, the thought process, the flavor planning, the sourcing of ingredients, the touch and feel and the gazing, admiring and appreciation. Then the gift, and again there is something so satisfying about giving and sharing. Then comes the longing and air of expectancy, the courting stage and… the taste. Will it disappoint or will it be something memorable with sparks and fireworks ? Today I have fallen in love with my truffles, merely just looking at them is nearly enough….

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I end up with a variety of wonderful Valentine flavors. I cut chilli from Mum’s garden and add a hint to pure cacao by artisan chocolate farmer Willie Harcourt Cooze. He messaged me recently saying it made sense to pair Mediterranean bee pollen with Baracoa chocolate because the honey notes in his Cuban chocolate compliment bee pollen. So thanks to Willie’s suggestion, I made Bee Pollen Truffles using a Mediterranean pollen and I have not seen these anywhere. Another visually alluring new truffle was made with Rosé Peppercorns using the berries from the Baies rose plant (Euonymus phellomanus) that grows prolifically here. They are slightly peppery but sweet at the same time and the combination is exquisite.

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And I was thrilled when Professor Oliver Friggieri, wrote this poem at my request last month and translated it into english. Poetry and love go together and this verse so vividly describes the love he feels for his country and the providence of the land and it is published here for the first time in English to celebrate the month of love.

Exquisite is your fruit, my country,
and exquisite your bread, and your honey and your olive oil,
and your grapes, exquisite like your heart
whatever you generate.
The Southern Sun nourishes you all the year long,
benevolent land, blessed from the very beginning,
and equally blessed today, fruit of my heart.

And on a little island of romance in the heart of the Mediterranean where love sparks and feelings ignite, an island where love stories begin and never end, I look out of the window and gaze at the bluest sea and I dream of lots of good things to come …

And today’s Independent

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