I was 18 and had just finished my A-levels when I hitchhiked with a friend through France, Turin and Genoa and arrived at the little port of Lerici. The youth hostel there was in an old castle, and below it one could swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea. For one who learnt to swim in the ice-cold rivers of Northern Ireland, this was something of an excitement.
I wandered among the rocks, brushed away a fly and as a result knocked my glasses off and watched helplessly as they bounced into the sea. It was all I could do to fumble my way back across the rocks. I had no spare glasses. I telegrammed home and asked my mother to send a new pair to the town of Arezzo, further along our route south. We travelled across Tuscany and eventually, perhaps 10 days after the misfortune in Lerici, the spectacles arrived.
The youth hostel in Arezzo was then on the south side of the main piazza in a sort of palazzo in the old town. I stepped out, newly sighted, and in front of me was one of the finest buildings in Italy, the Logge Vasari. So the renaissance began, for me, in Arezzo. Much later I discovered Piero della Francesca’s masterpiece “The Finding of the True Cross” in the church of San Francesco. Later still I discovered this recipe – which I have adapted somewhat – in Leslie Forbes’ elegant A Table in Tuscany. The sformato is also a noble edifice, a typical example of the Italian urge to give classical form to even the simplest ideas.
The sformato could, of course, be eaten as is and thus qualify as a vegetarian dish. We tend to think of the meat coming first and vegetables being the “garnish”. Italians often think differently: here the vegetable plays lead and the livers provide the support. As we learn to eat less meat but not give it up altogether, this is not a bad way to go.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Cafe Anglais
Spinach sformato with chicken livers
The ring mould helps for an even cooking time – and provides a convenient cavity – but is not essential. An ordinary round mould will need a slightly slower cooking time. Serves six.
A few cloves
1kg large-leaf spinach
60g Parmesan, grated
500g chicken livers
1 sprig rosemary
50ml white wine
● Melt two tablespoons of butter in a small pan and add the flour. Cook gently to form a sandy roux before adding a little milk to form a thick paste. Dilute with remainder of milk and whisk as it comes to a simmer. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and crushed heads of 2-3 cloves. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
● Pick through the spinach, washing leaves in several changes of water. Drop into a large pan of boiling water and leave long enough to wilt. Drain and rinse in cold water. Squeeze and blend with the white sauce in a liquidiser.
● Melt four tablespoons of butter and brush sides and bottom of ring mould. Coat the inside with breadcrumbs.
● Separate the eggs and beat the yolks into the spinach mixture with the Parmesan. Add a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt to the whites and beat them to a fairly stiff meringue. Whisk a quarter of the whites into the spinach mixture, then fold in the remainder. Mix well and pour into the mould. Bake in oven at 190C for 25 minutes or until a needle comes out clean.
● While this cooks, clean the chicken livers of any sinew or green bile stains. Heat a frying pan with a film of olive oil, sear the livers on a high heat and then remove them, still undercooked, to a plate. Chop shallot finely and stew it with a tablespoon of butter and sprig of rosemary in the same pan. Turn up the heat, add the wine and reduce by half. Return the livers to the pan and poach gently for several minutes to medium rare. Season and add knob of butter to thicken the sauce.
Turn the mould out on to a plate, pile the livers in and around and serve.
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