After my recent adventure with a bundle of beautiful, exotic, mystery lemons, I’ve fallen prey to another rare and ravishing winter citrus fruit: the bergamot. Famous for imbuing Earl Grey with that unmistakeable, love-it-or-hate-it musky, floral aroma, bergamots seem to be tragically underused outside the teapot. Cut one in half and you may see why: they are peppered with pips, and their flesh is tougher and less yielding than that of a lemon or orange. I like to think that this is because bergamots have suffered less from the rampant perfectionist cultivating impulse that has so plagued modern fruit and vegetable production; rather like quinces, these are a niche, knobbly little fruit for which demand is low. As a result, there’s no need to train them into perfect orbs of glowing colour or buff their skins with wax to a lustrous sheen. Instead they are squat, milky yellow, often slightly blemished, and heavy in the hand. A delightful rarity, I couldn't help buying them in bulk when I spotted them in Waitrose a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve been using the juice and zest as I would normal lemons in fish recipes; it made a lovely roast salmon, bulgur wheat, goji berry, toasted almond and tahini salad a week or so ago. But to make the most of the heady bergamot aroma, somewhere between the zing of a normal lemon and the oriental perfume of a mandarin, mingled with something distinctly blossomy, I decided to go the same route as with my mystery lemons a couple of months ago: curd.
Bergamots, as it turns out, make a perfect curd. It has a spritz of that fantastic, otherworldly citrus sharpness which adds more interest than the juice of standard lemons. The perfume in the zest stops the curd from cloying and being too sweet, but the ample quantities of butter, eggs and sugar mellow the tang of the fruit’s flesh. I think I prefer it to lemon curd; there’s something unexpected and astringent about the flavour, the beautiful floral note combining gloriously with the rich ingredients of traditional curd. I also love the way the mixture transforms from a watery thinness to a glossy, thick, marigold-yellow spread as you whisk it over the heat, begging to be slathered over toast. It works very well on homemade soda bread for breakfast, particularly when said bread is fresh out of the oven and really resembles cake far more than bread. I also think this curd would be sublime used to sandwich two sponge cakes, with a slick of mascarpone.
It seemed a shame to throw the zested, juiced bergamot halves in the compost, particularly as I didn’t know when I’d get my hands on some more of the fruit (incidentally, they often seem to be languishing in the reduced section in Waitrose at the moment, presumably because no one knows what to do with them). I had a vague inkling that I might be able to candy the peel in sugar syrup and use it instead of normal candied peel. This, even if I say so myself, was an absolute brainwave, and one of which I am very proud. I cobbled together a recipe using the internet, made a few tweaks, pottered around with some pans and sugar, and ended up with a jar full of beautiful translucent shards of bergamot peel, supple and slightly sticky.
Making your own candied peel is easy; you just need to be at home for a few hours to go through the various steps. I’ve heard it’s far superior to anything you can buy in the shops, and seeing as you make it from something you’d normally throw away, it’s highly economical too - a whole jar, essentially for free. You just need to boil the peel in water until soft, boil it again briefly to remove any bitterness, then simmer it in a simple syrup until it has absorbed all the syrup and become sticky. You then leave it to dry in a low oven until firm, and then you can snip bits off as and when you need it. I don’t think it matters that I had already zested the bergamots before candying them – they still smell glorious – but you might get a slightly more aromatic flavour with the zest left on. You can, of course, try the same recipe using normal lemons, oranges or grapefruit.
I’m amazed that I have a whole jar of something so versatile essentially for free, and it’s come just in time for making some hot cross buns this weekend for Easter. I reckon candied bergamot hot cross buns spread with some bergamot curd might just be the ultimate Easter breakfast.
Bergamot curd (makes around 2 x 400ml jars):
- 4 bergamots
- 100g unsalted butter, cubed
- 200g golden caster sugar
- Generous pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
Grate the zest from the bergamots and place in a large, heatproof bowl. Juice the bergamots into a jug, then strain the juice into the bowl with the zest, discarding any pips. Reserve the bergamot skins for making the candied peel below.
Add the butter and sugar to the bergamot zest and juice. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and place the heatproof bowl on top, leaving an inch between the water and the bowl. Turn the water to a simmer.
Stir the mixture for 5 minutes until the butter has melted, then add the eggs and egg yolks. Cook over the water, whisking frequently, for around 30-45 minutes until the curd has thickened. It will still be a little runny, though, because it’s warm, so don’t panic if it looks too thin. It should be glossy and offer some resistance to the whisk.
Allow the curd to cool in the bowl, whisking occasionally as it cools, then ladle into sterilised jars and refrigerate for up to a month.
Candied bergamot peel (makes 1 jar):
- Peel from 4 bergamots (see above), or 4 whole bergamots
- 200g granulated sugar
If using whole bergamots, juice them into a bowl and remove any seeds left inside the peel. Use the juice for something else (e.g. curd, above).
Slice the bergamot skins into strips around 1.5cm thick. Bring a pan of water to the boil, then turn down to a simmer. Add the bergamot peel and simmer until soft enough to crush it against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon – this can take between 30 and 90 minutes.
Drain the peel and bring a fresh pan of water to the boil. Simmer the peel again, for 20 minutes (this helps remove any bitterness). Drain and set aside.
Put the sugar in a saucepan with 100ml water and bring to the boil slowly, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Put the peel in the pan and simmer over a low heat for around 45-90 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has absorbed all the syrup, and everything is translucent and sticky.
Spread the peel out on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Turn the oven to its lowest setting, around 45C. Put the peel in the oven for 3 hours, turning all the pieces over halfway through, until it is firm. It will still be slightly tacky, but should be dry rather than syrupy. Turn off the oven and leave the peel inside overnight.
The next day, transfer the peel to a jar. It is now ready to use.