I was about to write "this barely even warrants a post, but...". Then I paused. That is entirely untrue. This definitely warrants a post, because a) it obviously inspired me to start writing one, and b) just because what I am about to write about is incredibly simple, it doesn't mean it isn't incredibly delicious. Sometimes the best food experiences are the simplest: eggs on toast; a really good grilled fish; a Victoria sponge cake; a loaf of crusty bread and some cheese. Today I made a sublime mackerel pâté by putting some garlic and herb cream cheese, some smoked mackerel, lemon zest and dill in a blender. Shockingly simple - too simple to merit a blog post - but a wonderful lunch. However, that is not what I am about to discuss.
At the Real Food Festival last weekend, I discovered ricotta. Sure, I've been eating and cooking with ricotta for years. It comes in a shallow round tub in the supermarket, with a peel-off plastic film lid, and always accumulates a layer of watery whey over its surface. Right? Except it doesn't. I've read many cookbooks that extol the virtues of proper, fresh ricotta, the kind you find in Italy. Unfortunately, I've never been lucky enough to locate it over here; it has remained an elusive treasure, and all of its good qualities - crumbly, fresh, much more flavoursome than the supermarket stuff - have remained unsampled, tantalisingly trumpeted by luckier chefs and food writers all over the country while I make do with my boring UHT variety.
Until a lady at the food festival (from Laverstoke Park Farm) offered me a little plastic spoon - I think it was neon yellow, the kind you get at ice cream shops in Italy - atop which perched a little clump of snow-white buffalo milk ricotta. One taste and I was hooked. How to describe it? Like cream cheese but with the texture of a good baked cheesecake. A very mild, milky flavour; a pleasant crumbling sensation on the tongue. It was utterly delicious. I've had a similar experience with the Laverstoke buffalo mozzarella before. I watched them making it at last year's food festival, twisting it into balls in a big vat of whey, while a huge buffalo looked on with pride (I like to think) from a nearby pen. The flavour was unlike any mozzarella I have tasted before, in that it actually tasted of something. This ricotta was the same: a dairy revelation. I took it home and pondered what to do with it.
The problem is, all of the ways I would normally use ricotta exploit its texture, but not its flavour, because the supermarket stuff has none. I didn't want to mask it with spinach in a cannelloni; I didn't want to serve it in a fruit tart to get lost amongst berries and their juice; I didn't want to bake it in a cheesecake, into unidentifiable sweetness. I kind of just wanted to eat it from the tub, unadulterated, maybe with a neon yellow plastic spoon.
I went for the next best (or more realistic) thing. I made bread. Soda bread, to be precise, because it's quick and easy and because its lovely nutty flavour I imagined would be perfect with the refreshing milky cheese. I slathered the bread with big dollops of fresh ricotta. I roasted some apricots with orange flower water, honey and sugar, because I thought their sweet, tart flavour would be the perfect partner to the cheese. I also had some strawberries in the fridge.
My breakfast last week comprised warm slices of this oaty, moist, buttermilk-enriched bread topped with creamy white curds and a dollop of tart apricot, or a slice of juicy strawberry. It was genuinely one of the best breakfasts I have ever had (and I experiment a lot with breakfast recipes). I just had to share its goodness. I would normally be averse to the notion of cheese for breakfast - I don't go in for that continental thing of eating cold meats and dairy first thing in the morning - but this is different. It is so contrary to any expectations of cheese that it barely fits in that category. In fact, it's more akin to spreading butter on your bread, with its incredible lightness. Delicious.
Incidentally, I have discovered that fresh ricotta is probably easier to make at home than boiled eggs. I can't wait to try it out and have this luxury more often. I also thought I'd share the soda bread recipe, which you can find here. I've made it twice in a week now, and it's definitely the best soda bread recipe I've found yet; it has a wonderful moisture that can often be lacking in bought versions or some other recipes.
A post about the Real Food Festival will be appearing soon, by the way. Just so I can have another opportunity to tell you all how amazing this cheese is.