There's a time for everything... and the autumn is definitely the time for preserving! I have been restraining myself from jamming too much this year, and I mean: really restraining! Not quite in a straight jacket like the one Jack Nicholson wears in "One flew over the Cuckoo's nest", but I've been finding it hard not to buy seasonal produce by the truckload and packing it neatly into jars. I must be carrying an innate urge to prepare for the winter, hording nuts and berries like a squirrel, so this year, I am feeling somewhat nervous that I might not make it through hibernation (God, I wish I COULD actually hibernate - a good stack of wine bottles, tons of good books, chocolates and comfort food, no worrying about calories seeing that you're spending the next few months tucked under a blanket avoiding the scrutiny of your friends or any Joe Bloggs who thinks he's entitled to an opinion on the way you look!)... luckily, the reason for exercising restraint is only that my cupboards are already overflowing, even though, despite spending a full six weeks in Austria in the summer, I missed the delivery of those special apricots for the Wachau again, but my Mum did all the canning for me! Add to those 12 jars of apricot jam in various guises a batch of plum jam supplied by my grandmother who, despite being almost blind, still finds the energy to be cooking and baking, and a fair number of "speciality jams" I collected along the way or received as presents. Definitely quite the gatherer, moi.
So I am definitely covered on the sweet front - but what about savoury? When it comes to preserving, I rarely think vegetables, probably because there isn't a great tradition of it in my family. The thing is that you can buy decent Sauerkraut, gherkins and pickled chillis in almost every shop, even straight from the barrel if you venture out to the markets. So even I had to think hard when I volunteered to host this month's edition of "Waiter! There's something in my...". Inspiration came in the form of a holiday to Tuscany earlier this year - we stayed near Pienza, which is, as you may know, home to the famous Pecorino di Pienza (not to confound with its more common namesake pecorino romano which is not protected and sold up and down the country). Pecorino di Pienza is an origin-protected sheep's cheese (pecora is Italian for sheep) and can come in all shapes and guises, from a soft fresh cheese to a gran riserva, aged and matured and very much like a good parmesan cheese, hard, dense and almost crumbly. I think this is the way I like it best, with some truffle honey drizzled over and enjoyed as is, with some confit shallots in balsamico, a crumb of ciabatta (or two) and a glass of wine (or three). While at one of the many local delicatessen, selling way too many Italian delicacies than my pantry can actually cope with, I came across something I hadn't seen before: pecorino sott'olio (lit. pecorino under oil). Thin slivers of hard cheese preserved in flavoured olive oil. Yumm!
Since I still had a vacuum-packed piece of pecorino gran riserva in my fridge, I prepared the flavoured oil - I leave it up to you which type of oil you use, but for once I think an extra virgin is over the top for this purpose, go for a second pressing, a mild and low-maintenance olive oil that you would use for cooking. With the garlic and the spices (bay leaves, peppercorns and peperoncini) you're gently frying in it, the grassy freshness of a top Tuscan oil would only go bitter and compromise the other flavours too much. I thinly sliced the pecorino with my mandoline, then poured the cooled oil over... if you didn't think cheese lent itself for this treatment, think again: you can use pretty much any cheese, but I would suggest to either do it when it's still fresh (ie more the consistency of a cream cheese), scooped into small balls and seasoned with fresh herbs and garlic, or when it's really old and its crumbly and salty texture benefits from a bit of moisture. The subtle flavour of garlic and chilli is not something the pecorino really needs, but it's a welcome change and is a welome and unusual addition to any cheeseboard or served with your aperitif. As for the flavouring, be adventurous - the world's your oyster!
If you haven't yet, you still have two days to submit your contribution to this instalment of WTSIM - and I am known for turning a blind eye even if you are slightly late... as long as you email me before I post the round-up! Go on then, get perserving!
(yields 1 small jar)
You can really be creative here, playing around with the spices you use. Bear in mind that fresh herbs won't keep as long as dried - but if you're planning to eat this within a week or so, you can even stuff fresh basil in. If you want it to last you over the long winter months, restrict yourself to bay leaves, rosemary or thyme which can stand the heat of an oil bath.
You could also use parmesan here if pecorino is hard to come by.
150 g aged pecorino
200 ml mild olive oil
2 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns
10 peperoncini (or other small dried chillies)
Gently heat the olive oil, cut the garlic into small chunks and add to the pot. Add the spices and continue to cook until the garlic starts to throw lots of bubbles. Turn the heat off and leave to cool completely.
Cut the cheese into thin slices, arrange neatly in a preserving jar, layering with some of the garlic and spices as you go.
Pour over the olive oil and close the jar tightly.
Keep in a cool, dark place and serve with bread and antipasti or as part of a cheese platter.