Over the past few years, there’s been a major shift in my thinking when it comes to food. I had traditionally thought that ingredients are divided to two categories, the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. Cabbage, for instance fell into the “ordinary” category, whereas saffron was obviously extra-ordinary. The extra-ordinary ingredients came across as an elitist bunch. They seemed picky, always demanding a light hand, a purity in approach, always wanting to be at center stage, the stars of the show. Lobsters screamed to be poached gently and to be flavoured only with a small amount of herb butter. Oysters cried out to be eaten “au naturelles”. Truffles were appalled if they were mixed with too many other ingredients – shaving them simply over scrambled eggs was best. I obeyed their demands and followed a respectful, minimalist approach with these extra-ordinaries, and as correct as that approach remains, I now realise that I was giving these guys the royal treatment for the wrong reason.
These days, my approach is no longer ruled by classism. The world of food has stopped being an empire with a select few in the ruling class and has become a world of food communism where all ingredients are of the same culinary value – a classless food society where ingredients are treated equally, regardless of race or creed.
These are the facts. A truffle is no better than a potato. A prawn is no lesser a crustacean than a lobster. Saffron is no more amazing than pepper. Each of these ingredients has its place and they are all equally important. What drives us to value ingredients differently is economics – supply and demand. Obviously, truffles are in less supply than potatoes so they demand a higher price. Saffron’s monetary value is in the intense labour it needs and the landmass it requires for cultivation. As supply decreases or remains steady, high demand shifts an ingredient from the “ordinary” to the “extra-ordinary”, price-wise that is. Back in the day, sugar was one of those amazing products, highly sought after and very expensive due to the difficulty in production. Obviously, sugar is now a cheap commodity, its status is less extra-ordinary though its culinary value remains constant.
Nowadays, when I judge an ingredient, I judge it based on its individual quality. Such is the case of this pistachio paste. It is a paste of Bronte pistachios, one that will make you want to believe in reincarnation, simply for another chance of coming back to Earth and having some more. Sicily is Italy’s only pistachio growing region, and the town of Bronte is where some of Sicily’s best pistachios come from. The pistachios’ distinctive flavour comes from Bronte’s mineral rich soil and distinctive climate. The pistachio trees are harvested once every two years. The work needs to be done manually due to the difficult terrain. The quality of these pistachios, coupled with the relatively small and labour intensive yield makes them a niche product, and so, high demand meets low supply and prices skyrocket.
I read about Bronte pistachio paste in David Lebovitz’s blog in 2007. I craved it ever since, but Sydney doesn’t stock any. As luck would have it, Oday, a young Lebanese boy involved in the Australian Youth Food Movement went to Terra Madre, and being the wonderful adopted younger brother that he is, he indulged me upon his return with a jar of the good stuff.
I wanted to make pistachio gelato, as per David L’s recipe, but the moment I opened the jar I knew I wouldn’t be able to. The intoxicating scent of pistachios, followed by a spoonful of a most ethereal delight confirmed my initial resolve. Imagine if Nutella were made with some of the world’s best hazelnuts and finest chocolate. Now imagine Bronte pistachios instead of hazelnuts and milk instead of chocolate, and you might get a glimpse of how this beauty tastes like. Not trying to be elitist, but this paste is best enjoyed pure, by the spoonful, letting the creaminess melt in your mouth and coat your taste buds, eyes closed, the aroma of roasted pistachios filling your nose. Of course, if I had 20 jars, I’d be making pistachio gelati, face masks, body scrubs, you name it. But with only 1 in hand, I allowed myself an attempt at pistachio croissants, using only 2 tablespoons of pistachio paste.
Invited as a guest to a pastry class at Patisse in Waterloo, I recently learned the art of croissant making. Pastry chef Vincent Gadan, ex Guillaume, is an excellent teacher and a joy to spend 4 hours with. The class covered basic French pastry – pains au chocolate, brioches, frangiapane tarts and croissants – and we went home with a bundle of raw pastry, including the pastry I used for the croissants. The croissants I made at home turned out to be fantastic and the pistachio paste matched them exceedingly well. There are so many croissants recipes out there that I won’t put one up. I believe after my class with Vincent that pastry is one of those things that you should learn from a teacher rather than from a cook book. You need to feel the pastry, know how pliable and how thin it should be before you try making it. Otherwise, the results won’t be as great as they would otherwise be.
It was the Arabs, of course, that took the pistachio tree to Sicily. The Sicilian word for pistachios, frastuca, is still a clear relative to the Arabic fustuq also meaning pistachios.