Torta della nonna – you’ll often see this on menus in Rome and other parts of Italy. It just means “grandma’s tart” or “granny’s cake”. I’m not sure I believe every single restaurant I saw it in had a grandmother toiling away making them, but it’s a cute selling point. I’m also not sure there’s a specific type of dessert tart that qualifies as torta della nonna – though the basic theme seemed to be variations on custard and pine nut tarts, made with or without ricotta, and with or without pine nuts on top.
The other day, our friend Dom asked me to supply the pudding for a meal he was making for his wife’s Min’s birthday. Immediately, I thought “tart” – for the pudding that is, not insulting either of them. A quick browse of the contents of the fridge and store cupboard, and of a few books, notably ‘Sweet Pies and Tarts’ by Linda Collister, suggested a pine nut tart. Which brought about fond memories of torta della nonna, even if this recipe is made without ricotta and has a filling that’s more an almondy sponge than a custard. Who knows though, I’m sure there are nonne out there who do use a bit of farina di mandorle (ground almonds) in their tarts.
The politics of pine nuts
Since coming home from Italy I’ve been having a bit of an issue with pine nuts. In Italy, I bought Italian pine nuts, harvested from Italian pine trees. Here, even in the most nominally right-on of health-foody shops, all the pine nuts seem to be from China. And I really can’t bring myself to buy them. It just seems insane to lug such produce half-way round the world, especially from China, a country with a dubious regime, a country that’s achieved borderline world-domination in everything from clothes to electronics, and a country that’s not exactly a paragon of environmental standards, with its economic revolution’s high energy demands. I’m not sure I trust its organic certification either.
Infinity Foods in Brighton, for example, sells Chinese pine nuts; pretty much all their dried beans are from China too – it’s really unfortunate as pulses are a big part of my diet. Can’t we grow anything a little closer to home? Can’t we get beans and pine nuts in Britain with slightly better ethical credentials? I realise the economics are complex, but cheaper food – cheaper imported food – often has hidden costs in terms of the environmental repercussions.
Plus, I remember Dom talking a few years ago about how Chinese pine nuts were leaving a strange metallic taste in his mouth – something to do with pollution perhaps? Or because Chinese exporters were mixing nuts from Pinus koraiensis trees with cheaper nuts from Pinus armandii, which some reports suggest is the cause of this “pine nut syndrome”. The EU changed rules regarding imports of the latter, but is it really that well regulated? And is it really just down to the Pinus armandii? (I’ll stop before I start sounding any more conspiracy theorist.)
I did finally find some pine nuts at La Porte’s in Lewes that were from the EU. Phew. This is what I had in my store cupboard.
Despite the depressing popularity of a certain political party whose name sounds like an injunction to have a nap* in last week’s elections, I’m happy to with a cultural identity that’s English, British and European, and as someone who prefers to buy food from as close to home, EU-grown produce is preferable to Chinese.
For the pastry:
90g butter, cold
150g plain flour
20g caster sugar
1-2 tablespoons water (cold)
For the filling:
55g butter, at room temp, or softened slightly in microwave or a warm location
70g caster sugar
2 tablespoons honey (say 30g)
2 eggs, beaten
70g ground almonds
25g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
120g pine nuts
1. Dice the butter then toss it in the flour. If you’re using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt.
2. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, if you’re using a food processor, pulse it quickly to achieve a similar result.
3. Add the egg and bring the dough together, again either by hand on by machine. Add some cold water to form a dough, but not too much! You don’t want it squishy, you want it dry-ish, and short and crumbly once baked.
4. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and to in the fridge to rest.
5. Make the filling by creaming together the butter and sugar, then beating in the honey and egg.
6. Add the ground almonds, then sieve in the flour and baking powder together. Combine the mixture.
7. Add about a third of the pine nuts to the mixture.
8. Get your dough out of the fridge, roll it out and use it to line a loose-bottom flan tin, about 22-25cm in diameter. If you do this ahead of time, you can rest it again in the fridge for a while.
9. Preheat the oven to 180C.
10. Put the filling in the pastry case, then bake for about 10 minutes.
11. Carefully remove the half-baked tart, and gently sprinkle the rest of the pine nuts on top.
12. Put it back in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.
13. Remove from the oven and cool on rack. Serve warm or cold, preferably with a huge dollop of thick or clotted cream.
* Ukip – geddit?