“Eccoci qua,” said the woman at the next table, as full glasses were placed on the it and, beside them, three small bowls. In front of her was another woman, who I thought might be her sister. They clinked glasses, while kids shrieked in the square behind, music escaped a passing car window and dozens of conversations at eight tables outside merged into one.
“Eccoci qua” is an expression that sends me back to language school and a black pen squeaking against a white board. The affirmative “here we are’’, but also, in more abstract terms and depending on the context, “here we go”, “here goes” or “this is it”. The woman seemed to be saying all those things, but especially “here we are” and “this is it”, summing up the solid pleasure of those first moments: arrival, clink, drink. We were envious, still waiting for our drinks (a beer and a chinotto) and our own small bowls: one of roasted peanuts, another of green olives speared with cocktail sticks, and the third of taralli, little toasted knots of dough, delightful gifts, but with an ulterior motive – namely of ordering another round.
The etymology of tarallo is not clear. One hypothesis is that the word comes from the latin torrere, which means to dry up, toast or bake; another is that it comes from the old Italic tar, which means avvolgere, to wrap. Either way, savoury taralli are typical all over the south of Italy, particularly in Puglia, and were probably born as a way of using up dough, maybe fortified with lard (or olive oil), pepper or spices, wrapped into a little ring or knot, and baked. They vary, with some more crumbly and biscuit-like, and others akin to hard breadsticks. My preference is for the latter, even more so if they have fennel seeds in them. To be honest, I usually buy them in and like to have two bags in the cupboard. On the few occasions I have made them, I go with 500g plain flour, 125ml olive oil, 200ml white wine, salt and fennel seeds, kneaded, rolled into rope, sectioned, knotted and baked.
What I do make relatively often, however, are sweet taralli, the dough speckled with the zest of two lemons and the final knots dipped in lemon glaze. It is another recipe from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, one that sums up what cook and writer Ruby Tandoh refers to as “hiding in plain sight”, because I almost always have the ingredients: flour, butter, cream of tartar, salt, egg and lemons. Bright and somewhere between crumble and snap, they produce lovely knots.
The tea and biscuit moment is another one, isn’t it? “Here we are” and “this is it”, the solid pleasure when a cup and a plate of biscuits arrives on the table. And I am not just thinking of the women on the next table, but my Grandma Roddy whose “eccoci qua” on receiving tea was always, “Ooooh, lovely.”
Lemon knot biscuits
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
Makes about 18
100g cold lard or butter, diced
250g plain flour
100g caster sugar
1 heaped tsp cream of tartar
2 unwaxed lemons
1 large egg, beaten
125ml warm water
200g icing sugar
In a large bowl, rub the butter or lard into the flour until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cream of tartar, the grated zest of both lemons and a pinch of salt, followed by the egg and water, and bring everything together into a ball. The dough should be soft, smooth, tacky but not sticky (if it is, sprinkle with more flour and knead again).
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Working on a lightly floured surface, pull off plum-sized bits of the dough, roll each one into a rope about 1cm thick, then cut the ropes into roughly 12cm lengths. You then have two options: either shape the dough into a hoop and press the ends together, or knot gently, looping one end through the other. Lift on to the lined tray and bake until golden brown and firm, which will take only about 10 minutes, so keep an eye on them. Remove and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, make a thick glaze by very gradually mixing lemon juice into the icing sugar. Dip one side of each biscuit into the icing and leave to dry.