The first time I had panna cotta was at a restaurant on Piccadilly called Biagio’s. I am not sure if it is still there or indeed what has become of Mr. Biagio since, but I remember I was 21, and it was my graduation dinner at which we marked the completion of my first degree. I remember it because apart from its being absolutely delicious, the manager in charge of our group for the night obviously loved it too and he made it almost impossible for anyone to choose any other dessert that night. It went a bit like this…
There we all sat, dressed up and merry around one huge candlelit table in the penthouse of this cosy, family-run establishment. Chatter floated on the air and settled gently, like dust on a clean surface and laughter erupted often, as if to season the atmosphere. It was a mix of family, very old friends (like Ogugua) and very new friends (like Simon) – all together a nice balance and I remember feeling happy. My grand uncle, Chief Tayo Akpata, who is sadly now late, was there too, and gave a speech about how life’s achievements were measured by a series of letters. His main theme was that now I had achieved the BA Hons, it was time to get on with the MA (masters) and the MRS (marriage). Well, dear uncle T, I am glad to report that the MA has been done (completed in 2010), but the MRS is still pending and I will keep you posted on progress.
After we had stuffed ourselves with course upon course of mouth-watering, confession-requiring Italian food, it was time for dessert. I remember I had planned a special menu for the night and the two dessert options were something chocolatey (some sort of epic pudding, the specifics of which now escape me, but which was very likely tiramisu) and panna cotta. My menu was created via tense negotiation with the restaurant manager because I was determined to get what I wanted for my special evening, not what ‘specials’ the chef decided the people should eat. See – I have been on a long ting for a long time.
I left the panna cotta on the menu to make the restaurant feel as though they’d won something in the battle; but the truth was I knew in my heart that everyone would have the chocolatey-pudding-that-was-probably-tiramisu. I was sure of it. Chocolate is always the answer.
How. Wrong. I. Was.
On the night of the dinner, everything went according to plan and the food and wine kept coming out. As is normal with my mad, loud family, the decibels rose ever higher and I was more than a little grateful that I had booked a private room. So really, everything was fine… until dessert. The manager himself gathered round to take dessert orders and here’s how those conversations went:
Manager: what would you like for dessert (overlay with Italian accent)
Guest: chocolate pudding, please.
Manager: panna cotta? Yes, panna cotta.
And thus he bullied everyone at the dinner into having his bloody panna cotta. He completely refused to accept any other dessert order and anytime anyone asked for something else, he nodded emphatically, repeated his imaginary hearing of an order for panna cotta and congratulated the person on what a fantastic choice it was. I couldn’t believe it. He bent us all – stubborn Nigerians – to the force of his Italian will. And though I still harbour a soupcon of a grudge against him, I have had to rationalise some sort of retrospective forgiveness treaty because that panna cotta was so damn good. It was good. Oh my goodness, it was great. I now understand that what I mistook in 2007 for an act of treachery was actually a valiant act of evangelism. Never before had I experienced the sensation of panna cotta.
Panna Cotta is more delicate than you imagine; yet vengefully determined to wobble to its own tune. Creamy and intense with the spice of vanilla but also innocently sweet as it makes way for stewed berries to shine. It is quite a criminal little dessert really, because it makes you justify the word ‘more’.
For some reason, I remember the dress I was wearing. It had white, purple, terracotta and black swirls on it and I remember it was a UK size 8. My, my, the good old days! That was probably the last time I ever wore a size 8 (comfortably). The moment we got into the cab for the ride home, my zip was yanked down to give me some room to breathe and I have no further recollections of entering that dress ever again. Yes Oxfam, you’re welcome.
You can read more about the origins and history of panna cotta here. Or here, or here. Or you can jump straight into it and make my simple, Lagos-friendly recipe below. Everything was purchased locally and this makes for a super versatile recipe. I even made it into smaller cuter cups for a children’s picnic…