Patience Gray’s Preferred Breakfast

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

Fresh ricotta, plum jam, and Paesano bread

Patience Gray said, “The best food writing should inspire you, either to be more adventurous, or more critical, or more keen to enjoy.” The quality and connectivity and poetry of her work certainly made me keen to try this simple but delicious breakfast combination! I’d never done it before, but the idea of really good bread, really good ricotta, and really good plum jam was hard to resist. Having tried it now, I can see why she was so enamored of this morning meal. The three ingredients are so simple and so good. Milky and creamy fresh cheese; wheaty and wonderful bread; sweet, earthy, and tart jam. Put the three together and, patient or otherwise, you will absolutely have a lovely morning meal. Truth is, you could have it for lunch, dinner, or dessert as well.

The bread, in this case, would be Paesano since it is the typical bread of the Puglia region where Patience Gray lived such a significant part of her life. It comes out of the Bakehouse ovens around 3:30 pm so if you grab a loaf in the early evening, it’ll be ideal for the following morning. You can of course toast it too which is, truthfully, also terrific. 

The plum jam on my mind and table right now is American Spoon’s Damson Plum Preserves, made in copper kettles up north in Petoskey. The name Damson comes from damascene which in theory meant plum of Damascus, meaning that it was grown not all that far from the region that is now Rojava in modern Syria’s northeast. Damson plums were found in Roman Britain, became popular in England, and were later brought to the Americas by early English colonists. American Spoon started up in the same year we did, 1982. Which means that while Patience Gray was patiently writing and gathering wild greens in Puglia, my friend Justin Rashid was up in Petoskey, Michigan starting to gather the wild fruit and berries that became the basis of American Spoon. 

Although berries seem to get more attention in North America, the American Spoon Damson jam puts me into a different mental space. There’s something wonderfully earthy and magical to me about this special plum. Noah Marshall-Rashid, Justin’s son, says,

The ancient heirlooms in American Spoon Damson Plum Preserves are grown just for us near Suttons Bay out on Northern Michigan’s lovely Leelanau Peninsula by the last Damson growers who remain in Michigan. Damsons are tiny, blue plums and the sight of a Damson orchard in early September, its branches blanketed with blue fruit is as rare and wonderful as their flavor. It’s intense! Damsons are the crabapples of the plum world, not for eating fresh out of hand, they come to life in the preserving kettle.

The ricotta that tops my list is the one we get at the Creamery from Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, California. Made from the low-yield, full-flavor, extra-creamy milk of the farm’s herd of Jersey cows. Half a century ago, when Patience Gray and Norman Mommens lived in Carrara, biographer Adam Federman says, “There was a shepherd who brought fresh ricotta wrapped in beech or bay leaves down from the mountains to the city.” All these years later, the Bellwether ricotta comes in sealed cups, but this week I’ve been imagining what it might have been like to walk home from the market with it in leaves, along with some fresh bread in hand, and to unwrap the cheese, bring out the jam, look at the Carrarese countryside, and appreciate the day.

Patience Gray posits that “Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality.” This lovely little breakfast seems a good fit. Make some coffee or tea, and let the jam and ricotta come to room temperature. With patience, if you’re willing and so inclined, spoon small bits of each, or either, onto torn-off pieces of the bread. Take a few mindful breaths. Imagine, if you like, Patience Gray in a remote corner of Puglia doing the same thing 60 years or so ago. If you journal like I do, consider conjoining the two. As I write as a personal reminder to myself each morning when I close out my journaling, “Make it a good day.”