Smoked Salmon and Pentimenti

The Leonardo da Vinci exhib­i­tion at London’s Nation­al Gal­lery has only just opened, but it’s already sold out. Not bad, con­sid­er­ing that few­er than twenty of his paint­ings sur­vive.

I was cap­tiv­ated to hear that the work newly attrib­uted to Leonardo, Sal­vat­or Mundi, was only firmly estab­lished as being his by its ‘pen­ti­menti’. Loosely trans­lated, pen­ti­menti are ‘marks of repent­ance’ — in oth­er words, adjust­ments, mis­takes, rethinks, alter­a­tions.

As a meta­phor for life, what could be bet­ter than the real­isa­tion that we’re defined by our mis­takes, rather than by our breezy suc­cesses? You can take the gloomy view and assume this means we can nev­er shrug off our fail­ures. Or, like me, you can take the Pol­ly­anna line of argu­ment that we’re shaped, tempered and for­ti­fied both by our imper­fec­tions and by the things we elect to change.

One of my most pre­cious pos­ses­sions is a sil­ver ring made for me by one of my chil­dren. Look closely and you will see its ‘pen­ti­menti’ — the fin­ger­print glan­cingly cap­tured in the sil­ver before the met­al hardened. It wouldn’t fetch much at auc­tion, but it’s price­less to me.


Or exam­ine the pin cush­ion made for me by one of my old­est friends, who knows all too well that I have an abid­ing pas­sion for strong tea. It fea­tures a teapot, two tea­cups and a milk jug, all picked out in pin heads, along with my ini­tial. Its pen­ti­menti are a couple of miss­ing pins, and isn’t it beau­ti­ful?


Or the hand-made jugs and and bowls I col­lect, each of them marked by a thumb print, mis­shapen edge or wonky sig­na­ture. The pen­ti­menti make them more glor­i­ous than per­fect ver­sions could ever have been.



The pen­ti­menti argu­ment works with food too. I’ve just made Smoked Sal­mon Pen­ti­menti, in fact. Not a new, elab­or­ately-shaped form of pasta, but a way of feed­ing six unex­pec­ted guests with only 140 grams of smoked sal­mon. Logic says that smoked sal­mon shouldn’t be cooked and that 140g is nowhere near enough to feed so many. But what could have been a mis­take turned into a tri­umph.


Serves 6


  • 50g but­ter
  • 75g flour
  • 1 litre semi skimmed milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 300g mature Ched­dar cheese, grated
  • Half cup or 125ml dry white wine
  • 2kg floury pota­toes
  • 1kg white onions
  • 140g smoked sal­mon

Pre­heat the oven to around 165 degrees C. You will need an oven-proof bak­ing dish around 25cm wide, 30cm long and 10cm deep.

Peel and slice the raw pota­toes and onions into 2mm thick rounds. Melt the but­ter and make a roux by adding the flour. Stir to com­bine and heat gently for a couple minutes to ensure the floury taste is cooked out.  Heat the milk in a sep­ar­ate pan and once sim­mer­ing, add the onions to the milk. Keep the milk sim­mer­ing for a few minutes until the onions have softened slightly before remov­ing them with a slot­ted spoon and put­ting them to one side.

Gradu­ally add the hot milk to the roux and keep stir­ring with a whisk. The heat of the milk will make it much easi­er to com­bine with the roux, as well as redu­cing the risk of lumps. Once all the milk has been added, con­tin­ue to whisk until you have a creamy sauce which has a cus­tard-like con­sist­ency. Stir in the white wine and keep at a sim­mer. Add the bay leaves and 200g of the Ched­dar cheese and whisk until melted in. Check the season­ing and add salt and pep­per.

Ladle a scant spoon­ful of sauce over the bot­tom of your dish. Then altern­ate a single lay­er of potato slices, fol­lowed by smoked sal­mon, onion and then one third of the remain­ing cheese sauce. Repeat the lay­ers of potato, sal­mon, onion and sauce, fol­lowed by a final lay­er of potato, sauce and the remain­ing 100g of cheese. Place in the oven and cook for 1 and a half hours. If you’re wor­ried that the top is brown­ing too much, cov­er with a lay­er of foil. Check that the pota­toes and onions are soft by pier­cing them with a fork.

Serve with a simple green salad. Any­thing more elab­or­ate would be a pen­ti­mento too far — trust me.

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