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.
SMOKED SALMON PENTIMENTI
- 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.