AN unexpected highlight of our first foreign family holiday was an almond tree in the garden of our rented holiday home.

Our children watched, fascinated, as local passers-by knocked almonds off branches overhanging the pavement, copying them when no-one was looking. The milky, sweet nuts were a world away from the packs we all settle for in the shops.

Almonds are at the heart of some of my favourite nutty treats: marzipan dipped in chocolate, amaretti biscuits crumbled up into creamy raspberry desserts or a glass of Amaretto liqueur spooned over vanilla ice cream.

Almond has a natural affinity with the stone fruits and berries of high summer. Replace the dreary digestive base of a creamy cheesecake with crushed amaretti biscuits then scatter with slices of peach and raspberry and prepare to be converted.

Lamb, almond and fennel casserole with pomegranates and coriander

Recipe serve 6

600g diced lamb shoulder

1 bushy thyme sprig (remove at the end of cooking)

1 dstsp tomato puree

500ml brown chicken or lamb stock

1 red and 1 yellow pepper

2 banana shallots, peeled and sliced into fine strips

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 bulb fennel

Saffron, a generous pinch

½-1 tsp smoked paprika

1 dstsp honey

1 cinnamon stick (apx 2" long)

2-3 level dstsp ground almonds, depending on how thickened you wish to make the finished dish

1 pomegranate

1 bunch coriander: three quarters of it coarsely chopped, the rest picked for sprigs to garnish


1. Heat a large casserole dish over a moderate heat and add enough oil to cover the base in a light film. Heat for one minute then add half the diced lamb, stirring occasionally to brown all over (around two minutes). Remove to a clean plate and season with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Repeat with the rest of the lamb.

2. To this pan add the shallot, garlic and thyme, with a little more oil if it is dry. Soften over a very low heat, stirring regularly.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables: halve the pepper and remove seeds and pith then cut into thin strips and set aside. Halve the fennel lengthways, then cut each piece in half again to give wedges. Cut out and discard the root section then cut the layers of fennel into fine strips.

4. Add the sliced fennel to the softened shallot and sweat for a few minutes then add the peppers. Season very lightly with a little salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir well to combine then return the meat to the pan along with any juices. Sprinkle the paprika in, add the tomato puree and stir well then add the cinnamon stick. Add the stock and bring to a simmer then reduce the heat so the pan is ticking over at a gentle tremble. Ensure the contents are covered with the liquid. Cover the surface of the liquid with a disc of greaseproof paper then cook until the meat is tender, about 60-80 minutes. Stir from time to time. Once done, remove form the heat. Can be prepared to this stage then chilled.

5. To finish and serve, heat the casserole, remove the cinnamon stick and stir in the honey and the ground almonds. Halve the pomegranate. Hold one half face down over a bowl and tap briskly on the back of the pomegranate with a spoon to knock out the seeds. Stir half of these seeds into the casserole, along with any juice. Finally stir in the chopped coriander. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Now transfer to a serving bowl; sprinkle with coriander leaves and the remaining pomegranate seeds. Serve with rice or pitta bread.

Polenta and almond cake

200g soft butter plus a little more for greasing the baking tin

200g caster sugar

200g ground almonds

100g quick cook polenta

1½ tsp baking powder

3 eggs

2 lemons zested and juiced

125g icing sugar

1. Place butter and sugar in the bowl of a food mixer and beat until fluffy. Add almonds, polenta and baking powder. Beat in very slowly at first then increase mixer speed and beat just until well mixed.

2. Break eggs into a small bowl and beat briefly with a fork. With the machine running at a slow speed, add the eggs very slowly, only adding more when the mixture has absorbed the egg, to prevent splitting.

3. Grease a 23cm spring-form cake tin, or grease and line a deep-sided baking tray with parchment paper. Pour the cake mix in then bake in a pre-heated oven (180C) for 40 minutes, turning the tray half way through. The top should be light gold and the cake mix just set.

4. Remove from oven and stand, still in the tray, for a minute while you mix the icing sugar with the lemon juice and zest in a small bowl to make a paste. While the cake is still warm, pour this over then leave to cool completely.

5. Once cold, remove cake from tin onto a tray and carefully remove the paper.

6. Can be made in advance to this stage and refrigerated. Remove from fridge 30 minutes before serving. Serve at room temperature with fresh peaches and apricot slices tossed in a raspberry coulis or with fresh raspberries and thick cream, or sour cream.

Geoffrey Smeddle is the chef patron of The Peat Inn, by St Andrews, Fife, Ky15 5LH 01334 840206