Sunday, 12 December 2010

Green Gold...

It is cold. No, it is really cold. A sub-zero cold with flurries blowing around in such a way that no matter the direction snow gets in the eyes and mouth. On top of which there is a tube strike. I should be gloomy. I should be heading home for an early night with warming cocoa (laced with rum, naturally) in a toasty warm environment. In fact, I should question my sanity in going out at all, but I have been invited to a tasting of the new harvest olive oil by Andre Dang and I am childishly excited.

Why? Well the venue, Valentina’s, is a glistening glass building that, with the Christmas lights and gleaming decorations, looks like a veritable box of delights. Added to that, the quirkiness of a Vespa in one window, and the two snow white Fiat 500s (one, an original and coveted by me) sitting outside. I am, in my superficial way, already in love.

As I walk in dressed like a knitted yeti, my eyes are (naturally) drawn beyond the food based gifts towards the wines sitting temptingly along a wall. The wine selection has been carefully chosen by Fabio (a member of the family that owns and runs Valentina’s) and having recognised a few labels I am almost tempted to go on a mad spending spree. They have an excellent selection of wine hampers to take the buyer on an individual oeno-tour of Italy, central, north and south, as well as the individual bottles on sale on line as well (I checked earlier online).

The delicatessen, with its selection of imported cheeses, meats and trattoria delicacies that is the heart of the business. Bags of pasta, Barilla and Di Cecco (Matthew Fort of the Guardian in his book, Eating Up Italy says that these are not only the biggest producers but most Italians consider them better than other rivals such as Bertorelli), Alessi designs and Olive wood gifts.

But we are here for the olive oil, the theme of the evening. To be exact, new harvest, first pressed olive oil from the farms around the foothills of Montecassino where the owners’ family are from and to be used in each savoury course. Unfiltered, luminescent green, cloudy oil. Herbaceous in flavour, with an instant grassy hit, lightly bitter and strongly peppery. It would have been enough just to lap it up with plain bread.

So, we sit to plates of Parmesan and olives. Big, juicy and fruity, olives that bring out the cheese’s creaminess. And indeed the cheese is creamy and moreish. 24 month matured Parmesan cheese broken onto the plate in small chunks with a slightly grainy, good saline and acid balance, mild in flavour.

The meal itself started with bruschetta and mozzarella appetisers. The bruschetta, simple and elegant: chopped tomatoes, and basil, topping a garlic rubbed crunchy crusted fresh bread with subtle hints of garlic, light, zingy and pleasurable. The mozzarella were in a bowl on the side. Small brilliant white balls sitting in a small pool of forest green oil; ping-pong sized and milky rich with a slight and very mild almost cottage cheese sourness; tangy and just elastically resistant to the bite.

A plate of shellfish arrives, scallops to be exact. Visually looking so good it was a shame to eat it. Seared scallops with golden tinged edges and translucent centre, covered in a crispy straw nest of shredded leeks, and sat on a bed of reduced cream and wine, peas and carrots in a Russian Salad array of colour, all drizzled with the new harvest olive oil. The scallops gave easily under the knife. Light hints of fish, wine and some citrus cut through the cream, breaking down the richness and flipping the tongue from peppery oil to sweeter cream to light seafood flavours making the diner feel addictively greedy for more. No surprise therefore that this is one of the top selling dishes.

Next a Sausage Risotto. An ocular feast of colour, tutti frutti colours of red pepper, parsley and the pinky fleshy sausage colour mixed with the whiteness of the Arborio rice and yellow sauce. Topped on this was a spoon filled with the olive oil to drizzle over the dish. Lemon acidity and tongue coating eggy creaminess of the stock (was egg used to help thicken and enrich it?), the fennel aromas of the sausage, hung for at least a day and soft and spongy to the bite, perfectly done. The nutty resistance of the Arborio rice, sweetened by the contrast and the peppery herbaceous edge of the oil helped in part by the pepper of the parsley. I am deliciously stuffed.

But wait! There is pudding. Pear poached in red wine with ice cream and a snow flurry of icing covering the plate, highly appropriate given the drop in temperature and the impending bad weather. The odd physallis and raspberry for garnish add to the continued theme of mixed colours. The pear’s grainy texture smoothed by a syrupy berry wine sauce and a swirl of the melting vanilla. Served hot, (not cold as I am used to) which, to me, helps bring out the sauce’s full flavours. Syrupy berry wine sauce, mixed with a creamy vanilla and the subtlest of subtle hints of chocolate that is melted into the sauce, giving it a smoky, richer and slightly cinnamon tinge.

With the meal I had a glass of the Verdicchio, Castel di Jesi 2009 (Yes, I had just the one!) Light on the nose with floral notes, vanilla creaminess contrasts with the crisp, lemon juice and lemon pith and flinty minerality, for balance.

At Valentina’s, detail is the key, subtle points that hint to real care, no, real love about what is being served and how it is served. I thoroughly enjoyed the invitation to Valentina’s and would recommend a visit, not only for the culinary experience but to feast your eyes on the wines, gifts and delicatessen foods that greet the visitor at the entrance.

As an aside: in the spirit of using this olive oil for my own ends and following the example given to me by Valentina’s, I made a salmon and scallop risotto (sadly all the herbs were frozen in the garden so I ended up using, ironically, frozen peas for a bit of green colour) finally drizzling a spoonful of Valentina’s ‘green gold’ for flourish to give pepper to the sweetness.

Photo's with grateful thanks to May of  the blog Slowfoodkitchen because I am a technophobe with my own phone!

Valentina's, 75 Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 2SR. http://www.valentinafinefood.com/ 020 8877 9906.

Monday, 22 November 2010

A touch of Eastern Promise...

The kitchen is perfumed with garlic and coriander, the lightness of rose in the chilli spiced harissa, and the subtle creamy meatiness of chicken, the meat no longer able hold itself to the bone, and the skin on top turning golden and crisp. A tajine.

It was the ‘antique’ pickled lemons found, no discovered,  at the back of Aunt J’s fridge the week before that started me off on a Maghrebine theme, and eastern influences in the food surely means an eastern influence in the wine,  Hochar et Fils 2003 (Bekaa Valley 12.5%, Vintage House £11.75). Lebanese, surely near enough (it looked so close on the map)?
 Not wanting to have the olfactorial distractions while tasting this wine, I have moved to a quieter, scent free room and start to pour, the bottle having been opened earlier to get to a reasonable temperature from the chill outside. Holding the glass up, the wine is clear, as are the legs, and light cherry red with tinges of garnet.

Slowly swirling and turning my nose into the glass I get leather. A full pupil dilating leathery scent with a back note of walnut mustiness (a panic as I wonder whether this is cork taintage, but thankfully it is not). Prunes and damsons come to the nose, and further swirling releases the cherry, some green pepper and herbaceousness. The overarching sense is though is the leathery, almost like opening a brand new briefcase; meaty, that slightly oaty bloody smell that comes from the butcher’s shop; damp straw and hay, and all the elements of the cow shed (minus the “you-know-what”).

I am excited and curious. I want to taste. And what taste! A soft muted berry loveliness, with lots of tannic woodiness and hints of vanilla and cream. That lightly perfumed berry from the Cabernet Sauvignon and that nutty note. Citric sharpness is thrown in for good measure however, and, surprisingly there is no flintiness or minerality.  

I say surprising as this wine is grown on gravel and limestone, not, say for instance a clay soil, so I would have assumed some stoniness would be drawn into the flavour. However, because the winters are rainy and rarely suffer frost, the soil drains well reducing the chance of mildew and ensuring the new growth fruit develops well. Longer milder summers lower the risk of disease further, and the altitude (1000m above sea level) prevents heat drying the grapes out.

Low yielding old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan, and Grenache (that would explain the leather) are blended, partially aged in oak for 3 months, and bottled during the final year. Each yield and therefore blend varies so no vintage is the same.

So, back to the glass. Left for a bit the aromas are the same rich leather and blood and herbs, but the taste alters somewhat as the room temperature helps the wine’s development in the glass.

Allowing it to settle means I get those fruitier darker berries in a richer, purer concentration on my nose. A contrasting sweet and sourness from the cherry and blackcurrant, and a smokiness of raspberry with the rounded more muted blackberry notes. And then, the subtlest, subtlest hint of cinnamon.

But on the mouth? Wow! Brie and cheese skin pungency to the tongue. Sour cherry and some rosehip sharpness. A perfect and palatable natural concentrated sweetness like the confectionery cherry flavour, but all natural.

Outside, the damp chills reach through even the thickest of wool jumpers, but inside the wine brings a warmth that reflects the anticipated exoticness of an English Tajine with a touch of "Eastern promise". Rich in flavour and scent but, being a second wine, not as spicy and complex as its counterpart the Chateau Musar, Hochar et Fils still represents excellent value for money.

Lasagne...Corsican style

Autumn is over in my mind the moment the November bonfires die down and the sulphurous smells of fireworks have disappeared. Bird pecked, brown and softening windfall apples, home to earwigs and maggots, sit scattered on the lawn, waiting to be raked. Hard work outside means slow cooked comfort food inside as my head fills with ideas calorific and ‘carborific’. But slowly, slowly cooked. Slow enough to give me time to attend to the apples. Slow enough to saw some branches (not a callous on these hands strangely). Slow enough to bathe, to change, to pour myself a drink. Slow! (I think you get it!)

Syrupy stews with crushed potatoes, creamy casseroles with rice, and rich sauces to go with pasta are a winter must. It really is that time of year for a genuinely hearty supper to welcome winter in.

This weekend I am turning my mind to lasagne. Tomato sweetened ragù and a blanket of béchamel topped with a light flurry of parmesan. This, however, is a rich, potentially waistline busting version of a lasagne, Corsican in origin. Corsican? Well, yes. Although French, the influence and dialect is distinctly Italian (or should I say Genoese Republic). My recipe is my own version of a dish called ‘Dolari’ that I had fifteen years ago (when I was a child. Cough!) So called because of the coin shaped pasta-sausage layer. This version has more Tuscan influences thanks to the Tuscan sausages from Camisa in Soho.
Ragù:

1 carrot
2 celery sticks
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic chopped
1lb pork mince (preferably mutton)
1lb beef mince
½ bottle Italian white wine
3 tbsp tomato puree
2 tins chopped tomato
Sprig of rosemary
Oil
Small knob of butter

Sheet of pasta (ready bought)
1lb Tuscan sausages (or any Italian course ground sausage meat)
2-3 Mozzarella or one long one.

Béchamel sauce:

2tbsp plain flour
1¼ pint milk
1½ ounces butter

Parmesan for topping

Method:

Preheat the oven to 160oC.

First the meat sauce (I have used a combination of recipe ideas including Katie Caldesi, Marcella Hazan and, of course, Elizabeth David). Peel and finely chop the carrot, onion and celery (or whizz them in a blender). Heat about 8 tablespoons of oil in a pan and slowly fry for about 10 minutes until the mix turns glassy and soft. Add the garlic and stir a couple of times. Now add the meat and cook until the rawness has gone.

Add the wine and sprig of rosemary, turn up the heat to high and let it bubble until it reduces down to below the level of the meat. Lower the heat; add the tomatoes and tomato purée and season. Once the sauce starts simmering gently put a lid on and leave for about 3 hours to cook, stirring occasionally. Add more salt at the end as well as the knob of butter. Remove the herbs once cooked. You can make the sauce the day before and let the flavours meld even more.

Now, butter a deep sided dish.

Next, the coins. (I used bought fresh pasta sheets but still dipped them in boiling water for a few seconds to prevent splitting). Skin the sausages and spread out the meat evenly over the sheet(s) of pasta until it reaches the edge. Carefully roll the sheet tightly, like a Swiss Roll and slice into coin shapes (about a centimetre wide).

Slice the mozzarella and set to one side.

Finally, the béchamel sauce (I used Elizabeth David’s recipe in Italian Food, but feel free to another recipe). Place a bay leaf in the milk and heat up (do not boil though) in a separate pan. Melt the butter in another pan, then add the flour. Stirring constantly add the milk slowly ensuring the mixture remains smooth and slowly thickens. (I thought of using eggs in the béchamel, as I would for a Moussaka, to make it fluffier and add another layer of flavour and richness but did not want to risk it this time around).

To assemble, place the coins flat, in the buttered dish. Put the mozzarella slices on top roughly. Pour the ragù over the coins, then the béchamel sauce on top of that. Finally, scatter some finely grated parmesan on the top and place in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour.

Lamb’s Lettuce or rocket salad on the side (or more traditionally, afterwards) cleans the palate well. I drank Panizzi’s 2006 Colle di Sinese to wash this down (www.panizzi.it or www.enotria.co.uk)

So how was my memory? Well, it was lighter than I thought it might be. Breaking down through the layers, the béchamel was lightly cheesy and thick enough to coat the tongue but not heavy, and gave a creaminess to the ragù. The sharper wine and tomato flavours of the sauce mellowed with the long cooking period, helped also by adding that small amount of butter.

What made it different was, of course, the sausage meat. Subtle to the palate and made more so thanks to the tempering melted mozzarella, it complimented the pork and beef mince well, the higher noted, sharper seasoned meat giving extra layers to the slightly more muted flavours of the pork and earthier beef. (I could only get the pork with lower fat content and wondered about using a small amount of lard in the oil. I don’t believe in size zero meats though my cardiologist would disagree, naturally). The small amount of pasta was enough although the coins could be made bigger for those who have toiled more vigorously in the garden. Overall, only a small portion was needed. The rest I froze for another time, and although I say so myself, I can’t wait.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Re-inventing the Dharmachakra

Catching up with some one you haven’t seen in years can be terrifying (if not aging!) Will there be awkward silences and painted smiles as I stare into my drink wondering what to say next? Will I find new and interestingly subtle ways of looking at my watch to see what time it is? Will someone please call so I can pretend it is an emergency for goodness sakes?!

This was not the case when I bumped into a former work colleague from a previous life quite by chance outside the tube in Chiswick and agreed to meet him for a drink. Catching up on old times and discussing future ambitions, the years were condensed into minutes and the ‘quick’ drink turned into a couple of hours. So relaxed was the evening that when I got home, I realised I had completely forgotten about food.

I fancied something spicy (steady on!) I had just had a couple of drinks and was in that spice and carbohydrates I-have-now-had-two-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore mood, so why not? A Thai or Indian curry to take away. Dial a number, make a choice, wait for a delivery. But for one person they can be too expensive and wasteful (something I really hate). Pizza also came to mind. Again, I could order one for delivery. A flabby, bog standard one where the flavour of the cardboard has seeped into the pizza base. But why waste the money?

And there in the corner of the kitchen was the Eureka moment. That sign. That message. That mug. The one with “Make do and mend” on the side. Someone somewhere was telling me something. And so, taken with the idea of some culinary austerity, I opened the fridge: chicken breast, an individual naan bread and some herbs. My face fell flat. Not really very much is it?

However, with other ingredients lying around, a bottle of Pinot Noir and a swig of Dutch Courage, I decided on a course of action. Ok, it is not original. And ok, someone has invariably done it before. But yes, even though it was my own variation, I had reinvented the wheel.

Makes 1:
1 naan bread
1 chicken breast
Curry paste
Onion
Tomato
Yoghurt (Garlic, Lemon, Coriander)
Passata
Mustard seeds
Fennel seeds
Chilli flakes
Oil

First, take the chicken, slice it and ‘marinade’ it in the curry paste, if you have more time then you can mix the yoghurt and curry paste together and let it sit for a few hours. My time was limited, so I mixed the garlic (purée for cheats) and lemon juice with some chopped coriander in a separate bowl.

Next, throw the seeds into a pan and heat until they start to turn. Remove and fry a sliced onion. Add the chilli flakes and the tomato, and reduce until thickened.

Fry the chicken in a separate pan. Spoon the tomato onion mix on the naan, and place in a heated oven about 5 minutes. Spoon on top of that the yoghurt (if separate) and then the chicken slices. Return for a couple of minutes and then scatter some coriander on top to garnish before serving.

Did it work?

I think so, in a I-have-now-had-three-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore way. There was flavour (woof! Thank God for liquid refreshment as I had rather overdone the spicy heat). Yes, there was flavour! The yoghurt thankfully, tempered the fire of the curry paste and the chilli heat in the tomatoes enough that you could taste the fennel, lemon, mustard seed and coriander. The naan could have been more crisp to stop it going a little soggy and the chicken would probably have been better mixed with the yoghurt so that it tenderised the meat, but that is for next time. Did it look ok? I forgot to take a picture but I can assure you that it was presentable (yes, in a I-have-now-had-four-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore way). The point was that it hit my cravings and kept me smiling from my catch up with H through the evening to my bed, or maybe that was the wine.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Piece of cod…

There is change in the air. Summer is moving to autumn and cooler winds mean jumpers and even jackets. Bows on the trees groan with the weight of apples that should have been picked. Morning mists hang static and damper nights draw in sooner.

Depressing? Not really. I love that time of year. The subtlest smell of smoke from bonfires burning the end-of-Summer pruning drifts in the air. Trees perhaps looking sad and naked, but their roots will be cloaked with piles of dry brittle leaves just ready for the kicking. But I am not ready for that just yet. In my defiantly Summery mood I am still wearing shorts (Ok, only indoors and with a jumper), eating salads, draining the last reserves of the rosé wine, and reading books that bring summer thoughts to the coolest and darkest corners of the house.

Even so, I want to cook something that reflects my contrary mood. I am leaning towards heartier ingredients to keep me warm, and, as I am recovering from the heaviest of ‘man flu’ colds, has a healthy element to it as well.

No matter how hard I try to avoid it though, thoughts of the Mediterranean tug me this way and that. Who can resist the idea of dishes of honeyed roasted quail with hints of cinnamon; courgettes with mint; saffroned rice or chillied couscous; brined Kalamata olives or soapy aromatic green Lucques; chicken or lamb perfumed by sweet herbs; grilled octopus flambéed in ouzo? So how do I satisfy this while being in the heart of the seasonally changing English countryside?

My answer lies in Aunt J’s larder and with a local business that specialises in mail order fish; The Fish Society (www.thefishsociety.co.uk). In a very English way but with a nod to the Middle Sea I have chosen to do Cod with tapenade crust (served with roasted tomatoes, new potatoes and spinach for the health and heartiness).

Salted cod has a wonderfully concentrated flavour, making it richer, creamier than the ordinary supermarket catch. Admittedly, it has to be soaked for ages (in a bowl under a dripping tap was a method suggested by my landlady in Seville) and I have made some mouth desiccating gaffes with it.

Tapenade has a naturally bitter and saline element coming from the capers, olives and anchovies. Usually used on crostini, bruschetti, or French equivalent, it is a versatile paste and should draw out the sweetness of the cod, seasoning it naturally. Richard Ehrlich from the Guardian says the word Tapenade comes from the Provençal word ‘tapeno’ meaning caper, and that traditionally it is only olive, caper and olive oil. I prefer the ‘full fat’ version using anchovy, garlic and lemon juice as well for added ‘beef’.

Cod with Tapenade crust

Large piece of cod (salt cod rinsed thoroughly, or plain cod)

Jar of Tapenade (I had a jar of olive paste and added a teaspoon of rinsed capers, a good squeeze of anchovy purée, garlic, tossed into the blender then added oil to loosen and a squeeze of lemon juice)

Plum tomatoes on the vine

New potatoes

Baby leaf spinach

Flat leaf parley for garnish

Massage the cod with olive oil, smear the top with the tapenade and place in a roasting dish. I parboiled some large new potatoes, sliced them into thick discs and placing them under the fish first. Oil the tomatoes keeping them on the vine, put them around the cod. Place in a heated oven for 20 minutes at 180C (this could vary depending on the size of the fish). Remove the fish and tomatoes to a warm plate, throw the spinach into the roasting dish and wilt in the oils.

Not one to pat myself on the back (Oh go on Lou), this works for me. The contrast between the green and red vegetables and the dramatic black on white of the fish and paste (similar in contrast to the Cristianos y Moros recipe of beans and rice) is pleasing to the eye. To the taste, the sourness of the tapenade contrasted well with the rich, meaty fish emphasising its natural sweetness. The pepper and citrus zing were well tempered by the potatoes (thank goodness I was feeling greedy!) and further helped by a bottle of chilled and summer and citrus fruit flavoured Torres rosé (congratulations to Miguel Torres on his wine award for life time achievement) to keep in the spirit of things.

In the end, summer is still in my soul for the short term and my thirst for sun will be thankfully sated by my holiday to Spain. Then, and only then, will I be ready for the autumn lull and the run up to Christmas (did I say that?!), coats, boots, fires and stews.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Some Flocky wocky doo dah

Sunday blues retreat into night, and Monday’s journey is always the longest of the week. I am not trying to state the obvious, though I am pretty close to it by saying, Monday’s are grim. This one, with its humid and overcast weather, more so. By five, there is a real need for comfort food and a tall glass of something strong.

The desire for meat accompanied by another for a rough red wine has tickled me all afternoon. I have had enough chicken over the past few days to sprout feathers and am not really minded to do a fish recipe, so I spent several minutes wandering around the supermarket trying to get inspiration before making my decision.

And then it comes, setting off my tastebuds on a white water saliva ride. Lamb! The pervasive perfume that comes from its cooking. The sweetness of flavour, so much kinder to the palate than the earthy grassiness of beef (although a good rib-eye on a bed of sautéed potatoes fried in beef dripping comes a close second). To go with this, a bed of velvety soft cannellini beans.

Shopping complete, I get changed, pour a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and put on mellow Monday blues from Sarah Vaughan, for mood music. I am ready for a night of ovinophilia (too clever by far Mr W!).

Lamb chops (or any cut)
Butter
Olive oil
Cannellini beans (tin)
Banana shallot finely chopped
Tomatoes (2 – skinned, deseeded and chopped)
Garlic (how much is enough?)
White wine (enough to deglaze)
Stock (just a spoon or two of light stock)
Oregano

In a frying pan, heat the butter and oil and fry the shallot in oil until translucent, and the tomato. Throw in the chopped garlic, stir a couple of times before adding the stock, then mix in the cannellini and a small knob of butter. Heat through ensuring the mix isn’t too sloppy.

In a separate pan at the same, heat some oil (and a knob of butter too if you wish). When it is hot enough, put in the lamb, frying until done depending on thickness and how pink you like it. Remove to a warm plate to sit for a bit while deglazing the pan with the wine. Loosen the cannellini mix with the deglazed meat juices, because it is unhealthy and you will enjoy it, and sprinkle with the chopped oregano.

To serve, make a bed of the cannellini on your warmed plate, place the pieces of lamb on top with a garnish of left over oregano.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Louis' Lemony Snackette

I had returned from a saucy weekend in Oxfordshire and had not done any shopping. ‘C’ left me suitably smirking all the way back home with her flirtatious antics in the way that you know you had fun, and in my dreamy gormless state I just ambled to the flat and to an empty cupboard without thinking about food.

So picture this: the cupboard is bare, the flat is bare, there is practically an echo as I carry my bags inside and there is little to eat other than random leftovers. So I am left with the question: what do you do with a wilting breast? I am, of course, talking about the plaintive chicken breast sitting on a plate staring back at me from under the condensation covered sheet of cling film, looking like the Janet Leigh in Psycho before the chop, and just begging to be used.

Delving deeper, in other words closing my eyes and fumbling around the back of a cupboard that is clearly designed for taller people, I discover a few ingredients that mean I can embark on a variation to a theme: lemon chicken with an Italian twist (well I say Italian but others are bound to disagree).

The practicalities of arriving (unpacking, changing, laundry, etc) completed, I decide to set the mood. Stan Getz is humming his Bossa Nova beat and the wine is chilled and open (a Pugliese Giardini Falanghina from Sainsbury’s with citrus notes and some creamy elements from sitting on its lees, which should match the lemon zestiness that I am aiming for in the food) as I ready myself for chopping and frying. Everything is laid out in anticipation of a peppery, spicy chicken with a sharp, bittersweet taste tempered by a butter creaminess. So what did I find?

Chicken breast (sliced or cubed)
Onion
Celery stick
Garlic
Unwaxed lemon (zested and juiced)
Chilli flakes
Wine
Oil
Butter
Salt and pepper
Rocket or baby leaf spinach
Spaghetti or similar pasta.

Finely chop the onion and celery and fry slowly in oil until translucent. Next put the chicken pieces into the pan and fry them until they have just lost their rawness. Season as appropriate. Next add a glass of wine (keep a second glass for yourself) and bring the heat up until it starts bubbling. Reduce this down so that most of it has evaporated. As this is happening throw in the lemon zest, garlic and chilli. Finally, turn down the heat, throw in the lemon juice and a knob of butter and let the sauce thicken to a more syrupy texture. Before serving, add the rocket (or in my case a half dead pack of baby leaf spinach) and stir in to wilt it slightly.

I think I would have preferred rocket as it doesn’t wilt so dramatically and has a better peppery flavour. I also wondered if polenta, the second handful from my blind attempt to reach into the cupboard, would have worked, but discarded that idea. In the end, the question is: Did I like it? I was hungry and there was nothing in, I had no choice... of course I liked it! Could I make a few tweaks? In my smirking, trance like state? I doubt it.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A surprise or two on the South Bank...

I really enjoy food fairs and end up spending hours like an observer at an art gallery, just staring and taking it all in; sights, smells and bustle, hence my interest in attending The Real Food Festival last weekend at the Southbank Centre. Even so, I have to admit to being a shade disappointed. Not that it is not a good idea (it is a great idea). Nor that I was expecting an Earls Court sized event or anything like it, rather that it was not that remarkable; a bit samey and a bit formulaic. Should I have expected a WOW factor?

Having said that, two stalls more than the others did grab my attention. Small treats sticking out like a treasure chest in the sand: Merry Widows wines and Tea Together.

What do I know about Austrian wines? Well very little honestly, apart from the obvious Grüner veltliner variety, and it has been a long time since I did my exams. However, Linn Rothstein, owner of Merry Widows Wines persuaded me to give her selection of wines a try and revive my much battered memory.

As her website suggests, she specialises in Austrian wines (one particular size, the 250ml bottles is cannily aimed at accompanying the Delia Smith ‘one is fun’ or light bite type meals and comes with crown caps. Why open a full bottle when you only need a glass or two?) As I was travelling what better way to sample than with the twin pack of rosé and white 250mls at £7? Sadly for Linn, my tasting ability on a hot crowded train with plastic cups couldn’t give the wines justice. But here goes:

The first wine I tried was the Neusiedlersee Qualitätswein Cuvee 11, Austria (12.5%). The colour was pale golden yellow. This being poured into an off grey-blue plastic cup in my confined space as the train waited for its signal. No obvious greenness, just an initial impression of fresh light colour.

Swilling it around (not that I needed to much since the jostling of the commuters and the jolting of the train beginning to move - Oh stop complaining Lou!), the rich honeyed citrus fruits aromas are evident. Hints of liquorice woodiness, mustiness and the lightest of rubber also give the fruitiness a mellow more fuzzy edge.

This is a combination of Grüner veltliner, sauvignon blanc, welschriesling (neither Welsh nor Riesling) and chardonnay; sharper citrus and floral elements melded with honey and butteryness. Given the nature of the soils in the area: loess, black earth, sediment and sand, this is wine really reflects its surroundings.

On the palate, there is an off-dry rich vanilla and honey on citrus. Imagine candied lemon with honey drizzled on it and you are not far off. Honeydew melon (and melon rind or papaya giving it that slightly muted edge) and prickly petillance give this white a really summer drink quality. Flint and mineral finishes take any potential for cloyingness away. A long acid finish brings the tasting of this one to a mouth watering close.

The next wine was the Neusiedlersee Spätlese Pinot Noir Rosé, Austria (12%), rich and ruby red in colour and dark as a stained glass window. Pouring it into the previously described cup, shaking everywhere as the train rocked south from Waterloo, my initial comment was ‘liquid strawberry jam’.

Swirling it around to get a sense of what to expect on the palate, I carefully sniffed. Scents of damsons and strawberries with notes of honey and vanilla give it a rich, jammy quality, as well as a slightly woody bottom note. This wine is so ‘thick’ in scent that I imagine if this were not wine, I would look like a kid from a children’s party before a parent had wiped my jam covered mouth.

Tasting it; the initial hit on the tongue is a naturally rich off-dry sensation. As with the aroma, there is a jam quality. Strawberries and cream, honey infusions and a slight element of plum. There is more jam than cream and my wine did need to be cooler to balance that. Hints of wood and pip and a flintiness balance and round off this wine. A long satisfying finish. The concentration of flavour is not reflected in the strength of the wine at 12% which is a bonus.

On a personal level, this wine lends itself to Autumn more than high summer being fuller and richer; images of warm days and cooler nights, fires starting to be lit and jumpers on standby, an excellent stepping stone to the full hearty winter reds to come. Then again, the hundred or so commuters listening to me and Aunt J discussing this in the carriage may have disagreed!

A jam is just a jam isn’t it? Not quite. (Until I tried Raspberry and Ouzo jam by Nikos Papayiannides of Lesbos, when in Greece, jams were just a function of breakfast). The flavour combinations of Tea Together show that this really isn’t the case, and after the rather shaky evening on the train, the tranquillity of the countryside, the brilliant morning sunshine and the wafts of bread turning to toast made it the perfect moment to try my presentation box of jams from Tea Together (£6).

What made Tea Together stand out at the Real Food Festival was not only their sheer variety of 40 or more jams, marmalades and pickles, but also their attention to detail in the presentation of them; the turning of something simple into something desirable. Neat cardboard gift boxes in Provençal blue with burgundy stripes (the headquarters of this boutique business is in the Côte Opale, near Le Touquet, so I should really say opal blue) in which sit four small jars, numbered to denote the recipes and flavours: two marmalades and two jams, all seasonal and from organic produce.

Toast popping out, the first jar I selected was, No.15, a summer pudding jam infused with a vanilla pod: the colour was a vibrant purple-red rich cassis jelly, tasting as good as it looked. Rich berry with a slightly mellow velvet vanilla finish coming from the vanilla mostly blackberry and blackcurrant in flavour.

Next I chose No.33. This does sound more like the blending lab at Chanel but given their already stellar clientele list (Dorchester, Claridges, The Berkeley, to name a few) it is slightly forgivable. Tinged with garnet and slightly more runny than the previous jam due to not using pectin, so I was told, this was plain strawberry. Really? Actually, no. This was full rich strawberry compote flavour with a creamy almost cream cheese aftertaste; so wonderfully smooth.

Of the next jars, both marmalades, No.10, was less satisfying, however that was my fault. Toast out, I put a teaspoon on the yeasty warm bread (organic white if you need to know), a small dollop of No.10 and in I dived. A pale orange pink jelly made me anticipate a sweet and sour sensation. Not at all. Whooshes of sharp lemons and an almost similar quality to those of Moroccan preserved lemons, the sweetness of the sugar contrasts with the sourness of the lemon and hints of blackcurrants and there is an almost gingery zing to this (they do a lemon and ginger variety No.31). My mistake was not introducing some butter which would have brought out more sweetness and tempered the lemon zing. However, it really brought my taste buds to life and woke me up!

Finally, their classic marmalade, the No.1; classic in every way and one of the best I have tasted. Golden orangey yellow and set to perfection. Wonderfully gentle orange flavour with thin cut slices of peel. A soft pithy element gave it the mellow aftertaste, light and cleansing, so very cleansing on the palate. (Honestly, I could burst into a rendition of ‘Morning has broken’. Best not though)

Such pleasant surprises such as Merry Widows Wines and Tea Together make the experience of the Real Food Festival worth attending and I really look forward to seeing them again as well as discovering similar producers at the next fair.

http://www.merrywidowswine.com/
http://www.teatogether.com/

(For further information about the festival, and for those curious about Greek jams and sauces, go to: http://www.realfoodfestival.co.uk/ and http://www.papayiannides.gr/ ).

Monday, 10 May 2010

A Regency feast, fit for a party prince...

It is not unfamiliar, waking up on a sofa bed in a strange room wondering what hit you, and then remember drop by painful drop, the night before. Difficulty swallowing that comes from the dry mouth and the knowledge the body is working from the beat, beat, beat of the thumping head; the sore stomach, puffy eyes and morning stubble (and, no, I didn’t need to reach out to check if I was alone!) There is only one way to overcome such feelings of shame and self loathing: a full English fry-up.

Is it the atmospheric buzz of a café that brings an element of life into the protesting body? The combination of noisy chatter, kitchen clashes and cooking smells? The sweet meaty scent of frying bacon, the warming yeasty aromas of bread slowly browning under the grill, the crackling sounds of the sizzling eggs? A ‘morning after’ fry-up cannot truly be called breakfast without all this.

One place that provides all this is the Regency Café. Tucked away off Horseferry Road, it is the traditional haunt of taxi drivers, builders, Channel 4 media types, and countless civil servants, made more famous by appearing in advertisements and television dramas. Hard hats and i-phones, boiler suits and puffas, Regency Café is one of the best so called ‘greasy spoons’ you will find in town.

From the street, the booming voice of the owner’s banter can be heard in the street. (Repeated calls for ‘breakfast with chips twice!’ followed by ‘Oi! Darlin’! Do you want me to fax it to you?’ a clue to some of the weekend clientele, though always said with a smile and a wink, gives an idea that breakfast is already in full swing). Inside, it is like a set from the swinging sixties, tables with wicker effect Formica and walls covered in photos of grateful celebrities (I sat next to a signed photo of Al Pacino). Always busy, always popular and more importantly spotlessly clean, army fashion.

So, what can you say about the food? Well it is a fully fried English Breakfast, Do I need to say more? Well yes. The sausages at Regency were really tasty, slightly herby, plump and juicy, and well cooked. The black pudding was also good, black to aubergine dark coloured slices of velvety sausage with flecks of oat in, giving a textural contrast to the smooth centre (thankfully, this variety did not have the white lumps of fat that some black puddings have). The eggs fried and yolks runny enough to dip the toast in. Beans are beans and hash browns generous in size but obviously not home made (well it is not the Ritz now is it!?) Sadly the bacon was a little over cooked for me, though previous experience tells me that this was an exception. I shared a pint of orange with my friend, the only healthy part of my breakfast. And of course, what would the morning fry-up be without the tea? Strong and orange brown in colour, served in a mug and piping hot. It would put hairs on your chest, as the expression goes, if I hadn’t enough of my own already. A filling, fully satisfying meal and excellent value for under ten pounds (waxing not included).

Regency Café, 17-19 Regency Street, London SW1P 4BY
T: 020 7821 6596‎

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A bit of a fiasco...

You know when some programmes don’t work? They just aren’t that funny but the canned laughter makes you think that you should laugh? Or films where they throw in every plot line taking it from implausible to downright surreal? Like those mobile phone ads, some executive types have an idea in the boardroom and everyone throws in their two-penneth’s worth leading to complete lack of focus. The same applies to restaurants in a group.

A night for catching up in an old haunt in Covent Garden followed by a cheap meal and a chance to try something new brought me and my brother Ben , and our guests to Kitchen Italia.

There have been many businesses at this location since the cellar housed the Freedom Brewery (I used to really like their IPA, but I am a wine drinker... what do I know?). Always bustling and lively. Tonight though, it was empty save for a table of foreign students. Empty, quiet and very, very large. In fact, apart from the smiling staff it was rather soul-less!

Deciding to keep the evening light, we started with bread, olives and pizza nibbles, and then order a main and maybe a pudding for the sweeter toothed, wine (noticing that it was by the carafe rather than an option of glass, carafe or bottle, and at what mark up?) and endless water. At this point I noted that the menu issue is November 2009 which says that they should consider an update!

Bellinis were suggested while we thought about our orders. It was written down as a “White Peach Bellini” (now to be pedantic, is there any other kind? When Arrigo Cipriani invented it at Harry’s Bar all those years ago it was the Bellini rather than as something that implied variety). Peachy, yes, but a bit flat due to the amount of the juice.

“Focaccia with Extra virgin olive oil” for Ben and his beau. Bready rather than golden, moist and spongy, and a bit dry. However, being surrounded by bottles of olive oil, from the shelves around the restaurant to the trough in the table, there was opportunity enough to rectify this. (And what a choice: natural, garlic, chilli, herby, dopey, sneezy, etc… Ok I’m being silly now). Links on the website tell you that their oils are from Marfuga a fattoria in Umbria that has a picture of the owner and his wife that reminded me very much of the photograph on the box of the seventies game Mastermind, with the gorgeous Eurasian lady and the sleazy Mafia don.

I thought that F and I would go for the garlic, parsley and butter pizza would be a lighter alternative (well she and I both have our figures to think about). The thought of a warm slightly crusty flavoured base, oozing garlicky and herby oils and made richer by the butter, the kind that you need a few napkins to clean your hands and mouth; peppery herbs and the slightest dusting of flour, all combined to make an effective but simple starter. But we agreed that this was floury and cardboardy, scratchy and tasteless. Like the atmosphere, rather lifeless. There was no evident richness from the butter and the herbs looked dried. (I didn’t get to the olives as they had already been consumed at the other end of the rather large table).

The main courses arrived surprisingly quickly, Mafaldine (pasta ribbons with crinkly edges to you and me) with spicy sausage, two of those. Tagliolini with black truffles and Gnocchi with peas, mint and Gorgonzola.

Generous crumblings of spiced sausage meat kept moist by a rich tomato sauce and perfumed from the fennel was not to be. The pasta, a good sized helping, fennel flavoured and peppery, lacked evidence of the spicy sausage which was hidden by breadcrumbs and sauce. It looked like it had been baked, the tomato sauce was dried out, like a red version of sea weed clinging to hot rocks. Was it the service counters lights? And why would that be when the mains arrived quickly?

F wanted the truffle on tagliolini with a light mushroom cream sauce, as she felt it sounded filling and rich. Mushrooms sliced, fried with garlic and herbs, tossed into the pasta, and given lightness of colour and mellowness of flavour from a modest amount of cream, speckled on top like caviar, the black truffle and some pepper. A sweetness of mushrooms, sourness of spicy pepper, nebulous perfumed truffle filling the mouth, all tempered by the cream. Tempting isn’t it?

Where was the mushroom cream sauce that F imagined clinging to the strands of pasta and speckled with pepper and truffle (or was that the description of the colour?) Modest amounts of cream? This was virginal! The truffle itself tasted of wood; chewed pencil. No ethereal perfume, no comforting creamy richness. Nothing. Again, a rather unenthusiastic experience for F.

So to me. My plate was altogether different. Well it was gnocchi not pasta, so bound to be. I always remember watching cookery programmes where they said that gnocchi is not difficult to make but easy to mess up.

A plate of several quail egg sized gnocchi, cloud-light to the bite and maybe flecked with a little herb (maybe not), tossed in a creamy sauce, lightly spiced from the green vein of the Gorgonzola, the richness cut through by the pea and the hint of mint that brings down the pea’s sharp greenness.

Well, the creamy sauce was indeed creamy, with a light touch of Gorgonzola. Although too much cream for me, there was some balance. A few peas, not very many, and a subtle hint of mint gave the sauce a bit of freshness, preventing it from being sickly. The dumplings themselves had some lightness to the initial bite but were more marshmallow in texture. I was still pulling it off my teeth at the end of the meal.

So what went wrong? Well as I said, this smacks of a group of executives wanting this to be everything to everyone without really focusing on what that ‘everyone’ is. Who are they trying to compete with, Carluccio’s or Wagamama’s (if the latter then they have missed the point of Italian eating, surely)? In this case, the group of executives is from a company called Sweet Potato, an investment company that operates several brands including, rather surprisingly, Villandry and Villandry Kitchen, both of which are quite successful and the latter, in Chiswick, I have already covered in a previous post.

Overall, aside from the friendly and attentive staff, we were left with a cavernous sense of disappointment, as lifeless and empty as the restaurant itself.

Kitchen Italia 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX T 020 7632 9500 E earlhamstreet@kitchen-italia.com

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Resistance is futile...

Silent and clear spring skies, thanks to Iceland’s volcano, made this particular Friday even harder than usual to resist escaping the chains of wage slavery early. So I pushed the ‘off’ button on my computer, told my work colleagues what I thought of them (I didn’t actually, but one day... one day!!) and headed down to Borough Market to get some gastronomic inspiration, purchase a bottle or two of wine, and meet with a few fellow bloggers and tweeters.

Coffee fuelled chatter between @Tehbus, @gingergourmand, @KaveyF and me, in the ever bustling Monmouth Coffee shop, came to a conclusion when we decided to go next door to Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Where the outside was noisy, busy and colourful, with it’s Victorian terrace of tea coloured bricks (where’s the bunting?) and glossy paint touches, the interior was spacious, cool and white walled; hallowed even. Hints of dampness barely noticeable against the strong aromas circulated around the shop; temptations of hard, soft and cream cheeses piled up on counters, slatted shelves or in tubs, lured the customer to purchase. This was the perfect environment for a cheese lover; pieces of heaven, rind coated and wrapped in waxed paper.

I held back, merely happy to watch Kavey’s love and knowledge of cheese in action. My hands remained firmly in my pockets refusing to open the floodgates of purchasing (the principle being that one purchase leads to an avalanche of useless purchases and eventually to an empty wallet and a red face). And I did hold back. I resisted, I really did. However, in the street by the entrance to the shop, they had pitched a stall of their top sellers. And that is when it happened. Like Kavey’s Stichelton, I crumbled in front of everyone, and bought the cutest little ‘handbag-dog’ of a cheese: Milleen.

So how does one go about describing this pocket of joy? This modest purchase, this tan and mud coloured roundel of about 4 inches in diameter; soft-skinned rind speckled with mould and the criss-crosses where it had been resting? How indeed?

Made from pasteurised cow’s milk and traditional animal rennet, it is washed in water. The humidity and proximity to the coast (Eyeries, Co. Cork) does the rest, creating the perfect environment for the soft cheeses the Steele family produce, according to the Neal’s Yard.

Released, at home, onto a wooden board, the kitchen filled with high smells of cabbage, earthy muddy aromas, straw and a hint of, well, wee actually. Yes, I said ‘wee’ (did they really only wash the skin in water?!) Clashing with the strong aromas of a simple roast chicken I could barely smell the wine that I had also bought at the market (a post on that later). Having been wrapped in waxed paper, in a bag that sat in my rucksack, it was clear why I nearly had the carriage of the train to myself.

Cutting into this cheese was almost ritualistic; silence and awe (helped by a candle lit room). Barely resistant skin gave way to a light cream soft centre. Salty sweetness on the tongue, made rich and luscious by a creamy egg yolk quality. This gave way to a slight graininess (that possibly meant it should have been brought out earlier), contrasting with the grassy elements of the rind, toffee cloyingness to the teeth and long lasting flavour.

Ignoring any bread, I went hell for leather with the Milleen and the (almost) matched glass of wine. And so it went. Gone. Disappeared. A mere will-o’-the-wisp of a cheese, or maybe I was really just plain greedy. However, sated, I was glad I only fell for the one cheese.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, Borough Market, 6 Park Street LONDON SE1 9AB
T (0)20 7367 0799 E boroughshop@nealsyarddairy.co.uk

Monday, 5 April 2010

Woodbine’s Good Friday Fish Pie Experiment

An abortive attempt to booze cruise my way through Norman France left me with an empty fridge and the question of what to eat. I should have been sitting in front of a mouth wateringly hot and cheesy galette, maybe with some added local ham, tan in colour and grainy in texture and served with sparkling locally made cider in an earthenware tea cup; bubbles complimenting the grainy crepe.

However, the sea was too choppy for the ferry (a catamaran style, hence it not running) and I returned with an unchecked shopping list and a bag empty of duty free delights and French produce.

The fact that Waitrose had an offer on their fish pie mix had nothing to do with it, not at all. I had the spring of the Easter bunny, the joys of Easter, the inspiration of the old tradition of fish on Friday, and what better day than Good Friday? I decided to tackle my very first Fish Pie (no, it really is my first time) and see how it goes.

My mouth was watering for flakes of pearlescent white fish, pink sweet prawns, rich salmon flavours and hints of smoke from the haddock; elements of spring from the fresh, green petit pois, contrasting sharply with velvety egg yolks, peppery parsley and the slightly salty creamy fish sauce. Sliced potatoes layered fish scale style on top to complete the picture. Hang on... sliced potato? Well, yes. I want my pie’s topping to reflect the contents. (I have sighed at several recipes by the great and good who have mashed their potatoes. Is it just me?)

The mixed bag consisted of ivory white fish (Coley? I forgot to ask), bright golden smoked haddock, glistening salmon chunks in orange-red hues, and from the freezer, pale pink prawns, petit pois, and a further sliver of salmon asking to be used up. The rest came from a raid on the cupboards.

So off we go:

1lb of mixed fish
250g prawns (defrosted)
150g frozen petit pois (defrosted)
1 scallion shallot (banana shallot)
3 eggs hard boiled and quartered lengthways

1 bay leaf
500ml fish stock
250ml white wine
250ml double cream
2 egg yolks
Juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper for seasoning

1lb potatoes (maybe a bit less) sliced to about ½ centimetre thickness.
Parsley
Butter

Mince the shallot and place in the bottom of a pan with the wine and bay leaf, boil for a few minutes then add the fish stock. To the liquid add the cut up pieces of fish and poach for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in separate jug, mix the egg yolks and cream together with the lemon juice, and season. Drain the fish, returning the stock to the pan, and place in a deep sided gratin dish which has been buttered. The sauce is made by spooning about 2 tablespoons of the hot stock into the cream mix, then pouring the cream into the pan of hot stock, whisking constantly. This needs to boil until it is reduced to a double cream consistency (do not be afraid to let it really bubble).

To the gratin dish of fish pieces, add the prawns, peas, some parsley the hard boiled eggs, mixing carefully. Pour over the thickened sauce and then place the potato slices on top (some will sink but it should settle) in a scale style.

Place the dish on a baking tray to avoid the sauce bubbling over and bake at 180c for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are done. Serve with a sprinkle of parsley and some lemon wedges.

So how did I fare? Well, not a bad first attempt, even though I say so myself. Any thoughts or tweaks? The sauce could have benefited from further reduction, and I only used half a lemon. It did have good flavour thanks to the stock and the egg cream thickening (rather than the cloying effect a roux can give). However, if there had not been smoked haddock in the mix, I might have thrown in a tiny frond of tarragon, a mellow aniseedy contrast to the lemony zing. I might have added a sharp saline kick of smoked bacon. There could have been potential to add anchovy essence, the sharp briney fishiness working well with the boiled eggs...if, if, if... If I had done that, perhaps I would be moving from fish pie to lily gilding.

A bit of a tart...

Having made a mess in Aunt J’s kitchen with my Good Friday fish pie experiment, she, with the patience of a saint, then took me to where she stores the wine to see what was on offer. Chardonnay came to mind; lemon zing and light oak complementing the smoked fish and the lemon juice that had been thrown into the pie. However, the answer lay in the word “experiment” and, as with the pie, so with the wine, with a bottle of Domaine Ventenac, Vin De Pays Cotes de Lastours, 2008, Chenin Colombard 12% (Waitrose, £6.99). Oh dear, oh very dear.

Pouring the wine into our glasses, the colour was a light straw colour, very pale. Lifting it up to a white background it was possible to make out the green tinges of the wine, giving hints to what was to come on the palate. My glass was a little too dish-washer worn to notice any legs but the rim was as clear as the wine itself.

Putting my nose into the glass and trying to avoid the pervasive smell of fish that was wafting around the house, there were light floral hints and appley greenness; citrus, some pears, and an apricot honey that gave it a light almost sugary quality. However, it was very green.

What hit the mouth initially was the instant gooseberry and sharp mineral flint sourness; an insanely mouth puckering acidity of Granny smith apples and quince tartness (potentially from the additional Gros Manseng in the blend, though this is only meant to be about 10%). Redeeming this slightly was the vague honeyness from the Chenin, a honey and lemon lozenge; lemon pith; grass and herbaceousness; metallic pencil-lead flintiness. The creamy element had an almost, and I feel strange sharing this with you, raw and beaten egg white flavour before sugar has been added. Think meringues with a hint of lemon (I use lemon, some people use vinegar, a technique I picked up from Arrigo Cipriani’s “Harry’s Bar Cook Book”).

Leaving the glass to rest further in the hope that the woody, bitter herb after taste would lift, and the floral and honeyed qualities of the Chenin would come to the fore, my mind wanders to the wild and rocky garrigue of Lastours, only tamed by the vineyards of Alain Maurel’s winery, as the website would have you imagine. This, of course is slightly fantastic as Domaine Ventenac sits in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the same ones as St. Jean de Minervois and St. Chinian though about 50km further west. But we are 10km north of the very dramatic Carcassonne the medieval town rebuilt by Viollet le Duc and star back drop of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so the fantastic allusions should remain.

Given the vines grow in a good draining mix of crumbly white calcium soil with an underlying magnesium loam (both of which would explain the flintiness of the wine) and some clay (preventing the grapes drying out completely), there is little danger of producing flabby wines. Strong Mediterranean winds from the south and cooler breezes from the Massif Central in the north give the vines plenty of air, avoiding the mildew that the Colombard is prone to.

Returning to the glass, there is a faint mead-like quality of honey on the nose. After a while some of the edge has gone giving over to the nicer honey subtlety, this is followed by the fruity citrus follow up... high, high high acidity. Puckering sharpness returns but less dramatic than before. It has lost its bitter herb quality. The long, long, very long finish is of riper apples but definitely Granny Smith rears her aged head here in this young wine. Still got that mouth-watering long finish some minutes on.

What amazes me is the disappointing combination of these grapes, bottled up to sound like something a bit ‘classy’ (to use a term). Chenin, a native to the Loire, gets full honeyed dried apricot flavours and aromas in warmer climes such as the obvious South Africa. Here, in the Languedoc, where the climate is much warmer and drier than the Loire, this wine is high in acidy and very little else. The honeyed apricots are trampled on by limes, quince, bitter apples and flint. Mix this with the neutral crisp sharpness of Colombard, a grape used mainly in the production of Cognac a little further west, throw in a touch of Gros Manseng (I admit having to look that one up!), and this is the result: disappointment.

Overall, my thoughts about sipping a gentle creamy and slightly buttered chardonnay still remain (though I am no great wine matcher). The label on this wine bottle says it is perfect with seafood and shellfish; however, it is too flinty and acidic, and would destroy any subtle sweetness that you get with a scallop or a prawn (or whatever). This would be great with a lemon tart, clearly because it is lemon pith and it is very tart. Whilst it did mellow, I wouldn’t want to have this again (not even with a lemon tart). For me there is no rounded edge, no honeyed apricots and no creaminess.

Adding some camp to Campari...

I have to admit, the end of Lent gets me itchy and excited. My enforced teetotal abstinence is coming to an end (I feel that if I am entitled to a holiday, why shouldn’t my liver!?) and I crave the most knockout of drinks rather than a simple glass of wine; gins, vodkas, light coloured spirits, Negroni Sbagliatos. Negroni Sbagliatos? Ok, so not an obvious choice.

Down the dark, narrow streets, firmly in the Centro Storico of Rome, minutes from the Piazza Navona and close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge and Pantheon, is a buzzing bar, heaving with all sorts of Romans and tourists: Antico Caffe della Pace. It was here I tried my first real Negroni, and here also, that I discovered its slightly more fey but infinitely more enjoyable sister, the Sbagliato.

The Negroni, according to the cocktail books of old, is 1/3 Cinzano Rosso, 1/3 Campari and 1/3 gin, served in a shot glass with ice and a twist of lemon peel; bitter herbs from the Campari (the drink of the Romans) mix with nutty gin and the sweeter lifting vermouth of Cinzano Rosso. The lemon peel continuing to bridge the bitter elements, the ice punching through the heavy elements of the liquors.

Where the Sbagliato differs is the lack of gin, instead using Prosecco. More frivolous, more drinkable and less likely to make you keel over mid conversation. Served in a longer glass, the same measures apply for the Campari and the Cinzano Rosso, pour the blend over the ice and then top up the glass with Prosecco. Finally, add a full, fat, round slice of orange not a peel of lemon. Lighter in flavour the bitter herbs are sweetened by the lemon and apple elements of the sparkling wine. Complementing this is the orange slice which again serves to bring the herbs and bitterness together with the sweeter vermouth elements and, of course, the light fruits of the wine.

Salivatingly satisfying, hugely restorative and better than chocolate... well almost... Happy Easter.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Sustenance and sustainability...(not a Jane Austin sequel)

Moonlight glistened on dark water and the reflection of light sparkled, adding a dreamy quality. Dreamy? Isn’t this Newcastle? Well, er, yes. Between the Millennium Bridge and the wonderfully monolithic wrought iron Tyne Bridge, that makes Newcastle’s landscape famous; along the quayside, with Baltic, the brutalist art museum, and Norman Foster’s undulating curves of the Sage (Newcastle’s equivalent to the Sydney Opera House, according to the taxi driver), in the new heart of Newcastle, lies one of the City’s prize assets.

Café 21 is the inspiration of Terry Laybourne, author of the cook book Quest for Taste, and the first chef to bring a Michelin star to the North East. Although the Café's aim is for informality, the initial impression, from the sleek bar, dark wood surfaces, dimmed lights and hushed tones of the diners (through enjoyment, I should add), is of formality and this is reflected in the menu, bringing together classic European dishes and English food, most of which is locally sourced from artisan producers.

A combination of work and a chaotic journey north had darkened my mood. It was late and I was tired and cranky, so I felt disappointed that I didn’t have time to indulge in a couple of dishes or more. I settled, though, on the one dish that could ease my mood and hit all my bases at once; the North Country Hot Pot (well I am in the North!) with ham knuckle smoked sausage pork belly and lentils. Pork, pork and smoked pork! (Did I mention the pork?)

Brought to the table in a cocotte big enough for two but with a perfectly portioned plate for one. A cloud of steam released the sweet smell of meat and muted woody aroma of lentils as the lid was lifted.

Succulent hock from Middlewhite pigs, boned and slow cooked, pulling apart to the touch of the fork, and with biting-into-velvet softness. Adding to the richness of flavour, a generously thick slice of salted pork belly, stripes of pink meat and full flavoured off-white fat. Smoked Morteau sausage from Lyon, thick cut discs, finished the combination of meat flavours, spongily resistant and gently smoked; sweetness, smoke and savoury. Smooth textured lentils cooked in ham stock formed the luxuriant base to which fibrously crunchy French beans, wilted baby leaks and green leaves, chateau-cut carrots and potatoes, were added. Fully satisfying and just right, so sad it had to end so quickly.

Back to the dreamy quality of Newcastle, and the palate of colours, sights and sensations in my mind as I drift off to sleep with a smile painted on my face. I am looking forward to going back.

Café 21, Trinity Gardens, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2HH T: 0191 222 0755 www.cafetwentyone.com

Sunday, 21 March 2010

You can’t always get what you want...


As Julie Christie might have said in the film Darling, “Chelsea is so gay” (well not in the modern sense of the word, but then again, I was surrounded by interior designers and arty folk so who knows?) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Instantly trendy places come and go like shooting stars, and older ones from the time of Darling exist but never adapt. And, two minutes walk from the King’s Road is such an establishment.

Pellicano sits behind the lumbering blocks of flats on Sloane Avenue, and is frequented by the transient clients staying there or local people. Although it had a modern feel it was still very old fashioned. So it was with a certain apprehension that, dressed to pull and surrounded by the arty and interesting crowd, I accepted a glass of light and apple and lemony Prosecco and joined in the revelry. But that was where the problems began.

I was hungry, very hungry, so I decided on a starter of Tagliatelli with Rabbit; visions of creamy yellow tagliatelli contrasting with pale pink fleshed rabbit and flecks of maybe, parsley or thyme. However, reality kicked in the moment it arrived.

This was a rather hearty portion for a starter (serves me right, I guess), and my vision of pale yellow pasta and meaty ragu was distracted by a rather mean desert spoon serving of shredded and cheesy rabbit meat placed in the centre on top. The pasta itself while glistening was slightly over-cooked.

Over-cooked? Well that might be a bit harsh, but I wonder; were they catering for an English palate or were they too busy to cope? Either way, it is meant to be the genuine Italian article. Regardless, it was just a little too soft. Not al dente enough. (I once went to a place near the Vatican that served pasta so al dente that I wondered if water had actually been applied. But I digress).

I guessed that this was farmed rabbit, rather than a fuller flavoured wild rabbit, as it didn’t have that slightly woody, gamier quality that I thought it should have (it has been a while since I last had rabbit so please correct me if I am wrong), and it is the end of the hunting season. Drowned by the flavour and made slightly greasy by the cheese, it tasted more like the meat in a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup, so a desert spoon was more than enough. I was left with an acrid after- taste and the desire to dive into a glass of the red wine staring back at me in a wanton manner.

My main course Quail with Fennel and Pancetta on Polenta. Again, I imagined pancetta wrapped roasted birds on a bed of golden polenta. This was close, presented with Italian panache and looking quite appealing, there were two pretty, boned, roasted-to-a-chestnut colour quail nestling in soft, creamy mash and surrounded by a rich meat jus; two bronzed bathers on a golden atoll surrounded by a dark sea; parmesan and sweet saline smells from the polenta and pancetta. Ah, but again, what met the eye failed to meet the expectations of the mouth and mind.

The quails were stuffed with the fennel and pancetta giving them a plump cuteness and keeping them moist. Sadly, however, the overwhelming flavour was of pancetta; pancetta, pancetta, pancetta. The subtlest hint of aniseed and the tiniest meaty taste of the quail struggled to rise above the bacon. Nor were they helped by the not-so-subtle parmesan in the polenta, nor the jus. Keeping with the sixties film quotes, Michael Caine’s “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” cry to his bomb expert for a more subtle approach to cracking a nut comes to mind, the complete lack of balance in flavours and excessive use of bacon was equally heavy handed.

Will I go back? Let’s put it this way, the only things that came out tops were the prosecco and the postcard that came with the bill.

Pellicano, 19-21 Elystan Street, London SW3 3NT

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The pleasure of Polpo..


Polpo is a busy and bustling Venetian style ‘bacaro’ in Soho, which serves light plates of regional food and wine, and was once home to the painter Canaletto. Having read so many excellent reviews and, on a few occasions, pressed my nose to the window like a Victorian waif to peer inside, I leapt at the invitation by @R_McCormack and @Tehbus to go for lunch.

Arriving fashionably late (I now realise what that term means… London Transport!) I was greeted by Russell, he of Polpo and @polposoho, who took me down toward the back bar and offered me a drink as I met my fellow tweeters. What was so good about the whole experience (apart from the food Russell, apart from the food) was the feeling that we were just picking up a thread of conversation, as if we had known one another for years and could go on talking until the sun went down; a real treat.

So what did we eat? Let’s start with the appetisers we shared: Two perfectly formed mouth sized balls of Arancini served skewered on a long cocktail stick. Golden crispy coated rice mixed with cheese that pulled away in chewing-gum fashion as it was bitten in half. Crunchy skinned fondue soft centred balls, given texture by the rice; richness and lightness.

White moussed puffs of creamy salt cod, a nebulously light taste of fish on a golden disc of polenta; softness, lightness, fishiness atop the gently resistant-to-the-bite grilled polenta. I should say salted cod, because of the difficulty in shipping in salt cod from Italy. Either way, the chefs have worked on interpreting and translating day-to-day cod into the salt cod before us; clever stuff.

The non-fish eating member of our table allowed me to dive into the salt cod (why does “swim with the fishes” come to mind? This is London, not the Bronx) in exchange for the prosciutto and mozzarella.

Round 2 (Now I have the theme to Rocky in my head), the plates. I don’t normally get excited about Fritto Misto. I guess it is because it seems like an easy option rather than going for something more creative, more unusual; different. However, I am glad it was chosen. I really enjoyed the sunshine yellow, lightness of the batter and the melt in the mouth squid; the soft and sweet prawn meat, and crispy crunch texture of the fish; more-ish, greedy temptation.

A salad, well, it’s a salad right? Not quite. Aniseed flavoured shaved fennel, curly leaves of endive; a bitter sweet blend of flavours, mixed with slightly perfumed almonds. That is a cleansing salad!

Pork belly, a clear favourite; meaty-succulent sweet and tender enough to pull apart with the fork; contrasting textures of softness and crunchy hazelnuts and crisp peppery radicchio.

A fresh yeasty based Pizetta arrived, cooked to perfection (for me) egg with runny yolky richness, subtle cheese flavours and garlic perfumes cut clean by spinach.

In my greed and praise for the other plates I almost forgot this, and how could I? A deliciously rich flavoured terrine of tender, dark rabbit meat, refreshingly light, crumbling under the knife onto the thinnest of French toasts; pinky meat flecked with sweet apricot and subtle herbs.

Embracing the Venetian theme, the gastronomic carnival continued. Round 3 (ding ding): The ox tongue and lentils was an ‘out there’ choice, something I was curious about but needed to taste. Nor was I disappointed. Meaty-firm slices placed fallen Domino style (did you spot that reference?) on a slightly minty lentil bed. Velvety pulses, tender meat, and a fresh flavoured herb brought extra life to the dish.

Blackness brought a deliciously Gothic end to our choices from the squid ink; liquorice smiles bringing levity to the conversation. Cuttlefish, simmered slowly, so very slowly in its own ink given an almost electric charge by a tangy gremolata. @R_McCormack and I were in two minds about this (well for this course, there were only two of us eating!) Whilst the joy of cuttlefish ink is found in the deep, rich, earthy brine quality that lingers on the tongue, coating the mouth with its long finish, the lemon zest adds another dimension, keeping it fresh and light; which I liked. This was served with a side plate of soft polenta drizzled in olive oil.

And so we stopped; the huge selection and our expanding waistlines brought an end to the feast. To ensure we were steady on the road, my tweetamies had Affogato al caffe. Like a flashback from the 70’s with Coca Cola floats, the gelato, rich and egg yolk yellow-cream was placed on top of the espresso to melt and dissolve into the drink. I looked on with envy.

This was such a good experience, made great by the food and conversation. I am looking forward to returning. Thanks to Russell and the Polpo team, and of course my tweeter friends.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Step back in time…


A final rummage through my notes reminded me that I was, all in one day, an action hero, a ‘girlyman’ (to quote Arnold Schwartznegger) and a time traveller. I think abseiling down the side of a 14 storey building constitutes the hairy-chested-man-of-action-Grrr image that I would like to convey, albeit without the box of chocolates.

On the flip side, is the ‘girlyman’ wimp that hid behind his hands watching Wolfman, with the ever gorgeous Emily Blunt. Jumping out of my skin when someone behind me dived into a pack of popcorn at the most tense of moments. But time traveller? Well, yes.

The late evening ticket for the film meant that I needed to eat something before going into the cinema. Something quick and simple and not too far that going back to the flat would constitute an easier option. Round the corner and down the road from Fulham is an old institution. I say ‘old’, this institution is somewhere I went in the 80’s and early 90’s as a teenager, and I couldn’t resist checking it out again for old times’ sake; a trip down Memory Lane (or in this case, Kings Road).

Even with the passing years, nothing has really changed at Pucci Pizza. The location is different, having formerly been housed in a terrace diagonally opposite the Chelsea Fire station; the interior has been done in a deliberately similar layout, regular customers (mainly pretty young girls about town) are pictured in framed collages on the walls, and the place still retains some of its former character, hints of red and green against a white wall, to demonstrate its true Italian-ness. The owner’s son is now in charge and provides a link between the past and the present. Teens and twenty-somethings sit along side those, like me I guess, who were customers in the 80’s and 90’s, and are now old enough to be their parents (now that is scary!) or ex-Sloane Rangers harking back to their youth. There is a very casual party atmosphere and that is reflected with the music, occasionally live, and staff who look like they are, sometimes, having more fun than the customers.

A rather formal touch to the informality for the place were the small bruschette delivered once the order had been placed, (though because of the pending change of license I had to order wine and put it down as a rather large service charge). They had a really tomato and vinegary zing and crunch, and went very quickly. In fact, they could have been a main course in copious amounts.

Pizze are hard to mess up once the base is made, and that was one thing I do remember about Pucci. They never used to get it wrong, so the twitching suspense was heightened as the waiting for the pizza drew out (though not too long!). I ordered the Capriciosa. I have always loved egg and anchovy as a combination so couldn’t resist it. My pizza was piping hot from the over, crispy, crunchy and thin, the base softening the closer you got to the centre. I prefer thin crusty pizze to the breadier, thicker bases. The flavours? well that is the easy bit: a rich tomato base, layers of cheese and anchovies and, of course, the egg, though I don’t like my egg scrambled and cooked into the topping as they did on this. For me, leaving the egg to fry in the centre is preferable, but that is my choice and many would disagree, as they would about the thickness of the base and so many other things.

Still, it worked; powdery, crumbly golden yolk and salty, briny anchovy shock; tart tomato and creamy melted cheese, scattered pieces of mushroom and ham completing the tutti frutti colour balance (although the ingredients' quality were run of the mill). So? It’s a pizza! And I was full enough and ready for my schlock horror film.

Wow! What a retro-mental experience. Seeing it without rose coloured glasses is a whole new experience. It is old Chelsea and ‘to hell with it’. It relies on its reputation for being fun and buzzy and has done so for nearly three decades. (Not only that, but its website points out it is Chelsea in the address, next to the changing pictures of the parked red Ferrari and Callum Best). Cheap and cheerful? Definitely. I guess I would prefer to go there than go to one of a chain of well-knowns. Classy? Erm.. think again. But for a value for money quick bite I would probably go again.

Pucci Pizza 442 Kings Road SW10 0LQ Chelsea London T: 020 7352 2134 E: enquiries@puccipizza.co.uk