Friday, 6 January 2017

Books and Bookings

Cod with Coco beans and Trompette de la mort
at Brawn

The first week of January is ripe for reflection as well as for looking ahead.  This January in particular when one crushing blow after another in 2016 has left many of us feeling punch drunk and questioning whether we paid enough attention to things beyond our own orbit.  Outcomes that had seemed too ridiculous to contemplate are now only too real.  Friends' reactions range from burying their heads ever deeper in the beauty in their lives to donning battle fatigues for the fight ahead.  Some are happy with the new status quo.  Some have, sadly, already picked up their bags and moved on. The occasional foray into, this, the lighter side of my world is ever more necessary. So, here I am with my first post of January reflecting on eating in 2016 and looking forward to what 2017 will bring.

Sanbei Octopus
at Bao Fitrovia

So let's start with 'Bookings' at London restaurants - yes, my life is London centric and I know I need to get out more.  As I said in my first post of January 2016, I am as likely, on this blog,  to tell you about a restaurant that has been around for a while as about the new.  Re-reading that piece reminds me I still haven't been to Bao Soho (queues) but I have made several visits to the second restaurant of what started out as a simple 'steamed bun' market stall.  It's in less busy Fitzrovia and it's a great place to pop into for a quick bite.  Both Lamb and Black Cod have joined the Pork buns alongside delicious small plates like Sanbei Octopus which comes with a spicy plum sauce.  Just thinking about it makes me want to grab my coat.  You can read about it here - Bao Fitrovia   

It's interesting just how many intended 2016 openings I mentioned haven't yet come to pass - Clare Smyth (ex-Restaurant Gordon Ramsay) pushed back to mid-2017; Monica Galetti (ex-Le Gavroche), maybe sometime in January;  the return of Nuno Mendes to his Viajante roots was scuppered by the failure of his crowdfunding attempt.  And then there were the ones which simply didn't light my fire - if a restaurant is on this blog it's because I like it and think you might too.

Pork & Crab Clay Pot and Langoustine
at Kiln

Apart from Bao Fitzrovia, new openings that did impress me in 2016 are Kiln in Soho, an off-shoot of Smoking Goat which has been serving up Northern Thai street food on nearby Denmark Street for a couple of years.  There's a simplicity of preparation and insightful use of herbs and spices at Kiln that wakes up the tastebuds.  Cooking is over embers of sweet chestnut and flavours are zingy to say the least.  A Pork and crab claypot of glass noodles and Langoustine with chilli, ginger, lemongrass and sweet mint impressed on my visit.  I need to pay another call before I write about it but if you can get in (booking downstairs but first come, first served at the bar) don't hesitate.  Eating around Borough Market is, for me, a hit and miss affair but 2016 saw the arrival of Padella which is right on target.  This off-shoot of the excellent Trullo at Highbury Corner, which I wrote about ages ago, is all about pasta, freshly made, good sauces, no fuss.  Be prepared to queue - I try to go early but even then I will need to wait a while.

Barrafina's original tapas bar on Frith Street has now settled into its new home alongside sister restaurant Quo Vadis on Dean Street.  It's roomier and noisier as a result but the cooking and the staff have found their form in double-quick time. There is always a little tweak to the menu that identifies which of the three Barrafina bars you are in - if I want Rabo de Toro, I go to Drury Lane; it's Adelaide Street for Arroz de Mariscos; at Dean Street, so far, it's Bunuelos de Bacalao and Chickpeas Ropa Vieja.  

Noble Rot Wine Bar opened on lovely Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury in 2016 as a 'wine bar with food'.  If you are into good, "old school", wines then this is probably the place for you.  The food menu is overseen by Stephen Harris and Paul Weaver from Michelin-starred The Sportsman in Whitstable.  I've seen lots of positive comments and I've tried it once.  The bread and the simply cooked Slip Soles were lovely, the wines pricey.  Overall, I thought it pretty good food but expensive for what you got.  I notice they've now introduced a set-price lunch so, probably, worth another try.

Game and Bacon Pie
with a glass of Les Pierres Chaude
at 40 Maltby Street 

And still, I'm a regular at Brawn, 40 Maltby Street, and Rochelle Canteen.  Brawn for their food that is, as they put it themselves, "honest and simple with a respect for tradition" and for fact their love for what they do is so evident in what arrives at table; 40 Maltby Street for its love of seasonality, careful sourcing, flavourful combinations and so many 'that's so good' moments.  Both also serve up wonderful natural wines.  Rochelle Canteen may be byo but there's the cooking of the brilliant Anna Tobias.

That I have a few places that make me so happy is why I've yet to get to 6 Portland Road in the, for me, distant plains of Holland Park; or Morito's new place on Hackney Road where chef Marianna Leivaditaki, alongside owner/chef Samantha Clark, is bringing a touch of Crete to the Spanish/North African bias of the Exmouth Market original; or Sardine, close to the Old Street Tech City hub, where chef Alex Jackson has set up with the backing of Stevie Parle serving Southern French food cooked over a wood fire; or James Cochran EC3 opened in late 2016 - his CV having drawn comparison with one of my favourite chefs, Steve Williams of 40 Maltby Street, is enough to push him to the top of my must try list; or Honey & Smoke in Fitrovia, a second restaurant for Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, providing a space big enough to give their big-hearted food and service room to expand.

There are a couple of planned 2017 openings in the pipeline I know of that aren't general knowledge yet but I will eat my hat if they don't live up to expectations.  I will, I will, get to more places this year.

Brindisa - The True Food of Spain
by Monika Linton

In 2016 I bought three 'Books'.  None, as yet, digested well enough to write about them.  Truth is I've been getting so much use out of books published in 2015, and earlier, that I've barely got into them yet.  There are  a few other new ones on my radar but just like I don't get to a new restaurant in the first few weeks of opening, I don't rush to buy new books .  A pleasure deferred ... etc.  So, you won't be seeing a 2016 book roundup from me.  Instead I've got a posting planned for later in the month on the books I use most, new and old, and why I find them invaluable.

Meanwhile, I resolve to get out more.  You never know, I may even eat outside London.  Recommendations welcome.


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Celeriac Remoulade with chestnut mushrooms

Celeriac

It's the week before Christmas.  The roast is ordered, the pudding is sorted, the wines are bought. But it's the food in between the celebratory meals that interest me more and it's time to give it some thought.  I like fats and carbs as much as anyone but over the next two weeks there also need to be plenty of vegetable-based dishes and fruity puddings.  I know I will be craving lively, stimulating, bitter and tangy flavours that ingredients like anchovies, capers, mustards, pickles, ketchups, citrus, herbs and spices deliver.

This year, apart from feasting days, there will be no menus here.  There will be a list of dishes that will be 'just the thing' at some point over the holiday to jolt the tastebuds.  This is a time to enjoy being in the kitchen not to be chained to it.  There will be soft polenta with spiced-up winter greens; roasted cauliflower with anchovies and capers; a sharing pan of spicy, hot Shakshuka; escarole for a warming bowl of Caldo Verde to come home to after a long walk;  Griddled chicory with goat's curd; punchy Puttanesca sauce for the inevitable plate of pasta; and a pre-cooked octopus to serve with potatoes, mayo and smoked paprika.  There are sure to be lemons for granita or curd; maybe a 'SweetMeat Cake', a tart which gives candied citrus a starring role rather than a supporting one; frozen fruit purees for ice cream and sorbets that are a reminder of summer on the allotment; and it's very likely there'll be a stash of Hot Gingernut biscuits in the kitchen.

Chestnut mushrooms

Here's another dish that fits-the-bill.  A marriage of raw celeriac and a punchy mustard mayonnaise, here served with raw Chestnut mushrooms, toasted hazelnuts and shards of hard cheese.  It's a blatant rip-off of a dish I've enjoyed at 40 Maltby Street.  Celeriac, also known as Celery Root, is one of the best winter vegetables and is at its peak right now.  It makes a good Celeriac Soup but, for me, its flavour and texture is best appreciated raw.

Celeriac Remoulade with Chestnut mushrooms

Celeriac Remoulade with Chestnut Mushrooms
(Serves 6-8)

1 medium celeriac, trimmed, peeled and cut into julienne strips (put into a bowl of cold acidulated water until needed and dry on kitchen roll before using)
250ml (9 fl oz) mayonnaise
1-2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, according to taste
300g (12 oz) good, firm Chestnut mushrooms
50g (2 oz) toasted hazelnuts (skins rubbed off), and cut in half
75g (3 oz) Parmesan or a hard English cheese like Berkswell, peeled into strips with a potato peeler
Extra Virgin olive oil & lemon
Salt and pepper
Sprig of Parsley, finely chopped

Mix the strips of celeriac with the mayonnaise and mustard.  Pile onto plates.  Slice the Chestnut mushrooms finely, preferably on a Mandolin, and scatter over the celeriac remoulade. Top with the hazelnuts and strips of cheese.  Season with pepper and a little salt.  Add olive oil and lemon to taste.  Scatter the chopped parsley on top and serve.


I'll be baking bread to go with this.  Well that's the plan.  It's entirely possible that we'll have so many leftovers to consume that  we'll get through to New Year's Day fuelled entirely on meat and two veg and, of course, cheese.  I really hope not.

This will be my last post before Christmas.  Do have a good one - I think we all need it this year.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Christmas Gifts for Food Lovers 2016

Oranges from Sicily

As usual my end of year gift choices for food lovers focuses on modestly priced gifts from small independent businesses, plus one 'pushing-the-boat-out' suggestion.  Some are made by the seller, others are simply, carefully selected, products for their customers.  As I live in London, all of these can be bought direct and, where possible, I've mentioned alternative sources that may be closer to you. In some cases you can also buy on-line.  These are things I buy for myself or for like-minded food lovers and I do not accept payment or gifts for mentioning them.  I hope it gives you some inspiration for gifts for the food lover in your life and makes you think about buying gifts from small businesses close to you.

Sicilian Blood Oranges

A Box of Seasonal Sicilian Citrus - depending on size, from around £15.00

Why:  New season Italian citrus, particularly those from Sicily, are starting to arrive.  For me, this is the perfect antidote to all that rich Christmas food.  While it may be a little too early for the spectacular high-coloured Sicilian Tarocco blood oranges, earlier varieties of blush and blood oranges should be available in the run-up to Christmas.

Where in London:  John & Elena Fruit and Veg in Bermondsey (SE16) source great quality fruits for sale at sensible prices.


Papa dei Boschi Crema di Nocciola & Nocciola Piemonte Tostata

Papa dei Boschi Crema di Nocciola and/or Nocciola Piemonte Tostata Around £6.50 & £7.50

Why: This chocolate hazelnut spread and the toasted hazelnuts are just the best I've ever tasted.  I know of only two sources in London for the nuts (General Store in Peckham and La Fromagerie in Marylebone).  I believe only General Store keep both of these products.

Where in London: General Store (SE15), La Fromagerie (W1)


Ulcigrai Panettone

Ulcigrai Panettone  £17.00

Why: A Panettone always comes home with me at Christmas and it has to be the Ulcigrai family Panettone from Trieste.  It's available at Leila's Shop in Shoreditch and also sold at General StoreMonmouth Coffee's Covent Garden and Borough Market shops. 

Where in London: Leila's Shop (E2) and Monmouth Coffee (WC2, & SE1); General Store (SE15)


Brindisa - the True Food of Spain by Monika Linton

A Food Book Brindisa - The True Food of Spain by Monika Linton  RRP £29.95 

Why: After living and teaching in Spain, Monika Linton has been importing high quality Spanish products for her London-based business, Brindisa, for the past 28 years.  I've shopped there for years and always been impressed by the quality of the products she selects.  Written from a deep knowledge, love and understanding of Spanish food this book delves into Spanish food culture and history.  Recipes range from 'light as a feather' Tortilleta de camarones (crisp little shrimp pancakes) to gutsy Rabo de buey al vino tinto con chocolate (Slow cooked oxtail in red wine and chocolate) and there's a great section on Spanish cheeses.

Where in London: Brindisa, Borough Market (SE1) and at all good bookshops


Jensen's Gins

Jensen's Old Tom Gin - around £25.00

Why:  Using a recipe from a distillers handbook from 1840, this unsweetened, earthy gin is very much to my taste. It is perfect for a gin and tonic which can be simply garnished with a little sprig of rosemary.

Where in London:  Jensen's Bermondsey Distillery (SE1) and stockists shown on their website.


A Tif Hunter Tintype Print

A Tif Hunter Tintype Print - this is my pushing-the-boat-out item.  Do follow the link to see examples of Tif Hunter's work including examples of his tintype images of fruits and vegetables.  You'll also find contact details to check prices and availability

Why:  Tif Hunter's expertise in this medium is becoming well known.  The tonal qualities he achieves with his tintype work is extraordinary.  He has a passion for such subjects but also turns his lens on flowers, everyday objects, portraits and more.

Where in London:  Via Tif Hunter's website


Gimlet Bar Spiced Lemon Cordial

Gimlet Bar Seasonal Cordials £10-12.00

Why:  Gimlet Bar's Cordials, using always interesting fruits and herbs, change with the seasons.  They are supplied to bars and restaurants in London but some are now available in a few independent, quality, food shops in the capital.  Spiced Lemon and Blood Tonic are currently available.

Where in London:  Leila's Shop (E2) and General Store (SE15) plus Gimlet Bar direct.



London Cheesemongers
Pavilion Road

A cheese selection from London Cheesemongers - around £25 depending on weight and selected cheese

Why:  London Cheesemongers keeps a great selection of cheeses in peak condition from artisans in Britain, France and Italy .  A blue cheese (e.g. Stilton or Stichelton; a goat cheese (e.g. Innes Log or Fromage Cathare); a hard cow's milk cheese (e.g. Montgomery Cheddar, Beaufort or Parmesan); a washed-rind cheese (e.g. St Cera or Cardo).  A slice of Quince Cheese would be a nice complement to the cheeseboard.

Where:  London Cheesemongers (SW1) and various markets - see website link - or Neals Yard Dairy (SE1, WC1 and SE16) and markets) for British Cheeses, Mons Cheesemongers (SE16) and Borough Market (SE1) and Brockley Market (SE4) for French cheeses, and Italian cheeses from The Ham and Cheese Co (SE16)


Particella 128 Sparkling Wine

A bottle of Italian Natural Sparkling Wine - Particella 128

Why:  Perfect for Christmas morning - this sharp, bone-dry sparkler from Emilia Romagna has notes of ripe apples, tangerines, hay and a mineral quality.  A natural Champenoise methode wine.

Where:  Aubert & Mascoli (SE16)


Home-made Christmas Pudding

A home-made Christmas Pudding

Why:  Because it's home-made!  It's not too late to to make a Christmas Pudding.  Here's a recipe.  Buy the best ingredients you can get.

Where:  Your kitchen


Happy shopping (or cooking).  

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Quince Cheese

English Quince

Quince, a fruit of the Cydonia oblonga tree, is gritty, hard and astringent.  Only its fragrance hints at what it can become with cooking.  Bringing out the delectability of a quince takes time, effort and sugar.  These three added ingredients result in a luscious ruby coloured fruit confection.

There is one variety of quince, the Mulvian which was mentioned by Pliny the Elder, that can be eaten without cooking but it's not one most of us are likely to encounter.  Sugar is the key to palatability.  Tasted by the English during the first Crusades of the 11th century, most sugar later arrived here in the form of conical sugar loaves.  Sugars boiled and mixed with finely powered flower petals were considered to be good for colds and other ailments.  Mostly sugar was reserved for the royal table or the greatest households to produce spiced and sweetened confections for close of dinner digestives.  This, as Peter Brears in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England reminds us, is a practice we still indulge in with after dinner chocolates and liqueurs and other sweet morsels.

By the 15th century, Brears tells us, the confectionary served to end a meal centred around sweetened apples, quinces, wardens (an old variety of cooking pear) in dishes like Pears in Syrup.  Honey as a sweetener was also employed and Brears gives recipes for Chardequince, Chardedate and Erbowle – employing cooking quince, dates and pears respectively.  All three recipes bearing, to my mind, a very close affinity to what in England we’d now term a fruit 'cheese' or paste.  Of these fruits the quince transformed into a paste is a love shared with other nations.  In France they have their pate de coing, Italy has cotognata, Spain is well-known for its membrillo and Portugal has marmalada.  Recipes are all very similar, though the Portuguese paste is made looser than others and was the original marmalade. 

Quince Cheese

Some quince fruits are more fragrant than others.  I have no science to back up my preference but personally, when I buy, if it's not fragrant it doesn't go in the bag.  As I write, two English-grown quince are perfuming my workspace.  How to describe the scent?  Sensual, almost musky with rose and tropical fruit notes.  Apple and pear fragrances are in there too.  It almost breaks my heart to think of taking them to the kitchen to be cooked - almost. 

Quince Cheese is simple to make but does require constant attention in the puree stage of cooking as it burns easily.  With basically only two ingredients, the recipe is straightforward.  Some like to cook the quince whole but I prefer to chop it up.  The 'cheese' is a thick paste which sets to a firm consistency.  It's good paired with many cheeses but particularly goat and blue cheeses, melted into a lamb or game stew or tagine, or cubed and rolled in granulated sugar to serve as that end of meal digestive.  Moro restaurant uses membrillo instead of egg yolk to make the 'quince aioli', serving it with their delicious roast pork.  The recipe can be found in Moro the Cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark.  

Quince Cheese

1.5 kg (3 lb) quince
Around 1.1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) caster or granulated sugar (see method)
Lemon juice as desired

Line with greaseproof paper whatever dishes you want to use as moulds  - I use 2 loaf tins so I have slabs of 'cheese' which I can slice as needed and end up with around 1.8 kg (3 lb 12 oz) of 'cheese' in total from the quantities above.

Wash the quince well and cut into chunks, peel, core and pips included, and place in a large pan.  Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer until the fruit is soft. Strain and put the fruit through a mouli or mash then press through a sieve.

Weigh the puree and put in a large pan with the same weight in sugar.  Cook on a low heat, stirring almost constantly for the whole cooking time as it can 'catch' and burn easily.  Allow the mixture to bubble slowly until it turns a deep amber colour.  This will take at least 45 minutes.  When you drag a spoon through and the puree doesn't close up straight away, it's ready.  Taste and add a little lemon juice if you find it too sweet.

Pour the mixture into your lined loaf tins or dishes to a depth of about 5 cm (2 inches). Leave to stand in a dry place, at room temperature, for about 24 hours to cool and set.

Turn out and wrap tightly in fresh greaseproof paper, baking parchment or, even better, waxed paper.

The 'cheese' should keep in the fridge in a container for at least 6 months but check it from time to time as the more moist the mixture is, the less well it will keep.  I have been able to keep mine for longer with no noticeable deterioration to it at all.


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Sunday, 30 October 2016

White bean and chicory soup

White bean and chicory soup

When the chill air of late autumn arrives, so too does my craving for the bitter qualities of chicories.  And this is their season.  Descended from wild greens, sometimes considered weeds, they add a colour and flavour punch to the diet just when the harvesting options for us gardeners have otherwise shrunk to mainly root crops.

As Jennifer McLagan points out in her book Bitter - a taste of the world's most dangerous flavor, with recipes, we have a natural wariness to 'bitter'.  Many poisons are bitter so it's an understandable inherited aversion developed for our own protection.  The reaction is strongest in babies but with age comes a loss in taste buds and the learning that not all bitter foods are bad but can be enjoyable and good for our health.  We can even develop a craving for bitter - chocolate, coffee and tea being the most obvious examples.  It's known that bitter flavours can stimulate the appetite and if our early food experiences exposed us to them we are more likely to enjoy the qualities of bitter - Bee Wilson's book First Bite - How We Learn to Eat is excellent on the subject of our likes and dislikes.

The list of 'bitter' foods is subjective as not everyone experiences bitterness in the same way.  Seville oranges and beer surely are, but what about turnips and swedes?  It's an interesting subject, tackled well by Jennifer McLagan who goes so far as to suggest that "food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity".  If we consider the wide range of foods that have a bitter quality, it's an interesting theory.

The first fog of autumn has arrived today and with it has come requests for soup.  Not the first bowl we've had this autumn but the first call for its warming, soothing virtues.  This one demands a little thinking ahead so is not for today but it is ideal for countering the late autumn/winter gloom stretching ahead of us.  It takes dried beans for its structure and bitter chicory to wake up the taste buds.

Cicoria Catalogna Pugliese

My recommendation to use 'chicory' here is loose as chicory, endive and radicchio are all members of the broad chicorium family but local names vary.  It's the dark green chicories that work best in soup, for me.  For the soup I photographed at the top of this page, I used an Italian Cicoria Catalogna Pugliese, a large upright chicory with long serrated leaves.  I wish I could say I grew it but it's not a variety I've tried on my patch of ground.  I suspect heavy clay is not ideal.  You could use the outer leaves of either Cicoria Puntarella or Escarole.  The milder hearts of both are good in a salad, particularly with bacon or anchovies.  All of these are not too difficult to find in a good greengrocers. If you use a red variety of chicorium, bear in mind it will turn a khaki-brown when subjected to heat.

I favour white Cannellini beans for this recipe.  Also known as haricot, go for the the longer of the two main varieties of this white bean (rather than the more rounded one which is favoured for baked beans).  It has a creamier consistency, I think, which works better in soups.  Butter beans would be a good alternative, or the white bean typical to your area.  You could use pre-cooked tinned beans too, but they won't absorb flavours in the same way.  The longer you store dried beans the more time they will take to cook.  I try not to buy them too far in advance but we've all found a forgotten bag of beans in the larder.  Here is a good tip from Monika Linton's book Brindisa - the True Food of Spain for beans that are being slow to absorb liquid: "you need to 'frighten' or blast the beans, so once they break into their first boil, throw in some cold water to halt it" then bring the pan back to the boil.  Never add salt until they are fully cooked as it hardens the beans.


White bean and chicory soup
(serves 4)

250g dried cannellini beans (500g cooked) or other white beans, soaked in plenty of cold water for 12 hours
1 small carrot/1 small onion, halved/1 small stick of celery (for cooking the dried beans)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 stick of celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
A small dried chilli, crumbled (optional)
A large handful of chicory leaves and stems
Salt and pepper
Parmesan and olive oil to serve

Drain the beans.  Put in a pan with the small carrot/onion and celery and cover well with fresh water.  Bring to a fast boil and cook for 10 minutes before turning the heat down to a simmer.  Cook about an hour or until the beans are soft (time will vary according to freshness), topping up the water to ensure the beans are well covered.  Discard the vegetables but not the cooking liquor.  Season with salt and pepper.  

In a large pan, heat the olive oil gently, add the diced onion, carrot and celery.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook to soften but not brown.  Add the dried chilli now, if using, and cook for 1 minute more.  Add the beans and their liquor and bring the soup to the boil before turning down and simmering for 20 minutes.  Blitz briefly with a hand whisk, just enough to turn the consistency a little creamy.

Chop the chicory leaves and stems roughly and add to the pan.  Simmer for a further 10 minutes, adding more fresh water if you feel the consistency is too thick.  Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Serve in bowls with grated parmesan and a slick of good olive oil for an extra kick of bitter.


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Autumn harvest of beans and walnuts

Wet Walnuts

Working the ground last autumn left me in no doubt that squirrels were using the badly neglected plot as a winter larder. Empty walnut shells lay scattered across the ground, crunching underfoot at almost every step.  We'd agreed to take on a nettle patch along with our existing plot.  Our heads were filled with plans for roses with scents of musk, anise-like myrrh, sherbet lemon and strong classic old rose fragrances of blackberry and damson plum.  Huge-headed peonies and fragrant, colourful sweetpea arches would feature too.  But first there were giant nettle roots to be chased, ubiquitous plastic bottles to be unearthed and ground to be levelled.

The source of the nuts, I had concluded, lay 100m metres away in one of the private gardens surrounding the allotments.  Dull green globes littered the path where its branches pierced the boundary.  I too squirrelled some away.  Back home, paring away the soft outer jacket exposed the hard brown pockmarked casing.  A nutcracker revealed the almost pliable, sweet, milky 'wet' nut within.  Be warned, that soft green jacket turns a hand-staining brown as you work - in the past this quality was harnessed for making both dye and ink - so rubber gloves are essential.  Wait long enough before harvesting and nature will peel back the green husk for you but the well-guarded kernel will be dryer and less sweet.

This autumn I took an unorthodox route onto the allotments.  There on the boundary, a mere 50 metres from my now flowering plot, I found an even more covetable walnut tree.  Small, it's true, but its boughs hung heavy with green-husked bounty, almost skimming the tall grass.  Far easier to harvest.  The squirrels and I are feasting.  Nature untended has faired better than my nurtured plot this year.  Bringing anything to the point of edibility has been challenging but right now, in this mildest of autumns, I am harvesting beans.  Borlotti and Scarlet Runners were peaking on my plot only 2 days ago.  Cropping of beans has coincided with finding a particularly delicious, nutty Ossau-Iraty, a hard sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrénées.  It was a visit to Brawn restaurant on London's Colombia Road (one of my favourite restaurants anywhere) where I ate a simple-sounding dish of fresh green and yellow French beans, dressed with a shallot vinaigrette, with sweet wet walnuts and thin shards of Ossau-Iraty.

So when I harvested Runner Beans a few days later, it was obvious what I should do with them.  No, the dish doesn't taste exactly the same, but here is my rip-off version of Brawn's beautiful dish using what I had.  Ossau-Iraty isn't essential to the recipe, a hard ewe's milk cheese like English Berkswell or Spenwood would work well.  All these cheeses have a nutty quality that goes well with the earthy beans and sweet, milky nuts.  Jane Grigson would not have approved of my beans in this dish being Scarlet Runners.  They are undoubtedly the least interesting of green beans but they are easy to grow.  She felt "early gardeners had the right idea when they kept the Scarlet Runner to decorate a trellis with its brilliant flowers ...".  I used to agree with her but found out for myself that if you pick before they get too large and slice the pods lengthways, it makes all the difference, and I note she also conceded this.  Simon Hopkinson, I think, just might eat this dish with relish (at least his Introduction to his book The Vegetarian Option leads me to hope).  Choose whichever green beans you prefer, just avoid the big stringy ones.


Runner Beans, wet walnuts and Ossau-Iraty

Salad of fresh beans, wet walnuts and sheep's milk cheese
(serves 4 for a starter or light lunch)

500g green beans, sliced lengthways if using Runner Beans (de-string if necessary)
1 good tablespoon Moscatel vinegar
3 good tablespoons walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
75g Ossau-Iraty (or other semi-hard sheep's milk cheese), pared into strips
10-12 shelled 'wet' walnuts, roughly broken (use matured walnuts if necessary)

Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt and boil the beans for 3-4 minutes until tender but still with a little "bite".  Drain and plunge in a bowl of cold water before draining well again.  Combine the vinegar, oil and seasoning to an emulsion.  Toss the beans well in the vinaigrette.  Place on plates and add the cheese and walnuts. 


I hope to still be picking beans into next week, along with my ever-blooming roses and, unbelievably late-flowering sweetpeas sharing space with the squirrels' larder.  Those huge-headed peonies remain in my dreams, but next year, next year...


Friday, 30 September 2016

Return to Rome

The Tiber River from Trastevere, Rome

It was the children's voices drifting up from the courtyard that roused us from sleep that first morning.  A surprisingly gentle awakening.  As the days passed, I came to think their restraint was borne out of a respectful neighbourliness on the part of the parents.  Or maybe we just got lucky.
All front doors, which led straight into the kitchens, faced the courtyard.  Delicious smells of cooking wafted in from those kitchens and the ground floor restaurant at various times of the day. Tiers of washing lines, linked to a pulley system, strung around the yard.  Always, somewhere, washing was hanging out to dry.  Back home in London, I couldn't help thinking, the view of other people's washing would have been regarded by many as an affront.

Lying in bed, the sweet smell of just-baked pastries filtered in through the gaps in the wooden shutters.  The sounds and smells of a community stirring.  I was in Rome.  Not the Rome I had seen two decades ago - the architecture and monuments of Centro Storico, though we did brave the crowds to feast our eyes for a few hours - but living, breathing Rome.  This was Testaccio, a good 30 minute walk from the Piazza Navonne.

Bread Roman style in a Testaccio kitchen

I'm not going to go into detail about this beguiling part of Rome because my friend who lives in Testaccio, Rachel Roddy, wrote a whole book - Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome - centred around la vita del quartiere (the life of the quarter).  Take that as your travel book  and you'll learn more about the area and Roman food than any guidebook will impart.  Here's a taster.

Where to go and what to do?  Let's start at Piazza Testaccio, described by Spotted by Locals as "As Roman as Rome gets".  There is nothing grand about this Piazza, though they do have their newly installed fountain of amphorae finally returned to its original home after being removed some years back.  I love this square because it truly is a meeting place for local people - and for us while we were there - and is at the heart of the community.  Yes, there are signs of gentrification, and also of the recent refugee arrivals, in Testaccio.  All life is here, as they say.

Filippo at his Fruttivendolo stall
on Mercato Testaccio

Just a 5 minute walk away from the Piazza is Mercato di Testaccio   On our visit, every day started with coffee and a little something here.  It's a functional market of neat, self-contained stalls well worth getting to know.  We were lucky to have Rachel as our guide each day but you might find this short video guide useful from the website of knowledgeable Rome-based writer Katie Parla.

Pizzette at Da Artenio
at Mercato Testaccio

As a visitor I particularly liked the stall Da Artenio for Roman 'Lariano' breads and addictive Pizzette con le Patate; Mordi e Vai for traditional Roman dishes like meatballs and oxtail served up in bread rolls; and the fruttivendolo where Filippo's stall is piled high with super-fresh fruit and vegetables, much of it grown on his own land.  Beautiful fine green beans, freshly pulled bulbous fennel, whopping bunches of sweet, juicy grapes and small, fragrant pale green pears were stars of his show last week.

Roman hospitality at Latteria Studio, Rome

Mercato Testaccio is one of the markets used by Latteria Studio for their Market to Table workshops.  Based just across the Tiber river from Testaccio, in Trastevere, this photography studio and kitchen is a beautiful relaxed creative space for artists, cooks, writers and food lovers.  The workshops are a collaboration between food stylist/owner Alice Kiandra Adams, chef Carla Tomasi and writer Rachel Roddy.  They run seasonally and strike me as the perfect introduction to the life of Rome - meet, chat, shop with locals, walk over to the studio/kitchen, cook and eat - what could be better.  I just had time to join in with the 'Market' side of last week's gathering over coffee in the Market before leaving the group to their shopping while I, reluctantly, headed for the airport.

Carla Tomasi's fabulous pasta
at Latteria Studio, Rome

I knew just what a 'Table' the participants were to experience. Having visited Latteria Studio earlier in the week I was given such a warm welcome, along with an exceptional lunch cooked by Carla using produce from her own garden. The Studio has the most wonderful light and props, if that's your thing.  It's an informal space and spending time there feels like being in the kitchen of a good friend.

Peering in - The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

Just alongside Mercato di Testaccio, is the old, and to my eye, architecturally impressive, 19th century Testaccio Slaughterhouse.  It covers a huge area and you can still see the sturdy outdoor holding pens, winching gear and cathedral-like slaughter areas.  Some of the buildings have been put to new uses by MACRO Testaccio for cultural and artistic events.  There are plans to do more in this unique historic space which abuts Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci) - Mount of Shards), the extraordinary hill of broken amphorae which dates back to the Roman Empire.  There is one gate accessing the area but sadly it's currently closed to the public.

Statue at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

South of Testaccio on Via Ostiense (106) stands Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini, a former thermal power station which now houses ancient sculpture and artefacts from some of Rome's archaeological excavations.

Mosaic fragment at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

Much of the power station's equipment in still in situ and is interesting in its own right as well as providing a dramatic backdrop to the art - Tate Modern eat your heart out!

Beside the Tiber River, Leaving Testaccio

Our walk into the Centro Storic took us through Piazza Navone to the Chiesa San Luigi dei Francesi  and especially for the three stunning Caravaggio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel.  Away from the crowds, we would have loved to visit the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Culture) but be aware, it is currently closed for renovation.

What and where to eat lunch and dinner? Pasticceria Barberini, on Testaccio's Via Marmorata, became our regular place for second caffè and cornetto after market.  The bar is constantly busy and they make exquisite cakes to eat in or take away.  Right next door is Salumeria Volpetti packed to the rafters with great cheeses, cured meats, breads, olive oils etc.  I can vouch for the Porchetta which you can buy by the slice.  For lunch, dinner or just an aperativo, offshoot Volpetti Piu is just around the corner.  I understand the style here has recently changed and we happened to go in on the first night when the menu was still limited so I suggest you check reviews as they come out. We did have good natural wines here, excellent Pizza Bianca together with ham and cheeses from Volpetti but I believe they have more ambitious plans.

Salt Cod and potatoes at Litro Monteverde, Rome

Our best meal, other than at Latteria, was at Litro in Monteverde, a climb up from Trastevere (there is another, more central, branch).  We went for both lunch and dinner on our visit to Rome but the quieter lunch service was particularly good.  Delicious bruschette, a dish of salt cod and potatoes brought together with good olive oil, a lasagne of zucchini flowers and anchovies, a plate of Bieta cooked Roman style, a few glasses of Kata- Cantine Olivella and a lovely shot of Amaro were all memorable.  Litro is a staunch supporter of natural wine producers so were a natural choice for me and I wasn't disappointed.  My chef friend, Sam, pointed me in the direction of Litro and I'm so glad he did.  Coincidentally, Hande Leimer walked into Litro while we were having lunch.  As a certified sommelier, a member of the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS) and founder of Vino Roma wine studio, she is a good judge of Italian wines and Litro, it turned out, is a firm favourite with her.

Lasagne of Zucchini flowers and anchovies
at Litro Monteverde, Rome

There were so many places to eat we didn't get to, including Roscioli in Centro Storico, and La Torricella in Testaccio.  It's good to have reasons to return.  Roman dishes to look out for are Moscardini (floured and fried tiny octopuses); Alici Fritti (fried anchovies); Gnocchi or spaghetti all Vongole (with clams); Polpette al Sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce); Lingua con Salsa Verde (tongue in green sauce); Pomodori al Riso (tomatoes stuffed with rice); Pasta e Ceci (pasta with chickpeas); and Affogato al Caffe (gelato drowned in coffee).  Also Torta di Ricotta (ricotta cake, though I doubt you'll find one as fine as this Carla Tomasi version which greeted us at Latteria Studio.

Ricotta Cake by Carla Tomasi

But what about the gelato you ask?  OK, go to Fata Morgana in Trastevere.  It was pretty good but then I can get very good ice cream back home so I confess I wasn't wowed by it.

The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

Climbing the stairs on the last evening in our little Testaccio flat we took our time, enjoying the aroma of roasted sweet peppers drifting up from the courtyard and the chatter of neighbours.  We unpegged our now dry towels and pondered how to approach our London neighbours with the idea for a communal clothes line!

Useful guides to Rome:
Katie Parla
Rustica Retro
Spotted by Locals - Rome