Monday, 5 July 2010

Two for the price of one.. a new direction

I have been moved to merge my two sites into one... I was getting so confused. Now you followers of food can also enjoy wine and vice versa! Please follow me on (you will find nothing changed!)

Best wishes,


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

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

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.

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

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:

Monday, 22 February 2010

An Experiment… on a theme of risotti…

Aside from the chance to put on spangly thongs, big feathers and party until the early hours, isn’t the idea of Mardi gras to clear out the larder, use up what you have and start afresh? Well, isn’t it? And while sparkling fireworks and rhinestones light up the Brazilian night, here the dark and gloomy slow crackle of damp wood on fires and cold, wet weather inspire something altogether different. I have a need to create.

Spurred on by the success of one home made risotto (the delicious Nigella Lawson’s irresistible Lemon Risotto – albeit slightly amended to suit my needs) and the discovery of one large tub of fish stock (made only from salmon carcasses), I decided to combine my Lenten clear out with that of continuing a theme: risotto. And so begins the experiment.

Flickering lights from the stormy gusts light up a lonely pack of Arborio rice gathering dust in the cupboard. Some equally cheerless shallots, and the last decent couple of cloves on a bulb of garlic, sitting solemnly beside the Aga, were enough to turn famine to feast, ready to bring life to the listless and mundane.

Lou’s Salmon Risotto with wrapped Monkfish

2 banana shallots
250g Arborio risotto rice
750ml salmon stock (I couldn’t make up the full litre, but it is fresh!)
1 small glass white wine (such as Pinot Grigio)
1-2 cloves garlic finely sliced
1 sprig of rosemary
Maldon sea salt

2 fillets of monkfish (or other firm white fish)
2 packs pancetta or Parma ham
1 small pack of baby spinach leaves.

Serves 2

As I said before, it is all in the preparation. Mince the shallots, and warm up the stock. Next, prepare the fish as follows:

Lay out the Parma ham from left to right so that the ends overlap and you have a wide ‘sheet’ for wrapping. Trim each spinach leaf of its stalk and place on top of the ham, making sure the leaves are layered evenly. Leave a centimetre at the top and bottom. The leaves need only be two or three deep. Once done, place each fish fillet at the bottom end and roll the ham around it into a sausage. I would not put salt on this as with the stock and the ham it is likely to be salty enough. Lightly brush with some olive oil and place in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes (or until done).

Meanwhile fry the shallots, with oil and butter, add the rice and coat well. Add the glass of wine and reduce until practically gone, then start adding the stock, one ladle at a time until all used up (In the final stages I added the rosemary and garlic so that the flavour of the rosemary has a chance to infuse and the garlic settles rather than being raw and pungent).

To serve: remove the rosemary stem. Place the risotto in a dish or on a plate, slice the cooked fish in a diagonal, and place on top of the rice, the idea being to show off the tricolour of the fish, spinach and ham on a slightly yellow rice. Clean, simple and elegant.

What I got (pure luck) was a contrast in colours of the white, meaty fish, the stripe of the green spinach followed by the rich red of the ham changing what would be a visually ordinary white-on-white (made grey by the cloudy weather) serving into something more appealing. Testing the fish morsel, it reminded me of the texture of a soft centred chocolate; firm to the bite with a softer centre. The pancetta, sometimes crunchy at the end gives way to a moist, meaty and tender monkfish; the spinach giving some cleanliness to the salty ham.

Creamy butter and rich fish stock (part of your Omega 3, I guess) make a smooth combination, coating the rice, contrasting with the ham and the fish: nutty rice and firm meat; soft monkfish and spinach; strong salmon, rosemary and bacon flavours combining to pull the taste buds back and forth, here and there.

Keep your rhinestones, your feathers and your twenty-four-hour-party-people carnivals, your music, dancing and fireworks. The hypnotic flicker of the fire and the smooth comfort of a risotto is enough to warm even the most miserable of cold nights (though I did look at prices on Last minute).

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Unseasonal itch...

You know when you get that urge? That certain craving? That itch? That wanting that no other taste or texture will make up for? Craving a risotto was a first for me. No need to check my oestrogen levels to know that this was out of the blue. But urge, craving, compelling pull, call it what you will, this was an itch that needed scratching. Badly.

What to do? Faced with an already defrosted chicken breast in the fridge, I had thought of a simple (read: bland) cep risotto with fried chicken breast. Quirky, angular cuts of opaque meat scattered with the remainder of some forest green thyme leaves, gently placed on a small bowl of Harris Tweed-dappled, ivory coloured Arborio rice and tobacco and nutty brown mushrooms, and hints of creamy yellow parmesan cheese. Smoke, beef and wooded mushroom flavours contrasting with the succulent, sweetness of the meat and the sharp, saline nuttiness of the cheese. Very simple and appealing to my blokey nature.

However, my tweetamie @Hollowlegs, with the tact and smoothness of a Venetian ambassador, suggested that it was too simple and needed livening up. Flatten the chicken breast and coat it in lemon zested breadcrumbs. Wonderful! Added sharpness with the zest would contrast very well with the thyme and mushroom. Crisp breadcrumby crunchiness matching the bite of the rice (it’s Arborio not Ambrosia). But by then there were more items on my shopping list than indictments against the Parmelat Directors, and if I were to go that far, why not go all the way? Come on girls, blokes like gilding the lily!

Lou’s lifted Nigella Lemon Risotto with Chicken.
2 shallots
1 stick of celery
Olive oil
100 grams risotto rice
500 ml chicken stock (I used a pack of Waitrose liquid stock but home made would have been richer)
Lemon juice and zest of half a lemon
Yolk of an egg
Parmesan 2tbsp and some for scattering
2 tbsp double cream,
Maldon sea salt
Chicken breast and garlic for flavouring the frying oil

Technically you shouldn’t have moved away from the risotto as it needs to be constantly stirred at a gentle simmering point (but you knew that already). So, firstly, prepare. Heat the stock but don’t boil it. In a bowl, mix the egg yolk, cream and the 2tbsp of Parmesan, lemon juice and zest, and rosemary. Next, finely chop the celery and onion. At the same time (who says men can’t multitask?), heat some olive oil in a pan and add some garlic making sure it aromatises the oil and doesn’t go burnt or bitter. Remove the garlic and get ready to fry the chicken breast.

Melt some butter and olive oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and celery until translucent. Add the rice and coat with the oils thoroughly, then, put in a ladle of the stock until it is absorbed. Repeat this process until all the stock is used up and the rice is done, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the chicken breast adding salt if necessary.

To assemble, once the rice is done add the creamy mixture, I tend to spoon some of rice stock mix into the egg cream first, stir and then pour it into the risotto pan so as not to curdle or shock the egg. Mix and add a bit more cheese if necessary. Slice the cooked chicken breast and either stir it into the rice or lay it on top in said quirky manner. Garnish with a little rosemary (and maybe a couple of slices of lemon zest lifted out of the Martini that has been helping you through this process).

Although this is a recipe aimed at bringing comforting warmth on those slightly chilly but sunny first days and weeks of Spring, what is striking about this recipe is the combination of simplicity and richness; smooth, unctuous and creamy textures; the sharp lemon tang and the almost sweetening effect of the salt; the yolky cream coating the mouth, not in an unpleasant way, wrapping you in a comfort blanket and protecting you from the sharp acidity of the lemon; the slightly crystalline, gritty Parmesan cheese; nutty rice bites against soft, moist, garlic infused chicken; and, hints of smoky herb from the rosemary, adding balance to the overall flavour. The stock, originally meant to be Marigold vegetable bouillon, is richer and adds a bit of beef (chicken actually) to the sauce and lifts what could normally be a bland meat into something more lively.

I poured myself a glass (or two) of Soave (Strele, Oddbins £10.99) with its balance of flavour adding to the creamier elements of the dish while helping give punch to the lemon. More-ish and satisfying, I can’t think why I never tried it before, so thanks @Hollowlegs for the inspiration.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Kitchen confidential

Gosh! Aren’t I the lucky one? Called, last minute, by my brother Ben who let me know that Villandry have opened a new bistrot and café in Chiswick and I should check it out (where he gets that knowledge from I have no idea). So instead of going back to the darkest depths of Somerset, I delayed… I deferred… I… well, I let my stomach take over my thought processes. There is a childish joy at being a ‘first’ customer. I was so excited by the thought of a free meal I was bouncing like Tigger… no really, I was.

Smells of paint, comfortingly and reassuringly imply newness, cleanliness, never before touched freshness; contrasting, the second hand rustic pine and oak furniture, zinc topped tables, and café lights of glass and steel. Light and airy arched windows, denuded walls and wooden floors give a ‘loft’ atmosphere upstairs (where downstairs seemed a bit darker, even though it had ceiling to floor windows… strange).

Open kitchens and on-display chefs give me a childish sense of anticipation, excitement and entertainment. No nose picking or inappropriate scratching, as graphically described by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, but I still crane my neck to see what they are doing and if it is my plate they are doing in places like that (Union Café in Marylebone is the same).

I ordered duck confit with haricot beans (well if they can’t get the classics right then there is no point in trying the ‘trendy’ stuff). It arrived, perfectly cooked and piping hot. Haricot beans, the larger Tarbais variety (?), slightly soft, mixed with tail clipped crunchy Kenya beans, small strips of roasted red pepper for variety, and a stock and tomato based burnt sienna coloured sauce, thickened with a beurre manié. Sat on this, knife tappingly crunchy, salty skin hid a treasure trove of fresh succulent dark duck meat, sweet and rich, easily pulled apart from the bone with just the slightest touch of the fork. Earthy, gamey, slightly saline duck flavours lifted up by the sauce. Meaty succulence mixed with golden skinned crispness; velvet powdery softness of the haricots shocked by the crunch of the green beans. Visually and texturally, this was good.

A glass of Pinot Noir by J C Boisset Bourgogne was meant to compliment the dish, but it was a bit too cold to show its fruitiness at first and needed to be warmed up (I understood that all the windows had been opened to quicken the paint drying).

Pudding? I had room… no, I made room! I definitely had to make room for pear and almond frangipane tart.

And WOW! The almond frangipane was sublimely light and eggy buttery, sweet as sweet sugary eggy almond frangipane can be: a golden crust; an interior, light and cloudy fluffy and hinting lemon. Although the pears had coloured brown grey (so not seasoned with lemon?) they had a nice bite, and I have always loved the graininess of pears. The crème fraîche, soured and thickened to an almost ice cream consistency, perfectly balanced the sweet fluffiness of the almond base, the smooth unctuousness contradicting the pear grain and the fluffy frangipane.

Washing this down was a lemon-cream Charles Frères, Cuvee Jean Louis Brut, Crémante de Bourgogne, wonderfully smooth, young and petillant.

Slightly nervous service (well it was opening night) and a couple of tweaks (the slightly too soft haricots, the below room wine; peripheral stuff) aside, would I come again? Yes. Recommend it to friends? Yes. Pay? Oh if I have to.

Villandry Kitchen, 217-221 Chiswick High Road, London W4 2DW. T: 020 8747 9113. E:

Monday, 1 February 2010

Icing on the cake... Caffé Caldesi

Inspired by my fellow food twitters to reach beyond my love affair with wine and dalliance with the discussion on food, I think... no I am, delighted, that my first blog on food should be on Caffé Caldesi in Marylebone Lane.

Having tweeted, twittered and tapped my newfound twitter friends for possible ideas, I was still set on going to Caffé Caldesi for Aunt J’s birthday. (I might add that a kind tweet from Katie Caldesi – she of the caffé – clinched the idea to return. That, and Aunt J’s love of all things Italian and the caffé itself).

My glamorous friend Helen, fashion buyer and old chum from wine course days, originally took me there some years ago and I still find it an ideal place for the odd treat. But oh, the stress of the train journey…! Oh, the lack of tubes at the other end..! Oh, the tension and suspense as the Tuscan Restaurant upstairs is closed in the winter months and you can only lunch downstairs without reservations (no wonder I am balding!)

Thankfully, as we decided on our courses (and again, thanks to Katie Caldesi) the manager served us a refreshingly welcome complimentary glass of lemon fresh prosecco to tease the tastebuds while we made our choices.

The Frittura mista di pesce, crispy fried calamari, whitebait and prawns. Delicious contrasts between the saline, the citrus, the crunch and the tenderness, presented in a rich, light batter, and served on a board. This, for Aunt J, brought childhood seaside memories of crispy fried whitebait. Crunchy to the taste, fishy and lemony; a must for her. Sweet meated prawns and to-the-bite calamari provided variety to this dish.

Me? Well, I am a bloke. Let’s face it, I eat meat. It’s a savage, sweary, Grrr, hairy-chested thing going back to hunting-gathering. A primal itch (continuing the theme in Twitter on Blokeseatbeef) that needed scratching. I chose the Tagliere misto di salumi e formaggi (Ok so there’s cheese in it, and I am a bit of a softy). Textural differences of smoothly elastic parma ham, spongy mortadella, and the firmer, drier bite of a rich bresaola, contrast with the two varieties of pecorino, of which the Sicilian had a wonderful, almost blue vein mature spice to it; olives and sun dried tomatoes (acidy citrus and tomato sweetened oil); a light and lightly salted foccacia; and finally, a melt-in-the-mouth artichoke perfectly cooked and effortlessly swallowed. (Goodness, what will the main course hold for us?)

I wanted to order Il Peposo; a slow cooked piece of beef with tomatoes and black peppercorns on a bed of polenta. Sounds salivatingly dreamy, doesn’t it? However, it really is slooooooooow cooked (and I was too early). Tempting as this was, our union will have to wait until another time.

Instead, both of Aunt J and I chose the La Milanese, a breaded veal escalope with potatoes and green salad. Veal, breaded and served on the bone (this one seems to be cut like a valentine chop before being hammered out, and is big enough for any bloke with primal meat urges, in fact, bigger). Cubes of oven roasted (an assumption there) floury potatoes compliment the light velvetiness of the veal. The breaded crumb coating is rich and eggy, crisp to the knife; the milky lightness of the veal, almost as melt away in the mouth as the artichoke earlier, cuts as easily as butter and is sharpened by the lemon juice. Neither the refreshing salad, nor the wine, could help me finish this course off. No bad thing, except for my ever growing waistline (strangely, Aunt J managed to eat it all and still remains slim!)

A Nipozzano Chianti Ruffina, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, 2002 (A half bottle, the station is still a seven mile drive away from Aunt J’s house) accompanied the main course. Fruity berries, tannins, richness and acidity. Mouthwateringly good with a long, long finish.

Pudding? Just a mouthful. Tiramisu, and with a candle in it for Aunt J’s birthday (the manager also offered to sing, but to his relief we decided to remain discreet!) Spoonful followed spoonful of gorgeous textures from the streaks of infused sponge to the mascarpone; cloyingly (in a good way) long lasting creaminess and chocolate powder. (I like a bit of crunch when I make mine so add amaretto biscuits soaked in alcohol but, like my writing, maybe I gild the lily). But hang on a minute, has the recipe changed? Last time I thought it had a rich Tuscan yellow cream (perhaps it is an egg yolk thing?)

Still, it was delicious and I needed a very long walk to burn it all off. (Actually, I needed to lie down, wrapped in the blanket of my own gluttony. Bliss.) Thank you! Thank you for making it a really enjoyable day.

Caffé Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, London W1 U 2QF. T 020 7935 1144. E:

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Even if I am walking through one of the most spectacular cities in the Western world (Keats, the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, St Peter's for a quick chat with a priest, then looping round via Piazza del Popolo) the weather is fairly depressing and my feet hurt. It is enough for one morning.

My brother Ben and I have decided, on recommendation, to lunch at Gusto in Piazza Augusto Imperator. Gusto is more than a restaurant, created about eleven years ago it houses a bar, restaurant, pizzeria, wine shop, book and kitchen shop, all in one ( ), and worth the detour.

While he is on the beer, I have ordered a glass of the Nero d’Avola, Tenuta di Serramarocco, Sicily, 2005 (at €7 a glass - ) to go with my pizza.

Admiring the vibrant red colour; a rich and bloody red, purple-blue in colour, with coloured legs and a wide rim, I greedily dive in, anticipating the warmth of the spice that comes with this grape (and the prickle that compliments the chilli in the soon-to-arrive pizza).

It is dull outside, but I am transported to warm summers of hazy sunshine, dragon flies and slow moving rivers, as the scented smack of fruit hits me on the nose. Strong raspberry scents, with a creamy smoothness, pepper and wood from barrel aging, and hints of mint. This is summer pudding! Full of sweet perfumed red berry fruits with vanilla notes coming through. Should my glass be lined with bread (just checking)?

On the mouth, there are more fruits, dark, rich berry fruits coming through; there is the cassis of black current pastilles, all concentrated and mouth watering, and liquorice; creaminess tempers the acidity of the fruits, and spices give the prickle that hints at the warmer climate of Sicily, pepper prickles that Nero d’Avola is well known for; and finally, there are smooth tannins giving the length of flavour that keeps the mouth watering.

This has such a good finish that it holds its own, even with the strong chilli spiciness of the crisp Siciliana pizza, hand made in the kitchens behind me, and the bold taste of ozone and sea of the fresh anchovies (doubly lovely for me as Ben hates them).

(I thought I had already blogged on Nero d’Avola but can’t find anything, so here is the ‘science’ bit). Nero d’Avola is known in Sicily as calabrese which suggests origins in Calabria, it ages well in a barrel and is favoured for its reliable longevity, giving wines a great richness, texture, and depth of flavour in addition to complex aromas.

Although Avola itself is in the south eastern part of Sicily, near Siracusa, this particular vineyard is situated near Trapani and Palermo, in other words, the other side of Sicily. The grapes for this wine were grown on a mix of calcerous and clay based soils (the latter keeping the roots cooler and allowing a fuller maturing process), before spending one year in old French oak barrels (rather than Italian chestnut barrels which was more traditional until recently) to add the pepper and spice, and then six months in the bottle.

Sitting and admiring its colour and aromas again, the overall flavours and scents change only slightly still retaining that liquorice and raspberry that came to the front before. This wine really is full of Sicilian punch, and slightly unusual bearing in mind I was expecting a rather more raisin and stewy-fruited flavour to go with the prickle.

Stuffed but refreshed, I should burn lunch off walking the other hills of Rome, but may just manage a short up hill climb to the Tempietto.