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FAIRY TALE FONTANAFREDDA

The recent wine trip to Piemonte, organised by Lucia Hannau of www.turinepi.com as part of Turin Epicurean Capital 2019, was a simply stunning trip, not only for the personal reasons discussed in my previous post, but also because Lucia had ensured that we saw an excellent cross section of the wineries one can visit in the Langhe.

Not to pre-empt future posts but we visited a small family run business (that stole my heart, but more of that in future) and two larger businesses that at first glance might seem similar but in reality were very  different. Here I want to talk about Fontanafredda, possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I do want to say upfront, however, that I am not a wine expert so this post is more about the place itself than the wine. I have friends with much more sophisticated palates than mine and I wish one of them, (yes Jim Dunlop, I’m looking at you) would write about their specialist knowledge of the wines of Piemonte. I’d just like to mention too, that is not a sponsored post; I’ve written this for love, not for money.

Despite its large size, Fontanafredda is a winery perfectly in symbiosis with its landscape and whilst obviously the viticulture has shaped the landscape, the built environment is equally sympathetic without seemingly losing functionality. The buildings themselves are girded about in the ochre and dark pink colours frequently seen in the area; this did lead to the slightly inelegant name of “the Battenburg Cake Estate” being applied to it, but somehow it works. 

It is a successful and thriving business producing wines typical of this part of Piemonte, there are two elegant and comfortable hotels, two restaurants (one that really needs a blog post all of its own) and acres of woodland walks and of course, spectacular views of the Unesco Langhe landscape. Visitors are well catered for and I thought the tasting session intelligent and informative, which I have not always found to be so elsewhere.

I say Fontanafredda is a successful business but that has not always been the case and the history of this charming place is well worth looking at at. The first noteworthy event was as a gift in 1858 by King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy to his principal mistress, Rosa Vercellana known in Piedmontese as Bela Rosin. In addition acquiring to the ravishing hunting lodge and land, Rosa, born a commoner, became Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda. After the death of the King’s wife in 1855 (she bore him eight children during the thirteen years they were married), in 1869, he then morganatically married Rosa with whom he already had two children. You will note the use of the phrase “principal mistress”; in common with much of male royalty and aristocracy, he was a man of vigorous appetites and had at least five others, one of whom he is said to have shared with both Cavour and Napoleon III.

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The King’s father, Carlo Alberto, was already a wine producer on his royal estates at Verduno and Pollenzo, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Vittoria Emanuele believed that Fontanafredda would provide a secure business for his and Rosa’s children.

The archives at Fontanafredda are fascinating and although I was not able to study through them (much as I would have liked to), there are many interesting pages from ledgers are on display. From these it is clear to see that Barolo began production from 1865, along with evidence of the building of new cellars and buildings, not to mention planting of new vines. Fortunately – or perhaps inevitably – Rosa’s son, Emanuele Mirafiori – was a talented winemaker and under his leadership, Barolo became available to the open market and not just the royal family and their elite European friends. He seems to have been a natural marketeer and in 1887, he opened his cellars to the public and began entering his wines in competitions, with some success.

The year 1894 saw the start of a series of misfortunes which led to long decline of the Fontanafredda estate and its Mirafiori brand: Emanule Mirafiori died that year, at the young age of 43, from a liver disease and his eldest son and heir to the estate died after a fall from a horse. Emanuele’s second son, Gastone, did however, prove his mettle, and until the first World War, the estate prospered with employees being treated remarkably well in terms of housing, social care and pensions. In the UK, we are accustomed to this model at that time, being familiar with Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight village and Cadbury’s Bournville. This level of care for so many employees was not, however, at all normal in Italy.

The loss of male workers to World War I, together with outbreaks of the devastating disease, phylloxera, plus disastrous hailstorms began to see detrimental changes at Fontanafredda. The estate changed hands several times, the brand was sold to Gancia and eventually, in common with thousands of other businesses at the time, Fontanafredda went into bankruptcy in 1930.

An existing creditor of Fontanfredda, the Siena-based Banca Monte dei Paschi took over the estate in 1932 and despite the privations visited upon Italy in World War II, the estate gradually began to recover. 

In the 1960s and 70s, the new attention paid to quality began to pay off;  Fontanafredda began to age their Barolo for longer than required and also began to source top quality grapes from other vineyards in Piemonte. Some of these same vineyards began in the 1980s to turn their attentions to winemaking their own grapes and boutique wineries began to steadily erode the estate’s market  share and thus their profitability. 

Once again, Fontanafredda was brought back from the precipice, first by the appointment in 1996 of Giovanni Minetti to oversee the revamp of the vineyards and winemaking process and start them on the path to a winery of quality, rather than a supermarket supplier. Ten years later, a second occurence aided their recovery: Monte dei Paschi decided that owning a winery was not a strategic part of their business and sold the estate to a consortium of investors, amongst whom was Oscar Farrinetti. 

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

Now, if you have been to Italy or, if you are in parts of the USA, you will know Eataly, a high end “supermarket” that sells good quality Italian foods and you can eat well there too! I know some Italians are a bit sniffy about it and in truth, I have learned in there to read labels attentively, but and it’s a big but, they are undeniably successful.  Although I live mostly in Italy now, I was delighted to recently learn that AT LAST Eataly are coming to London (just in time for Brexit…).

So whether you like the chain or not, Signor Farrinetti knows how to run a successful business and I for one am delighted to see Fontanafredda in safe, creative and ethical hands.

So this has been a post more about history than food – or wine – but the more I learn about the history of what we eat and drink, the more fascinating and inspiring stories I discover. I warmed to Fontanafredda because quite simply, it is a stunningly beautiful and enchanting place. Once I knew its history and learned of its commitment to chemical free cultivation (a cause close to my own heart), the more I loved it. I will go back and I urge you to try to see it, if you are visiting northern Italy. If you’re not, then try to hunt down their wines. If you would like to learn more about them, do visit their website www.fontanafredda.it and the excellent Kerin O’Keefe has written extensively about the estate and its wines in her “Barolo and Barbaresco, The King and Queen of Italian Wine” and which I heartily recommend. And of course, if you are going to Turin, contact Lucia at www.turinepi.com and she will ensure you see the very best the city has to offer.

I hope to visit fairy tale Fontanafredda again this autumn and in the meantime I will remember my summer visit whilst enjoying a glass of their finest.  

My Favourites/ Summer

IN ITALY

My blog has suffered from severe neglect for over a year. Only now do I feel might actually have something to say that might be remotely interesting to anyone other than me and possibly Edoardo, my partner. Even he switches off sometimes, for which I don’t remotely blame him.

The last year has been rather difficult, frequently tedious but sometimes wonderful. Despite the wonderful bits, I stopped my blog for a variety of reasons; I hadn’t quite clarified its purpose or what I wanted to say – indeed if I actually had anything to say at all.

I then found myself living in northern Italy in Edoardo’s apartment in a small Commune just south of Milan. Because an EU directive requires a citizen from another member state to register with their local Comune if they intend to stay longer than three months, I had to do just that: register with my Comune. (Interestingly, successive British Governments have elected not invoke this directive but that is a whole other story).

Now, before you all throw up your hands and gloomily predict that I am going to tell a tale of woe about the horrendous experience of dealing with Italian bureaucracy, stop right there. The people I dealt with were hands down amongst the kindest and most competent people I have encountered in any bureaucratic situation. They tolerated my faltering Italian, were slightly bemused by anyone wanting to come to this corner of Lombardy and were unstintingly helpful and courteous.

So, inspire of having emerged unscathed from my encounters with Italian bureaucracy, I couldn’t feel any enthusiasm for continuing with a blog that was mainly predicated on living and cooking in the UK, with the ingredients available there. I was having to learn how to shop, cook and eat in a whole new way, and that is hugely different to doing it for most of the year, than it is for a few weeks a year.

So there I was pottering along with Twitter and Instagram, plus continuing my interest in and support for Slow Food, but apart from looking forward to participating in Slow Food’s Cheese19 at Bra, Piedmont in September, I couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for anything. Not writing anything longer than an Instagram post had calcified me in some way.

It is said that people and circumstances are sent into your life for a purpose. I guess the trick is recognising them when they happen along. I was about to toddle off to a fabulous annual food event for the third year running, but if you feel you are at the bottom of a well, even the prospect of the terrific Turin Epicurean Capital convention at which there would be marvellous food writers and producers doesn’t give Stella her groove back.

Having said that, I was going to Turin, the city I love most in the world (and I have travelled extensively so have much to compare it with), so yes, I was thinking it would be a good trip. Particularly good as it would be preceded by three days of wine tasting in the Langhe region of Piedmont. And we all now about the truffles of Piedmont but how many of us have the privilege of seeing a young dog being trained?

What I had not anticipated was five specific people I met on the Langhe trip and the effect they had on me, individually and a group. Remarkably, I already knew four of them and I can’t really explain how the group and individual dynamic restored me, but for sure, during that trip I got my mojo back. I have analysed the thing to death but haven’t arrived at a conclusion – what or who was it that worked its magic on me? The three relaxed every-detail-taken-care-of days in the Langhe? Seeing the sheer hard work and hours put in by two of them – bloggers in the USA with big followings – to keep their social media feeds going? The determination of a Torinese colleague to keep her food business going despite health issues? Was it the two Italian guys who started a Slow Food accredited gelateria in Leicester and apart from making delicious gelato, are achieving international recognition and acclaim, despite their worries about the impact of Brexit?

Heaven knows what it was but I do know for sure that something clicked inside my head and my heart; I realised that I missed the act of writing and instead of bemoaning my inactivity, realised too that I have much to be grateful for and probably quite bit to write about. The realisation that it was me, not circumstance, that had put down my pen for a year or more was not easy to face, but now I know that a) I need to write like a plant needs rain and b) I know what I want to write about. I need too, to devote time to this like it’s a corporate job and stop being a dilettante.

I’ll still be the Watchful Cook  as quality, cost and conscience will still be my guiding principles, and lord knows I need to watch my language (in terms of improving my Italian, I mean). I’ll write about learning to live in Italy, studying for my Master of Cheese qualifications (probably just lots of cheese, to be honest), the food for which I shop, then cook and eat, the wine I drink, the places I go, the people I meet and inevitably the mistakes I make as I find myself getting to grips with living in Italy.

PS The group photo is courtesy of the lovely Antonio de Vecchi, who is the happy chap on the right at the back – if you are in or near Leicester, do visit www.gelatovillage.co.uk It’s the real deal!

The fantastic people in this picture are:

L – R back row: Daniele Taverna (@cereaneh), Christina Conte (@christinascucina), Antonio de Vecchi (@antonio_de_vecchi)

L – R front row: me, Edoardo, Cynthia McCloud Woodman (@whatagirleats), Benedetta Oggero (@miss_bee_foods)

Autumn/ Courses/ Desserts & Savouries/ Spring/ Summer/ Winter

A QUICK LEMON TART FROM ITALY

Quick Lemon Tart

One of my favourite books in the last few years has been Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow. It is a happy mix of food, history, art and Italy thus covering many of my interests; it is also beautifully written and so withstands many readings without becoming tedious. 

The book traces the development of the growing of citrus fruits throughout the Italian peninsular and specifically the lemons for which Italy is justifiably famous. In the UK, the vast majority of our lemons are imported from Spain and whilst they are reliable workhorses in the kitchen (or in the gin), for me they lack the added dimension of fragrance and flavour that some with Italian lemons, specifically those from the area around Sorrento or from Sicily. 

Unfortunately for we cooks, Spanish lemons tend to be at a more economical price point and I use them for the majority of food where lemon is a supporting act, rather than the star of the show. Where a dish has lemon as the main act, I do try to find and use Sorrentine or Sicilian lemons, especially if I am using the zest. This part of the lemon is where I feel the main advantage lies in Italian lemons; there is something deeply aromatic and almost woody in the zest that out-performs the Spanish cousins. A further advantage is that tend to be somewhat larger so do go further.

I have a vast repertoire of lemon dishes (although I cannot abide lemon meringue pie!) and have been in pursuit of the perfect lemon tart for many years. Mercifully, the wonderful Felicity Cloake has now written up the perfect tarte au citron in her fab book Perfect Two. It is however, not a recipe to be hurried or done in a spare half hour, as the author herself says, so much I love this recipe and commend it wholeheartedly, I have also been searching for a quicker, more “do-able” tart and this is it. It is a variation on a torta al limone as found in the iconic Italian cookery book, The Silver Spoon. Now I love this book, despite it being roughly the size and weight of two house bricks, but it does have shortcomings. It makes no concessions to one’s experience (or lack of) and thus assumes you know how to undertake certain cooking processes and can tell when something is done. The prime example of this assumption is that it never specifies what size cake, tart or flan to to use. In other words, you will have learned all the basics from your mother and/or grandmother and this is just to provide you with ingredients and (approximate) cooking times!

I have to admit that I got this recipe wrong a couple of times but I’d like to think that I’ve ironed out all the wrinkles and have also added additional information that might be helpful. It has a simplicity that showcases Sorrentine or Sicilian lemons to perfection and I like to serve it with creme frâiche or home made (or very high quality bought) vanilla ice cream.

If you don’t feel like making pastry but quite fancy making the tart, do feel free to use an all-butter bought pastry but in this case, I would blind bake it first (see recipe)

A Quick Lemon Tart

Print Recipe
Serves: 6 Cooking Time: 30 minutes cooking

Ingredients

  • Pastry (as per my Rhubarb Almond Tart)
  • 250g plain flour or Italian Tipo 00
  • 125g unsalted butter, very cold from the fridge and cut into small cubes
  • 1 medium free range egg, lightly beaten
  • 100g icing sugar
  • tiny pinch of sea salt
  • Filling
  • 3 medium free range eggs
  • 140g caster sugar
  • finely grated zest of two unwaxed Sorrentine or Sicilian lemons
  • juice of one Italian lemon
  • 150g softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • A well buttered 21cm loose bottomed flan tin. I have neither the inclination nor space to collect flan tins in every possible size, so I use a loose bottomed sandwich tin for this; no fluted edge but I can live with that. Happily, both are about 3cms deep.

Instructions

1

Pre-heat the oven to 160C fan

2

To make the pastry, place the flour and butter in a food processor and whizz until fine breadcrumb stage

3

Add the sugar, mix briefly and add the egg and salt

4

Whizz until a soft dough is achieved; tip out of the processor and form into a flattened ball, wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes

5

When time is up, roll out to fit the flan tin and press the dough gently into the tin

6

Unusually for flans, this recipe doesn’t require baking blind first but somehow (miraculously!) avoids a soggy bottom, at least in a fan oven

7

If you are using bought pastry, increase the oven to 170C, prick the base of the pastry lightly with a fork, line with baking parchment and baking beans; put in the oven for 20 minutes, remove the paper and beans and return to the oven for another 5 minutes

8

After removing the case from the oven, reduce the heat to 160C

9

Beat the eggs with the caster sugar in a large bowl until the mixture becomes creamy with a small amount of foam on top

10

Stir in the lemon zest and juice and then stir in the butter, mixing well

11

Pay attention at this point as if you over mix, the mixture can curdle, which doesn’t affect the flavour but will affect the texture; it’s probably safer to mix by hand at this point rather than use a mechanical mixer

12

Pour the mixture into the pastry case and bake for about 30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch

13

Cool in the tin then dust with icing sugar, remove from the tin and serve with creme frâiche or ice cream

Notes

This looks very pretty topped with raspberries or halved strawberries, too. I have also tried this as a blood orange tart with some success (but I do love lemon!) in which case I like to sprinkle with cocoa powder, as indeed I did for the lemon tart in the photo

 

Autumn/ Courses/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

A SPRING RECIPE FOR PORK

Pork chops with apple and creme frâiche

As you know I am someone who tries to eat seasonally and reasonably locally, although I am not going to apologise for buying avocados or olive oil. Traditionally, pork has not been much of a spring meat, which I think is a shame as while the weather remains unpredictable during March and April, I think free range organic pork is a splendid choice.

Our local butcher recently had beautiful pork chops, with a fair layer of flavour – adding fat so I snaffled a couple. Once home, however, I then had the “what do I do with them” problem. Pork chops have flavour at the more delicate end of the range and frankly, can also be dry, if not cooked carefully. For that reason, I am not a fan of the plain grilled pork chop, so I consulted better cooks than I to decide how to get the best from them.

I have a quite a fair size cookery book collection which is something of a double edged sword when it comes to consulting them, as it can take so long to look through them. There is also the serious risk of becoming completely engrossed in a book I haven’t opened for a while and losing sight of my original need to look in the book in the first place! Anyway, my fingers hovered around Richard Olney’s three books that I have in the collection and I realised that I really haven’t paid him as much attention recently as I should have done.

For those of you who don’t know him, please may I take a moment to commend his writing to you, especially if you are partial to good wine, or at least reading about it. He was an American who, like many before him, fell in love with France and its attitude to food and wine. He lived in Paris during the 50s and 60s and writes evocatively about the arts scene of the time. He eventually settled permanently in Provence where he wrote most of his books. My favourite is “Reflexions” in which he is deliciously gossipy about many food names from the second half of the twentieth century. I no longer feel quite the same about Julia Childs but did have my view of Elizabeth David positively reinforced.

I found the inspiration I was looking for in Mr Olney’s “Simple French Food” and whilst I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, I did like the method and most of all, the outcome. This is my take on the Olney recipe and I am very grateful for everything I have learned from reading his books.

PORK CHOPS WITH APPLE AND MUSTARD CREAM

Print Recipe
Serves: 2 Cooking Time: 45 inc prep

Ingredients

  • 500g eating apples, preferably with a bit of tartness to them and a crisp texture
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
  • 2 free range organic pork chops, skin removed if present
  • sea salt
  • 150ml dry white wine (I used a Gavi of which I doubt Mr Olney would approve as he didn’t seem to be a fan of Italian wine)
  • 4tbsp creme frâiche
  • 4tbsp Dijon mustard
  • black pepper
  • A well buttered gratin dish or other shallow oven proof dish, into which the chops will fit without overcrowding or distortion

Instructions

1

Take the chops out of the fridge about half an hour before you start cooking

2

Pre heat the oven to 180C fan

3

Peel, core and quarter the apples, slicing the resulting pieces into thin slices and lay them in the dish, turning them over so they acquire some of the butter clinging to the dish

4

Place the dish in the oven and bake for 15 minutes

5

While that’s going on, over a medium heat melt the tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan and brown the chops, about 7 - 8 minutes per side

6

Remove the apple from the oven (leave the oven on) and put the chops on top, leaving the sauté pan on a low heat

7

Add the wine to the pan, scraping any meaty scraps from the base and sides of the pan

8

Turn up the heat a little so that the wine bubbles enthusiastically and reduce it by about half

9

Turn down the heat to low and add the creme frâiche, stirring it all in

10

Add the mustard, tasting you go to your satisfaction; you may like more or less than the amount I’ve suggested

11

Season with salt and pepper and pour the sauce over the chops and apples

12

Give the dish a good shake to ensure the sauce penetrates down to the apple

13

Return the dish to the oven and leave it there, unmolested for 15 minutes; if you have particularly thick chops, you may need a few minutes more

Notes

It’s very easy to multiply this up to feed more than two people and is equally good with wholegrain mustard. I have also tried adding a small amount of chopped sage or thyme, but decided I preferred the simplicity of the basic recipe. I like to serve this with brown rice and a green vegetable, or good bread and a green salad. Drink the wine you’ve got left from making this dish!

Courses/ Desserts & Savouries/ Spring/ Summer/ Uncategorized

RHUBARB AND ALMOND TART – WITH ADDED GIN!

Rhubarb and Almond tart with Rhubarb and Gin Sauce

The end of winter is marked for me by the appearance of two fruits – rhubarb and blood oranges. Recently, winter seems not to have taken the hint and has been hanging around beyond the forced rhubarb season. This tart however, is delicious whatever the weather. And yes, I know that rhubarb is botanically not a fruit, but I would hope you agree that in the kitchen, it tends to be used as if it were. When the first forced rhubarb appears, delicate and elusively fragrant, I like to do as little as possible to it. I poach it gently with the juice of a blood orange and a tablespoon of honey. It is my absolutely favourite breakfast with a good yogurt, the zest of the orange and walnuts. And in a Moka full of Illy coffee and I can face whatever the day decides to lob at me.

Once the forced rhubarb is over and we have the sturdy maincrop stalks, I do like to experiment rather more. Although I have to say that for me, baked mackerel with rhubarb sauce was an experiment too far. More perhaps, I have to say, because I really can’t cope with mackerel and should not have tried (yet again) to get past my dislike. In my defence, at least I do regularly revisit my few dislikes to see if I’ve changed my mind. Still hate sweetcorn, though, in any and all of its manifestations.

A much more successful experiment was when I pottered about with almonds, which I think complement so many fruits, and arrived at this tart. It is an absolute breeze to make and works warm or cold as a dessert and has been consumed here with yogurt for breakfast. No, I am not saying who did that…

Don’t feel you have to make the pastry yourself here; there are excellent ready made, all-butter pastries on the market and resist those people who think using ready made is the eighth sin. I do not, regrettably have my late mother’s gift as a pastry cook and if it weren’t for my Magimix, I would never willingly make pastry. For sweet dishes I now use exclusively the Italian method of Pasta Frotta and so far, it hasn’t let me down; however, feel free to use your favourite sweet pastry recipe here. Should pastry making not be your thing, and if you have access to the French brand “Marie” (available on Ocado) then use that without a second thought.

RHUBARB AND ALMOND TART WITH GIN POACHED RHUBARB SAUCE

Print Recipe
Serves: 6 Cooking Time: 1.5 hours

Ingredients

  • Pastry
  • 250g plain flour or Italian Tipo 00
  • 125g unsalted butter, very cold from the fridge and cut into small cubes
  • 1 medium free range egg, lightly beaten
  • 100g icing sugar
  • finely grated zest of half an unwaxed lemon
  • tiny pinch of sea salt
  • Filling
  • 125g softened unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the tin
  • 125g golden caster sugar plus 2 tbsp
  • 1 medium free range egg
  • 125g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp ground ginger (optional)
  • 250g rhubarb, cut into 3cm chunks
  • Poached Rhubarb
  • 150g rhubarb, cut into 1cm chunks
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar (or more if you prefer)
  • 2 tbsp gin
  • A buttered 23cm loose bottom flan tin
  • Baking parchment
  • Baking beans

Instructions

1

Set the oven to 170C fan

2

To make the pastry, place the flour and butter in a food processor and whizz until fine breadcrumb stage

3

Add the sugar, mix briefly and add the egg, salt and lemon zest

4

Whizz until a soft dough is achieved; tip out of the processor and form into a flattened ball, wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes

5

When time is up, roll out to fit the flan tin and press the dough gently into the tin

6

Prick the base with a fork, line with baking parchment then tip the baking beans on top

7

Put in the oven for 20 minutes, after which remove the paper and cook for another 5 minutes until the tart shell is crisp and golden

8

It’s really important to get the shell crisp as otherwise the moist almond mixture will result in the dreaded “soggy bottom”

9

While the shell is baking, prepare the almond filling

10

Beat the softened butter and golden caster sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg

11

Fold in the ground almonds and ginger

12

When the shell is ready, spread the almond mixture and press the rhubarb pieces into the mixture in a cartwheel pattern, or whatever pleases you

13

Sprinkle over the 2 tbsp of sugar

14

Put the tart in the oven and bake for 35 - 40 minutes until the tart is golden and puffy

15

Now make the poached rhubarb:

16

Put the second lot of rhubarb in a saucepan with a good heat conducting base, add the sugar and the gin

17

Heat until bubbling and then simmer gently until the rhubarb disintegrates - this doesn’t take long so don’t wander off and start the ironing

18

Bubble more fiercely until reduced by about one third

19

Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly

20

If you want the final dish to be more refined, you can at this point, press the mixture through a sieve; I was a bit up against the clock when I made the tart pictured so this sauce isn’t sieved

21

Serve slices with either ice cream or creme frâiche and then drizzle over the gin sauce

Notes

You can change this round a bit too, by putting orange zest in the pastry and orange juice in the sauce - or Grand Marnier, perhaps. The tart can be re-heated and also freezes well for up to about a month.

 

Courses/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ Seasons/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

A WINTER CARB FEST

Winter carb fest - gattò di patate

There is something about the cold winter months that makes carbohydrates much more attractive during that time. I do try to limit them as there is no doubt that for me, too many induce lethargy. Add to that limited sunlight, cold wet weather and a warm snuggly bed and I have a recipe for staying too long in bed, weight gain and low mood. It makes perfect sense then for me to conserve my carbs for those I really love, usually rice or good pasta. Yes, I love bread but trial and error has proven to me that too much really does not agree with me; one or two slices per day of good sourdough is my limit.

With an Irish surname like mine, you’d think I’d love a potato but actually I can take them or leave them. Cue grandfather spinning in grave…

Recently however, I have been using potato a whole lot more and it’s all the fault of Angela Clutton and Borough Market Cook Book Club. Our January event was an homage to the late, great Antonio Carluccio and I was a bit slow off the mark bidding to make his Caponata, which I love. I therefore chose something that is also a family recipe, which in itself is a bit of a mystery and I’ll come to that later.

Having had Caponata nabbed from under my nose (you know who you are), I went for Gattò di Patate, which has nothing to do with cats (spot the accent!) and everything to do with a wonderful combination of potatoes, cheese, egg and cured meat. I ask, you in this weather, could you imagine anything more wonderful and tempting?

Gattò in this context is a corruption of gâteau and dates back to when Naples was a Napoleonic possession (although because this is Italy, there are other opinions!) and that is where the family mystery comes in. As you know, we are an Anglo Italian household and everyone on the Italian side comes from either Carrara in Tuscany, or Borgo val di Taro in Emilia Romagna, so how a Neapolitan recipe comes to be in the family repertoire is a complete mystery. Perhaps someone visited Naples and fell for this complete carb fest and brought the recipe back north. In truth I’ve avoided making it until now, not being much of a potato lover, despite plaintive hints from Edoardo from time to time.

Now, however, its time had come. Comparing the Carluccio recipe with the family one revealed some interesting differences (again, perfectly normal in Italy) but I played by the rules for the Cook Book Club and made the recipe in the Carluccio Collection. That version mixes the meat and cheese components throughout the dish and it was tasty but now having made the family version, to me that is the more delectable version, and is the one I’ve described below.

You’ll see that I have listed specific cured meat here but in truth, the meat component can be leftovers or good bacon, anything that will cut into nice little matchsticks. If you are buying something specifically for this dish, don’t buy anything that will disintegrate under the cooking conditions, for example thinly sliced Mortadella will disintegrate (although if you buy a chunk of it and cube it, that will be OK).

The potatoes are important – they must be a floury variety so for example Alouette, Maris Piper, Desirée or even good old King Edward. The cheese (apart from the Parmesan) must be a type that melts easily such as Taleggio, Provolone, Scamorza, Mozzarella or Fontal. In the picture I have used Montasio which is a DOP cow’s milk cheese from Friuli and the Veneto but I accept this can be tricky to get hold of in the UK.

This is quite a rustic carb fest and although it is frequently served as an accompaniment with a roast meat or fish, we have enjoyed it most as a supper dish in its own right with a clean, fresh green salad (my favourite here is Little Gem, rocket and fennel in a sharp lemony dressing).

Do try it now, before spring arrives and this will be too carby – it has converted me to the humble spud!

GATTÒ DI PATATE

Print Recipe
Serves: 4 - 6 Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1kg floury potatoes, scrubbed but left whole
  • 50g unsalted butter plus extra for greasing
  • 6 tbsp dried breadcrumbs
  • 4 medium eggs, beaten
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 75g grated Parmesan, Gran Padano or Pecorino Sardo
  • 150g cured meat eg salami, speck, prosciutto or mortadella (buy in a piece and cut into slim pieces, like slightly thicker matchsticks; if you use speck, I like to lightly fry it first)
  • 150g cheese that melts well, eg Taleggio, Provolone, Scamoza, Mozzarella, Fontal, Montasio, sliced
  • olive oil or butter to finish
  • sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
  • a 25cm springform cake tin or ovenproof dish, well buttered and coated with about 4tbsp of the breadcrumbs

Instructions

1

Pre heat the oven to 180C fanBoil the potatoes in their skins until soft when pierced with a skewer

2

Drain and allow to cool and dry off

3

Peel and then mash or use a ricer to produce a dry potato powder (I have seen a recipe that says sieve it but honestly, life is too short)

4

Add 50g butter and mix in well to achieve a smooth potato mash

5

Add the meat, parsley, 50g of the Parmesan or other grated cheese and then the eggs

6

Mix well until smooth and spread half on the base of the tin or dish

7

Layer the sliced cheese over the potato, cutting up the cheese to ensure every bit of the potato is covered with cheese

8

Cover with the other half of the potato mix and press down quite firmly

9

Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese and breadcrumbs and either drizzle with a little olive oil or dot with butter

10

Place in the centre of the oven for about 30 minutes until golden brown; if it hasn’t taken colour by 25 minutes, ramp it up 10 degrees for the last five minutes

11

Serve warm or cold with a refreshing green salad with a lemony dressing

Notes

If you’ve used a springform tin, it looks good turned out onto a pretty plate to serve I have also then used a small biscuit cutter to create bite sized pieces to use as stuzzichini, perhaps topped with a parsley leaf

 

 

Books & Blogs/ Equipment/ In My Kitchen/ My Favourites

DESERT ISLAND KIT

Desert Island Discs is, as I’m sure you know, an almost mythical BBC Radio 4 programme and I adore it. I tend to listen to it irrespective of the guest, so consequently have learned about all kinds of things that I would not otherwise have heard. I am not keen when it’s what I would call trashy celebrities but even then one can be surprised, and I do love a good scientist!

Listening to this past weekend’s edition got me pondering the concept of Desert Island items and I began to wonder what eight kitchen items I would want to take to a desert island, which food or cookery book I’d take and what would my luxury kitchen item be? Yes, I know, there might not be means to cook on a desert island but can we play by my rules and assume there is a source of fire with matches, twigs and timber for the fire?

This has taken me quite a while to even begin to firm up on, and if you were to confront me with this list in a month or a year’s time, I might change it completely. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my list:

  1. A Henckels knife or can I cheat and say my whole knife block? That’s one item isn’t it? I bought my first one in Düsseldorf when I was working there in 1996 and one knife transformed my whole way of preparing food. I understood suddenly how important a knife – used well – is in a kitchen and how it can replace dozens of useless gadgets that live for a day and then fester unloved in a dusty drawer. I went on to do Knife Skills courses at Leith’s which an investment I have never regretted. It does mean, however, that I find some TV cooks all too hair raising to watch and I sometimes hide behind a cushion when they are chopping.
  2. A tablespoon. I have a silver one, hallmarked for 1764, all worn away on one side and I love it. Wish it could talk.
  3. A teaspoon. Another old piece although a young gun at 1823.
  4. A wooden spoon. I have one that dates back to 1976 (how I know that is a whole other story) and it’s acquired a patina that for me represents years of stirring, scraping and prodding. I will never discard it.
  5. A fork. Again I have an old silver one, a bit big for everyday eating but on this island, it will do double duty as a kitchen fork.
  6. A Le Creuset casserole, not a huge one; I have a 20cm round one which I was given in 1979 and I have cooked pretty much anything and everything in it: soups, stews, puddings, bread, I could go on but you get the picture
  7. My huge steel pasta cooking pot with internal drainer – they would serve many purposes: drawing water, draining stuff, heating water…
  8. A jug; I have a old Spode Blue Italian one and again it has history with me and would fulfil multiple uses in my rudimentary Desert Island kitchen; my other half has pointed out that a metal jug would be more practical as I could use it on the fire but I am sticking with my bit of history

It was interesting to me that many of these items are old friends in my kitchen and perhaps I have chosen them as much as friends as utility items. I will miss companionship on this island, although if I end up talking to a spoon, perhaps I should be left there.

Luxury Item

Please may I have an endless supply of Illy Espresso Dark Roast coffee? No sugar, no milk, just the hard stuff.

The Book(s)

On Desert Island Discs proper, the castaways are allowed The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book of their choice. So, playing this game by my rules when I am washed ashore, Leith’s Cookery Bible and the collected works of Nigel Slater (whose writing about food is every bit as lyrical as Mr Shakespeare) will already be sitting there waiting for me. Actually in the spirit of full disclosure, Nigel’s works are not yet collected into one tome but this is fantasy land, right? So that leaves me one further book to choose…

Oh my, how terribly difficult this was. I have well over 100 food/cookery books in English, French and Italian and while I may not cook from all of them, I read most of them regularly. Over the years, I have learned that not only do recipes have to work for me, but I also need to have good writing in order to really enjoy the book. In modern times, we are lucky enough to have Nigel Slater, Felicity Cloake, Sybil Kapoor, Diana Henry, Rachel Roddy, Anna del Conte, Nigella Lawson…not an exhaustive list by any means.

If we look at departed writers, I become even more confused: Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Patience Gray, Marcella Hazan, Florence White, Dorothy Hartley. I give up. I couldn’t even make a choice after half a bottle of a very good Barbera and I have to say, I have usually formulated world peace after that, let alone chosen a book.

So stone cold sober, I have surprised myself by choosing Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed. She writes so well about having to fashion kitchens in difficult circumstances so will be an endless source of inspiration. Those who know me well may be surprised that I have not chosen Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking; it is a masterwork and I refer to it frequently but Mrs David would not, I fear, be a congenial companion for me in these isolated circumstances. Yes, I will have Nigel for company but I don’t want to live with what I feel would be Mrs David’s frowning disapproval of my efforts.

So, there we are, my Desert Island Kit; I would love to know what yours is?
PS I have just remembered about my subscription to La Cucina Italiana; what about seagull post?

Courses/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ Seasons/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

A DISRUPTIVE VEGETABLE

I’d been thinking for a while that I might have got into a bit of rut with my cooking, so while preparing my farmdrop.com order, I decided to disrupt my vegetables choices and opt instead for a veg bag from lovely Purton House organics. My thinking was that if I’m faced with a bag full of fab veg, I will be forced (or do I mean encouraged?) into new thinking and approaches.

Anyway, this week the bag contained Jerusalem artichokes, which I have always loved when I’ve eaten in Italy or France, but never cooked in the UK. The first idea that came into my mind was soup; I love the whole process of soup making, there is something very reassuring and comforting about both making and eating it. I know, that doesn’t push me very far outside my cooking comfort zone but we are having a cold snap here in London, so soup is just the ticket.

You probably know that Jerusalem artichokes have absolutely nothing to do with Jerusalem, the word being a corruption of the Italian for sunflower: girasole. The two plants are related, both being of the genus helianthus. The artichokes can romp away up to 3m high if left unchecked and do look pretty if a bit straggly, when growing. The tubers do look somewhat unpromising and learn from my experience: try to get the least knobbly ones, otherwise after peeling them, you can be left with precious little to use.

It is thought that the plant originally came from North America via the French explorer Samuel de Champlain (he who founded Quebec and charted the first maps of the Canadian east coast). The plant was first cultivate though, by the Dutch botanist Petrus Handius in the seventeenth century. They proliferated across Europe to the point that in 1629, the British botanist John Parkinson declared them to be so common and cheap “that even the most vulgar begin to despise them”.

Delicious though they are, they do have an unfortunate reputation for disrupting the digestive system although I think Gerard’s Herbal of 1621 was a tad extreme in saying “which way so ever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy, loathsome, stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and a meat more fit for swine than men”.

Personally I’ve never found this to be the case but perhaps that is because our diet is already quite rich in beans, pulses and vegetables. I also find that pairing the artichokes with a full fat dairy product (butter, cream, cheese or yogurt) minimises the disruptive effect.

If I haven’t completely put you off trying these, bear in mind they are a rich source of potassium and iron and also contain useful quantities of niacin, thiamine, phosphorous and copper so give this delicious soup a go and be generous with finishing it with cream or creme frâiche!

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE SOUP

Print Recipe
Serves: 4 Cooking Time: 30 - 40 mins

Ingredients

  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (doesn’t need to be virgin but should have a mild flavour)
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, chopped (make sure you run a potato peeler down the stalks if they are “mature”, to rid them of those pesky strings)
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 250 - 300g unpeeled weight Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and diced
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • 1 litre hot vegetable stock ( a low salt powder or cube is fine)
  • 250 ml cold whole organic milk (don’t even think of doing this with skimmed milk)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

1

Take a heavy bottomed pan and melt the butter over a low to medium heat then add the oil to minimise the risk of the butter burning

2

When the butter is foaming but not coloured, add the onion and celery and soften them for five minutes or so

3

Do not allow this soup to colour at any stage as it will spoil the creamy white purity of the end product

4

Add the potato and Jerusalem artichoke and cook for another five minutes

5

Strip the leaves off the thyme sprigs and add to the mixture in the pan

6

Add the hot stock, followed by the milk

7

Stir well and leave to simmer gently for 30 - 40 minutes; keep a sharp eye on proceedings as you don’t want any colour, or for the milk to cause a boil over

8

When the artichoke and potato are easily crushed against the side of the pan, switch off the heat and allow the soup to cool slightly

9

Use a stick blender to create a smooth creamy soup, season and serve in warm bowls

Notes

Finish with cream or creme frâiche and chopped parsley to create a colour contrast In the picture I have finished with three rehydrated dried Morels, fresh double cream and a drizzle of truffle oil. Pink peppercorns make a pretty contrast, perhaps with a spoonful of Greek yoghurt.

Books & Blogs/ Courses/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Tips & Techniques

A HANDY TART FOR THE SUMMER…WHAT SUMMER?

Onion and Thyme tart

In this less than summery weather we are having, I always think things like quiches and tarts are useful to have in your repertoire. If it’s cold and grey (as per London as I write this) they can be eaten with new potatoes and a vegetable and if (by some miracle), we have sun and warmth, you can make them early in the day while it’s cool and eat them at room temperature with salad. I was extolling their virtues amongst a group of friends recently and I was a bit taken aback when one said, somewhat accusingly, “well I suppose you’re bl**** WonderWoman and always make your own pastry”. Ha, if only….no, I don’t.

It isn’t my favourite kitchen activity and if I didn’t have a Magimix, I am not sure I would ever make pastry. I nearly always have some ready made pastry tucked away in the freezer and my favourite is the French brand Marie La Pâte Feuilletée Ready Rolled Puff Pastry (no, I am not being paid to mention this). Rather conveniently the ready rolled round perfectly fits a 24cm flan tin so given that I nearly always have the other ingredients to hand for a tart or quiche, this cuts out the (for me) tedious part of the recipe. I’ll be honest and say that I used this by mistake the first time – I overlooked the fact that it was puff pastry but now I actually prefer it for this recipe.

This recipe owes its genesis to Sybil Kapoor’s Onion Tart in her book ‘Simply Veg” published by Pavilion (and I urge you to buy it – fabulous recipes that always work). As is my habit, however, I have tweaked and experimented – not least by using puff pastry – to make something that fits our personal tastes and sometimes, just uses what I have. This version is, however, the one we prefer and appears regularly, warm or cold. It puffs up massively while cooking and then when cold, sinks back to something that almost looks slightly disappointing. Do ignore this little failing, as the flavour is deeply savoury and rewarding; it also travels well for picnics or packed lunches.

I like to use a well flavoured olive oil for this as it is reflected in the final flavour and I have been getting good results recently with the Greek brand Charisma which even Edoardo admits is a very good oil. If the budget runs to it, the French Roscoff pink onions are superb in this recipe – their subtle flavour really shines through but use what you have or can source well.

If you want to use shortcrust pastry, please do – and if you want to make your own, well that’s good too!

ONION AND THYME TART

Print Recipe
Serves: 6 Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 packet Marie La Pâte Feuilletée Ready Rolled Puff Pastry or 170g shortcrust or puff pastry
  • 60ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or 3 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with sea salt salt under the blade of a knife
  • 2 tbsp thyme leaves, stripped from the branches (yes, I know it’s a pain but it’s worth it)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 medium eggs, well beaten
  • 200 ml creme frâiche or soured cream
  • 60g finely grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C fan and set a baking tray to heat

2

Line a 23/24cm flan tin with your chosen pastry

3

Prick the base and then line with baking parchment or greaseproof paper

4

Fill with baking beans and put on the heated baking tray to bake blind for 15 minutes

5

Remove the beans and paper and return to the oven for a further 5 - 7 minutes until the pastry is golden brown

6

While all this is going on in the oven, heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan over a low to medium heat

7

Add the onions and garlic and fry gently for about 20 minutes; some colour is fine but we’re not looking for a high degree of browning here which would impair the fresh flavour

8

Add the thyme leaves and stir around to distribute evenly amongst the onions and garlic

9

Remove from the heat and seasonTransfer to the pastry case, spreading them evenly

10

Add the creme frâiche or soured cream to the beaten eggs, season well with freshly ground black pepper and add to the onions in the pastry case

11

I don’t add salt here as the Parmesan gives enough for our tastes

12

Gently mix it into the onion mixture being careful not to pierce the pastry which your not - so -Watchful Cook has done on one occasion

13

Sprinkle with the cheese and return to the oven, on the baking tray, for 25 minutes until puffed up and golden brown

Notes

Eat this warm (but not hot) or cold with salt or vegetables, depending on the weather!

Courses/ Desserts & Savouries/ Food People/ Summer/ Tips & Techniques/ Uncategorized

PUDDING FROM PIEMONTE

Amaretti Stuffed Peach served with single cream and a glass of Moscato

My recent trip to Turin for the 2017 Turin Epicurean Conference included an amazing evening at www.quibitorino.it which is a space in Turin under the guidance of the lovely Margherita Frari. The vision for this place is as a restaurant, meeting place and exhibition space, all to encourage the integration of the increasingly multicultural city of Turin. It also serves as a food collection point for customers of local producers rather in the way that www.foodassembly.com does.

During our evening there we were fortunate to be under the expert tuition of Margerita and also Marco Giachello, one of Piedmont’s most well known and charismatic chefs. He works to conserve Piedmont dishes, products and methods and actively seeks to promote those things beyond Piedmont, so that we non-Piedmontese can learn how to create their wonderful dishes in our own homes. Sometimes it’s difficult to do that as the Piedmontese have the advantage of fabulous ingredients, produced relatively locally and in some cases, very locally!

I will probably post about everything we created that evening but am starting (perversely) with the pudding, given that peaches are in season right now. Do please try to buy Italian peaches for this as it does make a difference to the flavour, although Spanish ones can be flavoursome too. It will make life much easier for you if you can get freestone peaches; I have to admit that the first time I made this when I came back to the UK, I had made the mistake of unwittingly buying clingstone peaches. It was only with the help of a very sharp, very narrow knife that this didn’t end up as peach purée, so do check.

This is an easy summer dessert that can be served warm or at room temperature but don’t serve it chilled; it will kill the flavours stone dead. Roero, by the way, is an area of Piedmont to the south of Turin and famous for fruit (especially peaches, pears and strawberries) not to mention some wonderful wine.

I’ve given the option of using either cocoa or coffee as I am not that keen on chocolate, but the original recipe uses cocoa. Ditto with the choice of rum or brandy; I dislike rum so tend to use brandy but again, the original, as I was taught, was with rum.

Amaretti Stuffed Peaches

Print Recipe
Serves: 4 - 8 depending on appetite! Cooking Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 fresh freestone peaches (it is helpful if they are still quite firm but not unripe)
  • 200g amaretti biscuits (preferably not the soft ones but they will do if it’s all you have)
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten well
  • 2 tsp caster sugar (optional - I tend not to use it as I find the biscuits sweet enough)
  • 3 tbsp rum or brandy
  • cocoa powder or very finely ground (espresso grind) coffee
  • icing sugar
  • butter
  • extra caster or Demerara sugar

Instructions

1

Set the oven to 180 deg C

2

Line a baking tray with baking parchment (not essential - just helps with the washing up!)

3

Slit the peaches through their “seams” with a sharp knife and twist to separate the two parts

4

(This is where you discover if you really have bought freestone peaches

5

If you haven’t, take a long, thin and very sharp knife - a fish filleting knife is ideal - and gradually work it around behind the pitt until the two parts of the peach come apart

6

This won’t be as elegant a dish as it could be but the flavour will still be wonderful)

7

Slightly enlarge the cavities using a teaspoon; ensure you leave plenty of peach intact ; reserve the extracted flesh

8

Put the peach halves on the baking tray and turn your attention to the filling

9

Bash up the amaretti biscuits until they are crumbs (I put them in a bowl and thump away with the end of my rolling pin)

10

I like a mixture of crumb size but nothing bigger than about 2 ml in diameter

11

Add the peach flesh and mix well

12

Add the caster sugar, if you want to use it and mix well

13

Add 2 - 3 tsp cocoa powder or coffee and again, mix well

14

Add a couple of tablespoons of your chosen spirit, adding a little more if the mixture is too dry

15

Add as much beaten egg as will achieve a firm mixture

16

Taste and add more of whatever you think is lacking but try to avoid the mixture becoming sloppy

17

Fill the peach cavities with the mixture, heaping it up well; I like to cover the entire peach

18

Add a few flecks of butter over the top and sprinkle with Demerara sugar; this will create a slightly crackly top to the finished dish

19

Bake for about 25 minutes until they are bubbling and smelling wonderful

20

Leave to become warm or room temperature (but please don’t serve them from the fridge)

21

I like to then sprinkle them with a mixture of cocoa or coffee and icing sugar

Notes

They are wonderful if served warm with a scoop of good ice cream to match either the cocoa or coffee, or vanilla Good also with creme frâiche but I tend to find double cream a bit too rich