Friday, 30 September 2016

Return to Rome

The Tiber River from Trastevere, Rome

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

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

Bread Roman style in a Testaccio kitchen

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

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

Filippo at his Fruttivendolo stall
on Mercato Testaccio

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

Pizzette at Da Artenio
at Mercato Testaccio

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

Roman hospitality at Latteria Studio, Rome

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

Carla Tomasi's fabulous pasta
at Latteria Studio, Rome

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

Peering in - The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

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

Statue at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

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

Mosaic fragment at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

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

Beside the Tiber River, Leaving Testaccio

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

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

Salt Cod and potatoes at Litro Monteverde, Rome

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

Lasagne of Zucchini flowers and anchovies
at Litro Monteverde, Rome

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

Ricotta Cake by Carla Tomasi

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

The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

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

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


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Bao Fitzrovia

Sanbei Octopus
at Bao London

I confess I've never yet joined the queue at Bao's first restaurant on Soho's Lexington Street which opened in April 2015.  Patient I am not, and the fact the queue forms at this 'no bookings' restaurant on the opposite side of the street somehow makes it even less appealing.  I'm sure this is not a peculiarity of their choosing.  Yet I've been eating the addictive Taiwanese steamed buns from the threesome behind Bao - sister and brother Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung and his wife Erchen Chang - for the past couple of years from their Saturday pitch on Netil Market and at the odd private event.  Originally there was their Classic Gua Bao (braised pork, ferments, coriander, and crunchy peanut), then came the Confit (Pork Belly, crispy shallots and spicy hot sauce) both once tasted, never forgotten.  The news of their plans for a second, roomier Bao in nearby Fitzrovia was very welcome to this resolute queue avoider.

OK, the first time I waited 5 minutes, but I was at the head of the queue.  The second time, around 2.15pm, three of us walked straight in.  This is the best kind of 'fast food'.  Service is sweet and efficient, the order is taken quickly and the freshly prepared food arrives soon after.  It's 'eat and go' food without any hint of feeling rushed.  

The menu is a little different depending on which Bao location you choose.  The very first thing I tasted here at the Fitrovia restaurant was Sanbei Octopus.  Juicy tentacles (not always a given with octopus), a luscious plum-like silky sauce with a hit of ginger and Thai basil and little cubes of crunchy beef fat. So good my pencil wrote a two in the box on my second visit like it had a mind of its own.

Cod Black Bao with Tomatoes, Plum Powder
at Bao London

My two visits also covered the Bao Classic, a Lamb with green sauce and soy pickled chilli, and the Cod Black.  The Cod, coated in squid ink and both ng and hot sauces, arrives in a less pillowy bun with a slightly disconcerting greyish tinge imparted by black sesame seed.  It's dramatic and fabulous.    A dish of different coloured Tomatoes showered in Plum Powder made, at this perfect time of year for tomatoes, the best juicy, peppy side dish.

Mapo Aubergine
at Bao London

Of the Chi Shiang Rice Bowls, the Beef Shortrib, Marrow and Eryngii mushroom came with a Soy Cured Egg and a little bowl of beef broth to mix in to your own taste.  The thinly sliced beef was tender, the rice the perfect consistency, all enriched with silky beef marrow, and I loved it.   A bowl of Mapo Aubergine was probably the best treatment of aubergine I've ever come across (a difficult fruit to make interesting, I think, but maybe that's just me) caramelised and silkily-sauced.  The rice here was a little too sticky for my taste but the big flavours of chilli and coriander, both fresh and pounded into a green sauce, made for a very good vegetarian bowlful.  A small bowl of XO Sweetcorn with Beef Butter was a sweet, savoury delight.

Puddings, at this point, come in the form of Milkshakes (sounds like there are plans to add more options).  Ordering a glass of Chocolate and Toasted Rice felt like a step back in time but it was a surprisingly good note to finish on.  I'd also recommend the Hong Yu tea sourced direct from Taiwan and served in tiny traditional tea pots and bowls.

Expect to pay around £18 a head including service for food.  Beer, wine and cocktails are available and fairly priced.  The ground floor room is flooded with light and all the seating is at a horseshoe bar plus a small window-facing section.  Downstairs is windowless and cocoon-like.  You get to see what's going on in the kitchen and there is a sharing table.

I'm sure Bao don't need to keep their little stall on Neil Market E8, but I like the fact they still pitch up there on Saturdays and that they refer to it as as their "Original Bao Bar".

If I am faced with a wait next time I find myself on Fitzrovia's Windmill Street, I suspect I may forget my aversion to queueing.

Bao
31 Windmill Street
London W1T 2JN
Mon-Sat 12-3 & 5.30-10

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Blackberry Patch Rules

Freshly churned
Blackberry Ice Cream

It's mid-August and the sun is on our backs at last.  In a summer when we've seen so little of it, it's far more welcome than it would normally be on a summer allotment visit.  Hot, unrelenting sun is not ideal when there's back-breaking work to be done.  But in truth there's been a bit of an uncharacteristic lull on Plot 45.  Though, even at this late stage, there are signs of a possible surge.

Peas and broad beans have all been harvested, their mottled stems cut down to the ground for the last residues of nitrogen to disperse into the soil.  The crop to follow on next year - Brassicas - will benefit.  The garlic planted last autumn is lifted and hangs in the cool, dry conditions it needs to be useable right into late winter with any luck.  All the early La Ratte potatoes have been eaten - a few not by us, it has to be said - as Salade Niçoise has been a constant request this summer.  We have started harvesting the Charlottes and most of the storing onions are drying on the balcony while we make successive forays into the Florence Red onion bed.  These long-necked non-keepers, grown from seed, cook to an unmatched silky smoothness and make a wonderful Onion Tart Tatin (thank you Fern Verrow) and a sweet partner to salty anchovies in Pisssladière.

Harvest of Blackberries, Raspberries
and fragrant sweet peas

This year we confidently constructed extra cane wigwams for Runner and Borlotti Beans.  Hubris met its nemesis in the form of slugs and snails, their population has exploded this year and we're still waiting for our first climbing bean crops.  Chard, spinach, beetroots, courgettes and pumpkin plants have also battled to recover from constant cropping by armies of these gastropods.  But we have had an abundance of extraordinarily fragrant roses and sweet peas to compensate.

Blackberry Ice Cream
with blackberry fruits

Strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants are now but a memory - though the freezer is stuffed with pots of fruit and purees for making ice creams and sorbets.  We've moved on from 'summer' to 'autumn' raspberries but the ripening blackberries are a godsend in this lean year on the allotment.   You can buy blackberry plants to cultivate, some are even thornless, but why would you when they grow so prolifically in the wild.  That said, not all 'bramble' patches are equal.  Find one with large, juicy berries and remember where it is for next year is my advice.

This day we circle 'our patch', searching for spots where the fruits are particularly wine-dark and plump.  This year, they look full of promise but taste is all so, of course, we try a few to make sure. They live up to our hopes.  Their flavour is, I think, so much more intense than the cultivated varieties and it's that intensity I want to preserve.  We try not to take too many.  They can be good until late September so there's time aplenty.

Blackberries are undeniably seedy, more noticeably when they fruit after long, dry spells.  Last year's crop was exceptionally seedy here, the year before we hardly noticed seeds, and this year the fruits fall somewhere in between.  As fond as I am of a Blackberry and Apple Crumble, sometimes it's better to sieve out the seeds and make a puree that can be used straight away or kept in the freezer. So, let's make ice cream.

Blackberry swirl

In the UK we tend to think of ice cream beginning with an egg custard base, but as Caroline and Robin Weir point out, in their invaluable book Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati - The Definitive Guide, egg yolks in ice cream didn't appear in England until the middle of the 18th century, probably influenced by the French who wanted to enrich the original Italian recipes.  This recipe from the book dispenses with eggs because, as the authors point out, "Blackberry is a flavour that is all too easy to lose" and in a no-cook ice cream "it comes over loud and clear".

Blackberry Ice Cream 
(makes about 1 litre/4 cups/32 fl oz)

450g (1 lb) Blackberries
150g (5 oz)unrefined granulated sugar
Juice of half a lemon, strained
2 tbsp Crème de Mûre (optional, I find)
500ml (16 fl oz) Whipping/Heavy cream (around 36% fat), chilled

Pick over the blackberries and rinse in cold water.  Drain and place them on a double thickness of kitchen paper then leave to dry off.  
Put them in a food processor or blender with the sugar and blitz for 1 minute.
Strain the pulp through a nylon sieve into a clean bowl, rubbing until all that is left are the seeds.
Add the lemon juice (and Crème de Mûre, if using) to the puree.  Taste and add a little more lemon juice if you wish.  Chill in the fridge.
When ready to make the ice cream, stir in the cream and churn according to the instructions for your ice cream machine.

If you're not eating it straight away, keep in the freezer but allow 30 minutes in the fridge to soften for serving.

I'm off to pick more blackberries.  There must be a bit more space in the freezer to preserve this special taste of summer.  With any luck I'll need my sun hat, and, who knows, there may be beans, chard, spinach and courgettes on Plot 45 at last.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Gimlet Bar

Gimlet Bar Event
Autumn

Are you a Razzle Dazzle kind of person or is a Tongue in Cheek more your style?  Would a Quince Shrub float your boat or is a Sweet Almond Orgeat more to your taste?  Are you a Zoophagus Maniac or a Quondam Lover?  I confess a liking for all of these.  I'm talking cocktails, but not just any cocktails.

I'd never really got the appeal of cocktails.  Too many glasses of distinctly lacklustre, sugary concoctions laced with dodgy indeterminate slugs of alcohol had been thrust into my hands over the years.  Then someone handed me an exquisitely made 'Gimlet' - made properly it's a short, sour cocktail made with Navy Strength gin, lime syrup and fresh lime juice - and finally I got it.


Gimlet Bar Event
Summer

Sometimes I keep things to myself for far longer than I should.  Sometimes it's good to take your time and just enjoy something before it gets too popular rather than jumping on the 'look where I've been' bandwagon.  But, it's time I told you about Gimlet Bar, the London-based portable cocktail bar for hire.  Available for parties and events, this bar, for my money, is the best around.  So how do I know this when I'm top of nobody's party list? Because when Gimlet Bar find an interesting venue, run by someone they want to work with, they hold their own party.  It's not just about popping-up the bar. A lot of thought goes into each event with drinks invented to reflect where and when it's being held and what's happening alongside.  You may be sipping on a warming Horse's Neck in an open-fired Soho townhouse in winter; downing a Silver Bullet on a foggy autumn evening as Count Dracula swoops on the silver screen; or sitting down to a game of backgammon along with your Lover's Leap on a languid summer evening in the city.


Gimlet Bar
Service

The fun that's had with the naming of cocktails doesn't hide the fact the ingredients and the mixing, are first rate, and the serving of them professional and full of charm.  Gimlet Bar make all their own cordials.  You'll find them in a few good London food shops, like General Store in Peckham, and they are selling them to some bars and restaurants, available via the Gimlet Bar website.


Gimlet Bar
Flyer

In September I notice Gimlet Bar are taking part in four of the 'Cocktails at The Geffrye Museum Garden Variety Bar' events running during August and September (Gimlet Bar dates 2 & 3, 16 & 17 September) when they'll be serving up cocktails based on infusions and ferments created from cuttings taken from the Geffrye's gardens.


In The Geffrye Museum Gardens

Perhaps the most unusual venue so far was the recent event at Novelty Automation near Gray's Inn. This hidden eccentric collection of coin-operated machines created a real challenge - how to make a cocktail machine - and the answer put 3 cocktail mixologists in a small "Whack a Waiter" cubicle and serve imaginative cocktails including a Nocciola dispensed from an oilcan! Hard to imagine? well here's a photo to help:


Gimlet Bar
at Novelty Automation

The 'Gimlet' may have been my cocktail epiphany, but others stick in my memory, like Elysian Fields, Delicatessen, Knife in the Water .....  Did I tell you I didn't like cocktails?



Saturday, 16 July 2016

Sweet-sour berries

My Strawberries Balsamic

The 18th century French philosopher Diderot described strawberries as being like 'the tip of wet-nurses' breasts'.  Thankfully he was referring to small wild strawberries, the large cultivated varieties we mostly eat today being some way in the future.  I owe this knowledge to Jane Grigson, who in every chapter of her Fruit Book serves up exquisite gems of information that add enrichment to the recipes she offers.  Recipes including classics such as Strawberries Romanov, Strawberry Shortcake and Soupe aux Fraises.  But, this time, I turned to Jane Grigson not for one of those recipes but rather for that 'gem' to lead me in to a dish I tasted in America two decades ago.  I loved it so much as soon as I got home I recreated it and have been making it every summer since.

I'm sure I'm telling you nothing you don't already know in saying strawberries benefit from a little added acidity - wine, lemon or orange juice all help to bring out their flavour.  Strawberries with vinegar seemed like a step too far when I first visited San Francisco a couple of decades ago and tasted them married with syrupy, sweet/sour balsamic vinegar.  Later I learned that in Emilia Romagna, the home of Aceto Balsamic production, they had been flavouring strawberries with it for decades.  Bringing things right up to date, Modena chef Massimo Bottura recommends aged balsamic to season not only strawberries but peaches and cherries too.


Strawberry munching slug


The very best Aceto Balsamico is made from a reduction of pressed white Trebbiano grapes aged for 12, 18 or 25 years (or even more) to a thick, dark viscous syrup and is, not surprisingly, expensive. Cheaper  'balsamic vinegar' exists but it's likely to have been made from wine vinegar thickened with guar gum or cornflour and enriched and coloured with caramel.  They are different beasts but all have their place, I guess.

The fact I still have strawberries on my allotment patch (the slugs, thankfully, having lost interest) and that the raspberry canes are now fruiting abundantly means the time has come to make this recipe again.   The good people of Emilia Romagna may not approve of including raspberries in the mix, and what Massimo Bottura would think I don't know, but this recipe is based on a particular memory of two decades ago, and raspberries were certainly involved.  So, I can't call this a classic but it is a recipe that takes me back to that first visit to San Franciso. It's also particularly good for perking up less than perfect strawberries - something we growers are well acquainted with.  


First pickings of the year
Raspberries on the allotment

My Strawberries Balsamic

(serves 4-6)

About 1kg (2lb) strawberries
100g (4 oz) raspberries
50g (2 oz) caster sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water

Clean and hull the strawberries and put in a large bowl.
Put the raspberries and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. Cook until the sugar dissolves and the fruit breaks up.  Remove the bowl from the heat, blitz briefly with a hand blender and sieve out the raspberry pips.  Mix in the balsamic and the water.
Pour the raspberry syrup over the strawberries and mix gently to coat the strawberries.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

I think this needs nothing else.