Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Mercado de Santa Catarina, Barcelona

Cuines Santa Caterina

The undulating multi-coloured roof in Barcelona’s El Born district is the stand-out feature of Mercado de Santa Caterina.  It’s a far more utilitarian and restrained piece of architecture than the Scottish Parliament building, which Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue also designed.  This is the market where locals shop.  Tourists are much rarer here than at La Boqueria and those who do find it are, mercifully, discreet.  Although I may take a look at the Boqueria market, this is the one I simply can't miss when I’m in Barcelona.

The stalls are all of the highest quality but just observe where the Señoras are queuing to find the very best. The fish in Spain always looks great but the freshness here is something we can only dream of in most of the UK.  I’m told this is because we are not prepared to pay as much for fish as the Spanish are but prices in Barcelona looked very reasonable compared to London.

When you’ve finished looking round the market stalls, there is a great little bar in the corner of the  in-house restaurant Cuines Santa Caterina  where you can get a good Cortado and breakfast on a Pincho Tortilla and tomato bread.  They also do an utterly delicious Jamon Pais Bocadillo, made from the thinnest ‘Flauta’ bread split, the crumb rubbed with tomato and filled with excellent ham.  Throughout the day they serve a small freshly prepared menu from its own little one-man kitchen.   

Whether you eat at the bar or in the restaurant you'll eat well on the freshest of produce.  Chefs in the huge open kitchen of the restaurant work at a frenetic pace.  You can take a high seat right in front of the action or at a small or large table.  It being the last week in March, we were there at the height of the Calҫot season.  Traditionally Calҫots were the onions which the harvesters missed in the autumn.  They remained in the ground over winter and in Jan-Feb sprouted from the old bulb.  These days they are a delicacy and are planted to over-winter.  Somewhere between a spring onion and a leek, they are roasted over an open fire and served piping hot with a kind of Romesco sauce of hazelnuts, almonds, sweet ñora pepper, tomato, garlic,olive oil and the flesh of a tomato roasted over the fire.  You must strip away the outer "stocking", roll up the flesh and dip into the sauce.  Fantastically messy and wonderfully good. 

We also shared a Calamari Fideuà - short, thin pasta shreds baked almost to a crip until the deep rich sauce had fully penetrated the pasta - exceptionally good, though the accompanying alioli lacked a garlicky punch.  We also had the tiniest razor clams (Navajas a la Plancha) simply served with an aromatic garlic and parsley butter.  With two glasses of house wine, bread, water and a 1 Euro donation to the Spanish equivalent of Street Smart, we were very happy with a bill of 38 Euros for two.

While you're in the neighbourhood, you can check out the venerated and influential tapas bar Cal Pep which is 5 minutes away at Plaҫa de les Olles 8, the Museu Picasso for a cultural hit and the starkly beautiful Santa del Mar and Catedral La Seu for some spiritual sustenance.

Mercado Santa Caterina
Cuines Santa Caterina
Carrer d'En Giralt El Pellisser 2, Barcelona
Bar: breakfast till late
Restuarant: 13.00-late

Sunday, 27 March 2011

New season garlic - Food Find

What a lift to find the new season garlic on sale at biodynamic grower Fern Verrow at Bermondsey this weekend.  Known as wet or green garlic, this mild, sweet member of the allium family is delicious as puréed confit of garlic with goat's curd on croûtes as we enjoyed at Gergovie Wines on Saturday.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Paris Boulanger - Christophe Vasseur's Du Pain et des Idées

Pain des amis

It's fitting that Christophe Vasseur's signature bread is his pain des amis as the welcome at this remarkable bakery must be the friendliest in Paris.  Two happy ladies preside over wooden racks supporting these moist, nutty, (and to me dark treacle flavoured), crusty square-cut breads along with soft sugared and unsugared North African brioche la mouna perfumed with orange blossom water, crusty boules aux céréales and pain pagnol.  Mini-pavés filled with, maybe, spinach and goat cheese or green olives sit alongside large, decorated, earthenware dishes of various catherine-wheel shaped viennoiserietarte fine aux pommes, tiny chouquettes (creamy filled choux buns) and my favourite apple turnovers, chaussons aux pommes.  This is a celebration of what can be achieved with flour, yeast, salt, water and a little alchemy.

Christophe Vasseur turned from businessman to boulanger nine years ago, learning on the job rather than paying for formal training.  In doing so he has learned the old ways and married them with his own ideas to come up with the pefect boulangerie.  So good is the pain des amis that these days even the chef Alain Ducasse sends a car daily  for supplies to serve in his restaurant at the Plaza Athénée.

The aroma of great baking hits you from several doors away.  Sacks of flour are piled in a corner contrasting with the opulence of the painted ceilings, large gilded mirrors and gold paint, celebrating its 1889 origins.  The shop is so perfectly over the top and the smell is so divine you don't want to leave.  I can't resist lingering at the communal table, set up outside, with my little apple turnover watching the steady stream of regulars arriving for their daily bread. 

The shop is located at the corner of rue Yves Toudic and rue de Marseille in the 10th arrondisement.  It's very close to the Canal St Martin, the fantastic Picasso Museum is nearby, as is  l'Hôtel Carnavalet where you can find the full history of Paris.  The now infamous La Perle bar is hereabouts too!

I first found this boulangerie over three years ago thanks to a Jamie Cahill's beautiful little pistachio-coloured book "Pâtisseries of Paris".  A gorgeous handy-sized tome broken down into arrondissements so that wherever you find yourself in Paris it will guide you to the best boulangerie or pâtisserie.

Du Pains et des Idées
34 rue Yves Toudic
Paris (10th)
Nearest Metro: Jacques Bonsergent
Open: Monday-Friday 06.45-20.00

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Spuntino - Food Find

Spuntino is ‘Snack Bar’ in Italian.  New from the team behind the excellent Polpo and Polpetto it is similarly priced and, again, deep in Soho.  The theme is American, though it is small-plate dining European style.  Popcorn followed by Sliders of Beef with Marrow, Battered Soft Shell Crab with Tabasco alioli, croque monsieur, aubergine chips with Fennel Yoghurt, Beets with Salted Ricotta and Pistachios are a flavour of what to expect.  Relaxing jazz and bluegrass music encourages lingering round the congenial bar.  Good, but the American way with coffee is a step too far for me.  


Thursday, 17 March 2011

Paris Chocolatier - Pierre Cluizel's Un Dimanche à Paris

Un Dimanche à Paris

Our latest trip to Paris did not start well.  Nothing to do with Eurostar, which for me remains the best way to reach France.  It was the jaw-dropping exchange we witnessed en-route.  A fiery French red-head, irritated by the 20-something Brit gobbling crisps in the seat opposite, finally exploded.  With exquisite rudeness she informed the, rather slim, girl that if she continued she would triple her size by the time she was 40!   The whole carriage was now on fight alert.  Presumably in shock, the Brit flounced off to the buffet - perhaps not the best choice in the circumstances.  I'm sure she spent the rest of the day thinking up pithy responses she could have made, rather than the predictable "ugly" and "old" adjectives she tossed over her shoulder.  We, meanwhile, sucked in our tummies as we thought of our plans for a gastronomic blow-out day in Paris.

We visited some old friends and found some new.  This is a new one, and what a find.  For me the old, venerable Parisian chocolate shops can be a bit stuffy and predictable.  The new generation can be style over substance, but this one delivers on all levels.  I was alerted to Un Dimanche à Paris by the Paris-based pastry chef and writer David Lebovitz.  Having worked at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, he knows a good thing when he tastes it.  Pierre Cluizel, son of Michel, has spread his wings and opened what is best described as an all-about-chocolate store, or "concept store" if you must. 

On the ground floor is a chocolate shop/bar/pâtisserie where you can enjoy a daily changing hot chocolate while you narrow down what you want to take away.  A glass-fronted kitchen sits alongside where the chocolatiers demonstrate their technique.  Service in the shop is utterly charming and seductive. There is also a restaurant with a chocolate themed menu and upstairs a salon for coffee and teas, and that chocolat chaud served in china pitchers, if you want to linger over the delicate pâtisserie.  To top it off you can order a cocktail mixed to help you better appreciate the subtleties of chocolate. Oh, I almost forgot, and a teaching kitchen offering courses in working with chocolate.

Having enjoyed the superb hot chocolate at the Bar and sampled the truffles we moved on to a Macaron Cassis.  I can now vouch for how good the pâtisserie is, though the exquisite filling was perhaps a little too generous.  Les gâteaux looked amazing but would have to wait for another visit.  It was the simple truffes au chocolat rolled in cocoa powder which truly seduced us.  Mindful of Madame's warning and with memories of a delicious lunch, our petit paquet de truffes remained on the luggage rack until we could eat them at home ... in private ... and sparingly of course.

Un Dimanche à Paris
4-8 Cour du Commerce Saint André
Paris 6ème (Metro: Odéon)

Monday, 14 March 2011

Wild Garlic - Food Find

Spring is here at last.  Look out for wild garlic leaves.  If you can't collect your own, or buy local, Tony Booth at 60 Druid Street SE1 will have them for the next few weeks.  Wash, roughly chop and wilt in hot butter for a few seconds, add cooked Pappardelle pasta and serve with grated Parmesan.
Bermondsey Trail
Maltby Street

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Zucca Restaurant SE1

Zucca Restaurant

Zucca is a spin-off from the nearby Maltings Cafe on Tower Bridge Road.  They say they aim to serve "good food at moderate prices".  I call it very good value for money, especially when you know the chef/proprietor is ex-River Cafe and Bibendum chef Sam Harris.  The influences on the food are clear but, thankfully, not on the prices.

Plain white tables and chairs, exposed concrete, the whole softened by a little wood.  Brown carpeting dampens down any clatter from the open kitchen, and the colour palette is enlivened with the orange of glass beakers and, of course, pumpkins (zucca in Italy).  Zucca is relaxing, rather than relaxed.  Staff are happy to see you, work well together and maintain focus right to the end of service.  There is great attention to detail and the prices are low for food of this quality.  It's fresh, it's seasonal, it's simple, and that's just what I want. 

Excellent fresh Italian breads - three types including a wonderful crispy focaccia - were brought to the table with a good grassy Planeta olive oil for dipping.  Generously a fresh basket of bread was offered (and accepted).  The food is big on seasonality and in its portions.  Starters are £3.95-£4.95.  Sardines in Saor were exceptionally good, a generous plate of Zucca Fritti - thick slices of pumpkin and whole sage leaves dipped in a beautifully light tempura batter were crisply fried and perfectly salted.  The carpaccio of veal disappointed only in that we expected it to be thinly sliced, rather than diced like a tartare, which results in quite a different texture, I think.  Mains are priced around  £14.00.  The veal chop looked delicious but we tried Ox Liver with lentils and chicoria topped with a punchy herb salsa verde, and Pollock with Cime di Rapa and Fennel in a light herby broth.  Both were more than good, in fact the Pollock was the best I have had and finally converted me to this much championed substitute for cod.  Our puddings were generous - a slice of  light Almond Cake with a blood orange reduction, and a good Affogato.  Both were well worth making room for.  With 3 glasses Falanghina and 1 of Volpolo the bill came to £72.00 excluding service but we could have spent less.

Maltings Cafe is about a 10 minutes walk away at 169 Tower Bridge Road.  It's a neighbourhood cafe which is open from breakfast until the end of the working day. The menu is limited - a pasta dish, a frittata and, perhaps a lamb Kofta alongside sandwiches on good bread - but it's a great place to eat-in or take-out. 

With Gergovie Wines already open in Maltby Street, and the imminent arrival of José Pizarro's sherry and tapas bar on Bermondsey Street, only a few doors along from Zucca, Bermondsey is becoming ever more interesting.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Puntarelle Heart Salad

Puntarelle Heart Salad

Normally I'd expect to see Puntarelle on sale between November and February.  This member of the Chicory family (Chicoria Catalogna) being a cool weather crop, I can only assume the weather in Italy is mirroring our own this winter as there seems to be lots of it around.  I don't know about you but I'm getting pretty jaded with cabbage, celeriac, parsnips and leeks, which are our seasonal veg in the UK at this time of year.  It's been so cold my "early" purple sprouting brocolli is reluctant to sprout this year, which means my "late" brocolli will probably emerge at the same time and I'll be inundated with it in April.  In the meantime I picked up a head of Puntarelle for a change.

Italians generally use the whole of the Puntarelle in a salad, patiently slicing the heart thinly lengthwise and soaking it in cold water until the leaves curl up.  But this is a cold winter's day in London, time is short, so this is my way with Puntarelle.  I use the outer leaves as a vegetable accompaniment to meat - the bitter quality is, I think, particularly good with a beef casserole and mashed potatoes, which I have planned for tomorrow (Cut the stems into manageable 10cm lengths, place in a pan with a knob of butter, a couple of tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt, and cook for 3-4 minutes until they are softened and the water has disappeared).  The knobbly, juicy heart and the inner leaves make a refreshing salad lunch.  Anchovies pair well but this time I've used bacon for that salty hit and the tiniest capers for piquancy.  Crisp bread croutons add a satisfying crunch to the juicy, slightly bitter chicory heart.

Puntarelle Heart Salad
(Serves 2)

1 Puntarelle
100g bacon, cut into lardons
2-3 slices of sourdough bread, cut into cubes
1 tblsp of lemon juice
1 tbsp of capers (drained of any brine)
A little salt and pepper
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Strip away the outer leaves of the Puntarelle and save for later use.  Pull away the juicy little nodules from the heart, slice each of them lengthwise into 3-4 pieces and place in a bowl of cold water.  Mix the last four ingredients to make the dressing in a lage salad bowl.  Fry the bacon until crisp then remove and add the bread croutons to the same pan (add a little olive oil if necessary), cooking until lightly browned.  Drain and dry the Puntarelle well and add to the salad bowl, mixing well with the dressing.  Add the cooked bacon and croutons and serve.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Lina Stores

Lina Stores

Lina Stores is one of the best reasons I can think of for visiting Soho, though some would have other reasons for an outing.  This Italian deli is right in the heart of lively Soho, surrounded by flashing neon and haunts such as Taboo and Madame Jojo's.  However, even the old red-light district has a villagey side to it, and Lina's personifies that aspect of the area.  In fact, Brewer Street is being talked up as a residential hot spot right now, and a few unexpected shops are here, like Fresh and Wild, Anything Left Handed, and Cox Cookies & Cakes (UPDATE-NOW CLOSED)

Ask anyone for the place to buy Italian ingredients in the area and they'll either send you to Camisa or Lina Stores.  Of the two I'd have to come down in favour of Lina's.  Very much a family business, Lina's has been on Brewer Street since the 1930's and is currently run by the 3rd generation of the same family. 

The shop's closure last August caused some dismay until shoppers realised it was only for refurbishment.  What a lovely job they did of it too, echoing the 50's green-tiled exterior inside with paler green tiling relieved by natural wood and a white marble counter.  Still absolutely recognisable as the much-loved Lina's but the space has been opened up.  You no longer feel anxious that you might brush something off a shelf as you move around.  A freshen-up, clear-out and re-focus has rejuvenated the place but retained its friendly, welcome-to-browse feel.  In fact I was there today, looking for the hard to find Garganelli pasta which I know Lina's stocks.  They had run out but, without my having to ask, they made a call and told me they'd have it later this week.  That's what I call service, and it's Lina's way.

You'll find hessian sacks of rice, lentils and pulses, spices sold by weight, honeys including the excellent Seggiano, cured meats, a great range of dried pastas, polenta, pestos, cheeses, olives, truffles, pannetone and biscotti.  What makes it particularly special for me is that Lina's keeps the more difficult to find things like good filled pastas such as veal-filled tortellini, squid ink pasta filled with crab, Spinach and ricotta Tortolloni.  Then there's the practically impossible to find things such as fresh yeast, chestnut flour and veal stock.  Whether you want to pick up some roasted peppers, anchovies mozzarella and fresh plum tomatoes for an easy to prepare meal, or some double O flour to make your own pasta, you'll find it here.  Long live Lina's.

18 Brewer Street
Soho, London W1F 0SH
Tel:  020 7437 6482
Monday-Friday 09.00-6.30pm
Saturday 09.00-5.30pm
(Site under construction)