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Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A little drip

An anti-malaria ‘drug’ in the 1840s, a favoured drink of artists and bohemians in Paris in the early 1900s, absinthe was banned in France in 1915 for reasons that vary. Some say it was because it was seen as containing dangerous hallucinogens, others that the powerful wine growers didn’t like its popularity – at the time of banning the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year, about six times their consumption of wine.

Whatever the reason, Pastis took over, it doesn’t contain wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, the bitter element and so was legal. Absinthe carried on being produced in Spain but the demand wasn’t enough and in 1960 they gave up.

It was never banned in the UK, mainly because we didn’t drink it anyway, but a kind of mystique grew up in the late 1980s as people brought back bottles of absinthe from the Czech republic and enjoyed the thrill of drinking, what many still supposed, was a daring, illegal quasi-drug.

And then in the 1990s it was imported properly and today it’s made once again in France by Pernod Fils, the big boys of pastis and the original makers in France of absinthe. Read more…

Roast restaurant

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

The Floral Hall, Stoney Street London SE1 1TL www.roast-restaurant.com

Saved from the scrapheap

It’s been at least five years since I went to Roast. The pace of openings since then has become so fast, so furious, the keen diner need never go to the same place twice. Miss one restaurant’s hyped up, hysterical launch? Don’t worry there’ll be three more along in a minute.

Since my last visit the area around Roast has evolved. Massive building works have changed much of the area’s character but the approach to the restaurant’s lift, past the market shutting for the night, the drifting cabbage leaves and the spray from the pressure hoses cleaning down the wet fish stall, is still oddly romantic.

I remember the lift, I remember there was always a bit of a wait for it. Why? It only serves one floor after all. The lift  finally arrives and it has a dwarf in it, no not a dwarf but one of those middle-class small boys with too-long, too much hair. He’s been playing about, no doubt to the benign amusement of his parents. I get in a light blow to his head while reaching for the buttons and return his aggrieved look with a cheery smile. No doubt he’ll tell mummy and daddy about how he met an evil Tory in the lift. Read more…

The Art of Pasta

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Clever eh?

The art of pasta for me is mostly getting it al dente. Many’s the time I’ve airily told our guests, ‘This is how we like our pasta cooked, I hope you do too,’ knowing full well that it’s over/under cooked and simply trying to make  guests feel they may be wrong to like it any other way.

This book has higher ambitions. Lucio’s restaurant in Sydney likes pasta, likes art and likes to mash the two together. So here you have 160 very good-looking recipes accompanied by artwork from Luke Sciberras and photography by Anson Smart.

You know the book means business because it comes shrink wrapped to ensure no one lays a passata stained finger on its pages before you do, as well as boasting a tasteful cotton page marker.

Head chef Lucio Galletto has written the book, with David Dale and Executive Chef at Lucio’s Logan Campbell. Together they set out to reinterpret classic pasta dishes and push some boundaries with new ones.

You get Lucio’s signature pesto, a ‘sauce’  he reckons is the best in the world as well as the lively Calabrian pesto, plus carby treats such as beetroot ravioli with poppy seeds and melted butter, and linguine with orange pesto and aubergine. Good to see ‘guitar’ maccheroni from Abruzzo which I once ate actually in Abruzzo and still have fond memories of.Then there’s rabbit cannelloni with Jerusalem artichoke sauce and beetroot gnocchi with pancetta and goat’s cheese too.

Pretty good pasta

Simply laid out – fresh pasta, dried pasta, filled pasta, baked pasta, and gnocchi – along with a quick lesson in pasta making, the book makes you stop and drool rather a lot as it ambles through the seasons from light spring dishes with asparagus to classic winter warmers like a fool proof ragu.

It’s a delicious book, an answer to anyone that thinks pasta is boring. It makes you want to fly down to Sydney to try Lucio’s award-winning food at source, but this is the next best thing.

There is definitely an art to pasta because, while it can never aspire to or want to be ‘fancy’ food with intricate cooking and presentation, getting a great pasta dish onto  the table means the art of mixing simple yet fantastic ingredients and, of course, carefully watching that boiling water.

{ISBN:1908117427}

Dive right in. Bentley’s Seafood Grill at Harrods

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

A struggle to get onto at my age

Richard Corrigan is holding a champagne glass, it’s just an ordinary champagne glass but in his giant paw it looks like something from a dolls’ house. Larger than life he stands out even in a Harrods Food hall thronged with press people going Darryl Hannah ‘Mermaid’ on his seafood.

It’s the press launch of Bentley’s Sea Grill at Harrods, and with the iconic store now closed for the evening we’re free to sit and eat anywhere in the hall. Plates and plates of beautiful native oysters appear. Naked but for a shot of lemon juice, they’re some of the finest oysters I’ve eaten anywhere.

Rock oysters come out with a Vietnamese dressing of shallots and fish sauce, while other oysters come with plenty of butter and garlic and baked in the oven, making the flesh velvety textured and a bite to savour slowly.The seafood swimming by has my eyes on stalks, rather like the enormous langoustines that come just boiled and ready to be dredged in a classic Marie Rose Sauce.

Salt and pepper squid with mayonnaise is perfectly fried, the squid tender and the batter crunchy. Grilled head-on large prawns have been split, but not separated. Spiked with chilli they come roaringly hot off the grill and I burn my fingers tearing into them for the meat, but it’s worth the pain.

Your man himself

Salt cod ‘Scotch Eggs’ are served in egg cartons, fish and chips with mushy peas and plaice goujons both come in paper cones. Smoked salmon from Bentley’s own smoker is served in chunks, so you get something serious to chew on. Oh and there’s lobster and dressed crab and champagne too, so no one goes hungry or thirsty.

Of course this new place isn’t going to be cheap, no one goes into Harrods looking for a bargain do they. On the other hand the quality of the seafood is clearly second to none and it’s a fun place to eat.

Richard weaves his way magnificently through the throng beaming his head off. I tell him I am finally stuffed, I can eat no more. ‘You can never eat too much seafood!’ he roars cheerfully.

Bentley’s Seafood Grill is the third London opening in Richard Corrigan’s London restaurant portfolio, which also includes the first Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill and Corrigan’s Mayfair.

The menu also features the Bentley’s classic Royal fish pie, a dish first served at the Queen’s 80th birthday as part of the BBC series Great British Menu. A choice of desserts includes dark chocolate mousse and crème brulée and the wine list will focus on the Old World.

Canapés -Victoria Blashford-Snell and Eric Treuille

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s what your fingers are for.

‘Ooh canapés, how posh!’ it’s a line from Abigail’s Party and if it isn’t it really should be. How many times have those of us of a certain age been offered canapés, normally not nearly enough of them, and what’s more impossible to eat without redecorating the carpet?

Canapes my mother always called them, steadfastly refusing to honour the acute accent and silent ‘s’. From the pineapple chunk on a cocktail stick, to the life threatening vol au vent, canapés were the 70’s on a plate.

Maybe it’s time to think again, after all there’s nothing wrong in theory in lots of pretty nibbles, and the splendidly named Victoria Blashford Snell, along with co-author Eric Treuille may be the people to lead a revival.

They first wrote this book in 1998 but since then tastes and trends have changed and more options are on the menu. Even so V B-S sticks to her avowed policy of keeping the canapés easy enough to make and eat while still looking good and delivering a bit of a ‘wow’. Read more…

Rodda’s clotted cream. Don’t save it for scones

September 10, 2012 2 comments

The thick of it

The unannounced arrival of a big tub of clotted cream in the office, courtesy of Roddas, causes consternation. Some staff want to organise a working group to go out and get scones. Others want the working group to go out and get scones so they can eat the cream while they’re gone. It’s worse than heroin for turning decent people into sly crims, this stuff.

The sconners prevail after solemn swearing by the rest of us not to raise a spoon until they come back. And so it is that we all sit down to some scones, cream and jam on a sunny afternoon in Carnaby Street.

It’s lush stuff this, I love the oily yellow crust on top that heralds the thick joy beneath. I’m from a generation that only ever got clotted cream when as kids on holiday in Devon. In my memory I ate it wearing grey shorts sitting next to girls who wanted to be boys. Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for in my opinion. Read more…

The Big Cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano

September 9, 2012 2 comments

The Keith Richards of cheese

Chief Taster Igino Morini jabs his special Parmesan knife into a boulder sized piece of Parmesan Reggiano and it fractures like a cliff fall, tumbling into irregular lumps. ‘You never slice aged parmesan,’ he tells me through an interpreter before breaking a lump into two and jabbing a piece up under each of his nostrils.

Lumps of loveliness

His eyes glaze over and he sighs before popping a piece into his mouth. Passion is a word much overused these days, but if anyone has it he has. He lives and literally breathes Parmesan, he has to because the tasting room and indeed the whole dairy smells richly of Parma’s famous product,

‘We work every day,’ he says indistinctly through his cheese mouthful, ‘even Christmas. The cows who graze in local areas, and on carefully monitored pasture, must be milked twice a day and the milk has to be processed quickly.’

The ‘thorn bush’ in action

A cheese maker’s day starts early as I found out. That morning I’d stumbled bleary eyed into the dairy after an evening of pasta, parmesan and too much local wine in Parma town to see the team fill the ranks of giant copper lined cauldrons to begin the day’s production.

Unpasteurised milk is gently heated and stirred and a carefully judged amount of a starter culture of yesterday’s whey is added by the artisan cheese maker. Together with rennet this will begin the magical transformation of milk into one of the world’s most wonderful foodstuffs, one that’s over 1000 years old.

The heat is increased and the mix is stirred by hand with a giant whisk called a Spino (a thorn bush in Italian) to separate the rapidly forming curds from the whey, some dairies use machines to do the stirring but that won’t do for these makers. ‘You just can’t ‘feel’ the progress,’ says Igino.

That’s the whey to do it

Their master cheese maker walks along the rows of vats checking temperatures constantly and dipping in her hand to see how the now granular mix is setting. Only on her exact say so does the heating and stirring stop and the mix get left to form up.

Parmesan is a healthy cheese. Nothing is added, nothing is taken away and because of the way it’s made there is so little lactose that it is officially suitable for the lactose intolerant. It’s the long ageing process that allows the natural fermenting processes to give the cheese its flavour and textures and it’s particularly good for children and the elderly being rich in calcium and easily digestible. It also has one of the lowest cholesterol levels of any cheese.

Imagine the size of the ice cream!

Making quality Parmigiano-Reggiano needs muscle as well as passion, and after an hour two men, armed with an oversized ice cream tub wooden spoon, dip into the liquid and straining hard bring the giant ball of formed curd to the surface. It looks like the world’s biggest mozzarella, the size of a beach ball and glistening pure white.

Mr Blobby

This big soft baby is gently flipped into a sheet of muslin and suspended above the cauldron to drain. After a short while it’s cut into two and left for a further 15 minutes. Some of the whey will go to feed pigs for Parma’s other famous export, Parma Ham, but that’s another story.

Each ball is eased into a mould, a ‘fascera’, threatening to catastrophically fracture unless carefully handled. The ball will rest under pressure from a wooden lid, before receiving its ‘branding’ from a plastic wrap-around collar, which impresses an inverted braille version of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ into what will be the hard rind, along with codes to indicate date and provenance

Time for a bath

They go then to a salt bath to wallow in contemplative silence for six weeks before their final resting place in a ‘Cascina’. Here racked up on serried ranks of wooden shelves in constant controlled humidity, they will be cosseted, turned and brushed regularly for a minimum of twelve months. Igino shows me how he expertly checks each cheese at this time, tapping his little hammer on the rind and from the sound divining any problems inside.

Don’t mess with this man’s cheese

Cheeses that fail his test will be ignominiously shaved of their rind, so removing their badge of quality, and as simple Mezzano be used for products such as supermarket grated cheese. The survivors will go on to be 12 month, 24 month red seal Parmigiano-Reggiano and 36 month gold seal Stravecchio cheeses.

‘Parmigiano Reggiano is produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and parts of Modena and Bologna’ explains Igino back in the tasting room. ‘The Consortia del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano was formed in 1901 and today the EU through its Discover The Origin campaign helps us protect the good name of proper parmesan and its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin )’.

‘The colour of the rind tells you the cheese’s age,’ he says peering along the side of a split Parmesan wheel, ‘the deeper the orange the more mature it is. The paste too varies in yellow with age, the younger the lighter. The grain also tells you the age and at 24 months crystals of what people often mistake for salt, but which are in fact amino acids, appear.’

How to break a cheese

Young cheeses smell milky with hints of grass, while at 24 months you can detect butter, pineapple and citrus fruits, nuts and meat stock, the ‘umami’. At 30 months or older that nuttiness is more pronounced and spice comes through. The cheese has now become the big daddy of cheeses, packed with flavour.

Guess what’s in these.

‘Eat it in chunks with fresh or dried fruit,’ recommends Igino, ‘or add to salads with balsamic vinegar. Make anolini with it and cook them in brodo, try it with nuts and of course cook with it – an aubergine alla parmagiana for example. And don’t forget to melt the rind into a minestrone. There are so many ways to enjoy it.’

Packed to perfection

He generously gives me a large hunk of the 36 month aged Parmesan to take away, seriously threatening my baggage weight allowance. No matter, I’ll pay the excess if needed. This big cheese is definitely worth every penny.

Always look for the certification marks to make sure you’re buying the real deal. A red seal ‘Stagionatura Parmigiano-Reggiano means 18 months ageing, silver means 22 months and gold is over 30 months. A big piece will keep in the fridge for months vac-packed and for weeks well-wrapped once opened.
I travelled to Parma as a guest of Discover the Origin. Thanks go to Igino Morini of the Consorziodel Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano and to Giovanna for her translation services
There is a wealth of Parmesan recipes on the DTO website including:
ParmigianoReggiano and Cannellini Bean Fritters
Caramelised Onion & ParmigianoReggiano Cheese Tart
ParmigianoReggiano Ice Cream and Fig and Parma Ham Tatin