Saturday 29 May 2010

Hashi - Japanese Cookery Courses

I'm currently reading yet another fabulous book by food and travel writer Michael Booth, this time about culinary travels in Japan ("Sushi and Beyond - What the Japanese Know About Cooking" ). In between the laughs, it only serves to reinforce how much the cooking of Japanese food is still shrouded in mystery for many of us - and the fact that Japanese restaurants tend to specialise, to the point of mastery, in only one type of food (go here for your udon noodles, and somewhere else for your perfect ramen, sushi or tempura) makes the thought of polishing one's kitchen chopsticks seem a daunting task.

This only makes Reiko Hashimoto-Lambert's Hashi Japanese Cookery Courses all the more satisfying. In her straightforward, down to earth style, Reiko has been teaching Japanese cooking in England for over 10 years, and did so before that in Tokyo. She has appeared as a guest on Saturday Kitchen, and is currently writing a cookbook (has anyone else noticed the dearth of accessible, decent Japanese cook books, beyond Wagamama's Westernised account)?

I recently attended a class at Hashi, which was an amalgam of Hashi's Beginners and Advanced classes. The session was a well balanced mix of demonstration and hands on practice, and class sizes are small enough (there were 7 people in mine) to get some much needed personal attention and a good view of the stove top.

Reiko guided us through the making of a mouthwatering beef tataki with creamy sesame sauce - so delicious, but deceptively easy, this would definitely impress the dinner party guests.

We then rolled up our sleeves to make some pork and seafood gyoza, artfully mastering the delicate folding of the gyoza wrappers. Mine went from ugly duckling to beautiful swan surprisingly quickly, but there's definitely a trick to them that requires expert guidance and hands on practice to avoid the elephant man effect.

Reiko's signature dish, scallops with creamy spicy sauce on sushi rice followed next (a more advanced dish, but still most definitely achievable in the home kitchen) and then some gorgeous cold soba noodles with spicy aubergine. Oh, how I love a good bit of aubergine.

All was, of course, eaten on beautiful Japanese plates and bowls - because a chipped white plate (a la Chez Greedy Diva) just won't do for the Japanese.

Reiko's Saturday classes run from 11am - 3pm and cost £120. She is also running an evening canape class for £70, and her 4 class courses - some for beginners, and others becoming more gourmet right up to "Master Chef" level - are £240. You'll pick up lots of tips and tit-bits along the way which will help demystify Japanese cooking, and over the full set of courses you would be well on your way to having a full repertoire of dishes under your sushi belt to replicate at home. Above all, the class has inspired me to be more adventurous in the kitchen, putting Japanese cooking more squarely in my comfort zone. Bring out the dashi, baby.

While Japanese ingredients can be difficult to source, I heartily recommend the new and improved Japan Centre on Lower Regent Street (they even sell fresh wasabi root). Reiko also supplies a long list of suppliers to her course participants.

Hashi, Japanese Cookery Courses, 60 Home Park Road, Wimbledon, London SW19 7HN (Tel: 020 8944 118)

I attended the Hashi cookery class as a guest of Hashi, as organised by The London Foodie, along with other guests The Wine Sleuth, Gourmet Chick, Tamarind and Thyme, Kavey Eats and Gastro Geek.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Chapters All Day Dining: Meat Binge in Blackheath

I learned many things that happy night in Blackheath. 

I learned that when one speaks of the Josper charcoal grill oven, one should be aware that Josper is actually pronounced "Hosper" (it's Spanish). How embarrassing. I've been raving on about the "J"osper all this time like I've practically got one tucked away at home, convinced that my friends were admiring my innate foodie knowledge when all along they've been secretly pitying my ignorant ways. Damn it, Greedy.

I also learned that it's possible to devour more steak than you ever thought humanly possible and still want more. And more. And then lick your lips, tuck in your napkin, and go in for more again.

Head Chef of Chapters All Day Dining, Trevor Tobin, knows how to grill a steak. Chapters All Day Dining was awarded a Bib Gourmade by the Michelin man and 3 AA rosettes within 4 months of the restaurant opening (its predecessor was the acclaimed Chapter 2 from the same team). Trevor grilled us up a steak or 2 (ahem) at a bloggers' dinner I attended recently, along with The Wine Sleuth, Eat Like A Girl, The London Foodie, London Eater and organised by Intoxicating Prose

This was no average dining experience. This was a night of serious, hard core steak porn. And it just kept getting better.

We started with a Cumbrian Blank Angus fillet steak dry aged for 18-19 days, sourced from W.G Butchers in Smithfields. Beautifully grilled in the Josper to medium rare, the fillet steak is the least fatty cut. So this steak was less richly flavoured than those to come, but gorgeously tender. 

The Aussie grain fed rib eye followed, aged for 40 days, and grilled slightly more thoroughly than the fillet to really let the fatty marbling in this baby do its magic. The crust had caramelised superbly in the Josper, and had the subtle sweetness associated with grain fed cattle. The Josper oven, still a rarity in your average London steak house, is known to give an excellent crust while retaining the lovely juicy flavours.  I was quite the fan of the rib eye from Oz, and it wasn't just the matching French Malbec doing the talking.

The English hanger steak (or onglet or skirt, depending on where you come from) was served rare, as best done for this cut to avoid toughness. It has quite an offal-like flavour due to its proximity to the internal organs of the animal - I don't even like offal, but this was delicious and gamey, if slightly chewier than other cuts. It had a slightly salty flavour associated with the grass fed cattle. Once referred to as the "butcher's cut", the onglet seems to be making a fashionable come back of late, although can probably still be seen as one of the better value full flavour steaks around.

But, lo and behold, the grand finale was still to come - a comparison of premium UK and USDA steaks on the bone - porterhouse, t-bone, rib eye and sirloins - to be eaten comparing UK vs USA steaks on a like for like basis. Hold me down.

Cooking steak on the bone is said to be more flavourful - the adage goes that the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat. Since we were in company, I stopped short of curling up under the table to gnaw the bone just this once. 

The porterhouse and t-bone cuts saddle up the bone with a fillet on one side (which is larger on the porterhouse, and is the more tender part) and a sirloin on the other. The sirloin is a bit chewier than the rib eye, but less fatty. It strikes a good balance for the dieting gourmand (an oxymoron, surely?). All of these showed quality pieces of meat cooked expertly.

Generally, the prime USDA has a luscious, rich creamy flavour. The Scotch beef is cleaner. I'm a USDA girl all the way. (But I did like that Aussie rib eye).

The starters are also worth a mention.

We sampled a tasty range: Salad of warm Kentish asparagus, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce; Risotto of wild garlic and creme fraiche; Salad of chicory, pear, walnuts and blue cheese; Josper baked mackerel, spiced puy lentils and aubergine with apple puree; Baked scallops and chorizo, sweet chilli dressing and baby herb salad; Terrine of potted ham hock and black pudding, piccalilli and grilled sour dough; Serrano ham, rocket and goats cheese salad and grilled sour dough.

Never let it be said I don't know how to eat.

A good steak restaurant is hard to find. Patron, Andrew MacLeish did a grand tour of some of New York's best (such as Balthazar and Peter Luger) before bringing a sprinkle of the Big Apple magic back to London. Chapters' steaks were up there with my favourites, Goodman (Trevor and the team helped advise them when setting them up) and Hawksmoor - and although it may be less central, it's decent value. Starters generally range between £4.50 - £6.50 (£9.95 for the scallops) and the premium steaks on the bone are £4.50 per 100 grams (compared to £6/100g at Hawksmoor for the prime ribeye and porterhouse and £6.25/100g at Goodman). Crucially, the chips and burger are still to be tried...

Walk up to the zinc top bar, and you'll see the setting is sleek and simple. There's exposed brickwork on the walls, olive green banquettes, high ceilings and modern fittings. It's all fairly fresh and relaxed. But this is all by the by really - it's those charcoal grilled juicy steaks that will draw you in and have you drooling.

Chapters All Day Dining, 43-45 Montpelier Vale, Blackheath, London, SE3 OTJ (Tel: 020 8333 2666)

* I attended this event as a guest of Chapters All Day Dining. 

Chapters on Urbanspoon

Sunday 16 May 2010

Bar Boulud, London - French food, New York style in Knightsbridge

Daniel Boulud is pretty much a superstar of the USA dining scene. He can lay claim to being the chef patron of many an acclaimed restaurant and his 3 Michelin starred Daniel in New York (a darling of The New York Times - it has received 4 stars from 3 successive critics no less than 5 times since 1986) was recently ranked 8th in San Pelligrino's World's 50th best restaurants. (The Greedy Diva had a solid but slightly less dazzling experience there in 2008 - which I'm sure has The New York Times thinking twice.) And now Monsieur Boulud has pitched his flag in the heart of London. I had my table booked before you could say "steak fri...".

While M. Boulud was born in Lyon, which plays a heavy influence on the food at hand, Bar Boulud has a swanky, New York feel (the music on it's website says it all).

Sister to New York's Bar Boulud, the London bistro decor is intended to be a modern interpretation of a wine bar. Elegant, sleek and sexy, there's a zinc bar, oak panelling and wooden floors (intended to be reminiscent of wine barrels), chandeliers, and swathes of red leather (intended to "conjure the warm depths of a delicious Burgundy" - the hint was lost on me at the time, but I suppose I get it in hindsight).  Overall, the decor is fairly understated - it's not going to bowl you over before you taste anything.

The classic French bistro menu holds much to allure. We took longer than usual deliberating over so many appealing options - the Boudin Blanc truffled white sausage with mashed potato is calling me, but so is the beetroot with horseradish and hazelnut, the fish soup and the coq au vin. But then what about the signature charcuterie plates from renowned charcutier, Gilles Verot - such as the Lapin de Garrigue - Provencal pulled rabbit, carrot, courgette and herbs terrine? Tempting.

In the end, we opt for the £20 menu prix fixe (we'll come back again if we like it), before my deliciously oaky Marsanne steals the last shred of my decision making ability (Andre Perret, Marsanne, Vin De Pays Des Collines Rhodaniennes 2007 - £6.50 - absolutely lovely).

I start with the luxurious rabbit terrine with cornichons and cocktail onions, toasted bread and a hearty mustard. Elegant and wantonly good, the 2 Frenchmen on the table next door have a serve each, then order another to share. Oui.

The Peanut Gallery starts light, with the Salade de Roquette - rocket salad, garlic confit toast, stewed tomato, tapenade and buffalo mozzarella. Each element is nice enough, although, not surprisingly, there's nothing here to showcase the kitchen's real strengths. TPG is pacing himself. I'm still in some shock over his choice here, but if we're looking for that silver lining, it certainly gives us just one extra excuse to come back for a face to face with the Boudin Blanc. (Can you tell that it's still playing on my mind?).

It's hard to go past the chance to devour a New York style burger - it's been a while. We both order the DBGB Yankee Burger - a grilled beef patty, iceberg lettuce, tomato, sweet onion, sesame brioche bun, cheese pickle and fries (£13 with cheese on the a la carte menu). In this price bracket, it's got to compete with my beloved burgers at Hawksmoor and Goodman. It does.

It might be the messiest thing I've eaten for some time (think shredded lettuce in a train wreck), but this baby is the closest thing I've had to that much sought after, but highly elusive, US style burger in London. It's reminiscent of Shake Shake (and this, for me, is a mighty accomplishment). But it's loftier, even if there's a little too much foliage. The meat is loosely packed, moist and sumptuously flavourful and mine at least was perfectly cooked to the recommended medium. Surprisingly, TPG's patty was a little more well done than mine. (But I still didn't share). The accompanying thin cut fries were are good as they looked.

On the a la carte menu, the Frenchie Burger comes with confit pork belly as well as the beef patty and there's a Piggy Burger with a beef patty and BBQ pulled pork. While these other combos sound tempting, the flavour of the beef can really sing in the classic DBGB Yankee burger.

Quite satisfied, I could eat no more than 2 scoops of refreshing mint ice-cream and a decadent chocolate sorbet. More could be made of the sugary biscuit in between if they're going to bother at all.

TPG finished with the Gateau Basque - custard cake with brandied cherries (£6). The cherries packed a strong punch, but the custard cake itself was boring and dry with a hint of orange that didn't succeed in lifting it out of the doldrums. Disappointing.

Next time, I'll be trying the freshly baked madeleines (£4 - if they're the same ones we had at Daniel, they're divine) or the macaroons (£5) - among other things.

We finish with a sweet Domain De Trapadis, Rasteau 2007 (£9) (rich, grape juice flavours, although nothing earth shattering here).

Although there's a wine list fit for the snobbiest of vinophiles, with a particular focus on Rhones and Burgundies, there's also plenty to keep the rest of us happy at a reasonable price range.

Prices generally are reasonable, and surprisingly so given BB's location in the heart of Knightsbridge. Service was friendly, helpful and generally faultless. It will be interesting to see if the standards keep up once some of the staff return to M Boulud's New York ventures in the coming weeks. I'll be going back to just to make sure.

Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA.
Tel: 020 7201 3899
Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Saturday 15 May 2010

Teanamu: Tea appreciation and zen in Notting Hill - Who knew tea could be so fascinating to a die hard coffee lover?

If I learned 1 thing at the Teanamu tea appreciation workshop last weekend, it's that I should probably throw out the entirety of my existing stash of tea and start again.

Tea should, apparently, be drunk in the same year that it's harvested. And while the vintage 1998 ripened Emperor Pu Erh tea I sipped at Teanamu last week was quite divine, I'm not sure my old Earl Grey bags which have been gathering dust behind a crusty jar of Nescafe are going to qualify as "vintage".

So who knew there was so much fascinating stuff to know about tea?

Well, the delightful Pei of Teanamu for one. He treated me to a tea appreciation workshop at his premises in the leafy streets of Notting Hill last weekend.

Tea properly means beverages made from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is native to South East Asia. (Roobos "tea" is not made from this plant and so isn't really a tea, afterall. Imposter!)

Green, white, oolong and black teas all originate from this plant - the difference is the sliding scale of oxidation from green (unoxidised) to black (oxidised), which depends on how they are picked and stored prior to ending up in your cup. In between, white is the easiest to make since its partly oxidised. So, that's why we hear about the potential health benefits of green and (now) white teas which are high in anti-oxidants. All types of tea contain loads of healthy nutrients.

Generally, tea has a higher caffeine content per gram than coffee, but you need less of it per cuppa. To counteract the caffeine, which is rocketted into your bloodstream when you sip your espresso, tea contains another chemical, theofylline, which acts as a relaxant - keeping you chilled like a Buddist monk as the caffeine calmly works its way into your system. It's no surprise then that tea, and tea ceremonies, are a central part of many Eastern religions.

The rituals of Chinese tea drinking are quite different to those of the British and Japanese. While the latter brew their tea in big pots, the Chinese use small porcelain pots and tiny shot sized cups to keep the tea at a stable strength and temperature. Porcelain pots and lower temperatures (70-80 degrees - listen to the kettle, or look out for when the bubbles look like "crab eyes" - or, go on then, be boring and use a thermometer) are used for unoxidised teas which are delicate - so green and white teas. Small traditional clay tea pots are used for oxidised, or black teas, requiring hot, boiled water since a good quality clay pot will retain the hot temperatures. Don't even think about treating them all the same way.

If you're as serious as Pei, you'll even buy pure water from the healthfood shop and you certainly won't boil London tap water over and over, increasing the minerality. What were you thinking??

Pei scouts around China, climbing mountains and traipsing through fields, to find reliable sources of top notch tea. He also has trusted suppliers in Japan, and he assures me that most of the stuff you buy in Chinatown would not stand up to the discerning palate of the tea connoisseur. The tea you see in most shops contains only chopped up bits of leaves. In contrast, Pei's tea contains the whole bud and is cut further down the stem past the top leaf shoots. This is better for maintaining nutrients and taste. Pei compared green tea to asparagus (we're back on to food to bring things back to my level) - you should break the tea leaf where it breaks naturally; the lower bits get disgarded for cheaper tea. The test of good tea is that the taste should not disappear too quickly - you should experience the whole taste down the back of your mouth.

Our tasting session contained many teapot downing sessions of interesting tea facts and cultural and historical lessons about tea. But best of all, you get to taste them over Pei's delicious, home cooked yuzu macarons and green tea madeleines. (He even conducts classes about cooking with tea, in a kitchen so big and shiny, mine is currently blushing.)

Among the ten types of gourmet tea we sampled, were the Silver Needle (a tannic white tea), Maofeng green tea (with a sweet corn quality), Lychee black tea (best drunk from a traditional clay pot - although my ears pricked up hearing it can also be used with success to flavour vodka), a Meng Ding Huang Ya yellow tea (difficult to buy, with an unusual fermented flavour), the Silky Oolong (a half fermented oolong with a creamy, citrussy flavour) and a the Big Snow Mountain Pu Erh 2010 (raw, red tea - to which I attributed a big, fat smoky bacon punch).

The Phoenix Eye Jasmine is a hand rolled, white jasmine tea scented with flowers over 7 nights. Cheaper scented teas (or cheaper teas with bergamot) are flavoured with oils. True tea connoisseurs apparently look down their noses a bit at these scented teas as being in the lowly ranks - yes, there's even a class system among tea, apparently. I like to think of it as comparing Cadbury Milk Tray to, say, a Pierre Herme ganache. Each has a place in my heart.

The tasting class lasted for around 2.5 hours, but Pei is so passionate and unhurried that I'm sure he would happily sit down and sip away with you for as long as you wanted to indulge your passion for tea talk. His tea appreciation classes cost £35 and will introduce you to a whole new world of calming tea zen. He's hosting a Spring Tea Open House at Teanamu on 22 May from 12-4pm, and Pei also plans to open a cafe at the current premises where you can sip teas the Chinese way and eat delicious pastries and Japanese snacks - all the while Pei will be on hand to talk you through the ropes as you like.

Pei's teas are prices at around £4.50 - £6 for 20-30 grams, and many are harvested from trees which are over 200 years old. Some some are taken from trees which are over 2000 years old on Big Snow Mountain - Pei trekked up there himself. The workshops are eye opening, and have certainly inspired me to think more about tea. Who knows, I might even forgo the occasional cup of coffee - although I'm not sure how the whole tea ceremony thing is going to go down at the office.

Teanamu, The Coach House, 14 A St Luke's Road, London, W11 1DP (but see the website for directions as it's tricky - the entrance is on Lancaster Road)

I attended the Teanamu Tea Appreciation workshop as a guest of Teanamu with The Wine Sleuth and The London Foodie.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Po Jan MaCha - Good Korean food in Soho

Weeknight weary and defeated by what appeared to be an hour long queue outside the new Japanese udon bar in Soho (Oh, Koya I will get to you yet), The Peanut Gallery and I decided to cut our losses and satisfy our curiosity about an intriguing little Korean place we'd recently seen jammed to the rafters nearby.

Po Jan MaCha is tucked away on St Giles High Street, which is itself discreetly tucked away behind Tottenham Court Road station. The only reason to go to this part of the world at all, it seems, would be to settle down for a bite of Korean food at one of the smattering of restaurants lining the street, or to slink undetected into Argos to buy a cheap toaster.

Po Jan MaCha looks like the kind of place I want to eat at. There's a short wait for a table - but fortunately not out on the street (a la Koya), and the room is bumper to bumper with (mostly) young Koreans ordering up on their bibimbap, huge hot pots and barley water. There's an L shaped counter facing the kitchen/bar, and a small room of tables heaving with food in the dimly lit room. We're smiling. It feels like we're on holiday.

The seafood pancake with spring onions is plentiful and lovely - thick slices, firm in texture and with plenty of prawns, it's not overly greasy and we find ourselves fighting over the last piece.

The beef bibimbap is fantastic (pictured top). It comes with oodles of tender strips of steak and a mixture of sauteed vegetables on warm rice, with a fried egg on top, served in a hot stone bowl. The egg yolk is perfectly runny - ideal for breaking over the lot and mixing in for a bowl full of utter deliciousness.

We also try a small pot of the pork and kimchi stew, although the large pans bubbling away, being shared between groups look superb. This dish was a bit of a let down - quite watery, not enough pork and lacking in punchy flavour.

We drank Korean sake (which tasted like cheap vodka). Ask for water, and you'll receive a suspiciously pale yellow liquid plastic bottle - fortunately, it's barley water, which is supposed to have healthy, cleansing qualities (although I'm not sure that applies when it's mixed in from a powder). It tastes like pure water in any case, and I'm happy to imagine the rest as to the good it's doing me.

Dishes are as cheap as chips - around £5 - £8 mostly. We spent around £15 per head with drinks (add service).

Despite one fairly "meh" dish, we left with an overall very happy impression of the food (ours and that we saw emerging from the kitchen) as well as the bustling ambience. Definitely a cheap and cheerful spot to try some good, honest Korean food.

Po Jang MaCha, 56 St Giles High Street, London WC2H 8LH (Ph: 020 7379 7391)

Po Jan MaCha on Urbanspoon

Monday 10 May 2010

Tom's Terrace at Somerset House - al fresco dining in London

The absolute best thing about Tom's Terrace is the triple cooked chips with truffle oil and parmesan. Phwoar. Crispy, fluffy, hot, rich and decadent all at once, I would eat them for breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Dessert. Every day.

Tom's Terrace recently opened on the terrace of Somerset House under the name of Michelin starred chef, Tom Aikens. As a guest of Tom's Terrace - with fellow bloggers, Gourmet Chick, Mathilde's Cuisine, The Graphic Foodie and Ms Marmite Lover - I was lucky enough to meet the man himself, who was just back from running 6 marathons in 5 days across the Sahara dessert (suggesting Tom is completely mentally insane, despite all appearances of being perfectly astute and lovely - at least he can probably eat those truffley chips to his heart's content).

Admittedly, as we sat on the terrace under a canopy, the heaters working overtime on a "crisp" springtime London evening, it did seem that the chefs in their open air kitchen had the best view. This was mine.

More could possibly have been made of the opportunity for Thames watching.

However, it is definitely a funky bar/casual bite destination that is likely to be a popular summer spot among the Central London after work crowd - particularly if the London sun ever revs up (1000 notches) to generate a bit of heat. Until then, wear socks. There was talk among the TT crew of introducing blankets (a great feature of the roof top bar at The Albion in Shoreditch).

The menu is a short offering of straightforward but slightly posh picnic or BBQ nosh. It's surprisingly (but purposefully) simple coming from a Michelin starred chef, so don't go in expecting fireworks (or an outdoor version of Tom's Kitchen at Chelsea) but be prepared to pay over the odds for the privilege in some cases.

After some crispy grissini with a lovely black olive tapenade, guacamole and hummus (£9), Aikens brings us the charcuterie board to start - a tasty mix of creamy foie gras parfait, slices of duck breast, chutney, pork rillette, Bayone ham and thick, crusty slices of toast (£22).

My coronation crab salad (£10.50) is tasty, although ultra rich. A generous layer of crab and mayo topped with toasted almonds sits prettily in a glass on top of shredded lettuce, finely diced tomato, spring onion and a lovely lemony avocado base.

My steak sandwich (£17.50) is an open sandwich of sliced steak nestled upon a thick slice of chargrilled bread, with rocket and a hefty layer of sweet red onion relish which becomes somewhat overpowering half way through. (Excuse the phone photos - the camera had mistakenly found itself in the same long term storage trunk as my sunglasses). The red onion and aubergine "tartine" (£12.50) is almost identical, with aubergine and parmesan simply replacing the steak on the chargrilled bread.

The hot smoked Loch Duart salmon (£17.50) involves a smattering of cold salmon over watercress, with a herb mustard vinaigrette, served on a wooden chopping board. It was missing the soft boiled egg listed on the menu, and the price seems mighty hefty for the volume and skill involved.

My Eton Mess (£8) with blueberries and raspberry coulis was quite nice, although it needed a higher meringue to cream ratio.

Service was friendly, although some of our orders were confused along the way (perhaps an early teething problem). The food is reasonable, although it has its ups and downs, and is sometimes overpriced. Only the thick cut truffle chips with parmesan (£6.50) were particularly memorable.

Bottles of wine start at around £20, and there's a fair selection by the glass at reasonable prices. Cocktails are around £9.50 (the same price as some of my favourite cocktails in London, at Bob Bob Ricard, and so those at Tom's Terrace would do well to compete with them). Bar snacks are also available.

I'm a big fan of dining al fresco, however plenty of warm heaters and blankets are going to be required to make this a comfortable option on most London nights for all except those with the hide of a Siberian husky. Bill's cafe in Brighton apparently offers hot water bottles to customers in winter - love it. Unless Tom's Terrace joins them in this magnificent gesture, take along your own blankie and warm the cockles with some of those delectable truffle chips.

Tom's Terrace, Somerset House, The Strand, London, WC2R 1LA (Ph: 020 7845 4646)
Tom's Terrace on Urbanspoon

Saturday 8 May 2010

Sardinia - Gluttonous Travels: Seafood, pasta, wine, beaches...

"With bread, you will never die".

So goes the ancient Sardinian proverb.

And so we decided to spend our the first of the May bank holiday weekends hopping between the beaches, restaurants, agriturismos, food markets and wineries of Sardinia - where the bread basket is never empty.

(Local Monday morning village market)

Sardinia is known for its fresh seafood, sheep's milk cheese (pecorino and tuscanella - a salty ricotta), big flat crispy carta da musica ("music paper") breads from the North of the island (taking their name from its thin nature and creamy colour - called pane carasau (to inlanders) or pane fresa (to coastal dwellers) - delicious with rosemary and olive oil, and a staple before every meal), Mirto liquor (a sweet digestive liqueur made from purple Myrtle berries), and Pardulas - a pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. Seafood of all types is the main event in the coastal areas, while much of the farmland, woodlands and mountains of the inland region lends itself to spit roasted meats (lamb and pig), wild mushrooms and game. Sardinia's most well known wines are Vermentino (a crisp white) and Cannonau (a strong red), although a wide range of grapes are available across the island.

So, there's plenty to keep the roaming gourmande occupied.

(Tastings at the Vigne Sarrua winery)

Agriturismo Ca' La Somara

We stayed for 3 nights at the Agriturismo Ca La Somara, about half an hours drive from Olbia airport near the Costa Smeralda - although a world away from the touristy glitz and spray on tans of the latter.

Once a stable, and still (a little scarily) drawing on the donkey theme in terms of much of the artwork, it was rustic (no TVs, no Wifi, no phones, plenty of mosquitos) and secluded among some gorgeous scenery over looking fields of donkeys, chickens and a mountainous backdrop. Hammocks and poolside banana lounges provide instant relaxation on first sight. If that's not enough, they also provide massages (I had one locked in before I'd unpacked my bag) - as well as a wool bath (a bed frame full of wool ... ??) and an energy pyramid if you're so inclined.

We decided to eat in one night for the true Sardinian farm house experience.

Despite numerous friendly enquiries, (somewhat suspiciously) our hostess would not reveal the night's menu - "it is a surprise". "Ah, ha ha", we chuckled, "Lovely - a surprise". Fabulous.

So, it was that the evil truth was only exposed after course 3. Our wily hostess was a vegetarian. Surprise!!

And to think that we held ourselves back to only 2 helpings of the fried soybean balls with cous cous on the basis that it was sure to be a vegetarian main acting as a mere prelude to the real main.

This would go down in the book of holiday deceptions right up there with the fact the beautiful outdoor pool had been drained. Not joking. If hostess had pulled off a stretchy face mark and wig and revealed herself to be Heather Mills in Italian farmer disguise, I would not, at this point, have been surprised. And so it was that I came to be lying in bed on a meat free stomach, wide awake at 3am at night next to a drained pool, with a puffed mozzie bitten eyelid, dreaming about breakfast.


In any event, the rustic vego meal was a success. Against the backdrop of mountains and donkeys munching in the fields, we ate an antipasti course - bowls of roasted, chopped eggplant, peppers and mint, bowls of cauliflower, and smoky sweet roast red peppers  pasted with a thick coat of green pesto. A feature of all our meals would be a huge, perpetually replenished basket of bread, including the big flat crispy bread - carta da musica - with rosemary and olive oil.

Primi consisted of a huge iron pan of pennette pasta (short stubby tubes) with invisible but tasty local pecorino cheese, broad beans, green and black olives and eggplant.

Secondi was the aforementioned cous cous and soya bean balls (which looked like falafel) - not a Sardinian speciality. At this point, the vegetarian factor was revealed and we stopped waiting for the real food. But it was fairly tasty anyway.

For dolce - the traditional pardulas (pastry filled with semi-sweet ricotta) made their debut - lovely, although this version were a little too dry.

Over coffees, a selection of digestives were offered - grappa, limoncello and the local Mirto among them. I sampled a warming shot full of the latter - something I could definitely get used to.

Large 1 Litre flasks of wine were refilled during the course of the meal. The meal was rustic, simple, but nice - not earth shattering, but not much to complain about since all came at only 20 Euros per head.

Agriturismo Ca' La Somara, Localita Sarra Balestra, 07021 Arzachena, Sardinia, Italy

Risorante La Rocca

On our first full day in Sardina, we escaped the moody skies and torrential downpours with a leisurely lunch at Ristorante La Rocca, near Baia Sardinia. Specialising in Sardian seafood and home made fresh pastas, we watched as groups of Italians ordered up big for their 4 course Sunday lunch. The couple at the next table enjoyed a grilled seafood platter for 2, and we licked our lips as the waiter loaded grilled prawns and squid onto their plates before expertly deboning their fish. (It was all too much for me, so I later crossed beaches and mountains to return for this dish.)

We shared an insalata di mare to start - a refreshing, summery mix of octopus, mussels and squid tossed with olive oil and lemon. So simple, so good.

As the rainfall got heavier, we settled in over our large plates of spaghetti - TPG's with clams, mussels, prawns and calamari. My pasta was specified on the menu to be the local pennette but due to an ordering mix up (don't try to blame my Italian - I'm fluent when it come to ordering pasta) I ended up with spaghetti - no devastation here, since it came coated in fish eggs with a whole party of clams. Happy days.

We finished off with espressos, forgoing dolce to hunt down some gelato on the road. All up, 43.50 Euros for 2.

We returned for dinner one night, knowing we were guaranteed good, fresh seafood. We tried some more of the regional pastas - Sardinian malloreddus (small gnocchi shells) with lamb ragu and cunlingiones (pouch shaped ravioli) filled with ricotta and mint with a light tomato sauce. Absolutely delicious.

My mixed seafood grill hit all the right notes - a huge rip curl of tender squid came with a grilled sea bream filleted at the table, grilled scampi and a mouth watering prawn.

TPG had a larger sea bream cooked with potato, cherry tomatoes and white wine. So juicy and tender - just beautifully done. A winner. We shared a simple side of green beans with lemon juice and olive oil.

Too full for dessert, we shared the ricotta with honey on the pane carasau and sought some serious digestive action over a grappa (served chilled here) and the Mirto (poured over a solid block of ice frozen at the bottom of the glass) - all the local men finish off with this and somehow don't end up cross eyed.

La Rocca, Localita Pulicinu, Baja Sardinai, 07021 Arzachena, Italy

Ristorante Lu Stazzo

We trekked up hill another evening for dinner at Lu Stazzo. A massive room overlooking the hills and mountains was completely empty all night - except for us and a roast piglet being grilled over the flame. Not to worry - we started with a delicious bottles of Pedres, Cerasio Cannonau di Sardegna, and knew nothing would go wrong all evening.

This place is tipico. And there's grilled horse on the menu (which brought a tear to TPG's eye).

We shared starters of tuna carpaccio (hmm - so so), as well as pasta with "sheep" ragu (perfecto).

TPG stuck with seafood - the grilled prawns - for his main but having seen the roasting piglet on entry, I couldn't go past it. It was fairly decent too, but very fatty.

For dolce, it had to be the fabulously milky ricotta with honey (again) and a tangy lemon sorbet.

A great place for typical regional food, friendly service and great views - not one for fancy fare. Cheap and cheerful.

Ristorante Lu Stazzu, St. Prov. Le Porto Cervo, Arzachena, 07021, Sardinia

Goodbye sunshine, hello London...

While I did manage to get some impressive t-shirt marks, and spent a few solid hours in the cossie, the best time of the year to visit Sardinia (weather wise) is from June to the end of August. In May and September, the weather is hit and miss - you may have the beaches to yourself and glorious sunshine at times, but you may be dodging torrential downpours at others. However, at any time there's still plenty to keep the Italian food and wine lover occupied. Just about every road side bar will serve you the perfect bowl of pasta, whip up a tasty, fresh salad and grill you a good piece of fish. Buon Appetito.

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