Saturday 7 July 2007

A Late Start & A Lazy Day....

I got up far later than is sensible on a Saturday, when the entire brigade of Pisani housewives is out in force, faced with the prospect of having to provision for the entire weekend! As it was, it was already 9.45 by the time I got to the fishmongers, and the remaining stock on display was a fairly sorry site. I was in luck, though - there was one remaining Branzino - which allowed me the leisure, while it was being cleaned and scaled, to listen to the row brewing between Signora Falciani (who reigns supreme behind the counter, and is larger than life and twice as forceful) and a signora who was getting rather tetchy about the time it was taking for her order to be filled. Clearly, I'm not the only one who watches the clock closely on a Saturday morning, and is keen not to get caught up in the mid-morning queues! Diplomacy suggested that I didn't wait to hear the outcome.....

Two reasons for the late start, I think. Firstly, Dario passed-by yesterday evening to announce that he'd got his Phd the day before, and although he didn't stay long (needing to get home and recover from earlier celebrations) it still necessitated broaching a bottle of Prosecco rather earlier than normal.....and from thing led to another. He cheerfully announced on leaving that since his area of study is Paleopathology, then he has the dubious distinction of being a doctor for whom all of his 'cases' are long-dead even before he even has anything to do with them!

And the other reason for such a good night's sleep is the fact that the end of term is upon us, and Friday night will now be free of student carousing, right through until the middle of September. Town itself is already entering its drowsy summer phase, with the festa period of June now well behind us, and people's minds increasingly turning to the beach. On a day like today, those who can will mostly have headed out to Marina di Pisa, and the beaches between there and Livorno........and the holiday period is imminent, when - almost without warning - almost every business in turn will put up their shutters for a week or so, while their owners head off in search of the breezes of the mountains or the sea. The time of year when it's preferable to be up at six, when the morning air is still fresh, and to doze through the afternoon heat in a post-prandial stupor. We aren't there yet, but it's on it's way!

And my lazy day? I spent far too long sitting in the sun, before lunch, working my way through a large Kir and the final pages of 'The Testament of Gideon Mack'. With luck, by the time the shops re-open on Monday, my lobster-red hue will have faded.......

Tonight's Dinner:

Tagliatelle with Crema di Noci

Baked Sea Bass,
on a bed of sauteed Leek and Fennel

Apple Timbale in Caramel

Friday 6 July 2007

Recipe: Aubergine with Garlic & Anchovy

For this recipe, you need to use aubergines with rich, dark skins. I've tried it with the lighter skinned variety - the comparative sweetness of which causes the italians to salivate - but with the latter, the skins are surprisingly tough, and appear to become tougher during cooking, whilst the flesh has a tendency to go to mush. I also think the bitterness of the darker skinned variety works better against the strong flavours of garlic and anchovy than the milder flavour of the lighter skinned aubergines.

For Four.

Ingredients: 2 large Aubergines; 2 Anchovy fillets (nice fat ones); 2 large cloves of Garlic; a cup of Parsley leaves, loosely packed; 30g Butter; 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil; Salt.


1. Chop the Aubergines into 1 cm cubes, place in a colander, sprinkle lightly with salt, and leave for an hour to throw off their water; once done, run the cubes under cold water to wash off the salt, and roughly pat dry in a tea towel.

2. Heat the Oil and Butter together in a medium sized saute pan.

3. Chop the Garlic and Parsley, add to the pan and saute for several minutes over a medium-high heat, then add the Anchovy fillets, and cook for several more minutes, stirring quite vigorously to begin to break up the fillets.

4. Add the Aubergine Cubes, and cook, uncovered, for about ten minutes, stirring frequently to ensure that the cubes are more or less coated with pieces of Garlic and Anchovy. The aubergine cubes are cooked once they have started to turn brown.

Before serving, taste one of the cubes to see if any more salt is needed. Adjust accordingly.

Thursday 5 July 2007

A Real 'Whole Foods' Market....

Nine o'clock in the morning. A faultlessly blue sky, and bright sunshine that has already been gathering in strength for the past three hours. People are already up and about - on a day like this, you want to get the heavy lifting out of the way before mid morning, and the punishing heat of the day.....

En route to the butcher for a couple of Bistecchie di Maiale , walking through the part of the market that snakes round into Piazza Omobono, my nostrils are beguiled by a scent that combines all of the tantalising aromas of a summer cornucopia. At this time of year, the stalls are piled high with mountains of peaches, and cherries, and Melons, and figs, and strawberries, and raspberries - not to mention the myriad tomatoes, and sweet aubergines, and leeks, and borlotti .......and a shopping list is absolutely imperative, to prevent (or at least reduce) the risk of being seduced impractically into buying it all!

From Maurizio's - bistecchie in hand - I go to Antonella's mother, for Peaches, and Apples, and Melanzane, and tomatoes (for a Caprese Salad for lunch - mouth-watering!), and then, next door to Claudia, for black ravioli, stuffed with Sea Bass.
After a final swing past Anna's cousin's fruit stall in the little passage that runs from the other side of Vettovaglie through to Piazza Garibaldi, I'm done for the day, and can subside into a much-needed first Cappuccino of the morning! (And all without having to take out a second mortgage.....)

Now that is what I call a whole foods market!

Tonight's Dinner:

Black Ravioli, stuffed with Sea Bass, in a sauce of buttered shrimp.

Bistecchie di Maiale, with Aubergine sauteed with Anchovies and Garlic.

Peaches stuffed with Chocolate and Amaretti.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Recipe: Spinach Souffle

Souffles are yet another foodstuff with an unfair reputation for being complicated, and people have been frightened away from them in their droves! In practice, though, they are quick and easy to make, as well as being extremely versatile. One added benefit to making souffles is the fact that they use more egg whites than yolks, and so represent one more way of attacking the egg-white-mountain that forever lurks at the back of the fridge!

For two individual souffles:

Ingredients: 1 oz of Butter; 3/8 oz (or 21g) of Flour; 1/4 of a pint of Milk; Salt & Pepper; a generous pinch of Nutmeg; 2 Eggs; half a cup of cooked, chopped Spinach; half a cup of grated Parmesan.


1. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Butter two individual ramekins, and fix round each one a collar made of aluminium foil, standing two inches above the rim of the ramekin, and fixed together with a metal paper-clip. Make sure the inside of the collar has also been thoroughly buttered before you put it in place.

2. Melt the Butter in a zimmertopf or double boiler. Add the Flour and stir to incorporate thoroughly, then add the milk, and beat gently to incorporate all the ingredients. Leave this to thicken, over medium heat, for five minutes or so, stirring with a whisk from time to time to ensure that the mixture thickens and cooks evenly.

3. Once the mixture has thickened, remove it from the heat and add Salt and Pepper to taste, along with the pinch of Nutmeg. Separate the Eggs - leaving the whites in a bowl for later - and beat the yolks into the mixture, one at a time. Then fold in the chopped Spinach and the grated Parmesan. Taste to see if it needs more seasoning, and adjust accordingly.

4. Beat the Egg Whites until they make 'soft peaks' - i.e. they are stiff enough that the beaters will leave firm marks in their wake, and the white will remain in a point when the beaters are withdrawn, but not so stiff that they have a crumbly quality.

5. Stir a large spoonful of the beaten Egg White into the Spinach mixture, to lighten it, then add the Spinach mixture to the bowl of beaten Egg White and fold the two together.

6. Carefully ladle the souffle mixture into the prepared ramekins, letting it come half an inch or so above the rim of the ramekin. Place the filled ramekins in a roasting tin, into which you should then pour boiling water to a level about half way up the outside of the ramekins.

7. Bake in the pre-heated oven for twenty minutes, by the end of which time the souffles will have risen to the height of their collars, and the tops should be nicely browned.

When removing the collars, have a small knife ready to loosen the souffle at any points where they might have stuck to the inside of the collars - it always happens, however thorough a job you might have made of buttering the collars!


Tuesday 3 July 2007

The Emperor's New Clothes......

For many months, we watched the building work progress - incredibly slowly as it seemed at the time. A self-confident interview on Radio 4 with the Whole Foods CEO - over a year ago now - promised great things. As the opening date approached, the PR machine swung impressively into action, and articles appeared in The Economist and The FT, and all the national press had coverage of the celebrity opening. Beyond all the fanfares and the excitement, though, it was difficult to see exactly what all the fuss was supposed to be about. A range of organic produce.....and a large Cheese counter......and a restaurant or two above the shop - didn't per se seem to add up to a winning competitive formula. Most of the press comment after the opening seemed focused on the stratospheric pricing, which implied that there must be something going on to justify the exorbitant price tags...

So, yesterday, we wandered along to Ken High Street, to take a look. And it was a strangely disappointing experience: neither impressively good, nor impressively bad - merely poor. On the basis of the hype, I started out by looking for things that are sometimes difficult to find elsewhere - with absolutely no success: no Chervil or Sorrel amongst the herbs, no Citrus Oils, no Artichoke Hearts, no Rose Petal Jam, no Whitebait on the fish counter...... And it was only then that I began to realise that it wasn't just the hard-to-find stuff that was missing, but a whole lot of 'normal' things weren't available either: not only no Ossobucco amongst the meat, but no Veal whatsoever, nor any Calves Liver or Offal of any kind; no Potted Shrimps; no Dried Pears.....and although they had something they called 'risotto rice', it was impossible to tell if it was Arborio, or Vialone, or Carnaroli. Quality seemed fairly patchy as well - presumably as a result of goods not shifting quickly enough - some extremely woody asparagus (OK, it's the end of the season, but if it's not good, why carry it?) and the meat, without looking actually dry, seemed a little tired.....

Without looking at the figures, it's clear that the whole project is a retail disaster in progress. At midday on Monday, nobody was buying anything. There were people wandering around, but a lot of them seemed to be doing as we were - just taking a look. Nestled at the foot of the escalator was a phalanx of shopping trolleys, but I only saw one actually being used in anger - by a woman who seemed perturbed that the shop didn't stock Organic Gelatine (it takes all sorts!).
Nobody was making any attempt to disrupt the glistening pyramids of fruit or vegetables, or to make inroads into the serried ranks of pies or chocolates or beefsteaks. The excessively large wine section was deserted, as was the Traiteur, where the staff all looked bored to tears. And at 12.45 on a weekday, too, when you'd expect local office workers to be queuing three-deep for that sort of thing for lunch......To show willing, I bought some Sausages at the meat counter, but otherwise left empty-handed. The only place in the entire shop that seemed busy was the pick'n'mix salad bar, where you could fill up a box for £1.79. - apparently, this compares quite well with either M&S or Waitrose, just along the High Street. It doesn't look to me like much of a basis for a winning business strategy, though....

So much for all the hype and the PR puff! I suppose one could agonise over exactly where they've gone wrong - but without going into too much detail, it isn't too difficult merely to proclaim that sure as eggs is eggs, this Emperor is well and truly naked!

And the sausages?

I know.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd find they were delicious beyond description, and would find myself beating a path to Whole Foods door on a regular basis hereafter. Well, you can put away that particular 'B' movie scenario, as well. I can truthfully say they were the worst sausages I have ever eaten in my life, mealy and dry and just this side of inedible. In fact, I didn't finish mine, and donated the remainder to the four-footeds - who wouldn't eat them either!! Which, believe me, is saying a lot.

Tonight's dinner:

Spinach Souffles

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic; Vichy Carrots

Tartes aux Pommes, with Creme Chantilly.

Monday 2 July 2007

Recipe: Sweet-and-Sour Courgettes

For Six.

Ingredients: 1 kg Courgettes (or Zucchini, for non UK cooks); 2 tablespoons Olive Oil; 30g Butter; Salt; generous pinch of Cinnamon; freshly ground Black Pepper; 4 tablespoons of Wine Vinegar; 2 tablespoons of Sugar (or sweetener).


1. Slice the Courgettes into half-inch rounds, place in a colander and sprinkle with salt; leave for an hour to sweat out their water.

2. Melt the Butter in a saute pan along with the Oil. After the Courgettes have finished 'sweating', cook them over a medium heat in the Oil/Butter mixture for about twenty minutes or so, until tender.

3. Add the Cinnamon (sprinkle it across all the Courgettes to avoid it just sticking in one 'glob'), a generous amount of Pepper, Vinegar and Sugar, and continue to cook for a few more minutes, turning the slices in the cooking juices. When they are done, the courgettes should be nicely browned, and the cooking juices should be quite syrupy.

I think this is originally Elizabeth David, as interpreted by Jane Grigson....

Sunday 1 July 2007

Celebrating English Summer..... a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has the triple merits of some pretty good pictures, a more than half-decent tea room, and - most important of all, in this, Flaming June, a rainproof roof! The combination of Soane's design and the permanent collection at Dulwich is an attractive proposition at any time - particularly the subterranean gloom of the mausoleum - but at the moment there's the additional pull of a temporary exhibition of self-portraits over the ages on loan from the Uffizi, where they normally hang in the rarely-open Vasari Corridor which runs between the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace.

My expectations were not high, as these are pictures that are rarely on view to the public, and generally when a public gallery leaves stuff hidden from sight in this way you find there's a good reason for it! In this instance, not so. Inevitably, there was some duff stuff in there - but the Rembrandt and Velasquez portraits were splendid, and I even liked the self-portrait by Tintoretto (not normally one of my favourites). Best of all for me , though, was the simple clarity of Filippino Lippi's portrait, which is the first thing to greet you on entering the exhibition - it avoids all the cloying mannerism that his work so often displayed when he was working for others.

Thence to tea. From where we had a good view of the rain-soaked lawns in front of the main building, and could watch in comfort as the skies opened yet again. While the Technical Department indulged in Belgian Chocolate Cake - which, in fact, he then said was no better than 'alright' - Sarah and I chowed down on Scones and Clotted Cream and Strawberry Jam. What is it about that combination that is quite so perfect? Whoever first dreamed it up was quite clearly a genius! Never has it been bettered, in my experience, than at the Royal Castle Hotel on the harbour front in Dartmouth..........but even on a rainy Saturday afternoon just off London's South Circular, it ain't half bad!

I see that today Pisa is sunny and 30 degrees C! Despite the horror of Gatwick Airport and British Airways as part of the package, I can't wait to get back there on Wednesday!

Tonights Dinner:

Artichokes (I know - second time in one week; the Technical Department is particularly keen on them, though, and the season is short)

Grilled Duck Breast, with Zucchini in Vinegar and Cinnamon

Baked Apples, stuffed with Ratafias and Sultanas.