Wednesday 31 December 2008

Recipe: Quail Consommé with Porcini Dumplings

This is the companion recipe to Roast Quail with Walnut Mashed Potato; the base for the Consommé is the remains of the sauce from that, with the addition of further quantities of good Chicken Stock, all simmered together for another half an hour or so. If you want to be uber-elegant, you can then clarify this with minced chicken breast and egg-white; personally, I don't bother (the idea that you throw away an entire uneaten Chicken Breast goes too much against the grain). If you want to make the Consommé from scratch, then you'll need the bones from 6 quail carcasses, carrot and leek to make a sofritto, 2 tablespoons of Soy Sauce, and about a litre of water or chicken stock.

The flavour of the Consommé is excellent! The 'dumplings', which in fact have the dense texture more of polpette, are little flavour bombs of porcini and tarragon...and the combination of the two is rich and beguiling.

For Four.

Ingredients: Quail Consommé, sufficient for four servings, made following one or other of the two methods given above; 10g dried Porcini; 2 Prunes; 100g cubed Pancetta; 1 egg; 2 tbs Milk; generous pinch of Baking Powder; 1 tbs chopped fresh Parsley and Tarragon, combined; 60g Bread, cubed; 3 tbs Flour; small clove of Garlic; Salt, Pepper and ground Nutmeg, to taste.


1. Soak the Porcini in hot water for 30 minutes to soften, then drain and rinse, to remove any grit.

2. Combine Porcini with all other ingredients (apart from the Consommé) in a food processor, and process for ten seconds or so, until it is a homogeneous mass.

3. Form the mixture into little balls, each about half an inch in diameter, and roll them lightly in Flour. You should have around 20 'dumplings'. Poach these for twenty minutes in simmering Chicken Stock or water.

4. Meanwhile, re-heat the Consommé, and check and adjust seasoning if necessary. When ready to serve, use a slotted spoon to place five 'dumplings' in each of four soup plates, and ladle hot Consommé over the top.

Tuesday 30 December 2008

Winter Sunshine...

Lazy days. That wonderful doldrums period between Christmas and New Year when the days blend seamlessly together, and there comes a point when you can't quite remember which day it is any more. Punctuated by good food and wine, and walking the dogs, and reading beside the fire, and planning menus for the days to come...

For the most part, the weather is glorious. Sunshine fills the garden and streams into the house, with a Vermeer-like intensity. The blossoms on the Urophylla are opening en masse, in great cascades, and the cymbidium are on the verge of bursting into flower. The lemon crop is pretty good at this time of year, and we also have four glorious bergamot fruit ripening in the winter sun - although I'm still none the wiser about what exactly I can use them for. There are still a few blooms left on the Marie Pavie, but sadly last week's gale got rid of all the flowers on the Chinese Camellia; I imagine they're decorating a hedgerow somewhere in the vicinity of Livorno, by now.

The Loubet programme proceeds apace, with some pretty good discoveries along the way: already blogged are the recipes for rabbit en croute, and quails with walnut mash, but also to be recommended are his recipes for endives with orange, and fennel with allspice. Steak, topped with a confit of shallot and mustard was pretty good, too - as was pork, pot-roast with vanilla and coconut milk. He claims not to be particularly interested in desserts - although his recipe for iced white chocolate and gingerbread parfait is undeniably one of the best things I've ever eaten. Menu items for later this week include his rather wonderful Dark Treacle Tart, and an adaptation of his recipe for Peaches in Pistachio cream (but using fresh apricots, for which I've just located a supply in Via San Francesco).

Ok. Back I want to finish the biography I'm currently reading of Isabella de Medici, and then need to think about pruning the pomegranate tree. And of course, at six o'clock we have present-giving and prosecco - which takes place every evening between Christmas and Twelfth night, in order to avoid a five minute orgy of unwrapping on the morning of December 25th, following which the Tree sits around looking rather forlorn and seeming increasingly pointless.

Tonight's Dinner:

Consommé of Quail, with Dumplings.

Escalope de Foie de Veau Mauricette

Poached Apricots, with Pistachio Cream.

Sunday 28 December 2008

Recipe: Roast Quail with Walnut Mashed Potato

The secret to this dish is good organisation; quite a few stages, but nothing too complicated, and as long as you do everything in the correct order then the end result should be perfect. Succulent pieces of Quail served on a bed of walnut-flavoured purée, and a spoonful of richly complicated sauce which pretty much defies description. By the time you sit down to the first course, you can have the quail pieces and the finished potatoes warming in the oven, while the sauce bubbles away, just ready to be sieved and served.

For Four.

Ingredients: 6 Quail; 4 medium Potatoes; 2 tbs crushed Walnut pieces; 2 tbs Walnut Oil; 1 Egg; 1/4 cup of Milk; 1/2 thinly sliced Mushrooms; 1 large Shallot; 2 tbs Wine Vinegar; 2 tbs Soy Sauce; 1 tsp dried Oregano; 200 ml water; Olive Oil; Salt & Pepper; choppedParsley, for garnish.


1.Pre-heat the oven to 220 degreecs C.

2. Peel and cut up the potatoes and leave in salted water, ready to be cooked.

3. Film with oil the bottom of a pan that will subsequently fit in the oven, heat and then use to brown the quail lightly all over; season lightly with salt & pepper as you turn the birds to brown them. Once browned, place the whole pan in the oven to roast the quail for ten minutes.

4. Leave the birds to cool for a few minutes outside the oven, so that you can handle them, then quickly remove the legs and breasts and wrap them in a foil package and leave to keep warm inside a 60 degree C oven. Roughly chop the quail carcasses using either a cleaver or a heavy carving knife.

5. Heat some Oil in a pan, and use briefly to sauté the chopped Shallot and Mushroom; add the quail carcasses to this and brown altogether for about five minutes. De-glaze with Vinegar, then add the Oregano, Soy Sauce and Water, bring to the boil and then adjust the heat to simmer for half an hour or so.

6. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes, and once they are done pass them through the fine holes of a potato ricer; add Egg, Milk, Walnut pieces and Walnut Oil, and mix together. Check seasoning and adjust as appropriate. Keep warm while you finish the sauce.

7. Once the sauce has simmered for half an hour, sieve it into a clean saucepan and bring once more to the boil - you should have enough thick sauce for a generous spoonful per serving.

8. Put a generous spoonful of purée in the centre of each serving plate, arrange the quail legs and breasts around the purée and spoon the sauce over the top. Sprinkle with chopped Parsley, and serve.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Stilton &!

Those of you with memories which pre-date Marketing, will know that England, like most other countries, doesn't actually produce many sorts of cheese. By the time you have ticked off Cheddar, Cheshire, Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Double Gloucester (at a pinch) and Stilton you have about exhausted the canon. For this reason alone, cheese by itself never played much part in a traditional English menu until French cheese became widely available. Cheese might be offered with biscuits at lunch, after pudding, but was never offered at dinner. More normally it was something for a light snack to be had with a glass of beer...

The exception to this was Stilton, which became a big hit at the turn of the 19th century. The cheese was particularly associated with Christmas. Whole Stiltons were given as gifts, and Grocers started to give them to their customers as a Christmas 'thank you' for the year's business. How much of this was astute marketing by the Stilton producers, how much the effect of the new railways and how much a genuine love of the cheese is hard to tell - but before long a whole Stilton became as much part of the Christmas decorations in grand country houses as a fir tree. The cheese sat in the dining room - generally a sepulchrally chilly space - from Christmas until New Year and - rather atypically - was available to be eaten scooped from the shell with a specially made silver cheese scoop whenever one felt like it. (Most large houses were run with an iron hand on the food supply, and outside meal times there was simply nothing to eat. The Stilton became in a way, a chink in the armour, a sign of generous plenty, something edible that wasn't actually under lock and key).

So it was that as rationing was reduced in the 1950's, the Stilton reappeared once more as part of English Christmas. Smaller cheeses were made but served in the same way in the centrally-heated dining rooms of the flats and terraced houses of those who recalled the grander days between the wars. The cheeses were very expensive. Unfortunately the inevitable happened, the cheese met the heating and dried out horribly, long before they'd been finished off. They were too big to fit into tiny British post-war refrigerators, and a cold larder was not to be had in Dolphin Square, Ashley Gardens or Camden Terrace. After years of food shortage the sight of a dried out cheese which had cost a small fortune was something close to tragedy. Some suggested leaving a damp napkin over the cheese, but this didn't have much effect. The final desperate move was to chuck a glass of port into the mess hoping to soften it enough to eat. The cheese makers were mortified, and the gourmets shuddered ...but for a while the habit caught on. The unattractive blue-red slurry was served and eaten. Eventually the unhappy cheese-makers counter-attacked and in a massive marketing campaign persuaded the Fanny Craddocks and the Marguerite Pattens to lecture their readers and viewers about the iniquity of treating Stilton in this way. The practice died out. Everyone dutifully learnt to slice the cheese in wedges, and it was the last blast of the trumpet for the cheese scoops, which disappeared like the dinosaur, having lost their place in evolution. The last tarnished few can still be found in bric à brac shops or as curiosities on Ebay.

The story really should end here. But like the ghastly moment in many horror movies when the cry of 'Oh my God, It's Alive!" can be heard, the habit is back! Even now there are pictures on the web of a perfectly formed Stilton being cut open, scooped out with what looks like an ordinary tablespoon, pierced all over with a skewer and then, with the aid of a funnel, made soggy with a whole bottle of port. It sounds like food-abuse; it looks like food-abuse. The inhabitants of Melton Mowbray, and those of a nervous disposition should turn away now, the others may look here.

To quote Conrad "The horror, the horror!".

Tonight's Dinner:

Moules Marinières au Cresson

Roast Quails with Potato Mashed in Walnut Oil

Amaretto Soufflé

Friday 26 December 2008

Recipe: Rabbit en croute

Loosely based on Bruno Loubet's recipe for roast Saddle of Rabbit, this dish is absolutely delicious. No one of the various strongly-flavoured ingredients which goes into the Croute dominates, and in fact it's hard even to identify them individually within the finished dish - but the marriage of flavours is first class, and the overall result is undeniably a winner.

As ever, you can use commercially produced pastry here - but the flavour won't be as good as if you make your own; and the work involved in doing so is negligible.

For Six.


Puff pastry, made* with 2 cups '00' Flour, 1.5 teaspoons Salt, 130g softened Butter, 0.5 cup of water, 130g chilled Butter; 1 Rabbit, boned; 2 sun-dried Tomatoes (soaked in warm water for an hour or so, to soften them); scant tsp Green peppercorns; 1 tsp White Truffle Oil; 6 slices Prosciutto; 1 cup Flat Leaf Parlsey, chopped. Salt. Beaten Egg, to brush on the croute.

*Process all ingredients together, apart from the Chilled Butter, to ensure all are well blended; wrap and chill for one hour; roll on a floured surface into a strip approx 15" x 6 ", then dot 2/3 of this with the diced chilled Butter before folding into a package 5" x 6". Turn through 90 degrees, then roll out again; fold twice into the centre (so making a four-layer thickness of pastry) and turn and roll again. Repeat once more and leave to rest for an hour, then repeat the folding and rolliing stages twice, before leaving to rest for one more hour. The pastry is then ready to use.


1. Lay the boned Rabbit out on the work surface; thinly slice the sun-dried Tomato, and lightly crush the Peppercorns. Arrange these on the Rabbit, pushing down into creases in the meat, and then sprinkle the Truffle Oil over the top. Lightly salt, and then loosely roll the carcasse up, head-to-tail.

2. Roll half of the Pastry into a rectangle about 12" x 6" and place on a greased baking tray. In the centre of the rectangle lay three slices of Prosciutto and cover with half of the chopped Parsley, to make a bed on which to place the rolled Rabbit. Once in place, cover with the remaining Parsley and then the remaining Prosciutto. Roll out the remaining pastry, dampen the edges of the lower piece of Pastry and cover the Rabbit, pressing down to seal the edges.

3. Trim excess Pastry away and tidy up the edges of the Croute. Make three holes in the surface of the pastry, and brush all over with beaten Egg. Bake for forty minutes in a 200 degree C oven, and let rest for 15 minutes or so outside the oven before slicing to serve.

Christmas - back on track.....

And not a moment too soon, having just lost an entire week to flu-induced dozing beside the fire, and in using all available energy merely in getting through the day. The Christmas Tree was eventually installed in the Library - where it had spent three days leaning disconsolately against a wall, whilst neither of us could get our heads round the idea of climbing on ladders and dealing with fiddly little glass ornaments...and, as it was, the Technical Department nearly succumbed to vertigo as he fixed the top-knot to the three-metre extremity... and all things considered it was a bit of a close-run thing.

That done, it was possible to turn our attention to the real Christmas agenda, which this year is Bruno Loubet. Working through as many items as possible in 'Cuisine Courante' that haven't yet been tried (as well as some that have, but which merit a seasonal re-visit). The main attraction for Christmas Dinner was a rabbit en croute, which in fact was an adaptation from a Loubet recipe rather than a faithful rendition of his version. I expect I'll blog the recipe in full later on, but essentially, it comprises a whole rabbit, boned, and then rolled up, having been seasoned with green peppercorns and slivers of sun-dried tomato, along with a generous dribble of white-truffle oil; some layers of chopped parsley and a wrapping of prosciutto, and then the whole thing is encased in puff pastry and baked for forty minutes or so. Seriously delicious, both at the time, and when served cold as leftovers the next day.

Fortunately, Christmas here extends over several weeks, as the Italians only finish the holiday period at Ebufana, on January 6th, and the period in between is like an extension of Sundays, one day after another. Town meanders along at half-speed, and there's a generally relaxed air to the place. Which means there's plenty of opportunity to work our way well and truly through the recipe list between now and Twelfth Night.

Tonight's dinner:

Tarte au Chou-fleur & Gorgonzola

Fiorentina, topped with Confit of Shallots & coarse-grain Mustard; Cabbage 'Grand Mère' (with a chicken and garlic stuffing)

Pan-fried Brioche and Pear with Ginger.

Sunday 21 December 2008

We have flu....! which I don't mean the Queen-Victoria-we-are-not-amused or the Mrs-Thatcher-we-are-a grandmother type of 'we' - just straightforward common-or-garden first person plural 'we'. Both the Technical Department and I have been stricken; which, in a two-person household, is a pretty thorough epidemic. He started first, as we were leaving London at six o'clock on Tuesday morning, to drive the four-footeds down to Italy... and by the time we'd shared the confines of a packed car for the two day trip, the germs had had ample opportunity to get their claws into me as well. I have to say, having subsequently discovered quite how grim this bug is, it was truly heroic that TD struggled with it for the entire journey, including the snow and ice on the approach to Mont Blanc ...through all of which the four-footeds maintained their usual air of sang-froid, and took the whole experience entirely in their stride.
It's a thoroughly nasty virus - bone-achingly debilitating, where a sneeze or cough can leave the system racked with pain for several minutes afterwards, and deep lassitude is the order of the day. Bolstered by industrial quantities of Sudafed, we're trying to plough on as much as normal as is possible...but with each of us having to stop very regularly for a quiet sit-down after doing something as strenuous as - for example - having a shower, or emptying the dishwasher.
The four-footeds are sensitive that all isn't as it should be, and they're being very good about curling up companianably at one's feet for hours on end...but then they still have to be taken out regularly in the course of the day, which probably doesn't greatly help the recovery process. Oh, well...

Of course, we're both significantly over the worst. If we weren't, then I wouldn't be sitting and writing this right now...

There's a gap in the recipe book market, though: menus for cooks who are distinctly under the weather. I'm not sure what circumstances short of fire or flood would justify in the Technical Dept's eyes the idea that we might not have three courses for dinner...actually, thinking about it, there aren't any circumstances which would justify such a drop in standards, I suspect. Truly, The End Of Civilisation As We Know It. So, in the past few days, I've been dredging my memory for the least physically demanding recipes I can think of...Pears in Butterscotch-Marsala Cream (two minutes prep and forty minutes in the oven); spit roast chicken (no prep, just light the grill and carve at the appropriate time); hasselback potatoes (peel, slice, roast); carrots in Marsala (alcohol carries a lot of the burden when there's been only limited human input, I find). Jamie, Nigella, Gordon....where are you? There's money to be made!

Enough. I need to go and have a quiet sit-down.

Tonight's easy dinner:

Celery Risotto

Chicken in a parsley-flavoured veloute( I was going to make a pie, but haven't got the energy); Fagiolini.

Andalusian Tarts.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Recipe: Seared Salmon Fillet with Orange & Juniper

This is lazy cooking at its best - no more than five minutes prep beforehand, and the cooking time is merely the two minutes it takes to sear the fish fillets on both sides. The flavours of Orange and Juniper are subtle but definitely present, and the slight bite of the citrus goes well with the oiliness of the salmon.

I generally serve this with a light green vegetable - more often than not julienne of cucumber, sautéed in butter.

For three.

Ingredients: 300g Salmon Fillet (skin on or off, as you prefer - I rather like the crispness of the grilled skin, but it takes a minute or so longer to cook); grated rind of one large Orange; 6-8 dried Juniper Berries, ground in an electric coffee grinder; 2 tbs Gin; oil, or Trennwax, for frying.


1. Slice the fillet into three pieces, and place in a shallow dish. Evenly scatter the Orange rind and ground Juniper over the Salmon, and pour the Gin over the top. Turn the pieces of fish over several times, to make sure the other ingredients are evenly distributed over the surface. Leave to sit until you're ready to cook them (as I've stated elsewhere, I'm no great fan of the benefits of marinading, but it is practical to get the Salmon to this stage some time in advance of cooking it, and you can certainly leave it like this for several hours or so)

2. Heat a griddle or heavy frying pan on the stove until very hot, and either brush it with Oil, or else spray with Trennwax (if using oil, be sparing - you don't want the Salmon to swim in it).

3. Grill the Salmon pieces two minutes or so on both sides - you can watch the salmon coagulating as the heat penetrates it, and turn it once the heat has clearly penetrated from the bottom to the middle. Lightly salt the Salmon pieces just before and just after you turn them.


Sunday 23 November 2008

The Highspots...

...of the past ten days or so, have been many and varied. The covered market in the centre of Kiev, where babuschkas of all shapes and sizes hawk caviar, and fruit and veg, and smoked eel, and many many different kinds of smoked curd cheeses (which looked tempting, but not a good idea, since I suspected that they wouldn't pass the definition of 'liquids' that would be applied by the security gremlins at the airport... and I never, ever check baggage when I fly...). And the street market outside, which was the only place in Ukraine where I saw people shopping in any number - presumably a direct reflection of the current dire state of the Ukrainian economy (emphasised by the fact that just along the street, outside the Town Hall, the mayor of Kiev is selling his mayoral limousine, and it stands there, rather forlornly sporting a 'For Sale' sign on the windscreen...) In the street market, people wrapped up against the cold, were clustering around stalls which sold great sculptural slabs of gingerbread - I bought one as a dinner-guest offering to take to the Brancolis-in-London, where we were due to dine on the following evening - and metal bathtubs full of large, flapping, and still very much alive Carp. One man was trading from the back of what was clearly an army truck, piled to the gunwhales with large green cabbages, the earth from the field still clinging darkly to them, and he grinned broadly whilst offering plates of his homemade coleslaw....

Then there was dinner with the Brancolis-in-London: a majestic game pie, followed by what can only be described as the acme of steamed puddings...the lightest, most mouth-wateringly unctuous, and certainly the most delicious treacle pudding (with a splendid undertaste of orange) that I think I've ever eaten. Bar none. And a raft of cheeses, all washed down by a (blind) comparison tasting of the Brancoli's latest bottled vintage with a tre bicchieri from a tuscan house of some renown, but which was exactly the same blend of grape varieties. Fooled by the edginess of the San Giovese that was more evident in the commercially-produced bottle, I got the identification completely wrong - which was most gratifying for the resident wine-maker, and an indication of just how well we were being fed and watered!

The christmas windows of Sprungli in Bahnhof Strasse in Zurich were another highspot, piled high with festive chocolate creations, and a treasure trove of boxes of Luxembergerli coffee and chocolate macaroons worthy of any aladdin's cave. The french have done such a thorough job in the past few years of adopting macaroons as a french product - significantly as a result of the efforts of Pierre Hermé and his macaroon fantasies at Ladurée - that people seem to have forgotten these days that macaroons were actually a swiss indulgence long before the french got in on the act. Just as they did a couple of centuries I ago, I suppose, when vienoisserie pastries arrived in Paris in the wake of Marie Antoinette, and have been considered as 100% french ever since. No less delicious for all that...

And in my list of highspots, I can't leave out the glorious sunshine in Cannes, last week, when the temperatures soared, and walking along the Croisette without a jacket felt more like May than November. Lunch at the Majestic featured slices of Foie Gras (de Canard, but then I suppose you can't have everything) which set the taste-buds tingling - but in fact wasn't quite as delicious as the home-cured version that is a speciality of the Technical Department - and a healthy (for which read 'un-healthy') quantity of champagne of a more than respectable quality. The star of the week, food-wise, though were the blackberry macaroons that were served by the Hotel Martinez (yes, a theme emerges) which looked amazing, tasted sublime, and literally melted in the mouth. Truly, the platonic form of the macaroon!

The lowspot, in comparison, was a sandwich I consumed in Zurich airport. Without question, the worst sandwich I have ever eaten in my life. Even as I bit into it, I had my doubts - but this is the sort of thing which happens after too many flights and late nights and early mornings within too short a period: the system craves comfort food, and won't be denied. So, even after the unpromising first taste of doughy, cheese-flavoured bread, I ploughed on. Unwisely. The contents revealed themselves as a mélange of ingredients that were mostly unidentifiable, but which in general had a rather clammily organic quality, along with a generally unpleasant flavour of pickle and sausage. I ate it. I confess. And although it avoided fighting back in any obviously mechanical fashion, I somehow felt that it stayed with me for several days thereafter - which was not a positive experience.
Dear Reader, be warned: at all costs, avoid the sandwiches at Zurich Airport!

Back home to Italy tomorrow for a week... I anticipate autumnal sunshine and some serious work in the garden, which should be good both for it and for me.

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartlettes of Tomato, Thyme, and Gorgonzola.

Pork Steaks in Mustard Cream Sauce, served with Cavolo Nero, braised with Juniper.

Marsala and Prune Possets.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Recipe: Lattice-Topped Blueberry Tart

This was the recipe that inadvertently led to the discovery of '00' pastry - the benefits of which I've listed elsewhere in this blog: light as air; delicious; shrink-proof.....and additionally, it has a resilience which means it can be rolled very thinly (between two sheets of cling-film) without falling to pieces, and so has the virtues of being both economical (one eighteen ounce ball of pastry can be stretched to three, if not four, eight inch tart shells) as well as dietarily sound.

Anyway - enough tub-thumping...

This is excellent served either warm as a dessert, or cold the next morning with coffee. Either way, it won't last long, as one slice leads inevitably to another...

For one eight inch tart:


Pastry: 8 oz butter, frozen; 10 oz '00' flour; approx 1 tbs water. (This makes enough pastry for several tarts, but I've never bothered to try and pro-rata it down to make a smaller amount; either you can refrigerate unused pastry and use it over several days, or else freeze it for future use.)

Filling: 4 oz Cream Cheese; 2 tbs Sugar (or Splenda); 1 Egg; 1 tsp Vanilla Essence; 8 oz fresh Blueberries ; 2 tbs Blackcurrant Jam (seedless); juice of 1 Lemon. Optional: 1 tbs milk or beaten egg.


1. Make the pastry:
  • Using the grater disc on the food processor, grate the frozen butter into the processor bowl;
  • replace the grater disc with the standard cutter, then add the flour, and process for five seconds or so;
  • add the water through the feeder tube and continue to process for about twenty seconds until the pastry has 'resolved' itself into one homogenous ball. It shouldn't be at all sticky to the touch at this stage;
  • remove the pastry from the bowl and give it a 'fraisage' - place the ball of pastry on the work surface, and push it with the heel of your hand in five or six increments down onto the work surface and away from you 'in a firm, quick smear of about four inches' (I'm quoting the late great Julia here...incomparable on this kind of technical detail);
  • gather the pastry together into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate to rest for half an hour or so;
  • roll out enough of the rested pastry as you need to line a greased 8" false-bottomed tart tin.
2. Blind bake the tart shell in an oven pre-heated to 190 degrees C. Bake approx ten minutes with weights in, and a further five or six after the weights have been removed. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

3. Beat together the Cheese, Egg, Sugar (or Splenda) and Vanilla Essence. Spread this over the base of the baked pastry shell. Distribute the Blueberries over the top of this mixture.

4. Heat the Jam and Lemon Juice together in a pan until the Jam has melted, then spoon this over the top of the berries.

5. Roll out enough pastry to make a lattice top for the tart - either by cutting it into strips and creating the lattice by hand, or - as I always do - by rolling a circle of pastry and using a circular lattice cutter (it saves a huge amount of time, and the result looks a great deal better...). Once in place on the tart, brush the lattice with either milk or a little beaten egg, to brown as it bakes.

6. Bake 45 minutes in a 190 degree C oven, and leave to cool down for ten minutes or so before serving.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

"00" Flour is amazing stuff!

I waxed lyrical about it several weeks ago, when I was rediscovering the joys of hand-rolled pasta...but since then it has also turned out to produce surprisingly effective short-crust pastry, as well. 'Surprisingly', because the point about "00" is that it has a higher gluten content than normal, and so you'd expect pastry made with "00" to turn out tougher and to be generally less of A Good Thing than otherwise. Not a bit of it....Recently, when making a lattice-topped blueberry pie (for which my more usual choice of phyllo was inappropriate) I got caught short on bog-standard plain flour, and had to dip into the "00" which until then was reserved for making pasta. The result was a short-crust par excellence - light as air, but with none of that irritating tendency to fall apart that short-crust has when at the very 'shorter' end of the scale. Not entirely trusting the result, I tried it again a week later, with exactly the same result.

"00" is more expensive than the standard alternatives....but not astronomically so; in Italy, we're talking 97 centesimi a kilo, as opposed to 62 or so....and I think the equivalent quantity is available in Waitrose for around £1.40. It's definitely worth the extra - just as carnaroli is worth paying more for than arborio when making risotto - the difference in result hugely out-weighs the extra pennies at the till.


This week, autumn has hit Tuscany with a vengeance. Apart from one day, when the clouds parted and thin sunshine made a half-hearted effort to dry the garden, it's been endless sturm und drang ever since we arrived a week ago....Thunderstorms night after night, and sheets of rain coming down with monsoon-like ferocity. I assume it is just local to Pisa, though, as the Arno seems no higher than usual - generally, when there are several days of rain on the trot between here and Florence, the river level in Pisa rises quite dramatically, and people begin to think of the famous floods in '66, when most of the bridges were swept away, and our entire quartiere was a metre or more under water... As it is, we wake every morning to the sound of water pouring relentlessly from the gutters, and a daily task is to sweep away a fresh inflow of leaves that have yet again carpeted the floor of the loggia overnight.

In the rare interludes between rain, the garden is taking on its autumn hues, when the pomegranate tree gradually turns a vibrant, acidic yellow, and the Caci becomes a rich burnt orange. I no longer have to fight to restore order to the chaos of creeper and climbing roses which densely coat the pergolas - I now have a three or four month break from that particular task - and instead am gradually putting the garden in its winter format. The Cymbidiums - budding nicely - and Cyclamen, and Gladiolus Tristis have all come out from their summer hiding places, and I managed to plant 100 white crocus bulbs on Sunday afternoon, before the heavens opened yet again...

Menus are changing along with the season, as the declining temperature and blazing fires turn the mind to the trencherman's hearty fare of roasts and pies and the sort of sticks-to-tiny-ribs food that keeps the cold well and truly out. Last night was cauliflower in anchovy sauce, followed by guinea-fowl pot-roast with celery and Marsala... Winter certainly isn't all bad!

Tonight's Dinner:

Lentil Soup

Fiorentina, with Endive Salad

Prune & Armagnac Tart

Thursday 30 October 2008

Recipe: Bitter Orange Souffle

An excellent dish! Light and delicious, simple to make, with wow-factor at the first mouthful and an aftertaste that lingers ...

Easy enough for any old midweek supper, and impressive enough to qualify for even the most formal dinner party, the soufflé base can be made several hours in advance (and covered with clingfilm while it sits, to prevent a skin from forming) leaving just the beating of the egg whites and folding-in processes to be performed mid-dinner.

For two.

Ingredients: 30g Butter; 20g Plain Flour; grated zest and juice of 2 Bitter Oranges, or of 1 sweet Orange and half a Lemon; 60g Sugar (or equivalent volume Splenda); 100 ml Milk; 1.5 tablespoons of Grand Marnier; 2 Eggs, separated.


1. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Make the Soufflé base: melt the Butter in a double boiler or zimmertopf; stir in Flour and citrus zest; add the Milk and cook over low heat for a minute or so until the mixture has thickened; away from the heat, beat in the citrus juice, Sugar (or Splenda), Grand Marnier, and finally the Egg Yolks.

3. Whisk the Egg Whites to form soft peaks, then fold the Whites into the Soufflé Base. Divide between two individual ramekins which have been greased or sprayed with Trennwax. Set in a roasting pan, pour boiling water half way up the sides of the ramekins, and cook 10-12 minutes in the pre-heated oven.

4. Sieve a light layer of icing sugar over the top of the soufflés before serving.

Sunday 26 October 2008

The highspot of this week...

...was lunch on Wednesday, in glorious sunshine, on a wooden platform built out over the edge of the Danube. Looking across the water towards the slopes beneath the craggy fortifications of Kalemegdan Castle, hundreds of water birds wheeled and dived and bobbed gently on the waves. Through the gaps in the planks, the water was visible flowing just two feet beneath our feet - gently slapping against the platform supports as it did - and all that was visible otherwise were the densely wooded banks of the river and the wide expanse of intensely blue sky. We feasted on calamari salad, followed by simply grilled 'Sander', the local fish, which is generally translated as pike-perch, and in texture is like an oilier version of bream. Accompanied by a rocket salad, and washed down with a bottle of chilled local white wine, it couldn't have been more perfect. I abstained from the aperitif of Rakija that was offered at the start- to be knocked back, in traditional style, from something that looks like an Edwardian lady's scent bottle - as I had an appointment straight afterwards with some bad-tempered Serbs, for which I thought I would would need my wits about me (they didn't like a decision they thought had been my responsibity, and were intent on 'persuading' me to change my mind - it had been, and they didn't. But in the course of the meeting, I began to understand how the Bosnians must have felt in the not-so-distant past....)

Other than that, the week had an increasingly surreal quality as it wore on.....starting from a presentation in Athens on Tuesday concerning development opportunities in Montenegro, given by a welsh-sounding serb who sported a hairstyle that wouldn't have shamed a Bee-Gee.....and ending up in a cold and damp Moscow at three o'clock on Friday morning, wending my way from a nine-hour stint at a party in the Zafferano Restaurant. Notwithstanding the sweetness of Russian champagne and the inexplicable pinkness of the Pinot Grigio on tap, I can state unequivocally that Russians certainly know how to party!

In between times, there was the occasional oasis of calm - most memorably when I went in search of an Athenian taverna I used to frequent in the seventies near the Evvangelismos Hospital, and found that it had been transformed in the meantime into an elegant and distinctly upmarket eatery. I sat in dappled sunshine for nearly half an hour under the elegant canopy of pleached limes that now shades the terrace, and indulged in Proustian recollections of afternoons whiled away in that very place consuming endless plates of fried cheese and bottles of Boutari. Times have certainly changed, and the price of the single glass I drank contemplatively on this occasion would have probably paid for an entire lunch for four back in those days!

Or there was dinner taken on Tuesday evening at Madera Restaurant in Belgrade - definitely more bizarre than serene. The food looked - and probably tasted - like an offering from one of the more adventurous issues of Good Housekeeping circa 1968; at the table next to me were two ladies who had clearly escaped from a Fellini casting (one, stylishly sporting a silver fox fur tippet, and the other with an exposed embonpoint that was of positively architectural proportions) and all this against the background of a piano and cello duet, who produced a superb rendition of, amongst other things, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' . The cellist, I thought, was particularly good.

And now, two days in London, before disappearing off to the peace of Italy for an entire fortnight - which will be truly blissful! Yesterday morning, to the Queen's gallery, for the Breughel to Rubens exhibition. Most of the early portraits - Quinten Massys and Joos Van Cleve particularly - were spectacularly splendid...
On the whole, I think having the pictures might just about make it worth being monarch - although the rest of the job-package isn't particularly persuasive. Which is fortunate, really, when you think about it...

Tonight's Dinner:

Poached Eggs, on a bed of Spinach & Sprue.

Pork Tenderloin, roast with Star Anise, and served with Turnip Gratin.

Lemon Tarts.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Recipe: Ravioli with Parsley Stuffing

My favourite new pasta dish - and one for which I don't in the least understand its obscurity. I've yet to come across parsley-stuffed ravioli on a restaurant menu anywhere in Italy, and yet the flavour is great and the preparation couldn't be simpler. Maybe it's another of those things where its simplicity has meant that people have come to disregard it, and along the way they stopped noticing how good it actually is...

So much about cooking is efficient time-management. About ten days ago, the Brancolis came to dinner, in advance of us all going to the final concert in this year's Anima Mundi Cycle, in the Duomo (Arvo Part's Cantus for Benjamin Britten, and Renaud Capucon playing Brahms' Violin Concerto - both of which were truly excellent...). The fact that we lingered longer than intended over pre-dinner fizzy wine, and that the concert was going to start at 9.00 come-what-may, conspired to mean suddenly we were pressed for time....and from the moment of starting to roll the pasta dough to the point when bowls of steaming ravioli were placed on the table took exactly 30 minutes. Doubtless, some weather-beaten Nonna would have been able to do it in half the time....but I thought it wasn't a bad effort for a mere novice.

For Four*.

Ingredients: Pasta dough, made with 3 medium eggs and 2 cups of '00' flour, plus a generous pinch of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil(optional: you can also ad a sachet of squid ink if you want black pasta, and a slightly fishy taste to your ravioli) ; 250g ricotta; 1 cup loosely-packed fresh parsley; 1 piece of hard parmesan, about 1.5" cube, cut into small pieces; 1 egg; large pinch of Nutmeg; salt & pepper to taste.


1. Process all of the pasta dough ingredients together for thirty seconds,to give you a homogenous lump, that is not sticky to the touch.Let this rest in the fridge for half an hour

2.Place the parsley and pieces of parmesan in the food processor bowl and process for ten seconds or so, until decently broken down, and then add all the remaining ingredients and process further to make a thick paste. Check and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

3. Once rested, divide the pasta dough into quarters, and quickly roll each quarter ten times at the broadest setting on your pasta machine, turning and folding the strips as you go. Then, cut each quarter in half; cover the remaining pieces of pasta to stop them drying out, and take each of the eight pieces of dough through the six-stage rolling process, reducing the thickness between the rollers with each stage.

4. Once each strip of pasta has finished its sixth roll, lay it on a floured cloth and place a row of teaspoons of filling (five or six, depending upon the exact length of the pasta strip) along the centre of the strip. Fold the strip over on itself, and use a pasta wheel seal the length of the folded strip and to cut between the spoonfuls of filling, to create square ravioli about and inch and a half square.

5. Repeat with the remaining pasta and filing (I generally find I run out of filling while I still have some pasta dough left - enough for a fettucine starter the following day). Cook for about three minutes in a large pan of boiling, salted water.

6. To serve: melt a couple of ounces of butter in a small saucepan, and add to this a half cup of double cream. Heat through for about a minute, to thicken slightly, as the pasta cooks, and then use gently to coat the ravioli once they've been drained.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Home & Hearth... a very welcome concept after a couple of weeks of practically non-stop travelling. Airports and planes, and poor (if not non-existent) internet connections...and hotel breakfasts (I don't normally have breakfast, but somehow business trips exist on an alternative plane, and all usual reference points count for nothing...) and early morning alarm calls....and endless, endless, endless hours of CNN reports on the global financial meltdown! I watched Lehmann Bros go bust in Mumbai, George W's bailout plan be given the bum's rush in Athens, and Fortis go belly-up in Munich! I'm hugely relieved to be back now in a blissfully TV-free environment, and able to ignore the whole damned thing....

I have to say that in all of that peripatation, there was little of note to report on the culinary front. There was one memorable Coffee Parfait in The Grande Bretagne in Athens, served with the merest drizzle of an exquisite Hazelnut Sauce ....which was (apparently) simple, and unarguably sublime....and a soup in The Lenbach restaurant in Munich which was worthy of serious analysis - Lobster and Saffron bisque, I think, in which floated delicious chunks of red mullet and artichoke heart. Beyond that, though, airline food never rises above the pitifully poor, and the culinary offerings of neither Greece nor Germany are ever likely to set the gastronomic pulses racing....

In fact, it was a complete delight to get back to my own kitchen, roll up my sleeves and get life back on a sensible footing . As ever, October in Tuscany is quite wonderful....the days still and clear, which start with bright morning sunshine, and a light mist rising over the garden; by midday, the heat is quite intense, and as the evening draws in, the chill in the air suddenly prompts sweaters and closed windows and the uncorking of bottles of hearty super-tuscans. This is the season when the wall-mounted barbecue in the kitchen comes into its own, and all of the atavistic home-and-hearth impulses rise to the surface. Yesterday, for the first time since April, I dusted off the barbecue - which can't be used in summer months as it throws out far too much heat for comfort - and watched with atavistic pleasure as one of Padre Pio's chickens rotated gracefully before the flames, and was roast to a satisfyingly succulent crispness. (Not the real Padre Pio, but our Pisan poulterer, who used to be an avid follower of the beatified cleric)

The garden behaves so well at this time of year: late roses on the south pergola, the surface of the lily pond a mass of white water-hyacinth flowers , and the house pergola a fantastic combination of jasmine blossom (jasminum angulare) against the bulls-blood red of the autumnal hue of the creeper. Yesterday, I threw caution and workload to the winds and sat under the Caci tree in the midday sunshine, with a glass of chilled vernacchio di San G, and the fifth of this year's Booker shortlist - Amitav Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies'. Good book, but absolutely lousy shortlist.....despite which, half an hour of midday sunshine in the middle of the garden was still spectacular.

Tonight's Dinner:

Seppie, con Piselli e Pomodoro

Pepper, Parmesan and Veal 'Hamburger'; Borlotti Beans alla trippa

Crepes Suzettes