Wednesday 28 December 2011

Foolproof Roast Lamb...

Slow cooking in the oven is an absolute godsend for the harrassed host. In the place of precise timings and last-minute stress, this method means that the work is all done hours in advance (freeing up the time to be stressed about another course instead!). By the end of this past Christmas weekend - which, in practice turned into three consecutive dinner parties, interspersed with two consecutive lunch parties (a lot of fun, but....well, you know) - to be able to turn to this method for the main course for dinner on Boxing Day was an enormous help.  Painless, and entirely reliable. (One thing to remember, though, with this method is not to rely on your oven controls to tell you what temperature the oven has reached, but to put an oven thermometer in the oven alongside the meat and to take your readings from that - something I've learned from bitter experience!)

For one Lamb Loin (enough for eight servings):
1. Remove the joint from the refrigerator for long enough for it to reach room temperature, (about 3 hours before you want to start cooking). Then , using a blow torch, flame the joint all over to kill any surface bacteria. Season and tie the joint neatly. 
2. Pre-heat the oven to either 60°C (for medium, or pink lamb at the end of cooking) or to 65°C (if you prefer your lamb more cooked). Place the lamb in a dish with a piece of foil loosely laid over the meat, and cook for 3½ hours. (For those that like lamb really 'well done', set the temperature at  70°C.) If your oven has multiple settings, make sure to use the setting without the fan, as otherwise you risk the joint drying out. Once the joint has heated through, remove it from the oven and it can be 'held' until needed
3. 30 mins before serving, heat the oven to maximum. When the oven has reached maximum temperature, set the joint on a wire rack and roast until the outside is well browned, 10 - 15 mins. (If you have a gas grill or similar you can use this to brown the joint, instead).
4. Keep the joint warm while you have your first course then carve, season and serve on hot plates with a little hot sauce of your choice (I normally make a reduction of stock and red wine).

Saturday 24 December 2011

And so, this is Christmas...

The tree is dressed, and ready. The fridge is groaning (foie gras, curing in its salt; duck, boned and stuffed with lemon-butter and sage; bowls of mincemeat, fish stock, and sausagemeat prepped for rolls; venison pavés; sides of smoked salmon; fillets of sole...); the senior four-footed, as a Christmas treat to all, has just had a bath, and is looking disconsolately fluffy and smells wonderfully of shampoo; the house is filled with the heady aroma of sauce veneur simmering on the stove, along with the dulcet tones of Brenda Lee trilling 'Frosty the Snowman' (although I can see the post-modern ironic humour of that wearing thin rather quickly). Bread dough is rising in the kitchen, and enough puff and shortcrust pastry has been made to supply an army with sausage rolls and mince pies, in between actually eating.

The Belfortes are about to descend on us en masse, and after the Brancolis arrive tomorrow morning, we can embark on all the festivity stuff. This year the tree has been banished to the barn, with the idea that we rev up the wood stove and keep hypothermia at bay over present-giving with a combination of mulled wine and warm pastries. Fortunately, the forecast is for the day to be (wintry) warm and we might just about last the course before somebody remembers that it's the middle of winter, and we're all about to catch our death.

Then, indoors again for lunch (tomato and pepper tarts; artichoke frittata; smoked salmon; salad; and an array of glorious french cheese, promised by the Belfortes), after which we're sending them all off on a scavenger hunt for the afternoon. They don't yet know this, which could mean we risk a minor rebellion - but in the absence of the Queen's Speech, we have to find something for them to do in the afternoon (and, more importantly, get them out of our hair, while we get on with preparing dinner, which is after all the main event of the day). And then.....dinner: devils on horseback (by popular request) before we sit to Sole Normande, followed by Venison (with sauce veneur), and finish with Grand Marnier soufflés. The Brancolis are supplying due and tre bicchieri bottles (Avvoltorre) to go with the venison, so we can indulge in a vertical tasting as we go. Not the last vertical tasting of the holiday, though, as, during dinner on Boxing Day,  we're planning to compare salt-cured foie gras with the poached variety.

By the 27th, they'll all have gone, the cupboards will be looking sadly empty, and we can allow ourselves to subside into midwinter lethargy. And the senior four-footed will be well on the way to recovering that eau de 'spaniel left out in the rain'  aroma that he particularly favours.

Tonight's dinner:

Mussel Risotto

Duck, boned and roast, with lemon-butter and Sage pushed under the skin; wild mushrooms; diced potatoes fried in goose fat

Aosta apple and orange tart.

Friday 2 December 2011

Recipe: Tomato and Pepper Tart

The success of this recipe is all about concentrating the tomato flavour until it is rich and intense and edgy. A deceptively simple presentation, but when you go through the sliced tomato surface and get to the complicated combination of flavours beneath, it really is show-stoppingly good. I pefer to make it with phyllo pastry shells, which means the finished dish is light and more-ish - but a buttery shortcrust would work just as well, I'm sure.

For two individual tarts.

Ingredients: two pre-cooked phyllo pastry shells; three medium sized Tomatoes; 2 tbs finely diced Red Pepper; one small Onion; two Garlic cloves; a Bouquet Garni; 2 oz butter; Olive Oil; 1 tbs Tomato Paste; half a dozen Basil leaves, shredded; 1 tsp dried Thyme; Salt & Pepper.


1.Finely slice one of the Tomatoes (you want about twelve slices, in total), and put in a bowl with the diced Pepper; melt half of the Butter over low heat, then pour this over the Tomato and Pepper mixture, add a little salt, and mix together. Set aside.

2. Melt the remaining butter in the pan, with a little Oil. Sauté the onion, finely diced, for a few minutes until visibly softened. Dice the remaining tomatoes, and add them to the pan, along with the Garlic (minced), Bouquet Garni, and tomato paste. Cook, stirring frequently for a bout ten minutes, over medium heat, until the mixture has entirely collapsed and has lost most of its liquid - it should be quite thick at this stage.

3. Discard the Bouquet Garni. Check and add seasoning to taste, and stir in the shredded basil leaves. Divide the mixture between the two pastry shells.

4. Arrange the slices of Tomato (along with the diced Pepper) over the top of the Tomato mixture, to cover. Bake for ten minutes in a 180 degree C oven, until the slices are visibly dried out, and have started to colour at their edges. Remove from the oven, and drizzle a little Olive oil over the top of each tart, and sprinkle with the dried Thyme.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Venice in November

Crisp and sunny....and empty! Some tourists - inevitably -   around Saint Mark's ....but the quiet side canals of Dorsoduro and Canareggio were largely deserted, apart from locals en route to the market or else snatching a quick coffee and a minute or two of autumn sunshine. Venice was so quiet, in fact, that we actually went inside the Basilica, for the first time - always previously having been put off by the queues outside, and, seeing nobody waiting in line as we crossed the Piazza on Monday afternoon, we seized our chance and nipped inside. To a mess of drugget strips and guard ropes and signposts, the gloomy interior illuminated by pools of light wherever a dickensian prelate sat hunched over a cash desk, ready to sell access to some other part of the inner sanctum. We ventured inside the Treasury - three euros each - to find a rather tatty display of saintly body-parts encased in gimcrack and generally dented silver-gilt containers; all against a background of the low murmer of several hundred people all simultaneously observing the regulation 'silenzio'. We didn't stay long. Gennaro assures me that the place is magical by candlelight, for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I'll take his word for it.

Conversely, San Sebastiano, on Monday morning, and the dalmatian Scuola di San Giorgio, on Tuesday were quite spectacular. In the former, we'd gone specifically to look at the recently restored Veronese ceiling panels (in practice, I thought they'd been overdone, and the effect is clumsy) but the church as a whole is a is San Giorgio, with its painted ceiling,  and Carpaccio's panels of Saint George and Saint Jerome. We had both places to ourselves, and luxuriated accordingly. As was the case also in San Rosario, where the reflection of the sun on the waters of the Giudecca Canal outside shimmered over the foreshortened images in Tiepolo's incredible ceiling.

Otherwise, the Kieffer exhibition on the Zattere was impressive - great sheets of lead, suspended from a long rack, displaying the colours of minerals and decay - and we even managed to shoehorn ourselves into a poetry reading, on Monday evening, in a small gallery in the Ghetto, where Michael Glover's rather bland verse set off to perfection the sharp-tongued observations written and read by Philip Morre. 

And we feasted. An excellent lunch in La Zucca (just to the north of San Giacomo de l'Orio), and a pretty good one the day before at the Vecio Marangon, in Campiello Centro Pietre; dinner at Vini da Gigio was a bit ho-hum (and, not for the first time, it smelt of drains ....I think probably it can now fall off the list, as no longer vaut le detour) whilst that at Fiaschetteria Toscana couldn't have been bettered: a perfect risotto of clams and baby squid, to start with, and then deep-fried monkfish cheeks, all washed down with a memorable Gavi di Gavi, 2007. As we were leaving, La Signora bore down on us and - for some reason - starting talking with great animation of the celebrations being organised in Verona for her friend, Marcella Hazan's imminent (ish) ninetieth birthday - she appeared to think we might be on the guest list, but (sadly) I suspect she was confusing us with somebody else.

And then, of course, there were all the numerous and necessary halts along the way for coffee, and spritz,  and beer, and prosecco with which any trip like that has to be punctuated - on this occasion, most memorably on Sunday evening, when we emerged from a bar, to find a dense fog had suddenly descended, to swirl in eddies around the streetlamps, and along the edge of the canal....and then on Monday (brilliantly sunny, once more),   at the wonderful enoteca on Fondamenta Nani, which is packed in the middle of the day with venetians eating and drinking on the hoof, and all engaging in high-energy gossip at the same time.

Art, and ozone, and walking (and walking!) and food and drink....and,  before our train had even reached Bologna on the return journey, yesterday, I was out for the count!

Tonight's dinner:

Courgette Soufflés

Scaloppine alla Milanese (with prosciutto and cheese inside); braised fennel

Apple tart.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Robuchon - my book of the year

Yes, I know - the year isn't yet over. But I have no doubt whatsoever that my award for book of the year will go to 'The Complete Robuchon', which I've been working my way through, during the past few weeks. A lifetime's experience distilled into one authoritative volume. No-nonsense, spare, intelligent, and all-round excellent. There are no pictures - so not something for the coffee-table audience - and the recipes are well-structured and efficiently written. This is the sort of 'bible' to be compared with, say, Madame de Sante-Ange....and, dare I say it, it shows how far we've moved on since the late great Julia first published 'Mastering the Art...'. Just off the top of my head, new discoveries for me from Robuchon have been a splendid tart of tomato and red pepper - light and exquisite - a recipe for red mullet in saffron cream; a version of scaloppine alla milanese, in which prosciutto and cheese are sandwiched between the scaloppine; rabbit, roast in a mustard poultice; a cornichon sauce for pork chops; a different method for pintade au chou; porcini with broad beans....the list goes on, and I'm still only a third of the way through the book!

For anybody thinking what to give themselves as an early Christmas present, I can't recommend this one highly enough!

 Tonight's dinner:

Will be up at Brancoli, so I don't know what it will be; although I will be making an apricot and cinnamon cake to take as a guest-offering. And then, tomorrow we leave for Venice for a couple of days, so dinner will be the responsibility variously of Vini da Gigio and Fiaschetteria Toscana.

Friday 4 November 2011

Recipe: Fond d'artichauts with foie gras & mushroom stuffing

This might sound extravagent, but it really isn't. For two servings, it takes only 50g of foie gras, which we regularly buy raw at Metro - the local cash-and-carry - and home cure. One foie served with brioche is appropriate for six people, and this sort of recipe is an excellent way of then using up any leftover trimmings. The combined flavours are first class, and although the presence of the foie gras is clearly detectable within the mix as a rich and unctuous undertone, it doesn't brashly push itself forward for attention.
This dish has the added advantage of being (low-carb) dietarily sound, as well, since it avoids the otherwise necessary consumption of carb-rich brioche. (And for those readers in Kent who recently, and repeatedly, made negative comments about my weight dynamic, I'll have you know I've gone down almost two notches in my belt within the past month!)

For Four servings.

Ingredients:12 prepared fond d'artichauts; 100g foie gras trimmings; 30g Butter; Olive Oil; 1 tablespoon Flour; 100 ml Milk; 1 shallot; 125g Mushrooms; 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan; Seasoning.


1. Cook the fond d'artichauts in boiling salted water for about ten minutes, until tender (omit this step if using bottle fonds, which will already have been cooked).  Drain, and place in a baking  dish (in fact, I divide  them between individual egg dishes to bake,  which can then go directly to table for serving).

2. Melt two-thirds of the butter in a small saucepan, and gently sauté the diced shallot; once the shallot is wilted, add to it the finely chopped mushroom, raise the temperature, and cook for a couple of minutes until the mushroom liquid has been released and cooked away. Take off the heat.

3. Melt the remaining butter in a simmertopf or bain marie, add to it the flour, and then whisk in the milk. Cook, stirring, until it thickens, then remove from the heat, and stir into it the mushroom-shallot mixture. Check and adjust seasoning as necessary.

4. Divide the foie gras between the fond d'artichauts, and then spoon over it the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle grated parmesan over the top, and then bake in a 190 degree C oven for fifteen minutes. Allow to rest outside the oven for a few minutes before serving, to avoid burned mouths!

Thursday 3 November 2011

Autumn is upon us

Glorious, mellow sunny days. The garden rich with the deep colours of parthenocissus, drooping in great swathes from the branches of the cypresses, and in curtains hanging down from gutters and wires. Doors and windows are left strategically open in the course of the day, but firmly closed by nightfall, and the evening air is crisp and now carries with it the unmistakeable smell of woodsmoke.

 The winter gardening timetable has begun, now that the days are cooler, and the endless hours spent watering in summer can be devoted instead to more productive tasks. I've just completed the first tranche of bulb-planting....crocuses, and pushkinia, narcissus, bluebells, aconites, muscari, nerine, cyclamen, alliums, and snowdrops. The tulips will have to wait until the end of the month, when I should also have the new climbing roses to plant on the north pergola, as well as some more ground-cover roses to go in amongst the camellias. We've added another dozen azaleas to those already lining the entrance walkway, and all of the rododendrons have been moved from behind the church, where they got far too much sun and struggled in the summer heat, to the welcoming shade beneath the palm trees and pines at the southern edge of the woodland area.

 The quince harvest is pretty much finished, the cachi trees are heavy with fruit (industrial quantities of the stuff, and since we don't have a taste for them, the Pauli - and all of their friends and relations, and indeed anybody else they can think of  -  have been invited to come and pick), and the blossom on the nespole is hosting an impressive display of pollinating activity from bees. The orange and lemon crops are coming on well - just now beginning to swell and to take on some colour - and even the bitter orange crop in January should be pretty good.

Since the clocks have changed (much to the confusion of the four-footeds and their dinner hour, for which they work on God's time, and they've been much put out since they still haven't entirely adjusted to the change ) it's dark by five-ish, which means gardening is forced to finish for the day, and a great deal more time is available once more to be devoted to dinner. Generally after a welcome soak in a hot bath for half an hour, accompanied by a glass of prosecco and an improving book; I'm just finishing a deeply irritating work on the design of early Medici gardens, by somebody called Rafaella Fabiani Giannetto - lots of interesting information that she uses to support an extremely stupid thesis....Oh, well.

I've also been working through Joel Robuchon's recently published 'Complete', which I can't recommend highly enough. A lifetime's experience at the rockface distilled into a treasure trove of splendidly practical recipes. To-date, I've tried his version of pintade au chou (twice, in fact!);  rabbit roast in mustard, with a cream sauce; clams & mussels in curry-flavoured cream; courgettes, sautéed with mushrooms and broad beans; and a tart of tomatoes and peppers, about which the Technical Department hasn't stopped raving ever since!

And now, since the sun is streaming in, I think I'd better make the most of it and finish demolishing the oldest of the compost heaps, to be used as top-dressing round all of the hydrangeas. The forecast is for days of rain as from tomorrow...

Tonight's Dinner:

Fond d'artichauts, stuffed with Foie Gras, in  a Mushroom sauce

Salmon fillets, larded and baked, served in a horseradish-cream sauce; Fava beans

Fresh Pineapple

Sunday 30 October 2011

Elizabeth David knew nothing about cooking...

Or so the 1951 review in the Manchester Guardian of her second book 'French Country Cooking' stated, with great disdain. "Recipe Books come in two sorts," it declaimed, "the decorative, and the practical...and Mrs David's work falls clearly in the first category". The recipes were merely copied from elsewhere, it went on, and it seemed unlikely that ED had actually ever cooked many of them; her quantities were wrong, her techniques suspect, the timings were out....and, all in all, she really didn't have a clue.

The reviewer was somebody called Lucie Marion, who happened to be French (nose out of joint, perhaps, at feeling her home turf was being invaded?), and had recently published one recipe book, and had another one on the way at the time of writing. Could it be that she didn't relish the competition? Not that her work and La David's bear much resemblance to each other - I have a copy of her second one, The Home Chef, which focuses quite a lot on the constraints of cooking 'in these difficult times' when butter was still unavailable, and fingerbowls had not yet emerged from the deep storage they'd gone into at the start of the war. Lots of household hints, as well, such as keeping a bowl of oatmeal beside the sink at all times as a drying agent for one's hands, in order to avoid them ever looking red or, perish the thought, chapped! And a fundamental premise for Ms Marion was that there should always be a quarter of an hour free at the end of preparing dinner, during which time, the hostess (or mother, or housewife) could compose herself, change her frock, and powder her nose, before presenting herself once more to her guests or family. Somehow, I can't imagine Elizabeth David ever actually using the word 'frock'.

As for what La David made of the review, history appears not to relate. Given the ironclad Grande Dame image that she presented in later years, it's hard to think she would have bothered very much with Lucie's pointed criticisms, though. She-who-must-be-obeyed in Belforte once had a run-in with ED when she had her shop in the Kings Road, many years ago, and although I can't remember exactly what the bone of contention was, I do recall that SWMBO came out of it distinctly the worst. Which says much.

And if Ms Marion's nose was out of joint at the appearance of the first of the David oeuvre, I can't imagine she got any happier over the years, as the David star rose ever higher in the firmament, until the grande dame acquired practically mythical status. And the ironic thing is, LM's original criticisms - unfortunately snippy though they were in style - were largely correct...the quantities were sometimes off, and you couldn't entirely rely on her timings...but then, I would have said that's probably true of almost any serious recipe book ever written - they're supposed to function more as a guide than as a precise technical manual. Otherwise, one might just as well be adding an egg to a Betty Crocker instant cake mix, for all the skill that might be required.

I tried to find out what happened to Lucie Marion downhill of 1951. Without much success. In all, she published three books, all much at the same time, in the early fifties, and then seems to have disappeared without a trace. Not even a Wikipedia entry - which, in this day and age, is almost eery. I can only hope she went back to France, where she wouldn't have had to watch with increasing bitterness as the 'decorative' output of Mrs David reached out to an ever larger and more appreciative audience over the years...

Tonight's Dinner:


Pintade au Chou

Petits pots a la crème au Chocolat

Monday 17 October 2011

Recipe: Cumin & Olive sauce for Magrets de Canard

Adapted from a recipe of Bruno Loubet, this sauce is excellent with duck breasts which have been very simply grilled (trim the fat from the breasts and 'slash' the remaining skin, then coat lightly in oil, season well, and grill for six minutes skinside, a further five minutes on the other side, and then allow to rest for two minutes before slicing to serve). The sauce is delicious, with lots going on in terms of flavour, and it marries well with the flavour and texture of the duck meat. As a vegetable to accompany this dish, caramelised onions work well.

For enough sauce for two servings:

Ingredients: 1 carrot, finely diced; 1 stick of celery, finely diced; 1 small onion, finely diced; 1 oz Butter; 1 tbs Oil; 3 tbs Honey; 2 tbs Red Wine Vinegar; 1 tbs light Soy Sauce; 1 Bayleaf; 1 clove Garlic, minced; approx 1 pint good Stock (Chicken, or Duck, or Guinea Fowl is perfect); generous pinch of Cumin; half a dozen stoneless Green Olives, finely diced; Salt & Pepper.


1. Heat the Butter and Oil in a medium sized pan, then sauté the Carrot, Celery and Onion until the vegetables have collapsed and just begin to colour (about five minutes, over medium heat).

2. Add the Honey, Vinegar, and Soy Sauce to the pan, along with the Bayleaf and Garlic. Stir to incorporate, then add the Stock. Bring briefly to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour.

3. Strain the contents of the pan into a bowl (discard the diced vegetables at this point) and return the sauce to the pan. Over medium heat, reduce the sauce by about two thirds, then add the Cumin and stir.

4. At this point, set the sauce aside until you start to grill the duck breasts. When you do, re-heat the sauce, and carefully continue to reduce it until it is a rich, coating consistency, at which point add the diced Olives and keep warm until the duck breasts have been sliced and plated. A generous spoonful of sauce for each serving, and that's it.

Friday 7 October 2011

Recipe: Salmon Carpaccio

I'm slightly out of time on this one, as it's been a new favourite starter during the hot summer months, and today appears to be the first day of autumn. The temperature has dropped dramatically, and for the first time since May, the doors and windows are closed, and we took morning coffee indoors. The promised rain has yet to materialise, though (annoyingly, since we haven't seen a drop in almost three weeks, and had another dry period before that of over a month), and this morning's heavy sky has given way instead to blustery sunshine.

Anyway....salmon carpaccio. In fact a second cousin to both ceviche and gravadlax, but not very close to either, I've come across versions of this recipe in both Anna del Conte and in Harry's Bar, in Venice. My version is closer to Anna del Conte. The trick to slicing the salmon is to leave it in the freezer for an hour or so beforehand, so the slices can be wafer-thin but without falling to pieces - and, in fact, I use a salami slicer when doing this, but a decently sharp long-bladed knife ought to be just as effective.

The way the textures and flavours in this dish complement and work against each other is first class. And, in practice, I'm sure will be just as delicious served against the background noise of autumn storms, with the shutters firmly closed, as it was when dining al fresco, under the stars.

For two:

Ingredients: 2 Salmon Fillets, each approximately 200g; 2 tbs Olive Oil; the juice of 2 large Lemons; 4 fl oz Single Cream; Salt & Pepper; Cayenne Pepper; 1 small Fennel bulb.


1. Slice the Salmon fillets as finely as possible, and arrange in a single layer to cover two dinner plates. Drizzle each plate with a tablespoon of Olive Oil, and divide between the two plates the juice from one of the Lemons. Season with Salt & Peper, then cover each plate with clingfilm, and refrigerate for three hours or so.

2. About an hour befores serving, mix the cream with the remaining Lemon juice, and add Cayenne Pepper to taste. Take the plates from the fridge, remove the clingfilm, and divide the cream and lemon mixture between the two plates, in a layer that should pretty much cover the salmon slices. Don't refrigerate again, but leave the salmon to get back up to room temperature.

3. Finely dice the Fennel, and just before serving, sprinkle it over the top of each plate.

Sunday 25 September 2011

This week...

...started with a disappointing opening to the 2011 Anima Mundi concert programme. Doubly so, since I'd really been looking forward to it: Mozart Requiem, performed in the Duomo ought to have been sublime...but for some bizarre reason Christopher Hogwood, conducting, took the whole thing at a  jog-trot pace that robbed it entirely of its majesty, and reduced it to little better than opera bouffe. Maybe he had a bus to catch, or a hot date after the show...but whatever the reason, Hogwood unquestionably made a pig's ear.

Tuesday's concert in the Camposanto, on the other hand, made up for everything. Alice Sarah Ott playing Mozart (perhaps not her strongpoint), Beethoven (excellent!) and Liszt (beyond description, wonderful). A stunningly good performance. Quite, quite superb. Not a bad setting, as well, with Ms Ott's backdrop being a motley collection of Roman sarcophagi and ottocento funerary statues, all set against Benozzo Gozzoli's increasingly well-restored frescoes.

On Sunday, we had rain. We actually had rain. And no half-hearted shower, either, but a good old Pisan downpour, which saw the courtyard flooded within minutes, as we rushed around and had the usual drama with rolled bath towels stuffed against the bottom of the dining room doors against a possible influx into the house (Canute-like in practice, if the water actually does rise that high...which, thankfully,  it normally doesn't) . The garden liked it; the watering department (i.e me) liked it, a lot...and then we went back to summer again, which was also ok.

Monday was the Technical Dept's birthday. The Belfortes came for dinner (and to stay for Ms Ott's show on Tuesday evening): Langoustine Tart; grilled magrets de canard; and a three-chocolate parfait, to finish. The rain had sufficiently cooled things down that we actually ate indoors, for the first time in three months, and there was a sense that summer is finally showing signs of winding down. Although, Tuesday was hot once more, and we sweltered over an afternoon game of croquet, where the TD ended well ahead of the field, followed by the Belfortes, who went the wrong way round the course at one point, and (not unusually) matters ended in confused disagreement about the rules, before we broke for tea.

On Wednesday, we departed en masse to Tarquinia, to look at etruscan tombs. Glorious things - and many, many, many of them. Lunch on the deserted beach at Tarquinia Lido beforehand was perfect, as we consumed delicious fried morsels and pasta marinara (of various kinds), basked in late-summer sun, and decided that although the second bottle was probably inadvisable, we would anyway.
Early evening found us standing on the ruins of the Queen's Temple, on the ancient site of the etruscan city, with a view in all directions of the soft profile of the Lazio hills under the lengthening  shadows cast by the evening sun; just us, and from somewhere way-off in  the distance the sound of sheep bells, and not another person anywhere to be seen.

Dinner (and overnight) was an hour away in Sutri, in preparation for a morning of Roman ruins on the following day. The town has charm, and the restaurant (Locanda di Saturno) boasted a fine medieval courtyard; the kitchen was competent, but the menu a little too mannered for my taste: chicken, with peach and almonds; rabbit with port and orange...all a bit too complicated and trying too hard. Possibly I'm getting old, but increasingly my preference is for traditional dishes, cooked well.

Sutri: a medieval cathedral, where a rather appalling late interior gives no hint of the beautiful early medieval crypt concealed beneath; an impressive roman amphitheatre, carved directly from bedrock, and surrounded by a confusion of tomb-caves that made up the roman necropolis; and a splendid (if dank and gloomy) early-christian cave-church, in a space which had previously been a temple to Mithras.

We completed the trip by heading back north, into Tuscany, just in time for a late lunch at Il Fornacino in Guazzino, just off the Sinalunga exit on the Autostrada da Sole. Well worth the drive - everything was excellent:crostini alla toscana;  tagliolini con tartufo; quails cooked with olives and white wine, and an extremely good rosso di Montepulciano (Boscarelli, Prugnolo 2009). Following which, in time-honoured fashion, we wended our way home, tired-but-happy.

Tonight's dinner:

Prawns 'Newberg' (cooked in butter, with diced shallot, then sauced in vermouth, cream, and paprika)

Duck Confit; grilled sprue.

Bramble Mousse

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Recipe: Campari & Prosecco Sorbet

This summer's signature dessert, this recipe is simple, straightforward and superb. Nobody guesses what the flavours are (well, Paola did, after a bit of thought...but she's the only person who has), but they all hoover it up with great enthusiasm as they consider the matter. Generally, I serve it with fresh raspberries, and the combination of flavours and textures works well. It might seem a little strange to be posting a recipe like this as we head into mid-September, but summer in Tuscany is just going on and on and on - temperatures were again up in the thirties, yesterday, and the forecast is for yet more of the same stretching ahead as far as the eye can see.

For four servings.

Ingredients: 200 ml sugar syrup (made by briefly boiling a litre of water with a kilo of sugar - or pro rata'd down, if you want to make a smaller amount, but I generally make this quantity and keep it in the fridge to use over several weeks, since it doesn't go off ); 250 ml Prosecco; 4 tablespoons Campari.


There almost isn't a method, since the process is so simple. Chill the ice cream machine, then add to it all of the ingredients listed above and churn for 20-25 minutes, until the sorbet is quite firm. You might need to churn a little more than with other sorbets, as it's important that all the campari is properly incorporated into the sorbet mixture - if you stop too soon, then the campari can be still slightly liquid, and the flavour too prevalent when you serve it.

Put the sorbet into a container, and into the freezer for several hours before serving. It should be soft enough to serve straight from the freezer, without any intervening 'softening' period in the fridge. Garnish with fresh raspberries to serve.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Hollinghurst: "The Stranger's Child"

This is 'Booker Longlist' time of year, when I'm trying to second-guess the judges about what will make it onto the shortlist  (to be announced tomorrow week), and so polish off as many of the shortlist as I can before we're in endgame territory. The judges have never (since I started doing this, anyway) agreed with my choice of winner - although they've come close, on occasion. And the point of having read all of the shortlist before the announcement is in order to make an informed decision in advance of the official one - whatever it might turn out to be. I didn't mind when Hilary Mantel won, for example (although I thought 'The Glass Room' ought to have won, that year) or when Hollinghurst won in 2004 (although the book by Colm Toibin that was also shortlisted that year, 'The Master',  was by far the better piece of writing). Last year's winner (Howard Jacobson) was a poor choice - but then, the shortlist itself was a complete mess, last year - and the occasions when they chose Anne Enright and Kiran Desai were just completely barmy.

 Anyway. I've just finished Hollinghurst's 'The Stranger's Child' (originally the bookies' favourite, but apparently it's now dropped to third place) and realised that the whole thing is an enormous game on the part of the author. Each part of the book reflects the work of a notable author in the twentieth-century english canon: part one is Forster ('Room With a View' meets 'Maurice' meets 'Howard's End'); part two, inevitably, is Waugh (but rather than 'Brideshead', it seems to be an amalgamation of 'A Handful of Dust' and 'Vile Bodies'); part three is probably Iris Murdoch (but, since I've never been a fan, I couldn't pinpoint which novels precisely); part four, I would guess is Anthony Powell (later volumes of 'A Dance to the Music of Time') or possibly C.P.Snow....although the latter might not be 'important ' enough for Hollinghurst; and part five is a tongue-in-cheek (it's to be hoped, anyway) reference to Hollinghurst himself (obvious references back to 'The Swimming Pool Library'). Oh, and the bit in part four with the interview with the lecherous octagenarian is probably another reference back to Forster, as well. Even the title of the book, which is ostensibly explained as a reference from 'In Memoriam', could reflect the idea of planting chunks of new writing, cuckoo's-nest-style,  in the oeuvres of the aforementioned late, greats. All things considered, it's probably too self-consciously 'clever'  (typical of the author in person, I gather) for its own good, and the game gets in the way of the book - which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it immensely, of course.

Onward and upward. 'Derby Day' (D.J.Taylor) is next.

Tonight's Dinner:

Prawns in Garlic and Wine.

Chicken Korma; Rice Pilaff.

White peaches with fresh Raspberry Sauce.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Recipe: Greek Yoghurt

We've been regresssing, this summer. I think it began when we 'adjusted' the access to the courtyard, in June, and suddenly found we were using it much more often than before. Bizarrely, we were both struck by how reminiscent it was of the small courtyard in the first house we lived in in Greece, in the Seventies....something to do with the shape, and the whitewashed walls, and the beautifully 'hidden' quality of the place (and although the presence of a stonking great thirteenth century church forming one wall of the courtyard ought somehow to diminish the similarity, it doesn't manage to). The fact that Esselunga were running a BOGOF promotion around that time for FAGE yoghurt was another factor in the equation, and before we knew it, a habit had developed of bowls of greek yoghurt (sprinkled with hazelnuts and raisins, and liberally drizzled with honey) to accompany coffee, taken in the courtyard each morning at around 10.00. The habit took hold, we became firm devotees...and then Esselunga finished their BOGOF. Scottish genes being what they are, I revolt at the thought of paying one euro thirty for a pot of yoghurt, and the only alternative was to see about home production. And discovered that it couldn't be easier. The fact that UHT milk can be bought, ready sterilised, in screw-top containers is an enormous help, since it means that all you need do in terms of preparation is introduce (with the aid of a scrupulously clean coffee spoon) a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt into the milk container, replace the lid, and shake.
Anyway, the actual steps are as follows:
1. Add a couple of spoons of yoghurt to a litre of UHT full milk; try and ensure that no air remains in the container before you replace the lid, as this can swell during the process, and might cause problems if it swells too much. 

2. Shake the container, to combine the yoghurt and milk, and warm for seven hours at around 43 °C. The best place to do this is in the warming drawer - if you have one - of the oven; failing that, it also works if you heat water in a deep fat fryer to the right temperature and then immerse the milk container in that.(The warming drawer is preferable, though, since it allows a number of containers to be processed at the same time). Do NOT allow the temperature to go above 55°C, as the yoghurt culture won't survive at that temperature.

3. After seven hours, place the containers in the fridge for about a day (from the afternoon of one day, they'll be ready for consumption the following morning), and then strain them through fine cloth (I use a linen napkin, placed inside a collander over a bowl) for about an hour, in order to achieve the thickness of traditional greek yoghurt. If you want a thinnner, runnier version - the sort appropriate for indian cooking - then strain for less time.

That's it. 

I believe the yoghurt will keep for up to a week, or so - but not in this house! TD calculated that the home made yoghurt came out at a fifth the cost of the commercial version (not including the cost of the electricity for the warming drawer) - but that you then have to reduce that saving by 50%, as we eat twice as much of it at each sitting!

Friday 26 August 2011

We've taken refuge in London...

...from the current heatwave in Tuscany. The last couple of weeks have been unbelievably - and increasingly unbearably - hot! The Belforte's passed by for dinner a couple of nights ago and reported that the temperature on Monday in Colle Val d'Elsa (their local market town) had reached an unprecedented 44 degrees. 'In a hill-town in Tuscany', they said, with incredulity in their voices...and we all shook our heads in disbelief, wondering whether that might actually have been a breath of evening breeze that we'd just felt. Which of course it hadn't been...

Too hot to type; too hot to garden; too hot to cook; too hot to do anything apart from collapse into heavy sleep, for hours each afternoon, and through the night. We leave the doors and windows wide open 24/7 (burglars, take note) to try and encourage airflow, and we keep the shutters closed during the day on the sides of the house which take direct sun. And evenings - which paradoxically are already getting shorter, so it's not possible to do anything beyond 8.30 - are spent in complicated manoeuvres trying to ensure that all of the garden gets sufficient water to keep it going through until some rain arrives once more (which is variously promised for sometime around the end of next week...but will then worryingly and inexplicably vanish altogether from the forecast without warning, from time to time, just to tease). For this weekend, while we're away (back to the inferno on Monday  - although I see by then temperatures are forecast to have dropped to the upper twenties, only) we've left the place festooned with hosepipes, rigged up into a series of temporary watering systems attached to timers. Some plants might struggle...but frankly, in extreme conditions like this, it's a matter of sauve qui peut!

Tonight's dinner:

Chicken Liver Parfaits with Hollandaise

Roast Beef & Potato Gratin

Phyllo White Peach Tarts

Friday 12 August 2011

Summer Drinks

High summer: drinking tea on the lower terrace and watching the early morning sun wash over the south lawn; long, afternoon siestas in a darkened room, as the town dozes all around (those few who haven't departed for the beaches of Calabria or Sicily, that is) ; evenings spent mowing the grass and endlessly watering the garden; dinner, late,  by candle-light in the courtyard, under the stars. We eat differently in summer - less time to cook, since the garden is so demanding, and less inclination to stand near a hot stove or oven in these sorts of temperatures. Salads and chilled soups have replaced pasta and risotto; sorbets, and ice creams, and fresh fruit in chilled prosecco (with lemon zest and crushed mint...delicious!) instead of tarts and stuffed crepes and soufflés.

And we drink differently, too.

Sometimes daiquiris - peach, or apricot by preference, although strawberries work too, and so do bananas, and raspberries:
In a blender, combine the flesh of a whole peach per person (or equivalent amount of whichever fruit you have to hand) with a handful of crushed ice, 2 fluid oz of rum, a tablespoon of lime juice and one and a half tablespoons of sugar syrup (made in advance and kept in the fridge: 2 cups of sugar boiled for three minutes with one cup of water, then cooled and chilled). Blitz the whole thing for about a minute, and serve in chilled glasses. Then get ready to make more, as one is never enough!

But recently, after Sarah introduced us to the concept, when she came to stay for a few days, we've been drinking Bitter col bianco. A slug (technical term, meaning approximately a generous tablespoon) of campari in the bottom of a champagne flute, then topped up with chilled prosecco. Beyond excellent! And none of that rather depressing process whereby the ice in the campari and soda melts into the drink and renders it progressively weaker and less enjoyable as the level in the glass descends.

Tonight's Dinner:

Poached Eggs on a bed of spinach, with Gruyère Sauce.

Fiorentina, with Rocket and Parmesan (dressed lightly with sesame oil, rather than olive oil, and lemon).

Saturday 30 July 2011

To Oxford... see the Macedonian treasures currently on view at the Ashmolean. Glorious, glorious things: delicate golden jewellery; beautiful (and surprisingly colourful) painted jars for scented oils; grave goods; and statues; and ornaments; and military artefacts; wall paintings; silver cups and jugs;exquisitely carved ivory...Wonderful! Pleasantly  un-crowded, and sensibly presented  - presumably since it was aimed at people who take an intelligent interest, rather than at the grockles who gawp uncomprehendingly, as their tele-guides drone away in the background, and who these days seem to gum up every exhibition of any note in Central London (British Museum and National Gallery, take note!)
It was striking, though, that  there are clear stylistic and cultural similarities between these treasures and etruscan remains from the same period - and yet, nowhere have I ever seen any reference to a connection of any kind between the two. Even stranger, given that the Macedonians  were little connected with the wider world until quite late on. Odd. I wonder what the reaction would be of an etruscan specialist to this particular collection...

And then, lunch. On the terrace on the Ashmolean's roof, with a splendid view from behind the bum-end of the rooftop statuary (which, presumably, the original architect had never intended to be on general view). Practically a Zuleika Dobson moment. The place was great; the food less so.  In homage to Alexander, they were offering a selection of greek mezze in addition to their normal fare, and we decided - almost nostagically - to try it. Not a particularly wise move, as we discovered that they weren't so much operating a kitchen as an unpacking operation, and everything that appeared at table could quite credibly have come from a box, packet or tin, probably opened ten minutes earlier and almost certainly to be found in any M&S Food Hall. Oh well. The cheese plate (English) was excellent, though, and was served with a bunch of red grapes which had been macerated (it turned out) in cold mulled wine, and which were both intriguing and delicious. (Note to self: sometimes, it does pay to sample the garnish, rather than merely to leave it sitting dispiritedly at the side of the plate).

Oxford was heaving. Horribly so. And  we took refuge for what remained of the afternoon in the Botanic Garden. Beautiful, calm, and enviably well-tended. Botanic gardens can be dangerous places, and a casual visit several months ago to the one in Amsterdam resulted in my having a couple of hundred Pachysandra Terminalis and Ajuga Reptans  to plant, right in the middle of blisteringly hot July - when in fact all any sensible gardener in Tuscany wants to do is to take refuge, and hope that things actually make it through until the weather cools down again. Oxford BG was no exception, and we came away with a cell-phone full of plant images and the names of about fifteen new 'possibles' to research -  but not before the autumn, at the earliest!

This afternoon, we're off to a screening of 'The Valley of the Bees' at The National Gallery, and then tomorrow it's back on the bus (metaphorically speaking) to Pisa - to the four-footeds and, inevitably, to the watering...

Tonight's Dinner

Raie au beurre noire, with new potatoes

Raspberry Soufflés  (the link is for strawberries, but just substitute)