Thursday 27 October 2016

Masterchef 2016

Ten years - amazing to think! - since we first started this annual cook-fest.

Jennie turned up, this year, with a broken wrist, which ought to have caused problems, but in fact seemed to have very little impact at all. And we were down to only one oven, as the other one was waiting to have the element replaced, at the time.

We concluded that the ten years has seen us (a) become better cooks, (b) become less competitive (at least, with each other - we no longer particularly score points competitively and instead merely enjoy the communal largesse), and (c) experience a decline in the capacity of our appetites (these days, we no longer have breakfast, and largely skip lunch...and by the end of this particular Masterchef weekend, we were all distinctly struggling. How are  the mighty fallen!). The weather was lousy, so we stayed indoors the entire time and concentrated 100% on the kitchen.

Jennie's contribution was: risotto of mozzarella, with a mint-pesto dressing; braised beef cheek (the aroma of which filled the house and was completely  glorious, as the rain drummed down outside); and lemon posset with roast grapes and shortbread.
Technical Dept produced: Foie  gras, wrapped in blanched lettuce and poached; Marmite dieppoise; and a Chocolate Marquise with puff pastry, served with a coffee sauce.
And I turned out: asparagus souffle, baked inside a herb crepe, with tarragon sauce; Coulibiac Collette  (a recipe from Verfours); and an apple charlotte.

Some of them, I forgot to photograph - but those which I did, you can see below:

The pleasurable sight of serried ranks of genoise fingers...

And, the finished lasted us for days (and days)

Beef cheek, braising

Lemon possets, keeping their cool

Four-footed, sensibly keeping out of the way

Ecrevisses heads, being prepped for Coulibiac

Coulibiacs, waiting to be baked (layers of rice, salmon, and ecrevisses, in a
mornay sauce,
with a layer of brioche on top of each one)

Technical dept, generally faffing

Queuing for the oven - coulibiacs now glazed

Poached foie gras, inside its lettuce wrapping

Has nobody got time to throw a tennis ball around?

Posset, dressed with  Roast Grapes
Coulibiacs, coming out of the oven

Meat and two veg...

Chocolate Marquise, in a Puff Pastry Sandwich, with Coffee Sauce & Raspberries

Is it over? Is it safe to come out, now?

Monday 22 August 2016

Don Guido...

Don Guido, on the left, with Don Francesco

has died. Which is very sad. Not only has he been here for as long as we have, but, at the age of 97, and incumbent Priest at Santa Caterina for the past 72 years, since 1944, I should think he's been around for longer than anybody in Pisa has. Practically, literally.

He stepped down from full-time duties several years ago, and his parish responsibilities were  shared out at that time between several other 'Dons' - although not necessarily to good effect; on one occasion, I heard one parishioner agree with another that Don Roberto was such a tedious windbag that he was going to attend mass at San Francesco that evening, instead of at Santa Caterina. Don Roberto has subsequently gone off to be the Bishop of Pescia, where I imagine he is spreading his own particular version of the good word - or, as the people here would have it 'going on, a bit' - and Don Francesco has been confirmed as full time successor in Don Guido's place. Don Guido stayed on in the priest's house, however, and his stooped figure was occasionally to be seen heading off at great speed down the piazza in the direction of the post office, almost as though he had an outboard motor fitted under his cassock, like some close relative of the duracell bunny.

I remember one occasion, several years ago, when the Technical Department was doing something to the watering system and was working, effectively hidden, in amongst a thicket of bamboo near the garden gate. Scuffle was keeping him company, and, as the elderly dog that he was at that time, he was lying just inside the gate, idly contemplating the World beyond - just in case. Don Guido materialised, on his way to the campo, and, not seeing the  Technical Department  in the undergrowth he stopped to have a chat with the dog, and to compliment him on what an excellent job he was doing keeping watch on everything. Before Don Guido moved on, they appeared to converse quite happily, and at some length - a couple of silvery old codgers, senior citizens moving slowly through the evening of life.

Although it isn't usual for a parish priest to have the title 'Monsignor', Don Guido was accorded it by the church as a special honour, and he was quite rightly held in high general esteem.  He will be much missed.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Leek & Mushroom timbales.

In Italy, this would be called a sformato; in France, a timbale; and in Britain, whence the recipe hails, there's every reason to think of it as a savoury baked custard. Apart, that is, from the fact that the dreary and workaday words 'baked custard' do not, never have and never could conjure up an image of something so unctuous and delicious as this dish actually is. The version given here is closely based on one in Stephen Bull's admirable 'Classic Bull' , where he does refer to it as a 'custard' - but then, in that book he was more or less on a british-ish food trip, where the frames of reference were things like jugged hare, and omelette Arnold Bennett, and drop scones...and so 'custard', with all its home counties overtones, fitted right in.
The book, by the way, has much to recommend it, and over the years I've come across a number of treasures within its pages which have subsequently been assimilated into my own repertoire - his breaded pork paupiettes, for instance, stuffed with basil and anchovy, are excellent and point-scoring, as are his recipe for lemon cheesecake, and his method of blanching cucumber before finishing it in butter to serve as a vegetable to accompany fish. The abysmally bad editing before the book went to press means that careful reading is necessary, however, before actually embarking on any of the recipes - in the aforementioned cheesecake recipe, for instance, it begins with an instruction to heat the oven to 350 degrees F, and thereafter the oven makes no further appearance in the recipe (rightly so, since this cheesecake is set, and not baked - but isn't entirely clear from the way the recipe is written and the unwary might conceivably guess otherwise and try and bake it...with what ghastly results I can only imagine); equally, in the recipe for 'Beef Stew, with Orange and Cinnamon', you would search in vain for any mention of cinnamon either in the list of ingredients or in the recipe itself; guesswork is required to know how much of it seems a good idea, and what in fact you do with it, once you've estimated the quantity.

Anyway: leek and mushroom 'timbale'. This is one of those starters to be made in individual ramekins, and, once turned-out, to be coated with a spoonful of whichever delicious sauce suits your palate. In this instance, standard hollandaise would be my choice, although equally a version using dijon mustard rather than lemon juice would also work pretty well.

For two 'generous'servings:

Ingredients: 110g finely diced leek; 2-3 dried mushrooms (I tend to use shiitake rather than porcini, but either will work); 25g butter; 120g field mushrooms; 150ml chicken stock; 150 ml white wine; 150 ml cream; 2 medium eggs; 2 tsp chopped tarragon (or 1 tsp, if using dried); Salt and Pepper.


1. Reconstitute the dried mushroom in hot water for twenty minutes or so, then drain, rinse thoroughly and chop finely.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then add to this the field mushrooms, roughly chopped, along with the chopped dried mushroom. Cook the mushrooms, covered, over a low heat for about five minutes.

3. Add to the pan the chopped leek, and cook, still covered, for a further ten minutes. Season lightly.
At this point, heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

4. Add the wine and stock, raise the heat, and simmer enthusiastically until the liquid has mostly gone, then add the cream, and continue to simmer until the cream has reduced by about half, so that the leek and mushroom mixture is enrobed in cream rather than sitting in liquid.

5. Allow to cool for a minute or two, then blend it in a liquidizer along with the eggs and tarragon. Check the seasoning at this stage and adjust as needed.

6. Grease two 10 cm ramekins, and run a narrow strip of foil inside each one (along the base and up the side, with the ends folded down and over the outside) as a means of subsequently assisting in unmoulding should they want to be recalcitrant. Divide the leek and mushroom cream between the ramekins, and then place them, in a bain marie, in the pre-heated oven. Cook for slightly more than 30 minutes (by which I mean 31 or 32 minutes - it depends on your oven precisely how much time they will need, and I find in my oven in Italy that at 30 minutes they are just, but only just, done to perfection; a minute or so more takes the finished product to the right side of wobbliness.)

Unmould onto heated plates, and serve with the sauce of your choice.  

Saturday 16 July 2016

Bigarade Sauce

This is a sauce which has knocked around enough that by now you can find easy quick versions of it littered around on the internet - and I'm sure that even they must taste of something - but, like most traditional sauces of this quality (e.g the port sauce, the recipe for which which I've posted elsewhere), the real McCoy is a great deal more complicated to make properly, and is worth every time-consuming step along the way. Properly made, this is a sauce packed densely with a whole host of subtly different flavours, all working with and against each other, to great effect. Normally, it is served with duck, but in fact it works well with any dark, grilled meat.
 This version comes from Louisette Bertholle's 'Secrets of the Great French Restaurants', where its provenence is listed as the Hotel du Dauphin in L'Aigle. Bertholle was the third member of the triumvirate responsible for Volume I of 'Mastering the Art', although she had no part in Volume II (the reason given at the time was that she had gone off to get married in the meantime - but, since that didn't seem to stop her from producing a whole lot of other books quite independently, one can't help but wonder whether in fact she'd hadn't just had enough of the late great Julia....and if Richard Olney is to be believed, there was quite a lot of the LGJ to have had too much of!). The book has much to recommend it - although, inexplicably, the original french version seems to have lost some of its content in the process of translation into english...for example, an absolutely excellent recipe for a 'marjolaine' cake in the french version seems to have got left on the cutting room floor by the time it had made it across the Channel. Be warned. Oh, and the other niggle I have is that this book without doubt wins the award for most witless index of any book of reference of any kind, ever - recipes are exclusively indexed by name of restaurant from which they come, rather than, as you might perhaps expect, by main ingredient. Go figure.
Take your time over making this sauce, preferably making it entirely the day before you're going to serve it. The quantities here are substantial, but it freezes well, so there's no good argument to try to make a smaller amount.

Ingredients: for the sauce espagnole base: 125g lardons; 2 onions, cut into quarters, 2.5 rounded tbs flour; 0.5 litre full-bodied red wine; 0.5 litre chicken or veal stock; 2 tbs tomato paste; salt; 1 carrot, sliced; 1 clove garlic; 1 bouquet garni.
0.25 litre white wine vinegar; 250g sugar; 6 small or 3 large bitter oranges; 2 lemons; 0.5 litre dry white wine.


1. Make the espagnol sauce: in a small pan, heat the lardons until they start to give render their fat, then add to this the onions, and cook until they start to soften; add the flour, stirring to incorporate the rendered fat into the flour, then add the red wine and stock, along with the carrot, garlic, and bouquet garni. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently (probably using a heat diffuser) for between 2.5 and 3 hours. At the end of this time, sieve the mixture, taste for seasoning and add salt (lightly) as appropriate.

2. In a heavy-bottomed pan, bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil, until the syrup turns a pale golden colour; to this, add the grated zest of the oranges and lemons, and add to the simmering syrup for ten minutes.

3. Remove all of the pith from the citrus fruit, cut the segments away from their membranes and add to the sauce, simmer for another five minutes.

4. Add the white wine and the espagnole sauce to the mixture, bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for two hours. The consistency at the end of this period should be a dense, coating consistency - if it isn't, then continue to simmer (and reduce) until it is.

5. Strain, and return the sauce to a clean pan, to reheat when needed for serving. Check and adjust seasoning before the sauce is used.   

Saturday 2 July 2016

Evening sunshine in Tuscany...

Tonight's Dinner:

San Daniele & Melon (the melons this year are spectacularly good....and it's too hot for cooking, anyway)

Baked Trout; spinach with lemon

Panna Cotta with garden raspberries

Wednesday 1 June 2016

The locals...

will not be happy. The first day of June, and the rain has been teeming down since before first light; the sky is leaden, and the air is cool (cold?), with no promise whatsoever of summer - which, by the way, should be properly underway by now, and not merely limbering up indecisively, as it appears to be doing.

I hadn't given it much thought, but then realised that although May is now done, we still haven't felt tempted by rising temperatures indoors to move outside to the courtyard for dinner in the evenings. The Pisani shouldn't despair too much, though - according to Tempo Pisa (my preferred online weather forecast), we should be up to the upper twenties by the middle of next week, and so the italian exodus to the beach at every possible opportunity can get properly underway...which means that the Centro Storico, for us, will become a haven of calm in the wake of the departing population. Bliss.
In the meantime, the four-footed is resigned to a day indoors, curled up on his bed, and I'm making Pain de Campagne in preparation for a Glyndebourne-style picnic of smoked salmon sandwiches and chilled prosecco for consumption during the interval in this evening's performance of Bellini's 'Capuleti e Montecci', to be streamed from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona right to Screen 2 of the Odeon at the end of the street. The wonders of modern technology.
In between dough-risings, the downside of a rainy day is the time available from gardening to look instead at gardening catalogues...and the probable decision that we do perhaps, after all, have room for another half dozen quercifolias...given that they are doing so splendidly this year...and that maybe a New Dawn would flourish in the relative shade of the southern pergola...and that maybe some himalayan climbers would do well growing through the trees behind the church.
Yet another reason to hope that the rain stops!

Tonight's dinner:


Thursday 12 May 2016

They came, they saw....

and the rain held off!
The house, in sunlight; I'm not sure why that patch of parthenossisus on the right is 'bald' at the moment, but it is slowly coming into leaf

Our first two garden groups....despite the Technical Dept's downbeat opinion that he didn't feel the garden is exactly yet 'ready for prime time'. Well, the good people of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire (most of whom seem to have been present, last Monday and the one before) either disagreed, or else were extremely nice and understanding about it. The weather forecast was lousy in advance of the day (each time), but in fact the rain cleared up and the sun came out five minutes before everybody arrived, on both days. The roses and bearded irises performed wonderfully, as did the four-footed (who flirted outrageously with everybody who arrived, to the extent that he was exhausted from all that effort by the time they'd all left).
Approaching the citrus terrace, between grapefruit and bergamot trees, with sweet orange straight ahead
Everything was weeded and pruned and mulched to within an inch of its life, and the scent from the bloosom on the trachelospermum was absolutely intoxicating.
The West pergola, looking south: Cecile Brunner in flower, along with Pierre de Ronsard

Looking along the North Pergola

Looking south, from the North pergola

The border beside the North pergola

The rhyll - empty, here, but for the visits it was full and burbling

Looking across the North lawn, from the Uva Fragola pergola

Pink Perpetue, mixing into Kriton.

The SE pergola, with strawberry beds and raspberry canes behind
Looking into the woodland

New steps, leading down to one of the new box-lined paths
And twenty two for lunch, in the barn, each time - expertly looked after by the two Tamaras, who are part of the georgian-mafia-in-Pisa that we interface through Anna, our georgian cleaner.

Lunch: asparagus agnolotti; bass en croute; and iced white chocolate and gingerbread parfait.

I am SO pleased it is all the extent that I don't even mind that it has been raining practically nonstop since they left.

Tonight's dinner:

will be in London, since we're on the 18.15 (again) this evening,  for this month's 48 hour  furlough.

Wednesday 6 April 2016


when it is 25 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky, and the garden is full of bees, birds (and attendant cats), are we on the 18.15 to London, this evening? Something is not right....

Oh, well. Back home again on Sunday, I suppose it isn't that much of a hardship.

Tonight's dinner:

Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon

Pork Chops, with balsamic sauce.

Crepes Suzettes

Monday 21 March 2016

Lemon Drizzle Cake

We have a glut of lemons - this is nothing new; it happens every year, and in fact, given the ripening habit of lemon trees here, is almost constant, year-round. As I get more proficient at pruning lemon trees, however (an annual job from which the deadly thorns which decorate the branches of the trees generally leave my hands and forearms well-shredded!) the crop gets ever more intense. Currently, we have three trees which are literally dripping with fruit (several hundred lemons on each one) and two more which are not much less generous, and three or four others which are biding their time...

And so...lemon & sage risotto; lemon chicken; lemon in salads; lemon cheesecake; lemon tart (classic); lemon & lime tart; lemon meringue pie; limencello cake; lemon souffle glace; burnt lemon cream, with blackberries; lemon sorbet; lemon marmalade, lemonade...any and all new additions to the repertoire are gratefully received.

This particular one is a slight re-working of something from Elizabeth Luard's very reliable 'Recipes and Ramblings'. There's much to be said for collections of recipes which reflect a lifetime of tried-and-trusted experimentation, of which this recipe is a clear example. I've made it two or three times now, most recently to go with a cup of tea following an incoming garden-visit...and the requests for further slices (and for a copy of the recipe) not only broke regularly into the conversation, but left the plate entirely empty as a result.

Ingredients: 6 oz butter, at room temperature; 10 oz sugar; 3 medium eggs; 1 cup '00' flour, mixed with 1.5 tsp baking powder, and half tsp salt; juice from three medium lemons and the zwest from one.


1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C.

2. Grease a 2 lb loaf tin (approx 10" x 5"), then make a long strip of aluminium foil (folded over a couple of times), long enough to go the length and both short sides of the loaf tin, and leave a good overhang at either end; put the strip in  place on the base and sort sides of the tin, and grease the exposed top of the foil (this strip allows you to get the cake out of the tin without keaving any of it behind - which it does have a tendency to do).

3. Process the butter along with 6 oz of sugar, and then add the eggs and process to amalgamate properly. Add the lemon  zest and the juice from one the lemons.

4. Scrape the mixture into a large mixing bowl, and fold in the flour mixture, before putting the mixture into the prepared tin.

5. Bake for about 45 minutes, by which time the cake will have risen beautifully, and will have come away from the sides of the tin.

6. While the cake bakes, put the remaining lemon juice and sugar in asmall pan and heat gently over a lwo heat, to make a lemon syrup. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pour all of the syrup over it, and let it sit, for the syrup to be absorbed by the cooling cake.

7. Let sit in the tin for 30 minutes or longer, before unmoulding onto plate, pulling on the exposed ends of the aluminium foil as you do so, to ensure the cake unmoulds cleanly.  

Friday 18 March 2016

A thing of beauty...

Well, in my eyes, at any rate. The hamper arrived, this week, along with many boxes and oddly-wrapped pieces of furniture, and chests, and diverse bits of garden kit and other assorted goods and chattels. The family home in Kent is being dismantled - a thought-provoking process, and one where all sorts of long-forgotten treasures have emerged from cupboards and attics and other dusty resting places. My father's army trunks, for example, which were last used in anger when they were shipped back from Egypt, some years before the Suez Crisis (the uniforms inside were donated to the local charity shop, last month, and the trunks are now doing service as containers for the TD's not insignificant collection of shoes and boots...while my father's swagger sticks - one formal, the other less so - are still trying to 'find their place' somewhere around the house), and about a dozen (at last count) crates of books, and some pictures, and various bits of silver...

The hamper came out of the big house at Mount Clare - my mother seems to think it was passed over to my grandfather, probably by Leggett, the Butler, after LHS died rather unexpectedly in 1941. And it was passed on to my parents at some time early in the 1970's; certainly, I can remember it being in active use for a picnic in the grounds of Fishbourne Palace at around that time (an occasion memorable both for my (paternal) grandmother finding it incomprehensible that the word 'pickaninnies' should no longer be acceptable in common parlance, and for the unrelated blazing row later on the same day between my mother and her mother-in-law, as the result of which relations were frigidly distant for several years afterwards, and we had to make an unplanned stop at the gardens at Wakehurst Place on the way home, in order to allow overheated tempers to simmer down somewhat. Wakehurst Place was rather splendid, I recall.)

It's tantalising to think that perhaps the hamper played a supporting role in romantic interludes between Jean Rhys and LHS, whose mistress she was for some time, I think in the mid-thirties. The hamper probably dates from the end of the twenties. Strawberries and champagne and intimate dalliances on the Sussex Downs, perhaps, or at Goodwood, or muffled up to watch a point-to-point in some muddy field somewhere.  TD tends to think otherwise, though, and that their 'interludes' together were likely to have been a lot less public, and more likely ot have been conducted in the privacy of the rented accommodation in which LHS had set her up, in Kilburn or Kensal Rise, I think it was - in which case, little need for a packed lunch at the same time.

It is indeed a lovely thing. Missing only one of the three wicker-covered bottles from the original set, it is otherwise complete and exactly as it was when it left the shop, around ninety years ago. Thoughts gather of a summer picnic somewhere up in the Garfagnana, or on the shaded slopes of Monte Amiata, or on one of the unspoilt beaches down towards Piombino. TD thinks that the well-house at the end of the garden is a more practical proposition...and he may be right.

Tonight's Dinner:

Ravioli, with grana & beef stuffing, in asparagus sauce.

Vallespluga chicken, boned and roast, with garlic & parsley butter under the skin; roast salsify.

Tarts of fresh raspberries, on Marsala creme patissiere.


Monday 14 March 2016

Excellent new kit...

Pictured like this, it looks as though it belongs in a hairdressing salon rather than in a kitchen...but appearances can be deceptive. This is the piece of kit par excellence for tenderizing steak, and I can tell you that it works wonderfully. Technical Dept first came across reference to something like this some years ago, when he was chatting with a rather garrulous australian assistant in Jack O'Shea's (the butcher, all-too-briefly based in Montpelier Street), who blithely passed on the information that they had a commercial-sized one of these down in the basement, and all of their meat, pretty much, was subjected to it before being sold. It works a little like those pin-things that were so popular about thirty years ago, where you could leave an impression of your hand, or face (or whichever parts of your anatomy you felt like representing) by pushing against the pins, and leaving a 3-D reverse image of yourself in the bed of pins. In this instance, however, you push the pins down, and use them very efficiently to puncture the fibres inside the meat you are tenderising - it takes three or four pushes to tenderise one steak (and I tend then to turn it over and do it again from the other side, just to be sure)...and, that's it. Thereafter, a half-inch thick steak takes a minute on each side on a hot grill, and will be tender and succulent, and mouth wateringly good.

I don't know for how long domestic versions of this have been available, but TD was on the case, and I found one of them for me under the tree, last Christmas. It has the clear advantage of my being able to buy sirloin steaks of less than optimal quality, and by tenderising them with this thing, as a result of which they're pretty much as good as the best. These days, I tend to buy a complete entrecote at Metro - generally South American in origin - and then cut it into steaks for freezing...which means that a tenderised-to-be-perfect sirloin steak comes out at around one euro twenty a head. Which has much to be said for it.

Tonight's dinner:

Fettucine with lemon sauce

Rabbit, boned & rolled, stuffed with prosciutto and celery; mirepoix of vegetables.

Vanilla ice cream, 'rippled' with griottes.