It’s been a busy week and the blog’s birthday almost passed me by. I remembered the cat’s birthday (she was 8 on Thursday) because I had to sign a contract when I got her from a rescue home and her birthday is on the contract. She got extras of her favourite treats.
It was my brother Adam’s birthday on Friday; friend Rona’s on Saturday; friend Annie’s tomorrow. What a lot of Leo friends I have! And I guess it’s a rather appropriate star sign – if you’re into astrology, and I am a bit – for the blog, with positive qualities like ‘enthusiasm’, ‘magnanimity of spirit and an infectious love of life'; ‘they also like … good food, wine, the arts, the opera, anything with passion and verve’ (The Astrology Bible by Judy Hall). It was WordPress that alerted me to the blog’s 4th birthday: ‘Happy Anniversary’ they sent in a message yesterday.
The blog has become so much part of my life, enriching it in ways I’d never have guessed at the outset, that I can hardly believe it’s only 4 years. Was it really only 4 years ago that I was tentatively publishing my first post – The Single Gourmet Traveller & Greek Aubergine Salad – for a bit of fun and no clear intentions. I was lucky enough to receive a lot of encouragement early on from local restaurateurs Tim Healy and Lawrence Hartley, who’ve now moved on to two of my other favourite restaurants, Joe Allen and Orso in Covent Garden (click here). Others followed, massively generous chefs and other restaurateurs who let me interview them (click here). I’ve branched out and try new restaurants more often; I’ve become much more experimental and adventurous in my cooking at home. I’ve enjoyed doing more research of places I visit and classic recipes I cook than I ever did before.
My first – and really only – intention at the outset though was to normalise solo dining and solo travelling. I wanted to find places where people could eat or stay on their own and feel comfortable and welcomed. At the time it wasn’t as common a thing to talk about as now. There was a sadness attached to the idea of dining in a restaurant alone: people perceived it as something difficult and perhaps embarrassing, as if it signalled you had no one to eat with rather than it sometimes being a choice. Now it’s become a fashionable thing to do. I caught on Jay Rayner’s page in today’s Observer that ‘Open Table has seen a 110% rise in solo bookings over the past two years … a One Poll survey … found that 87% of British diners would have no problem eating alone.’
For me, solo dining has always been a norm. Not because I’m frequently eating alone – I’m not – but because it was something encouraged by my parents as I grew up. We didn’t have a huge amount of money but what spare there was we spent of meals in some of the best restaurants in London or eating great food on holiday. I learnt that even when out on your own you are still entitled to seek a good meal; you don’t have to hide in some miserable little restaurant or cafe or limit yourself to takeaways to eat on a park bench. Confidence to walk into a restaurant on my own was instilled in me. It’s a great bonus when travelling alone. One of my most wonderful recent eating experiences – in fact ever! – was going alone to Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy last year. I have to admit that even I – after all I’ve said above – was a bit intimidated as I turned up but was immediately made to feel so welcome, as if eating alone in a fine restaurant was perfectly normal, that I just loved it.
I rarely go to local restaurants alone because I’d rather cook at home, but I have no problem eating alone on holiday or when out and about. I’ve taken to having day trips into London occasionally when work is quiet and mixing maybe a visit to an art gallery with a nice lunch. These have been great opportunities to try out places like Bocca di Lupo, Brasserie Zedel and Palomar. I sat at the bar in these restaurants and watched food prepared in the open kitchen at two, which was great fun. That’s also a nice diversion when on your own and in a way it’s easier to focus on the food and the experience. We’ve all probably had the experience of going to a nice restaurant and being so caught up in conversation with our companion(s) that we’ve paid little attention to the food itself. This is another thing that has changed with the blog, especially of course if I’m planning to write a post: I really taste carefully and think about the food. For instance, last week at The Ivy Market Grill Annie and I talked about all kinds of things, as good friends do, but we did also take notice of what we ate and discussed it.
Part of eating alone is not missing out. If I’m having a day out or going on holiday, why would I want to miss out on good food just because I’m alone (well, that’s if you’re into food big time like me!). It’s not just the food but, especially on holiday, the atmosphere. It’s great to sit in a restaurant full of locals in, let’s say, Greece or Italy, and hear that buzz all around; watch how they interact, how and what they eat. But I’ve also found that people are much more likely to talk to me and start up a conversation when I’m by myself than ever happened in my married days or when I travel with friends. And I’ve become more confident to start up conversations myself. Thus, I find some of the concepts around now about solo dining a bit strange. Photos of Amsterdam’s Eenmaal restaurant just for solo diners looks like a nightmare to me. It looks like a soulless office with workstations instead of tables. That is one place I do not want to eat! I think the idea behind it comes from an old-fashioned belief that there’s something embarrassing or odd about solo dining. And maybe that’s also why some restaurants will try to sit you in a corner, away from everyone else. Say no! Refuse! They’re missing the point that even if you’re dining alone you want the same experience as when you’re with friends. When I arrive in a restaurant, I’m ready to say if I don’t like the seat I’m offered and will politely ask for a different table. Russell Norman, founder of the Polpo group, is a frequent solo diner: ‘I’ve always enjoyed dining alone in restaurants and have always encouraged it in my places too’ (Daily Telegraph, February 2015). This is part of the healthy new understanding.
What to do while you wait for your food? That’s the great dilemma and one many people find hard. I used to take a book or newspaper with me but now it’s so much easier with smartphones. After I’ve looked at the menu and decided what to eat and drink, I’ll often check my iPhone (having turned it on to silent) for texts and emails and then read something on my Kindle app. I don’t like reading whole books on a tablet (it’s the book editor in me) but I load short stories that I can then access on my phone and are ideal for sitting in restaurants and cafes, or on a train. When the food comes, I put it away. I’m there for the food; I want to appreciate and enjoy the food. That’s the great thing. It’s total and wonderful indulgence; just me and my meal; no one to distract me.
I baked a cake on Friday – a cherry, almond and spelt cake from Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. (She uses gooseberries but suggests cherry alternative.) My friends Linda and George arrived from Spain for the weekend and I made the cake for dessert for our Friday evening meal. So … let it be a birthday cake. The blog’s birthday deserves some celebration. And long may it have more birthdays!
I’m in the Covent Garden area a lot and recently when I spied The Ivy Market Grill had appeared on a corner of the Piazza at the junction with Henrietta Street, I made a mental note that I must try it. I’ve never been to the famous Ivy but this offshoot had to be worth a try. Back home I found some good reviews and when I talked to Annie we decided to give it a try this evening.
It’s huge inside (and I’m pretty sure it used to be a Lloyds bank as I remember often using a Cashpoint there!) but its makeover has produced an elegant restaurant that has the feel of a Parisian brasserie. It’s been divided into smaller sections to make it seem more intimate than it might otherwise be and this has worked well. Annie and I arrived at the same time and were shown through a short maze of tables to the back and a table for two. The space had a nice feel to it; the tables not too cramped so you felt you had some privacy.
Thick linen napkins are always welcome. Menus were brought and we were asked if we wanted water and a carafe of tap water came while we decided on food and wine. There was an early evening set menu at £16.50 for 2 courses; £21 for 3. There was a reasonable number of choices but we weren’t inspired and turned to the à la carte. It’s a huge menu catering for all day, from a breakfast menu, an afternoon tea menu and a selection of other dishes from ‘light & healthy’ lunches and sandwiches to full-on main courses like rack of lamb – and, of course, grills. Grilled steaks of various kinds; grilled salmon, chicken, lobster or tuna. Really, how could you not find something you were longing to have. Yet we struggled a bit. We couldn’t understand why and I in the end blamed it on the weather. It was too hot and humid outside to indulge in the roast duck confit with 5-spice sauce or the special Market Grill shepherd’s pie. In the end, we picked two main courses and instead of starters decided to order some ‘for the table’ drink accompaniments: ‘salt crusted sourdough bread with salted butter’ and some ‘crispy courgette fries with lemon, chilli and mint yoghurt’ to share. I remember saying to the waitress that ‘instead of proper starters we thought we’d have these to begin with our wine’ …
There wasn’t a great choice of wines by the glass and no half carafes. Annie and I never want to share a whole bottle but a half carafe gives you two large glasses. All the wines came in 175ml glasses – except for the fizz which came in the usual 125ml size. We chose some Gavi (£7.50 a glass) and when it came it was nicely chilled and very delicious. Our bread came quickly too.
It turned out to be a whole small round loaf, still warm and very delicious. There are few things so good as a fine sourdough loaf and this was excellent. The butter was warm and soft though – it really should have been served chilled. I had a slight inkling things were going to go wrong when the courgettes were slow to come. But eventually they arrived (I guess more cooking was involved) and they were impressive too.
I just adore courgettes fries like this and we were really enjoying them but had barely begun when suddenly our mains appeared. I immediately said that we were only halfway through our starter, we didn’t want our mains yet. They apologised and took them away, but it was a bad mistake. A waitress came back and apologised again and said to let her know when we wanted our mains.
Annie had ordered a Grilled Chicken Salad: grilled chicken breast, quinoa, avocado, sesame and mixed leaves with a yoghurt, ginger and lime dressing.
It was a large plate, attractively served, and she said it was nice but not special. I’d ordered Grilled Salmon with Steamed Asparagus and Watercress Hollandaise. Simple but should be delicious and perfect for a hot summer’s evening.
It was very disappointing. I suspected that perhaps when we sent the mains back because we hadn’t finished our starters, they’d kept them warm rather than – as they should do – prepare new mains when we were ready. The salmon was moist but cooked right through, not a nice pink and slightly rare centre as one expects in a good restaurant; in other words, a bit overdone. More disappointingly still it was pretty tasteless and therefore not particularly pleasant. The hollandaise was OK but nothing special; the asparagus a touch too al dente with more bite than is good.
How does a restaurant – even a cheaper more informal version – carrying the ‘Ivy’ name get it so wrong? We discussed the meal and both felt that we’d expected a bit of a wow factor. I know it’s all too easy to shatter high expectations but then the ‘Ivy’ name carries expectations. Our ‘starter’ of the bread and courgettes was a success – though rather spoilt by the bad service of bringing our mains too early. Annie was happier with her main but neither of us thought we’d be rushing back. What a shame. It was all so promising and I did like the interior and atmosphere; the location, of course, is brilliant, but I’d much prefer to return to nearby Balthazar for a similar but better experience.
I do love going to Carluccio’s events. Well for a start, how can you resist an invitation that comes in a pretty box full of Gianduiotti chocolates – a divine mix of chocolate and hazelnuts.
Then, when you arrive, there’s always wonderful food to eat – like at the sharing plates launch in April and their Christmas party last July to launch their new products for the festive season. For me as a blogger, it’s exciting to be invited to these events but especially because I really do like Carluccio’s a lot. I eat at various branches of their caffès often – especially my local Richmond branch – and regularly buy products in the deli attached to the caffè: polenta, orecchiette, trofie, olives, baci di dama. Ah yes, I have a strong addiction to wonderful baci di dama, gorgeous little hazelnut biscuits with a chocolate hazelnut filling. At today’s party, they had large jars to sell at Christmas as well as their usual smaller sized packs.
I always have some of these in my home. They also tie in with Carluccio’s special theme for this coming Christmas and that’s to celebrate the producers of their products, who come from all over Italy. The baci di dama – ladies’ kisses – come with a delightful story. Made in the Piemonte hills just below the Alps, a family business has been making them for Carluccio’s for years. They are put together by hand, two biscuits sandwiched together with the chocolate hazelnut filling, one by one, kiss by kiss.
I was given a little booklet to write notes which also follows the Carluccio Christmas story throughout the year. Preparation of the products starts well in advance of Christmas itself (much like the press party!): ‘Our producers never leave anything to the night before Christmas. Their preparations begin in spring, in summer and – for some – all year round.’ The party was held in the St Christopher’s Place branch just behind Oxford Street. This year I wasn’t taken by surprise to turn up and see a snowy backdrop to the party. And, of course, there were all the best of Carluccio’s products for when Christmas comes.
For years, my family have held to a tradition of eating panettone on Christmas morning, served with good coffee (or tea for my daughter!), while we open our presents to each other. I’ve bought Carluccio’s panettone for years as it’s a particularly excellent one, deliciously rich and moist. Now I learn from my booklet that the bakers in Piemonte start making these special Christmas breads in September, but ‘the natural yeast they use goes much further back in time … It’s been alive for over 100 years and is cared for by the yeast master'; its care is vital to making the panettone – and ‘without panettone there’d be no Christmas’ (certainly not in our house!). I was reminded of the post I wrote last Christmas about Italian Christmas breads (click here) as Carluccio’s have other sweet bread delights; pandoro, pandolce from Genoa and panforte from Siena.
You could do a whole Carluccio’s Christmas. The table in the centre was laid for Christmas beautifully.
There are lovely Christmas crackers:
Little edible stocking gifts and chocolate Christmas trees:
Carluccio’s always have some great gift sets but their Christmas hampers for this year come in beautiful boxes (like the invitation but much bigger) following the producer theme with pictures of the area the contents come from.
This Lui e Lei (his and hers) set comes from Emilia-Romagna and contains olive oil that come from the olive trees of Signor and Signora Lo Conte; the balsamic vinegar comes from nearby Modena.
There were plenty of wonderful things to taste, including these Fichi Ricoperti – Calabrian figs dried in the fields, baked, then stuffed (by hand) with orange peel and walnuts. Then they’re baked for a second time, covered in chocolate, and put in special baskets that are woven by hand by Aldo Mammoliti in a small Calabrian village. And lucky me, one of these boxes came home with me in my goody bag.
Should you be thinking that I must have had a sugar overload trying all these sweet delights, then Carluccio’s never fail to look after their guests well. I was immediately offered a drink on arrival and even though it was only mid-afternoon, it’s never too early for a glass of chilled prosecco. Not when it’s a party and you’re in Italian mode. Then, once I’d looked round, I went to enjoy a plate of delicious savoury dishes.
A friendly guy put together a plate of food for me. There were lovely cold meats; sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, raisins and pine nuts (a Sicilian speciality) and the most gorgeous, moist and tender lamb chops, cooked to pink perfection.
There’d been other lovely things: a pasta with tomato sauce, a seafood salad and in the centre a whole Gorgonzola from which a gloriously oozing piece was spooned on to my plate. It was a delicious plate of food and for a little while I found a seat outside amongst the Christmas trees and fake snow to sit and enjoy this with my prosecco. Back inside more people were arriving.
The invitation invited people to come between 8am – 8pm, so you could enjoy breakfast in the morning, lunch, aperitivo early evening and some supper, all depending on what time you arrived. I wasn’t able to get there until about 4pm so sadly missed the great man – Signor Antonio Carluccio – himself who turned up at lunchtime. However, it was a great event full of nice friendly people and gorgeous food. As a blogger – and not doing this as a job – I have the privilege of accepting only invitations to places I really like and know I’ll enjoy. And really, they don’t come much better than Carluccio’s! Come Christmas, you too will be able to find these things in your local Carluccio’s Caffè and remember to look for the lovely photos of where the products come from on boxes, and read about the local producers. It’s always fun and interesting to know more about where good food comes from.
Last weekend I went on an expedition to deepest, darkest Herefordshire. I say this as a Londoner. Entering Herefordshire is always something of an expedition and fraught with the possibility of getting lost. I was on the way to my daughter Nicola’s Hen-do. Fourteen of us were to be housed in a huge 8-bedroom house in the middle of Herefordshire. I picked up her friend Taina at Richmond station at 3.30pm on Friday afternoon. The Google maps app on my iPhone offered three routes with time estimates. The fastest by far – 3hrs 9mins – was longer by only about 12 miles than the shortest route which was estimated to take nearly 4 hours at the time we left. We took the slightly longer but quicker route. I realised the time estimate was wildly optimistic when it took us 2 hours to reach Cherwell services where we sought sustenance in the form of a Costa coffee. It was a journey that normally takes me 1 hour. However, from there we whizzed up the M40, onto the M42 and thence to the M5 speedily with no hold-ups. Soon we turned off the M5 and onto an A road towards Leominster and our destination. Well, that wasn’t so bad … OK, ‘never count your chickens before they’re hatched’ or, never count your journey time until you’ve arrived!
Herefordshire is a beautiful county, its rolling hills offering vast stunning views when you rise through tree-lined narrow roads to the sight of verdant fields and more hills beyond. The roads pass through pretty villages with misshapen timbered houses that are obviously very old. It’s all lovely and quintessentially English (though we’re bordering Wales here too, so I’d better be careful what I say!) … but once you turn off the motorway, mobile phone reception falters and eventually disappears. Which also means no satnav. However, Taina’s excellent navigational skills with my old-style map book took us – albeit it now much more slowly than when on the motorway – to Lyonshall, supposedly the destination. But when we stopped and asked a passing woman where The Sherrifs was, we discovered that it wasn’t actually in Lyonshall (despite the address) but some way outside. We were given instructions … along that road … right at the end … left a little way further on … Well, you know what I mean. Some time later we were seriously lost. OK we must be close but close isn’t necessarily helpful. Occasionally when the road rose to a little bit of height mobile reception kicked in momentarily. Not long enough to activate the satnav; long enough to pick up Nicola’s texts: Where are you? Are you and Taina OK? I tried to ring to say we were OK but lost. No answer; straight to voicemail. Because the mobile reception in the house was a bit hit and miss too. And anyway, we hadn’t a clue where we were so how could we get directions. There was no sight of anything we could identify. No road signs. No pubs. No shops. Nothing to say, We’re here … Tainia suggested we knock at the door of a house we’d just passed. I turned the car round. Parked in front. Two enormous dogs – that looked alarmingly like bears they had such round heads and thick fur – bounded up to the gate. No way were we going in there. Fortunately a woman saw us and came over. We were given directions. And finally, five and a quarter hours after setting off, we saw Nicola waving at us from the top of a lane that led to the house. It may be selfish to say it, but it was some comfort to find that nearly everyone else had got lost too! Even a local minicab bringing someone from the station. It was definitely time for a glass of fizz. Bottles of prosecco were opened. Some of the group had prepared wonderful things to barbecue with salads to go with it all. The night was still young … and there was fun to be had. After a great breakfast the next morning, cooked by more of the ‘team’ we set off for a nearby National Trust property – Croft Castle – with a delicious picnic made up from the previous night’s leftovers.
Croft Castle – named after the Croft family who lived there for 1,000 years! – was beautiful. The surrounding countryside offered amazing views and the gardens had a lovely large walled garden with fun topiary and even a vineyard.
Back ‘home’, it was Taina’s and my turn to take to the kitchen and prepare a meal. It had been decided that we should have pizza that evening. Originally the plan was that everyone put topping on their own individual pizzas but then it seemed a better plan to make large ones from which to cut slices so that everyone could eat at the same time. I’d never made pizza dough to feed 14 before. I was slightly nervous it might go wrong; not rise or whatever and we’d have no supper. And there certainly wasn’t a pub within walking distance to decamp to. I’d eschewed the pizza dough recipe I’d used in an earlier pizza outing on the blog (click here) which was a Paul Hollywood recipe. It worked OK but I thought it more like focaccia than a pizza base. I decided to go with Gino d’Acampo instead and photocopied his pizza recipe from a book I have just before setting off. I was hoping it worked! And it did. Brilliant. Definitely better. While the dough rose, Taina and I started cutting up vegetables for the topping; slicing mozzarella and ham and chorizo.
We were ready to go. It was all a success and lots of fun. Fourteen people had been served pizza, salads and wine.
Back home I wanted to recreate the Capricciosa again as it’s one of my favourite pizzas and often my choice at Ruben’s Refettorio. I’ve always thought the name refers to it coming from Capri (though I should have remembered that would be ‘Caprese’) but actually ‘capriccioso‘ means capricious. In the case of pizza it’s less about ‘sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour’ (Oxford Concise Dictionary) than a free and impulsive interpretation, i.e. whatever the pizzaiolo (or in this case, pizzaiole, being two women) fancies putting on the top of the pizza. That said, while there are variations, usually Pizza Capricciosa contains a topping of tomato, ham, artichokes, olives and mushrooms.
I decided to go with the recipe in Gino’s Italian Escape again. Gino comes from Naples and so the pizza was going to be more like a thick, soft-centred Napoli kind than a thin, crisp Romana. First of all I made the dough.
200g strong plain white flour, 7g dried yeast, pinch of salt, 140ml warm water, 2 tablespoons olive oil
Put the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the warm water and olive oil. Mix together then gather into a ball and knead for about 5 minutes on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic. You can check by gently pushing a finger a little way into the dough. If the dough pops straight back out again, it’s ready. Put into an oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film. Leave for about 20 minutes at room temperature until about double in size. Now divide into 2 and shape each half into a ball. Take a ball and press gently in the middle. Push outwards gently until you have a circle of about 25cm. Now you’re ready to add the toppings.
Toppings for Capricciosa Pizza:
Passata, mozzarella, shredded ham, sliced mushrooms, artichoke hearts in oil (sliced if too thick), olives, dried oregano, a little olive oil and seasoning.
Spread some passata over the base of the pizza, leaving a margin round the edge of about 1 inch (2cm). Lay slices of mozzarella over it, then the ham, artichoke hearts and sliced mushrooms. Add olives, a sprinkling of oregano and season with salt and pepper. Now drizzle over a little olive oil. Put into a preheated 200C/180 Fan oven for about 16 minutes until nicely browned round the edge and the topping bubbling slightly. (I thought the oven temperature a bit low for pizza but went with Gino’s instructions until about 5 minutes from the end when I turned the oven up a bit as the edge wasn’t browning.)
I served it with a green salad on the side. It was a fabulous pizza. It had smelled wonderful while cooking. Who can resist the smell of bread baking – and pizza is basically bread with topping. And those toppings smelled wonderful too. The base was slightly crisp on the outside, soft but cooked through inside. I’m generally a minimalist when it comes to pizza toppings. After all, the topping of the iconic Marinara pizza in Naples is only tomato, garlic and oregano. Capricciosa goes just about as far as I like in topping-heavy pizza but the combination of ingredients is so good, how could one resist? I love it. If you try it, I hope you love it too!
I’m really loving Orso Restaurant’s regional dinners. We’ve been to Piemonte and Tuscany and last night we were transported to Venice. As regular readers will know, Venice (aside from my hometown of London) is my favourite place and I go there about once a year. And, of course, the food of Venice is some of my favourite too: gorgeous, creamy Baccalà Mantecato, Fegato alla Veneziana served with polenta. The Veneto, lying in the Po Valley, is also the home of risotto – another favourite dish – often made in Venice with fish or ‘primavera’ – spring vegetables (as I had at Locanda Cipriani in April). And then there’s Tiramisu, that divine dessert of layered sponge fingers with coffee, brandy or Marsala and mascarpone cheese. Yesterday, after a day at the Hampton Court Flower Show in sweltering sun, the promise of Orso’s cool basement, some of my favourite food from my favourite city, plus the company of two of my best friends – Annie and Jerry – was a welcome delight. Then, added to the excitement, the evening was being hosted by the restaurateur supremo Russell Norman, known for his love and knowledge of Venice and his Polpo restaurants. His programme, The Restaurant Man, on BBC2 TV last year, in which he helped new restaurateurs build their business, showed not just his business savvy but a sensitive and thoughtful approach to truly helping people.
Russell brought our Bellinis and talked to us for a bit. It was nice that he was being truly a host and to feel so welcomed. That’s one of the nice things about these regional dinners. Not only is it a chance to get to know how the food of the regions of Italy differ but there is a supper club atmosphere. The restaurant is full of people eating the same menu, with the same enthusiasm for Italian food, and everyone having a good time. The Bellinis were wonderful, made with white peaches, and a welcome refreshing beginning to the meal. LIttle snacks – stuzzichini – came too. The Carta di Musica – music sheets – were thin, crisp flatbreads flavoured with garlic and rosemary.
They were delicious; wonderfully moreish. They’re similar to Sardinian carasau and their name is a reference to the size of the sheets of bread and their unusual thinness. And, of course, Venice being the home of Vivaldi and a city of music made them even more appropriate for a Venetian meal.
Then one of my great favourites, baccalà mantecato served on toasted bread. Salted cod – a speciality in the Veneto region – is soaked then beaten to a thick creamy consistency. I eat it at least once a day when in Venice! This was excellent and these two gorgeous stuzzichini had been a brilliant way to start the meal. Charles of Ellis of Richmond Wines had also come to our table to talk about the wines they’d chosen and how they matched the dishes. This input into the wines of the region is another brilliant thing about the regional dinners and last night we were given a little booklet with wine information too. Next our Primi Piatti. Jerry had chosen Bigoli al Ragu d’Anatra – bigoli pasta with duck ragu.
He said it was delicious and it was paired with Appassimento (2013), a rich raisiny combination of Merlot, Primitivo and Negroamaro. Meanwhile, Annie and I chose Sarde in Saor – a really classic Venetian dish of sweet and sour sardines.
I’ve eaten this many times in Venice and I particularly liked Orso’s version, the sardines dusted in flour and shallow fried, the onions with raisins and pine nuts adding a subtle sweet-sour flavour. Too often the sweet or sour notes are overwhelming but here the balance was perfect. This was matched with Soave Pieropan (2013), a beautifully fresh but fragrant wine. Come the Secondi – main course – again Annie and I went for the same thing: Fegato alls Veneziana – calf’s liver with onions, balsamic vinegar served with buttered cavolo nero and soft polenta.
This liver dish is another must-have when I go to Venice. I love it; it is one of my favourite dishes ever. Which makes choosing it slightly risky. Though of course I knew there wasn’t much risk involved at Orso! It can of course be ruined by overcooking the liver; getting the acidic balance of the onion sauce wrong. But this was perfection: gorgeous tender pieces of liver in a lovely sauce; nicely seasoned polenta and tasty cavolo nero. It was matched with a Ripasso della Valpolicella (2013), which is a wonderful wine with a great depth of flavour. Jerry had chosen Guance di Merluzzo, Lenticchie and Salsa Verde for his main – sautéed cod cheeks with lentils and salsa verde.
This looked good (unfortunately my photo is a bit out of focus) and Jerry said it tasted very good too. It was matched with a Pinot Bianco from Friuli-Venezia but Jerry opted to stay with red.
There were two desserts to choose from as well. On a note of pure indulgence I opted for Tiramisu. Well how could I not!
Although again, like the Fegato, the choice comes with risk for there are many bad tiramisus around and I’m not very tolerant of them! I make a pretty mean one myself, courtesy of an Antonio Carluccio recipe. Orso’s was brilliant; quite simply one of the best I’ve had. It came with Recioto della Valpolicella, a superb dessert wine. Annie and Jerry went for the more refreshing option of Sgroppino – prosecco, lemon sorbet and limoncello.
I was given a taste and it was delicious but I’m very glad I had the Tiramisu because it was so good. We finished with coffees. It had been an excellent evening. Good fun, wonderful food, great atmosphere. And what a great way to ‘travel’ around Italy!
The menu was priced at £39.50, including wines.
For more information about Orso and the regional dinners visit their website at: www.orsorestaurant.co.uk
The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show celebrates its 25th birthday this year. They even made a flower cake to celebrate:
I went for the first time a couple of years ago. I’d been to the Chelsea Flower Show a few times and while that’s always inspirational for the gardener, it’s also horrendously crowed. A little akin to being on the Tube at rush hour. And I hit a couple of years on the trot when it was wet and cold so not much fun. The trip to the Hampton Court show a couple of years ago was a birthday treat from my friend Nina. The weather was kind, it was great to spend a leisurely day with my friend, and it was only a short bus ride from home!
With its 20-acre site, the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the largest flower show in the world. Though not within the show, the palace’s famous maze is also the largest hedge maze in the world, built more than three hundred years ago in the time of William and Mary, and has half a mile of pathways. It takes most people about 20 minutes to find the middle. I gathered this information from BBC 2 coverage of the show last night; they didn’t say how long it takes most people to get out again and whether they rescue you if you get seriously lost!
People have said to me for years – even before I finally got there – that the Hampton Court show is much nicer than Chelsea. I would in many ways agree – but not all. Its larger site means that although it gets busy there are plenty of quieter places to hang out when you want to slow down or rest. I’m not sure I could spend a whole day at Chelsea, it’s too frenetic, but a whole day at Hampton is a happier prospect. It’s more relaxed; less serious. There’s masses to do and, unlike Chelsea, you can actually buy plants to take home. Apart from show gardens and the wonderful Floral Marquee, there’s a Cookery Theatre with guest cooks like James Wong, Alys Fowler and Gregg Wallace giving demonstrations. In the Celebrity Theatre there are talks by well-known TV personalities like Simon King and Christine Walkden. There are endless stalls selling anything garden related that you could possibly want or dream up, including a Honda robot lawnmower – if you have £2,000-£3,000 to spare.
There are loads of food and drink stalls too, from preserves, cheeses and other things to take home to Pimm’s, Champagne, G&Ts, or coffee to sustain you on the go and all kinds of things to eat there: fish & chips, pulled pork baps, healthy falafel & hummus pitta breads, gorgeous cakes. But, of course, the flowers are the thing. If you’re a gardener, then that’s why you’re there. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful flowers and different varieties at their perfect best. They may never look like that in your garden, but it’s so nice to see how they should look. Thus the Floral Marquee, with pretty much any flower you could think of, is a magnificent affair. Here are a few photos. First some beautiful peonies:
And many wonderful displays:
The show gardens are always fun to see:
They lack the cutting-edge magnificence and inspiration of the ones at Chelsea, I think, although this Circle of Life garden was interesting:
But even the more ordinary ones can still provide some good ideas for your garden. I liked these Alice in Wonderland themed topiaries:
The Hampton Court Flower Show is a great day out and – especially with it being local to me – I’m sure to go back again next year. Though it also made me feel I must go to Chelsea again because the show gardens there really are a wonder. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about it and other Royal Horticultural Society shows visit: www.rhs.org.uk
I’ve been wanting this book for about a year; pretty much since it was published in 2014, but I was trying to be good and not spend £25 on a new cookbook when I already have about 200 on my shelves. Then I looked at it again in a bookshop recently, fell in love all over again, and discovered I could buy it for £15 from Amazon. Deal done. My order went in and it arrived yesterday. My good friend Linda bought Diana Henry’s Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons for me about three years ago and it has become one of my favourite books. Shortlisted for the Glenfiddich Cookbook Award when it was first published in 2002, I have the revised 2012 edition. (My family’s favourite ice cream – Lemon and Basil Ice Cream – is one of the most-used recipes in it.) Henry is a cook after my own heart and this new book confirms that first impression. Firstly because, like me, her great love is the food of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa and these influences dominate the new book but with a bit of Georgia, Scandinavia and the Far East thrown in too. Also, her attitude towards healthy eating is one I connect with: ‘I can’t think of meals as sets of nutrients. A meal is a colourful assembly of foods … that should be, first and foremost, enjoyable,’ she writes. I remember the rather grim advent of ‘health food restaurants’ in the 1970s with their nut roasts, lentil rissoles and bean casseroles; carob instead of chocolate and margarine instead of butter. Henry talks about the change in attitude we see now, that eggs have turned out to be good for us after all and butter is much healthier than low-fat margarine. Like me, her emphasis on healthy eating is a balanced diet. ‘The main thing you can do for good health’, she writes, ‘is to eat proper home-cooked food, limit anything processed … (and ) refined carbohydrates … and up your vegetable intake.’ A Change of Appetite reflects the changes Henry has made to her own diet: a move towards a lighter, fresher way of eating. She started by deciding to eat foods that were ‘accidentally healthy’ – foods that were delicious but healthiness was an added bonus. She also researched current advice about what’s healthy and cut back on the things that were ‘less healthy’, saving them for treats. She followed her common sense and experience and in the end, while initially thinking this new way of eating was for midweek and she’d revert to less healthy eating at the weekend, she found instead that it was so delicious that it was food for all days of the week and entertaining as well. One thing of crucial importance to healthy eating, I think, is going with what’s in season. There is often a ‘right’ time to eat certain foods, not just because they are at their best (English strawberries in June, for instance) but because it seems to suit the body better too. Henry has organised the book into seasons. In Spring, she says, ‘we find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavours.’ Summer is the easiest season to be healthy when you don’t have to do much cooking and meals can be assembly jobs of fresh ingredients, enhanced by the ‘scented quality’ of summer herbs. ‘Autumn is the best season for the cook,’ she declares, while winter still brings much needed splashes of colour with crimson blood oranges and jewelled pomegranates. ‘Everything Diana Henry cooks I want to eat,’ is a Yotam Ottolenghi quote on the front cover, and I share his view. The book is a treasure trove of bright, colourful, exciting recipes full of deep flavours and freshness. I made a couple of things today to try out before writing the review. The book is already gathering those little sticky markers of recipes I want to try but today I went for Roast Tomatoes and Lentils with Dukka-crumbed Eggs. This is actually an autumn recipe but I thought it would make a nice simple supper and it was really delicious. I cheated by using ready-made dukkah that I bought in Waitrose but sometime it would be great to try out her recipe. I also made Greek Yogurt and Apricot Ice Cream. This recipe is in the Spring section and uses dried apricots. I love apricots and fresh ones are starting to come into the shops, though it has to be said it’s quite difficult getting really good fresh ones in London. However, the dried apricots in Henry’s recipe give the ice cream a full, deep flavour; the Greek yogurt is healthier than cream and the result is really good. I see another family favourite coming on! It’s a really wonderful book and I know I’m going to enjoy trying out lots more recipes from it over the coming weeks. (A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley at £25.)