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Pasteis de Nata – Portuguese Custard Tarts

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This post was an act of sheer determination; well, the cooking was. I’d heard Pastéis de Nata were difficult to make, but clearly a certain amount of hubris took me over: just how difficult can it be to make custard tarts! Well, I was soon to discover … There were a few moments when I nearly gave up and threw the whole attempt into the bin. Fortunately, I persisted. And if persistence sometimes brings rewards then this was an example of how you should try to not give up too early but keep going. For in the end, I had a plate of delicious Pastéis de Nata to put before my family at lunchtime.

It started with a recipe for the little pastéis in National Geographic Food magazine. Well, more accurately, it began because my family are all addicted to these gorgeous little custard tarts. We can buy excellent ones in Your Bakery Whitton and when I visit my daughter in Worcestershire, she even puts in an order, asking me to take some up to her. But the idea of making them was tempting. So, I looked at the recipe in the magazine and I also looked in Rick Stein’s Long Weekends cookbook, remembering he’d been to Lisbon. And sure enough, there was a recipe there. His recipe made 28. Sure I could cut down the recipe but he also makes the pastry from scratch while the magazine recipe used bought all-butter puff pastry. A shortcut was too tempting. So I bought the all-butter puff pastry in Waitrose and soon I was ready to go.

But then there were more things to think of: the magazine recipe said to use muffin tins and the recipe made 6. Six! And muffin tins. I’ve eaten a lot of pastéis de nata in my time and they’re quite small, more cupcake size than muffin. I decided to go with small ones – though still wasn’t planning on Rick’s 28!

Buying the pastry made that part sound easy. But oh no! There were complicated instructions about rolling it up to a tight sausage shape and cutting 6 discs of 1-2cm thick. How was that going to work? I’d have an enormous amount of pastry left. So I just used my cutter and cut discs in the normal way, brushed the tin with melted butter and then pressed the discs in. After that you chill it in the fridge while you make the custard.

   

I heated the milk with the cinnamon and lemon zest and some butter as instructed.

   

Then you mix plain and cornflour together with a little milk. As I started to put it all together it occurred to me that nowhere in the ‘method’ was an instruction for what to do with the 2 egg yolks. Thank goodness for Rick. He saved me. I started to move from one recipe to another.

   

I added Rick’s vanilla because I thought that sounded a good idea.

   

I followed Rick’s easier instructions with the syrup (which is added to the custard) but I didn’t put in nearly as much as either recipe. I didn’t want the custard too sweet. So I judged it right for me by adding it a little at a time.

   

So, here is the recipe I came up with in the end – a combination of the two I looked at – and hopefully it will work more easily for you!

Pastéis de Nata

  • 1 pack (320g) all-butter puff pastry
  • melted butter for greasing
  • 20g butter
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon cornflour
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste

Custard

  • 250ml whole milk
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • few strips lemon zest

Sugar syrup

  • 225g caster sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • few strips lemon zest

1. Unfold the pastry onto a floured surface. Melt the butter and lightly brush the insides of a cupcake tin. Cut out 12 discs to fit the little moulds and push in well. Put in fridge to chill.

2. Make the custard: put the milk in a small pan (saving just a little, about 50ml, for the next step) with the cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Bring slowly to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

3. In a bowl, mix the 2 flours with the reserved milk to form a paste. Remove the cinnamon stick and lemon zest from the warm milk and pour slowly over the flour paste, mixing as you go. Pour back into a clean pan with half the butter. Cook over a medium heat, stirring well, until you have a custard the thickness of double cream. (If it starts to go lumpy, remove from the heat and beat vigorously before carrying on.) Remove from heat and add the remaining butter, 2 egg yolks and vanilla paste. Beat well.

4. Make the sugar syrup: put the caster sugar in a pan with the cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Bring to a rolling boil and boil until it goes a light caramel colour. Remove from the heat and pour, a little at a time, into the custard, beating well with each addition. This is the point at which I took quantity into my own hand and tasted as I went. I didn’t use all the syrup but kept what was over to brush some over the tarts at the end – which the magazine did.

5. Spoon the custard into the prepared pastry cases. Mine took about a dessertspoonful each. I had a little over. You can either make more tarts – or decide 12 are enough, as I did!

6. Put the tray into a very hot oven (240C/220 Fan/Gas 9) for about 10-13 minutes, or until the tops of the custard tarts are deep golden brown in places.

7. Remove from the oven. Brush over a little of the leftover syrup to glaze the tops. Leave a couple of minutes and then carefully transfer to a rack to cool. Dust with icing sugar when cold, maybe mixed a bit of cinnamon too.

Mine weren’t all perfect. Some had the custard spilling out. However, overall they looked pretty good. But of course the judging was all in how they tasted.

I served them with some fresh strawberries and raspberries on the side. I was pleased with how they looked. They really did look like pastéis de nata!

We really enjoyed them. The custard was nicely creamy still and not too sweet. In the end I was really pleased I’d carried on and made them and the family loved them. I have to admit though that with Your Bakery Whitton within walking distance, and selling such good ones, I’m not sure when I’ll get round to making these again!

Restaurant Review: Franco Manca, Russell Square

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Since I first wrote about Franco Manca over 2 years ago, the chain has boomed and grown from 10 outlets to 42. Most are in London but now some are outside the capital in places like Bournemouth, Brighton and Guildford. Giuseppe Mascoli opened his first Franco Manca in a small outlet in Brixton Market in 2008. It was such a success it fast became ‘the’ place to go for authentic Neopolitan pizza. Mascoli, a Neapolitan himself, was once an economics lecturer before deciding to bring the famous food of his home city of Naples to London and growing himself a small empire.  In March 2015 he sold Franco Manca to Fulham Shore, who own a number of restaurant chains, for £27.5 million. However, back in Italy he’s now opened another Franco Manca on the little Aeolian island of Salina

What’s special about Franco Manca’s pizzas is their slow-rising sourdough base; the pizzas are then cooked in a wood burning oven at 500C. This blast of hot heat gives the perfect Neopolitan pizza: a soft, deep crust with a touch of charring on the outside. They source the best products to top their pizzas: Gloucester Old Spot sausage and ham, Iberico chorizo, dry San Marzano tomatoes (grown in the volcanic soil under Mount Vesuvius, they are thought by some to be the only tomatoes to be used on an authentic Neopolitan pizza,) wild broccoli and the finest mozzarella, which they make themselves daily in Somerset, overseen by a cheese maker from Southern Italy.

The menu is simple – there are 7 pizzas to choose from, and they’re numbered, not named. You can have extra toppings; there are 2 side salads to choose from and, if you don’t want pizza at all, 2 main salads. But basically it’s pizza … you really only go there to eat pizza. And the pizzas are fantastically priced for London, ranging from £4.95 for the classic marinara pizza, No.1, of Tomato, Garlic & Oregano to No.7 that comes with Dry San Marzano tomatoes, roasted potatoes, onions, mozzarella, Colston Bassett stilton and seasonal pesto at £8.15.

I often meet a friend at the Bloomsbury Curzon cinema just off Russell Square. Usually we see a film early and eat after. There’s not a great choice nearby and we’ve tended to go to Carluccio’s, but it’s not been so great recently. So, I looked up what else was nearby and found that a Franco Manca had opened there. Remembering that I had to queue for 35 minutes when I went to the South Kensington branch, I suggested we eat early before the 7.00pm showing of the film. We reckoned it would be easier to get a table then than after the film … and it was, though it filled up fast. You can’t book; only for 6 or more.

It’s all very minimal inside, stools at the tables rather than chairs. But it has that irresistible Italian sophistication that shines through even in the simplest of decor. So too did it have that wonderful Italian friendliness and charm. Everyone was very friendly, from our welcome, to food and drink coming to us with quick efficiency and a smile, to our leaving when the pizzaiolo called goodbye from his spot by the hot oven. It made us feel we’d definitely go back. My friend Nicola remarked how much she liked Italians, but then who couldn’t like Italians (even if they’re not all perfect!).

I chose No.5 pizza: Tomato, garlic, oregano, capers, olives, anchovies & mozzarella (£7.25).

It looked fabulous and it tasted fabulous. They’re big pizzas too. I also had a side salad: mixed salad leaves, alfalfa sprouts & Franco’s dressing (£2.45).

Nicola confessed that she’d had an unplanned pizza for lunch so decided to order a main salad instead: Butterhead lettuce & mixed salad leaves, alfalfa sprouts, British chicken, crispy Gloucester Old Spot bacon, caramelised onions, Cantarelli Grana & Franco’s dressing (£7.65).

She was very impressed. She said it was really good and very fresh. They hadn’t overdone the dressing and it tasted as if it had just been put together (which I’m sure it had!).

There were tempting desserts like Tiramisu, a Lemon Almond Cake, and Chocolate Hazelnut Cake for £3.95 but we stuck to coffee for me and peppermint tea for Nicola. We each also had a 175ml glass of Nero d’Avola red wine for £4.25 with the meal.

It was all excellent – food, ambience and service. The bill at £28 (£14 each) was excellent too. There’s always the worry when a good, innovative restaurant gets bought out by a giant company that they’ll lose that special edge that brought fame in the first place, and the food will become bland and uniform; that they’ll cut corners and standards will drop. But so far Franco Manca stays apparently the same as it ever was. And long may that last!

Franco Manca, Russell Square Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Mon Plaisir

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I was meeting my friend Chris, who lives in north London, for an evening meal and we settled on Covent Garden as a good ‘halfway’ meeting place. I fancied trying somewhere different to my usual haunts and remembered that I’ve been meaning to return to Mon Plaisir for sometime, having often passed it when in the area and thinking, I must go back there.

Mon Plaisir was a regular haunt at one time, but many years ago. It was at least 20 years since I’d eaten there. Chris also knew it from a long time ago but hadn’t been back for about the same amount of time as me.

Located in Covent Garden’s Seven Dials district, that’s become very fashionable of late, the restaurant is known as London’s oldest French restaurant. Established during the 1940s by the Viala brothers, it stayed in their family until 1972 when it was bought by Alain Lhermitte, who continued the tradition of serving authentic French food. What I’d remembered from years ago – and at a time when I regularly holidayed with the family in France – was that it was like being transported to a little corner of France for the evening. Everything about it, from the ambience to the food and the staff was French. But would it be quite as I remembered it?

We’d booked for 6.30pm, in time to have the Pre- or Post-Theatre Menu that’s served from 5.45-7.00 and then after 9.30. It’s priced at £16.95 for 2 courses, including coffee, and £18.95 for 3 courses.

I arrived slightly early, escaping the bitter wind outside and seeking warmth. They checked whether I was planning to go to the theatre (good point) and I said, No. (I noticed on the menu that people having the pre-theatre menu had to vacate the table by 8.00, which I hadn’t been warned about when I booked by phone. However, it clearly wasn’t busy enough for them to need the table back as we sat there talking until 9.15!) I was shown to the Back Room. Mon Plaisir is a little bit like a rabbit warren with various rooms branching out through narrow passageways; sometimes you have to duck your head! I’d always sat in the front before, overlooking Monmouth Street, and apparently the Back Room was the first expansion of the restaurant in the 1980s.

   

There was a choice of 3 starters – Soup of the Day, Pork Terrine with Mushrooms, and Seasonal Salad. I asked what was in the seasonal salad and had a vision of a classic French crudités plate being put before me. It wasn’t quite that. There was a good selection of vegetables – lettuce, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potato – but unfortunately it was smothered in a heavy balsamic dressing, resulting in it not being as ‘fresh’ tasting as I’d expected. Balsamic dressing isn’t really French anyway (balsamic is woefully overused these days and not always appropriate), and I would have preferred a proper French dressing made with wine or cider vinegar. However, it was OK; just nothing to get excited about. The waitress offered us bread from a large basket before the starters arrived, but it’s preferable to have a basket left on the table.

Chris said her pork terrine was OK, but again, nothing special – and I could see that too had balsamic drizzled over it.

There were 3 main courses on offer: Fish of the Day, Penne with Grilled Vegetables and Pesto, and Blanquette de Volaille – chicken in light cream sauce with pearl barley, which was my choice.

I was a bit taken aback by 2 very ordinary crisps sitting on top! There was a lot of chicken (I wouldn’t go hungry) but it was a little dry and the overall dish lacked seasoning. Again, not a ‘bad’ dish but not ‘very good’ either.

Chris had the fish of the day – mackerel. This also came with crisps on top! She thought it was OK, but again the overall opinion was that it wasn’t anything special.

Neither of us wanted a dessert but there was Crème Caramel or Apple Tart with Cinnamon Ice Cream on offer. I had the coffee which was part of the menu and Chris asked for peppermint tea. My coffee was actually very good and I enjoyed it.

We were both a bit disappointed. Mon Plaisir wasn’t as we’d remembered it. Had we somehow ‘romanticised’ those meals from years ago in our minds and memory or had they really been better. I guess we’ll never know. The meal wasn’t a disaster but there are certainly better places to get an early evening menu in Covent Garden. The French ambience now felt tired and a little touristy. What a shame.

Mon Plaisir Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

GPSmyCity Travel App – Seasonal Giveaway

I’m delighted to let you know that GPSmyCity have just published another 4 of my travel articles – this time from my trip to Granada. That makes 25 of my articles published with them. The GPSmyCity app offers guides to over 6,500 walks in more than 1,000 cities round the world and, as they say, the app allows you ‘to lose yourself without getting lost’. With a travel app you can wander in a relaxed way and soak up all a city has to offer without worrying about how to get to places or finding yourself lost. The app will be your very own personal guide.

More and more we rely on our smartphones and tablets for convenience and quick access to information. When we visit cities for a holiday how much better to have all the information we need and a map on our phone than to carry around guidebooks and paper maps. But, you might say, what about access to it? Won’t I have to rely on Wifi or using up valuable GPS data on my phone? This is the beauty of the app: you can download articles for free and read them offline, which means you can even read them on the plane or a beach. But better than that, for a small fee (US$1.99) you can upgrade to get an offline city map and GPS navigation to all the sights and places mentioned in the article so you’ll never have trouble finding your way around or getting to the places you want to visit.  When you want to try a recommended restaurant, the app will take you there; if you want to visit an interesting cultural or historical site mentioned in the article, it will show you the route, and once there you can read all the article tells you about the place – offline. No more searching for that elusive mobile or wifi connection because you will always have the article with you. Or articles. You’ll find so many great articles by different writers who’ve actually been to the city recently and found the best places to go you’re bound to find just what you’re looking for – and maybe some great places you’d never have otherwise come across.

GPSmyCity has been publishing city guide apps on iTunes App Store since 2009 and Google Play since 2013. It’s been recommended in publications such as the Telegraph, New York Times and Travel Weekly. Next time you’re travelling to a city for a holiday, why not take GPSmyCity with you? You won’t regret it! It will be a perfect guide. To download the app click on the banner on the right-hand side of this blog post: ‘Inspiring Travel Articles – Take My Articles With You’ or via the GPSmyCity website: click here.

To celebrate the publication of my 4 articles on Spain, for the next week GPSmyCity are offering a free upgrade to my post Five Days in Granada. To claim your copy, click here.

You’ll also find these articles on the app –

La Alhambra, Raciones & Granada’s Favourite Cake (click here).

Views and Cobbled Street: Walking in Albaicin (click here).

Historic Sites in Albaicin & Walk Up to Sacromonte (click here)

If you haven’t taken a look at the GPSmyCity app then please do – I’m sure you’ll love what you find and it will prove invaluable for any city break you have planned. And do take advantage of the free upgrade for my Five Days in Granada article this week. If you haven’t been to Granada yet then you should go – it’s fabulous!

Restaurant Review: Sartori, Covent Garden

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I set off into central London late yesterday afternoon for another evening of food and theatre. These are two of my great passions: good food and good theatre. I love taking advantage of all London has to offer culturally and regularly go to art exhibitions and cinema, but for me there really isn’t anything like the excitement of great live theatre: a fantastic play with an awe inspiring and brilliant cast. And last night’s theatre promised just that: Eugene O’Neill’s classic play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, two of our finest actors. The play has only recently opened and has been gathering wonderful reviews – ‘an unmissable masterpiece’ (Independent) – so I was very much looking forward to it. But at three and a half hours long with just one 15-minute interval, my friend Louise and I were definitely going to be in need of sustenance before taking our seats at Wyndham’s Theatre. I therefore did a quick search of restaurants nearby, thinking it would be nice to find somewhere new. I also wanted to eat close to the theatre; it’s not fun to eat a meal and then be in a rush to make it to curtain-up time or have a long walk to reach the theatre. I was pleased to discover Sartori, an Italian restaurant, just round the corner, barely a couple of minutes walk away, so booked a table there to catch their pre-theatre menu, which finishes at 6.00pm. Pre-theatre menus are great. I don’t really want to spend lots of money on a quick meal before going to the theatre; neither do I want to eat lots and drink much wine and risk feeling sleepy during the play. But food and a glass of wine first was definitely needed, not to mention time to talk to my friend and catch up on our news.

Sartori is in Great Newport Street, just off the Charing Cross Road and near to Leicester Square Tube station. The decor inside is simple and fairly informal. I received a friendly welcome and the restaurant quickly filled up so I was pleased I’d thought ahead to book.

We decided to have the pre-theatre menu at £11.45 for 2 courses. There was a very good choice: 7 starters and 6 main courses. Louise and I both chose the grilled vegetables with balsamic to begin and when it arrived, it looked very appetising.

It was a good beginning to the meal and we enjoyed it. Louise chose Pollo al Limone Con Patate for her main. They translated this as ‘chicken breast in breadcrumbs served with potato’ and she was expecting the chicken to be an escalope in crispy breadcrumbs rather than smothered in sauce. However, she said it tasted good.

My choice was Penne all’Arrabbiata – penne pasta in tomato & basil sauce, chilli and Parmesan.

The waitress smiled as she put it down and told me it was angry. Arrabbiata is Italian for ‘angry’. I laughed and said it was OK, I wasn’t angry. It’s a simple dish but was well done; the sauce obviously fresh and homemade and the pasta cooked to perfection with that al dente bite to it but cooked through. I would have preferred a little more chilli – there wasn’t much ‘angry’ about it – but it was still a good sauce. Louise didn’t want wine and ordered tonic water, but I had a small glass of Nero d’Avola for £4.95, which was good. I liked that they offered 125ml, 175ml and 250ml sized glasses.

We had plenty of time as we’d arrived early so it was great to have plenty of time to talk. We didn’t want a dessert but both ordered coffee. The final bill was £39 including 12.5% tip, so great value, and the meal was good, definitely somewhere to remember, especially pre-theatre. The prices on the main menu looked reasonable too with good choices of pasta and main courses, and I saw some pizzas pass by that also looked good.

Sartori Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Yellow Split Pea & Bacon Soup

I’m still bathing in some of the glow of having spent a weekend in beautiful Amsterdam recently and that was my inspiration for this soup I made for lunch today. It’s become a ritual that when I arrive in the city, usually late morning, I check into my hotel, leave my bag, and head straight to Cafe ‘t Smalle for lunch.

And once there, I always order their Pea & Ham Soup and a small beer – local Heineken.

The soup is made from dried green split peas (it’s not a fresh pea soup). It traditionally comes with rye (often pumpernickel) bread and thinly sliced ham. Pea & Ham Soup is such a classic dish in Amsterdam, you’ll see it everywhere – on menus and written on boards outside cafés. However, I think Cafe ‘t Smalle’s is particularly good and so I like to go there; it’s also a favourite cafe, a bit on the tourist trail and near the Anne Frank House, but it’s a fame that hasn’t gone to its head and it always feels down to earth and local, and everyone is friendly and relaxed. Like a lot of traditional ‘cafés’ in Amsterdam, it feels more like a pub and you might go there just for a drink and not necessarily to eat.

The soup is very Dutch in the sense that it’s hearty, simple fare. The Dutch aren’t showy people and neither is their food. This is the kind of soup that makes a meal – it’s far too heavy to have as a starter to a meal – and is nourishing but cheap to make. Inevitably, recipes vary. It’s a winter soup and made with vegetables in season – onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, often celeriac too, or leeks. The ham is usually a piece of hock that’s cooked with the soup, then the meat pulled from the bone at the end. It’s generally served very thick – you could almost stand your spoon up in it. It might be blended smooth or simply mashed or served just as it is. When making it, the choice is yours. I went for a halfway compromise – I blended half the mixture at the end and mixed it all together so I got a thick creamy base with still recognisable pieces of vegetable and meat. My recipe is just a guideline so do make it to your own preferences.

I wasn’t planning on buying a ham hock so I decided to use some streaky bacon instead. I put it in at the beginning of the cooking to get the most from the flavour. I couldn’t buy green split peas either (despite quite a search locally) so settled for yellow split peas. Neither did I have stock to hand and rather than using just water, I’ve taken to putting some miso into soups, mainly because I’m not keen on stock cubes (other than homemade!). I keep a jar of miso paste in the fridge and mix a teaspoon with some hot water before adding to the soup.

I didn’t have rye bread either so settled for some of a day-old baguette from Paul French bakery which I lightly toasted. But, not to entirely lose the Amsterdam theme, I did have some wonderful 3-year-old Gouda that I’d bought in my favourite cheese shop in Amsterdam – Tromp.

 

Yellow Split Pea & Bacon Soup

  • 6 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
  • a little (about 2-3 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 sticks celery – plus leaves if there are some, reserving a few for garnish
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 large potato
  • 1 mug (250g) yellow split peas
  • 1 fat clove garlic
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme (or dried will do)
  • 3 mugs stock, water or miso (see above)
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

Cut the bacon into slices (about 1.5cm thick) and put with the oil into a large pan. Fry over a medium heat until coloured but not brown.

   

Chop all the vegetables into smallish (about 1.5cm) cubes. Try to keep them uniform if you’re not planning to blend the whole soup at the end. Add them to the bacon, stir well and continue cooking until the vegetables take on a bit of colour but aren’t browned. Add the yellow split peas.

   

Roughly chop any celery leaves you have and add them to the vegetables with the thyme and a crushed clove of garlic. Grate in some black pepper but wait to add salt at the end. It’s best to not add salt to dried beans and pulses at the beginning of cooking as it inhibits their ability to soften. It’s not so important with split peas or small lentils but remember you’ve added bacon, so there will be some salt anyway.

   

Give it a good stir to mix together and then add the stock, water or miso.

Bring to the boil and spoon off any scum that rises to the top. Lower the heat and allow the soup to simmer for about an hour, or until the split peas are tender. Then I blended half the mixture and put it back in with the unblended half. Check seasoning.

   

It was a perfect lunch for a cold winter’s day: some gorgeous old Gouda and a thick, hearty and delicious soup.

I added some chopped celery leaves and a chopped rasher of crispy bacon as garnish for the soup at the end.

It wasn’t quite what I have in Amsterdam but that didn’t matter because it was still very good indeed. I had it for lunch but it would make a great midweek family supper. And as always with soups, I made plenty so I can freeze portions to enjoy another day.

 

Amsterdam 2018: Quiet Morning Walk, Lunch with a Friend & Oude Genever

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The weather has been mainly dull and slightly wet this trip and the forecast for today wasn’t great, so it was a pleasant surprise this morning to wake to brightness, blue skies and a hint of sun. After breakfast I set off towards the State Hermitage gallery, an Amsterdam offshoot of the famous Russian Hermitage. It had been recommended to me so I decided to visit. It was so peaceful and quiet as I walked there and just a perfect time to enjoy the beauty of Amsterdam.

The State Hermitage is right by one of the larger canals.

There was a strange system of having to buy separate tickets for different displays; a combined ticket very expensive. I didn’t have much time so bought a ticket for the Golden Age Gallery. Really I should just have left it and gone back when I had more time, but it’s well laid out inside and I managed to grab a quick and good coffee in the large and attractive cafe, which you can get into without gallery ticket.

After a brief return to the hotel, I headed northwards, through the Jordaan to Watertorenplein, near Westerpark, to meet my Dutch friend Rita, who returned to the city just over a year ago after living in Spain for a few years. Rita suggested meeting at Cafe-Restaurant Amsterdam, which is inside a converted old pumping station.

It was huge and wonderful inside, full of groups of friends and families having Sunday lunch. I wanted a fairly light lunch and chose Ravioli Stuffed with Artichoke and Rucola.

My ravioli was delicious but when Rita gave me a taste of her mussels and I learnt the restaurant had been voted best place to have mussels recently, I did wonder if I’d made a mistake!

We drank wine with our meal and both indulged in dessert. Rhubarb with Skyr and Hazelnut Crumble for me.

And Sticky Toffee Cake for Rita.

At the next table a dad and his young daughter – about 10 years – were sharing a wonderful platter of fruits de mer.

More than two hours after we’d arrived, Rita and I, happily replete, ventured out into the cold and wind. She showed me where I could get a tram back to my hotel and we bid a fond goodbye. Happy as I am on my own in Amsterdam it had been such a treat and pleasure to meet a friend for lunch.

Come evening, I decided to go to an old favourite, Cafe het Molenpad on Prinsengracht for some supper. It was cold and windy still but Amsterdam is beautiful whatever the weather so, wrapped up well, I enjoyed my walk to the cafe.

I chose a special of the day, a vegetarian curry, to warm me up and had a beer to go with it, sitting at a table by the window with a view onto the canal just outside.

It was simple and perfect. Back out in the cold, I couldn’t resist heading back to Cafe Chris for an oude genever as a digestif on my last night. I passed Westerkerk, right by the Anne Frank House, as the bells sounded on the hour. The sound of Dutch church bells is unique and I just love to hear them.

Inside the bar I sipped my genever, which, despite being cold from the fridge warmed me as it slipped down.

It was quieter in the bar than it had been on Friday night. I chatted for a while to the woman behind the bar who I’ve seen there many times before, in no hurry, happy and relaxed. Then finally I braved the cold air outside again and made my way back to the hotel. What a lovely last day.

Amsterdam 2018: Van Gogh & Lunch in the Jordaan

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I tend not to plan a lot before I come to Amsterdam, preferring to take things as I fancy once I’ve arrived in this great city that I know quite well. I was however organised enough to buy a ticket online to visit the Van Gogh Museum this morning. I’d actually been thinking about it for a while, but after seeing Andrew Graham-Dixon’s documentary Stealing Van Gogh on BBC2 TV on Wednesday, I knew I just had to go back; I hadn’t visited the museum for about 20 years!

I always book ahead of travelling if I want to visit a major museum or gallery, especially one as popular as the Van Gogh Museum, to save queuing and be sure of getting in. I booked a 10.00am entry slot in the hope that by going early it wouldn’t be too busy. It turned out to be a good move as it was fairly quiet when I arrived but busy by the end of my visit.

I was surprised at how quiet it was in the city as I  walked to the museum after breakfast, around 9.30. Amsterdam was still sleeping. Even on a Saturday morning when I expected it to be busy and crowds of tourists starting to fill the streets. It was however delightful. It always feels so special to have a city almost to yourself early in the morning; the winter light just about showing through the clouds.

Google maps estimated it would take me 23 minutes to walk there and walking is always my preference in a city. I stepped out on to Singel from my hotel and walked southwards, crossing the canal at Koningsplein. The Bloemenmarkt – the flower market – lay beyond this bridge, easily visible, following the Singel canal, but I needed to go west towards the Museum District. I would take a look at the flower market later, especially fabulous at this time of year, full as it is with large bunches of perfect tulips at a vastly cheaper price than those back home in London.

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I walked straight on, along Leidsestraat. This is a street for shopping, if you want to do some, from smart clothes to souvenirs, but this early most shops were still closed. I crossed Keizergracht and then Prinsengracht – two of the city’s most famous and beautiful canals – and then Leidsestraat opened out into Leidseplein, a kind of ‘square’ with the Apple Store looming large to my left and the American Hotel to my right. Finally, another small bridge and then I could see the Rijksmuseum across to the left. I knew the Van Gogh Museum was behind it.

Museumplein is a large open area. I walked across the open space away from the Rijksmuseum, passing lots of stalls selling tempting hot drinks but I needed to keep going. The Van Gogh Museum was straight in front of me, the Stedelijk Museum – the modern art museum – just behind it if I fancied more art later on.

At the entry gates I received such a warm and friendly welcome I was reminded how friendly the Dutch are. Wherever I go, shops, cafes and restaurants, there is always a smile, and a seemingly genuine welcome. How did these museum people keep it up all day long when there are hundreds of visitors each day?

Unsurprisingly one isn’t supposed to take photos inside. A rule I firmly believe in. Going to galleries where people are snapping away, taking photos with their phones all around you as you try to enjoy the experience of seeing some great masterpiece, can be irritating. But I’m probably showing my age!

What I can do is say how pleased I am that I revisited Van Gogh. I’ve learnt a lot more about him and art in the intervening 20 years and was mesmerised by the quality of light, a sense of movement from his brush strokes, the glorious colours and, at times, the sheer emotional charge of the paintings.

By the time I emerged an hour or more later, the museum was getting busy. I decided to head back to the hotel for a short time.

At lunchtime I headed further into the Jordaan district to lunch in a couple of old favourites. First some gorgeous homemade soup and a small beer in Cafe ‘t Smalle.

Then a little further up Prinsengracht to Winkel cafe for a slice of their justifiably famous apple pie.

Winkel (which means ‘store’ in Dutch) is right by Noordermarkt, a fabulous mixed market of organic foods and crafts and all kinds of things. It was started back in 1987 by the then owner of Winkel, Adri Vallentin. He set up 9 organic food stalls in the hope of attracting more people to his cafe on a Saturday morning. It was quite revolutionary at the time for there weren’t many organic markets and stores then. The plan worked and the market attracted lots of people from far afield, not just the Jordaan district, so that now it’s one of the most fashionable and popular in Amsterdam – and there’s always a queue at Winkel!

   

   

   

As I was staying in a hotel I didn’t want to buy food, although it all looked wonderful, but I found a stall selling lovely pottery by Anna Maria Preuss.

I talked to her for a few minutes and couldn’t resist buying a small coffee mug to take home.

By now there was some blue in the sky and a little sun was very welcome – even though it lasted only a short while.

Then it was time to head back to my hotel for some quiet time to read more of the book I brought with me and give my feet a rest – I’d already walked a few miles. Though very good miles they’d been!

Amsterdam at Night & Favourite Haunts

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Here I am in Amsterdam for the 5th year running early in the year. Why do I keep coming back? Because I love it! And short of travelling far and spending lots of money, there aren’t many options in January. Better to come to somewhere that’s great with lots of things to do and not worry too much about the weather than chance finding a pale shadow of warmth further south in a seaside resort that’s almost dead in the winter. Amsterdam is always alive and kicking. Even in January. But it has to be said that it’s less busy than later in the year, particularly spring – March and April – when tourists flock here to see the bulbs, all those ‘tulips from Amsterdam’. And that’s partly why I like to come now. It’s quiet and full of locals.

I don’t come to Amsterdam to sightsee, I come simply to be here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city over more than 20 years, almost semi living here at one time, so there’s a wonderful sense of familiarity. I think places we return to over and over again imbed themselves in our psyche and just as people are drawn to always return to their home, the place they were born and brought up, so too we are drawn to the places we come to know well. Or we do when we love them.

So I’m here to wander, to stroll wherever my fancy takes me, take pot luck for lunch, as I did today, at a cafe I passed and liked the look of. A little formal ‘sightseeing’, ‘tourist’ activity will come in the shape of a visit to the Van Gogh Museum tomorrow, the first time in about 20 years, inspired to return by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s brilliant documentary on BBC2 TV last Thursday, STEALING VAN GOGH. And of course I have to visit my favourite haunts.

I’m staying in the lovely Hotel Estherea on Singel, Amsterdam’s oldest major canal, in a room with a view.

It was getting dark as I set off late afternoon to gently explore before eating. The lightest of rains hovered in the air – did I need an umbrella or not? –  but as I crossed the canals, Singel, Herengracht, Keizergracht and finally to Prinsengracht, darkness and rain did nothing to diminish the beauty that is Amsterdam.

I arrived quite early at my favourite restaurant, Cafe de Reiger in Nieuwe Leliestraat but it was already filling up so I went in a grabbed a table. My favourite table where I always like to sit, by a window looking out onto the pretty narrow street outside.

I suppose in London we’d call De Reiger a gastro pub, but it serves top quality restaurant food. My prosecco came with thin melba toast and homemade tapenade to nibble on while I waited for my food. I had the sweet potato soup special followed by a glorious fish special – cod with oyster mushroom risotto, pecorino sauce, yellow beetroot and carrot.

It was stunningly good and very reasonably priced at €21. I had an apple muffin and cinnamon ice cream to follow. De Reiger always present food so beautifully.

I then dawdled over an espresso as long as one can possibly make an espresso last. I didn’t want to leave. The food had been great and the service good and wonderfully friendly. The restaurant was buzzing with happy people; it was a great place to be. But my favourite bar called to me – Cafe Chris (bar and cafe are fairly interchangeable terms in Amsterdam).

Cafe Chris is the oldest bar in the Jordaan district – about 400 years old. It’s the only bar I’m comfortable going into alone at night anywhere. And I go for one drink: old genever.

An early form of gin, it’s always served filled to the brim so that you can’t pick it up but have to lean forward and sip. Going to Cafe Chris for a glass of genever last thing before returning to my hotel and bed has become a ritual. It was the same barman as the first time I went in 2014 and I’ve seen every time since. He said he recognised me. I noticed an old photo for the first time, propped on the bar, though I guess it’s always been there.

This, I was told, was Chris. Apparently for 400 years the name of the bar always changed to a new owner’s. But ‘Chris’ stuck and the bar has been called Cafe Chris since the 1930s. I was ready to make a move when the barman topped up my glass. He’s always friendly in the nicest way; introduces me to locals also sitting at the bar so I always end up having a chat to someone. It’s what bars should be like. Two genevers was definitely enough. I paid just €3. I bid goodnight to the barman and local I’d be talking to and set off back along the canals to my hotel. What a lovely end to my first day.

Travel Gourmet’s Desert Island Recipes

I’ll confess immediately this is a stolen idea! Observer Food Monthly celebrated their 200th edition today and the Observer‘s long-in-residence food writer, the wonderful Nigel Slater, wrote a piece choosing his ‘desert island’ recipes over Food Monthly‘s life. That’s a fun idea, I thought. I’ll choose my ‘desert island’ recipes from the blog; I also reckoned that after six and a half years of writing the blog my all-time favourite recipes had to be on it.

Of course ‘recipes’ isn’t necessarily the same as food. There are foods I wouldn’t want to be without: a plate of fresh oysters while sat the by sea in the sun, a cool, ozone-tinged breeze gently whispering against my ear; the now ‘politically incorrect’ or ‘challenged’ foie gras, but I love it – it’s heaven on a plate. There are wonderful cheeses of all sorts: a ripened Brie de Meaux, soft and melting on a plate; a rich, creamy Gorgonzola; the nutty, earthy flavour of Comté. There’s the glory of a fresh, flaky croissant from a French bakery; a plate of the best Italian meats (from somewhere like my local Corto Deli): San Daniele or Tuscan prosciutto, fabulous fennel salami from Tuscany. But what do I cook? What recipes do I return to over and over again. Part of the answer lay in my choosing recipes that appeared on the blog very early on, back to when I began writing it in 2011; recipes that have been with me for a long time and I continue to regularly cook.

I thought it would be quite easy to come up with my choice but of course once I started thinking about it and made my way through the long list of recipes, it turned out to be a very difficult task indeed. I’d decided to follow the famous BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs formula to the extent of choosing just 8 recipes (as the Desert Island guest is allowed to choose 8 recordings plus one book) and one cookbook, so I’d limited myself quite seriously. But then that also says something about how much I like the recipes here. So here goes! And in no particular order.

1. Moussaka (click here for recipe)

I’ve been making moussaka for almost as long as I’ve been cooking. And that’s a long time. My go-to recipe also goes back a long way and is from Claudia Roden’s iconic book, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published in 1968. Moussaka has become a family favourite too and I now also make a vegetarian version (click here) as daughter-in-law Rachael is vegetarian. Of course, making moussaka also reminds me of being in Greece, which I like so much, and one of the best I’ve ever had was when I was in Kardamyli, right back in 2011 at the time I began the blog.

 

2. Ragù Bolognese (click here for recipe)

It’s interesting seeing old recipes and photos because if I was writing the post now, I wouldn’t serve the ragù like this and I would even cook it slightly differently, although the recipe remains basically the same. Now I would serve it more Italian style: less meat and folded into the pasta before serving – not dumped on top! But then in over six years of food blogging, I would hope to have learnt a lot! It remains a favourite. I always have at least one portion of ragù in my freezer, and make it frequently.

 

3. Torta Caprese (click here for recipe)

This has been the family celebration cake for as long as I remember and remains our ‘go-to’ cake of choice for special occasions. Although I usually make it as one cake (click here), I’ve given a link above to match the photo of our ‘muffin’ version as they work so well and are great for parties or picnics.

 

Mushroom & Chestnut Risotto (click here for recipe)

How to choose a risotto!! I felt I should put just one here but there are lots of risotto recipes on the blog. It’s one of my favourite dishes to cook. It’s so versatile and I just love slowly stirring it and watching it come together; a great way to relax and wind down. I’ve chosen this one as a newer favourite – a fantastic combination of flavours with the mushrooms and chestnuts. I tend to be quite Italian and add only a very few ingredients – Butternut Squash & Fresh Thyme or a simple Asparagus Risotto.

 

5. Tagliata di Manzo (click here for recipe)

I do love steak. I don’t eat it a lot but sometimes I crave it and there’s is nothing like a well-cooked – meltingly tender and rare – steak. My favourite way to eat it is as a Tagliata – slices laid on a bed of rocket, topped with shaved Parmesan. Most often I eat it with son Jonathan who is brilliant at getting the cooking just right on a barbecue. I also ate a fabulous one in Florence last June.

 

6. Boeuf Bourguignon (click here for recipe)

Well, as I write this post I realise how much I like beef! And this classic French dish is an absolute favourite. I make it quite often in the colder months of the year. Family love it and I always make enough to freeze some. There is nothing better on a cold winter’s night than pulling a portion from the freezer and warming it through to serve with some creamy mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy.

 

7. Linguine with Tiger Prawns & Baby Squid (click here for recipe)

I love seafood and a favourite way to eat prawns is in a spicy fresh tomato sauce with pasta. I usually do a simpler version of this (click here) but the addition of the squid and some large tiger prawns makes it really special.

 

8. Melanzane alla Parmigiana (click here for recipe)

Actually I don’t make this enough but I really do love it and I often eat it at Corto Deli where they make an excellent version. My family love aubergines; we eat anything with aubergines: griddled, in moussaka, in curry or tagine or Italian style with polenta.

 

Desert Island Cookbook

This was such a difficult choice – of course! I realise I use cookbooks less and less, though I still have favourites, many of which go back a long way. But a book I use a lot is Antonio Carluccio’s Italia. This ties in with my love of Italy, the predominance of Italian cooking on the blog and in my home. It’s also a great book when travelling to Italy and I’ve sometimes photocopied pages to take with me. The book is divided into the regions of Italy with a guide to the local cuisine and specialities of the region, as well as having some recipes. It’s been invaluable to me when writing posts on the blog about Italian food – and is beautifully illustrated with wonderful photos.

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Now, on Desert Island Discs the castaway has to choose the one recording they’d save if all were about to be washed away by the sea. So, in the spirit of the programme I’ll choose my No.1 recipe – and it just has to be the Torta Caprese because not only is it my and my family’s very favourite dessert recipe, it reminds me of my lovely family and lots of family celebrations.

What’s your favourite recipe? Please comment and let us know!