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Plum Cake with Streusel Topping

I’ve often claimed in these pages that I don’t bake much, yet in truth, like many people, I started off as a ‘baker’ and there has definitely been a lot of baking in my life, even if less now than years ago. Baking cakes if often where we start with cooking. I used to make cakes with my grandmother and then on my own. My mother wasn’t really a cake-making cook so I took up the baton in my teens and became the family’s cake maker. I frequently made chocolate éclairs and with all due modesty, I can say I was really good at choux pastry. Since starting the blog I’ve often thought I should revisit chocolate éclairs, but have never got round to it. When chocolate comes to mind along with cakes, I always make the family’s favourite Torta Caprese. I’m trying to pass on the baking baton to my 3½-year-old grandson, Freddie, and have even made banana bread muffins with him for the blog, encouraging his early love of food and interest in cooking. For me, there is nothing more wonderful when it comes to cooking than preparing a special meal for the family and now cooking with the next generation – even if he is only three!

During my busy ‘dinner party’ phase in my 30s and 40s I was so into making desserts that I’d often make two or three when one would have been perfectly sufficient. Now a dessert is a rare event and usually nothing more complicated or sophisticated than a simple apple crumble for the family. I’ve branched out a little more since writing the blog and you will find some very nice cake and dessert recipes here, but in truth my heart more closely lies with savoury things these days – unless we’re talking ice cream!

So how did I come to bake this evening? Well, it was the Victoria plums. How can one resist a Victoria plum? I certainly couldn’t when I spied them on Waitrose’s shelves over the weekend; not only Victoria plums, but from Kent. I grew up in Kent and in our garden there was a Victoria plum tree. There is really no plum quite like the Victoria – named, unsurprisingly, after Queen Victoria.

The plums are delicious raw: sweet and juicy. But they’re great cookers too. And frankly, I wasn’t going to get through a 450g punnet on my own! And baking a cake with them took my fancy. I ended up combining a Rick Stein recipe for German Apple Cake (substituting the apples with plums) with the streusel for a plum cake in the Guardian. Rick Stein is becoming my go-to celebrity chef for reliable and easy recipes – he saved me when I made the unexpectedly difficult pasteis de natas a few months ago. He didn’t put a streusel topping on his German apple cake (though some might) and for the life of me, I can’t tell you why this seemed important to me, but once the thought entered my head then I just had to make streusel. So – never trust just one recipe when you could have two. A marriage was born.

 

Plum Cake with Streusel Topping

Streusel Topping

  • 60g flour
  • 45g demerara sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 50g melted butter, cooled
  • 30g almond, chopped

Plum Cake

  • 400g plums
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 140g golden caster sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 75ml full-fat milk

Make the streusel topping first. Mix the flour, sugar and cinnamon together. Add the melted butter (I forgot to cool mine; it looked like it might be a disaster, but then after a time in the fridge – as instructed – it crumbled really well and worked!). Add the chopped nuts and mix well. Put in the fridge.

   

   

Now make the cake. Heat the oven to 170C/150 Fan/Gas 3. Butter and line a 23cm cake tin.

Wash and dry the plums and cut in half. The Victorias are quite long and oval so I cut them lengthwise so they wouldn’t be too deep in the batter.

   

In a large bowl beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, a little at a time, and beat well. I like to add a little of the flour at this stage so the mixture doesn’t curdle. Once all the egg is incorporated, sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in carefully to keep the mixture light.

   

   

Add the milk and continue to fold in carefully until you have a smooth, fairly soft batter.

   

Spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin. Lay the plum halves on top, cut side down, packing in quite tightly.

   

Remove the streusel topping from the fridge. It will be quite hard and ‘set’ now but just take lumps and crumble over the top with your fingers. I only used about half and put the other half in the freezer – in the hope the cake would be good and I’d want to make another!

Put the cake in the preheated oven. Now … Rick recommends 45 minutes to get it cooked and nicely golden on top. Mine took 1hr 10mins. This may have been my oven … it may have been using a 20cm cake tin because I don’t have a 23cm. Whatever … this is the thing with cakes … cooking times vary so just trust your judgement. When it looks nice and golden, slide in a skewer or slim knife and if it comes out clean, your cake is done.

Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Then transfer to a cake rack.

Rick recommends it’s nice served warm and as I made it quite late in the afternoon, I did eat it warm. But of course there’s a lot to eat cold another day … It worth bearing in mind the ‘warm’ serving though as a nice dessert for a family meal.

I served mine with some Greek yoghurt but cream or ice cream would be good too.

It was really delicious. It’s not a light sponge, more solid, but not heavy and very tasty. I loved the plums on top and the sweet crunchiness from time to time of the streusel topping, which was wonderful with the plums. It was a great cake and that bag of spare streusel topping in my freezer is definitely going to be used soon to make another one!

 

Travel Gourmet’s Food Memories

Food has always been an important part of my life’s journey from small child to now. I grew up in a family that loved and appreciated good food and my childhood was filled with trips to Soho food stores on Saturday mornings followed by breakfast at the famous Maison Bertaux in Greek Street. Birthdays and other important family celebrations were always an excuse to eat at a top London restaurant (and yes that’s me in the photo above, aged about 4 or 5). Thus it’s not surprising that certain foods can evoke strong memories from my earliest days.

I think my earliest memory has to be holding hands with my maternal grandmother and being taken to the market to buy live eels. She and my grandfather lived in the East End of London and in those days it wasn’t the trendy, gentrified place it’s largely become now. Nana looked after me while my mother worked, from the time I was two until four years old. I remember being taken into Sainsbury’s before it was a supermarket and you had to go to different counters to buy things, whether it was bread or the cheese counter or basic grocery supplies. But it’s the walk through the street market and buying those wriggly eels that I remember most. And then we’d take them home where she’d chop off their heads and then cut the bodies into chunks to make a stew. I remember it only as having a creamy, parsley sauce. Nana didn’t like eels herself but my granddad loved them. And so did I – a little surprisingly it seems to me now. So he and I would sit together with our bowls of eel stew and eat quietly together. I haven’t eaten eel stew since but I do occasionally have smoked eel when in Amsterdam, where it’s popular.

Smoked eel in Amsterdam

A slightly later memory comes from my first trip abroad when I was 8. In the days before motorways, it took 3 days to drive across France from London to a small seaside town just south of Barcelona in northern Spain. I don’t remember the town’s name, only that we rented an apartment from an old friend – I think an ex RAF colleague – of my dad’s that was right by the beach’s edge. It was September because I remember the elder of my two brothers having his birthday there and a Spanish birthday cake appearing. I remember the terrifying and violent late summer storms that raged at night and all the lights going out. But what brings a smile of pleasure to me, even to this day, is the memory of first tasting a sweet red pepper.

If they were yet to be found back at home in London, I hadn’t encountered them. I was only 8 but the taste was a revelation; I had never tasted anything like it, any food as wonderful. To this day, eating a red pepper reminds me of that trip to Spain..

Many childhood holidays involved driving across France and we’d just stop when the time seemed right and find a hotel to spend a night. But one year we planned a stop in Paris. My first trip to Paris. We arrived quite late at night. We were very central and it all seemed incredibly magical; the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower reaching towards the stars in the sky; the majestic Arc de Triomphe, a bold display of power. After checking into our hotel we went to a café right next door to find food – just a snack as it was late. My parents suggested a sandwich. Sandwiches at home were miserable affairs by today’s standards; this was definitely before the coming of artisan bakeries selling sourdough loaves! Instead we ate square white slices of processed bread filled sparingly with a mean slice of processed ham (or cheese, or whatever …). Imagine my surprise when half a baguette was handed to me, filled with the most delicious ham. It seemed so long; so alien in a wonderful way. I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Where did I start eating? It was another example of the delights of travelling and discovering glorious new foods.

It was at a similar age, maybe a bit older and around 10, that I tasted avocado for the first time.

My best friend from school in Blackheath had moved with her family – which included her 3 brothers – to Kent. Her father was a surgeon and my friend liked to show me some of his books with the most horrific (to a child!) photos of operations in them. They’d moved to a huge house in a small Kent village, with lots of land. They kept chickens and geese and I was terrified of the hissing geese who chased us as we came out of the kitchen door into the garden. We built little fires in hidden corners of the garden and heated small tins of Heinz baked beans to eat. But at meal times very sophisticated fare would appear. And this is when I was introduced to avocado, which was a rare thing indeed back in the 1960s. I was a very polite and shy child so I ate everything that was put before me – including the avocado, which I thoroughly disliked. My friend’s dad and two elder brothers would go hunting and sometimes I’d go into the kitchen to find a brace of pheasant or other game lying across the kitchen table, which was a new experience to me and while a little scary, it was undeniably a rather excitingly ‘romantic’ thing, like something out of a book or TV period drama. My friend’s mother would say how she loved me visiting because I always ate everything without complaint. What she didn’t know was that the avocado experience took me years to get over. I think I was working by that time, a young editorial assistant, invited back with some others by one of our fellow assistants to her London flat for supper – and enter the avocado again! This time I loved it and since then I’ve been unfailingly faithful to the wonderful avocado and eat one – or at least half – nearly every day!

We jump a few years to my next food memory. In fact to my honeymoon in 1977. We travelled by car around Italy for about 3 weeks and when we came to Florence, I wanted to go to the famous Vivoli gelateria (click here for my more recent trip), said then, and still now by some, to serve the best ice cream in the world.

Gelato at Vivoli gelateria, Florence, 2017

In those days you could easily drive right up to it in central Florence. I remember jumping out of the car. My husband said he didn’t want any. I chose zabaglione. I got back into the car with my cup of gelato and carefully lifted a spoonful into my mouth – wow!! I was blown away; I had never ever tasted ice cream like this; it was ambrosia, food of the gods. I gave husband a taste. Of course he then wanted some of his own so back into the gelateria I went. That day my love affair with gelato began and it’s still going strong – click here.

Still in Italy for my next memory, but quite a few years on … in fact to around 2000 when I spent a month in Rome, studying Italian in the mornings and wandering around the great city in the afternoon. I went in search of good coffee one day and the place said to serve the best was Sant’Eustachio, near the Pantheon (one of my favourite buildings anywhere).

San’Eustachio caffe in Rome

The caffè has been in existence since 1938 and still has a reputation for some of the best coffee in Rome, but coffee has become such big business in our world, it has a lot more competition than when I first visited. The artisan coffee houses that have thrived in London over recent years hadn’t yet arrived (except Monmouth Coffee) and so the cappuccino I had on my first visit to Sant’Eustachio was completely different to what I was used to and I was immediately hooked. I just hadn’t realised coffee could taste this good; this special. So great was it I still remember that first sip. Nowadays, I tend to drink a Kiwi flat white in the morning, though an Italian espresso later in the day. I believe it’s still hard to find a good Italian cappuccino in London – click here. It’s usually too big a cup; more like a flat white. Corto Deli do it well but in the main, I save cappuccino drinking for when I’m in Italy.

My last memory for today is of eating grouse at Rules in London many years ago.

Rules Restaurant (photo from http://www.rules.co.uk)

This is less about delighting in food and more about the power of love in dads. My parents often took us for a family meal to Rules in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Established in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it is London’s oldest – and perhaps most famous – restaurant. It serves traditional British food with an emphasis on game and their signature dish of steak and kidney pudding is made with the addition of oysters if you wish. It must have been the ‘game’ season and I decided to branch out from my usual choices and try grouse; I’d never eaten grouse. Well, a couple of mouthfuls and I never wanted to eat it again. It’s a very ‘gamey’, strong tasting bird. An acquired taste, I think. My wonderful dad (who would have been 90 on the 22nd of this month, were he still with us), observing I clearly wasn’t enjoying it, even though I’d said not a word, quietly offered to swap dishes. I don’t remember what he had but I gratefully accepted the offer. And I’ve always remembered it because it’s what lovely dads do for their daughters. Even when they are grown-up daughters with two children of their own! And of course I’ve remembered to never order grouse again …

Well, this could possibly be a never-ending post … or turn into a book! And I should probably stop now. But it’s a lovely thing to have happy memories and food so often brings up such memories – or it does for me. What’s your best food memory? Do let me know.

Roasted Vegetables & Mini Tostadas

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This one is for Antonio who rather cheekily texted me yesterday to ask, Do you ever eat at home???? He was clearly catching up on my latest posts. As it happened, at the time I was in Masaniello having lunch out with the family, so unfortunately I was closer to proving the validity of the comment rather than disproving it. But as he – and you dear readers – know, I am often in my kitchen, cooking up a storm. Most especially on a Sunday when family often come for a meal. Can there be anything more wonderful than cooking for those you love most?

It was a fairly last-minute arrangement which meant simplicity was the order of the day. A quick dash into Waitrose for one of their Duchy Original organic chickens and a mix of vegetables suitable for roasting.

Three of my quick five fixes in the kitchen were employed: No.4 of some bought olives, breadsticks and hummus as part of our starter; No.1 + No.2 in the shape of Grom gelato and some cakes from Paul Bakery for dessert.

But Travel Gourmet can’t resist a little twist on ‘simplicity’. Since buying the wonderful salted ricotta in Prezzemole & Vitale last week, I’ve made tostadas a couple of times for a snack lunch and finely grated the ricotta over the top. So, I wondered, what about making ‘mini tostadas’ as part of the starter? So I bought a baguette in Paul as well as the cakes.

It was Delia who got us into roasting vegetables other than just potatoes with her 1993 book, Delia Smith’s Summer Collection when she introduced the – at the time – dynamic and surprising idea of ‘roasted ratatouille’. Until then we’d all religiously followed the traditional French method of cooking ratatouille on top of the stove but once we’d tried Delia’s roasted version there was no turning back. Well, only very occasionally do I take a nostalgic journey into the old style.

Sometimes my roasted vegetables follow the traditional ratatouille ingredients route with aubergines, courgettes, peppers, onion and tomatoes. But sometimes they deviate; today quite a lot. I like to put potatoes in – a truly one-pot vegetable dish – though always parboil them first; today I had little new potatoes and sweet potatoes. I often leave the aubergines out, even though I love aubergines, but nearly always add courgettes, peppers and tomatoes. This isn’t really a recipe; it’s an idea. Choose what’s available, what you fancy, what’s in your fridge or vegetable rack. Today I had red onions, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, courgettes, celery, yellow peppers and tomatoes. Cut them into large chunks or smallish cubes but uniform size; I like chunks.

I put my large chunks of vegetables (except the tomatoes) into a large roasting pan. I poured over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled over sea salt, grated over black pepper and added some dried oregano (my favourite dried herb). Then I turned it all over with my hands and put into a hot oven – along with the chicken.

I added the tomatoes after about half an hour (they wouldn’t take nearly as long as the others to cook). You can pretty much leave the veg to look after themselves, but turn them two or three times so the edges don’t burn. They’ll take about 45 minutes to an hour to cook in a 220C/180 fan/Gas 6 oven.

Depending on how ‘posh’ you want to be you can either put the cooking dish straight on to the table for serving or transfer to a warm serving dish.

The chicken was roasted in the simplest manner: smothered with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper and then I always put a buttered cover of greaseproof paper over the top to stop the chicken from drying out too much, and remove it about half an hour before the end of cooking. Baste the chicken a few times during cooking for flavour and a lovely brown crispy top.

   

Then there were the mini tostadas to prepare. I guess these are a cross between Spanish tostadas and Italian bruschette. I cut the baguette into slices at a slight angle and put them into the warm oven to dry out and slightly brown. I did this quite a bit ahead of suppertime, but didn’t put on the topping until we were about to eat; I didn’t want the tostadas to become soggy but to retain their crunch.

   

I prepared the topping a bit ahead of time though. Making tostadas is so simple. They’re a standard and popular breakfast dish in Spain but I like them for a lunch snack too. In Spain, cafes and bakeries have large graters for the tomatoes but at home an ordinary coarse grater will do fine. All you do is stand the grater over a bowl, hold the tomatoes against the grater and push in and start grating. It works easily. The flesh puree will collect in the bowl and you can throw the skin away. I had 12 slices of toast and grated 2 medium tomatoes. Make sure you have really good, tasty tomatoes. I seasoned the puree lightly – aware that I was going to grate the salty salted ricotta on at the end.

   

I rubbed each slice of toast with a garlic clove. Then I brushed over some olive oil (I didn’t pour as that would have been too much). Then I spooned on the tomato puree, putting each one on a serving plate as I went. Finally I finely grated over the salted ricotta.

The mini tostadas were so simple but full of flavour and a real hit with the family. Even little 3-year-old Freddie commented that he liked them as he helped himself to a second one. They’re a fine addition to a collection of canapés to go with drinks or as part of a simple starter. I’m quite certain the family are going to request them again!

Where to Eat with Kids: Masaniello, Twickenham

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It was a very spontaneous thing. I was at my son’s, playing with 3-year-old Freddie in the garden, and just before midday Jonathan said, Let’s go to Masaniello for lunch. Thus we gathered bits together for a 3-year-old and 9-month-old and bundled everything and everyone into the car and headed into central Twickenham.

Masaniello is our favourite place. We go there for birthdays, anniversaries, new year … or simply because we fancy Italian for lunch or supper. Thus it’s a very familiar place for 3-year-old Freddie. He’s even learnt to say ‘Ciao‘ to our Italian friends and calls me ‘nonna‘ (Italian for grandmother). He’s been going there since he could sit up and eat real – as opposed to baby – food. For his 2nd birthday (midweek) I picked him up from nursery and took him there to meet his mum and dad who were coming straight from work. When Freddie and I arrived and I said it was his birthday, Freddie became the centre of attention. He was allowed to feed the goldfish in a tank at the far end of the restaurant, the waiter drew him a picture and gave him paper and pen (even though they don’t really do that kids’ stuff). Freddie may have been too young to understand birthdays but he must have understood he was special. Since then, when I’ve passed the restaurant with him, waiters have called ‘Ciao, Freddie’ and will high-five him when we go in.

If you’re going to eat out with a small child, then really you can’t do better than go to a restaurant run by Italians. Italians – in general – love bambini. My family think Masaniello is the essence of a good local restaurant; everything a local restaurant should be: friendly, relaxed, a great place for all occasions and all the family, and serving fantastic food.

They don’t have a kids’ menu as such. What they do is let you choose something from the menu and serve a smaller size for £4.75. This is great because some kids’ menus are very limited (or worse, they think kids only want to eat the kind of awful stuff that you’d never serve them at home). At Masaniello they eat the same wonderful, fresh food as you – just a smaller size.

Freddie is always given a choice of pizza or pasta by us, and although yesterday it was a definite ‘pizza’, he will often choose pasta. Then we ask if he wants tomato sauce or meat sauce. He has a particular liking for their Ragu’ Napoletano – slow cooked meat ragu served with pasta. But then we all do! It’s one of the best ragu I know.

Yesterday’s choice was Pizza Margherita – a simple, classic topping of tomato, mozzarella and basil. The ‘small’ size is so big, I’d be happy with it. Freddie didn’t manage to eat it all but they packed up the uneaten half for him to take home. They always bring a drink for him in a plastic cup, have child-size cutlery is you want (though fingers work well for pizza!) and offer booster seats for little ones (which 9-month-old Benjamin sat on). Freddie thinks he’s big enough for a grown-up chair now.

Meanwhile, Nonna tucked into Snella pizza (£10.50) – with tomato sauce, mozzarella and grilled vegetables. One of my favourites.

Freddie’s mum, Lyndsey, had Hamsik (£10.95) with artichokes, olives and mushrooms on top of the basic tomato sauce and mozzarella. Dad Jonathan had a special – a folded-over pizza that had a ricotta-based filling and slices of Parma ham laid on top, which was excellent. I was given a taste!

We all loved our pizzas. It really is one of the best places I know to go for pizza. Livio – head chef & co-owner – comes from Naples, where pizza originated, and his family ran a pizzeria there. He’s told me about flying in a pizzaiolo (special pizza cook) from Naples to come up with the best recipe for Masaniello’s kitchen and oven. That kind of dedication shows in the quality.

Even 9-month-old Benjamin enjoyed chewing on some of the crust from his mum’s pizza. When you know it’s made with such good and authentic ingredients, even an enthusiastic baby, beginning to experience ‘real’ food, can join in.

Both boys attracted lots of attention from the staff. Our waiter kept exclaiming about the bellissimo baby, who smiled widely back in appreciation of the attention; the waiter also talked frequently to Freddie.

Freddie’s love of gelato is pretty much on a par with his nonna‘s, thus he always wants ice cream for dessert. They’ll serve just one ball of ice cream for kids, if you want a small size. I can’t remember what they charge and my son paid for yesterday’s meal, but it’s a fairly nominal amount. There was a choice of flavours and it came with a wafer – but Freddie grabbed the wafer as soon as the dish was put down and it was in his mouth before nonna managed to get her iPhone out for a photo!

It was a lovely lunch. We all enjoyed the food and I can’t think of anywhere more perfect for a family outing with small kids.

Restaurant Review: Bancone, Covent Garden

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Two good friends, who know I love Italian food, alerted me to Grace Dent’s orgasmic (her word!) review of Bancone in the Guardian last week. I immediately searched online for the review, of course, and was instantly determined to go – soon! And fortuitously, it happened that I would be very close in just a couple of days’ time. For I had a ticket for the highly acclaimed production of King Lear, starring the great Sir Ian McKellen, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane … just round the corner from Bancone which is in William IV Street – barely 2 minutes’ walk away.

I tried to book online the day before but their website showed they were fully booked. Surely, I thought, they could fit one lone diner in when they opened at 5.30 for a quick pre-theatre meal. The play (which turned out to be 3 hours 40 minutes long – and absolutely magnificent) started at 7.00 so I genuinely had limited time.

I arrived a few minutes before Bancone opened and started what soon turned into a queue. I’d seen the manager coming out and talking to a couple of guys when I arrived, telling them it was fully booked. But when he came back a few minutes later, I asked if he might have a seat for one for a fairly quick meal; I was on my way to the theatre. He said he’d check. And when the door finally opened, luckily there was a place for me – grazie mille! I thanked him. I was a very happy person – not only did I have a ticket for one of the hottest plays in town but also a seat at one of London’s hottest new restaurants.

Bancone is Italian for bar or counter. And sure enough a long bar runs towards the back. There is other seating to the side but essentially it’s a bar. I love sitting at the bar of a bustling restaurant when on my own, as I’ve done at Bocca di Lupo, Barrafina and The Palomar. It’s fun. Unlike those restaurants, you don’t see food being prepared in front of you but I did have a good view of a new young waiter – who nervously poured my prosecco and apologised for being so nervous – being taught to make Aperol spritz and other drinks.

Food at Bacone comes incredibly reasonably priced for central London, but its pedigree is excellent. Chef Louis Korovilas has cooked at Pied à Terre and Locanda Locatelli, and you don’t get much better than that. It’s a very simple concept: the menu contains Antipasti, Pasta and Dessert. For antipasti there’s a choice of 8 dishes ranging in price from £3 for a bowl of olives to £8.50 for ‘smoked duck breast, charred & pickled artichokes & Parmesan snow’. Main courses are all pasta (apart from one potato gnocchi dish) – but gluten free is available. The 11 dishes are priced between £7.50 – for the gnocchi which is served simply with either ‘sage butter’ or ‘tomatoes, basil & olive oil’ – to £13.50 for ‘Primitivo, juniper & bay braised rabbit with pappardelle’. There are classics here like ‘Cacio e Pepe’ (£8.50), but with special spaghetti ‘alla chitarra’ but most are inventively exciting: ‘silk handkerchiefs (pasta sheets), walnut butter & confit egg yolk’ (£9); ‘slow cooked 10-hour oxtail ragu with pappardelle’ (£11.50); ‘brown shrimp tagliolini with seaweed butter’ (£12.50). I could easily make my way through the menu – given time and a few days!

I hadn’t planned to have a starter as it was so early to eat and I while I wasn’t in a huge rush, I certainly didn’t have time for a long slow supper. But I made a sudden last minute decision to the ‘did I want a starter’ question – ‘no thanks – well, yes, I’ll have the focaccia’.

   

Thus I sat at the bar sipping a glass of prosecco (£7) and enjoying some wonderful ‘honeyed garlic focaccia & datterini tomato focaccia’ (£4.50). It was gorgeous and incredibly tasty. This focaccia was somewhere in between the thin, almost crispy focaccia Ligure that I enjoyed in Genoa and the deep spongy focaccia we’re more familiar with – quite thin but fairly soft.

For my main I chose ‘paccheri (large tubes of pasta) with cod cheeks, capers, tomatoes, black olives & almonds’ (£13).

Wow! It was fantastic. The taste was divine and I loved the mix of textures: the soft cod cheek sauce, the perfectly cooked al dente pasta, the unusual but delightful crunch of the almonds.

I wasn’t feeling at all rushed but nevertheless was getting through the meal quite fast and so I had time for a dessert. Having eaten so well to this point, how could I not? There are just three to choose from: ‘burnt plum with yoghurt & fresh honeycomb (£7.50), Chocolate, mascarpone & passionfruit (£8) and – my choice – ‘Amalfi lemon syllabub with lemon granita’ (£5.50).

To be honest there was a slight panicky moment as it was put before me. At first sight it looked alarmingly like one of those frozen lemon sorbets you get in places like Iceland or cheap (not gastro) provincial pubs.

However, panic soon turned to awe. I could see it was actually an Amalfi lemon – large and bumpy. The granita was to die for … well, at least go back to Bancone soon for! It was bursting with lemon flavour but not at all acidic, nor too sweet; and its lightness was like newly fallen snow. Beneath this snowy carpet lay a rich, creamy lemon syllabub. It was the kind of dessert that lifts you; lights you up like sunshine.

I had time for an espresso; I do like to finish a good meal with a good coffee. The Italian server behind the bar couldn’t understand I didn’t want to put sugar in it! I even tried out my Italian to explain I preferred it without.

My bill came to £37.13 for food and drink, including 12.5% tip. Bancone was everything it was hyped up to be: glorious food, an attractive, sophisticated and welcoming decor, and incredibly friendly but not OTT staff who chatted enthusiastically about the food. I imagine the menu changes often (there were things on last night’s that were different to other reviews). It’s clearly worth booking and while I’d happily eat there at any time, it’s perfectly located for theatres so a great place pre-theatre. I can’t wait to go back!

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

Penne with Aubergine & Salted Ricotta

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I couldn’t resist taking a trip back to Prezzemolo & Vitale yesterday – this time with plenty of time to spare, my car and a large bag! Chelsea is not that far away – only about 10 miles – but I know from experience, as I used to work nearby, that the traffic can be horrendous and at the wrong time it could take me well over an hour to get there. But with schools and many families on holiday, it was relatively quiet on the roads and barely a half-hour journey. And surprisingly and happily, I found I could easily park close to the deli on King’s Road on a meter.

Inside I was served by the same young Italian guy as before and he was wonderfully helpful in answering my questions as I took a leisurely look around the shop. I bought more of their wonderful Pesto Genovese (you really would have to go to Genoa to find some as good!), organic prosecco, some of their own make – Giù Giù – mandarin marmalade that my Italian teacher Fabio was so impressed by. I bought cantuccini, Rummo (an excellent Italian make) pasta, and cheese. Sicilian cheese, of course, as Prezzemolo & Vitale come from Palermo (as does Fabio who told me about them!).

One of the cheeses was Ricotta Salata – salted ricotta. As this came from Sicily and is so hard to come by here in UK, I just had to buy some.

Pecorino Siciliano is a cheese made from sheep’s milk (you find pecorino in other parts of Italy too). Ricotta is a by-product of pecorino production, made from the whey – the liquid remaining after the milk for the cheese has been curdled and strained. When it’s fresh – really fresh! Not the pasteurised supermarket packets – ricotta needs to be eaten fairly soon after it’s made. Eating ricotta always makes me think of a holiday in Puglia, at the heel of Italy, with my daughter back in 2010 (before the blog!). We stayed in a masseria (old farmhouse) and the owner used to go to a farm in the morning and bring back fresh – still warm – little ricottas for our breakfast, which she served with local honey.

They were wonderful; I’d never tasted ricotta like that before. Of course there’s only so much fresh ricotta you can eat or sell so how best can you keep it? A way to preserve the ricotta is to salt and press it and age it for at least 90 days – then you have ricotta salata!  It’s quite hard once dried and the traditional cheese used to dress the classic Sicilian dish, Pasta alla Norma. It goes well grated over other pasta dishes too, or sliced into salads. Due to its ‘salted’ ageing, it really is quite salty (much as Greek feta is), so if you’re using it be careful not to salt any sauce you’re making a lot before adding the cheese; best to season at the end.

I already had an aubergine in my fridge; part of a plan to make ‘Norma’ this week as I do quite often. But then with this special cheese to hand, I felt I wanted to do something slightly different. So I went back to Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Sicily. I remembered that when I made the ‘Norma’ for the blog a few years back, I found Giorgio’s recipe a bit overcomplicated. But surely it was worth another look.

It wasn’t, to be honest, very complicated. But he does cook the aubergine in a couple of ways rather than just one: 2 are diced and fried, in the traditional way for ‘Norma’; another aubergine is baked in the oven in foil and the flesh taken out and fried gently before tomatoes and the diced aubergine are added. After my recent successful aubergine baking, it seemed I had something to work with here.

I was only cooking for myself so needed just one aubergine, not three, and I decided to bake it, according to Giorgio’s instructions. He adds skinned and deseeded fresh tomatoes to his sauce, but I decided to roast some cherry tomatoes, thinking they would bring a gorgeous deep tomato flavour to the dish. I also exchanged the garlic clove for the sauce at the end with a shallot.

   

 

Penne with Aubergine & Salted Ricotta – Serves 1

  • 1 aubergine
  • a few small sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • 1 dessertspoon tomato puree
  • a few basil leaves
  • a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
  • salted ricotta (you’ll just need to grate some from a lump)
  • 75-100g penne pasta (or other similar pasta), according to how hungry you are

Slice the aubergine in half lengthwise. Place it on some foil, skin-side down. Cut little diamond crosses in the top. Slip small pieces of rosemary and garlic slices into some of the gaps. Close up the aubergine halves and wrap the foil tightly round. Put into a preheated oven at 220C/200 Fan/Gas7 for about 25-30 minutes, or until you can feel the aubergine is soft when you gently squeeze it (take care and use oven gloves!). When the aubergine is cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Throw away the pieces of garlic and rosemary, then carefully spoon out the soft flesh into a colander and leave to drain for a bit and then chop roughly.

   

   

Once you have the aubergine in the oven, cut up the tomatoes, put in a small ovenproof dish, skin-side down, and drizzle over a little olive oil. Sprinkle over sea salt and black pepper. Pop into the oven with the aubergine. Cook for about 20 minutes or until you see they’re caramelising a bit and softening. Remove and put aside.

   

Get the pasta on to cook – it will probably take about 12 minutes (check your packet). When you drain it, reserve some of the cooking water.

While the pasta cooks, put the sliced shallot into a large frying pan with some olive oil (about 1-2 tablespoons). Fry gently and once it has softened, after 3-5 minutes, add the drained aubergine flesh. Mix well and continue to cook for a couple of minutes.

   

Now add the tomato puree and a ladleful of pasta water.

   

Mix well and cook for a minute or two, then add the roasted tomatoes. Grate over some of the salted ricotta. Throw in a few chopped basil and parsley leaves – reserving a few for the end.

Mix all together. Add salt and pepper to your taste. Now tip in the drained pasta and mix well. Cook for just a minute or so, stirring, then remove from the heat. Italians always mix the pasta and sauce together like this; they don’t dump the sauce on top of the pasta as we too often do in UK!

   

Plate up the pasta and aubergine. Grate over some more salted ricotta – I used a cheese slicer to get thin strips rather than finely grated, but do whatever you prefer.

It was a truly wonderful dish! Giorgio’s way of cooking the aubergine worked so well. I did like my roasted tomato twist. But here were the ‘Norma’ flavours cooked a little differently. And the salted ricotta was very special and lifted the whole dish to a brilliant midweek treat!

Crockford Bridge Farm, Surrey

I’ve been hearing quite a bit about Crockford Bridge Farm – where local families like to go for Pick Your Own – for some time and picked up a leaflet in Gelateria Danieli recently. The fact that the farm has an ice cream parlour that sells Danieli ice cream said quite a lot about quality – for Danieli are known to sell some of the best gelato in London.

I also saw that the farm has a branch of Lidgate’s butchers, based in Holland Park, central London, who have won many prizes and are said to be one of the best butchers in London. All in all, why was I waiting to visit!

Crockford Bridge Farm is in Addlestone, near Weybridge, Surrey. It’s not that far away from me by car – a bit under half an hour. I decided to investigate yesterday afternoon.

It was a nice sunny day and I found there was plenty of parking space.

First of all I went into the farm shop to see what they have there. The butcher’s counter is the highlight but there’s plenty of other produce.

In fact you could buy most things there. Sometimes crops grown on the farm are available, depending on the season, but I guess most is reserved for the Pick Your Own business, and most produce is sourced elsewhere, though they do say ‘from growers with a focus on quality’. I recognised a lot of the makes and there was some good looking fresh produce, including more unusual things like black garlic.

My main interest here was really the meat and it did look fantastic. It’s really hard to find a decent butcher’s outside supermarkets now, so there was some appeal in seeing if Lidgate’s would be worth the occasional half-hour journey.

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I didn’t buy any but it did look good and so I shall go back another time. There was some great looking bavette, which the French are good a flash-frying for a cheaper steak dish. There were some fabulous T-bone steaks. Their sausages looked good too and there were some appealing ready-prepared things like kebabs, ideal for the barbecue.

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The shop is run by 5th generation Danny Lidgate and the family have 150 years experience of butchery. It looks as if it would definitely be worth a trip to Crockford just to stock up on some good meat.

There’s also a garden centre but that’s run by someone else – though handy while you’re at the farm.

Next I made my way to the heart of Crockford Bridge Farm – the fields where you can pick your own.

I was interested to see you could come with your dog if kept on a lead – though they’re not allowed in the fields for picking, so you’d need someone to stay with the dog.

As I passed into Crockford’s Corner, I immediately saw some huge pumpkins. This is one of the things you can pick, come autumn. They organise pumpkin activities over the October half term for kids and ‘Wonder Woods opens for our ever popular immersive theatrical show’.

   

The Tea Shack offers snacks – sandwiches, quiches, cakes, etc. I took a quick look inside and there wasn’t much on offer by the time I arrived, but the blackboard outside looked promising. So I’ll have to go there earlier another time.

There was plenty of seating, ready to accommodate large families – or bloggers on their own! I made my way into the Ice Cream Parlour. How could I resist some of Danieli’s gelato on a sunny afternoon!

I sat on a bench and slowly enjoyed my ice cream.

Then I made my way to the fields. This took me through a large play area full of wonderful things for kids: bales of hay for them to climb on, a large treehouse to play in, swings and slides. I thought it would make a great outing with my little grandsons one day. (I couldn’t see sign of any animals though, so don’t count on seeing sheep etc.)

At the entrance to the fields there’s a map showing you the various areas. And nearby a large sign listing where various crops could be found.

If you’re planning to go to the farm it’s worth checking their website for up-to-date information about what’s available. Currently (August) it tells you there are ‘limited strawberries’, ‘blackcurrant – finished’, ‘rhubarb – picking now’, ‘French beans – picking now’, and various other crops, while pumpkins and spinach aren’t ready yet.

I didn’t actually pick anything, although I was tempted. I decided it would be more fun to go back with the family another day. It’s definitely a fun place for families – and I plan to try some of that great looking meat in the farm shop. And come Christmas, you can even go there to dig our own Christmas tree and kids can take a walk through the Christmas Tree Forest and visit Father Christmas in his Log Cabin.

TV Review: Jamie Cooks Italy

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After making the Carrot Caponata a couple of nights ago from the book accompanying Jamie Oliver’s new TV series, Jamie Cooks Italy, it was fairly inevitable that I would be sitting in front of my TV at 8.30pm last night, tuned into Channel 4, ready to watch the first episode. I was very enthusiastic about the book; would I be as enthusiastic about the actual TV series?

Well, yes, I enjoyed it but it’s a pretty lightweight affair compared to the book, which is full of wonderful recipes with gorgeous photos and a cheerful text. I watch a lot of food programmes on TV – unsurprisingly! – and I felt a bit short changed. This is the problem with commercial TV – the ads! The running time is only 23 mins 46 secs (I checked on catch-up) from a half-hour programme. Take into account that the end of the first half spends time previewing what’s coming in the second, and then the second half begins with a review of the first … well, frankly, that doesn’t leave much time for the actual programme: 20 minutes at most? This may seem an odd way to begin the review, but I think that sense of rushing and lack of time played out in the actual watching. This is Jamie Oliver you’ve got, Channel 4, and moreover Jamie in Italy. To do this justice, the programme – taking into account all those minutes lost to ads – should be an hour-long.

The programme was as much about travel as cooking and as we watched Jamie and his mate Gennaro Contaldo speed round one of the Aeolian Islands, which lie north of Sicily, on their Vespa, I thought what a great place it would be to visit. One of the ‘themes’ of this series – apart from being set in Italy – is Jamie’s interaction with local nonnas as he travels round the country – nonna being the Italian word for grandmother. And of course we all know that nonnas know best in the kitchen! Last night Jamie watched as a Sicilian nonna in her nineties made a glorious stuffed squid dish with local capers; she told him off for wanting to hold the squid together with a cocktail stick – it needed to be sewn to stop the filling falling out. Later Jamie made a simpler squid dish for us back at home to try.

It was good to see Jamie leaving behind a lot of his Naked Chef pukka enthusiasm and calming down now he’s in his 40s, which for me made it easier to watch him. And he’s ever loyal to his former mentor Gennaro but this isn’t a duo act – it’s definitely Jamie’s show.

It was a fun programme – but not great. It was more of a taster than a serious look at Sicilian cooking; it was just all too rushed – a little bit of cooking, a quick chat with a nonna, the odd joke with Gennaro; a quick look at the island as the camera panned across the landscape while the men raced along on their scooter. Rick Stein offers us one hell of a lot more in his half-hour travel-cookery programmes, like Venice to Istanbul and Long Weekends. But then a BBC half-hour is a lot longer than a Channel 4 half-hour.

Carrot Caponata

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Here I am still in Italian mode. If it’s been a theme of the past week, it’s certainly a theme in my life – learning Italian, Italian friends, cooking Italian food more than any other, travelling to Italy at least once or twice a year … and being called Nonna (Italian for grandmother) by my little grandsons. Thus I’m getting a little bit excited about Jamie Oliver’s new TV series beginning on Channel 4 tomorrow (12 Aug) – Jamie Cooks Italy. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Jamie. I don’t much like his (now failing) Italian restaurants, I didn’t like his cookery schools Recipease (now closed), and while I admire his political action to bring good food to our kids, he is getting just a little bit too serious and earnest; I want to tell him to lighten up. You can do good and have fun too. But then there are the good points: the way he’s made cooking OK for men – well, not just OK, but, Go into the kitchen and get cooking, mate! I like his brilliant and usually authentic recipes. And, of course, he loves Italy too … ‘I absolutely love Italy, I just can’t get enough of it’, his new books opens. Jamie ‘does Italy’ better than most other TV chefs I can think of (although, we mustn’t forget the fabulous Giorgio Locatelli).

The book to accompany the new series was selling at half price in shops this week. I knew I’d want to buy it sometime so I bought it while the going was good price wise. And it’s full of wonderful recipes – I seriously think I want to cook every single one.

I began however with a vegetable dish. This was serendipitous. I wandered down to the local Twickenham Farmers’ Market yesterday morning. It’s a brilliant market but I don’t go often, merely because living alone I don’t stock up on lots of food; I do a lot of day-by-day shopping according to my plans and fancy. But yesterday I did go to the market and when I spied bunches of different coloured heritage carrots, I instantly remembered the recipe for Carrot Caponata I’d seen in Jamie’s new book. (I bought green beans and radishes too!)

Sicilian caponata is one of my very favourite dishes so this take on carrots particularly appealed. And I love carrots. I always buy organic and preferably still bunched as they always taste so much better. Non-organic and washed are invariably tasteless. My bunch weighed 500g so I had to halve Jamie’s recipe.

 

Carrot Caponata – Serves 4

  • 500g mixed heritage carrots
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 fresh red chilli
  • olive oil
  • 25g raisins
  • 25g pine nuts
  • sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey
  • 2 tablespoon red wine or cider vinegar

Scrub the carrots clean and trim ends. Jamie uses ‘baby heritage carrots’ but my bunch was a mix of large to tiny. Thus when it came to cooking them, I held the small ones back and added them later on.

Slice the onion and garlic. Trim the top from the red chilli, remove the seeds and cut lengthwise into quarters.

   

Put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and chilli and cook over a medium heat, stirring regularly. After a couple of minutes add the prepared carrots (if like me you have a mix of sizes, hold the small ones back for a few minutes and add once the others are starting to soften – test with a small sharp knife). Also add the raisins and pine nuts and a good pinch of sea salt.

   

Now … Jamie says cooking time is about an hour … and it did take almost that long. Stir fairly regularly and add a little water from time to time to stop the mix sticking to the bottom of the pan. Don’t use a lid. Once the carrots are al dente cooked – i.e. still have a little bite to them – and are beginning to caramelise, add the runny honey mixed with the vinegar. Give it all a good stir and cook for about another 5 minutes. This will give them a nice, slightly sticky glaze. You can serve immediately or cold as an antipasto dish.

   

I had son Jonathan round for supper and cooked the beans from the market in a fresh tomato and shallots sauce; I roasted thick slices of new potatoes in olive oil with fresh rosemary; and griddled two chicken breasts, which I’d briefly marinated in a simple olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning mix.

    

It was a colourful and very delicious supper!

We enjoyed the carrots with their sweet-sour effect and they were a great accompaniment to the chicken. This kind of dish, with the pine nuts and raisins, is typical of Sicily where the cooking has been greatly influenced by nearby North Africa, Spain and other countries due to their long history of being invaded. You could use just ‘ordinary’ orange carrots but it was nice to sample the slightly different flavours of the different colours.

I’d make the recipe again but I have to say it was a bit of a mission. It wasn’t a recipe you could just get going and then leave to gently simmer for an hour; it needed careful watching at all times for an hour! I thought maybe another time I could parboil the carrots but you would lose some of the flavour that way. So I guess it’s a dish for when you’re planning to be doing other things in the kitchen – and if you are, and you can get hold of a bunch of lovely heritage carrots, then do try this!

Italian Deli: Prezzemolo & Vitale

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Wednesday was my Italian day. Fabio came for my fortnightly Italian lesson and I told him about meeting Lucia that evening at La Mia Mamma. That led to him telling me about Prezzemolo & Vitale, an Italian delicatessen, also in King’s Road, Chelsea. Fabio was enthusiastic about how good it was and as Prezzemolo & Vitale comes from Palermo in Sicily – where Fabio also comes from – I decided it must be worth taking a look before meeting my friends at the restaurant. The King’s Road is a long road but fortunately the two were quite close together – just a 5-minute walk apart.

Prezzemolo & Vitale began over 30 years ago in Palermo, a partnership between Giuseppe Prezzemolo whose family ran an artisanal grocery store, and Giusi Vitale whose family owned a small supermarket. They now have 6 shops in Palermo and one in London, with another due to open here soon. Meanwhile, if you can’t get to Chelsea, you can order online (click here).

The ‘marriage’ of artisan food and supermarket is evident as soon as you walk into Prezzemolo & Vitale. It is a bit like a small supermarket but everywhere you look you see wonderful Italian food of the highest quality.

I looked at the ready-made meal section first. This was full of gorgeous looking food: Aubergine Parmigiana, Sicilian Caponata, lasagna, seafood and chicken dishes. I hadn’t intended to buy anything. I only had time for a quick look and was then heading to the restaurant, but when my eyes settled on a dish of Pesto Genovese that looked as good as the kind I’d enjoyed in Genoa in May, I couldn’t resist buying some. While the woman behind the counter weighed some out for me, we chatted, then someone else came to talk. Everyone was so friendly!

I walked further round the counter and saw fabulous salads.

Then nuts, oils and jams. Fabio had told me their own make – Giù Giù – mandarin jam was wonderful. In my hurry I bought some jam but the wrong make, but I’m sure it will be good too.

I continued slowly walking round the shop. There was a wonderful display of cheeses, cold meats …

   

… fresh pasta and cakes.

   

In the fridge there were packs of cold meats and fresh cheeses like mozzarella and burrata. A lovely display of vegetables and fruit held some tempting huge, round aubergines. Aubergines are such a big part of Sicilian food – dishes like Pasta alla Norma and Caponata.

   

At the back there is a wine section. This included some bottles of top quality sparkling wine from Italy. We tend to think of Italian sparkling wine as prosecco, but there are some which are good enough – though more expensive – to seriously challenge champagne, including Ferrari and Franciacorta. The shop prides itself on stocking not only Italian classic wines but rarities of small winemakers.

   

At the counter where I paid for my two items, there were more lovely cakes, fabulous looking focaccia, and there was a coffee machine if you wanted to buy a coffee to take away. This is definitely somewhere to suit all food needs: a quick coffee and cake, takeaway lunch, takeaway evening meal, fabulous cheeses and meats, and great wine.

I plan to go back soon with my car and a large shopping bag! Meanwhile, I enjoyed the pesto I bought as a simple supper the next evening, stirred into some trofie pasta, a favourite in Genoa and perfect for pesto.

   

The pesto I had in Genoa was extraordinarily good – well, it does originate from there – and quite different from the kind we find in supermarkets here. The Pesto Genovese I bought in Prezzemolo & Vitale was so good that it instantly took me back to Genoa and what I’d eaten there. What a great find and a fantastic place for those who love Italian food. It really is like being in Italy!