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Deep-filled Apple & Blueberry Tartlets with Streusel Topping

The family often come for a meal at the weekend, usually Sunday, which is lovely. We always like to make it special in some way, as families do on Sundays. I keep it easy though. Rather than a formal ‘starter’, I’ll put out bowls of olives and almonds; I’ll buy some good focaccia or fougasse and put it in a bread basket with some taralli or long bread sticks. I might make a dip but often buy some excellent Israeli hummus (Yardens) from Waitrose. This is what we did tonight.

The main was going to be a barbecue, as we’ve done for the past few weekends since the days have lengthened and grown warmer. It hadn’t been a particularly warm day and there’d even been some rain, but my son Jonathan wasn’t deterred and perhaps in answer to his positive spirit, come suppertime, the clouds began to loosen their hold on each other, blue sky glowed through the gaps and the sun made a faint but welcome appearance.

Lamb kofte had been requested, but as Waitrose lacked organic lamb mince when I went in first thing this morning, I grabbed packs of the venison burgers we had last week (which are great) and a pack of organic pork mince. Four-year-old Freddie had requested sausages; Jonathan had tried to convince him kofte were sausages. But Nonna (the grandsons call me Nonna – Italian for grandmother) would make sausages; real pork sausages! I followed my own recipe which I posted a few years ago (click here) and they were a great success.

For ages I’d been thinking of making individual open-crust apple pies. I used to make large open-crust pies when my kids were small but hadn’t for a long time. I fancied making them in a small size because it’s such a nice way to serve a dessert. In the end, while keeping the spirit of the ‘open-crust’ I decided to bake them in muffin tins so they were deep with plenty of filling, and I’d add some streusel topping.

 

Deep-filled Apple & Blueberry Tartlets with Streusel Topping – Makes 12

Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg (plus one extra for brushing pastry cases before cooking)

Filling

  • 425g dessert, eating apples
  • 100g blueberries
  • 1 dessertspoon caster sugar

Streusel Topping

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

 

 

Make the pastry first. This is an old Gary Rhodes recipe for sweet shortcrust pastry (very slightly adapted) that I’ve been using for years (probably at least 20!). It’s very reliable – and good. I like a rich shortcrust pastry. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and process until they come together into a ball. Gather the ball together and wrap in some clingfilm and put in the fridge for about quarter of an hour or so while you prepare the other ingredients.

 

Peel and core the apples; chop into fairly small cubes (about 1cm). I always use dessert apples to cut down on the amount of sugar that needs to be added. Put the apple pieces into a saucepan over a low heat with a very small amount of water (a couple of tablespoons) and cook, stirring frequently, until starting to soften but still holding shape. Tip in the blueberries and mix together. Take from the heat and set aside.

Make the streusel. Mix the flour, sugar and cinnamon together. Add the cooled melted butter. Put in the fridge for just a few minutes while you prepare the pastry and filling.

 

Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface. Cut circles of pastry (I used a mug) and carefully lay each one in a greased cup in the muffin tin and press gently into the shape. Cut 11 more to fill the muffin tray. Lightly brush the bases with beaten egg to help stop the juices soaking through the pastry as it cooks, so the pastry stays crisp.

Spoon the apple and blueberry filling (draining off any residue liquid) into the pastry shells. Now crumble over the streusel topping. It’s a slightly strange mix; a bit doughy and solid, but it will crumble enough to sprinkle on top. It’s just a little topping; you don’t need to cover the apple (we’re not making little crumbles).

Put the tin into a preheated oven (200C/Fan 180/Gas 6) for about 25 minutes, or until nicely golden. Remove and allow to cool in the tin for 5 minutes.

Then carefully lift each out onto a cooling rack.

I prepared these a bit ahead of time. Come suppertime, while I was roasting little new potatoes in the oven and making a big salad, Jonathan barbecued the burgers and sausages.

When it came to dessert, I warmed the little tartlets through and served them with clotted cream.

They were wonderfully delicious; the pastry rich but light and slightly crumbly. The filling – which needs some pre-cooking as the tartlets won’t be in the oven for a long time – was perfect; not too sweet and the fruit cooked but holding shape. The lovely nutty streusel on top made them all the more special. They were a great hit and I’m pretty sure I’ll be making them again soon!

You Can Never Have Too Many Cookbooks

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Guilty cookbook addicts often say they really mustn’t buy another cookbook; they don’t need another cookbook. As shelves strain under the weight of heavy cookery tomes it’s easy to feel you must have enough. But of course you can never have enough. Not if you love cooking; love finding out about food and its history; love trying out new recipes. Not if you’re Travel Gourmet.

When I wrote about Food Writing recently, I was surprised that some people never use cookery books. Maybe it’s a generational thing; though I know my son and daughter (in their 30s) have lots of cookbooks too; cookbooks that are well used, for they are both great cooks. I certainly google recipes sometimes; I use the Internet a lot to research things I’m writing on the blog. But I use my books too. I love my books.

A couple of years ago when I thought I was moving, I decided I really had to do a cull of my cookbooks. I had well over 300. And that’s a lot of shelf space. I thought it would be difficult but in fact it proved easy. Well easy to shed about a third of them. I couldn’t part with over 200 and they are still on my shelves (photo above)!

The culling was easy because cookbooks do date (a major reason – aka excuse – for needing more!). Back in the late 1970s when I was getting married, having regular dinner parties, commissioning and editing cookbooks at work, the food one ate at home was very different to what people prepare now. The positive side was that things were still very seasonal. It’s hard to imagine but you couldn’t buy courgettes, parsnips, strawberries, and a whole load of other foods out of season. We’re so used to being able to buy anything we fancy now at any time of year and very few foods are truly seasonal – maybe asparagus in May and June, large marrows ripe for stuffing in August and September. But I think the positive side of seasonal is that the foods always seem so gloriously special when they’re only available for a limited time each year. The negative side of 70s cooking was the heaviness and richness of the food with large amounts of cream; lashings of wine and brandy. Well, I do still add wine rather a lot, it has to be admitted, but rarely cream. In fact, I’m even no longer very keen on rich, creamy desserts (except for gelato!).

Food in UK has come a long way in recent decades in terms of quality and knowledge. People travel so much more and discover the delights of other cuisines. It’s made us more fussy about what we eat at home but also more adventurous; it’s made us more aware of what’s authentic, what’s good quality.

I’ve heard it said that most people only use a handful of recipes from a cookbook; maybe only two or three. But for me cookbooks aren’t just about recipes; they’re about inspiration. What shall I cook, I think, for friendsfamilyor just to please me! I usually have something in mind … maybe I bought some special food, like the white asparagus recently, or want to cook a French meal, or a Greek meal, or an Italian meal for guests (I do prefer to keep to a theme; I’m not a fan of fusion). Or roast some lamb or a chicken but want to do something a bit special with it. I find cookbooks much more inspirational than the Internet. I’ll often gather ideas from different books and recipes (marking them with those colourful post-its)and create something myself, taking a little from this book and something else from another. Of course this comes from the confidence of many years of cooking. But I also like the information and personal notes that come with recipes in books; the author’s story. I like reading the books as well as following the recipes. And I think one finds particular cookery writers who appeal; who like the same kind of things as you; who do things in a way that resonates with you.

When I did my cull, I didn’t just throw out books because they were old; some were classics – the Elizabeth David books, Jane Grigson’s and Claudia Roden’s – and still relevant and much used. But the wonderful recipes you find in Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell and Diana Henry books, weren’t around when I was first cooking seriously. And then there are the books full of travelling: being taken from Venice to Istanbul by Rick Stein; being transported to Morocco with Ghillie Basan.

I really can’t do without cookbooks; and I’m always wanting to buy more! Maybe it’s because I just love books. As a child I read voraciously; my mother even told me off for reading too much! But I grew up and became a book editor (I am still a book editor!). I started collecting cookbooks when I was still at school, commissioned and edited cookbooks in my 20s and now I write a food and travel blog; one day I hope to write a book. And I’ll never have too many cookbooks!

Griddled Halloumi with Blood Orange & Olive Salad

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It’s almost two weeks since I bought the two Sicilian blood oranges along with some white asparagus in Chiswick – and I really needed to do something with them! I could, of course, just eat them – straight. But I wanted to do something a bit special and the plan had been in my head all this time; it’s just that ‘life’ and other things got in the way.

Fortunately, the oranges had lasted well (a sign of their freshness when I bought them) and with a barbecue planned with the family for supper, it was an ideal time to put my plan into play and offer my griddled halloumi with Sicilian orange salad alongside the other food.

Jonathan and family had been driving back from deepest Worcestershire where they’d been looking after my daughter’s dog and house for the weekend and taking in some country air. They invited themselves to supper, which is always lovely, especially since Jonathan suggested he barbecue. After a blast of wintry weather, summer was back and a barbecue was a perfect plan for our Sunday meal. I, however, had morning plans – to go to the Victoria & Albert Museum to see both the Mary Quant and Christian Dior exhibitions (which were both fabulous) and so the barbecue wasn’t going to involve anything more complicated than stopping at Waitrose on the way back to buy some pre-prepared burgers (I chose venison as they’re great) and a box of little macarons from Paul Bakery to go with the tubs of Grom gelato in my freezer (also bought at Waitrose).

I prepared the orange salad a little ahead of eating and then griddled the halloumi at the last minute, laying it on top. We could have used the barbecue to cook the cheese, but while Jonathan was busy cooking the burgers, it seemed easier for me to griddle the cheese back in the kitchen. Harmonious team cooking here!

 

Griddled Halloumi with Orange & Olive Salad

  • 2 blood oranges
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for griddling
  • 2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • a few black olives (about 8-10)
  • 2 spring onions, finely sliced
  • a few sprigs or fresh mint and oregano
  • 250g pack of halloumi

 

 

Cut the oranges into segments. Do this in a shallow bowl so you can catch all the juice to use later. Cut off the ends. Stand the orange on one end and carefully cut away the peel and pith with a sharp knife.

 

Then, using the sharp knife, cut out the segments. Cut along the line of the membrane covering each segment. Discard all the membrane. Put the orange segments into a shallow serving dish and collect the juice in a jug. I had 3 tablespoons – this may differ depending on the size of your oranges.

The oranges were still wonderfully juicy and I loved their almost black colour – they were really special.

To the 3 tablespoons of juice, add 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons of cider or white wine vinegar. Add some salt and pepper and whisk together. Spoon some over the orange segments (you may not need all – just put in what looks right for you). Add the olives. Sprinkle over the finely sliced spring onions and some chopped fresh mint and oregano. I have both growing in my garden but use what you have to hand – but only fresh herbs for this, not dried (see my post on use of dried v. fresh herbs: click here).

I covered the salad with clingfilm to keep until I was ready to griddle the halloumi.

When we were about to eat, I cut the halloumi into roughly 1cm thick slices and brushed them with olive oil. I put them onto a hot griddle and cooked until lightly charred on each side. Then I laid them across the orange salad.

Out in the sunny garden we enjoyed our plates of venison burgers in brioche buns, a green leaf and tomato salad, little roasted potatoes topped with za’atar – and the halloumi salad!

It was all delicious and a wonderful joint family effort!

For two more delicious halloumi recipes click here and here.

Restaurant Review: Adesso, Richmond upon Thames

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My book group met for a meal recently at Adesso, a Sicilian restaurant on Hill Rise in Richmond. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meal but suggested Adesso as a place to meet to my friend Liz last night. The reports back from the book group had been a bit mixed so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but Liz was willing to give it a try so we did.

I booked for 7.00pm and it was quiet when I arrived. To one side of the restaurant shelves were filled with Italian groceries as Adesso has a deli next door where you can buy food or stop by for a coffee or snack. The shelves acted as a dividing wall.

 

We were brought some complimentary focaccia with our wine (a glass each of Sauvignon Blanc).

We decided to share two starters on the ‘Specials’ menu. One was the Sicilian antipasto with pistachio salami, Parma ham, pecorino cheese, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. It was good and the olives were so good I might go back and buy some in the deli.

Our other starter choice was ‘Arancino’ – a deep-fried rice ball filled with mozzarella and spinach and served with a sauce (there was also a ‘filled with Bolognese sauce’ choice). There was only one for £7.50 but it was big (they generally are) so fine for us to cut in half and share as part of our starter. Arancini are really Sicilian street food, sold from stalls and eaten hot and freshly cooked – not usually with sauce. But it was tasty (though could have done with slightly more seasoning) and we enjoyed it.

Liz chose spaghetti with Sicilian sausage in a tomato sauce for her main, which she said was good.

I chose a dish from the ‘Specials’ menu – paccheri with large king prawns, small prawns, cherry tomatoes and a hint of chilli.

It was very good. The pasta was cooked to a nice al dente bite. Two large prawns needed shelling (a lemony wipe in a sachet was provided) and were delicious – softly tender and sweet.

They were generous sized dishes so we didn’t have room for dessert, though I was momentarily tempted to try their cannoli, a Sicilian speciality. I settled instead for an espresso – and it was good coffee – while Liz had a mint tea.

The bill came to £63. Service wasn’t included so we added some and paid £35 each, which we thought was very reasonable for what we’d had.

We both liked Adesso and I think we’re very likely to go back sometime – Richmond is a good halfway meeting point for us. This isn’t fine dining; it’s simple but well prepared trattoria food. Looking at the menu I felt there’d been a small amount of anglicisation to its Sicilian heritage but the important thing was we enjoyed our meal. The service was also friendly and attentive. There was music playing in the background that seemed quite loud when I arrived, but then we didn’t really notice while we talked and ate.

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

Restaurant Review: Santa Maria Pizzeria, Ealing, West London

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I’ve been reading about Santa Maria Pizzeria for years; Italian friends have been telling me to go there for years. It’s frequently been listed as one of the best Neapolitan pizzerias in London, so I’ve been meaning to go … but in all honesty, with two great Italian-run pizzerias within easy walking distance of my house in Twickenham (Masaniello and Ruben’s Bakehouse), why would I want to get in a car and drive to Ealing, albeit only 5 miles away.

However, this evening I was by chance in Ealing. Collecting some beautiful new earrings from friend and jewellery maker Anna (click here for her website) who lives and works in Greece, but was briefly in London and staying in Ealing. I thought I’d see exactly where Santa Maria was and when I discovered it was very close to where I was heading, I thought it was an ideal opportunity to eat there after seeing Anna.

Pizza and gelato have become big things in London over recent years. For a long time the only vaguely authentic pizza you could find in UK was at Pizza Express but now truly authentic pizzerias, usually run by Italians, abound. From the Franco Manca chain to excellent independents, you don’t have to travel far – in London at least – to find a good pizza. But talk with an Italian and you’ll find the discussion about what constitutes a good pizza goes a lot deeper than with most other people. One of the things I love about Italians is their passion for and deep knowledge of food.

So how good was Santa Maria’s pizza really? Would it live up to its reputation?

It was certainly a welcoming sight when I arrived in the dying light. What really surprised me was how small it was. When somewhere has a big reputation you automatically think big in all ways. But Santa Maria is tiny! I counted just 16 seats. It’s a simple place; cafe like. In other words, just what a pizzeria should be! Fortunately, perhaps because of my timing mid week, I didn’t have to queue.

There was a good ‘Bites, Starters & Sides’ menu but it was getting late and all I wanted was a pizza and a glass of wine. A glass of house white was £4.50 and a bottle of tap water came too.

I chose a Sant’Anna pizza: Tomato sauce, mozzarella, cotto ham, artichokes, black olives, parmesan (£9.95).

When it was put before me, I was seriously impressed. And when I tasted it, it was every bit as good as I’d heard. The dough soft and slightly chewy; wonderfully tasty with a good, charred edge. The toppings were just right; authentically Italian in their simplicity and great quality. It was a very delicious pizza.

I saw on the menu they served Oddono’s ice cream – a highly praised and top gelateria in London, which has won many awards. However, it was getting late and I was quite full after my huge pizza. I settled for just an espresso – and excellent coffee it was too.

I asked to take a photo of the pizza oven as I left.

I was so pleased I’d finally made it to Santa Maria. I liked eating in the cosy, little intimate place but more importantly, the pizza really was fabulous.

Santa Maria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

White Asparagus with Bayonne Ham, Hollandaise & Chives

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White asparagus seems to divide opinion much like the proverbial Marmite (you love it or you hate it). While some dismiss it as tasteless and uninteresting, others revere it as something luxurious and very special. My first memory of it puts me in the former group: horrid, slimy white asparagus in tins, as I sampled in my childhood. Jump forward a few decades and you’ll find me in Italy. We were staying near Lucca and took a trip to Montecatini Terme one day (in the Florence direction). We decided on lunch in nearby Pescia, which is famous for its asparagus. We ate at a restaurant called Cecco and, to this day, I have to say this experience of eating asparagus is one of the – slightly weird – highlights of my eating life, even though it was about 20 years ago.

The eating of the asparagus was almost a religious ritual. In my memory we were surrounded by waiters. Big white plates, sat at an angle so that melted butter dropped into a small ‘bath’, ready to dip the asparagus into, were put before us. The asparagus arrived with a silent fanfare; they didn’t actually play trumpets but the importance of the moment was implicit in the action of the waiters. It might have all been a joke but fortunately we didn’t laugh. We gave it all the respect that was due. And my goodness! The asparagus was magnificent. Whenever I see white asparagus, I think of that lunch.

Thus I had a momentary visit to Italy while actually in Turnham Green, Chiswick, West London today. I was filling in time before seeing my lovely osteopath, Alex. The parade of shops near Turnham Green station is full of trendy food shops, cafés and expensive (but fatally tempting when you have three little grandsons) children’s clothes and toy shops. And there I found Natoora – a wonderful, completely amazing greengrocer. Outside lay bunches of green, purple – and white! asparagus. There were also Sicilian blood oranges, still with their leaves on. Inside I found small Roman artichokes, Treviso and Tardivo radicchio and a marvel of other exciting things. Working with small scale farmers, Natoora sources seasonal produce which has been sustainably grown. I really must go back when I have more time. Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist a bunch of white asparagus (despite its high price – £5.99 for 4 stems), a couple of Sicilian oranges and a packet of Bayonne ham.

White asparagus is grown underground so that it doesn’t produce the chlorophyll which makes it green. In season from April until June, the best comes from the Netherlands, Spain, France and Germany. It is particularly prized in Germany. In Italy it’s grown in the north, especially around Vincenza. The stalks are usually picked when quite thick (or that’s how I’ve always seen it) and the taste is sweeter than green, with a hint of bitterness.

The tough, bitter peel must be removed before cooking. You can cook it in salted boiling water; sometimes it’s cooked in a light stock. But my preferred method of cooking asparagus is steaming, and I decided to stick with that. Serving it with ham is popular, particularly in Germany, with sometimes just plain melted butter, or perhaps a vinaigrette, but also popular is hollandaise.

In the end I took a French route. Not so much by any kind of planning (well I hadn’t planned on white asparagus for supper tonight; that was wonderful serendipity at work). The white asparagus came from France; Bayonne – and its ham – is in SW France and hollandaise is one of the 5 mother sauces of French cuisine (the others are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole and Sauce Tomat).

I served it with a simple green salad on the side and some fresh sourdough bread.

 

White Asparagus with Bayonne ham, Hollandaise & Chives – Serves 1

  • Hollandaise sauce (see below)
  • 1 bunch of white asparagus (about 4-5 spears)
  • sea salt
  • slices of Bayonne ham
  • 1 tablespoons freshly chopped chives

 

Make the Hollandaise sauce (see this previous recipe for instructions: click here). Then cook the asparagus.

 

The best way to remove the woody ends of asparagus is to hold the asparagus near the end and gently break. They’ll break at just the right point. Use a potato peeler to peel off the tough peel of the asparagus. Place in a steamer over boiling water. Sprinkle over a little sea salt. Pop the lid on the steamer and steam for 5-10 minutes. Check with a very sharp small knife for tenderness. You don’t want them soft but with a nice al dente bite still.

 

I had some chives in my garden; nearing flowering with little purple buds on the top on some. Chop quite finely to get about a tablespoon.

Lay the cooked asparagus on a serving plate. Then lay slices of Bayonne ham (or other good cured ham, like Prosciutto or Serrano) alongside the asparagus.

 

Spoon the prepared hollandaise over the asparagus and sprinkle over the chives. All done! It takes very little time; even the hollandaise is quickly and easily prepared.

So where did I stand in the white asparagus debate now? Firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It was gorgeous. I’d cooked it until it was still firm but cooked through. The flavour was actually quite strong, but nicely so. I really liked it. The ham and Hollandaise were perfect accompaniments. You could in all honesty make the dish with any asparagus. I’m rather keen to try the purple but the more commonly found green is fine too. One of the lovely things about asparagus is that, unlike so many vegetables now, they do pretty much keep to their season. And I like that. It makes it all the more special to be able to find and enjoy this treat for just three months of the year.

Where to Eat in Covent Garden, London

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It’s three years since I last wrote a guide to eating in Covent Garden and while I still have some unchanged favourites, there are of course some new places to recommend and I thought it would be great to share them with you. I also thought it would be fun to list them by cuisine – French, Spanish, etc. – so if you’re thinking, ‘I fancy an Italian meal’, or ‘Let’s go Spanish’, then this is the place to look!

 

FrenchBalthazar     

For the ‘grand café in Paris’ experience, go to Balthazar in Russell Street, close to The Piazza and Royal Opera House. Open from early in the morning for breakfast until late at night, you can go for a drink, a snack or the full-blown French meal with classics like Steak Tartare, Moules Frites, Bouillabaise and Apple Tarte Tatin. (Click here for full review.)

 

GreekThe Real Greek   

OK, so it’s a chain but I don’t know of any good independent Greek restaurants in the area – if you do, please let me know! And I’ve always enjoyed food in The Real Greek so don’t hesitate to recommend it if you’re in the mood for souvlaki, hummus, grilled halloumi or tiropitakia and want a reasonably priced meal. (Click here for full review.)

 

ItalianBancone   

If you’re looking for great pasta, this is the place! It’s become a firm favourite with me and I’ve been a few times. You sit at a bancone (bar) and it’s a simple choice of antipasti, pasta and dessert. It’s lively, informal and relaxed with a great atmosphere. It’s always busy so book or be prepared to queue. (Click here for full review.)

 

IndianCinnamon Bazaar

A new find but an old ‘family’ as I’ve been to Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen many times. More relaxed than its older siblings, it brings the informality of an Indian bazaar to its decor and menu. The food is wonderful and there’s a good value Lunch and Early Evening set menu. (Click here for a full review.)

 

Middle EasternThe Barbary

Tucked away in the quiet courtyard that is Neal’s Yard, The Barbary opened to a fanfare of excitement due to the popularity of its older ‘sister’,  The Palomar, which is one of my favourite restaurants. I went soon after it opened and have to confess to being slightly disappointed, perhaps due to my high expectations, but keep meaning to go back now its settled down and has since won many accolades and awards. This is some of the food I like best and certainly, despite some reservations when I visited it in its infancy, most of the food was spectacular. (Click here for full review.)

 

Portuguese: Canela

This is a little place I discovered last year; the kind of place to go for breakfast, a simple lunch or wine with plates of cheese and/or charcuterie in the evening. (Click here for full review.)

 

SpanishBarrafina, Adelaide St

This has remained a favourite place to eat since I first discovered it about 4 years ago. When anyone asks, Where’s your favourite place to eat? I always say, Barrafina. It’s very much my kind of place – relaxed but with a nice sophisticated edge and great buzzing atmosphere; you sit at the bar (there are no tables), the service is always friendly and you can watch the chefs in action – they will even talk to you sometimes. The food quite simply is awesome; it’s the kind of food that stops you in your tracks – or conversation – and you think, Wow! There’s no booking so be prepared to queue – but it’s worth it. (Click here for full review.)

 

US-AmericanJoe Allen

A theatre land favourite for over 40 years, it’s been a regular haunt of mine for at least twenty. Opened as a ‘sister’ to the Joe Allen in New York, it continues to bring the stars and stripes to London … and plenty of theatre land stars too! You’re quite likely to recognise a famous face. Its lunch and early evening set menu is great value if you’re wanting a meal before going to the theatre. (Click here for full review.)

 

VietnameseCom Viet

This is a simple place for a quick lunch or supper when you fancy a nice warming bowl of pho, right in the heart of Covent Garden in Garrick Street. (Click here for full review.)

 

for something sweet

If you just fancy a sweet treat or maybe ‘dessert’ later in the evening, perhaps after theatre when you’ve eaten a meal before, then there’s a great choice of gelaterias. Here are my top London gelaterias (click here) but you’ll find great ones in Covent Garden: Gelatorino, Gelatiera (my very favourite), Amorino and Scoop. And if you fancy one of those gorgeous little Portuguese tarts – pasteis de nata – then head to Santa Nata.

Santa Nata – Portuguese Bakery, Covent Garden

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It was one of my lovely followers, Rotwein, who recently told me about a new pastéis de nata shop about to open in Covent Garden. When heading into Covent Garden yesterday afternoon to meet my friend Annie at Cinnamon Bazaar, I did a quick online check and it seemed Santa Nata hadn’t yet opened. But then, while wandering around the area for a short time before dinner, I just happened upon it in Russell Street, just off The Piazza.

In the window two bakers were rolling out long sheets of pastry and putting together the famous little Portuguese custard tarts.

The tarts were created by monks in the 18th century at a monastery in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon. At the time the monks and nuns used egg whites to starch their habits, which resulted in lots of leftover egg yolks! From these eggs yolks, the pastéis de nata was born. When the monastery closed in 1834 after the Liberal Revolution, the recipe was sold to a sugar refinery who opened Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. This pastry shop still exists and in 2009 the Guardian, in its list of the 50 best things to eat in the world and where to eat them, named Belém’s pastéis de nata at No.15.

The new pastelaria in Covent Garden, Santa Nata, takes its name from the origins of the tart in Santa Maria. Owned by a Portuguese family, they’ve been baking since 1900 and own seven bakeries in Portugal. Their tarts are handmade daily by a Portuguese master pastry chef and his team and a bell is rung every time a fresh batch comes out of the oven.

So seriously is this little custard tart taken, that Santa Nata sells only the classic variety. Here there is only one tart to buy. Other places selling pastéis de nata have sprung up in London in recent years, and I’ve passed shops where different flavours are offered, but there’s no commercial messing about with the famous tarts at Santa Nata. Here is the real thing.

Of course I had to go inside. And once inside, I had to buy some. I chose a box of 4 for £8. You may only be able to eat the classic pastéis de nata here, there is no other food, but there are drinks on sale: a choice of coffees, tea and water. There is also port and ginjinha at £6 a glass. Ginjinha is a cherry liqueur that’s traditionally drunk with the tarts.

The shop is open 7 days a week from 10am to 8pm (closing at 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays). There’s nowhere to sit down; this is strictly takeaway.

I carried my little tarts carefully through the rest of the evening. Fortunately they were beautifully packed in a box and I was also given sachets of icing sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle over them – cinnamon is a traditional accompaniment.

As I ate supper early, I was home soon after 9pm. So really, how could I resist trying a pastéis de nata? And shouldn’t I eat one while it was still very fresh? Just to see what it was like and how good it was …

I had neither port nor ginjinha at home but made an espresso and – because it seemed fun to do so – served it in a little espresso cup that my daughter Nicola bought me in Lisbon years ago. And I of course sprinkled over some of the cinnamon.

Wow! It really was gorgeous; very special. The pastry was so light and crispy – as it should be – and the creamy custard nicely luxurious but not too sweet. I can see that every time I go to Covent Garden, I’ll have to go in and buy a box! Meanwhile, I have another for this evening and have given the remaining two to son and daughter-in-law. Pastéis de Nata are a great family favourite.

Santa Nata Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Cinnamon Bazaar, Covent Garden

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I’ve been a fan of the Cinnamons for a long time. I was taken to Cinnamon Club first by a friend about 15 years ago. Even though he’d raved about how wonderful and special it was, I was still completely awed by it. Here was Indian cooking as I’d never experienced it before. This was incomparable to popping down to your local Indian on a Saturday night. This was fine dining and the food was exquisite.

Indian dining has come a long way in the years since and there are other excellent modern Indian restaurants, including a great local in Twickenham – Tangawizi – which is even in Michelin. I hadn’t been to the ‘Club’ or ‘Cinnamon Kitchen‘ – which became a favourite – for some time but kept passing Cinnamon Bazaar in Covent Garden and thinking I must try it. So when Annie and I were last discussing where to eat when we next met up, I suddenly remembered the ‘Bazaar’ and suggested we went there. Fifteen years on from my first ‘Cinnamon’ experience, would it still be special? Would it still stand above other Indian restaurants?

Situated a few doors down from Rules (London’s oldest and most famous British restaurant) in Maiden Lane, Cinnamon Bazaar offers something very different to ‘traditional’. Indeed it’s a lot less ‘traditional’ than the slightly stuffy Cinnamon Club and sophisticated Cinnamon Kitchen. The clue is in its name: bazaar. It aims, it says on its website, to mix ‘real Indian heritage with urban London’ and give you a dining experience that ’embraces the democratic spirit of a bazaar’. It’s an all-day place for a snack, lunch, dinner, or a drink and some chaats (small plates) with friends.

The exterior is colourful (top photo) and you enter through some beautifully painted double doors.

We were seated on the first floor (which did require climbing a very steep flight of stairs). Our waiter assured us it was the nicest place to sit; quieter and calmer than the bar area on the ground floor. It was certainly attractive in a relaxed, almost café style and the decoration did indeed speak of an Indian bazaar with colourful silk ceiling hangings and strings of lights. I liked it a lot. It felt a great place to relax and this was helped not only by my good friend’s company, but the friendly service.

We were there for the Set Dinner (available Mon-Sun 5.30-6.30pm and after 9pm). Two courses at £21; 3 at £24 and including a Cinnamon Bellini. I have to tell you that you absolutely cannot go to a Cinnamon without having one of their fabulous Bellinis!

There were 4 starters, 4 main courses and 4 desserts to choose from. All the mains included a side of House Black Dal.

Annie began with Crab & Beetroot Bonda – Calcutta spiced crab and beetroot, chickpea batter. They were delicious – she gave me a taste!

I chose Dhokla Chaat – Steamed chickpea cake with spiced yoghurt and coriander chutney.

It looked so pretty as it was put before me and tasted wonderful – such a gorgeous combination of flavours and textures from soft chickpea cake to crunchy pomegranate seeds.

For her main, Annie had Methi Murg – Chicken Leg Curry with Fresh Fenugreek. She said it was very good and offered me a taste, but as I was eating a fish curry I decided against it.

My fish curry – Malabar Boatman’s Cobia Fish Curry – was fabulous. It was also very hot, maybe too hot for some, though fortunately OK for me. But this is just meant as a warning to check if you don’t like your curries too hot.

There was a delicious and generous dish of dal. I’d ordered some naan which I used to soak some of this up.

And a rice side came with my curry.

There was a good selection of wine by the glass and I had a glass of white. Neither of us wanted dessert; the portions had been quite generous and we commented on that as a plus point, for early evening set menus too often serve up measly little portions. We both had coffee to finish. By now – almost 2 hours since we’d arrived – it was busy and the noise level was inevitably rising but there was a good, vibrant atmosphere; it was a fun place to be. There was no sense of being rushed and throughout the meal our waiter checked whether we were ready, firstly to begin after our Bellinis, then whether we wanted a gap before the main. This really is excellent service given how too many London restaurants are wanting to rush you through a meal nowadays and even demand tables back after an hour and a half.

And the food? Was the Cinnamon’s cooking as special as I’d remembered finding it all those years ago? Was chef Vivek Singh still serving something truly special in his restaurants? We thought, Yes. Most definitely. The meal was really great; we loved it. And I also loved the relaxed, informal ambience. So I’m planning to go back very soon!

Cinnamon Bazaar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Food Writing

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I belong to a wonderful book group that meets weekly in The Roebuck pub at the top of Richmond Hill. They kindly save us a table in a quiet corner with a window looking out across the glorious and famous view which has been painted by JMW Turner and others, down Richmond Hill to Petersham Meadows and across the River Thames.

The ‘weekly’ nature of our meetings invariably surprises people who imagine a heavy load of required reading. In fact, we read only one novel (or substantial book) a month and other weeks are poetry, short stories and a theme. The occasional 5th Tuesday in a month is a meal out together.

Last night’s theme was ‘Food Writing’ (not chosen by me but obviously one I was excited about). I must confess to initially taking a rather narrow and prejudiced view of the theme, seeing ‘food writing’ as being books by authors like Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson rather than ‘cookbooks’ with photos accompanying each recipe by mostly TV chefs. David, Roden and Grigson were essentially home cooks who shared recipes they’d perfected, many of them classics, and often dishes they’d found on their travels. They knew their subject well and offered background descriptions that served as wonderful illustrations in an age where most cookbooks weren’t accompanied by photos or even drawings. They were brilliant writers who happened to write about food. Theirs were books you might read in bed, take with you on a train. They weren’t just about cooking, they were about food and living.

I fell into a trap that thought modern-day cookbooks full of photos and illustrations by ‘big names’ weren’t about ‘writing’. That even their cooking wasn’t always about dishes that the average person is likely to cook in their kitchen. But when I started looking through my more recent cookbook buys, I realised how wrong I was – there was some fine writing there too and some wonderful and accessible recipes.

And what do we mean by ‘food writing’? Do we mean a trip to Provence, à la Elizabeth David, with evocative descriptions of places like Marseille and an authentic bouillabaisse recipe? Do we mean a cookbook with easy-to-use recipes that are fail-safe? Do we mean food history? Do we mean a guide to buying food and understanding uses and preparation? Or food in literature, perhaps (as many of my book group friends shared last night)? Do we include restaurant critics? we also asked ourselves last night.

I asked The Guild of Food Writers forum on Facebook what they thought? Which food writer had most inspired them? I got a fantastic response and was introduced to writers I’d never heard of and others I knew of but hadn’t read. Popular was the late Laurie Colwin who wrote in her famous book Home Cooking about the ‘sharing of food (being) the basis of social life’.

Another American writer MFK Fisher’s book The Gastronomical Me was first published in 1943 and reissued in 2017. WH Auden wrote of her, ‘I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose’, and this, unusually at the time, of a food writer. More recently Simon Schama has described her as ‘the greatest food writer who has ever lived’. Fisher wrote: ‘People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking … The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’

Other writers recommended by the Guild included Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan (whose brilliant Cooked series on Netflix I continue to watch over and over again), Edouard de Pomiane and Rachel Roddy. Particularly popular were Nigel Slater and Diana Henry and these proved popular with my book group too.

There was a wonderful mix of ideas about food writing in The Roebuck last night. Louise had brought along Fay Maschler’s Eating In. Well known for her restaurant reviews in the Standard, Maschler has written recipes and food books too. Meanwhile, Tim entertained us by reading aloud some wonderful quotes about food in literature from Elizabeth Kent’s Picnic Basket. There were scenes from Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat and it was a delight to be reminded of how food has sometimes featured so brilliantly in fiction. Christine too offered an entertaining – and rather alarming – glimpse of food in literature, as found in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Doreen had brought We’ll Eat Again by Marguerite Patten, a collection of recipes from the war years. Full of fighting spirit in the way the recipes were written, it was fascinating to hear what people lived on and how they made the most of the limited rations available to them. Margaret, who had suggested the theme, read from Nigel Slater’s Real Food.  Both the Guild and the book group loved Nigel. One of the Guild wrote: ‘His description of making a chicken stock is like reading poetry.’

So what did I take along last night? With 200+ cookbooks sitting on my shelves, I struggled to narrow my choice down.

For me, pleasure from cookbooks comes in many ways. Food writing has been a life theme for me, from teaching myself to cook more exotic things than my mother (who was a good British food cook) in my teens through books, to commissioning and editing cookbooks in my twenties, growing a large cookbook collection over many years (which only occasionally gets culled) and now writing a food blog. My favourite books are ones with favourite recipes, happy memories, inspiration and beautiful writing. Last night I read excerpts from Rick Stein and Antonio Carluccio to show how good they are at conveying setting (and I find their recipes reliable too). Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking was a true inspiration back in the 1970s when I was first married and used this book endlessly – a kind of cooking bible. Some cookbooks grow tired and old and out of date but never David’s, nor Claudia Roden’s. My copy of her A Book of Middle Eastern Food (first published in 1968) is falling apart from age and much use. I always use her recipe for Moussaka. I love Diana Henry’s books, particularly her award-winning Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, which I’ve had for a few years and contains one of my favourite ice cream recipes – Basil & Lemon. Nigel Slater was a must for his poetic, wonderfully descriptive writing that I enjoy not only in his books, but his weekly column in the Observer, which is a Sunday reading highlight and often leads to some cooking in the kitchen. For mega sentimental reasons I had to quote from a Robin Howe book. She was a prolific and much respected cookery writer when I commissioned her to write Middle Eastern Cookery back in the late 1970s. She was already about 70 and she and her husband had retired to Liguria, in Italy. I stayed with them a couple of times and her food was wonderful; I learnt so much from her. I wrote a while ago about her way of dressing salads – click here.

I’ve left out so many … Anna del Conte, Margaret Costa, Alan Davidson … the list is truly endless. But food writing at its best is as wonderful as any other kind of writing. And when you love food as I do, when you travel to experience other cuisines and traditions; when you spend many hours of each day considering what you’ll have for your next meal … well good food writing is a joy and one of life’s great pleasures.

Do please comment and let me know who your favourite food writer is.