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French Apple Tart

I’m calling this a ‘French’ apple tart as it’s what I think of as a French-style tart rather than, say, a deep-filled Dutch apple tart. It’s also the apple tart I used to make a lot – and I mean really a lot – many years ago, as the recipe is in a book I commissioned and edited back in 1979. You can see how spattered the pages are from frequent use!

 

I’ve found since writing the blog that what one thinks of as ‘classic’ or ‘authentic’ is rarely a definitive way of cooking a dish. I like to do a little research before I put recipes like this on the blog and found that typing ‘French apple tart’ into Google came up with many variations. Not surprisingly some recipes put crème pâtissière on the bottom with slices of apple on top; some put a frangipane base in. More similar to my old recipe, Michel Roux Jr puts an apple purée base under the apple slices. I noticed ‘my’ recipe was called ‘Tarte Normande’ but maybe I’ve been eating too many slices of Paul Bakery’s delicious Tarte Normande over recent years and think of that having a custardy mix in with chunks of apple.

My desire for a French style was to have a crisp pastry base with a good, slightly tart and not too deep filling. And I wanted it to look as beautiful as I could manage because it has to be said that French pâtisserie does look very beautiful indeed.

It was in the end my own interpretation of what I used to do. I used my fail-safe sweet shortcrust base to line the flan tin and because I wanted to use minimum sugar, I used sweet Gala apples rather than sharp cooking apples.

 

French Apple Tart

  • about 6 eating apples (e.g. Gala, Cox’s)
  • 15g butter
  • 1 dessertspoon caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons marmalade or apricot jam

Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg

Make the pastry first. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blitz until it all comes together in a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Prepare the apples. First make the purée. Peel, core and cut into small chunks, 4 apples (weighing about 500g). Put the apple in a pan with a dash of water, just enough to stop the apple sticking to the pan as you cook it. Cook gently over a low-moderate heat, stirring frequently, until soft. The apple pieces probably won’t break down into a mush like cooking apples, so once they’re tender, use a potato masher to break them up and then beat with a wooden spoon into a purée. Then beat in the butter. Taste. I felt I didn’t need any added sugar but if your apple purée is a bit too tart, add just a little to your taste.

I’ve been using eating apples rather than cooking apples in pies, crumbles and tarts for years now but feel it’s particularly important when I’m cooking for the little grandsons – as I was yesterday – to keep sugar at a minimum.

 

Heat the oven to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7. Grease a 24 cm loose-bottomed flan tin with butter. I like to then sprinkle over a little flour, shake around and tip out the excess. This helps you to get the flan out easily at the end with no sticking to the tin. Roll out the pastry and line the tin. Crumple some greaseproof paper to soften, lay over the pastry and put in some baking beans. Put into the hot oven for 5 minutes. Remove and tip out the beans and paper, put back in the oven for another 5 minutes.

 

 

Tip the apple purée into the flan base and spread evenly. Peel and core the remaining two apples. Then cut thin slices (about 2mm).

 

Lay the apple slices carefully round the edge of the flan, overlapping slightly. Then do the same in the middle.

 

Sprinkle over a dessertspoon of caster sugar to encourage some nice caramelisation of the edges.

Return the now filled flan to the hot oven and bake for a further 20-25 minutes, until the pastry is nicely browned and the apples cooked. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit in the tin and then carefully transfer to a cooling rack.

Put the marmalade or jam in a small saucepan with just a dash of water. Warm through, stirring, until dissolved. Strain. Then using a pastry brush, brush the warm mix over all the apple slices and edges of pastry for a nice glaze finish.

Transfer to a serving plate. This isn’t a tart to be served warm, but room temperature so is brilliant for entertaining as it’s best made in advance.

We had ours with clotted cream because I had some in the fridge that needed using but it would be lovely with Chantilly cream (whipped cream flavoured with vanilla and a little sugar) or simply some nice pouring cream or even a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I love the simplicity of this kind of tart, especially for warm summer days. With just apple purée rather than a rich custard at the base (lovely as that is sometimes), you get a lighter, fresher taste. It was a great hit with the family – and I really must start making it regularly again!

Travel Gourmet’s Top 10 Places to Eat in London, January-June 2019

Since starting the blog, people often ask me to recommend restaurants. It’s a compliment and very nice to be asked but also slightly difficult for a number of reasons.

I’m not a professional restaurant critic and while I go out to eat quite a bit to meet up with friends, it’s often to the same places and I very rarely go to anywhere ‘posh’. I can’t give you advice about Michelin starred and award-winning restaurants; I’m more of a trattoria and café person. So, if you’re looking for somewhere extra special for a blow-out meal, I’m not really your guide.

Recommending anything is always like entering slightly dangerous territory. There are restaurants I love which others haven’t been impressed by; there are restaurants others think are wonderful but I don’t like. I do know if a first visit to a restaurant isn’t good I’m rarely forgiving enough to give it another try, while favourite restaurants have nine lives like cats: ‘Oh dear,’ I might think, ‘that wasn’t quite up to their normal standard,’ and let it go and not be put off going again (unless the lower standard is regularly repeated).

I’m more forgiving of mediocre food than mediocre service. But the food of course is important. Food has always been important. I’ve been talking about food since I learnt my first words; my parents were always in search of good and interesting food and we’d make big detours to try a new restaurant or food shop. As a family, now with my children and their partners and own children, we will talk in detail about food, whether eating in or out: how to prepare it, how the flavours work, whether it was better when we did something slightly different last time, maybe it needs a little more this or that … I think you really have to love food to want to talk about it in this way but we do! It’s not about criticising as much as about discovering and sharing.

Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ I’ve been lucky enough to dine extremely well over the past few months. I’ve returned to old favourites, had a few disappointments, but I’ve also added some great finds to my list of places to eat. I thought it would be fun to tell you where I’ve been eating out in the first half of this year – and if you get to try them too, I hope you like them as much as I do!

 

1. Bancone

A discovery from last year but it earns its place in this list by having become my most ‘go to’ place. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve eaten there and I’m going again this coming week! I love the food, which is exceptional, I love the atmosphere, the setup of the bancone (counter) where you see food being prepared and feel part of all that’s going on. I’ve eaten there with friends, my son, and on my own. Happiness comes bancone shaped! (Click here for full review.)

 

2. Tredwells

A recent find but a place I’ve passed so many times and thought I must try it one day. Part of what held me back was the fear of disappointment. I’ve had so many disappointments eating at ‘big name’ restaurants and I wanted to go on liking Marcus Wareing when he pops up on the TV. All fears completely unfounded: Tredwells is fantastic! Get there soon. (For full review click here.)

 

3. Cinnamon Bazaar

The ‘Cinnamons’ have been favourite haunts since a friend took me to the original ‘Club’ about 15 years ago. I was awed; I’d never had Indian food of this quality before. There are other great Indian restaurants now but the Cinnamons are still some of the best: Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen … and now I’ve tried the slightly more relaxed Cinnamon Bazaar, I love it too. After I went for the first time in April this year, my son ate there with a friend and thought it was great as well. (Click here for full review.)

 

4. The Oystermen

I mostly choose fish when I’m eating out but rarely go to ‘fish restaurants’ and have never been able to answer the query: ‘Can you recommend a good fish restaurant?’ Well now I can say, ‘Yes! The Oystermen … and it’s phenomenal.’ Be warned there’s not a non-fish alternative on the menu, but if you like fish as much as I do, then you simply have to try it next time you’re in Covent Garden. (Click here for full review.)

 

5. Meson don Felipe

I first wrote about Meson don Felipe in 2016 but with a few visits to the Old Vic and the Young Vic theatres this year, I’ve been back to this great Spanish tapas bar a few times. I like it a lot. I’m always saying that Barrafina in Adelaide Street is one of my very favourite restaurants – and it is – but while Barrafina offers ‘fine dining’ tapas, Meson don Felipe feels more like the real thing; surrounded by Spanish staff you could almost believe you’re in Spain. It’s always busy so best to book. (Click here for full review.)

 

6. Padella

Foodies have been writing and talking about Padella for ages and my first attempt to get in didn’t work. I was on my way to the theatre and just didn’t have time to join the long queue. I don’t venture over to the London Bridge/Borough Market area often so it’s a bit off my radar. But when I was there for the excellent beekeeping course at Bermondsey Bees in April, it seemed the ideal opportunity to try again – and go with plenty of time to queue! I’m so glad I did. It was excellent with fabulous pasta dishes. (Click here for full review.)

 

7. Bar Douro

I keep telling myself I’ll get to Lisbon soon but still haven’t booked my ticket! I’ve never been to Portugal and my instant thought food wise is, of course, the infamous, now very popular pasteis de nata, little custard tarts. So when my friend Annette suggested meeting at Bar Douro, I was keen to find out more about the food of Portugal. And it was great, so this was another good find this year. (Click here for full review.)

 

8. Santa Maria Pizzeria

It must be a year of finally getting to places (even if not Lisbon!) for having heard so much about Santa Maria pizzas for years, when I found I was meeting someone near their original Ealing (West London) pizzeria one evening in May, I just had to go. And was pleased to discover their pizzas were every bit as good as I’d heard. (Click here for full review.)

 

9. Santa Nata

This is cheating slightly for you can’t actually eat at Santa Nata. But you can buy a freshly baked, glorious pasteis de nata, still warm from the oven, some cinnamon sprinkled on top, and carry it to nearby Covent Garden Piazza, find somewhere to sit and experience a moment of pure sweet tasting joy. (Click here for full review.)

 

10. Coffee 091

We’re a family of habits; we are loyal to our favourite local cafés and restaurants and go to them most of the time. But however much you like a place, it is also nice to have some variety, so the opening of Coffee 091 in Whitton (part of Twickenham, west London) a few months ago has been greeted with considerable enthusiasm and is now a new but regular haunt. They do great coffee and croissants but also snacks. The Sicilian owner, Giacomo, is always friendly and calls hello as we pass, even if we’re not going in, which is part of the pleasure of frequenting local places. (Click here for full review.)

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I hope you feel inspired to try some of these places if you’re in London. The pleasure for me in writing a post like this is not only reminding myself of good places to eat (if I could possibly forget any of these great eateries!), but it’s also a celebration of some of the best bits of the year so far.

Brockhampton Estate (National Trust), Herefordshire

I’m just back from visiting my daughter who lives in Worcestershire. We like to explore her local area where you’ll find lots of National Trust properties and this time she suggested we went to the Brockhampton Estate, about a half hour’s drive into adjoining Herefordshire.

Brockhampton is a 1,700-acre farmed estate and within it lies Lower Brockhampton Manor House, a timber-framed house dating back to 1425. The owners of the estate lived there until 1764 when Bartholomew Barneby inherited it. He decided the house was too small and old-fashioned for a gentleman so he built a new house, high above on the estate in the fashionable Georgian style, allowing farm workers to move into the original house.

The surrounding countryside is stunning (even on a rather cloudy day) and thus you can easily see the attraction of building a home high up for the views.

We arrived just before opening time at 10.00am but were allowed into the car park near the Old Apple Tea-room and told the Manor House didn’t open until 11.00am and its car park at 10.30.

We didn’t need much incentive to go into the tea-rooms and have a morning coffee (tea for Nicola). We also had some delicious home-made cake with our drinks and by this time 9-month-old Rufus had woken up and was ready to join in the excitement of our expedition.

Nicola suggested we drive down to the Lower Brockhampton car park near the Manor House as it was quite a long walk with the baby in the pushchair.

Walking from the car park we passed a sweet little bookshop full of lots of secondhand books.

 

The Manor House itself is beautiful. Surrounded by a moat, it seemed perfect timing to visit for the moat was full of water lilies in bloom. I couldn’t help thinking that Monet would have loved it!

You access the house by going through the gatehouse which crosses the moat and was built in 1530-40. As you go through you can climb some stairs to see inside.

 

We were warmly welcomed at the front door and told we could leave the pushchair there while we walked round the house.

The house has seen many changes in its history and has thus been laid out to take you through 500 years from the Medieval Great Hall through to the 1950s.

 

From the Great Hall you go up a staircase into the Minstrels’ Gallery and through to the bedrooms. The first bedroom was Isabella Barneby’s and set up as it was in 1685. You walk through that into a bedroom used by the farm workers who moved in in the 18th century. A much more simple affair.

 

Walking on you come into the eaves of the Manor House where a small house frame was set up with pieces of wood to allow you to continue putting it together. Apparently families can challenge each other, working from different ends, to complete it. We didn’t do that but spent some time there as Rufus simply adored the little house, which was just the right size for him. He wandered in and out, laughing at us from between the gaps.

Off this area was a bedroom dedicated to a young 21-year-old local lad, Albert, who fought in the First World War and was killed on the Western Front in 1917. It was really quite moving to see his things laid carefully out and read that he was the only son of Alfred Sprague, a local gamekeeper, and his wife Sarah.

 

Downstairs we entered the kitchen, known as ‘Alice’s Kitchen’. Alice was the wife of one of the gamekeepers so partridges and pheasants would be brought to hang and she would cook for hunting parties using not just the game but vegetables and fruits from the farm. This was a ‘modern’ kitchen in 1910.

 

 

A little further on was the ale room. Ale was the diet of ordinary people at the time – a safer option than drinking the water then.

 

The lounge (sitting room) is set up as it was in 1952, when our present Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne (she wasn’t crowned until the following year). An old wireless (radio) was playing; a tea service sat on a side table; a treadle sewing machine was ready for making and mending clothes and furnishings. There were a few children’s toys, a writing bureau, but this was still too early for there to be a television.

 

The ‘Gentleman’s Study’ dates back to 1936. Newspapers of the time, announcing King George V’s death lay on a table; a record player sat on a side table with long-playing records; and a decanter of whisky waited by a chair on a small table.

 

Outside again, you can walk round and into the ruins of a chapel that dates back to 1283 in documents and maybe even further back to 1166.

The Granary Shop is a delightful place with a small but beautiful collection of plants to buy.

Inside there are many temptations. And no, I didn’t resist! I bought amongst a couple of other things some Brockhampton Extra Virgin Rapeseed Oil. You can also buy some snacks and sit at tables outside.

 

We sat with some chilled apple juice for a while then, once refreshed, we decided to take a look at the orchard. We got a great view of the Manor House and surrounding countryside as we walked on.

There’s currently a large restoration project going on in the orchard. It is rather neglected-looking at the moment, it has to be said, but great to know that work is under way to restore it to its former glory with apple, pear and cherry trees.

We had a great time and saw a lot but there’s plenty more to do and see, especially for families with a Natural Play Trail and regular events (see the website). There are a number of walks shown on a map that you’re given when you arrive, from the 1-mile Bottom to Top Trail to a Parkland Walk of 3 miles and a 3¾ mile carriage walk that traces the route taken by Georgian carriages.

I had a wonderful time, not just because it’s lovely to spend time with my daughter and youngest grandson, but because Brockhampton itself was such a delight. It was one of the nicest National Trust places I’d ever been to, I told Nicola as we were leaving. This was in part because everyone we encountered, from the man at the main entrance when we arrived, the woman in the tea-rooms, the lovely woman at the ticket kiosk by the second car park who was selling tickets to non National Trust members (£10) to go into the house and its grounds, and who told us about the orchard project, which made us want to see it; the man at the front of the Manor House, the woman in the Granary Shop … everyone was so welcoming and friendly, which added to the intimate feel of the place. But Brockhampton is also beautiful and beautifully maintained with a true sense of love and care. It made it a joy to spend a couple of hours or so there.

 

Warm Chicken Salad with Oranges & Black Olives

A heatwave has been scorching its way across Europe and I guess a temperature in the mid-30s in London today is not so bad when you consider other places – like France, Spain and Italy – have had record highs in the mid-40s. However, it definitely wasn’t a day for standing by a campfire in the garden, as my 4-year-old grandson Freddie calls the barbecue; nor was it a day for rich stews or roasts. But the family were coming for a meal and I wanted to make something nice so decided on a warm chicken salad. ‘Warm’ because the chicken needed cooking and I would griddle it. And I didn’t want a fridge cold salad; sometimes just warm and fresh can be good in heat too.

I bought some mini organic chicken fillets and decided to marinate them before cooking. I thought serving them with a fresh orange dressing would add a nice summery and special touch. I put the chicken in the marinade and prepared the orange dressing a few hours in advance and the final preparation took only a short time – maybe 15-20 minutes?

 

Warm Chicken Salad with Oranges & Black Olives

  • 10 mini chicken fillets (350g)
  • 1 bag of mixed green salad
  • 4 spring onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • a handful of black olives

Marinade

  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 level teaspoon dried oregano
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Orange Sauce

  • 3 oranges
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or wine if you don’t have sherry)
  • 1 teaspoon runny honey
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

 

Put all the marinade ingredients in a shallow dish and whisk together. Add the chicken fillets and mix carefully but well to coat each one. Cover in cling film and put in the fridge for at least one hour. (If you can’t get mini fillets, just buy chicken breasts and slice.)

Make the orange sauce: grate the zest of 1 orange into a bowl and the juice of one other (you may only need half) to get 30ml/2 tablespoons. Add the olive oil, sherry vinegar, honey and salt and pepper. Whisk together.

Cut the peel and pith away from the orange you removed the zest from, and the 3rd orange, and carefully remove the orange segments from between the membrane separating them with a sharp knife. Add the orange segments to the dressing. Cover with cling film and put in the fridge.

 

When it’s nearly time to eat lay the salad on a large serving plate. Prepare the spring onions.

 

Heat a griddle and when hot lay the chicken slices on it (I had to do mine in two batches). They should cook quite quickly. Once you have a nice charred effect you can always slice into one to check it’s cooked through, if you like. As the chicken is ready, lay the pieces directly on to the green salad. I’d chosen an organic salad with peppery leaves in Wholefoods.

 

When all the chicken is cooked, sprinkle over the spring onion slices. Then spoon over the orange dressing and all the orange segments. Scatter the black olives over the top.

I cooked some lovely little new potatoes to accompany the salad, dressed with butter and fresh chopped mint.

The salad looked very inviting!

It was a gorgeous salad. The chicken pieces were just warm still and thus were nicely soaking up the orange dressing. They were beautifully tender from the marinade and quick cooking on the griddle. Chicken, oranges and olives make a great combination and this was a gorgeous light but tasty salad for a hot evening.

Roasted Asparagus with Fried Eggs

I couldn’t resist a bunch of English asparagus in Waitrose a couple of days ago; it’s almost the end of the short season (April – June) and fresh English asparagus is so delicious. I decided to cook it this evening with some eggs. It’s become a habit of mine on Tuesday evenings, when I go out early for my book group, to have eggs of some kind – usually an omelette, sometimes a more fancy frittata, or simple scrambled eggs. But tonight with the asparagus I thought I’d fry a couple of eggs. In a little olive oil with butter; a touch of luxury and very tasty.

I’ve been steaming asparagus or making risottos with it over the past few weeks, but tonight decided to roast it. I haven’t done that for years but once it was my go-to way of cooking asparagus, a tip picked up from Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame, who co-authored The French Kitchen (published 2002), which is full of lovely recipes and photos.

Roasting so often brings out the best in vegetables; the flavour becomes more intense and this is just a wonderful way to enjoy asparagus.

 

Roasted Asparagus with Fried Eggs – Serves 1-2

  • 1 bunch (340g) asparagus
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • Parmesan
  • balsamic vinegar
  • 2-4 eggs

Snap the ends of the asparagus. They’ll break at just the right place to remove the woody ends.

 

Lay the asparagus spears in a shallow ovenproof pan. Drizzle over a little olive oil (about a couple of tablespoons). With your hands, gently roll the spears round so they’re nicely coated with the oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Put into a preheated oven (220C/180 Fan/Gas 6) for 10-15 minutes. Timing will depend a bit on the thickness of your asparagus. I tested mine with a small sharp knife after 10 minutes and they needed a bit more time. You don’t want them soft though; nicely al dente.

Drizzle over a little more oil and some balsamic vinegar. Shave thin slices of Parmesan over the top.

Fry the eggs (2 per person). Lay the asparagus on a serving plate (dividing in two if you are making this for two people). Lay the eggs alongside and serve with some nice fresh sourdough bread to mop up the runny egg yolk and asparagus juices.

Simplicity itself but utterly wonderful. The asparagus tastes so good roasted like this and it always seems to cook more evenly than steaming (even in one of those posh special asparagus steamers). Eggs are a perfect accompaniment, especially when the yolk is still runny so you can dip the end of the asparagus spears in it. It was a bit more special than my usual omelette – but still light, which is what you want before an evening of serious book discussion!

Crostata di Marmellata

A crostata di marmellata by its English name would simply be a ‘jam tart’. I was inspired to make this Tuscan version following my recent week in Tuscany.

Unlike its sophisticated French cousin – the tarte – the crostata is a rustic affair. It’s the kind of simple tart put together by your nonna (grandmother). A real nonna, however, unlike this English version writing for you now, would have made the jam from scratch rather than buying a jar in the supermarket (albeit the best jam she could find there).

A form of crostata can be traced back as far as the 15th century and Pellegrino Artusi gives a recipe in his famous book, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di mangier bene (science in the kitchen and the art of eating well), a ‘bible’ to serious Italian cooks, which was published in 1891:

Per crostate io intendo quelle torte che hanno per base la pasta frolla e per ripieno le conserve di frutta o la crema.

A basic translation of which is that crostatas are tarts made from a base of shortcrust pastry and filled with fruit conserve or cream (a patisserie cream, i.e. custard).

Although, as Artusi states, the crostata might be filled with custard, or sometimes fruit, the simplest and most common version – often seen sitting on counters in cafes in Tuscany to have with your morning cappuccino – have a simple jam (marmellata) filling. It’s basically just an open tart, more usually baked nowadays in a tin, but perhaps roughly shaped on a baking tray.

 

Crostata di Marmellata 

  • 1 jar (about 350g) jam of your choice
  • 1 beaten egg, for glaze

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg

Make the pastry. Put all the ingredients in a food processor. Process just until it all comes together in a ball. Remove onto a piece of clingfilm, flatten a bit, wrap the film round and then put in the fridge for about 15 minutes.

Grease a 24cm loose-bottomed flan tin with butter. Sift a little plain flour over it and shake to cover and tip out excess. This preparation ensures your flan will come out of the tin easily after cooking and not stick to the bottom.

Roll out three-quarters of the pastry on a well-floured surface. It’s quite a soft dough because of the high butter content (which also makes it lovely to eat!). Line the flan tin.

 

Fill the pastry case with jam (I used most of my jar to get a good covering). Roll out the remaining pastry. Use (if possible, otherwise just a knife) a pastry cutter to get a nice crinkle effect, to cut out strips of pastry to make a lattice shape over the jam. Before anyone tells me, I know this isn’t a ‘proper’ lattice, because I haven’t woven the pieces in and out, but I’m not on Bake Off and this is supposed to be a ‘rustic’ tart … so an easy (if lazy!) method justified.

 

Brush the pastry with the beaten egg so it browns nicely. Put the tart in a preheated medium-hot oven (200C/180 Fan/Gas 6) for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry is a lovely light golden brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes. Then carefully transfer to a serving plate.

I used strawberry jam (though apricot and berries are popular in Tuscany) so I served with some fresh strawberries on the side and a bowl of Cornish clotted cream (OK, definitely not Italian but I love it so much I use it any time I get the chance, and if you think of classic Scones + Jam + Clotted Cream, it’s not so very different to have Sweet Pastry + Jam + Clotted Cream).

Inevitably, it is quite sweet so I cut modest portions. But the pastry was light and very delicious; the jam just right amount with it. The clotted cream and fresh strawberries (well it is June and the best time for British strawberries) perfect accompaniments..

The crostata was a big success with the family. Son Jonathan sneaked a second helping when his son Freddie wasn’t looking … Freddie had been told he had to wait until tomorrow for more. Most of the remains went home with them. I think it’s a tart to be eaten up fairly quickly while still fresh and the pastry at its best. It’s such an easy dessert to make and yet a real family winner.

Restaurant Review: Tredwells

Annie and I have been having fun trying out new restaurants of late – The Oystermen last month; Cinnamon Bazaar the month before. I suggested we went to Tredwells the next time and booked a table. I’ve been wanting to go there for ages as it’s one of Marcus Wareing’s restaurants and prides itself on creating dishes from the best seasonal British produce. Chantelle Nicholson is Chef Patron and is known for giving a great contemporary twist to British food.

I approached the restaurant last night with both excitement and a certain amount of trepidation. I’ve had too many disappointments when eating at famous chefs’ restaurants. I’ve liked and admired Wareing from afar and really wanted to like his restaurant but I know any ‘big name’ attached to where I eat inevitably makes me have higher expectations. I think this is reasonable; if a restaurant is using a big name, be it a chef or an offshoot of a famous restaurant, to bring in the crowds, then as customers I think we have a right to expect something a bit special.

The fact that I ended up loving Tredwells, really made my evening. It was brilliant.

Right from the moment I entered the restaurant and was welcomed at reception, every contact with staff was warm and friendly without being over the top. I have to admit that when I was told they had ‘a very nice table’ for me upstairs, I had a moment of concern. Often being sent upstairs or to the basement in restaurants isn’t a good thing. At Tredwells it is a very good thing; upstairs is lovely and from what I saw, the best place to be.

Soon Annie joined me and we discussed what we wanted to eat. We like to do that, it’s part of the fun of eating out with someone else who also appreciates good food. We were having the 3 Courses & Gunpowder Gimlet at £29 menu and it looked great. There was a choice of 4 Starters, 4 Mains (including 1 vegetarian), a selection of Sides for extra (all about £5) and 3 desserts or a cheese selection, plus the cocktail. I could have eaten any of them. It was one of the most exciting set menus I’d seen in a long while. Each was accompanied by a suggestion of wine to have with it (ranging in price from £6.50-£10). We chose to have our starters come while still drinking the cocktail (the waitress’s suggestion) as we only wanted one glass of wine, with our mains. I rarely drink cocktails. I never drank them much when I was younger and now find most far too alcoholic and strong but the waitress assured me it was a light cocktail.

The Gimlet arrived in a champagne saucer. A base of gin, it also contained gunpowder green tea, lime and cardamon-infused syrup. It was amazing; so light and fresh but with a good clear taste of gin. If there’d been a second on offer I wouldn’t have been able to refuse!

My starter was Cod cheeks, smoked pea, preserved lemon & broad beans (sorry about the out-of-focus photo!). It was glorious – the tenderest crispy cod cheeks served with a gorgeous sauce.

Annie meanwhile opted for Roast carrot salad, carrot pickle, cashew & cumin. It looked wonderful and she confirmed it was.

We both had Lamb chops, beetroot, tahini verde & mint for our mains, with an extra side of Cornish new potatoes with dill pickle aioli (£5.50). I have to say that ‘lamb chops’ would not be an obvious choice for me in a restaurant, but you can certainly say there’s something British about it. I liked the look of the fish – pollack – dish but not with the cod cheeks so went with the lamb. I’m so glad I did. They were cooked to perfection: nicely charred and caramelised on the outside, pink and tender in the middle. It was a generous helping as well; two good-sized and thick chops. The accompanying beetroot was great but the tahini verde was spectacular. Wow!

We had a glass each of ‘2016 Lirac, Guillaume Gonnet, Southern Rhone’ wine at £10 a glass – the suggested accompaniment, which was excellent.

Oh it’s so nice when the dessert is included. You don’t have to feel guilty! We both had the Yorkshire rhubarb, cheesecake mousse & ginger crumb. It managed to combine richness with an amazing, cloud-like lightness. It was neither too heavy nor too big and a perfect end to a brilliant meal.

We both had espressos to finish. We went on talking. It was busy; a nice buzz of happiness and contentment around us. We were there for a bit over our allotted 2 hours but no one tried to move us on. It had been a thoroughly great meal and as we left I remarked to Annie that I was so pleased Marcus Wareing hadn’t disappointed me. I can’t wait to go back.

Final bill: £99 for 2, including extra side, wine, coffee and service.

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

Tuscany 2019: A Weekend in the Mountains

This post in a big thank you – grazie mille – to my lovely friend Annette who invited me to spend the last few days of my week in Tuscany at her home in the Italian mountains.

Comano is a village of just 700 residents in the Lunigiana region of the National Tuscan-Emilian Apennines Park, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015. Although in Tuscany, it closely borders both Emilia and Liguria.

Travelling from Lucca, after my 24-hour stop there, a regional train took me through the mountainous Garfagnana region to Aulla Lunigiana where Annette would pick me up by car for a roughly 20-minute journey to Comano. As she’d promised, the train journey – 2 hours and stopping frequently – would take me through beautiful and dramatic scenery. Having stayed near Lucca once before I was quite excited to recognise the Ponte della Maddalena (known as the Devil’s Bridge), which I’d crossed 20 years ago, just before the train came to a halt at Borgo a Mozzano.

My friend was waiting for me on the platform to welcome me as the train pulled in and we set off up the mountains with a couple of stops on the way to show me some local sights – and collect some potatoes from the local greengrocer!

After a few days in busy – albeit beautiful – cities it was lovely to enjoy the tranquillity of the mountains. And everywhere I looked the views were spectacular.

In the evening Annette and her friend Danny took me to one of their favourite local restaurants where we ate a mixed antipasto of local meats and specialities and I had a pasta dish of trofie with pesto and prawns.

The following day was a bit cloudier to start but this didn’t deter us from setting off across the mountains to Fivizzano. In this mountainous region you don’t cover the miles quickly for there are steep narrow roads to pass, often with sharp bends and sheer drops to the side. We stopped for a walk and gelato in Fivizzano.

On the way back we stopped again. On a clearer day, I was told, one could see Comano across the divide and on the mountain opposite.

Cows wander with large bells around their necks and our drive was briefly halted as we waited for some to move off the road ahead.

In the evening we walked down to another level of the village and another of their favourite places to eat – which I’d heard about back in London from Annette. It was busy with locals and lots of chatter and laughter. The menu was simple – you could have either pizza or Tagliata. Having heard about the good pizzas (and having eaten Tagliata in Florence), the choice was simple. We all ate Pizza Napoli. It was excellent pizza with a great topping. The base was fairly thin but the crust round the edge retaining a nice chewy softness.

The following morning the sun shone brightly. Some horses passed through the village. Comano is famous for its horses and there is a Horse Festival each year. Apparently horses wander the mountains much like the cows and sometimes also have bells around their necks so they can be found if they wander far.

  

From the house, Annette took me on a walk into the surrounding woods full mainly of chestnut trees. Chestnuts are used a lot in the region’s cooking and Annette told me when the Nazis invaded in the Second World War and took everything from the locals – all the food and animals – they managed to survive on chestnuts, which can be cooked to eat and also ground into flour for pasta and bread.

On the day I was to leave we took a drive down to the centre of Comano for the vegetable van – selling fruit and vegetables brought up from Calabria – was due for its weekly visit.

 

After lunch – a set menu known as Menu pranzo al lavoro for workers with just a few choices according to what’s in season and available – at the same restaurant as my first night, it was time to set off for Pisa where I was to catch my flight back to London. Annette had offered to leave early enough to take me to the sea and we stopped at Lerici where Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) lived for a time, as did other Romantic Poets and DH Lawrence, and where he died, drowning in a nearby bay during a sudden storm.

Shelley’s house.

And of course there is always time for a gelato in Italy.

We sat to eat some delicious ice cream – Annette told me the Italians always sit; ice cream is too serious to eat on the go – and then it was time to head to the airport and soon I was homeward bound after a brilliant week in Tuscany.

 

Tuscany 2019: 24 Hours in Lucca

It’s amazing how much you can see and do in 24 hours! I’d been to Lucca before but nearly 20 years ago, and it seemed an ideal stopping-off point on my journey from Florence to my friend Annette’s home in Comano, where I’ll be staying for the weekend until I go home on Monday. Just a 1hr 20 minute train journey from Florence and a chance to revisit one of Italy’s most beautiful cities.

I always like to stay somewhere central when I’m in a city for a short time but with just 24 hours in Lucca it was essential to be close to everything I’d want to do and see. I found B&B Caterina on the internet and it looked ideal, especially at just €77 a night. I had a lovely and warm exchange by email with Fabiana before my arrival and she was so kind and friendly when I arrived, it was a great start.

I took a taxi from the railway station, although you can walk it in 17 minutes according to Google Maps. I’d arranged that I could leave my suitcase at the B&B early, arriving around 10.30am. The taxi weaved in and out of narrow streets, quite a circular route given the one-way system, but eventually I got out and faced big green double doors. I rang the bell and was immediately let into a shared apartment building hallway and Fabiana called a welcome from the first floor.

 

Happily I could get straight into my room and was given a set of keys for this, the front door and the door to the apartment; the B&B has 5 rooms. The room was lovely. Quite spacious, simply but elegantly decorated with an en suite shower room. The next morning there would be a simple but nice buffet breakfast.

  

Fabiana gave me a map and some suggestions of what to do and where I might eat that evening. Given Lucca is the birth place of Giacomo Puccini (1858), I remarked that I felt I should be going to an opera. A great alternative for someone there for just a day was a concert at the Chiesa San Giovanni: there are hour long concerts every evening at 7pm. Fabiana gave me a leaflet and said if I bought a ticket in advance I saved 20%, so part of my plan for the day was to include going to the church and buying a ticket for that night – a selection of Puccini and Verdi arias – for €20 instead of €25.

I went via the trattoria to book a table for 8.15 and climbed up onto the medieval walls that circle the city. You can walk all round the edge, 4km, and there are steps frequently offering a way down into the centre.

I was reminded of how beautiful Lucca is. One of the great things about the city walls is that you can always move away from the crowds in the centre by climbing up and walking amongst trees for a while. It also gives you great views across and outside the city.

I cut down into Piazza San Frediano.

Then on into the famous amphitheatre. It dates from the Romans in 2AD but the buildings surrounding it came later in medieval times.

Although I’d been before I was struck by how small it is; in my memory it was much bigger. It was a bit of a shame (from a selfish point of view!) that it was filled not only with the usual restaurants and cafes round the edge, but an open air market, selling mainly gifts and non-food stuff. I hoped that later in the day it would be dismantled but even late evening it was still there. However, it didn’t spoil my pleasure at being in this beautiful place. And with the glorious weather and clear blue sky backdrop, it was stunning.

 

I spied the Torre Guigini down a narrow street and remembered climbing it 20 years ago for the fantastic views. It’s extraordinary with trees growing on top. I wasn’t sure I’d have the stamina this time … but later, after lunch, I’d be too tempted to resist.

I simply wandered round the city, weaving in and out of the narrow winding streets, which often opened into piazze – squares – large and tiny. I bought my concert ticket and walked round the corner to find the cathedral facing me in Piazza San Martino. Then onwards some more, passing wonderful food shops.

 

 

I took pot luck for lunch and sat down at a restaurant with its tables laid out in a quiet open area. The caprese salad was fresh but not particularly exciting, but it was a nice place to relax and the staff friendly.

 

I decided gelato was needed! Well I can’t be in Italy and not have a gelato every day; it’s a family fact. In nearby via Santa Croce I found excellent ice cream at La Bottega del Gelato. There were some interesting flavours on offer and the gelato was stored in lidded metal pots – pozzetti – which is a good sign.

 

 

Then I walked to Piazza San Michele.

And just off the piazza found Puccini’s birth house in Piazza Citadella.

 

The ticket office is across the square from the house. It costs €8 to go in.

 

It was fascinating to see. The first room, the Music Room, had the Steinway piano Puccini bought in 1901 and used to compose most of his last opera, Turandot.

 

There are handwritten libretti, letters and costumes made for some of the operas. Visiting the house is a ‘must’ for any Puccini and opera enthusiast but it’s also great for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of life a hundred years ago through the layout and contents of the house.

I found myself close to Torre Guigini again and this time decided to pay the €4 and climb up. It actually wasn’t so bad and quite fun to do.

And at the top you’re rewarded with magnificent views across Lucca.

From here I walked to the Botanical Gardens (€5 entrance).

 

They’re quite small but lovely to see.

 

Then back out onto the city wall again where I walked in the direction of the B&B and went back for a while before setting out to the concert.

The church was full for the concert.

The programme was a bit of a people pleaser – mainly famous and well-known arias – but actually perfect for the occasion and such a delight to be there in Puccini’s home town hearing some of his music.

It was time for dinner when I came out and about a 10-minute walk across the city. Lucca is so small it never takes more than a few minutes to get anywhere within the city walls.

I had a mixed antipasti to begin.

Then homemade pasta with a fresh tomato sauce. It’s the best time for tomatoes here and they have such a deep gorgeous flavour, they’re wonderful. A lot of Tuscan recipes require them but the locals will only make certain dishes – like pappa al pomodoro – requiring fresh tomatoes when they’re in season.

It was a nice meal, though not exceptional, but very conveniently close to the B&B.

Afterwards, as it was a little early for bed, so I took a walk to the amphitheatre to see it at night before returning to the B&B.

The next morning I had just a few hours before catching a train to travel to a friend’s. I went out after breakfast; Fabiana kindly gave me a set of keys so I could leave my bag there and let myself in to get it when I was leaving. After a while I found a nice historical cafe to stop and have a coffee and small pasty, sitting outside overlooking the Piazza San Michele.

 

I decided to go to the Palazza Pfanner. I’d seen it and its gardens while walking along the city wall. Entrance was €6.00. The gardens are glorious and so beautifully kept with statues and fountains; huge terracotta pots with lemon trees hanging heavy with lemons.

It was great to go inside too.

 

It was a little museum, with a 19th century kitchen set up and various interesting items to see as I went round.

 

I went back to the Amphitheatre to get a snack for lunch. I’d seen a good deli that I thought would be a safe bet for lunch at its tables outside but had possibly the worst bruschetta of my life. How do you get it wrong? But it only proved that eating in a very tourist place wasn’t a good idea!

I loved the statue by Andrea Roggi. A number of his statues were dotted all round the city and they were stunning; beautiful.

Now it was almost 24 hours since I’d arrived in Lucca and time to move on. I was so pleased I’d returned – albeit it briefly – to this beautiful city. There are so many good things to do and the B&B was great. The only disappointment was that I had found only fairly ordinary or even poor food (apart from the gelato), which after the glories of Florentine food was a bit disappoining, but another time I clearly need to do more research!

Tuscany 2019: Dinner at Trattoria La Casalinga & A Walk Through Florence at Night

My lovely Italian friend Lucia recommended Trattoria La Casalinga – literally, ‘Trattoria of the housewife’ – to me when she heard I was coming to Florence. It’s just off the Piazza Santo Spirito, which has become one of my favourite areas in Florence. It’s in Oltrano – the ‘other side of the Arno’ river – which has been undergoing considerable gentrification in recent years. The tourists do come here but it’s a bit off the main tourist route apart from the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace. You’ll find great traditional restaurants, cafes, bars and a rich cultural scene with artisan workshops.

There was a big queue when I arrived at the Trattoria at opening time, 7pm. Fortunately I’d booked by email, receiving such a friendly reply from Andrea that this, with Lucia’s recommendation, made me really look forward to eating there. And I wasn’t disappointed. This was another great find for eating good, traditional Tuscan food in Florence.

  

There are various ‘sections’ to the restaurant and I was led through to what seemed to be the main area – perhaps because I’d booked well in advance. All the waiting staff were friendly and there were plenty of them which boded well – and correctly – for good service.

I ordered a glass of prosecco to have straight away while I looked at the menu (€6) and a bottle of mineral water.

I already knew I wanted the Tagliata di Manzo for I simply had to have steak before I left Florence – and it was my last evening. I like steak a lot (though I only eat it occasionally) and the thing to have in Florence is Bistecca alla Fiorentina. However, that’s usually served for 2. Tagliata makes a wonderful alternative though.

Given my main course plan, I wanted a light meat-free starter and chose a courgette and Grana (Parmesan like cheese) salad (€6) to begin.

When I saw how much Grana was shaved on top I thought I’d made a mistake for I knew the Tagliata would be similarly dressed. However, the dish was so good, the essence of simplicity with tiny pieces of raw courgette beautifully dressed, that I was glad I’d had it. It was a huge portion though so I left some – it would have been plenty for 2 as a starter – knowing what was to come.

Well yes the Tagliata (€20) did look quite similar!

But hiding under the rocket and cheese were perfectly cooked slices of steak.

It was divine. Absolutely perfect; wonderfully tender and gorgeously tasty. I had a side of roast potatoes to go with it (€2.50) and an excellent glass of Chianti (€6).

I really didn’t need a dessert but I’d seen tiramisu (€4.50) arriving at other tables and couldn’t resist. It was very good; a classic recipe with no fancy modern ‘interpretation’ – the real thing.

An espresso, glass of limoncello and then the bill and a wonderful meal was finished.

As I came out I could see into the kitchen where huge pieces of steak were being sliced.

Then a slow walk across the city back to the Hotel Cellai. I was in no hurry for it was still quite early and this was my last evening in Florence. I felt a bit sad to be leaving so soon but then I have plenty to look forward to over the next few days, going on to Lucca next, then Comano to visit my friend Annette.

The Ponte Vecchio looked stunning from Ponte S. Trinita in the dying golden light.

I stayed on the Oltrano side to walk back to the Ponte Vecchio and cross it, where I witnessed a glorious sunset.

And looking the other way from the bridge towards where I walked yesterday to Piazzale Michelangelo.

 

Then I walked on along the side of the river towards the Uffizi where I’d walk through the courtyard and into Piazza della Signora.

As the doorway into Palazzo Vecchio was open, I took a look inside.

 

I walked a little way up via De Calzaioni before cutting through to Piazza Repubblica, which is always a hotspot of lively entertainment.

 

Then onwards past the Duomo and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which always looks rather bare but worth knowing that Michelangelo had grand plans for its facade which weren’t carried out.

What a lovely evening and how great it’s been to spend a few days in this wonderful city again.