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Now We Are Nine!

It was as I was publishing my last post with the red mullet recipe that I noticed a message from WordPress congratulating me on my blog’s 9th anniversary. Yes, it the blog’s birthday!!

I was too busy to cook the blog a birthday cake (and in truth, there’s no one around at the moment to share one with!), so I ‘cheated’ and bought one of my favourite little strawberry tartlets in Paul Bakery in Richmond this morning. Well, it’s always good to have an excuse for a bit of sweet indulgence and nine years is pretty special, isn’t it?

The blog has become so much part of my life it’s hard to remember when it wasn’t there. It’s like a companion. I like that I can write a broad range of things on it, although every post connects to food and/or travel in some way. I began writing back in 2011, inspired because my daughter had started a blog, and knowing I wanted to write about food. In particular I was keen to find places where a woman on her own could comfortably eat. I’ve always been confident eating alone; it comes from my upbringing, I think. But I’d heard stories of women eating on their own in restaurants being treated badly or turned away or hidden in a corner and made to feel uncomfortable. It hadn’t, to be honest, been my own experience but I didn’t like what I heard. I hope things have changed over the past nine years but I’m sad to say I think women dining on their own, particularly in a nice restaurant, can still be treated awkwardly or even with suspicion. Frankly I consider it really crazy and a hangover from less equal times and I can still get angry if I hear these stories. I’m sure some men find it uncomfortable eating alone in restaurants too; I don’t want to be sexist here. It’s just that the tale of a woman being treated badly in a restaurant back in 2011 is part of what spurred me on to start blogging.

I was also fairly newly alone, recently divorced, and while even married I was used to travelling alone sometimes, eating out alone sometimes, it was going to be a bit different. But I wasn’t about to compromise and eat only in cheap, informal places where I could slip unnoticed into a quiet table. I’ve been eating in smart restaurants since I was about two, thanks to my parents, so I wasn’t about to give up searching for the best. That doesn’t mean expensive though. You’ll find a Michelin starred restaurant a rare thing here. Partly it’s because an expensive meal is a treat I can only occasionally afford, but also because I’m really more of a cafe person – sophisticated cafes, as in brasserie-style cafes in France or Italy; tapas bars in Spain; bars and huge open cafes in Amsterdam full of buzzing conversation; historic cafes in Turin, Paris or Vienna knowing famous writers and philosophers once gathered there or a famous food dish or drink was born.

The most memorable exception to my informal eating preference was having lunch at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana back in 2014 (click here for review) – a 3-Michelin star wonder that had just, a couple of days before I went there, won the award of 3rd best restaurant in the word (a year or so later, it would be No.1).

I’d seen Massimo on TV and was so impressed with his style of cooking, I knew I simply had to go to his restaurant if I got the opportunity. That came soon after as I had a trip to Bologna planned. I contacted the restaurant and booked a table for lunch. It was – and remains – one of the most exciting eating experiences of my life.

As the blog grew, its content broadened. I also realised I was eating out with friends and family a lot; sometimes travelling with people and not always solo, so I decided to change the name of the blog from The Single Gourmet and Traveller to Travel Gourmet in 2016. Not only did it seem a more appropriate and less clunky name, it summed up succinctly what it was about.

A highlight the year before, in 2015, was when I was shortlisted for the DFDS Travel Blogger of the Year Award. I didn’t win but it was very exciting to be noticed and shortlisted. Then the next year GPSmyCity, a global travel app, approached me and asked if they could publish some of my articles. They now publish over sixty of my travel articles. I receive a (very) small but regular royalty from them, but the best part of this association with GPSmyCity is how it’s helped me grow as a writer. They don’t commission me to write specific things, but I know what they like and so I’ve given more thought to what I write and now, I believe, write better articles because of it. I introduced those ‘summing up’ posts of travel to cities that give you all the details about why you should go, how to get there, where to stay, where to eat and what to do. I love writing them. Of course in 2020’s pandemic lockdown, I’m not travelling and not writing them at the moment, but I enjoy looking back and reminding myself of some of my great trips in recent years to cities like Nice, Malaga, Amsterdam, Turin and others.

Because I travel solo a lot, the blog really is a companion: I have followers to share my experiences with; I get lovely comments from some of them and thus some interaction. It’s made me a little more adventurous, encouraging me to seek out new places to visit and things to do while I’m away. I think, What exciting this can I do today to write up on the blog? And I love that! It may not be what everyone would want to do on a holiday, but for me it’s my chance to write (normally at home, I’m working as a book editor and having to concentrate of others’ writing!). And of course the blog is a wonderful record of all I’ve done and all the places I’ve been to over the past nine years. Few people keep photo albums these days – but now I have the blog.

GPSmyCity’s publication of many of my articles officially made me professional, even if in a small way, and because nearly all my articles are about food, even if travel too, this enabled me to join The Guild of Food Writers, which has been another highlight of the blog’s life. In ‘normal’ times they organise lots of wonderful events for members. My first event was all about vermouth (click here) and perfectly timed just before a trip to vermouth’s home – Turin!

The blog has made me bolder about just going up to people and starting a conversation. In the early days I did lots of wonderful interviews with chefs and restaurateurs (click here). I simply asked chefs and owners of restaurants I liked whether I could interview them. People were so kind and I met some truly lovely and generous people. I keep meaning to revive it … maybe that can be part of a post-pandemic plan!

I’ve always loved cooking and trying out new recipes, but the blog has encouraged me to stretch myself a little more. I was cooking from a very young age, as were my kids, and now my little grandsons have started to cook. One of the most fun recent additions to the blog has been writing about cooking with my eldest grandson, Freddie, just 5½ (click here) and also taking him to find good places to eat with kids (click here).

The blog hasn’t always been just a record of what I’m doing now but a place for memories too. I remembered learning how to dress a salad (click here) with one of my authors when, back in my twenties, I was commissioning cookery books and stayed with her at her home on the Ligurian coast of Italy. I wrote a whole post on memories (click here), which I enjoyed doing and many readers kindly shared their own food memories, which I loved reading.

Because the blog is important to me, I’ve done what I can to keep it going during the pandemic this year when I haven’t been able to travel or visit restaurants. I wanted to conserve its broad range and so have had to be a bit more creative in my thinking than normal. But I’ve written about shopping in the early days of the pandemic when it was hard to get food (click here), growing some of my own vegetables (click here), a barbecue when I was finally able to ‘bubble’ with my son and family and eat with them (click here), getting to know my local area better (click here), cooking a lot of bread (click here), and have even done some virtual travelling (click here).

The blog is in many ways a record of my life, but only part of my life. I began it with the intention of celebrating the best things; it was always meant to be a positive blog in which I would share good things. And thus it has sometimes lifted my spirits if low, encouraged me to be bold and positive, filled me with joy at times and has brought some amazing experiences and wonderful new friends. May I be as delighted with the experience of blogging in another nine years’ time. And may you, dear readers, continue along the journey with me. For without followers, knowing that some people do actually read it and sometimes share their thoughts with me, it wouldn’t be the fun it is and I may well have given up if writing into a vacuum. So a very BIG thank you to you all!

Red Mullet with Orange, Capers & Pine Nuts

It was a spontaneous buy. I stopped off at the local fishmonger’s to buy some salmon and prawns and saw fillets of red mullet. I remembered it’s one of Rick Stein’s favourite fish and so decided to get some.

I’ve cooked red mullet before, but long ago, and wasn’t sure what to do with it to make something a little special for a Saturday evening, so it made sense to turn to the man himself – and thus I found a recipe in Rick Stein’s From Venice to Istanbul.

Red mullet is common in the Mediterranean (and also the North Atlantic and Black Sea) but Rick talks of the Cornish ones being wonderful. They have quite a strong flavour and thus can take strong accompaniments. I’ve had it Chinese style but this recipe I chose of Rick’s is Mediterranean and labelled Greek in his book. The oranges give it a lovely freshness, which is wonderful with the red mullet, and there’s a nice little kick from the pinch of dried chilli flakes.

I changed the recipe quantities slightly as I was cooking for one and not four. I didn’t have oranges so used tangerines. When I added their juice and zest, I decided a little more liquid was needed, so splashed in some of the white wine I was drinking, à la Keith Floyd, while I cooked!

 

Red Mullet with Orange, Capers & Pine Nuts – Serves 1

  • 2 small red mullet fillets
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a little semola (semolina flour) for coating
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 small oranges or tangerines: zest and juice of one; the other peeled and thinly sliced
  • a little white wine
  • 1 teaspoon capers
  • 1 heaped teaspoon pine nuts, toasted
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • about 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Have everything measured and ready before you start as once you begin cooking, it’s almost an instant meal! Put a plate in a low oven. You want to transfer the cooked fish to a warm plate or it will quickly go cold.

   

If the red mullet isn’t already filleted, ask you fishmonger to do it for you. Rick fries his fish whole (scaled and gutted), which is another option if you prefer.

Rick dusts the fish with semolina and I had some semola – semolina flour – which I buy from my local Italian deli to make focaccia. If you don’t have either, just use ordinary plain flour.

Season the fish with some salt and pepper and then lay it in some semola on a plate and coat both sides. This gives the fish a slightly crispy crust when cooked, which is really good. Heat a little oil in a pan. Extra virgin olive oil does cope with high temperatures, contrary to what some people say – see my review of an olive oil workshop: click here.

 

Put skin side down in the hot oil and cook for a couple of minutes until you see the edges start to look cooked through. Turn over and cook for another couple of minutes. My fillets were quite small and larger ones, and especially whole fish, may take longer.

   

Transfer the cooked fish to the warm plate. Tip the orange juice and zest in and stir round to deglaze the pan and capture all the fish juices. It was at this point I felt it needed more liquid so I added a little white wine. Then add the orange slices, capers, pine nuts, chilli flakes and parsley. I almost forgot the parsley so it went in a few seconds later than the rest!

   

It barely needs cooking. It’s just about mixing it all together. Spoon the sauce over the fish.

I served mine with some simple boiled new potatoes and some tenderstem broccoli with some olive oil and lemon juice drizzled over the top.

It was a lovely meal. The mullet has quite a strong flavour but in a pleasant way and I think it almost needs an equally strong accompaniment. The strong flavour is due to its high fat content and so it’s rich in Omega-3 and thus good for you too. I really liked it and will buy it again. Despite the grey sky and heavy rain outside on this late July evening, it did bring a welcome touch of summer to my meal.

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic

A picnic was promised. I’ve been booking weekly slots to go to Kew Gardens since it reopened. I do miss just being able to go there spontaneously on a nice day since the gardens are local to me, just a couple of miles away, but I’m grateful they’re open again and I can once more enjoy the splendour of these world famous botanical gardens.

The problem with booking slots a week or so ahead of time is you can’t be sure of the weather and weather forecasts these days seem to change by the hour. However, as Monday is a good day for me I’ve taken to booking a morning slot then and add an extra ‘guest’ as my membership allows me to take someone else in. Last week it was friend Louise (which was particularly exciting as I hadn’t actually met up a friend by plan since Lockdown); two more friends are booked in over coming weeks. But this week I asked my son if I could take grandson Freddie. Freddie (5½) is back at school two days a week. He loves Kew Gardens; like most kids he loves big open spaces! He’s been going to Kew since he was a babe in arms and regularly since. I took him to the Chihuly exhibition there a year ago and he was so excited by it he was looking for the glass sculptures as we went in yesterday and I had to remind him they weren’t there any longer.

With an entry time of 11.00-11.45 we were going to be there at lunchtime so I promised a picnic. And a picnic has to have cake. Well doesn’t it? It does is you’re a 5 year old! I’m not a great baker, as in I don’t bake cakes often and only from a small repertoire. Even then it mainly consists of banana muffins, using up that suddenly ripened bunch that were not fit eating yesterday and won’t be fit for eating tomorrow. I love bananas but the ripening process brings its challenges. The ones sitting in my bowl from the Waitrose delivery at the weekend were still so green they weren’t fit for anything at all. So an alternative was needed. When I was a child my mother regularly baked rock cakes on Sundays. We all loved her rock cakes. So I dug out an old rock cake recipe. But as some of the family don’t eat raisins or candied peel (and I’m talking the grown-ups here, not the kids), I’ve taken to substituting any dried fruit with blueberries. So a blueberry version of rock cakes was born.

I also wanted to try out some new flour I’d ordered from Shipton Mill. I hadn’t been able to resist one of their speciality flours – Organic Fig, Spelt and Pumpkin Seed Flour. I’d had bread in mind but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen so I decided to use some in the ‘rock cakes’ as the fruity seed aspect seemed great for cakes. I thought 100% might be too much so mixed half quantity with Shipton Mill’s Heritage Blend organic white flour. If you don’t have the special flour, use all white or a mix of white and wholewheat.

I used the rock cake recipe as a guide to quantities as rock cakes (as their name suggests) are quite solid little cakes, which makes them perfect for picnics and small hands. Usually one puts the stiff dough in clumps on a baking tray but I decided to use muffin cases, again for picnic ease. I started with my 40-year-old recipe but took things as I fancied along the way. Most baking requires strict attention to the rules (maybe that’s why baking doesn’t really appeal to me!) but rock cakes are friendly little cakes that don’t take life too seriously and humoured me with their flexibility.

Because I used an old recipe the measurements are in old Imperial. I’ve put metric guide in brackets but use one or the other rather than mix.

 

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic – Makes 12

  • 6oz (175g) Fig, Spelt & Pumpkin flour (or wholewheat)
  • 6oz (175g) organic white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 6 oz (175g) soft butter
  • 6oz (175g) soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or essence
  • 1 egg
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • 4 oz (110g) blueberries

Preheat oven to 190C/Fan 170/Gas 5

 

   

Measure the flours into a bowl and add the baking powder. Put the butter and sugar into another bowl. Rock cakes are usually made with the butter rubbed into the flour, like making pastry, but I wanted a more cake effect for the cakes I was making and so mixed the butter and sugar well together first.

 

Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg. Beat again.

 

Tip in the flours and beat until it just comes together. Add a little milk if too stiff, though it is supposed to be a stiff dough. Then stir in the blueberries carefully.

   

You can see below how stiff it is.

Transfer to 12 muffin cases in a muffin tin.

Put into the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, taking them out when nicely golden. Transfer to a rack to cool.

They didn’t look ‘beautiful’ but they smelled very enticing! And I could see the little specks of dried fig and pumpkin seeds that would add flavour and texture.

It was a pretty windy and chilly day given the heatwave of only a few days’ ago. But there’s no telling a 5 year old that it’s too cold for a walk! I gave Freddie the option of choosing which way we walked. We went to the Palm House first to look at the geese and ducks on the pond in front of it. At which point Nonna had to confess that she’d forgotten to bring the Quack Snacks to feed them, but Freddie turned out to be most excited by the huge fish he could see swimming around and coming to the surface – about ½ metre or more long. Then I suggested we made our way to the larger lake where we’d find lots more ducks, geese and even swans. Freddie remembered the bridge (Sackler Crossing) and said he wanted to go across it.

There were people around and I reminded him of social distancing and we mustn’t go too close to others walking, but he’s a sensible little chap who now has a good understanding of these things so Nonna didn’t have to keep reminding him or stress about upsetting anyone. As we moved further away from the entrance it was quieter anyway; only a few people around, so Freddie was able to run around and have great fun.

We spent a long time at the lake. A lone teenage duckling was amongst a group of geese who were hassling it. Freddie wanted the little duck to find its family. Then the duck flew off, which was a cause of wonder and excitement. It didn’t go far and we slowly followed it. Freddie crouched down – so it wouldn’t be frightened, he told me – and got really close and we were befriended. It took some persuasion to eventually move on as Freddie would have stayed there all day!

Freddie was charged with finding a bench to eat our picnic. I suggested not too close to the geese! He spied one up a little hill amongst trees near the lake and we settled down to eat. It was a simple picnic (we weren’t in Wimbledon or Glyndebourne mode) – just some sandwiches, a tub of cucumber and carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, olives (because all my grandsons love olives) … and cakes!!

They may not have looked pretty but wow … they tasted brilliant! The special flour had brought a gorgeous extra taste to them and I love the way the blueberries burst just a little into the dough. The picnic was a success. But then even the 5 year old was feeling the wind and cold were getting a bit much and asked if we could go back to Nonna’s house now. But we’d been there for almost a couple of hours and, according to my phone, walked a couple of miles … so home it was.

Dreaming of Travelling

Like many people, I’m really missing making travel plans during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m fortunate that in normal times I get away four or five times a year. Usually for short breaks and rarely longer than a week. I like to always have something to look forward to in the fairly near future, and as I travel solo a lot, and like cities, short breaks suit me well.

As the world begins to open up again, albeit with many restrictions still, we can start to think about travelling again. But this proves to be a bit of a minefield for discussion; people have very different ideas about when they would go abroad, jump on a plane, stay in a hotel, or wander round a city again. Even ‘normal’ life reveals a big range of what is acceptable to people, never mind what is actually ‘allowed’ now. Some people are still having to shield; some people still don’t feel comfortable going out at all; some wear masks and gloves while others (unless it’s mandatory, like on public transport) wouldn’t dream of it. Many people say they can’t envisage when they’d go into a restaurant, cinema or theatre again, let alone into an airport and onto a plane; others can’t wait to get back into pubs and restaurants. This isn’t a time for judgements. Everyone must do what they’re happy with and according to their own personal circumstances.

Nothing is risk free, of course, and I happen to think that so many safety precautions are being put in place in airports and on planes that it’s probably not that unsafe. But for me, the real issue is not the flight itself, but the hassle involved in getting on the plane in the first place and what I’ll find the other end. Places like Italy and Spain may have ‘opened up’ but there are still restrictions. I’m not keen on the idea of arriving and finding I can’t wander in and out of restaurants, cafes and bars at will; visit art galleries and museums without a mask or having to maintain a ‘social’ distance as I go round; sit in places separated from fellow diners by glass or plastic panels; be surrounded by and served by people wearing masks. Frankly, I think, just what kind relaxing holiday would that be! It actually feels easier to just stay at home where I’m now accustomed to what I can do and what to expect. I’m actually spending less money than usual because I’m not going to theatres and restaurants or travelling, so it makes sense to save towards a pandemic-free holiday next year and plan to treat myself a bit more than normal.

I started an ‘After the Lockdown … ‘ list a few weeks ago. It was both an action of positivity and optimism, and a bit of a reality check. There seemed no point in planning a trip this year. If things change dramatically for the better than I can book a last-minute trip but otherwise, let’s concentrate on and look forward to a sunnier future in 2021.

It got me thinking about the kind of holidays I’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. It also made me think about the many things we’ve learnt – and hopefully will remember and act on – from the pandemic. So, of course, we must all take the care of our world into account and all the environmental issues we’ve been largely reluctant to engage with up to now. Thus my planning has been about exploring ideas for fewer but longer trips; less miles in the air over a year.

It’s made me feel better to look towards some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Then a couple of days ago I saw an article in National Geographic magazine about ‘why planning a trip can help your mental health’. So now it was official – thinking ahead really was good for me.

What’s interesting is where my dreams take me. In normal times I like to return to old favourite destinations with one or two new ones in a year. But my longings are for places I know well or a bit already. I crave the comfort of the familiar. This made me realise that the stress we’ve all be under for the past three months, even when we think we’ve adjusted and are doing okay, surfaces at the prospect of dealing with anything new or vaguely challenging. Of course, this is personal. I’m sure some people are longing to at last make a reality a trip to somewhere they’ve always dreamed of going. If the pandemic has done nothing else (and of course it’s done plenty), it’s highlighted that we should enjoy life while we may and not put off things that we could do now.

Certain things have ignited my desire for travel to particular places.

I want to go back to beautiful Turin because it’s become a favourite haunt and I had to cancel my trip there in March; a trip I’d planned out carefully, not only staying in one of my favourite hotels anywhere, Grand Hotel Sitea, but now I knew the restaurants and cafes I liked best, I would just indulge myself in enjoying them and not pressurise myself into feeling I should try new places.

I have a great yearning to return to Granada, which I visited for the first time in 2017. I have some earrings I bought there and always think of the beautiful city when I put them on. And I listen to ClassicFM most of the time I’m in the house (and car!) and whenever they play Francisco Tarrega’s ‘Recuerdoes de la Alhambra’ (Memories of the Alhambra), which they do quite often, it stirs my own memories and I always think: ‘I must go there again.’

It was Fred Sirieix’s new series of Remarkable Places to Eat last Thursday that put Marrakesh in my mind again. I find him very entertaining and I really enjoyed watching him wandering around this Moroccan city with Andi Oliver and eating the kind of gorgeous food I love. I’ve only been to Marrakesh a couple of times; the last back in 2008 with my friend Tina. So it really must be time I returned to this vibrant, colourful and exciting city.

It’s a remarkable 5 years since I was last in Venice – April 2015. I say remarkable because I love it so much and have been so many times, I’ve lost count. I’ve been in touch by email with Walter and Sandro, owners of my favourite hotel – Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – during the pandemic to ask how they are. I promised I would visit when I could. The hotel has reopened but I want to wait for things to ease more and become a bit more normal before I book a trip.

Are you dreaming of travelling? Where would you like to go on your first post-pandemic trip? Do please let me know.

Linguine with Tuna, Tomatoes & Olives

It turned out to be a perfect supper plan. After my lovely afternoon with the family at Wisley Gardens, a simple, easy-to-prepare supper was ideal. It was really a store-cupboard meal, even though the idea of just rooting around to see what I had in store wasn’t the inspiration. The inspiration was Donna Leon’s Unto Us A Son Is Given – her 28th Commissario Brunetti novel.

My book group has a theme once a month and in April our theme was crime. One of the authors who came out as well liked was Donna Leon and her Brunetti series. I was pretty sure I had one of the books somewhere … don’t we all buy books we don’t get round to reading, or not for a long time? … but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I ordered the latest in paperback: Unto Us A Son Is Given.

As a freelance book editor, I spend a lot of time reading books that I might not choose to read. Sometimes this works well and I discover a new author I like a lot; sometimes it’s a struggle to read a book word by careful word which is a necessary part of the job. So my new Donna Leon waited until there was a break in work – and what a treat it turned out to be. I really don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to know Commissario Brunetti. Apart from being set in beautiful Venice (that I love and know so well), Brunetti – much like his counterpart down in Sicily, Commissario Montalbano – is very fond of his food, and food features quite a lot in the book. Brunetti goes for lunch with a colleague one day to a favourite restaurant, the colleague ‘passed a menu to Brunetti. It was a show gesture and meaningless. Brunetti always ate paccheri with tuna, olives and pomodorini’. And thus my supper was born. I didn’t have paccheri (large tubes of pasta commonly used for fish dishes in Italy), but I did have linguine. And I ordered the next, 29th, Brunetti novel for my next reading treat …

I didn’t really need a recipe but thought it was fun to look through my books. It took a surprising amount of time (for someone who has so many Italian cookbooks!) but then I found pretty much what I had in mind in Giorgio Locatelli’s Made at Home. Giorgio uses spaghetti rather than linguine. He does use tinned tuna but is more particular about his olives than I was planning to be. I had some good quality pitted Kalamata olives open, but Giorgio says you must always use olives with stones then ‘crush them, so that the bitterness from the stone is released into the flesh, before pitting them’. A step too far for me yesterday … I also put some shallot into my tomato sauce, not just garlic as he does, because that’s the way I like to make it.

I had some excellent quality tinned chopped tomatoes which I buy in Corto Deli; they’re amazing. I also had some very good tuna in olive oil that I buy in Waitrose to keep in my store cupboard. I normally use it for sandwiches at lunchtime; maybe a salad but mostly I’ll buy fresh tuna if planning to make a meal with it.

The dish is very easy to put together; it’s also adaptable. If you have a different kind of pasta, use what you have; it’s OK to use green olives rather than black; if you don’t have capers or fresh parsley, leave them out; if you don’t like spicy food leave out the chilli. The essentials are the pasta, tuna, tomato and olives. As I was cooking just for myself I made the sauce with one 400g tin of tomatoes but kept half back to freeze for another day, before adding the tuna, olives and parsley at the end.

 

Linguine with Tuna, Tomatoes & Olives 

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • 1 pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • level teaspoon capers
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • linguine (about 100g per serving)
  • a few black olives
  • small (80g) tin good quality tuna
  • small handful roughly chopped parsley

 

 

Heat the olive oil with the chopped shallot in a medium-sized saucepan. As the shallot starts to soften (1-2 minutes), add the grated garlic and pinch of chilli. Let it cook for another couple of minutes until the shallot has softened but not coloured.

 

Add the chopped tomatoes and capers. Season with salt and pepper (take care with the salt if your capers are a bit salty; if preserved in salt, rinse them first. Also bear in mind saltiness of olives at the end). Give it all a good stir, bring up to a simmer and then turn heat down to low and cook gently with a lid for about 10-15 minutes. [If you’re cooking for just one, divide the sauce in half once ready to freeze one portion for another day.]

 

Meanwhile, cook the pasta (about 10 minutes or according to instructions on your packet). Try to match the cooking time to when the sauce will be ready so everything can go together as it’s done.

   

Add the olives, tuna (flake it a bit as you take it from the tin) and chopped parsley. Stir carefully to mix all well together. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water. Tip the pasta into the tuna and tomato sauce, with a little of the water. Stir well over a medium heat for a minute or two.

 

Transfer to a serving plate and – if the fancy takes you – sprinkle over a little more chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.

It really was delicious. I served it on one of my lovely Italian plates for maximum gorgeous effect. It’s the sort of dish that you can quickly put together from ingredients easily found in your store cupboard but despite its simplicity, it’s very special. Hopefully Commissario Brunetti would approve!

A Family Outing to RHS Garden Wisley

Wisley gardens are one of my favourite places to go. Just a 20-minute drive from my home, they’re a regular destination. Normally – not in lockdown times – they have a terrific schedule of events and exhibitions and I’ve been there a lot with the family – to see an exhibition of life-sized safari animals made of Lego; huge dinosaur sculptures; butterflies in the Glasshouse; birds of prey displays. During the 3-months of lockdown, Wisley been one of the places I’ve really missed going to. But now it’s open again!

Just as for my visit to the reopened Kew Gardens, even as a RHS Member (which I and all the family are), it’s necessary to book an entry slot. Lyndsey organised it all and we were booked to go in between 2-3pm today. We arrived a bit after two and were surprised by how busy the large car park was – it took quite a while to find a space.

At the entrance we came first to a long queue for the Garden Centre & Shop, with the social distancing 2m marked out for people. Wisley’s garden centre is my favourite; it’s wonderful, both for the huge choice of plants and their fantastic quality. But there was no way I was going to join that queue after our visit!

The queue into the actual gardens wasn’t so long and also had 2m-markers indicating the space to leave between people.

The boys (5½ and 2½) were so excited to be back, recognising Wisley from previous outings. They were literally jumping for joy and rushing around.

Freddie wanted to go to see the bear. The bear – a large sculpture by a stream, catching a fish – was formally a thing of great fear. He was terrified when he first saw it and on subsequent trips we had to distract him so he didn’t see it. But since that time Freddie has discovered David Attenborough, loves wildlife programmes, and the bear is now a cause for excitement of a happy kind. He even knew the way to go, leading us up some steps towards the Jellicoe Canal and the iconic Laboratory building – such a recognisable feature of Wisley – and from there past the walled garden.

The walled garden has a wonderful display of ‘alternatives to box’ hedges.

There was also an amazing display of acers in the borders. As a family we’re a bit addicted to acers (don’t ask me why! We just love them) and the ones seen here and others in the Wisley gardens are glorious.

Walking along the path by the Alpine Meadow we saw the bear. The boys were so happy and excited and we stopped there for a while.

 

We cut through a path by the bear and into Oakwood, a lovely wooded area with little winding paths going through it. It was actually quite busy so we took the quietest routes. There was a lot of colour, which was a joy to see.

We looked at the Gunnera manicata – the giant’s rhubarb. It did indeed look like enormous rhubarb but I’m not at all sure it was rhubarb of the culinary kind!

Eventually we emerged from the woods to find ourselves facing the Glasshouse. During these socially distancing times, it’s closed but they’d put a lovely display of plants by the entrance.

There’s also a lake there with a few ducks to please the boys.

We started wandering up towards the arboretum but then decided we needed to head back to an open space for the boys to run around – and find coffee for ourselves!

We slowly made our way back towards the entrance and the Food Hall. That would be closed, but there were coffee stalls outside and we knew there was a big open space for the boys to run around.

We passed through Seven Acres and found a huge vegetable sculpture.

Then Freddie started running towards another of the lakes and the Japanese pagoda.

At the lake there were not just ducks but enormous fish swimming around, sometimes coming to the surface and opening their huge mouths. The boys thought this was wonderful but the anxious grandmother in me told them not to put their fingers near. The fish were coming right up to the edge and we could have easily touched them.

It’s a lovely peaceful area. I said to my son Jonathan how much I loved Wisley. I love Kew Gardens, but Wisley always seems much more intimate; a little more casual in the nicest way. Casual only in terms of how it feels to be there; the gardens are beautifully laid out and cared for and it’s one of the UK’s most famous and respected gardens. I always think of it being much smaller than Kew, but that must be because of the way it’s laid out as it’s 240 acres to Kew’s 300 acres – so smaller, but not massively so.

The grown-ups eventually got their coffee and we’d brought drinks for the boys and some banana and blueberry muffins I’d made in the morning. We sat down for a while having our snack before heading home. We’d been there for a couple of hours but planned (especially with our memberships) to go back again soon. It’s a great place for us to head to for a walk in nature and to get out of London, without it being a long trip.

Out through the exit and back towards the car park we spotted some tables set up with some plants for sale, with no need to queue for the garden centre to pay for them. It was a limited choice but I couldn’t resist buying a couple of things to bring home.

They’re now happily settled in my garden and will be a great reminder of a happy and lovely afternoon out with the family at Wisley.

Cooking with Freddie: Olive Focaccia

Well it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to cook with Freddie, my gorgeous 5½-year-old grandson. With the pandemic lockdown, for weeks we couldn’t see each other and then only at social distance, which Freddie was very strict about! ‘The virus’ is part of his new vocabulary. One has to hope there won’t be a long-term scar.

Now, as someone living alone, I’ve been able to ‘bubble’ with my son and his family (who live within walking distance) and thus seeing and even hugging Freddie is ‘allowed’. This is truly a delight.

Freddie came to my house a couple of mornings ago. Now he can visit me again, he likes being here as it’s part of his ‘normality’ (in ‘normal’ times I take him to school three days a week; pick him up once and bring him back to my house for about three hours until his mum’s home). He has toys here (shared with the other two grandsons) and knows the treats Nonna will allow him. ‘Tickle water’ for a start; i.e. Pellegrino sparkling water. Whenever the family come for a meal, Freddie’s first question will be: ‘What’s for pudding?’ Because he knows I’ll always make a dessert. A treat was on offer on Tuesday … a promise that we’d go for a walk down by Twickenham Riverside, feed the ducks and geese, and go into Corto Deli, which now sells ice cream from Gelateria Danieli. Gelato for Freddie; coffee for Nonna; Quack Snacks (a new find of safe, healthy duck food) for the ducks and geese.

But we’d also decided to make some focaccia. Freddie’s dad, my son Jonathan, makes wonderful sourdough bread; Nonna keeps things more simple and makes focaccia. Focaccia is so simple even a 5½ year old can (almost) make it (with a little help from Nonna). So that was our plan. And although I’ve made focaccia for years and years, I’d never thought of putting olives on top. But when I asked Freddie what we should put on it, ‘Olives!’ he immediately said. So we did.

I said it would be a good idea to make the dough before we went out, as it needs to be left for an hour to rise (with his dad’s regular bread making, this was completely understood by Freddie). While it was rising, I said, we’d go down to Corto and get his ice cream and feed the ducks.

For my focaccia recipe click here. I’ve started using half semola and half Italian ’00’ flour and buy these and fresh yeast from Corto.

 

We measured the flours. I pointed out the numbers on the digital scales to Freddie and we watched until we reached the required amount and he tipped them into a big bowl. We measured out the water – some boiling water and cold. Was it lukewarm? Could you leave your finger in it comfortably? No, not quite. A little more cold water. Then the fresh yeast (already weighed) went in and Freddie mixed it all together with a small whisk then poured it into a well I’d made in the flour. We added sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Then I gave Freddie a spatula to start mixing it together.

I had to take over to gather the dough into a ball and start the kneading. Then I left him do it for a bit. (He’d already learned to knead with his dad.) I did take over after a while (10 minutes of kneading is a long time when you’re five!).

We put the dough back into the large bowl and covered the bowl with clingfilm. Now it was treat time! And we headed down to central Twickenham and the riverside.

We bought not only gelato and coffee in Corto but some prosciutto too, for lunch. We told Romina we were making focaccia and Freddie said we were going to put olives on it. Romina seemed suitably impressed; she’s always so lovely with him and has watched him grow from a tiny baby in arms to the schoolboy he is now.

Back at my house the dough had risen well.

I do think this is an exciting cooking experience for a child – the magic of the way the dough slowly puffs up! Really, who wouldn’t be awed by it.

I lifted it carefully out on to the worktop. Then knocked it back slightly and shaped it into a baking tray. I gently pushed shallow holes into the dough in rows and poured on a little olive oil and spread it all over with my fingers. I seasoned it with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; sprinkled over a little dried oregano. Then Freddie and I counted the olives. We counted the holes I’d made first … 20. So we counted out 20 olives from the jar. Freddie carefully put an olive into each little dip. This is something that a child can easily do but gets so much satisfaction from. Now it had to be left for another 30 minutes to rise again.

The preheated oven was hot and ready and into it went the focaccia dough. A little over 10 minutes later it was beautifully golden brown and ready. Nonna lifted it out (not something for a 5 year old to do!) and transferred it to a cooling rack.

I sent a photo to my son, who was working at home: Look what Freddie and I have made! He said he’d join us for lunch.

The prosciutto that Romina had cut freshly only about an hour ago was laid on one of my lovely Italian platters. Roasted peppers in oil from a jar; buffalo mozzarella; sweet cherry tomatoes with some fresh basil; a little mound of olives in the middle. And our freshly baked focaccia. I’d cut in half (half could go back with Freddie to his home).

What a perfect lunch. What a delight to cook with Freddie again; to enjoy a simple lunch of the best ingredients with two of my favourite people in the world. Joy can be found in small moments.

The Bubble Barbecue

Ten weeks of Lockdown and for the first time, this week, I could celebrate my single, solo-living status: the government announced that as part of the gradual easing of restrictions people living alone could now form a social ‘bubble’ with one other household. While before I could go round to my son’s and sit in their garden at a 2-metre distance, I can now legally go into their house and even hug them. And with gorgeous little grandsons of 5½ and 2½, that’s a very big thing.

Fortunately there was no need to agonise over who to ‘bubble’ with. Only people living alone can do this; couples can’t and nor can two families ‘bubble’. I immediately saw how fortunate I was that I’m the sole single grandparent living near my son and his family; my daughter-in-law’s family are in North Wales. My daughter lives in Worcestershire, so again, not a practical bubble companion. I observed all this with some relief for we are only allowed to form one social bubble: how difficult it must be for some people to have to choose between one parent living alone over another; one child rather than another. It must also be difficult for some people living alone and choosing friends to ‘bubble’ with, but luckily for me, with my son a clear choice for my bubble, there’s no risk of me upsetting friends.

Yesterday we met for a walk by Twickenham Riverside and stopped at Corto Deli to buy takeaway coffees, babyccinos for the boys, and pastries to eat, and then found a bench by the River Thames to sit and enjoy our morning treat. Eel Pie Island was opposite us, a famous music venue in the 1960s where groups like The Who, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and many others started out playing.

Ducks, geese (Canadian and Egyptian varieties), and graceful swans, floated past. Small boats chugged along the river, their outboard motors seeming to strain with the effort; canoes and kayaks with serious rowers glided past, just a faint plashing sound as their oars rhythmically hit the water. Pre Lockdown, the family and I regularly met for a morning coffee on Saturdays but somehow this small step back towards a more normal life again seemed incredibly special.

It was decided that we’d have a Sunday meal together. We don’t really ‘do’ lunch – eating a big meal halfway through the day never appeals. It always seems like the second half of the day is lost to the after-effects of a big meal and most likely some alcohol. But with two little ones, supper needs to be quite early – around 6.00pm. Jonathan offered to barbecue; I offered to take lamb mince and some chicken breasts out of my freezer and make a couple of our favourite Moro recipes.

I used to live by Moro cookbooks. For years I thought of Moro as one of my favourite restaurants but for many reasons – certainly not a bad meal – I just haven’t made it back there for a few years. Moro East, Moro the Cookbook and Casa Moro are three of my most used cookbooks. Their worn appearance and a proliferation of those little sticky coloured tabs poking shyly out from the tops of pages, is testament to my addiction. It was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered that I’d never put their ‘chicken with tahini marinade’ and ‘lamb kofte’ recipes on the blog. As a family, we’ve cooked them so many times we barely need to check the recipes when we make them. The chicken is actually a chicken wings recipe for the barbecue but I’m firmly a chicken breast person, despite the current obsession with chicken thighs for cooking. But do feel free to swap in thighs or wings for this:

Barbecued Chicken with Tahini

  • Chicken (I used 3 large chicken breasts but thighs or wings are great too)

Marinade

  • 2-3 garlic cloves, grated and mixed with 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons tahini paste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl, then add the chicken. Turn the chicken over (best done with your hands) and make sure it’s well coated with the marinade. I kept my breasts whole, to be sliced once barbecued, but you can cut them into smaller pieces and put on kebab sticks, if you like. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave for at least an hour before cooking. If you make it well ahead of time keep in the fridge but bring out to come back to room temperature before barbecuing.

 

Lamb Kofte (makes about 16)

  • 400g lamb mince
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot
  • good pinch of dried chilli
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely grated and mixed with 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • about 2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped (optional – see below)
  • freshly ground black pepper

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl by hand (don’t be tempted to put in a food processor or you’ll get a paste, which won’t work). Once everything is well mixed together, take spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into small balls with hands greased with a little oil. I actually weighed mine! (Yes, dedication to accuracy here 😉) I worked out I could make 16 balls of 27g each.

The original Moro recipe has 750g of mince and so I adapted the measurements a bit. They make larger kofte, more sausage shape, that they work onto skewers. They also use fresh chillis, which I didn’t have, but normally use, so I just guessed an amount of dried chilli. Neither did I have fresh coriander so I just left that out (I’d thought I’d pick some parsley from my garden supply but forgot until it was too late!). The message here is only that don’t worry about getting it all perfect. It’s a pretty adaptable recipe and as long as you more or less follow the original then it will all be fine.

I made some Glorious Grains & Roasted Vegetables to go with it all, but some roast potatoes and a green salad would be great too. Sometimes I make a couscous or freekeh salad, or perhaps fattoush, to accompany this kind of meal.

It was so lovely to sit round the table, en famille again. Large doors opened onto the still warm garden, glasses were raised, for it was our own small celebration of the good things in life.

Return to Kew Gardens

Everyone has missed something during Lockdown since late March, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. There have been many common experiences but each person has had their own unique experience too. There have been some really difficult things to negotiate a way through for many people but, though I long for a return to a greater ‘normality’, I’m conscious of ‘gains’ too: more regular contact, albeit via FaceTime or Skype, with some family and friends; time to mentally process changes and think about what direction I want to take as Lockdown eases; focus on what’s really important in my life. If that sounds a little serious then I think a lot of people have experienced Lockdown as an imposed Retreat and been forced to take stock of various parts of their life – and that can be a good thing!

Apart from not seeing family and friends in person, which of course has been the most difficult thing, I’ve missed theatre, cinema, restaurants, art galleries, travelling; things as simple as taking a break from work and jumping on a bus into Richmond to stroll round the shops and stop for a coffee or maybe in the summer an ice cream. I’ve missed waking on a sunny morning and being able to just jump in the car and drive the couple of miles to Kew Gardens for a long walk in what are the largest and most diverse botanical gardens in the world. So when I got an email saying they were reopening I couldn’t resist booking a slot. They’ve obviously had to adapt to the social distancing rules and therefore even Friends of Kew Gardens (like me) who can normally just turn up, wave their membership card, and go in, need to book an entry slot (at no extra cost). Numbers are limited and booking is essential – you won’t be allowed in unless you’ve pre-booked.

I had an entry time of 11.00-11.45am this morning. Once in, you can stay as long as you like. It was a bit disappointing after the wonderful weather of late that it was a cloudy and slightly chilly morning, but there wasn’t rain! I’d been informed of various rules and changes to visiting in my booking email but was a little uncertain how I would find things when I arrived. I knew that entry was only via the Victoria Gate, but you can’t exit there; you have to exit via the Lion or Elizabeth gates (the less used Brentford Gate still operates a 2-way system). Once in, I wondered, would paths be marked – like in shops now – indicating you had to go in a particular direction? It turned out that once inside you could go in any direction you liked – still adhering to the 2m social distancing rule, of course. As warned, shops and restaurants, the glasshouses and galleries, were closed. But – as also informed – there as a stall where one could buy coffee. So, it being 11am and coffee time, coffee was first on my agenda once inside.

I passed the closed main shop and cafe to find an open coffee stall tucked just round the corner.

Soon I had a hot coffee and delicious carrot muffin in my hands.

Not far away I saw an empty bench and sat down to enjoy my snack with a view across to the Palm House.

There were a few people around but – as expected – it was fairly quiet and there was going to be no difficulty in maintaining the social distance required.

I’m so used to this view but what immediately struck me, looking over to the Palm House, was the lack of colour. Usually in June one would go into the Gardens and find a blaze of glorious colours, yet there wasn’t much colour in sight. The large beds in front of the Palm House, normally full of bright bedding plants, lay empty. I guess this is because while the Gardens were closed the gardeners couldn’t work. They were clearly trying to catch up now: bedding areas were newly dug over and composted; long hosepipes were watering newly planted areas.

After finishing my coffee, I took my accustomed route round the large pond. I always love this view back across to the Palm House.

Further round I walked a little way up the Great Broad Walk. This too would normally be full of colour at this time of the year but only a few bright things could be found that seemed (a bit like in my own garden!), leftovers from last year.

 

I backtracked towards the Palm House again.

Walking round to the back of the Palm House I came to the Rose Garden where bright roses were bursting all around. From almost no colour, suddenly I was surrounded by pinks, reds and yellows. Later on I found some heavily fragranced, white Philadelphus ‘Audrey’ near the Pagoda. Their wonderful perfume filled the air.

  

But back to the Palm House – from here I walked through deserted areas towards the lake and the Sackler Crossing. It was both weird and wonderful to be there when it was so quiet. I often choose – being a local – to go into Kew Gardens at quiet times and avoid the crowds and coach loads when I can, but this was a unique kind of quietness!

The lake and crossing are one of my favourite parts of the Gardens. I thought the bridge – the Crossing – might be closed but in fact people were walking across it; a notice asked you to keep to the left at all times to maintain social distance.

I didn’t go all the way across but headed back towards the Treetop Walkway and Temperate House. I know my way round well enough to know this was good route back towards the Lion Gate where I would exit. I’d planned ahead and parked my car near there and walked along the road (about 10 minutes) to go in at Victoria Gate.

This is a route I most often take anyway, liking to stop by the Japanese Gateway and garden and enjoy a moment of stillness there.

Moving on towards the Pagoda I went right up close.

I looked up to the dragons breathing their fire from above me!

   

I walked past the Pagoda and made my way through a slightly wooded area to the Lion Gate.

Once at the gate I met a riot of bright alstroemerias. They looked so gorgeous and cheerful, it was a wonderful way to end my visit.

I really enjoyed my visit. Things may be a little different inside the Gardens – much as they’re different outside! – with less colour and more overgrown parts. They were a little wilder than normal; less manicured. But still lovely and still very special. I’ve booked to go back next week. I feel so fortunate that Kew Gardens are one of my local gardens and I want to make the most of enjoying them now. I always go a lot throughout the year, but right now my visit this morning spoke of the hope of slowly getting back to doing the things we love best.

Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa (2)

This is the second version of a favourite family dish – hence the (2) in the title. The original version was one of my first ever posts on the blog back in 2011. I used to often make the dish, partly because I liked it so much and it’s really simple, especially for a midweek supper, but also because tuna is about the only fish my son eats – and he likes this dish a lot.

I’m still getting a lot of food online or from local deliveries. I’m going into shops again occasionally but the queues are so long that I end up thinking it’s easier to put in an online order. I like ordering fish from the local fishmonger, Sandy’s in Twickenham, but tend to order a few things at a time and freeze it. I still have some left from my last order … but no tuna. And I saw someone cooking tuna on TV the other day and was reminded I hadn’t cooked it in ages; so I added tuna steaks to my Waitrose list … and a mango! I rarely cook tuna without making this salsa; it’s just a perfect accompaniment.

But as so often happens now, a little bit of adaption was necessary this evening: I didn’t have fresh red chillies, nor lime or fresh coriander. Instead, I made the salsa a little ahead of eating so that I could put in some dried chilli flakes and give them time to soften a bit and impart their gorgeous fiery hit. The tuna was simply griddled with a bit of oil coating and seasoning. I also griddled half a Little Gem lettuce as they griddle well and are a great accompaniment to fish; I roasted some new potatoes.

Prepare the salsa about an hour before you want to eat if possible. If you’re cooking last minute, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

 

Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa – Serves one

  • new potatoes (enough for one) cut into chip/wedge shapes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • za’atar (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tuna steak
  • ½ Little Gem lettuce

Salsa

  • Half a mango, cut into small cubes
  • ¼ small red onion, finely chopped
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • handful of chopped fresh herbs (coriander if you have it or I used a mix of flat-leaf parsley and mint from my garden)
  • extra virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons
  • good squeeze fresh lemon or lime
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Put all the salsa ingredients in a bowl, give them a good stir to combine well, cover with cling film and put in the fridge for about an hour.

About a half hour before eating, cut the potato, with skin on, into chip-sized wedges. Put in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and boil for just a minute. Drain. Transfer to a small roasting dish. Drizzle over a little olive oil and sprinkle over a little za’atar if you like. Roast in a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for about half an hour, turning a couple of times, until nicely golden brown.

 

Heat the griddle until hot. Smear a little oil over the tuna steak and season with salt and pepper. Put on the hot grill. You can see on the side how it’s cooking through. Turn over and grill the other side. Depending on how rare you like your tuna, allow a little ‘raw’ to remain or cook through if you prefer it well done, but try not to overcook it or it will dry out.

I chose to griddle half a Little Gem lettuce at the same time, coated with some olive oil, and grilled both sides.

It’s all incredibly easy. Serve the hot food with spoonfuls of the mango salsa at the side.

It’s fantastically summery and was perfect for the end of a hot day when the air was still very warm and I could eat supper in the garden. The salsa wasn’t quite the same without the fresh chillies, coriander and lime but still excellent. I just love the combination of the tuna with the spicy mango salsa.