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Restaurant Review: Latium

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Over the last few years it’s become a lovely tradition to get together with Annie and Jerry for a meal just before Christmas. This year they suggested somewhere new to me for our meal – and of course every food blogger just loves trying out new restaurants, and in my case, especially when it’s an Italian restaurant.

Latium is situated in London’s Fitzrovia, in Berners Street. It’s named after the Lazio region of Italy (in which Rome lies) and specialises in food from that area – though not exclusively so. They source ingredients from small artisan producers, use seasonal products and make their bread and pasta fresh every day. They’re apparently well known for their ravioli. We arrived in time for the early evening menu, which is quite extensive, offering a choice of six starters, six mains and dessert is a choice from the à la carte menu. It’s very reasonably priced at £17.50 for 2 courses and £21 for 3 courses.

It was quiet when we arrived but soon started filling up. The welcome was warm and friendly and after handing over our winter coats we were shown to our table. It’s was a perfectly sized round table for 3 people, which is just so much more friendly than a rectangular one. Menus came, a bowl of bread and some olive oil put on the table. Jerry ordered a bottle of fizz and we started to make our choices.

I could have happily ordered most of the dishes. The starters ranged from Minestrone soup, to mozzarella with grilled vegetables, carpaccio of pig’s tongue (which I have to confess I wasn’t quite so sure about) and beef bresaola. However, I chose Grilled Mazzancolle Prawns with Cod Brandade and Grilled Polenta.

It was nicely presented and very delicious. The prawns were particularly tasty. Annie had the same starter while Jerry chose Cod and Smoked Salmon Fish Cake with Lime Mayonnaise, Limon Cress and Pea Shoots. He said it was wonderful, the fish cake had a lovely smooth texture and he liked the lime flavours with it from the mayonnaise and limon cress, which is known for its scent and taste of lime with a slight hint of aniseed.

We chose different main courses. I had Grilled Lamb Leg Steak, Deep Fried Artichokes, Fondant New Potatoes and Balsamic.

It was a wonderful plate of food. The lamb was perfectly cooked with a caramelised, slightly crisp outside but gloriously pink and rare in the middle. Just perfect!

Annie had Deboned and Grilled Quail ‘al mattone’, Castelluccio Lentils, Seasonal Mushrooms and Chestnut. I think the Christmasy chestnuts appealed to her but so too did having the quail deboned. ‘Al mattone’ literally means ‘by the brick’: the bird (often chicken) is butterflied and weighed down on the grill by a brick so that it cooks quickly and is juicy and smoky. Annie said it was perhaps the best quail she’d ever had and gave me a taste. It was wonderful and incredibly tender.

Jerry chose Slow Roasted Belly of Pork with Calabrian Spicy Ndjua, which was also good. We’d ordered a bottle of Primitivo to drink with our mains.

Annie didn’t want dessert but luckily for me, Jerry did, so I didn’t debate with myself long about going for the 3 courses. I chose Bonet Piemontese, Amaretti Crumble, Caramel and Whipped Cream.

One could see the density of the chocolate but the eating was gloriously light and it was a fabulous dessert. Jerry had White Chocolate & Amaretto Mousse, Coconut Biscuit and Fig Sauce.

It looked good and apparently tasted good too. Then we all ordered coffee and a plate of petit fours came with it, including some pieces of panettone – obviously for the Christmas effect!

It was a lovely meal and all the lovelier for the company of two of my dearest friends. We lingered for some time, enjoying our meal at a relaxing pace but never feeling we were waiting for anything. The service was excellent and Latium was definitely a great restaurant to be introduced to.

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

Restaurant Review: Pho & Bun

It might seem that there’s a theme going on with the second review of a Vietnamese restaurant in 5 days, but just as the visit to Viet Pho on Saturday was completely spontaneous, so was last night’s meal at Pho & Bun – I hadn’t even particularly had a Vietnamese meal in mind.

I was on my way to join my friends Lucia and David. We were to see the much acclaimed Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, just off Haymarket. Lucia had suggested we meet at Pompi in Shaftesbury Avenue for tiramisu first and some time to chat and catch up before the play. Well if you read my review of the Richmond branch of Pompi (click here) you’ll know that their tiramisu is reckoned to be some of the best in the world. But it’s not a meal; it’s not supper. So I decided to find some kind of snack first and then have tiramisu for dessert. I did consider pizza, which of course would have been a great prelude to tiramisu, but I didn’t fancy that. Instead I decided to go into Pho & Bun in Shaftesbury Avenue, which happened to be directly opposite Pompi. Rather a clash of cuisines, perhaps, but even food bloggers can sometimes go completely off piste with their choice of food.

The weather outside was horrendous: heavy rain, a bitter cold wind. I was so tempted to a bowl of steaming pho again. But Pho & Bun are known for their buns, steamed bao buns, and since I hadn’t yet tried a bao bun, despite their crazy popularity in London over the last year or two, it seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

It was very early, just after 5, so I had no problem getting a table, although there were a few other people already sitting at tables and as the restaurant filled up, everyone who came in had booked. So I think booking for a later time would be essential.

It’s a small place … though there’s some additional seating downstairs … with very simple decor and bare wood tables packed close together. The sense of Vietnam is brought via paintings on the bare brick wall as well as, of course, the menu.

I chose their ‘signature Bao Burger’, which, they tell us, ‘is freshly made in house everyday and served with salad, house pickle, fresh herb, homemade mayonnaise sauce and choices of free range organic meat’. I chose ’28 Days Dry aged beef’ (£6.95) but there was also BBQ honey belly pork, a confit of belly pork, crispy tiger prawns or lemon grass tofu. The waiter asked if I also wanted sweet potato chips which come with chilli mayonnaise (£3.50) and I ordered those too, as well as a glass of Merlot (5.95).

My glass of wine and some tap water came quickly, and I didn’t have too long to wait until my burger arrived. All the way through the service was friendly and efficient.

When one is used to burgers in (the now popular) brioche buns, it does look quite strange, this white, almost translucent bun. The sweet potato chips, however, looked fabulous. And indeed, they were: gorgeously crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre, with a little bowl of chilli mayonnaise on the side to dip them in.

   

The burger turned out to be delicious; really good. I tasted a little of the bun on its own and despite its bland appearance it definitely had a good taste all of its own. The beef burger was very good and very tasty; perhaps a little overdone – more medium than rare – for my ideal preference, but I enjoyed it a lot.

It was a perfect supper to enjoy before meeting up with my friends. I wandered around a little once I came out and then went into Pompi for Tiramisu Classico (Lucia chose pistachio) and an excellent macchiato. It really is the most amazing tiramisu.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Shaftesbury Avenue and head off to the theatre.

Sadly, I found the play Oslo, about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993, disappointing, despite the great reviews, and most people I know who’ve seen it think it’s brilliant. I found the humour overplayed, falling too often into farce; the rather old-fashioned male humour of pranks and jokes at odds with the serious subject; the female lead put almost into a clichéd school teacher role of having the bring the mostly male cast into order. There’s nothing wrong with humour in a serious play, as Shakespeare so well demonstrated, but the balance needs to be right for it to work. However, it was good to see it and very good indeed to see my friends and eat bao buns and tiramisu!

Pho & Bun Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Viet Pho, Soho

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It’s been a movie weekend. I go to the cinema quite a bit, but rarely two nights in a row. However, I was meeting up with two friends over Friday and Saturday with whom I often see a film and there were two films on at Curzon which had received 5* in the Guardian. Curzon specialise in independent, art house films. They’re a small chain (12 cinemas), mainly in London but also Canterbury, Oxford and Ripon, and although we have one in my local Richmond, I’m more often found at either the Mayfair or Soho branches. On Friday I was at Mayfair where I saw Happy End, a Michael Haneke film, which was absolutely brilliant. If you’ve seen any Haneke films you’ll know that ‘happy’ has nothing to do with it! Afterwards, friend Nicola and I ate at Sofra, a good Turkish restaurant conveniently close to the cinema. Last night I was at Curzon Soho to see Call Me By Your Name, a film of first love and gay love. Despite the rave reviews everywhere, I found it a bit disappointing: too long and not totally convincing on a number of levels. However, that led to a great discussion over supper as Elsa as had enjoyed it more … and we even got talking about it to the friendly staff in Viet Pho!

It was 9pm by the time we emerged onto London’s Shaftesbury Avenue and Elsa said she knew a good Vietnamese restaurant just round the corner in Greek Street. Viet Pho is a simple place: small, no frills, more cafe than restaurant. It’s also BYO (bring your own) and as we hadn’t thought to bring a bottle of wine or beer in with us, we settled on an alcohol-free meal rather than venture back into the freezing weather outside.

Seeing some people with a pot of tea at the next table, I decided to order some jasmine tea. A warming drink seemed like a good idea!

The menu offers mainly Vietnamese food, but there are also Thai dishes, like Pad Thai. We both decided to order Pho though.

The ‘pho’ in the soup’s name refers to the rice noodles it contains – bánh phð – and isn’t just the name of the dish. It’s also thought that ‘pho’ refers back to when French traders started travelling regularly to Vietnam in the 18th century and perhaps brought their famous Pot au Feu dish. This French dish contains beef and vegetables boiled slowly for a stew; the broth is poured over sliced meat and vegetables at the end – in fact, very similar to the Vietnamese ‘pho’. ‘Feu’ is French for fire – the dish cooked in a pot over a fire – and the similarity to ‘pho’ is obvious. We tend to pronounce it ‘ph – oh’ here but the Vietnamese pronunciation is more like the French ‘feu’.

The menu told us that ‘All soups are meat based and are garnished with coriander and spring onions, served with a side dish of bean sprouts, chillies, sweet basil and a wedge of lime’.

I chose the basic ‘Pho’ made with ‘aromatic beef marrow’, which came with a choice of sliced sirloin beef, chicken, prawns, beef ball or fried tofu. I had prawn (£8.50).

Elsa chose Seafood Pho (£9) which had squid and mussels as well as prawns.

It seemed a perfect dish for late night (by my standards!) eating, as well as being a comforting dish on a freezing December night. I loved it. I’ve had pho before (click here) and I love its gentle fragrancy; it manages to be both light and fresh but also offers great depth of flavour. There were bottles of condiments to add (fish sauce and chilli sauce) as well as the plate of garnishes that came with it. I didn’t want to add too much – it was gorgeous as it was – so for me, just a few bean sprouts, a little of the basil torn on top and a squeeze of lime. Perfect!

It was all we had and it was enough. Service had been quick, but we’d taken our time and it was now 10pm and time to be heading home (about an hour’s journey for me). As we waited for the bill, the restaurant now empty, one of the staff sat down with a steaming bowl of soup for himself and smiled at us and started talking. We said we’d been to the Curzon and told him what film we’d seen. Then another staff member joined in, she’d seen the film too, and soon we were talking films. It was really nice. It’s a family run place and their friendliness was welcome; their food is great and a great price for central London. I’ll definitely be back … though maybe next time with a bottle in hand!

Viet Pho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Travel Gourmet’s Christmas Gift Ideas for Foodies

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Most people are fairly traditional when it comes to food at Christmas. The wonderful and great late cookery writer Jane Grigson wrote: ‘In my experience, clever food is not appreciated at Christmas. It makes the little ones cry and the old ones nervous.’ I think things have changed a little since she wrote that and most of the ‘little ones’ I know develop a sophisticated palate as soon as they start eating solids. And I couldn’t possibly allow that old ones would be made nervous by clever food. In my experience it’s often the little ones – and by that I mean school kids – who wrap themselves in the comfort of tradition and want everything the same every Christmas. I can remember cries of, ‘But we always …’ from my own children when they were little.

If we have to stay traditional for the Christmas Day meal we can, however, branch out into creativity, cleverness and downright modern when it comes to gifts. Now when it comes to gifts, I want luxury; I want something I might not have thought to buy but turns out to be exactly what I need; I want a gift that I might feel was too extravagant to buy myself (and I’m not talking something necessarily hugely expensive but maybe a box of glorious Neuhaus chocolates). I’ve never been someone who thinks that something as mundane as a dishwasher could count as a present (not that anyone has ever tried that, but you know what I mean!). If the family needs a dishwasher, fine, let presents be small that year. But even the smallest, cheapest present, if bought with a huge amount of love, care and thought, can fill one with joy.

Foodie gifts don’t have to be food – though they might be. An interest in food covers all kinds of things and doesn’t even mean you like cooking – you might just like eating and know a lot about food. I’ve got a 10-week course booked at the Royal Academy of Art to study ‘a history of food in art’ from January. Now that would make a nice (if expensive) present; it appeals to my interest in food combined with another passionate interest – art. Perfect. Well, it was a gift to myself, but my point is that creativity goes a long way to making the perfect gift.

Here are some foodie gift suggestions. Many are pretty obvious but hopefully with a twist and it would be great if you felt it gave you some good ideas.

 

1. Food hampers

Perhaps the most obvious foodie gift is the hamper. Our most famous London one has to be those from Fortnum & Mason. However, splendid as those are, there are many others that will be kinder to your wallet. It’s become quite fashionable for shops and supermarkets to offer made-up hampers for gifts. One of the nicest I’ve seen this Christmas is at the wonderful Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham. I took the photo above when I popped in earlier in the week. It was a quiet part of the afternoon, near their closing time, and Romina and Alicia were busy packing up hampers ranging in price from £25 to £65 (which included wine). I’ve also bought panettone from them as it’s our traditional Christmas morning treat with coffee as we open presents (yes, I can be traditional too!). They sell Loison panettone, which my Italian teacher Fabio tells me is one of the best makes and it was also top recommendation in the recent Observer Food Monthly Christmas issue.

   

To the right of the Loison photo is one I took in Your Bakery Whitton on Thursday. They had made up some little hampers of their biscuits and Christmas specialities, so I think you’ll find a hamper of some kind to fit your pocket if you look around. Carluccio’s also have a good selection.

 

2. Make your own food hamper

Of course a fun thing to do is make up a hamper yourself for a loved one. I’ve done this often and enjoy looking round for something just a little special. This has in recent years involved a trip to Fortnum & Mason in London’s Piccadilly. But as I said above, I think a gift just has to be a little bit special. My family might not regularly buy their tea in Fortnum & Mason but when I bought them tea from there last year, they loved it – and the pretty tins too, which can be refilled. There are also wonderful tins of biscuits and all kinds of glorious foodie treats. Just a little way along from Fortnums is a whole Maille shop selling a fantastic selection of different flavoured mustards – and gift packs. This is the perfect place to go for the mustard-loving foodie in your life! But other years I’ve put in olive oil from Liquid Gold Cave, foodie treats from Carluccio’s, and chocolates from Montezuma’s.

 

3. Homemade foodie gifts

This is where being a baker – as in someone who loves baking and is good at it – comes in handy. I don’t bake much, though I seem to have managed to put quite a few baked things on the blog. Homemade baked goods are very special treats in my house (due to their rarity) and generally reserved for family, though my lovely friends Jane and Terry have come in for a few when I’ve been cooking as they live close by. A couple of years ago I made some individual sized panettone and they made great gifts, wrapped up and decorated as in the photo above. And this year I’ve just made gingerbread with my little grandson, so that’s another good thing to wrap up in pretty paper for a small gift to a friend.

 

4. Luxury kitchen equipment

OK, so I said above that something as practical as a dishwasher isn’t a present. But I have to admit that I think a kitchen knife, despite its evident practicality, is most definitely a gift when it’s a Global one (or a similar posh and expensive make, like Flint & Flame, or Wusthof). My son introduced me to Global knives when he bought me one of their chefs’ knives (2nd from right) a few years ago. I love it so much I’ve always thought that should I ever be famous enough to be invited on to Desert Island Discs, that would be my luxury choice. And very useful it would be on a desert island too! These are knives for life; they may be expensive but you’ll never need buy another one. Another ‘gift’ to myself recently has been the Dualit hand blender in the photo. Well, I needed to replace a broken one, but couldn’t resist paying a little bit more for this one that looked so special and elegant. (And it works brilliantly too.)

 

5. Books for foodies

Books are a pretty obvious choice for the foodie and I’ve given and been given many cookbooks over the years. But foodies tend to be cookbook addicts so you can rarely go wrong (unless you buy them the wrong kind, by which I mean something not sophisticated enough; there are some TV chefs I definitely wouldn’t be impressed to be given a book by, but I won’t be unseasonably unkind and name them!). I’ve given both my son and daughter Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles as part of their presents this year. I gave them early (so no, I’m not spoiling the surprise) because I thought it would be useful for them to have it before Christmas morning. But it’s a book not just for Christmas but all of winter – and a glorious read it is too (click here for more). A little book for someone’s stocking that I think is great is Nigella Lawson’s Eating from the Vintage Minis series. At only £3.50 each, these little books, covering a range of subjects, make ideal small gifts. If you know someone loves a particular restaurant, there’s usually a book available of their recipes. I bought Honey & Co’s cookbook after eating there earlier this year (click here). I’m still waiting to buy myself – or have someone buy me! – Barrafina’s cookbook as it’s one of my very favourite places to eat (click here). Think about what someone likes; what their particular food interest is and there are so many brilliant food books out there to buy.

 

6.  Fancy serving dishes

If I’m cooking a special meal I do like to serve it on lovely, attractive plates. I try to be appropriate. I often serve Italian meals on some Italian plates I have.

And I like to serve Middle Eastern dishes in some Palestinian bowls I have.

More generic are a pretty bowl, plate and spoon stand I bought in Anthropologie (shown in the photo at the top of this section). I like them so much, I’ve bought them for other people! If you like cooking, and you go to a lot of trouble to prepare something nice to eat, then it’s so nice to have a special dish to serve the food in and thus I find this kind of present is always welcomed by my foodie friends.

 

7.  Buy someone a cookery course 

I’ve never actually bought someone a cookery course, though I did think about it once for my niece Clara who loves cooking. However, a friend asked me a few months ago to recommend somewhere she could buy a cookery course for another friend as a gift for a special birthday. The only place I could think of to recommend was the Caldesi Cookery School (click here for more details). Katie Caldesi was one of the first people I interviewed for the blog and I did do a (complimentary) cookery course at the Caldesi school with Total yoghurt a few years ago (click here). La Cucina Caldesi offer a wide range of courses and prices. It turned out to be a success, my friend told me. So … if you want to give the foodie in your life a special treat this Christmas, why not buy them a cookery course?

 

8. Meal voucher

I think a meal voucher to a restaurant can make a great gift, particularly for perhaps a young family who don’t have a lot of extra cash for meals out. A voucher or gift token is always much more thoughtful, I think, than money. I think most restaurants would offer you a voucher. Last year my friend Linda, who lives in Spain, asked me to get a voucher from Your Bakery Whitton so that her eldest daughter Katie and family, who were staying near there last Christmas, could have a special breakfast treat. It was no trouble at all when I went in to arrange this. A local favourite for family celebrations at the moment is Masaniello. I’ve never asked if they have vouchers but I’m quite certain they could arrange something and I know members of my family who would love to be able to go there for a gift treat.

 

9. Take someone out for a special meal

As a family, we often take each other out for birthday treats and I’ve had friends do the same for me. One of the most memorable being to Le Gavroche, a treat from my friends Annie and Jerry for a special birthday. Then last year my daughter Nicola and her wife Rachael took me to Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow for my birthday. A lovely evening of food in a great restaurant and the company of family or good friends just has to be one of the best kinds of present.

 

10. Foodie culture

It’s not on for much longer, but the brilliant Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery is a perfect outing for a foodie. Why not offer to take them (or something similar) and depending on what you want to spend, you can always add in morning coffee, lunch or dinner.

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It’s been fun putting these ideas together and I hope it’s given you some inspiration. I wish you and your loved ones and very happy Christmas!!

Penne with Italian Sausage, Tomato & Red Pepper Sauce

When I checked back in the list of recipes on the blog, I was surprised to find that I hadn’t given this recipe before. There are similar ones but not quite made in this way – a dish that I cook often and has become a family favourite. Although it can be made with any decent sausage, there’s no doubt that the wonderful Italian sausages from Sienna that I buy in my brilliant local Italian deli, Corto Italian Deli, make this simple dish into something very special. With over 94% pork meat in them, they are very meaty sausages indeed, and thus don’t contain all the starchy emulsifiers and bulking ingredients that you find in the average supermarket sausage. They’re expensive – £6.10 for this pack of 4 – but you can stretch them to feed maybe 3 with this recipe and they are so flavourful, it really is a case that a little goes a long way to giving the meal a fantastic taste. And actually, that makes it more Italian. Italians tend to mix quite a small amount of meat sauce with their pasta – traditionally this was a way to make meat go further, but it’s also healthier. One of the many ways we go wrong with ‘spag bol’ – the spaghetti Bolognese that doesn’t exist in Bologna and will cause a Bolognese person to have a near breakdown if you ask for it – is that we’ve traditionally topped a bowl of spaghetti with a huge mound of meaty sauce. An Italian would put in far less sauce and never dump it on the top! It’s added to the cooked pasta and carefully turned and mixed in over a low heat, then spooned on to a serving plate.

Penne with Italian Sausage, Tomato & Red Pepper Sauce

  • 1 pack of Italian sausages (or others with a high meat content)
  • olive oil
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1 Romano red pepper, deseeded and sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 x 400g tin of plum tomatoes
  • 50g red wine (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • penne pasta (75-100g per serving, depending on how hungry you are!)
  • Parmesan for garnish

   

Open the pack of sausages and carefully cut a slit down one side of each with a sharp knife. Slip off the skin covering and discard. Cut each sausage into 4 and roll into a round shape. Put a little olive oil in the bottom of a shallow pan and when hot, tip in the sausage pieces. Fry, turning frequently, over a medium heat until starting to brown (these meaty sausages don’t go as obviously brown as a ‘normal’ sausage, but you’ll see them start to colour). Remove from the pan and keep on a plate. Wipe the pan dry with kitchen towel (so the finished sauce isn’t too oily). Add a little more olive oil (about a tablespoon) and add the shallot, red pepper and garlic. I tend to use shallots more and more, partly because I’m often cooking for just myself and making a small amount, but I like their mild, sweet flavour better than onion for this kind of sauce, but use a small onion if you prefer.

   

When the shallot, pepper and garlic start to soften – but not colour – add the tin of tomatoes. Stir round, crush down the tomatoes a bit. Add the wine and seasoning and mix. Bring to a simmer, put on a lid, then turn the heat to low and allow to cook gently for 10 minutes. Now blend the sauce with a hand blender. I do this more and more to get a lovely creamy-textured sauce that I think tastes better and wraps itself round pasta shapes better too.

   

Tip in the browned sausage. Mix together. Bring back to a simmer. Check seasoning. Cover with a lid and cook gently for another 15 minutes. The tomato sauce will take on the flavour of the sausage brilliantly.

   

You can easily make the sauce in advance and then reheat it when you want to eat.

Cook the pasta as directed on the packet. Drain. Return to the pan and spoon in some sauce. (This is assuming you’re making one portion but for 2 or 3 portions, just tip in all the sauce.) Stir over a gentle heat to mix everything together well. Then spoon into a serving dish.

I served this with a green salad on the side. Grate over a little Parmesan if you like. The leftover sauce can be frozen for another day.

It’s a really delicious sauce. I’ve made it with more ordinary sausages and it’s still good but I really do urge you to buy good Italian sausages if you can – it makes a big difference! The flavour is strong, a little salty, and the sweet tomato and red pepper sauce is a perfect marriage of flavours. It’s also a wonderful warm and comforting supper on what has been a damp and chilly December day!

Christmas Gingerbread Stars & People

Christmas is coming and I thought it would be fun to make gingerbread people with grandson Freddie. At just two and three-quarters he doesn’t quite understand Christmas but he certainly understands the excitement. This morning when I went over to the family’s home, Freddie was eating his breakfast. ‘Would you like to come to Nonna’s house and make biscuits?’ I asked him. ‘Yes,’ he told me. Then when I said, ‘Would you like to help me make gingerbread men?’ he said, ‘Wow! Yes!’ He clearly knew what gingerbread men were. His mum Lyndsey told me he had a book about a gingerbread man. We tend to talk about ‘gingerbread people’ now and it’s up to you to decorate your people men, women or non-gender – or a mix. I also thought it would be nice to make stars – though when it came to cutting the dough, Freddie wasn’t so keen to cut stars and that was left to Nonna. We had limited time this morning so I made the dough last night and kept it in the fridge. I took it out before I went to collect Freddie so it had softened and was easy to roll out once I got back with him.

Gingerbread Stars & People (makes 20+ – depending on thickness!)

  • 350g plain four
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 125g butter
  • 175g light muscovado sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tablespoons golden syrup
  • writing icing

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Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and cinnamon together and transfer to a food processor. Add the butter and process until you have a breadcrumb-like mixture. Then stir in the sugar.

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Mix the egg with the golden syrup and pour into the processor. Mix until it all comes together into a clump of dough.

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Take the dough out and pull altogether into a ball and knead briefly into a ball shape. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest for 15 minutes. (If like me you make it a few hours ahead of using, then take out for at least 30 minutes to soften or it’s too hard to roll out easily.) Preheat your oven to 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 when ready to cook.

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I bought some lovely copper pastry cutters in John Lewis. I was keen to find a reasonably small person and some of the cutters I looked at were very big people. Anyway, it would be nice to have stars too, I thought, so I was happy to buy the set of three shapes. Roll out the dough until it’s about 0.5cm thick. Then use your cutters to cut out shapes. Place them on a baking tray lined with some greaseproof/parchment paper. Little hands excitedly helped cut out the people shapes.

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Don’t they look sweet, laid out together? Put them into the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.

Remove and cut a hole in the top. I used a straw for this; an idea I found online.

There was some discrepancy in recipes about whether to cut the hole before baking or after. If you leave it to after, you need to do it immediately they come out of the oven as they cool and harden up quickly. Transfer the gingerbread shapes to a cooling rack.

Once they’re cold, you can start the decoration. I decided to put in holes so I could thread some ribbon through and then you can hang them up on your tree if you want. It also makes them look pretty. But the holes and hanging aren’t essential and you can just omit the hole making. I bought some lovely narrow Christmas ribbon – ideal for my purpose – in Paperchase. I bought a tube of writing icing for ease – especially working with a toddler!

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I threaded the ribbon through first, worried that I might spoil the icing decoration if I left it to after.

Freddie, being a very independent little man, didn’t want help, so I did some and let him decorate some on his own. He’s quite serious about helping me cook, which makes it such a joy to work with him. At the end, I packed his own decorated gingerbread stars and people separately for taking home (and another pack of some I’d decorated).

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I put the little gingerbread people in a perfectly sized biscuit tin I had.

I kept most of the stars for myself and just a couple of people. I wrapped a star and person in a little clingfilm ‘bag’, tied it at the top with more ribbon, and it made a nice little present – freshly baked gingerbread – for my Italian teacher Fabio, who’s going home to Sicily over Christmas and New Year, so today was our last lesson until January. This is the fun thing about making this kind of food – I did the same with little panettone a couple of years ago (click here) – because you can wrap some up to make a nice presents for people.

It was such a fun morning making these. It’s not something I’ve done for years and years but I really enjoyed the baking with an enthusiastic little toddler and what a great way to start to prepare for Christmas.

Oh, and of course taste! One of the biscuits had broken as we were decorating them so Freddie and I had that all-important taste. No good them looking lovely if they didn’t taste good! But they were ‘yummy’ – Freddie wanted more; a really good spicy, ginger taste; a nice crunch on the outside and gorgeously chewy in the middle.

 

The Black Penny, Covent Garden & A Day of Caravaggio

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It’s been quite an arty week: Modigliani on Tuesday, a second visit to Cezanne at the National Portrait Gallery with my friend Annette on Friday, and today a whole day’s course on the exciting and fabulous late 16th-early 17th century artist, Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise known as Caravaggio. I think I may have become a fan of, and fascinated by, Caravaggio through watching so much Andrew Graham-Dixon on TV over the last few years! Caravaggio is his specialist subject and favourite artist. But also I remember going to an exhibition years ago, I can’t even remember what or when, and the Caravaggios stood out so strongly that even in a large room I was drawn to them immediately, like a magnetic drawing me in, mesmerised and awed by his use of light, the sheer power of his painting. I’ve seen Caravaggios in other places, many galleries have one or two, and most particularly I remember seeing some in Valletta in Malta where I was visiting friend Liz and she took me to see them. Caravaggio had to flee Rome after murdering a pimp, a price literally on his head (anyone capturing and killing him could take just the head back to Rome for a reward). He went to Naples where he stayed for a while and did some of his most famous works, then moved on to Malta where, as a famous artist, he was welcomed and taken into the Knights of Malta. Now ‘respectable’ again, he sought a pardon from Rome. But before he could return he attacked one of the Maltese Knights (obviously not knowing when he was on to a good thing and safe), so was imprisoned. Somehow he escaped, taking a boat back to Rome via Naples for the new pope had agreed to pardon him. Well, there was only one Caravaggio; no other artist painted like him. But a mishap on the way led to his death, so he never made it back and died just 39 years old.

What attracted us to wanting to learn more about Caravaggio? asked our lecturer Marie-Anne Mancio at City Lit. I don’t think Caravaggio is an artist you can have indifferent feelings for – you either dislike him (and some have, particularly after his death until the 19th century, for his drama, feeling it overdramatic), but if you’re drawn to him, then it’s a strong attraction. His painting is like no other; his use of light extraordinary. But I don’t think you can ignore the history, the man himself, prone to violent outbursts, rebellious, and courageous (or just not bothered what others thought) enough to paint in a new and radical way. He wasn’t interested in painting mannered religious paintings, idealising people, in the way artists had done before him; Caravaggio painted real people, wearing real clothes, living real lives.

Another reason for signing on to the course at City Lit was to see Marie-Anne again. I did a great day’s course on Grayson Perry with her in the summer at City Lit and have booked a 3-day art tour of Genoa with her next May, through her company Hotel Alphabet, so I knew it would be a good and fun day and I’d learn a lot. And I did!

City Lit is based on the edge of Covent Garden, just off Kingsway. The course started at 10.30 and so I decided it would be good to find somewhere for coffee before it started. The Black Penny is very close to the college in Great Queen Street. I remember looking in there for coffee when I did the Perry course and was put off by them not offering pastries like croissants with their morning coffee, only cakes and cookies. But today I decided to give it a go. It was nice inside and the staff immediately friendly. There was a great display of cakes and cookies but I wanted something fairly modest at this early hour of the day so decided on one of the little banana bread cakes.

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Surprisingly, as it’s very much a café, they offer you table service. So I sat down at a window seat, looking out on to Freemasons’ Hall opposite and when someone came – quickly – to ask what I wanted, ordered a flat white (my usual morning coffee) and the banana bread cake.

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The cake was delicious; light (banana bread can be heavy) and tasty. The flat white excellent. It was a good way to start what proved to be an excellent day. The bill was £5.80, which I thought pretty good because I’ve paid over £6 for an indifferent coffee and poor croissant elsewhere in central London.

Come lunchtime, it was an obvious choice to head back to The Black Penny. When writing about cafés on the blog it’s a rare thing to get the chance to try them out twice in a day. But also, I liked the place and had liked the look of their all-day menu and guessed I could get a good light lunch there.

‘The Black Penny’ is an interesting name. It was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in the public postal system and first issued in 1840. The façade of the café appropriately dates from the mid-19th century and also its interiors. I stayed on the ground floor near the entrance but there’s another area downstairs. They’ve done a good job of preserving some of the old 19th century features with a modern feel, making it an attractive area to sit and relax.

I didn’t want more coffee; I’d already had two. So I ordered fresh mint tea (£2.50). I was delighted it came in a teapot with cup on the side. I really do like tea to come in a teapot and not just a teabag – or in this case mint leaves – dropped into a mug and topped up with water. The tea had a full, wonderful flavour and was just what I wanted. It was both warming on a cold day (wet and miserable outside) and refreshing.

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For food, I’d ordered one of their ‘Black Penny Hashes’: Wild Mushroom and Crispy Polenta Hash with salsa verde, rocket and a poached egg (£10.90).

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It was fantastic. A wonderful combination of flavours and everything perfectly cooked.

I’d gone vegetarian for lunch but there were plenty of meat alternatives: both a salt beef and a confit of duck hash. There are lots of Breakfast Classics, most offering eggs of some kind, and many had a modern touch on classic breakfast with halloumi, or baked ricotta, and harissa spiced scrambled eggs. If you want to stay a little more classic, then Bubble ‘n’ Squeak includes grilled pork and sage sausages, BBQ sauce, watercress and a fried egg (£10.90); The Hunter is eggs how you like them with sausage, smoked bacon, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and beans (£12.90). There are also cereals, like Bircher Muesli and porridge, and All Day Buns – simply filled buns with breakfast ingredients.

The Black Penny is open 8am-6pm Mon-Fri; 9am-6pm Sat; 9am-5pm Sun.

I’d had a great day of art and food again, rather different from Tuesday but just as enjoyable.

The Black Penny Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nigel Slater’s Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse

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I bought Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles as early Christmas presents for my son and daughter. But then I decided I liked the book so much, I had to buy a copy for myself! The recipes aren’t just for Christmas, it’s as much a book for the winter, indeed the book’s subtitle is Notes, stories & 100 essential recipes for midwinter.

I’m a great fan of Nigel’s. He’s a cook not a chef and so his recipes are perfect to cook at home. I think part of what I like is that although his recipes aren’t Italian (unless the mood takes him!) he has that same simple approach to cooking as the Italians that appeals so much to me, using just a handful of top quality ingredients, usually easily come by, some possibly in your cupboard or fridge anyway, and putting together something really special. The emphasis is on quality and flavour; it’s not showy cooking but it’s fantastically appealing and good to eat. Nigel has written a column in the Observer for about 25 years and I have so much admiration for him coming up with new recipes every week for that long! He’s also successfully moved with the times foodwise for his recipes are modern and fresh, but he’s never abandoned his straightforward approach to cooking.

The Christmas Chronicles is a book to read as well as use; it’s a book to snuggle up on the sofa with on a cold wintry night in front of a cosy fire and enjoy Nigel’s wonderful writing and contemplate gorgeous warming dishes like ‘A Hot Apple Drink for a Cold Night’, ‘Cauliflower and Leek Soup with Toasted Cheese’, ‘Pot-roast Partridge with Parsnips and Smoked Garlic’ or ‘Creamed Butter Beans and Spinach’. But if you’re a chocaholic like me, what will instantly take your eye is ‘Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse’.

Part of what appealed was being reminded of the wonderful chocolate hazelnut spread I’ve brought back from Turin the two times I’ve visited the city over the last 14 months. No not Nutella! But the glorious rich spread from the famous historic cafe Baratti & Milano with its 45% hazelnut content.

Could Nigel’s chocolate mousse recipe be as wonderful? I could only make it and find out.

Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse – Serves 6

  • 250g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
  • 40g butter, cut into small pieces
  • 3 tablespoons hot espresso
  • 5 eggs, separated

Praline

  • 50g hazelnuts, skinned
  • 75g caster sugar

Chocolate topping

  • 100g dark chocolate

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Break the chocolate into pieces into a small bowl. Stand the bowl over a pan of simmering water so the bottom doesn’t touch the water. Leave the chocolate to melt, stirring only very occasionally. When it’s melted add the butter, stir lightly to mix in, then add the espresso. Mix in and remove from the heat.

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Add the egg yolks and fold in quickly but lightly. Beat the whites until almost stiff and fold in lightly.

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Spoon into 6 small serving dishes. Cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge to set. Nigel says at least 4 hours; I didn’t have that long! It was a bit too last minute but a couple of hours seemed to work fine.

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While the mousse is setting, prepare the praline. My hazelnuts weren’t skinned so I roasted them in a dry pan and tried to remove the skins – not too successfully! Never mind … it all worked out in the end. I did take them out and try to get the skin off, then I put them back in a pan and browned lightly over a medium heat. Then sprinkle over the sugar in one layer. Let the sugar melt – don’t stir – until it becomes golden brown. Then pour the mixture onto a lightly greased baking sheet and leave to cool.

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When it’s cool, break into pieces, put into a small processor and process to coarse crumbs, leaving a few large pieces of the nuts to add texture and because it will look nice at the end.

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When the mousse has been setting for a couple of hours, melt the 100g of chocolate over simmering water as before. Stir only occasionally or it will thicken too much and spoil. When it’s melted spoon over the set mousses to form a skin of chocolate on top. Put back in the fridge to harden for a few minutes.

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Then sprinkle over the praline crumbs. And they’re ready to eat! Or go back into the fridge for later.

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I took them over to my son Jonathan’s; a contribution to a family meal. They made a wonderful dessert at the end.

I made a half portion bowl for grandson Freddie. At just two and three quarters I reckoned a whole one probably wasn’t a good idea. But Freddie loves chocolate as much as his nonna so there was no way he was going to miss out. We all loved it. It was deeply chocolatey and rich; absolutely wonderful. I rather foolishly suggested it might be too rich for Freddie and he wouldn’t like it  … but no … he ate it all and then was quite upset when it was finished and looked around the table to see if anyone else was willing to give him more. He told us it was his favourite. I promised that nonna would make it again soon. And it’s definitely going to soothe our withdrawal from the Baratti & Milano chocolate hazelnut spread which I can’t source here. I was thinking I’d have to go back to Turin … but Nigel has helped me out.

Supper at Capricci & Modigliani at Tate Modern

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I do love it when I can combine two of my greatest passions: food and art. There are a number of posts on this blog where I’ve gone to an art gallery and followed it up with a great meal. This evening’s venture along London’s Southbank to Tate Modern didn’t offer a promising prospect for food. The once fabulous Tate Restaurant wasn’t quite so fabulous last time I went, and anyway isn’t open for dinner on Tuesdays. The surrounding area offers lots of chains. I’d planned to take a look around for somewhere to eat, arriving quite early for the Curator’s Talk on the new Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern, but as I walked along the embankment from Waterloo to Tate Modern, the bitter wind cut into me and I knew I needed to find somewhere warm and welcoming, close to the gallery, fast.

I considered Carluccio’s which is about as close to Tate as you’ll find, but lights just round the corner beckoned and I thought I’d take a quick look. I saw Capricci. I did a quick search on my iPhone and reviews were great. So I went in.

It’s quite small and free tables had ‘Reserved’ signs on them, but I was told I could take a seat at a large table or a stool at a bar in the deli area. I chose the table and settled down.

Capricci offers all-day dining and also has a deli. They pride themselves on using highest quality ingredients and offer wines from small artisanal micro producers. Open from 8.00-22.30 Mon-Fri; 10.00-23.00 on Saturdays; 10.00-22.30 on Sundays.

I decided on a ‘Primi’ dish of Gnocchi all’Amatriciana – Artisan potato dumplings with smoked pancetta and pecorino cheese in a lightly spiced tomato sauce (£14.00) – for a light supper; it was early to eat, before 6.00, and I didn’t anyway want a huge meal before the Modigliani talk. While I waited for my food, I enjoyed some delicious crispy grissini that came with my glass of excellent wine – Valpolicella Classico ‘Saseti’, 2014 Monte Dall’Ora (Veneto) (£6.60 for 125ml glass).

The gnocchi came. It had enough of a chilli kick to be absolutely perfect to aid my recovery from the freezing weather outside. It was really good; excellent. The sauce was delicious, everything perfectly cooked, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I rarely have dessert when out but I still had plenty of time before the talk and I didn’t want to wander around outside, so I decided on dessert and coffee. I chose Tiramisu. This was quite a testing choice – I’m really fussy about my tiramisu. It’s a much abused dessert and rare to find an authentic one, but then when you do find one it just has to be one of the best desserts ever.

Capricci’s tiramisu was glorious, really good. I followed it with an espresso.

And then it was time to brave the cold again! Fortunately it wasn’t far at all as Capricci is almost next door to the gallery.

Held in Tate Modern’s Starr Cinema/theatre, the talk must have been sold out as it was packed. The exhibition, which only opened last week, has received rave reviews. I like going to Curator’s talks as you learn so much that enhances the experience of actually looking at the paintings, and this one didn’t disappoint and gave us a great background to the artist Modigliani and his works in the exhibition.

At the end of the talk we were able to go into the exhibition for a private view (Tate closed before the talk started), which is a great way to get a good, less crowded view. Apart from Modigliani’s paintings, including a number of his famous nudes, there was a wonderful selection of his sculptures – ten of them and apparently only about 30 exist. It’s a fabulous exhibition and on until 2 April 2018, so get along if you can. Meanwhile, I’m really pleased to have found such a great place to eat nearby – open for breakfast, lunch or dinner, timing will always be right at Capricci.

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

Christmas Markets

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that one had to jump on a plane to Germany to see a Christmas market. In fact, German markets first came to UK in 1997 when Frankfurt supported the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh to establish Christmas markets here. A little before that, in 1982, Lincoln established an annual Christmas market and it remains one of the biggest in UK.

It’s easy to think of them as yet another modern commercial ploy to make us part with money for things that are often of suspect quality at Christmastime. But Christmas markets date from the Middle Ages. They began in Germany – or in lands that are now part of Germany – and many say they still hold the best ones. Sadly I’ve never been to a German Christmas market but I’m beginning to think I should. Some of the first were held in Bautzen (1384), Frankfurt (1393), Dresden (1434), and Munich as far back as 1310.  However, an annual December market began in Vienna in 1298, thus Austria could claim that it held the first Christmas market. Wherever they began, they were more modest affairs than those we see today, usually lasting only a couple of days.

What led me along this path of Christmas market storytelling today was a sortie into nearby Kingston upon Thames early this morning. Early to miss the now growing Christmas rush, not to mention the imported Black Friday from USA, which seems to span more days than one Friday. I have to confess that it was ‘Black Friday’ sales that tempted me along roads I’d never normally travel on weekends approaching Christmas. I need a new office chair and was hopeful that John Lewis was offering a discount on their range. They weren’t. It seemed anything I had in mind to buy wasn’t part of ‘Black Friday’ but there was a Christmas market.

In common with every Christmas market I’ve been to, Kingston’s market has adopted the German approach of using wooden chalet-huts as stalls, lit up with fairy lights.

It was a beautiful sunny November day, the sky a clear and cloudless blue, though a sharp crispness to the air that made me think it was definitely time to get out my winter hat. The stalls were spread all round the town, mixing with the regular stalls in the market square, and I decided it would be fun to explore.

Although I didn’t buy anything in the market, in the main the stalls were offering some good things and of course there was food and mulled wine on offer as well. Inevitably, with so many Christmas markets all round Europe now, let alone here in UK, the quality of goods on offer varies from lovely things made by authentic artisan and crafts people to pure tat – shoddy goods. But then I guess that’s part of the experience. Whatever’s on offer, it does put some Christmas cheer into our lives. Just a week or so ago, arriving at Waterloo station in London, I crossed Hungerford Bridge and looked across at the Christmas market set out along the South Bank and it did look pretty.

Today, as I walked round Kingston, I got thinking about other Christmas markets I’ve been to. The first ‘serious’ Christmas market I’ve visited was in Prague in 2005 with my daughter Nicola. I’d booked a last-minute short break there. It’s such a beautiful city and the Christmas market was spectacular.

I do remember it being bitterly cold but we loved the city and I’m still waiting to go back – perhaps at a warmer time of year!

Another Christmas market trip was to Lille in France with my friends Annie and Jerry. That was back in 2009.

We did a day trip in the car via the Channel Tunnel. It’s not that far and easily done in a day. I think we were all slightly disappointed in the market itself, which didn’t offer much that was interesting to buy, but we nevertheless had a brilliant day and ate a fabulous lunch. Lille is a great destination for lovers of good food and wine.

In December 2011, I visited my daughter in Birmingham and she suggested we go to the Christmas market in the centre of the city – mentioned above as one of the first in UK, based on Frankfurt’s.

What I remember of the market was that it was HUGE and very, very crowded! We had to be careful not to lose each other. It was fun to go but perhaps a bit too overwhelming.

We’re still in November and there are more Christmas markets to come; a local Christmas craft fair in Twickenham next week. It does feel a little early, but then it’s probably best to embrace the fun of it all and there’s no doubt that it puts a smile on everyone’s face.