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Panelle alla Ceci – Chickpea Fritters

Panelle alla ceci – chickpea fritters – are a popular street food in Sicily. I haven’t been to Sicily for many years but have eaten panelle in London, most memorably from a Sicilian street-food stall at Mercato Metropolitano in London. Here – as you can see below – they were fried to order and placed in a paper cone to eat straight away.

These aren’t treats to make in advance; even the dough needs to be made fairly last minute (keep no more than a few hours) as I discovered (and then read) when I tried to use my dough a second day and it started falling apart. These are to cook and serve immediately, with some sea salt sprinkled over the top and maybe a squeeze of lemon.

Thought to be of Arabic origin, when the Arabs ruled Sicily between 9th and 11th centuries, they are often served in a soft roll. The Sicilians seem fond of putting things in ‘rolls’ for they famously like to serve gelato in brioche (photo below of eating this in Vienna in a Sicilian gelateria).

The panelle are easily made from just chickpea flour, water and seasoning. Chickpeas (ceci) are popular in Arabic cooking, think hummus etc., and are very nutritious. The benefits of cooking with chickpea flour (farina di ceci – see photo below) is that it’s naturally gluten-free, high in protein, iron and fibre and contains many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Isn’t it nice when something delicious is also good for you!

 

I spent some time looking for a good recipe and in the end went with Rick Stein’s from his Long Weekends book. His recipes are usually reasonably authentic and reliable. I also liked his addition of fennel seeds (quite a popular touch, I discovered) and that he shallow-fried the panelle – not totally authentic perhaps, but I’m not a deep-fat-frying person!

Rick differed from most people by putting his dough mix in a small loaf tin to cool and then cutting it into thin slices. Most recipes spread the mixture out on oiled paper or a marble top to cool, then cut the shapes. Then there was the question of how thick the panelle should be. Most – like those at Mercato Metropolitano – are fairly thin but from the experience of just one attempt, I can tell you that’s quite challenging. I obviously need practice! Rick offers a nice vague ‘quite thinly’ while Antonio Carluccio offers a slightly surprisingly thick 1cm; Gino D’Acampo says no thicker than 5mm; Giorgio Locatelli states 3mm. Well, I can tell you that it’s going to take a lot of practice to please Giorgio. I tried some very thin ones at first but they broke up easily, so in the end my panelle might not be thin enough to impress a Sicilian but the important thing was they were really delicious – gorgeously crispy on the outside; soft and creamy inside.

 

Panelle alla Ceci

  • 750ml cold water
  • 250g chickpea flour
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • olive oil for frying

 

 

Put the cold water in a large saucepan and then slowly pour in the chickpea flour, whisking all the time with a balloon whisk, to try to avoid lumps. Add the ground fennel seeds. Heat over a moderate heat, stirring constantly, until thick. (It’s a little like making custard or béchamel sauce.) If it’s lumpy, take from the heat and beat vigorously until smooth, then return to the heat. Once thickened, continue to cook gently, stirring all the time, for about another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the salt, pepper and parsley. Mix well.

   

Have a small loaf tin oiled and lined across the long sides ready. Put the panelle mixture into it and smooth off the top. Allow to cool completely.

 

Turn out. Slice it fairly thinly (see above!). They were quite long slices so I halved again.

 

Heat some olive oil in a small frying pan. Cover the bottom so there’s a shallow layer of oil. When it’s hot and starting to sizzle, put in the pieces of panelle – not too many at a time – and fry until golden brown on each side; turning carefully when the first side is brown.

Lift from the pan with a slotted spoon onto a plate. Sprinkle over some sea salt. Serve immediately with wedges of lemon.

Pour yourself a glass of prosecco, find a sunny spot in the evening sun, and sit and relax while you enjoy a bit of homemade Sicilian street food in your garden.

They were really delicious. Depending on how thick you make then you’ll need maybe only two or three as an appetiser but more of thin ones.

The making of them did remind me of making polenta and Antonio Carluccio suggests serving them like polenta with a sauce (like this recipe of mine – click here). If you manage to make them very thin, they make a great and rather special snack for aperitivo with prosecco or an Aperol spritz. A fancy Italian alternative to crisps!

Paccheri with Cod, Tomatoes, Olives, Capers, Hazelnuts & Pangrattato

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One of my favourite restaurants in London is Bancone and I’ve been to it a few times since it opened in August last year. The first time I went I had this amazing paccheri and cod dish that I loved so much, I had it the second time too. I’ve often thought about trying to recreate it at home and it’s taken me eight months. But tonight was the night … and casting all modesty aside, I think I managed a pretty good job! Above is my dish … just below, Bancone’s.

I took some cod out of my freezer after lunch, thinking I’d do something quite simple with it for supper. Then when I went to Corto Italian Deli for an afternoon coffee, I decided on something a bit more ambitious – I would make that Bancone dish. ‘Have you got some paccheri?’ I asked Romina. Romina’s deli is the most wonderful source of Italian food. ‘Yes,’ she told me. ‘Are you making a fish sauce?’ To Italians it’s very important to have the right shape and size pasta for whatever sauce you’re making. Happily I’d got it right! Paccheri are short, fat tubes of pasta from Naples. Apart from Bancone, I’ve often eaten it with fish at Masaniello, a few doors down from Corto, in Twickenham, where the head chef Livio comes from Naples.

I don’t know exactly what goes into Bancone’s dish; I don’t have their recipe. But there are two obvious differences between theirs and mine: they use cods’ cheeks (I used a portion of cod loin); Bancone scatter almonds on top while I went with hazelnuts. Hazelnuts because I’m still in a slight ‘Turin mode’ after my trip there two weeks’ ago and hazelnuts feature in a lot of Turin dishes, both sweet and savoury. Other than that, this was as close as I could guess.

 

Paccheri with Cod, Tomatoes, Olives, Capers, Hazelnuts & Pangrattato                  (Serves 1)

  • a handful of hazelnuts
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and a little extra for garnish
  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • 100g cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 50ml white wine
  • 1 teaspoon capers
  • about 12 black olives
  • sea salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 piece cod fillet (about 120g)
  • 100g paccheri (large tubes of pasta)

Pangrattato

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 slightly crushed clove of garlic
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • 30g breadcrumbs (made from stale bread)
  • pinch sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

 

First pan-roast the hazelnuts. I made life slightly more difficult for myself by using ones that hadn’t been skinned, but they were organic! Dry roast them over a moderate-high heat in a small frying pan (no oil needed). When they begin to colour, tip onto a piece of kitchen towel and rub take off the skins. If like me you don’t manage to get all the skin off, don’t worry. Tip them into a mortar and pestle and crush lightly. Transfer to a small bowl and put aside.

 

Now make the pangrattato. This is simply the Italian word for ‘breadcrumbs’. It’s been quite fashionable in Italian restaurants of late to scatter browned breadcrumbs over the top of some pasta dishes. It adds a nice bit of extra interest in both looks and taste. I also added some parsley but that’s optional.

In a small pan, put the olive oil with the garlic and chilli flakes over a moderate heat. When you see the oil start to sizzle a little, tip in the breadcrumbs. Immediately start stirring round, folding them over to get every crumb coated in hot oil. When they’re nicely golden, add a pinch of sea salt, stir, then tip onto some kitchen towel to soak up excess oil. Remove the crushed garlic. When cool, mix with the parsley and put in a small bowl. Set aside.

 

 

Now make the sauce. Fry the shallot in the oil over a low to moderate heat until softening and starting to brown. Tip in the tomatoes. Stir regularly.

 

When the tomatoes are softening, tip in the white wine. Stir and allow to bubble over a moderate heat for a couple of minutes for the wine to burn off the alcohol and reduce a little. Add the capers and olives. I used tiny taggiasche olives from Liguria which are quite sweet and mild. They’re so tiny I put in about 20 but if using more usual sized black olives you’d probably only need about a dozen. Check seasoning. Depending on the saltiness of the capers and olives, you may or may not need more salt; add a little black pepper to taste. Turn the heat off but keep warm.

 

I decided to grill the fish rather than cook it in the sauce. I didn’t want the sauce to be overpoweringly fishy but to stand on its own alongside the fish. Brush a little oil over the fish and season lightly. Grill until just tender and it flakes easily. Transfer to a plate and flake into chunks. Tip into the sauce.

 

Stir and heat through again quite gently.

 

Meanwhile have the paccheri cooking (mine took 15 minutes according to the packet instructions). When al dente (retaining a slight bite), drain (keep a little of the cooking water) and tip into the fish sauce.

 

Fold it all together gently over a low heat. Add a little of the pasta water if you need to loosen it a bit. Then spoon into a serving dish – a shallow bowl is best. Scatter over some of the hazelnuts and then some of the pangrattato (you won’t need all of them so cover them in clingfilm and they’ll keep for a couple of days in the fridge). Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil to finish.

Wow! It was fantastic. I think it was pretty close to what I’d loved at Bancone but the important thing was it worked really well and was delicious. The flavours were gorgeous; there was a delightful contrast of textures from the soft fish, al dente pasta and crunchy nuts. This could become a favourite at home, not just at the restaurant!

The Petersham, Richmond upon Thames

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It was a perfect early April evening to go to The Petersham, the restaurant in the 4-star Petersham Hotel, with its glorious views over the River Thames. Despite the chill in the air the sun had been shining all day and was now slowly fading towards a beautiful sunset, which we’d witness from our dining table at a perfect spot right by a window.

The view is famous. A bit higher up the slope on which the hotel sits, at the top of Richmond Hill, are plaques detailing its heritage. And you can look down on The Petersham Hotel (to the left in the photo below), which was built in 1865.

It’s accessed via Nightingale Lane, which runs between Richmond Hill and Petersham Road; so called because the area was once well-known for its nightingales. The poet Wordsworth wrote of it:

     Fame tells of groves – from England far away –

     Groves that inspire the Nightingale to trill ….

     For I have heard the quire of Richmond hill

     Chanting, with indefatigable bill

It’s a view painted by JMW Turner (who had a country retreat in Twickenham, on the other side of the Thames – a house he designed himself; the only one which celebrates his original ambition to be an architect). The view has also been painted by Constable, Reynolds and Gainsborough and other celebrated artists. In more recent years Mick Jagger lived in a large house at the top of the hill, looking over the view, when he was married to Jerry Hall.

Back to April 2019 and the now, Liz – who was treating me to a slightly early birthday dinner – suggested champagne. I have never declined an offer of champagne. I love champagne. Champagne was brought and poured and a basket of delicious bread put before us. I liked that they gave us not just the fashionable bowl of olive oil with a dash of balsamic with the bread, but butter too.

 

The Petersham offers elegant and sophisticated dining. Attentive and friendly waiters were always there when you needed them. Apart from our fantastic view, the tables were well spaced so we could talk easily and felt fairly private; such a rare privilege these days when tables are tightly packed in so many restaurants.

As well as an à la carte menu, there’s a set menu costing £24.50 for 2 courses and £28.50 for 3 courses from Sunday – Thursday. It’s available Friday and Saturday too, but slightly more expensive. The food is described as ‘modern British’ and influenced by Head Chef Jean-Didier Gouges’ native Mauritius, his classical French training, and working at places like Nobu.

My choice of starter was ‘British Asparagus – egg, mint and pea salad with truffle hollandaise’.

It was really gorgeous, every element perfectly cooked. The asparagus a pleasing al dente; the egg yolk fabulously runny; a fragrant hollandaise and delicious sweet salad.

Liz chose ‘Heritage Tomato Salad – mozzarella, poached rhubarb, lemon cress, red pepper dressing’. Because she can’t eat peppers she asked them to give her a different dressing, which they happily did. It was a pretty and colourful plate of food and apparently delicious too.

There was a choice of 3 mains: meat, fish and vegetable. I chose ‘Seared Sea Bass – with garlic purée, braised fennel, saffron potato and lobster oil’.

My initial thought was it looked attractive but rather a small helping; in fact, by the end I realised there was more than I’d judged and it was enough for me. Most importantly it was – like my starter – perfectly cooked. The fish had a wonderful crispy and well-seasoned skin that I happily ate; the fish flesh was moist and delicious. Sea bass is a favourite fish and this was excellent.

Liz chose ‘Pan Fried Cornfed Chicken Breast – pommes Anna, peas, asparagus, celeriac purée, cauliflower’. It looked good and Liz said it tasted good.

We decided against dessert, although there were three nice-sounding temptations on the menu. Liz ordered mint tea and I asked for an espresso. Chocolate truffles came too.

It was a lovely evening (many thanks to my friend!) and felt even more like a special treat because of the wonderful location and gorgeous view as well as excellent food.

The Petersham Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

An Urban Beekeeping Workshop

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Although I have no ambition to become a beekeeper, I was immediately attracted to the Guild of Food Writers’ April workshop: Urban Beekeeping and the Challenges of Raw Honey Production in the Modern World. Everyone has heard about the plight of bees and the threat to our environment due to their dwindling population worldwide. A lot of us are trying to ‘do our bit’ by planting the ‘bee friendly’ flowers we see in garden centres or scattering ‘bee friendly’ flower seeds over a stretch of soil. But is that the right thing to do? What do bees really want? And how can we best protect them?

The workshop would also look at ‘terroir’ – how honey varies according to where the bees collect pollen and nectar; just like a wine, the quality of the honey will vary according to what grows near the bees’ hive and how good the soil is. We’d learn about what makes a ‘good’ honey and how to avoid the bad; and the use of honey in traditional medicine.

Housed in an old sugar warehouse in Bermondsey Street, a road close to London Bridge and overlooking The Shard, you will find some of London’s best honey; in fact, some of the best honey you’ll find anywhere. Bermondsey Street Bees was established in 2007 and since then has won many awards: ‘Best Honey in London’ at the 2011 and 2017 National Honey Shows and they were named ‘Small Artisan Producer of the Year’ at the 2016 Great Taste Awards. Run by Dale Gibson and Sarah Wyndham-Lewis, it turns out that Bermondsey – a once rather rundown and seedy part of London – is a veritable green paradise for bees. Bees like variety. While they forage on one type of species at a time (I learned yesterday), it’s more of a ‘morning of lavender’ followed by an afternoon of ‘hellebores’, rather than only one type of flower ever. A diverse range of available plants and trees to forage on will result in a honey with more depth of flavour. And London is a rich source with its green spaces, parks, rooftop and individual gardens. You can even encourage the bees with good planting in window boxes and other small containers.

This need for diversity partly explains why modern farming methods aren’t good for bees. Imagine the poor bees – who tend to forage within a 2-3 mile radius of their hive – surrounded by acres and acres of rapeseed and all the hedgerows killed off by pesticides or cut down by farmers, so no nice ‘organic’ wildflowers to feed on. We wouldn’t want to live on just one type of food and neither do the bees. Bees also forage all year round. They don’t hibernate but will come out of the hive as long as the temperature is above 10 degrees, thus it’s important for them to have plants to forage on all through the year. This is something we can do in our gardens and Sarah’s book will guide you to the best things to grow:

While London offers a rich diversity of food for bees there’s sadly not enough food for the growing number of hives we have now, due to so many new enthusiastic beekeepers. Sarah and Dale stressed it’s important to think carefully about the responsibility of keeping bees and having good training. There are currently 3,250 hives in London …

Dale and Sarah are conscientious and passionate about sustainability. They want to have zero impact on other producers and so plant for their bees in nearby green spaces. They also manage beehives in a few major sites, like Lambeth Palace and work with various private, public and charitable bodies. They give talks and are involved in education projects. To find out more, visit their website: click here.

I think of bees gathering around some of my plants in the garden in the summer and thus it was interesting to hear that Pooh Bear got it right … he went looking for bees and honey in trees. Honeybees are naturally forest dwelling creatures, ideally foraging at heights of about 5 metres. They collect nectar (carbohydrate) to make honey and pollen (protein) to feed their babies. They need to make 50kg of honey each year for the hive to survive. For this reason it’s important for a responsible beekeeper to make sure the bees have enough honey left for themselves. Some people get over this by feeding them sugar in the winter, but Dale and Sarah strongly disapproved of this.

Bees need to be the hardworking creatures of their reputation (busy bees): they fly around 55,000 miles and visit 4 million flowers to make one jar of honey; during its entire lifetime a single bee will collect enough nectar to make just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. They are incredibly efficient and well organised as workers. They never work with an individual mentality but everything they do is about the health and survival of the hive.

The workshop followed the entire process of beekeeping. We began by looking at collected comb and then saw Dale put them into a spinner where the centrifugal force expels the honey from the comb.

 

 

The honey is then released into a container with a fine mesh across the top to collect bits of comb or other unwanted bits, but still allowing the important pollen through. A second filter process is done afterwards through the finer mesh cones you can see in the photo below to the right.

 

Honey is then stored according to its source. Dale and Sarah process honey from a few other beekeepers who they know adhere to their own strict rules of beekeeping.

Then for the really exciting part: meeting the bees. We climbed to the top of the tall building and Dale took us out in a couple of small groups to meet the bees. It was essential we donned proper clothing and we were provided with coats with head masks and gloves. Dale said the chances of being bitten were very slim indeed, but it wasn’t impossible. I have to say I felt slightly nervous (and wasn’t the only one) but it did seem a little wimpish to not take a chance to take a proper look at the hives. And I’m so glad I did.

 

 

 

 

To see the bees and inside the hive was wonderful. Dale talked about how important it is to be slow in movement and he was impressively calm and gentle.

Back downstairs we had a honey tasting. This was fascinating as we tasted honeys from different parts of the UK and even the world.

 

An ‘aroma tasting wheel’ helped us identify the huge variety of smells and tastes as well as Sarah’s expert guidance. We could soon notice clear differences according to where the honey was made and kind of environment and whether the bees had been able to forage on a limited or large variety of plants.

We also learned about how raw honey – honey that hasn’t been processed or heated – is so much richer in good things. Generally darker honeys have more antioxidants and have more health and nutrition benefits. Cheap commercial honeys are barely ‘honey’ for the bees have often been fed sugar and the ‘honey’ has been heated until no goodness remains. Pure, raw honey is much more expensive but I think it’s better to have a little of it than a lot of cheap honey (which is essentially sugar and not good for us).

There was plenty of honey to buy and other honey products. Bermondsey Street Bees don’t sell commercially – i.e. not generally to shops (Selfridges being an exception), but mostly supply top London chefs (like Michel Roux Jr, Jose Pizarro and Tom Aitkens).

We were given a gift of a pot of the honey we’d seen being spun earlier to take home, as well as a little booklet about planting for honeybees.

 

It was a great afternoon and I learned so much about bees and honey. Dale and Sarah were great teachers and so passionate about what they do. I’ve learned a new respect for honeybees and a lot more about how to plant my garden and choose where and what honey I buy.

Restaurant Review: Padella, Borough Market

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I was booked on an urban beekeeping workshop with the Guild of Food Writers in Bermondsey this afternoon, starting at 2.30pm, so it seemed an ideal opportunity to make a second attempt to get into nearby Padella, right by Borough Market and London Bridge.

Queues to get into Padella, which doesn’t take reservations, are so famous that you can google suggestions for ‘how to beat the queue at Padella’. There’s not really a way to beat the queue – you simply have to be prepared to wait. On my first attempt to eat there I didn’t have time; I was on my way to the theatre and in too much of a hurry. Today I reckoned that if I turned up half an hour before opening time at 12 noon (one online suggestion), with a couple of hours free before I had to head to the workshop, surely I’d get in …

Padella has been open for about 3 years and I’ve heard great things about it. It’s won awards (like Observer Food Monthly‘s ‘Best Cheap Eat 2016’), has been listed as one of the best places in London for pasta, and so how could I not queue and try it out!

I arrived at 11.38am. There was – of course! – a queue.

A chill wind was blowing through the arched entrance into Borough Market; I’d no idea how long it would take me to get in and I had 22 minutes to wait until they opened. I didn’t know how big it was inside; how many could they seat? How quickly would the queue move? I couldn’t help asking myself whether it was worth it.

However, I waited and at noon the queue started moving. Slowly. A few people were let in and then it stopped for a while. Then it moved again. Actually, it didn’t really take that long to get in; I’m not sure exactly how many minutes but it seemed that suddenly I was being ushered in in a friendly manner, led down the stairs to the basement (a larger dining area than the small upstairs bar area) and shown to a stool at the bar. A waiter was almost immediately at my side and introduced himself, saying he’d be looking after me. And he did. None of that fake ‘friend’ stuff of ‘my name’s … ‘ that I can’t quite cope with in some places, but just a sign of efficiency with a smile and someone always at hand when you needed them.

You come here for pasta. Padella ‘is the culmination of Tim and Jordan’s long held dream to open a pasta bar serving fresh, hand rolled pasta with delicious sauces and fillings inspired by their trips to Italy’ the website tells us (they also have a smarter restaurant – Trullo – in Islington). There are 11 different kinds of pasta on offer (and one gnocchi dish). There’s tagliarini, pici (which I ate a lot in Siena last year), ravioli, pappardelle … In Italy the shape of our pasta is very important; it must match the kind of sauce you plan to serve with it. I could happily have eaten any dish on offer. They ranged in price from £4 to £11.50.

There were also 5 starters and 3 puddings.

I liked being at the bar and there was a certain excitement in having the cooking and food preparation so close to me that I could have reached out and joined in the stirring or chopping.

 

   

Glasses of wine (125ml) ranged in price from £4 to £5. I chose Cabernet/Sangiovese from Tuscany to go with my pasta dish. Water was complimentary – a bottle of still and sparkling was brought straight away for me to choose from.

 

I’d planned to have just one dish of pasta for lunch; I don’t normally eat a big meal at lunchtime and it was, after all, quite an early lunch, not long after noon. However, I couldn’t resist trying ‘Agretti with Fiorano 2018 olive oil and lemon’ (£5.50). I remember seeing agretti in a market in Rome and have been reading about it in the last few days. Typically grown in coastal regions it’s sometimes known as a ‘land samphire’. There’s certainly a similarity in its appearance – though it’s thinner – and it has a slightly salty, minerally taste. Dressed simply with the olive oil and lemon juice, it was cooked to retain a slight al dente bite and was absolutely delicious.

For my main I chose ‘Pappardelle with 8 hours Dexter beef shin ragu’ (£10).

It was gorgeous; really wonderful. I’ve been treated to some wonderful pasta of late: the fabulous Bancone in London, Pastificio Defilippis in Turin a couple of weeks ago. Padella’s pasta was all I’d heard it to be – first rate and definitely worth queuing for!

All thoughts of a quick one-course pasta lunch were thrown aside. Well, I did have plenty of time until my workshop began. So I ordered a dessert: ‘Rhubarb & Almond Tart’ (£4.50).

It was a simple but perfect slice of dessert heaven, with a nice blob of crème fraîche at the side. No one seemed to being having coffee, perhaps they don’t serve it; I decided to find coffee elsewhere and asked for the bill.

At £28.13, including wine and service, for 3 courses, it was excellent value. The food is fantastic. Go there. But take friends or a book to keep you happy while you queue! I promise it will be worth it.

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

Grand Hotel Sitea, Turin

I have a policy on the blog that I only review hotels I really like; places I want to – and do! – return to again and again. It was my third stay at Grand Hotel Sitea in Turin a couple of weeks ago and without doubt I’d choose to stay there again next time I’m in Turin. It manages to wonderfully combine luxury with friendliness, and its situation is so ideal you couldn’t find a better located hotel to stay – only minutes from the main sites; just a 5-minute walk from the beautiful Piazza San Carlo.

A 5* neoclassical hotel housed in a former palazzo, it opened in the 1920s. Its decor celebrates that history with a sense of style and tradition, but it operates in a fully modern way offering its guests all the mod cons they expect, a very efficient WiFi system and impeccable service that’s never pompous and always friendly.

I don’t normally stay in such luxury, but I first chose it because it looked so lovely, was in a great location and I got a fantastic deal booking it with my flight via British Airways back in October 2016. I got similarly good deal on my second trip in March 2017 but when booking this last one, I found booking direct with the hotel gave me a better price (click here for their website).

I wanted to go back to lovely Turin but I have to confess to being tempted also by a weekend of luxury at Grand Hotel Sitea! Living alone and often travelling alone, I like to stay in a nice hotel where someone will ‘look after me’ in the sense of making my bed, tidying my room, getting me a lovely breakfast and passing a few friendly words when I go in and out of the hotel. I like to stay where the room is nice enough for you to want to spend a couple of hours there in the afternoon relaxing after a morning of sightseeing and before going out for the evening; a room it’s a pleasure to be in. For that reason I often make a choice of three nights of luxury over a week of frugality!

Turin isn’t a hot tourist spot – which is a large part of why I like it; you shop, eat in restaurants and cafes, and have a drink with largely locals. And I think it’s also why a lovely hotel like Grand Hotel Sitea is reasonably priced for what it offers and would cost a lot more in a more popular city.

There are wonderful open sitting areas with large comfy sofas.

In this area (below) you can eat breakfast, get a snack or drink, and look out on to the patio garden.

There’s a cosy bar for drinks, snacks, coffee and aperitivo.

There’s a nice touch of luxury in the corridors leading to rooms.

I like to have a ‘Comfort Small Double for Single Use’ because I don’t like sleeping in single beds (€116 per night including breakfast). I’ve had the same room each time. The second time I asked for it because it was lovely but also looked over the back on to the courtyard; the third time they just gave it to me! And even said ‘welcome back’ when I arrived.

There’s a tray with kettle, cups and a few complimentary sachets of tea and coffee and some complimentary bottles of water. I really like it when I get a kettle! It’s so nice to be able to make your own hot drink early morning, late at night or when you go back in the afternoon.

The bathroom is nicely fitted and decorated with plump towels and complimentary toiletries and a hair dryer. There are slippers and a big fluffy dressing gown.

Breakfast is a huge and gorgeous buffet. You can sit in the area mentioned above or this more formal room, which I like, and it looks over the patio area outside. You help yourself from the buffet but a waiter will bring you tea or coffee and there’s a menu of cooked food if you want extra (though it’s hard to see how the buffet wouldn’t be enough!).

The buffet is huge and full of wonderful fresh produce, including fresh fruit, juices, yoghurts, local cheeses and traditional foods.

There are excellent pastries, and freshly made cakes.

Different breads and rolls and a fine choice of cold meats, cheeses, etc. They will also make you a coffee and I had an excellent Illy cappuccino each morning. Often hotel coffee is a bit grim but Grand Hotel Sitea’s is very good.

There is a smart Michelin starred restaurant and a bistrot, though I’ve never eaten ‘in’ as I prefer to go out to eat.

It’s so central that for a short trip it’s great to be able to come and go easily; you can pop back with some shopping or just to rest your feet for a half hour or so. And it’s a very inviting sight coming back in the evening; warm and welcoming and always an ‘hello’ from the reception staff.

Grand Hotel Sitea is definitely one of my favourite hotels.

 

Restaurant Review: Com Viet, Covent Garden

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I was meeting my friend Louise and another of her friends, Martha, to see the much-acclaimed play, Home, I’m Darling at the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane. Louise got the tickets; Martha chose and booked the restaurant (just round the corner in Garrick Street); Travel Gourmet turned up!

It’s nice when other people make suggestions. I really enjoyed the play and may well not have got to it without Louise offering to get tickets; I’ve passed Com Viet maybe hundreds of times when wandering round Covent Garden, but had never eaten there – and now I’m glad I did.

It’s quite a simple looking cafe on the ground floor, and fairly small. Go inside and down to the basement and it opens out into a much larger eating space that while not ultra smart, is more restaurant than cafe and a pleasant place to sit.

We decided to choose a few plates to share. We checked how many spring rolls came with the starter of Vietnamese Summer Rolls (Salad, prawn & vermicelli wrapped in rice paper) and were told two large ones. We ordered just one plate to share (£6.50) and thought we’d cut them up. We fancied just a ‘little something’ to begin with our glasses of wine.

I have to say my photos don’t do the food justice. Those spring rolls below were fabulous with a wonderfully fresh and crunchy filling with the chopped lettuce and nice tender king prawns.

Our main choices were Stir Fried Duck Breast with Tamarind Sauce (£10.25); Stir Fried King Prawns with Cauliflower (£10.25) …

 

Slow Cooked Chicken (caramelised in fish sauce, ginger, chilli and lemongrass – £9.95). We also had a side of noodles (Stir-Fried Ramen Noodle with Mushrooms – £5.75) …

and steamed rice (£3.95).

The portions were generous so plenty to share between the three of us. It was all very good (though the starter was the highlight) and a perfect light meal before the theatre. We all agreed you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a fairly rushed pre-theatre meal nor, I think, do you want something heavy or very rich.

Com Viet was a good find and I think it would be a great place to go for a bowl of Pho if in the area at lunchtime. Our bill came to £25 each, including wine and service.

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

Where to Eat with Kids: Byron, Richmond

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My 4-year-old grandson Freddie and I went to visit my friend Liz this afternoon to see her 4-month-old puppy, Ziggy. It was our 3rd time seeing the little King Charles Spaniel and he always seems so pleased to see Freddie, I’m sure even puppies recognise human equivalents – i.e. other ‘children’.

I decided to pick Freddie up early so we could have lunch together. It’s always such a treat to spend some time with him … and of course he has become my important blog collaborator when it comes to trying out restaurants with kids’ menus.

I liked the idea of going Byron and the suggestion of having a burger for lunch unsurprisingly went down well with Freddie. I’ve been to Bryons a few times but not my local Richmond branch. I’d looked at the kids’ menu before when passing by and thought there was a great choice and reasonably priced at £6.50 for main course, side dish and a drink.

We went in quite early and it was fairly empty – well, it is Monday too – and the waitress welcomed us with a smile and gave Freddie the kids’ menu, which also had puzzles and a drawing to colour in on the other side. There was a pot of crayons and Freddie was soon happily busy colouring.

Freddie chose the Mini Classic and the sweet potato fries, with an apple juice to drink. There was chicken too and veggie choices. We were sitting right by the open kitchen and he was intrigued to look over from time to time and watch the chefs preparing food.

 

His burger was a good size and came with a pot of carrot and cucumber sticks. The ‘Sweet Potato Shoestring Fries’ were so delicious – sweet and crispy – that Nonna (as he calls me) begged a few off him and he was happy to share.

It was a bit too early for me to contemplate eating a burger and I chose a salad instead: a Superfood Salad of ‘quinoa, edamame, radish, avocado, sunflower seeds, cucumber, lettuce, baby kale and zesty dressing’ (£8.95). I added some grilled halloumi for an extra £3.

It was all fresh and a good salad; not exceptional but a good choice for a place to eat with a small child. Freddie’s drink was included with his deal and I had some Cawston Press Fizzy Apple. The bill came to £20 and a few pence. We could have added a dessert of chocolate brownie or ice cream for an extra £2 to Freddie’s lunch but I suggested instead that we made our way to Gelateria Danieli for ice cream … because if you’re in Richmond, really, why wouldn’t you!

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

Restaurant Review: Cafe Murano, Covent Garden

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Annie and I had been talking about trying out the Covent Garden branch of Angela’s Hartnett’s Cafe Murano for some time. And it was my friend who booked it for us last night, having been there recently with her husband and thinking I’d like it too.

It’s an amazing 5 years since we went to the Mayfair branch (click here) and I guess I hadn’t quite got over my slight disappointment, hence the slow road to the Covent Garden branch (which is actually a lot more convenient for me). I arrived first and was shown to a bar area where I could sit on a stool and look at the menu. I was asked if I wanted to order a drink but said I’d wait until we’d sat down.

When Annie arrived we were shown to our table in the dining area at the back. It was attractive with a nice ambience (though it did get very noisy later and it became slightly difficult talking). We decided to go for the set menu – ‘Menu del Giorno – Veneto’ – served 12.00-7.00pm every day and then from 9.30-11pm, at 2 courses for £19; 3 courses for £23. There was a choice of 3 dishes for each course: Antipasti, Secondi and Dolce. We also ordered a glass of the house white wine each at £8 for 175ml (500ml was £23; a bottle was £34).

Annie has to be a bit careful about some things she eats and the waitress was really good and nice about answering her questions and offering to make adjustments. We were really impressed by this and the overall attentive and friendly service, though we did feel it got slightly harassed by the end when they were really busy.

Annie chose a starter of ‘Grilled aubergine, basil & almond’.

She said it was very nice though was slightly taken aback at first taste as it was very spicy, which hadn’t been indicated on the menu.

I chose ‘Salt cod bruschetta’ – because it’s one of my favourite Italian things. The menu was ‘Veneto’ based (maybe they change the region periodically?) and this bruschetta is very typical of the city’s food.

There were two good-sized bruschette with a nice mantecato (creamed salt cod) topping, which always makes me think of eating cicchetti by the Grand Canal in Venice. I enjoyed it a lot.

Annie’s main was ‘Chicken, lardo & sage’. It came with a lot of tomato sauce. Annie said it was very good; the chicken was excellent – tender and flavourful.

There was a risotto choice but as it was pretty much what I’d cooked the night before (peas & parmesan), I opted for pasta: ‘Bigoli, anchovy & onion’.

Bigoli is a very thick, hollow spaghetti-like pasta. I was keen to try the pasta as it’s a speciality here – not surprising in an Italian restaurant, but there’s a pastaficio attached, ‘a modern pasta factory’ is their description. They make their own pasta, which is used in the restaurant, and the pastaficio is also a shop selling their pasta, pasta sauces and other foods used in the restaurant. You can shop there or stop by for just a drink or simple snack.

The pasta dish was good, though not ‘wow’ good. The waitress asked if I wanted Parmesan at the same time pointing out the dish contained anchovies. Yes I know Italians don’t use Parmesan or any other cheese with their fish dishes … but I wasn’t sure salted anchovies in the sauce really counted and I wanted a bit of Parmesan over my pasta and enjoyed it.

Unusually, Annie and I both fancied a dessert. There was a cheese option with hazelnut bread, Italian doughnut with chocolate sauce, or, as we both chose, Tiramisu Ice Cream.

I have to say when it was put before me I wasn’t terribly impressed. One, it looked rather in its sad one-boule state, like the kind of ‘dessert’ offered to my 4-year-old grandson when I take him out for a ‘kids’ menu’ meal; secondly, it wasn’t what I was expecting in looks. I’ve had tiramisu ice cream before and it usually reflects the layers of the famous dessert, whereas this was all mixed together. It tasted of tiramisu but was no more than OK; quite a heavy gelato. We have such excellent gelato in London now (and I was just back from eating amazing gelato in Turin!) that I felt it could have been a little more exciting. I think it was an example of the slightly less generous ‘set menu’ portions.

The bill, with service, came to £38 each, which was reasonable for 3 courses in a smart cafe-restaurant in central London. It had been a little like the Mayfair experience – in the main very good, but just a tinge of disappointment. I think that’s because when a restaurant carries such a famous chef name you expect it to be perfect, even the ‘cheap’ early evening set menu. Perhaps that’s unfair, but I think when you try out a cheaper menu in a smart place it should please and impress you so much you want to go back for the à la carte next time!

Cafe Murano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

What to Eat & Drink and Where in Turin

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I’ve been to Turin three times over the last two and a half years and have come to like it a lot. They’ve only been short weekend trips so this in no way claims to be a comprehensive guide to eating in Turin, but I’ve done a lot of sampling in my time there and the food and drink are so wonderful – and famous to foodies – that I can hopefully give you a good start to knowing what to look for and where to find it.

 

Turin’s Food

Piedmont, of which Turin is the capital (indeed it was the capital of Italy briefly after unification in the 19th century), is rich in culinary history and tradition. You will find some of the very best food and wine in Italy here. With the Alps to the north (and visible from the city) and the fertile Po Valley, where it’s said the best risotto rice is grown, you will find wonderful meats, fabulous cheeses and the most glorious wines anywhere in the world.

As a visitor to Turin you’ll find the traditional restaurants have a strong emphasis on meat. And we’re not talking a simple steak or roast chicken, we’re talking the parts of animals we normally don’t use or talk about. One of the most famous dishes is Finanziera – a stew of sweetbreads, chicken giblets, brain, cockscombs. There is a lot of boiled meat – bollito – featuring calf’s head, pork belly, pigs’ trotters, and all kinds of offal. But you’ll also find some wonderful dishes cooked in local wines like Barolo. Even pasta often has a meat filling, especially agnolotti, which are like ravioli, and a popular speciality, or comes with a meat sauce. But you can find lighter food so vegetarians don’t despair. It’s just a good idea to check the menu before you go into a restaurant.

Truffles are a big thing in Piedmont and you’ll find them in pasta and risotto dishes. Many dishes have a hazelnut sauce for hazelnuts are grown locally. You’ll find few fish dishes on menus but anchovies feature a lot and tuna, especially in the famous Vitello Tonnato dish – veal with a tuna sauce. You’ll find wonderful fresh pasta and cheeses like Toma, Fontina and Robiola.

Turin is also famously home to the Slow Food Movement. It began here and there’s a big event in the city every two years.

 

Turin’s Drink

Some of the most prestigious and wonderful Italian wines come from Piedmont: Barolo, Nebbiolo and Barbaresco. You will be able to enjoy really special wines at reasonable prices in Turin and if you’ve time and are keen to follow the wine trail, take a trip out to the Langhe area, though you’d need a car or to book a wine tour.

Turin is the home of Vermouth. It began in Turin back in the 16th century but the modern drink was created by the Cinzano brothers in 1757 and was later popularised by wine merchant Alessandro Martini and herbalist Luigi Rossi – Martini & Rossi – in the 1860s. It all happened in Turin and so when in Turin you simply have to have a vermouth – straight or in one of the famous cocktails like Negroni or Manhattan.

 

Breakfast & Morning Coffee

This isn’t about where to find the equivalent of the Full English Breakfast; I don’t imagine it exists in Turin! I’ve always had breakfast included at my hotel, which offers a grand array of choices, but I’m not a cooked breakfast person; I need to eat first thing … but not a lot. I like some fruit, yoghurt, cereal; maybe bread and cheese when there’s a good choice. Hotel coffee is often awful, but my hotel in Turin, Grand Hotel Sitea, did actually make an excellent Illy cappuccino. But it’s later in the morning that I like to go in search of a good coffee and the best pastry I can find.

I’m always drawn to the historic cafes, not only because they’re so beautiful and often come with romantic histories of poets, intellectuals and politicians, but they really do offer something special when it comes to food and drink. You only have to go to the beautiful Piazza San Carlo and you’ll find yourself near the best.

There are 3 important historic cafes in Piazza San Carlo: Caffè Torino, Stratta and Caffè San Carlo. Stratta is the only one that closes early – at 7.30pm (and closed Mondays) – so it’s a breakfast, lunch and aperitivo place. All of them offer outdoor seating so if you have good weather, it’s just the best place to sit and watch the Turin world go by.

Stratta is a favourite. Like a lot of the cafes in Turin, it began as a pastry and chocolate shop. Chocolate is one of Turin’s most famous creations – see below (and this link). They serve the most wonderful pastries. Last Sunday during my recent trip, I ate a Pistachio Croissant that had a filling of pistachio cream and it was just one of the most gorgeous croissants I’ve ever had. The pastry was so light and flaky and it had just the right amount of filling and wasn’t too sweet. But as you can see from the photo below, choosing which to have isn’t easy! They also sell gorgeous chocolates and have a wonderful display of chocolate cakes. There aren’t tables inside so you just have to stand at the bar like a local – but that means it also costs you less (about €3 for a coffee and pastry).

My two other favourites for morning coffee are Baratti e Milano (open 8am-8pm every day except Monday) and Caffè Mulassano (Open from 8am-midnight every day except Wednesday), which are in Piazza Castello, close to San Carlo.

I sat down one morning at Mulassano, which is a beautiful, quite small, art nouveau cafe and supposedly where the Italian sandwich – tramezzino – was created. In Baratti e Milano I tend to stand up because you can, and I like feeling more like a local. I think this may be my favourite place for coffee.

   

Baratti e Milano also win lots of favour by being the creators of a glorious chocolate spread that puts Nutella to shame (see below).

You’ll see lovely cafés everywhere for your morning coffee but remember that you’ll pay a lot more to sit down rather than stand at the bar like the locals. You might pay twice or even three times as much for your coffee if you want a table and waiter service. But sometimes it’s worth it! For more on Turin’s cafés, click here.

 

Lunch

I prefer to eat a main meal in the evening and while at home I’ll snack on a simple bowl of soup or sandwich. On holiday it’s nice to have something a bit more … but not fill yourself up to spoil the evening meal. It’s easy to eat very cheaply by going into a bar for a snack but if you want something a bit more special you can find it in one of the historic or smarter cafés. My experience is that if you make this choice, there is no such thing as a ‘simple sandwich’ or ‘simple snack’. It always comes with extras, or it does if you order a drink – a glass of wine or beer. The ‘extras’ in the photo above were at Farmacia in Piazza Carignano when I thought all I’d ordered was a salad and glass of prosecco. It was wonderful place and a brilliant outdoor location on a sunny day.

Caffe Mulassano (see above) is also great for lunch, especially if you want to try the famous tramezzino (sandwich), as I did a couple of days ago, and got these ‘nibbles’ with my drink too.

I’ve had lunch at Caffe Torino a couple of times on my last day when I want a more substantial meal before my flight home. There’s also a branch of Eataly in Lagrange, near the San Carlo piazza (a much larger one on the outskirts in Lingotto and worth a special trip) which is a good place for lunch (click here). A small wine bar I found on my first trip is also good – Cantina Torino in via Montedi Pietà (click here for review). For the best pasta in town go to Pastificio Defilippis in Lagrange. I ate supper there but it’s great for lunch too (click here for review). Another great place is Cianci Piola Caffe in Largo IV Marzo, near the cathedral (click here for review). A piola is a small, casual and inexpensive place to eat. This one is open for dinner too and always busy and you can’t book so are likely to have to queue – but it’s worth it!

 

Aperitivo

Aperitivo is the most wonderful Italian institution but in Turin they seem to want to enjoy it at times other than just early evening: you’ll see apericena and even aperipranzo. For the ‘cena‘ it’s enough food for supper; ‘pranzo‘ for lunch. You’ll pay a flat fee and get a lot of food with your drink. The more traditional aperitivo is an early evening event; an early evening drink before dinner with snacks. But be warned, the ‘extras’ can be so filling you may want to start early if you’re planning on a big evening meal. While there last weekend, I tended to go out for aperitivo at around 5pm, giving myself 2 to 3 hours before I planned to eat dinner.

It’s said that aperitivo originated in Turin in 1786 but it didn’t really take off until later, in Milan. But maybe it’s this origin that makes Turin so fantastic at it. I’ve been to many places in Italy, from the far north to the far south, but I don’t know anywhere that does aperitivo as brilliantly as Turin. I imagine it’s brilliant in Milan too but I haven’t been there for many years, and last time I found it very expensive. Turin isn’t cheap but it’s not a very touristy place and so you’ll find it full of locals and thus not overpriced.

I have to tell you that I always go to Caffè Torino for my aperitivo (photo above). There are plenty of choices – just stop at somewhere you like the look of, preferably one that is busy (busy is good!) – but I like Caffè Torino for its historic feel, the waiters in their long aprons (friendly but slightly aloof like a Parisian waiter), their fabulous drinks and delicious little ‘extras’. You can sit at their tables in the piazza, or inside, but I like to sit in the arcade which surrounds Piazza San Carlo.

You know you’re in Italy and couldn’t be anywhere else; you can see across the beautiful piazza, and you can people-watch as locals and visitors walk by. They’re also known for some of the best cocktails in the city, especially those made with vermouth, for this is where vermouth was born (for more on vermouth click here). I’ve nearly always chosen prosecco for an early evening drink in Italy, occasional an Aperol spritz, but each evening in Turin this past weekend I chose a Martini. A straight Martini – a rosado the first night, a dry the second and then a rosso on the final evening (€8.50). I thought I should enter the vermouth spirit of the place! And I very much enjoyed them. I did once have a Negroni in Caffe Torino, for which they’re famous, which was wonderful but so strong it almost finished me off for the evening!

Despite going there so many times it was only on this latest visit that I noticed people standing on, rubbing their feet on, or twisting round on, this large brass bull in the floor at the entrance.

Toro is the word for bull in Italian. Torino is the Italian name for Turin. The superstition goes that if you touch the brass bull with your feet it will bring you luck.

 

Dinner

I would say that dinner is the most exciting meal of the day for me, but when in Turin every meal is exciting. However, it’s in the evening I look for something special and go in search of something fairly traditional and typical of the city. There are so many places to choose from! Here’s where I’ve been and liked.

Above is the dining room of Tre Gallini, one of Turin’s most iconic and traditional restaurants. This is where you go if you want a very typical Piedmontese food experience. It’s wise to like meat a lot! I had a great meal there and the service was wonderfully friendly and efficient (click here for review). My previous visit I meant to book there but booked their more informal wine bar, Enoteca Tre Galli, by mistake. This last trip I wanted to try to original, and I did enjoy it, but in all honesty the more informal wine bar is more my kind of thing with a lighter and more modern cuisine (click here for review). This is the one I’d go back to next time. Another place for traditional food is Dai Saletta (click here). It’s simple and very traditional; always busy, it’s essential to book.

Another favourite from my 2nd trip was Scannabue, which again has a more modern, lighter menu but exceptionally good. Often rated as one of the best restaurants in Turin, it’s certainly one of my favourites (click here for review).

For something lighter but truly excellent, in an informal setting, I really enjoyed Pastificio Defilippis this last trip.

You can go for a simple pasta lunch in their shop or take a slightly more sophisticated route by going to the restaurant upstairs. Do book. It gets really busy because it’s thought to serve the best pasta in Turin (see also Lunch above – click here for review). Defilippis is also open on Sunday evenings when a lot of the restaurants are closed. Another place open on Sunday evening is Caffè Torino (it’s always open!) and I’ve eaten there in the evening too (click here), sitting outside in the piazza.

 

Chocolate

Turin is where chocolate-hazelnut spread originated and we’re not talking Nutella (but that comes from here too, or nearby in Alba) but the ‘real thing’, the kind of spread that’s infinitely superior. And my favourite comes from Baratti e Milano. I bought one container on my first trip to Turin. A spur of the moment thing as I’m not a Nutella fan – too sweet! Then when I got home I was won over. It was a-ma-zing! It was so amazing that my family began to fight over it. And they are grown up! So now I bring three pots back – one for son and family, one for daughter and family – and one for me!

Chocolate as we know it began in Turin (see here for more). You’ll find famous gianduia sweets (chocolate and hazelnut praline) wrapped in decorated foil everywhere, and it’s almost mandatory to try the famous Bicerin drink – a mix of chocolate, coffee and milk.

The place to go to drink it is Caffè al Bicerin dal 1763, though it’s served in most cafés. And when it comes to desserts, you must try the city’s famous dessert, Bonet, a rich chocolate custard with crushed amaretti biscuits and rum.

 

Gelato

 

Great gelato – ice cream – can be found all over Italy. I have a personal rule that I have to have a gelato a day while in Italy! Thus I’m always seeking out the best. I had to go to Grom this trip because Turin is where it began, and I sought out their very first shop in Piazza Paleocapa. Grom has been bought out by Unilever and is thus appearing everywhere and I can buy tubs in my local supermarket (Waitrose only as yet in UK), and their first shop in London opened last year, but it’s still wonderful. I can only hope its quality won’t suffer with the expansion. Another excellent gelateria is Pepino in Piazza Carignano. But my favourite – without doubt! – of my last trip was La Romana just off Piazza San Carlo. It was spectacularly good!

 

Markets

Porta Palazzo is the biggest open air market in Piazza della Republica. If you love food markets this is a ‘must’ on a Saturday morning. It’s huge and full of wonderful produce. Even if you’re not buying (because like me you’re staying in a hotel), it’s still great to see.

I’ve also found great Sunday markets in Piazza della Citta and Piazza Bodoni.

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Turin is a beautiful city and for anyone who loves good food – especially Italian food and wine – it really should be on your list of places to go.

This article is now published on the GPSmyCity app. Why not take it with you on your mobile? Click here for link.