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Carrot & Leek Soup Slow-cooked in an Aga

I drove up to Worcestershire yesterday to stay with my daughter Nicola for a couple of days. As Hurricane Ophelia gasped its last violent breath across Ireland, causing havoc and putting the whole country on Red Alert, the wind picked up during my drive up the M40, M42 and M5 and on into the smaller roads of Worcestershire on the eastern side of UK, near to Wales. Fortunately, Ophelia was pretty tame by the time she reached us but it was still a very windy night. This morning we woke to sun and while I love living in London, who can fail to be awed by the beauty of looking out onto some of UK’s prettiest land through an old farmhouse window and then going for a morning stroll up the lane.

I was cooking lunch. Just a simple soup I make quite often but this time in Nicola and Rachael’s Aga.

And that I discovered meant a totally different way of cooking: beginning as I usually do but then leaving the soup to cook in the simmering oven rather than bubbling away on top. I have to admit to be being slightly sceptical. I’ve roasted vegetables before for a soup, then when they’re cooked added liquid and blitzed till smooth, but I’ve never started with my basic ‘soffrito’ type mix and chopped vegetables, added liquid and then put it all in an oven to cook. It turned out to be a fantastic way of cooking for a gorgeous rich flavour and the fact that timing is very flexible. The soup can be happily left for some time and won’t spoil. And the Aga has a wonderful way of cooking the vegetables through without them collapsing if cooked for a long time. Nicola said this was especially great for cooking something like a vegetable curry where each vegetable will cook through but retain its separate integrity.

I do like to spice a winter soup up, so I added a little cumin, coriander seeds and dried chilli. I found some chillis in a jar and took them to Nicola to ask her how hot they were.

 

Nicola explained that Rachael had grown them then dried them herself and that they were VERY hot and I might only want about half with none of the seeds. So, although the chilli was small – only about 4cm – I did as suggested and it was as well I took advice, for the finished soup had a real chilli kick to it; we liked it but it was definitely enough. If you don’t want the soup hot or spicy, then leave the spices out; you’ll still have a lovely soup.

Carrot & Leek Soup with Spices

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 large leeks (750g), thickly sliced
  • 1kg carrots, thickly sliced
  • dried chilli, cumin seeds, coriander seeds
  • about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • vegetable stock or water

Prepare the vegetables. Grind some dried chilli with about a teaspoon each of cumin seeds and coriander seeds.

   

Put a large pan (with a tight fitting lid) on the simmering plate on top of the Aga. Add the olive oil and onion. Soften the onion a little and then add the spices. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes to bring out the flavour of the spices.

   

Now add the carrots and leeks and give a good stir. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Allow to cook, stirring regularly, for 5 minutes or so until the vegetables take on a slight colour. Now add enough hot vegetable stock or water to just cover the vegetables.

   

Let it all come to just a simmer – a few bubbles at the edge – then put on the lid and transfer to the simmering oven of the Aga. This cooks it quite slowly – mine cooked for about 2 hours – but if you’re in more of a hurry, use a hotter oven. I’d prepared it all early so we had plenty of time to let it cook slowly. When ready, take from the oven and blitz until smooth with a hand blender.

   

It will be quite thick but I like this kind of winter soup thick. However, thin down to the consistency you want with some hot stock or water, if you like. We weren’t quite ready for lunch so I popped it back in the simmering oven where it could happily stay for some time without spoiling, until we were ready to eat.

I’d brought a sourdough loaf from my local Italian bakery yesterday and it was a perfect accompaniment.

The soup was delicious with such a good deep flavour. The slow cooking was brilliant. I topped it with a dollop of Greek yoghurt but some cream would be nice too. A perfect lunch in the wake of a dying hurricane on a windy, autumnal day.

An Autumn Walk in Wisley Gardens

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I’m very much a city person. I was born in London and have always lived here and can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like to make the most of all a great city has to offer with regular visits to the theatre and art galleries, and of course enjoying all London has to offer food wise with its fabulous range of restaurants and food markets. However, I do also enjoy living in the ‘green and pleasant land’ of South West London with Kew Gardens, Richmond Park, Bushy Park and the River Thames right on my doorstep. Slightly further afield (a 20-minute drive round the M25) are Wisley Gardens. I’ve been going to Wisley regularly for years and with my Royal Horticultural Society membership, can pop in if I’m in the area for a short walk or, like this morning, head there for a longer walk. It’s one of my favourite places and while not on the grand scale of nearby Kew Gardens, it’s also a prestigious botanical garden with a vibrant educational and research centre.

Recently Wisley has been in the news because of plans to widened the adjacent A3 road where there’s a busy junction connecting to the M25. Wisley is a Grade II listed garden and the threat from Highways England could rob the gardens of 10,000 square metres of land and woodland, cutting down about 500 historic trees and destroying wildlife habitats. Famous gardeners like Alan Titchmarsh have spoken out to try to stop this happening and there is a petition you can sign on the RHS website. I really hope Wisley Gardens, as they currently stand, can be saved.

There’s always so much going on at Wisley that it’s often worth a special trip. Only a couple of weeks ago I took my two and a half year old grandson, Freddie, there for a Birds of Prey show. I knew he’d love seeing real, live owls and other big birds. There’s a Taste of Autumn show coming up next weekend (18-22 October 2017) with exhibitions and food stalls. Wisley often have fruit and vegetables for sale at the entrance, particularly at this time of the year when you can buy different types of apples to try. And their garden centre is my absolute favourite, offering the largest selection of plants for sale in the UK.

   

Wisley’s Glasshouse was opened 10 years ago by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. There are always some wonderful exotic plants to see, with an orchid display in the spring. Next spring (13 January – 4 March 2018) there will be a Butterflies in the Glasshouse event, which I think is going to be a ‘must’ event for my grandson.

   

   

   

Outside there’s a lake and a wonderful range of different areas to explore, from a wooded area, to rock gardens, vegetable and fruit gardens, a few small show gardens to give you inspiration back at home, and a fabulous mixed border walk that’s one of the very best things.

   

Of course, October isn’t the time to see it at its best but there was still an impressive and beautiful array of colours, as I found elsewhere in the gardens. Just look at these photos!

   

And fabulous autumn colours everywhere.

   

   

   

There are unexpected delights like a sculpture of Pan and his pipes; a life-size model of ‘Bear Fishing’; a Henry Moore bronze sculpture, ‘King and Queen’; and this wonderful long bench of connecting love seats.

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There are cafes for snacks, coffee, tea and meals so it’s easy and pleasant to spend the day or a good part of it in Wisley. Rather cleverly, on the way out, you have to exit through their shop.

I almost never manage to resist buying something! But at this time of the year, I find it’s a great place to buy some Christmas presents.

Wisley Gardens are a wonderful place to visit it. To find out more and what’s going on there look at the website: click here.

A Book & Writing Blog

A slightly different post today … not travel or food! But I’ve just started a new blog for my publishing work and so if there are any budding writers out there or really just anyone interested in writing or books, please take a look. Also, it would be great if you could pass on if you know anyone who may be interested. Thank you!

Kay Gale Editorial Services

This is a blog for budding writers and lovers of good books. I shall be sharing thoughts and advice about writing, based on my many years of experience as a professional book editor. These articles will give you an insight into the publishing process and offer tips, from how to get started to overcoming writer’s block, and what to do with your finished work.

I’ll be passing on big book and publishing news I hear about – major autobiographies, prize winners, etc., and anything else of significant interest.

I shall also be sharing some short reviews of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed. Working as a book editor, having time to read a book of choice is a bit of a treat. And when I’ve really enjoyed a book, like most people who love reading, it’s great to share the book or recommend it.

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Grilled Vegetables with Burrata & Hazelnut Pesto

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I guess you might say tonight’s supper was a last-ditch attempt to grab a bit of summer. Well the sun has actually been shining today and the temperature was even quite warm. But the real reason I made this dish was because I couldn’t resist buying some burrata I saw on the cold shelves in Waitrose at the weekend and it needed eating up before tomorrow. My original idea had been to reproduce the lovely grilled courgette, mozzarella and hazelnut salad at had Joe Allen last month.

I’d enjoyed it so much I thought at the time I’d try it out at home. But then I thought of the wonderful grilled vegetable and mozzarella salad I often have at Corto Deli. And that’s when I decided to grill a few more vegetables, not just courgettes. I thought I’d stay with the hazelnut theme though, so made my pesto with those instead of the more traditional pine nuts. But the classic version would work just as well (click here).

Burrata has gained popularity over recent years and it’s not hard to understand why. It is a kind of buffalo mozzarella but filled inside with pulled bits of the cheese mixed with cream. It comes from Puglia and arose out of cheesemakers finding a way to use up odd bits of cheese. At its best, it is absolutely gorgeous; rich and creamy. But if you can’t get hold of any then mozzarella – a good buffalo kind – would work just as well.

Grilled Vegetables with Burrata & Hazelnut Pesto

  • 1 burrata (or buffalo mozzarella)
  • a selection of vegetables to grill: aubergine, courgette, peppers, red onion, fennel, large tomatoes

Hazelnut Pesto

  • 30g hazelnuts
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 10g basil leaves
  • 100ml olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan

Dry roast the hazelnuts in a small pan. If they haven’t been skinned, once they’re hot and starting to colour remove to a piece of kitchen town and rub to remove as much skin off as you can. If they are already skinned, then dry roast until they just start browning. Hold back about 10g for garnish and put the rest into a mortar and pestle with the garlic and sea salt. Pound until you have a paste. Now add the basil leaves, a few at a time, and pound until the leaves break down into the paste and you have a greenish mix. Then slowly mix in the olive oil.

   

   

Next mix in the Parmesan. You can check the seasoning but it’s unlikely you’ll need more salt as there’s some already and the Parmesan also brings some saltiness. If you want the pesto a bit thinner, then add more olive oil.

   

Transfer the pesto to a bowl and keep until needed.

The vegetables can be prepared a little in advance though I cooked mine close to when I wanted to eat. I chose the selection given in the list of ingredients above but you don’t need all of them, and you can put in others if you like.

I didn’t use all of the vegetables but cut slices from them, fairly thickly. I did use a whole courgette, which was fairly small anyway, and large tomato.

Pour some olive oil into a small bowl and then use a pastry brush to brush oil over the slices. Do one side first to go oil-side down onto a hot griddle, then paint the other side as the first cooks.

Get your griddle nice and hot then start cooking the vegetables. I did mine in two batches. The order doesn’t matter too much except it’s best to leave the tomato to last as it makes a bit of a mess.

   

Transfer them straight to a serving plate and arrange prettily – yes, it does make a difference! I’ve got some lovely Italian plates which are perfect for this. Then put the burrata in the middle.

Now make a cross in the top of the burrata and gently pull it slightly apart. You’ll see a gorgeous creamy delight in the middle! Now spoon some of the pesto (you’ll not need all of it) across the vegetables and burrata. Roughly chop the reserved hazelnuts and scatter on the top.

I was planning to eat this as a main course with some sourdough bread. It was more than enough so some will be saved for lunch tomorrow. But you can vary the quantities easily depending on how many you’re feeding. I think for a main you need at least one burrata between two (if not one each!), but it would make a great starter for 4 with 1-2 burratas. As for the leftover pesto, that will keep well in the fridge in a jar or covered container for a week. There are lots of things to do with it – you’ll find quite a few ideas on the blog if you search ‘pesto’ – but the simplest of all is to serve it with pasta.

 

 

Very Simple Chicken Curry

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When it comes to Italian and Middle Eastern food – which are pretty much what I cook most of the time – I’m quite purist. I like to search for the most authentic recipe, seek out a bit of history for traditional dishes, and will spend time ‘getting it right’ as far as I can. However, when it comes to curry and pizza, both of which I love, they’re food I prefer to go out for. I can make, I think, a reasonable pizza at home (even for 14 at a hen-do!) but I know that no matter how much time and effort I put into making the dough and buying the best ingredients for the topping, there is absolutely no way I can make a really good pizza at home in my oven. The best pizza requires a wood-fired pizza oven to get the best flavour and texture – not to mention an expert pizzaiolo/a (a special pizza chef). And I think pizza should be eaten straight away, straight from the oven, which is why I never order a takeaway. Anyway, with two brilliant pizzerias, run by Italians, within walking distance of my house (see Masaniello and Ruben’s Refettorio), why would I even want to try. Yes, I know I’m privileged so maybe if I was living somewhere more remote, I’d be happy with a lesser pizza, but when I have the best on my doorstep, then I’ve no incentive to make my own.

Indian takeaway is something I do have quite often. I love going to Tangawizi, my favourite local Indian restaurant, but we often as a family have takeaways from them too; sometimes I even have one on my own. Especially on a cold winter’s evening, tucked up on my sofa watching something non-demanding like Strictly or perhaps a more exciting (for me) Inspector Montalbano. While I really love Indian food, I rarely attempt to make it. I went through a Madhur Jaffrey phase back in the late ’70s to early ’80s. But the truth is, a bit like that pizza oven, to make a really good curry you need lots of spices and they need to be fresh. Those little pots that have been sitting on the spice rack collecting dust for a couple of years, just won’t do. So, if you regularly cook Indian food, then fine, but if you only occasionally want to make a curry, then you’ll likely find you have to buy new little pots each time … and those little pots will sit there quietly, gathering dust, and you’ll throw them out in a year’s time when that curry-cooking fancy comes over you again and you buy some more.

Back in April 2001, the brilliant Nigel Slater gave a recipe for ‘Chicken with spices and cream’ in the Observer Food Monthly – basically a chicken curry. Apart from being wonderfully simple and delicious, it solved the little pot problem for all I needed was some good curry powder (newly opened of course!) and some cinnamon (which I use quite a bit in other things, so is always fresh in my house). I became so addicted to this recipe that whenever I tell my family I’m making a curry, they know this is what they’ll get! I happened to buy some chicken in the supermarket yesterday morning with no particular meal in mind. But as I have a cold, as always happens, I crave something spicy. So Nigel’s recipe was pulled from my old file of collected recipes. I had 2 chicken breasts so thought I’d eat one portion and freeze the other. Then there was a last-minute arrangement to feed Lyndsey and Freddie as well. Grandson Freddie at only two and a half is a great fan of Tangawizi curries. Hopefully he’d like mine too, even though I can’t really pretend it’s in the same league. But I needed to stretch it a bit and I didn’t have more chicken. So I added a small (130g) tin of chickpeas and a handful of peas (I have a bit of an addiction to frozen peas; memories of childhood, I think, but also Keema Peas from Tangawizi is a favourite). Apart from those additions, I strayed only slightly from Nigel’s, and used coconut oil instead of butter and oil, but the recipe is pretty much the same as the original, though halved.

Very Simple Chicken Curry – 2-3 portions

  • 1 medium onion, sliced with the grain
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 chicken breasts (or use thighs if you prefer), cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large tomatoes, skinned and core removed
  • 130g tin chickpeas, drained
  • handful frozen peas
  • 125ml chicken stock
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 50ml single cream
  • handful chopped coriander

Slice the onion and put in a large frying pan with the coconut oil (or use other oil if you prefer, but the coconut is great for curries). When the onion has softened, add the chicken pieces.

   

Brown the chicken all over then add the garlic, curry powder, cinnamon and season with salt and pepper. Give a good stir and cook for a couple of minutes to bring out the flavour of the spices.

   

   

Now add the tomatoes, chickpeas, peas, and chicken stock.

   

Stir well, bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the lemon juice, cream and coriander. Stir gently. Check seasoning. Then it’s ready to serve.

I served it with wilted spinach and some brown basmati rice, but serve with naan if you prefer. It met Freddie’s approval and received a shouted ‘yum’. He wasn’t too keen on the spinach though …

Pan-Roasted Cod with Salmorejo & Crispy Serrano Ham

Inspired by my recent trip to Granada, I decided to make some salmorejo today. Salmorejo is very similar to gazpacho and both are traditional Andalusian dishes, so I saw them on most menus while in Granada. Salmorejo more specifically is a dish that comes from Córdoba, a city I’d love to visit as well, but didn’t manage to get to on this trip – but hopefully my next one to Spain!

Salmorejo is richer and creamier than gazpacho; it’s made mainly from tomatoes and bread and doesn’t have the other vegetables usually found in gazpacho, like peppers and cucumber. Sometimes it’s served as a cold soup but it’s also served as a sauce, and I ate it this way a couple of times while in Granada. I’ve already posted a recipe for salmorejo but I called it ‘Gazpacho Madrid Style‘ because at the time, in March 2011, I didn’t know that what I’d eaten in Madrid had been salmorejo. I’m certain the restaurant told me it was gazpacho, but perhaps that was because I asked them what salmorejo was! Anyway, this little story is testament to the fact that writing the blog has taught me a lot; I am constantly learning more about food. I ate salmorejo as a soup on my last night in Granada, and while not garnished with the traditional chopped Serrano ham and egg, it was one of the most glorious salmorejos I’ve had. So I knew when I got home I’d have to make some.

I thought at first about making soup, but then decided to use it as a sauce for some cod. I ate a lot of fish in Granada and cod twice. I also thought it would be nice to take the traditional salmorejo accompaniment of Serrano ham and crisp it for a garnish.

I was cooking for just myself but the amount of salmorejo would be plenty for perhaps 4 portions and you could also serve it as a soup. I used the recipe from Sam & Sam Clark’s wonderful book, Casa Moro, halving the quantities. 

Pan-Roasted Cod with Salmorejo & Crispy Serrano Ham

  • 1 cod fillet, preferably with skin on
  • a little olive oil
  • a knob of butter
  • thin slice of Serrano ham
  • a handful of petit pois, cooked
  • a small handful of finely chopped fresh herbs (e.g. parsley, chives, basil)

Salmorejo

  • 1 garlic clove
  • 500g sweet, ripe tomatoes
  • 50g white bread, a day or two old, weighed after crusts removed
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • a pinch of caster sugar
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the salmorejo in advance so it can ideally spend about 2 hours in the fridge before eating. Crush the garlic in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of sea salt until you have a smooth paste.

   

Put the tomatoes and bread (roughly broken into small pieces) into a food processor and blend until smooth. Then strain into a bowl. Try to push as much of the pulp through the strainer as possible.

   

   

   

Return to a clean food processor or use a hand blender. Add the garlic paste and slowly add the olive oil with the blender running. Now add the sherry vinegar, a pinch of sugar and season to taste.

   

You should have a fairly sloppy consistency. Transfer to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge for 2 hours or until ready to cook the fish.

I’d bought a lovely cod fillet from my excellent local fishmongers, Sandys of Twickenham. I seasoned well on both sides.

   

I poured a little olive oil into a frying pan and once hot, added the cod fillet, skin-side down. Once the skin was nicely browned and crispy and I could see the edges of the cod were turning white, then I added the knob of butter. As it melts, tip the pan slightly and start spooning over some of the fat to cook the top of the fish.

   

Meanwhile, in another little frying pan, put the Serrano slice(s) into a dry hot pan – no extra oil. I bought a little pack of ham in the supermarket which contained small pieces, so my 1 slice was actually 3 small slices! I was a bit doubtful of the quality but actually it tasted really good – a lovely sweetness with the saltiness.

   

It will quickly start to curl up. Turn over and once crisp on both sides, turn off the heat. Also cook a handful of petit pois for garnish (one of the cod dishes I had in Granada has peas and broad beans as garnish, which is what gave me this idea). Also finely chop a selection of fresh herbs – I had flat-leaf parsley, chives and basil growing. In Granada I had cod with a garnish of micro-leaf salad, so that’s good instead of the herbs if you can find micro leaves.

Once the cod is cooked through and everything ready, plate up. Smear a generous amount of salmorejo onto a serving plate. Lay the cod, skin-side up, on top of it. Now sprinkle over the peas and herbs. Carefully lay the crisp ham on top.

I was rather impressed by my effort! It looked fabulous. And it tasted fabulous too. The fish was gorgeous, so tasty and moist and flaked apart easily. The salmorejo tasted wonderful too and was such a great accompaniment – a rather fancy fish and tomato sauce, I thought! I liked the crispy, salty ham with the sweet fish. All in all a dish to be really proud of and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Especially as it brought back happy memories of Granada into my evening.

 

 

What Makes a ‘Good’ Restaurant?

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I’ve been writing the blog for over six years and it’s not surprising that people often like to ask me which my favourite restaurants are; where should they eat in London; where can they go for a special meal? The answer is rarely straightforward because what makes a restaurant ‘good’ for me isn’t necessarily what others are looking for. Of course you might say that well-known, highly acclaimed restaurants are bound to make a safe choice or recommendation, but even here the answer is complex. It all comes down to what’s important to you in a restaurant; what you’re looking for. And it isn’t necessarily as simple as just ‘good food’.

I think this is where blogs are ahead of popular online restaurant guides where anyone can post a review. Now I’m not saying I don’t ever use those … but I treat them with caution – how do I know that ‘joeblogsreviewer’ likes the kind of restaurant I do, knows at least as much about food as I do, and wasn’t in a bad mood when they wrote the review. I’ve had some of my worst meals this year in ‘well reviewed’ restaurants and even walked out of one halfway through my meal in Granada last week, it was so bad! Hopefully people who have read my blog regularly for a while will be attuned to the kind of restaurant I like (as well as hotels, cafés, etc.). Restaurant choices are highly personal, I think. Happily a number of people have told me of restaurants (and hotels) they’ve been to which I’ve recommended and have liked them as much as I do. But of course there are inevitable reports of people who didn’t think the restaurant I loved was great, and that ones I’ve heavily criticised were wonderful; what was it I didn’t like about them!

The reality is, anyway, that I don’t have a large number of restaurants to recommend as the blog is a hobby (one I love and brings me much pleasure), it’s not a job; no one is paying me to go out and eat regularly so even if I eat out perhaps once a week, it’s most often to tried and tested favourites, or perhaps just somewhere convenient before a theatre or cinema show. I have to confess though that since writing the blog I have become more fussy; I’ve become more fussy because I’ve learned quite a lot in the process of researching and thinking about what and where I eat; asking eating companions what they think; getting to know some restaurateurs and chefs. I’m less tolerant of bad service, poor food – and an awful Starbucks-style cappuccino today in an Italian café that ought to know better.

In the main, I’m not ‘into’ grand, posh restaurants. Largely because I can’t afford them! Or not very often. I’m someone who’s always been more at home in a fairly informal place; nice if it has a touch of sophistication but nothing too stuffy. There are always exceptions, of course. My most amazing meal in recent years was at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in 2014. Lunch doesn’t come much more posh and grand than at a 3* Michelin restaurant that had just been voted 3rd best in the world (2 years later it would be voted No.1). Going there on my own could have been a difficult experience but it turned out to be a wonderful one, mainly because of the outstanding, amazing food but also very much because the service was warm and friendly in a quiet, not over-the-top way, so I immediately felt comfortable – and very excited to be there!

I’m someone attracted to a good atmosphere – a nice buzz where everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, but not so noisy I can’t hear my companion speak. Eating good food should be a happy not a sombre occasion so a good atmosphere is a must. I like to be made to feel welcomed but I don’t like the welcome to be over the top as if the waiter is trying to be my new best friend. I don’t like to be hurried as much as I don’t like service to be painfully slow.

Just as I like travelling back to familiar and favourite holiday destinations (like Amsterdam and Venice), I like going back regularly to restaurants (and cafés) I like a lot. I love sometimes exploring the new but often enjoy the familiar – a favourite dish, a comfortable atmosphere, perhaps being recognised enough for staff to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Basically, sometimes it just nice to know exactly what to expect!

Food quality is important too, of course. I don’t want to eat a terrible pizza, a boeuf bourguignon that’s not nearly as good as the one I cook at home, food that’s drab and tasteless, mean-portioned set menus (a particular bête noire of mine). So I love it when I find the ‘wow’ factor, food that makes me stop in my tracks and think or say (if I’m with someone), ‘This is amazing.’ But for me, great food isn’t a necessity; good food is, but if other factors come into play – a great atmosphere, great service, even great location – then a restaurant can become a favourite. These complex considerations have meant that I’ve always avoided using a point system in my restaurant reviews, because it wouldn’t necessarily make sense. But I’m going to stick my neck out today and give you my current favourites for 1) wow factor food, 2) atmosphere and 3) great service. These are places I go to regularly and have been to recently. There are other ‘favourites’ I haven’t been to for a while, like Moro and Palomar, and really hope to go back to soon. But meanwhile, here’s my autumn 2017 list:

1. The ‘Wow’ Factor – Barrafina, Adelaide Street, WC2

I first went to Barrafina in 2015 (read review here). I’ve been back a number of times and have never failed to experience the ‘wow’ factor. My very favourite dish is their arroz – I can hardly walk into the place and not order it, it’s so amazing. I like the atmosphere too, a lively buzz, and I also like sitting up at the bar and watching the chefs cook and enjoy that they’ll often engage and talk to me. I’m happy there on my own but have also been there with friends. Some people won’t want to sit at a bar on a stool, not be able to book and maybe have to queue a while; if you’re going with a number of people then perhaps it’s not so great to be spread along a bar, but overall, Barrafina for me is fabulous.

2. Great Atmosphere – Joe Allen, Covent Garden, WC2

Regular readers of my blog will know that Joe Allen is a long-time favourite. I love it partly because I’ve been going for so long – at least 20 years – and because many of the people working there have been there that long too, so I can always count on seeing a familiar face. Known as the ‘West End canteen’ it’s always been a favourite with the media and theatre land. I got to know it first through my publishing work. Joe Allen does the best lunch and pre-theatre menu I know; the food is excellent and so is the service. But for me just walking into that great buzzy place is fantastic. I had a panic when they recently had to move but that’s all worked out well (click here) and so Joe Allen lives on and no doubt I’ll continue to keep going for as long as I go on eating in restaurants. I love it.

3. Great Service – Masaniello, Twickenham

I wrote my review of Masaniello back in August 2012 (click here) and have continued to go regularly, even choosing it for my birthday celebration with my family this year (11 of us). It’s become a family favourite but especially now we often have two and a half year old Freddie in tow. My little grandson loves Masaniello too. They don’t have a children’s menu but will serve a child-sized portion of whatever you choose, even pizza (and they do fantastic Napoli style pizza). Freddie’s latest favourite dish is their slow-cooked beef ragù (one of mine too!). The staff are always so kind to him but they’re attentive to the adults too. My son has said theirs is the best service he knows anywhere. So, the food is great, it’s always busy and buzzing, but you also know you’re going to be well looked after.

I hope if you follow up any of my favourites you’ll like them as much as I do!

Five Days in Granada, Spain

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Why go?

Like most people, my main reason for going to Granada was to see the famous Alhambra, the Moorish palace and fortress that sits high on a hill overlooking the city and Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. This was the last bastion of the Spanish Moors as the Christians forced them south in the 13th century and they set about making it the grandest city in all of Andalusia. When they were eventually conquered by the Christians in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were so impressed by its beauty they did little to change it and so it remains much as it did when the Nasrid Dynasty ruled and Mohammed en Alhamar established the Moors’ capital there in 1232. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and really one of the wonders of Europe, if not the world. It dominates the city, nearly always visible and really quite spectacularly breathtaking. But it isn’t the only reason to go to Granada for it’s a beautiful city and has so much to offer other than its famous palace.

Getting there and where to stay

I flew to Alicante with British Airways on this trip to visit friends for a few days and then took a bus (ALSA bus) from Alicante to Granada as it was the quickest way to get there (click here for more). I flew back to London with Iberian Airways (British Airways’ partners so all booked together), via Madrid. I had a slightly fraught time coming home as my flight from Granada was delayed and it looked as if I would miss my connecting flight at Madrid, but the people at Iberian Airways were fantastic and met me (and a couple of others) off the plane at the gate and super fast-tracked us through, leading all the way through the terminal, onto a shuttle to another terminal and to our gate with just 5 minutes to spare! I’d never had made it if they hadn’t been so helpful. There are some direct flights from London City Airport and easyJet fly to Granada from Gatwick.

I not only booked my flight through British Airways (as a multi destination deal), I also booked my hotel through them, as I often do, for this definitely makes savings as well as being convenient. I first looked at a suggestion of a hotel high up in the city with wonderful views across to the Alhambra but a bit of research warned this involved a steep 20-minute climb on foot to get anywhere. Thus I booked Hotel Carmen in the centre. It’s a large newish 4* hotel on a busy road and thus inevitably a bit impersonal, but I had a nice big room leading out onto a narrow balcony overlooking the busy Acera del Darro and while quite noisy during the day, it was very quiet at night. There was a huge buffet for breakfast and I indulged in lots of fresh fruit – pineapple, melon, red grapefruit, etc. – but there was pretty much anything you might want, including a big bowl of tomato pulp to make tostadas, the popular Spanish breakfast of tomato on toast.

The staff were always helpful and friendly, so I felt very comfortable there, and they were happy to provide me with a pot of hot water at night with a big smile so I could make a night-time herbal tea in my room.

So, my main recommendation is that you give up a great view of the Alhambra if it means staying in the steep and cobbled roads high above the old Moorish quarter of the city, the Albaicin (Albayzin) because (see more below) the roads there are quite a challenge. I could walk to the area from my hotel in just 15-20 minutes and it felt a lot easier and more convenient – and anyway, if you want the view, Hotel Carmen had a great roof terrace with bar, restaurant and small pool – and view!!

 

Seeing the Alhambra

Given that you are most likely in Granada to see the Alhambra, then don’t miss out! I booked my trip early in the year and then discovered when researching online that it was recommended you booked a ticket to get into the Alhambra at least 90 days in advance. I decided to book a 3-hour tour with Viator that began at 8.00am and thus got you in ahead of the crowds. Given that over 6,000 people visit each day, getting in first has a lot going for it! It was a good tour, the guide informative and fun, and the views amazing (click here for more).

However I realised afterwards that as it was mainly outdoors I’d missed a lot. We were told we could stay on once the tour ended as our tickets were valid until 8pm, but after an early start and 3 hours walking I, like most others, set off back to town and lunch. When I go back, I’ll just buy a ticket to go in and expect to spend most of a day there, but the tour was a great introduction.

 

What else to see

I spent most of my time in the Albaicin, the old Moorish part of town. It was wonderful; I sometimes felt like I was in north Africa, Morocco, not Spain. The hub is Plaza Nueva (photo above), full of bars and restaurants and one night some flamenco performers – song, dance and guitar – busking, which was an exciting and unexpected surprise.

Walking from here further into the Albaicin, the road narrows considerably, following the path of the Darro river until it opens onto a green ‘square’, Paseo del Padre Manjon, full of bars and restaurants with the most magnificent view up to the Alhambra. Just sitting there is wonderful.

From here you can continue up to Sacromonte, the old gypsy area where people lived in caves and this was the heart of flamenco. It’s still where you can find the best flamenco if you know where to go, but it’s also quite touristy with tours going up to specially arranged flamenco performances. I walked up there one morning and it was wonderful because the views were terrific; completely stunning. There’s a cave museum at the top which is interesting to see.

   

And you’ll find a walk round the top where you’ll find a bench where you can sit and admire the amazing view.

There is a small bus (i.e. a very small sized bus that can cope with negotiating the narrow roads) that takes you up, and many people take taxis, but I enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a hard, steep climb though so go prepared with sturdy shoes and a bottle of water! You can also buy a ticket (€5) to go into an old Moorish baths and houses on the route (click here for more).

   

Around the cathedral area there’s a large, lively square – Plaza de Bib-Ramba –  that’s worth seeing and is full of restaurants, bars and shops; you can see the cathedral rising in one corner.

To go into the cathedral itself, you need to pay €5.

Another day I explored the Realjo area and climbed some steep steps at Cta. de los Vergelese and was rewarded with another wonderful view.

 

Where to eat

For a fantastic setting go to Paseo del Padre Manjon (mentioned above) for the amazing view up to the Alhambra.

There are a number of bars and restaurants there. The best I found was Restaurant Ruta del Azafran. On my first evening walking back to my hotel and exploring a bit I saw a huge crowd outside a bar in a narrow alley (C/Hermosa) off Plaza Nueva. The next day I went back to investigate at lunchtime and had one of my best meals at Bar Casa Julio. It was tiny, standing only and served just a small selection of raciones, like tapas but bigger – sharing plates.

   

It was such a simple meal – fried prawns and tomato salad but absolutely glorious. I wanted to go back but they were closed Sunday and Monday so I didn’t make it. Another popular place nearby was Los Diamantes.

This was always packed so expect to queue. But once in you’ll find the food fantastic. It’s mainly fish and also serving just raciones (it was rare to see a bar serving the small tapas we’re used to thinking of when in Spain). The first night I went my waiter suggested the mixed fried fish as the dishes were large so I’d only want one on my own.

I’d wanted an arroz – a gorgeous ‘wet’ paella usually made with fish and one of my very favourite dishes anywhere. However, true to Spanish tradition, Los Diamentes didn’t serve it in the evening – the Spanish believe it’s unhealthy to eat rice at night. This means a good test of a restaurant and its authenticity is whether they’ll serve you arroz or paella in the evening! I went back the next lunchtime. I had to wait 10 minutes for them to finish cooking it – it was that fresh. It was fantastic; really good.

They always serve a little taster (like an amuse bouche) and as arroz seemed to be the taster of the day, they gave me a plate of fried mushrooms instead.

I had a nice lunch of tortilla (Spanish omelette) that came with salad at a little restaurant further up the Albaicin right by the river Darro (that’s quite narrow), La Taberna de Tiacheta, where there was a lovely view.

   

The best two restaurants I ate at were El Mercader in Calle Imprenta off Plaza Nueva and El Trillo in Calle Algibe de Trillo, which required a steep climb up from Paseo del Padre Manjon but was well worth the effort. At El Mercader I had a good cod dish with a squid ink mayonnaise on a romescu sauce.

The whole meal was good and the waiter was very knowledgeable about the wines so guided me to good choices. The meal at El Trillo on my last night was fantastic (read more here). I had the best salmorejo and another cod dish because I like fish and it sounded so good.

I found two good places for breakfast. I actually had breakfast included at my hotel but I like only some fruit, yoghurt and maybe cereal to begin the day and to have coffee and pastry later. So that’s what I did. A good deal of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and croissant was found at Bar Lisboa on Plaza Nueva for €5.

   

This was a lively place and always buzzing and busy; they also have seats outside. The best croissant was found at Lopez Mezquita Pasteleria on Reyes Catolicos, a main road leading up to Plaza Nueva. They had fairly limited opening times and I kept passing them when they were closed, but when I finally managed to have coffee and croissant there it was really good.

 

What to eat in Granada

Andalusian food has a strong Moorish influence. This is where gazpacho comes from; also salmorejo (photo above). They are very similar but salmorejo is basically just tomatoes and bread and garlic, blended or sieved until very smooth and usually served with a garnish of Iberian ham and chopped egg. Gazpacho has other vegetables, less bread and isn’t always so smooth. As mentioned already, you’ll find more bars serve raciones than tapas.

As in other parts of Spain you’ll find wonderful hams, served thinly sliced onto plates. There was lots of fish on offer, mainly fried as I enjoyed above or this wonderful grilled octopus I had at Los Diamentes.

The special cake of Granada is pionono – a delicious small cake which I found to be a little like a bread pudding, soft for being soaked in custard and flavoured with cinnamon and a caramel topping.

The best are found at Casa Ysla, which luckily for me was right by Hotel Carmen!  I also found great ice cream there.

   

 

Shopping

   

I’m not a great shopper on holiday but I always like to bring some little gifts home for family and maybe buy some little souvenir for myself. Inevitably Granada is full of ‘souvenir’ shops, mainly selling typical Moorish things like ceramic plates, cups, tiles and Moorish clothes. But many of the shops sold really quite lovely things – prints and watercolours, handmade jewellery. I bought quite a few things in the official La Alhambra shop, Tienda Libreria de la Alhambra, and also some pretty handmade earrings in Munira on Plaza Nueva, which specialised in leather goods and even ran classes in making leather things; they also, apart from the jewellery had good quality ceramics and lovely prints.

General advice for walking about

Granada is a wonderful city but like any big tourist attraction, it’s wise to be careful with your money, phone etc. I never felt worried, to be honest, even walking around by myself at night, but it’s still best to take care. Of more obvious threat is falling on the steep cobbled street. Throughout the Albaicin area you’ll find you need sturdy shoes to negotiate the cobbled alleyways. It’s quite hard climbing up to lots of the places you may want to go, even some of the restaurants (like El Trillo) so be prepared. Sometimes there are handrails to hold on to – but more often not, so I often found coming back down more hazardous.

An unexpected hazard is traffic on the narrow road by the River Darro that leads from Plaza Nueva to Paseo del Padre Manjon. The road that runs between, Carrera del Darro, is very narrow. It’s easy much of the time to think you are in a pedestrianised  area – but you’re not. Small buses, made particularly small to negotiate the road, run past quite often; a tourist train also makes its way up there; and taxis are frequent (maybe other traffic wasn’t allowed up there). There are very few escapes to the side as they approach … I often found myself squeezing onto a narrow step at a building’s entrance to avoid being hit, usually squashed up with other people. Even then I was occasionally anxious that I might get hit by the wing mirror – yes, they came that close! There’s nothing you can do other than be aware and take care.

 

Reading matter

Apart from guide books, I always like to take – if I can – a novel or some other book set in the place I’m staying, to read while I’m there. I took Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia (published 1955), a real classic, with me. It’s the most glorious writing. Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierra like a rose preserved in snow.’ More famous perhaps is Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (first published 1832), which my friends in Spain told me was a ‘must read’ so I bought a Kindle copy while I was staying with them, then saw it in shops all over Granada while there.

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I’ve wanted to go to Granada for sometime; it has to be confessed because I wanted so much to see La Alhambra. But once there, I did indeed love the Alhambra and was awed by it and its amazing views, both from it and of it throughout the city. But Granada the city is special too and I fell a little in love with it so definitely want to return soon. I hope my post highlighting all it has to offer will encourage you to go if you haven’t been … or go back if you have!

 

 

Spain, Granada 2017: Dinner at Restaurante El Trillo

It was my last evening and usually I like to return to my favourite restaurant of the holiday for my final meal to end on a high note. But it being Monday, many places were closed. I thought I’d go back to the best restaurant I’d found on Paseo del Padre Manjon simply because sitting directly under the Alhambra, the view is stunning.

I sat enjoying an aperitif at a bar there but decided I wasn’t inspired by the menu so googled for best restaurants near by. Most were closed but Restaurante El Trillo was opening at 7pm and had a high rating. Google estimated it was only an 8 minute walk but I hesitated as I’d learned that when the walk was uphill through the narrow cobbled paths, estimates could be highly optimistic. Still, it was early, I had plenty of time to investigate. So I did. And this time Google Maps worked a wonder and I was soon standing before El Trillo. It wasn’t yet open so I had a little wander. It was so quiet and pretty.

When the restaurant opened, it turned out their terrace overlooking the Alhambra was fully booked but they had a table in the garden. I was happy with that for the garden was peaceful with the gentle sound of a small fountain trickling nearby and, as my good fortune would have it, I could just about view the Alhambra before me.

As so often while in this beautiful city of Granada, I could easily imagine I was in Morocco; it’s so different to other parts of Spain I know. The waiter was friendly and helpful, even looking up the English word for the tree I was sitting under, heavy with fruit. It turned out to be quince. I hoped no fruit dropped while I sat there! A glass of cava was brought and an amuse bouche of a delicious beetroot and sangria salmorejo and bread.

   

   

I’d eaten a couple of disappointing salmorejos during my holiday, that delicious purée of tomatoes and bread served as a soup or sauce and a traditional Andalusian dish. I was still on the lookout for a perfect one. And now I’d found it!

Garnished with avocado, beetroot, micro leaves and black sesame seeds, it was gloriously smooth and tasted wonderful. Often it’s a dish made with too much vinegar but the balance of all the flavours here was perfect.

For my main I chose a dish of cod served with salted broad beans, Iberian bacon and beetroot purée.

It was garnished with little flowers and even strawberries, which was a surprise but worked well. It was a fabulous dish.

I was too full for a dessert and finished with just coffee. Light was fading and candles and lamps lit.

It was all so delightful, pretty and peaceful. What a lucky and happy choice for the last meal of my holiday. It had been the most expensive (€42 including the glass of cava and a generous glass of red wine) but not by London standards expensive for what I had. The staff were wonderfully friendly and efficient and I was a happy Travel Gourmet as I set off back down the cobbled paths to more familiar territory.

Well that’s the end of my trip to Granada and it’s been everything and more I’d hoped for. What a beautiful and interesting city. I really hope to be back soon.

Spain, Granada 2017: A Morning Walk Out of My Comfort Zone

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I’ve so loved spending time in the Albaicin area of Granada – the old Moorish quarter – that I’ve neglected exploring other parts of the city; the Albaicin had become a kind of comfort zone where I now knew my way round quite well. So on this, my last day, I decided after breakfast to set off in a different direction from the previous mornings. My map showed a viewing point in Plaza Campo del Principe in the Realejo district north of my hotel so that’s where I headed.

I took my usual route up Reyes Catolicos because I wanted to have coffee and a croissant at a bakery I’d seen and looked great but is often closed: Lopez Mezquita Pasteleria. I’d checked it opened at 9am this morning and went in and sat at the bar at the back. I had by far the best croissant and coffee I’ve had so far so fully intend to go back tomorrow morning before I leave for the airport.

Afterwards, instead of carrying on as far as Plaza Nueva as I usually do, I turned right into Pavaneras. I passed Museo Casa de los Tiros, a museum about Granada’s history.

I soon felt that I was in a very different area to what I’d grown used to. It seemed less touristy and more obviously full of locals going about the ordinary business of life. I passed a great looking deli.

Then I noticed a music shop with a window full of guitars, violins and cellos.

From a google search later, I discovered the owner and stringed instrument maker – a luthier – was well known. They offered flamenco guitar lessons. The shop only opens briefly late afternoon but a guitarist was sitting inside playing – perhaps trying out a guitar to buy or checking a repair. Finally I made it to the Principe campo.

It was a pretty enough square, bordered on the sides with lots of cafes but the promised view seemed only to be of the large Alhambra Palace hotel rather than the Alhambra itself. I headed back to some steep steps I’d passed and consulted my map.

It looked quite a climb but I’ve grown used to that since arriving in Granada and my experience is a climb usually leads to a great view, and this was indeed the case.

Following my map, I took a route that followed round near to the Alhambra entrance and then walked down through woods into the familiar area of Plaza Nueva.

   

Crossing to the other side of Plaza Nueva and a bit south, I went to look at the catherdral area. I went into the buzzing and lively square of Plaza de Bib-Rambla, also bordered by cafes and restaurants but of a grander kind than the earlier ones at Principe and there was a view of the cathedral in one corner.

I crossed over to take a look at the catherdral and the small square in front of it. I had a quick look inside but there was a queue to pay to go in so I glanced round and took in as much as I could and went back out into the sun. Tomorrow I’ll be back in autumnal London and want to spend as much time outside as I can.

   

By now it was lunchtime. Being Monday a number of places are closed, including Bar Casa Julio that I lunched at on Saturday and hoped to return to. I’d had in mind to just eat a few tapas but most places sell the larger raciones and I ended up returning to the excellent and reliable Bar Los Diamentes on Plaza Nueva where I had a wonderful plate of grilled octopus, tomato salad and a small beer. As usual a little complimentary taster plate came too.

   

It was a perfect lunch and I was really pleased I’d explored a bit more of this great city of Granada this morning.