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Restaurant Review: Rosetta, Covent Garden

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It was an Italian-themed afternoon and evening. I was meeting my friend Annette at the National Gallery to see their new major exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano, which explores the friendship and later rivalry of the two artists.

Annette isn’t Italian but we did meet through the London Italian Language Meetup Group. I’d like to tell you we practised our Italian but have to confess we didn’t. We did however very much enjoy this exhibition of two famous Italian artists. Our viewing was interrupted for a time by a minor drama when an alarm went off in the gallery. Nearby security people looked baffled and we all stood for a minute or so, wondering what to do, before a loudspeaker announcement told us a fire had been detected in the gallery and it was being evacuated. We were guided out and everyone moved in an orderly fashion; there was no panic. I couldn’t help hoping though that we didn’t suddenly come face to face with fire. We didn’t. It was over half an hour before we were let back in. No one seemed to know whether or not there had been a fire.

When we emerged from the gallery at 6.00pm, we headed to the nearby Rosetta restaurant/café in William IV Street, which cuts across a corner from St Martin’s Lane to the Strand, and is thus very close to the gallery and Trafalgar Square.

Going to Rosetta had been Annette’s suggestion as she’d heard good things about it from a friend. Rosetta is more of a café-deli than a restaurant and is only open until 7.30pm, so not a place to head to for an evening meal. The decor is more café-like too; wooden floor, simple furniture but attractive and cosy.

The idea behind Rosetta is to offer Italian agri-cultural food – much of the produce comes from their farm in the Piacenza region of Italy: top quality cold meats and cheeses, organic fruit juices. Their wines come from small Italian producers and are specially chosen.

There are home-cooked hot dishes and desserts.

It’s a great place for an early evening supper either post-gallery, as we did, or pre-theatre. They actually close at 6.30 on Monday but there was no sense of hurrying us as we arrived at 6.00, nor as we passed the 6.30 mark. In fact we were in there until just gone 7 – as were a handful of others, including (good sign!) some Italians – and everything about the two guys in the café was friendly and helpful. It was so cold and blustery outside we both chose hot dishes. Annette chose a Melanzane Parmigiana and I had a vegetable lasagna.

I have to say they were served in a rather ‘rustic’ way; no carefully cut slices laid on the plates. But the important thing was the food was absolutely delicious and we enjoyed it. We both wanted a glass of red wine and the waiter was really helpful, suggesting a couple and telling us the difference. It was done in a nice way; no sommelier pomp. And the wine when it came was excellent.

We were by this time past the 6.30 ‘closing time’ but the waiter came and offered us the dessert menu – so how could we refuse. Especially since Annette had spied some gorgeous looking tiramisu on the way in. The waiter told us they were the best, so we ordered them and espressos.

  

The tiramisu was as gorgeous as it looked and the coffee very good too. We paid (£43 for the 2 of us before tip) and set off home. It had been a perfect, simple early evening supper. I’m sure I’ll be back and it’s great to now know it’s there in an area of London I visit a lot. During the day there’s a good choice of panini and soups as well as the hot dishes; or it’s a great place for morning coffee with perhaps some of their home-made cake. Every Thursday from 5.00pm they serve a traditional Italian aperitivo: a buffet of meats, cheeses, pickles, focaccia, polenta, and filled rolls, which are free – all you have to do is buy your drink, perhaps a typical Italian aperitif of Aperol or Campari spritz, Italian wine or beer. Sounds like a good plan! To find out more or book, visit their website.

Food Highlights of the Week

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It’s been a typical March week of weather that has roller-coastered from the hottest day of the year so far (17C in London) to the arrival of the last gasp of Storm Stella, which has crossed the Atlantic, to bring strong winds and rain this evening. Fortunately my week of food has been more reliable – old favourite restaurants out and old favourite recipes at home.

Saturday – Here Comes Summer

You know summer is coming when a long queue winds out of Gelateria Danieli in Richmond and along the narrow passageway of Brewer Lane, which conveniently leads out on to Richmond Green where, having bought your ice cream, you can find a bench to sit and enjoy it – and the view. The gelateria is known as one of the best in London (which actually now boasts are vast array of glorious ice cream parlours). For me it’s a regular summer treat and it was on the spur of the moment, walking through a warm and sunny Richmond last Saturday afternoon, that I decided to divert from the high street and treat myself to some gelato – dark chocolate sorbet and some frozen yoghurt with fruits of the forest.

Sunday – Barbecue & Birthday Cake

My brother Adam came over with Clara and Leo. Clara had turned 14 during the week so I made my lovely niece a birthday cake. It was the same chocolate and vanilla marble cake I’d made Freddie only a couple of weeks before but I thought some pretty rose decorations (that I bought in Waitrose – my creative skills in the kitchen don’t go as far as making flower decorations like this) would be more appropriate than the Paw Patrol ones I’d used for my 2-year-old grandson. But first we’d eaten a great barbecue of kofte and marinated chicken, all from Moro recipes, prepared by and cooked by son Jonathan. My savoury contribution was some labneh to go on the table with the meats and salads. I love making labneh because it’s fun to produce home-made cream cheese so easily and know it contains nothing more than good Greek yoghurt and a little sea salt.

I left it draining in the fridge overnight then served it simply, tipping it into a bowl and drizzling over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil, then sprinkling with za’atar. Sometimes I flavour it with spices or rolled into little balls and preserve in oil – click here for recipes.

Monday – Mushrooms & Cream

I had a little cream left over from making the chocolate ganache icing for the birthday cake and some mushrooms that needed using up. So I made a pasta sauce with them, plus some bacon from the freezer and parsley from the garden that remarkably has lasted all through the winter (click here for recipe).

Tuesday – Lost in Location

It was a rather manic day of rushing around, which included unexpectedly heading over to deliver Freddie to nursery very early as Jonathan called to say he was too ill to take him. I treated myself to one of Stefano’s croissants and some coffee in Your Bakery Whitton for breakfast before heading home. I then managed a couple of hours of work before heading into Richmond. I grabbed a quick little egg roll in Paul (almost like an old-fashioned bridge roll, filled with egg mayonnaise) then dashed into Richmond station to meet friend Elsa. She’d crossed London from Hackney in the morning for an appointment and suggested meeting on the train back into central London, knowing I’m currently doing a basic art history course at the National Gallery on Tuesday afternoons. We stopped for coffee and muffin at Waterloo station then went our separate ways. By the time I eventually got home I couldn’t summon the energy to head out again to book group, even though I love it, and took some aubergine & tomato sauce from the freezer to go with pasta and a glass of red wine!

Wednesday – Joe’s and Covent Garden

I headed into Covent Garden in the evening to meet my good friend Annie at our favourite and most frequented restaurant – Joe Allen. After about 20 years of going there it’s a bit like an alternative home and the welcome matches the feeling. We always meet in time for their early evening set menu that at £14.95 for 2 courses is one of the best and best value around. But that’s not why we’re there, though it’s a bonus – we’re there because we love Joe Allen.

Thursday – Raiding the Freezer Again

It was another busy – though very lovely – day of Freddie in the morning and a work meeting in the afternoon. Come evening I took some frozen kofte from my freezer and made a spicy tomato sauce with tinned tomatoes, sliced onion and red peppers and chilli. I browned the thawed kofte in oil then added them to the sauce and let it all simmer for about 15 minutes while I cooked some rice. Perfect and easy supper! Whenever I make kofte I make extra to freeze – either for the barbecue on another day, or to griddle, or to go into a sauce like this.

Friday – Neopolitan Heaven

I suggested to my lovely friend Jane that we go to Masaniello for lunch. She’d read about it on my blog and was talking about the holidays she used to have south of Naples. Well Naples might be too far for lunch but Masaniello has to be the next best thing. As it was lunchtime and neither of us wanted anything too heavy, I suggested we ordered a couple of dishes and a salad to share – small plate style. I thought Jane couldn’t go away without having tried Livio’s wonderful Napoli pizza, so that was a definite choice. We had a Margherita, a gorgeous Melanzane Parmigiana and a Rocket & Parmesan salad. What a great end to the week.

My Week in Food

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It’s quite fun to do this occasional series and look back on my week in food. Or at least it is for this food blogger who has to confess she spends a lot of time thinking about where to eat or what to cook. It’s been another week of family favourites and also going back to a Thai restaurant I hadn’t been to for a time. Here’s how it went:

Saturday – Sunny Moussaka

Last Saturday was actually quite sunny but of a cool English springtime kind; the sun I was thinking of was in beautiful Greece, blazing from a cloudless azure blue sky, and sitting by the edge of the Ionian Sea with a plate of moussaka. Moussaka is one of my family’s favourite dishes and I’ve been using Claudia Roden’s recipe in her A Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published way back in 1968 (click here for recipe), for many years. When I make a big one for the family, I’ve recently taken to making a couple of small, individual ones at the same time, layering it all up in a small dish, and then freezing. It’s such a treat to be able to lift one out of the freezer on another day, let it defrost and then bake for the easiest of suppers.

Sunday – Lunch at Corto Deli

Jonathan was away on the ski slopes and so Lyndsey, Freddie and I headed off for a treat of our own – lunch at Corto Deli. I’ve written about it many times; it’s one of our very favourite places, from morning coffee where you’ll be served a very authentic Italian cappuccino (no US or Australian influences here); lunchtime salads, focaccia or ciabatta sandwiches or perhaps one of Romina and Marco’s home-cooked hot dishes like lasagna or melanzane parmigiana. We ordered Freddie a child’s portion of pasta with tomato sauce, which he loves, while Lyndsey and I chose to share one of the big antipasti plates, all the meats and cheeses cut freshly straight onto the large wooden board. There were bruschette, little treats of bresaola wrapped round fresh asparagus, and a basket of breads. We finished with home-made cake (they make the most gorgeous cakes) and coffee.

Monday – Aubergine & Tomato Pasta Sauce

I make this sauce quite often, usually freezing a portion for another day. I sometimes serve it with polenta (click here) but on Monday ate it with pasta. I made it early in the day because on Mondays I pick Freddie up from nursery in the afternoon and I decided to be organised and have something ready to warm up for supper when I got home.

Tuesday – A Surprise Visit

I was due to visit my daughter Nicola in Worcestershire this weekend but because the installation of their new kitchen was behind schedule, and would be only at the ripped out stage with not much chance of cooking going on, Nicola suggested coming down to London to visit me instead. It was a nice surprise to have her for Tuesday evening and we decided to walk down Twickenham high street to Masaniello in Church Street for a meal. Another favourite haunt, regular readers will remember I go there a lot! We shared some starters and then both chose paccheri (short, fat pasta tubes) with a seafood sauce for our main dish. It was gorgeous!

Wednesday – Thai Day

When I meet up with my friend Tina it’s usually in Guildford. She lives to the south of the town and I come from the north. It’s not exactly halfway but it’s the best place to meet, a lovely town and plenty of places to eat. She introduced me to Rumwong a few years back and we hadn’t been there for a time. I like Thai food but rarely cook it myself so it’s a treat to go to a good Thai restaurant.

Thursday – An Italian Day

When I look after Freddie on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we always go to Your Bakery Whitton (less than 5 minutes from their house) for our morning elevenses … although generally because of my very early start it’s nearer 9! Foodwise, the bakery is one of the best things in my life. Stefano did his pastry chef training in Switzerland and so while there’s an Italian base, there’s a touch of French coming in too, especially with his pastries. The croissants are the best I know anywhere and are certainly more French than Italian; my flat white of course has an Antipodean background and is very good indeed. Freddie and I shared the croissant and he had a babyccino. Then it was time for the park! I buy my bread at the bakery, the cakes are glorious and at weekends there are invariably some extra treats to tempt you.

Still in Italian mode I made a mushroom risotto for my supper. I always use chestnut mushrooms for the nutty flavour; sometimes I actually add real chestnuts (click here). What I often like to do is add some dried mushrooms, soaking them for a while (at least 20 minutes) before cooking, and using the soaking liquid as a stock. I love cooking risottos. They’re the ultimate sophisticated comfort food but also I find it so relaxing to gently stir, adding stock slowly and doing it all properly. It’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day.

Friday – Bolognese Night

Well after my post earlier in the week about Mary Berry and the great Bolognese debate, I had to eat some Bolognese myself! Actually, when home on a Friday night, either alone or with company, it’s almost always Bolognese on the menu (click here). It’s a nostalgic hang-over from when I always made Bolognese on Fridays once my kids had hit their teens and were going out on a Friday evening. They could eat some early before they went out, leaving their parents to eat at a more sociable and less hurried hour later on; the ragù only had to be reheated. I had a portion of my ragù in the freezer last Friday night, so I only had to defrost and heat, but I bought some tagliatelle in the morning so I could eat it in Italian style with their preferred pasta!

The Great ‘Bolognese’ Debate

Oh dear, Mary Berry. Since Mary offered her own version of Bolognese sauce a couple of nights ago in the second episode of her new BBC series, Mary Berry Everyday, it’s been less of a storm and more of a volcano erupting on Twitter, TV and in national newspapers with fiery, incensed remarks flying in her direction. I was a bit taken aback by Mary’s recipe myself (I even discussed it with my daughter Nicola while eating in a favourite local Italian restaurant last night), but in Mary’s defence – and even Giorgio Locatelli has risen to defend her with the same argument – there is no authentic recipe for a Bolognese sauce. Her mistake was to call it ‘Bolognese’ rather than ‘ragù’, or even, simply, a meat-based pasta sauce. What she did get right – again as Giorgio points out – is not serving it with spaghetti. She chose pappardelle, though the more popular Italian choice is tagliatelle. These are both ribbons of pasta and that’s the correct kind of pasta for a thick meat sauce so it can cling to the pasta.

I was less concerned about Mary adding white wine (which is common anyway) instead of red, than to see her put it in so late, after the tomatoes and passata, whereas I would say you have to add it after the meat has browned and allow it to be pretty much absorbed (for a full, rich flavour) before adding anything else. Another thing she got wrong – if she was claiming any Italian heritage to her dish – was just spooning it on top of her pasta. I have to confess that my own Bolognese ragù post from 2011, just a couple of months after starting the blog, shows me doing the same – hence photo above! (For which I apologise to all Italian friends, but especially Antonio who suggested I write about this.) Now, I would never plonk any kind of sauce on top of pasta but follow the Italian way of adding the sauce to the cooked pasta in a pan and stirring it through well before serving. But I’ve learned a lot in the last 6 years of food blogging! I also know that the Italians would put in much less sauce that we Brits traditionally do – it should be more pasta with some sauce rather than sauce with some pasta. This makes sense when you remember that simple traditional dishes like this were created as ways of making a little meat go a long way to feed a big family for little money.

Antonio Carluccio made a big fuss last year about the Brits ruining Spaghetti Bolognese. But then if the dish doesn’t exist as such, how can we ruin it! His grievance was the adding of herbs, but then other people get upset about which colour wine – red or white – is used or the addition of tomatoes (the northern Bolognese wouldn’t add tomato but further south they probably would). Ragù, a meat-based sauce, varies according to the part of Italy you live in or are eating in. Italian food is very regional and the Italians tend to be very passionate about their own regional version, for example, see my post on different kinds of focaccia (click here) or even pizza (click here). I wouldn’t claim my own version of Ragù Bolognese is authentic at all (click here), although I did do a fair amount of research when writing about it. What I do claim is, like Mary, I think of it as an ‘everyday dish’, something I cook frequently and think of as a favourite family meal. It’s turned out to be one of my 2-year-old grandson’s favourite things so whenever I make it, I freeze little portions for him. But I’d be rather wary of serving it to an Italian!

Revisiting Italian Favourites

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Life has been a bit full-on of late and so I’ve not had much time to write on the blog. Then a lingering cold led me to cancel a couple of visits to new restaurants that it would have been good to write about. The last week or so though has seen me returning to three Italian favourites; places I go to a lot and love. And each visit has its own little story that I thought it would be fun to share.

A Cena, East Twickenham

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I written about A Cena many times; it’s an old favourite going back many years. But I haven’t written about it in a while; in fact, I haven’t been there a lot in a while. Now that’s nothing to do with the quality of the food and service and nor is it anything to do with the fact that original owner Tim Healy has moved into central London (to another old favourite, Joe Allen, and other restaurants). A Cena was bought – a couple of years ago or so – by the manager Justine Kemsley and the team are the same, including their wonderful head chef Nicola and waiter Bart, all of whom have been there for years. So really there’s no obvious difference.

I used to go to their regional dinners regularly with Jonathan and Lyndsey in pre-Freddie days but the arrival of my gorgeous grandson has meant we don’t go out so much. And there are other factors. But just before Christmas I suggested going there to some friends and we had a lovely meal, then about 10 days ago I suggested to a local friend we meet there. A bonus on Mondays to Wednesdays is that for locals with a Richmond Card you can get a 20% discount. The Richmond Card is a card given to locals by the council which gives parking discounts and some shops and restaurants offer discounts too. Anyway, Liz and I decided it would be good to go to A Cena. We both like it. It has a nice touch of sophistication, the food is great – and we can hear ourselves talk!

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Homemade focaccia is always brought immediately. It’s really good and nice to nibble on with an aperitif while deciding what to choose from the menu. To start, Liz had buffalo mozzarella served with hot lentils, creme fraiche and basil oil, which was very good – she gave me a taste!

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I chose Fritelle – radicchio, Parmesan and lemon fritters. They were wonderful.

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Liz chose fish for her main course – some pan-fried sea bass with a chicory salad and olive oil mash.

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It’s an upside down photo really as I took it from my seat! But she said it was delicious. I could have eaten anything off the menu but opted for pan roasted salt marsh lamb rump served with capers, mint and roasted cauliflower.

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It was fabulous. The lamb was gorgeous, cooked to perfection: deep pink and wonderfully tender. And I loved the taste of the roasted cauliflower that came with it.

We were too full for dessert but had really enjoyed our meal; lingered for while with coffee for me and peppermint tea for Liz. I’ll definitely not be waiting too long before going back.

 

Masaniello and a Birthday Celebration

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It was Freddie’s 2nd birthday last week. As his mum and dad were at work during the day, I suggested picking him up from nursery a little early and then we could all meet at Masaniello in Twickenham for an early evening birthday meal. My son Jonathan likes to say that the service at Masaniello is beyond excellent and they certainly proved this was true last week. I turned up with Freddie and explained the birthday and that Freddie’s mum and dad would soon be with us. The waiter Stefan offered to show Freddie the fish tank towards the back of the restaurant and let him feed the fish. This was such a delight to Freddie he kept wanting to go back to the fish – until the olives arrives; he loves olives. A child seat was brought, a plastic cup for his water. The waiter brought a pad and pen and drew a rabbit for Freddie. We discussed the menu. They don’t have a special children’s menu but can do things like pasta and pizza in a smaller version for little people. Now the first time we took Freddie to Masaniello his dad chose a plate of pasta with tomato sauce for him – our ‘go-to’ choice in restaurants for Freddie. Freddie was perfectly happy with his pasta – until he saw our pizzas! So, this time we ordered him a pizza. We all imagined a child-sized pizza would be … oh I don’t know … I suppose about 16-20cm in diameter. But no, really this pizza was HUGE (it cost £4.95).

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The birthday boy was very excited by this and tucked in immediately. But even his enthusiastic appetite couldn’t manage to eat it all; there was about half left. But the waiter again stepped in kindly, offering to package it up to take home. We ordered desserts, chocolate fondant for Jonathan and Lyndsey, a fig tart with walnut ice cream for me. We thought we could all share with Freddie. Freddie who was starting to get a little restless was bribed into staying in his seat by the promise of cake. When my dessert came they’d put a candle in it and it was put in front of Freddie who surprised himself by actually blowing it out. Then came the sharing … a small plate was brought for him. Luckily for me the chocolate fondant was a bigger hit with the birthday boy than my fig tart. The Italians are always so great with kids; Masaniello is always great; but it all came together to make a memorable and lovely birthday for the two year old.

 

Orsini Ristorante, South Kensington

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I’ve been going to Orsini for years, since friend Rona introduced me to it when we met at the Victoria & Albert Museum ages ago and she told me there was a lovely little Italian restaurant opposite where we could have lunch. I’ve been back many times, sometimes on my own, sometimes with family or friends; my daughter loves it and has been a number of times too. Yesterday I was meeting my friend Lucia at the French Institute in South Kensington at 6.30 to see two Italian films. Slightly surprisingly the French Institute has an Italian Film Festival at this time of the year and we’ve met there for it in previous years. Lucia was coming straight from work with no time to eat; the second film would finish late. I’d been snacking all through a busy day and decided food, real food, a proper meal, an Italian meal!, would be a necessity before sitting through three and a half hours of Italian film. And Orsini was in the perfect location. It was quiet of course as it was early and I immediately noticed it had had a makeover – new chairs and tables, freshly painted. It looked different but not too different; it looked good. And the food and service was as good as ever. I ordered a glass of prosecco to sip at while I waited for my order of a risotto to come. It was a special of the day with radicchio and Gorgonzola – a lovely combination of one of my favourite Italian cheeses which is rich and creamy with the slightly bitter red radicchio leaf. It was gorgeous.

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Afterwards I had an espresso, talked a little to manager Francesco, and then slowly made my way back towards the Cine Lumiere. With a bit of time to spare I diverted into Snowflake, an excellent gelateria that I’ve been to before, right by South Kensington station. Well, I was being Italian … prosecco … risotto … espresso … and how could I miss out the gelato!!

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Then it was on to the films and meeting my friend. And over the space of about 10 days I’d managed to revisit some of my favourite Italian haunts.

A Walk & Lunch in Chiddingstone Village, Kent

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It’s half term week so it seemed a good time to head to Kent to visit my brother, niece and nephew. I arrived late morning and there was some debate about where we should go for a walk; where we should have lunch. In the end it was decided to go only to the neighbouring village of Chiddingstone for a walk round the castle and lunch in the tea rooms in the village.

It’s funny how one can get so used to a name that you don’t give much thought to its meaning. But after parking the car, it was suggested that I see the ‘Chiding Stone’ that is said by some to give the village its name.

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We followed a footpath to a well-weathered sandstone boulder. Folklore tells of it being a place where wrong-doers were brought to be ‘chided’ – told off. Most particularly ‘nagging wives’ and ‘wilful daughters’, which, as you may imagine, rather offended my feminist principles. Presumably they were made to stand on top of the boulder and local villagers would tell them off from below! Clara and Leo rushed the top but there was no telling off needed. Other stories tell of it being either a boundary in Saxon times or a Druids’ altar. While another theory is that the village was named after a 12th century family, the Cidda’s, as it was recorded as Cidingstane at that time.

From here we walked through the small high street and into the castle grounds, crossing a bridge over the lake with the castle before us.

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Chiddingstone Castle dates from the early 1500s, although the current building has only traces of the original. There have been many transformations but the castle we see today was rebuilt as a medieval castle in the mid 19th century.

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At the back of the castle was a building that Adam thought had once been an orangery and more recently has been used as a stage for outdoor theatre productions.

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It was lunchtime by now and we backtracked to head into the village again.

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Chiddingstone Village has been almost entirely owned (except the castle, school and church) by the National Trust since 1939. It’s known as one of the oldest and most beautiful villages in Kent and is the best example of a Tudor village in the country, so has appeared in films and TV series.

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We were heading to the Tulip Tree Tea Rooms. The attached gift shop, which dates back to 1453, is reputedly the oldest working shop in the UK. We went through a passageway at the side of the shop to the back. The tea rooms are housed in what was once a coach house.

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It was cosy inside. We found a table by the window and decided what to eat.

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We noticed that everything had a price tag – just in case you fancied taking it home with you!

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We only wanted a snack lunch. Leo and I chose BLT – bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches that came with salad, coleslaw and ‘Kent” crisps. Adam had a sausage roll.

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While Clara went all out and ordered a Ploughman’s – which was huge!

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There were amazing cakes, and scones and homemade biscuits on offer …

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But there was no way any of us had room for more. It was a good lunch, a nice place to stop. Afterwards we made a short trip into the gift shop, then back to the car and home. It was a lovely family time and so good to see how beautiful this part of Kent is.

What to Eat and Where in Amsterdam

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Dutch cuisine doesn’t have a particularly good reputation, but just as there has been a phenomenal change for the better in British cuisine in the last decade or two, I think the Dutch also deserve some recognition for the great food that can now be found there. Well, certainly in Amsterdam.

Much as many non-Brits think we live on fish and chips and roast beef, a lot of people think the Dutch live on herrings and cheese. Certainly some of the traditional Dutch dishes like meat croquettes, deep-fried meatballs (bitterballen) and uninteresting toasties are not much to my taste, but the Dutch, like the Brits, have adopted a more cosmopolitan attitude to food now and you can find excellent food with modern twists and influences from other countries. That said, I think it’s nice to seek out some of the traditional dishes or at least know what kind of foods are typical of the region. There is a strong seafaring history, and the sea itself is rarely far away, even from Amsterdam, which means fish and seafood are popular – and some of the best you’ll find anywhere. There’s also a lot of Indonesian food – a by-product of the days of colonisation when the Dutch sailed East and brought back spices. If you want to go Dutch in your eating while in Amsterdam, then here’s what to look out for and some of the places I like best.

Breakfast

A typical Dutch breakfast will consist of thinly sliced cheese and hams to eat with bread. They love dark rye breads so you will usually find these with any selection of breads. You might also be offered a boiled egg. There’ll be butter, maybe jam, tea or coffee; often freshly squeezed juice. The Dutch love their dairy foods – think of all those Friesland cows! Hence there’s a strong tradition of drinking milk and you’ll even find special handle-less milk cups. You’ll also find excellent yogurt.

Morning Coffee

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The Dutch have always made good coffee and to be served a bad one is rare. However, much like the rest of the world, they’ve upped their game with the recent fashion for artisan coffees and single estate coffees and you can find some exceptional coffee in a new breed of cafes. The best I had on my recent trip was at Caffe Il Momento (180 Singel), quite close to Central Station.

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Another good find was Cafe Kobalt (2 Singel).

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Lunch

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Lunch is where croquettes and toasties come into choices, but you’ll also find wonderful home-made soups on offer in bars and cafes. The description ‘bar’ or ‘cafe’ is almost interchangeable. A lot of places called ‘cafes’ are more like what I might define as a ‘bar’. But then you can go to them to just have a drink or something to eat – or both. These are the places you want to go for a typical Dutch lunch. The menu will probably be small and simple but apart from the toasties and bitterballen you’ll find glorious soups. The most famous is a thick Pea & Ham and for me the best place to enjoy this is Cafe ‘t Smalle on Egelantiersgracht, just off Prinsengracht.

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Here it comes with rye bread and thin slices of ham. It really is a meal in itself, wonderfully warm and filling, especially if you’re there in winter as I was then I took the photo above. In warmer weather you can sit outside by the canal.

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It’s become quite a tourist destination as it’s in all the guide books, but I don’t feel it’s been spoiled and it’s a fine example of a traditional Dutch cafe. You won’t be treated like a tourist and you’ll find some locals there too!

Most bars and cafes will sell soup and other snacks. But there’s a large number of vegan and vegetarian places too for salads and lighter fare. Despite all the dairy and meat, the Dutch have quite an alternative and healthy attitude to life and eating.

Pancakes

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Pancakes and waffles are big things in Amsterdam – and I mean that both in terms of their popularity, with dedicated pancake houses – and the size of the things themselves. Most of us have heard of Dutch pancakes and basically they’re just very big and served on huge plates. For lunch they are popular served savoury style with things like cheese, bacon and ham but often with an addition of nuts and honey. You’ll always find sweet versions too. My favourite place to go for a pancake lunch is Roem (126 Prinsengracht).

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In warm weather there are tables by the canal opposite with a great view of Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House but it’s cosy inside in the winter too.

Apple Pie

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If food can be an institution, then Apple Pie is a Dutch institution. You will find it wherever you go; often blackboards outside bars and cafes will broadcast that they have their own version of the famous apple pie. It is glorious. Most European cuisines have some kind of apple dessert – Tarte Tatin in France, Apple Crumble in UK – but for me there is nothing like the Dutch apple pie. In fact, I have to eat it pretty much every day when I’m in Amsterdam! The most famous and said to be the best is at Winkel (in photo above), on Noordermarkt, at the top end of Prinsengracht.

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Just a little further up the road at 2 Prinsengracht you’ll find Cafe ‘t Papeneiland.

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It serves a slightly different version but also very good.

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This cafe is famous because Bill Clinton once – when he was President of the US –  stopped there for coffee and a slice of apple pie and liked it so much he bought a whole pie to take back to his hotel!

Cookies

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If you have a sweet tooth then you’ll want to try these amazing cookies at Van Staple Koekmarkerij (4 Heisteeg), in a little alleyway that runs from Singel through to Spuistraat.

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I came across it by chance walking back to my hotel one day and was attracted by the sight of a long queue from a tiny shop. Looking inside, all I could see were chocolate cookies – nothing else! But I decided they must be good to attract such attention. I went back another time and bought one, still warm, a dark chocolate cookie filled with white chocolate. I took it back to my hotel and made a coffee (there was an Nespresso machine in my room at NH City Centre Hotel!) and it was very good, though a little too sweet for me. I find it intriguing that a shop – however good the product – can make such a success out of making just one cookie!

Fish & Seafood

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You’ll find fabulous seafood in Amsterdam and one of the best places to go is Lucius on Spuistraat. Here you can have a wonderful seafood platter or an excellent fish dish.

Great favourites in Amsterdam are herring – you’ll see lots of places advertising them on their menu – and mussels served with frites. The Dutch also love smoked fish – salmon, of course, but another favourite is smoked eel.

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Places to Enjoy Good Dutch Food

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My favourite restaurant is Cafe De Reiger (34 Nieuwe Leliestraat). Despite the ‘cafe’ name, and seeming very much like a bar inside, the food is of the highest quality; more like fine dining and absolutely superb. Sadly I didn’t get there my recent trip as they were temporarily closed on Mondays – my last night. But it’s usually a must for me and I always go there (see this review).

A restaurant I did go to for the first time in over 20 years – it was once a great favourite when I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam – was Luden, close to my hotel on Spuistraat.

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This is more like a brasserie and they serve food all day, from typical Dutch fare like smoked salmon and mussels to burgers and salads.

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I also like Cafe Het Molenpad which I discovered last year (2016).

Indonesian Food

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As I said above, Indonesian food has been very popular in Amsterdam since the days Indonesia was a Dutch colony. You’ll see lots of Indonesian restaurants but one of the best known and respected is Long Pura (46-48 Rozengracht). Many other restaurants will often introduce an Indonesian touch to their dishes, so popular are the flavours.

Cheese

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Cheese in Holland really means Gouda but don’t think this is boring. Go to the most amazing cheese shop Tromp at 27 Elandsgracht, just of Prinsengracht, and they’ll explain the difference between the young and old Gouda and let you taste them. The young cheese is mild and creamy; the older ones stronger tasting and more salty. Apart from Gouda, Tromp has a wonderful selection of many other cheeses, breads and wine. It’s just a fantastic shop and I always go there on my last day to bring some cheese home.

Of course a great thing to do if you’re staying in Amsterdam for a few days is to take a trip out to the town of Gouda itself (52 minutes on the train from Central Station). There’s a cheese market on Thursdays in the summer with a great display of cheeses and cheese sellers often in traditional dress. Edam – the town with another famous cheese – is smaller and very pretty, so a great day out. (The train journey is 50 minutes.)

Beer

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The two most famous local beers in Amsterdam are Heineken and Amstel (the name of the river that runs through Amsterdam). You can visit the Heineken brewery but also look out for newer micro-breweries like Brouwerij ‘t IJ for a more exciting beer experience.

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Oude Genever

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Genever – or jenever – is the predecessor to the kind of gin we know as London Dry Gin. Genever has more malt wine than ‘ordinary’ gin (the kind we’re used to for Gin and Tonics) giving it a note of flavour akin to whisky but retaining the herbal notes and juniper we’re used to finding in gin. Gin made in this traditional way in Holland is known as old or ‘oude’ genever. Young or ‘jonge’ genever, which has become a favourite with mixologists lately, has less malt and is lighter. I just love an oude genever last thing at night after a meal – a kind of digestif – and my absolute favourite bar to go to is Cafe Chris (24 Bloemstraat), the oldest bar in the Jordaan district, near Westerkerk, which opened its doors in 1624. The genever is served cold from the fridge and the barman will always fill the glass to the brim. Don’t try to pick it up! You’ll instantly show yourself to be a tourist. You must lean forward and take the first sip by leaning towards the glass.

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Amsterdam is one of my very favourite places; I just love it and it is perhaps one of the only cities that I can imagine living in other than my home city of London. And I think I could only love a city that serves good food! Food is always an important part of my travels. If you go to Amsterdam and try any of the places I recommend I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

This article is now available to download on the GPSmyCity app – click here. For a small fee you can upgrade to embed a city map and GPS directions to all places mentioned here and read offline – no internet connection needed! 

Amsterdam 2017: Icy Canals, Tulips & A Dutch Lunch

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The first two days of my trip were lit by brilliant sunshine. Amsterdam is always beautiful but the clear blue sky made a perfect backdrop to the pretty canals and tall, elegant canal houses, the sunlight warming the colours of the buildings and glistening on the water. The downside was the cold. I was even forced to buy a warm hat! Going out on my first morning, I glimpsed large sheets of ice on the surface of the canals as I crossed Singel, then Herengracht, Keizergracht and eventually found myself at my favourite canal – Prinsengracht.

It was Sunday and incredibly quiet and peaceful. Frost rested on the cobbled roads and many bridges that cross the canals, allowing a sometimes twisting path across the old town.

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I was in search of flowers. My Dutch friend Rita, who has just come back to live in Amsterdam after 14 years in Spain, had invited me to lunch. Flowers are a part of Dutch life and an obvious choice of gift to take with me. The day before, at Rita’s suggestion, I’d walked to Dam, the square where Amsterdam was founded in 1270. Often noisy and bustling with crowds, it’s a place I usually avoid, but yesterday was National Tulip Day, heralding the beginning of the tulip season. An enclosure in the square was full of tulips. You could enter for free and pick your own tulips for free.

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People were coming away with large bundles of tulips but as I was staying for such a short time in a hotel, it didn’t seem worth joining the long queue. But then a woman turned round with a smile and handed me a small bunch across the barrier. They still have the bulbs attached and I put them in a glass in my room and have enjoyed having them. Later, Rita gave me some she’d picked, the flowers cut off, leaving just the bulbs for me to take home to plant. What a lovely memory of Amsterdam that will be.

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On Sunday morning, I’d almost given up trying to find somewhere open to buy flowers. Then, near Central Station, I came across a stall with huge bunches of gorgeous tulips and  beautiful bouquets – one of which I chose for Rita.

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As I walked on to where I was meeting Rita, near her apartment, just north of the Jordaan and old town, I entered unfamiliar territory. I walked along the interesting street of Haarlemmerdijk with great food shops and cafes, then along the southern edge of Westerpark.

Rita and I talked over glasses of wine as she prepared lunch. After some delicious appetizers, we had a Kapiteinsmaal – captain’s dinner. Rita explained this was a traditional Dutch meal dating back to the days of Dutch colonisation when large merchant ships sailed East for spices. The journeys lasted many weeks and so the ships had to take foods that kept well: dried meats, like bacon, potatoes, onions, pickles and canned beans.

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It was a fun and delicious lunch. I love dishes like this with an interesting history. The beans were actually chick peas – kapucijners – and browner than I was familiar with because they are dried on the plant rather than after picking.

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Then we left Amsterdam and Dutch captains for Spain. Rita had a very special bottle of wine from the Alicante region (where she’d lived) to go with our dessert. She explained that during the Spanish Civil War a vineyard had been destroyed but the owners managed to rescue one small vine and take it with them. After the war, back in the vineyard, they replanted this special vine. It only has enough grapes every 10 years to make wine and this is added to the wine we were to drink – a wine available only every 10 years. It was very much like port. Very delicious and very special and a great accompaniment to the gorgeous chocolate cake and coffee put before me.

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After more than 4 hours of lovely food and wine and conversation, and Rita’s wonderful company, she walked me to a bus stop where I could take a bus to Central station and from there walk to my hotel. What a lovely day it had been.

Review: Lucius Seafood Restaurant, Amsterdam

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I’m back in Amsterdam for the third January running. Yes in January the weather is uncertain but when you’re heading to a favourite city then really anytime is good. For me it’s all about getting away for a break to somewhere familiar and where I can relax immediately. And there is no place like Amsterdam for being chilled out.

Being ‘chilled out’ has taken on a whole new meaning this January. This year it’s much colder than previous years but the bonus has been the most beautiful sunny day since I arrived late morning.

imageI spent the early part of the day revisiting old favourite haunts for snacks but when I saw a very old favourite – dating back more than 20 years ago to when I spent a lot of time here – was almost opposite my hotel, then I knew that was where I wanted to go for dinner.

Lucius is a restaurant on Spuistraat that’s been serving great seafood for 41 years. I went in mid afternoon when it was closed to book a table and it looked just the same as I remembered. It combines a lovely simplicity with its tiled walls that are traditional in fish restaurants with a welcoming coziness. Well it was certainly cozy when I went back in the evening.

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The welcome was so friendly. I was shown a table and asked if it was OK. I said yes, but I’d like to sit the other way round so my back wasn’t to the door as it was so cold outside. The waitress immediately offered to take me to another – warmer – table further back. I ordered a prosecco to drink while I chose my food. Just across from me sat a friendly Japanese couple. The woman was wearing a beautiful kimono. When I asked if I could take a photo of their wonderful looking platter of fruits de mer, she kindly said I should share some!

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I said thank you, but I’d already ordered some food. They continued to talk to me on and off throughout the meal, which made the experience all the more delightful.

I love fish and would have happily eaten anything on the menu but decided to go for the set menu at €39.50 for 3 courses. There was a good choice and I chose Monkfish Skewer with Peanut Sauce and Thai Salad to start. This was partly because I like monkfish but rarely have it and also because it sounded very Indonesian – despite the Thai salad. Indonesian food is very popular in Amsterdam and a cuisine to definitely try to eat while here.

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It was delicious. Beautifully moist monkfish; fantastic flavours from the peanut sauce and fragrant salad.

For my main course I chose Tomato Bisque with Lobster, Scallop, Mussels, King Prawns and Basil-potato Mash.

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I was aware that the purist wouldn’t necessarily think the two courses matched well – one Asian influenced, one French. But I could resist neither! They appealed most to me. And I was so pleased I went with what I fancied. The bisque was sublime; one of the best things I’ve eaten recently with a glorious flavour; the kind of dish you eat slowly to properly savour the taste. Each piece of fish was perfectly cooked. It came with a very nice salad that I ate after.

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There was a very good selection of desserts and I took the cheat’s route of not choosing by having a Cafe Gourmand.

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What a great way to end a fantastic meal. I should also mention my wonderful waiter who was so friendly and helpful. He told me he was a true local who’d been brought up in the immediate area. This is one of the benefits of eating alone, that strangers can be so friendly and you end up having conversations you might otherwise not have had.

I’m so glad I went back to Lucius. It was as good as I remembered and is another favourite to return to on future trips to Amsterdam.

Apple Tartlets with Flaky Pastry

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I’ve been thinking of making these little tartlets for a while. I used to make them a lot, using a recipe from an old Katie Stewart book – Entertaining with Katie Stewart – which was published in 1990. I’ve written about Katie before: she was my ‘kitchen guru’ even before Delia Smith came on to the scene. I find that while a number of my old cookery books are past their time in terms of the type of recipes I want to cook nowadays, there are a few I turn to for classic recipes – like this one, which shows you how to make home-made flaky pastry.

Two things spurred me on today: a conversation with a friend and seeing these little tarts in Paul Bakery the other day and remembering I used to make them myself. Christine, a friend from book group, asked me just before Christmas (when we were all thinking ‘mince pies‘) if I make my own pastry. I said I always make my own shortcrust pastry – and like her, usually by hand and not using a food processor – but I bought puff and filo pastry. Then I mentioned the flaky pastry and this recipe, which inspired me to think I really should look it out!

I measured it all out in Imperial measurements – ounces and pints – as I know that’s how it would have originally been made all those years ago, but give the metric equivalent that’s in the book. Don’t try to mix the two.

Apple Tartlets with Flaky Pastry (makes 6)

          Flaky Pastry

  • 8oz (225g) strong white flour
  • pinch salt
  • 6oz (175g) butter (50z well chilled; 1oz soft)
  • ¼ pint (150ml) cold water
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice

          Topping

  • 3 dessert apples
  • beaten egg, to glaze
  • icing sugar, for dusting

There are 2 x 30 minutes of chilling the pastry as you make these, so the pastry needs to be prepared in advance or maybe even the day before. Katie likes to serve the final tartlet hot with chilled cream but I made mine in advance so they were served at room temperature. I’m sure hot is nice but cool is good too!

First of all, sift the flour into a large bowl with the pinch of salt. I put a sieve over the bowl and lay it on digital scales, then when I’ve got the right amount of flour can just finishing sifting into the bowl.

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Now rub in the 1oz of soft butter gently. The remaining butter must be well chilled. I took mine from the fridge and put it in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes before I started cooking. I didn’t weigh out the amount I needed as I wanted to hold it with its wrapping just peeled back and keep it as cold as possible while I grated it into the flour. Thus, I put the bowl on the scales again, reset to zero, and watched as I grated until I reached 5oz. You also need to occasionally dip the butter in flour as you grate to keep pieces separate.

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Once you’ve finished grating the butter, very carefully and gently mix it all together with your hands, lifting it as you go to let in air and not pressing any of it together. You just need to get the butter pieces covered in flour as much as you can.

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Measure the water and add the lemon juice. Pour into the flour mixture and carefully combine with a knife. As soon as it comes together, with floured hands pull into a ball and put on a floured work surface.

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Do not knead but shape gently into a rectangle and then roll it out so that it’s three times as long as wide. Then fold the top third over the centre, then the bottom third over those two sections.

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Press the open ends together then turn 90 degrees and repeat the process. Fold in the same way then wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes. After that time, repeat the whole process, rolling and folding twice, then wrap again and put back in the fridge for at least another 30 minutes.

Now the pastry is ready to use. Heat the oven to 200C/180 fan/Gas 6.

On a floured work surface, roll the pastry out to a rectangle of 12 x 8 inches (30 x 20 cm). It will be quite thick; about ¼ inch (5mm). Use a cutter 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter to cut out 6 circles of pastry. (My pastry cutter was too small and I improvised by using a mug that was exactly the right size.)

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Lay them on a greased baking tray. I dusted the bottom of each circle with a little flour for easy lifting when cooked. I also – not in Katie’s instructions – cut a shallow circle with a sharp knife just into the pastry, a little over ¼ inch (5mm) from the edge to allow the edge of the pastry to rise more easily during cooking.

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Now prepare the apples. You want fairly small dessert apples – large ones won’t fit the pastry circles. Take the core out (rummaging in a kitchen drawer I managed to find a very old corer I knew I had somewhere!). Then, using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the skin from the apples. Cut in half lengthways.

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Carefully slice each half, fairly thickly, holding the shape in place. Carefully transfer to the centre of a pastry circle and fan out slightly. Repeat with each apple half. Then brush the edges of the pastry circles with a beaten egg. Put in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (I checked after 20 minutes as I was using a fan oven but they needed another 5 minutes. But best to check – I didn’t want to ruin them after all that careful pastry making!).

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They should be golden brown but don’t cook too much as they are going to go under a grill for a final stage. Sprinkle each tartlet with a good showering of icing sugar.

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Put under a hot grill until caramelised.

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Watch carefully – you don’t want to burn them at this stage and it will only take a couple of minutes to brown them.

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They look pretty impressive, I think. Great for entertaining and always nice to be able to serve individual desserts. I think they look more enticing too. You could serve them immediately with some cream or ice cream but I made ours in advance. I guess you could warm them later but I thought they’d be fine cool.

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It’s a great pastry; lovely with the apples but you could try other fruit, like plums or pears – fruit that cooks well. It’s not as light and flaky as puff pastry, of course, but much lighter than a shortcrust and it works so well with this kind of dessert. I’ll definitely be making it more often now I’ve revisited it after a few years’ break.