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Malaga 2018: Malaga at Night & Return to Vineria Cervantes

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If Malaga is beautiful by day then it’s no less so at night when it seems to come to life. The morning is quiet and calm with few people around, but through the day life unfolds and by night, there is even dancing on the streets – literally!

It was my last evening. I always like to eat at my favourite restaurant of the trip and end the holiday on a foodie high. So I decided to go back to Vineria Cervantes, where I ate on Friday. It’s closed at lunchtime so I turned up at 5pm when they open to book a table for about 7-8. ‘We’re full,’ the waiter told me. But he seemed to recognise me from two nights before and went to consult his booking list. After some consideration he said he could fit me in at 8.30 and so I thankfully said, yes please. Although I prefer to eat earlier, 8.30 isn’t late by Spain’s standards as they tend to eat very late, maybe 10.30, and I’ve even seen families with young children arrive at restaurants at that late time. However, tapas are eaten earlier for they are really more of a snack to go with an early evening drink, like cichetti in Venice, to keep you going until supper time. But I’m living on tapas here, preferring to eat informally in buzzing tapas bars, and because such a choice of great little tapas is a real treat. I guess that’s pretty touristy of me but in fact there’s always a choice of sizes so it’s possible to eat a ‘starter’ and ‘main’ if you like. And, because some bars, like Vineria Cervantes, don’t serve tapas size late evening, then that’s in effect what I did.

It gets dark here around 8pm at the moment. I left the hotel in plenty of time to wander and enjoy Malaga’s evening sights before eating. I walked to Plaza de la Constitucion – 5 minutes away – and down Calle de Marques de Larios to the port.

As the sun set, the sky was brushed with a wash of pink. Then I walked back up Larios to the square again.

   

I love the square; it’s so beautiful. I still had plenty of time before eating and sat on a bench for a while to enjoy the view.

   

The vineria is at the top of Calle de Cárcer and the Teatro Cervantes is easily visibly in front of you as you walk up. The 16th century writer Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, is widely regarded as Spain’s greatest writer.

What a welcoming sight the vineria was. It was busy; a queue was forming. The waiter I’d seen earlier saw me, ‘Hola, Una!’ he called – una being the female word for ‘one’ – and ushered me past the queue and inside.

There’s such a great atmosphere as well as good food. As before I ordered a ‘starter’ and ‘main’ – both raciones, half portions. I also had a glass of white wine followed by a glass of red with my ‘main’.

Marinated anchovies with guacamole and mango purée to begin.

Venison fillet with wild mushrooms and tomato chutney next.

And a dessert of apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

It was all excellent again. When I came out I was in no hurry to go back to the hotel and wanted to wander and make the most of my last evening.

   

I soon came across a couple dancing and playing flamenco – an older couple and he obviously disabled in a motorised scooter. It was wonderful and the woman had such energy dancing flamenco.

Then, a bit further on by the cathedral, a younger couple were dancing Argentine tango.

   

The cathedral is stunning by day but perhaps even more so by night. As one often finds in Spain, it was built on the former site of a mosque due to the Moors long reign. The cathedral took two and a half centuries to build, from 1528-1782.

   

From the front of the cathedral in Plaza Obispo I cut back through almost deserted alleyways to the busy centre.

   

Then back through Plaza de la Constitucion and into Calle Puerta Nueva.

   

It’s just a short walk from there across a bridge from the historic centre to my hotel. It was a lovely last night.

Malaga 2081: Rain, Tapas & the Moors

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I woke to dark stormy skies and the promise of rain for the entire morning – though sun to follow in the afternoon. I didn’t want to stay in the hotel for much of the day, so ventured out. It was quiet and early in the day, the rain light. It’s quite hazardous walking around the historic centre in the rain as most of it, while pedestrianised, is paved with marble stone which is very slippery. Even if there’s no rain, large trucks are out in the morning hosing everything down making all the roads and walkways wet. And that’s great because it’s very clean everywhere – but you do need to tread very carefully. I’ve slipped over a couple of times and have to resist any urge to hurry.

   

There was only one thing to do as the rain got heavier – find coffee and shelter! I couldn’t have found a better place than El Ultimo Mono Juice & Coffee in Calle Sta. Maria.

Funky inside, it was a place that really knows its coffee – as was immediately evidenced when I ordered. What proportion of milk to coffee did I want; how many shots? Inevitably, finding another coffee enthusiast, we delved deeply into a coffee discussion. The coffee itself was excellent – a cappuccino, which he knew should be one part milk to two parts coffee – and I had a slice of delicious banana and chocolate bread with it. I made myself comfortable in a big armchair and got out my book. It was tempting to stay there all morning but when the weather seemed to clear a bit, I went out again.

   

However, the rain soon grew heavier and I sought sanctuary at Cafe Central and had another coffee. I made it inside just in time because the heavens opened and a terrific rainstorm crashed down onto Malaga’s streets.

Once it calmed again I decided the only thing to do was head back to the hotel – just 5 minutes walk away – as my phone promised the rain would continue for another couple of hours.

By midday it had brightened and I headed to Los Gatos in Plaza Uncibay for lunch, which I’d read about and is always full when I pass by. I’ve been lunching and dining on tapas because it’s what I’m happiest doing here. Gorgeous morsels of food in attractive and informal bars.

   

Food tends to come in 3 sizes: tapas (small size), raciones (half portion) and full portion. Some are only available in the portions – not tapas – size. I ordered a glass of cava to start (€2) and a small bottle of water (€1.10), which came with bread and olives. I chose a tapas size tortilla (€3.50) and a raciones of sweet pepper stuffed with cod and prawns (€8.50).

   

The tortilla was a big slice – easily enough for 2 to share in a selection of dishes. The peppers was a large portion too but tapas size wasn’t an option – 4 small but whole stuffed peppers. It was all really delicious – though I didn’t quite finish it. The service was so friendly too and so Los Gatos was a great choice.

My ‘plan’ for the day was to visit the Moorish Alcazaba Fortress, a small part of which was built by the Moors in the 8th century but most built in the 11th century.

However, as I approached it, despite following a sign, I missed the entrance (which later I saw in my guide book was by the entrance to the Roman Theatre) and I found myself climbing up to the Gibralfaro Castle, which dates from the 14th century. It turned out to be a fortunate mistake for the views were spectacular and worth the climb. It is a very steep, long climb, but the real drawback is there are no rails to hold on to so coming back down was a bit nerve racking and I took it very slowly. I did see taxis and even a bus at the top which had clearly come via a different route but I thought it was much nicer to walk and enjoy the views on the way back down.

At one point you can see down on to bullring: La Malagueta. And some way up – though before the top – there’s a good viewing point.

   

I was really pleased to have done the climb and seen the castle and enjoyed the views across Malaga. Afterwards I headed back to the hotel for a while. One of the great advantages of staying in the heart of a city is to be able to pop back and forth to the hotel easily. With the sun now shining brightly though, it seemed a waste to stay in long so I set out again to see the fortress – this time armed with directions from my guidebook!

It turned out there was free entry to both the castle and fortress after 2pm on Sundays. I don’t know if this is always the case but neither are expensive (about €3).

I really love visiting Moorish places and while this is nowhere near as stunning (nor so large) and Granada’s Alhambra, it was still a lovely place to wander round for a while.

   

There was quite a lot of greenery and the typical Moorish arches and water features. And even a cafe at one point of you fancy a snack or drink with a view.

   

   

It was a great way to spend a sunny afternoon in Malaga.

Malaga 2018: Mercato Atarazanas, Picasso’s Birthplace & A Perfect Lunch

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Unsurprisingly, I love visiting food markets when I’m in a new city. And I like to go fairly early in the morning when it’s mainly locals shopping rather than later in the day when the tourists descend. Malaga’s Mercado Atarazanas is a delight, full of the most glorious food and lit up by light from a beautiful stained glass window at one end. From the outside, its Moorish heritage is obvious; it has an Arabic look. The name Atarazanas comes from the Arabic word for shipyard and one stood there during the Moorish rule which spanned centuries from 711AD until around 1487. The original building was demolished in 1868 and rebuilt 8 years later but Moorish elements were added to the design.

But beyond the attractive building there are fabulous food stalls to wonder at.

   

Here’s what I saw.

   

   

Malaga is famous for sardines and I stopped for a while to watch a fishmonger fillet some. I also saw a glorious selection of mushrooms.

   

   

Some of the tomatoes were enormous and misshapen but I’m sure they tasted wonderful. And there were white aubergines, which I’d never seen before.

   

Next I crossed the historic centre to Plaza de la Merced to visit Picasso’s birthplace, a house on the corner of the square. It’s a pretty square, lined with lots of cafes so I took a coffee stop before going into the musuem.

Picasso is very much Malaga’s favoured ‘son’ and evidence of his connection to the city is everywhere, even though he left at the age of 19 to go to Paris and never came back, despite living to the grand old age of 91.

The house where he was born is very much a museum now with little evidence of a ‘home’ inside. There are a few beautiful early drawings by the artist on the ground floor but in many ways it’s a disappointment. It costs €3 to go in.

I crossed Plaza de la Merced and headed over to the sea and beach: Playa de la Malagueta.

I always love the combination of a great city and beach! It was such a lovely sunny day I enjoyed walking along the seafront. I ventured briefly on to the sand towards the sea, but the sand was quite coarse and grey – ‘industrial’ sand rather than nice soft golden sand.

I cut back round at the end of a peninsula to the port and walked back up towards the town.

For lunch I decided to head back to the market. I knew I’d find the best and freshest fish there.

I went to the busiest stall and waited for a table outside – just a small high bar table and stool.

   

I ordered a raciones – ½ portion –  of mixed fried fish (€6). Wow! It was amazing; so good. I had a small beer too and loved sitting on the crowded street amidst other enthusiastic diners. To make the moment perfect a couple of guys came right behind me and began singing and playing Flamenco guitar.

   

It was a wonderful morning – and then siesta called and I made my way back to the hotel.

Malaga 2018: Art & Food (2)

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It was the 2nd day of my 2-day tour of modern art in Malaga with Hotel Alphabet. We were meeting at Centro de Arte Contemporaneo at 10.30.

Sunrise isn’t until about 8.30am and I’ve found it strange to get up relatively late in the dark, so have been pleased I added breakfast to my hotel booking. I like to have just some cereal, fresh fruit, yoghurt and juice first thing and go in search of a good coffee and pastry a bit later – once it’s light! Even at 9-9.30 it’s very quiet everywhere. Life in Spain starts late and goes on late. It’s not unusual to see families with even very young children arrive at a restaurant at 10.30 at night for a meal and tapas are traditionally just a snack to have with an early evening drink.

I was planning to have coffee in a historic cafe in Plaza de la Constitucion, which, my guide book told me, opened at 8.00am. However, even after 9.00 there wasn’t much sign of life, just a couple of waiters slowly putting out tables. This is Spain: don’t try to be in a hurry. I went to another cafe almost next door where I had a good coffee and croissant overlooking the pretty square, still relatively deserted at this early hour.

I had about an half hour walk to the art gallery but set off early enough to take things gently. From the square I walked down the wide, pedestrianised Calle Larios (where the day before I’d enjoyed ice cream at Casa Mira), a street lined with historic houses over 100 years old, though now mainly shops and restaurants. The far end opened onto the port area. The port is the oldest continuously operated port in Spain and one of the oldest in the Mediterranean. At the point I arrived it was very industrial and I couldn’t walk along the coast so instead followed the next road inland towards the art gallery. It was still a nice walk.

   

 

The Contemporary Art Musuem opened in 2003 and its shows have an emphasis on promoting 20th century Spanish art. It was formerly a 1930s wholesale market building and this background lends itself to providing a wonderfully light spacious setting for the displays. I wasn’t familiar with the artists so it was particularly great to have art historian Marie-Anne Mancio to inform me. It’s very easy to dismiss unfamiliar art that doesn’t immediately appeal and you don’t understand but when someone explains it and gives it reference and offers insight, it all changes. You don’t necessarily fall in love with it but there’s great interest in opening your eyes to the new.

We spent 2 hours there and when we emerged it was lunchtime. Marie-Anne and Paul led us towards the beach – which was also in the direction of our afternoon gallery visit – and it was great to see the sea in the sunshine. We ate at a beach restaurant, all 14 of us round a large table. I shared a vegetarian paella with Sheila and other paellas were ordered but some salads too. We took our time – mainly as paella takes a long time to cook from scratch! It was all good fun and a nice thing to do on our final day.

Afterwards we walked a fairly short distance to the State Russian Museum, a branch of the legendary St Petersburg museum.

We saw sardines being barbecued at another restaurant on the way. Chargrilled Espetos de sardinas are a Malagan speciality. Clearly I need to try them another day!

The Russian museum was in a quiet area, some way from the historic centre. It was interesting art – though far from uplifting. During Stalin’s time and up to Gladnost in 1986 under Gorbachev, artists weren’t free to paint what they liked, they had to paint government approved things that were basically propaganda. To do otherwise was very dangerous indeed!

It was time to say goodbye to the group as we made our way back to the centre of the city. It had been a great two days.

Back in the hotel I rested tired legs for a while before heading out for supper. I noticed how much busier it was now it’s the weekend. It’s an advantage to want to eat fairly early when restaurants are a bit quieter. I was able to get a table at Vineria Cervantes for an hour, otherwise it was fully booked.

Vineria Cervantes is sister to El Tapeo de Cervantes next door, which is considered one of the best places to eat in Malaga, and has the same menu.

I like eating in an informal bar like this. There was a long specials list on a blackboard as well as the usual menu. I chose two dishes from this and ordered white wine and a small bottle of mineral water.

   

Rather thoughfully – and a nice surprise – they brought my two dishes separately. At lunchtime many dishes are available as tapas (small dishes), raciones (½ portions) or full portions, but small tapas size wasn’t an evening option so I chose 2 raciones.

The first, Ceviche with Mango, looked wonderful as it was put before me and tasted amazing. It looked small but was a deceptively large potions that would be plenty to share between two having a selection of dishes. My second dish, Grilled Tuna with Cauliflower Purée, was fabulous too. There was carrot as well as cauliflower purée and the tuna was so rare it was almost sushi but incredibly tender and tasty. This was food of the highest order. 

   

Yes I did want dessert, I told the waiter with a laugh when he asked. I’m on holiday! I ordered fig flan. I have to say it wasn’t quite what I had in mind; I need to remember I’m in Spain not France and Spanish desserts are entirely different.

It did indeed taste of fig though  – dried figs – and was cake like. It looked as if it would be very sweet but surprisingly wasn’t and I enjoyed it.

It was a wonderful meal of fantastic food, and made all the more enjoyable by the friendliness of the waiters, their obvious enthusiasm for what they were serving and their knowledge about the food and wine.

I took a slow, slightly winding route back through the busy streets to the hotel, passing as ever through Plaza de la Constitucion, a lovely end to another good day.

 

Malaga 2018: Art & Food

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Apart from the obvious reason of wanting a holiday, I have three other reasons for wanting to be in Malaga: Art – enjoying its rich modern art scene with the brilliant art historian Marie-Anne Mancio of Hotel Alphabet; food – Malaga has a reputation for having some of the best food and wine in Spain; and sun. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t playing today but hiding instead behind dark grey clouds that burst into heavy downpours during the morning. However, the art and food was everything I’d hoped for. So, on balance, it’s been a very good day indeed.

The day began, after breakfast in the hotel, with a 20-minute walk through the old historic centre to the harbour area where the Centre Pompidou Malaga is situated; the art group’s meeting place this morning.

Despite the inclement weather it was a lovely walk through mainly pedestrianised streets, passing beautiful elegant buildings, narrow streets, and the cathedral.

   

   

Nearing the seafront, I passed through a park area and along a wide pavement lined with trees.

   

What struck me on my walk was the beauty of the city – a glorious surprise as I’d had no idea it was so lovely before I came – and its greenery: lots of trees and plants. It’s a city that seems cared for.

As I arrived at the seafront and looked to my left, the Pompidou Centre was easy to spot, its colourful exterior a mirror of the original Paris Centre. Getting into it was slightly more difficult. I walked round completely puzzled by how to get inside. A local elderly man came to my rescue and walked me towards the entrance down a nearby ramp.

Once inside I was delighted to see what a magnificent space it was, so beautifully designed and a fabulous background to the art displays. The building was worth a visit on its own, though we did see some good art too.

Afterwards we made our way to the Picasso Museum. Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881 and you cannot escape his presence in the city. You can visit the house where he was born and many places are named after him, including the restaurant at my hotel. However, he didn’t spend much of his long life – he lived to the age of 91 – here. Picasso left Malaga for Paris when he was 19 and never came back.

After lunch we finished our art day at the Museo Carmen Thyssen where we saw not only the permanent collection of modern art but also a temporary show of Matisse’s Jazz. The day was a stimulating and enjoyable mix of Marie-Anne’s informed and interesting commentary to the displays and the input from members of the group, all art enthusiasts, so why they’re here!  Photography was strictly not allowed so I can only show you a bit of the buldings!

   

Inbetween Picasso and Matisse (who were contemporaries and knew each other; indeed were rivals of sorts for the title of leader of their art movements), I had a very good lunch at a restaurant opposite the Thyssen museum with Helen from the group. It was an attractive place – Marisqueria Canela Fina. We decided to order paella. We wanted something warm after the rain. But paella at lunchtime is good in Spain; they don’t like eating rice in the evening as they believe its not so easily digested later in the day.

We were given some complimentary tortilla first, which was very good.

   

The paella (€28 for 2) was delicious. It was quite soft and wet – sometimes they’re served very dry – and we enjoyed it a lot.

It was 4pm when we came out of the Thyssen and I was definitely in need of a rest. My hotel was barely 5-minutes walk away. Once there I went up on to the roof terrace for a look across the city and ordered a coffee from the bar. The views were wonderful.

I rested in my room for a while, but with the sun beginning to make an appearance outside I decided to go out and explore. And exploring in the direction of one of Malaga’s best ice cream shops seemed a good plan. I’d read about Casa Mira – established as long ago as 1890 – before I came and its reputation is well deserved. I had an excellent small cup (€2.70) of orange ice cream with chocolate shards in it. I thought orange and chocolate were good Spanish flavours!

   

I walked back to the hotel through Plaza de la Constitucion. It’s like the heart and hub of the area and very lovely.

Later, showered and refreshed I went in search of supper. There are so many places to choose from but after last night’s disappointing ‘pot luck’ I decided to seek help from my guide book and the internet. One of the most well-known and popular places to go – and also recommended by my hotel – is El Pimpi. The famous go there, people like Rafael Nadal, and to an extent that puts me off. But when I took a look it was inviting. I opted for the bar area rather than the more formal restaurant.

   

I ordered wine (€1.80), which came with olives and bread, and chose two tapas. I imagined they’d be quite small and I might want to order more. As it happened, they were quite big – and it was as well I only ordered two.

   

The Salmorjo (€6) – a thick tomato and garlic cold soup; smoother than gazpacho – was amazing. It was so good it was one of those dishes that stops you in your tracks and you think, Wow! I also chose a traditional Malaga Salad (€3.50) – potato, salted cod and oranges. This was gorgeous too.

   

OK, they were large tapas but I’m on holiday so a dessert was called for. When I saw they had cheesecake I remembered the glorious – and famous – cheesecake I had in a tapas bar in San Sebastián with my good friend Annie a couple of years ago. So cheesecake was what I ordered.

It looked good – though large like the tapas! – but was disappointing. Instead of the soft creamy cake I remembered from San Sebastián this was quite solid, almost like cutting into a chunk of cheese. It wasn’t bad really, just not what I expected and I couldn’t finish it. But I did love El Pimpi and their tapas were so fantastic I’m just going to have to go back another day.

Malaga 2018: Arrival

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A short post from nighttime Malaga after a fairly late arrival. My flight didn’t land until 8pm and so by the time I’d got to my hotel from the airport, checked in, and went out in search of a light supper, it was gone 9.30. Luckily my hotel – Salles Hotel Malaga Centro – seems ideally placed and it took me less than 5 minutes to walk down the road, cross a bridge and find myself in the old historic centre. Even a tired traveller was immediately impressed by its beauty as I wandered down pedestrianised old streets.

I took pot luck on where to eat almost immediately and the tapas was OK though nothing to get excited about. But it was cheap, the service friendly and just sitting outside in such pretty surroundings was great.

Afterwards I took a short walk further on to Plaza San Ignacio.

   

When I arrived in the square I walked round and then headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow and Friday I’m doing a modern art history course with Hotel Alphabet (www.hotelalphabet.com) and with lots of walking and art gazing and contemplating ahead of me, sleep calls. But I enjoyed my walk and I’m looking forward to seeing Malaga in the daylight.

Lamb Stewed in Red Wine with Tomatoes, Olives & Thyme

It wasn’t the original plan. I’d bought lamb to make a lamb tagine – an old family favourite – with the prospect of 7 of us for lunch. But then my brother and his two kids couldn’t make it due to a fairly last-minute car crisis, which left 4 of us to lunch – including 3½ year-old Freddie. Who, it has to be said, is a real carnivore and definitely needs to be counted into the meat portion calculations.

I’m not quite sure why I went off the tagine idea, because I do love it, but I’d seen a lamb recipe in Gino d’Acampo’s Italian Escape that I wanted to try: Stufato di Agnello con Timo e Vino Rosso. It’s quite a wintry dish but with the weather turning significantly colder over the last week or so, and nights drawing in fast, by suppertime it’s cool and dark and this lamb dish is just the thing to warm you up. But the gorgeous addition of some fresh orange juice gives it a lovely fresh touch and reminded me of a Boeuf Daube I had in Nice. Nice, close to the Italian border, was once part of Italy and you will find plenty of Italian restaurants and even people speaking Italian.

 

Lamb Stewed in Red Wine with Tomatoes, Olives & Thyme

  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 900g lamb (see below), cut into 3cm cubes
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 75g pitted black olives
  • 2 bay leaves
  • juice and grated zest 1 orange
  • 5 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 350ml red wine
  • 400ml hot vegetable stock
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Gino uses lamb neck fillet in his recipe and certainly the long, slow cooking warrants a cheaper cut of meat. But I had lamb steak and used this.

Preheat the oven to 150C/Fan 130/Gas 2. Heat the oil in a large casserole dish. Fry the meat in batches – it’s important not to put too many in at once or the oil temperature will cool too much and they will ‘steam’ more than fry. Fry until nicely browned then remove with a slotted spoon to a plate. Fry the rest of the lamb. Remove to a plate.

   

When all the lamb is browned, add the onion to the remaining oil in the casserole dish. Cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the olives, bay leaves, orange juice and zest, and thyme. Cook for 1 minute. Pour in the wine and cook over a moderate heat for 2 minutes to burn off the alcohol, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the vegetable stock, tomatoes and honey. Stir well.

   

Add the browned meat. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Season with salt and pepper. Place a lid on the dish and put in the oven for 3 hours.

   

There was a lot of sauce and quite thin. So near the end of cooking I removed from the oven and lifted the meat and olives out with a slotted spoon on to a plate. I made a beurre manié with a heaped teaspoon of butter mixed into a roux with a heaped teaspoon of plain flour. Then I added a little hot sauce and mixed well until smooth. I added this to the casserole dish and mixed well. This is a traditional French way of thickening a sauce. I cooked the sauce over a high heat for a couple of minutes until it reduced a bit and thickened. Then I turned off the heat, returned the lamb and olives to the sauce, and returned to the oven for the final half hour of cooking.

The smell coming from my kitchen was fantastic and appreciated by the family when they turned up at my door. I served the dish with some mashed sweet + ordinary potato and a green salad on the side. Gino suggests serving with bread and salad and Freddie, quite oblivious to Gino’s directions, decided to eat his lamb with some ciabatta I’d bought, which was on the table, dipping it into the gorgeous sauce before eating it.

It was a great dish; really tasty and delicious. I loved the orange touch – that hint of freshness and sweetness; and the olives give it a special flavour too. It was a wonderful combination of flavours and this is a dish the family definitely want me to cook again!

Celeriac & Apple Soup

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It was a chance, last-minute decision to make this gorgeous soup today. I popped into Waitrose to buy a few things, saw a wonderful knobbly celeriac and couldn’t resist buying it. With the cold mornings and evenings we’ve had over the last week or so, and days drawing in, it’s soup time again. I love to have some portions of homemade soup in my freezer ready for a quick lunch on an autumn or winter’s day.

Despite its rather ugly appearance – for which it’s known and, I guess, puts some people off – celeriac is a beautiful and versatile vegetable and, despite its bland cream flesh, surprisingly good for you. It has lots of health benefits including being a good source of calcium and magnesium, so is good for bone health. It also has good amount of potassium, so is good for regulating blood pressure, and is a great source of Vitamin C and other minerals and vitamins. As the name suggests, it’s related to celery and has a similar flavour but is nuttier in taste with a lovely creamy texture when cooked. It’s been used in European cooking since the 1600s and some say it was first cultivated in Italy. But it goes back as far as the 8th century when it was mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey as selinon.

To be honest, it’s not why I like it. I like the ‘bonus’ of the health benefits but I buy it and eat it because I love the taste. It wonderful raw in the famous French salad, Remoulade de Celeri-Rave, and I like it as a mash – half and half with potato – to go with a rich winter stew. I’ve made it as a simple soup before, but while I was having a light lunch and watching the end of an old Hairy Bikers’ programme about apples and pears on iPlayer, their soup made with celeriac and apples came up and the coincidence was too great to resist.

And, of course, it’s the apple season with lovely British apples coming into the shops. Some Cox’s apples I had were just crying out to be paired with the knobbly celeriac.

I followed the Hairy Bikers’ recipe pretty much to the letter, with just slight adjustments. They garnish the soup at the end with crispy bacon, which sounds lovely, but I was going for the vegetarian option today and was also planning to freeze much of it.

 

Celeriac & Apple Soup

  • 3 eating apples
  • 50g butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium (125g) onions, chopped
  • 1 celeriac (about 800g), peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large carrot, cut into chunks
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 large (250g) potato, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 level teaspoon dried oregano or thyme
  • 1 litre stock
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Peel the apples, core and cut into quarters. Melt 25g butter in a pan and add the apple. Fry over a medium heat until lightly browned and caramelised.

   

Meanwhile, in another large saucepan, melt the remaining butter with the olive oil. Tip in the prepared onions, celeriac and carrot. Gently cook for about 15 minutes until softening and starting to brown. Then add the apples (with their juices), garlic and potato. Sprinkle over the dried herbs (the Hairy Bikers used fresh thyme and a bay leaf – to be removed before blitzing at end) and cook for just a few minutes, stirring to mix well.

   

Pour in the stock – use whatever you prefer, vegetable or a light chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Stir occasionally. When cooked, blitz the soup with a stick blender until smooth.

   

I served it with a dollop of natural yoghurt and some chopped fresh parsley, and drizzled a little extra virgin olive oil over it. You might prefer crème fraîche or even fresh cream if you’re feeling indulgent.

It was such a gorgeous soup and a wonderful marriage of the nutty celeriac with the sweet caramelised apples. A perfect dish for a cold autumn day.

Plum Cake with Streusel Topping

I’ve often claimed in these pages that I don’t bake much, yet in truth, like many people, I started off as a ‘baker’ and there has definitely been a lot of baking in my life, even if less now than years ago. Baking cakes if often where we start with cooking. I used to make cakes with my grandmother and then on my own. My mother wasn’t really a cake-making cook so I took up the baton in my teens and became the family’s cake maker. I frequently made chocolate éclairs and with all due modesty, I can say I was really good at choux pastry. Since starting the blog I’ve often thought I should revisit chocolate éclairs, but have never got round to it. When chocolate comes to mind along with cakes, I always make the family’s favourite Torta Caprese. I’m trying to pass on the baking baton to my 3½-year-old grandson, Freddie, and have even made banana bread muffins with him for the blog, encouraging his early love of food and interest in cooking. For me, there is nothing more wonderful when it comes to cooking than preparing a special meal for the family and now cooking with the next generation – even if he is only three!

During my busy ‘dinner party’ phase in my 30s and 40s I was so into making desserts that I’d often make two or three when one would have been perfectly sufficient. Now a dessert is a rare event and usually nothing more complicated or sophisticated than a simple apple crumble for the family. I’ve branched out a little more since writing the blog and you will find some very nice cake and dessert recipes here, but in truth my heart more closely lies with savoury things these days – unless we’re talking ice cream!

So how did I come to bake this evening? Well, it was the Victoria plums. How can one resist a Victoria plum? I certainly couldn’t when I spied them on Waitrose’s shelves over the weekend; not only Victoria plums, but from Kent. I grew up in Kent and in our garden there was a Victoria plum tree. There is really no plum quite like the Victoria – named, unsurprisingly, after Queen Victoria.

The plums are delicious raw: sweet and juicy. But they’re great cookers too. And frankly, I wasn’t going to get through a 450g punnet on my own! And baking a cake with them took my fancy. I ended up combining a Rick Stein recipe for German Apple Cake (substituting the apples with plums) with the streusel for a plum cake in the Guardian. Rick Stein is becoming my go-to celebrity chef for reliable and easy recipes – he saved me when I made the unexpectedly difficult pasteis de natas a few months ago. He didn’t put a streusel topping on his German apple cake (though some might) and for the life of me, I can’t tell you why this seemed important to me, but once the thought entered my head then I just had to make streusel. So – never trust just one recipe when you could have two. A marriage was born.

 

Plum Cake with Streusel Topping

Streusel Topping

  • 60g flour
  • 45g demerara sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 50g melted butter, cooled
  • 30g almond, chopped

Plum Cake

  • 400g plums
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 140g golden caster sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 75ml full-fat milk

Make the streusel topping first. Mix the flour, sugar and cinnamon together. Add the melted butter (I forgot to cool mine; it looked like it might be a disaster, but then after a time in the fridge – as instructed – it crumbled really well and worked!). Add the chopped nuts and mix well. Put in the fridge.

   

   

Now make the cake. Heat the oven to 170C/150 Fan/Gas 3. Butter and line a 23cm cake tin.

Wash and dry the plums and cut in half. The Victorias are quite long and oval so I cut them lengthwise so they wouldn’t be too deep in the batter.

   

In a large bowl beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, a little at a time, and beat well. I like to add a little of the flour at this stage so the mixture doesn’t curdle. Once all the egg is incorporated, sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in carefully to keep the mixture light.

   

   

Add the milk and continue to fold in carefully until you have a smooth, fairly soft batter.

   

Spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin. Lay the plum halves on top, cut side down, packing in quite tightly.

   

Remove the streusel topping from the fridge. It will be quite hard and ‘set’ now but just take lumps and crumble over the top with your fingers. I only used about half and put the other half in the freezer – in the hope the cake would be good and I’d want to make another!

Put the cake in the preheated oven. Now … Rick recommends 45 minutes to get it cooked and nicely golden on top. Mine took 1hr 10mins. This may have been my oven … it may have been using a 20cm cake tin because I don’t have a 23cm. Whatever … this is the thing with cakes … cooking times vary so just trust your judgement. When it looks nice and golden, slide in a skewer or slim knife and if it comes out clean, your cake is done.

Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Then transfer to a cake rack.

Rick recommends it’s nice served warm and as I made it quite late in the afternoon, I did eat it warm. But of course there’s a lot to eat cold another day … It worth bearing in mind the ‘warm’ serving though as a nice dessert for a family meal.

I served mine with some Greek yoghurt but cream or ice cream would be good too.

It was really delicious. It’s not a light sponge, more solid, but not heavy and very tasty. I loved the plums on top and the sweet crunchiness from time to time of the streusel topping, which was wonderful with the plums. It was a great cake and that bag of spare streusel topping in my freezer is definitely going to be used soon to make another one!

 

Travel Gourmet’s Food Memories

Food has always been an important part of my life’s journey from small child to now. I grew up in a family that loved and appreciated good food and my childhood was filled with trips to Soho food stores on Saturday mornings followed by breakfast at the famous Maison Bertaux in Greek Street. Birthdays and other important family celebrations were always an excuse to eat at a top London restaurant (and yes that’s me in the photo above, aged about 4 or 5). Thus it’s not surprising that certain foods can evoke strong memories from my earliest days.

I think my earliest memory has to be holding hands with my maternal grandmother and being taken to the market to buy live eels. She and my grandfather lived in the East End of London and in those days it wasn’t the trendy, gentrified place it’s largely become now. Nana looked after me while my mother worked, from the time I was two until four years old. I remember being taken into Sainsbury’s before it was a supermarket and you had to go to different counters to buy things, whether it was bread or the cheese counter or basic grocery supplies. But it’s the walk through the street market and buying those wriggly eels that I remember most. And then we’d take them home where she’d chop off their heads and then cut the bodies into chunks to make a stew. I remember it only as having a creamy, parsley sauce. Nana didn’t like eels herself but my granddad loved them. And so did I – a little surprisingly it seems to me now. So he and I would sit together with our bowls of eel stew and eat quietly together. I haven’t eaten eel stew since but I do occasionally have smoked eel when in Amsterdam, where it’s popular.

Smoked eel in Amsterdam

A slightly later memory comes from my first trip abroad when I was 8. In the days before motorways, it took 3 days to drive across France from London to a small seaside town just south of Barcelona in northern Spain. I don’t remember the town’s name, only that we rented an apartment from an old friend – I think an ex RAF colleague – of my dad’s that was right by the beach’s edge. It was September because I remember the elder of my two brothers having his birthday there and a Spanish birthday cake appearing. I remember the terrifying and violent late summer storms that raged at night and all the lights going out. But what brings a smile of pleasure to me, even to this day, is the memory of first tasting a sweet red pepper.

If they were yet to be found back at home in London, I hadn’t encountered them. I was only 8 but the taste was a revelation; I had never tasted anything like it, any food as wonderful. To this day, eating a red pepper reminds me of that trip to Spain..

Many childhood holidays involved driving across France and we’d just stop when the time seemed right and find a hotel to spend a night. But one year we planned a stop in Paris. My first trip to Paris. We arrived quite late at night. We were very central and it all seemed incredibly magical; the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower reaching towards the stars in the sky; the majestic Arc de Triomphe, a bold display of power. After checking into our hotel we went to a café right next door to find food – just a snack as it was late. My parents suggested a sandwich. Sandwiches at home were miserable affairs by today’s standards; this was definitely before the coming of artisan bakeries selling sourdough loaves! Instead we ate square white slices of processed bread filled sparingly with a mean slice of processed ham (or cheese, or whatever …). Imagine my surprise when half a baguette was handed to me, filled with the most delicious ham. It seemed so long; so alien in a wonderful way. I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Where did I start eating? It was another example of the delights of travelling and discovering glorious new foods.

It was at a similar age, maybe a bit older and around 10, that I tasted avocado for the first time.

My best friend from school in Blackheath had moved with her family – which included her 3 brothers – to Kent. Her father was a surgeon and my friend liked to show me some of his books with the most horrific (to a child!) photos of operations in them. They’d moved to a huge house in a small Kent village, with lots of land. They kept chickens and geese and I was terrified of the hissing geese who chased us as we came out of the kitchen door into the garden. We built little fires in hidden corners of the garden and heated small tins of Heinz baked beans to eat. But at meal times very sophisticated fare would appear. And this is when I was introduced to avocado, which was a rare thing indeed back in the 1960s. I was a very polite and shy child so I ate everything that was put before me – including the avocado, which I thoroughly disliked. My friend’s dad and two elder brothers would go hunting and sometimes I’d go into the kitchen to find a brace of pheasant or other game lying across the kitchen table, which was a new experience to me and while a little scary, it was undeniably a rather excitingly ‘romantic’ thing, like something out of a book or TV period drama. My friend’s mother would say how she loved me visiting because I always ate everything without complaint. What she didn’t know was that the avocado experience took me years to get over. I think I was working by that time, a young editorial assistant, invited back with some others by one of our fellow assistants to her London flat for supper – and enter the avocado again! This time I loved it and since then I’ve been unfailingly faithful to the wonderful avocado and eat one – or at least half – nearly every day!

We jump a few years to my next food memory. In fact to my honeymoon in 1977. We travelled by car around Italy for about 3 weeks and when we came to Florence, I wanted to go to the famous Vivoli gelateria (click here for my more recent trip), said then, and still now by some, to serve the best ice cream in the world.

Gelato at Vivoli gelateria, Florence, 2017

In those days you could easily drive right up to it in central Florence. I remember jumping out of the car. My husband said he didn’t want any. I chose zabaglione. I got back into the car with my cup of gelato and carefully lifted a spoonful into my mouth – wow!! I was blown away; I had never ever tasted ice cream like this; it was ambrosia, food of the gods. I gave husband a taste. Of course he then wanted some of his own so back into the gelateria I went. That day my love affair with gelato began and it’s still going strong – click here.

Still in Italy for my next memory, but quite a few years on … in fact to around 2000 when I spent a month in Rome, studying Italian in the mornings and wandering around the great city in the afternoon. I went in search of good coffee one day and the place said to serve the best was Sant’Eustachio, near the Pantheon (one of my favourite buildings anywhere).

San’Eustachio caffe in Rome

The caffè has been in existence since 1938 and still has a reputation for some of the best coffee in Rome, but coffee has become such big business in our world, it has a lot more competition than when I first visited. The artisan coffee houses that have thrived in London over recent years hadn’t yet arrived (except Monmouth Coffee) and so the cappuccino I had on my first visit to Sant’Eustachio was completely different to what I was used to and I was immediately hooked. I just hadn’t realised coffee could taste this good; this special. So great was it I still remember that first sip. Nowadays, I tend to drink a Kiwi flat white in the morning, though an Italian espresso later in the day. I believe it’s still hard to find a good Italian cappuccino in London – click here. It’s usually too big a cup; more like a flat white. Corto Deli do it well but in the main, I save cappuccino drinking for when I’m in Italy.

My last memory for today is of eating grouse at Rules in London many years ago.

Rules Restaurant (photo from http://www.rules.co.uk)

This is less about delighting in food and more about the power of love in dads. My parents often took us for a family meal to Rules in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Established in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it is London’s oldest – and perhaps most famous – restaurant. It serves traditional British food with an emphasis on game and their signature dish of steak and kidney pudding is made with the addition of oysters if you wish. It must have been the ‘game’ season and I decided to branch out from my usual choices and try grouse; I’d never eaten grouse. Well, a couple of mouthfuls and I never wanted to eat it again. It’s a very ‘gamey’, strong tasting bird. An acquired taste, I think. My wonderful dad (who would have been 90 on the 22nd of this month, were he still with us), observing I clearly wasn’t enjoying it, even though I’d said not a word, quietly offered to swap dishes. I don’t remember what he had but I gratefully accepted the offer. And I’ve always remembered it because it’s what lovely dads do for their daughters. Even when they are grown-up daughters with two children of their own! And of course I’ve remembered to never order grouse again …

Well, this could possibly be a never-ending post … or turn into a book! And I should probably stop now. But it’s a lovely thing to have happy memories and food so often brings up such memories – or it does for me. What’s your best food memory? Do let me know.