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Tuscany 2019: An Old Pharmacy, Ferragamo Museo & Mercato Centrale in Florence

I’ve had a wonderful morning of exploration in an area of Florence slightly away from what’s become my ‘usual’ walk through the city. I’d read about the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a 13th century pharmacy founded by Dominican monks in 1221 shortly after their arrival in Florence. It’s one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. The monks grew medicinal herbs in the monastic gardens for their infirmary. They developed perfumes too and in 1553 created ‘Aqua di Santa Maria Novella’ perfume for Caterina de Medici. So successful were their products that the pharmacy was opened to the public in 1612.

 

Entry is free and from the moment you go through the lovely doorway the whole place is a wonder and delight to the eyes. It’s simply beautiful.

Everyone was so friendly and helpful and I was invited to try spraying a little of that perfume first made in the 16th century on me. Its light, citrusy smell was gorgeous and ideal for summer – but I decided against paying €80 to take a bottle home!

There were beautiful ceilings – the fresco in the photo on the right below dating from 1312.

 

The pharmacy was magnificent with many displays showing products and history. You could also look out into the cloisters from here.

 

There was a tearoom where you could have a drink and also buy tea to take home. I was given some to smell and their ingredients and origins explained. At the back was a little museum area with machines and equipment used long ago to make the medicines and perfumes.

 

There were lots of things to buy – perfumes, body creams, soaps, ceramics. You were given a card for things to be added and then you collected and paid for them at the end.

 

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python would have said. From monks, herbals and perfumes to shoes and fashion. Though as I write this I realise that perfume adds a link to fashion! But as I was checking out the pharmacy’s location on a map I saw that the Salvatore Ferragamo Museo was quite close and it seemed like a very different place to head to next. And I do like shoes – even if I’m never likely to be able to afford some Ferragamo ones!

Situated in Piazza S. Trinita, close to the bridge of that name, the museum is in a basement under a Ferragamo shop. Ferragamo is one of Italy’s most famous fashion names. Entry was €8 but there also seemed to be a relaxed guide system. Groups were picked up and taken round with lots of interesting information given. There was a special ‘sustainability’ exhibition on at the moment and it was fascinating to see what had been used to make the clothes and shoes we saw.

 

 

This large piece of ‘cloth’ below was made from bottle tops and copper and aluminium wire. It was stunning and reminded me a lot of Gustav Klimit’s paintings.

Some of the famous shoes had been remade in sustainable products, including the famous ‘Invisible’ heel shoe of 1947.

 

I grabbed a quick cappuccino in a nice little trattoria opposite when I came out and then headed for Mercato Centrale, the large covered food market. A ‘foodie’ must always visit the local market and it was now time to turn my attention back to food.

It’s a huge market with wonderful produce of every kind you could imagine or be looking for. Upstairs there are lots of restaurant and cafe outlets and it was initially tempting to look for lunch there. But I wanted to get outside again into the sunny warm weather.

 

  

I headed to SimBIOsi, which is a totally organic restaurant in via De’Ginori.

It’s becoming a bit of a favourite – I’ve eaten in the pizzeria a couple of times – for its great food, excellent wine by the glass, happy atmosphere and friendly service.

 

I wanted just a pasta dish as I prefer to eat my main meal in the evening. I ordered Maccheroni al pesto di fave, spuma di pecorino e bottarga d’uovo (€10) and glass of local organic white wine (€6).

The pasta dish was amazing, really gorgeous. Especially the foaming pecorino cream. It was a great way to end a fabulous morning in Florence.

 

Tuscany 2019: A Morning Walk to Piazzale Michelangelo & Giardino Bardini

The weather is gorgeous here and it’s easy to walk to most sights from Hotel Cellai so I decided to visit some places I missed a couple of years ago.

The day started with the hotel’s wonderful buffet breakfast. It’s really superb offering pretty much anything you’d want from fruit, cereal and yoghurt, to meats, cheeses, slices of frittata, scambled eggs and gorgeous homemade cakes. And a waiter will bring you a freshly made cappuccino or other coffee.

Suitably fortified I set off towards the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio again via Piazza Repubblica. I wanted to go to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the famous view. Rather incredibly I totally forgot about it two years ago and was determined to see it this time.

The light was clear and perfect as I crossed the Ponte Vecchio with a view of Ponte S. Trinita in the distance reflected beautifully in the still water.

Turning eastwards along Lungarno Torrigiani I passed a pretty garden – Martin Luther – where a few people sat enjoying the peace of the morning.

Signs for Piazzale Michelangelo appeared leading me away from the river and upwards. Well if you want a view you have to climb. It was some way up the very steep climb that I remembered I’d only gone up to the piazzale by car before! Many years ago …

However, about halfway up there was an entrance into Giardino delle Rose – a rose garden – where you can enjoy some great views and a rest on a bench before you carry on to the top.

 

It was inevitably quite busy in Piazzale Michelangelo; some people arriving by taxi. But I was glad I’d climbed and my efforts were rewarded as I looked over the glorious panoramic view of Florence.

I’d seen a sign for the Bardini gardens at the bottom of the steps so climbed back down and then faced another climb up a steep road.

Most people flock to the nearby and more famous Boboli gardens (and indeed you can buy a joint ticket to see both) but I walked round those last time and was intrigued to see these different ones. Here are about 10 acres of woods, gardens and orchards within medieval walls with glorious views across the city.

It cost €10 to get in but I was given a nice leaflet with a guide and photos and a map showing me the route round the gardens. I was immediately enchanted by the sight of Villa Bardini and its fantastic views.

Having been on the go for sometime I followed signs to the cafe for a drink.

I bought a cold drink and sat down and enjoyed the most wonderful view anyone might expect from a cafe seat!

Then, using my map, I followed the route round the gardens, stopping frequently to take in the views.

I walked through a long pergola which had wisteria growing across it while hydrangeas were planted along the edge. Turning a sharp left at the bottom, I came to the Baroque Stairway which dates from the late 18th century and has statues lining the way up (though you’re not allowed to do this).

 

I followed the path through the flower garden, which to be honest didn’t have many flowers but did offer a great view as I carefully made my way down the steep path.

Beautiful Tuscan buildings stood before me.

Eventually I left through the exit into via de Renai, close to the Arno again (there are two entrances/exits and this one is much the easier to access).

The Ponte Vecchio lay to my left and across the river stood the Uffizi Gallery.

It was a wonderful morning’s walk and amazingly quiet and peaceful. I think even in cities that are as popular as Florence you can always find a corner of peace to get away from the crowds. And I certainly did this morning.

Tuscany 2019: Return to Florence

I’m in Tuscany for a week, starting with 3 nights in Florence. I loved coming back here a couple of years ago after a long break so much, I wanted to return again soon. I’m staying in the lovely Hotel Cellai again. My morning flight from Heathrow took me to Pisa. There is an airport at Florence but small with few flights going there. From Pisa it’s an easy journey though. From the airport take the Pisamover shuttle to Pisa Centrale. You buy a ticket in a machine – €2.70 – so make sure you have some change on you. The journey only takes 5 minutes.

Once at the Centrale station there are plenty of notice boards for you to see where your train will arrive. There are about 12 platforms so this is useful. I bought my train ticket online which saves time and is easier. It was only €8.60 to Florence. It was lunchtime and I remembered there was a good little bar serving snacks on Platform 1, so I grabbed a panino and coffee to keep me going. The train journey was 50 minutes (make sure you book a fast connection with no changes) and I’d arrive soon after 2pm.

At the Hotel Cellai – only a 10 minute walk from the train station – I received a wonderful warm welcome, with a little note in my room welcoming me back.

I headed back out again soon, not wanting to waste any time in getting to see Florence again. First stop was my favourite cafe, Caffe Gilli in Piazza Repubblica, where I had an excellent macchiato and one of their gorgeous budino di riso, a little pastry with a sort of creamy rice pudding filling – a speciality here and absolutely gorgeous.

 

Next stop the Ponte Vecchio (literally, the old bridge) which must be one of the most famous sights in the world but always marvellous to see.

And the view from the bridge.

Then I made my way back to the hotel for a rest – given my 5am start – via the Piazza Duomo where the wonder that is Florence’s cathedral soars above you.

 

In the evening I headed back to the Ponte Vecchio to cross the Arno river to the Santo Spirito area where I’d booked a table at my favourite restaurant from last time, Osteria Santo Spirito. There seemed to be some kind of celebration going on and it was impossible to cross the Ponte Vecchio so I walked down to Ponte S. Trinita.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from Ponte S. Trinita.

The Piazza Santo Spirito, despite the busy cafes and bars round the edge, is a glorious place of calm. I just love it.

It was a bit quieter than usual, I thought, probably as it was a Monday. The Osteria is always busy though, so book ahead f you can.

It was just as wonderful as I remembered. A basket of lovely Tuscan bread came with homemade tapenade.

I just had to have Pappa al Pomodoro – a kind of bread and tomato soup – to begin. How do they manage to make something so simple so awesomely delicious?

Before I arrived I’d planned to have Tagliata di Manzo – slices of rare steak on a bed of rocket with Parmesan – but tired from my early start and journey, I decided on something lighter my first night. My first choice from their specials list was finished so I ended up having the same – but heavenly – courgette and Parmesan risotto I had on my first visit. I chose the ‘small’ plate option for both dishes and it was plenty.

I confess to greediness by having a dessert but I’m on holiday and when cooking is this good, you don’t want the meal to end. The chocolate cake with strawberry coulis was possibly the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. Yes, it really was that good, wonderfully oozing in the centre and richly, darkly chocolatey. It was such a big portion though I couldn’t finish it!

I had an espresso to finish and the bill came with fresh cherries, a delightful touch. It was only €27.50 for food, wine and a large bottle of Pellegrino water.

The food at Osteria Santo Spirito is simple Tuscan food but of the highest quality; the atmosphere informal and the service friendly and efficient. It’s just the kind of place I like best.

The walk back to the hotel took my along via Calimara into Piazza Repubblica again, which is such a lively place.

Then past the cathedral in the darkening light.

And soon back at Hotel Cellai. I’d only been in Florence for a few hours but already felt settled and so pleased to be here again.

Chicken Braised with Fennel, Sweet Pepper & Tomato

We’ve been having a lot of barbecues recently on Sundays but the weather wasn’t great today and I had a few things in my fridge to use up before going away tomorrow: lots of tomatoes, a small head of fennel, some sweet peppers, a buffalo mozzarella … I decided to buy some chicken and make a chicken stew and slow roast some of the tomatoes to go with the mozzarella as a starter.

As my son was choosing some wine from my wine rack to go with supper, he asked, Is it a French recipe? Accustomed to my cooking French, Italian, Middle Eastern, etc. meals, keeping to a theme, it was a reasonable question. But in fact the meal had no ‘theme’ other than using up food that wouldn’t last for over a week until I get back from my holiday. It’s a Nonna recipe, I said. The grandsons call me Nonna, Italian for grandmother, so a number of food things for the family are defined by ‘Nonna’. And this is what Nonna cooked.

 

Chicken Braised with Fennel, Sweet Pepper & Tomato – Serves 4

  • 4 chicken skinless breasts
  • sea salt, black pepper, sweet paprika & dried oregano
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large or 2 small-medium onions
  • 1 small head fennel, trimmed and sliced
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced
  • 3 large tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped
  • 1 rounded dessert spoon plain flour
  • 250ml white wine

 

   

Season with chicken breasts with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a good sprinkling of paprika and a generous pinch of dried oregano. Rub in slightly and leave for a few minutes.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan with a lid. When the oil is hot, put the chicken breasts in, seasoned-side down. Cook for a couple of minutes until nicely browning. Turn over and cook another couple of minutes so the chicken is sealed on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate.

 

Add the chopped onions to the pan, adding a little more oil if necessary. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the fennel. Cook for another couple of minutes. Add the sliced sweet pepper. Fry it all over a moderate heat until slightly softening. Add the chopped tomatoes. Cook for another couple of minutes. You just want everything to start cooking and softening but not be well cooked as there’s a lot more cooking to come. Sprinkle over the flour and mix in. Then slowly add the wine, stirring all the time. Bring to a boil then turn down to simmer for about 10 minutes so the alcohol evaporates and the sauce slightly thickens.

 

Lay the chicken breasts on top and snuggle slightly into the vegetable mix. Put the lid on the pan and leave to simmer gently for 30 minutes. Check the seasoning.

I prepared the dish a couple of hours in advance and just warmed it through again at suppertime. You don’t want to overcook the chicken though or it will toughen and you want it to stay moist and tender.

For my tomato starter I cut about 200g cherry tomatoes in half and lay them on greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. I drizzled over a little olive oil, seasoned lightly and sprinkled over a little dried oregano (or use thyme). I put them in a 150C/Fan 130/Gas 2 oven for 2½ hours. Check them every so often to make sure they’re not burning or softening but there’s no need to touch them or do anything else. Remove them from the oven when you can see they’re drying out and shrivelling up a bit. The smell from the oven will be wonderful!

 

I served them with the mozzarella broken in the middle of the plate, the tomatoes surrounding them. I drizzle over a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and scattered some torn basil leaves on top. We had some focaccia and olive fougasse with it.

 

Warm the chicken through if you prepared earlier.

I served with some new potatoes and French beans.

It was a gorgeous supper. The starter with the slow roasted tomatoes was fabulous. The tomatoes had such a deep and intense flavour that went wonderfully with the creamy mozzarella.

The chicken was moist and tender and really delicious. The flavours from the spicy rub had penetrated just enough to give the chicken a nice little punch but the sauce with all those flavourful vegetables was a brilliant match. It’s the kind of dish that really benefits from cooking early and leaving to ‘mature’ for a little while.

Tarte aux Abricots

My 4-year-old grandson Freddie loves apricot Danish pastries. Whenever we go to a cafe for morning coffee and babyccino, given free rein to choose a pastry, Freddie will invariably go for the apricot variety (though Pain au Chocolat is a close second). When I was shopping yesterday for today’s family Sunday meal and saw apricots, I just had to buy some. I didn’t have Danish pastries in mind though, but an apricot tart. Hopefully Freddie would judge this a reasonable alternative – and just as good!

I’m a big fan of apricots myself. They’re invariably disappointing fresh in UK but when sun-kissed in Mediterranean countries – like these in Aix en Provence, next to some gorgeous greengages – they are one of my favourite fruits, and I can never resist buying some to take back to wherever I’m staying.

Baked, the flavour intensifies and is truly deep and gorgeous. To get the best flavour for the tart, I baked the apricots first so they started caramelising, before adding them to the pastry case for final cooking.

You don’t really need anything to accompany the tart. In a French patisserie it would come on its own. But I thought a jug of single cream to pour over would go down well with the family.

Tarte aux Abricots

  • 500g (8-10) apricots
  • 1 dessertspoon caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons apricot jam

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg

Crème Pâtissière

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 2 rounded teaspoons custard powder or cornflour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 250ml milk

 

I used the same pastry recipe I used for the little Apple Streusel Tartlets I made recently as it worked so well. I’ve always liked to make pastry by hand but this recipe works brilliantly well in the food processor. And that’s so much easier! Just put all the ingredients for the pastry into the processor. Process until it comes together into a clump. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest and chill while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

 

Heat the oven to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7. Cut the apricots in half and remove the stones. Lay the halves skin-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle over the dessertspoon of caster sugar. Bake until the juices are starting to run and the apricots are very slightly caramelised (don’t cook too much; they’ll be cooked more in the tart case). My apricots took about 15 minutes to soften and the juices to run but they were a bit under-ripe. Ripe apricots would take less time so put in for a shorter time and keep watch until you think they’re right. Leave the oven on for baking the tart once it’s all put together.

While the apricots are cooking, make the Crème Pâtissière. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thickening. Add the vanilla and custard powder or cornflour (this helps stabilise the custard as well as thicken it a bit). Whisk some more. Heat the milk until it just comes to the boil. Pour slowly into the egg mixture, whisking as you go. Pour back into a clean saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring gently to the boil. Leave to cool.

 

Prepare a 24cm loose-bottomed flan case by greasing with butter. Sprinkle in a little plain flour and shake around to pretty much cover the base and sides very lightly with flour. Carefully hold upside down and shake out excess. I like to prepare the tin in this way so that it’s easier to remove the flan at the end after cooking.

 

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface until it’s about 3-4mm thick. It’s a very rich soft dough so will break easily. Therefore use a good amount of flour on the surface to help hold it together. Roll it a little bit round the rolling pin and lift onto the flan tin. Gently push into the edges and cut away the extra pastry around the top. My flan case (which is about 40 years old!) has sharp enough edges for me to just press the pastry into the edge to cut the extra away.

Bake blind in the oven. Scrunch some greaseproof paper up and then lay it across the bottom of the pastry lining. Pour in some baking beans. Bake for 5 minutes. Take from the oven and remove the beans. Pop the pastry case back into the oven to dry out a bit – about 3-5 minutes. Then remove. Pour in the Crème Pâtissière and spread across the bottom of the pastry case.

 

Lay the apricots on top. (I rather wished at this point that I’d bought more apricots!) Reserve any juices to add to the glaze.

Return to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes until the pastry is nicely browning around the edge. Remove and allow to cool in the tin.

 

Melt the jam gently in a pan with the reserved apricot juices and a dash of water. Stir until the mixture melts and starts to bubble. Remove from the heat. Use a pastry brush to brush the glaze over the tart – the pastry edges and tops of the apricots.

Carefully remove from the tin. It should all come away easily. Lift the base away from the sides, making sure your tart doesn’t slip off! Then slide a large slice/turner between the base and bottom of the tart to hold it together as you lift the tart away from the tin base and lay on a serving plate.

It didn’t look quite as perfect as a a tart from a French patisserie, but it did look pretty good and more importantly, it tasted absolutely wonderful. The pastry was as perfect as for the little apple tartlets – a good flavour, light and melt-in-the-mouth. The slight tartness of the apricots, soft and caramelised, was perfectly complemented by the custard. Dessert this evening was a huge success; a perfect end to the family meal. And Freddie asked for seconds!

 

Cafe Review: Coffee 091, Whitton

When my son and I emerged from Coffee 091 on Wednesday morning after having some breakfast there, Jonathan remarked that it was ‘a little gem’.

Coffee 091 opened a few weeks ago and has slowly come together from a temporary sign by the door to permanent sign above, and the inside looking more lived in and attractive. We pass it taking the boys to nursery but having always been loyal to the Italian bakery further down the high street, didn’t at first go in. But since the bakery has stopped opening on Wednesdays, we’ve had to try other cafes. And Cafe 091 is a great find and I don’t think our visits will be confined to Wednesdays.

Whitton is in the northwest part of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and part of Twickenham. It seems with Cafe 091 that Richmond’s gentrification is reaching its furthest corners. The cafe’s bare-brick walls and artisan feel give promise of top-quality coffee and food.

Bags of coffee beans sit on the counter; some are mixed to make the ‘home’ brew they serve as espresso, cappuccino, or whatever you choose. The coffee is excellent. There are good croissants in the morning and homemade cakes sitting under covers. I asked the Italian owner – who comes from Sicily – where he got the cakes from. He looked surprised and said, I make them.

 

 

For breakfast on Wednesday, I only wanted coffee (a flat white – £2.50) and a croissant as I’d eaten cereal earlier. Did I want jam? I was asked. In Italian mode (for their croissants are often filled with jam or custard), I said yes. Rather than it being filled with jam at the time of cooking, it was cut open now and a large spoonful of jam added. Served on a piece of slate, it was gently dusted with icing sugar and you could see, just in that simple snack, that care and attention had gone into serving it to me.

Jonathan remarked that he loved the way Italians always took care to present even the simplest plate of food nicely.

He’d opted for Scrambled Eggs on Toast (£4.00). This too came carefully presented, accompanied by a little side salad,. We could see the egg being scrambled in the back while we waited; some chopped fresh chives added to the mix. Jonathan said the eggs were well cooked; still soft and creamy.

Today I headed back at lunchtime. I’d been into central London early but decided I’d go to Whitton and the cafe for lunch before going home. Momentarily it seemed like a crazy idea – there’s a big rugby match on today and trains, roads, pubs and cafes were full of rugby fans. When I got to Coffee 091 it looked full. But the owner was at the door and I think recognised me as a local rather than a rugby visitor. He offered to find me a seat. He moved a small table and chair to a spot by the counter and invited me to sit down.

I ordered a Vegetarian Ciabatta (courgettes, aubergines, tomato & basil – £6.00).

It took a little while to come, but I wasn’t in a hurry. And when it did arrive at my table, again the care was evident. The warm ciabatta roll was full to bursting with freshly cooked slices of vegetables. I’m sure it must have all be cooked to order. And it was very good.

 

I had some Pellegrino water with it and finished with an espresso.

Coffee 091 is really a great local addition. I have to say that because everything is freshly cooked to order, it’s not a place to go when you’re in a hurry. The menu at the moment is small. But the owner talked of his plans … and it’s definitely a place to watch to see what good things come next. And I know the family and I are going to be going there a lot.

Coffee 091 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chelsea Flower Show 2019

I was back at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show on Wednesday with my son, Jonathan. I’ve been a number of times to this famous flower show, said to be the most prestigious in the world, but this was the third year running. Clearly I’m hooked! Well who wouldn’t be if you love gardens and the chance to see magnificent show gardens created by some of the world’s leading garden designers. And another of Chelsea’s main attractions is the Grand Pavilion full of the most glorious plants and flowers in prime, perfect condition – you’ll never see them better than this.

In all honesty, you don’t have to be an exceptionally keen gardener or even have a garden to make it worth going, for just the experience of being at Chelsea is great in itself. It’s not all about big show gardens, there are small artisan gardens (more the size of the average London garden); there are masses of stalls selling not only garden tools, furniture and decorations but jewellery, pottery, prints … it’s a bit like a craft fair. Over where the artisan gardens are found you’ll also find lots of stalls selling great street food and some live music.

But of course for even the most modest gardener with a quite small garden (like mine) you’ll be awed by the inspiration of the show gardens. I think it’s not ever about trying to recreate them yourself but taking an idea from one, some other gem from another, and piecing together some plans to take home with you.

For more about the history of the show click here for my post a couple of years ago. This year we were lucky enough to have near perfect weather – not too hot but dry with some sun shining through to make it pleasant to wander slowly round and take in all Chelsea offers.

The show is inevitably a photographer’s paradise. The rest of this post is devoted to some of the photos I took (as always, just on my iPhone). Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant Review: The Oystermen

Four weeks ago when I was happily wandering around Covent Garden early evening before meeting up with my friend Annie at Cinnamon Bazaar, I passed The Oystermen in Henrietta Street. It looked so inviting and just the kind of place I love. I more often eat fish than meat when out and love oysters, so the name appealed. I took a photo of the outside; it seemed a good way of noting the restaurant down. And it became my suggestion to Annie for our next place to meet.

Arriving last night, just after 6.30pm, it was busy and lively. I was shown to a table at the back where Annie was waiting for me. It all looked a little tight with tables close together but in fact it never felt too crowded. Maybe that was partly due to the overall friendly atmosphere. Right from the beginning our waitress was a wonder; that perfect mix of friendly and professional. She was very helpful to Annie who has a few dietary needs, checking things out in the kitchen and never making it seem like it was a problem; she only wanted to help. She made suggestions as we decided on what to eat; recommended what turned out to be an excellent Sauvignon Blanc (£8 for 175ml glass). Combined with the convivial atmosphere around us, we immediately decided we liked The Oystermen.

We liked it even more once the food started coming. There were some lovely Starters to choose from (ranging in price from £8.50-£10.50) but they sounded quite large and we opted to have two ‘Snacks … perfect to share. while you wait …

My Whipped Smoked Cod’s Roe Toast (£5) – taramasalata by another name and definitely without any pink colouring – was a glorious mound of creaminess; a light cloud of fish dip with perfectly crisp, light toasts to eat it with. It was amazing. I could have just sat there eating that until I was full … but luckily I had another fishy gem to come after.

Annie’s ‘snack’ was Sourdough Bread with Seaweed Butter (£4). The seaweed butter came in an oyster shell and was delicious. The bread was to die for … well it was some of the best bread I’ve tasted. I’ve had an addiction to good bread for as long as I can remember and am easily won over by the perfect kind. And this was perfect … and happily Annie was happy to share.

Annie made the bold move of ordering Whole Dorset Undressed Brown Crab, Garlic, Aioli & Lemon. I say bold because I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to dealing with things like whole crabs … but I do love them, and lobsters … It’s priced by weight and this was £25. It was almost enough to share … Annie made a sterling attempt to finish but I got some too once I’d finished my main course and it was superb.

There was a choice of 5 Mains. This is a good sign in a fish restaurant – a sign of really fresh fish that was caught only a few hours ago. I could happily had eaten any of them. I almost went with Oyster Stout Batter Dorset Pollack, Pea Purée, Fennel, Onion & Caper Salad (£19) but made a last-minute change of choice to Newlyn Hake, Scottish Mussels, Wye Valley Asparagus & Asparagus Velouté (£23).

The hake was excellent – a soft, tender fish with a mild, slightly sweet taste. It was perfectly cooked; the skin crispy and good to eat. The mussels were gorgeous too – large, tasty and tender still from skilled cooking. The earthy asparagus and its velouté was a good accompaniment.

Two wonderful-sounding desserts or a good cheese option on the menu were tempting but we were far too full to carry on eating. We settled instead for coffee (for me) and mint tea (for Annie).

Our bill at the end, including wine and service, was just under £88 for two.

Now before I go, I have to tell you about the toilets. Forgive me. But they have to be mentioned. To get to them it was necessary to negotiate one of the steepest and narrowest spiral staircases I’ve known down to the basement. It was a little like being on a boat. Once downstairs a recording the BBC’s Shipping Forecast was playing – ‘The general synopsis at midnight … Low Viking 1002 expected Baltic 1001 by midnight …‘ It was such a fun idea. The sink was shaped like a huge oyster shell. The Oystermen were obviously keen to give you the whole sea experience. And we just loved it … and can’t wait to go back.

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

Deep-filled Apple & Blueberry Tartlets with Streusel Topping

The family often come for a meal at the weekend, usually Sunday, which is lovely. We always like to make it special in some way, as families do on Sundays. I keep it easy though. Rather than a formal ‘starter’, I’ll put out bowls of olives and almonds; I’ll buy some good focaccia or fougasse and put it in a bread basket with some taralli or long bread sticks. I might make a dip but often buy some excellent Israeli hummus (Yardens) from Waitrose. This is what we did tonight.

The main was going to be a barbecue, as we’ve done for the past few weekends since the days have lengthened and grown warmer. It hadn’t been a particularly warm day and there’d even been some rain, but my son Jonathan wasn’t deterred and perhaps in answer to his positive spirit, come suppertime, the clouds began to loosen their hold on each other, blue sky glowed through the gaps and the sun made a faint but welcome appearance.

Lamb kofte had been requested, but as Waitrose lacked organic lamb mince when I went in first thing this morning, I grabbed packs of the venison burgers we had last week (which are great) and a pack of organic pork mince. Four-year-old Freddie had requested sausages; Jonathan had tried to convince him kofte were sausages. But Nonna (the grandsons call me Nonna – Italian for grandmother) would make sausages; real pork sausages! I followed my own recipe which I posted a few years ago (click here) and they were a great success.

For ages I’d been thinking of making individual open-crust apple pies. I used to make large open-crust pies when my kids were small but hadn’t for a long time. I fancied making them in a small size because it’s such a nice way to serve a dessert. In the end, while keeping the spirit of the ‘open-crust’ I decided to bake them in muffin tins so they were deep with plenty of filling, and I’d add some streusel topping.

 

Deep-filled Apple & Blueberry Tartlets with Streusel Topping – Makes 12

Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg (plus one extra for brushing pastry cases before cooking)

Filling

  • 425g dessert, eating apples
  • 100g blueberries
  • 1 dessertspoon caster sugar

Streusel Topping

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

 

 

Make the pastry first. This is an old Gary Rhodes recipe for sweet shortcrust pastry (very slightly adapted) that I’ve been using for years (probably at least 20!). It’s very reliable – and good. I like a rich shortcrust pastry. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and process until they come together into a ball. Gather the ball together and wrap in some clingfilm and put in the fridge for about quarter of an hour or so while you prepare the other ingredients.

 

Peel and core the apples; chop into fairly small cubes (about 1cm). I always use dessert apples to cut down on the amount of sugar that needs to be added. Put the apple pieces into a saucepan over a low heat with a very small amount of water (a couple of tablespoons) and cook, stirring frequently, until starting to soften but still holding shape. Tip in the blueberries and mix together. Take from the heat and set aside.

Make the streusel. Mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon and chopped almonds together. Add the cooled melted butter. Put in the fridge for just a few minutes while you prepare the pastry and filling.

 

Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface. Cut circles of pastry (I used a mug) and carefully lay each one in a greased cup in the muffin tin and press gently into the shape. Cut 11 more to fill the muffin tray. Lightly brush the bases with beaten egg to help stop the juices soaking through the pastry as it cooks, so the pastry stays crisp.

Spoon the apple and blueberry filling (draining off any residue liquid) into the pastry shells. Now crumble over the streusel topping. It’s a slightly strange mix; a bit doughy and solid, but it will crumble enough to sprinkle on top. It’s just a little topping; you don’t need to cover the apple (we’re not making little crumbles).

Put the tin into a preheated oven (200C/Fan 180/Gas 6) for about 25 minutes, or until nicely golden. Remove and allow to cool in the tin for 5 minutes.

Then carefully lift each out onto a cooling rack.

I prepared these a bit ahead of time. Come suppertime, while I was roasting little new potatoes in the oven and making a big salad, Jonathan barbecued the burgers and sausages.

When it came to dessert, I warmed the little tartlets through and served them with clotted cream.

They were wonderfully delicious; the pastry rich but light and slightly crumbly. The filling – which needs some pre-cooking as the tartlets won’t be in the oven for a long time – was perfect; not too sweet and the fruit cooked but holding shape. The lovely nutty streusel on top made them all the more special. They were a great hit and I’m pretty sure I’ll be making them again soon!

You Can Never Have Too Many Cookbooks

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Guilty cookbook addicts often say they really mustn’t buy another cookbook; they don’t need another cookbook. As shelves strain under the weight of heavy cookery tomes it’s easy to feel you must have enough. But of course you can never have enough. Not if you love cooking; love finding out about food and its history; love trying out new recipes. Not if you’re Travel Gourmet.

When I wrote about Food Writing recently, I was surprised that some people never use cookery books. Maybe it’s a generational thing; though I know my son and daughter (in their 30s) have lots of cookbooks too; cookbooks that are well used, for they are both great cooks. I certainly google recipes sometimes; I use the Internet a lot to research things I’m writing on the blog. But I use my books too. I love my books.

A couple of years ago when I thought I was moving, I decided I really had to do a cull of my cookbooks. I had well over 300. And that’s a lot of shelf space. I thought it would be difficult but in fact it proved easy. Well easy to shed about a third of them. I couldn’t part with over 200 and they are still on my shelves (photo above)!

The culling was easy because cookbooks do date (a major reason – aka excuse – for needing more!). Back in the late 1970s when I was getting married, having regular dinner parties, commissioning and editing cookbooks at work, the food one ate at home was very different to what people prepare now. The positive side was that things were still very seasonal. It’s hard to imagine but you couldn’t buy courgettes, parsnips, strawberries, and a whole load of other foods out of season. We’re so used to being able to buy anything we fancy now at any time of year and very few foods are truly seasonal – maybe asparagus in May and June, large marrows ripe for stuffing in August and September. But I think the positive side of seasonal is that the foods always seem so gloriously special when they’re only available for a limited time each year. The negative side of 70s cooking was the heaviness and richness of the food with large amounts of cream; lashings of wine and brandy. Well, I do still add wine rather a lot, it has to be admitted, but rarely cream. In fact, I’m even no longer very keen on rich, creamy desserts (except for gelato!).

Food in UK has come a long way in recent decades in terms of quality and knowledge. People travel so much more and discover the delights of other cuisines. It’s made us more fussy about what we eat at home but also more adventurous; it’s made us more aware of what’s authentic, what’s good quality.

I’ve heard it said that most people only use a handful of recipes from a cookbook; maybe only two or three. But for me cookbooks aren’t just about recipes; they’re about inspiration. What shall I cook, I think, for friendsfamilyor just to please me! I usually have something in mind … maybe I bought some special food, like the white asparagus recently, or want to cook a French meal, or a Greek meal, or an Italian meal for guests (I do prefer to keep to a theme; I’m not a fan of fusion). Or roast some lamb or a chicken but want to do something a bit special with it. I find cookbooks much more inspirational than the Internet. I’ll often gather ideas from different books and recipes (marking them with those colourful post-its)and create something myself, taking a little from this book and something else from another. Of course this comes from the confidence of many years of cooking. But I also like the information and personal notes that come with recipes in books; the author’s story. I like reading the books as well as following the recipes. And I think one finds particular cookery writers who appeal; who like the same kind of things as you; who do things in a way that resonates with you.

When I did my cull, I didn’t just throw out books because they were old; some were classics – the Elizabeth David books, Jane Grigson’s and Claudia Roden’s – and still relevant and much used. But the wonderful recipes you find in Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell and Diana Henry books, weren’t around when I was first cooking seriously. And then there are the books full of travelling: being taken from Venice to Istanbul by Rick Stein; being transported to Morocco with Ghillie Basan.

I really can’t do without cookbooks; and I’m always wanting to buy more! Maybe it’s because I just love books. As a child I read voraciously; my mother even told me off for reading too much! But I grew up and became a book editor (I am still a book editor!). I started collecting cookbooks when I was still at school, commissioned and edited cookbooks in my 20s and now I write a food and travel blog; one day I hope to write a book. And I’ll never have too many cookbooks!