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Thursday
Aug282014

back in tuscany

it’s been a few years since we were in italy but, after our week in croatia, we caught the overnight ferry from split and headed to tuscany. the reason for this visit was a family wedding in san gimignano (pictured above in the distance), but first we had my birthday to celebrate, which we decided to do this in florence.

some generously provided local knowledge meant that we had the perfect evening, which kicked off with cocktails at se.sto. this is a rooftop bar which is on the river arno and has fabulous 360 degree views over the city. we then walked over the river to il santo bevitore, for supper.

wow! we had such a lovely evening here – delicious and very affordable wine plus really fabulous food and friendly service. the restaurant is large and buzzy and we quickly settled in with a couple of glasses of franciacorta, an italian sparkling wine from lombardy which knocks the socks off prosecco.

onto food. we decided to start with pasta -  david chose riccioli pasta with spicy nduja and pecorino and i had fresh maccheroncetti with rabbit ragu, green olives and lemon zest. both dishes packed a flavour and, as we finished eating and pondered licking the plates , we talked how we could adjust our travel plans the following day so we could return (no chance, sadly!).

our secondi were equally delicious. stuffed (baby) calamari with acqua pazza, mussels, clams and tomatoes was my choice – the calamari filling was a rich combination of breadcrumbs with the sort of flavours you find in a bouillabaisse, which contrasted nicely with the rest of the dish’s light flavours and fresh taste of the sea. david’s choice was richer but equally lovely – veal belly with sweetbreads, cherries and potatoes. we finished with a crème brulee to share and walked slowly back to our hotel, enjoying the views over the river and of the floodlight ponte vecchio, feeling very full and very lucky to have such lovely times to share.

the wedding was obviously wonderful and the following day we had a great meal at fattoria la vialla, which was arranged by david’s sister (the beautiful bride). we ate under a fig tree, seated at long tables, covered in red and white checked tablecloths. doesn’t that sound heavenly? it really was.

i could obviously stop there and you could create your own italian fantasy in your mind, but i think it’s worth sharing a little more.

the tables were set out at the top of a steep path and when we arrived (a little late and slightly flustered) everyone was tucking into the aperitivos, which were served buffet style – a selection of their cured meats, cheeses, olives. we also tried some of the la vialla sparkling wines - i really recommend the unfiltered rose.

we then sat down, were provided with a mix of their red and white wines, and were served a selection of antipasti.  mixed crostini (i remember versions with chicken livers and  artichokes), panzanella, strips of a light herby omelette plus wonderfully fresh ricotta. linguine al pesto with mozzarella followed and then there was slow-cooked lamb, herby roasted potatoes and salad. pudding was a selection of biscotti with la vialla dessert wine. there was so much food and it was all delicious – a perfect way to showcase the range of food and wine sold by la vialla.

the plan was then to take a tour of the farm but i stayed at the table, with an abundant supply of biscuits and sweet wine plus plenty of friendly cats (in case i felt lonely).

however, i’m very pleased david went on the tour as he learnt something wonderful – la vialla mostly sell their products via mail order(this is how we have previously tried their food, christmas gift food parcels courtesy of david’s sister)  but they have one shop. in frankfurt. oh yes! needless to say, we have visited and stocked up, so we can recreate tuscany in germany, whenever we feel like it.

Wednesday
Aug202014

first encounters with croatia – exploring hvar

i’m sorry this has taken so long to pull together, but hopefully it’ll be worth the wait…

the first thing i noticed about eating and drinking on hvar was how much more expensive it was compared to split. this shouldn’t really have surprised me as i’d seen it described as a party island - the cannes of croatia – and the harbour in hvar town was home to some very large yachts, obviously owned by people with “cash to splash”. the other thing i noticed was that it wasn’t easy to find places “off the tourist trail” although admittedly we weren’t trying too hard, preferring instead to stumble from pool/beach to restaurant rather than exploring the smaller places on the island - tripadvisor scores were ever-present on restaurant doors, as were multilingual staff and groups of tourists. regardless of this we managed to eat and drink very well.

gariful, a restaurant located on the harbour and just where we were dropped off by our ferry from split, was our first stop. it was full of people who had obviously dressed up and were enjoying themselves, often with a tinge of sunburn to highlight their newness to the island and delight at the sunny weather – although most people looked a little nervous when walking across the restaurant’s glass floor, overlooking an aquarium!

i started with grilled calamari which was easily the best calamari i have ever eaten – the squid was so tender and, having been cooked over flames on a wood grill, was full of flavour. if you visit the restaurant i really recommend this as opposed to the fried calamari which they also offer, which is served as squid rings coated in batter, presumably having been deep-fried – i’m sure it would be equally tender but i doubt they could match the depth of flavour from the barbeque. david’s starter was octopus carpaccio, served with caper berries and pickled garlic; this was the prettiest looking dish and again it was beautifully tender and full of flavour. our main courses were less exciting but still good – seafood spaghetti for me (i’d have liked more seafood compared to pasta) and tagliata with chips, for david.

a better seafood pasta dish awaited me at giaxa - lobster linguine in tomato and wine sauce. i’d read about lobster linguine being a particular dish of the island and i knew i wanted to try it at some point. this was full of flavour and the presentation, sizzling in a hot pan and smelling fabulous, made it feel special. david’s main course was lamb pasticada served with proscuitto strudel. both of these dishes are local specialities (more of which, i’ll tell you in a moment) and hardly suited to a hot summer evening but we wanted to try them anyway and they were well cooked here. however, pudding was the standout dish – we shared a portion of hvar parfait (flavoured with almonds, raisins and lavender), served with wild orange jelly. this light dessert was made to showcase local ingredients and flavours, which it did fantastically.

now, back to the pasticada – this is traditionally a rich beef stew flavoured with wine, dried fruits and spices and more suited to wintery temperatures not least as it is served with gnocchi (which is sometimes stuffed, as we had at giaxa); apparently it is often served at weddings and other special meals. i tried a beef version at dalmatino and absolutely loved it. david also opted for gnocchi, this time served with truffles and pršut (the fabulous service at dalmatino was reflected in the advice given when he chose this, with our waiter explaining that the local ham is naturally salty and so shouldn’t be chosen it if that wasn’t okay). given the expected heaviness of both dishes we decided to keep our (entirely unnecessary) starters light – octopus carpaccio for me and a courgette version for david. both were delicious - my octopus was less beautiful to look at than the version i ate at gariful but had more flavour; the courgette slices were dressed with a little balsamic vinegar and garnished with finely grated hard cheese and pine nuts – really delicious. we had great wine advice here too, enjoying a wonderful red wine – a dingac from vedran kiridzija. this was the best value meal we had on the island.

our final meal in hvar town was at the golden shell, a slow food restaurant about which i’d read good things, but which was sadly very disappointing, not least as it was very salty (to be fair, so was the food at most places we ate but it was even more so here).

however, our final meal on the island was a lovely one – eaten on a terrace over-looking the ocean, at hotel podstine (we spent a few nights at amfora hotel, with its water-slide-and-over-flowing-multi-swimming pools, and then moved to hotel podstine, a smaller boutique hotel where i also had the most amazing massage). the particular magic of this meal was choosing the fish that was then  cooked on the smokey barbecue for us, while we watched from our table – i chose the pretty red scorpion fish, which was delicious. it was served with roasted vegetables and was a madly expensive meal but the perfect way to end our time in croatia.

Monday
Aug182014

courgette carbonara

 

courgettes are wonderfully versatile and during summer i always have some in – i love finding new things to do with them and while i have lots of recipes pairing them with pasta use of them in ribbon form is quite different. so pretty too.

the starting point was felicity cloake’s courgette carbonara recipe but i have tweaked things a bit. i found her recipe too rich and creamy, so reduced the cheese content while upping the lemon flavour and adding a pinch of chilli flakes.

if you feel like tweaking further, the only thing i’d say is to keep the red onion in – i did a batch without and it was definitely not as good as when it is added. extra vegetable content too.

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Friday
Aug082014

pfifferlinge

it’s pfifferlinge season here in germany and i’ve been enjoying using these golden chanterelle mushrooms in a variety of dishes. they have quite a mild flavour but are robust in texture, which means that you can use them in lots of different ways – it also means they take a little longer to cook than you might expect, so test as you go.

you have to spend quite a lot of time cleaning chanterelles - their gills are often filled with bits of twigs and dirt so you need to be patient and work through them one by one. however, the good news is you can clean them in advance and they will last a few days in the fridge once clean.

so, what have i been cooking with my pfifferlinge? i started off sautéing them in butter with some garlic and fresh thyme and used this as a filling for omelette or stirred through scrambled eggs. a second batch started in the same way but was finished with some fresh cream and served on top of toasted ciabatta. a similar approach, but with the addition of chilli flakes and lemon zest, plus parsley in place of the thyme, was stirred through some tagliatelle. my next plan is plans for a pfifferlinge and pancetta risotto.

any more ideas for me?

Thursday
Jul312014

negroni tredici

the negroni is one of my favourite drinks, not least because i love campari and all its bitterness. i think this links back to my childhood – i remember my mum drinking campari and soda and me being allowed, when we were on holiday at the lake, having a small splash in my lemonade (which obviously smoothed out all its rough edges) and feeling very sophisticated.

this is a different take on a negroni – quantities of all the ingredients are altered and the campari is reduced significantly while cynar, an artichoke-based bitters, is added.

cynar has a much richer flavour and the drinks reflects this – being smooth, richer and less refreshing than a negroni. i think this version is probably also good as a digestif, perhaps an alternative to my favourite old fashioned. interestingly, both the campari and cynar flavours come through despite the relatively small quantities used.

for each drink, stir with ice, 2 shots gin, 1 shot red vermouth, ¼ shot cynar, ¼ shot campari and a lemon zest twist. strain, discarding the lemon twist and serve over ice with an orange wedge for garnish.