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Cinnamon Kitchen’s Festive Menu

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It had been far, far too long since I’d taken the trip across London to one of my favourite restaurants: Cinnamon Kitchen. When I try to describe it to people who haven’t been there, it’s quite difficult to get across how special it is. To say it’s a ‘contemporary Indian restaurant’ doesn’t really do justice to the excellence of the food and the innovative cooking that takes Indian cuisine to new heights, so that it’s really not comparable to the average – even very good – Indian meal that many of us have been used to. It is, simply, fine dining of the best kind that happens to have an Indian base, set within a contemporary, modern dining room that always buzzes with a great atmosphere but also combines its relaxed ambience with excellent service as well as the great food.

Some clue to the creativity of the food lies in Head Chef Abdul Yaseen’s background, which I learnt about when I interviewed him a couple of years ago (click here). Coming to UK in 2001, he was inspired by the Western techniques he discovered here. By combining these discoveries with the roots of the Indian cuisine he’d grown up with, he was able to find new ways of using the spices and flavours so familiar to him. What that has grown into is a cuisine that is exciting and different; eating Abdul’s food is a wonderful experience of tastes and layers of tastes; a first flavour unfolding into a deeper one, then a deeper one still. He’s known particularly for his canapés and is called the King of canapés – even the Hairy Bikers went to him for advice a couple of Christmases ago for their TV Christmas special. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was the special canapé tasting menu at Cinnamon Kitchen (click here) three years ago.

Last night I headed to Cinnamon Kitchen with Annie and Jerry for our pre-Christmas get-together and feeling in a festive mood, we chose the special Festive Menu at 4 courses plus coffee and petit fours for £55. The mood all about us was a bit more excitable than usual with large groups at tables obviously celebrating Christmas. It was very, very busy. However, it didn’t affect service. We took the meal slowly and were there for almost 3 hours, but there was no point at which service seemed too slow or in any way hurried in its delivery at our table. The waiting staff were all attentive as usual, seemed genuinely keen that we enjoy our meal and enthused with us when we said we loved a dish. It was very nice to say hello to Abdul again and interesting to see that he regularly came out of the kitchen for a brief look around to check how things were going in the dining room and that everyone was happy.

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A lovely amuse-bouche came with the bottle of fizz we’d ordered, and then after a little while our starter – a platter of assorted kebabs: paneer, salmon, chicken and lamb fillet – arrived.

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These were so delicately spiced; the salmon gorgeously moist and the meats tender. A middle course of Wild African Prawn with a coconut and lemon grass sauce followed.

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This was quite magnificent! It was a huge prawn; a fabulous sauce over the perfectly cooked prawn meat. There was a choice of two main courses, one a lamb dish, but we all went for Tandoori Red Deer with Root Vegetables and Yogurt Sauce.

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We were asked how we wanted our deer cooked and we all went for medium-rare. Again, the spicing was delicate but delicious: the sauce a perfect accompaniment to the meat which also had a good, delicate flavour and wasn’t too gamey (I’m not a great fan of very gamey flavours); baby turnips, beetroot and carrot added a little sweetness and texture.

There was a choice of two desserts and fortunately for me Annie and Jerry chose different ones, so I got a taste of Jerry’s dark chocolate cake with lime and white chocolate mousse.

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It had been difficult to decide which dessert to have but although the chocolate option was lovely I was also pleased by my own choice of Caram Masala Christmas Pudding with Nutmeg Custard.

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This was a much lighter pudding than the traditional British one and wonderfully flavoured with a gorgeous custard.

It had been a wonderful evening: great company, fabulous food, happy and buzzing atmosphere. Leaving the restaurant and heading towards Liverpool Street Station and a bus home, it was very lively outside too; Christmas celebrations were in full swing all about us. A bus took us almost to Annie and Jerry’s door. Jerry offered a whisky nightcap. We sat and talked a while before bed and said what a great start to our festive celebrations the evening had been.

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Romanesco with Tomato, Anchovy, Garlic & Chilli

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A member of the brassica family of vegetables, Romanesco is sometimes called Romanesco broccoli, Roman broccoli and sometimes Romanesco cauliflower. It certainly has the taste of cauliflower raw when I tried a bit as I started cooking. What appeals to me is the wonderful lime-green colour and most amazing spiral florets that look like something that might have been painted by Escher, who was known for his mathematically inspired artwork.

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Doesn’t it look just amazing! Romanesco was first cultivated in Italy in the 16th century. I remember being so taken by a crate of it in a stall in Rome when I was last there that I took this photo.

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Of course the one I cooked tonight hadn’t travelled so far. Well, it might have done if I’d bought it in a supermarket (I’ve never seen one in a supermarket) but I bought it in a farm shop at the National Trust’s Osterley Park & Gardens on Sunday, where I’d gone for a walk and managed to just avoid getting caught in the rain.

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I’ve seen them recently in my local farmers’ market and as they’re in season now, I’ve come across some ‘Christmas’ recipes for them. Although I was excited by seeing the display in Rome nearly three years ago, I had seen them before – but not often. They seem to be finding popularity here now and one can see the appeal: isn’t nature just wonderful to come up with a vegetable that looks like this. Cooked, their taste lies somewhere between broccoli and cauliflower but is more delicate, nutty and sweet. You could use it for any recipe where you’d normally use cauliflower and it’s popular made into a pasta sauce in Italy where broccoli might normally be used. I wanted to cook it fairly simply and serve with the rest of the wonderful Italian sausages I bought at Corto Italian Deli last week (click here), and which I’d been storing in my freezer. I decided to lightly boil the Romanesco and make a sauce of fresh tomatoes, anchovy, garlic and chilli for it.

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The Romanesco florets broke away easily from the base and I put them in a saucepan with just enough water to cover, salted them, brought to the boil and simmered until just tender but still with quite a bite. Then I drained them, reserving a little of the cooking liquid. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, I gently fried 1 shallot sliced, 1 small garlic clove slice, 2 anchovy fillets and a good pinch of dried chilli flakes.

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Anchovies are often used in Italian sauces to bring depth of flavour and saltiness (I didn’t need extra salt for this dish), but don’t make it fishy. They soon break up as they heat and if you stir them and mash them down a bit, they just mix well with the other ingredients. Once they’re all well underway and starting to soften and cook through, add some chopped fresh skinned tomatoes and a good grating of black pepper. I only had small tomatoes in my fridge so used 4; otherwise use a couple of medium-sized ones.

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Once the tomato breaks down a bit add the drained Romanesco florets.

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Mix together well and add a little of the reserved cooking liquid from boiling the Romanesco. Let it bubble gently away for a couple of minutes or so, so that the Romanesco takes up the flavour of the sauce a bit. But don’t let it go soft. When ready, tip into a serving dish.

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I then grated over a good showering of Parmesan cheese.

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I had been grilling my sausages meantime. I’d decided not to serve any other vegetable or pasta with it but just some good country bread I had.

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It was really wonderful (so were those sausages too!). The Romanesco florets were cooked through but still retained a good bite. The accompanying sauce enhanced the Romanesco’s lovely flavour but didn’t overwhelm it. I’m definitely a fan of Romanesco and have got a good portion left over which tomorrow I plan to very gently re-heat and then mix with some freshly cooked orecchiette pasta for a quick supper – a good Puglian-style pasta dish.

A World of Pizza

Livio's Pizza di Napoli at Arte Chef

Livio’s Pizza di Napoli – a Margherita pizza – at Arte Chef

Pizza is an early street food. Street food is all the rage at the moment with markets popping up all over London, even well-established restaurants taking a stall, and offering the kind of wonderful food that’s only been seen before in places flung very wide of London. Street food when I was a kid was chips from a fish & chip shop, wrapped in newspaper, over which you’d shake a generous serving of salt and vinegar (malt, nothing posh). Now, like at the wonderful market near the Festival Hall I went to a week ago (click here), street food is a world event with Middle Eastern wraps, Asian curries, French cheeses, Spanish paella and pretty much any great dish you can name. But pizza … now that’s been around for ever. Well, maybe not ever, but probably longer than you’ve ever thought.

It was William at Tastes of Italy, when we met last week, who told me the story of a kind of pizza appearing in Virgil’s Aeneid. And Virgil lived between 70-19BC. In the Aeneid, Virgil’s hero Aeneas, who is sailing the seas with some mates, having escaped Troy, washes up on the shores of Italy near Naples. Having only some crusts of stale loaves left, they collect some ‘fruits of the field’ and lay then on top. A modern translation says: ‘setting out a feast upon the grass on broad flat bread, topped with their foragings’ (Virgil’s AENEID in Modern Verse by Howard Felperin). Interesting to see ‘foraging’ too; another fashionable thing today.

Going further back, however, Cato the Elder (234-149BC), who wrote the first history of Rome, talked of ‘flat rounds of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs and honey baked on stones’. The first record of the word ‘pizza’ actually being used goes back to 997AD at Gaeta, a port between Rome and Naples. This is an interesting point as probably the greatest pizza rivalry that has persisted through the centuries right up until today is that between Rome and Naples: the thin crust of Rome or the thick crust of Naples? For the non-aficionado pizza lover, it generally comes down to a personal preference. Though it may be an argument best avoided with an Italian. There is no one who can argue their regional corner like an Italian. There’s even talk of pizza coming from the Greeks who ate flat round bread (plakous) baked with toppings, and cooking flat bread on hot stones is thought to go back to the Stone Age.

Versions of ‘pizza’ may be found all over the world but there’s no denying that when we say ‘pizza’ we think ‘Italian’. And really, if you want a real pizza, don’t you want an Italian one? Yes, I’m biased, but then you know how much I love Italy! So, on our (very) little world tour let’s start in the pizza capital: Naples. I know I risk upsetting my Roman friends with that statement, but it’s generally accepted that The Pizza comes from Naples and UNESCO are considering adding the Neapolitan pizza to their cultural heritage list.

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Pizzeria di Matteo, via dei Tribunali, Naples

Pizzeria di Matteo, via dei Tribunali, Naples

When you go to Naples, eating pizza is not just about which kind to choose but where to eat it. Walk down the via dei Tribunali and you’ll find yourself in pizza heaven. Many favour Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo while my family’s favourite for many years has been Pizzeria di Matteo. When I first went there what struck me was the simplicity of the pizzas on offer. The two most popular pizzas in Naples are Margherita and Marinara. Margherita was the kind favoured by Queen Margherita, wife to King Umberto I (1844-1900). Promoting the Italian flag it contains the colours red, white and green: tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves. Even more simple though is the Marinara. Although its name suggests something fishy, it actually doesn’t contain any fish but just tomatoes, garlic and oregano and is said to have been a favourite for breakfast with local fisherman (hence the reason for its name). An authentic Neapolitan pizza must use San Marzano tomatoes, which are grown on the plains of Mount Vesuvius; the cheese should be local buffalo mozzarella. Pizzas in Naples are quite thick but also light, soft and fluffy; an absolute delight. The first time I went to Matteo I couldn’t believe that a pizza that looked so simple could taste so amazing. Luckily, I don’t have to rely on going to Naples to enjoy some great Neapolitan pizza but instead can go to my local Masaniello or Arte Chef.

Livio's Pizza di Napoli at Arte Chef

Livio’s Pizza di Napoli at Arte Chef

Head chef and co-owner of both restaurants, Livio, comes from Naples where his family run a pizzeria and he’s brought those skills to south-west London. (He also makes the most wonderful baba – another speciality of Naples, learned from his pastry chef mother.)

Rome

Pizza in Rome

Pizza in Rome

I was last in Rome in March 2012, staying with my friends Robert (he’s half Roman and has family there) and Jenny in their flat near San Giovanni. One night we went to Robert’s favourite local pizzeria for some genuine Roman pizza. Roman pizza is much thinner and more crispy than its Neapolitan cousin, and tends to be bigger – more rolling out of the dough!

Back at home, I have the choice of either one of Livio’s Neapolitan pizzas or one from Ruben’s Refettorio. The owner of Ruben’s, Igor, comes from Tuscany. His pizza perhaps fits somewhere between the ones from Naples and Rome: thicker than a Roman but more crispy than those from Naples.

Pizza Capricciosa at Ruben's Refettorio, Twickenham

Pizza Capricciosa at Ruben’s Refettorio, Twickenham

What’s really special about this is the glorious sourdough base which gives it a wonderful flavour. I can only say I like all these Italian pizzas I’ve mentioned and for me, the pleasure in eating comes not so much from where the pizza originates from, but the skill of the pizzaiolo – the pizza maker.

Milan

Pizze al taglio at Princi, Wardour Street, London

Pizze al taglio at Princi, Wardour Street, London

Pizza available by the slice – al taglio – is popular in Milan, where they’re often eaten in self-service restaurants or as a takeaway. I don’t think I ate pizza last time I was in Milan – back in around 2004 – but I’ve had the Milan experience at Princi in Soho’s Wardour Street in London (click here), which I was introduced to by my friend Lucia.

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Like most other Italian dishes, each region has its own variation; a variation the people of the region will be fiercely loyal to. In Liguria (home of focaccia), you’ll find pesto (which also originates from Liguria) used instead of tomato sauce. In Sicily they make a deep-dish pizza derived from sfincione, which is more like focaccia with a topping. Wherever you’re eating your pizza, you’ll find that Italians prefer to drink white rather than red wine with it or even beer.

France

Pissaladiere in France

Pissaladiere in France

We don’t usually connect France and pizza but their pissaladière is a popular and well-known dish that is made with bread dough – just like pizza. A dish that originates in Nice, the bread dough is typically topped with caramelised onions, garlic and anchovies, but sometimes tomatoes too. The photo above is of one I bought in a baker’s in Deauville for lunch last year. I have to say I feel it’s more of a tart than a pizza, but Claudia Roden classifies it as pizza in her Mediterranean Cookery book, and I guess with the bread dough that makes sense. The name is close to pizza too: ‘pissa – ladiere’. Whatever one calls it, it’s a wonderful, incredibly tasty dish.

Turkey

Lahmacun - meat pizza in Istanbul

Lahmacun – meat pizza in Istanbul

This Turkish version of pizza is served on a very thin dough – sometimes more like a cracker – and has no cheese but a meat topping (usually lamb), often spiced up with chilli and served with salad. It’s usually sold as a street food and is sometimes rolled up to make it easier to eat on the go. It originates from the south-east province of Gaziantep; the photo above was taken at the entrance to Istanbul’s spice bazaar last year (click here).

Well, maybe a world tour was a bit ambitious, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea that pizza – or perhaps more precisely, bread dough with toppings – is not just something we find in Italy. Though for me, pizza really does equal Italy! But it’s true of so many things, that what seems a speciality of one region pops up in all kinds of other places in a slightly different form.

Chestnut Soup with Croutons & Bacon

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Inspired by the menu at Brula on Saturday evening and that three of our party chose chestnut soup, I decided to make some for lunch yesterday. Chestnuts are in season at this time of year – from about October through December. Originally from more southern climates, Sweet Chestnut trees were brought to England and planted extensively as landscaping trees in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now they are seen widely in open areas and parks and are, of course, not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut tree which provides conkers. Sweet, edible chestnuts are often sold roasted from stalls in markets and on streets at this time of year. Popular at Christmas, they’re used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Their sweet woody flavour lends itself well to partnering Brussels sprouts (especially for Christmas dinners), and cabbage or mushrooms. I’ve put them in venison stews and they go well with other kinds of game; on the blog I’ve cooked them with chicken (click here) or as a pasta sauce with mushrooms and bacon (click here). As a sweet purée – marrons glacés – they’re often served in cakes, with meringues and cream (Mont Blancs); they’re good with chocolate and I’ve eaten chocolate roulades with a chestnut purée and cream filling. They can even been made into flour – a use popular with the Romans. The foragers amongst you will love being able to go out and collect your own and I’ve seen bags of them available in greengrocers. I have been known to roast sweet chestnuts – in the oven, not a romantic open fire – and deal with the painstaking job of peeling them. But ‘life’s too short’ … well it is if you’re planning to cook with them rather than eat them straight from a fire on a winter’s night … and who wants to go to all the trouble of preparing them when you can buy rather wonderful ready-prepared ones in packs from Merchant Gourmet.

Making the soup was a sudden fancy. I knew I had a packet of chestnuts in my cupboard and some bread for croutons but then liked the idea of some bits of bacon to garnish it and, of course, a nice dash of cream at the end. So I went to the nearest shop – a Tesco Express just down the road, where I bought some of their Finest bacon (i.e. their best kind) and a pot of single cream. This may seem like an awful lot of trouble to make a snack lunch but this is what I love doing: cooking well and trying out new things. For me it’s relaxation. I did actually have to catch up on some of the ‘day job’ yesterday but a few minutes spent getting my soup under way and then eating it for lunch … well, that’s a bit of gourmet heaven to me!

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I only had one pack of chestnuts (200g) and as I was taking chicken stock from the freezer to make the soup, I only wanted to make a fairly small amount as I don’t like to risk re-freezing stock (this recipe gave 2-3 servings). First of all I chopped 1 small onion, 1 stick of celery, 1 carrot and a medium potato. I put them in a large pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and cooked gently until the vegetables started to soften. Then I added the chestnuts and a good pinch of dried thyme.

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I stirred it all round and poured over about a pint (600ml) chicken stock, brought it all to the boil and then gently simmered for about half an hour. Meanwhile I prepared the croutons. I cut a thick slice from a 2-day old sourdough loaf, cut off the crusts and cut the bread into large cubes.

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Then I cut 1 slice of back bacon into small pieces and fried them in a small pan with no extra fat. Once they were nicely brown I transferred to a small dish. I think streaky bacon might have worked better and given a crispier bacon for a garnish but streaky hadn’t been a Finest option in the little Tesco.

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Now I poured some olive oil into the pan and scraped the bacon bits for flavour. Then I threw in the bread cubes and fried, turning to brown all sides.

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I transferred these to a dish and then went back to the soup. Half an hour gone and I used a hand blender to blend the soup as smoothly as I could.  It was quite thick but I like thick soup; you can always add a little more stock or hot water if you want to thin it. Now I poured in some single cream (maybe about 100ml) and stirred it all together with some black pepper and a little salt. You don’t want too much salt if you’ve used salted stock, but after the cream has gone in taste and check the seasoning is right for you.

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It was pretty fabulous (she says modestly!). A good deep chestnut flavour. The soffrito base – the other vegetables gently fried at the beginning – and the stock had given the soup a foundation of great flavour, but didn’t overpower the chestnuts. At the end, the cream adds a wonderful touch of silky luxury.

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Serve it with some of the croutons and bacon pieces on top and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil. It made a great lunch but would also be a wonderful starter for a Christmas meal. And while you could make it at any time of year with ready-prepared chestnuts, I can’t imagine eating it in the summer as it seems such a perfect winter dish and, of course, a very special one for the Christmas celebrations that will be soon upon us.

Brula’s Christmas Season Set Menu

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We’re so lucky in Richmond/Twickenham to have this great little French bistro on our doorstep. When I saw the set menu for the Christmas season in Brula’s regular e-newsletter, I said to Jonathan that we must go along. As it turned out, Lyndsey’s parents were visiting from Wales so five of us braved the sudden winter chill to head out on a cold and frosty night – a 15-minute walk or short bus ride for me; a short drive for them. There was ice already on the road and pavements as I carefully made my way, wrapping my new winter coat with its furry hood around me. But oh what a warm welcome when I arrived. The friendly staff, the warm glow in the restaurant with its low lighting and the beautiful stained-glass windows adding a glorious colour. And some fizz waiting for us from owner Lawrence Hartley who knew I was coming, having now interviewed him early on in the blog’s life (click here), seen Brula through some special menus, its taking over of the café at Strawberry Hill House (click here) and, of course, his and Tim Healy’s (of A Cena), ownership of my favourite Joe Allen in Covent Garden a couple of years ago (click here). Lawrence and Tim seem to have managed a good job of owning some of my favourite restaurants between them. But at least I know they’re in safe hands!

Brula is where I go when I crave something French; Brula transports me to a corner of Paris and its menu and food do justice to that claim. It has won many accolades in recent years and is a firm favourite with locals. Its à la carte menu is wonderful but we’d decided before going to opt for the seasonal set menu at £25 for 3 courses. Jonathan was having a hard time choosing; he’d need to come at least twice, he told me. He changed his main course choice just when the waitress thought she had all the orders; he changed his dessert choice after his main course, but the waitress took it in her stride and with a smile said it was no problem. Though when Jonathan saw the Sticky Toffee Pudding at the next table he wondered whether a last-minute change to the cheese had been a good move.

Service at Brula is ‘service with a smile’ in the best possible way: it’s efficient, unobtrusive and friendly so you feel at ease, comfortable and well looked after. It was busy; the restaurant full. There was that wonderful buzz that comes from happy people eating well and, we noticed, a mix of ages. It was Jonathan who noticed a number of tables with people of his age while there were also tables with people of my age. It’s nice to have a mix. It’s a good sign in a restaurant.

The set menu offers a choice from three starters, three main course and two desserts or cheese. We all went with different starters: Lyndsey and her parents having the Cream of Chestnut Soup, which they said was very good.

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Jonathan chose Chicken Liver Parfait with Onion Marmalade. This was gorgeous – I know because he gave me a taste after telling me it was stunning. The parfait was incredibly smooth, light and creamy with a wonderful flavour. It was served with toasted brioche.

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I’d chosen Salmon Gravadlax with Mustard & Dill Dressing. I’d hovered between this and the parfait. How to choose! I briefly thought that it was so easy to buy gravadlax that the parfait would be a better choice. But I’m so glad I went with the salmon because really you don’t buy gravadlax this good in the supermarket. It had a wonderful texture and taste. It’s one of my favourite things and I really enjoyed it.

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When it came to main courses we all had the same. I’d dithered slightly between Grilled Sea Bass with Raisins & Pine Kernels; Jonathan was all set to have Pork Belly with Brussels & Chestnuts until a last-minute swerve of direction led him to the Duck Leg with Spiced Red Cabbage & Honey Roast Parsnips along with the rest of us.

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I love duck but don’t often think to buy it. This was cooked perfectly, just how I like it: the meat falling from the bone, the skin so tasty and crisp it was delicious to eat too. Parsnips walk that fine line when cooked between underdone and mushy soft: these were perfect with their firmness yet cooked all the way through, their honey glaze adding to the sweetness. Spiced red cabbage is a classic accompaniment; classic because it works so well. It was a lovely dish and brought a nice touch of Christmas with it.

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Four of us had chosen Chocolate Pot with Walnuts for our dessert. Chocolate pots can suffer from being too heavy and slightly cloying but this one had managed to achieve all that gorgeous deep chocolate taste you crave yet have a pleasant lightness to it, making it all the more delicious.

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As I said above, Jonathan had been going to have Sticky Toffee Pudding but then changed his mind and had Stilton with Cranberry Compote. He was very happy with his final choice but I think there’s still going to be a move to return to Brula to try other choices before the menu ends at Christmas!

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We drank an excellent bottle of Corbières (Syrah and Grenache) with the meal. And I love the way Brula always serves tap water (which we’d asked for rather than a bottle) in a jug to leave on the table, with fresh mint leaves in it, adding a nice freshness but not the acidity of lemon slices. Lyndsey and I were the only takers for coffee. I do like to have a good coffee at the end of meal; the meal feels somehow unfinished to me without it. Coffee at Brula comes in lovely old cups and saucers; mine was different to Lyndsey’s. It reminded me that I’d started a collection of old cups and saucers when we had the family holiday in Normandy a couple of years ago, and I bought some more from the same place last year when I went back to the area. This is one of the nice, extra touches that makes Brula special. Another great touch was that Jonathan had noticed at a nearby table that a couple drinking an Alsace Pinot Noir had been given special and very pretty glasses appropriate for this type of wine. Since Pinot Noir is his favourite grape I think we may be heading back for that some time!

We’d all had a great evening and were so warmed by good food, good company and a lovely atmosphere, it really didn’t seem so bad venturing out into the icy cold again to go home.

Why don’t you sign up to receive Brula’s newsletter for news of seasonal menus, events and other offers at www.brula.co.uk?

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Pane di Natale: 7 Italian Breads for Christmas

Christmas breads at Corto Italian Deli, Twickenham

Christmas breads at Corto Italian Deli, Twickenham

The blog is a constant source of joy, not least because it’s led me to meet some lovely people: other bloggers, chefs and restaurateurs who have been willing to let me interview them (click here), owners of food shops and cafes, and today two other people who are as enthusiastic about Italy and Italian food as me. William Goodacre founded Tastes of Italy (click here) in 2000, specialising in cookery and wine tours; Dorcas Jamieson handles their PR. Dorcas got in touch to suggest we all meet, telling me that William was a ‘font of knowledge’ about Italy and Italian food. How better to spend nearly two hours on a Friday morning than talking about Italy and food, and especially Venice and Venetian food, over coffee. I had a great time and was surprised and so pleased when William gave me a gift at the end of a small panettone and a pandoro from Cova, one of Milan’s oldest pasticcerie. Cova opened in 1817 next door to the famous Teatro alla Scala and Giuseppe Verdi was a regular patron. After World War II, when the building was bombed, the shop moved to via Monte Napoleone.

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It was William’s idea that I might write about some Italian breads popular at Christmas. We’re all familiar here now with panettone – every supermarket seems to have some – but this is just one of Italy’s popular celebration breads. We’d talked a lot about the differences between each region of Italy, from the people to their food. A food with the same name – pizza being the most obvious example – can vary enormously from one region to another: the thin, crispy pizza dough of the Romans compared to the thick, soft dough of the Neapolitans. Special breads also vary from the soft, light panettone of Milan to the heavy, rich panforte of Siena in Tuscany. You might say a panforte is hardly a bread – but all the breads/cakes I’m going to talk about here stem from the Italian word ‘pane‘ – bread: panettone, pandoro, panforte, pangiallo, panpepato, panspeziale and pandolce.

1. Panettone

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This is the Italian Christmas bread we are most familiar with in UK. Originating in Milan, it is a brioche-type soft sweet bread filled with candied fruit and peel (although other versions, especially chocolate, are also found nowadays). Panettone was a favourite of Verdi’s wife who liked to eat it warm, straight from the oven, at Cova. Their recipe is a jealously guarded secret but is basically flour, yeast, sugar, butter, eggs and candied fruit. Their website (click here) gives useful information about the best way to keep your panettone: in a warm dry place (cold and damp will harden it), and they recommend warming it on a radiator or before a fire for half an hour before eating it to bring out its full fragrance. For many years now, it has been a tradition for my family to eat panettone – with good coffee, of course – for breakfast on Christmas Day while we open presents and there are always carols playing in the background. It therefore has a special and happy significance for me. (Which reminds me, I must go and buy that panettone!) When I tried the panettone from Cova that William gave me it was particularly delicious: beautifully fragrant and moist.

2. Pandoro

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This is another classic Italian Christmas cake. Made with flour, yeast, sugar, butter, cocoa butter and eggs, it is golden in colour (hence its name: pane – bread; d’ – of; oro – gold) and icing sugar is sprinkled over it just before serving. The pandoro from Cova that William gave me came with its own little packet of icing sugar! Cova say it can be eaten at any time of day and recommend that it makes a delicious dessert served with mascarpone cheese. It’s baked as a tall cone shape with 8 ridges that give the appearance of a star at the base. Pandoro originally came from Verona and a recipe for it was patented in 1894. However, it dates back much further to the Middle Ages when only the rich could afford to eat sweet breads – thus the ‘gold’ name has another meaning: you needed ‘gold’ to buy it!

3. Panforte

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Panforte is a dense, heavy cake filled with fruits, nuts and spices and a speciality of Siena in Tuscany. I remember my first experience of eating this was in my early twenties when my boss at the time (an editor at Methuen) brought some back from Siena for me; he’d bought a villa there and also brought back a bottle of the first extra virgin olive oil I ever tasted.  I remember being quite startled by its green colour. But then this was the boss who got me editing and commissioning cookery books so he knew of my love of food and cooking. Panforte goes back to Medieval times and records from 1205 show it being paid to nuns and monks at a monastery as a tithe (tax). Antonio Carluccio in his recipe for it in his Italia book says it came via the port of Pisa with the introduction of new spices that arrived from afar.

4. Pangiallo

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Pangiallo means literally yellow bread: pan – bread, and giallo – yellow. It’s a rich fruit cake made with raisins, nuts and spices that comes from the Lazio region of Italy, where Rome is situated. It dates from the imperial era of Ancient Rome and was handed out at the time of the Winter Solstice – just before Christmas – in order to encourage the sun to return and has a thin layer of golden crust to represent the sun.

5. Panpepato 

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This is similar to panforte but a kind of gingerbread cake with the addition of black pepper (pan – bread; pepe – pepper) and honey and sometimes chocolate. It comes from the province of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, dating back to the 15th century, although it probably originated earlier in Siena as a predecessor of panforte.

6. Panspeziale

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Also known as Certosino, Panspeziale is a Christmas cake dating back to the Middle Ages made by the Carthusian monks of Bologna, prepared by their apothecaries (pharmacists of the time). I even found a reference to it being called ‘apothecary bread’. The word ‘spezie‘ means spices and the recipe for Panspeziale (Certosino) made at the famous food shop in Bologna, Paolo Atti & Figli

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… contains honey, candied fruit, stewed fruit, jam or fruit pickles, shelled almonds, pine nuts, cocoa powder, dark chocolate and wine syrup. Some recipes use more spices – as you’d expect from the name – maybe cinnamon, cloves and star anise.

7. Pandolce

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This sweet bread (pan – bread; dolce – sweet) is made from raisins, pine nuts and candied fruit and comes from Genoa, capital of the Liguria region that is in the western most part of northern Italy, bordering France. Dating from the 16th century, this Italian Christmas cake most closely resembles our own and there is a tradition of making ‘Genoa Cake’ in UK, but an important and vital difference is the use of yeast as a rising agent in pandolce rather than baking powder, and thus the ‘dough’ must be left to rise like bread.

I’ve had great fun looking at these Italian Christmas breads and cakes and offer a big thanks to William for the idea for this post. There are other special Italian sweet breads, of course, but these are ones particularly popular at Christmas. The first three – panettone, pandoro and panforte – are the ones most easily found in UK. Maybe if you venture into somewhere like Soho in London where there are specialist Italian stores, you might find others. Locally, I ventured down to Corto Italian Deli in Church Street, Twickenham this morning to talk to Romina and took some photos of their Christmas display. And, of course, I had to stop and have a cappuccino and a slice of panettone!

Buon Natale!

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Sweet Potato, Spinach, Tomato & Feta Frittata

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After my last frittata post, I thought I really must have these wonderful Italian versions of omelette more often for supper. They’re so quick and easy to make. As long as you have eggs – and most people have some eggs to hand – you can then add a variety of things from your fridge: all kinds of vegetables, perhaps with some bacon or ham or bits of cold chicken leftovers or one of those gorgeous Italian sausages I bought last week crumbled up or sliced, or any cheese that will soften and go a bit gooey. When I had the wonderful frittata for lunch at Butter Beans cafe recently, I really loved the mix of sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and feta and thought I must try to reproduce that some time. Well tonight I got round to it!

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I usually have all these things in my fridge – perhaps not always fresh spinach to hand but certainly all the others: sweet potatoes, feta, tomatoes, shallots and, of course, eggs! I’ve recently discovered handy small packs of feta (120g) in Waitrose which are an ideal size for one. I needed to cook the potato first as it wouldn’t work raw in the frittata, so I peeled it and cut it into chunks and boiled it until the pieces were just tender. I drained them and when cool enough to handle, cut into thick slices.

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I’d planned to use 6 eggs, which would be enough for two people and for me would leave a portion to have cold (or reheated) with salad for lunch tomorrow. I only had 4. I don’t run out of eggs but I do sometimes run out of 6! Four would have to do. I broke them into a jug, added a dash of milk as I like to do to lighten the mix (see The Beauty of a Simple Omelette) and some salt and pepper. At the last minute I beat it all together with a fork. But meanwhile, I finely sliced 1 shallot and started softening it a pan with some olive oil (about 2 tablespoons). You need a reasonably deep omelette pan as you’re about to make a deep frittata. Next I cut 2 small tomatoes in half and added them, then the sliced cooked sweet potato.

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I wanted the tomato to cook slightly to soften and also lightly brown both sides of the potato, to give an extra caramelised taste to the finished dish. Once these were ready, I turned the tomatoes over and crumbled in half the feta.

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I’d blanched a big handful of spinach leaves in salted water for just a minute or two until it started wilting and had then drained it. I now added that to the pan.

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All the while, the pan was over a gentle heat and I could see the edge pieces of feta start to melt and go creamy. I mixed the ingredients very slightly and very gently with a fork, spreading out the spinach a bit, then added the beaten eggs. Don’t be tempted to stir or play with it; just leave it to gently cook.

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After a few minutes – maybe 5? – you’ll see the edges are cooked and you can lift one side carefully with a spatula. If it’s nicely browned underneath you’re ready for the final step. First though, I grated over a good amount of Parmesan.

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There are different views about how to finish the frittata off. Traditionally in Italy the frittata is turned over – you can turn it over onto a plate and then slide it back into the pan to cook the other side. Some people put it in an oven to finish off (assuming of course you’ve used an ovenproof pan). My preference this evening was to put it under a hot grill (I had to protect my handle). This is really an easy method and you get a fabulous result with the final frittata puffing up slightly and browning nicely.

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Now you can slice it. This was quite nicely thick and sliced well. I served it with a side green salad.

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As a supper dish it’s very flexible. For a family or feeding friends you could use a larger pan and as many eggs as you like – maybe 10. And as I said at the beginning, you can experiment with different fillings – or just add whatever is lurking in your fridge and will go together well. This combination was wonderful – just as I’d liked it at Butter Beans. By almost layering the ingredients they all kept their individual identities: the sweet soft potato a perfect foil to the salty feta cheese, a tang of slightly metallic spinach and the acidity of the tomatoes balancing it all. It was SO tasty! And no, I didn’t eat it all. More than half but a good portion was left over for lunch tomorrow.

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