It’s been a long time – 3 years! – since I wrote up my own Top Ten Cookery Books and since then I’ve often thought I should add more from time to time. I’m a cookbook addict and am always adding to my already huge collection because fashions in cooking change and while I hold on to some books from many years ago, for reference or just pure nostalgia, I rarely use them. So, I’ve got a few new ones I’d like to write about but today I’m going to begin with three books that fit more into the ‘food & travel’ category.
Since coming back from Crete at the end of September, friends keep asking, Where are you going next? Well, I don’t usually travel over the winter and it’s often around my birthday time in April that I start to clock up my air miles and head off to pastures new, although also quite often to old pastures in the shape of favourite places. And April is the time of year I just love going to Venice, one of my very favourite places. So, after fielding the ‘where are you going next’ question yet again over lunch with a friend a couple of days ago, I started to feel restless and decided I just had to have a trip to look forward to in 2015. And well, I didn’t go to Venice last year so it must really be time to go again. It took just a matter of minutes to book my BA flight and a room at the lovely Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo.
Now, of course, when you go to somewhere often, one of the attractions is the familiar: in Venice it’s the warm welcome of Walter and Sandro at the hotel (where I’ve now stayed five times in the last eight years); it’s knowing where to go for that first glass of prosecco and plate of ciccheti by the Grand Canal when you arrive; and it’s being able to wander round without having to consult a map all the time. But, of course, it’s still nice to find new places and this is where Jonglez Publishing‘s ‘Secret’ series comes into its own.
I first heard about the ‘Secret’ books from my Italian teacher, Fabio, who told me about the Rome one when I last went there in March 2012. I didn’t actually buy the Rome book as I was travelling with friends who have an apartment there and they would be my guides, but when I next went to Venice – with Annie in April 2012 – I did buy the Secret Venice book then. These books help you find places off the beaten tourist tracks that you’d normally miss: hidden gardens and houses, small specialist shops, stunning sculptures, beautiful small churches tucked out of easy sight and maybe with a gem of a painting you’d otherwise not see, and many other interesting places. Of course, if it’s your first time in Venice then you’ll want to see the famous sites but when you’ve been a few times – or indeed many times! – it’s fun to find some different places which are only usually known to the locals. These are guides written by local people and take you on fabulous tours around unknown parts of the city. (Also available for Italy: Secret Rome, Secret Milan and Secret Tuscany.)
Now, I think I know Italian food pretty well for a non-Italian but I can still find myself flummoxed by an Italian menu where dishes can’t be straightforwardly translated. The Menu Guide in my little Dorling Kindersley Italian Phrase Book is quite good but a few months ago – mostly due to writing up Italian recipes on the blog – I felt I needed something a bit more comprehensive, so bought the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion. Now I can look up all those ‘alla‘ recipes; all those in the manner of ‘Norma’ (tomatoes and aubergine sauce), or ‘Cacciatora’(‘hunter style’ sauce with tomatoes, mushrooms and peppers) or ‘busara’ (breadcrumbs, tomatoes, parsley and white wine). I can look up different types of coffee so I know that if I branch out from either an espresso or cappuccino, I will find that a ristretto is an even shorter, more intense espresso, while a caffe corretto will be ‘corrected’ with a shot of grappa or sambuca or brandy. Food can have a whole language of its own, so don’t be caught out by not understanding the menu.
Now this last book is quite big so not a book to travel with like the first two. But it’s become something of an Italian food bible to me since writing the blog. I’m a great fan of Antonio Carluccio and have a few of his books, but this one, Antonio Carluccio’s Italia, is fantastic for getting a background to the food and wine of each region of Italy. The book is divided into the regions and Carluccio introduces each one with a general introduction to its location, history and geography and what it’s like. Then come ‘culinary traditions and specialities’ and clearly laid out are guides to typical regional dishes, local cheeses and wines and some recipes for the most famous dishes. It’s a fabulous reference book and full of wonderful photos too.
Have you got any favourite books of Italian food or travel that you’d like to share? Please let me know!
Leeks are in season – they’re available and best eaten November until April – but the ones I’ve seen in the supermarket have been so ridiculously expensive, I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy any. What on earth is this all about? Once £4.99 for 3 large leeks. But then I saw a nice bunch (4 good-sized organic leeks) in Sainsbury’s for £2 and that seemed a bargain. So I bought them. I thought I’d make soup. Now winter is coming, albeit slowly, I’ve taken to often eating soup for lunch and it’s nice to have a selection of homemade soups, packaged up in single portions, waiting in my freezer. But then I remembered that my son, Jonathan, who gets a weekly delivery of seasonal vegetables and fruits delivered to his house by Abel & Cole, had told me he likes making leek risotto. Well, I’ve made a lot of risottos – as regularly readers of the blog will know – in my time, but never with leeks. How do you make it, I asked him. Do you cook the leeks separately to the rice and mix in at the end? No, he said, he cooks it all together. And when I explored the internet a bit and looked at what others do, that seemed to be the general method. Why make extra washing-up, I thought. Throw it all together. So I did.
As I was cooking just for myself, I picked out the nicest looking leek and turned the other three, with some carrots, into a soup at lunchtime. Come evening, I halved my saved leek lengthwise and then finely sliced it. In a saucepan, I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil and an equal amount of butter. I usually use mainly olive oil in my cooking but leeks call for butter, I think.
Once they’d nicely softened – but not browned – I add half a cup of risotto rice and turned it until all the rice was well coated. Then I add a good glug of white wine and let it all bubble up until the wine was absorbed.
I’d thought about whether I should add anything else, perhaps some herbs, but decided to keep things simple and just celebrate the lovely flavour of leeks. Leeks and ham are a common match but in honour of the Italian theme (even if this isn’t an ‘Italian’ recipe) with the ‘risotto’ I thought I’d use prosciutto, not English ham (I rarely, anyway, eat English ham). And while at first I thought I’d add strips to the risotto, I went off the idea, keeping with that ‘pure leek’ idea and decided to crisp up the prosciutto and lay it on top of the finished risotto.
I finished off the risotto by adding chicken stock (from my freezer; not a nasty cube!) slowly, stirring frequently to get that nice creamy texture. When the rice was cooked al dente, I turned the heat off, added a lump of butter and a little freshly grated Parmesan and put the lid on. Then I prepared the crispy prosciutto. I’d thought of grilling it; in recipes I looked at, cooking slices in the oven for about 15 minutes seemed a popular method; but I didn’t want to heat up the oven for 2 slices of prosciutto. Instead, I put 2 very thin slices into a dry, non-stick frying pan and cooked over a medium heat, turning very carefully halfway through.
Once done and crisping up, I transferred to drain on some kitchen towel. Then I stirred the melted butter and Parmesan into the waiting risotto and transferred to a serving dish. I laid the crispy prosciutto carefully on top and grated over a little more Parmesan.
I served it with a simple salad of baby leaves and mixed heritage tomatoes on the side. It was all so simple but really delicious. The reason, of course, that leeks go so well with ham (a classic combination) or, in this case, prosciutto, is the perfect match of the sweet leeks with the salty ham. I thought it worked really well to keep the tastes separate though: the soft, creamy leek risotto and the crisp, salty ham; a great combination but each retaining its own identity. Gorgeous! So easily made; so wonderfully enjoyed!
I hadn’t planned to write about The Pavilion Cafe in Victoria Park, east London, but by the time I’d tasted some of their food and drunk a great coffee, I thought it was an opportunity not to be missed for the blog. My friend Elsa has just moved and her new home overlooks the park. It’s an area vaguely familiar to me from the days I lived in Islington, but that’s almost 30 years ago, so things have changed quite a bit since then. This part of east London has undergone a noticeable gentrification, which is evident not only in this cafe, but the small ‘village’ nearby – known as either Hackney village or Lauriston village – with its smart restaurants, shops and cafes. The park itself underwent a smartening up with the Olympics in 2012, not to mention the improved public transport services making it a good deal more accessible than when I lived that side of London.
I arrived in torrential rain last night, slightly flustered from getting lost in the one-way system and having to be saved (yet again!) by my iPhone. I really must take to using its sat nav option, as my family do, but I thought I was returning to a kind of home ground and would just instinctively find my way. Big mistake! However, it was lovely to arrive and see Elsa’s new home. She’d invited some other friends too for supper and had cooked us a Tunisian meal – she’s Italian but was brought up in Tunisia – starting with some delicious brik (stuffed pastry parcels), followed by a fabulous fish couscous. It was all so wonderful I would have photographed it for you if not wary of frightening friends from inviting me to supper if they had to worry that I was going to blog their cooking! So you’ll just have to take my word for it – you would have loved it!
Yesterday’s awful weather turned into sun today, though early it was still a little dull, as you can see in the photo above. We walked in the park for a while then stopped at The Pavilion Cafe for brunch. I didn’t want a huge amount as we’d had some cereal earlier but then my thought that I only wanted coffee and a croissant faltered when I saw the food on offer.
Elsa suggested we share, so we ordered Eggs Royale (a kind of Eggs Benedict but with smoked salmon rather than ham), which came in two halves (one each!) and a croissant. We placed our order and then found a table to sit at outside. It was very busy but we managed to get seats right by the edge of the lake, which was lovely.
Our egg dish arrived and when we asked for an extra knife and fork as we were sharing it, the waiter kindly offered to bring an extra plate too.
This was fabulous: perfectly poached eggs covered in a gorgeous hollandaise sauce, on thick slices of delicious smoked salmon and English muffins. We followed these with coffee and croissant.
The coffee was excellent; the croissant was fantastic. It has the taste and buttery, flaky texture of a croissant from a good bakery, not a baked-from-frozen croissant, as you get in some cafes. This was the real thing. Next time I’m going back hungrier! It a wonderful cafe selling top-notch food and just how lucky is Elsa to have it almost literally on her doorstep.
It was such a lovely place to sit on a Sunday morning. When we’d finished we headed through the park to the canal and walked on quite a bit further before looping back to Elsa’s home. There was a lot of activity as we went: cyclists rushing along the towpath, football matches in the park, joggers racing past us, families heading to the playground with kids. And our coffee and snack at the cafe had made it just a perfect kind of Sunday morning.
It’s well known amongst my family and friends that my favourite coffee house/cafe is Butter Beans (formerly Taylor St Baristas) in Richmond. Why else would I travel two and a half miles at least once a day, and often twice, for a cup of coffee unless it wasn’t just good, but wonderful! Butter Beans has been my favourite cafe for about four years, since Time Out voted it Best Coffee in West London, not long after it opened as the first Taylor St Baristas (a small, independent chain). Now it’s fully independent, owned 100% by Kiwi, Alese Butter (hence Butter Beans), who has been running it since its opening. It remains much the same, although over the four years since I – with Time Out‘s help – discovered it, there are have been big changes and improvements. Not least was moving from the back of a deli one side of Richmond station to its own proper cafe-type site the other side of the station, three years ago. Once in its new site, it really came into itself and the cafe’s own character was able to develop.
This is a comfort stop: the decor is simple and rustic; brightened with bold red walls on one side and a changing display of artists’ works. It’s a bit funky; this is a place to chill out (although, like every other cafe in London, also a meeting place for people having work meetings – this is what comes of people not having their own offices any more). The most important thing, of course, is the coffee.
When I first tasted their coffee, it was a revelation. I hadn’t tasted coffee like that since being in Rome. Now, four years on, there are artisan coffee houses everywhere and the coffee world has undergone a revolution and grown into a new kind of ‘wine’ world: people go to coffee tastings; they discuss the best means of preparing a particular bean; fashion has changed from cappuccinos to flat whites, to cortados and now everyone talks about ‘drips’. Being a loyal kind of person – even if that makes me unadventurous in the coffee stakes – I tend to stick to my usual flat white. Though occasionally I go off piste and want a cappuccino or piccolo (Butter Beans’ version of cortado). This often causes momentary confusion as they know me so well, they’re almost making my usual as I walk through the door. In fact, in the evening after a meal (thanks to training by Italians who would never drink cappuccino after 11am or food!), I never drink white coffee, always black; sometimes an Americano, if I know it will be well made (like at Joe Allens), and often an espresso.
The opportunity to drink great coffee may be more widely available now but that doesn’t mean Butter Beans is any less wonderful than that first taste I had four years ago. I have other favourites in central London (most especially New Row Coffee in Covent Garden) but locally, Butter Beans really is the best still. Using Union Coffee, their flat white, cappuccino or whatever you choose is simply fantastic. The flavour is deep, strong, rounded and at the same time mellow (bad coffee can be too bitter). But another way that the cafe has moved on is in its offerings of food. Food arrived with their move three years’ ago when Alese found a baker and they started making their own cakes in a tiny little kitchen at the back. From the most amazing muffins:
And even carrot cake muffins, which just have to be one of my favourite muffins or, indeed, cakes, anywhere:
Embracing Alese’s antipodean heritage, there are Anzac cookies and Lamingtons:
If I eat anything with my morning coffee, it’s usually a croissant (which they buy in):
And I’m rather fond of occasionally ordering banana bread in the afternoon. The first time I ordered it and they offered to toast it, I was unsure. I used to make banana bread a lot when my kids were small but never toasted it. However, toasted banana bread – smothered in butter of course! – is a revelation: the toasting really brings out the flavour of the banana and it’s delicious.
As time has gone on, the food menu has grown and now there’s a full menu from breakfast (they open 7.30am weekdays) to 3.00pm (the cafe stays open until 5.00), freshly prepared by the cook in the small kitchen. You can have a full English breakfast or porridge or bircher muesli.
Come lunchtime, you can indulge in gorgeous freshly made sandwiches with exciting fillings, salads, avocado on toast, piles of corn fritters with a poached egg on top, homemade soup, savoury scones or, as I did today, a fabulous frittata with sweet potato, spinach and feta.
The cafe is fairly small and such is its popularity now that at times it’s hard to get a seat if you want to eat and drink in, but fortunately, working from home, I can usually time my arrival for a slightly quieter time. However, it’s not unusual to find a small queue of people waiting for them to open at 9.00 on a Sunday morning. The staff are always friendly and tend to stay a while (always a good sign) so you get to know them and they you. Come special times – like Halloween a few days ago – the cafe will be decorated in the spirit of the event: mock cobwebs hanging about and the baristas in full Halloween make-up and clothes. It’s a fun place to go; a comfortable place to go; and above all, it serves great coffee and great food.
I always talk about being a Londoner and it is true that I’ve always lived in London, but for my most of my childhood I lived right on the borders, in the Greater London Borough of Bexley with a postal address of Kent. Thus Kent is also ‘home’ and it’s where my brother and his family live and where my paternal relations – aunt and cousins – live. Thus, as I left the M25 on my drive on Saturday morning and eased the car on to the M20 and then M2 towards Canterbury, I definitely felt as if I was coming home as fields stretched before me towards the sea, signs indicated hop farms and I remembered how the county of Kent is also known as the garden of England. I spent a lot of time down that way as a child, often staying with my uncle Joe, one of my dad’s older brothers (my dad was the youngest of six). I was on my way to see my aunt Arleen, who, Joe’s second wife, is far too young to be called ‘aunt’ by me. She’d kindly come up with some great suggestions of what we could do over the weekend and this included a visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate and tea at her youngest son’s – my cousin Jason’s – farm, a 20-minute drive from her house.
Arleen lives in Birchington which lies on the Kent coast between Margate and Whitstable, in Thanet – a semi-island, surrounded by the sea on three sides. Margate is famous for its JMW Turner connection and Whitstable for its oysters. I arrived in time for lunch and in the afternoon we set off in the car to visit Whitstable. On the way, Arleen indulged me in a nostalgic trip via the village of Chestfield where she and Joe used to live and where I spent time as a child. We stopped by the beautiful oast houses next to Chestfield Golf Club where they lived and did a loop round the edge of the golf course in the car. The connection to the golf course came right forward in time to my son’s childhood for my dad used to take Jonathan there for days out to play golf and have lunch together.
Whitstable has become a fashionable destination for holidays and day trips from London. There was a group of huts at the edge of the harbour with people selling crafts – paintings, jewellery, clothes, etc.; further on were shacks selling the famous local oysters. Moving away from the harbour and beach we made our way into the narrow streets behind, with their pretty houses, and which were full of visitors on this warm Saturday afternoon. There were bijoux little shops selling lovely things you might like but didn’t need to buy; cafes and restaurants. After a wander, we made our way back to the car for the short drive to Jason’s farm – Brook Farm in Denstroude, near Canterbury. It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun low in the winter sky promising a beautiful sunset. I’m afraid I didn’t take photos but was busy instead having tea with my family! The farm is lovely, laying in a hundred acres of beautiful Kent countryside. Jason is a farrier and people can stable their horses there; he and Francesca also have cottages and a converted barn which are let for holidays (click here for info).
Sunday began with an early morning walk with Arleen and her dog Rosie: a beautiful rescue dog who is a cross between a Michon and a Maltese Terrier. Minnis Bay is within walking distance of Arleen’s house. It was quiet and lovely with the beach stretching miles; only other dog walkers about. After breakfast we set off to Margate but first visited the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum at Manston Airport on the way. Arleen wanted to show me the memorial to the famous The Channel Dash operation in World War II in which my dad’s and Joe’s older brother, Bill, took part and was sadly killed.
On 12 February 1942, six fabric Swordfish Torpedo Bombers were sent to meet a fleet of German battleships making their way across the Channel. All were shot down and 18 young men – including Bill – died. The sad irony for the family was that he had come off duty and at the last moment volunteered to fill a space. It was great to see this because my dad had talked about his brother Bill so much and Arleen and I could see a strong family likeness in the photo.
We moved on to Margate and the Turner Contemporary, which opened in 2011 and was designed by architect David Chipperfield. It’s the largest contemporary art space in south-east England and is built on the site of a guesthouse where Turner used to stay.
‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,’ Turner wrote about the area. This, more remarkably, was where Turner first saw the sea, sent from London to school in Margate at the age of 11. Many of the local beaches and bays were inspirations to the painter and his great seascapes, and with the cloudier sky we had yesterday, and wonderful light coming through, it was easy to understand why.
The gallery is a minimalist building situated right by the sea, which you can look out on from the huge windows inside.
I’ve read so much about it since its opening, it was great to actually go inside the gallery. Arleen said the singing group she’s part of rehearse there each week; what a fantastic venue. After a look round, we headed into the town and found a cafe for coffee in a pretty square. Again, this was a nostalgic and lovely outing for me as I used to be taken to Margate often as a child; an easy day trip from where we lived.
Back in the car, we followed the coast round to Broadstairs in search of a late lunch.
We were noticing the darkening of the sky and the difference putting the clocks back the night before, for the end of British Summer Time, was making to our day. However, we found a great restaurant – Restaurant 54 – offering a good Sunday roast meal.
We received a friendly welcome; inside the style was stylish-simple and a comfortable and calm place to sit and enjoy a meal. The roast beef came with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and vegetables.
The beef was delicious; perfectly cooked and melt-in-the mouth tender. We had an excellent glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with it and then couldn’t resist dessert. I chose a spiced apple crumble tart with caramel custard and rhubarb & ginger ice cream. Definitely a Sunday indulgence and very delicious!
It was a full and lovely weekend. I woke to sunny skies and that made the return trip to London an easy and pleasant drive, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back in Kent again.
I was a voracious reader as a child. I remember when, aged 8, I was ill in bed with mumps, my mother was severely challenged by my relentless demand for books. I would get through two or three a day: books like The Secret Garden, the Heidi books, the Jennings series and What Katy Did. Books I came to love and read over and over again. Sometimes my reading got me into trouble. My father would find me reading in the dark of my bedroom at night with a torch (my 9-year-old nephew Leo apparently does the same, according to my brother, but his Kindle acts as a torch!); I’d take books on family outings (and presumably be pretty unsociable) and be told off for reading too much. But fate was kind to me and led me to a job in book publishing at the prestigious house of Methuen, where I began as a secretary and eventually became a commissioning editor, and I was fully able to indulge my love of books. I even worked on lots of cookery books so was also able to indulge my other early love – food and cooking! I left full-time work to have my daughter (over 30 years ago) but have continued working as a freelancer. Fortunately – since it is my means of earning a living – my love of reading has not diminished and I still love a good book! Of course, what I read for work varies in terms of my enjoyment. Everyone has the odd bad day at work, and sometimes I end up having to read a book I don’t much like. But generally, as I work for leading publishers, I’m reading good stuff, often bestselling books. Even so, not all bestsellers are ‘my thing’ but happily I most often end up reading books I enjoy and sometimes books I enjoy a lot.
Such is my good fortune this week that I am proofreading one of Babara Nadel’s Inspector Ikmen mysteries. Set in Istanbul, the Turkish Inspector Ikmen is becoming a close rival for my fictional affections which for a long time have been given exclusively to the Italian Inspector Montalbano. Ikmen has been likened to Morse, but to me he is much more human and likeable; yes a bit grumpy but essentially good and a man who has his own moral standards. The feminist in me likes that despite his wife being a very strict Muslim, he doesn’t hold with ruling her life but is liberal and thinking in his outlook. He also loves his city of Istanbul passionately – much as I love London, where I was born and have always lived. I’ve been particularly enjoying the read because it’s so vividly reminded me of my trip to Istanbul a year ago with my friends Linda and George. That was a fabulous trip and it’s great fun to recognise places we visited and be able to picture them in my mind as I read the book. But, of course, I also get excited by mention of Turkish food, from Lahmacun (a kind of Turkish pizza), to borek (savoury pastries) and then, today, Menemen. I didn’t know this egg dish so just had to go downstairs and consult my Ghillie Basan’s Classic Turkish Cooking. There it was. There was even a photo. A tempting photo. Yes, here was supper!
I could have easily bought some pitta to go with the Menemen but felt like making Sam & Sam Clark’s Quick Flatbread from Casa Moro. I’m busy with work at the moment but for me cooking is so relaxing, I can lose myself nicely in the kitchen once I’ve come down from my office at the end of my working day and start cooking. A glass of wine to hand, a bit of blues or jazz in the background, and I’m away. And really, this is a very simple bread!
Sift 130g strong white flour into a bowl with 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Measure out 100ml lukewarm water in a jug and add 1/4 teaspoon dried yeast, give it a good mix and then slowly pour it into the flour, mixing it all together with one hand as you go and bringing it into a ball of dough. Then add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and mix well. The Sams in their quickness don’t knead the dough but ‘beat’ it in the bowl. However, it was very wet so I kneaded for a couple of minutes on a floured worktop. Then leave the dough to rise for about 20 minutes in a floured bowl, covered with cling film. While this is happening, start preparing the Menemen.
As I was cooking just for myself, I halved Ghillie’s recipe. I sliced 1/2 medium onion, 1/2 yellow pepper, finely sliced about half a red chilli and skinned 2 medium tomatoes. Put the onion, pepper and chilli into a large frying pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a good knob of butter. When they’ve softened, add the skinned and chopped tomatoes and some seasoning of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Cook gently until the vegetables are soft and most of the liquid evaporated. At this point, I put the vegetables to the side while I cooked the flatbreads and prepared the ‘optional’ sauce (which I thought sounded too good to be missed). For the sauce, mix 2 tablespoons thick Greek yogurt with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder, 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika, a crushed 1/2 clove garlic and salt and pepper.
Now make the flatbreads. Roll the dough into a sausage shape and cut into 4 (I was planning to eat 2 and freeze 2.). Use a rolling pin to roll out each ball into a thin round. Heat a medium-sized frying pan until hot then drop a circle of dough in. Watch it carefully. It should bubble up a bit when done one side; use a spatula to turn it over and cook the other side.
Transfer to a plate in a warm (not hot) oven to keep warm and cook the second flatbread. Now for the final part of the menemen. Return the vegetables to the heat and when they’re warm through again, crack 2 eggs in (sadly I broke one yoke! But never mind). Put a lid on and cook gently until the white of the egg is cooked through but the yolk still runny (unless you like cooked-through yolks!).
Transfer very carefully to a warm plate and serve with the sauce and flatbreads.
Menemen is a kind of street food, made in stalls and sold at bus and train stations, anywhere there’s passing trade. It’s really a snack but also makes a gorgeous light supper, as I ate it tonight. I just loved the soft egg yolk running into the sweet vegetables with their slight, chilli hit. And it could all be mopped up nicely with the soft bread. It’s the kind of snack that can be cooked up really quickly – especially if you don’t bother to make the bread and use bought pitta or flatbread!
When Liz suggested meeting up this evening and asked me to decide where we ate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to try out Pho Saigon in Twickenham. We’d talked about it before. She’d heard from other foodie friends that it was good; I, too, had heard good reports and have been saying for ages that I must visit, but just hadn’t got round to it. On the 15-minute walk from my home, as I was blown around by the tail end of Hurricane Gonzaio that has hit UK today, it seemed a perfect time to be trying out some spicy soup.
I’ve only eaten Vietnamese food a few times before and don’t know a lot about it. Liz – who has been to Vietnam – said she thought pho came from North Vietnam (Hanoi), not the southern Saigon area, so I did a bit of research earlier in the day. Vietnam’s most famous food – pho – a noodle soup, did indeed originate in the north but after the partition in 1954 a slightly different version emerged in the south – Saigon. In North Vietnam you’ll find Pho Bac, in South Vietnam there is Pho Nam. The northern version is more spicy and salty; the southern sweeter. In Hanoi only beef bones are used to make the soup – the broth – while in the south they also add chicken bones and sometimes dried squid (I suppose a bit like adding fish sauce), which gives a deeper flavour. In the south they use more vegetables, especially bean sprouts, which you won’t find in the north, and they also add hoisin sauce (hence the sweetness) whereas in Hanoi they add more spice, particularly chilli.
Pho Saigon describes itself as a street cafe and thus it’s not a surprise that inside it’s fairly basic. It has a bring-your-own policy (so I’d taken along a bottle of chilled white wine). I had booked though. It’s always busy when I pass by and this evening – a cold and blowy Tuesday night, it wasn’t full but it was more than half full. The service was friendly; a friendly welcome and the menus brought quickly with glasses for our wine and an offer to open the bottle and pour for us. Of course, I had to have pho. What else could I choose! But I suggested we share a couple of small dishes first. There weren’t really ‘starters’ as such but some small dishes so we chose some vegetable mini spring rolls with dipping sauce. The menu had said 3 but they brought 4 – presumably since there were two of us. I’m not sure if they charged extra (I’m guessing possibly not) as Liz kindly said she’d pay for the food as I’d brought the wine, and I didn’t see the bill.
These were good and we had ‘special roast duck with five spices and honey’ to go with it.
This was a kind of salad; the duck just lukewarm on a bed of salad-y strips, with the rich sweet sauce on top. It was tasty; a little like having Chinese crispy duck without the pancakes. Then came our pho’s. Liz had chosen chicken while I went for ‘traditional’ beef strips.
It was a delicious dish. Very different from the spicy Thai food I eat quite often, or Laksa, that spicy noodle soup from Malaysia (which I love). It was very delicate in flavour. A lovely broth base with noodles, bean sprouts, coriander; fresh chilli and lemon to add yourself. It was very fragrant but with a softness, a gentleness, to the flavour. Not only was it delicious – it felt very healthy too!
I really enjoyed my meal and would like to go back and try some of their other dishes. It’s very reasonably priced – the pho just £7.95 – so could be a great place to just pop into on the spur of the moment … assuming you can get a table, of course!