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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gelateria da Bepi

It must be the best ice cream in the world
First of all, a look from outside:

Inside, generations two and three of truly passionate ice-cream makers, with their ware lovingly displayed:

It all started some fifty years ago (well, 70 if you count when the family started making ice-creams). Here is a picture of yesterdays:

The fifteen vans are long gone, but the passion is very much still here, together with memorabilia from the past.

Here icecream is made every day. Leftovers are just thrown away – a waste, you might argue, but with no freezers to speak of, it might be environmentally friendly after all – and under the very strong assumption that there is any left over.
The business concept couldn’t be simpler: genuine ingredients and a lot of passion. Fullstop.
The list of ingredients is very short: granulated sugar, longlife milk, and carob seed flour (an ancient firming agent – carob is common in Sicily, where we like to think that icecream reached perfection). The rest, the freshest fruit, so that the icecream you’ll find depends on what was fresh at the market that morning.

Most of the space in the lab is taken by the daily supplies of fruit and vegetables. And then you have the vanilla pods, the cocoa, walnuts, pistachio nuts, you name it, they have it. The icecream is made in these three machines every afternoon, ready to start serving from 7pm until 1 in the morning:

The machine on the left is still the one Bepi used. And all three of them use a technology no longer employed, as it is more expensive as it takes longer for icecream to be ready,and there is no automatic spout, but here they assure us the slower process adds to the quality of the finished product - the machine in action is in the video below.

With no added colorings, flavourings, bases nor other tricks, your pistachio ice cream will not have the green emerald colour you are used to:

From left to right and top to bottom: stracciatella (cream and chocolate bits) on pistachio, and almonds on blood orange – terrific. If you wonder about the plastic cup: it was on the boss’ order, ‘you must see what you are eating’. And the flavour is one you have hardly ever found in icecream.
Next time you are in Padova, this is a must!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trattoria Le Cave (Padova)

The day: 19 March 2010, Dinner.

The place: Via delle Cave 51, Padova, Italy

The venue: Trattoria Le Cave

The food: Unreconstructed Seafood Italian

The drinks: Simple but interesting wine list

We discover it in the most serendipitous of ways. We are in Padova for work, living in a completely nondescript neighborghood at the edge of the city. A walk around reveals this very simple looking but, to us, mysteriously enticing venue specialising in seafood. We reason that in an off-neighborhood like this, either they kill their customers with bad fish or they satisfy them to induce them to spread the word to non-residents, and to come back themselves.

And indeed, this is one of those stereotypical Italian restaurants of which unfortunately one sees less and less around: a cuisine based on immaculate ingredients simply but correctly cooked (as opposed to the more frequent category: mediocre ingredients pretentiously and/or faultily cooked). A trattoria, if you will, but one in which (unlike in more chic places) your are seated at a table with a proper tablecloth.

No menu, just the manager standing at the table and asking us what we'd like. Normally this would put us off, but as we said, this place strangely inspires confidence - and to be fair there is a menu outside the restaurant, and after a quick scan we had decided it looked honest. So we ask our attentive manager to prepare a mixed starter of raw and cooked seafood.

'Do you want to go the whole hog? Because I warn you: if you do, you won't have space for anything else'
'Well, no, we want to have space left for a grilled fish afterwards'
'OK, I'll take something out then, leave it with me'.

While we wait we munch some complimentary vegetables accompanied by a nice home-made mustard vinaigrette

From then on it was a real feast for the seafood lover. From tuna and swordfish carpaccio

(with good olive oil!).

Raw langoustines (stunning):

Raw local scallop (you can tell you are not in a fine dining restaurant here...but actually the coral which you don't usually get served is pleasant and, less sweet than the rest, it creates an interesting contrast)

We had also asked for a local speciality, the 'granseola' (crab):

and, while we are used to our great local Anstruther crabs, we must say this was a true delicacy. Very different and more 'dramatic' in shape, too, as you can see. For those of you with a naturalistic interest, here's a look at the picturesque back:

And the cooked part begins...

all super-fresh and nicely cooked, no hint of that rubberiness which is the most dreaded feature for this type of item.

And this, this dish of grilled cannolicchi (razor clams) and "mini scallops" (we forgot to note down the local name) was a stunner:

And we finish the 'starter' (ehm) with a cooked scallop each:

At this point we supposedly had space left for a grilled seabass, with a couple of grilled squids thrown in for good measure:

Thebass was ever so slightly overcooked but very fragrant, pleasant. The squids just perfect. It was accompanied by unadvertised roast potatoes

which while not helping our waistline surely did appeal to our tastebuds. Oh, yes, they did.

We did not have space for dessert, but we were offered one of several home-produced digestives (we opted for a delicious liquorice based one).

And here goes another old fashioned classic, talcum powder, viava' and a good brush, the indespensable tools to remove whatever juice or sauce has unfailingly found the way onto your shirt...

All in all, a very good, straight seafood triumph. It does not come cheap (€165 inclusive of a mid-priced and reasonably priced wine), but good fish never does.

And what you get here is that generosity, welcoming hospitality and straigth honesty that alas is no longer as common as it used to be. How many restaurateurs can you imagine offering you so much fish that you won't have room for the more remunerative desserts?

It was obvious from the word go that our delightful host was there to make sure we went out happy: and we sure did.

Don't come here if you don't like seafood because it is literally all they do: but if you do, do!


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tortel di patate

Tortel di patate is a traditional dish from Trentino, a 'potato cake' made with grated potatoes which provides a carbohydrate base to accompany the main dish. There are many versions: those that add flour to the grated potatoes, those that add eggs, those that cook it in the oven, those that cook it in the pan, those that make it thick, those that make it thin.

We tried a modern, very light, very thin and almost greaseless interpretation at our Trentino fave Osteria Fior di Roccia. The purist take is: potatoes. The right potatoes, of course, so that once grated they will produce enough starch to keep the grated mass together, but not so much as to make a gluey mess. Good potatoes, very little oil to sear the cake in the pan, and a lot of skill. Full stop.

Here is the result:

Now, what more could you want?

The main character first:

which on this occasion we try with venison stew and the stunner of the dish, 'marmellata di corniole' (cornelian cherry jam):

The trio, the starchy-sweet and ever so slightly burnt potatoes, the acidic corniole, and the unctuous, dense and gamey venison, are one of those perfect combinations one only occasionally encounters in gastronomy. Pure delight.

And fun, preparing each tortino slice with the desired proportions!

All accompanied by a remarkable little wine:

From a local producer, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, jammy and dense due to a proportion of dried grapes, balanced, with some elegance and interesting, unusual flavours.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hirschen Oberkirch (Luzern, Switzerland)

It's around Luzern but you don't want to travel there, so no details.

After our gastronomically undistinguished boat trip from the North of England to Amsterdam and another sandwich-fuelled few hundred mile drive to Switzerland, en route to Italy, we are looking forward to a gastronomic break at a place recommended by the Jeunes Restaurateurs d'Europe association.

They promote 'passion and talent', so our expectations are high.

And it's also part of the 'Hirschen' brand which we recently extolled...

The rustic small room, behind a bar area, is promising.

Then we look at the scandalous bread (of the supermarket slice variety), we have a moment of doubt, but we resume the optimistic mood. It's Sunday night, after all.

An amuse also appears:

Boiled veal marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Simple, slightly 'thrown on the plate', but at least pleasant. We keep being optimistic.

We are looking mesmerised at the dense menu in German, resigned, given the language wall between us and the waitress, to order food at random.

But then suddenly the chef appears (we recognise him from the JRE website photo), even though dressed in 'civilian clothes', says hello in English, and sits decisevely at our table.

He asks us what we want to eat. What do you recommend? He asks if we want traditional or gourmet. In unison: gourmet. How many dishes? We have been sitting all day, not many, just two, three. And yes, sure, we want dessert. You have free hand, chef, just cook for us what you want!

So what you are going to see is the absolute best this cuisine is capable of producing.

Dish number 1:

It's a pan-fried Zander fish (pike-perch) with celery, wild rice and peppers. Ok, the fish is fresh, and it is also cooked well, this a 'gourmet dish'? The artless cheesy pool and the little mountain of naked (and steamed) celery bits tell the tale, we think.

We begin to notice that not only does the chef not wear chef clothes, he is also never in the kitchen, just chatting at the bar. We had also noticed that he was not sure what amuse bouche we had been given.

In other words, we begin to notice that the chef, assuming he is a chef, doesn't give a shit.

Dish number two:

It's roast lamb with potatoes and greens, a very young and smiley cook emerging from the kitchen announces in Italian. The lamb is of good quality, slightly tough, the sauce not very intense. It's an unambitious dish which however is not throughly unplesant to eat. The vegetables are just boiled vegetables, with a watery taste. The potatoes fare better, but to be frank the hurdle was not that high...

At this point we are regretting asking for the dessert. And we are getting more and more edgy, as this dessert is taking quite a while. Uh, but what is that, the young cook now leaves the kitchen. Uhm... We ask the waitress whethere there is any more coming. She checks with the 'chef' (c'mon, be serious), and she comes back that no, that's it. Just to remind you: we had given free hand to the chef, and we had asked for a dessert.

The dessert never came.

A very modest dinner by the advertised 'gourmet' standards. No talent and even less passion, so we just do not understand how the JRE association can endorse this venue.

One thing which wasn't modest was the price. Including a Swiss red wine at 59 CHF (a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noire, Gamay recommended by the 'chef' which was the one bright spot of the evening) and a tiny mineral water at CHF 6.5, we paid CHF 195.50. That's over £120, totally ridiculous for a 2 course dinner of this modest quality.

The JRE should be ashamed of themselves.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The boat rocks...

Wafer thin cabin walls that make it impossible to ignnore the clumsy love making of the impetuous adolescent couple on the right, or the engrossing middle of the night discussion on the virtues of multi sotrey car parks in Amsterdam from the two blokes on the left. A sport bar with a lonely customer staring into emptyness, his clutching hand warming the beer. The nightclub? Just sad...

So our expectations upon entering the "Seven seas Restaurant" of the Newcastle to Amsterdam boat, grandly named the Queen of Scandinavia (or was it the Princess of Sweden?), on an "all you can eat buffet basis couldn't be lower. And yet:

an attractive bread display

An unexpected shellfish counter

various passable salads

a very wide selection of fish-based finger food bites, a carvery counter, plenty of dessert counters, cheese and biscuits:

£25 per head if you book before you board. It's not gourmet food, let's be clear, just edible and pleasantly presented material: but, if you really have to go, it must be the best thing within the confines of the boat!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Eating well in Germany

Yes, eating well in Germany happens easily. A couple of years ago we sampled fine cuisine and had a wonderful experience in Bad Mergentheim.

Then last year and this one we found ourselves spending a few cold February days days for work in a small town in Bavaria, Parsberg (located between Regensburg and Nuremberg).

Where you can't miss the Hirschen Hotel

which not only is spoilingly comfortable and relaxing but, even more crucially for us, serves warmly satisfying Bavarian home cooking.

They do their own butchering - you can see their butcher and delicatessen shop on the left of the entrance - and even brew their own beer.

We are not great beer appreciators but we must say that on this occasion, in this below zero temperature, with this food, a few litres of sweetish, dense Weizenbier (beer with malted wheat - more than 50%) went through us very pleasantly.

There were, of course, the unmissable sausages and krauts and potatoes

everything of high quality, the veggies and the meat, and cooked as they ought to be cooked.

But also other items on the menu

Grandma serves the succulent pork, kartoffel and krauts from a tray:

She tells you you must absolutely try the beautiful sauce (at least this is what we think she said, as we don't speak a word of German):

and whatever she said it was indeed intense, not too heavy and ideal to elevate the rest of the very good ingredients.

We said it was below zero, we needed calories to survive, so what better to finish than homemade apple fritters?

(the compoted berries, plums and assorted fruit were also top notch).

It's so beautiful to eat traditional food cooked simply and properly and with care in the choice of materials, with flavours that tell a story and go far back in time.

There's also great generosity at Hirschen, we haven't told you about the enormous variety and quantities of pickles, nuts, seeds, jams, charcuterie, cheeses and of the wonderful teutonic breads, all available to the guest who goes for the buffet lunch or dinner or who takes breakfast.

Even coffee was almost OK: what more can we say?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tomino at Latium, and much more

This was a personal 'amuse bouche' before the many delicious dishes we enjoyed recently at our London fave Latium

It's a 'tomino' resting on wild mushrooms trifolati (i.e. sauteed), with pancetta and Norcia black truffle. Tomino is a delicate tasting cheese from Piemonte. It marries joyously with the saltiness of the pancetta and the notes of the noble products from the earth.

These simple delicacies of Italian cuisine are all about ingredients, all about balance: stuff always in plenty of supply at Latium.

That night we were showered with truffles...look at these tagliolini

...and here's one of the great Italian classics:

Ossobuco, in this interpretation beautifully presented in its own sauce, polenta and baby onions, the potent flavour invading your palate as the meat gently yields (the ossobuco is from Cumbria), before you finally tuck into the luscious bone marrow - pure pleasure!

A Herdwick lamb

was paired with perfectly cooked artichokes of metallic intensity, an Anglo-Italian culinary marriage made in Heaven.

And, finally, even Man who lacks a sweet tooth just goes crazy for Morelli's baba' with Zabaione, Pistachio ice cream and hazelnuts

with the full interplay of all the consistencies you might want, from the crunchy hazelnuts in their liquid sauce, souped up by the beautifully springy and spongy baba', drowned in creamy zabaione and topped with a seriously good pistachio ice cream

And what about his Red wine poached pear, water chocolate mousse and almond buscuit.

only apparently more restrained than the Baba': distinctly clean notes in the deep chocolate mousse, the wine soaked pear cooked to the exactly right consistency, with the almond biscuit adding the third texture and rounding all off.

We are always so happy at Latium - Morelli's dishes are simply good and win hands down on so many of the more elaborate, sometimes pretentious and always pricier offerings in the capital. In its category, Latium is just unbeatable.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The end of fine dining in Trentino?

The new year has wreaked havoc in the Trento fine dining scene, with three chefs, all previously starred, having to leave their restaurants.

No more fine dining (and local cuisine instead) at Chiesa. Chef Peter Brunel is going (not clear whether entirely of his own will) and more tradionally oriented young local chefs are coming in.

And the even finer chef Markus Baumgartner was sacked by the owners of Maso Franch, also making space for more traditional cuisine.

And there are rumours circling the other starred venue Lo Scrigno as well.

But, more tragically for us, the Lunelli family (producers of the Ferrari bubbly and Surgiva water) has said goodbye to Walter Miori (and his wife Franca) of Locanda Margon. With great elegance, they informed the press before the chef and the staff, who were the last to know. A nice world, indeed.

At least we now suspect we understand the otherwise inexplicable loss of the star by Miori after fourteen years - could it be by chance the case that the Lunelli have quietly whispered to Michelin about the impending sacking of the chef, in order to spare the the embarrassment of awarding a star to a no longer resident chef? How malicious we are.

We are fond lovers of Trentino's regional delights (think of the Osteria or the 2 Camini) but this debacle of fine dining is worrying and puzzling: why are people willing to spend hundreds of euros on frivolous gadgets but not on the noble culinary products of artisan skill and research?

Time will tell whether this is a local phenomenon (perhaps the Trentini are just too much in love their Lucanica susages and their 'carne salada', to the detriment of other delights), or just the beginning of a general trend in Italy towards traditional, more 'popular' and lower budget cusine.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Peat Inn

The day: Wednesday 27th January, Dinner.

The place: Peat Inn, Fife (Scotland)

The venue: The Peat inn

The food: Modern Scottish French

The drinks: Impressive, well constructed list

When the worst thing you can find to say about a restaurant is that they should have a larger parking lot, it means either that your critical faculties have sclerotised together with your arteries after too much foie gras, or that the place is really good…

In the middle of Fife, among pastures and fields of Brussel sprouts and potatotes, there’s this newly starred Inn led by Chef Geoffrey Smeddle - where you can also stay the night should you have indulged in a whiskey too many and lack the will to deal with the straight-angled turns of the narrow unlit countryside lanes and crossing deers.

You mull the menu sitting comfortably by the fireplace in the ante-room, and nibbling the first greeting from the chef:

Besides olives and nuts, it’s a smoked mackerel mousse on new potato. Amusing and intense.

After that, you are accompanied to one of the three warm, countryside elegant rooms

OK, after the parking lot, let us also say that the bread they serve at the Peat Inn (from a tray) has good intentions and looks, but doesn’t achieve the pinnacles of the art in terms of consistency. Forgiven, as we know we are too fussy about bread.

The amuse bouche proper,

A simple, almost spartan, parsnip and almond veloute’, is a delightful interlude that wants you to forget the canapes and prepares your mouth for what is to come: it serves its purpose exactly and does not aim at exhibiting any cheffy muscle. The scarce seasoning sets the tone, a lack of saltiness which we very much appreciate, and that we find is a feature of chefs with very sensitive palates.

And here we go. Several stunners await us, the best of which, a bisque, we showcase later. This pigeon salad

Warm salad of wood pigeon, apple and fennel, with prune and Armagnac puree

features a pigeon which is still partly alive, as you can see, and deliciously moist and tender, accompanied by a perfectly judged and punchy Armagnac and plum sauce, making a clean, fresh tasting, colourfully presented, cold dish.

We didn’t know that a hare could be cooked so well:

Roast loin and braised shoulder of hare, chestnuts, pancetta, roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sauce salmis.

There’s a double story in this complex dish, the noble, moist, tender, delicate loin, just falling apart, and the humbler, but powerfully flavoured shoulder. There are in fact many stories here, stories for example of multiple textures, not only in the meat but also in the crispy vegetables, and the chestnuts, and the sweet garlic, and more, in a criss cross of flavours. All magnificently carried by the salmis sauce (and by a great technique!), this was a very close contest for our ‘the high’ section below.

The desserts were no less memorable:

Delice of Amedei chocolate with rum’n’raisin icecream.

Really clever: you tuck in, and a perfectly liquid fondant comes out of this cold and perfectly formed chocolate cake: how is that possible? This is also quite a technical accomplishment. It turns out the 'cake' is a very dense mousse, not cooked but put in the mould to set, into which a rhum, cocoa and syrup 'cream' is inserted after opening and then closing a section. How the 'fondant' is not absorbed into the mousse is a mistery. And apart from the admiration for the total precision in this delicate operation, what ultimately counts is that it’s really a ‘delice’: what great chocolate! And what inebriating ice-cream (remember, we are as stern as with the bread on this front…).

Vanilla and almond rice pudding, caramelised pear sorbet and winter fruit compote

The compote is poured at your table from a pot (not the top performance by a waiter on this occasion :)). Nice textures, concentrated flavours supporting each other beautifully, in a kind of refined/rustic combination.

The low (naah, not really)

It was a very relative low, amid such peaks – but having to pick one, we would name one of our mains, the

John Dory, potato galette, pearl onions, savoy cabbage, champagne beurre blanc

It feels strange talking about low with such a magnificently fresh and perfectly cooked fish, with such accomplished condiments and garnishes, and amid multilayered flavours that delighted our palates. The problem for us was that the dish felt a little unbalanced, really too rich, not quite matching either in finesse or in presentation or in light-handedness all the others (your fault for setting such heavenly standards, chef!).

The high

Langoustine bisque, ricotta gnocchi, poached langoustines, and scallop tartare

What to say, when there’s a perfect dish it’s just a perfect dish. Lots of work behind it, many fine judgements, and a final product of total balance and apparent simplicity: the chunky tartared scallops, offering pleasurable chewability, the absolute intensity of the soup, with a hint of lemony and alcoholic sort of sharpness and an airy yet bodily consistency, the milky lusciousness of the ricotta, the freshness of it all, this is a dish of true finesse (for those of you who are curious, the ricotta comes from... Scotland!).

The Service

Truly excellent. Friendly and professional from everybody, with (we believe) wife Katherine's in control. The charming and unassuming head waiter advised us really well on wine, demonstrating a deep knowledge of the extensive and carefully constructed wine list.

The price

With a Loire Cabernet Franc at £30 or so, a coffee and free Scottish water carafe, this three course meal for two (+amuses) cost less than £120 (starters all around £12, mains £20+, desserts £9). A fair price even just considering the quality and quantity of the materials. And there is a set dinner menu at a very enticing £32, plus the 6 course tasting menu at £55. A pity we don't have time to go for lunch, as it is a total bargain at £16 for 3 courses!


That night, the meal conclusion summed up the cuisine style: champagne truffles and orange and honey Madeleines to scream about: few unassuming looking pieces, but the airiness of those madeleins, the flavours!

You know, those places where you eat well but where you don’t quite feel at home? Where you feel the staff is just going through the motions needed to get or maintain their Michelin star(s), but where there is a general sense of coldness, in the dishes and in the room? Well, the Peat Inn is the exact opposite. It’s a restaurant where, as soon as you enter, you feel treated like at home, generously, where calmness reigns and you forget any pressure in the world.

And, even more importantly, where you eat bloody well! At the Peat Inn we’ve always enjoyed refined, technical, studied and meticulous but substantial dishes, founded on great raw materials, a cuisine that it is hard not to like from whichever angle you judge it. The Chef says: ‘the perfect dish for me is one with a lot of work behind it, but which looks simple to the customer’. He succeeds. We love his elegant touches and his restraint. Try it.


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