Sunday, January 11, 2009

Goodfood in Italy: Top Ten

My Italy: The Top Ten, The Hot Ten, The Ultimate Ten
The ten best experiences from my trip to Italy December 2008

My apprenticeship in a professional kitchen in Positano

Making Limoncello in Positano

My best meals in Italy

Wine tasting in Tuscany

Chef Vincenzo's Ragu Bolognese

The best coffee in Italy

How to drink espresso

Piazza Del Campo at night

The Colours of Siena

Life in a slow lane, in Positano

Goodfood in Italy Part 10: Cooking classes in Positano

Apprenticeship in a professional kitchen

I had a fantastic experience doing a two-day apprenticeship with Chef Vincenzo in Ristorante Mediterraneo in Positano, Italy thanks to Cooking Vacations

I enjoyed the bustle and pace of the kitchen, the clanging of pots and pans, the efficiency of the heavy-duty burners and grinders and boilers and ovens, the incredible raw material - fresh seafood, marinated seafood, San Marzano tomatoes, pastas of various shapes, olive oils and herbs - the smell of which stayed with me for days -, the meticulous 'prep', the fast explosive action of cooking, the careful plating, and of course the colours and aroma and tastes of a mediterranean kitchen.

Chef made a classic Ragu Bolognese, starting with minced onions, carrots and celery and bay leaf, adding tomato sauce and red wine and beef and simmering for hours. I observed closely and stirred, and stirred and stirred.

Making Octopus salad with fresh Octopus from the Bay of Naples was a breeze.

Making my own Limoncello with Sorrentine lemons was fun and satisfying.

And pasta, pasta, glorious pasta

Rigatoni, Spaghetti, Vermicelli cooked in huge pasta boilers with the pasta water acting as a sauce starter. Always al dente. Sauces made with clams or squid or porcini, and tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Tossed together just before plating and topped with parmigiano, cracked pepper and olive oil. Simple and delicious.

We made Orange Caramel, with oranges steeped in caramelised sugar and Cointreau.

We all ate together: Vincenzo, Lorenzo, Fiorenzo, Emanuel and I
Ate what we cooked, always with lots of wine

Chef Vincenzo and I made a good team

And I gained lots of new friends. Grazie and Ciao to Vincenzo, Lorenzo, Enzo, Fiorenzo, Rodrigo and Emanuel. And thank you Lauren Birmingham of Cooking Vacations for making this happen.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Goodfood in Italy Part 8: Wine tasting in Italy

Wine tasting in Montalcino and Siena

Montalcino, picturesque medieval Tuscan town, perched on a hill overlooking vineyards, a 90 minute drive from Siena. Famous for its Brunello, the red wine created by the Biondi Santi family in the late 19th century that has now become one of the world's most sought after wines. Rich and delicious, and very expensive.

While wine tasting can be done at every corner in
town, I went to the Enoteca Fortezza di Montalcino, a wine bar tucked away in a medieval fortress.

Tasted three great Brunello di Montalcinos
~ Col D'Orcia Riserva 2000: Sweet, slightly fruity, but rich warm finish. One sip tells you why Brunellos are so desirable.
~ Sasso di Sole 2003: Cherry red, strawberry I think. Rich, almost opulent mouthfeel.
~ Cerbaiona, 2003 : Deep red. Complex taste of a combination of fruits that I could not identify ( I was too drunk Por Favore). Long rich finish. A substantial, satisfying wine. Only a few thousand bottles produced.

My Montalcino slideshow

Wine tasting in Siena

Enoteca Italiana, inside the Fortezza, a 15th century military fortress.

Thousands of wines from more than 600 wineries, offering a showcase
of Italian wines of every region. Digital touchscreens offering
customers tasting and topographical notes.
All under beautiful brick-laid medieval arches.

Piazzale Fortezza, 53024 Montalcino (Si) Italia

Enoteca Italiana, Siena
Via Camollia 72, 53100 Siena ITALY Phone +39 0577.228.811

Goodfood in Italy Part 9: Eating in Italy

My best meals in Italy

I had decided on a very simple food strategy before going to Italy. I would eat only at small local establishments, ideally family-run and with no English menu. I would only eat the specialties of that region and only drink the wines that come from nearby vineyards. And I would try to eat as 'simple' food as possible, unadorned and frills-free, for simplicity is the soul of Italian cooking.

Happy to say that I met all my objectives. Each meal was an emotional experience.

Osso Buco
Tender chunks of veal, like butter in the mouth.
And a rich, warm stew. Tratorria La Torre, Siena

Tratorria La Torre, just steps away from Piazza Del Campo, Siena
A simple, homely, convivial place with an open kitchen and home-made pastas. The owner decided what I ate and then fell asleep at his chair, while his grandson played noisily with Transformers after finishing his homework. I ate Ravioli with sage and ricotta, topped with melted butter and parmigiano. And Veal Osso Buco. Washed down with Chianti. And finally Sienese almond biscotti dipped in a glass of Vin Santo.

Tagliate con Radicchio e Pecorino
Marvelous rare Tuscan beef with radicchio and young sheep's cheese.
Osteria Nonna Gina, Siena

Pici alla Dodo
Pici ( 'poor man's spaghetti'), a thich eggless noodle tossed with minced pork and topped with parmigiano. A carafe of Chianti.
Osteria Nonna Gina, Siena.

Guidoriccio, Via Giovanni Dupre, near Piazza Del Campo, Siena

Dining under medieval arches, served by owners the distinguished couple, Elisabetta and Ercole. Papardelle with Cinghiale (wild boar) ragu and Veal Scaloppini with Rosemary. Accompanied by Amor Divino Chianti, produced just a few km away from Siena.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Trippa Alla Romana, a roman specialty, at Osteria Siste Ponto , Trastevere, Roma.

Silky fulsome tripe topped with local pecorino. Tripe is an acquired taste, so it's best to acquire it as early as possible. If you are planning to lose your offal virginity, tripe is the dish and Rome is the place to do it. I had this with Pasta Gricia ( carbonara minus the eggs, just sauced with the bacon oil) and a half-bottle of a local Lazio red.
A simple Tortellini Brodo ( Tortellini in broth) and Saltimbocca - juicy veal escalopes with sage and olive oil at the hearty, unfussy Albergobressio di Borgo near the Vatican.

Assortment of freshly baked pastries and espresso for breakfast at Residence Alcione, Positano.

Breakfast on my terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples. Residence Alcione, Positano

Eating what we cooked. Pasta with clams and 'white fish', crepes with porcini, cheese and lots of Aglianico, Campania's most famous wine. With Chef Vincenzo, Lorenzo, Fiorenzo and Emanuel at Ristorante Mediterraneo, Positano.

Rigatoni with rib sausage and meatballs at La Tre Sorelle, on the beach at Positano.
Glass of Prosecco while watching the boats and the sunset on the Tyrrhennian Sea.

Besides these sit-down meals, other great pleasures were
~ quick bites of Pizza Taglio ( pizza by the slice) everywhere. My favourite was the one I had in this tiny pizzeria in Montalcino, with anchovies and capers.
~ marinated olives, artichokes and sardines from the Delikatesen near the beach at Positano, which I ate for three days
~ porchetta sandwich at Bar Gastronomica in a back alley of Sorrento
~ stuffed pepperonconi, marinated porcini and sundried tomatoes from the Antica Salumeria next to the Pantheon in Rome
~ Cinghiale (Wild Boar) salumi and fromaggi from the Pizzicheria Del Micoli on Via Del Citta, Siena where the owner served me the salami and cheese on a wooden tray on top of a wine barrel, with bread and little plastic tubs of anchovy paste and olive spread.
~ glasses 0f light and sweet Lazio reds in Rome, vibrant Aglianicos in Positano, Chianti and Brunello and Rosso di Montepulciano in Siena and surrounding areas.

Goodfood in Italy Part 7: The best coffee in Italy

Espresso Love near The Pantheon

"Where do you get the best espresso in New York City ? The answer is, you don't. You catch a flight to Rome, and once there, tell the cabbie at the airport to go straight to Sant Eustachio Caffe, near the Pantheon ..."
William Grimes, former food critic, New York Times

I had many espressos during my two weeks in Italy in many different cafes. Make that many, many espressos. They were always very good. Often they were excellent. But nowhere was it as good as at Sant Eustachio Il Caffe in Rome, just a block away from The Pantheon, where I went pretty much straight from the airport.

I as hit by a blast of aroma as soon as I entered. The cafe was jammed with people and I had not yet mastered all the techniques outlined in my previous post , so it was a bit of struggle to get my espresso at first.
But was it worth it, oh boy. I had to scoop out the head with a spoon, it was so thick. The body was rich, aromatic, velvety, sweet without any sugar, creamy without any cream. The aftertaste deep and lingering. A shot, a moment's ecstacy, a delicious jolt and a nuclear-powered, invincible, indescribable feeling. Delicizo.

Most coffee connoisseurs ( and there are many in Italy) rate this the best coffee in Rome, possibly in Italy. The formula for Sant Eustachio's Grancaffe is such a secret that the Barista performs the operation behind a partition.

Sant' Eustachio il Caffe
Piazza Di S. Eustachio
00186 Roma (RM),
Ph: +39 06 68802048

Goodfood in Italy series so far
How to drink espresso
Piazza Del Campo at night
The Colours of Siena
Chef Vincenzo's Ragu Bolognese
Positano, Amalfi coast and John Steinbeck
Making Limoncello in Positano

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Goodfood in Italy Part 6: How to drink espresso

How to drink an espresso in an Italian coffee bar

A step-by step guide.
1. Saunter into a Cafe and walk over to the smartly dressed lady at the cash counter.
2. Make eye contact, trot out your 'Buongiorno' and say " Un espresso" in your best Italian accent, with an extended, almost musical emphasis on the 'sso', like in ss- ssso. This takes some practice, but you will get the rhythm of it soon enough if, like me, you drink enough espressos in day.

3. You will then be expected to put your payment - usually about 85 cents- on a small tray next to the cash machine, as the lady prints out your receipt.
4. If you are lucky , she might actually give you a smile and hold out two upturned palms for the payment. If you are feeling really Italian, hold her hand gently,
linger for a brief moment and place the coins in her palm.
You might like to add a 'Prego' almost in an undertone, sotto voce.

5. Don't overdo it though. Take your change and receipt, say your 'Grazie' and belly up to the bar.
6. If it is a popular cafe, the bar will be crowded and there will usually be a bit of gentle jostling , so you need to master the technique of angling for a good position and attracting the Barista's attention. If you have had enough practice getting a drink in a New York City bar or a London pub, you should do ok.

7. Order your espresso ( don't forget the emphasis on the 'ss- sso'). DO NOT SIT DOWN
8. The Barista will pull the drink from one of those glorious-looking coffee machines into a demitasse cup and push it towards you on a little saucer with a tiny spoon placed jauntily at an angle.
9. Lean sideways on the counter with an air of nonchalance as if you've been doing this all your life, your sunglasses dangling from your shirt pocket, and drink your espresso shot in one gulp. Use the spoon to scoop out the thick and delicious dregs at the bottom.

10. Then walk out into the sunshine, fuelled and caffeinated, ready to meet any challenge the world throws at you.

Goodfood in Italy series so far
Piazza Del Campo at night
The Colours of Siena
Chef Vincenzo's Ragu Bolognese
Positano, Amalfi coast and John Steinbeck
Making Limoncello in Positano

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Goodfood in Italy Part 5: Piazza Del Campo at night

"I want to arrive in Siena at night, penniless and alone,
sleep next to some wellspring and be the first to enter
Piazza Del Campo in the morning"
Albert Camus

I did not manage to be the first to enter Il Campo in the morning,
but to Albert Camus I ask:
Have you walked round and round the Il Campo late on
a January night when the tourists are all gone save for a
couple kissing under the Tower, the cold air throbbing in
your brain, the grand intimacy of the majestic piazza
breaking your heart,
when you cared a damn,
and came dangerously close to burning out the candle ?

And did you soon realise that it was a momentary lapse,
that it was the Vin Santo you had with your dinner that
was muddling your brain, that it was probably indigestion
from all the pasta that was stirring your heart, and that
like a good Bengali boy you had to go to bed, because,
son, it is late and it is cold.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway upon the journey of life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward path had been lost
Dante, Inferno

Goodfood in Italy series so far
Piazza Del Campo at night
The Colours of Siena
Chef Vincenzo's Ragu Bolognese
Positano, Amalfi coast and John Steinbeck
Making Limoncello in Positano

Goodfood in Italy Part 4: Colours of Siena

The story of Burnt Siena, changing light and colourful surprises

I was fascinated with the colours in this beautifully preserved
medieval town, as I roamed its red brick streets from morning
till night, fuelled by countless espressos.

Every shade of brown in the Crayola handbook are represented in
the historic Centro. Burnt Siena of course, and brown and sand and
rust and chestnut and reddish-brown and yellow-brown and sepia
and mahogany and ochre. What did I miss ?

Just look at the doors for example. Iron, wood, brass.
Brown, black, ochre. Inviting, forbidding, sombre, majestic.
Doors like these in every corner, most going back many
hundreds of years.

Red brick walls in twilight, lined with potted geraniums and more

And yellow and light brown walls with green shutters

And the sudden delightful bursts of brightness

Colours of everyday life in this Tuscan town

Thousand year old streets lined with buildings that
look warmer as the day progresses

And are simply beguiling at night

Watch the slideshow

" Siena's ancient buildings, timeless dwellings where I would love to
live one day with a window of my own overlooking the clay tiles and
the green shutters, I try vainly to understand wherein lies the secret
that Siena whispers and rings on and on in my ears as long as I shall live"
Jose Saramago
Goodfood in Italy series so far