Monthly Archives: September 2009
Posted by epicurienne
Simon Hopkinson does not like chestnuts. He avoids honey, and his views on New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels are clear, if harsh: “they are as tasteless as they are unwelcome,” he writes in Week In, Week Out, a collection of his weekly food columns for the Independent, released in paperback this past July. Quirks of the palate aside, this book, replete with the sort of photography that will reduce a foodie to Pavlov’s dog-style salivation, is a blissful read.
I can vouch for this statement, you see, because when I sat down with my copy of Week In, Week Out on a Saturday morning a couple of months ago, I initially predicted spending an hour or two with it until such time as the sun lured me outside, for it was indeed a beautiful day out there with The Normal People. This plan did not work for me, however. In fact, it failed miserably. Had friends not insisted I keep my promise to attend a planned get-together, I may not have made it out into the fresh air at all that day. Week In, Week Out was my anchor to the sofa. I barely moved until it was absolutely required.
Apart from the fact that Week in, Week Out contains luscious photography and sensibly seasonal recipes, Hopkinson’s use of language is nothing less than inspired. He uses words like ‘flobbery’, gently instructs us to ‘worry not,’ in a fatherly fashion, and likens lazy game preparation to ‘intercourse with a blow-up doll: tasteless, bouncy, spineless.’ I have not had the pleasure of meeting Mr Hopkinson, yet his writing allows a very particular personality to shine through, so that by the end of reading this feast of seasonally-grouped columns, an idea of what it’s like to dine with this chap, under both good and intolerable circumstances, is very firmly planted in one’s mind.
References made by Hopkinson to his upbringing, including fondly-related memories of his mum’s Kenwood mixer and tales of his father’s forays into the kitchen, add a nostalgic slant to certain extracts, and his understanding that not everyone has 2.3 kids, dogs and extended family to hand prompt him to create a string of recipes for the childless couple’s quiet night in. This means that, for once, a celebratory meal for a mere two people, couple or otherwise, need not create excess expense or leftovers aplenty for days to come. How considerate.
The tips peppered generously throughout Week In, Week Out, are many and varied – from where to find wild smoked salmon, to how to get your hands on good, peeled shrimps and even how to bone a pair of rabbits. There are recommendations for the gastronome’s bookshelf and some noticeable reverence given to the late Elizabeth David, but just when you think that perhaps Hopkinson’s recipe inspiration is a tad too bygone in era (kidney soup with bone marrow and parsley dumplings, syllabub, poached chicken or rabbit tongue), suddenly out pops something with roots in a completely different hemisphere (chilli crab salad with grapefruit and avocado) or region (squid stuffed with minced chorizo).
Hopkinson’s mentions of meals enjoyed as far afield as Bangkok and Rome do not go astray here, yet may increase excess salivation. Places that rate high on the Hoppy Index include Amsterdam’s Oesterbar for smoked eel and impeccable peeled shrimps, Tre Scalini in Rome for espresso graniti and Cova in Milan for a cornetto or two. In the UK, Hopkinson favours, among others, Riva in Barnes for the sort of tiramisu that sounds as if it might actually make it to 10/10 on Monsieur’s tiramisu scale of perfection, a score as yet unreached.
At the other end of the foodie scale, Hopkinson displays typically passionate tendencies to rant about what does and does not work in the kitchen. He discusses torn versus chopped basil, comments on the apparent extinction of the brown paper supermarket bag and the scarcity of a decent high-street fishmonger. The confusion of metric versus imperial sizes of containers for various ingredients also rate a rant, and who could possibly disagree with this man? He may not be licking his lips or proclaiming his own cooking “dee-lish-usssss” every twenty lines, but that’s what makes this book an even better read: its honesty.
If that wasn’t enough to tweak the Epicurienne tastebuds, then the final section of the book proved to be my favourite. It’s all about eggplants, which I adore in all its forms, from fritters to baba ganoush and parmigiana, but there’s one eggplant dish which is seared into my memory: the one with miso sauce. When I lived in Sydney, my dear friend and colleague, Kayoko, took me for a quiet Japanese dinner in celebration of my birthday. When it came time to order, I deferred to her expertise. She insisted we try the eggplant with miso sauce and I’ll never forget its smooth touch against my tongue, or the subtle blending of tastes. I forget whatever else it was that we ate that evening. For me, it was all about that eggplant.
Now, years later, Simon Hopkinson has endeared himself to me forever by including the recipe for eggplant and miso in Week In, Week Out. In my opinion he saved the best for last. For that I may even forgive the fact that he doesn’t like New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels.
Tags: aubergine, Chefs, confusion of metric vs imperial food measures in packaging, Cova in Milan, delicious food writing, eating Japanese in Sydney, eggplant with miso sauce, Elizabeth David, extinction of brown paper supermarket bags, food columnist uk, food photography, gastronome's bookshelf, high street fishmongers, how to bone a pair of rabbits, miso, Monsieur's tiramisu ratings, New Zealand green lipped mussels, nostalgia in food writing, Oesterbar Amsterdam, Quadrille Publishing, recipes for two, Riva in Barnes, Simon Hopkinson, The Independent food column, The Independent food columnist, torn vs chopped basil, traditional English recipes, Tre Scalini in Rome, Week In Week Out, Week in Week Out by Simon Hopkinson, where to find fresh peeled shrimps, where to find wild smoked salmon
Posted by epicurienne
Monsieur and I had been driving for most of the day, leaving Cagliari early so we could see some of Sardinia’s west coast and central areas before arriving in Porto Cervo. Our guidebooks recommended a break in Nuoro (also pronounced ‘Nugoro’ in Sardinian). One of the island’s literary greats, Grazia Deledda, was born and lived there once upon a time and the town is touted as a cultural centre of significance, but navigating our way off the autostrada into Nuoro proved problematic.
You’d think a ‘literary’ centre would take care with its signage. Not in Nuoro. Flying blind in an attempt to follow contradictory signs with only a near-useless guidebook map to aid us, we somehow found ourselves parking next to the Cathedral. By this point our bums were quite numb with all that sitting so we were keen to stretch our legs.
The late afternoon sun stung our skin, taking us by surprise as we stepped out of the air-conditioned car. Surely the sun should have been losing its strength by now. Immediately hot and parched from all the driving we wandered through an ancient archway, down a little street to a large, empty piazza. Turning right we stopped at a bar, sheltering in the shade as we greedily glugged on icy Peronis. They weren’t enough to quench our thirst, however. Gelato would be required for that and as fate would have it, there at the foot of the street leading back to the Cathedral sat a conveniently-placed ice cream shop called Peter Pan Gelateria, so in we went.
When you’re as fussy as I am about gelato, it’s easy to tell how it will taste well before it enters the mouth. There’s the texture of the scoop – which should be creamy and pliable, not rigid and over-frozen. There’s the selection – avoid the freezers with only two or three flavours; those purveyors of gelato don’t care enough about it to replenish the empty tubs. Look also for a selection that has not only the predictable vanillas, chocolates and strawberries, but the less usual flavours like pistachio, tutti frutti, cassata and caramel-rich rafaele. Price is always a key factor: more than €5.00 for a cup of three scoops is daylight robbery, too often demanded for mediocre gelato near tourist traps. Less than €4.00 for a three-scoop cup overflowing with a surplus of generosity and creamy goodness in a tourist-free zone is well worth the money. Peter Pan asked a modest €3.00 for three huge scoops of PERFECT gelato. It felt as if we were robbing them.
Savouring our gelati on benches in the Cathedral garden, we licked the drips from now-sticky fingers, keen not to waste a single drop. My cup, filled with cocco, stracciatella and pistachio, disappeared too quickly. I frowned at the empty container.
“Don’t worry, darling,” soothed Monsieur, “we’ll stop by Peter Pan on the way back to Cagliari.”
You just about have to be Houdini to get out of Nuoro without a proper map of the place. It’s a tangle of roads to nowhere. Following those lying street signs we went up a hill, down the other side, found dead ends in all directions, stray dogs enjoying their lone adventures and streets named after Freud and Pablo Neruda. Some time later we fell upon a road that led us back to the autostrada. With sighs of relief we were off again.
As good as his word, Monsieur took me back to Nuoro some days later for another Peter Pan treat. This time getting into town was easy as we’d come off the autostrada an exit too early, following the twist of a country road up, up, up to the hilltop town and in through the back door. This time we found the cathedral quickly, parking there once more and walking down through the arch to the Peter Pan Gelateria. But man cannot lunch on gelato alone, although I know one woman who’d be keen to try. We went in search of pre-treat savoury sustenance.
Once more, it was hot, perhaps too hot for cooking because we couldn’t find a single restaurant that was open, and this time there wasn’t the excuse of it being the day of worship. The bars were mostly uninspiring, the domain of the greying male, their terraces hazy with smoke through which you could just about make out the old men of the town.
Even this newsstand was closed, presumably for a home-cooked lunch and heat-busting siesta.
Even the Devil’s Own Pizzeria took the afternoon off. If you can’t take the heat, get out of Hell’s Kitchen I suppose.
These looked good. We considered going back for a takeaway panini bag if we didn’t find anywhere else. By now I was feeling dizzy. The heat combined with a lack of food made me want to crumple in a heap on the cobbled streets. I’ve heard of spontaneous combustion, but this felt more like potential human evaporation.
A giant stopwatch outside this jewellery shop caught our eye. It, too, was on strike in protest at the heat; it simply refused to tick tock and tell the correct time.
Eventually we settled for lunch at this quiet bar just around the corner from the Peter Pan Gelateria which was our main reason for returning to Nuoro.
We were so thirsty that the cokes disappeared in seconds and the water wasn’t far behind. For once, food was secondary.
The menu wasn’t much to write home about but we were too hungry to fuss now.
The pizza came fresh from a freezer box and the pasta had been microwaved with a sauce from a jar. Never mind. Peter Pan would be next on the list and a cup of their divine wares should more than make up for a lack of gourmet flair here.
But it was closed. We stared at the opening times in disbelief. The Peter Pan people were out for their own lunch. Ah. We’d forgotten that they, too, might need a break. Heads hanging low with disappointment, we were about to turn away when we heard a yell: “Arrivo! Arrivo!”. In seconds the owner was there, opening the Peter Pan Gelateria especially for us. At that moment, the Peter Pan Gelateria became my favourite gelateria in the entire world.
We chose our flavours: limone, vaniglia, cioccolata for Monsieur, stracciatella, cocco, rafaele’s caramel ripple for me. I thanked the owner profusely, explaining that his gelato was our main reason for stopping in Nuoro today. He waved away our thanks with the humble manner of a man who knows how magnetic his product is. Our pilgrimage did not surprise him in the least.
And once more we took our cups to the cathedral garden, slurping our spoonfuls of creamy deliciousness on benches in the shade of the trees.
I wanted to go inside to light a candle of thanks for the beauty of Sardinia, a safe trip, friends and family and the simple pleasure of perfect gelato, but the church doors were locked tight. The priest was away.
It would seem that even Sardinia’s men of the cloth are not immune to its blistering summer days. No matter. I just wonder how often Don Floris enjoys a treat from the gelateria at the foot of his cathedral’s hill. As for this pair of hungry travellers, we were just grateful to have found the hidden treasure of Nuoro, which we were fortunate enough to have enjoyed twice in one week. Now all we had to do was find that elusive autostrada and get back to Cagliari. Easier said than done.
Tags: Bad Italian food, Cagliari, cocco gelato, Don Floris, Elusive autostradas, finding lunch in Nuoro, gelato, Gelato pilgrimage, Giant stopwatch in Nuoro, Grazia Deledda, Greying men of Nuoro, Hot Sardinian days, How to choose a winning gelato, Italy, La Tana del Diavolo Nuoro, Nugoro, Nuoro, Nuoro Cathedral, Nuoro street names, Nuoro's road signs, Panini in Nuoro, Perfect gelato, Peroni, Peter Pan Gelateria, Peter Pan Gelateria Nuoro, Peter Pan Gelateria's kind owner, pistachio gelato, Porto Cervo, rafaele gelato, Restaurants in Nuoro, Sardinia, Sardinian gelateria, Saying thanks in Nuoro, stracciatella, The hidden treasure of Nuoro, travel