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Apparently, you’re not supposed to apologise for abandoning your blog for weeks or months. However, I probably should acknowledge that I haven’t been blogging for an age, and possibly don’t have any readers anymore. It’s been a busy year and I’m not sure I’ve cooked anything especially interesting or new. Anyway, here I am attempting to return to the lemurs. If nothing else, this is a pretty spectacular meal to return with. The lemurs were in Emilia Romagna on a short break with Mama Lemur. She wanted to treat us all to something a bit special, and accordingly we booked dinner at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. As you’ll all probably know, it has recently been listed third on the World’s Best Restaurants list, and Bottura’s playful twists on traditional local flavours sounded like the perfect way to splash out. We drove from our base in Bologna to Modena on our final afternoon, took in the lovely duomo and medieval city centre, kicked back with a campari soda in the Piazza Maggiore, and prepared mentally for the culinary onslaught to come.  Read the rest of this entry »

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ragu-bowl-cu

Happy New Year, Lemur readers! Soon, I’m going to be all about lighter and more colourful food to brighten up the dark days of January and look forward to a healthy Spring…but right now I’m still in hearty December mode. After my trip to Italy, I wanted a proper ragú to warm me up on these dreary English nights. Ragú is one of those things that most everyone makes but that it’s easy to take short cuts with. I don’t actually cook it all that often, but when I do, I’m all about the slow simmering of meats. I firmly believe that a good ragú needs both pork and veal. Often, I’ll spend contemplative time chopping the meat by hand but sadly, the supermarket only had minced veal, so this actually a rather easier version of a traditionally laborious process. Using pork cheeks means you can cook them whole and then pull the meat apart later. It gives a lovely unctuousness to the ragú, along with the rich flavour offered by the veal. You can’t really get easier than a ragú, where all the magic is worked by slow cooking rather than by any effort on the part of the cook. Later today, I’ll be cooking New Year’s fava bean soup, another slow-cooked Italian wonder. Happy 2013! Read the rest of this entry »

romei-fresco

Everyone told us that we had to try salama while in Ferrara. You see them all over town hanging in meat shops: big sausages shaped like acorn squash. But although they look (and sound) like massively deformed salami, they are actually not the kind of cured sausage that you slice, but are spiced meat that is cooked and served with mashed potato. They’re famous, but we didn’t actually find them on a menu until our last night. I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, I entertained myself with Ferrara’s historic palazzi. The fresco above is in the Casa Romei, a palazzo built for a medieval administrator but taken over after his death by a monastery. The result is layers of medieval and renaissance decoration, some secular, some religious. The docent who followed me around wouldn’t let me take photographs of the amazing frieze of animals, including wonderfully grotesque leopard-women, but I snuck a picture or two of these gorgeous frescoes. Read the rest of this entry »

tortelli-zucco

I just got back from a work trip to Ferrara, the beautiful medieval town in Emilia-Romagna. I know, sometimes life is tough. In my defence, I did have to sit through a conference that was almost entirely in Italian, so it was actually quite challenging. Still, it was no chore to meet lots of lovely people and be taken out for a series of delicious meals. Ferrara is famous for its tortelli alla zucca, or pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with either a meat ragú or a butter sage sauce, and I ate this delicious combination at most every opportunity.

Ferrara-duomo

The city is just lovely, and with almost no tourists in December, it’s actually a rather nice time to visit Italy. I spent a pleasant spare afternoon checking out the duomo (disappointing on the inside, but with an impressive facade) and wandering the pretty old streets around the central piazza. The Christmas lights made it all especially magical.

Ferrara-piazza

But from the moment I arrived, food was a major focus. On my way into the conference, I grabbed a quick lunch with Lemur friend JD. He has a nose for good eateries in Italy, the kind of down-home place you can find in every town but only if you know where to look. As soon as we arrived, he sniffed out a cafe whose lunch specials were served on plastic plates – but with delicious food and neighbourhood-style friendly service. We shared a serving of melted scamorza cheese with grilled radicchio that was simplicity itself and yet so very nommable. (By the way, they split the plates. This is just my half!)

scamorza-lunch

Another JD find was Trattoria Il Sorpasso. We meant to go to Il Cucco for lunch, as it had been recommended in an Italian restaurant guide we looked up in the bookstore, but it was closed. Concerned that lunch service was over everywhere (yes, we get concerned about such things), we looked around for a local alternative. I didn’t necessarily think the outside of Il Sorpasso across the road was promising, but JD has the nose and in we went. It turned out to be the best meal we had in Ferrara.

sorpassa-ext

We started with a cavolo nero soup, which was hearty with long-simmered greens, tiny white beans and crispy garlicky croutons.

cavolo-nero-soup

For a secondo, I chose salsiccia con castagne, or sausage with chestnuts. I had expected a whole sausage but what came was more like sausage meat broken up like you would for a pasta sauce, with little nuggets of chestnut mixed into a rich ragú. It was at once sweet from the chestnuts, salty from the sausage and deeply umami and savoury from the sauce. It was insanely good.

salsiccia-castagne

As we digested our completely unnecessary but shockingly good desserts (tiramisu, chocolate cake and ricotta cream), one of the cooks came out to start making pasta dough for dinner. This is where the magic happens!

pasta-making

We did get to Il Cucco eventually, but I’ll leave that story for the next post…

Image by Etruscan places.

Another post from the Lemurs’ recent travels in Italy. We drove around Lake Bracciano to Cerveteri, a very nice little town near the coast in Lazio, but one primarily known for its Etruscan necropolis. The necropolis was actually amazing, a vast city of the dead with long streets full of beautiful buildings you can just walk into and explore. If this place were in the UK or the US, there would be guards, cordoned-off walkways, and no way to experience the spaces in an unmediated fashion. But in Italy, there’s a hacked off dude in a portacabin who gives you an illegibly-photocopied map and off you go into what feels like a your very own discovery of an ancient civilisation. Granted, we were mildly worried that small children might fall into an unmarked pit but hey, we didn’t have any small children so all was well.

But you need a good appetite to explore ancient Etruscan sites, and we stopped off in Cerveteri to eat at Antica Locanda le Ginestre. The restaurant is located in the main square and boasts a gorgeous garden for those willing to brave the heat and eat outside. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.

Read the rest of this entry »

The lemurs are on a much needed vacation in Italy, kicking off with a weekend in Rome. We've been here 24 hours and so far, my stand out food experience has been cheese. This probably elicits a 'no shit' response from many people but normally I'm not a cheese whore. It's probably the Asian mouth thing – I often find cheese to be a bit much, alarmingly fatty or just unpleasant in texture. I know, it's odd, but anyway, point is, it takes a lot to make me love cheese. And in Rome, the pecorino is transcendent: a generous, excessive, almost pornographic blanketing of sheer happiness on pasta. Read the rest of this entry »

Image Rick Harris, CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Remember I went to Boston and my internet didn’t work? The whole trip felt like a massive technology fail, from my iPhone camera with the scratched lens to the iPad that didn’t want to connect to the hotel wifi. Not to mention that on the way out I missed a plane for the first time in my life and found myself stranded overnight at Logan airport. There was something deeply weird about the whole experience: I used to live in Providence and so I spent quite a lot of time hanging out in Boston. I wouldn’t say I knew the city well, but I did know my way around and had some favourite places to eat. So to spend several days there and be repeatedly lost and disconnected was an odd feeling. I should know Boston but I guess I don’t any more. So there’s something appropriately vague about my eating impressions of the city. I was staying downtown, far from my old haunts in Cambridge or even at the cheaper end of Newbury Street, and so I generally went where people took me. Luckily, I have well-connected friends who hooked me up with some amazing food. Read the rest of this entry »

Italian food expert K came to stay last weekend and he arrived with a plan: he’d been reading about the spicy Calabrian sausage nduja in last week’s Telegraph and thought we should try it out. (I should stop here and and remind readers that K just moved to the UK and possibly didn’t realise the implications of buying the Torygraph. Also he was seduced by a freebie that came with the weekend paper. Let’s not judge, we’ve all done that.) Anyway, by good fortune, I went to the Brighton Fiery Food Festival right after we spoke and came across a Calabrian food stall hawking several different kinds of nduja. Either this was the universe telling me to buy nduja or the Calabrian food lobby has a seriously good PR department.

The nice man from BreadTree told me that Calabrians think it is high time people got over their love of chorizo and recognised nduja as the best spiced pork sausage in Europe. To prove his case, he offered two main types of nduja: Nduja di Spilinga and Nero di Calabria. The first was a satisfyingly deep red colour (on the left below) and clearly rich with oil and dried peperoncino chillies. I liked the look of it immediately. Slightly more expensive was Nero di Calabria (on the right), which is organic and made from the famous Calabrian black pigs. I bought some of each for taste test purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Last weekend was Brighton’s Fiery Foods Festival, an event that you can imagine is close to my heart. I’m not really invested in the boy-boy machismo of chilli eating competitions and I could do without the live music component of the day, but I am unreasonably excited about wandering from stall to stall, buying jars of this and that spicy condiment, and grazing on hot foods from around the world.

I have to say that this year’s festival was noticably weaker on the street food front. Whereas last year I ate amazing som tam (pounded for me while I watched, with levels of each ingredient open to debate), delicious Nigerian spinach and egusi (not spicy but there was hot sauce available) and more, this year the hot food was a bit insipid. There were stalls of the kind you see at every street event – burgers, sausages and so on – that have nothing to do with fiery foods, and then horrible corporate versions of Mexican food. We did eat some lovely Thai BBQ but I worry that the economic situation is driving out the small businesses that are a huge part of this kind of event.

On the positive side, the stalls selling artisanal ingredients and condiments were a joy. It’s always lovely to meet the people who make foods and in most cases at the festival, that’s exactly who I was talking to. Enthusiastic about their products and happy to talk about suppliers, recipes and more, the makers of these products made for a food blogger’s dream day out. And, of course, these delicious products are all available to buy online. Here are my top five: Read the rest of this entry »

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