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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 »

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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…

One of the advantages of being a food blogger is that friends often give delicious food-related gifts, and  the most wonderful version of this is getting out-of-the-blue home-made giftage. The other day I came into my office to find a tiny, beautiful jar of homemade hot sauce made by my multi-talented colleague Ukelele Lady. She’s a huge chili head and has taken to making hot sauces as a bit of a cottage industry. This one is called Ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb and is of course made with cherry bomb chilies. They’re not the hottest but they’ve got a lovely sweet flavour. I couldn’t resist sticking a pinky into the jar and tasting it, and I immediately thought the sweetness would go well with the char of a steak.

So I made something very simple. I wok-seared some thin steaks, then used the beef fat in the work to stir-fry bok choy and red pepper with garlic, soy sauce and a touch of Shaoxing wine. I got both the meat and the bok choi nicely charred with wok hei, then added a good dollop of ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb. It was delicious and made us extremely happy to have such generous and warm-hearted friends. Sharing the chili love – hurrah!

By the time Mr Lemur and I hit Saigon on our tour of Southern Vietnam, you might think we’d have been all marketed out, but Ben Thanh market revitalised us. At first it felt a bit unwieldy with lots of stalls selling cheap clothes, fake plastic fruit and assorted tschotschkes, not to mention the Viet ladies who have no problem whatsoever grabbing you and pushing you aside if you are in their way. (Seriously, they make little old Italian ladies seem reticent.) But we soon warmed to the cheery rudeness of the atmosphere and enjoyed a pretty good pork chop bun for breakfast. Since we were nearing the end of our time in Asia, I felt justified in attempting a bit of food shopping. While it was sadly not feasible to carry home any of the pickled fish I enjoyed in Chau Doc, it did seem reasonable to pick up some dried shrimp and spices. Ben Thanh had some lovely looking shrimp stalls where I’m fairly certain I was ripped off, and pushy coffee vendors who clearly dealt with tourists a lot. But the spice stall was not set up for tourism and, as you can see above, its proprietor was just a little daunting. Read the rest of this entry »

Our first night in Jersey I had booked us into Mark Jordan at the Beach. More casual than Jordan’s Michelin-starred restaurant in the Atlantic hotel, we thought it would be more our speed. And it proved to be the perfect start to a relaxing holiday – the staff were that perfect balance of professional and warm and from the start we felt welcomed and at ease. We sat outside and had a perfect view of the beach. The view really is lovely, right across the long crescent of St Aubin’s bay, but at the same time the tables are tucked under a roof, so it doesn’t feel too much like a picnic.  I’m not a huge fan of eating outdoors, so this combination of elegant white tablecloth service and heated terrace with a pretty view of nature is ideal for me. 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.

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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 »

My green-fingered cousin sent me some rhubarb in the mail. When I saw her last week in Edinburgh, she offered to pop some of her bumper crop in the post for me but I didn’t quite believe she would do it. Next thing I knew, a large brown paper envelope was plopping through the door, filled with healthy stalks of rhubarb. I’m a big fan of this maligned fruit, in large measure because of the spectacular rhubarb pies my grandmother used to make. My nana was a great baker and her pastry was short, buttery, but not sweet. It was a great match for rhubarb, which she sweetened with mildly horrifying handfuls of sugar. The resulting pie set me up for a lifetime of rhubarb love but it’s not an everyday dish.

I’ve done a rhubarb compote before on the blog, but this is a neat technique that Lemur friend K shared, which he got (in some fashion lost in the midst of time) from iconic cookbook editor and writer Judith Jones. Here, the rhubarb pieces don’t break down but keep their shape and colour, while their liquid turns into a delicious ruby syrup. It’s very simple, but I had never done it this way before and it really is a cut above your regular compote.

Rhubarb compote

Start the day before you want to eat your compote. Slice the rhubarb into inch long chunks, put in a large bowl and sprinkle on as much sugar as you usually like (hint, more than seems initially reasonable, less than a Scottish grandmother would add).

Leave to sit overnight. The next morning, you’ll find the rhubarb has released a bunch of liquid.

Pour the whole lot into a pan and heat over a medium-high heat till boiling. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the rhubarb for about five minutes. If you are relatively gentle you’ll find the rhubarb keeps its shape and doesn’t break down as in a normal compote. It will also cook very quickly.

Remove the rhubarb carefully with a spider and reduce the remaining liquid to a thick pink-red syrup.

Pour the syrup over the rhubarb and enjoy with yoghurt and granola for breakfast, or with cake or on ice cream.

On my way back from Brittany, I had a couple of hours in Paris before catching the Eurostar home. It wasn’t really enough time to do anything more than have a quick drink and an even quicker dinner, but I was keen to check out Chez Michel, a Breton bistro near the Gare du Nord. I’ve heard good things about it and since I don’t know that part of Paris at all well, a good recommendation was enough to seal the deal. It looks every inch the part, sitting on the corner of a quiet street, slightly prettier than the neighbourhood around it, and with a deeply exciting blackboard menu in the window. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes, good food comes from the Ready, Steady, Cook approach. I’ve been enmired in one of my busiest work weeks of the year, and came out alive at the other end to discover that Mr Lemur had bought some more-or-less random ingredients for me to cook at the Lovely Local Butcher and the Overpriced Local Greengrocer. Of course, the ingredients weren’t quite random. Faced with a panoply of organic and sustainable meaty wonders in the butcher’s shop, it’s better than even money that he’ll come out with pork belly. And, to be fair, these were some healthy slices of pig. Read the rest of this entry »

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