Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of sweet starters and savoury ice-cream

I've been to Bocca a few times now and it has never let me down. The prices are reasonable, the food is excellent. It's the kind of neighbourhood Italian everyone should have.

I returned there last night and had a more unusual meal than most. It started with fritto misto. This translates as "mixed fried things" and is a popular Italian dish which can take many guises - often fish and seafood based. On this occasion it was deep-fried courgette flower, stuffed olives, rice balls, and custard cream. The custard cream bit sounded so bizarre that I didn't really think about - but there on the plate was some deep-fried cubes of what looked like cheese and tasted like custard cream. Later research revealed that this is indeed what they do in parts of Italy (such as Bologna), sometimes as part of a fritto misto or as an accompaniment to meat. It is a very thick custard, cooled until it sets and then deep-fried. It was by no means unpleasant, if a little strange as a starter. The rest of it was fairly straightforward, but tasty. There was a theme of soft, oozing even, fillings contrasting with a crispy exterior. The rice balls (arancini) had a melting cube of mozzarella buried within. The olives were stuffed with sausagemeat or mozzarella.

 We also shared bruschetta topped with tomato, which were much more conventional, if perfectly tasty.

My adventurousness eased for a bit as I opted for my usual main, a Mediterranean vegetable pizza. The pizzas at Bocca are huge, with impressively thin bases and generous toppings. My companion had one of their home-made pastas, an unusual dish of ravioli with beetroot filling, served with butter and poppy-seed sauce. It was pleasant, but I couldn't help thinking that beetroot is perhaps not strongly-flavoured enough to carry a ravioli filling.

We didn't strictly need a pudding by this point, but Bocca do delicious home-made ice-creams, with a changing selection. On this occasion there was a black truffle and honey ice-cream which begged to be tried. That's truffle as in fungus, not as in chocolate. At first I didn't get much flavour at all, but then a subtle muskiness came through. A bit like the beetroot ravioli, I had no regrets at having tried it, but it won't become my new favourite. I tried the strawberry yoghurt ice-cream too, which was pleasant enough, but to my mind nowhere near as good as their strawberry ice-cream, which is like eating the essence of the fruit itself.

My dining companion had a chocolate and almond cake, served slightly warm. It was nothing like what I had expected: layers of feather-light sponge interleaved with chocolate mousse. She didn't manage to finish it, but swore that was no reflection on its quality.

This was my fifth or sixth visit to Bocca in the space of four months, and none of them have let me down. It doesn't normally feel as adventurous as last night's visit. A  dessert of Sicilian cannoli, deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta and candied fruit, was probably the most unusual thing I have eaten previously. But I will definitely be returning to find out what's on the menu next time.

14 High Parade,
Streatham High Road,
SW16 1EX

0208 677 3646

Friday, November 25, 2011

Big flavours at the Tommyfield

When I last went to the Tommyfield it was a tapas restaurant of indifferent quality. That was quite some time ago. Now it is a bustling pub with a hearty menu that reads like it was written by a hungry person. There is pork belly with mash and apple sauce, sea bass with fennel and spinach, and pies which might include chicken, rabbit and lamb with pumpkin.

This is a sister pub to the Avalon, where we previously had a meal that outdid expectations. The menu here makes similar efforts, although unlike at the Avalon, there is no separate restaurant area. There are some tables set aside for those eating, but on a Thursday night the noise levels get a little high for those having dinner a deux.

There were several real ales, including Sharp's Doom Bar and Wandle from south London, which is served in great sturdy yet elegant tankards.

I started with a salad of beetroot and Golden Cross goat's cheese, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. It was a generous size for a starter, though perhaps a little heavy on the frisee lettuce. Beetroot and goats' cheese is a great combination, and the goats' cheese (from East Sussex) was creamy and tangy. 

The Real Ale Drinker had haddock smokie, which was flaked smoked haddock with a breadcrumb topping - a kind of savoury crumble. A poached egg was perched on top, ready to release its yolk onto the soft fish underneath. There were a few crispy soldiers for dipping, too.

Next I had a pumpkin and porcini lasagne, which caused me to reflect on how unusual it is to find a thoughtful pub lasagne. It tends to be something reheated from frozen, and is rarely available in anything other than a standard mince or mixed vegetable vegetarian version. This one was delicious - rich woodsy mushrooms, sweet pumpkin, and plenty of cheesy sauce, topped with flakes of Parmesan and chopped dill.

The Real Ale Drinker had grilled mackerel, which was juicy and flavoursome, with rather good chips, of the skin-on variety that seem to be all the rage these days.

We didn't strictly need any pudding, but the first two courses promised good things from dessert. A treacle tart was a chunky affair, with thick pastry and deep filling. It was not as teeth-rottingly sickly as some, and I couldn't quite decide whether this was a good thing or not. A chocolate brownie was not as rich and chocolatey as I might have hoped for, though still tasty, served hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and some hot chocolate sauce which had set firm over the ice-cream.

Prices are reasonable - £11-14 for most main courses, £5-6 for starters, and £5 for puddings. At lunchtimes there is a simpler, cheaper menu which includes a fish finger sandwich. They take Tastecard too.

The Tommyfield
185 Kennington Lane, London
SE11 4EZ
020 7735 1061

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reading between the lines

I took myself off to the Wellcome Collection last night for a talk of this title, on early cookery books and parallels with today's blogs.

The speaker was Sara Pennell, historian at Roehampton University - if you were listening to Radio Four's Today programme yesterday morning you might have heard her talking about how the Wellcome's collection of historic recipes is now available online.

17th century cookbook (not one from the Wellcome collection)

Recipe books didn't all start with Mrs Beeton, of course. There were cookery books by medieval times, although the recipes were generally imprecise and it seems unlikely they were used to teach people to cook. It was in the 16th century that recipe books began to be widespread. Some have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries, in some cases beautifully handwritten and passed on as family heirlooms. Ann Fanshawe created her recipe book in the 1650s, and it is the earliest surviving English source of recipes for both drinking chocolate and ice-cream. (The ice-cream, incidentally, can be flavoured with mace, orange-flower water, or ambergris, an ingredient derived from sperm whales.)

A bit like modern blogs, there are comments on the recipes and occasionally autobiographical details. Some of them are a mish-mash, including versions of other people's recipes and printed cuttings. Often the books cover medical matters and home remedies as well as cookery.

Meanwhile technology is threatening to usurp the cookery book - there are cookery apps for your phone, and even a splash-proof gadget you can buy specifically to electronically store your recipe collection. Will these things prove as lasting as the recipe books the 17th century has passed onto us?

17th century cookbook (not one from the Wellcome collection)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tropical fruit and street food in Chelsea

This is an upmarket Malaysian in an upmarket bit of London. The menu prices at Awana in Chelsea (or is it Kensington?) are on the upmarket side too - but rest assured you don't need to pay them most of the time. There's 50% off food with, 50% off food for tastecard holders, Groupon special offers...I suspect the people who pay full price are mostly those who have enough money not to care.

To do the restaurant credit, those who have booked with a special offer are not treated like second-class citizens.

The restaurant is large and slick-looking, with teak and burgundy leather. An unusual touch is a couple of television screens, showing the chef's hands deftly at work making the roti.

Food is pretty good, though not mindblowing. A starter of sup kambing (spicy lamb and potato stew) was one of the highlights - somewhere between a soup and a stew, with plenty of meat, it was a hearty way to begin the meal. Spicy little deep-fried potato cakes came with a salsa which had added zing from lemongrass.  A main course of sea bass was beautifully presented, wrapped in a banana leaf. The fish was moist and flavoursome, though the seafood sauce it came with was more of a challenge. Its smell and flavour made me think of fish sauce that had been left to ferment for a long time, and I think it might be something of an acquired taste. There is a fair range of vegetarian dishes, which are perhaps not as interesting as the meaty options - my mixed vegetable stir-fry was pleasant, though.

Desserts are on the petite side but include plenty to tempt. I was intrigued by the ice-cream flavours and tried the star anise with blood orange, jackfruit with ginger and chocolate with lemongrass from a wide selection. The first of these was fantastic, the second not bad but perhaps lacking in oomph and the third certainly interesting, but perhaps too dominated by the lemongrass. A guava cheesecake was light-textured, almost more of a mousse, but with a nice guava flavour.

There is a satay bar, too, offering Malaysian "street food" in a setting about as far from the streets of Penang as you can imagine.

85 Sloane Avenue
London SW3 3DX
020 7584 8880

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Feast to cure melancholy

It's not every day you get to attend "an edible experiment". The Wellcome Collection hosted two events called Feast to Cure Melancholy. The blurb promised: "If the experiment succeeds you will take home new tools for living. Even if it fails, the evening will be an imaginative and sensory delight."

It's possible they were over-selling it slightly. I certainly didn't feel I acquired any new tools for living. On the other hand, the imaginative and sensory delight bit probably was true.

It was inspired by the Wellcome's collection of historic recipe, food and medical books, in particular Robert Burton’s 1621 work The Anatomy of Melancholy. This is a collection of advice, quotations and musings on the subject of what we would now call depression. Quite a bit of it is about food - Burton thought the melancholy man should avoid beef, venison, hare, heavy wines, cabbage and fresh-water fish, among other things.

Robert Burton

Last night's event drew heavily on the ancient and medieval theory of humours. A melancholy person was afflicted by too much cold and dry humour, and would need something hot and wet (such as duck or radishes) to balance it. A phlegmatic person is cold and wet, and could be treated with choleric foods such as wine and mutton.There were other treatments too, such as blood-letting or enemas.

Having learned all this it was time to eat - four small and unusual courses created by food artists Blanch and Shock. A couple of the dishes were "Butter-roasted onions with nutmeg and cinnamon-spiced potatoes, chestnut cream powder, spring onions and capers," and "Potted wild boar in hay-infused fat, pompion (squash) crisp, apple gel, scurvy grass and toasted hogweed seeds." This was certainly the first time I had eaten hogweed seeds, or for that matter dittander, which turns out to be a wild plant with a mustard flavour. It wasn't the best meal of my life, but it was possibly the most original.

The blurb had asked: "Can our minds benefit today from Burton’s dietary and medicinal advice on food and drink, moderation and exercise, sleeping and dreaming" Well, not as far as I could tell from last night. The theme of food and health seems timely, though, when Channel Four is broadcasting Food Hospital, looking at whether conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer can be helped by diet. There is some evidence that nutritional deficiencies can affect mental development and behaviour, including that lack of iron and iodine can affect children's mental development.

Certainly food for thought.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Richmond farmers’ market – small but perfectly formed

It took us a few minutes to find this farmers market , tucked away in Heron Square, just near the bridge over the river.

Once there, we found a stall with a good sprinkling of stalls, probably about 10 or 12 in all. There was a wet fish stall, a stall selling game such as partridges and pheasants, and a bread and other baked good stall. There was Kezi's Veggie Kitchen, specialising in vegetarian treats such as savoury tartlets and soups, as well as sweet things like flapjacks. And a fair-sized fruit and vegetable stall, where the walnuts in their shells and the interesting squashes caught my eye. I also saw Wild Country Organics, a Cambridgeshire-based farm who seem to do most of the farmers’ markets around London. They have some lovely unusual salad leaves, including sorrel and land cress.

One of the more unusual stalls was Isle of Wight Produce. As well as an array of tomatoes there was also garlic, eggs and three Isle of Wight cheeses – a hard cheddar-style cheese, a softer Camembert-type cheese, and a blue. We bought the latter, imaginatively called Isle of Wight Blue. When we bought it, it was a creamy cheese with just a hint of blue, rather like a blue brie. But a week later (it has been in the fridge) it has become a lot more forceful.

I was slightly surprised that there weren’t more cheeses – most farmers’ markets seem to have a dedicated cheese stall, though the three Isle of Wight cheeses at least cover a good spectrum, and it makes sense for them to travel with the Isle of Wight tomato company.

Next time I’ll be buying a gourmet lunch, with some of those vegetarian tartlets, and maybe a chocolate brownie or two to finish!

When and where: 10am-3pm Saturdays, Heron Square, Richmond

Number of stalls: 10-12
Range of produce: 8
Value for money: 7
Marks out of 10:7

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Autumn squash

By coincidence I had two delicious butternut squash dishes last weekend, and I thought I would share them with you. Squashes and pumpkins are in season at the moment – get English ones if you can. You could use a different sweet orange-fleshed squash such as acorn squash if you prefer.

The first of these was cooked by my friend Paul at a housewarming party. It was warming, aromatic, extremely tasty and not too much trouble to cook. I think it came from a BBC Good Food cookbook. This is my approximation based on memory rather than an exact recipe.

The second was in the cafe at the Whitechapel art gallery. It was a substantial salad of roasted squash, toasted flatbread, watercress and feta. (The gallery cafe also does tasty-looking cakes, and has some good recipes on its website. There is also a fairly smart restaurant with Angela Hartnett as executive chef). Squash and feta is a great combination – it’s that sweet/ salty thing. Again this is my approximation of it rather than the exact recipe.

(Sorry  I haven't got pictures of the actual dishes, but here are some lovely squashes and pumpkins I saw at the weekend instead.)

Butternut squash and butter bean stew

1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1 tin butter beans, drained
Good pinch chilli flakes
1 tin coconut milk
About 275ml/ half a pint vegetable stock (you can use a cube)
Zest of one lime
A handful fresh coriander
Chopped cashew nuts

Cook the onion in the oil until softened. Add the squash and cook, stirring, for five minutes. Add the stock, coconut milk and chilli and cook for 20 minutes or until the squash is soft. Add the butter beans, lime zest and half the coriander and cook for another five minutes. Scatter over the cashew nuts and the rest of the coriander just before serving. Serve with rice.

Butternut squash, feta and flatbread salad

1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch or small bag watercress, washed
One or two flatbreads eg Moroccan flatbread, or use pitta if that is what you can find
150-200g feta

Roast the squash in 1 tbsp oil at gas mark 5 / 375F / 190C for half an hour or until soft and slightly charred at the edges. While this is happening, toast the flatbread for about a minute on each side or until crisp but not too browned. Allow to cool so you can handle them, and then cut the flatbreads into small pieces – triangles look best. Mix the squash with the flatbread pieces, the watercress and feta. Add the oil and some black pepper (you can add salt if you feel it needs it, though bear in mind that the feta is salty). Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you have any favourite squash or pumpkin recipes, let me know using the comments.