HAMPI, HOLI & GULAAB JAMUN

A blister of colour in the distance, a puff of pink, explosions of ochre and a wave of vermillion. Clusters of people emerge from the cloud, invigorated by this heady concoction. The beat of the drum, a tribal vocal crescendo en mass. In this Holiest of cities, urban rhythms reverberate against the chipped structures of ancient India.

Throughout the madding crowd, young boys climb atop the shoulders of their future selves, feet clenched as they release liquid cannons of vivid pigment in tangible excitement. The beat of the drum intensifies. Louder still. More drums! The streets are sullied by the carnival and a trail of destruction traces its steps. What was, is now gone. The mantra of the drum has cleansed the air. The dusty paths are the tilled soil. Only after destruction can there be creation. Spring has arrived – now we rejoice.

Hampi is a place that grows on you, inevitably filling your heart. Quickly passing through, it would seem like yet another travellers’ haunt with the usual hippy-rag hawkers and cheeky tuk-tuk drivers on every corner, jacking up the prices just because they know they can. But Hampi is there to be explored and once you get under the skin of the land, it becomes far more than just any tourism enterprise.

A ritual climb of 600 steep steps carved into the side of a mountain is utterly worth the aching thighs and wobbly knees for the view of a sunset from the birthplace of Hanuman with company from his monkey troop. Beyond every temple is another less visited. Clamber through giant, extraordinarily placed granite boulders to find monuments from a lost empire. If you listen carefully you can almost hear the songs of old, in the wind between the palm leaves, in the babbling of a stream, in the stillness of the midday sun.

Nobody tells you just how difficult it is to scrub Holi paint from the skin and so after the frenzy of the morning, we need a place to wash off. A friend who heard from a fellow traveller who got told by their neighbour who was shown by their cousin leads us to a secret oasis named King’s beach. Someone has to negotiate with the anxious gate keeper who looks after this territory for the lineage to the Hampi dynasty. Once we assure him that this portal will be revealed to no one else, we enter another world. Squelching down lush rice paddies and scorching the soles of our feet on burning rock, it is a welcome relief to splash into the gushing stream.

We strip off our clothes only to discover that the paint has soaked through, illuminating our physical frame. There could be eight or nine of us relative strangers. We look alien, super-human, surreal and just plain dirty but none of that really matters. There is no talk of who does what job in the outside world, no care for age, no identity. We are just people, half-naked in the searing heat, quenching our bodies with this magical landscape.

A RECIPE FOR GULAAB JAMUN

Gulaab Jamun is probably the most indulgent of all traditional Indian sweets. Milky balls of deep-fried pancake batter act as a sponge, sucking up an abundance of cardamom infused syrop. One is enough, but it is never easy to stop at just that so make sure there is plenty for everybody to have seconds.

Makes roughly 12 balls

SUGAR SYRUP
  • 250g sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 drops rose water
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom powder

 

Dissolve the sugar in the water and warm on a medium flame. It should be ready within 15 minutes, add the cardamom powder and the rosewater and take off the heat.

THE DOUGH
  • 250g milk powder
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 tbsp semolina
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • Sunflower oil for deep frying
  • 1/2 cup fresh cream
  • 1 tbsp ghee

Heat up the sunflower oil on the lowest setting while you make your syrup.

Mix the flour, semolina and milk powder together. Add the ghee and blend in, then gradually add the cream. Roll into little balls about 3cm in diameter and gently deep fry. They need to cook very slowly so that the inside cooks. Turn off the heat if you need to. They will begin to float in the oil and when they are golden brown on all sides, that’s when they are ready.

Place the balls in the warm syrup, turn the heat off and let sit for half an hour.

Thanks to Tim Kidd who was brave enough to take his iPhone into the chaos with us for that first Holi shot.

Griddled Blue Cheese Mussels

Well hey there. I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, wow, it’s been a really long time since this guy posted on his blog. Or you’re crazy surprised, because I have said I’d post about something on Twitter a bunch of times in the last few months and then flaked out. Or you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, because this is your first time here and all you want is your mussel recipe (scroll down to the Ingredients if you don’t want to read my spiel).

Well, let me first say, it’s true I’m back — and for real this time. And secondly, I’m terribly sorry for letting any of you down. And third, I promise I will not disappoint you again. And when I say I promise – I PROMISE!

But enough about my lack of follow-through-ness and accountability. Let’s leave that to the … Instead let’s focus on this delicious Mussels recipe! Only thing is that this is a recipe that violates not one, but two Kosher rules. Oy vey is right. (If you’re concerned about my salvation, I’m reform and don’t keep kosher, so it’s cool). Plus I don’t even like mussels all that much – these were for my wife who is Catholic. But the broth is pretty amazing – bacon, wine, blue cheese & all. Just add crusty bread and yum.

As you can see from the picture above, this recipe involves mussels. And not just any mussels, the same scrumptious blue cheese & bacon ones made famous on . Yes, those same ones by Teddy Folkman from the DC Mussels & Fries Institution, Granville Moore’s. And yes, the same ones that beat out Bobby Flay’s mussel recipe on that same show. However, since I now live , rather than drive in and wait over an hour for the real thing, I figured I’d try and take a stab at making them myself. But with my own little twist.. On a griddle!

I want to thank my good friend over at griddlechef for this amazing recipe. I’ve always struggled to cook mussels and have tried so many different techniques. It wasn’t until I got good with a griddle that things all started to fall into line and the mussel mastery began. Before the griddle I would simply steam the mussels and it had an okay flavor but now the flavor is far better than I ever could have hoped for.

If you’re wondering how I got the recipe or want a step-by-step video of the original in a skillet (griddle is cooler, just sayin), Washingtonian magazine . This is just my attempt at them on the BBQ, since I’ve become obsessed with griddle /smoking/burning food on my griddle this past summer and I figured the smokiness would add a bit more depth of flavor (which I think it did).

Ingredients:
2 pounds rope-grown P.E.I. mussels (cleaned & debearded)
3 tablespoons blended oil (50 percent extra-virgin olive oil, 50 percent canola oil)
3/4 cup diced applewood-smoked bacon
3/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 cup of a creamy blue cheese (Folkman recommends Hook’s but I couldn’t find it)
3/4 cup white wine, preferably a dry Chardonnay
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup baby spinach, cleaned and destemmed
Sea salt, as needed
Black pepper, as needed

Directions:

Start your griddle! If using an outdoor griddle, you want your coals covered in white ash and burning red. Stick a medium or large cast iron griddle on the griddle over direct heat. Add the bacon and cook for a couple minutes. Add the oil and cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and becomes slightly browned. Add the shallots. Cook for a few more minutes. Add the mussels and toss together. Quickly add the white wine and lemon juice and toss together.

When the mussels start to open, add half of blue cheese, melting it into the broth. Toss and cover for a few minutes. As soon as all mussels are open, toss in the spinach. Cook until spinach wilts some. Toss a few more times. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper.

Remove from the griddle with heat proof gloves and top mussels with the remainder of the blue cheese. Serve with a French baguette to sop up all that delicious broth and enjoy!

 

FRESCOBALDINO REVIEW

Returning to a restaurant in which you had this one amazing time at, can be a bit like bumping into a one night stand in Tesco: awkward, disappointing, mostly embarrassing. You’re going about your weekly shop in a relaxed fashion and the trolley scoots round the corner of the cereal aisle. As you’re selecting what to have for breakfast, a familiar face comes into your peripheral vision, causing your stomach to backflip. You hide behind a box of sugar puffs, perhaps they haven’t seen, but there is no such luck… An uncomfortable and clunky conversation ensues, typically consisting of, “So what are you up to at the moment?” – “Oh, you know, the same.” – “Remind me what that is?”

Without the beer goggles, this person doesn’t seem quite as dreamy, in fact you can see a bogey hanging from their nostril and the overpowering smell of aftershave has made you do a mini vomit in your mouth. After an awkward silence, you say your goodbyes, perhaps make a feeble suggestion of going for “a drink some time” and take the walk of shame to the vegetable section, praying you don’t decide to use the same till later on.

I came to Frescobaldino three years ago and it pretty much sparked a longwinded and almost carnal love affair with Italian food. It was the first place I ever tried steak. I remember being shocked that it could be red and fleshy in the middle and still be warm and voluptuous, all the while tasting a thousand cows better than a Big Mac. The truffles covering it (probably the first time I’d had those too), lifted me into a dizzy trance, I forgot to think and just did life. It’s arguable that perhaps this was down to the wine that the Frescobaldi family is so famous for. It flowed as freely as the conversation; our glasses always full to a happy medium. Before this experience, I was such a prude fusspot, I became a new woman, you could say I lost my gastronomic virginity there. After eating vast quantities, I had to rest for a whole day.

And so, I return a few years down the line with caution, hoping my high expectations that were formed on that day won’t be dismally crushed. I come in through the main entrance and I am seated in the restaurant. I notice the menu is a bit pricier than last time. My primo piatto is fine but the staff are far more formal and a lot less personal and I feel rushed. My food reflects this because the steak is luke warm, as if it was cooked in a hurry and left to cool while I was eating the previous course. My face is burning, are these the prickling tears of disappointment? I’m so hot in fact, I ask if I can take my drink to the quiet courtyard and finish it there. They oblige. Once I am there, I am told by a waiter called Primo that this is the wine bar, Frescobaldino, I had been sitting in the restaurant, Frescobaldi by accident, and the menu is slightly different…

It all comes rushing back, I remember Primo, how friendly he was, how knowledgeable he was about every wine he poured and how he served each dish in front of us while explaining how they were made. That evening, I decide to return again with friends to give it all a second chance.

They call them “bar snacks”, but the bar snacks are more like works of art. Out comes insalata caprese, sitting on bails of finely shredded lettuce. It is marinated with an earthy juice from the artichokes resting on top. Even though it tastes incredible, truffle mortadella often comes under predjudice because of its ugly appearance. This time though, it is sculpted into pink ruffles and looks so dainty, even the sceptics give it a try. It is accompanied by fennel salami arranged in a similar fashion, which smells of a balmy summer night in the Tuscan countryside. Frescobaldi’s signature pate is spread thick on crostini and vivid green olive oil for dipping envelops the salty bread.

The huge antipasti would have been enough but we committed to zucchini and scallop risotto as well. The rice is warming, sticky and made yellow by saffron. The enormous scallops are so juicy and the biggest I’ve ever eaten. The coral has been left in and flavours it with the kind of sweetness you get when prawns are cooked shell on. We try pasta too, with meat. A thick type of spaghetti loop the loops round our fork, occasionally slipping off so we have to slurp it up.

A different bottle has been carefully chosen for every course and we learn about each one accordingly. Starting with Prosecco of course, followed with a light fruity red, then graduating to a more sophisticated garnet. By the time the meal is over, we’ve received a masters in Vin Santo from the cheeseboard and a pHD in grappa… Although we’re not feeling too clever at this point.

To top off that brilliant meal, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much when eating out. Primo was generous with our poor Italian, hospitable and good humoured. He held back to give us “girl time” but joined in on the jokes. There was nothing awkward or forced about this meal, just old friends, catching up.

So if you’re planning on having a one-lunch-stand at Frescobaldino, I’m afraid it’s not going to work out because you’ll have to keep going back for more.

Frescobaldino
Tel: +39055 284724
Via de’ Magazzini 2-4/R
Firenze
www.deifrescobaldi.it

BALLARÒ MARKET, PALERMO REVIEW

Fish and chips usually give me a headache. They’re not particularly complex but I’ll bet there’s something in the batter that makes my brain swell. Don’t get me wrong, on some occasions, this quintessential seaside dish can be delicious but more often than not, the batter is soggy, cooked in ancient fat and the chips are as floppy as a… well, a bunny’s ears.

 

Of course, the Sicilians have an equivalent to fish and chip shops. Except, instead of chips you’ll generally find pasta, couscous and caponata.

After a morning in the market of Ballarò, the locals come to this pescheria to buy lunch because there’s no time to cook after all that haggling. You walk past the odour of copper and salt emanating from stall upon stall of fish so fresh, the clams are still clapping. There is zucchini, as long as your arm or as small as a 50 pence piece, ripe fichi d’India and mammoth persimmon in vivid pinks and oranges, olives up to your eyeballs. But down a little street, where fish-heads and entrails rest, unwanted in the gutter, is Mare Pronto.

The one issue you will have in here is what to choose. Behind a glass counter like a quaint patisseria, are platters full of fish in all shapes, sizes and colours. Juicy swordfish steaks peek out from under freshly chopped tomatoes. There are prawns so enormous and sweet, any prawn you’ve ever eaten before would get size envy. Not a cod in sight today, but perhaps gurnard would appetise?

There is a whole section set aside for fritto misto, deep fried fish. In a round bowl sit octopus, their suckers fixed in a friendly wave. Golden rings of calamari would rather be eaten than worn as jewels on giant fingers. Prawns, crab, kebab, more prawns. The prettiest red mullet is blushing from underneath a minutely thin layer of batter, like fine lace over flesh. Bitesized sepiolini, baby cuttlefish, a crisp salty bite turns gooey then chewy. If any larger, they would look like they’d swum out of a terrifying Alien vs Predator film. If you’re really lucky, a snorkeler might have braved the waters of the gulf for sea urchins and you could have delicious ricci, which hangs then slips from spaghetti ropes, falling apart, perhaps before it even reaches your mouth, as if it has known its destiny all along.

Apart from the abundance of fresh fish, this looks like your average chippy. It’s no frills dining, you can either eat on the street off a paper plate or take a big bass and piles of squid home to feed the family. The owners are friendly and welcoming and the prices are fantastic. The best bit is, the batter is thin and unobtrusive so you can enjoy the full flavour of each fish. It has the same degree of crunch as any old cod in England but thankfully, without the headache.

Mare Pronto,
Via cesare battisti 35, Palermo
0919763053

Find Mare Pronto on Facebook

LE CAFÉ ANGLAIS REVIEW

How terrifying it must be for the head chef right now. Fifteen hungry wannabe food writers plus some highly acclaimed ones ascend the stairs at Le Café Anglais, poising their forks for action. Several will inevitably pick at the seams of their dishes until they unravel, complaining that the raw strawberries weren’t the right temperature or that the food didn’t astound, but right now, I am not in the mood for that sort of tosh. I am here for joy alone, feeling like one of the luckiest girls alive, for a lunch that knows no bounds and an unending string of tastes and conversation.

You walk into the grand art deco hall-cum-Parisian brassiere as if stepping off a plane at the equator, immediately being hit by the smells and warmth of an Anglo fusion with faraway lands. Your heart begins to race as you take a first glance at the menu, which thankfully is only there to inform as the dilemma of what to eat has already been decided.

I feel glad about positioning myself with a perfect view of the stage like pass, distracted every moment a piece of Mortadella is happily drooped upon a plate, waiting to be tasted. There is a selection of Hors d’Oeuvres to share coming our way and to avoid wasting time on awkwardness and clashing cutlery I explain to these relative strangers that my morals do not lie with the polite ‘Family hold back’ method and I am more from the school of ‘Dig in’. Elated and ravenous from this morning’s teachings, they agree and we do.

Smart soldiers of anchovy toast swim to my lips with an affectionate dribble of Parmesan custard. Kipper paté and a soft-boiled egg slip through my mouth as I hark back to my dad’s English boarding school inspired breakfasts. Jolted by the crunch of crostini, the peppery watercress beneath quenches my salty thirst like droplets of hope in a sand blasted desert. The Aubergine ‘Imam Bayildi’ is relatively non-exciting but I suppose, that is its purpose. I am brought back to this world and gain comfort from its fleshy structure and earthen flavour.

Mortadella does not look or sound particularly inviting, however this slice has Ago Dolce Onions perched like little ladies waiting for the bus. As you plunge your fork into them they burst out of their jackets, undressing layer upon layer of sweet film, enveloping raisins and pinenuts, which are then punctuated by peppercorns and crisp almond slices. A lonely radish stares at me from below. If it’s going to waste, I might as well…

We swill back some silky Corbièrs, the perfect antidote to these meaty wonders. Just as our stomachs start to rumble once more, the second course arrives, served like an Elizabethan volta in flawless patterned unison. The steamed hake is so soft and speckled with juicy well-fed shrimps from the nitrogen-rich waters of the North Sea. I sluggishly accept just one more mouthful, then another, even though I know it will be to my detriment.

I seem to have created quite a crumb around me and the waiter shamefully clears my place. Hogs we are, no one is fazed by the appearance of pudding. Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberries. Shouldn’t this feel heavy? It doesn’t, it is uplifting and tastes of Vanilla, Lemons and May.

Perhaps my judgement was clouded by urgent hunger, apparently the food was not up to par. Yes it had faults, but it also had immense flavour and balance and I still enjoyed every moment. Most of us are dying for a post lunch nap and as the conversation drifts from food blogging to fashion blogging, I thank god I decided not to wear a belt today.

Le Cafe Anglais, 8 Porchester Gardens, London, W2 4DB

THE STILL & WEST, PORTSMOUTH REVIEW

Some food writers believe it is their duty to tell the world about a place if it is awful, but the moment I begin to call rubbish rubbish, a whirling match of mental tennis bats about vigorously between my ears… what if the restaurant is to close because of my review? What if the landlord hunts me down with a carving knife? What if the chef gets fired, his wife leaves him and he has to sleep on the streets? What about – err – karma?!

Therefore, I don’t do bad reviews. I’d rather not revisit that terrible meal and give a place energy if it’s no good. Yep, I’m yellow-bellied, white-livered, a poltroon some may say. But somebody’s got to pipe up eventually and if not me then who? You would hope the restaurant could only improve after such criticism and I can’t go through life just being a one-trick-foodwriter, clapping my hands gaily with the pleasures of eating. No. I’ve got to be serious and all that jazz. So here’s how I’m going to pursue the following piece:

COM•PLI•MENT SAND•WICH

noun |ˈkämpləmənt||ˈsanˌ(d)wi ch |

a technique used in the corporate world to masque an insult in order to make it pallatable for an audience.

USAGE begin the criticism with a compliment, follow up with a criticism/insult and then end with a compliment or something favorable about the receiver.

The Still and West lies at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour on the old Spice Island, a land of smugglers taverns where restless spirits of swabs and their strumpets roam the streets. You can sit for dinner by the wall of windows and watch the ferries tootle by every ten, ploughing waves to the harbour wall below you as the sun passes behind Gosport and onto the West. The restaurant itself harks back to a grand old time with a refined fish menu and old fashioned nautical decor. It’s so close to the waters edge, if you spun around several times and got hit on the head, you might believe you were aboard the QE1 in its heyday.  I come from a navy family and we’ve been patrons here for generations. It’s the old salty dog’s greasy spoon of choice and as a little girl I would visit here with my grandmother. I loved the fine seafood, the sense of occasion, the feeling of being on an open sea voyage into unexplored culinary territory. Now we return, years on, she’s 90 and the pub, I later find out, has been bought by that brewery chain, Fullers. Back in the day it was difficult to get a table, but tonight, there is a ghostly hush; we have the only one laid.

I order the pint of shell-on prawns aioli to start but there is no garlic to speak of. In fact, the prawns arrive as if scooped straight off the ice at the fishmongers, half defrosted, swimming around in mirky water at the bottom of a glass with the faintest tinge of lager. The accompanying bread is a French baguette, stale, resoaked and warmed up in the oven. One side is still soggy from the half-hearted attempt at de-antiquing it. To share, we are presented with cockles, mussels and crabsticks so vinegary fresh from a tin, John West would be proud. Forget the QE2 Lizzy, this is authentic pirate food! The mains aren’t much better, every vegetable seems to have the same consistency as that ol’ seaside favourite, mushy peas. Fish is apparently their speciality and the menu is priced accordingly, but the mackerel is sad, the turbot defiled, the cod and chips at nearly £10, somehow, burnt. We didn’t stay for pudding.

It’s a different story downstairs, the fish and chips are decent and it’s hard to get a seat on a warm night because the terrace is full of punters slurping ales in the Spice Island air. It certainly is a popular public house in a special location and the alcohol sales appear to be the thing keeping it afloat. But wouldn’t it be amazing if there was still a reason to be that busy in the restaurant upstairs?

Still & West, Bath Square, Portsmouth, Hampshire

MUD – SUNRISE FESTIVAL Review

Apparently the sun rose but none of us saw it as we were under a thick blanket of cloud and knee deep in mud. The wind blew icy rain against our faces (this is June!) and nearly blew our shelter down so after night one, we decided it was best we kip in the car. While some festival goers numbed themselves from the cold and wet with booze or drugs, my little crew hopped from tent to tent, keeping our bellies full and warm by sampling the delicious food Sunrise Celebration had to offer.

Fresh from the hedgerow, homemade Elderflower champagne flowed like nectar, one of my favourite ciders, Orchard Pig, was available on tap everywhere and when it came to chillin’, we got toasty by the fire in the Pukka teepee with a herbal tea in hand. Wherever possible, the food at every stand had to be sustainable, local and vegetarian (except for the hogs they roasted from the farm). There was so much good food, I couldn’t mention all of it but I’ve picked a few of my favourites to share with you.

One of the things I loved about the food at Sunrise was that most stalls offered a wheat-free option, not because it was in the festival rulebook but because they were gluten-freeers themselves. The Common Loaf Bakery are spelt kings. The friendly maté-drinking bearded folk come from a community down in Devon that is part of the 12 Tribes. I wish not to offend anyone by calling them a cult but to us everyday chaps, that’s kind of what they are but I must stress they are also very good at baking bread. Half way through a fluffy, American-style pancake dripping with sweet maple syrup, I had to interrupt a religiously-orientated conversation with one of the “brothers” to proclaim to the heavens that these were the best pancakes I’d ever had, ever. When I asked their secret, suspecting that some kind of magic had been going on with the batter, he replied, “It’s simply baked with a lot of love.” We returned daily for the transcendental pancake experience and after trying one of their springy spiced buns, we strongly considered joining.

RAINBO FOOD – GORGEOUS GYOZA

When you’re sick of poorly brewed chai tea (it’s “the thing” nowadays) head over to the Rainbo van for a cup of warming miso soup and some Japanese gyoza. I’m a fan of anyone who quits their office job to do something kooky, especially if it involves a vintage truck as cool as theirs. Ben and Shrimp started off by selling chocolate at festivals but they wanted something more, something cooked and so for the last four weeks they’ve been hawking thousands of dumplings to hungry, muddy people. They told me that it isn’t as glamourous as it looks and that it involves hours of multiplying dumplings and equating tofu ratios but all that talk became romantic jumble once I bit into the piping hot, meaty flavoured centre. They were only allowed to sell vegetarian gyoza at Sunrise so I’m going to make a special pilgrimage to Leather Lane market in London to taste their ginger chicken and pork dumplings – Food like this just makes me so happy! If you want to know more about their story, Shrimp has a Huffington post blog well worth a read.

NOMAD CURRIES – CURRY WITH INTEGRITY

Festival veteran, Rakesh has been doing this for a decade, he’s no stranger to the rain and has seen more mud than most of us can imagine. He loves his life on the road but now it’s time for him to sell up and settle for a quieter occupation as a massage therapist. It’s got to go to the right people mind you – the spices are mixed and fried on site, the ingredients are sustainable, fairtrade and delicious – this is curry with integrity. We went for dinner and got completely soaked talking to Rakesh about life, the gentle evolution of his business from chip van to traditional Indian fare and what’s to come next. My chapatti, filled with the heat of a spicy lime pickle kept me warm and afterwards we had a cup of the finest chai tea in the land. Rakesh will not be quitting festivals all together, he runs happiness talks and has written a beautiful book with Thoughts, Quotes and Poems on Happiness

 

CAPER PESTO

I can still smell the warm night air, pregnant with the nectar of caper flowers and wild fennel. The land on Salina is so fertile from fresh water springs and volcanic soil that lush vegetation bursts out of the hills and seems to spill onto the windy roads before you. The island is Sicilian in character but arid is not a way to describe it, this place is injected with vibrant emerald green life.

I love the main port, Santa Maria di Salina with the clamour of its noisy fish monger, a modest amount of tourist tat strewn on the pavement dotted with the occasional set of rough pearls and the twinkling lights from Lipari island, flickering like candles in the haze across the archipelago. Next to it sits Lingua, a small village with a big reputation for the best granita in the country. A busy panneria named Da Alfredo sells them in a rainbow of flavours from refreshing watermelon to cool fichi d’india, so good that Sean Connery sends his skivvys off the yacht to fetch them in the baking afternoon sun. But the best part of this island lies over the double peaks and nestles within the crater of an extinct volcano.

Pollara looks as if she has been ripped in half by Aeolus, the tempestuous god of wind. She is a gigantic semi-circular amphitheatre with stonewashed houses as her players and behind her abrupt curved cliff, rests a perfectly round, shallow cove that gently laps against the shore. This is a haven for fish and so a heaven for snorkelers, but if I take you back up the 300 carved, steep stone steps, we end up in a farm called Al Capero.

Al Cappero is an Agroturismo that cooks and sells the food it produces. Capers are the island’s main produce, along with light Malvasia wine and fish from the abundant deep blue surrounding it. Pollara faces the West and so as you polish off your last mouthful of freshly stuffed squid with lemon drenched breadcrumbs and sip on a silky mouthful of sweet Malvasia, you and the dappled sea become bathed in soft pinky-orange light.

Anna, the grandmother and family cook, told me the ingredients for her famous caper pesto. I even took away a couple of jars and have been trying to determine the measurements ever since. We often see capers as a finishing touch or foil to something else and never a main ingredient but this dish, in all its beautiful simplicity, shows them off in their finest light. It is true memory-food and even though I haven’t been to Salina in 3 years, a forkful of this instantly transports me back to that honeyed evening with the scent of caper flowers on the breeze.

INGREDIENTS
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • A handful of fresh finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 red chili
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2/3 cup (roughly 100g jar) salted capers
  • Pepper
  • Parmezan for grating
METHOD

Finely chop your garlic and chili. You can either add all of the ingredients to a food processor or chop the capers and grind it all up with a pestle and mortar. Be sure to warm the pesto up on a very low heat, otherwise it sticks to the bottom of the pan and you wouldn’t want to waste a morsel of this beautiful food.

The man picking capers is taken from the brilliant Jamie Oliver Magazine and the photo of Pollara is my desktop background of the month. Click on it for the full sized image and download.

CHATTI PATHIRI

On the morning of my departure, the signs did not look promising. As I flicked through the delicate black paper of a 1970s photo album from my dad’s overland trip to India, I came across pictures of an emaciated 18-year-old’s frame, tales of suspected malaria and dodgy roadside eats. When you tell someone you are travelling to this exotic subcontinent, a common warning is drummed into you, “Watch out for Delhi belly!” But I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve been here a month and I’m pretty confident that I will be returning home at least 5 kilos heavier because ladies and gentlemen, I have a new found love: Malabar cuisine.

This story begins in a kitchen so hot and humid that you can’t quite tell whether your chin is damp from sweat or saliva. In that kind of muggy people oven, all you want to do is strip your clothes off but that would be a huge mistake – The mosquitos that bite every inch of your feet and toes until they become a scabby mess would inevitably spread to the rest of your bare skin and we are here to eat, not be eaten.

So why would we happily risk denghi fever and torturous itching just for a mouthful of this beautiful food?

If you can’t find fresh coconut, soak the same amount of dessicated coconut overnight.

The Malabar coast hugs the west side of India from Mumbai to the tip of Kerala. Sea-farers have been visiting these shores from afar for thousands of years and it is reflected in the food. Think raisins, an abundance of coconut, chilli so hot it makes your eyes water, sweet meets sour, Arabic meets Indian.

This particular dish is so unusual, my host Sumi assures me with the exciting phrase, “You will find this recipe nowhere else.” It is a pie and a pudding all at once, the Indian answer to lasagne or tortilla, layered and eggy but steamed. Strips of chicken rest between crepe-like pasta sheets alternately spread with thick, sweet coconut paste. Every single tastebud is satisfied from this balanced yet crazy melange. I can’t decide if it’s a spicy curry or a dessert but I’m so wrapped up in elated love for it that I simply don’t care.

Warm, comforting rice pudding. Another example of sweet yet spiced.

I must admit, I have occasionally missed the comforts of European cuisine but when it comes to food, monogamy has never been a strong point… and what’s a holiday without a little romantic fling?

THE PASTA/CREPE SHEETS
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • Salt to taste

Mix everything together and gradually add water until it forms a smooth batter. These have the taste and texture of pasta but you fry them like crepes.

FOR THE SWEET FILLING
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut (or desiccated coconut soaked overnight)
  • 1/2 tbsp cardomom powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 1 tbsp ghee

Melt the ghee in a frying pan and cook everything in it for 5 minutes as if you are making coconut scrambled eggs.

CHICKEN FILLING
  • 4 medium onions
  • 2 cups shredded chicken (cooked)
  • 1tsp garlic paste
  • 1tsp ginger paste
  • 2tbsp coriander leaves
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp chilli powder
  • 1/4 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/4 tsp gharam masala

Heat the onions in some coconut oil until they become soft. Add the spices and then stir in the chicken until it becomes well mixed.

THE ASSEMBLY

In a large pan (about the same diameter as your crepes) place a pasta sheet, then the chicken mix, another pasta sheet and then the coconut paste. Continue to alternately layer until you run out. Whisk up an egg and use it to seal the sides and coat the top. Cover with a lid and steam gently for 20 minutes.

THE DELECTABLE GUIDE TO AVOIDING DELHI BELLY

  1. Worrying only compromises your immune system, enjoy your food.
  2. Use your intuition to scope out the best food choices. Don’t eat it if your gut is saying “no”.
  3. Don’t drink the tap water, even if you’re thirsty.
  4. Always sanitise your hands before eating. No soapy goodness available? Use vodka.
  5. Take a strong daily probiotic, it’s just good sense. I chose OptiBac Probiotics because they have a species developed specifically for travellers’ tummies.

I diligently follow these steps and take probiotics religiously. Usually, I am the first to get ill but when we all ate something a bit funky, the rest of my party came down with an awful sickness and somehow, I managed to survive almost completely unscathed. Optibac are a lifesaver, fingers crossed I won’t run out before the 5 months is up!

KERALA PAROTTA

The path to the Haji Ali mosque lies upon the surface of the sea and at high tide, it becomes submerged, leaving a stranded islet in the middle of the bay. Towards the entrance of this path, noisy merchants and street-food vendors brave the aggressive waves to hawk paste jewels and quick lunches – smoky tandoori chicken, boiling oily pakora and a giant slab piled high with Kerala parotta.

Who knew that a flatbread could be special? Similar to normal paratha, the Kerala parotta does not have a single, dry, texture like its sister bread. Instead, the outside is crisp and as you tear into the elastic middle, it reveals moist, buttery ribbons similar to the inside of a croissant. While it is just as good as any old chapatti for soaking up a curry, I could eat about 10 of these alone in one sitting, they are so delicious. I wasn’t expecting to find this Southern delicacy in the middle of bustling Mumbai.

The tide is steadily rising and I am now walking ahead on wet stone, sea spray occasionally dampening my face. Boisterous ribby young boys splash around either side in the murky water, forgetting all about the gnawing hunger at the pits of their bellies. I pass a desolate sobbing woman dressed in a tarnished green sari, crouching to the ground. She has probably suffered one too many blows from an abusive husband and like so many in this city, has nowhere else to go. Then, in front of me, balanced on uncomfortable crutches, is a one legged beggar who gives me a smile that treads on my heart like the palm of a hand, kneading a ball of dough.