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