In Valletta head to Cafe Cordina for the perfect coffee

IMG_5149It is a cliche that has been written about many times but one which has stood the test of time. Valletta is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen. It is Malta’s capital city with a population of just under 7,000.

Known in Malta as il-Belt (the City in English), it is essentially a Baroque city build in the 16th century built just after the Great Siege of Malta when the country was under the rule of the Order of St John. I will give you an insiders guide to Valletta in the coming days.

But in the meantime, I will share one cafe which you should not miss when you are in Malta. Practically, every visit by locals to Valletta has to include a stop in one of the many cafes which can be found in this architecturally stunning city.

There is however one cafe, which stands above the rest because of its stunning location, tradition and quality and because it has the only coffee counter on the island. This is Cafe Cordina. A walk down Valletta’s main street, Republic Street leads you to this popular cafe which serves probably the best coffee on the island. After you pass the Law Courts, walk another 100 metres. To your right you will see the National Library and in front of you is the President’s Palace and St George’s square.

Walking into Republic Street you will find Cafe Cordina just before you reach the palace. It is to your left opposite another landmark, the national library. If you are heading to Valletta early in the morning to avoid the crowds, then you can just order an espresso or a cappuccino and stand by the coffee counter (just like in the main cafes in Italy) and watch as the city slowly wakes up and locals enter for a quick coffee before they head to work.

coffee baristaCoffees are being prepared constantly and there is a lot of hustle and bustle but this is all part of the fun of the experience. The barista will probably make you the best coffee south of Italy.

The cafe has been open on its site since 1944 and since then has grown to comprise tea rooms, a pasticceria, a coffee bar and an ice-cream parlour.

Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina
Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina

If you have skipped breakfast, or you have decided to stop here after some sight-seeing you can do like the locals and order ‘pastizzi’. These are pastries stuffed with either ricotta or peas. The ones at Cordina are not the same as the ones you find in the many shops selling pastizzi around the island. Nevertheless, they are excellent.

People watching at Cafe Cordina is also part of what is on offer. The Cafe has a beautiful terrace in the square in front of the national library. If you stay at the back, you have a view of the National Library. At the front end, you will have a view of the Casino Maltese in front of you (built by the Knights of St John) as the Treasury and on your right the President’s palace also built by the Knights.

Malta's Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Valletta. Next door to Cafe Cordina.

Recipe 4: Pasta with fresh tuna and slivered almonds

IMG_0327The good fresh fish shops in Mediterranean countries are a joy to visit. When you have a kitchen available, all you need is to just follow your instinct and choose what is fresh and appealing.

A visit to my favourite fish shop in Malta led me to fresh tuna, which at the moment is available in abundance and incredibly cheap.

What I miss most about the Mediterranean is sea urchins or what we call in Maltese rizzi and in Italian ricci. I have been dreaming of a Spaghetti ai Ricci for a rather long time now. It is the thing I probably miss most from my home country

But alas it was not available at my fish shop and it seems unlikely to be available anytime soon (probably the restaurants at this time of year buy whatever they can find given it is peak tourist season).

There was an incredible choice but given the fact that the fresh tuna looking incredibly good, I opted for penne with tuna. The following is the recipe.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 500 grammes fresh tuna diced
  • 500 grammes pasta (I choose penne but you can also opt for something else)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 green olives chopped
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 60 grammes slivered almonds
  • 125ml of white wine
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.

Method

1. Boil enough water for the pasta. I normally calculate around 1 litre for every 100 grammes of pasta.

2. When tuna is in season, fresh tomatoes are also in season therefore use fresh tomatoes for this recipe. I normally pierce the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for 30 seconds. They can then be peeled very easily. Remove the seeds and then chop finely.

3. Chop the garlic. Pan fry the garlic in around 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Just before it starts to colour add the tomatoes and stir. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir occasionally for around 10 minutes.

4. While the tomato sauce is cooking, finely dice the tuna and slice the olives. Add the olives to the sauce after around 10 minutes.

5. In another pan, brown the slivered almonds making sure they do not burn. If you are using a non-stick pan you do not need to add anything. (You can also do it in a grill but make sure they do not burn). Once they have a golden colour remove from the heat.

6. Throw the pasta into the boiling water (that has been adequately salted) and cook according to instructions. (For al dente pasta, I always stop the cooking at least one minute before the instructions since I mix the pasta to the sauce and continue cooking for around a minute).

7. Once the pasta is cooking, add the tuna to the sauce and the white wine and increase the heat to medium. You should make sure that the tuna is not overcooked. Once the tuna has coloured keep the sauce warm. Add the slivered almonds and shredded basil and season to taste.

8. Drain the pasta and then add to the sauce and continue cooking for around 1 minute. Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to taste.

Wine suggestion: It is summer and this is a summery pasta dish with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Tuna is a versatile fish which can even be enjoyed with a light red wine. However my recommendation would be a nice Sicilian white wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Insolia (the Angimbe from Cusumano for example) would work wonders with this dish. Most pasta dishes marry well with Italian wines. Another option for a white wine would be a Falanghina from the Campania region. A Vermentino from Sardegna or Tuscany would also work well.

Knees to Chin: Asian, fresh and healthy

20140805-001908-1148186.jpgThe area around Place Chatelain in Brussels is one of my favourite places to just walk around, just sit down for a drink or eat. It has a superb ‘village feel’ with many boutique stores which are a breath of fresh air in cities that are starting to look the same with the common branded high-street stores.

It is one of the first areas of Brussels I discovered when I moved to this city nine years ago. And it is constantly evolving though it hasn’t lost any of its charm. Old places which have stood the test of time are complemented by new establishments which open from time to time and which hope to also become regular fixtures of the area.

Recently we stopped for a quick bite at Knees to Chin, a newish place on Rue Livorne, in between Avenue Louise and Place Chatelain.

The concept is very simple but effective. If you are looking for a quick and healthy lunch this is the perfect place. They make rice paper rolls which you find in Asia. Using fresh ingredients these rice paper rolls are extremely good particularly on these warm summer days.

At Knees to Chin they make six different rice paper rolls with a great choice of fish, meat and vegetarian rolls. You can also opt for the lunch menu with a choice of either two or three rice paper rolls and a bowl of rice finished with a great peanut sauce and sesame seeds or a salad.

The place is very small but has a very welcoming interior design, I liked the display behind the counter with white and green ceramic tiles and the use of upside down colourful jars as hanging lights.

The rice paper rolls I tried were the prawns with mango and fresh mint topped with an avocado sauce, the chicken with pears and rocket served with a peanut sauce and the duck with green apple and caramelised onions served with a sesame sauce were all fresh and very tasty. The bowl of sticky rice was excellent.

The great thing about Brussels is that more and more great spots with interesting concepts are opening. These places thrive because of good service, excellent food and word of mouth. If you are in the area you should give it a try.

Verdict: the concept is good and unique for Brussels. The produce is fresh. For a quick and healthy lunch don’t hesitate to go if you are in the area.

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You can find Knees to Chin in rue de Livourne 125, Brussels.  This small restaurant is closed on Sundays. Check out their website for opening hours since these will change after 31st August.

 

Cafe de la Presse: A new coffee culture brewing in Belgium

20140805-001909-1149461.jpgThe smell of coffee coming from a cafe in the morning is enough to wake your senses. The sound of the grinders, the gurgle of the steam warming the milk for a cappuccino, the espresso drizzling into the small coffee cup. You are next in line, you hear the barista banging the used coffee into the drawer and you know your coffee is next.

Malta might not have the same coffee culture as Italy but there are many places where you can get a perfect espresso. For some, the coffee ritual is as important as the tea ceremony in Asia.

So you can imagine the shock when on arriving in Brussels nine years ago there was barely a place where you could savour a decent coffee. A few Italian shops here and there made a decent espresso and cappuccino but in most places it used to be incredibly difficult to order a coffee without regretting it.

Things have now changed, very much for the better and this has nothing to do with the venture into Belgium of Starbucks.

Order an espresso now and you are very likely to get a small coffee. Nine years ago this was not a given. In many places, an espresso would be the equivalent of an ‘American’ coffee by Italian standards.

Maybe it is the advent of Nespresso which has made huge inroads everywhere, or else because coffee culture is everywhere, but now, having a decent coffee in Belgium is no longer like searching for Siddharta.

Cafe de la Presse on the far end of Avenue Louise close to the Bois de la Cambre epitomises this revival of the coffee culture. This is the perfect place to stop for a coffee. It is always full with people, has a quirky but attractive interior design and you can have a decent espresso or cappuccino. I particularly like the industrial feel to the place.

You can sit on one of the sofas in the front end of the cafe, or else head to one of the tables at the back. If the weather is nice, you can also sit on the terrace.

It is still not there when it comes to the perfect espresso but it’s close enough and the smell of the coffee in the morning or afternoon is very welcoming. For those who do not know Cafe de la Presse, they might have come across the new Cafe du Sablon which has the same concept.

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The Falafel and hummus bagel is excellent

You can choose from a selection of homemade cakes with your tea or coffee. They also have excellent bagels or salads as well as a selection of fresh juices. You can also find the cupcakes from Lilicup here.

The Cafe de la Presse buzzes with activity. It’s a great place for people watching, to sit down with a great book or magazine or even to take your laptop and work from there.

At Cafe de la Presse and Cafe du Sablon, you can also find a relatively new Belgian beer Volga with a stunning label designed by renowned illustrator John Contino. Volga beer is not only very good but also has a very interesting marketing story. To get it noticed, the creators of the beer helped those who stocked it to have sun on their terrace even when this was geographically impossible. I leave you to find out how. It’s part of the fun.

Cafe de la Presse is also very popular for brunch on Sunday morning. I have not tried it so cannot vouch for it but it is meant to be good.

Cafe de la Presse is open every day from Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 8pm. On the weekends it opens at 8.30am.

Famous Brussels butcher is opening chophouse

I like to go the extra mile to buy good ingredients but given it is August, I need to be sure that shops I buy from are open. Most local shops in Brussels are closed for holidays given they are family run. So I got really excited yesterday when i entered the website of Jack O’Shea yesterday to discover that he would be opening a chophouse in central Brussels in September.

Now, Brussels has its fair share of culinary destinations, but I have no doubt that this is going to be an additional ‘must visit’.

There is no question about the quality of the meat at Jack O’Shea. The meat which you get from this butcher whether it is a Wagyu beef t-bone steak, an Angus beef ribeye, an aged t-bone steak or just sausages from his large range (which includes mustard and spinach, Italian, beef and guiness, chorizo), are all exceptional.

Wagyu beef t-bone steak

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With such quality of ingredients and a hot grill, all you need is to make sure you do not overcook the meat. In terms of culinary pleasures, there is nothing like a beautifully age-dried t-bone steak cooked rare and to perfection. All you need is the correct amount of seasoning (sea salt) and the patience to allow the meat to rest. So I look forward to what Jack O’Shea’s chophouse will add to the Brussels food scene.

For those who have not heard about Jack O’Shea, he is probably one of Europe’s leading butchers, though maybe not as famous as the much talked about as Dario Cecchini from Panzano in Chianti. The latter left his mark by organising a funeral of the ‘bistecca fiorentina’ when it was banned during the mad cow crisis a few years ago.

Jack O’Shea opened his first store in Brussels in 1998 and in 2006 he opened a second store in London. While it is great to have such a butcher in my home city, you can now purchase his excellent range of meats online in Europe. He is famous for his dry aged beef which is incredibly tasty and succulent. He also became famous  for the grass fed and grain finished Angus beef which is perfectly marbled and a joy to cook.

He has been featured by some of the UK’s leading food writers and also featured in Heston Blumenthal’s “In Search of Perfection” series. He is one of those butchers who believes that every part of the animal should be used and you can find many different cuts which you might not find elsewhere.

In the video above, taken from the Jack O’Shea website, the butcher explains how to choose the perfect beef. In the video below, he makes what looks like a delicious Steak Tartare.

Jack O’Shea is in the European quarter of Brussels on Rue Le Titien. He is open from Monday to Saturday.

 

 

What I enjoyed reading this week (5)

We are against war and tourist menu

 

It has been a depressing week in the news. The above photo which was shared by Gambero Rosso on their Facebook thread while being humorous pretty much sums up my feelings for the week.

Wherever you look in the media, whether it is the news on television, newspapers or even social media sites, you see photos of destruction. And you ask yourself why? Why is this happening? Why is there so much hatred?

Please stop to think about what is happening and what we could do to try and make a difference.

In any case, these are a few links to articles/video I enjoyed this week.

My readers by now know that I have a fascination with Massimo Bottura, who is considered as Italy’s most creative chef. Here you will find a fantastic interview about the creative process and evolution in his cooking. If you need some creative inspiration I recommend you watch it.

This is a beautiful piece of writing in its own way. In this article, Eric Asimov, one of my favourite wine writes looks at the wines of Irouléguy, in French Basque Country. It makes me want to go and visit. It also makes me want to look for the wines he suggests.

There is a lot of discussion about eating out solo in a restaurant. I must say that until a few years ago I would probably have thought twice about doing this even when travelling alone. Not any more. Read about the issue here.  why should you be deprived of a great dining experience just on the basis of the fact that you are alone. There could be 100 reasons for this and

Many of us still recall the horse meat scandal which rocked the food industry last year. Matters seem to be improving considerably but we are not out of the woods yet.

Barcelona is one of the top five cities I want to visit as soon as possible. Here you will read about some great places to try out if you are heading there.

Have a great weekend.

 

 

 

 

A visit to Chateau de Beloeil

Chateau de Beloiel
The magnificent Chateau de Beloiel

I recently had to spend a midweek day off with the children. I offered them a choice between either going to a park or a castle. I thought they would opt for a park but they immediately got excited about the prospect of visiting a castle.

Since there was agreement, we finally decided on the castle to go to since Belgium has its fair share of castles. I had always seen signs of Chateau de Beloeil on our trips to Lille or Pairi Daiza and have always been intrigued especially since it is also famous for its flower show and the yearly classical music concert. The castle opens at 1pm.

Chateau de Beloeil is considered to be the Belgian Versailles and on our visit we discovered that there is a reason for this. The park is very large and forms with the castle a very interesting place to visit away from the crowds.

We were there on a weekday and among the first to arrive so  pretty much had the castle and park to ourselves. The castle has beautiful antique furniture, some unique pieces as well as beautiful tapestries from a once glorious past. It used to be the residence of the Princes de Ligne.

The French garden in the castle grounds offers a harmonious blend of water and nature, shadow and light. It is still maintained to its original design from 1664.

The Beloeil castle is surrounded by its moats and gardens and has been in Beloeil, Hainaut for the past eight centuries. It was a medieval fortress which was eventually transformed into a country home.

The children enjoyed their visit to the castle and were particularly impressed by the library with its over 20,000 books. They also enjoyed the walk in the park as well as the fish in a rather large pond. The castle is also famous for the annual classical music festival which is organised in September. We hope to visit the castle again in September for this event.

If you are heading to the Castle of Beloeil there is a culinary tip that I would like to share with you. On the way to Beloeil or to Brugelette to visit Pairi Daiza, you will come across a very small rural village called Gibecq.

It is well known for its free range chickens. They are called the Poulet de Gibecq and you can stop and buy them as well as other great products from a little farm shop in the village of Gibecq.

The farm shop is unfortunately only open on Wednesday and Friday afternoon (so you need to plan your trip accordingly) or else on Sunday mornings. The good thing is that they are also available in some butcher shops around Belgium so you would do well to ask for them.

The chickens are free range and allowed to grow naturally. They are fed with grains which come from farms in the area of Hainaut. Their feed is even milled in the area. They have a splendid taste unlike more commercial chickens you find in supermarkets. I therefore highly recommend them. The farm shop also has other culinary delights such as exceptional bio yogurt as well as products from the area.

If you are ever in the area, this is really worth a stop.

Chateau de Beloil

Chateau de Beloeil