Recipe 7 – Spaghetti ai ricci (with sea urchins)

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My take on the Spaghetti ai Ricci

Rizzi as they are called in Maltese remind me of my lazy childhood summer days. Swimming on the beach at St Paul’s Bay overlooking St Paul’s Islands (see below), parents of young children would go snorkelling to pick up the sea urchins. Time flies and this must have been a good 30 or so years ago.

They would go snorkelling for an hour, fill up a plastic bag with sea urchins which were caught from the rocks or seabed and then come back to the beach were the mothers and fathers would get a knife, gently cut open the sea urchin in half and give it to the children with a spoon to scoop out or else serve on top of bread like a very rustic version of bruschetta. These memories still make my mouth water given the sea urchins would have an incredible but delicate taste of the sea.

It is said that the presence of sea urchins at sea reflects the cleanliness of the sea water. I am not sure whether this urban legend is to be believed or not but over the years this tradition has since been lost and there was even a time when sea urchins were becoming rather rare.

I remember going many years without tasting rizzi although in Malta they have now found their way to many restaurants served the Italian way with pasta, mainly spaghetti or linguini. Since many years now, any fish restaurant in Malta worth its salt serves this dish when the sea urchins are available. In many cases the sea urchins are imported from Italy.

And whenever I return to my home country, nearly nine years after leaving, the only thing I crave is pasta with sea urchin which is nearly impossible to find in continental Europe.

There are a few restaurants which prepare it in the simplest of ways which is the best approach to dealing with sea urchins (we used to eat them raw when I was young and some of the most delicious sushi I have tasted in Japan were with raw sea urchins).

So here is my take on the Spaghetti bir-rizzi as the dish would be called in Maltese. This is a very quick and simple dish to make. But it is delicious and worth trying if you can find the ingredients.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 500 grammes spaghetti
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea urchins (you will need a tub or two depending on the size)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • Chopped parsley

Method

1. Boil the water to cook the pasta. Once the water is ready and you are ready to boil the spaghetti, you can start preparing the sauce.

2. Add three to four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a pan and fry the chopped garlic to give the oil some fragrance. I normally retain the garlic but if you find it overpowering, you can crush it to release the aromas and then remove it once brown. As the pasta starts to boil add the chopped cherry tomatoes to the pan and cook for a few minutes.

3. The cherry tomatoes should not be overcooked. Just as the pasta is about to be cooked add half the sea urchins and stir into the sauce with a ladle of the cooking boiling water to melt the sea urchin.

4. Drain the pasta and throw it into the saucepan and cook for an additional one minute adding the remaining sea urchins and chopped parsley. Finish off with a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you can find. Serve immediately.

Wine serving suggestion: This is a Southern Mediterranean dish so I would pair it with a fragrant wine from the South of Italy or even Malta if you can find it. A Falanghina from Campania or an Insolia from Sicily would work very well. I would also try it with a Vermentino from Sardegna or Malta.

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Nostalgic memories of St Paul’s Bay
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Book review: Palmento – A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (At table)

As the holiday season in Europe slowly starts to come to an end, one starts to think of the cooler months but also about what books to read to remind oneself of the summer.

Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey has been earmarked as one of my summer reads after I read Corkscrewed by Robert V. Camuto about wines in France (I will review the book later).

But I can imagine myself reading this book on a cold winter evening, with the rain knocking on the windows maybe with a glass of wine to accompany the reading. In fact, I am sure that this coming winter, I will come back to read this book given I have rarely read a book so beautifully written about the subject of wine, the region and its people.

Now, I may be biased because as you may have seen, my interest in wine more than 15 years ago came from the discovery of Sicilian wine and its many facets.

As the author itself wrote, Goethe wrote in the eighteenth century “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

The same can be said about its wine. For many years, Sicilian wine was sold up north to add more body to Northern Italian wines and even French wines. Over the past years, however, Sicily has developed into one of the most interesting wine regions in the world, with many winemakers describing it as a ‘continent’ because of the many terroirs which one can find on the largest island in the Mediterranean.

The book starts with a dinner at Sakalleo in Scoglitti (a fishing village in the very south of Sicily) which is probably the closest point that can be reached by boat from Malta. And again, maybe it is for nostalgic reasons or because the memories of eating at this place (probably the finest fish restaurant that I have been to) but the author describes the meal he had there in perfect detail reminding me of the three times I have been to this place.

Camuto says “Even before the arrival of the sixth dish – sweet steamed mussels – Sakalleo had earned a place in my personal pantheon of most remarkable restaurant meals ever eaten… The most inspiring food, I’ve learned, comes in simple packages without the self-consciousness that accompanies critics’ stars. Sakalleo was turning out to be an orgy of the sea in an impossibly plain brown wrapper: not so much comfort cuisine as it was comfort itself.”

This is pretty much my philosophy about food so as soon as I started reading the book I knew that I was in the right company.

Camuto has a deep passion for wine. He visits Sicily when he turns 50 and spends a year chronicling his journey from Ragusa to Palermo, Marsala to Pantelleria with trips to the rugged interior of Sicily and the heights of Mount Etna.

Here he stops to meet winemakers, Sicilan and not, including the renowned Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has taken Sicilian wines by storm making natural wines from the Mount Etna region which are world renowned.

Camuto captures the personalities and flavours and the traditions of this old world which is Italy’s largest and oldest wine region but the world traveler’s newest discovery. He goes to among others, Azienda Agricola COS, Benanti, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Marco de Bartoli, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita to mention just a few.

A full immersion into Sicilian wines and cuisine, Camuto portrays Sicily at its best. He speaks to some of the largest wine producers in Sicily as well as to the small producers which are experimenting with traditional methods of winemaking which have  to a certain extent been lost.

If you love Sicily or are curious about getting to know more about Sicilian wines, then this is a must read. If you love wine, this is also a must read. I actually wish there were more books like this about other wine regions in the world.

Two quotes from the book:

“To be Sicilian is not to be a son of consumerism. It is to be direct and human – a son of real life. Sicily tells us: You can be rich from a noble family or poor. We are all the same.”

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Originally from Il Gattopardo and quoted many times by Sicilian wine producers.

 

 

 

 

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.

The Cinque Terre in Liguria

Riomaggiore Cinque Terre
The colourful Riomaggiore

Many people rave about the Cinque Terre that you may wonder whether you might end up being disappointed when you visit. Sometimes places just do not live up to their hype.

This is not the case with the five villages which make up the Cinque Terre. As the sun glistens on the sea, the waves break on the bow of the small ferry taking you from Monterosso al Mare to one of the other villages, you cannot help but stand in awe at the natural beauty of this place.

The sea is a beautiful dark blue, the cliffs are dark grey making them all the more dramatic and in the background you see beautiful greenery and vineyards and you wonder how this all came about.

It is difficult, if not outright impossible to list what the must see destinations are in Italy. If you do not live there, the only way to go about it is to return time and time again to different parts to savour it all in.

Many times, it all depends on what you would like to do and see. Whether its city trips, a mix of city and countryside or else spectacular scenery, there is a choice for pretty much everyone.

View from Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre
The view from a bar in Riomaggiore

There is, however, something spectacular about the Cinque Terre which makes them one of the most well known destinations in Italy. The “Five Lands” which is the literal meaning of CInque Terre in Italian comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. When  you go there you will realise why it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ligurian coast might not be as spectacular as the Costa Amalfitana but it gives it, in my view, a very good run for its money.

The Cinque Terre is a must visit in any case. With villages perched over cliff-tops, or accessible only by train, sea or on foot this is really a special pal e.

Both if you are at sea or looking towards the sea the views are nothing short of breath-taking. There are many ways to approach the Cinque Terre. Many people head there for a day trip from Tuscany or some of the main cities of Italy. This is a great pity because Liguria has so much to offer.

The first time we visited, the Cinque Terre had been hit by deadly floods which caused devastation and havoc in some of the villages, particularly Monterosso and Vernazza. The marks of the flood where still visible when we visited.

There are four ways to get to the Cinque Terre. The best option is probably by train. The train ride which goes from Genova to the Cinque Terre and keeps going to La Spezia is spectacular. In many places you will be literally within a stone throw away from the sea. The views are great.

If you are staying in any of the coastal villages or towns (check out my post on Sestri Levante) you will be able to catch the train to the Cinque Terre. In that case, I would recommend that you stop in Monterosso, visit this first village and then take a boat-ride to Riomaggiore which enables you to see the villages from the sea. This is clearly one of the highlights.

Another option would be to take a boat ride from Sestri Levante or Porto Venere at the other end of the Ligurian coast. There are also boats from the harbour of Genova and La Spezia. We are told that the views are amazing. Unfortunately, the two times we visited the boat rides were not operational because of the rough sea.

The third option, once you get there, is to walk from one village to another. The Cinque Terre are in fact famous for a walking trail called the Sentiero Azzurro which connects the five villages. Given that most of them involve climbing or going up stairs, we have unfortunately not walked the trail or parts of it yet given our children are still too young to walk the whole way.

The other option is to go there by car. But this is not recommended. First it is not easily accessible and you will only be able to reach a few of the villages. Parking is not cheap and easy to find particularly during peak season.

The villages have been built over the centuries by people who carefully built terraces on the rugged steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. One of the allures of these villages is the fact that they are not ruined by commercial interests and while paths, trains and boats connect the villages, most of them are not reachable by car.

The wines of the Cinque Terre are very special. You can see why from the photos because the terrain is very rough and the vineyards are on cliffs which go down to the sea and the wines produced therefore have exceptional minerality. The grapes are Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino. These grapes are used to make the Cinque Terre wine as well as the Sciacchetra which is a really special sweet wine. One recommendation if you are in the Cinque Terre is to try the Sciacchetra as an aperitivo. Sip it while enjoying great views. Life doesn’t get much better.

Vernazza
Vernazza with the vineyards in the background
Tiles of Riomaggiore
The tiles of Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre
View from Monterosso al Mare
Cinque Terre
View from the sea

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What I enjoyed reading this week (4)

Moneglia is a place that we have missed on our two visits to Liguria mainly because it is rather complicated to get there by car. It is located between Sestri Levante and the Cinque Terre and is accessible through a one-lane tunnel. We were told that if you miss the tunnel crossing, you will have to wait for a rather long time before the traffic lights turn green. So we avoided heading there to eat in the evening. Ah, what a mistake that seemed to have been.

It seems to have been a pity given a restaurant there that has been reviewed by the Financial Times Magazine today. The restaurant, La Ruota seems to be one of those unmissable places. It has a view to die for, a wine list of unbelievable depth at incredible prices and amazing food according to Nicholas Lander who wrote about it in Financial Times weekend. Reading about it here is enough to make your mouth water.

This video reminded me of our honeymoon in Japan. Here you will see how sushi should be eaten. Here you get an explanation of how to eat sushi including the fact that you should not use chopsticks.

This is a very interesting article about restaurants changing menus and clients not being able to order what they were expecting to order.

I’ve written about French food and the new law in this blog. Here is an article from the New York Times in which Mark Bittman opines that the law will not really address the issue.

Here is an interesting book review about Umani, a taste which we cannot describe but which is essential to our food enjoyment.

And lastly, Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul this week suggested controversially that we may have to work a three day week in future but continue to work up to 75. Here is Richard Branson’s take on the matter.

And finally, thanks to Franklin for sending in this link about a splendid sounding herb garden in Flanders. This seems to be a must visit for foodies in Belgium.

 

 

Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia

 

What is happening to French restaurants?

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Is it possible that three out of four restaurants in France are serving food prepared elsewhere?

There is no question, at least at the high end of the restaurant scene that the French are still at the top of the culinary world although the competition has become incredibly fierce with countries like Spain, Italy, the UK (yes you read that correctly) and Japan challenging for the top position.

But amid that reputation is a creepy feeling that not all is rosy. While the top chefs can command huge international respect for their creations, you need to sit and wonder at what is happening in the more traditional ‘bistros’ and ‘brasseries’. That feeling is more pertinent when you learn that France is introducing a law that will force restaurants to mark their food as ‘fait maison’ or home made to save their culinary reputation.

When this happens you realise that things are not always as they seem. As you can see from this article in The Guardian, many mid-range restaurants are using industrial companies as a way to cut costs and serve customers food that has been prepared elsewhere. We are not speaking here of canteens or fast food places but restaurants around France. The report says It is difficult to estimate what percentage are doing so but it could vary from 30% to three quarters of restaurants.

If you think about it this is incredible though it might be noticeable to the discerning eye particularly since ‘the classic dishes’ seem to be replicated in many places with similar results irrespective of the region of France you are in.

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Is it best to stick to baguettes?

I could realise something was going wrong with French cooking on a combined trip to Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France a few years ago. The reputation of these two regions is very high. But on balance, it was clear that there was no contest between the overall quality of food in Tuscan restaurants when compared to those in Provence. Don’t get me wrong, we still ate very well in Provence in certain restaurants but at the lower end, i.e. in the osterias and trattorias in the Chianti area of Tuscany there was very little chance of going wrong. Stop at any restaurant, sometimes, even a bar in a 500 people village and the chances of going wrong were close to zero. There was no need for guides or advice from locals. The reason is that at its core Italian food is simpler to French cooking because the focus is always on the quality of the ingredients and not the sauces or the complexity of the preparation required.

We also ate very well in the beautiful villages of Provence, the search for a good place was more painstaking and required considerably more research. We noticed, quite easily that the chances of going wrong were higher and to eat well you needed to spend considerably more than in Tuscany.

The question people are asking is whether this law will work. It is difficult to assess particularly in view of the fact that ‘fait maison’ might not necessarily always be better. But clearly, it should inspire people to vote with their feet. Let’s hope it works for the sake of the French culinary reputation.