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.

The real Neapolitan pizza

20140716-232117-84077729.jpgPizza is taken very seriously in Campania and especially in Naples and its surrounding areas. The reasons are rather obvious. The area is known for its San Marzano tomatoes which are renowned for their exceptional quality particularly for making tomato sauce and for the Mozzarella di Bufala made from milk from water buffalo raised in the marshlands of Campania.

No one really knows where pizza originated from  but the ‘Napolitani’ claim to be those that have invented the pizza we are so accustomed to eating nowadays in many pizzerias worldwide.

20140716-232118-84078259.jpgMaarten Van Steen of Villa Bardon in Gent which serves Mediterranean cuisine has just come back from a two week course organised by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napolitana to learn the secrets to making a good pizza. This afternoon we tasted the results of this two week course and the result was extremely successful.

Here he shares the secrets of what he has learned in the two weeks he stayed in the world’s pizza capital.

It might sound obvious but there are a few secrets to making good pizza. The first is the dough. This is made with water, flour (in Italy the use the 00 type) salt and yeast. You need to let it rest for around two hours, following which you shape it into balls which are left to ferment even overnight in a cool environment. This adds to the complexity of flavour.

The other secret is the ingredients on top of the pizza. In Campania they use crushed San Marzano tomatoes to make tomato sauce as the base for the pizza. The mozzarella is the other key ingredient. Here, unfortunately, it is not easy to replicate given that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to find a good mozzarella that has been produced on that same day. In the South of Italy, mozzarella is taken very seriously and many will make sure that they use one which had been just prepared on the day. Maarten says the best mozzarella he has ever tasted came from a visit to the farm where it had just been produced. I can vouch for such mozzarella from our visit to Campania a few years ago.

The real pizza Napolitana uses just tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. When the ingredients are good, simplicity is key.

Maarten says another key element of making good pizza is to have the right oven. A stone oven is obviously essential but he was also in pizzerias which made use of gas ovens (albeit with a flame). He says the results are not the same but come close.

You obviously need to open the dough well. Here the secret is not to throw the dough into the air. This is a gimmick and not the way the Associazione teaches upcoming pizzaiolos.

He had his fair share of pizzas but he says one of the things which surprised him most was a ‘fried’ pizza calzone stuffed with ricotta and pancetta among others which was sensational. He tried this at Pizzeria Di Matteo, which is a very famous pizzeria in one of the narrow streets of Naples.

Many associate the Pizza Marinara with seafood. However, in Campania, the Pizza Marinara is the simplest pizza you can have. It is just a pizza with tomatoes and garlic and has no mozzarella.

For the time being, Maarten will perfect the art of making pizza on his days off from the restaurant. As he says, the two week course in Naples adds to his cooking experiences. Who knows, we might be able to try his pizzas in Gent sometime in future.

 

 

The wines of Sicily – a wine region like no other

The fishing village of Scoglitti which believe it or not triggered my passion for Sicilian wines

Maybe it is because of Malta’s close affinity to Sicily, or because of the fact that I have been there so many times, but I find Sicilian wines to be extremely interesting. True, they might not compare with the finesse of Barolo’s from Piemonte or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany but still they are extremely fascinating.

Sicilian cuisine to me epitomises what is best about Mediterranean food. Take simple, sometimes humble ingredients and within minutes you have the makings of a great meal. Like my home country, Sicily is a hotpot of different influences from the Mediterranean. Some of the most memorable meals I have experienced were in Sicily whether it was a menu free restaurant in Scoglitti serving just one fish dish after another of what their fishermen had caught earlier in the day, to some of the best pasta creations. Nothing beats their spaghetti with sea urchins or pasta with prawns and pine nuts or pistachios which are so common in Sicilian cuisine.

But this post is not about Sicilian food but rather about its wines. Sicily came rather late to the wine connoisseurs attention and for various reasons. For many years, Sicilian wine producers made wine which were transported to the North of Italy to be blended with other more well known wines. There were also a few large producers who mainly focused on quantity rather than quality.

But a handful of winemakers, also spotting the potential of this island, decided to take matters into their hands starting from the 1990s and began to make their own wines under their own labels. This has led to a major reversal of fortunes and many now consider Sicily to be one of the most interesting wine regions in Italy.

Some winemakers like Cusumano call Sicily a continent because of so many terroirs that this island has to offer. The variety of wine styles that have emerged in recent years ensures that this may indeed be the case.

There are parts of Sicily which are further South from Tunisia and therefore extremely hot for wine making. Nevertheless, the wines produced, despite their intensity also have the right amount of acidity which makes for balanced wines when aged well. I can assure you that a 10 year old Nero d’Avola can give you as much pleasure as more renowned wines.

The Nero d’ Avola is the most well-known grape from Sicily and it originally comes from South-East Sicily (Avola) close to Pachino which is world famous for the cherry tomato variety of that name. Nowadays, Nero D’Avola is grown pretty much across the whole island.

Then there are wines from higher altitudes or those from the volcanic region of Etna which offer great examples of the potential that wines from volcanic regions have. Here, the most interesting grape is the Nerello Mascalese which is traditionally grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The wines from the Etna have an exceptional minerality mainly because of the volcanic soil.  One of my long time favourites from this area are the wines from the long established Benanti. Many Sicilian wine makers have now invested in this area including Tasca d’Almerita, Cusumano and Firriato. One of the most innovative in the Etna region is Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has established himself with his natural wines which use no sulphur whatsoever. His are considered to be cult wines.

The main white grape variety of Sicily is the Insolia which is a very fruity wine but when well made has great balance in terms of fruit and acidity. It also blends well with international varieties such as Chardonnay.

The first time I discovered Sicilian wines was thanks to a passionate wine lover who had a great Enoteca in the small fishing village of Scoglitti. He had a small but very interesting selection of wines in his enoteca. He guided me years ago to some of the best winemakers the island had. My fascination with Sicilian wines grew from there.

Among my favourite winemakers are Benanti, Cusumano, Morgante, Firriato, Tasca d’Almerita, Ceuso and Planeta. I will write about these and many more wine producers in future blogposts. There are many other winemakers worthy of a mention. So watch this space for more blogposts in future.

But if you find any one of the Sicilian wines from the above producers try them out. You will not be disappointed. One tip: Sicilian wines in comparison to wines of similar quality are cheaper so I would recommend that you try to acquire the higher end wines. You can find exceptional quality for wines between 10 Euros and 30 Euros.

Among my long time favourites are Cusumano’s Noa, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cusumano’s Sagana, 100 per cent Nero d’Avola, Rosso del Conte from Tasca d’Almerita, the Nero d’Avola from Morgante, Harmonium from Firriato and the Pietramarina from Benanti.

Siciliy is also home to one of my favourite ever wine shops, the Enoteca Picone. It has an amazing selection of wines from Sicily as well as many of the best Italian wines you can find elsewhere. If you are ever in Palermo, then this is a must visit.

 

 

Liguria (2) Camogli – one of the most charming fishing villages

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The view of Camogli – a charming fishing village

The first time we visited Camogli, we missed this fishing village, it is so hidden. The GPS in my car, normally reliable, took us to a hill whereby we could observe a superb view of Camogli and the Ligurian coast but couldn’t spot the way to get there.

After some time driving around we finally discovered that we needed to take a narrow street down towards the village centre. What we then discovered was amazing. Parking may be difficult depending on the time of year you visit but don’t be discouraged. It is really worth your time.

Camogli (Camuggi in Genoese dialect) is a small Italian fishing village and tourist resort located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino, on the Golfo Paradiso at the Riviera di Levante, south from Genova. The name means “house of wives” ( casa delle Mogli ).

We visited Camogli twice in May and another time in June. Both times the weather was great so people were eating out in the terraces with a splendid view either of the coastline or the tiny but colourful fishing village which bustles with activity. It is said that the fishermen of the village painted the houses in this manner to ensure that they could spot it when they were returning back to the port after their fishing trips. This makes for a great vista as you can see from the photos.

IMG_4649The maritime museum is also worth visiting though not easy to find. For a Maltese, this museum is special because it has paintings of a well known marine artist Nicola Cammillieri, active during the first half of the 19th century who painted beautiful ship portraits both entering the Maltese Grand Harbour as well as in other Mediterranean ports. There are a number of Camilleri’s paintings in the museum, many donated by families from Camogli and most of these are in excellent condition.

Where to eat: Just like in most places in Liguria you will find many Focacceria’s in Camogli. We tried Vento Ariel which overlooks the harbour. The food here was excellent. The menu changes according to the season so you are bound to experience different dishes whenever you go. The children devoured the Ligurian pasta (trofie) with freshly made pesto and I still remember a pate made with cuttlefish and anchovies which are a speciality of the region and the restaurant. The pasta with seafood and fresh fish were also extremely good as was the wine we drank from Azienda Agricola Pino Gino.

Semmu Friti, on the way down to the fishing village is a small takeaway serving, as the name suggests, typical Ligurian deep fried dishes. Here you will find delicious frittelle di baccala, stuffed anchovies and even the traditional ‘farinata’ made with chickpea flour. The deep-fried calamari is also exceptional.

Xodo is another good restaurant and bar serving typical dishes. This is an inexpensive restaurant which is normally packed. On a nice day, you eat outside overlooking the beach. The deep-fried anchovies as starter were excellent as was the fresh seafood black ravioli (using squid ink),

What to do: Just stroll around the seafront, visit the touristic boutique shops and sit and enjoy the sun. Visit the Maritime Museum. Walk on the pebbled beach or take a boat ride to neighbouring Portofino or San Fruttuoso, the latter only reachable by sea. In a recent article in the FT food and drink section Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe mentioned da Laura, on the beach of San Fruttuoso as one of her favourite restaurants in the world. Clearly something to remember for my next visit to Liguria.

 

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The colourful fishing port
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The view from the hill overlooking Camogli

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Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.

Discovering Ligurian wines

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Vineyards in a spectaular location. Overlooking one of the villages of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza

There is nothing more pleasant for a wine ‘amateur’ then to close ones eyes and judge a wine on its own merits without looking at what wine critics have to say about the wine or the price. Nothing beats a surprise. This can come in the form of a supposedly inferior wine surpassing ones expectations even when compared against a more expensive or prestigious wine. Or else it can come from discovering a new grape variety or a region which you have not heard much about.

In today’s globalised world where wines from pretty much everywhere can be bought locally, it is becoming harder to discover new wines when you travel to specific regions. Wine is not just about sharing a moment, it is also about breaking misconceptions or prejudices. Nothing is more true than for Ligurian wines.

Look into any wine magazine or book, including renowned wine encyclopaedias and you will barely get a mention of Ligurian wines. It is as if this region in Italy has been completely overlooked. Surprising, given that it borders Piemonte and Tuscany, the two giants of Italian wine.

My first taste of Ligurian wine was a Pigato from the west side of Liguria which we tried at Balin Cuisine in Sestri Levante. It was a great match to a fish based meal but what made us sit in awe was a wine which the owner of the restaurant opened at another table. True to his nature, seeing we were interested, he came and poured us a glass. It was an aged Vermentino Etichetta Nera (Black Label) from Cantine Lunae which had incredible complexity. He told us that he was also surprised at how well this white wine could age.

From there, the next morning I immediately headed to the main wine shop in Sestri Levante to discover more wines of the region.

There I was told the secret as to why Ligurian wines do not travel the world. Ligurians and tourists who head to the region consume most of it. Sometimes, stocks are already exhausted before the summer approaches.

Then there are the tourists who visit the region by car and take these wonders home to remind themselves of the beauty and splendour of the region.

What makes the white wines special, at least the ones which I have tried, is the fact that the Vermentino grape is very difficult to grow. But here, and in particular in the area close to La Spezia (where the Cantine Lunae come from) and the Cinque Terre, the location of the vineyards perched on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean sea are protected. Moreover, there is a pronounced minerality to the wine (nearly a salty sensation) making this a perfect wine to sip either before dinner as an aperitif or else in combination with fish and shellfish.

Then, what can I say about the Sciacchetra, the sweet white passito wine from the spectacular Cinque Terre tasted for the first time in a bar overlooking the beautiful town of Rio Maggiore and the cliffs which make the Cinque Terre so special. Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes are used to make these wines, the same grapes used to make also the excellent dry counterparts.

Five wines to try when you are in Liguria

1. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Vermentino Etichetta Nera – The Colli di Luna area borders Tuscany.

2. Costa de SeraLitan – a fabulous white wine grown on the hills of Rio Maggiore look at their website to see the location of this incredible vineyard. Made in small quantities if you find it, don’t hesitate to try it.

3. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Auxo, a very interesting blend of Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo. Incredible price/quality ratio.

4. Clan du Corsu – Sassarini. If you cannot find the Costa de Sera, this is a great wine to discover what wines from the Cinque Terre area are all about.

5. Az. Agricola Pino Gino Missanto – a blend of Bianchetta Genovese and Vermentino grown in the vineyards on the hills above Sestri Levante in Castiglione Chiavarese.

 

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