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.

 

 

 

 

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Recipe 6: Tuna with a Mediterranean salsa

IMG_0363The season for lampuki (a typical Mediterranean fish that is incredibly popular in Malta and one of the most traditional fish you can find at this time of year) has just started but the fish at the fishmongers were still small so I opted for tuna steaks.

The temperature is still extremely high in Malta making cooking anything elaborate a bit complicated. The fishmonger was making brisk business as queues lined up to get fresh fish for lunch or dinner.

To beat the heat in the kitchen, there is no better way then to get fresh tuna steaks that cook in minutes and prepare a very quick ‘salsa’ which needs no cooking and which is mouthwatering.

I therefore prepared the quick sauce to accompany the tuna steaks. I chopped one shallot and added sherry vinegar to the shallots to add some acidity. Then I seasoned with Maldon sea salt. I chopped some green olives in, added some pine nuts, a clove of garlic (finely chopped), some cherry tomatoes and chopped parsley. Once all the ingredients were in the bowl, I started to add some extra virgin olive oil to create an emulsion. Once the sauce was ready, I adjusted the seasoning by adding some freshly ground pepper and was then ready to cook the tuna.

I heated a griddle pan on a high heat, seasoned the tuna on one side and drizzled just a bit of olive oil. I then put the seasoned tuna on the seasoned side on the hot griddle pan and left to cook until the sides started to cook. I like my tuna rare. If rare is too much for you, then go for medium to medium rare but do not overcook the tuna because it will not taste well.

I then topped each plate with the quick Mediterranean salsa and served with some pan-fried potatoes and roast vegetables.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • Four tuna steaks
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt
  • Sherry vinegar
  • One shallot
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • A handful of green olives
  • Chopped parsley
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped
  • A tablespoon of pine nuts.

Method

1. Prepare the Mediterranean salsa. Chop the shallots. Place in a bowl and soften with the sherry vinegar (I used around 4 tablespoons). Season with salt. Leave the shallots in the vinegar while you chop the other ingredients. Chop the green olives and add to the shallots. Then add the pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, the garlic and the chopped parsley. Add extra virgin olive oil and mix the sauce until you get an emulsion which turns the sauce golden. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.

2. Heat the grill on a high heat. Season the tuna steaks and cook on the first side for around 5 minutes (depending on the thickness). Season the fish on the side which is not being grilled and turn the fish for a few more minutes.

3. Serve immediately.

Wine suggestion: Tuna is a versatile fish when it comes to wine pairing but given the summer heat and the cold sauce you need some acidity. I opted for a Chablis Burgundy which worked perfectly with the tuna.

 

What I enjoyed reading this week (8)

A week without internet last week relaxing on the island of Gozo was an excellent way of winding down but meant that the ‘What I enjoyed reading this week” series of articles got interrupted.

You can therefore find a few interesting finds from last week as well as some from this week here.

Michel Roux Jr is no longer the presenter for the next series of Masterchef on BBC. This is a pity because he was an integral part of the show. Nevertheless, renowned British chef Marcus Wareing, who has been featured many times during past Masterchef editions and who is known for seeking perfection takes over. Here he is interviewed by the Financial Times.

An interesting read about wine pairing rules which no longer seem to work and where therefore versatile wines are key.

Foodiva is the sister of a very good friend of ours with a great food blog on the Dubai scene. Being Cypriot, her culinary guide to Cyprus is not only mouthwatering but it also makes you want to visit this Mediterranean island.

Do you have what it takes to try the world’s most dangerous foods? Which one would you try?

Here is a great guide about tasting young wine from Decanter’s Steven Spurrier.

A great article about productivity by learning tricks from chefs. And as a bonus watch the video at the start of this blogpost. It is a fantastic trailer of a documentary about the world’s best sushi chef who continued to work at the age of 82 in search of perfection. He was the first ever sushi chef to get 3 Michelin stars.

A great article about innovation at Bordeaux’s Chateau Palmer.

Here is why bitter makes food better.

 

Aziamendi 100 – a unique experience in Malta

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The view of St George’s Square and the Grandmaster’s Palace. Make sure to book a table in the balcony if available.

Malta and Michelin stars do not go together. One of the major problems in my view is not the quality of the produce which one can find on the island or the creativity of chefs but rather the fact that the small island in the Mediterranean is still too small to have a critical mass that can sustain a fine dining experience.

Therefore there was a great sense of anticipation when I read that Eneko Atxa and a British entrepreneur were opening a 100 day pop-up restaurant Aziamendi which the Spanish Basque chef had opened in December 2013 at Iniala in Thailand.

The location that has been chosen for this pop-up restaurant is exceptional. Located in a beautiful palazzo in Archbishop Street in Valletta (the Civil Service Sports Club) it overlooks the Grandmaster’s Palace and the beautiful St George’s Square.

Given we were in Malta on holiday, I was anxious to try it out particularly since Eneko Atxa, born in 1977 is Spain’s youngest ever 3 Michelin star chef in a restaurant scene which over the past 10 or so years has been at the heart of culinary innovation. The chef is considered as pioneering using cutting-edge gastronomic techniques as a feature in his kitchen.

What follows is my view of the gastronomic dinner we had which was served with a pairing of Maltese and Sicilian wines. They say comparisons are odious but with the memory of our last fine dining experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, some of these views may be considered a bit harsh.

The setting is great and quite a few tables have a view of the Grand Master’s palace with its beautifully lit balconies at eye level which therefore makes for a unique experience.

All the dishes served were flawless in terms of presentation.

IMG_0080The amuse bouche was a ham and cheese airbag which was excellent and a delicious passion fruit bonbon which exploded in your mouth served to clean the palate.

IMG_0076In my view the first dish of the gastronomic menu was one of the stars of the evening. It was a recreation of a Maltese garden with edible soil made of a tomato emulsion which was then covered with beetroot and squid ink to turn it black. On top was a courgette, a tiny carrot, rocket, cauliflower, broccoli and roast tomatoes on the side. All in all this was a dish with bags of flavour, pleasing to the eye and exceptional in its depth of flavour. Not a great fan of beetroot, this was clearly the best beetroot dish I have ever tasted. The dish paired excellently with the Donna Fugata Lighea made from the Sicilian Zibibbo grapes.

IMG_0071The next course was Fois Gras ashes. This dish was beautifully presented, excellent in taste and flavour and also creative because the Fois was smoked and then turned into ashes and served on top of a terrine of foie gras and bread. Now this is one of Azurmendi’s signature dishes in his 3 Michelin star restaurant just outside Bilbao in Spain. But the dish had a problem in that it is extremely difficult to eat without messing one’s hands, which is not something you would expect in such a restaurant. In my view, the dish would have worked much better if served as a one-bite portion.

When we asked for cutlery, they told us that it was meant to be eaten by hand given there had been some accidents in the past. It was in a way a reminder of the ‘hobz biz-zejt’ (bread with tomatoes and olive oil which the Maltese love to eat but which can at times be messy). Clearly not a dish to be served on a first date given it might have created some rather embarrassing moments. The dish was served with a Maltese sweet Moscato wine from Meridiana, the Baltis 2012 which again matched perfectly.

IMG_0074The third dish was tuna two ways. One part of the tuna was served raw, marinated with a soy sauce and a ‘pillow’ with a delicious chive mayonnaise. The second part of the tuna was served seared with a red pepper sauce and garlic crisps. The raw tuna was exceptional, the cooked tuna very slightly overcooked to my liking (but I like my tuna rare). This was served with a wine from Gozo, the Marsovin Antonin 2013.

IMG_0079The fourth dish was rockfish with a traditional Basque “Salsa Verde”. It was served with white asparagus and a clam. The combination worked perfectly with a Spanish wine (but shouldn’t we have been given a Sicilian or Maltese wine with this dish?). The Salsa Verde married heavenly with the rockfish which however was slightly chewy. This was served with Gorka Izagirre G22 from Spain.

IMG_0077The fifth dish was a beautifully presented dish of local pork and grilled vegetables. The pork belly was prepared sous vide and then pan fried and topped with pork crackling. It was accompanied by a delicious roast sweet potato and a sweet potato puree. I found the pork belly to be very tasty but a bit on the dry side and not tender enough. The dish was served with a Nero d’Avola 2011from Feudo di Butera.

IMG_0072The last dish was strawberries and roses. The dish had a certain amount of theatre with the use of chemicals to create a smoke of rose perfume (it came out from a vase with fake roses) but disappointingly, the dessert fell flat in terms of taste and flavour. Fresh strawberries and a strawberry sorbet were placed on top of a rosewater marshmallow. This was served with a Moscato d’Asti from Castello del Poggio.

I asked what wines were going to be served before I opted for the Maltese/Sicilian wine pairing and was told that the last wine (the dessert wine Moscato d’Asti) was not Sicilian. This was a fair choice though Sicily is not short of sweet wines such as the Passito di Pantelleria to mention but one example. It was also surprising to note that one of the wines served during the service was a Spanish wine, albeit a very good wine, the Gorka Izagirre G22, from Azurmendi.

Verdict: If you are in Malta and looking for a unique experience, then you should visit. One tip for the remaining days that Aziamendi is open is to ask for a table on the balcony that overlooks St George’s square. The pop-up restaurant cannot be flawed, the service is very good but in my view lacks the wow factor which one would expect from Eneko Atxa whose restaurant in Spain is considered as no 26 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants.

 

The story of Lord Chambray – Malta’s or rather Gozo’s first artisanal brewery

Lord Chambray
The Lord Chambray brewery (Photo courtesy of Lord Chambray)

Malta, or should I say Gozo, has its first artisanal brewery with the opening in June of Lord Chambray at the Gozitana Agricultural Village in Xewkija.

While on a visit to Gozo, I went to meet Samuele d’Imperio, the managing director of Lord Chambray to discover why they set their eyes on making Malta’s first craft beer.

He told me the family had been visiting Gozo every summer for the past 25 years and it was always their dream to eventually buy a property with a view on Malta’s sister island. They finally bought a property in Fort Chambray around five years ago.

It has always been his parents’ dream to retire on the island of Gozo. His father, an accountant, is around five years away from retirement.

Samuele, also an accountant, fell in love with craft beers during a year working with Deloitte in Sydney. “We love Gozo and we wanted to do something for Malta and Gozo. But this is both my family’s and my first experience making beer.”

They are however in good hands. Samuele told me that after they dreamt about the idea, they contacted Andrea Bertola, an exceptional master Italian brewer who is helping the D’Imperio’s in this venture.

For those who do not know about Andrea Bertola, he is one of the first Italians to venture into craft beers and has had a large number of successes since his first venture in 2003.

We met him the first time last year and after discussing our project with him he immediately called back the next day saying he was joining our project.

Lord Chambray set up the company in September last year. They started work on the state-of-the-art brewery in January and started production in June of this year.

I ask what the ultimate aim of their venture is and whether they want to export their beer. “We have just started production in June, so far we have sold our beers in Gozo (an island of around 25,000 inhabitants though with a lot of tourists – both Maltese and foreign especially in the summer months) and we will shortly be selling the beers in Malta. We will take it from there,” he says.

However, he emphasised that his aim is to produce a biodynamic beer in Malta which would be a first for the country. He is also trying to see whether it would be possible to grow barley locally.

Lord Chambray’s concept is to get people to ‘drink different’. Our beer is unpasteurised unlike commercial beer that is pasteurised. We use the champagne method of brewing with maturation taking place in the tanks, following which sugar and yeast are added and a second fermentation takes place in the bottles in a temperature controlled environment. He has words of praise for Malta’s main beer Cisk and says this is a good commercial beer.

All the raw materials used by this craft brewery are guaranteed to have no GMOs and come from Belgium and the United States. “We get hops and barley from Belgium, hops from the United States as well as yeast from Belgium and Italy.”

Samuele says that they also want to give something back to the local community. The must which remains from the brewing process is given to local farms as pig feed or for fertiliser.

Samuele explained the brewing process to me. Water is an essential part of beer so they have top end technology being deployed to revitalise the water, which then goes through a sophisticated reverse osmosis plant.

Once the water is treated, the brewing process starts in kettles and vats. The beer is then moved manually to storage tanks were it is allowed to ferment for around 8 to 12 days. Yeast and sugar are added for maturation and the beer is allowed to rest again for another 18 days. Once it is bottled, the beer gets a second fermentation in the bottles. It rests for a further seven days before it is ready to leave the brewery.

Visitors in Malta and Gozo have a new beer to look forward to. In Gozo, you can also visit the brewery from Monday to Saturday.

For more information on the three beers made by Lord Chambray check my blogpost here.

Bottles fermenting before being ready for distribution
IMG_7736
The steel vats were the beer is brewed

Lord Chambray – Malta’s first artisanal beer

Lord Chambray craft beerCraft or artisanal beer has taken the beer scene by storm worldwide. Craft breweries are opening and beer lovers are slowly starting to move from the commercial beers to microbreweries.

Even in countries where beer does not have such a tradition, the rise of artisan beers has been astonishing. The concept of an artisanal beer is different and once you get accustomed to the taste it is not easy to return to a commercially brewed beer.

Living in Belgium means that I get to taste many great craft beers all with different flavours and styles. But it is also exciting to discover that this new trend has reached the country where I was born and lived for most of my life.

Malta is therefore following in this trend thanks to an Italian family, with a love for Gozo, who have invested money to launch the country’s first artisanal beers.

When I read about Lord Chambray a few weeks ago I knew that this was a very important development for Malta and Gozo particularly since Malta already has a tradition of brews, albeit commercial ones.

Over the past few years. the food and drink scene in Malta has developed beyond recognition. New wineries have emerged, olive oil producers are rekindling years long traditions that had since been lost and other innovative entrepreneurs have started a number of interesting enterprises.

Samuele d’Imperio, the managing director of Lord Chambray told me that his family from Novara have been visiting Gozo every year for the past 25 years. It had always been their dream to purchase a property on Malta’s sister island. It was something which they finally managed to do five years ago when they acquired a property at Fort Chambray. From then, it was following their dream of doing something different and of leaving an impact on a small island which they have come to love.

I came across their beer at a shop (Vini e Capricci) just next door to their brewery on the outskirts of Victoria Gozo in Xewkija in the Gozitano Agricultural Village. Vini e  Capricci is another place well worth a visit when you are in Gozo, but that’s for another time.

I then discovered that the brewery was just around the corner so I visited Samuele d’Imperio to hear his story of how they set up the first artisanal beer in Malta. You can read about his story here.

The three beers have names of some of Malta’s most idyllic and popular beaches.

Blue Lagoon: This is a Blanche beer. It is an incredibly refreshing beer with hints of coriander and orange. Alcohol content for this beer is 4.6%. The beer is aptly named Blue Lagoon because this bay, in Malta’s third island of its archipelago Comino, has crystal clear waters and an incredible light blue colour.

Golden Bay: This is an American style craft beer. It is intensely golden with an alcohol content of 5%. It has a sweet taste and is brewed with hops imported from the United States with give some hints of citrus and caramel on the nose. Golden Bay is one of the most popular beaches in the North West part of Malta and is named like this because of its golden coloured natural sand.

San Blas: San Blas is a darker beer with an alcohol content of around 5.5%. It is brewed with a blend of hops to obtain a more aromatic flavour. Personally this was my favourite of the three beers given the complexity of its flavour. San Blas is a beautiful tiny bay on the island of Gozo which is located below the village of Nadur.

Tmun in Mgarr harbour, Gozo

Mgarr, Gozo harbour
Mgarr harbour

Visiting a fishing port has a certain allure to it. Gozo’s fishing port of Mgarr is a small but picturesque harbour which is busy particularly in the summer months with the constant shuttling of visitors from the island of Malta for the period in mid-August around the feast of Santa Maria.

Mgarr harbour with its small passenger terminal is no longer just a fisherman’s harbour particularly since tourism on the island is an essential part of the island’s economy.

Nevertheless over the past years, it has become the venue of a number of interesting restaurants and bars just alongside the fishing boats many of which were out at sea.

One of the best restaurants on the island can be found here. It-Tmun rose to popularity in Xlendi, a sea-side resort on the other side of the island before it moved to Mgarr a few years ago. Tmun in Mgarr has gone from strength to strength.

Now this is a family which is renowned in the Maltese restaurant schene. Leli, the owner of the restaurant has been in this business since his return from Canada more than 20 years ago. His wife still does the early morning shopping and preparations in the kitchen while his son Paul works the magic in the kitchen making fantastic combinations, particularly with seafood though I have been told his 24 hour slow cooked pork belly is something rather special.

His other son, Patrick runs what used to be called It-Tmun Victoria but which has now changed name to Patrick’s.  That is also another place worth visiting (in the Gozo capital of Victoria) though more formal with a particular attention given to the wine list which is one of the best in Malta and Gozo.

Nevertheless, I have missed going to Tmun in Mgarr for too many times on my visits to Malta and Gozo and it seemed as if this would again be the case particularly given the first night we tried to book, it was fully-booked from the morning.

But the second time we tried, we struck it lucky. And what a great evening that turned out to be.

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Slow cooked cuttle fish
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Fish platter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ordered a Hugel Riesling 2008 to start with and the kitchen first sent out a slow cooked cuttle-fish served on a small spoon. This was followed by another amuse-buche, a fresh tomato sauce which was full of intense flavour, given its the season when tomatoes are at their best.

This was followed by a mixed platter of fish which included raw carpaccio of tuna topped with white peaches, raw prawns, deep fried white bait, arancini of fish, octopus, a fresh fish soup known in Maltese as aljotta as well as a fish patty (pulpetta). All of these were divine.

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Grilled tuna on a pea puree
IMG_4963
Fish with a beurre blanc sauce

For main courses, I opted for a rare tuna steak served on a pea puree while my friends chose a dott abjad (large local monkfish) served with a beurre blanc and mussels on a bed of cabbage. The tuna was cooked to perfection and worked incredibly well with the sweet pea puree that was served at the bottom.

The fish in the beurre blanc sauce, although not necessarily a Maltese way of preparing it was also exceptional with the right amount of acidity coming from the white wine added to the sauce.

The accompanying vegetables were simply prepared but cooked to perfection.

The main courses were accompanied by a Chateau Grand Mayne 2006.

The choice of dessert all looked splendid though by this time we had ate more than we could muster. However, we were tempted by Leli to try the ice-creams, all prepared in house. All flavours looked interesting. I opted for the white chocolate and salted carmel and the zabajone with Marsala. But were perfect.

Malta and Gozo have many good restaurants although it is also dotted with many tourist traps which are to be avoided like the summer midday sun. But what you should be looking for is consistency and the love for good ingredients which make all the difference particularly when simplicity and freshness are required. In this case, It-Tmun ticks all the boxes.

Verdict: Unmissable whether you are visiting Gozo just to eat at this place or staying for a few days on the island. The crossing to Gozo is 20 minutes by ferry so you can even go there just for lunch or dinner without needing a car (you just walk five minutes from the ferry terminal). The fish platter seems to have become his speciality as a starter but there were other many interesting options to choose from both for starters, main course and dessert which is always a great sign. Apologies for the quality of the photos of the food but that is one of the pleasures of dining al fresco. Unfortunately lighting was not good.

Tmun in Mgarr can be found at Martinu Garces Street in Mgarr. Gozo. It is open every day for lunch and dinner except on Tuesday’s.