As the summer holiday for me comes to a close and I start to prepare mentally for the winter schedule (with the weather and temperature already going down in Belgium), I find that the days start to get shorter but you get to find more time somehow for reading particularly on the longer evenings.
I am currently midway through a book about Burgundy wine written by an American who followed his dream leaving a job in finance to start making wine in France. The book reads very well and I will review it once I finish it probably sometime next week. For those interested the name of the book is The Road to Burgundy, The Unlikely story of an American making wine and a new life in France.
In the meantime as is usual here are some articles which i enjoyed reading this week. Hope you enjoy and have a great start to September.
There is no such thing as a free lunch and this is the perfect rant. It is unfortunately in Italian but well worth going through it because it explains how important passion is if you see quality. Here he has a go at the many bars who ask for coffee machines etc for free while compromising on the quality of the main ingredient coffee.
Here is a great list of 10 food books from Amateur Gourmet. A bit old but I came across it this week.
The following is an article from Jancis Robinson about someone who is taking the wine scene in London by storm thanks to car boot sales with a difference.
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
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.
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.
The 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
10 cherry tomatoes
A handful of green olives
1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped
A tablespoon of pine nuts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
In 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 guests are about to arrive in 40 minutes, you are around 30 minutes into your food preparations but given the choice of menu you have to cook everything at the last minute. Your kitchen equipment all runs on electricity. And suddenly there is a power-cut and you don’t know when it will be restored again.
This would be a challenge fit for an episode of Masterchef or the French version Top Chef where the chefs are given countless challenges to try and cook their way out of a tricky situation.
Yesterday evening Malta suffered a nationwide power cut and the challenge to continue with my plans was probably fit for a future episode of Top Chef.
The cause of the power-cut was a fault in a generating unit in the power station followed by an explosion at a distribution centre resulted in the whole of the island being without electricity for several hours.
The temperature is still high, above 30C, and the small gas lamp is emitting heat making the conditions in the kitchen pretty tough. But amid these adverse conditions there is hope. The first part of the meal does not require any cooking. The choice is now either to fire up the gas barbecue or else a gas hob which is picking up dust in the garage and has not been used for many years.
Given a pasta dish is involved we opt for using the gas hob and not the barbecue to continue. But the oven remains in the garage and we need to quickly create a make shift kitchen. Out comes an old table which will serve as the main base from were to cook once it becomes necessary.
A gas cylinder is now connected to the gas hob and oven but the focaccia we have prepared to serve with the fish starters cannot be placed in this oven because it is too small. We decide to bake it after the dinner instead.
In the meantime, the wine bottles are open and we start with raw fresh prawns and a tuna tartare. This is the prelude to a roller coaster ride of an evening. From now onwards it is running to and fro from the garden just outside the kitchen to the garage on a lower floor. I forget countless ingredients or pots and pans and have to run back to the kitchen every so often.
The grilled calamari and the clams cooked in garlic and wine will cook pretty much at the same time. Once everything is sorted out, the cooking starts and within minutes we are enjoying the second part of the starter.
The water is now boiling ready for me to throw in the linguine. Luckily the main course is not complicated by any stretch of imagination. Still, it required a few runs back to the kitchen to get one thing or another. First I forgot the pan I was going to cook the sauce in, then I needed a solution to drain the pasta while making sure it remained al dente.
The main course would require just 10 minutes to prepare. While the pasta cooked, I prepared the sauce for the linguine with bottarga di muggine (mullet roe). First I fried the garlic in extra virgin olive oil, drizzled some white wine and added cherry tomatoes. As soon as the pasta was cooked (more al dente then usual), I ran to the kitchen with the large pot to drain the water and then back to the makeshift garage kitchen where after adding the bottarga to the sauce, we added in the pasta, stirred a bit before finishing off with some rocket and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Power cuts and water cuts are a very sore point in Malta and subject to great political controversies and discussions both because of their recurrence since the 1980s despite millions in investments to sort out the problem. Since I no longer live here, it seems like it happens less often though in the news it was reported that the last nationwide power cut occurred in January.
When it happens, however, it allows for countless discussions and arguments but also points of reflection worth pondering about.
There are the lessons one takes:
In whatever situation you find yourself in, you need to always have a plan B. Its not about being paranoid but about ensuring resilience.