Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Bella Bellagio - without Daniel Craig

Now that is a seriously good set of knives! (with the added bonus of the h-g photo taker reflected in the glass).  We are visiting one of the beautiful villas that punctuate the coastline of Lake Como in northern Italy.  The Villa del Balbianello was most recently owned by Guido Monzino, a prominent Milanese businessman, collector and dedicated explorer.  Guido was also a lover of modern technology, and the villa is equipped with a (by 1980s standards) modern kitchen.  When he died in 1988 Monzino, being single and "without issue", left the property to the Italian equivalent of the National Trust.  
Villa del Balbianello
The house and interior are just as they were when he died. The most wonderful and surprising aspect of the visit is his museum quality collections.  Monzino  mounted expeditions across every continent, including trips to the North Pole in 1971 and up Everest in 1973.  Ironically, he never made it to the top of Everest as he was a heavy smoker and didn't have the lungs for it - however in that charming Italian fashion, he was made a Count (akin to a knighthood I gather) as a result of his team's efforts in making it to the summit. That aside, he scrupulously collected and catalogued artifacts from his travels. So in two or three rooms the size of an average living room, and dotted throughout the villa, are rare and priceless pieces.  Several Ming vases, large and small, ancient Mayan, Egyptian, Inuit and other articles, three of a set of five French wall hangings, the other two are at Versailles.  I find the visit better than going to the British Museum or similar, where you are overwhelmed by the amount on display - Monzino's collection is spectacular and complete, but by comparison small. 
The gardens are attractive but not stunning, yet have the added cachet of being the setting for the bit towards the end of the 007 movie Casino Royale (2006), where Daniel Craig recovers from a literally ball-breaking experience.

Bellagio is situated at the junction of two arms of Lake Como
As I said at the end of the last blog, we picked up our Peugeot in Milan. With only 5kms on the clock our little black beauty doesn't know what she has ahead of her. We programme the GPS for Bellagio and are on the road. We christen the GPS Bella, as she has the refined British tones of an Arabella, but this is, after all, Italy.  Without losing a beat she gets us on the fast track north and we are soon navigating the winding streets of Como at the southern end of the lake.  I keep one eye out for George Clooney while simultaneously  reinforcing Bella's instructions to the h-g who is driving.  From Como to Bellagio is like driving parts of the  Rimutaka hill road before it was widened to two lanes. It has the added excitement of the impenetrable, looming mountain rock on one side, and the stunningly beautiful lake on the other. Let's not forget the excitement of local drivers who overtake us, generally on blind corners as that is what makes up most of the road.

Various species of lake fish are the local speciality  in Bellagio. Lake Como is a cold, (there is a reason no-one swims in the lake even though the daily air temp is 25C plus) deep, mountain fringed lake supporting 28 different species of fish.  The h-g doesn't think fresh water fish is as tasty as ocean fish - many people agree with him, but one night he orders Lavarello with sage and butter sauce and pronounces it not bad.  I have the mixed fried fish which gives me four different types including crisp little sardines which I have to admit are the tastiest.  The others are all soft flesh and do taste a bit the same. 

One day we run into an American who lives around here and he recommends, in his words, a little Mom and Pop restaurant and points up into the misty mountains.  We get some directions then ask Bella to guide us, which she does.  However when we turn on to the dirt road to Trattoria Baita Belvedere she sounds a little strident as she insists we u-turn as soon as possible.  I override her and we rumble on to find the most gloriously situated restaurant you have ever seen. Perching on the  side of the mountain the small terrace gives out to a wide angle panorama of Bellagio below, the other villages across the lake and into the northern distance to Switzerland. 
Bellatio from Trattoria Baita Belvedere

It is a family run business including a farm, and Alessandro cures his own meat and makes salamis.  They also make cheeses.  Our antipasto plate of mixed meat includes from top left prosciutto, coppa, beef, salami and in the centre, pancetta.  Everything is in very thin slices yet full of flavour.  We follow up with wild boar stew and braised rabbit.  Both come with what the menu says is "plane polenta" but it is anything but plain - or plane.  It tastes of a rich stock and sage and thyme, not unlike a well made stuffing.  Both dishes are well flavoured - the boar is fall apart tender and the stew based is a well cooked mirepoix of carrot, celery and onion, with I'm guessing beef stock and tomato making up the rest of the flavour base. 
Cinghiale - wild boar stew

braised rabbit

As  you can see, the presentation is homely and as you can't see, it is all delicious - and cheap, at about 10 Euro less than you'd be paying in the village.

..and this is my favourite tractor...
Alessandro is a farmer and is only working in the restaurant today for his sister, who has just had a baby. His real love is tractors and he keeps throwing longing glances over to  the village to where his friend is making hay.  He and the h-g talk tractors for  far longer than is interesting - which I am sure you already surmise is not long.  Alessandro has photos of tractors on his i-phone, and admits he drives his wife mad whenever they are travelling along and see a tractor working and he has to stop and take a look.  As charming as Alessandro is, this somewhat tarnishes the reputation of Italian men as romantic Latin lovers!

Tomorrow we head south west to Piedmont and the home of Asti Spumante. In the meantime, here's a trip down memory lane, found in the local supermarket.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Death in Venice - without Dirk Bogarde

There is any amount of advice about Venice, but the most useful is to get lost - literally.  It is great to just wander the tiny alleys and byways, come to a dead end at a canal, retrace your steps and find you recognise nothing.  But there is a charming square and , inevitably, a church.  There is also always a café  or bar and we revive ourselves with the restorative powers of a Campari and soda.  It is a bit of a surprise to find that which we thought gentle aperitif, packs 25 ABV (alcohol by volume). This makes us like it even more.
Campari and bruschetta

We have an apartment for a week.  A few minutes off the tourist hell that is Piazzo San Marco, our one bedroom bolthole sits on a minor canal that must be part of the gondola highway.  A constant stream of long sleek boats passes under our window, pushed along by a stripe-shirted gondolier.  There is often an accordion accompanied singer belting out Volare or That's Amore (never anything by Beyoncé  or Justin Bieber).  It is all part of why you come to Venice, but you can almost smell the cheese.

While it is great eating out and trying new things, it is also nice to have the apartment and be able to go to the market and check out the ingredients and buy some things to cook. A microwave, two electric elements and a complete lack of condiments (even salt and pepper) create no limitations for me!  We get up early - Italian early, 8:30 - and take a trip to the Rialto markets, right by the famous Rialto bridge.  Even at this hour the fruit and veg sellers are still setting up and the fishmongers are in the final stages of layout and pricing.  We purchase some fresh prawns which are so pink we initially think they are already cooked - they aren't.  They have very sweet flesh and we decide they must be fresh water farmed, though we aren't sure.  I wrap a nice piece of salmon in fresh prosciutto - having reduced the deli woman to laughter as I mime the word for slices - and the h-g gently cooks it in a pan. We have fresh fennel and asparagus with it and it is delicious.  The tomatoes we buy are at the behest of the patient vege stall holder who tells me they are the best for salads - as you can see in the photo they are an unusual shape and have quite distinct ribs.Buffalo mozzarella and the most delicious tomatoes make a great Caprese salad for lunch one day.  
Our favourite Venetian dish is Bigoli alla salsa - it is a thicker spaghetti pasta with the most delicious anchovy and onion sauce.  One or other of us order this dish a few times after we first discover it, and on one occasion our restaurateur speaks excellent English and tells me how to make it.  So if you like anchovies put your hand up and I'll make it for you.  

It is our mission to try different dishes (I won't mention the roast chicken we have one night!) and so I order black pasta with cuttlefish sauce. Cuttlefish are not fish but molluscs, very like squid as they have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. They are just behind the octopus in the photo, and as you can see, very inky. The flesh is tender and sweet, but the dish is much richer than I expect.  In the end it is too rich and although I am enjoying it, I can only manage about half. 

The h-g tries some stuffed calamari and raves about it.  It has the tentacles finely diced, shrimp and breadcrumbs in the stuffing, and is slow cooked in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. 

We have a brilliant week in Venice, taking trips to the outer islands of Murano (glass), Burano (lace), and Lido (beach).  My God, we do not know how lucky we are is not a cliche it is a fact.
While the beach stretches for several kilometres, these cabanas are three deep!  How many people does that mean on a hot day?

We do check out a few churches, including San Marco which is such an ecletic blend of styles it defies adequate description.  While the h-g goes to the Maritime museum I go to a terrific Canaletto exhibition.  What I love is that his Venice of the early to mid 1700s is recognisable today.  The detail is perfect and the figures so nicely executed you can see their expressions.  We go together to the Peggy Guggenheim collection, which is all modern art (as C20th) - more Jackson Pollacks than I've ever seen in one place,  Picasso, Kadinsky, Ernst, Klee, Dali. The h-g, who likes paintings to look like what they are supposed to be - struggles with it.  I do too at times, but I think I manage to convince him that art is supposed to challenge you and not necessarily be a photo.

The search for the perfect flat white is a long one, and you can forget trim milk. Mercifully, most cappucinos are more like a flat white and if you can get a double shot, it is nearly there. For the most part we stick to espresso which is always good.  
No, we do not eat these
So, today we travelled to Milan and picked up our little Peugeot and drove up to Bellagio - phew, what a drive.  But I'll tell you about that next time.