Sardinia’s opal tinted waters that lap against the island’s crinkly coast are awash with bronzed Italian bodies and most excitingly, are wriggling with grey mullet. The history of Sardinia, the Mediterranean and these wriggling mullet is so intertwined that you could write a compelling anthropological thesis about their relationship that would reveal the island’s true character.
Sardinia’s location makes the island a sponge for outside influences. Over the centuries Sardinia has been invaded by the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths and the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa as well as being inundated by Arab raids. It’s this influx of external influences that makes Sardinia’s food culture so interesting. A quick look at the culinary palimpsest shows what a strong influence Arab culture has had on Sardinia with the legacy of fregola and most interestingly, bottarga.
Bottarga (AKA Sardinian Caviar) is the preserved roe sac from grey mullet and tastes deeply savoury, super salty and very grown up. Just imagine a firmer, nuttier version of an anchovy. It is made by salting a mullet roe sac and then pressing it between two pieces of wood and air-drying it. When cured it is then covered in a layer of beeswax and sold for an extortionate price in flash delis all over the world. It gets its name from the Arabic batarekh and is found in various guises across the Middle East.
Like all seafood and Italian food it is at its best at its most simple. Just grate it onto a bowl of pasta that’s been doused in garlic infused-olive-oil and lemon zest and shower it in parsley and you will be eating the very essence of Sardinia.
We had a go at cooking an improvised version of spaghetti alla bottarga in our outdoor kitchen at Casa Teulada whilst we were in Sardinia and loved it so much that I made it my mission to recreate it properly back in my kitchen in Sweden. With a recipe from Mario Batali as a guide I put my waxy block of fishy gold to good use.
Top quality spaghetti Bottarga Italian parsley Olive oil 2 cloves of garlic 1 lemon Chilli flakes Salt and pepper
Boil the pasta in salted water.
Meanwhile gently heat an indecent glug of olive oil in a cast iron pan and add the thinly sliced garlic and chilli flakes. You just want the garlic to warm through and lose its raw edge which will take no more than a few minutes. If you've got some bottarga powder as well as the roe, sprinkle some into the oil for a deeper flavour.
Then when the pasta is cooked use a claw and add the pasta to the garlicky oil. Flick in some of the magical pasta water and toss. Then serve in a bowl and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley, lemon zest and then triumphantly grate over a generous amount of bottarga. Make haste and serve pronto.
Washed down with an icy bottle of Vermentino, each forkful transports you back to the warm, breezy shores of Sardinia. This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition which you can read about here and on www.homeaway.co.uk For more information about bottarga and Sardinia have a look at these sites:
I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve become addicted to fennel. In my defence, I am genetically pre-disposed to the stuff and I suspect that my mother has an even bigger soft spot for it. I love the texture, the sweetness and its grown up aniseed flavour. Whether it’s grilled, cured, pureed or raw, it never fails to add an elegant extra dimension to any dish. As a result there is normally a fennel bulb standing on duty in my fridge waiting to be called into action.
I opened up my trusty Flavour Thesaurus and flicked straight to the “Anise” section. In the introduction Nicki Segnit claims that anise gets on “famously with seafood” which triggered a memory of Heston Blumenthal’s salmon with liquorice gel and also of a stunning fish soup with a fennel backnote that Cowie and I had on a remote Swedish island. Nicki speculates that the sweetness and refreshing quality of fennel makes it the perfect foil for a fatty fish such as salmon. So I thawed a salmon fillet before work and played with the idea of a fennel remoulade during my lunch break (having been inspired by this and this). But the idea of a rich mayonnaise base didn’t seem right, so I switched it to crème fraiche and added some capers for a spritz of salinity. Ingredients:
1 salmon fillet Olive oil Butter Salt and pepper 1 fennel bulb 2 tablespoons of crème fraiche 1 teaspoon of capers Handful of finely chopped parsley Juice of half a lemon 1 teaspoon of whole grain mustard 1 finely chopped shallot
Chop the fennel as finely as possible and discard the tough central spine and put in a non reactive bowl. Immediately cover in lemon juice. Add the chopped shallot, capers, and mustard and then add the crème fraiche. Stir so it is all coated and then place in the fridge whilst you cook the salmon.
You can sear, poach or grill the salmon depending on whether you trust your grill, have an issue with making the house smell of fish, like crispy skin or are on a diet. Given my love of crunchy skin and the temperamental nature of my grill I went for the frying option. It also helps that I live on my own! Sear the salmon, skin side down, in a hot pan for a few minutes until the skin is crispy. Turn the heat down and flip the salmon. Add a knob of butter and cook until its done to your preference.
Personally I like to dice with death by cooking it so the middle is only just warm and a vibrant sunset pink. But it’s up to you. You can either be brave and risk a dose of botulism or be a cowardly woos living a life punctuated by regret, greyness and never ending remorse.
Remove the fennel mixture from the fridge and add the chopped parsley and season to taste. You won’t need as much salt as you think because of the salinity of the capers.
I wolfed this down watching an old episode of Spooks with a glass of metallic Muscadet and went to bed looking forward to a second sitting for lunch at work, but with less wine! The salmon was juicy, rare and blessed with skin that was so crisp and salty that you could have persuaded a blind folded man that it was pork crackling, whilst the fennel remoulade was restrained, crunchy and healthy to boot. I imagine it would go very well with left over roast chicken, crab or would be great as part of a picnic instead of icky coleslaw. Further reading:
The Flavour Thesaurus is fast becoming my favourite cookery book. When I looked in my fridge and saw half a head of celery and a cauliflower I was about as inspired as a fax machine. Feeling hungry and glum I flicked through Niki Segnit’s book and my mind itched with possibilities. Reading the book was like smoking a joint. It helped to connect disparate ideas. The last entry in the cauliflower section suggested an affinity with walnuts. Inspired by this I thought of Waldorf Salads and dived into the section that explains the affinity between walnuts and celery and got very excited when I saw that walnuts have a “magical” relationship with chicken stock.
So it all became very simple. I had no option. I had to make cauliflower and celery soup with a chicken stock base and walnut croutons.
1 head of cauliflower 1 head of celery chopped 1 finely chopped onion 1 clove of garlic 2 litres of chicken stock 4 small potatoes Olive oil Butter Cream Salt Pepper Skinned and chopped walnuts Honey
Saute the onion until beginning to soften in olive oil and butter. Add the celery and garlic and continue cooking for a few minutes. Then add the cauliflower and potatoes and fill the pan with chicken stock.
Simmer for 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Liquidise and season with salt and pepper and return to the pan to reduce to your desired consistency.
Whilst reducing, heat a frying pan and add the walnuts. Then when they are getting toasty spoon over some runny honey. The nuts should become sticky and crunchy.
Serve the soup with a dash of cream and a topping of walnut croutons. What it lacks in vivid colours it makes up for super savoury flavours. Without the sweet and crispy walnuts this would have been a shadow - they added texture, sweetness and a golden thread to marry the celery and cauliflower together.
A trip to the supermarket isn’t complete without remortgaging your house. Whereas in the UK, the fierce competition between the supermarkets means you get inundated with special offers, 3 for 2s, bogofs and reap the rewards from loyalty schemes, Sweden just plucks a price for each item out of thin air and then doubles it. And then adds a tonne of tax. For the first month or so I was overwhelmed by the language barrier and a bit naïve about the exchange rate with the result that each bag of food seemed to cost around 30 pounds. Since then, I’ve been far more careful and have cut out expensive items such as meat from my shopping list and instead filled my basket with vegetables and keep things interesting by regularly visiting the fish monger. As a result my bags are now weighing in at 20 pounds and I am feeling a lot healthier to boot.
Whilst exploring the exotic frozen meet section in my local supermarket, amongst the crocodile meat, marrow bones and deer blood, I came across a rather boring, but cheap, giant frozen turkey breast and started thinking of ways to pep up this dull lump of protein.
The first night I lobbed off a couple of chunks and poached them in a stock laced with cardamom, cinnamon and coriander and ladled over a reduced sauce that was supposed to be savoury but turned into butterscotch. Whilst it filled a hole for dinner and lunch the next day, let’s just say it barely deserved the 63 words I’ve just given it.
The worst thing about the meat was the texture. With so little fat it was dry and very tasteless. So the only solution was to mince it and turn this mound of inert poultry into super tasty meatballs. This is an adaptation of a great recipe from Anne’s Food which uses either pork or beef. But I’ve used turkey instead.
1 whole turkey breast weighing around a kilo 1 finely sliced onion 1 clove of garlic White pepper Salt Handful of cardamom pods Sprinkling of cinnamon powder Sprinkling of all spice Some oats/breadcrumbs to balance the moisture – use your judgement 1 egg
A dozen sliced button mushrooms 1 shallot 1 clove of garlic 2 tablespoons of crème fraiche Thyme Tarragon Butter Olive Oil Salt and pepper
Mince your turkey and add everything in the meatballs ingredients list. Hold back a bit on the spices and make a test meatball which you should fry in a bit of oil. It should cook in about 5-8 minutes. Let it cool and test for seasoning and spicing. Adjust as necessary remembering that you can always add more, but it’s harder to take away!
Form into balls about the size of a golf ball and fry in batches to brown. Transfer to a roasting pan cook in a medium-low oven whilst you plough on with the other aspects.
Boil the wheat and drain, but reserve the starchy water. Keep the wheat warm.
Sautee the mushrooms in butter and oil and season with salt which will draw the moisture out. They should start to turn brown. Then add the onions and garlic and cook until soft but not brown. Then pour in about 300ml of the starchy wheat water and it should cause quite a commotion in the pan. Add a dash of liquid chicken stock and reduce. Add some crème fraiche, tarragon, thyme and seasoning to the sauce which should become quite stroganoffy.
Serve the meatballs on a bed of wheat and topped with the mushroom sauce. What is lacks in colour it makes up for in rich, autumnal flavours.
This recipe made around 20 meatballs which was enough for 5 meals. Which made it incredibly good value. The warming spicing completely transformed the bland turkey and leant itself to being paired with quinoa, cous cous or fregula and plenty of hot sauce.
After dipping my toe into the controversial world of Swedish meatballs, I’m looking forward to giving the proper versions a go next. If you’ve got a great recipe for Swedish meatballs that you can share with me I’d love to give it a go.
Early September in Sweden is an enchanting time of year. The damp air and moist forests feel ripe with autumnal life and even the grassy areas in town are sprouting mushrooms. Even if they have been carved out of tree stumps.
With the sun being slow to make its mind up as it politely debated with the clouds about who should bat first, I went for a run and landed up at the Saluhallen where I almost inevitably was drawn towards a man selling chanterelles (Kantareller) for a pittance. I snaffled a bagful and grinned as I felt their weight almost drop through the bottom of the paper bag and the change jangle in my running shorts' pocket.
With my golden cargo and a loaf of honey rye sourdough I made my sweaty way home and cooked the most perfect breakfast of sautéed chanterelles on toasted sourdough topped with some creme fraiche and washed down with the best part of a whole pot of percolator coffee. All I needed to make it extra special was Cowie and a copy of the Guardian.
My weekend mushroom adventures continued on Sunday with a trip to the forest. With Alexandra's mushrooming knowledge and the advice from a day of foraging with John Wright of River Cottage HQ ringing in my ears and memories of playing mushroom roulette in Richmond Park we fearlessly tackled the mozzies and got stuck in. We found a wealth of half nibbled mushrooms snuggling into the light, sandy soil, sheltering beneath the branches of pine and birch trees.
I’m not sure what they all are, but where I’ve got an inkling I’ve included a caption. If you know what they are please let me know in a comment.
No idea what this one is. But it looked mean and evil.
This monster, we think is ideal for eating. It’s either a cep, or another sort of bolete. It was just a shame that the slugs and maggots had got there first.
And we saw these Fly Agaric by the dozen, as they flamboyantly lined the paths.
I returned home with an impressive clutch of well pored mushrooms which all seemed like they had edible potential, with the ominous exception of the black capped, long stemmed, example which resembled a grim reaper.
We were very worried about this one. It looked particularly evil.
These are called Slippery Jacks which are covered in a slimy cap which can cause indigestion. If you clean the cap the mushrooms themselves are rather good apparently. But their name is enough to put anyone off!
This one, I think, is a cep, which is called a Carl Johan in Sweden, and judging from the amount of holes must have been very tasty.
These two smelled good and when I took a small nibble didn’t taste bitter, but instead, rather impressive. And given that friends in the office and a few online experts suggested these would make for very good eating I plucked up the confidence to tuck in.
I decided to follow a recipe from Mark Hix’s new book “Hix Oyster and Chop House” and simply studded the ceps with slithers of garlic, coated them in butter and seasoning and then roasted them for 15 minutes before sprinkling with parsley and nervously tucking in.
They were absolutely delicious. Soft, tender and buttery and without question, the most mushroomy thing I’ve ever eaten. I am sure they tasted even better because there was a chance I’d identified them wrong and there was a vague possibility that this could be my last meal. If I suddenly drop down dead, please come and find me armed with whatever anti-toxins I require!
Trinity is our local bolthole where we go for a treat. After some disappointing weekend experiences in the West End we’ve found it’s far better to dine somewhere more local. Or at least local to Cowie! Our previous meal at Trinity was nearly faultless. We were treated to some of the best service we’ve ever had as well as a sensational starter of pigs head that got the better of its cousin at Wild Honey and a hare dish that rivaled the Royale at the Zetter.
If you like your tablecloths to be crisp; your service to be smooth; your wine list to be accessible and interesting and your food to be refined and imaginative then Trinity ticks a lot of boxes. But if you like your sweet things to be sweet and your savoury dishes to be savoury, then you may have a freak out like we did…
Sitting at the best table in the house and drinking effete little glasses of Prosecco we gorged on some fine bread and slightly too warm butter whilst feeling like we were in a benevolent version of the Truman Show. It seemed that the whole restaurant was constructed around us with the fellow diners showcasing dishes we might order, offering background noise and in the case of a lady next to us with a notebook, a source of constant amusement. Especially when she repositioned her husband’s spoon as he was about to use it to dig into a soufflé which was then allowed to go cold!
Cowie adored a pristine starter of tuna and crab with a tomato consomme which was as close to being the Platonic Form of Cowie’s dream starter as is possible. Meanwhile, my pigs’ trotters with quail eggs on toasted sourdough was startling. Deeply savoury and with the swine dial on maximum, it made me want to roll around in a muddy field and scratch my bottom against a barbed wire fence.
I am a big fan of restaurants that serve wine by the carafe. Cowie loves white wine, but is less of a fan of red, so the carafe approach let’s me have a glass of red with my main course. A splash of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was ideal with our starters and some Pinot Noir was ideal with the lump of meat that arrived next.
My fillet of beef with bone marrow, snails, onion tart and bordelaise sauce was richer than a Sheikh who’s just won the pools. It pulsated with flavour and mooed with medium rare rouge. From now on I am refusing to eat fillet steak without snails and marrow on my plate. But the soggy onion tart can stay at home.
Cowie ordered rabbit two ways and had to send it back because some elements of the dish were stone cold. When the plate arrived back it was a much better temperature, but was destroyed by a vanilla sauce that smothered everything in sickly sweetness. I like vanilla a lot but have learnt my own lessons that it can easily overwhelm a sweet dish, let alone a meek and mild little bunny rabbit.
And as if the pastry chef and the rabbit chef had just played musical stations we were then presented with the most bizarre dessert we’ve had in years. The apricot tart looked stunning. The golden topping was sweet, sour and fragrant. But then things got weird. We couldn’t put our finger on it, but then it clicked. The pastry wasn’t sweet, it was cheesy. After triple checking we scraped off the topping, closed our eyes and realised that the pastry tasted identical to cheese straws. How very, very odd. So we mentioned this to our waitress who after a visit to the kitchen said it always tasted that way, but that no-one had ever complained.
Having not seen each other for ages we weren’t going to let a few sweet and savoury cross wires get in the way of a romantic evening. Especially when the starters and my beef were so ravishing. But for 150 quid, you’d expect the kitchen to be able to get the basics, such as savoury for main course and sweet for dessert, right. As we moseyed home we reluctantly relegated Trinity down our “must return to” list which means we’ll be heading to Chez Bruce for our next treat.
Cowie has a long and distinguished history of buying me awesome cookinggifts, not to mention having built Cassius as well. So when she gave me a collection of cedar planks for Christmas I got giddily excited.
Planking is an old fashioned culinary technique where you cook your meat or fish on a dampened plank of wood, such as cedar, over hot coals. The wet wood emits puffs of steam and smoke that gently encourage the flesh above to yield whilst providing a smoky backdrop. (For more in depth information about planking have a look at this site or buy this book.)
The easiest, and possibly best, thing to cook on a plank is a fillet of salmon. You land up with an indecently moist piece of warm smoky fish that will make you wonder why you’ve been eating boring old poached or grilled salmon for all those years.
1 cedar plank 1 salmon fillet big enough for two with the skin on Salt Pepper Lemon zest 2 aubergines 2 cloves of garlic 2 tablespoons of yoghurt Olive oil 1 fennel bulb Mint Juice of 2 lemons
Soak your cedar plank in water for anywhere between 2 and 12 hours. This will stop it burning.
Slice the fennel as thinly as possible. We didn’t have a mandolin on the camp site, surprisingly, so just make sure you’ve got a very sharp knife and haven’t drunk your own body weight in gin and tonic by this stage. Season with salt and pepper and then douse in the juice of 2 lemons.
Light your BBQ. When the coals have stopped flaming throw on two aubgerines and pierce with your knife. Let them burn, Ottolenghi-style, for 20 minutes or until steam is spurting out of the aubergines and the flesh is soft. Remove and leave to cool. Then scoop out the flesh, mash, and mix in the yoghurt, more salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. You’ll be adding some smoked garlic later…
Descale the salmon and remove any pin bones. Then rinse in cold water. Pat dry. And then season like there’s no tomorrow. Add a few curls of lemon zest.
Place the plank on the coals and when it starts to smoke lay the salmon skin side up on the wood along with 2 cloves of garlic. Add the fennel to the grill and close the lid. Inspect after 10 minutes and turn the fennel. Judge the doneness of the salmon and continue cooking for as long as you like.
Remove from the heat and mash the smoky garlic into the aubergine. Dress the fennel ceviche with some olive oil, shredded mint leaves and check the seasoning. If you’ve got the inclination, remove the salmon skin and place on the grill to crisp up.
Serve the salmon from the plank with the two types of fennel and a saucy smacker of smokey aubergine puree.
The salmon was softer than an Andrex puppy’s downy ear and subtly smoked. Whilst the fennel was sharp and crunchy on the one hand and charred and sweet on the other.
After a scorching debut I think that planking may well be my new favourite cooking technique. We’ll have to push the boat out next time with some more adventurous recipes…
We still love to go on trips around the UK, staying in BnBs or camping in search of a good meal or two - hence, Around Britain with a Paunch. Quite often the trips have been prompted by Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook. Here's where we've been to: