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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ortiz anchovies....the dream finally realised

I finally get it (not that I'm paraphrasing Epicure, or anything). I really do. I finally understand what all the fuss is about.
I have been wanting to try the Spanish Ortiz anchovies for so damn long now. Every foodie thing I read raves about their meatiness, their sweetness, their general not-awful-like-a-pizza-ishness. So, a few months back, I hooked up with Plum and went on an expedition to Simon Johnston to spend a voucher I got for my birthday. Hmm - $150 at Simon Johnston doesn't get you very far! A 60g small bar of Valrhona was $10.
But I found me my Ortizs, just the regular size like you'd buy in a supermarket, and had a chat with the staff woman who said the best way to try them was just over some simple spaghetti with olive oil. So, at home today and at a loose end for lunch, I gave it a go.

Not one to just dump some mega-expensive anchovies on pasta, I pulled out some fine spaghettini. A simple dressing like this would be ruined by big, chunky pasta. Then I started by really slowly cooking a LOT of garlic in olive oil and butter. A small pinch of chilli. I didn't want the garlic to brown, so kept it as low as possible. While the pasta cooked, with hand shaking over the tin I opened the anchovies, carefully not spilling a drop of the platinum oil. Of course I had to have a taste - and yes, they are wonderful. Yes, they're soft and meaty and not crunchy and hard like the usuals. They're pinker and generally more appealing to look at. And they do have a sweetness to go along with the general anchovy saltiness. Now, when people said they were sweet, I was almost expecting them to NOT taste like anchovies, but the salty taste was still there. Yay! I love salt! I love anchovies! I love these expensive anchovies!
I melted just one into my garlicky, buttery oil. Threw the pasta into the pan and tossed it about, then added a few more achovies on top. Some of the anchovy oil and a squeeze of lemon juice to cut through it. Some cracked pepper. Then went outside into the beautiful sun, with a glass of chardonnay and enjoyed a rather excellent lunch.
The cost for my 50 gram tin of Ortiz anchovies?.....$15.
Have I left some for another occasion? You betcha.

*NB I saw them, as well as Ortiz tuna at the Spanish stall at the Borough market in London recently. About 7 pounds for the same tiny tin - expensive over there too!


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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I hesitate to write it, but I'm not totally enamoured with Florence. Yes, it has glorous architecture and views and amazing art galleries, but it's also chronically crowded, overrun with tourists and a bit smelly. I thought this ten years ago, when I first visited, and my feelings are a bit stronger now. A few people I've spoken with agree that Florence doesn't seem like an Italian city; it's a city of foreigners and tourists. And thousands of damn annoying African immigrants crowding every piece of pavement trying to sell you fake designer handbags and bad commercial artwork. And yet, if you purchase their goods, it's you who will face trouble! A local told us there are signs up (??) around the city informing visitors that it is illegal to purcahse from these street-sellers and you will face a fine if caught. Hmm.
My photos of Florence tend to be filled with thousands of tourists. In the end I gave up and just started photographing the crowds of people. I think Belinda took a great shot of the queue to get onto the Ponte Vecchio! The photo above wasn't taken by me (I was probably ogling David's bottom at the time), but a friend who decided to go for a wander, and found a place selling excellent almond brittle; toasted almonds in toffee, that had enough smokiness to cut through the sugar. Yum! It was late afternoon, and evidently she'd found a quiet spot away from the crowds.

It was a hot day when we were there, and had chosen to spend some time sightseeing before our concert at the English church, not far from the Ponte Vecchio (just near the Ponte Santa Trinitas). Just off the Piazza del Duomo is a place selling pizza by the slice. It's not terribly cheap, but it was pretty good quality, particularly if you got one that had just come out of the oven. The tuna pizza on the left was really excellent; hot, juicy on top and crispy on the bottom with fresh basil and good tomato. The vegetable one on the right was not as succesful. It didn't have cheese and had been sitting around a bit, so it was lukewarm and dry - a bit like foccaccia with a few veggies on top. Didn't finish that one.

We were taken out for dinner by a group of eccentric expat Australians living in Florence, to a very good local restaurant that none of us would be able to find again, because we all got lost numerous times trying to find it! And, as we were eating another 5 course dinner at 11pm, after a day sightseeing in the sun, and a big concert, nobody took photos. What a shame - the fresh skinless salami we tried were incredible, as was the chicken liver crostini and perfect prosciutto. To live in my memory only...


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Monday, November 27, 2006

The Tuscan Countryside

We spent four nights in the Tuscan countryside, near the town of Barberino Val d'Elsa. From there we performed concerts in nearby Sant'Appiano and Florence, and made day trips to Florence and Siena. Unfortunately, apart from our first day in Florence, the weather was a bit grey, cool and drizzly. The day we spent checking out the town of Barberino was maybe the worst weather-wise, and it seemed the town was deserted! We kept running into members our our group wandering around the small town, and eventually we all ended up in the same sports bar for lunch (after I had an extended 'conversation' with the bar owner about sitting outside. He kept repeating a word which I thought meant 'outside' but when I eventually looked it up, meant 'dishcloth'!! No wonder we had mutual incomprehension!).

Before lunch we found ourselves at one of those wine & olive oil tasting places, set in the ruins of an old building that you find all over the place in Tuscany. For want of anything else to do (we asked at the tourist agency and they suggested going somewhere else...) we decided to do some tastings. When I checked out the olive oils (above) and noticed they were available for tasting, I didn't quite expect we'd be given a cup. Each. At 11am, not long after breakfast. After a few sips we were looking at each other in some panic, wondering what to do with the other 3/4 cup of oil! Although it was significantly queasy-making to do so, we chugged it back and hummed to ourselves. The oil was excellent, actually, and had it not been the start of the tour and we'd have to carry it round for weeks, we might have bought some. But a cup each was a bit much!
We tasted some wine as well, and followed the wine-dude out to the cave area we he fetched a few bottles for us to take to a party that evening. Again, lovely to taste, but whoa! Wine and oil straight after breakfast! Hoooee!

We ended up in a rather cool gourmet/organic shop, selling all manner of preserves, soaps and wines. At the back was a few tables, where we parked ourselves and our books for a large part of the afternoon. By our table was an amazing bowl of local cherry tomatoes. I think this is Belinda's photo - and it's excellent. I asked for a taste of one, and proceeded to sneak a few more throughout the afternoon! Italian tomatoes...no comparison!

When we felt it was time for afternoon tea, and our sweet teeth were calling to us, we asked the owner/lady what she had, and she offered us some torta. It was quite a plain cake, slightly dry in that way the Italians appreciate a bit more than us, but served with excellent apricot preserves, so the combination worked really well. The espresso we had with it was excellent too, in keeping with the standard we'd come to expect throughout Italy!

A few evenings earlier, after our Tuscan hillside concert, the choir and audience attended an incredible supper with outstanding food. It seems that I had a mental blank that evening and don't have photos, so I'll leave that event to Belinda who took some great shots.
The same woman who organised our concert and cooked for that supper also provided us with dinner the next night, at her hillside Tuscan villa. Yes, it was as good as it sounds, although we didn't sit outside under olive trees. It was late and drizzly so we had an inside Tuscan meal, but the quality and amount of food was wonderful.
Above you can see the salad table, with char-grilled zucchini, insalata caprese, various lettuce and bread, and an enormous hand-made ricotta that was unlike any ricotta cheese I'd tasted; so milky and delicate. She'd also made malfatti pasta with homemade pesto, roasted chickens, roast fennel, lentils with cumin and yoghurt, potatos with garlic and...ummm...other wondrous things. We drank a lot of wine. This might explain why I can't remember what other wondrous things we ate, or what we had for dessert!!

All up, our Tuscan experience was really made by this woman, who is, in fact, an Irish expat! She went out of her way to make us welcome, and must have spent days in the kitchen cooking for us. The way to a person's enduring love really is through their stomach!

Dinner leftovers after the locusts had descended


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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Chieti and Orvieto

View of the Abruzzo countryside from my monastery room
From Rome we had a frantic, running-late bus ride to Chieti, about 3 hours away near the Adriatic coast. In retrospect, planning a concert on our second night in Europe, after a full-on two days was not the best decision! But the offer was made to us, and we were keen to get as many gigs as possible, so off to the Abruzzo we went., and with another religious order we stayed (this time old Italian monks).
I hadn't realised how green and mountainous that area of Italy would be; it's really beautiful, and after spending time in Tuscany and deciding it was a bit overrated and so famous because it's so well-known, I think this area is an overlooked gem. The mid-east coast of Italy is not widely touristy, but it has the incredible countryside and beautiful towns of the more famous northern areas. We only had 1 night, and barely got to see anything of Chieti apart from our walk from the bus to the church, and the church to the restaurant to have dinner at 11pm (yep, as per standart Italian-eating time). A four-course 11pm dinner after a big concert was really just perfect for our jet-lagged group. No, nobody nodded off in their antipasti at all. No, we don't have photos of anybody with their head on the table....!
Luckily, following the gaze of the local men with eyes on stalks, the television showing the Miss Italia 2006 quest managed to keep most of us awake enough to enjoy our dinner (when did all the Italian girls become blonde?!). And anyone who fell asleep during their first course, does not ever deserve to eat again. We were served quite simply, THE BEST LASAGNE IN THE WORLD!!

In Italy there are varying ways of making lasagne. My family, from the north, have made what most people know as traditional lasagne; with lots of cheese, bechemal and bolognese sauce. But in the south, they do a lighter, more tomatoey, less-cheesy version. My aunt, who married a southerner, makes this and I love it as well. This Chieti-lasagne was a southern version; there were sheets of silky-soft pasta, layered with a perfect tomato sauce and a little mozarella. Seriously, I dream of this lasagne. That would have been enough to win me over, but in between every third pasta sheet or so was a layer of hundreds of teeny tiny pork meatballs, about the size of your little fingernail!! These meatballs had amazing flavour and stayed moist surrounded by the tomato sauce. This blew me away. Imagine making those thousands of tiny meatballs, every day?! That's real cooking for love. That's Italy. I am in love with whoever made this lasagne. My nonna is under instructions to recreate it...

I crashed a local wedding outside Orvieto Cathedral...
From Chieti we headed north-west to Tuscany, with a lunch-stop on the way in Orvieto. For those who've been there, isn't it the most beautiful town! To get to it, you leave your car at the bottom of the cliffs and catch a funicular up to the pedestrianised town. The town has preserved its medieval feel, with tiny wandering alleys and cobblestoned paths, always with the tips of the cathedral peeking out of the light to help keep you oriented. Didn't help my friend and I, though, as we wandered further and further through the alleys (and even crashed a local wedding in the piazza).
We only had a short time in the town, and realised we wouldn't have time for a proper restaurant lunch, so made our way back to an enoteca I'd seen in one of the alleys off the main square; advertising a porchetta or prosciutto roll and glass of wine for 5 Euros. Bargain! It was one of those amazing artisinal food & wine places you find in Italy, with local foods and wines from the region. This was evidently a time of best-evers, because this porchetta roll was the stuff of dreams. Maybe even wet-dreams, if you're that way inclined. It was spectacular!

As you see, my roll was stuffed with freshly carved porchetta, complete with stuffing and fresh sage and thyme, and generous quantities of crackling. Ohmygawd, it was amazing! I even took my friends leftovers - how could he even think of leaving some?! I think I was in a sort of delirium afterwards (could have been the glass of good red) and couldn't shut up about 'the most amazing meal I just had'. The others, who'd ended up in a place serving packet pasta from a microwave looked at me narrowly. You know, I'd go back to Orvieto just to have another porchetta roll. Umm, and the architecture and stuff too.... ;-)

Antica Bottega al Duomo
Enoteca - Gastronomia - Prodotti tipici locali

di Mario Serboni
Via Maitani, Orvieto
Tel. 00763.344216


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Roma, Roma

Well, we hit the ground running in Rome. The group landed at 6.30 in the morning, and we were leaving at lunchtime the next day for our first concert, so had only 1.5 days to 'do' Rome. I had arrived in the evening before, so had the advantage of a few hours sleep in a real bed, but after getting to our convent hostel too early for rooms to be ready, everybody made a quick change and set out for the day. I don't think I could have done it. I know how I feel after a 30 hour flight, and tackling a big city in the late summer heat is not desirable!

Incidentally, accommodation in Rome is hideously overpriced and most often booked out, especially if you're travelling with a group in September, so I highly recommend staying at a
convent-run guesthouse. Our hotel was run by Latino nuns, and was a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum. Yes, you'll have a curfew, but the rooms will be spotless! Our midnight curfew didn't pose any problems for this exhausted group on their first day.
So, straight off the plane, we hit the town. We checked out the Colosseum and the Roman Forum ruins. It was very hot. I loved this combination of low-rent snacks and high-rent architecture:

With admirable forebearance, our little group agreed to search out a highly recommended pizza place not far from Piazza Navona.
Belinda and I led out group all over the city, in the sun, into alleys, out of alleys, into small piazzas, into big piazzas, all the while ignoring pleas to 'just stop at this pizza place. It looks fine'.
"NO!! This one's supposed to the best best!"
We had a lot riding on this amazing pizza place. But when we very eventually found the little street (and remember, everyone's straight off a 30 hour flight, unshowered, unslept and been traipsing through the 30 degree heat for 3 hours) it....umm.....wasn't there!!!!!! Yeah, we were SO popular.
However, it appears that the area around Piazza Navona is good for quality pizzas and we found some random place that didn't look full of tourists. In fact, it was full of workmen on their lunchbreak, which is a good sign. I know Belinda took a photo of the business card, but I think my card is in the enormous package of paperwork I posted home from London at the end of the tour and might eventually turn up by Christmas...

This was my choice, with tomato, mozarella, rocket, marinated capsicum, prosciuto and mushrooms. The tinned mushrooms on top were a bit random, but was otherwise excellent. I had forgotten about the really thin bases of Roman-style pizzas. They're so thin they're like toasted pita bread! I liked the way you didn't feel too bloated with dough after finishing a good-size pizza. Much easier on the digestion than eating a whole pizza for lunch in Australia!

Belinda's pizza was a bit richer, but very difficult to pass up. 4 cheeses, including a hefty chunk of gorgonzola, topped with zucchini flowers. Very tasty, and way-cheesy (in training for Switzerland?) but I think she may have left some unfinished; it was very full-on. Taste-wise, more interesting than mine, but not as kind to the system!
Keep reading for more Rome food...

The only recommendation we managed to find that first day in Rome was Caffe Sant'Eustachio; a caffe apparently making the best coffee in Rome. It was on our way from Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain, in the Piazza Sant'Eustachio. We walked past it a few times, and very nearly went into the wrong cafe before we realised which one it is. There's not much to set it apart, but when inside, their ordering system is interesting. There's a 3-step process involving placing an order, getting a ticket, collecting the coffee and going to pay. Not very Italian! But in true Italian fashion there's just organised chaos with people wandering around all over the place doing whatever they will.
We all went for espressos and were surprised to discover that sugar is automatically added to all the coffees. If you don't want sugar you have to make a special request when you place your order. In good Italian fashion we only noticed these signs at the cash register! A couple of the cofee-nazis in the group had already put me down for having sugar in my espresso, to which I would point out that Italians always have sugar in their espresso, and going without didn't mean they were doing anything manly, they were just being wankers! This just proves my point!
Yes, the coffee was good, but I'm not at the point were I can tell the difference between good coffee and excellent coffee, in Italy. Over there, all the coffee I had was excellent. Even the espresso I had at the bus terminal in the crapola town of Poggibonsi was fantastic! The dark little bar near our hotel, on Via Merulana, filled with suspicious, smoking locals and staffed by the requisite insouciant barista in tight pants made what I considered to be the best coffee, but that could be because I ingested about 8 of them in 36 hours!

We ended up at the totally overcrowded Trevi fountain and after a photo stop, started to look for San Crispino, the recommended-by-everyone gelati place. And whaddya know, in keeping with the theme of the day....we couldn't find it! I think a combination of the crowds and general exhaustion may have added to it, but we searched up and down and asked a combination of passers-by, shop-keepers and African immigrants selling fake Gucci bags, but nobody could tell us! So, we just grabbed something at a random place on the way to the Spanish steps.
However, that evening as we were coming home from dinner near our hotel and were sleepwalking down Via Merulana, we woke up enough to notice a gelati place; Gelateria Ornelli. This place was gooood! Their chocolate combinations included chocolate & pear, chocolate chilli and chocolate & mandarin and in the 3 times I visited in my 36 hours I tried them all. Their cinnamon gelati was also outstanding. Highly recommended!
Naturally, as I was walking down the street the next morning, after deciding that 11am wasn't too early to be eating chocolate chili gelati, feeling very sophisticated and Italian in my dark glasses walking the streets of Rome, I look down to discover I've dropped a blob of gelati right down the middle of my skirt. My pale beige skirt. My chocolate gelati. Yep, nothing to bring you back to reality like that! This girl's never going to be a sophisticated Roman...so with that, I went to Chieti.


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Thursday, November 16, 2006

My return, and friends in London

Christmas lights on Oxford Street, London, the first night they were lit, 9 Nov.
I'm finally back down here in Melbourne, and to be completely honest about it, a bit bummed out about that. After 2 months of travelling through beautiful cities with friends, eating good food and doing whatever you want when you want, it's certainly a sharp shock to come back to reality! I came back a few days ago, but it took a while to even consider turning on the computer (with the knowledge there'd be 8 weeks worth of emails waiting) and I haven't much felt like blogging!
I had plans to update when I was over there, but after 2 weeks had passed and I was having so much fun, sitting down at a computer was the last thing on my mind! That feeling continued for the whole trip; the longest I've been away from a PC since I was a child.
Needless to say, it was a fabulous trip and I can't wait to return. It was difficult to say goodbye to the choir after nearly 4 weeks together in Italy, Switzerland and England, but spending time on my own around the Czech Republic and Germany was just as wonderful. As long as you always have a book in your bag for a dining companion, travelling on your own is no problem! Thank you Michael Palin for many memorable dining experiences...
After our concert in London I caught up with Johanna, from The Passionate Cook, and Jeanne from Cooksister, who I was thrilled to find in the audience. Really, when you're over the other side of the world, it makes it so special to recognise somebody in the crowd. I had already met Johanna after my last trip to Europe in 2004, and actually stayed with her parents in Linz for a few nights, but I'd not met Jeanne before; we had a lot to talk about! We went out for dinner that night to a new pizza place, which I would write about, except that Jeanne has already put up a great post about our experience, including a photo of the three of us, post-pizza. Her photos are better than mine, anyway! (My flash died right in the middle of the tour of the Cailler chocolate factory in Switzerland 2 weeks earlier - aaargghgh!)

I caught up with Johanna and Jeanne again last week, when I was back in London for a few days, and we went to a wild mushroom and truffle tasting evening at Harvey Nichols. Very swish! An interesting evening; we sat around the 5th floor food hall, and heard demonstrations from a wild mushroom distributor (most going to Harvey Nicks come from Scotland) and the representative from L'Aquila, a truffle and truffle goods distributor. Both offered tastes of their products. Mr Mushroom Man cooked up a pile of wild mushrooms with butter and garlic and served them on crisped Italian flatbread brushed with truffle oil. These were excellent. If Mrs Truffle women was hoping to lure us into parting with our cash to purchase her truffle goods, she didn't do a very good job. A very sad tray of canapes was delivered to each table, and none of them did justice to the truffles. It's telling that none of us bothered to get our cameras out. Truffle-infused polenta shapes were cold and unseasoned, scrambled egg tarts with chopped truffle were bland and croutons with truffle paste had been prepared hours before and were dry and cold. Hmmmm. The cherry tomato garnish was great.... However, we did get to handle a box of white summer truffles (about $1000 worth, I'd say), learnt about the different sorts of truffle and their varied flavours, and tasted a few shavings of a black winter and summer varieties. Accompanying the wild mushrooms was a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005 (still a bit light) and with the truffles, an Italian Barbera.

The highlight of the evening was the goodie bag we got to take home at the end, with a bottle of Harvey Nicks truffle-infused olive oil, a jar of Harvey Nicks wild mushroom sauce (looking forward to playing with that), a bottle of pomegranate and blueberry juice, which I drank before getting on the plane to Australia and a packet of very unusual Tyrells apple chips from Herefordshire. I'm munching on these at the moment; they have the texture of potato crisps, but are sweet and dusted with cinnamon. I'm definitely a fan. They would have been a good garnish for something if I hadn't just gobbled up my packet then...
Christmas goods were out in force around London, so I also picked up a tin of Harvey Nicks Christmas blend tea, which smells like festive pot-pourri, and a box of the best crumbly fudge in the world, which I'd previously discovered at the Borough Market. More on that to come...
Think it's time for another jet-lag nap now....!

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