A food and wine travelog by Carla Capalbo

Assaggi is Italian for ‘tastings of food and wine’ and the word sums up what I spend so much time on the road doing: visiting artisan food and wine makers, chefs and restaurants, food shops and markets, tasting and talking to them about their ideas, skills and products. Over the past 16 years I’ve spent far more time travelling than at home, sometimes letting 10 or more months go by without ever getting back to my own bed. As you’ll know if you’ve read my Italian food and wine guides or articles, I’m not interested in giving scores or reducing a great wine or dish, man or woman to a number or rank. This site is the perfect place to share my assaggi and travels with you, wherever they may take us.

Pina’s Sicilian Food

31 July 2012

Nur Du. Photo by Ursula Kaufmann

Summer in the city. The Olympics have brought far more than sport to London this year. The skies may have been gray but the city’s programme of cultural events has been radiant, with special exhibitions, concerts, theatre and dance contributing to the impressive 2012 festival.

Pina Bausch’s company was invited by Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican Centre to present an unprecedented sequence of dance pieces created by the late German choreographer, who died in 2009. For the first time, World Cities 2012 assembled ten pieces Pina and her company produced over 25 years in collaboration with international cities, including Santiago del Chile, Los Angeles, Rome, São Paulo, Istanbul and Hong Kong.

I managed to buy last-minute tickets to nine of the ten dance shows. Needless to say, I was particularly keen to see the two based on Italian cities. Palermo Palermo was the first Pina Bausch work I ever saw, in Milan in the early ‘90s. It knocked me out then and I was anxious to see it again. A wall of huge breeze blocks shields the stage from view as the piece opens. After a minute of silence, the wall implodes, crashing back on the stage in what must be the most dramatic start ever to a theatrical performance. The dancers spend the next 2 ½ hours acting, speaking, playing and dancing among the ensuing rubble.

Food appears fairly often in the Cities pieces, but never more poignantly than in Palermo Palermo. The company, who researched each of these works on location before they were choreographed, must have been struck by food’s vital role in Sicilian society. In Palermo Palermo, food is more than just something to eat. It’s a central part of the fabric of life, and a key component of the mosaic that Pina assembles through little vignette scenes to make her final picture. These moments punctuate this piece; here are a few of my favourites.

A woman walks on stage with a handful of loose spaghetti tucked under her arm like a newspaper. She pulls out a single strand and declares: ‘questo spaghetto è mio spaghetto’ (this spaghetto is my spaghetto). When I saw it in Milan, the line was delivered in Italian and sent ripples of laughter through an audience unused to thinking of spaghetti as anything but plural. Dominique Mercy, the company’s present director and one of Bausch’s longest collaborators, takes that motif a step further: he stabs his nude torso repeatedly with the thin pasta sticks as they snap under pressure into shorter and shorter lengths.

Two men in trenchcoats squeeze a lemon onto their hair before combing it back like brilliantine. In another scene, a man living like a hermit in a closet heats an iron. He turns it hot-side up and fries an egg on it. That’s the art of getting by with what you have – l’arte di arrangiarsi – that flourishes in Naples and Sicily: there’s no limit to the inventiveness of necessity.

A man throws tomatoes at a woman’s face as the violence that lurks beneath the surface in this piece bubbles up. A place is set for dinner on the ground, on a block of the fallen stone, with a plate of pasta positioned at its centre. A mangy dog appears and hungrily feasts on the meal. A man eats into two apples poised perfectly on a woman’s breasts. A woman hacks away at something: she has hollowed a loaf. She stands, fits the loaf onto her foot like a shoe, and strides off. Another woman sprinkles sugar on her lips and calls: ‘kiss me’ to a man passing by.

A couple appear. The man is dressed, as Pina’s men so often are, in a dark baggy suit. The woman acts aggressively towards him. He shakes his left sleeve and two salamis roll to the ground. She berates him again. This time it’s packets of ham that fall from his right sleeve. Again and again the gestures are repeated until the floor is littered with meat packs that have appeared from his trousers, coat and back. When he has nothing more to hide, the couple march off and the scene ends.

Palermo Palermo. Photo by Joachen Viehoff

A line of women, each with an apple balanced on her head, link arms and sway to the beat of a Sicilian funeral march. In another monumental group scene, the company assembles like the striking labourers in Pellizza da Volpedo’s iconic 1901 painting, Il Quarto Stato. Slowly they advance towards the front of the stage with the swinging arm movements of peasants sowing grain, only here they’re scattering the domestic detritus – plastic bottles, odd shoes and food wrappers – that has become the jetsam of the city’s streets.

Each of the ten works was performed just twice over the month’s run. It was thrilling to be able to spend so much time with this remarkable, vibrant company whose brilliant creator was never far from anyone’s thoughts.

Como el Musguito. Photo by Bo Lahola

Note: the photographs are courtesy of the Pina Bausch company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. www.pina-bausch.de/en

Nearing 50

14 April 2012

Stephen Harris of The Sportsman

Stephen Harris of The Sportsman

They’re counting the days until the awards ceremony of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants are held in London on April 30th. I’ve been thinking about a few of the great UK places I’ve eaten in over the last year or so, restaurants I’ve voted for and would vote for again that express their terroirs and excite the palate.

The sea by The Sportsman

The sea by The Sportsman

Taking a day trip from London to The Sportsman for lunch is as good as going on holiday. This isolated pub stands alone by the wide tidal beaches of the Thames estuary near Whitstable in an area known appropriately as Seasalter. Stephen Harris’ cuisine of pure, decisive flavours and home-cured ingredients fits perfectly into this unfrilly, unstuffy environment. The large white pub he runs with his wife, Emma, is just metres from the dyke. Beyond it is nothing but sea, with miles of flat watery mud for foraging sea-salty greens. Stephen was an amateur cook who trained in a few restaurants before setting out “to cook food as good as the best chefs’, stripping away the bells and whistles, with no sommeliers, no bullshit. Just food of that quality.” He’s moved beyond that and engaged with the local farmers, raising lambs on the salt marshes and curing whole pigs from tail to toe. Fishermen call him directly with a line-caught 10-kilo turbot or a clutch of fresh crabs.

Crab risotto

Crab risotto

The Sportsman’s sliced wigeon

The Sportsman’s sliced wigeon

The blackboard menu changes daily, reflecting those impromptu arrivals. It offers more traditional pub fare as well as the multi-course tasting menu the foodies come for and that must be ordered in advance. Stephen takes you through a series of dishes, large and small, that reflect the land and seascapes as clearly as the vast sea there reflects the sky. In winter, a sharp bite of pickled herring with Bramley apple jelly and buttered soda bread readies the palate for Whitstable oysters with home-cured ham, followed by battered turbot skirt, and a creamy textured risotto richly imprinted with the flavours and colours of local brown crabs. It’s topped with their pale, delicate meat. Wigeon shot near Faversham is lightly smoked nearby. This dabbling wild duck has a fine gaminess that domestic duck can’t attain, and he pairs it well with Puy lentils, and hot-and-sweet quince and mustard sauce. The menu powers on through braised turbot, roast saddle of lamb, and great desserts, the best of British. There’s a relaxed, mix-and-match atmosphere to the dining rooms, and a fine wine list to accompany the food, so go by train.

Sat Bains close to his restaurant

Sat Bains close to his restaurant

If instead you take the train north from London you can be in Nottingham in under two hours. Talented young chef Sat Bains and his wife, Amanda, have turned an unpromising site on the outskirts of town – in an industrial park under a flyover – into a wonderfully comfortable, finely tuned ‘restaurant with rooms’ that recently earned its second Michelin star. Sat’s got charisma and flair and cooks using ingredients sourced both locally and further afield in the UK. “British food was always a magpie food, pinching a little from here and there to spice itself up, and our menu reflects that cross-cultural character,” he says. From a Punjab family, Sat was brought up in Derby. Once he discovered his love for cooking, his ‘angry young man’ beginnings helped him win competitions and gave him the determination to take over the then floundering eatery. The couple transformed it and the food, and Sat has inspired other young chefs from the Midlands to leave their stamp on the modern British food scene.

Sat Bains scallop and pork belly

Sat Bains’ scallop and pork belly

Sat’s rhubarb and custard dessert

Sat’s rhubarb and custard dessert

Sat offers tasting menus of seven and ten courses. In early spring these include dishes created around scallops, Cornish crab, artichokes, fallow deer, rhubarb, treacle sponge, and sea buckthorn. Sat likes to bring out the distinctive flavours of each by exploring their textures and five tastes. A large roast scallop from Skye is paired with succulent pork belly, topped with a microcosm of Lilliputian mushrooms, pickled cucumber, and coriander seeds, and served with saté sauce and teriyaki. One of the desserts has hibiscus-poached rhubarb accompanied by caramelized egg custard in a soft quenelle. Vaut le voyage!

Chef Mikael Jonsson (centre) at Hedone

Chef Mikael Jonsson (centre) at Hedone

Hedone, one of London’s newest and most ambitious restaurants has opened in Chiswick, in west London. Swedish Mikael Jonsson is a self-taught chef who earned a reputation as a serious food critic long before he started cooking. Until very recently he was prevented from spending time in the kitchen by severe food allergies. Now that he’s resolved that problem – by going on a Paleolithic diet that is gluten, wheat and sugar-free – he’s launched into Hedone, no mean feat for a man of un certain age. Mikael’s near-obsessive knowledge about raw materials leads him to work with very special produce, from salt-marsh lamb to Japanese deer that are now found in south-west England and that have been killed with just one shot to the head so as to leave their meat stress-free. Jonsson’s dishes have a pure, pared-down aesthetic that has been proving too extreme for some London critics. But fans of food with true taste, texture and a compelling cultural backbone hail him as a rising star.

Jonsson shows a customer the lamb before cooking

Jonsson shows a customer the lamb before cooking

The finished lamb dish

The finished lamb dish

Out of Bordeaux

Is April really the cruellest month? It never feels that way to me, with spring finally in the air and in the gardens. It’s in Bordeaux’s vineyards too, as last week at the Primeurs tastings showed. Vine buds were breaking up and down the Médoc. The hail storm that came on just as we were leaving Bordeaux did have an element of menace about it, though, a hard rain falling after such a long dry winter.

First storm over the vineyards of Margaux in the Médoc

First storm over the vineyards of Margaux in the Médoc

Paris, Brazil

31 January 2012

Alex Atala

Alex Atala

I cruised under the Channel this week to attend Paris des Chefs, a three-day food festival. It’s now being held in the Maison de la Mutualité in the 5th, a vast, creamy Art Deco palazzo that has recently been refurbished by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Happily, it’s across the street from Eric Kayser’s bakery in the Rue Monge, still one of the bonnes adresses for baguettes d’auteur.

Paris des Chefs features 24 chefs, from the up-and-coming to the still-inspiring, and pairs each with a creative person of their own choosing: musician, painter, designer, ad man, winemaker. The chefs give 45-minute presentations with their chosen partners, with results that go way beyond recipe demos. I’ve written more on this for Zester Daily.

Brazilian star chef Alex Atala has repeatedly won top South American billing in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But since his restaurant D.O.M. is in São Paulo, it’s not that easy for many of us to taste his cooking. This week, after his Paris des Chefs presentation, he prepared a press lunch at Alain Ducasse’s Parisian flagship restaurant in the Plaza Athénée hotel. Atala is the first foreign chef to be invited to cook there as part of Ducasse’s new quarterly ‘Rencontres Essentielles’ series. “I want to open my kitchen to friends who share the same vision of cuisine,” Ducasse said. “A cuisine that is simple, almost brut, and entirely focused on produce and taste. An essential cuisine.”

Atala with Alain Ducasse in the kitchen before the meal

Atala with Alain Ducasse in the kitchen before the meal

The restaurant interior

The restaurant interior

Atala’s meal lived up to those expectations, taking us out past the sumptuous elegance of the crystal and beige dining room into a world of Brazilian flavours and textures. Tipping his hat to the French master, Atala’s crisp mille feuille opener looked like a sweetly browned, buttery palmier but was crafted from manioc root. He paired it with lightly citric chibé accented with petals, aromatic leaves and fiery buds. Akin to couscous, chibé is made from soaked manioc flour.

Atala’s mille feuille of manioc root

Atala’s mille feuille of manioc root

The chibé

The chibé

Atala has pioneered the use of many native foods, bringing them out of the jungle to the tables of Brazil’s city dwellers. “The Amazon is mysterious even for Brazilians,” he says. Each of his lunch’s eight, finely balanced courses revealed another thrilling aspect of this diversity, like the use of tucupi (an orange-yellow juice of the manioc root that has been boiled into a sauce) to marry with plump langoustine, sea urchin, and coriander. It left the mouth feeling cool and a little numb, like menthol or eucalyptus.

The tucupi being poured onto the langoustine

The tucupi being poured onto the langoustine

The taglietelle

The taglietelle

Atala’s tagliatelle fooled even me: they looked like noodles but were surprisingly juicy to the bite, made of thin strips of palm heart scented with sage. His skate wing came with peanut-smoked mandioquinha, a saffron-yellow root like a waxy, starchy carrot. My favourite dessert emanated the incense-like perfume of native priprioca: two jellied discs of citrus ‘ravioli’ trapped slices of diminutive banana at their centres, like pressed flowers caught in amber. This sensual dessert was sweet, then sour, then sweet again as the lemon-lime jelly gave way to fragrant fruit.

The banana dessert

The banana dessert

The lunch went really well, and Alex is happy

The lunch went really well, and Alex is happy

Alex Atala spent years cooking in France and Europe, so it’s not surprising that his food reflects some of the forms and techniques of French cuisine while featuring tastes and ingredients that are, to us at least, exotically new and exciting. Bravo Alex! São Paulo, here we come!

Paris, France

Fabulous food! Anyone who maintains – as some do – that French cuisine has lost its way should get a new road map for the city of lights. A recent dinner at Le Chateaubriand confirmed Iñaki Aizpitarte’s status as its most gifted enfant sauvage. His lively bistro, in the supposedly unfashionable 11th, merits its status of one of the world’s top restaurants, without needing stars or toques to prove it.

Iñaki’s imagination flows through his dishes like a live current, from the tiny cupful of ice-cold, liquid ceviche he starts you off with, sweet and sour in its thrill, to the oeuf brulé he ends with, where he sits a whole raw egg yolk on top of a mini pastry cup, sprinkles it with sugar, then browns it to cracking point. Tap into the caramelized yolk and its soft liquid centre spills out onto the buttery pastry and the salty sand crumbs below. Iñaki’s not afraid to dress frilled Chinese mushrooms with sweet vanilla whipped cream and dried mandarins, nor to feature white winter cabbage in a baroque layering that made me think of the starched, ruffled collars on Rembrandt’s sitters.

Iñaki Aizpitarte with his catch in Lapland at Cook it Raw in 2010

Iñaki Aizpitarte with his catch in Lapland at Cook it Raw in 2010

Iñaki’s a free spirit, steered by an unfaltering sense of what goes and what doesn’t in this new lexicon of his, where things no one’s considered food before – like the bitter citron pith he pairs with slabs of rosy pork, pink grapefruit and pata negra ham jus – seem completely at home to our taste. Don’t leave Paris without eating there! (129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011).

I have Andrea Petrini to thank (and not for the first time) for pointing me in the direction of Ze Kitchen Galerie, a chic, luminous restaurant in the heart of arty Saint-Germain. Chef William Ledeuil’s is an eclectic cuisine that’s poised between French and Thai, but draws flavours and ingredients from farther afield. The long room is animated by colourful modern paintings and a tiny, bustling open kitchen with as many Asian cooks as European.

Ze Kitchen Galerie

Ze Kitchen Galerie

Ledeuil’s palette is upbeat, with spring colours giving way to refreshing, juicy flavours. A lobster and shrimp farce is lifted by clean notes of lemon grass, ginger, yellow mango and sweet citrus. I love the complexity of his sauces: tender Pyrenée lamb chops à la plancha are accented by a brick-red, Chorizo-Saté condiment that includes fiery mostarda di Cremona, ginger and apple. It would make a sophisticated BBQ sauce. This is food you keep coming back to, and with several prix-fixe options, it’s affordable. (4, Rue des Grands Augustins, 75006).

Ledeuil’s lobster and shrimp farce with colourful radishes

Ledeuil’s lobster and shrimp farce with colourful radishes