the Kitchen on the Kelvin

Recipes, news and reviews from my cubby-hole of a kitchen on banks of the River Kelvin, Glasgow

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Under the Tuscan Sun

Last month, I finally made it to Italy for the first time. I call this third time lucky, having failed on two previous attempts. Many years back, my sister and I came across a great deal to spend a weekend in Rome. Brimming with excitement – being a whole one sixteenth Italian, I’d always wanted to visit the homeland – we boarded our Ryanair flight at Prestwick airport. Fast forward three hours later and the plane remained on the same damp and drizzly Tarmac; we were informed that due to an Italian air traffic controller strike the flight was now cancelled. With no other flights available, instead of going to Rome, we had no choice but to head home. It might be overused, but the term anticlimax was created for moments like that one.

A couple of years later, two good friends and I planned a last minute getaway to Rimini to celebrate having finished our final degree exams. However, one of the two needed a new passport. True to form, the courier arrived at my friend’s door 10 minutes too late and we missed the flight. How could it have happened again?

Having shared these unfortunate tales with Craig’s family – this was my first family holiday with the Barclays – they were eyeing me with both suspicion and apprehension that this so-called “curse” might strike again as we arrived at Prestwick Airport one windy Wednesday afternoon. After Ryanair put me through 90 minutes of agitated déjà vu before our plane finally took off – again citing issues with Italian air traffic controllers which I really must look into – we arrived happily in the warm climes of Pisa.

We were staying in the lovely town of Montecatini Terme which sits just below Montecatini Alto, an ancient village built at the top of a hill and accessible via an equally ancient but lovely funicular railway. It was at Alto we first visited Casa Gala, a quirky and truly one-of-a-kind restaurant that sits on the romantic cobbled square at the centre of the village. Potted olive trees are scattered between the tables, with lemon yellow paintwork creating a rustic Mediterranean backdrop. Inside, a long table adorned with trinkets, ornaments and plants sits below a contemporary light fitting, bringing a gallery-style feel to the place. This unusual display was my first hint that Casa Gala is something more than just a restaurant.

Craig’s parents had eaten here a year previously and told us of their amusement as they witnessed the stereotypical Italian temperament come alive; a blazing argument between the staff concluded with a waitress walking out mid-shift. Half-expecting some Fawlty Towers-esque service, we were in the right state of mind for the place, although some of the other diners appeared less amused.

Bottega di Gala, the restaurant's adjoining shop and delicatessen

Bottega di Gala, the restaurant’s lovely adjoining gift shop and delicatessen

Our server certainly seemed to lack the urgency and attention one might expect when dining out. We could see the patience at other tables wearing thin as he chose to spend ten minutes chatting with the staff at a neighbouring restaurant rather than attending to customers. Appearances, however, can be deceiving; we soon realised that the waiter, Simone, was, in fact, the owner and creator of this curious place, and his apparent lackadaisical attitude couldn’t have been further from the truth. He spoke to us about his food with so much care and passion that we were certain we were in for something very special.

Recognising our burning enthusiasm (ie greed) for food, he treated us to a wonderful array of locally produced Toscana cuisine during our week in Italy, over which time we visited Casa Gala three times. On our second visit, whilst we were perusing the stunning menu, Simone offered to go off-piste and prepare us his own special meal. In a restaurant full of diners, this felt like a pretty special opportunity available only to our party, which, naturally, we grasped with both hands. Over the next couple of hours, Simone went back of house and cooked us a five-course meal to remember.

First, a deliciously juicy tiger prawn was served on toasted Italian bread with pancetta and sliced green apple that cut through the salty, oily flavour perfectly. As it was set down on the table in front of us, the visual impact alone, tendrils and all, was enough to tell us this dish was going to be nothing short of brilliant. The prawn was generously meaty and, once that was out of the way, the toasted bread mopped up the seafood juices and pork fat very nicely indeed.

A stunning start: Tiger prawn with pancetta and sliced green apple on toast

A stunning start: tiger prawn with pancetta and sliced green apple on toast

Next, fresh wide-ribbon pasta was served with clams, squid rings and some more modestly-sized shell-on prawns, with the broth providing a light, wonderfully savoury accompaniment. Simone let the ingredients do the talking again and, combined with his technical ability, the result was another course of a really high standard.

With ingredients like this there's no need for fuss: wide ribbons of fresh pasta bathed in a seafood broth with clams, squid and shell-on prawns

With ingredients like these there’s no need for fuss: wide ribbons of fresh pasta with clams, squid and shell-on prawns

After two fish courses, we knew something quite different had to be coming next, and we were right. Put before us was a real big player; gnocchi with stilton. Three courses in, I was feeling pretty intimidated. I tend to struggle with really heavy dishes of this kind and this one brought a batten-the-hatches punch of richness that was a lot for me to deal with. I was relieved to discover, however, that the gnocchi were delightful little cloud-like mouthfuls; like no other gnocchi I’d ever had before. I couldn’t completely polish off this course, a rarity for myself, but I did a pretty good job. For gnocchi enthusiasts, this was the dish of dreams.

Packing a punch: gnocchi with stilton

Packing a punch: gnocchi with stilton and crispy sage leaves

If I think back to that moment, I remember the overwhelming emotion was concern. How much more could I stomach? How many courses were still to come? How on earth could I possibly bow out of this once in a lifetime meal? And then came another daunting reveal. Course number four was a pancetta-stuffed pork fillet served on more delicious, oil-drizzled toasted bread. The cut had been sautéed in white wine and, in all its salty goodness, was a delight to devour despite suppressed protestations from my full-to-bursting stomach.

After dark: Pancetta-stuffed pork fillet sauteed in white wine

After dark: pancetta-stuffed pork fillet sauteed in white wine

It’s difficult to imagine how we did it, but dessert made five. A selection of sweets, from a scrumptious marmalade cheesecake to a gooey chocolate fondant, were somehow devoured by our party. We sat around the table, gazing dreamily at each other – admittedly wine had been consumed throughout – recounting our personal highlights of the meal and feeling very lucky indeed.

I could easily write ten or twelve blog posts – if I miraculously discovered the necessary willpower – about the incredible food we enjoyed on our Tuscan getaway. Every meal I had in the country was of an impressively high standard, but the famous five courser at Casa Gala is the one that’ll stick in my mind. Even more so because we later discovered that the eatery-cum-hotel is named after the family’s elderly pug, Gala, who shuffles around the restaurant doing her rounds with an completely adorable confused expression on her pudgy face.

Resident pug gala on patrol with no time for photos

Resident pug Gala on patrol with no time for photos

My lasting memory of Tuscany is ancient hilltop towns, cypress-lined impressionist landscapes, sunflowers as far as the eye can see and that meal of epic proportions at Montecatini Alto. Casa Gala, we love you!


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Winter weekends: A cold, culinary adventure in Dublin

Just a few months ago, my big sister announced she was moving away; not only from Glasgow, but leaving the UK altogether. Her boyfriend, Diarmuid, had been asked to transfer to Dublin where his employer was opening a new office. As a native Irishman, this meant going home; for Louise, however, it was a chance to discover a new and regularly raved about city.

Seven days after we said our tearful but happy goodbyes, my mum, Aunt Susan, Craig and myself set off for dreary Prestwick Airport at 5am, groggy but looking forward to a weekend in the celtic capital to celebrate Louise’s 30th birthday.

After a raucous flight shared with some lumbering rugby fanatics who were already tanked up for the impending Scotland v Ireland game the next day, we hopped into a taxi where stereotypes really lived up to their expectations; the saccharine lull of Stephen Gately and co was playing out over the radio. I thought things might have moved on since the last time I was in Ireland some 16 or so years ago, when I, along with millions of other confused young girls, was in the full throes of Boyzone mania. I was all too pleased to discover, however, that this was some sort of odd coincidence and we weren’t subjected to that kind of aural assault again.

A February weekend in Dublin was always going to be a cold one, but I hadn’t prepared for the unrelenting, biting wind which tore past us, freezing rain stinging our faces, as we explored the city. For 90 minutes of the open top bus experience – necessity had us sitting downstairs – the cold seeped deep into my bones with no plans of easing off anytime soon. It wasn’t until a new lot of tourists stepped on board, only 20 minutes left of the circuit for us, that the driver thought it wise to turn on the heaters. Having presumed there was no such facility on board, I was just a little bit fuming.

Queen of Tarts on Dublin's Cows Lane

Queen of Tarts on Dublin’s Cows Lane

The only thing that could lift my bleak body and mind at this stage was nature’s one and only cure-all: food. On the recommendation of Diarmuid’s sister, we headed to Queen of Tarts on the enjoyably titled ‘Cows Lane’. Stepping through the door, the intoxicating scent of home baking told me that this was exactly what I needed. I opted for the soup and sandwich combo to warm me through. Celeriac soup was served thick and piping hot, just as I hoped it would be. On the side, hearty roast pork loin with apple butter and homemade stuffing on focaccia was exactly the sort of belly-pleasing comfort food my body was craving, with the not-too-sweet but not-too-tart apple sauce ensuring it was moist as well as tender. Bones just about thawed – aside from my perpetually cold feet – we were prepared again to do some more exploring. The sun was even kind enough to kiss our faces for a little while as we strolled through Trinity College, down O’Connell St and along the River Liffey.

Cockle-warming fare: Roast loin of pork with apple butter and homemade stuffing

Cockle-warming fare: Roast loin of pork with apple butter and homemade stuffing on focaccia

After a hot shower back at the hotel which was only a couple of stops on the LUAS train, we were ready to head back out into Dublin. Thankfully, the winds had eased and conditions were a lot more pleasant for an evening out than I’d expected. Leaving plenty of time to have a couple of drinks before dinner, we stopped by The Dawson Lounge, Dublin’s smallest pub, which is essentially a dark, dare-I-say dingy room down a set of stairs through a doorway just off St Stephen’s Square. What it lacked in style and space, however, it made up for in charm. There we enjoyed obligatory pints – or half pints on my part – of Dublin’s most famous export. The last time I had Guinness was on St Patricks Day in Brisbane quite a few years ago and this hiatus was with good reason. However, I did actually quite enjoy it which I can only put down to the Dublin water. Feeling a little merrier, we made our way back to street level and headed for the main event: The Pig’s Ear.

This award-winning restaurant was what I’d really been waiting for all day. Diarmuid had been once before and Louise had also spotted it in Dublin’s Lonely Planet Guide. When she told me that was where she’d booked for her birthday meal, I – impatient as ever – started digging. As they put it themselves on the restaurant website, “At the Pig’s Ear, simplicity, hospitality and generosity are key elements for a warm friendly restaurant. We offer an informal approach, value for money and no frills satisfying seasonal Irish food.” Having retained a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2009, I was amazed to discover that the Early Evening Menu was available for only €26.95, particularly given this place’s location in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

During our dreaded open top bus tour, I had managed to spot the restaurant as we passed its doorway on Nassau Street opposite the Trinity playing grounds. A glossy, hot pink wooden door was adorned with a large black ribbon tied into a bow, like a luxurious gift just waiting to be unwrapped. For me, quirky touches like this one really amp up the anticipation and I felt genuinely lucky to be visiting one of the city’s most hyped eateries that evening.

All wrapped up: The Pig's Ear, Nassau St

All wrapped up: The Pig’s Ear, Nassau St

Gladly, I was not disappointed. We dined in the second floor ‘Mirror Room’ which was stylishly decorated with – you guessed it – lots of large mirrors and other interesting details. As a pre-theatre style menu, there were three choices per course and all of them were inventive. I’m sorry to have to say this again, but I couldn’t turn my back on the goats cheese starter. To be precise, this was “Whipped St Tola Goats Cheese, Roast Onions, Pine Nuts, Brown Bread”. Having never heard of St Tola before, we asked the waiter of its origins and were told it’s on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare and is made from 100% organic goat milk. As a veteran on the goats cheese starter front, I can say that this was certainly one of the strongest goats cheeses I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Not for the faint hearted, it brought with it a punchy, intensely rich flavour – a little too pungent for Craig, as it turned out – with a delicious, velvety texture thanks to the whipping process. The chef’s decision to pair it with baby onions became clear at this point as they were able to stand up to the cheese very well, while the pine nuts added a necessary crunchy dimension to the dish. I realise that my photography skills let me down somewhat on this occasion – no thanks to the ‘dining in the dark’ lighting – and the picture below doesn’t look particularly lovely, but in reality this was a dish beautifully constructed with a taste experience to match.

Sorry, I did it again: Whipped St Tola Goats Cheese, Onion

Sorry, I did it again: Whipped St Tola goats cheese, roast onions, pine nuts, brown bread

For my main, I took the very rare decision to deviate from my usual carnivorous ways and opted for “Pan-fried Hake, Cauliflower, Smoked Haddock, Brown Shrimp, Samphire, Almond and Caper Butter”. I eat a lot of fish at home and, as a result, the meatier dishes I don’t so often cook for myself tend to catch my eye. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that the description poised fish as anything but boring and it was an easy choice to make. A beautifully cooked, chunky piece of hake was the star of the show – as it should be – and was deliciously complemented with tasty morsels of smoked haddock and brown shrimp. The toasted cauliflower provided a satisfying contrast in texture and samphire, which seems to me to be the green of the moment, gave the dish a real visual appeal. 

A beautifully executed fish dish: Pan-fried hake, cauliflower, smoked haddock, brown shrimp, samphire, almond and caper butter

A beautifully executed fish dish: Pan-fried hake, cauliflower, smoked haddock, brown shrimp, samphire, almond and caper butter

Having had a lighter main than I might normally have done, choosing a dessert wasn’t a struggle. I went for “The Pig’s Ear Vanilla Cheesecake, Berry Jam, Hob Nob Biscuits”. Served in a kitsch little jam jar with red and white gingham lid included, this was a cheesecake of the deconstructed variety. The crumbly biscuit base was, I’m sure, an oaty biscuit reminiscent of a Hob Nob, but, having had a pretty close relationship with the milk chocolate variety in my youth, I’m quite confident it wasn’t pulverised McVities. This would have been a cop-out on the part of the restaurant, of course, but there’s a reason why these branded biscuits are a mainstay of builders and grannies alike across the country. Believe it or not, 12 or so years ago, our house was burgled overnight while we slept and I woke to discover that one of the valuables plundered was my tub of McVities Milk Chocolate Hob Nobs. Naturally, I felt cheated as well as confused and completely furious. That’s one to talk through with my therapist, however, so back to the dessert at hand. The ‘cheese’ element of the dish was sweet and creamy as you would expect, while the berry jam was a lovely addition, offering enough sharpness to cut through the richness. Admittedly, this wasn’t the best cheesecake I’ve ever had, but it was a very pleasant end to an excellent dining experience in Dublin.


Deconstructed desserts: The Pig’s Ear Cheesecake, Berry Jam, Hob Nob Biscuits

Should you find yourself spending a couple of days in this lively city, make a beeline for The Pig’s Ear. Not only was the food incredibly satisfying and interesting, but it provided us with a robust lining in our stomachs before moving on to explore many of Dublin’s best traditional pubs.


Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull, Scottish Highlands

A couple of years ago, my dad upped-sticks and moved from the bright lights of Glasgow to one of the most remote places in the whole of the UK: Ardnamurchan. This peninsula in the Scottish Highlands boasts the title of most westerly point of the British mainland and, as a result, it’s a place of genuine rugged beauty. Just getting there is no mean feat, taking around four and a half hours by car, but the scenery encountered along the way makes it well worth the journey. The route winds along the western banks of Loch Lomond before taking on the drama of Glencoe. A short sail on the Corran Ferry marks the halfway point before an unnerving couple of hours on the meandering single track road which connects Ardnamurchan to the rest of the world.


The majestic Glencoe on an exceptionally beautiful day – we hit the jackpot!

Whenever I visit my Dad, I know I’m in for a very good feed. He’s always been an excellent cook and now that his skill is paired up with the beautiful produce from the area, mealtimes are pretty special. Whether it’s venison fillet from the local estate or pork belly from his friend Angy’s farm, the quality of life of the animals grazing there is directly translated into the quality of the meat produced. With an unfettered freedom to roam an area untouched by pollution, the livestock are living a similar life to the one they would have done a hundred years ago, unaffected by industry or modern ‘cram-as-many-in-as-we-can’ farming techniques. It reinforces my belief that free range food – aside from being ethical, too – just tastes better.

The stunning view from my Dad's at Achosnich to Sanna Bay and the islands

The stunning view of Sanna Bay and the islands from my dad’s at Achosnich

I was smart enough to pick up some venison mince to take home with me from the local shop, but now I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t smart enough to buy more of it! Coming in at less costly than decent beef mince, it represents excellent value for money and is incredibly lean. I cooked it up with just a smidgen of oil, chopped onions and beef stock for about 30 minutes. I’ll admit that I expected it to be a little on the dry side, but I was willing to trade this in for a healthy alternative to beef. In fact, it had a beautiful texture and that intense, meaty flavour I can’t get enough of. If I had a regular supply of it at this great price, I would seriously consider using it as a tastier alternative to beef mince in my bolognese and chilli.

This dandy little gent pays my dad a visit for breakfast every morning

This dandy little gent pays my dad a visit for breakfast every morning

We also enjoyed a great little day trip to the quaint harbour village of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull which – despite being on an island – is the nearest hub of action to Ardnamurchan. Just 35 minutes from Kilchoan on a cheery wee Calmac ferry and we arrived at the paintbox-hued seafront which must be one of the most commonly depicted views in Scottish art and photography.

Tobermory seafront, Isle of Mull

Iconic: the village of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull

As the seafront comes to life with tourists during the summer season, it’s home to many gift shops punting locally produced arts and crafts as well as pub, after pub, after pub: our kind of place. Inevitably, our visit centred around the liquid offerings of Tobermory, but we did enjoy a decent haddock and chips for lunch at Macgochans where it was actually warm enough to sit outside in the beer garden and take in the chocolate box views. After spending a couple of hours sampling the Isle of Mull Brewery Island Pale Ale, we paid an impromptu visit to the Tobermory Distillery shop where Craig treated himself to a bottle of the 10 year old malt. As I’m not a big whisky drinker myself, I declined to taste it but now that I’ve read that it offers a hint of spicy gingerbread on the palate, I might just have to reconsider. We’ll see how Craig feels about that . . . Flavour aside, it’s housed in a beautiful green bottle which I plan to upcycle into a striking candle holder when the golden liquor’s long gone.

Craig enjoying a pint of Isle of Mull Brewery Island Pale Ale

Craig enjoying a tasty pint of Isle of Mull Brewery Island Pale Ale

An unusually pleasant Saturday afternoon was topped off when, emerging from the Co-operative having been instructed to pick up some custard doughnuts for my dad (his vice), our path was crossed by a curious, oil-slicked creature dashing only three or four feet in front of us. Incredibly, we had intersected an otter on its way from the sea to its nest somewhere nearby! I only wish I’d managed to capture this rare moment on film, but the sneaky little guy was too fast for me. What had already been a fantastic day became a truly memorable one thanks to our chance encounter with a ballsy little otter.