the Kitchen on the Kelvin

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


Leave a comment

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!

Advertisements


2 Comments

Corfu, Part II: Corfu Town

Watching the people go by in Corfu Old Town

Watching the people go by in Corfu Old Town

Every so often, one of those rare days comes along that I know will linger fondly in the memory for some time. Free from worry, pressure and expectation, our impromptu visit to Corfu Town was just that.

As I explained in my previous post, our days in Ermones had revolved around unadulterated sun worship, gorging on beautiful Corfiot seafood and quaffing a liberal quantity of cocktails by the pool. While too much of that can only be a good thing in my eyes, we would have been wasting an opportunity if we hadn’t taken a foray into the island’s capital, Corfu Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only a 30 minute bus ride away.

Just a few weeks before, I’d been drawn in by some striking pictures of the old town on the Instagram account of my Greek school friend, Dimitra, who had spent her summer holidays there. As a native, I knew she’d be able to share with us the insider knowledge we craved: where do the locals eat?

The bus, which eventually picked us up from our hotel after deviating quite significantly from the timetable, reached its final destination on a scruffy plot of land operating as a depot. So far, so unimpressed; I was anticipating a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets brimming with a potent sense of the past. But with the help of some 21st century technology, we discovered the old town a few minutes later and got the eyeful of culture we were looking for.

The rich history of the island, which can be read about here, is clearly demonstrated by the formidable old fort which dominates the bustling port. Further into the meandering passages, shuttered windows and flowering balconies are reminiscent of Paris or Venice which is a direct result of four centuries of Venetian rule before the British, French and Greek governments made their own marks.

Back home in Britain, we’re fed emotive images of the great turmoil caused by the crippled Greek economy but there’s no sign of that here. Glossy boutiques exude opulence and indulgence, chic cafes buzz dynamically with expressive conversation and polished ladies laden with the exploits of their spending strut confidently through the winding streets, chichi toy dogs in tow.

After finding our bearings and absorbing the charm of the place, we were certainly ready for refreshments. Settling on a couple of high stools poised outside an elegant little bar-cum-cafe, we would spend the next three hours supping zingy margaritas and enjoying one of the best pastimes there is: people watching. From the bionic blonde whose plastic surgery portfolio could give those of The Real Housewives a run for their money, to the stream of giggling schoolgirls ordering chain-gulped iced coffees from the pretty Greek version of a 20-something Joaquin Phoenix (swoon), this was one of the foremost people watching experiences of my life. Somehow, TV and film can’t compare to the entertainment that comes from surveying the curious actions and conversations of human beings unknowingly going about their everyday lives.

Now for food. Our dinner venue had come highly recommended by my Greek informant, Dimitra. Entered via an inconspicuous passageway off one of the main shopping streets, I reckon Bellissima has to be Corfu Town’s best kept secret. Despite its Italian name, Bellissima serves traditional Greek fare from its charming situation on a romantic little square. Sat outside at tables with red check tablecloths, we devoured saganaki (king prawns with feta in a tomato sauce), spetzofai (spicy sausage with peppers), more seafood pasta (Craig’s true vice) and the ultimate Greek classic of chicken souvlaki.

This was a feast capable of feeding a large family with Grecian appetites so eventually we had to admit defeat with a dull ache of disappointment. The family which runs this place delivered everything we had hoped for from an authentic meal; the warmest hospitality was lovingly combined with food which was unpretentious, homely and bursting with flavour. And just to top it all off, a group of traditional singers, musicians and dancers performed in the square as we ate to make this an all-encompassing experience of Corfiot culture.

This day trip represented one major life lesson learned: never underestimate the value of taking in some culture. We could have so easily have spent our entire week languishing in luxury by the pool at our hotel but this little sojourn enriched our holiday far more than we could’ve imagined.


1 Comment

Corfu, Part I: Ermones

First things first, I have to apologise for my summertime blogging hiatus. Since starting a busy new job at the beginning of July, I’ve neglected to put aside any time to tell you what I’ve been eating. I’m glad to say that the guilt has finally got the better of me and I’ve now promised myself I’ll get back into the habit of writing regularly.

The event which spurred this sluggish return to Wordpress was a late summer getaway to the lush Greek island of Corfu. Craig and I found ourselves whiling away the hot days and refreshingly cool nights in a very quiet corner of the island called Ermones. Situated on the west coast of the island but not too far from Corfu Town, we stayed at the Atlantica Grand Mediterraneo Resort which was one of only two hotels built into the cliffs around this picturesque little bay with a historical past; according to travel agency Thomson’s guidebook, Homer’s Odysseus washed up ashore here to find a bevy of maidens waiting for him. I suppose this would’ve been the perfect time to pick up this legendary tome, but that sort of a literary challenge doesn’t really pair well with a holiday for me.

The beautiful Ermones Bay

The beautiful Ermones Bay

For the first time ever, we opted to go all-inclusive. This is something that I’ve been very hesitant to do in the past, but the quiet location and a number of positive reviews of the hotel’s cuisine on Tripadvisor gave us the confidence to take a gamble which I’m both pleased and relieved to say paid off.

One of our most weighty reasons for going all-inclusive was value for money. Craig and I admittedly like to enjoy a drink or two on holiday and have felt the room tab fear when settling our bill at the end of a couple of previous getaways. What could be more fitting with a holiday than not having to worry about a budget? The selection of drinks on offer was excellent with plenty of brand names and cocktails forming part of the package. In particular, our hats go off to barman Costas and his talent for mixing some very delicious mojitos which we enjoyed many a late afternoon by the pool.

Well and truly wound down

Well and truly wound down

Lunches and a couple of our dinners were had at the hotel’s Medusa restaurant. This was your standard buffet set-up with plenty of salads, fish, chicken and meat on offer at all times. I found this particularly good at lunch time when I could opt for a light meal, as stodge and a bikini make a beach body not. I was happy with a piece of fish or chicken alongside the ultimate classic of greek salad. At one point during the week, I feared I might have become about 90% feta cheese after devouring so much of the delightfully creamy stuff. Now, several weeks cold turkey, I think I’m back to the standard water:protein:fat:minerals ratio.

Sunset over Ermones Bay

Sunset over Ermones Bay

We spent our second evening at one of the hotel’s a la carte restaurants, Thalatta, which serves Corfiot seafood on the beach. As you can see from our photos, we arrived just on time to see the vibrant sun disappear over the horizon. The food on offer here was the best of Greek cuisine: simple and hyper-fresh with quality ingredients that speak for themselves. The starter comprised a meze of traditional dishes including greek salad with the most flavoursome tomatoes you couldn’t ever hope to find in the UK, tasty anchovy toasts, tzatziki, Corfiot codfish bianco (with garlic and lemon) and delicate fried squid which had to be straight from the sea that day. Already approaching full, we then enjoyed beautiful whole sea bream with grilled peppers, aubergine and courgette. The meal was concluded with a dainty selection of baklava; syrupy, sticky, sweet and nutty, this couldn’t be anything but a real treat.

Don't mess with the classics

Greek salad, tzatziki and olive bread: don’t mess with the classics

Beautiful fried sea bream with grilled med veg

Beautiful sea bream with grilled med veg

Another evening saw us visiting the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. Vertigo, perched high upon the cliffs, has an impressive view across the bay and serves Italian food of a sophisticated nature. With no pizza in sight, we started with a scrumptious ravioli appetiser, complements of the chef, which heightened our anticipation for what was to come next. I fear you’ll think I’m becoming a bore, but I just couldn’t let the goats cheese starter pass me by. Two overly generous wedges baked in a contrasting crunchy crumb were complemented with oozing figs, crispy prosciutto and a tangy balsalmic glaze. Safe to say, I had no goats cheese regrets yet again. Craig, always a sucker for shellfish, opted for fritto misto to begin and then a decadent seafood spaghetti overflowing with gargantuan king prawns. In a move controversial for myself, I ordered the veal fillet for my main on the recommendation of our server. While it’s not something I choose to eat regularly,  the meat was delicately sweet and tender and something really quite special.

Delicate fillet of veal with shredded tempura cabbage and carrots

Delicate fillet of veal with shredded tempura veg

The only meal which topped those described above was one we had in Corfu Town. So good, in fact, it deserves its own blog post which I resolve to write over the next few days. For now, I’ll leave you with this mystical shot of the valley beyond Ermones just after sunrise one morning. A little off the most beaten parts of the tourist trail, I’d visit this place again in a heartbeat.

A misty morning in the valley

A misty morning in the valley


2 Comments

Book review: ‘What Katie Ate: Recipes and other Bits & Bobs’ by Katie Quinn Davies

What Katie Ate: Recipes and other Bits & Bobs

What Katie Ate: Recipes and other Bits & Bobs

I’m a real sucker for things that look nice. Ashamed as I am to admit it, text-heavy cookery books just don’t do it for me. It’s the mouthwatering, tantalising imagery that ignites my enthusiasm to try whatever Nigel, Nigella or Jamie has effortlessly thrown together in a rustic yet refined fashion. So when Amazon alerted me to the fact that the debut cookbook of Katie Quinn Davies – author of stunning blog What Katie Ate – was available for pre-order, my restraint didn’t stand a chance.

This is genuinely one of the most beautiful cookery books I’ve ever laid eyes upon. A designer and photographer turned food stylist and blogger, Katie has created a bohemian, laid-back and aspirational aesthetic throughout her book and I’m very pleased to say it combines style with substance.

As a Dubliner living in Sydney, she has adapted very well to the Aussie great outdoors and the pages are strewn with luscious images of barbecue-ready shellfish and vibrant garden party salads. I’m praying this weekend’s weather brings an abundance of sunshine and warmth to Glasgow so that I can get tucked into the sizzling prawns, barbecued peppercorn beef fillet with chilli and herb gremolata and chorizo and potato salad with rocket and manchego shavings. This food is intended for open-air consumption with charcoal and drinks and friends and family.

Dotted throughout the book, however, are lucid references to her stubborn Irish roots. It doesn’t get any more homely than Katie’s fish pie with crunchy bacon and leek topping, Mick’s pork and red wine lasagne and roast pork with apple, apricot and pistachio stuffing. So when I’m craving stodgy, oozing and tummy-pleasing comfort food, I’ll be reaching for this all-encompassing tome all over again.

Here’s a rough critique of the recipes I’ve tested so far:

Beautiful raspberry friands

Easy on the eye: raspberry friands

Raspberry friands: These eye-catching little delicacies made the front cover of the book and were my first stop as a result. Very simply thrown together, the recipe calls for egg whites and ground almonds affording them a deliciously light texture and grown-up, sophisticated flavour. They make an excellent alternative to standard fairy cakes when the occasion calls for something with a bit of elegance. I also threw caution to the wind and used frozen raspberries – knowing full well I was risking soggy bottom syndrome due to the excess liquid they hold – but the friands came out just fine.

Finger-licking good: Sticky chicken with sesame and chilli

Finger-licking good: Sticky chicken with sesame and chilli

Sticky chicken with sesame and chilli: In the introductory paragraph to this recipe, Katie says “This is a great mid-week, easy-peasy, ‘throw-it-all-in-the-baking-dish’ meal. Even though the list of ingredients looks long, I’m willing to bet you’ll find 99% of them in your fridge or store cupboard already”. Aside from being a girl after my own heart with her excessive use of hyphens, she was right: all I needed to pick up were the chicken drumsticks and wings and the sesame seeds for sprinkling over when serving. Honey, wholegrain mustard, ketchup, balsalmic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, red onion, sugar, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper bubble down deliciously to create a very tasty dinner with very little effort involved; until you go to clean the pan, that is!

Packs a punch: Barbecued prawns with Thai dipping sauce

Packs a punch: Barbecued prawns with Thai dipping sauce

Barbecued prawns with Thai dipping sauce: Do not eat these prior to spending time with anyone who hasn’t had them too. The prik nam pla dipping sauce requires a strong hit of raw garlic which rather outstays its welcome. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t try them. With very little cooking required, this dish offers an explosion of hot, zingy and tongue-twisting flavour which can be adapted to suit your own tastes: my generous addition of chopped chillies almost blew the head off Craig’s unsuspecting mother when she had a taste.

And that’s as far as I’ve got with What Katie Ate at present. Aside from being drop dead gorgeous, the Australian fusion cuisine it offers makes a very welcome and distinctive addition to my ever-expanding foodie bookshelf. In a nutshell, I’m a happy customer!