Food

Pastaciutta, Chelmsford: first impressions count.

Pastaciutta1

…but not always in the way you might expect.

I suppose it’s a worldwide phenomenon, the dressing-up of ‘ethnic’ restaurants to conjure up the ambience of the homeland…. and yet I tend to be suspicious. Anywhere that needs to ‘theme’ itself strongly may be saying something about the inability of its food to do the job without help.

Pastaciutta is about as far away from that as possible. Started a couple of years ago by husband-and-wife Alessio and Laura Maugeri, it is tucked away under a multi-storey car park in the less attractive part of Chelmsford Market. Yes, Chelmsford, that well-known hot-spot of refined eating. Well, perhaps the ghost of Marconi lives on, for it was from here that he made the world’s first radio broadcasts.

Pastaciutta is not a restaurant; a working kitchen with a canteen tacked on, would be a better description. There is a glass display counter out front, full of the most wonderful home-made pasta, and a small eat-in area comprising folding wooden chairs and tables. There is a little attempt at homeliness, but it’s no more ‘themed’ than you would expect in the back streets of a small town in Sicily. When we visited, there was a good babble of Italian not only in the kitchen but amongst the clientele too, and Alessio and Laura seem gradually to be colonising several other nearby pitches in order to gain more seating space. Take-away trade that weekday lunchtime was booming, including service to a number of the other stall-holders.

Pastaciutta3

Whether you eat there, or take away, the food is served in disposable dishes with plastic cutlery. But who cares, when it is as good as this? There is a choice of sauces including daily specials, which you can mix and match with a pasta of your choice. I went for the acid test, namely a meat ragu with tagliatelle, and having eaten a good many of same in Bologna, I can attest that this is no pale imitation. My wife’s Norma was equally spot-on – in the best home-cooking sense. Pleasingly, they also offer less-known dishes too.

Espressi followed, possibly the best had in the U.K. for a long time. Only an inch deep and thick enough almost to be a savory. We left toting two slices of torta caprese, which did not last long when we got back home.

I think getting a license might be a good move – I’m sure they could source some equally good wines to match, though it might slow the throughput, I suppose. I do like a good Italian restaurant, but while at first sight this place can look rather basic, that is pretty much what small-town Italy is like. But just as there, it makes the food all the more of a delight.

https://www.pastasciuttashop.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/PastasciuttaChelmsfordMarket/

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Food, Travel

If dinner’s good, life is good.

BPC

A wet Wednesday afternoon in Bournemouth. The day was being frustratingly spent almost failing to communicate with the elderly relative we were visiting in a nearby care home. (We eventually pinned the problem down to dead hearing-aid batteries, but it was hard work…) On top of two hours of rather tiresome cross-country travelling to make the visit, it was proving hard on my still-tender head.

We sought a breather in a local pizza restaurant which we knew, and just as we started to walk, the heavens opened. We reached the restaurant in its rather uninspiring side-street and sat there, the only people eating in, while the kitchen staff chatted away brightly in Italian; that was enough for things to start looking up. The guy doing the home-delivery runs was working on double, though. It’s a popular place.

A couple of glasses of decent red arrived, followed by a bowl of olives and eventually the excellent wood-oven pizzas we had been looking forward to. I’ve eaten enough pizzas in my life, including all over Italy, to know when I’m getting a good one; forget the chains (Pizza Express probably excepted) – there is nothing like a properly-made, wood-cooked pizza. You need a puffy, springy base, a well-judged topping, and that unmistakeable wood-charred flavour.

Just as we started to eat, the door opened and a dark-skinned man wearing a Ryan Air crew tabard entered. He spoke to the chefs in Italian and proceeded to check out the quality of their dough. He was a good way from the airport, so we assumed he has sought the place out deliberately while on an away shift. All seemed to meet his approval, and he eventually went away with his pizza in a box.

We followed the pizzas with a dollop of home-made tiramisu and espresso. The day was looking much better and we returned to the fray at the care home in much higher spirits. If you know that you are going to eat well, then most things are manageable. We have a collection of such hide-aways around this and other countries, and we like to return to them when we can. Nothing pretentious or expensive, just decent honest food that knocks spots off the ubiquitous chains. All just a matter of a little discrimination and detective-work.

I don’t know what Brexiteers find so abhorrent about having other nationals in our midst. The musical patter of Italian, and the serendipitous cameo of a culture that is still discriminating enough to check out the quality of the dough in a takeaway pizza brought a little Italian sun into an otherwise dank and difficult September afternoon. Diversity is fine by me – bring it on!

http://bournemouthpizza.co.uk/

(usual disclaimer)

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Food

Get stuffed

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Pesche ripiene al forno

If there were a time in the culinary calendar when one could stop the clock, now would be a strong contender. For just a few British weeks, there is an abundance of ripe everything – the (imported) melons are still just about holding on, local tomatoes are – briefly – sweet and soft enough to be worth bothering with – and the soft fruit is still plentiful. Strawberries have gone of course; well, no they haven’t, but I’m all for seasonal eating, and strawberries out of season are usually only outdone for blandness by tomatoes…

But perhaps the highlight is the peaches; imported again, of course, but picked at a point when by the time they reach my kitchen, they are perfect. But they go over quickly, and this well-known Piedmontese recipe is a stunning way of rescuing them…

Ingredients:

  • Ripe (or even over-ripe) peaches, one and a half per person, plus a couple extra.
  • Handful of crumbled Amaretti biscuits.
  • Slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste
  • Sprinkle of caster sugar
  • Mascarpone to serve.

Method:

Cut the peaches in half; remove the stone and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving some to maintain the shape. Position the half-peaches open-side up in an shallow oven proof dish.

Remove the flesh from the extra peaches and add to the same. In a bowl or on a board, chop the peach flesh until fairly homogenous, but not just pulp.

Place the peach flesh in a mixing bowl. Crumble the Amaretti biscuits to taste into the chopped peach flesh and add a slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste. Mix briefly, until the biscuits soften just a little.

Fill the scooped-out peaches with the flesh until piled. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar and bake on a fairly high heat (200C) until browned on the top (perhaps 20-30 minutes).

Serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

I have seen a version with grated chocolate added to the mix; not needed in my opinion.

Food

La Dolce Vita in a dish

Tiramisu

If it seems as though there is an Italian ‘thing’ going on here, you’re probably right (the title is a bit of a giveaway…). Periodically, I experience severe withdrawal symptoms from that country, and now is one such time. Unfortunately the planned antidote in the form of a visit to Bologna later this month has had to be postponed.

I certainly don’t look to Italy for its reliability or organisation – but if it’s an aesthetic boost you’re in need of, there really is no better inspiration than The Boot. In a sense, it’s the idea of Italy – La Dolce Vita – that is important. Taken at face value, it is languidly, decadently glorious; look too closely and you might find rather dark depths…

Of course, no one who is not Italian will ever be able to do it like the natives, but that’s not the point. We can appreciate the style (without ever fully trusting their delivery times) and adapt to our own needs. That said, there is also an almost perverse pleasure in seeing how close you can get.

One’s best chances are in the kitchen, where language and body shape cease to matter. I have spent frustratingly enjoyable years trying to get close to my conception of perfection with certain Italian dishes. I say conception because there is no one such thing as the objective ideal, of course. However, one learns certain secrets in the process, and the ‘research’ is by no means a hardship…

So here is one such dish, that I have started making again this summer after several years without; I am immediately wondering why I stopped, apart from the impact on the waistline. Tiramisu can be bought in any supermarket, but there is no substitute for making one’s own; so long as you have the means to make decent espresso and think ahead a few hours, it is ridiculously easy.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • Three egg yolks
  • 500 g mascarpone
  • 100ml single cream
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 (espresso) cups of cold espresso coffee
  • 4 tbsp coffee liquer such as Kahlua
  • 15 (approx) savoiardi biscuits (ladies/sponge fingers)
  • Cocoa powder for dusting.

Method

Make the coffee and leave to cool.

Beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar and vanilla essence until thick and smooth.

Beat the cream into the mascarpone to loosen it, then carefully fold in the egg mixture.

Spread half the mixture over a shallow dish; briefly dip the savoiardi biscuits in the coffee, and lay over the mascarpone.

Once a complete layer is achieved, spread the rest of the mascarpone mixture on top, to cover completely; chill for some hours.

Before serving, dust the tiramisu generously with cocoa power.

(from Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food)

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Virginal tiramisu
Food

Pasta pomodoro al forno

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The latter part of the summer usually brings a glut of tomatoes, indeed in my humble opinion, it is about the only time in the U.K. when it is worth eating them; I’ve never been a fan of the hard, sharp British or Dutch offerings. This year though, our own crop has unfortunately been written off  by blight which has hit the allotment as a result of the recent damp weather…

So here is a dish that Italians use when tomatoes are so plentiful that they don’t know what to do with them all. It’s not fast food, but it most certainly is comfort food, and is now an established favourite at this time of the year in our household. The dish as described makes two to three generous portions.

I’m not sure what its proper name is, even assuming it has one – so the title is my own suggestion.

Ingredients:

  • Lots of very ripe or even over-ripe tomatoes – at least three or four per person. As always, San Marzano or similar are desirable, but even British tomatoes are usable with a little help (see below).
  • Clove of garlic, finely chopped.
  • A little sugar to judgement – if the tomatoes could be riper.
  • salt and black pepper to taste.
  • Two or three tablespoons of passata – more if the tomatoes are less than fully ripe. Quality makes all the difference – Cirio is the best; the sweetness of the tomatoes is needed for this sauce.
  • Two tbsp olive oil
  • Handful of torn basil leaves
  • Penne pasta at about 50g per person. De Cecco recommended.
  • Butter, milk and plain flour to make a béchamel sauce.
  • One ball mozzarella.
  • Parmesan for grating.

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to about 210°C.

Prepare the tomato sauce. To do this properly, skin and deseed the tomatoes (the former can be done easily by blanching them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, and then peeling). Chop them coarsely. (Tinned tomatoes can probably be used but at the cost of some texture freshness of taste; again Cirio are the best).

Put the oil, passata, sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, tomatoes and torn basil in a saucepan and place on a moderate heat. Simmer gently for perhaps 30 minutes until the sauce starts to reduce. Stick your head over the pan and inhale.

Towards the end of this time, par-boil the pasta – about 8 minutes is about right for 13-minute penne. Drain and mix with the tomato sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the béchamel sauce – enough will be needed to cover the oven pot being used. This will probably be about 100g butter, 2 tbsp. flour and enough milk to make a fairly loose sauce. Season as necessary.

Drain and chop the mozzarella into bite-sized cubes.

Assemble in an oven-proof dish: first pour in the pasta/tomato mix and spread out. Cover this with a layer of béchamel sauce. Scatter the cubes of mozzarella on top, add a few more basil leaves and grate parmesan cheese liberally over the top.

Cook in the oven for around 20 minutes, or until the top of the dish is nicely browned. It is worth allowing the dish to cool a little after removing from the oven, as the flavours come out better as a result.

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Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

The not-so-bare necessities

I have been looking at some architectural impressions of various new developments. I always find architects’ sketches an attractive source of optimism, a promise of a better future. But notice how the human representations within are always stylishly dressed: people who, one could imagine working in glamorous creative industries or finance.

When these creations get built, many do bear passing resemblance to the designers’ dreams of a corporate Utopia – but those who populate them most definitely don’t look the same. I’ve recently spent time in a few such places: the enormous development that is the Stratford Olympic site for one. For all the lustrous finishes of the Westfield Shopping Centre, for all the stylish shops that occupy it, the majority of the clientele actually sports jeans and T-shirts or branded leesure-wear; stylish they aren’t. Truly well-dressed people are few and far between: one wonders who actually buys the clothes on show in the windows – maybe it’s just foreign tourists? Snobbery might resort to the fact that this is East London – but the same was pretty much true of the Grand Arcade in Cambridge, Chapelfield in Norwich, the Highcross Centre in Leicester, central Manchester and Birmingham, not to mention the glamorous alien that has landed in distinctly humdrum Chelmsford – Bond Street.

Truly stylish people have become almost an extinct species in Britain. It’s not as though we don’t have a time-honoured reputation for sartorial quality – even the Italians have a soft spot for traditional British style, menswear in particular. But who wears it any more, except possibly City bankers and Sloanes in Kensington? And even there, I suspect standards are slipping – the workplace is the last bastion of formal dress in Britain, but  that too is going increasingly casual.

Having done a little delving, there seem to be two issues that might be to blame: long working hours and a Protestant Anglo-American history.

Having recently suspended my own full-time employment, I can well appreciate the effect that it can have on one’s mind; when the attention is fully on the career, there is little mental space or energy left for the other aspects of life, let alone something so supposedly trivial as dressing artfully. And that’s where the second element kicks in: for all our supposed modernity, there remains a stubborn distrust of ‘show’ in British culture. A puritanical understatement is preferred, whether people are aware of it or not. I was inclined to blame America, the source of so many cultural evils, but there actually seems to be more interest with dressing well in the States than there is in Britain, if a quick web-trawl is anything to go by.

In fact, perhaps the mistrust is less spiritual and more societal: traditional British style still has strong associations with Class. People who choose to dress smartly are ‘probably’ either Hooray Henries, Toffs or other upper-class twits, and it isn’t cool to be identified as one of them. Much better to affect the inverted snobbery of wearing extortionately-priced sportswear and bling that make you look as though you’ve come straight from The Bronx.

Or maybe it isn’t even that: I suspect the majority of modern Britain either simply never thinks about how it looks, or doesn’t care, to the point of neglect. A concern for such issues only shows how shallow you are anyway, doesn’t it?

Well, I beg to disagree. True, taking care of one’s self may be unimportant when compared to huge global issues, but if every life is precious, then why waste it through neglect? Effort expended on small niceties adds colour and artistry to everyday life; it has a cumulative effect on the quality of that life and is a sign of self-respect.  I challenge anyone not to feel better if they eat well, live in cared-for surroundings, and take care of their personal standards in general. Conversely, what does it say not to care about these things? That life is trivial, unimportant, not worth taking care with? It may be that your priorities in life lie elsewhere – but somehow I suspect that they actually just took their leave some time ago. I think it was the designer Tom Ford who said that dressing well is a courtesy to others; if he is right, then it cannot say much about one’s care for other people either, to deprive them of that small pleasure.

What is true of clothes is also true of food, standards of speech and conversation and all other aspects of social intercourse. Collectively, these things create a context and tone for social interaction. In Britain, we supposedly had a food revolution. It’s true, the quality on offer has vastly improved, but eating well is still for the special occasion rather than the quotidien, and I suspect that most foodie books and programmes are consumed vicariously. When one listens to what people actually say about their lives, casual junk and supposed convenience seem to reign supreme.

It takes courage to maintain personal standards when everyone around you is dropping theirs, but I suspect there is a sneaking respect for people who do. In the small town where I live, there is one gent, probably in his early seventies, who regularly steps out in tweeds, plus-fours, waistcoats and a natty line in caps. He is clearly untroubled by the fact that he stands out.

But, in a very positive sense, everyone knows who he is.

Food, Opinion & Thought

Chain unchained

 

caffe-concerto

When living within striking-distance of London was still more novelty than nuisance, I used to travel into the city frequently. A favourite pause came to be the Costa Coffee bar at Liverpool Street Station. It was tucked away almost under the stairs by the entrance to the underground station. It was only small, with a glass frontage and polished granite counter piled high with all sorts of Italian goodies. Mostly, one perched on stools at a high counter in the window; as a place to pause for an espresso, it was just like a snippet of Italy dropped into the station.

Fast-forward three decades, and Costa is of course massive. It was bought from the original Italian family by Whitbread and rolled out ad nauseam across the country. To be fair, the coffee is still pretty good, but the décor was rapidly watered down into something more anodyne and cheaper to mass-produce. What we gained in ubiquity, we lost in style. The food is acceptable, but has again become less distinctive rather international-bland; various types of themed drink that have never been anywhere near Italy have been introduced. It’s pretty much a standard chain now.

Last Saturday, we travelled to Stratford to meet family who were visiting the World Athletics Championships. Hunting around a packed Westfield Centre, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat that didn’t have an hour’s queue. After running out of ideas, I eventually spotted a cafe that also had the word pasticceria over the door. Hmm: I guess not many chains – or their punters – know what one of those is. Maybe this is worth checking out – and thus we landed in Caffé Concerto.

For a new building, the fitters have done a very passable job of conjuring up a dark-wood and marble Torinese-style interior. The materials seem to be real, and the place felt right. Many of the touches that one would see in Italy, but the average theme restaurant would ignore or filter out, were there. It was no surprise that there had been at least some Italian input into the place; the Maître d’ was clearly Italian, even if most of the other (properly-attired) staff were Easterners. They appeared to have had proper training – or at least they were working somewhere where their likely exposure to proper ‘waitering’ from back home could be applied. All very impressive; and what’s more, despite the queues, there was no hustling people to move on quickly.

As for the food: my expectations always fall when one is given a laminated menu – although to be fair this happens very often on the continent too, these days. The fare was a slightly strange mix of English and Italian, with some notable omissions – no pizzas, and no pannacotta on the desert list. But there was an excellent choice of risotto and pasta dishes, much for veggies, and some correct-looking meat and fish. And one or two give-aways that these people know what they are doing, such as Bellini on the cocktail list.

Sure enough, when the food arrived, it was excellent and clearly prepared by someone who knew what they were doing. I opted somewhat hesitantly for a spaghetti carbonara – risky when unknown, as it can be turned into a solid lump of pasta and congealed cream all too easily. But this was light and in moderate portion, with decent pieces of what looked like hand-cut pancetta giving an excellent smoky-salty hit. My wife’s aubergine rigatone siciliana was equally excellent.

I pined due to the lack of pannacotta on the desert menu, as this is always an acid test of an Italian eatery – but a piece of tiramisu gateau was a reasonable substitute, even if it lacked totally in liqueur content. The follow-up espresso was of a good size, though somewhere up Mont Blanc in terms of strength, not quite fully Italian and missing the accompanying glass of water. But these are minor niggles in what was otherwise a surprisingly good experience. What pleased me too, was the fact that the place felt right.

It was only when I got home that I discovered that Concerto is a chain – at least within the bounds of London, there being about a dozen more dotted around the capital – plus one in Birmingham. But I think it shows that control has been retained by people who know what they are doing, by which I mean serving up a good Italian experience rather than making money for some anonymous venture capital company. My other favourite, Carluccio’s is just about managing the same trick, even though Antonio relinquished day-to-day control some time ago. That said, a look at the website shows the full corporate infrastructure behind the thing. Perhaps it shows that chains do not have to be dumbed down and characterless.

So on the one hand, it would be nice to see Caffé Concerto spreading to places that did not involve hauling into the capital, but on the other, what risk that it would do a Costa, be bought out by big business and turned into a shadow of its former self, whence everyone except the investors lose out? Quite a dilemma.