Al fresco with Ristorante Tuesday, Jul 26 2016 

ristorante-pizza-mozzarella-pizza-und-snacksFerret Food and Wines was kindly sent two FREE (count em! FREE!) pizzas by Ristorante’s PR – perfect for al fresco dining now that the weather has warmed up a shade. Whether you choose to eat them with your hands or a knife and fork, you can enjoy them under the sun, whether sat around a table on your classy decking, or casually stood up in the garden – even the kids could eat them with their hands while playing.

So firstly I tested the classic Mozzarella pizza: an acid test in anyone’s book. Nowhere to hide with this one! Happily the crust stays nice and crunchy, meaning it won’t cover your hands with melted cheese while you’re stood up admiring the garden’s flowers, and just in general makes for a nicer eating experience. However, the topping stays moist, making for a win-win situation (not to mention the fact that it takes a mere 10-12 minutes to cook). This combination also makes for a good thickness: not brittle, while not being overly doughy or chewy. This also adds to the sophistication factor. There’s plenty of flavour in this one too – not just thanks to the tomatoes, pesto (even if this could be more evenly distributed across the pizza) and mozzarella cheese, but also thanks to the extra (albeit nontraditional) Edam that’s also been sneaked in there.

risto-calzonepngDepth, variation or subtlety of flavour was arguably something that was lacking, though, in the brand’s new Calzone, even though it combines ham, salami, cheese, and tomato. The overriding flavour was the tomato sauce, which is comforting and present in decent quantities – but this is perhaps not evenly distributed throughout the calzone (which we divided into 3), with other diners reporting greater amounts of cheese. The salami also dominates over the ham, as it just generally has a stronger flavour. Again, however, the crust remained crunchy, offering pleasant contrast to the gooier filling, and the handy size means that you could forsake cutlery easily. It does take longer to cook though (more like 30-35 minutes) – so some patience is required!

However, despite these minor criticisms, at £1.66 each, they’re excellent value for money, offering texture, flavour, comfort, and sophistication – perfect for al fresco dining this summer.

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Oscar le Restaurant, Paris Sunday, Sep 29 2013 

It has been a strange end of summer in Paris. Just when you think autumn is settling in for good and you have seen the last rays of sun, summer comes back. Last week certainly was very nice, with warm days and fresh nights, so, last Friday, with an upcoming trip to Northern Germany and a conference call ahead of us, we decided to have lunch outside. My colleague, a sun-loving Dane, and I set off towards the place du Marché Saint Honoré but the terraces were already packed. I then remembered seeing a restaurant with seats outside on the nearby rue des Pyramides. We sat down at a table in the shade of the Eglise Saint Roch (while we would have liked some sun on that day, it would be welcome on hotter days), quite far from the other guests so that we were not suffocated by smoke. The distance was also sufficient enough to make the boisterous gentleman’s talk of his wide experience of the Anglo-Saxon world (commonplace in Paris, as French people can be both fascinated and repulsed by their experience in NY or London – few venture beyond) more amusing than annoying. We ordered some tomato pasta, and the risotto of the day. After some time, the owner arrived and apologised because she had mistakenly asked the kitchen for a spinach risotto. With time pressing on us, I settled for the spinach risotto and the owner promised me a coffee to make up for it. While the risotto was a bit too creamy and cooked for my liking, it was nevertheless acceptable and I was told the pasta was equally good. The tap water was also chilled and drinkable.

In total, the bill came to 35 euros and I was a bit disapponted to find out I had actually been charged for the more expensive risotto (the one which I had NOT ordered but nonetheless got). Maybe it was the owner’s Rolex Daytona, or the fact she brought us chocolate even after I had refused coffee, but I did not complain.

Before leaving to buy coffee from nearby Verlet, we reflected on the meal and acknowledged that we would have paid marginally less to be closer to other guests and perhaps eat lower quality food on the place du Marché Saint-Honoré. I never thought I would say that, but you have to be realistic about this area of Paris, which is enjoying unprecented levels of wealth and affluence: among the many tourist traps that litter the place, I probably would return to Oscar.

Food Book Review: Vegan Pizza (Julie Hasson) Thursday, Aug 22 2013 

–The blurb–

Vegan Pizza is filled with 50 modern recipes from easy-to-make pizza dough (including spelt, whole wheat, and gluten-free crusts), creamy dairy-free cheese sauces, vibrant-flavored pestos and spreads, and meatless and wheat-less burger crumbles. Also included are inventive toppings and pizzas that run the gamut from comfort food pizzas like Chili Mac Pizza, Barbeque Pizza and Eggplant Parmesan Pizza, to fresh vegetable-laden pizzas like Sweet Potato and Kale Pizza, Corn, Zucchini and Tomato Pizza and Asparagus, Tomato and Pesto Pizza. There is even a chapter dedicated to dessert pizzas too, from Babka Pizza, to Berry Pie Pizza and Coconut Caramel Dream Pizza. With helpful information and tips on equipment and techniques, Vegan Pizza shares the secrets to fabulous, easy-to-make, dairy-free, meat-free thin-crust artisan pizza that tastes like it came from your neighborhood pizzeria. Now home cooks everywhere can get baking and make fabulous vegan pizzas in their own kitchens.”

–The review–

As a mostly vegetarian consumer of food, pizza can be a tricky minefield to navigate. Sure, there’s the ever-classic margherita or quattro formaggi. Pizza bianca is another good option, dealing with mozzarella and ricotta. However, these are all quite heavy on the cheese and many cookbooks aren’t that imaginative when it comes to vegetarian pizza options. In her latest recipe book, due out on September 3rd 2013, Julie Hasson takes on the arguably even bigger challenge of vegan pizza. Not only does she have to find a range of tasty toppings that don’t rely so much on cheese, but she also has to make a convincing base. So does she manage it?

First, the toppings. One good way around the cheese (apart from vegan cheese, of course, which you can’t get in France) is to mix things up by using vegan pesto as a base (if you’re making your own pesto at home, this shouldn’t be too tricky to achieve). Thankfully, tomato bases also still feature strongly. However, anyone seeking a book based purely on vegetables will be disappointed: Hasson devotes a whole chapter to the creation and use of meat substitutes (mostly using TVP or soy as a base). Conversely, by addressing the ‘vegan cheese’ element, she passes on actual recipes, not just a list of vegan products to buy – for instance, she creates a creamy “cheese” sauce using tofu and soy milk as a base. Flavourings such as liquid smoke and tahini are also used to help conjure up varied and tasty sauces. Following this, she gets to the classics – but sadly, they all rely on vegan mozzarella-style cheese and some of them use vegan meat substitutes as well. This is definitely aimed at Americans – there’s no way you’d be able to find this stuff in France, even at health food stores (and even if you could, it would be very expensive).

Much more promising is the “farmer’s market pizza” chapter, which offers up multiple mouthwatering options, including asparagus and pesto, corn and courgette, broccoli and sundried tomato, pineapple and jalapeno, and wild mushroom and potato. However, only the sweet potato and kale pizza, and the tomato, cucumber and caper pizza, don’t rely on processed ‘vegan’ cheese, which again is a little bit limiting. The ‘not the usual suspects’ chapter suffers from the same problems as previously, thanks to an overreliance on meat and cheese substitutes. The most promising recipe here is the muffuletta pizza, which uses a tomato, chilli and garlic base and toppings of olives, capers, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. The global chapter is more complex than previous chapters in terms of both sheer number and variety of ingredients, meaning that whenever the dreaded ‘vegan mozzarella’ is mentioned, it can be left out. The Bibimbap pizza, inspired by the Korean rice dish, sounds excellent: who wouldn’t love a pizza that has a gochujang base, sesame seeds, garlic, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and beansprouts? The Thai peanut pizza is equally commendable thanks to its creative use of sriracha, peanuts and peanut butter, broccoli, scallions and agave nectar.

The dessert pizzas are also a wonderful idea that I never would have thought of – even if it isn’t strictly Italian and you’ll find me sneakily substituting the vegan margarine for butter. The berry pie pizza can also be made with no substitutions whatsoever thanks to its elegant ingredient list of berries, sugar, water, cornflour, pizza dough and icing sugar. In fact, most of the dessert recipes can be made by the average human with no interest in vegan margarine.

All of these pizzas are supported by the base. Hasson recognises that this is a classic recipe to not be messed with and sticks with the components of the base that you will find in Italy: flour, salt, olive oil, yeast, and warm water. She also explores other equally interesting options, though, such as wholewheat, spelt, and gluten-free bases, meaning there should be something to suit everyone. All of the recipes are easy to work through, too, and are accompanied by beautiful photographs.

Suffice it to say that this is probably not a recipe book for the beginning vegan, in the sense of far too many specialist products being required to pull these recipes off (the meat and cheese substitutes are one such example, but the tofu and the vegan margarine and the soy milk can prove equally obscure). However, the good news is that vegetarians and even meat-eaters can just adapt the recipes to suit their own needs – by using regular butter or cheese, for example. It’s worth noting that even putting slightly marginal ingredients aside, the book is packed with delicious ideas, and as a vegetarian sympathiser myself (even if apparently I can’t live without cheese), I feel that the message of vegetarianism and veganism is important: we don’t NEED to eat meat, so stand back, experiment with new vegetables or sauces or flavours, and just let the new taste experiences roll in.

other books by Julie Hasson

150 Best Cupcake Recipes (2012)

Vegan Diner (2011)

The Complete Book of Pies (2008)

300 Best Chocolate Recipes (2006)

cross-posted to Bianca’s Book Blog

Barilla biscotti Sunday, Mar 17 2013 

Continuing on the Italian theme, we have noticed that several of our favourite brands are in fact Italian. We use De Cecco pasta; we take Lavazza coffee as a hallmark of good quality whenever we are out, and also buy their beans for use in our own home; our fridge is never without a bottle of sparkling San Pellegrino; and our biscuit tin also gets in on the act, thanks to Mulino Bianco biscuits, which are owned by another Italian pasta giant, Barilla.

A limited selection of these is available in France, where we live. However, we were still lusting after some of the varieties listed on the back of the packet that we had never seen in our local supermarket, or those that my husband recalled eating as a child, but had not seen on sale for many years. Our urge was satisfied, though, upon a visit to Italian Continental Stores Ltd., which recently featured on the Hairy Bikers’ Everyday Gourmet series (and was irritatingly described for no reason as being in High Wycombe, when it is in fact in Maidenhead). It is an enormous warehouse housing Italian specialities of all kinds – from fresh meat, fish and cheese to all types of pasta, limoncello and biscuits. No surprises, then, when an entire wall was taken up purely by Mulino Bianco biscuits. We stood gazing in wonder for a moment, and then started taking bags from the shelves for our later delectation.

Why do we like them so much? It probably comes down to the authenticity in the flavour combinations used, the high-quality ingredients, and the sheer range of flavours available. Here are a few reviews of those we’ve tried:

Cuor di mela

With the name literally meaning ‘heart of honey’, these biscuits combine honey and apples for natural sweetness, meaning that the middle of the biscuit is not runny, but an almost ‘jammy’ texture thanks to this mixture. The Mulino Bianco website recommends consuming them with black tea (English Breakfast works well for us), and adding a fruit yoghurt to a few of these biscuits for a perfect tea-time snack. These work quite well for dunking (and this can warm up the filling a bit) but are also a little crumbly, meaning you can expect a little bit of sludge at the bottom of your cup.

Ritornelli

These biscuits alternate in stripes of almond biscuit and cocoa-flavoured biscuit, resulting in a rich and slightly floury taste. These biscuits are enormous (think the length of your palm), meaning that theoretically you should only need to eat half as many (cough). Sturdy and thick, with a ridged pattern on top, these stand up quite well to the dunking process and absorb tea well without breaking. Try consuming with a cappuccino, or perhaps a hot chocolate – and I’m sure Starbucks or some other purveyor probably sells almond syrup as well to complement your hot drink of choice should you be this way inclined. ‘Ritornello’ means ‘refrain’ in Italian, with the verb ‘ritorno’ meaning ‘I return’, so perhaps these biscuits are intended to serve some sort of nostalgic purpose (but I find that biscuits in general tend to do this anyway).

Baiocchi

Loosely translated, ‘baiocchi’ means ‘money’ in Italian, and it makes sense: these biscuits essentially look like coins, with two circular biscuits making a sandwich with chocolate and hazelnut cream. Basically a higher-class form of BN biscuits, these are flavoured in a more refined way, but are sadly not so good for dunking thanks to the creamy centre. Drink with fruit juice for a refreshing finish.

Tenerezze al limone

Meaning ‘lemon tenderness’ in Italian, the name of these biscuits certainly proves accurate thanks to its soft, sharp lemon centre. This is more like a lemon jelly than a creamy lemon curd. The biscuit, however, remains sturdy enough for dunking purposes – but, similarly to the cuor di mela biscuits, suffers slightly from crumbliness, meaning there will be post-dunking sludge to contend with. I’d recommend drinking this with Earl Grey tea, as the citric note provided by the bergamot within the tea should complement the biscuits nicely. Fruit juice would also be a suitable complement (the Mulino Bianco website recommends peach juice).

Canestrini

These biscuits resemble childish cut-outs of flowers or even suns, so I’m not sure that the name ‘canestrini’ (which means ‘baskets’) makes much sense. Resembling crunchy shortbread, they’re sprinkled with icing sugar, and would go well with a tannic green tea.

Ciocchini

Italy is renowned for its chocolate, and I’m told that while there you can drink a particular type of hot chocolate called Ciocchino (pronounced ‘choceeno’), which has now also lent its name to these biscuits. The Ciocchini are essentially chocolate chip cookies that also contain orange peel. Drink with a mocha or hot chocolate in the winter for that chocolate orange feeling, or with orange juice in the summer.

But now for the really important part…where can YOU buy Mulino Bianco biscuits?

Seeing as I’ve now got your taste-buds going, it seems only fair to tell you. Online retailers of Italian produce abound – try Nifeislife.com, Melbury & Appleton, Aromatico.co.uk or even Amazon. But not everybody enjoys shopping online, especially for food, and prefer to visit physical stores. Unfortunately, none of the major UK supermarkets seem to stock these. However, if you just Google “Italian shop” or “Italian supermarket” and then the name of your area, you may be able to find a purveyor of these biscuits locally to you. Just a little random searching produced results for Italian shops in Northampton, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, and St Albans. Buon appetito!

O cioccolato Saturday, Mar 16 2013 

I’m studying Italian by distance (i.e. mainly with the help of my Auntie Sarah, who studied the language at university and has been an aficionado of it ever since), and I love tasting chocolate of all kinds, from Cadbury to Valrhona. So when these two hobbies came together in the form of some Italian chocolate bars for me to test, needless to say I was pretty happy.

baratti milanoThe first one up was from a brand called Baratti e Milano, which was founded in Turin in 1858. Perhaps strangely, they don’t emphasise their chocolate-making much on their website, which focuses more on their bar, restaurant and café business. Their chocolate is also not widely sold online, so you might have to wait until you’re in Italy to get your mitts on some. This was a 75g Gianduja (read: hazelnut chocolate) bar, with its cacao content barely tipping the scales at 31%, making for a creamy milk chocolate. Cost-wise it came in at around €5, which is probably about the highest-quality branded chocolate you can get for this price (Valrhona and Amedei both cost more), although contenders Lindt and Montezuma both cost less.

It’s easy to see why those two brands do cost less. Baratti e Milano’s chocolate’s main distinguishing feature was the different levels of flavour in its milk chocolate, with caramel being particularly prominent. However, on another level, we felt its value for money was limited, as it was almost too sickly sweet, with sugar overpowering cacao considerably. Texturally it was also too soft – and nope, nothing to do with how we were keeping it (we have a wine fridge which is permanently set to keep wine cool, and quite often our chocolate stash ends up in there too, to be kept at an optimal temperature).

Also costing around €5 a bar was the bar of Slitti chocolate, made by a Tuscan firm. This weighed in at 100g and the cacao content was higher as well, at 60%. It was flavoured this time not with hazelnuts but with coffee (hence the name of the bar we tried: Caffè Nero). The brand makes more of its chocolate on its own website (even though the firm did not begin making chocolate until 1988), although the page itself is not set up well for practical use. Thankfully, however, Slitti chocolate is slightly more widely available for purchase online – try Chocolatiers, Crediton Coffee, or Mediterranean Direct for your own supplies.

But what about the taste? When broken, the Slitti chocolate had that ‘snap’ sound that all good chocolate should make – so texture-wise it was already a good start. It also had a good strong flavour that wasn’t too sweet and was complemented well by the coffee, which is achieved through ground coffee – not through artificial flavourings. However, on the downside, the inclusion of the coffee did lead to a slightly gritty texture, and this bar did not melt as easily in the mouth as the Baratti e Milano bar.

This doesn’t mean, though, that our adventures in the realm of Italian chocolate are over. Far from it – we are still great lovers of the Amedei brand, and are still on a mission to test out other Italian classics, including Venchi, Domori, Perugina, and Agostoni. Luckily for me, my husband’s going to Rome for work before the end of March – I’ll be ensuring he leaves plenty of room in his case so that further testing can commence…

Chain Review: Vapiano Monday, Sep 5 2011 

We picked Vapiano on a whim for lunch on our last day in London this summer chiefly for the unromantic reason that it was close to both the Tate Modern and where we’d parked the car. In more detail, and more seriously, I was attracted by its plant-filled interior, quirky quotations and illustrations on the wall (including Sophia Loren’s famous “everything you see I owe to spaghetti”) and by the fact that I just love Italian food.

However, we didn’t realise that Vapiano was more than just an Italian restaurant until we got inside and the greeter directed us to the cash desk. There we were issued with a card each, which you can either pre-load with cash and come in and use for quick meals (to eat in or take away), or leave ’empty’ to settle the bill at the end of every meal. Once you have your card, you can go to the antipasti, pasta, pizza, dessert and drink stations where your order cost is placed onto your cards individually for each course and each person. This method should definitely help to avoid arguments when settling up!

I was in awe of the pasta-making station, with its see-through windows and shiny pasta machines. All pasta is made fresh in-house before being boxed up into individual portions for easy access by staff at peak times, and in a number of different varieties – their spelt pasta, which I had wanted to order, was clearly popular, as it had run out. You’re not short of choice on the pasta shape front either – from papardelle to penne, there’s something to suit everyone. The 21 sauces are categorised by cost, too, from £6.10 for the pasta of your choice with arrabiata or pesto, to £9.10 for duck and seafood varieties.

But the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no. The sauce is not pre-made, but rather made in front of you with pre-chopped fresh ingredients, so you can see exactly what goes in. What’s more, you get plenty of control – you are asked at regular intervals about your preferred amounts of garlic, seasoning and chilli, and when it comes to serving, you’re asked if you want cheese or extra seasoning. The result is that the pasta is perfectly and speedily cooked, served with a healthy sauce, and all to your taste.

The pizza is prepared similarly, although my husband commented that you could tell that the pizza dough had been more quickly than you’d cook a homemade pizza at home. Nonetheless, the pizza toppings also received equally high marks. We did not sample any antipasti, desserts or wine, but the choice seems extensive and authentic. Italian soft drinks are available, too, and these we did sample with gusto.

Two mains and two drinks came to under £20, and not only were we full and satisfied with the high quality food, we were hooked. We were therefore surprised and delighted to find that this innovative concept has indeed made it to France (which is hardly innovation personified), with locations in Puteaux and Lyon. However, less of a surprise was the fact that Vapiano is in fact a German invention – with that level of efficiency and quality, it was practically a guaranteed success.

Sadly the only UK locations at present are in London; I look forward to its expansion so that all of you can try it too.

www.vapiano.de

Locations: see the website for more details, but there is at least one location in just about every European country, as well as outside Europe – Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA