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…

*is properly French today* Saturday, Jul 28 2012 

I just ate carpaccio!! And I liked it!

ImageNote that this is not a picture of the one I had. But the concept is the same. Carpaccio is usually very thin slices of raw beef, although you can also do it with other meats and even fish (e.g. tuna). I tried it as it was being served up at my inlaws’ place for lunch and was surprised to find that I liked it. High quality meat is obviously a top priority in terms of texture and flavour, but the seasoning helps too: try lemon, vinegar, olive oil or chives as well as the standard salt and pepper.

The trick, too, is to slice it thinly enough to make it palatable. You can slice it manually with a sharp knife or use a meat slicer. Some recipes recommend slicing the meat while it’s still in a frozen or semi-frozen state to make this process easier.

It’s a big leap as a Brit to eat carpaccio when for years you’ve eaten your meat cooked well done. As I’ve now been living in France for nearly 4 years, I’ve weaned myself off this now and now always order meat medium rare. While not quite into “saignant” territory (this is how my husband always orders his meat, and the term is generally translated as ”rare’), I’m still happy to have tried carpaccio and liked it. A good standby in case of any awkward dinner party or restaurant situations, and not such a big leap now from steak tartare either. Or indeed from “saignant”!

Knowing that I now like this could also be helpful in other culinary spheres, such as Japanese food, where chunks of uncooked salmon are not an uncommon sight. And since we’re in all likelihood going to take a holiday to Japan in 2013 or 2014, I’d better get practising my sushi skills. In the meantime…bon appétit!

I scream, you scream… Thursday, Jul 26 2012 

Due to spending part of my summer in the south of France, I have been eating ice cream and sorbet pretty much twice a day at the moment (well, wouldn’t you in 40°C heat?! Diet’s on the cards for September, promise…).

I love ice cream anyway and could pretty much eat it constantly (twice a day? Pah. I’ve been known to send off whole tubs of Carte d’Or, Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs in one sitting). The main thing for me now, though, is branching out into trying weirder and more wonderful flavours. Just recently I’ve sampled nougat ice cream, lavender ice cream, and poppy ice cream, as well as marvelling at the presence of (but not actually trying) nut ice cream and marshmallow ice cream. (For the record, the nougat ice cream tasted relatively little like nougat, the varieties of lavender ice cream I’ve tried range from the luridly purple to the strictly natural, and the poppy ice cream tasted surprisingly fruity.)

But what of my favourite classic flavours? I have loved stracciatella ever since I first visited Italy at age 12, and mint chocolate chip is another long-standing favourite of mine. Coffee and caramel variants are also weaknesses of mine, but to be honest I’ve not yet met an ice cream I don’t like.

EXCEPT…chocolate. Yep, you heard me right. This stems from a summer holiday as a child where all the meals were included, and so, being eight and five years old at the time, my sister and I did the only thing that any normal child would do: we had chocolate ice cream for dessert every night for two weeks. That about did me for life and even now I would eat chocolate ice cream if given it, but would never deliberately choose it. (Strangely, chocolate-covered ice creams, such as Magnums, are OK – but only those which aren’t chocolate on the inside too.) For this reason, I’m also not that fond of Neapolitan ice cream, despite not having anything specific against the strawberry and vanilla flavours.

In addition, you will never see me eating any ice cream containing banana (I really, really hate banana).

In terms of more ‘modern’ ice cream flavours, Ben and Jerry’s has to be the king here (although I’ve not yet tasted Heston Blumenthal’s famous bacon and egg variant), and I’m very partial to their cookie dough flavour. Many people probably think it’s disgusting, but I just love it for its sweetness, variation in texture, and its combination of two things I love – cookies and ice cream – in one single pot. I’ve not yet spotted their Cake Batter flavour, but suspect I would adore it for the same reasons. Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake flavour is also highly palatable, and in spite of the saccharine variety of flavours, it’s actually (believe it or not) very good quality ice cream: while many other manufacturers (Carte d’Or and Nestlé to name but a few) are known to pump loads of air into their ice cream so that you get as little as 500g of ice cream per litre, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream comes from milk and cream from family farms, uses Fairtrade ingredients, and is certainly not pimped using extra air. (Remember to always check the bottom of the pack! The gram and millilitre content is always clearly listed and the closer the numbers are to each other, the better.)

So all that remains, it seems, is flavours I’d like to try but haven’t yet. I’ve already listed a few above in my paragraph of Ben and Jerry’s worship. And luckily, thanks to spending part of my summer in an artisanal ice cream and sorbet hotspot (the Ardèche region of France is full of small firms making their own premium ices), there’s probably some out there that I haven’t even thought of yet. But I also have a few ideas of my own. For instance, I have a recipe for pine nut ice cream I’ve never used (husband needs to buy me an ice cream maker, hint). I’ve also heard of yam and coconut ice cream being sold in Singapore that sounds strangely appealing. Los Angeles (perhaps unsurprisingly) seems to have a wide variety of wacky ice cream bars, serving flavours like coffee and Guinness and chocolate & wasabi, which I’d do a lot to get my furry little mitts on. And, of course, there’s a raft of mileage in fresh herbs and spices…basil ice cream, rosemary ice cream, cardamom and ginger ice cream…

JESUS I really need an ice cream maker.

The world’s best chocolate? Sunday, Feb 19 2012 

I had been busy extolling the virtues of Valrhona chocolate to friends on Facebook when one of them, a bloke named Chris, asked if I had ever tried Amedei, an Italian brand of chocolate which is often heralded as among the world’s most expensive. I hadn’t, but made it my mission to do so.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy. With retailers all over the world, and the chocolate’s high reputation, I was astounded to have not come across it before. A selection from Harvey Nichols was therefore soon winging its way to my parents’ address in the UK for our delectation (French retailers of this brand are strangely lacking in spite of the country’s close proximity to Italy; we tried one Parisian establishment, da rosa, only to be met with a surly reception and to find they no longer stocked the brand anyhow).

We had ordered three 50g bars – two of the Toscano Black (63% and 70% cacao respectively), and one of the Gianduja (32% cacao). In addition, we’d also plumped for a 180g box of 16 Amedei pralines. This order came to a whopping £34.80 before we’d even thought about delivery.

The selection box struck us as being the worst value for money. While the chocolates within it were delicious, provided a good range of flavours, and gave us a better idea of what types of Amedei we would consider purchasing in future, the Valrhona equivalent box (180g of a selection of praline chocolates) comes in at more like £15 – which, for many, is significantly more affordable than £23 for the same amount of chocolate. Put another way, the Amedei chocolate is 53% more expensive in this regard.

To compare the bars was trickier. While the Amedei bars are possibly more refined, there is relatively little of them: each 50g bar costs £3.95, whereas Valrhona’s versions are around £3.55 for 70g. So it seems you get a little bit more bite from the Valrhona bars – at least financially (although by Keeper’s reckoning they have more bite taste and texture-wise too). Taste-wise, the Amedei bars are perhaps creamier, whereas the Valrhona bars are more tannic, but that doesn’t necessarily make one ‘better’ than the other – just different.

The expense of Amedei’s chocolate certainly makes us consider carefully whether or not we would purchase again, but as far as I can tell, it’s not enough to stop us completely – otherwise why would I be trawling the internet now, ahead of our trip to New York next week, looking for places where we can buy and drink the stuff?…

Where can I purchase Amedei?

As mentioned, Harvey Nichols is a good place to begin for UK buyers. Other retailers include The Chocolate Trading Company and Kings Fine Food. For American purchasers, Chocosphere gets rave reviews as an online retailer. As for us, we’ll be heading to Food Emporium, Worldwide Chocolate, and/or to MarieBelle’s for our fix in New York next week.