Thursday, 31 July 2014

Duck, cherry and beetroot salad with Lambrusco

A couple of weeks ago we were treated to a particularly memorable meal at Quo Vadis that featured a main course salad of duck with cherries and beetroot, topped with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. It was the perfect dish for a warm summer evening. Grown up and satisfying, yet not too earnest – large pieces of crisp, salty duck skin were a deliciously naughty touch.

We had friends round for dinner last Friday and I recreated it as a starter. Flicking through my new copy of Diana Henry's A Change of Appetite I noticed a recipe for goat's cheese and cherry salad in which she macerates the cherries in brandy or grappa, along with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. I used kirsch, olive oil and apple balsamic (I don't yet have any white balsamic) and found the dressing didn't need any lemon juice, leaving them for a couple of hours or so before combining with salad leaves, sliced cooked beetroot and the flesh and skin from duck legs I'd roasted earlier. The crunchy breadcrumbs were made by roasting chunks of bread in the pan used for the duck. Once they had dried out I scraped the pan thoroughly to incorporate all the tasty duck bits and then pounded the toasted bread in a pestle and mortar.

We enjoyed it with a bottle of Albinea Canali Lambrusco Ottocentonero from the Wine Society (a steal at £7.95) – dry, fresh and appetising with plenty of lush cherry fruit and spot on with the salad. It was a steal at £7.95, but has (not surprisingly) sold out. However, their other Lambrusco would also be worth trying, but keep an eye out elsewhere, especially while dining out, for proper dry examples (not to be confused with the naff sweet versions of the past). Following New York's lead, interest in this 'forgotten gem' is growing in the UK where, for example, Ottolenghi restaurants report booming sales. Great news for summer drinking.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Greek hospitality

For the best part of 20 years, since one of my best friends hooked up with and then married Nikos from Athens, I have been at the receiving end of generous Greek hospitality. Our recent visit culminated with a memorable lunch at their weekend house on the coast in Nea Makri near Marathon. As is usually the case in good weather, the food is cooked on the grill in the garden – in this case squid and octopus for starter, followed by a large, family-sized sea bream.

The food is always wonderfully simple, showing off local, seasonal ingredients. My friends are fortunate in benefitting from a family-owned olive and citrus grove and they make their own vinegar and wine (like many Greek households). We made a vinegar and oil dressing for the squid and octopus, whereas the fish was dressed (anointed) with an emulsion of lemon juice and oil. We sipped some ouzo with the starter (octopus and aniseed are a match made in Mediterranean heaven) and salty, mineral Assyrtiko from Santorini was ideal with the fish. Plenty of bread and salad were passed around.

My friends tend to round off a meal with fresh fruit, so we climbed up onto the roof and picked apricots from the tree and ate them gazing across the water to the island of Evia. A distinctive and memorable end to our holiday. Efharisto poli!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Food shopping with Nikos

It was lovely being reminded what great hosts the Greeks can be. Our friends in Athens have a family house near Marathon in a town called Nea Makri where they enjoy long relaxed meals at the weekend. This part of Attika is a large fertile coastal plain that has traditionally provided Athens with an abundance of fresh produce.

While there, I was taken food shopping by my friend Nikos – a real treat at the end of May as you can see from the pictures. For simple, seasonal food, you couldn't have asked for more. I was particularly taken by the smiley chap with the furnace-like rotisserie. Apparently, he usually sells out by lunchtime when he wheels it in and shuts up shop for the day. He opened it up for me so I could appreciate the white hot charcoal and delectable aromas. I look forward to trying one of those sheep heads another time. Maybe.

Acropolis Museum and Parthenon

Our recent trip to Greece was my first time in eight years, so a visit to the new Acropolis Museum was a priority. It opened in 2009, taking over from the original museum on the Acropolis near the Parthenon. It's an impressive building. As you enter the museum at the foot of the Acropolis on the southern side, you pass over part of the Roman city, a large archeological site in its own right, and parts of this can be seen in great detail through transparent floors.

The museum is spacious, cool and airy and flooded with natural light. At every turn you have stunning views of Athens, especially the Parthenon looming above. Don't overlook the beautifully situated café/restaurant with its imaginative menu and comprehensive selection of Greek wines (and delicious teas).

We then climbed up the Acropolis to explore the Parthenon and take in even bigger views across Athens towards the coast. While most people stick to the obvious areas, I love being able to glimpse behind the scenes at such a major archeological site and imagine what it must be like handling these extraordinary items. And, as you'd expect in Greece, you'll always find a cat lurking – just as things were getting a bit boring for a 7 year old!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Poros and the Aspros Gatos (White Cat) taverna

While we were in Greece during half term we had the good fortune of spending a few days on Poros. Poros, one of the Saronic Gulf Islands, is conveniently located about an hour from Piraeus on the hydrofoil, but you can drive there via Corinth and Epidavros (where you can stop for lunch and a swim – first pic below). A narrow channel separates it from the Peloponnese mainland where you can park on the seafront in Galatas and take a shuttle across the water. If you're travelling from Piraeus on the hydrofoil (Sea Cat), it's on the same route as Hydra and Spetses. All wonderful destinations. As well as being important during ancient times, these islands played a crucial strategic role during the Greek Revolution of the 1820s and were previously occupied by the Venetians during their lengthy battles with the Ottomans. This is all evident today strolling around the picturesque, steep narrow streets of these islands.

I have long been a fan of Hydra and Spetses, but this was my first visit to Poros (other than admiring it from the hydrofoil). It turns out that Poros ticks many boxes. As well as its interesting history and beautiful location, it is divided into two distinct parts linked by an isthmus. Small steep Sferia is dominated by the bustling, well serviced town and busy marina, whereas the larger green, forested Kalavria has child friendly, sandy beaches ideal for safe swimming, snorkelling and water sports. I was travelling with my daughter, so all these features suited us perfectly. We were also lucky in that the little village house we rented had a small garden with a pool where we were tempted to laze around all day, gazing at our stunning view.

Furthermore, Poros boasts allegedly one of the best tavernas in the Greek islands. The Aspros Gatos (White Cat) is elegantly located just across the tiny isthmus offering stunning views back to Poros Town and across the water to Galatas, increasingly twinkly as the light fades. The taverna dates back to 1909 and is still run by the same family and their charming, enthusiastic staff. Our two meals there included delicious seasonal stuffed vegetables (especially big juicy lemon scented tomatoes) and cheese and herb pies made with delicately crunchy home made filo pastry. A particular highlight was super tender, slow cooked veal in lemon sauce. More local citrus fruit appeared in their orange pie – a sort of baked batter pudding comprising oranges, eggs, vanilla, crushed filo pastry and then soaked with an orange syrup. I drank small carafes of local wine and the prices were incredibly reasonable.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Agly Valley by train: vineyards, gorges and Cathar castles

The last time I sat in a rail carriage gazing at breathtaking vineyards was in Portugal's Douro Valley. However, this time I was in Roussillon on the seasonal Train Rouge (full name: Train du Pays Cathare et du Fenouillèdes) that connects Rivesaltes near the coast with Axat in the Pyrenees. This century old narrow gauge railway has been revived by enthusiasts and operates a tourist service from April to September. The route follows the Agly Valley, currently one of the most dynamic wine regions in France producing age-worthy mineral reds and white, but also the source of some of the country's best-known traditional fortified wines (vins doux naturals).

We boarded the train at Rivesaltes at 10am and settled ourselves into a wonderfully retro carriage. You can buy drinks on board including some very decent coffee. The three hour journey to Axat takes in rivers, mountains, gorges and Cathar castles. The first stage of the journey is heavily vined, passing through the towns of Espira d'Agly, Estagel and Maury with the brooding Cathar stronghold of Quéribus in the distance. Look out for the names of notable wine producers on hoardings around the vineyards with their distinctive schist soils, another feature this region shares with the Douro.

At St Paul de Fenouillet we changed onto an open topped 'panoramic' train and continued through Caudiès, pausing on a viaduct near Lapradelle to admire another Cathar castle, the magnificent Puilaurens. Heading towards Axat, the landscape becomes increasingly mountainous as we go deeper into the Aude gorges, passing through several pitch black tunnels to the delight of the children on board.

We reached Axat just before lunch and had plenty of time to explore the town before boarding the train to Rivesaltes at 4.10pm. Axat was cool and fresh in comparison with the scorched coast and the names of Pyrenean ski resorts appeared on roadsigns. We found a picnic area by a fast-flowing stretch of the river Aude and every so often whitewater rafters would come hurtling by. It was also a popular lunch spot with cyclists. Keen walkers might want to factor in an overnight stay here and return to the coast on the train the following afternoon. It's a stunning location and the air felt pure and cleansing – a treat in high summer.

The return journey was just as memorable. The scenery seemed more gentle in the softer late afternoon light, compared with the harsh morning sunshine. Between St Paul de Fenouillet and Rivesaltes, especially around Maury, you really appreciate the scale of winemaking. The landscape is blanketed with vines and, as we reached Rivesaltes just before sunset, it was serenely beautiful looking towards the coastal plains. In this article in the Financial Times Jancis Robinson explains how significant these wines were historically. In the mid 20th century a jaw-dropping 70 million bottles of vins doux naturels from the Rivesaltes appellation were sold annually, a sizeable proportion exported to the French Army because the high levels of alcohol and sugar made the wines so stable. These hardy wines age well and, if you can get your hands on older vintages, offer remarkable value for money. Last November at The Quality Chophouse I enjoyed a glass of 1946 Rivesaltes for just £8.

We didn't visit any wine estates on our trip, just sat back and admired the beautiful landscape. However, an option would be to take the train as far as Maury, have some lunch ('resto-cave' Pichenouille is widely recommended) and visit some of the wineries clustered around the station before catching the return train to Rivesaltes later in the afternoon. Either way, it's an unforgettable day out.