Monday, 27 January 2014

Bombardino: Italian après ski

Towards the end of our recent skiing holiday I developed a taste for a cheeky little tipple called Bombardino. It's a rich, warming toddy like eggnog, but more potent – hence the name "Bomb". It's generally served ready mixed, heated through with steam from an espesso machine and then topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa. As with eggnog, it's based on milk, eggs, sugar and brandy, but includes Marsala which gives it a lush zabaglione quality. I couldn't resist bringing home a bottle and it's been going down just as well back in damp dreary north London.

You can also use Advocaat or Vov and a splash more brandy, or tweak your own eggnog to give it a more Italian flavour.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A happy New Year in the Italian Alps

Over New Year we treated ourselves to a week in the Italian Alps skiing and, I must say, eating magnificently. As a novice, my skiing didn't come close to being magnificent, but the food and drink in this spectacular corner of Italy certainly were.

We flew into Milan on Sunday 29th where we were collected and driven northwest to Champoluc in the Monterosa district near the border with Switzerland. Our two and a half hour drive took us towards Turin and then inland up into the mountains, following a stretch of the Aosta river. I was on the lookout for vineyards and our route went past Carema with its steeply terraced Nebbiolo vines. From the motorway it almost looked like a slate wall the way the terraces are supported, with snowy peaks in the near distance. What a feat of human endeavour. Zig-zagging higher and higher it became clear that we were in cheese territory, noticing signposts to dairies and even a 'cheese route'. If we were going to be generating big appetites on the slopes, there'd be plenty of delicious local options to choose from.

We were staying in Champoluc, a small traditional Alpine town nestling in a long narrow valley with a gondola/cable car in the centre to whisk you up to the pistes. We had half board accommodation at the family run Hotel Petit Tournalin, our comfortably arranged family room had a mezzanine level for children. Champoluc is a town with a strong ski bias, rather than a full-on ski resort. Apparently each year when the snow melts, the area reverts to dairy farming and cheese-making. There are several bars, restaurants and hotels, a market and the shops include a number selling ski equipment. Three feet of snow had fallen on Boxing Day so it was looking like a classic winter wonderland, especially with all the Christmas decorations. Gorgeous.

Over the course of the week, learning to ski, I pushed my forty-something body well and truly out of its comfort zone, giving it the fullest workout its had in years. Even after a carb-laden lunch (see above!), by evening, we were ready for another lot of food. Most evenings began in the bar in front of the fire with a local beer or 'vin brulé' before decamping to the dining room for several calorific courses. Highlights included melt-in-the-mouth cured meats, mushroom pasta and local cheeses – especially Fontina, and great value house wines Arneis and Dolcetto. At Le Petit Tournalin the cooking was reassuringly unshowy and sensibly economical, with most dishes served family style, helping yourself from large platters.

The exception was on New Year's Eve which was a more formal banquet, with an array of dishes, accompanied by local wines. I particularly liked the soufflé like 'leek flan' with bagna cauda, gnocchi with bleu d'Aoste and taglionini with shrimps and red caviar. Cotechino sausage with lentils was another great local dish – rather cassoulet like. Apparently the more lentils you eat, the more prosperous you will be in the year to come! The main course, pork shanks with almonds was creamy and tender. For dessert was semi freddo with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with amaretti crumbs – simple, but really effective. We toasted the New Year with Alpine fizz Blanc Fripon and some super-light panettone (although barely touched by the replete revellers). The panettone reappeared later in the week in tiramisu which tasted much more interesting than the usual creamy cliché. Another idea to bear in mind for Christmas leftovers (I have two lurking in my larder).

As a treat on our final evening we selected Gaia's Sito Morsco to have with venison braised with pancetta, cloves, bay leaves and orange. This was a wonderfully seasonal foil for the intense, warming Nebbiolo – from vineyards in the Langhe region, near Barbaresco and Barolo and, consequently sensibly priced at 40 Euros. A happy New Year indeed!

(The picture of the sparkly snow was kindly provided by Jessica James.)

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Otto's: old-school charm

Okay, I'll pin my colours to the mast straightaway. I absolutely love Otto's. If you're interested in food, drink and especially cooking there's a great deal to love here. Even before we entered the restaurant on a quiet stretch of Gray's Inn Road, the eye-catchingly glamorous empty bottles in the window got the juices flowing. Once inside, there was a palpable buzz from diners all delighted to be there, witnessing the spectacle of classic, old-school restaurant service, expertly led from the front of house by Otto Albert Tepassé who has 43 years' experience gleaned in starry dining rooms such as La Tour d'Argent, Plaza Athenée and Maxim's in Paris. His young chef, Eric Jolibois, has manned the stoves at the Hotel Bristol, Carré des Feuillants and Taillevent in Paris and Maison Troigros in Roanne.

We'd had to book a couple of months in advance to have the dish for which Otto's is most known: canard à la presse (i.e. pressed duck) as the duck press can only be used a couple of times per sitting and the ducks are ordered in advance from Burgaud in Challans, the same supplier as La Tour d'Argent. I first came across this fabled dish reading Brideshead Revisited (see here) and as soon as I heard that a London restaurant was serving it, I just had to go, willing husband in tow. We were greeted warmly by Otto and immediately offered glasses of Ayala Champagne while we settled ourselves in for a memorable evening.

Another table were also having pressed duck which gave us the chance to observe the spectacle before it was our turn. In the meantime we ordered a couple of starters (to be honest, unnecessary given what was to follow, but they helped fill the time). I had smoked salmon, hand-carved at the table (£12.50) and N had snail and creamed garlic ravioli with parsley sauce (£9.50). These were washed down by some cleansing Cuvée des Evêques Pinot Blanc by Hugel (£24). It also gave us the chance to deliberate over which red to have with the duck. As you might expect, the wine list is strong on Burgundy and not greedily priced. We opted for Beaune Premier Cru les Siziers 2005 de Montille (£65).

As we ate our starters, we were shown (introduced to?) our duck – large, plump and complete with feathered head. This is not for the squeamish. It is then taken away to be roasted before reappearing at the table, cooked, for flambéing, carving and, ultimately, pressing. In the meantime the sauce base is made by firstly melting a brown sugar cube and allowing it to caramelise which is then flambéed with Cognac. Port and red Burgundy follow and are reduced to a syrupy consistency, then stock from a previous duck (enriched with veal bone) is added. After a lot of whisking over heat (a burner in an large ice bucket) the chopped liver from our duck is stirred in, plus some Sercial Madeira. After a lot more reducing, the sauce is strained twice.

Shortly afterwards we are served an appetiser of duck liver crostini with a little cup of Malvasia Madeira: a great little taste of what was to come. Rich and complex.

Our duck, now roasted, is brought back to the table and is then doused in Cognac, flambéed and carved. The legs are removed and returned to the kitchen and the breasts removed from the carcass and set aside to keep warm. The skin is gently eased away from the breast meat with a spoon. Now for the main event. The carcass is put inside the silver-plated duck press (made by Christofle in the early 1900s) to be crushed, extracting all the tasty duck gunk which is then whisked into the sauce for pouring over the breast meat. The result is dark, glossy and deeply flavoured, with layer upon layer of complexity and amazing with the gamey meat.

Pommes soufflés – something we'd never seen before – came as an accompaniment. These little air-filled potato pillows are made from finely sliced (2mm) potatoes (in this case the very dry Agria variety) deep fried three times, each time for 20 minutes, until they pop and expand. Imagine the fanciest game chips turned into crisp little bubbles. Apparently, many don't behave properly and are discarded. No wonder you don't encounter them much.

We were getting very full by this point, but two more duck dishes followed – there was a wonderfully rich creation made from the leg meat and then a bowl of tasty crunchiness like duck scratchings made from the skin. There was so much to eat.

However, we managed a palate cleansing dessert – pineapple, coconut cream and lychee sorbet with some dainty little madeleines. Otto joined us with a rather special bottle of Mosel Riesling, Graacher Himmelreich Auslese 2000 from J J Prum which rounded off the evening impeccably.

Of course, something this laborious and luxurious doesn't come cheap, but £120 for the canard à la presse for two (plus drinks, although several of ours were included) seemed perfectly reasonable for a special evening out. We'll certainly be going back – there are more classic culinary adventures we look forward to sharing with Otto before he calls it a night.

182 Gray's Inn Road
Tel 020 7713 0107

Square Meal

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