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.