Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Travel with children | Four days in Amsterdam

4 December 2014

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Ideally, a break should combine some level of discovery, good food that needn’t be a quest, a hotel pleasant for both adults and children, a park, and somewhere to stop for a drink around four o’clock. Not all trips work, especially with mini people. Amsterdam met the magic mark.

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On the way we spent one night in Delft, which lends itself well to treading the cobblestones at dusk, along quaint canals lined with glittering merchant houses, in search of dinner.

Then a day in The Hague with a stop at the Peace Palace and lunch in a surfer café on the beach. It was a blustery Sunday and Scheveningen was alive with weekend strollers and kite-surfers.

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In Amsterdam, we sped along canals in the morning mist.

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We clambered up constricted staircases to an old clandestine church — an intimate museum that conjures one of Amsterdam’s less tolerant chapters.

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At the Rijksmuseum we lost track of time amid the lush collections of model boats, intricate arms, gleaming porcelains, and waggish magic lanterns before rushing up to an obligatory feast of Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Vermeer. The museum is gorgeously restored.

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And offers a very decent lunch.

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We visited the Van Gogh museum, as one must. It doesn’t reveal the artist the way the best museums might (I am thinking in particular of the Museu Picasso in Barcelona). The experience was rather like trudging through a mall during shopping season.

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Whizzing around on bikes is the way to see Amsterdam. It is probably safer than risking it on foot — entitled riders are pretty reckless so it’s best to secure similar swerving capabilities. And cycling around with children makes dashing along the canals, from one museum to the next, very fun. No moans, no hint of a complaint.

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We rode West to Café Restaurant Amsterdam, the best place to have a drink, read the paper, have a delicious dinner of simple plates (tiny grey shrimp, Dutch herring, mackerel fillets, rillettes, lentil salad with parma ham) with a glass of Sancerre, all in a nineteenth-century Pumping Station. Great food, a casual atmosphere, no pretense. Perfect.

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Later we met friends and found the parakeets in Vondelpark.

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We spent a morning at the stunning Scheepvartmuseum.

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And even managed to steal a visit to Droog. There is a cool sweet shop just across the street to occupy less patient gremlins.

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We stopped on a pretty gracht for that four o-clock drink.

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And we cycled along the harbor at night.

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We had booked the room with the swing.

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 Magic!

Pining for an Easter brunch

9 April 2014

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Once again we will be away for Easter. It’s the second time and I thought I’d resolved it wouldn’t happen again.

No, I am not so undeserving as to regret last year’s magical vacation in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. Today we are going to Greece and for months I’ve been skipping-in-the-street excited about our upcoming trip! It’s just the timing. Ages ago in January when we booked the flights it all seemed so far away. But Easter is approaching and I feel a pinch. These trips have come in the way of a much older custom, started I think when Leo was one, and the Easter Egg hunt followed by a massive brunch is my favorite tradition. I blame all of this untimely travel on the school holiday schedule…

Were we coming home a few days sooner, here are some of the things I would likely prepare.

Chicken liver terrine

Cheat’s potted crab

Mackerel rillettes

Mimosa deviled eggs

Lentil and fennel salad with lemon and parsley

Dandelion, fennel, and pumpkin seed salad

Poppy seed and almond cake

Quick lemon and lime tart

Emboldened by Holly‘s success, I might finally attempt a panettone. I’ve been dying to try.

And crucially we would, as every year but last, dye the eggs with leaf and flower motifs.

Happy Easter, happy spring!

 

Cheat’s potted crab

7 April 2014

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I’ve been dreaming of potted crab since last October, when we left London for a few days during the fall vacation and drove South, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to places I’d often been as a child. We drove toward the sea through the meandering countryside, over detours of Ashdown Forest to my old school, our old house. In Brighton I couldn’t recall the fish and chips shop we always stopped at, though I remember the soggy chips, the flaky fish, the newspaper package sticky with vinegar and sea air, the grinding stones underfoot. The shop probably doesn’t exist anymore anyway.

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Later we walked across the Seven Sisters, but in between we stayed in what must indeed be one of the prettiest villages in Sussex. In that village there was a pub. And in that pub there was potted crab. I ordered it only once, but each subsequent night I bit my lips at not having asked for it again. It was the best thing they served, or rather, it was just plain great, without qualifiers.

Potted crab is characteristic of the kind of British food that I love. It is simple, traditional, and, at its best, stellar. It’s ideal pub fare, picnic food, and perfect for an apéro.

‘Potting’ is a preservation technique, that derives from medieval pies. Meats and fish were initially baked in crusts as a means of conservation (apparently a fairly coarse crust, not intended as part of the delicacy). Once cooked, the pocket of air left between the filling and crust was filled with a sealing layer of fat poured through a hole in the crust. Later, crusts were dispensed of completely by using reusable pots.

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Since that crab in the pub in the village in Sussex I’ve wanted to make it. It has taken me all these months and a split-second, spur-of-the-moment decision to make it. I cheated because I bought the crab meat. I have a very good fishmonger close by and as I mentioned, it was a last minute decision. Still, it was very good.

Cheat’s potted crab

250g butter

1 bay leaf

300g cooked crab meat (about 2/3 white meat, 1/3 dark meat)

Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Pinch sea salt

Pinch cayenne pepper

Chives

Melt the the butter slowly in a small saucepan with the bay leaf.

Place the crab meat in a medium sized bowl, add the lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper. Pour most of the melted butter into the crab meat, reserving about one quarter. Mix well.

Transfer the crab mixture to a bowl or glass terrine without packing it too much, smooth over the top. Coarsely cut a small handfull of chives over the crab and pour the remaining melted butter to seal (without the bay leaf). Keep in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 2 days.

Remove from the refrigerator about half an hour before using and serve with delicious bread.

It’s that easy!

A bite of London | Saturday in Stoke Newington

11 January 2014

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My sister told me about the Stoke Newington farmer’s market even before we moved to London, so I’m not sure how to explain that, though we’ve lived here for over four months and despite the fact that Stoke Newington is very close to where we live, I’d not yet been. Well, maybe I can explain. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say we’ve had other things to do.

But as January sauntered in, magnificently nonchalant as it is wont to be, with no other plans last weekend we decided to finally visit the market. Oh but first, breakfast.

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There are many tempting cafés and restaurants in Stoke Newington. The Haberdashery had caught my internet perusing eye, so we strolled up Stoke Newington High Street in its direction, peering into other possible options on the way. None beckoned.

I admit I have an incorrigible penchant for the time worn, run down, and artfully decaying, and immediately loved the place, its battered tile walls and seventies crockery. Service was kind and the coffee was good, unfortunately the food wasn’t great.

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The English and vegetarian breakfasts were uneven. Free range eggs, nicely confit-ed tomatoes, amazing sausages. But the baked halloumi was hard and very salty, the bacon salty too and rubbery (I realize bacon preferences are highly personal. I like it crispy, but not burnt). French Toast was the most disappointing — weirdly drab, the bread too lightly battered and, somehow, dry.

But I would go back for something simpler. Maybe just a fried egg with those amazing sausages, and perhaps, like Balthasar, a side of perfectly sauteed spinach. Or just coffee.

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And so to the market.

The Stoke Newington farmer’s market is my type. It’s not very big but has just the right selection: meat, fish, vegetables, mushrooms; someone sells buffalo milk products — amazing yogurt!; another raw milk — oh, to be back in Europe… There are a couple of very good bread stalls. In the fall there are fruits stands. All of it organic and local.

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After this long overdue reconnaissance trip, the ice has been broken, and it’s sure to become a regular Saturday excursion.

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A walk up High Street and along lively Stoke Newington Church Street away lies Clissold Park, which is lovely as London parks know to be. For children there’s a brilliant playground, skateboard fun park, deer enclosures, and a butterfly house in the warmer months. For a more leisurely time or a ball game there are huge lawns and shady trees. Worth spending a few lazy afternoon hours.

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Stoke Newington farmer’s market
St Paul’s Church on Stoke Newington High Street
Saturdays from 10am to 2.30pm

The Haberdashery
170 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 7JL
Tel: 020 3643 7123
Open Mon-Wed 9am-6pm; Thu-Sun 9am-9pm

Travel | The lentils of Castelluccio

13 November 2013

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The best thing I ate in Italy was a bowl of lentil soup. This is not to disparage all the other wonderful, perhaps more refined things we enjoyed there, but this was, quintessentially, a perfect meal.

We went to Umbria this summer to attend the wedding of two very close friends. Many of the guests, like us, took the opportunity to spend a few days or, as we did, a full week in the somewhat remote and very beautiful region.

The festivities were to take place on a Saturday in a small paradise of an agriturismo (farm-hotel) outside Norcia. We’d barely arrived, quite a bit later than planned, on the Friday evening, when we were swept off for an improvised dinner in town with a hodgepodge of guests. We ordered chaotically, dined boisterously, and drove the waiters mad as our posse of children challenged local Italian kids for a football match in the piazza. It was cliché like a recent Woody Allen film, just with many many more children. It was great. I don’t remember what I ate that evening.

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Two days after the wedding the feted couple organized a hike up Monte Vettore, the highest peak of the Sibillini range, the mountains against which Norcia is nestled. The road from Norcia winds up the lush forested mountainside to a crest, which, on the other side, reveals a large, treeless plateau encircled by higher peaks. It’s an unexpected sight. Off in the distance to the North, an earth-toned village perched amid the towering hills presides, alone.

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I didn’t, at first, realize where I was. Not when everyone stopped their cars, awestruck by the symphony of colors, patchworked in neat rectangles all over the valley. Surely they didn’t grow flowers up here? Only when our host explained that the flowers grow wild among the lentils, did it hit me: Castelluccio, of course! I know the lentils of Castelluccio, world famous little pulses often mentioned in the the same breath as French Puy lentils. If I think carefully, I even remember that Simone comes from the region of Castelluccio and some years ago brought us a bag of precious lentils from a home trip. Here we are — amazing!

As I witnessed and have now learned, Castelluccio lentils are grown in this valley without the use of pesticides, using an old tradition of three-year crop rotation alternating lentils, cereals (spelt, barley), and pasture. In 1997 Castellucio received the geographical protection certificate from the European Union. Only lentils marked Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia — IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are guaranteed to come from this plateau. ‘Norcia’ or ‘Umbrian lentils’ most likely do not.

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But we had a mountain to climb. A veritable caravan set off — adults, children, small children, babies — little groups trickling up the mountain path. Some were faster than others; not everyone made it to the top. For a while I tried to catch up with Leo, who had scampered off with a group of eager mountaineers, but as they receded ever farther up I thought better to wait for those lower down who were carrying Louise. It was a serious hike. A hike where, at some, you stop speaking to your companions for lack of breath. Where your mind starts to wander over the scenery, conjuring up the Mediterranean in the distance. The kind of hike that makes you hungry.

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It feels as though I practically ran down that mountain, even with Louise on my back, as the light deepened, probably because by then I knew what awaited at the ‘merenda’ (afternoon snack) planned in Castelluccio.

We were not the first to arrive, to plonk down wearily on the wooden benches with sprawling views of the valley below, and immediately a large plate of lentil soup arrived. It was very simple, with a half-submerged slice of bread and generous drizzle of olive oil. It tasted, as far as my ravenous palate could tell, mainly and, most deliciously, of lentils. It was probably the best soup I had ever eaten. That first bowl, and a second one, and most of Louise’s as well. The salumi and cheeses that followed are completely forgotten in the shadow of that soup.

Seeing the crops, trudging up Monte Vettore for hours, overlooking the fields and village, before digging into a bowl of soup made of the fruit of this sumptuous valley. That was perfect.

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I asked Simone for his mom’s lentil soup recipe, which she was most kind to share. Here it is, exactly as is. It should resemble very closely the one we had in Castelluccio. Mille grazie!

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“I’m glad to export the recipe for lentils: here is how I do it, but the variations are many.

Ingredients: lentils, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, sausage if you wish. Water: 1 1/4 lt. for 500 gr. of lentils.

Castelluccio lentils do not need preliminary soaking; for other kinds read instructions.

Rinse the lentils thoroughly. Put in a pot with cold water: lentils, onion, celery, carrot and salt. The amount of water must be such as to be absorbed during the cooking and the absorption may be different between the types of lentils; if they are too dry, add more boiling water. Boil over low heat for as long as is recommended by instructions on the package; for those from Castelluccio: 20 to 30 minutes.

After cooking the lentils should not be drained so it is important to measure out the amount of water.

They can be enjoyed with just a dash of olive oil or: put already crumbled sausage in a pan, some clove of peeled garlic, warm up then add the lentils already boiled as described above. Cook for 10 minutes, serve in bowl with lentils over a slice of toasted bread and a drizzle of olive oil. On New Year’s day lentils are served with pig’s feet for good luck. Enjoy your meal!”

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