Fortnum & Mason

So after the sad visit to the site of the formerly fabulous New Piccadilly café, I consoled myself with a visit to the food hall in Fortnum & Mason. I have never had the chance to pop in a gawp at the goodies on display from fine teas, chocolates and preserves each costing approximately the price of a new lung - make no mistake this 'aint no place for your BOGOFs.

I have been lucky enough to have had the pleasure of a F&M hamper, a kind Christmas gift from the OH's boss when he was a city boy, which in fact MADE my Christmas. I remember the scene of opening this hamper was like that bit in Pulp Fiction when he opens the case and his face was illuminated by gold. Three deli counter size whole cheeses, chutneys, crackers and wine which were so, so good.

The patisserie counter was so pretty and if it didn't already tempt you enough, they have positioned magnifying glasses in front of the cakes! The breeze from the refrigeration unit made the gold leaf decoration on the chocolate slices almost dance (but I may have been delusional at this point, visually drunk on all the sensational foods.) A nice touch were the Scrabble letters on the counter top which spelled out "Let them eat cake", which is the best idea I've heard in ages. Drool.

New Piccadilly café, gone but not forgotten

Probably the last place in London where you could get a cup of tea for 50p, egg and chips for a few quid and a priceless side order of nostalgia, atmosphere, welcome and originality. The picture above shows the sad remains of one of my most favorite cafés in the Whole Wide World.

The New Piccadilly, not that there was anything new about it, was tucked away on a back street near London's Piccadilly Circus and was a mecca for classic Italian 1950s cafes, every surface covered in Formica, original fittings and cosy red booths - a different planet compared to the brash, super-lit identi-kit chain eateiries literally round the corner.

I can still hear the chug-chugging of the raspberry pink coffee machine, the satisfying ring of the old-school till and see the wall of postcards, the horseshoe shape menu and the crisp white overalls of the waiting staff. There was nothing I loved more than wasting hours with a strawberry milkshake or five, surrounded by the ghosts of gangsters, cool cats and hep chicks of a bygone era.

The proprietor Lorenzo Marioni, took over the running of this café from his family and had been there day in, day out for 50 years. The only thing that makes me feel better is the thought of Mr. Marioni resting his tired bones on a beautiful beach in south Italy, sipping on a cipriana. He was as much part of the New Piccadilly as the original fixtures and I'm glad that the last chapter of the New Piccadilly ended with Mr. Marioni closing the door for the final time, taking everything with him and destroying the rest.

Closed since September 2007, it is only now that I have found the heart to go back and pay my respects. Denman street is set to be redeveloped by Westminster Council and you can bet your bottom dollar that the depressing green and white glowing roundel of the dreaded St*rbucks will be the probable "replacement" for this gem. It was nice to see the scrawled messages of support and thanks that people had written on the chipboard panelling which boards up the site. I have no doubt that I'm not the only one who is going to miss it. A Flickr group has been set up with people's photographic memories.

Whilst these classic cafés are sadly dwindelling, there are some quality ones still very much alive and kicking. I would suggest a visit to the formidable E Pellicci in Bethnal Green Road E2. It's so stunning that English Heritage has even Grade II listed it (the first café to have received the award) for its Art Deco wooden panelling and floor logo. Unfortunately, 83 year old Nevio Pellicci who was the second generation of his family to have run the café, died in December 2008. But his wife still cooks the food in the kitchen and two of his children hold the fort at the front, ensuring the future of this East End jewel stays in the family.

Stare in awe at the pictures on or better still, work your way through the others while they are still on the menu.

Interior picture of the New Piccadilly with kind permission from Tsingtao

Chocolate pencils

Brilliant desert concept from a collaboration between Japanese patissier Tsujiguchi Hironobu and Nendo.

Via Oh Joy!

Credit crunch(ie) shoes

Irregular Choice "Cortesan Chocolate" court shoes now on sale at Schuh. Yummy!

REVIEW: Carluccio's Caffé, Brighton.

I admit most of the Italian restaurants I have been to locally are pants. I wasn't expecting Carluccio's to be any different, just a little more expensive, so it's taken me a while to get down there for dinner although I have been in to purchase some of their fantastic biscuits and pastas from the shop area. From a design point of view they are bang on. The wrapping, type and packaging reel me in like a big fat flounder and I am helpless to resist their charms. Boy, oh boy are they pricey but I have yet to be disappointed with the quality of the products I've bought so far.

For dinner, I chose the handmade, wine braised venison tortelloni which were so good it was like a great big hug from Antonio Carluccio* himself. There were plenty on the plate, but I could have eaten the same twice over but I am a greedy gal. Firm pasta and rich filling, made very well to ensure the filling stayed moist but did not leak in the cooking. I liked that they simply served them with butter which is how I have them at home.

The fella had the saltimbocca, a translation of "jump in the mouth", which was a pork escalope wrapped in Parma ham and sage and cooked in white wine. The meat was unfortunately a touch overcooked and dry although the flavour was lovely. Traditionally, this is made with veal which is still trying to shake off its taboo in the UK so I guess they have switched to pork for the saleability. Shame because it is one of my favourite dishes and done well would be my death row meal of choice.

We ordered a cheese board and some lemon tartlets for dessert which were all good and the espressos came with a glass of water which is how it is supposed to be done. The staff were lovely and along with the red wine, made me leave with a rosy glow - a good sign of a good restaurant and the first time I have ever experienced it from a (gasp) chain establishment.

I own a couple of Carluccio's recipe books and make no mistake, he is a real Italian cook. He holds genuine, regional Italian cooking to his heart and will not compromise on tradition or ingredients. I like his approach and he reminds me a lot of some of my family, spending whole mornings rummaging around the mountain hills in Italy, hunting out some mushrooms.

*The big man is no longer a consultant for Carluccio's Caffés, apparently stepping down to concentrate on other projects but nice to see that his passion for regional Italian food is still at the heart of the restaurant chain.

Friday the 13th is great!

There IS someone who answers your wishes! On the way to work this morning I spy out the corner of my eye this wonderful Imperia pasta machine in the Martlets Hospice charity shop.

It looks like it has only been used once or not at all as the manufacturing grease is still in the mechanism corners. A jolly good clean and buff and this thing will be like new - all for a snip at £22.50. That got me a-thinking that charity shops may be a good little source for good quality kitchen equipment. I also saw some lovely vintage cake stands and a superb, sturdy 60s manual whisk on offer too. But I must say this charity shop in North Road, Brighton is particularly brilliant for vintage china and cookware - maybe they found out I work around the corner?!

My darling Imperia, we are going to have a wonderful life together!

Kitchen gadget essentials: When a knife won't cut it

Bean slicers, avocado scoops, twirling spaghetti forks, apple corers, teabag squeezers, butter curlers, rice cookers and musical pizza wheels... sheesh - even Narnia kitchen cupboards would not tempt me to buy any of these contraptions.

They don't solve problems, they just raise questions like: what was Jamie Oliver thinking with the "Flavour Shaker"? Why was the egg separator invented when the two shell halves do the job and they come free with the egg? And who the hell made the humble garlic the food most in need of gadgetry? Why do we fill our drawers with garlic crushers (use the side of the knife), graters (chop finely with a knife), slicers (knife), shredders (knife), peelers (knife, knife, KNIFE damn you!) and why do you have to then store the bulbs in a special "garlic keeper"?

I opt for a more hands on approach to cooking and I think a set of the best knives you can afford and a knife sharpener should eliminate the need for 98% of these landfill loving gizmos.

However there are a few things I would be lost without. Now, it is debatable whether these are gadgets or tools but they are as close as I get...

Number one for versatility and usefulness is the mini chopper. Utterly essential in my (cook) book. This little puppy blitzes everything in its path - chopping nuts for cakes, making an onion and herb mix fine enough for fish cakes and meatballs, smoothing home-made hummus and producing bag loads of quality bread crumbs. It rocks.

Second on the list would be the stick blender. Soups in seconds and fulfills my criteria for any item in my kitchen - easy to wash up.

Making pasta would be very tedious without my pasta machine. I did scrimp on the make of my one and regret it and wish I had gone for the Imperia range. My ravioli trays were difficult to master but after a few trials and tantrums I found that a heavy (real heavy) dusting with flour in the tray before each batch ensured they didn't stick. That then left me with the ability to knock out a whole heap of perfect little ravioli for a dinner party that would have taken hours to do by hand. Now that is a good gadget.

Read reviews, buy smart and you can't go far wrong.

But we all have skeletons in our kitchen cupboards. My dirty gadget confession would have to be an olive spoon. Essentially a spoon with a hole in the bottom and a hook on the side to hang it on the jar. I know.

Ceremonie Teas

Not for your everyday 4 o'clock brew, this tea range is something special... I couldn't find them online so not sure if they are in concept stages.

Packaging design for the series of Ceremonie Teas by Danny Goldberg studio from Tel Aviv.


RECIPE: Mountain Lentil and Mushroom Paté

Right, this sounds a bit hippy doesn't it but I promise this is packed with flavour and is a moreish paté that would be ideal as a vegetarian or vegan starter. It's also great in sandwiches or on toast as a snack - I even served some with pan fried spinach infused with garlic and chili. And it's easy on the waist too!

I used some gorgeous, super tiny Italian mountain lentils which are much harder and take longer to cook but I don't see why plain ol' green lentils wouldn't be just as good.

This paté was created as a sneaky beaky way of making my OH eat these nutritious lentils as he turns his nose up at them normally. Pleased to report that he wolfed down practically the whole batch with demands for a remake. (I get them all in the end...)

Serves 4-6 as a starter

Half a mug of lentils (I used organic Italian mountain lentils but green ones would be good too)
1 tbs olive oil
2 long shallots or 1 medium onion, finely sliced
200g chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced
Bullion or stock
One garlic clove
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp tahini paste
1 tsp chopped parsley
1 tsp chopped oregano
1 tsp chopped thyme

Place the lentils in a saucepan, cover with water and add a good teaspoon of bullion or use stock. Add a whole clove of garlic and heat until boiling. Reduce to a simmer and leave for 30-40 minutes until soft. You may need to top up the water if this dries out. The cooking time will vary depending on the variety of lentil you choose.

Thinly slice the onions then fry in the olive oil. Once softened add the chestnut mushrooms and cook until soft. Add the balsamic vinegar, tahini and herbs and cook for 3 minutes.

Drain the lentils and reserve the remaining stock. Using a mini chopper or food processor, blitz the lentils (including that garlic clove) and mushroom mix until you get a coarse paste. If the mixture is too dry add some of the reserved stock to get a firm but moist consistency. You may need to do this in batches if using a mini chopper. Taste for seasoning, depending on your stock you may not need any extra.

Place in a shallow dish or airtight container and chill until needed. This keeps for about 3 days in the fridge and is better the day after cooking as the flavours have had time to get acquainted.

REVIEW: Angel Food Bakery, Brighton

I was wondering when someone was going to open a nice little cupcake café in Brighton and I have been drooling in the window of this once since it appeared.

Angel Food Bakery is a small café (2 tables and a bar), bakery and can make cupcakes, pies and cakes for parties, weddings and the like to order. They even do a monster cupcake for sharing (or not), 36 times the size of a standard cupcake which was pretty cool. The cupcakes to eat-in or take-away are displayed under gorgeous glass domes on the counter and choosing from the ten or so house flavours is a real issue as they all look fantastic.

I've wanted to try red velvet cake ever since seeing the famous armadillo wedding cake in the Steel Magnolias film. A popular cake in Southern America, the vanilla-cocoa sponge is a shocking red colour and traditionally served with cream cheese frosting, as the cupcake I tried was. It was definitely worth the wait - I could have eaten a whole tray of these. Moist, not too sweet and the slightly sour frosting was dee-dee-lish.

There was a steady stream of people filling the tables and buying boxes of cakes as the kitchen (viewable through a window) worked hard to keep the displays topped up fresh.

I'm utterly passionate about supporting independent and buying local and gems like this make it all the more worthwhile. Brighton has a handful of quality independent cafés and tea rooms but we should encourage even more of them by buying local and telling the big, plasticky coffee chains to *buck off and take their stupid skinny-soy-chocha-mocha-frappa-venti-grande with them.

I'm going back to Angel Food Bakery to work my way through the entire menu.

Hearty apple & pear pie

I knocked this apple & pear pie together mid-week as I went a bit crazy in the fruit department and bought way too many apples and pears. I marinaded the sliced fruit (more apples than pears) in lemon juice, sugar, brandy, cinnamon and nutmeg and used a store bought shortcrust pastry. Easy peasy.

I'm still on the fence with the ol' store bought pastry. A few of the TV chefs use it in their recipes and it is time-saving but I don't think pastry is particularly difficult to make if you have the time. It never seems to be as tasty or buttery as homemade and can be a bit anemic depending on the brand but it's a good sacrifice if you want a pie on the quick. I don't think my other half agrees with this apparent culinary sin and shouted "Delia!" down the supermarket aisle as he saw me putting it into the shopping basket! You can't please them all...

But baking doesn't necessarily have to be a weekend activity with a few corners cut like this but I would have to be seriously short on time (or sanity) before I used tinned mince in anything! Delia indeed.