Saponara

saponara

I had lunch with Sean this week at Saponara, just a stone’s throw from where I live. In fact it’s so close I can see it from my living room window. I like Saponara so much, I’ve been meaning to take some pictures and write a blog post for the last two years, but the weatherman (on my lunching outside days) has conspired against me! As you can see above, the restaurant has seating for at least 20 people outside on a sunny day. It’s a quiet street and easy to believe that that one has been transported to Italy for a moment or two…

saponara interior

Saponara is a fantastic delicatessen and pizzeria in the heart of Islington, but off the beaten track, which makes it a hidden treasure. This hasn’t, however, stopped it being voted Best Pizza in London by Time Out. The business was set up by the Saponara brothers (from a small Basilicata village in the South of Italy) in 1989. Everyone working here is Italian, so I assume they are all part of the family. The deli fridges contain the most astonishing array or stuffed tomatoes, Italian cheeses and I have never seen so many types of cured meat. The interior, reminds me of a classic 1950s bar/restaurant in Italy.

pizza menu

We ordered from the pizza menu (above), but the restaurant also makes its own pasta – they are always keen to show customers a little basket of the various types to aid their choice. I find it hard to get past the first pizza on the page and I have to confess that I crave it!

piccante pizza

I had the usual today – piccante pizza, made with tomato, mozzarella, nduja, salame piccante, olives and salciccia piccante on a stone baked base.

piccante

The pizza base is light and slightly crispy. There’s no skimping on the quality and quantity of the charcuterie and the nduja oozes umami. Nduja is spicy pork spreading sausage, flavoured with chilli, that comes from Calabria. It is said to be loosely based on French andouille, introduced to the region in the 13th Century by the Angevin, French Capetian rulers from Anjou. Nduja has some similarity in texture and use to Spanish Sobrassada, but tastes quite different (more on Sobrassada in a future post).

chilli oil

In spite of my pizza being piccante, I couldn’t resist a drizzle of hot chilli oil on top.

margherita pizza

Sean ordered a margherita pizza – tomato, mozzarella and oregano, decorated with basil leaves on top. Legend has it that the margherita was invented by Raffaele Esposito (1890) in honour of the Queen of Italy (Margherita of Savoy) and the toppings represent the colours of the Italian flag. However, this is probably untrue, since pizza with the same toppings existed in Naples 100 years before that date. It is also said that the mozzarella was sliced thin and arranged on top of the tomato in a flower shape and along with the basil it resembled a daisy (Margherita in Italian). Regardless of the history, Sean ate his pizza in about 10 minutes, it was so good!

Complimenting the aromas coming from our own pizzas, there was a delicious smell of truffle wafting towards us from a table close by.

san pelligrino

We drank San Pelligrino with our lunch, but be reassured that Saponara has a fantastic wine cellar with the house red and white starting at £12.95 a bottle.

cappuccino

These pizza’s are a complete meal in themselves, there’s no need for pudding, not even when it’s a greedy person like me. The most I could manage was a tiny amaretti biscuit with my cappuccino.

I can’t help feeling extremely content for several hours after eating the piccante pizza and when ordering a takeaway in the evening, I’ve noticed that there’s a fantastic happy atmosphere throughout the packed restaurant when I go to pick it up. In my opinion, this is definitely the best pizza in London – don’t tell anyone!

Saponara is at: 23 Prebend Street, Islington, N1 8PF.

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Courgette Pizza

courgette pizza base

I was inspired to make a courgette pizza base I found at the thekitchensgarden and than I liked it so much I made it again and took pictures. Today Martin, the farmer I buy courgettes from, asked me for the recipe, so I thought I’d better post it here.

Courgette Pizza base recipe (makes two 8 inch pizzas):

2 medium sized courgettes, about 1lb in weight (should be about 2 cups grated)
2 free range eggs (beaten)
1 cup of flour
1/2 cup of good cheddar
1/2 lemon
salt and pepper

I couldn’t find my cup measures (perhaps I left them in America many years ago), so I used a glass pint jug – measuring half a pint to one cup (it worked well).

raw courgette base

Grate two medium courgettes and put them in a colander to drain – sprinkle on about a quarter of a teaspoon of salt and the juice of a lemon to facilitate this. Allow 10 – 20 minutes for them to expel their water. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 250ºC and beat two eggs in  large bowl. When the courgettes have drained, squeeze as much moisture out as you can with your hands. Mix the courgettes into the eggs with a fork. Sprinkle in the flour and keep stirring, add the grated cheddar and mix that in too. This is very simple and no kneading necessary. The mixture will be slightly sticky and not like a regular dough. It will make a large pizza, but I thought it would be nice to vary the toppings, so split it in half. It seemed to be about right for my cast iron frying pan (which is oven proof), so I gave the pan a liberal coating of flour (to stop it sticking) and spread out enough mixture to cover the bottom, using my knuckles and the back of a spoon. Bake the pizza base blind (with no topping) for 15 to 20 minutes on the lowest rack in the oven. When it looks slightly browned as per my top picture, it will make for a good crispy base.

tomato sauce

Tomato Sauce recipe (topping for 2 -3 pizzas):

5 medium sized tomatoes (blanched)
6 pieces of garlic (chopped)
8 torn basil leaves
a pinch of crushed chilli
a squirt of tomato purée
a splash of red wine vinegar
a splash of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

This is best prepared before making the pizza base.

Heat some olive oil in a saucepan (if using tinned anchovies on the pizza, use the anchovy olive oil for extra flavour) and fry the garlic for a couple of minutes. Peel the blanched tomatoes and crush them into the oil and garlic with a potato masher. Rip a few fresh basil leaves and stir them into the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar, a squirt of tomato purée, a pinch of crushed chilli and salt and pepper to taste. If using anchovy oil the sauce will probably be salty enough. Allow the sauce to simmer for 5 – 10 minutes and allow to cool.

chorizo uncooked

When the pizza base is cooked, add a topping of your choice. Above, I spread my tomato sauce on the base first, followed by a few slices of chorizo, slices of mozzarella, a few basil leaves, Kalamata olives, black pepper and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

chorizo cooked

This went back into the oven, on the bottom shelf for 10 – 15 minutes, until it looked done.

anchovy uncooked

I made a second pizza with anchovies canned in olive oil.

anchovy cooked

I was really impressed by the courgette pizza base, it’s quicker and easier to make than real pizza dough and is suitably crispy. I had no trouble sliding pizzas out of the frying pan, with the aid of a pallete knife.

This is a perfect way to use up the summer glut of tomatoes and courgettes. It’s worth noting that when tomatoes are cooked twice (as opposed to eaten raw or cooked once), they release lots of lycopene which supposedly guards against cancer and lowers cholesterol.

I buy my courgettes and tomatoes (along with almost all other vegetables on a weekly basis) from Perry Court Farm, which has a stall at Islington Farmers’ Market on Sunday mornings. They can also be found at most other London Farmers’ Markets.

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Salade Niçoise

salade niçoise

The Niçoise Salad is said to have been created in the late 19th Century and probably contained tomatoes, anchovies and olive oil. These days there’s much debate over the correct ingredients – Jacques Médecin, ex mayor of Nice and traditionalist, states in his cookbook (Cuisine Nicoise), that the salad should be, “Predominantly of tomatoes, salted three times and moistened with olive oil,” along with hard boiled eggs and anchovies or tinned tuna – but not both. Raw vegetables could be incorporated, “Such as, cucumbers, purple artichokes, green peppers, fava beans, spring onions, black olives, basil and garlic, but no lettuce or vinegar.” The salad should be served in a bowl rubbed with garlic and should never contain boiled vegetables – “Never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade niçoise.” Such was Jacques Médecin’s conviction, though having served as mayor for 24 years, he fled Nice for South America in 1990 over accusations of corruption and tax evasion. He was arrested in Uruguay three years later, deported and then convicted in France.

I made a variation on the traditional Niçoise Salad, a few weeks ago and when it turned out to be delicious, kicked myself for not photographing it. As there’s currently a heatwave in most of the Northern Hemisphere I set out to remake and record my interpretation of the salade niçoise.

Salade Niçoise recipe (serves 4 as a starter or side dish):

1/2lb fresh asparagus cut into pieces about one and a half inches long
1lb broad beans in pods (remove the pods)
12 santa tomatoes cut into four (or other small varieties with a lot of flavour)
1/3 cucumber cut into one inch lengths, halved, deseeded and chopped into sticks
2 spring onions finely chopped
1/2 red pepper cut into bite sized pieces
12 black olives
2 hard boiled eggs quartered
a tin of anchovies
12 basil leaves (torn)
1 teaspoon capers

The Vinaigrette dressing:

6 dessertspoons homemade olive oil infused with garlic and rosemary
olive oil from the anchovy tin
1 dessertspoon red wine vinegar
1 dessertspoon sherry vinegar (or balsamic)
a teaspoon of French whole grain mustard
black pepper to taste

asparagus and broad beans

I put my hands up – this not traditional and contains cooked vegetables, however, many niçoise recipes include boiled potatoes and green beans. Chop the asparagus into one inch pieces and remove the broad beans from their pods. Cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Simmer for a minute or so until they are al dente. Plunge into cold, or better still, iced water to stop the cooking process. Similarly, boil two eggs until they reach your preferred state of viscosity or solidity. Combine all the vegetables in a large bowl, but hold back 8 whole anchovies and the eggs until after tossing the salad the dressing. Chop the leftover anchovies and add them to the vegetables.

black olive

I used Kalamata olives from Greece. These have a good flavour and while I could have got some decent French olives, finding some of the tiny black ones from Nice might have been difficult.

dressing

For the dressing: I used extra virgin olive oil infused with garlic and rosemary. If you don’t have something like this to hand, crush a a clove of garlic with a mortar and pestle and add it to the dressing. Whisk all the dressing ingredients listed above. I use the olive oil from the tin of anchovies in place of salt. Do test the dressing and add pepper to taste.

Toss the salad in the dressing – I recommend using clean hands. Arrange the 8 whole anchovies like the face of a clock and place the quartered eggs on top.

Serve with a good rosé from Provence and as Julia Child would say (at the end of her niçoise recipe), “Bon appétit!”

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L’Antic Forn (the old bakery)

l’antic forn

I went to meet Oli and Fran for lunch at L’Antic Forn – somewhere I’ve been before, but not for a couple of years. This restaurant is situated opposite Flor de Maig, where I had lunch a few days ago.

vermut de la casa

I arrived early and grabbed a table outside – there are only two outside, whereas, there’s seating for at least 30 people indoors. I ordered a vermut de las casa, while I waited and read the menú del dia. It’s worth noting that they do a calçotada lunch menu here for €30, when they are in season.

menú del dia

Anyway, I didn’t have to wait long – Oli is always on time.

ensalada

At L’Antic Forn, included in the menú del dia, there’s a help yourself salad bar, with quite an array of choices. I helped myself to the above.

arròs risotto

The Arròs risotto amb bolets i parmesà (mushroom risotto with Parmesan) proved to be a popular starter which didn’t disappoint.

braó de porc

Oli had the Braó de porc rosti al forn (pork knuckle roasted in the oven) for his main course – this came in a creamy sauce with thinly sliced fried potato (think potato crisps/chips). I tried the crispy potato slices, they were very good and definitely produced in house.

filet de bacallà frecs

Both Fran and I had Filet de bacallà frecs planxa amb samfaina – fresh cod fillet (as opposed to the usual salt cod), cooked on a griddle with samfaina (the Catalan equivalent of ratatouille). I can assure you it tasted as good as it looks – both plates were clean when our waiter took them away!

vi rosat

We drank the usual vi rosat, which came in a porrón, though they did provide glasses, so we weren’t taking it in turns to drizzle the wine into our mouths. It’s reasonably easy to master drinking from a porrón, but it’s best to experiment with white wine and a large napkin first!

flan de mató

Oli had a flan de mató for pudding – it’s like a regular flan, but made with mató (fresh whey cheese) instead of egg custard.

crema catalana

I had my favourite pudding, crema catalana, made with cinnamon, lemon and orange peel and the sugar is burnt on top with a hot iron (I sat at the counter, for supper, in Romesco a few nights ago and took great delight in watching them brand the crema catalanas). The above may look like it just has two blobs of caramelised sugar, but in fact the entire surface had quite a thick layer of caramel. This was an excellent crema catalana!

carajillo

I finished with a carajillo de cognac – I needed a pick up to get me out of the chair in order to go shopping at the Boqueria!

The menú del dia at L’Antic Forn includes a buffet salad, first and second courses, bread, a drink (wine, beer or soft drink), pudding or coffee for €13.50. We had a very charming and attentive Pakistani waiter, who’d previously worked in Bushey (Outer London). He’s become a great friend of Oli’s – I think they discuss the cricket.

L’Antic Forn is at: C/ Pintor Fortuny 28, 08001 Barcelona

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Flor de Maig (May Flower)

flor de maig

I was on my own for lunch today and searching for something hearty. I looked at the Victoria’s (one of my favourite cheap lunch places) menú del dia, but felt uninspired. I was considering going to Iposa or L’Antic Forn (all these restaurants are within a minute or two of each other), but I passed the window of Flor De Maig and saw a few groups of elderly Catalans eating what looked like tasty comfort food – always a good sign when considering somewhere new. I looked at the menú, displayed by the front door and was sold when I saw the first item, fideuà negra.

vermut de la casa

I sat outside and drank a very good vermut de la casa, while I considered my main course.

menú del dia

As you can see above, the menú del dia includes first and second courses, plus bread, a drink (wine, beer or a soft drink) and a pudding for €11.30. There is a supplement of 10% for sitting outside (something that’s not uncommon).

fideuà negra

So I did order the Fideuà Negra con Ali Oli – a paella like dish of short pasta (fideu) containing seafood and blackened with squid ink (you may remember that I had the non squid ink version at Cantoni del Poble 9 recently). It was excellent, dark and sticky – just what I wanted.

albondigas de ternera

For my main course I chose Albondigas de Ternera (casero) en salsa – homemade beef meatballs in sauce, with chips. I was very pleased with these too – they tasted amazing (and so did the sauce), full of flavour and not just balls of minced beef.

vi rosat

I drank a chilled vi rosat with my lunch – no surprises there!

mousse de mango

For pudding, I had a mousse de mango – it was light and fluffy and I’m fairly sure, made in house.

carajillo

I finished with the usual carajillo de cognac for courage and a little lift, after the heavy lunch.

I considered visiting Flor De Maig in the past, but I was a little put off by signs outside for pizza. I shouldn’t have been, the food proved to be excellent – I hadn’t realised that they have a Pakistani chef, so on top of traditional Catalan cuisine (and pizzas), they do curry! There were even two choices on the menú del dia for Lamb Madras and Dahl – I’m sure the mango mousse is relative to the chef too.

I paid €11.30 for the menú del dia, there was a supplement of €1.50 for sitting on the terraza. The vermut de la casa cost a further €3.20 and the carajillo de conac was €2.30.

Flor de Maig is at: C/Pintor Fortuny 29, 08001, Barcelona.

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La Calçotada

rooftop barbecue

We were sitting in the fabulous Can Vilaró for a group lunch on Saturday, where there’s always a big joke between Jonas and the owner, Sisco, about the Can Vilaró barbecue. This prompted the suggestion that we should have a barbecue on Oli’s roof the next day – the forecast was good and once the cat out of the bag, it wasn’t going back in. After a couple of digestives at Bar Calders, Oli and I rushed to the Boqueria in search of barbecue bargains at 7pm. We did very well with fish – near closing time there’s always something cheap when the stallholders want to shut shop and go home. Meat prices were normal and the calçots were positively expensive at €4 a bunch, but regardless, they were in season and a must for a barbecue, so we bought two large bunches.

raw calçots

Calçots are a unique Catalan invention (from Valls) – they may look like leeks, but are in fact forced spring onions. Soil is piled on top of the onion shoots to make them grow tall, in the same manner as asparagus farming. The calçots grow to the size of long thin leeks, but have delicate leaves like scallions.

blackened calçots

Calçots are barbecued over hot flames, ideally using cuttings from grape vines (sarmientos de viñedo) as fuel. The calçots are laid on the grill, in a single layer, here we have them in a wire barbecue contraption which makes it easy to flip them over. The outside is blackened over the flames for about 5 minutes, until a little juice starts to come out.

calçots in newspaper

The blackened calçots are wrapped in newspaper to steam until tender.

calçots ready to eat

Ours were perfect after about 20 minutes. Trim the excess green tops, leaving a little to hold on to. Pinch the bottom hard, just above the root and pull from the top. The clean, cooked inside should pull out of the burnt outer flesh in one go.

romesco sauce

We ate our calçots with Romesco Sauce – this is a common accompaniment, but there’s a similar sauce called Salbitxada, which is quite exclusive to calçots, whereas Romesco is also enjoyed with other foods, such as fish.

jonas eating calçots

Dip the pulled white section of the calçot into Romesco or Salbitxada sauce and eat like Jonas (above). To follow calçots, the Catalan norm is to barbecue lots of meat.

alfredo

Alfredo arrived with pre-mixed, ready to pour Negronis (note the distant seagull, top left)

sorbrassada i botifarra

and a marvelous concoction (above left) of Sobrassada and Provolone. The Provolone cheese goes into the bottom of a frying pan in little chunks, with a similar quantity of Sobrassada on top.

provolone i sobrassada

With a little stirring, the cheese and sausage melt together to make a delicious stringy tangy dip for torn up chunks of bread.

sausages and halloumi

…and on with the meat. Above are some Catalan botifarra sausages (a bit like an English Cumberland), a couple of burgers and some halloumi (where did that come from?).

marinated pork

Shaun brought some astonishing pork, which he’d marinated overnight.

corn and merguez

Merguez, sweetcorn, chicken kebabs, green chilli peppers and garlic.

ox heart

Ox heart sliced thinly and grilled quickly – it has to be cooked fast or very slow, otherwise it will become tough.

kebabs and ears

Oli insisted on some pig’s ears

botifarra and ears

…which require long slow cooking.

richard’s ears

Rich models the pig’s ears here – they probably should have been poached in stock and then deep fried.

botifarra i merguez

More botifarra (these were very good artesanal sausages, note the string) and merguez.

tuna steak

We had an overwhelming supply of sausages and a few people seemed keen to cook. So after getting the coals hot and the calçots and meat going, I got out a hotplate and stuck a cast iron griddle on top of it for the fish. Above is one of the bargain tuna steaks from the Boqueria. Oli brought out some truffle oil, so on a whim I garnished the tuna with it – excessive, but tasty nonetheless.

jonathan livingston

Jonathan Livingston Seagull came down from on high to check us out

grilled mackerel

…while I was grilling the mackerel.

mackerel thief

He seemed quite partial to fish with truffle oil!

As legend has it, the calçot was first cultivated in Valls, Tarragona by a peasant called Xat de Benaigues. The Catalan word calçot comes from calçar, to shoe, as in cover the green onion shoots with soil to force them to grow higher. Calçot season runs from November to April and they have an EU Protected Geographical Indication (status).

Calçots should be washed down with copious quantities of local red wine or cava, ideally drunk from a porrón.

There are many establishments that do large scale calçotadas out of town, grilling the calçots over barbecues for enormous quantities of people wearing bibs and plastic gloves. One of the first calçotadas was said to have been held at Hostal Restaurant Grau, in Alt Camp, Tarragona in 1962.

Valls has an annual calçot fiesta in January.

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Cantoni del Poble 9

cantoni del poble 9

I woke up feeling remarkably good (it must have been the warm Catalan sunshine streaming through the window) and called Nookie to arrange lunch in Poblenou.

rambla de poblenou

We had nowhere specific in mind, so walked to the Rambla de Poblenou (a small and sedate version of the Rambla in Barcelona), which is full of little shops and affordable bars and restaurants (unlike it’s larger cousin).

The first place we looked at was Cantoni del Poble 9, somewhere I’d been to before with Adrian and Oli, about seven years ago. I remembered that their paella had been good and since they had fideuà on the menu today, it seemed like an easy choice.

vermut

We drank a vermut de la casa while perusing the menú del dia.

cantoni menú

If you look at the bottom of the menú, you will see that it’s a whopping €10 for three courses, including bread with wine, beer or a soft drink. If you sit outside on the terrace there’s a supplement of €0.60 – that certainly won’t break the bank.

fidegua de marisco

To start, I ordered the fidegua de marisco – a seafood fideuà, somewhat like the rice dish, arròs a banda, but cooked with short pasta (fideu). It contained clams, mussels, prawns and squid, with allioli on the side. I was pleased to find a socarrat in the fideuà – a crunchy bit from the bottom of the pan – both paella and fideuà should be allowed to cook without stirring and a crust forms on the base of the cooking dish. In fact, there’s a nice bit about cooking fideuà, where if you let it cook without messing with it, the pasta will stand up on end as if to show you it’s ready.

crema de calabacin

Nookie had crema de calabacin – a rich soup made with courgettes and cream – we think it was thickened with potato.

langostinos a la plancha

We both ordered the same for the main course, langostinos a la plancha con ajo y perejil, grilled shrimps with garlic and parsley, which were delicious. I was very pleased to see that the shrimp arrived with lemon scented hand wipes.

tarta de queso

For pudding we both had tarta de queso – cheesecake. I had intended to order tarta de zanahoriah (carrot tart, or probably cake), but they had run out. Never mind, the cheesecake was very good!

vi rosat

We drank a bottle of rosado with our lunch (included in the price)

carajillo

…and I had a carajillo de cognac to finish.

Cantoni del Poble 9 is at: Rambla Poblenou 88, 08005, Barcelona.

The menú del dia costs €10 for 3 courses, including bread, beer, wine or a soft drink, which in my opinion is excellent value!

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