Thursday, 20 December 2012

An evening of Sicilian food with Rocca Delle Tre Contrade

I was recently invited to the launch event for Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a luxury villa in Sicily, located between the beautiful town of Taormina and Catania. Sicily is a truly wonderful place. Spectacular light, inspiring scenery and vibrant history are just some of the aspects which make it a magical place to visit. When you add its pleasant climate, and superb food and wine culture, it's a place which reaches out and makes an offer you just can't refuse! 


Him Indoors and I visited Sicily in 2008. It was a much anticipated trip. We decided to try to see as much as we could in the limited time we had. We hired a car and attempted to get as far round the island as we could in a week. We started in Palermo, moving on to Cefalu, Enna, Taormina and Ortygia (the most ancient part of Siracusa, the home of no less than Archimedes!) It was hectic, but tremendously enjoyable. Finding accommodation as we arrived in each new town was often something of a challenge, since over Easter many Sicilians living abroad come home for Holy Week.

One slightly frivolous highlight was a trip to Savoca. It's a fairly small village near Taormina, which most would just speed past on the way to somewhere else. Except for one crucial matter; its starring role as the stand in for Corleone in The Godfather II. Apparently, Mario Puzo's original setting of Corleone had been ruined by modernisation and development by the time the Sicilian based sequel was about to be made. So a new setting was required. Enter the sleepy village of Savoca; quaint, quiet and rustic - it fitted the bill perfectly!

As a result of having such an amazing time during our 'road trip' of Sicily, I was full of anticipation and curiosity about this event. Which is just as well, because the evening was especially chilly, and the trek from my workplace in the environs of Holborn to Books For Cooks in Notting Hill was something of a mission. My steamy breath as I walked from the tube station reminded me that Winter had truly begun, and at one point I really wondered whether it would have been easier to cuddle up to Him Indoors and Tom the Cat back home...

But as soon as I arrived, I was greeted by the enthusiastic staff of Think Sicily, a company who arrange holiday rentals in Sicily and are the agents for Rocca delle Tre Contrade. Almost as soon as my coat was off, but before I got my scarf off, I had a pleasant and smooth glass of Etna Rosso 100% Nerello Mascalese (red) wine pressed into my hands, transporting me back to the magical island instantly. 

We were treated to a number of traditionally Sicilian dishes.
Pepato fresco cheese
Baked ricotta cheese


Salsiccia all'arancia
The wines were from the Barone di Villagrande winery on the slopes of Mount Etna. 
Etna Bianco 100% Carricante
Etna Rosso 100% Nerello Mascalese
Malvasia delle Lipari Passito (dessert wine)

I was shown how to make "Homemade Cannoli with Sweet Ricotta and Pistachio". First you take the fried pastry Cannoli rolls (not suitable for those on a diet!)......
Then, very carefully with an icing piping bag, you fill with the delicious sweet ricotta. This is a speciality product direct from Sicily and tastes unimaginably better than the stuff we seem to find in the chiller in the supermarket. We must start a campaign to be supplied with this wonderful fresh cheese which would make so many superb puddings!
Finally, you dress with the pistachios, and voila!

Now I know what my regular readers are thinking.... "It's all very well you showing off that you got the chance to eat a whole load of lovely food, but where is the cooking?"

Well, Jon the chef at Rocca delle Tre Contrade cooked up two amazing pasta dishes. With his pride in Sicilian food, he made them very typical dishes, demonstrating their characteristic ingredients and flavours....

... but what is more, he has been kind enough to share the recipes with my readers! 

So I bring you his two recipes.

Pasta con le sarde e finocchietto selvatico (Pasta with sardine and wild fennel)

Please note that this is a recipe adapted for countries in which authentic ingredients may not be found. For instance, the fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) used in this traditional recipe is unlike the common bulb fennel widely available. If wild fennel is unavailable, you may use the green leaves of the bulb fennel which are milder. Similarly, the traditional fresh semi-dried grapes are substituted with soaked sultanas.

1   kg  fresh small (10cm) sardines
1  large bunch of fresh sicilian wild fennel
1  onion
6  salt cured anchovies
4   tbs  sweet sultanas
4   tbs  pine nuts
1/2 glass white wine
125  g  plain dried bread crumbs
500  g    small dried maccheroni
extra virgin olive oil

Initial preparations:

Reconstitute the sultanas by soaking them 2-3 hours in lukewarm water. They should resemble softened grapes. Keep the water.

Roast the bread crumbs by adding two table spoons of olive oil to a hot cast-iron pan and gently stirring in the breadcrumbs. Continuously move and turn the crumbs in order not to burn them until they turn dark golden. Add a pinch of salt and pepper before removing from pan and let cool. Store in air tight container.

In the same pan, roast the pine nuts until they reach a light golden colour.

Clean and split the sardines by removing heads, tails and backbones. This is easier if the sardines are small.

Main preparation:

Remove the stalks from the fennel and blanch the remaining fine leaves by dropping them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes and then rinsing under cold running water. Leave some fresh leaves for garnish.

Chop the onion finely and add with abundant olive oil to a large warm pan. Let the onion soften slowly and then rinse the salted anchovies and add them. Stir over low heat until the anchovies 'melt' and disintegrate while ensuring nothing burns. Add the white wine and simmer a few minutes until the alcohol evaporates. 

Crush 1/4 of the soaked sultanas and add them with the whole sultanas, the pine nuts and half a cup of the grape water. Add some salt and pepper to taste and stir while letting the sauce simmer another few minutes. Chop the blanched fennel leaves coarsely and add to the pan with the sardines.

Put on a pot of boiling salted water and cook the pasta according to the packet's instructions while you let the sauce simmer over low heat. The sauce should be allowed to reduce somewhat while still be liquid (the bread crumbs will absorb some of the liquid when served). If it appears too dry, add some more of the grape water.

To serve:

Drain the pasta and pour back into the warm pot, add half of the roasted bread crumbs, a generous drizzle of olive oil and mix well. Add the sauce reduction, mix and pour onto a warm serving dish. Garnish with some more bread crumbs and fresh fennel leaves. Your guests may help themselves to more bread crumbs if they wish.
Pasta Alla Norma (Pasta with aubergine and tomato sauce)

3/4  litre    home made tomato sauce
2             aubergines
100  g        mature salted ricotto for grating
500  g        "Penne" pasta
Vegetable oil for frying.
Fresh basil leaves

Wash the aubergines, don't peel them but cut into cubes the size of dice. Drizzle with salt and leave in a colander a couple of hours to drain over a bowl or in the sink. Putting a weight on top will accelerate the process.

Choose a high quality italian ready made tomato sauce with only added basil if you don't have your own tomato sauce. Taste and add two tea spoons of sugar if too bitter.

Fry the aubergine cubes in low pan filled 1/3 with hot vegetable oil until they are dark brown. Drain, distribute and leave to cool on wide plate.

Grate the salted ricotta cheese coarsely.

Put on a pot of boiling salted water to cook the pasta while heating the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and mix with the sauce. Serve in a warm deep dish and garnish with the fried aubergines and the grated cheese. Add a few leaves of fresh basil to decorate.
Rocca delle Tre Contrade is a wonderful place to stay, with enough space to sleep 22. I just wish that my bank balance could stretch to renting it out for a week! With its own dedicated chef, you can have great traditional Sicilian food during your stay, and can even have classes in the preparation and cooking of some of these classic dishes.  The properly is looked after by Think Sicily,  which was recently voted the “World’s Favourite Villa Rental Company” by readers of Conde Nast Traveller.
Full rental details are available on  
More information and updates are available on Tre Contrade's website, on Twitter @trecontrade and on Facebook
You are welcome to contact them directly on to receive further details.
I would like to thank Think Sicily and Rocca delle Tre Contrade for inviting me to this event and looking after me so well.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Favourites List For December 2012 (Christmas ahoy!)

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" is a favourite song at this time of year. And at the time of writing, just after the busiest shopping weekend before Christmas, it really is feeling like the festivities are coming ever closer.

We all have our own Christmas traditions, our own favourite things, and those we are not so keen on. I recall a joke from a Christmas cracker which read "Q: What's the most popular wine at Christmas? A: Do we have to eat Brussels sprouts this year?"

Personally, I love the mince pies, Christmas pudding, and frivolity. I get a lot of joy from the colour, lights and spectacle. Perhaps it is tacky, but so what? It is what we need to distract us from the cold, grim reality of the season. In "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe", the animals all resent the totalitarian rule of the White Witch. But what they appear to bemoan the worst is that it is 'Always Winter and never Christmas!'. I can hardly imagine the unremitting gloom of 3 months of Winter without the fun of Christmas to inject some revelry, humour and heart.

So in this festive spirit, I would like to present the recipes, blogs, food tips and techniques, books and music which have been taking my fancy this month.

My pictures this month are from the Christmas collection at Konditor & Cook on Grays Inn Road.

Blogs worth following:

OMG! Bengali food!

A home and lifestyle blog (with great food posts) designed 'for women with better things to do'. Amen!


Carluccio's Arancini recipe (save some leftover risotto for this one!):

A broth for those of us with the sniffles:

Healthy, full of fibre and vibrant flavour; a salad with a difference:

I'm mad about meatballs, but here is an interesting Middle Eastern twist!

Great collection of Winter soups with lots of veggies, pulses and big flavours: 

More classic French comfort food:

Super cheesy Macaroni Cheese with chilli added, it's a new spin on the classic:

Nisha Katona's Indian inspired Christmas treat:

Turkey breast curry for Christmas by Reza Mohammed:

Cranberry bars to bake just before the Big Day:

Cooking know how:

How to test if a steak is 'done':

Which sugar should be used for which job (for baking):

How To Be A Woman - Caitlin Moran
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Susan Christie - Paint A Lady
Liane La Havas - Is Your Love Big Enough?
Michael Kiwanuka - Tell Me A Tale
Fever Ray - Fever Ray

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Urban Orient, Crystal Palace: Vietnamese & Chinese food

Urban Orient is a small informal, cafe style restaurant. It is situated in one of South East London's highest point, Crystal Palace, famous for the huge television aerial visible throughout the local area. 10-15 years ago, this was seen as a rough and run down place, but now is spruced up and loved. Cute little independent shops thrive here, notably the lovely clothes and gifts shop South Of The River, Bookseller Crow On The Hill and the cheese shop round the corner. 

This is an unpretentious little place which has been open for over a year. It was recently taken over by new management, who have done their best to retain the understated homely decor and select menu with rotating specials. 

Prawn dumplings, £3.50
These were sweet little dumplings (often called crystal dumplings because of their thin translucent rice skin), very reminiscent of Har Kau. They were generously filled with a good amount of prawn, tasting soft skinned, yet firm inside, with a delicate flavour. They were particularly good with the sweet soy sauce they were served with. A very pleasing beginning.

The Vietnamese spring rolls, £4.80
Filled with prawn, pork, squid, glass noodle (made of mung bean flour), grated carrot, and onion, these were deep fried until crispy on the outside and served with a dipping sauce made from rice wine vinegar, and freshly chopped red chili. Perhaps a little less of the carrot would have improved the filling, since it threatened to be the dominant texture, but the mixed meat and seafood were apparent. 

Vietnamese beef carpaccio £6.50
Beef tenderloin slices marinaded in a combination of lime juice, pineapple juice (a natural meat tenderiser), sesame seeds, herbs, topped with dried fried onion. This was served with a 'secret sauce' made of 3 traditional Vietnamese sauces blended together in a side bowl for dipping. Personally, I thought the beef was more 'cooked' by the marinade than I would have preferred. For me, a carpaccio should have a rawness remaining in the meat or fish. However, Him Indoors thought the beef was just right. I found the marinade to be a well balanced set of flavours, with the citrus-y zing tasting fresh rather than overly sour. The 'secret sauce' had a sweet and tamarind-tinged thickness which was pleasing and complimentary. Not your typical carpaccio, but inventive, healthy and enjoyable. 

Bun Chay with lemongrass pork £7.95
This dish had tasty marinaded grilled pork, which was a little sticky. It was served with cooked and cooled thin rice noodles served with beansprouts and peanuts. The dressing, Vietnamese Nuoc Cham, was served in a side bowl for dipping or pouring, as required. It was enjoyable healthy food. 

Coconut steamed pork £8.50 (served with steamed rice)
Pork belly cubes, and a boiled then fried whole egg, slowly stewed with star anise and coconut juice (not coconut milk). A pleasant dish, this had light gravy full of the flavours of slow cooked pork, ginger and traditional spices. It was interesting how the gravy could have been thick, heavy and hearty, but its lightness allowed the pork to do all the talking. I have to say that I was not so keen on the stewed fried egg. I have had similar dishes before with 'golden' eggs - hens' eggs or quails' eggs which have been hard boiled and then allowed to sit in the stew, which I much prefer. But everyone has different tastes and I imagine there are many who would enjoy the egg in the manner served here.

The food overall is very good, and you would be pleased to have a place like this in your neighbourhood. The places in the Pho Mile of Kingsland Road are probably a level up from this place on food quality, but you have the inconvenience of getting there if you are in South London. One criticism I would have of Urban Orient is that for me, it is the use of fresh herbs which makes Vietnamese food so good. It is the sweet basil, varieties of mint, perilla and coriander which make the salads taste fresh, clean and zingy. There wasn't enough use of herb flavours in the Carpaccio or the Bun Chay, and there was no use of the more traditionally Vietnamese herbs, which I would have expected. 

The cost of the dishes has been raised by other diners. I don't have any complaint. London is expensive, rates are expensive, ingredients are expensive. The fact that I could bring wine and beer (see below) brought the bill down considerably on what I would have paid for lunch anywhere else in the Crystal Palace area, so it seems somewhat churlish to moan.

Being a 'BYO' (bring your own booze) establishment means that guests have to ensure they plan in advance, remembering a bottle of wine or beer before coming. One advantage is that this inevitably keeps the overall cost of a meal down. Another advantage is the ability to match your drink to you own individual taste. We chose a Domaine du Bosc, Sauvignon-Viognier Pays d'Oc, 2010 from the Wine Society, which they describe as "A deliciously fruity blend of sauvignon and viognier with a little chardonnay and muscat for a touch more complexity. This tastes round, fresh, fruity with good length of flavour." We had hoped that the dominance of Sauvignon blanc would give it a smooth fruitness which would complement both the fresh flavours of the herbs and the heat of any chillis. We were pleased with our choice. 

Corkage is a very reasonable £3 for a bottle of wine or £1 for beer. 

The juice drinks (some are available hot, such as the lime and ginger - perfect for the sniffles) are healthy and fresh, and are keenly priced, from £1.80 to £2.50. 

Service is now full table service. You no longer have to pay at the till. The service is friendly, informal and efficient. 

Overall, I did enjoy my meal and I would go back.

74 Westow Street London SE19 3AF‎
020 8616 4511
Him Indoors and I paid proper dough for our meal.

Urban Orient on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dragon Castle: Home of tasty Dim Sum

Many, many years ago, when drawing maps, cartographers had the difficulty of representing uncharted territories. They overcame this by simply saying 'here be dragons'. Don't bother even thinking of going there, right?

Well, for many Londoners, South London seems to have the same reputation. Time Out recently published a review of a Thai restaurant in London SE15 (which you can find here: Their review stated "The food here may lack the lively complexity of flavour you'd expect in Thailand, but this is Peckham, and most customers will probably appreciate the kitchen using chilli in polite moderation", with the clear implication that residents of Peckham don't have the appreciation for food of other residents of London. Many other reviewers appear to have the opinion that there aren't many good restaurants in South East London. This miffs me. Not just because I have been, for the last 13 years, a denizen of south east London. But because it isn't true. Sure, we don't have 'fine dining' or Michelin starred restaurants. Those tend to be what are now known as 'destination restaurants' - places which are worth a special journey to visit. With our slightly crappy transport links, not many are going to make the trip south of the river to come here. To say we don't have anywhere good to eat is just plain wrong.

So I am going to start posting about the great places in South London. It is time we redressed the balance. There are plenty of areas in London which are barren and bereft of good restaurants, just as there are neighbourhoods with an enviable selection of eateries. 

I will begin, then with Dragon Castle, a Chinese restaurant which specialises in the food of the Guangzhou area (Cantonese food) with, what the restaurant website describes as "strong Hong Kong influences". Situated in Elephant & Castle, it is within a stone's throw of the tube/train station and a short bus ride away from London Bridge and Borough Market. So, an easy place for refuelling after moseying around the market, I would suggest.

 I came for a dim sum fix. I visited with Tasha of the "Food I Fancy" blog ( I should probably come clean and tell you that I am something of a dim sum addict. When I plan lunch dates, I often try to work out whether I can talk my lunch partner into coming out for dim sum. I am also collecting recommendations of good, authentic dim sum houses. Hong Kong is the spiritual home of dim sum, and having prayed in some of its most holy of temples, I can be a fussy customer!

Dragon Castle's interior is functional. Because of its large size, it would be difficult to make any great style statements. As a result it is a little bit like a hotel restaurant. If you are coming here for the decor, you will be disappointed! But the large windows offer lots of natural light, making the space comfortable and airy. 

We decided to order a variety of dishes, some very traditional, and others more the typical choices of 'westerners'. We wanted to get a sample of the dim sum menu across the board; steamed, fried, fish and flesh. All of Dragon Castle's dim sum are made in-house. So nothing has come from a freezer at See Woo!

The calamari was our 'safest' choice, being simply battered pieces of squid, fried and served with chili sauce. They were cooked properly, that is to say, not overcooked. And the chili sauce brought a nice touch of spice. However, the squid itself, I must confess, was a little bland for my tastes.

We ordered some prawn cheung fun. There is no picture for you, because I cut it up and scoffed a mouthful before I remembered to take a picture, so tempted was I by the chunky, fat prawns and the promise of the sweet soy sauce poured over the top! Sorry, everyone! The cheung fun were delicious, and given how many other diners we saw eating it, a favourite menu item here at Dragon Castle.

Another item I must 'fess up to eating and not photographing were the siu mai; a dumpling of meat in a thin dough case which is steamed. Dragon Castle's siu mai are filled generously with pork and prawn, with the balance just right. It would have made economic sense to put in a lot more pork than prawn, but attention to detail and quality of product has won out here. Result!

The turnip cake (which is made of daikon radish rather than turnips) was fried just enough so that it was a little crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Sometimes turnip cake can be a little bland, but this is the best turnip cake I have ever had. A real victory for simple food made of simple ingredients being totally satisfying.

The chicken and mushroom clay pot rice arrived in an attractive lidded pot. We found the pot generously filled with chunks of chicken, cooked on the bone for flavour. Personally, I would say it could have done with a little more mushroom. It was comforting and pleasant.

Our most adventurous choice was the very traditional chicken feet. This is such a classic Cantonese dish, you can see steamers filled with them in huge stacks on the streets of Hong Kong. Ours were steamed in black bean sauce laced with chili. The chicken's feet were exactly as they should be; a little chewy, spicy and flavoursome. It's an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring!

Our total bill was £22.80 for food and Chinese tea. Absolutely stunning value, I would say. 
The service was efficient and helpful. Our servers spoke good English, and were able to explain menu items and answer our queries (we did have a little round of pointing at other people's food and asking 'what is that?'; about par for the course for food bloggers!) I have no complaints.

So my overall verdict is that for fantastic value for money, authentic dim sum it is well worth making your way 'south of the river' to Dragon Castle. 'Here be dragons'? Yes, and well worth visiting they are, too!

A word for the wise: I know a number of British born Chinese people whose heritage is that of Hong Kong/Guangzhou. All recommend Dragon Castle for its dim sum. What the evening menu is like, I can't comment. It appears to have received mixed reviews from users of Time Out's website. Perhaps anyone reading this who has sampled the evening menu will post a comment and let me know what it is like?

Dragon Castle
100 Walworth Road, London SE17 1JL
020 7277 3388

Snigdha and Tasha paid good hard-earned cash for their meal. 

Dragon Castle on Urbanspoon