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Reviews of London's Restaurants, Supper Clubs and Hotels, Wine Tastings, Travel Writing, and Home to the Japanese and French Supper Clubs in Islington

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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Tired of Ramen? Head to Den Udon!

Words and Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: Den Udon

Where: 2 Acton Street, London, WC1X 9NA (020 3632 1069) http://www.den-udon.uk.com/

Cost: Tsumami (small plates) start at £2.50 for pickled vegetables and rise to £8 for a serving of prawn and vegetable tempura. Udon noodles, the restaurant’s speciality, are available with a number of ingredient combinations, none of which costs more than £12. Though the noodles can be served many ways (hot, cold, with broth and without) the restaurant has a selection of similarly priced Donburi rice dishes as an alternative. At lunchtime, both are available as a lunch set, with homemade pickles and a rice dish for £2 extra.

As for the drinks, a bottle of Asahi Super Dry beer is £3.50, and all cocktails, including fruit sours made with the Japanese spirit shochu, are £5-6. Like the considerable sake selection, all of the wines are available by the glass at no extra charge. This means that, though bottles are available for less than £30, diners can choose not to break the bank. 

Den Udon has also partnered with London men’s magazine Mr Hyde to offer a tasting event ahead of its official opening – featuring a selection of small plates, udon broth and hot and cold sake – for just £10 per person. Tickets for the first two nights have sold out, but check here for more news. 

About: Den Udon, as the name suggests, is a Japanese restaurant specialising in the eponymous noodles; in fact, they call themselves “udon evangelists” and each menu also includes a helpful guide to preparing udon noodles at home. The restaurant has a very clean, Japanese(y) design with sharing tables and benches.

As well as the noodles, the other cornerstone of Den’s cooking is their dashi stock - made the proper way, from scratch and freshly everyday, it had distinctive, clean umami flavours only good Japanese stock can offer.

At Den Udon the base dashi broth for their udon dishes is available as a light white or a thicker black (with added soy). Both can also be made with mushroom rather than fish stock which is good news for vegetarians.

What We Ate: At Den Udon, as in many other Japanese restaurants, dishes can be served as they leave the kitchen, and so the small plates may turn up all together and/or with the main dishes. We began with a sharing platter of small snacks which included pretzels made from Udon noodles, tamagoyaki (the delicate Japanese omelette familiar to most sushi lovers) and a portion of smoked clams served with grated daikon. These are traditional izakaya snacks, where the crunchy pretzels and spicy, salty clams are ideal accompaniments to very chilled beer.

These were followed, a tad annoyingly, by all other dishes, starters and mains we ordered all at once. These included a selection of tempura prawns and familiar vegetables, from broccoli to brussel sprouts. The batter was light and crispy, leaving the bold colours of the tomatoes and butternut squash to glint through. Likewise, the bright pink sakura salt (cherry blossom), a very nice addition to the dish, drew out the fresh flavours of the vegetables and the feather-light batter.

Additional small plates included Chicken Kara-Age, a well-known Japanese dish of fried chicken marinated in soy. Den’s kara-age was flavoursome, it had been made darker by the strongly coloured soy but it could have been crispier in our opinion.

Similarly, the Red Wine Stewed Pork Belly was another delicious dish, rich and warming. The decision to add red wine to this traditional dish (buta kakuni) gave it a dark red coloured sauce with a refreshing acidity, into which the meat fell straight from the bone.

For mains, we ordered a pork belly udon soup served with cabbage in a black dashi broth, as well as another dish of Udon with spicy cod roe (mentaiko), fresh egg and spring onions. The noodles were made in the restaurant kitchen, and had an excellent texture - they were thick, elastic and with a lovely bite to them without being chewy. The accompanying pork belly was soft, and the black broth well-balanced, this was a great udon noodle.

Likewise, the spicy cod roe – known as mentaiko – gave the second dish a wonderful fish flavour that I just wished there were more of in the thick soup. The addition of egg stirred into the broth made for a thicker sauce with an extra layer of flavour.

What We Drank: We began with cocktails made from Japanese spirit shochu. To make a sour, the shochu is served with a dash of tonic over ice, and diners are left to squeeze whichever citrus fruit they desire over it - a refreshing cocktail with a unique presentation.

This was followed by an Asahi Black Beer, which takes its colour from the three different Japanese malts used in the fermentation process. This gives it a rich flavour that goes brilliantly with much of the menu, from the salty udon pretzels and kara-age chicken to the umami udon broths. We also tried the sweet Takara Plum Wine, which comes with a light colour and a bold fruity flavour and ended our meal on a high note. 

Likes: Den Udon offers a well thought out menu featuring freshly made udon noodles (made in the premises) with great texture and flavour. Floor Manager Masumi Maeda is passionate about the food, and will help everyone, from experts to novices, to order and understand the restaurant’s menu options.

Dislikes: the timing of the dishes being served needs looking at, the kara-age chicken could have been crispier and my mentaiko udon could have had a tad more mentaiko in it, but apart from these minor glitches, all else was spot on.

Verdict: Den Udon is a lovely new Japanese Diner in Kings Cross offering a wide range of excellent Udon dishes at very competitive prices. Finally, a London Udon restaurant that will not break the bank! Recommended.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Laurent Perrier Champagne Afternoon Tea at Kettners

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector and Luiz Hara

It's a rare joy, afternoon tea. Especially in the dark and gloom of a January evening, when the annoying clatter of detox-fanatics threatens to drown out any thoughts of that simple joy, eating for pleasure. But inside the faded-grandeur of Soho stalwart Kettners, a hidden boudoir swagged in velvet: the Laurent Perrier room.

This is afternoon tea with bling: not just an array of sandwiches, scones and little pastries, but a tasting flight of champagnes, expertly chosen by Laurent Perrier to match each course of food. They're selling it as a chance not just to experience the nuances of flavour - but to try some champagnes that wouldn't normally be within reach.

So along with the usual afternoon tea paraphinalia, there was a special tray holding three glasses, ready for sampling, with Laurent Perrier 'ambassador' Danny Borchert on hand to explain the house style. Think "lightness, freshness and elegance", he declared.

First up, the sandwiches: some decent fillings among them, including chicken, mango and mint and a rather good egg mayonnaise. And the first champagne, a glass of Extra Brut - light and fresh, with just a touch of salt on the finish: an ideal match for those sandwiches.

We moved onto the scone course: I rather like any meal containing a scone course. These would have been even better warm, but were fresh and light, with a slightly sticky strawberry jam and a huge pot of clotted cream. To go with them, what Laurent Perrier calls its iconic champagne - the Cuvee Rose, poured from a magnum. "You should always drink champagne from a magnum", insisted Danny Borchert. "There's less air trapped inside, which keeps it fresher than a bottle".

Kettners does offer magnums of the Cuvee Rose - at around £215 - beyond most budgets. But offering it as part of the afternoon tea flight should make it far more accessible.

The salmon pink fizz glittered prettily in the mellow light: the flavours echo summer fruits, like strawberry and redcurrant, without being overly sweet. An excuse to ladle even more jam onto those scones.

Finally the desserts: a plate piled with delicate creations - a miniature raspberry macaron, a sharp and sweet passion fruit tart, another with strawberry and cream, and my favourite - a millionaire's shortbread which was incredibly messy to eat but worth the effort.

With this, the most expensive champagne of all: you'd need £500 for a whole magnum of the 2004 vintage, made from sun-ripened grapes with a rich, sweet and honeyed flavour, a mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with notes of tropical fruit.

"A wine to be savoured, to enjoy, part of a celebration", said Danny Borchert: on this occasion, a celebration of tiny cakes. In a city with plenty of top-end hotel teas to choose from - this is definitely one for champagne lovers. A taste of vintage luxury, without the need for an oligarch's budget.

The afternoon tea and tasting flight is available at Kettners for £42.50 per person.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Oblix at The Shard

Words and Photos by AGirlHasToEat and Luiz Hara

Name: Oblix

Where: Level 32, The Shard, 31 St. Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY, http://www.oblixrestaurant.com/

Cost: Oblix Lounge & Bar offers various menus depending on the day and time.
During weekdays there is a deli menu priced at £29 for three courses and on weekends the champagne brunch is £58 for three courses. The evening menu is a sharing menu with starter-size plates ranging from £6 to £18.50, seafood dishes from £24 to £38 and meat dishes from £18.50 to £80. 

About: Oblix on the 32nd floor of the Shard offers some of the most spectacular views over Central London that money can buy. Oblix is divided into two sections  - the Restaurant and the Lounge & Bar, both with different menus and different perspectives.

The Restaurant serves a more formal à la carte menu overlooking St Paul’s, whereas the more relaxed Lounge & Bar offers a deli menu during the day, brunch on weekends, and a sharing style menu with wonderful live music in the evenings (comes with a £5 cover charge). From the Lounge & Bar diners have a view over London Bridge and Tower Bridge which dazzles at night.

The mastermind behind Oblix is Rainer Becker, who along with Arjun Waney launched Zuma and Roka, helping to explain the various Asian influences in the Oblix menu. The Executive chef is Fabien Beaufour who previously worked in The States at The French Laundry and Eleven Madison Park, both of which are three Michelin starred restaurants.

What We Ate: AGirlHasToEat and I dined in the Oblix Lounge & Bar and we really enjoyed it’s buzzy ambience and the sultry tones of the live band. We started our meal with some fabulous tidbits from the small bites section of the menu including fried padron peppers (£5.50) and devilled eggs (£3.50 each), both of which were wonderful. The padron peppers had been sprinkled with crispy panko crumbs that gave them a lovely crunchy texture. Accompanying the peppers was a salt and balsamic powder that provided a nice touch of seasoning and an acidic contrast.

The devilled eggs were also gorgeous. Smooth and creamy, they had been topped with slices of aromatic truffle that heightened the flavour of the eggs.

Crispy fried squid with salt and vinegar (£8) was delicious and well seasoned. The squid was tender and the batter was really well made as it was as light as a feather and very crispy.

Also tasty was the crispy soft shell crab (£14.50). The crab was meaty, the batter was crispy, and it came with an interesting combination of kimchi and marinated daikon that gave the dish acidity and a charismatic contrast.

From the raw section, a scallop and seabream ceviche (£18.50) was heavenly. The both scallops and sea bream were very fresh, particularly the scallops which had an intensely sweet flavour. Within the ceviche were crunchy samphire, cucumber and some aromatic dill that added a resounding freshness to the ceviche. There was also a pleasant hit of chilli and crunchy croutons to round out this dish.

Venison tartare with parmesan and truffle (£13) was delicious. The venison was meaty and it combined well with the earthy nuttiness of the parmesan and the aromatic truffle. The use of some lightly toasted pine nuts helped to make this dish special.

We tried two different seafood dishes, the first of which was the lobster with bone marrow, caviar and smoky mash potato (£29).  The mash was a little salty, but even so, the smokiness of the mash, the fattiness of the marrow, and the decadence of the caviar created an electrifying and interesting combination.

A dish of grilled jumbo tiger prawns with grits and bacon (£24) was reasonably tasty. The prawns were sweet and meaty and were served in a gingery sauce. It had been paired with some creamy grits and bacon that proved to be an unusual combination.

White truffle risotto with parmesan and mascarpone (8g of truffle - £40) proved to be a little underwhelming. The risotto was creamy and the rice had an al dente quality to it. But the risotto was also a little runny and could have done with a greater intensity of flavour.

Grilled beef sirloin (250gm - £28) was tender and flavoursome and cooked to the requested medium rare. It was a delicious cut of meat, although the accompanying pickled onions were too acidic and did not work well with the beef.

The highlight dish of the evening was the grilled wagyu tenderloin with truffle jus and shavings of truffle (£80). It was a glorious plate of food with the wagyu being lusciously fatty, tender and perfectly cooked. The combination of this succulent piece of meat with the wonderful jus and slivers of truffles was amazing.

Moving onto desserts, we really enjoyed the sweet potato pie (£8.50). The filling was creamy with an earthy quality to it and there was a topping of pecan nuts, pine nuts and sweet bacon that added a crunchy contrast to the pie. The accompanying bourbon ice cream also worked well in the dessert.

Less enjoyable was the doughnuts with bacon and a maple and caramel sauce (£6). The doughnuts were a little dense, and a fluffier and lighter texture would have worked better.

The pineapple colada sundae (£9) was a winning pudding and tasted similar to a frozen pina colada. Consisting of rum jelly, fresh pineapple, coconut sorbet, coconut crumble and lime zest, the combination of flavours matched perfectly together. There were also some flaked almonds running through the sundae that provided a lovely touch of crunchiness.  This was a really enjoyable finish to our meal.

What We Drank: AGirlHasToEat and I started our evening with a couple of well made cocktails (all priced at £12.50 or £14.50 for sparkling ones) – mine was an interesting take on the favourite Negroni – made with Habanero mezcal tequila (as opposed to gin), Campari and sweet vermouth, it had a refreshing bitterness from the Campari and was strong as I hoped. AGirlHasToEat opted for an aromatic concoction of lavender vodka, lychee bitters and bitten egg whites which was also expertly made and not too sweet.

These were followed by another round of cocktails, this time the house one – “The Betsy Theory” (£16.50) – made from rye whisky, tobacco, cacao liqueur with mint and peach bitters. Beautifully presented, this cocktail was inspired by the story of Betsy Flanagan, a publican who was thought to have invented the “cocktail” in the 1700s in Virginia.  She used to decorate her alcoholic drinks with tail feathers of roosters, hence the name given today to our loved “cocktails”.

We our meal, we had a couple of glasses of Kistler Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2006 from Sonoma (175ml/£39 a glass). A superb wine, this was intense, full bodied and with notes of citrus fruits and melon, and was a perfect match to most seafood dishes we tried.

With our steaks we had two glasses of Barboursville Cabernet Franc 2010 (£16) also from American but this time from Virginia, it had soft tannins, dark red fruit and excellent length.

Spetacular Views from Oblix, The Shard's 32nd Floor

Likes: the crispy squid was a great dish as were the venison tartare, the scallop ceviche and the wagyu steak among others. Service was impeccable, and together with the dimmed lighting, the live jazz music and incredible views they made for a fantastic ambience.

Dislikes: we wish there were a few more affordable options on the food and drinks menu.

Verdict: Oblix is the sort of place that makes you feel like a million dollars and we loved it! The food is great, the cocktails are strong and the London views are second to none. We cannot wait to return. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Le Coq – Islington’s New Neighbourhood Rotisserie

Words & Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: Le Coq 

Where: 292-294 St Paul’s Road, Islington, London, N1 2LH 

Cost: Le Coq offers a brief and affordable menu - 2 or 3 courses for £17 or £22 (Mon-Sat) with a choice of three starters and three desserts, and a single main course, using chicken from the rotisserie (a vegetarian alternative is available if requested). On Sundays, a greater choice of mains is available, and the meals are priced higher at £21 for 2-, and £26 for 3 courses. 

Drinks are also very reasonably priced. All cocktails are £5, the draught beer, 1936, is £4, and wine begins at £13 for a ½ litre carafe.

About: Le Coq is a “neighbourhood rotisserie restaurant” on St Paul’s Road, close to Highbury & Islington Station. As its name suggests, chicken is at the heart of this restaurant’s offering. The flaming rotisserie is the first thing you see on entering, and the familiar smell of roasting chicken fills the small dining room.

Though the menu is short, Le Coq emphasises that its ingredients are carefully sourced. The free-range chicken is supplied by the highly acclaimed Sutton Hoo farm in Suffolk. Living up to the restaurant’s market atmosphere, many of the other ingredients are sourced from local businesses. The noticeably fresh bread comes from the Better Health Bakery in Haggerston, a social enterprise that helps to train people recovering from poor mental health. The charcuterie comes from Islington’s Cobble Lane Cured, and the cheese from the long-established La Fromagerie.

What We Ate: We started with two of the three starters on the menu: roast chicory with smoked ricotta and honey, and salmon gravlax with cucumber. The chicory salad brought the smokiness of the ricotta and the tartness of the chicory together with sweet walnuts and honey. This enjoyable combination could have been improved by a little more honey and ricotta, to avoid the lingering bitterness of the chicory, however.

The salmon gravlax was simpler and better executed. The salmon was soft, and the salad of cucumber and rocket brought out the sharpness of the simple lemon dressing, making it a great prelude to the rotisserie chicken.

That rotisserie chicken is the restaurant’s star attraction. It is served as part of a different main course each week, and on this occasion was served with hispi cabbage, bacon and hazelnuts. A small jug of roasting juices and a pot of tarragon mayonnaise were also served alongside it, and we ordered a further two sides of roast potatoes (£3.75), a simple side salad of dressed green leaves (£2.75) and a small serving of harissa yoghurt (£1.75).

The flavoursome Sutton Hoo chicken is undeniably well-sourced and tastes excellently of itself. Its flavour is also appreciated in the roast potatoes, which are roasted in the chicken fat, and seasoned with lemon, olive oil and thyme. The addition of the chicken fat gives them a thicker casing that resounds with the flavours of the rotisserie. No trip to Le Coq would be complete without a portion!

One of the downsides of serving rotisserie chicken is that it is difficult to achieve a really crispy chicken skin. Le Coq compensates for this, however, by supplying texture throughout the rest of the course. The sizeable chunk of hispi cabbage was crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, and never mushy. Extra crunch came from the hazelnuts and bacon, and of course the roast potatoes, which were so delicious they made it onto every forkful!

Texture was better catered to than seasoning. Whilst the roasting juices provided a flavoursome gravy that kept the dish from having the heaviness of a roast dinner, the tarragon mayonnaise was tangy rather than rich in flavour, and jarred with the rest of the course. The harissa yoghurt was a better accompaniment, but the absence of salt and pepper on the table meant that it was difficult to make smaller adjustments to the taste. 

For dessert, we shared the Le Coq Mince Pie and an ice cream made with dark chocolate, PX and raisin. The eponymous mince pie was served with clotted cream and a squirrel-shaped biscuit, and the mincemeat itself tasted strongly of cloves, giving a festive aroma and warm flavour that reflected the homeliness of Le Coq’s cooking.

The dark chocolate gave a similarly strong flavour to the ice cream. With Moro’s famous Malaga raisin ice cream with PX available down the road at Exmouth Market, Le Coq’s faces strict competition. The dark chocolate makes this a very different dessert, and though it smothers the raisins, it stands up to the PX to make a very rich ice cream. 

What We Drank: Le Coq’s dedication to careful sourcing extends to the beer, the Swiss 1936. At a reasonable £4 for a Pilsner glass, it is a great opportunity to try this uncommon beer from draught. Made with Swiss mountain water and organic hops, and with notes of lemon and grass, it is both a refreshing aperitif, and a good accompaniment to the restaurant’s chicken.

Cocktails are only £5, and the negroni we tried was strong and well made, making it fantastic value and almost certainly the cheapest negroni around Upper Street.

Wine is similarly good value, and the decision to offer house wines in carafes of 500ml and 1 litre will undoubtedly help to maintain the neighbourhood atmosphere. We went for a bottle of the Wiengut Von Winning 2012 Riesling from Pfalz in Germany. That year, this wine was awarded ‘Best New Comer’ by the Gault&Millau Wine Guide, and with its refreshingly acidity and dryness, it tasted like a worthy winner.

Likes: The quality of the chicken and the brilliance of the roast potatoes mean that Le Coq definitely excels in what they offer. In addition, the choice of £5 cocktails and litre carafes are an added bonus.

Dislikes: Whilst the more permanent fixtures of the menu are strong, some of the dishes we had lacked consistency - the imbalance of the chicory salad, and the lack of salt in the main course, were a little disappointing. 

Verdict: “Neighbourhood rotisserie” Le Coq truly is an asset to the local community. With well-sourced ingredients and a reliable roasting technique alongside a constantly changing menu, it could make a regular haunt or a friendly haven from nearby Upper Street. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Foodie Pilgrimage in Campania, Italy

Having recently spent a blissful week on the Amalfi Coast of Italy (reviewed here and here), I was thrilled to return to the region by invitation of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) on a foodie expedition to learn about some of Campania’s produce.

A region of great beauty and contrasts, Campania, on the southwestern tip of Italy has edgy Naples at its heart, ancient Pompeii nearby, as well as some of the most luxurious summer retreats on the Amalfi coast and Capri, where artists, celebrities and well-healed travellers have flocked for decades.

Life is a Beach!

A culinary and agricultural powerhouse, the region supplies some of the country’s sweetest tomatoes, the best buffalo mozzarella and burrata cheeses, as well as being host to the cities of Gragnano and Naples, the Italian capital of artisan pasta and the birthplace of pizza respectively.

A cheese platter from Campania - buffalo mozzarella, burrata, trecce

A wine-producing region, Campania is also famed for its native grapes, making for elegant whites including Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, as well as the aromatic Falanghina. It also produces hearty reds made from the native Aglianico grape.

The main purpose of our visit to Campania was to learn about the production process of peeled Italian tomatoes, from the farm to the consumer. We visited two major Italian tinned tomato producers – La Doria (www.gruppoladoria.com) and Calispa (www.calispa.it). At Calispa, we were taken into the production line for their Nobile range of peeled tomatoes.

The process is for the most part automated, from washing the fruit to de-stemming and peeling. The stage which requires the most care and attention is the final selection, which highly trained local Italian women have done for generations.

The sheer quantity of tomatoes being processed was staggering, but not surprising considering that Italy is the second largest producer of tinned tomatoes in the world, behind only California. Sixty percent of the Italian production is exported to Europe, with the UK luckily being one of the largest importers.

There are few tomato-based pasta dishes I can imagine making without using Italian tinned tomatoes, because they are harvested at the peak of their ripeness and flavour, they will make the richest sauces. Peeled tomatoes are one of the pillars of Italian cooking, and without them, there would be no pasta or pizza.

At Calispa, we tried their premium range of peeled tomatoes, Nobile, including the highly regarded San Marzano plum tomatoes, considered by many chefs to be the best in the world. Indeed the San Marzano were sweeter and more intense in flavour than the other varietals I tried, and I can’t think of another peeled tomato I would rather use for pasta sauces today.

To experience for ourselves some of the local peeled tomatoes, a magnificent dinner was held at the seafood restaurant Mare Nostrum (www.ristorantemarenostrum.it) in Salerno. Tomatoes were featured in every course including dessert – a refreshing San Marzano tomato ice cream, accompanied by a Baba of tomato cream and a confit of pachino tomatoes!

San Marzano Tomato Ice Cream

Another interesting visit was to the Syngenta Research Institute (www.syngenta.com), where we met some of the people behind the eye-opening work being carried out there. In Italy, Syngenta has around 400 employees mostly in R&D, where they study among other projects, different methods of helping rural communities increase farming productivity in sustainable ways.

Tomato Crop Research at Syngenta

Syngenta was followed by a visit and lunch at Agriturismo Al Celone, Foggia (www.alcelone.it). Agriturismos are essentially holiday-letting properties on Italian farms, either as part of the farmer's house or in a separate building in the farm grounds.  They are usually better value than hotels and are set in some of the most beautiful parts of the Italian countryside, but best of all, they are generally foodie places offering excellent meals, including lots of produce from the farm itself, and from the locality.

The Agriturismo Al Celone was quite a large, recently restored property with four bedrooms and three dining rooms, set in a farm on the outskirts of the town of Foggia.  This makes it a convenient base for visits to Campania, but is also very close to the plains of Puglia, the Gargano National Park and the Appenine mountains.

Lunch was a simple but delicious affair, starting with a selection of antipasti, including tomatoes over grilled bread, some fantastic cheeses and cold meats, followed by Orechietti pasta.

PDO Burrata of Campania
For me, one of the most interesting visits was to "Mail" – a traditional producer of buffalo mozzarella (www.caseificiomail.it), owned by the Raimondo family.

Buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of the domestic Italian water buffalo, and is traditionally produced in Campania (which has had its own PDO or Protected Designation of Origin since 1993), and particularly in the provinces of Caserta and Salerno.

It is not entirely clear how water buffalo ended up in Italy (one theory is that the Arabs introduced them to Sicily, and then the Norman kings moved them in around 1,000 AD to southern Italy, initially as work animals). They have certainly been there for many centuries, and cheese has been made from buffalo milk in Campania since at least the twelfth century.

A special feature of the milk is its richness - to produce 1kg of cheese, 5 kg of buffalo milk is required, compared with 8kg of cows milk. A litre of buffalo milks costs three times the price of cow’s milk. On this visit, we saw the whole production process from milk heating, to curdling, curd maturation, spinning, shaping and packaging.

Particularly magnificent is the PDO burrata of Campania (burrata meaning 'buttered') - a stupendous fresh cheese with an outer solid shell of mozzarella, and a centre of creamy fior di latte. This cheese has become a staple in any decent Italian restaurant in London, but unfortunately it does not travel well, and it is hard to find anything in the UK as unctuously rich and flavoursome as the burrata I ate at Mail.  (Incidentally, the best I have had in London was at the restaurant Quattro Passi, reviewed here).

Close to Mail is the 80 hectare buffalo farm Agricola Filippo Morese (www.caseificiotavernapenta.it), where we had the opportunity to learn some interesting facts about the beasts, as well as seeing them close up and personal.

Owned by the Morese family since 1694, today the farm has 600 buffalo kept in modern stables, with several hectares of grassland for grazing. It has a yoghurt bar for visitors, situated in the ancient courtyard at Taverna Penta. Guided tours by the owner, Filippo Morese, or his Swedish wife Flavia are available by prior arrangement.

At Pizzeria Tenuta Antica Braceria (Cava de' Tirreni (SA) 84013
Via Vitale A., tel 0894689378) in the little hamlet of Sant' Anna II, 6 miles northwest of Salerno, we were given a pizza-making demonstration, including the use of peeled tomatoes as a base sauce.

The pizzeria produced some of the best pizze I have eaten anywhere - all their pizza bases are left to prove for 24 hours before being stretched out, topped with the most flavoursome local ingredients, and of course incomparable tomato sauce, before being whacked into a wood-fired oven. This is a gem of a place, relatively undiscovered (it does not have a website), and I highly recommend a visit if you are in Campania.

From pizza to pasta, the demonstration was followed by a visit to Pastificio Di Martino (www.pastadimartino.com), one of the oldest and most famous pasta manufacturers in Gragnano, the capital of artisan pasta in Italy. Here, we met Guiseppe Di Martino, the third generation of the family and the current owner.

Pasta has been produced in Gragnano for over 500 years, and is considered by Italian chefs to be the country's finest. Indeed it was granted its own PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) quality designation by the EU in 2013.

So what makes Gragnano pasta better than pasta from other parts of Italy? Gragnano producers are thought to have become so expert in the pasta making because of several factors unique to the town. One is that, before the advent of modern heaters, Gragnano had just the right combination of salty sea breezes and sunshine to provide the perfect conditions for drying pasta outdoors. Today, this is reflected in the lower temperatures and longer drying times (50 to 65°C for 18 to 80 hours depending on the shape) compared with the rest of Italy (80 to 100°C for 4 hours).

A second reason is that Gragnano pasta is made exclusively from the Senatore Cappelli durum wheat semolina native to southern Italy, giving a unique flavour and a higher percentage of protein than any other pasta in the country.

Moreover, the combination of low temperature drying and high protein content gives rise to pasta with stronger walls. As the hydroscopic starch cells absorb water, they push out the walls of the pasta, but since these are strong from the high protein content and slow drying, they will not easily break but remain al dente during cooking. 

Finally, the slow extrusion through a bronze die used in Gragnano gives rise to a roughened surface, ideal for holding the pasta sauce and flavours.

Pastificio Di Martino produces huge quantities of pasta, of which 80% is exported, including an own-brand Tesco variety (Lumache shape for 89p, buy it here) we saw being labelled up during our visit, so look out for Gragnano pasta at your local supermarket.

The closing event of the trip was a cooking show and superb dinner at the Citta' del Gusto Napoli del Gambero Rosso (www.gamberorosso.it), featuring one-Michelin-starred chef Raffaele Vitale of Casa del Nonno13 (www.casadelnonno13.it) in nearby Sant’Eustachio di Mercato San Severino.

Chef Rafaelle Vitale

We learned how to make the local PGI Gragnano pasta in three different styles - bucatini pizzaiola style with cherry tomatoes, mezzi canneroni lisci with peeled tomatoes and basil, and finally ziti with Neapolitan ragu sauce.

The mezzi canneroni lisci, despite being the simplest pasta dish, was to me the most interesting. The pasta was cooked in water for only two minutes, then transferred to a simple sauce of peeled tomatoes, basil, olive oil and salt, where it was cooked for a few minutes more. Cooked in this way, the pasta absorbed the highly flavoured tomato sauce, and was outstanding.

Dinner featured the finest produce of Campania, served with elegant simplicity and accompanied by local wines from Villa Raiano (www.villaraiano.com).

Tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella was followed by a delectable aubergine parmigiana cooked individually in jars – one of Chef Raffaele Vitale’s signature dishes.

Having opted for a later flight, I had most of the last day to explore Salerno on my own before returning to the UK (this consisted mainly in researching all the town’s restaurants for my final lunch).

The lovely main town of the Amalfi coast, Salerno is a great spot to spend a few days, with a beautiful seafront promenade, the Castello di Arechi and the magnificent Duomo all worthy of a visit.

The seafood restaurant L'Unico (http://www.lunicoristorante.it/), near the Duomo, came highly recommended, and this is where I headed for my last meal in Campania. This is a simple restaurant serving a selection of excellent Mediterranean dishes at reasonable prices. The outdoor courtyard in front of the restaurant is a nice place to sit and enjoy your meal whilst people watching.

I started with a couple of antipasti – fried anchovies stuffed with scamorza cheese and mint (€8) got proceedings off to a good start with a ½ litre carafe of a light and fruity Falanghina, produced by A. Sammarco (€7). The combination of cheese and fish worked well in this dish, which goes to show that deep-rooted culinary rules are there to be challenged.

This was followed by a platter of well-made, flavoursome roast courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese (€6).

For main, I opted for Spaghettone al Riccio di Mare or sea urchin pasta (€12). The sea urchin was very fresh and made into a creamy lemony sauce - this was a brilliant dish and one that warrants a visit to L’Unico on its own right. I enjoyed my meal at L’Unico and would recommend it to anyone visiting Salerno.

Writing this post, I am reminded of how much I experienced and learnt about Campania’s superb produce – its preserved peeled tomatoes (San Marzano especially), buffalo mozzarella and burrata, the wonderful pasta of Gragnano and not least, the outstanding pizze of Naples and the region as a whole. I came away from this trip with a deeper understanding of the provenance and quality of these ingredients, and will be looking to incorporate them in my cooking repertoire in the UK.

Special thanks to the Italian Trade Agency, Antica Pasta di Gragnano and the Associazione Nazionale Industriali Conserve Alimentari Vegetali and Citta del Gusto for hosting this trip.

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