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Friday, 28 June 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Italy - South Tyrol

Why we Brits should holiday in South Tyrol

Words & Photography by Simeen Kadi

I have just spent four divine days in South Tyrol and didn't come across a single Brit. There were tourists, of course, but of other varieties - mainly from neighbouring Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Even Americans. So, are we Brits missing out? I certainly think so.

South Tyrol, or Alto Adige, to give it its Italian name, is Italy's northern-most province and, from what I remember of my GSCE History, one that was handed over to Italy after the First World War, confiscated off Austria for bad behaviour. Today it is a pleasing, if a little disorientating, blend of the two cultures and languages, with German the predominant language and a more Latin sensitivity enlivening the scene.

Bolzano is the northern most city in Italy and capital of the South Tyrol region. Nestled in a valley ringed by the Dolomites, it is both the hottest and the coldest city in Italy.

A few days in this beautiful area is as good an antidote to brain-frying, eye-straining, teeth-clenching urban living as you will get. Especially, if you can't cut the strings of city life completely and need to be within pouring distance of a Negroni at all times.

Bolzano is a bustling, cultured town nestled in a valley and crowned by rolling hills of vines and apple orchards. There are great restaurants, mediaeval, cobbled streets and several museums to explore in the town centre itself.

There are said to be over 800 castles in the South Tyrol region (not that I was counting) and a few of them are right in town - like this one, which is a ten minute walk from Bolzano's main square and is surrounded by vineyards.

Waltherplatz, the central square is ringed by restaurants and outdoor terraces which are perfect for an afternoon Aperol Spritz and some people-watching. South Tyrol is the Italian province with the most Michelin stars - a total of 17. Not bad for a region with a population of just over half a million - although that does swell at the weekends when the Milanese drive up and the Swiss and Germans drive down for languid lakeside lunches and scenic bike rides through the vineyards.

You could spend your days ambling gently through cobbled streets, soaking up the sun by the beautiful Caldaro lake or even taking the steep, 20 minute cable car ride up to Ritten (Renon in Italian) a nearby hill station, made famous and fashionable by Austria's Empress Sissi in the mid 19th century. Here, fabulous summer homes cling to the emerald hills clad in wines and apple trees. The Park Hotel Holzner has views of splendour and food to match in a rambling classic Alpine country house.

The dumplings and ravioli stuffed with in-season White Asparagus and prawns are light and delicate.

I also enjoyed roast chicken with summer truffles and lavender.

And the most beautiful construction involving rhubarb and chocolate I have ever seen. Tasted amazing, too.

Back down in the valley in Bolzano, the Park Hotel Laurin has all the charm of a fin-de-siecle grand dame that has seen plenty of opulence, extravagance and even scandal but won't be telling. The gardens are lush and hold plenty of hideaways furnished with lounges and hammocks to bliss out for an hour or two.

In the evening the buzzy poolside bar gets lively, as does the beautiful, high-ceilinged main bar, lined with frescoes and manned by beautiful staff.

The restaurant is all about fine dining, whether it is lunch on the terrace or a long dinner in the elegant dining room. I had the silky, creamy inside of mozzarella - here even chewing on the skin is too much like hard work.

Beef Tartare comes topped with summer truffles and with a hillock of smoked butter to smother over the warm, caraway-flecked bread.

The following day provided a chance to explore the region's wineries. While only accounting for about 0.5% of Italy's wine output, the wines of South Tyrol punch way above their weight in terms of quality and awards. Vines have been found here from pre-Roman times and Pliny the Elder even wrote of his surprise at finding a long history of winemaking in the area. In later times, many monasteries in the region were highly regarded winemakers and, more recently, Archduke Johann of Austria brought modern viticulture techniques to the region in the mid 1800s and introduced the classic varieties of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc; today some of the most widely cultivated grapes here.

Winemaking in this region begins with cultivating and harvesting grapes on the steep slopes of the hills that give this area its distinctive character. Some of these slopes are near vertical and the only option, come harvest time, is hand picking. And, with some of the vines planted at altitudes as high as 3000 ft, this is no mean feat.

Rottensteiner is a small, family affair right in Bolzano, with vineyards stretching up into the hills from the suburban street. Run by a young couple with great plans, production is about 450,000 bottles a year of both whites and reds. Here, reds are given pride of place, unusual in a region where much of the cultivation is of white wine. Hannes Rottensteiner is committed to crafting great wines from local red grape varieties. Lagrein and St Magdalener (also known as Schiava or Vernatsch) have long been cultivated in the region and sold primarily as wines for blending. The last 20 years has seen something of a renaissance for these hard-working local varieties and Rottensteiner is leading the way with his beautifully balanced, soft and light St Magdalener Premstallerhof and his deep purple Lagrein Grieser Riserva Select, all dark chocolate and cherry with rounded tannins and a smooth, long finish. And, best of all, you can enjoy them right here in rainy old London as The Winery in Maida Vale is lucky enough to nab a few cases. http://www.thewineryuk.com.

Terlan is a large winery in comparison, with a sleek tasting room and vast cellars. Making wine since 1893 in Terlano, a few miles from Bolzano in its own valley, this is a cooperative representing over 220 winegrowers, many of whom are hobby farmers.

The difference here, I am told, is in the terroirs. The soil in Terlano is a volcanic rock of quartz and red porphyry while the surrounding hills are typical Dolomite limestone. This gives Terlan’s white wines, which make up 70% of their wine, a flinty, mineral richness which needs only a little help from oak ageing. This was evident in their top flight Sauvignon Blanc – the Selection Quartz. A kilogram of grapes yields only one bottle of this voluminous, lingering wine from vines that grow up to 800 ft in the surrounding hills.

The Weissburgunder Vorberg Riserva is 100% Pinot Blanc grown at gradients of up to 70% and hand harvested. A year spent in large oak barrels delivers a crisp and lively wine with a good balance of acidity and a little softness from the malolactic fermentation. The Pinot Blanc grown here is more straw coloured than the classic pale wine that is more common in Europe.

The Terlaner Classico is their best selling wine – a fresh, peachy blend of 60% Pinot Blanc with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc making up the balance.

Terlaner wines are available in the UK from Astrum Wine Cellars http://www.astrumwinecellars.com/

And so, back to the food. South Tyrol is something of a gourmet's destination, not surprising given its Michelin stars. And, as it is asparagus season, every restaurant had the white spears of forced asparagus on the menu. White asparagus is bigger and more fibrous than the green asparagus we are used to here in the UK. A similar flavour, but more subtle and, to my mind, not as good. But, that didn't mean I passed up a single opportunity to eat it, whether stuffed in ravioli with speck and a garnish of green asparagus.

Or steamed in stock and served simply with cooked ham.

And now a word on speck. Speck is South Tyrol's answer to cured ham and it is known throughout Italy and beyond for its high quality, coming from happy pigs living on green hills with a natural diet and plenty of fresh, mountain air. It is not as salty as similar hams from Austria, for example, and has a softer texture. And you can go one better by getting hold of some Bauernspeck, a real local speciality with better marbling of the delicately flavoured fat giving it a sweeter, richer flavour.

I tried all manner of speck at the South Tyrol Gourmet Festival, held in the centre of Bolzano over the last weekend. Bustling with people speaking both German and Italian and chock full of opportunities to sample local specialities from breads to single varietal grappa, this is a great opportunity to try some of the best produce from artisan makers and large producers alike. http://www.gourmetfestival.it/en/home.html.

Try the Gewutztraminer Grappa from a small distiller committed to producing the finest grappas, a spirit that originates not far from South Tyrol.

Other delights included Sauerkraut soup, served in a bread bowl and far more delicious than a photo could ever express, and some great breads, including the local Schuttelbrot, a crisp rye sourdough flatbread flecked with fennel and caraway seeds.

South Tyrolean food is an amalgam of cultures where tortelloni and knodel feature in the same menu, winningly combining heady Mediterranean flavours with more robust Germanic cooking. A memorable meal at Gretl am See in Caldaro (Kaltern in German) http://www.gretlamsee.com was an eight course feast, three of which were enjoyed on the deck overlooking the magical lake, with excellent Caldaro wines, regarded throughout Italy as some of the country’s best.

Almond and Courgette soup came with a fritter of courgette flower and a burrata foam.

Calf’s Shoulder was slow cooked to meltingly soft and anointed with a herb crust.

The petits fours tray (which arrived after we had already enjoyed two desserts) was laden with delicate biscuits and pastries.

From the many wines served to match each course, a couple stood out from the descending fug of overindulgence.

2010 Erste & Neue Kellerei Blauburgunder "Mezzan" is a ripe and rounded expression of the indigenous Blauburgunder grape from this winery which has been a stalwart of the Kaltern wine industry for over 100 years.

Manincor has its winery right next door to the restaurant and its Tannenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is mineral-rich yet soft, a result of time spent on lees. Available in London from www.goedhuis.com.

But it’s not just wine flowing down the rolling dolomite hills of South Tyrol. The beer industry isn’t much to speak of, although some craft beers are slowly emerging. It’s the apples grown throughout this region that are gaining acclaim. Grown at a high altitude, the fruit is crisp and the temperature variations during the growing season result in a juicy, sweet fruit. Thomas Kohl is leading the way from his orchards high up in the hills surrounding Bolzano, with his single varietal, crafted apple juices. Kohl juices are created with much the same care and deference as any wine, with the fruit pressed on the day it is picked and pastuerised at low temperatures to retain as much as possible of its fresh flavour.

Of the many varieties I tried the Kohl Rouge was both surprising and delicious. Made from red mountain apples whose flesh is also red (as are the tree’s leaves, bark and blossoms) it produces a tart, tangy and very refreshing juice that goes well with food. Kohl juices are not currently available in the UK so you will just have to make the trip to try them.

South Tyrol was both astonishingly beautiful and a real gastro treat. Whether you are hiking the many trails to a hearty meal at a bierstube or nursing a glass of classy Lagrein on a sunny square in the middle of town, there is much to beguile and detain you at every turn.

The South Tyrol Marketing Group runs a network of tourist information offices throughout the region http://www.suedtirol.info/en/

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Blowing My Own Trumpet

I am thrilled to learn that The London Foodie has been listed as one of the Best 50 Food Websites by Sophie Morris for The Independent last Friday. You can see Sophie's article here.

I would like to thank the other contributors to the site - Simeen Kadi, Felicity Spector, Su-Lin Ong and Marina Benjamin who have been helping me a great deal to make The London Foodie an up-to-date source of interesting food and travel reads. More about these contributors in the "About Me" page.

I have also been asked to be the resident food-writer for Heathrow Express and will be writing a series of articles named "London Life - Food by Luiz Hara" which will include my London foodie recommendations in the months to come.

For my June/July suggestions, check the Heathrow Express website here.

Monday, 24 June 2013

London Restaurant Reviews - Bibigo


Where: 58-59 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7JY, info@bibigouk.com, tel: 020 7042 5225, http://bibigouk.com/

Cost: £25-£30 per person on average for a 3-course meal excluding drinks (starters priced from £4 to £8, main courses from £7 to £20, and desserts all priced at £5). There are 2-course lunch and dinner sets available at £9 and £12 respectively. Korea's national dish, Bibimbap served on a hot stone plate is priced at £9.

About: Led by head chef, Kim Yong Hwan (previously at Roka and Zuma), Bibigo in Soho is the European flagship restaurant for CJ, Korea's biggest food company. As well as being a 66 cover restaurant and cocktail bar, it also stocks a range of Bibigo Korean food products. Bibigo has several sister restaurants in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, China, Vietnam and Los Angeles, which focus on serving Bibimbap and other national dishes of Korea, at affordable prices.

The London branch is a modern, stylish restaurant on Great Marlborough Street, a stone's throw from Carnaby Street.  The busy open-plan kitchen is a spectacle for those who like watching the chefs in action. On the midweek evening we were there, it was packed with a mix of Korean and western clientele.

Spotlessly clean, open-plan kitchen at Bibigo

What We Ate: The new menu at Bibigo is well designed, every dish is beautifully photographed making it easier for those not too familiar with the cuisine to order their food. Most importantly, it is surprisingly affordable.

We started with a Bibigo Salad (£8), a lovely mix of fig, persimmon, baby spinach, fried lotus roots, cos lettuce and crispy rice crackers (nurungji), seasoned with a dressing made from bokbunja berry. This signature salad had a good combination of fruit and salad flavours, along with an interesting texture from the crunchy lotus roots and nurungji.

The Red Chicken (£6) was one of my favourite dishes of the meal - deep-fried chicken pieces seasoned with a red, kohot sauce were crunchy, sweet and spicy and totally moreish. They were served with deep fried tempura(ed) okra.  I am ordering two portions of this in my next visit!

Japchae (£6), one of Korea's most popular dishes, could not be missed. The delicious stir-fried glass noodles had a lovely sesame-charred flavour from the hot wok it was fried in, it was served with spinach, onion, pepper and thin slices of beef.

The Grilled Scallop with Truffle Yuja Dressing (£9) was another favourite. Fetchingly presented, this combined nicely seared scallops seasoned with a dressing made from the Korean citrus fruit - yuja (or yuzu in Japanese) and spiced, smoked pollock roe which had a similar taste to Japanese mentaiko, an ingredient I cannot have enough of.

The Beef steak Hache (£14) was a generous portion of char-grilled hand chopped short rib beef served with grilled rice cakes glazed with ginger and soy sauce . This was very good - the beef having the spicy- smoky, barbecued flavour I remember from similar dishes I tried in my latest visit to Seoul, and again it was well presented.

We had the beef with a Ssam Basket (£2), wrapped up in lettuce leaves and seasoned with kimchi, pickled cucumbers and soy bean dip.

For pudding Dr G and I shared a couple of their sweet offerings - we started with the Bibigo Goldfish (£5) - Goldfish shaped Korean waffle filled with red bean cream, very similar in presentation and flavour to the Japanese Taiyaki, served with almond crumble and vanilla ice cream.

We also had Hoddeok (£5) - a traditional sweet Korean pancake with vanilla ice cream which was equally nice.

What We Drank: We were pleasantly surprised by the wine choices and reasonable mark-ups on Bibigo's wine list, devised by the resident French sommelier Raphael Thierry. The restaurant also offers an interesting range of soju cocktails.

For this meal, we shared a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet Domain de Lauriers 2011 (£22).  We felt that the crisp, fresh acidity and minerality of the Picpoul were a good partner for the Korean dishes we had. At £22 this is well priced considering it retails online for about £8-9.

Likes: A stylish location for well-presented, reasonably priced authentic Korean food. Commendably, Bibigo has its own resident French sommelier, Raphael Thierry, the man behind the excellent range of wines of all prices available on the menu. The deep-fried red chicken and seared scallops with yuja and Korean mentaiko dishes are a must.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Fresh, delicious and affordable Korean food in a stylish, modern restaurant in Central London. Great wine list. I cannot wait to return. Highly recommended.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Breakfast at Holiday Inn's

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

I’ve got an open mind. I do a lot of food judging. So when I was invited to try out the Holiday Inn’s new “award winning” breakfast menu, I decided to embrace the opportunity. In fact, they were keen to throw in an overnight stay so I could enjoy the full experience. And so I finished dinner, packed a small overnight bag and set off on the 38 bus towards Green Park and the flagship Mayfair branch.

Even at 11.30pm, the reception staff were warm and friendly: it wasn’t busy, they told me, so I could have an upgrade to a “King Executive” room. Despite the slightly creaky floors and swirly carpet décor, the room was huge, and spotless, with a brilliant view overlooking the Ritz.

There was an intriguing pillow menu, and a free bar of Kit Kat Chunky, in case I got peckish, although if you want to use the hotel wi-fi, there’s a £16 connection charge.

But it was the breakfast I’d come for, and as part of my exhaustive research I’d even watched a video about it on the Holiday Inn website, complete with sceptical young child who is eventually won over by the special pancake making machine: “NOW I’m impressed.”

Ben, the restaurant manager, was immediately welcoming, offering to take me on a tour of the breakfast offerings. There was the usual hotel fare: bowls of cut up melon and grapefruit, a basket of croissants and bread rolls, various boxes of cereal and some dishes of bacon, sausage, and scrambled egg sitting rather wanly on a hotplate. Your best bet for hot food would be the omelettes and poached eggs, which are made freshly to order. I tried some melon, which was fine - although it would be nice to see some more seasonal fruit. I liked the mini pain aux raisins, though, which was buttery and fresh.

However the real buzz was on the other side of the buffet table. There was a small queue of children forming at the pancake machine, so naturally I joined them, pressing a button on the side of the contraption while it whirred away. Eventually a couple of scotch pancakes sort of popped out of the end and onto a waiting plate, where you could douse them in golden syrup or chocolate sauce depending on the level of sugar rush you were after. They were perhaps a little sweet for my taste, but the children in the room seemed to be enjoying the whole experience, which presumably kept their parents happy too.

The service at breakfast, like the rest of the hotel, was excellent, and I was offered as many cups of Starbucks coffee as I wanted - even a takeaway cup for my journey to work.

I was still curious, though, so I called the trade association Midas which bestowed the best breakfast award, and asked them what made the Holiday Inn stand out. They conjured up an image of legions of secret diners, sampling hotel breakfasts across the land, heaping praise on the menu range and innovation. The pancake machine, it seems, is what won it: anything which impresses a sceptical seven year old, must be worthy of an award.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Sweetness and Light at 30 Euston Square

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

Five floors below, the harassed commuters come and go: yet on the roof terrace of 30 Euston Square, with expansive views across London‘s skyline, it seems a million miles away from traffic jams and bus fumes and passengers cramming onto overcrowded trains. Instead, the building showcases a cool, deliberately urban design: rooms flooded with light, and carefully restored tiled walls and stairways mixing the original architecture with something far more modern.

It has taken £20 million to transform this Grade II listed building into a luxurious venue, complete with grand state rooms which can cater banquets for more than 200 people. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) is already in the building: there are even exam rooms for putative GPs. Elsewhere, there's a range of different break-out areas, meeting spaces, and private dining rooms, along with high-spec overnight accommodation, with 41 boutique style bedrooms. This isn’t just a business venue: you can hire it for a wedding - the state rooms and roof terrace, for example, cost around £3,000 for a day, while smaller meeting rooms begin at just £300.

And there’s an added benefit to this space: all profits go right back to the RCGP to help their cutting-edge work in patient care.

The catering, including a café which is open to the public, is all run by Searcys, and they were in charge of the food and drink at the launch event which we were invited to.

In the basement, where a huge 300 seat auditorium was playing the movie Avatar to an audience of one, a chef was hand carving a huge ham as part of a mini charcuterie platter, complete with chunks of house-made black pudding scotch egg, piccalilli, and some Shropshire blue cheese.

We took our charcuterie dishes up to the top floor, to investigate the state rooms, where portraits of past presidents of the RCGP gazed down from the walls. The launch event food was far superior to the usual range of canapés  we enjoyed some crisp salmon burgers with pesto on a brioche bun and potato rosti with spiced aubergine, before discovering some more chefs, who created beautiful little portions of sea bass with soused vegetables, and a beetroot and heritage tomato salad with micro cress, made to order.

Back in the main room, we were transfixed by a vast display of desserts, which seemed to be constantly replenished. We tried one of everything: a fabulous profiterole filled with chocolate mousse and a glossy ganache. A shot glass of pana-cotta with a layer of berry compote and a fresh raspberry. A tart with crème patissiere and compressed strawberry. Some carrot cake and a rich, gooey brownie. And three kinds of macaroons.

We were very impressed by the quality of the food, which comes under the aegis of executive chef Arnaud Stephens, whose professional background includes Maze and Tante Claire. There’s also an in-house pastry chef: hence the glorious selection of desserts.

You’re just three minutes from Euston, yet from one side of the light-filled corridor around the state rooms, you can see the Shard in the distance: the lights from the high rise office blocks wink overhead. We were lucky: there was plenty of space on the roof terrace - it was a perfect evening to sit and relax in this sun-trap, and watch the sun setting over London.

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