Bruschetta: satisfaction in a slice

Question: What do you do with a handful of broad beans and a loaf of bread when you haven’t much else in the house? (This is what I was contemplating at around 3pm today, lunchless and lazy.) Answer: Bruschetta! I know, I was sceptical too as I had only half the ingredients listed in the Thomasina Miers recipe. But not to be defeated, I ploughed on.

Broad beans

Broad beans

I eased the broad beans from ten furry pods, like precious jewels inside velvet-lined cases, and boiled them in salted water for about ten minutes. In a small mixing bowl, I tossed the drained beans with extra virgin olive oil, a dash of white wine vinegar (in the absence of a lemon), torn basil leaves from the pot outside my front door, and salt and pepper. Once toasted, I rubbed a thick slice of sourdough bread vigorously with the cut surface of a garlic clove and drizzled it with olive oil. Spreading generously first with Meredith Dairy goats cheese from a jar in the fridge, I then spooned my beans and their juices over the top.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

So simple, so quick, so OMG there’s a party happening in my mouth! First the earthy tang of goats cheese, the hum of garlic, the crunch of toast. Then the beans, bursting forth rudely, shiny and bright green, from their puckered greyish jackets. And all enveloped in luscious olive oil offset by the sharp vinegar and aniseedy basil.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

As luck would have it I also had at my disposal a couple of lovely tomatoes, half a red onion and some pine nuts, so come dinner time I was able to try out another of Thomasina’s bruschetta toppings.

Tomatoes and red onion

Tomatoes and red onion

I chopped my two tomatoes into chunky cubes and about an eighth of a red onion into fine dice, tossing them in a bowl with a scattering of toasted pine nuts, a small handful of shredded basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and a slosh of sherry vinegar. (The recipe called for balsamic vinegar but I’m in love with the sherry variety at the moment.) I seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar and left the mixture to stand for ten minutes. Meanwhile, I prepared my bread as before – toasting, rubbing and drizzling – then piled on the marinated tomato mixture. Barring the addition of pine nuts, this is probably the best known version of bruschetta. The simple combination of ripe tomatoes, a little onion, basil leaves and a vinaigrette dressing is nothing short of magical. However, I found the pine nuts added a welcome richness and textural contrast.

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

It may interest you to know that bruschetta, an Italian antipasto, dates back to the 15th century. In Tuscany it is called ‘fettunta’ and is usually served without any topping, especially in November when it acts as a vehicle for tasting the very first olive oil of the season. Now that’s simplicity!

Two Italian ways with squid (and fennel)

Given that I had the second half of the chutney to make on Sunday (before the apples started to get too old) I wanted something simple to cook for dinner. Just as well considering we didn’t end up eating until 10pm! I’d found a recipe for a lovely looking tomato, fennel and squid salad in Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy so I popped up to Illawarra Road (taking in the Marrickville Festival while I was at it) for a fennel bulb and some squid – everything else I already had. I realised when I started prepping the ingredients later that the squid were pretty huge and I’d only need to use half, hence squid part two a couple of days later…

Take four medium squid (or two large ones as I did – I bought the tubes so no gutting or cleaning required; next time I’ll be braver as it’d be nice to have the tentacles too), slice them open along one side and flatten them out. Score the inside flesh in a criss-cross pattern with a knife. Cut 200g of tomatoes (I had vine ones, but the recipe suggests cherry and plum tomatoes) into chunks and put in a big bowl along with a half a red onion, finely sliced. Pinch the ferny tops off your fennel bulb and save for later, and finely slice the fennel and add to the bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and one orange, a teaspoon of dried oregano, three tablespoons of red wine or herb vinegar, seven tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and toss together. That’s a lot of liquid so I actually eased back slightly on the vinegar and olive oil.

Cook the squid on a griddle pan (or a barbecue) so you get nice charred bits. Before putting it on (and make sure the pan is seriously hot), rub the squid with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and chili flakes on both sides. I found it quite hard to cook the squid as they need three to four minutes each side and they very quickly start to curl up, so I had to wrestle with them with two sets of tongs to try to keep them fully in contact with the pan! It might well be easier with smaller squid, I think. Once they’re cooked, slice them into wide strips on the diagonal and add to the salad, tossing everything again. Serve sprinkled with the zest of one lemon and the reserved fennel tops.

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

This was a lovely light, quick supper that tasted to me of Mediterranean holidays! The squid had that wonderful chargrilled flavour (and we had a house full of smoke!) and the oregano, citrus juices and the aniseed of the fennel all worked beautifully together. Mr T wasn’t too keen on the red onion and I tend to agree that the amount could be reduced a bit, but the salad does benefit from some to give it a bit of kick.

On Tuesday I used up the rest of the squid in a pasta recipe from the same book: simply, spaghetti with squid, or, far more romantically, ‘spaghetti con calamari’. Sauté, stirring often, a finely chopped fennel bulb (tops reserved, again) along with two cloves of garlic, finely sliced, and two teaspoons of fennel seeds, freshly crushed. (The smell of sweet, spicy, aniseedy fennel seeds in your mortar is divine.) Turn up the heat and add four baby squid (or two large ones) cut into rings, a finely sliced chili and a large glass of white wine and stir until the liquid is reduced by half. Now turn down to a low simmer and cook your pasta – I used fettuccini, rather than spaghetti, because that’s my favourite. I was a little worried that the squid would go hard and rubbery in the 10 minutes it takes for the pasta to cook, but it didn’t. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the squid mixture. Remove it from the heat and add about five tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the reserved fennel tops and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves (I actually forgot the parsley but it didn’t seem to matter). Toss it all together and check the seasoning. Serve sprinkled with the zest of a lemon.

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

After tasting it we squeezed over the juice of said lemon as well which really lifted it and gave it some zing. Also providing some added punch were the two chilis I included (rather than one), seeds and all. I also loved the warmth of the fennel flavour, intensified by the fennel seeds. It was so delicious and so simple and quick to make – I’ll definitely be adding this one to my week-night repertoire!

Nom Pizza, Marrickville

I’m going to say it – Nom Pizza is now my favourite pizza in Sydney. Hell, I even like the crusts! Opening in June this year on the corner of Sydenham and Victoria Roads in Marrickville, a handy (and dangerous) five-minute walk from our house, Nom is the real deal. They make ‘la vera pizza Napoletana’, or true pizza from Naples, characterised by a thin, crisp base, sparsely topped with a few simple, fresh ingredients and cooked in a brick, wood-fired oven. At Nom they make the dough once a week and if you’re really lucky you get it a few days old (as we did on Thursday night) when the flavour and texture is fantastic: chewy, slightly salty and… oh, I don’t know what the flavour is, it’s just delicious!

Prior to this week I had tried the pumpkin and feta (roasted pumpkin, feta, pine nuts, rocket, truffle oil), the prawn (buffalo mozzarella, garlic prawns, chili) and the BBQ meatlovers (BBQ sauce, buffalo mozzarella, double smoked leg ham, salami, chorizo, pepperoni). They were all divine, although the BBQ meat lovers is clearly a bit of a concession to Australian tastes and would no doubt be considered an abomination in Naples!

On Thursday night as I’m walking home from the station, two of the guys are standing out the front of Nom with freshly made pizzas on wooden boards, offering slices to passers-by and trying to drum up a bit of custom. I’m drawn in by a cheeky smile from the other side of the junction and I avail myself of a slice of the ‘funghi’ with thinly sliced mushrooms, fior di latte cheese (like mozzarella but drier), a scattering of dried chili flakes and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s so damn good I decide right there on the spot to put the defrosted snags in the fridge for another day and persuade Mr T it’s a Nom Pizza night. It doesn’t take much to twist that rubbery arm so we’re back an hour later for more. We can’t decide what to have so the manager Ryan’s advice is to let the two Neapolitan pizzaiolos (trained artisan pizza makers) ‘go freestyle’ and create something unique for us. Alfredo stays fairly traditional with tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies.

Tomato sauce, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives, anchovies and fior di latte

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

The other guy (whose name I missed, unfortunately) lets his imagination go wild and we watch in amazement as he forms two mini calzone (Ryan calls them ‘mezzaluna’, or half moon) on opposite sides, one filled with feta, the other with assorted meats. Down the middle he puts tomato sauce, fior di latte and rocket which, with a slosh of olive oil on top, wilts in the oven. Once cooked he drapes three generous slices of prosciutto on top and some shavings of parmesan. And another drizzle of olive oil for good measure!

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Following much banter and taking of photographs with our new best friends, we race home as fast as our legs will carry us to engage in an absolute orgy of overeating. The pizzas are both to die for, the first one a perfect example of great quality, proper, simple pizza, the other an extraordinary piece of sheer theatre. Mr T cuts it into thick slices as if it were a loaf of Turkish bread. We could really do with a knife and fork but it’s so much more fun to slurp the wet, oozing, salty goodness into our mouths direct from the plate!

Nom don’t deliver as they don’t want the pizza sitting around deteriorating in cardboards boxes any longer than necessary, so you’ll have to collect it yourself. But they’re such a charming bunch of blokes that you’ll enjoy the interaction – and seeing the amazing wood-fired oven that dominates the shop. They do have a few tables and chairs outside on the pavement (make that old giant cable spools and hessian-covered milk crates) but no alcohol license, not even BYO, as yet. Here’s hoping! In the mean time they do have 1.25L bottles of brightly coloured, old-fashioned Saxby’s fizzy drinks in flavours like creaming soda and toffee apple. I’m not going to say any more except go there, and don’t spare the horses!

    Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Nom Pizza
Shop 2, 205 Victoria Road, Marrickville
Visited 18 October 2012

The best apple chutney

At this time of year my mind turns to Christmas and the things I should start making now so they have time to mature, like Christmas cake (which, of course, has to have brandy drip-fed into it for at least six weeks) and, for little presents, chutney. This fantastic chutney recipe comes from a book of my mother’s titled Preserving, published in 1971 as part of the Cordon Bleu series. It has been made for decades by my granny, my mother and now me, and is delicious with cold meats and hard cheeses.

(My mother has some fantastic cookbooks, incidentally, including the Supercook books which were serialised in the early 1970s. Collected religiously over a number of years, they formed an impressive encyclopedia that takes up about a metre of shelf space in the larder at my parents’ house. It is constantly referred to for certain recipes like chili con carne and Brunswick stew which were firm favourites of mine growing up and are always top of my request list when I’m visiting home now.)

A word about apples: In the UK you can get Bramley apples, otherwise known as cooking apples. The thing about a cooking apple is its high acidity and low sugar content which mean when cooked it a) breaks down to a mush and b) retains its flavour. In Australia it seems you can’t get Bramleys and the alterative suggested is Granny Smiths. They’re not the same at all (if you tried to eat a Bramley you would wince quite a lot!) but it’s the best we can do, I’m afraid. If anyone happens to know where you can get Bramley apples in Sydney, please leave a comment below!

Bramley apples

Bramley apples (photo borrowed from lovefood.com)

The recipe begins in rather startling fashion with ’36 large apples’! When I made this last weekend it became quickly apparent that I was only going to fit half that in even my biggest saucepan, so I halved all the quantities of ingredients which yielded nine jars of chutney, and I’ll make the other half this weekend. (I do have a 15L stockpot but it’s cheap and nasty with a very thin base and the last time I made this chutney in it it stuck to the bottom and burned. When I realised and mistakenly stirred like crazy to dislodge the burned layer – only serving to distribute it throughout the pan – the chutney tasted like a used ashtray and I had to ditch the entire batch. Time to chuck out that pan and get a good one.)

So, I’ll quote the halved quantities here for which you’ll need a pan at least eight litres in size with a good thick base. Peel, core and slice 18 Granny Smith apples. The quickest way to core them is to simply chop around the core from north to south pole in four cuts making a square. Chuck the cores or give them to your worms/compost container/pet rabbits.

Apple cores

Apple cores

Cut the pieces of apple into slices about 5mm (1/4 inch) wide and put them into your pan. Add to that ¾lb of sultanas, 1½lb of demerera sugar, 2oz of yellow mustard seeds, one sliced fresh chili, half a rounded dessert spoon of turmeric, 1oz of ground ginger, ¾lb of thinly sliced Spanish onions, three cloves of garlic crushed with salt, and one pint of malt vinegar. Mix well with a big wooden spoon (it helps to lever the spoon against the edge of the pan) and put on a medium to high heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring regularly to give everything a chance to get near the heat at the bottom. It will feel at the beginning as though you’ve got very little liquid in there, but as the apple starts to soften it gives up its juice and you’ll get something that looks a little like this:

Chutney making in progress

Chutney making in progress

Now it’s just a case of simmering it gently, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half to two hours, or until it turns to a brown pulply mass like this (I might have gone an extra half hour, I think):

Chutney ready to go into jars

Chutney ready to go into jars

Meanwhile, sterilise your jars to prevent mould and bacteria forming. First set your oven to 150°C. If, like me, you’ve been hoarding empty jars, get them out, pick the prettiest looking shapes and give them a good wash, along with their lids (don’t use ones with plastic lids), in hot soapy water, rinsing well to get the suds off. This is also a good time to soak them for a bit and scrape the labels off so that you can decorate with your own labels later. Put the jars and lids in a big roasting tin and dry thoroughly in the oven for about 20 minutes.

When your chutney is ready, allow it to cool for five minutes (just so it’s no longer at boiling point) and fill your jars while they’re still hot out of the oven. I found it helpful to fill a jug with a ladle and then pour (or gloop!) the chutney into the jars, helping it with a wooden spoon. Put the lids on straight away and secure tightly, creating a good seal. Put the jars away in a cool, dark place (they don’t need to go in the fridge until opened) and leave for at least a month, in my humble opinion, before eating… if you can bear to wait that long!

Apple chutney

Apple chutney

Mamma Contaldo’s ricotta dumplings

I had such a satisfying day of cooking yesterday that it makes me feel warm inside every time I think about it! First I made apple chutney (more of that later), then for dinner I made ricotta dumplings with tomato sauce, a dish I discovered watching the fabulous Two Greedy Italians on telly with Antonio Carluccio and Genarro Contaldo. According to the BBC website, where I found the recipe (although I have just discovered it’s on the SBS website too), these dumplings are traditionally made in Contaldo’s home town of Minori, on the Amalfi Coast, on the feast day of the town’s patron saint.

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy (royalty-free image, yaymicro.com)

(I’ve added the above photo to get you in the mood. I found it on Google Images and I’ve credited the website that it comes from so I hope I don’t get into trouble. Please excuse the watermark across it – although I bet you didn’t notice that until I pointed it out!)

Having never made fresh pasta before these ricotto dumplings seemed like a fairly simple place to start, but it wasn’t quite as easy as they made it look on TV! You put into a big mixing bowl 200g 00 flour, 225g ricotta, three egg yolks, 30g freshly grated parmesan, salt, pepper and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Work this into a dough with your hand – it will come together eventually. (Watching the TV clip on YouTube again afterwards I noticed that they mixed the ricotta, egg yolks, parmesan and seasoning together a bit before adding the flour which seems like a good idea). Put your dough onto a floured board and knead for three to five minutes. Then, roll your dough into thin sausage shapes and, with a knife, cut into 2cm long pieces. You can sprinkle a little more flour over the dumplings to stop them sticking to the knife.

Before cooking the dumplings, make your sauce. Sautée three thickly sliced garlic cloves and one sliced chili in a good glug of olive oil for about a minute before adding two tins of good quality tinned whole tomatoes, cutting each tomato in half. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for five minutes. Meanwhile, cook your dumplings; the recipe says they take three to four minutes. Tip them into a large pan of salted boiling water. Put the lid on straight away to help bring the water back up to boiling and them remove the lid again. A helpful tip they mention on the TV clip is that once they float to the surface, they need a further two minutes on simmer. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the tomato sauce. Stir to coat, spoon into hot bowls, garnish with basil leaves and serve with extra parmesan to grate over the top.

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

I absolutely loved the simplicity of this meal but I’m not sure if my dumplings turned out as they’re meant to be since they were quite solid and doughy. They did say on the program that they would be heavier than their cousin, potato gnochi, but still I felt that they could be improved. Next time (and I can’t wait to make them again!) I’ll put a timer on for the kneading part to make sure I do that for long enough, and I think I’ll cut them a bit smaller. I was delighted with the sauce and couldn’t believe it needed so few ingredients, but I would say that it’s really worthwhile buying the best tinned tomatoes you can for this. I really like the Ardmona ones as they have a lovely thick juice.

From spicy Malaysia to sunny Spain

I promise I will cook some Italian food soon (later today, in fact!) but first I want to write about two eateries I went to on Thursday – the hugely popular Malaysian restaurant Mamak in the city, and Spanish bistro El Bulli in Surry Hills.

Unseasonably cold and rainy on Thursday, Mamak is the perfect destination for a warming, comforting lunch. Going there at lunch time affords one the added benefit of avoiding the long queues down the street which are there every evening. That said, there’s plenty to entertain while you wait – the various types of roti are made on a bench looking directly out of the large glass frontage and you can see them being skillfully spun in the air like whirling dervish skirts, becoming increasing large, thin and translucent. It’s fascinating to watch. Once they’ve reached full size (about that of a bicycle wheel) they’re put down on the bench, stretched into a square shape and then carefully folded in on themselves into a mound once more before being oiled and spun again. I suppose the process is something like making puff pastry where the fat is gradually incorporated in many layers.

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

While I’m busy trying to capture the perfect shot of the roti being made, our food has already arrived at our table. We share an original roti (roti canai) which comes with two curry dips and a hot sambal sauce. The roti is golden, crisp and flaky on the outside and soft and doughy inside with a wonderful elasticity. One of the dips is mild with lentils in it, the other hotter, and the sambal sauce is very piquant and tastes strongly of dried shrimp.

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce, Mamak

We share three main dishes between the three of us which is more food than we can possibly eat so we take the leftovers back to the office in a doggy bag. (I’m the lucky one who gets to have Mamak curry for lunch twice in a row!) A slow-cooked lamb curry (kari kambing) has plenty of tender chunks of meat in a rust-coloured, complexly flavoured sauce that includes cloves, cinnamon and chili as well as many other spices I can’t identify.

Kari kambing - lamb curry

Kari kambing – slow-cooked lamb curry, Mamak

The fish curry (kari ikan) has generous pieces of a dense white fish along with tender eggplant chunks, okra, tomatoes and large whole green chilis in a bright caramel, sweet, shrimpy sauce. It’s a bit hotter in chili terms than the other curry.

Kari ikan - fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant

Kari ikan – fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant, Mamak

Our other dish is called ‘rojak’, a Malaysian style salad with prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean* and cucumber topped with thick satay sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s refreshing, crunchy, sweet and coconuty, a great complement to the curries. (* A yam bean is a tuber vegetable with crunchy white flesh, similar in texture to water chestnuts.)

Rojak - prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce

Rojak – prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce, Mamak

As we wait at the front counter to pay, I survey the large, buzzing room packed with Asian students and suited office workers. The bill comes to $25 per head, great value for a huge and very delicious meal.

Having had such an enormous lunch I only need a snack before the theatre that evening so Mr T and I head to El Bulli for tapas, conveniently located a mere two-minute walk from Belvoir St Theatre. Once housed in a small, intimate venue about 50m north of their current location on Elizabeth Street, El Bulli is now in much bigger premises with five dining areas and an impressive long, highly polished wooden bar cut from what appears to be a single tree. Dimly lit, the decor is all dark wood, sumptuous curtains concealing the busy street outside, and tealights twinkling in red glass containers. Outside the ladies bathroom is a richly upholstered chaise longue and more dramatic curtains opposite a mural of a couple locked forever in the passionate embrace of flamenco.

The bar at El Bulli

The bar at El Bulli

Our gorgeous Spanish waitress chats with us about Spain and I ask her if the Iberico ham on the menu is the real deal, as I witnessed on Rick Stein’s Spain the other night. Sadly not, she says, as there are difficulties with importation. (I’m now determined to try to track some down!) So instead we have deep-fried white bait (cornalitos fritos) and some paella balls (albondigas de paella), and I have a glass of rosé, sweet and full of summer berry flavours. The whitebait are crunchy little nuggets of fishy goodness which we dip into aioli, and the paella balls are crumbed on the outside and filled with sweet saffron-colored rice studded with chicken and chorizo, topped with more aioli and flecked with parsley.

white bait

Cornalitos fritos – deep-fried white bait, El Bulli

Albondigas de paella - paella balls

Albondigas de paella – paella balls topped with aioli, El Bulli

It’s a highly pleasurable pre-theatre bite but we’ll definitely have to go back with an appetite and give the extensive menu a good workout, perhaps on one of their regular live music nights. It’d be a great place for a celebration dinner with a big group of people. Now there’s a thought!

Mamak
15 Goulburn Street, Sydney

El Bulli
504 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Both visited 11 October 2012

Affirmation and some exciting news

Last night I was reminded for about the gazillionth time how much I love food. And I wasn’t even eating – well, not at that precise moment! Sitting on the sofa watching Rick Stein’s Spain, lapping up his childlike enthusiasm for Iberico ham and garlic soup, with a big soppy grin on my face and imploring Mr T to ‘Take me to Spain!’, I felt literally drunk on joy.

I also got some good news yesterday which might have contributed a bit to the ‘drunk on joy’ feeling. I have been accepted to study for a Graduate Certificate in Food Writing through the University of Adelaide next year – the only course of its kind in the country. Now I just need to find a new job to finance it! Anyone need a great PA?! (There’s also the small outstanding matter of submitting to the university admissions centre my degree transcript which is hopefully winging its way from the UK as I type, but I’m not one to let formalities hold up the celebrations!)

A change of direction – first stop Italy

I’m feeling the need for a change of direction for my blog – a new focus. Every food blogger out there is reviewing restaurants and cafés; I don’t feel like I’m contributing anything new. And if they’re not doing that they’re writing their own recipes, which, as an amateur home cook, I don’t feel capable of doing.

Last weekend I cooked two great dishes which I was really pleased with – one a mushroom risotto from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy, and the other ricotta and spinach cannelloni from a recipe I found on a great blog called Souvlaki for the Soul. I wanted to write about them but I thought, who wants to read about me cooking someone else’s recipe? I’ve been mulling this over for the last week and I’ve now realised that as a self-published writer I have the luxury of being able to write exactly what I want, so if I want to write about making these dishes, then I should. And so I will!

So, this blog is going to be less about restaurants and cafés (although there will still be some write-ups) and more about cooking at home. It’ll get me doing more cooking, which I love, and hopefully give me greater scope for my other great passion at the moment: writing! And if it entertains my readers along the way, then that’s the cherry on the cake.

My plan at this stage is to tackle one theme at a time and really explore it, for a month or maybe more, before choosing another theme. Taking an ingredient as a theme is a nice idea, but in reality I think it could get a little tedious eating, say, lamb for a whole month, however varied the styles of dish. Therefore I think I’m going to start with a national cuisine and see how that goes. Partly because of my aforementioned culinary adventures of last weekend, and partly because of an inspiring interview I heard on ABC Radio National yesterday morning with Antonio Carluccio, my first theme is going to be Italy!

Carluccio said that one of the reasons Italian is, after Chinese, the most popular cuisine in the world is because it’s simple to cook. But to create great simple Italian food requires knowledge. I would add that it requires a real appreciation of the beauty and sensuous delight of simplicity – a perfectly ripe tomato, a good quality extra virgin olive oil. You can throw together a simple pasta dish very quickly, but if you don’t use good, fresh ingredients and you don’t tend to them with love and care, your pasta dish will not sing as it should do.

I was won over to the wonders of good, simple Italian food in April 2008 when Mr T and I holidayed in Italy for two weeks. The pinnacle of this trip was a picnic on a hillside in an olive grove, just outside the impossibly pretty Tuscan village of Montisi where we were staying. We had been tearing around Rome and Florence seeing a lifetime’s worth of art and stunning churches which was amazing but exhausting, and it was so lovely to finally relax. We visited a couple of shops in the village and bought a loaf of bread, some salami and prosciutto, a big ripe tomato and a little tub of fresh pesto. Sitting among the wild flowers, drinking in the views, those few simple foods made a meal fit for kings – and, incidentally, the perfect setting for a proposal of marriage! I’ll never forget it.

Growing up in the UK, Italian food and Italian restaurants were ubiquitous. I must admit I came to think of Italian food as rather ho-hum, unimaginative fare – food for people without sophisticated tastes! Moving to Australia I couldn’t get enough of the Thai and other Southeast Asian flavours that are everywhere here. But with my growing interest in food, the explosion of the food revolution on television in the last few years, and visits to some exquisite Italian restaurants, I have come to appreciate that there is far more to Italian food than meets the eye. And now I’m going to roll up my sleeves, get stuck in and see if I can recreate some of that Italian magic! I hope you’ll come for the ride.

Bitton Café & Grocer, Alexandria

We had actually planned to go to The Grounds of Alexandria, voted best new café in the recently published Sydney Morning Herald Good Café Guide 2012 (also available as an app). However, it’s closed, being a public holiday – I had failed to check that in advance. So we walk back towards Erskineville through quiet, picturesque residential streets to try our luck at Bitton Café & Grocer on Copeland Street, opposite Erskineville Oval. Café, bistro, grocery shop and product line with a book, a blog and cooking classes, this mini empire is headed up by Parisian managing director David Bitton.

Bitton Cafe & Grocer

Bitton Café & Grocer

I’m surprised that we manage to get a table quite so easily considering Bitton is always packed to the gunnels whenever we go past. We’re catching up with friends with a toddler so we park ourselves in the covered outdoor area at the back, right next to a great little playroom complete with ride-on vehicles and chalkboard. A side order of fried mushrooms for the hungry little chap arrives promptly and a highchair is manoeuvred into position.

The breakfast menu is available until 5pm, something of which I heartily approve, and as you’d expect it has a hint of French flavour, including crêpes, Croque Monsieur, croissants and brioche. A bit of clever cross-promotion highlights which of the dishes are included in The Bitton Book, and which sauces, pestos, preserves and so on are available to buy from the laden shelves inside the café or online.

Bitton Cafe & Grocer

Bitton Café & Grocer

Coffees come quickly, which is quite a relief this morning, followed by food. The service is friendly, efficient, attentive and entirely unphased by all the strollers blocking up the passage-ways. Mr T and I both opt for the Croque Monsieur, two slices of white sourdough, sandwiched with ham and Gruyère cheese sauce and fried to a satisfying golden crunch. A side dish of zingy Bitton spicy tomato sauce and a garnish of bitter salad leaves with salty-lemony dressing both help cut through the richness.

Croque Monsiuer

Croque Monsieur, Bitton Café & Grocer

Al has the one pan bacon and eggs with wood-fired bread which also comes with the spicy tomato sauce. He says it’s good without being particularly remarkable.

One pan bacon and eggs with woodfired bread and spicy tomato sauce

One pan bacon and eggs with wood-fired bread and spicy tomato sauce, Bitton Café & Grocer

And Nicole goes for sour cherry toast with poached rhubarb, ricotta and Bitton orange jelly. The caramel coloured orange jelly gives a nice bitter-sweet flavour contrast to the creamy ricotta and the rhubarb has held its shape and has a bit of bite to it. (I admire the whole chunks of fruit since I don’t seem to be able to cook rhubarb without it quickly turning into a purple purée!)

Sour cherry toast with poached rhubarb, ricotta and orange jelly

Sour cherry toast with poached rhubarb, ricotta and orange jelly, Bitton Café & Grocer

After eating I take a few snaps inside the café, trying to capture something of the bustling atmosphere and the shelves filled with freshly baked bread, fruit and veggies, as well as the Bitton range. David, the MD, asks me – in his fabulous French accent – why I’m taking photos and we have a brief chat. He gives me his business card and asks me to send him a link to my blog post – if the write-up is good. Well, David, if you’re reading this – c’est très bien, n’est pas?

Bitton Café & Grocer
36 – 37a Copeland Street, Alexandria
Visited 1 October 2012