22 August 2010

Simple Pleasures

There are many ways of expressing this one. The point where the juice of the fruit mingles with the double cream? The contrast of the soft and the crunchy? The contrast between the tartness of the apple and the sweetness of the blackberries? Whatever the reason, Simple Pleasures number seven is... crumble.

12 August 2010

On Speck

Italy, unsurprisingly, was bursting with good food. The area, the South Tyrol (or Sudtirol if you want sound local), is an odd mix of German and Italian influences. Happily, the former has generally bowed to the latter when it comes to eating and the region boasts an incredible 18 Michelin stars across 15 restaurants.

I covered one of the stars in the silent meal post and I'll get to two more in the next post with the divine cooking of the brilliantly named Norbert Niederkofler and his St Hubertus restaurant. What a great name. Seriously, what a GREAT name. With that name he could be a chef in The Simpsons and I mean that in the nicest possible way. While I'm happy to be known as Neil Davey, it's not exactly a name that conjures culinary magic, is it? It's not a name to wrap your tongue around. But Norbert Niederkofler? That's a joy. He's also a bloody nice bloke but we'll get on to him in due course.

The thing is I was expecting to love La Stua (and,while the experience was bemusing, the food was terrific) and did. I was expecting to adore St Hubertus and did. What I wasn't expecting, however, was the jaw-dropping, belt-stretching quality of the other meals experienced.

Our first night, we'd jokingly referred to the venue as the "rubbish one": as well as housing St Hubertus, the lovely Rosa Alpina hotel also houses a straightforward brasserie / pizzeria. We'd already warmed to Sudtirol hospitality thanks to the local sparkling wine, the plate of speck (the first of many) and the plate of dark, sweet local salami that greeted us. With lungs full of mountain air, a gorgeous view over green forest and hillside, and the grimy sheen of travel removed thanks to an in-room hamam (no, really), a simple meal would really hit the spot.

And, on the surface, simple is what we got. I had soup and a pizza, for example. But what soup! What pizza! It shouldn't have been a surprise, as St Hubertus started as a pizza restaurant plus, of course, we were in Italy. But this was a different spin on the classic dish, thanks to an almost foaccacia-style base that comes from a ten-year old "mother dough". Apparently the yeasts are cultivated and massaged three times a day. This might have been a joke for the tourists but something has happened to make the base this fluffy, crisp and thoroughly delicious.

By all means argue about the joys of the thin base. I'll join you. The base of my courgette-heavy "Pizza Hugs" - pronounced "Hoogs" rather than as in the cuddle - was a wedge of dough that would normally see my shoulders slump but, having already tried their bread with the earlier speck, I couldn't wait for more. This was fluff with texture and bite, a sweet nuttiness, an ability to stand alone or support flavours as diverse as steak tartare and duck. Best of all, as befits a country famous for its tomatoes, the sauce that formed the bottom layer was incredible. Forget those watery excuses we get sold in supermarkets: a real tomato is a thing of perfection and this sauce featured several of them reduced to their intense essence.

But it still wasn't as intense as the real thing - I could live, very happily, for the rest of my days on their bruschetta - or the soup. Look at the colour of it! It tasted even more potent than it looked, albeit in a good way.

It was a simple meal, but it didn't stumble anywhere. I'm not going to bleat on about my cooking / eating philosophy yet again - oh, alright then, one last time, take good quality ingredients and don't bugger about with them - but this was the sort of meal that just reinforces that belief. Before the three days was out, it would be reinforced several more times, even when we were several hundred metres up a mountain...

10 August 2010

Simple Pleasures

Number 5: the little crunchy bits at the bottom of a portion of chips.

2 August 2010

The Sound of Happy Eating...

... is silence. Not sure where we picked that line up from but it's oft-quoted at family meals. Once the eating starts, and the tastebuds are gainfully employed, the ability to speak is greatly diminished. That's not just a bloke / multitasking thing: it's a very human reaction, particularly when confronted with something playful and delicious. But how would you fare with a deliberately silent meal?

It was a question I hadn't considered until my recent Italian trip and, to be honest, it's one I'm still struggling to answer. Removing the "distraction" of noise may well heighten a sense such as taste but I'm not convinced the way that La Stua de Michil saw it through was the best possible illustration of the point.

La Stua de Michil is a restaurant run by the wonderfully eccentric Costa family at their hotel, La Perla, which sits in the eye-wateringly beautiful Alta Badia region of the South Tyrol. The region boasts 18 Michelin stars across 15 restaurants and La Stua contributes one of those, thanks to the cooking of Arturo Spicocchi.

Current hotel proprietor Michil Costa is an unusual chap, as demonstrated by a wine cellar that features dancing champagne bottles ("because they are so happy to contain these bubbles," explained the sommelier) and a quite literal shrine to Sassicaia. He also has a fascination with all things spiritual and that, according to our lovely local experts Sabine and Nicole is how the idea of Le Chit Te Stua - the silent meal - came about.

Which is why, come 7 o'clock on the night in question we found ourselves filing out from the hotel to a house in the grounds, where Michil explained, in somewhat esoteric form, the nature of the evening ahead. "All things pass," he intoned, "we are guardians of a certain period of time" and, as such, we need to contemplate. And to contemplate, we need silence. To accept the vow of silence we hit a triangle, and then wandered around the house. Eventually all the guests, some 30,40 people, found ourselves in a large room where the head waiter and two small children dressed as elves or pixies or some such tied us, arm to leg to hand to (in at least one case) ear to one another with red wool.

And then another chap - think Mr Bean played by Adrien Brody - arrived to cut us free, which heralded another speech from Michil ("with noise around us we hear too much... take in the silence") and (finally!) some rather lovely little amuse bouches.

What did it all mean? Buggered if I know. But we couldn't discuss it - vow of silence, remember? - so, instead, returned to the restaurant (via a stop off to eat raw herbs of quite potent flavours from their ornamental garden) and the start of a four course meal. And assorted "fun" provided by the elf, a melon, and the Mr Bean-like character.

On the plus side, it provided a bonding experience for the team of British journalists on the trip, particularly via the increasingly filthy notes we were allowed to pass during the meal. On the downside, the rather forced eccentricity reminded me of the sort of deeply pretentious plays I had to review on an alarmingly regular basis at the start of my journalism career. I was all for "taking in the silence" but it's bloody hard to do that when there's a head waiter dressed as an elf juggling and trying to amuse you with a watermelon.

The food though would have stunned me into silence regardless of instruction.

The melon, as it turned out, was a visual clue for the chief (surprise) ingredient in something billed simply as Vegetarian Carpaccio, a vibrant plate of food that left us reeling and scratching our heads in wonder. How do you slice a melon so uniformly without it disintegrating to a watery pulp? And how do you leave it with a texture somewhere between "real" carpaccio and, say, roasted red pepper? Most importantly though, it was as delicious as it was clever.

Second course was an opinion splitting Maple Vinegar Risotto with veal confit and dotted with unctuous rounds of bone marrow. For me, this was the night's overwhelming stunner, a combination of flavours and textures that would have had me giggling with delight had I been allowed to giggle with delight. Others though found the sweet/savoury and soft/al dente as contrasts too far.

There's an admirable honesty to menus from the Sudtirol area. There's none of this "venison" malarkey so you call a deer exactly what it is: hence Crumbed Deer Steak with sweet and sour carrots, cherries and kohlrabi. For me it lacked the imagination of what had gone before but that's just me putting my picky hat on, as it was cooked to deep purple perfection and the combination of sweet and earthy was as satisfying as you'd expect.

To finish, came a Red Beet Cake that was alright but at least came with a delicious buttermilk ice cream and raspberries of remarkable intensity and sweetness, and was swiftly followed by some dazzling petit fours. Best of these? Another raspberry packed - and I mean to bursting point - with space dust. The whole crackly surprise thing might have become a cliche but it still makes me smile, particularly when it's taken to the nth degree as it was here. Seriously, my mouth was still popping away a minute or two after the flesh of raspberry had been consumed.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm looking back at this "silent dinner" with rather more fondness than I felt at the time. While the food was mostly exemplary, the whole thing took a little over four hours to play out with a couple of 45-60 minute gaps between courses. That's too long for dinner, let alone a set menu. The format too, of constant silence, was rather pointless given the regular distractions of the entertainment. Pure meditation would have been a more interesting approach ditto, as two of our party suggested, a format that allowed you to eat in contemplative silence with, perhaps, a couple of minutes between courses to discuss the food.

One of the joys of such communal eating with strangers (as discovered at L'Enclume last year) is that it's a bonding experience. The palate can bust through social barriers with the brutal efficiency of an Exocet and a format that allowed you to share the experience, even if only for a minute or two, would I suspect have worked a little better.
But even with its flaws, "Le Chit Te Stua" was, undeniably, a unique experience and it's not often you get to say that about a dinner.