Archive for the ‘Franco on...’ Category
Summer is a very special time of year. Peaches are one of those fruits which make this season so enjoyable and rewarding. A proper peach is magical, intense, has that impeccable natural sweetness, is refreshing and utterly amazing. For this reason, peaches are one of those products which has become so tragically disappointing over the last decades, where the gap between the finest peaches our land has to offer and those now readily available is monstrous.
In fact it was a peach – not physically but literally, as I overheard a woman in a grocery store while I was living in New York City ask for peaches in the middle of December – which brought me to where I am today, has shaped Natoora, and is an emblem of all that we are trying to accomplish in our industry and for society.
This year we are sourcing a white peach from Campania which is one of the finest peaches I have ever tried in my life – it is simply phenomenal, perfection. They are so red inside they are absurdly no longer a white peach, yet they retain that magnificent delicate flavour which is so different to the yellow peaches. A bellini or sorbet takes on a different stage.
Our ability to keep pushing the boundaries of what we source is deeply, profoundly encouraging. Many times I have doubted our ability to thrive over the very long-term, possibly once Natoora survives me, to really turn back and reinvigorate the quality of fresh produce being grown. When we achieve these levels, surpassing what were already incredibly high standards, it affirms more than anything the ability to achieve our objectives and deliver superb quality fruit and veg to some of the best chefs in the world and to everyday consumers alike.
No other vegetables say spring more than peas and broad beans – they embody it in all its aspects and characteristics. The bite of the season’s first pea, just like peeling the first broad bean, opens up the entire year just like that in one single act. As with all fruits and vegetables, not all are grown the same, not all taste the same. Delicate vegetables like peas and broad beans need to be grown with extra care, gently and with plenty of time. If rushed, they will grow far too big, lack sweetness and be devoid of any juiciness.
Our peas are sourced first and foremost from Campania, where we have consistently found the finest peas; that is until the English summer season kicks in. Generally we prefer the green variety whose peas grow larger and retain a beautiful pale green colour; however, the “white” pea also from Campania is also exceptional if less colourful and smaller in size. For broad beans we go further south to Calabria, and select the smallest, prettiest pods which inside conceal the most tender and prized broad beans.
One of my favourite ways of eating fresh peas is to fry them very quickly in good olive oil with some curry leaves and mustard seeds, and serve them with grated coconut, and if you happen to be in London Stevie at the Dock Kitchen will surely be serving them. They also should be added to any good broth, soup or light stew…right at the end. Broad beans are like vegetable butter, they go well with anything – but please take them out of their husks, it is so worth the labour.
It is not often that I find myself at a loss for words when speaking of vegetables. For years now I’ve confidently argued the finest tomatoes around are the winter/spring varieties from Sardinia and Sicily – both regions produce a tomato which although different in physical appearance have precise similarities which speak of their unmatched flavour.
The crunchy thick skin which many chefs pick up on, lends a wonderful texture to these tomatoes. This crunchy texture adds a phenomenal quality when eating them raw – the only way a purist would argue. Colouration is very particular having a deep, dark green head which leads to the orange belly and red bum. As the tomato matures it takes on more and more of the classic red appearance; however, the dark green head must remain visible if the tomato is of superior quality. Over ripening of these tomatoes is not desired, the firmness to touch is critical, and maturing invariably softens the tomato. Size is small.
The particularity of these tomato lies in the flavour – why the hell else do we eat them, if not for how they taste – which is developed via the unique soil used in both Sardinia and Sicily. The fields used lie close to the sea and thus the soil is nurtured with sea water, in turn the tomatoes develop an almost meaty flavour which is something magical. Umami is possibly the best way to define it.
There are four main varieties within this style of tomato – the Sardinian is the Camone which is slightly more acidic and beautifully, perfectly round. In Sicily we find the Rolls of tomatoes, the Marinda and its lesser sibling the Marmandino. Finally the Costoluto is a larger version, excellent in its own right, but nearer an Audi.
So onto this year’s crop – it’s been so bloody good that I did something I thought would never happen. I convinced, or the better said the Marinda did, The River Cafe to put tomatoes on the menu in April. Hardly a more difficult feat is available for challenge in the UK restaurant world. No doubt some of the Marinda’s I’ve tried over the past weeks are likely to be some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had in my entire life. Some of the Riccio Fiorentino tomatoes I had in Sicily were so damn incredible they seemed to be infused with the sweetest nectar, and as much as I would buy an Aston over any other car, the most elegant, dignified, and leader of the pack remains the Rolls.
To serve simply cut into wedges, sprinkle with excellent sea slat like Maldon, and drizzle a little olive oil (yes, extra virgin, top quality….). If you must a gentle sprinkling of proper dried oregano.
A few weeks ago I took Stevie and Nick from Dock Kitchen to the market in Milan for a little shopping tour. We coordinated our visit as Dock Kitchen will be popping up during Desgn Week in Milan in mid-April, so Nick and Stevie headed over to scout their “momentary” kitchen. (Click here for details of Stevie and Tom Dixon’s pop-up Milan kitchen, “Parlement” available to book for dinner 11th-17th April)
Very little time was left between the end of our excellent dinner and rise and shine – minus a few minutes for a quick shower, the time difference and we could have easily not slept. March is a good time of year to go to market, although this year with the extended cold weather in much of Italy we saw fewer signs of Spring than I would have liked. The best find were Bruscandoli, which are Hops which grow wild and are therefore picked by hand. Theo Randall makes a great risotto with them…you can see his recipe here. The grumolo which we call Wild Radicchio but is really a cultivated variety was stunning, the finest example of it this year. Perfect green roses of bitter leaves…nature doing wonders really, helped by fantastic farmers.
These small farmers, called contadini in Italian, are the equivalent of the “Petits Producteurs” present in Paris – they make these markets infinitely more exciting and valuable. They grow, pick and take to market the most amazing salads, herbs and leafy greens. In monetary terms they make a simple living so it is wonderful to see people like them continue to toil the land out of love for it and its palnts. The difference between contadini and wholesalers is staggering – and it is not their appearance which i’m talking about – the attitude of artisan versus salesman. So devoted are these men – unfortuantely they are all men – that we’ve had one farmer grow baby chard through a gap in the season especially for us in order to supply one of our customers in London who had it on the menu.
Peas and broad beans were around, the small juicy white pea from Campania is always the first proper pea of the season, but as prices at the time were still high and therefore demand low, I was not too excited about them…it’s boring sometimes when you see a great product and you can’t buy it. Merinda tomatoes were starting to taste fantastic…and it is my quest to convince more chefs to use them. This is their season, they suck in the summer and must be eaten now. No other tomato can match it in flavour, except for the Camone and the Marmandino – those three are in a league of their own.
When buying our domestic rocket Stevie found a delicious baby spinach, better than what we were currently buying, with a more elongated and pointy leaf. Very strong flavour and great texture, nothing like the useless French Pousse. We’ve now moved on to this baby spinach until things change. Fennel is still sensational, and we found some unreal examples from Lazio – massive bulbs with no stringyness, just pure flesh and vibrant aniseed sweetness….I can’t help but repeat how one of our clients ordered our fennel a few weeks ago: “…and two boxes of your magic fennnel.”
It’s wonderful taking clients to market – showing them first hand what we do, how we operate, how the long chain from market to their kitchen works is very cool.
Sourcing the very best produce is second nature at Natoora, and we’re always on the hunt for that extra-special something. We’re so excited about the new artisan chestnut flour from a small town in Tuscany called Castoglio di Zeri…
Chestnut flour in itself is a unique product. Made with beaten or ground chestnuts, it produces a mildly nutty flour which is naturally wheat-free, perfect for cakes and even for making fresh pasta.
For this artisanal version, the chestnuts are hand-picked throughout October and then stored in sacks. At the end of the day they lay them on a huge “griddle” in a roofed outhouse to dry out. Under the griddle they light a fire. This fire is the goldilocks of chestnut flour production – too large and it will burn the chestnuts, too small and the embers will die out over night…it has to be just right. Each morning they add more wood, only from chestnut trees – any other would give a bitter flavour to the flour. This keeps the fire going until all the chestnuts are dried, approximately three weeks from the last crop, just into the middle of November.
Two weeks before the last crop is harvested, they mix the chestnuts so that they can all be dried. After the three weeks of drying they ‘beat’ the chestnuts with a machine. This splits the chestnuts from their skin.
At this stage, the chestnuts are hand-picked to discard any that still have some skin or are less than perfect. Not the most fun job, but it ensures the final product is perfectly sweet and superb quality.
Finally, the beaten chestnuts are taken to the mill to be ground to produce this fantastic product.
It can be frozen up to a year, paying attention to keep it far from food that could pass the smell. It doesn’t freeze solid.
Finely grate the Caciotta using a Microplane or box grater into a bowl, season with a little freshly ground pepper and a small pinch of nutmeg if you wish. You should be able to clump the mixture together.
Lightly wet the pasta sheets so that they will later stick. Cut the pasta sheets in 4cm squares and fill each square with a small amount of Caciotta – about a pea sized ball. Fold over into a triangle, squeezing out all the air around the filling. Pinch the two side corners and join together (to make a little hat). Leave in the fridge.
Roughly chop the vegetables and add to 2litres of cold water. You can add a small amount of salt at this stage if you wish. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for one hour. Strain so you are just left with the liquid and reduce further for 10-15 minutes. Taste and add seasoning if required, or continue reducing if you want to intensify the flavour.
Cook the pasta for 2 minutes, strain and then add to the broth for a final minute. Place the tortellini on your serving plate and ladle over some broth. Sprinkle with a few thyme leaves and finish by grating some bergamot on top with a very fine grater.
Bergamot has got to be one of the most phenomenal fruits and by far the most interesting of all the citrus fruits. Mostly unknown to both consumers and the professional trade, its scent and flavour are simply superb – beautifully floral with the most delicate scent. This delicate element is key in its ability to work incredibly well with langoustine. Its versatility is impressive – last year (the time I discovered this gem) I did a version of classic Tortellini in Brodo. I made simple tortellini filled with caciotta served in a delicate vegetable broth, and finished off with grated bergamot zest…it worked beautifully.
So why aren’t these green orbs flooding the supermarket shelves? Leave supermarkets aside, we’re the only company in the UK able to supply them…so perhaps a better question is, how did we get our hands on them…?
It actually has an awful lot to do with their alluring scent. As equally alluring to tea makers as it is to perfumiers, you will find bergamot essence listed in the ingredients of Earl Grey Tea and some of the best known perfumes (1/3 of all men’s and half of all women’s fragrances contain bergamot). Bergamot is not widely produced and pretty much the entire production goes straight to the perfume companies. In addition, production of bergamot has been declining over the past 20 years, so whilst it’s widely available to buy as an essence, to find the actual fresh fruit is extremely difficult.
At Natoora we couldn’t let such a delicious citrus be kept off the menu. I still remember where I was when I first tried fresh bergamot, and I knew this was a phenomenal product which our chefs would want. There is no way I would ever leave it to chance to find fresh bergamot, so thanks to our expertise we began sourcing producers very early on this year. Now we source ours straight from a farmer in Calabria where the best bergamots are grown. No other supermarket, online grocer or wholesaler has the same expertise and sourcing capability and for this reason, Natoora is the only place you can buy bergamot in the UK.
Since we started importing the bergamot and introducing it to the restaurants we supply, bergamot dishes have been appearing on the menus of some of the best restaurants in London. Antonin at The Greenhouse served me a brilliant langoustine dish, while Jacob at Bocca di Lupo makes a delicious and refreshing bergamot granita, topped with mereingue, and Claude at Hibiscus made a bergamot pie…I have yet to try it.
Now, you can also try it at home! The skin at the moment is a bright green, showing that they are at their best. These are picked early in the season when the fragrance and aroma are the most floral. Logically they are unwaxed so you must take advantage of the skin as well as the juice to flavour dishes. Enjoy the fantastic flavour of bergamot from now in to the new year – the season will last for a few months. We recommend them with shellfish, foie gras, made into marmalades and sorbets…simply use it as you would lemon, and place a few slices into a jug of iced water. Of course, that same slice into a cup of tea….well…..
This past weekend I took the time to enjoy a calm, relaxed breakfast at home. My partner loves yoghurt and cereal, particulraly granola. I combined some fantastic River Cottage natural yoghurt with granola and a great mix of seasonal fruits…a few pumpkin seeds and honey finished it off.
On Wednesday I watched a very insightful program on Channel 4; Food, presented by journalist and food critic Jay Rayner. There was a great expose on the production of cherry tomatoes in Morocco for UK supermarkets – the resulting analysis poses the delicate question of water shortages vs. labour creation for the Moroccan people.
This a moral and environmental issue which, rightly, dominates the discussion. However, an often overlooked issue within this topic, and one I find it difficult to comprehend – is why, as consumers, we have come to accept foods (in this case tomatoes) which, moral issues aside, are completely lacking in taste and yet come at vastly inflated prices. Take a major supermarket’s cherry tomatoes on the vine at £5.73/kg. Top quality cherry tomatoes grown outdoors in Sicily, even from Pachino which is arguably the finest tomato producing region in the world, can be bought in the wholesale markets for £2.00/kg – even if you buy one lonely box. Given the disagreeable quality of supermarket tomatoes the price is ludicrous, an absolute rip-off. Consumers are paying for needless packaging, labelling, long storage and transit times. The tomato itself represents a meagre amount of the total paid.
Italian supermarkets, and for that matter those in many of our continental neighbour’s countries, are fully capable of sourcing a wide array of fresh, extremely local produce. These are the same supermarkets which source the majority of their meat from Ireland. On my recent holiday in the country, the Coop managed to display courgettes with their flowers still on which would have been harvested no more than 12hrs prior – this is magnificent.
You can read Jay Rayner’s article on the above issue here
Congratulations are in order for Claude Bosi and all the team at Hibiscus on an excellent cover article in this month’s Restaurant magazine.
It is a personal pleasure to see our clients thrive and earn the recognition of their peers. In our line of work the successes of our customers provides the ultimate validation for what we do. Having tasted my fair share of Claude’s food I certainly believe he deserves a third star.
I’d highly recommend any of our retail customers to pay Hibiscus a visit.