Sunday, 23 July 2017

3 of the Best Gelatieri in Italy

As well as visiting the Gelato Artigianale Festival in Agugliano this June, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to see some of the incredible Maestro Gelatieri we met in their natural environments - their own gelaterias. They are all notably 100% hands on, creating recipes, researching ingredients and of course, serving gelato to an adoring public. This is very different to the 'celebrity chef' culture in this country, where all too often it seems like chefs slap their name on a restaurant chain and then never do anything but turn up for periodic promotional photographs.

One of the great driving forces behind the Gelato Artigianale Festival is Paolo Brunelli, whose first gelateria is situated right in the heart of Agugliano. We also travelled to Senigallia by the coast to see his other venue and of course to enjoy some of his creations.

It was a real honour to get to spend so much time with Paolo, who is one of the real innovators of the truly artisan gelato movement. He has just released a new book 'Gelateria per tutte la stagioni' - the gelateria for all seasons - which boasts 365 days' worth of ideas drawn from his enviable experience of the world of gelato and proven experience as an experimental, flavour-driven artist and artisan.

Amongst the many wonderful flavours and textures that we experienced during our visit, including Paolo's work with gelato, sorbetto, flavoured jellies and sauces and more, the stand out dish for me was the creation pictured here. This shows the sort of development that he is showcasing in his new book - gelato based creations that are full, plated, fine dining desserts.

A post shared by Antonio De Vecchi (@arvedse) on

As you would expect, the dishes are kept simple and uncomplicated - allowing the flavours of the superb quality ingredients to shine through. This was a Fior di Latte gelato nestled on a bed of Zabaione sauce and topped with a sprinkle of freshly grated Pecorino cheese. I'm sure you can imagine the melding of flavours - sweet, creamy, salty, tangy and more - just a sublime combination. I look forward to seeing more gelatieri taking Paolo's lead and moving gelaterias more to the Fine Dining category. True artisan gelato certainly deserves to be recognised for its artisan quality and this feels to me like the next step.

The traditional way of serving gelato, not on display but in these silver lidded tubs.
Italians don't need to see it first to decide what they want!! They know what the flavours are on the 

Onwards to Matteo Carloni, a bright, bubbly and incredibly enthusiastic gelatiere who runs his two Gambrinus venues in Perugia, one right in the heart of the historic town and another much further out in the suburbs.

Matteo Carloni (centre) with Daniele Taverna and Antonio De Vecchi of Gelato Village, Leicester

Like all of the gelaterias we visited, Matteo does an exciting offshoot of gelato based products - here in Leicester, we refer to homemade gelato lollies as 'gelollies' - I'm not sure what the Italians call them! But there were also numerous gelato celebration cakes in evidence, all beautifully decorated to a standard that would be applauded by any patisserie chef. It was interesting to see so many shared ingredients that we see in Leicester too - San Biagio, Sur de Lago dark chocolate - it really inspires confidence that the gelato we see from the artisans at Gelato Village is authentic and the ingredient choices shared by those still in Italy.

Finally we stopped in the historic town of Fano, which is absolutely overrun by bicycles, because apparently there is no public transport to speak of. It is wonderful! Here we met Antonio and Paola Luzi of Gelateria Artigianale Maki, where I had a cup containing the most different flavours of gelato and sorbetto I have ever had at once in my life. Truly a cornucopia!!

They are both incredibly skilled gelato artisans and their flavours also show the creativity and flair that I am now becoming used to! 'Thai Golden Milk' was a particularly interesting and inspirational idea, particularly with the sort of flavour palettes we have available here in Leicester.

I also found it interesting to begin to be able to identify the differences between the gelatieri and their styles. While Paolo Brunelli seemed to be a fan of big, bold flavours, squeezing as much flavour as he can out of each ingredient, the Luzis struck me as having a much lighter touch, being concerned with often more complex combinations where they carefully struck a careful balance between the key notes of each ingredient. It is very much like being able to recognise the signature sound of your favourite bands and it is something I am loving finding more about!

So next time you visit Italy, do a little research in advance - make sure you know who is making real gelato and who is not. After all, you might as well give your Euros to these small independent craftspeople, rather than big chains who don't necessarily use the best, seasonal ingredients, right?

Friday, 21 July 2017

GBK - More burgers in the Burger Capital

Yes, Leicester is the Burger Capital of the country, and perhaps even the world. But the appetite must surely be there as industry giants GBK have decided to open a branch in the city, right at the heart of town outside the Clock Tower. It's a bold move - they rub shoulders there with several competing chains and of course we all know that there are fantastic burgers on offer from independent venues all over Leicester.

I have to say I went along to try out GBK having heard mixed reviews from others and not particularly expecting anything special, but I was rather taken by surprise. The newly kitted out restaurant is light and airy, with two floors of seating and the usual mixture of quirky, mismatched decor and exposed brickwork that we have now come to expect in our burger joints.

The team were welcoming and friendly, with excellent knowledge of the menu and efficient service on offer. GBK operates a counter ordering system, which makes things quick and simple - there is no waiting around for your server to take your order or present the bill. If you want to make ordering even quicker you can even download the GBK app which allows you to order online direct from your table - if you can't bear to walk the few metres to the counter. I suppose that is incredibly useful if there is a queue to avoid. The app also gives you rewards as you collect virtual stamps during visits, so look out for complimentary treats to reward your loyalty.

If you venture upstairs you can poke your head in the open kitchen to see the chefs at work. If you just cannot wait to fill your face there are also bins of complimentary monkey nuts available for grazing purposes, which I didn't actually notice until we left. Minus 1 food reviewer points.

Peanuts are not nuts.

So we settled in with a drink and waited for our food to arrive. The wine list represented a good selection at reasonable value and there is also an extensive selection of milkshakes on offer for those fancying something cool and thick. The Boy was a little disappointed to order a Yeastie Boys BigMouth which was a relatively tasty session IPA but turns out to have been made by Brewdog, who we are currently boycotting (because we don't like their business practices) and so he would not have ordered that if it said anywhere but in tiny print on the back of the can.

The starters arrived quickly. I went for halloumi bites, which were simply grilled halloumi pieces with a sweet kiwi and habanero sauce. This may sound like an odd combination, and it is really, but there are little hints of the company's New Zealand heritage dotted all over the menu. The halloumi did not really have a crust to it, but the quality was good and the portion size was immense so I was pretty happy with it. Nothing like stuffing one's face with hot cheese, right?

The Boy ordered the chicken bites which were spiked with fiery chilli spices and came with a chilli mayonnaise, which was absolutely delicious! The chicken was moist and the coating crispy, so this also did everything you wanted it to do. Nothing too complicated, but pretty tasty stuff so far.

A surprisingly delicious pesto

The main event is of course the burgers and there are a variety of options available to suit all tastes including four vegetarian offerings, one of which is vegan friendly. If you don't fancy a burger then you can order a salad and of course you can add toppings, avoid the bun or tinker around with pretty much anything really. I went for the Bacon Pesterella - a chicken burger topped with crisp bacon, a slab of mozzerella and a thick layer of pine nut-heavy pesto which I really enjoyed. It was so enormous that I gave up and started using a knife and fork after only 3 or 4 bites. The basil mayo, pesto and relish gave plenty of moisture and I enjoyed having the panko-fried chicken breast rather than taking it plain grilled as it added loads of crunch and the chicken itself was still moist.

On the side I went for the truffle cheese fries - standard but nicely cooked chips served with a truffle cheese sauce which is a neon homage to American cheese, with shavings of Grana Padano cheese. It is absolutely calorific fun which is totally unecessary and therefore I enjoyed massively. But I live in a household that cannot have a BBQ without having plastic cheese on hand for our burgers, so I'll let you make of that what you will. Despicable. Yum.

The Boy filled his face with The Stack. It's not just a clever name. The beef burger was topped with Red Leicester and chunks of fried chorizo, a giant onion ring, pickled onions and relish, all brought together with a smoked chilli mayo. It's a little spicy (especially with jalapenos added!) and a little bit tinged with paprika moodiness.

Removing the mahoosive onion ring makes the Stack much easier to eat!

The burger itself was cooked medium rare and came out tender and juicy and with great beef flavour. All of the meat they use is British from grass-reared cattle and this does come through in the taste. He teamed this monster with a small serve of corn on the cob which was soaked in butter and so juicy that I had to duck to avoid the squirt of juice across the table when he bit into it. Graphic, but true.

So overall, we were mightily impressed. This is a burger joint without airs and pretensions and it delivers precisely what you are expecting. I went in expecting to be unimpressed and left as a relative convert. The meat is perhaps not quite the same quality as you might expect from an independent, but the burgers are tasty and hugeeeee! Next time I might serve the starter. And the side. Or, more likely, I might just go and have the truffle cheese fries for lunch because they are just filth.

Thanks to GBK for inviting us to try their new restaurant. This review is my honest opinion of our experience, warts and all.*

* No warts were involved.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Transatlantic - a showstopping cocktail you can make at home

I was introduced to The Transatlantic this week, an incredible cocktail developed by Charlotte Wood of Manhattan 34, Leicester as her entry into the #SouthernShowdown17 - a cocktail competition where Hi-Spirits challenge bartenders all around the country to capture the spirit of New Orleans in their very own Southern Comfort cocktail creation.

Charlotte has already made it to the regional heats, so I headed over to the bar to catch up with her and find out what this cocktail is all about. Usually, we see bartenders concocting all kinds of infusions and emulsions and syrups and sprays to fancify their cocktails, so imagine my surprise when Charlotte challenged me to have a go at making The Transatlantic for myself, using readily available ingredients from the supermarket.

I thought making a cocktail this beautiful would be hard, but it turns out it is The Big Easy! 
You see what I did there?

I could tell you more, but we made a video, so why not watch for yourself?

Thanks to Manhattan 34 for putting up with my poor quality bar tending and for letting me drink the cocktail I made!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Togfest: Sunshine and Facepaint

We had a fab time a few weeks ago heading down to meet friends in Milton Keynes and attending Togfest for the first time. This is a little two day festival that I had never heard of before, but is all centred around the classic stylings of the band Togmor - who gave a rousing set with lots of jigs and diddly-dee and were thoroughly enjoyable as the sun set over an absolutely beautiful day.

Sometimes only watery crap lager will do. Mainly when glass is banned so you can't bring wine in.

 We only went for the Saturday and took a satisfying stack of picnic food and booze with us. Yes, it's the only festival in the land where you can still take your own booze (no glass of course) and on that basis it wins for me (although I suppose Leicester's Riverside Festival is free and you can take booze also, but it's not quite the same).

We sat like royalty on our borrowed camping chairs and enjoyed getting nearly sunburned for the entire day whilst enjoying the bands on the main stage. There were also bands in the barn, but you would have had to move to see them. I have to say Jonny and the Mental Breakdowns were by far my favourite, and not just because they have an awesome name.

A craft ale bar was also available, along with other concessions including a children's art tent. It was true good, clean family fun and comes highly recommended.

Of course, the highlight was getting covered in as much brightly coloured glitter as we could and Sophia Tyler was on-hand to glam us all up. First up it was the girls. I asked for many colours and glitter, oh and a stick on thingumee and flowers and... well, it's safe to say I was quite over excited. Don't we look gorgeous - especially with a Snapchat filter to hand?

After we went up, it was the Boys' turn. Personally I think that bright colours and glitter would have suited them much better, but it seems that they gave off more of a tribal vibe as it turned out. And so the sun set over Togfest. Definitely something I would do again. 

What festivals have you been hitting up this year?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Maiyango is changing!

We were invited to one of the final tasting evenings at Maiyango, Leicester this week. They are closing their doors on 22nd July for a complete overhaul, where the central concept of the restaurant will change entirely. There are still some tasting evenings left, as well as the final closing party, so head over to their website to find out more if you want to have one last hurrah. I have no idea what the new concept will be but the floors in the ladies bathroom is now pink and sparkly - so I suppose your guess is as good as mine!

One of the courses from the vegetarian menu - poached duck egg with cheesy polenta chips!

Maiyango is now one of the old guard of Leicester's fine dining scene. Not quite as long running as The Case, but still with 10 years under their belts, they have been providing beautiful food and great service to the people of Leicester with unfailing regularity. 

As you can imagine, I jumped at the chance to sample their 6 course tasting menu with matched wines. I've been a big fan of the wine list at Maiyango, as well as their cooking so it promised to be a beautiful evening. We started off with a Tequila Tea welcome drink, which I must confess was not really my cup of tea - despite the fresh strawberry muddled in there I found it a little watery and uninspiring, but I could hear murmers of approval from other guests as we waited in the bar, so it might just not have been to my taste!

When we were seated, we were treated to canape while we waited - a smooth, creamy cheese and onion bite with a perfectly crisp outer coating which was pure comfort food delight, and another deep fried treat this time made with mutton which had a bold flavour cut through with an edge of mint that had great balance. Appetite whetted, we were all eager to proceed.

The first course was achingly tender slow-braised pork cheeks, served on a watercress puree with sweet potato garnish and a fat, juicy king prawn. This was matched with a soft, velvety Monastrell which matched the delicious texture of the pork cheeks perfectly. I was quite surprised to start the menu with such bold flavours, but it showed a real ambition and flair that definitely impressed me.

Onwards and upwards and next we were presented with a picnic terrine. Each course was introduced by our host, as well as the reasoning behind the choice of wine. The variety of meats in the terrine and layer of cheddar mousse and half quail's egg combined to make a really quite salty dish overall, and Hacienda Lopez de Haro Rioja Blanco was beautifully dry, but had just a hint of a creamy finish which cut through this salinity with grace and ease. I absolutely loved this wine, from the delicate, almost lemony nose to its cool slide into a well rounded and complex finish, this was the star of the course and not the food. Sadly, neither The Boy nor I was impressed with the rustic crouton, a slice of crusty bread fried in olive oil which was hard and was surprisingly difficult to cut through without sending a shower of crumbs over your neighbour.

It's hard to pick which was my favourite course of the evening, but the seared scallops with a French Picpoul was a strong contender. Again, the ambition of the chef shone through, as international cuisines were seamlessly blended on the same menu. The scallops were cooked to absolute perfection, soft and full of sweet flavour, which was not over powered by the addition of a touch of fiery sambal, a bed of salty samphire and a coconut and lime leaf sauce. The crisp garnish and samphire both added to the expert blending of textures and the portion size was just right. The Picpoul was a much bigger wine, with baked apple notes and a subtle sweetness which partnered the scallops incredibly well as well as dampening the worst harshness of the fire from the sambal. Both had a pleasing end point to their finish, leaving your mouth refreshed and ready for the next bite. A true display of culinary skill.

Our fish course was steamed wild sea bass, finished in the pan to give a crispy skin. Again, the oriental flavours shone through, with a coconut laksa, bok choi and coriander relish. Another extremely strong dish with the fish being wonderfully moist and a real pleasure to eat. This was served with a Peter Lehmann 'Portrait' Riesling from the Eden Valley. I was a little surprised that the wine pairing was not as advertised on the website, or indeed on the menu on the evening, but I really enjoyed the wine. Contemporary Rieslings are really starting to get under my skin!

On to the main course, and Gressingham duck was up next. This was five spiced and unfortunately a little on the chewy side although it was gorgeously moist. This was served with shredded duck and the most creamy and light celeriac cream I have ever had, which was a triumph. For some unconceivable reason there was also a chunk of burned honeycomb, which I wish I had not bothered to put in my mouth, so the less said about that the better. This was all complimented with a fig sauce which complemented the absolutely marvellous Passimento wine incredibly well. This was probably the wine of the evening, rich and deep and a great match for the gamey duck.

I was sad that the purple potato crisps that the menu mentioned also did not materialise. It's a small thing, for sure, but I think that fine dining relies on that full attention to every detail. When the dish was planned, presumably the crisps were added to the dish for their texture and flavour as well as for aesthetics and so it is a little disappointing to think that we didn't receive it exactly as the chef had envisaged.

Finally a Californian Elysium Black Muscat - a dessert wine I had been looking forward to all evening - was matched with poached rhubarb and rhubarb parfait which was also omitted from the menu despite being the main component. I think they forgot to poach my rhubarb as it was impossible to get a fork or spoon through. Finally the caramelised puff pasty crumble was a little burned which gave an unpleasant flavour and therefore was best avoided. However, the parfait and custard foam were refreshing and delicious and brought out a fascinating rose water character in the sticky, dark dessert wine. So a mixed bag on the pudding.

A wonderful evening was had with great company and some stonking wines. I thought the menu showed the best of the Maiyango team's skill and creativity, but at the same time there were some basic errors in execution which surprised me and didn't match up to my previous experiences there. I'm hoping the new concept will see more of the bold and the brave without compromising on the little details that make fine dining such a special experience.

Thank you to Maiyango for inviting the Boy and I along to write up the event.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Behind the Scenes at the Gelato Artigianale Festival, Italy

We had a marvellous time at the Gelato Artigianale Festival in Agugliano, Italy last month. I thought I'd write a little bit about the behind the scenes action that took place there. It takes an incredible team of volunteers to run such a busy and complex festival that literally takes over the whole town.

The Maestro Gelatieri who featured at the festival came from across Europe - but naturally mainly Italy to compete and showcase their skills at the Festival. The small local cinema was turned into a gelato Laboratory and the gelatieri were assigned daily shifts in which to make their gelato for the day's festivities.

Typically, there were issues with the machines, bits breaking and gelatieri therefore being thrown off schedule, but everyone was able to work together and work through these problems so the visiting public never even suspected!

As you can imagine, huge quantities of milk and cream, sugar and the rest were used to make all of the gelato, as well as people peeling and chopping endless bags of fruit and vegetables for their fresh flavours. I got involved helping to weigh out Gelato Village's recipe, including the Leicestershire honey which had been shipped over in advance of the festival.

The pans of completed gelato were run off to their respective stalls by the eager volunteers and the crowds showed out in force to enjoy them, as well as the music and dance entertainment from local organisations on the stages, and a variety of stalls and shops that had set up to keep the crowds happy.

At the start of the festival a number of the gelatieri learned about making brioche in the local bakery and helped to roll them out. This was served with a pistachio granita - a traditional breakfast combination in Sicily which I had never tried before. I have to say I had my doubts, it didn't sound like a combination that should work but it was absolutely gorgoeous. Pistachio granita is my new thing now.

Some of our esteemed judges during the Coppa Varnelli

And then there was the food. Oh the food. A dedicated team of volunteers set up a camp kitchen in a community hall and we dutifully went by for lunch and dinner each day. And the food was superb. Nothing complicated, nothing fancy - just simple recipes using excellent local produce. As you can well imagine, dear reader, I was happier than a pig in the proverbial with all of this.

A two or three course offering was laid out each time, with a pasta primo and meat or fish secondi and generally some fresh fruit or similar at the end. Convivial jugs of local Verdicchio wine were placed out on the tables, along with fresh bread. It was described to me as 'peasant food' when we arrived and if that's the case then sign me up!

So a fantastic few days all in all and hopefully that's given you a little insight into how the festival ran behind the scenes. I'll leave you with a glimpse of the celebratory dinner held for everyone who took part at the very end. 

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