This year I spent Christmas in Marrakech, staying in a traditional riad the heart of the medina – the old city. Our friends and hosts were great cooks and enthusiastic entertainers and the next few days would be a celebration of Morocco’s extraordinary and exotic food.
Outside the thick, clay walls of the riad, a tangle of narrow alleys led onto the main square, Djemaa el Fna, where the hawkers, market stalls and performers tempt, hassle and entertain. At night, rows of street food vendors cook Moroccan delicacies over burning coals, and the air is filled with smoke and the scent of spices.
I have just been staying near Apt in the hills of Provence, looking out towards the Luberon mountains. The steep landscape is covered by oak and chestnut trees and wild herbs grow out of the rocky, dry earth. Cliffs of ochre, once quarried for the colour used to paint the local houses, cut through parts of the forest. These same hills are where the Maquis once hid and where wild boar are hunted.
The places and ingredients Elizabeth David talks about in her seminal book, French Provincial cooking, came alive as I discovered them first hand. Things that speak of the region and its history of food: artichokes Barigoule; apricots grown near Apt; soft goat’s cheeses from Banon and sweet Beaumes de Venise wines; Calissons – the small almond cakes from Aix and the intense melons of Cavaillon. As you wander through the markets, the air smells sweet with ripe fruit and in other parts, savoury with the meaty fragrance of salamis, olives and cheeses.
A recent trip to Paris was full of discoveries. It’s amazing how many new (and ancient) places I find, even after years of visiting. We flew around the city on bicycles, trying restaurants, finding galleries and shopping (food related of course!). A whirl around Paris that was exhausting but exhilarating, and here is my pick of the best:
This time I stayed with a friend in the 11th Arrondisement, which offered a view of the city I hadn’t seen before. Among the other great attributes of this trendy district, it is the location of some of the best ‘nouveau bistro’ restaurants, including Septime and Chateaubriand (see my previous post) and the most stylish ‘gluten free’ bakery, Chambelland, which sold loaves of bread that were so good, I had to haul some back to London.
Chambelland, 14 Rue Ternaux, 75011 Paris
5 seed loaf at Chambelland
A Postcard from Florence: my best picks of places to eat and things to see..
A view from the Uffizi gallery of the Arno with Ponte Vecchio in the foreground
Cibreo, Via Andrea del Verrocchio, 8
I loved this place so much, we visited for lunch and dinner in the same weekend. It serves dainty plates of unusual antipasti made to a high standard but without any fussiness. As we sat down, we were brought little bowls of almonds ground with oil and bread, served as a type of spread. Next came the lightest, creamiest, chicken liver pate (the best I’ve tried in Tuscany, where it is a speciality) on crostini. It was served alongside a small square of baked ricotta and borage. In the evening there was fresh sheep’s ricotta, Brussels sprouts lightly pickled in vinegar and oil, sweet carrots with onion but the most unusual and exciting dish was a moulded, strained yoghurt with turmeric, lemon and a little cumin, which we asked for at both meals. A delicate tripe taster was cooked with chilli and vinegar and oil, the daintiest way I’ve ever seen it prepared.
The end of a year is always a good time for a round-up, so here are some of my most memorable encounters and enjoyable moments of eating, cooking and discovering the best ingredients of 2014…
Sea urchins in Oulidia, Morocco – the cold temperature of the sea greatly improves the flavour
Where would you go and eat in Paris? If you’d asked me that 20 years ago, I would have had lots of ideas, but none of them new or exciting. “Voltaire, Lipp, Bofinger or Chez L’ami Louis – or if you want spend a fortune you could try Reblochon” I might have said.
But over the past 10 years, there’s been a new scene emerging, so seeking the advice of young and plugged in restaurateurs in London, I headed off with a list of names to see if Paris had found a new groove.
I remember a time when Parisian restaurants were known as the best in the world. Not just the ones strewn with Michelin stars, but the easy bistros, the little places serving steak with Boulangere potatoes, or a plate of garlicky escargot and a good glass of wine. But for the past 15 years or so, finding a reasonably priced, exceptional dinner in Paris had become something of a challenge.
Then came the new wave of bistronomique and the Neo-Bistro. Some say it started with a 29-year-old chef from Chicago, Daniel Rose, when he opened a tiny, instantly popular restaurant called Spring. A little place in the 9th Arrondissement with an open plan kitchen and a multi course set menu drawn from the best market produce. It was booked out for months in advance and has since moved to a larger premises in the 1st to accommodate the ever expanding demand.
Over the past few years, Spain has been having a restaurant revolution. Its worldwide reputation is now for award winning, avant-garde cooking from places like El Cellar Can Rocca, Arzak and Mugaritz. I’m not one to slavishly follow restaurant trends, but if I’d been in Girona or San Sebastian for the last bank holiday weekend, I’m sure I would have tried to get a table.
Instead, our destination was Madrid. Smart, sophisticated and far more beautiful than I had imagined with one of the greatest art collections in the world and some of the best old-fashioned restaurants. When our Madrillenos friends weren’t entertaining us, we took their recommendations for places to go and eat, but these were old Madrid, not the pioneering new places.
Cafe Murillo, by the Prado