Exquisite eating in England

By JOHN F. CARAFOLI

CONTRIBUTING WRITER
My culinary journey began with a 9 a.m. flight to England. The long but comfortable trip (accompanied by an edible meal, but alas, one not worthy of mention in this story) gave me time to review and refine my presentation of the paper I had prepared for the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery.

This prestigious symposium, held one weekend each September at Oxford University in England, focuses on a single theme chosen two years in advance by its invited participants.


Vongole in Padella (clams with cannellini beans, tomato, chilli, basil, bruschetta, and lemon) is a wonderfully fragrant dish that looks even more dramatic when served with clams in the shells. 
(Staff photo by KEVIN MINGORA)

This year, it was authenticity.As a food stylist and writer, I had chosen to write on ''How Do We Communicate Authenticity to the Consumer Through the Visual Presentation of Food?'' It is a subject I know well.

The symposium is a wonderful place to meet new people, glean a broader, deeper perspective on food and food writing, and learn what is going on in the scholastic food world.

The conference draws food scholars from around the world. I had the good fortune to meet people like Claudia Roden, famous for her Mediterranean and Italian cook books; Jill Norman, agent, editor and friend to the late Elizabeth David, who gained international attention with her focus on preparing fresh and simple foods; and Colman Andrews, editor-in- chief of Saveur Magazine.

One presentation that particularly fascinated me was ''The Rise of Molecular Gastronomy and Its Problematic Use of Science as an Authenticating Authority.'' Despite its seemingly esoteric title, I was intrigued by this lecture because I had lunched just the day before at The Fat Duck, north of London, and had experienced firsthand the ''extreme food'' movement prepared by its famed chef, Heston Blumenthal. Defined as a combination of chemistry and culinary science, the extreme food that Blumenthal prepares, along with Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain and a few other chefs in the U.S., ventures into provocative and controversial territory. Adria invented the ethereal foams, flavored with fruit and vegetable liquids, that sometimes surround a main course or appetizer or rest creatively on a hot-and-cold soup, a dish that's cold on the bottom and hot on top. Having been to New York restaurants that copy this concept, with unimpressive results, I was skeptical. But after dining at The Fat Duck, where Blumenthal has gained acclaim for his work in the area, I got a glimpse of how this might work. You have to set aside your expectations of how food should look, taste and smell in order to experience how foods like white chocolate and caviar can go together.

Harold McGee's ''On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen'' seems to be the main textbook for this new trend in food.

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck is a 50-minute train ride, from London's Paddington Station to Maidenhead, followed by a 10-minute cab ride to the small village of Bray. The five-year-old restaurant is housed in an old cottage that was formerly a pub. I entered the 16-table eatery and was immediately struck by the understated, unpretentious elegance of the place.

The principal dining room has rough beams across a low ceiling - so low that the taller wait staff had to mind their heads when walking through the room. My table for one awaited me.

I had made plans to dine at this restaurant with a well-known food editor who made the reservation months in advance. The restaurant has become so popular that there is a two-to-three month waiting list. Unfortunately, my friend canceled at the last minute due to pressing business. Knowing it would not be the same experience without her, I nonetheless refused to sacrifice the opportunity to enjoy a meal at what is now considered to be one of the greatest restaurants in the world.

As I began my meal with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I looked around and noticed that every detail was carefully attended to. The wait staff, an international melting pot, included a sommelier originally from Turkey with a vast knowledge of wines, a French maitre d', and other individuals from Holland, Spain, and Italy, all impeccably trained - discreet yet attentive.

A small beautiful square of dark wood was set at the center of the table presenting a tidy mound of unpasteurized butter, in the diner's choice of salted or unsalted, to accompany a choice of large slices of wonderful light or dark artisan bread.

Shortly thereafter, an amuse-gueule (a tiny taste) appeared in front of me with a flourish. It was a whole grain mustard sorbet (about the size of a jumbo olive) with a cold red cabbage gazpacho poured over it. The overall effect was tasty, different and elegant.

As a first course, I selected a parfait of foie gras sandwiched between two paper thin crackers. A carefully designed fig puree was presented to the side of the parfait, and red wine granité (unsweetened grape ice) was placed on a dish to the side. I accompanied this with a glass of Tokaji Cuvee Szepsy, a sweet wine from Hungary recommended by the sommelier. It complemented the foie gras Although expensive, it was one of the most delicious, creamy, dense wines of its kind, a perfect match for the luscious starter.

My main course was fresh poached halibut on a bed of caramelized chicory, and a nage of cockles (shellfish served in the broth in which they were cooked.). The combination of textures, flavors and tastes, which seem fairly common, were exquisite.

For dessert, I savored an altogether unlikely but transcendent invention: a Carrot Toffee topped with Butternut Ice Cream drizzled with Pumpkin Seed Oil, its serving plate garnished with small squares of poached carrots. The combination of flavors and its unique presentation was both unexpected and delicious.

Creative carrots

To finish the meal, a small bowl was presented to me containing a paper thin, nearly transparent orange rectangle held upright on a toothpick. The waiter referred to it as a ''popsicle,'' describing its ingredients as carrot and orange essence. He urged me to pick it up and eat it as a popsicle, using the toothpick to dip it into the small mound of beetroot paste on the plate next to it.

The flavors and experience were whimsical and delicious. I mused on the interesting use of carrots in both desserts. Full of sugars, they lent themselves well to the creativity of this chef.

I was finishing my Earl Gray tea when out of the kitchen came a pre-dessert course headed for the adjacent table. Had I not just finished dessert, I would immediately have ordered what the maitre'd referred to as an experiment. It consisted of a dried cocoa pod filled with crushed cocoa beans. In it were stuck delicate pins with disks floating above the surface, on the small disks were thin round slices of white chocolate, each topped with a dollop of caviar. I had seen this pre-dessert in a magazine and was extremely curious and inquisitive and wanted to experience this different use of ingredients.

I left The Fat Duck feeling completely satisfied in every sense.

The River Café

My second superb dining experience occurred at the River Café, on the day I left London to fly back to Cape Cod. My meal consisted of simple yet delicious, well-prepared Italian dishes using the freshest and highest-quality ingredients. Over the years, I have stressed the importance of high-quality ingredients in creating the best cuisine, and the River Café embodied this maxim. The simplicity and minimalism of the room with its stainless steel counters and bars put the food first and foremost in this very popular London restaurant.

From where I was seated I could observe the workings of the entire restaurant. An arrangement of plates of varying sizes displayed gorgeous vegetables and ingredients, like green beans, roasted pepper and tomatoes. I was impressed that after nearly 20 years Rose Gray, one of the restaurant's well-known owners and chef, could be seen preparing meals at lunchtime. Working under her expert supervision, a group of chefs assisted in preparing orders with precision and efficiency. The people in this place are still at the top of their game.

What better a way to start a meal than with a Bellini-Prosecco combined with fresh white peach nectar, beautifully presented in a tall frosted Italian glass? A crusty piece of grilled bread drizzled with a rich green extra virgin olive oil was brought to the table.

I decided to have two antipasti - the Calamari ai ferri, chargrilled squid with fresh diced red chili and a side of rocket (arugula), as well as the Vongole in Padella - clams with fresh cannellini beans, tomato, chili, basil, bruschetta and lemon (see recipe below).

Instead of a main course, I selected one of the primis, Tagliatelle ai Fungi - handmade pasta with Scottish girolles (mushrooms), butter, garlic and parsley. I was in heaven! Between courses, I had a fresh mixed green salad with just the right amount of dressing.

For dessert, what caught my eye was the Panna Cotta with Grappa and Blackberries. It was truly the best panna cotta I have ever tasted (see recipe below). Following this sublime three-hour meal, I approached Rose Gray, who was sitting at a table with one of the chefs, and thanked her personally for keeping real Italian food and cooking customs alive in England.

It was getting late and I had a plane to catch. I splurged for a cab to the airport - a fitting end to my stellar food experience in England.

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This was a new recipe at the River Café and was written down for me by Rose Gray.

It calls for fresh cannellini beans. Cannellini beans are a rarity on Cape Cod but you can soak dried beans. First wash and soak overnight in a bowl of cold water changing the water and rinsing the beans several times. Use them in the recipe the next day. The tomato, lemon, basil and fresh red pepper come together for a unique taste. It makes a light, simple, and healthy supper. I served it with a Joseph Phelps, Napa Sauvignon Blanc and a salad of fresh arugula and mache drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, Balsamic vinegar I purchased in Italy, salt and pepper.

Vongole in Padella

(Clams with Cannellini Beans, Tomato, Chilli, Basil, Bruschetta and Lemon)

3 pounds fresh Little Neck Clams (about 3 dozen)*

1/2 pound dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight

1 1/2 pounds plum tomatoes

2 whole fresh red chilies

4 cloves garlic

20 basil leaves

2 lemons

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 thick slices of sourdough or Tuscan bread

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

Scrub the clams and discard any that do not close when tapped slightly.

Place the cannellini beans in a medium saucepan with one-clove garlic, one of the whole chilies, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Drain off the water, reserving 2 to 3 tablespoons. Smash the garlic and the flesh from the chili into the reserved water and mix into the beans. Season generously with salt and pepper and mix in 3 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil.

Peel and chop two garlic cloves, finely grate the peel of 1 lemon, and juice the lemon, and set aside. De-seed and finely slice the remaining chili, wash and dry the basil. Blanch, peel, and de-seed the tomatoes, then roughly chop.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large thick-bottomed pan (cast iron works well) and sauté the garlic and chili together for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook together for 5 minutes, add the clams, the lemon juice, and zest, and season. Cover and cook until the clams open (about 2 to 3 minutes), add the beans and basil, stir to combine.

Brush the bread with olive oil and rub each side with a piece of crushed garlic. Place under a broiler, turning once until each side is lightly brown. (I suggest buying good quality bread for this recipe at Pain D' Avignon in Hyannis. They have sourdough and a good Tuscan, it will make a wonderful bruschetta.)

Place a slice of bread in each bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and pour over the clams and their juices. Serve with a wedge of lemon. Serves 4.

* This dish was served to me with the clams out of the shell. If I get the clams myself and know they are extremely fresh, I go with Rose Gary's recipe, adding the clams to the sauce and cooking until they open. The whole clams on the plate make a nice visual presentation. Otherwise, I steam the clams first in 1/2 cup of white wine for 3 to 5 minutes, remove from shell, discard clams that do not open, and add 1/2 cup of strained clam broth to the tomato sauce, then add the clams at the last minute to heat. If calms are cooked too long, they get tough.

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Here is a wonderful, extremely rich dessert for a special occasion. For the up coming holidays try cooked cranberries, a little sugar and zest of orange. It is important to use a quality grappa, a colorless, high-alcohol Italian drink made from the grape skins and seeds left in the wine press.

This recipe comes from ''The Café Cook Book, Italian Recipes from London's River Cafe'' (Broadway Books, 1997). ''Italian Easy, Recipes from the River Café'' (Clarkson and Potter) is the latest book put out by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

Panna Cotta with Grappa and Raspberries

5 cups heavy cream

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

Thinly pared zest of 2 lemons

4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

2/3 cup cold milk

1 cup powdered sugar

1/2 cup grappa, plus extra to serve

1 1/2 pints raspberries

Pour 3 3/4 cups of the cream into a sauce pan, add the vanilla beans and lemon zest, bring to a boil, them simmer until reduced by one-third . Remove the cooked lemon zest and set aside. Remove the vanilla beans and scrape the softened insides into the cream

Sprinkle the gelatin over the milk in a small saucepan and soak until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir over low heat until the gelatin dissolves completely. Add to boiled cream mixture.

Whip the remaining 1 1/4 cups cream with the powdered sugar until it holds its shape,

Fold into the cooled cooked cream, and add the grappa. Place a piece of cooked lemon zest in each of the eight (6-ounce) custard cups, and pour in the cream mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Run a knife inside each cup, then turn out on to a dessert plates and serve with fresh raspberries. If you desire pour a tablespoon of grappa over the top. Makes 6 servings

Food expert John F. Carafoli's column appears in the Cape Cod Times food pages on the first Wednesday of the month. Send him your questions about food and cooking by email toThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by mail to Gwenn Friss, food editor, Cape Cod Times, 319 Main St., Hyannis, MA 02601.

(Published: October 5, 2005)