Saturday, April 26, 2008

Three nights in Rosà... and four hours in Venice

We had been driving for eight hours in pounding rain and fog only slightly less puddinglike than riz au lait. Finally, after many wrong turns and some predictable griping about Italian road signs, we arrived in the little-known town of Rosà (nice, name, don't you think?). Our great friends from Canada were staying in Cittadella, just a few kilometers away, but suddenly the distance seemed insurmountable. "We'll just eat at the agriturismo tonight," we told our friends.
I should have known that there is no such thing as "just eating" at an agriturismo, a farmhouse that doubles as a restaurant and often as a bed and breakfast. La Dolfinella's owners cheerfully told us to come to the dining room no later than 8.30pm - what they didn't say is that we would be polishing off the crumbs of our ricotta torte three hours later. Before that torte (which would make a second appearance at breakfast) came a meal that could be described with many adjectives, none of them a synonym of "balanced."
There was polenta topped with chunks of meat, grilled white asparagus and a lot of melted butter. There was crespelle, a kind of crepe, with a mascarpone, ricotta and herb filling. There was the creamiest risotto made with more white asparagus, which was at its peak when we visited. I was starting to think that I might have eaten enough when the main course came: thin slices of roast pork from the farm with sautéed potatoes and salad. Oh, and with each course there were earnest offers of seconds.
When I complimented the signora the next day on the quality of her husband's cooking, she shrugged matter-of-factly. "It's Italian cuisine," she said.
I hardly need to explain why I had soon forgotten our ordeals on the road. As for Rosà, it's one of the few places in Italy that I would not describe as pretty. The Veneto has a lot going for it - the Dolomites, half of Lake Garda, cities like Verona and Venice - but the downside of its wealth is the thousands of trucks and hundreds of warehouse-style outlets that we passed on the way to our destination. That said, the medieval towns of Cittadella and Castelfranco are beautiful, friendly and a lot easier on the nerves than nearby Venice.
Once in the area it seemed silly not to see Venice, and the rain politely stopped for the duration of our whirlwind visit. I can't pretend to have formed any original thoughts about the city in four hours, but I did see enough to convince me that there is much to discover beyond its sometimes gaudy surface. I even spotted a restaurant where I would have liked to eat, though we contented ourselves with inoffensive panini this time (not a tragedy considering what we had consumed the night before, and what we would eat the next day).

We strolled through the Rialto market at closing time, and I marvelled at the sight of trimmed raw artichoke hearts floating in lemon water. What a brilliant idea! Why has nobody thought of this in France?

In Castelfranco we hooked up with our old friend Fabio, who specializes in sniffing out extraordinary restaurants in unlikely locations. He took us to the out-of-the-way organic osteria Pironetomosca (Via Priuli, 17/C, Castelfranco), with quite a stylish decor compared to the farm kitsch at La Dolfinella. This didn't prevent the kitchen from turning out country-style food such as my white asparagus flan with creamy leek sauce, thick spaghetti (I've forgotten the exact name) laced with chunks of duck, and enormous slab of beef roasted all night long at a low temperature. This might sound like rather a lot, but I'm not joking when I say that it seemed relatively light compared to what we had eaten two nights before. We even headed straight for the gelateria in Castelfranco after this meal.
Probably my greatest discovery of this brief trip was the white asparagus from Bassano, just up the road from Rosà. Though we didn't make it to Bassano, along the strip-mall-like road between Cittadella and Rosà were stands selling its DOP asparagus, tied into fat bundles. In France I had already learned to appreciate the delicately bitter taste of white asparagus; these sweet ivory stalks that barely needed peeling were something else altogether. They were delicious boiled standing up or steamed with a lemon and hazelnut vinaigrette, but braising turned out to be the best method of all - thanks, Susan, for sending out this recipe at just the right moment.

* I know I've been promising to tell you about Liguria, but my Easter weekend in Finale Ligure has lost its immediacy. This is a place I plan to go back to again and again, so with luck you won't have to wait long to hear about the best places to eat spaghetti allo scoglio, pasta with pesto, and focaccia dressed with nothing more than olive oil and coarse salt.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Château de la Chèvre d'Or

Spring has been in a playful mood this year, getting our hopes up only to dash them like the wave that swept through our beach picnic yesterday, soaking us from head to toe. Yet the season started promisingly with a brilliant if chilly day in Eze Village, a little town 20 minutes from Nice that clings to the top of a craggy rock overlooking the sea.
Philippe and I came here on the first day of spring (ages ago, I know) to have lunch at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, named after an animal that frequently pops up in Provençal lore. Various tales explain how this old stone house came to be called La Chèvre d'Or, but what is certain is that the golden goat has prospered since Robert Wolf opened the restaurant in 1953. Now part of the Relais & Château chain, the Chèvre d'Or has transformed half the town into luxury accommodation, attracting wealthy Parisians in need of sun and tourists from all over the world. The hotel employs more than 100 staff to take care of its four restaurants and 34 rooms, which are scattered throughout the village.

I had heard nothing but good things about the food at La Chèvre d'Or before coming here, but with the restaurant freshly re-opened after its winter break who knew whether an unexpected wave might come crashing through this meal? Chef Philippe Labbé put any fears to rest with cooking that walked a fine line between traditional and daring, never slipping too far one way or the other. I also couldn't help but notice that he shares my love of citrus, which endeared him to me throughout the meal. Oh, and that champagne did put us in a good mood from the very beginning, as did a series of well-chosen glasses of wine from the sommelier.

Crisp parmesan cones perched in shot glasses set the tone, alongside a paper-thin parmesan tuile sprinkled with paprika.

Beautiful as they looked on their silver spoons, these salmon sushi couldn't help but seem out of place here - a small blip in the Provençal spirit of this meal.

I would normally be alarmed at the idea of Niçois ravioli (filled with beef and chard) with an avocado sauce vierge, but the chef pulled it off here with a good shot of acidity from lemon zest and juice. Surprising and delicious.

The meal's first course after the amuses-bouches involved different takes on sea urchin and caviar, as in this iced cocktail of fennel and spider crab jelly topped with sea urchin "tongues".

Most intriguing of the three small dishes was a translucent sea water "raviole" with an intense sea urchin filling. I had visions - most likely inaccurate - of the chef hiking down the steep trail known as the Nietzsche path from the top of the village to the sea to collect water in a bucket.

I loved everything about la barbue sauvage, wild brill with spiky artichokes and a separate small dish of gamberoni with artichoke. Labbé deserves credit for showcasing an often underrated fish, rather than choosing the more obvious turbot or sole.

You might have heard of Bresse chicken, but did you know that the Bresse region also produces rabbits worthy of star chefs? The doll-sized rack of ribs alongside the stuffed saddle and confit shoulder was not for those who squirm at the thought of eating bunnies.

A thin slice of mango filled with iced vanilla cream was fabulous and we could have happily stopped here, but along came trio of desserts...

This photo aims to disguise the fact that I had taken a few bites before I remembered my duty. Alongside it was a praline cream with a crumbly apricot topping and a chilled coupe of coffee, lemon, chocolate and nougatine - all as rich and over-the-top as it sounds.

As you might expect the Château de la Chèvre d'Or is not a cheap place, but with set menus at €65 or €95 at lunch (€180 at dinner) and spectacular plunging views of the sea, it's definitely worth a splurge. In summer the best seats are on the terrace, which gets a cool breeze even on the hottest days.

* Carol Van Rooy is the winner of my book giveaway - thanks to all you borage lovers out there! I've sent you an e-mail, Carol, and will put the books in the post as soon as I hear from you.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Book giveaway

My blog's first birthday is coming up and I'm feeling generous. Or maybe I'm just stalling for time, as I'm off to Italy today and won't be able to post for about a week. Whatever the reason, there are two fabulous paperback books up for grabs: Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food and Lindsay Bareham's A Celebration of Soup.
Though I wouldn't dream of being without either of these books, I happen to find myself with extra copies and want to be sure they fall into the right hands. All you have to do is send a comment correctly identifying the edible (now there's a clue) flower shown in this picture, and you will have a chance to win both of these books. I'll send them anywhere in the world, so whether you're in Hong Kong or Honolulu, you can play. Friends are eligible too, since I will draw a name randomly from the correct answers.
I'll be back to tell you all about the Veneto (and Liguria, and my early spring meal at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or). Ciao!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A quietly delicious Paris pâtisserie

My love affair with French food began with pâtisserie and I still take pride in knowing where to find the best, from Pierre Hermé's passion fruit and milk chocolate macaron to Sadaharu Aoki's green tea millefeuille. That's why I was surprised to come across an interview with Pierre Hermé in which he spoke of a pastry shop that had somehow escaped my notice.
Though I thought I could sniff out sugar from miles away, La Petite Rose is in a residential part of the 8th arrondissement not far from where I live when I'm in Paris. You can imagine that I wasted no time in dashing over there to see what I had been missing since it opened a couple of years ago.
In an age where pâtisseries and chocolateries are looking ever more intimidating, with stark facades that barely suggest there might be cakes inside, it was refreshing to find this cheerful shop with pastries in the window and a few tables scattered outside and inside. The walls are painted pale pink and chocolate brown, a combination that seems to me typically Japanese. Pastry chef Miyuki Watanabe is indeed from Japan, and she let me take a few photos while she shyly told me about training in Tokyo and working at Gérard Mulot before opening her own shop.

I resisted the small but exquisite selection of pastries as I was on my way to a three-course lunch, but chose a few chocolates, which I proceeded to gobble, lunch or no lunch. Most original was the soft nougat wrapped in dark chocolate, though my favorite was probably the subtly zingy ginger-spiked ganache. At €4.70 for about ten chocolates, her prices are well below those of the ultra-chic chocolatiers of St-Germain, and I couldn't detect a difference in quality.

Next time I'll be sure to try her Valentin, the chocolate mousse and crème brûlée cake that Hermé recommended, as well as her chocolate and raspberry macaron. (I won't be afraid to go back to this shop, since I didn't destroy any cakes.)
On the way out, I looked to my right and admired this view of Sacré Coeur as I crossed the street: proof yet again that Paris always holds new surprises.

La Petite Rose, 11, boulevard de Courcelles, 8th, 01 45 22 07 27.