La Rocca…A Sicilian Gem in Winchmore Hill

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It’s a Saturday afternoon and my father and I are heading towards Winchmore Hill, following a tip-off from our long time Italian food suppliers, Salvino. We’re looking for 250 mini Sicilian Cassata to form part of my wedding cake. I’ve been to all the regular central London Italian bakeries, contacted wholesalers, considered making them myself but the thought of constructing 250 sticky cakes the night before my wedding leads me to pre wedding despair. La Rocca is my last hope.

We drive through Green Lanes, pass Wood Green and after another  ten minutes or so reach Winchmore Hill broadway. I see La Rocca’s glass front and a stream of people heading in and leaving with content smiles. We enter, are instantly greeted by the busy owner, Salvatore, his  Sicilian charm prevalent and beaming from behind a well stacked counter. My senses feast; there’s a large ice cream counter with authentic and loved flavours, and importantly for  me, less known Italian flavours such as Hazelnut, Honeydew Melon and Tiramisu. Wafts of good strong espresso and tomato sauce induce a need to feast. And fest we did!

Read about the best sfogliatelle, cannoli, and arancini outside of Italy here…!!

Borek / Burek / Byrek / Pite / Rustico – Mediterranean Pies

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Warm, crispy and satisfying, filled pies are the ultimate in comfort food. Wherever you go in the Med you’ll find different versions. From Turkish Borek, Balkan Burek / Byrek / Pite and Mantija, Boureki of Greece to the Rustico of Southern Italy – fillings and shapes vary to form indulgent meaty feats, cheesy delights, simple vegetable snacks or sweet treats.  The possibilities are endless and the end result always satisfying.

It’s one of those foods which is loved; a staple from warm-hearted family kitchens or consumed from kiosks and simple eateries with mopeds whizzing by. I’ve always struggled to find the authentic stuff, reminiscent of the Med in London until I stumbled upon Akdeniz Gida Pazari on Station Road, Wood Green. For £1 a pop you can buy different types of Borek fresh out of the oven, made by the hands of two smiling Bulgarian women behind an abundantly stacked counter. Safe in the knowledge I have a place to go for a quick Borek fix, I usually prefer to make my own.

In the Balkans I  watched as women made dough from scratch, tirelessly kneading and rolling with the thinnest of rolling pins. They’d work the pastry to unbelievable elasticity, picking up the delicate sheets and stretching with careful plucks.    The pies were finished with neatly pinched pleats.  Needless to say my first attempt at this was disastrous.  To make pastry by hand is indeed a labour of love. I prefer to buy ‘Yufka’ pastry which is widely available in Mediterranean supermarkets.

Here are my Borek recipes;
Sevkiye’s Borek – Oven baked layered yufka pastry with various fillings (Meat, Cheese, Herby Courgette)

Village Style Borek – basic filo dough layered with white (feta) cheese

Pan Borek – quick borek made in pan with yufka pastry.

Mantija – Meaty Balkan parcels

Yamas!

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A premature summer has officially arrived in London, albeit a. badly timed and b. destined to be short lived. By day sun shines brilliantly and in the evenings I open my windows to welcome wafts of jasmine. I can’t complain seeing as its my favorite season, but why couldn’t this have held off until my wedding just weeks away.  This heat is making me lazy and I have so much to do!

With the date fast approaching my sister took us all to Greek restaurant Elysee for an unforgetable hen party, where we smashed plates, threw flowers, drank Ouzo and danced to live music until 4am. It was an absolute fix of the Med right here in Fitzrovia. The next morning (afternoon) as I lay fuzzy headed with bouzoukia still ringing in my ears, my mind wandered back to Crete, a sun-drenched Island I visited with my father last year. I remembered Ergospasio, a taverna we stumbled upon in Elounda, and it’s owner Dimitris who invited us for appetizers and Ouzo, and then became offended when we asked for the bill.

“How dare you try to pay! Just come back some day. You’re always welcome”   Looks like we’d made one more Cretan friend by sharing cheese and olives.  And there was another taverna up in Rogdia, where we ate an amazing Feta Salad and Dakos (rusks topped with tomatoes and cheese) overlooking the entire city of Heraklion. It’s the simple things in life which are the most memorable, be it soaking up the sun, a meal accompanied by live music or, er, cheese!

Well timed then that Yamas! have sent me four lovely samples from their range, helping to appease my taste for the Med. With them I have created three very cheesy, very Greek dishes; Graviera stuffed fennel seed burgers, baked feta with tomatoes and green pepper and courgettes stuffed with smoked feta and bulgur wheat .  Sound complicated? Well, not at all. These dishes are easy.

Yamas! don’t just offer your bog standard feta which seems to be one of only two Greek cheese already widely available.  They aim to make good Greek cheeses more accessible to the UK and beyond, by offering comprehensive, no fuss and fairly priced products. Great website too! Managing director Neil is so passionate about the brand that he constantly travels to Greece and Cyprus ensuring top quality and authentic products.  The range although young, is already widely available, and for Greece’s second favorite cheese Graviera it is the first time it has reached such an audience. The products themselves are of utmost quality: the feta is creamy and not overly aged, the smoked cheese has a subtle smokiness, the Graviera nutty and sweet and halloumi perfect for grilling and not overly salty. All products are good enough for the cheese board yet versatile enough to use in cooking.

Host of My Greek Kitchen, chef Toni Buxton, was also excited by the Yamas! range saying ” It’s wonderful that these cheeses will finally be available in the UK!”

Statistically Greece eats more cheese per person than any other nation! If we take Sophia Loren’s famous saying “All you see I owe to Spaghetti!” and apply in Greek terms, “All you see I owe to cheese”, its no wonder Tonia looks the way she does. I think I’ll be exploring the world of Greek cheeses in more depth.

Now raise your glasses and toast to the summer – Yamas!

Perhaps a Bold Statement But… The Best Falafel in Town!

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Admittedly I almost always steered clear of Falafel in restaurants – in my experience falafel meant tasteless, dry mouthfuls which rolled around the palate, resisting with all its might at being swallowed. It wasn’t that I was eating in the wrong places, it was simply that the falafel on offer didn’t fill me with joy. Then one day a colleague of mine, Mohammed, placed a foil package on my desk. On opening this steaming parcel, I discovered a falafel which changed my world. Mohammed’s vibrantly green homemade falafel were juicy and aromatised with garlic and herbs. They weren’t made with ground chick peas either, but a mixture of chick peas and dried fava beans. These falafel told the story of a man who emigrated from Cairo in his twenties. Now pushing 50, Mohammed never abandoned the food his mother taught him how to cook before he left. I guess his falafel were made with love.

Since that moment of falafel revelation most attempts to find such mouth wateringly moist falafel have failed. Until I came across a jewel in the midst of Central London, tucked away in the cobbled courtyard otherwise knows as Goodge Place Market.

To claim to have found the BEST falafel in a city so richly diverse is a bold statement but one I feel I can confidently make. Hoxton Beach has reaffirmed my love of falafel with its freshly fried offerings. Every mouthful of the wrap delights with crispy yet moist falafel, tahina sauce and homemade pickles. It is now 11:14 am and as I write this article I am salivating in anticipation of the wrap I will eat for my lunch today.

Goodge Street is heaving with eateries which supply the hungry office workers of Fitzrovia – yet why pay for an over priced burrito or faddy salad when there is nutty deliciousness on offer.  Hoxton Beach’s wraps are not pre made and heated in microwaves like a certain trendy Middle Eastern restaurant nearby. The men who work at Hoxton Beach are the real deal, themselves Middle Eastern and perhaps have the best understanding of how falafel wraps are meant to be. They churn out freshly fried balls of deliciousness and dress them just how we want them to be. No tahina? No problem. Extra pickles? Sure! There is always a polite good morning / good-bye / thank you and smile too. They are welcoming and hospitable even for the few moments it takes to prepare your wrap. Patrick Matthews, founder of the Hoxton Beach company, fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisine after studying Arabic in Damascus. (I on the other hand fell in love with Damascus after eating at Abu Zaad!) With a particular love of falafel, Patrick wanted to popularise them upon his return to Blighty. Good job Patrick and thank you Hassan, (the company chef) for your tasty recipe which has reignited my love affair with humble falafel.

Falafel is one of those foods to which many people lay their claim. From Israel, to Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond, falafel crosses cultures and perhaps unites people beyond borders. ‘It’s only Falafel, there’s no need to be so dramatic!‘ I hear you say. Well, I’m putting so much importance on this street food because food is life, food is what we cherish when there is nothing else. Its something we all have in common despite our differences so when one dish stretches itself over a large geographical area notorious for upheaval why not celebrate something which unites the area rather than divides?

Check out Hoxton Beach stalls in Goodge Place Market, Whitecross Street and Exmouth Market or click here for stockists and try to recreate your own wraps.

This Summer We Will Mostly Be Eating… Sciurilli and Friarielle!

One thing I have always wanted to do was grow my own produce, especially the kind I know are only available in chaotic backstreet markets of the Med. It angered me when friends who grew courgettes threw the flowers away – my protests were met with confusion. ‘Why would you throw them away? It’s the best part of the plant!’ . Then I realised they’d probably never eaten them deep fried or wilted in tagliolini.

So with thanks to Seeds of Italy I will get to grow courgette flowers myself by means of a plant which produces only the flower and not the fruit; flowers known in Italy as fiore di zucca, or sciurilli in Napoletano. And thanks to Friends of Puglia and one of my oldest friends, Sarah (affectionately named Pepper), I have also acquired seeds of friarielli (peppery greens otherwise known as cime di rapa or turnip tops), Italian flat leaf parsley, wild fennel and peperoni verdi Napoletani.

Yesterday on returning home I pulled back the curtain and found that nature has breathed life into my tiny little seeds. To eat juicy deep-fried courgette flowers I wont be limited to the bancarelle of Pignasecca, Napoli, anymore. At the rate they’ve sprung up, I wont have to wait long at all to eat sciurilli because they’ll be growing from pots on my very own patio.

Here’s to new life and looking forward to a tasty summer table spread.

From Istanbul with Love – Kahve Dunyasi in London

Trendy Turkish coffee house, Kahve Dunyasi, has landed in Piccadilly Circus.

Step into a dreamy world of coffee and chocolate . But this time Willy Wonka is cool, and Turkish.

Read about it here…

A Piece of Italy in South London

There are those types of places which you don’t know whether you should share with others or not purely for selfish reasons. Capitan Corelli on Battersea Park Road is one of them. Very rarely do I venture saaaaaf of the river Thames but for real Southern Italian fare I find myself stepping into highly nostalgic territory.

The smell of real Ragu which is at the heart of most Southern Italian homes, is the first thing to greet you as you open the door and usually accompanied by greetings in thick Sicilian accents.  As the coffee machine whirrs, a man with a towel slung over his shoulder and slicked back hair angrily prepares espresso cups. If this was Italy, he’d have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Read on…

Pizzica in Mayfair, W1

One blustery Autumn evening in the back streets of Mayfair I heard the beat of a tambourine dancing on the air. When I near La Masseria I see people spilling out onto the streets, chattering like sparrows at dusk… Read on…

Portobello & Golborne Road – West Sometimes IS Best.

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As a West Londoner I don’t have to travel far for a fiery culture fix.

Read about Portobello and Golborne Road, West London’s eccentric and worldly hot-spot here

Poached Quinces NazarBlue Style…

Inspired by my recent trip to Istanbul, I made use of this season’s quinces and poached them in Pomegranate syrup, serving them with Pistachio nuts, marscapone and jasmine flowers. Complicated? No, no. Really easy.

Check out the recipe here.