Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Sicilian (Tongue) Twister

'Nfigghiulata Ibla da Ragusa
Sicilian Twisted & Stuffed Focaccia from Ibla, Ragusa

There are so many culinary treasures to discover on the beautiful island of Sicily, home of my parents, my family and my ancestors... and melting pot of so many cultures and traditions through the ages. Simple food, made of mostly humble ingredients, the ingenuity and straightforwardness of many of these dishes is what makes them so wonderful.

One of these simple recipes, is the "n'figghiulata", a rolled up strip of bread dough with a savory filling, most probably having originated from some ingenious housewife who was too smart and sensible to do away with a left-over too small to form a decent loaf or pizza out of. Basically, the fillings were made from whatever people happened to have handy- which may not have been much back in days of yore! Though I visited the town of Ibla, Ragusa last year, I never did get to try out the real thing... and so tonight I decided to make my own! 

I did a little reading-up and decided on 2 simple fillings that are typical to the old town, set in a a deep valley. A breathtaking, vertical and verdant historic town dating back to 1693 after the momentous earthquake, the newer part of the city is built in the hillside above, but the old town holds many of its old treasures and traditions still. Many... except for this one- which I took away with me!

Now, you can go ahead and make a focaccia, bread or pizza dough- but as the old song says, "it ain't what you do- it's the way that you do it"... and so I took the short cut of buying my dough pre-made on a roll- which I think is fine on a weekday night if you are living on your own. On a weekend, with company and a little more time to knead, work and let the dough rest, I would make my own for sure. But again- it is just a matter of kneading flour, water and yeast together and I am not going to get too worked-up about that! I would rather work on those fillings!

The first filling I prepared was the ricotta one. For this I sliced up half of a leek and sautéed it in a small amount of olive oil until it began to soften. I seasoned with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and then added a handful of finely chopped parsley, which I stirred- in for a minute or two, just to let it slowly start wilting. I then set these to one side to cool of and chopped up 3-4 black olives, ready to add to the mix. Once cooled off, I added 3 tablespoons of ricotta and about a quarter of a Mozzarella cheese, torn up, to the mix. I stirred everything together well and set it to one side... next came the tomato filling!

For the tomato filling I cut a regular-sized tomato in half, discarded the seeds and diced the rest. I added 1 finely chopped Spring onion and a handful of finely chopped bacon to a frying pan, sautéed them for just 2-3 minutes then set them to one side to cool. As soon as it was cool, I added a small handful of finely diced Scamorza cheese, another quarter of mozzarella torn into pieces, a pinch of fennel seed, salt, pepper, a little sugar of course and just a little tomato paste. I stirred this together, prepared a few leaves of basil to add at the end- and was now ready to fill my dough and form those loaves!

I unrolled the dough and cut it in half lengthways- so now I had 2 lengths of dough ready to be filled. I spooned each mixture into the center of the dough along the whole length, the folded the dough together both front and back until the filling was totally enclosed. And then came the fun part- because then I had to twist the dough 5-6 times, which also made it stretch and become longer still! It was like a pizza-conda! A giant snake- haha! Of course I am exaggerating- but you do need to be careful! 

To bake it, I used my favorite trick of starting it off in a dry frying pan on the stove top at top heat, for 2 minutes and then going into the oven for the next 10-15 minutes at 300°F to finish off. The heat to the base will help it to become crispy and firm enough to not turn soggy because of the ricotta, the tomatoes or the soft mozzarella. 

Once it was finished, golden brown and a little cooler I couldn't resist and decided to "get stuck in"! It is so nice to simply tear away each twist of dough as you go along, working your way from the outside in... delicious! And of course the kind of thing that still tastes as wonderful the morning after... so I do hope you do enjoy!


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

No-Name Salad!

Insalata di Ceci, Crespini, Cetriolo e Cedro Tostato al Ras el Hanout, con un Condimento al Tahini, Limone & Miele
Chick Pea, Barberry, Toasted Cedra Lemon & Cucumber Salad with Ras el Hanout and Tahini, Honey & Lime Dressing

Please forgive me for the unforgivable title of this post my friends... but as complicated looking and sounding as this wonderful salad may seem at first glimpse, it WAS actually very simple to make. Only, unfortunately it has proved to be impossible to name!!!

No, this wasn't difficult or complicated to make at all- basically I just wanted to make a simple chick-pea salad with a tahini dressing... everybody loves hummus after all. Then I decided to add a little cucumber... just to add a little freshness- but mostly, just because it was there! At that point, I decided that the cucumber would make it so mild that it could do with a little contrast in flavor... and so I added the barberries. Yeah- that sounded good- but a little extra "oomph" seemed like a good ideas and so I added a little sweet chili pepper into the mix. And then I remembered the lovely Cedra lemon I had picked up on Sunday... and on it went... 

Don't let all of that worry you though my friends- because of course this WAS a salad- so there was no cooking involved as such- except for the toasted cedra... but we will get to that shortly...

I made this from half a can of chick peas (yes! they came out of a can!!!), half of a cucumber, seeded, a handful of barberries, a handful of parsley, the juice of 1 lime and 1 handful from the cedra lemon. That doesn't sound much- but it made for a great supper salad! And here's how I made it!

I drained half a can of chick peas and added a teaspoon of Ras el Hanout to them, along with a little salt, pepper, honey and- don't be alarmed, a couple of tablespoons of Asian oyster sauce! That gave a nice smoothness and richness to the chickpeas- but there was more smoothness to come come shortly in the form of that sesame-honey dressing...

Next came the cucumber, which I cut in half, then into quarters lengthways. I then removed the seeds with a simple diagonal cut, then cut the strips of cucumber into relatively-thin slices and added them to the chick peas. Next came a handful of barberries and a handful of finely chopped parsley and last but not least, a small, mild red chili pepper, for a bit of gentle heat ;-) I like my food hot- even a cold meal like this!

I seasoned with a little salt and pepper and then turned my attention to that big, beautiful Cedra lemon. Normally, what you do with these things is to peel away the yellow zest thinly and then scoop out the fruit in the center- I do this with a tablespoon as I find that the easiest way. That leaves you with the white "pith" of the lemon, which is the part that you eat. It is not sour, only has a hint of bitterness to it, but is otherwise very mild in flavor and has a firm, spongy consistency which is refreshing and chewy. Yes, it IS an acquired taste- but we Sicilians love them! These are the lemons of choice when it comes to making candied lemon peel of course- there is just so much of it! But I had another idea for this salad!

What I did, was to cut a wedge of peel and then cut that into thin slices- zest and all. I then poured boiling water over it and let it sit for 2-3 minutes, until most of the bitterness had dissipated into the water, then poured it off and transferred the lemon slices to a dry, non-stick pan. I turned up the heat and began to toss them around- they dried out much more quickly than I though they would- in just 2-3 minutes they were dry as a bone again and within 5-6 minutes, they began to turn crisp and brown. Now- obviously, a better way to do this may be to dehydrate them in the oven at a lower temperature for a couple of hours... but hey! I am an impulsive kinda guy and I was feeling impatient! I wanted to try it and I wanted to know right away... okay? lol!

As soon as the lemon was nicely brown, I removed it from the heat and prepared my simple but delicious dressing, which I made from 2 tablespoons of tahini, the juice of 1 lime, 2 tablespoons of honey, salt, pepper and a pinch of powdered ginger, I whisked this together until it was nice and smooth, dipped in my finger to try it and suddenly felt wide awake- wow! That was a lot of flavor going on!

Back to the salad, which had now given off a little water, due to the cucumber being salted, which I drained away for the most part- a little is fine though as it keeps the chick peas moist and that's a good thing. As the tahini has plenty of fat, I refrained from adding any extra oil- but now would be the time if you so wished! I found that by the time I stirred everything together well and tucked-in to this delicious salad, that it tasted smooth and delicious and in no way felt like any oil was missing- I suggested you try it my way first- it is easier to add oil than it is to take it away after all!

I served up the salad with the lemon slices and a few leaves of parsley on top, then drizzled it lightly with the rich tahini dressing. So as you can see- this WAS simple to make, it IS pretty impossible to describe... but it IS very easy to enjoy! So I suggest you do so- you won't regret it!

Monday, 29 July 2013

A Little Egg-citement :-)

Sformatini di Uovo, Ricotta, Asparagi, Pomodorini & Pancetta
Baked Egg, Ricotta, Asparagus, Cherry Tomato & Bacon "Omelettes"

You see these little beauties? They look pretty tasty, no? Well they are tasty- very tasty in fact! But I am betting you would not believe just how easy they were to make, or how little it took to make them! 

Just 1 egg and 1 heaped tablespoon of fresh ricotta cheese made the base for these lovely little oven-baked "omelettes"- I kid you not! The ramekins are the kind you would use for a creme brulée, so sure, these are small portions, but absolutely perfect as a little snack and even better-so as a starter course to a nice, light Summer dinner. Being as I did not have a dinner planned after trying one this evening- I just went ahead and ate the second one too! After all- I do believe in the old adage "waste-not, want-not" :-)

While we are on the subject of neither wasting, nor wanting, let me tell you that I made these 2 little omelettes using just one little handful of Thai asparagus I had left over from yesterday evening. The rest of the ingredients were, as I already mentioned, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of ricotta, 1 Spring onion, 1 handful of finely chopped bacon, 4-5 cherry tomatoes and a little finely chopped parsley and mint. That's not much is it? But you will see- it will come together and be more than you think... for sure enough for 2 nice little starters!

I started by frying up the bacon bits in a dry pan until they began to sizzle, then added the finely sliced onion and the bottom parts of the asparagus stalks. After just a couple of minutes, I set these to one side and then popped the asparagus tips into the pan with a little pat of butter, salt and pepper and tossed them for 1-2 minutes too- then out they came! Last but not least, in went the cherry tomatoes, which I had cut into quarters with a little salt, pepper and sugar. Same procedure- just 1-2 minutes and out they came! 

Now, with everything prepared and pre-cooked, all I needed to do was to crack the egg into a bowl, add the fresh ricotta and stir them well together. I seasoned it with salt, pepper and nutmeg and then added about a handful in all of parsley and mint chopped as finely as possible. As soon as the other ingredients (except for the asparagus tips), were cool enough to add without turning the egg into scramble, I added them all at once and stirred the mix through until it was a nice even mix. As soon as I had my prep work done, I turned on the oven and got busy with portioning my omelette mix into those little ramekins...

I spooned the egg mix which had the ends of the asparagus, the tomatoes and the onion in it into the ramekins first and then set the asparagus tips out decoratively on top. And that was it- all of my work was done and into a pre-heated oven they went at 250°f for 15-20 minutes. After that time, they had set nicely and become gently golden brown- pretty nice looking I must say! And totally delicious! These are so easy you really have to try them out yourself and see- and have fun whilst you're at it! Enjoy!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Creation of the Pan-Asian Persuasion

Riso allo Sesamo al Vapore in Foglie di Shiso, Gamberi, Funghi "Enoki" & Asparagi Thailandese
Shiso-Steamed Sesame Rice, Shrimp, Enoki Mushrooms & Thai Asparagus

This evenings supper was a lot easier to make as you may think from the looks of things- but the result is every bit as tasty as it looks! The rice was prepared with sesame, sesame oil and a layer of shiso leaves to add texture and flavor as well as keeping in the moisture as it cooked, the shrimp simply steamed along with it and the asparagus and mushrooms took but a few minutes to stir-fry. No big deal! But at the same time... so delicious and so lovely once served up that it all of a sudden becomes a big deal! Or didn't you think "wow!" when you saw the pictures?

One of the most important aspects of cooking is presentation. I hate food that looks too fussy in its presentation, but at the same time, with a little thought, you can enhance your foods appetite appeal immensely by setting it out nicely for your guests... especially with such a simple dish as this one!

I began by boiling rice in the usual way, with twice the amount water as rice. After 10 minutes or so, the rice was obviously not yet ready, but most of the water had been absorbed. At this point, I added some toasted sesame seeds, a little sesame oil and a dash of fish sauce. 

Next thing that needed to be prepared was the shrimp. To make these wonderfully delicious, I finely chopped some galangal, which is a root, similar to ginger, but with a milder and much more citrusy flavor, a little garlic and a little onion. I added the shrimp, a little sesame oil again, a little light soy and a pinch of 5-Spice powder, stirred these together and then spooned the coated shrimp on top of the rice. 

The last step was to cover the rice with shiso leaves... I had bought a packet of them at the market the day before and had only used a couple of them so far... so I thought I may as well get creative with them and put them to some use! With a layer of leaves on top, to which I gave a few drops of sesame oil too and a light dusting of sugar, I popped this into a hot oven, around 350°F, for the next 10-15 minutes to finish steaming whilst I prepared the asparagus and mushrooms...

I prepared the mushrooms and the asparagus separately from one another- and indeed the mushrooms I also fried in very small batches. I cut off the woody root end of the mushrooms and then plucked the delicate stems apart in sections about as thick as my thump. I dropped them onto a very hot, dry pan and watched them shrivel and write about a little in the heat- they almost looked like they were alive! Once I had flipped them over one time, I then added a little oil to the pan, just a very small amount, but these few drops were enough to quickly brown the mushrooms off without them becoming too soft and mushy- which is what will happen if you put too many in the pan at once or add too much oil... it takes a little more time and patience- but it is worth it! I seasoned them simply with a little sea salt, finely ground Szechuan pepper and a tiny pinch of 5-Spice.

The asparagus went into a hot pan with a little crushed garlic and a splash of oil. I stir-fried them at a high heat for 1-2 minutes and then added a splash of water, a squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of sugar. As soon as the water had evaporated away, the asparagus was finished... and I was ready to plate-up my meal!

I set out the mushrooms first around the outer edge of my dish, then added the rice, which I scooped out of the baking tray and turned upside-down, so that crispy shiso leaves were at the bottom and the moist rice on top. I then laid out the juicy shrimp and arranged the asparagus in-between. Easy! I added a sprinkle of toasted chili flakes for a bit of extra heat and a light drizzle of hoisin for some extra seasoning... and that was it! A little bit Thai, a little Japanese and a little Chinese... all interpreted in a simple new way by a British-born Sicilian! Give it a go and see what you think! You may well be surprised!

Putting the "Break" in Breakfast

"Crumble" di Bacca Rossa & Cumquat con Foglie di Shiso Zuccherati
Red Berry & Cumquat Crumble with Sugared Shiso Leaves

Oh, I know it is called "break-fast" because it is the meal that breaks the "fasting" period of the prior night and the time spent without eating since the last evening meal... but that's just lame. Going to bed at night isn't fasting! But crumbling up butter cookies in the morning to make something awesome to eat is breaking and the time it takes to make this delicious sweet treat is fast- so this was this mornings "break-fast"- please excuse the lame intro- but at least the description here fits!

I had picked up these beautiful red berries and the cumquats at the market hall yesterday... figs are not yet quite in season and I wanted something different, other than the usual melons and peaches that are in abundance... but I didn't really have a plan as to what I was going to do with them!

The other thing I bought yesterday were the cookies I used to make this- so I can't claim to have made it out of stale cookies, although this would be a great idea to keep in mind for that. I was planning on crushing them up and turning them into a pie crust- but as you can see I changed my mind! I thought this would be more fun, as well as it making more sense for a small single-serving such as I was about to make. Well- I suppose it MAY have been enough for two- but as I live along and it tasted so amazing... let me just stick with the single-serving statement ;-)

I snapped up the egg and butter cookies (you could use any other kind you may prefer) until I had about 1 coffee mugs worth- that is a decent amount for a single serving. I then plucked about half as much in quantity of the red berries and sliced up as many cumquats- very simple. 

The next thing I did was to separate an egg and to whisk the white into a firm meringue, with just a little sugar or Stevia and to do the same with the yolk, which of course did not gain any volume. So to the yolk I added a tablespoon of yogurt, a little cinnamon, a little lemon juice, the obligatory pinch of salt and a little lemon zest. I added the creamy egg yolk mix to the egg white, folded it in carefully and then added the cookies, berries and cumquats and in turn, stirred them gently through.

I then lined a small baking dish with paper, buttered it and spooned in the mixture. I made sure to smooth it and press it down and then popped it into a pre-heated oven for around 20-30 at around 350°F. And whilst it was in the oven, I improvised a quick trick to "jazz-up" those beautiful shiso leaves!

The proper way to have done it, would have been to have dipped them into a sugar syrup and then dehydrated them for a few hours- but I neither had the time, nor do I own one of those specialist ovens that dries out fruits and vegetables at a low heat over a number of hours... and as this WAS going to be my breakfast, of course I wanted to have it fast!

To make them, I melted a very small amount of butter in a non-stick pan and when it began to sizzle slightly, added the leaves, one by one and fried them for a minute or so from each side. As soon as I had flipped them over, I sprinkled them very lightly with sugar, (just a hint!) and then popped them into the oven whilst the crumble was coming together.

After 4-5 minutes, the leaves were nice and crispy, so I took them out and whilst I was at it, I squeezed a little honey over the crumble and popped it back in for a final 4-5 minutes, to become crispy, golden brown and irresistible! 

As soon as it had cooled down, I served up the crumble with a scoop of creamy, whipped Greek yogurt and swooned at how amazing it was... and at how fast I had pulled it all together! Together with the crispy, sugared leaves, this was a real treat, considering it was made of just a handful of broken cookies! Hope you try it yourselves sometime... you won't regret it! 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Flower Power

Fiore di Zucca Ripieni
Zucchini Blossoms, stuffed with Couscous, Bacon, Barberries, Ras el Hanout & Goat Cheese

"Say it with flowers" was the phrase back in the 70's, when I was but a little tyke back in Jolly Old England, but it is one that has retained it's popularity through the years. Well let me tell you that if you want to show a certain somebody how much they mean to you, be it a guy or a gal... or even if you want to show the whole family or your guests that they mean a lot to you... get this kind of flower and do what I did this evening! Best of luck to anyone else, hoping to impress with roses and lillies... because I think that these little treats are bound to earn you plenty of hugs and kisses!

I have made similar versions of these little beauty's before, so I will do my best to keep things brief and let the pictures do the talking!

The first thing you need to do is to open up the blossoms and remove the stamen- simply snap them out and hey-presto- there's nothing to it and the flowers won't feel a thing!

And the next step is to prepare the filling- which is also going to be painless! I love simple dishes like this, that are a little unusual and that are so delicious that everyone is going to think you are great- and quite rightly so! The cooking entailed in preparing the filling is not even going to take 5 minutes- and neither is the prep work for it... so grab your chopping boards and let's get started!

It took me only 2 cupfuls of couscous to stuff 8 blossoms, 1 cupful of finely diced bacon, 1 cupful of barberries, a little finely chopped onion, 1 cupful of bacon, a handful of parsley, a heaped tablespoon of creamed goat cheese and the juice of half a lime... so you are hardly going to ruin your bank-balance in making these either!

I popped the bacon and onion into a dry non-stick frying pan and let them sizzle away together. When they began to brown gently, I added the finely-chopped parsley, the couscous and the barberries. I stirred them together well and added the lime juice and the Ras el Hanout, along with salt, pepper and just a drop of Tabasco. And then I deglazed the frying pan by adding just enough water to cover the base, stirred everything though thoroughly and then turned off the heat and let the couscous continue to swell-up and cook in the residual heat of the pan.

Whilst the couscous then cooled off, I turned on the oven to maximum to get it ready and wrapped a little aluminum foil around the handle of my pan to protect it during it's brief visit to the oven... less dishes to do makes this fellow happy- and probably you too!

I added the creamy goat cheese to the couscous and stirred it through, then began to stuff the flowers by carefully tearing an opening into the yellow petals and adding a heaped spoonful or 2 to each flower. All you need to do is to press the petals back together gently- they stick all by themselves and it is very easy to do. Then back into the pan they went, with just a little olive oil, for 2-3 minutes. I then added a little water to the frying pan and tilted it so that it collected on one side of the pan, away from the flowers, so that the little zucchini steamed away nicely until the water had evaporated away. And once it had, I gave them a little sprinkle with salt and pepper and a last, light drizzle of olive oil and sent them on their way back into the oven, where they baked until the petals of the flowers became lightly crispy on the outside- in this case it took around 5-6 minutes.

I prefer to keep the heat high and to keep an eye on them, as it prevents them from drying out too much, from the zucchini themselves become shriveled looking and from the cheese melting too slowly and turning the filling into too much of a dense mass... as you can see from the pictures- you can trust me on this one- they came out just perfect!

These were great this hot and steamy, Summer evening- they are so pretty, light to eat and exotic that I am sure you are all going to love them... and whoever else you make them for too!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Seeing Stars (Part 6)

The End is The Beginning

Of course, all things must come to an end... and the end of my visit was drawing ever nearer. But another thing that came to an end during my stay was the 45th year of my life- and what a birthday it was to be on the penultimate day of my visit! Simply being here was the greatest gift I could imagine anyway!

We held our usual staff breakfast at 10am and discussed the plan for the day, but Marcel was called out of the meeting rather abruptly. I said "I wonder what that was all about" and everybody shrugged, then there was a knock at the door and they all burst into song as Marcel came back inside with a mini birthday cake! Lit with one tiny candle, this single-portion cake was a cute gesture- this and the glass of sparkling wine that came with it brought a big smile to my face and meant much more than anything else could have, from a group of young kids who had been complete strangers to me just a week ago. Of course I cut the cake into 8 pieces and we each had one little bite each- anything else would have just be wrong! But the wine I knocked-back all by myself- it was my birthday after all! And off to work we went!

That's what Friends are for...

I had a full day ahead, no time for celebrating, not even a real chance to get in touch with home or for any of my friends or loved ones to get in touch with me- but that was just fine! I was in the best of hands here with my new-found friends at the Söl'ring Hof and couldn't have been happier! And they were such characters- each and every one!

Bernd, pictured below giving me his heart (or more accurately that of some less fortunate creature), was the friendliest man you could ever wish to meet- with a booming voice, an infectious good mood and seemingly boundless energy. He was up and working earlier than anyone else, as he ran the kitchen upstairs in the restaurant alone, serving up whatever the guests desired... he was a one-man show and a great one at that!


Anja, an ex-Frankfurt girl, was a little power-house of cooking energy- always focused, always quiet and always on top of her game... I learnt so much from her! She had a quiet but pleasant manner and had a lot of experience and expertise to her credit- there was seemingly nothing she couldn't do- including keeping cool whilst having to deal with me- haha! She was also the one, that somehow, invisibly, managed to cook up our staff meals every day- which was enough food for 15-20 people at least, whilst still preparing all of the fine and delicate ingredients for the evenings guests... pretty amazing! Confident but modest- and a lot of fun!

Florian and Maximilian were 2 great young guys too- Florian being the tallest in the group... and probably anywhere else for that matter! Both quiet guys, with great senses of humour, they also had a level of expertise and knowledge that much surpassed their ages... back when I had been that young, I would have been proud of having managed to boil rice without burning the saucepan!

The amazing thing with these guys, each and every one of them, was their willingness to share their knowledge and their patience in explaining things- so refreshing and totally charming to say the least!

Young Lars had a lot of experience, having been at a number of gastronomic addresses already previous to Söl'ring Hof- and also due to the fact that his folks own a successful hotel, guest house and catering business of their own. He also had the same sense of calm about him in the kitchen and he knew his stuff inside and out. He also happens to be quite the singer- haha! We hardly needed the radio anymore when he kicked-in with the chorus lines! I would kid with him that he should start a boy-band with the other guys whilst they are all young enough... show cooking with tunes! Now if that's not a winning idea, I don't know what is!

Have any of you heard-of, or seen the movie "Jumper"? That was the one, where the young hero had the ability to teleport- he would leap from one destination, flash through time and space and then re-appear in another, hundreds of miles away, just like that! Well, young Marius struck me as having similar powers on the day that he began leaping from both the life-guards shack and from the top of the dunes! The only place he would have re-appeared though, I fear... might have been the hospital!

He would make the downhill run down the full length of the boardwalk and fling himself into the air- just so! We took it in turns standing in front of the railing, so as to shield him from the impact, had he mis-judged or slipped when approaching his take-off! What a crazy guy! But his enthusiasm and energy were so infectious- we all had a hoot! But only one of us got covered in sand from head to toe and only one of us risked life and limb in doing so! 

I know I have been singing the praises of one and all, but Andy was "The Man", when "THE MAN" wasn't there. He is not the head chef without good reason! Also a rather quiet guy, but with a killer sense of humour and the most fantastic skills as an imitator, this guy could give Robin Williams a run for his money! But I doubt that Robin Williams can cook as amazingly as he can! He will also be moving on to other things, revamping and reinventing a family set-up, with a traditional concept in cuisine, delivered in a no-fuss and contemporary way. If there is one thing I have learned from him, it is that most definitely "less is more" and it was fun and most gratifying to find that we shared the same point of view on most things culinary. These were indeed great people and it had been a great week!

Homeward Bound...

After a full days work, tired and a little heavy-hearted after having said my good-byes to all of my new-found friends, I stumbled back to my room, packed my case, set my alarm and lay down to sleep. Yes, there were many more staff members at Sölring Hof and they had been so warm and friendly to me- they would just take too long to mention in detail- but I will miss them all for sure!

I was, as usual, nervous about waking up on time, the alarm working, getting to the airport and what have you... all things that would normally have kept me awake. Not on Sylt! This is the place where I finally learned to appreciate what the expression "getting your well-earned sleep" means in real-life! In MY real-life back home, I would claim that I earn my sleep too... I just don't get enough of it! But this was a whole new breed of tiredness that I was experiencing! Not that I was complaining- if you are doing what you love, even the longest hours all seem worthwhile.

Sleep was deep and dreamless, but relatively short, as I woke up in advance of the alarm... as always! I got freshened up, dressed, and brought my bed linen and towels back to the hotel laundry, went back and got my case, then back again to hand-in the keys to the guest house. Sigh! This was it- this really was goodbye!

Punctual to a fault, my favorite taxi driver, Merlin, appeared with the whole gang, packed me into the car with Oliver and we were soon on our way to Westerland and the airport. It was good seeing familiar faces and nice saying goodbye to them as I know we will meet again back home in Frankfurt. And after a fun but short flight with Oliver, I was back home in just over an hour... and my little dream, my great adventure was over!

Thanks for the Memories!

After a day or two back home, getting back into my own routine, returning to my job at the agency and my amateur cooking... I realized that things HAD changed. That I had changed. My outlook, my attitude and my whole sense of being. Things were better. I felt better... life was better! And yes- my cooking was better! All thanks to this wonderful experience, the wonderful place and the wonderful people. Something I will never, ever forget!

2 days into the working week, a parcel arrived for me at the agency. The content of the parcel was this. The most beautiful Johannes King book- filled with his wonderful dishes, personal and heart-warming images of him and his whole crew, of all that I have recounted for you and so very much more! A beautiful book that inspires and delights in every way... THANK YOU Johannes!

And though many people may own this culinary and literary masterpiece... I am proud to say that I own a copy with a personal dedication. 

I hope you have enjoyed my banter, my recollections and enthusiasm for this culinary adventure- and I hope you all stay with me as I continue cooking, photographing and sharing my own ideas and dishes with you. It's good to be friends! And being friends is what life is all about!

Francesco Strazzanti


Frankfurt am Main

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Seeing Stars (Part 5)

How Does Your Garden Grow?

A new week had begun and The King had left his kingdom. I wondered how things would change, if the mice would decide to play since the cat was away- these were a group of young people after all. But no- the same dedication and focus were there as ever, the same team spirit and sense of comradeship and of course the friendliness I had been treated to from day one. Only at this point, I really felt like part of the team and even though of course I needed guidance with new disciplines and recipes, a whole lot of routine had been established and that was a great feeling to start the week with. 

Of course, my highlight of the day today was to be the excursion to Morsum and Johannes King's garden, tended by the delightful Maria, who has created a culinary "Garden of Eden" in the truest sense of the word. I had been delighted by a huge selection of wild, delicate herbs during my stay so far... some with English equivalent names, others indigenous to the island and the region that do not... but there were so many more to be discovered- and plenty more besides...

After breakfast with the team and a couple of hours of the now usual prep-work, I jumped into the van with Andreas and Marcel and we speeded off across the meadows on what was the sunniest day so far- simply beautiful! But the quaintness and perfection of country living that lay ahead still took me by surprise!

A Home in the Country

With it's thatched roof and rustic red-brick structure, this was a picture book country cottage. Set on a sprawling plain of meadows, with huge bales of hay littering the background and sheep grazing the pastures, it was quite a stark contrast to my home town of Frankfurt- or "Mainhattan" as we call it- with our tongues fixed firmly in our cheeks. But there are no tower blocks and definitely no skyscrapers on this island! This is "Smallville"- and that's a good thing!

The thing that strikes you about the garden is simply the vast variety- of greens, fruits, vegetables, herbs, even a great beehive which produces the exquisite honey for both the Söl'ring Hof and the Genuss Shop. Poppies flourish next to strawberries and chives, bronze fennel towers above arugula, mint, lemon balm, parsley, sage, rosemary, chervil, thyme, lovage... cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes... you name it! I simply lost track and am not ashamed to admit it! There were many, many herbs here that I never new existed... or that were edible- and it was an absolute joy to behold!

Harvest Festival

But were weren't just there to take-in the scenery... we were men with a mission and we had work to do! Andreas and Marcel were there to tend to the hive and I in the meantime was to pick herbs for the restaurant. With a list in hand, I set out to search for the numerous wild and wonderful herbs- not always an easy task as I had no idea what some of them looked like! Fortunately, Maria has labels and tags marking the vast majority of things... I guess Batman would have done it that way too, had he had a garden- haha! 

Whilst the guys went to get suited up, I chatted with Maria and went about picking, rinsing and boxing herbs. An artist herself, she has created a work of art with her garden too, painted with a palate of lush green and vivid colors... I am sure she never lacks inspiration living in such a wonderful and idyllic location!

Johannes King's Queen Bee's

The hive is a slick, modern structure that Marcel and Andreas constructed themselves, though Marcel is the the mastermind behind this. He explained how he has 2 swarms of bees that he wants to bring together, but that as each has their own queen, it is not always a simple matter of buying a hive from somewhere else and just throwing 2 colonies together- it could lead to conflict! And because the state of things is so dire, with bees dying out around the globe, these things are monitored and restricted by the authorities- and rightly so! It is not everyone that does such a good job as Marcel! I heard say that he has produced and churned more than 40 liters of wonderful, sustainable, local and purest honey- good work!

As a little treat, Maria appeared from indoors with ice cream to cool us off- which I thought was a wonderful idea- except for the fact that there were so many excitable bees flying around and I was a little wary of not having protective clothing! The little break did us all good the bees behaved themselves- so a good time was had by all! We said our farewells, packed our boxes full of bounty into the van and waved bye-bye. This had been a lovely contrast to the elegance of the hotel and a wonderful reminder of how special the ingredients that it's guests enjoyed actually were. Pricey as Söl'ring Hof undoubtedly is- there is a reason for it and a good one at that. It is a luxury destination, no question, but in this modern day and age, one of the greatest luxuries of all is to have the most wonderful fresh produce grown especially for you- and then prepared and presented by a true culinary genius. Or his wonderful team. Speaking of which... they needed us back in the kitchen! So back we sped and on we went to continue with the afternoons preparations and the evenings service and cooking! Another day in the life... but what a life it was!

At around 11.30 I made my way home, happy but exhausted... but also a little melancholy already. I only had a couple of days more to enjoy and I had grown to love it here... but there was no time for sadness just yet- there was only just enough time for sleep! Looking over my shoulder and seeing this last scene I am sure will not find it hard to believe that this is what I also saw in my dreams- and how many of us can claim to have had a dream come true? 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Seeing Stars (Part 4)

 Sunday, Sunday!

Sunday morning came and and I did actually role over and sleep a while longer- those of you that know me, will also know how tired I must have been for that to happen! Of course, this happened at 6am and I was wide-awake again at 7am! And those of you that didn't know me so far... know me a little bit better now! Yes, I am an early riser and sure enough, I got up and showered and out of the house and set out to search for coffee and breakfast with the natives...

...but the thing is that at this time of year, there are fewer natives than there are visitors- at least that is the way things seem! Passing a hiking group and exchanging more "moin-moin's!", the inevitable questions were posed as to where we all came from. I was there from Frankfurt, some were there from "nearby" Hamburg, a couple from Paris, a young family from France and even a group of English students- all congregating before the sign for one of the many hiking trails across the moorland and dunes of Rantum. 

I soon forgot the coffee and breakfast and decided to go hiking and chat with this interesting group, the wind and sea air blowing away any cares or stress and the feeling of being away from it all infectious. No, Sylt is not a land of breathtaking landscapes, but of gentle, green hills, densely scattered flowers such a the wild seaside hedge roses- the same ones that we gathered for Söl'ring Hof and wild herbage, grazing sheep and cattle and huge bails of hay in well-tended meadows... it is a modest and charming place. 

All Roads lead to... Home!

I hiked in a loop which brought me back towards the hotel, and soon enough, my phone began to ring and it was Oliver, suggesting we meet for coffee or a bite to eat, ahead of the rest, who were still getting themselves ready to face the day. I asked him where and he mentioned the name of a street I had seen, very close by... Sylt is only a small island and Rantum is but a small town... so I followed the signs back and just 5 minutes later, there we were!

I found the style of the street signs on Sylt rather intriguing- to me they seemed almost Native American in their appearance... I guess the carved wood reminded me of totem poles! I loved the quaint, maritime touches such a star fish and sea gulls that decorated them and just the way they were so different to anything I had ever seen before... I like that!

So it was a brief hug and hello and we marched off towards some stores, cafes and small restaurants in a part of town I hadn't seen before. Off to a different promenade and a fun little restaurant called the "Strandmuschel". There was a bracing wind still so it was nice to be inside where it was warm and cosy and Oliver recommended I join him for a "Pharisäer" which is a hot, strong coffee spiked with rum and cream- the national drink of North Friesland. So that was decided! 

It was good catching up and getting to know each other... of course he wanted to know all about what had been going on with me and we spent the whole time looking at my pictures... and letting the rum go to my head! We had decided to skip breakfast as we needed to meet up with the others, Miriam, Martin and their kids Merlin and Maud, so we knocked back our drinks and hiked on down the way, past more beaches and greenery, ready to get together and to get going!

We all met-up in a small fashion boutique- shopping is a big-deal for Sylt visitors and there are no end of possibilities to spend lots of money on wonderful things! Whilst the grown-ups shopped, I got to know the kids and we soon warmed to each other. Maud, 9-10 yrs of age, delightful, smart and sassy and Merlin, 18 and already with plenty of kitchen experience, having completed an internship at a major Frankfurt restaurant- I was impressed!

I was even more impressed, when we got into their large, 6-seater vehicle, only to discover that he was going to be driving us! So, our first stop was to be Westerland, for more shopping of course! Westerland is ground-zero on Sylt- it is where the action is, the stores, restaurants, discos and nightlife. This was something else entirely to Rantum! Of course, as I was the guest, I tagged along whilst they did what they had to do, but the banter was jovial, the mood relaxed and the weather was warming up gloriously!

5 o'Clock Tea... at 3!

Our next stop was to be Keitum, where we all wanted to have traditional North German waffles with red berries and cream... and a nice pot of tea, at the Kleine Teestube, or "little tea-house", which is quite an institution on the island. It was crowded with happy people... but not that crowded that we had too much difficulty getting seated- just 5-6 minutes after arriving we managed to garner the best seats, right in front of the house, where we could see and be seen- which is also part of "what it's all about" of course.

The men all chose to have the "5 o'clock English Tea" which we were relieved to discover, did not only get served at 5 o'clock! Especially me... by now I was a little tipsy from the rum, on an empty stomach... and starving! Fortunately, the portions were ample, the food was delicious, and we went on chatting, joking and enjoying the hospitality. The Austrian waitress that served us was sharp as a knife with her near enough 70 years of age and kept us all laughing, and we left feeling happy and full... but somehow thirsty...

I'll Be Back...

No, it wasn't only The Terminator that said this, but also I... as I left Johannes King's Genuss Shop on my first visit. I had promised to bring my friends with me and return on my day off- and that is exactly what I did! It was so nice seeing Selina, Felix and the girls again and introducing my friends! This time I was able to sit at the front, with all of the other guests, drinking chilled white wine and chilling accordingly! We ordered "Curiosity Cola" for the kids, which is one of the great, exclusive products that I have only ever seen at the shop- and I was glad that they loved it as much as I had done when I tried it. We nibbled on the wonderful candied orange peel and other small snacks and I did a little package design consulting with Selina as I had a couple of ideas for a couple of their products... it was just a good time for all! I was so happy that my new-found friends were as enthusiastic and delighted as I was and this little part of "The King's Empire"... and I was proud to be part of his kingdom, if only for a short while...

Sleeping on an Empty Stomach...

...was of course not an option! 
By the onset of evening, we were all hungry... and I was positively ravenous! As it was high-season, it was not easy to find seating for 6 with no prior reservation, but we found a traditional, down-to-earth place with a friendly atmosphere and made ourselves comfortable. Beers were ordered, bread was nibbled with olives, pates, spreads and other welcoming appetizers and food was ordered- plenty of it! None of the "haute cuisine" offerings I had been used to creating, just plain good food, which we all shared amongst us as the conversation became ever more jovial as the beer disappeared, followed by wine and ultimately by a fine local liquor before we decided to call it a day (or night!). This was when it became apparent what the great advantage of having our young driver was- it was good that at least 2 of us were fit! Thank goodness for the children- haha! Of course we had not had that much to drink, it was still perfectly light outside... and the amount of traffic on the island is blessedly low. It made for a nice calm, relaxed and peaceful drive back home and an end to a lovely day with sweet and charming people. We said our good nights, I gave my thanks to one and all... and went back to my little room happy, content... ready for bed- for another day... and another adventure!

Tomorrow I would be heading to Morsum and the gardens in which all of the wonderful herbs are grown, where honey is produced in a wonderful large bee hive... and where so much more was yet to be seen and done! But first some deep, deep sleep... and I am sure I fell asleep smiling!