22 October, 2008

A Day in Bath (and a truly great side dish)

Goodness, we're wiped out. Just a short trip to Bath, a little lunch, a little shopping, quite a LOT of walking, and a day full of conversation with my friend Sam from Totleigh... we're drooping this evening! But it's all good.

We set off in the morning and arrived at lunchtime, and what a lunch it was... Sam met us in the freezing cold wind (it was better in the sun) and we walked, talking sixteen to the dozen all the time, to Jamie's Italian, open just two weeks, and abuzz with energy already. At the door (no bookings) we were told it would be 45 minutes and no leaving! No running around sight-seeing and then coming back. Well, there was no question: we stayed. Had a lovely cranberry juice spritzer (it really touched me to leave Avery and Sam while I went to the bar and look back to find them talking nonstop, and laughing: that's the mark of a lovely, warm man, to be able to chat on his own with a little girl he's known for five minutes).

But it was only 20 minutes, so we were really silly glad we stayed. This new Jamie Oliver venture, designed to bring really high quality Italian food to the masses, was a success from our point of view, anyway. Where else could Sam and I have a whole grilled sea bream for 15 quid? You could hardly buy it raw at the fishmonger for that, and I so far am not quite brave enough to cook a whole fish (although after today, I'm tempted). It was served with what was described as a salsa verde, but while tasty, Sam and I had to differ with the description: it was a lovely scattering of minced parsley, garlic and chillies, but NOT a salsa verde, and there wasn't enough of it anyway. We were both disappointed to find, upon eating one side and flipping the fish over: no salsa on the other side. It needed a whole little ramekin of the stuff on the side.

But flavor: it packed a fresh, crunchy punch and the cooking of the fish could not be faulted. Creamy, tender, perfect. A rather phoned-in salad of shaved fennel and random field greens (really "an average pub salad," Sam decreed, quite right). A side dish of I thought quite average French-style French fries, but my companions wolfed them down. Far better was the side dish of "flash-cooked seasonal greens," which proved to be perfect, olive oily, chilli-scattered tenderstem broccoli which we ate with our fingers. Sam ate, Avery wants you to know, the fish eyeball. Granted he took a very large gulp of his water after and spitted out something rather... solid, but the point is, he tried it.

Avery had wild mushroom ravioli which I found a bit heavy, but there were nice whole sauteed sage leaves in the sauce and she ate nearly the whole dish. We all shared, I should say at the outset, the meat antipasti, and were in heaven: bresaola, parma ham, mortadella, salame, and then little slabs of the most piquant parmesan topped with a spoonful of the famous chilli jam. That jam lived up to its billing and if I could buy a jar of it to have with a cheese plate, I would do so. I cannot say there was anything earth-shattering about the presentation or anything unusual in the flavors, but the simplicity and high quality of the ingredients was enough. With the antipasti came a meltingly (literally) buffalo mozzarella sprinkled with chillies and basil oil. Just gorgeous. We were happy.

We talked endlessly about our Totleigh adventures, sharing stories of slightly drunken episodes and conversations, remembering everyone's writing efforts, who read what, to what success. And dear readers, Sam shared with me his first childhood culinary effort: a snack for his mum. He calls it quite simply "Digestive Balls on Iceberg Lettuce," and that pretty much sums it up. "All you do is line a nice glass bowl with some lettuce ["Iceberg?" I specify, remembering my own childhood - "absolutely Iceberg," he affirms]. Then you scatter on some tomato slices, and THEN, you chew up as many digestive biscuits as you can, spit them out and roll them into balls with your hands ["unwashed," I specify], and arrange them on the lettuce. It's as simple as that."

Compared to the kitchen exploits of my childhood, most of them involving canned mushroom soup, this sounds positively Lucullan.

We talked fast and furious over lunch and then staggered out to begin our round of tourist sights. Bless Sam: he took us everywhere: the gorgeous Crescent where "Persuasion" and so many other memorable movies were filmed, Pulteney Bridge, the Circus and finally the rather odd and occasionally spooky Jane Austen Centre, located on a hilly street in the centre of town. I would say that the most appealing bit of this museum is the bookshop, where had I had the cash, I could have bought an entire 19th-century edition of all Austen's books for 625 pounds. Heavens. I settled for a new copy of "Persuasion" and we sat down for the sort of touching guided-tour speech, and then strolled through the museum looking at various costumes worn by very creepy mannequins with what seemed to be stockings pulled over their faces: everyone appeared to be in the throes of smothering! Very odd.

A quick but delicious stop in Paxton and Whitfield, a small but well stocked cheese shop where I asked for and didn't get a gratte paille, my absolute most treasured runny, smelly triple creme cheese. I wasn't too disappointed to come away with a cheese made by Neal's Yard called "Finn," heavy and creamy.

Finally we escaped to the Bath Sweet Shop in North Parade Passage, for Avery to buy some of her treasured "millions," a truly horrible sort of candy that she discovered years ago on our school-finding trip. Sam joined her in a bag of something called "toasted tea cakes," tiny little... toasted tea cakes, and we walked along in the late afternoon sun toward the Abbey and the Roman Baths. Steamy, green and suggestive of so many submerged delights, we all wondered how long we could wade in the pool before some CCTV-watching guide found us and chased us out.

Sam walked us to the train, but we stopped along Quiet Street to visit Kitchens, quite the most wonderful Aladdin's Cave of kitchen shops I have ever seen. Sorry, my darling Matthew Macfadyen, I will always be loyal to our shared destination Divertimenti in Marylebone, but this shop was simply chock-a-block with treasures... it was all I could do not to buy the brushed-steel KitchenAid for Sam who drooled over it, and a complete set of new knives for myself. As it was, I restrained myself to a tiny saucepan for melting butter for popcorn (or poaching a single egg). What a fabulous spot.

Home exhausted! Thank you, Sam, for a perfect day.

Luckily there were leftovers to be had when we fell in the door around 8. Bolognese to be heated up, and the lovely remains of a new side dish I made from the divine Anna del Conte's Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes. Go very easy on the salt, though, as the salame I found at Carluccio's was quite salty enough to carry the dish. I spent a very frustrating morning trying to convert all the various measurements she uses into something coherent for you, dear readers. It's difficult for an American to decipher some European recipes, especially when they're written through an English experience. I asked an English friend, "How on earth do you convert ounces of butter into tablespoons?" and he replied in mystification, "Why on earth would you ever measure butter in tablespoons?" I had to laugh, in chagrin, and tell him how American butter was labeled. Two peoples separated by a common language, and it would appear, butter labelling. Sigh. So here goes, as best I can manage. At least it's not baking, so specificity isn't necessary. Just relax.

Baked Potato Puree with Salame and Mozzarella
(serves 4 easily)

1 1/2 lb floury potatoes
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tbsps butter
1 egg
4 tbsps fresh grated Parmesan
fresh ground pepper to taste
7 ounces (a chunk about 3 inches thick) first-rate salame, cut into very small cubes
7 ounces (roughly a ball) mozzarella, cut into very small cubes
handful dry fresh breadcrumbs

Now, del Conte has you boiling the potatoes and then peeling them. I found peeling boiled potatoes to be sticky and disgusting, so next time I would peel then boil. Heat the milk as they boil, and then put the potatoes through a ricer and mash with the butter and milk, beating hard with a wooden spoon. As del Conte says, the longer you beat the puree, the lighter it becomes.

Mix together in a bowl the egg, Parmesan and pepper. Add mixture to the potato puree, then stir in salame and mozzarella and mix well.

Butter a souffle dish or any ovenproof dish and tip mixture in. Top with breadcrumbs and bake at 375 for 20 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Let rest for several minutes and serve warm. Gorgeous.

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