Before Ramsey, there was Blumenthal

After getting the sour taste of Ramsey out of our collective electronic mouths, we add in the epilog for our foodie-vacation. Having dinner at the third ranked restaurant in the world should have been difficult to topple. It was.  But not through lack of effort or innovation. Heston Blumenthal is seventh in the world. I know, hard to tell them apart at that level and you are right. They are head and shoulders above Gordon and their menu’s and service show it.  With a lovely and bright ambiance, the restaurant was welcoming and comfortable.  The menu was full of dishes that teased both the tongue and imagination. What does grill hay smoked salmon actually taste like? How about Dressed Snails. I didn’t know they even came dressed. We ordered a range of delights that included duck for me and a rib-eye for Gina. She also ordered a Tipsy Cake which had to be ordered in advance because of how long it took to prepare. We were not disappointed. The food was simply top shelf. Gina’s steak was mouth watering. The star of the show however was her side of frie’s. You might wonder how that’s possible. If we had taste-o-vision you would know. They were perfectly cooked and I suspect they were twice or thrice cooked and at least one of the hot baths was a dance through  duck fat.  They were hot and perfectly golden crisp.

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 I suddenly have a new fry mission in life!  I finished with the traditional cheese platter and was terrified when the waiter delivered what i thought was the desert to our table.Image

Turns out it was just the selection platter. My platter however wasn’t much smaller when it showed up.  The cheeses were as one might expect, sublime, coming from the land of cheese. Back to Gina’s tipsy cake. It was clear why it took as long as it did. They had to roast a large cone shaped chunk of pineapple until it was carmelized. To die for. ImageImage

 I forgot to mention that I added to the number of frogs rolling around in wheel chairs. I ordered the frog’s legs. I’ve had them a few times. These of course were the bee’s knees of frog’s legs, except there weren’t any knees in this case.  

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Now we don’t ordinarily do this but the urge was to irresistible.  The couple sitting next to us ordered a signature dish. We saw it on the menu but passed having already eaten our way through a significant amount of foie gras. This one was served as a mandarin orange. Totally off the charts.

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What the F*#% – a visit to Gordon’s Place

You have likely all seen Hell’s kitchen. You watched in amazement as Chef Ramsey berated his wanna be top chefs into something better than they were before they met him. After watching a few seasons of this, it got tiring.  Big ego, lots of noise, but where is the beef?  So, we thought we would give it a go. In the Savoy, they have a Ramsey restaurant.  Savoy, Ramsey – what could go wrong?  As it turns out, the food could. Gina ordered a traditional British roast pudding and I ordered a steak. We split the side orders of spinach and fries. Gordon should take lessons from the crew over at the Mandarin on fries. His fries wouldn’t pass for acceptable out of any chip-wagon.  I cannot even use language appropriate to describe his roast pudding. Greasy flour coating dried up beef bits. Sad. My steak was excellent, but it was hard to compensate for the other disasters. For desert, I chose a walk on the wild side (why not at this point)? Welsh rare bit. A delectable, if over salted, crostini and baked cheese.

 

I’m afraid Gordon’s team came up short and Chef R should have a good look in the mirror next time he yells at his staff.   

It was a dark and stormy night … our last night in Italy

It was a dark and stormy night … wait a minute, wrong story line.  It was dark. It was bloody early and there were pigs.  Yes, pigs. The kind And  that we had been eating for the last two weeks except these were wandering about in front of our car while we were travailing at a rapid rate of knots down hill. What’s this got to do with food?  Let me back up. Our last post was about Osteria Francescana. Our trip back from there involved a side trip to the east coast for some shopping and of course a little taste of the local cured ham salami sticks. Like salami but small bites. Delightful. Easy to take with your cappachino to go.   The exciting part was of course the trip over the Italian mountains that make up Tuscany.  Narrow twisty roads that made the ones we came in on the first time look like a beginner driving course lesson. These guys were the real thing. Twisty, tiny roads with hair pin turns, semi trailers backing up because they met an oncoming truck and parts of the road that simply were not there any longer. All of this as I was feeling my oats on the Italian roads. We may have mentioned that we were thinking of renting a Ferrari for a day or two. Raw unadulterated testosterone fuelled power.  This of couse also comes with a $120 thousand dollar deductible.  So much for that dream. Never the less, this didn’t stop us (okay, just me) from wanting to feel the road Italian style. And what better way to do that than to slalom down the all too narrow, all to steep Italian roadway at high speed. Gina would have said something but she was having trouble speaking. What a rush. 

We made it back to Casa Ombuto for the final cooking class. It was a bitter sweet class – we could taste the end – we indeed, were cooking it. One of Paola’s culinary friends joined us as did Alex. Any thoughts of this quickly disappeared as we cooked our way into the evening. I made two dishes that were simply amazing. Lemoncella Creama which is basically a high octane lemon infused cream liqueur that cleanses your pallet after dinner. Something you’ve got to try. The other was a puff pastry vegetable side dish that was served with the braised lamb. OMG. Yup, it was good. Gina made an amazing ravioli with sea bass and squid ink. Truly a fitting finish for a week of fine cooking and fine dining.  There were many other courses and they all were matched with first class Italian wines as per every other night. One could say it was getting boring, but that would be foolish. A much better way of describing it is “that’s Italian Pauola style”

 

Special thanks to Pauola – you are truly a wonderful human being – funny, quirky, and a brilliant chef that loves her food, her land and has more passion in her pinky finger than most people in their whole bodies. More of us should be learning from you!

 

Thanks to Alex and the rest of his team for making our stay a world class pleasure. Your skills in the hospitality business are world class and you are a wonderful host.

Amazing food, amazing location, amazing people.

We look forward to sharing this with our “foodie” friends and family and are planning our next trip already.

Bryan and Gina

London Calling….or is that Fort Mac

Tonight is our last night.  We have had a blast but been a bit slack in the updates.  Today we had an English Breakfast….and high tea.  Breakfast consisted of a  variety of fried things….eggs, bacon, sausage, beans and toast.  Not sure I would have it again but had to try it.  This gave us the energy to head out to Harrods followed by the British Museum.  We came back to the Savoy for afternoon tea (enough food for 4 people….who would have thought that you could get filled up on finger sandwiches, crumpets, scones and a variety of delicate desserts.

Stories we have missed but will love updating you over dinner…..Dinner with Heston Blumenthal…..number seven in the world and totally unbelievable (earned all of his Michelin stars)  Thai cooking lessons….feel like an expert now.  London Cabaret show…..fun and funny.  Savoy Grill (Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant)….another great choice (Gina and Bryan might have seen this one a bit differently – LOL).  Museums, art galleries, trolleys and rides down the Thames.  We have been busy London tourists.

Off to London

It was a dark and stormy night … wait a minute, wrong story line.  It was dark. It was bloody early and there were pigs.  Yes, pigs. The kind And  that we had been eating for the last two weeks except these were wanting about in front of our car while we were travailing at a rapid rate of nots down hill. What’s this got to do with food?  Let me back up. Our last post was about Osteria Francescana. Our trip back from there involved a side trip to the east coast for some shopping and of course a little taste of the local cured ham salami sticks. Like salami but small bites. Delightful. Easy to take with your cappachino to go.   The exciting part was of course the trip over the Italian mountains that make up Tuscany.  Narrow twisty roads that made the ones we came in on the first time look like a beginner driving course lesson. These guys were the real thing. Twisty, tiny roads with hair pin turns, semi trailers backing up because they met an oncoming truck and parts of the road that simply were not there any longer. All of this as I was feeling my oats on the Italian roads. We may have mentioned that we were thinking of renting a Ferrari for a day or two. Raw unadulterated testosterone fuelled power.  This of douse also comes with a $120 thousand dollar deductible.  So much for that dream. Never the less, this didn’t stop us (okay, just me) from wanting to feel the road Italian style. And what better way to do that than to slalom down and all too narrow, all to steep Italian roadway at high speed. Gina would have said something but she was having trouble speaking. What a rush. 

We made it back to Cassa Umboto for the final cooking class. It was a bitter sweet class – we could taste the end – we indeed, were cooking it. One of Pauola’s culinary friends joined us as did Alex. Ayny thoughts of this quickly disappeared as we cooked our way into the evening. I made two dishes that were simply amazing. Limincella Creama which is basically a high octane lemon infused cream liqueur that cleanses your pallet after dinner. Something you’ve got to try. The other was a puff pastry vegetable side dish that was served with the braised lamb. OMG. Yup, it was good. Gina made an amazing ravioli with sea bass and squid ink. Truly a fitting finish for a week of fine cooking and fine dining.  There were many other courses and they all were matched with first class Italian wines as per every other night. One could say it was getting boring, but that would be foolish. A much better way of describing it is “that’s Italian Pauola style”. Amazing food, amazing chef and an amazing setting. 

 

Special thanks to Pauola – you are truly a wonderful human being – funny, quirky, and a brilliant chef that loves her food, her land and has more passion in her pinky finger than most people in their whole bodies. More of us should be learning from you!

 

Thanks to Alex and the rest of his team for making our stay a world class pleasure. Your skills in the hospitality business are world class and you are a wonderful host.

 

We look forward to sharing this with our “foodie” friends and family and are planning our next trip already.

 

Bet you were wondering about the dark and stormy night part.   Thats part of the next instalment!

 

 

Bryan and Gina

 

Osteria Francescana

This is going to be a short blog. These guys are third in the world. We had personalized (and I do mean personalized) service sitting in an international crowd of the who’s who. Two little Canadians chatting up a storm with the staff and then the man, the legend himself, Massimo Bottura. Yup, he came out to make sure we were happy. How cool is that. So, four hours, thirteen courses with wine pairings that started at the top of Italy and worked there way down. We covered it top to bottom. Amazing – oh ya. We will add pictures, words simply don’t do the food justice. For all of the Michelins and other top flight restaurants we have been to around the world, this one blew the rest away. My advice, book a table, book a flight and enjoy the meal of a life time.

For example, macaroons with sardine and seafood infused foam. You would never have thought to start a meal like this.

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Or how about this delight, a squid ink scampi crispy fried to perfection.

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And of course, the man and his fans!

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Talk about amazing.

We loved it, we loved osteria-francescana and we especially loved Massimo Bottura and his amazing staff.

 

Tortellini and other tiny bites of heaven

The food of gods continues. But before I get into the food, lets talk about the service in the evening – some may be confused that we cook all day and then chuck it on a plate and snarf it down. Not so. Dinner is as structured and choreographed as the Viennese Waltz. It begins at a pre-agreed time, with a table set for the finest restaurant.  Fresh flowers, leaves, two bottles of special fine wine (and usually a number of bottles of table wine which is also fine!), a selection of wine glasses,  maybe fresh hazelnuts or pine cones for a splash of texture. All set on a backdrop of fine linnen with a custom made set of chargers and plates for Casa Umbuto.  Music is playing in the background along with a monster fire. This is all wrapped in a cosy almost underground dinning retreat. 

Ahhhh, and then the food. Traditional italian procession. Appetizer, first course, main course, desert, aperitif.  The pattern is delightfully predictable. Of course, each course also comes with a detailed explanation from Paola.  You could be eating cardboard and still really enjoy it, but you are not – you are sampling all of the labour from the day’s cooking lessons. The ultimate is that you really do get to eat your own cooking.

Last night, we started with a ricotta cheese soufflé over a bed of lambs lettuce greens and a butter and an brilliant sauce.  The sauce was over the top.  The next dish blew everybody’s taste buds away. After an incredible labour of love, tortellini with butter and sage sauce and piche noodles with pigeon ragu were presented and devoured. They piche noodles were sublime. The tortellini had a taste that would put a smile on any Italian grandma.  The hand made noodles were soft, silky and had a delicate covering of pigeon ragu (with bigger pigeon bits as well). Paula made sure to mention to gently, ever so gently nibble all the bits of meat next to the bones to ensure we got the really good parts.  Next came the unlikely pairing of vegetable muffins with pork loin slices. For those of you who have seen the foodie show “you’ve gotta eat here” you’ll understand our looks and the ooze of happiness as we tucked into these delectable morsels.   Last but not least was a desert of Nutella and orange shortbread tart.  This was not something your grandma ever made. Soft fluffy and capable of filling the final small almost imperceptible tiny spots left in your stomach while putting a smile on your tongue.  

This was, naturally, followed by a full table of aperitif’s.  You would almost think that we would be getting bored of this. Really – you were thinking that. LOL.

This was all just to get us ready for our day off. A day of cooking withdrawal. But one not devoid of drama. Did I mention, in Italy, there is always drama.

Gina’s update on the drama and day off…..well we came down for a lovely leisurely breakfast (first one we have made this week) before our day trip.  Much to our surprise, we were the only guests ready to go on our trip.  After a couple of cappucino’s, toast and yogurts we asked when the bus would arrive to pick us up.  Well…imagine our reaction when we were told by our wonderful but very Italian (aka…no english) hosts that the bus had already left.  What?  Well there was a scurry of telephone conversations which resulted in Bryan and I hitting the road with sketchy directions to meet the bus at the tractor garage (really I am not kidding).  We headed off with a trusty GPS and discovered she was not well.  Her directions came about 45 seconds after we passed the location she was talking about.  We had to rely on signs.  Not ideal for two people who thought we were starting the morning in a leisurely way.  After 30 minutes of racing through the Tuscan countryside, we saw the other guests standing on the side of the highway waving frantically.  They were indeed in front of the tractor garage.  So after the confusion subsided we were off and on our way to a marvellous day of typical Tuscan delights.  Will provide more details later.  Just glad we made the day tour in the end.  The adventures never subside.

   

24 Dishes and Counting

Yesterday was our second day in the fabulous kitchen learning to prepare five-star Italian meals.  The kitchen we are working in is truly something to behold.  The island work surface has embedded fossils and can easily fit 15 people working comfortably. The kitchen includes everything a professionals chef could want (so you can only imagine how pleased we are).

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Each day we have learned a variety of things about the foods, wines and other ingredients we are using.  Before we go into the kitchen, we gather around a huge wooden table and “pull” the recipes from our book (this alone was worth the trip).  Paola goes through the recipes with us and gives us detailed explanations of what to do (and most importantly, what not to do….for example, you do not want to overcook the zabione as is will separate….just until it is fluffy like soft meringue).  Yesterday’s recipes included chicken breast filled with olives, pigeon ragu, zabione, meat loaf, beetroot ravioli, lettuce cream soup with cheese balls, focaccia with pumpkin, bruschetta, millefoglie (layered vegetables and cheese), and basil pesto cheesecake.  One highlight….Bryan made fresh pasta.  He has made great gnocchi before but this was your thin delightful chef-quality pasta dough.  Everything we make must meet Paola’s standards.  Paola is a professional gourmet chef so you can imagine how amazing our creations are.   Bryan will have stories of what happens when you produce something that does not meet the standard.

After five hours in the kitchen, we get ready for dinner.  Paola continues working in the kitchen and adds the final touches.  We then begin the culinary adventure and enjoy the fruits of our labor.  The meal takes between three and four hours.  Makes your efforts seem more appreciated than the turkey dinners we spend hours preparing which end up devoured in less than 30 minutes.  It is also a way of life….gathering around the dinner table and talking with friends and family for a few hours.  Great way to connect or stay connected.  Back to the food…the dishes are paired with amazing Italian wines and we finish our meal with the table full of liquors for you to choose.

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This is a picture of Bryan’s ravioli (notice the rose….made of tomato skin by Bryan) and my chicken with olives. mmmmmmmmmmm

Last night we ended our evening in a hot tub which provided a great view to the Tuscan hills.  The hot tub was fire heated which required adding wood and requesting that the heating process be started 7 hours prior to use.  Well worth it.  Great way to end an amazing meal.

Gina had to mention it … what happens when you don’t meet Paola’s standards. Let me first explain that all of my re-do’s today were because I was striving to meet those standards and anything less would have been unsatisfactory. I want to create a faithful rendition of Paola’s recipe even if it means re-do’s four times.  Did I mention I was often the slow student back in school. Patience and persistence triumphed.  My task, making the lowly and often dreaded north american dish of “Meat Loaf” was transformed into a culinary tour de force (which we are about to go and sample). It looked like none of the meat loaf’s your mother served you as a child.

Watch for Wild Boars Crossing

Our adventure in Venice was over and it was time to make our way to Casa Ombuto for our next culinary adventure.  The day began with a quick train ride to Florence.  As we approached Florence, it became clear that the weather Gods were not happy with the world.  Sheets of rain were beating down.  From the train station we grabbed a cab to the car rental area of the airport only to discover that Alamo does not have a sign like Budget, Avis, Europcar etc.  The cab driver said he had never heard of Alamo (except the American historical version) and of course this did not sit well.  The thought of making our way hours into the countryside through the torrential rains by cab or some other mode of transport seemed a tad daunting.  I braved the rain and checked with Avis and wouldn’t you know that the only Italian car company was also Alamo….Maggiore.  So we did indeed have a car.  Brand new.  No kilometres.  So once we spent some time getting acquainted with the vehicle (and grabbing another GPS as the one in the car was not set up although they did send us on our way telling us it was…lesson for those to follow….do not leave until you have everything working).

With the rain pouring down, we obeyed the GPS lady and turned left in 300 metres.  We continued this trek bravely through the snow….yes the snow.  The rain turned into snow on the narrow mountain roads.  We were surprised and wished that we had rented a Land Rover rather than the Mercedes.  Three hours later we found the Casa.  After kilometers of castles, ancient walled towns and narrow cobblestone roads we arrived.  We pulled up and were immediately greeted by Alex who insisted we have a drink and snack before unloading the car.  After five or six glasses of wine and platefuls of delightful snacks, we saw our room.  The chef, Paola, was preparing a feast for us which included a variety of wild boar treats.  Casa Ombuto is amazing.  The buildings are beautiful and our room was amazing.  The combination of modern amenities with 700 year old structures (all of which have been redone with brick) make for a lovely location.

Speaking of wild boars. It turns out if you want a wild boar, you just have to wait until they wander through your room. Yup, if you leave the doors open, they will just help themselves to drinking out of your toilet. Anything with nasty ass tusks and a bad attitude gets all the water it can drink!   Fortunately we actually had the upper rooms with our doors shut. No nasty pigs sleeping with us.

There is also a warning about one of the pictures we are posting here. First it looks like a poster child for the reason we have an alcohol policy. After dinner, a couple of bottles of “special wine” and the fact that they had been plying us with the local vino since we showed up, they brought out the big guns. They filled the table with all the local aperitifs they could find. It was stunning. If you are wondering what happened next, you haven’t been following our story close enough.  Needless to say, the next morning was a bit on the slow side and the old Irish Rovers song, “wasn’t that a party” kept running through the remaining 4 functioning brain cells I still possessed.

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Gina’s update on the food:  Paola made us a feast, last night, which included the infamous Florentine steak.  This time it was sliced and only a few pieces served to each making it much more manageable.  The steak followed an amazing course of red rice with parmesan and wild boar with mushrooms. Somewhere in there was fresh arugula with extra virgin locally made olive oil.  Seriously, being Italian is a gift from the Gods.  There was a meringue, strawberry semi-fredo delight for dessert.  This I will master.

I heard that breakfast was an amazing feast but there was no hope for us after all of the liquors.  Lunch was salad, variety of cheeses (different ages so we could compare), acacia honey, fresh made (less than 10 minutes earlier) pasta with basil and more olive oil.  Lastly, if that was not enough, we had local sausage with cauliflower.  Dessert at lunch was a light snack of lemon cookies with whipped cream in between (a high end version of whoopie pie).

Today we cooked for 5 hours and had the dinner over three hours….did I mention I LOVE Italy, Casa Ombuto, Alex and Paola.  We made bruschetta, tomatoe sauce, roasted veggies, minestrone (which is for later in the week as it gets better with age), asparagus rolled in parmesan and other delightful things, panna cotta, and last but not least, wood fired pizza.  Bryan also learned a new trick for the pizza oven.  We made our own dough and mastered 13 Italian dishes today.  I made the panna cotta and for those of you who have had my ice cream you will LOVE the panna cotta.  It was divine.  We learn how to make pasta tomorrow.  Yay!  Will keep you posted.  By the way….boars running rampant makes me happy that we are on the second floor too.   I would also be fine without seeing another flake of snow until next winter.  We have been told by many that it is extremely rare for it to snow this late in Tuscany (yeah…I bet it is about as rare as hotels exploding in Mexico….tell me a story I haven’t heard already)!

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Mama Gina

So we missed an update on a really cool place. Wandering around aimlessly or as Gina would point out, focused consumer therapy of the ladies bag nature. Man, there are a lot of ladies bag stores here. And they stay open late – usually later than the pizza by the slice joints.  So, as we were wandering, we passed by a lovely restaurant named Mama Gina’s.  Hard to go wrong with a name like that. I stuck my head in and they said come back later, much later.  Not a problem in Italy, you head down the block until you find a nice little outdoor patio and have an aperitif. Then you wander back.  So Mama Gina’s was indeed a Mama’s place. Her picture was hung reverently at the front as you walked in for all to pay honour to.  Our first inkling that this was going to be special was one of the head waiters waving around a pig leg. Fresh air cured proscutto, by now one of our staples as a dinner warm up. They shave it fresh off the hoof and it doesn’t get better than that. Another Mama special was Riboletta, a twice boiled pot of mama’s best. We ordered one, got two – the waiter indicated that it was our problem now and thats how mama rolls.   It was tasty and filling, only as mama would have it. Gina however was apprehensive about finishing hers and insisted that I finish her bowl, least mama come out and give her a harsh tongue lashing.

Not a problem except I was already getting full. These are hearty potions. Next was the main.  This was an OMG moment. I ordered a light chicken dish. Should have been something small. It wasn’t. Bloody chickens were working out at the gym and were the size of the plate. Mine was nothing in comparison to what Gina ordered. We had heard a few times that nothing compared to the beef from Florence cows. Must be something about a blue tongue. It was ordered rare because thats the way it’s ordered around here.  When it showed up, there was an audible gasp from Gina and a snicker from one of the waiters. It took two of them to lift the plate into place. This  was a seriously large T-Bone steak. There were entire families in africa that could have been fed  for a week on this chunk of moo. Gina’s mission, to make it disappear. As the waiter mentioned before, it’s her problem now.

Some time later, after transferring many tasty – oh so tasty – morsels onto my plate, it looked like Gina was going to finish.  This is why dinners can take so long in Italy. It takes time to chew your way through a whole cow.  The char on this beef was to die for. Truly exceptional flavour that we have not experience anywhere else.

Gina’s note:  Not sure I have ever seen a steak the size of the one at Mama Gina’s.  I was very impressed with the char they got on it.  The most amazing thing happened when I cut into the morsel.  No bleeding.  The steak was rare but truly allowed to sit long enough to avoid seepage.  It was awesome.   A tip for those to follow….the older the waiters…the better the restaurant.  The young hip Italians work at new, hip places.  The older Italians work at locations which were young and hip when they were young and hip.  Or…their mother owned the restaurant.  Either way, they are working in the places to go.   Two more adventures yesterday (after the torrential rains which resulted in flooding in San Marco Square..which is common).  Once the sun came out, we were off to Murano, the glass artists heaven and apparently a drooling place for Bryan.  The Island is full of glass factories.  There are stores selling items (all Murano made items are clearly marked…others just inexpensive).  We added an “art piece” to our collection.  Stunning actually.  The gallery kindly threw in a 750 pound vase as their “thank you” gift.   The glass piece will be sent home (insured but it is one of a kind).  Then off to the opera…Vivaldi…in a Venetian Teatro….seriously how cool is that.  It was mesmerizing and a must do.  Of course, we hit high tide after the opera and had a failed attempt to stay dry by purchasing retail bags and using duct tape to set in place.  Unfortunately, the bags slip on the marble (which is everywhere) so were too dangerous even for someone as graceful as me….:)  Swam home and now we are off to Casa Ombuto in the Tuscan country side.