Tag Archives: Truffles

On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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The quickest way to get to Italy

Have apron will travel

Have apron, will travel.

Why did you eat that last meal?

Hunger, boredom, routine?

I’ll bet your response is often linked to one of the above.

But since I met my wife (and made my own first tentative ventures into the kitchen) another answer has occurred to me.

I eat to travel somewhere else, or to be someone else, somewhere else. Most often I find myself opting for Italian, because cucina povera is one of our favourite cuisines and we love being in that country.

The sunshine of recent weeks in Ireland reminds me of visits we made to Italy last year. But the sun, even chased with Chianti, is not enough to transport me back there.

Enter cooking. A way to return, even for us infrequent fryers.

I figured the only way to get us to Italy while remaining in Dublin was to produce a meal as Italian as I could manage. Simple would help too.

One question then – what dish?

. . . . .

Chicken liver has been a poor man’s food for as long as poor men have eaten. Even in overpriced Ireland half a kilogram of livers will only cost you about €3.

One of my favourite chefs, Antonio Carluccio, has a recipe from the Piedmont region of northern Italy which, executed correctly, will put you in the foothills of the Alps in 30 minutes.

The dish is tajarin con fegatini, thin pasta ribbons in a chicken liver sauce, popular in the town of Alba. The specifics are here.

As a kitchen novice I seek out dishes that combine a maximum of authentic taste with a minimum of technical ability.

Luckily it doesn’t take a great degree of culinary skill to make tajarin, which are tagliolini – a variation on tagliatelle.

After making the pasta it’s simply a matter of getting down and dirty with the chicken livers. I’ve read that people are put off by the slimy texture and, er, unique, aroma of the offal.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini - pasta with chicken liver sauce.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini – pasta with chicken liver sauce.

My only problem with these organs is that they’re so small (or my technique’s so unrefined) that cleaning can reduce them to mush. Last weekend’s batch came from some mighty birds, though, and held their consistency nicely.

They cook in 4 minutes, in a pan with butter-browned onions and – another Italian taste ticket – porcini mushrooms. Add tomato puree and 50ml (a shot, for those who prefer to drink it) of Marsala. The latter balances out the nasal earthiness of the liver.

A couple of teaspoons of truffle oil finishes the sauce, which is mixed with the tajarin and garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

. . . . .

The aroma hits you first. Chicken liver, porcini, truffle. Then the taste, earthy, mineral, moist. We had left our Dublin dinner-table and were sitting down to eat, halfway across Europe, in a hillside courtyard in Alba.

It was proof that food is the quickest, more authentic way to travel, if don’t want to leave your apartment. Check it out.

The wine was a Sangiovese though. You can’t get every local detail right. We’ll just have to go there for that.

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