Do you find yourself looking for inventive ways with vegetables on a regular basis? The thing about shopping once a week from the farmers’ market is that you are often looking for ways to use something up. This is why I cast my eye over a half a butternut squash and wondered idly if it would be OK for breakfast.
At the Movenpick Dead Sea on a recent trip to Jordan, I tucked into their delicious Bircher muesli with relish and remembered how much I loved it. It’s the ideal start to the day if I can remember to get organised the night before. Packed full of fresh fruit (traditionally grated apple) and a good amount of tummy-filling, sustaining fibre, it’s a moreish and healthy way to provide loads of energy until lunchtime. No snacking needed.
There’s a saying going around right now promoting the food pyramid way of eating “breakfast like a king, supper like a pauper”. While I’m not ready to nibble at night just yet, the first bit of advice makes sense for healthy eating through the day without feeling deprived.
So was eating butternut squash raw a thing? I found only one recipe online and tried it out. The bowl looked pretty but it was made with orange juice which delivered far too many bright flavours all clashing together for my tastes. I need a bit of creamy comfort first thing. Next time I swapped the juice for organic coconut milk* and a touch of lime for a tropical vibe and couldn’t get enough of it. You could also use fresh coconut and add the milk plus some shredded meat into the mix – in fact that’s definitely my next thing to try.
Butternut, coconut and lime Bircher Muesli
- 150g rolled oats (sometimes called old-fashioned), wholegrain if possible
- 400ml organic coconut milk*
- Juice of 1 small lime (or to taste)
- thick slice of butternut squash, about 50g, peeled and deseeded
- 1/2 apple
- 1 medium carrot, peeled
- raw honey (to taste)
- optional toppings: seeds, nuts, fresh fruit, yoghurt, compôte, bee pollen, berry powder**
Put the oats into a medium-sized bowl with the milk and lime juice. Grate in the butternut squash, apple and carrot – if you are in a hurry use the grating disc of your food processor, otherwise a box grater or coarse microplane will provide exercise your arm muscles. Stir all the ingredients to combine, cover and refrigerate overnight. In the morning stir in raw honey to taste and add any toppings you choose.
** A friend introduced me to this delicious and nutritious dried wild bilberry powder which is handy if you are out of fresh fruit.
There are so many flavour riffs on Bircher. I asked a few friends for ideas. Dannii of Hungry, Healthy Happy is a big fan and recommends an apple and blackberry version. I should have known that Helen of Fuss Free Flavours would have tried butternut – it sounds super in her sunrise Bircher. Nut butters are particularly handy if you are eating vegan (my teen is this month) so Becca’s banana and peanut butter overnight oats on Amuse Your Bouche is a good suggestion.
Want more butternut inspiration? How about spiced butternut squash muffins with margarita sour cream or fettuce with butternut squash, sage and smoked garlic ?
Linking this to Simple and in Season as making the most of the last of our local, organic veg season here in Dubai.
Just a reminder to join me in the kitchen, on my dog walk and in various parts of Dubai on Snapchat – mycustardpie
Are you an overnight oats fan (Bircher by a different name)? Would love to know what combinations you enjoy? And are chia seeds champion or challenging? Let me know in the comments.
I’m talking about punch for drinking of course, although its meaning comes from the Hindi word for five as it traditionally contains five ingredients. It makes me think of fun times, parties, and people putting questionable things into the punch bowl (misspent youth). It’s high time punch had a revival, regaining sophistication and elegance and banishing memories of the dayglo-pour-anything-in teenage variety.
March was crazy busy in Dubai, with the Dubai Food Festival, Art Dubai, Design Days and the Literature Festival all happening this month. Impossible to do it all (plus I escaped for an incredible trip to Jordan – more on that soon). The sporting highlight is undoubtedly the Dubai World Cup of Racing which was on last weekend. I missed it this year as some good friends were in town for one night only. Salons and hat shops were heaving on Saturday but by the evening the whole place had an eerie feeling of being deserted. Everyone was out at Meydan watching some of the most expensive horse flesh race on the flat, followed by a post-race concert by Janet Jackson.
When I asked Denzel to make a racing inspired cocktail I thought he’d include Champagne but his inspiration came from four wheels rather than four legs and a long-term sponsor (since 1962) – Martini & Rossi. So this beautiful punch was born, a little twist on Simone Caporale’s Martini Royale Punch, and it just cries out for a party. The five elements are SOUR (lime juice), SWEET (the Maraschino liqueur), STRONG (the Bombay Sapphire London Dry gin with lots of juniper and coriander botanicals), LENGTH (the Martini Bianco with hints of dried orange and lemon peel) and SPICE from the cinnamon sticks, frozen berries, rosebuds and citrus.
Now where do I get my hands on an enormous punch bowl? Race you there…
Martini Royale Punch 2.0
- Punch bowl
- Large clear block of ice
- 400ml Hibiscus infused Bombay Sapphire
- 150ml Luxardo Maraschino
- 150ml Fresh Lime Juice
- 400ml Fresh Pineapple Juice
- 100ml Martini Bianco
- Garnishes: dehydrated citrus slices, raspberries, cranberries, cinnamon sticks, edible rose buds.
- Icing sugar
How to mix
- Put a large clear block of ice into the middle of a large punch bowl (or half fill with cubed ice).
- Measure all the liquid ingredients into a very large bowl or jug and stir well. Pour into punch bowl.
- Garnish with fresh fruit, dehydrated lemon, orange or grapefruit slices, and other ingredients. Sieve a tablespoon of icing sugar over the top and serve immediately in punch glasses.
*Hibiscus infused Bombay Sapphire
In a jar, combine 250ml Bombay Sapphire gin with 5 tablespoons of dried hibiscus flowers. Let it stand at room temperature overnight. Strain into a jar. (Leftover infused gin can be kept indefinitely.)
Here’s Simone Caporale making his original version – I think Denzel’s is even prettier.
What sort of memories does punch hold for you?
A long weekend in an industrial European city in Winter might not sound like the biggest attraction, but it wasn’t Birmingham. It was Milan. Having not googled the word ‘Milan’ even once, my expectations were vague – modern design, fashion, perfume and football. Driving in through the outskirts, even the decaying concrete flats of the 1970s had a certain elan, and the ochre and yellow peeling paint of traditional buildings looked poetic under the pale skies. I’m a desert dweller after all, coming from a city where most buildings are less than ten years old and everything gleams. As we reached the city centre, I tried not to blink as my eyes feasted on the elegant Belle Époque architecture and cobbled streets, complete with original turn of century trams all elegantly faded in the grey winter light. I was a little smitten already.
Hotel Excelsior Gallia
The surfaces of our hotel interior glistened in a very Dubai like way, with marble, chrome, white orchids and curvaceous lighting. Outside in the street it was easy to imagine The Excelsior Gallia as it would have been in the 1930s when the monumental structure opposite opened, the grand railway station built to a scale to represent Mussolini’s regime. Horses and carriages, and early cars would have bustled through the wide square and sweeping boulevard. Trams of that era still rattle past, interspersed with more modern ones. But once inside the hotel, those early guests of the hotel would recognise only a few pillars and the central staircase which now houses a breathtaking chandelier albeit inspired by the clean lines of Art Deco. A signature scent envelops you as you step through the doors and the quiet insulation of the rooms means the odd distant rumble is all that is detected from the station even though my windows look directly out onto it. I tried not to mourn the things that must have been carted away in skips and console myself that with turn of the century period architecture Milan has an embarrassment of riches.
The complete renovation of the Excelsior Gallia (which is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection) means it has been doubled in size with a modern steel and glass extension; this leads seamlessly from old to new along the corridors. It is chic, comfortable, and captures the essence of Art Deco translated by collection of top name designers using the very best materials. The rooms are simply elegant and the bed so comfortable I wanted to buy the pillows (you can by the way). When I got up in the night, heading for the marble and glass-clad bathroom (with far too many mirrors), sensors detected my movement and switched on a night-light to guide my way. The minimalist interior of the Shiseido Spa was ultra-calming, with white surfaces, diffused natural light and the most comfortable massage bed I’ve experienced (and believe me, I’ve tested quite a few) dispelling any thoughts I might have had that this wouldn’t be up to the standard of Dubai spas (which is sky-high due to huge competition).
We discovered the real soul of the hotel down in the kitchens, the beating heart of the hotel where teams of bustling staff wield knives, piping bags and huge steel trays. Eager and proud to show us the fruits of their labour, they notice our hungry looks at a stack of club sandwiches (which are delicious). Italian modern design has even transformed the subterranean staff dining room into a bright yellow space which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Prado.
Luckily for us there is a super-intriguing restaurant within our hotel (plus it has a separate entrance from the road). Terrazza Gallia is up the rooftop (the 7th floor) manned by rising star chefs Vincenzo and Antonio Lebano managed with the advice of the Michelin-starred Cerea family. We start with some aperitivo – i.e. excellent cocktails and some fairly substantial nibbles. I love this about drinking in Italy; you soak up the alcohol with delicious bites of food. We sit outside the bar area on the terrace, pashminas and heaters meant we’re perfectly comfortable in February, with an unparalleled view of the Statione Centrale.
The ultra-modern interior of the restaurant follows on from the Art Deco theme of the hotel with added industrial chic; the lighting more conducive to techno lovers than un tavolo per due. The food is modern, seasonal and based on new interpretations of Milanese classics. The ingredients are all sourced from Northern Italy where possible especially flour, charcuterie and cheese. The milk and yoghurt used is from a local farmer.
My starter came in two parts; first buffalo mozzarella foam floating over a Sicilian red prawns with pine nuts and extract of tomato in a small bowl suspended over ice, then a plate of lightly cooked and raw sea bass. The Alaskan cod main course I’d ordered came with potatoes, creamed herbs and moss foam. The risotto Milanese had trendy bone marrow on it and the tiramisu was in the form of a ball to be cracked, theatrically, with a spoon. A crowd and Instagram pleaser that last one.
The Wine Cellar
At the other extreme is a subterranean series of rooms in the Hotel Excelsior Gallia which is much less formal and a temple to cheese, charcuterie and wine. We tried out the show cooking experience which groups can book in advance. Executive Chef Davide Castoldi led a team of chefs (including pastry chef Federico Rottigni) who prepared a series of dishes for us while we sat at a bar in front of them tasting our way through matched wines. It’s the ultimate fun girls night out for foodies and the chefs compete with each other to show off their expertise while we chat, drink, eat – until we are begging for mercy – and admire their prowess. Italian charm, good food, a bit of theatre and rivalry by people who clearly love what they do – what’s not to like.
I peered into countless intriguing and inviting courtyards while walking the streets of Milan. OM Food – described as a bio-bistro – is a little restaurant and shop tucked away in a beautiful courtyard of an old palace. So many restaurants boast of fresh, quality ingredients these days but it is truly at the heart of this place. The simple menu is drawn from fresh organic ingredients and products from their herbalist company, Officinali di Montauto, which makes essential oils and cosmetics in Tuscany. My plate of comforting testeroli pasta is made of chestnut flour (the pasta dried then cooked on a stone ‘testo’) with a pesto made of basil, almonds and olive oil but free of garlic (so diners can go back to work with fresh breath). We poured their estate grown olive oil in gleaming, grassy lakes on our side plates to mop up with the robust freshly baked bread. This is my kind of lunch.
The faces of our hosts from the hotel lit up when they described Dry to us. “This is the best pizza place in town and the place to go”. My friend who lives in Milan confirms this is true, “You must try their cocktails. The French 47 is amazing”. We stand out on the pavement for ages while our booking is confirmed, looking longingly through the windows at a bar that is already buzzing, bartenders theatrically choreographed, dark wood tables and benches occupied by huddles of animated young people. Snaking through a narrow dark corridor and down precipitous stairs to the basement where an art installation is being projected onto a screen, we knock elbows at our rough-hewn table. The lighting is dim, the pizzas when they arrive could indeed be the best in Milan, Napolitan-style, crisp singed but softly pliable and tomatoey. The wine label is witty, better than the wine inside to be honest. The French 47 – gin, Champagne and lemon juice – is phenomenal, and I had to use every ounce of self-restraint not to conduct in-depth exploration of the cocktail menu.
Journalist Sara Porro is a voluable, witty and knowledgeable guide. After chatting we realise that not only have we been to the same dinner event in Dubai but her experience with Frying Pan Adventures was a catalyst for setting up her own food tour, Sauce Milan. The website acts as an excellent guide to the food scene and she’s happy to share her recommendations so you can go solo, but then you don’t get the behind the scenes info she imparts or her entertaining company. She even told us the recipe for perfect pizza dough. She explained that as Lombardy (where Milan is situated) is landlocked meat is traditional and not fish, and butter is used rather than olive oil. Her Grandmother said she tasted olive oil for the first time on her honeymoon in Liguria. Fat is also synonymous with quality and there is an old saying in Milan “You have to eat lean meat from fat animals”.
We visit the following places with Sara as our guide:
We spotted the elegant windows and dark wood of another era from across the street and were appeased from rushing in there with the promise of our visit the next day. Established in 1824 in a building that dates back to the 18th century, the interiors come from the beginning of 1900. The shop is famous for its windows of cakes and patisserie. We join the throng of Milanese who knock back espresso and rush off again. We linger for a cappuccino and a few pasticcini. Find our more about Italian coffee drinking habits and Milanese breakfast haunts on my recent post.
In the middle of white concrete walls, coloured geometric structures, and spacious grass areas that make up the futuristic Isola Garibaldi area, only Ratanà remains from another era. It’s a memory of the 19th Century industrial past in a neighborhood razed to the ground and completely rebuilt around it. Ratanà was the nickname of a legendary priest-healer who allegedly cured the poor of this area during that time. For lunch it is filled with well-heeled workers from nearby offices with a bustling energy permeating throughout; people-watching is rewarding. Our courses have been chosen ahead so we just relax as they are brought. This vies for my favourite food of our trip, matched with superb wines (which you can buy to take away – see below). The menu is a modern take on Lombardy’s traditional recipes, simple in concept and beautifully presented. The saffron risotto is sublime in balance, flavour, texture and creaminess and topped with a sliver of bone marrow. At the end of service, Milanese chef Cesare Battisti sits at the front bar and chats to appreciative diners, patently a champion of good ingredients.
Sara dragged us away from the stunning wedding-cake-esque crenelated Duomo up into a cartoon-like place, with curved orange bar and pop art details. As I sat on the terrace outside, the warm Winter sunshine making us shed our coats, eating freshly cooked homemade potato crisps and sipping a Negroni I thought any prayers for me to reach heaven had been answered.
Milan is famous for its perfume houses and we were given a fascinating ‘scented tour’ guided by Mariangela Rossi who is the author of several books on the topic. After an insight into the development of a fine fragrance by perfumier Luca Maffei AFM Atelier Fragranze Milano, we browsed the sculptural bottles in the heady atmosphere of Perfume by Cale an “olfactive boutique”. Our perfume diagnosis was conducted by the stylish shop assistants as their exclusive test on an i-Pad was not working. A great place to discover distinctive creations outside the usual big brands.
We also stepped into Foglie, fiori e fantasia, an exquisite jewel of a flower shop run by floral designer Margherita Angelucci who works with many fashion brands.
Perfume by Cale and Foglie, fiori e fantasia, Via Brisa 15, West, Milan.
When I studied for my wine exams, Italy was one of the most extensive and confusing countries to study but it’s the home of some of my favourite wines. I was determined to bring back something unusual and visited several places. First there are wine shops called Enotecas (a bit like off-licences for wine which also sell confectionary). I wandered into Vini & Sapori which was a short walk from our hotel; the young shop assistant was a bit shy but ultimately helpful. Signorvino was a bit like the wine hall at Harvey Nichols but more stylish and trendier. The staff were super helpful and very knowledgable. In addition to the shop there is a wine bar (with food) overlooking the Duomo. My favourite bottle – Maria Pia Castelli Orano 2010 came from Ratanà (see above) and was half the ‘in restaurant’ price.
I bought wine at Drogheria Grossi (see below) but suspect that the stock doesn’t move very fast given the dust on the bottle. Peck would have been another good place to forage (see below).
Drogheria Grossi is a blast from the past; visit to marvel at the original dark wooden shelves which climb up to the ceiling and old-fashioned service catering to Milanese old ladies in fur coats (with dogs – see below). Shop for unusual flavours of sweets and choose from over 300 different types of tea.
Peck was founded in 1883 by Francesco Peck from Prague and its clientele included the Royal House,
major hotels and famous families. You would never have to cook again if this was on your doorstep; glass cabinets are lined with platter after platter after platter of delicacies, many slicked with aspic, or with a nod to the past such as Peck’s signature liver patè or insalata Russa. It was like stepping into an old cookbook and seeing the watercolour line drawings come to life. There are areas dedicated to meat, cheese, charcuterie, preserves and a display of fruit and veg so perfect it would be a crime to take something. But to think this temple to gastronomy is all about show would be bestowing a great disservice as we discovered in the enormous kitchens and then down in the copious cellars. Transformed into replicas of Casper the friendly ghost by our protective clothing, we descended and were given a tour showing the attention to detail about things that matter to taste – choice, storage, preparation and aging; it also explained the price tag of the items. We peered into multiple cold storage rooms lined with beef, lamb, pork, chicken and game, cheeses, charcuterie each item prized like a jewel and tended like royalty. Italians can be fanatical about food and produce but this was on a scale I had never witnessed. Sadly there was no time to visit the wine cellar, where more than 3,000 labels are stored – although we saw some excellent Chianti being poured into a homemade ragu (a tub came home in my suitcase).
OM Food (see above) is a good source of artisanal products from their own estates. Don’t leave without the exquisite olive oil.
Domori chocolate is left on your pillow every night at the Excelsior Gallia and we are given some of the most exquisite single origin Neapolitains to take home. Chocolate has to be very good for me to rave about it – I raced veggie teen to the box everyday.
Our short trip concentrated on the pleasures of the palate but we did take in a few major landmarks, most of which have been cleaned up for the Expo of last year:
Duomo di Milano – Milan Cathedral
We had a few hours free and I elected to walk around the city centre which is very doable if you are a pavement pounder like me. Looking up I could see people on the upper levels outside and was tempted to scale the heights of the Gothic Duomo for the view, however opted for the pleasures of pottering round the huge piazza below with mingling with people, pigeons and buskers (including a guy who must have been 60 delivering heavy metal classics with impeccable insouciance).
Nothing can prepare you for rounding the corner and getting your first sight of the cathedral and there is a similar sharp intake of breath when you enter the Piazza Affari containing the smaller but no less impactful structure called L.O.V.E. This sculpture, which is literally giving the finger to the financial establishment, is situated right outside Milan’s stock exchange, an imposing 1930’s building which radiates power and would not look out-of-place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Its creator artist Maurizio Cattelan denies the intention of sending an anti-capitalist message, instead citing a criticism of totalitarianism by mutilating Italy’s Fascist hand salute from the 1930s through severing the fingers. L.O.V.E. is an acronym for love, hate, vendetta, eternity in Italian.
Castello Sforzesco – Sforza Castle
While it might take you a day to wander round this enormous castle, parts dating from the 14th Century, which houses many museums and art galleries (including works of several famous Italian masters), you can wander along paths along the perimeter and through some of its imposing courtyards as I did.
Milano Centrale Railway Station
As mentioned above, the scale of this structure alone is impressive and it drew me to it every time I looked out the window or walked, ant-like, in its shadow. A cursory Google search reveals many warnings to avoid the area around it as being dangerous. While never advocating complacency, I didn’t feel any hint of this in the slightest even when walking early evening in the dark and living in a place where crime is very low my ‘fear radar’ is on a higher setting than people from other cities.
And less conventional sights which was part of Milan’s appeal:
I could have just written about the dogs of Milan. Everyone seemed to have at least one with Yorkshire terriers in particular vogue. They went everywhere… I mean everywhere. From the lady doing her grocery shopping in Peck – with a miniature Dachshund in tow – to the woman who brought her small dog to dinner at Terrazza Gallia and popped him up on the banquette beside her.
In Dubai, motorbikes are mainly ridden in groups celebrating particular owners clubs on the weekend, the mode of fast-food home delivery, or a lone rider on a death wish driving at the speed of light on a stratospherically expensive super-bike up the Sheikh Zayed Road. Maybe this was why scooters fascinated me so much in Milan being so much a part of daily life and in very well-ordered ways. From swathes of dark black macho bikes parked within millimetres of each other to brightly coloured scooters positioned on the pavement like modern art there was an invisible code of conduct policed by energetic traffic wardens.
I am equally attracted and repelled by the graffiti in Italian cities. The artists or vandals, depending on your point of view, seem to see no surface as sacrosanct. They show no mercy to beautiful architecture, statues and ancient artifacts layering bold signatures or coloured designs on their targets. There was so much in Milan that I was tempted to go out at 3am to discover this alternative community presuming that their work is carried out under the veil of darkness.
In the grand vaulted shopping arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, next to the Duomo is a mosaic of a bull. It is said by some that if you spin on your heel three times in the bull’s balls it will bring you luck. I had a go but my luck had already been granted with a visit to this splendid city.
Flying Emirates business class meant this short break was very doable from Dubai and would be super easy from Europe. I was definitely bitten by the Milan bug – a combination of heritage, style plus huge energy. The perfect city break for me and I walked everywhere. In fact I’m returning to the city again next month for another food-related event. Is there anything else that’s a ‘must do’ while I’m there?
Read Top 10 dining and drinking haunts in Milan by Foodiva and more about our visit by Naomi (who takes incredible pictures of desserts), my tour companions.
What’s your favourite city for a short break?
I travelled to Milan as a guest of the Excelsior Gallia.
The aromas of the souk, the warmth of nutmeg, the refreshing bite of citrus, a hint of creaminess… all this in a cocktail but…
…I like wine.
It’s endlessly fascinating encompassing history, geography, geology, agriculture, language, culture, climate change, politics, fashion and food-matching. Oh, and at times, it’s the most sublime liquid evoking a unique sense of place, time and overwhelming sensory pleasure.
I love the idea of them. I like the ritual too. The Bloody Mary on the plane (I know I’m not alone in this), minty Mohitos with your mates, the end of week gin and tonic, sipping Moscow Mules while wrapped in a fur blanket watching the sun disappear behind a mountain. The theatre and anticipation of watching the bartender prepare your cocktail heightens the expectation… which can often be dashed as you sip a bland, watery, sweet, underwhelming drink.
So when I met a man who said he liked wine but found it very boring compared to the infinite variety and interest offered by the world of spirits I was intrigued. Denzel Heath heads up the Bar Academy at MMI. There are two main suppliers of alcohol in Dubai, MMI and A+E, and both offer training to the staff of hundreds of bars and restaurants here, ultimately to foster loyalty of their brands and services. Denzel is like a whirlwind behind the bar and you can almost see his mind whirring through options and flavours as he decides which drink to create for you. He knows a phenomenal amount about his topic and recently hosted an entertaining and illuminating gin tasting house at my house. He also makes stellar cocktails.
Keen to learn from him, he’s come up with some gin-based recipes for me which fit into the Dubai calendar. We started the year with his tips on making the perfect gin and tonic. February is a big month for golf with the legendary Dubai Desert Classic. I’m the original golf widow, don’t play, have the sport gene missing, but even so thoroughly enjoy this tournament. Wandering around Emirates Golf course watching the best in their field then returning to the club house where many mingle with the members there, sipping a cocktail…
Dubai Desert Classic
So a classic cocktail with a twist – a Dubai Desert Classic – based on a gin fizz. This has to have three things: gin, citrus and something fizzy. Denzel added the flavours of a date-studded carrot cake and some camel milk for a touch of creaminess. If you can’t get camel milk where you live use single cream but it will be a little heavier. Laban works well too adding an extra touch of sourness. Camel milk is actually very light and this is a refreshing, moreish cocktail. Ophir is very scented and described as an oriental spiced London Dry Gin. As well as obligatory juniper it has a whole range of spices including cubeb berries, black pepper, coriander, cardamom and cumin making its aroma and taste warm and earthy, evocative of wandering through the spice souks in this part of the world.
- A shaker
- A strainer
- Long glass
- 60ml Ophir gin
- 30ml fresh carrot juice
- 20ml date and pineapple syrup*
- 15ml fresh lemon juice
- 15ml egg white (approx 1/2 large egg)
- 30ml camel milk
- Soda water
- Cubed ice
- Nutmeg, star anise and dates (optional).
- Edible sand (optional – see below)**
How to mix
- Put all the ingredients into a shaker without ice and shake it hard so that the egg white turns into foam.
- Add some ice into the shaker and shake hard for another 20 seconds so that the liquid is very chilled.
- Pour 50ml of chilled soda water into the Collins glass and strain the cocktail over the soda.
- Garnish with grated nutmeg and star anise. You can also serve with a side dish of dates, some edible sand (see below) and a parasol for that extra Arabian desert vibe.
*Date and pineapple syrup
Denzel makes his own syrups often using a sous vide but you can buy both date and pineapple syrups. For homemade I wouldn’t bother making date syrup – it looks like a real faff but here’s a very simple pineapple syrup recipe.
Crush 5 digestive biscuits (Graham crackers if you are in the US) into fine crumbs using a food processor or putting into a sealed plastic bag and bashing with a rolling pin. Combine with 2 tablespoons of Demerara sugar and 1 teaspoon of caster sugar.
“We may have to use our elbows a bit”, says Sara, our gracious but determined guide. We approach through a row of people who are moving in a way that seems random but orderly at the same time – like the worker bees in a hive. The scratched, zinc bar is scrubbed clean; we give our order to the man behind it, bend our arms a little bit more than we normally would and look around in fascination at the procession of coffee drinkers. They are oblivious to our interest as this is a normal daily routine; a few pleasantries exchanged with the server, small plates of pastries placed on the counter, short dark drafts of coffee knocked back like medicine, then out through the art-deco, glass-paned doors at the ultra-swift walking pace of the Milanese. After a while we vacate our spot. Nothing has been said, but it’s just not the done thing to hog the bar at this time in the morning.
This is the most famous pasticceria in Milan dating from 1824, but similar scenes are being repeated all over the city and all over Italy.
What makes a good cappuccino?
Sara explains that this is a good one – it should be all foam. When you stand your spoon up in it there should be no liquid at the bottom of the cup.
What should you order?
An espresso (pronounced as it is spelled – not with an x) is usual. A cappuccino is acceptable before 11am but never after. And don’t ask for a latte or you will get exactly that – some hot milk; caffe latte is the correct term. Don’t expect a green juice or a smoothie – a nerve-tingling shot of grappa is more likely to put the brio in your day.
How should you order?
You might encounter a very Italian system of paying, which I love. It involves placing your order at one counter, taking a ticket to the cashier who takes your money and gives you a receipt to give back to the dispenser of pastries and cakes. Also note that it is common to pay different rates based on whether you stand to eat and drink, sit at a table or take away.
The wrapping for my ‘pastries to go’ was like an art form and ensured that my purchases easily survived being bashed around in my hold luggage. At home it was like opening gorgeous gifts; little custard-filled buns – called fratelli in Milan – and only available at carnival time, delicate chocolate cream biscuits and a small, tall pie (called a pastiera di riso I think) filled with rice, ricotta and – yes – custard.
Will there be eggs?
Forget what you might normally order. This is known as an ‘international breakfast’ and served, almost exclusively, in hotels. The generous breakfast spread and eggs Benedict (with a choice of Parma ham, bresaola or smoked salmon) pictured above is from the Hotel Excelsior Gallia, a stunning Luxury Collection hotel next to the Stazione Centrale. Or go local and stick to pastry, butter and sugar confections with your coffee.
Where to go in Milan?
The Pasticceria Marchesi on the Via Santa Maria alla Porta is a must for the traditional wooden cabinets and painted ceilings that ooze history, the slightly tight-lipped ladies in aprons behind the pastry counters and the beautiful array of cakes and perfect cappuccino. It is now owned by Prado – don’t go to the new branch by mistake.
By contrast, Pavé Milano is has a very contemporary vibe, with geometric graphics, quirky modern interior combined with shabby chic and suspended bicycles, and a range of products with slogans like “sex, love and panetonne”. The dedication to good ingredients is not compromised – this is Italy after all – and there is a range of all butter croissant made with a sour dough yeast as well as other fruit and custard-filled breads and pastries. We were not the only ones waiting for it to open early on a Saturday morning and there was a relaxed feeling about the place – people actually sat down to eat!
For more suggestions read Best breakfast places in Milan on Sauce Milan.
And a great guide to the bewildering array of coffee by the Travel Bunny here.
For an outsider’s view on the Italian approach to breakfast rituals (and a lot more) read Extra Virgin and Ripe for the Picking by Annie Hawes.
I visited Milan as a guest of Hotel Excelsior Gallia.
Doing a little forward roll to celebrate (and failing dismally). My Custard Pie is six years old today!
- On a whim, on the 3rd February 2010, I decided that writing something about food at the centre of my world might be fun. I made some bread and digestive biscuits, took some bad photos and hit publish.
- This catapulted me into a world so fascinating that masses of exciting things happened as revealed by a 7 link challenge a year later in 2011.
- Immersion in this exciting world of food discovery meant I was too busy even to mark the occasion in 2012, although I did make some ‘sexy bagels‘.
- Too appalled by the latest food scandal to even mention an anniversary in 2013.
- I celebrated with custard in 2014 (good simple recipe from my Mother-in-law by the way).
- Half a decade of keen eating was marked by sharing my 10 things learned from 5 years of food blogging in 2015.
What’s on your mind?
So what’s happening in 2016? I’d like to get to know you better as there’s no way I would have come this far without you. While my curiosity leads me on a winding path of what I publish, I’d really like to know what you’d like to see more of (and less of). Pure Google numbers won’t tell me as they can’t have a conversation with really, truly loyal readers. But we can talk…
Would you fill in this questionnaire for me? It’s totally anonymous and will take no more than five minutes (or quicker). I’d be so grateful as it will help me to know a little more about you and make this space a better place for the people who matter the most. That’s you.
Thank you in advance for your valuable time and for visiting My Custard Pie. Your feedback is genuinely appreciated. I’d love to send you food as a thank you, but as this isn’t possible, if enough people reply, I’ll share the video of my failed forward roll! And hope you’ll stay with me for more of the journey.
Why is a gin and tonic such a perfect drink? It’s refreshing, but not sweet, slightly bitter from the quinine in the tonic water with depth and interest from the botanicals. I had to be persuaded to try my first one – I always thought it was an old person’s drink – and I remember the revelatory experience of that first sip to this day. Back then the standard was Gordon’s gin and Schweppes; in retrospect just down to good marketing as the base spirit was just flavoured with botanical extracts. Thankfully since the gin trend explosion there is an amazing choice with craft distillers going back to the old way of distilling with various interesting herbs and spices combined with the essential juniper.
With a three ingredient drink (if you count the garnish), you have to make sure your gin and tonic is perfect. This depends on choosing your components carefully and attention to detail when making it. I asked super talented Denzel Heath, from the MMI Bar Academy, for his advice. Here are his tips plus my own personal preferences below:
Top tips for the perfect gin and tonic
- Ice. Make sure you use a whole heap of ice made from good quality water. More ice, means less dilution, so you won’t end up with a watered down drink. The clearer the ice, the longer it will last in your drink, resulting in a colder more refreshing tipple.
- Gin. There is a gin out there for everyone. Try different ones until you find your favourite. If you like a dry drink then Sipsmith is your brand; like it spicy, go for Ophir; something a bit more subtle, then Bulldog is your choice of base. If you have sweet tooth – sloe gin is for you.
- Tonic. Great quality gin, is produced using REAL quality botanicals from all over the world and so is good tonic water. The perfect tonic water is naturally flavored with no preservatives. Try anyone of the wide range of flavours from Fever Tree and taste the difference.*
- Garnish. Pick a fresh fruit, vegetable or herb that will best compliment your gin. Select your garnish by smelling (nosing) and tasting your gin neat – perhaps with a touch of water added, to make it a bit less sharp on the tongue.
Those are Denzel’s tips, and, as you can see from my images, I’m clearly not using enough ice. Apparently having more ice traps in the bubbles to keep the tonic fizzier for longer too. My extra tips:
- Measure: The proportion of gin to tonic is important as you need to be able to taste the gin without it being too overpowering. How disappointing is a weak and watery G & T? I use one and a half UK measures (a single measure is 25ml) to one bottle of tonic (Fever Tree is 200ml). Never pour by eye as you can lose track of how much you or your guests are drinking (and home drinkers notoriously over pour). A drinks scientist has prepared I guide to the proportions here if you want to get nerdy.
- Glass: There’s a lot of debate right now about the right glassware for drinks (especially Champagne). Some recommend a traditional highball whereas the Spanish trend of serving in a stemmed balloon glass is gaining credence. My own preference is a wider tumbler akin to a Scotch glass, with a chunky base. It gives the wider surface area for inhaling the botanicals but enough space for ice, garnishes and tonic.
*Never, ever use slimline tonic. Just don’t.
My favourite gin
What’s your favourite gin is a question I get asked a lot – perhaps it’s due to having a mere 16 bottles in my collection (to date). It’s like choosing your favourite child! Actually part of the joy of drinking gin is discovering different nuances in each one and suiting them to your mood. So:
Dry. A dry style is my top choice for my end of the week G & T on a Thursday night. My hand reaches for Portobello Road, Sipsmith or No. 3 from Berry Brothers; all are balanced, elegant, crisp and clean.
Clean. Or as Denzel says “subtle”. When I’m looking for something really understated I’ll choose Plymouth (standard or Navy strength).
Botanical. I don’t have Monkey 57 in my collection but adore the complexity from the 57 botanicals used in it if lucky enough to have a drop in my glass (it’s very expensive). Cotswold is what I pour from my collection.
So what else can you do with gin? Denzel has come up with a unique gin-based cocktail for every month of the year based on some seasonal and Dubai based events. Can’t wait to share February’s with you.
So what’s your take on a G & T?