Tasting Sardinia – Fregola with Seafood and Saffron

20150905_150408-002Every year for the past three, we’ve celebrated the dying days of summer with the family somewhere in Italy. To date it’s been the Amalfi Coast, then Sicily, and this year Sardinia. We basked in turquoise waters, soaked up the last rays of sun, quaffed fragrant Vermentino di Gallura and explosive Cannonau (aka Garnacha/Grenache) and committed to the barbecue what must have been the priciest fish ever purchased (at least by me) – a dentice, since you ask, and delicious he was too. He weighed in at over 2 kilos and fed 7 of us handsomely for one meal with enough leftovers for a fish salad with avocado, ceviche-style. The bones went to make a memorable stock which perfumed a risotto alle vongole next day. Here he is before he hit the fire.


We ate wonderfully well – food is, unsurprisingly, rather a priority for us all on holiday. We all love cooking, so eating in is no hardship. But when we ate out, I admit it was a bit disappointing not to find much local food, dishes bearing the stamp of the island and its culinary traditions – not least because I had scheduled A Taste of Sardinia workshop on my return.

IMG_1990-001The little multi-purpose grocery shop nearby had neat little packs of durum-wheat, no-egg pastas like fregola, little lentil-sized dots, and maloreddus, shaped like tiny cowry shells – almost too beautiful to cook/eat. Yet in the local trattorie there was no sign of this kind of pasta – or anything that felt at all tipico. In the bookshop in Palau I found a great little book entitled Le Buone Ricette Sardegna, full of ideas for cooking fregola with shellfish, or maloreddus with sausage and wild mushrooms. How to track down this kind of cooking, dishes that spoke and smelled of the island?


To the rescue came Sarah, fount of all local knowledge and general factotum for our villa. She set up a meeting with two wonderful ladies named Anna Maria and Giuseppina, to talk local food. They started by apologising for the fact that they were not chefs but practised home cooks – just what I’d hoped for. We leafed through the book together and they exclaimed over the different recipes, which they approved as thoroughly authentic (and gave me lovely ones of their own). How come there was so little of this kind of food served in restaurants? They looked baffled, then suggested that fregola, maloreddus & Co. is home cooking, not cheffy stuff and definitely not considered fancy enough to be served in restaurants.

Nothing for it, I’d have to create my own tastes of Sardinia. Back home, I made this little soup-stew of fregola with shellfish and saffron. It featured at last week’s workshop, and we feasted on it (and lots of other dishes) on the terrace. We didn’t have the turquoise water below the house, but it was a glorious Indian summer day, worthy of Sardinia.

If you can’t find fregola, substitute mograbieh, Israeli couscous or acini di pepe. Here it’s cooked a bit like risotto, with just enough fish stock for the pasta to absorb, and shellfish stirred in at the end. You can cook the mussels and cockles ahead, shell them (leave some in their shells as a colourful garnish) and refrigerate them. Then cook the pasta as for risotto, adding the shellfish at the end to heat through.

Serves 4
About 1kg mixed cockles and mussels
2 tablespoons olive oil
250g fregola or alternatives
1 fresh red or green chile (peperoncino), de-seeded, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
500ml fish stock
2 pinches of saffron (powdered or threads)
6-8 prawns, preferably raw
1 tomato, cored, chopped
Salt and pepper
Flat-leaf parsley to garnish

Pull the beards out of the mussels (if not already cleaned) and give them a good scrub.

IMG_1928-001Put the cockles in a large bowl, cover generously with cold water and add a handful of coarse salt. Swish them around vigorously and leave for a few hours so they release their sand, lifting and swirling them around from time to time and changing the water once or twice. Drain.

Tip the drained shellfish into a large frying pan or paella pan, cover and cook (no added liquid) over lively heat, shaking from time to time, till all the shellfish are gaping open – about 5-6’.


Set a colander over a bowl and tip in the shellfish (reserve the pan for later). Remove almost all the shellfish from shells – leave a few un-shelled for the garnish.

Strain the shellfish cooking juices into a saucepan through a muslin or fine cloth to remove sand, add the fish stock and saffron and bring to a simmer.

IMG_1937-001In the reserved frying pan or paella pan heat 1 tablespoon of oil and soften the chopped chile and garlic without allowing them to brown. Stir in the pasta and let it toast lightly and take a bit of colour. Pour in 1 cup of hot fish stock and cook till absorbed. Add 1 more cup and continue cooking till all the stock is absorbed and the pasta just tender to the bite and nicely plumped up (about 10 minutes).

Stir the shelled mussels and cockles into the pasta, arrange reserved shellfish (in shells) and prawns on top, add any remaining stock and cook for about 5 minutes more or until piping hot and the prawns (if raw) have turned pink. Finally, stir in the chopped tomato

Spoon into soup bowls, sprinkle with chopped parsley and add a drizzle of olive oil.


Apple Pies = Domestic Happiness

windfall russet apples by Sue Style“Good apple pies”, wrote Jane Austen, “are a considerable part of domestic happiness”. Of course she didn’t give a recipe for her optimal apple pie, but I have a hunch it was an English-type job, with pastry over and under, and those lovely Bramley apples that subside into a fluff on cooking.

Based in Alsace, France, I incline more to a tarte aux pommes, the kind that only has pastry below and where the apples keep their shape. The alsaciens are masters at the art of the tarte; there’s always one sitting on the kitchen dresser, dusted with icing sugar and waiting to be served up with ice cream.

It’s at this time of year that tarte aux pommes comes into its own, when the ripe apples start to plop obligingly onto the ground and I can scoop up armfuls of windfall russets on my walk. They make a marvellous tarte, with their perfect balance of sweet and sharp, and good body to boot.

Madame Faller's tarte aux pommes

Tarte aux pommes by Laurence Faller, Domaine Weinbach

The classic Alsatian tarte aux pommes features sliced apples in dizzying concentric circles and (often) a gorgeous gooey mixture of eggs and cream on top, which bakes to a rich custard with the heat of the oven. Sometimes I do that kind. Even more often I simply slice the apples, arrange them in the pastry, sprinkle them with brown sugar and dot with butter. Into the oven goes the tart, to emerge golden brown with the sugar lightly caramelised on top. Here’s how.

Roll out 250g shortcrust pastry (or use a ready-rolled 230g disc of pastry, shortcrust or puff) and use it to line a 30cm metal quiche tin with removable base. (Don’t use one of those fluted ceramic dishes – they’re fine for tomato salad or gratin dauphinois but hopeless for baking, and a surefire recipe for soggy bottoms.) Peel, quarter and core a bunch of apples (probably 5 large ones, but you can never have too many) and slice them fairly thinly and evenly.

tart2Prick the bottom of the pastry so it doesn’t puff up in the oven and arrange the apple slices decoratively on top, sitting them up nicely and bracing them one against another. Pack’em in tightly – they always shrink a bit and no-one likes a mean little tart.

Sprinkle brown sugar on top (the crunchy, not sandy, kind) and dot with butter. Bake in the lower part of a 200C oven for about 30 minutes or until golden and beautiful to behold. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.


Vinous Visits (and awards) in the Valais

20150818_140314-001My visits to the Valais, Switzerland’s southernmost, sunbaked canton, are a bit like the Number Nine Bus. For ages there are none on the horizon; then all of a sudden along come two or three in a row. So it has been of late. First I was invited to serve on the panel at a Grand Prix du Vin Suisse event organised in Sierre by Vinea, the Swiss wine promotion body. A large group of tasters had done the hard work for us in advance, selecting just 72 wines from over 3,000 submitted by 550 different producers from all over the country; our task was to decide on the final rankings (numbering them from 1 to 6) of these top wines, presented in 12 flights (Chasselas, Pinot Noir, Syrah, red blends, white blends etc. etc.) – fun, instructive and a great opportunity for me to see what’s fermenting on the Swiss wine front today.

The cloister at the Abbaye Saint Maurice

The cloister at the Abbaye Saint Maurice

No sooner back home and I was back down there again, this time in Martigny and St Maurice, together with a bunch of travel and food writers and broadcasters from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK, award-winners in the annual lineup of Valais Media Prizes. There was a terrific range of print and broadcast entries, one about an attempt to climb the Matterhorn in the footsteps of Edward Whymper, another an in-depth piece on the stunning St Maurice Abbey, which this year celebrates 1500 years since its foundation. Inevitably there were loads of skiing entries (Valais is home to Verbier, Zermatt, Saas Fee et al), while I kept the gastronomic flame burning with my wine travel piece published in Decanter 2014. Once again, lots of fun and as ever a delight to be visiting the Valais, one of my fave Swiss cantons.

André Fontannaz, vigneron-encaveur in Vetroz, inspecting his Pinot Noir grapes

André Fontannaz, vigneron-encaveur in Vétroz, inspecting his Pinot Noir grapes

Before leaving, I snuck in a quick visit to the Cave La Madeleine just up the valley from Martigny in Vétroz. Owned by André Fontannaz, it’s ranked one of Switzerland’s top 100 wineries by Gault-Millau. Fontannaz is no stranger to awards and prizes (most recently a gold medal for his Syrah in the Syrah du Monde 2013, the Grande Medaille d’Or for his Malvoisie aka Pinot Gris in the Mondial du Pinot 2013 and a coveted Etoile du Valais for his Petite Arvine). Expectations ran high.

Chamoson-001You have to see the vineyards in the Valais to believe them – and to believe that anyone could have ever thought to plant vines here, far less work them. Growing at the foot of steep slopes that rear up from the valley floor smack into the rockface, they present a precarious patchwork of vines punctuated by dry-stone walls and the occasional hardy shrub that somehow finds a crack between the rocks to put down root. On the basis that everything starts here, we asked if our visit might begin among the vines.

Amigne grapes ripening in Cave la Madeleine vineyards

Loose bunches of small berries on Amigne vines make them ideal for late-ripening, sweet wines

Monsieur Fontannaz set off at a cracking pace with us, panting somewhat, in hot pursuit. Vétroz is famous for Amigne, one of the Valais’ most ancient, indigenous varieties (Petite Arvine, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge are others). It’s important enough that of Fontannaz’s 17 hectares of vineyards, 2 are planted with this amenable variety, which gives superb, honeyed, mainly sweet white wines.

A lone bee on the neck label of this Amigne indicates an off-dry wine

Just how sweet is indicated on the label by the symbol of a jolly little bee: 1 for off-dry, 2 for medium-sweet or 3 for very sweet.

We clambered back down to the cave, casting admiring glances at the domaine’s newly acquired concrete eggs and an array of French oak barrels on the way, before embarking on our tasting.

To see Cave La Madeleine’s full range of wines, go to their website. And if you get the slightest opportunity to buy up some of their Petite Arvine (succulent hints of sweet-sour rhubarb tart with a characteristic salty finish) or their Syrah, grown in two blocks in Vétroz and in neighbouring Chamoson (peppery, explosively delicious, oak beautifully integrated), just do it.

Salmon Burgers

IMG_1710-001Today is #National Burger Day. You didn’t know? Well nor did I, till I spotted it trending on Twitter. Never one to knowingly dodge a hashtag, I thought I’d better join the herd. I’ve written on the joys of a juicy beef-burger before; lately I’ve transferred my allegiance to the oh-so-succulent salmon burger.

Sounds like fishcakes? Well not exactly. The salmon – raw, not cooked – is diced very small, mixed with finely chopped sweet red pepper, onions and herbs (dill, mostly), bound together by a couple of egg whites and some fresh breadcrumbs (rather than gummed up with mashed potato) and formed into burgers.

They quite stole the show in the menu we cooked up together at my recent mums-and-daughters summer workshop (love cooking with youngsters, especially this lot who turned out to be seriously into their food and willing to try most things). Also participating were a mum-and-son team (aka Sophie and Marc, my daughter and grandson respectively). Marc took such a shine to them we had them for lunch and for dinner, several days running. Some leftovers even accompanied us on a picnic in the Black Forest. Only breakfast was a salmon burger-free zone (Lachsburgerfreizone?).

After such a sustained onslaught, things went a bit quiet. Time is a great healer and with a little distance I’ve now recovered my appetite for them and can write about them with renewed enthusiasm (probably even eat one or two…next week). Try them for a fresh, fishy alternative to the beefy richness of the traditional ones.

Do all the prep work ahead of time, shape the mixture into burgers and store in the fridge till you’re ready to fry them – assuming the salmon is super-fresh (and yours will be), they’ll keep for a day or two.

IMG_1708-001Makes 8-10 burgers
700g skinless, boneless salmon
½ a red pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped
2 spring onions, finely chopped
Several sprigs of dill, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 egg whites
4 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 slices wholewheat bread
1 avocado, cut in 8 wedges
Mayonnaise, tomato salsa, salad leaves, dill flowers

  • Cut the salmon in tiny dice about the size of your little fingernail and place in a mixing bowl.
  • Add the chopped red pepper, spring onions, herbs and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Mix in the egg whites, breadcrumbs and mayonnaise and beat vigorously with a big wooden spoon or fork to bind it all together.
  • Shape the mixture into 8 burgers and place them on a plate. If you have time, chill them to firm them up.
  • IMG_1712Heat the oil in a big frying pan till it shimmers and fry the burgers till golden, turning once – about 3 minutes on each side. You may need to do this in 2 batches.
  • To serve, squash the avocado into the bread slices, add a squirt of mayonnaise, tomato and dill salsa and salad leaves and top with the burgers.
  • Garnish with dill flowers (if you have some) and serve salad on the side.

cherry tomato & basil-001

A cheeky little summer salsa of tomatoes (cherry tomatoes are sweeter and have more flavour than big watery ones), lemon juice or white Balsamic vinegar, olive oil and loads of dill (or use basil if you prefer). Serve at room temperature with fish, white meats or pasta.

2-3 medium tomatoes or 250g cherry tomatoes
1-2 scallions (spring onions)
Juice of ½ a lemon or 1 tablespoon white Balsamic vinegar
6 coriander seeds, smashed
6 tablespoons olive oil
A small packet of dill, finely chopped
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, a little sugar

  • If using regular (not cherry) tomatoes, place in a pan of boiling water, leave for a minute or two. Fish them out, remove cores and skins, cut in half and squeeze out the seeds. (No need to peel cherry tomatoes.)
  • Quarter the scallion(s), place in a food processor and process till finely chopped. Add the peeled, seeded tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes), lemon juice or white Balsamic, crushed coriander seeds and olive oil and process till smoothly mixed.
  • Stir in the dill and season with salt, pepper and a little sugar if the tomatoes are rather sharp.

My Rentrée – Workshops for Autumn

Here in France, la rentrée means back to work/back to school. It’s an annual, September ritual and a big moment in the French calendar. Shops sprout a whole bunch of stuff you never knew you needed to help ease the transition out of holiday mode and into the real world again (fancy pencil cases, natty satchels, whole wardrobes of new clothes), city streets are gummed up anew with SUVs bearing kids to school and people to work, the President appears on television spouting promises for the coming term and sporting a fairly convincing tan, and a shoal of newly published books appears on the shelves (aka la rentrée littéraire).

IMG_1723-001My own rentrée signals a new season of workshops (yesssss!). Below you’ll find the schedule of what’s cooking from September to December. Maybe Sardinian food and wines float your boat? Or you’re up for a bit of fungi-familiarisation? Vegetables are always popular (and Mexico a constantly recurring theme, at least for me), while the last one before the holidays will be a sort of Sue-meets-Julia session. Let me know here if you’d like to sign up for any or all of the above (weekday workshops cost CHF110 or its nearest euro equivalent at the time), and looking forward to seeing you – again or anew – in the coming months.

Sardinia, Olbia photo copyright http://www.debutesq.com/Lounge2014/Olbia/olbia01-flickr-hansziel99.jpgThursday 24th September – A Taste of Sardinia, 09:30 – 13:30
Every September our family does a farewell-to-summer week somewhere in Italy. Last year was Sicily, this year it’ll be Sardinia. In this opening salvo we’ll put together a menu of some of the island’s typical foods, accompanied by a taste of delicate Vermentino and/or explosive Cannonau.

funghi by Sue StyleThursday 22nd October – Fungi Feast, 09:30 – 13:30
The idea here is to get familiar with the wild and wonderful mushrooms to be found around these parts and to cook up an all-mushroom menu. As an optional extra (and entirely dependent on the vagaries of the season) we’ll take our baskets into the forest to see what we can find. Let me know when you sign up if you’re a potential forager.

a barrow full of pumpkins, copyright Sue Style 2015Friday 13th November – Vegetables, grains and pulses,
09:30 – 13:30
Vegetable workshops are always a sellout (shorthand for “sign up for this one fast”). Since so many of our vegetables today – pumpkins, courgettes, tomatoes, avocados, chiles, beans and corn come to mind – came originally from Mexico (and PS because I lived there for 7 years and love, LOVE the food) expect this veggie celebration to have a distinctly Mexican accent.

IMG_1926-001Thursday 10th December – Sue, Julia & Company, 09:30 – 13:30
I learned to cook through the pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – as you can see by the state of my JC library. For this last pre-Christmas workshop we’ll revisit some of Julia’s classic French recipes together, with a focus on finger foods and celebration dishes for the holidays.

Pesto Time

IMG_1629 (2)This year my basil has reached for the stars and covered itself with glory. I bought one of those dwindly plants in the supermarket and kept it indoors for a bit. It clearly wasn’t a happy bunny – the leaves began to yellow and a few dropped off despondently. Time to go out, I told it, sternly. I planted it in the bed beside the terrace and close to the kitchen so I’d be able to raid it all summer long. Discreet applications of slug pellets kept the beasts at bay while it was still an infant. After a while I could see it was relishing its new home. Now it’s about twice the size it was when bought, and flowers are beginning to appear. Time for pesto. Continue reading

Dilled Salmon for Summer

dilled salmon (3)I’ve always wondered, is it gravlax? Or gravadlax? Let’s just call it dilled salmon. So much simpler – and so perfect to have on hand for summer evenings. [If you’re thinking you’ve got a touch of déjà vu, that’s because I’ve posted this before – no apologies for repeating, it’s just soooooooooo good.] This is one of those recipes where farmed salmon works unusually well. How come? Farmed salmon is, let’s face it, a bit on the flabby side. Who can blame it? If you were wallowing about in a big cage at the mouth of a sea loch rather than fighting your way up the river above that sea loch (having fought your way across the ocean to get there), you’d be flabby too. The point is that by curing the fillet with salt and a smidge of sugar (and loads of dill, natch), you encourage it to release lots and lots of water. The result is firm, dense and packed with flavour. Try it. Continue reading

Wine Travel in Galicia

Galicia Rias Baixas, SpainWhile the sun-seeking summer crowds are busy heading for the Mediterranean, here’s an even better idea: consider Galicia in northwest Spain. But before setting off, be sure to shed any preconceived notions of the country. Galicia is so different from any other part of the peninsula, you may start to wonder whether you took a wrong turn and fetched up by mistake in Brittany, or somewhere on Ireland’s west coast. Continue reading

French Radish Love

French breakfast radishesThe French love radishes. So much so, they even serve them up naked and unadorned (the radishes, that is) with nothing but sweet butter, a pinch of sea salt and a hunk of crusty, loose-crumbed bread. This winsome combo, known simply as radis-beurre, still puts in the odd appearance on the tables of a few retro-bistrots. The dish (if you can call it that) even featured in Top Chef on French TV, though it has to be said that celebrity chef Christian Constant’s version (think grated radish castles the size of corks topped with radish hats interspersed with diminutive “millefeuilles” of buttered ham and coin-sized pieces of toast, set on a brilliant green jelly made from the radish leaves) did rather lack the sweet simplicity of the real thing. Continue reading

Eating and Drinking Beside the Rhine (Switzerland, France & Germany)

1-IMG_5915-001Basel has many merits, but being beside the sea is not one of them. However, the city does have a secret weapon: the Rhine. When the mercury hits the mid-30s as it’s currently doing in our ‘hood (not complaining, mind), thoughts turn to finding the best watering holes beside the river. Now that the weather’s glorious and the water’s lovely – remember, it starts right up there in the Alps so it takes a while for it to warm up – you can make like the Baslers and take a dip. Some good safety tips here, in case you’re doubtful about flinging yourself into the water.

Here’s a selection of fun places for a meal or a drink that I covered on the latest English Show (Tuesdays from 6.30 – 8 p.m. on Radio X, 94.5 FM in the Basel area dontcha know). Here are my suggestions for three restaurants on the banks of the Rhine, one in Basel/Switzerland, one in Village-Neuf/France and one in Weil-am-Rhein/Germany. (Love the fact that living here, we have all three countries at our disposal.) And if you do decide to take a dip, don’t even think about swimming from one place to the next: you must NOT cross the Rhine when swimming, but always stay close to the bank on the side where you went in. Continue reading