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.

There are more pesto recipes in books and on the web than…well, you get my drift. Here comes (yet) another one – more than anything else it will serve as an aide-memoire for me, so I won’t need to look it up in case I ever get such a bumper basil harvest again. I make mine in the food processor and always toast both garlic and pine nuts first, which gives added depth of flavour. You could use almonds or even walnuts instead of pine nuts, but that might be a step too far – I sense that I’ve already caused deep offence to pesto purists for using a food processor rather than a pestle, mortar and elbow grease. Otherwise it’s all down to the basil itself (lots of it), the olive oil (the fruitiest you can muster) and the Parmesan (freshly grated – but you didn’t need me to tell you that). Great with all the usual suspects (pasta, risotto & Co.) but also with lamb, slathered over new potatoes or stirred into a béchamel sauce for a lasagne of roasted summer veg. planned for next week.

Makes 2 x 125ml jars
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
50g pine nuts

About 15 bushy stems of large-leaf basil to give 2-3 good handfuls of leaves (for the pedants in the kitchen, they weighed about 75g when stripped/snipped off the stems) 

50g chunk of Parmesan, freshly grated
125ml fruity olive oil (I used Oli de Pau from the admirable Empordalia co-op in Catalunya, bought on our recent wine- and olive oil-buying raid)
Optional but nice: a squirt of lemon juice
Ssalt and pepper to taste

  • Put a teaspoon of olive oil in a small heavy frying pan and toast the unpeeled cloves of garlic until the skins are a little golden and the garlic smells deliciously vampirish.
  • Add the pine nuts and let them take a little colour – this goes very fast, so don’t go off and check your phone/emails/FB page or they’ll burn on you and will be useless.


  • Tip both pine nuts and garlic onto a plate to arrest the cooking. Slip the garlic out of its jackets and squash it with a knife.
  • Put garlic, pine nuts, basil leaves, olive oil and lemon juice (if used) in the food processor and process in sustained bursts, scraping down the sides with a spatula from time to time, till the basil is very finely chopped and it starts to reach a paste-like consistency. If it’s having a hard time coming together, add a splash or two of water.
  • Add the Parmesan and process again till the cheese is mixed in. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


  • Scrape pesto into jars and drizzle over a thin layer of olive oil to exclude air – I like to use 125ml glass yogurt jars, of which I have an out-of-control collection. In such small containers, even if you only use a little, the remaining pesto keeps much fresher than if you’d potted it up in regular jam jars. Keep the jars in the fridge and always add a little more olive oil when you remove a bit, to keep it fresh and green.


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.

dilled salmon (5)You need to plan ahead a bit with this one, as the fish should marinate for at least 12 hours and can be left in the fridge for up to 5 days in its marinade. The recipe is for 2 equal-sized salmon fillets which you will sandwich together with the salt/sugar/dill mixture – that’s because it came originally from my brother (thanks Sim) who’s a keen angler, and he’s used to working with whole fish. If you have just one large fillet, that’s fine too – just put the salt mixture below and on top of the fish, cover and marinate in the same way.

IMG_1602-001The recipe will feed anything from 8 to  12 people – all depends if you serve it as a starter (with brown bread or pumpernickel) or for a main course (with new potatoes and salad). Any leftovers (ha, dream on…) can be cut in tiny strips and served with fine pasta (paglia e fieno is especially nice – think pink salmon with green and white pasta), a splodge of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill or dill flowers.

2 fillets from the top end of the salmon, skin left on, about 1 kg total weight
2 tablespoons sea salt
plenty of freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
about 3 heaped tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped

  • Run your finger along the fish fillets towards the tail to locate the bones. Remove them with tweezers – a tedious but necessary chore.
  • Mix together the salt, pepper, sugar and dill in a small bowl.
  • Sprinkle one-third of this mixture in the bottom of a dish big enough to take the fish.
  • Lay one fillet on top of the salt mixture, skin side down, sprinkle on another third of the salt mixture, rubbing it in well.
  • Top with the other fillet (as if reassembling the fish), skin side up.
  • Sprinkle with the remaining salt and herbs, and press them in well.
  • Cover the fish with clingfilm (plastic wrap), Place a board on top with a weight (e.g. a can of beans) and refrigerate for 12 hours and up to 5 days. It will make lots of juice – drain this off before slicing the salmon.
  • Cut slanting slices (thick or thin, whatever you prefer) with a sharp, slender knife and arrange on plates or on a board or slate.


PS What to drink with your dilled salmon (I knew you’d ask)? An Alsace Riesling (Cuvée Frédéric Emile from Trimbach, or one from Zusslin) would be wondrous. Alternatively go for an Albariño from Zárate in DO Rias Baixas, or a succulent white blend of Albariño, Treixadura, Godello and Loureiro from Finca Viñoa in DO Ribeiro, both featured in my recent post on Galicia.

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.

13-IMG_0205-001This is Atlantic Spain, sheltering beneath a canopy of scudding clouds, its rocky shores lashed by furious waves, its lush countryside luminous and glistening from the most recent rain shower. It’s a land of pazos, grand manor houses surrounded by vineyards, of hórreos or granaries perched on stone stilts to keep rain and rodents at bay, of seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines, allotments neatly planted with beans, turnip greens and giant cabbages, and hillsides grazed by some of Spain’s finest beef cattle. Galicia ranks as one of the country’s top food and wine destinations, on a par with the Basque country and Catalunya, and the evidence is all around.

Scallop shells, the pilgrims' emblem, outside a cafe in Santiago

Scallop shells, the pilgrims’ emblem, outside a cafe in Santiago

Set aside a couple of days to soak up the gentle charms of Santiago de Compostela, wander the rain-splashed, traffic-free streets of the medieval centre and join milling, modern-day pilgrims as they head for the spectacular cathedral. After a glass of Godello in the bar of the famous Hostal dos Reis Católicos across the square, you’ll be all set for a vinous pilgrimage, combining inland Rutas do Viño with the coastal vineyards of Rías Baixas.


Terraced vineyards, typical of DO Ribeiro

From Santiago the toll road to Ourense carves its way through an emerald-green landscape fringed with eucalyptus and gorse, over a succession of sweeping viaducts and south to Ribadavia, capital of the DO Ribeiro region. Here inland, screened from the worst Atlantic squalls by the Sierra del Suido, midday summer temperatures routinely soar into the 30s, saved by blessedly cool nights. Vines are stacked on steep, well-drained, granitic terraces above the rivers, and equipped with drip-irrigation systems to combat water stress.

Cistercian monks laid the foundations of quality wine-growing in Ribeiro in the Middle Ages and the region’s renown grew steadily over centuries. After the disastrous 19th-century troika of oidium, mildew and phylloxera, Ribeiro subsided into a dismal backwater, planting imported high-yielding varieties (Palomino, of sherry fame, was a favourite) and sacrificing all for quantity. Come the 1990s, a few visionaries woke again to its potential as a fine wine region, reclaiming terraces and vineyards and determined to recover its lost reputation for quality.


View of Casal de Arman’s gardens and vineyards


Casal de Arman’s limited edition Treixadura from Finca Os Loureiros

Among these were the González Vázquez family, owners of  Casal de Armán, a 20-hectare estate whose gorgeous casa rural, left, makes a supremely comfortable perch for Ribeiro explorations. The whole operation – winery, guesthouse and restaurant – is staffed by family members, generous and attentive hosts who offer a range of wine-related activities. After a strenuous day exploring, settle down here to a plate of garlicky zamburiñas (queen scallops) followed by roast kid, with a bottle of Finca Misenhora or Finca Os Loureiros, their classy, single-vineyard whites in which the straw-gold, peachy Treixadura plays a starring role.

To get a sense of how Ribeiro is on the move and the level of investment involved, visit nearby Finca Viñoa high above the River Avia. The owners of this newly established estate, Grandes Pagos, have indulged in some serious earthmoving, carving terraces into the granite hillside streaked with seams of schist, and planting with Ribeiro’s four signature grapes (Treixadura, Albariño, Godello and Loureira) for their single, intensely satisfying white blend.


A lineup of Coto de Gomariz bottles

Close by is Coto de Gomaríz, a 28-hectare estate owned by the Carreiro family, who have spent 30 years resurrecting historic sites, acquiring new plots, restoring swathes of terracing and, lately, adopting biodynamic practices – a singular challenge in Galicia’s predominantly cool, damp climate. Traditionally, explains export manager Inma Pazos, red wines outnumbered whites in Ribeiro. Today, while fragrant, full-bodied whites rule the roost (their old-vine, lightly oaked Coto de Gomaríz Colleita Seleccionada is exemplary), the estate is hoisting the red flag again with a range of new-wave, Atlantic-inflected blends.


Ramon de Casar’s labels featuring the historic postcards

Ramón do Casar is the new kid on Ribeiro’s block, with just eight hectares of Treixadura, Albariño and Godello planted on slopes above the River Miño. This family venture (opened July 2014) tells a familiar Galician story of hardship and emigration. In 1955 Ramón departed for Venezuela where he founded a bakery business. It prospered, and all his remittances were invested in prime plots of land back home. In 2000 the vineyard was planted and 2013 saw the first bottlings: a monovarietal Treixadura and a blend, whose labels, above, are reproductions of the original postcards exchanged between the exiled Ramón and his bride-to-be.

Quinta de Couselo, O Rosal, Galicia

The famous parasol pines at Quinta de Couselo and pergola-grown vines

From Ribeiro to the southernmost point of Rías Baixas, it’s about an hour and a half along the sinuous road beside the River Miño, which for most of the way forms the border with Portugal. Just inland from the pastel-painted port of A Guarda is Quinta de Couselo, an elegant stone pazo or manor house, watched over by a pair of parasol pines. These illustrate the labels of their plump, aromatic blends Quinta de Couselo and Turonia, where the angularity of Albariño is fleshed out by discreet amounts of Loureira and Treixadura. As is typical in Rías Baixas, with precipitation double that of inland vineyards, vines here scramble high on pergolas suspended between chunky, head-high granite posts, as if gathering up their skirts to keep them out of the rain and mud.


Cockle pickers at low tide in the Rias Baixas

Then it’s a leisurely amble north, across the Vigo estuary with its countless mussel rafts, past Pontevedra (schedule a coffee stop in the old town) and west into the heart of Rías Baixas. Albariño rules here: today it represents fully 96% of all grapes harvested in DO Rías Baixas. Yet total domination by this voguish grape was not always the case, explains Eugenio Zárate of the eponymous bodega just south of Cambados, self-styled capital of Albariño. He recalls a time when the region’s everyday tipple was a pale, sharp red from tough local varieties Espadeiro, Caiño and Loureira tinto. Albariño was made only in tiny quantities and reserved for honoured guests and special occasions. For a crash course in this racy, zesty wine, start with the charming, entry-level Albariño Zárate before graduating to the elegant complexity of single-vineyard El Palomar, grown on ungrafted centenarian vines trained in traditional style along pergolas.


A selection of Zarate bottles and labels

Paco & Lola (1)

Paco & Lola’s polka-dotted labels

Further south near Meaño is Paco & Lola a large, super-modern co-operative that’s well set up for visitors. One of Galicia’s distinguishing features is the diminutive size of its vineyard plots, fragmented by multiple inheritances. Paco & Lola was founded in 2006 to assemble over 400 small producers, giving them the technological means to raise overall quality and the marketing pizzazz to sell large volumes of decent wine, principally Albariño – look out for the distinctive black-and-white polka dot labels.


Welcome to the cellars of Pazo Baion

Wrap up your vinous visit at Pazo Baión, a beyond-gorgeous 30-hectare property half an hour from Santiago, whose origins go back to the 16th century. After a succession of owners, including most recently an Argentine drug baron operating off the coast of Galicia, it was bought at auction by the Condes de Albarei group. Of all the wineries visited, this is the most ambitious in terms of wine tourism, with guided visits to the vineyards and spanking-new cellars, culminating in a tasting of premium single-vineyard Albariños in the superb, architect-designed tasting room.



Pazo de Rubianes, famous for its camellia gardens

24 hours in Galicia – from Santiago to Rías Baixas
If you can spare only a short time in Galicia (which would be a dreadful mistake), plan on a day in the Rías Baixas. From your base at the serene and beautiful Hotel A Quinta da Auga in Santiago, exit the Pontevedra motorway at Padrón (home of the eponymous peppers) and continue on the country road along the beautiful Ría de Arousa as far as Vilagarcía. Visit the house and gardens of Pazo de Rubiánes, and make a note to return in the mild Galician winter, when over 4000 camellias burst into bloom.


The hórreo at Pazo de Senorans, viewed from beneath

Book a pre-lunch visit and tasting at Pazo Señorans, a ravishing property complete with superb hórreo (granary), pictured right, private chapel and cypress trees, all necessary components to qualify as a proper pazo or manor house. Then (after you’ve made sure to book), head to Restaurante Yayo Daporta in Cambados for meal to remember by one of Galicia’s rising stars. Select your wine(s) from the walk-in, glass-walled, air-conditioned cellar in a corner of the dining room or take advice from Yayo’s sister on wine pairings for your menu.


Dining room at Quinta de San Amaro

In the afternoon, take a digestive wander through the picturesque old town of Cambados, and look in on Palacio de Fefiñanes on the eponymous square. After an early evening visit to Zárate, a small and warmly welcoming family-owned winery close to Cambados, proceed to Quinta de San Amaro in Meaño in time for a pre-dinner Albariño in the glassed-in hórreo (grain store), now a sitting room/library, followed by light supper from locally sourced ingredients in the luminous dining room (above) with wraparound windows.

[A version of this article ran in the May edition of Decanter]

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

Do Anchovies Grow Up To Be Sardines?

1-IMG_6367Stand on the small town beach in L’Escala on the Costa Brava at dawn, close your eyes and try to visualise the scene a century ago. A procession of white-painted, wooden-hulled anchovy boats makes its way round the point, their triangular lateen sails gracefully inclined as they tack towards the beach. A team of strong young men stands ready to hoist the ropes over their shoulders and heave the boats up the sand – to this day the inhabitants of L’Escala are jokingly referred to as esquenapelats, their backs (esquenas) raw (pelats) from the rubbing of the ropes. Continue reading

Forget Magaluf…find the real Mallorca (and its wines)


Mention Mallorca today and most people run shrieking for the nearest exit, haunted by visions of Sixties-built high-rise hotels, hen/stag parties, pubs and discos, Bratwurst, Full English Breakfasts and beaches packed with hordes of glistening northern Europeans flushed pink in the Mediterranean sun.

In truth there are two Mallorcas. One of them – the packaged version – seldom strays far from the coast. The other, more loosely wrapped, is to be found inland. And the twain, mostly, don’t meet (hooray). Continue reading

Elderflowers are having a moment – and it’s now

elder tree in flowerThe elder tree has no pretensions to grandeur. It grows wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, on the edge of motorways, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens, even in graveyards.

Right now, in early summer, it’s having its moment. All of a sudden, in a brief blaze of glory, this rather scruffy little tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which fairly knock you back with their delicate scent. In our neighbourhood over the next few weeks, countless chefs, housewives and hobby cooks will be spotted hunting in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms (fleurs de sureau in French, Holunderblüten in German) and placing them carefully in large baskets. It’s a brief and glorious moment in the life of any dedicated forager – two or three weeks at most – and if you don’t pick the flowers by about the middle of June (around here, at any rate), they’ll be well on their way to becoming elderberries. Continue reading

L’Auberge Paysanne, Lutter

auberge paysanne sign2I love the French expression “une valeur sûre”, meaning “a sure thing”, “a safe bet”, or even “a slam dunk”. It’s how folks around here describe the Auberge Paysanne in Lutter, buried in the bucolic southernmost corner of Alsace known as the Sundgau. This classic hotel-restaurant, dripping with geraniums from May to October (the window boxes have just been planted up), is owned and run by Christiane Litzler and her daughter Carmen. I’ve long since lost count of how many times we’ve eaten there (it’s one of our locals) and it never fails. Continue reading

A Fishy Fix


Fish market, Catania, Sicily

Of all the workshops I do, the fishy ones are probably my faves. We kick off with a visit to the fish counter of a nearby supermarket to check out what’s on offer and get familiar with the names – in English (for most of us the working language), French (France has the freshest and best fish offer in our three-country corner) and German (for those shopping in Switzerland or Germany). Next day we cook up our fishy feast. Continue reading