Food: Food of the gods

In a converted Piedmont monastery, where the staff could have been trained at `Fawlty Towers', they somehow manage to serve the perfect, melting gnocchi
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Mr Heywood - perhaps the world's most irritating map reader - and I finally drove up the lane to Locanda del Sant' Uffizio e Ristorante Da Beppe, having eventually found somewhere that was open in Piedmont on a Monday, the signs immediately looked promising: pretty gardens, lemon and orange trees lining the tranquil terrace, a main house converted from a 16th-century monastery (the tiny church of which still rings its bells on the hour and half hour, throughout the night) and a table-tennis table by the swimming pool. We had not reserved a room, but to our relief there turned out to be just the one left. Perhaps their particular "one left" - rather like the theatre seat with "restricted view" - is reserved for the terminal latecomer.

I suppose there were some telltale signs that we should have been alerted to, as we drove around the rear of a new-ish extension: uncut lawns, shabby swimming pool furniture and enormous plastic "terracotta" pots full of decorative shrubs and small trees. We had not seen the state of the swimming pool itself until, nearly immersing myself in it, I was sternly warned off by Heywood who, most sensibly, mooted that it might poison me.

How could this be, when the hotel's dining room - without one moment's lapse of taste or impeccable judgement - managed to produce cooking of such joy, it left me almost speechless? And breakfast too! I have never really been much of a yoghurt fan, but the consistency of the stuff made here, spooned delicately from small glass jars, moved me to scrape up every last lactic smear. And their display of local salumi seemed either home-made also - or at least from a master of that craft.

Also on offer were the most delicious stewed fruits. Heywood "I haven't a clue where we are" had some delicious stewed plums, while Hoppy "Give me the map!" ate some truly gorgeous stewed apples of the consistency of that fruit cooked as for a stellar tarte Tatin: jammy, caramelised and fragrantly sweet and soft. Perfect when spread with that yoghurt. But I must now talk of the food from the night before. I said to Heywood, as we sat in the early evening sunshine on the terrace, "I hope to God it isn't one of those places where they force a degustatzione menu upon you. I can't bear that! I want to be able to choose exactly what I feel like eating. Do you agree?" (He did.) "Now let's look at the wine list." As I spoke, two chilled glasses of spumante arrived. (Spumante means "spumous" and as the nearby town of Asti produces rather a lot of this, it was hardly surprising that this was the house aperitif. It's not all sweet and warm wedding froth.)

Now I will go along with anything, most of the time, but when faintly irritable, as I was, and given that Heywood's least favourite tipple is fizzy wine, the only thing to do was to very politely decline; difficult at the best of times, but even more so when one's Italian is - how shall we say? - stilted, and the management's English is non- existent. So we had the wine list and immediately became outsiders. For it turned out that there was just the one menu, including aperitif and (delicious) nibbles, and no choice whatsoever. Before too long, all guests were being beckoned (gently herded, actually) into the dining room, to embark on what turned out to be a veritable tour de force - or the Italian equivalent translation of that.

First fall was being shown to the (apparently) wrong table by a very nice thin fellow (Polly), swiftly followed up by the much more important "man in charge" (Basil), who, incidentally, had also shown us to our accommodation. Even though there were the merest hints of "You can't sit there, that's Lord Melbury's table," Heywood and I stood our ground - or rather sat our ground. Firmly. Once the growly looks had subsided and wines swiftly decanted (everyone else seemed to be having simply bianco or rosso, which, had I not been so keen to try something a bit more special, would probably have turned out to be quite delicious, but there you go... ) food appeared as if attending some great banquet.

Our first course was the neatest diversion from the perfect cold dish vitello tonnato - cold, thinly sliced veal in a tunny fish sauce. This dish confirmed that chef was a serious cook, although I had clocked him putting his worms of pureed potato outside the back door of the kitchen to dry, on a vented rack, that very afternoon. It's good to be a nosy cook, spy on the kitchen and just know you are going to get great gnocchi later.

There were two more courses before the gnocchi arrived. The vitello was replaced by a perfect fillet of grilled red mullet with one of those magical emollients that - unlike the ubiquitous British jus all set about with Italian balsamico - relied purely on a little butter, cooking juice and a splash of wine, soothing the fish with its balm. There was none of that sticky fish-stock reduction and a pointless scattering of little diamonds of tomato concasse and sprigs of chervil. The only embellishment to the fish was a couple of small plain croutons - sorry, crostini - whose texture softened to flannel once muddled around the plate. Delicious.

Incidentally, all six courses were delivered and removed by three delightful interchanging Japanese chef/waiters, dressed for the kitchen but hard- working plate-carriers also. It seems that the young and hungry Japanese commis will do anything to gain the fine craft of the European culinary tradition.

While eating the fish, I noticed that other herd-ees were on to artichokes! Had we missed a course? Was this the vegetarian option? Perhaps we had been punished for sending back the fizz. I also noticed that the table we were supposed to have sat at had their artichokes, and were tucking in with big smiles. Just as I was about to protest, ours duly arrived. Oh my, was I glad that it did, for here was an inspired dish: one exquisite stewed artichoke - stalk and all - trimmed of all fibrous leaves and left sagging alongside a spoonful of veal bone marrow, all in small pieces, having been melted to just the correct edge of wobble with a sprig of oily rosemary. Now then, I wonder how many of the Ital-obsessed cooks in this country - both amateur and professional - would even consider a dish such as this, let alone eat it?

Antipasto over, there was then a choice of three pasta dishes: that anticipated gnocchi, a ravioli, or some sort of ribbon pasta with vegetables. Heywood went for the ravioli, which were filled with a rabbit and veal mix, while I plumped for the gnocchi. The ravioli were benchmark, but I'm so glad that I went for the dumplings. Not wishing to beat about the bush, these particular potato gnocchi with Parmesan cream were simply the finest of their kind I have ever eaten. It was also the whitest plate of food I have ever eaten. And may I say that it was a real pleasure to eat the white gnocchi with its white sauce, without any kind of superfluous garnish whatsoever - I must tell John Pawson to go there and eat this dish. He would cheer.

Heywood's main course of tiny carvings from a tiny loin of spring lamb was the star of the meat course: pale blushing pink in its pale juices with the merest brush of rosemary scents wafting off the plate. Some bright green beans and a few small pieces of roast potato were simply apt and enjoyable. My duck was just fine, but it was a dense piece from the breast and ultimately tedious. Nothing wrong with it, but others lucky enough to be served its juicier leg and thigh may have fared better.

However, the memory of a bit of tedious duck soon melted into the background once my spoon had cut into the bosom of wobbling pannacotta. The applause here is for the daringly spare amount of gelatine used for the set of the pannacotta, rendering its texture so trembling I was surprised it could stand at all. The soft fruits attendant upon this milky miracle seemed almost superfluous, such was the purity of the thing. If you feel the urge, macerate a few strawberries in sugar and lemon juice and offer them to those who simply must have garnish. You will have to wait for that recipe. For now, here are the recipes for the fabulous gnocchi and that witty take on the classic vitello tonnato.

Piedmontese potato gnocchi with Parmesan cream

serves 4

According to Anna del Conte (the gnocchi recipe is based on one of hers), the important difference between Piedmontese gnocchi and those of the Veneto, is that it should not contain any eggs. Only flour is used as a binder with mashed potatoes, rendering the mixture softer and therefore less substantial in texture. It is important that you use the right variety of potato, and one that is not too watery. I have found most success with red-skinned Desiree, the smaller the better. It is imperative that the gnocchi are made soon after you have finished making the dough.

for the gnocchi:

700g potatoes, scrubbed clean

1 tbsp salt

100-140g plain flour, 00 Italian pasta flour, for preference

for the Parmesan cream:

250ml whipping cream

40-50g freshly grated Parmesan

salt

a little strong chicken stock (optional)

Steam the potatoes if possible, in their skins, until very tender. Peel the skins off quickly afterwards, using a tea towel to protect your hands, and cut them up into chunks. Pass through the finest blade of a vegetable mill on to a tea-towel or sheet of greaseproof paper to dry it out. Note: in order to dry my potato "worms" I used something called a "splatter guard", which affords excellent aeration. Put a large pan of salted water to boil. Once dry, place the potato on a work surface and sprinkle over the salt. Then, little by little, sift over the flour, working it into the potato with your fingers using a gentle kneading movement, until the mixture feels like scone dough; at least until workable and with a trace of stickiness. You will need the full 100g, but maybe a little more. Tear off large pieces and roll each into long sausage shapes, about the thickness of chipolatas. Cut off small lozenges with a sharp knife and put aside. To form the classic shape take each lozenge and roll it along the inside of a fork using your thumb, flipping it off the end on to a dusting of flour. Drop the gnocchi into the pan of gently boiling water, a dozen or so at a time. Once they float to the surface, which does not take long, allow them to poach for a further 30 seconds or so, lift out with a slotted spoon and put on to a plate. Keep warm while you cook the rest. To make the sauce, simply heat the cream, whisk in the Parmesan, season and simmer until slightly thickened; the broth is an aid to over-thickening and can also add body to the sauce. Divide the gnocchi between four hot plates and spoon over the sauce.

Vitello tonnato with asparagus

serves 4, as a main dish

I reckon, however, due to the ivory smoothness of this particular emulsion, the fishiness of this dish at the Ristorante Da Beppe relied more on soft fillets of salted anchovy than the less pulpable flakes of tinned tuna. Very much no bad thing in my book, being precisely how I now make this dressing, having ditched the tuna years ago. Controversial or what! The veal was presented quite naked - three wafer-thin pink slices - accompanied by a spoonful of almost mayonnaise-like sauce, together with several spears of very freshly cooked hot green asparagus.

for the veal

2-3 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

1kg boned, rolled and tied rump of veal

1 glass white wine

a little rosemary and garlic

for the sauce

1 small egg yolk

1 dsp smooth Dijon mustard

l x 50g tin anchovies, oil included

150ml approx, pure olive oil

juice of half a lemon

a squirt of Tabasco

English asparagus

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C/gas mark 4. Using a heavy bottomed, cast-iron casserole dish, heat the olive oil until lightly smoking. Season the meat and gild on all sides. Tip out any excess fat and pour in the wine. Bring up to a simmer and pop in the rosemary and garlic. Put on the lid and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove and turn the veal over. Cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave the lid on and allow to cool for a final 20 minutes. Lift out the piece of meat, allow to rest and cool completely on a plate. Keep the resultant juices on the side. Tip the egg yolk, mustard and anchovies into a small food processor. Blend until very smooth with the lemon juice and Tabasco. Add the olive oil in a thin stream. When the mixture starts to thicken, add a little of the meat juices so to loosen. Play around until you are happy with taste and texture; the final consistency should be one of thickish salad cream. Remove the string from the veal and slice thinly. Place on four large plates and add a few spears of freshly boiled English asparagus to each serving. Spoon some of the sauce alongside and eat with pleasure.

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