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Evoluzione Basilicata Dinner

This week I was whisked away on a culinary escapade to the bel paese of South Italy - via South Kensington. Evoluzione Restaurant at Hotel Xenia is in stage two of its Guest Chef series that takes the diner on an adventure across Italy one region at a time, with a guest chef cooking alongside Michelin Star-awarded resident chef Andrea Angeletti. Having tackled Sicily six weeks ago, this week we found ourselves in the Basilicata region - the area between the 'heel' and the 'toe' of the boot of Italy, also known as Lucania. To an Italophile like myself this is a seriously fascinating concept, seeing as the different Italian regions are so diverse in terms of their food and culture, having relatively recently unified to form the state of Italy in 1861. Even more excitingly, I've never tasted food specifically from Basilicata, so I couldn't wait to see what the region had to offer!

Upon arrival in the Fornasetti-wallpapered Hotel Xenia reception room, we were given a typically warm Italian welcome with an array of delightful canapés pressed into our hands. As a sucker for anything fried, my personal favourite was this newspaper-wrapped fritella.

This little caprese in a shot glass was pretty cute too - though its texture was somewhat reminiscent of pudding, like a mini trifle. 

We were hustled to our tables in the restaurant and I scored a place at the bar right in front of the chefs. Such a keen bean! We were introduced to the spirited chef Mario Demuro, the chef currently taking the helm for Evoluzione's stint in Basilicata. Having studied languages for the first half of my undergraduate degree, I was pleased to see that he delivered his introduction - and subsequent commentary throughout the meal - in Italian, with the lovely Giovanna providing a translation. I particularly enjoyed the cultural trivia throughout the meal, such as the fact that Francis Ford's maternal lineage can be traced back to Basilicata. Now you have to read the rest of this post in a Don Corleone voice...Revenge is a dish best served cold. 

Munching on the bread beside me, I was particularly impressed by the savoury doughnuts that begged to be dipped in a saucer of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic. As a carbaholic, I'm always seduced by good bread at a restaurant. Though nothing has beaten the bacon brioche rolls at the Ledbury yet...

Our first dish was a deconstructed pasta which transported me to the Ionian coast: delicate pasta shells on a seabed of mussels and bean mousse, swimming underneath a salty foam which conjured up the frothing spray left by the waves when they retreat from the beach. I'm more of a 'read books on the beach and don't go near the water' kinda gal, but I loved the concept - although I initially made the mistake of dipping my spoon into just the foam, which was almost like inhaling a lung of seawater. Let it be said that this was my rookie error and with the rest of the dish, the foam worked well!

As the waiters brought us each course, Chef Mario explained the symbolism and history behind each dish and also showed us how to assemble and plate up.

Next up, the dish I was most looking forward to for the sheer amazingness of its title: The potato lays the egg.

Happily, this dish turned out to be my favourite. In my fertile imagination, this was a potato boat (a boat-ato?) cutting a speedy path across a lake of rosy cauliflower sauce, buoyed on its journey by a salty cheese crisp sail and steered by a basil-leaf rudder. Inside the vessel, precious yet fragile cargo padded with cheesy fondue and crispy potato laces: a hollowed-out porcini that to my delight, when cut open, oozed a perfectly cooked golden yolk. I'm a big fan of cheese so loved the Caciocavallo fondue, named for how its maturation process resembled transportation on horseback (yep) and the cheese sail - luckily my neighbour isn't a cheese fan so I got to eat two! 

Next up, a quick pasta-making lesson. These little orecchiette-style cavatellini are made by rolling the pasta dough with one's thumb, a technique that's devilishly tricky to perfect. Believe me, I tried., but mine looked more like misshapen cushions than tiny spiralling ears.

My gorgeous dining companions for the evening - Jasiminne, Viv and Ellie!

Those little cavatellini ended up in course numero tre: rolled in a chicory pesto with a peppery crumb sprinkled over the top, and resting atop a duvet of broad bean cream. The pasta was pleasingly chewy without being rubbery - I told you I'm a sucker for carbs.

Throughout the meal charming waiters descended upon us with wines to complement each course. Horrendously slow drinker that I am, I eventually ended up with four wine glasses crowding my plate...

Course number four: lamb rolled in pancetta and stuffed with asparagus and carrots, accompanied by a little ratatouille-style selection of diced vegetables, a red wine reduction and a little spinach flan. I'm usually a big fan of lamb but unfortunately felt that its flavour was overpowered somewhat by the pancetta and the very strong wine jelly, while the spinach flan added more to the aesthetics than the overall flavour of the dish. But that's just me being biased as usually I love the flavour of lamb to speak for itself! 

And finally, a dessert bridging the gap between bustling, cosmopolitan London and the selvatico mountainous Apennines of Basilicata: made lovingly by the hands of Lucanian chefs, it incorporated two typical British desserts: the humble chocolate brownie, forming a 'soil' common to both geographical areas, punctuated by meringue mushrooms, edible floral elements and a citrusy mousse reminiscent of the classic lemon tart, and crowned by a Candonga strawberry sorbet which I thought conjured up the flavours of our most quintessentially English event, Wimbledon. 

Thank you to the jazz pianist for serenading us all the way through a delicious dinner! I wonder how Alex would feel if I suggested buying a transparent grand to spice up his future home...

And finally, grazie mille to all the chefs who put so much hard work and love into our meal! I was wowed by the familiar flavours that transcended humble home cooking, and it was so wonderful to see such abject passion for the food of a specific region. To be honest, there's probably no better place to see that than at an establishment run by Italians? 

The next Evoluzione guest chef, Teresa Buongiorno, hails from Puglia and will be cooking up a storm on the 26th May. Tickets are £65 per head including a welcome aperitif; find out more on the Hotel Xenia website. Other regions in the pipeline include Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, the Veneto, Campania and Lombardia - and I'm sure that each chef will weave their own unique story. 

Hotel Xenia, Evoluzione and the chef team - vi ringrazio for such an unforgettable evening! I'm more excited than ever for my first visit to southern Italy this summer and now that I've tasted the raw ingredients of the Basilicata region, I very much hope that one day I'll get to visit its mountains and taste caciocavallo in situ!

Disclaimer: I was very kindly invited by Zomato to dine at Evoluzione. My experience was complimentary though as always, my opinions remain my own. 

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Granger & Co

There's an unmistakeable veneer of Yummy Mummy Hangout surrounding Granger & Co's Notting Hill branch. The restaurant has supplanted 202 and Tom's further down on Westbourne Grove as the trendy west Londoner's eatery of choice, as a natural refuelling point after a morning spent pottering around Joseph and Daylesford. Doubting Thomas(ina) that I am, when my mother invited my sister and I to lunch in Notting Hill, I was pretty ready to debunk the myth and proclaim Granger a fad. But, of course, I fell in love with the darn place. I mean, look at that cake. Just look at it. And absolve me of my guilt. 

The Notting Hill area is pretty hard not to love in spring. Each immaculately-kept street is lined with trees, which rain multicoloured blossoms on to the steps of the palatial stucco-fronted townhouses. The people who live here are weirdly beautiful too. Seriously, though. A couple occupying the table opposite ours looked like they'd just stepped off the pages of Monocle. 

True to form, I went for a big bowl of pasta, meat and cheese. More specifically: chicken and pancetta meatballs, cicchetti and spinach swimming in a buttery, lemony broth, covered in parmesan and lemon zest. A perfect combination for a spring day - summery citrus flavours paired with comforting broth and hefty meatballs for weather that was beginning to warm up but wasn't quite at the humid height of summer.

Sis went for a prawn and chilli linguine, with rocket leaves sprinkled liberally over the top. Again, a perfect spring dish and a generous portion too, with a big helping of juicy prawns and a good level of heat from the chilli.

The stars of the lunch were the puddings, though. We knew from experience that ordering three would prevent any squabbles. Because these were the kind of desserts worth fighting over.

A pot of chia seeds soaked in almond milk and coconut yoghurt was perfectly complemented by summer berries and pomegranate seeds. I could eat this stuff every morning if only I was motivated enough to soak the seeds overnight!

There's that cake again: the moistest cheesecake I've ever had, flavoured with mango. The top was like a gilded jewellery box, glazed with a golden mango jam and studded with ruby-like pomegranate seeds. Incredibly addictive.

My mum's favourite was the pistachio pavlova, topped with a cloud of yoghurt cream, passion fruit seeds and crushed pistachios. The perfect way to round off a meal that smacked of spring and heralded the promise of summery days ahead. 

Hats off to Bill Granger. I feel a tiny bit bad for being so cynical now. In fact, I may have to go and stock up on some Sandro and Maje pieces so I can blend in with the yummy mummy clientele... and more importantly, justify coming here more often!

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UK Blog Awards 2015

I have to admit, I still feel like a relative newbie where it comes to blogging. I've been posting on here since March 2014, but it still feels like a miracle when people I don't know tell me they like my writing or photography. Even more miraculously, sometimes these comments lead to striking up friendships, both online and in real life. I've been hugely lucky in that the fellow bloggers I've connected with so far have been super lovely - the kind of people you instantly click with in real life. Viv of Vi Vian's Food Blog is one of them! I initially came to her blog through her food envy-inducing Instagram, and was lucky enough to meet her last night, when she very kindly invited me to join her at this year's National UK Blog Awards as she'd been shortlisted in the Food & Drink category. 

We rocked up at this year's venue, the Montcalm Hotel just off Marble Arch, and upon finding each other, headed straight for the canapés. Because food bloggers bond best over nibbles, obvs. I tried a shot of cauliflower and truffle soup, mini sliders, and an impressively large bowl of creamy mushroom and artichoke risotto. In terms of drinks, I got into party mode with a lurid red vodka concoction, and the champagne flowed freely all evening.

Yeah, I clearly didn't need to be told twice...

Hopefully you'll have clocked the 'Eat Me' and the gargantuan disembodied Cheshire Cat head, and worked out that the theme was Alice In Wonderland! Fitting, as this month marks the 150th anniversary of this seminal oneiric text. (That sentence just made me nauseous. I've been in the library all day today, can you tell?)

The reception room was filled with trees bedecked with imitation wisteria and cherry blossom, which I loved. Seriously, give a blogger a tree bursting into flower and cue transports of delight - even if the tree is fake. They'd be so lovely at an indoor wedding!

Speaking of lovely, I'm so happy I had the chance to meet Viv - we chatted the possibility of a Malaysian supperclub, her experience in the food world as a chef-restaurateur, her aversion for all things cheese-related (travesty!) and I swooned over pictures of her heartbreakingly adorable baby. 

Next came the ceremony! Viv didn't win, but as the hosts said, everyone who was on the list last night was really a winner in their own right. It's testament to Viv's amazing reviews that she was shortlisted as one of the best food bloggers in the country!

We toasted Viv and fellow shortlisted food blogger Kiran (of The Swindian) on making the cut after the awards with champagne. And I swallowed a Mont Blanc cube on a soup spoon (curiouser and curiouser...) in one. Then it was time to fall down the rabbit hole.

There was a GoCompare photo booth at the event but it had been shut down after the ceremony...so we decided to make our own booth. Rules? Pah! 

^ Regarding my odd sprout-like parting...one of the fun consequences of my hair drying weirdly in the wind. #asianhairproblems #spiderhair #doeswhateveraspiderhaircan

A terrifyingly convincing Mad Hatter from the Tim Burton school of Alice got up close and personal with Viv and Kiran. Our cue to leave, weighed down with goody bags (my favourite element of partying since c. 1994).

Thanks for inviting me to the UK Blogging Awards, Viv! As always, I feel hugely lucky and humbled to be able to make friends through blogging. I can't wait for our next foodie meetup, hopefully featuring lots of Malaysian goodies and absolutely no cheese at all!

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Books In Brief

Today I'm reviving a series that I haven't visited since last autumn (gulp)! I feel that this little space doesn't adequately reflect how much time I devote to reading, and wanted to share three books that I've particularly loved recently. If you're looking for a read that will grab you and force you to feverishly relinquish your loved ones and duties until you resurface days later, glassy-eyed and unwilling to let go of the book, look no further. These three are well-written, blessed with fantastic plots and characters, and you'll find yourself reluctant to leave their worlds behind: the hallmark of a truly good book for me. 

Station Eleven (2014) - Emily St. John Mandel 

"What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot."

Station Eleven begins one wintry night in a theatre in Toronto. A rapt audience watches a performance of King Lear, unaware that the world's population is on the brink of being crushed by a deadly strain of swine flu. Mandel doesn't dwell on the horrors of this disease but rather places her focus on the human reactions and relationships before, during and especially in the aftermath of the apocalypse, weaving a host of seemingly disparate storylines around this central event, the last night of the world as we know it. What I love about this novel is that although you might expect life to be rendered unrecognisable by the plague, the remainder of society continues to cling to the threads of our collapsed former civilisation. Shakespeare, classical music and literature are adapted to the needs of the new world - even Sartre's famous 'Hell is other people' gets a rewrite: 'Hell is the absence of the people you long for' -  and chillingly, a museum memorialises laptops and mobile phones, technology forced into obsolescence by the plague. This is a perfectly crafted, touching piece of apocalyptic fiction, well worth the cloud of hype that's surrounded it over the past year. 

The Little Friend (2002) - Donna Tartt

'It was the last picture that they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him - almost visible - in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.'  

This is the Donna Tartt novel that most people haven't heard of - her second after The Secret History, preceding The Goldfinch. The novel opens with the murder of a little boy (named Robin - hence the title) but isn't centred around the event. Instead, the focus here is about the people it affects, years later. The story revolves around the escapades of his sibling, the twelve-year-old Harriet, in a sleepy backwater town in Tartt's home state of Mississippi. Harriet, a baby at the time of Robin's death, is fiercely determined to avenge her brother, and impervious to the fact that her vendetta may be misdirected. Hijinks ensue, including one very memorable moment with a king cobra. As usual, I can't help but approach Tartt's writing as if spinning out a particularly delicious ice cream - her plots and characters are beautifully crafted, her prose so eminently readable (yet not self-indulgent), and I never want her books to end. Luckily, they're quite long, so there's lots to enjoy! Next up, The Goldfinch - I can only hope it's as good as Tartt's first two novels.

The Circle (2013) - Dave Eggers

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” 

When one of the most exciting tech behemoths in the world offers small-town Mae a job,  it feels like a miracle. Her new company, The Circle, is an unholy mash-up of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and its 'campus' comes with all the perks you might expect at the coolest social media company in the world: an in-house GP, rooms of free products to test and borrow, theatres and nightclubs, and a space for the hottest musicians, comedians and writers to perform their material for The Circle's employees. Hell, if they advertised a grad scheme I'd probably sign up in a heartbeat. But of course, in fiction, if you're presented with a utopia, it's always too good to be true. As a social media company, the Circle encourages sharing everything online - doing so increases one's online rank and thus celebrity. As her sharing levels spiral out of control, Mae finds herself propelled closer and closer to the dark truth at the heart of the Circle. As a blogger and someone who shares fairly extensively on social media channels, I found Eggers' writing a fascinating comment on our computer age - and how our obsession with online transparency might easily morph into a 21st century Big Brother state.

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