Do you know your onions? – Susannah digs deeper into the tradition behind this treasured allium

March 22nd, 2024 by

March means we´re in full calçot season. These giant spring onions are cultivated in Valls, near Tarragona and are enjoyed from Figuerès to Fuengirola.  At this time of year, people drive for miles around Catalunya to enjoy char-grilled stems which are often served in newspaper or on terracotta roof tiles. Once you´ve peeled off the outer part you´re left with a tender gooey stem.

The Annual Fiesta de la Calçotada in Valls

Farmers from the town of Valls in Tarragona were the first to harvest these onions. As the stems began to grow, they piled on earth around the shoots to force them to grow upwards to the surface, a bit like a leek. The name hails from this growing technique as the process is called calçar in Catalán which literally means “to cover the bottom part”. It also serves to keep the subterranean roots snow white in colour. The coveted long spring onion shape ensures a more even grilling than the bulbous variety. 

Every year approximately 55 million of these alliums are harvested from November to May although only 10% originate from the heartland of Valls which is now a protected designated area.

Burning bushels of onions

Legend has it that a 19th century farm-hand called Xat de Benaiges accidentally burned some onions he was cooking on a fire. Eager to preserve the insides, he peeled them, only to discover that the inner layers had reduced down to a tasty unctuous delicacy and the trend took hold.

By the 20th century, the tradition of families and friends gathering around communal barbecues of the calçots from December to May had given rise to the phenomenon of calçotadas. Today this popular ritual is responsible for long queues of cars snaking their way out of Barcelona and Tarragona in search of their favoured blackened vegetable in local masías or farmhouse-type restaurants.

Eating calçots is an art

Eating these wobbly long onions is a bit of an art and bibs or “pitets” are handed out in a mandatory fashion. The onions are not completely cleaned as a little earth protects their outer skin.  You have to hold a ‘calçot’ by the leaf with one hand and stretch out the peel downwards with the other hand.  Calçotadas can last for several hours and usually take place on Sundays as most participants eat as many as 25-35 per head. There are many eating competitions and calçot festivities as far afield as Dublin, London and New York if you haven´t been struck down with indigestion.

Calçots in romesco soup – A creation from the infamous Torres Brothers

Almost as appreciated as the vegetables themselves is the sauce that accompanies them.  Most restaurants up and down Spain serve them with Romesco. Yet the real die-hard aficionados stick to the local salvitxada which is a bit sweeter as it contains dried ñora peppers as opposed to the choricero variety found in Romesco. The other ingredients include toasted almonds and hazelnuts, roast tomatoes and garlic, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and parsley, which can either be ground in a pestle and mortar or liquidised for a smoother sauce.

Some chefs have come up with various innovative versions of these prized scallions such as confit calçots served with a meat and butifarra sausage gravy or even a crunchy calçot tempura dipped in curry sauce in Barra Alta restaurant in Madrid and Barcelona.

Barra Alta restaurant offers a modern twist

I am also a fan of the jarred calçot sauce, made with tomatoes and toasted almonds from most sizeable supermarkets. It goes down very well with fish and grilled meat, especially when accompanied by a chilled beer or copita of fino. On occasions I have been known to adulterate calçots with some tabasco but only because I eat chilli with almost everything.  Apart from the chocolate stash I´m saving for Easter Day.

The Best Fabada in the World

January 12th, 2024 by

The Asturians are baying for blood, yet the jury has spoken and as of March last year, the Best Fabada in the World is in Madrid! The winners of last year´s competition was none other than the Mesón Asturiano Sidrería Arturo in the Hortaleza area of our capital.

The ultimate taste test

Originally run by Asturians, today the Mesón is in the hands of chef proprietor Carlos Guillermo García, a former pharmacist from Peru. Unable to find work in his previous profession, he was forced to take a cooking job to make ends meet. “I´d never even been near a saucepan in my life”, confesses García timidly. The original Asturian owners treated him like one of the family and passed on their secret recipe for their winning bean stew on their retirement in 2015 and García has been working his chemistry on it ever since.

García’s magic touch comes up trumps

For those of you unfamiliar with Spanish pulses, fabada is a slow-cooked white bean dish with various guises of pork. Ranging from morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, tocino and pancetta (lard and bacon). Slightly similar to its French cousin, cassoulet, yet without the silky duck confit.  This is potent fare and the resultant gases when eaten in “fartura”, which ironically means abundance in Asturiano, and harnessed correctly could probably power the whole of Pozuelo.

People travel from miles around to sample the Mesón’s Asturian fare

On an icy cold day I am rather partial to a steaming bowl of fabada and on a recent trip to Asturias we had the pleasure of sampling a delicious variety at Casa Belén in Villaviciosa, just 20 minutes inland from the beautiful coastal town of Gijón. Asturians are known for their hearty appetite so the Menú del Día comprised an ample starter of Sopa de Ajo, alias a garlic and pimentón soup thickened with bread, a giant chalice of Fabada and then the other regional speciality: Cachopo (2 breaded veal fillets filled with melted cheese) & chips washed down with cider and Belén´s special natillas (custard) to follow, all for the paltry sum of €15. The Macdonalds Happy Meal with its meagre soggy burger and mass produced French Fries for the same price wouldn´t do very well in this area…..

Playa Rodiles, near Villaviciosa makes for a popular holiday spot

Funnily enough, if you´re looking for a quick fix, whilst not being a huge advocate of tinned food, the Litoral brand of ready made fabada is surprisingly tasty and the giant catering can sizes of 5 portions have served up many a happy winter lunch to me and my 51 immediate in laws at the farm near Aranjuez where we got married. Think of it as gourmet Baked Beans with all the porky trimmings. It certainly takes pride of place as a Spanish storeroom staple and I´m hoping to get my hands on some of Jurgita´s prize Lithuanian chillies to perk up my next Asturian ration.

My go-to Fabada, sssh, don´t spill the beans

So watch this space for a possible visit to an Asturian restaurant with the lunch bunch coming soon….

Belén serves up a mean bean feast for two

Mesón Sidrería Arturo – Calle del Mar Bering, 9. Hortaleza, Madrid. Tel 917 63 12 39

Casa Belén – Calle General Campomanes, 1, Villaviciosa, Asturias. Tel 696 05 37 21

Hit the sweet spot this Christmas with heritage candy

November 30th, 2023 by

What do the late Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Infanta Pilar de Borbón, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner or Spanish politicians and senators past and present have in common?

They have all been avid patrons of Madrid´s oldest sweet shop, La Pajarita.   Named after a popular origami figure that the literati made out of paper napkins in the tertulia cafés, La Pajarita first opened its doors in the newly done up Puerta de Sol in 1852.  

Some of the 17 flavours

The founder, Vicente Hijós Palacio was a regular fixture at the intellectual social gatherings in the fashionable local tea and coffee houses of the day and a good friend of writer and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno.

I have to admit that I find it a lot easier to digest copious quantities of artisanal candy and chocolate than weighty tomes of 19th Century Spanish literature, which nearly finished me off at university. However, I can imagine a generous dose of La Pajarita´s violet sweets would probably make any literary tertulia considerably more palatable.

Calle Villanueva 14

Unlike many other businesses, La Pajarita remained operational during the Civil War, and their underground cellars provided a welcome safe haven for neighbours in which to shelter during the bombings with many a clandestine mass being celebrated for those seeking spiritual relief.

Crumbliest chocolate bark

In 1969 La Pajarita moved to Calle Villanueva 14 in the Barrio de Salamanca where you will find 17 different flavours of candy and a wide assortment of chocolates from 32% to 70% cacao. Upstairs in a tiny office bustles the great grand-daughter of the founder, Rocío Aznárez Ramos, who left her investment banking career to take up the helm of La Pajarita alongside her husband, Carlos Lemus. The dynamic duo are responsible for bringing the business into the 21st century without foregoing any of its quality vintage character.

Chocolate origami pajaritas

Before he died, Rosa´s grandfather was amazed to see that sales could still be made while the shop was shut thanks to the internet. He had never used a computer and all of his business dealings were sealed with a gentleman´s handshake.

Not such shrinking violets

La Pajarita´s signature sweets are the violets and they jealously guard their original recipe that has been perfected over the years and which enables them to stand out from the more commercial varieties available. La Pajarita violets are crafted with a touch of acidity and a layer of contrasting sweet syrup unlike the more cloyingly-sweet versions.

Rainbow assortment candy

It´s always heartening to see a 171-year-old family business thriving on the tradition of producing high quality products whilst preparing the company to flourish for the next five generations. So I shall definitely be adding my mother in law to the long line of illustrious La Pajarita customers this Christmas. Knowing her, she´d appreciate a few volumes of Unamuno as well.

Banibanoo – a slice of Persia in Madrid

November 9th, 2023 by

I thought I wasn´t a pudding person. And I probably wasn´t. Until I tasted a life-changing chocolate, pomegranate and pistachio pavlova at a delectable Iranian restaurant, called Banibanoo. Forget those brittle, synthetically sweet friable toothpaste white meringues sold in Mercadona. Instead drift off to your wildest gastronomic dreams as you imagine sinking your teeth into a crispy shell of a fluffy pillow stuffed with gooey marshmallow-textured chocolate and rubicund fig quarters, oozing rosewater-scented cream adorned with sherbetty pomegranate seeds and crunchy pistachios.

This walnut-coloured concoction that reminds me of my erstwhile Latin teacher: hard on the outside and soft on the inside. When she was pleased with us she´d soften her hard-set jaw and draw a blue moon on the blackboard…signifying the once in a blue moon event of no homework. In her classes she used to buzz in around our desks in a terylene black skirt scrutinising our declensions.

On one occasion, aged 12, I decided her funereal attire needed a spot of decoration and decided to see how many white circle reinforcements, (remember those?…they were supposed to stop the holes ripping on your printouts in a ring binder file), I could stick on her hem as she was craning over my neighbour´s excrutiating rendition of Hannibal crossing the Alps. Unfortunately, my audacity and dexterity were not appreciated as the other girls’ sniggers gave me away and I bore the full brunt of the wrath of Miss Jewell when she realised the back of her entire skirt was embellished with tiny white donut rings, rather like those Polo mints actually. Personally, I thought I´d done her a bit of a favour in the trendsetting department but she wasn´t having any of it and I was duly sent to detention.

Black quinoa with grilled aubergine, zucchini, feta, pomegranate and lime salsa!

Anyway, there´s no pain in Banibanoo…just pure pleasure. And a very varied clientele.  Everyone seated in eyeshot of the riotously coloured dishes piled high on the counter so that you can choose your dishes from real life as opposed to your phone screen.

Flamboyantly dressed, with ebony-rimmed eyes, Banafsheh Farhangmehr´s striking attire matches the mesmerising boldness of her culinary creations. I caught up with Bani, as she is known, to find out a little more behind this Iranian corner of Madrid.

Iranian food is all about slow cooking as there are lots of stews and very elaborate dishes. At Banibanoo they start cooking at 07:30 prompt in order to have the multitude of seasonal salads, meat and vegetables and rice dishes stacked up on view by 1 pm.

Bani´s earliest childhood memories are of her mother taking leftover stews to the neighbours. “Iranians want to spread the joy and share it”, she explains. “They lavish so much love and attention on each dish they know it´s going to be really delicious so each meal is savoured in company.” 

Bani´s eye-catching rice and salads

After completing a Cordon Bleu course in London, Bani decided to open a restaurant in Madrid where she had been working in marketing for several years. Keen to capitalise on the novelty factor of Iranian food in Madrid, Banibanoo opened its doors in 2015 and is still very much a daytime affair. Breakfast is a popular phenomenon as tahini and date toasts or avocado and poached eggs in tomato sauce are devoured by a diverse Spanish and international clientele.

Other than the use of saffron I discover that there isn´t much similarity between Spanish and Iranian food as “we don’t tend to fry many dishes and our meals are more akin to a rolling feast than specific courses”, Bani explains.  

Soft-boiled eggs and Comté cheese toast

Banibanoo is very much a mixture of authentic Iranian dishes as well as a place to champion fusion food. Bani likes to add an original twist to classic dishes.

At lunchtime diners are invited to choose 3 dishes from a sweeping list of options such as spicy grilled cauliflower with pumpkin seeds, broccoli and dates; chicken, almond, saffron rice with orange peel or baked aubergines with meat and pomegranate molasses for set price of €16.95. Ruby-red pomegranates, toasted nuts and rich caramel dates feature heavily and most of the rice dishes can be served without meat. The exotic range of flavours and textures make for a very exciting collage of flavours both for the eyes and the stomach.

One of my favourites: roast cauliflower with yoghurt and pomegranate

Most of the combinations are not accidental as in Iran all dishes relate back to some science or medicinal qualities. “Pomegranate is cooling, whilst walnut is hot so you get an ayurvedic balance,” elaborates Bani.

I am amused to see “No Libanesa” pasted across Banibanoo´s extensive menu. “After 8 years I was fed up with the reviews on Trip Advisor saying mine was the Best Lebanese restaurant in Madrid.” Bani explains wrily.

The pièce de resistance – chocolate fig pavlova

Finally, I try to tempt the recipe for those tantalisingly exquisite chocolate pavlovas out of Bani. “We have a Russian chef”, she explains, “as they also eat pavlova in Russia and we add vinegar to the mix to get that chewy texture”. It all sounds very haphazard to me so I think I´ll be sticking to Bani´s moreish version for now.

Bani chalks up success

Before I go I ask Bani how easy it is for an Iranian woman to fit into Madrid. She explains that the adjustment has been very easy as Iranians share a similar culture. “Even the layout of the streets in Madrid are similar to those in Tehran”, she says wistfully.

Keep an eye out for Bani´s next project as she´s contemplating opening an ice cream shop with Iranian flavours in Madrid´s Justicia barrio. Knowing my penchant for an authentic rosewater ice I will be first in line.

Bani in Yazd, Iran

Breakfast Diversity

May 19th, 2023 by

I can and have eaten snake´s blood for lunch and worms for dinner but breakfast is sacred. On a weekend, ideally it would include lashings of Bovril drizzled over hot-buttered brown toast…I could push it to the Holy Grail of crispy crumpet at Christmas….or perhaps even a sneaky scone with a full height glacier of Rodda´s clotted cream on a whistle-stop trip over to the UK.

Bovril and crumpets – a winning duo

However, let´s face it, we´re less adaptable at this mealtime.

Felipe González, Spain´s Premier from 1986-1992, shrewdly observed at one heated European Summit he hosted in June 1989 that it wasn´t surprising the delegates couldn´t agree on the agenda, considering the diversity of breakfasts they had all undoubtedly consumed that morning. Whilst their heads locked horns over the EU monetary system, the attendees’ bellies were busy digesting anything from German Bircher Muesli to French Pain au Chocolat, Greek Spinach Pie, Irish sausages or even a British Triple Whammy of eggs, beans and black pudding on toast. “How can we settle on common policy at the end of the day when they start it so differently.” 

Mitterand and Thatcher – poles apart

According to Julio González de Buitrago, head chef at La Moncloa Felipe González, enjoyed taking over the kitchen to prepare bream baked in sea salt.  Although, “he loved a tuna-and-tomato sandwich when he was watching a soccer game”.

Felipe González at work

What happened to fried bread? I would like to start a Bring Back Fried Bread Movement. I could happily ditch those deep-fried mars bars; just bring me back those crispy caramel-brown triangles drenched in oil. Their sharp tip makes for the perfect weapon with which to go pricking those runny fried egg yokes.

Grease rules

Whereas every high street from Canterbury to Calcutta showcases global “To Go” brands such as Starbucks and Subway most nationalities tend to stick to home turf when it comes to breakfast in their own kitchen.

In the Middle East falafel and hummus bulge out of freshly-baked pita bread. Whereas in China and other Far Eastern countries a steaming bowl of rice porridge congee and pickled mustard stems is the preferred matutinal choice.

One of my most exotic daybreak meals was a spicy coconut noodle soup with fried beef lung at a roadside stall under a flyover in Kuala Lumpur. Just the ticket to tickle those sweat glands into action in the oppressive humidity.

Authentic porridge

Whilst lunch is the star culinary attraction, most Spaniards settle for biscuits and instant coffee dissolved into microwaved long-life milk of a morning. I am proud to divulge that I have managed to tempt my husband into following my Scottish ancestry by loading up on rolled porridge oats, or Scottish cement as he calls it with a dash of banana. I have fond memories of my grandmother stirring pinhead oats on the stove, spurtle in hand, until they congealed homogenously on our annual summer pilgrimage to her house near Dornoch. Once in a bowl, she would then sprinkle over some brown sugar, a pinch of salt to accentuate the natural earthiness of the oats before pouring a generous white moat of single cream round the edges.  All in all a tantalising tingle of contrasting flavours and textures that ensured we stayed out of the raspberry cage until lunch.

Poncho fashion on the Camino de Santiago

My family and I have embarked on a pledge to complete the Camino de Santiago with a group of Spanish friends by doing 3 sections or “etapas” a year. Having started in 2019 and been rudely interrupted by the pandemic we shall probably all be elderly grandparents by the time we stagger into Santiago de Compostela on zimmer crampons.  At times we have congregated together for breakfast and I have not found many takers for scrambled eggs at 7 am on a Sunday morning or for a bowl of mushy beige oats either. Instead, our friends favour a potato tortilla sandwiched into a white baguette and by 10.30 am they are sharing packets of almonds and Oreo biscuits or squeezing tubes of condensed milk down their children´s gullets in a bid to stave off those gastro grumblings.

Busy bodega workers

The other point to note about Spanish breakfast is that it´s often eaten nearer the British lunchtime. Office workers start on an empty stomach before congregating at the nearest bar for the three C´s (coffee, croissant and a cigarette) at about 11.30. When I worked in the sherry industry I used to watch enviously as the strapping bodega workers perched on the barrels while they devoured orange sobrasada slathered generously onto baguette, washed down with dry oloroso to cut through the porcine fat at 11.30 am while my stomach rumbled through the second tasting of the day of 30 sherries before 12 noon. As the Jerez saying goes, “If you haven´t had one by 12 you will have to have 12 by 1pm”.  Incidentally, farmworkers in the UK and Ireland were the initiators of the great Breakfast Fry up now equally ubiquitous in cafés in coastal Spain and the islands.

Unctuous sobrasada

Perhaps one of the main reasons Spaniards can´t eat a heavy meal early in the morning is because they´re still digesting their dinner that they may have only finished around midnight the night before. And that´s another story…..

Susannah goes to Mars

March 29th, 2023 by

When I first landed on these shores at the end of the 1980s it was very difficult to find any snacks on the street, especially in train or metro stations. I had grown up grabbing the odd marathon/snickers to line the stomach whilst en route to school or to the pub after work. Yet over here Twix and Mars bars are largely confined to bulk packs in supermarkets; the antithesis of spontaneous snacking.

However, Spaniards do have a very sweet tooth when it comes desserts, an unequivocal hangover from their seven-century Moorish ancestry. On inquiring about the correlation between heat and sweet on a visit to Dubai years ago I was informed that sugar boosts flagging energy levels in hot weather. In addition, in Arab cultures sugary treats are offered as a mark of hospitality and generosity.

Still a favourite today

One store which is promoting British stalwart brands from my mis-spent youth is Pepco. With 146 branches all over Spain, there´s bound to be a Cadbury´s Whole Nut bar nearer to you than you think. On my recent foray into the Calle Alcalá branch I was tempted by all manner of nostalgic confectionery including Curly Wurlies, Wagon Wheels as well as those moreish 1980´s favourite: Revels.

Having spent 5 years locked up in a girl´s boarding school in the heart of the Sussex Downs, I very much relied on our “tuck shop”. This was a converted stable filled with our favourite sugary staples where we could buy our weekly treats and make up for the lost calories of many an inedible lunch. Once our house mistress announced she would exchange postage stamps for cash I knew I was onto a winner. So as opposed to writing weekly letters to beloved members of my cherished family I swapped the Queen´s head for prized Bounty bars, Milky Ways and Twix´s. Having acquired something of a reputation for my devotion to confectionery some of the other girls dared me to eat 7 Mars Bars in a row….in order to qualify for a free one….Minutes later, tens of mullet-haired 12 year olds gathered round my bunk bed as the challenge commenced.

Cards and chocolate kept us entertained

One by one the cloying caramel slabs disappeared down into the abyss of my gullet whilst I feverishly peeled off the next wrapper. Unfortunately for my room-mates, I didn´t feel sick at all, indeed, far from it. Egged on by the sugar rush all 7 of them slipped down quite comfortably and I am still extremely partial to a Mars bar or three today. Especially if they are presented to me in the format of a Mars Ice cream which can only be described as a feat of food engineering. How on earth does the caramel centre remain at that silky consistency in a deep freeze?

Another favourite activity was to write to the Complaints Department of Mars Inc. After popping our favoured confectionery for a spin in the school washing machine, we´d enclose it in a grubby envelope with a terse note complaining the Mars bar was faulty and demanding immediate compensation by way of a big box of said product. This deception was repeated with such alarming frequency I´m surprised we didn´t instigate a regional product recall. However, in those days Mars Inc were very generous in sending us endless freebies despite the obvious fraudulent nature of our claims belied by the address of our Malory Towers-esque institution.  Looking back, I expect the Customer Service Director was sorely tempted to fill the wrappers with one of their other brands such as Pedigree Chum.

British Corner Shop staples

Wherever you´re from, if you´re feeling in the mood for some timeless British treats this Easter you can always rely on the British Corner Shop online delivery from their new EU warehouse to egg-sport you some fun. According to their CEO, Tom Carroll “Cadbury chocolate continues to reign supreme, with timeless treats like the Cadbury Flake and Dairy Milk bar still highly sought after by expats in Spain.”

However, if you´re after a fun chocolate tasting on a Saturday afternoon near Ópera you can book one with Helen López who hosted a wonderful Monthly Meeting last year.


June 3rd, 2022 by

What do Shakira, Salma Hayek, Amal Alamuddin (alias Mrs Clooney), Elie Saab (couturier to Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Kate Middleton) all have in common? They’re all Lebanese, as have been former presidents of Jamaica, Colombia, Ecuador (3!) and Brazil.

The Lebanese are an entrepreneurial nation and many Beirutis I have met are proud of the commercial spirit that comes from their innovative and enterprising Phoenician merchant heritage; those ancient founders of coastal colonies all over the Mediterranean, not least in Cádiz.

Promises of ice cream behind the awning

In 2019 we decided to see Beirut for ourselves. After a fascinating peak at the local cathedral, mosque and recently-excavated Roman ruins my ice cream fetish started to override any more thoughts of culture and our 11 and 6 year olds’ eyes flickered with increasing interest.  Having seen a particular ice cream parlour on one of Rick Stein and Nigel Slater’s UK BBC cookery programmes it had long been my ambition to try the Hanni Mitri ice cream for myself. So armed with former INC member Linda Talluto’s picture of the place we embarked on a monumental five-hour treasure hunt …on foot. There’s nothing like roaming through the streets of a city on a mission to savour superlative ice cream to really get to know it. If only our map had also marked the contours of all those steep hills that abound in Beirut.

Return visit for quality control purposes

After 5 hours I got very excited as we turned a corner and spied a very unassuming bullet-ridden corner shop at the end of a narrow road that I recognised from Linda’s photo. The children had virtually melted en route but were immediately revived and miraculously ordered strawberry and lemon flavour in fluent school French.

The family-owned business has been going since 1949 and has seen a few bombs in its time. There are no seats and no frills. The shop has since moved temporarily followed the Beirut blast in 2020 and the all the ice cream continues to be made on site daily.

We´ve struck gold at last

Mr Mitri and his diminutive mother were both expecting us to order and leave their minuscule premises but there was no getting rid of us. Buoyed up by fragrant iced perfumes and the cooling freezers we weren’t going anywhere. Copious ice creams and Mr Mitri’s family history later (he ditched banking to take on his father’s ice cream business) we finally re-emerged into the burning sun. As Mr Mitri isn’t coming here anytime soon I urge you all to book a flight just to try his ices.

Mr Mitri shows off his best selection

Mother Mitri uses plastic gloves to literally thumb the different flavours into narrow biscuit cones or down into a plastic cup that literally defies any normal physics of mass and volume. So you end up with rainbow ribbons of zingy oranges and lemons nudged into a corner by the heady aromas of rosewater sorbet and all tempered by a snow-white coating of clotted cream or “ashta”. In addition to the more traditional flavours, you can find mulberry, watermelon, mango and amareddine which is an apricot paste sorbet filled with crunchy toasted pine nuts.

Mitri´s magic snow

There is clearly no need to fix up the bullet holes (one of them is actually embedded inside his ice cream machinery) as people are more interested in what’s in their hand than on the wall.

Now, you might think that 3,500 km is a long way to fly, albeit on a direct flight, for an ice cream but actually when you factor in all the ancient culture and the boundless hospitality on tap in Beirut it´s definitely worth it.

However, if you do find yourself on an authentic ice cream mission in Madrid here are a few of my favourites closer to home:

Solo Naturale in Alcobendas, with its focus on premium natural ingredients,

Heladeria Gioelia is a favourite amongst our treasurer, Shalini. Particularly the Cremino flavour of white chocolate with hazelnuts and chocolate praline cream. Most importantly, they also deliver!

Gioelia serves up one of its gems

Heladeria Los Alpes is one of Madrid´s oldest ice cream parlours, since the Tuscan founders arrived here in 1933 and has a few branches across the city and suburbs including Las Rozas and Pozuelo de Alarcón.

Meanwhile if alchemy is more your style, head to N2LAB where liquid nitrogen is the star ingredient and the resultant creamiest of creams are served up by staff in scientific overalls and protective glasses in Calle Gravina, 5 (Chueca).

Ice cream to blow your mind at N2LAB

After a gander round the Retiro I usually make a beeline for Maison Glacée which also doubles up as an innovative pastry shop. Ecological milk from the Comunidad de Madrid is used to ease out what for me is the most authentic Italian style ice cream in the capital in Calle Alcalá 77 and Calle Ibiza, 42

Italian INC member, Tiziana is rather partial to Gelateria Sienna on Calle Narváez and I´m inclined to believe her so I shall be heading there on my next trip into the city.

Finally, there is ubiquitous global brand, Amorino whereby exotic ices are fashioned with a spatula into the shape of a rose. Each flavour forming a different petal. My favourite branch is in El Corte Inglés Gourmet section in Callao from which you can admire spectacular views over Madrid´s rooftops.

Your Baan or Mine?

May 20th, 2022 by

Piquant food and exquisite cocktails are always a winning formula for my seasoned palate. So I´ve found myself being lured by promises of Penang curry washed down with Pisco Sours at Baan Asian Emphasis restaurant off Paseo de Recoletos on more than one occasion since it opened last year. Apparently, Baan means house which is somewhat misleading as this is definitely not your traditional spartan Thai abode but rather a very plush velvet dining experience complete with a cocktail bar upstairs and a DJ spinning discs as fast as you can say otro Mai Tai por favor.

Pork loin ready to dip, tiradito of tuna & seabass with spicy salsa

The food however, is authentically Asian and guides your taste buds through an exotic gastro graze round Vietnam, Thailand with a pit stop in India, Korea, Japan and China. Whilst rice might be the recurring theme, the dishes themselves reflect large regional variations in the gastronomy of the Orient.

The former French rulers, succinctly summarised their colonies in the area as follows: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, whilst the Laotians listen to it grow”. Personally, I found Laos to be the ultimate in laid back, as exemplified by their eponymously-named local currency: the Kip*.

Napping is a national pastime

We start with the Tiradito de Atún Rojo, which for me is the star dish. Shimmering slivers of tuna line up in rows under dollops of creamy white mounds of miso topped with emerald strands of kimchi and sprinklings of crispy sesame seeds.  

My fellow guests insist on the Nem ran de pollo (Vietnamese rice paper rolls) so two over-sized fried batons arrive bursting at the seams with spiced chicken, Pyrenean blood pork sausage and skinny noodles, neatly camouflaged under a jungle of lettuce and mint. The dish is rustically presented inside-out as ordinarily the greenery would be tucked inside the wrapping. Our reedy bamboo chopsticks lacked steel reinforcements so we resort to our hands and make a very satisfying sticky mess of it all.

Horticultural Nem Ran

Baan´s executive chef, Víctor Camargo has been on my watchlist for a while now as I was a regular at his former fusion culinary residence: Sudestada.  He´s even brought one of his succulent culinary renditions with him, and a personal favourite of mine: pork cheeks in vindaloo sauce.

It´s a well-known secret that the Brits have banished Roast Beef off the bestseller lists of their staple dishes in favour of Chicken Tikka Masala. However, what many people don´t know is that in 2002, British supermarket chain, Asda, provoked an outcry from the not insignificant local British Asian population when it launched its own mega spicy readymade version of this Goan dish and called it Findaloo. Needless to say the jocular reference to the secondary effects of the chillis resulted in the curry being hastily removed from the shelves.

Gastro dilemmas in a Vietnamese market

Ironically, the origins of Vindaloo are much less spicy, as the dish was introduced to Goa by their Portuguese colonisers. The name derives from “vinha de alhos” and denotes the Portuguese practice of tenderising and preserving meat in wine vinegar and garlic. The Indians didn´t have vinegar so the resourceful Portuguese set about making some from coconut toddy. Baan´s version is an unctuous spicy sour sauce; the perfect foil to the natural fattiness of the pork cheeks. It is very much a  triumphant marriage between Iberia and the Sub-Continent.

Tamarind and cardamom-flavoured Vindaloo

The rest of the main dishes follow in the same vein of pan Euro-Asian cooking with marked aplomb and originality. Baked octopus is added to staples such as Pad Thai and Amontillado sherry mousse and dill-doused potatoes partner up with wasabi roast beef. Maybe that gutsy version of the bovine dish will reinstate the Holy Cow to its former glory in the British popularity stakes in time for the Queen´s Platinum Jubilee on June 5th.

As for pudding, mine is almost always a Pisco Sour or three but if you´re looking for more solid refreshment Baan do a mean Lychee “Slush Puppy” with baked banana and cassis ice cream.

Temple touring in Thailand

C/ Villanueva, 2. Madrid.
Tel. 911 088 900
IG: @baanmadrid

*To kip = to take a nap

Oh my gourd!

November 4th, 2021 by

It looks like the veroño (verano-otoño) we were enjoying is truly over so now that there are a dearth of Halloween pumpkins in the shops we can enjoy the hearty health properties of these orange orbs.

Originally known as “gros melons” in 1584 by French explorer Jacques Cartier, “pompions” as they were named in English eventually became known as pumpkins.

These colourful spherical superfruits have recently gained huge popularity here and Spain is now the number one producer of pumpkins in the EU. Having first arrived on Iberian shores in the 15th century from the Americas (via Asia) they are now cultivated largely in Málaga and Valencia.

Officially classified as a fruit, due to their seeds, pumpkins belong to the gourd family along with courgettes (zucchini), cucumbers, watermelon and regular melon.  They are unique as you can eat the skin, leaves, flowers, pulp, seeds and even the stem!

With a composition of 90% water and three times fewer calories than their orange counterparts, the sweet potato, pumpkins rate high on the health scale. Shame the same can´t be said of pumpkin pie though. They have more fibre than kale, more potassium than bananas and are full of heart-healthy magnesium and iron. Frequent night time drivers will be interested to know that the high beta-carotene content can also enhance your nocturnal vision so you might spot those canny cameras before you get a speeding ticket.

The Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine can still be tasted today in numerous pastries such as ensaimadas and tarts that are filled with Cabello de Ángel (Angel´s Hair) which is essentially a caramelised fibrous paste of gourds and sugar. With the fibres resembling filaments, this Spanish version of pumpkin pie is one of many puddings that owes its heritage to 700 years of Muslim rule.

So if you´re fed up with waiting for your pumpkin to transform into a coach to take you to Prince Charming´s Thanksgiving Party you could consider the following enchanting recipe guaranteed to ensure you will remain the fairest¹ of them all for years to come.

Pumpkin Ravioli stuffed with mushrooms – serves 4


1 small pumpkin

Stuffing – 250 g various mushrooms, 2 cloves garlic, ½ onion

Sauce – 125 ml vegetable stock, red or white onion, 125 g various mushrooms, 25 ml white wine, 175 ml vegetable stock, 25 ml cream (or vegan cream), 1 sprig of rosemary

Salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil

To garnish – 1 cup of toasted hazelnuts

Moreish Mushroom filling


Cut the pumpkin into thin slices using a mandolin. You will need 16 slices at least.

Filling – Finely chop the garlic, onion and mushrooms. Sauté in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add vegetable stock and keep on a medium heat until the liquid has evaporated. Season accordingly.

Pumpkin “tacos” – arriba arriba

Sauce – Sauté onion in olive oil until golden in a saucepan. Add chopped mushrooms for 2 minutes. Add white wine and turn up heat until all the liquid has evaporated. Add stock, Rosemary and cook for 10 minutes.

Liquidise the sauce and return to the pan. Add the cream and boil on a medium heat for 2 minutes.

Fill the pumpkin slices with the stuffing and pin together.

Pin your pumpkin

Steam for 3 minutes so that they remain al dente. Remove the pins (especially from the ones your mother-in -law is going to eat) and serve on top of the sauce, sprinkled with black pepper, fresh rosemary and the toasted hazelnuts.

Send me photos of any that you have made or do an over “lasagne” version with sheets of pumpkin instead of pasta.

¹Reference to the evil vain queen in Snow White “Mirror Mirror on the wall who is the fairest one of all?”


October 4th, 2021 by

Last Saturday I went to Peru. Or at least it tasted like it. No PCR´s, no jet lag. Just a quick trip over to the Barrio de Salamanca to find Cilindro. The night didn´t get off to the best start. Finding a parking space in the street is akin to looking for an honest politician so we headed to the nearest carpark. Ten minutes later I was on the phone pleading with the restaurant not to give away our table as it turned out the so-called Parking was only fit for contortionists in a Fiat 500. After 65,000 manoeuvres and a few prayers we managed to squeeze the car into a space the size of a shopping trolley.

We then legged it round the block to the restaurant, past the outdoor terrace and the indoor high tables down to a welcoming cavernous dining room below decks.

Cilindro is the brainchild of Mario Céspedes and Conchi Alvarez. Mario hails from Lima and later emigrated to Asturias which adds an alluring layer to his international melting pot of fusion flavours at both Ronda 14, his original restaurant and Cilindro.

Rainbow palate of flavours

Within minutes a Peruvian waiter with Mensa-brain capacity memorised our order of half portions of numerous sharing plates or “piqueos” as they´re described and was able to divulge the ingredients of each dish with precision and enthusiasm.

We start off with one of my favourite dishes of all time: Ceviche. Husband tucks in heartily mumbling that this must be a synch to make, considering he can barely fry an egg I´d be very interested to know how he´s going to come up with cubes of firm-fleshed raw fish marinaded in lime and rocoto chilli in a creamy sauce.

Double Trouble

As usual I feel compelled to request some spicy “ají” salsa on the side to authenticate the food. A generous dish of crimson red gloop appears. I promptly decide this must be spicy ketchup and start to bathe my seabass in it. Next thing I know Volcán Ubinas is in full scale eruption in my mouth and starting to spue smoke out of my nostrils. Husband snorts with laughter.

Call the fire brigade

We order some Pisco Sours to ease the pain, the Peruvian national drink, although don’t mention that to any Chileans as also they claim it to be theirs. The heated dispute over the heritage of this colourless distillate makes the clash over Gibraltar look like child´s play. Either way, Pisco was by far the hardest drink for me to give up in pregnancy. The combination of grape brandy and a frothy bubble bath of raw egg white sprinkled with Angostura Bitters was much more tempting than pineapple pizza for some reason.

A truly sour dispute

The restaurant takes its name from the “cilindro”, a traditional Peruvian cylindrical oven-grill for smoking and grilling. Céspedes has resurrected this Criolla contraption to great acclaim as I witnessed. Not a regular fan of “casquería” (offal) I happily gobble up every last morsel of the slow roasted tripe basted in cumin and paprika with black pudding: “Callos rachi al cilindro con morcilla asturiana”. Likewise the exquisitely-seasoned miniature Beef heart cube (“anticucho”) Gyozas with chilli and coriander slip down with unmeasurable ease.

I will never go off my offal again

The cilindro also exuded its magic on the silky smooth smoky pulpo which was so delicious I had to blank out the more emotional scenes from the docu-movie: My Octopus Teacher from my mind.  Oozing with unctuous squid sauce, Peruvian olives and “olluco”, a vitamin-rich Andean root vegetable, this was a cracker dish.

The one that escaped Netflix

We rounded off our savoury South American jaunt with the ubiquitous Bao, this time of “Rabo de Toro”; shredded stewed oxtail trapped between a delectable chewy bread bun that had been flashed over the griddle pan, a welcome original touch. Just the sort of sneaky snack I like to sink my teeth into mid-morning when the post-porridge munchies set in.  

Feeling fruity?

Puddings beckoned in the shape of “Cilindro de chocolate”, an intense chocolate mousse with perfectly ripe headily-scented mango ice cream which soothed the volcanic chilli craters forming on my tongue. We also tried the creamy lucuma fruit blancmange with tart strawberry sherbert. Lucuma is a centuries-old superfood known as the “Gold of the Incas”, famed for its age-retardant antioxidants and fertility properties. I was tempted to smear it over the wrinkles round my eyes as opposed to ingest it and risk a geriatric pregnancy. Although…watch this space in 9 months´ time…

Cilindro Restaurante


Calle de Don Ramón de la Cruz, 8328006 Madrid




Instagram @cilindrorestaurante