Thursday, 23 July 2009

Fine Dining – Garage Style …

A friend of a friend of a friend told us about Ristorante Valenti. It’s the way word gets around in Medellin.
From what I could gather the food was very good, but you ate in a garage of someone’s house. This I am used to, as in Asia a lot of peoples houses double up as their business. So to eat in a garage was no surprise to me, but to Colombians to eat good food in a garage was a little bit too much.
I’d also seen an interview with the chef, although I, at the moment cannot read it all, as my Spanish is not good enough yet. So no idea what it says.
So on a wet, cold Thursday night, we ventured into Envigado, a slightly affluent area of Medellin. When we found the restaurant (only by the house number, as no signs). We walked into a garage. In fact a double garage. There is a little bar, where a few people were drinking and chatting and lots of tables. All dressed up ready for business.
We had made a reservation, but we didn’t really need to, as only one other table was occupied by a group of six. As the night progressed, this seemed to be a group restaurant, a reason was needed, rather than just going to eat good food. Medellin isn’t into that yet.
There is no menu, no choice. You just decide wether you want a starter, main course, desert, or all 3. The starter is 12,000 pesos. The main course is 24,000 and the deserts are 3,000. So kinda normal prices for a lot of upscale restaurants in Medellin. They don’t actually tell you what you are getting. As it’s a surprise.
We chose the main course and a desert each, as since working in Café Boheme, I’d acquired a very sweet tooth.
What came was a quadruple selection of delights. Two ricotta cheese parcels with a blue cheese sauce. A chicken thigh on a bed of tomato sauce. A large prawn cooked in garlic butter. And an artichoke salad. All situated in the corners of the plate. I’m really not a fan of square plates. That went out in the 80’s, but Medellin is in its infancy for good food at the moment. So for your average Paisa this is cool stuff. For me the presentation was kinda messy. I wish the chef was more secure in his cooking, and only gave us 2 ir 3 of the four. It felt cluttered.
Everything was well cooked and seasoned. I’d forgotten how much I miss salads here. So far I haven’t brought any lettuce leaves here, as with the humidity it will wilt by the time it hits the fridge, and they are all the soft head variety. I have a preference for bitter leaves, and they are impossible to find here. Well once my seeds arrive they won’t be.
The chicken and tomato sauce was the low point of the 4. There was nothing wrong with it at all, but it was just chicken on a tomato sauce. No wow factor there. A bit boring that. The prawn and rav’s were nice. Well cooked and tasted pretty good. But not on the same plate please.
I am seeing a lot of fish and cheese dishes being paired up here. Why?
The desert was served in a large shot glass. It was a chocolate orange-coated fig, with a coconut and chocolate sauce, and loads of dusting. Small, but a nice end to a nice meal. Being English, we do rather like heavy puddings, but as in Rome.
I’d love to go back again to see if the Chef has more good food up his sleeve. I’d be very disappointed to get the same combination again.
All in all, by Medellin standards it was a breath of fresh air in a city lacking in different food options.
If you are in Medellin, try and enjoy …
Restaurante Valenti
Transversal 31 sur
No. 32D-20

Friday, 17 July 2009

Lunches in the Sun

Finally we have had a week of no rain. Summer is here at last. For the last few weeks it has rained a lot either in the morning or the afternoon. But thankfully this week we have been blessed with days of beautiful clear blue skies. This has been an excuse to eat alfresco. Bliss. Being in London over the Winter, I had forgotten what it was like to eat with the sun on your back. Ahhhh..
However this week of sun, has meant frequent trips to the garden to do some well needed watering of the veg I planted a few weeks ago. Hard life huh? The rocket, caverlo nero, parsley and radishes have all sprouted. Now just a waiting game till they are ready.
I ordered last week a wide selection of seeds from Seeds of Italy (The USA Branch). So hopefully they will be with me in a week or two. Then I can get planting…. How I miss salads. For some reason Latin America is not known for its good salad leaves.
I also started to cure a piece of pork belly last week. Just a simple recipe of salt, sugar, crushed peppercorns and a few herbs thrown in. I left it for 7 days, bit of a mistake as it was quite salty in the end. But apart from that it turned out ok. The next one I will leave it for 5 days and hopefully it should be ok.
The day I started curing it, I was dreaming of eating Petit Salê. My favourite peasant style French dish. Basically salted pork with lentils.
Firstly boil the piece of bacon with lots of stock veg and herbs for about an hour and a half or until the pork and fat are tender. Stain everything and return some of the stock back to the pan and add the lentils. Normally I would use Lentils from Le Puy, but this is Colombia and they only sell two types here. Brown lentils for soup and an imported type from Canada called Pardina. They seem to hold their shape better and work ok here. The lentils should be cooked in about 20 minutes. During this time slice the pork and add it back to the lentils to warm through. Serve the pork on top of the lentils for some fine French fare. A nice baguette would go well with this, but as we are in the middle of nowhere, so some Moroccan bread we tried out went just as well. A nice crisp white would have been great as well. Hey ho.
I used some more of the cured bacon in another classic French dish. Boeuf Bourguignon, which went well with some mashed potatoes and a hearty red.
I must however remember to slap the boy in the butchers who told me the cut “Posta” was brilliant for slow cooking. After 3 hours it was just beginning to become tender. Unfortunately we were pretty hungry by this time so we couldn’t wait till it was melt in the mouth tender.
I keep forgetting that slow cooking in Colombia means 45 minutes in a pressure cooker. They really love these machines. The devils work I say.
Hopefully if the sun holds out over the weekend I can feel the barbecue being lit. Then you know Summer is definitely here. J

Thursday, 9 July 2009

In Situ – El Jardin Botanico

The Botanical Gardens in the centre of Medellin is a welcome respite from the chaos and madness that the city is. The greenness of the place immediately relaxes you. The noise of the flowing traffic outside melts away the further you walk deeper through the gardens.
Our visit here was the first, and I so wish we had come here before. Anything on a bright sunny day to escape the pollution and heat of Medellin.
It kind of took me back to Kew Gardens, which always had the same effect on me. Although we paid for the year’s membership and we never used it that much. A waste.
Deep inside the Gardens, is Situ. Our mission for today. A spying mission. A chance to see how the well to do people of Medellin spend their money, and also a chance to finally eat some decent food. Well, that is an unfair attack on the cuisine of Medellin and its surroundings. Some of the typical Paisa food we have eaten has been very good. But to be honest, I am getting sick of beans and rice. So let’s say, it was nice to be able to eat some different food.
The restaurant is open on both sides. One facing the gardens, the other facing a small pool full of fish. It was larger than I had expected, and it was full. As we had no reservation we were shown to a table in by the pool. Which gradually became more and more baked in sun. We kept moving our table inwards, at one point we were almost connected to a party of four. Who would have welcomed us to join them if the waiters had not closed the shutters in time.
The menu of Situ, as I said before is unlike your typical Paisa food. Phew. Some of it is there, but with a more modern twist and thankfully smaller portions, and a higher price tag. Why is that?
We were tempted to do a full 3 course meal. Well we were on a spying mission after all. But luckily an apparent wine deal saved us. A half bottle of white, which they were trying to promote, came with some cheeses and bread. Why not we said. The wine was from a small unknown Chilean winery and was very good. The cheeses on the other hand were a bit of a disappointment. What came were 6 small balls of cream cheese rolled in either cracked black peppercorns, dried herbs or macadamia nuts, with some thinly sliced bread(ish) and 2 strawberries. One of which was not ripe. Oh god was this a sign of things to come. It’s amazing that someone actually came up with this idea. But what is more amazing is that they went through with it. But we are in Medellin after all. A city where people still eat beans and rice on average 3 times a week, and what they call mozzarella is a yellow block of stringy cheese. But more of that later.
Thankfully the rest of the meal was a delight. So I have put the cheese incident behind us and best forgotten. But had to get it off my chest.
My salmon was cooked to perfection. When the waiter asked me how I wanted it, I almost replied, “How it’s supposed to be cooked.” Thankfully I bit my tongue. The lemon mayonnaise had a little tartness to it, which went well with the salmon and the mash. Don’t ask why I had a rolled platano and a huge basil leaf on my plate. Well they do love to garnish.
Lina’s juicy pork chop was coated in a lovely tangy tamarind sauce, with some papa criolla wrapped in a fried platano. Let’s not mention the rosemary sprig. Like I say they love to garnish.
It was a good meal, the conversation flowed along with the wine. Maybe we should have ordered a full bottle. But it has been over a month since a drop had passed my lips. So probably best not to have tempted fate.
We shared a pudding of a chocolate and passion fruit cake. I was sublime, and I love squirty cream. I’m sure the waiter took offence when I took the large mint sprig off and tossed it onto the table. I must make this my crusade. “No garnishes that are larger than the food you are serving.”
All in all it was a great afternoon, with some great food, great wine and good service. The one thing Medellin has in tonnes is good service. I’d be amazed if I ever get bad service here.
Until the next spying mission. Let’s hope it’s as good as this one.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Life in the Countryside...

Well we’ve been here in Finca Cañaveral for a couple of weeks now. Most of that has been cleaning, dusting and throwing a lot of stuff away. As I found out today that the owners hadn’t been here for about a year, and I’m not sure they cleaned that much before anyhows.
The owners are some parents of friends, and as I mentioned before they don’t come here much nowadays. So as we were looking for somewhere to rent and they wanted to rent it out. Perfect match. Well we are only paying the wages of the Mayordormo. Antonio, a local guy who comes every Friday and Saturday and does odd jobs around the place.
As I said, the first week was practically just cleaning, dusting, sweeping and throwing a lot of stuff out. What a mess. I had never seen so much dust in one place in my life. When we moved the rug downstairs, it had mould on the underside. Antonio informed us it hadn’t been moved for 11 years. Yuck …
The general mess of the place aside. Finca Cañaveral has real charm and a personality all of its own. It is quite different from other Fincas in the area. It was built with little money and using all manner of things for tables, decoration etc. It’s really quite cool.
We are about a 90 minute walk from the small Pueblito of El Retiro, which is about 45 minutes outside of Medellin. It is very very peaceful and is the complete opposite of London. We may occasionally hear a car or motorbike pass by, but other than that it’s only the birds and a river we hear. I’d actually forgotten what it was like to be woken up by birds singing. Bliss.
There is a small vegetable plot, which I have increased its growing space by a little. I’d almost forgotten what physical work was like. There are some ripening corn plants, a few spring cabbages ready for the pot. The 2 cauliflowers there just never quite made it. But will keep them there for a while until we buy some chickens and then will feed those to them.
I had never really eaten loganberries till I came to Colombia. It’s just as well I like them, as we have about a dozen or so plants which are giving us enough for a couple of litres of juice every few days. Plus I am doing experiments with them to make jam. Ice creams next.
This week we brought some seeds to plant. Onions, carrots, celery, parsley, radishes and some herbs. All I am waiting for now is a few hours without heavy rain.
We are getting into normal life here, as brought a small portable oven and a fridge. The one that was here was just used once a week when the owners came just for the weekend. We upgraded. Now to fill it.
We brought some hand made fresh cheese, some Arepas (corn flat unleavened breads), and some very fresh eggs. They had been wiped, but sometimes the chicken shit stays. Hahahaha. Bright yellow yolks, and they taste good.
Also good news all our boxes arrived from Blighty. Yes we have a duvet now. Can sleep warm at nights without socks. Haven’t checked all through each box, but they seem as heavy as when we shipped them. Cost us nearly a grand to ship them, and £10 to collect. The customs here had a quick scan through one or two boxes, as the US Customs had done the same. It’s a lot easier to import stuff than to export it. Hope we never have to go through that procedure.
I am really becoming attached to the peacefulness of the place that an offer of going down to Medellin was quickly rejected. Although I have to go down once in a while as we cannot get internet connection here.
Transport to and from this area is limited to say the least. Roughly about twice a day from a small tienda, which is about a 20 minute walk downhill. It’s in a Chiva, a large open sided bus that serves the small villages in rural areas of Colombia. Great fun to ride and you do get to meet all the locals. As news travels fast in this neck of the woods, I’m sure everyone knows about me by now. When we go down, we catch the Chiva at anytime from 8am onwards, but it leaves El Retiro at dead on 2pm. There are more buses at weekends and holidays, but without a car or moto, it’s a long walk down and back up. Or quicker if we can snag a lift of a kind hearted neighbour. Which we have down many times now.
Until next time ….