Monday, 19 April 2010

Dining on Cloud Nine

‘I don’t think I’ve tasted olive oil until this weekend’

Choux Boy’s right. Somehow we find ourselves at the beginning of an eight course tasting menu (well nine we decided it was equivalent to if you counted the olive oil course and petit fours as half a course each) at Castel Monastero in the Tuscan Hills. I’d asked Antonio, the maitre d’, what he’d recommend from the menu. Let me hold it right here and explain something now. Sometimes in my day job I get to go and review 'honeymoon' hotels. Sometimes, I just maaaay make sure these are foodie. And sometimes, just sometimes I hope that we will be offered a tasting menu at one of these stupendously-more-luxurious-than-I-could-ever-afford hotels/restaurants. Well a girl can dream. Dream with her stomach... Don't hate me.

‘Well why don’t we sample? We could do a little of the, ah, salt cod, then, maybe you like to try the polenta, then we maybe do something different each... the saffron risotto with lamb ragout and the veal tortellini...’

Thank you thank you thank you thank you god.

‘... Then do you like fish? How about we do one bream and one meat.’

The Boy had been eyeing up the rabbit confit.

‘Or we could do a main course of the rabbit confit?’

Antonio, this gets better every second.

‘And maybe we could taste some wines together to go with the food?’

Antonio, I think I love you.

But back to the olive oil, we kick off this adventure with the olive oil. Now I’ve always been a fan of the bread and oil and balsamic instead of bread and butter routine (call me pretentious or call me weird) but different types of oil, and olive oil sommeliers? It’s very like tasting wine, we discuss the types of olives, a single olive oil or a blend of olive type, where the olives were grown, the method they were pressed by, the colour, the smell, the taste and the aftertaste. He knows his stuff.

First up a Terre di Siena (a D.O.C) made very near where we were staying and from three types of olive (in the middle of the picture). We were told to look out for the flavours of artichoke and green tomatoes and the distinctly green tinge. Next a Chianti Classico (bottom), made from one type of olive, this was stronger and spicier with the scent and flavour of fresh herbs and a peppery aftertaste. Lastly one called Locanda Rosso (top). This time a blend of two olives which are grown further north by the sea so you could taste the saltiness.

I hadn’t even managed to go 1,2,3 in a lingering fashion before our appetizer arrived: a salad of pecorino cheese, roasted tomatoes, confit duck, olives and pearl barley.

Next up salt cod with a tomato elixir and olive oil foam (though how they get olive oil to ‘foam’ is beyond my culinary imagination) And after a brut rose from Franciacorta to whet our wine appetite, with Antonio’s direction we moved on to a clean, fresh white with the salt cod.

Starters round two and it was potato polenta and ‘pecorino di fossa’ and duck ham. To cut through those hefty flavours, Antonio plumped for a Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Time for the traditional middle pasta course. This is one of my favourite things about dining in Italy – four courses as standard. I admit, I'm a glutton. And Antonio hasn’t let us down with his selection a creamy saffron risotto, not too light, not to heavy, topped with lamb ragout plus my absolute favourite part of the meal so far: melt in the mouth morsels of veal tortellini served with a smear of creamed cauliflower.

Wine change mark four for the main – and to straddle the needs of my light fish and the Boy’s rich confit rabbit leg we have a light and punchy Brunello di Montalcino 2003. The fresh bream comes with a tomato crumble, fennel and dots of aubergine cream – light and bright flavours that are the perfect complement.

We’re pretty full, but nowhere near defeated in our quest to taste every last bit of Tuscany. Round, where are we now, five, six? Cheese. All pecorino – 18 weeks, 24 weeks and 38 weeks. Served with fig, citrus and red berry jams/chutneys plus white honey. Plus not one but two wines – a sweet from Umbria (Antinori produced Muffato della Sala) and a classic Chianti. I love the tender almost rubbery 18 week cheese. I love all of them. I have to stop myself from eating myself into a cheese coma.

A pause... and then a plate. A sliver of pistachio parfait and a Chinese gooseberry.

Mmmm. But that’s not even dessert. More sweet wine? Yes, please. The real thing is here. For me, a hazelnut tower and pistachio ice cream. Nutty crunchy creamy heaven. The Boy gets three tiny espresso cups housing tiramisu three ways – classic, with cherries and with amoretti biscuits instead of sponge.

We’re done, well, a couple of macchiatos and petit fours? Oh go on then, in for a penny in for the pounds. And after three hours, nine courses and six wines we were done. Thank you Antonio. Thank you.

If you can get yourself there dear reader do say hello to Antonio. Say hello very nicely...

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