Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cocktails and Canapés Class at La Cucina Caldesi

As a birthday gift, my friends signed me up for a cooking class at La Cucina Caldesi. Given my haphazard manner of cooking and the fact that I can not cut or chop to save my life, I was quite thrilled to find out that wasn't your typical cooking class. It was a 'Cocktails and Canapés' class that ended up being a second mini birthday celebration with my friends. I had so much fun and learned a lot - I now know how to make 2 cocktails and 4 canapés! Quite an accomplishment in my world :)

La Cucina Caldesi is an Italian cooking school in Marylebone. It is located right behind the Caffe Caldesi restaurant.

Chef Stefano Borrella

Our cooking instructor Stefano Borella was brilliant – very skilled and informative with a dry sense of humour, he first gave us a brief overview of the canapés we were going to make, the ingredients used and then split us up into groups. Soon the kitchen was busy with people cutting, chopping, stirring, and mixing. My task was to toast pine nuts. Don't ask me how but I lucked out and managed not to do any cutting or chopping which I was quite happy about. I also had a great vantage point to view all the activity in the kitchen.

We learned how to make an Endive Gorgonzola canapé which was so simple yet came together beautifully. Endive leaves topped with gooey Gorgonzola cheese, drizzled with olive oil, honey and toasted pine nuts. A little pepper at the end and all the flavours came together beautifully. The slightly bitter taste of the endive is offset by the honey and the whole dish took like 10 minutes to assemble.

Next was the classic Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese on a cracker. Sounds pretty simple but this was nothing short of amazing. The cream cheese was mixed with cream, finely chopped dill, chives and onions, lemon zest and lemon juice. The crowning glory was a sprinkle of glistening orange salmon roe. This was my favourite canapé of the night.

Then we made bruschetta topped with mushrooms. Stefano used a variety of mushrooms like chanterelles, porcini and button and then cooked them with finely chopped chillies and a few cloves of garlic and the secret ingredients - sprigs of rosemary and thyme that gave this gorgeous infusion to the mushrooms. He then piled it on a piece of toasted bruschetta and drizzled over some truffle flavoured olive oil. 

We then had deep fried bread and jamon - which I don't think I will attempt at home. Deep-frying is for those with brave hearts.

Finally, desert was little decadent cups of rich chocolate mousse, which I can’t remember how to make as by this point I was in canapé-induced haze of happiness. Not to worry – they gave us all the recipes on paper which was a nice touch as it meant we didn’t have to worry about taking notes during the class.

Cocktail tutorial begins

Once we finished the food preparation, our cocktail instructor swooped in to show us 2 cocktails - a champagne cocktail with blackberry puree and Chambord liqueur called ‘Black Betty’ and an Espresso Martini. The cocktail lesson was as fantastic as it really helped me get comfortable and gain confidence in making a cocktail. He taught us a few tricks of the trade and showed us how not only to stir and shake but also to present a cocktail beautifully.

Espresso Martini

The Black Betty Champagne Cocktail

All in all, it was a lovely experience and I would highly recommend going for a class. La Cucina does a whole range of cooking classes - all focused around Italian cooking. Classes ranges from around 50£ to 120£. So if you want to learn more about Italian cooking or just have a fun night with friends, you must try out a cooking class at La Cucina Caldesi. And I definitely can say this would be a lovely gift to give someone :)

La Cucina Caldesi
4 Cross Keys Close
London W1U 2DG
Tel: 0207 487 0750/6/8

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Things to do in San Sebastian on a four day trip

San Sebastian is lovely small city on the coast of Northern Spain. It’s part of the Basque country and is also known in Basque as Donostia. It’s a holiday hot spot due to its picturesque beaches and hosts a number of music and film festivals during the summer. We decided to go to San Sebastian during the Bank Holiday weekend (for all you non-Londoners, that’s the last week of August).

San Sebastian has no airport but it’s quite easy to get to from Bilbao. Easy jet has direct flight from London to Bilbao and then there a direct bus right outside the airport that goes straight to San Sebastian and costs about 10 Euros. The bus drops you off in the centre and it’s quite easy to walk to wherever your hotel is. I ended up getting reservations at Hotel Londres which was right next to the beach - quite convenient but not so cheap. In retrospect, given how small and walkable the city is, I would have certainly gone for a cheaper hotel in a less prime location.

San Sebastian is a gem of a place and here are some of the things you must do when visiting.

1) Lie on the beach, any beach - just pick one that suits your fancy. San Sebastian has 3 beautiful beaches all right in the centre of the city:

La Concha - which is the most popular one and gets quite crowded due to its prime location.
Ondaretta - which is less packed and the best for swimming. It lies west of La Concha.
La Zurrioloa - is across the river and is more for surfing.

I had grand plans of visiting all 3 but La Concha was temptingly right outside our hotel and so we never really went too far. We would just plonk ourselves on the beach till the sun went down.

2) Climb to the top of Mount Urgull for panoramic view of the city.

It was quite an easy walk up - takes about 30 - 45 minutes and there quite a few different routes you can take. I'll admit I moaned a fair bit for no good reason, thinking it would be an arduous hike and felt quite silly after reaching the top.

At the top is the Castillo de la Mota (La Mota Castle). You can walk all the way to the top of the fort right up to the foot of the statue of Christ.

3) If you’re in the mood to splurge, dine at a Michelin Star restaurant that showcases the best of Basque Cuisine.

There are number of amazing (expensive!) restaurants in San Sebastian like Arzak. A meal could  come up to more than 150 euros. I changed my mind and decided I couldn't justify splurging that much now but maybe, some day.
So if you're in the same frame of mind, don't despair, there are plenty of other amazing, cheaper options which brings me to my next point.

4) PINTXOS !!!!!    (pronounced pin-chos)

Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas. Small portions of food - brilliant executed to become the perfect mouthful food when you take a bite.  Typically, you go from one pintxo bar to the next, having one or two pintxos at each place. That’s right, you go PINTXOS HOPPING!

And that’s what we did every night - the highlight of my trip. I was practically giddy with excitement the whole time. It’s such an appealing way to explore an entire area trying out the best of what they have to offer.

Parte Viaje (The Old Quarter) is maze full of lanes with any number of bars to visit. I found it’s best to start with those on Calle 31 de Agosto. That’s the street with the highest concentration and in my opinion the best pintxo bars. Some of my favourites were: A Fuego Negro, Bar La Cepa, Bar Ganbara and Bar Zeruko

Also, to save some cash, we used to buy our breakfast from the supermarket. I was quite happy to go to the supermarket, when I the discovered range of amazing quality jamon (Spanish ham) I could buy. You must pick up some jamon from there to bring back with you.

5) Walk along boardwalk on the beach right to the end to see Eduardo Chillida’s famous sculpture The Wind Combs. They are iron sculptures fused onto the rocks facing out into the ocean.

6) Take a boat across to Santa Clara Island. There is a boat every half an hour during the summer to go across to the island in the middle of the bay.

Santa Clara island
7) Go to the top of Mount Igeldo. You can take a train to the top and there is a retro amusement park called Parque de Atracciones. Entry is 2 Euros.

8) Rent a bicycle to explore the city. There are special cycle lanes and docking stations where you can pay to rent a cycle.

9) Visit the Tourist Centre in front of the old Town Hall and see what cultural events are happening all over the city.

Guggenheim Museum

10) Catch a bus to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Museum.

You must see the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. It is just a 1 hour bus ride and can not be missed. So instead of taking the bus directly to the airport, we stopped at the bus terminal in Bilbao, stored our luggage there and then walked to the Guggenheim which was 10 minutes away. Admission to the museum is 11 Euros.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the building is simply a work of art.  Personally I feel the building is far more engaging to see than the displays and collections inside. As piece of architectural art, it doesn’t stand in isolation from its surroundings but its stark contours strangely merge and influence the buildings and structures around it. 

We then walked along the river towards the city centre where I stuffed myself with pintxos and churros before getting the tram to head back to the airport.

There is so much more of Spain that I want to see yet I know that if I had a chance to go back to San Sebastian I would. It was a very special trip for me.