Saturday, 28 May 2011

A culinary pilgrimage to Soho

More culinary exploration and adventures beckoned on Friday, with another day to myself on the cards.

It was all a question of whether to head to Borough Market – or to try something completely new and make my way to Soho for a foodie outing.

After much musing on the subject – lasting until I actually had to decide which bus stop to go to – Soho came out as the winner.

This was a chance to descend a little deeper into Italian food. First, there was time to have a coffee at Bar Italia on Frith Street. An expensive coffee, to be sure, at £3, but it was the best latte I've tasted by a country mile.

Having been past the legendary cafe many times, but never having been in, the time was right to break that duck.

It really is like stepping into a different world. A long, narrow room, football news on two television screens, mirrors, a wonderful jumble of decorations and bar stools at the narrow table around two walls. And then the counter, with chilled cabinets crammed full of cakes and paninis, and a vast coffee maker on top.

It was more than just liquid refreshment; it was an experience.

And then on down Old Compton Street to Brewer Street.

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing a new book about Tuscany – recipes combined with writing about the area's produce – when I came across an article about a regional delicacy, Lardo di Colonnata. It's fat from the back of a pig, cured in salt and herbs in baths made of the Carrara marble that is mined nearby – the marble that sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore have chiseled away at.

Have you ever heard of lard being quite so classy?

But in 1996, lardo was nearly sunk, when EU inspectors took one look at the way it was made, threw up their collective hands in horror, proclaimed it unsafe for human consumption and impounded tons of it. To think of all the people it must have killed down the centuries: it's a wonder nobody had noticed ...

Fortunately, the Italian slow food movement stepped in to fight this stupidity, and thus we still have lardo today, made in the traditional – the proper – way.

Days after first reading about lardo, I came across more in Jennifer McLagan's Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, and it made me determined to try to find some.

You can cook with it, but it's mostly eaten thinly sliced on warm bread or toast, which melts it.

An online search soon gave me the name of several Italian delis in central London, but one stood out: Lina Stores. And so that was where I headed.

It's a step back into the past: a delightful shop with a soft green livery (which looked almost impossibly retro when the bag was seen later against a red and white gingham tablecloth). Inside isn't exactly big, but it's a floor-to-ceiling heaven for foodies.

I dipped to smell the dried porcini in a whicker basket and found a heady aroma, which prompted me to pile some gently into a bag.

And then there was the deli counter itself, with it's tantalising selection of cooked meats and cheeses. And there, right at the front, was a piece of Lardo di Colonnata. On hearing that I'd never had it but come in search of exactly that, one of the staff offered me a piece to taste.

Wafer thin, creamily white and wrapping itself around a finger, I tasted. Utter bliss. Fabulously sensual and satisfying.

I left the shop with a piece, together with some pancetta, some pork sausages, a chunk of Pecorino and a jar of bottarga – grated sun-dried roe of the red mullet, which can be used as a garnish on pasta, and something else that I'd be hankering to try.

A little of the precious lardo was used to cook the sausages in the evening, serving them with cannellini beans that I'd cooked together with a small tin of plum tomatoes, and some gnocchi from a packet that had been in the cupboard for some time, waiting to be tried.

Not a difficult meal by any stretch of the imagination, but a tasty one. The sausages were excellent and the vegetables and gnocchi worked well too.

But it's going to be a long time before I forget that amazing first taste of Lardo di Colonnata.

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