Franceschetta58 – Modena, Italy

Massimo Bottura is a cool man. Of course, coolness is subjective; he’s my idea of cool. Thick rimmed glasses, grey stubble, short curly hair. More importantly, an indefatigable appetite for life, an authentic passion for his trade, and a commitment to improving the lives of those around him make him stand out. 

I first heard of Bottura watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, the peerless documentary series showcasing the lives and foods of the world’s greatest chefs. The first episode told the story of the charismatic Italian, whose attempts at modernising Italian cuisine had initially been met with considerable suspicion by food traditionalists, which in Italy means pretty much everyone.

What impressed me most, however, was not his mouthwatering, creative dishes, more artistic than anything I’d seen before. It was his personality and, more than anything, his dedication to making people happy. The episode’s opening scene showed the devastating earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012, killing 27 and causing untold damage to, among other things, millions of pounds worth of Parmesan cheese. Bottura helped raise awareness and showcased the local, world-famous, cheese in his food, providing the industry with a recovery boost.

Osteria Francescana, the tiny, unpretentious restaurant that in 2016 was named best in the world, is Bottura’s baby. Having worked in New York and Paris, bastions of fine dining, Bottura chose to come home, to Modena, home of Pavarotti and Ferrari, to open his own place. A local museum guide told me how proud she was of Bottura’s decision.

Francescana is set in the heart of Modena, a beautiful town just north of Bologna. While travelling through northern Italy I dreamt of going there. Sadly, unlike Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim in the latest series of Netflix’s Master of None, I couldn’t afford the €220 price for a nine-course tasting menu.

Bottura, however, is dedicated to providing quality food to everyone. In the 2016 Olympics he helped turn food waste into meals for Rio’s homeless, a project repeated this year in London. He also has a far more affordable option, just outside Modena’s historic centre. It’s still pricey, and portions are small, but my god is it good.

DSCN2284

Franceschetta58 offers Michelin-star quality food for a fraction of the price. I opted for the lunch menu, a reasonable €25 for three courses. The restaurant is laid back and casual. Daft Punk lyrics adorn the walls while James Brown and Stevie Wonder provided the soundtrack. Attractive French waitresses glide between tables handing out cutlery in old watering cans. It veers perilously close to faux hipster pretension but nevertheless retains an authentic vibe, probably due to Bottura’s personality, or my idea of it at least.

Picking a highlight from the meal is tough; almost everything I ate was top quality. Is it even okay to choose the bread? Seriously, that focaccia. I tried a lot of focaccia during my 10 days in Italy, it was my go-to snack. This was next level: perfectly spongy texture, just the right amount of oil, salt and air. If this was the only thing I was served I still would’ve given Franceschetta a positive review.

DSCN2280
Emilia burger

For starters I opted for one of Bottura’s famous creations, the Emilia burger, named after the local region, Emilia-Romagna, which produces so much of Italy’s world-famous produce (parmesan, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, bolognese, mortadella, the list goes on). It’s small, and by small I mean small; a slider rather than a burger, a small one at that. The patty is a delightful mixture of pork, beef and parmesan, and the cheese really shines through. It was rare, just how a good burger should be. The salsa verde, mostly parsley, provided a fresh balance to the meat. But the balsamic reduction was slightly overpowering; it was the only (very minor) negative. The burger was still great, and tasted especially good paired with a local red Sangiovese.

Next came the party piece, a perfectly-grilled octopus, each sucker, not an enticing term, housing a pool of olive oil. It was good, but even better when eaten with the fried cauliflower perched alongside it, which tasted almost of crispy seaweed. The accompanying cauliflower and smoked oil mousse was divine.

DSCN2282
Grilled octopus 

I probably wouldn’t have ordered the only dessert on offer, but I’m bloody glad I was cornered into it. It was a sensational coffee and orange cream, with crumbled chocolate biscuits and raspberries. I finished with a coffee and a surprisingly pocket-friendly bill of €35.

Have Italians accepted Bottura’s experimentation with traditional Italian cuisine? It seems so, everyone I spoke to in Modena about him was rightly proud. There were Italians there, but over half the clientele were foreign, mostly French and American. Franceschetta58 is certainly worth a visit. Hell, I basically went to Italy to go there. Of course, we’d all like to be able to visit its big brother, hopefully one day I will. But the more accessible version allows the rest of us to see just why an excitable Italian from Modena has become one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

DSCN2283

Advertisements

Mexico City

The best food near the Angel of Independence, Mexico City

By Ben Preston

The Angel of Independence is the symbol of Mexico City, and the country as a whole. It’s a must visit while traveling in Mexico, and it’s likely you will end up near it, hungry and tired, at some point while traveling here. Luckily, there is some great, authentic Mexican food just a couple of blocks away, if you know where to look.

Tacos El Caminero

Less than a five-minute walk from the Angel lies Tacos El Caminero. This is a classic no frills Taqueria. Don’t expect attentive service, workers who speak English, or a charming ambience. Do expect a simple meal of flavorful, authentic tacos, spicy salsas, and thirst-quenching local cervezas.

El Caminero has a mix and match menu. Fill your taco with choices like chicken, pork and beef and top them with cheese, bacon, onions, or chorizo. My personal favorite here is the Mexico City classic Al Pastor taco with cheese. The Al Pastor meat is local pork spit roasted like shwarma, making it both succulent and crispy. The Taqueria is also known for its Rib Alambre, a fry up of steak, peppers, onions, and cheese which becomes the filling for make-your-own tacos. Alambre, a local specialty, inspired the spread of fajitas in the southwestern United States, and is a must try.

tacos-el-caminero
Tacos El Caminero

 

Salón Ríos

Salón Ríos is hard not to love. Excellent tacos, appetizers, Mexican craft beer, cocktails, attentive service, and a clean, hip atmosphere. Go here if you are looking for a slightly more upscale experience than a typical Taqueria. Start with a classic appetizer of guacamole, which is hand ground with a mortar and pestle and served with crunchy Chicharrón (Mexico’s version of Pork Scratchings) as well as fresh, warm blue corn tortillas. For your entrée, you can’t beat the Fried Fish (Pescado Frito) Taco, which is served on a warm blue corn tortilla with creamy chipotle sauce, guacamole, and crunch cabbage. I’ve heard the desserts are great too, but I’ve never saved enough room to try!

salon-rios
Salon Rios

 

Cafebrería El Péndulo

Cafebrería El Péndulo is a confusing as it is delightful. It’s a restaurant and a bookstore with a bar on the second floor. The clientele is a mix of business people, tourists, and freelancers using the area as a co-working space. Cafebrería El Péndulo has an outside patio perfect for a long, peaceful lunch away from the hustle of Mexico City. The menu is extensive and varies between cultures, but I recommend sticking with the Mexican fare.  It’s comforting, flavorful, and authentic. If you can’t decide what to get, the dish of “Typical Mexican Food” has quesadillas, tlacoyos (oval-shaped fried cakes made of a Mexican corn-meal known as masa), and tostadas (fried corn tortillas topped with meat, sour cream, avocado and cheese). Pair it with a Michelada (local beer with lime juice, and assorted sauces, spices, and peppers) and enjoy a perfect, leisurely afternoon.

cafebreria-el-pendulo
Cafebrería El Péndulo
michelada
Michelada

 

The Perfect Ending

The combination of sightseeing and eating big meals generally makes one pretty tired. Fight those post-meal Z’s with a cup of Mexican coffee and hot chocolate from Tierra & Garat. The combination of the bitterness of the Mexican coffee and the sweetness of the local chocolate will make it your new favorite drink.

Find Ben Preston, of ZenEuroTravel, at:

blog.zeneuro.com

zeneuro.com

Facebook.com/ZenEuroTravel

BenPreston.me

The perfect homemade burger made simple

Over the past few years, the burger has come into its own as the undisputed king of fast food. In a culinary world increasingly obsessed with health, if my Instagram feed is anything to go by, the humble burger has overcome the odds and thrown off the shackles of its inglorious past. No longer associated with unhygienic, environmentally dubious mega-chains, a variety of trendy joints across London have helped to raise its profile.

I must confess to being a bit of a burger fanatic, and, admittedly, a burger snob (I have never had a Big Mac). This explains my recent evolution; most burgers used to be crap. When living in America, a local, independent burger joint called Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill, NC, blew my mind, and transformed my burger views completely. It remains the best I’ve ever had.

Burgers are incredibly simple. Meat, bread, and a couple of fillings is all you need. However, they are so often tasteless, overcooked, or poorly assembled. The ubiquity with which they are served at British barbecues masks the fact that they are usually made all wrong. This is not simply down to culinary naivety. I have seen several celebrity chefs, many of whom I admire, inflict miserable burger recipes on their loyal followers.

I recently attempted my own, conducting a bit of research and guided by my “less is more” mantra, and the results were surprisingly good. What follows is my advice on making the perfect homemade burger. Less is definitely more, keep this motto in mind.

You will need around 75g of minced beef per burger – if you want more, make more; small burgers taste better.

Also required:

A crunchy, green lettuce, either romaine or cos, very thinly shredded.

A large white onion, very thinly sliced.

Brown sugar, muscovado if you have it.

Balsamic vinegar

Worcestershire sauce

Mayonnaise 

Brioche buns (Sainsbury’s do a good one, you can definitely taste the difference!)

Sea salt

English mustard (Coleman’s. Make sure it hasn’t got seeds, no one wants a seedy burger – seedy buns are fine)

Cheese (American or cheddar)

A barbecue, preferably with a lid

A spatula

Some beer

etc.

First of all, get your meat ready. I got 300g of minced beef at my local butcher, enough for four burgers, and it cost under £3! You want the best quality beef you can get, of course, and you want a high fat content, up to 30%. The fat will melt when exposed to the heat, and will drip through the burger onto the coals, creating all sorts of heavenly magic. Chuck steak is the best cut for burgers, but many butchers wont have it in stock; their normal mince will still make a superb burger. I know, because that’s what I used. Put your mince into a bowl and add a splash of water and a thimble of Worcestershire sauce. Mix it together, with your hands, but not too much, you want small gaps inside the patty, which allows the fat to filter though and softens it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with meatloaf. Rest for an hour or so, covered by cling film. That’s all you need for a good patty. I have seen recipes that include eggs, herbs, onion, and, a cardinal sin, breadcrumbs. Steer clear from such blasphemes, they only increase the risk of meatloaf.

DSCN0884
Meat balls, not meatloaf!

While your meat rests, make your caramelised onions. The process is simple, but slightly time-consuming. Pour a little vegetable oil into a pan on a low heat. Add your sliced onions, and stir constantly until completely softened. This can take 20-30 minutes, depending on how much onion you have, but it is necessary to keep stirring otherwise they will brown. If it gets too hot, add a little water to the pan. When they are soft, pour in two tablespoons of balsamic and two teaspoons of sugar. Stir for another five minutes, then leave to cool. Caramelised onions are far superior to fried onions in a burger, the sweet tang perfectly supplementing the salty meat.

Mix two teaspoons of English mustard with a splash of water, which you will use to brush onto your patty as it cooks, which creates a superb mustardy crust.

Get your barbecue going, and get your meat ready. Make four even balls, between golf ball and tennis ball size, and squash. Sprinkle some salt onto each patty, and brush on some of your mustard sauce. Make sure the griddle is oiled and hot before placing the meat over the hottest area. If you have a lid, put it on now, and leave for 3-5 minutes depending on how cooked you like it. If not using a barbecue, use one. If you don’t have one, frying is fine, but barbecued burgers always taste better. Don’t grill it in the oven!

DSCN0895
Get the mustard rub going, a vital step

For medium rare, after three minutes remove the lid and flip over. You’ll now have to sprinkle some more salt over, and brush some more mustard on the other side. Don’t burn yourself! Add the cheese, put your sliced buns onto the grill, and cover again. Another 3 minutes should do it.

DSCN0896
Corn is life

Once the cheese has melted, remove everything from the grill. It’s time to assemble. Spread some mayonnaise on each side of your bun. Place your burger on top, then add your onions and some lettuce. Now eat and enjoy.

Simplicity is definitely key to a good burger. Too many toppings distract from the flavour of the beef; if you have bad-quality meat, then bacon, a strong cheese or avocado, and an overpowering sauce, such as ketchup or burger sauce, make sense. But a top burger should be simple, a perfect blend of juicy meat, a soft bun that soaks up excess juices, tangy onions and crunchy lettuce.

You can also add gherkins. I’ve heard they’re great on burgers, but I hate them. However I wont frown upon a pickle.

You don’t have to head to a hipster joint or food market to have a tasty burger. You can make the real thing at home with minimal fuss.

DSCN0898

 

DSCN0901
Taste is more important than presentation, right?