This week I was whisked away on a culinary escapade to the bel paese of South Italy - via South Kensington. Evoluzione Restaurant at Hotel Xenia is in stage two of its Guest Chef series that takes the diner on an adventure across Italy one region at a time, with a guest chef cooking alongside Michelin Star-awarded resident chef Andrea Angeletti. Having tackled Sicily six weeks ago, this week we found ourselves in the Basilicata region - the area between the 'heel' and the 'toe' of the boot of Italy, also known as Lucania. To an Italophile like myself this is a seriously fascinating concept, seeing as the different Italian regions are so diverse in terms of their food and culture, having relatively recently unified to form the state of Italy in 1861. Even more excitingly, I've never tasted food specifically from Basilicata, so I couldn't wait to see what the region had to offer!
Upon arrival in the Fornasetti-wallpapered Hotel Xenia reception room, we were given a typically warm Italian welcome with an array of delightful canapés pressed into our hands. As a sucker for anything fried, my personal favourite was this newspaper-wrapped fritella.
This little caprese in a shot glass was pretty cute too - though its texture was somewhat reminiscent of pudding, like a mini trifle.
We were hustled to our tables in the restaurant and I scored a place at the bar right in front of the chefs. Such a keen bean! We were introduced to the spirited chef Mario Demuro, the chef currently taking the helm for Evoluzione's stint in Basilicata. Having studied languages for the first half of my undergraduate degree, I was pleased to see that he delivered his introduction - and subsequent commentary throughout the meal - in Italian, with the lovely Giovanna providing a translation. I particularly enjoyed the cultural trivia throughout the meal, such as the fact that Francis Ford's maternal lineage can be traced back to Basilicata. Now you have to read the rest of this post in a Don Corleone voice...Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Munching on the bread beside me, I was particularly impressed by the savoury doughnuts that begged to be dipped in a saucer of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic. As a carbaholic, I'm always seduced by good bread at a restaurant. Though nothing has beaten the bacon brioche rolls at the Ledbury yet...
Our first dish was a deconstructed pasta which transported me to the Ionian coast: delicate pasta shells on a seabed of mussels and bean mousse, swimming underneath a salty foam which conjured up the frothing spray left by the waves when they retreat from the beach. I'm more of a 'read books on the beach and don't go near the water' kinda gal, but I loved the concept - although I initially made the mistake of dipping my spoon into just the foam, which was almost like inhaling a lung of seawater. Let it be said that this was my rookie error and with the rest of the dish, the foam worked well!
As the waiters brought us each course, Chef Mario explained the symbolism and history behind each dish and also showed us how to assemble and plate up.
Next up, the dish I was most looking forward to for the sheer amazingness of its title: The potato lays the egg.
Happily, this dish turned out to be my favourite. In my fertile imagination, this was a potato boat (a boat-ato?) cutting a speedy path across a lake of rosy cauliflower sauce, buoyed on its journey by a salty cheese crisp sail and steered by a basil-leaf rudder. Inside the vessel, precious yet fragile cargo padded with cheesy fondue and crispy potato laces: a hollowed-out porcini that to my delight, when cut open, oozed a perfectly cooked golden yolk. I'm a big fan of cheese so loved the Caciocavallo fondue, named for how its maturation process resembled transportation on horseback (yep) and the cheese sail - luckily my neighbour isn't a cheese fan so I got to eat two!
Next up, a quick pasta-making lesson. These little orecchiette-style cavatellini are made by rolling the pasta dough with one's thumb, a technique that's devilishly tricky to perfect. Believe me, I tried., but mine looked more like misshapen cushions than tiny spiralling ears.
Those little cavatellini ended up in course numero tre: rolled in a chicory pesto with a peppery crumb sprinkled over the top, and resting atop a duvet of broad bean cream. The pasta was pleasingly chewy without being rubbery - I told you I'm a sucker for carbs.
Throughout the meal charming waiters descended upon us with wines to complement each course. Horrendously slow drinker that I am, I eventually ended up with four wine glasses crowding my plate...
Course number four: lamb rolled in pancetta and stuffed with asparagus and carrots, accompanied by a little ratatouille-style selection of diced vegetables, a red wine reduction and a little spinach flan. I'm usually a big fan of lamb but unfortunately felt that its flavour was overpowered somewhat by the pancetta and the very strong wine jelly, while the spinach flan added more to the aesthetics than the overall flavour of the dish. But that's just me being biased as usually I love the flavour of lamb to speak for itself!
And finally, a dessert bridging the gap between bustling, cosmopolitan London and the selvatico mountainous Apennines of Basilicata: made lovingly by the hands of Lucanian chefs, it incorporated two typical British desserts: the humble chocolate brownie, forming a 'soil' common to both geographical areas, punctuated by meringue mushrooms, edible floral elements and a citrusy mousse reminiscent of the classic lemon tart, and crowned by a Candonga strawberry sorbet which I thought conjured up the flavours of our most quintessentially English event, Wimbledon.
Thank you to the jazz pianist for serenading us all the way through a delicious dinner! I wonder how Alex would feel if I suggested buying a transparent grand to spice up our future home...
And finally, grazie mille to all the chefs who put so much hard work and love into our meal! I was wowed by the familiar flavours that transcended humble home cooking, and it was so wonderful to see such abject passion for the food of a specific region. To be honest, there's probably no better place to see that than at an establishment run by Italians?
The next Evoluzione guest chef, Teresa Buongiorno, hails from Puglia and will be cooking up a storm on the 26th May. Tickets are £65 per head including a welcome aperitif; find out more on the Hotel Xenia website. Other regions in the pipeline include Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, the Veneto, Campania and Lombardia - and I'm sure that each chef will weave their own unique story.
Hotel Xenia, Evoluzione and the chef team - vi ringrazio for such an unforgettable evening! I'm more excited than ever for my first visit to southern Italy this summer and now that I've tasted the raw ingredients of the Basilicata region, I very much hope that one day I'll get to visit its mountains and taste caciocavallo in situ!