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Roman supper at La Fontaine

“CELEBRITY chef” is a term widely used and often abused across the globe, but on Tuesday I once again had lunch cooked by a seriously potential local celebrity chef, the very amiable multi-skilled Ambassador of Italy to Zimbabwe, Enrico De Agostini.

Eating Out with Dusty Miller

We ate at a chefs’ table for local foodie journalists in the pristine kitchens of La Fontaine Grill Room at Meikles Hotel as the envoy from Rome put Meikles’ staff through their paces in a full dress rehearsal for a Rome-themed Italian night, open to the public, to be held at the five-star hotel’s flag ship grill room on Thursday July 24.

The theme was Winter and the food served was the solid, robust, rib-sticking graze of the Italian capital.

In May we had an Autumn event featuring the lighter cuisine of Venice; there will be a Spring dinner, probably in September starring the local dishes of Genoa and Sicilian fare will be served at a Summer function.

The public will have exactly the same menu we enjoyed on Tuesday: suppli di riso al telefono is a starter snack comprising balls of risotto rice soaked in egg and stuffed with Parma ham, peas, herbs and other good things, but heavy on mozzarella buffalo cheese, coated in bread crumbs and deep- fried.

His Excellency bollocked me gently for cutting the item open with a knife. You must break it with the fingers, then the gooey mozzarella runs out forming strings which resemble the cord connecting a telephone handset to the hook; hence the name. It was perfectly lovely!

Next we had an item not on the printed menu: pasta e cici.

Essentially al dente macaroni and chick peas cooked in lots of olive oil and a rich vegetable stock it was a soupy vegetarian masterpiece, although I agreed with the envoy it needed more liquid.

He’d spent the morning cooking with Meikles development chef, Rory Lumsden and the La Fontaine team.

The Ambassador wore a venerable chef’s tunic decorated with classic green globe artichokes which had definitely seen better days!

The career diplomat (he’s previously been based in RSA, Mozambique and Germany among other postings) talked us through each course and the next one was fusilli alla Coda vaccinara.

In Rome this can be a full-on rich oxtail stew but our chef had turned the dish into a beefy sauce to be absorbed in and smother the splendid fusilli pasta (corkscrew shaped and again al dente.)

It would have been interesting to have dined with this celebrity chef pre-US dollarisation, when our supermarket shelves were filled with nothing but empty space. Because even in these days of comparative plenty (if you have the loot!) he frequently bemoaned the unavailability in Zimbabwe of the sort of fresh globe artichokes which adorned his smock and the total absence of veal, for the main course.

Veal is rather scarce world-wide because the thought of it upsets many folk (calves are removed from their mothers often at just a few days old and slaughtered for their delicious pink-white meat).

So a Vienna schnitzel, which should star veal, is usually made with bashed-until-its-super-tender beef or chicken breasts and saltimbocca alla Romana, on Tuesday was Roman-style beef escallops and prosciutto ham (more usually served uncooked) and sage cooked in the Italian olive oil the Ambassador raves about.

(He imports 100 litres at a time for personal consumption!) It was served on a bed of beautifully cooked very dark green spinach. (On June 24 I can imagine many Zimbos demanding: Where are the chips?) I have to admit to a brief flash of schadenfreude when an unusually gloomy Ambassador admitted that his baking on Tuesday (like mine sometimes…I blame it on the altitude!) wasn’t totally up to the mark and his ciambelle al vino biscuits for dessert were, in his opinion, too hard and not quite crunchy enough. By gum, they were hard, too; but dipped in a glass of South African Dutoitskloof Noble Late Harvest 2007 (in the absence of the sweet Italian liqueurs Passito or Morrelino) for a wee while they became more-ishly consumable and rather pleasant with a nice liquorish flavour of fennel seeds predominating.

Ending with coffee or tea this one-off Italian supper at La Fontaine on July 24 will cost US$40 a head without wine. Reservations Meikles Hotel 707721. — dustym@zimind.co.zw

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