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January 4, 2012

Mark Hix

By Spear's

My Belgravia project has been dragging on a bit, but it’s set to open mid-January. Belgravia is new territory for me and, as well as the restaurant and bar in the Thompson Belgraves hotel, we have a smoking garden

MY BELGRAVIA PROJECT has been dragging on a bit, but it’s set to open mid-January. Belgravia is new territory for me and, as well as the restaurant and bar in the Thompson Belgraves hotel, we have a smoking garden. It’s a bonus in the West End and welcome for all cigar smokers. Having an open space in a public building is somewhat of a novelty — but for grown-up cigar smokers it’s an oasis where you can puff away to your heart’s content.

While Belgravia is being finished with usual new-build delays, I’ve been on a few foodie field trips. Lebanon may well not be the obvious choice of wine on a restaurant list, but since I was introduced to Massaya wines last year I’ve become a real fan and visited the winery up in the Bekaa valley an hour’s drive from Beirut. Lebanon has rich wine-growing soil and a perfect climate for just a handful of winemakers in the country.

2011 extended well into the autumn, and the Dartmouth festival in late October had a big foodie draw as usual, with chefs from around the country including Fergus Henderson and Valentine Warner talking and demonstrating. I cooked my annual dinner at Mitch Tonks’s Seahorse restaurant.

The final foodie festival of the year is Rick Stein’s Padstow Christmas festival in early December, where Mitch and I will do a double West Country act demonstrating and chatting about local food and produce and probably about my trip to Piedmont with Mitch, Fergus, Val and Rick. It feels like a touring gang of chefs, but it’s all great fun — and educational of course!

First stop was lunch at La Grotta in Asti. An unassuming restaurant attached to the back of a filling station which you would never guess existed, it’s famous for its bolito misto served from the trolley by a white-jacketed fatherly figure of a waiter rather like the captain of a ship.

Five-litre bottles of La Monella (‘naughty girl’) were being opened on a waiter’s station in the distance, then veal tartare topped with shaved white truffles turned up, followed by little meaty ravioli, more white truffles shaved under our noses and then, just as you’re filling up, the bolito misto trolley arrives laden with cheek, shin, sausage and tongue and accompanied by hot and fiery mustard fruits and a red, slightly piquant sauce. More large bottles showed up, this time with Gaja Barollo 2006 from the winery we were visiting the following day. It was fantastic and a great start to a few days in truffle land.  
, which felt as if it was upon us shortly after our long lunch, was at I Bologna in the tiny town of Rocchetta Tanaro. The food just came again as if we hadn’t been fed for days, and an egg baked with cream with more shavings of truffle arrived followed by a simple vitello tonnato that was perfectly pink with a silky tuna mayonnaise.

Agnolotti filled with veal and rabbit came, then a delicate fettuccine with more truffles, then the main course, which was a delicate and soft braised horse cheek with an apple purée, all washed down with Asso di Fiori Langhe Chardonnay and Clerico Barolo 2000, served in old three-litre bottles.
adore the couple of hours we spent at the Gaja winery the following day. It has a bit of a reputation for being a visitor-free winery, and it was one of the most pristine sites I’ve been to — much like the wine itself, which has a worldwide reputation.

By now you must be getting a picture of our trip — no time for afternoon naps. After lunch at La Ciau del Tornavento and grappa-tasting at Berta, we had a quick shower and went off to dinner at our host Norbert’s in-laws’ winery, where we ate traditional bagna cauda and lots of other regional treats.
I KNOW THAT all sounds really exhausting — and I even forgot our hours foraging for the white truffle — but now I’m home and looking forward to a relaxing couple of days salmon fishing in Dumfriesshire on the Nith with Ben Weatherall. Phew.
Mark Hix is a celebrated chef, food writer and one of London’s most eminent restaurateurs.

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