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Archive for the ‘food, glorious food’ Category

When I hear the words wine country I think of Range Rovers, golden retrievers and turquoise swimming pools surrounded by terra cotta tiles with a view of the vines. This probably stems from spending lazy Sunday afternoons as a child watching the Parent Trap on VHS. The Lindsay Lohan version.

Here in France, in the middle of the Médoc, north of Bordeaux, wine country is a little bit different. Instead of Range Rovers, I have a red Peugot bike which I ride to the vines each morning. There are no lolloping golden retrievers, only roosters which crow at all hours of the day and cats to catch the field mice. And to cool down after tending to the vines we prefer to drink, not swim. A chilled glass of Rosé with a splash of creme de cassis and an ice cube. Organic Rosé made from the grapes that only a few hours ago I had been weeding, by hand.

Is there anything more beautiful than Wine Country?

Last night I brought a little bit of New Zealand to a French vingernon’s kitchen. More than a little bit, three courses. Three courses prepared in what is affectionately, or sometimes hatefully, referred to as une cuisine de camping. This house is a continual work in progress. There are wires hanging from the ceiling and every once in a while, Gerard must stand on a chair and push the insulation back into place with a broom handle. There are dust draps over everything and in the morning, in my east facing bedroom, I can see the sun rays through the gaps in the tiled roof. Thank goodness it is hot. Imagine the kitchen. I’m sure there are student flats with better kitchens. However, I’m sure these flats do not have Le Creuset. The shining orange Le Creuset helped calm my nerves cooking in a crazy French kitchen for Gerard and Ghislaine. One can not go wrong with Le Creuset.

Menu:

entrée: salad of roast kumara, asparagus and green beans with mesclun and a mustard dressing.
main: leg of lamb baked with eggplant and mint.
dessert: pavlova with kiwifruit

When I began the cooking in the afternoon, determined to break the pattern of eating at 9.30-10p.m, the house keeper, Maria, asked me if I was sure I wanted to cook the kumara in the oven. She wondered if maybe I had muddled my french words a bit. Kumara, or patate douce, is somewhat of a novelty in France. Last night was the very first time Gerard, a man of 56, had tasted kumara. He liked it very much. He even had seconds.

The lamb was quite sensational, if I may say so myself. Or, I could just thank the powers of Le Creuset and be far more modest. Thank you Le Creuset. The lamb was tender and flavorsome and the aubergines, lightly spiked with mint, were soft and sweet. I will be making this dish again.

As for the Pavlova, I think the days of future pavlova Queen are a long way off. While pouring, as supposed to delicately placing, the whipped mixture on the baking tray, I prepared myself for another pavlova flop. But, I would never have guessed that a pavlova had the ability, indeed the quality, to be “the little Pavlova that could.” After a long sleep in a cold oven and a generous blanketing of cream, it really wasn’t too bad.

Gerard and Ghislaine were really rather impressed with New Zealand cuisine. As for me, I had survived “la cuisne de camping.”

And I hadn’t even made that many dishes. Did you read that, Mum?

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Two weeks ago I left the beautiful and lively city of Bordeaux for the Landes region in south western France. I was starting the next chapter of aventure française: WWOOFing. Worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a volunteer program, of sorts: for a few weeks you work on an organic farm in exchange for lodging and meals. It is a wonderful opportunity to speak French and discover a new region of France.

I was to be living with Marie Hélène and her partner, Christoph, on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pissos. For two weeks I was very much part of their lives. During the day I would work with Marie Hélène in her organic market garden and at night I would help around the house: feeding the chickens and the pigeons, taking care of the horse and doing the cooking.

I enjoyed working in the garden. There is something very liberating in being able to get absolutely filthy without a care in the world. I would return home each day with dirt under my nails and a mud streaked face from wiping away perspiration. The garden is hard work but the rewards are tangible and, tasty too. Radishes as an apéro with fresh bread, butter and salt; salads for lunch with lettuce picked less than an hour before; new season potatoes sautéed in olive oil and peas eaten straight from the pods. In the coming months Marie Hélène and Christoph will have tomatoes of every variety, courgettes, cucumbers, rhubarb, beetroot, green beans and artichokes.

Like so many of my French experiences, my time with Marie and Christoph will be remembered by the food that we ate. My first night we had spaghetti with beautifully tender and rare entrecôte steak. The next night we sat down late, at 10.30p.m, to a succulent piece of black Gascogne pork that had been roasted in the coals of the original 180 year old fireplace. A friend of Marie and Christoph farm the black pigs, organically, of course.

Every morning for breakfast there was hot coffee, served in cereal bowl sized, hand-made ceramic mugs. Croissants, pain au chocolat or baguette, warmed and slathered with butter and honey. (Honey, from their friend the apiculteur who collects the honey from the beehives in Marie’s garden and, who also happens to be a dab hand at irrigation systems.) For midday apéro hour we ate whole anchovies which had been marinated for a few days in olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic. We pulled the little fish, dripping and glistening, from the bowl with toothpicks and ate them with crusty bread. A friend had kindly given Marie and Christoph a big white bucket of crabs he had caught the day before. In the evening, the crabs still scuttling in their bucket, we made crab soup.

The next day for lunch, despite not arriving back at the house until 1.30, Marie roasted a whole chicken from a friend’s farm. Whole is not an exaggeration: the head, the stomach, the liver, the intestines, even the reproductive organs. We ate the chicken with fries which had been cooked in duck fat. Friday night dinner was take away pizza from the local pizzeria. Pizza with fresh duck liver, magret de canard fumé, mushrooms and foie gras, or, pizza with white asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, Serrano ham and poached egg.

Saturday afternoon, after a very successful morning selling at the market, Marie and I returned home with boxes of fresh meat, fish, cheese, bread and yoghurt. That night for apéro hour we shelled prawns and broad beans.

Sunday in Pissos is a day of rest and cooking. I helped Marie prepare the vegetables: aubergines, tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, onions, fresh garlic and broad beans. They were cooked on the stove top with cumin and chili until wonderfully translucent and caramelised. Christoph prepared the outdoor brick fire place where we roasted a whole fish. We ate at the outdoor table in the shadow of 100 year old plane trees, discussing politics and the “fin d’une era.” It all felt so very French.

Sunday evening a friend of Marie and Christoph was cooking for us. On the menu: rognons d’agneau, lamb testicules. I was nervous about trying this particular cut of meat. The rognons were prepared simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and then grilled in the fireplace. I was given the first taste, and in front of an audience. I didn’t dislike the taste or the texture: slightly creamy like pâté, but I don’t think they will be going on the weekly grocery list.

Monday lunch was another meal of no mean proportions. A friend of Marie and Christoph roasted a salmon fillet and brought it the house in a beautiful green Le Creuset dish. The salmon had been cooked with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and generous quantities of olive oil. We ate it with boiled potatoes, a salad from the garden and an herbed crème fraiche sauce. The crème fraiche, from the milk of Jersey cows, is made by a friend. It is soft, almost whipped and butter mellow yellow. I could have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, that’s exactly what we did.

Lunch the following day we ate a lentil salad with tomatoes, feta, onions and garlic. In the evening, after planting 200 tomato plants, we had fat andouillette sausages with sautéed new potatoes. Our attempt at eating light.

I cooked the next day, a soup or stew, I do not know. Carrots, mushrooms and sausages cooked in a spicy tomato broth. Apple and wild blackberry crumble for dessert. Last minute on Thursday night Marie decided to make a cheese soufflé. She gave me the pot of béchamel sauce to lick, I felt at home. The soufflé was golden topped, puffed and smooth.

Lunch on Friday, after standard apéro hour, we ate grilled pork steaks and fries cooked in duck fat. Saturday lunch was another meal of “firsts” for me. Our friend at the market hadn’t sold all the veal liver he expected, and for fear of wasting it, he generously gave us five or six veal livers. And hearts, and heads, and feet. The head and feet were destined for the dogs, for which I was secretly glad. I think my two week experience of nose to tail eating had already been quite comprehensive. The veal liver, though, was yet another interesting meal. Cooked in the fry pan with only salt and pepper for seasoning and served with a tomato salad and a slice of veal heart, just for good measure. Nose to tail eating, I feel, is an acquired taste.

That evening we went to a friend’s fête. On the lawn in front of a beautiful old stone house with a grape vine arching across the façade, we danced until the wee hours of the morning. We ate barbequed wild boar and Spanish Merguez sausages and warmed our hands over the barrel drum fire.

Sunday was my final day with Marie and Christoph and we enjoyed another wonderful meal. We tasted regional charcuterie: smoked garlic sausage and delicious salted pork wrapped in a pâté. The second course was fried trout and eel which Christoph had caught in the river that runs next to the house. Marie cooked roast pork with carrots, mushrooms and new potatoes. A slice of cheese, apple crumble and coffee to finish.

Oh, and the wine; one or two bottles with nearly every meal. Mojitos in the middle of day, floc de Gascogne and porto blanco. We drank beautiful Bordeaux reds, and always organic. There is less guilt in pouring a second or a third glass. Two weeks of wonderful meals and new delicacies to try.

But, please, feed me fruit and water for the next week.

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This market, along the banks of the River Saône, is the most beautiful market I have ever seen. A quintessentially French Sunday market; the sky a brilliant blue, the red and blue umbrellas of the stalls forming a canopy under the avenue of plane trees.

Elle and I wandered through; I was trying to take it all in. It was crowded, it was noisy. The smell of fresh strawberries, of fresh fish, of coffee, of cheese all blending together. It was wonderful.

The sellers shouting at each other, at us, like at a cattle market, “Mesdames, Messieurs, oranges-kiwis-bananes, venez, venez.” All in one breath and often with thick foreign accents.

I saw artichokes nearly the size of my head and leeks nearly as wide as my arm. The root ends of green and white asparagus were being broken off with a resounding “snap.” Strawberries sat in little wooden wicker tubs, as if you had picked them yourself. All the fruits and vegetables were so delicately arranged in aluminum pans: red, yellow and green peppers, their rounded surfaces almost glinting in the sun; mangoes, cut in half and arching their backs, showing off their hedge-hogged flesh.

We passed by the “resto” part of the market. Families were out for Sunday lunch, their tables weighed down by plates of iced oysters from the fish stall next door and chilled white wine from the wine stall opposite. Apart from large cauldrons of vin chaud at Christmas time, I have never seen wine being sold at a market before. But what a fantastic way to buy it-immediate access to the vineyard, or at the very least, the representative label.

The market was of significant size. The stalls continued along the river: rotisserie chickens, flowers, cheese, bread, condiments, butchers. A beautiful hippie in a long floaty skirt played accordion music.

Markets such as these is what I associate with France. It may be idealistic, I may have my head in the sand, but even after seven months of living in France that association and love of markets remains strong.

After the market, Elle and I wound our way up through a spring green park to the Basilica on top of the hill. The last time I visited the Basilica it was freezing cold and foggy…

Need I say more?

We had been to visit Sophie’s family in Yssingeaux the day before (and to drop off my two suitcases!) and they very kindly gave me three quarters of a brioche praliné. I nibbled on my brioche while I looked over Lyon, enjoying the heat of the sun. I could vaguely make out the path of the incredible market we had just walked.

Days like that make me wonder why would I ever leave?

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I like to think I have become somewhat of a macaron connoisseur during my time in France. I most certainly judge the quality of an establishment based on their macarons. Does the person behind the counter use white cloth gloves or tongs or only their bare hands to serve them? Brown paper bag, cellophane bag with a ribbon or a box? Are they too crunchy, too soft, too much filling or of indistinguishable flavours?

(I work less than 12 hours a week: I have a lot of time on my hands to ponder such matters.)

I like the perfect symmetry of a macaron and the smooth, unblemished surfaces. But mostly, I like feeling like Marie Antoinette.

I also love that macarons hold the same cheering-up qualities as a square of good dark chocolate. I think that’s quite impressive for a biscuit, albeit, a biscuit steeped in history and cultural icons. After I spent €250 on a pair of beautiful Italian leather boots and left the shop in near hyperventilation, the only way to come to terms with my gross over spending was to buy 6 macarons from the nearest patissière and eat them one after the other while I waited for my train, looking like a girl on the verge of a mental break down. I felt much better after that.

I remember the first time I tasted a macaron. I was 17 and on holiday with my family in Paris and blindly unaware of celebrated French institutions like Fauchon, Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. We treated ourselves to a box of Ladurée macarons and ate them walking around Place de la Concorde. I remember the pistachio flavour the most clearly as it was like nothing I had ever tasted before: salty and sweet and the most unusual shade of green.

At about €4 for one macaron (compared with the average .80c elsewhere) I will have to content myself with only taking photos of Ladurée...

Macaron tree anyone?

At Angelina's in Paris

I include the above photos as an apology to the macaron forefathers for the confession I am about to make. Last weekend I bought 6 macarons from a McCafé. And I admit I was pleasantly surprised: clear cut flavours, bright colours and they even came in a box. It is true that the romantic luxury of Marie Antoinette had diminished, but maybe I should stop being such a macaron snob…

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I realised that I have not written about any delightful pastries of late. I conveniently came to this realisation as I walked past the boulangerie… Some super human force sucked me in and, in the name of cultural and gastronomic research, I bought a millefeuille.

Also I have a tingle in my throat, spring daffodils are here, I have 4 weeks left of work, it is pay day next week and a multitude of other excuses, all warranting a millefeuille.

Golden flaky pastry, butter yellow custard, pastry, custard, pastry and sweet swirled icing. A thousand leaves of happiness, of ambrosial delight, of sickly goodness. Is it a bit much?

You have to be prepared when eating a millefeuille. Don’t expect to look dainty and delicate gently nibbling at your pastry. In my books, a millefeuille is not nibbling material, it is messy and you must be prepared to catch globules of custard in your hand and pastry flakes on your chin.

There is a strategy here. You will need a big plate and a sharp knife. Chop the millefeuille in half. This is not so you can save half for later, what kind of wimp are you?

As you lightly bite down on the pastry, the custard will begin to squirt out. At this stage, move quickly to the side and clean up those messy edges. Alternate this action from side to side, trying to take time to chew in between mouthfuls.

Take a short break in between halves, maybe have a sip of water, or wipe the pastry from your front (see big plate above.) Savor the cream and the crunch and the slightly cloying icing with the mellow custard. Now it is time for part two. Devour it wholeheartedly, do not worry, the slightly ill feeling will pass…

I sometimes see sparrow-like women eating these in the salon de thé with a tiny cake fork and I wonder how they do it. Maybe it is genetically encoded and if I lived in France long enough I would develop the same poise and skill. But, I ask myself, are they having as much fun? Are they feeling the rush that all too soon the pastry could end up on the floor?

A millefeuille is probably my favourite item in the patissier’s cabinet, partly for the taste, but mostly for the fun of eating it. For fear of extradition from France, I would never eat a millefeuille in public. Instead, I confess, I have become a closeted millefeuille eater.

I am sure there is a group for that.

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Saturday 26th February 1a.m: Is it time to get up yet..?

2.30a.m: Panic in a foggy half dreaming, half awake state that I had over slept and missed all trains to Lyon.

4.30a.m Pavlova related nightmares from Fridays Pavlova fiasco…

5.50a.m Alarm finally rings. Personal experience has since told me that nothing will get you out of bed faster after a disturbed nights sleep than to see a pair of creepy bug eyes staring at you a mere 20cm from your face…

I arrived in Lyon at 9.30a.m, nerves no more calmer than when I left Bonneville. Under the premise of getting into French mode, I treated myself to a lovely petit déjeuner that was only slightly marred by a beggar child kneeling at my feet playing an accordion.

To celebrate the end of a long 8 week term, I had enrolled myself in a French cooking class at L’Atelier des Chefs. Today was a big day.

I found my way to L’Atelier des Chefs building, by which time my stomach was churning, my palms were sweating and I was muttering to myself “Breathe, breathe…” This may also have been a side effect of the incredibly strong espresso I had just drunk… But as soon as I walked in I felt at ease. I was standing in a kitchen shop: a wonderfully familiar array of silicone baking pans; recipe books; spices in glass jars; serving dishes and utensils; exotic teas; aprons and pepper grinders in front of me. I caught a glimpse of the shining stainless steel kitchen out the back. This is a place I know.

Cuisines the world over: Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian, American, each one is different. They all have different flavours, different techniques and different traditions. Yet, there will always be knives, ovens, oils, passion and ideas. A veritable creative hub where if you mix a bit of this, add a bit of that you can make something extraordinary. This is what I love about a kitchen: it is full of warmth, often a fare amount of tense excitement and a universal understanding of the potential that lies within. So when the Chef handed me a white plastic bag apron and I was guided to my station, I felt kind of at home. Though a cloth apron wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Plat du Jour

Crème de potiron, oeuf poché, châtaignes et chips de jambon.

Dos de cabillaud en croûte de pavot, wok d’endive à l’orange.

Tatin de poire à la cardamome et chantilly de mascarpone au miel.

I could have been on the set of the food network. In an immaculate commercial kitchen, ingredients pre-measured in individual stainless steel bowls, knives of various sizes laid out straight and clean, white chopping boards ready to use. We were shown how to chop the produce in front of us: shallots and onions without tears, pumpkin, endives, pears and oranges. At our station I took on shallot chopping duty, successfully, without tears. It’s all in the knife action…

Handed a giant pair of tweezers, we tried to pull the bones out of our cod fillets without destroying the tender flesh. Next, we moved to the hot part of the kitchen. This was were things started to get serious. I now had to compete with the scraping of pots, the sizzling of oil and the ten whispered french conversations around me to follow the Chef’s instructions. My brow furrowed and my hands clasped tightly in front of me, begging myself to understand.

We filled the kitchen with the wintery fragrance of caramelised pears, lightly spiked with cinnamon and cardamom. Spooned delicately into mini tarte tatin pans and soft, buttery rounds of pâte feuilletée gently pressed on top.

In a searing fry pan, we lightly cooked the cod fillets. De-glazing the pan with soy sauce, incorporating deliciously crusty flakes of fish, adding poppy seeds to make a glossy crust.

For the grand finale we were taught the perfect method for poaching eggs. It was reassuring to see the fear of poaching eggs on everyone’s faces. Before Saturday I had only poached an egg once, in the privacy of my own kitchen, where if it was a total disaster no one need know. (For the record, it wasn’t a disaster but it’s nice to know the security blanket is there nonetheless.) With trepidation we each approached the swirling pan of simmering water and poached an egg. Beginner’s luck or I’m a natural egg poacher, je ne sais pas, but my egg was far from the stringy mess of white that some people made!

I was amazed at the simplicity of every step. As a notoriously messy chef, producing an exotic three course meal in an hour and a half is a feat I could never imagine myself completing. Every stage only used two or three ingredients at a time and none of the techniques were difficult to master (even in french!).

 

Cream of pumpkin, poached egg, chestnut and ham crisps.

 

 

Cod fillet with a poppy seed crust and sauteed endives with orange.

 

 

Pear tatin with cardamon and a mascarpone and honey chantilly cream

We were all given the chance to practice our food presentation skills but somehow the meals which I so beautifully and carefully plated ended up at someone else’s place setting, ruining my chances for lovely photographs. The meal was delicious though, an interesting, yet pleasing combination of flavours. My favourite course was the entrée. Partly due to my egg poaching success, but mainly because of the pure taste of the pumpkin combined with the creamy egg yolk and salty jambon chip. A delicious flavour combination I can’t wait to recreate.

My one criticism of L’Atelier des Chefs experience is their choice of whiteware! I don’t want to eat my meal off china that more closely resembles a bathroom tile or a UFO than a normal plate. What happened to the classic, round, rimmed, white plate? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

I walked out of L’Atelier des Chefs with such a sense of achievement. I had just cooked a french meal, in a french kitchen, in french! Could speaking like a french woman be next? Dressing like a french woman, drinking wine like a french woman, having the waistline of a french woman? I live in hope…

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Confession: I had never made a pavlova until about 3 weeks before I moved to France.

And I call myself a Kiwi!

I am now on a one-woman mission to make the best goddamn pavlova you have ever tasted. Which is why I am sitting on my kitchen floor typing this so I can watch over my cooking pavlova like a new mother. (What I am also seeing is that my house keeping skills leave certain things to be desired; it pays to never look closely at the nooks and crannies around one’s oven…)

I wanted to make a pavlova that would transport me to a golden sand beach framed with Pohutakawa trees somewhere in the Bay of Islands. A pavlova that would re-ignite the infamous debate with our Tasman neighbours. A pavlova that Pavlova Queens from Invercargill to Kaitaia would be proud to claim as their own.

This may not be possible when my mixing bowls are pots are my work space is the top of my washing machine...

The kitchen timer/cellphone just rang; oven switched off. I’d like to say I can relax now but I still have to get this baby to Annemasse in one piece. Wish me luck….

48 hours later

Pavlova made it to Annemasse, just. Pippa, Barbara and I devoured the pavlova for afternoon tea and got the ball rolling for the rest of our heart healthy weekend!

That evening we headed to Geneva for a night in England: Mr. Pickwick Pub! Wales was playing England so Elle and I painted Welsh dragons on our cheeks in red nail varnish!

Our dragons weren’t quite enough for Wales but it was a good night nonetheless-even the freezing walk home across the border!

Saturday afternoon I took the train back to Bonneville to pick up my ski gear. I didn’t want to risk the safety of my pavlova by carrying skis as well. Instead, just risk the safety of my bank balance by taking lots of trains… Elle, Barbara, Pippa and I headed over to St. Julien late Saturday evening ready for a super early start Sunday morning. After spending a fitful night on an air bed where they only thing that fell asleep was my leg, we took the ski bus to La Clusaz. It was a beautiful day for skiing-we even lounged on deck chairs!

notice the amount of green in this photo?!

this sums up quite nicely my life at the moment: chillin' in the Alps!

When I am skiing though, anything is possible! We couldn’t expect the day to slip by without a bump or two along the way. I escaped with only a minor cut to my hand. We were walking (with skis on…) back to the village of La Clusaz and we suddenly hit road. To be honest, labeling the track on the piste map as a green slope is slightly deceiving! When the walkers outnumber the skiers I’m pretty sure that’s a sign the skiers may be in the wrong area… So my skis hit bare road/mud and then so did the rest of me. It looks pretty darn ugly but it’s not too bad now after much care and attention from Elle, the poor woman who were trying to enjoy the sun at their piste-side Chalet and the club chairwoman! I also added several new words to my vocabulary! Everything has a silver lining…

All in all, a great weekend. Though, I think I still have a long way to go before the wives of the Invercargill RSA and the Kaitaia Lawn Balls look fondly upon my pav.

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