Saturday, December 22, 2012

Master Baker: A delicious story for Christmas

To all readers of A la mode frangourou, joyeux Noël and a happy New Year! And hope you enjoy this story of food, friendship, and French villages..

a story by Sophie Masson

In the tiny French village of Lézac, there once lived a baker called Madame Gabrielle. Out of her ovens came tiny tarts as bright as jewels, cream puffs soft as pillows, croissants like golden moons, pastry horns full of cream. Every morning, the street outside her little shop smelt of heaven! And every morning, the bell above her shop door tinkled on the minute, as the whole village of Lézac came to buy her bread and cakes.
First came Monsieur Malou, and his poodle Cachou, with red ribbon tied all round her ears. He always bowed, and smiled, and said weren't the days splendid--and, oh--Madame. . could he have a cream puff? For Cachou, of course, who had such a sweet tooth!
Then came Madame Touffu, who was dressed all in blue, with her broom and her mop and her scarf. "Oh, madame, madame, it's courage I need--for the floors are so hard and so worn! What do you suggest? Will you get me your best?" And Madame knew just what she meant. Into a bag went two large golden horns, filled and filled to the top with sweet cream. . .
Mademoiselle Celie, who taught at the school, came in blushing and smiling with joy. "Oh, Madame Gabrielle! Your shop smells so good! Can I have a croissant and a tart?"
There was Monsieur Mizette, who farmed pigs and geese; and Pere Robert, the priest, who made goat cheese as a hobby; there was Madame Lebrun, who played on the flute, and Monsieur Barru, who played all-day bowls. There were old ones and young ones and sour ones and bold ones. And children! Children! It was more than heaven, for children, that shop!
So Madame Gabrielle was happy as could be, with her cakes, her shop, her customers, and her cat, Titi. Until the day--oh, sad to say! when all her happiness went away.

One day she woke to the song of birds--and the thump of hammers, the whine of saws. And what should she see in the street straight across--but a signmaker, busily working on a new shopfront, at something which read, bold as you please: "Monsieur Henri's. . . Cakes ". That was all he had done, so far, but it was enough for madame Gabrielle. She dressed in haste and went outside all askew. Who was Monsieur Henri? What did he want here? The village could not have two bakers! She came in at the door, and this is what she saw:
A tall brown man in a bright red suit, balancing plates and pots in his hands. Such elegance, such style! He was all long legs and well-polished shoes, his suit was smart, his hair black and bright. Madame Gabrielle looked down for a moment at herself. Her feet, well-planted in heavy black shoes; her floury overall, her short strong legs. She touched her wild curly hair, and her insides all curled. She looked all around her, and she wanted to cry.
"You are madame Gabrielle?" the tall man said. "I am monsieur Henri. I am so pleased to meet you!"
"But not me, but not me!" said madame Gabrielle, and she turned on her heel out the door and went back to her shop.
All that day and that night, she looked in all kinds of books, and cooked and cooked and cooked. "I will not be beaten by a city baker!" she thought. "He will see, he will see, that monsieur wih his city ways!" Her customers said, when they came in the shop, "Have you seen, madame, what is happening, across the road?"
But Madame Gabrielle just pursed her lips and her face was all sour and all sad. She thought of monsieur Henri and his smart suits, and her insides burned. She would not look, she would not smile.

The next day, the people gasped as they came by madame Gabrielle's windows. Such a sight had never been seen before! Tiers of towering cakes, gigantic pies stuffed with plump fruit and marzipan monsters of all kinds of colours. And a huge chocolate cake, with a sugar-spun king in the centre.
The bell rang all day in the shop, but madame Gabrielle kept the door shut. She'd had no time to make tarts and croissants and cream puffs. She'd just made all those gigantic cakes, and she couldn't bring herself to sell them. Tired as she was, she could not help being glad that across the road, the tall brown man stood with his arms crossed, looking and looking. "There, that'll show him!" she thought, and went to bed happy.
The next day, madame Gabrielle could hardly drag herself out of bed, because she'd spent the night cooking still more. She rushed downstairs in her old plaid nightie, and looked across the street. Ah--it was all still shuttered and quiet! But there was a huge sign saying, "Grand Opening Tomorrow! Be There!"
Madame Gabrielle gritted her teeth. She gathered up the things she'd cooked, and put them in her window. Huge lacquered choux, glistening with caramel; eclairs as bright as lightning; and a wonderful piece indeed, a pastry drummer, drumming ceaselessly on a caramel drum. Crowds gathered, people pointed, looked, exclaimed. Not only were there people from the village, but people, too, from the neighbouring town. They milled, and swilled, but madame Gabrielle did not open her door. She stood, resolute, steely-eyed, staring across the street where not a movement was to be seen. Maybe, she thought hopefully, the city baker would realise it was no good, he would never beat her. . But an uneasy feeling crept in her, still--for perhaps he was simply biding his time, waiting, and he would have a fabulous, a wonderful window, and all the people would flock there! She turned and ran back to her kitchen, to think and plot and dream. Tomorrow she'd have a show to outstrip all shows, something so grand no-one would ever think to look in monsieur Henri's windows!
The next morning, there were huge crowds all gathered, and a buzz of talking and laughing. Reporters were there, and photographers with cameras. Both shops were silent and still--but across madame Gabrielle's windows, a great curtain was drawn across. WAIT AND SEE! said a sign on the curtain.
At precisely 9 o'clock, the curtain was drawn--and oh, how the crowd gasped!For there in the window was something so bold, so grand, that all they could do was look and look, their eyes as round as doughnuts. There, fair and square in the centre of the window, stood a fortress of pastry baked hard as brick, with gleaming caramel windows! And from the windows of the fortress peered a hundred soldiers, all sugar, with bows made of caramel and arrows made of ice.
"What a marvellous thing!" said the reporters and the photographers.
"A most stupendous thing!" said the people of the neighbouring town.
"A most exciting thing, " sighed Monsieur Malou, and madame Touffu, and mademoiselle Celie, and all the village, as they watched the baked-hard fortress, and the sickly-sweet soldiers, and their stomachs rumbled as loud as thunder.
Only the children stood and stared, and stared and stood, and finally one of them said, "Yes, it's marvellous, it's stupendous, but can you eat it?"
"Eat it?" said the reporters, the photographers, the townspeople and the villagers.
"Eat it?" said Madame Gabrielle, and on her face a frown grew and grew and grew. "Eat it? Why, child, that's a work of art, that is! Eat it, indeed!"
"But do you have a tart to sell?" said the child. "Oh, madame Gabrielle, one of your tarts!"
"Or a cream puff?" said Monsieur Malou, counting on his fingers. "It makes five days since I have eaten one of your cream puffs--I mean Cachou has not. And it makes her miserable!"
"A croissant, " sighed Mademoiselle Celie.
"A pastry horn, " moaned madame Touffu.
Madame Gabrielle looked at them for a while. "I have no time, " she said coldly. "No time for ordinary things. " She pointed across to monsieur Henri, who had come out from his silent, shuttered shop. "It is his fault, his alone! Why did he have to come here, and spoil everything?"
But Monsieur Henri smiled. His suit was vanilla today, a soft vanilla like icecream. "I, too, have an opening, today, " he said. With a quick, graceful movement, he drew away the curtain from across his shop window.
"Oh, " said the crowd. "Oh, ah, oh, " said the crowd.
Madame Gabrielle's mouth fell open, like a marzipan frog's. She stared at monsieur Henri's shop, at its glass shelves edged with gold, its rows of plates, its pure white curtains--and especially at its sign, written boldly in gold-leaf paint. She blinked.
"I tried to tell you, " said monsieur Henri. "I am not a baker. I do not like baking. I hate baking! I came here to open a teashop, because I had heard of your wonderful baking, and I thought you could make cakes for me. But then you wouldn't talk to me, and I was worried my dream would never happen!"
Madame Gabrielle looked at monsieur Henri. She looked at monsieur Henri's shop, where the new sign now flashed, in all its glory. Then she turned and looked at the fortress of pastry.
Everyone held their breath--the reporters, the photographers, the townspeople, the villagers. And especially the children!
"It is a marvellous thing, " madame Gabrielle said, nodding. "Oh, yes. But. . " and then she paused, and a slow smile came to her face. "But you'd crack your teeth on it!" She spread out her hands. "Well, monsieur Henri, a teashop must have cakes, if a teashop is to have customers! " She wiped her hands on her floury overall. "Cakes and tarts in two hours, everyone! At monsieur Henri's, of course!"
Well, the hubbub there was, the laughter, the shouting! People disgraced themselves, that day, never had Lézac seen the likes of it! And if you had peered through the windows of monsieur Henri's teashop, later that day, you'd have seen such a sight. Such a sight as was to set tongues wagging for a year and a day! Trays of cakes, of tarts, of cream puffs and croissants, rows of people, singing and smiling--and in the middle of it all, singing loudest of all--madame Gabrielle and monsieur Henri!
And if you'd been watching carefully, you'd have seen madame Gabrielle's glance going back time and time again to the sign that trailed its boldness across the front of the teashop:
Monsieur Henri's Teashop: Cakes and Tarts of Style, all made by Madame Gabrielle, Master Baker of Lézac!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guest post: Hazel Edwards on Christmas

Photo of Hazel's grandson Henry, by Mary Broome

Australian author Hazel Edwards ) is best known for her picture book series ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’.‘ Picture book apps Feymouse’ is just released on Itunes. She also co-authored the YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ about transitioning gender with Ryan Kennedy and a documentary is in progress. An Antarctic expeditioner, Hazel has researched in unusual places.‘Writing a Non boring Family History’ and ‘Authorpreneurship’ workshops are linked to her e and print books. E-books are available from her online store.

Today she is kindly contributing this lovely guest post, on the experience, foodie and otherwise, of Christmas in her family. Enjoy!

The Gift of Experiences,

by Hazel Edwards.

My family tends to give experiences or ideas as gifts, even at Christmas. Other times , we draw our own birthday cards and often hand-make presents like chocolates or give books and games.

So we’ve been through the I Owe U massage vouchers when son did the massage course (that was good value). Or the ‘Around Australia’ bus ticket. Mediterranean cooking lessons and beer-tastings. A certain amount of self interest on the part of the giver for the father and son Chinese cooking classes. My husband makes the Christmas pudding and everybody stirs and has a wish.

The shares in a goat for village charity didn’t go down so well with the Under Tens. But then the 10 year old recorded and accompanied his own song ‘Kim’ for his Mum’s birthday. And Christmas Carols in the park opposite , with candles and neighbours ,were fun for all ages. Each Christmas morning my husband plays me ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah ‘because I only like music with 'oomph'.

Stories, words and books have always been a high priority, even those recycled or handmade. As a family we often ‘do the trivial pursuit questions’ after dinner, so the 12 year old made up a quiz for his grandfather’s birthday and we all took part. There was a certain bias towards soccer questions.
A great gift for a whole family to make is the Compliments Jar with a specialized compliment wrapped around each appropriate number of Minties. ‘If you’re feeling down or blue, have a compliment or two.’ Gets harder as people get older, of course. We’ve never done the reverse which is the Insults Jar…but.
Each child’s birthday I write a photographic story. ‘ Henry Garnet the Serial Sock Puller ‘was for his 2nd birthday. The secret to those stories is to write around your existing photos and include every member of the family. And read -share the books as part of the family’s traditions.
Our children used to accompany their Dad to the rehab hospital on his Christmas early morning rounds. The patients liked having little kids give out the cards and small gifts. The only problem was when my husband also played Father Christmas at the Christmas party ,and the children recognized his shoes.

Our Christmas decorations have shrunk across the years as friends turn to e-mail. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, so we always read the Christmas story. I put up a Nativity scene with Baby Cheesel (Jesus) as my children called him. Then my children went to a Jewish school , and their Orthodox friends didn’t ‘do Christmas’, So we have shared the experience of dressing the Christmas tree with Nicky whose Dutch family were Orthodox and they introduced us to Hannukah which goes for six days of gift giving.

For years we had the Stick Christmas tree as my children called it. Formerly a shop window prop, I was fond of that leaf-less tree and we all shared its makeover with Christmas tinsel until last year when we replaced it with a fold out, instant decorated Chinese instruction kit which goes up in 2 minutes.
The youngest child always gives out the Christmas presents from underneath the tree, once we’ve finished lunch.

Our favourite Aunty loved the ‘butter’ sauce on the Christmas pudding. A non-drinker, church organist and a Methodist , even when the brandy ignited on the ‘butter sauce’ and set off the fire alarm, she didn’t realize.

Always diplomatic, she said, ’My eyesight at 88 is not what it used to be. What a lovely family Christmas dinner, especially the butter sauce.’’

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas interview

I was interview recently on Renee Taprell's blog, Books for Little Hands, for a lovely Christmas-themed series of interviews she's doing with authors. And as this interview relates to food in more ways than one, I thought I'd post it here too

Spuds, the overlooked wonder


Tasmanian pink-eyes
Australians often think of potatoes as a dull if trusty vegetable, a filler, a blank, something that gets mashed and boiled and fried but that's mainly there as filler. And many people also don't realise that the humble spud, murphy, call it what you will, comes in more than just the clean and dirty varieties you get in bags in the supermarket, either skins covered in brown dirt or scrubbed clean and white or clean and pink. No, potatoes come with different names, colours, origins, flavours, textures that are all different from each other. And as a vegetable they can be absolutely divine, especially when they're new, and just dug out of the ground, as ours are.
New England, or at least the Guyra district, used to be known for its potatoes, grown in the beautiful basalt soil on top of the range. There are good potatoes in Dorrigo too. But though they are quite nice when they're new, there's not that many varieties grown there. In fact maybe just two or three-- Sebago, Desiree and Pontiac, the trusty standards of the Aussie spud world. Tasmania is where you have to go to find not only a much wider range of potatoes, including ones developed in the island state--like the famous Tasmanian pink-eye potato--but also more respect for them as a culinary delight--I remember with great affection for instance a wonderful plate of roasted pink-eyes with garlic and rosemary and coarse salt that made a perfect meal in themselves.
This year, in the garden, we have quite a range: the lovely pink-eyes, with their characteristic yellow, wavy flesh and pink-dotted knobbly shapes; luscious little Kipflers, or 'mouse potatoes', as they're sometimes called, because of their elongated shape with sometimes a little 'tail' remaining where they were connected to the mother plant; blue-skinned Royal Blues and pink-skinned Desirees; white-skinned Sebagos and Dutch creams. All of these grew from 'seed potato' harvested in the supermarket--ie we keep an eye out on new varieties avbailable there, buy some and keep a few back for planting! And they've all grown really well so we'll probably have potatoes for months and months(they keep very well if they're left in the soil and only taken out when you're about to cook them.)
At the moment, because they've just come on and their flesh is so meltingly luscious, we're tending to eat them very simply 'as is', the skins only rubbed off, not peeled, and the vegetable boiled, and served with garlic, herbs, and butter. But later, we'll be doing a whole lot more with them, enjoying them in all sorts of ways, just as they're meant to be, and each variety with special talents. For instance, pink eyes aren't just great boiled; they also make delicious chips and buttery mash; while Kipflers are almost always best treated simply, eaten hot, as a vegetable, or cold, in salads, and Sebagos are all-rounders, making creamy mash, crisp chips and roasts, as well as being nice boiled(I guess one of the reasons why they're such a hardy standard!)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tis the season for gorgeous garden produce..

All kinds of lovely seasonal things in the garden making a splash on our early summer table: the first raspberries, the last flush of peas (here in a warm salad with rice and thinly-sliced, home-made kangaroo prosciutto), the first delicious new spuds(of which I'll write more later), and beautiful soft Italian lettuce by the bucket-load. Such pretty colours, such luscious tastes!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Food in Melbourne: Eating around the world..

Melinda's Dumplings

Vietnamese dinner

Veal pizzaoila from Papa Gino's

Straits of Malacca 1

Straits of Malacca 2
Wonderful lane ways, individual little shops, street art, and more bars, cafes and restaurants than you could visit in an entire year of going out to breakfast, lunch and dinner every day: that's Melbourne. And such global diversity in food too: not as heavily Asian as Sydney, though the Asian eateries have certainly grown fast there in the last few years, and represent the best value for money just as they do pretty much anywhere in Australia these days. But Melbourne also has perhaps the country's highest concentration of Italian restaurants, especially in Carlton, but also in many other places including the city centre. There's quite a few Greek places too, in the centre and in Richmond and there's Latin American, African, French, and much more scattered around the place. And of course St Kilda has all those wonderful Central European cake shops, which I wrote about in my last post..
Our Melbourne menu included:
*Pork, prawn and leek dumplings in soup for diner in a funny little Chinese eatery called Melinda's Dumplings. Very authentic-feeling place, and the food was surprisingly low-key--the soup(which I suspect you weren't meant to drink)was rather bland, only very lightly flavoured with a little coriander and seaweed(and practically no salt). We had it with a very good blanched fried lettuce in soy sauce--again, a surprising but this time very distinct taste
*Breton savoury crepes for lunch in Roule Galette, a tiny little French eatery tucked away from the corner of Flinders Lane and another lane whose name escapes me--thin, crisp, delicious crepes, filled with cheese, spinach, mushrooms
*Vietnamese broken rice with fried pork ribs in fish sauce and fried fish with a tangy sauce for another dinner in a place called Vietnamese Noodle House in Swanston St, and some very good prawn fresh rice paper rolls--and a lovely papaya smoothie to wash it all down
*Luscious Austrian-style cream cakes and coffee for lunch(!)in Le Bon cake shop in Acland St;
*A Malaysian feast for dinner in Straits of Malacca in the CBD--fried chicken wings to start with, then squid in nyonya sauce and beef satays in peanut sauce for me and tangy lamb cutlets with little spring rolls for David;
*Traditional Italian hearty food for dinner in the classic, very reasonably-priced Lygon Street Carlton eatery, Papa Gino's: we both had old favourites, simple and satisfying--veal pizzaiola(tomato and olive sauce) with vegs; and fettucine puttanesca for David. Totally unpretentious, bursting with taste and just what we needed after a long day pounding the pavements. And all the fun of making up all sorts of Underbelly-flavoured stories about passers-by!

Food in Melbourne: Acland Street cakes

We had a few days in Melbourne last week, always something I look forward to, especially at this time of the year when the city's looking its festive cakes. And something I never miss out on when I'm in Melbourne--and something that never disappoints!--is a visit to those wonderful Central European cake shops in Acland St in St Kilda. It's such a droolworthy little block, with gorgeous cream cakes, pastries, strudels, seed cake and more all trying to catch your eye at once :)
After gazing in at every window, we chose the Le Bon cake shop, because just at that moment we really fancied creamy, nutty cakes, and they had so many to choose from it makes the head spin! Because  much prefer coffee to chocolate when it comes to cream cakes, I had a coffee butter cream cake, decorated with almonds whilst David had a hazelnut and almond layered cake with butter cream icing. They were both divine--super fresh moist crumb, luscious butter cream, crunchy toasted nuts. All washed down with a cup of excellent coffee!
The cream cakes in Le Bon seemed to be a specialty there--but their fruit tarts looked a little wonky--not quite what they should be! Meanwhile the poppy seed cakes and strudel in the Monarch cake shop looked great too--and other shops seemed to have their own specialties as well. But that'll be for another time.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Simple springtime menu for dinner with friends

I love inviting friends for dinner, especially on the weekend when I can have a bit of time away from writing my latest novel. Planning a menu and cooking it is then a pleasure. I want to produce something delicious, good-looking and intriguing. But I do try not to overdo it and make things so complicated I can't also loaf around and read the weekend papers at my leisure!

So here's a dinner I made very recently, which fulfilled all the criteria above.

Entree: spinach and sorrel soup(recipe in previous post)
Main course: Meat: Pork medallions with sauce Robert--which is made by sauteeing some sliced onion in butter, adding a little flour, splash of white wine(though I added vodka, which worked well!), stock, stir well till thick. Add some herbs(I added chopped sage as it was for pork), and then in a bowl stir a tablespoon of white wine or cider vinegar, a spoonful of mustard and one of tomato puree together. Stir this into the hot sauce, and serve over the pan-braised pork.
Vegetables: the first new potatoes out of the garden! And artichoke hearts, also out of the garden, stir-fried with garlic and tomato.
Green salad.
Dessert: Chocolate Pithiviers pie (recipe in earlier post, here:

All of the elements of this menu are easy to make, look great and taste even better. I made the pie and the soup in the morning, so as not to have a mad rush at the end of the day. 

Spinach and sorrel soup

At this time of the year, both spinach and sorrel are flourishing in the garden, and we have them in all sorts of ways: the spinach mostly cooked but occasionally small leaves in salad, the sorrel mostly raw in salads, but occasionally also made into sauce for fish. But last night I combined both in a Russian-style spinach and sorrel soup, light, nutritious and tasty and just right for a late spring dinner entree.
Here's how to make it(makes enough for 4 people). Finely slice a couple of potatoes and half an onion. Saute in some butter, with some crushed garlic. Add the washed spinach and sorrel(much more spinach than sorrel--only a small handful of sorrel will do.) Stir around. Add chopped garlic chives and parsley. Add a splash of white wine, then good stock--chicken or good vegetable stock. Add pepper, salt if needed(check, though, as stock is often salty). Bring to a boil then simmer for about 25 minutes. Take off the heat and either mash the vegetables with a potato masher, as I did, or whizz in a blender. In a bowl, mix one egg yolk and about three tablespoons milk, stir, and then add to the hot soup. Serve with chives or any other herb you want.
Simple and very tasty! I recommend making it a few hours before you eat it as then the flavours have time to develop.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Home-made kangaroo ravioli

We eat kangaroo once a week on average--it's a tasty, lean meat that is extremely versatile(though like venison, whose antipodean equivalent it is) it doesn't take kindly to oven-roasting, unless it's been well-barded with bacon--kind of a pity as then the taste of the bacon interferes with the taste of the kangaroo. We've had it quickly seared like fillet steak, pot-roasted, curried(it makes a wonderful rogan josh), stewed and the other night we had it in David's home-made fresh ravioli.
He minced the meat first with the hand-mincer(only about 100 grams was necessary to fill enough ravioli for two of us), added chopped sage, crushed garlic, very finely chopped onion, salt and pepper. He made the pasta for the ravioli(just flour and egg) and after passing it through the pasta maker to smooth it out, used the ravioli mould to shape the little pockets, filled them with kangaroo mix, closed and crimped then, then hey presto, a few minutes boiling and they were done! With a home-made tomato sauce, it was utterly delicious!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Food in Sydney: the good and the disappointing

I spent last week in Sydney and when I'm there it usually means going out at least a few times to restaurants and other eateries. Just thought I'd put down a few comments about the places I went to, many of which I've been to before but which don't necessarily provide the same experience each time!
First, the good:
No Name, in Stanley St, Darlinghurst: first time at this Italian eatery which we found has a good, very reasonably priced lunch menu($10) of fresh pasta dishes and risotto as well as more expensive mains and a range of entrees. Very good value. We shared an entree of deep-fried pork terrine with remoulade sauce--not as weird as it sounds, because actually inside the deep-fried crumb crust was what I'd say was more like rillettes, or pulled pork, rather than chunky terrine. The remoulade sauce was good too, tangy and very moreish. Excellent value for this entree at only 6 bucks--between 3 people!Then we had various fresh pastas and a risotto--they were all nice, but my ravioli were voted the best.
Menya Noodle Bar, in Chinatown,  was also a firster for me, recommended by my foodie younger son, and it was terrific. Large steaming bowls of wonderful ramen noodle soup with rich stock, and various kinds of other ingredients, mostly pork or chicken, and eggs. Totally delicious and satisfying! And very cheap too.
Maki Maki, Californian roll house on Broadway(between Mountain and Wattle sts) is a place I've come back to several times and never been disappointed. The food is fresh, tasty, served fast and very well-priced. We went there for dinner and ordered combos of different main dishes--featuring salmon, pork, eel or chicken-- with cold or baked sushi-style rolls(such as dragon rolls, tiger rolls, etc)and miso soup, and it was all really nice and came to about $15 a head.
Petaling St, a Malaysian hawker-style restaurant on George St(just up from Hay St)
 is another one I've been to several times and always enjoyed. It has an extensive menu from which we ordered Hainanese chicken rice(which of course I had to order--become quite obsessed by this dish!) wonderful steamed whole fish with Assam sauce, beef rendang and roti to begin with. Very delicious and satisfying.
The big disappointment for me was the Spanish Club(at least its restaurant, Iberico, upstairs in the Club premises on Liverpool St). I've often been here to meet friends and family for lunch as it's very central, has a nice, big quiet space, and has a cheap and cheerful lunch special of $12 for several simple but usually good dishes(plus a longer regular menu of delicious tapas and main dishes). This time I chose a paella Valenciana as this was a new addition to the lunch specials menu(the rest of which I've sampled at different times and found perfectly acceptable, as my Russian friend Sasha would say!)And I've always loved a good paella. But this one wasn't one of those. To be frank, it was awful. The rice was dry--and there was far too much of it--and the other ingredients were utterly paltry--a shrivelled mussel, a prawn that had seen better days, an overcooked clam, and some mingy bits of roast capsicum and a stray pea or two. Pretty much inedible. Now I've heard there are rumours the Spanish Club is to be closed, and sold, and maybe this was the dejection of the place showing in this miserable meal--but it didn't make the feeling of being thoroughly disappointed and unsatisfied any the better. Such a pity, because other times the food has been really nice, fresh and tasty.
Another disappointment, though of a much lesser kind, was the supposed Toulouse sausage sandwich I had at another lunchtime, at the gourmet sausage stand in the Westfield Centrepoint Plaza food court(fifth floor.) It was a nice enough sandwich, with the sausage, mushrooms and 'aioli' mayonnaise in a brioche roll: but it wasn't a Toulouse sausage or anything like one, and the 'aioli' mayonnaise also had only a passing ressemblance to any real aioli mayonnaise(why, why can't they make their own instead of getting that goopy white stuff out of a jar??). Toulouse sausage has become very fashionable in Australia but the only trouble is that butchers here do not know how to make it. The meat and fat are always minced much too fine, there's never enough pepper, and it simply does not have the right consistency or taste. So--though the sausage was definitely better than the thick or thin abominations that are sold as regular sausages in all too many butchers' shops, and though I quite enjoyed it as an upmarket sausage sandwich(with associated expense of course!), it simply didn't fit the description that had me drooling at the menu board. But then that's my fault. I ought to know by now that I'm never going to find a good Toulouse sausage 20,000 kms from Toulouse!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Homecoming meal: a colourful mix of influences

My lovely daughter Pippa was up home for the weekend, not only to see us but in her professional capacity as a literary agent, to give a talk and a workshop for the local writers' centre, and it was the occasion to cook her some special meals. I decided to do something last night that had a mix of a few influences from our trip away, and came up with some adapted, inspired-by dishes that worked really well.
After a simple aperitif of Tokay(probably my favourite fortified wine of all--this one's made in Victoria) and lovely goose rillettes brought back from a really great little shop in Toulouse, which makes them themselves(I bought a tin of course, customs wouldn't exactly let you bring back the fresh variety!), we had an entree inspired by Singaporean influences: a small piece of snapper, steamed in a mix of water, oil, a squeeze of lemon, and mirin seasoning, resting on a bed of spinach quickly cooked in a little wine-flavoured stock and fresh garlic sweated in a dash of olive oil. I then reduced the stock the fish had steamed over till it was a nice thick mini-sauce which went over the snapper, and then some delicious crispy chilli--a jar of which we'd brought back from Singapore, where it's a traditional delicacy--placed on the top of the fish. Looked great and tasted even better! (And spinach and garlic were from garden and had just been brought in to cook minutes before.)
The main course though was inspired by France, and particularly Southern France: lamb cooked in honey, thyme and olive oil, with a medley of roast vegetables--capsicum, tomato, onion--and a roast eggplant(aubergine) puree. I admit, none of those vegs were from our garden but sometimes you have to not be too hard-core about such things!
The lamb was meltingly tender, and the robust taste of the meat went so well with the herby honey sauce! The way to do it is first to cook some chopped onions in olive oil till golden, then add honey(quite a bit of it--I used four tablespoons) in a large pot on the stove, let it blend together for a minute or two, add three sprigs of thyme, then add the lamb and cook it for about fifteen minutes, turning it over from time to time. Then take off stove, add some stock--not too much--and some salt and pepper in the dish and put the entire thing--meat and sauce--in an oven dish with a lid(if you have a dish that can go from stove top to oven, even better). Cook in a moderate (180 degree approx) oven for about one hour and a half to two hours depending on the size of the piece(ours was about 700 grams). You can then make a gravy from the cooking juices and serve the lamb with the half-melted honeyed onions on top of it as well.
To make the roast eggplant puree, you first roast the eggplants--split them in half first and crisscross the flesh with cuts without cutting into the skin. Paint the flesh and skin with oil and on a top shelf in oven while meat is cooking(I roasted the capsicum as well during this time--tomatoes later). When flesh is soft, take the eggplant out, scoop out the flesh and mash with a fork. Cut up the roast skin into very small pieces and mix into the flesh as well. Add salt, pepper, cumin, chopped coriander, a slice of preserved chopped lemon(more if you have more than one eggplant--I only used one in this recipe) plus half a teaspoon olive oil and a teaspoon lemon juice. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve with the meat as a side dish. Goes beautifully!
For dessert, we had the rest of David's home-made brandy snaps which he'd made for the previous evening's dinner, with whipped cream and also some very tipsy prunes-in-Armagnac icecream he'd also made for the previous evening's dessert--luscious, and a real blend of English and French styles!

Back to the homegrown: the green and the orange

We've been back home for a week now and it's pleasing how despite our two-month absence and the fact it didn't rain much at all during that time, the garden's coped remarkably well (not too many horrendous weeds, kind of thanks to not much rain I suppose!) and there are even vegetables for us to pick, as well as peaches and nectarines and other fruit taking shape in the orchard.
On the very first night we were back, we had a lovely tender symphony of green vegetables for our meal along with chicken and rice: an entree of asparagus(the bed had become rather overgrown but there were still a lot of healthy spears there), a side dish of spinach(which has done remarkably well, considering) and an after-main course salad of green and red lettuce(ditto.) There's also a lot of great new fresh garlic, lots of artichokes, carrots and parsnips still going, as well as sorrel, rocket, and lots of different herbs: coriander, dill, thyme, basil, etc.
The third night we were back, I made a lovely fresh carrot, orange and cumin soup slightly adapted from a great recipe in one of the French cooking magazines I brought back, Cuisine Actuelle. It's a very simple and delicious soup, light and fresh, and makes a pretty sight too with its deep orange colour.
Here's how to make it, for two people. Grate three medium-sized or two large carrots, chop some onion and garlic, fry the these in some olive oil till golden then add the grated carrot, the juice of half an orange(keep the other half for later), salt, pepper, and cumin. Add some stock--vegetable or chicken or whatever you like-- to cover well, simmer till everything is tender, add the other half of the orange juice, simmer another couple of minutes, then taste to see seasoning is right, and either serve as is, as I did, or blend up everything to make a smooth velvety soup. Absolutely delicious, and it also tastes great the next day if you make extra! Add some chopped herbs--i used basil--to decorate.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food in the air: then and now

I thought I'd round off the last of my travel food posts with a (longish) one on airline food, especially as in the last couple of months I've taken so many flights--but I won't be restricting it to just this trip, as I want to do a bit of a comparison. Over the years, since I was a baby in fact, I've been on more planes than I can count, in the wake first of my globe-trotting expatriate parents and then in my own restless forays around the world and it's interesting to see how things have changed. Most of what I'm about to say applies to economy class; I have been in business class a couple of blissful times when my brother used to work for one of the Middle Eastern airlines who were very generous with their family travel allowances, allowing siblings as well as parents and children of staff to obtain business class tickets at a tiny fraction of their usual cost, but otherwise have travelled in economy. The food in business class was of course much nicer, fresher, more varied and served in much better surroundings, crockery, etc than in economy, but in a sense, as I'll explain, it was only as good as what used to happen in the past for economy-class passengers, when we travelled as children on companies such as the now-defunct UTA, Union des Transports Aériens, which used to do the long-haul flights from France.
In those days, when it took nearly two days to get from Australia to France, with multiple layovers at various places in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the airlines generally only gave out drinks and light refreshments on board; the main meals were served at the airports, in proper restaurants with proper menus. The company gave you vouchers of a particular value to spend in any restaurant in the airport; and when as in our case the party consisted of several hungry children plus their exhausted parents, it can't have come cheaply! But the result was we ate good food, freshly-cooked and appetising, in relaxed surroundings where you didn't have to make like a robot or a battery cage hen in order to try and manipulate your cutlery without disturbing your all-too-close-next-seat neighbour, just as these days you can be so muchj more comfortable in business class. But of course it all took a good deal of time as well as costing a good deal of money and it was only possible for airlines to do this while not that many people travelled by air. Once many more people took to the skies, and it became imperative to transport as many people as possible in the shortest time possible in as economical a way as possible, then out of the porthole went the multiple layovers(no regrets there, it was tiresome to keep getting on and off!) and so did the gourmet meals in airports(regrets,I've had a few!). For us poor saps in economy class it became a matter of ingesting whatever food it was the airline we were travelling on was proposing, with our only choice being limited to a couple of alternatives which often, surprisingly(not) turned out to taste pretty much like each other.
Now I may have travelled a lot on planes but that doesn't mean I like it. It's a regrettable necessity for us here in Australia if we want to go to any other country at all. But it's not, shall we say, my favourite way to spend an hour or two, still less twenty-two. Despite all the flying, I'm a nervous flyer, though I never used to be as a child, and I can't say that airline food exactly takes my mind off the absurdity of being in an aluminium tube with a whole lot of strangers at high altitude above the earth. But I still do notice it in a desultory kind of way, and what I've mostly noticed over many years of flying is that economy-class food isn't usually actually bad, it's just mediocre. Forgettable. Boring. Unmemorable. Bland. Dull. And every other synonym of that sort you can think of. The meals blend into each other in a beige sort of way, leaving nothing behind but a vague feeling of dissatisfaction but not outright dismay. It doesn't seem to matter what airline it is you're flying on, what the menu promises, or what port you've taken off from, mostly that's the experience of economy-class food.
But there are some meals that do stand out in my memory, one for its true awfulness, and three for their surprising tastiness, and perhaps not surprisingly those are from four recent trips I've taken.
First on the dishonour roll, the one that still stands out for me as the perfect exemplar of sheer unimaginative and tasteless quality was a meal we had on a British Airways plane between Sydney and Singapore in 2010. Offered for supper(as the only major meal on this not insignificantly-long leg)it purported to be a macaroni bake and consisted of dried out pasta with a smidgin of bland sauce. And that was it, apart from a limp salad and a piece of dry cake. Gah! The airline certainly did themselves or the reputation of British food no favours, serving such terrible muck!
And the honour roll? Well, this time, on the Singapore to Sydney leg just a few days ago, Singapore Airlines served up a lovely dinner, with a choice of two excellent main courses--Hainanese chicken and rice--which I took and which tasted just as it should, succulent and tasty; and a tender beef stew with vegetables, which David took and pronounced excellent. The food on Singapore Airlines, which we took for the long-haul flights, hadn't been uniformly good up till then though; it had been ok on the other legs(Sydney-Singapore; Singapore-Moscow; London-Singapore)but not great, just standard mediocre, so I don't know by what stroke of luck we managed to get a great batch the other day. (That does often seem to be the case with airline food--the ones that stand out are truly randomly distributed!) Another excellent stand-out on our trip was amazingly(and contrary to the urban legends)on the Russian airline Aeroflot which we took from Moscow to Warsaw in September this year, where they served a really nice fresh lunch of smoked fish and meat, delicious black bread, and definitely the best cake I've ever eaten on an aeroplane: a beautiful blackcurrant mousse cake with a crumbly base, quite as good as any you'd buy in any excellent Moscow patisserie(which serve lovely cakes.) And the last stand out was on an Air France flight between Singapore and Paris in 2010(the leg straight after that awful BA culinary experience so maybe that's why it stands out). It was a late-night flight and they didn't serve any major meals but in the galley you could go and help yourself to a variety of terrific sandwiches, salads and drinks. I don't usually snack even when I'm wide awake at 1 in the morning; but I made an exception this time and tried out two or three of the sandwiches, which were all delicious. It was great too having the possibility of just choosing what you felt like without buzzing/bugging anyone to bring it to you!
I'd be interested to know what readers' thoughts are on airline food, and what your faves/hates have been on your own long-distance trips, so please feel free to comment--and if you're one of those lucky persons who regularly wings it on business, please don't hesitate to make the rest of us jealous with your accounts of gourmet delights!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Food in Singapore 5: The dreaded durian

There are signs in the MRT(Mass Rapid Transit, as the underground railway is known in Singapore), saying, amongst the various prohibitions against smoking, drinking, eating, etc, that there are to be no durians brought onto the train. No wonder! This stinking fruit would cause a mass panic in a carriage, I reckon, with people desperate to reach the exits--and I have experience to draw on now when it comes to the durian. For being always curious to try things out for myself and somewhat reassured by the many things I'd read which assured me it was delicious, you only had to hold your nose while you ate it, I took the plunge and ordered a durian milk ice in a juice and fruit stall in a hawker centre near our hotel last night--nice dessert, i thought, to round out our meal..
Big mistake! Even in that meek and mild form, the durian really does stink. It stinks unbelievably. It stinks of overflowing drains, backed-up sewers, weeks-old rubbish bins. Pinching our noses in dutiful determination, we nevertheless plunged in, and it was bearable in the first mouthful but disgusting in the second and worse in the third and the texture too was not good, mashed up with a slimy juice, making the gorge rise dangerously! We hastily abandoned it and ordered a plate of cut-up watermelon and pineapple to get rid of the taste but all evening I could not help remembering that horrid whiff. Some culinary experiences really aren't worth persisting with. Never again!

Food in Singapore 4: Hainanese chicken and Indonesian chicken

Hainanese chicken
Ikan penyet

Fried carrot cake
Chicken predominated on my menu yesterday here in Singapore, apart from at breakfast, where a delicious mushroom prata and tall glass of lime juice in the 24-hour Indian stall across the road from the hotel set me up for the day's tramping around the city(David chose a cheese and onion prata.)After walking the length of Orchard Rd and catching a bus to the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, where we had to shelter in a shop near the orchid garden for ages due to a tropical thunderstorm, with very impressive crashing of thunder and livid lightning as well as sheets of rain, we headed back to Orchard Rd and plunged into the cool of Ion Orchard, one of the many malls which line this street. There we found Food Opera, a rather swish version of a hawker centre, and shared a signature Singapore dish--Hainanese chicken rice. It's very simple indeed and very pleasing indeed too! It consists of chicken boiled in a special stock--sometimes chicken and pork, with sometimes just chicken, flvoured with garlic and onion, and the stock is boiled again and again to bring out its full flavour before the whole chicken is cooked in it-- with the accompanying rice also cooked, either in same stock or a separate chicken stock, depending on the cook. Ours came with side dishes of crunchy bean shoots and soup. it was all very satisfying and finely-flavoured and despite the fact we had it in an upmarket place, wasn't expensive at all: 13 Singapore dollars(about $10 Australian).
That evening, at the Lau Pa Sat Festival markets, one of the oldest in the city, in honour of the country of my birth, we chose an Indonesian food stall and I had more chicken--ayam penyet, or 'smashed crispy fried chicken', as it was translated, with accompanying omelette, soup and rice. And of course a hot sambal sauce!  It was tasty enough but a little dry, bearing signs of having been cooked a fair while ago, and I rather wished I'd instead chosen David's dish, ikan penyet, which was fried fish, a flat fish crispily fried and flavoured with soya sauce, absolutely delicious despite its many bones--even the fins were crunchy and tasty.
As well, we had another signature Singaporean dish--fried carrot cake, which rather ironically is neither a cake nor has any carrot near it, but is a kind of crispy omelette stuffed with white radish! It was very nice, piping hot and tasty--bought it at a stall run by some real old timers with brusque manners who looked like they'd been at the market for quite a long time!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Food in Singapore 3: A tale of three meals


Lunch fried kway theo

Citrus chicken with rice

Chicken tikka, sauce, naan bread, spinach and potato
Staying in a hotel means you have to eat three meals out a day and that can be an expensive proposition but in Singapore, with its wonderful array of hawker centres and low-cost restaurants and their cheap and cheerful menus, that problem vanishes. Today, the combined bill for our combined three meals--breakfast, lunch and dinner for two, each including drinks(fresh juices, or tea, coffee)plus two drinks at afternoon tea, reached the unprincely sum of $35 in Singapore dollars, which translates to about $28 Australian! And it was all really good too. Incidentally I love the juices here, especially rediscovering the joys of fresh sugar-cane juice with lemon and ice which is just the best thing ever on a hot muggy Singapore day. And just the thing to counteract the fiery chicken tikka we had tonight!
So, here's the menus:
Breakfast: In the famous Singapore Zam-Zam restaurant, an Indian Muslim eatery which is a century old! Very unpretentious, delicious food, fast service! We had pratas--which in Australia are called rotis, after the Urdu/Hindi word for bread, but here are called pratas, or roti pratas, 'prata' meaning flat, for these of course are the lovely griddle-fried pancake style breads. Two with egg filling, one with egg and onion. Teamed with a sweet black coffee for David, a tall glass of icy lime juice for me. Yum!
Thus fortified we had a long walk around town, to the quays and then to Chinatown where we had lunch in the Smith St Hawker Centre. Great place full of the kinds of food stalls you'd expect in this part of town--mainly Chinese with some Malay/Indonesian, and a sprinkling of Indian--and quite pleasant to sit in as there was a . good breeze from the fans! For a change I had some vegetarian food--a plate of fried kway theo(flat noodles)with bean sprouts and cabbage, all cooked under my very eyes, and for David citrus chicken with rice and soup. The whole washed down with tall glasses of fresh sugarcane juice with lemon. My dish was particularly good and tasty; the citrus chicken was nice enough but a little lacking in distinction.
Afternoon tea consisted of smoky cold Taiwan black tea for David and passionfruit juice with pearl jelly for me. Very refreshing!
Much later, close to 8.30, we had dinner in Little India district, not all that far from where we're staying. We had it in the very hot but cheerful Tekka Centre whose stalls were mainly Indian, including several Muslim ones, and a sprinkling of Chinese and Malay too. We shared plates of chicken tandoori, chicken tikka, spinach and potato, and freshly-made naan bread. It was all delicious though the chicken tikka was a very hot little number! Really nice people at the stall too, chatty and kind. This was all washed down with more sugar cane juice, and ended with two gorgeous burfis, Indian sweets made of sweet  milk,one with pistachios, the other with cardamon. And after that, we waddled on down the road oohing and aahing over  the amazing goldsmiths and sari shops along the road, under the sparkling Deepavali decorations strung along the street.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food in Singapore 2: 'Wet' markets

This is the name given here to fresh food markets, and today, after we had lunch at the Smith St Hawker Centre in Chinatown, about which more anon, we had a poke around the Smith St Wet Market on the bottom floor of the big complex. Fascinating place--including amazing fish and seafood and river-food stalls, some of which which featured live frogs, eels, crabs, fish; lovely fruit and veg stalls, piles of dried and crystallised goodies of all sorts on other stalls, spices and sauces on others, butchers' stalls--everything you need to make all that great stuff they sell in the hawker centre upstairs!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Food in Singapore 1: Simple meal

Singapore has a deserved reputation as a food-lovers' paradise, and this frangourou was quite excited at arriving here this afternoon despite being stunningly jetlagged after a twelve and a half hour sleepless flight from London! Hunger drove us out by six o'clock, we just walked a block or two away from our hotel in Bencoolen St and happened on a mini hawker centre (otherwise known as food courts in Australia and UK)which satisfied our hunger for a tiny $8 per person. This included two courses(two kinds of steamed dumplings, one prawn, one pork-- for starters then a roast duck with rice and glazed pork with noodles and vegetables, with free soup), plus iced tea Singaporean style(ie with condensed milk) plus sliced guava, freshly cut up in front of us. The whole was freshly-cooked and tasty, especially the dumplings which managed to be both light and substantial and for $2.50 for a set of 3 or 4, an absolute steal! Totally simple, nothing in the least bit sophisticated about either food or surroundings, but bursting with flavour. Jetlag disappeared as, replete, we went for a saunter around the bustling streets around about. A nice low-key start to what's going to be a bit of a food expedition all around the city in the next few days!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Food in the UK 7: Traditional pub lunch in England

Today I had the third of my traditional UK pub lunches, this time in England, in a nice old pub called the Talbot in the hamlet of Knightwick on Teme in Worcestershire. I was very keen to eat some game as the game season has started here now, and so had smoked fillets of wood pigeon in a Caesar salad with bacon and steamed potatoes on the side. The pigeon was very nice, thinly sliced and quite rare, rather reminiscent of duck but with a more subtle flavour. But I thought it was rather overwhelmed by the Caesar salad--would have been better with a simpler background salad, perhaps with croutons. David had a perfectly lovely raised pork and game pie--the game in this case being venison--flavoured with juniper, served with quice jelly, salad and home-made chips. I must say I was jealous of his choice, once I'd tasted it! My sister in law Catherine had a nice little red pepper and tomato tart and salad--a bit light on in terms of size but tasting great.
From a very nice traditional local butcher close to the pub, we also bought two brace of partridge(there are two in each brace), shot in the woods nearby and looking perfectly plump and appetising. Planning to cook those tomorrow with chestnuts, red onions, and chestnut mushrooms(a nice brown mushroom.) Can't wait!

Food in the UK 6: Tyrrell's English Crisps

The British are very fond of their potato crisps but there's not only bog-standard big-company crisps around these days. The big Real Food movement and push to local products means you're getting a great deal more variety in all areas of food, and crisps have not been left out! Staying in the West Midlands at the moment, I've been introduced this week to some excellent local crisps, from a company called Tyrrells in Leominster in Herefordshire, the country adjoining this one. (Worcestershire). It's the brainchild of Herefordshire potato farmers looking to add value to their crops--and what value it is! The crisps are truly delicious, made from such local potato varieties as the Lady Rosetta and  the Lady Clare, sliced thinly with the skin still on it (giving a lovely pinkish edge to the crisp)and hand cooked at the premises themselves. There's all kinds of flavours in their 'English crisps' from the simple sea salt to some specific local flavours, Worcestershire sauce and sundried tomato and Ludlow sausage and mustard(Ludlow being in another nearby county, Shropshire). They also make gorgeous vegetable crisps such as beetroot, carrot, and parsnip, flavoured with rosemary and salt, as well as such things as tortillas and popcorn.
The packets are witty, wry and quaint too, with silly, fun photos and captions. A clever idea, and very well executed. Here's the website for Tyrrell's English crisps