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.