Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fruit of the gods

I love figs, especially fresh ones. And this year, like most of our orchard, our fig tree is very happily producing large quantities of the 'fruit of the gods', which appears in all kinds of mythological and religious texts, from Greek myth to the Garden of Eden, Koranic oaths 'by the fig and the olive' to the story of the Buddha sitting under the fig tree(there is also evidence from Neolithic times to suggest the fig may have been amongst the first plants to be cultivated).

And figs taste especially good straight off the true; being fruit that don't like travelling very much, they get bruised easily and they go very quickly from nearly ripe to fermentedly over-ripe, so buying them in the shops is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. But handily, unlike most fruit, figs don't ripen all at once on the tree--you get successive waves of them over weeks, so you can keep picking them without getting completely overwhelmed by a massive glut.

Figs are as I said especially delicious fresh and on their own--I love the way in which you bite through the brown-robed green-tinged skin to hit the melting stranded crimson sweetness inside, like a kind of natural mousse. But the fresh fruit is also wonderful in lots of different recipes, both sweet and savoury. And of course the dried variety is nice too. It's easy by the way to dry figs--you just set them whole on a rack in the sun(protected from insects etc, say in a sunroom or in a glassed-in box of some sort) and just let them dry till they are shrivelled, brown and concentrated sweetness. And fig jam, with its luscious sticky sweetness, is well worth making too.

Here's a few ideas for delicious, easy ways to use fresh figs(you can substitute dried for some of the baked dishes, when figs aren't in season--the dried figs just take a bit longer to bake):

For entrees: wrap a slice prosciutto or similar air-dried ham around half a fresh fig; prepare a plate of pate, saucisson(salami)olives, and figs, split in half; figs and cheese are also wonderful.

For main course: figs and lamb chops: bake some fresh figs, split in half, in a little butter, white wine and a touch honey, for about 20 mins, meanwhile grill or fry some chops, then serve with figs. Roast duck is also delicious with a similar fig and honey sauce, and grilled pork belly, Puy lentils and grilled figs are also fantastic together. Indeed figs go well with meat generally, including game.

For dessert: fig fool: Beat a couple of egg whites till stiff, add sugar, beat till glossy. Beat some cream, fold in cream into the egg white mix, add drop vanilla essence. Cut some figs in half or quarters, arrange in layers in a bowl or dish with the fool. You can also bake figs and serve with icecream, creme fraiche or mascarpone-type cheese. You can also make lots of cakes using figs, very often with the addition of nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts which from time immemorial have often partnered figs. The Ancient Romans for instance were mad about a rich walnut, fig and honey cake that featured proudly at great banquets.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The best French-style cheese outside of France

A couple of years ago, we went for a holiday in Tasmania, which I had never visited before, though David had. I loved it--for its amazing beauty, its fascinating and troubled history, its friendliness and quaint architectural charm, and for the compactness which gives the island state that European feel of quickly-changing regional landscapes(I don't think it really looks like Europe at all apart from certain very small areas of hop yard country, but that aspect of rapidly changing landscapes certainly reminds you of it.)

But what was also an unexpected revelation was the discovery of just how much good food there was in Tasmania, and how they've already developed a real regional sense of produce, much more than anywhere else in Australia. Tasmanians are actually developing that real understanding of 'terroir' which to my mind is what so characterises French food and makes it so exciting and distinctive and authentic. Even though it is something that is slowly growing in the rest of Australia, I think Tasmanians are way ahead when it comes to that, perhaps because of the very compatcness of the state, they are much better able to co-ordinate efforts, so that from well set up farmgate sales to markets to specialist shops, you can try all kinds of regional specialities, from excellent charcuterie to gorgeous seafood, home-smoked fish and farm-fresh oysters to organic ciders and the best cheese outside of France.

And for my money the best French-style cheese outside of France is made on Bruny Island. We had the most glorious picnic lunch on Bruny Island( which is not all that far from Hobart)with a dozen Bruny Island oysters, fresh bread we'd bought in a Hobart bakery, cider, and a selection of sumptuous, tasty Bruny Island cheeses such as the Saint(a Camembert-style cheese, meltingly delicious), and Tom, a 'Tomme-style' hard cheese bursting with flavour. I could not believe the taste and texture--they beat into a cocked hat any other French-style cheese I'd ever tasted in Australia, by a long shot. Cheesemaker Nick Haddow sells a range of absolutely wondrous products and I was dead keen to keep buying it.

So how disappointing to be told that back on the mainland it would be difficult to get the cheese--they only sell to one or two outlets, and even then only in the capital cities of course. It's understandable, for this isn't a factory operation but truly 'artisanal' as you'd say in French, and all the better for it. The only way for us to get the cheese once we'd left Tassie, we learned, was to join the Bruny Island Cheese club, and put in orders for the special packages of cheeses 'in season', as it were, that they put together.

We've been thinking about it for ages--it's not a cheap order--but finally we cracked and joined. We got our first parcel the other week, and though due to the fact we live in a regional area, the parcel was late arriving on our doorstep(not the company's fault but slow old Australia Post which never told us it had arrived till days after!), the cheeses were still excellent, though for me, if not for my hardy husband, the Saint had almost passed the pungent point of no return. But the pear-washed rind soft cheese and the raw milk hard cheese and the ODO(one day old cheese, marinated in oil and herbs) were extraordinary, a rich and flavourful sensation.

The Bruny Island Cheese website is at

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Enter, stage left

Our six-month Paris sojourn last year changed one thing in our eating habits--we now always have an entree with our evening meal, regardless of whether we're on our own or with guests, regardless on what day of the week it is. There's something intensely pleasurable and civilised in the ritual, and we don't at all begrudge the few minutes of extra time it takes to prepare an entree, setting the scene for the 'plat de resistance' or main course as it does. And what's more I think having a light and attractive entree cuts down on the temptation to overeat in the main part of the meal.

Most of the time, we make something pretty simple. A 'salade composee' or salad with extras is the most common entree to appear on our dinner table, usually served on a big plate: sometimes the salad is very simple and cheap indeed, with salad greens, herbs, and tomatoes out of the garden, with the addition of olives and a sprinkling of finely-cut fetta. Other times it's more complex, with salad greens--different types lettuce, rocket, sorrel, very young spinach, etc-- and tomatoes surrounding a centrepiece of, say half a boiled egg sprinkled with herbs and a dab of home-made mayonnaise, smoked fish with a dab of ditto, or marinated anchovies and capers, or good cooked ham, arranged attractively, with a dab of mustard and a sprinkling of herbs, or an Italian-style preserved artichoke opened up like a flower and stuffed with finely-chopped tomatoes and herbs(as in the photo)or chopped smoked ocean trout and finely chopped Spanish onion, or whatever takes your fancy, really! There's no limit to the tasty and pretty salades composees you can, well, compose! And it's light and healthy and nutritious as well, so all good!

Incidentally, I always sprinkle a vinaigrette on the salad greens--a very simple one made of olive oil, white balsamic vinegar or red wine or cider vinegar(if the latter two use less of it than the first, as they are much more acidic) and Dijon mustard, the whole thing shaken up in a jar and then sprinkled on. No need even to add salt and pepper to this dressing, it's seasoned enough with the mustard.

Other ideas for excellent, quick entrees(these mostly served on small plates):

*Fresh seasonal vegetables like snow peas or asparagus, very quickly and briefly stir-fried in olive oil(for less than a minute) and served by themselves on a small plate with a sprinkling of herbs--this is best of all when it's the very first that have appeared in the garden, the taste is sensational and to have them in their own limelight without any supporting cast as it were is a real pleasure.

*Thinly-sliced chips of pumpkin, grilled and sprinkled with a little grated cheese, olive oil and chopped fresh herbs

*Fresh grated beetroot served as a salad entree, with a dressing of a little sour cream or yoghurt, chopped tarragon, mustard, a little oil, and finely-chopped red onion

*Fresh grated carrot with a normal salad vinaigrette(this is one of the most classic and simplest French entrees)

*Fresh grated celeriac, served as a salad with very good mayonnaise and a little vinegar(again a very simple French classic)

*Half a fresh fig wrapped in a thin slice of prosciutto, served surrounded by sliced tomatoes sprinkled with basil and a little balsamic vinegar.

*Thin sticks of haloumi cheese, sprinkled with olive oil and grilled, surrounded by slices of grilled or roast aubergines(eggplants), capsicums(bellpeppers)and tomatoes, and sprinkled with fresh herbs.

*Stuffed eggs--one egg per person, boiled and cut in half, then the yolks scooped out, crushed and mixed with chopped herbs, salt, pepper, a little sour cream or mayonnaise, and some finely-chopped olives or anchovy if wanted. The filling for stuffed eggs can be anything you like, really. they look lovely on a small plate surrounded by chopped rocket or tomatoes.

*Slices of smoked fish served on a bed of finely-chopped young sorrel leaves, with a dressing of a little sour cream or yogurt, a little oil, mustard and dill mixed together

*Pickled rollmop herrings cut fine and tossed in a similar dressing to above, served with small gherkins

*Fresh mussels, simply cooked in a little olive oil and white wine, served with crusty bread

*Simple soup--chicken stock with some chopped rocket added at the end, tomato soup made with fresh tomato and carrot, onion soup, sorrel soup, whatever! Best not to make a big heavy or meaty soup as an entree--that is much better as a hearty lunch, or a dinner main course, even. Light fish soup is fine though, though bouillabaisse or gumbo should be more of a 'plat de resistance'

Any of these can be varied, and we're always trying to think up more. And always open to more suggestions!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If you're wondering, those are respectively the French and English baby names for that universal food, the egg, whose versatile splendours can encompass the simplest dish for the youngest child to the most elaborate confection for a wedding feast, and which is loved from one end of the earth to the other.

I certainly love eggs in all their multifarious manifestations: as themselves, simply boiled, the yolk still a little runny, the white silky-perfect; scrambled in butter, on their own or with smoked salmon or cheese and herbs; poached in eggs Benedict or on top of grilled fish, or with noodles; coddled and baked; fried with bacon, and conjured into omelettes and piperades and frittatas. I love the magical transformation of egg white into divine meringues; of the yolks into satiny mayonnaise or tangy hollandaise or peppy bearnaise. I love how whole eggs combine with sugar and milk and cream to make custards or deliciously simple icecream; with butter and sugar and flour to make a dizzying panoply of cakes. I love how eggs bind a stuffing and add interest to a simple sauce; how made into puffy omelettes, cut into little pieces and mixed with herbs and spices into leftover rice that's been fried, they instantly make a ho-hum Sunday night make-do into something a good deal more exciting than mere thrifty recycling!

And I love the fact that our eggs are proudly authored by the four brown hens(see above) who bustle and cluck importantly about just outside the kitchen window, turning the grain and grass and seeds and worms and insects they eat into little brown and white powerhouses of deliciousness!

Here's a couple of completely contrasting recipes I've devised, which departing from two eggs, create two very different results! These are tangy bearnaise sauce and simple homemade icecream. Both are easy to make, economical, and require no special gadgets at all:

First, separate the whites and yolks and put into two separate bowls.

For the icecream:

Beat the egg whites till stiff, add sugar(about 100 grams) and beat again till glossy as meringue. In another bowl, whip about 200ml cream till stiff, add about 50 grams sugar. Mix the meringue mix and cream mix till well-folded in. Add drop vanilla essence, melted chocolate, strawberry jam, or whatever other flavour you like, and mix in well. Do not use anything that has water in it--eg no fruit juice--as otherwise it will form crystals in the icecream. Put in a freezer container (I just use an old icecream container) and freeze, overnight if possible. This icecream always works, does not need extra churning or beating, and has a beautifully creamy texture with no ice crystals at all.

For the bearnaise:

Meanwhile, chop half an onion into very small pieces. Put the onion in a small pan with some vinegar--cider or wine vinegar is best. The vinegar should cover the onion but no more. Simmer gently until the onion has almost completely absorbed the vinegar. Put a bigger saucepan of boiling water on the stove, and place the smaller pan with the vinegared onions in it. Add a dropof water, and then the egg yolks, alternating with some butter(you'll need about 50-60 grams butter in all--but just taste to see, it needs to taste tangy, not too eggy, not too buttery, but be smooth and well mixed.) Take off stove, season to taste with salt, pepper and a little chopped fresh herbs(I like fresh thyme particularly, but tarragon and sage are also good with it.) Serve with steak or fish.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quail a la Keesing

Last year we spent six fantastic months in the Keesing Studio in the Cite Internationale des Arts, in Paris, courtesy of a writer's residency from the Literature Board. It was amazing being right at the epicentre of the world's greatest food city(amongst other things of course!) and we lost no time indulging in our favourites and discovering lots of new things. But though we went to a few restaurants occasionally, most of the time we ate at home, cooking up all kinds of delicious things from the extraordinary and exciting raw materials to be found in the local markets, butchers, bakers, cheesemakers and grocers.
It was fun too to overcome the difficulties inherent in a tiny kitchen with not many facilities, when we're used to lots of space and everything you need at hand. The Keesing studio kitchen does not have an oven or a grill, so home-cooked roasts and grills were out(not to worry, we bought those ready cooked from amazing market stalls that sold succulent roast chicken and the best grilled pork ribs I've ever eaten in my life!) In fact, to cook on we only had a two-burner hotplate that you plugged into the wall--if you wanted to boil the kettle you had to disconnect the hotplate! And practically no space to chop or prepare anything. But we made do and not only that--the challenge was a lot of fun, making us not only masters at juggling saucepans and cooking times, but also pushing us to invent--or reinvent!-- all kinds of delicious dishes which had a lot of success not only with their creators but with guests!
Here's a recipe for one of our top favourites, which I've dubbed Quail a la Keesing in honour not only of the studio, but also in memory of the late Nancy Keesing, thewonderfully generous writer whose extraordinary bequest made the Paris residencies possible for Australian writers.
By the way you can see an actual picture of Quail a la Keesing in the photo at the top of this blog, which commemorates one of our meals in the Keesing!
Quail is very often oven-roasted but our necessity made us discover that pot-roasting it gives a better flavour and stops it drying out. Also, recipes often indicate you need 2 quail per person, because of their small size--but because the quail is stuffed with forcemeat, you only need one quail per person (note: in Paris we bought the forcemeat or 'farce' directly from our fantastic local butcher, but here we've made our own.)As quail often come in packs of four, this makes the recipe much more economical! It is also very simple to prepare, and is really delicious, mouthwateringly succulent, and with a gorgeous rich sauce that is most distinctive.
Ingredients(for four people--simply add or subtract as necessary)
4 quail(1 for each person)
about 350 g minced meat for stuffing--pork is great, or if you don't eat pork, veal or chicken is also good(for American readers: 350 g is about 12 and a half ounces)
2 egg yolks
2 onions
Herbs--pinch thyme or tarragon or parsley(you can also have a mixture--either thyme and parsley or tarragon and parsley is best)
Salt, pepper.
Olive oil to brown the birds--you can also use a mixture of a little oil and a little melted butter
Splash white wine
1 glass creme de cassis(blackcurrant liqueur): If you can't get this, you can replace it with a glass of white wine to which you've added blackcurrant juice or syrup, similar to say Ribena.
white wine.
Chicken stock to add as needed.
Method: first make the stuffing: chop one of the onions finely and mix it with the chopped herbs, salt pepper and egg yolks, into the minced meat. Divide the mince into 4 equal portions and stuff the cavity of each bird with it. Heat some oil in a casserole dish or cocotte, added the other onion, more coarsely chopped, and cook for a couple of minutes. Now put in the stuffed birds, brown gently, then add the splash of white wine, and three-quarters of the glass of blackcurrant mixture. Let cook for about 10 minutes, adding stock if the mixture looks like it's going to reduce away. Then add rest of stock so the liquid comes to about a quarter of the way up the birds. Simmer gently on top of stove for about 45 mins to an hour--about 15 mins before end of cooking time, add rest of blackcurrant mixture. (If you feel it needs added richness, you can add a little more blackcurrant mixture--but take care not to add too much or it will be too sweet) You should end up with perfectly-cooked birds, and a deep dark thick sauce that can be spooned over the birds when you serve them, or served separately so each person can help themselves(which I prefer). Sprinkle the birds with chopped herbs, and serve with steamed or boiled small potatoes, salads and/or greens of your choice. Goes well with white or rose or a light red wine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Literary lunches(and dinners, and breakfasts)

No I don't mean the expensive sort you go to where you have to be careful not to rattle the cutlery in case you miss a pearl of wisdom falling from a (usually) best-selling author's lips. I mean those literary lunches--and every other kind of meal--that you find for free within the pages of a good novel: meals that are lovingly or even glancingly described and that through sheer imaginative power make you salivate or bring 'l'eau a la bouche' as the French more appetisingly puts it.
As a kid I loved it when authors described what their characters ate and drank. From sumptuous fairytale feasts to the Famous Five's ginger pop and cakes, food always added an extra dimension for me, especially when it was exotic(like ginger pop, for example!). In my own writing at that age I always had at least one scene in which there was some tasty meal of some sort to tuck into before a big adventure; and the diary I kept as a12 year old(which I still have) is punctuated by descriptions of the meals we'd had that day, complete with a beaming sun for things I'd loved and a weeping face for things I hadn't: thus broad bean soup got a tear while Gateau Moka glowed with radiance. And all I can remember of the story I was writing at one point of that year apart from the title which I carefully wrote down in my diary--(the cheerfully Blytonish-derivative title of 'The Twins' Highland Holiday') was that it featured a big sausage feast, barbecued on top of a hill somewhere. Oh, and ginger pop!
Well, I grew up and I tasted ginger pop and was no longer quite so enthralled by it. And these days I'd put a smiling sun beside broad bean soup as much as moka cake. But I still love descriptions of food in novels, and in my own books for kids I don't forget about how much as a young reader I loved licking my lips over those literary meals. And so along with the excitement and the action I also make sure to serve up a tasty helping or two of food fit for the imagination.

Something to declare

When we first came to Australia in the early 60's, the culinary landscape was very different to now and my parents had a good deal of trouble trying to source ingredients they took for granted in France: for example, olive oil could only be purchased in small quantities in chemists' shops(!), cheese only came in two varieties, yellow-soap-like blocks and Philly cream cheese, garlic was practically unobtainable, butchers looked at you strangely if you asked for lamb with less fat, and weirdly, nobody knew what a leek was. They soon ferrreted out better supplies, going to this little Greek shop hidden away in some far-flung suburb, that Italian greengrocer a friend told them about; that European deli in the city where you might at least get a few more cheeses, and Flemington markets. Later they found an amazing little farm in the then semi-rural suburb of Blacktown--owned by a Maltese lady and her Yugoslav husband, it was like a slice of peasant Europe, an artichoke field tended by hand, along with other vegetables, free range chickens, ducks and rabbits in cages. My parents soon became assiduous clients of the hardworking couple, buying stacks of vegetables but also live chickens and rabbits that they kept for a while to be fattened in the garage at home.
As time went on, things got easier and easier as more and more essential culinary materials appeared in Australia. But even then, there were things you couldn't get for love or money, and so on our biannual trips back to France, we would gorge on those things, from foie gras to vast ranges of cheese and cake, all kinds of bread and charcuterie, including the world's best sausage, Toulouse sausage, and gorgeous butter..And my parents would stock up with things to bring back.
But in those days it wasn't easy to bring anything in through Australian customs. Everything foreign was regarded with great suspicion, whether or not you'd followed the rules and only brought in what was supposedly permissible. One occasion which has passed into family legend is when the customs officer pulled out a tin of foie gras from my mother's suitcase--which she'd declared--and asked, 'what's this?' Maman explained; the customs officer looked at the tin, frowned and said, 'Can't allow this in.' Why not, she asked him, she'd been told it was OK, it was in a tin. 'Because you might give it to your dog,' he said, and who knows what disease it might give him?' Maman looked at him thunderstruck.'To a dog? Foie gras? do you have any idea what this costs?' But he wouldn't be persuaded and he wouldn't relent and into the bin went the tin of foie gras! My parents didn't stop talking about it for years. It was the classic example of cultural clash..
These days, though, not only are most things we craved for available here, but you can easily bring in foie gras and just about any tinned things from France--as long as there isn't the dreaded oeuf, or egg in them. 'Musn't have any oofs,' said a customs officer solemnly to me not long ago, peering at my tins of pate, 'no oofs allowed you see or only a certain percentage, right?' Fortunately I'd been forewarned and there were no 'oofs' in sight other than my relieved sigh as he gave all our precious merchandise the tick of approval: the cassoulet, the creme de cassis and Armagnac, the funny little pastille sweets that come in sweet old-fashioned tins, the candied violets we'd bought in Toulouse, and most numerous of all, the boxes and jars of cubed and powdered bouillon of all kinds--the last rather raising our friendly customer official's eyebrows. What a weird thing to bring back, you could see he was thinking. Whatever are you lugging these around the world for when stock cubes are cheap and easy to find here in any supermarket?

Why indeed? Well, it's like this, sir: first, I want more than the three bog standards: chicken, beef and vegetable, that I can find here. Second, when I'm too lazy or busy to make my own stock and I want to use stock cubes, then I want something that tastes like the real thing, not a chemical concoction. Just try couscous that's been cooked in the Spices stock cube. Or the Mediterranean vegetable stock that goes so well with pasta. Or the lemony court-bouillon that makes an exquisite poaching liquid for fish. Or the veal stock that adds so much flavour to a stew. Or the garlic and olive oil stock that zings a simple vegetable. Or the organic chicken stock that's so light and naturally tasty that you just feel like drinking it on its own, or the fish fumet that subtly lifts a fish based soup. And then, Mr Customs officer, I'm sure you will understand the necessity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sorrel savours

Sorrel or oseille in French is one of the few things that we can always rely on in the early spring, that otherwise thin time of the year for garden produce, and it keeps growing all year round--even now in autumn it's still going strong. It grows very easily and persistently(too much so sometimes!) And with its lemony taste, soft texture and bright green colour, it's a lovely and versatile vegetable which can be used in lots of ways. It's very popular in France where it's mostly used for soups and delicious sauces for fish, but it's also popular in many other countries including Russia, where we were last year in spring and noticed quite a lot growing in people's gardens. (It is one of the very first vegies to pop up after their long winters.) There it's also often made into salads to serve with smoked fish or cooked with spinach too but it's loved so much it's also salted and preserved for the winter! In Australia, though, sorrel isn't so well-known--but is beginning to be found in the better greengrocers.

Here are some of our favourite ways of using sorrel:

*use some chopped small young sorrel leaves mixed into a bigger green salad.

*make a sorrel salad to have with smoked salmon, pickled herrings or other preserved fish, simply by chopping up fresh young leaves and making a dressing of a bit of olive oil, a touch of white balsamic vinegar, half teaspoon Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of sour cream and some dill.

*'chiffonade' sauce for fish: Sorrel shrinks alarmingly when cooked, much much more than spinach and a huge bunch will reduce to a spoonful of weird bronze-coloured cream very quickly indeed. That doesn't matter--its distinctive taste is what you're after. You need a good handful of sorrel leaves--both the small and bigger ones are fine for this. Wash, chop, then put in a saucepan with some butter. When sorrel has reduced take off stove and add a smidgeon of white wine, some salt and pepper and a touch of sour cream to give it a nice smooth texture. Serve as a dollop on fish fillets. It's great with most fish, and made in seconds.

*simple sorrel soup: ingredients for 2 people. One potato, one onion, handful sorrel leaves, stock(chicken or similar is best), a splash white wine, butter. Melt some butter in a pan, put in chopped onion and diced potato, cook until getting a bit softer. Add chopped sorrel, splash wine white, then pour in stock.Let cook till potato is tender, then process the soup or mash it up and sieve till smooth. Season to taste. You can add a little cream at the end too. Bon appetit!

(Note: Sorrel does contain oxalic acid so you don't want to overdo it--but you'd have to be eating handfuls of sorrel every day for ages for it to be a problem. )

Vegetable heaven

Vegetables were always a very important part of the meal, in my childhood. We always at least had two beautifully-cooked types of vegetables and a bowl of salad. Potatoes, incidentally were considered a vegetable, not an indispendable part of every meal as was often the case in Australia (indispensable though was bread). In Sydney, Dad always bought our vegies on a Saturday morning at Flemington markets; in France either at the markets in the town closest to the village, or from the mobile fruit and vegie man who would bring his van to the village two or three times a week(he alternated with the fish man and the butcher and the grocer--the baker however came every day--bien sur!). But though our French 'parc' had lots of old fruit trees, and though our Sydney back garden was big, my parents never grew their own vegies or even thought of doing it. It just wasn't in their habits--despite their love of the country, they were born and bred in the city, and besides the French system of marketing is so well established and the produce so good that very few people outside the villages grow their own as a matter of course. I never grew up going out to the garden to pick the evening vegetable course; but now it's part and parcel of daily life. And that's all thanks to David, who unlike me grew up in the country and with the vegetable patch as a normal part of existence.

He's not a frangaroo, but of another related subspecies, the britaroo, having come to Australia from Britain when he was in his early 20's. Growing up in rural Worcestshire on a smallholding with parents who were early adopters of the self-sufficient lifestyle, he has a knowledge and understanding of growing things that leaves me way way behind. Under his talented hands our garden which started off rather unpromisingly with clayey soil that was great for the mudbricks of our house but not exactly fertile ground, has become a deep rich territory, which produces practically all the vegetables we ever want all year round, all in season of course. It's only in very early spring that things are a bit thin on the ground, but otherwise, from asparagus to lentils, tomatoes to potatoes, capsicum to cabbage, lettuce of all sorts to artichokes, carrots and buk choy and spinach and pumpkin and sweet corn and squash--you name it--as well as lots of herbs, onions and garlic, and quantities of berry fruit--strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries--the garden is a never-ending source of bounty. And not only is it fruitful and fertile, but beautiful too, recreating within itself that bucolic and charming feeling of European smallholdings, while happily sitting within the Australian landscape.

And the taste of the produce--well, if you grow your own vegetables, you know exactly what I mean. A potato that's just been dug up and cooked is silky and buttery without even the addition of butter; the green vegetables are concentrated green, sweet corn really merits its name, tomatoes are exquisite. And that's why, despite the fact I've been living like this for decades, it never ceases to thrill me, going out into the vegetable garden to pick the ingredients for that night's meal.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rinquinquin and old boys' jam

My paternal grandmother's father, Louis Bos, was the scion of a family that had made its money from the production of fruit cordials, aperitifs, and liqueurs. In their day Les Liqueurs d'Alexandre Bos were famous, winning prizes at major exhibitions, including the great Paris World Exhibition of 1889, their bottles with their rather cute but these days politically incorrect labels showing a schoolboy laden with bottles displayed in shops all over France and even beyond. Though neither the family fortune nor the family firm survived to our day, I can still remember Louis' widow, my great-grandmother Irma Bos, keeping up the tradition with the bottles of decadently delicious home-made aperitifs and liqueurs that she would bring out from her cupboard when we went to visit her at her apartment in Toulouse. They had lovely, weird, evocative names like 'Rinquinquin' and 'Ratafia' and 'Confiture de vieux garcon' (literally, 'old boy's jam'--or more precisely and sardonically, 'hardened bachelor's jam'). And they were heady concoctions, heavy with fruit and sugar and alcohol, that we children might be allowed a tiny taste of on a piece of sugar, and then once we'd passed a certain age, a tiny finger in a tiny glass. I still remember the rich colours of Irma's confiture de vieux garcon, all the summer berry fruit and cherries preserved in layers in a stained-glass-glowing dark red liquid which was a mixture of the fruit's juice and Armagnac or cognac. After a digestive glass of this marvellously bibulous 'jam', the adults would be rather like the stunned bumblebees who blundered around the roses in the summer garden. Rinquinquin(a sort of fortified peach wine) and ratafia(which is similar) were less potent, being based on white wine fortified with a little cognac or Armagnac and flavoured with various kinds of fruit(they are usually served cold, as aperitifs).

I don't know whether it was from Irma or not that my mother got her own excellent recipes for all these alcoholic fruit drinks but Maman still makes her own batches of home-made aperitifs and liqueurs at my parents' home in Gascony. Recently, she gave us some recipes for her own versions, and we were able to recreate the heady taste of these lovely old-fashioned drinks, and raise a glass to the memory of Alexandre Bos! Here's a recipe for my favourite, vin de peche, or rinquinquin.


Ingredients: 1 vanilla bean; 2 teaspoons cinammon powder; 80 or so peach leaves, 1 litre of good white, rose or red wine. Mix together, leave to macerate for 48 hrs. After that, filter the liquid, add 125 grams white sugar, plus half a glass of Armagnac, cognac, or rum. Stir well, then bottle. Keep for a few weeks, then serve very cold, as an aperitif.

Another excellent one of Maman's, which is actually her own invention, is a delicious coffee and orange liqueur:

Liqueur au cafe et a l'orange

In a bowl put a litre of spirits(vodka, cognac or whatever), 2 oranges, washed but whole, 40 coffee beans, 125 grams white sugar. Cover and let it steep for 40 days, then filter and bottle, discarding the oranges and coffee beans.

And what about old boy's jam?

Well, basically, it's soft red fruits--strawberries, raspberries, cherries, boysenberries, etc--added with sugar to cognac or Armagnac or eau de vie(vodka or grappa style spirit)--in layers as it becomes ripe. It was a work in progress that went on all summer, with more fruit added to the jar as it came in season, till in autumn at last it was shut and the juices and alcohol left to do their dastardly work for a few months.

Queen of plums

This year has been the best year ever in our orchard. Trees that had produced only sporadically if at all in the last decade suddenly overwhelmed us with bounty. It wasn't just that we'd netted the trees for the first time ever, frustrating feathered thieves; we only netted them because this was the first year it was worth spending the extra money, as the trees happily celebrated the astonishing amount of rain we'd received over the year by sprouting baby produce as far as the eye could see. Starting from peaches and nectarines and Morello cherries to plums, nashis, pears, apples, and figs, those few trees have kept us oversupplied with massive amounts of fruit, so much that we haven't bought in fruit for months. The prize for productivity was taken by the Beurre Bosc pear tree which despite its modest size proudly bore about a hundred and fifty kilos of the brown-robed, juicy fruit. My husband David, preserve wizard of the family, has been kept frantically busy bottling, jamming, drying, and juicing so that now the pantry looks like we could withstand a siege or a European winter: from nashi wine and pear cider to gleaming bottled peaches and cherries to jams of all sorts to a treasure trove of gorgeous, syrupy dried fruit. And we've eaten such mountains of fresh and cooked fruit 'a toutes les sauces' every single meal till it feels there's fruit juice in our very veins and that soon we'll soon be turning into one of those Arcimboldo seasonal paintings!

If all this fruit harvest has been a great delight the one that's most thrilled me are the plums: two beautiful dark red French varieties, the Robe de Sergent and the famous Prune d'Agen which, dried, is luscious with rich, tangy, syrupy flesh; those funny little sour plums called damsons in English and prune de Damas in French(as it originates from Damascus) which make the best pickle ever to have with cheese; and the queen of them all, some people say even the queen of all fruit, the greengage or Reine Claude as it's called in France. First developed centuries ago in Moissac in southern France from a wild Asia Minor cultivar, it was named in honour of the beloved 16th century Queen Claude, Duchess of Brittany, who married the French king Francis I, and was imported to Britain in the eighteenth century by a certain Sir William Gage, who gave his name as the suffix for the English version of the plum's name. Though the fruit is hugely popular there too, for some reason it isn't well-known in Australia, where you have to hunt high and low to find it. It took us quite a while not only to find a grengage tree but then to get it to do anything, for they are whimsical things that may or may not cross-pollinate as they ought with other plum varieties. In the end it was the humble damson which finally persuaded the shy queen of plums to reveal her sweet golden-fleshed, green-skinned glory, and we finally had our reine claude harvest, feasting on the delicious fresh fruit, the glorious dried variety with its concentrated sweetness, and the jam which is like clotted bottled sunshine.

But it was more than present sensual delight that thrilled me as we brought in our first reine claude harvest. When I was a child, we lived in Australia most of the time but went back every couple of years to our house, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, in rural south-western France. Its huge back garden, which we called 'le parc' was dotted with ancient trees, amongst which were some old orchard trees that grew crooked and scaly but still produced glorious fruit. and the reine claude was the best of them all, better even than the cherry which we would sit in to scoff handfuls of fruit. You weren't allowed to scoff handfuls of reines claudes; they had to be picked reverently and taken in state to the kitchen. They were special fruit, treated with respect. And to me they tasted of the last of the summer and the golden tones of the beginning of autumn, the sweetness and tanginess together on the palate in a distinctive mixture that is like nothing else. I've never forgotten it. And like Proust with his madeleine, the simple act of biting into the queen of plums this year brought more than just sheer pleasure. It also brought those past moments back with clarity and love.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The one day of the year

Funny I've finally got around to starting this blog today--which I've been meaning to do for some time--because it's Good Friday, the one day of the year in my frangaroo childhood that the menu at our house was anything less than inspiring. That's because we kept the Good Friday fast or rather diet. We always ate fish on Fridays but I never minded that, because I always loved fish except for the very bony ones, and under Maman's skilled and imaginative fingers it was always tranformed into a meal fit for a king, anyway. But Good Friday meant the following menu: Boiled whitefish with salt; boiled potatoes, ditto, steamed cabbage, ditto. Water to drink. And that's it. No wine for my parents. No cheese, fruit, sweets, butter, meat, oil, eggs, or any flavourings other than salt(not even pepper.) No salad. No yummily-cooked vegies. Nothing other than that miserable monochrome menu.
Just one day of the year. And a very small sacrifice, in pathetic and even ridiculous proportion to the terrible event we were memorialising. We knew all that. But of course we complained. And we eternally hungry kids who from the tenderest babyhood were accustomed to having our palates delighted every day, weren't the only ones to complain. My father would spend much of Holy Thursday evening lamenting the culinary ordeal that was soon to follow, and was up bright and early on Holy Saturday morning to tuck into a tasty breakfast of crisp-fried pancetta and fresh bread--he who hardly ever had more than a cup of coffee most mornings. And, oh, his glum looks at his Good Friday plate! All that was tradition too--and so was Maman's half-joking, half-serious reproof to him, telling him off for giving us a bad example.
These days, I'm not quite as assiduous as my parents on the Good Friday menu front, though I still cannot bring myself to eat any meat or sweets that day. But then my parents themselves aren't as dedicated as they were in my childhood. Last Good Friday we were in France, with them, and though it was fish of course, there was not only salt, but pepper and oil and vinegar and nice vegetables and fruit. Monochrome it seemed was gone forever. 'Well, you see, ' said Dad, 'once you're over 70, the Church says you no longer have to keep the Good Friday fast. You just musn't eat meat.' And he smiled, and happily helped himself to another bowl of Maman's excellent fish soup.

What the hell is a 'frangourou'?

That's a frangaroo in English, folks, my own little coining for that weird/distinctive(take your pick, however you feel) mixture that is a French Australian like me. Weird/distinctive because in some ways there's nothing more different than France and Australia, French and Australian attitudes, French and Australian history, French and Australian just about anything. But also because despite all that--or perhaps because of it--there's a big magnetic pull between the two cultures. France is seen as the epitome of cool, of class, of romance in Australia, while Australia is seen as the epitome of freedom, wilderness and possibility in France.
So frangaroos must be seen as a mixture of all those things, right? Wrong. In fact frangaroos are seen scarcely at all. We're not exactly a major part of the census data of Australia, let alone France. But hey we're here and we're proud and we have our own way of doing things, which is not quite French, and not quite Australian, but 100 percent frangaroo.
OK, that'll do, little introductory lecture over. Now to get into the real business of this blog--a frangaroo take on food.