Monday, April 25, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment