Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Culinary gifts of a good-fairy house

The very year I was born, my parents, who were then working as expatriates in Indonesia, bought their first house, with my grandmother's help. La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as they named it(after my father's French-Canadian ancestors' grand manor house at Terrebonne near Montreal—the house still exists though it's no longer in the family), was at the time a large, beautiful but crumbling late-eighteenth and nineteenth century house, with dilapidated seventeenth century outbuildings, in a south-western French village called Empeaux. It was an unfashionable, eccentric—and cheap--buy at the time—for back then Empeaux was thought to be much too remote from the city--a whole thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse-- for most middle-class people to want to live there. Besides, the house had been allowed to go to rack and ruin, and there was heaps of work to do in it and in the large overgrown parklands that surrounded it, with its ancient trees. Much too much, most people thought.
Well, nothing daunted, my parents set to work or rather set their expatriate salaries to work, first in Indonesia and then in Australia, paying a succession of masons, tilers, electricians, roofers, painters, carpenters and lots more local tradesmen, who slowly but surely, under my parents' guiding hand, turned neglected Cinderella into a beautiful princess admired by all, at considerable expense it must be said. And as we settled into a routine of three years in Australia, three months in France, the house became our French base.
We loved it. It was an utterly magical place. In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. The house had an amazing history, full of strange, sad and mysterious stories: stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the majestic elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers in the late seventeenth century(which was protected by order of the French state, though later, very sadly, it died in the Dutch elm epidemic of the 1980's). The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers off just about every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own exotic cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes. And tall pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter, for it was so cold in those unheated antechambers in winter that they might as well have been fridges, and you had to quickly ladle out what you needed from the pottery confit jars before your fingers dropped off!
It was a house that breathed presence; a presence that despite the many terrible stories associated with it radiated a kind of good-fairy benevolence. It was a presence that nurtured people, especially children, and all of us children remember it with huge fondness and a real melancholy, for it is lost to us now--in the early 90's, after they'd returned permanently to France, my parents finally sold La Nouvelle Terrebonne and moved to another region. But I still go and visit it when I am back in France, as do my siblings; it is a house that haunts anyone who's ever lived in it—even when we were living there, former residents would sometimes drop by to look at it again just like we do now--a house that forever becomes a part of your emotional and imaginative DNA.
But if, like a good fairy at a christening, La Nouvelle Terrebonne and the village of Empeaux(we tend to conflate them, and just say 'Empeaux') have given me an integral part of my creative inner landscape and in different guises have emerged in many of my books, they are also a part of my culinary DNA—of my most cherished memories of food, influencing how we eat now. It wasn't just the jars of confit in the storage-room. It was also the thrill of finding, when we would first arrive from our long and gruelling voyage from Australia, that the wonderful Madame Baron, a local farmer's wife who looked after the house in our absence, had laid the scrubbed old kitchen table with a cheerful tablecloth and a fantastic simple local lunch: a big pat of creamy golden butter she'd made from the milk of her own cows; a big round loaf of fresh local pain de campagne; a plateful of thickly-sliced local air-dried ham, jambon de pays, with its gorgeous pepper-flavoured rim of fat and delicious texture; a selection of local cheeses; fresh fruit in season and a big salad, ready to be tossed. It was also looking up at the huge jambon de pays she'd cut the slices from, which swung snugly in its pillowcase from the ancient bullock-yoke suspended above the table on chains; the garlic and onions in their tresses beside it. It was stepping down into the earthern-walled pantry just off the kitchen which breathed the cool of ages, with its shelves lined with preserves and bottles and groceries of all sorts(though I was always a bit scared that one of my mischievous brothers would take the opportunity to lock me in there—it was windowless with a very low ceiling!)It was gorging yourself on fruit from your own trees—the cherry, the fig, the apple, the reine-claude,(greengage), and picking mushrooms and hazelnuts in the woods with Dad if we were there in the autumn. I wasn't so keen on another kind of picking—dandelion leaves, which my parents, especially Dad, were very fond of for salads but I didn't like much at all, not only because of its slightly bitter taste but because of its name(in French, it's pissenlit—literally 'piss-the-bed'--!) It was about going to another farm, the Miquel place, where a black-clad Madame Miquel, with her wisps of grey hair, crooked nose and few teeth she displayed in a crocodiley smile that was meant to be friendly, put me irresistibly but banally in mind of a witch(though I knew she wasn't—the real village witch was a striking youngish brunette!). My parents bought eggs, chickens and ducks and geese from the Miquels(the ducks and geese were turned into that confit that sat in the pottery jars), and also some vegetables and the occasional rabbit. But we bought butter and milk from Madame Baron, whose farm had a much more sympathique atmosphere and who always invited us in to have a little snack and a glass of something with her family. If it was afternoon—and it generally was—it'd be a small glass of fiery home-made gnole for the adults and mint or pomegranate or berry cordial for the children sometimes with the extra of a tiny cube of sugar soaked in a little gnole once you reached a certain age. It was about going to the markets in l'Isle-Jourdain or St Lys and buying fresh pates and terrines made from deer and boar and hare and partridge hunted locally—for there are fine rich hunting woods around there—and hearing the joyful toot-toot of the baker's van or the greengrocer's or the fishmonger's or butcher's or horse-butcher that would come tootling into the village once every couple of days or so, for Empeaux did not have any shops. It was about going off on our bikes to the next village, Saint-Thomas, only three or four kms away and possessed of a great attraction: a cafe, where you could get a meal or an icecream or cake or coffee or a glass of wine(if you were an adult of course!)Yes, it was about all those gorgeous, wonderful things that people now think of as slow food, of the regional, the local, the intimate—nothing to do with fashion or fad but just the way people had always eaten around there. And that has stayed with me ever since.

(Photographs are 1/the house from the back, with dependencies on right hand side and beginning of the parkland garden in front, and looming over it on the right also is the castle of Empeaux. 2/my parents and three youngest siblings at the Nouvelle Terrebonne kitchen table in 1984--my brother Louis is holding my then 2 year old daughter Pippa.)

Hare delights

I've eaten plenty of rabbit over the years both in France and Australia, mostly farmed but some wild as well, but seldom eaten hare. The reason of course is that the meat is not as easily available, as hares cannot be farmed--solitary animals which range widely, they simply do not thrive in captivity, unlike their more sedentary cousins. But the other day we were lucky enough to get hold to get hold of some hare meat, and were able to try out a couple of recipes: a delicious hare stew, made from the most fleshy part of the animal, its saddle(the back and flanks) and a lovely terrine made from the other parts.
The hare meat was much denser and darker than rabbit, especially farmed rabbit, and it was very lean, with a rich but not particularly 'gamey' taste. Stewing seemed to bring out those flavours much more than roasting could have done(there'd have been a danger of the meat drying out.)Note that while the hare terrine can feed up to 8 people, the hare stew is just for two.These recipes could also be adapted for rabbit meat.
For the hare terrine: Two rashers bacon, about 500 g pork mince or 4 thick pure pork sausages opened up, back and front legs and other bits of hare, liver and heart of hare, two eggs, breadcrumbs, thyme, nutmeg, a little coriander seed, salt, pepper. First debone the hare meat and put the meat in a dish ready to mix with other stuff. Boil the bones up for stock(for next recipe). Cook the liver and heart. Now mix the cooked chopped liver and heart, the hare meat, pork mince, add the eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs and spices, salt and pepper. The terrine mixture needs to be not sloppy and not crumbly either but well mixed. Oil a log-shaped Pyrex or earthenware baking dish, drape one rasher bacon on bottom. fill dish with terrine mix and drape the bacon over the top, tucking in the sides. Cook in a bain-marie(standing in a dish part-filled with water)in a slow oven--175 C--for about 2 and a half hours. When cooked, let it sit in a cool place. Serve cold, sliced. (You can also serve it hot with a tomato sauce if you like, like a meatloaf, but it's even nicer cold, as a lunch dish or an entree.)
For the hare stew: 1 saddle of hare cut into two or four pieces, 2 rashers bacon, onion, garlic, sage, parsley, creme de cassis(blackcurrant liqueur) or similar, some hare stock(see above),a little oil to fry initially, salt, pepper.
First marinade the hare in the creme de cassis or similar liqueur(or even red wine)for a couple of hours. Fry the onion, the chopped up bacon, and then add the hare, without its marinade first. Add crushed garlic, herbs, and then the marinade. Add enough stock to cover. Simmer for about 45 minutes or until meat is tender. Serve with mashed potato(we made ours with lovely home-grown Tasmanian pink-eyes, which produce a gorgeous yellow fluffy mash)and sweet and sour red cabbage(cooked with brown sugar and vinegar, a little red wine and a little hare or beef stock.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

The olive harvest

We've never had a great deal of luck with olive trees. The very first one we planted, at least seventeen years ago, right at the beginning of living here, still survives, but has had a very chequered history over the years, producing one good crop years ago, one a much smaller crop a couple of years later, and then nothing for ages, getting setbacks from scale and drought and all sorts of things. Other olive trees have bitten the dust very early; only one other one has survived despite multiple plantings David's done over the years, and this year it's been joined by one further one which looks as though it might survive. The trouble is that though the climate's fine for it--cold winters but plenty of sunshine, and rain mostly in the winter and summer--the weather can be unpredictable in the Northern Tablelands, with freak frosts starting early and finishing late. But that's not the main trouble, it's the quality of the soil, at least outside the kitchen garden proper. Under a thin layer of topsoil, it's a mixture of large patches of impermeable, badly-drained clay--or rock! The kitchen garden is different, as not only was it a patch that had a bit more topsoil, but over the years David's built it up with plenty of compost, mulch, and horse and sheep manure into a rich deep matetial that now grows pretty much whatever he wants(although very deep-rooted things still have a bit of a struggle.) But in the orchard it's been a constant battle to keep the trees not only alive but doing anything other than grow sluggishly and produce lots of leaf but no fruit. This year's seen a real change, with lots of fruit appearing--and the olives have been no exception.

The first olive tree(a Verdale, incidentally) was planted on top of a sub-soil rocky ridge which is why it's managed to survive despite its many struggles; the second survives because it's over a drain, the third no doubt will for the same reason. Anyway, it's the first tree, the gnarly old survivor, that's done us proud this year again--though because there wasn't as much sun as usual this summer, because of the long periods of rainy and overcast weather we've had over months now, the cold weather--and the first of the big frosts--started early before the fruit had a change to completely ripen, so David had to pick them green and not black like last time. We love green olives too though, and these, succulent and fleshy though small are particularly delicious.

It's quite a palaver, the whole olive-preparation thing. I'd never really realised before we started doing it that you most certainly can't eat olives straight off the tree--they are very bitter, and that bitterness has to be extracted with a caustic soda solution(and then the olives are washed over and over very thoroughly for a week before putting them in brine.)We've got a fabulous book called Preserving the Italian Way, written and self-published by Italo-Australian writer Pietro Demaio--it's very highly recommended for all kinds of tips and recipes for doing everything from curing olives to making sausage and bottling artichokes etc--you can read about it and order it at http://www.preservingtheitalianway.com.au/ It's also a lovely warm, individual sort of book with memoir and ancedote mixed in with the recipes. We used the methods described in that to cure the olives. (You do have to be pretty careful.)

Anyway, we've got a big bucketful of brined olives now and yesterday I began to bottle some of the harvest, taking some of the fruit out of the brine in which it's been sitting for over a week now and putting them in jars with olive oil, garlic, thyme, pepper and a little lemon peel. I want to try out other mixtures for others--maybe with chillis, for instance, or with balsamic vinegar, or with different herbs, or maybe some just dry-salted. Though I love green olives stuffed with anchovies, I don't think I'll try that with these--the olives are too small, the stone too tight in the centre of the flesh. But there's so many other ways to eat them--and so many aperitifs and entrees that they'll enliven for the next few months!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Home-made millas: Toulouse cornmeal fritters

Corn and maize are rarely found in French cuisine--maize is mostly considered 'pig food' and sweet corn is practically unknown(more's the pity for French people; we always love it when it's sweet corn season in our garden!). But there's one area of France where maize has a much better press, and that's in the south-west, in the Toulouse region. Maize is grown there mostly to feed the region's famous fat geese and ducks, it's true, but it's also widely used for a variety of traditional dishes, from the rich, golden, moist cake, Gateau de Mais to the ubiquitous millas or cornmeal fritters which appear on restaurant menus, on home dinner tables and can be bought in readymade squares, ready-to-fry in traiteurs and bakeries and markets in Toulouse and its region.

Millas are versatile: they can be eaten with both sweet and savoury things: they are delicious as a side-dish with duck magrets(as Camille had in her recipe)or lamb or pork or indeed any kind of meat. They are also delicious served as a sweet snack or dessert, fried golden and sprinkled with sugar or honey or whatever you like. They are best hot but are also pretty nice cold, if you have leftovers.

Millas are not difficult to make from scratch, but they do take some time to prepare, which is why many people in France buy them ready-made(they are usually excellent, incidentally.) But of course you can't buy them here in Australia--at least certainly not in our country region!--so having had a sudden craving for millas the other day, I had to make mine from scratch, with the invaluable advice of Ginette Mathiot's I Know how to Cook, which I wrote about in my last post. (She has lots of recipes for classic regional basics like that which most other cookbooks simply do not have.)

The millas you buy in Toulouse is made from white maize meal, finely ground; as I could not get that here, mine had to be made with the readily-available polenta, or yellow maizemeal(pretty finely-ground also). I had no idea if it would turn out or not but I wanted to give it a go. And it did turn out really well, despite the fact my millas didn't look at all like the tidy pale squares I remember from childhood, when Maman used to buy them at the markets in l'Isle-Jourdain near our place in the Toulousain countryside. Intensely yellow and rather untidy, these frangourou millas were nevertheless delicious and went superlatively well with the lamb in tomato and red pepper and basil sauce I had made. And despite the difference in maize meal, they tasted pretty much as millas ought to, as well--a minor miracle in itself!

Here's how to make them(proportions are for two people): Take 90 g polenta meal(the finest grade you can find), 150 ml boiling water, 150 ml milk, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon butter, a pinch salt. First mix the polenta with a little water to make a paste, then add the rest of the water and cook till polenta has absorbed all the water and become stiff(takes about 10 mins).You need to stir it all the time--do not let it burn. Add the milk and egg, beat thorougly till well-mixed, then add butter and keep cooking over low heat till the mixture is like a ball of dough(or something like choux pastry) and comes away from sides and bottom of pan. Take it off the heat, let cool a little then shape into either circles or squares or any other shape you want--mine were a little crumbly at the edges so the shapes weren't exactly perfect, but the dough kept together well still. Fry in hot oil till very golden and crisp on outside. Serve hot, a little salted and peppered, as a side dish with meat and sauce(or vegetables)or as a simple dessert--sprinkled with sugar or served with honey, maple syrup, etc. You can also have them sugared, with whipped cream on top.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The charm of Ginette Mathiot

One of the many lovely presents I got for my birthday this year was the English-language edition of the classic French home cookbook, Ginette Mathiot's Je sais cuisiner(I Know how to Cook), which my three wonderful grown-up children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis gave me. It's a huge tome, which covers absolutely everything you could possibly want to know, and is written in a direct, charming and unpretentious manner. Nothing is assumed and yet no-one is talked down to. It was first published in 1932, and hasn't been out of print since. Generations of French home cooks have grown up with it, and kids are given it as a leaving-home present.

Ginette(Genevieve was her real first --Ginette being her nickname) was only twenty-five and a home economics teacher when she was asked by a publisher to compile a book of recipes that would be of use both to young people starting out and for more mature home cooks looking for more ideas. Actually it's more like a combination of cookbook and cooking encyclopedia! The freshness of her style and the fact her recipes can indeed be within the range of beginners as well as those more experienced, have assured the book's longevity. There are recipes for everything from making your own chestnut puree from scratch to how to boil the perfect egg, from the most spectacular of cakes to the simplest sauce, and it is also remarkably well-organised and carefully explained yet not in the least bit precious. There's also advice on wines, table settings, menu planning and more, and lots of mouth-watering photographs. This lovely English-language edition by Phaidon Books also features menus and recipes from celebrated French chefs practising around the world, including our very own Guillaume Brahimi from Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House!

Anyway I've always heard lots about this book but this is the first time I've owned a copy--and how much I'm enjoying trying out new things and cooking up variations on old themes. And you can adapt Ginette's recipes very easily to your individual needs and likes and as the inspiration strikes you--there's nothing of the precious 'don't change a grain of salt' feeling about her work, which suits me just fine as I'm constitutionally resistant to following orders!

Here's a couple of (adapted) very simple and delicious recipes of hers I cooked recently, which worked brilliantly:

Fresh mushroom soup (serves two)shown in foreground of photo:

Ingredients: 1/2 kilo small field mushrooms, couple sprigs fresh thyme(dried thyme can also be used),a little butter, some chives, chopped, salt,pepper, chicken or vegetable stock, 100 ml cream, a tablespoon cornflour or potato flour or rice flour, 1 egg yolk.

Slice most of the mushrooms thinly, reserving some for putting later in the soup as decoration. Fry the sliced mushrooms in butter, add half the chopped herbs, then salt, pepper, chicken stock. Simmer for about fifteen minutes, then blend soup till smooth(or mash with a masher). Beat the egg yolk into the cream, dissolve the flour in the liquid(there should be no lumps) and add to the soup blend, stirring through on stove till well-blended and thickening. Separately fry the remaining mushrooms(sliced) and add to the soup, stirring through with remaining bits of herbs. Serve. It's absolutely delicious the day it's made but is even better the day after!

Perch fillets in a milk anchovy sauce(I've adapted this from a couple of recipes of hers--so you won't find that title in the book!)--photo of dish just behind the soup. Also serves two.

Ingredients: To poach fish: 4 small ocean perch fillets, a little butter, court-bouillon(I use a French court-bouillon stock cube for this but you can make a version using some sliced onion fried in butter, with a little splash of white wine added, salt, pepper, tarragon or thyme, and some water, boiled together and then a squeeze of lemon juice in it.) For milk anchovy sauce: a tablespoon soft butter, some finely chopped parsley, pepper, about five or six flat anchovy fillets, crushed, one garlic clove, crushed, a little more butter for the roux, teaspoon flour(wheat or rice or cornflour etc), some milk.

Melt a little butter in pan, quickly sear fish then add the court-bouillon liquid to just cover the fish. Simmer. It only needs to cook for about 7 mins or so. Meanwhile make some anchovy butter with the crushed anchovies, garlic, parsley, pepper, mashed into the butter. Make a roux, melting the butter, adding the flour, and then the milk till nice and thick. Take off stove, and add the anchovy butter to the milk sauce, stirring well till the butter has melted and everything is all blended in. Serve on top of the fish.

(I served the fish with carrots cooked in a little stock too and some sweet and sour red cabbage, which worked very well. But it'll go with pretty much anything you like--good mashed potato made with waxy spuds would be lovely for instance.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Family recipes 6: David's beautiful 'Russe-style' special occasion cake

Whenever we went back to Biarritz, when I was a kid, and were taken on one of our favourite outings, to the wonderful Dodin patisserie, I would always ask for the same cake: a 'Russe', or'Russian'. This wonderful cake, made of hazelnut or almond meringue, layered with butter cream that was either flavoured with coffee or hazelnut, tasted like a slice of heaven to me, with its combination of breautiful crunchy meringue and lusciously smooth flavourful butter cream. It's a cake you only ever find in patisseries in the South of France, and only in the south-west at that--you never see it in the patisseries of Paris, or anywhere else in France. So you could get it in Toulouse and Biarritz but not Marseille, for instance. I didn't know why it was called a 'Russe'. Later, I heard that originally it was made with the best almonds imported from Crimea. But now I think that it must have been in fact a kind of adaptation of a beautiful Russian meringue cake called 'Swallow's Nest'--and though I'm not sure who first devised it, I'd hazard a guess its origin might be in Biarritz, which was full of Russian exiles after 1917. Dodin's Patisserie has been going since the 19th century and though it lays claim to being the originator of the famous (and delicious)chocolate cake, the 'Beret Basque'(so-called because its shape ressembles the famous Basque headgear) it does not claim to have birthed the Russe, though its examples were always wonderful. (By the way, if you want to drool over some of Dodin's beauties, here is their website: http://www.dodin.eu/ )

Anyway to get back to my Russe, it's something that I not only loved in childhood but now too. But I always thought I had to wait to get back to South-west France to indulge in it again. I thought it would be one of those sorts of cakes that would be too difficult to pull off for a home cook and so each birthday in Australia, I'd put in a request for my second-favourite cake, the Gateau Moka. This is also a gorgeous cake--a Genoise sponge layered with coffee butter cream, and David, my husband, has made it superlatively well for many years. But a Gateau Moka is not easy to make too far ahead of time and transport and as my birthday was going to be in Sydney this year, I knew I'd have to think again. I remembered seeing the 'Swallow's Nest' cake in the Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow and thought, how about that, and then started thinking, that sounds a bit like a 'Russe'--and then David said, well, meringue's much easier to make ahead of time, why don't I have a go at a Russe? He made me describe it and started looking up recipes--and then made his own version which turned out spectacularly well and which proved a huge hit at the birthday party!

Here's his recipe for a beautiful 'Davidov' which I think I'll dub his version of the 'Russe'! And it shows that a home cook can indeed pull off a Russe as well as any patissier--all my siblings, who'd tasted the 'real' Russes, agreed that it reproduced exactly the look and texture and flavours we all loved at Dodin's!

The various bits of the Davidov cake can be made well ahead of time--several days ahead in fact. If you do that you need to conserve the meringue in an airtight tin and the coffee butter cream in the fridge. As the butter cream will harden in the fridge, you'll need to warm it up slightly when you are assembling the cake, or you'll break the meringue. This cake will serve up to 15 people. (It did at the party anyway!)

Ingredients for meringue layers and individual meringue rosettes for decoration: 10 egg whites, 400 g castor sugar, 2 tablespoons cornflour, 150 g hazelnut meal. You will also need, for decoration on last meringue layer, some crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Method: Beat egg whites till stiff, add sugar bit by bit, beating well after each addition till you get a beautiful glossy meringue. Mix cornflour and hazelnut meal together, fold into meringue mix. On one greased or baking-papered tray, pipe some meringue rosettes for decoration; on another two or three, the meringue layers(this one had three layers). Bake in a slow oven(150 C) for an hour or so, till done(biscuit-coloured and reasonably dry.)

Ingredients for coffee butter cream: 6 egg yolks, 450 g butter(David used a mixture of 300 g unsalted, 150 g salted, but you can use just unsalted if you like), 2/3 cup castor sugar, 1/2 cup hazelnut syrup(or light corn syrup, or pure maple syrup--David used the hazelnut syrup--Monin from France which can be used to flavour coffee etc), coffee essence or make your own as David did with 2 tablespoons instant coffee and two tablespoons boiling water--it should be a thick gooey mixture--you can also use a small amount of strong espresso).

Method: Dissolve the sugar in the syrup in a pan on stove. Take off stove and let cool a little. Meanwhile beat egg yolks till pale and foamy. Little by little, mix the warm(but not hot)sweet syrup into the egg mixture. When you have incorporated it all, cut the butter into small pieces and add to the mixture, beating in well so butter melts and makes a thick cream(you can make this in the food processor if you have one.) The cream can now be used if you are putting together the cake or it can go in fridge till you put the cake together. (Remember to warm it before use.)

Putting cake together: Put the first layer of nut meringue on the plate, spread with some of the butter cake. Layer the next round of meringue, repeat, till you have used up the meringue layers and most of the butter cream(but keep some for the top and maybe the sides if you want. On the last layer, spread the rest of the butter cream, and decorate with the meringue rosettes and crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Birthday menu

I celebrated my birthday in Sydney with all the family last week, it was a lovely day even if a bit cold. And the menu was sumptuous--and a joint effort between all of us! Here's what we had:


Selection prosciuttos, salamis, olives and lots more. Thank you, Bertrand and Margot!


Home-made houmous with fresh bread. This was made by my younger son Bevis, it had a beautiful tangy flavour and lovely smooth texture.

Georgian(Caucasus)-style braised eggplants with pomegranate seeds. This was made by my sister Camille(who learned it from Georgian friends): the eggplant was sliced and braised in an electric wok with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and the pomegranates seeded and served with the eggplant on the plate. A gorgeous contrast of flavour, texture and colour.

Home made tuna ceviche with Nundle smoked trout and Nundle smoked trout pate. This was made by me(at least the ceviche! I bought the Nundle trout things--absolutely delicious. I made the ceviche with fresh tuna, sliced thinly and then simply marinaded in lemon juice, salt and pepper for a couple of hours. If you prefer, you can also leave it overnight--the tuna will then go completely white.

Prawns. Just served as is!

Selection of wonderful French cheeses. Served with water-crackers. Thank you, Pippa!

Main courses:

Pickled pork slow-cooked in a cranberry and brandy sweet and sour sauce. I made this, it's a Russian-influenced dish which can be cooked the night before and then reheated the next day(increases the flavour.) I simply braise a piece of pickled pork(from butcher or supermarket)in some butter, sear it all over then add pepper, herbs(I use tarragon or sage but you can experiment), splash brandy, cognac, armagnac or whisky over it, reduce, add the cranberries(I use dried) and then (meat or herb)stock to go up to about half of the piece of meat. Put a lid tight on, simmer for about 30 minutes, then add cranberry juice if you want or cranberry jelly, some brown sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Taste(it should be rich and a little tangy.) Keep cooking slowly for another 45 minutes or so so meat is very tender. Add a little more brandy if necessary. If you are cooking it early and reheating, do this when you reheat, along with a touch more cranberry juice if you want. Take the pork out, slice it, reduce the sauce till thick then return the pork to the dish and warm through.

Roast chicken. Simply roasted by Louis with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Filipino-style Pancit(see Fran's recipe in previous post.)

Sauteed potatoes with garlic and parsley. Camille made these, they are thickly sliced, and cooked in electric wok slowly in olive oil and butter till they get a lovely melting texture.

Big bowl salad with lots of different ingredients.


My birthday cake, on special request, was a spectacular home made 'Russe' style cake of hazelnut meringue layered with coffee butter cream--my husband David's creation, which I'll write about at length in the next post!

Bought Black Forest Gateau(which everyone was too full to do more than nibble at the edges!)

Washed down with champagne or at least 'blanquette' style sparkling wine, and various other wines. A fantastic gourmet meal, and a beautiful day, thanks to all!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Family recipes 5: Francia's 'pancit' and 'kare-kare'

My sister in law Francia, who's married to my younger brother Louis-Xavier, comes originally from the Philippines, from a small village called Bulong Gubat Candabba, about one and a half hour's drive west of Manila. But she's now a proud 'Filiroo', having lived in Sydney, Australia with my brother for many years. Whenever we go to their place, we are treated to her delicious repertoire of Filipino recipes, adapted for Australian conditions. Here's a couple she's passed on to try out, which are both easy and very tasty.

Pancit (illustrated in photos)

(literally, the name of this dish means, 'noodle'--the name is based on the Chinese-style parcooked noodle popular in the Philippines and known as pancit Canton which forms the base of the dish--you can see it above. But any kind of similar parcooked Chinese noodle can be used)

Serves 6-8 people.

Ingredients: One onion, chopped; 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine; 1/2 kilo chicken breast fillet, cut into thin strip pieces; one packet pancit Canton or similar parcooked golden-coloured Chinese noodle; some chopped vegetables: whatever you want, but mostly cabbage, carrot, broccoli, etc are used. Also some strips red capsicum(pepper) and handful snow peas, if desired for decoration at end; some chicken stock; olive oil for cooking(Fran notes this isn't traditional Filipino but since marrying a frangaroo, she's really taken to olive oil and thinks it adds extra taste to the dish!); salt and pepper; soya sauce.

Method: In a wok, cook onion and garlic in the olive oil till soft, add chicken strips, then chopped vegetables, stir well to cook, add seasoning, a little soya sauce. Now add the noodles(do not pre-cook them or wash them)to the mixture, add chicken stock and let it simmer, covered, till the noodles are soft and everything is cooked through(vegs shouldn't be soft though but still a little crunchy). Add a little soya sauce if you think it needs it(but not too much.)If wanted, you can serve this with some very quickly stir-fried red capsicum and snow peas on top, to add colour.


Ingredients: Some oxtail or osso bucco; oil; water; salt and pepper; vegetables--cabbage carrot etc, or whatever else you want; 'kare-kare' spice mix(Fran advises paprika can be a good substitute, mixed with peanut butter dissolved with beef stock from the oxtail.)

Method: Fry the oxtail quickly till brown, then add salt, pepper and water. Simmer till tender. When cooked, drain the stock(keep to use later.). Fry the vegs, then add to the beef, add some stock, and then the 'kare-kare' mix. Serve with rice and shrimp paste.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Premier's dinners!

Small diversion from my usual posts today, as it's the day after the NSW Premier's Literary Awards dinner at which I learned to my thrilled amazement that my 2010 novel, The Hunt for Ned Kelly(Scholastic) had won the Patricia Wrightson Prize, which is the children's literature section of the Awards. A most wonderful moment, I'm so thrilled, for myself, for the book, and for my wonderful agent, publishers, editor, publicist, and dearest husband who had to put up with me rabbiting on about Ned Kelly for months on end! And thank you to the fantastic judges who gave me the best moment of my literary life!

Anyway--a food angle on this is a short report on the dinner we had, which was pretty nice, actually--I had an entree of a cheese and celeriac souffle with candied beetroot--great combination of flavours and textures and colour--David had the alternative entree, which was a lovely leek and potato and bacon soup. I then had roast salmon on a very nice mash with good vegies as well(by this stage was getting a bit distracted!!)and a mixed leaf salad, while David had the alternative, roast small medallions of beef, nicely cooked, with good vegies as well. Dessert were tiny Eccles cakes and something else which I'm afraid I've forgotten as I only glimpsed them going past as I had to get on the stage with the rest of the winners to have our photo opportunity with the Premier! Wine flowed in rivers and there were some good nibblies beforehand, seared scallops in a nice sauce served on individual china soup spoons. A good atmosphere in the Opera House Point marquee--very friendly and convivial and not at all pretentious. A gorgeous view of the Harbour all lit up but some noisy big ferries and cruise boats going past on occasion! A wonderful night.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Family recipes 4: Alexis' passionfruit 'floating island' dessert

My nephew Alexis Braconnier, youngest son of my sister Beatrice(whose recipes I profiled in the previous post)is only 20, but has already gone a long way in his cooking career. Trained at chef school in Toulouse, he's worked at celebrity hotel the Byblos in Saint Tropez and this year featured in the Top Chef TV cooking show and competition which is only open to professional chefs. By far the youngest of the Top Chef line-up, Alexis rapidly became a great favourite with TV audiences, for his imaginative flair in cooking, good looks and natural, unpretentious manner, and when he was eliminated from the show, still had the votes of a great many members of the public! His public profile has shown no sign of abating since then, and he's appeared a good deal in the French media. There's plans now of him being offered his own TV cooking show, and writing a cookbook.

For this post, Alexis has passed on one of his dessert recipes, which isn't only delicious, but easy to make as well: his re-imagining of the traditional French dessert, 'ile flottante' or 'floating island' where a snowy caramelised meringue floats on a custard sea. This one uses passionfruit and the lovely French caramels, 'carambars' to great effect. (Carambars are traditional, individually wrapped caramel sweets whose wrappers include silly, often lame jokes that have passed into the vernacular: a 'blague carambar' or 'carambar joke' means a particularly lame one that's so lame it's sort of cool! If you can't get 'caramabars' substitute another types of caramel sweets, perhaps even caramel fudge.)Ingredients:

6 eggs.

100 g castor sugar

150 g icing sugar

4 passionfruit

2 vanilla beans(could substitute vanilla essence if you don't have these, but the beans have a more delicate flavour)

750 ml milk.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together till thick and pale. Add vanilla beans to milk and bring to boiling point. Take off stove, add egg yolk and sugar mixture and stir through then return to heat for 3 minutes. Scoop the flesh from the passionfruit, stir in. Beat the egg whites till stiff, add icing sugar and beat till glossy. Place egg white mix in dish in microwave, cook for 10 seconds on high heat, take out and slide onto custard which you have placed into a serving bowl. Melt the caramels in the oven on baking paper(this should be done before you do the egg whites)and dribble the liquid caramel on the meringue so it sets in a crackly sort of way. If you prefer, you can do the traditional caramel: sugar and a little water melted over gentle heat till it goes golden, then dribbled over meringue. Serve.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Family recipes 3: Beatrice's stuffed cabbage and cassoulet

These wonderful winter rib-stickers are from the kitchen of my sister Beatrice, who lives in a big, beautiful old house called La Colombelle which she's restored herself with great taste and imagination, in a lovely little village in the south-western French countryside, near Castelnaudary. The very recent photo, above, shows the courtyard at her place, with the table laid for a meal. She also runs a 'gite' or self-catering accomodation in part of the house and can also on occasion be persuaded, as an extra, to make some of these delicious dishes for guests!(see http://http//www.toprural.co.uk/Self-catering/La-Colombelle_43045_f.html )
And now here are two of her signature dishes:

Chou farci(stuffed cabbage)
First, in a tureen or casserole dish I blanch one whole(smallish) green cabbage.
Then I prepare the stuffing:
Mix sausage mince(or minced pork), chopped onion, garlic, herbs(thyme, sage, parsley are good), plus one egg to bind it together.
I unpeel each blanched cabbage leaf and put a bit of stuffing on it, then fold back to form a parcel.Then I put the parcels back in the casserole dish, wet the whole thing up with coconut milk(this takes away a too-strong 'cabbagey' taste and makes the dish particularly unctuous), and add sliced carrots and potatoes to the dish. The whole is simmered, covered, on the stove for about 1 hour. I serve two little parcels per person--this is a fantastic dish in winter!

Next is my 'cassoulet façon Béa '
(Note from Sophie: Cassoulet is a famous local peasant dish, of which there are many variants. Bea's version, which is simple to prepare and saves a lot of time, achieved national fame in France recently when her youngest son Alexis, a talented chef, featured with great success on the TV cooking show Top Chef, and cited it several times as one of the dishes that inspired him to take up cooking for a living! I will feature one of Alexis' recipes in a future post.)
The day before you want to cook the cassoulet, soak some white haricot beans. The next day, melt some duck fat in a tureen, add chopped onions, leeks, carrots. Add the beans, some crushed garlic, herbs(thyme, rosemary, parsley or variants), then cover with stock--chicken is best and cook till beans are tender. Half-way through the cooking of the beans, add some duck thighs, some pork belly, and some white wine. Just before the beans are completely tender, take them off the stove, put in an ovenproof dish(earthenware is best),add some sausage(Toulouse sausage is ideal, if you can't get that, try Italian sausage),add grilled 'pain de campagne' or breadcrumbs on top and put in oven to go golden. There needs to be a good amount of juice(from the cooking) in the dish and for it to be perfect I usually break the bread crust several times and then let it reform. But make sure the beans do not 'mash' at all!
Take out when golden and bubbling. Serve with a good red wine!
Bon appetit!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Family recipes 2: Pippa's pork and garlic chive wonton soup

This scrumptious recipe is from the repertoire of my daughter Pippa, literary agent extraordinaire, all-round gorgeous girl--and fabulous cook!

1 L good chicken stock, either homemade or Campbells Real Stock
1 tbs of finely grated ginger
2 grated garlic cloves
¼ cup fish sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
2 tbs soy sauce
Dash chilli oil
Vegetable oil or rice bran oil to cook with
Asian greens and/or asian cabbage, shredded
Chopped chilli and coriander to serve

Wonton wrappers (available from Asian grocer stores or even some Coles now)
250-300g pork mince
Garlic chives, finely chopped
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs Shaoxing cooking wine
Dash of sesame oil

Combine the pork, garlic chives, soy, shaoxing and sesame oil together in a bowl and leave to marinate for 20-30 mins.
Whilst marinating start working on your soup base.
Sautee the ginger and garlic in a heavy based pan with some oil.
Once soft and fragrant, add fish sauce, soy sauce and brown sugar.
When simmering, add the stock and bring to the boil. Then turn down to a gentle simmer.
Now, make your wontons!
Spoon a teaspoon worth of pork mixture in the middle of each wonton wrapper, then wet the edges gently, fold across and pinch. Then fold around to form wonton shape (picture above).
Place wontons in your simmering soup mixture and cook for 3-5 minutes. They’ll start coming to the surface when they’re ready.
Quickly add in your asian greens/and or cabbage to blanch as well as the dash of chilli oil.
Serve topped with chillis and coriander!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Family recipes 1: Camille's duck breasts in salt crust with a juniper flavour

This is the first of a series that I want to run on the blog: favourite family recipes, contributed by different members of the family. The first is my sister Camille's gorgeous recipe for magrets de canard en croute de sel parfumee au genievre, duck breasts cooked in salt crust pastry with a juniper flavour. Camille's a fantastic cook and can whip up the most delicious and imaginative meals in a trice; this is one she developed while living for a long time in the beautiful countryside near Carcassonne in southern France. That's her at her kitchen window in the old house where she used to live. (She's

Camille's magrets de canard en croute de sel parfume au genievre.

Make a special pastry (that will not be eaten ) with 200g flour,a handful of whole juniper berries, bruised,3 egg whites and a tablespoon of rock salt. Make into a pastry. Line a terrine with half of this mix to make the bottom shell.

Grill your magrets(duck breasts) for 10 minutes to get most of the fat off. Then let them cool down, add lots of freshly ground pepper.Place them carefully into the pastry, then cover the top with other half of the pastry.

Make a few top holes to let some steam out.
Leave in oven for about 30 minutes. Then serve the whole dish and crack the pastry open before the guests. Serve with millas(polenta cake--polenta and water and salt made into a stiff dough, then cut into squares and fried) and a pissenlit(dandelion) and rocket salad.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Childhood markets, 3: Flemington, western Sydney

Flemington markets, eight o'clock in the morning, 1970's. We've had a long and enervating drive through slow Saturday traffic from our sedate northern suburb to the 'wild west', and now we're in this vast corrugated iron shed, with people shouting, gimlet-eyed bargain hunters running you over with heavily laden trolleys, vegetables squashing underfoot, kids getting lost in the melee...
Maman and Dad both love this place. For Maman, who can 'take or leave' markets when she's in Europe, this is a place that makes her feel she is at home, here in this country that will never be home to her. For Dad, though, the love is there because it's a market, because it's filled with people, with sights, sounds, smells, life to plunge into with gusto, where the colourful noisy swell of multicultural Australia washes over you in a great human wave. For me as a prickly teenager mortified by looking 'different' and by the teasing refusal of our parents to talk English to us in public, it's somewhere that's both relaxing--because here no-one cares a bit if you 'speak foreign' or not but also a bit confronting-- for the same reason. This is a very different Australia to the surfie paradise I imagine my school friends inhabit, and I'm soon overtaken by its vivid atmosphere, forgetting I'm supposed to be trying to be cool in the urge to observe and catalogue and file away things in my head for writing in my notebook later.
There are Italian fruit sellers, Greek olive oil merchants, Turkish sweet-sellers, Anglo vegetable sellers, Arabic souvenir sellers, South American churros vendors, Chinese and Vietnamese greengrocers, Eastern European pickle and smallgoods sellers. There's chickens and ducks and eggs, mounds of fruit and vegetables, carpets and cheap trousers, kebabs and Turkish delight, dried figs and toffee apples. A tiny, very old Chinese woman stops at a stall, prods a vegetable, clucks in annoyance and contempt, while the seller, an enormous brawny fellow with a strong Australian accent calls out indignantly, "Hey, lady! Them's for selling!" Maman and Dad walk rapidly down each aisle, like people possessed, hunting down bargains, while we children drag along in their wake, anxious lest we lose them in the swirling crowds, liking it in some strange, unarticulate way and yet embarassed, too, for here you have to shout and argue and comment and even make loud jokes. There's no mask of reserve, no distance. And so we go along, occasionally clutching at a fallen orange, asking ourselves whether our parents will buy us a toffee apple this time, or whether we'll get an almond biscuit and a sweet black shot of coffee at the Italian cafe, just down the alleyway.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Excursion to Russia, 3: Russki a la frangourou!

Traditional Russian dishes are great, and I've had a go at making lots of them--but I've also created my own new dishes, inspired by that distinctive flavour and style. The other day, I made a meal that was entirely Russian in inspiration, but not all the dishes in it were classic Russian--rather they were 'russki a la frangourou'. I used ingredients that are easy to obtain and economical as well. All the vegetables for it came out of our garden but of course can be got in the shops(with the exception of sorrel, which might not be easy to find--but you can substitute a little chopped rocket with the addition ofa little lemon juice, to approximate it.)

Incidentally, before the meal we had a small aperitif--a shot of vodka accompanied by a small dish of olives and gherkins--a very minimalistic zakuska. You can also add chopped rollmop herrings, smoked salmon, etc etc if you want to go more elaborate for that part of the meal. The vodka we usually buy is 'Russian Standard', (standard meaning 'top quality' here), from St Petersburg--it's made on a base of pure cold water from the vast sea-like Lake Ladoga, near 'Peters'. It's an excellent vodka with a good clean flavour--we first tried it in Russia but you can easily get it anywhere now. But there are other good Russian vodkas easily available, like the famous Moscovite vodka Stolichnaya, as well as Polish and Swedish ones which aren't bad(though this is considered heresy in Russia!) There are even vodkas made in France these days! If you want real Russian--which I recommend--check the back of the bottle for provenance.

Here's the meal:

Entree: Green 'shchee' soup made with sorrel and spinach

Main course: Chicken breast fillet in a vodka and cranberry sauce

Vegetables: Roast beetroot with garlic and sour cream

Carrots in milk sauce


Dessert: (not illustrated): Meringues with coffee cream.

For the entree:

This is a traditional Russian dish--'shchee' soup could almost be the national dish--it is basically a hearty vegetable soup, most often on a base of cabbage. But green 'shchee' is a spring dish made when the cabbages etc have finally run out and you get the first of the spring vegies popping up, ie sorrel and spinach. It is very simply made. Take a medium potato, cut into small dice. Chop an onion. Crush a clove garlic. Take a handful spinach, about eight leaves sorrel, and some dill. Fry the onion in some butter, add the potato, then the garlic. Stir till beginning to go golden. Add the spinach and sorrel, chopped. Add salt and pepper and some dill, stir well till softening. I then add a small splash of white wine or vodka(this is not traditional but tastes good!)and then some good stock--chicken or vegetable stock. Let it simmer till potato is soft, then either process or mash and sieve. Take a little milk--about 100 ml, mix in two egg yolks, beat. Stir through soup, and warm but do not boil. Serve soup with a dab of sour cream, and some chopped dill or chives.

Main course: This dish is my own invention but based on traditional Russian elements. Cranberries are frequently encountered in meat dishes. Fry the chicken breasts in a mixture of butter and olive oil till beginning to colour. Add a good splash of vodka to the pan, then some cranberry juice and dried cranberries. Salt, pepper to taste, also I add a little chopped tarragon. Cook gently in the sauce till the meat is cooked through. Add a little more vodka or juice as needed. (Sauce should be thick and glaze the meat nicely--you can also remove the fillets when they are cooked and reduce the sauce till thick then pour it over the chicken.)

Vegetables: Beets are often served with sour cream and garlic. This is my version: Parboil some small beetroot for about ten minutes, cut into pieces, sprinkle with olive oil and some garlic--either crushed or a couple of whole cloves can be nice. Roast for about 20-25 mins or until the beet is nicely glazed and the garlic is soft. Serve with a dab of sour cream and chopped herbs like chives. You can also use preserved beet for this if you like but it will have a different, more acid taste.

Carrots: this is a very traditional, and delicious, way to eat carrots. Cut some carrots either into sticks or rings, as you prefer. Cook them in a little butter till softening, then cover them with stock, either chicken or vegetable. Let them cook till completely tender, then drain off the liquid, add a nub of butter, a little flour, to make a roux. Stir around then slowly add a little milk till the sauce thickens up nicely around the carrots. It should coat them but not drown them.

You can also have boiled potatoes, if you wish, and/or rye or pumpernickel-style bread to sop up the vodka and cranberry sauce!

Salad: Whatever you normally have--we usually do lettuce and other salad greens plus tomatoes, with vinaigrette.

Meringues: This is a simple gesture towards a spectacular special-occasion meringue cake known as 'The swallow's nest.' The meringues can be home made or shop-bought. The coffee cream is made from whipping cream up with a little coffee powder, a little softened unsalted butter, and some sugar to sweeten it but not excessively(as the meringues are plenty sweet enough).

White wine goes well with this dinner. A good tea, like Russian caravan tea, can add an extra touch at the end, with caramelised (Vienna-style!) almonds and perhaps a nip of cherry brandy or similar, if you want to!

Prijatnovo appetita! (Bon appetit!)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A culinary excursion to Russia, 2: Markets

Itook these photos in the markets of Yaroslavl, an ancient provincial town on the Volga River about 300 km north of Moscow. We were really impressed by the amazing range of food available at the market, and how beautifully it was presented. The colourful fruit stalls--both fresh and candied fruit, as above, which came from all over Russia-- were particularly attractive!

But there were also excellent fish stalls(above), which sold not only fresh but smoked and salted fish, and lovely red caviar(salmon roe); stalls selling pickles of all sort--gherkins in all sizes, pickled cabbage, pickled garlic, pickled onions; stalls selling nuts and spices like caraway and a variety of Caucasian spices..Vegetables included root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beetroot--cabbages, red and white--lots of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, sorrel--and lots of garlic(Russian cooking uses quite a lot of garlic) and onions, and herbs such as parsley and dill. Olives and olive oil(which surprisingly are also used a lot) and dried mushrooms(it wasn't the mushroom season) were also sold and there were various preserves of fruit, and jams. There were also dairy products--there's apparently a famous Yaroslavl cheese, though we didn't taste it, and butchers sold local lamb(there is a famous local breed)and beef, chicken and pork from further afield. There were also stalls piled high with Russian-produced biscuits, sweets and chocolates, and a stall selling, among other grains, the pearl barley which is used to make 'kasha', the famous Russian porridge, of which the charming (modern, English-language)Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow says, 'Man's thankful attitude to his daily bread is expressed in beautiful and tender names given to dishes. Take for example a pearl barley kasha. It is not a mere chance that the word pearl is present in its name. The dish bearing such a poetic name came to us from the distant past.'

I love it!

Excursion to Russia, 1: The rebirth of Russian cooking

I'm doing something a bit different for my next two or three posts, which is take you on an excursion into the food of a country I've been fascinated by since I was about eleven, but whose food I only really discovered on a trip there last year: and that country is Russia.
I was drawn magnetically to this extraordinary country, its colourful, passionate, turbulent, imaginative people, their frightening and inspiring history, and magnificent literature, music and art. As a child and adolescent I read lots of Russian fairytales, plays, novels and short stories, and listened with delight to recordings of Russian folk music we had at home. For years, I dreamed of going there, but it wasn't till May 2010 that I was finally able to fulfill that dream. Not only did the country meet my expectations, it far exceeeded them. Even the things I was expecting: the awe-inspiring scale of rivers and lakes and forests and plains, the gorgeous distinctiveness of the architecture, the scary relics of the past, the amazing richness and depth of the artistic traditions that still remain, had a huge impact, at first hand. But other things were quite unexpected: a combination of dry humour, nonchalance and exuberance; riotous spring vegetation and clothing and bright blue skies; the charming,intimate beauty of smalltown houses, the vibrant energy of the cities. And the excellent food.
Food wasn't really something I'd ever thought about in connection with Russia. Aside from caviar, vodka, pickled fish and borscht, I had no real image of it. And of course during the long Soviet dictatorship, there were so many food shortages and privations that the notion there was such a thing as Russian cuisine fell by the wayside, at least in Western minds. The few tourists who braved Soviet restaurants reported stodgy, badly cooked, badly presented food, and though the upper classes of the Soviet system ate very well out of the public eye, the majority of people certainly did not. And that did not improve but actually worsened for a while after the regime finally crashed in the early 90's. We kept hearing horror stories from people who'd visited Russia in the past, and resigned ourselves to an amazing cultural experience but bad food. So it was wonderful to be surprised into the discovery that things had completely changed. In my opinion, it's as good a sign as any of a country's recovery from hard times, when people start taking pleasure and pride in preparing and cooking food again, not only for themselves and their families and friends, but for strangers. And not just for tourists, or the wealthy, either, but for ordinary locals looking for a meal out. But the excellence of the food wasn't the only surprise; the other was the discovery that this was no modern phenomenon, and that travellers in pre-Soviet times had also commented on the excellence of the food.
A fascinating 1857 English book I own called Russians at Home, by Sutherland Edwards, describes the menu at a typical modest restaurant in Moscow then: 'the usual dinner supplied for three-quarters of a rouble(half a crown) consists of soup, with a pie of minced meat or minced vegetables, an entree, and some kind of sweet. That, too, may be considered the kind of dinner which persons of moderate means have every day at home. ' Edwards also talks about a popular Russian cookbook of the time, entitled 'Forty-Two Dinners' which rather in the manner of the successful Four Ingredients cookbooks of today, centred around a gimmick: four dishes only per dinner, up to dinner 42, with always a soup to start with(starting with soup is very much a Russian tradition.)Edwards quotes some of the menus: Dinner Twenty-Seven, for instance features a/batvinia, a hearty soup made of boiled beef, boiled beetroot, spring opinions, caraway seeds, and a puree or sorrel or spinach, with a somechopped boiled egg; b/stuffed carrots; c/roast mutton with mushrooms; d/ Compote or jelly of almonds. Thirty-Three, a Lenten dish(Russian Orthodox tradition strictly observes the no-meat fast all through Lent), was: a/Oukha, or sterlet soup(the sterlet is a popular fish found only in the Volga); b/Fish cutlets with a sauce of oil and vinegar; c/Fried perch; d/Kissel(a kind of blancmange made with almond milk and fine oatmeal.) Other foods he mentions include various sorts of game, icecream, gingerbread(he makes the intriguing remarks that in pre-Christian times pagan Russians used to makes offerings of carved gingerbread to their deities—the tradition of shaped and decorated gingerbread endures to this day.) He also lists traditional drinks, from gallons of tea of course; kvass, an effervescent drink made from the flour of black bread and malt and served very cold(though rather an acquired taste for foreigners, it is still very popular in Russia); vodkas of all sorts, from the plain kind to flavoured ones(there are many kinds: for instance in Dr Zhivago a red rowanberry vodka is mentioned; and in Russia we sampled a honey and pepper vodka from Ukraine)and champagne, of which, he says, the Russians are very fond and consume in great quantities. While wealthy people drank French champagne, most people then as now drank the bubbly made in the Crimea or the Don River area, which cost only a fifth of the French variety.
By contrast, while Edwards extols these home-grown champagnes, the Frenchman Etienne Taris, in his 1910 book, La Russie et ses Richesses, sniffily says that the Russian wines can appropriate French place-names all they like, 'one can always tell their true origin'! Grudgingly, he admits that the soups are very similar to peasant soups in France; that the mushrooms are excellent, the fish and game very good; but otherwise he is not enamoured of Russian food, with its sweet and sour dishes, pickled fish, sour cream and black bread, tastes which are foreign to the French repertoire: and he makes the acid observation that 'no wonder there is such a fashion for French food in Russia!' But in both books, the exuberant Russian attitude to food—and life—is amply documented and obviously delighted in by the writers; but that's even more obvious in the quintessential Russian cookbook, Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives, which was the massive best-selling cookery tome of its day. It was an amazing compendium, a mix of hilariously extravagant, slapdashly insouciant and thriftily careful recipes, and a good deal of household advice, written by an extraordinary woman who ran a country estate. Reprinted umpteen times from its first appearance in 1861 to 1917, it became a huge cultural phenomenon, cherished by generations, carried into exile, and lovingly parodied by Chekhov, among others. Repudiated by the Bolsheviks as a symbol of 'bourgeois decadence', the book went underground after 1917, was circulated in 'samizdat' copies, and was never officially reprinted in its entirety during the whole of the Soviet period. But a few short months after the crash of the Soviet regime, reprinted copies of the book were being sold on the streets of Moscow, and today the book has once again taken its place as the great classic of Russian food writing. (It is now available in English, translated by Joyce Toomre, as 'Classic Russian Cooking', Indiana University Press)
That exuberance and abundance has come back now; and so we discovered a Russia where markets and shops are again filled with colourful arrays of fresh ingredients from every corner of this vast land; where even modest restaurants offer simple, fresh and delicious traditional menus and street-corner vendors sell smoked sausage hot dogs, cold glasses of kvass, caramelised almonds and luscious icecreams. We discovered the most spectacular and tasty candied fruit ever, specialities of southern Russia, from whole cumquats to apricot and strawberries; beautiful salads, from grated beetroot with garlic and vinegar to spectacular bowls of greens, tomatoes and olives; fantastic smoked and fresh fish from the cold northern lakes; a wide variety of soups; mushrooms served in all kinds of ways(Russians are very very fond of mushrooms—it's a favourite family outing, gathering mushrooms in the forest) a tempting array of zakuski, the tapas-like nibbles served with vodka, from olives and gherkins to pickled fish and little pies and dumplings; lovely berry and nut tarts; and the prettiest gilt gingerbread outside of fairytales. We also discovered that Russians, like Australians, love cooking outdoors, and a favoured recipe for a good meal out with friends consists of a handy river bank, a barbecue constructed of stones and charcoal, some freshly-caught fish, lamb shashliks with spicy sauce, various salads, some loud music on a radio, and plenty of beer!
Traditionally, Russian cuisine is dominated by the bounty of waterways and forest, by fish and game and mushrooms and nuts and berries and honey, but also by the necessities of long winters: by lots of pickled and smoked and salted fish, meat and vegetables. But because of the vastness of the land and its many climactic zones, it has access to an extremely wide variety of other things: the Caucasian vividness of fruit, vegetables, wine and lamb, for instance, and rich dairy products, especially cream, but also good yoghurt, and some cheeses. And the imaginative quality which has always characterised the Russian temperament is being fully applied now to local cuisine, so that traditional dishes are not only being cherished for what they are, but also experimented with, and new ways of highlighting the country's excellent produce, borrowing from all kinds of culinary traditions, are being tried.
It's not going to be long before the West generally discovers another foodie paradise; indeed it's already beginning to happen. This September will see the first-ever Flavours of Russia culinary tour organised from Australia, featuring celebrity guest and famous gourmet Maggie Beer. Watch for a touch of Russian becoming the new foodie fashion!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Childhood markets, 2: St Jean Pied de Port, Pays Basque

We dodge a flock of sheep being driven up the steep cobbled street to the stock-selling part of the ancient markets. Up and down the street are stalls of all kinds, and farmers in the large flat berets characteristic of the Basque country and blue overalls. Many of them are speaking the ancient tongue of the region to each other and the stall-holders while a steady stream of incoming tourists like ourselves rubs shoulders with the locals. I'm a teenager on holidays in the Basque country with my paternal grandmother Mamizou and her two daughters, my aunts Betty and Genevieve, and we've driven up into the mountains to the famous markets at Saint Jean Pied de Port, deep in the ancient province of Navarra, on the French Basque side of the Pyrenees. St Jean Pied de Port is a gorgeous medieval town, built of local pink and grey rock, set beside the rushing Nive River, and it has a feeling of ancient fastness which percolates into your veins.
On the way up, we've seen some amazing sights: rows of beautiful old houses, a team of men in white shirts and trousers and red belts playing pelote, the Basque handball, against village walls built specially for the purpose; and best of all, a pair of patient oxen harnessed to a haycart. Betty takes a photo of me near—but not too near!--them, and I have for ever the exciting proof that a sight right out of the history books was still alive in the late 70's in the Basque country. I'm delighted; the past and especially the distant past is my obsession. I love romantic ancient tongue-twisting languages—Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Basque—and I read old sagas and myths and Arthurian romance and to my relatives' somewhat pained dismay often dress like something out of the Middle Ages or rather a fantasy-reader's impression of that period, haunting old-clothes markets and junk shops for turn of the century lace camisoles, long satin nighties worn as dresses and gypsy-style coloured skirts and velvet jackets.
Today though I've dressed in black and though my grandmother and aunts aren't keen on that either, because all-black outfits should in their view be reserved for mourning or else for old peasant women—they haven't said anything, just in case I might take it into my head to wear something really outrageous. But as we trudge up the cobbles to the market, I'm suddenly aware how out of place we look—my elegant grandmother and aunts in their city clothes and patent leather shoes, and me in my toned-down 'bohemian' style. We're so very obviously tourists, and for a while that's all I can see. But nobody else seems to notice. The locals couldn't care less if you're there or not; this is their own gathering, held since time immemorial, and tourists are the least of their concerns. There are one or two stalls catering specially for tourists, with little Basque flags and knickknacks; but to the locals, they might as well not exist. So soon I forget all about my self-conscious preening and just enjoy taking it all in, the sights, the sounds, the smells..
These markets are famous because they are the focus of the region. Hundreds of farmers come from a wide radius to buy and sell stock and poultry and a bewildering range of farm produce, from eggs and honey and sausage and cheeses to vegetables and fruit and preserves. As well there are any number of stallholders selling things bought by locals as much as tourists, such as pottery or the famous stripy Basque linen which makes such striking tablecloths and aprons. We wander up and down, buying bits and pieces but mostly looking, and I remember another time I was here, a few years before, with my father and some of my siblings. That time, Dad had bought a vast wheel of cheese cheap from an old Basque lady with deceptively candid blue eyes. He thought he'd got a bargain; when we got it home hours later to La Nouvelle Terrebonne, he cut it open and discovered it was full of worms..Everyone yelled in horror, except for Dad, who gamely asserted that cheese was only improved when it was worm-riddled; everyone except him refused to touch it. Oddly enough not long after he'd defiantly tasted it, the cheese mysteriously disappeared—and he wouldn't answer Maman's sardonic question as to where his 'bargain' had gone!
Today though there's no wormy cheese to be seen, or if there is, we don't buy it, though we stock up on sausage and eggs and honey and fresh herbs and more, with my aunt Betty, the (very fine) cook of the family, examining each purchase as carefully as a local, earning the respect of the stallholders who soon discover that elegant city clothes don't mean she doesn't know what she's looking at!
And then comes my favourite part of all: after an hour or two jaunting through the market we repair to a charming little cafe near the river and eat a wonderful meal of chicken a la Basquaise and salad, followed by a big slice of a delicious, fragrantly fresh Gateau Basque, the whole washed down with light local wine and a nip of a herby local liqueur afterwards. When my grandmother compliments him on a fine meal, the proprietor tells us all the fresh ingredients came out of this very market. 'There's no better in the whole of the country,' he tells us with superb local assurance, and nobody is disposed to argue with him, not with the sun shining on the Nive, and our bellies cheerfully, happily full.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kangaroo a la frangourou!

One day in my childhood, Dad came home indignantly from a scouting expedition at the butcher's one day in my childhood, to report that the kangaroo meat he'd tried to source for a meal was unobtainable for human consumption in Australia. There was some to be had but only the family dog could enjoy the Australian equivalent of venison back then as, Dad was told,' it was processed in unhygienic conditions in the bush and then treated with something or other that made it unfit for people'. He's always been keen on trying local specialities and had simply assumed kangaroo would feature on the menu in Australia, and was bitterly disappointed when it wasn't. Eventually, though, he got his wish, and a bowl of kangaroo tail soup, at a traditional pub in Inverell in north west NSW, where he'd travelled on company business preparing a tender to build the Pindari Dam. It was the late 60's or early 70's and Australian country towns were excitingly exotic territory for Dad. He talked a lot about it: the iron-laced pubs, the laconic farmers in big hats, the itinerant rabbit dealer displaying his skinned and dressed wares on a long stick he carried, and most especially, the kangaroo tail soup.

These days in Australia you only have to go as far as your local supermarket to buy kangaroo meat, as fillets, steaks, mince and even sausages. Hygienically processed and very lean but tasty, it's a meat that's found a good deal of gourmet favour. We eat it fairly often here, maybe once a week or every 10 days. We're not keen on the sausages--sausages definitely need fat to be properly tasty, and kangaroo sausages dry out far too much--and the mince is sold in too-big quantities for us. But the fillet and steaks are delicious.

You can eat them simply as themselves--we usually tenderise the steak a little, but not the fillet which is already very tender, and eat them rare with either salt, pepper and mustard, or Bearnaise sauce(see my earlier post on eggs)or a herb and pepper butter. Other times we make other dishes out of them--slow-cooked kangaroo steak makes great roghan josh, for instance, or wonderful red-wine stews or 'hunter's sauce' style dishes for game. And the fillet makes an intriguingly different macropod version of classic dishes like 'beef stroganoff' or 'fondue bourguignonne', where you use quick cooking, not slow stewing.

Last night David made an absolutely delicious and easy dish of his own invention using kangaroo fillet, onions and garlic, sour cream, mustard, and tarragon(illustrated). The fragrant and lusciously-textured sauce seemed to highlight the juicy tenderness of the fillet. With a salad entree, home-made thick-cut chips made from potatoes freshly dug in the garden, newly-picked cauliflower steamed and buttered and herbed--and the remains of the Pithiviers pie for dessert!--it made a fantastic and very frangourou meal!

Here's how to make it(it should be cooked just before you're ready to sit down to eat--vegs etc should be prepared before it, this isn't a dish that should hang around):

Kangaroo fillet.

One onion, finely chopped.

One or two cloves garlic, crushed.

Olive oil.


Some chopped tarragon.

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard.

1 tablespoon sour cream.

Salt, pepper.

Fry the onions and garlic in a little olive oil and butter till golden and soft. Remove from pan and add kangaroo fillet, adding more butter and oil if needed. Cook only for about 1 min each side if you like rare, more if you don't. Take steak out of pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add cream and mustard to the pan, quickly stir so that it cooks through, add onions and garlic, then fillet. Serve immediately with chopped tarragon on top.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Deliciously simple Pithiviers pie

For a long time, as a child, I was puzzled by the name of one of my favourite pastries, which appeared quite often on our family dessert table. Never having heard of the town in the Orleans region where this lovely almond pie originated, I misheard 'Pithiviers' as 'petit vieux'--or 'little old man'. What little old men had to do with pies I had no idea, but I didn't ask the obvious question because there are so many other such bizarre names in traditional French cuisine--from the alcoholic 'confiture de vieux garcon', or 'old boy's jam' I wrote about in a previous post to the rather coarser 'pet de nonne' (literally 'nun's fart') which was the popular, traditional name given to the deliciously light and sweet choux pastry known these days, much more discreetly, as a 'religieuse'.

It was only when one day, leafing as a teenager through Dad's Larousse Gastronomique, that I came across the entry for Gateau Pithiviers that the penny finally dropped. As a teenager struggling to appear dignified, I was of course very glad I hadn't asked any silly questions, imagining the mortification and the endless reminders about my ridiculous mistake from my siblings!

Misheard moniker or not, I still love Pithiviers pie every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. And these days not only do I make my own but I've devised my own version of it which is very very easy to make.

Traditionally, Pithiviers pie is made with puff pastry, but my version uses a much quicker and easier rich shortcrust pastry which though it doesn't puff, does flake quite satisfactorily in a similar way to puff pastry, and it's also deliciously moist so stays fresh for longer. Puff pastry is lovely but not only is it time-consuming (if not difficult) to make, it also tends to be at its best on the day it's baked, and that goes for the shop variety too. The pastry I make for my Pithiviers pie can be easily made at home, with flour, butter and either buttermilk(which you can buy in the supermarket in cartons, look in the dairy section) or if you don't have that, a mixture of yoghurt and sour cream. I put no water in it at all. You could use just yoghurt or justsour cream if you want but experiment has proved to me that only using yoghurt makes the pastry too sour while only using sour cream makes it too heavy. Buttermilk is ideal, but the mixture of sour cream and yoghurt also works very well. I also never ever put almond essence in the almond paste which is the filling of the pie, as I loathe the taste of it in sweets(I don't mind it in liqueurs). Instead I use vanilla essence mixed in with the almond meal, sugar, softened butter and egg yolk.

A wonderful alternative to the basic almond filling of Pithiviers pie is substituting the almond meal for hazelnut meal, and the vanilla essence for melted chocolate. Otherwise it's made the same.

Here's the recipe for my Gateau Pithiviers a la mode frangourou: (makes a small pie suitable for four people at one sitting)


150 g plain flour

50 g cold unsalted butter

Buttermilk, or sour cream and yoghurt.


125 g almond meal.

50 g castor sugar.

1 egg yolk.

About 30-40 g softened unsalted butter.

drop vanilla essence

Optional: drop armagnac or cognac

For glaze: 1 egg yolk.

To make pastry, cut the butter into pieces and rub through flour till mixture ressembles fine breadcrumbs. Add enough buttermilk or sour cream/yoghurt to make a soft but not sticky dough. Set aside to rest in a cool place while you make the filling.

Mix almond meal, sugar, egg yolk, softened butter and vanilla essence in a bowl, and brandy too if you wish(I mix the whole thing with my--clean!--hands, it's easier to get a nice consistency than using a spoon.) It needs to be fairly soft but holding together well, a bit softer than bought marzipan.

Divide the pastry in slightly unequal halves(the bit for base and sides needs to be a bit greater than the bit for the top. ) Roll out each part. Lay the base and sides part in a buttered pie dish and then spread the almond mixture over it to cover it to every corner. Place the pie lid on top of that, pinch sides together. Then paint top with egg yolk and score it with a sharp knife taking care not to go right through top(it's just for decoration really.) Bake in a moderate oven for about 40minutes.

It's just as good freshly made as the next day, and as delicious warm as cold.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Childhood markets:1: Samatan, Gers

One brown-leafed French November morning in my childhood, we are rattling along the road towards Samatan, in the heart of the Gers, Gascony of old. And here it is, its signboard proudly proclaiming, in the manner of all provincial French towns proudly listing their assets, Sa piscine. Sa foire a l'oie. No,we definitely haven't come to Samatan for its swimming pool, even though it's been listed first, where other places would have son chateau or son eglise, its castle or church. We've come for the goose fair, a cold-season event that draws in immense crowds from all over the region, from across France, even from around Europe. I imagine something huge, polite, dignified, all the Michelin-crowned cooks of Europe coming together in some kind of white palace of gourmandism.
The reality couldn't be more different. We park in the mud, on the verge of an immense corrugated iron warehouse. The morning's frost is still visible near the sides of the building, delicate traceries spoiled by splashes of mud, and all around us are farmers' battered cars, and there are throngs of men in berets and old jackets and women in short hairstyles, little gold earrings and the dark flowered overalls that you see for sale in country markets. Accents as thick as yeasty fougassse, as succulent as confit, simmer around us, and my father's own Southern accent boils over in response. I've imagined I'd see foie gras dealers from Paris in shiny smart moccasins and shiny black raincoats; but it seems they are more canny than that, and are hiding indistinguishable in the crowd, their pointy Parisian accents jettisoned along with their pointy shoes.
Inside, organised chaos reigns. There are lines of women, sitting heavily besides wicker cages full of yelling geese and ducks. There are huge men presiding over long tables displaying waxy white carcases; there are sharp-eyed men and women watching carefully over kingdoms of foie gras, where the massive livers rest in state in gleaming glass dishes. My father pulls us to and fro, his eyes gleaming, his words bubbling with a daube-like richness of anticipation. 'Look at this one, hmm! Oh--look at that goose, it seems so suprised..Ah, how well this one looks..!' In front of the tables of foie gras, he looks wistfully at the great livers, spreading gently in their dishes. 'Hah..that one's good. I must say, I prefer duck liver to goose..' A thin little woman behind the counter calls out crossly, 'You don't know what you're talking about, monsieur! Everyone knows it's the goose liver that is the queen, in the Gers!'
'Hah,' Dad snorts challengingly, but she's turned to another customer, a real customer, not a purse-tight dilettante critic, and her words have become as soft and golden as a merveille, that light fried Southern pastry.
Another table has beautiful pieces of magret, and pieces suitable for confit, and we look at the golden tangle of breast and leg, smelling already the smell of liquifying poultry fat. Oh, how I love dipping a piece of bread in the fat, then frying it till it's crisp, yellow as gold! But Dad says, 'No, we'll do it ourselves, I don't like buying meat already cut, it's no good,' and the protector of the magrets calls after him, 'What would you know? Damn foreigners, thinking they know better than us!' Dad retorts stiffly that he's from Toulouse, but the man shrugs, unimpressed. He turns eagerly to another customer, a thin man in a too-new beret who I think must be a Parisian dealer. The new customer's voice is sharp and thin and precise as a pin, and Dad, hearing it, mumbles, bitterly, 'Hah, and that one talked about foreigners!'
We come to the tables laden with goose and duck bodies, their heads and necks dangling over the edges of the tables, their great oval bodies a satiny pinky-white, perfectly plucked. Dad peers at them all. He looks at the gimlet-eyed man behind the table. 'How much do you want for this one?' he says, pointing casually at the biggest goose, managing to convey the impression that he is doing the man a favour. Gimlet-Eyes is not convinced. In a red-wine voice, he mutters, "The best goose. The best.' And he names a price. 'Take it or leave it,' he adds challengingly.
'You don't mean that,' Dad says, and I squirm in embarassment. Why does he have to bargain, why do both my parents do it? Maman even tried it once or twice in department stores in Sydney, the ultimate in shame.
Gimlet-Eyes repeats his price. ' No more, no less.' Why doesn't Dad simply pay? What the man's asking is hardly expensive. The bird is huge.
'From the best farm in the Gers,' Gimlet-Eyes says, fiercely, and then to my surprise, suddenly lowers his price.
Back home, Dad brings out the goose, and rubs his hands together with satisfaction. 'A good price, if I may say so,' he says. 'You have to watch out for those paysans. Cunning as foxes, they are!'