Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Artichoke Fields--an essay

It is a hot day in the early seventies, and we children are fighting in the back of the car. Dad is driving steadily, smoothly, as he always does, driving as if he is anticipating all kinds of possible dangers, as if twenty-five years or so of driving have not innured him to the myriad possibilities of change. When I am older, it comes to me that this is how he has lived his whole life, on the brink, never taking it for granted, trying hard to keep control of it yet painfully aware of the knife-edge of life, of the way in which, in a second, things can change forever. When I am older, it comes to me that I am similar, driven to achieve, pursued by the awareness of life's fragility, the swiftness of time passing. But at the time, his careful driving is merely another of the traits, the shorthand of experience, which, together, make up "Dad"-- a person you accept unthinkingly, as you accept your mother, or your brothers and sisters. Dad is careful yet can also be awesomely impulsive; Maman is impulsive yet can also be icily logical. You don't think too much about those uneasy conjunctions; as a child, you rely on signs, on the known, and somehow accomodate those things, together.
But here we are, driving. The vinyl of the seats sticks to our thighs, and the warm closeness of a brotherly or sisterly leg leads to sotto voce quarrels about the most ridiculous things possible. It's summer, and we are driving for what seems like hours, to the other side of Sydney, into the wildness of Blacktown. As we approach its rural outskirts, Dad sits up more in his seat. Even though--or maybe because--he is city born and bred, he loves the country with a fervour born of happy memories of his great-grandparents' place in the Aveyron. He says, "It's astonishing, isn't it, to see how hard these people work, " and his tone is gentle, wondering, filled with the pleasure of its simplicity. It is traditional for him to say this, here; yet always Maman nods, always we hear him without wondering at its repetition.
We stop in front of the house. It is a very simple fibro house, and we have only been further than the kitchen once or twice. But the house is unimportant. What is important is beyond it, in the flat fertile acres that surround the house, making it an island out of time, its Australianess an incongruity in the Europeaness of cultivated fields. For here are not acres of wheat, or of the other large, fullscale crops we associate with this vast land; but the smaller, denser patches of vegetables: lettuce in serried rows, tomatoes, ripening in sunrise colours, spinach and leeks and, especially, most especially, the artichoke fields. There they stand, tall and fierce in their greens and purples, acres of them, their tightly-packed heads swaying on their strong stems. Some of them are already going to flower; and their perfume--a strong, sweet smell, like wild honey--fills the air. They are beautiful, beautiful and wild as a Van Gogh painting. The sight of them always catches at my throat, so that even now, years later, I can see them, smell them, and wonder at the selectiveness of memory that will keep such pictures and not others. And, like a Van Gogh painting, if you don't simply stand on the sidelines, admiring, but venture inside them, the artichoke fields will reveal all kinds of unexpectedly painful things.
The farmers come to greet us, their very brown, very wrinkled faces split by their smiles into a thousand more tiny rivulets. I never learnt their names, and to me, at that age, they look immensely old, agelessly old, like peasants in an old picture. They are small, both of them, both dressed in black: but he is lean and wiry, with wild grey hair and sharp pale eyes, while she is round as she is high, her breasts like enormous soft pillows under her dress, her hair done up in a floppy bun, her eyes like lively brown birds in their nest of wrinkles. She is Maltese, he is a Yugoslav. Dad, accustomed, at the building sites he supervises, to working with men insisting on their Croatianess, or Serbianess, or Bosnianness, wonders at the farmer's calm avowal of being 'Yugoslav'--what does this show about his politics?--but does not press the point. But on the way home, he will say, "Hmm, say what you like, I've always found Yugoslavs difficult people to fathom. It's really the extremity of Europe, you know. . " And I wonder at the need of adults, too, for shorthand, for second hand wisdoms.
But Dad finds the woman farmer, the Maltese, very sympathetic. "Eh, paysan!" she says, or that's what it sounds like, in her shrill voice. Her voice, too, is ageless; we have heard, on a record at home, Portuguese peasant girls singing in exactly the same kind of shrill voices, voices you never hear, otherwise, in Australia. I think that her version of 'paysan' means something akin to friend, or compatriot, fellow-spirit, perhaps. Whatever it means, Dad is immensely proud of it. He preens under the accolade which she shrewdly--but not insincerely--gives him. Maman is more circumspect; she is closer--only one generation removed--from a peasant origin, and she has few illusions about it. "She's a good saleswoman, " is all she will say, later, when Dad, talking nineteen to the dozen, drives us back to our somnolent, rich suburb where ennui attacks his restless spirit like a physical pain.
They talk in a mixture of languages; some English, mixed with Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and even a bit of patois, the Occitan-derived dialect of the Toulouse area. Dad is always thrilled when the two farmers prove to understand some of the patois; he sees a connection between all kinds of European languages (or at least the Latin ones)and to hear this confirmed, especially here, the patois under the alien sky, is a source of joy.
We walk with them down the paths that lead away from the incongruous Australian house(where their only child, a daughter, sits eating biscuits in front of the television) and into the European preserves of the farm. Here, before you reach the hand-cultivated fields of vegetables, are neatly-arranged poultry runs, with chickens running about, and rows of rabbit hutches, where blink fat rabbits. There are no pets or superfluous things; in this setting, away from the house which diminishes them, the farmers are tough, witty, their tenacity written in their faces, with none of the bewilderment which must seize them, more than once, in this country. I look at them and think of their daughter and how it must be for them all when they have to come up to the school. When my parents come, I am in agony of fear, hoping they won't say the 'wrong' thing in the 'wrong' sort of accent. There are other people we know, Italians, whose attitude towards their educated children is humble, frighteningly so. My parents aren't like that, at all; yet I wonder how these two, these farmers, and their daughter, must feel like, when they have to leave the artichoke fields and go to the school, or the supermarket, or the myriad things one must do in such a society. It makes me squirm, this thought, and so I turn away from it, and towards the fields. It never occurs to me , of course, that maybe it did not touch them, that the shame may only be in the minds of self-conscious children.
At first, we look in the hutches, say, "Isn't that one sweet?" and the farmer smiles, showing bad teeth, and says, in her appallingly accented English, "Good eating, that one!" We are at the age, in the place and time where such statements appear callous; so we are silent, and ignore Dad's I-told-you-so-grin. He has often said we are becoming too soft, sentimental, Australian; Europeans are tough people who look reality in the face. You like lapin a la moutarde? Right, well then you must be ready to first catch your rabbit and kill it. . Or to plunge your hands without disgust into the freshly-killed carcase of a chicken and make it into an objet de table, a dish, rather than a once-living thing. We are tenderhearted; but our feelings never extend to the nicely trussed, carefully jointed meat dish that appears on the table. . .
Now she is walking in the artichoke fields, talking shrilly, a mixture of salty comment on current events, and wild praise of her vegetables. He is silent ("Taciturn, like all Yugoslavs, " Dad is delighted to say, and I wonder a little at how adults seem to need the shorthand of second-hand wisdoms, too). But he smiles quite a bit, and touches the plants, gently, as if he is greeting each. That, surely, is folly. He and his wife are unsentimental, without fancy or falsity, honest, as the French saying has it, as ‘du bon pain’. But that, surely, is a sentimentality, too; for I have heard Maman saying that these two never lose ‘le nord’, always stick to what they know they want, and are not above using cajoling or even a judiciously-placed marketing ploy to sell their vegetables. They are not doing this for fun, for ‘du folklore’: that is the mistake of urban people, throughout the ages. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder.
Every so often, the farmer stops. She throws an arm out to her husband: this one. She stoops, cuts the stem, throws the vegetable into the basket he is carrying. Dad trots just behind her, asking her all kinds of questions. She answers with aplomb and humour, in her shrill voice, while her husband fills the basket and smiles what my mother would call a 'corner' smile; half-sceret, enigmatic. We children and Maman follow behind desultorily; the smell of the big vegetables fills our nostrils with a heady odour, their sharp thorns prick the unwary child who leaves the narrow paths between the rows. We all love artichokes; some Sunday nights, that's all we've eaten, an enormous tureen filled to the top with the boiled vegetables, served with vinaigrette on each person's plate. The table would fill up with mountains of discarded leaves, plundered for their bit of sweet flesh, then put aside for the next one. There is something addictively wonderful about artichokes; the more and more frenetic peeling-back of leaves, till you get to the 'straw' inside, and peel that off as cleanly as a bandage, to reveal the succulent flesh of the heart. We ate the stems, too; the Blacktown farmers always sold us young, fresh artichokes, so that their stems were as tender as asparagus. Occasionally, we'd eat them with butter and garlic, or tomatoes. But the simple one, the boiled-and-vinaigrette ones was what we preferred.
We always lingered in those fields, dodging thorns, and in areas where the purple flowers were really out, the bees as well, maddened, as we were, by the heavy smell of the artichokes. Once, I remember, the farmer picked one of the flowers and gave it to me. The unexpectedness of the gesture made me blush, and for the rest of our time there, I couldn't resist putting my nose as close as possible to the flower. I've always been sensitive to smells, finding them powerful evokers of emotion and place, and now, I try to think what it was that made this smell so heady. Roses smelt sweeter, muskier, richer; vanilla smelt more homely and tender; the thick brown smell of meat made me feel hungrier. This was a smell of almost-wildness, of something only just tamed, and only dimly understood, something whose discovery was concealed under layers of half-meanings. It was not the smell of careful, cultivated Europe, neatly arranged, tamed and civilised, the Europe of the mythologisers or the nostalgic. Rather, it was the smell of the Europe whose inheritance was mine, which seeped into me like instinct, but was submerged, like instinct, for a long time. A Europe--a France-- not only of the mind or of the comfortable senses; but also one of the blood's leap, of the pain of rejection. The France my father felt in exile from, the France my mother followed him from, despite her own rather less ambivalent feelings. A corner of Europe forever elusive, never pinned down, half-wild, half-tame, of heady, unforgotten smell, uncomfortable at times, maybe never to be fully understood.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Marvellous vinegar

Vinegar—vinaigre in French(literally, 'sour wine') is one of my favourite things. I love tangy sharp tastes like citrus and sorrel anyway, but vinegar's even better because there's so many flavours and styles it comes in! I love trying out new ones in vinaigrettes to go with all sorts of different salads, and I love adding it to dishes—from a splash of balsamic vinegar near the end of cooking a rich Bolognaise sauce to the stewing of red cabbage in red wine, brown sugar and either red wine or cider vinegar, to the glorious chicken in vinegar sauce that's one of my favourite classic French bistro dishes(the pieces of chicken are first cooked in a little butter, moistened with stock and simmered, then a tablespoon of white wine vinegar or cider vinegar is added, about five minutes before cooking ends, and then a mixture of Dijon mustard, tomato paste and a little sour cream is stirred in and heated through. Absolutely delicious!) And of course we pickle all kinds of garden vegetables—beetroot, cauliflower, sweet corn, tomatoes and more—in a mixture of vinegar and water. Vinegar is also excellent to cut down salt if you've overdone it in a dish; or to moderate the reaction that cabbages and other brassicas can have on the digestion(I add a splash of vinegar to the water they cook in)and apparently, as I read recently in an article, it can even cut down on the starch and thus the calories in potatoes(also added to cooking water or sprinkled on baked dishes). Vinegar is also good for getting clothes completely clean—with a little added to the rinse cycle--and cider vinegar is renowned too for its glossing effect on hair a little added to the rinse water when you're washing your hair!
There are so many delicious vinegars available: from red and white wine vinegar to cider vinegar, herb-flavoured ones like tarragon vinegar(in white wine vinegar base); fruit-flavoured vinegars, like the lovely raspberry vinegar, all of which are very popular in France; classic Italian red balsamic vinegar but also the white balsamic(which I prefer to the red variety); Asian vinegars, such as the rice wine vinegars popular in Japan and China, and the cane sugar vinegar traditional to the Philippines. When my parents first arrived in Australia in the early 60's, they were horrified to discover that the only vinegars available were the brown and white malt vinegars, which they felt to have little character or taste. Cider vinegar was occasionally available, but rarely. These days though even our supermarket shelves are groaning with different varieties, though apart from the cider vinegars of Tasmania, and malt vinegars(which are made from beer), I don't think any of them are locally-produced.
But we have our own very locally produced vinegar to use in vinaigrettes and dishes this year, thanks to a brilliant fruiting season and the huge harvest of pears we had from our orchard. David made two big batches of perry(like apple cider, except made from pears, and a beautiful light flavourful drink, with an alcohol content pretty much like cider) and devoted one batch to turn into vinegar(the other batch was bottled for drinking—a great drop!)
Once that designated batch was ready as perry, he simply exposed it to the air to sour it. It made a nice pale yellow vinegar but it was a little weak so he followed a great tip in the classic household cookery book of the 'Russian Mrs Beeton', Elena Molokhovets, about leaving home-made vinegar in a container outside overnight in winter then bringing it inside in the morning, taking out the lump of ice that had formed at the top—and hey presto, underneath would be the concentrated liquid vinegar. Well, our winters are pretty cold but not quite as severe as in Russia, so instead we put our container in the freezer, took it out the next morning, and just as Elena had said, there was the lump of ice at the top,taking away all the water in the vinegar, and there underneath was the concentrated item, with a vastly improved strength and flavour.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Roast duck, cumquats and mirepoix

We used to keep ducks here on our block, Muscovies which make the best eating(at least if you don't have access to the great south-western French breeds), but though they were prolific and gave us many delicious dinners and confits and my all-time favourite, duck prosciutto(duck breast dry-salted and air-dried, with as delicious pepper-studded rind) we(or rather David, whose province it was) got fed up of the huge amount of work involved. Plus we were 'ducked-out' in terms of dinners—when you have to get through fourteen ducks in a row, you do tend to get rather jaded!
But it's been years now since we had any ducks at home and though we did eat the odd duck breast back in Paris last year, duck dinners are pretty rare these days on our table, given duck is a pretty expensive meat to buy here, but also the commercial variety available is nowhere near as meaty as French ducks, so you get much less for your money. So when we spotted a reduced-price duck in the supermarket the other day, we were delighted, and the roast duck dinner David made was a positive treat!
He re-invented the classic duck with oranges to make it duck with cumquats(from our little hothouse tree). He put half a dozen cumquats in the duck while it was roasting, and then made a 'mirepoix' for it, with chopped up carrots, onions and herbs, very finely cut and cooked in butter and a little wine and water, salt and pepper, then mashed. This was served alongside the duck, and the cumquats also ladled out and served with the meat. Roast potatoes, pumpkin and steamed brussels sprouts, all from the garden, completed a magnificent main course, which went down well with some good white wine.
(Entree incidentally was a salad of shaved Bruny Island 'Tommy' cheese walnuts and lettuce, dessert a divine passionfruit tart whose recipe came from a Neil Perry column in the SMH's Good Weekend magazine.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fabulous fondue

Australians tend to assume that fondues are 'retro', 'seventies', but in fact though they became popular here in the 70's, they've always been popular in France and continue to be so. The classic fondue is of course not French but Swiss—bread dipped in melted cheese, accompanied by mugs of beer. When we were kids, we had Swiss neighbours across the road from opur house in Sydney and we sometimes went to the Jenatschs' place for the hearty mountain dish(we weren't allowed the beery accompaniment of course!)

But Mum also made the classic French fondue, which has no cheese or bread, but rather very good fillet beef sliced thin and cooked in the fondue pan very quickly in olive oil and eaten on the spot with maybe a dipping sauce of some sort. That's the famous 'Fondue Bourguignonne' and I was always much fonder of that than the cheese one which filled you up too quickly! We loved it—it felt like a kind of camping cooking, only without the flies, and you could choose exactly how much your meat was cooked.
Since then we've made different sorts of fondues ourselves here—delicious fish ones with tuna or salmon or white fish dipped quickly in simmering fish stock, or ginger broth, or any number of possibilities, with dipping sauces ranging from Asian ones to Hollandaise; beef or lamb in oil or a mixture of oil and stock with mint sauce or red currant jelly or mustard or horseradish or just about anything, really! Then there's the gorgeous one we made the other day, with kangaroo dipped in a simmering broth made from a dash of olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped herbs, a splash of red wine, and water. We had two dipping sauces with it: home-made Bearnaise and a Basque sauce called Sakari which we brought back from France(it's made on a basis of capsicums and tomatoes and herbs), some simple vegetables, and a salad. Not only was it delicious, but it also, as my daughter Pippa, who hadn't had a fondue since she left home years ago, commented, 'it reminds you just what fun it is!'

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Family recipes 8: Joe's roast bird

My lovely son-in-law Joe Vaughan isn't just a great guy, but also a fantastic cook! He and my equally culinarily talented daughter Pippa (see Family recipes 2, )cook up a brilliant storm at their place. Here's one of Joe's succulent signature dishes, the best roast chicken you'll ever taste!
1 free range chicken, I large clove of garlic or two small cloves, crushed; Couple of sprigs of thyme (leaves picked), roughly chopped; Zest of half a lemon, roughly chopped; 3 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped; 50g diced butter; Rosemary, to stuff cavity; Lemon, to stuff cavity; Thyme, to stuff cavity; Olive oil; Salt and pepper
1.Preheat oven to 200 c.
2.To start, leave chicken in room temperature for half an hour and separate skin carefully from meat using fingers.
3.Put crushed garlic, chopped thyme, lemon zest and anchovy fillets in a mortar and pestle and bash in to a paste.
4.Add diced butter to paste and mix.
5.Carefully insert paste and butter mixture under the skin getting right in to all areas (wings, legs, back and front).
6.Stuff cavity with half a lemon, some more thyme and rosemary and then place chicken on a bed of thyme, bay leaves and rosemary in a roasting pan.
7.Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper.
8.Place chicken in oven for 20 mins at 200 c and then 180 c there after till juices run clear. Total time should be 1 hour.
9.Once cooked, bring chicken out and let it rest for 20 mins under loose foil.
10.Serve with whatever sides you want (pictured here: roast duck fat potatoes, steamed broccoli, sautéed zuchinni and a star anise jus!).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Fudge family in Paris

One of my recent antiquarian purchases is 'The Fudge family in Paris' , a collection of satirical and comic verse letters which tell of the adventures of the Fudges, an Anglo-Irish family, in Paris after the end of the Napoleonic wars, when English and Irish tourists flocked to France again. Though supposedly found and edited by 'Thomas Brown, the Younger, author of the Twopenny Postcard', it is actually the work of the famous Irish poet Thomas Moore. First published in 1818, it was a massive hit straight away--my edition is from 1818 but it is the seventh edition! We get the perspectives of four characters: father Phil Fudge, children Bob and Biddy, and tutor Phelim Connor, each of whom writes several letters to their friends back home. Each character sees Paris through their own point of view and own obsessions: for Phil Fudge it's politics(his letters are toadying missives to his patron the British foreign secretary), for Biddy romance, for Phelim regret for Napoleon(a controversial stance in the day!)and for Bob, dandy and bon vivant, writing to his fellow gourmet Dick back home, it's the restaurants! He's constantly singing the praises of French food and wine, and listing all kinds of favourite dishes, like this description of a copious and well-liquored breakfast menu:

One's pate of larks, just to tune up the throat,

One's small limbs of chicken, done en papillotte,

One's erudite cutlets, drest all ways but plain,

Or one's kidneys--imagine, Dick!--done in champagne!

Then some glasses of Beaune, to dilute, or mayhap,

Chambertin, which you know's the pet tipple of Nap (ie Napoleon),

And which Dad, by the way, that legitimate stickler,

Much scruples to taste, but I'm not so parti'clar-

Your coffee comes next, by prescription, and then, Dick's,

The coffee's ne'er failing and glorious appendix,

A neat glass of parfait-amour, which one sips

Just as if bottled velvet tipped over one's lips.

After this gargantuan repast, off he goes sauntering to the boulevards to check out the world promenading there, especially the pretty girls--life's good, in Paris!

Bob keeps away pretty much from his papa's tedious politics apart from the odd dig(as above), but his one contribution to comment on world events is in this lovely bit when he muses about the post-war settlement and the opinion in much of Europe that the French should be made to pay heavily for the bloody wars they had inflicted on the whole continent under first the Revolution and then Napoleon. Yes, says Bob,they can all go to the devil, all except for their cooks:

But think, Dick, their cooks--what a loss to mankind!

What a void in the world would their art leave behind!

Their chronometer spits--their intense salamanders--

Their ovens, their pots, that can soften old ganders,

All vanish'd for ever, their miracles o'er,

And the marmite perpetuelle(never-ending pot)bubbling no more!

Forbid it, forbid it, ye Holy Allies,

Take whatever ye fancy, take statues, take money--

But leave them, oh leave them their Perigueux pies,

Their glorious goose-livers, and high pickled tunny!

Though many, I own, are the evils they've brought us,

Though Royalty's here on her very last legs,

Yet who can help loving the land that has taught us

Six hundred and eighty-five ways to dress eggs?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Simply perfect

Here's my idea of a simply perfect entree: made from absolutely fresh salad ingredients from the garden and greenhouse--lettuce, tomatoes, carrots--dressed with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard(no salt needed)and a dab of home-made mayonnaise, and with a centrepiece of a few small thin slices of that gorgeous Bulgarian sheep's milk feta you can get in the supermarket now plus olives from our own harvest.
Grated carrot salad forms the 'backbone' as it were of this entree—this salad is probably the most common and popular entree in French cafes—and there you can also buy ready-prepared tubs of it in traiteurs and at the supermarket. But it's dead easy to make. You just grate the raw carrot, add the vinaigrette(it is also nice with mayonnaise) and hey presto! Light, tasty, digestible and colourful, it makes a perfect entree on its own or combines easily with lots of things. Grated celeriac is also delicious done this way, as well as grated fresh beetroot and grated turnip.