Monday, October 31, 2011

Tis the time for elderflower pop

Elderflower pop is one of those quintessentially English drinks that sounds like it belongs in an Enid Blyton book and so maybe it does but it also belongs most emphatically on the table. Delicately fragrant, deliciously refreshing and naturally brewed, it is one of the most pleasant summer drinks I know, and it tastes so much better home-made than buying it ready-made or as a cordial.
The elderflowers are out now so we've started making batches of it already. Basically, for a five litre mix, you need, first, about ten elderflower heads in full bloom. Pick them in full sun, because that releases their natural yeasts, it is definitely not a good idea to pick them when it's wet or even cloudy. You also need about 700 grams white sugar, 5 litres water, 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar.
As soon as you've picked the flower heads, put them in a clean bucket or very large bowl along with the lemon juice, grated lemon rind, the sugar, and the vinegar. Add the cold water, stir till sugar has dissolved and leave to steep for 24 hours. Strain into clean old plastic soft-drink(best not to use glass, in case of explosions!) close tightly, and leave for at least two weeks. You will know when the pop is ready to drink by feeling the bottle--when it is tight, the pop has fizzed and you will be able to enjoy a lovely sparkling drink!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bread, the staff of life

A few years ago, when Jacques Chirac was President of France, he gave an internationally-reported speech to the country's master bakers, lamenting the fact that so much of the bread that was now sold in France was in his opinion no longer fit to be called real bread.
It might seem odd to a non-French person that a President should see fit to make a speech about bread, but then the French have always been very serious about their bread. Remember the fate of poor Marie Antoinette, who, upon being told the people had no bread, blithely advised them to eat cake.Of course she never said such a thing; it's a slander designed after her death to destroy even further the 'Austrian woman's' reputation; but it is an illustration of the fact that to say such a thing is heresy in France. Cake is all very well; but bread, ah, bread! It's not only the staff of life, it is a real passion.
It was always the first thing I and my siblings would dive on when we came back to France for holidays; real bread, yes, and real butter, long before we even thought of nice little gateaux!
In France,people drive kilometres out of the way to queue up in more or less patient lines outside bakeries reputed for their bread.(A visiting East European friend of ours, seeing this once, couldn't believe their eyes."I thought you had no shortages here!" he exclaimed despairingly.) These days, as Chirac claimed, the battle rages over whether the fluff contained in cardboard which too many supermarkets and hypermarkets hawk under the name of bread, should be declared illegal to save France's reputation .Poilane breads and their imitators--wholemeal, multigrain, rye--have also made inroads into the traditional wood-oven-fired, crusty white baguettes and ficelles that are still very much the stereotypical image of French bread.People argue whether 'real' French bread is the city type(baguettes, ficelles and their ilk)or country breads such as pain de campagne, a whitish bread made using not baker's yeast but sourdough, which keeps much better than the city breads.
In the villages, the baker still calls in his van every couple of days. It is an occasion for gossip and the surreptitious summing-up for more gossip opportunities. I remember when we used to go on holidays to the little Southern village where my parents had a house, being pumped by all the village women as to what my parents, 'the Americans', as they were called(despite the fact they were actually French and lived in Australia!)were up to now. Old people no longer capable of hobbling out into the street to commune with the baker, like the 94 year old woman across the road from us one summer in yet another little Southern village,hoist baskets down to him into the street on ropes. The baker knows everyone's preferences; for her, a peasant through and through, who had scarcely left the village, (and had some fine stories to tell about it)it was the fine city bread, just as she preferred fillet steak to the rich, pungent peasant stews we all exclaimed over. But the bread was a matter of intense debate; and in the markets, it was even more so.People stopped in front of the bread stalls and prodded, poked and looked carefully, while the baker extolled his or her wares in a raucous voice. Some of the breads were not cheap, either.Staff of life they might be; but some of those staffs of life must have been gilded to warrant their price.
French food has always been as diverse and as rich as it has, because of the country's strong peasant heart combined with bourgeois traditions. In the past, it was not easy to find exotic food there--there were many cafes and restaurants serving excellent, reasonably-priced French food, but very few, and even fewer in the provinces, offering 'exotic' cuisines. As in China, the variety and diversity of food here did not incline people to experimentation with other kinds of cooking. That has now changed, perhaps as the peasants have become rather richer, more powerful and fewer in number, due to the EU. It is rather an irony--and a pity--to think that French people might be getting more of a window on the rest of the world's table, but less variety, less real taste in their own. French culture is closely bound up with its 'quality of life', the prime strand of which is food. Bread is the litmus test for that and we have to keep a close eye on it, for if that goes, then everything else will follow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Homemade honey and pepper vodka

Last year, when we were in Russia, we tasted a whole lot of different vodkas, including some lovely flavoured ones. My favourite was a delicious honey pepper vodka(actually from Ukraine) which had a wonderful piquant sweetness that warmed the throat. But we couldn't find any to bring home and certainly you can't buy it here. So I decided to try making it and by dint of looking up in various Russian cookery books we have, found a sort of recipe--I say sort of because actually it just talked of pepper vodka, and I had to experiment myself with the honey. Anyway I made it and it turned out just wonderfully, and very reminiscent of that Ukrainian tipple!
I used Russian Standard vodka(by far the best vodka you can buy in Australia, in my opinion--it's from St Petersburg and made with the pure cold waters from massive Lake Ladoga)as a base, then added 10 whole black peppercorns, let it steep for 10 days, then after 10 days, strained the vodka, which had now turned a pale brown colour, and added one large tablespoon of Manuka honey(which happens to be my favourite honey), stirred it, and let it steep for another 3 days before drinking it. Great as an after dinner liqueur, though it can also be drunk as an aperitif. (In both cases in shot glasses).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Baked egg delights

Our chooks are producing so much at the moment and we are kept busy trying to think of new ways to cook eggs. At the moment I'm a bit obsessed with baked eggs, which I hadn't really cooked much before, and I've been trying out all kinds of variations on a theme. I've made them for entrees(one egg per person) and main courses(two eggs per person) and I guess I could make them for sweets too but I haven't tried that yet. Hmm, not sure I want to..
Anyway, I love baked eggs because they're so easy to do, so quick to cook, they look great in their ramekins, they taste fantastic, and you can do just about anything you want with them. And unlike say omelettes they always work for me! Here are some of the variations I've made:
*A basic sour cream and herb baked egg. Butter the ramekins, add a dollop of sour cream in which you've mixed herbs(tarragon, dill, sage, whatever) salt, and pepper, put the ramekins in bain-marie in a baking pan in the oven(moderate temperature), allow the cream to melt a little, then remove, crack the egg or eggs(depending on whether it's entree or main course)carefully into each ramekin, add another dollop of sour cream on top(no more than half-to a teaspoon for the top) , salt and pepper, and cook in bain-marie for 5-8 minutes, till the egg white is set, not jelly-like any more but not too hard set either.
*A smoked trout and herb baked egg. Chop up some smoked trout till fine, add dill, salt, pepper, a little Dijon mustard and sour cream till it makes a nice blended but not smooth mixture, put down bottom of buttered ramekin, but don't put in oven to melt. Instead crack egg or eggs in, add a half-teaspoon of sour cream, salt pepper, and cook as above. You can vary this by adding smoked chicken or ham or if you want a vegetarian variety, strips of haloumi cheese(already fried) or bits of feta or grated Gruyere or blue cheese or whatever. Mushrooms are also delicious in this base(cook the chopped mushrooms first in a little butter with garlic, salt and pepper and herbs before mixing in with the sour cream.)
*A tomato and capsicum baked egg, cooking the strips of capsicum in olive oil till soft(or roasting it)and adding chopped tomato and herbs to make a thick sauce, which you put down bottom, crack egg on top and drizzle a little olive oil on top. You can add olives or capers or whatever else you like to this one.
*A spinach and cheese baked egg. Cook the spinach till soft and mash it, add a little butter, a touch of sour cream or yoghurt, salt, pepper, and feta cheese or any other you'd like. Do the same as for other, and add a small knob of butter on top.
All these can easily be varied, and really the base is just whatever you'd like to dream up!