Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A menu of words

One of the really fun things about knowing more than one language is the way you can see not only how people's minds work differently in different languages, you can also see the affinities between languages, in ways that sometimes you'd not have thought about at all. I'm of course bilingual in French and English, studied German at school(and still have a bit of the language though am in no way fluent at all!) and know a smattering of Italian and Spanish from hearing my parents who can both speak it.
And I've been learning Russian for a few months now--something I've wanted to do for years but kept putting off because people were always saying how difficult it was--and maybe being put off by the look of the Cyrillic script too. Anyway, I found the perfect course online--Russian Accelerator, have gone ahead in leaps and bounds in simple and succint conversation through its unique and very natural methods, and discovered it was not only not difficult to pronounce, at least for me as a French speaker, but also that cracking Cyrillic was not hard. But also in the process I discovered some surprising affinities with French, and English, and other European languages as well, including German and Italian. One of those affinities lay in words for various foods, and it really got me thinking about the interesting pot of words whose ingredients different languages fish out and use and how many of those words have relationships with each other, across different languages.
Some are unsurprising: for example the word 'soup' is 'soupe' in French, 'suppe' in German, 'zuppa' in Italian, and суп (pron. 'soupe) in Russian. Or the word 'cotelette' in French, 'cutlet' in English, is котлета(kotlyeta) in Russian, but has undergone an interesting evolution in meaning, as котлета refers often to the tasty flat meatballs(beef, pork or lamb) which are beloved of Russians.
And then there's some surprising ones: take the word for that beautiful and ubiquitous red(or yellow or orange or even ranging to pink and purple)fruit which enlivens countless sauces, salads, soups and stews around the world, and is known as 'tomato' in English and 'tomate' in French, from the Central American Nahuatl word 'tomatl' meaning, 'the swelling fruit'. It's also known as 'tomate' in German, and more importantly also as 'tomate' in Spanish(the Spanish were the first Europeans to import the fruit, from their Central American colonies.) But in Italy, which we so associate with it in cooking now, it's 'pomodoro' literally, 'the golden apple.' And that's almost exactly what it is in Russian too: помидор (pronounced 'pomidor'), which gives you an idea that it probably was from Italy, and Italian cooks, that the fruit first came into Russian cooking.
Another interesting one to me was the word for 'potato', a food also Central American in origin of course, which is 'patata' in Spanish and Italian, but 'pomme de terre' or 'earth apple' in French(though we always called it 'patate' at home--my mother's family being partly of Spanish origin, so she simply frenchified the Spanish word). And in Russian, it's картошка (kartoshka) or sometimes картофель(kartofel) which of course reminded me irresistibly of the German 'kartoffel'. There's always been a German community presence in Russia, and maybe it was their propensity to good hearty potato dishes that also found its way into the Russian language. Staying with the good old Central American staples(and what wonderful culinary possibilities they gave us!)the lovely vegetable known as 'maize' or 'corn' in English-speaking countries is 'mais' in French, Italian and German, 'maiz' in Spanish(from a Central American word)--but in Russia they have their own native word, quite unrelated to the others, which I just love: кукуруза(kookoorooza). Yet though it had no relationship with the French word for the vegetable, it reminded me immediately of 'Cocorico!' which is what French roosters say, and which of course allied for me in my mind with the idea roosters, and chickens generally, love corn! (so the mind plays around, making fun connections!) I'll never forget that word now!
Another word which is similarly connected in a contradictory way for me, making it unforgettable, is the word for the fruit known as an 'orange' in many different European languages. Not in Russian, though: there it's апельсин (apyelsin), which reminded me of apple and hence of its 'opposite' --if you're comparing apples with oranges!
(By the way, the photos are: top, a market stall in Yaroslavl, Central Russia, which I visited on my 2010 trip to Russia; and bottom, market stalls in Paris, the same year. )

Monday, March 19, 2012

Guest post: Deborah Gray on pairing desserts and dessert wines

So often, the last course to a meal can be a neglected wine pairing. It might consist of dessert with espresso, a cheese plate or perhaps a Cognac or Port without any food accompaniment. Pairing a dessert wine with dessert is another opportunity to marry flavours and see the exponential affect this can have on the enjoyment of both. The goal is not to match them so closely that you end up swamping your mouth with sugary sweetness, neglecting the other elements of the dish and fatiguing your palate. A rule of thumb is to make the dessert wine sweeter than the actual dessert.

When my father started a vineyard at Cowra in New South Wales in 1973, he was literally breaking new ground in an area that had never seen a vine before. It was his entrepreneurial spirit that propelled him to pioneer grape growing in the region, but it was also his lack of experience that resulted in planting myriad varieties, some of which thrived, such as Chardonnay, and others turned out to have questionable suitability to the area, or at least without more individual attention to their development.

One particularly wet year, a mold called Botrytis attacked many of the different grape varieties, resulting in the loss of the reds. However, with the unintentional introduction of Botrytis in the Sauvignon Blanc block, a beautiful dessert wine emerged from the ruins. Botrytis is called “Noble Rot” in the wine world and is deliberately encouraged in some regions to produce some of the most sought after and expensive dessert wines on earth. The rarest of them all is Chateau d’Yquem Sauterne from France, the costliest white wine ever sold. My father’s Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc may not have been able to compete with Chateau d’Yquem, but it was, in the years it was accidentally produced, the most glorious example of nature’s kismet.

Without boring you with the biology of Botrytis, the essential action of this fungus is that it dehydrates the grape, resulting in very concentrated flavours of the original variety and imparting a pronounced honeyed apricot dimension. There are no detrimental affects and absolutely no sense of mold or fungus in the wine itself.

This dessert may require you to increase your aerobic exercise for the week, but is a delicious example of pairing the apricot flavours, whilst other more savoury, spicy ingredients keep it from being cloying.

Bread Pudding with Apricot Compote

9 oz. dried apricots
½ vanilla pod
Zest of ½ orange
½ cinnamon stick

5 thin slices of white bread (cut on a diagonal)
2 ¼ oz. (5 tbsp) butter, softened
3 ½ oz. (2/3 cup) sultanas
8 fl. oz (1 cup) cream
8 fl. oz (1 cup) milk
3 eggs
2 oz. (1/4 cup) sugar
1 vanilla pod
1 oz. (2 tbsp) icing (confectioners) sugar
1 oz. (2 tbsp) apricot jam
7 fl. oz clotted cream

1. At least two hours ahead, make the compote of apricots: bring 9 fl. oz (about 1 cup) water to the boil and pour over the apricots in a heat-proof bowl. Leave to stand for about 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, pour into a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Leave to cool and remove the vanilla and cinnamon.

2. Preheat the oven to 375°. Butter the bread and remove the crusts. Place one layer of bread on the base of a 10”x 6”x 2 1/2” rectangular baking dish and cover with a layer of sultanas. Place the rest of the bread on top.

3. Mix the cream, milk, eggs, and sugar, and pass through a sieve. Slice the vanilla pod down the centre and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds to the custard mixture, (discard the pod) and pour over the bread. Allow to soak for 5 minutes.

4. Place the dish in a bain-marie (or other shallow pan only partially filled with water so that it doesn’t overflow the sides) and bake in preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven (and bain-marie) and allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

5. Preheat a hot grill (broiler). Dust the pudding with icing sugar and glaze under the grill until golden, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn and rotating dish if necessary.

6. Spread the top with the apricot jam, cut into wedges and serve with a generous dollop of clotted cream and the compote of apricots. May also be served with crème anglaise.

Wine Pairing: Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc.

Many other custards or tarts, even pumpkin pie would also pair well with the wine, keeping in mind that the flavours must complement in some way and not conflict with the honey apricot of the wine. As an alternative, if the botrytis wine has a slightly dry finish (as the Cowra style did) it will even pair with something like pâté.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A link to a great piece

Some great weekend reading: A very nice piece by Dorette Snyder, head of a cooking school and aspiring author, on treating readers like fine diners

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bravo, Deborah!

Wine writer and importer Deborah Gray, who's contributed such interesting guest posts to A La Mode frangourou, has just come back from Paris and the World Gourmand awards where she not only had a brilliant time--but came second in the 'Best Professional Book in the World of Wine' category, racking up another great award for her book.
Read all about it here.
Congratulations, Deborah! Hope you had one or two celebratory champagnes!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Pleasures of English Food

I know--what's this heresy on A la mode frangourou? Surely no self-respecting French person would admit that 'pleasure' is a word to be used in conjunction with 'English food', or at least, only ironically; and few Australians, shuddering at the memory of the 'meat and three veg' of the past, would either. The adjective 'English' when used with the noun 'food' is often taken to be synonymous with bland, boring, overcooked, watery, too meaty or too stodgy and far too much dried fruit. The Larousse Gastronomique offers the lofty observation that English cooking owes much to the 'cuisine of the Middle Ages', while one definition of Hell goes thus: It's where the policemen are Germans, the lovers Swiss, the mechanics French, the bankers Italian, and the cooks English.

And yet--despite those amusing prejudices, there are many pleasures in traditional English food, and in this lovely little book, author Alan Davidson takes readers on a very pleasurable journey through them. He concentrates on the traditional dishes, everything from lardy cake to stargazy pie, Cumberland sausage to Cox's Orange Pippins and much more. e gives tips on Stiltons and afternoon tea, provides potted histories of all sorts of culinary curiosities, and the lively sparkle of his writing makes you remember that you can eat well in England, and very very well. And of traditional foods too, which are making a big comeback. Okay, so it's a much more limited range than in France(and it has to be said, Alan Davidson's book is rather slim!), but there are still some regional variations, and some lovely discoveries to make.

In my experience, as an anglophile(and how can I fail to be, married to an Englishman who's not only a great husband but a great cook too!)and also as someone who has visited England many, many times, the pleasures of English food are to be found in homes, and occasionally in pubs, and in specialist stores in the provinces as well as London. In the beautiful medieval town of Ludlow, for instance, there's a fantastic butcher for whose excellent sausages people queue up French-style; in Worcester and Hereford, there are bakeries selling wonderful pies and pasties, and cheese shops and so on, and you can find this sort of thing all over England(and in my view it's even more important such places can now be found in provincial towns, not just London, for this is where the strength of French food is for instance). The pride of the artisan is coming back, and that's great. And pubs will often sell this kind of traditional food, using local products--I remember a wonderful rabbit pie washed down with cider in Hereford, once, for example, served in the atmospheric surroundings of a 'snug'. In homes, meanwhile, I've eaten really delicious traditional dishes, beautifully-cooked, beautifully-presented.
But it also has to be said that aside from pubs(and only some of them even then) the quality of public food in England is dismal. Even in London, restaurants and cafes at the lower end of the scale serve stodgy tasteless fare; and at the upper end it's so ridiculously over-priced you practically need a mortgage to pay for it. In between are the bland and the okay and the forgettable, with little or no attempt made to showcase the excellent local produce, which is a great pity. Give them a copy of Alan Davidson's book, I say, and let them rediscover pride in their national food heritage!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012

A delicious impromptu menu

I love trying out new things out of cookbooks and recipes and shamelessly also plunder great ideas I've heard or read about or eaten in restaurants or at friends' and family tables. Those are the days I plan something at least a few hours ahead, and know in advance what my menu's going to be. But often it gets to that time of the day, and it's my turn for cooking, and totally absorbed in the book I'm writing, I haven't given a second's thought to what we're going to eat tonight. And so I just fling things together depending on what's around in the fridge, the cupboard, the garden. I think of it as a bit like telling an instant story without thinking about it, going from just one thing and building from it. (It's an exercise I love to do--I used to pretend as a kid that I was like Scheherazade and my life depended on my telling a story at the drop of a hat, without thinking about it!)
Anyway--The other day was one of those days. I had one basic thing to go from--a fresh local trout we'd bought but apart from that had no idea until I actually started cooking what I was going to do. The garden's full of overgrown squash and immature pumpkins at the moment(as well as ginormous pumpkins already), and there's also plenty of herbs, onions, sorrel, garlic, and some beetroot. No lettuce at the moment, but at last, quite a flush of tomatoes(they've come a lot later this year because of the unseasonally cool weather we've been having this summer, with so many grey days.)
This is what ended up on our table: a freshly-made borscht soup(not pictured, as we'd already eaten it when I took the photo!) as an entree, followed by trout baked in a little olive oil and a splash of tokay, served with a splash of tokay, with a sorrel sauce; a tomato and Spanish onion salad; and two inbetween size squash/soft pumpkins of the Golden Nugget variety(we tend to eat them, when small, as squash; when big and hard as pumpkins--but these were in between)with the flesh scooped out, sauteed in olive oil with garlic, onions and herbs, then put back into the shells, which were then baked. Dessert was a just-picked nashi pear each(there they are in the wooden bowl) as our nashi trees have been producing really well again this year.
All completely impromptu, without a single glance at a recipe book--and it all turned out really well!

My first home-made pasta!

I know, I know, hardly the most ground-breaking thing ever, lots of people make their own! Indeed in our house, David makes it fairly often, and he's made more than the bog-standard fettucine I made. He's made lasagna and ravioli of all sorts and all different kinds of long pasta also, spaghetti and linguine and fettucine etc. In fact he makes it so well I haven't bothered myself--and also, I was a bit nervous as to how mine might stack up against his! So I put it off for years, until the other day when for some reason I decided to bite the bullet.
And it turned out pretty well, for a first effort!
We make the basic pasta dough just with 120 gms of plain white flour and one egg, and a pinch salt. It makes more than enough pasta for two people. I served this one with a sauce made with bacon, dill, cream and mustard but also love the same pasta with vegetarian sauces, such as a rich tomato and basil sauce, or simply sprinkled with salt, a little olive oil, chopped up herbs (basil or oregano or coriander), and chopped up chilli.