Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pharmacy in a Bowl, from Love and Hunger

There are 75 recipes in Charlotte Wood's book, Love and Hunger. Today, she shares a delicious seasonal warmer with readers of A la mode frangourou.   

Seeing as we’re heading into cold weather, I‘m offering this big pot of simple lentil soup. I first made it once when I had a horrible head cold and became convinced it cured me – hence the name.

Pharmacy in a Bowl    

Olive oil •       5 cloves garlic, finely chopped •       1 brown onion, finely chopped •       2 small red chillies, finely chopped •       1 stick celery, finely chopped •       1 leek, finely chopped •       ¼ white cabbage, finely chopped •       1 red capsicum, roughly chopped •       3 carrots, roughly chopped •       3 litres chicken stock •       1 head broccoli, roughly chopped •       1 x 400g can tomatoes in juice •       1 cup Puy lentils (also known as ‘French-style’ or ‘blue’ lentils) •       Salt and pepper •       Parmesan cheese, grated .  

 1. Sauté the garlic, onion, chilli, celery, leek, cabbage, capsicum and carrots in batches in the oil until well browned.
 2.      Put the chicken stock in a big pot on the stove and bring to the boil, tossing in all the sautéed ingredients. Add broccoli and tomatoes, and simmer until all vegetables are tender.
 4.      Reserving stock, remove vegetables with a slotted spoon and puree in a food processor or blender until smooth (or roughly blended, depending on how rustic you like your texture).
5.      Return pureed vegetables to stock and add lentils. Simmer for about 15 – 20 minutes or until lentils are tender (more if you want them falling apart). Season well with salt and pepper.
 6.      Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan.
(Vegetarian option: replace chicken with vegetable stock)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Love and Hunger: an interview with Charlotte Wood

Sydney author Charlotte Wood's novels have garnered many awards, with her latest, Animal People (2011) longlisted for the Miles Franklin, and her 2007 novel The Children shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Association’s literary fiction book of the year. Her earlier novel, The Submerged Cathedral, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in its region in 2005, while her first book, Pieces of a Girl, was also shortlisted for several prizes. Praised as stylish, acute, intelligent and compassionate, her books have been popular with critics and readers alike. Charlotte is also the editor of the short fiction collection Brothers & Sisters (2009) which featured 12 of Australia's finest writers exploring sibling relationships.
Today I'm speaking with Charlotte about her forthcoming book, which is quite different to the others. Love and Hunger, released on April 30, is a non-fiction meditation on food and cooking and its emotional and symbolical resonances. It also includes some great recipes, one of which Charlotte is kindly sharing with readers of A la mode frangourou.
 Charlotte's author website is at 
There is also a separate website for Love and Hunger,
I'm publishing this interview in two parts, with the recipe to follow in a separate post. Enjoy!

SM: This is a very different kind of book about food, isn't it? How did it come about? 

CW: I had been writing a cooking blog for a few years (I started when our house was being renovated and all the disruption meant I couldn't work for concentrated periods on my novel) and found that I loved writing short, conversational pieces about what cooking means to me. The pieces often began with some little conundrum I'd had in the kitchen, or a fear of some technique or recipe or other (like making pastry – I had always been terrified of it), but also quite often broadened out into observations on more philosophical, abstract ideas about cooking and how it connects me to society and my place in the world. And I wanted to share recipes and have others share with me, naturally! When I finished my last novel Animal People I had an idea for a book that was purely practical - about how and what to cook for a friend in physical or emotional distress - but the publisher suggested something broader and more personal, which was a much better idea. And so we've ended up with a very personal book of pieces about how I learned to cook, why I love it, how it enriches my life, its connections to my literary work and the people in my life and so on. I am so glad I've written it. It's my first - and possibly only - book of non-fiction, but oddly for something so personal I found a great freedom in exploring and articulating what it is about cooking that I find so enriching.

 SM: From the Commonsense Cookery book to the proliferation of cookbooks we now see in the shops in Australia, it's been quite a jump. Why do you think cooking--writing about it, showing it on TV, talking about it -- has become such a big thing in this country? Do you think the public face of cooking undermines its private sphere or enriches it?

CW: Such a good question. I have a bit in the book, funnily enough, about how I hated the Commonsense Cookery Book and my school 'home economics' classes. It seemed to all be about deprivation and blandness and a correctly ironed apron than anything at all to do with pleasure or creativity, which of course is now what I am so in love with about cooking.  In terms of the proliferation of cooking shows and books and whatnot, who knows why it’s become so big. My first instinct is to say it’s a sign of greater affluence, but I don’t know if that’s right. I hope our growing concern about the damage we’ve done to the planet has something to do with it. Food production has such a serious effect on the environment, from the way it’s grown to the way food waste is disposed of, that it’s crucial we pay attention to it – hence the rise of organic and free range food and farmer’s markets and so on. Then there’s the competitive element of MasterChef and Iron Chef and so on, which is hugely entertaining.  I think anything that connects us more to where our food comes from and makes it easier and more pleasurable and fun to cook good food is to be welcomed. And anything that frames cooking as competitive, stressful, elite or expensive or difficult should be thoroughly challenged. I am as addicted to MasterChef as the next person - but I don't think it represents what home cooking is about. It is great entertainment, which as we fiction writers know requires drama and conflict and pressure. That's not what cooking at home has to involve. I love the entertainment, but I don't think performance anxiety is a good way to inspire anyone to cook. And I do worry about home cooking being elevated to a level of complexity and technical skill that used only to be found in restaurants, because I think it can set people up to fail.  On the other hand, people like Maggie Beer and Jamie Oliver, who have a kind of egalitarian, friendly-teacher ethos and infectious enthusiasm for making cooking easy and pleasurable - I bow down to them. I love them.  I guess my guiding ethos about cooking is that it should be easy and pleasurable.  Some people – like me - find that a perfectly boiled egg gives them that feeling of accomplishment and ease and others like to make chocolate soil or confit-gold-leaf blahdyblah, and good luck to them. It only bothers me when I see people trying too hard to impress, getting stressed out and resentful and feeling like a failure for not being able to reproduce a three-hatted restaurant dish in a domestic kitchen on a Friday night. That way madness lies.
SM: Coming from a French background, I've always been immersed in an atmosphere where food and cooking meals are traditionally an important part of culture itself, and it seems like that's certainly beginning to happen in Australia. But how deep do you think it's gone here? And in what way do you think it will develop? For example, will we start to see regional cooking styles, do you think?

CW:I doubt we will ever catch up to the French! What I love about France and Italy and China and other countries with such strong food cultures is that cooking seems so natural, to everyone from every class of society - food is, as you say, so deeply embedded in the culture that it has nothing to do with privilege or education in a formal sense. It's in the soil and the blood and the sap of the country and the people, whereas we are just starting to develop a naturalness with food now, I think.  I also can't see us developing regional cuisines comparable to those of the French or Italians, but I think this is a sign of our openness as a culture, and I like that. An Italian friend of mine once told me she had never eaten pesto (she was about 30) because "it's not from my region" - I nearly keeled over with horror. I can appreciate and absolutely respect the fact that regional cooking in Europe has maintained itself through a strict adherence to singular cultural traditions, and obviously that's why it's so strong. But we are too magpie-like here to do that - the history of Australia is all about absorption of new cultures into existing ones, blending and melding - and of course we're also too modern, have too much access to travel and so on to maintain any strict regional delineations about food.  That said, the vastness of the country and the different climates and seasons do obviously create their own physical regions. And I think now we're starting to respect an earthier natural relationship between us and our food - to do with seasons, and local produce and so on - so personally I hope that will continue to guide a regional relationship to food that comes from the earth.   

SM: Many of us get our interest in food from family--was that your case?

CW: Not really - I discuss quite a lot in the book how my mum was not a great lover of cooking. She was incredibly selfless and diligent and very proficient at feeding seven people every single day with food she made herself - we never ate much processed or packaged food, so she was really committed to nutritious and healthy, often home-grown food. But her love was the garden - the kitchen was duty, and she did it with great good humour, but it was love of her family rather than love of cooking that drove her. My older sister taught herself to cook quite early and did teach me a great deal about cooking – but it wasn’t until I went to university in my twenties, had time on my hands and people around me who cooked, that I began to fall in love with it. These days my brother and sisters and I and all their families spend lots of time around dinner tables together, and the food is always good.  We're all greedy and love to eat - that helps provoke good cooking!

SM:  How would you characterise your own style of cooking?

CW: Casual, fresh, simple, big-plates-in-the-middle-of-the-table, Mediterraneanish with the odd Asian flirtation, noisy, messy, confident and - I hope - generous. 

SM: You've blogged about food for the last 3 years at What's your experience there been like?

 CW: I love it. Love it. I have made real friends from my blog friends, I have learned a huge amount from my readers. I have a loyal following of funny, astute, delightful home cooks who are as clever with words as they are generous with their knowledge. They have taught me more than they've ever learned from my blog, I assure you. I love the enormous freedom of blogging - that I can talk about complex philosophical questions one day and then just brag about my husband's poached eggs the next, or ask a question about something that's bothered me, or just share a brilliant scene from a novel that uses food to show so much more about what's going on between people than they understand. I love the democracy and the freedom of the internet for this kind of writing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Theon's Oysters: Gallo-Romans in the Médoc

As a writer I've always much enjoyed filling the 'gaps in the historical record'. This short story I wrote some time ago is very much in that vein. It's based on the (real) letters of Ausonius of Bordeaux, a Gallo-Roman consul from the late 4th century--and a real character!-- to his friend Theon, who lived on the coast not far from Bordeaux, maybe near the present Arcachon which to this day is famous throughout France for its oysters. As Theon's replies aren't preserved, I 'discovered' them myself! (Incidentally, Ausonius is still famous in the Bordeaux region, and a great vineyard, Chateau d'Ausone in the Saint-Emilion terroir, is named after him.)

Theon's Oysters: Or, Town and Country

by Sophie Masson

Médoc, Gaul, about AD 390

Ausonius sends his greetings to rustic Theon, in the Médoc.
What are you doing, you who live at the very ends of the earth, you the ploughman of the poetic sands, who must labour without cease on the windy strand, between the Ocean and the setting sun, you who is now obliged to live in a poor peasant's hut, filled with black smoke that hurts your eyes? So, where then are the Muses and Apollo, oh my songster? Where are my verses?

What am I doing, Ausonius? Do you really want to know, my dear, vain old friend? Or would you prefer to hear only the sound of your own voice, as it is carried to me here at the ends of the earth? Ah, I can hear it clearly, Ausonius, just as in the days when we both worked for Emperor Gratian.
But I will tell you anyway, old friend, even if I do not know if you will listen. You ask what I am doing, what I could possibly be doing, in my Médoc, my remote between-two-waters, and you reproach me for not having sent you some of my verses, which I had, apparently, almost promised you.
You are perplexed: what could I be doing? Ah, they are not the poetic sands I plough every day, Ausonius, but the furrows of the waters..It is not the fantastic grain of the Muses which I harvest, but strange little beasts of salt and fresh water: oysters. It is neither Apollo nor the Muses whom I meet on that windy strand, but other poor souls like me, who like me are contented with huts filled with black smoke that hurts your eyes.
You ask what I could be doing, in my godforsaken land. You ask me, with a fine note of teasing, to send you some of my verses, all shiny and new. But..How to explain, Ausonius? Here, where Ocean and River meet in a soft and savage embrace, Court poetry has deserted me. The water, the oysters, the few brief salutations I exchange with my neighbours, these are my life, now, great Ausonius. You who have had everything, like me, you who, unlike me, was able to hold on to everything, how could you understand what I am doing here?
Far from Rome, far from my memories, here, in this strange empty country of wind and water, something strange has happened to me, Ausonius. I am living. And I understand things I never knew before. Politics and war, love and disillusion, mystery and terror, I have found them here too, here in my oyster-country. And more, much more, I see here things I never saw before in Rome, or even in your beloved Bordeaux: the small things of the rustic world. Only now I see they are not small things, but big ones.
I look at the sun setting on the waves of Ocean; and I blush at the thought that I once imagined I could capture it in a cage of elegant and well-turned verse. I watch a young couple walking on the strand, gathering weed and driftwood; benighted rustics I would have thought, once, and yet I see them touch each other's hand, briefly, tenderly, at the edge of Ocean. And the breath catches in my throat at the thought I imagined I knew what love was. I look at my oysters, washed sometimes by the sweet water, sometimes by the salt, and I groan at the thought that never, in any verse I had written, had I come even a small distance towards describing their briny and subtle tang, which is the very smell, the very presence, of Ocean himself.
And so, instead of sending you verses, I am sending you oysters. Thirty oysters, from the rustic country of Theon who lives between-two-waters.

Ausonius to Theon, who sent him thirty oysters.
I was waiting for a reply from you to the letter I had sent you, dear friend, asking you why you had so neglected me, and here I receive something from you I never asked for. So in reply I am sending you this letter, enamelled most colourfully, as I hope you will agree, with pleasing words on the subject of mussels and oysters! Ah, now then, mussels, if only you'd sent those..
But enough of regrets. Here is the sum of the oysters you sent me, Theon: three times ten, or five times six, or two times five plus ten and ten, or four times six added to twice times three; or seven times four plus one and one, or..

Stop, stop! All those numbers, all those mind games, they make my poor rustic head ache, Ausonius! I do beg pardon of you for not having sent you your preferred meal of mussels; but round here, you know, the mussels are kept for the poor souls only, not for the great ones of the world..and you, Ausonius, you had the ear of the late and lamented Emperor Gratian and I did not want to insult you..Such is how far I have fallen from a knowledge of the world!
Do you know what your poor mussel-eating servant, your oysterer Theon, did this very evening? A big fish, named whale, beached itself on our strand. If only you had seen it, Ausonius! What drama you would have breathed! Monster of the depths, poor child of Ocean, abandoned by a cruel parents to its fate, the whale struggled and thrashed around, for it did not want to die. For who amongst us who has breath wants to die? But the other inhabitants of between-two-waters and I, we took knives and axes, and we killed it, there on the sand. A red river flowed into Ocean this evening, and for a good long moment, the poetic sand blushed scarlet with escaping life. it is a good meat, whale-flesh, Ausonius, and my poor hut--filled with that acrid smoke--is full of it at present.
But if you had seen its dying glance! A sorrowful light, a speaking silence, which fades away, wordless, in the eye all at once clouded. Do you think the beasts and the fish and the birds have a soul, my Ausonius? If so, are they not children of God, born before us, and is it not a sin, what we do to them? But if not, then why does one see that sorrowful light, and hear that speaking silence?
Be quiet, Theon, you must be saying. You are saying foolish things. A whale does not have an immortal soul, any more than an oyster does. Ah, but then, Ausonius, oysters, my humble oysters of the Médoc, you have made a legend of them. Not only with your sums. For you have transformed them into figures of poetry; into slivers of Moon, and celestial piglets nestling at the teats of the stream that runs into Ocean, and have made them immortal, now, and they have slipped into the halls of the gods, in the briny modesty you gilded so well..

I, Ausonius, am sending greetings to my dear friend Theon, whilst still bearing reproach.
Three times now has Luna changed her stamping, snorting team of heifers as she careers in her cart across the sky; three months, Theon, and you haven't visited me. Are you avoiding my house, my land? Ninety days without you, dear friend, ninety days have I been sorrowful that is so, and what was more, these were summer days, and thus even longer. A quarter of the year has already passed. Come on, surely your little hut is not so welcoming and cosy that you cannot separate yourself from it! I want to see you and talk with you, my friend. And if it is money that prevents you from coming--well then, I am rich, as you are poor, and can help a friend along..

You want me to come and visit you again in Bordeaux, great capital of the waters, your native city, where you know everyone, where everyone knows you. Can you see the picture? And it's Yes, Monsieur the Consul, and No, Honourable Ausonius, and oh..oh, who can that poor soul be who walks with you? Ah, really, Theon the philosopher, the poet! I would never have recognised him! Oh, Monsieur the Honourable Consul Ausonius, how overflowing is your generous bounty and how deep your friendship towards even those who are disgraced..
Ah, I hear you protest, that is not so, Theon, I simply want to walk arm in arm with you in Bordeaux, old friends, though one is rich, and one is poor. You want, above all, Ausonius, dear Ausonius, that my bard's gift should return, my inspiration come back, springing like crystal out of the fertile rock of the society of men, just like the crystalline fountain of Divona, matron goddess of your beloved city, springs out of the ancient rock. But you see, Ausonius, if you really care for me, and not only for dead memories of things we once shared, and verses that are best forgotten, then you would come here, where I live, and you would see. My dear Ausonius, life is an oyster that may well contain a pearl--but if you never open the shell, how will you ever know? Come, then, my dear, vain old friend, my pearl amongst pontificators, and come and see me here, at the ends of the earth. In expectation, I send you these few modest gifts from my orchard, with my greetings.
What is a friend if not to share?
What is a friend if not to dare?
Rather silence than friendship's wreck:
What river the droplet will reject?

Ausonius, Consul, returns his salutations to the poet Theon.
Ah, golden apples you send me, Theon, but in a basket with leaden verse! Quinces bittersweet may make one wince; but it is not for the quince's wince that I weep, Theon.
Goodbye, Theon, whose name means of the gods--but as a participle, means, rather, a running man, a fleeing man!

Yes, I run, I flee, my vain old friend: not from what once was, but towards my oysters. At least they do not criticise my bad verse, or even my good one.
Goodbye, Ausonius, whose name means 'an Italian'; and make of that, my friend, whatever you may will.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Guest post: Kate Forsyth on Gascon feasts

My friend and brilliant writer Kate Forsyth's most recent book, the wonderful historical fairytale novel Bitter Greens, has just come out. Skilfully weaving a delicious, disturbing braid of richly multi-coloured story, it grippingly brings to life a world of magic, corruption, cruelty, and love, spanning two centuries and three very different main characters. Inspired by the classic fairytale Rapunzel, it evokes the thrilling and terrifying atmosphere of Louis XVI's court through the eyes of clever, wild French writer and Gascon noblewoman(and cousin of the King) Charlotte-Rose de la Force, whose exalted birth does not protect her from the risks she takes daily. The novel also plunges the reader into the fascinating and sinister world of the Venetian courtesan Selena Leonelli and the sad, lonely life of her young prisoner, Margherita, shut up in a tower. Each of these very different women has been hurt by the past; each is striving to make a place for herself in a dangerous time; but it is the telling of the tale of Margherita, the youngest and sweetest, which will change everything for desperate Charlotte and cruel Selena, giving them both another chance, two hundred years apart. You can read more about it here.
To celebrate the release of Bitter Greens, I asked Kate if she'd write a post for A la mode frangourou, featuring food appropriate to the book. And she came up with this absolutely scrumptious post, which I like even more for its setting in the Gascon countryside, which I know and love so well.

Gourmet Delights from Gascony, by Kate Forsyth

My books are filled with feasts.
From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).
My most recent book has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.
Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.
It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road.
Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.
I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites:

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot.
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then.
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier).
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.

Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.

Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided

For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.

Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside.
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan.
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.

Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.

Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.

Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A milestone and some Easter memories

Today it's a year exactly since I started this blog, on Good Friday 2011. Like I said back then I'd been wanting to do something like this for a long time, and though it might have seemed a little counter-intuitive to start it on the very day that traditionally food has been rather restricted, it's worked out really well. I've had a lot of fun sharing recipes, tips, observations, and also have enjoyed being able to showcase guest posts by others writers. One year old, and A la mode frangourou is one of those things that's now firmly embedded in my writing, and cooking, life!
Today it's Good Friday again so it's time again for the traditional Good Friday meals. Mind you in my case it doesn't mean the boiled potatoes and boiled fish we used to be given on that day when I was a child(as I wrote a year ago, the one day of the year when everyone in the house went around with a long face at the prospect of what Maman was going to put on the table in front of us!) No, for me now it means fish, yes(for symbolic reasons vegetarian food just doesn't cut it for me on this day, even though it's just supposed to be a meatless day), simply but still nicely-prepared, grilled maybe(it's to be mackerel this year), sprinkled with salt, pepper, herbs and lemon, served with simple vegetables and a salad. No butter or sweets and certainly no Easter eggs! A pretty pathetic kind of penance, you might say, given I actually like fish a lot, and really just symbolic. But symbolism is important to me, and I must say I find it impossible to eat any kind of meat on this day, no matter how tempting that lovely free-range ham looks, or that delicious sausage, or that juicy steak. As to Easter eggs, they stay firmly in the cupboard till Easter Sunday.
Looking back to childhood Easters, I remember the Easter egg hunts my dad used to send us kids on, first thing on Easter morning, before even we went to Mass. In French Catholic tradition, it's the 'cloches de Rome' the bells of Rome, which are supposed to bring children the chocolate eggs, not bunnies and the like. It was connected of course to the fact that bells would ring out all over French towns on Easter morning in celebration of the Resurrection. But as an imaginative yet practical child, it always used to puzzle me, just trying to visualise the mechanism by which bells would do this. It was easy enough to imagine le Pere Noel racing through the skies with his sleigh piled high with presents; it was quite another to imagine a bunch of bells swinging wildly around on a journey from Rome,with their hollow bellies filled with eggs. They must be capped with something, I thought, to stop the eggs from falling out, and just how big must they be?
But unlike with le Pere Noel, the bells of Rome were not something my father really worried about keeping up in our imaginations, and so very soon their name was only invoked as a kind of starting-gun for the egg-hunt.
My siblings and I would race out into the early-morning garden at our place in Sydney, and ignoring the dew still pearling on leaves and diamonding cobwebs, frenziedly searched for the flash of metallic blue or green or silver or gold or red that announced the presence of a little egg. They were always little ones; the main egg was reserved for the Easter lunch table where it formed the imposingly, mouthwateringly large centrepiece of a magnificent dessert. Of course your success in the hunt was often predicated on your age, speed and ruthlessness, but at the end of it, if the littlies didn't have enough of a haul, the bigger ones had to share, willingly or otherwise! It could be a bit of a stressful experience, like competing in a race; but it was always fun too. It ceased when we hit our sardonic and sneery teenage years--but I always remembered it with affection, and so when our kids were little, I kept up the tradition for a few years, though only mentioning the 'bells of Rome' in the context of my own memories.