Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Baker's delight--memories of French bread

Several years ago, when Jacques Chirac was President of France, he gave an internationally-reported speech to the country's master bakers, causing a storm by lamenting the fact that so much of the bread that was now sold in France was no longer fit to be called real bread.
Bread certainly arouses passion in France; remember the fate of poor Marie Antoinette, who, supposedly 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 nasty slander designed to destroy even further the 'Austrian woman's' reputation; but it is an illustration of the fact that to say such a thing is not only insensitive, it's also complete heresy. Cake is all very well; but bread, ah, bread! 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 still 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 many years ago, couldn't believe his eyes."I never thought you had rationing here!" he exclaimed.) Today, 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. Meanwhile 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 (and if you truly want the real thing, ask for baguette tradition at the baker's, and not just baguette) .
People argue over whether 'real' French bread is the city type (baguettes, ficelles and their ilk) or country breads such as pain de campagne, a big round whitish bread made using not baker's yeast but sourdough, which keeps much better than the city breads.
In many villages, the baker still calls in his van every few 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 Empeaux, the little south-western 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 95 year old woman across the road from us one summer a few years ago in yet another little Southern village, hoisted baskets down to him into the street on ropes. The baker knew everyone's preferences; and for the old lady, a countrywoman through and through, who had scarcely ever left the village, (and had some deliciously scandalous stories to tell about the intrigues that went on that little hothouse society!) it was fine city bread she preferred, just as she preferred fillet steak to the rich, pungent peasant stews we all exclaimed over.
 In French markets, whether in the city or the country, people stop in front of the bread stalls and critically prod, poke and look carefully, while the baker extol his or her wares in a raucous voice, sometimes stopping to castigate a customer taking too many liberties. Some of the breads aren't 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 equally strong 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 to some extent, 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.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Crème caramel à la frangourou

I've always loved the luscious creamy slipperiness of crème caramel, and always loved too, that it's such an easy dessert to make, yet so good-looking and tasty. Really the only thing to remember is to plan ahead--it should be made a few hours before serving so it's nice and cold when you eat it.
Here's my simple recipe(enough for two-three people): Two medium-size eggs, 250 ml milk, a large tablespoon sour cream(for an extra nice texture) or plain cream; three tablespoons vanilla sugar(castor sugar flavoured by having vanilla beans in the jar for some time)or just castor sugar with vanilla essence.
Prepare oven--180 degrees C, 350 F. Get a large roasting tin or similar, fill with enough water so it will come about half way up the ramekins/moulds you use to bake the dessert in, and put in oven to warm while you make the crème caramel. This will be the bain marie.
Bring the milk/cream mixture to lukewarm, take off stove. Beat whole eggs and sugar(and vanilla essence, if using) together till frothy and light. Slowly pour the milk mix into the egg mix, beat till well-combined. For the caramel, simply melt a couple tablespoons castor sugar with a trickle of water, stir over the stove(on a simmer) till it turns golden brown. Pour caramel into ramekins or other moulds, pour in custard mix over it. Put ramekins in the bain marie dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, or till set. Let cool, then put in fridge so as to serve cold. Can be eaten by itself or with whipped cream on the side, and either turned out of the mould, or left as is(which is what I personally prefer.) Et voilà!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Satay(peanut) sauce, indo-frangourou style

My parents lived and worked in Indonesia for several years, and two of is siblings were born there: me in Jakarta, while my younger sister Camille was born in Surabaya.  I was only there for a few months, as I became ill as a baby and had to be taken back to my grandmother in France, where I stayed till I was five, when we went to Australia. But it greatly impacted on my parents, who not only learned to speak and read Bahasa Indonesian but also immersed themselves in finding out more about the culture of Java, especially, and so, growing up, we always had a certain familiarity with Indonesian culture, including food--a familiarity which made my trip as an adult back to Java, in the 90's, feel like an odd and exciting combination of the exotic and the homely.
Maman often made--and still makes--Indonesian food, interpreted in her own way, and one of our great favourites were satays. Dad would make the satays themselves, marinating the meat and grill it on its sticks over a charcoal-fired barbecue, while Maman concocted the sauce and all the things that went with it--vegetables, rice, condiments. Maman's version of satay(peanut) sauce is the base from which I always create my own version. It's super easy and fast to make, tastes great, and always works. Plus you can vary it just as you wish, according to taste.
My satay sauce has the following ingredients: peanut butter(if possible fresh coarse-ground from a health food store, with nothing added); chopped tomatoes; crushed garlic; splash sweet Indonesian soya sauce, small splash ordinary soya sauce(prefer only a tiny amount), few drops fish sauce, crushed chilli or chilli sauce, teaspoon brown sugar, teaspoon rice vinegar. Sometimes I also add coriander, a little coconut powder(or a little coconut milk) and chopped onions. It varies. And proprtions are to taste(with the peanut butter dominating, of course!)
Anyway, what you do is put all ingredients together in a pan(it should be nice and thick) and stir quickly on the stove(over a moderate flame.). Only cook until all ingredients are well blended together, which takes only a minute or two. Remove from stove and serve either cold or warm, with satays or stir-fried chicken or other meat. And that's it!
The sauce here is pictured with some of the ingredients for the vegie stir-fry I made to go with the chicken--all from the garden.