30 Sept 2009

Cherry Tomato & Anchovy Fondant

Serves 2
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 20 mins

If you fancy a take on the classic Pissaladière without the pastry, to be served as a snack or an informal entrée, look no further than this little number. The appeal of this recipe is in its burst of flavour as soon as all the ingredients combine in the heat of the oven. They produce a melting tomato and anchovy concoction that may be eaten straight out of the ramekin, or spread - still warm - onto fresh baguette slices, like pâté!

Anchovies may be substituted with prosciutto or Parma ham (see 2nd picture), if preferred. Cherry tomatoes (which are slightly smaller in size than the midi plums) may be used for this recipe, as they are more readily available in shops!

  • 300g of vine midi plum tomatoes (or cherry toms), washed
  • 4 tinned anchovy fillets, roughly chopped up
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 thin slice of red onion, finely diced
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Sprinkling of thyme (optional)
  • 4 black olives (optional)
Preheat the oven (190°C). Grease two oven-proof ramekins. Halve the tomatoes and arrange them in the dishes, cut side facing up. Add the crushed garlic and diced onion, then liberally sprinkle with olive oil. Arrange the chopped up anchovy fillets on top, and season (bearing in mind that the anchovies will be quite salty already!).

If you wish so, sprinkle a little thyme and decorate each ramekin with a couple of black olives, for that authentic Provençal touch!

Pop in the oven for 25 mins (or 20 mins if using cherry tomatoes), and prepare to melt!

27 Sept 2009

Design Interlude

I thought I would share with you the little architectural delights which await me in my wanders across neighbouring Cheshire. I have photographed for your eyes only my favourite ‘chocolate box’ cottages and snug little period houses. Colours and geometries remind me of a variety of treats: mint cake, lemon truffle, deep caramel, old-fashioned violet and rose creams, candied ginger, enticing strawberry truffle, butterscotch, coconut macaroon and vanilla fudge…

The first reader who will be able to identify the location of the antiques/ vintage shop from the above photo mosaic will win a set of two handmade greetings cards from my Silvertree collection! {P.S: competition now closed}

26 Sept 2009

Herb Garden (Part 2)

My original herb garden situated along a narrow stretch of land between my back garden fence and the cul-de-sac (and which I now purely keep for decorative purposes) testifies of the mint take-over. Chives have been relegated to the sides of the border, while sage has completely disappeared. Thyme and marjoram didn’t fare too well from the beginning either, and my once beautifully thriving rosemary bush gave up the ghost 3 years ago after being assaulted by next door’s dogs and their bolshie owner, and by strong winter winds…

Proud of my parterre of lavender, mint, chive and rosa canina!

Meanwhile that little patch of greenery has become an interesting ecosystem, harnessing bees (a welcome attraction as bees are on a steep decline) and butterflies. Meanwhile a wild rosa canina has developed over the years into an imposing and robust bush, delivering a splattering of white single roses in spring and guarding the back gate.

A riot of purple blooms!

There is also a lavender bush which, despite not looking like much in winter, keeps its best for the summer when it turns into a riot of purple blooms. My secret: to trim back all the summer shoots the following March, and clear up any dead branches in the process. You have to be a bit ruthless with lavender (and rosemary, come to think of it), otherwise they will turn to wood and lose their bushiness and blossoms.

Lavender is considered an aromatic herb by a wide cross-section of the cooking fraternity, although I am not an aficionada. Culinary applications include honey, infusions, ice creams, and as a bouquet garni to flavour pork roasts and other white meats. For a touch of unabashed luxury, lavender-flavoured salt is available from Harvey Nichols (or just blend your own)…

Arachnid friend on the bay leaf

Bay leaf is another treasure of mine. I trim a couple of branches at a time, rinse them carefully, pat them dry and then let them dry undisturbed on the work-top, flat on a clean kitchen towel for a couple of weeks. Then using the secateurs I separate each leaf from their twig and put the leaves away in a tin, together with the twigs and bits of branch.

Bay leaf flavours meat gravies beautifully, and I infuse tomato sauces with it. My ready stock means I use it quite liberally, throwing a leaf or two into the cooking water of rice or pasta. Bay leaf twigs are also incredibly flagrant and a good substitute for the leaves.

25 Sept 2009

Herb Garden (Part 1)

Dear readers, you may have been intrigued by the photo recently posted on The Sweet Smell of Success, and I thought it was time I introduced you to my little furry companion, Tickle (a.k.a. Tick-Tick)…

Monsieur Tickle

I am sure you will agree with me that he’s a cute and charming Jack Russell Terrier! He may be small in size but his temperament is invertedly big, which those of you familiar with the breed will recognise as the Napoleon complex, one of their major yet lovable traits. Therefore do not be fooled by the cuteness and little bundle of a dog, because monsieur Tickle doesn’t see himself as a JRT, but rather as a bullmastiff... Many a time his boldness and provocation have landed him into hot water, but at least there never is a dull moment in his life! He is also extremely affectionate, loyal and territorial, the best guard dog I could think of, suited to my needs and my small surroundings.

With the arrival of Tickle 3 years ago from the local dogs’ home, the garden needed an overhaul. We let the lawn reclaim our courgette patch, and decided that the herbs would be safer if grown in terracotta pots than left in the ground… Thus chives, mint and marjoram migrated into the safety of their new surroundings, while the 6-ft-tall bay leaf tree was judged strong enough to sustain any potential assault from Tickle!

Potted chives, mint and marjoram next to my hydrangea.

The beauty of growing potted herbs is that they stay contained. Mint, sage, chives and marjoram for instance all have a propensity for spreading way beyond their ‘territory’ and will soon be found across the garden path or on the other side of the fence… Aromatic herbs will also fight amongst themselves for space and it is best to keep them in separate pots for this effect (to be continued).

22 Sept 2009

Grow your Own! (Part 2)

From childhood recollection, some of the old folks would use old car tyres (even tractor tyres!) as planters, maybe an aesthetically challenging prospect for some of us but they do the job and are a great recycling alternative! At the end of the day it is really all up to you, so why not let your imagination go wild, gauge what can be achieved with what is to hand, and add a bit of zing to your space with a funky container!

Some cooks/ gardeners fortunate enough to own a piece of land, will go the extra length by combining aesthetics and practicality, growing for instance a handful of pumpkins or a blackcurrant bush amongst a flower bed to add extra visual interest while also catering for their appetite, or enjoy the crop from an apple tree or two blended amongst their decorative surroundings while providing that welcoming dappled light in the Summer months.

Some of us will go one step further with dedicated boundary-defined fruit and veg patches, usually in the back garden, in a sheltered spot. Allotments have also enjoyed popularity in recent years and shed their fuddy-duddy ‘grandad’ image; waiting lists are testament to this revival.

Those of you who quite literally enjoy the fruit of their labour - on a small or grander scale - deserve a special accolade here. The task of growing your own produce may be time-consuming and tiring, and sometimes disheartening when disease, garden pests and unexpected bad weather set in, but is very rewarding indeed when produce reaches the end of its cycle and is ripe for consumption!

I remember as a child growing radishes and tending to a wild peach tree, or more recently growing courgettes. The tender care and pride provide half the pleasure in eating the fruit of our labour!

20 Sept 2009

Grow your Own! (Part 1)

A cook’s ultimate ambition (if so inclined and if space and time allow) is to combine their cooking skills with gardening and grow some, if not most, of their fruit and vegetables. This gives a sense of accomplishment and makes the final dish taste nicer than with the (super-)market-bought ingredients, while saving you some cash, and giving you peace of mind about the quality of the produce. It also binds you closer to nature and gives a sense of purpose, structure and perseverance to your gardening endeavours.

Flower market, Amsterdam, Spring 2008

It is wrong to believe that cultivation requires land. Some individuals are incredibly inventive and will grow tomatoes, peppers, courgettes or radishes on a balcony, a roof terrace, a patio, a windowsill, a front door step, or sneak onto the back alley or the cul-de-sac’s nooks and crannies. Back in the late 1950s in Corsica, my great auntie filled her dry stone wall crevices with a bit of soil and sowed flat leaf parsley, and the herb was still thriving 30 years later!

Nowadays major cities like Amsterdam or certain parts of London have witnessed a green-fingered approach to the urban environment by local neighbourhoods, with decorative plants, climbers, herbs and vegetables sprouting between pavement stones, along a wall, around municipal trees, etc. However it is best to check with your local Council first as some can be funny about this vegetal ‘take-over’.

The beauty of it all! The streets of Amsterdam display impromptu floral touches.

A variety of pots (not necessarily the prim terracotta variety!) will help you to achieve your goal. A redundant wheelbarrow, trough, gutter, Belfast sink, unwanted fish tank, decommissioned dustbin, tin tub, old bucket, wicker basket, wooden crate or chest drawers, hollowed tree log, barrel, discarded saucepan, empty biscuit tin, cut plastic bottle, those wooden clogs from Holland, or any homemade container will be improvised into a mini cultivation patch in their own right. Tomatoes or strawberries will thrive directly out of a grow-bag available from your local nursery. My local garden centre sells hanging baskets garnished with a cluster of strawberry plants (another container idea to emulate!) (to be continued)

The Sweet Smell of Success

About ten years ago, a British study found that residential properties for sale which had a welcoming homely baking/ cooking scent were more likely to influence the purchasing decision than like-for-like ‘fragrance-free’ homes, by subliming that very first impression.

The study therefore demonstrated that the property purchasing process went beyond the aesthetics and design parameters to tap into the potential buyer’s subconscious connecting our innermost feelings to our perception of what an ideal homely home should smell like, taking us to that safe and heart-warming place, perhaps back to our childhood and/ or happy entertaining memories.

Facts in hand, Crabtree & Evelyn went on to produce a home fragrance spray that would replicate the baking scent with the promise to turn any house or apartment into a coveted home.

Thankfully the human psyche is a bit more complex than a pschitt, and the smell alone is not the only decisive factor in purchasing a property, as our other senses play an important role. Our eyes will still initiate our opinion and most of the decision process, while the lovely smell might just come as the icing on the cake, helping us to finalise the decision. Although in my book, the smell of a household cleaner would certainly have a more convincing effect than that of a (chemical) pie.

18 Sept 2009

Strawberry Summer Flan

Catch the last rays of sunshine with my Strawberry Summer Flan. Ready in 10 minutes, it is an ideal surprise treat for impromptu visitors!

Serves 4 generous portions
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 45 mins

  • Roll of ready-made puff pastry
  • Punnet of strawberries (approx. 350g)
  • Tub of liquid double cream (250 ml)
  • 2 free range organic medium eggs
  • 3 generous tablespoons of Demerara sugar
  • Vegetable oil (to grease the flan tin)
  • Flour (for dusting)
  • Icing sugar (for sprinkling), or desiccated coconut

Pre-heat the oven (190°C). Grease the flan tin. Although everyday cooking oil does the job, I like using walnut oil for its sweet aromatic nutty flavour. Almond or hazelnut oil is equally perfect, and I have been known to use olive oil (if out of walnut oil).

Carefully unroll the puff pastry (making sure you keep its flattened appearance), and place it above your flan tin (covering it totally) to gauge how much of the pastry you will need. As a rough guide, you should only require about half of the roll (i.e. 187.5g). Then carefully cut the pastry with the blunt edge of a rounded knife, still keeping its flattened appearance. 

Place the pastry onto a lightly floured surface (to prevent it from sticking), and gently stretch it with the lightly floured rolling pin.

Carefully lift the pastry from the worktop and gently ease it into the greased flan tin, smoothing the base and lightly pressing the sides of the mould. A good kitchen trick is to lightly roll the rolling pin over the sides of the tin to detach any excess pastry. Then prick the pastry all over with a fork to make it breathe once in the oven.

Rinse the strawberries and hull them. Arrange them onto the pastry. Depending on their size, strawberries may either be kept whole (as pictured), halved or sliced further. You can also either arrange them in a pattern or ‘throw’ them in, space them or cram them (in the latter, you will probably need more than 350g of fruit!)

Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk them together with a hand whisk or fork, dissolving the yolks into the whites, as if preparing an omelette. Add the sugar (I personally use Demerara as it makes the dessert more flavoursome) and whisk. Finally add the whole tub of double cream and beat lightly with a whisk until the ingredients are all combined together. Then pour the mixture into the tin, covering the strawberries. Place in the oven for 45 minutes. When the time is up, do check with a knife through the centre of the flan as it should present a solid consistency (i.e. the eggs should be cooked properly).

Either leave to cool, or serve still lukewarm (it really is down to personal preference and how long you can resist temptation!) Sprinkle with icing sugar (or desiccated coconut) before serving. Enjoy!

15 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage - A Medley of Influences

Other influences happily converge to define who I am today and where I stand in relation to my tastes, habits, preferences and observations, whether in my own kitchen or at a restaurant.

Over the years, through work, studies or common interests, I have met people from different cultures and nationalities and enjoyed finding out about their way of life back home, including food. I have also travelled to a variety of European and overseas destinations, and discovered new foods and ways of preparing them.

My family heritage itself is very interesting, with my northern and southern roots. My southern (i.e. Corsican) ties reflect the fact that I come from a family of merchant seamen, who brought exotic produce (ex: bananas) back to the island from the Far East at a time when the mere mortal could not afford them. My great grandad also brought back Ceylon tea, which the family happily consumed, at a time when coffee was more largely available.

This spirit of discovery brings to mind mémé and mum’s adventurous and slightly intrepid cooking. And this quest for ‘something else’ is reflected further with my grandma’s great uncles moving to America towards the end of the 19th century. You then fathom the idea that fusion food does indeed mean something to us!

Influences are borne out of the path of destiny. They can happen in the most unusual places too. Life is punctuated with little snippets of experience to whoever is observant and willing to embrace their novelty and cherish them for the rest of their lives, for those little snippets turn into what happy memories are made of.

My best cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice was from a ramshackle roadside café in Cuba for US$1… The best insider visit of a Chinese food store was with my Taiwanese friend Chiachi in Paris’s Chinatown… My very first sloe gin was expertly blended by my partner, Andy, who used his magic to make it a refreshing experience, at the end of a long day re-decorating the kitchen.

How about you, dear readers? What would you say defines who you are, in terms of your culinary heritage? Do drop me a line, looking forward to reading you!

13 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage - The British Convergence

Other influences have converged to shape my tastes and culinary aspirations along the way, with the most obvious one resulting from my move to the UK 15 years ago. There are deliciously British dishes that one should get acquainted with when coming over here, as part of a rite of passage that puts the foreign visitor on a par with the locals, whether it be over a mug of builders’ tea, a pint of traditional ale, a tumbler of sloe gin on ice, or a cup of the finest Darjeeling.

To face the day head on, forget about your bran/ shredded wheat and plump for the Full English Breakfast, very nutritious! For a lighter alternative, why not have toasted teacakes (not to be confused of course with the coconut 'toasted teacakes' from the local sweetshop, pictured here with coconut mushrooms!)

Variety is on the menu for lunch or dinner, from casual and easy to heart-warming and cosy! How about potted shrimps, scampi, pork pie, steak & kidney pie, curry, fish & chips, fisherman's pie, baked beans on toast, Lancashire hotpot, cottage pie, Yorkshire puddings… And if you are feeling adventurous enough ask for a side of mushy peas, or the cucumber-sized gherkins, or bump up your 5-a-days with a plate of oven-roasted parsnips or that delightfully light pea-shoot salad.

For dessert, succumb to sweetness: apple pie, trifle, bread & butter pudding, spotted dick (and their lashings of custard), syllabub, treacle tart, Bakewell tart, Victoria sponge cake, lemon-drizzle cake, or walnut & coffee cake (my personal favourite!) And let’s not forget high tea and its platter of sinful delights: savoury finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets, Battenberg, tartlets, fairy cakes and other bite-size wonders! (Pictured above are some little fancies made earlier by Mr Kipling!)

If variety is the spice of life, there is no better place than Britain to enjoy chutneys, Piccalilli, pickles, ginger, cinnamon and a variety of other spices harking back to the colonial days which more than ever take pride of place in modern British cuisine.

12 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage - The French Connection

As you can gather, my two main influences and points of reference (mémé and mum) are a hard act to follow. I honestly cannot compete with their skills as my cooking experience is pretty limited compared to theirs, nor have I attempted some of their more ‘perilous’ recipes.

However I can safely say that their influence pervaded my formative years, and along the way I learnt a few tricks of the trade and practiced a number of the dishes (mainly desserts!) under their watchful eye. I made sure I was involved in baking from an early age, and remember vividly making my first chocolate mousse aged 7, my first orange sorbet (served in hollowed frosted oranges, no less!) at about 15, and my first chocolate truffles the following Christmas…

Along the way I made a few resounding mistakes with my creams and sauces, but this is all part of the apprenticeship. I must admit that my dishes are far simpler and easier than mémé and mum’s, but I do try to stay away from ready meals and convenience food, as favoured by many of my contemporaries. Frankly the satisfaction (the kick!) you get from your own freshly prepared dish surpasses any shop-bought variety!

In their own way, mémé and mum taught me to appreciate food, not just as a cook but as a foodie, a gourmet. Food is after all one of life’s little pleasures and should be enjoyed, as beautifully summed up by a French pearl of wisdom: ‘Il faut manger pour vivre et non pas vivre pour manger’ (One must eat to live and not live to eat).

10 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage - Mum (Part 2)

Always one to spot a culinary trend in the making, mum introduced the family to avocados, kiwis and lychees in 1979-80, courtesy of our local organic retailer, La Vie Claire, which was a food pioneer of the times. On her weekly shopping trip to the store, she would purchase eccentric ingredients (for the times!) from palm oil (which she would use in the deep-fat fryer as a substitute for ordinary cooking oil), cider vinegar, strawberry juice, wholemeal bread, carob spread, Demerara sugar, and of course a small selection of organic fruit and veg.

Mum was (is) no hippie despite her slightly off-the-beaten track food choices; she was (is) more certainly a health-conscious consumer who back in the 1970s started questioning her chicken, her drinking water and her grapefruit as scare disaster stories made the news, from radioactive waste to nitrates, from growth hormones to antibiotics…

Even today, well into her 60s, mum still keeps up to the minute with culinary trends and currently serves most of her entrées and desserts in verrines (namely transparent serving glasses) with cleverly displayed food layers as strong visual elements emphasising colour and texture that give justice to tiramisus, trifles, Eaton messes and the like. She still manages to surprise me with her new recipes and lust for food. Recently her incredibly refreshing Limoncello and melon cocktail went down a storm!

To name but a few of mum’s cupboard/ fridge staples, we’ll note chard, lemons, chestnut purée, tinned macédoine, a variety of ground or slivered nuts, capers, anchovies, tinned tuna, liquid crème fraîche, and also the odd jar of raisiné (a traditional Corsican fig, walnut and grapes jam).

I admire my mum for her effortless yet passionate cooking. Cooking goes beyond its primary purpose of feeding loved ones, it is also a social activity, gathering friends and family around the table for shared moments of joy and happiness. And, with someone like my mum, cooking is also an art form: the art of presentation, and the subtle touches that indicate that her meals are a labour of love, not a chore, and for these I am grateful!

9 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage - Mum (Part 1)

My mum embraced Mémé’s influence and the culinary heritage from their elders, and pushed the boundaries further. She happily cooks earthly no-nonsense northern specialities like Soupe à l’Oignon, Flamiche aux Poireaux (creamy leek pasty), beetroot-based entrées, endive gratins, Hachis Parmentier (French equivalent to cottage pie), Tarte au Sucre (sugar-topped brioche) and Tarte au Potiron (pumpkin flan tart).

She also beautifully pays homage to her southern origins with her Veau aux Olives (veal in a green olive sauce), Soupe au Pistou (basil soup), etc. Her skills extend to other French specialities, whether it be Cassoulet, Boeuf Mode (beef and carrot stew), Lapin à la Moutarde (rabbit), or Choucroute Garnie (sauerkraut). She has also conjured up more ambitious time-consuming recipes, from pâtés and terrines to salmon en croûte, Pièces Montées (tiered profiteroles) and - my personal favourite - the Paris-Brest (choux pastry gâteau with a rich praline filling).

When over 20 years ago the family went through the credit crunch, mum bravely purchased a potato recipe book and vowed to cook a different potato recipe for each day of the week! The prospect might have deterred a few cooks, but not my mum who still managed to keep the menu exciting and that winter we went through two big sacks of potatoes from a neighbouring farm without feeling disadvantaged or impoverished in any way! Potato casseroles, Gratin Dauphinoise, Pommes Lyonnaises, stuffed potatoes served in a homemade tomato sauce, röstis, creamy mash, hot potato salads: variety was definitely the order of the day despite the humble spud as its common denominator!

Mum is more than a cook, she’s an ambitious cook and deserves a rosette for catering for family reunions in excess of 25 guests, christenings, communions, engagement parties, birthdays etc, all by herself (without losing too much composure!). Not many home (i.e. non-professional) cooks would be able to claim such an achievement, and Come Dine With Me (TV cookery challenge) should probably present itself as a leisurely doddle to her!

Her flair and savoir-faire span from the kitchen worktop to the dining table, way before table accessorising had become fashionable: from floating candles, personalised placemats, individual orchid favours and fancily folded napkins, to special occasion tableware, without omitting the perfectly ironed tablecloths, most of them embroidered heirlooms passed down from generation to the next, which would inevitably be stained with red wine or chocolate sauce by some clumsy guest, but which she would deal with a smile. My mum the ambitious cook, is also the table designer and hostess, handling a conversation and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves while effortlessly juggling with dishes. All of these put together define the Art of Entertaining. (to be continued)

8 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage – Mémé

My dear grandma, mémé Angèle (who sadly passed away in 2006), was my friend. She spent the first 36 years of her life on the island of Corsica, in the family village, before emigrating to the north of France after WWII (and would return to the island every Summer). Her cuisine, although embracing the best of north and south, always had a hint of sunshine, sweetness and generosity to me, whether this was achieved with a dash of garlic, a touch of basil, an extra helping of butter, indulgent simmering over the stove, or simply with a grandmother’s know-how.

She would take me back in time to a bygone era of kitsch, whizzing up those delightfully 1950s Tiki desserts: Savarin Délicieux (pineapple sponge cake), Baba au Rhum (rum-infused sponge cake), Cake aux Fruits Confits (glacé cherry cake), or a rich Crème Pâtissière (entremets which she would finish off with a twirl of liquid caramel) served with Langues de Chats biscuits.

She concocted the best tomato sauce that dreams are made of, using carefully-chosen seasonal Corsican tomatoes, wild Corsican marjoram picked up the very same day, bay leaf from a nearby bay leaf tree, onion, garlic, touch of salt, one sugar lump (the magic ingredient that takes away the bitterness from the tomatoes) and ounces of patience, keeping an eye over the gently simmering saucepan, stirring when needed, with poise and a glint of joy. The whole house would bathe in the comforting aroma, and you - as a young person - would feel instantly hugged by it into a sense of security. You believed that the glorious home cooking from nanas like mémé would put the world to rights, keeping adversity and hunger at bay.

Mémé would provide me with home-comfort meals, as only a grandmother like her could: Oeufs Mimosa (hard-boiled eggs cut in half and stuffed with homemade mayonnaise and crumbled solid yolk), assortment of selected cold-cuts from the charcuterie (deli), creamy polenta (so golden, fluid and buttery it looked and tasted like a rich potato mash) served with Escalope de Veau (veal), aubergine ratatouille (fragranced with the intoxicating aroma of wild Corsican marjoram), and for afters Clafoutis aux Cerises (cherry flan) or Far Breton (prunes flan, a Brittany speciality).

Her odd but trusted larder staples included tapioca, angel hair pasta, chestnut flour (annual Christmas shipment from her Corsican cousins), salsify, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, tinned pineapple rings, Pain au Sésame (a sweet sesame bread), testimonies to post-war awakening to culinary indulgence and exotic influence. She also, like me but unlike my mum, had a penchant for tea.

Mémé was particular if not meticulous about her food shopping. Fruit and veg were always purchased from the local farmers’ market, while she was prepared to pay the price for the best Parma ham in town, from the Italian delicatessen, and would treat herself and immediate family to palate-pleasing delicacies from Pâtisserie Henri, an institution of indulgence back in the day! She would not suffer fools with sub-standard produce and her high standards certainly helped define my own.

Mémé would run her errands in style, wearing her trademark scarf, dainty low-heel court shoes and a matching millinery hat. Her attire made her look like a plumper shorter version of Marlene Dietrich (she would so disagree with me if she read this!), certainly a lady who took the best try-and-tested from a past era that suited her faultlessly. Mémé wasn’t rich but appearances and the way you present yourself to the outside world were everything to her, and I do respect this, especially in this age of slovenliness.

Mémé indeed is one of my main culinary influences: a lively and passionate people person, whose cooking delivered a twist of the exotic with gusto! She embraced life in style, her heart always in the right place. Her light-heartedness brightened the day, but behind those laughs stood one thoughtful and very sensitive woman. And although her values were steeped in tradition, they also had a tinge of modernity and quiet rebellion.

6 Sept 2009

Culinary Heritage at Large

After writing my piece about Staple Kitchen Ingredients, I started to think about the reasons – if any – behind my cupboard/ fridge staple food choices… This led me to think about my culinary influences…

My mum and maternal grandma have exerted the strongest unsurpassed culinary influence over me. Both are accomplished cooks, without even attending catering college (only the compulsory home economics curriculum in secondary school), or cheating with ready-made flan bases, dessert mixes, food colourings, or take-away delights! Cooking is simply second nature to them. They would make a Béchamel sauce in a flash, create a winter-warming Pot-au-Feu (hotpot) or mutton ragoût with all the trimmings, or whip up a fluffy Gâteau Saint-Honoré from scratch and without fuss.

Yet how did they acquire the knowledge - or was it talent (are you born with it)? At first glance, a handful of cookery books and recipe cut-outs from magazines might partly be the answer but quickly pale into insignificance when compared with the hand-me-down first-hand knowledge that they gained from their elders, watching an auntie, a grandmother, an old family friend cook up a storm in their tiny Corsican kitchen, while also producing their own Malvoisie wine, olive oil, bread and Figatelli (smoked pork sausages)…

In passing, I do marvel at the fact that not only did those generations of country women cook their own meals from scratch every day, but they also had a living to make, working long unforgiving hours in their hillside terraces and gardens, battling the elements and unreliable crop yields, painstakingly travelling miles daily on foot or mule-back… They also had children to raise while their husbands were away at sea (six months on the trot), a home to look after, and a busy community life that they had to abide by (dictated by regular church masses, religious pilgrimages etc)!

Mind you, at least they didn’t have to make allowances for the time-consuming, cash-siphoning distractions and personal hobbies of today’s women: media entertainment, fashion shopping, spa treatments, dining out, and the ready availability of prepared food to keep us away from the stove!

Despite our moans and frustrations, today’s women enjoy more me-me time than has ever been enjoyed by women of the Western world since they started to earn a living! Please pause for a moment to ponder this because ladies, no matter what, I do believe that we have never had it so good in that department! Please do not hesitate to let me have your thoughts and comments!

5 Sept 2009

Staple Kitchen Ingredients

A cook - no matter how novice or experienced - will invariably store a number of kitchen ingredients they trust and are comfortable with (a bit like an old friend), and know like the back of their own hand. The item may be as simple and unassuming as a bag of sugar or macaroni, or a bit more adventurous as in a tube of wasabi paste or a box of loose Lapsang Souchong tea…

Basically your loved and trusted ingredients are almost part of your DNA: you have been using and eating them for years, possibly since childhood, and they define who you are. Even the non-cooks and anti-cooks out there will inevitably have a few basics stored away, in variable quantities: tea/ coffee, sugar, milk, bread, butter, cereals, biscuits, Marmite, soft/alcoholic drink(s)… You might even surprise yourself by finding the odd bottle of Tabasco, jar of honey or tin of spam!

Even the ladies who lunch from Sex & The City will at some point spend time in their kitchens (albeit briefly!), whether for a snatched breakfast, a pie-baking session at Aidan’s wood cabin, or that famous scene where Miranda is decorating cupcakes in a huff for Brady’s birthday party only to be urged by Carrie down the phone to ‘stay away from the icing’!

Cultural heritage and identity will exert a strong influence over the choice of kitchen ingredients. Without resorting to the good old clichés, a typical Italian household will be more likely to store a few different varieties of pasta used for specific purposes, than their Scandinavian counterparts for example, while Far Eastern households will place emphasis on rice, rice noodles and spices. Of course cultural heritage and taste are evolving as people travel more, and are more eager than ever to break away from tradition in order to experiment with food and experience new tastebud sensations, compromising in the process the perennity of the old food clichés.

When once upon a time, tea was the number one drink in Britain, it has now been surpassed by coffee, thanks largely to the café culture revolution that has pervaded the high street over the last ten years, bringing the versatile coffee drink variants to the masses. In the same vein, a traditional pub meal like Steak & Kidney Pie with Chips has been replaced by Chicken Tikka Masala as the most popular dish consumed in Britain today. (Click here to find out more about the history of the CTM).

Meanwhile nowadays you don’t need to travel to France, Spain or Hong Kong to enjoy the best of their cuisine, as restaurants closer to home are likely to offer the same skill, experience and quality (if not better) than the countries of origin! In a recent episode of Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey (BBC2, 20/08/09), a Bangladeshi citizen complained that curries in Bangladesh were not as tasty as in the UK!

As you see, it’s time for us all to dispel the old cultural and geographical clichés and embrace the worldwide fusion food movements!

1 Sept 2009

Me and My Plus One

Dear friends,

Hello and welcome!

Here’s to another food blog - some might sigh - as if those contagious web narratives hadn’t already clogged up the digestive system of the internet in one massive spaghetti junction overload! Be prepared for the shaky photoshoots, dodgy kiss-and-tells from the godfather of Thermidor lobsters, Sidari’s best-kept moussaka secret, or doom by molten marshmallow! So then Nat, what are you aiming to achieve that has not yet been achieved, hmm?

Point taken… How can my rather prosaic culinary experience contribute a difference to the already excellent standard out there? I decided from the outset that it was best to leave the compilations of recipes and cordon bleu wisdom to the professional chefs, proficient home cooks and prolific food bloggers and food stylists. I respect all those food enthusiasts who practice what they preach on a full-on full-time mode, whereas I, a foodie too but neither a technologist nor a supremo, exert a more casual, less regimented, approach to the subject.

Despite its emphasis on food, my blog is likely to focus more on lifestyle than cooking, going beyond the recipe vernacular to offer more of a bird’s-eye view on all things food. However indeed some of my tried-and-trusted recipes will be included for good measure, as I do enjoy cooking, simple fuss-free dishes.

Time is precious, so let’s make sure we enjoy every moment. Let’s take life as it should be taken, unhurriedly, and savour its little pleasures: a glimpse of sunshine through the window, a beautiful cup of your favourite tea or coffee, a conversation with your closest and dearest, a new flower in your garden. Enjoy the moment! And I hope you will enjoy your time with me.