28 Sept 2010

What a Load of Waffle!

Approx. 30 individual waffles
Preparation: 15 mins (+ 1 hr minimum raising time)
Cooking: 2 mins each

These waffles are not for the calorie-counter, the diet-conscious or the faint-hearted. These fluffy egg-rich little soothers will blow away the Winter (or Summer!) cobwebs and deliver a punch in terms of taste. So no need - if you can help it - to lather them in sugary toppings. These waffles are no complication: they are simply an ode to simplicity rediscovered, with basic earthy ingredients and a no-nonsense method. Plus a touch of fairground nostalgia for good measure!

Amongst the times when I made those was as a New Year's Eve Waffle Party: a perfect antidote to Winter blues that delighted the 'Xmassed out' and kept the hostess's financial status in the black.
  • 600g flour
  • 15g baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla-flavoured sugar (optional)
  • 3/4l semi-skimmed organic milk
  • 80g salted butter (+ for the waffle iron)
  • 6 medium organic eggs
In the biggest mixing bowl you have handy (and wide enough to allow a soup laddle to move around it), put the flour, baking powder, vanilla-flavoured sugar and milk and blend together with a spoon. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, over a low flame to avoid burning. Add the melted butter to the mix and blend again.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites into two separate bowls. Whisk the whites firmly (preferably with an electric whisk) until they form beaks. Separately whisk the egg yolks until they emulsion. Add the beaten yolks to the batter and blend together. Then carefully and gradually spoon the whisked egg whites into the mix, blending together in a light manner, so as to ensure that the mix remains fluffy and airy. A vigorous blend would simply kill off the fluffiness, impair raising and impact on the consistency of the end product.

Leave to raise, covered with a clean kitchen towel (and away from drafts) for at the very least 1 hour (ideally 2 to 3 hours) before your guests arrive and the waffle party begins.

If like I, you are planning to use an electric waffle-maker, switch it on and make sure it is well hot before using. Carefully run a knob of butter with a knife over the waffle plates before pouring the batter over them (one laddle-worth should suffice to avoid leaks). A couple of minutes should be enough to cook the waffles on each side, but this depends of course on your appliance and how golden and crunchy you wish them to be (best to check with your guests too). Butter the waffle plates before each use (to prevent any stickiness and coat the waffles with that lovely yet subtle buttery taste).

Best to savour (or devour!) still warm and au naturel. However unconditional sweet-tooth aficionados may experiment with a light touch of sugar in its different guises and neatly presented in matching serving bowls: icing sugar (my personal favourite!), demerara, brown, flavoured, golden syrup, liquid caramel, agave syrup, maple syrup... The choice is yours!

26 Sept 2010

Tickle, No Work and All Play

Here comes the boy! Please welcome our Tickle the Jack-Russell-Terrier mascot interlude! You have probably come across him already, either in a toffee-nosed situation, in a revealing pose à la Dita von Tick, or tenderly wrapped in the sofa throw... This little lad is pretty much a part of the family and in pure Jack Russell style makes sure his presence is noticed.

Tickle is affectionately referred to as Tick-Tick, Mucky Mutt, Big Nose, and by my folks as Tiot Péteux, a very odd moniker indeed that seems to fit the personality of the diminutive dog with an XL temperament.

My story with Tickle dates back to that decisive August bank holiday week-end of 2006, when my partner and I drove up to Manchester Dogs Home with a view to purchase a little dog. We had toyed with the idea of owning a dog for a little while and visited the centre previously, but always come out empty-handed. After all, the decision of getting a dog is not carefree and fancy-free. Instead it should result from careful down-to-earth practical consideration, not some hasty spur-of-the-moment brooding fancy... A dog is for life, and to be able to offer him what he needs for his happiness and well-being is a responsibility that shouldn't be taken lightly.

With a small house, a lovingly-tended garden I was proud of, two pet hamsters, and two full-time jobs, we felt that maybe this wasn't quite the right time to bring another furry addition to the family. But then again in our situation, would there ever be a right time? What we had right though was a love of animals, a ready commitment for them, a love of the outdoors and the countryside. We lived within walking distance from the local park, and could reach the Cheshire countryside within a straightforward 10-minute drive, so we felt pluses were in our favour to compensate for any potential minuses.

So on our last visit to the dogs home, when walking down the 'difficult' dog section past the mastiffs and pitbulls ('difficult' dog section, what was I thinking!), my eyes clasped onto that last doggy, a small, vocal, vivacious and yet so cute JRT with big doe eyes and a plastic cone around his neck. I paused. He was the dog I wanted: good clean fun personality and cuteness rolled into one small bundle of joy!

I'll let you onto a secret... Back then I knew nothing about JRTs (erm talk about being prepared, I hear you say...), not least the fact that they tend to take themselves seriously, have the so-called Napoléon complex (small dogs who believe they're big dogs!), and are true to their small-dog reputation as barky dogs with a propensity towards ankle-chasing! What can you do though? I simply fell in love with the mutt, then I took a leap of faith with the promise to myself that this abandonned pet would be given the second chance he truly deserves in life. Tick & I have been an item ever since and I haven't looked back once. I'm sure he's very happy with us, and he has filled our lives with a lot of happiness! So glad we've got him!

I must admit that Tick-Tick has driven us crazy at times, especially in the early weeks of our cohabitation, with levels of mischievousness we weren't prepared for and which he gave full rein to as soon as we left home while he had to stay in, from his ripping down the patio door curtain to jumping on the dining room table and using the sofa as a trampoline, chewing lipsticks, MP3, telephone cables, oh and don't get me started on the soiling... Then we heard about separation anxiety syndrome from the vet nurse who gave us further socialisation tips. We set the boy clear boundaries and learnt how to act as leaders of the pack, not as the ones being taken for a ride! Later Tickle even attended 'good manner' classes and eventually passed with flying colours, despite the boisterous rebel's shaky start and disruptive manner towards his doggy classmates!

More than anything, we have given our boy time: time to settle, time to understand his surroundings and time to accept us as his new owners. We have no information about his past apart from the fact that he was found wandering in the Peak District over the Summer of 2006 (chucked off a car away on holiday?). His behaviour indicates that he probably wasn't given much time or affection, so we make sure that the enjoyments he gets from his new life makes him forget the bad times from his early life chapter.

Source: True Coffee Hot Dog featured on Lovely Package

We have learnt so much from our personal journey with our dog. One thing we are still trying to learn though is that we shouldn't fall prey of his seduction tactics with us. JRTs are incredibly charming and cunning: they will play cute and manipulate you to their own benefit. But how can you resist this level of cute when it truly is that cute?

24 Sept 2010

The Quest for a Streamlined Corsica (Part 3)

The Fading of Local Knowledge: My grandma and her generation of villagers were rich sources of local information. Their passing away is - to paraphrase an Arab proverb - likened to a burning library. It helped that my grandma, until her very last day, had an acute memory and was clear-headed about who was who in the village, their next-of-kin and ancestors, who owned which bit of land, who did what for a living back in 1932, local traditions and customs, beliefs and myths, crafts and other manual skills etc. She brimmed with anecdotes, some very witty and funny, which she vividly recounted on late evenings for our pleasure.

Most of her knowledge had been passed down to her by her elders and family friends, and she had built her knowledge from there. Village society at the time was united (despite the odd feud), neither fragmented, nor individualistic and certainly not indifferent like modern society has turned out to be. Back then everyone knew everyone and took a real interest in who and what surrounded them in the microcosm of the village. People made their own evening entertainment by going round houses/ inviting relatives and neighbours around, for a chat about life and storytelling. Back then, books and newspapers were rare, radio a definite luxury, theatre and cinema mostly confined to the towns, and TV's foray into the home didn't become widespread until the 1960s.

Mémé and my mum (Nice, July 1957)

Land Planning: For this section, I will take us back to that 'little slice of suburb in the sun' allegory. No disrespect to home-owners who have bought into the dream, but we need more public concertation and the issuance of stricter architectural guidelines dos and don'ts that will help harmonise style across the suburbs, without that impression of a disjointed mish-mash sprawl...

Under its various denominations (POS, PLU, PADDUC, Loi Littoral et al), land planning at large appears bureaucratic, complicated, illogic in places and mostly misunderstood by Joe Public. Too many legalities, too many amendments, too many personal interests at stake, too many loopholes and too many exceptions to the rules lead to incomprehension, unpopularity and distrust. Another case of 'who's right, who's wrong?' How about make good use of our top public servants' time and (re)write a plan that will be unified, unbiased, forward-thinking, easy to update and clear enough to be understood and interpreted by all. That will be the naive in me hoping!

Off the Bend: Road improvements have always been a welcome necessity in Corsica, to ease communication between secluded, hard-to-reach villages. However in the last ten years, when roads have been widened, dynamited à-gogo, bends softened, even obliterated altogether, corners might have been cut in the process - so to speak, i.e. by playing down the impact that such drastic redefinition would have.

The fact that whole rock chunks were blasted has weakened the structure of certain cliff faces to the point of compromising exposed soil with every heavy rainfall and strong wind, which is particularly apparent in the Cape where parts of the redesigned coastal road have caved in. Costly repairs have stabilised the damage, yet being more respectful of the local geology and typography may have helped avoid the problem in the first place, with the defacto acceptance that Corsica's mountainous terrain implies that those bends and curves simply come with the territory...

Techno-Flops: Already touched upon here, I'll keep it short and sweet with one simple question: how can you smoothly run an internet business, or even a straightforward weblog, from the villages when low voltage or even power cuts incapacitate technology?

Conclusion: The making of the future is rooted in today's work in progress and is built on the foundations of today and yesterday as today's past. We need to make sure that those foundations are solid enough for the future to hold, take root and become in turn tomorrow's present. Corsica benefits from a fabulous potential, but before putting the hard hat on, we need to pause and consider whether we should head for the port or back inland, where the story of Corsica began, ease the past into the future with financial collateral and labour resources. Then redefine our vision of tourism, balance out work and leisure industries, aim for a society where inhabitants, workers and visitors alike can each find their feet, their place and a purpose in the grand scheme of things. A place for all. Failing that, just call me an idealist...

Further browsing: Domaine de Murtoli, a successful eco-tourism compromise between past and present.

22 Sept 2010

The Quest for a Streamlined Corsica (Part 2)

The Tourist Trail - Holy Grail?: In addition to the fact that tourism only directly benefits certain industry sectors and not the local population at large, I am no advocate of unbridled tourism. I believe there is a necessity to redefine and then capitalise upon the tourist demographic that will be most beneficial to the island's future, based on the cold facts of tourist spend per head.

First question: is the emphasis upon port developments the end-all-and-be-all solution for moving forward? From recent reports in local newspaper Corse Matin, it seems that cruise passengers on a Calvi stop-over do not disembark en masse with a view to flock down to the local boutiques and cafés. Rather they seem to be whisked off on day trips in the surrounding villages. In the same vein, private yachts stopping over in the island ports on their way from/ to Portofino, Puerto Cervo or elsewhere will have the larders full and be rather selective as to which restaurant - if any - they will be ready to spend their cash in.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the travel scale, self-contained self-catered camper vans and their 'savvy' middle-class occupants coming off the ferries are in for a holiday on the cheap, as I've had the opportunity to witness throughout the Summer. This means no (or hardly any) food shop, no local souvenirs, no restaurant dining, no camping fees... In my experience, coach passengers are equally reluctant to spend much, especially if they are on a full/ half-board accommodation basis. The number of 'one apple + one Carambar' I have witnessed being purchased at the local grocer's cannot seriously constitute a valuable spend per head.

Interestingly, four- and five-star Corsican hotels have been struggling this season (and the season past). Is tourism on the cheap the solution when there is potential for upping the ante and taking advantage of underused 4- and 5-star infrastructures? Maybe the focus on French clientèle (renowned for its cautious spending and lack of tipping largesse) is not necessarily one to aim for as a de-facto priority.

The Slow Death of the Past: The picture below is that of Ste-Claire chapel in Rogliano. This grand religious édifice sadly embodies everything that is unfair about disparity in the preservation of built heritage (with tough competition across Corsica for meagre subsidies). The bumpy journey to salvation begins (if it ever does in the first place for some monuments) with the building's historical acknowledgement and assigned level of importance and significance from a local, regional or national perspective (and the forecast economic impact via market study), and then onto the next level of salvage/ preservation/ consolidation/ restoration (or, failing that, further laissez-faire into decline!), facilitated by (tight) public budget subsidy and/ or private donations.

The neglected Corsican heritage is set against the unfairness of wealth distribution of a wider scale (the multi-million-Euro grants and subsidies allocated to the ports, roads and airports, for instance). In the face of economic reality and in the harsh light cast by return on investment figures, heritage crumbles irrevocably into less significance - if not insignificance - as a parent pauvre (second-class citizen). And with this, dozens of religious and disused public/ military buildings are falling further into more costly disrepair with each passing year.

Our case study, Ste-Claire, closed its doors after mass for the last time in Summer 1979. With the shrinking number of priests and parishioners and the French Catholic Church's reported financial disarray, it might be utopic to pray for the chapel's doors to ever re-open as a church. Meanwhile local councils, who are in charge of church stock built prior to 1905 (while post-1905 churches fall in the remit of the Catholic Church itself), are struggling enough as it is to keep open churches in working order, without the 'further burden' of those abandonned churches...

Back to Ste-Claire, how about rehabilitate it as a village hall, public building of some sort, and get the local CFA's (Centre de Formation d'Apprentis) building trade college involved in its restoration as an on-going learning project? Remains the all-important funding matter, where in this case 200,000 Euros would just about address the basics (just think of the leaking roof for starters).

A successful church conversion in London SW, featured on Film Locations UK

As a last but probably best resort, how about follow in Britain's footsteps and sell off those abandoned churches to private individuals keen to give them a second lease of life as a home/ office/ arts studio, instead of us standing there as powerless witnesses to further structural degradation while hoping for some elusive miracle or lottery grant... (to be continued)

21 Sept 2010

The Quest for a Streamlined Corsica (Part 1)

After exploring land, cultivation and property development in Corsica, we'll round off our observations with what the future - in my opinion - may hold for the island, and any potential implications.

No matter how upbeat modern Corsica may appear to the outsider/ holidaymaker/ visitor, it is nonetheless faced with a variety of challenges. As an average inhabitant, with the added insight of having travelled and spent most of my life out of the island, I have been able to identify areas for improvement.

In the same breath I do agree with any potential detractor about the fact that it is far easier to criticise from a distance than deal with the problems head-on and implement solutions. Well, I am not part of the political scene, I have no super-powers, no say in public budget spending, and I am no know-it-all guru - only a humble observer... This article is not aimed as a whinge-for-whinge's sake. Rather it should be perceived as constructive criticism and I do apologise if it is not perceived as such. I love Corsica and my intention has never been to put her down.

It's so Political: Political passion is a renegade from the past and still has a potent hold on town and village life alike. I am flabbergasted by the fact that every villager seems to know which party/ candidate their neighbours vote for. Before the election even takes place, everyone has a pretty accurate idea of who will win the election, and by how many votes. Controlled democracy with a strong clan mentality is not necessarily beneficial to village progress and forward thinking.

L'Incivisme: This could be translated as 'lack of citizenlike behaviour'. Reported countless times in the local press and decried by local mayors, this malaise has been exacerbated in recent years and manifests itself in a variety of more-or-less politically-driven actions that negatively affect a municipality (and is not solely found in Corsica of course): fly-tipping, criminal damage to public property, various acts of pollution, refusal to abide by citizen duties (ex. for a private land-owner to clear scrub off their land in direct proximity to the village so as to limit the spreading risk of wild fires, etc.). In any case, these foolish acts affect everybody down to the perpetrators who, to put it simply, saw the branch on which they are sat.

Ports, Ports and More Ports: France is the second country in the world, after the USA, for its number of marinas, from the northern tip of the English channel down the Atlantic coastline border with Spain, plus the span of its whole Med front across to Corsica. The romantic image of the picturesque fishing harbour with a handful of sailing ships seeking solace is long gone and has now been replaced by a more fitting description of floating carparks, with row after row after row of pleasure boats of all sizes, shapes and price tags. Irrevocably this concentration of boats within man-made port enclosures, added to the Summer heat and the virtually non-existant tidal movements of the Med encourage water stagnation, pollution and algae proliferation. What is left of the original beach suffers from coastal erosion (which, I admit, is not solely limited to the Med regions).

As a fitting illustration of this, the once-beautiful Macinaggio sandy beach (pictured below) is now a narrow strip of shoreline clogged up with banquettes de posidonie (heaps of algae), all year round. The configuration of the port prevents the algae from shifting by itself with the winter storms like this would have occurred before the port was extended. Meanwhile sand and pebble banks have been displaced by the changed underwater currents and by further human action (diggers scraping the algae off the beach in late Spring and in good faith, so as to make it 'look more attractive' although funnily enough the algae happens to buffer the beach against further erosion).

However despite the threat of coastal erosion and sea pollution, port expansion is set to carry on across the island, with already 35 million Euros in the pipeline for the proposed Carbonite Port just south of Bastia to welcome more ferryboats from the continent and cruise ships. Add to this a further 2 million Euros for the proposed modernisation of the recently-built Toga Port, just north of Bastia, and you get a better grasp of the financial stakes. (to be continued)

17 Sept 2010

The Grapes of Mirth (Part 2)

The vineyard comes alive to those who work it. This feeling starts with the coveted grapes themselves; some bunches are easy to locate and separate from the plant, hanging nicely in one compact formation, while others play hard to get, hiding behind a thick cloak of vine leaves, interlaced with other grapes, twisting around branches and support poles in a curled-up embrace. On one single row and within a few yards of each other, it is interesting to note the difference in the quality, colour and ripeness of the grapes. Sun exposure, quality of the soil, availability of water (closeness to the nearby brook in this instance), the plant's personal gene-pool, resilience and level of human care it has received, all contribute to the end result.

The nearby brook, in late Spring 2010

The vineyard we were working was an eco-system of its own, despite the necessary yet reasoned chemical treatment it undergoes to fight disease. While some vineyards elsewhere on the island and further afield display a neat pattern of manicured vine rows with not a single weed in sight, courtesy of ruthless chemical action, here the balance between nature and culture seems to have been preserved and even encouraged. Rows are interspersed with a thick carpet of wild plants, which are hacked back once in a while. However their presence encourages a multitude of buzzing insects, which in turn encourage pollinisation and the 'general chemistry'.

Wasps and bees were buzzing around us, while an array of butterflies - some of which incredibly colourful and exotic - were gracefully fluttering about, attracted by the nectar seeping off the grapes. A multitude of crawlies were taking part in the fun too, some of those bugs looked like they had the potential to be vineyard destructors should their numbers had been higher, but somehow harmony balanced all the elements together (perhaps helped by the selective chemical treatment the vineyard had undergone for its own ultimate benefit).

Action-bee is go!

For all of us 14 grape-pickers, the highlight of the day was brunch (more than bugs, dare we say!). Brunch was the epitome of conviviality that brought us all together at around 11:00am, and was served in the tree shade by Dominique, the wine-maker's wife. She brought a cornucopia of savoury and sweet treats to keep us going, from fresh baguettes, assortment of cold meats, boiled eggs, plump tomatoes, pickled gerkins, French cheese for each one to customise into their own sandwiches, to pizzas, home-baked quiches, savoury cakes and flans, followed by fruit, pains au chocolat, apple tart, soft drinks and strong black coffee to round off the daily picnic.

Once she explained that she used to bring rosé wine along, but soon enough noticed that productivity would (predictably) decline after workers would down a dozen bottles (!) during the meal, so it was decided that alcohol would not be brought again...' However on the last brunch that we shared all together, the winemaker brought a handful of bottles from the 2008 millésime: Muscat, white wine and Rappu (a Corsican liquorous red wine slightly reminiscing of port. Let us note in passing that 2009 was a disastrous year for the wine estate, due to a combination of bad weather, plant disease and greedy wild boars who flocked down the vineyard at night to feast on the grapes!

Bursting with flavour: the Muscat grape

To those who ask me about the muscle-aching/ body-tiring/ wasp-stinging effects of grape-picking, I will not disapprove. I will quickly add though that these are only minor inconveniences, a finite part of what constitutes grape-picking. Believe me, the task brings more satisfaction and benefits than it does aches and sores. Think of the joys of the camaraderie that unites us all through the effort, the unbeatable closeness to nature, the benefits of working in the great outdoors, and the memories we'll cherish from the experience, all of which will bring wonders to our general well-being. By the way, see you next year, same time, same place!

16 Sept 2010

The Grapes of Mirth (Part 1)

To the very tired list concept of '100 Things To Do Before You Die', I would whole-heartedly recommend les vendanges (grape-picking), a wine-process-related tradition that perpetuates an age-old custom documented in Greek and Roman mythology, that reconciles man and nature in a celebration of late-Summer/ early Autumn harvest before Winter takes hold.

With grape-picking you are faced with two requisites from the get go: to be physically fit and to find yourself in the proximity of a vineyard. In my case I couldn't hope for a better combination: my parents' house is within walking distance from a vineyard and, having challenged myself with the thought that I could cope with the physical demands of the task, I was resolute not to allow myself to be defeated.

The Muscat grape produces the nectar of dessert wines!
Relatives of mine have worked the vineyards in the past, from the Champagne to the Bordeaux and Fitou regions, as students, as a holiday job, or to top up their earnings. However their main reason was beyond financial considerations; it was mostly for the fun social aspects and the conviviality the experience brought. I was curious to try it for myself, and with the opportunity right there on my doorstep (well, almost), it would have been foolish not to attempt it.

So there was the low-down: a two-week, hourly-paid, grape-picking marathon conducted at a steady pace, with comfortable shoes a must and no skiving as an unspoken yet understood rule (so as not to interrupt the dynamic of the group), and with the guarantee of raised fitness levels and toned stomachs, legs and arms for each one of us by the end of the fortnight. Bonus!

In addition there was a more personal element as far as I was concerned. Grape-picking was going to allow me to get a grasp, albeit superficial, of what my maternal ancestors would have experienced for themselves as wine-makers in their day, as they picked the fruit of their year-long effort, the fruit of the vineyard they unconditionally tended. This is it, those two weeks were going to bring me a taster of my elders' pastoral lifestyle.

The fun and the hard graft started conjointly early on 6th September. First of all I wasn't quite sure as to what or who to expect and soon enough I was facing a motley crew, a collection of social demographics that span late teens to early 70s, with a strong male majority, locals (I happened to know a couple of them) and then four traveller types heading from different horizons.

There was Flavie, a laid-back lone Swiss traveller girl who happened to be a graphic artist on the bohemian side of life who had travelled South America, Senegal and Gambia. And then there were three representatives of the former Eastern bloc (Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia to be precise) who also happened to be a collective of street artists/ farm-labouring and fruit-picking their way across Europe (Spain/ Canary Islands/ Ceuta, Sardinia, France) to help them finance their travels and free-spiritedness.

At first sight, one might have been forgiven for thinking those lads were extras out of a Rob Zombie film, but beyond the dreadlocks, tattoos and piercings, their easy-going/ positive attitude to life made them quite endearing to talk to. They were accompanied by a small hound of dogs, namely a teddy-bear-like husky, a pale-coloured fox-terrier/ jack-russell cross and two pit-bull crosses who were all equally laid-back as their owners and taking advantage of the calming effects of the vineyard and surrounding countryside. 'They are not stressed in Corsica, they like it here!' And their owners seem to enjoy the island's pace of life too! (to be continued)

13 Sept 2010

Cheesecake Nathalie

Serves 8 generous slices
Preparation: 15 mins
Cooking: 40 mins

My first taste of the recipe dates back to 1987, as a student on a week-long linguistic trip to Oxford, while staying with a host family in nearby Cowley. Although that first taste involved the 'delights' of a ready-mix, I was hooked. Ruth, my English tutor, helped me crack the code, and once back in France, I perfected a recipe that still serves its purpose to this day, based around French alternatives, but don't let this lead to scepticism, for my version of the cheesecake certainly has an army of aficionados on both sides of the Channel, with my brother Steph its number one fan!

Why is my cheesecake a winning recipe? Because it combines the caramelised, sugary flavours of Speculoos with the subtle tang of lemon, and is built around a duo of textures that complement each other: the blitzed crunchiness of the biscuits set against the soft melting, yet plump bite of the filling. Also for those of you who are no fans of anything cream cheese and the likes (and this includes yours truly!), this cheesecake simply does the trick.
  • 500g 'Speculoos' biscuits (or plain 'Rich Tea' biscuits or Graham crakers)
  • 25g butter, cut in chunks
  • 50g flour
  • 10g baking powder
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla-flavoured sugar (optional)
  • 2 eggs, with yolks and whites separated
  • 50cl double cream
  • 500g fromage frais
  • 3 small organic lemons (or 2 bigger ones), juiced
Line a sandwich tin (preferably one with a removable base, i.e. a springform cake tin) with greased parchment paper. Break the Speculoos biscuits in halves and blitz them in a food processor to a fine powder. Alternatively, lay a clean kitchen towel on a work surface, break each Speculoos in half, and fold the towel over to cover them; then roll a rolling pin over the towel several times until the biscuits have turned into thin crumbs. Pour the biscuit powder into a mixing bowl and add butter. With your fingers, carefully mix the butter and crumbs together, and then pour the biscuit mix into the tin, making sure you press it down evenly. Reserve in the fridge.

Pre-heat the oven (190°C). Prepare the filling by blending together with a spoon the flour, baking powder, sugar, vanilla-flavoured sugar, 2 beaten egg yolks, double cream and fromage frais. Add the lemon juice and mix again together. Then whisk the 2 egg whites until firm and add them delicately to the preparation, being careful to keep them fluffy and not to dissolve them in the process. Pour the filling onto the biscuit base (that you had reserved in the fridge), and place the tin in the oven. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, check the consistency of the filling with a knife: although it still needs to stick to the knife, it also needs to be set. Besides the cheesecake should present a nice mottled golden colour as per picture.

Remove the cake from the oven, let it cool down completely before placing in the fridge. Serve on the day - or better still the following day - either on its own, or with a fruit coulis: strawberry or raspberry work very well in taste, colour and flavour.

12 Sept 2010

Pressure Points (Part 2)

I've personally had the pleasure/ misfortune of meeting some of those. They treat you as an ally/ friend while you serve the purpose; they probably start not liking you too much when they realise that you are a tough cookie and won't allow them to take privileges over you, abuse your trust, or generally take you for a ride. Soon enough they'll click that you too are ambitious and serious about your job and progression, except you don't need to brag about it to the boss, you have principles, a personality and wit, you are not afraid of defending fairness in the workplace, standing by your own views and opinions, even if this might get you into trouble with a superior. You are loyal to yourself, and loyal to the business, but you don't need to lick boots to prove it.

Then beware the wrath of the ladykiller whose not-so-subtle plan will unveil sooner rather than later: to eradicate the competition (eh, that's you and me!) in order to take centre stage, to ingratiate herself to the boss to the point of following his/ her shadow, to keep you in the dark over the progress of key dossier information in order to trip you up, to casually spread carefully-thought-out false assumptions about you, your method, your work ethics, your choice of screensaver, your favourite chocolate bar etc.

I am not trying to imply that only female co-workers are capable of such callousness; so are male co-workers of course (human nature, eh!). Except with these women, the bullying is probably more premeditated, calculated, scheming, cunning and insidious. If a male colleague is doing the dirty on you, chance is you'll be able to nip it in the bud, confront him, discuss it/ raise your voice over it (if need be), and clear the air. Whereas with female troublemakers, the issue will be more difficult to trace, pinpoint and evidence. I partly blame those feminine lures acting out and hormonal flows fuelling bitchiness: a full catalogue of lies and pretences that includes false airs of innocence, manipulative explanations, moody pauses, pretend surprised looks, strong denials, the odd tear, the wobbly voice, the smarmy expression...

As if life at work wasn't difficult and challenging enough, the most likely enemy of today's working woman will be a younger female vying for the same post/ prospects as her. Without falling into the cliché, this is especially true in fast-moving, image-conscious, youth-orientated disciplines like the media (marketing, advertising, TV, etc.), I.T. and fashion. I have experienced it to a degree, although there is no point in asking the female 'culprits' to come up with their version of the facts as the strong feminine lure machinery would kick off!

Man, I know my worth, but if the boss is easily swayed by a girl ten years my junior, and rates sultry looks and lack of substance over experience, integrity and maturity, then so be it. I know who the loser will be, and it won't be me. 'She' can get the job, after all, if that's what she wants! There is one point in life where the wise amongst us will have reached a level of contentment and self-belief where they will feel comfortable enough in themselves to be able to enjoy their achievements, without a care for what those pesky co-workers think or say about us.

There will come the point where your self-worth will help you give a true meaning to your life regardless of office politics and the trappings of modern life, even if this might mean less money in your pocket (if you consider setting up your own business/ going freelance etc.) but with that oh-so priceless taste of freedom and wisdom in your heart! You see, Mr Neil Young, I'd rather fade away than burn out!

10 Sept 2010

Pressure Points (Part 1)

Throughout our human history, women have faced all sorts of pressures, mainly as home-makers (cook, maid, seamstress, gardener, nurse and jack-of-all-trades), as wives and mothers raising their children. On top of this and increasingly their responsibilities got extended to wage-earners, whereby working long hours on farms, in factories, or as housemaids for the local bourgeoisie or nobility.

In today's Western society, women of working age still face intense pressure to achieve and succeed. On the whole, the challenges are pretty much the same as those of yesteryear, with the same expectations: to aim for/ achieve financial stability/ independence, while at the same time run a home, maintain marital harmony and bring up children. The average modern woman will probably be more career-minded than her elders, due to the fact there is a higher proportion of them gaining a university education and a degree. In the space of the last 20 years, Britain has seen its university student numbers double.

Today's young woman will also probably be more reluctant to compromise. Appearance will be her ultimate vanity, her priority, financed mostly on credit. After childbirth, she'll be happy to get a nanny and go back to the workplace fast, rather than become a stay-at-home mum. She'll also want to have fun with the girls, go out clubbing like a single girl well into her thirties and forties (if not beyond!), while hubby minds the kids - or while hubby goes out too, with his mates.

Not your average cruise: The Sea Cloud

She'll expect holidays, not necessarily the type of holiday her parents would have got her acquainted with as a child (stuck at home for two weeks with a couple of day trips to the seaside, camping down south, or packed off to Butlins or Center Parcs). The young women I know are well-travelled: they will fly off to Vegas, Cozumel or Phuket and these destinations won't even be described as trips of a lifetime! By the way, these are your average girls next door with a degree and an entry office job...

Certain women in the workplace will fight it tooth and nail to get noticed, snatch that promotion and/ or get perks. If jumping on the career bandwaggon means taking advantage of feminine lures, shifting loyalties, taking privileges, being selfish, sneaky and catty, spreading false rumours, incriminating/ walking all over co-workers, and taking undue credit, then my personal observations are proving me just that: some of these women will be ready to do what it takes to advance their career, even if what it takes means anything dubious and morally questionable. (to be continued)

8 Sept 2010

Foregone and Forgotten?

A nostalgic reminiscence of what appears to be the now-forgotten French pastries of my childhood. Although they have disappeared from my environment, if you do happen to spot them when out on your travels, do let me know!

However if these pastries seem to have defected the shelves of the modern pâtisserie shop, I hope that by talking about them I will trigger a mission in others to help me revive their popularity, while at the same time I will be attempting to understand why they simply vanished off the radar in the first place.

L'Etoile (star-shaped cream puff): This one probably stood at the top of my viennoiserie paradise and it held a starry role in my childhood. It was soft, light, fun and uncomplicated, a complete kid-pleaser consisting of fluffy choux pastry shaped into a star the diameter of an adult's hand, and finished with a sprinkle of sucre grélon (thick decorative hailstone-like sugar grains). Why did the stars shoot out of sight and into oblivion? It could be that they were tricky to assemble, easy to tangle or break off, took lots of space on the shelf and didn't fit nicely in a standard paper bag... In the 1980s, they gradually got replaced with the chouquettes (an adult version of the star, according to I, same recipe but without the fun and shape!). The chouquette, a northern speciality, literally means 'petit choux', a miniature choux, sprinkled with grélon sugar.

Le Cornet à la Crème (cream cornetto): I saw this filling viennoiserie as a winter ice cream, available from bakeries mainly. It was made up of rolled puff pastry shaped into a cornetto and filled to the brim with set crème pâtissière. The cornets for sale were handily propped inside a deep flutted brioche tin on the bakery counter. Once I'd bought my cornet, I would eat it the same way I would an cornetto ice cream, for that ultimate pretence! So then, what happened to the cornets of this world? I presume they were made in the first place using a surplus of pastry and cream. Maybe bakers and pâtissiers learnt to be more efficient with their usage and stocks, and the need for those pâtisseries just died out as a result... Or maybe it is a bit more complicated than that.

Le Gland (acorn-shaped cream cake): I remember my grandma treating me to those pretty and incredibly morish pastries. As a child, they were tricky to eat and potentially messy. Those slightly flattened acorn-shaped choux were filled with crème pâtissière (flavoured with a hint of kirsch), and topped with a pistachio-coloured sugar icing and a sprinkle of dark chocolate flakes at the narrow end of the acorn. Although still on the scene today (but less represented nationwide), the gland has encountered competition in the form of other figurines (cute little pig or the green fig in Corsica) which are coated in almond paste (as opposed to sugar icing)...

Le Cygne (praline custard-filled swan-shaped cream puff): If you loved Paris-Brest gâteau (pictured below), but couldn't justify the expense or the size, then your individual portion of Paris-Brest did the trick impeccably: choux pastry (a recurrent theme it seems in our article!) packaged into the shape of a swan - no less - with a delicate filling of praline-flavoured whipped cream, for that moment of indulgence a child could not resist: 'Mum, I promise I'll tidy my room!' The tiny Pâtisserie Courtaux, at the bottom of la rue de Paris, made the best cygnes I could wish for. Since, the swans seem to have defected to sunnier climates after the pâtissier retired. The only Paris-Brests I can source these days are either in their original ring-shaped format or miniature version... The swans were probably too fiddly and fragile to make it into the 21st century...

La crème de la crème: Paris-Brest gâteau

And for good measure, I'll dedicate this last one to my mum who regrets the fact it has been pimped up and replaced by a bunch of colourful impostors:

Le Macaron (macaroon): So no, I won't be praising those scarily perfectly-formed coloured designer fixtures of the pâtisserie scene that play tricks on the colour-blind. The ones my mum is on about were bigger in size, more consistent, and simply white. No naff flavours, no food colourings, just a simple macaron. So simple, a clever soul had to alter it to turn it into a bit of a parody, let's be honest... But the pay-out for the guy has been formidable and he has laughed all the way to the bank ever since!

4 Sept 2010

American Bubble-Gum

Brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins... These are words that need no description, no explanation and no translation (they are untranslated, and maybe even untranslatable). Taking France as an example, those words have invaded our dictionaries and vocabulary like in their day 'jerrycan', 'week-end', 'chewing-gum', 'rock 'n' roll', hamburger and other terms of welcome (or imposed) American endearment. They are understood by most of us, maybe bar the centenarian living in seclusion in a remote village. Brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins have advanced onto our shores with ease but has this advancement brought progress to mankind? I wonder...

Creeping up our bakery counters, gaining column inches in food magazines, chosen by the cool-on-the-go, these cakes have won an incredible battle pit against France's honed, skilled  and world-reputed pâtisserie tradition, a battle of easy over fiddly, plain over tasty, fast over slow, filling over fancy, cheap over less cheap, a battle of taste, a battle of texture, a battle of colour. This battle of grub, of stodge, against delicacy was no charm offensive and I don't think it was ever meant to be.

Despite the fact that there is more to American specialities than Brownies & Co., the latter have succeeded in ramming Americana further down our throats. They are another example of what I call 'American bubble-gum', a cultural model that promotes a vision based on mass-consumerism (and this is not simply related to food), levelled expectations, levelled taste leading to its aseptisation, itself leading inexorably to loss of taste. And the loss of taste gives credence to a taste for insipidity.

Chocolate Mini Sparkle Doughnut by Starbucks: vector of propaganda?

I deplore the levelling of traditional French pâtisserie values to the so-called mass-market appeal, based on the promotion of universal uniformity and mediocrity of taste and experience to an audience of un-afficionados. By un-afficionados, I mean those French people and foreign visitors alike who do not seek, either out of choice or ignorance, the appreciation or savoir faire behind our expertly-skilled pastries, which are an integral part of our heritage at large. And through this we all are the (un-)willing witnesses to the levelling process of cultural difference.

This erosion of cultural difference is reflected further with mass-tourism. Instead of satisfying one's curiosity and embracing cultural difference, mass-market tourism will seek false reassurances by encouraging the readily availability of fast-food products that are familiar to all (beyond our American pâtisserie theme, but fully endorsed by the American food model), from pizza to kebab, from burger to pannini, from brownie to cookie, a commonly understood culinary language ('culinary' being an exaggeration). This levelling, led by the American model itself, threatens to enlist irrevocably our European youth (and their parents) who seem either happy to embrace it, indifferent about it, or resigned to accept it... I have chosen to raise my voice about the whole thing, and so be it if I have offended some of my readers. Please, I am no anti-American, but that doesn't mean I am ready to accept (and swallow) anything America throws at me.

Brownies au Chocolat Blanc et Noix de Macadamia by Elle à Table
P.S: I haven't mentioned the much-lauded cupcakes in this article on purpose. Because - in contrast with brownies, donuts, cookies and muffins - their elaborate colourful presentation demonstrates a certain amount of skill and talent, although the basis for the cupcake itself remains plain and easy. Cupcakes are 'couture cakes', as I like to describe them. The secret to their success lies in the decorative expertise of the cook/ baker, resulting in an individual, even unique style. Therefore for these reasons, I would put the cupcake in a higher league to that of Brownies & Co.

1 Sept 2010

Happy First Anniversary!

01/09/2009 - 01/09/2010: One blog, one writer, two countries, 83 posts, one Jack Russell Terrier mascot, and limitless inspiration!

La Baguette Magique is celebrating its first anniversary today! It has come a long way since the collection of homelife-dedicated writings which I started in July 2009 after watching an inspirational Martha Stewart biopic (Martha, Inc.). I then collated the articles into a handy blog format, as per my partner's suggestion, and the blog grew organically from there to over 80 posts to date!

Source: Piped-Rose Cupcakes by Martha Stewart
The topics I was passionate about soon enough transcended homely food and entertaining, to embrace lifestyle at large, shopping and retail, fashion trends, design, pets, ecology, travel, and inner thoughts.

Alongside copywriting, I have dedicated countless fun hours to researching ideas and improving on what would essentially be a 'labour of love in progress' (look, no work connotations!): the brand identity with its slight retro feel, the HTML tweaks and turns, the photography (another hobby of mine) that I would then elaborate upon with props, settings, and the photographer's innate untold message.

With La Baguette, there I was (am): simply myself. Never pretending to be some superwoman I am not, never fooling my readers with tales of extravagant lifestyles (there are better-qualified bloggers out there for this!). You see, my mission is simple: to write about what I know best, what makes me tick, let the narrative unfold, the words create the *magique*, let the poetry permeate this tiny corner of the net, make you - the reader - stop by and linger some more. This blog is an indulgence: I please myself and I hope I please you too.

Since I started putting pen to paper as a young child, I have never stopped writing: letters, poems, songs, fairytales, unrequited love stories, travel logs, philosophical essays, slightly unhinged Ray Carver-inspired short stories, rock n' roll/ silver screen cartoon biopics, a 200-page dissertation in my final year at University, countless project/ research papers for work, marketing material, advertising copy...

Writing has always been second nature to me. I may be a woman of few words in a social situation, but I am no less an acute social observer, a thinker (an analyst even!), a writer and - I would love to think - a wordsmith who loves words.

As La Baguette is looking forward to the next year milestone, I thank all my readers for your following. There are many reasons to rejoice together, including the fact that in the face of adversity, La Baguette has provided me anchorage and focus to persevere. It has also given me clout and a sense of testimony within the blogosphere and the world of online publishing in general. I hope it has delivered to you what you were looking for in a blog, in terms of contents, information, tone and visuals. As always your comments and suggestions are most welcome!

On another note, some great news I would like to share with you: the design blog project which I mentioned to you last year in A Taste for Design is still taking shape, despite being sadly delayed. I have been working on its contents and, although I am unable at this stage to advise you of when it will go live, I promise it won't be 'just another design blog'... Stay put for now on the design front, we are on our way with the goods!

In the meantime, corks out and bottoms up for La Baguette Magique's first year, this is one beautiful achievement indeed!