Monday 28 February 2011

Christchurch Earthquake/Tremblement de Terre

Tuesday morning dawned as the beginning of a week of contrasts. Amid packing for a long awaited short break to the Normandy Coast the morning radio report of an massive earthquake in Christchurch turned our minds from holiday happiness to fearful thoughts for our countrymen and women as the horror of the situation unfolded. We listened, googled, watched, read and emailed frantically in disbelief as the enormity of the level of the crisis became clear...65 dead and over 300 people missing...lunchtime business halted and death and destruction followed a short sharp shake of the second largest city in New hard to come to terms with such scenes of devastation. We packed quietly and then parted with one ear to the radio for updates as we traveled the 3 hours to our destination...Cabourg...
Christchurch is a city I know well as my very close friend from University in Dunedin lived there and her home became mine during stopovers to and from the North Island where my parents lived...I got to know her school friends and family as well as if they were my own...I hung out at the Cathedral Square, the Arts Centre and various nightclubs and bars....This city will never be the same again and nor will its people...for that I am deeply saddened...the loss, the trauma and the long term effects of this earthquake will be felt for a long time to will also bring home to many New Zealander's just how vulnerable they are, how young and unsettled their country is and how strong and resilient they have to be to soldier on in the face of such tragedy. There is no doubt that that is what they will do! I know because we are Kiwi's and by definition are made up of tough island and pioneering stock that has faced physical endurance tests from the outset. Our young beautiful country will rise to the support the Cantabrians as they rebuild a life for themselves and their neighbours...for the time being it is a city in mourning grieving for the loss of life and a way of life...
It seemed fitting that we spent the following couple of days in Normandy with my NZ friend as we monitored the news and talked over the unfolding stories in the aftermath of the earthquake. We walked the coastline, ran on the beach and built sandcastles with the children in the day then cooked and drank champagne and ginger beer in the evenings...loving looking out at the changing light across the for the soul...
As always, food was foremost in our planning and we were lucky enough to have a leg of wild boar compliments of my friends neighbour on the menu. Fresh baby wild boar 'sanglier' is a delicacy rarely found outside hunting areas like the Ardennes and we often see them crossing the roads at dawn and dusk in family awesome sight on mass. Mike took on the challenge as the boar was still very fresh and raw in more ways than one but to his relief vaguely 'oven prepared'! In anticipation my fallback classic french cookbook 'French Regional Cooking' by Anne Willan had been duly packed. A recipe found...the leg was marinated for a day in red wine, shallots, juniper berries and fresh herbs then roasted for a couple of hours while the strained marinade and thick chunky lardons, onions, celery and carrots were cooked together slowly to create the sauce to serve alongside....the beast came to the table with roast potatoes and fresh greens and it was delicious...wild, gamey, rich and moist...the children came back for seconds and we all slept well after our physical day in the open air.
The next morning an early brisk visit to the local wharf where the fisherman's wives were touting their wares revealed piles of fresh scallops for 5 euros a kilo...Mike's absolute favourite...we soon had these weather worn but elegant women in lipstick and plastic aprons shucking scallops for us to carry home...huge, succulent and uber fresh! Fried in garlic and butter, a squeeze of lemon and tossed with parsley...perfect end to another lovely simple day by the sea...
 Our thoughts over dinner turned to our lovely Belg guests who stayed with us twice over the summer to talk in great detail about our homeland which they were heading to in the New Year for an extended hiking holiday...Min and Luke were freshly retired gentile educationalists whose company we enjoyed immensely...and after taking another look at their final email we realised that there was every chance that they would have landed in Christchurch around the time of the earthquake! Quick email exchanges revealed our worst fears...they were indeed in the city centre at the time of the quake but luckily they had survived unscathed from a central city supermarket...they promptly headed north to Kaikoura...unharmed physically but shaken. How small the world is at a time like this...
Home again and back online after a few days of scatty came through that all those we know and care for have made it through unscathed physically...houses wrecked and businesses in tatters but grateful to be safe and well...they will now be coping with water shortages, lack of electricity, plumbing and a massive clean up while they reshape their lives in light of recent events...all of the goalposts have lucky we feel...our thoughts are with them all...

Sunday 20 February 2011

Lashings of Ginger Beer / Beaucoup de Biere aux Gingembre

A phone call from Jonathan my first flatmate in Wellington with the promise of a visit prompted a chat about related old friends in our early days in Wellington...which randomly led onto George Rose and Rebecca Hardie-Boys...originally from Mike's hometown Nelson who makes Organic Ginger Beer in New Zealand. A quick google and here we are on the roll of making our own Ginger Beer. I say a roll as it needs feeding daily [like the cat!] and you have to bottle weekly...a bit of a commitment!

It was Amelia's 15th birthday on Friday and it coincided with the first tasting. The bottle opened with an explosive 'POP' not dissimilar to the local drop we are more familiar with. And on the first sampling ...not too spicy and not too was actually very good! All of the girls asked for seconds so we must be doing something right...and if nothing else it has been a bit of fun, a good science lesson in the production of gas from the yeast and sugar 'ginger beer bug'.  The NZ company Phoenix Organics provides a 'How to make Ginger Beer' PDF as a resource for schools...a good home education kit too...the link is below, scroll down to the Ginger Beer section for the download.
Our guests this weekend were a couple of solicitors from London and their three young children on their way to the mountains. Quiche with the last of the frozen cherry tomatoes, Confit de Canard with cherry sauce and mini Pavlova's for dessert. Over breakfast we shared notes on making sloe gin and ginger beer. After a quick tasting they went away with the promise of a recipe exchange and a carefully packed, potentially explosive bottle of our latest batch of Ginger Beer...labeled and ready to drink!
As for the recipe..see Rebecca's below but meanwhile drink lots of lovely Belgium beer with clip top bottles [or ask the local pub to save them for you so you can do your bit for the environment]. Makes about half a dozen bottles a week...keep it in a warm place for a few days then store somewhere cooler to stop the gas production...always serve chilled so the gas is inactive when opened! A little less fun [and dangerous] than serving warm!

Ginger Beer with Rebecca Hardieboys of Hardieboys Beverages.
Recipe for Ginger Beer Bug from Tony Simpson's book, "A Distant Feast"
10gm fresh yeast or 5gm dried beer or bread yeast
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp sugar
400ml water
To make the bug:
Mix these ingredients together and leave for 24 hours, then 'feed' daily for 7 days with 1 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1 teaspoon of sugar.
Strain and reserve both the solid and the liquid. If you want to keep the bug going for further brews, halve the solid, add the 400 mls of water and start again.
Keep bug loosely covered in a warm light place.
To make the ginger beer:
strained liquid from bug
3 litres cold water
juice of 2 lemons
675g sugar
1 litre boiling water
1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger (optional)
Mix the strained liquid with 3 litres of cold water and add lemon juice. Dissolve sugar in boiling water and add to brew. For extra zing, add grated fresh ginger. Bottle the gingerbeer and keep for at least a week before using. It will get fizzier with age so take care opening it. Store in fridge when ready to drink..
NOTE: Beer yeast is available from home brewing stores. Don't use bread yeasts with added dough improvers.

In the summer it will be a good non-alcoholic organic thirst quencher for young and old and may stir a few memories for those of us that grew up with home brewed Ginger Beer in the garden shed and got their kicks out of the excitment and danger of opening a bottle left a little too times have changed!
The Rosemary and Olive soap also turned out to be a good brew...a lovely passionfruit colour with flecks of crushed dried rosemary from the garden and a fresh aromatic oil blend for fragance...our first attempt at stamping 'O YES' was also fun with Liliana joining in on the 'banging' week to go and we can finally start using the first batch!

Thursday 17 February 2011

Madam Paris...the best neighbour a girl could ask for!

The irrepressible Madam Paris popped over today with a crumpled plastic bag from which she carefully produced a perfect white and pale green endive...a treasure from her winter garden...she paused momentarily rattling off a list of options on how we should consume these wee gems. She then departed wrapping her gorgeous cream shawl around her shoulders and shuffling back across the courtyard to an awaiting Dora, her loyal, if not rather huge and often too loud, German Shepherd. She suggested we eat the endive sliced raw with vinaigrette or with crumpled Roquefort cheese, walnuts and apple as a salad or wrapped in jambon under a bechamel sauce baked in the oven till golden and bubbly. I have tried this last suggestion before and, as it is still a little chilly this afternoon, the idea appeals as a nice winter warmer.

We often have our day broken with visits from Madam Paris but they are never without purpose. She will always have a gift in hand or maybe a newspaper article she thinks holds vital information that we must not miss out on or she will carry with her some news of the village...a church meeting, social event or report of a burglary in the area...she has become affectionately known to us all as '' because she always knows whats going on when. Who needs the internet!
I am ever grateful for her bunches of fragrant purple lilac in early spring, dahlia's and rhubarb in summer, gorgeous pumpkins, onions and potatoes in autumn. She never brings things we have in our garden and the timing is always perfect...inspiring a new recipe, a discovery of a new French word like 'topinambour' for 'Jerusalem artichoke', or just the sheer delight in something so fresh and home grown to cook with for family or guests. I always stop and pass the day...sometimes she will come and warm herself by the fire or sit in the sun chatting to the girls...she never overstays her welcome and we have given up trying to give her tea or coffee.
Having said that we have many a fond memory of her prearranged visits at midday for an 'apero' to mark a special occasion. She will come with her usual apron replaced by a silk scarf carrying a bottle of her unlabeled family Champagne chilled and ready to pour. We always make an occasion of these visits...preparing delicate aperitifs and all coming to the table to share a brief time with our gentle friend. The girls translate for Mike and amid much giggling and silliness she teases and never bores us with her chat. The Champagne is always welcome but my most favourite gift is the lovely fresh farm eggs that come to us in a recycled carton or out of Madam's apron pockets!
Often it will be a box of very small eggs especially for Liliana to eat for breakfast with soldiers or perfect duck eggs for more gateaux. Often covered in chicken poo and more organic than one usually allows into the kitchen but always with a smile and a chat about the weather and her world of Oyes. 
Rumor has it that Madam Paris, born in the village and now the ripe old age of 81, has never traveled further than Reims in any hour would be about it and then on a very very rare occasion. I have only ever seen her out of Oyes once in our five years here...ambling through the brocante with her daughter...such a simple worldly wonder she is. Her lovely round jolly husband Felix [note the great name...Felix Paris!!] died a few years ago...his funeral was so sad and I was very worried that she would follow soon after as her heart must have been broken in two after such a long life so solidly together. They were so cute in their Sunday best off to family for lunch...suited and gloved after a hard working week on the farm. A delight to behold...
In return for these gifts from the farm we deliver home baking of all manner and form to her gate along with a bag of old baguettes for the 'poulet, canard and lapins'....she has a sweet tooth but no longer bakes for herself so delights in the creations that grace her doorstep...from children's cupcakes decorated in bright coloured icing to quite glamorous cakes and desserts.
As I was busy making my soap this afternoon...a batch of rosemary and olive oil!...a second knock at the door and Madam had popped back with a supplement from the newspaper listing all the local 'brocantes' every week till Jan 2012...fantastic...the first promise that the winter is coming to an end and another summer season is not too far away...a promise of bargains to be had and treasures to be found...wondering in the sun with a 'blider' of champagne and 'an American' [a baguette filled with a spicy merguez sausage and frites!].
Roll on Summer...and here is cheers to Madam Paris for making it through another hard long cold winter...Salut!

Monday 7 February 2011

Sun, soap and shortbread/Soleil, savons et de sable

After a bit of fiddling around with a lot more confidence I was ready to push the boat out on Soap Batch No. 2. This time made with rose petals, a hint of lavender and even throwing in a teaspoon of red colouring! It should make for an interesting, almost edible soap...cutting the soap is not as easy as first thought as it can crumble but slowly mastering the technique...another forty odd bars stashed away for a month...more wait and see...
While I am sitting writing this the ducks and geese and chicken at Madam Paris' are going ballistic about something, of which I shall never know. The Village Mayor has also dropped in for a visit with a guy from Lyonnaise de l'Eau about the beloved 'fosse septic'....our septic tank! They are trying to get all of the tanks to conform to standard so are diagnosing them all, at a cost of €80 per household, and so samples were all taken, paperwrk filled and we now await the findings...if we need a new tank it will mean digging up most of our back garden to put in the soak pit...great! Another day in rural France...

Sometimes I feel like I have turned full circle as I go and collect Liliana from the school bus on my bike. I remember when we were children we used to catch the bus to and from school and always arrived home ravenously hungry and went straight into the cake tins to demolish the contents. Miraculously Mum always had three things in the tins...chocolate chippie biscuits, peanut brownies, banana cake, chocolate crunch, louise cake, anzac biscuits, ginger crunch and the like. In the Winter, she would have homemade vege soup heating on the stove or be busy making pikelets on the electric frying pan at the kitchen table which we would eat hot with dripping melted butter and homemade raspberry jam. She would flip these little mini pancakes while she chatted to us about our day at school...a stop in the day. Time to chill before throwing off the school uniforms and roman sandals, chuck on the shorts and t-shirts and tear off outside to spend the early evening running, swinging, jumping and chatting with our neighbourhood friends. Working up an appetite for dinner which would be consumed with the same vigour. I learnt to bake alongside my mother who was never precious about her kitchen and allowed me in with open arms. By the time I was keen and able, being the third child, she was more than happy to hand over the Edmonds Cookbook and the sturdy Kenwood Mixer and leave me to it. My older sister, who preferred to spend her leisure time doing more outdoorsy activities made swift negotiations with me...promising to do my garden jobs if I made her a particular Chocolate Caramel slice or some other super sweet cake she had a craving for. It was fun for me and I baked my way through that cookbook and enjoyed trying to recreate all the different cakes, slices, muffins, biscuits and puddings so that they looked like the pictures...Some only ever got made once, deemed too fussy and abandoned while others became, and remain, mainstays. 

With great pleasure I now see my daughter doing the same...creating huge batches of fudge and biscuits to munch with friends and family. We were recently sent new cookie cutters from a great friend in NZ...a kiwi and the map of NZ no less!! Amelia, ably assisted by Liliana, instantly put them to good use! The chocolate biscuit dough recipe was also from the Edmond's, of course.

Yesterday the sun was shining and shortbread was the craving of the day...with friends for lunch the perfect excuse. I have a recipe made with orange zest which is divine and always the first one I reach for but if I am honest when I think of Shortbread the women that comes to mind instantly is Olive Millar.
Olive is the mother of one of my girlfriends from school and I used to spend many a weekend in my childhood staying at their sheep farm in the back blocks of New Zealand baking! The New Zealand farmers wives HAD to cook well as they were expected to constantly feed numerous farm workers that graced their doors with homemade pies, cakes, biscuits and slices. Olive had a fantastic farm kitchen with paddock views out across the farm. A pleasure to work in. My girlfriend Julie and I spent many happy hours creating all manner of tasty treats in this kitchen. One my favourite's was a particular recipe which in our house became known as Olive's Shortbread. It was just delicious...soft, buttery and slightly crumbly 'melt in the mouth' perfect! I must make it again. Last story I heard about Olive was that she and her twin sister had jumped out of a plane to celebrate their 80th birthdays! Good on them!

225 gms butter
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1+ 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup cornflour
a pinch of salt

Cream butter and sugar and vanilla essence. Add sifted flour, cornflour and salt. Mix till smooth.
Roll into sausage shape and wrap in baking paper and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Slice into 1 cm rounds, prick with a fork and place on a tray. Bake at 150 deg for 15 - 20 mins.

Thursday 3 February 2011

A champagne box of apples/Une boîte de champagne de pommes

I remember Oscar going through a phase of eating only 'green' apples...the tart ones we would never touch as kids but were reserved for apple pies...made with my mothers lightly crafted sweet pastry sprinkled with sugar and baked till golden then served still warm with runny fresh cream that my father brought home in a preserving jar or old battered metal 'billy' with his initials on the side. Apples were a 'basic' that was always available from the fruit, versatile and often overlooked...especially by me as I preferred the tang of exotic passionfruit, sugared gratefruit and had a unsatiable appetite for bananas. In New Zealand the fact that apples were always plentiful somehow reduced their appeal. In London I often found NZ Apple and Pear Marketing Board boxes of apples in the markets. I would buy them as a gesture to my homeland only to be disappointed with a soft floury 'cold storage' piece of fruit that far from resembled those of my childhood.

Now living in France we have inherited a string of gorgeous espaliered apple trees with five varieties of apples with their arms wrapped around each other...holding hands. I look out across the courtyard at these trees as they reflect the change in the seasons...The barren winter, the floral spring, the lush green summer and the harvest of autumn...I like them for their beauty and always put off picking the fruit in order to admire their form for as long as possible...departing guests get a handful passed through an open window for the journey ahead, a bowl full of warm apples flavoured with spices for breakfast or a 'tarte tartin' for dessert with caramalised apples to finish a meal...they are cut to eat with cheese, sliced into porridge on a winters morning, feed to the pony up the road by the children, cut into slices for a quick after school snack and eaten straight from the branches by many and varied...we have even, much to Liliana's amusement, had a large stray chocolate labradour help himself from the lower branches and then lay happily crunching whilst spilling juice out either side of his jaw! They have been the topic of much discussion, admired by many and recreated by others...a real vision in planting with an eye to the practical beauty...

At the end of the apple season, after previous years of trying unsuccessfully to store the apples in the 'correct' manner, Michael put the apples carefully into one of the many empty Champagne boxes that grace the barn and we moved onto other things...
So now we are in February and the apples, recently uncovered in the barn, have appeared onto my kitchen bench with a request for a classic apple pie...just a pity that we do not have some of Dad's lovely fresh thick cream to enjoy with it!