There was a story that went with this post. It appeared for a month and was then removed. I am not sure how this was done. The story, from memory, concerned the amazing resilience of the Vietnamese people. That despite everything, the French colonial period and the American war, which saw the bombing of the Purple City in Hue, the Vietnamese people still welcome foreigners into their country, and are friendly and courteous. I’m posting the removed photos again, along with this brief summary of my original thoughts. Should I be Paranoid?
Warning. This post is not about religion but bread, although it’s hard to resist segueing into the religious connotations associated with bread, not to mention bread’s best mate, wine. As these two life-giving basics feature often in my daily life, I give thanks but I’m not sure who to. I remember the ending of the Lord’s prayer quite well: it always signified the end of Mass which meant freedom was just around the corner. I also recall the hilarious Mondegreen* of my younger sister’s friend, Cecilia, whose child’s voice could be heard clearly from a nearby pew, as she chanted
“Give us this day our daily bread…. and deliver us from eagles, Amen”
I rather like this alternate ending and I think my chickens feel the same way too.
The joys of bread are almost too numerous to list. Unassuming and humble, bread is central to most western meals. The breaking of bread at the table amongst friends, the dipping of bread into new season’s olive oil, the grilling of bread for bruschetta or the morning toasting of yesterday’s loaf, smothering it with quince jam, or Vegemite, or just butter. The dunking of bread into soup, or the submerging of bread under Italian Ribollita or French onion soup. The left over stale loaf crumbed and stored to top a future gratin, or cubed then baked in garlicky oil for croutons. Given the effort gone into baking a good loaf of bread, (even if you haven’t made it yourself), it seems a sin to waste it.
Bread making has a certain rhythm: once the pattern is broken, it takes a bit of discipline to get it all happening again. My sourdough bread takes 24 hours to come to fruition: one day of feeding my starter, beginning at 7 am, with 4-5 hours between each feed. One evening of mixing and stretching, which takes very little time, but requires my presence at home. An overnight rise of around 8 hours followed by an early start at around 6 am to shape, rise and re- shape at 7 am. Into the oven, a 40 minute bake, and there you have it. Fresh bread by 8 am, 24 hours later. Cost, around 50 cents a loaf. Very little work, but bucket loads of discipline, and a ritualistic start to each day, not unlike meditating or praying.
The aroma of freshly baked bread is a morning sensory pleasure, only to be rivalled by the smell of a good curry in the evening or the aroma of slow baked quinces on a chilly Autumn day.
Don’t waste good bread. Sermon over.
“A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near homophony that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar, and make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric “…and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as “…and Lady Mondegreen”
“Pinker gives the example of a student stubbornly mishearing the chorus to ” I’m Your Venus” as I’m your penis, and being surprised that the song was allowed on the radio.
More examples of well known mondegreens can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen
The other day I noticed some of our peaches ripening on the bench too quickly. This is not normally a problem, given that I live with a fruit bat of a man who has an addiction to fruit, a dependence he has passed on to some of his grandchildren. The likelihood of finding fruit in prime condition, hanging about and ready to be eaten, is a rare event. He was being polite I am sure, knowing that I have a preference for summer stone fruits. Thank you kind sir, but I can’t eat 12 pieces of fruit in one day like the rest of you.
The slightly too ripe peaches were skinned, stoned, ( it’s beginning to sound like a medieval tale of torture- bring on the rack), then thrown into a blender, puréed and frozen into ice blocks. On Christmas Day, at around 11 am, they emerged once again and were shaved into the base of a crystal stemmed glass and covered with chilled Prosecco. Not quite a Bellini, more like a special breakfast beverage and one I can highly recommend.
The day started to improve dramatically. We began with a small pot of Manuka smoked mussel pâté on salted plain biscuits, a quickly imagined and executed festive treat, consumed only in the interests of sobriety. My simple Christmas vegetarian meal followed, Stilton and Walnut Double Baked Soufflé, the pre-planned part of our day. It was whipped up the night before, requiring minimal re-heating in the oven ‘on the day’, and accompanied by a few colourful trimmings, picked baby leaves from the garden and a psychedelic dollop of home-made Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish . These little puffy fellas were served with a Roaring Meg Pinot Gris from the Central Otago District of NZ. At this point, I was more than happy about losing my traditions, amongst other things.
And that dear friends, is how my quiet Christmas Day at home, senza famiglia, went. The dessert, a grown up trifle full of garden berries, followed much later on.
I’m posting my simple festive recipes here as they are most fitting for a light luncheon or entrée in any season. The soufflé recipe comes from Delicious Magazine.
The Smoked Mussell Pâté. Throw a handful of good quality smoked mussels into a blender. Add a couple of Tablespoons ( 1/4 cup) of cream cheese and a little sour cream. Blend until smooth. Add chopped chives if you have them nearby. Adapt the quantity to suit your numbers.
The Twice baked Stilton and Walnut Souffles ( makes 6)
- 300 ml milk
- 1 celery stick, roughly chopped
- 25 gr unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
- 25 gr plain flour
- 2 tsp English mustard
- 4 medium-sized free range eggs, separated
- 175 gr Stilton cheese, crumbled
- 50 gr walnuts, roughly chopped
- leaves, chutney to serve
- Heat the milk in a saucepan with the celery to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C . Butter 6 X 150 ml ramekins/mini souffle dishes thoroughly and place in a deep baking tray.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then stir in the flour to form a smooth paste. Remove from the heat and slowly strain in the celery infused milk, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. return to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring to thicken. Cook a further few minutes then transfer to a large bowl to cool.
- Beat the mustard and egg yolks into the sauce and stir through 150 gr of the Stilton, the walnuts.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl till they form stiff peaks, then using a metal spoon, fold a little egg white through the souffle mix to loosen it. Fold the rest of the egg white gradually into the souffle.
- Divide the mixture among the 6 buttered ramekins, then fill the baking tray with boiling water so that it reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins Bake for 30 minutes or until the souffles have risen and are cooked through. Carefully remove them from the bainmarie, cool,then chill until needed.
- When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and using a palette knife, carefull loosen the souffles from their ramekins. Turn each one out onto the baking sheet. ( if at this point , some of the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the ramekins, don’t worry. Just lift it off with the knife and gently place it back onto the souffles. They may look a little ugly and shrunken at this point also. Don’t fret- they puff up agina with the second baking.) Scatter over the remaining 25 gr of Stilton.
- Return to the oven for 10- 15 minutes until risen and golden on top. Serve with watercress, or baby leaves lightly dressed and some interesting chutney.
The best part of this recipe is that it can be made ahead up to step 4, then wrapped in cling foil. They can be frozen for up to 1 month and defrosted in the fridge overnight. Or they can be kept chilled for up to 24 hours. When ready to serve, continue from step 5.
Tomorrow’s recipe – that beetroot and caramelised onion chutney.
I once owned many histories of Renaissance and Medieval Europe. Most of them mentioned the words Tradition and Change somewhere within the text, if not in the title itself. That period, perhaps more than any other in history, encapsulates this historical concept so well. Things don’t change suddenly. Old ways continue side by side with the new, traditions and beliefs endure, long past their relevance to the society practising them. A clashing of paradigms might take a century to resolve, only to be followed by a reactionary movement, another turn of the wheel, bringing about upheaval and further revisions to practice and belief, whilst simultaneously drawing legitimacy and cultural validity from older traditions. History is usually written and re- written from the perspective of the current paradigm: facts alone stand for very little.
Now what’s all this got to do with Christmas in Australia, I hear you ask? Some traditions keep dragging on, despite their increasing irrelevance to a largely non- Christian society. Most Australians recognise, and are comfortable with this basic fact, embracing Christmas as a secular holiday. Or many see it as marking the beginning of summer and a long holiday for families. But before being let off the hook, before descending on beaches and rivers to play in the sun, certain archaic traditions must be followed. Shopping takes precedence over all others, with a slowish start in early December, building up to an insane frenzy as the weeks march by, as glossy supermarket magazines extol the virtues of catering for a family, with visions of excess, not unlike those Renaissance feasts of old. Catering for large numbers is not something that comes naturally to most, so Curtis or Jamie or Nigella can show the fashionable way. They make it look so easy.
I’ve observed mothers going slowly mad with stress, bent on purchasing more and more each year for their children. Bucket loads of plastic crap, or designer labelled clothing, or the latest gizmo, or a better version of something that they already own, helps to create yet more landfill for future generations to deal with. The consumer obsessed are still shopping at 11pm on Christmas Eve, still hunting for the unattainable. It’s the season of sadomasochism, as those indulging in these pastimes gloat about their pain, yet are unable to disengage.
Stores ship in mountains of wooden tasting prawns from the frozen bowels of somewhere, grown especially large for the holy day/holiday occasion, costing twice as much and tasting unlike a prawn should. Prawns on steroids, no brine from the sea or sweetness of flesh. Decapitated legs sawn from Alaskan crabs now grace the window displays of our supermarkets. What happened to their bodies? Slabs of smoked salmon unfreeze before greedy shoppers’ eyes, cheap manufactured mince tarts and puddings appear two months before Christmas, only to be replaced by Hot Cross Buns in the New Year. Easter is similarly meaningless and just around the corner. Here are the large bright cherries, gassed up to artificial ripeness, yet more cheeses, more Pavlova, more hams and prosciutto, pigs, baby goats, lambs, chickens and ducks, and especially that Imposter, the Turkey, followed by more and more mountains of food, in search of new tastes and more waste.
I pulled the plug on excess this year. Gifts were still purchased, and a few lists were made. Simple little biscotti studded our pre- Christmas gatherings, as well as Lisa’s cardamom shortbread. A large Christmas cake, made early in December, was given to my mother, the keeper of our old English/Irish traditions: she has more use for it than I do . A last-minute pudding was made for my daughter, who catered for her in-laws this year. I tasted some of the left over pudding: it wasn’t like my mother’s, it didn’t have the taste of tradition, that secret ingredient, nor the advantage of slow aging in a cloth. The children rejected it: it didn’t contain any silver coins. My mother keeps old sterling coins and generously studs hers at the last-minute before serving, a tradition she has kept but one that I am happy to see die with the next generation.
The leftover coin-less pudding has been returned to my house, like a Christmas boomerang, reminding me that some traditions can’t change that quickly. Now it’s time to convert that fruity brandied reminder of times past into something that might be pulled out once again, renewed and reinterpreted, into something that is more suitable to our summer climate.
The following recipe is the traditional Australian way to deal with that left over Christmas pudding.
- 1 litre tub vanilla ice cream, slightly softened.
- 200 g left over Christmas pudding.
- Amaretto to serve
Whizz the ice cream in a food processor until smooth, fold in the crumbled Christmas pudding and scrape into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for at least 2 hrs, or stash for longer. Scoop into bowls and top with amaretto.
My favourite Christmas read this year comes from Roger at Food Photography and France.
Postscript. After microwaving my plum pudding and serving with some brandy cream, I have to say it tasted dam good, so it will not be put into ice-cream after all, but stashed well in the freezer for a winter treat.
A path invites, lures and beckons. It meanders, follows a creek for a while or crosses a bridge. Perhaps its surface is uneven with cobbles, shale or stepping-stones. Or maybe it is time-worn and ancient, following the steps of our ancestors or tracks made by animals to a water source in the bush. The best paths are well beaten and have evolved over time. Shortcuts, ways and lanes call the curious to explore. They are not politically correct- they were not built with the disabled in mind. They were not built for bicycles either.
The pedestrians wandering these featured paths are not alerted by the impatient ringing of bells from the lycra clad or speed obsessed bicycle brigante. They wander at their leisure, quietly reflecting as they go, stopping to take a photo or admire the view, or striding out more vigorously to an appointment.
Every year, as the days draw closer to Christmas, I anticipate a visit to the magnificent Queen Victoria Market, a food market situated close to the heart of Melbourne. And before stepping inside to join the busy throng, I usually stop at Ambiance, a little giftware shop near the market’s front entrance. Ambiance adds glittery Christmas themes to their December display, but I am more interested in the arrangement of ostentatious Venetian masks.
Ambiance, 509 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, Australia
One of the joys of Christmas, as far as our seasonal food calendar goes, is the arrival of fresh cherries in abundance. The season usually peaks in mid to late December but this year they are appearing more slowly, thanks to a very cold Spring. The plump, expensive boxes have hit the shelves, but I am still waiting for the big flush, when cherries appear in luscious piles on fruiterers’ tables, dark, plump and cheap, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailer cherries, to hang over ears or slurp out of the bag before reaching home, as well as a few kilos to preserve in Brandy, or to stud a Clafoutis.
In the meantime, this unusual recipe for Cherry Clafoutis caught my eye. It utilises dried sour cherries, reconstituted in Cognac. Or perhaps the Cognac caught my eye first, a Christmas life saver of a drink for those who feel a little stressed.
Preserved Cherry Clafoutis.
- 150 ml pouring cream
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
- 2 eggs
- 85 gr caster sugar
- 1 egg white
- 25 gr ( 1/3 cup) plain flour, sifter
- icing sugar to serve
- clotted cream, or mascarpone whipped with cream, or just cream, to serve
- 60 gr dried cherries
- 100 gr white sugar
- 3 ml Cognac
For preserved cherries, combine dried cherries in a saucepan with sugar, Cognac and 150 ml water and cool on low heat for 7-8 minutes until liquid is syrupy. Watch that the liquid doesn’t turn to toffee.
Preheat oven to 180C. Heat cream and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to boil, remove from heat and cool. Remove vanilla bean. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg white until soft peaks form, then add the cream mixture and fold to combine. add the flour and fold in, then slowly beat in the egg mixture.
Spoon cherries into a lightly buttered and sugared 6 cup ovenproof baking dish. Pour batter over cherries and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Serve immediately, dusted liberally with icing sugar and with cream.
This version of clafoutis is very light and more like a souffle in texture, so it is best to eat it straight from the oven, though I must mention that it is rather nice at 6.30 am, eaten straight from the fridge, which is the quiet hour when I like to write and eat leftovers. The recipe is also handy for all other seasons, and may suit the cherry- deprived in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course you can use fresh cherries or ones you preserved from last year.
**The recipe is from a Gourmet Traveller Annual Cookbook and is attributed to Peter Gilmour.
And now for a song plant/ear worm for the day. Just change the chorus from Sherry Baby to Cherry Baby when you make a classic cherry Clafoutis.
Good food is hard to find out in the little wheat district towns of the Wimmera. No, that is an understatement. Any food is hard to find in the Wimmera, a district in the north west of Victoria. We were caught out badly one Sunday during our drive around the tiny towns of Brim, Beulah and Rainbow. All the pubs were closed. Most, in fact, were for sale, and in desperation, I resorted to a Chicko Roll, a peculiarity of Victoria dating back to the 1950s. For those not in the know, a Chicko Roll is a large spring roll made from cabbage and barley, carrot and green beans, beef, beef tallow, wheat cereal, celery and onion. The filling is mostly pulped and enclosed in a thick egg and flour pastry and then the whole fat roll is deep-fried. My purchased version bore no relationship to the above description. There were no discernible vegetables, the inside tasted like clay, the outside resembling some form of edible cardboard. It may have spent 5 years in a deep freezer before hitting the deep frying basket of the Rainbow take- away. I told you I was desperate.
So you can imagine how delightful it was to find a pub in this remote area serving lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Jeparit’s Hopetoun House Hotel re- opened a few weeks ago, having been closed for some years. With new owners and energetic staff, is has become a little oasis in a food desert.
When we visited, the staff, who live on site, hadn’t had a break for 10 days or more, given that the menu needed to be trialled and put into place before Christmas. Talk about dedication. The smiling Mel greets all patrons warmly: she is the business manager, bar attendant, and raconteur. She knows the locals by name and makes every one feel at home, including tourists like us. Steven, the chef, is a foodie by inclination. He comes from Tullamarine, a suburb of Melbourne, and talks fondly of his mother, a Montessori teacher, who encouraged his cooking passion. Steve originally came from Sri Lanka. Other kitchen staff hail from the Punjab in India. It is so refreshing to see our talented new Australians ready to embrace work in these isolated towns. I hope they stay.
The weekend we visited, at least 4 times, they trialed their first Sunday roast dinner. Mel mentioned that they sold out at lunch time, (15 serves). She was thrilled. During one of my lunch visits, a mixed gender and very polite bikie group of 12 arrived for lunch. They were on a mystery tour of the Wimmera. I bet they were delighted to find these offerings bordering the desert.
I was also pleased to find a quality house wine at a reasonable price. The Harcourt Chardonnay, a local wine from near Bendigo, a top pick at around $20 a bottle.
The tiny town of Jeparit ( population 550) is situated 370 kilometers north-west of Melbourne. It is a long drive and one I doubt you, dear reader, will be ready to do on a whim. The success of this venture does rely on visitors dropping in for a meal. If you are out west, loitering through that open silo- towered wheat country, exploring the ancient little towns clinging to dear life, remember that the food choices are thin. Hopetoun House is your place.
Open Daily. 11 am to 11 pm
A few days ago, I made a batch of Sicilian Cherry and Chocolate Amaretti, (Amaretti di Cioccolato e Cilegie ). They disappeared too quickly: some were wrapped up and given away, others popped into our own merry mouths. Sicilian sweets taste so evocative, medieval and ancient. All the flavours of the island seem to be rolled up in these little festive biscuits- dried fruits and figs, orange and lemon peel, Marsala wine, Arabic spices, honey, almonds, pine nuts and pistachio, to name a just a few ingredients favoured by the Siciliani.
This year’s festive cooking is beginning to look like a cook’s tour around Sicily. Last week Siracusa, now today’s festive balls, Fior di Mandorle, a specialty of Agrigento. Come to Sicily with me this month as I delve into my collected recipes from each major town. Map provided, in aid of travel fantasy.
Fior di Mandorle. Almond pastries with honey and spice
- 200 g freshly ground almonds or almond meal
- 50 g/3 tablespoons of fragrant clear honey
- 100 g caster sugar
- grated zest of 1 small organic orange
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1 large, or two very small beaten egg whites
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- icing/confectioners sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 150c.
Mix all the ingredients together, then knead until the oils from the almonds are released into the pastry.
Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter. Place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack, then dust generously with icing sugar. Makes around 20.
Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno 2016.
My next Sicilian instalment will be Nucatoli, from Modica, which are similar to last year’s Cuddureddi, but come in an amazing shape.
The country is calling me, the hinterland of Australia, this ancient land, where rocky foundations were laid 370 million years ago, and ancient seas raged around western Victoria a mere 40 million years ago, creating inland deserts and lakes and small pockets of green. Lands that were once steeped in another culture and language, before colonial farmers denuded the plains, believing that the rain would follow the plough, and sometimes it did: where the old knowledge of birds, animals and land, the indigenous Dreamtime, powerful and evocative, can be felt, the song lines understood. These are the lands I now must visit, my new horizons are the most ancient of all.