Showing posts with label food and drink. Show all posts
Showing posts with label food and drink. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Walnut wine

Yesterday, I finally got around to bottling and labeling the remainder of my walnut wine. I had almost forgotten the existence of this stock of green walnuts macerated in strong red wine, which had been sitting for several years in an airtight plastic cask. It has aged remarkably well, and the resulting liquor is mellow with a delightful aroma of walnuts.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New brand of ready-made pastry

I've noticed that the quality of uncooked pastry, sold in supermarkets, changes considerably from one brand to another. Some are good, while others are poor. Obviously, none of them are as good as home-made pastry, but I find it convenient to use the commercial stuff whenever I want to make a tart quickly. The other day, I noticed a new brand of pastry at the supermarket. A test, last night, revealed that it's excellent for my traditional 20-minute apple tart recipe.

The topping is simply a whipped mixture of an egg yolk and thick cream. [It's amusing to see that the color of my cooking blends in well with that of the old pine family table from our former Parisian residence at 16 rue Rambuteau.]

The only hitch is the brand-name of this new pastry:

In French, it's OK, because "crousti" evokes the English adjective "crusty", whereas "pate" is French for "pastry". But I'm incapable of glimpsing this term (on packets in my refrigerator) without imagining that I've seen the word "constipate"... which is not exactly appetizing for the name of a foodstuff.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Non-standard food product

These days, consumers are accustomed to highly-standardized food products. If you make two quite separate purchases of a foodstuff X, at two different stores, on two different dates, you generally expect to obtain quasi-identical products... except, maybe, in the case of fresh fruit and vegetables. That being the case, I find it almost an exciting privilege to discover that my favorite everyday cheese—a local variety of Saint-Marcellin—appears to be quite different from one week to the next, even though its name, packaging and price remain constant.

One week, it's soft and creamy [as in the above photo]. A week later, it can be hard and chunky. The taste, too, evolves slightly, while remaining essentially constant. [Fortunately, my Saint Marcellin never gets around to tasting like Norman camembert or Swiss gruyère!] I like to think that these variations reflect in fact the changing seasons and weather, which influence naturally the quality of the fodder on which the local cows are grazing.

It's funny to think that, while industrialists in most fields make huge investments in order to produce standardized goods, consumers can look upon the surprises offered by non-standard products, such as my cheese, as a latter-day luxury.

I'm reminded of an anecdote in a quite different domain: hand-weaving. Many years ago, a fashionable Parisian department store had decided to employ Breton craftsmen with their spinning wheels and handlooms for a marketing gimmick. After a day or so, however, the manager realized that there was an unexpected problem concerning a charming old fellow who spent his time carding wool from a greasy fleece in a wicker basket on the floor, and then spinning it into a fine regular thread. In fact, his woolen threads were so regular that they looked as if they might have been produced by a modern machine... and that, of course, was not what the customers were expecting. They wanted hand-spun wool to look as if it had been produced by hand... with lumps, knots and all the irregularities that you expect to find in this kind of old-fashioned production. When the manager asked the old guy whether he could maybe work a little more carelessly and roughly, the craftsman was rightly offended. He had spent all his adult life mastering the art of wool spinning, so that the quality of his work was now impeccable, and now he found himself face-to-face with an employer who was asking him to work deliberately in a sloppy manner!

I hope they don't get around to introducing sophisticated quality control, one of these days, at the local cheese factory.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Truffle story (continued)

Sunday's yield of truffles from my lawn amounted to 67 grams, but even this small quantity would cost a hundred euros or so if I purchased them at a truffles market. I stacked most of them in rice (to eliminate moisture) and put them in the freezer.

Yesterday, I cooked myself an excellent truffle omelette, and today I used a couple of small truffles in a pâté made from grilled fowl livers and onions fried in goose fat (Jewish recipe).

There are no spices or condiments whatsoever in this pâté, merely the truffles. I've just tasted it. Absolutely delicious! All in all, I eat very well here at Gamone... in spite of the fact that I don't have a loving little wife to prepare my meals.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Don't eat red tuna!

The WWF [World Wildlife Foundation] has demanded that the sale of red Mediterranean tuna be halted, so that fish colonies have time to get back to a satisfactory level. It was a reassuring surprise to learn that several European supermarkets have agreed to enforce this recommendation: Auchan (France), Carrefour (Italy), Coop (Italy and Switzerland) and ICA (Norway). European supermarkets are not however the major outlet for this product, which is a basic ingredient in Japanese sushi.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Cake contest

In a recent article [display], I mentioned my first steps in the preparation of the Italian cake called tiramisù. My daughter and I had planned that one of the highlights of her Xmas excursion to Gamone would be a tiramisù contest, with each of us producing a specimen of our current skills in this creative domain. My cake was classic, and Emmanuelle was kind enough to give me good marks. But my daughter's tiramisù blew me out of the contest.

Basically, it was [past tense of the verb to be] a multi-layered specimen of plain mascarpone and egg cream with interspersed raspberries, both solid and mashed. I was startled to discover that my daughter adheres to a puristic tiramisù school whose elitist members don't dunk the biscuits in coffee, and don't even sprinkle cocoa on the surface of their creations. Besides, when I asked Emmanuelle if she needed my bottle of Sicilian Marsala wine, she declined my offer with a polite sneer of the kind that no doubt characterizes senior members of the caste of tiramisù creators. In any case, motivated rather than discouraged by the shock of this contest, I'm determined to continue my research in this field. I have a vision of a tiramisù that incorporates a natural product from Gamone: walnuts. Maybe it's too early to let the cat out of the bag, and maybe I'm dreaming, but I've even been wondering whether it might not be possible to produce my own walnut-based biscuits for an ethereal tiramisù of a totally revolutionary kind.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My first tiramisù

Ever since my Italian friend Ezio demonstrated his skills in this domain, in his tavern in the nearby village of Presles [website], I've been tempted to see if I could prepare a tiramisù cake. Well, the truth of the matter is that it's not too difficult, particularly since you can now find several excellent books on this art, written for dummies like me. The most amusing aspect of preparing this celebrated cake, invented in the Veneto province of Italy, is that you don't even have to do any cooking. You simply mix together the ingredients and, presto, you've got your cake, ready to be cooled in the refrigerator and eaten a couple of hours later. OK, you need a magic Italian cream-cheese ingredient named mascarpone, which you can find it in French supermarkets.

When I started to browse through the recipes, I quickly realized that tiramisù belongs to the category of preparations that don't really necessitate precise recipes. You merely have to understand the basic principle, which is most simple: Beat up egg yokes and sugar, then add the cream cheese. Beat up egg whites, and add them to the first mixture. Ladle the mixture over a bed of light biscuits called boudoirs in French. [They're known in English, I seem to recall, as lady fingers.] Before being laid in the dish, each biscuit is bathed rapidly in strong black café with a touch of Marsala wine. Sprinkle cocoa over the surface of the resulting "cake", and cool for a few hours in the refrigerator. For observers who aren't familiar with the secret art of tiramisù preparation (like me, up until yesterday), this delicacy is both tasty and mysterious.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Bad pizzas

Just as a glass of wine can be envisaged as either half-full or rather half-empty, there are two ways of reacting to the following news item concerning products of the US company General Mills:

— On the one hand, a positive-minded observer would say that it's great to see that a big company is prepared to accept publicly the onus of recalling all that bad food.

— On the other hand, a negative-minded observer [such as me] would say that it's alarming to discover that such an astronomical quantity of shit can be produced and distributed to buyers. In other words, it would have been far more reassuring if the factory had discovered all these bad pizzas while they were still sitting in their Ohio warehouse, well before their shipment to stores.

I've been tempted to try out supermarket pizzas two or three times, but they're invariably either hard or rubbery, and generally tasteless. To my mind, feasting on a pizza should be a special eating event, of an almost solemn nature: quite the opposite of stuffing down rubbish to avoid feeling hungry. That's why I recall many of my most memorable pizzas. For example, one of the latest delicious pizzas that comes to mind was served up in an Italian restaurant in South Kensington last August. Down in Marseille, Natacha's parents have found an outstanding pizza delivery service. Once upon a time, my friend Georges used to prepare fine pizzas in the wood oven of his restaurant Le Jorjane in Choranche. Last but not least, some of the best pizzas I've ever eaten were made in my kitchen at Gamone. Hey, it'll soon be lunch time, and I happened to buy a cube of yeast yesterday at Nathalie's bakery in Pont-en-Royans. Thanks to the pretext of that article about shit food in Ohio, I've just found an answer to the trivial but pleasant question of deciding what to eat for my next meal.

PS Since finishing this article, I've seen that another US company, Cargill Inc, is voluntarily recalling more than 840,000 pounds [381,360 kilograms] of ground beef patties, after four children who ate their product developed an E. coli affliction. Recently, another US company, Topps Meat, recalled 21.7 million pounds [9,851,800 kilograms] of ground beef amid E. coli concerns, which caused the company to announce that it's going out of business. These figures are monstrous: literally, enough to make you sick.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Home produce

Most people are enticed by the mythical concept of consuming their own homegrown produce. As the mentally-retarded big guy named Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men put it: "... live off the fatta the lan'." The idea of homegrown fruit and vegetables appeals to almost everybody... except maybe people who can't be bothered to cut an apple in half, before biting into it, to make sure it doesn't conceal a worm. Maybe meat is an exception. I'm not sure that everybody likes the idea of slaughtering lambs, or even chickens. I think tomatoes are a fine example of the merits of homegrown stuff. I have the impression that every tomato I've ever grown at Gamone has tasted better than any other tomatoes I've ever eaten. But I don't know to what extent this judgment might be purely psychological.

This year, at Gamone, the walnuts are exceptionally big, but the harvest is relatively small. The same might be said for my apple tree.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Slow food

As a sane reaction against the abominable American phenomenon of fast food, the "slow food" concept was invented in 1986 by an Italian sociologist, Carlo Petrini, dismayed to find a McDonald's outlet erected near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Three years later, the international Slow Food movement was founded in Paris [click here to visit their website], with Petrini as president [a position he still holds], and it now counts 80,000 members throughout the world. The movement's mission is clear and precise: Slow Food works to defend biodiversity in our food supply, spread taste education and connect producers of excellent foods with co-producers through events and initiatives.

While reading the news this evening, I learned that the movement had chosen September 15 to organize its first national Slow Food Day in France. Unintentionally, I happened to respect the spirit of this event. For lunch, I prepared myself one of my favorite simple cold dishes: king prawns, mayonnaise [home-made, of course], Provençal olives, Gamone lettuce, tomatoes and pickled walnuts.

Local chapters of Slow Food are designated by a lovely old Latin word: convivium. Apparently, the theme of French conviviums today was one of the planet's most ancient and noble foodstuffs: the potato.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unhealthy compatriots

At a medical level, you might say, I would have thought it enough that Australian Internet news [my immediate informational contact with my land of birth] should reveal that equine flu had stopped the NSW spring racing carnival. But there seems to be worse news, of human kind.

There would appear to be what is referred to, in The Australian, as a "growing obesity epidemic". Now, this doesn't really surprise me in the sense that my French children and I first discovered the McDonald's phenomenon in Sydney, many years ago. Last year, during my brief excursion to Australia, I was shocked by specimens of obesity encountered everywhere, including my birthplace. In a South Grafton club, I witnessed a family of overweight monsters who appeared to be regarded as normal by the locals. At the place in Grafton where my dear departed father once sold spare parts for Ford automobiles, there is now a cake shop that distributes unbelievably heavy-weight luncheon stuff for workers. But my brief observations have little weight... you might say. So let me quote directly The Australian:

Almost all Australians are either eating poorly or exercising inadequately, while only five per cent meet national lifestyle guidelines, a new report shows. The landmark study of more than 16,000 Australians has painted a grim picture of a slothful, unhealthy nation falling short of its own recommendations for exercise and nutrition.

One in four—25 per cent—meet physical activity guidelines, while 55 per cent eat enough fruit and 15 per cent eat enough vegetables.

But an alarmingly small number—fewer than five per cent—met the criteria for all three guidelines, a statistic the University of Sydney and Deakin University researchers say is "extremely concerning".

At a personal level, I'm not directly involved in the problem to which I allude. I'm no longer directly concerned by Australia in general, because I've moved on. But I still react as if it were my birthplace [which it is] and my homeland [which it hasn't been, for ages].

I love a fat brown country...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ordinary omelette

If I decided to take a photo of this perfectly ordinary ham and cheese omelette I cooked for lunch, it's simply because it's a beautiful sunny day at Gamone, the tiny eggs come from Madeleine's hens, the parsley and chives are from my garden, and I take pleasure in preparing and eating omelettes. If it weren't for the bad cholesterol reputation of eggs, not to mention the big blob of butter in the cooking, I would be happy to survive on an omelette a day.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Food talk between males

Yesterday evening, my Bastille Day ended on a friendly European note. A pair of young Swiss guys stopped at Gamone in a massive silver automobile and asked me in broken English [I don't speak a word of German, and they knew no French] if there was some place where they might pitch their tent for the night. I invited them to settle in under the big linden tree alongside the road. They were well-equipped, with an elegant high-tech tent and folding chairs. After congratulating me on my having found such a splendid place to spend my holidays, they were a little surprised to learn that I actually lived here all year round. This morning, they told me their night was peaceful, apart from a visit by a giant toad. Before driving off, they even wanted to pay me, but I told them I wasn't a professional camping operator.

During my morning walk with Sophia up towards Bob's place, I noticed that their white mare was leaning through the strands of the electric fence and eating grass on the roadside, which simply meant that the current wasn't turned on. Later on, Bob himself dropped in. He now stays with his girlfriend in a neighboring village. As for his daughter, she has gone away to the south of France to look into finding a school enabling her to become a horse-training professional.

Bob: It's lucky I dropped in, because my daughter forgot to turn on the electric fence, and the white mare was outside the paddock.

Me: Bob, let me be frank with you concerning your daughter. In my opinion, there's no way in the world she'll ever become a competent horse-trainer, because she doesn't pay attention to simple things such as turning on the current to an electric fence.

Bob: It's true that she often forgets to lock the house. But she's young: only eighteen.

Me: I have a "theory" that somebody who doesn't pay attention to details cannot usually be looked upon as a practical person. Among other things, I wonder how such a person could possibly prepare a meal. Is your daughter a competent cook?

I won't quote Bob's hilarious reply, but it suffices to say that he provided me with excellent evidence to support my theory. Now, you might say that the question of whether or not my neighbor's lovely daughter is a practical person, who knows how to cook, is none of my business. On the contrary. I've already inherited their stray donkey, but I don't want to find their two huge mares prancing—once again—over my lawn.

As far as food preparation is concerned, Bob assured me that he himself is a competent cook. That's how he has remained fit and happy. I've sensed for ages that my neighbor, who's a big solid former rugby-player, didn't find it comfortable to live in a vegetarian environment. This morning, our friendly conversation culminated in an interesting rhetorical question (introduced spontaneously and unexpectedly by Bob, not me): Is it an easy matter for an attractive young girl to find a future husband when young men discover that she survives basically on vegetables? I must admit that, when I was a young man, I never thought much about this kind of question, because I was delighted to have discovered a wife with a fine sense of basic French cooking. I guess you could say I was lucky.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Final bottles of walnut wine

In an earlier article, I mentioned my production of walnut wine and my use of a siphon device. [Click here to see this article.] Today, I've been preparing the final bottles, using the wine in the lower half of the plastic cask. The closer I get to the bottom of the barrel, the more the raw wine looks like sludge. Concerning the last five or six soupy liters in the cask, I had in mind the advice of a colleague, who told me he simply discards them. After this afternoon's experiments, I accept his advice. I tried several techniques in an attempt to extract clear wine from the sludge: siphoning, paper filters and straining through a cloth that I was obliged to wash constantly. There's a delightful old saying in French, applied to things that aren't worth doing: Le jeu n'en vaut pas la chandelle. Literally, this means that the outcome of an operation does not cover the cost of the candles you need to light up the scene where the operation is carried out.

The sludge is heavier than the clear walnut wine, so it remains at the bottom of the barrel. But it remains suspended in the liquid, and never settles as a solid sediment. This suggests that there is no doubt a certain presence of solid matter — remnants of the green walnuts — even in the wine that seems to be relatively clear. And this is probably why the imbiber of a small glass of this beverage has the impression that it's a little like bitter medicine.

Funnily enough, here in the Napoleonic atmosphere of France where most matters are tightly controlled, the production of walnut wine remains a kind of do-it-yourself rural art, akin to gathering medicinal herbs to prepare archaic unctions instead of relying upon the local pharmacist. In any case, for those of us who live in the countryside of the Dauphiné region, surrounded by walnut trees, offering a glass of walnut wine is a traditional gesture of friendship towards visitors.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Squaring the circle

Tarts and pies, like pizzas, are generally round. So, it's not surprising that the ready-made pastry you buy in supermarkets is also circular. The other two ingredients in one of my favorite easy-to-prepare dishes also happen to be round.

The excellent cow's-milk cheese is a St-Marcellin, from the nearby town of that name. Out in Australia last year, I recall a celebrated local chef saying that he thought of it as one of the finest cheeses in the world. I wouldn't go as far as that, because there are many far more exotic cheeses in France than our everyday St-Marcellin, but it's certainly what you might call excellent basic cheese. I've always got a stock of them in the refrigerator, and I often devour a St-Marcellin between meals.

How do you go about using circular-shaped ingredients to make rectangular pasties? You don't need to be a rocket scientist to discover that it can be done by cutting the pastry into eight equal sectors and arranging the ingredients as follows:

You simply fold over the four edges to obtain a square-shaped pasty. After fifteen minutes in the oven, here's the result:

This is in fact a popular recipe from the town of St-Marcellin, where they refer to these pasties as marcellines.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Eating nostalgically

From time to time, memories of dishes from my adolescence spring into my mind, and I try to recreate them. When I was working with IBM in Sydney, I often used to have lunch on my own in a Chinese restaurant at the corner of Castlereagh Street and Martin Place. In those days, I was unfamiliar with Chinese cooking, and I always ordered the same dish: curried prawns, served with celery. The other day, seeing a huge pile of prawns in the local supermarket, I decided to prepare this dish.

The result was quite tasty, although it's unlikely that my Indian curry paste (produced in the UK) is the same kind of product they used back in the Chinese restaurant in Sydney.

The next morning, in the sunshine, I was intrigued to discover orange stains on my fingernails, even though I had taken a shower. Worse, there were even small patches of orange on the towel that I had used, the previous day, to dry my hands after shelling the prawns. I phoned my daughter to ask her whether she thought it feasible that prawns might be colored artificially. And Manya suggested that I should look up this question on the Internet.

The Wikipedia results enlightened me, but they'll no doubt discourage me from getting back to curried prawns for a while. A chemical product named astaxanthin is responsible for the red color of flamingos, certain fish and cooked prawns. Synthetic astaxanthin is a food coloring, indicated as E161 in the European Union's numbering system. Unfortunately, I wasn't sufficiently well-trained in organic chemistry to conclude, as a result of this reading, whether the cause of my orange fingernails was natural and harmless, or whether there might be cause for alarm. In any case, I learn that my fingernails are nothing compared to the pinkish down of seagulls in the vicinity of salmon farms.

When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike out to my friend Keith Weatherstone's place at Eatonsville, to spend the weekend on their farm. Keith's mother told me that their hens used to eat a peppery weed growing on their property, and the effect of this was that boiled eggs we ate for breakfast were automatically peppered. I saw that as a fabulous concept, capable of revolutionizing the food industry. If only we could find the right weeds to feed to our hens, they might get around to laying us eggs for cooking cheese or bacon-flavored omelettes. If I understand correctly through my rapid reading about astaxanthin (which belongs to the large family of organic pigments called carotenoids), the food industry is probably already capable of providing interested customers with eggs to make salmon-flavored mayonnaise. How about prawn-flavored candy? Ideally, it should be able to glow in the dark. That will soon be happening to us humans, I reckon.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cooking and eating

Some observers might consider that a solitary man such as me is behaving hedonistically when he gets involved in fine cooking. Be that as it may, I like cooking, particularly in my well-equipped kitchen at Gamone. Besides, it means that I eat well, all the time. Over the last decade or so, the only time I recall eating junk food was out in Australia last year, when I was obliged to frequent a McDonald's because they had a wifi hotspot enabling me to connect to the Internet.

It's the asparagus season. This thin dark-green variety comes from Andalusia in Spain. After boiling them in water, I peppered them and soaked them in oil and balsamic vinegar from Modena in Italy.

This apple tart uses commercial pastry, because I'm lazy. There's a bottom (hidden) layer of raisins and poppy seeds, then slices of unskinned apples sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. When it's almost baked, I submerge the apples in a mixture of an egg, cream and milk, then I put the tart back in the oven for five minutes.

Talking about eating, there was an interesting article in yesterday's Le Monde about the major role of fruit and vegetables in the constant combat against today's notorious killers: cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

During my childhood, somebody brainwashed me into believing the popular dictum: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

If there wasn't a constant stock of apples on my kitchen table, I would feel kind of naked, or underfed. Incidentally, the apples are stored here in an ideal container, made out of the bark of a cork oak, which appears to play a mysterious role in their conservation. Natacha gave me this delightful object when she was living in the Riviera region where these trees are to be found.

Now, it's six o'clock in the afternoon. So, let's stop talking about superficial things such as food, and get back to French politics...

Friday, April 6, 2007

Walnut wine

This plastic cask is full of walnut wine that has been aging for several years... mainly because I've been too busy, or too lazy, to finish processing the product. In fact, the wine in the cask is a bit "soupy" because it still contains the sediment of the green walnuts that were macerated in it for over a year. I've removed all the solid remains of these walnuts, leaving only a sediment.

Quite a lot of work has to be done before the wine is bottled and ready to drink. First, I have to siphon off the clear part of the liquid, and filter the rest through a cloth. Then I have to add a precise quantity of pure alcohol. Some producers of walnut wine use distilled liquor of one kind or another, whereas I have always preferred the solution of pure pharmaceutical alcohol. Finally, I add a certain quantity of sugar.

This is the instrument that I intend to use, at least in the beginning, to separate most of the wine from the sediment, which lies on the bottom of the cask. It's a siphon.

How does it work? That's a good question, and I must admit that it took me quite some time to grasp how to use this device. The clear plastic tube will be placed inside the cask, and the small silver nozzle will enter the neck of the big glass recipient that will be holding the siphoned wine. The flexible white nylon barrel is a little like a concertina, in that the operator can squeeze it flat, preferably using both hands. A naive observer might imagine that the operator simply pushes this concertina barrel in and out in order to pump the wine out of the cask and into the bottle. But that's not at all how the device works. There's an additional small detail that must be mentioned. The silver nozzle is in fact a kind of tap, which is normally closed. To open this tap, you merely have to push the silver nozzle back towards the black handle. So, here's the operating procedure:

— First, you squeeze the concertina barrel flat, and you stick the plastic tube into the cask.

— Then you release slowly the concertina barrel, which causes the plastic tube (but not the white barrel) to fill up with wine.

— Finally, you place the silver nozzle in the neck of the glass recipient and push the silver nozzle to open the tap. The wine then flows slowly from the cask into the recipient.

Elementary, my dear Watson!