Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The sound of deadlines

'I love deadlines; I like the whooshing sound they make when they fly by.'
Douglas Adams

If you tell people you've got a garden, they probably imagine you sitting in a fancy chair on a meticulously mown lawn with a glass of chilled white wine. If you mention you grow vegetables, they start frowning (this does sound like work?!), but then clear up as their mind's eye pictures armfuls of freshly harvested unspecified greens. Your arms, that is, while they are enjoying that glass of chilled white wine on your lawn. The table is laid, of course, in this fairy-tale video and the next shot shows you smiling and tossing these greens into a large bowl. Yes, they like the idea of you having a garden.

Let's not beat about the bush: a garden is a lot of work. Gardening is one big fight against draught, heat, pelting rains, lice, birds and ... time. Spring has several important deadlines dictated by nature, though the weather may postpone or advance their date without telling you. Then there are the fellow-gardeners you need to keep an eye on, as you don't want to be known as someone who is late with every crop.
This year didn't start well. I forgot to buy parsley seed for sowing in November (my usual 'but-I-already-have'); while others had spinach coming up, I was still fertilizing the soil; my broad beans are half the size of my neighbour's (mine are surely a different kind) and full of lice; parsnip (usually an easy crop) refuses to sprout; what I thought to be rucola turned out to be mustard choy of which I had sown enough already; the potatoes I ordered to be dibbled in March arrived by the end of April.

Still, I don't think other gardeners will dare laugh at me. There's one crop in my garden that makes up for all these failures, one with which I can silence any comment. 'Kapucijners Winterhefe', as the handwriting on the envelope stated, partly in Dutch, partly in German. Winter marrowfat peas. See picture, taken in March. I got them from a friend, who got them etc. All I could find out via the internet was that someone in Germany remembered his grandmother sowing these peas in November. So that's what I did. It seems to work. Unprecedentedly: they are not eaten by birds (yet).

The unspecified greens I was tossing into a bowl are the ingredients of what I call tuinsla, garden salad: a mixture of salads, cresses and herbs. This salad alone is worth all the work and stress a garden brings you.
Garden salad
Use several of these fresh greens: leaf lettuce, cress, spinach, mustard choy, mint, tarragon, ramson, chive (do try the flowers). Add olive oil (I'm very fond of Apulian olive oil) and lemon juice. Toss. Eat. Go get yourself a garden.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dead horse and anchovy

In one of my all-time favourite British sitcoms, To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (living in somewhat reduced circumstances outside her manor) brings her butler Brabinger tins of tunafish from the grocer's. 'He seems to like it. I can't think why', she comments and begins preparations to cook her own jam.
Although fforbes-Hamilton can hardly be seen as a literary intellectual, I was reminded of this scene when reading The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 by John Carey. In this book intellectuals are shown to feel threatened by the masses that crowd the cities: 'semi-human swarms, drugged by popular newspapers and cinema', soulless suburbians with bad skins from eating tinned salmon and ditto beans.

Tinned food has always made us uneasy. It's convenient of course, and modern techniques have made it no less healthier than fresh food. The British Nutrition Foundation even states that it is often a good source of protein and fibre and calls it a myth that canned food is high on fat and sugar. Tinned food may come in handy when the famous Unexpected Visitor finally arrives (or so Elizabeth David contemplated), but then: would you dare to open a few tins for them and call it dinner? None other than the world's most famous chef, Escoffier, stood at the cradle of tomatoes in a tin, but don't you think your guests still would prefer it fresh and home-made?

It wasn't so much for the convenience of modern house keeping, though, that techniques to preserve food have assumed such enormous proportions since the late 19th century. It had all to do with waging war and feeding armies. It was during the siege of Metz (Franco-Prussian War, 1870) that Escoffier began to study the preservation of meat and vegetables. And it made George Orwell write that in the long run tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun (Carey, p. 22).

It is said that, while catering for the troops, Escoffier could make a decent meal out of a dead horse and a tin of anchovy. What's good enough for ravenous soldiers, will do for the Unexpected Guest. Just leave out the dead horse.

Take the tinned anchovy out of the tin and heat in ample olive oil till it gives off its taste. Pour this acciughate lavishly on fat slices of boiled potato. Add freshly ground pepper.

Acciughate can be served with all kinds of vegetables. On boiled potato it's the Italian version of the Swedish Janssons frestelse, and simply irresistible.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Authentic Caffs - Germany

Käselust (shop/pub), Pontstrasse 6 (near Rathaus)
T +49(0)2414017449
Last visit: Dec. 2006.
Great choice of cheeses from all over Europe, for sale or to eat upstairs for lunch with grilled vegetables accompanied by a glass of German wine. A.o. Bavarian Obatzer and two varieties of Austrian Bergkäs (smelly and very smelly, no doubt).

In every town, especially in main railway stations: ‘Bratwurst’ (pork sausage), always served in a roll. We risk missing (international) trains to get one. The ones I favour are Krakauer and Thüringer.

Café Diesseits (pub), Konrad-Broßwitz-Straße 1, (Bockenheim)
T +49(0)69704336
Last visit: 2005.
Frequented by both arty and/or politically conscious students and young mothers (categories that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course). Good coffee, tea nana. Baked camembert, omelettes, cakes. The usual German non-gutbürgerlich stuff, but well made.

Farmer's market at Konstablerwache (Thursdays and Saturdays)
Last visit: 2005.
One of the very few reasons to visit Frankfurt's centre (life takes place in the quarters around it). Lots of good vegetables, goat's cheese, bread, sausages. Very good choice of herbs for one's garden. Not to be missed: the wines and sekts of Weingut Rollanderhof.

Mosebach (restaurant), Sandweg 29 (U4, Marianplatz)
T +49(0)694930396
Last visit: 2005.
‘Immerwährende Handkäs’, good food and equal German wines (reds too). Interesting mixture of normally excluding atmospheres: ‘gutbürgerlich’ and arty.

Zur Sonne (pub), Berger Straße 312 (Bornheim)
T +49(0)69459396
Last visit: 2004.
Traditional Ebbelweikneipe (cider pub). Order a home made cider (sauer gespritzt = with mineral water) and eat a ‘Handkäs mit Musik’ (soft yellow cheese; mit Musik = with vinegar and caraway). If you’re less adventurous: they also serve a good ‘grü’ Soss’ (Frankfurter speciality: green sauce, made of seven herbs and served with boiled eggs and potatoes or boiled meat) and an excellent ‘Schlachtplatte’ (pork sausages from freshly slaughtered animals; we even loved the black pudding). Large garden with wood tables where street vendors sell Bretzel.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tortilla evolution

It's not always easy being a gourmet. Especially not when, tired after a hard-day's work, you're home late due to rain and traffic jams. While slowly moving forward in first gear, there's plenty of time to contemplate dinner, but all you can think of is 'pizza' or 'no pizza', the yearning for a quick and tasty take-away immediately suppressed by reality: take-aways are no good. So you just manage a visit to the grocer's, knowing that though cooking is a comforting and relaxing thing to do most of the time, today it's not.
For days like these, you need recipes for easy-to-make, ready-in-no-time comfort food. One of my old-time-classics is Spanish tortilla: a robust omelet with potatoes, onions and cheese (!). I used to make it (shame on me) with precut and precooked potatoes which I added to sauteed onions and an optional garlic on which I poored beaten eggs and ready-grated gouda. Green salad. Easy, quick, comforting.
But I learn, thank heaven. Precut, precooked and ready-grated were replaced by their untampered-with originals. Takes a bit longer, but gives a better result. And I know better still since I read Janneke Vreugdenhil's tortilla tricks, both to my delight (a real tortilla is so much better) and my sorrow (goodbye to ready-in-no-time). Making a good tortilla is a time consuming process with patience as the main ingredient. Apart from that, I learned to use lots of oil (the potatoes are more or less boiled in it) and to leave out the cheese.
This is how you do it:

Softly fry onions for about half an hour in a generous amount of olive oil. Put the onions aside, add some more oil and fry the thinly sliced potatoes (with some salt) softly until just ready (another half hour at least). They should be well covered in oil and not turn brown. Take out and let cool. When cooled, stir them together with the onions into a bowl with beaten eggs. Add grated pepper. Reheat pan (there should be enough olive oil left), add potatoe mixture. Turn tortilla after 5 minutes and fry other side (for this you might need the trics listed by Vreugdenhil).
Can be eaten hot or cold.

This tortilla will taste like a confit of potatoe: soft, sweet, fatty. It may take time, but requires next to no effort - the ideal comfort food at the end of a long day.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Authentic Caffs - introduction

'... unpretentious in the extreme, not to say unequivocally basic (...) Only the boldest, the poorest or the most ignorant would seek shelter and sustenance here. (...) Forget pubs, he reasoned, this was where the country's true and ancient culinary heritage resided; only in these uncompromising estaminets would you find the quintessence of a unique way of English life, fast disappearing.'
(Quoted from Armadillo by William Boyd, p. 70-71)

If there is one thing in Boyd’s novel I'll never forget, it’s these thoughts of Lorimer Black, the novel’s protagonist, on a café across Old Kent Road, and his log called Classic British Caffs, in which he lists sorry places like this. But memory is a queer thing. I've been imitating Lorimer for several years now, but leafing through Armadillo, I realise imitating is hardly the word. In my list of Authentic Caffs I describe in a few short sentences various international ‘caffs’, in alphabetical order by country, town etc. They can be anything from simple diners to Michelin star rated restaurants, from beer gardens to wine growers. If they have one thing in common, it is a certain quality that appeals to me, something that makes them special, call it the X-factor.
I intend to publish these Authentic Caffs (by country or region) on this blog and keep them up to date for you. As this blog has no access to a database or content management system, I’ll link the postings to each other to improve their accessibility.
Some descriptions may seem curious, or difficult to understand if you’ve not visited the place yourself, but they should be telling enough in a way (after all, I only list those that seem commendable). Please be so kind as to correct me if you think I’m wrong.

Can’t wait to see what I mean? All right, the Belgian entries as an example, then.

Snack a-Amir (restaurant)
Last visit: lunch in 2004. Address: Appelmentstr. 18, T 00(3)232329655

Outstanding Lebanese in Jewish quarter featuring feasting Pakistani, Belgians and (partly fasting) Arabs. They serve wine too.

Le Barbeau (pub)
Last visit: 2003. Address: Near the church

Coffee and cake, in the evening good stews and a decent choice of Belgian beers. Almost perfect service. Often closed on weekdays.

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Friday, December 15, 2006


Sorry for not having posted for such a long time. Duty called in the form of exams. I passed, thank you.
As now is December - quite a festive month in The Netherlands - I think it might be a good time for something traditional. First we have the feast of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the fourth century, now living in Spain and still going strong. We celebrate his birthday (which it isn't) on 5 December with lots of sweet things, mulled wine, parcels wrapped or hidden in ingenious ways and mock poems to ridicule the receiver. (That's for the grown-ups; children are often paid a personal visit by the old man.) As soon as this is all behind us, we are heading for Christmas (trees and grand dinners, but no presents) and New-Year's Eve (oliebollen, champagne and fire works).
At least, that's how it used to be. Nowadays Santa Claus is getting more popular with the grown-ups, leaving St. Nicholas for the kids (though not in my family, oh no). Traditionalists are crying shame. How do we keep our balance if such age-old traditions are cast away? And for what? For a ho-ho-hoing idiot from The States?
They forget that tradition is a word for change. That the feast of St. Nicholas as it is celebrated now is based on a 19th-century bourgeois reinvention of older convent-school traditions (the steamer in which he traditionally arrives from Spain is rather a give-away). And that this reinvented tradition found its way into all layers of Dutch society only as late as the first half of the 20th century.

I myself like these traditions. And to enhance peace between tradition and change, I offer you all this recipe for borstplaat (a kind of fondant), one of the traditional sweets we eat on both St. Nicholas and Christmas.

All you need is about 6 molds or cookie cutters (in any form you like, though roundish is best, 5 cm diameter) , sugar (250 gr), cream (5 tbs) and water (2 tbs). These ingredients may not seem mouthwatering, but if mixed in the right amounts and treated with due care, the result is.
Place molds on waxed paper on a heat-resistant plate. Heat sugar, cream and water on low heat and keep stirring. If the liquid starts boiling, keep stirring for about 5 minutes more. The liquid has thickened enough if the last drop falling from your spoon forms a little thread. Immediately get the pan off the heat and continue stirring. If the substance gets thicker and opaque, poor it into the molds (be quick, be very quick), about 1 cm per mold. Let it cool for approximately 20 minutes, turning the molds every now and then.
For vanilla borstplaat, add some vanilla sugar; for chocolate borstplaat a little cocoa; for coffee flavour mix a few spoons of strong coffee into the almost thickened liquid.

If this recipe happens to reach you after Christmas, make it your own invented tradition by serving borstplaat on New-Year's Eve in the shape of a glass of champagne or an exploding fire cracker.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Rillettes 'café de Paris'

Every now and then we hear people enthuse over that extaordinary restaurant they discovered in Paris where they ate the best ever pot au feu, that simple trattoria in Tuscany where 'mamma' ruled the kitchen or that wood-panelled pub in that tiny Irish village where the men were singing sad songs, washing away the minor and not so minor hardships of daily life with large pints of Guiness. Unspoilt by tourists other than themselves (until that moment at least), these restaurants/trattorie/pubs gave them an impression of the authentic, something typically Parisian/Italian/Irish, untouched by modern times. We listen benevolently, trying not to show we've heard these stories before, knowing that these memories have everything to do with a romantic holiday mood and nothing with reality. We of course, experienced travellers, never fell for that humbug.
Needless to say, the café I discovered in Paris some thirteen years ago, was something quite different. It was a dark brown, quiet place near the Bourse, where I spent some pleasant hours drinking coffee and doing a bit of work, surrounded by real Parisians doing more or less the same. I had lunch there as well: rillettes de porc as a starter and beef stew for main course. All good value for money. Unfortunately they didn't do dinners because, as the landlady sighed: 'le patron est parti'.
I've been to Paris once or twice since, but never went back to that authentic little café. I can still remember, however, the velvety taste of those rillettes. As rillettes are not easy to come by in The Netherlands, why not make them 'on the premisses'? All you need is belly pork and some time.

Rillettes 'café de Paris'
1,5 kg fresh belly pork, 1 table spoon sea salt, 2 cloves of garlic, bay leaf, 1 table spoon of fresh thyme, 8 leaves sage, pinch of nutmeg, ground black pepper, 125 ml water, clarified butter (enough to seal two pots of 0,5 l - I reckon you'll eat the rest the same day)
Cut belly pork (in Dutch: buikspek or speklapjes) into small pieces (1,5 cm) and add salt. Let it be for several hours or overnight in the fridge. Put pork, herbs, spices, garlic and water in a pan (choose one that is just big enough), cover and cook for about 4 hours in a preheated oven (low heat, 125 °C max.).
Poor the juices into a bowl. Discard the bay leaf. Use a fork to shred meat. Add juices (I used all) and mix thoroughly till you get a smooth substance. Pack into pots, press well so no air will be left, and seal with a layer of 1 cm of clarified butter.

Rillettes are great on rustic bread or toast, with home-made pickled cucumbers (see picture) and a white Loire (Menetou-Salon, Tourraine) or Alsatian wine.