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Migrating Words

At the beginning of the year my mother decided that we all needed to improve our French. I had learnt French at school but had dropped the subject before my final two years and had slowly forgotten the vocabulary and what little grammar I managed to comprehend. I could go into a boulangerie on holidays and buy a baguette and some croissant while speaking as quietly as possible and that was about it. Even then most of my success came from the sympathy of those behind the counter who often took one look at my shy, worried expression and picked up a baguette before holding up one finger to ask if I only wanted one. I would then rely on the green numbers popping up on the display of the till to tell me how much to pay before I disappeared with a quiet “Merci, au revoir!”

My mother on the other hand could hold entire conversations in French while my father and I stood aside and shot each other bewildered glances. She had learnt a lot of French doing courses at the Scottish French Institute, which is only ten minutes walk from our home. My father and I signed up for a Level 2 course, only just above the basics while my mother went off to ‘actualité’ to discuss French current affairs, in French.

By the summer term we had moved up to Level 3 and still had the same teacher. Since all the teachers were French we got to hear and learn how to pronounce everything properly. Our teacher spent a lot of time making sure we were all managing the pronunciation while we, on occasion, explained the meaning of English words she hadn’t come across before. There were also several discussions of Scots concepts and phrases, haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis, turnip and potatoes) being one of them. She told us of how she had worked in a local state school for a while and had been baffled by the pupils frequent cries of ‘I dinna ken, miss!’ before she eventually realised they were telling her that they didn’t understand.

There are many words that have migrated between France and Britain such as ‘le weekend’ and ‘cuisine’. This is understandable seeing as the two are closely linked in history, location and, more recently, by the channel tunnel. It does seem, however, that most of the traffic of migrating words has gone northwards rather than southwards, many of them related to cooking; soufflé, flambé, pain au chocolat, brioche, brûlée and many, many more.

Many dishes now seen in cafés and restaurants are of French origin from crème brûlée to ratatouille. When our Level 3 course came to end we went to a small French restaurant where I experienced excellent French cuisine for the first time. We ordered in French, speaking to an entirely French staff (bar one waitress from Slovakia) and I picked Coq au Vin because it was one of the few dishes on the menu that contained neither fish nor cow’s cheese. It was an excellent choice. The meat almost slid off the bone and melted in my mouth, infused with a perfect balance of French wine and herbs.

I recently decided to attempt the dish for myself. The wine we had was cheap but tasted far better any wine with a £3.99 price tag should, the bacon I bought was traditional Gloucester Old Spot and the vegetables fresh from the allotment. I had an interesting time learning how to chop up a whole chicken, bought at that week’s farmer’s market, into legs, wings, breast and various scraps. We all admired the soft purple colour the meat had after marinating in wine overnight. I could have cooked it for longer, or rather started earlier, to get the meat to that beautiful melt in the mouth stage but even without that effect it tasted right and I was proud to be able to say ‘I can make Coq au Vin’.

Coq au Vin

3 large pieces of chicken (I used 1 breast, 1 leg and 1 wing)
500ml red wine
1tbsp olive oil
150g bacon, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
2 onions, chopped
200g mushrooms, chopped
1 clove finely chopped garlic
3tbsp flour
2 bay leaves
thyme
sea salt
ground pepper

Put the chicken in a bowl with the wine and bay leaves and leave to marinade overnight.

Remove the chicken and pat dry with kitchen paper. Keep the wine in the bowl for later.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot, then add the bacon and fry until crisp. Add the onions and shallots and cook until softened before adding the mushrooms.

Cook for a few minutes then remove from the pot and set aside.

Cook the chicken in the same pot until golden all over. Reduce heat and add the flour, turning the chicken to coat it.

Return the vegetables and bacon to the pan and add the wine. Season with thyme, salt and pepper and bring to boil.

Reduce the heat a little and cook covered until the meat is tender.

We ate it with roast potatoes and salad but it’s would work alone or with other vegetables.

Broccoli Ginger Soup and Dinner Chez Jim’s

The first time I saw Jim Haynes it was when my dad leaned forwards to turn up the sound of a new After Eights advert and cried ‘That’s Jim!” He’d been a customer at the Paperback Bookshop, started by Jim, in the sixties. He describes a visit to the bookshop as more like a social event than a purchase.

Jim cofounded the Traverse Theatre and the Writer’s Conference, which later transformed into the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and later moved to Paris teaching Media Studies and Sexual Politics at the University of Paris.

He’s lived in Paris ever since and when a house guest offered to cook for Jim and his friends the precursor to his weekly dinner parties started. Over thirty years later more than 100,000 people from around the world have dined at Jim’s on a Sunday night. Every week he opens his home to nearly a hundred people, most of them strangers to him and each other, and invites them to enjoy good food and better conversation.

I have been lucky enough to attend four dinner parties, so far, and stay with Jim for two weeks. I have fond memories of helping the cooks prepare a meal big enough for one hundred people with just one or two to help in a small kitchen stocked with catering sized equipment. I was taught to separate eggs for the first time before separating all 48 of the yolks the trays of trifle required. I scrubbed potatoes and chopped chocolate and at one point ended up serving when a certain Icelandic volcano’s eruption resulted in the Irishman who often serves being stranded at home on the Emerald Isle. What made the experience so incredible wasn’t the food or my first real taste of cooking that would later become a passion. It was the people I was surrounded by. Each one from a different place, with a different background and a different character but somehow all coming together into one seamless evening.

When I returned to Paris two weeks ago I took my friend to Jim’s party. We slipped through the gate into the long lane lined with ateliers and then eased our way through the chattering, multicultural crowd to reach the door.

“Hi, I’m Jim.” He smiled as we entered, then suddenly recognised me and cried “Oh, my God!” He ticked our names off on his guest list and introduced us to everyone in the room.

As the evening progresses you can always hear Jim crying, “Who doesn’t know Antonia?” or “Joanna, meet Aude!” before encouraging said guests to talk and get to know one another. He somehow manages to turn a crowd of strangers into groups of friends engaged in passionate debate and exchanging contact details in no time, and build an indescribable atmosphere to support them. Perhaps it’s the way he goes about introducing people or maybe it’s the fact that he seems to radiate hospitality and enthusiasm. Whichever it is I’m sure people have made lifelong friends or met future partners at his parties. Eating with others has always been a social affair but Jim takes this to a whole other level. This incredible person is a one-man social network; facebook has nothing on Jim Haynes.

This soup was served at the first dinner party I attended and sounds bizarre but tastes lovely.

Broccoli and Ginger Soup (serves 3)

500g broccoli, roughly chopped
400ml chicken stock
500ml water
10-15g fresh ginger, finely chopped

Put all the ingredients in a medium sized saucepan and boil until the broccoli is cooked.

Use an immersion blender to blend the mixture into a thick soup then serve.

Red Cinnamon Cake

I got home from work the other day feeling slightly restless. The afternoon hours had dragged and I slowly felt more and more lethargic. My mood lifted when I stepped outside into brilliant sunshine at the end of the day. What had been a cold grey sky in the morning was now a stunning blue and in the end I got off the bus early to walk the rest of the way home and enjoy the weather.

Despite this I still felt like I needed to do something on my feet when I sat down in front of my laptop. With mum off to a gym class, dinner was a simple affair of a sausage roll and a cup of tea. I opened up an Internet window, clicked on the Tastespotting bookmark and instinctively typed ‘cake’ into the search box. The moment the page loaded and I started scrolling through the pictures I knew I wanted to bake. Finally I found this recipe, not online but in a notebook from when I’d copied it out of a recipe book.

As I set soya spread, eggs and soya yogurt out on the counter and set about greasing and lining the tin I felt an air of calm settle over the kitchen. I smiled as I watched the batter come together, imagining biting into a soft, moist slice of cake. Once I’d slid the pan into the oven and set the time I settled into wait, slightly nervous that it would collapse, come out achingly dry or simply be disappointing. I danced up and down between the table and a spot where I could see in and watch it rise.

In the end I needn’t have worried. When the cake came out it sank slightly but it was still domed and a soft, sugary brown colour. From the outside it looked plain but I was pleasantly surprised when I cut it into slices and found the inside a deep mahogany red. It smelt wonderful but I felt I had to photograph its surprising, beautiful colour. After my first bite I knew this cake would be something I would make again and again. It was soft, moist and the taste was fabulous, my parents thought the same and immediately went back for more.

I got this recipe from 1001 Cupcakes, Cookies and Other Tempting Treats.

Cinnamon Cake

225g butter/soya spread
225g caster sugar
3 lightly beaten eggs
225g gluten free self raising flour
1/2tsp baking soda
1tbsp cinnamon
150ml plain soya yogurt

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚C and grease a 9” square cake pan and line the bottom with baking paper.

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy then beat in the eggs.

Sift in the flour, baking soda and cinnamon a bit at a time and fold in then gently mix in the yogurt.

Pour into the pan and smooth the surface. Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean.

Loosen the edges with a spatula and turn out onto a rack to cool. Cut into sixteen pieces.

Writer’s block and Parisian Memories

I have been trying to write a new post since I returned from Paris last week. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. There was the way the street we stayed on was so typically Parisian from the fruit shops with stalls extending the shop out onto the pavements to the patisseries with their counters lined in rows of delicate cakes and pastries. I wanted to describe how my friend enjoyed the perfect balance of spices in the Aloi Cuisine Thai restaurant I took her to as a birthday treat and the way she mixed the champagne, that had been a present from her uncle, with orange juice because she doesn’t like champagne on it’s own. How she laughed when I lay on the floor to take pictures of my glass of champagne.

Then there was the taste of one of the macaron I bought. It’s pale yellow shell filled with Jasmine tea cream, impossible to describe but such an incredible flavour. The blueberry ice cream that tasted intensely of rich jam and the slices of apple in a simple but perfect apple tart.
I wanted to go back to my trip to Paris alone in April and describe pausing to admire the way boats glided past the stone covered banks of the Seine, or the way an indescribable atmosphere seemed to seep from the beautiful facades of the buildings to fill the entire city.

The problem was when I sat down to write the ideas dancing in my mind refused to translate to the page and I hated every mangled sentence I forced out. Nothing flowed the way I wanted it too. Several times I managed two or three paragraphs only to find they read in a disjointed, jarring way and close the file in disgust.

I looked through my file of photographs from Paris and gazed at the scenes of people gathered under the soaring steel figure of the Eiffel Tower. I smiled at the bizarre contrast of the modern architecture of the Pompidou Centre sitting next to a photograph of the 19th Century architecture of l’Hôtel de Ville. I found dozens of close up details of sculptures in a gallery in the Louvre but when I tried to write down the way it felt all I could do was gaze out at the rain trickling down the conservatory roof.

Eventually I gave up and made a second batch of ‘Scocakes’ instead. They were originally supposed to be raspberry cookies but the first time I made them I discovered I didn’t have enough flour so topped the amount up with ground almonds. They emerged from the oven more like little flat cakes than cookies and the almonds gave them a texture somewhere between a scone and a cake, which is what led my friend and I to christen them Scocakes. The second time we had plenty of flour but I used almonds again because they had tasted so nice but I added redcurrants and blackcurrants as well since there were some sitting in the fridge.

Raspberry Scocakes (adapted from the raspberry cookies recipe at letsgetstupid.wordpress.com)

150g butter or dairy free replacement (I use soya spread)
120g sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
115g all-purpose gluten free flour
115g self-raising gluten free flour
80g ground almonds
1/2tsp baking powder
300g raspberries* fresh or frozen (though bear in mind frozen will weigh more than less)

Preheat to 200˚C and grease a baking sheet.

Cream together the butter and sugar then mix in vanilla extract and eggs until smooth.

Sift** in the dry ingredients a bit at a time, stirring after each addition then stir in raspberries.

Drop large teaspoons of batter onto the baking sheet and either leave heaped or press into flat rounds.

Bake for 15 minutes and cool on a wire rack.

*I used a lot more than this because my parents have stuffed the freezer with boxes of raspberries from our allotment and because I love raspberries. The second time round I added 40g of redcurrant and 40g of blackcurrants.

** The ground almonds are unlikely to go through the sieve. Sift in each addition of dry ingredients until just the ground almonds are left in the sieve and drop them in.

Apple top-and-bottom cake and visiting London

I love getting the train to london to visit relatives. Train journeys can be stressful but if you book a seat in the quiet coach a trip down the east coast rail line is lovely. The yellow sandstone of southern Scotland gives way to the red brick of the English cities and while Newcastle is not particularly beautiful the train soon goes through Durham with its castle and cathedral sharing the hill above the town.

The train stations have a comforting consistency. The signs are all written in the same solid black type and the rooves held aloft by the same elegant ironwork. The same yellow light is used in the boards displaying arrivals and departures and the train guards wear the same uniforms and whistle the same signals.

The only consistency visible in London however is the fast paced life everyone seems to lead. The whole city is filled with people moving at high speed. Crowds flow in waves over the platforms of underground stations and fly past in a constant stream at street level. There is an incredible disversity in these crowds with huge ranges of style, language and nationality. In the time it takes me to walk along one block I hear French, German, something Scandanavian and a snippet of conversation that sounded vaguely Indian in origin. The diversity of languages, cultures and races that meet in London is beautiful and wonderfully complex.

The house of the relatives I am staying with is blissfully calm in comparison to the organised chaos of the streets in town. When I first arrive I sit listening to my great uncle tell stories of people he used to work with when he was a partner in a firm of solicitors. Then my great aunt intervenes and insists that he take me outside for some fresh air and exercise after a long day sitting on a train. We take a long leisurely walk through the surrounding streets while my great uncle provides a near constant stream of information about the buildings we pass and the people who occupy them.
“That house has two swimming pools!” he says, “One in the basement for winter and another outside for winter.” We then turn a corner and he points to a house, informing me that the wife of the man who owns is chairs the fundraising committee of the church opposite despite being Jewish rather than Christian. A wave of his stick indicates the street where one of the most senior Rabbis in England lives. I pause to wonder how on earth he knows so much and then realise it is simply the way he does things. He likes to know when a certain building was built or who bought it when and so he finds out. Over the years I have heard a few of his stories more than once but I don’t interrupt, knowing that he likes to share his knowledge and would simply carry on.

I think back to the day I spent with friends before coming down. We had wanted to have a picnic but the warm weather broke out into a violent summer storm so we fled to me house to make cakes. I soon discovered that my friends and I have differing opinions on how make cakes and the best way to combine the ingredients. It was nice to spend the day with them and I much prefer baking by myself so I can do things my way and adjust the recipe to suit me. I like the simple actions of creaming the butter and sugar together until the colour pales slightly and sifting the flour in, watching it fall into the bowl in dusty white showers. Even washing up seems more interesting when combined with the anticipation of waiting for the cake to cook.

This cake is probably a very good example of me doing things my way. The recipe called for a 9″ pan and I used two 7″ ones then made up a frosting to glue the two cakes together. I also used more than double the amount of cinnamon that it stated because as a family cinnamon is a spice we love.
The original recipe is Dragon’s Apple Cake from 6bittersweets.com

Apple Top-and-Bottom Cake

150g all purpose gluten free flour
140g sugar
1 1/2tsp baking powder
1/2tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4tsp cinnamon
1/8tsp ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
160g yogurt
60g melted butter
1/2tsp vanilla extract
2-3 apples peeled and thinly sliced
60g flaked almonds
3tbsp sugar
3/4tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180 C and butter and flour two 7″ cake pans.
Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.
Beat the eggs then mix in the yogurt, melted butter and vanilla extract.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined.
Divide evenly between the cake pans and arrange the apple slices on top. Mix the almonds, 3tbsp of sugar and cinnamon and then sprinkle over the top.
Bake for 45-55 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Apple Cinnamon Frosting

1 egg white
90g sugar
4 drops vanilla extract
1 apple finely grated
1tbsp cinnamon

Use an electric whisk or a mixer to beat the egg white with the sugar until fluffy.
Add the vanilla extract, grated apple and cinnamon and beat until peaks form.

Assembly

Carefully turn one of the cakes upside down on a plate. Spread with a layer of frosting and place the second cake the right way up on top. If you have spare frosting put a couple of large spoonfuls on top of each slice.

Memories of Italy and Ravioli from Scratch

When I think about Italy my mind darts to various things. The flowing delicate gowns of Valentino, pictures on the news of the Pope emerging onto his balcony in the Vatican City to speak, the bizarre irregularity of the leaning tower of Pisa and creamy rounds of soft mozzarella.

Italy fascinates me with its archaeology and its food. Strolling along the streets of Pompeii knowing the stones beneath my feet would have looked the same to the people who ran from eruption of Vesuvius centuries ago was an incredible experience. Seeing glimpses of their lives, preserved in the ash until they were dug out: a charred bed, the detail in a wall painting depicting a political slogan, the delicate decoration on the walls and floor tiles in the houses. A gap in the wall of a first floor room allowing a glimpse of a table and chair still in place as if waiting for the people who used them to return.

In the evening in Sorrento I remember vividly the moment I walked into a Gelato shop. It went all the way across the block from one winding little street to the other and the counter covered the same distance. Ice creams and sorbets in glittered in dozens of radiant colours from under its smooth curved glass, adorned with small panels displaying their flavour in curling script.

While the sorbets of Italy are fabulous the pasta is better still. Whether it is long strands of spaghetti decked out in crimson tomato sauce, small parcels of ravioli hiding spoonfuls of some fragrant mixture or simple penne with nothing but olive oil and a few herbs.

I love pasta of any kind but ravioli best of all. Sadly my allergy to cow’s cheese means I can only glance wistfully at the packets of ravioli on the shop shelves. On occasion I can have it in a restaurant. My love of ravioli drove me to attempt making in from scratch and make it gluten free and dairy free for my mother to eat.

Mushroom, Leek and Onion Ravioli (adapted from La Cucina Veneziana by Gino Santin) [serves 4]

250g plain gluten free flour (I substituted in 50g of hemp flour the first time I made this which had a slightly different flavour)

3 eggs

1 onion

1 leek

125g mushrooms

Tomato paste

Chop the mushrooms, leek and onion finely and fry in a little olive oil, add tomato paste to taste in order to bring the mix together slightly.

Make a well in the flour and crack the eggs into it. Mix them with your fingers, slowly bringing in flour from the edges of the well until a firm, slightly sticky dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead with clean dry hands until it is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky.

Take sections of the dough and roll out with a floured rolling pin until paper-thin, try and keep the shape in a rough rectangle. Place spoonfuls of the vegetable mix about an inch in from the edge and roughly an inch apart. Fold the other half of the dough over and gently press down around the mounds of mix. Cut into ravioli shapes by pressing down with a cookie cutter or a butter knife. If you run out of time or get tired of rolling the dough out make little balls of dough and press into the top with a fork to make pasta gnocchi.

Blueberry Buckle and Biology Picnics

It’s been a year since I finished school, almost to the day. I find that I miss odd things about school. The feeling of the whole school singing together in assembly and the stairs that led up to the library and reading room with their tall, wide windows. The noise and bustle in the corridors and coming in each morning to greetings from classmates or, since I was usually late, walking into registration just as my name was called, something I managed to do fairly regularly. Now it feels like it went by far too fast. If I knew how quickly the end would come I would have savoured those moments more, paused on the staircase to admire the light from the windows or maybe memorised how the orchestra sounded when we laughed at the antics of our eccentric conductor.

Of course while I was actually there I couldn’t wait for 6th form to come so I could apply for university and sit on the balcony in the hall, eat lunch in the common room. Best of all I would get to leave school and go out into the adult world.

I remember feeling the days were too long, weeks went by either at high speed or an excruciating crawl with no comfortable medium. Terms seemed endless at the beginning of high school. Time went by faster as the years went on. Standard Grades turned into Highers then Advanced Highers. The number of subjects I took dropped from nine to five then four and the work got more interesting. Getting more interesting meant it also got harder and required more concentration, which is probably why the time seemed to pass faster. The class sizes also shrank from eighteen to twenty in standard grades to ten to fifteen in highers. My biggest advanced higher class was just seven and only two of us took physics.

I was the girl that took and extra subject at standard grade, took all three sciences all the way through school then took an extra higher in my last year of school. Most of my classmates would grimace at the thought of three sciences at any level let alone advanced higher but I loved all my subjects and enjoyed my last year of school better than any other.

The subject matter was more interesting and held my attention, smaller classes meant more time for discussion and our teachers treated us like adults. I remember long discussions in Biology, which would start off in relation to someone’s question and end up as something totally different. With four students and one very sweet teacher we were able to get through the course in detail and still have time for these discussions. We teased each other and helped each other. Our teacher would find interesting pictures of things from our textbook to show us and we would remember articles we had read to tell the others about. The other three girls were all going to medical school and I wanted to do archaeology so the subjects of our discussions were always an interesting blend of various things.

When the end of the year came we had a class picnic in the botanical gardens in town. That was a wonderful day. It was warm and sunny and we had plenty to talk about with our rapidly approaching departure from school, our teacher’s upcoming move to London and a squirrel that was too interested in our food and kept coming back even after we’d thrown shoes at it. We talked of how incredibly fast the year had gone. We’d been so busy trying to learn all the detail of our courses and finished all of our course work that the time had simply slipped past while we stared at pages of scrawled, highlighted notes.

If I’d known how to bake at the time I would have made this cake for our picnic so the others could enjoy it as much as I do and perhaps we could have had a discussion about whether a blueberry cake or the French fancies another girl brought were better. Whether home baked or café-baked cakes were nicer. It probably would have blossomed into a debate on the best dishes in the school lunch hall. I would have put forth a case for the chicken pie that replaced chicken burgers as part of a ‘healthier’ menu and doubtless someone would have defended that awful rice pudding.

Blueberry Buckle Cake (adapted from simplyrecipes.com)

200g gluten free plain flour (Orgran and Dove’s Farm are good brands)

2tsp baking powder

1/2tsp salt

60g butter or dairy free spread

145g sugar

1 egg

120ml milk or soya milk

300g (1 pint) blueberries, fresh or frozen

Topping

60g butter or dairy free spread

100g sugar

30g gluten free flour

1tsp cinnamon

Preheat 190˚C/375˚F and grease a 9” square cake pan.

Sift together the flour (keep 2 tbsp back for later on), baking powder and salt.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy then beat in the egg. Add the flour in 3 parts, alternating with the milk. Mix after each addition.

Toss the blueberries in the remaining 2tbsp of flour and fold into the batter then pour it into the pan.

Combine the topping with a fork to make it crumbly and sprinkle over the batter. Bake for 1 hour and then cool on a wire rack.


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