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Oats in the North, Wheat in the South

April 5, 2020

cookery book and baking tins

“Can you remember all the cakes Mum used to make?” I asked my sister this week. There was always cake in our house and most of it was homemade. Occasionally an exotic ‘shop-bought’ McVities Jamaican ginger cake appeared and we peeled its sticky crumb from the crinkled paper casing.  Otherwise there was a rotation of staples: coffee walnut cake smeared with smooth, bittersweet buttercream; Victoria sandwich, both halves stuck together with strawberry jam and vanilla buttercream; spiced farmhouse fruit cake studded with raisins, sultanas and the odd bright glace cherry. We complained about caraway seed cake tasting of aniseed with a crunchy sugar roof (but ate it anyway) but fell over rock cakes as soon as they’d cooled from the oven, their magic fading overnight. There were ‘rib-sticking’ flapjacks (my mother’s description), a Bakewell tart or homemade ginger cake.  It was part of daily life to eat a slice with a cup of tea after lunch or later in the afternoon.

There were always biscuits in a tin too but these were never homemade. Always rich tea (for dunking) with a changing cast of digestives, custard creams, ginger snaps, Marie, bourbons or Garibaldi (aka squashed fly biscuits).

The baker’s van delivered floury white baps, brown tin loaves and sometimes a picturesque cottage loaf, two rounds stacked on top of each other like an upside down mushroom. We visited the baker to choose a ‘sticky bun’, often after a trip to the dentist (I wonder why) and would dither over a Chelsea bun, an iced bun or a honey bun (which I’m sure didn’t contain an ounce of honey but stood in a sticky puddle of lard). Toast was a staple and I remember using a toasting fork in front of the coal fire before we had central heating. We ate crumpets, for breakfast I think, and spread butter and golden syrup on top which trickled down through the holes onto the plate in a glistening pool to be wiped up with fingers at the end.

This is how baking was woven into my everyday life while growing up a few decades (ahem) ago. So how has every small detail of my personal memories of very, ordinary British family life found their way into a new book by an author from Belgium?

cookery book on a baking tray

Oats in the North, Wheat the South – The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet by Regula Ysewijn is that book. The cover embossed in gold and white on green would look at home in an old second hand book shop. Inside, the pictures of cakes and bakes against humble backdrops like bread boards or tin trays give a nod to the past; these are interspersed with images of rolling landscapes and cobbled streets. Regula herself appears in a few photographs, her dresses red with slender bodices and wide, stiff, calf-length skirts echoing fashions after the Second World War. However, this is not a pose put on for the book.

My path crossed with Regula’s, when blogging was in its infancy, at an annual event – Food Blogger Connect – in London. Everyone liked her friendliness and warmth; her focus, honesty and enthusiasm marked her out as someone to watch. I remember her attention to detail in the photography sessions and when she progressed from attendee to speaker, her audience were totally absorbed by the inspiring sessions. This rise was echoed in the food world and she soon became a respected member of a more famous group of culinary experts including Jamie Oliver.

Along with her photographer husband Bruno, she honed her visual craft and published her first book Pride and Pudding, a history of British food with recipes, followed by The National Trust book of puddings: 50 irresistibly nostalgic sweet treats and comforting classics. She became a household name in her home country as a judge on the Belgian version of Bake Off.

From the first Food Blogger Connect, while most of us were in comfortable jeans and casual wear, she looked like she was just off for a spot of old-fashioned ballroom dancing. Her long, red hair was always piled up in a twisted crescent pinned with red blooms, her voluminous dresses nipped in at the waist, spotted with red and white, a cropped cardigan over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick across her pale complexion.

cookery book open on red and white tea towel

When opening Oats in the North, Wheat in the South, one of the first things you read is an acknowledgement that the sugar trade had a human cost, that of slavery. It sets the tone as the book is a pleasure to read and while expounding the joy of baking it is not frivolous.   A foreward written by renowned food historian Dr Annie Gray (who you may know from The Kitchen Cabinet podcast) describes the book as ‘a love letter to British baking and all that implies’.

Regula introduces the book and sheds some light on her motivation and qualification to write it. As a child she became obsessed with all things British. Her parents watched BBC programmes, historical dramas and documentaries which gave her a rather idealised view of a land of rolling hills, castles, quaint rituals and royalty. In later years she read Jane Austen and watched Eastenders avidly.  When she was nine, her parents gave in to her pleas to visit and spent their holidays exploring villages and towns from coast to coast. Their journeys were at a time before gastropubs and fusion food. The bakeries, high streets, cafes and inns of each town revealed unique, regional favourites and were a world away from the delicate pastries of the continent.

These years of discovery, through a fervour for collecting personal anecdotes and family recipes, and her growing collection of historical cookery books, are the foundation of this book.

The divided climate of the British Isles with its impact on food and agriculture is behind the title.  In the North conditions are too wet and cold to grow wheat so oats are a common ingredient for much of the cooking.  Griddled recipes rather than oven-baked dominate, some drawn from the influence of the Vikings. In the South, bread bakery is more prevalent with greater access to wheat.

There’s a summary of the common ingredients and equipment required for British baking before you dive into the main sections of the book. The recipes are broadly divided into cakes, biscuits, buns, griddle cakes, bread, pies and tarts plus a special section dedicated to gingerbread.

cookery book showing gingerbread recipe

Stories about the origin of each type of bake, the history, the variations, the name, the traditional ingredients, its earliest documentation, rituals behind it and how Regula found the recipes are woven into the book. It’s a good read even if you don’t make a single recipe; however that’s not my approach and torn scraps of paper stick out of my copy marking a sheaf of recipes I want to try .

Among the smooth, heavy-weight pages are things that I’ve never considered baking from scratch until now – custard creams or rich tea biscuits for instance. There are familiar old favourites like sticky flapjacks, hot cross buns, lemon drizzle cake and recipes for nearly everything mentioned in my childhood reminiscences above.

As I lived in the city of Bath for a while I feel duty-bound to try all three of the recipes for Bath buns. I test every recipe for Cornish pasties that I come across as I’m still looking for the perfect one, and keeping in the South-West, saffron buns and Devonshire splits are marked too.  A rather embarrassing early post on this blog documents making digestive biscuits in 2010, so I think it’s time for a refresher.

I’m fascinated by a compendium of traditional bakes that, as a Southerner, I have no knowledge of, like bannocks, Fat Rascals or Goosnargh cakes. Beef pies cast a light on London’s ‘pie and mash shop’ culture. It shows how, as the world becomes homogenised through international foods, cookery shows and multinational companies, our regional heritage remains alive and varied.

Or does it? Regula recounts her encounter with a ‘guess the weight of the cake’ competition at a village fete. These traditions are utterly familiar, part of my upbringing but also seem so distant (perhaps that’s also due to living out of the UK for a while); will these bucolic customs endure? Change is sometimes alluded to – she mentions that my favourite wobbly, vanilla-flavoured custard tarts are being nudged aside by the sweeter, caramelised, flaky Portuguese ones. She describes afternoon tea as I remember it, with an array of dainty sandwiches, followed by scones, then a slice of cake. These days most are dominated by sweet confections such as coloured, French-style macarons, with barely a savoury in sight.  And most revolutionary of all, the dramatic rise of coffee drinking in the UK threatens to overtake consumption of the British cuppa.

cookery book on baking trays

Apart from the excellent recipes, the meticulous research and beautiful quality of this book, it’s a record of Britain’s heritage and geography through high streets, home kitchens and a way of life which continues to evolve.

Regula has said, “Every book I write is about preserving a heritage, because in the present day far too much importance is given to new and exciting things while the past holds a treasure of beauty that is often forgotten.”

One could argue that a return to baking cakes and biscuits is out of kilter with the modern diet. However, in the early 1960’s the Chorley Wood baking method was developed in Britain and exported around the world meaning that most bread is ‘ultra-processed’. A recent article ‘How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket’ by Bee Wilson documents the findings of Brazilian nutrition researchers led by scientist Carlos Monteiro tracking the changes in the diet and health of the nation since UPFs arrived. To Monteiro, the bag of sugar on the kitchen counter is a healthy sign, not because sugar itself has any goodness in it, but because it belongs to a person who cooks (including healthier homemade traditional dishes).  Another reason to look back to the past?

In these turbulent times, I’ve certainly found comfort by escaping into the pages of this beautiful book, either curling up on the sofa or at my flour-dusted kitchen table.

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British baking, savoury and sweet by Regula Ysewijn (Murdoch Books, £25). Photography by Regula Ysewijn. Thanks to Murdock Books for sending me a copy to review. The pages will soon have thumbprints of butter and jam – the tell-tale sign of a well-used cookery book.

Just for fun – A few old pictures from the Food Blogger Connect days…

 

The link between coronavirus and food – what can we do?

March 18, 2020

plate,knife, fork, glass, bread board

To the question ‘Isn’t writing about food frivolous? Aren’t there more important topics?’, I have always said no; what is more important than food and water? The current coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable we are to food-related issues, large and small.

‘It’s not just about getting enough to eat when cracks can appear overnight in food supply chains where control has been handed over to an elite group of large commercial companies, eroding diversity, with little say from Governments. When there is the whiff of a threat panic sets in and the ‘every man for himself’ herd mentality comes into play rapidly, as, among other extreme reactions, people begin to food hoard. The bigger picture when it comes to food is how this affects the planet, the structures of our societies, and even where the virus comes from.

What caused the Coronavirus in the the first place?

Dan Saladino, talking on the BBC Food Programme, says that evidence so far points to a market in Wuhan in which wild animals were brought together and slaughtered. Through them, a virus (originally carried by bats) was transferred along the food chain and into humans. It’s a zoonotic disease and is not the first to infect humanity, but the rapid changes in our food systems mean that it certainly won’t be the last.

Dan interviewed Professor Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, an expert on how these diseases spread from animals and into humans. He explained why viruses are now jumping species at a greater and faster rate. Measles is thought to have been a zoonotic disease, and passed from animals when they were domesticated to become a humans-only disease. HIV also originated in wildlife. In our history, the human race has been exposed to relatively few pathogens carried by wild animals.

Our growth in population and greater connectivity (like air travel) means that viruses are now spreading on an unprecedented scale. In the past, when small communities were infected, people either got better or died before infecting others so the virus abated.

On the BBC Food Programme, Dan asked Professor Cunningham to explain more about the original cause of Coronavirus. A newly affluent China has fueled demand for more wild animals and a new trend for eating exotic meat (seen as a delicacy) which was not part of traditional Chinese food culture. Large markets of live wild animals imported from various parts of the world have been collected together like never before, especially in the last decade, says Professor Cunningham. Species are mixing in unnatural conditions, then being slaughtered in the market, with humans congregating in large numbers around them. There is a demand for ‘warm meat’ so people are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids from these animals at the market and when they butcher them at home. The wildlife supply chain from China extends right around the world breaking all the natural barriers that humans have evolved with for millions of years. Ecological and geographical barriers are being smashed by this supply chain.

But it’s not just in Chinese markets where our interaction with bats is increasing, both directly and indirectly, more than in our entire history. Due to food shortages in some parts of the world, bats are being hunted in greater numbers, and, also, we are encroaching into bat habitat.

An example is the industrialisation of pig farms in Malaysia, in the 1990s, which encroached into bat habitat. Fruit orchards were planted in close proximity to the pig farms. The bats would come in and eat from the orchards then drop contaminated fruit into the pig pens and be eaten by the pigs. This is how the Nipah virus was transferred from bats into pigs which led to the eradication of the Malaysian pig industry and the deaths of over 100 people.

The impact of food production on the climate crisis is now recognised more widely. Industrial farming of animals and their gas emissions, industrial agriculture with deforestation, mono-crops and how chemicals are degrading the fertility of soil and killing species such as bees and birds, all effect the planet and the balance of nature.

What hasn’t been discussed widely, is as we change land use (and change the planet), our agriculture becomes more invasive into nature. Coronavirus exposes a further weakness in that system which, according to Professor Andrew Cunningham, is a warning shot. The fatality rate of coronavirus is thought to be 2-3% at this stage, but among other zoonotic diseases, Ebola has a 50% fatality rate, Nipah a 75-90% per cent fatality rate, so, as the Professor says, there is an urgent need to fund the work that needs to be done to stop the next pandemic.

sweetcorn, pepper, cucumbers, chillis and courgettes

Changes in our food system

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a complete transformation of how we grow, buy and consume food. I lived in a small village quite near to a town (which had a fishmonger, some greengrocers and one small supermarket). In the village, we had two local shops which sold fresh vegetables available in season, where we shopped little and often. In the winter we relied on root vegetables, brassicas and the like, and orchard fruit such as apples and pears which were stored (naturally wrapped, not in gas-filled environments). Imported fresh goods were limited (bananas and lemons primarily). Spring and summer fruit and vegetables were welcomed as they broke the winter dearth with variety and taste. Food was valued, food waste was minimal, convenience food limited. Fresh milk was delivered by the milkman (reusing glass bottles) and bread by a bread van. Cows from a couple of farms wandered down the road twice a day from surrounding fields to be milked in the milking parlour, their milk was then bottled locally.

It was not all idyllic and undoubtedly this came at a cost, both economically and socially; there were fewer women in the work place and more ‘housewives’ to prepare food from scratch for instance. These were transitional times with WW2 privations still very much in living memory.

This sounds like ancient history instead of just a few decades ago. Choice of food was limited in a way that seems inconceivable now when we can buy anything we want, at any time, from round the world.

However, our supply chains of food have become more centralised and opaque. In the UK, the BSE epidemic demonstrated how the ingredients of cow feed were disregarded in favour of cost-cutting and resulted in a new disease. The horse meat scandal showed that ingredients are difficult to trace and can slip easily into the food retail system.

What can we learn from this?

In a recent video, Russel Brand examines how coronavirus casts a light on the whole structure of our society.

“That we can’t just live in abstract economic systems, just do what we want and limitlessly consume without consequences” he says. “The way that it feels when our cathedrals of consumerism are laid bare, the empty breadless, riceless shelves. And you realise, ‘Oh this is invisibly held together by systems we don’t think about’.”

He quotes Zia Tong, “Everything is filmed today except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from and where our waste goes”.

How can we change things?

It’s very hard to know isn’t it? And easy to be overwhelmed. I do believe that after this coronavirus crisis we will never go back to ‘normal’ – and that will have a much wider impact than whether we can get a tin of baked beans or not. Trying to be optimistic, maybe it’s a good thing as a catalyst for meaningful change, especially relating to food?

This is what I’m going to do, but don’t claim to have the answers:

  • Questioning everything we eat. How it was made or raised, it’s impact on the people who made it, the ingredients, where it or the components are from, the way it was produced and the way it got to us. It’s not as easy as boycotting plastic bags – the information around food is, as demonstrated, often misleading or obscure. Consumer power is part of the equation; where we shop, our support of producers, our influence on where things are sourced. It may mean changing what we eat and the way we cook and eat, we may not always get it right, but we have to make the best decisions we can.
  • Spreading the word. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the issues around food but the information from the BBC Food Programme about zoonotic viruses chilled me to the core. I’m sure that if it was known more widely it would be the wake-up call that Professor Cunningham says it should be. This is why I wrote this post and will continue to use any channels (in person or online) that I can to influence the people around me.
  • Pressuring governments or those in power. It has to be a greater priority. Leaving things to the free-market and in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful companies dedicated to share-holder value and profits will never work. We need the people who we elect to look after our interests to do exactly that – and it will only be achieved if we reassess our food system and the way we treat the planet.

And finally, I believe that the only way to effect real change is by supporting each other. I’d really appreciate your feedback on this – whether you agree or disagree – and if you have recommendations about how we can do something meaningful together.

Thank you

Sources:

All the information about the transfer of viruses was from this BBC Food Programme episode with Dan Saladino and Professor Andrew Cunningham, much of it quoted directly.

Coronavirus: What Has It Revealed? by Russell Brand

How long before our soil gives up? Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford

plate, knife, fork, glass, bread board

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Taipei – how to spend 2 days in Taiwan’s intriguing capital

February 19, 2020
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and jazz band

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Two things I learn in the first hour of being in Taipei. First, that Taiwanese people are very friendly. Our guide Eddie gives us a warm welcome at arrivals and steers us to the cash machine (better than going to a money exchange) and the place to get a SIM card. His quiet, friendly manner is a taste of things to come as most of the Taiwanese people we meet are polite, approachable and many speak English.

Secondly, the Taiwanese queue. This starts with a long orderly line at passport control and is echoed whenever there is a wait wherever we are on the trip. As a Brit this makes me very happy.

Otherwise, my knowledge about the island is practically zero. I decide to let the Taiwanese Tourist Board, who have invited me to their country, guide me and to go with the flow.

While Taiwan is, fiercely, not part of China it has been influenced by its neighbour across the water, especially as there have been many waves of immigrants at times of conflict. It also bears the legacy of 40 years of occupation by Japan. This visit revealed that the island, culture and food have an identity all of their own of which the people are very proud.

There are are masses of things to do in Taipei. Here are some suggestions based on a couple of days exploring the capital city of Taiwan:

Immerse yourself in a street market (and bring an extra stomach)

It seems that everyone is on a scooter, including children perched precariously on their mother’s laps. Many are colour coordinated, their passenger’s helmets shiny in pastel pinks and blues that match the smart paint of the two-wheeler;  backpacks crammed with school books or groceries complete the look.

The rows of revving scooters halt at the traffic lights as we join the throng surging across to Ning Xia street market.  Vibha from Voyageur Chic is my travel partner and she is as enthusiastic as I am to dive into the Xiao chi, literally small eats, that are part of the culture. People weave in and out, and form queues, at rows of kiosks and tables on the pavement where cooks are busily stirring, steaming, boiling and frying up food.

A stall holder encourages us to taste some fresh fruit laid out like a rainbow, before she chops and hands it out in bags. Trying the fruit in season is like tasting it for the first time; I eat some custard apple, biting into a rather dull, cream-coloured slice, which explodes with sweetness. On another stall the fruit is displayed on ice, bright colours glowing in a misty cloud.

It’s the start of the weekend and the market is heaving with people; we join the slow shuffle through a narrow alleyway between stalls. My eyes are on stalks at the variety of food on offer which ranges from the irresistible to some that will appeal only to a more adventurous eater – this is nose-to tail eating. Duck heads, pig intestines, chicken’s feet and ‘frog’s eggs’ stalls are doing a roaring trade. I thought these were real frogs eggs because of the large green frog sign but it’s a lemony drink made of a kind of transparent, gelatinous seed. Rong’s pork liver, which boasts proudly ‘since 1950’, is next to the stall with pig tripe soup.

This only adds to our hunger though and we are overwhelmed by the choices of what we should sample. Dumplings are everywhere, fried, steamed, boiled or saucy.  Gua bao, buns made fluffy by steam, are filled with braised pork belly, pickled Chinese cabbage and powdered peanuts. Soymilk chicken is ladled over noodles, large funghi are grilled whole then sliced and corn cobs speared on wooden sticks. Delicately folded rose shapes of ham protrude from sweet, crispy rolls with cucumber, tomato and boiled egg – a salad boat sandwich. Little eggy balls sizzle in round holes on a special griddle; these are Takoyaki or octopus balls, a legacy from the Japanese occupation. Apparently there are fried taro balls filled with custard too – how did I miss those?

On one corner, a man hunches over, sorting through a pile of curly, pink water chestnuts (a variety called caltrop) which look like flying bats. They are roasted until fluffy inside then cracked open for their single seed.  A young guy behind the ‘roasted beef’ stall checks his phone with one hand and snatching up a kind of flame thrower with the other. It’s like he’s in a club as he gyrates his whole body and the torch follows suit in a circular arc above the pieces of meat.

There’s a sudden waft of a quite revolting smell. I know without looking that this is the legendary ‘sticky tofu’. It’s a popular delicacy and once you encounter the pervasive aroma you notice whiffs of it everywhere.  I hear it’s delicious but am not brave enough to try it this time, without a peg for my nose.

Watching cooks preparing oyster omelettes is mesmerising but the queues are forbidding (see below). Vibha and I decide to try beef noodles instead, which are a traditional dish found throughout Taipei.  We sit at a wobbly table squeezed next to the pavement to eat. The round slices of beef, marbled with fat, are slow-cooked making a rich, stock bath for the noodles and greens.

Wandering out at the other side of the market, food gives way to different stalls. Children perch on stools playing brightly lit games, colours flash and jingles blare – a kind of outdoor real life experience of a computer game. Washing up bowls of water are lined up on the pavement with little fishing rods at hand for people to try and hook a live shrimp. I scoot past a woman, she’s laughing while shooting small coloured ovals out of a wall with a gun. The main street beyond is quiet and calm after the frenzy of the market but I realise that the experience was not intimidating in any way. There was no jostling or pushing, stall holders smiled, there was no hard-selling just helpfulness, it was a pleasure to take in the myriad of sights and aromas the Taiwanese way.

Try an oyster omelette at a Michelin-starred street cafe

We really want to try the famous oyster omelette at the Ning Xia market, but so does everyone else.  There are a couple of similar street cafes which have a snake of expectant diners outside but only one has a Michelin star and that’s Yuan Huan Pien. The wait can be up to an hour and a half if you go on a weekend so we come back on Wednesday at 6pm and are seated at a shared formica table within 15 minutes. The cooking takes place butted up to the front window. The chef sprinkles oil, cracks eggs and scatters green leaves methodically and with a flourish, as if being filmed for Chef’s Table.  This is a Taiwanese delicacy and there were covert, inquisitive glances from the women by us at the table. A  ‘special sauce’ thickened with powdered sweet potato is poured over the top. Personally, I find the gelatinous texture of the sauce really challenging, while Eddie and Vibha tuck in with relish. I think the taste and texture is polarising but I’m glad I tried it.

Rong’s pork liver stall and Liu Yu Zai deep fried taro balls are also recognised by Michelin.

A sense of Taipei’s varied past on Dihua street

We step out of the taxi into the warm sunshine into the Dadaocheng district. It was once the very heart of Taipei and Dihua is one of its oldest streets; it’s easy to imagine the grandeur of those times by looking up at the various styles of building. There is so much to photograph, a mixture of architecture influenced by waves of traders. They arrived the late 1880s when the Tamsui Harbor was built nearby in and became the most important commercial port in Taiwan, especially for lucrative tea exports.

Thousands of people crowd into this narrow street a few weeks before the lunar New Year and flock to a bazaar to buy the traditional herbs, sweets, fabric and fruit for their celebrations. But today it’s quiet and, after a foray into the dark basement of the Yongle market (see below), we meander down the road jumping back onto the covered pavements when beeped at by a yellow taxi or buzzing scooter.

man weighing out chinese medicine

Blinking in the sunlight,  I raise my eyes above the modern red and yellow signs and arches over the pavements. The old red brick and carved stones are the story tellers of the past. There are long windows, their wood panels precise like graph paper, intricate wooden carvings and swallow-tail roofs from the Qing dynasty even some stucco finishes of early Modernism. Also are rows of elaborate facades with sculptural flourishes and ornate cupolas of the Baroque revival built by the Japanese during their occupation. The Art Deco lines of A.S. Watson and Co., built in 1917, was the first Western pharmacy in Taiwan (in contrast to the many traditional Chinese medicine shops further down the street). It has been restored impeccably inside and out and you can stop there for tea and scones (a nod to British involvement in the tea trade). However not all the buildings have been rescued from decades of neglect when the area was deemed of insufficient cultural value and plans were drawn up to demolish them. Thankfully, Dadaocheng was saved and the layers of peeling paint and slightly ramshackle look, especially in the side streets, is something I’d like to go back and explore.

The shops selling Chinese medicine display their potions, leaves and unctions on little tables along the covered pavements. Many display the tongue-shaped, orange plastic wrapped ovals of dried mullet roe (Karasumi), considered a delicacy.  We enter one shop and step back in time, the walls are lined with wooden drawers and the shopkeepers completely ignore us, totally engrossed in weighing out mixtures of dried bark and funghi on brass handheld scales. The business has been running, unchanged for over 100 years, an abacus lies on the counter a legacy of a computer-less age.

It’s hard to believe that the compact Xia-Hai City God Temple, which dates from 1859, contains six hundred deities. The dipping curve of the tiled roof, topped with a pair of dragons like curlicues, is squeezed in between the buildings.  The presence of Yue Lao, the God of Love, explains the throng of younger people who follow an intricate ritual, lighting sticks of incense at the smoking black cauldron on the pavement, praying for their Mr or Miss Right to come along. If I had known about the ‘Wife of the City’ god, who has the power to domesticate husbands, I might have nipped in to burn an offering myself.

Married couple

Just married

Innovative small businesses have started to spring up in Dadaocheng. We duck into Salt Peanuts, where the counter is made from recycled wood, fairtrade coffee is served along with their famous brunches and cinnamon buns. The shady courtyard is shared with Peacock bistro which is also environmentally conscious and boasts local, organic produce, fusion cuisine and mean cocktails.  Alternative, cheaper refreshment can be found on the nearby street corner stand where oranges are squeezed to order, at speed, with a vintage press.

Eddie is bemused that we’ve taken so long exploring just one part of the street and says his usual tourists breeze down very quickly. For Vibha and I, a couple of hours stroll only scratches the surface of the oldest street in Taipei; we’d love to dig deeper and have a whole day (or even more) to explore tea makers and tea houses, museums, other temples, a puppet theatre, pastry shops, a Presbyterian church, a Michelin starred noodle house, a long-standing ice cream shop and even a gin maker that are all crammed into a few narrow streets.

Deep dive into Taiwanese food at the Yongle market

Some of our time in Dadaocheng is spent in the Yongle market; we go down the steps and enter another world of food. At the front, a fried chicken stall does a brisk trade (fried chicken is another Taiwanese obsession). A lady adds boiled eggs of a vermilion hue to trays of crisp thighs and ‘oil rice’ (you fan). This is a traditional gift for new mothers – which there seem to be a lot of given the queue.

Meat stalls display their wares in abundance. A butcher peers out from a flourescent square of light, cleaver in hand, huge sides of ribs hanging above his head, intestines dangling, pork legs complete with trotters spilling over the counter.

We see men sitting on high stools devouring noodles but a visit here is an insight into what people eat in their homes.  A woman pulls balls of elastic dough and deftly swirls them onto circular hotplates with her bare hands, making thin pancakes. A serene gentleman with a crinkled face is totally engrossed in dumpling making, pleating the edges and lining them up in impeccably neat lines.

On a table, metal trays contain small balls, long golden cylinders, pinkish cubes, orange-striped sticks and thin squares like crackers – all things made of fish. On another, a row of plastic bags are filled with cooked noodles. Long beans, kohlrabi stalks, Chinese cabbage and fresh leaves lie in baskets. Bunches of sausages in varying colours hang over tubs of liver. A man feeding unidentified meat through a mincer seems unconcerned by the menacing blades whirring near his fingertips.

The Yongle market was founded in 1896 and housed over a thousand fabric merchants. Although diminished, the floors above the food market are still dedicated to tailors, silks, cottons and threads. Eddie tells us that fashion designers shop there for raw materials.

A bird’s eye view from the Taipei 101 tower

Looking down over a city really gives a sense of the place and there is plenty of window space on all sides of the 101 tower to get the measure of Taipei. The city buildings are clustered together and surrounded by mountains which you don’t get a sense of at ground level. You get to the entrance through a gleaming, luxury mall and Stephen, our other guide, tells me that the building is 100% green. It’s a sudden contrast between old and new Taipei as we’re whisked up in the world’s fastest lift.

view of Taipei

The 101 tower was the tallest building in the world when completed in 2004 until overtaken by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. There’s a post box at the top so I quickly scribble some cards to my family. We scale new heights by going up to the observatory deck and it’s lovely to be out in the sunshine and get a more precipitous view while also watching some girls who are absorbed in taking selfies. On the way down we pass an enormous sphere which at 660 tons is the world’s largest and heaviest wind damper, anchoring the building from swaying in high winds (a worrying thought).

Down on the pavement there is a large love heart attracting a queue for Instagram poses. I give this a miss and get talking to a group of schoolboys who are collecting donations for a local, charity project. Their English is perfect (they come from the most prestigious private school in Taipei) and we have a really enjoyable, lively conversation. “Wow, you live in Dubai!” they exclaim before suggesting a group photo. More posing is going on in front of multi-coloured tiled walls. A group of women with their arms around each other roar with laughter; an old couple put their heads together in a quiet, contented way that’s lovely to obverse.

Lunch at Din Tai Fung

At the bottom of some steps in the basement of the 101 tower is the entrance to Din Tai Fung. The queues for this famous dumpling restaurant, which was started in Taipei, are always long at the branch in Dubai and here the lobby is full of people waiting to get a table. They mill around the shops checking the sign that displays the next number and how long the wait is (over an hour). Being with a guide means we go straight into the restaurant which is large, tables close together and people busily engrossed in eating. The dumpling makers are behind glass; dressed in white, wearing blue facemasks (so ubiquitous here) and pleating wrappers precisely at at speed. It looks like a space age factory and is utterly mesmerising. Tearing myself away, I sit at our table and the dishes of food are delivered thick and fast. They have been chosen for us so we just tuck in. Eddie demonstrates exactly how to eat the soup dumplings as there is a knack – not mastering it means risking a chin or t-shirt dripping with broth. I’d always wondered what the fuss was about but here the dumplings are sublime and I can’t stop myself from eating countless quantities of them, especially the pork-filled Xiao Long Bao. Pineapple cake and chocolate-filled dumplings leave us rolling out the door.

Contemplation at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Walking through the gardens, it’s good to move our legs after such a feast and we climb the long, steep flight of stairs at the side of the Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall. The size of it and the towering, white walls made of Taiwanese marble is dramatic, causing a crick in your neck as you look up.

The 89 steps, match the age of Chiang Kai-shek when he died; he is a controversial figure in history. It’s quiet as we ascend, breathlessly, except for a young couple draping themselves over a bannister, poses captured by their photographer. Turning the corner we see crowds gathered at the entrance for the hourly changing of the guard in front of a bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek (intentionally resembling the Lincoln statue in the US) but there is no way we can see over the throng. We’d rather gaze out, over a carved, marble mural of swirling clouds that cascades between the two staircases to Democracy boulevard, a wide area flanked by symmetrical gardens, borders clipped and lined with precise topiary. It leads the eye to the curved red roofs of the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre, both decorated in elaborate Chinese style; they stand on either side of Liberty Square ending with a grand gate at the entrance.

The whole site is promoted as a place dedicated to art and leisure. People practice Tai Chi, play chess, birdwatch and feed the wildlife. There are keep-fit paths and open spaces for exercise like stair climbing events organised via the ‘Meet Up’ app.  As we stroll down, there is an excellent jazz band playing in the middle of the boulevarde with the Memorial building as a backdrop.

For all the beauty and enjoyment of this place, the Memorial stands in recognition of an authoritarian leader who crushed any dissent and presided over a time of great suffering. This included the February 28 Massacre and four decades – the longest period of martial law in world history – of ‘White Terror’. The deaths, disappearances and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people is still fresh in the collective memory of the Taiwanese people.

Given time there are extensive landscaped gardens to explore, with woods, waterfalls, ponds and ornamental bridges, but again we scratch the surface of this place. I don’t see any food places on our visit, but this would be the perfect place for a picnic. The sun is starting to go down as we leave and we don’t even squeeze in the obligatory pose in front of the main gate. A lazy afternoon’s exploration here would be a wonderful thing.

Submerge in hot springs at Beitou

It’s dark when our driver drops us at the door of the Radium Kagaya hotel and we are greeted by some women dressed like Japanese geishas and welcomed into the building. Immediately soothed by the calm interior of blonde wood and glass we say goodbye to Eddie and we’re whisked up in the lift, very unsure of what a Japanese hot spring experience is.

Beitou is part of Taipei but the hot spring village is in a verdant valley at the foot of a mountain range with a dormant volcano and close to a National Park. The area was developed during the Japanese rule of Taiwan. It went downhill for a time but today it’s a major tourism destination; a place where many locals from Taipei come to enjoy relaxation and a getaway from the city.

In a private room I put on my swimming costume and slip into a kind of sloping bath full of naturally scalding hot spring water. In my screen-centred life, it’s unusual to not be plugged into something distracting like a podcast or scrolling, so just lying there immersed in searingly hot water forced me to quieten my mind. I can see the appeal of the solitude, sharing the experience in a larger pool outside or gentle chatting with a group of friends. In other rooms there are more traditional, round, wooden tubs where people wallow for hours. Eddie is amazed that we’ve been such a short time and, with regret, we refuse a tea ceremony as we’re still full from our enormous lunch.

This would be a charming place to stay for longer and to experience the natural beauty of the area.

Serenity at the Bao’an temple

The Dalongdong streets are eerily quiet. We peer through the railings at the darkened Confucius temple which is open during the day and is now closed. In contrast, the Bao’an temple across the street gleams like a jewel and can be visited, free of charge, from early morning to late at night.  Now given an award by UNESCO, it has been restored beautifully and the wooden carvings, dipping roof, intricate stonework of swirling dragons and lions and elaborate paintings glow in the candlelight of offerings as well as the electric variety.

Motorbikes driving past the Baoan temple

An impression of the temple – without a tripod it was difficult to take great pictures the dark

The story of the temple’s evolution mirrors the turbulent history of Taipei.  From its humble beginnings as a small, wooden shrine of worship by immigrants travelling across the sea from Tong-An in the Fujian province of China, it was rebuilt as a temple, and place of safety, as the population in Dalongdong grew. It survived occupation by the Japanese when they took it over for non-religious purposes, bombing during World War II, and as a shelter for homeless refugees for a couple of decades. A chequered restoration initiative gained traction in the 1980s and led to the exquisite and flawless complex of temples and shrines of today.

It’s a sensual overload walking through the carved gateway, with vibrant colours, stirring paintings and so much gold glowing through the mist of incense and scent of pink Taiwanese lilies. The layout is in accordance with the principle of Feng Shui which is said to attract good luck and ward off misfortune; it certainly feels like being enveloped in a cloak of calm tranquility.  Without a tripod it’s difficult to take really good pictures in the dark so I wander around taking it all in, marveling at the different shrines, extravagantly ornamented rooms with altars bathed in gold, each dedicated to different deities, many to the natural forces of nature and those of daily life, from The Kitchen God to the Goddess of Childbirth.   Worshippers give their offerings quietly and kneel to honour the gods, particularly the Bao Sheng Emperor to whom the temple is dedicated, who they pray to for good health. The visit, for me, is a spiritual experience in the modern sense and I leave with a lighter step.

If you only have time for one visit, the Bao’an temple is considered one of the top to visit in a city that’s home to many beautiful temples, dedicated to a blend of religions.

Visiting Taiwan

Two days in Taipei was just enough to get a good impression of all that the city has to offer but I really want to return for a deep dive into this fascinating place. Overall Taiwan was clean, friendly and had such a diverse range of things to do and experience.

I’ve been recommending a visit, very enthusiastically, to everyone who has asked me about my trip (that’s what I’m doing if you see me in the middle of a supermarket aisle nattering). The story of our travels out into the rest of the country will follow – there are so many really special things to share. I’ll put a link here once it’s live (and pop it into my monthly letter with some extra details too).  Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.

More info

Street markets: Ning Xia, near Dihua street (see above) is where Vibha and I went three times. Shilin Night Market has over 500 street food vendors in an underground food court. Raohe Night market, like Ning Xia, has three stalls that feature in the Michelin guide. Tonghua Night Market and Nanjichang Night Market are two more but you could spend at least a week exploring and not visit them all.

Where to stay: We stayed at the arTree boutique hotel which was really unique in style as everything was designed around nature. It was really comfortable with very spacious rooms, luxurious baths and intelligent loos! Very Zen. Breakfast was a large buffet selection of Taiwanese food.

Hiring a guide: Our guide Eddie soon tuned into what Vibha and I were really interested in as well as imparting a wealth of knowledgeable about this multi-layered city. Having a guide helped us jump some queues too (email me for Eddie’s Whatsapp details).

Restaurants: We ate street food, in the main, while in Taipei but visited the Peacock Bistro on Duahin street serving fusion food with organic ingredients, homemade preserves and great cocktails. Salt Peanuts, for coffee, buns and brunch is across the courtyard. Din Tai Fung is in the 101 building.

Further reference: Josh Ellis Photography for some beautiful pictures of the Baoan temple. There’s a comprehensive guide to the Beitou Hot Springs on Spiritual Travels (will make you want to go immediately).

Note: This trip and the flight was provided by The Taiwanese Tourist Board. Thanks to everyone who made the whole experience really special. All views remain my own, as always.

memorial hall in Taipei

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A dessert from Brittany – how to make Far Breton

November 14, 2019

Far Breton with eggs sugar and tea

We weren’t at a small, artisan producer where I stuck my rubber-gloved hands into a huge wooden churn and helped to heave out a gleaming yellow mass. We weren’t at a fine French restaurant.

This was a pristine factory with immaculate steel, metal stairs, and quiet automation where we padded around cocooned in plastic coverings from head to toe. Yet it was here that I tasted a dessert that had me begging for the recipe long after returning to Dubai. Far Breton.

This whole tale starts with butter and a tour of Brittany and parts of Western France famed for its lush, green grass. This particular day started with a visit to Echiré where the eponymous butter has been made, at the same location, since 1894. It was very hands-on, as mentioned above, and we delved deep into the history and the process, watching every stage of creating the creamy, salty butter that is savoured by good food lovers and top chefs. The Japanese are wild about it too.

By the time we got to La Toile a beurre restaurant in Ancenis we were ravenous. We ate well – meaty dorade fillets with citron confit, buttery mashed potato, farmhouse chicken infused with thyme, local strawberries in a nest of rhubarb and biscuit to name a few dishes – so sated and in post lunch stupor we reached the Paysan Breton butter-making facility.

Paysan Breton

Being led round the factory where one of the biggest brands of butter in France is made was quite a contrast to our earlier visit. However, Paysan Breton is a cooperative, co-owned by the farmers that supply the milk (which is all from grass-fed cows). The pats of butter are shaped to resemble handmade ones with curved edges and ridges that the wooden paddles would have made in the past.  There are five different types of butter in the range including one flavoured with salt that’s traditionally harvested by hand from the nearby marshes of Guerand, one with sea salt, and a demi-sel which is so important to this recipe. It’s this value put on ingredients and provenance that’s so impressive from a major manufacturer.

Returning to a conference room we were rather daunted to see another spread of food but it’s amazing how your appetite can be rekindled. We tasted and compared all the butters and then attacked the traditional butter-based dishes from the region.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating could have been coined for Far Breton.  Unassuming in looks with a dark brown sunken top, once cut into there was everything that appeals to a custard lover like me. A creaminess of eggs, milk and vanilla with deep, goey prunes lurking delectably at the bottom. The maker of this perfect pudding was a factory worker called Justin.  The memory of the Far Breton stayed with me, I needed to make it myself.

So one Friday morning, Tiffany (a fellow butter tourist) and I rolled up our sleeves to make the recipe, translated into English for us from Justin’s original.

tray with tea, sugar and far breton

Good ingredients make a difference

Far Breton, also known as Far aux pruneaux, is a very simple recipe but success depends on using the right ingredients:

  • Flour – plain, white flour, organic if possible.
  • Sugar – caster sugar (you could use the golden type).
  • Butter –   The last coating of melted butter poured over the top adds another layer of buttery flavour and leaves little crunches of salt so using demi-sel (slightly salted) is important. It needs to be a good quality butter like Paysan Breton (available in Carrefour in the UAE) as the Far Breton depends on it for its taste.  The irregular grains of salt add to the texture, but you don’t want it to be too salty so regular salted would be OTT.   Perhaps you could use unsalted butter and add a little sea salt of your own – from reading the packets I think it might be a 2% ratio – however I haven’t tested this method myself.
  • Eggs – free range, organic.
  • Milk – full fat, organic, local if possible. In UK I would use something like Jess’s Ladies (winner of the best producer in the Observer Food Monthly awards 2019). In the UAE, Organiliciouz local organic milk.
  • Vanilla – As always the quality of vanilla is really important especially in such a simple dessert as this where the eggs, butter, flour and sugar are a lake in which the prunes sink, like juicy pebbles, at the bottom. There is nowhere to hide. Use a teaspoon of vanilla extract (here’s how to make your own), or the seeds scraped from a vanilla pod or two (like we did) or a sachet of good quality vanilla sugar (which the original recipe calls for). DO NOT under any circumstances use vanilla flavouring or essence.

Important:  before you race off to gather the ingredients and put the oven on, please note you MUST use demi-sel butter*. The last coating of melted butter poured over the top leaves flavour and little crunches of salt.

tea, milk, butter, far breton

Far aux Breton

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Also known as Far aux Pruneaux, a traditional dessert from Brittany, France, made with simple ingredients. A celebration of delicious dairy produce


Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • 60g “demi-sel” butter (plus extra for greasing)
  • 260g plain flour
  • 240g caster sugar
  • Seeds scraped from 1 or 2 vanilla pods
  • 1 litre of full-cream milk
  • Dried prunes 250g – 500g according to taste (I used 300g)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Beat the eggs in a jug. Melt the butter, either in a pan on a very low heat or on a low setting in the microwave. Do not let it sizzle.
  3. Put the flour, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl (or the bowl of your food mixer). If making by hand, make a well in the middle, pour the eggs into it then start to gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs by bringing it in from the sides, a little at a time.  Alternatively do this in your food mixer on a slow speed.
  4. When your batter is smooth add 20g of the melted butter, then pour in the milk slowly while stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon. This can also be done on slow speed in the food mixer.
  5. Butter a baking dish generously, then pour in the batter. Place the prunes into the dish, spacing them evenly into the batter.
  6. Bake on a medium shelf for 50 minutes.
  7. Remove from the oven and brush the rest of the melted butter over the top of the Far aux Breton evenly. Spread right to the edges so that some butter can seep down the sides of the dish.
  8. Place the dish back in the oven for an additional 10 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool to room temperature before serving.

Best eaten the same day. It solidifies if kept in the fridge.

Far Breton

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This is just a small jigsaw piece in my journey in butter. Tell me if you’d like to know more. I didn’t know there was so much to learn about such a simple ingredient.

Favourite comfort food when nothing else will do? Some surprising answers revealed

October 28, 2019
marmite toast and tea ready for breakfast
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You may be thinking shepherd’s pie with a fluffy, crunchy mash hat, a bowl of soothing dahl, a dish of slippery, spicy noodles, a full English roast. But we’re not talking about that kind of comfort food. I mean the thing you want when you’ve taken to your bed or crawled through the day feeling distinctly below average. You need to eat but you fancy nothing – except that one thing. It has no rhyme or reason. A deep craving that often makes no sense at all but it’s the only edible thing to tempt your palette. If you’re lucky it will be made for you and brought to you on a tray to eat in bed. We’re not talking high end cuisine here. It could be from a tin, a packet or a jar.
I pondered this question as I found myself in that situation, savouring each bite of Marmite toast. Brown toast, maybe sour dough if I’m lucky but anything will do. The butter has been hacked off the block so some of it has melted and some is floating like little yellow islands. The Marmite is glossy, dark and scraped on in exactly the right measure,  not too thick, not too thin. Crunchy, creamy, buttery, savoury, salty and restorative.
I asked a few people I like and admire to share this inner secret.  It’s interesting how many draw on childhood memories, reaching for an edible comfort blanket when life was simpler. I think it’s a confession of what we crave when we feel most vulnerable so I’m very grateful for their honesty. Here are their answers, in no particular order…
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Leyla Kazim – The Cutlery Chronicles

Leyla Kazim of The Cutlery Chronicles a beautiful food and travel blog. Among her long list of accomplishments she’s been a judge for BBC Food & Farming Awards 2019 and a judge on Channel 4’s brand new TV series “Beat The Chef” She lives in London (when not discovering delicious things round the globe).

“My ‘go to’ comfort food is a Cypriot pasta dish, and probably in my top 3 noodle / pasta dishes ever. We in my family call it ‘Turkish macaroni’. It’s just five ingredients and is incredible.

You finely grate halloumi and mix it with a ton of dried mint. You boil some pasta in chicken stock but don’t drain it, you want to keep it pretty wet. When the pasta is cooked, add the cheese and mint mix. Add inordinate amounts of lemon juice, fully combine and that’s it. A chicken-y, salty, lemony, carby hot plate of pure comfort. It is THE best.”
Find the recipe on Leyla’s blog).

 

a plate of halloumi pasta

Image by Leyla Kazim – Cutlery Chronicles

 


Diana Henry

Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer, journalist, broadcaster and the author of ten cookbooks. She grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London. I have a lot of cookbooks, including four of Diana’s which all have well splattered pages from use. My collection pales into insignificance compared to hers of over 4000 which line the walls of her house in multiple book cases.
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“Cheese on toast is my thing (even toast with Dairylea cheese spread, shock horror). Also, fish fingers, baked beans and Heinz tomato soup. You seem to go back to the things you had as a child or teenager. If I make a proper meal for comfort it is generally shepherd’s pie or a baked potato with butter and yoghurt, grated cheddar and spring onions.
A cup of tea – quite sweet – also always soothes, as does a glass of milk.”
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collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

My collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

Read more about a visit to Diana’s house and her book Salt Sugar Smoke about preserving including a recipe for purple pickled eggs.

Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

Sara Tasker is a photographer, writer and business coach offering advice for a huge community of online creatives. She’s an Instagram expert (which is a understatement) and, if you’ve been anywhere near the platform, you’ll know her as Me and Orla.  I joined Sara’s inaugural online ‘Instaretreat’ and have benefited from her wise words on an almost daily basis.  She lives in rural in Yorkshire in a house with a cosy (and Instagrammable – check her IGTV) kitchen.
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“My absolute favourite comfort-in-a-bowl is hash browns and baked beans. Bonus points if there’s crispy bacon too, but I’m honestly happy either way.”
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a bowl on hash browns and baked beans about to be eaten

Image by Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

 


Kellie Anderson – Food to Glow

Kellie Anderson is a health educator, food writer and recipe developer with a beautiful blog called Food to Glow. I’ve known her from the early days of our blogs and have no idea how she comes up with delicious healthy recipes consistently while also working as health educationist and nutrition adviser with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. She’s from Florida but met up for a cuppa the summer in Edinburgh, Scotland where she now lives.
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“I would say toast too, from my homemade sourdough bread. But, upon reflection, I have a stash of grits – stoneground, dried white corn that’s a southern US staple – that I turn to for comfort. Fortunately I rarely need to dip into it – thank God, because I have to bring it over specially from the States so it is very precious. But when I do it works like a magic balm to soothe me. Grits, with a big knob of good salted butter and grinds of black pepper, remind of being at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The breakfast table would always be overflowing with fantastically fresh food from her huge garden, but there was always grits and fried eggs from the hens scratching around outside. Just typing this is making me hungry!”
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Not grits but definitely comforting. Creamy roasted cauliflower soup recipe and image by Kellie – Food to Glow

 


Claire Robinson – Weekend Candy

Claire Robinson is the founder and editor of UK online travel magazine Weekend Candy. Claire’s mantra is “two days – make them count” – and she does. You can find a treasure of ideas for short trips in the UK on the site. Claire’s an award-winning writer, advertising creative and digital creative director.

She’s worked on many creative campaigns over the years for comfort food and drink brands (think Lurpak, Anchor Cream, Pukka Teas, Carte Noir and Philadelphia).

We met up at Blogtacular but Claire lives in my home county of Gloucestershire in the UK.a

 
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“My go-to comfort food is far from fancy but as close to healing magic as you can get: a good old-fashioned, please don’t judge me for it, crisp butty. Yup. Slice me some thick white tiger bread, cement it with real butter, layer with salt and vinegar crisps, and dollop with mayo. Voila! Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and all things in life feel delicious again.”
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Claire from weekend candy on a boat

Claire on a Weekend Candy weekend. Perhaps the secret sandwich is in the canal boat?


Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures

My friends Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures were pioneers when they set up the first food tour company in Dubai. It was so unprecedented that the trade license bods were at a loss for a while. I’ve lost track of the amount of tours I’ve done with them – the original and best food tour company in Dubai. They live in an area of Dubai that’s chock a block with little restaurants of tempting food – and they all deliver within half an hour. Their extended family is nearby so if they are under the weather they all support each other. I say all this as it explains why they sent lists of comfort foods!

Arva

“1. Tomato soup, the super processed cup-a-soup kinds, with croutons, less water than the ratio recommended on the packet so it’s really thick (I love if some of the bits of soup powder remain clumpy cause it’s like a knob of concentrated flavour) – alongside 2 slices of well-browned toast with salted butter.
2. Grilled chicken wings with lemon and garlic. Dipped in hummus and Arabic style red shatta (chilli sauce), yes in both simultaneously.
3. Chicken Won Tons with soy sauce and chilli – the kind at Din Tai Fung.”

Farida

“My go to comfort foods when I am under the weather (or when I have the blues) are:
Home-made khichdi (the forefather of kedgree & perhaps even koshari!). Simple rice and lentils (moong, masoor or toor/tuvar) cooked with turmeric, a pinch of salt and softened to a slightly mushy consistency with desi ghee. Mum will sometimes temper this with cumin and onions for added flavor and aroma.
I usually like to pair that with Pepper Rasam (the forefather of Mulligatawny some would say) which is a soupy concoction that consists of tomatoes, ground whole black pepper corns, cumin, garlic (optional) and tamarind; tempered with ghee, red chillies, curry leaves and mustard seeds.
These have always served to rejuvenate my flagging spirits and bring back zen to my soul :)”
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Samantha Wood – Foodiva

I met Sam just before she set up the first independent, impartial restaurant review site in the UAE, about 10 years ago.  With more restaurants per capita in Dubai than anywhere else in the world, intelligent and entertaining reviews are vital and it’s become a trusted, authoritative guide which has, deservedly, won many awards. You can also join her for high-end food tours. I asked where she got the recipe for her bowl of comfort (see end of quote). Due to KP’s distant Cypriot heritage, we make it at Christmas – find his family recipe here.
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I grew up mostly in Cyprus (and the Caribbean), and the one dish that is etched in my memory from my childhood and that I still make to this day is avgolemono soup. A dish that takes a patient cook to concoct – all thanks to my Cypriot mother’s fair hand, as well as my grand-mother’s. Avgolemono literally translates to egg and lemon soup – however chicken and rice are also key ingredients. A chicken-infused rice broth was whisked with farm-fresh eggs and the juice of lemons from our neighbourhood orchard. Pure soul food – so comforting and therapeutic that I was always begging for seconds and could happily finish off the pot by myself.
I buy every new Greek or Cypriot cookbook that is released, so am always trying out new recipes! The latest one is from Georgina Hayden’s Taverna cookbook.”
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avgolemono soup with ingredients eggs and lemons

Avgolemono soup – click for recipe

 

I hope you enjoyed these answers that are a small jigsaw puzzle piece in everyone’s lives formed by a myriad of things from upbringing, tradition, television advertising to what was available at the corner shop. I’m really very grateful to everyone who gave me their candid responses to share with you.
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Here’s where to find everyone:
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So will you share your ‘comfort food in the darkest hour’ with me?  Confess all – no judgement!

A life dedicated to cheese. How to make organic Reblochon the hard way.

October 10, 2019
Cheesemakers holding a cheese in front of cowshed

Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy

I gaze down out of the window at a woman hanging out washing in her garden. The look of incredulity on her face says it all as our coach turns the sharp bend of a narrow lane that winds up the verdant mountain slopes. She obviously doesn’t believe that we will make it up there and, as we switch in one direction then another round precarious junctions, I share her concerns. I have to trust our friendly driver Jean-Alix.  He is carrying on a conversation with our guide Francois Robin, expert cheesemonger, as he swings the steering wheel round with nonchalance. We find out later that Jean-Alix has won many awards for his off road skills – thankfully we didn’t need them here and, eventually, we step out of the bus into a yard.  This is Ferme des Pezières, a small farm perched at 1,300 metres above sea level in the Haute-Savoie region. We drink in stunning views over the valley and misty mountain peaks as we stretch our legs.

Alpine farmhouse in farm yard

Ferme des Pezieres

Ferme des Pezières

The small farmhouse and cowshed are picturesque, with sloping wooden roof and shutters, lace curtains at the window, ancient cow bells hanging from the beams; however, this is a working farm, and this visit will show just how hard that work is.

Clean, white muslin cloths hang neatly on some washing lines, a few straggly tomato plants bear the last fruit of the summer, a large blue tractor dominates the yard. Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy, the couple who work the farm, come out to greet us along with their small daughter Ombeline who is sitting in her pushchair brought by Grand-mère.

The duo are young, Mathilde has a quiet, bashful manner, Fabrice is animated but serious as he leads us to the cowshed, both exude energy and enthusiasm. They need it. Making cheese this way takes hard physical work and very long hours.

The couple met while at agricultural college. Mathilde is from Indre-et-Loire, but Fabrice grew up nearby and it was always his plan to take over the farm from his Uncle. He spent all his holidays here as a child. It seems his Uncle retired early and quite suddenly in 2014; as the conversation is in French I don’t catch exactly why, but I get the impression that the strain of this life took its toll. His Uncle only sold the milk, but the couple converted the farm to 100% organic and started to make cheese. Fabrice felt strongly that being in such a beautiful area they should respect nature and not use chemicals. They are one of only two organic farms in the area.

cows going up into a field

Into the cowshed

The cows are lined up on each side of the small barn and look curiously at our little group. Then they all put their heads down to munch a little dried food in front of them. Fabrice warns us to stand well back as all 22 cows produce a stream of fresh cow pats – the usual reaction to eating their treat apparently.

Each cow has their name, with those of their parents, written on a piece of blackboard above their place in the milking parlour.  Artificial insemination means that they can choose bulls with a good temperament and ensure they only have female calves (for milk production). Here, as everywhere on the farm, there is a personal touch; one of the cows called Nutella is daughter of Danette (a French chocolate dessert). They’re milked twice a day, twelve hours apart, the first time at 5am so if their toddler doesn’t wake them the cows do, every day of the week.

If any of the cow’s udders are slightly infected they use a mixture of natural clay and tea tree oil (rather than the routine use of anti-biotics on non-organic farms). Milking over, the cows plod happily through a gate into fields, bells clanking, followed by Fabrice and the dog.

Cows allowed

Milk from just three breeds of cow are allowed to make cheese certified as Reblochon as all thrive in mountainous areas and cope with a range of temperatures and pasture.  Francois compares them to the big, fat cows down in Normandy who supply milk for butter, that need flat, lush pasture and wouldn’t survive up in the mountains. The approved breeds are thinner with longer legs so they can climb and forage. During our week in the Haute-Savoie he kept testing us on their characteristics so by the end of the trip I was a first-class cow spotter:

  • Abondance (literally meaning abundance due the quantity of milk) are mainly golden brown with pure white heads except for brown circles around their eyes which makes them look like they are wearing a mask.
  • Tarine (or Tarentaise) which are rust-coloured all over.
  • Montbéliarde have red and white coats, white heads with brown ears and strong legs and feet suited for mountain climbing.

A mixture of breeds are kept on Ferme des Pezières , mainly Abondance and Montbéliarde. Mathilde admits shyly that she keeps one Tarine to maintain tradition as it was the breed that the Uncle kept before. The farm’s cows are kept outside to graze on the mountain pasture from mid-April to mid-November, as soon as the snow melts (the PDO specifies a minimum of 5 months). Even during the winter months when they move indoors for protection from the cold and snow to eat hay produced on the farm, Fabrice says he lets them out into the fresh air every day while he cleans the barn.

Making Reblochon with Mathilde

We have to leave that beautiful fresh air as there is no time to lose. There are strict rules for making Reblochon and farmhouse-certified (Reblochon fermier) has to be made with raw milk directly from the cow while it is still warm. It has been transferred through a pipe directly from the milking area into the cheese room. Mathilde had already added natural rennet to the milk which is being kept at a steady temperature (no higher than 37 C) and she is watching to see when it reached exactly the right consistency. The live bacteria start to convert the sugars in the milk into lactic acid and help the formation of the curd.

Mathilde’s at home here in the cheese room. Her bashful manner disappears as she’s immersed in the craft of cheesemaking which she does twice a day. She narrates every step and answers questions while slowly and rhythmically cutting the curds by hand with a long metal tool strung with strands of fine wire. There’s a meditative quality to the process which I’ve witnessed with other cheesemakers I’ve visited. It’s an utter absorption, it sounds a bit far-fetched but the line between maker and cheese starts to blur, there’s an elemental connection with the metamorphosis of liquid, creamy milk into complex solids. Cutting the curds separates them from the whey (or water). The smaller the curd is cut, the more water is released and the drier the final cheese will be.

shaping the curds into the moulds by hand

Curds and whey

Mathilde judges that the curd might be ready due to its density and resistance. Then she plunges her arm into the vat and stirs it gently to get the right texture. Doing it by hand means she can sense exactly the right suppleness. Being this attuned to cheesemaking has been gained through experience. A neighbouring cheesemaker retired recently and said “I learned until my last day” so every day you learn something, says Mathilde.

She always follows the same procedure but the reaction of the milk changes every day due to the diet of the cows, the season, the weather, their natural hormones and even their temperament. 4 litres of milk will go to make one cheese, each weighing around 500g.

The next stage is to line little moulds with cheese cloth. Using the cloth in this traditional way assists even draining, a smooth shape and maintains the temperature of the cheese.  It’s another difference between Reblochon Savoie Fermier produced in a farmhouse rather than the standard which is made in a dairy and just uses plastic.

A lovely, warm, yeasty, citrus smell fills the cheese room as she scoops whey out of the vat and pours it over the moulds to warm them. The whey that flows through them is not discarded. In the past they made butter with it “but the machine broke” Mathilde says ruefully, so now they make a kind of local ricotta called Sérac.

moulding the reblochon

Into the moulds

Finally, the curds are liberated from the whey, poured from the bucket into the moulds by Mathilde. The heavy, repetitive work is shown by the smooth muscle of her arm. In contrast, the way she now moves the curds into the little moulds with her fingers, shaping and pressing them, almost stroking the creamy, soft, wobbly substance into mounds is extremely gentle.

Then suddenly it has transformed into something else. She lifts the cloth of one and balances a smooth, squat cylinder on her fingertips which she flips over and pops expertly back into the mould the other way up.

At this stage it’s called Tomme blanche de Savoie, like fresh cottage cheese. We taste some, it’s light, crumbly, very slightly dry and not at all acidic, with aromas of milk and yoghurt. She’ll keep one of them to eat with tonight’s supper alongside some potatoes, herbs, salad and some charcuterie – a traditional Alpine farmhouse meal.  It can also be  eaten with honey or jam.

From now on the Reblochon really start on the journey of developing their flavour. A green label, made of edible casine, with the Reblochon syndicate and the batch number for traceability, is placed on each cheese. Green shows it’s from the farmhouse (opposed to a red label from dairy-made); they are each put under a little weight to drain a bit more overnight.

Drying and ripening

In the morning these fledgling cheeses are put on wooden boards and sent to the drying room. This is a misnomer as the room is kept at the perfect humidity to preserve the natural bacteria in the air. The rounds start to turn a light orangey-yellow colour and are turned regularly so that they form an even shape. The cheeses tell her exactly when to do this “If you hear this sound, and the cheese sticks to the board you need to flip it” says Mathilde, hyper-attuned to each stage in their development.

After a week the cheeses are salted and washed then most are sent to a specialist Reblochon ripener or affineur for a minimum of 21 days. The small, squat rounds have already started to form the distinctive fine, white mould on their rinds and develop a nutty taste. Mathilde and Fabrice keep a few back to ripen themselves.

The secret of really good cheese? Mathilde says it’s all down to good milk. You can be the best cheesemaker in the world but you won’t get anywhere if your milk is not rich enough or deficient in something.  “For good milk you need good pasture and healthy, happy, unstressed cows”.

Reblochon then and now

Reblochon evolved from a time when, in the 18th century, farmers paid rent based on the amount of milk they produced. When their landlords were around they only partially milked the cows in front of them, doing a second milking or ‘reblocher’ once they’d left.

Before ski-ing became a thing, there was no food production in winter so the cheese was a lifeline. Like most of the farmers in the area, the couple do a bit of freelance work at the ski station in the winter to supplement their income. It sounds exhausting on top of all their other work which includes selling their cheeses direct to their customers at local markets. This is the way of life they have chosen, however, and they have no ambition to expand the farm but want to focus solely on the quality of the cheese made organically and as close to tradition as possible.

This is not left to chance as a committee from the Reblochon de Savoie PDO conduct regular tastings to ensure all producers meet the right size, acidity and taste. Any that don’t meet the mark consistently will be kicked out of the appellation – a commitment to quality that’s repeated across France, especially for cheese and wine.

The dedication by Fabrice and Mathilde is a step back in time to when every step behind cheesemaking was very hard won. When the round, smooth-rinded cheese was something to savour and would nourish the hardy mountain folk through their equally testing lives. An extreme contrast to tossing a plastic wrapped slice in the supermarket trolley today.

The taste of Reblochon fermier

Shadows are lengthening as the sun starts to sink behind the mountains when we troop back out into the yard. A small table is laid with a sliced cheese and some local wine.

What does it taste like? Francois picks up a slice and inhales. “It’s one of the closest things you have of hugging a cow”, he says, “the smell is so cow-y”. Realising this might not be a recommendation for everyone “… but a clean one” he adds. “It’s really, really creamy and subtle, the rind is just a little bit dry, and it’s way more balanced with less animal taste than you’d expect from smelling the rind. The salt rate is perfect, not too salty, it leaves a lot of room for the milkiness of the cheese.”

cows bells under the eaves of the farm house

Haute-Savoie comfort food – Tartiflette and La Péla

Reblochon is used for tartiflette, the traditional local dish so beloved of skiers to replenish the calories  burnt on the slopes. A comfort food that goes back centuries? In actual fact it was a marketing ploy invented in the 1980s to promote the cheese and named after the Tartifla potato from the region.

It was inspired by a satisfying recipe made up in the mountains to see the Savoyarde natives through the winter. La Péla is also made of potatoes and Reblochon, but cooked in the embers of the farmhouse fire or a communal bread oven to be shared. Péla is a pan with a long handle that looked like a spade (la pelle).  Elizabeth David also mentions a pelle rouge or salamandre which is round iron utensil with a long handle, heated in the fire then held over the top of a dish to brown it. Tartiflette, adapted to modern times, is cooked in an oven and has added white wine, a dollop of cream or creme fraiche and sometimes bacon.

Cheese at the heart of everything

Tasting the cheese, sipping wine and gazing out over the beautiful view it’s easy to be romantic but this is the result of utter dedication. If this week has taught me anything it’s that the French are absolutely obsessed with the traditions and quality of their cheese to a degree I never imagined, and the couple take it to another level.

Mathilde and Fabrice pose for our cameras, sitting next to each other, laughing like teenagers and holding their precious cheese like a baby. They’re united in following a simpler way of life, in tune with their surroundings, close to nature, with the reward of making most delicious Reblochon they possibly can.

Thanks very much to Dalia for the pics of me.

More information here from the Reblochon PDO

I visited Haute-Savoie and Ferme des Pezières as a guest of The French Dairy Board and Cheese of Europe.

pinterest images of the farm

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Honey, mustard prawns and spiced rice with loumi (dried limes)

June 28, 2019

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

I’ve lived in Dubai for nearly two decades and have welcomed countless visitors over the years. There’s a mind boggling choice of places to eat out but until recent years the only place to try local cuisine was at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding or in the home of an Emirati. Gladly, over recent years, a few restaurants have opened that serve recipes traditional to the Emirates. When on a Frying Pan Adventures food tour recently I sat by the creek and tucked into a communal dish of machboos at Al Fanar.  Fragrant rice is studded with whole spices and chilli, dried limes or loumi with other ingredients stirred through; this can be chicken, prawns or even potato and hard-boiled eggs.

This recipe claims machboos as a very distant relation. I’ve added a honey-mustard sauce that coats the prawns and can be made ahead of time. It’s very good-natured so perfect for feeding a crowd.

No surprise that finding good ingredients is key to this dish. Raw honey is a must for taste and health (of us and the bees). Buy from your local beekeeper or someone with a direct connection with them (Balqees in the UAE who have cooperatives of beekeeper).  I use Maille Dijon mustard for balance and silkiness so that it adds warmth and spice without overwhelming.  Although a big French brand, Maille has been making mustards and vinegar (which is the base of good mustard) in an artisanal way for 260 years – and continue to do so today.  They use high quality GMO-free mustard seeds from Burgundy in France and Canada with a focus on traceability.

Get the best prawns you can – reduce the quantity if they are expensive rather than going for cheap, frozen ones which have a devastating impact on the environment and people. Dried limes can be found in most Middle Eastern shops – use the light ones (not the black ones) for this recipe.

 

 

Honey mustard prawns and spiced rice with loumi

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A spiced rice with flavours from the Middle East and Europe. Put in the centre of the table when feeding a crowd or for a casual family supper.

Ingredients

  • 4 large or 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 4 tablespoons Maille Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 50g plus 1 large knob butter
  • 200 – 250g large prawns
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 red chilli, sliced finely
  • 50g butter
  • 1 large onion, sliced finely
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 2 green chillies*
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 3 dried limes (loumi)*
  • 300g rice (filled to the 400ml level of a measuring jug)
  • 800ml vegetable stock or water
  • small bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Directions

  1. Cut large tomatoes into 8 segments or cherry tomatoes into halves, place on a baking sheet and roast in oven preheated to 180C for 15-20 minutes until very soft but not browned.
  2. Combine the honey and mustard together in a small bowl. Melt the knob of butter and saute the prawns in a deep frying pan until just cooked adding the sliced red chilli and 1 clove of crushed garlic just before the end. Stir in the honey-mustard mixture and take off the heat.
  3. Heat 50g butter in a large saucepan (a cast iron casserole is ideal). Add the onion and cook gently, stirring now and then, until it is soft and translucent. Stir in the other clove of garlic and cook until you smell the aroma. Add the turmeric, cumin and chilli powder and stir again. Put in the tomato puree and cook very gently for about 3 minutes before putting in the cardamom pods and green chillies. Poke a couple of holes in the limes with a skewer and put them in the pot.
  4. Stir the rice into the pan making sure it is coated in the spice mixture. Pour in the stock or water and bring to the boil then turn down the heat, put on a tight fitting lid and simmer on a very low heat for 15 minutes.
  5. When the rice is cooked and has absorbed all the water, stir in the roast tomatoes. Gently reheat the prawns in the sauce. With a slotted spoon transfer the prawns into the rice along with 2-3 tablespoons of sauce. Keep the rest of the sauce for people to add extra if they want to. Serve in the pan or tip it all into a large serving dish, sprinkle with fresh coriander and dig in.

*The green chillies are optional depending on how spicy you like your food. If you cannot find loumi (dried limes) add some long strips of lime zest (white pith removed) or a teaspoon of finely chopped preserved lemon. You’ll get the citrus notes but different flavours. For a big gathering you can easily double the recipe.

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

 

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

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This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.