Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bits and pieces

Here's a post I wrote on the literary blog Writer Unboxed, about writing this blog!

Also, for those of you who read French, a lovely little piece on marketing cassoulet beyond the South of France, from the Toulouse newspaper La Depeche. In it, a chef describes the three varieties of cassoulet as 'If it's from Castelnaudary, it's the father; if it's from Carcassonne, it's the son; if it's from Toulouse, it's the holy spirit'! Otherwise said, observes the newspaper, it's 'baby Jesus in velvet pants..'
Non-French people, be aware: thee's nothing blasphemous about all this, it just expresses great love and the highest compliments that can be paid, in traditionally truffled and pungent language!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A taste of Malta

Last year, my youngest sister was living in Malta with her family and we went to visit them there, for a week(from France, where we were based for six months). It was a revelation: not only because of the striking natural beauty of this nevertheless densely-populated little country, but also its long and fascinating history, its gorgeous architectural heritage, from the most ancient and complex of Stone Age temples anywhere in the world to the forts of the Knights of Malta and thousands of quaint little terrace houses set on charming, steep streets; a laid-back atmosphere due to its engagingly modest and friendly people, who all, it seems, know about Australia, as so many Maltese migrated there—and many of them have come back to their beloved island and started up little businesses recalling that history, with such places as 'the Australia Butchery', and the bus proudly labelled 'Toongabbie, NSW! And its delicious food.
Malta is an island nation, with three major islands as well as some smaller ones, and that is very much reflected not only in their love of the sea's bounty. There is a big fishing fleet, with lots of small operators passing down brightly-painted boats from father to son(boat-building is also quite an industry, if small-scale, in Malta.) Fish especially features strongly on the menu, and a large range is sold by harbours, in fish markets and from mobile stalls, and octopus and calamari also often appear. Rabbit is also beloved, with one of the national dishes being a delicious garlic and red wine rabbit stew(we had one of these in the beautiful ancient town of Medina, and it was spectacular.). Pork is popular, and Maltese peppery pork sausages are particularly delicious, with the same kind of meaty, coarse texture as a Toulouse sausage. The nearby island of Sicily has heavily influenced the cuisine, with olives, herbs, anchovies, tomatoes, pomegranates, garlic, ravioli and red wine common ingredients, but there's also many other different influences, from Arabic(Malta is pretty close to Arab North Africa, though very much resolutely turning its back to Arabic culture, not only because the Maltese are very strong Catholics but also because of historical enmity after the Arabs conquered the islands in the eleventh century and enslaved its people) to French, Spanish, and even German, because of the many different backgrounds the Knights of Malta came from. British influence can also be seen with such things as Worcestershire sauce readily available. Capers are an island speciality and are sold in every little shop and in the markets, and favourite vegetables are eggplant, artichokes and zucchini. Sweets betray a strongly Arabic influence, with nuts, honey, and sesame seeds, orange flower and rose water common ingredients in a variety of cakes, and there's also sweet ravioli. A quirky island speciality is also jam and liqueurs made with the prickly pear which proliferates in part of the country, and the Maltese also make very nice ricotta style and other white cheeses, some fresh and creamy, others hard and salty or peppery(these mostly come from the island of Gozo, which is renowned for its cheese), and a range of delicious liqueurs, from jewelled pomegranate liqueur to chocolate liqueur(chocolate has a long history in Malta—it's thought that along with Spain it was one of the first places where chocolate was first tasted outside of Central America.)
If you live in Australia and you're interested in trying Maltese food, there's a few suppliers here(we've bought Australian-made Maltese sausages in a big butchery in Seven Hills, for instance), but also a Brisbane-based website where you can order quite a few Maltese specialities, from sausage to cheese and more. It's at www.maltesefood.com.au

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Simple but lush: scallop and avocado salad

A recipe of my own invention, for a simple, yet colourful and intriguingly delicious entree: (proportions are for two people). Take one ripe avocado, one medium-size ripe tomato or two small ones, six scallops with coral on, some chopped coriander, chives and Vietnamese mint, a teaspoon of Tokay wine(you can substitute sherry, but the Tokay gives a finer flavour), salt, pepper, some crushed garlic or young garlic(which we had in the garden)chopped up, olive oil, red wine vinegar and a dash of mustard. First, sear the scallops in some olive oil, add some garlic, salt, pepper, the Tokay, and the coriander and Vietnamese mint. Cook till done(no more than five minutes) and the sauce is well reduced. Let the scallops cool. Cube the avocado flesh, cut up the tomatoes, toss with a little garlic, and a vinaigrette made from olive oil, mustard and the red wine vinegar. When the scallops are cool, serve on an entree plate, surrounded by the avocado salad. Spinkle with chopped chives. The unusual mixture of flavours and textures is absolutely mouth-watering. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Marvellous mustard

Australia's got great food these days but there's some things I miss from France: proper crusty traditional baguettes (though our own home-madebread is pretty excellent, a proper baguette is hard to make at home); really tasty creamy butter; really good charcuterie--from air-dried saucisson sec to gorgeous peppery Toulouse sausage to a range of pates and terrines that are cheap but delicious; wonderful patisserie cakes(I never get tempted by cakes in Australian bakeries); and a bewildering range of cheeses. And mustard. OK, you say, but there's mustard here, and yeah, sure, there is. There's 'French' 'German' 'American' 'English' mustard, all rather perfunctory versions of each country's traditional style. There's even Maille's lovely classic Dijon mustard(which we buy all the time.) and even sometimes their wholegrain mustard. But even in such hallowed palaces of food as the David Jones food hall, there's nowhere near the range you get in any ordinary French supermarket. For in France, the mustard is no mere humble condiment, but a star in its own right. Not only do the brands compete, but the styles. They're nearly all from Dijon, mustard capital of the universe, and nearly all very long lasting firms(eg Maille from 1747, Edmond Fallon also from the 18th century.) But they all have different styles, a different feel. Edmond Fallon mustards, for instance, are much more peppery and harsh(to my taste)than the smooth, creamy-winey Mailles. And they feature an extraordinary range of flavours and of ingredients ranging from herbs and spices to fruit, nuts and mushrooms. Nowhere is the ultra refinement of French culture more exemplified than in this amazing list of mustards.
Just in the Maille range, there's my personal favourite, Estragon(tarragon). There's the beautiful Cassis(Blackcurrant); Basilic et parmesan(basil and parmesan)Citron et Harissa(Lemon and harissa spices; Chablis et Morilles(white Chablis wine and morille mushrooms); even Noisettes et Trompettes de la Mort(Hazelnuts and Death trumpets, also a kind of mushroom--and non toxic in small doses, despite the name!)There's mustard with cognac and mustard with blue cheese; with gingerbread and honey, with pears, with chestnuts, with champagne; with figs and coriander, with Thai spices and mango and lots lots more. Of course these aren't all available in supermarkets, but you get at least a good selection, and as to going to one of the specialist stores, well, there you're in mustard heaven! (Have a look at

I use mustard in all sorts of ways. Always in vinaigrette(with a Dijon mustard added to virgin olive oil and good vinegar, and well-shaken together in a jar, you don't need any salt). Always with cold meats, with grilled pork sausage and black puddings and home-made hamburgers. A bit of mustard with bacon is delicious too, and with boiled egg, and it's beautiful on steak. I use it in lots of different sauces, its aromatic tang going well with lemon, sour cream, white wine, cream, tarragon, sage and egg yolk, but also with the less obvious anchovy, garlic, red wine, onion, and pickled herrings. Added to vegetable stocks, it also lifts the taste, and it's a must with rabbit and all sorts of game(great on kangaroo steak and with venison, for instance). In fact it's just marvellous and I don't know what I'd do without it!

We did try to grow it one year but it didn't really work out. But it's fair to say we didn't really try very hard. It was not only difficult getting enough mustard seed to supply more than one jar, but the whole process of turning it into an edible product was much more fiddly than it appeared. Maybe this is the year we should try again instead of sighing nostalgically over the Maille website with its tantalising displays!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The start of the asparagus season

In the last week or so, the daffodils have been going mad, the sorrel is getting new leaves, the coriander is looking happier than it has been for a while. And the first of the asparagus spears are poking their paint-brushtip noses out of the ground. It's got to be spring!

This is the time of year when the asparagus is infrequent enough on our plates to be a source of delighted comment. Soon enough, we'll be harvesting bundles of it, so much that David at least will cry for mercy(I find it hard to be completely fed up of asparagus!)But right now each spear is a singular pleasure. We don't hill up our asparagus as we prefer the green variety to the white one so beloved in France, but which to us taste somewhat pallid and watery. Our asparagus have a beautiful, clean, green taste, juicy and distinctive. They are wonderful just steamed and served cold with a simple vinaigrette, or with a dressing I made up, of one teasoon olive oil, one teaspoon sour cream, a smidgen of vinegar, and a mashed anchovy, with pepper. They're also delightful hot, just with a little butter, salt and pepper, or a tomato salsa. They go well in omelettes, in stir-fries, in quiches, and they make wonderful soup(once we have those massive amounts later on in the spring.)