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Category Archives: Travel

Chestnuts

The Chestnut sellers weren’t at the markets last week, I doubt they’ll be there today. And while there is still frost in the mornings, while flowers might be few and far between, I can’t help thinking this marks the end of winter.

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The Roast Chestnut sellers are without doubt one of my favourite parts of winter. It’s my post-run ritual. There’s something about holding that hot brown bag, cradling it to protect it from the cold, peeling shell from nut flesh, and then  devouring 150gm of nutty goodness in the carpark that just makes running 6km in the bitter cold seem so worth it.

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Chestnuts are full of associations for me. I didn’t grow up eating chestnuts. They were the stuff of Christmas Carols and Dickens, not actually a real foodstuff like cashews and macadamias – the nuts of choice for an Australian Christmas. So the first chestnuts I ate were brought by someone else happy who was happy to share the secret. A hot cone of waxed brown paper on a golden Autumn day – in Nimes, France.

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I had trouble deciding what to make of them. They were not what I was excpecting and took me quite by surprise. Chestnuts are quite different in texture to other nuts (in part becuase they are actually a fruit), fleshy, soft, fibrous. I have a terrible time imagining what they would be like raw. But the day was so perfect, the experience so special, the lovely French grand-peres playing Bocce so sweet when they caught me spying on them – that chestnuts became wrapped up, inextricably, with one of my favourite travel days.

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Obviously one perfect day isn’t enough to make you fall in love with a food, but it it enough to inspire a second try. And I’ll be the first to admit that chestnuts, piping hot from the roaster, needing to be gobbled right away, are as much experiential as flavour. But at its heart, so very much of what draws us to food, is experiential. Comfort foods, winter foods, Christmas foods, exotic foods, fine dining – its all wrapped up in values, enjoyment and associations beyond the flavour (though I would never go so far as to suggest flavour is not a central component of the equation.

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I know you can cook with chestnuts. I had a lovely mushroom and chestnut risotto on the Mornington Peninsular at Easter,  and Maggie Beer devotes several pages to their versatility in her fabulous tome on seasonal local cooking Maggie’s Harvest. But for me, the pleasure of the Chestnut seller and the simple flavoursome flesh means I can not imagine cooking with them myself, they would never last long enough for me to do that. I eat them too quick.

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Peaceful, Picturesque, Perfect Prague:

My recent post about pumpkin soup got me thinking. I said at the time my mum makes the best soup in the world. And while I think it’s safe to continue saying she makes the best soup in Australia, with all respect to my mum, I might need to concede that I have had better soup. In Prague. That said, the soup in question was helped along by setting, hunger, and quite possibly the most perfect day ever, so I think memory has possibly made it marginally more special than it was. Mum can retain her crown. At least until I can go back for a second tasting.

Much like my previously discussed experience in Spain, Prague took me by surprise. I don’t think I had any concept of the Czech Republic at all before I left Australia. I was thrilled for Vienna and primed for Budapest, but hadn’t given Prague a second thought. People kept telling me how amazingly awesome it was, but I didn’t take it on board at all.

Here’s the thing. I still can’t tell you what’s so awesome about Prague. If I was to describe my day there to you, like I did in version one of this post, it would sound kind of boring, I went for a walk, sat in a park and read, walked some more, strolled along the banks of a river, crossed a bridge, wove my way up cobbled streets to the top of a hill, looked at an old church (with some stunning stain glass windows) and wound my way back down again. It’s not a day filled with punch or adventure. It was marvellous.

I had thought to abandon words all together. But I’ve looked and my pictures don’t capture the magic at all. There’s nothing for it, you’re going to have to go and experience Prague for yourself. But in the meantime, here’s my best effort to tell you what’s so fantastic and what you absolutely must go see.

The Architecture:

I don’t think I really understood the Belle Époque and Art Nouveau until I wandered the streets of Prague. I had never imagined that a city like this had ever, let alone still, existed. It’s somewhat like walking through streets that have appropriated the aesthetic of a Klimt painting. It’s compellingly as if you’ve been transported back a hundred years. Except it’s not. Because the ravages and hardships of the last hundred years, the wars, the occupations, the Soviet Bloc are faintly there to see and the whole reason why this marvellous architecture remains.

Cities reflect not just where the money is, but when it was. In Hobart where I grew up, most of the architecture in the city is colonial, with some sprinklings of Art Deco government buildings. At one time, the abundance of convict labour made construction cheap and the trade winds and abundance of whales made Hobart a regular stop on the trade route of the world. When technology (and morals) changed, so did Tasmania’s economic importance, and a lack of finances stoped old out-dated buildings from being torn down, until they were old enough that no one could. I haven’t read anything on the subject, so this is just conjecture, but I got the sense that Prague had a similar story. The late nineteenth early twentieth centuries saw a boom of money and culture and a blitz of gorgeous, innovative, arresting buildings. Then the wars, the occupations, the Eastern Bloc. By the time anyone was in a position to consider tearing these buildings down, why on earth would you want to.

Old Town:

 

The Old Town is equally lovely, though in a much more anticipated way. Cobble streets, red roofs, a fantastic Cathedral. I was very happy to get lost on this charming hillside for a few hours. And equally charmed by the antique stores filled with treasures and bohemian crystal.

Charles Bridge:

This is pegged as the big attraction in all the guidebooks, and rightly so. Its medieval sculptures inspire curiosity, and if appropriately informed are rich in legend and superstition, it affords lovely views down the river and up to the old town, and it’s the hub for things that are aimed at tourists, but which tourists want to see. And by this, what I really mean that there was a fantastic, rotating group of musicians playing fantastic, rustic, jazzy standards that transported me to another time. It was marvellous and I stood on that bridge in the cold much later into the night than was sensible, and again in the afternoon crush much longer than was comfortable. There was also a market in the afternoon, however I had shopped a great deal by that stage so didn’t pause to peruse.

The Water Colours:

Sure they’re tourist kitsch, and everywhere, but of all the tourist art I accumulated these are the purchases that still make me happy.

That Soup:

The lady who sold me this watercolour was friendly and full of advice on how to make the most of my day. Her big tip was to cross the road, turn left, walk 2 blocks and take an early lunch at her favourite cafe. “Like Paris” she said. And it was.

But it wasn’t like the Paris I’d just been too. If I squinted, twisted my head the right way and was willing to commit to it, it was the Paris of my dreams. The interior took the nostalgia architecture the step further, I was transported: beauty, glamour, the Belle Époque.

I ordered pea and potato soup with croutons, but it was just a wee bit more special than what I was expecting. My soup arrived with a flourish, a mould of fluffy potato, three long elegant croutons, a jug of frothy pea soup poured at the table with a dash of drama. It was all very simple and elegant, but dining with a touch of theatre made the experience so memorable and the day (and Prague) that bit more magical.

A rainy day in Paris

I just saw Midnight in Paris. Don’t stay and read this, go, watch it. Now.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s new film. You may remember I talked about how his earlier film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, made me fall in love with Spain just before I went there. So, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Midnight in Paris, convinced that it would make me fall in love with Paris all over again. It did not disappoint. So it actually has one over the City of Light in that regard, because I remember spending several days bitterly disappointed in Paris itself : in the heat, the dust, the crowds, the lack of romance. But three or four days in I was gradually won over as I was absorbed by the architecture. It’s a beautiful city. But film makes it beautiful in a much less complicated way.

Woody Allen makes Paris stunning; not that the city needs much help, particularly in his opening sequence which is so referential of the opening of Manhattan, with slow lingering shots of a city with glorious, old music underneath, that if he hadn’t directed them both I would call it a homage.  Allen shoots cities so you want to sink into his film, and pairs them with music wonderfully. Of course, to love Allen for his cinematography rather than his biting wit or commentary or smartass fast paced dialogue may get me thrown out of the film enthusiast club, and to love Allen at all makes me a bad feminist, but I love how he makes me love cities. I also enjoy observing his characters, but they are ultimately people I’m glad I don’t know.  Women I don’t think actually exist, particularly in such high concentrations. His content might be stimulation for my brain, but those cities. They feed my soul.

The movie opens and closes with dialogue on the beauty of walking in Paris in the rain. Paris in the rain is beautiful, though a drizzled mist is preferable to a downpour. My last day in Paris started as the former, ended as the later, and is one of my favourite days travelling. I had done the Louvre, stood atop the Arc de Triomphe to see Paris spread out in spokes, cruised the Seine, felt like I was floating in a room of Monet’s water lilies, gotten lost in Montmartre, picked a favourite bridge, and moved from being a little disappointed in the failure of Paris to deliver on two decades of building expectation to utterly enthralled in the city that was. And then the rain arrived, and there was the city of my dreams. On the morning in question I had found the perfect shot of the Eiffel Tower (which looked magical in the forming mist) and visited Notre Dame. There was nothing left to do but walk.

So walk I did. From Jardine des Tuileries, over Pont Alexander III, down the left bank and the quickly shutting green suitcases of booksellers (though they sell more souvenirs than books now). Until across from Notre Dame I realised that I really should eat something. Not a wise choice I’ll admit, it’s never advisable to eat that close to a major landmark, such businesses do not run on an expectation of repeat trade. But the rain had just begun in earnest, and I hoped it would ease off once I had eaten my lunch.

As it was my last day, I built up my courage and ordered Escargot. I did not really want 6 whole snails to myself, I would ideally have liked to share with 6 companions, or at least 1, but early the next morning I was to board the Eurostar, who knew when I would return. The moment needed to be seized. I think eating sails was as much proof to myself that my relationship with food had improved and my fussiness had abated, as it was a desire to engage with the cultural outputs of the country I was in and have quintessential tourist experiences. For all of these reasons I don’t regret eating escargot. In the main I found them… unremarkable. They were difficult to eat, needing to be removed from their shells with complicated utensils and technique. The texture had been described to me as like calamari, which is the best comparison I can think of, but it was chewy in a way calamari isn’t. They were drowning in garlic butter; so much so that I still don’t know what a snail tastes like. But that may not be a bad thing. I am more than willing to concede the restaurant to be at fault here rather than the dish as a rule. The Beef Bourgeon I had next was pleasant but by no means exceptional, and I suspect escargot requires an exceptional restaurant. But I have no desire to eat snails again.

My gamble had not paid off, and if anything the rain was harder than before. But I would not be deterred. I was exploring a city of great romance, and Paris really is beautiful in the rain. Next I headed to the Ile St Louis which lacks the grandeur of the landmarks which had dominated my visit. The Ile is elegant. Contained. It felt very French. Charming architecture, lovely stonework, old buildings, bicycles, and edging the Seine, an avenue of leaves. Despite the rain I stopped for a Berthillon ice-cream, which my guidebook assured me was the best in Paris. It was lovely. A scoop of Fig, and one of Almond. Flavours which felt very European, flavours I would have never chosen in Australia. Flavours in a language I only grasped the edge of, written in gold on green against a hole in the wall, with an old style sign swinging overhead. This was Paris. This is what I had been looking for. Then across the street, a store with my name! Places sharing my name scatter the globe: A Russian Sea; a Hobart Café, but they are few and far between. Simple things excite me. And when travelling everything feel serendipitous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next I headed over to the west bank and Le Marais, the Jewish district.  It was at this moment that I felt a constricting ignorance of history. Here was a place with history, old buildings, cobbled streets; a place with stories. Pre-20th Century aside, any Jewish district in a city occupied by Nazi’s must have stories. But I did not know them; I could not hook my walking and gawping onto them. Visiting an old city, a great city, we have expectations and intertexts we hang our experiences onto and create our impressions from. In essence, that conflict between what the city is today and what we make it with our pre-conceived impressions and obsessions with history, is what Midnight in Paris is all about. But here, is a district I had not heard of till pressed to go and try the falafel, filled with funky young designers starting tiny fashion and jewellery boutiques, I didn’t know who I walked with, had no knowledge of the footsteps I was following. It was, regardless, a lovely district. The falafel was excellent.  Brimming with salads and texture and flavour. Warm and comforting as I scoffed it down under a dripping awning before the store owner hustled me out of their doorway and back into the rain. It made me feel somewhat “cool”. The district may have a history I don’t know, but its present is the safe side of “edgy” and the slightly commercial side of hip. It’s a fun place to take a walk. And if your credit card is sufficiently prepared, I suspect a better place to shop.

By this point the cobblestones were slick, the gutters flowing, and despite my rain jacket the damp had slowly worked up from my trouser cuffs and I was soaked from head to toe. I decided the time for wandering had come to an end, and headed to the Centre Georges Pompidou – the modern art gallery. The time had come to exit the past. To abandon my images of the decadence of Louise XIV’s Court, the angry bread mobs, Victor Hugo, the Paris Commune, The Belle Epoch and Bohemian Montmartre, Monet, Renoir, Simone de Beauvoir and left bank intellectuals, Gertrude Stein, the Resistance, Bogart and Bergman, Breathless, Sabrina… and to pull myself violently (it’s modern art, violent is not necessarily an inappropriate adjective) into the present.

the Eiffel Tower is hiding in the mist in the top left corner

And that’s what I need to do now. I’ve rattled on quite long enough about a lovely day in a lovely city I enjoyed almost 2 years ago. You’ve been very patient and it’s time for the recipe. It’s not French I’m afraid. No snails or falafel in my bag of tricks. It’s movie food. Caramel Popcorn. This recipe is easy to whip up when you’re about to curl on the couch and be transported elsewhere on a rainy day. It’s also good snack food for events. It was a big hit when mum took it to trivia the other week. I make it with ½ the caramel, which is very yum and with half the calories I can convince myself I’m being healthy. But for your decadent enjoyment I’ve listed full quantities below.

Caramel Popcorn

½ cup unpopped popcorn

125g butter

2 tblsp golden syrup

¾ cup of sugar

Follow packet directions to pop popcorn. Place to side.

Place remaining ingredients in a saucepan and stir  over low heat ill dissolved.

Boil uncovered for 5 minutes

Remove from heat

Pour over popped popcorn in a metal bowl.

Stir through quickly before the caramel sets – careful to avoid touching the caramel.

Spanish Reflections

We had Spanish movie night the other week, and as this coincided with Facebook reminding me it’s been two years since I was actually there, drinking Sangria and trying to get the hang of Tapas, I figure that’s as good excuse as any to write about Spain.

I loved Spain, in a way that completely took me by surprise.  When deciding on my itinerary it was a very close call between Spain and Switzerland. I’d never really given Spain much thought. I have always been more Monet than Picasso, Don Quixote had been sitting on my shelf unread for years, and while I loved Pan’s Labyrinth it was not a film that inspired a love of place, or a fascination with history.

Gaudi's fantastic Cathederal

Shortly before takeoff I watched Woody Allen’s amazing Vicky Christina Barcelona, and got genuinely excited, but that was the first time I had heard of, let alone seen Gaudi. And in a way, I suspect that was part of the joy. Spain lacked the pressure of expectation that so burdened my time in Paris. And I was actually in the country when I discovered all the marvellous cultural outputs I loved it for. In particular for me Spain is architecture, just fantastic architecture. Whether in the Moorish influences pre-Crusades in Granada; the grand palaces of Madrid; or the still exciting work Gaudi was doing in Barcelona at the turn of the last century –I loved with the buildings almost everywhere I went. Spain was also modern Art, the Reina Sofia is far and away my favourite modern art museum, I adored it; I particularly loved post cubist landscapes.  And Dali. While I had been so so about Dali in isolation, the Salvador Dali museum provided a saturation of concepts that just amazed me. The museum is worth the trip out to his home town Figueres. Especially if you’re into deconstructions and self-referential-ity the way I am.

The Moorish stronghold and stunning palace - Alhambra

And Spain was food. Kinda. I have a confession. I don’t remember much of the food in Spain. Worse! I didn’t eat much in Spain. Sadly I was still a vegetarian at this point, still converting currency in my head – and completely intimidated by my lack of language.  Despite all these self imposed roadblocks I still ate some amazing food  and drank fantastic drinks. Oh Sangria, how I loved you, how I’ve missed you. And Mojitos. Somehow neither of these drinks are the same in Australia, though I’m willing to admit that maybe it’s just not the same when not drinking in 40 degree heat next to the Mediterranean.

Sadly I don't have a picture of the jug of Sangria we were drinking. But it was good!

It may have been that it was August and we were sweltering, but Spain fundamentally shifted my relationship with ice-cream. I liked it previously, but could easily live without it. In Spain ice-cream became a food group.

I have a vivid memory, one of the moments of my trip I return to time and again, of having just walked down the hill from the Alhambra in Granada to pause for sustenance at this amazing ice-cream shop. The range of flavours on offer were overwhelming, more so given they were all in Spanish. But the elderly man behind the counter looked at us, and then presented each with a taster of the flavour he thought best for them. Everyone loved what he gave to them, though I still have no clue what the flavour he gave to me was. Almond, I think, but with something else.

So back tour film night. It ended up being a small turn out, but the selection of frittata, paella, cured meats and olives was fantastic. Though, I don’t think kangaroo prosciutto is authentic, it sure is yummy.

We watched Volver, staring Penelope Cruz. Very very good. I won’t ruin the plot, but I’m sure all chefs can share her frustrations with a lack of freezer space. It wasn’t a film that made me want to return to Spain, but it did remind me of Spain.

I made chickpeas with chorizo –everyone was very impressed with. I’ve already repeated the recipe. Though the second time I was careful not to get distracted and boil the pan dry!

Luckily I caught the kitchen disaster it as it was happening. So instead of completely ruining my chickpeas – I immediately removed them from heat and drained the pan, just taking those chickpeas that fell off of their own accord, leaving the others stuck to the pan. I lost half the chickpeas but according to all, the completed dish with salvaged chickpeas still tasted fantastic.

As long as you don’t get too relaxed while the chickpeas are cooking, this recipe is very easy, though it requires planning so you can soak the chickpeas.

Those in attendance requested the recipe – So I’ll share it with you too.

Chickpeas with Chorizo

165g dried chickpeas

1 bay leaf

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

750ml chicken stock

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 brown onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

Pinch of dried thyme

370g chorizo, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley

Put chickpeas in a large bowl, cover with water and soak overnight. Drain well. Place in a large saucepan with bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon stick and stock. Cover completely with water, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour, or until tender. There should be just a little water left in the saucepan – do not boil dry. Drain and remove the bay leaf, cloves and cinnamon stick.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the onion and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Increase the heat to medium high, add the chorizo and cook for 3 minutes.

Add the chickpeas to the frying pan, mix well, then stirring over medium heat for about 4 minutes or until they are heated through. Remove from the heat and mix in the parsley. Taste before seasoning with freshly ground black pepper.

Can be served hot or at room temperature.