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Tag Archives: France

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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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.