Category Archives: en passant

Musings, mumblings, discoveries and asides.

Eating my way to midnight 2008 — duck, pistachios and stollen

Exhausted from launching The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf and distracted by other matters, I’ve at least managed to spend the last week of the year dining on deliciousness. I hope the same goes for all my readers and correspondents! Here are the highlights of the Christmas week and some reminders of fun articles from 2008.

Shortly before Christmas I found out exactly how a baker sweats, for I was baking the famous German Christmas bread called stollen. It’s about ten years since my last stollen event and I had mislaid my trusty recipe, so I went searching through my shelves and ended up combining the fairly lean ‘old style’ domestic recipe in Horst Scharffenberg’s fantastic Aus Deutschlands Küchen (also available in English as The German Kitchen, I think) with the much, much richer and fruit-laden recipe in Culinaria Germany. The result was a lovely, enriched bread dotted with raisins and peel and with a lovely vein of marzipan (home-made) down its length. I was glad I could still enjoy it after baking ten loaves!

Shortly after Christmas I put the ice-cream churn to good use to create a toasted pistachio gelato, served with sour cherries in syrup. This recipe was based on the southern Italian style of gelato which lacks eggs and, surprisingly, uses cornflour (cornstarch) as a thickener. David Lebovitz has a recipe which was the inspiration for me — he uses a luxurious pistachio paste. I made my own equivalent of the paste by grinding roasted pistachios with sugar. I also added pieces of raw pistachio for even brighter colour and more textural interest.

And then, to round off 2008, I heated up a piece of confit duck (alas, not home-made), sautéed some red capsicum and broccoli with garlic and marjoram, and fried some chips in duck fat! Ohhhh, they were soooo crispy and golden.

If any of this has your tummy rumbling or your imagination racing, here’s a rundown of some of the interesting things (in my humble opinion 😛 ) that you might have missed if you weren’t a regular:

Travel stories from Paris, Singapore and Madrid, Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada and Elvas. Oh dear, that also means I haven’t written up at least two other places!

I delved into a few issues in food and eating, looking at the role of supermarkets, alcohol consumption, being disappointed at weaknesses in the Slow Food movement, frustrated at the misrepresentation of statistics about overweight and obese people, and well and truly sick of mainstream media’s inability to do their job properly (macarons, SBS, food conference).

Macaron adventures, including bad stuff in Melbourne, only marginally better impressions in Sydney, and a reasonable number of delicious ones in Paris. At home, I played with the flavours of violet and mandarin, musk and Christmas.

In other cooking fun, there were chocolate éclairs and a quick-n-easy tarte Tatin, the unusual creation of beetroot and ginger kuih, lots of fun making violet jelly, pear and mascarpone tarts, and my long-standing favourites pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts). I also discovered that you can do an unpretty but tolerably nice sourdough bread in a bread machine, overdosed on baba ghanoush, created a wild rice salad which has become a frequent (and pricey!) feature on my menu, and asked readers to reveal their humble home comfort food.

Thanks to all the readers who dropped by and all the commenters who made this a place for positive, enlightening discussion. I wish you all a delectable, comfortable and stress-free 2009!

If you’re a reader who doesn’t like to comment, feel free to say a quick hello below… it’s always nice to know more about the readers I haven’t heard from yet 🙂 .

Stop cows from eating grass!

I used to like it when Spring arrived. But this year I’ve had enough. The milk tastes foul at the moment. In the tradition of psychological separation from the provenance of food, I demand that my milk taste yummy all year round!

My coffee tastes like grass! Ewwww. Instead of a caffè latte, I have a caffè verde di erba. Icky. My espresso con un po ‘di latte is now an espresso del prato. Ugh. For the last month I’ve been buying one bottle of milk from each supermarket in the hope of guaranteeing that someone’s cows have been fed nice, regular, neutral industrial feed! I then mix the yummy and the yucky to achieve something palatable.

So, if there are any cows out there reading my words, please moo your farmer into submission… no more nature! Boycott grass!

That’s all.

Finger numb, eyes rolling, mouth salivating

I’ve spent much of the last week limply scrolling the trackball of my nifty mouse, trying to conquer the number of posts in my feed reader. These are the thrilling things you do when you are, seemingly, the last person in town to have come down with the flu/bronchitis/laryngitis which has been ravishing Melbourne for the last four months.

For the entire week, Google Reader displayed the ominous message “All items (1000+)”. It never changed. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled, scanning titles frantically until my eyeballs were rotating faster than the trackball. It’s probably a good thing that the Reader doesn’t bother counting higher than one thousand. I would venture a guess that I had over 4000 items waiting to be read. Had I realised that, I might just have blitzed everyone’s words and started afresh. Goddamnit! You people write too much!

Alongside all the foodbloggers from near, far and further are my trusty brainfoods… places like BoingBoing, Freakonomics, ReadWriteWeb, Science-Based Medicine, to name a few.

But you know what? Today, at 23:26, my cramping scroll-finger shivered with joy as the Google Reader showed I had scaled the pile of feedliness. “All items (926)” Sadly, this cannot last without further cramping and maddened eyeball rolling, for those 926 items encompass a mere six days of posts from the various feeds. Six days. People, stop writing so much! 😛

It was lucky I could calm my nerves tonight on a special delivery, courtesy of the J-man of Malvern and, more precisely, the favours of J-man’s jetsetting Mother-V. Late last night I received an SMS: “Make time for me tomorrow. Just ten mins.”

The merchandise was handed over in Bourke Street. A small, nondescript package. Furtive glances. I concealed the tupperware under my jacket and hastened back to the office. I clung my bag tightly to my bosom all the way home. (It was rush-hour, so pretty much the entire train felt like it was clamped tightly to me.)

Air-freighted from Ladurée, Paris. What a way to lift the mood after a week of trackball scrolling and watching bad telly.

Alas, after just 35 mins, Google Reader now shows

An opening in the cupcake market

A little spy SMSed me today to announce that Crabapple Cupcake Bakery in Prahran Market is closed with a mysterious notice on the door. Sounds like there might be an opening in the cupcake market for Melbourne’s cupcaking blogger Vida!

What’s the goss?

I’ve not been a fan of Crabapple, not least because of the price-to-quality relationship (but I hope nonetheless that they didn’t do anything silly to damage their business). And i’m not a convert to cupcakes anyway (Vida, seduce me!).

Early harvest

Big strawberry's top

As summer approaches my meagre garden begins to yield harvest. My tomatoes have been recalcitrant and I am still waiting tetchily for both Roma and Grosse Lisse varieties to bear viable fruit. (My jealousy of Sticky’s reports of tomatoes weeks ago therefore remains.) The story is different for my snowpeas and strawberries, thank goodness.

Adult snowpea Baby snowpea

Growing everything in pots brings with it a pile of hassles, not least that of maintaining the right amount of moisture for the strawberries, but lo! I have many pink babies, soon to flush red.

strawberries' first blush immature strawberries

To tell you the truth, I have already had one early delivery, but was so excited that I ate it before remembering to photograph its final ruddy joy. To compensate, dear readers, I offer up a photo of the biggest strawberries I’ve ever seen, sold by Damien Pike at Melbourne’s Prahran Market for a dollar a piece. Ouch. But they were delicious and pretty.

Strawberries like eyesockets!
Modelled by my friend Debbie 🙂

Big strawberry

Meanwhile, I’ve fed the tomatoes some potash and overnight the flowers are fruiting! Cocaine for tomatoes… or something like that.


On chocolate, child slavery and a newspaper

Something interesting is going on at The Age newspaper in Melbourne. In the space of eight days, the newspaper has published two pieces about slavery in the West African cocoa growing industry. In September it also published a piece about this issue by a prominent Christian activist and anti-slavery campaigner from Britain, Steve Chalke.

Oddly, The Age’s sister publication in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald, has published none of these. Nor have competing newspapers shown any interest at all in the cocoa+slavery issue (I’ve searched through the News Limited stable, including

ABC radio has done one piece in the last six years, and that was an interview on The Religion Report with the same British campaigner on 26 September this year. I’m not aware of any television reports (certainly none at the ABC).

I’m wary of campaigners and bandwagons, and was therefore rather suspicious of The Age’s sudden repeated interest in the issue. I haven’t yet found a particular source for the information repeated in the articles, so although it might smell of press-release journalism, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Are we dealing with (1) a newspaper driven campaign, (2) familiar sloppy editorial control, or (3) a successful lobbying campaign which is only finding resonance at The Age? The issue of slavery in the cocoa industry is not new by any means (most of the material you’ll find out there relates to studies and media reports from the late 1990s/early 2000s. There have also been initiatives to combat slavery at an industry level and from other, especially religious, organisations. Many Australian religious organisations (Caritas, Salvation Army, etc) have cocoa+slavery material on their websites and do appear to have been concentrating on chocolate this year (and Hughes is known to write on issues of interest to Catholic organisations). I would venture a guess that this is because of, in part, the Stop the Traffik campaign led by the abovementioned Steve Chalke.

Why now? I haven’t found any new findings or comments about deterioration in the industry. In fact, it seems that there are indications of a reduction in (and/or original overstatement of) the levels of slavery since the first reports 5-10 years ago. It has also been found that, although slavery definitely exists in the West African cocoa industry, the vast majority (over 90%) of the children being forced to work are not slaves but instead local family members. That’s an issue of child labour. A report (Nkamleu and Kielland, 2006) prepared as part of the UN/ILO assessment of child labour in the cocoa industry observed that more than 50% of children (6-17yo) in farmer families in Côte d’Ivoire were involved in the cocoa production process, many of them in hazardous activities.

The piece in The Age by Steve Chalke deliberately confounds slavery and child labour. Juliette Hughes’s piece does little other than to say ‘hey there are some ethical issues here’, while the piece by Carmel Egan also mixes up slavery and child labour, though actually states figures which show the difference in numbers.

I’m not writing this to engage in a debate about the morality of eating chocolate — clearly there are enough people out there telling us not to, unless it’s Fairtrade (or equivalent) — but instead to draw attention to the sudden attention the slavery issue is getting in one newspaper. If anyone can throw any light on what’s going on, I’d be very interested.

– DM