The Flavour of Life

A Dutch farm menu this week.
Dutch  Farm Salad with Cheese and/or Cured Sausage and Buttermilk Dressing
Dutch Beef Burger with Fried Liver Sausage and Mustard
White Asparagus with Egg and Lime Tree Blossom Sauce
served with Sautéed New Potatoes, Broad Beans and Aniseed Carrots.
Dutch style Semolina Pudding with Camomile Cream and Stewed Strawberries

June is my favourite month. Spring is over. Woken up after winter, all its detoxing fresh green leafs were like a refreshing morning shower. All its flowers and blossoms were a dawn chorus of better things to come. But it is in June that these promises are kept, as it is the month of real first harvesting. Ah, the taste of freshly dug up new potatoes, planted at Easter, with some butter and mustard. Strawberries, rose blossoms turned into a sweet juicy fruit of love. Cherries, gooseberries, currants, peas, broad beans.

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It is the month of my birthday, and sometimes it feels like the whole month is a birthday, being given all this fresh fruit and veg. And as on the morning of a birthday, there is the almost exhilarating anticipation of more things to come. Went for the hills on this early summer day, a lark singing high in the sky, surrounded by heather and llus bushes (bilberry). Couldn’t help but checking how many berries there are on the bushes, hoping the sheep will leave them alone, and that I will be able to pick my fair share in a month or so. Looking out below me I noticed the wheat is already starting to turn into fields of gold, and I could already almost smell a freshly baked bread.

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A friend of mine lost his farming father earlier this year. Living in the city himself he told me that he felt he lost more then his father. He missed the connection with the land, his father came from a way of life which is gone now. I guess he felt that the rhytm of his life has changed. For centuries food, and producing food, gave structure to our existence. Nowadays it seems more and more that food is just something nutritious. Instead of seeing it as a way of connecting, we separate  it by wrapping it in as much plastic as possible. In restaurants the distance is created  by turning food into some kind of art.

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I feel blessed that I can see golden fields and wild bilberries growing where I live. The importance of food as the flavour of life is also shown in the brilliant novel I recently read by Manon Steffan Ros: the Seasoning. It tells the story of Peggy, living in a village in the Welsh hills.  Each chapter centers around a different person and starts with a recipe of food they enjoyed together. It is the food that gives her memories some extra spice.
I applaud the concept of this book. I wish everybody the excitement of baking a cake, picking homegrown strawberries or the waiting for the right moment to pick wild blackberries. You can feel natures pulse through it, and that makes life so much tastier.

Fragments of Spring

Next week I am collaborating with a local artist. Her work evolves the fragments of household ware that are on the steep slope behind her home.  The earth is churning up the contents of a waste tip which was used by the inhabitants of her cottage about a century ago. The rain has washed down broken china, shoes, perfume bottles and complete earthenware jam jars.

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At first I marvelled at how beautiful these reminiscences of a past hard life are. Then I realised that the true beauty for me is the earth bringing it all up again. And giving it a new life as it id used as part of an artwork.

That is the essence of spring to me. The earth breaking up and providing us with a new life. I do feel particularly revived by spring this year. When I was walking about at Easter I noticed how abundant nature already is.
Shaded woods offer plenty of wild garlic to make a pesto. I use hazelnuts and any hard cheese in mine.
Tender dandelion leafs are sprouting up everywhere, and are good in a potato salad with toasted pumpkin seed oil, which is a memory of Austria for me.
Heavenly scented bright yellow gorse flowers make good wine or a cordial. Just soak them overnight in a taken of the boil syrup.

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Nettles are just right at the moment. Tingling more then stinging when you pick them without gloves, like I did. Use them as spinach, in a pie for instance. Or with butter toasted oats in a soup.
Always think spring is one big egg with all these white and yellow flowers around. So many of them are edible. Daisies are a favourite of mine. Tiny sunshaped hearts which open themselves to the sun. The turn a dish into a smiling plate of food.

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The knife is the symbol of modern cooking. It is all about fragmenting food, slicing it, breaking it up, grinding  or blending it.
But in the end it is the becoming one when we eat all these fragments what matters.

Simple is best

We  had an orchard when I grew up, and I still love apples. For the Bistro night last week I cooked a Pompe au Pommes (apple pie) from ‘Floyd on France’ and it reminded me of how the simplest of recipes are usually the best. The ingredients were: flour, butter, salt, apples and sugar. The hint of salt in the perfectly crunchy shortcrust worked fantastic with  the smooth apples which had just the right sweetness.
Only 5 ingredients working together in perfect harmony.

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There is something very reassuring about being able to produce something so nice out of the simplest of ingredients. You can almost invision a French peasant wife baking this apple pie in her Normandy kitchen in the beginning of the 20th century. It is a traditional recipe, embedded in daily life, connected to the land and for me, in that way, to the essence of life.

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Food like this you find all over the world. Korea is this week’s theme in Oren. When I travelled there in 2007 I discovered that Bibimbap -mixed rice- is the national dish. Another example of the perfect combination of simple ingredients. Rice as the smooth operator, with a velvet runny fried egg, uplifted by hot chilli paste and crunchy vegetables.
Yes, comfort in a bowl. The first time I had it I was not impressed, thought it was too simple. But then when I had it again I realised it fed me, and not only in a nutritional way.
With the modern accents on diets, allergies an the appearance of food, we can almost forget the most important thing. That it should feed body and soul.

Memories in a Jar

 

  • Chantarelle mushroom soup
  • Liquorice lamb with roasted vegetables & sweet carrot jus
  • Fish frikadeller with curry remoulade
  • Open pie with rye crust and rice & smoked cheese filling
  • Pancake tart with apple & rosehip sauce and blackberries

Finally time to do some contemplative writing again, after a busy summer. It’s been good, making friends for life over breakfast while running a B&B, enjoying all the fresh local produce in the restaurant & having manic days while popping up with Oren at festivals as Gwyl Arall and Gwyl Gardd Goll.
Now, with the wind blowing around the house, autumn has definitely arrived and brings a bit of melancholy with it. Nature is starting to show its more sorrowful colours in the deep red & purple of aubergines, plums, blackberries, elderberries & grapes. I would love to spend some time in a vineyard in Southern France to experience the buzz of the harvest and the anticipation of the wine it will make.

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The chill in the air and the first yellow leafs are telling us to hurry up, gather our produce and preserve the summer for the dark days to come. It is the season of jam & chutney making. No wonder there are no jam jars left in Caernarfon’s hard ware shop as we bought the last ones for the green tomato chutney I made. No point in waiting for the perfectly glossy full bodied but hard & green tomatoes to get some colour. Better off putting them in a jar where they will remind me of the good summer I had growing them.

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Of all the jams, rosehip must be my favourite. Ever since one summer as a small boy I helped pick Mrs. Blauw lots of them from our bushes, and she gave me a Matchbox Ford tractor as my reward. Mrs. Blauw was one of the few people to recognize the value of these fruits of the flower of love. They need a bit of work, with their little devils of thorns and millions of rock hard seeds. But after a good cooking you end up with a scented syrupy goodness – full of vitamin c.

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All in all a good symbol of the sweet memories I am left with after the hard work this summer.

 

Tiny Morsels & Great Conversation

 

Dates in Duvets
Devilled Chicken Liver & Tarragon Vol Au Vents
Welsh Lamb Meatballs in Tomato & Leek Sauce
Radishes with Anchovy Sauce
Curried Oren Bach with Smoked Haddock (fried rice balls)
Potted Crab with Harissa
Mini Rarebit
Spring Green Salad
Home Baked Oatcakes
Potato Salad with Wild Garlic Mayonnaisse
Lemon Trifle

Spanish cooking has always had a special place in my heart since my first job as a chef, in a Spanish restaurant in Utrecht. I have got good memories of that job. The restaurant had recently opened and the staff formed a good motivated team (complaining about everthing the managers did wrong of course). Waiters greeted me in the morning with cafe con ponche (coffee with a bit of sweet brandy on the side). The dishwasher, a Spanish student from Barcelona, taught me how to make the perfect tortilla, potato omelette. The trick is to cook your sliced potatoes in plenty of olive oil, then drain them and mix the eggs with the warm potatoes.

Spanish-Tortilla-Recipe

There is something about Spanish cooking which suits me very well. Maybe it is because it is a rustic cuisine, heavily influenced by the people of the land, instead of fine dining influenced by palaces & aristocracy. Tapas are Spain’s biggest contribution to global cooking. Somebody had the idea to put food on the little plates which were used to cover glasses, to ward off greedy flies. There is something to be said for a cuisine which regards food as a tasty bit on the side. It is that what endears me most about Spanish cooking. The food has a supporting role to a social occasion. Most important is that people have a good night, and having some nice little snacks on plates are helping to realise that.

012Inspiration for this week’s menu comes mostly from ‘My kind of cooking’ by Mark Sargeant, one of the most inspiring cookbooks I read the last couple of years. It does really contain easy recipes, based in British tradition. I read the book and thought, oh, I’ll put that on the menu, and that, and that… So it is back to the table buffet formula at Oren this week. I realise now why it is always such a succes, because it goes back to the important role food has as a social medium.

(con)fusion and principles

 

 

  • Buttermilk-soaked Chicken with Croutons, Butter Beans & Brazil Nuts
  • Prawn & Mandarin Soup
  • Chilled Cashew & Black Olive Soup
  • Baked Sausages with Tomato, Balsamic & Cumin
  • Grilled Sardines with Beetroot, Grapefruit and Parsley
  • Baked Aubergines Crumbles with Szechuan Pepper
  • White Grape & Bay Leaf Bavarois

I do have principles when it comes to food. ‘Eat as much from your direct environment’ is the first one which comes to my mind. It is branded ‘local & seasonal’ in todays food marketing. Basically you should eat the food which grows around you, suitable to climate you live in. Two weeks ago I picked some wild garlic, and it brought the very fresh cleansing taste to my plate of food, which I had been looking forward to after the stodgy winter. Nothing brings me more pleasure in early summer than the first local strawberries.Looking at the little red darlings in the suppermarkets now, I can easily refrain from buying them, because I know it will be nothing compared to the real thing.

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But local food in wintery Wales is scarse. I guess if you really wanted to eat local all the time, you have to resolve to traditional conserving methods, with the additon of the freezer. Dry your beans, salt your meat, smoke your fish, jam your fruit and freeze lots of vegetables when there is an abundance of them. That would all be ok, if society hadnt moved from an agricultural village to the ‘global village’.

Sometimes I wonder if part of me is reincarnated Far East Asian. I have an enormous fascination for Chinese, Japanese & Korean food. After seeing Ang Lee’s film ‘Eat Man, Drink Woman’ years ago (starting with the father cooking a meal) I immediately went out the next day and bought bamboo steamers and seasoned a carbon steel wok. Ever since, from time to time, I yearn for some Asian food.

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So, as an excuse for wanderings into foreign cuisines, maybe my biggest principle is to eat as varied as possible. I dont mean the fake variation suppermarkets are offering, of isles of different kind of chocolate biscuits, breakfast serials and the newest out of space flavour crisps. No, more the one day pasta, next day potato and the following day rice variation.

This week though, I have taken the eat varied theme one step further. All because I read Vicky Bhogal’s cookery book ‘Flavour’. There are a lot if dishes with sometimes far sought combinations of food. Scallops with lychees and bitter lemonade anyone? Well, strangely enough I fancied it.  I realise writing this that it is working for me, because the book shows aprreciation of ingredients. With that, it is grateful for what the earth is giving us. And that is probably my biggest principle of all.

 

Triumph of Simplicity

St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, so Oren turns Gwyrdd (Green) for a week.   Yes, the grass is definitely greener in Ireland. Havent been there for 15 years now, but it was my travel hotspot in the nineties. In fact, Ireland is the reason that I am where I am today. After deciding I wanted to leave crowded and overregulated Holland, living in Ireland seemed a perfect plan. It didnt work out completely, I got as far as North Wales. Although I am perfectly happy here now, I stll think the emerald isle. Especally of  the Aran Islands on the West Coast, which is the most beautiful spot I have been to.

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So time to put my love for Eire into a special menu.

  • Brotchan Roy
  • Braised Oxtail
  • Cod with Cream & Bayleaves
  • Vegetarian Buckwheat Balls & Guiness Stew
  • served with Wild Garlic Champ
  • Rhubarb Pie.

I am leaning heavily on recipes from Darina Allen’s Irish Traditonal Cooking. They are examples of the triumph of simplicity.

Brotchan Roy – Broth for a King – is a soup made of Leeks & Oatmeal. Yep, basically just that. Sweat leeks in butter, add stock or milk, stir in oatmeal, cook for 45 min. Ancient recipe but you end up with the most flavourful soup, which has a beautiful celtic mist colour. Darina suggests a bit of mace for flavour, but  I guess thyme (my favourite bedfellow for leeks) or white pepper will do as well.

Ehm…Oxtail isnt particularly Irish, but I just fancied cooking it before winter is really over.

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It feels so good to have something fresh green on the menu again. Yesterday I went for a walk to my secret spot for picking wild garlic, and discovered that despite the wintery temperatures of  the last couple of months it had already come up in abundance. I got enough to use for the champ – potatoes mashed with milk which has been infused with the wild garlic. Not only it has the fresh Irish green colour, but for me, the taste of wild garlic anounces the arrival of spring. It cuts through the stodgyness of wintery food.

The acidity of rhubarb does the same, and that makes it one of my favourite spring ingredients. The recipe from’ Irish Traditional Cooking’  for Rhubarb Pie, with a bread-cake base (using baking soda as a rising agent, in combination with buttermilk). This recipe works perfect, as the base soaks up the juices from the rhubarb.

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I was surprised how good these simple dishes tasted. But it is a good reminder that Ireland once signified a life of simplicity, and that I am still striving to lead that life.

rural life & human spirit

 

Welsh Smorgasbord
Lamb Shank with Jones’  Surprise
Seafood Hotfood
Vegetarian Welsh Hash with Poached Egg
Pear Tart

It is St David’s day this Friday, Wales’ National Day. But on Thursday Oren’s bookclub is gathering to discuss ‘The Hundred-Year-Old-Man  who climbed out of the window and disappeared’ by the Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. Thus this week’s menu ended up as a fusion between Nordic & Welsh cuisine.

Quite fashionable, something Nordic. It’s clear, crystalline esthetics are conquering the world. The world’s best restaurant, according to in-the-know-critics, is Noma in Kopenhagen, where you are fed whole ecosystems  on a plate. Best crime fiction seems to come from Scandinavia and after being glued to the television for ‘The Killing’, Sarah Lund’s Nordic knitted christmas jumpers were on everybody’s wish list. And it might not be easy to construct, but the simplicity of Ikea furniture has made it to homes all over the world.

My last holiday (3 years ago,sigh) was to Sweden, this time of the year. The sky seemed blue-er then anywhere in the world, providing a clear & crisp light. Dense forests and heavy clean snow & ice gave me the feeling that something exuberant of life was hidden in it.  Nordic freshness with a heavy beating heart is part of the Scandinavian succes story, I think.

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I enjoyed ‘The Hundred-Year-Old-Man….’. It fits into a tradition of Swedish literature which has produced some of my all time favourite books.  Jonasson’s book is combination of world history and comic road trip, and made me think of Selma Lagerloff’s ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’. That is the best road trip book ever, published in 1906, about a boy travelling on geese, having adventures in all the provinces of Sweden. The book paints a beautiful picture of regional folklore & life in rural Sweden at the beginnning of the 20th century.

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The simplicity of pre-industrial agricultural Sweden forms the backdrop to one of my all time favourites as well, ‘The six Bullerby children’ by Astrid Lindgren. Just the story of day to day life of 7 children on 3 remote farms. A life led by the seasons, which seems so far from these modern times. It might look now that those children were living in a small world, but with their imagination their world might be bigger than that of some children nowadays.

Astrid Lindgren is also responsible for one of my childhood heroes, Pippi Longstocking.  Despite all the technical shortcomings I can see now, I still like to watch the televesion series I was addicted to as a 4-7 year old boy. In honour of this girl of extraordinary fysical strength & human spirit, who showed me as a child the farcical complexity of adult life, a recipe for Swedish Princes Cake.

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http://makeandbakeblog.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/swedish-princess-cake.html#!/2010/11/swedish-princess-cake.html

food of my father

This week I spent some days back in the Netherlands again, to catch up with my mother, who at, 85 is still cooking strong. I never realised till I was a chef myself how good her food was. One of my strongest assets, my palette, I have definitely got from her. My family is a bunch of ‘good eaters’. My mum and I agreed that when my dad only had 2 (Dutch style big) pancakes instead of his usual 4, it was a sign that with his appetite he lost his lust for life. And indeed, he died just before Christmas.
Being able to shop in the Netherlands I thought this week’s menu would be for him. In spirit he will join us and share the dishes he loved with my customers.

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Starting with Brown Bean Soup, using an early dry bean variety originating from Holland. Has a smooth texture with a tasty, nutty flavour. Famous in the Netherlands because a classic figure in Dutch literature, the poor farmer’s boy Bartje, didn’t want to pray at the start of a main meal of just brown beans.
My dried brown beans (pinto would be a good substitute) are soaking now. I will cook them tomorrow together with some pork ribs (tip from my mum), onion, carrot, leeks, celery leaves, white pepper, savoury & nutmeg. Certainly for about 2 hours or more, they should be mushy but not completely break up. A bit of sweet soy sauce in it does wonders, as some thinly sliced smoked sausage.
In our household this was served on a winter Saturday, the day my mother departed from the traditional meat-veg-potato meal and cooked one-pot-wonders. After my student sister brought a recipe for chilli con carne home in the 70’s, brown beans found their way to our plates in another dish on Saturdays as well.
My dad loved fish. We grew strawberries commercially when I was a child and in the abundance of summer they were swapped with buckets of undersized fish of people from the nearby fishing village Urk. Little super fresh whole but headless plaice were gently floured and then deep fried whole. Lemon sole was best pan fried in butter. No messing with sauces – it was about the pure taste of the fish.
There will be lovely fresh plaice on the menu but I could easily have done something with smoked mackerel, battered cod & salted herring still were top of my father’s menu, even when his appetite got less in the last year of his life.

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Dutch Pork Roll with Poached Pears is not as much on the menu because of the meat but of the pears. They are of a Dutch variety – Gieser Wildeman -, which is inedible uncooked. Rock hard. But they turn silken smooth and velvety red when cooked in some red wine and cinnamon.
This menu could be never ending. As I said – I come from a family of ‘good eaters’. Roast chicken, apple sauce, the Dutch soft drink Rivella (a dairy sideproduct!), bami goreng (fried noodles), schnitzels as big as your plate, sautéed potatoes, a hard boiled egg, traditional Twentse Krentenwegge (currant tea loaf) and pap made with buttermilk are a few of my dad’s other favourite things.
For dessert? We’ll do special oliebollen – the Dutch doughnuts I wrote about in the first blog of the year – A New Beginning.(see January archive).  For a recipe: http://www.typicaldutchstuff.com/oliebol.shtml
Baker Mick especially made a bread with sauerkraut for this menu – following an ancient recipe I found him  (typed with a typewriter!): http://www.partisanbaker.com