If you take a stroll down the banks of the Perfume River at night, you will come across a scene of flood lit bridges, sparkling dragon boats and a little commerce as the locals, along with a few tourists, enjoy the fresh evening air after a hot and humid day. One of the delights of that stroll is watching the lights change colour on the Truong Tien Bridge, making the river shine and glow. The open space, parklands, good walkways and absence of motorbikes makes for a pleasurable night out for families and young couples in love.
In 1897, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Levecque, assigned Eiffel of France (known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris) to design and build the Truong Tien Bridge. The construction was completed in 1899. In 1946, 1953 and 1968, this beautiful bridge, symbol of Hue, was destroyed due to mines and bombings in the French, then American wars. The bridge was finally renovated in 1991-5 and the lighting system was installed in 2002.
The Perfume River (Huong) is named after the flowers from orchards upriver which fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The River flows to the northeast to Huế and passes the palaces and tombs of the Nguyễn emperors. After a day touring the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in the countryside, I can recommend a slow trip down the river, a relaxing end mesmerising way to end a long day.
The other day I ran out of bread. I can’t eat ‘white death’ or spongy packet bread of any colour, dosed with preservatives to make it last forever. Neither can I eat the fake sourdough marketed to look like the real thing sold in a well-known supermarket or the stuff from hot bread places. I perused the specialty bread section of the supermarket where racks of famous city bakers display their tempting loaves, Dench, Baker D Chirico, La Madre, Phillipa’s: there’s not much change from $10 for an ‘artisan’ loaf, rivalling the smashed avocado as the real cause of inner city hipster poverty. We went without bread that day.
I hurried home and hastened along my trusty starter, Sorella, another offspring of Celia’s Priscilla, a consistently reliable sourdough starter in any weather. It’s important, when baking your own loaves, to seek out variety in flavours and flour combinations. I often get stuck in a groove and make the same loaf over and over again, especially when I can make it on autopilot now.
Recently I returned to the Finnish Rye loaf which I have written about before. Now that I’m hand building this loaf, thanks to the demise of my stand mixer, I’m finding it far more successful than before. For sourdough bread makers out there, I urge you to give this one a go. It stays moist for three days or more thanks to the linseed. Forget about my previous method- this one makes a superior loaf. Linseed is full of omega 3, so this loaf is healthy but doesn’t taste heavy at all. It is soft, earthy and easy to digest. You could live on it.
The Finnish Rye Loaf, recipe courtesy of Craig Gardiner, baker extraordinario.
288g white bakers flour
144g wholemeal flour
144g rye flour
365g water ( filtered or tank water, not treated water)
173g sourdough starter (100% hydration). Make sure it has been refreshed three times and is bubbly before use.
140g flaxseed ( linseed)
154g water to soak flaxseed.
Mixing the Dough
Begin by soaking the flaxseed in the soaking water for at least 30 minutes in the water. ( last two ingredients on list above)
Put the starter, water and molasses together in a large mixing bowl.
Add the flours and bring the dough together by hand.
Cover the dough and leave for 15 minutes.
Add the salt, mix through the dough and let stand for 1 minute or so.
Add the soaked flaxseed along with the soaking liquid and squelch through with your hands, making sure the liquid and all the seeds are distributed through the dough. The mixture will be very wet.
Resting and stretching
Let the dough stand for 30 minutes. Put a few drops of oil on your bread working surface and spread out with your fingers. ( I use a silicon mat which has been a great investment). Scrape out the wet dough using a pastry scraper, then stretch and fold the dough. Return dough to the bowl and cover.
Let the dough stand for another 20 minutes, repeat stretching and folding, returning dough to the bowl and covering.
You will notice the dough tightening with each new stretch. Now cover the dough and leave in a warm spot for around 4-6 hours, depending on your room temperature. Basically it needs to double in size. Don’t overprove this bread.
Scrape the contents of the bowl onto a floured surface, using a pastry scraper. It will be sticky so flour your surface well.
Now pull up one side of the dough and stretch it up as far you can and fold this long piece over the rest of the dough. Do this with the other side. Then top and bottom. All the surfaces will now be lightly dusted with flour and will not be so sticky. Cut the dough in half with a pastry scraper. Shape the loaves into round balls for another short prove. Cove the dough balls with a tea towel.
Turn oven on to 250c Fan Forced.
After 30 minutes or so, the oven should be ready and the loaves slightly risen. Now gently shape the loaves. Do not overwork them at this point. treat them like soft babies. I like to make batard shapes. Place the loaves onto baking paper, then slash the tops well, using a serrated knife or a razor blade. Lift the paper with loaves into enamel baking tins and cover with lids.
Put the two roasters into the hot oven ( if your oven is large enough to take both) reducing the temperature to 220c. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lids, and bake for another 15-20 minutes at the same temperature. Usually the time here is 20 minutes but these loaves are a little smaller than the usual loaf size.
Cool on wire racks.
I am indebted to two baking mentors here- Craig for the original recipe, and Celia for the method and for the brilliant idea of using enamel bakers for a more consistent result in the home oven.
Paella is an uncomplicated and quick dish to prepare at home, once you get to know the basic ingredients and keep a few of these on hand. When a bag of mussels and a handful of fresh green prawns saunters my way, I now turn to Paella. It’s easier than risotto, with no stirring involved, and can be made on a regular gas stove.
In the pantry you will need these standbys:
a small container of commercial pre-made fish stock, or home-made frozen stock or one vegetable stock cube
some good quality Spanish smoked pimenton ( paprika )
Calasparra rice- no other rice will do for this dish
Some other desirable ingredients for a seafood paella for two people are:
some left over calamari wings, stashed in the freezer*
some green prawns, three large or 6 small per person
mussels, around 6 per person
one green or red capsicum, sliced
one finely sliced onion
one finely chopped garlic
good olive oil
You don’t need a special paella pan for a no fuss paella for two people. I use a heavy based frying 20-25 cm frying pan with a glass lid. My other paella pans come out and are used for bigger gatherings. Just double or triple the quantities for your larger pans and seek out an even and very large heat source.
Pictorial recipe instructions follow.
After preparing fresh calamari for another meal, stash the wings in the freezer for occasions like this. They defrost very quickly and add depth of flavour to the rice as it cooks. I have also used a small fillet of Dory in the same way. I learnt this trick from Sandra at Please Pass the Recipe and the habit has stuck.
There’s nothing more local than a home garden. I often wander around with my camera, capturing seasonal change, growth and decay. The garden takes me away from my moods, my inner chatter, my inside world. In any season, il giardino is quiet and full of sensory pleasure.
This Buddha sits close to our house. It is the stone Buddha from our old garden, one of a handful of surviving objects from the Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 which destroyed our home. When I find an interesting looking stone or rock, I add it to Buddha’s feet. Bushfire is a hot topic in the local area, with extremely divergent views on how to deal with the bush. One local plant, Burgan, is at the centre of this debate, a bush known by the CFA, a fire fighting association, as ‘petrol bush’. Due to its high flammability and tendency to spread like an invasive weed, most locals like to keep this pest under control on their bush blocks. Permit requirements to clear Burgan were dropped by our local shire council (Nillumbik) after the Black Saturday bushfires. Seven years after that fire, which razed a quarter of the shire, with 42 deaths within the council’s borders and hundreds of homes destroyed, the local council plans to reinstate permits to clear this bush on privately held land. Our local Council has become wedded to an extreme ideology which is at odds with reality. Local Madness.
View from my front door. A dam is a wonderful thing and was the first improvement we made on our land after arriving in our current home almost 7 years ago. It is our local water supply for the vegetable garden, a local water supply for the CFA fire brigade should they need it and is also a local watering hole for native animals and birds. Can you believe that our Local Council does not approve of dams on private property? New local planning laws have become fraught with red tape. A line has been drawn on a map which includes this wonderful dam. It is now part of a Core Habitat zone, which, in effect, prevents us from removing any local plants from its perimeter or fixing the walls should it spring a leak, without resorting to a lengthy and expensive local permit process. Local madness.
Planting in purple and blue attracts more bees to the garden. The local bees have been sleepy this season as the weather has been too cold and wet. Now that the sun is shining and the Echium are out, the bees are returning. This blue flower is often completely covered with bees.
Borage flowers can be used in salads, but more importantly, bees also love borage. Many of these flowering shrubs, because they are not native to the district, are viewed as weeds by some prominent local environmentalists. Without bees, our vegetable and fruit supplies would vanish very quickly. There are also many native Australian flowering bushes in the garden. Bees like diversity and so do I.
It has been three years. No, not since my last confession, but since I started this blog, Almost Italian, although there are some parallels. Just like in that pontifical wooden cubicle, I get to confess some indulgent practices here in the form of eating, drinking and travelling. Like many other bloggers, an anniversary is a time to reflect, despite all the daily, monthly and yearly graphs and statistics provided by WordPress, the daily view bar graphs, views by country, statistics by post, best day of the week and time of day. This information is enlightening and addictive. I am constantly amazed at the success of some posts and the dismal failure of others.
That’s one party, one recipe and one restaurant review. Sounds like a famous blues song involving lots of drinks. All these posts are from previous years, all contain simple and easily found titles, keeping them high on search engines.
The other bit of navel gazing that I have indulged in today are the stories and recipes that didn’t make it onto my blog due to poor photography in low light or sloppy appearance. I am blaming Melbourne’s weather for this. Here is a mosaic preview of some good recipes in the last month with lousy pics.
Corn chowder, grilled prawn, smoked pimenton
Flamiche. Leek Quiche
wild mushroom, porcini, barley hot salad
Flash chick pea burger with the lot
Healthy date and chocolate brownie
white polenta, chilli and garlic prawns, burnt butter capers
Grilled calamari, chilli, radicchio, parsley hot salad.
You, dear reader, get to choose which one of these tasty dishes to redo and post, now that daylight savings has arrived and the light is longer and there’s a chance of eating in the great outdoors again. Open each pic separately, choose the title and tell me in a comment. And thankyou for reading my ‘confession’, subscribing, liking and commenting. Your interest keeps me going. F xx
This weekend, Ailsa, an Irish blogger who inspires with her words and photos, wrote the following:
“No matter where you are in the world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the cesspit of filth currently masquerading as a presidential election in the US. It is downright depressing to be bombarded daily with examples of how low mankind can sink, and frankly bewildering that such a base, unevolved, malignant individual has been allowed access to a world stage from which to disseminate and normalize his poisonous views. I have of late found myself drifting towards cynicism of humanity at large, guilty by association by simply belonging to a species capable of producing such monsters. To counteract this bleakness, I have resolved to actively seek out all that is enlightened, noble and beautiful about being human – and that’s what this week’s travel theme is about. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the joy of the human condition”
Following this sensational rant about the sad state of American politics, which I share wholeheartedly, Ailsa includes many joyous photos of dance and celebration, of innocent children and messages of love, of life enlightened and invites others to add their own.
Before I add a few special photos, I must share my favourite poem with you. Many will know it. Written by W. B Yeats in 1920, these words resonate loudly in these strange times. What rough beast heads towards the presidency of the USA, and what rough times will be inflicted on the world should he succeed? Mere Anarchy?
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? W. B. Yeats
There are two floating markets near Cần Thơ in Southern Vietnam. The first market, Cai Rang, around 6 km from the town by boat, is the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. This is a busy wholesale market, with vegetable and fruit vendors indicating what they’re selling by attaching the item to a long pole above the boat. It’s best to arrive there by 6 am.
To get to the markets, make a booking the day before with a local tour company such as Mekong Official Tours Information Bureau, opposite the Ho Chi Minh statue in town, or organise it with one of the boat ladies at the Ninh Kiều pier in the town of Cần Thơ.
It’s best to take a small sampan, a small four person low-lying boat that can weave in and out of the water traffic at the market and navigate the narrow canals in the countryside. The boats are safe and the women are skilled pilots, though you may wish to check that they supply safety jackets as well. It’s nice to know they’re there, even if it’s too hot to wear them.
You meet up with your guide just after 5 am, as it takes 45 minutes by boat to reach the first market. Take a few morning snacks for the journey or buy fruit and snacks on the river. There are many floating restaurants and small snack vendors en route. Usually the driver will peel and shape a sweet pineapple wedge for you, and the guide will supply you with a bottle of H2o for the trip. Our hotel made us a breakfast pack of filled baguettes and pastries, which I swapped with our guide for something more local and delicious.
We opted for a 7 hour tour on the water. This included Cai Rang and Phong Dien Markets, a trip up some canals to visit a farm, a visit to a rice paper and noodle making business, and a snake farm. The snake farm was the most disturbing feature of the trip. Huge pythons, kept in tiny cages, are force-fed, then tied up and massaged all day by snake farmers who walk up and down on their bodies, making their skin softer and more pliable to remove after they’re killed. The skins are dried and sold for fine leather. Avoid this visit at all cost.
Can Tho is four hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. The bus company Phuong Trang has the largest number of services to Can Tho daily. There is a stop for 30 minutes in the large Phuong Trang highway service and restaurant point, which is huge and well supplied with all sorts of snacks and clean amenities. When you arrive in Can Tho, a shuttle bus will bring you to your final destination, if you have the address of your hotel ready. This is included in the price of your ticket. Cost from HCMC ( August 2016) is 100,000VND/$5.90 AU. The seats are comfortable, the bus is air-conditioned, the obligatory DVDs are not too intrusive, and the views of the Delta region and glimpses of Vietnamese country life are absorbing. I recommend the bus over a private car for this trip. The Phuong Trang bus company is in District 6, HCMC, a small taxi ride from the district 1 hotel area.
The Spring weather is so wet and cold this year that I’ve been forced to spend far more time indoors. The gardens and summer vegetable planting have been put on hold- again. To compensate, we are having four days of cheffy home cooked meals, little dinners for two that require a degree of concentration, an interesting sauce and some clever assembling at the last-minute. And that, dear reader, means more recipes on this blog. Today’s recipe started off as Duck Breast with Orange Spiced Sauce. I often find myself substituting fish or vegetables in meat based recipes found in good cookbooks, especially if there is a good sauce involved. In this way, each section of the book gets used. You should try this trick. Fresh Atlantic Salmon is probably the best substitute for meat, given that it is fairly robust and holds its shape well and is readily available.
The recipe is for four people. I simply halved it for our little dinner for two. The original used 4 200 g duck breasts, skin lightly scored. I have substituted fresh Tasmanian salmon and used around 160 g per person. This quantity is plenty for one serving, despite the tendency of major supermarkets to cut larger pieces, another reason to adopt a good fishmonger.
4 salmon pieces, ( not tail pieces) around 160 g per piece
knob of butter and a little olive oil
1 heaped teaspoon 5 spice powder
1/3 cup ( 80 g) brown sugar
50 ml red wine vinegar
1 cinnamon quill
2 star anise
2 cup grand Marnier ( or brandy)
2 cups baby green peas, just cooked
mint leaves to serve.
Preheat the oven to 220c. FF
Zest all the oranges, juice 2 oranges and set aside. Remove the peel and white pith from the remaining 2 oranges, then slice them into thin rounds and set aside.
Cut each salmon pieces across into 3 pieces. Combine 5 spice powder with 2 teaspoons sea salt, rub them into the salmon pieces in a bowl and set aside.
Place a large non stick pan over medium heat, add butter and oil to the pan and fry the salmon, skin side down, until quite crisp. Remove the fish and place them on a metal tray in the oven to complete cooking for 5 or more minutes.
Return the pan to low heat. Add the sugar and vinegar to the pan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cinnamon and star anise, then cook on low for 3 minutes, until caramelised. Add the Grand Marnier or substitute, the orange juice and zest, then simmer for 5 minutes or until thickened. Add the orange slices for 1 minute to warm through.
Cook the peas until just done and keep hot. Tear the mint leaves.
Warm the serving platter and plates. Place the peas on the serving platter, add salmon pieces and any juices from the tray, place the orange slices and mint leaves around the fish, then pour over the hot sauce. Serve it on hot plates.
The rain pours down, the light is low, let’s light the fire and eat well.
Adapted from a recipe found in Delicious, Simply the Best, Valli Little, 2011. p. 18
When the young ones ask me which football team I follow, I always reply ‘The Seagulls’. They look bewildered as there is no major AFL (Australian Football League ) team with this bird as their logo. I quickly follow this with an explanation, that I barrack for real seagulls, the birds that land on the grounds during a match and annoy players, lest they think it’s time to send me off to the funny farm. I am not a football fan at all. In fact, it bores me to tears – please feel free to substitute that other very Australian colloquial phrase which refers to ‘a state of being during which one is without feces’.
On rare occasions, I allow myself to watch ‘the footy’. It is usually forced upon my consciousness during the grand final season, when all sorts of non footy followers suddenly convert. Not me. I allow myself snippets of the game to waft over me, but would rather be the tea lady – or the beer/wine/cake/biscuit gatherer- during the broadcast.
My mother, born and raised in Footscray, the original home of the Bulldogs team, was excited and anxious during the grand final this year. We had joined her to watch the big event, especially given that the last time her team won was in 1954. That’s pre- TV, a very long time to wait for a victory. She mentioned a few names of the players, the much-loved captain of the Bulldogs who retired earlier this year due to injury, my eyes were glazing over, and another one she referred to as ‘The Package’, a player who was bought for a large sum but who wasn’t living up to expectation. I kept calling him ‘The Packet’, at which point, the assembled football devotees suggested I should take a nap. I was happy to grab my smart phone and head to the backroom for a surf and a snooze.
I woke up for the last 12 minutes, and enjoyed the match thoroughly. I can recommend this approach to my fellow football- loathing friends: just watch the last 12 minutes- that’s when the real action happens. You won’t have missed a thing.
I made this lemon cake for the day. As it turned out, it was a celebratory cake – the Bulldogs won. I can recommend this cake for its excellent keeping qualities ( up to one week in the fridge) and for its simplicity. It is now my favourite lemon syrup cake and can easily be adapted to gluten- free. The recipe comes from Mix and Bake by Belinda Jeffries. I have made minor adjustments to the method.
Lemon Almond Syrup Cake
50g plain flour ( or GF flour if required)
200g almond meal
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
190g castor sugar
250g unsalted butter, at room temperature cut into large chunks
1½ tsp vanilla extract
¾ tsp almond essence
1½ large lemons, finely zested
150g of castor sugar
2 lemons zested ( or one large)
125ml of lemon juice
250ml of water
Preheat oven to 160c or lower for Fan Forced. (150c FF worked well for me). Butter a 20cm – 24 cm square cake tin and line the base with paper. Butter the paper and dust the tin lightly with flour.
Put the flour, almond meal, baking powder and salt into a food processor. Whiz them together for 20 seconds, then tip into a bowl.
Add the butter and sugar to the food processor and whiz them together until they are light and creamy. Scrape down as you go, then add in eggs, one at a time, until creamy. Stop the processor, add the vanilla, almond essence and lemon zest and blitz for another 10 seconds or so.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in the food processor and pulse until they are mixed. Do not over pulse. Scrape the sides to make sure all is well mixed.
Scoop out the mixture into the prepared tin and flatten surface. Bake for around 50-55 minutes or until a fine skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Check after 30 minutes and if browning too quickly, cover the top with tin foil.
Meanwhile, prepare the lemon syrup. Place all ingredients into a pot over a high heat. Stir until all sugar is dissolved. Then stop stirring and allow it to come to boil. Let it bubble for 10 – 12 minutes or until it looks thicker and like syrup. Then off heat and set aside. Keep warm.
When the cake is ready, place the cake in the tin on a wire rack for 10 mins. Invert onto the rack and remove the paper. Now brush with the lemon syrup. I used all the syrup as the cake happily absorbed it but the original recipe advises using half and serving the rest of the syrup alongside the cake. If using all the syrup, the cake will be very moist and very lemony.
The cake stores well for about 1 week in the fridge. Warm it slightly before serving if from the fridge. Other lemon and lime cakes from my blog can be found in the links below.
The tiny town of Chiang Khan is built along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, facing Laos on the other side. In the last few years, the city has embraced its heritage: all the old teak shops are now being restored, with financial encouragement from the Thai government.
During the week, the town is quiet. Come Friday night, Thai tourists arrive from Bangkok hoping to stay in a restored teak hotel along the river or sip tea amidst a sea of retro antiques. It is this sense of nostalgia for the past and loss of old Thailand that draws them here.