The Francophile files. Another Lunch, Monpazier.

Four years ago, almost to the day, I began ‘Almost Italian’ in an attempt to document my obsession with food along with some of the cultural aspects of Italy that inform my life, my cooking and gardening. Since then, I’ve drifted away from my main theme, especially when travelling, and so I hope, dear reader, that these little indulgent travel stories are a pleasant distraction from whatever you are doing. Once I step back into my home and garden, the recipes will flow once again.

Entrée. Warm salad of smoked herring, potato chives, with a green sauce ( not basil or parley pesto- nothing too dominating)  Privilège du Périgord, Monpazier

I’ve enjoyed the food of Dordogne, France, immensely. Everything I’ve eaten, with only two exceptions, has been quite special. Small restaurants and bistros respond enthusiastically to the seasons, and so a trip around a French country market will indicate what you’ll see that week on any menu. This season, cèpes ( porcini mushrooms) are still being hunted in the woods, pears and apples are sold ready to eat, kissed by the Autumn sun, irregular in shape and handsomely mottled. Small yellow fleshed potatoes are good just as they are, or with some salted butter from up Brittany way. Small bunches of parsley are added to your fish purchase, a box of oysters will be laid gently of a bed of seaweed, and vegetable stalls offer bunches of bouquet garni, consisting of thyme and bay laurel, for a small coin. This month, many bistros list omelette aux cèpes, which may seem like a simple enough dish, until you notice that fresh cèpes cost around €22 per kilo at the local market. I bought a small box and the flavour will haunt me forever. Walnuts turn up in every sweet dish imaginable, tarts, macarons, biscuits, as well as fresh walnut oil, which I resisted buying. Organic food is sold in markets, farmer’s roadside stalls and on supermarket shelves: there’s nothing precious about it- it’s a choice that doesn’t involve a huge premium or a special stamp of approval.

Merlu ( Hake), on a bed of creamy risotto with mussels, and sauce ( not mustard- still bemused by this sauce. Privilège du Périgord
Main course.  Merlu ( hake) on a bed of risotto with fresh mussels. Saucing? not sure but not mustard. Privilège du Périgord, Monpazier

What I’ve loved most about French bistro food is the saucing, a technique that the French are famous for. A well executed sauce transforms a simple fish dish. The French are also reasonably adventurous and don’t stick to the formulaic dishes of the region but happily borrow and adapt from modern culinary trends, while maintaining a French slant.

Financier with berry sorbet. Cute garnish, a thin crostini dipped in chocolate. Privilège du Périgord , Monpazier

When I return, I plan to work on my saucing and practise a little French technique. French bistro dishes will be trialed and blogged. Thanks for following, dear friends and readers. Bonjour or bonsoir. xx

The three course menu du midi, above, cost €21, which seems like a real bargain to an Australian reader, where restaurant dining and wine pricing is ridiculously expensive. But then, wages are much lower in France, and waiting staff are usually run off their feet.

Privilège du Périgord
58 rue Notre-Dame
24540 Monpazier

A Village Church at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, Dordogne

I’ve lost count of the church doors that have drawn me inside during the last few weeks in France. Big or small, grandiose or modest, they all appeal in different ways. The scaled down medieval church in the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère took me to the land of quiet meditation, more than most. The church, built in the 12th century on Gallo- Roman ruins, has been meticulously restored but the interior decor remains minimalist, evocative and artistic. Time to light a candle and reflect inside this glorious small space.

Black Madonna and baby

More on the beautiful village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, my favourite village in the Dordogne, next post.

For WordPress photographic prompt this week. Scale

East Wall Gallery, Berlin

The East Side Gallery, an open air gallery along a 1.3 kilometre stretch of the retained Berlin wall, is a wonderful expression of hope and optimism, painted in 1990 by artists from all over the world. Not only is it an historical record of the end of an era, but is also a symbol of open borders and the freedom of movement which European residents now enjoy.

The most famous panel: restored, repainted and admired.” My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love.” Repainted from a photograph of the original panel. East Side Gallery, Berlin.

Most of the panels today have been repainted, layered over years of tagging, graffiti and vandalism. You would think that this preservation would be a logical step, yet the move has been met with major conflict. “Eight of the artists of 1990 refused to paint their own images again after they were completely destroyed by the renovation.”

In order to defend copyright, they founded ‘Founder Initiative East Side’ with other artists whose images were simply copied without permission. It just goes to show that the ego of some artists is bigger than this historical statement. Restore, re-paint, touch up, preserve, leave to vandalism, start again- where do you draw the line with street art?

East Side Gallery, Berlin.

Finding Nemo in North West Bali

Do you enjoy snorkeling and diving? Bali has some delightful areas to explore underwater and as the temperature is always warm in this tropical zone, there’s no need to don a wetsuit.

Rachael snorkeling near Menjangan Island, North west Bali. Photo S Morgan.

This year’s Balinese underwater adventure was enjoyed by Mr T and our daughter: the trip was a birthday gift from daughter to father, and will be another diving adventure they will recall forever. Due to my increasing lack of confidence on the open sea, especially in an area known for some ‘interesting’ currents, I remained behind and enjoyed another massage. These photos were taken mostly  by Mr T, with his cheap underwater camera.

Mr T, near Menjagen Island, North west Bali. Photo by Rachael Morgan.

One of the best diving spots in Bali is in the north-west of the island at Pemuteran. The village, at present, is delightfully calm and traditional: the tourist trade here centers around diving tour operators and small, discreet guesthouses. There are a few warungs along the main road and very little shopping.

Boats used for the trip to Menjagen Island and the nearby reefs. Photo by S Morgan

Many diving boats operate tours each day, especially in July and August, the main European tourist season. A day trip costs between AU$45 and AU$55 per person. This includes snorkeling gear, lunch, drinking water, driver and underwater guide.

Diving with volcanos. Photo By S. Morgan

It was Mt T’s second trip to the reefs off Pemuteran. He also enjoys snorkeling off Lembongan Island and near Amed. Although no turtles were spotted this time, plenty of colourful fish passed by.

Environmental notes

Coral conservation and and a turtle breeding programme are two postive outcomes of tourism in this area. “A community-driven reef restoration and conservation project started in 2000 that has changed not only the reef itself, but also the attitudes, livelihoods and economy of the entire region. Bio-Rock is a technology that uses low voltage electrical current on artificial underwater structures to encourage growth of corals and other reef life. Experiments with the technology worldwide have shown that it can help counteract some of the difficult environmental factors affecting coral growth.”¹

Underwater gardens near Pemuteran. Photo by Rachael Morgan.

“The Turtle Hatchery of Pemuteran in the utmost west of Bali started in 1994 after Australian Chris Brown, the owner of a diving company in the area, bought a sea turtle from a local fisherman who caught the animal in one of his nets by accident, to save its life; the turtle was tied to a rope and let out to graze in the sea during the day, and at night brought into a small pond. A second turtle soon joined the first and thus the Turtle Hatchery Project became a fact. The Turtle Hatchery project’s mission is to promote the protection of the wild turtle population and to stop, or at least diminish the worthless slaughtering of turtles. Up to 2001, more than 3000 juvenile turtles have been released into the ocean as well as many larger adults.”²

¹  https://www.wonderfulbali.com/turtle-hatchery-pemuteran/

² http://www.pemuteranbay.com/en/things-to-do/diving-and-snorkeling

Rewriting Tradition, Part 2. Easter in Naples

If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.

After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, a cooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.

Di’s Beurre Bosc pears poached in Vincotto and Vanilla

Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.

“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹

Torta di ricotta con brulee

I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.

An inside look at the filling

Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.

The Pastry Case

First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter)  and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.

The Ricotta Filling

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 375 g firm ricotta, drained
  • 60 gr icing sugar
  • 2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
  • 50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
  • 25 ml full cream

Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.

Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.

The Pears

  • 4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
  • 500 ml water
  • 150 gr caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
  • juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
  • 2 strips orange rind
  • 1/3 cup vincotto

Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.

The brûlée on top.

Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.

Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti.

Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.

All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.

¹ https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastiera_napoletana

Pearl Couscous, Halloumi and Fig Salad

Returning to the kitchen with a basket of Autumn bounty presents a challenge: pasta, soup or composed salad- that is the lunchtime question. I’m not a sandwich person: too many school and work lunches, eaten on the run, killed the sandwich option for me forever. The provincial classic, Soupe au Pistou, combining green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, new potatoes, shelled red and white beans, then topped with a spoon of pesto, is an all time favourite. Warm composed salads are the other. With a few pantry and fridge staples, such as couscous and Halloumi cheese, this salad came together magically.

Insalata di cuscus, formaggio fritto, zucchini, figo e menta.

Ingredients for two large serves

  • 100g pearl couscous
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ red capsicum, finely diced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  •  Halloumi cheese, drained or one small packet, cut into serving shapes*
  • a little EV olive oil for frying and grilling
  • one small zucchini, chopped thickly into 2 cm chunks on the diagonal
  • two or more fresh ripe figs
  • honey
  • mint leaves, torn
  • ground sea salt and pepper
  • vinaigrette or lemon juice to dress (optional)

Method

  1. Make the pearl couscous. In a small heavy based saucepan, add the oil, then add the couscous, capsicum and garlic and quickly toast over medium heat, stirring for 30 seconds on medium heat.
  2. Add the stock. Reduce heat to medium/low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until the stock is absorbed and the couscous is soft.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a stove top grill pan and grill the zucchini chunks. Remove and set aside. Season.
  4. In a regular frying pan, cook the Halloumi pieces in a little oil until brown on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  5. Halve the figs. Dunk the cut side in a little honey and fry in the on the cut side until brown and caramelised.

Assembling the salad.

Lay the warm couscous on a flat serving plate. Then add the zucchini, followed by the Halloumi, then the figs. Scatter torn mint over the dish, season and dress lightly.

* Notes.

  • I buy Halloumi in 1 kilo jars for around AU$10. The cheese keeps well in its salty brine and provides enough cooking cheese for around 6 months. Small packets of Halloumi from supermarkets would make this dish more costly.
  • Kefalograviera cheese fries well and would make a good substitute for Halloumi.
  • Other pantry staples could be substituted for the pearl couscous, such as orzo pasta. Use what you have.

This is an Almost Italian original recipe, inspired by this year’s stash of fresh figs.