Sunday, 28 April 2013

Birthdays and Cooking.

Last week, when planning to write something for this little blog, I thought I would like to write about the sophisticated interiors of Queen Hetepheres (of Ancient Egypt fame) but I have been somewhat distracted by the fact that I was hosting a book fair (never a simple thing to do) plus I was having a birthday.

. . .  which was going to be a big one.

At least in my mind it was a big one - and I am sure that Emma, Lady Hamilton would have agreed.

Emma painted by George Romney.  Taken from the Wikipedia website.

Lady Emma and I have something in common.  
True, I have never had a desire to run away from AGA, and take up residence with a one-eyed, one-armed, decorated Admiral of the British navy.  
Neither has a Lancashire portrait painter considered me his muse... 
But what we do have in common is that we were both born on the 26th April (albeit in different years.  Jet Li on the other hand was born on the 26th of April, in exactly the same year as I.  
Lady Hamilton, died in 1815, aged forty-nine.  I have now passed her and am aged a staggering fifty years.

I wondered what my fiftieth birthday would be like.  I wondered how I would feel.  
It turned out that my birthday was very nice indeed.  I received a very nice present from AGA which I will share with you here:
They are a pair of 19th Century, French, Church candlesticks, for my collection.  AGA purchased them in Paris.  I have given them a good clean and now they look fabulous.  I can't wait to buy some elegant tapers to put in them.  I photographed one in situ and the other with a cloth behind it so that you can see it in more detail.  The flowers are milk glass although the centrepiece flower is porcelain.  The rest is made of brass with two alabaster 'joints'.  I love them!

Phone calls, flowers, cards (and as it is the 21st century) messages on email and facebook.  A pleasant day at work which included a hand made birthday card from a child, showing the Titanic hitting the iceberg. Dinner with AGA at The Unicorn, and then to bed.
The following day (Saturday) was AGA's birthday and so it was his turn to be receiving gifts, breakfast in bed etc.  
While he was out doing a spot of shopping I decided to celebrate the event by having a nice breakfast:
 Now I am fifty, I am eating whatever I like! Fried egg on half a toasted muffin, cups of tea, and another toasted half muffin with mandarine marmalade on it.

Feeling comfortably well fed, I then set to, to make his favourite pumpkin soup.  I don't aspire to be like my blogging friend Ivan over at A Normandy Kitchen but I thought I would share this recipe with you for French pumpkin soup as taught to me.

This is a Hokkaido pumpkin.  I do like the taste of then. I hope that I shall be able to get them when we return to Melbourne:
I split it in half with my trusty knife - the one that looks as though it could have been used to finish off Julius Ceasar at the Senate on that fateful day in March - then scooped out the seeds, cut it up into pieces and placed it on a baking tray:

Then I cut two potatoes, two onions and a small piece of carrot and put them in the pot to soften with a little oil, salt and pepper, three gloves of garlic that have been mashed, and a teaspoon of tomato paste.  I am not a fan of stock cubes and prefer to put these things in to the pot with water to make my own stock as part of the soup-making process.

While all was cooking I decided to take a few photos to show you our kitchen.  
It is not large.  
In fact 'snug', or even 'a tight fit', would be a good word for it.  

(Mind you, size doesn't really matter.  My great-aunt Dashwood liked having a small kitchen.  She had a gas stove on which there were always two or three blue enamel saucepans bubbling away.  When the lids were lifted, such appetising smells wafted forth.  Wonderful, wonderful food came out of that kitchen, fit to tempt the most jade palate...)

The Infant of Prague looks after our stove and makes sure nothing gets burnt.

 I do like my 'ten items or less' magnet:

This bumblebee popped in through the open window for a visit; and swiftly departed via a jar, to roam free once more:

 There have been a few unfortunate incidents in the kitchen:

Tout faire par amour.  Do all for love.  A lovely maxim of St Thérese of Lisieux.
My darling niece Alexandra drew that picture of the two of us strolling along, next to a giant dandelion. She has given me a lot of hair and for some reason a bow tie, despite my not ever wearing them.

We do love our new Staub Dutch oven:

Anyway, all is ready for the next stage of the soup:
Once the pumpkin is cooked, I remove the skin (it is too bitter in taste) and tip the flesh into the pot, add a little more hot water and stir it all up.  The I add a big fat slab of butter, stirring until it has dissolved.
Next I reach for my faithful kitchen helper:

 This turns my pumpkin vegetable 'mess' into a smooth, silky, pumpkin purée:
Now to create 'taste' add various spices (mustard powder, cumin, paprika, salt, pepper) plus a big dollop of honey.  This makes a really nice soup.  Stir in some single cream and when it has cooled down, put it  in to a container, and then in to the fridge for a couple of days so that the flavours meld together before either eating it or freezing it for later.
My music of choice for soup making are the rollocking concerti of Giuseppe Tartini.

Having got into the swing of things I move on to the my next project: Assembling our joint birthday cake:
No Tartini while making this cake.  It has to be Tchaikovsky.  My favourite is the Symphony No 2 (the 'Little Russian').
I made these two simple sponges and let then cool down.  I then whipped up some cream, smoothed it over the top of one sponge and then added half strawberries (for AGA) and half raspberries (for me)
Then more cream followed by the other sponge, followed by a generous amount of icing made with icing sugar and a little hot water.  I coloured it with some raspberry juice as I don't like using artificial colourings.  More strawberries and raspberries on top and voila!  It is finished:

I think that these sorts of cakes need to look 'messy', untidy.  They encourage you to have a large slice and not worry about licking your fingers...

This photograph is a little blurred - I was experiencing 'cake excitement' when taking it.

Having said that though, I did use a fork.

All in all we had a lovely birthday weekend.  A work colleague of mien told me that in her family they have Birthday Eve, Birthday and then Boxing Birthday, in imitation of Christmas.  I like that idea and am adopting it too!
I hope you enjoyed this little post!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Awake! Thou wintery earth.

When we walked outside our apartment building today (intent on our Saturday shopping expedition) I was suddenly aware that something was different.

Yes, it has become somewhat 'warmer' in the past few days, so we were not dressed in hats, scarves, gloves, and coats. . .

But it wasn't that.  

It was something else...

I couldn't make it out at first but then it 'hit' me: Birdsong!!!

It had been a long time since the birds sang so joyfully, for so long, filling their air with their carolling!

It gladdened my heart and, as I looked about, I realised that there was more.  

I could see little things, subtle changes that herald the approach of Spring and the glories of Summer.  We pointed out this and that as we walked along.  It was a good feeling.

Once we had got back from shopping and packed the things away, I took my camera and went back outside to record these changes for you: And the first thing I saw when walking out of our front entrance was a Robin holding Court in the hawthorn bush:

Usually I am not quick enough to take good bird photographs but this time I was lucky!

At first glance the avenue seems bare, lifeless, winter-bound . . .
Looking left:

Looking right:

And the view across from our apartment is equally unadorned:

But it is an illusion because things are happening all over the place!

For a start; where there was once brown earth and dead leaves, little plants are sprouting:

(Those larger leaves will later become the Cow Parsley and Queen Anne's Lace that adorn the pathway in Summer.)

Lesser Celandine stars the ground:
While Violets are to be seen in all sorts of nooks:
(This lot was growing between the trunks of one of the Linden trees.)

Here is more Lesser Celandine:

I don't know the name of this one.  Do you?  I think it might be a form of Toadflax but I may be wrong...

And then I saw this little orchid-like flower:

 Everywhere, things are 'coming back to life':

The leaf buds on the hawthorn bush are beginning to swell as they make ready to burst forth:
(Will we have May blossom in time for the first day of that month? I hope so.)

And even the old maple tree that the children like to climb has made a start:

This all reminds me of a story related about the life of a man named Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite monk, who lived in the 16th Century, in France.

It was said that:
'One winter day he noticed a tree stripped of its leaves and reflected that before long leaves would appear anew, then flowers, and then fruit, and that this consideration gave him so striking an idea of the providence and might of God that it had never since been effaced from his soul.'
I like that story.  Whenever I see the beginnings of Spring - the slow throwing off of the bedcovers that is nature's winter sleep - I am reminded of Br. Lawrence and feel a happiness in my own heart!

I do so enjoy this time of year.  I hope you do too!

The Practice of the Presence of God of Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection.  Translated by Donald Attwater.  1963. Page 2.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Falling in love in Normandy

We've been a while a wandering...

The remnants of the 'flu plus the realities of everyday life gave me no time to visit my blog (or anyone else's blog for that matter) in the days following my last post - and then, before I knew it, we were packing our bags and heading off for a couple of weeks holiday!

Paris was the first stop on the agenda, followed by a week in Normandy with some friends of ours.

Given that we would be four people, with suitcases, we decided to hire a larger car than we normally do. Going through our usual agency I chose a Mercedes Benz E class.  
Arriving to pick up the car I found that while I had ordered this:

This image comes from Wikipedia.
I was getting this:

The reason given was that there were only two cars left for hiring at that time of day (9am in the morning).  We could either have a small two seater Fiat or the nine seater Opel Vivaro.
I had no choice but to take the Vivaro which turned out to be lucky when I see the amount of 'stuff' we bought back with us!  Still, it is not the sort of vehicle that I am used to driving and I felt as though I was driving a number 5 'bus...

So off we went.

We stayed in the outer suburbs of Paris for four days and had a good time once I had navigated the Vivaro through the narrow streets. . .
A couple of trips into Paris and then a day trip to the delightful town of Senlis.  It was there that I began to have, what one might call, a dalliance. . .

It all started at a local patisserie.  It was market day in Senlis and having visited the fabulous Cathedral and wandered about taking photographs and buying things for lunch, we ended up at the shop of Yvon Berthelot (patissier, chocolatier, and glacier).  AGA loves eclairs and was busily eyeing them up and down.  I meanwhile saw 'it' and was immediately enamoured.
I was calm.  I said little but made sure after the purchase, that I held the cardboard box containing the 'goods' safely in my hands.  We walked past the cathedral and into a little park that contains the remnants of some medieval buildings including a chapel built for King Louis VI:

Sitting on the bench I had a lovely view of the old buildings and the tower of the cathedral.  I also had a lovely view of this:

AGA's caramel eclair lay on it's side while my choice reclined in creamy voluptuousness!  Before I knew it I had taken it out and was taking a big bite.  Picture this: a large slab of meringue upon which was laid a generous serve of Chantilly cream into which several ripe raspberries have been pressed.  Add more cream and then another big slab of meringue.  Turn it side on and pipe more cream along the top edge.  Finally press four fat raspberries into the top and there you have it - the latest love of my life...
(AGA said that his eclair was the best but secretly I scoffed.  I knew that is was no match for my Rubenesque extravaganza.)

The days passed.

We drove to Charles de Gaulle airport, met our friends and then motored down to Normandy for the week.  We stayed in Lower Normandy near the little town of Vassy.  It was delightful but rather cold as the wintry weather does not seem to want to let go.  
Memories of my patisserie visit remained with me and I recounted in some detail the whole affair to our friends.  AGA then announced that he was going to eat at a different patisserie every day and we decided that we would do the same.

One of our number had never been to Mont Saint Michel and so an expedition was mounted.  
Leaving early we motored down there.  Things had changed somewhat since the last time AGA and I were there.  The old car park is all gone and you get to the island by a shuttle bus along the causeway while they construct some sort of huge I-don't-know-what for ease of access all year round.
It was bitterly cold there and we were told that it was the coldest Easter period they had had at Mont Saint Michel for the past twenty years at least.  But at least it was sunny and the sky was blue:

Our patisserie visit that day consisted of some fairly basic flan (thick custard tart)which we enjoyed but which was rather ordinary.  
For the duration of our time in Normandy we had rented a small manor house which meant that we could eat at home on local produce rather than going out for meals every day.  It also had a very nice large fireplace and was well stocked with wood so that we had a roaring fire every night.
AGA bought a very nice pear tart that we had with cream on our second evening there. It was delicious but I hugged myself with the thought of that delicious meringue and cream creation - nothing was going to take its place in my heart.

A couple of days later and things got a little more serious...

We were en route for Falaise, birthplace of William the Conqueror:

It was a cool day and we had stopped at a patisserie for our latest box full of goodies:

Caramel eclair for AGA, coffee macaroon for S and a pistachio macaroon for C.  I meanwhile had a raspberry millefeuille creation: 

Seated regally on a gold piece of cardboard, it oozed a lusciousness that was hard to resist.  And the taste?  The earth certainly moved but . . . a little too tart.  
When it came to the crunch, it was not in the same league as the previous meringue cream and raspberry sensation...

A couple of days later and we were in Bayeux - and that's when everything was turned on it's head.

I had never been to Bayeux before.  AGA and S had been there many years ago and enjoyed seeing the famous Bayeux tapestry.  C said she had not been but would like to go and so it was decided.  A lovely sunny day, blue skies but an icy wind that cut like a knife!  
Luckily we always seemed to be lucky when it came to finding a car park for our huge 'chariot' and that day was no exception.  
Once again it was market day and we wandered about the town (which like Senlis, is very pretty), sampling goods and buying a nice jar of apple and cinnamon jelly.  We then went to buy our patisserie.  We decided to go to the patisserie Ordioni and this was what we chose:

Chocolate eclair for AGA, pistachio eclaire for C, A comma shaped coffee creation for S (I think it had the name sambuco in the title - or something similar) and for me?  A raspberry macaroon.  It looked very nice and I was drawn to the cream and the raspberries...
As we handed round the box, we were laughing and joking about which creations we had enjoyed thus far but when we each began on our latest choices a contented silence fell upon us.
I distinctly recall S announcing 'oh my goodness' as he ate his.
As for me, I was in patisserie heaven:

A soft yet crumbly macaroon:  One half having been spread with thick custard into which plump juicy raspberries were set.  Then covered in Chantilly cream before being topped with the other macaroon half.  I realised that my Senlis affair had been mere childish infatuation.  This was the real thing.  

Not even the tartelette framboise I had the following day could equal the culinary and gourmandising pleasure to be had in the consumption of that raspberry macaroon.  Each of us agreed that we had just sampled the best patisserie we had ever had the pleasure to consume.  
Others may disagree but we don't care.  
We knew what we liked and we liked our choices very much.

And as for me - I had come to Normandy and fallen in love and the next time I am in Normandy I shall be making a beeline for that patisserie...