Food & Wine

I've been tagged for a food blog meme*, which is a first (thanks Bron). Not being a proper food blog, but a blog that does food from time, I'm probably a bit of an interloper - and I'm certainly going to find it hard to "tag" five more food blogs (one of the rules). I'll do my best.

The meme comes from The Traveller's Lunchbox, and the idea is to come up with five "things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die". It's an interesting challenge, and over the last couple of days I've been remembering all sorts of meals in all sorts of places. And therein lies one of the challenges. I have especially fond memories of a plateau de fruits de mer, eaten in a restaurant on the inner harbour at La Rochelle, but do I remember it because of the excellence of the plateau, or the happy combination of circumstances surrounding that meal? Same thing with a bottle of white vin de savoie that was elevenses at a little restaurant on the slopes at Serre Chevalier. A magic moment to be sure, but worth inflicting that wine on everyone? Probably not. So I have settled on five things that I have eaten and enjoyed and remembered and loved, not simply because of time and place, but on culinary merit (though you may choose to differ). And whakapapa* plays a part too.

1. Andouillete

Offal sausage, or awful sausage? A specialty of Troyes, and found in every Relais Routiers in France, this is a working man's saucisse, a sausage of strong flavour and challenging appearance. Cut it open and admire the strips of pork tripe and large intestine, flavoured with onion and parsley. I've seen grown women turn away in horror... but with good mustard and some fine pommes frites, the andouillette is something I have to eat at least once when visiting la belle France.

2. Bara lawr

Welsh seaweed dish, known to the Sais as laver bread, traditionally eaten fried in oatmeal with bacon for breakfast. The seaweed is quite common around the world (I've eaten it in NZ) - there is a Japanese name, but I can't recall it - and in Wales it's washed and then boiled for four hours or more until it's a green glutinous mass, still redolent of the sea. And if the bacon you eat with it is farm-cured and bought in the market at Carmarthen or Cardigan, then you have something simple but wonderful.

3. Germknodel

This is pretty close to a time and place thing, because I have only eaten it in restaurants on the slopes at St Anton or Lech, although it is a speciality throughout the Tirol. Consider a dumpling the size of a baby's head stuffed with stewed plums, topped with poppy seeds and icing sugar and dressed with melted butter, and reflect on the challenge this presents to post-prandial skiing. Delicious, but difficult.

4. A sun-ripened apricot, warm from the tree

Looking through other bloggers' lists of five, there are plenty of exhortations to take freshly picked, sun-ripened or just landed things and apply them to the palate. So I am not being original, but I include my apricot because I planted apricots (and other fruit trees) at Limestone Hills because this was an experience I'd read about (Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, I think) and wanted to try. Every summer I watch the apricots, willing them to ripen, so that I can revel in the sheer apricotness of the fresh, sun-warmed article. This isn't just worth doing, it's worth moving to a place where it's possible in order to do it.

5. Tuber magnatum, on anything

No suprises here. The first meal of this truffle set in train a sequence of events that led me to Limestone Hills, and it is one of the tragedies of modern science that no-one has yet worked out how to successfully cultivate this fungus (though there are tantalising hints that it might soon be possible). Not oil - never oil - just the fresh article, shaved thinly on a buttery tagliatelle, or plain risotto, or stirred into and shaved onto an emperor amongst omelettes. So good I wrote a book about it.

So who to "tag" with this: I can't do five, but I will suggest that Mark Bernstein - another occasional foodie like me - might like to have a go.

Let it never be said that blogging doesn't pay. A couple of months ago, I got an email from the team at Food & Wine magazine in New York, asking me if I'd be interested in interviewing NZ food writer Annabel Langbein for their September issue. Interested I most certainly was, and I popped up to Auckland for an enjoyable day with Annabel. I might even have persuaded her to plant some truffles. Writing the piece was a challenge, but now the final version's appeared on the F&W website I find I recognise most of the words, and some of them are even in the order in which I put them... Thanks for the job, Salma.

All commissions gratefully received: farm and truffle hound to support.

Since we're all primates, why not live on the same diet as the monkeys in the zoo? That's what this chap is doing, but he isn't munching bananas. He's eating ZuPreem primate dry animal food, presumably the monkey version of cat biscuits. You can read his weight stats, see videos, and track progress on his blog - which is truly funny.

I am not tempted to emulate him. Not at all. Never.

Some of the wilder shores of molecular gastronomy are to be found in a newly-resurgent Japan, according to The Sunday Times. And truffles have a role to play...

"One course consisted of a piece of tissue paper impregnated with the smell of truffles: just the smell — no actual truffles were to be ingested."

Not much of a role. Cheap dish, though - I expect there's a bottle of Truffarome on the shelf at the Tapas Molecular Bar.

Autumn turns to winter, and the courgettes give up the ghost. The big green leaves become covered in white powdery mildew, and the little fruits struggle to ripen to a reasonable size. Some are misshapen, some rot at the end. So I picked the last one, grabbed a couple of the yellow tomatoes and a large ripe Evergreen, plucked the remaining little Japanese aubergines, and made a ratatouille. Not a proper ratatouille, where you fry all the bits separately and then assemble the whole thing at the end, more a vegetable stew. Some garlic in olive oil, fry the sliced courgette until it's browning, then throw in the aubergines (being little, they need no chopping), and the chunks of tomato. Add as much basil as you can get from the pathetic stalks left in the garden, and stew for 30 minutes. Very nice indeed.

I can strongly recommend costata romanesco, cocozelle and goldrush courgettes. The romanesco plants are incredibly productive, and the baby marrows will turn into adults overnight if you're not careful. Fantastic flowers, too. The aubergines that work best in my garden are Japanese Long Toms. They don't get to the 17.5cm length they promise in the book, but they are prolific and tasty. This year's tomato discovery is Evergreen. Large, tasty and, yes, green. The prize for prolific production goes to the tomatillo. Incredible numbers of fruit from just a couple of plants. Will become a regular in the kitchen garden, I'm sure.

There I was, stumbling around the food blogs of the world, looking for people who might appreciate the book, when I tripped over a ball of pea soup at Hungry in Hogtown. I had a "ball" of intensely flavoured consommée served in a spoon at Manairo in Barcelona before Christmas, but Rob at HinH has deconstructed the orginal El Bulli technique, and then reconstructed it in his own kitchen. A most impressive dedication to molecular gastronomy, beatifully described.

Now, where did I leave that food grade sodium alginate?

First, take 500g of fresh porcini. In my case, the Boletus edulis presented itself as one large fruitbody growing a metre or two to the side of one of the busiest paths in Christchurch's Hagley Park. A few years ago, porcini of that size were not unusual, but picking pressure - particularly by one selfish git who commits fungal infanticide on a regular basis and then hawks the results round local restaurants - means that big mushrooms are now as rare as hen's teeth. It's the tragedy of the commons: if you don't pick them when you find them, someone else will, so the little porcini never get the chance to mature. We all lose, and the potential harvest is drastically reduced: my 500g porcini was only 50g a few days ago. B edulis production in Christchurch was estimated to be several tonnes per annum when they were first identified about ten years ago, but I would suggest that it's a fraction of that now, thanks to picking pressure. If it weren't for one or two spots I know...

Clean and slice your porcini. Don't wash the mushroom - it could absorb water and become mushy. Just wipe it free of dust and earth with a damp cloth. Trim the stalk, and remove sections that have been badly eaten by maggots. In the case of last night's porcini, the little buggers were chewing through the base of the stalk, but the cap was untouched. The pores were beginning to turn greenish yellow (from white), the sign that the fruitbody's spore production is maturing. That's another reason why picking small is a bad idea. The baby mushrooms get no chance to dump spores into the environment, to produce fresh mycelium to infect the roots of the trees around. This gives other fungi an advantage in the war for root space, especially those that don't get picked, or don't rely on fruitbodies to reproduce.

Go to your butcher and buy 500g of his best bacon. It should be dry cure, or at least not stuffed full of water in the curing, and have a reasonable amount of fat - neither lean nor streaky. Pop into the cheese shop and buy some parmesan (reggiano, of course). Avail yourself of some fresh flat leaf parsley and good garlic. We have flat leaf parsley growing wild round the farm, thanks to a previous owner who diligently scattered seeds everywhere, and my father's kitchen garden produces excellent garlic. If you have time, make some fresh pasta, and slice it into tagliatelle. I didn't have time, so used some very high quality dried linguine.

Fill your largest pot with water and put it on the fire (shades of de Pomiane there - a deliberate homage: thanks for the introduction all those years ago Paul), and put in more salt than you could possibly believe necessary - not enough for a 10% brine, but enough that the water tastes distinctly salty. When it's boiling, take it off the heat, and start preparing the sugo (sauce). Chop the bacon into bite sized pieces and fry it in some extra virgin olive oil in your largest pan until it sizzles and is beginning to brown. The time this takes will depend on the amount of water in the bacon. Put the water back on the heat and bring it back to the boil. Add enough pasta to feed two, three or four people: I used 300g for three. My pasta was supposed to take 10-12 minutes to cook - it took longer, it always does. Add the porcini to the bacon and carry on frying, stirring regularly. Add some salt (lovingly hand evaporated from the sea of your choice) and pepper (freshly ground). Peel/smash three cloves of garlic and chop them up, then add them to the bacon and mushrooms. Wash and chop a large handful of parsley, and grate enough parmesan for your purposes.

After ten minutes, start testing the pasta for doneness. Keep stirring the frying pan. Just before you drain the pasta, add the parsley to the frying pan and stir it in well. Add the strained pasta to the frying pan and thoroughly toss it in the sugo. Serve on to large plates, offer the parmesan and some red wine. My choice was Te Mata Woodthorpe Cabernet Merlot (a snip at about NZ$19 at the moment), but my good lady wife - whose favourite this dish is - preferred the Chardonnay. There's no pleasing some people.

This what the first porcini of the season ended up as. They were exquisite. Found one that had been kicked over yesterday. Fools. And a rather distorted giant puffball (which are also very tasty). I find it remarkable that the latter pop up in the middle of a park and get completely ignored, but then plenty of people find my fungophilia just as "remarkable".

One of the good things about taking the amazingly charming Peg for a lunchtime walk, apart from the exercise, is that we walk various routes through Hagley Park - the park at the centre of Christchurch. And today we found the first porcini (Boletus edulis) of the year.

They were smaller than I normally like to pick, but this was one of the best known porcini spots in the park, and if I didn't get them they'd either be picked by another fungophile or booted into bits by some philistine. I fancy a little salad of raw porcini as a starter tonight: thinly slice the mushrooms, scrape thin wafers of the best parmesan (reggiano, of course), a little pepper, and mix carefully with some good olive oil from Waipara.

Two very contrasting meals in two successive nights: one, a truffle dinner in a French home, the other a modern Spanish meal with the chef playing Fat Duck or El Bulli-style tricks.

The truffle dinner was spectacular, both for the quantity of truffle involved and the quality of the food, but the most important factor was - as it should always be at dinner - the warmth of the welcome. As we stood around the kitchen chatting over the Louis Roederer champagne, the canapes of pate de foie gras de canard truffe (hand-made for our hosts with not less than 10% truffle, and generously garnished with same) were being constructed. Meanwhile, thin truffle toasts were heating in the oven: simple, and wonderful. Two thin slices of sourdough pain de campagne sandwiching slices of truffle, buttered and seasoned and slightly crispy from the oven. The most truffly thing I've eaten in a long time, and I've eaten a lot of truffle recently. Then I helped to stir the truffle into the mashed potatoes: great big, almost crunchy lumps of truffle stirred into potatoes cooked in milk and butter, served with a saucisse de Toulouse, specially prepared for the family with large chunks of truffle inside. Put the two together, and you have an obviously simple but also incredibly luxurious dish. Magnificent. A few bottles of good Cahors red, and a good time was guaranteed for all. My thanks to P-J and B. A meal that will live in the memory for a long time.

The second meal (Manairo Restaurant, Barcelona) was also good: inventive, even exciting food, but it couldn't help but suffer in comparison. There were moments of surprise, like the little parcel served in a spoon containing a creamy soup, or the squid bits spooned steaming with dry ice into little shot glasses of intensely pea-green soup, and there were moments of pleasure, but I struggled to really get into it all. Perhaps the fact that much of the dishes were reinventions of Catalan classics that I had no reference for made it difficult, or perhaps the waiter's introductions were losing something because we forced him to do them in English. Either way, fun, expensive and worth eating, but the food will be forgotten long before the previous night's. Thanks, Heidi, for the meal.

And the really sad thing about both meals? On the last days of the Spanish tour, I picked up the cold doing the rounds of the bus. I spent much of the weekend in France exploding with cold, and I still haven't recovered my nose or tastebuds. So much to taste, so little to taste it with. Bugger.

Somebody wanted to know about favourite fast foods: I nominated a truffle burger. There is, of course, a restaurant that offers one. In New York. $50 a pop. I want to be his supplier.

Saturday was a challenge. My daughter's 17th birthday, and 17 bright young women descended on the farm to make merry. I had to make pizzas. 20 in all. The wood-fired oven got its first use since our mid-winter truffle extravaganza. It takes about four hours to get really hot - pizza hot - when starting from cold. This time, I used the dough recipe from Nikko Amandonico's La Pizza: The True Story from Naples (excellent book, by the way), with a mix of organic stoneground flours provided (with fresh yeast) by Martin at Canterbury Cheesemongers (excellent shop - can't leave without spending a small fortune on great cheese). Worked a treat. The dough was pliable and elastic, baking quickly to a lovely crispy crust. The girls seemed to like them, but my sternest critic was the most impressed. "Best yet" was Camille's comment. I shall bask in the warmth of that praise for - ooh, hours.

It wasn't the ripest truffle in the world - still only whitish brown inside - but it had a good perfume, and its effect on pizza was remarkable - so impressive that my wife, who normally professes to dislike truffle, was moved to comment on how delicious it was. And it was exquisite.

We were hosting lunch for a gobble of local chefs who had just been to see the truffle being unearthed. They brought the pizza dough and toppings, Gavin and Chris, the truffiere owners, donated the truffle, Wilma brought two cases of wine (Cracroft Chase Pinot Gris), and I fired up the oven. Add to the equation a chef with considerable pizza skills (thanks, Nick!), and we had some stunning food.

There are two possible approaches to truffle pizza. You could make the pizza, and then shave truffle on top - perhaps the only way to do it with Tuber magnatum (Italian white truffle), or you could put the truffle onto the pizza base and then cover it with cheese, so that the flavour isn't boiled away in the heat of the oven. We used both methods, but the better - by far - was the "cooked" truffle. A wood-fired oven cooks pizzas really quickly - in two or three minutes when its at its hottest. Nick did a version of pizza bianca, shaving the truffle onto the pizza base (lightly brushed with olive oil), and then covering it with a generous helping of fior de latte mozzarella and thin slices of cooked potato.

When it came out of the oven, the truffle flavour had worked its way into the cheese and into the base - not overwhelmingly strong (because the truffle wasn't), but a wonderful accent to the crisp base, molten cheese and crispy potato.

And it didn't rain.

By some very roundabout web wandering, involving Arts & Letters Daily, I came across a piece in the London Review Of Books by Harvard academic Steven Shapin. Ostensibly reviewing three diet books, two Atkins and one South Beach, Shapin either manages to fit the LRB editorial brief, or overwrite considerably:

Most fundamentally, eating is a moment of ontological transformation: it is when what is not-you - not rational and not animate, at the time you consume it - starts to become you, the rational being which ultimately decides what stuff to consume. Flesh becomes reason at one remove, and every supper is, in that sense, eucharistic. We are, literally and fundamentally, what we eat. The material transformation is simultaneous with the possibility of social and moral transformation or the advertisement of the social and moral states to which you are laying claim. (The Great Neurotic Art)

I'm not very big on ontological transformations. I thought Atkins was about weight loss. Worked for me, anyway.

Getting through Shapiro's piece is a bit of a struggle - I dislike overtly academic writing, writing that has to wear its learning on its sleeve - but he does make some interesting points about changes in attitudes to self as evidenced in diets. But when I have to rush to the dictionary to check a meaning (soteriological, in this case), I think the writing's getting in the way of the message.

Truffle with shark fin? Some cultural borders should perhaps remain uncrossed...

From the Malaysia Star:

“Breaking away from the usual tried-and-tested recipes, Chef Chan is set to rule the roost in the forthcoming Rooster Year with his novel offerings. His Braised Truffle Broth with Shark’s Fin, Scallops and Foie Gras is certainly worth crowing over. The tantalising aroma of truffle emanating from this piece de resistance brought our idle chatter to a halt. The musky flavour of this highly prized fungus blended splendidly with the velvety smoothness of foie gras, while the strands of shark’s fin and diced fresh scallops provided a nice contrast in texture. The finely chopped Chinese celery tossed in helped to alleviate the overly rich taste.”

Yes. A novel use for truffle and duck liver. In a Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Sounds like fun. And a new market!