Thursday, 31 December 2009

'As the hedgehog and a bear cub met New Year' eve'

And a little gift from me - an old Russian cartoon on a 'proper' way to meet a new year! Shockingly unusual for me, it's not related to food, however note the yumis on the tables - no getting away from it all!

(No subtitles, but the language of cute little bears, Christmas trees and friendship is universal!)

S nastupayushim!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

More parsnip New Year treats

Amongst all the post-Christmas wilderness (partying, snowing and otherwise), here's a little bit of curiosity to amuse you.

My cockle-warming Parsnip and Parmezan soup has been a hit with a number of friends, and so whilst looking for another parsnip inspiring idea, I came across Elizabeth David's collection of Christmas recipes. One of them particularly caught my eye...

Pastenak and cress soupOr parsnip and cress soup - pastenak, according to David, is the medieval English word for parsnip , a corruption of the Latin word pastinaca. Now, the association I mentioned in my earlier soup post between the Russian word for parsnip - pasternak - and the famous Nobel-prize winner (yes, yes, Dr Zivago) doesn't seem all that laughable!

Did I completely confuse you? What I'm trying to say very pre New Year's Eve inarticulately, is that I just loved the feeling of discovering this little, unimportant linguistic link, which kind of felt fitting. In Italian the word is pastinache, in French panais - what is parsnip in your language??:):)
Back to the soup though...

To make the pastenak and cress soup you follow the same recipe as for my parsnip and parmezan soup, but omit the cheese and add a couple of handfuls of cress at the end, which makes the dish a whole lotta lighter and fresher. To me, this is a spring recipe really, so here's something that will work very nicely as your New Year's even starter - very a la Russe;)

Egg mayonnaise with parsnip cream
(taken from E. David's 'Christmas' edited by Jill Norman)

500 g parsnips, peeled or well scrubbed
3-4 tbsp of home-made mayonnaise (it needs to be rather acidic, so don't be shrewd with your lemon)
4-6 hard-boiled, organic, eggs

1. Chop parsnips into big chunks, bring to boil, simmer until cooked (some 20 mins), then puree and season with salt and plenty of pepper
2. Stir in your mayo, spread on a fanciful dish (I'd say a Soviet kitsch of a crystal dish in shape of a egg or a fish will work well here)
3. Cup eggs in half and arrange on top of the parsnip puree
4. Scatter shopped parsley

Nemirov honey coloured pepper vodka will work wonders here - match by taste, match by colour!

Thank you all my dear readers for a wonderfully food-laden year!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The King of all salads - the majestic Olivier

Whilst the whole of the Great British Island is coming to a hault under an inch of snow, the ingenious population is resorting to warming stews and increasingly intoxicating pints. Russians - local and otherwise - drink vodka (clichés are so necessary and so sexy) and eat fat-laden cubes of potatoes, meat and veg.

The Olivier salad - the glorious and (in?) famous Russian potato salad, created by a French chef in the tsarist Russia, and then eaten en messe by the 1/6 of the planet for the next century, is now consumed throughout the world, in different shapes and versions. When the winter comes with its culmination at the New Year's eve, Russians of all shapes and sizes think 'potato', 'mayonnaise', 'cubes' and start chopping. Here's the story of the little, but not that humble, Potato salad.

The significance of chopping at New Year's Eve

Chopping is precisely what I got to doing with my Russian champs the other night. No matter how many years we have spent away from the Mother Russia, end of December will always mean one thing and one thing only - New Year's Eve and Olivier. NYE in Russia is a curious combination of Western Christmas family traditions (kids and old are all there) and the debauchery of NYE partying proper (drink, drink, drink). Why this day, and night, got alleviated to such a level is easy to explain - the big USSR did not want to celebrate Christmas (25 Dec or 6 Jan as per Russian Orthodox calender) for the obvious, atheist reasons, but people still had that ingrained, pagan need to mark the winter solstice, fight off the dark ghosts of winter and hope for the future. Now Russia is free to celebrate whatever it likes, but 31 December is still the biggest and the most awaited day of the year. Olivier and its potatoes are the heroes of the night.

Why potato? Why salad?

Well, the significance of tightly chopped vegetables for the Russian physic would certainly be an interesting one to explore for my next Phd in psychiatry:), but for now let's just say the good old Peter the Great did well back in 17the century by bringing the scraggy tuber to Russia from his explorations in the Netherlands (being clean-shaven and eating potatoes became somewhat the thing a la mode). Now Russia is the biggest producer of potatoes in the world (after China, surprise?) and each Ruski is consuming nearly 150 kg of potatoes a year (are you dividing the figure by 52?!).

And let's not forget that some of the best vodka is made out of potatoes.

The link to the Dutch is not accidental - Van Gogh, with his ears still intact, drew this scaringly beautifully and ugly painting called 'The Potato Eaters'.

Incredible to think that just a century after Peter's travels, potato had already become the vegetable associated with the most trivial, dumb and belly-filling. I love the way their faces look like the bulbous potatoes themselves, hands are knobbly, rough; they are the off-spring of the tuber, all looking the same, no gender, spark or wit. Potato was not the piece de resistance of the most forward any longer...

What about the Salad??

About the same time when Van Gogh was vaxing less than lyrically about the potato, a French chef called Lucien Olivier (a seriously flirtatious type, according to some) was re-inventing it in The Hermitage, one of Moscow's most celebrated restaurants. The original salad was rather different from the contemporary version and included amongst other ingredients hazel-grouse, veal tongue, caviar, capers and mayonnaise Provençal - a heady sauce of yolks and olive oil that the young Lucien had brought from his home-land.The legend has it that one of his understudies had stolen the recipe for the sauce and started making a version of the salad in another Moscow restaurant, naming the concossion 'Stolichnyj salad', or The Capital Salad' (the name still widely found in all sorts of Russian eateries). Over time, the salad had gone through the inevitable bourgeoisition(such a word?) process and is now using either chicken or ham or even frankfurter type sausage, tinned peas, boiled carrot and eggs, mayo out of the tub and, of course, boiled potatoes. Here's my version - a slightly trendified Olivier one might say:)

Olivier Salad

Remember - you can put anything into this salad, in whatever quantities, as long as you have:

1. potatoes, some kind of meat and mayonnaise
2. potatoes should be about twice the weight of the rest of the ingredients

You'll need:

1 small chicken (organic is preferable of course, but free-range is a must) plus a quartered onion, a halfed carrot, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns
4 v. large potatoes
2 medium carrots
2 eggs
a handful of peas, frozen
2 tbsp capers
1 tart apple
salted cucumbers (marinated will do too, but too sweet for my liking; go for the Israeli type - if concious permits - the ones on sale in Sainsburys have the right salty tang). NB: keep the brine.
1 onion

about 350ml of mayonnaise - home-made is less 'authentic', but makes a lot of difference. you'll need:

2 (organic..) yolks
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 Dijon mustard
1 tbp white wine vinegar or lemon juice
225 ml vegetable oil

I use Darina Allen's recipe for making my mayo.

You will need to start making the salad at least on the eve of your feast.

1. Put your chicken whole into a big saucepan, cover with cold water, add your stock veg, bring to the boil, and then simmer until fully cooked, for at least an hour. do not dare to throw out your stock - use it to make beautiful borsch.

2. Put washed but unpeeled potatoes into a saucepan and boil until fully cooked. Some 10 mins before they are cooked (when the knife is getting through the flesh with some difficulty still) add the carrots to boil.

3. Whilst potatoes are preparing themselves, boil your eggs until fully cooked, but not blue, 7-8 mins. Briefly cook your peas.

4. Leave everything to cool completely, perhaps until the following morning.

5. Peel the veg above, as well as your onion and an apple. Shred your chicken of the bones, discarding skin (although I eat it with crystals of salt).

6. Get chopping. I like it small, really small - the size of my small fingernail - but others prefer it big and chunky. Everything goes into one big bowl. Mix gently and season lightly.

7. Make your mayonnaise or just unscrew your jar. and now is the most important thing - start adding half of your mayonnaise and then a few spoons at a time and taste, taste and taste. Add more mayonnaise, more cucumbers, capers, onions - whatever you think is missing. Olivier is like a good Asian dish, it has layers of flavours: tart, pickled, salty, sweet, all married by the powerful mayonnaise. Who said Russian food was boring and one-dimensional?

8. Remember you left behind some brine from your cucumbers? add a bit to your mix, perhaps 2-3 tbp. it adds that je ne c'est quoa.

9. Sprinkle with dill if desired and eat in big gulps with chunks of good and sweet Russian rye bread.

Na zdorovye and s novym godom!

p.s. a short of lip-numbingly cold vodka - potato or otherwise - is very satisfying with Olivier.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A mediaval chelly

Do you know what these brown creatures are?

These are medlars - plum-size, apple-like fruits that originated in Asia (and possibly South-Eastern Europe) that used to be very common on the tables of English royalty in the medieval times, but have almost disappeared since then and are virtually unknown to the great British public. Well, I was exquisitely pleased to discover these rare fruits at the Stoke Newington market last Saturday - I happened to know of the mysterious medlar from my visit to the National Collection of apples, pears and...medlars a few weeks back. I bought some, I cooked some and here I'm passing on the wisdom:)

The lovely lady selling medlars at the market grow lots of little known apples in her farm in Essex. She also makes cute bottles of jams and preserves and, occasionally, some medlar cheese (essentially, a paste, akin to Spanish Membrillo), but that day she didn't have any for sale, so I bought a bag of medlars with an intention to try and make some myself.

Medlars need to be bletted - that is, to be half-rotten, or soften by frost and/or long-ish rest - before cooking. I bought them already in that lovely, gooey state and proceeded to making a dish that is something in between a jelly and cheese:

Medlar jesse or chelly (do pass on the new word!):

You will only need caster sugar, lemon juice and some spicing in addition to your medlars.

How to:

Put medlars, as they are, no need to peel or clean, in a saucepan; cover with an inch of water or so; bring to the boil and simmer until they become soft and almost fall apart (some 10 minutes or so). You may need to add a bit more water if it evaporates too quickly.

Plonk this medlar porridge into a sieve (or ideally a jelly bag, which I don't have) and let the liquid to come out, by pressing gently on the cooked medlars. You will end up with dark-brown silky puree.

Weight the puree, and measure the same amount of water. Put both into a saucepan with a pitch of allsprice, cinnamon, clove - really, whatever spices you like (I'm thinking adding some liqueur or brandy might be nice, like Estonian Vana Tallinn...) and sugar (about 1/4 of sugar to the original weight of your medlars) and a couple of table spoons of lemon juice.

Simmer until set (about 5-10 minutes, but you may want to try the official method of checking whether your jelly is set by putting a little of it onto a chilled plate, let it rest for a minute and then move up the mixture with a spoon along the place surface - if it wrinkles, it's set - but to be honest, I didn't really bother).

Pour the mixture into a jar or a nice bowl and let it cool. The result smells like Christmas itself, and the combination of the tart and sweet flavours, and the grainy and honey-like texture is quite special.

The chelly can be sliced into thin wedges and eaten beautifully with some tart cheese and sourdough bread, or - like here - with spelt biscuits.

p.s. and for my Russian-speaking audience, medlar is mushmula germanskaya, apparently. anyone has ever heard of it back in the USSR??

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Shrooms number 2 - Stoke Newington organic farmers market

Over the next week or so I'll be writing about the hero of the North London markets - Stoke Newington's farmers' market run by the remarkable community project 'Growing communities' . This is the only fully organic market in the country, which takes place every Sunday on the territory of William Patten school, on Stoke Newington Church street. Whether you 'believe' in organics on not, the fact that the organisers have managed to set up such a successful market whilst keeping to their rather strict requirements is something to take your hat off to. However, more on that later, and for now let's start our little tour with...Mushrooms.

Yes, after my first glorious attempt at shroom picking a few weeks back, I was ecstatic to encounter some of the same creatures at the market this Saturday.

The stall's name - 'Gourmet mushrooms' - doesn't really describe this modest little stall and its bear-like owner with a Tolstoy-esque beard and thick wintery coat. Let's just say I felt at home, back in my childhood, a fairytale feeling of being a little girl in a big, but wise and kind forest of birches, deep blankets of snow and perhaps even a hut on chicken feet not far away (oh, the surrealism of Russian fairytales)...

Doesn't matter that my own urban childhood was only partly like this, I happily got chatted to the fungi-king. the stall has a selection of cultivated (oyster, champignon) mushrooms and some wild varieties - a tiny bag of which set me back £2.50, but I felt the price was fair, I had a bag of magic forestness with me, the last breath of autumn before the winter closes in...

And this is my little treasure collection (from the left): wood ears (they do look exactly like little leathery pig ears! soak them for some 5 minutes before slicing finely for frying), deceivers - brittle and delicate and deceptively delicious, and blewits - apparently they are in a particular abundance 'once the leaves fall down'...

Voila! he result - a super quick and easy lunch - Wild mushrooms with sage and sourcream.

How to prepare:

- wipe your mushroom clean gently
- half if necessary (I like mine chunky)
- slice an onion and a bit of garlic
- fry the lot quickly in a bit of olive oil and butter
- add a few sage leaves and couple of table spoons of sourcream and perhaps some mustard
- toast a slice of sourdough and devour with a salad leave or two

Tip: melt some 'stinky' cheese on top of your sandwich. Arrigoni's Taleggio is sensational with wild mushrooms!

Friday, 4 December 2009

On warming those cockles

What a girl is to do when it is cold and wintery outside, when Christmas fever hasn't quite caught on yet and when her other, all important other half is away...

a soul-warming soup of course.

JC has left for the whole of December (a lucky thing will travel around Singapore and Thailand, but at least we will benefit from some lovely reportage from some bustling Asian food markets). And so I got to cooking - what else; a sweet and toothsome Parsnip and Parmezan soup.

You'll need:

a couple of large parsnips*
olive oil
Parmezan, grated
about 1.5 litres of stock, vegetable or chicken
Dukka (Middle-Eastern earthy spice of stone-ground wheat, sesame and other spice, can be bought from Arabica Food and Spice)

to garnish: parsley, good chunks of white bread and crispy bacon

roast the parsnip in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, sprinkle with Parmezan, and roast for another 5 minutes

transfer the vegetables into a saucepan, cover with hot stock, add a little salt and simmer for about 20-30 minutes

liquidise, sprinkle with dukka, parsley and bacon and serve in warmed bowls with cockle-warming chunks of bread.

I squeezed my eyes and imagined my dear JC in warm and humid urban forests of
Singapore - I hope the thought will warm his cockles too.

* did you know that a parsnip in Russian is pasternak, yes, that very author who gave us the drama of Dr Zivago? what an image I know:)

Monday, 23 November 2009


Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to it as a 'vegetable sputnik', the Oxford companion to food calls it 'a bizarre form of a common cabbage' , I thought it looked like a head of an alien, with various antennas coming out of its head. Had it not been for the fact that I had accidentally tasted these translucent, pale-green slices before actually realising what it was, I probably would never have acquired enough curiosity to try it in my local 'Turkit'. But I’m glad I did!

Kohlrabi's name (Kol'rabi in Russian) comes from Kohl - cabbage in German, and Rabi - Turnip in Swiss German I think, and this is exactly what this vegetable is. It has the texture of a large-ish radish and a taste of a mild cabbage, or, as some say, a broccoli stem, although I find the latter description rather repellent. This sturdy and hardy brassica grows easily in both scarf-requiring temperatures of England, and hot and humid weathers of India (kohlrabi, or Monj, is apparently particularly popular there).

As i said, I had encountered the vegetable by chance, whilst sampling a Cypriot fair in the local community cafe in Green Lanes – after some five hours of mezes, invigorating mix of sirtaki, 80's faves and our own Russian folk singing, and a plate of cool, delicately-tasting, melon-looking slices, went down a treat as a palate-cleanser. The chef didn't know the name of this strangely refreshing vegetable in English, but we quickly gathered it was related to a turnip. It was the following day that i spotted this spherical creature in a box in my local.

What do you do with Kohlrabi?

Well, loads - it is so easy to peel and slice and it has such a delicate and non-obtrusive flavour, that you could put it in pretty much anything that required some crunch, body or lightness of taste. Kohlrabi can be eaten both row (a vitamin-packed salad, grated with carrots and apple) and cooked (with lots of butter and pepper), sliced, cubed, gratin-ed and boiled. But this is what I made with it:

Fennel and kohlrabi salad

1 fennel, with tips if available
1 kohlrabi


3tbsp good peppery olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp capers, chopped
pepper cracked

you will also need some ice for this

Slice both vegetables as thinly as you can. Put ice in a bowl, cover with cold water and immerse the vegetables in this icy water for 15-30 minutes - this will make them very crunchy. In the meantime, mix all the dressing ingredients, including chopped fennel leaves.

Get rid of the water and mix the sliced vegetable with the dressing thoroughly. I find it's better to then leave the salad for 10 mins or so, to let the flavours infuse. Oh, anchovies and cornishons will like this aneesed-y combo too.

I served the salad with some hot cauliflower curry with brown rice, but it will go wonderfully with some baked fish drenched in lemon and more fennel leaves or steamed chicken with fluffy mashed potatoes. I also quite like this posh way of using up the humble cabbagy-turnip - Kohlrabi carpaccio as in this summer's Hugh recipe.

I'm also thinking the slices of Kohlrabi, chilled and crunchy could be an inspiring addition (pardon my modesty) to a Cucumber cocktail to start off the Roman over-indulgence of this year’s Christmas dinner:

Christmas Kohlrabi cocktail (modified from YumSugar)

6 limes, rinsed
1 cup packed mint leaves, no stems, plus 6 sprigs for garnish
about 2-3 peeled kohlrabi
120 gr sugar
450 gr vodka or gin

Sparkling wine

Measures are approximate, so why not have a trial session first?

  1. Thinly slice 3 limes and place in a pitcher. Juice the rest and add juice to pitcher. Add mint leaves. Slice the kohlrabi (but ratain a few slices for garnish) and add, then add sugar. Muddle ingredients. Add vodka or gin. Place in refrigerator to steep 30 minutes or longer.
  2. Garnish.
  3. Fill cocktail shaker with ice and top with mixture. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Top with a splash of sparkling wine, garnish each glass with a cucumber round, and serve.

Go on, have another mince pie.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Mushroom picking in a popular past time in many parts of the world (just think Italy with its astronomically priced truffles or the Japanese with their sleek oyster mushrooms), but I feel in Russia 'going for mushrooms' is elevated to a different level. Shroom picking is a mysterious, fairy-tale-like endeavour that is closely linked to the folk traditions of Russia's country-side and the power of its beech and pine woods. Mushroom collection is to this day an encompassing activity that gets excited all ages and classes; a sight of cars pulled up by roads bordering thick forests and of big and serious men carrying heavy baskets full of glorious fungi are far from being trendy in the Russ land (and probably quite the opposite for the urbanised new Russians).

In Britain mushroom picking is gaining the momentum, in tandem with the general foodie movement. More and more of the trendy and middle-class yearn to re-connect with the nature and start baking bread, grow their own veg - and go mushroom picking. Mr J and I finally succumbed to the lure of the shroom last Saturday - after years of me melancholicly reminiscing of my childhood 'po-griby' memories and wet and mossy Estonian forests, we got out the basket that we had optimistically bought in Suzdal, near Moscow, one fine summer morning a few years back....but we needed a guide.

Andy with his years of mushrooming experience and a fun 'Fungi to be with' website was to be the one. He met us and 20 or 30 other shroom-hopefuls in the car park in Hampstead on a sparklingly beautiful November morning. The mixture of us was young (ish), cosmopolitan (ish with me the Russian and a Spanish couple showing our eagerness by bringing big woven baskets) and surprisingly short on kiddies. Andy is clearly bonkers about mushrooms and has spent years learning the tantalising Latin names of various toadstools - how about Laccaria amethystea, or a 'common' Amethyst Deceiver or Coprinus comatos for a wonderfully smelling Shaggy Ink Cup?

Apparently there are some 4000-5000 types of mushrooms in the UK and, according to Andy, about 20 of them are popular edible species and about the same are seriously poisonous; many more are in the in-between state of being tasteless and/or mildly diarrhea inducing. The best way to start learning about species is to memorize 2-3 types that are highly distinctive - I hurriedly jotted down 'red tinted gills - bad', but really rules are impossible since for every 'good' white gill there is a 'bad white gill and, anyway, for an untrained eye so many mushrooms look so similar!

Ceps are the best known and highly prized (a 'white' or belyj grip in Russian) - sturdy and off-white pretty fungi who like beeches and sandy soils; they are not too rare but my childhood memories are full of what felt like unrealistic dreams of finding a big Cep, which in fact matched the moods of the English woods...The Funnel Cap (Andy is showing on the left) is more common - they remind me Russian lisichki, or foxies, although bigger and floppier.

The search started very slowly, with most of us not spotting anything at all, but with time (we spent about three hours in the park darting around) we started seeing shapes and colours all of the place, dragging the toads out, showing them to Andy who, 2 out of 3, would thoughtfully say a convoluted Latin name and eventually a dismissive 'no good'...

The deeper we went into bushes and trees, the more things we started to felt like a Treasure Hunt! First you are in a complete unknown, but as your eye and head get accustomed to the patterns of the surroundings you begin spotting more and more...the more inaccessible, thorny and wet the place is, the more likely we were to uncover shrooms. Fungi obviously like co-habiting with trees - it's a cosy cross-system whereby one helps the other - but you are more likely to spot a little glossy cap a few meters away from a tree - tree's roots can be as long as its height, and since mushrooms are often living off these roots you need to look further afield. And a stick does help.

At the end we managed to gather a good half a basket: a few Wood blewits - gorgeous lilac-y and floppy, a handful of the Deceivers - cute little orange round caps and lots and lots of Buttercaps - unattractive spindly things, the lenght of your palm, with shiny dark brown tops. Oh, the red one above is a lucky find of one of our shroom-comrades - Fly Agaric, in Russian matchingly called Mukhomor, the one that exhausts or starves flies. You get a fantastic image of this half plant, half animal creature seducing flies to approach and stay...

I have intense memories of coming back home with my parents after a day's of mushroom gathering, sitting next to a fireplace, laying the found treasures carefully on a newspaper, sorting them, carefully cleaning them..I remember some mushroom always the types that had to be de-skinned before being fried with lots of onions and sourcream - does
anyone Russian know or remember why these mushroom had to be cleaned?

Mr J and I followed the same cosy tradition - with an addition of a newly purchased mushroom cleaner. An adorable and extremely useful gadget that sweeps dirt off mushrooms (washing them in water is a big no, since they'll become all soggy and waterlogged). From the handful of what was left I cooked up an autumnal treat of shrooms stewed briefly in a little garlic, butter and cream, piled up on clouds of creamy mustardy mash - a truly warm-your-cockles feast.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


Quince (aiva in Russian) is a visual hybrid between an apple and a pear; it has a tough pale-yellow skin and an astringent or tart flavour. Following my promise earlier in the blog, this month's pick up from 'Turkit' - my neighbourhood Turkish grocery shop - is this curious little fruit, that is as widely eaten in Turkey (see my travels in Turkish Cappadocia last year, where quince trees are in abundance in the wild, surprisingly similar in taste and look to the cultivated variety sold in shops here), as is in Southern America (made into dulce de membrillo, a paste-like substance often eaten with bread and cheese) and Britain - where it's most commonly cooked into the quince jelly.

I have had the pleasure of encountering this heavy, scented fruit, still on its tree, at Brogdale, the Natural Fruit Collection in Favesham, Kent - one of the largest collection of temperate fruits in-the-world (!). The visit was the first 'field trip' as part of my course in the Anthropology of Food at the University of London - twenty of us travelling to this 'garden of England' (as Kent is often referred to), on a rainy and muggy day, with our little writing pads and big cameras. We wanted to know everything there is to know about The Apple and its siblings - from its origin to its environmental and political story, but the main activity of the day was of course the tasting (in fact, so much and for so many hours, that I was dreaming of apples, pears and quinces later on at night!).

There are over 3000 types of fruit there - just apples come to 2200, but plums, nuts, gooseberries are also in their hundreds. One of the main activities of Brogdale is to collect and conserve the varieties (although the history is tangled and the current situation where the land is privately owned and a number of businesses, rather unrelated to the orchards, are let out on the farm, is rather confusing, making the future of the place quite uncertain...).

Many of the types here are indigenous to the British Isles (such as the omnipresent in supermarkets Cox Orange Pippin and the most popular dessert apple - Russet), but there are many that grow predominately in warmer climates (such as the 'Asian'- very sweet and Russet-looking small apple often grown in Japan, and Decio - an old variety, originated from Italy, pale and delicate, it needs lots of sunshine to be a real contender).

I particularly liked the look of Jonathan:) - apparently, one of the most successful varieties grown in the States. I'm afraid to me this Jonathan tasted a bit too bland and uninspiring - why couldn't they give this name to a big and bouncy, full of flavour and complexity apple I ask!

And the best discovery was a pear from Ukraine - a large and bulbous fruit with intensely lime-y smell and very crisp but juicy flavour. The tree itself is the biggest, the widest, in the collection. Some interesting images pop into mind of broad and steady Ukrainian lads...:)

Despite the fact that the collection is not organic and so the trees are routinely sprayed with chemicals (the fact of which the lovely guide Joan had calmly and openly disclosed - the way that merited a discussion, but not an argument, a rare quality really), I, all of us really, couldn't stop admiring the sheer diversity of the humble apple (and quince, and plum) tree, feeling like small children in a sweet shop, overwhelmed by the choice of colours, shapes, smells and alluring names.

By back to the quince - the tour had started in fact with this tall and leafy tree. The fruit is so under-appreciated in this country apparently that the tree stands outside the main orchard, completely unguarded, all laden with fragrant fruits and looking melancholic under British drizzle. The guide had said firmly that quinces are not be eaten row and that it needs to be shaped into jellies and pastes. I had to disagree! The quinces I had been buying in my 'Turkit' (really not that dissimilar from the ones on display in Kent) were beautiful sliced thinly, to expose the velvety texture of the fruit, the pleasure intensified by the enormity of the quince - one could slowly devour the fruit, a few slivers at a time, several days in a row (as long as one doesn't mind the discolouration caused by air).

I also have a memory of putting dark and syrapy quince jam (pieces of quince almost translucent from the long cooking) onto a warm toast - in Crimea, southern Ukraine, the jam made by my grandmother in chunky three-litre pots. The Crimean climate must be perfect for this hardy fruit - freezing cold in winter and hot and sunny in summer - but strangely I do not recall seeing quinces or its jam since those early days.

I have also stewed sliced quince briefly at home, in a bit of butter, with lots of cinnamon, to be eaten with cold vanilla ice-cream, or - to make use of all the different varieties of apples I picked up walking through Brogdale (above) and to make the tummy of the Englishman warm and happy - cook the chopped quince with sugar and a bit of water to layer the Crumble, the ultimate autumnal pudding...

How do you eat your quince?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The 'Turkit' and its Prickley pears

Something to look forward to, oh my faithful reader. Over the coming months I will be picking a fruit or a vegetable, earlier unknown or undiscovered to me, from my local Turkish/Greek green grocer in Turnpike Lane, North London; bring it home, dissect it, look at it, cook it, probably eat it, and then, hopefully, describe it to you. I am preparing for lots of delights, surprises and god-knows-what-that-is's. I will need your help, your expertise and, on occasion, your sympathy.

The shop in question is a lively, loud, cramped and hectic shop 3 minutes walk from our house. The shop is essentially a green grocer, a glorious collection of fruit and veg, cheeses, cans of the pickled and marinated, breads, olives and spices. Being primarily a source of Mediterranean goodies, it has always been clever in stocking up on produce that would attract other local communities, namely Bangladeshi, Indian and even Polish - hence to me it is a prime example of ingenious business know-how, fuelled by migrant wit and local necessity. There are many other shops on the street that sell similar produce, but this one is the biggest, the noisiest, and, on the surface of it, the most successful.

The shop is owned by a Turkish family, which means you learn people's faces quite quickly here (even if the urban realities prevent you from stopping to say a proper hello to the shop keepers and exchange more than the required politenesses - all excuses of course) and know what service to expect, or not, from a particular member. All are involved - cousins, parents, grandparents and aunties are here at one time or another; and so you see teenage children starting out in the shop to bulk up their pocket money, then young women getting married, raising their children whilst doing short hours behind the till, men of the family doing their manly things of carrying boxes and playing in security guards, and sometimes you spot a photograph on a wall, with a black ribbon across it, a granddad in black-and-white, who has spent most of his life surrounded by this bounty and you saw laying out bunches of mint in neat rows just the other day*..

We call the shop 'Turkit'. Our domestic legend has it that the original name of the shop - Turkish International - slowly metamorphosed into turk. international, then turk. in, and the turkit. In spite of living in the proximity to the shop for five years, I am still to try most of the produce on sale there: amongst the usual boxes of figs, cabbages, parsley, massive sacks of basmati rice, and oblongs of freshly baked Turkish bread, there are curious packs of huge, round, glossy leaves; tiny, mouse-like green vegetables, massive, earth-coloured, potato-looking things, dark rounds strongly smelling of limes - to name just a few. So I have made a decision to pick a fruit or a vegetable, completely randomly, and make something out of it or with it, approximately once a month or so.

And so my fruit of September is a Prickly pear - a cute and gorgeously pale yellow/green/pink fruit, that is only in season a few weeks a year (at least when transported to England). The skin looks soft and subtle and so the subsequent hours spent trying to get rid of numerous splinters in my fingers - all tiny, thin needles that come out of the pear's skin, very similar to a cactus - came as an annoying surprise.

The Prickly pear is a very popular fruit in Greece around this time of the year, and is one of the main nostalgia items for the large population surrounding Green Lanes, and specifically Turkit (so somewhat akin to Russians with our prickly gherkins, see my post on that here).

The similarity with your ordinary pear is only its shape, the flesh inside is a beautiful rose-pink, fleshy and refreshing looking. But biting into the creature was a bit disappointing - lots of soft seeds inside, and the flesh more watery than juicy, the taste, I thought, would suit better to squeezing it into a cold drink, rather than eating it in slices or with a spoon, like I did.

Have you eaten a Prickly pear before? I'm confident that the original Greek fruit found on the sunny islands is a more promising item!

*Obviously, the shop is not as idealic as I describe it, and is a dusty, bitterly cold in winter and stuffy in summer place of work for generations of this family. But you do see people moving on and up from there: it seems to provide a solid basis for some of the 'original' family members and, by being financially successful, an opportunity to study and progress for others, to move beyond the shelf-stocking, weighting and bagging.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Bio marche, Boulevard des Batignolles, Paris

Oh, Paris, Paris - who could have thought that after all the blogging and eating only now that I have visited what many would have said had to be the first - a Parisian market.

Me and my significant other did last weekend what we rarely choose to do (at least not in public or whilst admitting to ourselves) - have a fly-away sugary romantic weekend in Paris. The meal we chose to celebrate the event was not at a classy, white table-linen and candlelight restaurant, but a bustling organic market in the centre of the city. Not that unpredictable really.

God, when I'm at a market like this I want to pack up my bags and come and live in France - colours, sounds, variety! This bio marche is solely organic - that in itself is a miracle by British standards (there is only one fully organic farmers' market in London as far as I know, in Stoke Newington), but it's the sheer volume and diversity of produce on offer that makes this market so remarkably different from its London counterparts (even the biggest and most successful ones, such as the Borough market, 'suffer' in my view from over-indulging in selling 'fine' foods and take-away snacks - all very respectable and of the highest quality admittedly, but not so fruitful - excuse the pun - for weekly shopping).

Boulevard de Batignolles is a wide and spacious road leading up to Montmartre (the view of Sacre Coeur makes the area particularly romantic). The market is stretched for about 200 meters on an island in the middle of the street, not far from metro Villiers. You hear the soothing sounds of frenchified live jazz playing long before you hit the smells, bicycles and berets of the market. There you have at least six large fruit and veg stalls (enormous, overflowing tables laden with all sorts of vegetable, all in season, all from the vicinity), a handful of meat sellers (not the usual neatly packed lonely boxes for two for a rare Saturday breakfast, but torses of everything from veiny pigens to gorged ducks and big happy chickens) and numerous producers of bread (of course), jams and saussison. And, apart from a little man making galettes in a corner (hearty, wholesome rounds of buckwheat flour, carrots, and an egg), very few stalls selling food already prepared. No, this place is all about touching, squeezing, putting your nose into things affair - take with you and spend long leasury afternoon cooking...

I know I'm totally over-romanticising the French eating habits, but no matter how much you know the reasons for such differences between the 'market' culture in the neighbouring countries*, it never ceases to amaze.

I am going to follow a cliche path of thought tonight - apologies to my readers, accustomed to a more high brow (or simply 'purple' as the significant other calls it) prose, and so the picture above represents snugly the Frenchies' attitude to food. The wholesome seller of plump birds has just cut off the black and blue head of the chicken and giggley gave it to a daughter of a customer. Just imagine this scenario in the UK... can you?? I just loved the expression on the girl's face - there is a bit of squeamishness there, but she is hugely amused and curious about the creature. Difficult not to make a sweeping, country-wide generalisations based on this sole observation - if we all knew from early days what food actually looked like and that it is not just amorphous blobs of pink in plastic, we would perhaps pose for a moment when buying that 2 for £2 chickens or wafer thin sheets of ham reconstituted from the parts of an animal that are not actually meat.

I don't mean to sound righteous - apologies - back to the beautiful market.

Peruvian cucumbers, grown locally - prickly, soft to a touch, creatures that apparently have a texture of an ordinary cucumber and are brilliant as crudite, especially in summer because of their fresh lime-y taste. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try the little monster, so let me know if you have?

We have finished the tour of the market with a proper feast: whole half of a roasted chicken - slightly charred, smoky, nothing but just meat, not even salt, two bulbs of tomatoes, all sugar and juice, and a baguette. Vive la France (les marches, bien sure)!

* post-war rationing and strongly industrialised agriculture in Britain is said to be, at least, party responsible for the difference in the food cultures of the two countries, and the UK's subsequent lack of vibrant farmers' markets. Psychologically and socially French place an enormous role on food, so we are told - terroir is everything. I suppose it is, again at least partly, a self-perpetuating prophecy: when for the last two centuries the French and the rest of the (Western) world have been saying how sophisticated and complex the French cuisine is, it is literally impossible not to grow up internalising this view and be proud of what it represents. I am tempted to compare the French mild fixation on food to the Russian patriotism when it comes to their 'otechestvo' or home land. Occasionally such feelings result in snobbism, social problems and a vicious sense of pride, but it also creates a very strong national identity that protects its bearers from the hash foreigner or a shallow 'rostbif':)

Monday, 21 September 2009

When the summer speaks

My mother used to call the weather like today 'whispering' - it is not just its warmth and sun, the atmosphere is almost like a light blanket enveloping you, making you feel wonderfully cosy and relaxed. They call it here an Indian summer - in Russia they say babye leto, a woman's summer, or, to be precise, a summer of a woman who's glancing goodbye to her youth but is still in her prime, still wishing, but maybe not willing...

The days like that make you comfortable, at the same time as gently forcing you to reflect - not in that wintery way, when you are happy to tuck yourself in under a fluffy duvet and melancholicly watch the rain go by - no, the sun and stillness of the late summer days put you in the right mood to look forward to whatever the leaves, the trees and the wind have under the sleeve just behind the corner...To remember this sparkling day, to have something to savour over the long winter nights, here are a couple of pictures...

A classic tri-colour salad

Not often that I make a conscious effort to buy specific products for a specific recipe - in advance, with a pen and paper in hand - especially when the recipe is beyond the simplicity itself. But a few days ago, on another disappearing summer day I really felt like making the best tri-colour I could ever have! The obvious choice (or maybe not so obvious!) was the Borough market and its main veg patch in the centre: I went for three bulbous almost-orange beef tomatoes, a couple of cute bright yellow ones and a little tigery-green one. The Parma Ham Company provided the snow ball of the naturally sweet buffalo mozzarella. I added my own, window-still-grown basil and dill (a slightly Russianised tri-colour) and voila! Sun, cheese and tomato - a modest celebration of the summer at its pick!

Breakfast in bed

And this is a lovely way to greet the Fall - in bed, lounging on a fluffy blanket with a mug of hot coffee and a thick layer of milk.

I was ravenous that Saturday and considerably hang-over. The hunger won over the laziness and I got up to slice my own soughdough, chop the salty, wrinkly gherkins, take out the peppery smoked mackerel and then came the piece de la risestance - a pouched egg (incredible what a bit of boiling water and a dash of vinegar can do to a humble egg). The mood had become all yellow - the sun on sheets, the yolk gashing over bread, the laughter - all warm and carefree - as if there is no winter to come: just us, beautiful light and... the Guardian!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Noordermarkt, Amsterdam, or a hymn to herring

For most people living in Britain today who are even vaguely interested in food and how it comes to being, tomatoes from Holland stand as an epitome of all that is wrong with today's intensive agriculture - tasteless and unripen 'vegetable-things', grown fast and too clever into a uniformity of perfectly-made 'products'. And this is not just an overgeneralising misconception - a weighty percentage of fruit and veg sold in the UK is in fact imported from Holland, from the fields of glasshouses and factories. My usual anticipation of wonderful new markets and fresh produce was therefore slightly blemished in anticipation of my recent trip to Amsterdam.

Ironic really, considering that the 'Low Countries' (the lands roughly comprising the present-day Holland and parts of the surrounding countries, so called because of their complete, pancake-like flatness, lying below the sea-level) pretty much caused the agricultural revolution in England in the 17-18 centuries! Holland and Flanders were eating well in the 17th centuries, thanks to their naval prowess - and as a consequence the wealth of spices, exotic fruits and everything that could be appropriated from the far-away 'primitive' lands; and engineering intelligence, allowing them not only to build big and lasting ships (in the meantime 'inventing' sauerkraut with its ample C-vitamin content that would allow sailors to be in the sea, scurvy-free, for more than 4 weeks), but also drain half of their country, leaving behind rich and fertile soil. The Dutch - Protestant and prosecuted - immigrated en-masse to the friendly England, taking their brains and hands with them. They brought along with them the new ways of cultivating land (planting clover and humble turnip on an empty land in rotation), all sorts of new vegetables (such as a 'normal' orange carrot, virtually unknown to the English before) and, of course, flowers. Holland still grows and buys more flowers, it seems, than the whole of Europe bunched up together. It makes sense (commercially at least), what else would you grow on the land so hill-free and so human-populated - tulips, veg and cows seem a good answer (the legend has it that the hormones that used to be added to milk are responsible for the improbable height of the Dutch - I'd rather think it's the liberal thinking or the pot, allowing for the democratic mix of genes).

The flowers are indeed a craze, even at numerous 'ethnic' markets spreading out across Amsterdam. Tulips and the well-familiar boxes of factory-produced tomatoes and pointless iceberg lettuces. One such market is on Mauritskade street, near the big and empty Oosterpark and by the curiously located Tropenmuseum that is dedicated to Holland's colonial successes. A fascinating, never-ending stretch of stalls: Moroccan-Turkish-Indonesian snacks mixed in with all for a euro offers and tables filled by freshly-arrived immigrants filling up with breakfasts after night shits. It felt quite familiar - young dark-skinned mothers exchanging phazes in Dutch with stall-holders with the same ease it happens in London in English; imported packages of food with signs from all over the worlds and a myriad of made-in-China's. But the market somehow also felt more 'real', more needed, perhaps because the surrounding area is mainly populated by immigrants, unlike in London where every district is broken down and interpopulated, allowing poverty to co-exist with relative wealth.

But then, of course, there's another side to Amsterdam and, just like in London, the desire for 'local, seasonal, organic' is making its strong mark. Some half an hour walk north, near trendy, Notting Hill like Joordan, there's a Noordermarkt. According to a guidebook, the market is 'unbeatable for second-hand clothes and accesorices'. That was all there, but more importantly, the whole area is taken by by an enormous organic farmers' market every Saturday. It is insanely popular by all sorts of crowds, partly perhaps because Amsterdam doesn't seem to have many other (if any) farmers' markets, partly because the mix of antics, second-hand finds, artistic finds and stall of local artisans and farmers creates an irresistible atmosphere of carnival and joyful matter-of-factness. The word 'bio', or organic, to me seemed quite a stretch applied to this place, since only about a portion of stalls were selling organic (or at least identifyable certified organic), however, the combination of bric-a-brac, quality hand-made titbits (I had to be dragged from an adorable scarf made out of a sleeve from a man's jacket) and small-scale producers were justifying the hype.

Then there was food: huge fluffy wild mushrooms, the yellow insanity of bulbous Dutch cheeses, Dutch pigs happily hanging on crooks and kranies. I particularly liked the flat tubes of dough made out of spelt flour, filled with dried strands of seawood - felt like eating up an essence of Holland! An earthy, down to earth layer of pastry filled with a salty, mineral-rich core - what if not a metaphor for the sturdy nation beating the force of sea!

My main reason to come to the market was to try what I miss so much from my blondy days in Estonian pastures and what the Dutch seem to be happily swallowing up any time of the day - herring. Actually, it is better described as herring sachimi, because the fish is not cooked or, in most cases, even marinated. It is simply spankingly fresh, briefly salted and served with bread, chopped onions and sliced pickled cucumbers. The taste of this oily, fatty, meaty fish can only be described as delectable. But then there's the texture - slivering flesh, round and tender, just sliding down your throat. Heaven. Especially when eaten cross-legged, on a pavement, by a canal, helped by a glass of fridge-cold sparkling wine, whilst eyeing up the passing-by boats and cyclists. A pity really that Brits have chosen to import the stale sameness of peppers and cucumbers, rather than the the fleshy beauty of a plump herring. The fish is plentiful, healthy, delicious and cheap - perhaps, we need another wave of the crafty Dutch to show us the way!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Russians in statistics and gherkins

Ever wondered what lurks behind the ubiquitous banner of 'Eastern-European products' above some Cyrillic looking but mainly Asian shops around the capital? My findings in pictures:

Russians are as famous for drinking vodka three times a day, as for walking bears as pets and eating pickles as staple food. But as opposed to Indian cucumber pickles, which are normally made out of long and smooth varieties sliced into slick rounds, Russians would not dare to use anything but the little, prickly type - as above. Acclimatisation of Russians in the UK is particularly troublesome therefore, as one would not find this type anywhere in Britain. Hence my heart lipped the other day when I came across a modest box of wrinkled gherkins, in a gleaming beauty of all-import Eastern-European shop called 'Smak' in the otherwise Ottoman vicinity of Green Lanes.

'Corned bird - Eastern variety'
Corned meats were particularly popular with the Soviet folk, not only as a useful staple taken to camps (pioneer type, not the concentration, although the latter most probably too), but often stirred into noddles to make vermishelli po-flotski, noodles a la navy (presumably because the dish was easily assembled on ships and boats across the USSR). The dish is a Soviet equivalent to the Shepperd's Pie, and as such much loved by kids everywhere in the 1/6th of the universe.
Clearly the 'bird' variety is a more exquisite offer, more appropriate for the Russian emigree.

'Sunflower seeds - selected'
Called 'Amusement' - one almost wonders if the healthy snack is used to sell other, less virtuous, and slightly less legal seeds. A London equivalent to an Amsterdam coffee shop!

'Male jam'
No jocking, this is an exact translation. If you think this is some kind of alternative medicine to treat 'male problems', you are understandably, but seriously mistaken. This is a Russian alternative to a 'Gentleman's Relish', essentially a tomato marinate or a sauce aimed specifically at men. I have not tasted this delicacy, but assume it has some chilly, less sugar and is quite chunky - this is what a real man is like of course.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The trail of memory: stewed plums

The end of summer is often the time when, in a desperate attempt to capture the fleeting sun, one spends even longer outdoors, breathing in the increasingly fresh air of still green leaves and fruit in prime. Bottling the essence of the escaping warmth and approaching days of trumpeting water on a roof is a process of prolonging the pleasure of the summer season. It is also about building of future memories, moments of looking back and enjoying the nostalgia. Be it oversized strawberries, tiger bodies of enormous courgettes or your own memory of the days that will never come again - August is the time of melancholy; that mellow and slow feeling of time trickling away, and you being on the verge of both laughter and tear. The making of the future memories therefore becomes remembrance of the things repast…

Most of my summers when I was little were spent in Crimea, in the South of Ukraine, on the Black sea, in Feodosiya, the town popular with hippies and Soviet burokrachiki. My grandfather Dmitry Vladimirovich, having retired from the tiresome role of a KGB major, had built a wooden house there; and my brightly ginger grandmother Polina had grown a beautiful and wild garden around the house, full of overgrown flowers, peach and cherry trees, chickens and lots of spindly spiders hanging between trees and forgotten corners. There was a little wooden hut amongst the trees, stuffy with lots of dump and communist magazines, poetry volumes and ship-building manuals (my dad was a ship engineer). There were a couple of springy single beds there and a drawer which always held a bottle of portwein or a ‘good Georgian cognac’ – my father liked a tumble or two (or three) in the evening, before going off to see his friends - captains of small tourist boats; to me commanders of huge ships.

My grandfather had long been gone by the time I remember my dad taking me to Feodosiya for my 3-month summer holidays, although my grandma Polina – a stern women with lots of energy – was still around, looking after the house, making me scared with her steely manner, but also making lots of wonderful jams in her little, cool kitchen. She would lay out mountains of fruits on a table outside her house and use huge, enamel basins (normally used for washing up) and a small stove to preserve the summer: the wonderful fruity mess would slowly change its colour from dark red, to bubble-gum pink to pale innocent pink. The intoxicating aroma of sugar and fruit is still imprinted in my mind (and my belly). To this day I think she must have been quite a lonely woman, with a quietly tragic life of a wife of a KGB employee, a man who held tough principles on child-rearing and liked younger women. I would like to think that Polina’s jam making was a way to show love and care to the world, to preserve the heavy and impossibly beautiful fruits of her labour in the garden, and to give her a moment of eye-squeezing happiness in the middle of very severe Crimean winters: I can imagine her sitting a table, covered with a bright plastic cover, the room only lit by a small table lamp, slurping dark, hot tea with little spoonfuls of summer-laden sweet fruits preserved in their youth and virginity. Dad and I would often carry the heavy jars of crimson and yellow all the way back to cool and flat Estonia, store them in our little kladovka, next to my mum’s creations, to be open and enjoyed for ‘special occasions’ (the first one almost always being my birthday just a couple of months later) and cold, white nights, when only sweet and canned would do.

I remembered my grandma Polina’s jam-making sessions today, when impromptu I decided to stew a few forgotten plums in the fridge. They were tiny, very tart and impossible to stone, but once put together with a bit of sugar and water, the magic begun. The fruits had quickly lost their shape, became slushy, bubbled up into a pretty fury of white and pink syrup and just a few minutes later re-appeared as a beautifully dark and nourishing soup - quite far in taste or texture from Polina’s perfectly formed jams, but nevertheless immensely smoothing, relaxing in its sugarness and languid consistency – a beautiful and melancholic link between the things long past and the things soon to come.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The beauty of pig trotters

Arent’ they fun?! A test to an omnivore kinda dish, I say. Yes, not only did I buy these pink creatures quite on purpose (the all organic tootsies of a - hopefully! - happy piggy), but cleaned them, boiled them until no more, dismantle them and put them all together into a glorious Soviet grandmotherly dish of kholodets, or pork in aspic, or ham and chicken terrine.

The name Kholodets stems from a Russian word meaning cold, frozen or chilled. The dish basically consists of shredded boiled meat (which can be anything from chicken to rabbit to beef), jellified by the means of a pork stock, made out of pig trotters (the bones and other tissue in the feet make the liquid go jelly-like when chilled. In fact – read closely, my vegetarian friend - all jelly like treats are made with at least some use of a pig essence). I believe the must have it roots in the Fresh obsession with everything jellied in the 18-19 centuries (and as everyone knows Russians were bonkers about the Fresh in those far away days). The wobbly and transparent texture must have signified something bizarrely sophisticated and - yes - fun.

I'd been dreaming of re-creating this dish of my childhood for years, battling the seeming impossibility of sourcing the named tootsies from local butchers. Kholodets could in the past be found in any canteen or restaurant throughout the Communist kingdom - in different shapes and disguises; but I always remember the long evenings at home, in our kitchen, when my mum would slowly go through buckets of just-boiled meat, carefully separating the edible tasty bits from not so. Her utilizing all the possible plates, cups, bowls and saucers in our house to make the little individual portions of kholodets - a bit of meat on the bottom of a plate, some crushed garlic, then goes the stock and in the fridge for 12-24 hours. My mum almost always used chicken meat and put lots of garlic, so the result was incredibly tender, delicate and flavoursome at the same time. We ate out little kholodets (ki?) out of the bowls where it’d been chilling, with some nose-bitingly Russian mustard or grated horseradish and, of course, black Russian rye bread.

Well, I repeated the experiment the other night, freakily enjoying the sweet and meaty smell of chicken and trotters boiling my kitchen away for good 4 hours (take the trotters and bony joints of chicken, add cold water, a few spoons of vinegar, onion, carrots, lots f salt and spices - basically chuck the ‘left overs procedure’). And this is the initial result:

I felt like a villain – a wonderful, life-affirming feeling!

My kholodets was more of a fresh terrine - an ample amount of meat in each bowl (with added parsley, cracked pepper and garlic, which I mistakenly omitted) and only enough stock to cover the filling (no more than a cm or so).

Voila! (sorry about the amateur-ish photo)

Have your pig trotter concossion with some pickled cucumbers (mine were very spicy with lots of chillies), a lovely fresh salad, soughdour (home-made in my case, but this may be optional) and - an absolute requirement which was refused to me in my years of pioneer youth - a shot of very, very cold vodka.
Na zdaravye, tovarishi.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

On conquering an eight-legged monster

Octopuses are generally sold dead, but you feel you struggle a powerful, living sea-creature when immersing its foot-long muscular body into a saucepan of boiling water. The way it curls, spasms and turns from milky-grey to crimson makes you feel both powerful and cruel; in awe of the nature, how it allowed you to evolve and develop skills to conquer such animal.

We spent blissful two days on the island of Vis, Croatia, totally occupied by this many-legged creature. The octopus adventure started with an early morning trip to a little local fish market - a quiet covered space right on the sea front, with a handful of fishermen carefully laying out their catch on the smooth, stone tables. Feeling just a tad self-conscious (predatory white shorts and large sun-glasses) I breathed in and walked in...The men weren't particularly bothered either way, probably not quite believing that a young laaaady like me (remember, Vis is a 'luxury' island, full of yachts and London priced restaurants) would actually dare to buy a whole fish and cook it in her rented apartments. Well, I went for the weirdest and most daring (and, yes, the most dear! although peanuts compared to the prices in near-by taverns). I didn't even see its size when buying - the wrinkley paunchy fisherman just pointed towards a blue plastic bag and grumbled 'this, octopus!'. I accepted the unspoken challenge, internally steadily telling myself that if it all goes pear-shaped, it's only about 15 quid down the drain. The man must have spotted an octupi novice in me and offered to clean the mollusc (for a fee). Thank God I said yes, because, firstly, I realised I'd bought two octopuses; and secondly, that the amount of ink that came out of the creatures would swamp our entire 'euro-furbished' kitchen! I left the cool market room feeling adventurous, if slightly terrified.

My next move was therefore wise - checking how to cook the inky, slimy thing (I wouldn't normally go into such preparations, relying on my general sense of cooking requirements). Unlike a tender little squid, octopuses need to be cooked for good (aa!) 2 hours before being fried or grilled (apparently, octopuses live for a lot longer than the squid for example, hence having time to toughen up. They die, by the way, within just a few weeks of conceiving their off-spring: endocrine secretions are the cause of genetically-programmed death). So, our dinner had to be improvised whilst we got to the task of 'tenderising' the octopus’s meat. We spent the whole evening in the sweet vapour of the cooking octopuses. The oven was electric, and so I just couldn't find the way to keep the temperature constantly low, so the monster just lied there, bathing in a pot of very hot water. Eventually, around midnight, we made a decision that the folk could 'easily go through the fresh', poured out the water and let the two leggies rest.

I dreamt all night of legs, suction cups, corals...

The morning felt like a Christmas day to me. I jumped out of bed, sprinting to the kitchen, as if expecting that something magical would have happened to the cooked molluscs! They just lied there sleepily, very tender pale pink colour all over with darker, almost indigo-coloured thin layer of skin on top. They looked beautiful and humble to me.

Our second octopus day started with a delicate operation of taking some of the darker skin off the octopuses together with various fatty tissues in between, carefully trying to keep all the succulent suction cups intact. I then sliced all the 16 legs in one inch pieces: half was kept for our grandiose lunch, another half was marinated with just some olive oil and lots of lemon (this was mainly from the smaller octopus, who we, quite rightly, expected to be tender). The main feast was prepared like this:

Octopus a la Vis

glugs of (Croatian of course) olive oil

sliced onion

crushed garlic

all the sliced octopus legs

cubes of boiled new potatoes (4-6 depending on their size)

juice of one squeezed lemon (and some rind if you like a bit of extra zing)

a few table spoons of white wine

lots of finely cut parsley

(chilly flakes would go very nicely here, but I didn't have them in my rented kitchen)

Sweat onions and garlic in some olive oil, until tender and just a little brown. Add the octopus and potatoes, fry on a gentle heat for a 2-3 minutes, add the wine, let it evaporate for a minute or so. Chuck all the parsley, and stew for a few more minutes with a little bit of water if necessary, so that the whole thing comes together in a glorious and messy pink-yellow-green stew.

Eat with more chilled, crisp white wine and chunks of fresh and crusty baguettes.

Our verdict? The sweet and slightly citrusy flavour of the octopuses is unforgettable: fresh, meaty and juicy; it felt like sucking and chewing on the essence of the Mediterranean. If only I’d insisted that the stove the previous evening did it job properly – the bigger mollusc definitively needed an extra half an hour in the pot, as we needed at least a couple more jaws to chew through all the legs (a surprisingly pleasant meaty chewing gum of the octopus I fact!). I know this because the smaller legged creature had just the right texture of chewiness and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness… Perhaps the octopuses did have its upper hand (leg?) on us at the end. We were equals in the fight. I take my hat off in respect and… sharpen my knifes in preparation.