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.