23 Nov 14

When we last left off, the Ambassador had joined us, I had unfurled my napkin, and lunch was ready to begin. Here is what we ate, course by delicious course.

hearts of palm salad with tomatoes, green beans, marinated onions!

pasteles de yucca: filled with meat, served with pickled onion relish

fried plantain topped with juicy stewed meat and coriander/cilantro

Ajiaco! so good! see the avocado? sour cream? capers? chicken and potato?Everything was delicious, but we already knew it would be as we had been stirring and tasting already.

tender braised beef with rice and plantains

creme brulee topped with crisp milk-caramel

guava membrillo with fresh cheese and Colombian flag!

The chefs came out and we applauded!

Our wonderful chefs!

A very funny thing: I really didn’t know much about Colombia or Colombian food when I was invited to lunch; as I spent time with the chefs and we all cooked together, though, I felt such warmth (always welcome in our British coolness).  I loved the way they prepared the food: not just a job, not a statement of style or personality, not just how it tasted either though all the chefs agreed that was paramount, but the way the food was caressed into being: patted, stirred, and at the risk of sounding trite: made with love.

In fact, the taste that impressed me, stayed with me, was the taste of my grandmother’s cooking. Even though my grandmother had never been to Colombia, not even to a Colombian restaurant! Everything was homey, and hand-intensive, even when served up on the Ambassador’s exquisite China table settlings…..it was food meant to be eaten, food as a cultural caress, rather than food meant to impress. And I found it hugely comforting.

There was one dish, though, that spoke to me more than any of the others: Ajiaco Santafereno: chicken soup, with two kinds of potatoes for texture, corn because its such a ubiquitous ingredient, the whole  flecked with coriander/cilantro, and served with capers, sour cream and diced avocado. The tangy fresh spunkiness of the capers– oh yes!–almost made me smile, while the diced avocado and sour cream added smoothness and richness each in their own way.

When I got home I made my own version of the soup,  adapted from Colombia Cocina de Regiones, a regional Colombian cookbook in both Spanish and English, a book which our chefs contributed to. When I left, I requested a picture of myself standing in front of the national flag, with my new book.

Here is the recipe, a streamlined version of the soup we had for lunch. I cheated and used chicken broth as a base; if you like, you can make your own chicken soup as they do in Colombia. Either way, delightful.


Serves about 6-8

2-3 quarts chicken broth or stock

2 onions, coarsely chopped or thinly sliced

4-6 cloves garlic, cut up coarsely

1 bunch cilantro/fresh coriander leaves, washed, dried, and coarsely chopped, including the stems

About 5 floury potatoes, peeled and sliced

8-10 waxy salad potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

12 ish ounces chicken breast, boned and skinned, and cut into bite sized pieces

About 3 ears corn on the cob, cut through the cob so that they look like wheels

Salt and black pepper or white pepper

1/4 cup, aproximately (to taste) capers in brine, plus a few drops brine per bowlful

About 1/2 cup sour cream or as desired

1 avocado, peeled and diced (sprinkle with lemon juice if doing ahead, even by 5 or ten minutes, or it will brown unappealingly

In a large pot place the chicken broth, onion, garlic, half the coriander/cilantro and both of the types of potatoes. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook at a medium simmer, for about 20 minutes or until the floury potatoes have fallen apart and the waxy ones are film but tender.

Add the chicken and corn on the cob, then cook a further 10 minutes or until the chicken is tender.

When ready to serve, ladle out the soup taking care each person gets a few rounds of corn and some chunks of chicken, then sprinkle avocado into each bowl, then the capers with  few drops of the brine, and finally, a spoonful of sour cream.

23 Nov 14

Friday I was invited to lunch at the Colombian Ambassador’s house; along with a small group of food/travel writers we would hang with and learn from, the chefs in the kitchen before we all met the Ambassador and sat down to dine.

On my way to the kitchen I stopped to wash my hands, then spotted hand towels, embroidered with the British and Colombian flags. Far too delicate to dry my hands on! My snooping didn’t stop there, of course, I managed to wander through one of the side rooms and found the Ambassador’s hats! Arent they wonderful!

Here is the Ambassador, Nestor Osario’s, collection of hats. Dont tell him I snapped them, okay?

The kitchen was full of happy activity, every surface of the room covered with trays and platters of foods and ingredients; the chefs–I noticed that they were all women– were welcoming and busy, so busy: rolling, chopping, stirring, frying; it was all happening.

fried plantains, cornmeal patties, shredded chicken.....

the chefs and an array of ingredients

I put on my Juan Valdez embroidered apron,-we were all issued one–and rolled up my sleeves. Before long I was patting out arepas and filling them with eggs, stuffing pasteles de yucca, and tasting lots of different ingredients: who knew that pink pickled onions were made into a piquant dipping sauce in Colombia? or that guava membrillo was eaten with cheese, or that capers, avocado and sour cream were added to the wonderful chicken and potato soup which seems to be the Colombian national dish known as ajiacco.

Soon we were nibbling and noshing, as dish after dish was prepared by the chefs along with a constantly revolving narrative of directions.

egg filled arepa, hot, crisp, and ready to eat!

frying arepas

watching chef mix arepas

When everything was ready, we took off our aprons, and entered the dining room.

we join the Ambassador

i unfurl my napkin. ready for lunch!

the table is set

18 Nov 14

This week I read an interview with the subject of Joni Mitchell’s song: Cary. You know, the one that takes place in Matala, Crete. Cary apparently is the long lost mean old daddy of the song. So there they were, the song going around in my mind, laughing and toasting to nothing, throwing their empty glasses down…..anyhow, alongside the interview was a photo of Joni and “Cary”, in a grainy sepia, taken in a park in Iraklion by a photographer and his homemade camera. I recognized the setting: a handful of years later, I had MY picture taken in the SAME park, by an old guy with a homemade camera. Much as I try–its not in my online set of photos–I can’t quite find that picture to post here. I know it is here somewhere, in one of my boxes of pre-internet life.

Anyhow, the picture of Joni  got me thinking about Crete and the winter I spent living there. As what seems to have been the pattern with everyone else at the time, I didn’t end up there on purpose: i–and he who would become my first husband– drifted there letting the winds of fate decide whether we go to Spain and Morocco or Italy and Greece: We ended up heading east which kindled my own life-long love affair with BOTH Italy and Greece.

So: Brindisi to Corfu, Corfu to Athens, and after an old night ferry from Athens we rolled up on the island of Crete and rolled into Iraklion.

We found  a youth hostel/hotel, and fell in love with the island.  The owners seemed to like us, and even let us cook for them which I wrote a little bit about in my first unsung book Naturally Good (Random House/Faber). It was Chanukkah time and we made latkes and borsht which they were askance at until they ate. Then, they said we could stay for free if I painted murals on the walls,  downstairs which they were turning into a cafe/ouzeria. I said yes, and the painting began.

The hotel was in the center of town, right around the corner from the marketplace, not a million miles away from that park where unbeknownst to me–i was a huge fan–Joni Mitchell had a few years earlier had her photo snapped.

I loved living in Iraklion: it was so urban yet small. There was a cultural buzz of city life, we were surrounded by a rural idyl, and it was all so unspoiled, so very very unspoiled. Recently I went back and found it to be the same: unspoiled. Especially the quaility of dairy products! We bought yogurt dished out from a ceramic bowl, feta dished out of an animal skin, and the best bougatsa (Cretan custard pie). We ate in the tavernas, danced when we weren’t eating and drinking, and when we weren’t eating, drinking or dancing, I was painting those murals!

My memories of that time are overlaid with so much good food, stews and casseroles of meat and vegetables I’ve never seen in cookbooks, just food simmered together from what was available, in season, grown locally: all of this way before it was chic to eat local, farm to table, etc: it was simply the way to eat. The ONLY way possible in fact.

So yesterday, when i read about Joni Mitchell and that park in Iraklion, I thought about the stews we ate there, often from a bowl spooning up the sauce, no extra accompaniment except for some bread and salad on the side. Looking through the kitchen I found pork, and a bag of fresh chestnuts; a few tins of tomatoes and I was ready to simmer.

The ingredients and amounts are flexible; traditionally dry red wine is used, but I didn’t have any and used verjuice (nonalcoholic slightly fermented grape juice), and to be honest: i don’t know HOW many chestnuts I used: a big bag full.

Cretan Pork and Chestnut Stew

Serves 4

1 lb chestnuts

1 lb pork, fatty and lean, in small bite sized chunks

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1-2 medium sized onions, peeled and coarsely diced

3-4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped/cut up

1 cup dry red wine, slightly (ever so slightly) sweetish white wine, or verjuice

2 cups water plus a little bouillon/stock/seasoning such as better than bouillion, or stock cube, or 2 cup broth mixed with water

2 tins chopped tomatoes plus their juices, each can about 12-13 ounces

2 bay leaves

about 2 inches worth of a cinnamon stick

Pinch or two allspice

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash vinegar, or lemon juice, to taste, if needed

Score each chestnut on its flat side, then roast in a heavy ungreased pan over medium heat, letting it char somewhat evenly. When they are all splotched with dark brown, cover and let them sit and absorb some of the smoky scent as well as cook them through and make them easier to peel.

When they are cool enough to handle, using a paring knife, peel off the skins; you’ll probably need to cut through the hard sort of base of each chestnut; see how it goes. Some of the chestnuts can be broken up if that happens, but try to keep as many whole as possible. When they are all done, set aside.

In a heavy bottomed large cooking vessel, lightly very lightly saute the pork with the onion and garlic, adding a spoonful or two of olive oil as needed to keep it from sticking and to keep it glossy. When the meat looks opaque, pour in the wine/verjuice and water/broth; Bring to oil, then reduce heat and let simmer over medium low heat for about 20 minutes.

Add tomatoes, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, allspice, salt and pepper, and cook over low heat another 30 minutes or so, or until the meat is tender and the sauce rich. If the sauce hasn’t condensed a bit and become delicious, try adding a little more broth, or pour the sauce off and boil down separately for a few minutes before returning to the pan with the meat.

Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper, vinegar/lemon juice if/as needed.

4 Nov 14

Gareth Jones, Giusseppe di Martino, and me!

3 Nov 14

The little village-town of Vietri sul Mare clings to the cliffs on the Campania coast, just up the hill from the port city of Salerno.

Vietri is a town built of ceramics: everywhere you go, there are ceramic walls, mosaics, tiles, shops, community park-lets, all strewn with and made out of ceramics. Vietri sul Mare ceramics might well be the ceramics you think of when you think of the joyous, brightly coloured, whimsically designed ceramics of the south. Plates and bowls to eat from, mugs and cups to drink from, jugs and pitchers to plant in and pour from, tiles to brighten your wall, your house, your pool, your benches…..oh and if there aren’t enough ceramics everywhere–lets put it this way: it isn’t easy to get more than a store or two through the town without a shop, gallery or simply a tiled sign or exhibition–there is also a huge museum devoted to all things ceramic.

3 Nov 14

2 Nov 14

2 Nov 14

The rural suburb of Beijing, Daxing, is still sleepy–though i’m told the largest airport in China is scheduled to open in this area a few years from now.  Until then, Daxing is famous for one thing: watermelons. Sweet and juicy, in season, the melons are everywhere. I visited end of May start of June and pretty sure I didn’t have a different  fruit during my stay–nor a meal without melon.

Its fine with me however, more than fine: when the weather is hot and sultry: nothing prevents my own inner melt-down than juicy, cool melon.

This capital of watermelon takes its title seriously, with a variety of watermelon destinations: an AMAZING museum, farms for visiting, even theme parks.

Possibly the most charming melon-themed location, though, was one I didn’t even know about ahead of time: a park. Right across from my hotel.

The first morning I awoke, jetlagged of course, I headed out for a walk and discovered it. Green with winding paths, it was full of people doing Tai Chi. And scattered throughout the park were beautiful watermelon sculptures.