12 Oct 14

Mohana Gill leading the demonstration, with Mridula Baljekar helping

One of the things about cookbooks that I love is the personal aspect: cookbooks that are like scrapbooks of a persons life, a recipe that tells how she or he first tasted it, or how their mamma makes it, or how it is long a tradition in their village.  In other words, I like to see–and taste–what other people are and have been eating. It is the sort of thing that amplifies our lives.

Some cookbooks do this by taking a memoir form, others by portraiting a culture, and a land, especially a land that has long been inaccessible to much of the world.

So it is that I fell in love with Myanmar: Cuisine, Culture and Customs, a book by Mohana Gill, that won a top prize at the 2014 Gourmand Awards held in Beijing. I had met Mohana a number of years ago, in Malaysia where she lives, and had seen her at various Gourmand events over the years. Her previous books, on vegetables and fruits, with a feeling towards children, were charmingly delicious.

But it was Maynmar, a book written about her homeland, that captured my imagination. Burnese food was not new to me: having lived in San Francisco for many years we had several Burmese restaurants. I frequented the one near City Hall, for their tea leaf salad, ginger salad, pork and mango curry, tomato curry, so many things…..I ordered like this: choose one old favourite, and one new dish. That way I could explore and yet always have enough of the tastes I adore.

So I wasn’t a stranger to the cuisine: but i WAS a stranger to the culture. And to cooking Burmese food myself.

Suddenly here was my friend Mohana with a book about her culture, her homeland, her home cuisine.  I hurried along to her demonstration at the Bejing Gourmand Awards and Bookfair. We–a thoroughly interestional crowd of cookbook authors which included Mridula Baljekar of India, Dorinda Hafner of Australia, Ofer Vardi of Israel, and really: the whole world was represented– munched the many goodies she brought. We chomped on toasted lima beans, tasted golden crunchy bits of garlic, took teeny nibbles from hot hot hot chillies…..as Mohana showed slides of her homeland and foods, we tasted our way through the ingredients. And at the end of her talk we were all yabbering at once: I want to go! when are you going? should we go together? when can Mohana meet up with us and take us around?

Together we all, under Mohana’s guidance, made tea leaf salad. So much garlic! so many chillies! some were a little frightened….but as we tasted and tasted and tasted, there wasn’t one who didn’t fall under the spell of this fascinating dish: a dish that so represents Burmese food: the fermented tea leaves, the crispy cruncy seeds and legumes, and enough garlic and chillies to win over even the most timid of eaters. We, to the last person gathered, LOVED it. As a banquet was scheduled for not long after the demonstration, I wanted to save some for the other delegates who hadn’t been lucky enough to come to the demo.

I’m not saying that people didn’t look at me strangely: i mean: who goes to a banquet with a big bowl of food in their arms? For each table, I divvyed up the salad, and plopped it down to puzzled looks. But here is the thing: the next day wave after wave of delegates came to me saying: that was so delicious, what was it, where can we find it, how can we buy or make it?

It was easy to simply say the name of the book.

But here is the thing: a number of years ago, in fact, a lot of years ago, before europstar, and before ease of travel throughout the Eu for Europeans, I visited France. At the border, or possibly an information office upon arrival, we were given a small booklet describing all of the delicious specialities of the whole country, region by region. In one fell swoop I learned about where to find the best goats cheese (La Loire), where to find fougasse bread (Provence), where the best butter was (Normandy) and so forth. It was one big food and drink education of France. And I’ve always cherished it. A few years later I was lucky enough to come upon a similar book of Italian specialities, and again, in one fell swoop became italo-literate, foodwise.

Now of course, so many of these things are sold in British and American supermarkets, and in fact, all over the world people are familiar with French and Italian specialities. But Burmese food: THAT is a mystery. I think it would be wonderful if the embassies or government tourist bureaus of Myanmar could hand out such a book, or booklet based on this book, as a way of familiarizing strangers to this exotic cuisine. I know that I want to try the delicate soup of roselle (like sorrel) soup with a smoky hit of grilled fish; and the tomato curry, with its ginger and turmeric, and masses of coriander leaves and just enough chillies to slap my mouth in a good way,  looks like something i might like to make throughout tomato season.

And really: once you’ve eaten the food, you already know the locals. You’re ready to open your heart; actually i’ll take it a step further: once you fall in love with  cuisine, its not far behind that you will be in love with the culture too.

Here is a recipe excerpted from Myanmar, Cuisine, Culture and Customs:

Published by Marshall Cavandish, all rights belonging to Mohana Gill.

Khazan Thoke: Cellophane Noodle Salad

Serves 4-6

Mohana says this is possibly the most popular salad in Myanmar. It is pretty wonderful

250g/9 oz cellophane/glass/mung bean noodles

1 tablespoon roasted chickpea flour (besan; toast it in a small ungreased frying pan until it is golden/brownish)

1 onions, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves/cilantro

1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint leaves

1 tablespoon (or less if desired) chile flakes (i tend to use little if any if i’m using a hot chile oil such as szechuan chile oil, which is easily available, also easy to make, and delicious. And hot, very hot.

2 tablespoons crisp-fried shallots (I prefer to buy these ready made; if not, Mohana has directions for their preparation)

2 tablespoons chile-infused oil/ hot chile oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt to taste

Fish sauce to taste

Place the cellophane noodles in a large heatproof bowl, and pour boiling water over the noodles to cover. Let sit a few minutes then drain the noodles and refresh under cold running water. Drain and place in a serving bowl. Noodles should be tenderized.

Sprinkle the roasted chickpea flour on the noodles, then add the onion, coriander/cilantro, mint, chile flakes if using, and crisp fried shallots. Toss well.

Add the chile oil and lemon juice, taste and season with salt and fish sauce. Serve as part of a multicourse  menu.

a traditional collection of toasted seeds, nuts, spices, and garlic

Myanmar Cuisine, Culture and Customs with a bowl of Burmese favourites garlics and chillies!

26 Aug 14

Since I’ve written a book about potatoes–Yummy Potatoes,  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yummy-Potatoes-Downright-Delicious-Recipes-ebook/dp/B00ANC32Y6– it should come as no surprise that whatever in life happens to challenge me, the answer often involves potatoes. In fact, regardless of the question, the answer is usually potato salad.

The other day I was on hanging on facebook,  while one of my fave peeps–Indian-American Chef, cookbook author, San Francisco restauranteur  and Top Chef Television judge, Suvir Suran–was going on and on about the potato salad he was making. “friends” were oohing and aaaahing. I “watched”, from the other side of the world, as its preparation unfolded. The potatoes, the eggs, the pickles……..yes, it involved pickles. This was my roadblock. I’ve noticed when Suvir has made this potato salad before–I might not remember birthdays and the time of flights, but I always remember when Suvir makes potato salad.

Because it sounds so good, as he whips it lovingly together.

Then, when its ready, he posts pictures of it, and of course, it looks so good. And then,  I know its only a matter of time before I’m boiling spuds and chopped vegetables.

I’ll be honest: his potato salad always looks so good that I start getting nervous when he makes it, like I’ll never taste his potato salad, nor anything so delicious ever! And its not a fear completely unfounded: living abroad I don’t have access to iconic American sweet pickles, and if i do bring them back we end up eating them up long before I make potato salad.

But of course, I have a million potato salads up my sleeve: potato salads I’ve picked up all over the world. In solidarity with Suvir: I marched myself into the kitchen and made my potato salad du jour: with peas and fresh dill (picture upper left)

This is: Not Suvir’s Potato Salad, but mine: with dill, peas, green onions, and….oh yes, roasted pickled peppers

Serves 4

750g/ 1 1/2 lbs small succulent potatoes, such as fingerlings or other salad potato

2 green onions, thinly sliced

About 1/2 cup volume frozen (or fresh young blanched) peas

2-3  teaspoons mild Dijon mustard (such as Maille), or to taste

2-3 heaped tablespoons coarsely chopped or cut up roasted red/pickled/jarred red peppers

2-3 heaped tablespoons coarsely chopped jiardiniera pickled vegetables, finely chopped, plus a little of its marinade

2-3 heaped tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh dill

About 3 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise or as desired

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the potatoes–unpeeled as their skins are probably paper-thin–in cold water to cover, boiling for about 10 minutes. Pour off the water except for a spoonful or two, sprinkle with sea salt, cover and set on a very very low flame. very low. Leave for another 5 or 10 minutes. It will finish steaming the potatoes and drying out their flesh a bit. Could COULD go so far as to let them scorch–a carefully controlled scorch so that it doesn’t burn–which actually gives a beautiful texture and flavour to the spud-letts.

Leave the potatoes to cool until you can handle them. Cut them into large dice or small chunks.

Toss with: green onions, peas, mustard, peppers, jiardiniera and a teaspoon or two of its marinade, the chopped dill. Toss together gently to mix the ingredients evenly but not mash the potatoes.

Fold in the mayonaise, salt and pepper to taste. Chill until ready to eat.

And then because it was so delicious and gobbled up so greedily and quickly, two days later I’m jonseing for another potato salad.  made a different one this morning.

This Also  is Not Suvir’s Potato Salad: this one has Celery, Celery Leaf, and Crunchy Pickled Carrots

This one is very similar–in that it has jiardiniera and brine–but no peas in this one–andthe pickled vegetables in this case are carrots, finely chopped: such a perky punch they pack!

Serves 4

750g/ 1 1/2 lbs tiny salad potatoes such as fingerlings, scrubbed

2 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons or as desired, chopped fresh dill

2-3 teaspoons mild Dijon type mustard

A few shakes of vinegar or brine from jiardiniera vegetable pickles

About 10 slices pickled carrots from jiardiniera pickled vegetable mix

1 stalk celery, including the leaves, chopped

2-3 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise

Cook the potatoes: place them in cold water to cover, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until just tender. Drain all except for a spoonful of water, sprinkle with salt, cover, and leave on very low heat for about 5-10 minutes. You don’t NEED to do this, but I think it results in a less watery, more flavourful and firm, potato

Leave to cool until you are able to handle them.

Dice the cooled potatoes and mix with the green onions, dill, mustard, brine from pickled carrots, then add the finely chopped pickled carrots (and celery too if it comes in the mixture).

Fold in the mayonnaise, salt and pepper to taste, and eat now or chill until ready to serve.

I think i’m totally going to get Suvir’s Potato Salad recipe and print it right here! Watch this space…..

OMG: This IS Suvir’s Potato Salad

Serves 8 to 10

Says Suvir: “Ed Schoenfeld, owner of the celebrated Red Farm restaurant in NYC, makes a version of this potato salad for many of his dinner parties. Before I met Ed, I was never a fan of mayonnaise-based potato salad. Once I tasted his version, my opinion changed forever. What’s unusual about this potato salad is that there is sugar in it. The sweetness combines with the sweet-sour taste of the gherkins, the tang of the lime, the spiciness of the cayenne and the herby freshness of the basil to make a potato salad that hits the ground running. With lots of mayonnaise and olive oil, I admit that it isn’t the healthiest salad in this chapter. But it’s not the kind of salad that you make every day—it’s worth the splurge.

4 large eggs

3/4 cup cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar

Juice of 1 lime

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked peppercorns

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 bunches of scallions, white and light green part only, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped sweet gherkins

1 generous cup basil or dill, finely chopped

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

3 1/2 pounds small to medium red potatoes, peeled, halved and each half quartered

Place the eggs in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover and turn off the heat. Let the eggs stand 10 minutes in hot water and then drain and cool.

Once cool, peel and separate the whites from yolks. Quarter the whites, and set aside; finely mash the yolks and set aside.

Whisk the mayonnaise, egg yolks, olive oil, vinegar, lime juice, mustard, sugar, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper together in a large bowl. Stir in the scallion, gherkins, basil and parsley, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with 1 inch of water. Bring the potatoes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon kosher salt, reduce heat to a medium simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender about 15 to 20 minutes.

Drain and, while still warm, add to the dressing and toss to combine. Cover the bowl flush with plastic wrap and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day in advance. Taste for seasoning and then gently fold in the egg whites and serve.

21 Aug 14

I know, I know, a few posts back, earlier in zucchini season, I posted a recipe for a sort of fritatta: shredded zucchini, eggs, cheese, baked in a pan, a sort of crustless pie. And it is delicious! wonderful! formidable! (pronounced with a french accent, just because doesn’t it sound lovely that way–and also because I got an A in my GCSE French exams).

So you would think: okay, one shredded zucchini, eggs and cheese dish should be enough for anyone’s repertoire, but no, apparently not……..last night I made this: baked ricotta with both shredded AND sliced zucchini. And while it is a little similar to the fritatta, based on eggs, cheese and zucchini, it is different enough for me to share this with you, too: the fritatta-like pie is a whole different thing to eat: flat, firm, with crisp edges and borders and crispy bits all over.  And this? its deep and airy, no crispness at all, a wobble-y mixture of both shredded and sliced zucchini, with the shredded cheese stirred into ricotta.  It emerges from the oven souffle-like, but sinks a bit and gets firmer as it does. Its good fresh and warm, but like the first recipe, the zucchini  fritatta, even better the next day at cool room temperature.

Delicious Fluff of Zucchini and Ricotta

Serves 4

4-6 zucchini: depending on their size

125g/4 oz whole milk ricotta, broken up with a fork

3 eggs

100g/3 1/2 oz shredded sharp white Cheddar, asiago, pecorino Romano, or a similar cheese

3-4 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil

3-4 tablespoons self-rising flour

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

To bake: a deep baking dish, perferably ceramic, about 1 quart/1 litre/ 3-4 cups in volume, prepared by coating the inside with a little evoo, swirling it around, then sprinkling it with freshly grated Parmesan/pecorino/Grana Padano……

Take about 2/3 of the zucchini and grate over the large holes of a grater. Place in a strainer and toss with a few large pinches of kosher or large sea salt; flakes are excellent. Leave for about 15 minutes, lots of liquid will come out, squeeze several times to encourage it!

Slice the remaining zucchini very thinly, toss with a few pinches of salt and leave it also, to draw out the liquid and drain.

Beat the ricotta together with the eggs and stir in the shredded cheese, basil, flour and the drained shredded squeezed zucchini, black pepper to taste.

Pour into the prepared ceramic baking dish, cover with a tight fitting lid or with foil, and bake in a hmmmm…what temperature did i use? I’d say about 325. For about an hour. Having an oven that is temperamental and probably bears no relationship to yours means that you should test it this way: notice: is it puffed up? when you gently touch the top, is it firmish? soft but firmish? if so, its ready. Turn off oven, and keep lid on until you’re ready to eat.

Delicious hot or cold.

Pasta Mista con Zucchini Cacio Pepe!

Serves 2

Cacio pepe is: cheese and black pepper, one of the classic comfort dishes in Italy. Its sauce is creamy, but no cream is involved, the silkiness of the sauce is the result of cooking water–that magic ingredient–being tossed with the hot pasta and cheese.

Pasta mista is a mixture of different types of pasta: here I’ve used spaghetti and tiny macaroni. To be honest I had planned on spaghetti, but found only a small handful in my cupboard, and a small handful of macaroni as well. Like its origins in Italy’s cucina povera, or, the cuisine of the impoverished, which as we all know, can be the most imaginative of all, necessity being the mother and all that….anyhow, I grabbed both types of pasta. Interestingly: while pasta mista began life as a way of using up the small amounts of leftover dried pasta on one’s shelf, it is now sold packaged in chic shops (I just saw a lovely bag in Tuscany), the pasta sizes parcelled up together according to how long they take to cook.

Anyhow, while I was gathering my pasta, grating the cheese and pounding the peppercorns in the mortar and pestle, I gazed out the kitchen window onto the garden and my lone, magnificent, zucchini plant, with a few lovely green zucchini: small, tender and delicious, ready to be picked. The pasta was in the boiling water when I ran through the grass and the mud to gather them……

About 250 g/ 8 oz pasta: half spaghetti, have small macaroni

2-3 small zucchini from the garden, or 1-2 medium sized zucchini from the shops/market, very thinly sliced (though I cut some in batons as well as the slices, to see how that shape would work, note the picture)

Salt for pasta water

About 100 g/ 3 oz freshly grated dryish cheese such as pecorino, parmesan, asiago, grana padano,

Freshly crushed in a mortar and pestle, black peppercorns as desired

About 3 tablespoons evoo

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, salted with about a tablespoon of salt, then add the pasta; stir it through, and when it comes to the boil again, and starts to soften, ie about halfway to al dente, add the sliced zucchini. Cook together until the spaghetti is this side of al dente.

Drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

In the hot pan, over a low heat, toss the pasta and zucchini with the cheese, evoo, and reserved cooking water, black pepper to taste. It will only be a minute or so, then onto hot plates and get your fork ready!

12 Aug 14

The Gourmand Beijing Bookfair took place late May 2014, in the Daxing Hotel Business Centre. There were books and books and books, and presentations by cookbook authors–including yours truly (no foto).

Here is a little tour of some of the award-winning books on display:

Being in China, there were so many Chinese cookbooks, and, not speaking or reading the language, its hard for me to review or choose from them. I did love this book about water buffalo, almost a lovesong to this majestic animal.

a rainbow-ful of dim sum!

i believe this book about the buffalo is from Tibet

And I adored this little book, Dim Sum, so charming: for someone who likes steamed/baked fluffy Chinese buns (me!) this book is particularly delightful because of its twist on traditional: starting with the array of pastel-coloured bao on the cover.

Ofer Vardi’s  Lunchbox Press was showcasing a collection of  books at once contemporary and vibrant, with their pulse on food life in Israel.This childrens cookbook: “Ani Rotzeh L’faschell”, adapted from a French publication, means: I Want to Cook! its adorable.

Paris Patisserie Chez Sharon

And, like all of Lunchbox Press’ publications, so visually appealing you want to jump right into the pages and be a part of them: cook! cook! cook! Lunchbox Press’ book on the sweets of paris,  Paris Patisserie Chez Sharon, is hard to resist: Sharon Heinrich’s love letter to the pastries of Paris.

Lunchbox Press’ book on Bagdadi/Iraqi food is gorgeous, the smell of spices emanates from its pages, but like all of their books at the moment, it is published only in Hebrew. I look forward to the day when Ofer does English editions, as my reading speed for Hebrew is S…..L…..O…..W. so slow.  But here, a book of Israeli food written in English, published by the author, Orly Ziv: Orly Cook in Israel, full of the sort of cozy, homey, mediterranean-based recipes that all Israeli households whip up as second nature, but that to foreigners feels exotic; you want eggplant/aubergine? Orly has it! you want shakshouka? go no further!

Was pleased to see a new book by one of my fave New Zealanders: Julie Biuso.

And then there were several special Japanese books at the cookbook fair: The first, Japanese Farmhouse Foods, by Nancy Singleton Hashisu, a West Coast (USA) gal who moved to Japan, raised a family and, along with her husband and kids, runs a farm, shares her food culture with the world.  This book has won many (deserved) awards: Nancy, a foreigner, devoted to preserving the local traditions of her Japanese countryside community. She is the only person I know who brews her own soy sauce, thats how seriously she takes her adopted artisanal culture of well-crafted foods.

Japanese Farm Foods (this copy in French) Japon, la cuisine a la ferme)

Wagashi, making your own traditional Japanese sweets at home

The world of Japanese sweets, wagashi, are hard to understand for a non-Japanese: they are seasonal, gelled, filled with bean paste and ground nuts and flavoured with odd fruits and tastes we westerners with our cakes, cookies, cupcake mentality, might not be able to relate to. Usually you find wagashi in post little shop–for posh, read: “expensive”, looking sooooo beautiful, each sweet laid on a leaf, on a plate, arranged like precious jewels. Also, its very specialized, so if you don’t live near a large Japanese community, its unlikely you would have access to these elegant treats. Thats why I was enchanted to see this book: Wagashi, how to make them in your own kitchen!

The fragrant, lyrical cuisine that is both  French AND Moroccan: La Cuisine du Pasha, published in French. So evocative.

I have great affection for single subject cookbooks, having written a number of them myself: there is something so exciting about taking a food and exploring its whole world of creativity relating to that food! i was kind of thrilled with i saw: Mohn, meaning poppyseed: see the poppyseed filling of the shtrudel on its cover?


And Spargel, sigh: asparagus. Oh God I COULD WRITE a book about asparagus. This one was in German, so I couldn’t read through it terribly accurately–only to enjoy the pictures and ideas; Germany celebrates asparagus in many ways with many traditions and festivals which are on my wish list. Also a whole book dedicated to its title: Rendang: the spicy, stewy, very savoury meat dish of Malaysia (and, I believe, Indonesia).

Mohana Gill’s Cooking Demonstration

One of the exciting things happening this year for lovers of Asian foods is the opening up of Burma, or, its contemporary name: Myanmar.  Burmese native, Mohana Gill, won a Gourmand award for her: Myanmar: Cuisine, Culture, and Customs.

Mohana brought slides of her recent trip to her homeland, as well as snacks, and ingredients to sample, and a fascinating mud-like skin cream, mixed with a little water, on a stone. “Meant to protect against the sun, as well as the effects of aging”. It felt cool on my skin, and when I washed it off, my skin felt soft.

at the cooking demo:Mridula on the left, Mohana on the right, and Dorinda Hafner in the middle

Together with Indian cookbook author Mridula Baljekar, Mohana prepared a traditional salad of fermented tea leaves, awash with all of the hallmark flavours of Burma/Myanmar: tons of garlic, chillies, crunchy toasted nuts and seeds.  We had so much fun: the big fermented tea leaf salad was pounded with a big mortar and pestle, was utterly garlicky and smacked with chile-spice, and really: we ate ourselves silly! Happily, each bite was lighter than the next, it seemed like with each mouthful we grew only excited, stimulated from the chillies, not for a moment over-full. Which is good because, you know: Its China: and before you know it: another amazing meal.

Love the garlic and chillies!

9 Aug 14

I live in the middle of a blackberry forest in the south of England countryside.

Of course throughout the year my blackberry forest  is other things: a source for nettles, a haven for mushrooms of all kinds, two trees that give wild cherries, a little clearing in the greens which magically sprouts ramps around May, and the wild garlic carpet  that covers the entire forest shortly afterward, lush green shoots with small white flowers, emanating a garlicky aroma that makes parts of the  dense, leafy, forest smell like a pizzeria.

But it is the blackberries that give the forest its name. To be honest, I’m the one who named it so, and to be honest, I’m the only one who calls it that, but really: it IS a blackberry forest, endless acres climbing up the hill, down along the creek bed, creating hedges on either sides of the pathways, hugging fields as it grows and grows and grows as the summer days warm…….The brambles start growing, getting leafy, and madly sending out tendrils,   about June. Next, I see pinkish-white flowers adorn the long meandering new branches. Suddenly I see bunches of tiny green berries, a few at first and then whole banks of them, which as the days grow warming, begin to turn red…..and by the time we’re past the solstice, their small, scrawny berries are transforming into big, fat, berries, their druplets filling with juices and the red colour is turning purple-black. They are at their best when the berries get HUGE, and very plump, and soft, and gleam red-blue-black; by the time they grow dull in colour they are getting past their prime and on the verge of rotting.

I discovered the blackberries well into my first year that I lived here.  It  was not something I chose, living here, and a handful of months after I arrived, I was still bitter about it. How did my life go so wrong? Fourteen years later (life happens even when you plan to be out of a place within the month), I am even more upset with myself that I let it all unfold. And there was nothing, I mean, nothing, I liked about living here during that first year.

on the corner of a cul de sac, Prince of Wales Close

Until one day when I was out walking. Our house sits in on the corner of a cul de sac (aka “close” in uk-speak), in a boring suburban area of a very unremarkable part of the south of England. I was walking up to the shops in the village when I noticed a little foresty opening tucked between two look-the-same tract houses.

i found a paved path between the houses...and followed it.....

just an ordinary corner of suburbia uk-style

At first it looked like a walkway between the two houses, then I thought it might be a shortcut up to the village,  but instead, Narnia-like, the houses gave way to a dirt path with forest on each side: trees, bushes, fronds and dense foliage.

i was suddenly on a foresty path....

I was suddenly in the middle of a forest, miles from any place or any one. Then I noticed the berries. I snatched one, I sampled a second; they were delicious.

In fact, I know i COULD make a pie or jam, but i love them fresh: such luxury! instead of buying a little container and doling them out parsimoniously, we could have as many blackberries as we liked! a huge bowlful for breakfast, and another for lunch and dinner, IF I managed to go out picking, and IF the forest had enough to give……these sweet sweet fruits, which each day replenished themselves: a miracle of the forest! Abundant, free, complex in flavour and good for you too!

Each day I carried my basket and followed further, in different directions, discovering paths and more paths. One led to fields, another to an impenetrable forest, another to a hidden hillside with a  creek, home to little families of foxes, winding pathways through the forest dotted occasionally with tiny cottages.

Since then, whenever I am home for any extended period of time, I shut my eyes to the ugly of banality of my area and head

Jake, Oscar, and Lambchop, their leads/leashes all entangled like a maypole

for the forest where I can walk and walk and walk, my three Jack Russells–Jake, Oscar and Lambchop–at my side.

Jake, Oscar and "Chopsy" (short for Lambchop)

And when its the right time of year, I pick the berries.

That first day picking berries was a consolation for being somewhere I don’t want to be. Looking around and seeing that the hostile territory in fact has a hidden cache of delicious berries, free for the picking, comforted me. I couldn’t understand why anyone who lived here wouldn’t be in the forest with me, every day, filling their baskets too? When I saw/see blackberries for sale in the shops, I don’t understand WHO WOULD BUY, especially not when the shops are surrounded by woods rich with berries, berries far more interesting than the ones they are purchasing in the pristine little plastic punnets.

Surprisingly, not many people pick blackberries here, considering that it really is the most amazing blackberry forest I”ve ever seen. People cite the thorny brushes and brambles, able to shred your wrist and ankles in one forage. Not to mention stinging  insects that sometimes are hidden by a leaf; I can’t tell you how many times I”ve reached out to grab one particularly enticing berry only to stop at the last minute realizing that the beady eyes of a wasp were on me, and it was inches from my fingers.

One of the saddest things is when a bramble is deliberately cut back severely, or cut down altogether. It could happen that I watch that area of the forest, and watch it and watch it, and then one day as I’ve carefully paid attention to each step along the way to berry-ripeness, I go check on the ripeness and suddenly the big branches laden with berries have been hacked away.  The bare brush is not only an eyesore, but a personal loss: I had looked so forward to those berries. But when I’ve protested, little  old ladies say: but the brambles trip us, they cut our fingers, we hate them! They are a nuisance! When we see them, we call the city council to come cut them down for safety’s sake!

But there is no stopping the forest. Last year swaths and swaths and swaths of blackberry patches were torn down, but this spring they sprouted up in different locations. One even snuck into our walled garden!

So I keep going, where one bramble in the forest dissappears, another replaces it in lushness. I think its the balance of sunshine and also the way of the bramble, wanting to spread out and grow grow grow. Sometimes I come upon someone picking them for jelly and jam; once a man was picking and we started talking. He asked me where I was from, and I said California, to which he replied: “Do they have blackberries in California?”. Oh, yes, I exclaimed, hoping for an intelligent conversation about my now-favourite topic: my life with blackberries. But instead he told me: “you should go back there and pick blackerries in California and leave our berries alone!!!”.

Another time, though, I was picking berries and a man jumped out of a bramble, with a big bag of berries, and we did have that happy conversation during which time he said, oh no he didn’t eat the berries, he made jam. And to prove it he ran into a nearby house and returned with a jar of thick black sweet jam. “For you” he said with a smile as he handed me the jar.

Picking berries gave/gives me an excuse to spend time in the forest. Being on the hunt is exciting: where will I find the most fruitful bushes, fattest berries, pockets of berries with the darkest yet still gleaming colours.  This non-violent hunt has one target: deliciousness.

And aside from the thrill of the chase, the pricetag of “free”, the abundance and generosity of the forest, my berry picking and eating taught me many things about blackberries. Mainly this: when you buy blackerries from a shop or even a farm, they all taste the same. When you pick them in the forest, they are hugely varied, each one unique, each spoonful of berries an entirely different mouthful from each other.

Tasting my way through the forest–and each day is different, depending on sunshine, rain, temperature–as I pick, I put one in my mouth every so often, to taste: usually close my eyes, to really “get” its flavour, to feel on my tongue and in my mouth, the texture of the berry, too. Sometimes they are so full of sweet juice and so ripe that they melt, fall apart, simply dissolve in my mouth. That is usually when they are sweetest, too.

But inbetween the sourness of the unripe or the under-sunned, and the sweetness of the over-ripe, there is a wide variety of tastes and flavours.

Wild blackberries might have the depth of plums, their sweetness and tartness; at other times they might have the sweet roundness of black cherries, or if unripe, the sourness of wild cherries. Sometimes, when they are very sour they taste a little bit like gooseberries, though you need to taste this with closed eyes: gooseberries are green. Colours can confuse.

And also, before we get to their sweet ripeness, there are bitter elements: this usually comes about when the season hasn’t had enough sunshine, and perhaps its had too much rain. Sometimes it extends past the advent of sunshine and the berries become a sort of bitter-sweet, without an acidic edge that the larger berries generally develop before they balance and the sugars triumph! The bitter berries are smaller, tighter, with tinier druplets that seem to be all seed. Instead of the sensual disolving into sweet juice, blackerries such as these need to be chewed. You could almost say they are tough, though only compared with other oh-so-soft-ripe blackberries.

And it is those oh so ripe and soft berries that give you full berry happiness in taste: the berry that you pop into your mouth and find it tasting sweet, fruity, lyrical even, like……cream soda! like……cotton candy/candy floss! Today I picked some berries from a new patch, and they exhuded sweet lilacs, or lavender, depending on which berry.Its the unexpected variety of tastes–that hint of cinnamon, whiff of vanilla, whisper of bubble gum– that makes me throw back my head and laugh, then pop in another berry. Truly: when  tasting berries in the wild, you never know what the next one will be like!

Other times they are sweet, yes, but flat; or they might be sweet and bitter; sometimes the little druplets are tiny, and the whole berry tiny, but you pick it anyhow. Sometimes those tiny little berries that consist of only a few big fat druplets, are delicious too!

Devotion to the forest started with that first appearance of the blackberries in my life. Since then, it is as if I have taken a crash course, no….make that a university degree…..in blackberries.

The perfect berry season needs several things in place: it needs nice strong sun at the right time, when the days are long, and it needs some rain, but not too much. One year we had so much rain that in the few sunny days the berries were able to ripen and go from red to black, before the rains came and rotted/moulded/ruined them all. Huge swaths of bramble bushes were covered with mould and other strange unpleasant growths…the blackberry forest simply gave up, and I waited until the next year. Most years are mixed, since the weather most summers are mixed. Too much rain rots the berries, that is the bottom line. There were wet years when few berries ripened before moulding; there was at least one year that was so fabulously hot I turned down a trip to Champagne as a guest of one of the great Champagne Houses, to stay near my forest until the end of the season.

Then, there was the year after my accident when I didn’t go blackberrying at all: not only did I not have use of my hands and arms, but I was unable to taste. It was heartbreaking, how acutely sensitive I had once been to the nuances of blackberries and now, how I could taste, and smell, nothing. No acidity, no sweetness, no roundness of flavour or bitterness of bad weather. There was no reason to go pick berries, and in any event: the pain in my hands was excruciating.

The next year I hit the forests again. I could taste a bit more, but not enough to kick in the thrill I once got from being in the forest, filling my mouth, signing with the deliciousness of the berries, then trotting home with a full basket….and my fingers were working, but not dextrous enough to carefully  pick a berry without crushing it, and hold onto it firmly enough to get it from the bramble bush into my bag or basket. Each time I dropped more berries than I was bringing home, and it was an excercise in heartbreak. One of the greatest pleasures–in fact, one of the ONLY pleasures, the thing that makes this little plot of land special, even bearable, was taken from me. I had no idea if it would be returned.

When it is blackberry season I  gather berries every day.

this mornings cache of berries

Locals might gather them every so often, to make jam and jelly, but I love them fresh,

Some of the things I make with blackberries: cheesecakes with blackberry toppings, buttermilk and blackberry smoothies, duck breast with blackberry sauce, blackberries with yogurt, added to a crumble with other summery fruit especially rhubarb, and blackberries suspended in elderflower gelee. Sometimes I make a “mess” that is, instead of the whipped cream-meringue and strawberry concoction known as Eton Mess, I make a “Waterlooville Mess”, Waterlooville being the name of my little town. Really it is. My favourite way to eat blackberries, though,  is probably a big bowl of ice cream and blackberries in place of dinner.

The blackberries go on until about the end of September, around the time of Michaelmas, when they are once again covered with a weird substance, another mouldy strange horrible layer of substance, which renders them inedible. It is said that this substance is from the witches, who come to the blackberry forest after Michaelmas and spit on the berries. Really: once the witches have spit, you need to wait until the next year: they are inedible.

"Waterlooville Mess" inspired by "Eton Mess"

Waterlooville “Mess”

Serves 4, can be doubled, tripled, multiplied

In addition to the  blackberries, whose brambles which surround Waterlooville and for which I named this variation on Eton Mess, a concoction of whipped cream, strawberries and crisp broken up meringues, I added a touch of yogurt to cut the richness of the cream, and a hit of rose water, because my waterlooville garden has gorgeous, sweetly aromatic, roses. I should have scattered petals onto this picture, right?

6 fl ounces/175 ml whipping or double cream

6-8 rounded tablespoons confectioners/icing/powdered sugar

3-4 tablespoons yogurt, any plain type: low fat, greek, fat free, etc

A few droplet of vanilla extract or rosewater to taste

About 2 cups ripe blackberries

6-8 small meringues, or as many as desired, broken into bite sized pieces

Whip the cream into soft billows, then gradually add the confectioners/icing/powdered sugar and keep whipping until it is firm, just before it turns to butter. Important to catch it before its too late!

Fold in the yogurt and either rose water or vanilla, mix well, then the berries and don’t really mix well at all, just sort of fold in unevenly. Add the meringues, and either eat right away, or chill until ready to serve; can be made ahead a day or two and covered to protect its delicate foresty flavours.

9 Aug 14

It was hot, so swelteringly hot, as we shlepped along the busy street we were staying on, looking  for lunch. The down side of being in such an unspoiled, and authentic place such as Daxing, meant that there were no English signs or menus: we didn’t have a clue as to what each restaurant  served, and it was kind of….you know….scary.  Looking from the outside sometimes we approached a door to look in and check out the restaurant, only to find that it wasn’t even a restaurant at all!Thats when we discovered the hot soup place! Apparantly, its a “thing”:  restaurants that specialize in soup, brewing up a rich rich stock, and offering an array of vegetables, meats, fish, and different types of noodles. You collect what you want, taking the bits with tongs, as if you were in a bakery, or a grocery store, and placing it all in a plastic tub. You hand over the tub to the woman in a little window, pay, and before long a server comes out with a big bowl of everything all cooked.

This is the girl who took our ingredients and turned it into soup!

I added a bit of all the vegetables–bean sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, bamboo shoots,  put in a big handful of rice noodles, then piled in a whole array of different types of tofu: fried, smoked, soft, firm, marinated. I didn’t add fish or meat, but they were there, as were different types of noodles: wheat, mung bean, wide, narrow, frizzy. It was a little bit confusing, like an all-you-can-eat salad bar where you end up with everything piled onto one plate.

But luckily, it didn’t end up this way: no matter what you put into your soup, the  broth was rich and spicy– sooooooo very spicy–memorably umami, in other words: salty spicy crazy-good. It was not just like a consomme broth, but was dense with crushed black sesame, studded with whole peanuts, and floated a thin layer of red chile oil. Once your vegetables and other ingredients went in, they came out transformed; in fact, I felt a bit transformed by eating the soup as well. That heat, made me perspire, the perspiration evaporated and felt lovely and cool. The flavour of the broth perked me up. Yes, after that soup: better in every way.

I’ve made versions of the soup since my return, though sadly, none have yet been as amazing, refreshing, and invigorating as that bowlful I ate on that hot afternoon.

9 Aug 14

When I was trying to decide if I could afford to go to the Gourmand Cookbook Fair and Awards event in Daxing, Beijing, I was swayed by some of the unique activities, places and things that it never would have dawned on me to get to otherwise. Lets start with The Watermelon Museum.

Daxing, a rural and suburban area of Beijing, located in the southern part of its 5th ring road, is also the watermelon capital of China, for this reason, there is a huge and amazing museum dedicated to the watermelon. It was–and while I really don’t like using this word, thinking it a lazy way out–awesome. Really awesome.

First of all, even just the idea of having such a museum is awesome. Second of all, it wasn’t just a little room, a shack filled with

Here we are, on the steps of The Watermelon Museum

hand-made displays depicting this regions prize fruit. No, it was a tall, massive building, whose front reminded me of the art in Rockerfeller Center, the steps seemingly leading to a temple of worship, a library, or a museum of note. An important museum.

7 Aug 14

The agricultural corner of Bejing, in its fifth ring road, Daxing, is known for several specialities: roses and watermelon, and since the cookbook fair and awards event was held in late May, the roses and melons were growing lushly. In fact, at every meal there were wedges of watermelon, usually red but sometimes yellow, always sweet, crisp and juicy, the question really was: HOW SWEET, HOW JUICY, HOW CRISP? There were meals in which the melons exceeded the laws of physics in their sweetness, juiciness and crispness. It was actually thrilling to bite into the melons and see what would happen next. Even when they were  merely okay, they were refreshingly delicious. We’ll get to the watermelons in the next posting.

First off was the Rose Festival.  The bus, organized by Daxing’s equivilant of the chamber of commerce or perhaps the city council, arrived at 10 am for those of us who wanted to play hooky from the cookbook fair and be a part of the festivities. I may have been first on the bus; I love roses.

All visitors to the Rose Festival were greeted with great festivities, both on our way in, and on our way out: there were acrobats, kung-fu demonstrations, and a gathering of drum players–two long lines of gaily costumed women enthusiastically banging on big drums ushered us down a long walkway and into the hall of flowers.  

Traditional caligraphy and brushstroke demonstrations depicted roses, a garden of rose drawings.

And there was a fashion show of rose-inspired gowns and frocks…..below left, you can see each model (in the sweltering summer heat) carrying the flower arrangement that had inspired her dress.  I sat on the side and could see backstage, where, in true catwalk style, the  fashion designer, flitting about backstage all a-twitter, nervously fluffing up and patting down, getting his models looking  their best in his designs.

I don’t know when i’ve ever seen such enthusiasm for a task such as these women showed for playing their drums: it was hard, and energetic, and the weather was hot, and they were drumming for all they were worth. Their presentation was awesome in more ways than I can try to explain: it sounded wonderful and stirring; and the looks on the women’s faces was heart-warming. It was love, the love of doing something well and all-encompassing. The love on the faces of all performers.

When I showed an interest, I was surrounded by “teachers”

Here I am getting a lesson in drumming from the gals

my teacher was very enthusiastic. and scary.

4 Aug 14

We left off, a few posting back, with my first meal upon reaching the Daxing region of China’s capital, Bejing. If you remember the plate, it will filled with dumplings, delicious noodles wrapped around chopped leafy greens. In case you wondered who was making the dumplings, chef allowed me into the kitchen to help, and though he looks a bit hesitant in this foto, and I look a bit over-eager, in fact, he said: “Very Good!”. And he ate my dumpling right up! There were dumplings everywhere, steamed dumplings and fried dumplings, sweet fat boiled dough filled with bean paste and paper thin noodles wrapped around seafood or meat, there were dumplings in soup and dumplings that were filled WITH soup, dumplings with sauce and dumplings awash in red chile oil. there were bao and jiaozi, tang yuan, xiao longao, wuntun, siu mai and dumplings I had no idea what their names were. 

The  dumplings in this picture to the left are not, as they appear to be, small hamburgers, but a tender version of a small english muffin-like dumpling,  split into two and filled with a savoury meat mixture, salty, spicy, with a hit of cumin. Its said that the dish was dreamt up by the Empress Cixi, literally: a dish that came to her in a dream and the next day she had her chefs whip up her vision. To be honest, they are available in many places, some better than others, some mediocre, and some fantastic. There were dumplings and also bread doughs steamed so that they were somewhere between a bread and dumpling: steamed cornbread was one of my favourites.

there were noodles rolled around a mixture of meats and greens, then pan browned, to the left–these were delectable– and to the right: puffy bread dough filled with meats or vegetables then steamed; these steamed/baked dumplings, bao, were filled with a much wider array of mixtures than I’ve found abroad: kung pao chicken filled bao were wonderful!

Another was a strange chewy dough, tang yuan, made of ground rice; to be honest, chewy doesn’t even come close to describing it: the dumpling slithers around your mouth, you think that maybe you will be chewing it forever, that maybe you will chew it for the rest of your life and onto the next one, too, but suddenly you’ve managed to swallow it and in that compelling way that many unusual foods have, you feel like: yes, i’m ready for another one! The tang yuan I was fond of were stuffed with black sesame seed and served with a sweet syrup; i was told that it could be eaten as a savoury dumpling, too, with either a bean paste and/or pork filling instead of sweet sesame.

And, because I don’t want you thinking I ate a very unbalanced meal of dumplings dumplings and more dumplings, there were greens! seafood! tofu salad! and my favourite, cucumber salad: garlicky, spicy, halfway on the road to being a pickle. Cucumber salad is a very good reason to go to Beijing, I say flippantly,  in case the Great Wall, Forbidden City and amazing ancient/modern culture isn’t enough. Cucumber salad: always a good reason to travel the world if you love cucumbers as much as I do.

chrysanthemum leaf salad

Besides the chryanthemum leaf salad and the garlicky cucumbers, I was also very fond of shoestrings of tofu, tossed in sesame oil dressing.

bamboo shoots, shredded cabbage, cloud ears, chopped greens......

my beloved garlicky cucumber salad

3 Aug 14

My first culinary “business” , a zillion years ago, was making herbal vinegars: steeping a myriad of herbs in various vinegars: white and red wine, as well as rice. I made a rather sweet handcrafted label with one of my line drawings, slapped them onto the old wine bottles I gathered, then filled up the bottles with mostly vinegar, as well as a hit of wine and a few BIG sprigs of herbs, either a single herb or a mixture. I arranged them on shelves built across a window so that they could infuse more quickly as the light shone down on them: that was my idea anyhow, based on no science whatsoever that I knew of. It was just that they looked so beautiful, like stained glass, as the light filtered through.

And they were delicious. Looks wise my favourite was the rosemary, because the sprig/branch held up so nicely, and the little peppercorns I added as well as the thyme branches, it was like an herb garden in the bottle. But the one whose flavour has haunted me throughout these years is that of tarragon. Every so often I”ll be doing something and think of that luscious, tangy, sour+fragrant+herbal scent of tarragon leaves pickled in vinegar, of vinegar infused with tarragon.

But to be honest, I tend to add fresh herbs to dressings, vinaigrettes, and the like, at the last minute instead of flavouring the vinegars. This summer, I changed my mind, due in large part to my hugely energetic tarragon patch. I started sticking bunches of tarragon leaves, in sprigs, or chopped, or a combination, into jars of white wine vinegar. Within a few days it is infused, I use it and use it and use it, then use up the tarragon as well. Somewhere along the way, when I see it dwindling and the vinegar level getting lower, I start another jar.

This summer has been my summer of tarragon vinegar. And, like Sebastian, the young French student who came to dinner the other evening, we’ve been loving the elusive yet compelling taste and aroma. Here are a few of our salads.

Asparagus and Small Delicious Tomatoes with Tarragon

If you’ve got homegrown, or farmers market shopped, oh now is the time to make this salad!

Serves 4, or half it to serve two

1 small bunch thin asparagus, tough ends snapped off

1 teaspoon French mustard, not to hot/strong, such as Maille

2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar (see description above) or white wine vinegar

1 pint box small delicious tomatoes, such as sweet grape or cherry ones, yellow and/or red, cut into halves

salt and pepper to taste

2-3 teaspoons fresh tarragon leaves, cut up

Drizzle of evoo

Cut the asparagus into spears several inches long; cook in rapidly boiling salted water for a minute or two or until bright green, still crunchy but getting tender; drain and arrange on a platter and leave to cool to room temperature.

Combine the mustard with the vinegar and stir well until smooth.

When asparagus is cool, scatter the top with the tomatoes, drizzle the mustard vinegar over the top, sprinkle with salt and pepper, tarragon leaves, then drizzle with the evoo. As to exactly HOW much of the mustard vinegar to use, you need to go with your tastes: some like a less sharp salad, some like me, love it tart tart tart!

Iceberg, Walnuts, St Agur or another lovely flavourful blue cheese, (Optional) Diced Beets, Green Beans, Chives and Tarragon

Serves 4

1 head iceberg lettuce, washed and broken up into chunks; chill in the refrigerator wrapped in a clean towel in a bowl, until you’re ready to serve

Handful thin green beans, topped and tailed

3 oz/ 175g St Agur or other creamy flavourful blue cheese, cut into small bite sized pieces

Optional: 1 cooked beetroot, diced (vacuum-packed if fine)

3-4 tablespoons coarsely chopped or quartered walnuts

Several tablespoons chopped chives

Several tablespoons chopped tarragon

About 2 teaspoons tarragon steaped vinegar (see description above), or to taste

About 1-2 tablespoons evoo, or as desired

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the green beans in boiling salted water or steam them in a steamer, until they are crisp-tender. Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.

When you are ready to put together the salad, remove chilled lettuce and bowl from fridge, unwrap the lettuce from its towel and return to the chilled bowl.

Scatter with the green beans, the cheese, beetroot if using, the walnuts, then the chives and tarragon, sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste. Dress with the vinegar and evoo, and serve.