Saturday, 31 July 2010

Chiner: to bargain hunt

Vide-grenier means 'empty attic', for in the old days an attic was where you stored your grain, hence 'grenier'. It's certainly a more romantic expression than car boot sale. In France you will hear several expressions for places where you can buy second hand things: brocantes; which generally consists of professional stall holders selling rather expensive antiques; marché aux puces or flea market, which is a mix of old clothes and antiques, often professionals. The best are vide-greniers where you get genuine amateurs; I've bought huge copper jam making pans from them for 4 euros, wood burning stoves in enamel for 10 euros, vintage pinnys for 3 euros, wet suits for a few euros, all kinds of bargains. There are guides you can buy and websites. One year I must make the effort to go to the Braderie de Lille, held the first weekend of September every year. This market apparently covers miles and goes on till late. A friend of mine rented a van, drove over for a weekend and returned with enough to furnish a whole house, brass beds, antique doors and all, at a knock down price.
Down here near Grimaud I go to the Jas des Robert, a brocante/vide-grenier held every Sunday in the car park of a restaurant. I go every Sunday, and even in the height of summer, when it is thronging with tourists, there are some bargains to be had. In winter, there are fewer stalls, but as the seasonal summer work has dried up, the stall holders prices can be driven down. One week we saw Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp walking around the Jas des Robert. Nobody bothered them. Except my teen and her friends. Johnny was very polite and friendly, even thanked them for liking his films. I think he was interested in the fact that they were bilingual children, just like his children with Vanessa. My teen and her friends didn't wash their hands for days, having shaken with him.
The French being the administrative ass clenchers that they are, at the Jas des Robert they take your passport when you have a stall, and if you go to sell more than four times in a year, they report you to the tax authorities. People made fun of George W. Bush when he said that the "French don't even have a word for entrepeneur" but he had a point. It's so difficult to do anything here. Did you know that 'Soldes' or 'Sales' are heavily restricted by the French authorities? So that some shops do not have an unfair advantage over others? The sign 'Soldes' can only be used at certain times of the year, with notice being given by the local government. 
 Honey from local flowers and, a speciality of the region, chestnut honey.

 My buys this week: three silver plated ladles and two fork for 10 euros; two vintage linen tea towels, 5 euros each; a dozen vintage aprons 30 euros. And a refreshing Pastis up at the bar when I'd finished. Thirsty work!

 1950s cotton summer dresses on one stall. But 50 euros each...

 Vintage soda siphons: pretty but 60 euros each. A bargain, the stallholder assured me.

 Savon de marseille, made from olive oil, is famous, these are some vintage blocks.

 Old baguette baskets, why didn't I buy them? 20 euros though...

 I love the blue and white containers for flour, sugar and spices.

 Some more buys: violet syrup, gros sel (always buy some when in France), vintage blue and white plates, a euro each, little blue bowls, modern, 1.5 euros each, glass from La Rochere and garlic called 'ail violet' which should last up to a year.

Another good site to find vide-greniers.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Through France

I tend to drive when I go to see my parents in the South of France. It costs me more than flying or the train but, despite the marathon sessions at the wheel, I get to discover a little more about the country, visit unknown corners and most importantly, pick up French vintage kitchenalia, furniture and linen.
This time I drove off the ferry (apparently giant sweets such as Toblerones costing £47 or outsize Chupa Chups are popular duty-free presents, it's also the only place you can buy white Toblerone) via Passavant La Rochère in Les Voges, a little known but very pretty area of Eastern France on the border with Luxembourg and Germany. It was a bit of a detour but I've admired this factory's glassware for some time.
Driving through the green, cow dabbed hills, through small villages, each of whom had made the effort to fill window boxes and wheelbarrows garnished with flowers, each house accompanied by a long pile of wood jigsaw-stacked outside for the winter, I got lost a few times. I arrived at La Rochère factory fifteen minutes before closing time. Staggering in there, my dress damp from collected sweat in the driving seat, I panted 'Please don't close, I've driven all the way from London'. I bought 9 boxes of pressed glasses, modelled on various vintage 18th century designs. It was cheaper than buying from websites that specialise in vintage French goods, but probably not enough to make the petrol and tolls worthwhile. What I like about these glasses through is that not only are they pretty, fit in with The Underground Restaurant's shabby chic decor, but they are sturdy and do not break easily.
I continued for another hour or so then stopped opposite a church at a little oak beamed restaurant. The menu, 22 euros, three courses, was simple but cheap. I had a kir aligoté to start, the local white wine with crème de cassis, and a tomato and poached egg salad. For the main course I chose trout with gratin dauphinois and ratatouille. The trout and dauphinois were good but I think the ratatouille was tinned. It's disappointing how many French restaurants today use frozen or tinned goods, so different from my childhood when my family drove through France each school holiday. Dessert was pannacotta with a sharp berry coulis. An ordinary French meal, decent and workaday.
I grew suddenly so tired that my arms could no longer lift the knife and fork, I paid with my carte bleue and clambered into the back of my small white van. Yes I am a white van woman. It only cost £350, has no air-conditioning or power steering. I'm on my third white van. Other drivers behave differently, more aggressively with white vans, and I can see male drivers in London do a second take seeing a woman behind the wheel.
It started to rain hard, I covered myself with a sleeping bag and slept. On waking, feeling completely refreshed I realised it was still only 1 am, so I drove on through the rain to the autoroute. The most expensive autoroutes are between Dijon and Lyon and Aix en Provence. You can end up spending around 100 euros on tolls but when the weather is bad I don't want to negotiate the stop start of the more scenic Route Nationale.
One of my favourite things about travelling in France is the petrol station shops: I can spend hours looking at the books, the specialités de la region and a particular fetish of mine, the truck driver's section. These macho men like to buy velvet curtains for their beds, tables to hang on their steering wheels, stickers of sexy truckin' girls and have an array of electrical goods that they can run via the cigarette lighter: kettles, coffee makers, small ovens. I have visions of burly lorry drivers, kings of the road, parking up and making teensy grilled cheese sandwiches in their mini ovens.

Just what we all need: a table we can attach to our steering wheel

These all plug into the cigarette lighter.

South of Lyon, the weather changes, the sky thins out to blue and the air is arid. I wend my way through Montelimar, home of French nougat, which boasts something called the Le Palais des bonbons, an international museum of sweets. I must check this out I thought. Parking up, I approach the doorway, it's already obvious from the plastic life size mannequin of a woman in ill-fitting historic clothes that it's a tacky waste of time, visited only by desperate parents seeking to anaesthetize their children for a few hours en route. Christ, if this is the standard of attractions, I could turn my back garden into a museum of say, er, Irish pubs, something vaguely Kilburnish, with a few 'tableau' of ginger haired men clutching pints of Guinness and charge people to see it. (Don't encourage me).
I press on to my parent's house near Grimaud. I spent a year down there. I've written about it quite extensively. It was one of the most boring periods of my life. Altogether I've lived seven years  in France and probably visit at least once a year. I'm sure I was French in a past life (that's another story). I have a love/hate relationship with the French.

At this time of year, the Cote d'Azur is hot, dry and traffic is so bad you daren't leave the house. This year, after the spring floods in Draguignan, there are also a plague of mosquitos. I generally spend most of my time cooking, swimming and visiting flea markets. My teen and my neice, both 16 years old, were there already. My neice, whose mum teaches Home Economics, is an enthusiastic cook. They decided to play Come Dine With Me and make us a three course meal, of a far higher standard than most of the restaurants down here. It took them both most of the day to make.
This took me back to one of the most memorable meals. When I was eight years old, we drove to Minori to see the Italian side of the family. My father's godfather turned out to be the mayor of the village. He took us to a darkened restaurant, the best in the locality. The godfather wore a crisp white shirt, a tailored dark suit and gold glinted about his cuffs. The small finger on his right hand had a long curly nail. This was an Italian peasant's way of saying: I don't have to work the land. The waiters lined up as if it were a royal visit. Nobody kissed the godfather's ring but it wouldn't have been out of place. As we left, my brother piped up:
 "Dad, I like this restaurant, we don't even have to pay!"
My parents hushed him. A few days later, we were invited to the godfather's house. We had to climb a small mountain of lemon groves; the lemons were half a foot long, with thick knobbly skins, you could eat them straight off the plant. I remember being so thirsty as we made our way up the dusty lemon grove. The crickets were deafening as the sun beat down. At the top we were welcomed by the widowed godfather's two 16 year old daughters, twins I think, who had made us dinner. This time the godfather was wearing a white vest and blue work trousers. This dinner lasted for hours, they had pulled all the stops out: antipasti, pasta, a seafood course, a fish course, a red meat course, a white meat course, salads, vegetables, cheeses, puddings. It was the first time I had cannelloni, home-made into large stuffed rolls by the young girls. It was a tremendous feat, this banquet, especially by such young cooks. We didn't speak Italian (they spoke in dialect) and they didn't speak English. Food was the means of communication. After a few courses, we were struggling; my brother saved the day by groaning and clutching his stomach. At first the girls found this funny and offered him camomile tea but eventually his cries grew so loud and insistant that we had the excuse to leave.

Roasted peaches with goat's cheese, basil and hazelnuts, beautifully sweet and sour

Crispy triangles made with 'brik' a North African fine dough.

Radishes, butter and bread; purple tomato and mozzarella salad.

Thai corn fritters

Grapefruit tree in my parent's garden

Monday, 19 July 2010

Let them eat bread

The baguette is a bit bent as I made them too long for the Aga!

Neighbours and customers
When I was a child, I loved to play shops. I'd set up business, make a little display, in my bedroom doorway, selling my toys and 'crafts' such as a paper folding game. Footfall was poor in the vicinity, the only passersby were my brother, sister and mum. I'd wait patiently for what seemed like hours; sometimes my mum would take pity on me and 'buy' something.My great grandmother Nanny Savino had a shop in her Holloway council flat. I loved visiting her, the hallways were lined with bottles of Tizer and R White's lemonade, the bathtub with pickled pigs trotters, the kitchen provided toffee apples and apple fritters and most excitingly, under her enormous cast iron bed, were rustling brown boxes with the illicit earthy smell of tobacco: Woodbines, Players, Weights, cigarettes and matches. People would come to the door and ask to buy cheap fags from 'Mary'. Her real name was Assunta but no one could pronounce it. She came to Britain at the age of 16, before the first World War, from the small town of Minori, south of Naples. During the second World War, the Italians were our enemies and her radio was confiscated. She wasn't put in a camp, several of her sons were in the British army. I never met my great grandad, but from family stories he seemed to be a skinny man, under the iron fist of my enormous black-clad nan. They started small businesses: a home-made ice cream cart, selling in the streets of Islington, then an Italian café. Even at the age of 80, infirm with arthritis, nan was doing business from her house. It's the Neapolitan way, even today there are individual street sellers in Naples.
Yesterday, no doubt channelling something from Nanny Savino, I put into practice an idea I talked about a few weeks ago on Twitter. There are few bakeries in Britain; they tend to be one extreme or another; white bloomers and luridly iced buns from Greggs or chichi little artisanal bakers or cupcake shops, that tend to be in expensive bourgeois areas. Every high street should have a good organic baker.
In a time of rising unemployment, I feel the government should come up with some creative and non-punitive ideas to improve the lot of the unemployed and of society. How about free flour and yeast for unemployed people to bake bread in their kitchens? Which they could then sell from their houses?
I got this idea when I was travelling in South America. In Chile, after a random meeting at a bus stop, I was invited to stay with a Chilean family who came from a seaside village. One morning, the husband baked bread. He put a noticed in his window 'Hay pan'. Neighbours came over and bought his warm rolls.

So yesterday I put up a notice in my window, saying the bread would be ready at 4pm. I waited. No one came. I decided to take to the street and stood outside my gate with a large basket of hot bread.
"Hello!" I waved to the few passersby "I've just made some bread in my Aga, do you want to buy some"
The first few people rushed by, their heads down, muttering no, as if I were a beggar. They didn't even ask why I was selling bread in a residential London street.
But things started to turn around. A rather shabbily dressed man ambled past, I doubted that he'd be interested but I launched into my pitch. It turned out he was rather a foodie and that he would definitely buy some bread next time. A blind man and his helper came down the street, they agreed to buy a loaf! My first customer! £3 for a rye and hazelnut loaf!
I sold to several neighbours that I had never met before. They all said if I put advance notices then they'd come to buy bread. It was getting hot, so I got out the bottles of my home-made ginger beer and sold one. Some neighbours had heard of me and The Underground Restaurant but hadn't dared to come yet.
All in all, it was about 4 to 5 hours work and I made £25. I want to start doing this regularly and I'd love it if other people did too. My next baking day will be Saturday 14th of August. If there are any bakers out there who want to help, please get in touch.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Complete History of Food by Bompas & Parr

The doctor diagnoses your 'humour': whether you are choleric (red haired, skinny, angry), sanguine (plump with rosy cheeks, enthusiastic), phlegmatic (shy, rational, observant) or melancholic (creative, self-reliant). All medicine used to be based on these four medieval humours. I once had my chart analysed by an astrologer who used William Lilly's methods. They use a points system with planets (in their fall or exaltation for instance) to determine your type. I was overwhelmingly Jupiterian, Sanguine, with some melancholic Saturnian notes.

Making our way across a bridge to a 'flooded' banquet in a ship, apparently there were eels in the water.

I had the antidote to my choleric mood, a reviving mead and spiced liqueur with truffle popcorn.
Each person had a different cocktail depending upon their humour. The cocktails were made by Saf mixologist Joe McCanta.

A very small lift. When I lived in Paris, I had an even tinier lift, fitting only 3 people. 

A helper leading the way. The post war period brought a new way of eating: processed food was considered very modern, the equivalent of molecular gastronomy today. I've talked about this before on my Elvis meal post. This room was set up like a 1950s living room and we were given Scratch n sniff cards to 'eat' our TV meal from. The smells were remarkably strong. I went to John Water's Odorama film Polyester and I still have the scratch n sniff card from that. On it were numbers 1 to 10. When a number popped up on screen you had to sniff the relevant 'disc' on the card. Some of the smells were pretty unpleasant: farts for instance. 

Next up was another 'modern' food room: you had to take off your shoes to enter a food based bouncy castle with huge colourful inflatables of chips and peas. Everybody entered into it and started giggling and jumping up and down like 5 year olds. Great fun!

We were then lead up to the roof where there was a 'living' bar made out of herbs and plants (rather like a sedum roof). We had a cocktail developed by Paul Tvaroh of Lounge Bohemia, with fizzy grapes.

Then a hallway with lots of tiny mushrooms (through the looking glass?) downstairs to the 'restaurant' proper.

The whole event was housed in an elegant building in Belgravia Square.

This room recalls an avant garde 19th century restaurant held inside a dinosaur!

Unfortunately the only dish was meat which I could not eat. A veggie option would have been nice but perhaps it wasn't authentic to the era...

A sculpture of the gherkin, one of London's architectural landmarks, made out of gingerbread.

Into the renaissance sugar room. A giant turning cake with tiers filled with pastel sugar sculptures. We had dessert, a delicious jelly and a little cocktail.

The jellies were made with ambergris, a substance that sperm whales regurgitate, that was traditionally used to 'fix' perfume, and is found naturally floating in the sea or on the beach.

Sam Bompas, the Walt Disney of food!

A table with a sensitive jelly that wobbles according to your heart rate!

Lastly the elegant bar where you could get Courvoisier based cocktails. It was a good place to talk to others who had also gone on the 'rides'. I met an American couple who having heard about my notorious Harry Potter dinners, failed to grab a ticket and hosted their own simultaneous Harry Potter dinner! They showed me photos, it looked fantastic! 
I also met Claire, who is a series editor on Masterchef. My teen once applied for me. I got a phone call but didn't hear anything more. Claire said the issue was probably that I wasn't considered an amateur. Trouble is, I'm not sure I'm a 'professional' either! She said the inclusion in the last series of food blogger Justcookit! was heavily debated: was he a food pro? I felt that having a food blogger on the programme was a good thing, showed Masterchef was keeping up to date with new directions in the food world. Food bloggers are one of the tightest communities on Twitter and, as with all new media, things seem to be tilting towards online content. (Will be interested to see the results of The Times paywall experiment).
 I said that the standard of contestants seems very high, that they often look like they've had professional training. Claire explained that they learnt their skills during the Masterchef process, for instance, the test where they work in a real restaurant is held on only their second day. Scary stuff. Claire said that you can never tell who is going to get through: some of her favourite applicants don't make it, it's very unpredictable. We also talked about a recent incident between bloggers and John Torode. Apparently John Torode was scathing about bloggers, which was possibly not a good idea at a bloggers event, but he was hurt by a negative review of his restaurant by one of the attendees. This was interesting to hear because one assumes that someone of his stature would not be affected by a negative online review but of course, he's human, just like the rest of us, and passionate about what he does. Often a restaurant blogger is someone who happens to have enough money to eat out alot (hence the typical restaurant blogging demographic of people that are young, childfree with straight well-paid jobs). Of course, if people are paying for a product/service then it's good to have their feedback. But there are times where you get the feeling that bloggers, like some journalists (but with no editorial filter) are more interested in making a name for themselves or creating a controversial blogpost than giving a fair summary. I would also argue that it's unfair when reviewers don't complain to you directly at the time but save their venom for their anonymous mutterings on the interweb. As both a restaurateur of sorts and a blogger, I see things from both sides here. 

A drinks menu projected onto the side of the bar.

This exhibition/event/installation was educational, stylish, fun and interactive. The Complete History of Food is an adventure theme park devoted to food, reminiscent of Disney. I mentioned this to Sam Bompas and discovered that he too is a huge fan of Disney theme parks. (Actually my daughter's father helped to build the Peter Pan ride and Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Eurodisney. Originally the park was supposed to be 'dry', with no alcohol served. The American powers-that-be tried to ban alcohol from the building site of Eurodisney. The French downed tools and refused to work until their lunchtime pastis and pichet de rouge were reinstated! Now Eurodisney serves alcohol in the theme park too, just like French Macdonalds.) What I also liked though was the slightly amateurish feel about it, like a squat party in a grand house, a far cry from Disney sleek. At £25 entry it was also a very good deal.