Book Review: My Life in France

My Life In France is a biography of Julia Child, one of the key figures in bringing French cuisine to America, and one of the first TV chefs. Written jointly with Alex Prud’homme, the great-nephew of Julia Child, the story starts in Paris where Julia and her husband Paul resided. As Paul worked for the US government, Julia developed an interest in cooking, eventually studied at the famous French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. The book takes you through the culinary successes (and occasional failures), restaurant meals eaten in Paris, and the habits of other gastronomes of Paris at that time, as well as illustrating some time spent in Provence, Germany, Norway, and of course the USA. All of these experiences well-equip Julia, and her collaborators, to begin working on a cook book, which became a classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eight years of hard work went into the cookbook, and the love and devotion towards it are evident.

What struck me most about My Life in France was the relentless enthusiasm about French food, wine, and gastronomy. Exact menus of meals eaten forty years ago can be recalled, with the Chateau and vintage of the bottles of wine drunk with them. Anecdotes about pots and pans and the attention given to shopping in markets help relay such passion, that it would be hard not to become more excited about food after reading this. Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the insight given on cooking at different parts of the 20th century. From cooking with different kind of stoves, to the availability of ingredients and recipes, or just the changing of attitudes towards food and cooking, you learn a lot of cultural history through considering gastronomy. A few of the couple’s photographs are printed, which help give a better sense of their experiences. Overall, the book is well written, clear, very enjoyable to read, and so comes highly recommended. 9/10.

Divin

Divin Assembly

When you think about it, French patisserie is just complicated versions of very simple foods. A millefeuille is just pastry layers with cream in between. Macarons are just biscuits. Brioche is just a rich buttery bread. So you shouldn’t be put off making French patisserie at home. If you can make biscuits, you can probably have a go at making macarons. Sure, you might not get it right the first time, as I frequently don’t, but it wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. One or two bits of French patisserie is a very useful thing to have in your culinary repertoire, and if you start getting something consistently right, you’ll feel great about your culinary abilities.

The Divin I made with a friend at the weekend was no different; it is basically a glorified raspberry Victoria sponge. A Divin has two cakes, with raspberries, a raspberry jelly, and a cream in between. Writing such a simple description is mildly depressing, given the afternoon we spent cooking and morning trudging around London looking for ingredients, just to make a glorified Victoria sponge, but that’s what it is.

Divin_Cake

So how is it different from a raspberry Victoria sponge? Firstly, the cake isn’t a sponge. It’s made from ground almonds and egg whites, not unlike a macaron, and piped into shape on a baking tray instead of poured into a mold. You have to whisk, fold, and sift, rather different than just putting all the ingredients into the Kenwood, as I do with sponge cake. Perhaps even more complicated is the cream, a nougat crème mousseline, which is a thick egg-based cream combined with a nougat cream. Finally the raspberry jelly is made from a raspberry coulis. “Fussy” doesn’t begin to describe the four page recipe we were working from.

All these differences add up to an increased difficulty. Get one or two things a little wrong, and you’ve not got quite the dessert you set out to make. Unfortunately this is what happened to us. Perpetually afraid of cooking the eggs in a sauce, I didn’t thicken it quite enough, and even after some time in the fridge, it just didn’t have the right texture. We hopefully spooned it on to the cake, thinking that the cream might just be thick enough for the raspberries to hold as a dam, but sadly not. After trying to top with raspberry jelly, disaster struck, and cream started flooding out.

Divin Cream

The Divin we made was still great though. The thinner cream meant eating it out of a bowl- not unlike a trifle, actually- but that was hardly a problem. All of the flavours worked really well together, and the rich cream absorbed by the sponge. After using this as pudding one evening, we had seconds for breakfast the next morning, with tea the next afternoon, and there was still some to leave behind as I headed back to Oxford. But not for long, as shortly after I left, “I ate it all, no regrets” was the text I received.

So have a go at some more advanced cooking once in a while. It’s a great social activity, will help improve your cooking, and even if it doesn’t turn out quite the way you wanted, you’ll still have food to be excited about.

The Divin

Food and Wine Pairings IV: Regionality

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about regionality when it comes to food-wine pairing. My theory is this: that if you are cooking a dish from a certain region, using ingredients from that region, then a wine grown there will pair well with the food.

I came about this idea not through reasoning, but through experience. Trying to find some charcuterie and cheeses to have with leftover wines at a wine tasting, I’d originally just bought a selection that I’d liked. But the winner was some leftover Sancerre, which is sauvignon blanc from the Loire in France, with my favourite goats’ cheese, a Clochette. Some northern Italy salami went very well with the dregs of a Chianti Classico, also in northern Italy. This got me thinking- it this a particular example of foods and wines that work, or a general trend? Since then I’ve been experimenting with regional pairings, for example duck confit in south-west France, a Valpollicella from northern Italy with spag-bol, or even Normandy cider with a Normandy apple tart.

In some sense, the idea of pairing a food with a local wine might seem obvious, and why wouldn’t it? Firstly, you might expect the regional cuisine to evolve with the regional wines. Until recently, when logistics allow for people to eat and drink whatever wine they want, you would drink the wine that was produced locally, with the food that was grown locally. Winemaking styles and preferred grape varieties would be chosen based on how much people enjoyed them, which would likely include how well they paired with local food. Perhaps history has already figured out this for us.

A selection of Italian Foods and Wines

A selection of Italian food and wines.

Secondly, there are climatic factors which would make you want to pair food and wine regionally. ‘Terroir’ is the French phrase for the expression of the landscape in the climate, soils, altitude, and so on. The idea of ‘terroir’ is usually applied to growing of grapes, but there is no reason that it shouldn’t be applied to other produce of the region. In the same way that southern Italy wines are soft and fruity, we see tomatoes from southern Italy are fruity, ripe, and sweet. This will likely extend to milk and cheeses as well- the grass cows or goats eat will be affected by climate and soils too. Loire goats’ cheeses are austere and subtle, as are their wines. So far, so good.

However, food-wine pairing is never quite that simple. The biggest thing that makes food-wine pairing tricky is considering every part of the meal. Take my porcini and scallops tartlets, for instance. Porcini mushrooms, crispy bacon, chestnuts- the main flavours in the dish- are all things that might make you think of pairing an northern Italian wine, as these ingredients are often found there. But then you’ve got a creamy mushroom sauce and puff pastry, which are fatty, and so need a lighter wine with acidity- back to the drawing board. In the end I went for a pinot noir from Burgundy, falling back on food-wine pairing experience, rather than ploughing ahead with something regional.

Furthermore, for many regions, there is quite a lot of variation just within those regions. I am continually shocked at just how much Argentian Malbec can vary, from restrained, low-alcohol wines, to high-alcohol fruit bombs. But when you think about how much altitude varies- and the temperature changes that go with it- it’s not surprising the wines come out so different. Wine-making styles may have changed as the market has changed, and so the time-evolved food-wine pairings may just not apply anymore, at least unless you know exactly what is coming out of the bottle you’ve bought. Similarly, food styles are evolving very quickly with globalisation. Just looking at the spread of Indian cuisine in the UK, or the hotch-potch of cuisines we see in the USA, I would guess that changes in viticulture can’t keep up. Don’t think that it can be difficult to source proper ingredients too. If you are using local British tomatoes to make your lasagne, you will get a different flavour profile than had you used Italian tomatoes.

A selection of French food and wines.

A selection of French food and wines.

Finally, the idea of regionality is only really helpful, though, for countries that have a wine-growing tradition. If you are looking for something to pair with an Indian curry, or Thai cuisine, the ideas here don’t really take you very far. But is there a way you could take some of the principles here- looking for a wine growing country with a similar climate, for example- to get a good wine pairing? I have to say, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently become a fan of pairing the Argentinian grape ‘Torrontés’ with curries, with it’s acidity, florality, citrus flavours, and lack of sweetness, it makes a great match. Can I somehow justify that Torrontés has a similar ‘regional flavour’ as something that might come from India, or Thailand? Any link would be pretty tenuous. In my experience, for regional cuisines without regional wines, you have to fall back on other food-wine pairing principles.

Overall, I think this idea works well, if you restrict the application to more traditional fare. If you are cooking something very traditional, like the southern French ‘cassoulet‘, in a traditional manner with local ingredients- great, go for a Languedoc bottle, or other southern French wine. But as you move away from this, perhaps using beans sourced from somewhere else, and British vegetables, the wine-pairing may not do as much for you. I suppose, though, that’s all part of the fun. Experiment, have fun with food-wine pairing, and see what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, if you don’t like the food you are eating, or the wine that is going with it, it’s not worth putting the effort in.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding, and Food and Wine piarings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Restaurant Review: Folly Bridge Brasserie

The Folly Bridge Brasserie is an easy place to overlook. I’ve been in Oxford for six years now and never been there, or even heard it suggested as a place to go for dinner. Formerly an Indian restaurant, it is hard to imagine that somewhere with such a great riverside location would not be much more popular than it was. Perhaps because The Head Of The River is just across the way, or the fact that it’s a bit of a walk to get there, or that it is not particularly easy to spot just walking around- the Folly Bridge Brasserie is just hard to find. Recently, though, I got the chance to discover it when a friend suggested that our research group go there for our Christmas dinner.

FollyBridge_StarterSpecialising in French cuisine, The Folly Bridge Brasserie has a varied menu, with dishes like ‘Escargots de Bourgogne’, ‘Game Terrine’, ‘Rabbit and wild mushroom tagliatelle’, and ‘Chocolate and chestnut yule log’. We had our meal from the Christmas party menu, which required us to order in advance, given there were so many of us. To start, I had a goats’ cheese salad- goats’ cheese, chutney, toast, and salad- well presented and good quality cheese. For the main, Calvados 
flambéed 
pheasant, which came with 
the usual Christmas dinner fixings, all cooked well and delicious. In particular, the roast potatoes were some of the best I have had. To finish, an apricot tart, sprinkled with almonds and blueberries. At £20 a head, very good value, and I would be happy to eat there again.

FollyBridge_PuddingWe started the drinks off with a complimentary glass of prosecco- not quite as fruity as some of the other prosecco I’ve had, but light and delicate, so fine for an aperitif. With the meal, we bought bottles to share around the table. The house white was Sicilian, which seemed strange, given the restaurant was French, and it wasn’t particularly good either. I’ve often said the mark of a good wine list is that the house wine is of good quality, so a little disappointing here. The red we ordered was a Bordeaux, a much better (but more expensive) bottle, which I like, and the wine worked with the pheasant well. Overall though, it looks like the wine list is a little generic, trying to cater to popular wine styles. I’d much rather see a solid French list, for a French Brasserie, designed to go with their food.

Although we were the only people earlier in the evening, the restaurant became very busy later on. With the river right out the window, and low lighting (hence the dark photos), even for a winter’s night it was very pleasant. The staff were very friendly and helpful. It felt like a relaxed restaurant, but without loads of personality- perhaps it is just not established enough to have put its mark on the place. Overall, a nice place to eat, with very good food, but just missing a little something. I would be very happy to come back, but is it my new favourite restaurant? Possibly not.

Pheasant Cassoulet

Cassoulet is one of the French classics. Not much more than a glorified stew, you might compare it to bouillabaisse, boeuf bourguignon, or Lancashire hot-pot, if you want a British equivalent. But, as with all these dishes, what makes a classic is the place they have in gastronomic history, and their connections with certain regions of their home country. For cassoulet, this is the south of France. The lore and tradition that comes along with cassoulet is what you might expect as well. You read stories about shops in the south of France being closed for short periods of the day, putting signs on their doors: “closed on account of the cassoulet”, so that they could pop over to the local bakers to cook the breadcrumb topping. The ingredients are all local fare, using confit’d meat, garlic sausages, or beans grown locally. And there seem to be about as many ways to make cassoulet as there are people who make it.

At its core, cassoulet is a pairing of meat and beans, with a breadcrumb topping. But quite what that meat is, and the variety of beans, seems to be key to the recipe. Flageolet beans or Haricot beans were varieties grown locally, and it is noted in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking that “butter beans will not do”. A Toulouse cassoulet would use pork and sausages, the Languedoc variety pork, confit’d goose or duck, or, leaving the south of France, an Alsace version with mutton and potatoes. But for me, this one-pot stew was made with whatever you had locally or whatever meat you had preserved. So as long as you go with meat, beans and breadcrumbs, I should think you can call the dish a cassoulet.

I decided to make this version of the cassoulet not because I have strong feelings about different varieties of cassoulet, but because I had a couple of pheasants in the freezer. A friend gave me these pheasants from a shoot, so they had a wonderful gamey flavour, even if I couldn’t hang them in our flat for long enough (Mrs. Oxfood would not have been pleased). I love to stew game birds- often when roasted they dry out easily, and are very fiddly to eat with a knife and fork. But when stewed, the flavour releases across the whole stew, the meat softens, and falls right off the carcass. You don’t have to pluck the bird either- skinning it is much much quicker- so if you are prepping the bird yourself, there is a further incentive. Pheasant is wonderful at this time of year, and a hot meaty stew is just what you want with the current cold weather.

Pheasant Cassoulet

Pheasant Cassoulet

This recipe is adapted from one in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking. I used two pheasants here, which made a lot of cassoulet, but you can decrease the quantities if you want, to make a smaller amount.

Ingredients:
2 pheasants
2 tins flageolet beans, rinsed
1 bulb garlic
2 packs Toulouse sausages
1 pack streaky bacon, chopped
1 bouquet garni
2 onions, each stuck with 4 cloves
breadcrumbs from about 4 slices of bread

Recipe:
1. Make the stew. Brown the pheasants, sausages, and bacon. Stick everything apart from the breadcrumbs in a large stewing pot. Cover with water, then allow to stew for several hours until the stew reaches a thick(ish) consistency. Keep adding a little more water if you need to.
2. Finish off the cassoulet. Pick the meat off the pheasants, remove the onion, garlic, and the bouquet garni (you might want to transfer to a smaller casserole dish at this point). Cover the stew with breadcrumbs, then return to the oven for 30 minutes until the breadcrumbs are brown.

The breadcrumb topping

Normandy Apple Tart

Every now and then I have to come up with a pudding on short notice. I might have some friends coming over, and we just want something to snack on in the afternoon. I might be going to a relative’s, and want to bring a “thank you for having us” pudding. Or I might be helping cater for an event, where my pudding is just part of a spread of food. Given these situations, the pudding can’t be some fussy little creamy thing, as it has to be able to travel well, keep well, and be good served hot or cold. It can’t take too long to make, but at the same time, has to look and taste good. You can’t make a dish with some potentially complex flavours either, as some people might not like them. Sounds like a tall order for a pudding.

Enter Normandy apple tart. Not much more than cooked apples on pastry, the French have always understood the value of simple cuisine. If you have flavoursome apples from a local orchard, and rich, creamy butter, why not just let these sing for themselves? Normandy tart does exactly that. Consequently, if you are going to make this, make sure you have good quality ingredients- try and get some locally grown apples (ideally Cox for UK readers), and use the best quality butter you can afford. Normandy is apple country- take their cider or Calvados, for example- so if you are making a Normandy apple dish, you know it’s going to come out well.

You can see that this pudding hits all the spots. Once cold, you can almost hold the tart upside down and it will keep its integrity (don’t try though, just in case!). I prefer it served cold, but when I served it for friends, served hot was the consensus winner. As for effort, peeling and coring the apples took me the most time- the pastry is quick and simpler than most pastries- so really not a lot of time spent in the kitchen. It went well with cream or crème fraiche, so if you are transporting this tart, you can just take along a tub of whipped cream and a spoon. And as for looks and taste? We were very pleased with the result- nothing complicated, but it didn’t need to be. So if you need to make a pudding for something, why not give this tart a go?

Normandy Apple Tart (La Tarte aux Pommes Normande)

This recipe is taken from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, a great recipe book (although sometimes hard to navigate) looking at traditional French cuisine. You’ll need a flan tin of some sort to cook the tart in.

Ingredients
8 good quality sweeter apples, like Cox
250g Normandy butter
12tsp white sugar
250g plain flour
1tsp salt
some milk, for brushing the pastry
crème fraiche, to serve

Recipe:
1. Make the pastry. Rub 125g of the butter into the flour until you have fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and 5tsp of the white sugar, and mix well. Pour in 4tbsp ice-cold water, then shape into a ball immediately. Without leaving to rest, shape out the pastry into your flan tin. Brush the edges with milk.
2. Cook the apples. Peel and core all the apples. Cut them into slices (as seen in photo). Put half of the butter in a large frying pan, with 3tsp of the remaining sugar. Fry half of these apples in the butter for around 5 minutes. Remove the apples and begin to arrange in overlapping style in the pastry. Repeat with the second half of the apples. Pour the butter juices left over the apples.
3. Cook the tart. Heat the oven to 180ºC. Place the tart in the oven for 30-35 minutes. About a minute before it is done, sprinkle over the last tsp of sugar. Serve hot or cold according to taste.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Macarons are one of the more fashionable patisserie items to make at the minute. Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly.

So when I was planning the appetiser course for a dinner party recently, I fancied trying to make a savoury macaron. I’ve seen recipes for savoury macarons in fancy cookbooks- beetroot and horseradish, bloody mary, or asparagus- and fancied that something like this would make a fun appetiser. The flavours had to go with almond, as you don’t want to mess with the magic formula for the base biscuits, which led me to curry of some sort. Out of curries I thought could be used here, a green thai curry worked best, and finding a recipe with different coloured top and bottom macarons sealed the deal.

Interesting for me too was the food-wine pairing. What wine do you pair with a savoury curry sweet almondy macaron? A lot of people will say that you want to pair a dry Riesling with a curry, but I’ve never been sold on the pairing, as I think there are too many flavours present. Instead, I wanted something a little more neutral, but still with good acidity, a light body, and light flavours, so that the cacophony of tastes in the macaron could shine through. I went with a Torrontés, a native Argentinian white. It worked wonderfully- plenty of zip, light, and when we picked up notes of lemongrass, I knew that had hit the spot. I think Torrontés would be a great wine for curry in general, so if you are able to source a bottle, give it a try, the strong food-wine pairing added a lot to the meal.

Overall the green thai curry macarons actually worked pretty well- much better than I was expecting. The almondy and sugarry sweetness, spicy lime and basil curry, and acidic and floral wine somehow balanced each other out, all tugging on the taste buds about equally. But I would definitely make the same macarons again. A really fun course to make, but quite challenging and complex at the same time.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. Measurements should be as exact as possible. Makes around 12 green thai curry macarons. You could make, say, red thai curry macarons, or tikka massala macarons in a very similar manner.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Red and green food colourings
50g butter
2tsbp fresh basil
zest 1 lime
5g cornflour
1/2 beaten egg
50g coconut milk
2tsp green thai curry paste

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough.Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites. Split the dough into two equal portions, then add the different food colourings to each.
2. Work and pipe the dough.With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the filling. Cream the butter and mix in the fresh basil and lime. In a another bowl, combine the cornflour and beaten egg. Heat the coconut milk over a medium heat in a saucepan until boiling, then add the cornflour and egg mixture. Whisk constantly until the mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool.
5. Make the macarons. When the filling is cool, pipe it onto the macarons. Leave in a fridge for as long as you can (ideally overnight) for the texture to develop.

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