Hi! here are my intermittent blog posts, I started doing this when I started the supperclub as a way of chronicleing my adventures, so you get some of my early nightmares, and then more broad comments on life as a supperclub host, and other stuff, which is always food-related as is much in my life! You'll need to read from the bottom up if you want to start from the beginning...
I swear to God, you couldn't make some of this stuff up, but nowadays, my invites are something like a blog so do take a look at those too, I do those a lot more regularly!
The next supperclub we are cooking is Georgian, as in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia. A guest asked me if we would serve the "famous Georgian mineral water". That water is called Borjomi, and it tastes truly terrible to anyone that isn't Georgian. Now, I had forgotten the name so instead of going downstairs to examine the old Borjomi bottle I'm storing oil in, I thought I'd just Google it.
And what a site it was. Here is the first image I was confronted with
I'd really rather not think about the "unnecessaries"
Now, let me tell you a bit about Borjomi. The reason it tastes terrible is it's absolutely choc full of minerals. It's really rather like drinking water from the Dead Sea, if you've any conception of how awful that tastes.
This is pretty much confirmed by the passage from their website:
Borjomi mineral springs were discovered more than thousands years ago. This fact is confirmed by 7 stone bath-tubs found at the beginning of 20th century and dated to beginning of the 1st millennium A.D. Evidently, at those times water was used for bathing and not for drinking.
Those ancients definitely had the right idea. The water is not fit to drink. It almost certainly has a higher sodium content than salt and Georgians imbibe it by the litre. I'm convinced that it's almost single-handedly behind the major health problem Georgia has with hypertension - Georgians are obsessed with their high blood pressure to the point that I knew a lady who had 2 blood pressure monitors - one to check if the other one was working correctly. And if you go to flea markets - well they're absolutely full of 2nd hand blood pressure monitors. I can only presume because the original owners died.
Well, I went on to peruse other sections of their site. It's lovely, if you'll excuse their version of English. Start with the legend of Georgia, which sounds pretty true to form, being late because of a banquet:
According to the folk legend, when God share lands among people, where those were supposed to live, Georgians were late because they had banquet. When they appeared in front of Him they were told that no free lands were left. And Georgians replied that they were late while they were drinking for His health and invited Him to banquet. Got spend a great time and decided to give them land, which left for Himself. Indeed Georgia is a divine country!
They have a full explanation of their history, including that "in the 4th Century AD there appeared Christianity" - indeed, Georgia was the 2nd Christian nation in the world, after Armenia - and that David the Builder expelled the Turks and brought back independency [sic]. He sounds SO much more effective than Bob the Builder.
They go on to highlight the mineral resources – spot the valuable one "oil, coal, bog muck....." and they helpfully talk about their language, writing, music and art.
But the best bit is their analysis of Georgian Cuisine, which is full of hidden gems. Here are some classic excerpts:
Typical table in Georgian starts up with “Borjomi” and finishes with “Suliko” and knocking up between times. [actually I've no idea at all what they mean by that!]
It goes on to describe some of the classic Georgian dishes (some of which we will cook for the upcoming supperclub, although I hope they taste better than this description makes them sound!), and really starts to descend into total unintelligibility. When I read it I can clearly hear the Georgian accent behind it. Although the reference to "phalli" (which should be spelt phkali) and "horny dzhigits" [??] may explain all the "knocking up" that goes on. Enjoy! I worry that our supperclub will be a disappointment after all this...
Local cuisine is real high art. Only Georgian cook knows how many efforts and fantasy should be applied to obtain an effect from usual green. What is fabulous jonjoli means, for example? To the view this is usual twigs and in point of fact this is delicacy which is collected only in single place (Lechkhuma) then marinated and could be kept not longer those two days. And faggot of vegetable herbs such as cilantro, estragon, basil, creeping, onion, and mint on the table seems to be simple ikebana in comparison with phalli (fine-cut mix of fresh and boiled green in nut souse).
Main courses here are nourishing and have wonderful gustatory characteristics. Invited for Georgian tableful first of all will be proposed to taste satsivi (turkey stewed in nut souse) then lobio (kidney beans in tomato souse) with every family cooks in different style as well as beloved by Kahetin people hashlama (boiled meat with dressings).
It is interesting that almost every Georgian region could brag with its cheese sorts. For example in Imeretia cheese is very soft with gadazelili mint, and in Teuleti people prefer guda sheep cheese which is made in homonymous pouches. Cheese is used in Georgian cuisine as a snack (naturally or roasted) and as full ingredient of different courses.
Supra is Georgian tableful and is always accompanied with toasts and dancing. And it is finished with traditional Georgian many-voiced singing when horny dzhigits and beautiful women sing folk songs which sounded from mountains with echo. And at daylight when it seems that everything has been eat, drunk and sung it is time for…more supra “second table”! New white cloth is spread on a table before guests served with tasty smelling snacks and it appears that holiday is not yet started
I just wanted to let you know that a generous diner has just donated a record £260.01 for his upcoming meal to tip us over the £20,000 target that we had on our JustGiving site. (£24,000 including tax, so far!)
Parkholme Supper Club was founded by just me on my own in Sept 2010 and the original target was only £2,000; as you can see it’s risen quite a lot as we’ve grown, and we’ve just put it up to £40,000. All this money goes direct to Medecins Sans Frontieres to help with their work providing medical aid around the world. We were the first charity supper club in the country and I think we are still the only permanent one.
We could not exist without the support of our community, which includes you, the diners, and also the excellent volunteers who help with each and every meal (their names are listed below), chopping, serving, washing up and being generally abused by me without complaint :-) as well as our many suppliers on Ridley Road market.
We’ve had fabulous guest chefs who have hosted very special nights, got a brand new e-mail address thanks to an IT volunteer, and even had donated recipes from countries as far-flung as Moldova. If anyone has any ways they think they might be able to contribute, do please let us know!
Again, a big thank you to everyone who has helped in any way, even if it’s just spreading the word to your friends.
Alicia and the team:
YungJoo Pankhurst (publicity)
Chris Chinnery (IT)
Lay Eng Lim
*Guest chefs: Ann Weston, Reena Retuta, Lisa Neidich, Ilona Maroziene, Julia Jorge and her family, Veena and Maurelio Torchia and several of the above too!
Sometimes it's a bit frustrating being in France and just popping to the local brasserie, and eating a great meal for 15 Euros. Frustrating because you know how difficult it is to get such apparently effortlessly delicious food in London. We all know that the French do food exceptionally well – but there are some things they don't, and one of them is recycling.
Running a supperclub, we produce quite a lot of food waste. I'm not talking about good food going to waste – ask my friends, family and neighbours and particularly my freezer, they get all the left-overs – but since we produce so much from scratch, there are all the by products; the squeezed grated coconut (and shells!) we use to produce coconut milk, the cauliflower leaves from the truffled cauliflower soup, and the skins from the seemingly interminable amount of onions we have to chop. So I'm pleased to say Hackney do provide me my very own nice blue bin, which they even remember to empty occasionally, to take away all my food waste and recycle it.
Fast forward to France, where I often test my recipes on my unsuspecting friends and neighbours. Recycling facilities are pretty poor here – they are far away, you have to take your stuff there, carefully read the instructions and pictures on the bins, and then only an apparently small proportion of your waste is actually recyclable. Not yogurt pots; certainly not food, so that has to go in the regular waste bins (to which you have to take your rubbish, no convenient rubbish collection around here). I am inland and we apparently are more eco-friendly than the glam lot South of me on the Cote D'Azur – where there doesn't seem to be any recycling at all.
So there I was having a bitch about this to my friend Emmanuel, and he showed me an astonishing piece of kit. Here it is.
Yes, apparently, Sorting Your Rubbish Is Easy. It is in Hackney – we dump nearly everything in the green bin and someone else does your sorting for you. Here – hmm, not quite so easy, since people have to do it themselves. Clearly they've been a bit confused (Confused? You WILL be). So it seems the local authorities decided to give them a helping hand. In the form of this little “pamphlet”, which has a magnet on the back to stick on your fridge Great, you can't lose it.
Right, now for a photo of the “interior” of this little folded magnetic thing. This is it, unfolded. Just in case you don't read French, the middle bit says “where do I throw my rubbish?” Good question. “What object? and “what destination?” are the subjects of those little windows. Sounds good so far. But look – there are NINE potential destinations for your rubbish. And they are not in your bin store, not one of them.
Let's see how it works, right here. Can you see? You slide that central section up and down and it tells you where to throw stuff. Isn't that great. Here's an example. Broken Watering Can? it goes to The Dump. Yes, DRIVE to the dump and leave it there. Plastic Plates? in general household waste (no, they don't really like to recycle plastic all that much here). That goes to the dump too, but at least the local council will take it there for you. Apparently they won't take your broken watering can though.
That leads me nicely on to the list of objects. Did you ever see broken watering can on YOUR recycling list? There are almost ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY items on here. And they include other such choice items as X-rays, broken watches, barometers, and a wonderful phrase called “tout venant” which my dictionary does not translate but my friends tell me is "everyday stuff".
That, by the way, goes to The Dump. Mayonnaise has its own entry, as do Post Its.
Let's make it simple, eh. Wouldn't want to confuse anyone. And – oh yes – some of these objects have more than one potential destination. Check out the number of bicolour entries.
Now let's look at colours. Just for your reference, the only ones the council actually recycles at their “recycling points” are yellow, green and blue. Red is The Dump and Grey is “household waste”. I see a lot of red and grey on this list.
Right. Now let's start adding insult to injury. To get this printed, the council spent 300,000 Euros. Yes, that's not a typo. And then they put it through everyone's letter box. Everyone, that is, who didn't have a “no junk mail” sign on their letter box (I do, and so do most people here, as the amount of junk mail in France is about 15x the quantity I received in London before I got that sign on the door). So I didn't get it, and probably half the other people didn't get it either.
Oh, just when you think it can't get worse, it does.
Here's a photo of the 2nd page of this delightful, helpful object. I shan't translate it all, but the title says: “How do you become an Eco Citizen?”
Point #2: Put a “No Junk Mail” sign on your letterbox.
Je reste ma valise. I rest my case.
Most family and friends thought I was totally insane. The trains after all are run by KTM, the state-run train service. You will struggle to find the timetable on their website, indeed even find their website. I found it on someone else's. On-line booking - we can only dream. But I have fond memories of train journeys as a teenager and I wanted to do what the Malays call "balik kampung". Balik kampung literally translates to go back to your village. Though I am not Malay (I am Chinese Malaysian) and I don't have a village because my family are from KL, I did want to go back to the kampungs I remember from my childhood, where people lived in houses on stilts with chickens running underneath and the kids (including me) played jacks with 5 pebbles. Plus I was keen to revive my almost forgotten Malay, which I learnt as a child in Indonesia.
Booking this escapade was the first part of my adventure. My friend had seen something about the Malaysian homestay programme on Singaporean TV but details were scarce and by the time I found the website on Friday, the "Visit Malaysia" tourist office that could have helped me was closed for the weekend. Since I was planning to head off at 4.30am on Monday, I had to take matters into my own hands and call Kuala Lipis myself. I reached Pak Mohammed only to discover he didn't speak any English. In halting Malay I told him I'd call him back tomorrow, planning to enlist a friend's help to book. When I got off the phone I realised that copping out to a friend was not the point - I was supposed to be learning! So I asked my Aunty Lee Leng if she had a Malay dictionary. She lives in a big house with a lot of books so the search was on. In the event we came up with a pamplet from the 50's teaching "Bazaar Malay" to British servicemen. Really, it should have been in a museum somewhere. Nevertheless, with this I went on to book my stay and pick up from Kuala Lipis station at 1.30 on Monday.
I thought I ought to tackle my journey with more resources than my Bazaar Malay pamphlet so Sunday, before leaving, I went to the local bookshop to pick up a proper Malay dictionary. Singapore has 3 official languages, English, Mandarin and Malay, to reflect the diversity of its populace. Not that you'd know it from the dictionary section of Times Bookstore, Holland Village. All that was on offer was a sorry looking phrasebook. On principle I took the manager to task about it (he claimed he'd just sold out of the last dictionary but we both knew he was lying), but I was running out of options, so the sorry phrasebook it was.
On the train into Malaysia you knew when you'd left Singapore when the rubbish started appearing by the tracks. The train was slow, stopping everywhere, but offered great scope for jungle and people-watching and went right through the heart of small towns with odd looking stations that definitely had some Victorian design features. Admittedly the jungle-watching wore thin quite quickly and one plantation looks much like another though. I had bought curry puffs and snacks in Singapore station and quietly munched on these as the sun rose. I perused the sorry phrasebook wondering at the person who had written it. There were 3 ways to order wine, a glass of wine, a glass of red wine, and a bottle of wine. Wine is not something that’s readily available in non-English speaking restaurants in Malaysia. Ways to order a beer were not given. The small dictionary at the end of the book was equally baffling. They gave the word for a horse (not a native animal and probably only seen on racetracks), but not a monkey, ubiquitous. Everything was definitive - there was no word for if, but or maybe in the whole thing so you either went somewhere and did something, or you didn’t, there was no scope for alternate possibilities. I began to wonder if I should have stuck with the Bazaar Malay, because this was bizarre Malay, and came to the conclusion that the author was a pedantic alcoholic with a gambling problem, who’d probably never actually been to Malaysia.
Overall, I enjoyed her cooking much more than I expected (never having liked Malay food all that much), and I helped her with some of the cooking. The single worst dish I ate though (and it’s fairly high on the all-time worst dishes list) is when I brought home a fish that I’d fished in the village fish ponds - a kind of catfish. This appeared on the dining table looking rather yellow and pungent - a durian fish curry. Now I will eat durian - many people won’t, it’s a pretty stinky fruit - but I do think the fish/durian/curry combo is the worst of all possible smelly worlds. I can‘t think of a better use of the word foetid. Even worse of course I was expected to eat quite a lot of it because I caught the bloody thing. That was one recipe I did not ask for.
From Kuala Lipis I carried on my marathon journey on the Jungle Train through jungle and plantations up to Kota Baru. There was some confusion about the time of departure, which might have been 1.30pm (according to the KTM website my sister looked up), 1.36 (what was printed on the ticket I bought), 1.51 which was the time confirmed by the announcement, or 1.59 which was when we actually left. Perhaps there was another time there somewhere which meant it was early. My lovely hosts waited on the platform to wave me off, complete with golden goody bag for the journey loaded up with curry puffs and at least one more meal. My hostess had seemed rather disappointed I didn't eat more to build myself up for the journey, but I had had a big breakfast with nasi goreng, goreng pisang and the curry puffs already just two and a half hours before.
I had been warned that it was monsoon season but I really hadn’t grasped the reality of the “north-east monsoons”. It came down in ropes from the time I arrived to about 1 hour before I left. My flipflops had already conspired to give me blisters from wondering around Kuala Medang so I was in my Birkenstocks - let me tell you they are not ideal for wet weather. Obviously they are not enclosed, but also, with all the suede, they never dry out!. Every morning my heart would sink as I put my feet into the soggy slippers ready to face the day. I still didn’t look as miserable as the chickens though, sheltering in the eaves and doorways of houses, wondering whether they could evolve the ability to swim. The one plus point - no mosquitos. I think they had all drowned.
My by now quite friendly taxi driver, always available, took me on eating trips to town and other random places to eat local delicacies like Ayam Percik and Nasi Kerabu, or should I say Kerablue since it is rather a strange colour. He ate Nasi Air which translates to water rice - didn’t sound the most appealing dish in the world. Especially given the amount of water that was falling all about. We practiced my Malay and he marvelled that a single woman could travel alone, he’d never seen it before. “Just like a man!” he said.
I took cooking lessons with a Malay woman who seemed strangely reluctant to measure anything, given that she was formally giving lessons, and managed to get my handbag infested with red ants from the leftover banana fritters I made and then forgot about it my bag. However, when a tree in her garden just keeled over onto corrugated tin roof of the house, causing us quite a fright, apparently from sheer weight of water, I should have taken the hint. The chickens would have gone long ago, if they could.
Eventually though the endless rain and damp got the better of me. When my “dry” clothes actually felt like they’d been freshly wrung out and the bed felt rather like getting into a swimming pool, just from the humidity, it was time to pack my bags and call my sister to book me on the next plane out of there. Thanks, sis, for braving Air Asia’s booking system and rescuing me….
Quite a lot of curry puffs
Dinners start at 7.30. Sometimes diners arrive early, throwing a Panzer Tank into my timing. Reena got her first taste of this the other day, for our Italian Adventure. After the anchovy filleting (yes, someone did mail me and told me he thought they came out of cans), we were so behind we were watching the clock like hawks. And at 7pm, the doorbell rang. Reena, in true American style, yelled “NOOO WAAAY!”. Yes Way. We were not dressed, not a scrap of makeup, and I was covered in egg white. Luckily for us it was my friend Manu, who has become a regular at supper clubs despite having to pay for my cooking. So, Manu had to take out the rubbish (garbage!), move my bike, change a light bulb, AND make half the tiramisu. All that before dinner. You can come early, but be warned….
Our Italian Adventure was meant to describe the adventure Reena had had in pursuing her dream in Italy. In the event it was quite a culinary adventure for both of us! She’d chosen the dishes based on those most nostalgic meals from her time in Italy. Admittedly, there were some alteration that needed to be made. I’d resolved to let her make her own mistakes on this one and just cook whatever she chose - it would be a great learning curve for her in terms of menu design, and with 2 of us, I was sure we could cook whatever. But, I’m afraid, I had to stick my oar in.
Mainly because when she sent me over the menu, she had Cavallo on it as a main course. Now my Italian isn’t fluent, but I think cavallo means horse. I had to mail her back - telling her 1) we don’t eat horse in this country and 2) serving that would be the surest way to get me firebombed I know of! Back to the drawing board.
The next missive I received had another Italian delight instead - Lingua. Again, my Italian’s not great but last time I looked, that meant tongue. I’m sure my enthusiastic butcher can manage to get it but I have memories of my second ever supper club when I put Chicken Liver Pate on the menu. I know it’s good because friends eat it enthusiastically every time I serve it - but only ONE person ordered it and I had a mountain of chicken liver pate to dispose of. I swore never to put offal on the menu again. So - tongue was off all my menus too. The only people I really know that eat tongue happily are my parents’ generation, and I don’t get too many 70+ customers.
At the third attempt I got oxtail. OK, it’s offal but I can live with that. Also on the menu were marinated anchovies, foccacia, tiramisu, walnut strudel, ribollita, spinach and ricotta tortelli, mozzarella di buffala, tomato bruschetta and olives. All except the olives, the mozzarella (thanks Sainsburys, who actually sell it at a reasonable price) and the tortelli caused us problems!!
I had really no idea where to get fresh anchovies from, short of going down to Billingsgate at 4am. Trawling around Ridley Road, for the first time I spotted little mounds of small silver fish. In fact they were everywhere, how had I not noticed them before? They were called sprats. They were bigger than the tiny things Reena had described but we took one home to experiment with, figured we could fillet them and make them work. Reena had the recipe from her friend who’d made it so that was a goer. In the event it took 2 hours of our morning to fillet about 1.5kgs of sprats - hey, I’m a lot faster for next time, got the hang of it now - so I don’t advise anyone else putting this on their menu as it’s not really something you want to do a couple of days before if you’re eating them raw!!
Next we had to find recipes for the other stuff. Reena sent over a rather dodgy-looking recipe for walnut strudel. It didn’t even look like a strudel! I asked her is that what she actually ate and she admitted it wasn’t but it was all she could find on the web. So I searched my Italian cookbooks in vain for walnut strudel recipes. In the end I gave up in despair and decided to adapt an apple strudel recipe. That’s when I remembered the Apple Strudel Grandma Clar which I have wanted to cook for over 20 years. That’s right, I remember recipes that long. The reason I haven’t cooked it for 20 years is that it requires an entire big dining table, a spare tablecloth that you cover in flour, and willing friends to help make it. Finally, I have all these things. When I dug up the recipe - lo and behold - it had walnuts in it. Good grief. That Grandma Clar was surely smiling on me.
What it involves is making the strudel dough and pulling it out to the size of your table, can you believe, until you can see the pattern of the tablecloth through it. We had a fantastic time reading the instructions out loud to each other 25 times to work out what to do, and making the thing look like a Jackson Pollock painting (as instructed), before rolling it up and making 2 large strudels, far too much (I thought), so I promised left-overs to the Nuns.
Next problem was finding ripe tomatoes for the Bruschetta. I went the length of the market 2 days before, looking for good tomatoes. Right at the end I found not-very-ripe but large and lovely plum tomatoes. And the bit of cardboard propped up behind them said in marker pen “ Grown on the hillsides of Italy by Benedictine Monks”. Mamma Mia. Apparently (I did ask!) that’s what they were told when they bought them at the wholesale stall!! Well the story was good so I bought a bunch of ripe bananas, took them home and tied them all up in a plastic bag on the heated stone floor. This is the appliance of science. 2 days later and they were quite ripe, from all the ethylene given off by the bananas. I tell you, it works, ‘coz they weren’t even very red when I bought them.
Ribollita - well, it needs white beans. I didn‘t get a Valentines card this year, but my friend the bean-man gave me the beans - get this - as a Valentine‘s present!! Well, that cheered me up. Also, it requires cavolo nero to be totally authentic. Not an easy thing to get in this country (a friend tried for me at Borough market and failed), so I had to beg some dark green cabbage leaves off a market trader (who no doubt thought I was mad!). What with the butcher who thinks I only eat chicken bones (since he gives them to me free and otherwise only sells non-freerange meat which I don’t buy!), and the market traders who think I eat left-over cabbage leaves…. They must think I’m really hard up. At least no-one can say I don’t have a bean.
But the crowning glory of our troubles was the focaccia. Well, after all the internet searches, I can tell you I know how to spell it now. It certainly didn’t seem like a problem. I went to Sainsburys and found that they were out of Sainsbury’s strong bread flour (I had only 1 bag left after dim sum making). After careful and lengthy consideration of all the different flours available and their gluten content (Sainsbury’s strong bread being the highest at over 13%), I plumped for Hovis Extra Strong, mainly because it wasn’t very expensive. I’d found 3 focaccia recipes in my cookbooks, all quite similar so I was confident in the recipe. Actually the internet recipes were similar too (similar AND similarly hopeless). In the end we had to make it up.
Our first attempt (with Sainsbury’s flour) produced a solid, dry and close-textured bread that seemed suitable for grissini, or breadsticks. Horrific. We did in fact use that exact method and flour to produce our excellent home made breadsticks later, so I’m not kidding. Reena looked horrified. I think we had both thought that it would be relatively easy to do, since it‘s so easily available all over Italy. Second attempt was marginally better (using Hovis flour), but all the cooking times given of 20-30 mins produced a hard crusty bread. So we cut the cooking time down to 10 minutes, which seemed similar to another soft crust wholegrain bread that I make. 3rd attempt was better yet but we forgot it in the oven and still baked it for 15 mins. Oops. 4th attempt (helped by the grill for browning) was definitely better in terms of soft crust - after all, who ever ate a crusty focaccia?!. By this time I was well fed up of baking bread, the oven had been on all day and I’d read every piece of scientific explanation of gluten and crust formation I could get my hands on. Finally, the next day, we got it right. Add oil TO the dough, use Hovis flour, make sure the dough consistency is correct before it goes in the oven, use the top oven heat, get the right sized pan, don’t over-rise and cover the bread with a tea towel when it comes out of the oven. It was perfect. Now you can see what we go through to give you all your perfect dinners?! Anyway some of our failures went into the Ribollita so it didn’t all go to waste!
Here in France (where I am now), I can definitely say that there’s a lot to do with the milling of the flour, more so than the gluten content as far as I can see. I actually baked some bread this morning using French flour, about 12% protein (long story, but it started with an experimental dim sum that needed leavened dough, not that I’m a glutton for punishment or anything with a Boulangerie just outside my front door!, so I baked the leftovers). It was light, airy, soft and delicious. Without even trying. I’m bringing a suitcase of French flour back with me.
Oh yes- and the tiramisu. I begged the recipe on e-mail off an Algerian friend married to an Italian here in France. YOU try working with a recipe that goes like - “take 2 tubs (unspecified size!) of mascarpone. Mix it with egg yolks. Beat the whites with a glass of sugar (a glass? a GLASS?!). Mix it in with the mascarpone mix. Pour it over sponges soaked in coffee.” Yet again, we had to make it up. And after all the anchovy filleting, we were so behind I was doing this AFTER the guests already arrived - in fact one poor guest had to beat the mascarpone for me. Hey, dinner and cooking lesson into the bargain. It ended up huge, since I used 11 eggs, and tasted great. The nuns didn’t get either this or any walnut strudel, I’m afraid to say. None left. We'd made enough dessert for 22 people and 14 people ate the lot.
Spring Onions have run through my life recently. It all started with an obsession with some spring onion noodles that Aunty Lee Leng drove me 45 minutes across town in Singapore (and if you know Singapore, that’s the other side of the country!) to eat. She took me to some dingy basement in some nondescript office block, and we ate in a wholly unpromising Shanghainese restaurant - and the spring onion noodles were amazing. They were quite plain - no meat, a simple sauce, and this incredible spring onion taste. My Aunty Lee Leng is a real foodie and a great chef. She and I dissected all the foods we ate (I made notes in my food notebook!) and discussed the way to cook them. She’s tried to cook some of these dishes before with limited success. What she did tell me was the spring onion taste was in the oil, so I resolved to try and replicate it.
Imagine my delight when I returned to the UK and discovered that my local Chinese shop sold exactly the right kind of noodles. Now I just had to work out how to make the oil! I had identified the ingredients of the dressing, I was sure. I tried frying some spring onions in oil but didn’t get the same intensity of taste, so I decided I needed more, but didn‘t get round to it for a while.
Meanwhile I got myself an assistant. Shortly after I had my first supper club, I got an e-mail from someone looking for intern work in a supper club. I was in stitches! I’d only just started and already I was getting job applications! Reena was looking for experience in Supper Clubs because she’s writing her masters thesis on them - she’s studying at the Institute of Gastronomic Sciences (yes, there is such a place!!) in Italy. I was more than happy for the help - surprisingly I was one of the only ones that opened their doors to her. So for the last 2 supper clubs (and a cooking for the homeless session), Reena has been helping me out. 13 years younger than me, I tease her and call her Spring Onion. Little was I to know how spring onions would take over my life for a week.
One day before my Chinese New Year supper club, I was in the market, and spotted someone selling boxes of spring onions for £1.50. Normally you get about 3-4 bunches for £1, so I thought there might be around 8 bunches in the box. That would do nicely for another spring onion noodle test. I needed to do some kind of noodle for my Chinese New Year dinner - very traditional. Great timing. However, when I got it home I realised how tightly packed they were - there were around 20 big bunches! Arrgh. What to do with so many spring onions?
Thus my Chinese New Year supper club developed another, secret, motive. How to use up the spring onions. I had so many that if you imagined that you were putting them on a plate to eat just them as a main meal, I could have fed 4-6 people! On the phone to Reena, I moaned about being sick of chopping spring onions. I never wanted to see another spring onion again (she hoped that might make me drop her nickname). I snuck them in everywhere. I had a (successful) 2nd test of the spring onion noodles. That used up almost half (luckily the oil can keep!). The vegetable dish was chosen because of its high spring onion content. Ma Po Tofu can swallow a whole lot of spring onions. Luckily it’s one of my sister’s favourite dishes, and she was coming. Guo Tie fillings, garnishes for steamed fish and everything else… almost the only place I couldn’t get them in was the dessert!
I think you could call the Chinese New Year supper club a success. I was full to capacity, fed everyone too much as you should do on Chinese New Year, and I think they all enjoyed it, especially the spring onion noodles. My rice actually cooked OK and in the right quantities (finally worked that one out! - I didn't use the rice cooker!), and, most importantly, I have only 2 spring onions left. J
I’m in France at the moment and yesterday I barely ventured out of the house apart from to chop some firewood. Today, however, I had a spring clean ahead of my friends arriving. I swept and waxed the ancient terracotta floors and took out the rubbish. My rubbish bin is not far away. Just the other side of the small square in fact., so I wasn’t expecting it to take very long. However, in the event, it took me over half an hour to get home. I bumped into the son of my old neighbour. Not a good friend, but you need to say hello and politeness’s. Plus it’s useful to know what they intend to do with their house which is currently rented to a family with a 3 year old doing marathons in the room above my bedroom. Watch out for him in about 3 Olympics time, he‘s in training already.
On from there I bumped into George, the Armenian whose family came here in the pogroms and stayed - he’s in charge of the Mediaeval festival in our village so there’s much to talk about there.
By the fountain, another neighbour was washing his car. He is a spice dealer, and supplies spices (not sure about herbs, haven’t clarified that bit yet) to restaurants and even “The Palace“ (remember France is a republic so I guess this is something to do with Sarkozy?). I was telling him about my supper club, and swapped some experimental Georgian dessert in exchange for an obscenely large box of marrons glaces, local to the region. I suggested he might come to dinner with some other good friends and neighbours, G + E. Apparently he’s not speaking to them! Pigeon Wars. He feeds the pigeons incessantly, attracting them to their little cul-de-sac, where they crap everywhere and roost on their windowsills, and E has gone to the Mairie and complained. I guess the upshot is he can’t do it anymore. Oops. Mentioned the wrong people then. Quick, change subject onto… um… pigeons. My it’s amazing what you can find to talk about pigeons. I cast around desperately and remembered some article about the pigeons being cleared from Trafalgar Square. Is that true? I just saw the headline. I started telling him that and then petered out as I realised I didn‘t really know anything about it.Makes a change from petering out because I don't have the vocabulary. Pigeons is easy - pee-johns. He started telling me about how all the old houses were designed to have pigeons roost in the attic (not mine luckily, I don‘t fancy 300 years of pigeon crap in my roof, thank you very much), and at night you used to creep upstairs and capture one or two for dinner. Apparently young ones are quite tasty. He also started telling me about another small bird that they shoot that is very tasty when roasted whole in the fire. I couldn’t translate the name, but knowing the French, it’s probably song thrush or nightingale, or perhaps even robin. Definitely small, cute and fluffy, I wouldn’t put it past them. Shoot anything that moves, the French will.
Finally, Maria yelled to me out of the window. Maria is originally Italian (we are very cosmopolitan in this village), and lives opposite me. She is elderly and infirm but extremely garrulous, and it‘s a delight to see how integrated she is into the village even now. She invited me for lunch, so I said I’d stop by. I grabbed some more of “test Georgian dessert” (very nice!) and some salad and went over. She had prepared a courgette omelette. More of a frittata, it was incredibly tasty, and had an interesting twist - rosemary. I’d never have thought of pairing that with eggs but it worked brilliantly. However, some of my enthusiasm may have been due to the fact that she gave me a half-tumbler of whisky as an aperitif. I hate pastis, the other option, so took the whisky. Goodness me she must think I’m a lush. She had wine on offer too - but after all that whisky there was no chance. I just held my breath and gulped.
I enjoyed a light-headed lunch (as opposed to a light lunch), watching the Italian equivalent of Ready Steady Cook. They even have a tomato kitchen! The format seems to be cooking demonstration combined with Ready Steady Cook. Despite my limited Italian, I was interested in the size of the chefs (they all seem to be quite large), the fact that, as usual, all the female presenters on Italian TV are blonde (seems to be a prerequisite; I noted that the entire audience in the background were brunettes), and the frankly quite sexual delight of the interviewer when tasting the dish. They actually cut all the noise, put music, and just showed her face in slow motion as she ate this cake they made. I tell you, it made me want to cook that recipe! Plus there was a really interesting demonstration of roast pork. They took a fillet of pork and wrapped it up in belly to get great crackling, then tied the whole lot up with string. What a great idea - best of both worlds! They seasoned and herbed the meaty side of the belly before rolling it around the fillet. I must test that.
Anyway, after my lovely lunch (and the opportunity to unload more test Georgian dessert on Maria), I stumbled home. I was quite tipsy! Only to nearly skid over on my newly-waxed floors. I can tell you, waxed floors and half a tumbler of whisky do not mix one little bit. Gives a whole new meaning to “Slip-sliding away”. I came home to an e-mail from my sister. “Mummy’s been given a pheasant and doesn’t know what to do with it“. I’m not surprised, my Chinese mother wouldn’t have a clue what to do with an English game bird like a pheasant. I remember when I was young, going camping and finding one whose head had been rolled over by a car. I’d never had pheasant before but I’d read about it - to me, having grown up abroad, it was the epitome of the heights of English cuisine (I didn’t really realise about the heights of English “cuisine” in those days, forgive me). I thought it must be absolutely delicious. So, aged about 14 - I was clearly an intrepid chef even then - I picked it up and we took it to camp. I plucked and gutted it, panfried the legs, and spit-roasted the body. And it was tough as old boots. I had no idea why anyone ate this stuff. Fast forward a few weeks later, when someone explained about hanging it till it was maggoty…. I think maybe at that point I learnt about the “heights of English cuisine”.
So there I was, criticising the French for shooting everything that moves. Apparently Uncle Jerrard shot it. He’s my dad’s mad school friend who lives in the Outer Hebrides or somewhere, that sounds about par for the course. 1) he‘d shoot it and 2) he‘d be silly enough to give it to Mummy. Apparently Mummy’s put it in the freezer pending some bright ideas. I wonder if it had maggots. Perhaps I won’t tell her about that bit.
As I am now in Syria, I can update you a bit further on what you are likely to be served at my Syrian night on Tuesday 16th November, after my extensive, waistline-expanding research covering really the length and breadth of Syria (yes, I have been almost everywhere, even into Mesopotamia, currently hanging out with Bedouin).
Selon le marche (ingredients permitting), we will be sampling a very distinctive Aleppine speciality of kibbeh cooked with quinces and pomegranate juice. There will be a wealth of mezze including a very delicate dish cooked with only the insides of courgettes, and a selection of stuffed vegetables with both veggie and non-veggie filling. A fabulous Syrian salad called Fattoush and a dish made with spinach, spices and crispy fried onions that I really enjoyed. I also found a traditional dish called Fetteh made with chickpeas, which we ate at a restaurant which was particularly recommended for this dish, and they gave me their recipe... And yes, my suitcase is already full of spices and nuts...
I can't encourage you enough to come to this country. The people are warm, welcoming, generous, and there is yummy food everywhere! And the weather is a lovely 20 degrees and sunny every day!