Wishing you all a wonderful year!
First of all good news! My book Belgian Café Culture (Authentieke Belgische Cafés) has won the ‘Food History’ Award for Belgium at the Gourmand World Book Awards! I’m extremely happy that our Belgian café heritage is getting such recognition, in the hope that this will lead to some day preserving cafés as protected heritage. Now on to todays business…
Ever since I spent some time in Sweden I can not stop baking traditional Swedish delights! So of course I had to bake on Santa Lucia, which is celebrated in Sweden today. They go by a few names: Lussebullar, Lussekatt, Lussekatter, St.Lucia bullar and plain old saffron buns.
According to tradition it is the eldest daughter of the family who is in charge of baking these buns. Santa Lucia is the christianised pagan feast of the winter solstice. Today is the darkest day of the year and therefore light has to be celebrated and cherished. Before christianisation the Nordic people would celebrate the goddess Frigga or Freya and her awakening from the tree in which she was hiding with her child Baldur. This marks the shortest day and the moment in which the days will start to lengthen again. For pagans today is christmas….
One of the most memorable things I ate while in Latvia was a Rye bread trifle with cranberries on lingonberries they call ‘Rupjmaizes kārtojums’. It is made by grating the iconic sweet Rye bread and lightly frying the crumbs then layering it with cream and curd cheese and the tart red cranberries they use so often in their cuisine. It was offered to me by the host in ‘Zaku Krogs’ a most wonderful Jamaica Inn-like ex-rabbit hunters Inn in Jurkalne which is about an 2,5 hour drive from Riga. The drive there takes you through forests which are laden with berry shrubs and strange small villages with Soviet-style blocks of flats.
On our way to Jurkalne we visited Ildze’s friend who works in the office of a sprat canning factory where all the people from the surrounding villages work. It was a unique insight to how this works, the sprats are delivered daily and extremely fresh and processed that same day. Processing means they are sorted by size and arranged on hooks by a group of women, then they are smoked – no artificial dye here – and then another group of women sorts the sprats neatly in their tins like braided hair. Then the sprats get a generous blob of salt on them, rapeseed oil and the tins are closed and finally pasteurised….
I didn’t really know what to expect when I stepped on a plane with final destination Sweden in what was possibly one of the most dreadful moments of my life. My heart was pounding in my throat because I just left my gravely ill and much beloved 15 year old cat in the very loving hands of my husband. I sat on the Copenhagen station platform waiting for a train to Malmo in Sweden, I felt utterly alone and I just wanted to be home.
But suddenly I looked up and there I saw the wonderful smile of Sarah from Vienna. Like me she had a huge backpack, accompanied by a small one, dressed in outdoorsy clothing but in a far better mood than I was. Excited she asked if I was traveling to the food camp and we started talking, trying to figure out delayed and cancelled trains and word by word I was letting go of the overpowering sadness and worry.
We boarded a train and then a taxi which brought us to a beech forest in Skane. We were greeted by Lotta Ranert, creator of Pure Food Camp and one of the two women who brought us all together here and Camilla, the owner. There was cheese to welcome us, cheese made by Cecilia Timner, 20 footsteps from where we were standing, made with the milk of the pale creamy fudge-coloured cows we heard mooing in the distance.
Nothing happens in my brain here before I have made sure we have this fire and it’s going and we can make food and tea.
The camp existed out of a couple of yurts and a big mother-yurt which was the heart of the site. In the centre of that yurt was a warming wood fired stove with water boiler that created a spectacular display of steam, there were pots, pans, crockery and a couple of essentials. Each of our own yurts had a sweet little blue door, painted with illustrations. Two little beds with a duvet and woolly blanket in each yurt, a water container, oil lamps, matches, a kerosene fire and a bowl to hold water to wash ourselves. It was a simple set up but yet it felt like luxury.
Our outdoor loo was of the glamorous sort with a see through roof, wooden walls and an actual toilet seat. Much more than I was expecting but very welcome indeed on moments when going behind a big tree wasn’t an option.
After talking us through how to tend to the oil lamps and kerosene fire, loo and a few other practicalities we were expected up a gentle hill where a large table was set with vintage teacups and plates ready for “Fika”. Fika can be compared to a simple afternoon tea yet less formal and it can happen several times a day. One of the Swedes told us in many Swedish companies Fika is even a big thing, Fika is serious business and should not be skipped.
The kanelbullar (cinnamon swirl buns, see my recipe here), almondbullar and chocolatabullar (balls made of butter, cacao and oats) were passed around the table laughing as if we were at day 5 not hour 2 into the camp week. Tea and coffee came from tall sturdy steel teapots who hung from the smoking open fires. It was supposed to be raining I remembered, but instead here we were, outside, drinking hot drinks and eating all kinds of bullar while secretly gazing around us, taking in the details of the forest, savouring this unique moment in our lives.
The sun was lowering on the sky and Camilla, the owner of the Nyrups Naturhotel that was our yurt camp introduced us to the menu of the dinner we would be cooking on the fires. Two vegetable starters, a main and a pudding, each in a basket, just the ingredients and the suggestion of what to do with them. Sarah from Vienna and I teamed up and went for the main. In our basket we found locally caught perch, potatoes, cavollo nero, a selection of forest mushrooms and a couple of carrots. Sarah did potatoes and pickled carrots while I fried the cavollo nero and the mushrooms in plenty of butter and a touch of fire in a pan I’d love to call my own. When it was time for the fish I thought of a recipe I learned to make a week before by a friend in England, cooked in clay, straight onto the embers. Lacking clay we used every bit of newspaper we could find – although it was meant for starting fires – rubbed the fish with lemony wood sorrel we quickly foraged in the last evening light, a bit of thyme, juniper berries and a healthy doze of pepper, salt and a good knob of butter or two. The fish we wrapped in baking parchment because we did not have a large leaf at hand, then we wrapped each parcel in the soaking wet newspaper. Everyone went in to start dinner while a couple of us stayed behind to cover all the open fires with pans of fish parcels.
By the time we had finished our starters: cauliflower, bacon and potato by Gabriella from Spain, Emily from England and Helen from Germany and beetroot & Swedish halloumi by Kerstin also from England we gathered the parcels and removed the now charred newspaper. The perch was to my great amusement perfectly done, not too far, pearly white and very moist. Everyone got a parcel and as a side the kale and mushrooms I had fried on the fire earlier, parts of the kale slightly crisp because fire tends to lick the inside of your pan. Fire adds a seasoning you can’t recreate, because it’s also the smoke in your eyes, the heat on your hands and arms that add to the taste of cooking food in the wild.The wood sorrel is definitely a new favourite leaf to use, I wonder if I can make it grow in my wild garden at home… Fair haired Titti Qvarnström – our other host and the first female head chef in Sweden to receive a Michelin star – was sitting next to me at dinner and she approved of the fish so that’s good enough for me!
Pudding was just that, a delightful cake skilfully baked in a tin on the open fire by former UK Masterchef winner Keri. The darker bits were the best, we had seconds, drowned in a custard she made from scratch and on a temperamental fire, no mean feat.
By now I bless myself and the stars to be here. This is already an unforgettable trip and were only just started our journey. I realise however that we are all so out of touch with nature. When you have no electricity things become simple and difficult at the same time.
After this feast accompanied by excellent local Swedish wine and beer the last ones standing toast with a traditional herb liqueur Sarah kindly brought us from Austria. Then it suddenly it hits me when I go outside to find a big tree… it’s incredibly dark. Kerstin comes with me because I am a wimp. We head back to our yurts, armed with all the oil lamps we can find because I managed to scare the group with my own fears about zombies in the forest. We all have a laugh but secretly hold to that lamp with a passion.
First night in a yurth, in the middle of the woods, with someone we only just met a few hours ago… My yurt-mate Keri and I decided to keep the oil lamp on while we try to sleep… we can’t face the complete darkness just yet.
The next morning my insomniac self awaited dawn eager to cook breakfast on the fires. I looked out of our yurt, the sky is red, beautiful. I decide a simple bun in my hair instead of my intricate hairdos and no make-up are in order, because we don’t have a mirror, and we’re in the middle of a forest, who cares! I do, but still I go with the bun.
Although I’m now one of the judges on our very own Bake Off in Belgium, I still miss the Great British Bake Off on my television screen every week around this time. As we can only get BBC 1&2, Bake Off has been off-limits to us since its move to Channel 4. GBBO has less viewing figures than when it aired on BBC, that’s partly because they lost viewers from outside of the UK. It seems however that our ‘series one’ of Bake Off Vlaanderen came at the right moment, everyone who misses GBBO in Belgium can soothe their Bake Off hunger by watching us! (if you want to watch it online, you can by going to this page – go to the films with the word ‘Aflevering’ (episode) and there you need to be filling out some details to count viewing figures, the system asks to create a password an to leave your address, just enter 2000 Antwerp)
Luckily there is social media to keep me informed of the happenings on GBBO and this morning I heard from the lovely Lia of the Lemon & Vanilla blog that tonights episode will feature pudding week! The bakers task is to make a steamed pudding and because I’ve published a whole tome on pudding – savoury and sweet – (in my book Pride and Pudding) I thought I’d share with you one of my favourite sweet steamed puddings: the sticky toffee pudding.
When going for a nice long walk in the British countryside there’s only one thing I long for and that is a pub meal ended with a sticky toffee pud accompanied by a Whisky. It’s the ultimate pudding to have after good outdoor exercise. This is definitely an occasion where I leave room for pudding. A delightfully light yet heavy steamed bit of cake batter, always in a pudding basin, never in the shape of a log please, drowned in custard or with a side of vanilla ice cream which is essentially frozen custard anyway.
Many puddings are surrounded by legends and this is one of them. It is said that the sticky toffee pudding was invented in the 1960s by Francis Coulson of the Sharrow Bay Hotel by the majestic Ullswater lake in the Lake District. He called it an ‘icky sticky toffee sponge’….
There’s a lot going on in life but I wanted to share this recipe with you because I find when things get too busy or too complicated, an easy yet satisfying pudding can work like a drink of ice cold water on a scorching hot day. What also prompted me was something my friend Sarah (you might remember her from the pies she made for my launch) showed me online, a link to the making of a summer pudding which created outrage and disgust in the comments section. Foreigners (non-Brits) didn’t understand why you would eat soggy bread with fruit, and the video that came with it made even my stomach turn…
But the fact is that Summer Pudding is one of life’s great things. Bread soaked in fruit juice takes me right back to my childhood. I was a very picky eater but you could always feed me bread topped with mashed up strawberries, the deep red juices seeping into the bread making it hard to get it to your mouth in one piece. It was messy eating but really the only thing I enjoyed to eat.
But what is this heavenly thing you ask if you aren’t British or a pudding nut like I am?
A summer pudding is a delightfully light pudding which is made by lining a pudding basin or charlotte mould with stale white bread slices, then filling it up with lightly stewed summer fruits and topping it off with a juice-soaked bread lid. I always enjoy unmoulding this pudding, to see how the white slices of bread have been tinted by the deep crimson juice. It looks like a fresh red wine stain on a crisp white tablecloth. When ready to indulge, serve with cream, or ice cream, whichever you prefer….
New date for this workshop:
Friday 28 july 2017 – 14h – in the Historical Kitchen of Port Eliot House, St-Germans, Cornwall UK.
Learn about these intricately decorated tarts and their meaning, see how they were made using the original tools.
Growing up in Flanders, Belgium, it feels as if still life paintings have always been a big part of my life. My entire childhood I’ve sat at the dinner table at my parents house, gazing at a dark still life painting with a pumpkin which hung on the wall on the other side of the room. Nothing makes sense in the image, why has the pumpkin such a prominent place on this formal dining table, and why is it on a formal table with china cups in the first place. A pumpkin like this would be more at home in a kitchen scene, on a bare wooden table, ready to be cut, its pips taken out, and the flesh diced for soup or stew.
Mysteries like these in food paintings have always intrigued me. One of my first books was a shabby old artbook with renaissance still life paintings by the Dutch and Flemish masters. All the food in the paintings had such carefully thought out symbolism. Bread indicates humility and catholic faith, a peach means truth and oysters mean lust. A glass of wine with little liquid in it symbolises the fragile nature of life but also wealth. In combination certain fruits and foods can tell a story. A paining with peaches and a butterfly mean hope and faith. Oysters or oyster shells in the vicinity of a woman in a painting means that the woman is promiscuous. If a bun of bread is near, it means she has lost her humility and has given in to the desires of the flesh. Heavy stuff no? An abundance of fish symbolises the catholic faith, but a cat near the fish means doubt, the painting could mean a warning not to take everything for granted when it comes to faith (big lessons to learn here)….
Amazon just bid nearly 14 billion to buy Wholefoods…
There is something about the organic & health food narrative that is increasingly starting to worry me. A couple of years ago you had to go to small often obscure shops for organic food, natural products and local produce, but recently we’ve started to see a lot of mainstream supermarkets jumping onto the bandwagon, introducing a dedicated spot in their shop to organic vegetables and fruit. A great evolution I thought at first. In Belgium a supermarket chain even decided to launch an organic version of their store. They now have 25 large stores and 80 pick-up points, in a country with about 11 million inhabitants this is huge. It sends out the right signal that more people want to make a more conscious choice when it comes to food. In the UK and US we’ve known Wholefoods for some time now but todays news that Wholefoods has been bought up by the big giant Amazon got me feeling more puzzled than excited…
I started to dawn on me that in one of those big superstores organic isle I spotted potatoes from Egypt and pears from Mexico…
I want everyone to eat organic so that more farmers can survive growing organic or biodynamic fruit and veg in a way the land is nourished instead of raped. I want people to eat far less meat but buy more ethically reared meat. Meat from animals reared in good conditions, outdoors on grass instead of concrete, it doesn’t even have to be organic (getting certified organic is very troublesome for animal farms in many countries), kindness in this case is good enough for me. We can no longer tolerate factory meat farms and need to go back to the ancient method of crop rotation. …