Debating lasagne

Whenever you talk to students about what they miss from home, the immediate response is “home-cooking.” Most of my friends with who I’ve discussed the exact dinner I miss agree that home-made lasagne is unequivocally the cherry on top of our cherished home meals whose recreations in a crummy student test are far inferior.

So when I dine out, I think long and hard about whether to order the lasagne. Can a resto chef really put my Mum’s lasagne to shame? And if he or she did, wouldn’t that cause far more anguish than it’s worth? Generally, I prefer to stay safe and order something else, gambling on unknown ingredients and combinations to preserve the sacredness of the lasagne.

However, there is a sort of compromise that has been made, as I discovered and tested at Simeone dell’Arte in Bordeaux for my friend’s leaving meal. Perusing the menu, I came across lasagne, and my mental pen put a line straight through it. Then, lasagne came up again, only this time it was a spinach and salmon lasagne. Umming and ahhing followed and then the waitress took our orders and that was that.

It arrived as a tower of buttercup, rose and grass, with a moat of melted butter around it. Un peu de trop – the salmon in the lasagne had covered the buttery requirement by itself. But, it was very attractive. Sweet and flaky too, the salmon hit the mark, and rather than being swamped by creamy béchamel, it held its own. Stepping from a ledge of salmon to strands of spinach was very comfortable and all in all I enjoyed it hugely. Overall, this pescatarian lasagne was less brawn and more streamline, but it lacked the bubbling robustness of a beef lasagne.

If some of you remember, I went to Simeone dell’Arte earlier on in the year and was taken to new levels of choux-induced highs when the profiterole dessert arrived as an elephantine cloud of soft pastry, stracciatella ice cream and chocolate sauce. Naturally we ordered it again, if only to shock everyone. It worked. The French do French food well, but this is definitely my most favourite Italian place to eat. Unless I’m eating beef lasagne, in which case you can find me chez moi.Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Made in Montpellier

This week has been my half term and I spent the first half of it in Rotterdam and the second half in Montpellier where I stayed with my twin’s French exchange. Rotterdam was a beautiful city with lots to see including a beautiful market hall and we had cupcakes in a cute teashop. We cycled across the blowy Erasmus bridge and eventually shivered our way to the closest restaurant to us, Vapiano. I then went to stay in Montpellier with my French exchange. She was a formidable host, welcoming me into her small house ‘in the countryside’ with open arms and lots of laughs. She talks at ninety miles an hour and showed me hilarious birthday videos. It was a happy few days! Montpellier is slightly smaller and warmer than Bordeaux, but there are similar buildings and several picturesque squares with bars and individual shops lining them. It was also a food haven for me. Amélie showed me some incredible traditional dishes that I’m going to share with you, and attempt to recreate them soon.

A relatively well-known dish, tartiflette is the ultimate winter warmer but goes well with salad. It was actually invented quite recently, its name coined in the 1990s. It consists of potatoes, onions, lardons and tartiflette cheese (reblochon), baked in the oven until the cheese is bubbling and brown. The strong cheese with the salty lardons and soft potato rounded off with subtly sweet onions…dreamy dreamy. I copied down her recipe and it will be going into my collection.

Une tielle is a slightly older dish, originating from Italy but swimming over to a neighbouring town of Montpellier, Sète. It is a pie whose filling consists of finely chopped squid, octopus or cuttlefish in a spicy tomato sauce. She warned me that most people she knows do not like it but that it was one of her favourite dishes. I’ve said before in this blog: I love trying new food and more often than not I like it! This pie was no different. I love seafood and the flavours of the sea with pastry and tomato mingled beautifully. I felt like I was two steps from a sandy beach and blue-white waves. This recipe for it looks lovely –

When I was studying the epics from Antiquity we looked at the nature of hospitality in those times. It was of the utmost importance those days and Zeus protected the institution – Paris violating the terms of hospitality when he stole Helen away contributed to the fall of Troy. Staying with my friends showed me this week that when you feel truly welcomed everything becomes sun-tinted and it is a beautiful feeling to have.DSCN1464DSCN1466DSCN1467

It’s time for a blood orange

Today was an absolutely beautiful day in Bordeaux. I will remember it as the first day of Spring. It was as if a raging storm had done its worst, and cornflower blue skies, a big, bright sun and a billowy wind ruffled the winter cobwebs. The crispness of winter remains, but that sun was the first note of spring.

I have been lucky enough to already have had a summer this year as I spent my Christmas in Melbourne. Having an ice-cream on the 5th January was a rather surreal experience, but it was made even more memorable by the sorbet sitting on top of the already stunning chocolate ice-cream. I had already been to The Boardwalk Café at St Kilda’s and had the mango sorbet which was sweet sunshine. My tastebuds tingling for more sorbet, I decided to go for the blood orange sorbet. The combination of tangy citrus with a deep, mellow sweetness was bloody (hehe) amazing.

My encounters with blood oranges have been surprisingly few. In fact, it was only once I’d tasted it in a sorbet that I began to think about their possibilities and it turns out I am very taken with them. The slightly gothic, dark name of the fruit is quite seductive and, from what I had tasted, I liked the flesh too – I love its dark cranberry colour! As Pancake Day loomed, I decided to introduce blood oranges to the traditional lemon and sugar combo. The blood oranges I picked up at a bio shop (the Carrefours in Bordeaux did not stock them) they were quite innocent-looking. Apparently they come predominantly from Sicily, Spain, the US and their season stretches to May. They have apparently been associated with fertility, and it is recommended to eat them fresh. So, pancake on plate and blood oranges in wedges, I concocted a lemon, blood orange and sugar topping and rolled it up. In it goes. The blood orange bridged the gap between the sharpness of the lemon and the sugar, but it gave greater depth of flavour that even blood orange aficionados find difficult to put into words. Suffice to say, I’ll be recreating that next year! While I do not think it is an adequate substitute for lemon, my mind is swimming in blood and oranges – I think a blood orange butter icing atop a vanilla sponge would be something…

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A good call in Paris

There are so many reasons to go to Paris. Lovebirds flock there to walk round the city of love and add their padlock to the thousands weighing down the bridges; the lively ambience of the city makes a memorable birthday trip; and I could not resist the allure of Paris when I could easily hop on a train to go there. Of course I, being the adventurous wally, asked myself why I would get a train when I could do it à la France and use Bla Bla Car, a website which helps you to find car-shares. The six hour car journey answered my question. The eight hour bus journey home sent me to the train ticket shop where I bought a young person’s railcard. But, in all honesty, it was actually quite fun. Plus, a Portuguese lady who was on the same bus as me (and travelling 14 hours more than me to get home so I cannot complain) taught me how to say wine and bread in Portuguese. I forgot the word for bread, but I’ll know how to get some vignon when I next visit there.

I had a fabulous time visiting the Louvre, saying hi to the Shakespeare book shop, wandering round thrift shops and stealing pumpkins from clubs dressed as a scarecrow and accompanied by Frieda Kahlo and a Sim with the adamant certainty that I would most DEFINITELY be taking it on my bus journey home because it wouldn’t weigh my bag down that much. My judgment was misplaced then, but I corrected myself in the morning and left it to Yasmine and Pati as a parting gift. One great decision they made, however, was to take Yasmine’s sister and I to Candelaria.

There were two people working there. One worked in the kitchen and the other made and served the drinks, and gave out the food. The bar was actually the kitchen and also where we ate. There was one table which seated eight and had a queue of about eight. We watched the chef sear and smoke and toss the meat, and we gazed at the smooth-talking Spanish-French-English waiter who kindly gave us free orange margaritas while we waited. The glasses were peppered with chilli flakes, and filled with zesty, boozy goodness. I dream about those margaritas.

We started off with some guacamole – juicy gems of tomato snuggled in creamy avocado and seasoned beautifully. The golden plain nachos added a complementary crunch. We then ordered a selection of tacos: pork, beef and the vegetarian specialty of sweet potato and mushroom. The servings were petite, which put them under greater scrutiny because each bite was to be explored and savoured.

Recently my tolerance for heat has improved so I plopped some chilli sauce onto the pork one and went for the first bite. The decisive bite. The soft, stretchy tacos were like warm blankets which, if you crawled underneath, hid beautifully cooked meat, rich sauce and the heart-and-tongue warming heat which was fab for a freezing evening. I think the sweet potato and mushroom combination stole the show though – it was much more fiery but the sweetness and feathery texture of the potato followed by the piquant marinade set off fireworks.

We then finished off with a shot of tequila, which came in a glass far too big to retain any sense of dignity in a restaurant where moving an elbow risked either a bruised eye or a bowl of green mush in someone’s lap. Nevertheless, we did our best and have the photos.

If, like me, you sometimes have lapses of judgment, this is one call which will be a safe bet. You will not regret going to this tiny restaurant with zingy food and a sassy serveur.

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Le chocolat chaud

French cuisine is regarded by many as the crème de la crème of food. Freshly baked baguettes, delectable cheeses and superlative wine make eating a pleasure, a core principal of food here in contrast with less romantic values of speed and convenience which are often integral in English cafés.

There are environmental factors at play here: the wine region of Bordeaux has flourished because of the ideal weather conditions (heads up – 2014 has apparently been a great year for Right Bank Bordeaux vintages),  but there is one question that I really would like to find a satisfying answer to. Why is the French chocolat chaud so amazing?

First, let’s discuss the English equivalent. You find them in the Costas and Starbucks with exciting add-ons like blackberry coulis to turn it into a Black Forest wonder; the caramel hot chocolate at Starbucks seemed the obvious choice during my early adolescence. Only, each time I took a sip, the image of a decadent, warming hot chocolate drained away. In its place was a sickly sweet and wholly unpleasant drink. The adjective ‘chocolatey’ never came to mind. Instead, chemical sweetness masked a burnt-tasting bitterness that deterred me from repeating those three mistakes (my youthful optimism that persuaded me they’d make it better the next time eventually disappeared). What really, really got my goat was the belief that seems to exist within these chains is that hot drinks should actually be served lukewarm. When lip meets tepid drink the stomach churning, red-hot frustration and desire to hurl the pathetic thing across the room is almost overwhelming.

So, I resigned myself to the fact that adding boiling hot water to a sachet of Cadbury’s instant hot chocolate. And then I came to France and remembered why I had had such high standards. The few times I had been to France I had drunk this ambrosial concoction and then sat, toes toasty, heart glowing and probably a lopsided smile on my face. Retuning to France for the year has altered me in some ways: I am now a bread snob, and a chocolat chaud addict. I have them everywhere. On the morning before I flew to Australia I had three hot chocolates from the machine at the hotel I was staying at. They were ALL phenomenal. Hot chocolates here are frothy, intensely rich and so chocolatey I’m not left wondering angrily why I need to go and eat a bar of Cadbury’s afterwards!! They are what they say on the tin! I’ve tried to look up the reasons behind this, but it is the same waffle they put on the websites of coffee brands: using ‘real’ chocolate, making them extra creamy. These words have been debased by the lies of chains. There are also very few café chains in Bordeaux. So, sitting in a café that has globes strung up over the entrance and two guitarists singing next to you while you sip on nectar is an experience that is not really possible in England. Neither is looking out of a window onto an old square in an orange room with a chandelier of coloured beads and bright paintings while the aroma of rich chocolate dizzies you.

The well-known delicacies of France are wine, cheese and patisseries, all of which I’m going to miss enormously. But I am most nervous about the withdrawal symptoms I’m going to endure when I no longer have my chocolat chaud fix.

Santosha’s toilet

There is something special about discovering a secret: not gossip, but stumbling across a coincidental combination such as a place at a certain time of day can actually be life-affirming. This has happened several times while I have been in Bordeaux and also at home and it is wonderful to be able to slip back to your secret. Geographically, undiscovered places are few and far between. Yet, your emotions and the position of the sun or the brightness of the moon make it your own and create a sort of magic which is, I suppose, a sort of mindfulness. That word has spun itself into society but created quite an important web of connections between an individual, how they relate to the world, and how they process this in their huge, invisible minds. My New Years’ Resolutions (which I have mainly pinched off my friends) are laced with the theme of mindful awareness.

Santosha is a well-known Asian restaurant in Bordeaux found on a quintessential bordelais square. The menu isn’t vast and from other reviews it doesn’t seem to have a specific cuisine, but rather offers a selection of well-known Asian dishes. The atmosphere, however, is buzzy and fresh, with green paint and close tables crowded with young people. I went for the Nasi Goreng which was fried rice, chicken, prawns and a fried egg on top. The portions were huge, although I still managed to make my way through it, but this contributed to the sense of cheerful no-bones attitude. I added Sriracha sauce which brought out the quite varied flavours in the dish (and also helped develop my tolerance to spicy things which is one of my food-projects!). While the food isn’t mind-blowing in terms of presentation or flavour it was really enjoyable to eat, which is a good sign.

I went to the toilets and discovered there was just one. I waited a long while. And then went into a toilet that I have never seen the likes of before. With a surfboard underneath a sheet of glass on the floor of the bathroom, flashing lights and a hologram projected on the door, it was fun and quirky and interesting and I understood why people spent so long in there. While this is not a secret place by any means, my unexpected toilet venture put a smile on my face.

Talking of toilets, I went to another bar with my sister where we sipped on almond liqueur and had strange conversations with even stranger men and I visited the bathroom. This one was equally funky! More flashing lights and colourful walls, I came out and immediately told my sister to pay a worthwhile visit.

This blog post has taken a bizarre direction. If any conclusions can be drawn from it, understand that Santosha is a great resto in Bordeaux, spend time seeking out places and storing them in your mind, and sometimes hiding in a toilet is less futile than it sounds.

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The Barbecue

I’ve spent my Christmas and New Year in Australia, which has been magical. I’ve wandered round Melbourne city, travelled along the Great Ocean Road and had an unbelievable spot for the Sydney fireworks. Spending time with the brother resulted in quite an intensive exercise regime. After an hour run on Christmas day, a five hour trek round the Blue Mountains, waboba lessons* and running to get various trains/ferries/trams, I’ve had an invigorating start to 2015 (and my feet might not recover).

I’ve also had more barbecues in these three weeks than ever before. Typically, barbecues are associated with the Aussie life along with sun and waves. Eating alfresco is really only feasible during beautiful weather which is something Melbournians are not short of! While the origins of this type of eating are not exclusively found in Australia, it is clear that this country is determined to integrate the barbecue into its culinary culture.

Public barbecues can be found everywhere in Melbourne – in spots close to the beaches, along the Yarra river, in campsites – and I’ve racked up some experience. The first revelation I had came during a barbecue along the Yarra River near the Botanical Gardens. We had Jamie Oliver’s Mexican burgers and were intending to make a salad of avocado, lettuce and red pepper. Patties were sizzling away, when a spark of creativity flashed. We changed plans, barbecuing the red pepper and spreading the avocado on the buns. I usually omit peppers in a salad, finding their watery strength a bit too much. My oh my. I can say with all the conviction of a humanist that red peppers, their sole endeavour in life, is to be eaten barbecued. Once softened, the flesh is as sweet as peonies, and the buttery avocado brought out the flavour even more. In contrast, Jamie’s ‘Mexican Inspired Burgers’ which claimed to have the ‘mega mexican flavour combo of fiery jalapenos, cool coriander and zesty lime’ were as uninteresting as the washing up afterwards and were eclipsed by that wonderful marriage of char-grilled pepper and avocado.

Our Christmas Day barbecue was sea-riously different (that conspicuous pun should tell you why). First, the inevitable wait for a spare barbecue meant our French vanilla cheesecake pudding turned into a starter. The main event was worth the wait though. Another lesson I learnt: when you do something, do it properly. I almost pierced the chorizo sausages but the instructions stipulated not to do anything to them. I ummed and ahhed about the impact on our health before reminding myself it was Christmas Day and leaving them as they are. Next to them we had salmon that had been marinated in honey and soy, and we’d picked up some whole black tiger prawns. It is a struggle to start on one alone, because I had them all together. I took a bite of the chorizo and was overwhelmed by rich, fatty meat and sublime juices…which made the sweetness of the prawn flesh even more incredible, washed with sumptuous prawn head insides…soft honeyed salmon with crispy skin melted in my mouth…and I sat there, with my red cup of bubbles, sun on my face, with my eyes closed so I could just be these flavours. That is when I know I am eating good food.

Another taste of Australia: the kangaroo burger. I have had ostrich before, and while kangaroo is also quite lean, it has an intensity that reminded me of rabbit or duck and its cranberry-red colour also hinted at its strong taste. They were super-duper.

My induction into barbecues here has been multifarious, in-depth and memorable. What they all have in common is their serving suggestion: a cold beer and a shining sun.

*waboba is a ball that bounces on water. It requires a special type of throw and a full body movement. Difficult to get the hang of but sooo satisfying when you get to grips with it!!

Lizzy barbecue
Three of us on Christmas