M: Why is the despair always so thick on Fridays, Emma?

E: I dunno. Because it’s supposed to feel joyful but it doesn’t? If I could be arsed I’d go and buy a cake. BUT I CAN’T

M: I want one of those Marcolini éclairs.

Eclair

E: I was thinking éclair too, but raspberry as they are closer.

M: Mouais. My feeling on éclairs is that they should be brown. Deliciously brown. Like our much beloved, much mourned cappuccino éclair.

E: On fait avec les moyens du bord.*

M: And I want that hit of salty caramel.

E: I hear you.

M: That soft creamy filling.

E: Damn you, stop making me think about it.

M: The crunch of the praline topping.

E: Bastarding Marcolini and his devil éclair.

M: And his wretched “tartine” spreadable salted caramel, with its siren song. It goes something like this:

Spreeeead me

Spreeeeead me on a hot crumpet

Tartine

E: Does Tartine have a voice like Jacques Brel? Or is it more… Axelle Red?

M: I do not know. I do not care. I am too busy stuffing it into my mouth with a spoon.

* We do what we can.

Where: Pierre Marcolini, Place du Grand Sablon in Brussels. Lots of other locations in Belgium and France, including inside the Eurostar terminal in Brussels, conveniently. Londoners, I believe you can buy Tartine at Verde & Co in Spitalfields.

Frites_Flagey_mayo

Fries. Frites. Frietjes. Call them what you will. They must be freshly cut from large, floury potatoes. Fried in lard until crispy and golden on the outside, and fluffy and scaldingly hot on the inside. Well seasoned with plenty of salt, and drowned in your favourite condiment. Mayo for the purists, ketchup for the infantile, sauce américaine for those with tastebuds ruined by decades of ready meals abuse and self-loathing.

Yes, this is them, above. The best fries in Brussels. I have been reliably informed of this by not one, but three separate independent native Belgian sources. Such is the power of Frit Flagey, in fact, that someone I have not spoken to since my early teens commented on these very frites on facebook:

Smakelijk!

Which more or less means tasty, I think.

You’ll find these frites at a fritkot on Place Flagey, the bleak expanse of concrete flanked on one side by Café Belga and the other by Brüsel, a welcoming bookshop filled with a vast and excellent selection of comic books. Frit Flagey is no happy trendy Shake Shack style affaire, oh no. No brushed steel or smiling assistants here. Be prepared to wait half an hour in the freezing cold and horizontal rain for your fries, for the old cranky unpleasant owner is slow. Meticulously, agonisingly slow.

Frites_Flagey_Shack

While you wait, admire the excellent illustration of a man holding a cone of fries with a man in it holding a cone of fries with…

Frites_Flagey_artwork

Oh Belgium. You surreal crazy little country you. It’s a good thing you know how to fry a potato.

Where: Frit Flagey, Place Flagey, Brussels

Tip: Don’t comment on the poor service unless you want to be shouted at. And stay away from the sauce américaine, you FOOL.

drink , eat , UK

Wig Wam Bam

Photo stolen from the official teepee website

Photo stolen from the official teepee website

“When,” I asked Emma this morning with some anxiety, “Did I become the sort of person who hangs out in a teepee in Hoxton?”

When indeed. The past year has, without a doubt, been one of upheaval and adventure. I moved countries, twice, moved continents in fact – again – leaving most of my belongings in my mother’s attic in Cambodia. I rode horses in paddy fields, stood naked on a balcony on Marina Bay, got a goddaughter, walked a red carpet, hula hooped in a Victorian hall, and danced the blues in a basement while dwarves played pool nearby. It has been a glorious, unfeasible, miraculous year, filled with laughter and joy and the sort of unreasonable, unyielding tackling of fears I must remember to be proud of.

But back to the teepee.

The teepee sits on the roof of the Queen of Hoxton. It is a pop up, and it is called “Wig Wam Bam”, two facts which would be sufficient to make it a thing of pure loathsomeness. But. The teepee is lit by fairy lights and the glowing coals of a cooking pit at the centre of it. Its floor is strewn with wood chips, the seats are sawn off logs, and it smells of bonfire. It is utterly lovely.

wigwambam2 wigwambam1

It is cosiness. The boozy drinks – hot fudge toddies, buttered rum and mulled cider – are a very reasonable £5, and every night there’s a different meal on offer: venison, wild boar sausage, leg of pork. If you hover by the spit, the cooks will offer you tastes of juicy, tender meat dunked in gravy. And if you ask veeeery nicely, you may very well get a giant slab of wood smoked crackling all to yourself.

Bring some friends to the teepee. Laugh, gossip, eat, drink, and be merry, and revel in all that was good and right with 2012.

Where: Queen of Hoxton, 1-5 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3JX

When: Monday – Saturday, 5-10 pm, until the end of March 2013

eat , UK

My Christmas

christmas-food

 

There’s a visible recoil when you tell someone you’re spending Christmas on your own. A barely perceptible intake of breath, eyebrows rising in suppressed horror, a softening of the eyes to indicate compassion. Christmas? On your own?

You’re welcome to come to my wife’s parents’. They take in strays every year.

said Jamie, my friend’s brother. This was the second time I’d met him.

The thing is, after two Christmases spent in the sweltering heat of Cambodia and the overbearing, sinister commercial mirth of Singapore, I’m looking forward to a Christmas on my terms. Quiet. Cosiness. A complete lack of stress, and guilt. This morning I walked down to Chatsworth Road market and stocked up for the next few days. Then I took a photo in homage to Trish Deseine, who’s had her share of Christmas trauma, and whose Parisian market sprees always leave me aching with longing. Tangerines, like Christmas crack, from the corner shop. Radishes to be eaten straight from the fridge, root and all. Tiny waxy potatoes to go with the tiny wild duck. Apple juice to warm and spice. Chestnuts for the open fire. Apple sausages and black pudding, hiding in the back, for a hearty breakfast on Christmas day before I set out on the bike to see how quiet London really is. And foie gras, of course, because some traditions are untouchable, and that beautiful sourdough loaf will need *something* spread onto it.

Happy Christmas. If you’re in the UK, do watch The Snowman and The Snowdog on Channel 4 at 8pm on Christmas eve. The loveliest, kindest, most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with made it, and it’s our little gift to you.

Do you ever feel like there will never be enough time in the world? These days are passing by in a blur, one after the other, leaving behind a trail of unreached goals and unmet deadlines, and the searing hot guilt of the serial underachiever.

Nevermind. On Sundays I still take the time to treat myself to a good breakfast and this, my friends, is the breakfast of champions.

Sourdough bread, toasted, spread with a generous amount of butter.

Chard, wilted in a bit of olive oil and garlic and chili flakes.

Duck eggs, poached, using this miraculous method from Delia,  which has transformed my egg poaching experience. Before: deconstructed filaments of doom, tears, tantrums, deep seated feeling of inadequacies, self-victimisation (“why does the poached egg hate me? why? WHY?”). After: perfectly formed poached egg, minimal fuss, propensity to call myself an “egg ninja”.

Parmesan shavings, kampot pepper.

Eat while sitting in the sun with the heating turned on and the steam rising from a cup of tea.

What are you having for breakfast today?

At the top of the stairs a fat hairy ginger cat lies sprawled on its side, head propped up in the manner of a particularly lazy, disdainful Sphinx, surveying his domain: train tracks heading off towards Lyon and Marseille, the murmur of conversations, the clatter of shoes under the metal beams.

I’m perched on a banquette and my feet hover several inches off the ground. The table is vast, generous; the linen thick and crisp. Our suitcases have been whisked off to the cloakroom and we huddle, dwarfed by the arches and gilding and statues of sirens fainting.  At tables nearby the maître d’hôtel is in a constant frenzy of steak tartare: some eggs whisked in a bowl, first, then a dash of condiments, and baskets of golden fries spinning around the room. He is small and neat, alert, genuinely concerned for our comfort.

What do we talk about? The light from the chandeliers hits our glasses of wine and traces delicate lace collars on the tablecloths. We read out loud from the little brochure detailing the place’s history. On the walls we recognise Orange, the banks of the Seine mirroring Venice for the 1901 exposition, an alpine lake. We weigh the merits of butter salted, and not, before wreaking havoc with the salt grinder.

We eat in happy, drunken complicity. We take our time and mop up the rich juices with crusty bread – like peasants, my friend says. There’s fish, mine on a bed of spinach and preserved lemon, and then a fig and raspberry tart. Outside, a lone palm tree curves against the sky – so delicately blue – and the sparkling roofs of Paris. It is impossible, I know, to freeze the moment, to stay there in that grand dream of a place, in that perfect Saturday afternoon.

With a few minutes to spare we walk down the steps towards the waiting TGVs and Transiliens.  We say good bye at the edge of the tracks, and everything, it feels, is brushed with sunlight.

Where: Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon, above the old section of the train station.

Home made char siu chez maman. Oh yes.

In Asia it is everywhere: red and charred, hanging from hooks by the roadside. Marinated in lemongrass, chopped up bones and all and deep fried to a crisp. Simmered gently in caramel sauce.

Pork.

In Singapore, my friends’ eyes always lit up when we ordered it. The three layered pork was especially popular: meat, fat and rind, a perfect trio of melting porky goodness. It always reminds me of the most heartbreaking passage in François Bizot’s Le Portail (The Gate in English), a must read for anyone interested in Cambodia. The author finds himself a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge camp, kept away from his Cambodian assistants. They are reunited briefly before he is forced to leave them to their fate, and they share one last meal together. It’s roast pork his assistants dream of; they describe the sweet smokey flesh, the crispy skin, the dripping fat.

Eech, that’s all rather bleak, sorry. My point is: roast pork would definitely be my last meal, and I miss the convenience of finding it at every street corner in South East Asia.

Thankfully my local supermarket stocks pre-scored pork belly, which roasted over water gives tender flesh and the crispiest crackling, perfect for adding to a fresh pomelo salad or a noodle soup. Or just stuffing down your gob straight from the chopping board while it’s still hot enough to burn your fingers.

Chinese roast pork, from a Rick Stein recipe

1 pork belly

1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon black peppercorns (ideally from kampot)

2 tablespoons maldon sea salt flakes

2 teaspoons five spice powder

2 teaspoons sugar

Roast the peppercorns in a pan until they are fragrant and grind them. Or just use normal pepper, it will still be delicious.Mix with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.

Pour a kettle of hot water over the skin and let it drain, then dry thoroughly. Rub the meat side of the pork belly with the spice mixture. Leave it in the fridge 8 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the pork skin side up on a roasting rack, on top of a tin full of water. Roast it for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180C and cook for another 2 hours, topping up with water as needed.

Increase the temperature once more to 230C and roast for a final 15 minutes. Rest the meat a little before cutting it, if you can bear the wait.

 

I’m on my way back to Scotland for a few days. I was starved this morning and bought a bacon roll in desperation at King’s Cross – a thing dry and brittle like the desert.

I couldn’t help thinking about the best quick breakfast to have in Paris, at this celebrated bakery near the Canal St Martin. It’s a wonderfully pretty place, that smells of yeast, warm bread and butter even on Sundays when it is closed. They’re famous for their Pain des Amis (friendly bread? bread for friends?), large loaves cut up and perfect for sharing. But it’s the fresh croissants, crisp, buttery and salty, and petits pains filled with things like goat cheese and honeyed apples that I can’t resist.

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There are benches by the canal for picnicking, and when you’re done wiping the crumbs off yourself you can go visit the many outlet shops in the area for a Maje or Les Petites bargain. Bliss.

Where: Du Pain et des Idées, 34 rue Yves Toudic 75010 Paris (Métro Jacques Bonsergent)

Opening hours: Monday to Friday 6.45 am to 8 pm

Tip: It’s worth going in January for their very good galette des rois


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It is not a good idea to walk into a cake shop when you are hungry, tired, and grumpy. Emma and I had walked half way round Paris secret filming for Facegoop. It was cold, it was windy, and we needed pastry.

We flopped into the empty Sadaharu Aoki eat-in shop, in the strangely desolate no man’s land of Port Royal. We smiled at the Japanese… what were they really? Waitresses? Salesladies? Fearsome cake guardians? They did not smile back. We hesitated. We looked at neat biscuits in clear cellophane wrappers. We admired the framed live moss on the walls.

Eventually the waitresses deigned to acknowledge our presence, and this was our reward: a classic millefeuille and the Cassis Chocolat, a sort of fruity opéra with a crunchy hazelnut chocolate layer.

This thing was just for kicks. I’d remember its name if it hadn’t temporarily blinded me with a pure sugar hit, but there were definitely  raspberries, wild strawberries and pistachio cream involved.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the cakes, which were slightly bland and no match for the exquisite box of petits fours we’d demolished sampled on another trip, but which only seems to be around for Christmas.

The boutique is still worth the détour, if only to cackle mercilessly at the neat hapless French husbands looking desperately for the signature green “masha”  pastries, a haunted expression in their eyes.

Where: 56 Boulevard Port Royal, Paris

Websitehttp://www.sadaharuaoki.com

Tip: The seasonal collections look beautiful, but the classic salted caramel tart and sesame éclair are the real winners.

Or Tina’s Tamarind jam, if only this stupid font would let me display special characters.

Tina is my friend.

It’s hard to understand the excellence of Tina unless you’ve actually met Tina. She is tiny. She cracks spines – expertly – for a living. She likes Taco Bell sauce. She’s studying Singlish as a foreign language. She’s allegedly a strong swimmer, but I have yet to see her dip a toe in the water. She says “yummy” a lot. She is made, I think, of puppies and rainbows and unicorns, covered in a thin layer of taco bell sauce, encased in a hard shell of Strong Independent Woman. No one, but no one, makes me giggle and snort like a lunatic like she does.

At Chinese New Year Tina, along with a group of our friends from Singapore, joined me for a long week end in Kep. You know, Kep, that idyllic quiet little coastal town in Cambodia that was just this week featured in the NY Times.

We did as one does in Kep: we ate our combined body weight in fresh crab straight from the ocean, purchased durian the size of a toddler, and squabbled over who would get the last of the tamarind jam for breakfast.

This stuff was amazing. Tart and sweet, with a hint of cinnamon, delicious on bread and butter. Tina interrogated the staff at Le Flamboyant, where we were staying, and found out that they made it fresh from the fruit of the tall beautiful tamarind tree in the resort’s garden.

“This jam is yummy”, she said.

MAKE ME TAMARIND JAM.

I agreed, because although Tina is tiny she is also a little scary; I wasn’t sure whether she would let me back into Singapore without paying a heavy tamarind jam tribute to the Ministry of Manpower first. My first attempt was a disaster. After hours of straining tamarind pulp through a broken sieve and scalding myself on the hot bastarding tamarind liquid, I produced a wonderful, thick looking, rich dark brown batch of tamarind jam… that tasted of grit and battery acid. It went straight in the bin.

Then Barbara, the lovely manager from Le Flamboyant, sent me their recipe. “This is the recipe for tamarind jam”, she wrote, “but I did not get any specific measurements because they do it by feeling so to say”.

3 kg of tamarind, put water and salt in a bowl, add the tamarind, keep them in the water for 24hours. Throw the water away, add new water and let sit for another 24 hours. Then the tamarind is soft so all the grains can be taken out. The remaining paste is being boiled in a pot, add sugar and cinammon, stir – for another 4 hours.

52 hours for a pot of jam? No wonder they only gave us a spoonful. “Oh, this jam? Have as much as you want, I’ll just run over to the salt mines and kick orphans and three legged puppies into whipping up another batch for you.” And there we were, scoffing it down like greedy First World pigs.

I followed the process loosely, this time with much better results.

TINA’S TAMARIND JAM
500g of sour tamarind.
300g white sugar
100g palm sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 generous pinch of salt

Put the tamarind and salt in a large tupperware container, then add enough water to cover the pulp generously. Keep in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, the pulp will have softened and rendered some of its acidity into the water. Get rid of most of the liquid, cover again with fresh water and return it to the fridge for another 24 hours.

If your tamarind still had seeds in it, remove them. Gently simmer the tamarind and water mixture until the pulp is very soft.

Before the liquid starts to reduce, strain the pulp through a sieve to remove the remaining fibres and seeds you may have missed. This is more difficult than it sounds. You may curse and swear at the person who made you make tamarind jam. It’s a good time to start boiling your clean jars and lids, possibly while muttering dark threats under your breath. After about 10 minutes, you can transfer the jars to an oven at 110 degrees Celsius until you’re ready to use them.

Return the remaining tamarind pulp to the heat, and add the sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a roiling boil, and let it reduce until the mixture is dark brown. Test a dollop of it on a cold plate: the jam shouldn’t be runny, and the surface should wrinkle slightly when pushed with a finger. Jar the jam while it’s still hot, then turn the jars upside down to create a vacuum and leave to cool down.

And the verdict?
Tina said it was yummy.

Dear Me,

Remember this? I know you do.

Hold on, let me switch on the lights.

This is the sort of thing people like you dream about. Look at these slices of beef rib. There’s 1.2 kg of meat right there on that plate. Perfectly charred. Succulent. Melt-in-the-mouth.  And the sides! Oh sweet heavens the sides. Garlic parsley cottage fries, shimeji mushrooms, tomato prôvençale, béarnaise AND cabernet sauce, and green salad with walnut dressing. The salad was just for show, something to gently draw across the carpet of meat in the diners’ stomachs.

And remember the soufflé?

You barely had time to take a snap before your friends set upon it like a horde of hungry jackals. Quite some feat, considering they’d just eaten a whole cow. Yeah, “happy birthday”, you, now get out of the way before I spoon you in the face. You did manage to get your hands on some of the pistachio parfait and pistachio sauce, for which I congratulate you, my little friend, for they were truly sublime with the hot chocolate cloud that was the soufflé.

Have I refreshed your memory? Are things starting to come back to you now? The fogs of time are lifting? Oh good. I’m glad I could be of help.

Now let me ask you this, lady. What kind of a moron goes all the way to Bali for her birthday, and hardly eats a bite? You, that’s who, you idiot. I saw you, picking away at your little foie gras terrine like it was going to slap you in the face. “I don’t feel so well”, you whined. “Uuuggggh my stomach is upset”. Loser.

I hope you’re happy with yourself. Now we have to leave Asia without knowing what Métis’ Côte de Boeuf tastes like. Yeah, that dish that was so good that your friends went back the following night. Thanks a freaking lot, dimwit. Last time I take you anywhere.

Sincerely,

Me.

Where: Métis, JL. PETITENGET NO.6 KEROBOKAN KELOD
KUTA, BALI, INDONESIA

Website: http://metisbali.com

Opening hours: Lunch from 11 am, dinner from 5pm


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There’s an ongoing joke in this household that no visit to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to Psar Krom. World renowned temples? Been there, done that. Floating villages? The Tonlé Sap is just a glorified pond. Happy Ranching, quad biking, microlighting? Pshhh. Adventure is for losers. Psar Krom is where it’s at.

Of course, you’re unlikely to ever see a tourist near Psar Krom, because Psar Krom looks like this:

It’s a dusty, scrappy, thronging labyrinth of a market. In my opinion it’s the best place in town to see the fantastic produce Cambodia has to offer, and to experience food shopping the way locals do. Much more airy than Psar Chas or Psar Leu, Psar Krom has whole sections in the semi-open. Admittedly, my standards are lax to say the least, but it’s also relatively clean, and if you go early enough you may not even notice the smell of the lively fish section: baskets of fresh fish, most still wriggling and alive, deftly dispatched and cleaned by the vendors before they can make a jump for it.

It’s also an excellent place to observe the very best of Cambodian pyjama fashion:

Although you should be prepared to be pushed and shoved around by the crowd, it’s a pretty friendly market, with no hard sell. Look out for fresh spice mixes for soups and curries, chunks of orange pumpkin, sticky doughnuts coated in caramel, large vats of fresh palm sugar, and delicious smoked sausages hanging from the rafters. There’s a dried fish vendor for all your breakfast needs. The waffle stand, if it’s open, is particularly worth the detour, because there is nothing more satisfying than a Cambodian waffle straight from the wood-fired iron. To find it, just follow the delicious smell.

Before you go, take a minute to look up a the old metal structure, with holes like stars shining through the cobwebs. It’s really quite beautiful. In your face, Ta Prohm.

Where: Psar Krom Road, Siem Reap.

Tip: Go early, most of the action will be done by 11 am.