French Fancies

Je suis retourné.

It was a week of hard work, early mornings, late nights, free-flowing vin rouge and a surprising amount of fun with people I’d never met two months ago. There’s probably a lot to say, but for now I’m sticking to the most important thing – food.
When one discovers one is going to France, one is likely to get excited at the gastronomic opportunities. My week at Chateau Duffy in the summer was notable for its culinary delights – from the simple pleasures of fresh croissants and baguettes daily, to huge quantities of cheese and an orgasmic beef bourginon. (Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I think about that beef…) However, combining the prospect of Francophone cuisine and a Christian conference centre led me to fear the very worst.
On our first evening, my fears were confirmed. Shark steak in curry sauce anyone? My dinner that day consisted of two bowls of soup, 3 slices of white bread (honestly, I don’t think I have ever consumed so much white bread in so few days) and cheese. There was always cheese. Every day the lunch (four courses) and dinner (four courses) menus appeared on a screen that changed colour every few seconds. Part of the excitement was working out what the words actually said or meant, the rest being the anticipation of whether it would be edible…
I’m not sure what dessert actually was, but it definitely didn’t involve cottage cheese.

Tuesday was a good day (except for my fellow vicars-to-be who got stuck in Lille thanks to a feast day bus time-table) – the kitchen for some inexplicable reason went Flemish. As I am Flemish by descent (a long descent, but the Clutterbucks were once Cloiterboicks who wove wool there) this was a potentially exciting prospect – even more so when I realised that beef and frites were involved. Hands-down, it was one of the best meals of the week. Oh, and it was concluded with this:
Not sure what it’s called, but it tasted like a Krispy Kreme. Evil, but goooood.

A major excitement of any overseas trip is shopping – especially food shopping. For many Brits, the word ‘Carrefour’ is the holy grail of French holidays – a source of exciting biscuits, jams, cheese, and all sorts of other diversions. Merville may not have had one, but it had an Intermarche, the next best thing, so we dutifully went and stocked up. In amongst the chocolate and toys was an unusual discovery:
Yes, that’s an advent calendar for cats. It begs a lot of questions:
– Why wasn’t there one for dogs too?
– Is there a whole tin of food at the end?
– Is it just a lump of cat food behind each door? Is it wrapped? 
– What kind of a cat might want an advent calendar?
– Why? 
In answer to the penultimate question, we have a possible candidate – another sighting during our short jaunt through the town of Merville:
That’s special, that is…

Oh, and you shouldn’t trust everything you see, it’s not always what you think it is.
This is not a real cake:
One final thing. Men, when buying last minute presents for your wives from French supermarkets, try to choose things that show some thought and aren’t available in the UK. Fizzy cola bottles – even when extra large and with ‘extra acid’ (assuming this meant they were extra sour) – is not a romantic or thoughtful gift. Just saying. 

A sign of good taste

Occasionally, I find myself in situations that are really rather random – places I wouldn’t usually go; people I wouldn’t usually meet; things I wouldn’t usually see – it’s what my dear friend Abidemi would refer to as the surreal world of Liz.

Thursday night was one of these occasions. Babs (of fascination with church architecture fame) alerted me early on in the day to the fact that a mutual friend was having a book launch that evening, and suggested we surprise her by turning up. The venue was the Institute of Directors (a private members’ club on Pall Mall – my mother was once a member, so I had to give her a quick call to check the dresscode) and the guest list included the Egyptian Ambassador. [I should explain that the book was our friend’s PhD thesis on the Copts of Egypt and is in fact Egyptian herself, so this wasn’t a completely random person to have in attendance.]

Once the rather swanky event got going and the speeches began, we realised that we were in fact in the presence of not one, but two ambassadors – the newly appointed British Ambassador to Egypt was also there. This was the point that all three of us, simultaneously, felt let-down by the canapés being served. There were no Ferrero Rocher…

If you haven’t seen the advert (where have you been?), it’s a classic:
[Apologies, it’s been taken from some ‘worst adverts ever’ TV show – hence the laughter.]

But not to worry, there was still a surprising level of canapé excitement for such a distinguished gathering. Gasps of joy could be heard when mini fish & chips appeared – much better at soaking up the alcohol from magically refilling wine glasses than silly blinis. At one point Babs and I virtually chased a tray round the room, I’ve honestly never enjoyed a hors d’oeuvre so much!

I’d like to take this opportunity to make a plea to caterers everywhere: please could we have more canapes that are ‘actual’ food – enough of these silly crackers with cream cheese, or vol au vent rubbish -stuff that will actually make up for the meal you’re inevitably missing by going to a drinks reception. Thanks! 

An International House of Pancakes (+ update)

Ah, Shrove Tuesday – the day the English get super excited about flour, eggs and milk and shops sell out of lemons. Honestly, it’s a national obsession. To quote one friend on Facebook this morning: “Loving how many people are happy due to pancakes. Eat them more often.” He’s got a point.

I celebrated with friends at a cult in Oval (it’s not really a cult, well, probably not one – it’s just what the friend who lives there calls it). He really is quite a distinguished host, pulling off magnificent Christmas dinners and now celebrating as many food occasions as possible in community, which I think is rather a fabulous idea. I suspect most people at Shrove gatherings last night made do with a couple of vigorously tossed pancakes smothered in lemon and sugar. I and my fellow guests were treated to a much more sophisticated affair…

Arriving fresh from the gym (I burned 300+ calories on the crosstrainer to aid guilt-free pancake consumption), I was presented with a plate of blinis topped with a variety of delicacies. The room was candle-lit so, other than a smoked salmon & cream cheese variety, it was difficult to work out what I was actually about to consume. While I may be overcoming my fussy eating step by step, I do like to know what I’m eating and examine it carefully, so it was with extreme caution that I placed the first morsel in my mouth. Fortunately, I’d correctly identified it as involving chorizo – curious as to the others, I stopped the host to get a detailed explanation and this is what it turned out was on my plate:
– Aforementioned smoked salmon & cream cheese blini.
– Chorizo with rhubarb jam. [Rather yummy.]
– Cured beef, fig and horseradish.
– Bacon, banana and some sort of caramel sauce.

Wow. That’s no typical Shrove Tuesday fare. Neither was dessert – chocolate filled and caramel filled traditional style pancakes; coconut delicacies (didn’t manage to find room for this one); and the standard lemon & sugar variety. (I think that’s right, to be honest my memories of the latter part of the evening are a little fuzzy.) I wish I had photos, but what with the candlelight and iPhone factors I don’t think I’d have done the glorious presentation justice.

Not content with fantastic edible delicacies, the evening was accompanied in true soiree style with contributions from guests – poetry, acoustic guitar led songs and the like, some composed by the performers. On Sunday the host suggested I wrote a poem on the subject of South London, but as I haven’t written poetry since I was an angst-ridden teenager (and even then I relied upon song lyrics to get me going) and had no time to let my creative juices flow, I feared I’d have no contribution to make to the proceedings. Fortunately someone had discovered a gem of a book – poems about Lambeth published in 1961 – in which I discovered a fabulous set of verses on the subject of hailing a cab, I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to note some of the lines. So that was my contribution, and I watched the acoustic guitar players with enormous envy – I’m beginning to wonder if I should add guitar lessons to my list, or if I’ll simply be disappointed that I will never be Joan Baez.

The other inspiration from last night is that I really, really ought to host a dinner party soon – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done, which is utterly ridiculous. Yes, I’ve had friends round and cooked, but never involving a table, tablecloth, napkins in fancy shapes and name cards – who’d like to come round for dinner? Poetry writing will be optional, but men with guitars in tow will be welcomed with girlish squeals of joy.

Returning to last night’s event, I’ve just checked my phone and discovered some photos I don’t entirely remember taking [it seems you can’t re-hydrate yourself post-gym on red wine…], so while I have none of the food, I do have some of the sharing…

The Andys listening attentively; Duncan proving an able compère; and our host pondering.

Update:

It turns out someone did take photos of the food – the chef in fact – and has posted them on her blog. She also used Instagram (as used in above photos) which I feel adds to the olde worlde feel of the evening. I had to borrow one of them, as it captured my version of the evening rather perfectly and features the fabulous Love Me, Lambeth poetry book:

A paradigm shift in the world of pizza

This, people is no normal pizza; this is a dessert pizza. Don’t be fooled by its apparent similarity to its savoury brother, there is nothing savoury about this creation. 
The red stuff? Jam. The things that look like cherry tomatoes? Glacé cherries. The slices of banana? Ok, they would be slices of banana, and you wouldn’t usually see them on a pizza – but you get my point. Also amongst the toppings are marshmallows (like mozarella, they go on in large blobs and then melt to nothingness), white chocolate and marzipan (yum). It’s basically death by dessert. 
It was yummy – though difficult to do justice after exceedingly excellent made from scratch normal pizza – but messed with my head somewhat. I’m not sure if it was residual flu food issues (my appetite’s a little unpredictable) or simply my unique attitude to food, but I couldn’t get my head around this object that masqueraded as something else, especially something that I really like. 
Kudos to Libby for her creation and props to Annabelle and Phil for getting so stuck into it – I’d mention the noises that A made while eating it, but that would be mean. I enjoyed it, but even as I left the house I was still trying to come to terms with it! 

Christmas disaster

Forgive me, this is a wallowing post.

Christmas has been something of a disaster. Yes, I got to Belfast ok, so did Australian god-sister (though she had 50 hour journey from Milan to Belfast) and the sibling & sibling-in-law arrived safely on Boxing Day. Yes, presents were more than satisfactory (praise God for the Amazon universal wishlist), and there was plenty of yummy food on offer. However…

I spent much of Christmas day morning huddled under a duvet and managed to eat all of two mouthfuls of Christmas dinner. I stayed totally sober all day, while other family members indulged in cava, some nice red, a dessert wine – torture. Boxing Day didn’t exist, I slept my way through it, waking only to cough dramatically. I may have thought the lurgy was dissipating when I arrived on Thursday – I was most definitely wrong.

It is deeply unfair that during this holiday of food consumption, I have consumed next to nothing. Across the room from me right at this moment is a large tin of Roses, am I tempted? Not in the slightest. Bleugh. No turkey, bread sauce, stuffing, little sausages; no post-Boxing Day fry-up; no home-made mince pies or picnic slice (a family favourite that’s only baked once a year) – it’s all been deeply traumatic.

However, as a couple of friends have been quick to point out, there is a positive to this misery. I’m probably going to be amongst a very small minority of people who lost weight over the holidays and therefore won’t be making guilt-ridden trips to the gym in the new year. Every cloud…

Another annoying aspect of this malaise is that I’ve not had chance to make the Christmas project I’d come up with…hopefully I’ll get on to it before I leave on Thursday.

Oh, and to top it all, we lost our water supply this morning – along with the rest of South Belfast. There’s next to no bottled water available in the shops (there was already a shortage pre-Christmas because deliveries weren’t getting through from Scotland) and we now have a complicated system of which toilets can be used when. Nice.