Saturday, 8 December 2012

Hi my name is Alice, and I'm a tea addict.

Being a student in England means drinking tea on a daily basis. It's during conversations over cups of tea that I initially bonded for life with some my friends back at York, it was the prospect of tea breaks over the exam period that kept me going and I glad that moving to France has changed little about this. Saying that, I have to confess that I may have taken my love of tea a little too far. A hot cup of tea is such a comfort in the morning to wake me up, during endless hours spent reading about Roman epigraphy (when I don't have any idea of what actually epigraphy is) and when someone comes round for a chat, I always have a cup of tea ready and waiting. But the other day I looked up and was greeted with this. Too much perhaps? I have issues I know.

Yesterday Zoe and I went on a Christmas present hunt and in the evening we thanked each other for a lovely-rubbish day. I will explain.

Firstly, things that made the day not so good:
  • The expectations of all the excitement and fun of present buying, made us both forget just how stressful it is. I get so desperate to buy the "perfect present" that anything I see ends up not being good enough and of course that means I end up walking back empty handed. 
  • The weather was awful, I might love rain but I think sleeting is possibly the worst kind of weather when everyone is wishing for a white Christmas. Why taunt us with this watery alternative to snow? Why!?
  • We went out for lunch in an attempt to cheer us up and were served by a waiter so scary and grumpy we couldn't wait to pay and leave.
 But the weird thing is throughout the entire day, no matter how tired and exhausted we were, or how awful the situation seemed, I don't think we stopped laughing (hysterically I'll admit) or smiling once. Plus after the lunch we were kind of dejected so Zoe, genius she is, suggested our favorite hot chocolate bar which never fails in turning a down-day the right way round. I think the best thing to do with days when everything seems to go wrong is to take it as it comes and try not to wallow too much. As soon as we stopped thinking about how tired and stressed we were, and instead at all the things were lucky to have, the day suddenly turned around. Cheesy I know, but it's something I definitely need to work on.
All in all this tree has to sum up our day for me. Has anyone ever seen a more depressed-looking Christmas tree? Some people really do go all out don't they. Zoe and I were collapsing on the floor in hysterics by this point. In the end we managed to pick up some gifts we were really happy about and in the evening a couple of us crammed into my room with some Christmas tea (what else?) and a bit of Love Actually.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

marshmallows and macarons

After a pretty hectic few weeks with essay deadlines and exams constantly looming over me, (note the badly needed hot chocolate above) I've sadly been neglecting my blog. I've managed to have a couple of adventures in the meantime which I just haven't had time to post about.

I went to the Christmas market in Aix where I had my first roasted chestnuts.Mmmm. Chestnuts.  I've even had my first proper french crepe party! Despite being totally shattered by revision and ready for bed, I was invited and overcoming any fatigue I had to go was definitely the best of decisions. Who am I say no when someone utters the magic words "crepe" and "party"? The night consisted of one of the most intense games of trivial pursuit I have ever come across (French people take their quizzes very seriously) and I laughed none stop until I had tears pouring down my face, or maybe I was crying because the crepes were so good and went above and beyond all expectations. If a French person ever offers a crepe, and I mean ever, take it. It was funny to see the guy making them, who generally is absolutely insane and forever cracking jokes, take on the expression of an undertaker when preparing his "secret recipe." I gathered up some courage and tried my hand at flipping a few (brave considering I had about 5 French people standing around to judge!) but I didn't let anyone down, far too practice from Pancake Day for that. I am so disappointed that I forgot my camera, but they have promised another one sometime soon and I will take photos of everything!

I just have to write abou patisserie day. Yes, you heard right, patisserie day. After realizing that we spent far too  much time standing in the cold drooling over all the beautiful creations through the window, someone suggested we pick a day where we actually go inside and pick something. Today the group was just me and one other girl but it was pretty darn good all the same. I chose a salted caramel macaron which was delicious but somehow didn't live up to all the crisp shell, gooey center hype I keep hearing about. The center was more solid and buttery than a smooth cream, not sure if this is supposed to happen since I have very little experience macarons but I guess I will just have to keep going until I find the perfect one. My friend chose a beautiful lemon tart which she let me sneak a bite of and it was delicious!

Monday, 19 November 2012

the great tart robbery

I had another exam and a truckload of essays coming up and since my last tea-shop revision session was so successful, I decided to try it again. Since I seem to be living at "Book in Bar" these days, this time I paid a visit to my friend on her anthropology research placement. Being a total foodie, she chose a lovely cafe in the small town of Lambesc which is about a 45 minute bus ride from Aix. After dragging myself out of bed at about 6am to get there on time, I warmed myself up on kashmir tchai tea which was served on a slate! Fancy that. The atmosphere was really relaxed apart from the screaming children, the owner has a play room for kids making it really handy for mums to come an have a chat, not so much for people cramming on ancient Greek history. So instead I had tea. Definitely one of my better ideas.
 For lunch I treated myself to a pumpkin, carrot and Jerusalem artichoke tart. Zoe's professor walked in just as we were ordering, I wasn't sure whether to choose this tart or not (I had never had Jerusalem artichoke before and was intrigued but slightly nervous about finally finding a food I didn't like) but when it turned out there was only one left and he seemed pretty keen on it, did I graciously offer it to him? No. I was sneaky and snapped it up as quick as I could. MWAHAHAHAHAHA. I know I should have been generous but when it comes to stuff like this (i.e. food) all my generosity goes out the window. And anyway, the tart was totally worth stealing, I don't get many chances to have pumpkin in England, and whenever I read American food blogs all the raving about something called canned pumpkin makes me curious and jealous. So there you go, I couldn't just leave it could I?
 I was too full for dessert unfortunately but check out the beautiful lemon and poppy seed cake Zoe made! My favorite tea was the genmaicha which tasted like popcorn. It is the only flavor which has come close to ones I have had in Japan and I felt so cozy drinking it that I could have easily had another 10 cups. If only Kusmi tea wasn't so pricey. I love going into the shop and just smelling all the boxes of tea like a total weirdo but I'm sure they're pretty used to that now.

Monday, 12 November 2012

crepes and the creepiest of Christmas decorations.

Well it's been a long day and that can mean only one thing...CREPES! I had one of my first exams today which was stressful enough and after being too lazy to walk the five minutes it takes to get to the supermarket, I'm afraid my fridge is pretty pathetic, so crepes seemed to be the way to go. 
Now, crazy as this may seem after being here for well over two months, this was the first crepe I've had since I've been here. I know, I know, *the shame* but I was waiting for the perfect moment to savour this most holy of French food experiences and believe me, the wait was totally worth it. I was practically hanging over the counter while the crepe lady was spreading out the mixture and every so coolly flipping it over. Everyone tells me that they are so much cheaper when you make them yourself, but I think there is definitely something magical about watching them being made and handed to you all hot and gooey with absolutely no effort on my part. Apart from the difficult business of choosing what flavour to have. Hello ratatouille
(Yes I've already taken a bite out of it, but I did warn about all the half eaten food photos.)

Zoe and I live the same corridor meaning we sort of take it for granted that we can annoy each other whenever we want without actually planning to have a proper chat, we decided to have a proper girly movie night. So she knocked on my door and surprised me with this...

This creepiest of chocolate horses was in the "Christmas" section of the supermarket amongst all the chocolate Santas and reindeer and I ask you this. WHAT WAS IT DOING THERE? Is there some kind of secret link horses have with Christmas that I'm unaware of?! Stand-ins when the reindeer feel like they need a break?  *shudder* Anyway, I'm still confused as to why she saw this and immediately thought about me but I have a feeling the look of horror on my face when she presented it to me is probably the explanation. At least he tasted delicious. For the movie, she brought along these purple crisps (no added colour or preservatives! Hurray!). French movie nights certainly have more exciting snacks...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

tea + cake = productive?

Been a while since I posted anything because I've had lots of work but I still managed to link studying and food. Being stuck inside my room, I am always at my most unproductive and I really lack any kind of motivation.Yesterday, after finding myself looking at Korean dramas on Youtube, enough was enough and I asked a couple of the others if they wanted to go to "Book in a Bar," which is fast becoming my favorite hang-out in Aix, for a revision/tea session. Hello pecan pie and lemon cheesecake. These two cakes aren't mine I'm afraid but the other girls kindly let me take photos. You would think that the cheesecake, which is huge by the way, would have a pretty even biscuit:cream cheese filling ration but no, somehow they managed to make what was effectively a ball of cream cheese encased in a thin biscuit crust. And it was beautiful. The cream cheese was just the right texture, tangy without being too bitter. I was pretty darn happy when it got sent round the table for a taste. We had a bit of a giggle over the slab of lemon which is meant to act as a "garnish" though. Pecan pie was divine as always and it made a second appearance at our study session yesterday. B and I had cornflower tea while Zoe braved "Russian Tea" - vodka and grapefruit flavor! Smelled  pretty special.

Some photos from the inside, and some proof that we actually managed to do some work! The tables are so small that it was a bit cozy with all our hefty textbooks but we managed somehow. It was the best kind of study session, we buckled down and revised in a relaxed atmosphere where time seemed to fly by. What does everyone else need to motivate themselves to study? Tea and conversation seem to be very English study tools to me.

p.s. I forgot to mention the real reason I dragged us all out through torrential downpour to this cafe. I came here the day before after a swimming session with Niamh and when I got back to my flat I realized I had forgotten something...asking if someone had left a damp towel, soap and a bikini behind the day before was a bit embarrassing to say the least. Also, because I had puddles in my shoes from the rain, I'm ashamed to say I went up to the counter to place my order in my socks. The fact they were understanding says something about how lovely they are but I still feel as though I'm giving a very eccentric picture of English girls!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

the experimental pancake.

Today started off with pancakes. It is the first time I've made them myself and I'm not sure if it was a good idea. It was great when I was actually eating them, but there is definitely something ever so slightly depressing about cooking pancakes, alone, and in a darkened kitchen (don't ask why I didn't turn the light on, I've no idea.) Definitely going to be a communal thing next time! I kind of made it up as I went along (as usual) so I don't really think it should be called a recipe. This is more appropriate i think:
Random list of things I found in my cupboard and chucked in my pancakes hoping for the best
  • raisins
  • flax seeds
  • dessicated coconut
  • porridge oats
  • 1 egg
  • soy milk
  • cinnamon
  • fromage blanc
  • half a mashed banana
I managed to make two and loaded honey, dried fruit and nut, more fromage blanc, ground hazelnuts, a couple of flax seeds on top.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

A smoothie and speculoos?

Totally lazy day (apart from the morning run). I've decided that the best possible tip to get yourself up  and running is this: lay out all your clothes, water, everything the night before. When you get out of bed the first thing you do is fling all your jogging clothes on as quickly as possible. This means that before you realize what you are doing, you are standing in the middle of your room dressed head to toe in sports clothes and absolutely no way of getting out of going on a run without feeling stupid and taking them all off again. Works everytime. Except once when I even got half way down three flights of stairs, changed my mind, and went back to my room. Low point.

Moving on, today's lazy day consisted of procrastination on a heroic level, starting with my first ever experience of overnight oats. Totally converted, last night I mixed up fromage blanc, soy milk, compote, cinnamon, pinch of salt and in the morning topped it off with raisins, flax seeds, even more cinnamon and ground hazelnut. I even took it out of the fridge as motivation and staring at it and said "This loveliness is waiting for you when you get back." The sad thing is that it worked and I ran faster than I ever have before... forget fancy stopwatches. Foodivation is the way to go if you want to make that three minute mile!

Headed off to "Book in a Bar" for a post lunch tea break with my friends (despite my morning having been a perpetual tea break anyway...) "Book in a Bar" is one of my favorite places in Aix, it is a bookshop/coffeeshop anglaise where you can order just one tea and stay there for hours on end talking very loudly about politics, books, movies, anything you want, without anyone batting an eyelid. They serve scones and the most delicious pecan pies and just to prove its awesomeness, this is what greeted us on our table, felt just like home...
I don't know how many people in England actually have teapots with union jacks on them but it was so adorable. I ordered japanese green tea infused with cherry followed by a kiwi and apple smoothie which for some reason came with a speculoos biscuit. Don't french people know how incompatible speculoos biscuits and smoothies are? Smoothies are not for dunking! Madness. Or maybe this is just the strict tea regulations I'm used to in England talking. Needless to say, none of us approved.
Saying this, speculoos is another obsession over here which it is perfectly justified. I saw this spread in the supermarket about a month ago and took a photo for a speculoos crazy friend back in England who even gets thes stuff shipped over. That is how much people love it. I would say the speculoos popularity is about on a par with digestive biscuit love back home. They are everywhere, with supermarkets doing own brand speculoos. After discussing it with a friend however, (yes we do have 30 minute conversations about biscuits) we decided that nothing beats the hobnob dunking wise. Not even close. Didn't stop us from putting speculoos spread in hot chocolate though...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Why did I buy two advent calendars?!

After a mad Lidl shop of spending around half an hour just in front of the Lebkuchen display, we ended up with this...
Exactly how early is too early for Christmas shopping? I guess being abroad I should be thinking about sending presents back home, but it still felt a bit wrong buying Christmas things in October. Looking back to previous years, my family has always resisted the ridiculously early Christmas spirit thing so that we had something to look forward to in December but that always meant that the advent calendars were always sold out by the time we started looking for them! This is my favourite Christmas buy yet:
I couldn't resist. It's so cute and I can keep it in my wardrobe waiting for next year. An investment for my Christmas future. *Ahem* Anyway, this morning I even found myself giving in  to my mum's demands and finally started drawing up a Christmas list so my family doesn't freak out when choosing presents for me. When doing this, I realized that I might actually be growing up...gone are the days when I would put the mp3 player all my friends had, the digital camera or even the dreaded furby *shudder*. I found myself putting "socks." That's it, I've crossed the boundary for asking things that I want, to doing the grown up thing of asking for realistic things that I need too. It made me think about what Christmas means to me. It isn't really the actual day that matters, but the excitement of counting down each day- which of course justified me buying two calendars... doesn't it? Last Christmas Eve was a bit of a shock for me when instead of staying awake from the excitement of Santa coming with all the presents, all I could think about was Christmas dinner and mince pies. Ok, forget about the whole "I'm growing up and asking for useful things" rubbish. I've made amendments to the list:
  • Almond butter, peanut butter...just butter really
  • gingerbread
  • Marmite (OF COURSE)
  • Good strong English tea
  • Biscuits that actually dunk in said tea- hobnobs all the way.
  • Mince pies
  • Crumpets/toasted teacakes
  • Soreen
Socks can wait.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

cake logic

Breakfast anyone? Nothing better than apricot and almond, fruit rouges and pistachio, pear and chocolate cake on a cloudy day to cheer everyone up! That and a mug of hot spiced tea. Winter is on its way and I'm loving every cold and rainy day just as much as the sunny ones in summer. We made sure to split each of the cakes very carefully so we could all taste one of each and instead of buying the delicately beautiful creations, we bought the more robust looking cakes so they survived the car journey to our flat. I love cake inspired logic. If the meticulous common sense used with things related to food was applied to everything else in life then everyone would be much happier. The cakes were almost brownie-like in their consistency without any sickly sweetness. We all said that we would try just one piece but once we had finished, everyone predictably sidled up to the box after a second piece. Addictive stuff.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

couscous and christmas

I'm staying in France over the Christmas holidays with friends. For two weeks I'm going to live in a house overlooking Mount St Victoire with log fires and (hopefully) snow outside...AAAAHHH!!! I can't wait! In order to have a truly French Christmas, we are going to make sure we get all our cravings for mince pies and Christmas pudding out of the way early and stick to a traditional Provencal menu on Christmas day. I can't believe that we are already planning Christmas! Time is flying by so fast but whenever I think about December  I can't help but get goosebumps and feel like a child again.
 When visiting the house we decided to investigate a village nearby. By investigate of course I mean all the restaurants so when we saw there was a couscous restaurant we couldn't resist! With me being a couscous novice, everyone decided that we absolutely had to try the couscous royale because it means I could try a whole selection of meat (of course I had absolutely no objections to this whatsoever!) I can honestly say that I have never eaten so much or so well. Being me, it was totally useless trying everything because I would never be choose between the lamb, sausage, chicken or meatballs even if my life depended on it. I can't even choose whether to have toast or cereal for breakfast for goodness sake.
It was so lovingly cooked that we all felt guilty once we were defeated and had to leave some, but there is only so far you can pile your plate in the name of good manners, however hard we tried. For dessert we all ordered Ile Flottante and after that we were well and truly stuffed. We set out on a post-lunch walk to help us stop feeling so queasy and to get a feel of the village.  I feel so lucky to live in such a beautiful place, still pinching myself in the evening when I look over all my photos. France is a hundred times better than I imagined it would be, and I had pretty high expectations to begin with.

Some of the post-lunch recovery walk discoveries...

A me-sized door
Ready made den! Acting as though I'm about 10 years old again and stealing it.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

marmite and mint tea

I managed to go on a quick run today before going out for lunch with Zoe, her parents and Niamh. Running in France is always a bit of a strange experience. Joggers in France aren't as common as in England and I always notice looks of general surprise or humour (one person started to run along next to me with two full bags of shopping today) at the sight of someone exercising in the surrounding estate. Jogging has been transformed into something completely different for me now I'm in France based on the reactions I encounter here. It is just one of the many ways that moving to a different country can be made interesting and exciting but sometimes it can be just plain tiring too. I wouldn't swap being here for anything (even cake) but after being here for two months, I have started craving the little bits of home and normality which I just can't find in France. A few examples...

  • The simplicity (stodge) of English desserts- A friend mentioned in a letter that she had been to afternoon tea with her mother and had eaten a apple and blackcurrant crumble. I just melted a little bit inside. I know that I'm spoilt here with breathtakingly exquisite French patisserie on every corner, resembling more works of art than food. The problem is that dessert here is more of an eating experience, you savour and prolong the moment for as long as possible, taking small forkfuls and generally looking like a lady. I'm ashamed to say I miss the lack of pomp in English desserts, where I don't have to feel guilty about dolloping a great spoonful of custard on top and tucking in. You would never do this in France. Ever. 
  • Crumpets- I lived off these last year, never failing to find new things to top them with: butter, beans, ham, marmite, jam, honey, chocolate spread, egg, mushrooms..I could go on. Needless to say, France doesn't really have crumpets, and the only place I did find them, the price was so high I couldn't justify buying them. Considering how much I miss them though, I might just cave.
  • Marmite- not sure people in France have even heard of it.
  • Meat pie (my dad wrote to me about these and I was completely overcome with jealousy...maybe I should start banning friends and family about writing to me about food)
Anyway, this morning when I went to call in on Zoe and her parents, they had this little bit of heaven waiting for me all the way from the other side of the Channel...

I practically ran to my room to get this on some toast with butter. Happy doesn't even come close to how it felt to be transported back to England for the approximate 3 seconds it took for me to demolish it. Thank goodness for parents, and their understanding of the needs of hungry, every so slightly homesick, English girls in France. This one is going to stay hidden in the cupboard in case anyone else sees!
For lunch, Zoe and I proudly introduced her parents to one our favorite food finds in Aix. A lebanese restaurant where we had a three course meal for 13 euros. To have as much choice as possible, we all chose different starters and main meals and swapped round. Falafels, baba ganoush, arayes, marinated chicken skewers, lamb skewers, and kofta...After never having lebanese cooking before I am definitely a convert.  Zoe let me photograph her dessert again which patisserie with a pistachio crust! My fresh fruit salad with rose syrup was the perfect ending to what was a pretty filling meal. There was an endless of supply of mint tea and conversation to finish and then a long post-lunch wander around Aix. The perfect lazy day to wind down after a long first term. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Too much food thought?

Is is possible to think about food too much? It really is about time I turned in and went to sleep, but instead I'm sitting with a hot mug of tea readying myself to document a day of food. I even specifically woke up at 7am after deciding at about 2am last night that I wanted to make something special to take to uni for my lunch. I was on the receiving end of many strange looks in the kitchen this morning, as a girl frying courgettes, mushrooms, a lot of garlic...basically a whole meal at 7 o'clock in the morning should expect. When opening my Tupperware box to this after a morning of lectures however, I decided it was all worth it...
Couscous is one of the easiest and fastest things to prepare and yet when I talk to other friends and students they always say they don't know how to make it. Basically, it involves the same actions as when making a pot noodle except you can add what ever you want to it. Be inventive as you like! This morning mine had raspberry vinaigrette, lemon juice, salt and pepper, paprika, half a chicken stock cube, cherry tomatoes fresh from the market, prawns, courgette, mushrooms, onion and a clove of garlic. It's so easy to experiment with and you can prepare it the night before ready for the morning. Looking back, garlic wasn't the best choice for lunch as my breath was definitely a bit strong later on, but oh well. I've learned my lesson.

 Pumpkin flavored things are much more popular in France than in England and when I saw pumpkin and chestnut soup for starters, it was a definite yes. The main course was dorade fish with buttery mash, haricot vert and a cherry tomato. When picking what to eat, (given the choice that we had this is harder than it sounds) you choose the main meat dish and then everyone gets the same side. It seems a economical way of making a menu far more manageable for a busy restaurant without compromising on taste. Everything was cooked in the traditional Provencal way in an chilled atmosphere full of regulars and where even the customers' dogs are welcomed with their own water bowl.

 I felt a bit self conscious when taking pictures of all my food but everyone was understanding about it, Zoe even let me take a photo of her calisson mousse because it was so pretty. I will probably have write up about calissons (Aix specialty) next time I buy some from the market because they really deserve their own post. I saw Raymond Blanc eat them once on television so in food terms, that makes them famous! This was my dessert of vanilla (more like caramel) and almond milk ice cream scoops with raspberries scattered on top...
The photos don't really do justice to the food as candlelight isn't the best for taking photos, so you will just have to take my word for it that the food was simple but wonderful. The simple set up and easy atmosphere is why it is packed every evening to the point people have to be turned away at the door. The final sign of a good meal is when for fifteen euros, we ate so much food we were forced to do the post-dinner awkward waddle/shuffle back to our flats. If is possible to think about food too much I've decided that I'm just going to roll with it, it's too much fun to give up.