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.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

mexican night and apple pie porridge

Tuesday night was our own version of a mexican fiesta. I had my first ever quesadillas and we improvised a kind of mexican flavoured quinoa for the side (quinoa with salsa, beans, corn, celery, tomatoes and a mountain of mexican spice) topping  it all off with some smushed avocado and lime. They turned out so good and I've now added them to my"WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!" list. They were super easy and fast (except when you have a mini pan meaning everything has to be cooked separately and twice of course!) perfect for hungry friends. I see them as the crispier, cheesier and generally more awesome version of the fajita. They may not look the prettiest but this is definitely a case of the taste winning out over aesthetics...

Quesadillas aren't exactly the frenchest of foods, so we compromised with a french film instead as Niamh had bought "Arnacoeur". It is a generic romantic comedy except after watching all our reactions, I think the french idea of romance is very different to that of three English and two Irish girls. Once we all admitted in an awkward moment that we preferred the guy who wasn't even the hero, everything the hero did just seemed to go from bad to worse...
  • stands over and watches her while she is sleeping
  • pays someone to beat her up so he can save her and be re-hired as her bodyguard (!?)
  • forces himself to cry so women fall in love with him
  • is paid by her dad to break her up from her fiance because he is too boring
...pretty sure alarm bells would be ringing.

 By the end of the movie we had all completely lost it and were yelling "NOOO TURN BACK TURN BACK!!! " at Vanessa Paradis when she was running towards her "hero". Looking back we may have got a bit carried away but I don't think I've laughed so hard in a while. The best thing about watching films with friends is that the film doesn't even have to be good for you to enjoy it!

With my lectures being much longer in France, I have to be careful to make sure I have a really sustaining breakfast or my stomach would start growling during class. Awkward. As all my friends would know, breakfasting for me is a serious business. I wake up in the morning just at the thought of having extra cinnamon in a lovely steaming bowl of porridge, so this is what happened in my room this morning at 7am...
I added apple compote to my porridge with soy milk, cinnamon and honey.
Two things everyone should know:
1. Compote should be put on everything and lots of it
2. France is compote crazy

 Aisles in supermarkets here are dedicated to every flavour of compote you could possibly think of - from apple to cinnamon and fig flavour. When I added it to porridge however, the result was my morning apple pie. The perfect wake me up so thank you France!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Stir-fry night! Total chaos in the tiniest of kitchen with about four different dishes going on in the same kitchen, switching round on the four hotplates. Everyone was leaning over and seasoning their pasta while Niamh and I were boiling up some noodles making it a somewhat hectic atmosphere to cook in but definitely a friendly one. In true studenty style our stir-fry was a mixture of whatever we could find in the fridge:

  • tofu
  • peppers
  • chicken
  • prawns
  • carrots
  • broad beans
  • cabbage
I would have taken a picture of the finished dish with egg noodles but of course I was too hungry to remember and had the "NOOOOOOO" moment half-way through so...sorry.
Anyway, in true french fashion, we spent the evening drinking wine and talking in our broken French. Instead of the regular romantic/chickflick movie-night however, Niamh and I found ourselves checking out food blogs and brainstorming amazing ideas for dishes which I hope will make an appearance here very soon. I am so excited about some of the inventions we came up with - growing up in a household which wasn't particularly adventurous with food, the meat, potatoes and two vegetables formula making a regular appearance, there are so many things I am yet to try and where better place to start than the south of France? In fact, we started the very next morning after seeing a recipe for oatmeal pancakes on this blog (one of our all time favourites) and decided to make our own version. We mashed half a banana, used a tablespoon of fruit yoghurt and small pot of natural yoghurt, a teaspoon of cinnamon, splash of milk and a sizeable cup of oats (I would be a bit more specific except I can't really remember due to the pretty slap dash way we kept adding things). It was enough for two huge pancakes plus this mini one which I managed to burn in the 5 minutes Niamh took to leave the kitchen to get some plates. Oops. 
...the extra minutes added a unique smoky *cough* burnt *cough* taste and crispy texture. After, we topped off with raspberries, the rest of the banana, flaxseeds, honey, and rest of the fruit yoghurt. After getting up pretty late (reading food blogs into the night) we gave ourselves roughly 7 minutes to wolf these down with some green tea. Pancakes for breakfast were totally worth the funny looks I got when running to my lecture to make it on time!

It was another friend's birthday yesterday and this time because there were around 15 of us, we decided to cook for everyone. A friend Zoe came up with the amazing suggestion of something I can't even pronounce but it is called ropa vieja. It is a dish she tried once with her family and is perfect for large gatherings but definitely one for when you have a lot of time on your hands! For the cake, we watched a video on youtube and decided to give the microwave a go with a few additions of our own...

The kitchen was a total bomb site as neither of us are particularly good at clearing up as we go along! 

The result of about 20 minutes of picking all the pork and turkey meat apart...

Zoe and I are so proud of our cake, we doubled the recipe and made two pudding bowlfuls and then sandwiched them together to make what unintentionally looked like a spaceship. The giant craters in the cake also added to the space image. We couldn't find any self raising flour which may have created the huge holes, and we also overcooked the bottom of the cake so it was more of a giant biscuit. Overall we were mainly pretty darn pleased with ourselves. We sandwiched blackberry jam and the ganache (melted chocolate, honey, creme fraiche and LOTS of cinammon) in the centre, and for the outside we smothered the cake in ganache, topped it with sliced canned pears and drizzled over a glaze Zoe made from the leftover syrup in the tin. By the time we finished cooking and were ready to eat, I wasn't even hungry from "tasting" the ganache for about 4 hours straight but goodness it was good. The trials of cooking.

Finishing off with a shot of the wrapping in action...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

a birthday and the best of lunches

It was my friend's birthday yesterday (Happy post-birthday day Becca!) and we all decided that the best way to celebrate was with TAPAS! Eating out still feels like the role play exercises we did for our school exams and I was so proud of myself when ordering the platter "la petite faim" only to realize from the waiter's puzzled expression I had actually ordered "la petite femm,e s'il vous plait!" Clearly I have a long way to go.
Loving food in a different country forces you to get out there and talk to people. Granted I know mainly food terms now and most of the conversations I have initiated with my corridor friends here have started with "THAT SMELLS SO GOOD." but it still counts!

Anyway, at the meal the we picked out a couple of sharing platters and this one was my favorite because it had PRAWNS.

The meat just fell away from the stick and the weird circle things are called panisses. We all still have no idea what they were, only that they were delicious and that there weren't enough of them. After, we decided to copy the French and go out for a quiet drink, all choosing the frenchiest drink we could think of, pastis. For anyone who actually reads this and doesn't know what pastis is, it tastes like gaviscon cough medicine. I tried really hard to drink it but took photos instead so anyone else can AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.
As with all birthdays, there was cake. And goodness did we did have cake. Niamh is the genius who picked out this lovely...
All of us stared in awed silence for about 10 minutes until I was brave enough to cut up the most beautiful cake any of us have ever seen. It felt wrong to destroy it but I will do anything in the name of  pear and chocolate creamy cakey goodness. mmmm.

Today was a good day. Can days which kick off with muesli, applesauce, yoghurt, kiwi and cinammon be anything but? I am breakfast mad - I even plan it just before going to sleep and it's the best motivation I have for waking up so early in the morning for class. I had lunch with Niamh who is equally food obsessed. After talking about our mutual love of english muffins, she told me about her dad's alternative to McDonald's  egg mcmuffins and we decided that we had to give it a go. IT WAS AMAZING. Wholegrain english muffin with dijon mustard, ham, egg fried with comt
é cheese, spinach, tomato. We had a simple salad on the side with raspberry vinaigrette, heaven. The egg with melted cheese on top looked so good in the pan it almost didn't even make it too the plate.


Monday, 15 October 2012

The foodie.

Ok, so I have a confession to make. I see myself as the idea girl when it comes to cooking.  I do love the actually cooking part, but I'm one of those people who tries the "absolutely 100% foolproof" recipes from cookbooks and still ends up crashing and burning spectacularly. Managing to bake a Victoria sponge cake whilst forgetting one of the eggs, vanilla extract, and baking powder being a particularly memorable example.  If you are like me and love trawling through the blogs where "amateurs" come up with eye-wateringly beautiful recipes every time then please for the love of god stop reading this now. In fact, I can even help out and recommend a few you should be looking at:

Enjoy! As for me, I can chop the vegetables, bake cakes when I have access to an oven, and I even managed once to follow Raymond Blanc's french onion soup recipe where he told me to "toast the flour" (?!?!) Coming from the north of England where the only thing I have ever been taught to toast was bread, this a considerable achievement. What I'm trying to say is that, due to an overactive imagination, I have a love of coming up with crazy ideas for food which really should never be inflicted on the general public (hopefully going to try a sweet version of okonomiyaki as a cake alternative at some point with dark chocolate and pear). My style of cooking is pretty much a russian roulette with a good number of total disasters, but also some that actually finish up's to hoping eh? And in fact, that's all part of the fun of cooking!

I do seem to be very lucky in finding the best people to cook with and my cooking experience is saved by friends who always turn out to be cooking gurus. I guess I'm just using this blog as a way of documenting my learning process, catastrophes and all.
Eating wise, I have absolutely no problems whatsoever. None. I've even discovered the secret of eating out...lunching! Dining out can be really expensive in Aix for the average student but I have been taking advantage of the much more affordable way of tasting the amazing food on offer here without having to clean out my savings. Something I am worryingly willing to do in the name of food.

p.s. When I was in the local Carrefour supermarket (France's answer to England's Tesco) just about to pick up some orange juice, when I came across this...
The thought of the effort they went to in order to create a fully lighted "Energy Zone" around the Red Bull section sums up quite a lot about the random cuteness you encounter when living in France I think.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

This blog will basically be a mix up of food I eat, see, cook with my friends in the smallest kitchen I have ever seen (no oven either so be warned we have to be very inventive here) and also hopefully a few posts about my life here just to show food isn't the only thing on my mind...

Also, I have a tendency to completely forget to take food pictures until I have already practically demolished the plate in front of me. This means I often end up with pictures of partially eaten food I've pushed around a bit with my fork to hide the giant hole like this...

Or photos of half-drunk coffee like this...

But mostly I hope to have as many photos of food which hasn't been assaulted by me like this...

These are giant macaroons which I found at Ikea of all places. I had the pistachio and it was a complete surprise for me. They managed the perfect little crunch on the outside which gave way to the essential gooey-ness in the middle which is pretty hard to get right. All for 1 euro 50 I think. Imagining how good the ones from the actual patisserie here doesn't even bear thinking about. I will do a comparison as soon as I can!

Just a side note for anyone who is actually thinking of coming to Aix en Provence or even just France as a foreign student - do think about bringing your parents and hiring a car for all the initial trips to Ikea or Carrefour, or at least find someone nice enough to take you. You will need it to get all the stuff you couldn't cram into your suitcase like a duvet and pillow. Things you will not be able to do without, trust me.

The introductions

Right, not quite sure how to start or put this. Basically I'm a food obsessive who has just been transplanted from my native England to the mother of all food heavens...the south of France. Um. Ok. 

Yeah, that's me. I wasn't joking when I said I love food. I'm the girl who doing one of those "preparation for your study abroad" exercises at uni was asked to put down three things I want to get out of my time as an erasmus student, amongst all the others who put sensible things like 1. To become fluent in French 2. Independence 3. To travel, I put 1. FOOD!!...and then promptly forgot about the other two reasons. To be honest I don't think I had any other reasons to begin with. 

 I should really have started this blog off before or at least a couple of days after arriving here but being pretty disorganised and just plain scared *eek!* I put it off and off until I find myself already here a month! Woah! I don't know exactly what this blog is going to consist of but bear with me and I'm sure I'll figure it all out along the way. Already within my first month here I can't even believe how amazing and important food is here. I have bonded with virtually all my friends here over food, cooking, dining out and just general 4 hour conversations about how amazing food is. Being an international student, I found that the best way to integrate into a country is to embrace what it feeds you, and I'm happy to say that I'm taking this tip very, very seriously.

Aix is exactly how I always imagined France to be from endless movies and television programmes growing up, "Chocolat" anyone? No, infact it's better I think. Before I came here I was given Rachel Khoo's cookbook by one of my friends for my birthday (MOST AMAZING PRESENT EVER) and I was convinced that coming to France would be endless witty banter with the local market stall holders, nipping into the little secret patisserie around the corner and being best friends with the local baker with their perfect pain au chocolats...optimistic you may say? Think again. It's exactly like that so be prepared to be hungry reading this blog. Very hungry indeed.