Archive for April, 2012

Why Not?

Friday, April 13th, 2012

I am not in any way expecting to win but I figured I’d get my blog out there anyway, and I have entered myself (yes, self promotion) in the 2012 Blog of the Year Competition! So now I need you to vote for me, my lovely, fabulous, exceptionally handsome readers. Just click on the button below, head to the last page in the list of blogs, click on Zaum and bam! My love for you will exceed the tests of time.
People's Choice Award

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Snow

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Easter crept up on me this year – perhaps it was the lack of dried-fruit-filled-dough-balls, although I think I had enough of the Dutch fried version of these over New Years. Tom and I spent our Easter weekend (it was clearly stated as a ‘weekend’ in France and definitely not a holiday) with our friends Louise and Marcelo in the Alps. We stayed in Louise’s aunt’s cottage in a tiny village called Boudin. I felt like we had said farewell to civilisation and had run away to join a hippie cult in the middle of the French mountains. Boudin consisted of less than 15 wooden chalets that were inaccessible by road. You had to park your car in the car park at the base of the village and walk up.

Boudin

Boudin

It took us approximately eight hours to drive to Boudin from Paris – this was largely due to some bad advice from the GPS, and then a few misguided decisions as we worked out the best way to get to the mountains. By the time we arrived, it was dark, it was raining, the clouds were settling low and we had to drive up a one-lane, twisty road with some particularly useless windscreen wipers. Oh, did I mention the lightning?

Fear not, we made it and were all overwhelmingly happy to get our things into the house and sit down to some food and some good wine. The next day as the sun came up, the rooster started crowing outside my bedroom window and I finally dared to peak outside, I realised why an eight hour drive is really ok. WOW. WHAT A VIEW.

Boudin

Good morning, mountains.

Perhaps it is the Australian in me and my complete foreignness to all things mountainous, but geez those lumps of land are just spectacular! Particularly when coated in white snow. I think I have only stayed in one other place in the world that had such an inspirational view – Crete and our view of Plakias bay. I could have sat and stared at the mountains all day, watching the clouds roll through, the passages of rain and then light snow. Beautiful.

Boudin mountains

Fluffy.

Saturday we had a quiet day as the weather wasn’t great and we were all feeling very lazy. We bought a truck load of local produce – cheese (Beaufort is one of the towns nearby), fromage blanc, blueberry coulis, saucisson, and blueberry tarts. Then we essentially just ate all day. For dinner we made cheese fondu with locally produced cheeses. It is fantastic – you can go to the local fromagerie, buy the fondu cheese and they will lend you a fondu pot, the sticks to hold the bread and the little heating element to keep the cheese warm. All you have to do is bring it back the next day. Now that’s small town trust. I like it.

Fondu

They eat this every day in the mountains

On Sunday we celebrated Easter by walking up a snow covered hill. The idea sounded great – we would hire ‘raquettes’ (or giant tennis rackets that you attach to your feet), take the chair lift to the top of the first part of a mountain and then walk up to a restaurant where we would eat good food in the sunshine while surrounded by snow. Louise was the only person who a. was French and had been to the mountains before and b. had skis so she left the two Australians and one Brazilian in the middle of a field of snow, lost, lonely and cold. Not really, there were very obvious ski-routes to follow but still. So cold.

Raquettes

These shoes are made for snow walking

So we started walking and immediately discovered that walking with tennis rackets attached to your feet is really quite tricky. You turn into a transformer and your feet suddenly weigh a lot more than you ever thought they could. We set off completely unsure about what direction we were supposed to be going but eventually figured that as long as we were heading uphill we were probably on the right track.

Mountain edge

I think I'll avoid walking over that hill

The second thing I learnt is that despite it being cold, snowy and probably some sort of minus-temperature, if you are wearing lots of layers of clothing and are trudging up a hill with tennis rackets on your feet then you get very, very sweaty very, very quickly. I was soon stripping off my beanie, scarf and gloves and turning bright red and complaining a lot. I wasn’t the only one. It was really hard! Walking uphill in snow is worse than running 30km and I almost threw my walking sticks down into the snow in frustration. But the food! We were walking towards food! Onwards we went, meeting up with Louise once as she glided past on her skis, the wind in her hair, a smile on her face. She, of course, felt dreadful but everyone just laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation and how much we really wanted to get to the restaurant. Louise informed us we were almost half way. Great.

Raquette

Up we go

Two hours later we arrived at the restaurant, removed as many clothes as possible while attempting to remain decent and flopped into our chairs demanding water, water, water. My tshirt was saturated and I’m fairly certain the table behind me left due to my stench. But after a slice of beaufort cheese tart, a huge plate of chips (yes, delicious, salty, deep-fried chips… something I usually avoid but at this moment they were the best things ever), and salad followed by a Nutella crêpe, I was happy. And ready to walk back down the hill.

Beaufort tart

Tarte au Beaufort

Nutella crepe

Nutella-full

The walk back was AMAZING. I have to admit that the walk up the hill was completely worth it once I started going back down. There is something so wonderful about standing still on a snow covered mountain and listening to the silence. It is one of the most beautiful sounds on the earth.

Snow on pine tree

Snowy

The snow was such a pure white and everything looked like a movie. The three raquetteers were in much jollier moods walking back to the chair lift and we stopped at a patch of gloriously white, soft snow, threw ourselves back onto it and made snow angels. My first snow angel! It was heavenly to lie in the snow! It is so soft and luxurious – sure, I got a bit wet, but I was already drenched so who cares?

Snow angel

Don't I look angelic?

It was hard to drive back to Paris the next day as the sun was shining in the mountains and it would have been a great day to sit on the chalet balcony in the sunshine and read a book. Unfortunately work and responsibilities called and we repacked the car and drove another seven hours to get home. This time we had the joy of Parisian traffic jams as everyone returned home from their Easter holidays. Next time we’re all taking an extra day off work.

SNOW!

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

On my trip to England I learnt a very valuable lesson – the more you complain about not getting something, the more likely it will come when you least expect it. For example, snow.

I missed out on the snow in Paris this year due to French visa requirements and was a TEENY BIT disappointed. Ok, I cried. But it really was very unfair as all I wanted was a little bit of fluffy white stuff to start tumbling from the sky sometime around the Christmas period. Not a big ask, in my opinion, but clearly too hard to manage for the French Weather Gods.

I had given up all hope for seeing snow this winter as Paris has now moved into Spring with the flowers and the birds and the babies, but then I went to England. Good old England and its crummy weather. The day I arrived it was beautiful and sunny (and apparently hot but I’m not convinced that 19 degrees can be classified as hot), the day after it rained, the day after that was sun again. On Tuesday morning, when Ben and I drove to Manchester, it was sprinkling and by the time we arrived it was definitely raining. We spent the morning dodging rain drops walking through Manchester but in the afternoon it cleared up. However, there was clearly something brewing in the sky as very dark patches of clouds loomed in the distance and the winds picked up. As we left Lesley’s house at 9pm, it was cold, dark, windy and threatening.

The drive home required us to go up into some hills and the higher we climbed the colder our car’s temperature gauge told us it was outside. It was raining and soon that rain turned into icy rain and then suddenly I was able to scream out in delight, “IT’S SNOWING!!!”

England snow

Yikes.

I think Ben, as driver, was slightly less pleased by the snow as he was having to tackle slippery roads and very strong winds pushing torrents of snow flakes into our car as we zoomed along the motor way. It was like driving into an asteroid belt and going through a time warp. I suspect Doctor Who would have experienced similar things. It was pretty scary as rain + wind + snow + not really knowing the roads = not so good, but Ben’s good driving skills, the iPad GPS and some awesome 80s, 90s, and 00s hits as our driving music helped us get home safely.

The next morning it was snowing in Creswell but not pretty white fluffy snow – soggy, wet, melt-on-impact snow. Apparently other areas not far away had been snowed in so technically we were lucky, but it would have been nice to see some decent snow that wasn’t just gross. Anyway, I was still happy and did scream with joy like a child on occasion.

Creswell Snow

It looks like Christmas!

I am heading to the Alps this weekend with some friends where I will get to see some REAL snow – but I kind of like this random, unexpected non-mountain snow that just happens because it is cold.

One of the Greatest Eating Experiences of My Life

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

I love eating, I do it a lot. Sometimes I really enjoy what I am eating, other times not so much. Sometimes it is somewhere in the middle. For me, an eating experience is more than just the food – it is the people who serve it to me, where the food comes from, and the location that I eat it in. All of these factors, if put together correctly, can create a life changing experience. And I, Jessica Davies, had one of these experiences in Manchester (of all places).

To me, Manchester is industrial revolution, cotton mills, and football. Sure, I know it is a growing city and the idea of there being good places to eat there doesn’t surprise me, but if someone had told me I would be overwhelmingly satisfied with an eating experience in Manchester I would have laughed and told them lying is a sin. But that mysterious person was right.

Ben and I went to visit our forth cousin (I don’t actually know what relation she is to me but she is my great grandfather’s sister’s granddaughter) who lives just outside of Manchester and she took us for a tour of the city. As it was a wet and soggy day, we tried to stay inside as much as possible and after visiting the John Rylands library, Lesley wanted to show us a new bar/restaurant that has opened up next door. To enter you go through a glass pyramid thing, down some steps and there you are. The restaurant is called Australasia and so I felt it appropriate that Ben and I go and visit it.

We weren’t feeling particularly hungry, however my appetite instantly sprang to life as soon as I saw the restaurant. Something inside me said, “EAT HERE!” and so the decision was made. The restaurant is a long rectangular shape that has been very well set up with tables in different sections to allow for large groups as well as quieter areas for small tables. It is light in colour and has lots of organic, wooden surfaces and lots of little details to look at.

Australasia

So pretty

The waitstaff were very friendly although half the time I had no idea what our main waitress was saying. Manchester accents are impossible. We were advised to choose lots of small dishes to share and so we did – choosing six dishes to share between the three of us. The food was what I guess is called “Asian fusion” with a very interesting mix of flavours from Japanese, Australian, British, Thai and Indonesian cuisines. And it was AMAZING.

Australasia menu

I felt at home

The food was beyond delicious – spicy, flavoursome and with some very interesting combinations of flavours and textures, I have never eaten anything like it before. All of the dishes had something interesting to say – the fishcakes with lemon grass were spicy and aromatic; the thinly sliced seared beef was tender, rich and juicy; and the pork balls were perfectly accompanied by a spicy salad that really had a kick to it.

Australasia fish

I even liked the seafood. Amazing.

Australasia Collingwood Dinkies

Collingwood Dinkies – little pies filled with different delicious flavours

Australasia tempura

Vegetable tempura – Pyramid style

Each time more food came out our mouths dropped at the presentation and then dropped even further when we came to eat it. Delicate yet strong, all of the food made me want to applaud the chefs each time it was placed on our table.

As we were eating the mains, I watched other dishes come out of the kitchen and declared that despite having eaten a rather large (and delicious) piece of chocolate cake for morning tea, I was going to need to eat a dessert. Thankfully, Ben is a fellow foodie and he had noticed the amazing concoctions that were arriving on other tables and he ordered dessert too. Lesley soon joined us as soon as ours arrived.

I am incapable of looking past the word “fondant” on a dessert menu and chose an espresso fondant served with hazelnut ice cream. A fairly simple description on the menu turned into one of the greatest desserts in human history being placed on the table in front of me.

Australasia fondant

WOW.

The fondant was cooked to utter perfection with a round, decorated piece of chocolate placed on top of the warmed pudding. As I cut into it, the chocolate melted and the fondant exploded into a gooey, oozing lava mountain.

Australasia fondant with goo

EXPLODE!

It was rich without being sickly and had a great combination of chocolate and espresso. The hazelnut ice cream was creamy and delicious and the plate was also decorated with three blobs of salted butter caramel (the ultimate accompaniment to chocolate) and clotted cream that was dotted with vanilla beans and decorated with mini meringues.

I want to marry who ever invented this dessert (sorry, Tom) because essentially they have placed every single thing that makes me happy on a plate, made it look pretty and then let me eat it.

Ben’s dessert was just as spectacular – a chocolate mousse cake served with cooked cherries. There was this amazing soft cherry foam that floated off the top of the cake. It was then served with a ball of miso ice cream which had originally put me off the dessert (plus I’m not a huge fruit with chocolate person) but turned out to be pure GENIUS. The miso added a wonderful hint of salt to the sweet chocolate and was really very delicious. Truly wonderful.

Chocolate pavé Australasia

Cherry froth!

We spent two hours eating lunch and by the time we eventually wandered up the stairs and back into the real world, the sun had started shining and it had turned into a beautiful day. Before we left, I paid a visit to the bathrooms to discover ‘dunny’ style toilets (upmarket dunnies, of course). It made me proud to be an Aussie, it did. Not really, but I am glad the best restaurant in the world (at least in my current little world) is a representation of my home country. The Poms can beat us in cricket but we cook the best food.

The Not So Rude Shipyard

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

After our large vegetable-filled lunch at the Blue Moon, Ben and I went and explored another area of Sheffield before heading to a café called The Rude Shipyard. A great name for a café although it certainly didn’t reflect the café itself as everyone was overly friendly and it was a wonderfully comfortable environment to be in. The café offers home made food, cakes and coffee and you can sit on couches, read books and I believe they sometimes put on concerts.

The Rude Shipyard

There's always something special about cafes on the corner of a street.

Ben and I shared two pieces of cake – a chocolate and Guinness cake and a pear, almond and pudding cake. The chocolate cake was rich and chocolaty and you could really taste the caramel flavours of the Guinness. The pear and almond cake was dense, rich and would make you explode if you ate a lot of it. I have never had a cake that was pudding consistency before and I liked it.

Cake from the Rude Shipyard

Oh yes.

The Rude Shipyard uses vintage cups and mugs to serve its drinks in and I had the absolute pleasure of using a large blue mug to drink almond tea from. It was one of the most enjoyable mug-using experiences of my life and I am now trying to find out where I could possibly source one of these mugs.

Rude Shipyard cup

The big blue cup. Find it for me!

I am desperate – it was such a beautiful thing to drink out of and was perfectly designed for tea drinking. If you know where I can find this mug, please tell me. I’ll love you forever.

They are Wrong About English Food

Friday, April 6th, 2012

As I am sure you all realise by now, I generally base my enjoyment of a country on how many delicious meals I eat, and I can therefore declare that I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to England. Most people poo-poo British food, and while I agree that some of it is awful, I can also inform you that some French food is awful and that is apparently one of the best cuisines in the world. British food is definitely moving away from stodgy vegetables and mushy peas and you can now find some wonderful restaurants.

The numerous times that I have been to England, I have always managed to have a really good meal at one of the many, many pubs scattered throughout the country. They are a bit like the Parisian bistro – you have to pick wisely but you can find some that offer excellent meals. The area around Creswell isn’t exactly a culinary hub, however, in a nearby town there is a pub called the Elm Tree which I went to with Ben for dinner.

Elm Tree

British Cider at the Elm Tree

Where English pubs differ from Parisian bistros is the presence of friendly staff. AMAZING. A smile and a friendly welcome – who would have thought? Anyway, the Elm Tree is a simple local pub which appears to be very popular as we attempted to go there three times but each time it was fully booked. We ended up there on a Monday night and it wasn’t particularly busy. I had a steak which was served with hand cut chips and vegetables, and I chose a peppercorn sauce to go with it.

Elm Tree steak

Mmm... steak.

The sauce was an extra two pounds but considering I got a bucketful it was worth it. And oh was it delicious. The steak clearly came off one of the cows in the paddock nearby – very tender and perfectly cooked. Ben had a cottage pie which was very well put together and very flavoursome.

Elm Tree Cottage Pie

Ben's Cottage Pie

We both had dessert – I went for the sticky toffee pudding because I think it is the ultimate british pub dessert, while Ben had a chocolate and marshmallow brownie. My pudding was rich, sweet and moreish and was served with a tooth-breaking lump of honeycomb sticking out of it. Wonderfully good. I turned up my nose at the inclusion of marshmallow in the brownie but I was wrong – it was served with a rich, dark chocolate sauce which cut the sweetness of the marshmallow and it was a really good chocolate cake. A fantastic meal.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Look at that lump of honeycomb!

Another food highlight was a lunch in Sheffield with Ben’s friend and co-bread-maker, Martha. We went to a café called the Blue Moon which offers three vegetarian mains which come with a plate-load of salad. The meals are made from organic produce and were HUGE and very, very delicious. It was a wonderfully relaxed environment and a fun place to eat.

Blue Moon vegetables

It doesn't look like much but it sure was tasty!

Cars Make Me Anxious

Friday, April 6th, 2012

This week I realised that I am really quite happy to not have a car as they can cause a high level of anxiety as they start failing on you. We hired a car which we picked up from a town about six miles away and Ben took me on a small tour of the local area. After he had shown me the Welbeck Estate where he does his baking course, the car decided to tell us that we needed to check the coolant level. The temperature of the car hadn’t increased and after a small about of concern and discussion we decided to keep going and we’d check the coolant when we got home.

Ben took us on a scenic drive home, showing me where he rides his bike with a local cycle group and as we pulled into a side road between two farms the car then informed us that it was going to turn off the air conditioner because the car was getting too hot. That’s when the temperature gauge shot up and Ben quickly pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. No more coolant.

English countryside

At least we had a nice view.

Luckily for us, the car hire office was still open with 15 minutes to spare, so we called them and the AA (that’s British for RAC) to organise for someone to come and look at the car. This was a feat in itself as Ben had to use his phone, iPad and Skype in order to find a good enough signal to call the AA. Thank goodness for technology.

An hour later and the AA guy arrived, checked the car and informed us that the water pump wasn’t working. We’d need to be towed. By this time the sun was almost set and the relatively warm day was becoming rapidly cold and Ben and I wished we had decided to bring jumpers “just in case”. As I cursed Vauxhall for their poor craftsmanship and prepared for another long way for the tow truck, the AA guy simply turned his van around, popped the boot et voila! – a very neat winch and pulley system that after 20 minutes was attached to our car and we were on our way to the car yard. Brilliant! I declared England the home of ingenious car service people and wished Australia was a bit more like the Mother Country.

AA car rescue

The sun sets on our broken-down car

So that was fun. It meant that our planned pub meal couldn’t happen as the kitchens had closed by the time we’d finished dealing with the car. Wonderfully, Enterprise, the car hire place, waited for us at the office and gave us a new car with a free tank of petrol. It was another Vauxhall and this time a bit of a family wagon so we spent the rest of our holiday driving around trying to find children to put in the back seats.

Life in Country England

Friday, April 6th, 2012

I am currently sitting on the Eurostar heading back to Paris. Both to and from England, I have been placed in one of the worst seats on the train – an aisle seat next to the baggage rack meaning I have no views. So I am taking the time to pre-prepare blog entries for you – how efficient.

I have spent the last six days visiting my brother, Ben, in his current location of Creswell, England. Creswell is a small ex-mining town located about two hours north of London, somewhere between Nottingham and Sheffield. The countryside around Creswell is stunning – rolling hills, lots of lambs scampering about and Creswell isn’t far from the Peak District where rolling hills become fairly impressive rocky inclines. This is lucky because Creswell itself looks like it has been hit (or perhaps SHOULD be hit) by some sort of bomb and no one has really bothered to clean it up. People are sad in Creswell – I thought Parisians were sad but really they are just grumpy and annoyed at everything. Creswellians are truly sad and you can feel it like a heavy cloud hanging over the town. There are fights most nights at the pub across the road from where Ben lives and there are lots of young people with babies. It seems the only thing to do as a 15 year old in Creswell is pop out kids. That’s scary.

Creswell train station

Creswell.

Ben isn’t living there for the nightlife, he is currently completing an artisan baking course at the nearby Welbeck estate and the student accommodation is located in Creswell. It has been great to see where Ben has been living for the last few months, to visit the school and to meet some of the staff and students he has been working with.

School of Artisan Food

Ben's baking school

We hired a car for the week so that we could get out of Creswell and explore England. In our short time we managed to see a lot and ate plenty of good food. I shall provide you with more detail in individual blog entries to allow for easy reading fun. Enjoy.