Saturday, 25 January 2014

Recipes and life

This morning, an old notebook full of recipes collected over nearly 30 years fell off the kitchen shelf where it lives and onto my head. It happens all the time and I was intent on throwing the whole bloody thing into the bin, when a card with my maternal (French) grandfather's handwriting inside it floated to the floor.

His recipe for 'Gateau de Praline', photocopied by my mum, had been given to me as part of my birthday loot many years ago. 

This incredibly divine dessert, of a complexity way beyond my talent or patience, is a dense, velvety textured cake made with almond-meal and was served floating in a a cream of such deliciousness that if I close my eyes I can still taste it. Gateau de praline formed a part of the rare and terribly special occasions when Pepère shooed the household's helpers out of the kitchen and took it over himself, usually after returning from a fishing or hunting trip or when he had grand-kids around him who particularly loved his sweet things. 'Les crepes' , thrown in the air with great flair, were a favourite, closely followed by 'ca nougat' (I have no idea if that is how you spell it) which was a kind of chewy, fragrant toffee which he cooked and then cooled and cut up on the old marble table in the middle of the kitchen. These sweets were wrapped in foil (my cousins might correct my memory) and never lasted very long!

Donn'Anna Pepere and Memere's home

Pepère was also known for making an incredible Nocillo, an eye-wateringly powerful liquor steeped with green (unripe) walnuts although drinking it does not form part of my childhood memory! One of the most romantic things ever done for me was the Nocillo concocted secretly by my husband with walnuts picked from a tree in the garden of our first house in London. Robert followed Pepère's recipe and we still have some in the cupboard, usually pulled out  after a dinner party when we've probably all had quite enough to drink but the night still feels young.

For me, sense of smell most vividly evokes old memories: espresso coffee mixed with tobacco will send me right back to Naples just as ripe mangoes and pine trees woosh me smack bang into Aussie Christmases. Today it was bits of paper, old magazine cuttings, print-outs and faded photocopies, that propelled me into childhood and teens (Coco Pops slice, really?!) into the wild early 20s, back to old, old mates, exes, long lost acquaintances and the continuing friendships helped by technology like Facebook. 

Among the treasures I found Luis and Isabel Garcia's Cuban Potaje (circa 1987). The Italians call it potacchio, the French potage and it's a lentil and veg and bacon bone thing that has long been one my kids' very favourite comfort foods. Here I've found it impossible  because believe it or not, you can't find smoked bacon ribs in London!

I dug out Patricia "Aunty Pat" Sheahan's Spinach Pie, a filo concoction that reminds me of the days in the shared house in Glebe, with John Hanscombe, Mark Cornwall, Henry Everingham and a host of others - all of us young cadet journos, budding artists, musos - all poor but rich with ideas, anticipation and angst and about the future. 

Buried a little further on, the delightfully named 'Root Soup', written out I think in Rosie's godfather, Russel Granger's writing. I smiled at this one for title alone - and put it on the table for recipe revival.

I also found pages and pages of recipes I wrote out after sitting down with Cosimina Della Pioggia, who was my nanny as a baby/toddler and who worked for our family for two generations. I knew and loved her as 'Babba': she helped raise my cousins and some of their kids too. A tiny powerhouse of a woman, she never learned to read or write and yet was a dynamo, the most loving, patient, wonderful woman and to this day, a better cook I've yet to meet. She is gone now but lives on in my memories - and my kitchen! 

I also found my mum's sugo instructions, the pasta al forno my kids (and my brother's too)  call 'crunchy pasta' and probably another 20 recipes jotted on bits of paper in the wake of frantic phone calls home for inspiration after a long day at work and with hungry kids waiting. Missing is my paternal Nonna's recipes: she was a brilliant cook so I must right this omission with my Dad asap.
Oh, I found a host of other wonderful tidbits that I won't bore you with. So to finish, here's picture of me in Naples eating pizza.

My favourite. Of course.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Seasons' greetings (yes, the apostrophe is in the right place!)

This morning's winter sun in the St Giles churchyard, Camberwell

The northern hemisphere's seasons - and the dramatic changes that come with them - are a continuing source of wonder. I remember a mortifying moment just a few months after we arrived in 2008 when I woke up and saw that the stunning climber that covered the old brick walls of our rented house in Hampstead were brown, withered and looked - at least to me - as if a bush fire had swept through overnight. I rang the landlady's P.A in slight hysterics the flowing day as I knew that just like the 150 year old wisteria that climbed the house, this was an old, old, OLD climbing hydrangea. Convinced it was dead, I was having terrifying visions of the bond being withheld (and red-faced explanations to the SMH bean counters when the time came). Instead, the voice at the other end of the telephone burst into a gale of laughter" "Don't worry, it's deciduous and will come back! You're Australian aren't you? This happened once before with a tenant who thought they'd killed an old chestnut tree!"

Now, I know better although our garden, planted just 7 months ago after a big debris clearing exercise, is giving me conniptions and like an anxious mother fretting over a feverish child, I keep checking that what is left is actually still alive...leading to a lot of snapped twigs to check for green - and probably more damage than if I just trusted nature a little more!

In the park today, the light was magic. The sun behind the clouds in England make you see, first hand, the natural wonders that enthused poets and artists over centuries, from Wordworth to Turner, Constable or Alexander Pope.

John Constable, Trees at Hampstead (left)

St Giles, the dog park this morning (me!)

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Grey skies and a biting wind this weekend led me straight here, a cozy bar cum eatery that does the best smoked British bacon sanger on toasted sourdough in the world. (If you're in the 'hood, put it on the list it's worth it). 

Chomping happily, it dawned on me that one of the things I most love about London is the diversity of its media. 
In the daytime, the bar looks like a makeshift news agent as beer coasters are cleared away for big piles of papers. Seen all together, the choice is mind-boggling, especially if, like me, you are used to a diet limited to Fairfax or News Limited. 

It's hard to choose between The Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Independent, Observer, Sunday Times, Sunday Tele, yesterday's Evening Standard, 'i' and a rather grubby Metro. 

Had I holed up in the cheerful greasy spoon just up the road (equally delicious but in a different way), I'd feed up on an artery-hardening full English breakfast washed down with orange juice served in 'return for 10p' glass bottles with foil tops like the old Oz school milk. Here, the tables are covered with myriad tabloids, all of them more tits than news.

Truth be told, I adore reading the red-tops and for a while, after leaving the SMH to settle permanently in London, confess that I harboured a secret fantasy of finding a job on News of the World. The hacking scandal kyboshed that idea but I still have a melancholy hankering for the kind of news room once populated by grumpy, male subs and editors who were masters of the outrageous, double entendre headline and ended their working days snot-flying drunk in the pub across the road. I guess deep down, I'm still a dirty ol' print kinda gal.

But back to the serious stuff: casting my eye across the day's front pages, each one is completely different: the front page lead, the picture, the choice of puff and column subject. Some lead on a domestic yarn, others focused on the international, not one looks or reads like the other. Inside, different points of view and axes to grind  but none of that sense of deja vu I had reading the metro dailies in Sydney and Melbourne.

Political coverage is equally diverse and while the serious papers attempt to at least pay lip service to objective analysis, everyone knows what paper to buy if they want to their own views reflected as well as what to buy (or avoid) if you prefer to be irritated or read views different to your own. 

On weekends, it is unusual for me not to learn something new from the papers, whether it's about the arts, about the city, about this country's history - or its people. And more often than not, I am elated by a piece of writing, amused by columnists who have both a honed sense of satire and an erudite approach to their patch (Dominic Lawson, Caitlin Moran, Simon Jenkins et al). Inevitably too there is still stuff to set aside or cut out, interesting tid bits like recipes, things to do or see, a review to put inside a book read and to be remembered or loaned to a mate.

During the week, I admit that I too rely on newspaper websites although I am an avid fan of the Evening Standard and read a hard copy most days, handed out gratis at the station. 

Fleet Street has had its share of troubles - and they are far from over. But London, at least for the newspaper readers (if not for the journos)  still offers a sense of hope, of inspiration and enthusiasm that print ain't dead. Papers are on planes, trains and buses, spread in cafes and pubs, rolled under the arms of walkers and still as visible as phones and tablets on the Tube. 

They're varied and they're gutsy - and when it comes to politics, with each and every one of them, you know where you stand.

Yep, I'm a fan.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Francois Hollande, the elephant dans the room - and wombats

 Francoise Hollande and his scooter in 2012. Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP

Ah the French!  

Am in seventh heaven watching the British press sniff and double entendre their way through coverage of Francois Hollande's latest tryst, from the midnight scooter visits to his actress friend to current partner, Valerie Trierweiler's rather Victorian attack of the vapours and admission to hospital for nerves.

The Daily Mail branded Hollande 'France's most unlikely swordsman'; the Telegraph headlines shouted 'Hollande et son alleged bit sur le side' and the Indy referred to "Hollande et l'elephante dans the room".

The Brits, like the Australian media I suspect, would never have allowed David Cameron or Tony Abbott (let alone Julia Gillard!) to conduct an entire media conference sans mention of the aforementioned pachyderm. 

Can you imagine Abbott caught visiting an actress friend on a scooter and getting away with it? Or David Cameron snubbing Sam, enjoying breakfast croissants in a  love nest a brisk walk away from Number 10 and then fronting the Westminster Lobby with not a word to say?

One of my favourite tidbits is  this account of how an accidental encounter at a cafe led the photographer who caught Hollande on his two-wheeler directly to the love nest!

However my very favourite is a blog written when Hollande was first installed in the Elysee Paris and an unknown (at least to me) fabulous wit decided that the new head of state bears more than a passing resemblance to a wombat.

Check this site out for a giggle but here's a taste in the meantime.

                          Genius, n'est pas?!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Walking with dogs - and the dead.

Our 'hood, Camberwell, is just three miles south of the Thames from Big Ben. It began as a village in rural Surrey, developed into an elegant, Georgian retreat, was quickly absorbed into the expanding Victorian metropolis and finally - after the devastation of the World War - morphed once again into the vibrant, mixed inner city suburb it is today.

The Domesday Book, the great census/survey of 1086, described Camberwell, as  "22 villagers and 7 small-holders with land for 6 ploughs, ... a church, 63 acres of meadow and woodland providing 60 pigs". A sizeable village at the time of the Norman invasion if it even had its own church.

Today, St Giles Church, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott,architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial, sits on the site of the 12th Century church. It is also the magical place where we walk the dog every day. 

I became slightly obsessed about what lies under my feet in the park and while most of the headstones are so weathered you can't decipher terribly much, local history sites reveal some extraordinary souls floating around there! More here and here 

The first was Mrs. Wesley, the apparently shrewish wife of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. She died in 1781 and her headstone says she's "a woman of exemplary virtue, a tender parent, and a sincere friend." It says nothing about her excellence as a wife because according to local historians, it is well documented that she made her husband thoroughly miserable for twenty years and when she left, took off with his personal papers and journals. Wesley never sought to see her, again and a biography, contains an account from a friend who caught Wesley's missus in the act of trailing the poor old cleric on the floor by the hair of his head. "I felt," wrote the friend, "that I could have knocked the very soul out of her."

In the churchyard, too, lies a Miss Lucy Warner, better known as the "Little Woman of Peckham". She was exactly thirty-two inches tall - and apparently ran a school. Start of a novel there. . . .

There is also a handsome tomb of the notorious democrat, well known as "Equality Brown," of Peckham and wonderfully, a James Blake, who apparently sailed around the world with Captain Cook (although who knows if he made it to Oz). 

St Giles Churchyard in Spring

My favourite tree, gorgeous in spring, spooky in winter.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

When Greece gets to boss Germany around . . .

There is something decidedly weird about the fact that Greece, economic basket case of Europe, is about to take the reins of the European Union.

This week, it became Greece's turn to hop into the driving seat of the EU under the traditional six-month rotation that allows all 28 member states to have a turn at the leadership.
But for those of us who have watched and reported the last four years of savage cuts endured by Greek workers, the national sacrifice, austerity drives, outbreaks of horrendous  street violence and finally, the multi billion bailouts needed to salvage the Euro, the notion of Greece telling France and Germany and, dare I say, even Italy what to do is, um, surreal.
Greece has been through an unimaginably difficult time. Antonio Samaras, Greek PM, said yesterday that his country has lost standards of living like no other nation since World War II. Still, he added, taking on the presidency at a time when growth was returning to Greece offered room for the nation to "be optimistic”.
Evangelos Venizelos, the Foreign Minister and leader of the Pasok Socialist party, was even more Polly Anna-esque suggesting it showed “the equality of all member states” insisting that “Greece is rising to the occasion and showing we are up to par.” 
So, Athens is now all primed up to set the European agenda - and try to prove that the worst is over. 
Here's hoping that the leadership are well stocked up in these. . .

Love a political gaffe. . .when it isn't an Australian MP for once.


Nadine Dorrie in the Commons

After enduring months of sniffy UK reports quoting the clangers and faux pas of Australian politicians - and no, I am not the suppository of all political wisdom so can't be bothered listing them all again (although you can find them here) - I got all skip-skippingly happy to read tonight that the Brits are not immune from foot in mouth disease either.

Red faces at Westminster after Tory MP, Nadine Dorrie, warned her constituents to brace for a "tidal wave of immigration from Yugoslavia".

The fact that Yugoslavia ceased to exist a while ago - and the er, break up, sparked a wee fuss - seems to have escaped La Dorrie.

P'raps “Mad Nad”, the MP for mid Bedfordishire, picked up a few tips in Oz as it was she who was temporarily suspended from the parliamentary Conservative Party after her unexpected appearance on ITV's execrable I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! in 2012.

Friday, 10 January 2014

When friends come to visit us for the first time at home in London, we give them our street address - and then add 'the house with the yellow door'.

Five years after I was posted to the UK to cover Europe for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, we are Aussie emigres: settled and active participants in a vibrant, friendly, south-east London neighbourhood. We are still adjusting to new lives without our older children, our parents, family and old mates. (We will probably never adjust to the insecurity of jettisoning (two) good salaries!)

Life's an adventure though. And it is never, ever boring.
Now that I've finished my Master's and am returning to freelancing, I've decided to blog about this new life, about the news and events in Europe that resonate with me - and my Australian news nose - and the things I see that make me want to turn around to you and say 'Wow! will you look at that!'

I hope that you'll walk with me through the yellow door and enjoy the Euro File.