Saturday, 24 December 2011

Buswoman's holiday

I never realised that I would eat quite so much rubbish in the run up to Christmas on this industry. Working eight days in a row before Christmas day alongside buying gifts and getting a house redecorated and ready to host a family Christmas has left me very little time for anything else. Don't get me wrong, I knew I was letting myself in for unsociable hours and work patterns but just thought I would eat amazing food all the time as a balance. Not so. In the run up to Christmas, children are off from school and friends and family celebrate together, so there is an influx of large table bookings, stressed chefs and not enough staff to go round as those from abroad try to visit their families. As a result I quite easily get to the end of a shift and realise all I've eaten all day is a quickly stolen piece of toast. In the week before Christmas my not-at-work meals included:

A takeaway curry
A takeaway pizza
Ikea meatballs
A beef baguette made at work and demolished before I'd got on the bus home
A tin of Heinz spaghetti bolognese and a crunchie bar.

As such, Christmas day will be the first time I've had my five-a-day in a very long time and dinner will be the first meal I've cooked at home from scratch in about a fortnight.

I'm hosting Christmas this year, but won't be changing much about how I do things, because they work. I think Delia, although perhaps somewhat militant, gives a good guide to what needs doing, how and when in 'Delia's Christmas' so this will be to hand to guide me, and I'll relish in making my family into a little team of commis.

We'll start with something I can rustle together with *salvaged* poached salmon from work, perhaps on homemade buckwheat blinis if I have time. Then we'll be having a free-range, organic Copas turkey, slow-roasted overnight (and I know this is not to be advised but am allowing a parental tradition, as long as it's them who get up in the night to baste it) stuffed with homemade chestnut stuffing (still working on the details for this one). Accompanying this will be goose-fat roasted potatoes, braised red cabbage, purple sprouts, buttered chantenay carrots, maple-roasted parsnips and maybe something with leeks.

Dessert will of course be Christmas pudding. I've played around with this over the years, trying Nigella, Delia and a combination of both, and have settled on a minutely-tweaked Delia version, which has been known to convert stoic pudding-haters. I add glacé cherries to the mix because I think they look beautiful and add a missing flavour, and use ginger wine instead of barley wine. I made my pudding two days after stir-up Sunday in November and it has been patiently waiting in the bottom of my wardrobe ever since. Tomorrow it will be steamed for three hours and served with brandy sauce. After being set alight, of course.

Which leaves this evening. I have all my wrapping to do, which at this rate will be done with wallpaper samples and masking tape, and we will sit together and peel vegetables, put the pointless but traditional little crosses in the sprouts, drink too much, hopefully eat some homemade mince pies with some of my many jars of homemade mincemeat and not get much sleep.

I sent a Christmas greeting to a former boss from my office days earlier this week and he wished me all the best, hoping 'it wouldn't be a busman's holiday'. Earlier today, when I told one I the chefs that I was cooking Christmas dinner, he made a similar comment. They're both wrong. Hard weeks and awful home food aside, I made the change to this industry because I love food, and that's a big part of Christmas day. But most importantly, the pleasure gained from cooking and sharing food and time with family, loved ones and friends is something all too rare, and is what I'm looking forward to the most.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, filled with love, happy memories and good times. If good food features too, what could be better?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Complex delights.

Day two was supposed to be about markets but evidently my guide book is out of date so Bastille market was rightly empty. Better luck was had at the Marché St Quéntin but I just ended up feeling despondent at all the things I couldn't buy due to liquid restrictions or plain common sense dictating that cèpes would spoil before I arrived or that taking home a whole rabbit is neither sensible nor, possibly, legal.

', absolutely nothing to declare...'

Instead I settled for a warm rabbit and cèpes pastry (genius) to start my day and a selection of mini Thai dumplings - against my instincts of buying simple honest French food but they were just so damn pretty that I couldn't resist. As lovely as they sounded - beef with clementine, chicken with green tea - their flavour lacked the pow I was expecting. Perhaps best to try the next time I have a potsticker evening at home. The rabbit pastry was delicious however.



Then I learnt the real reason to get up early on holiday. Forget catching bargains, missing the rush, fitting it all in etc, the real reason is to allow food to settle between meals. My next stop was only just an hour later and made use of another tip from Fooding - a 12-table bistro called Métropolitaine near Pont Marie, and, Wow. Bread (and it always makes me smile how much bread one can devour simply by being at a continental table) came in a mini tin bucket and the travel theme perpetuated throughout for good kitsch measure. Starters were 'boardings' and main meals 'Bon voyage', the wine list an itinerary and each table had a ticket stamped on it for good measure. The lunchtime menu was a reasonable €17 without wine, which is priced in a way that Fooding refers to as 'harsh but fair'. The reasons I love food shot through my brain as I tucked into yet MORE mushrooms, this time as the menu's soup with slivered garlic croutons and lamb crackling. Divine. It's texture was just assorted enough to give interest without over-complication and lamb with mushrooms, although a new idea to me, worked incredibly well as the earthy flavours played off each other.
As soon as blogs allow for readers to taste what they see, I'll sort this out for you...

Already feeling full, I battled through with a main course of seabass (fine by Fishfight standards) fillet with a fine crouton atop a swipe of bright broccoli puree, studded with tiny particles of grapefruit. All perfectly cooked, beautifully presented (Foodings comments about Lichtenstein proving accurate) in a lovely atmosphere and making my head swim with ideas. At one point I thought I had found a fishbone but it turned out to be a piece of thyme which for some reason seemed to make the whole experience even better!

Tasted as beautiful as it looks.

I didn't stay for dessert as I had other ideas but did appreciate the cutesy travel sweet-caramel accompanying the bill. I stayed as long as it is decent for a lone female diner to do so before heading to my next station.

After a few hours of wandering through île de St Louis, crossing over to see Notre Dame and join the schoolchildren for a view of the growing nativity scene, stopping in shops that sparked my interest, I came to the Louvre and Tuileries gardens. Gastronomically, this can only mean one thing, and here came a point of skewed balance. I may have chosen to forfeit Versailles this holiday in anticipation of a warmer visit but the weather justified perfectly a visit to Angelina, home of Paris' best hot chocolate. Sitting at my table, I seemed to have gone back in time several centuries albeit accompanied by a large number of Canadian and Japanese tourists. I intend more than ever now to read my copy of 'French Women Don't Get Fat' having enjoyed my unctuous and delicately spiced jug of hot chocolate and almost all of its accompanying sweetened chantilly. Maybe if I was that concerned I would just have had the jug of water it was served with.

Another walk through the gardens and over to the left bank and St Gérmain lead me back to rue de Seine (S&R would wish this to feature daily in any trip to Paris I'm sure) where it felt right to pick up my very own copy of Fooding and ponder on what I would be able to fit in my hand luggage.

Dinner - hotly anticipated and pre-booked from London - was at Les Papilles. Having been here before, I knew that here one can enjoy the 'menu du marché' for €33 and it is pot luck as to what you will be presented with. C and I had a beautiful sweet potato soup, ladled from a seemingly bottomless turrine onto a mixture of olive oil cream, chorizo pieces, sweet potato cubes and crisps, coriander and mini garlic croutons. A touch of theatre at the table is usually a winner in my book.

The main meal came in an oval brass platter precariously filled with two duck breasts (perfectly pink) balancing on mange tout, carrot batons, caramelised garlic cloves and roasted baby new potatoes all bathing in the most delicious of gravies. We couldn't finish it all. Then came a lovely young goat's cheese with a quenelle of black olive tapanade, sunblush tomato and coarse paprika. Dessert was a pannacotta of caramelised apples and a caramel foam. Les Papilles doubles as a food boutique and we had a fruity and delicate burgundy to accompany our meal chosen for us from the floor-to ceiling wine shelves and at a reasonable price. Sadly no other purchases, this time. Oh to have arrived by Eurostar!

Wonderful soup, beautiful people

Not so ugly duck.

Made me feel all bubbly inside

After breakfast the next morning I was on a mini-mission to buy. Lafayette gourmet was a veritable treasure trove for a luxury picnic lunch. I picked up some Petrossian taramasalata in its bijou tin, a rustic-looking boule from Eric Kayser and a number of brightly coloured sweet-tooth presents from Sadaharu Aoki.

Filled chocolates from Sadaharu Aoki,
winner of the International Excellence Award
2011at Paris' Le Salon du Chocolat
I pondered over buying some Mariage Frères tea but feel this is more justified after an afternoon in the boutique itself and I craved a larger selection. Which I could have found near to rue de Seine but by now I was running out of time. A quick stopover at Da Rosa (banking time here to keep me going until my next trip) produced some foie gras blended with Iberico Bellota ham. Then a cheesy disaster struck - Quatr'hommes was closed! Again! Alas lunch was therefore almost cheeseless but nevertheless a de luxe gastronomical delight. What better way to secure the inevitability of my return sooner rather than later?