Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Let them eat cake

It seems somehow fitting that two days after an all day session making petits fours, we find ourselves in the home of layered pastries and exquisite confectionery, Vienna. In the Austrian capital, the phrase 'you can't have your cake and eat it' clearly means nothing, a) because they speak German in Vienna, and b) because the whole city seems to be having quite a lot of cake and everyone is doing a fairly good job of eating it too. In fact at no point do we see anyone doing anything else with their cake, no one's juggling with their apfelstrudel, no one is kicking their sachertorte around a football pitch, and no one is rafting down the Danube on a large slice of banananschnitte. Everyone, tourists and locals alike, are shovelling it into their cakeholes.

Sitting in the magnificent neo-gothic interior on the Cafe Central, you are transported back to the halcyon days of the Habsburg empire where red jacketed Ober waltz from table to table taking orders for kuchen and kaffee. At Demel, beautiful displays of calorie packed torte with layers of cream and genoise sponge sit in glass cabinets awaiting their destiny. The Viennese branch of weight watchers must be oversubscribed.

In a few weeks time, Austria will be hosting the European football championships and Vienna will no doubt be overrun with football hooligans hurling slices of flan at police in riot gear. We decide to have our own cake mini-championship starting at the Konditorei Oberlaa where Bananenschnitte takes on Erdbeertorte.

It's an easy win for Bananenschitte and it's on to the next match at the Cafe Central where Nußtorte takes on Fruchttorte.

It's a much tighter match with two very different competitors, the walnut Nußtorte is light sponge but dense rich butter icing and the Fruchttorte is fresh but still indulgent. For me Nußtorte just wins. In the final back at the hotel, Nußtorte comes up against Erdbeerstrudel and the match goes into extra time. Thankfully it's an all you can eat buffet so a second slice of Erdbeerstrudel confirms it as European Champion of Cake 2008.

Next morning, Erdbeerstudel signs for Manchester United in a pretty boy swap deal with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Talking of pretty things, my petits fours didn't turn out too badly either. We made everything from nougat to marshmallows, pate de fruit and even Viennese chocolate schnitte with layers of meringue and ganache. I'm hoping next week will be salad week as my body just can't take any more sugar.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Pretty Vegetables

As a committed carnivore I don't often get excited by vegetarian food but hey, it's national vegetarian week so why not embrace the concept for once. Abby at eat the right stuff is hosting a blogging event to showcase favorite vegetarian recipes so here's mine, the perfect starter for a warm summer's day. Last year I don't think I had the chance to make it!

It's basically a deconstructed ratatouille, a simple stack of marinated roasted vegetables with a tomato emulsion and a virgin mary sorbet. Part of the recipe I stole from Gary Rhodes' Aubergine Charlotte dish, but I added a sorbet instead of a butter sauce for an interesting contrast in temperature and a touch of sweetness that melts beautifully into the stack of finely diced fennel, aubergine, courgette, and peppers. I can't wait for my own crop of tomatoes to be ready later this summer when I should get fantastic flavour for the sorbet.

For the vegetable stack

Use a mixture of courgette, onion, roasted peppers, aubergine, garlic, olive oil and thyme. Cook and leave overnight to allow the flavours to mix.

For the tomato dressing (blend ingredients to form a stable emulsion)

4 tbsp passata
1 dessert spoon tomato ketchup
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2-3 drops tabasc0
100ml olive oil

For the Virgin Mary sorbet

225g sugar
150ml water
bunch of basil leaves
425ml fresh tomato juice
juice 1/2 lemon
Worcestershire and tabasco sauce
salt and pepper.

Make a sugar syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water and then boiling until it creates a light "vaseline" syrup. Infuse the basil leaves in the sugar syrup and cool. When cool, mix syrup with tomato juice and lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper, Worcestershire and tabasco sauces, and freeze in an ice cream maker.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Fishy Business

The year we spent in Sydney is beginning to seem like a distant memory now. I often pine for its amazing views, friendly people and wonderful food culture. One of the places I miss the most is the fishmarket in Pyrmont which was just a short drive from our place in Paddington. I'd jump in the car on a Saturday morning, pop down the roof, and drive through the city with the wind in my hair and crustacea on my mind. I'd park up overlooking the boats in Blackwattle Bay and make my way around all the merchants stopping to buy oysters here, prawns there, and barramundi straight out of the water. The oysters would be freshly shucked, so I used to have to stop myself from getting through a dozen before I left the car park. Inevitably I'd fail, and have to go back for more.

I thought I'd seen the most amazing fishmarket ever until we went to Tokyo and visited the Tsukiji market which is the largest wholesale fishmarket in the world. Unlike the Sydney market, it's not exactly geared for tourists or non-trade buyers but once you find your way into the vast interior, you are free to lose yourself in this pescatorial metropolis, a city within a city.

Porters hare round its narrow alleyways on mini forklift trucks laden with polystyrene crates of exotic sea creatures. Giant tuna lie like corpses on mortuary slabs ready to be carved up and sold on. Weighing about 2500kg each, that's a hell of a lot of sashimi and a fair wedge of yen too. Boxes are stacked high, harshly lit by the penumbra of the bulbs strung across each trader's stall, the only light in the early morning gloom. Some contain identifiable objects like sea urchins and crabs. Others are filled with marine creatures we have never encountered before. In a scene reminiscent of a porn film casting, grotesquely swollen clams lie side by side in their tumescent glory. Oysters are the size of your hand. It seems everything in the world's biggest fishmarket is gigantic, apart form the Japanese workers themselves.

Is that a clam in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

It may be early morning, but we're here for what is probably the freshest sushi in the world. Around the edge of the market little restaurants huddle together away from all the action. "Irishai-masai!" shout the master sushi chefs from behind the counter as they welcome you into the restaurant. With over 10 years training, these guys have some seriously good knife skills. Making sense of the menu is pointless and the vast array of fish on offer is mindblowing. You just have to go for it and enjoy the surprise. YoSushi! this is not.

If you are ever in Tokyo, a trip to Tsukiji is an absolute must.

One of the best things about visiting the coastal towns of France, Spain and Italy is the availability of fresh fish in local markets. While my excitement reaches combustible levels, the locals don't bat an eyelid at the bounty on display and to them it's just part of their daily shopping. In Cadiz, it was amazing to see how many fishmongers were competing for business in the central market, but somehow they all survive side by side, selling the same range of fish.

It's taken me 12 years to make it to London's famous fishmarket at Billingsgate but last weekend I managed to get up early enough to go in search of some whiting for lunch. Driving through London in the early hours is an absolute pleasure and I made it to Canary Wharf in about 15 minutes. When I arrived at 7am, the carpark was absolutely heaving with activity and finding a parking space was tricky. Everywhere, people were lugging bin bags of fish back to their cars or vans. Billingsgate is clearly a big draw for the African and Chinese communities and for a moment I forgot I was in London. Inside, the trading room is surprisingly small but nonetheless a fascinating sight to see. It doesn't have the warmth of Sydney or the scale of Tokyo but it has character and energy and makes my heart beat faster with the adrenaline and excitement of a new discovery. Price wise I have no idea what to expect and a quick tour of the room tells me there are amazing bargains to be had. Boxes of sea bass for a tenner, wild turbot at £9 a kilo. Borough Market - shame on you! Unfortunately there's no whiting on the market so I find some hake instead. A trader offers me a box of eight for twenty pounds which I reckon would feed nearly 30 people! I'm only feeding six so in the end I just buy one large fish for £12 (£5.50 a kilo) and manage to get eight portions out of it. Roasted in the oven with a herb crust the hake is beautifully moist with a wonderful texture, more delicate than cod but meatier than a bass. It's a discovery in itself and certainly something I'll go for again.

And Billingsgate? Well I was surprised that the quality of fish available at 7am on a Saturday morning was still so good and it was definitely worth the early start to get there on time. I will be back.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


Learning languages at school can be a surreal experience. In the early stages, you rarely learn anything that might be of use for that first exchange visit with Francois from Poitiers or Hans from Munich. Though I've spent a good part of my life in France, I'm yet to come across a cat in a hat (le chat est dans le chapeau) despite the textbook Tricolore suggesting that they're to be found in every boulangerie, boucherie and charcuterie across the land. In German lessons too, I learnt a good number of phrases that have since proved absolutely no use to me at all, such as Ich sammele gern tropische Fische (I like collecting tropical fish) and Lumpi hat sein Bein gebrochen (Lumpi has a broken leg). For some reason, 20 years on, this nonsense remains firmly embedded in my brain and unless I happen to be on a German ski slope with a reckless dog called Lumpi, I doubt if I'll ever get to use it. This makes me sad.

Of all the useless German phrases I learnt at school my favorite, and the one I will never forget, is Ich wohne in der Nähe von einem Schokoladenfabrik (I live near a chocolate factory). Just as with my tropische fische collection, this was another barefaced lie, probably constructed to make myself sound a bit more interesting in class. Everyone else would bang on about stamp collecting (Ich sammele gern Briefmarken) or live near boring old hospitals or schools (Ich wohne in der Nähe von dem Krankenhaus), but a chocolate factory? Now we're talking. Of course this led to a spate of oneupmanship where classmates would "move" and no longer live next to the hospital. Suddenly someone's parents would have bought a house next to a theme park (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Themenpark), another would be close to a film studio (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Filmatelier). In the end though, in a class full of teenage boys no one could outdo the guy who overlooked the nudist beach (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Nacktbadestrand). Suddenly my chocolate factory didn't seem so interesting anymore. Still, it's a line I hope to use one day in casual conversation, perhaps if I ever move to Kilchberg in Switzerland, a German speaking town that happens to be the headquarters of Lindt.

All this talk of Willy Wonka and Schokoladenfabriken probably suggests that I am obsessed with chocolate, that I dream of sticking my head in a river of Scrum-diddly-umptious like that trailblazer of childhood obesity, Augustus Gloop. This couldn't be further from the truth. I don't actually like chocolate. There, I've said it now. My name is Pete and I don't like chocolate.

Sitting in a chocolate demonstration last week, I was the only person in class to raise their hand when the teacher asked if anyone didn't like chocolate. I think I was also the only person who raised their hand when the teacher asked who liked kidneys in the offal demonstration. What kind of freak am I? A few months ago I used chocolate with pigeon and it worked quite well but it's the cloying sensation of a lump of sweet chocolate in my mouth that I just can't handle. Yuk. Still, I know how much pleasure chocolate brings to most people, so it's a vital part of any culinary education and something I'm happy to learn. Working with chocolate can be hugely frustrating, incredibly messy, and requires a lot of patience. Keeping the temperature of tempered chocolate between 27 and 29 degrees can be a tricky job if your thermometer isn't precise but the shine and sharp crack of the finished product makes it all worthwhile. Although I couldn't appreciate the tasting experience of my first batch of chocolate truffles, I'm happy that they went to a good home in Emilie's office where I believe they lasted about three minutes.