Monthly Archives: June 2009
On a bone-chilling day in December last year, keen to walk off some of that devillish foie gras that French people (and this particular Kiwi) love to consume at Christmas, Monsieur and I and a couple of the in-laws visited Vaux le Vicomte. For those men who salivate over Eva Longoria Parker and for the women who aspire to be her, this is where she chose to marry Tony Parker on 7 July 2007, on a day which was a lot warmer than the one we’re talking about now.
Vaux le Vicomte is a château located 55km southeast of Paris near Melun. It was designed by architect Louis le Vau with landcaping by André le Nôtre and interiors by Charles le Brun. The team’s masterpiece of collaboration is characteristic of the Louis XIV style, taking a mere 3 years (1658-1661) to build for Nicolas Fouquet, who, apart from being a marquis AND a viscount, was also the superintendent of finances for Louis XIV. Judging by the end result, Fouquet’s bonus structure must have been generous indeed.
We visited the carriages, collected through the many ages and fashions that Vaux le Vicomte has seen passing by,
admiring the many life-size fake horses sporting some truly inspired headwear.
It was cold in the carriage museum, but it was bone-bitingly bitter when we walked back outside, where we found that, in spite of the stunning grounds, seasonally planted with Christmas trees, we couldn’t wait to warm up a bit inside.
The dining table caught my attention, with its welcoming red tablecloth and burning candles. Do you think their insurance man knows about this?
Then we wandered through a foyer with its giant Christmas tree scraping the ceiling high above. At ground level, stuffed animals foraged around its roots.
One of my photos of the tree room displays a mysterious orb. Light was far from bouncing off the walls that day. It was dull with winter. Perhaps the orb was a Vaux le Vicomte guardian spirit checking out the visitors?
Moving through the rooms, past painted ancestors and gilded furniture, we found the Nativity. I could have stood for hours studying the little figures, but the queue pushed us on.
It was now dark, but we couldn’t leave without visiting Marie-Christine in the kitchen. That would have been rude. You can probably see that the chill air was making her feel a bit wooden, so before bidding her adieu, we suggested she sit by the fire for a while to warm up.
Then, bristling against the December wind, we shivered all the way back to the car, past fairy lights twinkling in the topiary. I was frustrated by my camera’s inability to capture the beauty of the garden at night, but my hands were so blue with cold that were now incapable of hitting the right tiny button to make the right functions work.
The rows of Christmas trees standing in soldier-straight lines were the only twinkling thing to come out of my frozen-fingered attempt at night photography, so I pinched a photo from Tour Magazine to show you what I’m talking about. Vaux le Vicomte has a massive reputation for arranging some of the most beautiful animations de Noël (Christmas lights) in all of France.
It’s also hardly surprising that such a beautiful place has been used as a location for many well-known films, such as Marie-Antoinette, Jean de la Fontaine and Molière, but hypothermia was kicking in so we had to go. Besides, (more) foie gras was waiting for us at home with a nice, crackling fire by which to thaw.
If you visit Vaux le Vicomte in the summer, you may like to check their concert series which proves very popular, or so I’ve heard.
**If you go in winter, like we did, please please please wear plenty of thermal underwear and the like. At the risk of sounding like your mother, hats, gloves, scarves are also necessary so that seasonal discomfort does not distract from this wonderful château. I was wearing most of these items but still the cold broke through. Brrrr.
(photo courtesy of TFL’s press images)
The Epicurienne Day Job has zero to do with food or travel, apart from having to travel to and from work each day on The Dunderground. The frequent long waits on one of the lines I use are frustrating. I can never predict when I will reach work. If I’m running late at the home end, sometimes everything will go to plan and I’ll get to work early. But only sometimes. On the other hand, if I leave home early because of a deadline or early meeting, sod’s law dictates that everything will be delayed and I’ll arrive at work late and flustered.
As many of you know, The Epicurienne Day Job involves HR so it’s safe to say I know a fair amount about the devastating effects of the current recession on good, hardworking people. We’ve lost a lot of staff to redundancy due to the domino effect of incoming projects being cancelled or failing to materialise because a client has pulled the plug. Our directors have taken pay cuts and the remaining staff have had a 0% pay increase at a time when the cost of living has risen, in spite of a cut to VAT and talk of deflation. As are many others, I am much worse off financially because of this, but I’m one of the lucky ones; I kept my job. So far, anyway. And yet, in January, tube fares went up but the economists talk about deflation. How about telling that to London Underground?
Last week we had two days of tube strike in London. Why? Because tube staff think that in the current climate they are worth a 5% pay increase for fewer hours. FEWER hours, people. I mean to say. WHAT??? Do these folk not read the papers?
Naturally, there was mayhem. Those who could, drove, creating nightmarish traffic conditions. Others cycled. One colleague complained that on her overground train which was already a human sardine can, one man brought his bike ONTO the train. Methinks he should have just hopped on it and ridden instead of taking up valuable sardine space. Then one of our directors had his state-of-the-art cycle nicked while he was at the theatre, to which he’d had to cycle because there was no tube. Meanwhile, I walked to and from work on both days, clocking up 2.5 hours a day of exercise. And one large, bleeding blister. But the buses were full and bus stops overcrowded and the overground trains are nowhere near me so my Tube Replacement Service simply had to be my feet.
On the second day of the strike, there was apparently a reduced service on my line, but when I walked past the stop nearest home, its shuttered gate was firmly locked, so I kept going. When I finally reached the stop nearest work, it was open. Somewhat confused, I stopped to read the update sign. Just then, a striking tube worker, sat cross-legged on the ground, said:
“take the tube at your peril today! No safety staff are working.”
Hrmph. That really ticked me off.
“What you’re doing is greedy.” I retorted. “Most people are happy to just be in paid employment right now and you want a pay rise? Unbelievable.”
This wasn’t exactly what Tube Woman wanted to hear. With venom, she spat back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Actually, lady, I know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.” Or so I thought.
End of exchange, I stomped off, toe bleeding, to work.
Then yesterday, the man who sells papers and soft drinks at the tube station told me he’d heard there were going to be more strikes. This is a man who lives outside of London and who therefore had to get up at 3.30 each morning of the strike in order to open his shop at 7.30am, not to mention his lengthy commute home. He’d had about 4 hours sleep each of those two days. Needless to say, he wasn’t too impressed about the potential of a repeat performance, and I was seriously considering applying to be a tube driver because they earn more than I do and get guaranteed pay rises each year and a tonne of holiday and free travel on public transport and additional days off whenever they feel like striking, which seems always to be when the weather’s nice. So I told him this and as I did, his friendly face froze as his eyes moved to a point behind me. I turned around, to find a tube driver in his nice blue syntheticky uniform. Woops. He’d heard my moan and smiled.
“It’s really not that bad being a tube driver.”
“That’s what I was saying. You’re much better off than I am and I figure, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Tube Driver’s grin widened. “Yep, and our job security is top.”
The way he said it was spiteful. Boastful jerk. Ticked off yet again, I stomped off to work wondering how on earth it is that I have four sets of letters after my name, yet struggle every month whilst a tube driver laughs all the way to the bank. Even Monsieur seems to think it’s a joke that tube drivers earn more than I do. Yep, I’m laughing. Oh yes, I’m laughing hard at that one. NOT.
So this morning I googled London Underground to see what I could expect to take home if I worked for them. Here’s a typical TFL benefits package:
- 30 days annual leave plus 8 days stats (That’s 9 more than my current entitlement. Oh, the travel possibilities with those extra days!)
- Self and nominee oystercard giving free travel on London Underground, buses, Docklands light railway, Trams (NB not contractual benefit) (that would save me somewhere between £1,032.00 and £2,720 per annum multiplied by 2 users)
- Private Medical insurance if over the threshold on payband one (that would save another £600.00 per annum)
- Discounted Eurostar travel (more beans saved, especially as Monsieur and I are high-end Eurostar users)
- TFL Pension fund – contributory, final salary scheme (5% employee, 15% employer contribution) (our firm does 5% and 5% and it is not a final salary scheme)
- 75% reimbursement 75% of an Annual Season Ticket for National Rail travel (which would make train travel affordable again instead of ridiculous)
And we mustn’t forget the 5% pay increase for FEWER hours that will soon be added to this list because the RMT always gets its way. Nor should we overlook the benefit of belonging to a highly effective union. I think I’ve just about convinced myself to send off an application to work for the TFL ‘cos in this climate, every penny counts and as I obviously can’t beat ‘em, I just might have to join ‘em.
When I was a wide-eyed early twenty-something, I moved from my hometown of Auckland to Sydney to work at a hotel in King’s Cross and no, it wasn’t offering ‘private client services’. At work, I made many wonderful friends, most of whom were gay because (a) the hotel industry is known for being a pink profession and (b) this particular hotel was located within a stone’s throw of the gay mecca that is Sydney’s Oxford Street.
My education there was manifold. The (male) switchboard manager knew more about face creams than I did and during Mardi Gras another manager offered me a ‘bonus’ of those little tablets that would make you see the good side of Ted Bundy, serial killer. I declined. Perhaps Obama is right when he says we need to regulate bonus structures.
One of my best friends from that time was a Japanese girl called Kay. If there was a gay man in the room with her, she was prone to fall in love with him. If the man was straight, she wasn’t interested. Kay was one of those girls who thought that her special breed of love could make a gay man straight so, as she lived in the gay capital of Downunder and worked in a predominantly gay environment, she was in a near-constant state of heartbreak.
One day, Kay went shopping at a big weekend market down by Chinatown. There, she spied a rabbit in a cage and stopped to stroke it, thinking it was a pet. The Chinese stallholder was keen to make a sale, chatting away about rabbit preparation techniques. Realising that the caged fluffball was ‘fresh meat’ destined for someone’s dinner plate, Kay was horrified, quickly pressing a crush of dollars into the stallholder’s hand in a bid to save the rabbit’s life. And so, a bunny named Minnie went to live with Kay in an apartment overlooking Rushcutter’s Bay.
At work, Kay kept us all intrigued by her tales of house-training the rescue bunny and from her brightened eyes we could tell that this was one love for Kay that wouldn’t be returned to sender. Then, one day Kay (and Minnie) invited me over for lunch.
I already knew that Kay’s landlord had a no-pets policy, so we’d have to be discreet about Minnie’s existence, but hey, how much noise can a rabbit make? I wondered. As Kay prepared a delicious Japanese lunch in her tiny steam-filled kitchenette, I watched Minnie. At first, she lay full-length along the top of the sofa, looking at me hard with her stony little eyes. I wondered what she was thinking because she was definitely thinking something. It was as if she was trying to work me out in the same way as I was trying to get her measure. You have to realise that this was no ordinary bunny. To this day, I’m sure she didn’t like me.
A little later, Minnie moved, jumping down to the ground and across the pristine living room carpet to the bathroom. Then she jumped up onto the toilet seat.
“Kay, I think we have a problem,”
I called through to the kitchen,
“Minnie’s on the toilet seat. Should I get her down?”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. She probably just needs to go.”
“Yes, you know. To go pee pee or something. Didn’t I tell you she was house-trained?”
“But I thought you meant house-trained like cats with kitty litter and stuff.”
Kay laughed at my lack of sophistication.
“No, no. Kitty litter stinks. This way is better because I can flush. More hygienic.”
Meanwhile, I’d watched open-mouthed as little black rabbit poo pellets fell straight from Minnie’s bottom into the bowl of the toilet. When she was done, she jumped back to the floor and headed for a patch of sun to bask as bunnies of leisure tend to do. Apparently.
Kay and I sat at her tiny table, chatting over our meal, the rabbit dozing nearby. As we polished off the home-made red bean dumplings with some green tea, Kay suggested we go for a walk. With Minnie. Images of rabbits disappearing down holes, never to be seen again, flooded my head.
“Are you crazy?”
“She’ll get lost!”
“No, no, don’t worry about that,”
Kay reassured me,
“I’ll just put her on the lead.”
An already surreal afternoon was about to intensify as we smuggled Minnie out of the no-pets building and let her bounce along at our feet as we walked to Rushcutter’s Bay.
Minnie’s collar was regular enough. Kay had managed to find a little pink one with a bell – something you’d usually see on a cat. But she hadn’t yet located a store with little pink leads, so Minnie was currently tethered to her adoptive mother by a length of pink curling ribbon.
“Minnie’s a girl so she has to have pink.”
Kay explained. That’s when I thought I’d seen it all.
A couple of years later, I was living in London and there I received a letter from Kay. On opening the envelope, out dropped one of those photos with a printed greeting down the side. The photo was of Kay’s wonder bunny and the greeting said:
Dear Friend, I am sad to say that my daughter, Minnie has now passed away. Thank you for being a friend to her during her short life.
Oh, my sainted trousers, I’d just received a death notice for a rabbit! Now, that sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. Poor Kay was devastated. There would be no more bunny plops to flush in her loo and the little pink collar with the curling ribbon need was no longer required. On the other side of the world, I smiled as I remembered the day when I first met a toilet-trained rabbit and took it for a walk in the park.
For the true grub-loving gastronome, the most fatal by-product of enjoying our food has to be weight gain. Monsieur and I are no different, loving our food as we do and engaged in a constant battle of taste versus calorific content. It was therefore serendipitous to catch a tweet from Quadrille Books, asking for bloggers to review Lighten Up by Jill Dupleix.
I admit that Dupleix’s name was relatively new to me, so for a girl with shelves plural devoted to cookbooks, I have had to ask myself why this is the first of Dupleix’s fourteen books to break into the Epicurienne fold. As I learn more about this seasoned kitchen whiz, I am astounded that her profile isn’t better known in London. I thought it might just be me, so I asked some foodie friends about Dupleix. Apparently, it wasn’t just me. It would seem that unless you’re a regular reader of The Spectator or The Times food columns, you may just have missed this writer, much like I have, and that is what I’d call an absolute travesty of gastronomic proportions. Here’s why.
Dupleix’s website profile tells us that she was born on a sheep farm in Australia, growing up with ‘good, fresh, no-nonsense home cooking’. (This sentence alone makes me nostalgic for the freshness of unregulated Downunder produce). But, in spite of a growing passion for food, Dupleix didn’t enter the realm of the food writer until she’d done a spell of copywriting, encompassing such non-food-related topics as cars and fashion. Then something happened along the way and a passion for food, cookery and restaurants overtook all else. Dupleix first took the mantle of Cookery Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, later moving to London to do the same job for The Times. Nowadays, Dupleix contents herself with freelance food writing and cookbook work, which is a good thing indeed, especially for foodies whose nightmares involve a set of bathroom scales.
Bring on Lighten Up, the latest Dupleix offering, first released in 2007. From the moment I first flicked through this brightly-covered paperback, I was a fan. Then I read the introduction and became a total Jill Dupleix acolyte. Once I proceeded to test the recipes for myself, I started daydreaming about hanging out with Dupleix in her kitchen, making Chawan Mushi.
So what makes this book different from its rivals? For a start, the inspiration. Dupleix has created a more easygoing, lighter alternative to the heavier northern hemisphere diet, which sees altogether too many antipodeans expanding sideways once they’ve landed in the likes of North America or Europe. There is proven, personal inspiration also, in the form of Dupleix’s husband, Terry Durack, a restaurant critic who, through his self-professed love of long lunches, cultivated quite an impressive girth. With the help of Dupleix’s lighter approach to eating, he managed to lose an admirable 38 kilos. Now, with Lighten Up, we can all benefit from Dupleix’s tasty, healthy food and a few lost pounds to boot.
The book’s layout is so easy to follow that even a novice cook would find it difficult to make a hash of the recipes. The instructions are short and written in a brief, bullet point style, starting with the action required for each stage: SEAR, CUT, MIX, ADD, TOSS, TRIM, SERVE. The book is separated into sensible sections, such as Morning Food, Salad Food, Soupy Food, Spicy Food, Fast Food and Slow Food. These are interspersed with snack ideas using bananas, bread (yes, the Dupleix Way even bread-based snacks can be good for you!), Japanese ingredients like nori and miso, and perhaps not surprisingly, tofu. There’s a glossary of terms so you have no excuse for mistaking your tamari for tamarind, and if you’d like to know what kitchen accessories rate high on Dupleix’s list, you will find out in Lighten Up.
That’s the summary, but in practice, what are the recipes like? So far, so scrumptious. I’ve particularly enjoyed the ease of Fast Roast Fish with Anchovies, the Fresh Salmon burgers with dill pickles and watercress and Spring Onion Scallops served in their shells, which were so professionally tasty that friends might think you’d called in the caterers. Grilled Chicken with Salsa Verde has received exacting Monsieur’s seal of approval and I’m happily working my way through the little recipes in the Extras section. But what I particularly love about Lighten Up is that it’s time-friendly to the full-time working woman, allowing weight-loss to be quick in preparation with any sense of deprivation completely eliminated.
Still on food but with a whole different slant, here are some articles by Dupleix:
How I shrunk food critic Terry Durack, where Dupleix talks about transforming her husband from Mr Piggy into Mr Fit
Hollywood audiences must think we never eat, where Dupleix wonders why Great Australians are never seen eating on film
And if you want to try out some fantastic sweetcorn fritters, here’s a Dupleix recipe for you. Oh, boy, I’m actually making myself hungry now.
Lighten Up is certainly a worthwhile introduction to Dupleix, with the tantalising photography by Petrina Tinslay spurring me on to try more and more of the Lighten Up recipes. Next on my list will be Chicken Tortilla Soup with Avocado, Watermelon Carpaccio with feta cheese and kalamata olives and the Crab Salad with pumpernickel crisps. When I’m done with those I just might let have to pop along to Books for Cooks to pick up another of the thirteen Dupleix books I have yet to read. I have a funny feeling that Jill Dupleix will be popping up again on Epicurienne, so if you like her style, watch this space.
It was getting dark as Monsieur and I set off to explore something of Palermo on our first day in Sicily. We enjoyed the window-shopping along the Via R Settimo, later rejoining the broad Via Roma, where discount shops and mobile phone outlets were busy with post-Christmas sale business. My favourite window was for a deli-stroke-drinks shop where pyramids of prosecco bottles stood interspersed with beautiful boxes of candied fruit, marzipan and other sweet treats, ready for New Year’s revellers to come shopping. We visited San Domenico, the church where the great and the good of Palermo are buried, and there I spent ages in front of the giant Nativity display, or ‘Presepi’, as they’re known in this part of the world. It was garish, with larger-than-usual figures, pot plants, straw, bowls of citrus and figures of sheep. At the centre of everything was the inanimate model of Baby Jesus. For some reason, this Nativity made me want to laugh; it was such a happy, kitsch scene compared to many.
Back outside we wandered through a market off the Via Roma, passing the usual knock-off stands and stalls loaded with anything and everything from kids’ slippers to pyjamas or fake Calvin Klein underwear and kitchen implements in the alluring colours of lime or fuchsia plastic. On the way back to the hotel we passed the Teatro Massimo, seasonally decked out in fairy lights, twinkling their way to a massive civic electricity bill, with a carpet of red-leafed poinsettias running down its main stairs. This was the theatre where the attempted assassination of Michael Corleone takes place in Godfather part III. I was only sorry that it was closed for the holidays so we couldn’t see how they’d decorated the interior. I bet it was über chic.
Having endured a long day with only the most basic of nourishment, we were ready for an early dinner. The clerks at the hotel had recommended a restaurant for our first supper in Sicily: Zafferano. The reception was such a vivid example of pricey modern chic that it felt more like the entrance to a top hair salon than an eatery. Put it this way – there were pony hide chairs and a tweed-suited receptionist, only the tweed wasn’t fusty musty old English countryside smelling vaguely of mothballs; this girl was confident in her 5 inch heels and the suit hugged each of her curves as if she’d been born wearing it.
Down a few stairs we entered a space with exposed brick walls, a couple of didgeridoos, a knee-high vase carved of the darkest wood, and some splashy abstract canvases eating up the wall space. However, it wasn’t any of the above that distracted me; at the end of the room hung red and white poinsettias ‘planted’ in hanging tiers of plastic bags and ‘fed’ from IV bags. I’d never seen anything like it.
The maître d’ greeted us with champagne flutes, filling them half-way with prosecco. An elegant plate of small zucchini, carrot and potato dumplings then arrived and we selected a bottle of sauvignon/viognier called ‘La Segreta’ from the Planeta vineyard which is well-known throughout Sicily. Just as the wine appeared, the waiter whisked our unfinished glasses of prosecco away before we could say “Don Corleone!” but the wine was so crisp and fruity that we were soon distracted from the absence of a few extra bubbles trickling down our throats.
To start, Monsieur chose a carpaccio of smoked salmon, swordfish and tuna, whilst I enjoyed a plate of cernia or dusky grouper tartare on a bed of cress. On Monsieur’s side of the table the carpaccio disappeared with the silence of a satisfied diner and the cernia was so delicate that it dissolved in my mouth, leaving the sensation of a dream of fish flavoured gently with fennel, dill and lemon. The peppery cress brought the perfect tartare back down to earth with just the right amount of earthy leaf texture.
We weren’t kept waiting by the staff. Our glasses were refilled with a couple of fingers of wine at a time and were soon savouring our main courses. Monsieur’s suckling pig tournedos was served with fries and an orange sauce that perfumed not only the pork, but the air above it so that an orange grove appeared to be invisible around us. Meanwhile, my linguine with dried sea urchin and tuna roe was served in an ideal portion so as not to bloat the diner. The sea urchin brought with it a subtle taste of the sea and the roe slipped about the plate in an attempt to evade my eager tastebuds; it was so soft and cool that it disappeared with each press of the tongue against the palate. To top it all off, the sweet juice of cherry tomatoes cut through the saltiness of the other ingredients, making this a new top favourite on the Epicurienne List of Ideal Pasta Dishes.
We decided against taking a dessert at Zafferano, opting instead for a gelateria stop on the way back to the hotel. This was one of those good-ideas-at-the-time. The gelato was certainly refreshing but the flavours were all wrong. The coconut scoop tasted vaguely of pineapple and the stracciatella was sadly lacking in chocolate bits. “Never mind,” I told Monsieur, “we’ll just have to make it our week’s work to find a better gelato experience.” Besides, we’d enjoyed a superb dinner and a long, energising sleep awaited us, as did more adventures Sicilian style. There would be plenty of gelato cups to look forward to during the coming week.