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Cucumber wine, bring it on!

We all know plenty of foods with wine flavour. Winegums, to name but one, but what about sherry trifles, or port-marinated Stilton cheese? To find wine that tastes of food is a more challenging task. Or at least: it used to be. Because lately, and especially in summer, the shelves at the bottle shop are suddenly stacked with all sorts of fruity newcomers.

Sangria in a carton...

Sangria in a carton…

Now of course: flavor-infused wines are nothing new. The ancient Greeks already flavored wine with honey and herbs, and everyone who goes to Greece should at least try a Retsina, the resin-infused national wine that really only tastes nice on a Greek beach, but turns into cat pee once drunk back home. And of course there’s sangria from Spain, the notorious cocktail of cheap red wine, fruit and lemonade that is reponsible for so many holiday hangovers, not to mention teen pregnancies… Sangria has been on sale ready-made for decades, usually at the bottom of the wine section, in large bottles or convenient cartons. Cheap fruity summery plonk for the undiscerning palate, great for when you throw a garden party but don’t really like the guests well enough to spend money on it. I’m not saying Sangria is awful. In Spain I drink it all the time. But in Holland it just seems daft to drink the stuff. Our weather is never good enough for it, and really… it’s a childish sort of drink.

Years ago, I discovered a little known traditional infused wine in Belgian Luxembourg, where around the unpleasant town of Arlon every springtime ‘Maitrank’ is drunk. This ‘may-drink’ consists of a blend of the very uninteresting local wine with a wildflower called Gallium Odoratum, or woodruff in English. It adds a perfumed, honey-like flavour to the wine and especially the first sip is completely bewitching. It’s served over ice with a twirl of orange peel and drank as an aperitif. Hard to get outside the Ardennes/Luxembourg area but worth looking for if you’re ever in the area! I fondly remember Maitrank as one of the first alcoholic drinks (low alcoholic, okay) that I actually liked enough to get drunk on…

Maitrank should be more popular

Maitrank should be more popular

I guess because of those experiences I have never been against the idea of combining wine with other flavor-adding ingredients. I love wine, but I am not a vinofundamentalist! So I was thrilled to discover very grown up-looking infused wines in Australia a few years ago. No country in the world is more irreverent when it comes to wine, and therefore more innovative. Aussie winegrowers plant grapes from across the globe side by side, and have no qualms whatsoever blending Portuguese with Austrian grapes if that gets a result. Of course there are heroic failures, how else does one learn. But there are also lovely inventions. The way Australians blend verdelho with riesling for instance, or how they use viognier to add a kick to pinot grigio… wonderful.

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

But lo and behold, searching for a nice and refreshing wine during a Perth heatwave, I stumbled across a new range from Rosemount. White wines, infused with mint, green apple, lime and even cucumber! So bizarre, that I felt compelled to buy them. Well… let me tell you one thing: Australians do not do bad wine. If Rosemount thinks it’s good enough to sell, you can bet your backside it’s good enough to drink. And that cucumber infused sauvignon blanc… my, what a delicious little quaffer that was! Especially with oysters, absolutely terrific. To those who balk at the idea of cucumber-flavored wine… have a Pimms, and see how that tastes without cucumber in it. Nuff said.

Sadly, the cucumber wine is no loner available but Rosemount has launched new ‘botanicals’ with slightly more conservative additves like lemon and elderflower. Quite nice, but not as exciting as that greenish cucumbery one. Lately, the French have picked up on the wine-plus-fruit craze too. they already added lemonade to beer and call that Panache. A lovely refreshing summer drink that’s a third of the price of what Dutch brewers only launched last year under the German name ‘ Radler’. Wonders never cease. Anyway, in France we bought grapefruit-infused rosé and granny smith-flavored sauvignon blanc, that were delicious and perfectly drinkable with a picknick or a barbecue.

Grapefruit rosé

Grapefruit rosé

And what will the next trend be? I already discovered weird oddities like lavender-infused sauvignon (fabric softener?), and even weirder: marijuana wine. I predict it will not be very long until someone -probably in the Napa valley- invents a bacon-flavored shiraz. Hm. I don’t think I am adventurous enough for that.

Marijuana wine anyone?

Marijuana wine anyone?

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Masterchef’s guilty pleasures

Nearly choking...

Nearly choking…

Once again, the Masterchef season is upon us. John Torode and Greg Wallace preside over a crowd of aspiring chefs, who battle eachother in the brutal arena of a converted warehouse somewhere in Islington. It’s like the Game of Thrones of cuisine… An hour of clanging metal, of knives cutting through gristle and bone, of charred meat and pouring sweat… and at the end of the hour, four out of six main characters are eliminated.

‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’, Greg growls, and every few minutes or so we hear another rousing oneliner -probably from the same bunch of writers- from either John or Greg. The message behind it all: cooking is not for pussies. It’s a blood sport.

The contestants do their best to fit in, and say tough things like: ‘I am hugely competitive’ or ‘I’ll be gutted if I don’t make the next round’. If an alien from a distant planet visited Earth and watched tv for a week, he’d be forgiven if he thought Masterchef is a spectator sport.

What always saddens me, is how Masterchef tries to squeeze all these individual amateur chefs into pretty much the same mold. Good presentation, for instance, in Masterchef-world, invariably means placing items of food (with tweezers preferably) on a vast expanse of slate or white porcelain, accompanied by a rustic smear of a reduction of some kind, and one or two types of baby-food. (Those English and their mashes, purees and emulsions!). Preferably with a bit of height added, and a few random leaves chucked in for good measure. Oh, and make sure to add something sweet, because Greg has a childish palate and will give you extra points for that. And do, by all means, overcook your steak.

Of course, lots of candidates make mistakes of the ‘what were they thinking’-type. Like a chef who made a Vietnamese pho-soup, completely disregarding the fact that the thing that makes pho so delicious and unforgettable is a really strong stock, that has simmered for days. Not minutes. The resulting dish had all the exciting flavour of hot water, so consequently the guy got the boot.

But sometimes Masterchef has its moments of true genius. And it’s those moments, however rare and fleeting, that make me watch it every year. Yesterday, a candidate went out on not one, but two heroic failures. A main course that consisted of beans and bangers on soggy toast, covered under a mound of greasy onions. And a dessert that involved potato-dough and plums that looked utterly grotesque. Judging from the faces of the jury, it tasted even worse than it looked. Maybe it was mean of me but I really enjoyed watching John and Greg chew through those two absolutely vile dishes.

 

Why I hate Masterchef

Suddenly, Masterchef is everywhere. In Holland we have the original Masterchef on the BBC, plus Junior Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef and Professional Masterchef. Basically, hardly a week goes by without some sort of Masterchef, and that’s just the Beeb. Then there is obviously Dutch Masterchef, and our Dutch commercial tv channels have scoured the globe to bring us Australian Masterchef as well, plus reruns of the UK Masterchef, USA Masterchef… bloody Papua New Guinea Masterchef! In short: it’s all too much and I am not even sure if it’s a good thing in the first place.

I love cooking, and I could probably do quite well on Masterchef because I have a good palate and I have the weird ability to know what something will taste like before actually tasting it. And most of all, because to me food and love and inextricably mixed. I love to cook and I love to cook for people I love. I express my love through my cooking. And some of the most precious memories of my life -anyone’s life!- involve sharing food with loved ones. It’s a spiritual, emotional thing for me. And so much more than just some shrill competition.

To then have to watch Masterchef, and see how such an act of loving is turned into yet another competition and another means for annoying egotistical immature people to self-inflate and assert themselves is absolute torture. I hate competitive people and I love to see them fail. They always do on Masterchef because good food is never about trying to be better than others. But tell that to those smug sociopaths.

The worst is Australian Masterchef, with three presenters/judges/divas that are incredibly annoying. Especially a little stubbly Greek who apparently secretly thinks cooking is for women and sissies, so who as compensation tries to be this huge overstated testosterone clump all the time. I would smash his skull in with a Le Creuset skillet if he talked like that to me. Cooking is not the same as racing a Ferrari, George Kalombaris! Even the -far better- BBC version is guilty of souping things up to a ridiculous level. John and Gregg excel in stupid oneliners like ‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’. I could just slap them. Whenever a contestant is stressed out and clearly struggling to serve his food on time, they just stand on the side and yell at him or her, as if that makes the work go any faster or better. Intensely annoying. Get out of the way, or help. But don’t stand there stating the obvious.

I also hate the way every chef is pushed into some sort of cookie cutter, and taught to produce fashionable pretty looking food. The obsession with pureeing everything into some sort of baby-food on the BBC version is simply ridiculous. The same goes for the reductions that end up as a nasty smear, and the obsession with using snobbish jargon. Crème Anglaise instead of custard? May we charge you 5 pounds extra?

My biggest hate is the insane trend of deconstructing tried and tested dishes. There is a reason why a tarte tatin works the way it does. There is an age old method behind a perfect Boeuf Stroganoff. Any other combination leads to something that takes hours more work to produce and yet never quite reaches the same quality and flavour as the original dish did. So why so it? Showing off skill is great, but the purpose should always be to improve the favour of the dish. Yesterday I witnessed how a three-star chef devised a menu where basically 80% of all ingredients was reduced to the point of irrecognizability. The wastage, in a time of austerity, was simply staggering. Turning rhubarb into snow, by juicing two kilos and then whisking it through liquid nitrogen, so a mere handful was left of it? Whoever thinks this is the way cooking should go needs his head examined.

So there you have it, the reason why I will never succumb to Masterchef. I will not allow anyone -least of all judges from a tv show- to stand between me and my love for food, and my need to share that with people that matter to me.231450

The last scurvy victims

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

My father was to take my brother and me on a camping trip in the Ardennes, in Belgium. Just us boys: my mother would be in Indonesia with my grandma to celebrate some distant relatives’ wedding. Of course my dad had a secret objective: finally he would be able to indulge his passion for all things war-related without my mom spoiling his fun.
So off we drove in the (t)rusty old Volvo, for a boys adventure in the wild, wild lands of Belgium. Where wild boar roamed among ruined castles and limestone caves. And where, as we would soon find out, every town, village or hamlet had at least one burnt out Sherman tank proudly standing in the village square. I have dozens and dozens of photographs of me and my brother posing in front of tanks, on top of tanks and obscured by tanks. Not to mention concrete bunkers and Howitzer guns.
Anyway, on our many manly excursions past battlefields and war museums, we of course only ate manly food. My father, who was challenged in the kitchen, had brought two big cardboard boxes from the Army with assorted field rations. A collection of tins and cardboard boxes, all in the same attractive shade of murky green. Some of the tins held meatballs, mash and greens. Others macaroni and beef. And yet others were entirely filled with sausage, I guess Spam comes closest to it.
Alas! Already on our first night we found out why my dad had been able to pick these rations up for a bargain. The labels were all wrong. Instead of a lovely meal of meatballs, potatoes and spinach, the tin was filled with the solid pink mass of sausage. And, as we soon found out, that’s all we had for food. Sixteen tins of canned sausage.
My father was nothing if not a great improviser. He cut thick slices off the sausage and fried them in our camping skillet. ‘Gelderse Schijven’, he proudly called his creation. ‘Guelders Disks’: a weirdly addictive greasy clump with lots of salt, burnt edges and chewy bits of gristle. The perfect accompaniment to ‘frites’, as the Belgians call fries (or chips, for the English readers). Nothing French about fries, by the way. They’re Belgian more than anything. (But the nicest fries are the Dutch ones).
And so our holiday went… tank-hopping and cave-exploring by day, sitting around campfires by night. And eating Gelderse Schijven three times a day.
The first thing our mother noticed when we came to collect her from the airport after her month in Indonesia were our bleeding gums. Our manly diet of processed meat and fried potatoes had wreaked havoc on our health. I am certain we were on the brink of scurvy, a disease that more belonged in the 18th century. Only by forcefeeding us oranges for a week was my mother able to nurse us back to health.
I have never eaten friend tinned sausage since that trip in 1976, nor do I wish to renew the acquaintance. But I do miss my dad… just not for his cooking.

Fayonnaise… or Fail-o-naise?

Look in any Dutchman’s fridge or pantry, and you will probably immediately notice it: a large jar of mayonnaise. We are besotted with the stuff! We consume mayonnaise in artery-clogging quantities, especially on fries.’Patat mét’ (Fries with) is the essential Dutch street food, the snack of choice for millions. And no, I am not referring to the thin limp lukewarm travesty that you get at fastfood chains (who do not deserve to be mentioned by name in this blog!) No: proper ‘patat’ is thick, chunky, made from fresh potatoes that have been twice fried. Piping hot in a pointed paper bag, with a generous dollop of mayonnaise on top.

Sidebar: of course the Dutch have -along with the Belgians- invented countless ways of eating fried potatoes. Our colonial Indonesian heritage introduced us to peanut sauce (as is eaten with satay) and somewhere in history and enterprising Dutch gourmet apparently discovered that warm spicy peanut sauce is simply gorgeous with ‘patat’. Later still, even more avant-garde snack lovers combined the peanut sauce with mayonnaise ánd chopped onions to create the most delicious -or vile- snack ever: ‘Patatje Oorlog’: ‘War fries’. Which turn every stomach into a battle zone!

‘Patatje Oorlog’: the infamous Dutch ‘War Fries’.

Anyway, back to mayonnaise. A very simple sauce made of egg yolks, oil, salt, a drop of vinegar and some patient vigorous whisking. And yes, self-made mayonnaise really is nicer than anything you can buy in the supermarket. I make my mayo the easy way: everything together in a beaker -I use the whole egg, not just the yolks, that gives a much lighter and airier sauce!-, put in the immersion blender, a quick bzzzz, slowly pull the blender out, hey presto! But if you feel like doing it he traditional way by dripping in the oil drop by drop, go ahead and knock yourself out.

I have noticed that in the English speaking world, mayonnaise is well known and readily available… but just not used on fries. Instead people seem to prefer ketchup or tomato sauce, or vinegar or even worse: brown sauce. All the spawn of Satan of course to a real European food lover! When I was in Australia for the first time in november 2000, my partner and I were on our way from Sydney to Melbourne by car. An endless drive, and I was happy to stop at a roadside eatery and stretch the legs. And yum yum, they had nice thick chunky chips on the menu!

Foolish me: I then dared to ask for some mayonnaise with my chips. I knew they had mayonnaise, because they were selling sandwiches with chicken and mayo. The obese lady behind the counter looked at me as if I had just asked her to vomit on my chips. Baffled, she even got the chef out of the kitchen and asked me to kindly repeat the outrageous thing I had just asked for. Mayonnaise please. Yes, to go with the chips. I will even give you a dollar extra. The chef asked me if I did not mean to ask for tomato sauce instead. Or perhaps some mustard? No, I remained adamant: it was mayo wanted and I was not going to leave without it. After a minute of intense debate, the chef yielded and gave me a spoonful of the pale golden sauce I so craved for. But all the time I was eating, he, the obese checkout lady as well as several of the local clientele glared at me as if I was in the movie Priscilla and had just walked in wearing a dress made of slippers. I bet that to this day they regale eachother with stories of the Day That Strange European Guy Asked For Mayonnaise With His Chips.

Was that the worst mayo-related anecdote from Australia? It was until 2010, when we came over to Oz to celebrate Christmas with the inlaws. My mother in law, Fay, is a great cook. Nobody bakes a roast like she does, and her pork crackling is to die (or to kill -yes sister-in-law Kerry, I am referring to you!) for. So when I was helping out in the kitchen preparing a salad, I asked her if she had any salad dressing or vinaigrette. ‘Use mayonnaise!’, she chirped, ‘I just made a jar full of it!’. Yummm, home made mayonnaise, I prefer that any day over Hellman’s bland goo. I was surprised it looked slightly orange, and it smelled… well… sweet. Not like mayonnaise. Tentatively, I put a teaspoon in and licked some of Fay’s mayonnaise off it…

My tongue must have recoiled back as if it was springloaded! Fay’s mayonnaise did not just smell sweet… it was! It turned out she had used a recipe -chemical formula, more like- from the war, when apparently there were no eggs or oil around. She had made mayonnaise from condensed milk and vinegar, with a dollop of marmalade to make it even more inedible.

It was the most revolting thing I had ever tasted and I am afraid my face told Fay so. She was deeply insulted I did not approve of her Fayonnaise, as I called it. We did manage to patch things up over the following weeks, but secretly I think she may still not have forgiven me. Oh well. We’re going there again in a few months time, time will tell… I am almost tempted to give Fayonnaise another try. Not on fries, but as a cake frosting!

AAAAA: a smelly feast in France

I must admit that I do like certain kinds of offal. Most kinds of liver, sweatbreads… yum! But I really do not like the more visceral types of organ… tongue, brains, kidneys… no thank you. And I have eaten enough tripes in my life to know that there is no way of preparing them that will ever make me want to eat them again!

So why oh why do I like andouillettes as much as I do? Oh, these French delicacies look innocent enough, and I am certain many tourists in France have had the shock of their lives when they trieds these sausage-like objects.

Why? Well: andouillettes are basically sausages filled with intestine and herbs. As if someone took pork intestines and stuffed them with more intestines. The result is a very chewy rubbery substance, with some indiscernable chunks of mystery in it, spiced up with garlic, onion, parsley and other herbs. Add to it the distinct whiff of excrement and you now also know why this French delicacy has never really made it out of France.

I must have been 10 years old when I ordered my first andouillette in a restaurant in Touraine. I was traveling with my parents and brother and I absolutely loved French food. My parents encouraged us to try new things, and so it was without hesitation that I decided to order the dish with the prettiest name of the menu. Andouillette.

When the brown sausage arrived it looked nice and familiar enough, but cutting it open revealed the whiff of tripe I knew from ‘soto babat’, a tripe stew that was one of my Chinese grandma’s specialities. It was also not easy to cut, but I soon discovered that the taste, combined with the mustady sauce, was really quite divine! But then I also became aware of the fact that it is very, very difficuly to bite through intestines. So when I swallowed, half the bite went down, and the rest did not. I felt the rubbery tendrils dangling down my throat and it really was most unpleasant.

So, no matter where the Andouillettes come from (Troyes is famous for them but so is Vouvray and Vire and  quite a few other places) and whether they are AAAAA certified or not (Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique)… I always make sure I have a very sharp knife and I cut it up into very small pieces before tucking in!

Andouillette: beware of the sausage-like appearance!