The Mulberry Tree (free food tastes better!)

The light of my life, apple of my eye – aka the little dictator – had sleep difficulties from her very first days on planet earth.  I was assured by all that she would grow into a sleep routine…almost 17 months now and still waiting for her to prove the old adage “sleeping like a baby.”  

Ach, well…  It simply meant that I found use for another expression “every cloud has a silver lining”.  I learned from about month two that if I adapted Newton’s law of motion – by making sure that the “object” (her bugaboo) remained in “motion” for the entire duration of her ever so delicate sleep – I could actually get her to sleep!  As for the silver lining part, when you are pounding the streets of London for hours on end you start to see things you haven’t seen before.  

In Belsize Park alone I found; elderflowers (for making cordial), wild garlic, figs (hanging over a fence- so public property right?), blackberries and a mulberry tree.  The mulberry tree belongs to a block of flats so technically speaking I shouldn’t have been picking them.  But this tree is full of berries so I couldn’t bear to see them splattered across the pavement!  (If anyone wants the exact coordinates of this tree, email me and I will let you know – although you can not hold me responsible for any wrath you might incur!)

While I was visiting Bucharest this weekend and walking my little treasure through my father’s garden.  I spotted two mulberry trees!  Luckily, I now need to push the buggy only until she falls asleep and then I am free!  So there I sat, contentedly eating mulberries and I came to the realization that free (foraged) food just tastes better!  

Of course there have been countless books written on this subject , Valentine Warner seems to be the poster child for this particular movement, but the penny dropped in that moment.  

  • It’s fresh – so it tastes better
  • It’s free – so in this recession its nice not to have to shell out
  • It satisfies our basic hunter gatherer instinct 
  • We could potentially get in trouble or fall into the bin we are precariously balancing over – so there is a slight adrenalin kick!

Bullet points are hardly going to get the message across, so just go on and try it yourself!

My Food Hero is…

my grandmother.

Food has become sexier than sex these days.  Not for nothing has the expression “food porn” been coined.  You know!  You’ve been there…watching Nigella (Lawson) greedily sucking cake mix off her finger.  One doesn’t know what to do first after that…make a sandwich or light a cigarette?

I am just as guilty as everyone else of over consumption of magazines, cooking shows, food blogs…  But before this phenomenon of the affluent dabbling their un-caloused hands in a bit of “cooking” appeared, food was hard work.  It was hard to grow it, have the money to buy it or the guts to kill it, clean it and then finally –  to cook it.  Fun didn’t really play a part.  Nor did the provider of a fine meal expect adulation and adoration for their exertions. 

My grandmother was born in 1924 in Romania.  She was one of 6 children.  She used to be bathed outside in a wooden tub, in the same murky water as her 5 sibilings.  She grew up and moved to the city where she married a man who was prone to drink, chasing women and when those two distractions were not available, chasing my grandmother around the house to give her a good hiding.  Instead of this making my grandmother meek it made her all the more powerful. 

Although I was small, I would always marvel at my grandmother’s delegation of complex household tasks to her team of “femei” (women) from “la tara” (the countryside).  They would arrive at dawn, tie a kerchief around their head to preserve their hairdos,  and slurp strong Turkish coffee (the smell of which was powerful enough to wake me even though I was sleeping at the far end of the house).  The women would be assigned the mundane and menial chores: like shelling then roasting walnuts and diligently rubbing away the papery skin or plucking a hen.  My grandmother would occupy herself with making “Cozonac” a Romanian brioche type bread flavoured with rum and often filled with poppy seeds in the Germanic / Polish tradition.  Or she would make elaborate layered cakes, no less than 5 layers.  My favorite was lemon but there was also a chocolate one that boasted exquisite pastry work. 

A perennial in her household and indeed in Romania at that time was “Salata de boeuf”.  This is a boiled beef salad, with cooked vegetables in a mayonnaise base.  Despite the French name it is related to a German salad called the Berliner which uses beetroot and is pink.  This “salad” is filled with peas, half centimeter cubes of potato, carrots, pickled cucumber and pickled gogosarii (a special kind of red pepper that is pickled in brine with is skin on and is sweet with a bit of bite).  It sounds kind of evil written out like that in black and white but in actual fact, when prepared well Salata de Boeuf  is quite delicious.  

I bring it up not because I expect anyone to make this bygone salad but because it was such a measuring stick of the good house wife.  It displayed skills in mayonnaise making, precision cutting but more importantly the decorative elements with which the salad was dressed.  Roses of tomato, daisies made up of chopped eggs and swaying grasses of green beans. 

My fondest memory of that time were her preserves.  Not only did she have to contend with seasonality (like fattened crows, we all go on about this without really understanding that seasonality means for 6 months of the year we should be eating potatoes, cabbages, apples and pulses) but also with the scarcity of food resulting from communism.  There is nothing that my grandmother could not preserve and improve in a jar!  Jams, fruits in syrup, pickled cauliflower (don’t turn your nose up at this one because its delicious!), peppers, pickles, green tomatoes. 

And she had two freezers (a secret at the time of course, otherwise the neighbors could have denounced her to the authorities in true Orwellian style) filled with contraband meats.   My father would often be the one to provide her with these coveted meats.  I remember driving to the countryside with my father and playing with a calf, marvelling at its wet nose and long eyelashes while my father discussed something with a weatherd peasant.  I was then sent inside and when I came out, there was a pool of the reddest blood I had ever seen!   It was typical but dangerous at the time to try to find “other” supplies of meat then the one chicken allocated per family per month.  And when my grandmother was presented with whatever carcass my father had managed to slaughter, she would begin cutting it up, cooking it off.  Lengths of intestines would be washed and stretched and filled to make sausages.  Without exaggeration, my grandmother could probably make a meal out of a cows toenail (if it had one!).

Now years and years later.  She is 85.  She lives alone in a tiny flat with only the two freezers as company.  I am visiting her with my daughter, her great grand-daughter.  My grandmother is too old to go to the market on her own but when we visit her, she sends us and then sets upon the gargantuan task of preserving her food this time on her own as the women she used to employ have long since passed away. 

After she served us lunch yesterday and cleared the plates she disappeared into the kitchen. 

 I followed her and found her amid a kilo of hulled strawberries and behind a mountain of sour cherries drying on a cloth.  I sat down to help her and asked her where the cherry pitter was.  “I don’t like using that” she said “it eviscerates the cherry and leaves you with two gaping holes on either side.”  She showed me how she uses a bobby pin to remove the stone which leaves the cherry a lot more intact. 

I don’t know why I was so surprised to learn this original method of cherry pitting from her!?  She is the most amazing woman I know.  

I pulled up a stool next to her and sat happily pitting cherries with a hairpin and listening to her stories.  And in the quiet moments, thinking how lucky I am to be sitting next to this great woman today.

Aubergine and Chickpea Tagine

This is the first recipe I am posting.  At first I wasn’t even sure I would include any recipes on my blog. I would rather starve then eat a convenience meal, so I cook – a lot. But there are so many recipe blog formats out there, does the net really need another one? Well, maybe…  I have decided to post only my most successful recipes, things I make a lot and I know taste good.

I make this aubergine tagine regularly.  It is inspired by a dish at the Comptoir Libanaise.  I do like the Comptoir for making middle eastern food a bit more accesible to Londoners – albeit it is a bit too Disney in its branding for my taste, still – CNN found it to be the best value meal in London.  I replicated the dish I ate there by modifiying a Delicious recipe from the Channel 4 website for a aubergine and chestnut tagine.

Aubergine recipes usually feature extremely tedious and sweat inducing steps like frying individual slices and then using up countless sheets of kitchen roll to drain them.   Then inevitably, the vegetable is smothered in cheeses. I think this dish has all the flavor minus the faffing but it does call for 7 spices! The dish takes colour (and anti-carcinogenic properties-won’t you be feeling virtuous if you make this!?) with turmeric.  Heat with chilli and ginger. A taste of the middle east with cinnamon, coriander and cumin. And finally just a touch of ground cloves (it adds a clean note to all the smokiness of the other spices).  You probably have most of these spices in your cupboard (if you are anything like me, you probably have more than one of each – some way past their best before date).

I used some stripped aubergines I found at the market here in Athens.  But in London or Berlin I would just use regular dark purple ones.  I would also urge you to make this dish when aubergines are in season (depending where in the world you are that is either early  or not so early summer) otherwise they will be full of seeds and bitter.

Out of habit, I always chop up the flesh and put it in a colander with some salt “to draw out the bitter juices”.  In actual fact, I believe the so called bitter juices have been cultivated right out of modern aubergines but I feel that after they are allowed to weep for half and hour or so they seem to absorb less oil and have a better texture?

Put in two onions along with three cloves of garlic.  Fry the onions until soft, then add the sliced garlic and stir it around for a minute so the two alliums can get properly acquainted.  The spices should be tipped into the pan all at once.  There is an absolute explosion of smell at this point with the cloves as a high point.  Stir until fragrant along with a bit more olive oil.  Then add the rinsed aubergines and hover around the pan and give it a stir every few minutes or so to prevent any sticking.

Once the aubergines look a little bit shrunken, with some nice golden bits – add a can of chopped tomatoes, fill that can twice with water and add that too, followed by the raisins then chickpeas and at least double the amount of salt you think you would need.  Let it bubble away then serve with cous cous, chopped parsley and harissa!  Without sounding conceited, this dish is delicious – even more so when you consider that there is hardly any oil, no cheese and for once – no pasta.  Too late, I sound smug and annoying!  Recipe follows below…

Aubergine (Eggplant) and Chickpea Tagine  (serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 2 large aubergines or 5 small
  • 2 small onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon of grated ginger (or 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger)
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 2 cans water
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of golden raisins (dark are also fine)
  • 1 can of chickpeas (drained and rinsed)
  • salt (a lot more than you think!) and pepper to taste
  • olive oil, as needed (about 1/2 a cup)

Method

  1. Cut the aubergines into 3 cm cubes, salt liberally and place in colander to weep. 
  2. Fry the thinly sliced onion in a large non stick pan (I use a wok) until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the sliced garlic and stir for 1 minute.  Tip in the spices and stir until fragrant about 1 minute. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and then add the aubergine.  
  3. Fry the aubergines, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.  Its important not to rush this part because this is where the aubergine softens up and becomes sweet.  It takes around 15 minutes on a medium heat. 
  4. When you see the aubergines just starting to break up, add the chopped tomatoes and two cans full of water.  Add the raisins and at least 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil.  Then turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, after about 10 minutes add the chickpeas and then simmer until the tomato sauce has thickened. 
  5. Check the seasoning adding more salt if it needs it. 
  6. Serve with a handful of roughly chopped parsley, fluffy cous cous and a jar of harissa. 
  7. This is one of those dishes, that if there is any left, is even better the next day.

Some of my favorite shops in Athens

Whenever I visit Athens, I always make it a point to visit these shops:

The Mastiha Shop. 

Based on the natural gum that comes from the Greek island Chios, this clever shop (that now has a branch as far afield as New York City) has all kinds of spin offs.  From soaps, to coffee, to liqueurs and even a great book by Greek cookery writer Diane Kochilas.  I always buy my “I bought you this in Greece” gifts from this shop because it has some wonderful tins with tasty variations of Mastiha sweets.  What I love to eat from there are the sour cherries in syrup and the lemon flower blossom preserve. 

The sour cherry is out of this world on mastiha ice cream (if you are in Greece and you can find it) if not its equally divine on some vanilla ice cream.  I would have never even noticed the lemon blossom topping had the shop assistant not pointed it out.  When I realized at the check out that it was 8.50 I thought she had identified me as the foreigner to help shift her stock.  When I spooned it on to some Greek yogurt as she had advised.  Well…  Perfect marriage of flavours!  I have been eating it instead of my usual Greek yogurt and honey.  

My toddler is a very finicky eater.  I always make sure to take her along to the Ariston cheese pie shop.  I had passed this little shop for over a decade before I even realized there was food inside!  Now I wonder how on earth I could have missed it!  Even though it is flanked by shops selling cheese pies on all sides, there is a steady stream of well heeled Athenians walking along with the plain white envelope bearing a steaming Ariston pie.  They also have pies that include spinach, leeks and other vegetables but try the original to start.  And make sure to pick up a fruit juice from the fridge, it works well against the salty backdrop of the cheese.  

One of my favourite chocolates is chocolate covered cherries.  I have loved them since I was a child (despite them being infused with brandy or maybe because of that…?).  Ah, but there is such a delicate balance to be played in the making of a perfect chocolate covered cherry.  The cherry within still has to be plump and flavorsome not a shriveled skin around a cherry stone.  There has to be at least 1/2 a teaspoon of liqueur.  Dark chocolate, that is preferably a thin shell.  I have visited a lot of hoighty toighty establishments and asked to sample this only to be disappointed!  But!  I can say, hand on my heart, that the search is over, I have found it, Aristokratikon!  They also have the best pistachios from Aegina and of course loads of other chocolates I have never even tried because I am to busy buying out their entire supply of cherries!

Address Book, in order of appearance:

Mastiha Shop, 6 Panepistimiou & Criezotou str, Metro-Syntagma, T. 210 3632 750

Ariston, 10 Voulis Str, Metro-Syntagma, 

Aristokratikon, 9 Karageorgi Servias Strk, Metro-Syntagma T. 210 3220 546

To review or not?

 

Rich from the Leeds based website www.them-apples.co.uk/ got me thinking on the subject of posting a bad review of a restaurant.  And wether a blogger is entitled to mess with (potentially if said blogger has enough of a following) the livelihood of a restaurant. 

Personally, I think its fine to give a restaurant a bad review on a blog. Sometimes there are bloggers who JUST give bad reviews but then again, one look at their blog and one would probably understand that and probably not pay them much attention.  In the same way you probably wouldn’t be friends with someone who complained all the time!

Or, you are a reasonable person with reasonable dissatisfactions on an eating experience you paid for. In that case, sure! Air your grievances, in a reasonable way because you go to a restaurant expecting to be served food you will like, receive good service and ultimately be shown a good time.

Lets say you are wrong, well then it won’t really have such a huge impact.

On the other hand if you are right but keep your opinions to yourself, then chances are the restaurant will keep making the same errors on the plate or in service or whatever and eventually shut down. Restaurants are in a very tough position, they really have to be perform and be judged every day! I think a good restaurant would appreciate feedback.

Ultimately that is why people like Fay Maschler and Jay Rayner are paid by newspapers to go eat-drink-and be merry.  And why we read them because through reading their columns (or books) we have formulated a makeshift equation of what they like compared to what we like and we trust their taste enough to go or not go.  Of course it is unlikely that what Jay gets when he sits his royal restaurant critics tushie down is the same as what you or I might be served…

And of course, by the time you or I decide to go to the restaurant Fay decided was the best thing since sliced bread, well, we might only be able to secure a table at say 17:30 p.m. (for dinner) to be vacated in 1 hour and 15 minutes.  

Considering that, it is actually quite lucky if one stumbles across a blog that has reviews good and bad that can be trusted!

On the other hand I have to say, that having worked in the food industry in the UK, it is appalling the level of bad behavior one had to accept! For example, I used to work in a posh deli in Primrose Hill London and whenever a gaggle of well to do with nothing to do ladies would come in my heart would sink. I knew I would have to spend the rest of the day pandering to absurd requests “Can I have a half caff, dry, soya milk, cappuccino with a twist of lime? (remember the film LA Stories with Steve Martin?) The answer I wanted to give “Eh, no goodbye!”. The answer I was obliged to give? “Sure!”  That is penuts to what I have witnessed! Things would lead to said punter being thrown out on to the street on his/her ear with the ejector receiving a standing ovation from the now horizontal complaining punters fellow diners!

Wouldn’t it be swell if there was a forum where we could hear their take?  If there was a website where a tired waiter, or frazzled chef, or barman with alcohol soaked socks – could log in at the end of a long shift and share with the world the ridiculous requests of the woman who asked for a special desert with no “sugar, nuts, eggs or flour.” oh and she doesn’t really like fruit (I served this woman once, I know she exists!).  

If someone does start this website, let me know so I can subscribe at once!

Is this Paradise?

Its starting to sound like this Foodie in Berlin title is a bit of a misnomer.  In a couple of weeks I will actually be living in Berlin.  

In the meantime….

….more on Athens.

When I was about 7 years old, my parents decided to move to either Vienna, Austria or Athens, Greece so that I could receive a better education at an International school.  My mother was sent on a reconaissance trip first to Vienna and then Athens.  In Vienna it was cold, raining and I got the measels.  

When she arrived in September in Athens the air was warm, their was a gentle breeze and glimpses of the deep blue sea and blue sky, untainted by even the slightest wisp of cloud…  But Athens stole her heart when she stepped on to the pavement and saw that they were planted with olive trees…

…and that there were oranges rolling down hills.  

At night, with the windows open, the clatter and clinks of people enjoying food, fine and company would sound like they were in the living room with her.  And there would be a thick scent of Jasmine, which I smell as I type this.  

She thought she had arrived in Paradise.  Needless to say, they picked Athens

Tomato Salad

Yesterday, I had a pedicure.  (Yes, I know this is a food blog but I am getting there…)  VAT might be 21% here and a packet of butter double the price of the same brand in London but Greek women are immaculate when it comes to nails, hair, well everything really.  They go to the supermarket in mini skirts and high heels.  I go in shorts and Birkenstocks and am usually mistaken to be my toddler’s nanny.  Inspired by my Hellenic sisters, my digits are now wearing a fetching shade of fuschia!

At a loss of what to discuss with the shop owner, I asked her what on earth they eat in this heat?

Tomatoes, Tomato salad, cold pasta salad, watermelon on its own or with feta.  So I went home and made a tomato salad

I added sweet red onion, basil and capers…  

Delightful, although who am I kidding?  A tomato salad is a starter!  If I even begin to tell myself that this will be my main meal my stomach starts jumping poking and prodding me in hunger.  So I also had a serving of tzatziki, a braided sesame bread followed by a Frappe and a biscuit.  And I was still kind of hungry but I told my self to wait until dinner….

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