Strawberry fields forever…

I was on a “discover your neighborhood” mission today with little L squirming and whimpering in her buggy (sorry bub but I can’t control the weather).  I found out that there is a Rewe about a 10 min walk from my flat on Chausseestraße, yippee!  Can’t face another visit to Lidl!  I found a bicycle store which means I can get a child seat attached to my bike this weekend and then as I was walking along quite innocently I saw a strawberry stall.  

Karls strawberry stall to be exact. Although, Karl wasn’t there - this smiley young woman was. I bought a kilo 1/2 a kilo of strawberries for  €2.10.  They are monsters, the size of little L’s fist.  Red all the way through.  I am sporting a big stain on my new shirt because we had to try them there and then!  

Not really sure what to make of all of that.  But stumbling on to a strawberry stall in the middle of a congested street has been the high point of my day so far. 

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.

A day at an Athenian Market

I am in Athens, thoroughly ignoring the fact that in 1 month, I will be living in Berlin, with my husband and daughter.  Instead L sleeps on the balcony and I spend a lot of my time horizontal, either with a food magazine, a food blog or re-runs of Fraser. 

Every Monday I go to the neighborhood market.  It is very unlike Borough Market in London in so many respects.  The stallholders are older and their weathered hands are undeniable proof that they are the farmers and not some hippie kid dappling in a bit of weekend fun.  And the prices! 2 kg of oranges for 1 Euro.  These are “Taste the difference” kinds of oranges, so juicy that I often end up accidentally squirting orange juice when I am trying to eat them.  The outsides are not shiny or polished but rather a matt powdery orange.  It must be something they spray them with.  But the taste!  Outstanding! 

And the stall holder who sells them hollers out the funniest things – “Not oranges but sweets!  Not oranges but donoughts (lokoumia)!”  And sometimes he just kind of does a kind of deep satisfied grunt “Hmmmmmmmmmmmm”!  Strange stuff.  He needs to compete with the banana seller across the way that sells bananas with a cigarette hanging perilously out of his mouth. He sounds like he talks through a voice box; “Aromes Bananas or Aromatic Bananas…..Aromatic….Bananas”.  Because of his particular disability or ability as the case might be, I can always find the banana guy.

All that talk about seasonality and sustainability in London.  Well I think they must have had a wake up call with the recent volcanic activity in Iceland that interfered with their deliveries.  The markets here are entirely local and seasonal.  Although I question the probability that 80% of the tomatoes they sell seem to come from Crete.  That is the tipping point for whether you shell out a bit more cash for a tomato here, if they come from Crete. 

Its only April though and the markets are full with tomatoes, aubergines (black and the stripped variety), small pale courgettes (so sweet I just let them warm up in the pan for a minute or two to take on the flavor of the garlic and butter), lettuces spattered with dirt and a sprinkling of slugs, garlic so sweet and young that it doesn’t linger on your breath after you have finished eating.  Its really good produce.  It spoils very easily however.  Cucumbers are a soggy mess after one week.  My aubergines started to sprout mould after only 3 days!  Which is scary, not that the produce is spoiling but that in London, I have eaten a courgette after a month!  They were still dark green, still firm without the slightest hint of mould?  What do they do to the fruit and vegetables in the UK then?  I think it is likely that they irradiate it.  There is an interesting link that explains how it works. 

The fish stalls intimidate me.  For a few reasons.  First, the second I approach the stall the stallholder fashions a paper cone receptacle and asks me what I want? “The squid are fresh, the fish are fresh, octopus…fresh”.  But I am entirely un-familiar with what they are selling.  I can identify the mackerel and maybe those little red fish are “rouget”, the curled ones there, could they be bream?  I don’t have the opportunity to look at all his offerings and decide.  And I don’t want to be hassled into a purchase, so I usually end up backing away shyly and buying some oranges from across the way. 

The second thing I don’t understand is why some of the fish are curled up?  Were they thrown on ice the minute they were caught and therefore have that funny shape?  Or are they in rigor mortis?  Things that one-year at Leiths did not teach me.  Its sad and I am a little bit disappointed with myself that my consumption of fish is primarily of the Waitrose, vac-packed, salmon variety.  Ach, well! 

In my defense, I did buy some squid the other day, from the supermarket, which I tried to cook.  I failed miserably.  I tried to recreate the sauce I had at Barrafina in London.  Shells in a delicious olive and lemon emulsion, salty like the sea, and strewn with straight blades of parsley. I cut the parsley exactly the same, even with my mother’s dull knife.  I cleaned the squid, scored it, and as per Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s you tube demonstration; put it in a very hot pan.  Seared one side and then immediately turned it over.  Took out the squid, added the lemon and the olive oil, swirled it together and off the heat added my chifonade of parsley.  I plated it beautifully.  The sauce was divine.  The squid however was inedible.   I couldn’t get my teeth to meet through the rubbery flesh.  It was like chewing a piece of hose, one that was doused in a delicious sauce.  Even my mother, who likes to find merit in anything I do, could not eat it.  The most irritating thing of all though is the house was full to the brim of this delicious smell of seared squid, garlic and lemon. 

We ended up eating canned tuna with a lettuce and cucumber salad.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 780 other followers