Tag Archives: France

My drug of choice

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“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.

I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)

We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”

In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.

Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”

I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?

Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.

Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.

Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.

I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.

So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.

But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.

Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.

Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.

And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…

I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.

Food for thought

By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
GK Chesterton

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Filed under addictions, colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, great days, humour, life/style, love, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised

When is right wrong?

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It’s always been quite easy to be a pacifist in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Vietnam seemed indefensible to many, and our nuclear free policy made it feasible to take the moral high ground and declare that war is wrong.

I was forced to think about this on reading of the First World War project at Paddington Station in London, where a magnificent and moving statue of an unknown warrior stands. In full battle kit and helmet, he is reading a letter. As part of the commemorations marking the start of World War One, writers have been invited to write a letter to him, and Stephen Fry, wit, comedian and actor was amongst the first to write his, and it caused a sensation.

He wrote it as from a pacifist brother. Though he got historic details wrong – a pacifist would not be sitting at home then, he’d either be in prison or working on a farm, his letter moved many people. I’ve always been firmly behind conscientious objectors – (I like the moral high ground!) but this letter made me think hard about what was the right thing to do then, and how the right thing could very easily seem to be the wrong thing.

I thought about the horrific killings at schools and other places in the last few years, where deranged gun-owners shot numbers of their fellows, and if they didn’t end up shooting themselves, were shot, in order to stop them killing any more innocent victims. These incidents made me think when is it wrong to kill another human being, if there is no other way to stop them killing others. As pacifists do we stand and watch while others are killed, or do we intervene in whatever way we can, to protect the innocent?

This was actually the dilemma in the World Wars. Revisionist historians have said that there was no need for Britain to go to war in 1914. But Britain had informally agreed to support France if she was attacked in order to keep the balance of peace and power in Europe. More importantly, she had signed a pact in 1839 with four other countries of Europe, including Germany, to protect Belgium and allow this war-torn corner of Europe to enjoy being a neutral country, safe for the first time in history from being fought over. It was known as the cock-pit of Europe. It took the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, nine years of diplomacy and negotiations to get the five signatories to agree to preserve Belgium, and they included France, Russia and England, and also Germany and Austria.

But Belgium was doomed as soon as the Prussian General Schlieffen began planning a war for German supremacy, because his plans for invading France, took in Belgium first. By then, under Bismarck’s influence, the German nation had become a military one. Invading Belgium didn’t bother them, though it did the honest German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, whose anguished telegrams begging the Kaiser not to invade, I have read.

In Belgium the Germans did what they did at Lidice in Hungary and Oradour in France in the Second World War, when they blamed the Nazis for these unspeakable atrocities. No Nazis around in the first war, but they still burned villages, hanged one man in ten and sometimes one man in two, and shot women, children and babies, the youngest three weeks old – at Dinant – as reprisals against any Belgians who had attempted to resist. Before the war was four weeks old, towns and villages had been sacked and burned, their people shot, and Louvain, and its ancient library reduced to cinders. So the choice for many Englishmen was clear – stand by and watch as a pacifist, or try to stop what seemed like a barbarian host?

The British soldiers who went to war then, were part of the history of England which had always tried to stop one power dominating and enslaving all of Europe, from Louis the Fourteenth of France to Napoleon. To go to war seemed to many who joined up then, to be a heroic attempt to save civilisation, and even more so in the Second World War, when Hitler was enslaving the civilised world.

The tragedy of resisting a violent and merciless enemy is that too often all the combatants find themselves using the same methods as the aggressor… war. But can we stand by and hang onto our principles of not killing, when all those we love will be destroyed, and not just those we love – our society, our country, and our whole civilisation. This was the choice which thinking people faced in both world wars.

When World War One was declared, England’s army was smaller than Serbia’s – the tiny country where the match had been lit at Sarajevo. So England’s armies were citizen armies, in both wars, made up of peace-loving men called up to defend their country. There’s a lot of research to show that many soldiers when they fired their rifles at the advancing enemy, didn’t actually shoot at the enemy, but aimed to miss, and that even more didn’t shoot at all. They too faced choices on the battle field which are impossible for us to imagine, when like me, we are living in a safe, peace-loving democracy.

So though I believe in peace, and have always supposed I was a pacifist, and attended Quaker meeting, where everyone was a declared pacifist, do I still believe it is possible to be one when the chips are down? I don’t know any more … Aggression turns easy choices upside down, when right – not killing – seems wrong, and wrong – fighting – seems right.

The wonderful story of the American colonel in Iraq, surrounded by an angry mob intent on violence, calling his armed troop to a halt, ordering them to kneel and point their guns to the sky, immediately defused the threat of violence on that occasion. So how do we defuse the violence of would- be psychopathic conquerors who believe that might is right? Maybe only people power can do that – and that can happen – as it did at the Berlin Wall.

Maybe it just needs enough of us to say: “They shall not pass…”
Food for threadbare gourmets

Something to eat with a glass of wine is one of our specialities in this village – among my friends anyway. It’s so easy to share a glass of wine and a nibble on a Friday night, without all the hassle of a dinner party. The latest craze is kumara skins – kumara are the Maori sweet potato that Kiwis pine for when they leave this country, but even ordinary potatoes are good this way.

Boil scrubbed orange and golden kumara until soft, and then cut them into thin wedges, leaving about a cm of flesh. Heat hot oil until it’s just smoking. Dust the kumara with seasoned flour and fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat the skins with sour cream sauce – half a cup of sour cream mixed with a tbsp on mustard, fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Food for thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

Martin Buber 1878- 1965  Jewish philosopher

 

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Travels in Foodie Heaven

Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.

The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.

Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.

The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.

The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.

Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.

I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.

In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.

France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli.  Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)

Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.

The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.

Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.

Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.

So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!

For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.

Food for Thought

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969

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Filed under colonial life, cookery/recipes, culture, family, food, great days, humour, life/style, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, world war two