“The longest marathon in the world”, wait, the what?!

Well ok marathon distance is 42.195km or 26.2miles, BUT this particular one will probably feel like the longest in the world as is goes through 59 of the world’s most famous Chateaux and private vineyards around Bordeaux, Continue Reading

Milan, Italy, a love and hate story

The first time I travelled to Milan, I was in for a huge disappointment, and it was partly my fault: no, going mid-August is not a good idea, as for ferragosto the Milanese just shoot off to the lakes or the Continue Reading

Chillin’ in Oslo, the place to be?

Oooh Norwegians… they’re lovely, blond, tall, spend their free-time running uphill and their holidays in wood cabins, they don’t drink, don’t smoke, they have the best-managed oil fund in the world, split kids nursing between Continue Reading

Souvenirs and tokens of Travels from… Guadeloupe

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There’s always the stuff that you expect to bring back, that you almost go on a hunt for. And then there’s the small thing, the unexpected sweet, funny object, item of clothing that caught your attention…

From Guadeloupe of course we came back with some amazing degustation rum, traditionally made, 11yr of age…delicious
but it’s when buying it at the distillerie that I asked the lady what she was munching on, and she offered one of those amazing candied coconut…fragrance of coconut, dark cane sugar, local vanilla…mmm so naughty but so good.

rum reimonenq and candied coconut

candy coco coffee

coffee and digestive time pleasures…

In random order, I came back with, well, mostly food and drinks: Rhum, cane sugar that smells delicious, jams and preserves, graines a roussir to make chicken Colombo, very strong sunscreen and kite-surfing sunglasses….I would have looooooved to bring that baby frrrrrrrog in my suitcase but my other half stopped me, the horrible monster. Oh well, next time? 😉

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Colombo spices, banana and passion preserve, 11 yr aged rum and the very strong cane sugar…watching the kite surfing videos and contemplating the pouring rain out of the window…

tandakayou grenouille

can I take you home pleaaaaase?

Mont Saint Michel, an odd jewel in the Normand countryside, France

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from the dam

view of the mount from the dam

I was born in Normandy, and many years after having left the homeland for overseas pastures, it’s easy to forget how beautiful it all is. I enjoyed re-discovering the magical Mont St Michel, and sharing the experience.

Fun facts and history

The Mont is first and foremost known for its sacred and religious aspect, and the spectacular Abbey crowning it. As history puts it, in 709 the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop and ordered him to build a sanctuary on the Mont.

With a thousand years of history, many legends, stories and poems have been written about the Mont. Here is one, written by my absolute favourite Normand author, Guy de Maupassant; his legend of the quarrel between the devil and St Michel, is a delight:

Saint Michael watches over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious, the conqueror of Satan.

But this is how the Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.

(read the full legend in English here).

I saw a lot of journalist and blogs getting this wrong: the Mont St Michel is in Normandy, and it’s always been. When the Archangel allegedly appeared in 709, under Charlemagne, the Mont was already belonging to the diocese of Avranche, Normandy. And more importantly, the Abbey was consequently built by Normand Benedictine monks in 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, and has been run by them ever since!

heula mont st michel

A couple more for the pub quiz:

– In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.

– Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century.

– During the French revolution in 1792, when the church properties got seized, the Abbey was transformed into a prison.

– the Mont currently counts 43 inhabitants, mostly monks!

Do’s and don’ts

  • The best season to travel there is surely late spring or summer, but even then, the weather can be very variable throughout the day so do dress in layers and pack a trench or waterproof rain coat.
  • you’ll walk a lot and climb many stairs, that being said, it’s all on roads / path, so flats or light trainers are a safe choice
  • The car park is a bit of a tourist trap and I had been well advised to avoid it, that’s how we stayed in a modest and lovely b&b where we could park (for free) and walk over to the Mont in 10 mn. This one next door also looked just as good, maybe more suited for longer stays.
  • Remember that hotels on the Mont are expensive and don’t actually enjoy the view…
  • Nothing has changed much since Victor Hugo was there either: I would still recommend to go for a nice meal on the mainland for the island is rather touristy and you might find “rotten fish in the middle of the sea” as he described.
  • be aware that restaurants will close early in the evening (last order 9.30pm in most places). We stayed until sunset and pretty much had to skip dinner…
  • do cross the bay, walking or on horseback…it’s recommended to do it with a guide as it can get dangerous
  • do visit the Abbey, for the first time I had the chance to follow the evening path, lit for the summer…around 8/9pm is ideal as the sunset falls on the cloister…magical. Info here and there

For the foodies…

The Mont sits at the border between Brittany and Normandy and as a result you will find a lot of regional delicacies from both sides of the river.

I have previously confessed on this blog my love for cider (the sparkling alcoholic apple based beverage), and this time I even brought back home some Pommeau (aperitif based on cider and Calvados liquor). Enjoyed best with a caramel crêpe….yum

But the true local delicacy is the salt march lamb, called in French “agneau de pré-salés”. Because the area enjoys some of the strongest tides in the world, pastures sometimes get covered and soaked in sea water. The little lambs therefore graze in high salt content environment, giving the meat a distinctive (but not salty) flavour. It is a very refined dish that you may only find in high-end restaurants, and normally only from end of June until Christmas.

 

 

Victor Hugo to his daughter Adele:
“J’étais hier au Mont-Saint-Michel. Ici, il faudrait entasser les superlatifs d’admiration, comme les hommes ont entassé les édifices sur les rochers et comme la nature a entassé les rochers sur les édifices. Mais j’aime mieux commencer platement par te dire, mon Adèle, que j’y ai fait un affreux déjeuner. Une vieille aubergiste bistre a trouvé moyen de me faire manger du poisson pourri au milieu de la mer. Et puis, comme on est sur la lisière de la Bretagne et de la Normandie, la malpropreté y est horrible, composée qu’elle est de la crasse normande et de la saleté bretonne qui se superposent à ce précieux point d’intersection.”

Around and away

We came from London via the ferry-boat and my friend drafted the following itinerary for us with her favourite beaches and areas on the coast. Feel free to use it:Lower Normandy road Map

Another way to do it would be to start from Caen (accessible by train from Paris or by ferry-boat) and combine your visit with the D-Day beaches and the WW2 memorial museum. For convenience I do recommend to rent a car from Caen or Cherbourg onward.

Note that FlyBe has also opened a London Southend / Caen line a few months ago.

Other resources and useful links:

Normandy Tourism website – well done and in English

virtual tour

Video on the Unesco website

 

Easter Colomba, baking adventures, [part 2]

ok by now your friends have started worrying for you: last night you went out for drinks, and after 2hours 45min precisely you asked for the  bill, promptly paid and mumbled something about urgently going Continue Reading

Easter Colomba baking adventures: sending Pasquale the Italian leaven to a 3 days boot-camp [1st Steps]

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Last year the Italian Cultural Institute of London organised a conference on Milanese Christmas traditions, and in particular, the delicious Panettone, this extremely rich and yummy brioch-ey cake. Rita Monastero did a passionate speech about the importance of a naturally leavened dough…picked my curiosity and subsequently got most of my December free time VERY busy!! Panettone isn’t quite a simple brioche: It’s a full-on 4 days adventure. And when I say 4 days I assume you already have an active natural leaven, and all the necessary ingredients available in your pantry…. I was indeed way too eager with my initial version and got a flat rich cake, not quite the fabulous fluffy and sweet thing I was expecting. But a few more tries and I was almost there, but after Christmas, my Italian testers all went on (much needed) detox, when I voiced the idea of baking one last one for Epiphany, my boyfriend just frowned and gave me the warning look. Ok my cases will go back to the cupboard. But I couldn’t let Easter go without a tasty and fluffy Colomba.

The Colomba is that – allegedly dove-shaped little sister of the Panettone. Traditional Easter dessert if any, it’s overall slightly easier than the Christmas version so I’d probably recommend starting there. If you want your Colomba ready for next weekend, I would recommend starting refreshing your leaven this weekend, maybe take the opportunity to bake some bread to use up the quantities. Give your baby a name, mine’s usually called Robert, and he’s Franco-British, but for the Colomba, you’ll need to create his much stronger Italian cousin, we called him Pasquale and sent him to this 2/3 days boot camp first. I’ve adapted the timings for working home-bakers as most of what I found on the internet or the guide I got  from Rita Monastero, are just not realistic. So I started creating Pasquale on a Thursday night and plan on baking the final product on the Saturday, if you’re doing it on the bank holiday weekend, even easier as it does take some time.

Fun facts: ALL Italian recipes call for the sacred “Manitoba flour from Molino”, and I jumped through a number of hoops to import / store 10kg of the d@mned thing in my kitchen…when I realised sheepishly that Manitoba was a Canadian province and all it actually was, is a strong  flour (i.e. very high protein rates, in and around 15gr protein per 100gr of flour) coming from Canada. In other word, what our supermarkets here call “strong Canadian flour” easily found at Tesco, Waitrose and the likes! yay, one problem sorted.

Before we start:

you will need a leaven starter, Manitoba or strong Canadian flour, 00 or all purpose flour. In term of equipment I would recommend a set of glass transparent dishes (to monitor the leaven) , a simple soft scraper, a couple of of proofing linen cloths.

Step 1 : Thursday evening – toughen up IMG_7224 take 50gr of your usual leaven, steer it with 50gr tepid water and add 100gr of manitoba flour. Robert has left place to Pasquale, it’s starting to take an Italian accent, and it should feel much tougher, thicker, to the point where you can knead it a little bit. Do so for a minute or so.

Cover your pot with a linen, and go out for dinner, or indulge with a spritz and watch La Grande Belleza. You have 3/4 hours ahead of you (depends on the temperature, I personally leave it 3h in the very warm boiler room). In the end it should look smoother, and be 1.5x to twice bigger.

Step 2 : Thursday night– Pasquale rolls with the punches

take 100gr of your now tough Italian leaven and take it to the next stage: shred it in little pieces, add 50gr of lukewarm water and stir. Add 100gr of Manitoba flour and knead for one or 2 min. At this stage I also add a little drop of honey or liquid malt. If we’re sending Pasquale to a boot camp, he’s taking a sweet in his pocket!

now roll it very tight in a sturdy dry and clean cloth, slightly floured and tie it very tight for the night. I used a shoes lace but a present wrap that can be cut off may be a better option.  Place it in a small pan or pot for the night, in a warm place. Good night Pasquale! you’re back to the boiler room for 8 hours in your pyjamas. IMG_7226 Personally I didn’t understand the point of this step the first time, but then realised it was important as it strengthen the leaven and also is a good visual test. In the morning, Pasquale is well grown and trying to escape the bowl…

IMG_7228 Step 3 – a touch of softness in a tough world

After such a night, Pasquale is rather tired, let’s give him a bit of love. Discard any dried bit and use the middle soft part to carry on. IMG_7234To 50gr of the sourdough, again shredded in small pieces add in 50gr tepid water and soak it for a few seconds. Then knead it with 100gr of 00 flour (i.e. all purpose flour).

IMG_7236  Step 4 & 5 : flex your muscle!!

repeat step 3 twice, at least at 3h interval, either on Friday afternoon if you’re using Good Friday to nurse Pasquale, or on Friday evening for those who have a life!! Get a good night rest, there’s a day of kneading coming up!!

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step 3 / 4 / 5 : knead 50gr of leaven with 50gr of water and 100gr of 00 flour for a couple of minutes.

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after 3/4hours (or up to 8hours if needed), it should have doubled in size.

While you’re  nursing Pasquale like a hen hatching her eggs, you can also make sure that you have all the required equipment for the next stage. I got most of what I was missing at Bakery Bits, in particular the cases, the pearl sugar and the candied orange, the delivery should take up to 3 days so plan it ahead.

for the next steps you will need:

– 475 gr. Manitoba flour (i.e. Canadian strong flour)
– 185 gr. soft butter
– 135 gr. cast sugar
– 200 gr. tepid water
– 6 egg yolk
– 15gr honey
– 4gr salt
– 1 vanilla pod
– 1 orange peel
– 300gr of candied orange peel

columba pasquale paper tin 1kg

Colomba strong paper tins

 

End of the adventure now published there 

Link

Our "galette des rois" French traditionally eat on Epiphany day

Happy New Year!!! 

What do you wish, hope and work toward in 2014? I just googled “top 10 2014 resolution” …erg, pretty appalling stuff: ranking at the top, the utterly depressing “loosing weight and living healthier” according to the great women you should know website, oh boy!

No. It’s rainy and cold out there, so let’s start 2014 with enjoyable perspectives at least. Here are a few notes and ideas I jotted down in my (random) preparation for this new cycle.

1. the UK travel hot list by the Guardian: going around Britain more is definitely on my to-do list for 2014 – even if I confess I may wait for a little bit more sunshine.

the mortorcycle diiary
2. the 20 best travel book of all time, selected by the Telegraph. Reading is the cheapest way to travel, escape, learn. I set myself a soft-objective of 25 books this year; starting with “For Bread Alone”, the first part of Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri’s autobiography, translated to american by Paul Bowes. A tough journey.

3. the top 10 surf schools, by the National Geographic. Just back from Morocco for a short surfing break, I’m studying this religiously and hunting forums: the quality of surf coaching is clearly not the same all around the world, surfing and sport trips in general are the ones that require most preparation….

4. Clean up your Instagram! I was looking for some refreshed list of travel instagrams to follow, but didn’t find anything truly mind boggling so here is my own top 10:JR

  • JR: artist until he finds a real job. We hope he doesn’t.
  • José Lourenco  [@joselourenco]: Portuguese photographer and “visual artist” and has a very  witty original approach to instagram
  • Marygribouille: Normand graphic artist and illustrator, she posts daily lovely pieces or her life and fun illustrations
  • Nicole Warne’s blog feed, GaryPepperGirl: following models can sometimes be slightly over the top but she stays away from the main pitfalls of fashion bloggers and does travel a lot. Her boyfriend is also conveniently a fashion photographer, so thank lord we don’t get selfies in a mirror but beautiful coloured outfit in stunning locations.
  • Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist: Because he’s the reference street fashion photographer (ok, I can say that safely so long as Bill Cunningham doesn’t have an instagram account!)
  • Vogue International: the fashion forward reference
  • The National Geographic: for outstanding quality photos and comments
  • and-during-a-trip-to-london-for-an-nbc-interview-they-took-a-picture-with-the-famous-platform-9-at-kings-cross-station-kings-cross-installed-an-actual-9-sign-and-a-half-Murad Osmann globe trotting with his girlfriend and the model, Nataly Zakharova, in a very original “follow me” photography series
  • The Royal Opera House: A touch of beauty in a ruthless world. Not only this is one of the best operas in the world, but they do put some effort into their instagram feed and social media visibility in general, trying to make it appealing and endearing to the general public. It works, thanks!
  • The Russian ballet dancer, Maria Kochetkova. Her instagram feed is fun and sober, plus she does travel a lot with that cute hipster cool look

5. what’s the world like in 2014? The economist publishes their annual guide covering economy & politics, but not only. Check out the app or the paper magazine format. Well worth it. My n#1 source of information has also started releasing a “traveller’s briefing” app that I’m really excited about. Available only for a few countries for now (Brazil, Britain), but I’m sure they’ll keep adding to it.

6. The Time Out London cultural calendar is always a useful tool to keep at hand, in addition, the Art Fund has done  a little selection of great exhibitions coming up. But what to look forward to in 2014? Vogue asks us. My choice goes to a selection of fashion oriented exhibitions :

Kate-Moss-by-David-Bailey-for-Vogue-Paris-August-2013-18Dec13-David-Bailey-NPG_b_592x888

Hello, My name is Paul Smith is currently at the Design Museum; Isabella Blow’s Fashion Galore at the Sommerset House; from February, the National Portrait Gallery will focus on the work of photographer David Bailey in Stardust, featuring more than 250 images; The Glamour of Italian Fashion will open at the V&A in April; and The fashion world of Jean-Paul Gaultier will be the first major retrospective his past 35 year of creation at the Barbican starting in April amongst others.

I wish you a fantastic 2014, whether travelling around the world or in your kitchen but learning, discovering, talking, experiencing, venturing and adventuring, always.

Baking a fig sweet sourdough bread to match our cranberry Christmas foie gras

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Coming from a bakers family, the only food I was truly missing in London was great bread, available daily and conveniently.
During the course of 2013, I started baking my own sourdough bread at home and I’m pretty proud of my regular no-knead loaf, super easy and hassle-free. (thanks loads to the guys from the E5 bakery for having set me up on the right direction!)

About a month ago I hosted my parents for a weekend at home and had baked Dan Lepard’s raisin and rye crown bread for breakfast; they liked it so much that mom set me on a mission to bake a good fruit loaf to toast her home made foie-gras on Christmas eve. I wanted something spicy and fruity that would keep a real sourdough bread texture and taste. Our foie gras being already layered with candied cranberry, I didn’t want to bake something overly sweet. Also, most recipes call in for the addition of nuts but mom though it would add a “crunchy” distraction and preferred a fruit-only loaf.

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After having tested a few options at home, I crossed the channel with my (4kg) Dutch oven and 2 types of sourdough starters; and off I was, in for a good backing lesson on the field. For a start, I just could NOT find the same flour as in London easily available. Bread is made of almost only flour and water, and ingredients are absolutely essential to the taste and texture. If the internet is global and gives is the impression we can follow any recipe from any and all blogs across the planet, reality sometimes makes a humble check-in. Products are not only different, but also, the water tastes different, the bacteria present in the air is different, the humidity is different, and my parents’ big countryside house is much cooler than our central London apartment, messing up all proofing times.

I ended up abandoning the idea of a rye bread for I couldn’t find the right supply on time for Christmas; and remixed several inspirations I took from my go-to baking blogs. I started with a test-run and made the raisin loaf from you can do it at home blog. Tasty enough! (under the dog’s surveillance) so I braced myself up, and started scratching my head in search for a fig adaptation.

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Fruit sourdough loaf
A fruity sourdough bread to serve with the Christmas foie gras
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Ingredients
  1. - Starter 135gr (100% hydration)
  2. - White flour 85% - 216gr - the white flour I found at the supermarket did not contain enough gluten so I had to increase the whole wheat % to avoid ending up with an unmanageably wet dough. Any unbleached white flour should do, ideally with as close as you can get to 12-13% proteins.
  3. - Whole wheat flour 15% - 38gr plus dusting
  4. - Water 67% - 171gr
  5. - Salt - 7gr
  6. - Cinnamon - a teaspoon
  7. - Mixed spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg mix)
  8. - Chopped dried figs 33% - 85gr
Instructions
  1. Add the lukewarm water to the starter and dilute for a few seconds.
  2. Add both flours, mix well and knead until the gluten develops. you should now be handling a relatively wet ball of dough.
  3. Let it autolyse for 15/30min.
  4. Add the salt + figs and spices, and again knead until the fruit is well incorporated.
  5. Let it rest for 1/2h in a greased bowl (adapt the timing depending on your temperature)
  6. fold gently and let proof in the banetton overnight.
  7. In the morning, slash it the way you like and pre-heat the oven at 225C or maximum temperature. Bake it for 40 minutes in a Dutch oven, take off the lid and bake it for another 10min at 200C.
Our Bread Crumbs Trail http://www.ourbreadcrumbstrail.com/
Ingredients:

– Starter 135gr (100% hydration)
– White flour 85% – 216gr – the white flour I found at the supermarket did not contain enough gluten so I had to increase the whole wheat % to avoid ending up with an unmanageably wet dough. Any unbleached white flour should do, ideally with as close as you can get to 12-13% proteins.
– Whole wheat flour 15% – 38gr plus dusting
– Water 67% – 171gr
– Salt – 7gr
– Cinnamon – a teaspoon
– Mixed spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg mix)
–  Chopped dried figs 33% – 85gr

Directions:

Add the lukewarm water to the starter and dilute for a few seconds
Add both flours, mix well and knead until the gluten develops. you should now be handling a relatively wet ball of dough.
Let it autolyse for 15/30min.

Add the salt + figs and spices, and again knead until the fruit is well incorporated.

Let it rest for 1/2h in a greased bowl (adapt the timing depending on your temperature)
fold gently and let proof in the banetton overnight.

In the morning, slash it the way you like and pre-heat the oven at 225C or maximum temperature. Bake it for 40 minutes in a Dutch oven, take off the lid and bake it for another 10min at 200C.

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