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cestfromage

Without easy access to a good fromagerie, one may still buy young cheese at a grocery store and ripen it at home in hopes of making it a bit more interesting. Large grocery stores will sometimes carry decent cheese that is young (and hence has shelf-life) but will be more flavourful closer to it’s best-before date. Along the lines of last year’s cheese post, we’ve stocked up for Christmas in mid-November at our local superstore (anyone from the UK will recognize these generic labels). By wrapping our cheese in greaseproof paper and hiding it in the lettuce crisper of the fridge for weeks, we hope to improve the hand we’ve been dealt. Most of these cheeses have some sort of official seal, such as DOP, AOC or PDO, which guarantee that they come from a particular region and are made in a particular way. It does not guarantee that they are good, or that we will like them, but in our experience a regional protection symbol greatly increases the odds.

I’m presently ripening the four whole cheeses in the front row of the photograph, and they all just happen to be French. Take note of the word ‘whole': in my experience home-aging works most effectively for small whole, soft cheeses. I’ve had no luck at all ripening cheese that has been cut (is that possible? impossible?). So, starting from left to right in the front row, epoisses is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, full fat with a rind washed in a spirits, and when ready it will smell like a horse’s arse. The pont l’eveque is a beefy-tasting brine-rubbed cheese from Normandy, politely sold in demi size. The vignotte is a pasteurized triple-cream from Champagne with no name-control; in other words it’s what passes for brie in many countries. The chaource is also from Champagne, and also similar to brie with a bloomy rind, but expected to march past the vignotte by virtue of being unpasteurized. Are these specimens going to be any good?: only time will tell. Are my cheeses from great ‘farmhouse’ producers? I doubt it, but I won’t be jetting off to Paris this December, so Tesco Finest™ will have to do. (Speaking of Tesco, the Ardenne Pate shown is gluten-free (and a £1!).) All these cheese will be improved by their native beverages: white burgundy, good apple cider, and of course champagne, repsectively.

Otherwise-pictured treats are a DOP pecorino tuscano, the aforementioned pork pate, an AOC gruyere, a PDO greek feta, an AOC issau-oraty, and finally a PDO british blue stilton from the Long Clawson Dairy, which is brilliant, and inexpensive domestically. Admittedly, not all these things will see December. Besides ripening some softer cheeses, another tip is that if you live far from cheese production is to consider harder cheeses that are designed to travel better, and are often raw-milk cheeses (once a cheese is aged long enough the FDA doesn’t care about the original milk). I’m enjoying a Swiss Sbrinz this week, a nutty two year-old, something like grano padano only creamier with and a hint of butterscotch. If Heidi can safely carry it up the mountain, an exporter can safely carry it to my cheese aisle.

brusselsprouts

Setting a healthy leafy green vegetable swimming in cholesterol is a mainstay of American Thanksgiving, which they must be having soon back there. I lived in the States for five Thanksgivings, and it’s a big, big deal for them: people fly all over fly-over for it. By contrast, Canadian Thanksgiving is a tepid excuse for a long-weekend, perhaps because five months of deep snow is a heavy thought that does not permit as much celebration. Here in the climatically-temperate UK there is no thanksgiving holiday, which I find begrudgingly charming, begrudgingly. But we eat stalks and stalks of brussels sprouts the two months both sides of Christmas, that’s the season. So, for Maninas’s Eating with the Seasons (December), my creamy-nutmeggy brussels sprouts:

Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Lop your sprouts off at the ankles and peel away their dirty little jackets. Now slice each in two, vertically and with little compassion. At the roll of the boil, dump them in and set your kitchen timer to six minutes. Do not let them boil a seventh minute, for the sprouts’ own acids would use that extra minute to strip the last atoms of magnesium out of the remaining chlorophyll-a, the macro-effect being to turn your bright green spouts a sad greeny-grey. So when the beep sounds drain the sprouts like a madman, stir in a bit of cream, grate a little nutmeg over them and toss in a pinch of sea salt. Bring to table, admonishing one and all to eat their brussels sprouts.

What am I thankful for this year? Um, a deceleration in food-price inflation. It’s the silver lining of an economy going down the toilet with a foul smell, not unlike the smell of overcooked brassica. Six minutes, people, six minutes.

fishandchips

On the first and third Monday of the month, Younger’s Traditional Fish and Chips in Cardiff hosts a gluten-free night. Admittedly, I’m not a connoisseur of take-aways, indeed the biggest benefit of the family food allergies is how much we are forced to cook at home, from scratch. So bear in mind when reading onward that (a) I only ate once, (b) I haven’t compared widely, and (c) as a rarely-treated and deeply-appreciative audience, I am pre-disposed to be delighted.

That said, I thought it was quite good. The batter on the fish was crisp, much more so then the typically-floured fish I’ve eaten here. The chips were good chips. It was all less greasy than most deep-fried meals I’ve had here, take-away or in the pub. Whether that was due to gluten-free batter or fresh oil in the vat, I cannot say, but I was pleased. And the Real Live Englishman who dined with us was also pleased. He’s a Friday-night patron of this particular chippy, indeed walks past neighbouring chippies for this one, and, being English, he has greater scope to compare. Then again, mad dogs and Englishmen, be always skeptical of their judgment…

Happy Guy Fawkes Night from the United Kingdom! Here’s wishing good governance to parliamentary democracies everywhere in the coming year. And for what transpired yesterday in the American Republic, may we all be truly thankful.

Younger’s Traditional Fish & Chips
73 Caerphilly Road
Birchgrove, Cardiff
CF14 4AE
029 2062 0678

Gluten-free the first and third Monday of the month.

These are my fallen angles. For a Day of the Dead gathering with Mexican friends I made two things: a traditional calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) and these creatures, my Catrinas. The classic calavera, or sugar skull, is an icon of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico, but, no surprise, that they are impossible to find where we live in the UK. I could not find chocolate skulls either, nor any three-dimensional moulds to make any sort of calavera. I couldn’t find even two-dimensional skull or skeleton forms, despite Halloween. But I did have a Christmas angel cookie-cutter, and if you look closely…

I should be clear: I do not claim these as ‘authentic.’ I’ve no research to suggest that anyone in Mexico left anything like this on an altar this weekend. But they are inspired by a famous icon that has become associated with Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the Catrinas of José Guadalupe Posada. These are my far-inferior version of his wonderful etchings, albeit in gingerbread form. It really is meant as an homage.  Had I more talent, my cookies would have had hats and handbags.

What did my Mexican friends think? That there must be something heretical about turning angels into skeletons. There probably is. But my Catrinas were warmly accepted in the spirit of the afternoon regardless, next to the pollo recado rojo in tortilla and the pan de muertos. They know I mean well, stumbling through life with enthusiasm, if not clarity.

PS: For those in need, I used the gluten-free gingerbread men recipe from the Sainsbury’s site, with real butter instead of dairy-free spread, and making sure to have xanthum gum onboard. They were stealthily good, and are well worth repeating at Christmas…with a different glazing pattern.

A little cawl cymreig for Halloween howlers, and any other poor soul out in the chilly evenings. Cawl is a traditional farmhouse stew from Wales, very meaty and root-vegetable sweet. This is a great stew for cold weather, and it’s nippy here this week. Coming home tonight I saw a Guy flopped over stiffly on it’s box, at first glance totally abandoned. But no, its ten-year old patrons were indeed sitting behind it…and behind glass, inside the cafe with mugs of hot chocolate and an eye on their coins. Apparently they had decided that the risk of having the box snatched was less than the risk of hypothermia. Canny and sensible, or lazy and undeserving? I gave them 20p, even though everyone knows you shouldn’t give a penny for the Guy: they’ll just spend it on hot drink.

Back to the cawl. I swiftly browned pieces of lamb leg (and the bones from which the meat had been removed) in a little smoking sunflower oil, brought to boil, skimmed the foam, threw in some chopped onion and buckets of water, and left it to simmer all afternoon. It was getting toward suppertime when I fished out the bones, then added chopped swede (that’s the turnipy-rutabagaish creature), then parsnip, then carrot, then potato, then leek. There is a bit of judgment required in order to cook the vegetables appropriately – not too much, not too little, not to soon or lately added. Generations of farmhouse wisdom are behind such choreography; another forty years and I’ll have stew-perfection, as well as arthritis. For tonight, salt and lots of pepper to finish, and chopped parsley, if that’s not too fancy for the coal mines.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took this past summer of Conwy Castle in north Wales, which I’m sure is quite spooky after dark. In medieval times the English (who were still a bit French at the time, truth be told) felt compelled to sit heavily upon the Welsh, who were so uppity as to think that the English should go home (preferably back to Normandy, but England would do) . The legacy for us today is a collection of very impressive fortifications liberally dotted along the green countryside. The very best castles are in the north of Wales, handy to Liverpool but a bloody long drive from everywhere else. Conwy is one of four famous castles in the area, and I saw a few other more modest ones on the sides of cliffs that no one seemed to know a thing about. Too many castles up here, who can keep track?

Conwy Castle and town.

Conwy Castle and town.

Conwy Castle and the valley beyond.

Conwy Castle and Snowdonia beyond.

Conwy Castle and the traffic circle it guards.

Conwy Castle and the traffic circle it guards.

The secure interior of Conwy Castle.

The secure interior of Conwy Castle.

The medieval town walls of Conwy (with parking).

The medieval town walls of Conwy (with parking).

Poitrine d’ agneau farci? My french is many years unused, and thus crap. But I do know that to cook an unfamiliar and odd-ball bit of meat, turn to the French. Breast of lamb sounds much more exclusive than brisket, but it’s just brisket, and it’s one of the cheapest lamb cuts, available at £1.50 for 500g ($2.75/lb). I think that it’s a sign of the lean economic times that lamb breast is appearing in the high street grocery stores, where I hadn’t seen it before, and it sent me off to research. Breast of lamb is a succulent if somewhat fatty cut, and very tasty. Once cooked, the meat is easy to remove from the fat, if you like, peeling like sheets of phyllo, and those fatty layers preserve a lot of flavour and keep the meat in a delicate and juicy state. But it’s hardly heart-friendly.

As for the French sources, Larousse Gastronomic and Cordon Blue agreed that slow and low was the way to go. I sauteed in olive oil onion, garlic, a great deal of rosemary and (gluten-free, egg-free) bread crumbs for the stuffing, and rolled it up in the meat to tie. I seared the joint over smoking sunflower oil, then removed it so that quarters of onion and carrot could be coloured, too. I returned the meat to the pot, blessed it with half a bottle of white wine, covered and roasted it for one-hour forty-five minutes at 160C (325F). During it’s well-deserved rest afterward, I strained the remainder and thought about making a gravy, but decided to take my own rest, finish the bottle of wine instead and just serve the defatted juices. Maybe I fell down on the frenchness at the end there: I was supposed to make a proper sauce, but I just drank instead. Oh, well: au jus! Voila!

This really was new to me, breast of lamb; incredibly I’d never heard of it before. When I looked it up on the butchery diagram, it was of course the part of the lamb where another lamb would suckle if the lamb in question ever became a ewe (which would make the agneau an agnelle, I think). The beef equivalent is, as I said, brisket, and the pork, belly. But the best known breasts in grocery store are of course on the poultry. I’d never considered this before: I suppose I can understand the name as intuitive in a way, but I grew up with chickens in my backyard, and not in eighteen years did I see one breastfeed. Just a thought.

This is not late-breaking news. I saw my first Tim Hortons™ advert in a Spar™ (that’s a 7-11-type convenience store) just off Trafalgar Square back in May, but only recently parted with my pence for a coffee and donut. When one thinks about it, unless they are going to open a window in every grandmother’s living room, Tim’s will have to go abroad for growth, to keep the investors happy (happy investors: what a quaint idea).  Any more shops domestically and Canada will have more Tim’s outlets than voting citizens. I’m sure they already outnumber beavers and caribou put together. While it’s never great coffee, Tim Hortons™ is the comfort food that most Canadian adults can recognize and agree on, and whenever homesick I could sure go for one. So I gave it a go this week: the results were mixed.

In my local Spar™ the Tim Hortons™ coffee is dispatched by push button from a machine. Not surprisingly, it tastes like any other pod-dispensed coffee, and nothing like the real McCoy. Not even close. No resemblance whatsoever. If you want a timmies in the UK, grind a medium-quality mocha java and drip it at home. But the donut (neither gluten- nor egg-free; I can eat what I like when on the street) was much more authentic. Chemically-speaking, it was the same boston cream donut one would be served in or Coquitlam, or Flin Flon, or Gander. If it disappointed, it was because it was clearly puffed-up in an oven off-site, and shipped to the store. In Canada, the donut is puffed-up in the oven on-site, and so is one step fresher. But the boston cream was essentially correct (although I’m more of a honey cruller girl, myself; I’d stop into a Spar™ for that).

Happy thanksgiving, Canada! Congratulations on all those solvent banks! And don’t worry: minority governments look great on you, really!

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