Monday, October 31, 2011

Win a 3-day pass to the ANZAAB Antiquarian Book Fair

Vintage Cookbooks will have a display at the Australia and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers at the State Library of NSW in Sydney from 10th - 12th November. For the chance to win a free 3-day pass to the event, 'Like' us on Facebook via the link to the right of this page, send your details to and we'll put you in the draw.

Bouchon Lemon Tarts

Back in 2008 during a trip to San Francisco to visit my son, I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in the Napa Valley. It was a pilgrimage because the small town (population 3000) is home to more than its fair share of world-class restaurants, specifically Thomas Keller world-class restaurants. Along with the renowned French Laundry (where I couldn't get a booking), there is also Bouchon bistro (where I had lunch that day)and Ad Hoc (which is on my must-do lists for the next trip). The culinary highlight for the day however was the (also Thomas Keller owned) Bouchon Bakery's Lemon Tart. Not your usual ho-hum bakery fare, this was a velvety classic sabayon with just the right balance of tart and sweet in an unusual pine-nut crust which added a nutty and ever-so slightly savoury note.

I've always been keen to recreate the tart at home and after finding the recipe on Epicurious (extracted from Keller's cookbook Bouchon) I had a crack at it today, and was particularly impressed ( if I say so  myself) with the end result. While the pine-nut crust is expensive to make (I bought my pine nuts in bulk at Costco), the quantities given make a large batch which can be frozen. Processing 300 grams of pine-nuts was made much easier by the Kitchenaid food processor David gave me for my birthday (I dropped so many hints he would have had to have been completely dense not to have got the message!) Although the recipe says to press the pastry into the tin, I found that once chilled it was actually possible to roll between two sheets of baking paper and get a much thinner, crisper and neater result. The sabayon is amazing - quite a lengthy process if, as I did, you don't keep the water in the bottom of your double boiler at a good simmer - but really worth the time standing over the stove. It was light, smooth and almost mousse-like after it had cooled. Great for the lemon tart, but I can see all sorts of flavour variations in the future: lime, blood orange, lemongrass, Pedro Ximinez etc etc. It would also make a great dessert on its own if you can't be bothered with pastry, spoon into a martini glass and serve with a crisp savoiardi biscuit, biscotti, or tuille. Because I didn't have time to set the tarts aside for 1 hour, and also because I don't have a broiler/griller in the Aga, I sprinkled the top with sugar and caramelized it with my Aldi blow torch. Maybe not as neat and professional looking as the Bouchon version, but enough of a standout to add it to my regular repertoire.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A visitor from Canada

Monday was a quiet day in the shop. Close to midday two women came in and I did my usual meet and greet when one said "I've come all the way from Winnipeg Canada to visit you". Turns out Zena was almost the first customer I had when I bought the business from Barbara Fisher back in June 2006. She had accumulated most of the volumes in the Time-Life Good Cook series and wanted to complete the collection with a couple of the hard-to-find ones. I was thrilled to get my first 'big' order from overseas. Zena was in Melbourne visiting friends who tracked down the shop and brought her up for a day trip to the Dandenongs. They had a lovely time browsing and then headed off for the Rhododendron Gardens. Now I can honestly say people come from all over the world to visit my shop!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Flourless Blood Orange & Pomegranate Cakes

Sunday has always been baking day for me, and having the kids come over for afternoon tea today gave me just the excuse for a High Tea. Chocolate Whoopie Pies, chicken and salmon & cream cheese sandwiches, vegetable frittata, my never-fail scones & some mini Flourless Blood Orange & Pomegranate Cakes.
This was an adaptation of several recipes and was inspired by an episode of Masterchef UK.


125 g ground almonds
60g semolina
225gms sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
Zest of 1 and juice of 2 large blood oranges
1 blood orange sliced thinly into rings
5 large eggs
200ml light olive oil
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1 pomegranate (optional)
Generous pinch saffron
100g clear honey.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Oil the base of one 23cm ring tin or 8 mini bundt tins, or 12-hole muffin tin.

Prepare the syrup and candied orange slices by combining the juice of the 2 oranges with honey, 1 tsp pomegranate molasses and saffron in a small saucepan. When boiling, drop blood orange slices into the syrup, turn heat down and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Set aside while preparing the cake. (optional, add the seeds of one pomegranate to the syrup)

Put the ground almonds into a frying pan and toast over a medium heat, stirring frequently until evenly pale brown. Leave to cool, then mix with semolina, caster sugar and baking powder.

Combine the zest of one blood orange with the eggs, 1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses and oil. Beat well and then fold into the dry ingredients. The mixture is very liquid. Pour into prepared tin(s) and bake for 35-40 mins ( 1 large tin); 15-20 mins (small tins) or until risen and golden to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Leaving the cake in the tin, prick all over with a skewer. Remove the orange slices from the syrup and pour the syrup over the warm cake while it is still warm.

When cool, turn the cake onto a serving plate, decorate with the candied orange slices and serve with creme Fraiche or plain Greek yoghurt. Can also be served warm.

Serendipitous Discoveries & History Geeks

In my previous life as a historian my absolute favourite task was research. I loved nothing more than disappearing down the rabbit-holes of libraries or the internet to track down people or events, and these days I continue to get much satisfaction from researching recipes, books & their authors. I recently sold a 1937 set of menus from a guest-house in Marysville (sadly now lost like many others to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires) and in the process of creating a history of them for their buyer spent hours on Trove reading newspaper articles and advertisements and sourcing contemporary photos.

Research like this is always throwing up surprises and serendipitous discoveries worthy of a work of fiction. With the guest house it was the discovery that an earlier proprietress went missing while bushwalking (although some newspaper reports suggested at an 'unsettled mind') and her remains not retrieved until bushfires in 1932 uncovered them. Soon after her estate was settled, her sister, who had taken over the running of the guest house, also died from self-inflicted burns. For me the serendipity here is that it was this particular guest-house whose menus came into my hands, rather than another with a less 'colourful' past. It is, rather fancifully I know, as if this story was waiting for someone like me to unearth it.

Today I had another of those moments while cataloguing a collection of early twentieth century cookbooks I had bought. In the collection is a very early edition of Household Cookery issued by the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy and compiled by Dorothy Giles who was a well-known teacher of cookery in Melbourne. So early is this edition that it was hand-typed and bound with one section bound upside down. While paging through it I noted a typo - the recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" called for 8ozs cod fat (rather than cold fat). Finishing that task I moved on to the small mountain of ephemera that has been sitting waiting for cataloguing for months. Amongst them was a gorgeous 1930s booklet for Bakewell flour and dried goods. On page 2 my eye was caught by the wording of the first recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" and, you guessed it, one of the ingredients was "8ozs cod fat" . Further checking revealed that yes this recipe was word-for-word the same as that in Household Cookery. So now the question for me is whether this is an uncredited work by Miss Dorothy Giles, who also authored several other advertising booklets, or did the compiler simply nick the cake dripping recipe from Household Cookery? Mmmm the fact that this is so interesting makes me officially a history geek!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Anyone for tea?

Yesterday I had a birthday treat from my eldest - a surprise High Tea (why do I always feel the need to capitalise that?) at "Where a Girl Goes"  in Collingwood. My lovely spouse minded the shop for me, and while it was a dreadful rainy, grey day in the hills, down in East Melbourne where Hayley lives the sky was blue and the sun was warm. The crowds of Essendon and Carlton supporters streaming towards the MCG lent a festive air to the day, even if they deprived me of my usual parking spot.

"Where a Girl Goes" is also an outlet for Cristina Re stationery and true to its name is a real girly indulgent affair with French Provincial decor and everything served in delicate crockery. I had to laugh at the footy supporter who came in and asked if they did takeaway coffee, which they did, but when he left it was with a pink flowery take away cup and I'm sure he was thinking "Got to finish this coffee and dispose of the cup before my mates see me" (Although he was a Carlton supporter, so possibly a metrosexual completely comfortable with it!)

We had a wonderful couple of hours of chat with bottomless cups of tea and a tower of the requisite finger sandwiches and tiny cupcakes and macaron. There is such a revival of High Tea in Melbourne at the moment which brings together lots of recent trends - cupcakes, macaron, tea, anything vintage and retro. I think it's a lovely idea and a great way to spend an afternoon. There is just something 'civilised' about the format, that seems to encourage slowing down, taking some time and enjoying the company of friends. Doing it at home would be even better - it can be quite an expensive excursion. The advantage over a dinner party or lunch is that everything can be done ahead of time and the hostess can be free to enjoy the day. Coincidentally as I write this post I have a customer browsing the shelves who has started a business catering high teas in people's homes, which would be even better for the hostess!

When we stopped off in Singapore on our way back from Europe in April this year, we were treated to the ultimate in High Teas at that bastion of British colonialism, Raffles Hotel in the glorious setting of the Tiffin Room, with requisite palms and slowly revolving fans. A harpist played as white-coated waiters looked after our needs. The tower of sandwiches and cakes was only the beginning as Raffles also has a generous buffet of goodies including yum cha style dumplings and lots of fresh tropical fruit. A truly decadent experience, only improved by a Simgapore Sling!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Welcome to our new website

Well after a rather more drawn-out process than I had anticipated, I'm happy to present Vintage Cookbooks new website. There is a limited range of stock available in the shop at the moment, this will increase in the next few weeks. As with any new technology, there will be some kinks to iron out and I'd love to hear your feedback on how the site looks and how it works for you. Thanks to Paul Gilliot from and Trudy Simmons from Website Organiser for their work on the site so far.

My 15 minutes & What cookbooks are collectible?

A couple of months ago I was contacted by a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald to be interviewed for an article on collectible cookbooks. Over time the article became instead about cooking from old cookbooks, a subject on which I could also offer some views. It was published  last Tuesday in the Sydney Morning Herald as part of History Week, which had the theme Eat History. (some great events on in NSW if you're up there BTW). I thought the topic of which cookbooks are collectible was actually worth writing about, so here are some of my recommendations:

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management: First published in 1861, its author (or compiler, she cherry-picked the material for her tome from everywhere)Isabella Beeton died just four years later, but she remains an English icon, and her name is still attached to books on cookery today. Her books were available in Australia and later editions even contained sections on Australian Cookery. Nineteenth century editions(which gave readers hints on everything from cooking sole and setting a table to dealing with servants and the care of sick children) are now expensive and quite hard to come by, but early 20th century editions (particularly pre World War II) are still a nice addition to a cookbook collection and can be had for a couple of hundred dollars. They will only appreciate in value.

Elizabeth David. Although Elizabeth David’s books are still in print, the early hardcover editions of The Book of Mediterranean Food; Italian Food; French Country Cooking & French Provincial Cooking are always sought after and are priced anywhere from $50 to several thousand dollars depending on edition, condition etc.

Julia Child: The movie Julie and Julia has made any of the early editions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking much sought after (even the 1970s Penguin paperback editions). She wasn’t the household name in Australia as she was in America, so these weren’t a huge seller in Australia when first published, thus are not widely available here. Driven purely by the movie, first editions in America sell online for thousands, later hardcover editions for under $100. They have been reprinted since the movie – these are unlikely to ever fall in the collectable or valuable category.

Early Australian Cookery books: Anything from the nineteenth and very early twentieth century in good condition is going to be both collectable and valuable, with prices ranging from under $100 for early editions of community cookery books like the Presbyterian Cookery Book of Good and Tried Receipts or the Golden Wattle Cookery Book to several thousands for Edward Abbott’s English and Australian Cookery Book, For The Many As Well As For The “Upper Ten Thousand” This is accepted as the first Australian cookery book and I've written about it in another blog. An important work and extremely scarce. A couple of other early Australians are also worth keeping an eye out for, particularly in first edition: Mary Gilmore's The Worker's Cookbook; Miranda's Cookbook; Mrs Maclurcan's Cookery Book; The Kingswood Cookery Book; Margaret Pearson's Australian Cookery Recipes for the People; The Kookaburra Cookery Book

As far as more modern Australian cookbooks are concerned, Will Studd’s Chalk and Cheese and Banc both sell for around the $150 - $200 mark. Books like the first edition of Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion in good condition are now selling for more than their original list price and are worth hanging on to. Similarly Maggie Beer’s early cookbooks Maggie’s Farm and Maggie’s Orchard have become quite hard to find, making them quite collectible. First cookbooks by chefs and food writers who go on to become big names are always worth collecting – an example is the Marie Claire cookbooks which were edited by Donna Hay before she became ‘Donna Hay’. Probably less predictably, some of the most sought after cookbooks ( the main factor pushing up their collectability and value) are school Home Economics text books. In Victoria Cookery the Australian Way can push the $100 mark for the first edition in good condition. This is largely nostalgia-driven, people want the edition they had in school and seem prepared to pay it – copies on ebay can go for silly prices. The Queensland Home Economics text book Day to Day Cookery by IM Downes is another one which is sought after in its early editions.

Friday, August 26, 2011

That was the month that was!

Well August is almost over, and I can only breath a sigh of relief. It's been a frantic month of activity: my Mum's 80th birthday saw two family celebrations (and of course lots of baking); I had two talks to local library groups and had the ongoing tedium of stocktaking, photographing and transferring book records to our upcoming new website. As my previous blog entry intimated, times are very tough in the bookselling business: bricks-and-mortar only businesses are finding it hard to compete with online behemoths so are going online themselves creating an even tighter market for booksellers like me who do both and are struggling to compete against those behemoths ourselves. Rather than wave the white flag I decided to fight fire with fire and boost our online presence with a new website which will also enable me to sell books direct, rather than (or as well as) through aggregators like Abe and Books and Collectibles. Like anything involving technology, the launch of the new site is taking longer than expected, but stay tuned!

The other long and involved chore this month has been the creation of a new catalogue, which I've been promising for months now. Until the new website goes live, there isn't going to be the usual link to the catalogue, so if you'd like to receive an electronic copy, please either email me or 'like' my Facebook page to be notified.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The trials of the modern bookseller

While I have great sympathy for my colleagues selling new books who have to compete against the giants of Amazon and Book Depository with its 'free shipping' (which I am certain is factored into the book price), I have never really felt threatened by either. 99% of my stock is used/second-hand and often long out of print, areas in which Book Depository doesn't deal. As a secondhand book dealer, what has most impacted upon my trade, aside from the general economic malaise, is the high Aussie dollar plus the expensive shipping rates from Australia Post which have ensured that overseas orders, once a mainstay of the business, have all but dried up.

I have however been musing on the change in culture and expectations that mega-booksellers like BD and A may create in the book-buying public. This was brought home to me this morning when I received a complaint about a book which the customer said she had expected to be new (it was printed in 2004 so little chance of that I pointed out) that it was too expensive and she could buy it online cheaper (actually not so, its very hard to find), but what really irked me was the statement: "I am not happy at being charged $12 (actually it was $US12, so I received only $11.27) for a book to be sent within Australia when I can get it sent from overseas for free." Now as I explained to said unhappy customer, aside from the fact that this book is not available from any bookseller offering free postage, it was sent in an Australia Post satchel which costs me $11.15. That means that the double wrapping (in foam and brown paper at a cost of around 50c) and time to prepare the book, the invoice, pack the book and take it down to the PO was priced in this instance at 12c. I'll let you do the math shall I? In fact the cost for shipping should have been closer to $US 14, what with the recent Auspost rises and the sudden leap in the AUD , but if said unhappy customers balks at $US12 she's going to be ropable with $US14 isn't she?

This is the thing that most worries me about the current rise of bookbuying on the internet - that the fewer bricks-and-mortar bookshops there are to buy books from (even if they are a Borders), the more readers will be forced online to do business, and the more they will expect to be able to buy dirt cheap books and have them shipped free by all booksellers, not just the McBook Depository, and frankly there is noone in Australia who can compete. I know some booksellers are trying to offer free shipping, but having done the math, I'd have to raise the prices of my books to cover it - either that or close the shop and retreat back to online only selling!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Help my ice-cream won't thicken: Salted Butter Caramel Icecream

Have I mentioned that I love making ice-cream? Ever since picking up an ice-cream maker for $8 at an op shop 2 years ago, I haven't needed much of an excuse to try out a new flavour. Pistachio Praline is a favorite, the tiramisu flavour I created is always a hit, and eggnog icecream goes beautifully with plum pudding at Christmas.

My latest flavour attempt is related to my other new favourite thing to make- caramel. I found a great sounding recipe for Salted Butter Caramel Icecream on guru David Liebovitz's delicious blog. I brought the sugar to a dark amber colour, then added a 1/2 tsp of Murray river salt, salted butter, cream and a cup of milk. 5 egg yolks were incorporated and the mix returned to the heat to thicken to a creamy, luscious brown custard. Adding the custard to a 2nd cup of milk, I popped it into the fridge overnight to chill and then churned it in my icecream maker until the custard thickens into...thickens into....thickens... into.... Wait, I've made icecream many times before, I don't tolerate failure, thicken damn you!

After an hour of churning my custard remained just that, a custard. Deciding I hadn't chilled the bowl enough, I took it over to daughter Hayley's flat where my icecream sandwiched between Dutch stroopwaffels was to be the dessert to a Mexican dinner (mmm pulled chicken on homemade tortillas). Their icecream churn bowl is left in the freezer in case they get the sudden urge to make icecream, so she'll churn it for me. An hour later I get an SMS - "Houston we have a problem...." The custard is still, stubbornly, custard. As a stop-gap measure we put the custard in the freezer and had a semi-frozen dessert - delicious flavours but not ice-cream.

Determined to try again I trolled the internet, checking out messageboards for "Help my icecream won't thicken" for a clue. Everything I read talked about whether the custard was left overnight ( it was) whether the bowl was completely frozen solid (ditto) whether the amount of custard was too much for the churn (no, exactly what was specified), whether the custard was thick enough (yes), only egg yolks used (yup), and found little to enlighten me. So I went back over the steps in my mind and suddenly it hit me: Low-fat milk! We always use low-fat milk and although I had added extra cream as I usually do to compensate, the milk I had accidentally bought was actually no-fat Physical. D'oh.

On Sunday night then I made a whole new batch of custard, using full-cream milk, following every step religiously, chilling both custard and bowl for 24 hours and then on Monday put it to the test. My custard began to do its thing, but at the end of the churning it was still softer than usual. A couple of hours in the freezer produced a lovely final product though:
Having revisited my high school physics I now suspect that the extra salt, while small, probably also had an effect on the final product.

David Leibovitz doesn't mention any problems with the salt and possibly it is the case that my small domestic icecream churn doesn;t have temperatures low enough to counteract what salt there is.

So now I have an excuse to make another batch, except this time without the salt.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Winter's bounty: the Queen Vic market isn't what it used to be.

Mmmm I love the possibilities of planning a lunch in winter: Shall I make a Bouillabaisse-inspired fish pie? a rabbit and mushroom pie? An oxtail pie? Shall I serve it with smashed potatoes or a celeriac mash? What about dessert? A steaming crumble or something a bit more unusual?

At 6 this morning I headed in to the city to the Queen Victoria market in search of rabbit, good seafood, baby vegetables and the makings for a bastardised charcuterie/antipasto plate. The first two were easy - the meat and fish hall at the QV continues to field a host of top quality butchers and fishmongers with an almost overwhelming selection. I really have to know what I want before I get there otherwise one of two things happens: I buy more meat and fish than I need or I buy nothing at all because I can't make up my mind. I've written before about the stall with beautiful cuts of goat, and next time I go I am determined to buy me some 'variety meats' (as the Americans call offal). Two bunnies? Done. Some nice local prawns and scallops? Done. Baby vegetables? Not so much. I wandered the three aisles of fruit and veges and was struck by the blandness of the offerings.  With few exceptions, the fruit and veg were mostly the varieties I could buy at Woolworths, just cheaper: the same apples, oranges, potatoes, beetroot, repeated - stall after stall after stall. The exceptions were a stall offering exotic mushrooms, and a couple of vendors selling things like raddichio, baby cauliflower etc. I was so uninspired. Where were the heirloom beetroot varieties I had heard were now in season? Why was everyone selling Queensland strawberries - big and tasteless? I know I'm showing my age, but I remember when the fruit and veg aisles of the QV outnumbered those selling Australian souvenirs and knock-off bags. When walking the produce aisle was an inspiration to cook. Now I suspect that many of the small growers, and those with more unusual offerings, are off at the inner city farmer's markets, which are on my to-do list. (My opinion on some of the local Farmer's Markets could fill a blog! Lots of jams and biscuits, but very little fresh produce)

Moping home with my small bag of goodies, I opened the shop and popped in to Fred's (the Kallista Biodynamic Market) and wouldn't you know it - right  on my doorstep were tiny jewel-like brussel sprouts and baby fennel to make my Sunday lunch complete. Over at the Kallista market I picked up some of the freshest sourdough I've had in a while, dropped off my knives to be sharpened and enjoyed the gorgeous winter sunshine over a coffee and the paper. Now if I could just get someone to sell rabbit, goat and other (not really so) exotica nearby, I won't have to schlepp into the city whenever the urge to cook them arises!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Goodbye to Castelvecchio, we will be back.

Well we've been back in Australia for 6 weeks now, and I am still suffering from the post-travel blues - reading about Italy and planning the next trip!! I discovered one unposted blog on my iphone from our last days -

We ended our incident-filled week with a visit to the Saturday morning market at Pescia, for once leaving not Mum and Dad, but instead a sick & traumatised Ryan to spend the day reading and recovering at the villa with Hayley. The market at Pescia is more of a flea market, where clusters of locals seemed to spend a lot more time catching up with local gossip than buying goods. A handful of food vans offered all sorts of delicatessen goods and thick, crema-filled canoli - in this incarnation more a cylindrical donut than a traditional pastry. We passed on the salty roast pork sandwiches and instead went with what has become our quick lunch-time staple: $2.50 panninis from a cafe, filled with mozarella, tomato and a bit of proscuitto for the non-veg's. We had good coffee on the edge of the square where the fruit and veg merchants had set up and then wound back to La Spinosa for some relaxing.

Our final night had been set aside for a farewell dinner (Hayley and Ryan are off to Genoa, Lake Como and then Venice, we are off to Venice). On Paul's recommendation we went to a Sorana restaurant call Da Sandrina. As usual the earliest table we could get was 7.30, and when we arrived the place was empty. Rather than offering a menu, the waitress came up and asked us in Italian what we wanted: "Allora - Antipasti, pasta, Secondi?" What a revelation, when it comes to food terms I can talk Italian " Non Secondi" I replied "Solo Antipasti e Pasta" She rattled off the names of the pasta, we made our random choices and she was off.

She came back with our antipasti: Huge plates carrying mountains of pickled onions, olives, pickles mushrooms arrived, with bruschetta topped with tomato for the veg's and chicken liver for the rest. There was also a large platter of salami, proscuitto and bresaola, and what we have come to expect but never quite gotten used to here: thick slices of bread made without salt. It has been notable throughout our Tuscan eating adventures - the food is often quite salty, but the bread is always unsalted, presumably as a foil to the salty food? The pasta was good but not as good as Montaione, and looking around the now full restaurant at what the other tables were having, I noted many of the same types of dishes we had at the agritourisma: the Sorana Beans, roasted chicken and goat, roasted potatoes etc. For someone new to Europe as I am, and coming from a country with very little notably regional cuisine (pie floaters aside!) this has been one of the - not surprises, because I knew to expect it - but one of the joys - eating food that emphasises what is seasonal and what is local. I am looking forward to lots of future trips - travelling Italy exploring the different regions by their cuisines!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eating until you can eat no more: Dinner at Montiaone.

We had a very stressful end to our day in Florence, but were determined that, regardless of what happened with Hayley and Ryan’s hire car, we were going to make dinner at Montaoni Agritourisma. Agritourisma are essentially farm stays, where you can stay bed and breakfast and eat in a dining room usually part of the main house. The most appealing feature of this for us is that because they are on working farms, the food at these restaurants is almost exclusively produced on those farms. We arrived a little late, and found the surroundings a little disconcerting at first. There was only one other table of guests, who were locals doing some work at the farm and having their meals in the dining room. There was also a table set for an elderly man who came in soon after we arrived and sat watching a ‘Red Faces’ style variety show on the tv in the corner of the room, occasionally dropping off to sleep over his meal. Soon the food started to appear. First a plate of ribbon-thin slices of pancetta and salami; a big wedge of a firm goat’s cheese, mild but with the characteristic goat’s cheese tang to it; a bowl of giardineri and slices of a cottage loaf. The cheese was so fine and perfect we had to ask, in our limited Italian if it was made on the farm, and received a slightly offended “Yes, of course”. Next was a course for the meat-eaters (we had been told to expect lots of meat), a soft-consistency chicken liver pate on small pieces of toasted bread topped with a peppery olive oil. We were already beginning to get the idea that this would be a very large meal, and were trying to pace ourselves, but it was very difficult, everything was so delicious. There was also a carafe of a Sangiovese style wine which was kept topped up (I was driving so cannot report on its quality, but David tells me it was a very nice light red).

Our waiter appeared next with a large platter of pasta sheets tossed with a mushroom ragu. The smell of the sauce was fantastic – rich and earthy, and it tasted just as good. The sheets of pasta were silky and melt-in your-mouth. As we were dishing that up, out came two more platters: a ravioli with a spinach and ricotta filling topped with butter and sage leaves and another of meat-filled ravioli with a rich oily meat ragu. We were momentarily taken aback, so much food! The pasta was a revelation, so often we hear that there isn’t any point to making your own fresh pasta: it’s time consuming we are told and the dried product is equally good. But I’m here to tell you that after this dinner I am determined to master it – I know you can buy fresh pasta at some delis, but I have never tasted it as good as this.

So after the pasta we were feeling pretty full, we all knew we shouldn’t have kept eating it, but it was soo good – there was even a brief race for the last spinach tortellini (Hayley won). Our young waiter cleared our tables and returned with a dish we had been eagerly anticipating: Fagioli Sorana or Sorana Beans. These creamy white legumes are grown only in this particular valley in Italy, their flavour apparently attributed to the rich soil and something in the mountain spring water (San Pellegrino mineral water is bottled in the next valley over). Apparently they are so prized that they were used as a currency around here several hundred years ago. Today they are sought after by chefs and sell for around E25 a kilo, and here we were in a humble agritourismo sitting down to a huge plate of them. They were joined by a plate of thinly sliced, pink vitello, a platter of roasted goat and chicken and roasted potatoes. The beans lived up to their hype, the vitello was delicious and melt in the mouth, but I found the goat and chicken a little too dry for my taste.

But wait there’s more – just as us meat-eaters felt as if we were going to burst (and the vego’s ate their way through a plate of beans) came the piece-de-resistance – the chingale, wild boar braised with the most basic of seasonings for hours until it was falling apart. We had been promised it would be on the menu and it was, but I kind of wish it had come earlier. Of course we ate it all, but its strong smell, very gamey flavour and saltiness didn’t sit very well after the many courses which preceded it. It was almost a relief when our waiter placed a bowl of ricotta and a jug of honey on the table which signalled the meal was at its end. I hadn’t eaten ricotta except in this way before, and it is a very nice ending to the meal, except it wasn’t and the final hurrah was slices of fresh-out- of- the-oven ricotta cake dusted with icing sugar, a bottle of throat-grabbing grappa and one of a much smoother vincotta and the offer of coffee (which we very reluctantly refused).

The dinner at Montiaone was everything we had hoped to experience eating with the locals in Italy. As Ryan said after the pasta course, you wouldn’t get a better dish of pasta in any of Melbourne’s finest Italian restaurants, and it certainly was better than the average suburan Melbourne Italian eatery. And because everything we ate was produced locally it was probably one of the best souvenirs we’ll take away from Italy. The entire meal at Montaoine including all the alcohol was E22 per head – around $35 AUD – (of course we left more) and as we wound our way down the very steep windy road we all agreed that someone should tell them they really could charge tourists like us much more for such an experience.

A series of unfortunate events

After several experiences of the difficulties of finding parking in the historical town centers we've been visiting (& the terrible narrow alleyways you have to negotiate to get to any), we made the decision to head into Florence by train from Pescia which brought us right into the centre of the city. With only 6 hours in the city, we had a carefully plotted itinerary: catch the big names of the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio as well as walking up to Pizziali Michelangelo, just outside the old walls of the city. We had been warned by Paul, the manager of La Spinosa, that Florence is always overrun with tourists (like us), and it certainly was. At times we felt like we should have had one if the flags that your guides use, just so we didn't lose track of each other in the throng. The Duomo was closed because of Easter preparations, but the cathedral was open and well worth the short line. It is such a huge space that despite the crowds it was still possible to appreciate it's beauty in relative peace. The Ponte Vecchio approach was madness, jostling crowds cheek by jowl, and then suddenly much quieter on the bridge because the intent of most tourists seemed to be to have a photo against the backdrop or on the two open spaces on the bridge. Next we headed up to the Piazzali Michelangelo for the most incredible view of the city, unfortunately one muddied a little by the smog. The next part of the itinerary after a quick lunch ( here as in Rome you can get a foccacia and drink for two people for €6) was shopping. Florence has some really classy shops and even their souvenir market stalls are often a cut above average- lots of leather, but also fine quality paper, artists selling their original work, balsamic, limoncello and more.

As I said a great day, which was unfortunately marred on the way home by a collision between two of Ryan's tires and the side of the narrow Pescia road while trying to avoid oncoming traffic. It has joined my scraping of one side of our hire car along a narrow Castelvecchio alleyway, the crisis with our Rome accommodation, my causing us to miss our plane from Melbourne and Mum's brief loss of her handbag in the London taxi when we arrived as a series of very unfortunate events which have sometimes threatened to derail our enjoyment of this trip. We're booked in for a very special dinner at the local agritourismo tonight, but I'm not sure we're going to make it!

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A week in Castelvecchio

Castelvecchio: A week in rural Tuscany

It’s early on a Monday morning. I’m looking across a valley at the small village of Castelvecchio on the opposite hillside, about 500m as the crow flies. The sun has just cleared the Appenines foothills and is warming up the ten villages of the Deici Castelli. Dogs are setting each other off in the village, the chooks in the garden next door are complaining to be let out. There’s a big fat bumblebee buzzing around the rosemary bushes and the sound of the spring below the villa cascading down to join the creek in the valley. We arrived late yesterday afternoon passing through the town of Pescia on Palm Sunday afternoon to the sight of hunbdreds of town folk taking a Sunday stroll along the river, eating gelati, drinking espresso, pushing babies in strollers. The road winding up to La Spinosa was hair-raisingly narrow, the track to it passing literally between the district church and its belltower. We are looking forward to a great Tuscan week. Disappointingly there are few local markets to shop for food or tabbachi to give us the fix of espresso and cornetto we developed a taste for in Rome. However shopping at Essalunga in Pescia yesterday was tantalising: whole sides of pancetta, looking mouldy in their black spice rub; the bakery selling foccacia and pizza by the kilo. Buffalo mozzarella for less than $1 a ball. Last night I made a porcini risotto and a plate of antipasto, and we’re planning a final night meal in the Italian style, with 4 courses of local dishes. In between there are local restaurants to try (serving wild boar), and a farmhouse we can see at the top of the farthest hill which puts on traditional meals by request. We’re going to Florence for a day and touring the area around Castiglione where my father fought during WWII.

Today was a designated rest day, so everyone slept in. We took a stroll to Castelvecchio for the first time, discovering a small collection of stone houses, hanging cheek by jowl off the steep slopes of the foothills , joined by interconnecting cobblestone alleyways and narrow roadways. Services in these villages is rudimentary at best, but the bar in Castelvecchio serves dual purpose as a general store and tabacchi (phew). The post office is open once a week on a Wednesday, and just as we were wondering what locals did for staples like bread we came upon a small delivery van which would hurtle up to a house, the driver would leap out grab a loaf or several loaves of bread of various kinds out the back and put them in the plastic bag or basket hanging from the front door of a house. Jumping back into the van he would toot loudly and then scream off to the next. A bus does the circuit of the Deici Castelli twice a day and presumably locals who don’t drive can take this to the nearest town of Pescia.

We stopped at the bar for an espresso, an incredible view of some of the other villages from its terrace and then walked back to the house to hop in the car for the 38km round trip of the ten villages. We stopped in Pontito, which was creepily quiet and deserted, and made nervous jokes about the locals watching us from behind the shutters. Pontito is an immaculately maintained village, but we wondered whether its residents are part-time or work during the day in Pescia, or perhaps because it is early in the season those who move out of town for the winter have not yet returned. Later Paul the manager of La Spinosa explained that in many cases residents have moved into larger towns, and rather than sell the traditional family home they shut them up and return only occasionally. As he said this means that sadly many of these villages are ghost towns, a real pity because they are so beautiful and must have been very vital and busy places a few decades ago. We made another stop in Pescia for supplies for dinner at the Essalunga supermarket (more buffalo mozzarella, a kilo of mussels and passata for a pasta sauce) before returning for the ‘rest’ part of our designated rest day. Mum and Dad had stayed behind and spent a lovely day in the sun reading their books and playing cards. Ryan made dinner ( including an interesting version of panforte) and we spent the evening watching ‘Rebecca’. Boy it’s tiring being on holiday!

Day 3:

One of the main reasons for being in this beautiful area was to go back with my father to the area in which he was stationed as a young soldier with the 6th South African Armored Division. Today we headed off early to Prato, where we revisited the square Dad remembered being full of tanks when he was there, in the months after Italy had signed an armistice and the Allies were driving the Germans back out of Italy. Dad lost many of his fellow soldiers and the other destination for the day was the cemetery in Castigilione de Pepoli where 500 men (the majority of them South African) were buried. After a few false turns we were eventually guided to the site by a handyman at the local cemetery. It was heartening to see how well the cemetery was maintained, in a really beautiful spot overlooking the hills and valleys. A walk around looking for names Dad remembered was quite emotional – particularly seeing the youth of some of those who died. We had a sandwich lunch at a hotel overlooking a lake behind Castiglione. It was very quiet, although apparently can be very busy in summer, and very peaceful to sit there before tackling the long winding road home. The weather so far during our stay could not have been more perfect. Although La Spinosa’s manager Paul tells us it can snow at this time of the year, every day has been calm and clear. Temperatures hover around 21 with light breezes occasionally reminding us with their chill that it is still early spring.

Day 4: Another designated rest day, so today David, Hayley, Ryan and I headed off to Pistoia to check out the weekly market and buy food for a meal tonight. Pistoia is a beautiful town. Like many around here it has a very original historical centre, with lots of tiny cobblestoned alleyways leading off the main piazzas. The market is mostly a flea market style with lots of cheap clothing, leather and electronic goods. However at its heart is a small square of food shops in the centre of which produce growers sell fresh fruit and vegetables. We checked out the many butchers (including one dedicated entirely to horse-meat) and bought some Salsiccia. It’s quite hard to buy meat when the names and cuts are so unfamiliar, so sausages were a safe bet. We also bought some great asparagus, zucchini flowers, strawberries, fennel and peppers and some sardines for the veg/pescatarians. We noticed that all the produce was very seasonal, and found it almost impossible to buy potatoes because of course it’s the wrong season. After buying some pannini (2 Euros each) from a roadside stall we headed back for a restful afternoon and an evening cooking up a storm. Although there were grand plans of playing games, yet again most of us headed off to bed early. Tomorrow Florence.

Eating in Rome

The food in Rome: Aside from the amazing back alleys and gorgeous buildings, the ancient monuments and myriad old churches, Rome has fulfilled every expectation I had of Italian food. Every morning (often after a breakfast of muesli) we could pop across the piazza to the Tabacchi, a hybrid milk bar, cafĂ© and cigarette shop where you could throw back a double espresso and a croissant ( or cornetto) for the princely sum of €2.50. And what coffee. I have never tasted coffee so consistently good as I have in Italy. Forget anything we have in Melbourne, even Pellegrini’s doesn’t do a coffee as good. The double espresso is so rich, creamy and smooth I haven’t once needed to add sugar as I often do in Melbourne to counteract the bitterness often encountered. As we travelled through Italy, we would find equally good coffee no matter where we were. Even the Autogrill – the huge freeway rest stops which often cross over the top of the freeway to allow access from both sides-had a tabacchi inside which served great coffee for less than $2

Our apartment is a street away from the Campo di Fiore where a market is held every morning 6 days a week, and though probably expensive because of its central and tourist location, it was nonetheless a great source of vegies and dried goods. At the base of our apartment block was a trattoria ( we never learnt its name, only that it closed at 2.30 and re-opened at 6) where the owner would end every meal we had there with a complimentary something, be it grappa and biscotti after lunch one day or Colombo and coffee after dinner. And it wasn’t an expensive restaurant either. The priciest meal we had was €15 a head for an assortment of large pastas and the best veal saltimbocca I’ve ever had plus a selection of contorno and wine. I learnt a couple of things in Rome: A coffee and pastry served at the Tabbacchi for €2.50 would cost €6 if ordered sitting down. When buying bread by the kilo, olive bread can end up costing you €8 a loaf, so buy only as much as you need, like the locals do. Many shops, including butchers, grocers etc close at 1 – 1.30 and re-open at around 3. While in Rome you could probably find some supplies during this break, the further out into the country we got, the longer this break was (in Pescia shops close at 1 and re-open at 4) although large supermarkets are usually open the whole day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rome on our doorstep

Ok expect some disjointed blogs. Internet access us to be grabbed when I can get it, at the moment in a Pescia street corner! No photos- will do that in an album soon.


I had no expectations about Rome: no long-harboured desire to visit; only the lectures and readings from Medieval and Renaissance history as background; scenes from 1950s movies as visual cues. This has turned out to be a distinct advantage, resulting in a series of wonderful discoveries of a magical city, and few disappointments. The position of our apartment in the Campo Di Fiore district has allowed us to walk to every one of the major historical monuments, but also given us the opportunity to wander the myriad tiny back alleys paved in a mosaic of black cobblestones and discover a Rome fewer tourists probably see.

As I have said in other blogs about other cities I have visited, for me these are the best parts of a city. I have stood in the Sistine Chapel with the loud buzz of hundreds of tourists and been unmoved, but was brought to tears by the jewel-like interior of the tiny Santa Barbara de Libraire church discovered by chance up a side alley in the Campo de Fiori. It is flanked by a gelati shop and a restaurant and is barely 15 metres by 10 metres. It has a broken window pane in the front door and no acres of marble, but every surface is covered in beautiful murals and it offers a quiet place of contemplation, even for the non-religious like me.

Our three days in Rome have seen a series of similar discoveries-it is amazing to stand in the Coliseum and think about those who walked here 2000 years ago, but it is hard to get a sense of it if you are surrounded by 20000 tourists, including groups of chattering teenagers in their orange caps, or jammed up against in long queues (the queue to enter the Sistine Chapel was 500 metres). However walking back from a roam around the Trastevere district we happened upon a Roman theatre almost as ancient as the Coliseum, but with only a handful of visitors (unfortunately including a couple of 'ugly Americans' one of whom was overheard to say that she was taking photos of the interpretive signs to read later because she couldn't be bothered reading them now). The dig site was clothed in bright red poppies, with several resident cats, and invited you to take your time exploring.

Of course there are ways to beat the crowds: on our very first morning we rose very early and struck out for the Pantheon. Only locals were about, and by the time it officially opened at 8.30 there was a grand total of 5 people in the queue.

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Location:Lungotevere della Farnesina,Rome,Italy

Thursday, April 14, 2011

We interrupt this holiday blog for a consumer alert.

Picture the scene: after an early start, a Eurostar trip to Paris where we spent day riding the buses, we were at the Gare de Bercy waiting for the overnight trip to Rome when my mobile rings. "Ah Madame I am the agent from Rome Power to tell you that we have a problem with your booking for the apartment in Rome tomorrow. There has been a flood in the apartment and you cannot check in but not to worry, I have a solution for you. I have another beautiful apartment available...."

Now here's a little bit of background: we first booked our accommodation in Rome 3 months ago, knowing it was high season. Just after booking a nice apartment on the Campo Di Fiori with an agency, they emailed me to say sorry but your apartment is not available because we have problems with council permissions, however we have a nice apartment in the Vatican area available. Well we didn't want to be in that area as we decided that schlepping over to the main attractions every day would be a pain. So we said no and began looking for alternatives, except being high season, everything suitable was now booked. We were also frequently reading nightmare stories about people being bumped on arrival, of being told an apartment was no longer available but a nice one was in the Vatican area.

So when, 8 weeks ago Ryan found a nice apartment in the Campo di Fiori on Giverno Vecchio (called Gladiator)through Rome Power booking agency, we were relieved and excited when the booking was confirmed. However a month ago we saw the apartment was showing as vacant for the days we had booked.Concerned, Ryan rang the agency. " Don't worry Mr Guillot" he was told "your booking is here and everything is fine, I will get the agent to call you or email you the details." Ryan rang three more times and was told again the booking was fine.

Then when I got to London from Cornwall I rang the agency and was told they would organize a car to pick us up at the station in Rome and take us to the apartment. So you can imagine my reaction when I got the phone call in Paris. The apartment offered as a replacement was, of course, in St Peters area. It seems clear that the apartment was a 'bait' and that if it even exists, it was already booked. The thing about accommodation in Rome seems to be that everyone wants an apartment in the centre of the main sights, but there are a lot of rentals available in the vicinity of St Peter's to accommodate religious pilgrims. Despite our every effort, we still became victims of dubious business practices.

The upside of the story is that I was able to get a message to Hayley and Ryan who were joining us in Rome and they found us a last minute apartment right off the Campo di Fiore, an absolutely magnificent traditional courtyard style apartment in an 1828 building.

(that's our apartment with brown shutters on the corner of the third floor)

(Pasta dinner on night two):

The view from the apartment

The agent Peter from Rome from Home couldn't have been more helpful allowing us to leave our bags in the apartment early after our marathon journey and sleepless night.

So here we are in Rome,blown away by the beautiful streets and literally awe-some buildings and indulging in all sorts of local foods. Sometimes things happen for the best, but I wouldn't wish what happened to us on anyone, thus the consumer alert: be VERY careful who you deal with when booking an apartment in Rome. I can certainly recommend Rome from Home, but not Rome Power.
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Location:Via dei Banchi Vecchi,Rome,Italy

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Finding real French food on a stopover

We're all pretty exhausted after catching a 5.25am Eurostar from London. We got into Paris at 9 and after stowing our luggage in 2 left luggage lockers took a 4 hour hop-on hop-off tour of the city which was mostly hop-on except for a stop at Notre Dame for lunch at what appears to be a quintessential Paris Brasserie for a lunch of onion soup, croque Monsieurs and hot chocolate (it was freezing).

Paris is just as beautiful as I expected it to be, although much much busier than I had anticipated. The Eiffel Tower was an unexpected highlight. You think you know what to expect, but up close I was blown away by the intricacy and fragility of it, it really is stunning.

As we drove down the Quai des Gds Augustin we passed a series of small stalls selling books, it was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling " Stop the bus!!!" However given three of my Mrs Beeton's already have a bag of their own, it's no more books for me!

In Paris I particularly loved the brasserie and tabac we passed on nearly every corner, wicker chairs lining the pavement for the smokers and people- watchers. It was suddenly clear what so many restaurants and cafes are trying to emulate, but never will be able to because, well, it's Paris and they're not!

After the bus tour we took a taxi across town to the Gare de Bercy, the driver dodging scooters and Velopeds, the traffic absolutely chaotic, and settled in for a 3 hour wait for the train to Rome. Taking a stroll to pass the time, imagine our pleasure to discover a particularly French food truck parked outside: Mimi la Brioche sold a range of baked goods, mostly priced by the kg.

There were huge loaves of brioche (of course), madeleines, le pain epice, thick white slabs of nougat, chocolate coated waffle-like cookies and beautiful cannelles, crisp dark and waxy on the outside, soft and yellow on the inside.

We bought a whole lot of goodies for the trip and settled back down hoping that the huge group of excitable American teenagers wasn't going to be on our carriage.

Location:Gare du Bercy, Paris

If it's Sunday it must be Tintagel

On Sunday morning I woke up with a start. Where was I, what time was it, what was I supposed to be doing? Lace curtains and green carpet in the bathroom, Axminster on the floor, apricot floral wallpaper- oh that's right the comfortable, but very 1980s B&B outside the quaint fishing village of Mevagissey. After our day trip to St Martin's, we went on a whistlestop tour of Cornwall.

We spent a lovely few hours at (quaint fishing village no.1) Mevagissey, where the streets are only barely wide enough for a car to drive down.

We visited the lovely cathedral town of Truro and discovered my grandfather's home was now an op shop.

We visited ( quaint fishing village no. 2) harbourside Padstow, known jokingly as Padstein because celebrity chef Rick Stein has 5 shops and restaurants in town.

We tried to visit (quaint fishing village no.3) Port Isaac which is the location for the Doc Martin tv series. Unfortunately being a Sunday there was not an accessible car park to be found, so this is the best I could do:

So instead we headed off to Tintagel (not a quaint fishing village this time) home to a castle ruin which legend has it was home to King Arthur. On the cliff overlooking it was another wonderful old pile - Camelot Castle built in 1899 in the baronial style. We had a tour through some of the rooms and David and I promised ourselves we'd come back one day and stay.

Along the way we've eaten in little English pubs, had 'cream teas' and the Cornish native Saffron Cake (recipe to come when I return to Melbourne) and my Dad decided to have a Cornish Pasty every lunch time. There certainly was no shortage of places to buy them.Every town had several purveyors, all proclaiming theirs the best. In Padstow there were three shops in a row:

There were sweet pasties and vegetarian pasties, curry pasties and delicate cocktail size ones. But Dad proclaimed the traditional handmade, plate-sized pasties from St Martin's the best he tried (although of course not as good as the pasties my Mum makes from a recipe passed down to her from her Mum):

In the middle of a circle of shortcrust pastry, leaving a generous edge, layer stewing steak (cubed small), diced potatoes and onions. Season each layer generously with sakt and pepper. Wet the edges of the pastry and bring to the middle. Pinch edges together. Put a small slash in the pastry either side of the crimp and brush with egg and milk. Bake in a hot oven for 20-30 minutes then lower to moderate/slow for another 10 minutes.

You can vary the ingredients by adding parsnip or swede.

We're not sure where Granny learnt to make pasties, possibly from my Cornish grandfather, but also possibly from her mother who was a pastry chef in Cape Town, and according to family legend baked the pastries for a banquet for the Duke of Windsor. (Now there's some family history to investigate!)

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Location:Alphington St,Exeter,United Kingdom

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mucking around on boats and meeting the ancestors (with Cornish Pasties thrown in)

An early start this morning for our day of mucking around on boats and meeting the ancestors. The Scillonian III plies the route between Penzance and St Mary's twice every day at this time of year (3 times a day in summer). To call the boat utilitarian is generous, and probably a more modern craft would be quicker and smoother, but the Scillonian gave you a real sense of the isolation of this little circle of islands. The 2 1/2 hour trip sticks close to the coast until Land's End, providing spectacular views of hidden villages and grand houses (including John Le Carre's).

Arriving at St Mary's we were met by Paul's water taxi service for the 15 minute dash across the water to Higher Town Quay.

The islands are picture-postcard pretty. Beautiful white sandy beaches and rocky promontories edge a clear aqua sea. St Martin's is the third largest of the group of islands. 2 miles long with a single concrete road barely wide enough for a large car, we weren't sure what to expect in the way of services.

The last thing I expected to find here was a bakery in a restored barn up a picturesque lane which produced food I've come to expect from some of the more cosmopolitan destinations I've visited. There was an amazing range of breads, pastries, quiches and more, all made on site using ingredients sourced locally, including flour grown and milled in Devon. Vegetables and herbs are grown on the island, seaweed from the beaches is included in the sundried tomato and feta sourdough loaf.

The beef in our enormous pasties came from the nearby island of Tresco and the smoked salmon in David's quiche was locally caught by owner Toby and smoked on site. Toby is an Irishman who first came to St Martins on holiday in 1982 and returned to live 10 years later. He is self-taught and believes strongly in sustainable and local production. Despite some hardship, he really is living the dream!

We only had 3 hours on the island, enough time to visit the cemetery to look for Ellis graves, and chat to a lady at the post office who was born and raised on the island as were her mother and grandmother (I think we're probably vaguely related!)

The St Martin's Bakery runs week-long baking courses, and David and I are already thinking It might be a reason to return!

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Location:Gwavas Ln,Penzance,United Kingdom

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lunch in the temple: a mixed bag

You know how you have one of those days where everything falls into place? Today was one of those. After weeks, nay months, of trying to work out a way to get my Mum and I to the tiny island of St Martins in the Scilly Isles where her ancestors are from, but which has very limited access, this morning a nice confluence of circumstances saw us booked on the ferry to St Marys where we will be met by a boatman who will taxi us to St Martins and back. We'll only have 3 hours there but we're very excited about seeing the village. Unfortunately Mum suffers very badly from seasickness, fortunately she loves Ginger, which is supposed to be the best natural cure. The housekeeping morning continued with our tickets on the Eurostar booked and also our car for the Cornwall trip.

Feeling chuffed, David and I headed off to Notting Hill for the second time to visit Books for Cooks. It was a gorgeous Spring day, heading for 24 degrees.

Books for Cooks is tiny and was crammed with people browsing the shelves and also having lunch in the very tiny test kitchen up the back of the shop where every day they create a lunch menu from books in stock. Today was a Middle Eastern lentil soup and lamb kofta with a nice red wine to accompany it and lovely cakes on display. We elected for the soup and wine (£12 for two) which was a lovely light lunch.

I was very excited at the prospect of visiting and eating at this iconic destination, but I must admit to being in two
minds about it. On the one hand the test kitchen and the workshops held upstairs are a model for how something like this should be run; on the other hand I could not help but feel that the books have become secondary. It is very hard to browse many shelves because the dining tables are crammed up against them and getting a book from the shelves requires reaching over someone's head as they eat. I also felt that there was an over-emphasis on 'popular' titles like the Australian Women's Weeklys which were everywhere, and less on the serious cooking and food titles. Of course they also have virtually no second hand or antiquarian stock which makes it if less interest to me. While there were some interesting titles I hadn't seen before, some shelves were noticably bare. So a not altogether satisfying visit to the temple of cookbook shops, although still quite interesting.

The other must-do visit of the day was to the Aga shop where I picked up a famous Aga toaster as well as a new cold plain shelf for the fraction of their cost in Melbourne. Now they have to compete for room in the luggage with 4 Mrs Beeton's!

Tonight we're packing for the drive to Cornwall and here is a better photo of some of my older treasures from Monday's shopping

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Location:London,United Kingdom

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Charing Cross Road, Bloomsbury Rd & Cecil Court-trawling London's bookshops

Well today was my idea of heaven. After a continental breakfast at our hotel ( a former Gentleman's Club, think Fawlty Towers with Eastern European staff. When I asked for teatowels for our kitchen I was told: "I don't think we have those") we parted ways with Mum and Dad who headed off to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. We had carefully plotted our travels, but had a false start when we reached Books for Cooks to find it closed on a Monday.

The bonus was that as we took a wander up Portobello Road (with a stop along the way for cupcakes at Hummingbird Bakery)

we found an Oxfam Bookshop with a beautiful 1930s copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in a glass case. It wasn't cheap - but given one of my aims for this trip was to pick up a copy, I wasn't going to turn it down. By the end of the day I had 4!!

Next stop was the Bloomsbury bookshops, an eclectic mix of antiquarian booksellers like Jarndyce on Great Russell St where I picked up an 1891 "Manual of Domestic Economy; with Hints on Medicine and Surgery" ; and indepent publisher Souvenir Press for a couple of obscure titles on Arabian Cooking and herbal remedies. Nice finds but not yet the treasures I was hoping for.

We detoured to Covent Garden Market where we had been promised an antique market. There was lots of silverware and crockery, but no books or kitchenalia so we had lunch at the very tasteful chain Battersea Pie Shop.

David had a seafood pie with mashed potato and I had a pastie with mash and gravy. Gorgeous concept that I think would go well in Australia if someone had the presence of mind to copy it!

Now fortified against the cold wind and equipped with a copy of Book Lover's London purchased from Jarndyce, we headed for Cecil Court, a tiny back lane behind the theatres on Charing Cross Road jam-packed with specialist booksellers:

David Drummond sells only books and ephemera on theatre and magic and has some beautiful playbills and early programs in his tiny, crammed-full shop;

Marchpane with exquisite children's books, and I was awestruck by an entire bookshelf of Alice in Wonderland in every edition, language and format you could imagine.

Of interest in other Cecil Court traders were several Elizabeth David first editions and a first edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book which had pride of place in the window of an uncharacterictically sparse space with only a couple of hundred books and a focus on the exotic, trendy and risque.

Prices in Cecil Court were high (350 pounds for the Savoy), but it was lovely to browse.

Onwards we marched around the corner to the heart of what remains of the original Charing Cross bookshop district. Henry Prode's produced a circa 1890 Mrs Beeton's (that's 2) and Elizabeth David hardcovers.
There were many more beautiful antiquarian cookbooks and facsimiles of classics like the Williamsburg cookbook, but I had a couple more shops to visit.
One of these was Quinto's with a small but exciting shelf of cookbooks including 2 (count them two!) lovely Mrs Beeton's from the early 20th century (that's 4), Here I also found an Indian cookbook of the British Raj, and several books on domestic ecnonmy: 1892 Household Wrinkles by Mrs DeSallis and 1883 Cookery and Housekeeping by Mrs Henry Reeve Culinary Jottings.

We called it a day with approximately 20 kgs of books and negotiated 2 tube rides before stopping in at our 'local ' for a well-deserved pint.

Now I have what I came for!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Farmer's Markets, Pubs & Food Shops:

After arriving late yesterday and settling in to our hotel in the Marylebone district of London, we started our first day bright and early, setting out for the Cramer St Farmer's Market behind the Marylebone High St. The Farmer's Market website said the market operated from 10-2, but we went down at 9 expecting to be able to buy goods early. Apparently not: some archaic by-law prohibits selling before 10am. So all we could do was drool over the two stalls selling gourmet ready-made meals like confit duck, Boeuf Bourgignon and beautiful sides; the fishmonger displaying huge scallops 6 for £5, turbot and skatewings; the pies cooked in enamelled pie tins etc etc. Nearby is also The Ginger Pig butcher, who offer butchering classes 6 nights a week and are booked out months in advance.

The Fromagerie next door not only had an enormous cheese room, but beautiful baked goods and heirloom veges.

We then took a long tube ride across town to Camden Markets, which turned out to be more of a flea market than I had expected. We shared fish & chips (no fried Mars Bar although they were on offer) before then discovering a large section of the market dedicated to widely diverse ethnic foods. The best discoveries of the day were two bookshops: Walden Books tucked away in a back street produced a couple of Ambrose Heath 1sts. We were directed to it by the owner of Black Gull, home to more recent stick where I was able to pick up some Heston, Jane Grigson and Lindsay Bareham's Big book of Tomatoes.
Tomorrow David and I have planned a major assault on the bookshops of Charing Cross Rd, Bloomsbury and a visit to Books for Cooks in Notting Hill.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

London Calling or - Eating my way through Europe

I'm off tomorrow for a 4 week trip to the UK and Italy. The main purpose of the trip is to take my Mum to Cornwall where her ancestors originated. Specifically we're taking a boat trip to the Scilly Islands and hopefully the small island of St Martin's where the Ellis family has been living as far back as we've been able to trace. In Italy we're retracing the steps (or tracks) of my father's tank regiment in the Apennines. Along the way there's a week in London and a visit to Rome and Venice. This is my first trip to Europe and, as you would imagine, I'm most looking forward to discovering the food cultures and book shops of both countries. While I have some idea what to expect from the Italian leg, I have no idea what the food scene will be like in the UK-fish & chips & fried Mars Bars? I guess I'm about to find out. While this is not primarily a book-buying trip, what I am expecting to find in the UK is some excellent cookbooks, particularly antiquarian. I guess I'll find that out soon enough too!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The end of cookbooks or just one more excuse to buy an IPad?

In an article entitled "Gadgets you should get rid of (or not)" in the NYTimes today, Sam Grobart gives a list of gadgets you should dispose of (desktop computers, point-and-shoot cameras, ipods among them) or hang on to (alarm clocks) and has this to say about books:

"BOOKS Keep them (with one exception). Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries." (So far so good, I thought, clever little para, must link to it on my facebook status. But then he goes on:)
"But there is one area where printed matter is going to give way to digital content: cookbooks. Martha Stewart Makes Cookies, a $5 (now $3.99) app for the iPad, is the wave of the future. Every recipe has a photo of the dish (something far too expensive for many printed cookbooks). Complicated procedures can be explained by an embedded video. When something needs to be timed, there’s a digital timer built right into the recipe. You can e-mail yourself the ingredients list to take to the grocery store. The app does what cookbooks cannot, providing a better version of everything that came before it. Now all Martha has to do is make a decorative splashguard for a tablet and you will be all set."

This of course is the biggest problem with the technology. As we all know from the cookbooks on our own shelves, a cookbook has to be on the bench, and even more so with these apps which have built-in timers and videos etc. A splashguard is also not going to protect the gadget from a major spillage which may wrinkle or even ruin a $40 cookbook, but will kill an $800 Ipad. Another problem with them is that for $3.99, this application provides 50 recipes for cookies, and by the time you've bought applications for all the things you might want to cook, you could end up spending significantly more than for a cookbook with hundreds of recipes. Of course there is also the fact that for every gorgeous app like this or Nigella Lawson's Quick Collection ($9.99 for 70 recipes) there will probably be as many dodgy collections you will never use. I have the epicurious app on my iphone which allows you to search the almost 30,000 recipes from food dite I find it incredibly useful if I'm out shopping and can't remember the ingredients for a particular recipe. It's also great if I'm at home and need a recipe for something unusual ( like Shrimp and Grits I made last week) and I don't want to have to go down to the shop to look one up. However while I am going to buy an Ipad, and will probably download lots of apps to do with food and cooking, and will use it in my kitchen, I am almost positive that it will never be able to replace a lot of my vintage favourites like Miss Drake. It certainly will not allow me to browse through a 19th century Mrs Beeton for inspiration for my 19th century dinner, and it won't look as good on my shelf!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Prawns in Aspic and Sardine Tablets? A Mrs Maclurcan dinner

On Saturday I was fortunate enough to participate in an all day symposium entitled Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. The day was organised by Jill Adams of the William Angliss Institute's Coffee Academy. There were two highlights for me: The first was visiting the William Angliss Research facility and the copy of the Edward Abbott cookbook I acquired for them last year. I felt like a proud parent.

The second highlight was the symposium dinner with a menu based on recipes from Mrs Maclurcan's Cookery Book, an Australian classic. The dinner was cooked by the institute's students and we were fortunate to have some excellent matching Tahbilk wines (Tahbilk - which used to be known as Chateau Tahbilk - is Victoria's oldest winery). As regular readers will know, I relish trying out recipes from old cookbooks. With some of the dishes we could predict what might appear on the plate in front of us, but others were a real mystery. As soon as I got home I looked up the recipes in the book to send to my fellow diners, and I've shared a couple below.

The meal started with a mystery: Australian Soup which had an orange hue but was not pumpkin and little transparent spheres at the bottom of the bowl. The recipe revealed the spheres were tapioca and the soup was very simply made by boiling tapioca in 'brown stock' and then adding the juice of tomatoes. The flavour of the end product would very much depend upon the quality of the stock, and I don't think you could get away with packet stock if you made it at home.

Second Course was Prawns in Aspic. I don't think there's going to be a revival of dishes in aspic anytime soon, going by this dish. It was certainly pretty to look at, but a little watery and insipid for modern palates I suspect by the response of our table. Which is not to critique the cooking of the dish which was beautifully executed, but instead the recipe they were working from.

Main Course was "Braized Beef with Pickled Walnuts, Celery Fritters & Baked Cucumber". The walnuts lent a nice piquancy to the richness of the beef, and the cucmbers (which I had never tried cooked) were suprisingly good. Celery fritters just tasted like celery deep-fried and brought to mind the deep-fried artichokes David and I had tried in Salinas in 2009 - a waste of a good fresh vegetable.

The next part of the menu was a puzzler. A dessert (Macaroon Cream, absolutely delicious. I've included a recipe below) was followed by the interestingly named Sardine Tablet which was itself followed by a 'pudding': a Coffee Jelly. Apparently this was a common custom of the time (late 1890s), but I'm fuzzy on the details.

The Sardine Tablet turned out to be a small pastry case with a filling of sardine which had been creamed together with hard-boiled egg yolks, capers and seasoning. Quite tasty but not a great follow-up to the Macaroon cream.

The final course of Coffee Jelly was a small palate cleanser and was followed by coffee and port.

It was a fun night and has inspired me to try a similar venture as a cooking class in the not-too-distant future.

Macaroon Cream

1 pint milk                          Jordan almonds
3 egg yolks                        1 dozen macaroons (recipe follows)
1 oz. gelatine                     1 glass sherry

Soak the gelatine in a little milk for half an hour. Add the grated rind of 1 lemon to the 1 pint milk, sweeten to taste; place it over the fire to heat but do not let it boil; beat up the yolks of the eggs and pour the milk through a strainer onto them;add the gelatine gradually while stirring, and cook slowly until the gelatine is dissolved, then pour it into a basin to cool. Dip a mould into cold water then ornament with the almonds (split). Pour a little of the custard in then put a layer of the macaroons soaked in sherry, another layer of custard and so on until the dish is filled. Put on ice to set; turn out carefully and serve.

(not to be confused with the oh-so-trendy macaron)

3/4 lb of sweet almonds (I would substitute almond meal)
1/2 lb sifted sugar
whites of 3 eggs

Beat the eggs to a stiff froth; add the suagr almonds and a little lemon juice. Place small pieces onto a baking tray and bake in a slow oven for 20 - 45 minutes (they need to be golden brown and the tops will crack)

I'm going to attempt these next baking day (

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Making Whoopie.....(Pies)

I was fascinated while travelling in the US last month by the way that American chefs and entrepeneurs are constantly re-inventing 'old' or classic dishes and making them the latest trend. A few years ago it was cupcakes, more recently mac 'n' cheese,( there's a restaurant in New York called S'mac) donuts, pies etc.

This time I noticed Whoopie Pies everywhere. Originally of Pennsylvania Dutch origin (you can read a New York Times article about them here) I'd describe them as a cake/biscuit hybrid or maybe a teeny teeny layer cake. Two discs of (usually chocolate) cake sandwiched together with a fluffy frosting.

On my last trip to Sur le Table before leaving San Francisco I picked up a Whoopie Pie tin & this morning had a crack at making them. You don't have to have a special tin, you can also bake them on a baking tray, using an icecream scoop to get perfectly round, even cakes.I've cobbled together a recipe for them from the packagin on the pie tin and a book in my shop called Amish Country Cookbook.

First the cakes:

Cream together 120gms of softened butter and 1 cup firmly packed soft brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1 egg and 1tsp vanilla extract and beat until well-combined.

Sift together 2cups plain flour, 1/3 cup cocoa powder, 1tsp baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt. Add the dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup butter milk ( or milk soured with lemon juice) until just combined (As with all cakes it's important not to over beat).

Spoon 2 tablespoons of batter into each cavity spread batter to the edges. Bake for about 8 minutes.

When they're cool you sandwich them together with raspberry jam and 'Marshmallow Fluff' - not something you can buy on any Australian supermarket shelf ( or at USA Foods I discovered when I went down there to buy grits) . So I went online and found a recipe here for the calorific spread. You could instead use a traditional royal icing or buttercream icing.

Here's the result:

I love the way they look and as I saw on my trip, there are almost endless possible variations.

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