Sunday, 30 March 2014

Citron Carpaccio and a Change of Heart

Every spring, I go on a bit of a citrus binge at the local markets, buying up bergamots, kumquats, grapefruit and citron whenever I spot them followed by a leisurely afternoon in the kitchen making marmalade and jam.  I've been getting some interesting results with poaching citron peel so I'm always especially on the lookout for them.

Even though they resemble a lemon in shape and colour, citron certainly don't taste like a lemon.  They have a thick, spongy, white pith with a tiny bit of sour flesh in the centre.  The bumpy skin has a soft lemon flavour but none of the intensity nor acidity of a lemon.  They're traditionally used for making preserves or candied peel.

In France, citron are called cédrat and in Italy they're cedro. No one would fault you for walking right by the knobbly, misshapen looking citron while thinking, "something is seriously wrong with those lemons!" 

But this post really isn't about the citron and what to make with it.  It's about simplicity and a culinary change of heart.

Cedro in the Ventimiglia market:  "Brutti ma buoni."  Ugly but good
If you've ever bought anything from a food vendor in Italy or France, more often then not, they'll advise you in the most detailed and definitive way, the perfect thing to make with what you're buying.  Take this morning for example.  I bought a small black truffle and some wine from a vendor in Italy and our conversation went something like this:  "This wine is excellent with poached fish, especially Dorade, and remember to add some rosemary with the poaching water and lots of salt, but remember to use sea salt, not regular salt" he continued, "and the best thing for the truffle is to use a young olive oil and shave it on scrambled eggs and by the way, I hear Vincenzo's artichokes are very good today, very tender, but a bit expensive."  Me nodding politely.

Their advice is usually about how use their ingredients to prepare meat or fish dishes and since I'm a vegetarian, their words generally go in one ear and out the other.  I confess that over the years I've become a bit blasé and adept at tuning out most of what they have to say, while I politely smile, thank them, and then head off to the next stand.  But this morning I had a change of heart. 

This year and last, after buying citron at the markets in Italy and France, three different vendors recommended that I eat it thinly sliced and topped with olive oil and salt.  Sounded crazy to me since I'd been using them to make jam and marmalade.  When I bought some citron in Italy today, the vendor gave me the same recipe and it seems that the fourth time was the charm.  When I got home, I pulled out the citrons, my mandoline, my best olive oil, some fleur du sel and gave it a try.  

My first thought after my first bite was, "why had I waited so long?"

Thinly slicing the citron on a mandoline
The texture of the white pith was soft and yielding like a porcini mushroom.  The flavour was sublimely delicate, like a fresh perfumed lemon with the volume turned down.  It reminded me not of a flavour but of a feeling:  The same feeling I get when I'm eating the first of the spring peas or of the scent of lettuce freshly cut from the garden or the smell that lingers on my hands after I've touched tomato branches.  Ethereal.  Fleeting.

I've never seen citron prepared this way on restaurant menus anywhere in Italy or France.  For me it's an example of pure terroir, right from the grower's trees and imagination.  
Adding citron to my favourite salad of artichokes, arugula and shaved Parmesan was a good idea too
The citron experience has taught me to be more humble, to cast off my "little Miss know-it-all" attitude I sometimes have when it comes to the vendors' advice.  With my right hand in the air, I hereby vow to listen as they offer up their recipes, meaty or otherwise.  They are the ones who know the subtleties of their products and how to consume them.  I owe them that.

With the same open heart, I bought some of Vincenzo's artichokes as instructed and they were fresh, sweet, and fabulous.  I sliced them, added some fresh arugula, shaved Parmesan, olive oil and sprinkled more chopped citron on top.

I think I'll return the favour and share my new recipe with the citron vendors.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Our Olive Trees get a Haircut

Sometime around mid-March, little buds start to appear on our ancient olive trees.  Not long after that, Darrio arrives to give them their biennial haircut. 


Trimming olive trees is no easy task, best left to the professionals like Darrio. 

Our olive trees are very tall, some have been estimated at 800-1,000 years old with trunks as wide as a Smart Car.  Each of them is gnarled with age, like an old arthritic oak tree. They always make me feel so young, like we're just passing through and long after we're gone and forgotten, they'll live on.

Despite their advanced age, by September they each produce masses of little olives and a profuse number of leaves, year after year without any help nor interference from us.

We like to keep our trees trimmed neatly but not as severely as you see in some public parks here where they resemble coiffed poodles more than majestic olive trees. 

Our guidance to Darrio is classic:  to trim the trees so that a swallow could fly through the  branches without touching its wings.  So off he goes. 

For a week or so, the usual stillness of our garden is broken with the constant sound of Darrio's gas powered olive branch cutter.  From early morning to late evening, his generator growls.  "Chunk" we hear as he cuts through a branch, "Swoosh" as the branches heavy with slate coloured leaves hits the ground.  It takes him almost a day to trim each tree and by the time he's finished, the base of each tree is piled a metre high with branches and leaves.  It's so tempting to jump on the pile and throw everything around like a kid playing in fall leaves but we don't;  the olive branches are hard as steel and the leaves are capable of slicing skin.

Old olive wood on the wood pile
And speaking of olive trees, while I was poking around the garden last week I found a little surprise tucked into one of the trunks.  Seems like all the rain we've had recently revealed that one of our past gardeners was keeping a secret... Based on the shape of the bottle, he was Burgundy fan!

You're next!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Seen but not Heard. Cemetery Portraits

When I'm in Menton, and I'm in the right mood, I like to visit the ancient cemeteries. 

Both the popular Cimetière du Vieux-Chateau and the lesser known Cimetière du Trabuquet have enviable panoramic views from their grand perches high above the town.  I find both to be beautiful in their own way but it's the Cimetiere du Vieux-Chateau where all the tourists go.  Believe it or not, it boasts its own Trip Advisor page, filled with glowing reviews, I might add.  

There's a friendly tabby who frequents the Cimetiere du Vieux-Chateau.  She seems happy to spend her days there like a feline guardian, taking in the sun and, I like to imagine, chasing the occasional mouse.  She probably finds serenity here since it's interdit (forbidden) to bring dogs past the big front gates.  I imagine that visitors, who may have fallen into a contemplative or generous mood, pause to offer her a little scratch.  I know I do.
View from the Cimetiere du Vieux-Chateau

One thing that always fascinates me about French cemeteries is the custom of placing photos of the dearly departed on gravestones and tombs.

At first I thought the practice to be a bit macabre but over the years, my eyes have gradually become accustomed to the portraits and now I see a poignant beauty in them, a way of expressing loyalty and remembrance to loved ones.

It takes courage to look at some of these portraits, especially the ones of children and infants but I thought they were worth sharing.

Would you want your portrait placed on your grave?  I can't decide about mine.

Sweeping sea views from the Cimetiere Trabuquet
Military graves in the Cimetiere Trabuquet


On April 24, 1952, there were torrential rains in Menton causing a landslide in which brothers Charles and Eugenie Giordan  and their granddaughter Monique Corradi perished.  Charles Giordan's body was found 37 years later, buried one metre deep near his property.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Seeking Nostalgia on Cat Street


Lately it seems I've been seeking nostalgia.  

I've started a collection of scratchy, old French 78 RPM shellac records that I love listening to on my equally old and scratchy French gramophone.  The idea of digging through boxes of old photographs and postcards or finding a shelf of vintage cookbooks makes me giddy.  Perhaps it will pass, probably when I run out of space.

Wherever I travel, I research the local flea markets and garage sales, any nook and cranny where I may find treasures.  God love Hubby for indulging me.

I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is about an old photograph that pulls me in and makes me want to own it.  I think it starts with the sense that a moment in time is being captured.  Following that, I feel a wistfulness that perhaps the person in the photo passed away and that's how it wound up in a box of old photos:  given away by accident or worse, by heirs who saw no value in keeping it. 

I pull myself out of this swirl by imagining that it was once a treasured possession for someone in the past.  It's a little bit of an emotional storm.

In Hong Kong recently, I poked around Cat Street, always a gold mine of quirky vintage goodies even though some of them are overpriced for the tourist trade.  I found some intriguing black and white photos and some 2 1/4" transparencies that have lost all their once vibrant colours over time and faded to a cheery pink.  After a bit of negotiating, (natch) they were mine.  

Who are the people in these images?  Are they still alive?  What were their lives like and how did these photographs manage to end up in a dusty old box of photos on Cat Street?  

I wish I knew...


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Luxe Snacks at the Christmas Village, Monaco Style

Now that the holidays are just a memory and a frightening number on the scale, I thought I'd tell you how, for us in Monaco, all those kilos got there in the first place.

Every December, Monaco's Port Hercule is transformed into a charming Christmas wonderland or a Village de Noël.  It's similar to those that pop up during the holidays in cities and towns all around France and it's quite pleasant to bundle up and stroll between the little wooden huts buying charming, inexpensive gifts and grabbing a snack al fresco. But that's where the similarity ends...

First of all, you'd never recognize it but Monaco's Village is in the exact same spot where the pits are set up in May of each year for the Formula 1 Grand Prix race.  Multi-million dollar race cars zoom around Monaco and end up here at the finish line where the Prince, along with anyone in the general vicinity, is doused with champagne by the driver of the winning car.

Mixed in with the traditional fare you'd find at any French VIllage, Monaco offers the sorts of food you're more likely to indulge in at a high-end gastronomy event than an outdoor Christmas Village...

There's champagne of the white or rosé variety served in flutes that are glass, not plastic.  There are a selection of fine red and white wines to wash down foie gras on toasted brioche and a variety of oysters.  Beside the oyster stand is one selling steaming plates of mussels and cold sea urchins with lemon wedges. Pinky wipes are kindly provided as needed. There's Bellota ham from Spain and Hungarian Goulash.  And if it's not luxurious, it's probably strange like giant marshmallows coated in chocolate called Têtes du Choco and on the savoury side of strange, "Cheese and Fries" and Badass Burgers from a "Secret Recipe transmitted from Biker to Biker." Looks to me like the Cheese and Fries were copied from Quebec and look a lot like Poutine to this Canadian girl!  

Monaco's Port Hercule.  A Christmas Fair in December, the Grand Prix pits in May

If you or the kiddies would like to munch on something more traditional, there are old standbys like Churros, waffles, or crêpes spread with Nutella or doused with Grand Marnier. There are entire booths devoted to cochonnerie, (I love that word) which is the French term for junk food like lollipops, candy apples, and cotton candy in your choice of 10 flavours.  Personally, I prefer a modest helping of yeast-raised, sugar coated doughnuts made à la minute while you watch and lick your chops. 

Apart from the food and gift stands, there's entertainment with daily puppet shows, karaoke, magicians, games, a Ferris wheel, a beautiful antique carousel, a skating rink, and sprinkled here and there, creepy looking sculptures. 

Good friends Christine and Geoff and I took a spin around the skating rink one fine and sunny day which was quite pleasant until a giant teenage girl careened into Christine and then took me out along with her.  After we pried our aching bums off the ice, we called it a day and fled to the safety of the Ferris wheel to take in the spectacular view.

One thing for certain, people in Monaco may not be skilled skaters but they're definitely skilled eaters.
Opposites attract:  foie gras to go and Têtes de Choco, giant chocolate covered marshmallows
The skating rink where the pool usually is

Decisions, decisions...

Your choice of 10 different oysters or sea urchins with 5 different wines.  This stand was very popular
Cheese and fries sounds a lot like Canada's Poutine.  Hamburgers are rare in these parts
Mmmm.  Doughnuts...

Creepy sculptures here and there

I love the bird's eye view from the Ferris wheel
One of the hand painted panels on the beautiful antique carousel
Maybe someone will drop some Foie Gras...
Bird's eye view from the Ferris wheel

See you next year!