Lunch in France? Oui

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“Shall we have lunch in France today, darling?”

It’s the type of phrase we antipodeans fantasise is entirely commonplace here in Old Blighty. And while I do realise that such country-hopping isn’t exactly practical or economical – even when the distance to cover is less than that from Sydney to Bathurst – it is certainly possible. At least so I discovered on a recent assignment for my current employer, which had my husband Paul and me taking an overnight ferry from Plymouth (in Devon, UK) for a pre-booked three course lunch the next day in Roscoff, a small seaside village in Brittany, in northwest France.

The only catch, I should add, is the experience might be less of the envisioned jetsetting glamour and more running around in a tiny, rocking cabin in your underwear at an ungodly hour hoping that that disgruntled French crew member won’t pop his head through the apparently-not-locked door again and tell you to please ‘urry up!

Anyway, to go back to the beginning, I want to point out that I’m rather getting the hang of this job – that is, visiting stately manor house hotels and restaurants most months to write up small content marketing pieces for Food, a free magazine that promotes food and tourism in the South West of England. When it comes to food, a country backwater the South West is not; rather it is home to renowned chefs such as Rick Stein, Nathan Outlaw and Michael Caines. In other words, my tastes have become rather elevated lately, perhaps unusually so for half of a modest single-income couple of expats renting the loft space in the home of Bideford’s answer to Uncle Fester.

This background leads me to an explanation for my lack of preparation on this recent trip to France. You see, I’m more accustomed to these work trip involving hotel stays that come with bottles of complementary champagne than glorified domestic flights. I mean, did I really need to read the fine print about disembarkation and set my watch to French time, or would a pipe-smoking tweed-clad hotelier not arrive at my door with a coffee and the paper to inform me that “yes of course the passengers will wait for you to wake at your own pace, for the French are a patient, tolerant people, particularly when it comes to non-French-speaking, disorganised tourists who failed to read the clearly-stated-in-English fine print”.

And then I woke up.

Of course, the boat trip was lovely. We didn’t get seasick and its onboard restaurant was more than pleasant and involved mountains of fresh langoustine. But even without that, the trip was well and truly worth it. Oh dear sweet French mother of God was it worth it. I would have almost swam the English channel had I known the lunch that awaited us the next day.

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Transport those harried boat passengers a few hours ahead, and you’ll find us sitting in the dining room of L’Ecume des Jours (which according to Google Translate could mean the ‘scum of days’, but is more likely the ‘seafoam of days’ and is in fact named after a classic 1947 French novel written by Boris Vian). This is the restaurant on the waterfront at Roscoff, in a tiny, ancient looking building, with sandstone-walled interiors and polished timber floorboards, all clean lines and nautical chic meets French colonial oil paintings and really heavy cutlery. The interior was muted, perhaps a little too much so – you could hear the clink of cutlery and the conversation levels lowered to match, until you had to be brave to be the first one to break the silence. However, eventually the room warmed up and it felt a little like we’d been invited to our super cool French friend’s seaside house for lunch on a rainy Sunday. Hey, that could happen.

Having navigated our way through that awkward part of the meal where I try to maintain a thin veneer of class to suit the surrounds, whilst also trying to ascertain just what has been agreed to be included in advance, we could commence onto the good part… (#foodporn)

To start, an aperitif of champagne was served with an amuse bouche of white asparagus mousse and tuna tartare with seaweed. We shared two starters – one, a platter of ten natural oysters served with red wine vinaigrette and a surprisingly perfect parsley sorbet, and the other a plate of crab in a sauce of local artichokes and piquillos peppers, with crispy rice and seaweed. For mains we both ordered roast monkfish with sweet potato and cumin, white asparagus (it’s in season), and lobster juice. Literally a little tub of lobster goodness. For dessert I had a mango concoction that involved some sort of basil cake base, basil cream, mango ice cream, fresh mango and a crisp toffee shard and fresh basil garnish (basil in desserts is a trend that I’m totally on board with). Paul had a dark chocolate ball with an orange ice cream centre.

It was the type of food you close your eyes to savour, and perhaps release a single tear of joy in doing so.

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(Yes I photographed every course.)

After lunch we ventured onto the right hand side of the road and drove a little further afield for a walk on the beach, before boarding the ferry again in the afternoon, scheduled to return to Plymouth at 9:30pm. We had another ensuite cabin booked, which meant a well earned siesta on the way home (oh wait, that’s Spanish. Ok, food coma.)

And in the name transparency, you can now mentally transport those wined and dined travellers to around 10pm that night, and you’ll find them sitting in rusty old Land Rover Discovery in a back street of Plymouth, downing a quick KFC Zinger burger before checking into our AirBnB accommodation… Like magic, back to the real world. Voila!

Post script: This post is dedicated to my niece Margaret Janice Wotherspoon Black who was busy arriving in the world far away in Australia while all this silliness was going on. Welcome Maggie! xxxx

My Passport and Plate entry

Passport and plate entryClearly where I went wrong was in failing to kiss the fish. Always kiss the fish.

For the past month or so I’ve been carefully avoiding making plans for the week of June 5-13, in the hope that a recent day spent cooking, photographing and writing up the below recipe might pay off with a food blogging trip to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Intrepid Travel and World Nomads.

Alas, as of today, I became all too free on those dates, as the winners of the ‘Passport & Plate’ competition were announced and my name wasn’t one of the chosen three. As I only later noticed, however, I did make the shortlist, which was enough to give me a little glow of pleasure and the impetus to try again next year.

And besides, time spent cooking, writing and eating is never time wasted and so here is my competition entry reposted below – a recipe of steamed turbot with green papaya salad, along with a story behind the recipe and ‘why I should be chosen’ (the section that is left off the published online entry).

Steamed turbot with green papaya salad (som tam)

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Ingredients
FOR THE FISH
1 fresh whole (1-1.5kg) firm white-fleshed fish (seabass, bream, turbot etc.), gutted, scaled, finned and cleaned
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
6-8 spring onions, skin and ends removed, cut until the beginning of the green part, then chopped in half again
1 lime – half juiced, half sliced
2cm chunk of ginger, finely chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
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FOR THE GREEN PAPAYA SALAD (SOM TAM)
1 large green papaya, thinly shredded (if you can’t find green papaya, 1-2 green mangoes prepared in the same way will work as an alternative)
Juice of 2 limes
2 red chillies, finely chopped or minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2cm chunk of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar, grated (or use brown sugar as an alternative)
Handful of green beans
1 large ripe tomato, pulp removed, sliced

How to prepare this recipe
FOR THE SALAD
In a large bowl (or use a mortar and pestle if you have one), add all of som tam ingredients (bar the beans and tomato) and ‘pound’ to mix with the pestle, or a wooden spoon. 16673524192_652c72ac44_b
Blanch the beans in lightly salted boiling water for about 2 minutes, or until tender, then refresh under running cold water. Slice them lengthways.
Add the beans and the sliced tomato to the papaya mix, move to desired serving dish. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to eat.

FOR THE FISH
(Note: Exactly how you prepare the fish depends on your catch!)

  1. Pat the prepared fish dry with paper towel and rub it all over with salt.
  2. Place the fish in a bamboo steamer, on a bed of foil (to catch the juices!). If the fish is too big, you can cut it in half (or thirds, as I did with this big-mama turbot).
  3. Mix the garlic, chilli, ginger, oyster sauce, soy sauce, the juice of half the lime and the sesame oil in a small bowl.
  4. Stuff the fish cavity (where the fish was gutted, or otherwise – as in the case of the turbot! – create a cavity using a sharp knife) with most of the contents of the bowl, all of the coriander and a few of the spring onions.
  5. Baste the fish with the rest of the mix, then scatter the rest of the spring onions around it on the foil and place a few slices of lime on the fish.
  6. Place the bamboo steamer over a wok or saucepan filled with about 5cm of boiling water. Tightly fit the lid and reduce the heat slightly.
  7. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is white and flakes apart easily.
  8. Before serving, heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan until you see smoke, then pour the sizzling oil over the fish skin to make it crispy.
  9. Put the fish and the salad in the middle of the table along with fluffy steamed rice to soak up the juices. Then dig in!

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The story behind the recipe

It’s low tide on the River Torridge; boats lean over on the exposed mudflats, rain has cleared and sunshine peeks through the clouds.

If I close my eyes, lift my face to the sun and breathe in the briny air, I could almost be home – 15,000km away on Australia’s east coast. When I open them, I might find myself crouched by a running tap, scaling freshly caught yellowfin bream or a glistening red morwong – speared by my husband or my brother in the ocean that day. Waves crashing within earshot, the hot sun on my bare shoulders…

I open my eyes and greet the little English town I currently call home. It’s not a bad alternative – it’s unfamiliar and exciting; an adventure. I’m at the farmers’ markets to meet Dan the Fisherman and pick up the catch of the day, turbot. It’s not a fish I grew up eating, but it’ll work with my recipe, Dan assures me with a whiskery grin.

Dan the Fisherman BidefordThe seafood I ate growing up was fresh and simple – pan fried whiting fillets, thin sliced abalone, oysters flipped open and eaten standing knee-deep in an estuary. Over time, my own cooking took on influences from around the world and Sydney’s vibrant multiculturalism – particularly from South East Asia, our exotic neighbour.

In Australia, I often cooked fresh-caught fish as I have in this recipe – in a bamboo steamer bought at a local Thai supermarket, using Asian-inspired ingredients. I’ve served it with a newer discovery, green papaya salad or som tam, from my honeymoon in Thailand last year. For those three weeks I ate it whenever I could – usually under a whirring ceiling fan, sticky with sweat, and blissfully happy. Som tam is fresh and spicy, and like most Thai food it’s about finding the perfect balance between sweet, salty and sour.

This recipe represents things I miss from home – the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, Asia at my doorstep – but it’s also a reminder that food can be the vehicle in which I travel back every now and again, while exploring all the rest of the world has to offer.

‘Why I should be chosen’ (…aka Pick me! Pick me! or shameless self promotion in 2000 characters)

When, last summer, my husband and I took a five-week, 1200km bike tour around Iceland, a lot of friends couldn’t understand how I managed to “fit in” the travel blog I kept to document our adventure. The answer, of course, is simple: sharing the story was as rewarding as the adventure itself.

That’s why I became a journalist – it was the only job that would cater to my insatiable curiosity about the world and its people, and the desire to tell their stories. Since then, I’ve never stopped telling stories – from travel and adventure, to science and engineering, and most recently as writer and editor at a food and tourism publisher.

I’m also an adventurer, and my sense of adventure extends beyond the physical to the culinary. In the past few years alone I have snacked on silkworm larvae at the North/South Korean border; slept under the stars in outback Australia; eaten Pad Thai served wrapped in wax paper on a long, hot train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok; ridden to the top of an Icelandic glacier; tasted hákarl, Iceland’s infamous rotten shark delicacy; plucked, gutted and roasted a pheasant on a farm in England; and gorged on cheesy tartiflette and local wines in southern France.

Hearing about this opportunity made my heart flutter – it represents all of my passions: travel, adventure, food and writing.

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Ah well, you win some you lose some and there’s always next year! In the meantime, I’m super excited to be heading off to Romania next week for the Easter long weekend, so stay tuned for the next travel post soon.

A Cornish Christmas getaway

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In hindsight, when ordering a meal to be eaten at a table for one in a large swanky dining room, I should probably have gone for a less messy option than the mussels… Padstow Christmas Festival

As I’d chosen to eat early that evening on my overnight stay at the St Moritz Hotel in Rock, north Cornwall, the restaurant was mostly empty and I couldn’t help but feel the waiters’ eyes on me as I wrestled with the tasty but stubborn mussels in their fragrant coconut and coriander broth… My previous confidence that yes I’m sure you’re supposed to eat these with your hands and use the first shell to extract the rest of the little suckers was fast waning, but I was in too deep by then to reach for the fork, so my only option was to look confident, whilst occasionally smiling reassuringly over at the attentive row of waiters as I attempted to proceed to the next page of my touch-screen e-book using the knuckle of my pinkie finger.

Mussels at St Moritz

The situation brought a scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to mind –when her character Esther Greenwood mistakenly consumes the entire finger bowl at a luncheon “including the crisp little blossoms”. Esther came to learn that when you think you’re doing something incorrect in a dining situation, just do it with “a certain arrogance […] and nobody will think you are bad mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” So, in short, that’s the effect I was going for – and after a glass of South African sauv blanc and finished off with a warm, spicy mulled wine, I was starting to feel pretty merry and confident again anyway.

The reason I was down in Cornwall was for a two-day work trip to attend the first half of the annual, four-day Padstow Christmas Festival. My employer was invited by one of their clients, Sharp’s Brewery, who was putting staff up at the St Moritz Hotel – which happens to be another client and one who I work with directly, so I was lucky enough to be sent along.

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It’s a two-hour drive down the coast from North Devon through winding, narrow country lanes (saying that, even the A-roads here feel like narrow lanes to me…), and I arrived at around 11am to check in at the hotel then make my way down to the little ferry that crosses the Camel Estuary between the towns of Rock and Padstow – it will drop you off at different points along the beach or harbour depending on the tide.

Black Tor Ferry

The centrepoint of the festival was a big marquee set up with food stalls and craft and Christmas gifts, and of course beer – Sharp’s Brewery was the main sponsor of the event. Highlights were the Chefs Demonstration Theatre, where some of Padstow’s best chefs – including Rick Stein who many joke more or less owns Padstow (he certainly put it on the map) – cooked meals on stage for the audience to watch and learn. Among my personal favourites was the eccentric moustachioed Hugo Woolley who restored my faith in my own prospects as a home-baker when he’d been given the wrong flour and his granola cookies turned into a buttery mess in the oven – it happens to the best of us!

BBQ oysters

The next day I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant to interview former Michelin-starred chef Paul Ripley (Paul was head chef at The Seafood Restaurant after Rick and now works at The Mariners Rock pub), as well as his sous-chef Zack Hawke and Sharp’s Brewery’s beer sommelier Ed Hughes – Ed is passionately trying to elevate beer to the world of fine dining, which is a noble cause, I say.

Sharp’s Brewery also had a clever marketing trick up their sleeve with something called The Secret Bar that took place inside a closed shipping container at the festival… I can’t say too much about what went on inside, except that it involved beer and food and as a visiting journalist I was fortunate enough to have my ‘secret bar’ experience with a group of VIP chefs…

If anything was going to get me into the spirit for my first ‘cold’ Christmas in the northern hemisphere, then this little getaway to Cornwall’s foodie capital was it. Thanks Padstow and now bring on the home-made minced pies and mulled wine, I’m in a festive mood!

Merry Christmas xx

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