Archive for the ‘Food stories’ Category

white-flowering BLACKthorn

Ireland, Inishmore, Aran Islands.  Very early spring 1992.

And so that white-flowering bush that’s everywhere… is what they call WHITE thorn?

‘No’ Olwen said. ‘That’s BLACK thorn. It’ll produce sloes later on…’

Blackthorn blossom

Wrong time of the year of course (I must be getting old if memories are making me post a Sloe Gin recipe in spring…!!)

Sloes - early autumn


  • 300 freshly picked sloes
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 1 litre of gin

With a needle or skewer prick the sloes all over and put into a clean bottle or jar.  Add the sugar, then pour in the gin.  Shake well and put aside.  For the next week, shake the bottle/jar well at least twice a day, then store in a cool, dark place and shake occasionally (one every two weeks) for a few months.  Make in autumn, and the beautiful dark red liquor is ready to drink at Christmas.

Variations: you can use blackberries or raspberries in the same way (they don’t need pricking)… You can also use vodka in stead of gin…  You can serve it poured over icecreams and desserts…

Sloe Gin


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1983.  Ireland.  Late summer.

Why do you call blackberries blackberries, when they are really mostly red?

Aw sure, they’re only red when they are green.

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Some consider its fleeting, heady perfume evocative and divinely sensual. Others rate the truffle simply as a gourmet’s delight.   I myself think the truffle’s scent is unmistakeably and un-apologetically carnal, reminding me of the muskiness of an unmade bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics…

On the aphrodisiac scale, it scores alongside oysters, chocolate, rhino horn and bulls’ testicles – reinforced by literary references as to its ability to “make one’s loins smoulder like those of randy lions” (Balzac) and of being “the luxury of wealthy men and their kept women” (Brillat-Savarin).  Couple this with its reputation of having empowered Napoleon to conceive his only legitimate son, and it is not hard to grasp why so many revere this insignificant, ugly, underground mushroom.

a sin…

Such indeed was the truffle’s reputation, that the Catholic Church excluded it from its celebratory feasts, believing it to be the embodiment of lust and evil…

But whatever opinion we may have of this black, knobbly fungus, its reputation almost always precedes our actual experience of it. (I remember hesitating – albeit at the age of 16 and for only ONE second – before having a stab at my first sampling of it.)  Furthermore, whatever claims are made, much of the truffle’s secrets remains shrouded in mystery. So what are the true facts of this ugly fungus and why all the fuss?

Well, truffles can be either black (also known as melanospora) or white (magnata). Other varieties do exist but are not as highly prized. They grow underground, usually close to the roots of certain species of shrub oaks and hazel trees.  Truffle hunters greatly rely on luck to find them and have, for centuries, depended on sows to locate them. Turn a sow loose in a truffle orchard, and she’ll sniff like a bloodhound. And then she’ll dig with manic passion. Why? It all boils down to androstenol – a male pig hormone. Research has shown truffles to contain twice the amount of androstenol that is found in a male pig – hence the sow’s interest.  The fact that boar pheromones are chemically close to human male hormones probably explains why we too find the scent of truffles arousing.

truffle pig

Here I would like to pause and give a thought to the poor frustrated sow. Imagine her trotting through a truffle orchard that seems, to her, positively vibrating with sexy boars – every single one panting for her.  Yet all of these potential lovers are for some inexplicable reason doing their panting underground.  So here she is, driven wild with desire, and so to fulfill her passionate cravings she starts digging. And then?  Not only does all that frantic digging merely lead to a strange, lumpy, splotched mushroom, but then the farmer snatches it away from her!  All she can do is try digging for another potential suitor… I cannot think of a sadder story, can you?

truffle omelette

For most of us truffles are simply a luxurious treat, one that perhaps borders on hedonistic gluttony.  But not many of us can afford them very often. Because of their exorbitant cost, truffles are shaved into very thin slivers or tiny dice, then added to pasta and egg dishes or sprinkled sparingly over risotto, thinly sliced beef and shellfish – its decadent flavour attainable only to those who can afford its price.  For truffles can fetch as much as 2000 euros a kilo at a connoisseurs’ market – a place where an amateur risks being bamboozled into buying heavy, clay-covered or even fake specimens for the same exorbitant price.


It is the end of January and I’m on my way to what is one of France’s largest and most famous of truffle markets – Richerenches, in Haute Provence.  It is a sunny but crisp, cold winter morning when we set out, driving through a landscape that is dotted with immaculately kept vineyards, plantain lined avenues, sandstone farmhouses with pale-blue shutters and leafless vine-covered pergolas.  Here and there patches of land are still covered with the white morning frost and black-bereted men in blue denim can be seen, hands tucked deep into their pockets, inspecting their dormant crops.

truffle market at Richerenches

It is 10 am and at the open-air market, farmers and brokers are poised for business. There is no dealing yet – everyone huddles in small groups, stamping their feet against the cold, measuring each other up from underneath the rims of their caps. There seems a lot of bragging and bluffing and teasing going on but the car boots remain firmly closed. Small-time truffle hunters roam from dealer to dealer, rustling a plastic or paper bag, occasionally allowing someone a furtive glance or a quick sniff at its content. Men with dirt under their fingernails and last night’s garlic on their breath huddle around a shabby old van. Behind them several rows of arching necks are trying to glimpse at the treasures on offer.


At 11.30 a frisson ripples through the crowd. After all the strutting and boasting and haggling, it seems a price has been established. Today this is somewhere between 1200 and 1500 euros a kilo. Car boots are opened and the strong, intoxicating truffle scent suddenly pervades the air.  The provocative scent becomes almost too much. One man cooks truffled omelettes on a portable gas cooker, offering small pieces to potential customers.  Buyers dressed in expensive leather jackets stand beside their gleaming BMWs, many with Swiss number plates. They drop their noses into small plastic bags and if they like what they see, they’ll weigh the loot by means of ancient hand-scales and make an offer. Everyone watches intently as wads of crisp Euros are double-checked with much licking of thumbs and glancing over shoulders. Cheques are not accepted and receipts are never issued because truffistes are not eager to participate in that daft government ploy the rest of us call taxation. One vendor has only seven truffles left – he’s been selling large ones – at 300 euros a pop.

By midday, both buyers and sellers look happy. Tomorrow their truffles can be found in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe. Or perhaps in the chic Parisian delicatessens of Fauchon and Hediard and at Harrods’s fine foods counter. (The latter do accept cheques of course – only you’ll be paying three times the price). Further along the market stalls a woman takes advantage of people’s bonne humour and sells freshly picked, flowering mimosa branches. Another peddles dried ceps, salty olives and pungent salamis.


Her neighbour hawks homemade quince preserves to eat with the goats’ cheese that her compatriot sells nextdoor, together with his truffled olive oil. The man beside him has a stack of oak saplings which he promises are mycorhizes or “injected with black truffle spores” for those who fancy ‘growing their own’…

But it’s time to leave the action – a truffled lunch awaits us in Bouchet – in a simple small inn called L’Auberge de la Poste.  It’s warm and cosy inside and we sit down immediately.  No apero is offered for who would want to kill the delicate truffle flavours with an overpowering pastis? Our starter is a buttery potato dish, dotted with slivers of truffle – the ultimate comfort dish to warm the cockles of our tastebuds.  En suite we are served small puff pastries, light as a feather, stuffed with foie gras and generously sprinkled with truffles.  Next is a light fluffy omelette generously studded with truffles and with each meal we drink a different local wine.

truffle pasta

Later that night, we were to eat more truffle scented food in the splendid surroundings of nearby Chateau de Rochegude – think grilled scallops with beurre blanc and grated truffles, truffled artichokes, tender veal with truffles..  But first, after lunch, a visit to a truffle orchard has been planned…


Nowadays sows have been replaced by more easily-handled dogs. Unlike pigs however, the chiens truffiers do not instinctively sniff out truffles and must be trained for this work.

chien truffier

It is a labour-intensive and unpredictable business and truffle hunters, like good journalists, protect their sources.  For the latter however, watching a truffiste at work can be a dangerous preoccupation – especially if he has a wife. “Ies iet ma ‘ousband you make en photo?” she demanded brusquely, taking a swipe at my camera. I volunteer that I merely take pictures to illustrate my article.

monsieur le truffiste

She snorts and looks accusingly towards her husband who seems quite pleased with the attention, seeing as he has by now draped himself seductively over a leaning tree.   This does not convince her of my innocence, and she attempts a neat rugby tackle.  Monsieur le mari meanwhile relishes in the struggle and continues to make sure that his profile is at all times perfectly angled for my lens – a problem his wife tries to solve by trying another few clever moves.

Richerenches truffle mass

But the worry about others’ marital demeanours need not have kept me awake all night, for it appeared that all had been forgiven the next day – at the Truffle Mass celebrated in honour of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of truffle growers. Comme d’habitude parishioners are asked to donate generously, and as members of the Confrerie du Diamant Noir, in full ceremonial regalia, pass around the collection baskets, large truffles join the banknotes, and once again the evocative scent fills the air.

the collection baskets

I notice Madame La Truffiste who now sports a heavenly smile on her face as she generously contributes a handsome black specimen towards the worthy cause.

Because let’s face it, what after all, would the flutterings of love and marriage be without the truffle?


Copyright Petra Carter




Serves 2.

1 small truffle

4 eggs

2 tbsp butter

sea salt and freshly milled black pepper

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel, then cut into thin, thin slivers. Beat the eggs in a bowl with 1 tbsp water and season. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the eggs. Cook the eggs, stirring continuously until softly cooked. Divide between two plates, top with truffle shavings and serve with crusty bread and butter.


Serves 6.

1 large black truffle

2-3 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp butter

350g Arborio or risotto rice

1.6 litre hot chicken stock

salt and freshly ground pepper

50g freshly grated or “shaved” Parmesan cheese

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel as thinly as you can, then slice (also as thinly as you can). Put into a small bowl, cover with 2-3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, cover with clingfilm and set aside.

Carefully ‘sweat’ the onion in oil and butter for 5 minutes or until transparent. Stir in the rice until the grains are coated with oil and butter. Now add a generous ladle of hot stock, and stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid has been absorbed. Add a second ladle and stir again gently until it has been absorbed. Repeat until the stock has been used and the rice is creamy but not dry (about 20 minutes). Remove from the heat, stir in the oil from the truffle and season. Pile into individual deep plates and top with Parmesan and truffle slivers.


Here the potatoes are lightly crushed rather than mashed. Wonderful with shellfish or beef. Serves 4

1 large truffle

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

750g large, ‘old’ potatoes, cut into 3cm cubes

1 clove of garlic, peeled

salt and freshly milled black pepper

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush then slice as thinly as you can. Put in a small bowl, cover with olive oil and keep in a warm place. Put the potatoes and garlic into a saucepan, add 1 tbsp salt and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for about 15 minutes or until soft. Drain the potatoes and garlic and return to the pan. Add the olive oil from the truffles, salt and pepper to taste, then with a fork gently crush the potatoes and garlic. Now stir in the truffle slivers and serve.

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My friend Nicola, author, literary researcher and member of the professional food writers’ forum called Eatwords, (we call ourselves Eatworders), asked a food-related question yesterday…

Help, please, literati… I have been given a manuscript to read.   It’s a food history book, and is written in US.   The author discusses French and Anglo Saxon food words and refers to ‘porque’.  I have never seen it written anything other than ‘porc’ in French, but is this some obscure historical way of spelling it?  Or has the author simply made a gaffe, perhaps by confusing it with the Spanish word for ‘because’?

Cansalada – or ‘petit salé’

Living in the part of France where patois (a local dialect with a distinct Spanish accent) is still very much part of daily life, I found that this question presented a challenge…

‘We’ here in the deep South of France, pronounce all our T‘s and S‘s and even our silent E‘s at the end of a word.  (Goodness, it is so easy to do when you’re here a while – even I have now acquired that odd local twang).   Thus, Mirepeisset (the name of our village) is pronounced ‘Mirepeissette‘, neighbouring Argeliers is pronounced as ‘Argeliesse, as is Montoliesse (Montoliers) and Ginestasse (Ginestas).  Even the word moins (as in ‘less’) is spoken with its final S well articulated.  We also say ‘paing‘ and ‘vang‘ and ‘veng‘ instead of pain, and vent and vin

I do not think this is entirely due to half of the local inhabitants being from Spanish descent (having come here as migrant grape-pickers during the early part of the last century), because the accent is rather the same in every village – from Perpignan to Provence (you only need to listen to Yves Montand’s delicious diction in Pagnol’s Jean de Fleurette and Manon des Sources).

Since it is a wonderfully balmy and star-lit evening, and the little restaurant in the square is still buzzing with the influx of diners, I thought I would pop out to the Placette and ask for an informed opinion on the subject of ‘porque‘ – seeing as  this ingredient plays such an important role in people’s lives and daily diet here.  For who could possibly survive without the salted and heavily peppered cansalada (more commonly known as petit salé)?

The ‘habitués’ sur la Placette

Our (by now famous – see earlier posts) 20 odd batchelors are out in force tonight – occupying every public bench in sight.  Some are even seen ‘mingling’ with the Parisian, Bordelais and Lyonnais tourists that have descended for their annual holidays.  I approached one such little group and when there was a brief gap in the  conversation, I posed Nicola’s question…  It was like throwing a cat among the pigeons (or rather the undisputed chat parmi les pigeons).  From the ensuing cacophony I retrieved the following comments…

more of La Placette célibataires

– “Ah beng NONG (local accent), “le porc c’est le porc” (no audible pronunciation of the final c).  “There’s nothing more to it”.

– “Ah si“, (nasal Parisian accent – not too popular here because of its implied haughtiness), “j’ai entendu, bien que très rarement, la prononciation ‘porque’ ici dans le Sud”.  This is vividly and noisily contradicted by the locals.

– “Mois aussi” (pipes up a Lyonnais accent – even less adored here because of its  self-assigned and presumed superior properties) “j’ai entendu les gens d’ici dire ‘porque’…” (Surrounded by so much local talent, he dared not call us ‘natives’ and so described us more politically-correct as ‘people from here’.)  Bad mistake.  Naturally his opinion was completely drowned in a waterfall of passionate disapprovals.  These protests were issued on principle, for what do these ‘foreigners’ know about our accents anyway?  And how dare they have an opinion on a subject as close to our hearts (and stomachs) as pork?

– A Bordelais joins in, unaware of the perils.  (Being from Bordeaux, he’s an obvious target too – don’t they sell wines over there that, whilst being totally inferior to our own sublime Languedoc specimens, they have the culot to charge more for?  And doesn’t that make them even more fair game than Parisians or Lyonnais?   “Moi aussi” he ventures hesitantly, “j’ai entendu porque des bouches fleurantes le terroir…” which translated  means ‘I have also heard porque from mouths with accents that are perfumed by the land‘.

Dead silence in the square.

That was it.  Nobody said a word. And nobody had an answer to that.  I’ve put my foot in it with this question and well I know it.  We’re not just talking about a cat among the pigeons here.  More like un loup dans la bergerie!

Undecided and confused, I retreat. Nothing more needs to be said and tomorrow is another (sunny) day.  My soft-talking sweet neighbour Serge takes pity on me and gentlemanly catches my elbow.  He volunteers that ‘the mountain people’ from the Ariege mountains, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, sometimes say porque with the final Q well pronounced. And then confesses that if a woman would eat messily and spills her food (or wine), she COULD say: “je fais la porque” – as in: I eat like a pig.

There you have it. porque versus porc.  I now need a good shot of something strong to calm my nerves…

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growing up…


I grew up with the fragrances of Indonesia – of toasting coconut and mixed spices, of rice steaming in cone-shaped bamboo baskets, of frying sambals and the waxy smell of hand-painted batiks that the women wore to the selamatans – those semi-religious neighbourhood celebrations that were organised in thanks for anything from a pregnancy or birth to a new job or the successful completion of studies…

the thin layers of spekkoek

I would do my school homework in the kitchen, whilst my grandmother made spekkoek – a laboriously layered cake of dozens and dozens of wafer-thin buttery pancakes flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and mace – so rich that we could only ever manage a very thin slice!

Other days the kitchen would smell of boiling vinegar, turmeric and chillies when a batch of atjar tjampur — a fragrant, mixed vegetable pickle — was in the making. My mother might make our favourite serundeng— a side-dish made with slowly toasted

atjar tjampur

coconut and peanuts, perfumed with cumin and coriander. Or rempeyek— a crunchy savoury peanut brittle.   Abon abon too — another condiment, made from slowly dried and sweetened, shredded meat (or its shellfish equivalent ebbie ebbie). We called it monkey hair because of its texture. My dad cooked too and had his own specialities.


He was always in charge of the krupuk (huge, flat sheets of prawn crackers) and of course the regular family besengek or sate padang barbecues on Sundays.

Yet, despite this total immersion in Indonesian culture, I grew up in Holland. My father had left Java in the fifties and, unable to suppress his love for all things Indonesian, started a business importing food and cooking equipment from there.  Around the same time many Indonesians also immigrated to Holland – where they integrated with ease into Dutch Society.  Inter-racial marriages were both common and celebrated and Indonesian food was adopted with gusto – not only in the homes of Dutch families but in the many restaurants that served elaborate rijsttafel dishes on their menues.

elaborate family rijsttafel in the 50's

Rijsttafel (meaning rice-table in Dutch) is the result of a collective ‘collaboration’ between Indonesian and Dutch culinary traditions dating back to the Dutch Colonial Era – evolving as a way for Dutch citizens living in Indonesia to impress their visitors and show off the colony’s enormous wealth of exotic abundance…

rijstafel at home today

At home an Indonesian meal can be as simple as a single-pot dish such as nasi goreng (fried rice with onions, ginger, cumin and meat and lots of ketjap) or bahmi goreng (a stir-fried noodle dish with meat, celery, leeks and cabbage).  A

rijstafel served in a restaurant

rijsttafel on the other hand is a huge celebratory affair served on special occasions – usually a central dish of plainly boiled rice  with anything between five and fifteen separate dishes of spicy fish, vegetables, chicken, beef, pork and eggs, each in its own uniquely flavoured sauce, and always accompanied by umpteen side dishes of handmade condiments – crispy, crunchy, hot, sour or salty…

Most of my parents’ friends were Indonesian and still are. They taught us so many things. Among them was an old lady we called Oma (Dutch for granny) Hamar. She descended from an ancient bloodline of Indonesian nobility. But she knew how to cook and spent much time with my parents, talking and teaching them about Indonesian culture and food and traditions.

selamatan - collectie tropenmuseum

The little book in which she wrote down recipes in her neat, beautiful handwriting is now in my possession. I treasure it and I still make the recipes below. They take a little time, but it is a therapeutic way to deal with today’s hectic lifestyles. And today, another generation on, my children count these dishes among their all-time favourites….

Seroendeng (or serundeng)

A dry condiment which is traditionally served on the side or sprinkled over all sorts of Indonesian dishes, but it would be equally delicious with Thai food. This recipe makes quite a quantity but, stored in an airtight, paper-lined tin, it keeps for ages.



2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
3 tbsp ground laos (galangal)
1 tbsp ground ketumbar (coriander)
1 tbsp ground djintan (cumin)
400 g desiccated coconut
300 g roasted peanuts

drying seroendeng

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the spices over low heat. Stir in the desiccated coconut and mix thoroughly. Stirring all the time, gently toast the coconut for 10 minutes, until a light golden.

Put the pan on a heat diffuser and turn the heat down to its very lowest. Now very gently and stirring regularly to prevent burning, dry the coconut for about 1 hour.

When completely dry, stir in the toasted peanuts and continue cooking for another 5 or 10 minutes then store in an airtight tin for up to 3 months.

Abon Abon

A soft textured side dish of dried, slightly sweet meat, which is sprinkled over Indonesian food. Also great as a nibble with pre-dinner drinks. This can be stored, in a paper-lined, airtight tin, for 2 months.

sambal abon abon


500g lean stewing beef in one flat piece
1 small piece (25 g) asam (tamarind pulp)
4 tbsp water
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, frushed
1 small red chilli, finely chopped
4 tbsp ground laos (galangal)
2 tbsp gula djawa (jaggery or dark brown sugar)
½ tsp salt


In a saucepan, cover the meat with water. Bring to the boil and simmer until completely tender (about 30-45 minutes).
Meanwhile, put the tamarind and warm water in a small bowl, then press and squeeze with a spoon until the water becomes thick and brown. Strain through a sieve, discard the tamarind pulp and seeds, and set the liquid aside.

Remove from the meat from the water and allow to cool. Using two forks, pull the meat into tiny threads.

In a large frying pan, heat the oil and gently fry the onion, garlic, chilli and galangal. Add the sugar, salt and tamarind water as well as the threaded meat and mix well. Over medium to low heat, stir-fry the mixture for 10 minutes.

Put the pan on a heat diffuser and turn the heat down to its very lowest. Very slowly dry the meat for up to 2 hours, tossing regularly to prevent burning.

The meat will become crispy and when it is completely dry, store in a paper-lined, airtight tin.

Sayur Tumis Boontjes
This dish is ideal for reinterpretation – I’ve used a combination of chicken stock and dried prawns (available from Asian food stores) and garnished it with hard-boiled eggs. But you can also use minced pork instead of prawns, leave out the eggs and add or omit vegetables of your choice. Serve with plainly boiled rice and the condiments below, on the side.


3 tbsp of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small red chilli, finely chopped
200 g dried shrimps or prawns
3 tbsp ground laos (galangal)
2 tbsp ground ketumbar (coriander)
1 tbsp gula djawa (jaggery or brown sugar)
800 ml of good, home-made chicken stock
600 g French beans, cut into 3cm lengths
½ cucumber, cut into small sticks
300 g fresh bean sprouts
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved


In a saucepan heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onion until transparent. Add the chilli and dried prawns and continue frying for another 8 minutes or so. Add the spices and fry for another 2 minutes. Next stir in the sugar and stock and bring to the boil. Add the French beans, simmer for 5-8 minutes or until almost cooked then add the cucumber and bean sprouts and continue cooking for another 1-2 minutes.

Float the halved eggs, yolk-side up, on top and serve hot, with plainly boiled rice and some abon abon or serundeng on the side.

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