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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Upon repatriation, a chance to hatch my first farm-to-table plan (the coop came first!)

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat—and now repat—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share—this time a rather entertaining chicken-and-egg story (but the coop came first).

“Right, that’s it, no more chickens,” muttered my husband darkly as he finished putting in the last stake supporting the electric fence which now circled a large part of our garden. “You’d think these eggs were gold plated.”

I had always wanted chickens and, returning to the English countryside after nearly twenty years of living abroad, I seized the opportunity, investing in a proper, farm-style coop. No silly Dutch barns or Irish caravans for me—this was to be serious stuff.

“What kind of chickens do you keep?” asked the friendly guy from the animal feed shop from whom I was buying a vast bag of hay and a substantial sack of layers meal (poultry feed).

“Er, well,” I muttered with embarrassment.“I don’t actually have any yet…but soon.”

“Well,” he smiled kindly, “you’d do worse than looking up Andy at Oak Farm, he’s got all sorts.”

The chickens arrived a week later. All went well, two more arrived and the eggs began to come….until…

The Girls...minus poor Abby (supplied).

The Girls…minus poor Abby (supplied).

Why did the chicken cross the road? (Don’t ask…)

One afternoon, I went out to check on my girls, to discover that one, Abby (a Wyandotte), was missing—and so too was Sophie, my gorgeous German Shepherd.

Nearly hysterical by now as I couldn’t possibly contemplate life without Sophie, I ran up and down the road in front of the house and down the lane calling and calling the dog. She always comes.

But this time it took fifteen minutes. When she at last emerged from the ditch behind the hedge—quiet but gleaming and bright eyed—I knew.

We never found traces of Abby and it was easy to convince ourselves that a fox had stolen the unfortunate bird, but, hours later, my husband caught Sophie, red in tooth and claw, with Keira, a light Sussex.

Dinner that night was chicken. “It’s not Keira, honestly.”

The atmosphere was bleak. Something had to be done and so the electric fence was organized. We now rest easy that Sophie won’t help herself to another expensive free-range chicken lunch. She clearly remembers her meal with relish—and I still occasionally catch her gazing wistfully at The Girls. But she now knows, and an electric shock serves to reinforce the lesson.

But the flavor? Just eggs-traordinary!

The eggs are worth all the trouble. Unless you have tasted an egg straight from nesting box to plate, you have not, I am sad to say, tasted egg.

A feast of poached eggs on toast at Joanna's house (supplied).

A feast of poached eggs on toast at Joanna’s house (supplied).

In England it isn’t easy to buy battery eggs any more. Free range is the thing in all supermarkets; many only stock free range.

Should you decide to stand firm against spending extra for your eggs, you might feel it prudent to hide the box under some curly kale as you complete your perambulations around the aisles, such is the disapproval you might attract.

Hardly a nest egg…

Yes, I have eaten my share of free-range eggs and so feel myself qualified, albeit poorly, to make two observations:

1) A free-range egg from a supermarket is not the same as the eggs The Girls produce. I think it may have more to do with freshness than free-rangeness. Freshly laid, my girls produce eggs with thick whites, which do not spread when they are cracked. It is very easy to poach them perfectly since they hold together well. Of course, it goes without saying that the yolks are deeper in colour and of a more unctuous texture.

2) It’s simply not clear how free-range eggs can be produced for any profit, even at the prices supermarkets charge. I have—thank you, Sophie—nine chickens. I am lucky if I get four eggs a day. Four. I have to feed these girls both regular feed and little treats and put cider vinegar in their water for strong shells. Then I must buy them straw, which I like to change daily both for hygiene and for their comfort and dignity—they are ladies, please. Then there is the cost of the coop and galvanized feeders and water dispensers. Then, of course, the electric fence. My girls aren’t even close to paying me back in eggs. Not close.

I suppose if I was of a suspicious mind, I would question how free range does a chicken need to be for her eggs to be sold as such. Does she range wantonly over the garden trampling peonies and pecking at pyrocantha with shameless disregard, or she rather more constrained? If so, exactly how constrained? Does she live outdoors, indoors? I just don’t know. The frightening thing is that, like so many others standing in the egg section of Waitrose, I’m not alone in not knowing what, precisely, is meant by “free range”.

There is also the matter of the moulting season, during which hens lay few eggs in order to conserve all protein for the growth of a new winter feathers. As my friends said, “Moulting season? But there are always eggs in Waitrose.”

He makes a fair point. How does that work? I’ll tell you how it works in Hambridge: I get no eggs, but I carry on caring for the princesses.

Still, let’s not brood over it!

Happily, like my chooks, I don’t have to exhaust myself worrying about these things. I have The Girls, the eggs, the sheer joy of feeling connected to food production albeit in such a small way. It feels so wholeseome to watch my family enjoy our own eggs. It is so snobbishly gratifying, too, to know we are eating probably amongst the world’s most expensive hens’ eggs.

Where’s is the champagne, darling?

colorful bountiful eggs

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What do you make of Joanna’s eggs-perience? Of course if you’re American your thoughts will be turning to turkey at this point, but surely you, too, can spare a few moments to think of the humble chicken? Let us know in the comments…

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Back in Britain, I can’t find a strong cup of black tea to save my constitution

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat—and now repat!—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share, this time about England’s favo(u)rite drink.

“I’m not doing this again if you can’t stop going on about the tea,” declared my husband with a generous dose of irritation.

“But, really, it’s terrible,” I said. I couldn’t stop myself, you see, and his outrage was by now fully stirred.

“Okay, I’m leaving, that’s it.” He got up and headed for the door.

So ended our little tea break experiment.

Now that we have returned to England, my husband is working a great deal at home. It was my idea that, since he is talking to people around the world a lot in the evenings, we take a tea break together during the quieter mornings.

Though we are living in rural South Somerset, there are plenty of places we can choose. Our local pub does morning coffee and afternoon tea, with scones if you please. And there are little tea shops and cafes scattered around neighbouring villages.

I was ready to enjoy myself sampling them all.

Only now it seems I will do so alone, or not at all.

Food, glorious food! Sandwiches, cakes, full breakfasts…

Many of these places are serving wonderful sandwiches on hand sliced granary or flavourful white, chock full of local hams, cheeses, sausages and bacon.

Homemade cakes, too, are the order of the day.

Also noteworthy is how many of our local establishments realizing the potential in serving early breakfasts to those on their way to work. No longer is a “full English” only to be found in hotels or transport cafes, now you can enjoy one on shabby chic china while sitting at a distressed French provençal style table on a Cath Kidston cushion. You find people of all professions—from drivers to office workers, farmers to solicitors.

Breakers sandwiches cakes oh my

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Georgian Tearoom, Topsham, by BazzaDaRambler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); All-day yummy English breakfast via Pixabay; High tea for two at Tallula’s Tearooms, by Jessica Spengler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

It’s a lovely thing, but this brings me back to the tea. Surely, sandwiches, cakes—and now bacon-and-eggs with their many accompaniments—demand hot and strong tea? My husband believes I am the one out of step in being so unhappy with a spineless brew. But I cannot believe, I just cannot. What has happened to my compatriots in the years I have been away? Why are we accepting such mean servings of tea in our pots—and paying for it, too? Where is our backbone, our firm upper lip?

All I want is a good cup of spine-bracing black tea!

Keep calm and drink strong tea

Photo credits: Keep calm and drink tea! by Graham Hills; English Breakfast Tea, by Mark Hillary—both images via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Nowadays, instead of getting a nice pot of tea, we are offered a menu of teas: green ones, black ones, Chinese, Indian… We are told that these are special and tend to feel a little uneasy about demanding a little more of them. Perhaps two teabags in a pot is a little greedy, gross even.

There is, of course, a place for different tea from different places made with different temperatures of water and intended to be less bodied and more fragrant that the black teas I am primarily talking of. And the English are very interested in food and drink from far flung places and get much pleasure from experimenting with it.

But surely that doesn’t mean that we should allow our own food culture to be degraded?!

I’ve been away too long to know when the current tea culture sprung up, but to me it seems a little awkward. Extensive menus with flowery language makes me uncomfortable, and certain paraphernalia seems to try just too hard—muslin muslin tea bag with a stick instead of a string anyone?

Give me loose leaves and a little tea strainer any day! I truly believe, that as free chickens give better eggs, liberated leaves will give us happy tea. Leaves need space to develop. We must take time to give our tea leaves the correct environment to do their work.

Give Me a Tea Strainer Any Day

Photo credit: Straining, by Dave Crosby via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Americanization of British tea culture

What bothers me most is the uncomfortable realization that all this fancy talk and tea hides the truth that the American way has for some incomprehensible reason, taken over our own.

How have we fallen for this? America simply is not a tea-drinking culture.

How well I remember my first pot of American university tea. Tea warmed in the coffee maker and a cheap tea bag removed from its individual yellow paper back and hopefully dunked in the water and dangled in the vain hope it would tint and flavour the water.

Except for the presence of a spotty badly dressed student, tea is now made like this worldwide—even in Britain. We, too, are making tea like an 18-year-old American student whose only electrical appliance is a cheap coffee maker.

Interestingly, the only person I knew in my year at college in America did a fine job with a tea bag, but she knew well the need for a quick addition of boiling water. When I discovered her father was from Yorkshire, it all began to make sense—particularly her deft “mashing” technique with the back of a spoon. You see, a tea bag can be rescued if you remain mindful of the important things.

For the record, here’s what works (and why)

For me the recipe for a fine cup of tea was, and still is, a spoonful of tea leaves per person and one for the warmed pot. Onto this would be poured, boiling water, boiling. The pot would be lidded so it could be covered and left for a good five minutes before pouring.

The addition of milk and sugar is a personal thing, but the tea itself has to be strong, with a deep colour—and body.

Aunties Tea Shop Menu

Photo credit: Auntie Eileen’s Tea Shop, by Duncan Hall via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Back here in the England of 2015, cafes and hotels seem to think it elegant to offer our tea in a gimmicky and deconstructed manner. A pot of hot water and a paper-wrapped tea bag on a saucer. But in all that show the importance of boiling water is lost. Bring it quickly to the boil, warm the pot and then use it. Don’t boil and re-boil or boil for protracted period of time—but do make sure it is boiled and recently so.

While I’m in full flow, I’d like to add a quick grumble about the tea bags and strings. Why are these so often twisted around the handle of the pot? First, the leaves are confined to a bag then the bag itself is prevented from moving freely.

How in all of this can the tea properly infuse? It can’t.

A “No More Tea Bags” Manifesto

Since my husband has long since taken refuge from this rant, let me finally call for an end to the tea bag, particularly the irritatingly trendy ones, along with kettles that boil. Let me also call for a generous amount of tea in the pot.

Let’s say goodbye to tea that looks as though it has had a fright and welcome back to the kind of tea you need when you have had a nasty shock or need a comforting and strong arm, which happens to all of us at some point…

Call for an end to teabags

Photo credit: Last of Mom’s Tea, by Alan Levine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Can you relate to Joanna’s disappointment at finding England’s tea a shadow of its former self? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: To ease the stress of yet another international move, tea all round and some jammie biscuits?

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat (and soon to be repat!) Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share.

As I write this, we are in the middle of packing for our eighth international move.

By the way, I don’t count moves within countries as an actual move. Indeed, when people complain about having to move from one house to another, I have an unpleasant tendency to judge them for being just a little, well, weak.

Call me strange, but I have almost come to enjoy the stress because I know how deeply the memories will be imprinted as a result.

I especially relish the sweaty dirtiness of a move in a hot climate. You look dreadful and just don’t care. The joy of the dirt sloughing off you in the shower at the end of the day, is unspeakably satisfying. As they say, you never appreciate water until you have experienced thirst.

Memories set to the soundtrack of masking tape being torn from the roll and objects being wrapped in rustling paper—I have a few, including:

  • Watching the Malaysian movers slip on and off their shoes as the moved in and out of our house, no matter how heavy their load.
  • Spying the Brazilian workers taking a siesta under the removal van.
  • Above all, enjoying the sight of my children playing for days with empty boxes.

Tea, all round?

Tea all round

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) “We’re Moving!” by David Goehring via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Moving Day, by Cambodia4kids.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Allied Movers, allied Moving Truck, by Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (overlay) Tea time, by Daniela Vladimirova via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In England it is customary to offer tea to anyone who comes to work around your house. It politely defines their status as providers of services rather than servants.

I have come to associate removal men with strong, sweetened tea and a biscuit to go with it. No move has ever been complete without these accompaniments—and my biscuit of choice under the circumstances is the Jammie Dodger.

A Jammie Dodger comprises two vanilla biscuits sandwiched together with a red jam and possibly buttercream, too. The upper biscuit boasts a little cut out to reveal a little filling—what a tease!

Jammie Dodgers are freely available in English supermarkets. The store-bought version used to do the trick, but I am afraid I have, like an addict, come to demand something more refined as my drug of choice.

No dodging the Jammie Dodger

Years ago, while living in Virginia as a student, I started to make my own Jammie Dodgers, craving as I did a taste of home. Come on, I had to tolerate Lipton Yellow Label tea, which lacks the body I demand. If I couldn’t magic up a suitable English blend, at least there was something I could do about the biscuit situation.

Jammie Dan[https://www.flickr.com/photos/lacuna007/3399511720/], by Andrea Black via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

Jammie Dan, by Andrea Black via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I hit on a good combination of a shortbread style biscuit and a good-quality jam. Imagine my surprise on discovering these were so much better than the factory version—so much so that I have never again willingly returned to the supermarket to buy them. I was young, remember. I still am. As the years passed I have tweaked that recipe until nothing surpasses it.

Arriving in France I was astonished discover that there was a chain of French bakeries that came very close to my recipe. What a disaster for my thighs! They could no longer look forward to being given a respite on the days when I don’t have time to bake.

Even the French can’t resist!

Known as sablé (literally, sand) for their sandy, crumbly texture, these confiture-filled delights are uncharacteristically large for a French pâtisserie. I relish the idea that even the French find them difficult to resist despite being a nation of “Oui, mais only one”.

I understand their dilemma. The sablé’s crumbly, buttery, shortbread-like texture offers what food technicians call “mouth fill”.

Talking of fillings, the French version comes generally in raspberry or chocolate as well as the ill-advised Nutella. Hm.. France really ought to give the concept of the Nutella sablé a rethink. This biscuit calls for a contrasting texture, so non merci to Nutella, here at least.

Photo credits: flickr black day[https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/11273242073/], by Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/] ; nutella cookies[https://www.flickr.com/photos/ginnerobot/7095126765/], by Ginny via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

Photo credits: flickr black day, by Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY 2.0); nutella cookies, by Ginny via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Apart from the size, the other difference in a French Jammie dodger is that instead of one hole cut in the upper biscuit to expose the filling there can be as many as three. Alors, the French can actually do vulgar excess it would seem!

Personally, I love the idea of the French ditching the restrained elegance we are so used to seeing from them. I also love that it is a jammie biscuit that drove them to it.

Cate the Cake: She’s the biscuit!

This move is the most special of all my international moves, because this time, my daughter is providing the Jammie Dodgers that fuel us. Since arriving in France, Catherine has developed first an interest in baking and then in patisserie—developments that have made my heart sing a special version of the 1812 Overture.

Instead of the “La Marseillaise” being quieted by the Russian national anthem, we have a case of “God Save the Queen” being, if not crushed by the French anthem, at least over-laid and dusted down with a Gallic flourish.

Cate the Cake (a weak nickname, but I can’t resist) has taken courses in all sorts of things from éclairs to crème brûlée. She has brought a certain French flair to my Jammie Dodger, making them even more irresistible, if that were possible.

Cate the Cake She's the biscuit

Having the patience and perfectionism I so entirely lack, she is willing to stare through the oven door until just the right shade of pale delicacy is reached that ensures the texture is melting, but not cloying. Adhering strictly to butter only, the flavor is delectable and well worth an extra few centimeters to the waistline. These beauties scream for a strong cup of English blend tea made with leaves, not a bag, and steeped a full five minutes.

Talking of which, I think I’ll nip in to the kitchen before the teapot is packed and give the packers a cultural experience to remember. After all, it’s the presence of workmen in the house that provides the impetus (or excuse?) for an extra-special tea-and-biscuits ritual.

*****************************

Jammy Dodgers/Sablés

Ingredients
• 250g plain flour
• 200g butter, cut into small cubes
• 100g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 2 free-range egg yolks
• Raspberry or Strawberry Jam

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F
2. Place the flour, butter, icing sugar and salt into a bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
3. Add the egg yolks and mix until a dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness of about 0.5cm. Cut out shapes using a 4cm cutter.
4. Divide the sablés in half. Using a 2cm, fluted cutter, make a hole in the middle of half of the sablé biscuits and discard the dough. Place all the sablés on a baking tray.
5. Liberally dust the tops with icing sugar passed through a fine sieve.
6. Bake the sablés for 10-12 minutes, or until pale golden-brown and crisp. Remove and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
7. Using a teaspoon, place a small dollop of jam on a whole sablé. Place a sablé (with a hole) over the whole sablé biscuit.

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Can you relate to Joanna’s instinct for strong tea and Jammie Dodgers? And can you offer any other food tips to alleviate the stress of an international move? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: When facing repatriation after 18 years of the expat life, bring on the comfort food!

Serial expat (and soon to be repat!) Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some juicy global food gossip to share.
Global Food Gossip 062315
“Oh, I see, it’s that time again, is it?” My husband entered the kitchen and sniffed the air. “It’s smells like Christmas, but it’s 30 degrees outside. “You’ll be wanting tea with that gingerbread?” Sighing he reached for the kettle.

Now, I’m not saying that expat life calls for comfort food more than any other lifestyle, but it does have it’s own rhythm of needs. For me, the main calls for comfort come during the entry and exit period of a new location.

I am now facing moving on from France—and frankly, even my beloved madeleine is not up to the job.

I need the kind of comfort food that warms up the winter, as neither the glorious weather nor the proximity of pools and beaches here in Provence can distract me this time.

Bikini be damned, my next move will be a return to England.

It is hard to imagine that repatriation can be more alarming than a move from one foreign country to another. Yet, after 18 years abroad and seven intercontinental moves, I am discovering that it is.

Our house in England is our holiday home, and we have few of the friends and none of the social networks we would have built had we stayed put. All the friends we have made at various offices, playgroups, schools, dog training groups and sundry activities are scattered across several continents. We will be in the interesting position of not belonging, while giving every outward appearance of doing so and no possibility of joining a repat support group (do such things even exist?).

You understand why I am reaching for the gingerbread now?

gingerbread-repatriation

Gingerbread by roxymjones via Pixabay.

The act of making gingerbread is a comfort in itself. Just watching the butter, syrup and sugar melt together and swirl in the pan, gives one time to relax and think.

Mm…as I watch the ingredients swirl, I’m thinking about cultural comfort foods of locations past.

Morning sickness in New Orleans calls for Morning Call

For anyone into comfort eating, my former home of New Orleans is a dangerous place. There are just too many temptations along the path of righteous eating, beginning with crawfish stew, jambalaya, seafood gumbo…

But it was beignets with coffee from Café du Monde or Morning Call (the less touristy choice, favored by locals) that became my preferred source of solace.

"City Park 12-12-12 Morning Call Coffee Beignets Dunk," by Infrogmation of New Orleans (CC BY 2.0).

“City Park 12-12-12 Morning Call Coffee Beignets Dunk,” by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Of course life in New Orleans is pretty fabulous, especially when you are lucky enough to live in the French Quarter and see the life that exists behind the touristy façade. But comfort requirements are still there. Coffee and beignets are a fabulous hangover buster for one thing and for another they sure beat morning sickness into retreat while providing a good dose of the additional calcium an expectant mum needs. For me, the beignet and café au lait was the multi-tasking workhorse of comfort foods.

When it came time to leave the Big Easy, the beignet soothed my sadness, and I was careful to ensure I had a good recipe (see end of post) should it be needed to help with my adjustment to the next location: Den Haag.

The only problem, of course, with making your own beignets is the terror one feels when cooking with large quantities of hot fat—so it was with relief that I quickly discovered a more convenient way to ease my emotional entry into The Hague.

A cold arrival in Holland calls for oliebollen

We arrived in the middle of a particularly cold Christmas season. You can only imagine my delight at catching my first whiff of oliebollen and appelflappen, which fills the air that time of year.

Oliebollen is a Dutch style of doughnut that is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve, and appelflappen are a kind of apple beignet—YES!—served with sugar and cinnamon and sold from little stands throughout the Christmas season.

What a happy Christmas that turned out to be. What joy to have a little bag of those to warm both your chilly fingers and the depths of your heart.

How can you not love living in such a place?

Dumpy in Brazil calls for Disk Cook

And then there was Brazil. Now Brazil provided a different sort of comfort food to get me through the hard times. Being pregnant and feeling dumpy in a land full of girls from Ipanema in tiny bikinis isn’t exactly fun—but then, suffering from the heat, I cut off all my hair. Short.

You don’t do that in Brazil. It’s akin to cutting off your femininity. It’s ugly.

Happily unaware of this and feeling as though I was channeling mid 1990s Meg Ryan, I returned home from the hairdresser. My housekeeper took one look of me and clapped her hands loudly to her cheeks with a look of pure horror. After a slight pause and in an unnaturally high voice, she said “Madame looks beautiful”—before making her excuses and disappearing for half an hour.

The next few days were a bit unsettling as Maria avoided eye contact. It wasn’t that I minded her thinking my hair was ugly, more that I was now aware of how little I understood the culture. How many other things was I getting wrong?

As insecure as it makes me sound, I decided not to compound one aesthetic error with that of gaining weight, too. I avoided thoughts of my beignet recipe and my go-to home remedy of buttered toast. I also steered clear of the local padarias (bakeries). Instead I filled up on fruit.

But the thing is, comfort food is the kind of thing that finds you and it doesn’t have to come in carbohydrate form. You just need to be open to it: it being a well-rounded flavor that puts your taste buds at ease.

The comfort food of Brazil found me rather quickly. Disc Cook is a service which will collect food from a huge list of restaurants and deliver to your house. A new restaurant opened in our area and we decided to try it out. Imagine my surprise when the healthy sounding chicken liver and spinach dish turned out to be my next comfort food.

Disk Cook screenshot.

Disk Cook screenshot, taken 24 June 2015.

No, hear me out. Full-flavoured meat that melted in the mouth, cooked with balsamic vinegar and pine nuts. Yes, I know it sounds odd, but it was so richly satisfying, I couldn’t get enough of it. I even took comfort in the cold leftovers of that dish, straight from the fridge.

In honesty, however, comforting as it was, it can never qualify as true comfort food. Firstly, it comes from a good restaurant and true comfort food should not be exclusive. Secondly, I was never able to find or make up that recipe for myself. If it is too hard to lay your hands on, it isn’t comfort food. Comfort food cannot be a cause of any stress—other than the weekly weigh-in, of course.

Enough of my unabashed wallowing, and now for my beignet recipe

As I write, I am beginning to feel a little nostalgic and rather sad again. The problem with being in a constant state of serial expatness is that each time you leave one place, you remember the pain of leaving the last. It is a sort of travellers’ emotional add-on game. Sometimes I have to walk away from it. That is true now.

Perhaps next time I can tell you how I found solace from homesickness and last-location-sickness in the foods of Malaysia, Venezuela and Saudi.

(If you have had enough of this unabashed wallowing, I apologise—but would politely point out that at least I haven’t descended to mentioning visits to certain popular fast food chains, which I have no doubt we perpetual expats have all indulged in at least once or twice. For that we must be grateful.)

New Orleans-style Beignets, adapted from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
NOTE: I made the conversions to grams years ago. Metric rocks!

Ingredients:
1 package dried yeast
3 tablespoons warm water (hand hot)
180 ml milk
150g sugar
28g shortening (or lard—which I prefer)
1 tsp salt
375g all-purpose flour
1 large egg
Vegetable oil
Powdered sugar

Method
Combine the yeast and water and leave to stand for five minutes.

Combine the milk with the sugar, shortening and salt in a saucepan over a low heat until the fat melts. Remove from the heat and leave to cool until again hand hot. Very hot liquid will kill the yeast and so it will not rise. If your hand can tolerate the heat, so too can the yeast.

Combine yeast mixture, liquid mixture, two cups of the flour and the egg in a large mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer for two minutes. Gradually stir in as much of the remaining flour as you need to make a soft dough.

Put dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a buttered bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for one hour until doubled in size.

Punch dough back, turn onto a floured surface and roll out into a 30 x 25cms rectangle. Cut into two-inch squares and place them onto a lightly floured surface where they can be covered and left to rise until double in size (about 45 minutes).

Pour oil into a pan to a depth of about 3 or 4” and heat to 375° F (190 °C). Fry the beignets four at a time until golden. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve warm. YUM.

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What new comfort foods have you added to your list on your moves around the globe? And do you have any words of comfort for Joanna on her imminent repatriation? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: I lost my heart (but not my teeth) to the French artichoke

Global Food Gossip French artichoke

Global Food Gossip. Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied); globe-shaped artichoke via Morguefiles; (slim-shaped) artichoke, by Marco Bernadini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

“You can’t eat artichoke?” my dentist’s eyebrows lowered. “Something has to be done,” he declared, adding: “Don’t worry, the insurance will pay. In France we know that you can’t live life if you can’t eat an artichoke.”

It took a French dentist to understand that more important than a beautiful tooth, is a fully functional tooth, well able to withstand the demands of the artichoke, the most delectable of vegetables.

While out running a few years ago, I fell and broke my front teeth. Since then I had lived with two veneers, one of which never became my friend. Dreams about my teeth falling out came weekly and I never ate apples or baguettes unless first cut into bite-size pieces.

I could not, however, treat the artichoke with the same level of circumspection. I simply found it too interesting. Upon my arrival in the South of France, I threw caution to the winds—and then paid the price.

The Mighty French Artichoke

Artichokes springing up in a French field. Near Kerlouan – Artichokes, by muffin via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).


As those who are acquainted with this exquisite food ritual will know, artichoke eating requires you to scrape the flesh from the leaves by gripping them between your teeth and pulling. The inevitable happened and that veneer bailed on me—twice.

Had I been living elsewhere, I suspect the insurance companies would not have been looked on the prospect of my leading a desolately artichoke-free life with much sympathy—in any event, not to the point of covering the payment for a new fixture. But heureusement, as I found myself in France, I was soon the proud possessor of a tooth not only of great beauty but also of unsurpassed shearing ability. It was May, and the prospect of enjoying June and July’s premium artichoke season was just around the corner. I was ready to make up for lost time.

Je t’aime bien!” I declared with uncontrolled delight as I held up the mirror to my new smile.

Non,” Monsieur Le Dentist retorted, “vous avez le coeur d’un artichaut.”

We cackled with delight.

(The joke was not entirely appropriate as the idiom describes one who falls in love all the time so it becomes meaningless—a leaf for everyone you see.)

No matter. I will have life-long good feeling for the dentist who set me loose on the vegetation of Provence. Besides, what other idiom could he possibly have used in the circumstance?

The variety of artichokes available in the South of France surprised me at first.

Slim and chic artichoke

Slim and chic. Artichoke, by Marco Bernadini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Not only do you find the large and familiar green globe type but also the longer, oval types. Trust the French to have a slim and chic artichoke, too!

The colours vary from the usual green to the deepest of violets and are sold in large bunches—I can imagine them being served at the wedding of a dedicated vegan bride.

The French like to eat artichokes boiled in salted water with vinaigrette dressing. Simple and perfect, though I must admit, I sometimes prefer to make homemade mayonnaise. After all, I am dealing with vegetable royalty. Surely I owe them a little effort?

Dealing with an artichoke can cause some worry, but the rules are pretty straightforward.

Preparing an artichoke:

Method
Cut the tips of the leaves off with a pair of scissors to remove any sharp or dry bits.

Lower the artichoke into a pan of salted water and cook uncovered until you can easily pull a leaf from the whole. This can take anything between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on size. NOTE: Just remember not to place a lid on the pan. There are acids in the artichoke, which, if prevented from escaping in the steam, turns them brown. We simply don’t want that!

Next, drain the pan and let the feast begin.

Eating an artichoke:

The artichoke offers tactile eating at its glorious best:

Simply pull a leaf away, dip into your preferred sauce, place between your front teeth and apply gentle pressure as you pull forward, stripping the “meat” from the leaf. (While you’re at it, reflect on the pleasure of knowing that one of your front teeth is unlikely to be dislodged—as you never know what’s around the next corner.)

Discard any woody remnants and move on. Soon you will find a greedy rhythm that makes conversation unnecessary.

As you reach the centre, the leaves become smaller and yield less.

Pretty soon it will be time to strip away the leaves and reveal the silkily haired “choke”—which you definitely don’t want to eat!

Comb away at this choke with your fork until the hairs lift up like poorly rooted weeds. Slowly the heart is revealed, cup-like in shape and richly creamy in colour.

You have now arrived in vegetable heaven!

The rich yet raunchy artichoke “keeps on giving”

The rich yet raunchy artichoke

(Right) Stuffed artichoke, by Joy via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).


The delicate, buttery nuttiness makes the artichaut one class act. Yet it is far from bland. It has a full and complex flavor that richly fills the mouth.

Indeed, the artichoke is the culinary equivalent of the sophisticated French lady, dressed in natural-coloured linens with caramel-highlighted hair and warmly tanned skin.

If the flavor doesn’t shout for attention with overt showiness or any trace of vulgarity, don’t think it’s a pushover. The artichoke still has potential for a bit of raunchiness. It can provide a base for stronger flavours, as with recipes for stuffed artichokes, which often involve garlic, cheese and oregano.

And why not? Even Kate Middleton has been known to channel the sexy on occasion. However, it is her tasteful and demure style that best defines her—just as it does my beloved artichoke.

Wine…or water?

Finally, I’d like to make a confession. I love drinking wine; the worst thing about it is that it doesn’t even need to be great wine. Sometimes I worry about this, but then I just get on with things.

That said, I’ve discovered that wine just doesn’t go that well with artichokes. Something about this vegetable—its sweet, rounded taste—changes the taste of anything you drink.

But what’s interesting is that it changes the taste of water, too; it makes it sweet. I honestly believe that water is the best accompaniment to this vegetable.

What joy, a healthy, vitamin-loaded lunch, which feels like a decadent treat—yet I am not even tempted to consider just one glass of wine.

If you don’t already love the artichoke, I urge you to give it a chance. It’s the vegetable that just keeps giving.  😀

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! In your humble opinion, is it worth fixing your teeth veneers to eat artichoke? Have you ever “fallen” for a vegetable in this way in the country where you live? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Is humankind getting too fussy to share food, one of our most basic bonding rituals?

Global Food Gossip April 2015

Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied) and three forbidden foods: Wheat , by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); dairy, by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); and peanuts, by Daniella Segura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

Dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale
Because of thy wretched bowels?

—Paraphrase of Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3)

Readers, I hope you will indulge me in this dramatic, and admittedly somewhat unseemly, turn of a Shakespearean phrase. Not long ago, I was planning a simple supper for a few couples and had just received a third text informing me of various food allergies. The relaxed and convivial supper I had imagined was rapidly becoming a nightmare of compromise and unsatisfactory substitutions.

Somehow I had to come up with a delicious menu that didn’t involve dairy, flour or meat.

I should have known not to invite a bunch of people I barely knew, but I was feeling expansive at the time. I’d also been envisioning a pleasant few days pottering through familiar recipes in my kitchen—only to find myself feeling cross, taken for granted and somewhat overwhelmed.

As those of you who are cooks will know, “simple” suppers never take less than days to bring off in the desired relaxed and blasé style—so one really needs to enjoy the preparation. Frankly, getting ready for this particular dinner was beginning to feel like a challenge on a brutal reality show.

I also felt I could empathize with the nearly 100 restaurateurs in Britain who last month signed a letter protesting the new EU rules requiring restaurants to audit their menus for allergens from lupins to eggs. These allergens must be flagged on menus. Failure to do so could result in a $5,000 fine which, for most restaurants, could be the difference between survival and going to the wall. They rightly point out that having to undertake such work will also reduce the spontaneity of their menus and reduce creativity.

Modern etiquette requires hosts to ask guests if there is anything they don’t eat.

SirTobyBelch

Toby jug (named after Sir Toby Belch), by Graham and Sheila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is when the guest can mention any genuine allergies—not their likes and dislikes. I might feign polite interest, but I don’t really care to hear about your digestive issues.

Of course, I do want to know if you are actually c(o)eliac. Curmudgeonly as I can be, I get that this is a very real health issue and I will go to any lengths, happily, to accommodate it.

If I have to jump through culinary hoops because you “really feel that you have more energy since you gave up wheat,” I am, frankly, annoyed.

I once entertained a guest and made the mistake of including in a recipe an ingredient he had repeatedly informed me caused a severe allergic reaction.

To this day I cannot explain how I so deliberately included it; however, when I realized my mistake, it was with a heart-stopping thump in the middle of the night. I agonized for hours, caught a moral maze of whether or not I should call and confess my reckless stupidity or not. As dawn broke, so, too, did the suspicion that if this had been a true allergy, I could have expected some drama before the end of the evening. If I am going to get careless while entertaining an allergy sufferer, I expect the subsequent experience to include severe anaphylactic shock and hysterical calls for an ambulance…

Sure enough, by lunchtime I had received the text thanking me for a lovely evening. The experience has left me deeply suspicious of subsequent allergy stories.

It can’t be fun living with an allergy, but neither can it be everyone else’s responsibility and expense.

During the time when we lived as expats in Malaysia, my children were at school in Kuala Lumpur. Peanut butter was not banned. How can you ban it in a country where peanut oil is a major component of the air? But if your child took in nuts or peanut butter to school, it was their responsibility to sit with kids with who claimed peanut allergies, so that the latter wouldn’t feel isolated.

How severe could such allergies be, I wondered? Indeed, at that time, and probably to this day, Malaysian Airlines tested the peanut-withstanding ability of all those entering the country by serving peanuts with the aperitifs—long after other airlines had bailed.

(While on this topic, it’s worth noting that, according to the latest medical studies, those who consume a greater amount of peanuts have about a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This effect is a result of the peanuts’ ability to lower cholesterol and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.)

When you are invited to eat at someone’s house, you are being asked to share with the family.

dinner party quote

Dinner party, by Elin B via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

As we expats know better than anyone else, the dinner party is an age-old, worldwide gesture of hospitality and friendship. We must take every measure to protect this prized human tradition.

Listen, it is even possible to desensitize ourselves to allergies. I recently saw a documentary about a little boy who showed extreme allergy to a new dog brought into the family. Instead of re-homing the dog, the family decided that the positive aspects of owning a pet were worth making an effort for. They began a desensitization programme at a local hospital and, in time, the boy could begin a wonderful relationship with his dog.

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! To what extent has food fussiness become an item in your social circle? Are you a victim, or do you agree with the curmudgeonly Joanna, that fussy eaters are making dinner parties and other group meals less fun for the rest of us? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Et tu, France? Fiddling with that fine American classic, the Caesar salad?

J M-M Caesar SaladJoanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

I have been known to comment on France’s dedication to the classics when it comes to food—or fashion for that matter. (As some readers my recall, I’m a fan of France’s LBD, seeing it as a cure for obesity.)

Actually, there are times when my latest adopted home’s refusal to contemplate a bit of culinary iconoclasm baffles me. But then I come from the UK, which seems obsessed with putting a “twist” on classics or, if not that, then “fusing” apparently disparate food stuffs in a desperate search for novelty.

Much of the time, though, I admire the conviction that as French is best, why fiddle around with something that works well?

Let’s talk about the mille-feuille/Napolean/cream slice

My favourite treat, for example, is a mille-feuille (known as a Napoleon in the US and a cream slice in the British Isles). I can find one in any decent patisserie and know it will be excellent and exactly what it should be: buttery flaky pastry, a rich cream filling and a topping of glacé icing.

I never have to worry that some bright spark will have tried to deconstruct it, spin it or twist it. It remains comfortingly indulgent, mouth filling and ever-so-slightly decadent while also keeping within the bounds of good taste.

If you understand my love for the mille-feuille, it should help you see why I’ve chosen to gossip this month about France’s treatment of the Caesar salad. Clearly, the protection France affords to its own food classics does not extend to those that hail from other shores. I hesitate to suggest a conspiracy, but I have noticed an alarming tendency among the chefs in this part of the world to fiddle with recipes from elsewhere.

Et tu, French chefs?

Some have claimed that there have been so may modifications of the poor Caesar salad over the years that the term “Caesar salad” has lost all meaning.

While I wouldn’t go that far, I would like to point out that this American classic has been treated with reckless disregard here in France. I’ve been trying to puzzle out this very un-French behavior. Is it because of the salad’s humble origins—it was invented in Tijuana, Mexico—not to mention its current status as a menu staple in the steakhouses of Las Vegas?

If so, then the French need to know that this salad is more Grace Kelly than high-kicking showgirl. Much as the Philadelphia-born star brought some film star gloss to Monaco without the tawdry Hollywood tat, the Caesar has much to offer the European Continent. Neither colourfully brash nor tartily sweet, it shows Europe that America can do class, too, and do it well.

So what else has this poor salad done to deserve the indignities heaped upon its noble Roman name? It appears on countless French menus the country over, but I have yet to find one that comes close to those I have enjoyed in America. What is going so terribly wrong?

The classic Caesar vs. the French Caesar

The classic Caesar involves Romaine lettuce tossed in a dressing made from egg yolks, oil, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, a dash of Worcester sauce, maybe a dash of Dijon mustard and topped with croutons, possibly a sprinkling of bacon, and more parmesan. That’s it. Perfection. Leave it alone.

Yet the one I had in a bistro on Cours Mirabeau here in Aix yesterday involved tomato quarters, a poached egg, slivers of raw carrot and a mixture of leaves including frisée. Frisée! (Endive if you will.) What sort of abomination is that? The bitter flavor fights the smooth creaminess of the dressing, and the springy dry texture takes over the salad’s delicacy.

In any event, here is what I beheld on my plate:
NotQuiteCaesarSaladinAix_pm
We’ve already discussed the tomatoes and the endive. Let’s move on to gossiping about the dressing. How can France of all places not get this right? A country where it is not considered suicidal to indulge in raw meat and egg.

Readers, while I was condemned to a hygienic, bottled, nondescript white dressing lacking in any flavour much least of egg—its sole being to lubricate and aid the passage of frisée down my protesting neck—I happened to glance at the main at the neighboring table. And you’ll never guess what I saw? He was enjoying a steak tartare topped with a whole raw egg!

Never lose an opportunity for culinary enhancement!

And this is not the only scandalously wasted opportunity for France to show America how its food can be better done. As American devotees of the Caesar will know, there is an ongoing and passionately fought debate over whether or not the newcomer ingredient of the anchovy is too inauthentic to tolerate or a delightfully salty addition to the rather bland romaine leaves.

(The original salad included anchovies only insofar as they are an ingredient in Worcester sauce. They were not blended into the dressing, nor did they appear whole amongst the leaves and croutons.)

Now, anchovies, I’ll have you know, are found everywhere in France, in all forms, and they are very, very good.

Which is why I simply don’t understand why French Caesars ever omit them from the Caesar salad. (I suspect my tartare-eating neighbor had some on his plate, too.)

Why am I such a fault-finding gossip?

Readers, at this point you may wonder why I felt compelled to report on my apparently doomed search for an authentic Caesar salad here in the South of France.

British anthropologist Kate Fox put her own tribe under scrutiny and reported on the findings in her 2005 book, Watching the English. She suggests that the English complain as it draws us together in adversity. If we do not complain about our lives, we risk being self-satisfied show-offs keen to prove that our lives are perfect. As we place great value on dealing well with any adversity life throws us, optimism can appear smug.

Just think, if I had written that the best Caesar salads are to be found in France and only France and how happy I am that discovered this fact, my life would seem too intolerably pleased with itself for any of you readers out there to tolerate.

And perhaps for that reason I take pleasure in knowing that while the French can produce the perfect mille feuille, they are a little challenged in the salad department. In this way I can love France, because it isn’t intolerably perfect. Voilà!

Or is this whole thing just a sign of my competitiveness?

French author José-Alain Fralon has characterized the relationship between the French and the British by describing the British as “our most dear enemies”.

There must be some truth in what he says. Because before ending this month’s gossip session, I feel compelled to tell you a story about how, when I was back in Blighty recently, I arrived very late in the town of York. A Weatherspoon’s pub was still serving food. I went in and ordered a Caesar salad. Now, Weatherspoons is not a chain renowned for fantastic food, but as you can see from this photo, they understand the requirements of croutons, parmesan, romaine lettuce and a creamy (albeit not very eggy) dressing with some hint of Worcester sauce:
CaesarSaladinUK_pm
I was delighted to see that tomatoes were absent—the only addition to the classic being chicken, which seems the accepted standard now.

Not to be invidious, but if Weatherspoons can get the basic elements right, then why not an Aix bistro?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Have you noticed any abominations of your previous home food classics similar to what Joanna has observed with the French Caesar? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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A British expat in France defends the right to feel skeptical about “Je suis Charlie” fever

Joanna_and_Charlie

Marche Républicaine, by João Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Joanna Masters-Maggs in Provence, France.

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France, in Provence. She normally writes about food for the Displaced Nation, but today she offers this opinion piece on the shocking events that took place in Paris last week.

—ML Awanohara

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—this line was actually composed by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 anecdotal biography of Voltaire and ten of his closest associates, although the statement does capture the spirit of the great French philosopher and wit.

I am ashamed to say that unlike the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 or the London bombings of 2005, I cannot remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard of the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—I imagine it was something rather prosaic in the kitchen.

I’m not sure what it says about me, but my first thoughts were along the lines of: “Oh good, some news to listen to as I iron.” That, and the usual schadenfreude you feel when something bad happens to someone else. That sinking thrill that it could have been me (I live in France, after all) but it wasn’t, this time at least.

Perhaps I have become immune to these things as a result of my own news addiction and life experiences.

Travelling to and staying in Belfast as a child meant that terrorism occasionally formed the backdrop to my daily life. I still have memories of white-gloved airline staff manually checking our opened suitcases in front of us. I can also recall being scanned, frisked and having our bags searched to enter the so-called ring of steel that protected the Belfast City Centre. Though never pleasant, these searches and quick looks under cars became routine.

For the French, last week was a wake-up call to mass insecurity. The idea of being gunned down while in the supermarket is not a happy one, nor is the thought, for France’s Jewish population, that their lives will be curtailed by the need for constant surveillance of schools and synagogues.

We are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

In this land of Voltaire, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” has taken rapid hold. We are all Charlie because we all believe that free speech should be protected, like it or not, and you cannot execute us all.

The problem I have with this is that we are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

Which one of us has put their offending cartoons on our Facebook profile or Twitter feed—anyone? I didn’t think so.

Perhaps if we all did, the point would be better made. In fact, we should be uploading a cartoon of an imam, a priest, and a rabbi walking into a bar, as the old joke goes—since satire should be aimed at all groups equally.

Like most people here in France, I was not a reader of Charlie Hebdo, whose weekly circulation averaged 30,000 and which was forced to suspend publication between 1981 and 1992 for want of finance. What I know comes mainly from the headlines the publication generated by its provocative cartoons. It is, therefore, difficult to comment intelligently, but since that doesn’t seem to be a bar to the subject for anyone else I’ll go ahead.

Sauce, satire, and silliness—a British speciality

Being a Brit, I do know about satire. I see it as a means of bursting the bubble of one’s own pomposity and seriousness in all matters.

Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a well-known radio news comedy programme. One of the contributors was poking fun at those of us who were getting hot under the collar over the Scottish bid for independence. “Are people really angry?” he asked—and went on to improvise a scene between an unhappy and dreadfully posh couple in a classic 1930s British black-and-white film, where the husband [England] asks his wife [Scotland]:

“But we do alright, don’t we, Cynthia? I mean it wouldn’t do to make a fuss and do anything untoward or vulgar, would it?”

Despite my irritation with the situation, I laughed, and it was gone—the anger, that is. I laughed despite myself, the irritation gone in a flash.

Really, why get bitter when you can laugh? It feels so much better.

In my view, we can never get enough of this kind of satire. We must laugh at ourselves and each other, until we are helpless with mirth. Humour can be such a leveler. But I worry that last week’s events have generated the kind of anger that may become repressed, preying on the lingering fears of what the expression of ideas can provoke. As an expat, I am often shocked at how restrained the French are, of how afraid they are to risk pricking each other’s self-importance through humour, like us Brits. This experience may make them even less inclined to question pomposity—not a good thing.

More cartoons, please, less #JeSuisCharlie

More cartoons then—and less Twitter-friendly phrases that make us all feel as though we have done something noble when in fact we have done nothing at all.

My husband and I were a little afraid that our kids might not take the minute’s silence at school seriously. Living in, but slightly apart from, French life, we sometimes feel as though local news events do not touch us. Had our kids absorbed too much of our expat hardness?

As it turned out, we should have had more confidence in our offspring’s ability to absorb the feelings of schoolmates, their parents and friends at their sports clubs. Our kids knew better than us, perhaps, the level of grief there is in France at the moment. The legendary caricaturist Jean Cabut (Cabu) for example was loved by a generation of children because of his work on a children’s television programme. For many, the sadness over his loss is real, as though an uncle has died.

Cabu once declared:

“Sometimes laughter can hurt—but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.”

So they are. If actions devoid of laughter, humour and mockery are the only way we can deal with such awful events as those of last week, the terrorist has won. He will know we won’t do anything more because we are afraid.

We post the phrase, but not the satire. We are afraid to, because to do so would single us out for attention and, possibly, reprisal.

We have all silenced ourselves—and this, in the land of Voltaire, is a sad thing indeed.

* * *

Thanks, Joanna, for such a brave post, so very honest while also thought provoking. Readers, what do you make of Joanna’s observations? Please leave a comment. Food lovers, rest assured, she will be back next month in her usual role of Global Food Gossip.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, offering a few more displaced perspectives on what is commonly being referred to as France’s 9/11.

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: ‘Tis the season to be jolly—and for that I recommend crunchy sweet potatoes

Crunchy Sweet Potato Collage

Joanna Masters-Maggs portrait; “Pecan Sweet Potato Casserole,” by Vox Efx and “Thanksgiving feast,”  by Star Mama, both via Flickr (CC-BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

Last month I had intended to contribute a pleasant little piece invoking “memories of Thanksgivings past”—but I am afraid I just wasn’t feeling in a terribly thankful sort of mood.

That was a shame, really, as Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays I have been lucky enough to experience overseas that my crabby little heart actually embraces. As a foreigner living in the United States, my experience could be likened to that of a grateful orphan, adopted warmly by a family as a vaguely interesting addition to proceedings.

Really, what is there not to like? Good food, and plenty of it, a lot of wine, usually in the host family’s nice crystal—and ABSOLUTELY NO PRESENT-GIVING other than generous hostess gifts.

Et tu, le shopping?

It was actually the contemplation of present-BUYING that prompted my spell of bad humour. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—which Americans traditionally spend at pre-Christmas sales, in a frenzy that can take on the appearance of contact sports with credit cards—has now arrived in France, my current home.

France!

It seems that even the French have lost their ability to say non to foreign habits that threaten their own culture.

Le shopping, too. 😦

Veggies, glorious veggies!

All of that said, I regret that I never sat down and wrote the column I originally had in mind. Soon after I made that decision, the thought of those cosy Thanksgivings where outdoor grey light gives way to the warmth of candles and fires began to get the better of my jour noir.

Especially when I remembered the BEST THING OF ALL about Thanksgiving: it affords an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their magical ability to convert healthy, vitamin-brimming vegetables into artery-clogging, heart-stopping not-much-time-left-bombs.

The general principle seems to be to cook out as much of the vegetable’s vitamin content as possible, along with its texture and possibly colour. Next comes the flavour makeover. Those green beans must taste of ham hock and bacon, not bean. The loss of beanly texture is viewed as desirable—and really, who enjoys the blackboard squeak of green beans on teeth?

However, I cannot approve of the makeover given to the sweet potato, whose texture when cooked is always soft. Sweet potatoes require a little more bite—and how!

The joy of this vegetable is that, even after the rather horrifying treatment meted out to it, often involving marshmallows, the B vitamins remain intact allowing it to count as a health food still.

God Bless America indeed.

Let’s talk turkey, or where’s the beef?

If there are to be any complaints about Thanksgiving and, given my heritage, there must be complaints, it would be about the bird. As my own father once said of Christmas lunch in the UK:

If it’s meant to be a fancy there should be proper meat.

For him this means beef, I believe. I’m open to other meats, other birds even, but I agree with my dad’s sentiment that the Turkey is a duffer in pretty much every respect. Even at its most organic, just shot and plucked best, it’s just a stomach filler for crowds. Does anyone, I wonder, ever consider serving two smaller but glorious geese rather than one ho hum turkey?

On the bright side, though, who needs meat at all when you can have sides like green-bean-and-bacon casserole?

Since my mood has lifted somewhat with all this talk of misbehaving veggies, I have decided to share the cheer by offering you the sweet potato recipe I love. It was given to me years ago and involves brown sugar, pecans and cinnamon baked to a crisp and crumble like finish—plenty of crunch and bite!

It’s wonderful for Christmas and it’s wonderful anytime. Bon appétit!

pecan sweet potato casserole

Sweet Potato Casserole

Ingredients:
½ kilo (just over a pound) of sweet potatoes
115g (half a cup) white sugar
2 large eggs
salt to taste
50g (3.5 tbsp) butter
120 ml (half a cup) of milk
1tsp of cinnamon powder

For the topping:
100g (half a cup) brown sugar
40 g (one third a cup) plain flour
40g (one third of a stick) butter
140 g (around one and one third cups) chopped pecans—you can substitute with other nuts if necessary, but I do think pecan is the best for this as it has a pleasing sweetness. (Walnuts, the natural substitute, can be a little bitter.)

Method
Cover sweet potatoes with cold water and bring to boil. Cook gently until tender.

Mash sweet potatoes with the sugar, beaten eggs, salt, butter milk and vanilla extract if desired.

Spread the sweet potato mixture into a casserole dish measuring 22 x 33 centimeters (8.5″ x 13″).

Preheat the oven to 165°C (around 350ºF).

To make the topping, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and nuts. Sprinkle evenly over the potato mixture.

Bake for half an hour until golden brown—keep an eye on it, though, as pecans burn easily.

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Fellow Food Gossips,do you have any post-Thanksgiving (or pre-Christmas) food stories & recipes to share? And also please let us know: do you agree with Joanna’s take on the sweet potato?

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Solving the obesity problem with LBDs for all

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

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I’ve come to believe that it would be possible to stem the tide of world-wide obesity with the standard issue to all women of a beautifully made, French, Little Black Dress. You know — the type that appears in French adverts, or as worn by Audrey Hepburn, or in silhouettes on paperbacks about Paris (also featuring delicately drawn curly patio furniture and pom-pom headed poodles). A shapely fitted confection which flares out just above the knee, worn by a pony-tailed, impossibly thin, and very definitely French jeune-fille. Ah, me, she is just a black outline on my current bottle of rosé — but I want to be her and live her life of lightly, skinnily, skipping through streets of shuttered buildings full of parked Citröens.

If I could wear that dress, look like that, I’d forgo that extra croissant. You know I would.

Hiding a multitude of chins with Standard Issue Clothing

Joanna abayahThe last time I received a standard issue item was from my husband’s company when we relocated to Saudi. Black it was indeed, but that is where its similarity with an LBD began and ended. It was, you needn’t guess, a rather large and definitely not fitted abaya with matching headscarf.

The Husband returned home from his pre-visit carrying a lovely pink and black box which whispered all sorts of possibilities of delicious contents. In retrospect, it was probably rather large for that. As abayas go, it was a racy number with hot pink and silver around the hand-obscuring sleeves and on the edge of the black chiffony scarf.

Yes, I know. What a floozy. Actually, the scarf gave me considerable pleasure. I liked to drape it and imagine myself Benazir Bhutto or Jemima Khan. While I felt quite exotic at times, the sad truth was that I was indistinguishable from any other woman in town. It wasn’t rare for a strange child to grab my hand, confusing it for that of its mother.

That abaya was a dangerous thing, though. I heard all sorts of stories about what people wore under it, from saucy knickers to tea-stained pajamas, but I wore running tights and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. Whatever we wore, though, there was never need for a constraining waistband which would pinch us after a doughnut too many. It was awfully easy to consider pudding after lunch or even an extra Middle Eastern pastry at breakfast, especially since other pastimes were fairly limited.

Obesity is in the eye of the beholder (or in the outline of the LBD)

I am told that French obesity rates are rising, but from what to what, I am hard pressed to answer. Yesterday I drank a coffee on the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s most fashionable street, and tried to count the number of curvier types I could find. By curvier type, I am talking about those with extra rolls. There were precious few – especially when I consider towns in England or America. A little eavesdropping revealed many of these chubbier folk not to be speaking French. Lots of tourists and people whose origins were other than French seemed to be the ones adding a little padding to the city. Perhaps it is for them there is a little crêpe and Nutella stand on the appropriately named Rotonde, the lovely fountain which marks the centre of Aix.

You might say that this really isn’t a very scientific survey and you might be right, but bof to you. The French assure me that only Aix and Paris are ultra-slim, while the rest of the country is very different – said with a charming little purse of the lips and shake of the head, bien sûr. Yet this is what I see and I am convinced that it is because French ladies have a uniform, and they see it as their duty to fit into the damn thing.

If you can’t fit in the uniform, you won’t fit in at all

The uniform in Aix is a nice dress, or neat trousers, elegant tops and casual but well fitted jackets or even cardigans – but not comfy ones, darling, don’t even think of it. Colours are elegant neutrals, whites or blacks, and linen is definitely favoured for the summer. Patterns are handled with caution and fabrics are always natural. The whole package is finished of with a head of expensive beige highlights and who then, frankly, has any money left over for overeating?

One cannot wear this uniform well if there is any hint of pudge and so discipline is required. Yes, French women absolutely do hit the gym. This should make you feel much better. Do not believe what you have heard, that French women stay slim just by walking everywhere and taking the stairs. There are lots of gyms and they are full; the classes are as frenetic as anything in NYC. Sport is organized, and grown adult women enroll in athletic-, swim- and sports clubs at the annual Rentrée which follows the end of August’s national Vacances every year. Indeed, it is organized almost along military lines and involves getting medical certificates, insurance, and all sorts of paperwork. Even staying slim conforms to the national obsession with bureaucracy. You need discipline to collect and organize that much paper.

Your mother was right: eat three times a day, and only three times a day

This discipline really seems to be in a typically French Classic manner. Old-fashioned, if you like. Three sensible meals a day, one large at midday, and do not open the fridge between meals. Wine is drunk, but not in bacchanalian English or Irish excess. “Only one,” my French friend explains with a slight wag of her index finger, “at 5pm.” These are rules which we all know we can follow, but……

This is where the government would be wise to issue that frock. Just as the abaya gave hiding room for the effects of little indulgences, a little black dress does not. Better than the abaya, it would be a luxurious thing to wear and worth an hour in the gym every day in order to get into it. Once on, it would be a reminder to avoid any bloat-inducing, calorie-laden treats, which would spoil the line of its exquisite cut.

Come on! I had to wear the abaya in Saudi. It seems only right I should have to wear the classic national costume of France. Doesn’t it?

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Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

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