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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

JoannaJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her monthly column for like-minded food gossips.

This month, Joanna addresses the issues facing a wine-loving girl who finds herself living in a dry country for two years.

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“I don’t think I can do this,” I whined to my husband casting my eyes around the restaurant in something close to desperation.  “I think it must be time for repatriation, don’t you?”

My husband had taken me to a smart restaurant in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on our first night in The Kingdom.  It was such an attractive place: lovely china and glasses, a chic wooden floor, attentive waiters and delightful food. Yet it was all, so, so wrongIt wasn’t just that I was clad in a form-engulfing abaya, the sleeves of which kept getting in the way of everything.  It wasn’t that we had been ushered to the less well-appointed “Family Section” without views over the The Gulf.  Annoying as those facts were, they weren’t the only irritant.

“Look.” I held up my large balloon shaped wine glass for inspection. Full of San Pellegrino, it shimmered under the tasteful lighting. “What’s the point of all this wonderful food if you just wash it away with water?”

“It’s nice water. Italian,” encouraged David, whose heart must have already been sinking in the knowledge that he had two more years to live with a discontented missus.

“It’s. Not. Wine.” I enunciated my words carefully. “And I have beef.”

More to the point, I had a beef. Let me make this clear for anyone who has not had the Saudi experience: there is no alcohol to be had anywhere.  It is forbidden, interdit, prohibido, indeed, haram.  Occasionally a hapless supermarket manager might mistakenly stock chocolate liqueurs, but who wants those, with or without a good Chateaubriand?

Home-brewing, the expats’ hobby

I’m all for fitting into the lifestyles of the places where I wash up, but I like a bit of give and take. Several years without wine or bacon didn’t seem like give and take for a girl who is half English and half Irish. On that first night, I would have considered raiding a Church’s communion wine but, of course, there are no churches in Saudi either.

So started a two-year quest to find an acceptable alcoholic drink which would inject a little of the warmth wine offers to a dinner party, and a little of the naughty fun that oils the wheels of a party the rest of the world over.

Our starting point was the homemade wine with which most expats become acquainted.  I won’t bore you with the recipe; suffice to say it involves a water cooler bottle, gallons of red or white grape juice, lemon, lots of sugar, yeast and a handful of teabags – for the tannin, of  course.  This lot is heated up then transferred to the water bottle and bunged up with the special cork and an impressive-looking glass “curly wurly” tube.  After four or five weeks, when the smell of yeast has subsided, the wine can be bottled.

The resulting wines can vary surprisingly, but in one thing they are identical: each is truly appalling.  It doesn’t matter the method used, the care taken or the expensive ingredients experimented with — fresh blueberries in Saudi, anyone? — it is just dreadful.  We knew someone who actually made a batch from grapes he had trodden himself. Well, perhaps that never did sound promising.

Vimto — with a Tixylix chaser

During the weeks of waiting for our wine to ferment, I realized why even cough mixture was banned in The Kingdom.  A few dry company dinners complete with presentations and speeches convinced me that teetotalism is not advisable, at least not before retirement. If you must spend dinner with a bunch of people not entirely of your choosing, a slug of Tixylix would be welcome.

I began to view anything sold in bulk with grave suspicion.  Why, for example, would anyone wish to buy large quantities of Vimto, a cordial traditionally found in fish and chip shops in Northern England?  Could it be possible that it was the secret to a sloe gin sort of drink?  The adverts on massive billboards throughout the city suggested a sophistication more readily associated with champagne than a fruit squash. That observation led to an ill-advised attempt at a Vimto-based wine. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the result was the cough mixture a million sleepless Saudi parents would have been grateful for. Never mind; undeterred, we continued our experiments with a dedication and wanton disregard for our health that the Curies would have admired.

Putting the fizz in compound life

Early in our stay in Saudi, I heard rumours of “The Champagne Lady” of another compound.  She had, so it was said, perfected a sort of sparkling wine which, if not exactly champagne, was a far more pleasant drink than Saudi Ordinaire.  My search for her was rewarded in time and she proved generous with her recipe.  The key requirements were a strong lemonade bottle with a wired cork, unsweetened white grape juice and just two grains of yeast. Even one grain over requirements could result in a nasty glass-shattering explosion.  One must resolve to keep the fledgling beverage in the fridge and not agitate it for two weeks — harder than it sounds in a household with four kids. After guarding the fridge door like an over-zealous Rottweiler for the required time, I could pull down the wire to cork the bottle then leave it in its comatose state for a further two weeks.  The  “pop” on opening was deeply gratifying; the flavor, surprisingly, “not so bad”. Rather like Appeltiser, it did not cause one’s face to reflexively contort while downing it.  Champagne it was not, but drinkable it was.

Add the Perrier and face the grapes of wrath

Two years of experimentation taught us two things.  Firstly, the only way to make a drink that approximated a bone fide drink one might find on sale elsewhere was not to serve our wine straight but to make a “Pimms” cocktail from it.  We would pour it over a glassful of ice and top up with lemonade.  After adding plenty of mint, cucumber and any other vegetation to hand, we could, at a stretch, imagine ourselves at Wimbledon.  Unlike the wine alone, it was vaguely similar to what we wished it was.  That alone justified the considerable number of Pimms parties we hosted in our time.

The second thing we learned, as a direct consequence of the first thing we learned, is that a wine snob is a wine snob whatever his situation.  Making our “cocktail” on occasion caused as much offence as if we had used a Grand Cru as the base, especially if mixed it with someone else’s wine.  The snorts of outrage could have been no stronger.  Indeed cutting someone else’s wine with anything from Perrier to club soda to ice, was to run the risk of causing deep and enduring offense.  There are certain people (and you know who you are) who should remember wine is meant to be fun.  You need every laugh you can get in certain circumstances, and a dodgy Saudi Red ought to be the perfect vehicle for hilarity.

Postscript

Oh, and in case you were wondering — why the popularity of Vimto? It turns out that it is the Saudi drink of choice during the Iftar breakfast enjoyed at sundown each day of Ramadan.  It addresses low blood sugar levels after a day of fasting and stands up well to the full flavoured food on offer – and it doesn’t make you screw up your face when you drink it.

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 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!

Image: Joanna in her abaya, celebrating an English goal during the World Cup

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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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: There’s no taste like home

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her monthly column for like-minded food gossips.

Today’s topic for discussion in the kitchen is something very dear to Joanna’s heart: English food.

Before I left the shores of England over 16 years ago, I never gave a thought to British recipes and ingredients as long as I had a supply of strong English teabags. And once I left England and adopted a “displaced” lifestyle, not being able to find ingredients for familiar English recipes simply meant an opportunity to try something new and wonderful, because I love cooking. I tasted and cooked my way around the world and lost touch with food from home.

Now, some people might be unkind enough to suggest that this was for the best, given England’s reputation for lacklustre food. How unfair! A difficult century of war and rationing, followed by the arrival of new convenience foods had an adverse affect on home cooking and restaurants alike. If I had to collect my rations for weeks in order to make a cake, I would probably lose interest within days. The new packets and tins must have seemed welcome relief from the effort of thinking about how to put a meal together. But that’s another story. For now, take it from me that properly cooked English food made with quality ingredients and which doesn’t substitute homemade for pre-packed, is a wonderful thing. It is a wonderful thing.

However. Back to me, living overseas: I felt it was important to learn to cook the local food, and I took this task very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that one day the realization hit me that, in eight years of motherhood, I couldn’t recall having made a single traditional English dish for my kids. Why on earth not? This was the culinary equivalent of refusing to speak to your child in your native tongue, and potentially just as psychologically damaging.

We had just arrived in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has a large expat population, and a certain supermarket, Hock Choon, caters to it shamelessly. During one expedition there, I picked up a distinctive green and gold tin of Golden Syrup.

“What’s that?” asked my kids, crowding around, eager to look at this strange foreign product.

Oh dear. What woeful ignorance of an iconic British product. My own children didn’t know that Golden Syrup is to foie gras what corn syrup is to Spam.

Clearly there was some cultural awareness to be taught.

A taste of home

On the drive home I began to feel a tingle of excitement. A quest had begun. A project is a good thing to have in the difficult first few months in a new country. It keeps you from mourning over your lost life elsewhere. I determined that I would cook English favourites for my kids and I would cook them well. No corner cutting, no packets, and certainly no shop bought pastry—one thing thankfully, that was conspicuous by its absence at Hock Choon.

That Sunday I produced my kids’ first-ever Sunday roast. It was simple stuff: just chicken, roast potatoes and green beans, but I just felt such a damn capable mother as I carried it to the dining table. Steamed syrup pudding came next, and custard too — the real deal, made with cream, eggs and a steady nerve.

My children stared with fixed intensity as I lifted the dish to reveal the pudding in its full golden glory. Accustomed to tarts and tortes, they were unsure what they were facing.

“Umm…what is it called?” asked six-year-old Isabel, as I poured custard on her serving.

Seconds later she discovered what everyone does when they try this delight of English baking. The name gives no hint of its tender lightness. It doesn’t swamp the vanilla delicacy of custard. Here was something that looked as though it could break storefronts for ram raiders, but which in reality was a frou-frou pussycat of buttery, light delight. With relief, I surveyed the smiles of my family. There would be no pudding mutiny that night.

Over the months that came, aided by the marvelously stocked Hock Choon, I mastered steak and kidney pie with homemade suet pastry, roast racks of lamb, and liver and onions. On the pudding side, Bakewell tart became a firm favourite and more than adequate British competition for a tarte au citron.

Bravely, I served English food for my children’s Korean and Japanese friends and found they delighted in the names of some of the dishes. I lost count of the number of children who couldn’t wait to tell their parents they had eaten “toads” and that they were delicious. Toad in the Hole, if the fat and oven are hot enough, is a glorious combination of light and golden batter, meaty sausages and sweet onion gravy. I remember one lovely Chinese mum being genuinely disappointed to learn that it was a pork dish and not a spin on frog legs.

Now, my children have favourites recipes from England and are fiercely defensive of their national dishes. Criticism is met with an invitation home for dinner and on those nights I cook with extra care. I am happy to report that we have enjoyed quite a lot of success. No longer are we bashful when our food or produce is knocked—we talk back. That’s important. Food forges a sense of belonging to somewhere.

One more thing before I go: Clotted Cream

905482_10151362556866828_2018383220_oEngland is rightly famous for its dairy products, king of which is clotted cream. It hails from South West England, particularly Devon, but also Dorset and South Somerset. This is the stuff traditionally served with scones and for which ‘cream tea’ is named. I like to serve it with fruit tarts at dinner and — oh, let’s be frank, this is the cream that goes anywhere. Just don’t waste it in cooking.

It’s quite difficult to find outside Britain, but not to worry—you can make your own.

RECIPE FOR CLOTTED CREAM

You need “raw” cream. It can be called heavy, whipping, double or single cream, just as long as it isn’t UHT (ultra heat treated). UHT won’t separate, and you need to separate the cream from the milk.

Now put that cream in an ovenproof dish and cover. Place it in an oven preheated to 180°F or 80°C and leave for 8-12 hours—yes, you read that correctly.

When a thick, yellowish crust of mascarpone-like consistency has been achieved, remove the dish, wait for it to cool, then refrigerate for a minimum of 8 hours. Scoop it in to jars, cover and eat within a few days.

That should be the easiest part of all.

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 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 photos by Joanna and used with her permission

GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Brigadeiros, the essential element of every Brazilian child’s party

Brazil, Brigadeiros, FoodToday we introduce Global Food Gossip: a new monthly food column by Joanna Masters-Maggs, who was our guest in October 2011 with a two-part post about her culinary observations in Provence.

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 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? What sort of kitchen appliances do they use — if any?”

Today, she takes us to Rio for her youngest son’s favourite dessert, Brigadeiros — a dish without which no Brazilian child’s party is complete.

The inner Carioca

“Is there something you want to tell me about Sergio?” my husband teased, in reference to our Brazilian gardener. Our son Patrick [pictured] had just been born in Rio de Janeiro. Nine years later Patrickzinho  — little Patrick — can still pass as a Brazilian. Not only are his eyes as dark as his pupils and his skin the type that tans successfully, but he has the open friendliness typical of the people we came to know and love.

Patrick is a Carioca, the name given to those born in Rio. He wears the name with pride.

More than once have I had to dissuade his friends’ parents that Patrick is not half Brazilian, he just feels it. That feeling has curled itself in and around him like a particularly persistent Virginia creeper.

Patrick’s inner Carioca is why I have spent the morning in the kitchen, surrounded by empty cans of condensed milk, chocolate powder and mini-cake papers. I am making brigadeiros. Brigadeiros are simple truffle-like chocolates as integral to children’s parties as bikinis are to Copacabana Beach. Forgo the birthday clown if you must, but the brigadeiros cannot be skipped.

Perfecting the role of Brazilian mother

Tomorrow, Patrick’s school is throwing a farewell party for a friend who is returning to Japan. The children have been asked to bring a treat from their country of origin. Well, it’s a party, and Brazil is his country of origin, so what else is he to request from the Maggs kitchen?

Over the years I have played the role of Brazilian mother more than once. I have given school presentations on Brazil, sung Brazilian songs and made countless brigadeiros – all with varying degrees of success but always with great deal of enthusiasm.

The brigadeiro was so named for a chocolate loving army officer. Neither his army career nor his sweet tooth were successful enough for his actual name to be remembered. The brigadeiro, however, has gained iconic status.

I have been making these chocolate treats for years, but it is only recently I perfected the technique. Brazilians insist they are very easy to make, but mine always tended to be a little flat. Then, on moving to Saudi Arabia, I discovered my beautiful and charming neighbor, Yamara, was a Brazilian. An afternoon in the kitchen making a countless number of these sticky balls for yet another “My Country” presentation, and I’ve never looked back. The problem was that my consistency was too soft and I had to be braver about cooking the mixture a little longer. My little chocolate balls now have the correct mixture of stickiness and shape, but never a toffee-like chewiness.

So, it is Yamara’s instructions I am sharing with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as Patrick’s class did. Brigadeiro-making is a fun project for all ages and now that Patrick is making his own, I pass the wooden spoon on to you.

To make Brigadeiros you will need:

I can of condensed milk

3 tbsp of chocolate powder (I use Nesquik)

1 tsp of butter.

Put over a gentle flame and heat until the mixture begins to thicken. Don’t stop stirring. Brazilians say you must heat until “you can see the bottom of the pan”. This is when the heat gently lifts the mixture from the pan and you can make a wide “path” in the mixture with a wooden spoon. It takes about 5 minutes.

Let the mixture cool until you can handle it. You will see it will firm up a little, so avoid the temptation to cook too long. If it is too firm the chocolate strands will not stick. If you have got it right you can take small teaspoons of the cooled mixture and it roll into balls between your hands. Finish by rolling the balls in chocolate strands. Cheerful mini paper baking cases add the final touch. Well, let’s be honest, you need the paper cases for authenticity. Really.

Brazilians also like to make a softer version of the this mixture to make a decadent topping and filling for cakes. Just cook for a couple of minutes less so you achieve a rich pouring consistency. On a rich, soft chocolate cake and sprinkled with chocolate strands you have Brigadeiro Cake, another Brazilian staple. I defy anyone to eat two pieces and live to tell the tale.

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

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STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s author interview and a new giveaway!

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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Image: Joanna’s son Patrick, with his Brigadeiros

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