Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What chefs are really thinking

Ever wondered whether the chef at that quaint little French bistro has selected his "fresh" ingredients at the frozen food chain Picard? If yesterday's roast chicken has become today's chicken curry? If the price of the day's special is indecipherable on purpose? This video will confirm your worst fears about dining in France.
I like to think there are not too many chefs as cynical as this one, but there is no denying the grain of truth.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Five things I love about Helsinki

You might have guessed from the title that this is not going to be the most objective post. This month's trip to Helsinki was my third in as many years. Each time I find more to love about this city, which celebrates extremes of light and darkness, heat and cold.
I grew up with temperatures that often dipped to eyelash-freezing -35 C or so (not counting the dreaded wind chill), but at least we had clear, sunny skies even in mid-winter. The Finns have to deal with a period of nearly complete darkness at the coldest time of year, while in June the sun refuses to set. No wonder they think nothing of baking in a sauna at 100 C, then jumping through a crust of ice into a lake (when no lake is handy, they simply roll in the snow).

My reasons for loving Helsinki have less to do with the climate - I'm a wimpy southerner now - than the food. Yes, you heard right. Aki, Jari and Eeropekka, the witty and erudite editors of the innovative restaurant trade magazine Viisi Tähteä, organized the first Eat & Joy event two years ago to draw attention to the city's fast-developing restaurant scene. That year, then-French-president Jacques Chirac had made some very insulting remarks about Finnish food that I won't dignify by repeating here (let's say that only Britain came out worse in what was not his most diplomatic moment ever). As a representative of France, I spent much of my time on that first trip reassuring the Finns that Chirac had not spoken for everyone. I was even interviewed on Finnish TV, which shows how wounded the country was.
Admittedly, Finland is not widely renowned for its cuisine, but anyone with a taste for grains, berries, wild mushrooms, cold-water fish and unusual meats (I am mentally drawing a happy face next to each of these) will find its food irresistible. In the past few years Finnish chefs have been rediscovering the local bounty, and some of them are willing to go to great lengths - often as far as Lapland - to obtain the best ingredients. I met a chef who hunts his own bears (legally) to make juicy burgers which he serves on Moroccan flatbread with Korean mayonnaise at Hotel Sello. I also visited a primary school, where I discovered that the free school lunches were far superior to what Sam eats in France (Finnish schools have their own kitchens, while Sam's food is supplied by Sodexho from a central kitchen). Finland is full of surprises like this.

If you are thinking of visiting Helsinki anytime soon, here are five things I think you shouldn't miss:
1. Breakfast at Klaus K
Breakfast has never been the same for me since I first grazed my way through the fabulous buffet at the Klaus K. You won't find your run-of-the-mill omelettes and Corn Flakes here - every food displayed on the buffet, from the dill-marinated salmon to the sea buckthorn muesli, comes directly from a small producer. What I love most is the cauldron of hot cereal, which most often is barley that has been slow-cooked for several hours in milk (see recipe below). On my last morning at the hotel I drank fresh carrot juice, something I had never before seen at a hotel.
The man behind this admirable initiative is Markus Maulavirta, probably the city's most influential chef thanks to his attachment to small farmers. The first time I saw him he was dancing through the dining room while beating on his witch drum, which for him is totally in character. He is unfortunately leaving the Klaus K to lend a hand to the poro (ie reindeer) herders in Lapland, but the breakfast will not change. The Klaus K is also one of the best places to stay in Helsinki, with the most comfortable beds I've ever encountered and beautiful modern Finnish design.
2. The butter at Nokka
There are many wonderful things to eat at this contemporary Finnish restaurant, where Markus originally worked, but what really sticks in my mind is fresh, pure taste of the artisanal butter sourced from a small producer. Even in France, home of great dairy products, I've rarely encountered butter that I simply couldn't stop eating. Slathered generously onto the restaurant's wholemeal bread, which is made on the premises, it could practically be a meal in itself. This year, I tore my attention away from the butter long enough to taste an exceptional, sherry-like wine made of blackcurrants and fortified with cherries and cranberries. This ceviche-style fish was pretty wonderful too.

3. Lihapiirakka
Finnish cuisine isn't only about doing surprisingly sophisticated things with poro. Like any country that can feel proud of its cuisine, it has a great street food tradition. Meat pies - like big doughnuts, only filled with minced meat and occasionally sausages - are the perfect antidote to the hangover that is likely to hit at least once if you spend any time in Helsinki. Eat one first thing in the morning, preferably without having slept at all, and you will feel like a real Finn. Meat pies also provide a great excuse to visit the covered market on the harbor, which is a feast in itself.
4. The herring buffet at Sundmans Krog
My passion for herring has been fed by many an harengs pommes à l'huile (marinated herrings with warm potato salad) in Paris bistros, so imagine my delight to find herring in at least a dozen different guises in the casual main floor dining room of this elegant restaurant on the harbor. If you can't be in Helsinki for the Baltic herring festival in October, this is the next best thing.
5. Seahorse
Fried herring with mashed potatoes and pickled beet is another classic Finnish dish and this noisy, down-to-earth restaurant founded in 1934 is one of the most atmospheric places to enjoy it. Of course, culinary tastes have moved on and there are now some great modern bistros in Helsinki: Demo and Postres are two of my favorites. But to eat only modern bistro food in this city would be to miss something essential.
For more on Helsinki restaurants, here is a link to the piece I wrote earlier this year for the Times Online.

In case you're wondering about the picture above, it was Aki, confidently steering us in his Russian torpedo boat to the Ivana Helsinki show on the world heritage site Suomenlinna.

Barley porridge
Serves 4

Ever since my first trip to Finland I've eaten a lot more porridge for breakfast, usually topped with blueberries that I've stewed with a little sugar (this is one thing I buy frozen), plus all sorts of nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Barley porridge takes a long time to cook, so the best way to do it is overnight. Marcus Maulavirta gave me this recipe, along with a bag of barley. If you use milk it might curdle and caramelize a bit, but that's part of the charm.

4 cups milk or water, or half milk and half water
2/3 cup barley
A pinch of salt

Combine the milk and/or water, barley and salt in a heavy ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid. Place in the oven at about 225 F (100 - 120 C) for at least six hours or overnight.

Friday, September 21, 2007

St. Petersburg

To those who say that writing about restaurants is not hard work, I reply: "Have you ever tried eating six meals in a day?"
When I said I would try to post from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, I wasn't counting on the enthusiasm of the Eat & Joy organisers, who put our stamina (and stomachs) to the test with a packed schedule that started at 9am every day and never finished before 1am. In Helsinki we visited a record 22 restaurants in a single day, with tastings at each one, and in Russia our generous hosts put on a full spread at an average of six restaurants per day. Since our schedule was subject to last-minute changes, I was never really able to pace myself - just when I thought we had finally finished, we would be taken to a surprise addition to the list and served a five-course meal.
Do I regret a bite of it? Not at all: Helsinki's restaurant scene gets more exciting every year thanks to chefs who seek out local produce and it was fascinating to see how St. Petersburg is developing as a restaurant city, even if there was a little too much sushi for my taste (I love sushi, but when in Russia I'd rather eat blinis). International cuisine is all the rage in this strikingly beautiful city and I didn't eat a bowl of borscht in four days, though I did slip away once to have a blini experience.
I had noticed a chain of fast-food restaurants called Tepemok but known to the locals as "Blindonalds," which serve freshly made blinis filled with salmon, minced meat, chicken, berries or chocolate. The pancakes known as blinis in France are small and puffy, closer to a Canadian pancake than a French crêpe. In St. Petersburg they were far more crêpe-like, as big as the French version and only slightly thicker. This didn't surprise me as one of Sam's babysitters, a Ukrainian girl named Eugenia, had once shown me how to make blinis like her grandmother's. Hers were identical to the St. Petersburg blinis, which puff up a little when spread on a hot griddle, and have become my standard recipe for pancakes at home.

St. Petersburg is an expensive city but at Tepemok you can have a hearty and delicious meal for 150 rubles (the equivalent of about 5 euros), which explains the popularity of this chain. I ordered a blini with salmon, dill and sour cream and another with berries and cream, which came to 140 rubles. You can even order a blini filled with salmon roe, which the locals prefer to black caviar because it's far cheaper and reliably good.
Another highlight of my visit to St. Petersburg was the covered market Kuznechny, where I was delighted to see farmers selling local produce (many of the chefs mentioned how difficult it is to find local ingredients). Outside the market stood a row of women displaying tiny amounts of beautiful goods: a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms, plastic cups heaped with blueberries, a small bunch of carrots.

The dairy stand made me want to dive right into the vats of curd cheese and sour cream, whose color brought to mind cows munching on pale golden hay.

Every vegetable at this stand was pickled. I bought two ordinary (cucumber) pickles to eat right away and a head of purple pickled garlic, which I stirred into a potato salad the day I returned to Nice.

Thick honey was sold in vats and jugs. I bought some Siberian acacia honey, a pale, runny honey that looked like lemonade in its big glass jug.

Fresh horseradish is not something I can find at the markets in France. The roots look like pieces of dry bark.

Caviar tempted me, but had been warned by Russians that there is no guarantee of quality. A small jar of beluga caviar costs more than 100 euros.

The quality and freshness of the produce was impressive: I loved this pile of pumpkins.
I left St. Petersburg feeling I had only scratched the surface of what there is to see and taste there. With luck, there will be other trips.

Russian blinis
Serves 2-3

2 eggs
8 heaped tbsp flour
1 cup milk
A pinch of baking power
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp butter

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add 4 generous tbsp flour and whisk until smooth. Pour in 1/2 cup milk and combine. Add 4 more heaped tbsp flour, along with the baking powder and salt. Stir well, then whisk in the remaining milk until smooth. Melt the butter in the frying pan you will use to cook the blinis. Pour the butter into the batter and combine. The batter should be slightly thicker than crêpe batter - add a little flour or milk to adjust the consistency if necessary. Wipe the frying pan with a paper towel.

Heat the frying pan over high heat and cook the blinis one by one on both sides. You may need to turn the heat down after the second or third blini and grease the pan with a little oil using the paper towel. Serve with savory fillings such as smoked salmon, sour cream and dill or sweet fillings such as berries and cream.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bear burger and caviar

I'm off to Helsinki and St. Petersburg today on a press trip, having miraculously obtained a Russian visa in Paris. This is my third trip to Helsinki thanks to the wonderful Eat & Joy event, which is held every year. Highlights last year were a bear burger (surprisingly juicy), a real Finnish sauna and the herring festival, in which the harbour fills with small fishing boats. How I love herring!
I hope to be able to report on my adventures while I'm there, as long as I don't run into any Internet connection problems.
A bientôt!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A big coffee éclair

Coffee éclairs and I go back a long way, to my first year in Paris when I was four. My memories of that year are vivid, probably because I was learning a new language (I entered the maternelle knowing only how to say "oui" and "non" and came out fluent, at least temporarily) and adjusting to a new culture (in Canada park wardens don't blow the whistle and aim a threatening finger at children who step on the grass).
I particularly remember going for walks with my dad and marvelling at the chaotic traffic along boulevard Garibaldi. At the time no self-respecting Parisian would drive anything but a Citroën 2CV and these seemed to crash into each other a lot more often than cars do nowadays in Paris. I entertained myself by watching cars back down our one-way street - reversing at high speed was still an acceptable way of getting around the one-way street problem - and waiting for the inevitable crunch of metal on metal. The drivers would get out of their cars, yell and shake their fists, then get back in and casually drive away.
My dad, being a fellow gourmand, always found time for a pastry or ice cream on these walks. In the early 1970s (!! am I that old?) most pâtissiers still made their own ice creams and sorbets, which were displayed outside the shop. Eating coffee ice cream made me feel very sophisticated and it wasn't long before I discovered the coffee éclair, with its crisp choux pastry, coffee pastry cream filling and shiny coffee glaze.
I think my love of cooking may have sprung from the coffee éclair - or, rather, the lack of it in Canada. My mother had a book called La pâtisserie pour tous by Ginette Mathiot (Le livre de poche) and, as soon as I was old enough (around 8 or 9 years old), I began teaching myself to make French pastries. The results were often pretty disastrous and I shed my share of tears but after a while I did master the éclair, more or less.
Our family's original copy of this classic book has gone missing and only recently did I think to buy one of my own. Looking at Mathiot's brief instructions for the most complex French pastries, I could understand why my pastry apprenticeship was strewn with obstacles (the instructions for making bûche de Noël, a complicated rolled and decorated cake, are six lines long). The book also made me realize how flawed memory can be: I eagerly started looking for the croissant recipe I remembered, only to realize there isn't one.
I haven't yet revisited Mathiot's coffee éclair recipe, but when I do I promise to give you a full report. In the meantime, I had one of my most spectacular éclairs ever in Paris at the restaurant Rech, which has recently been taken over by star chef Alain Ducasse. The XL éclair has always been a specialty at this art deco seafood restaurant in the 17th arrondissement, and Ducasse has wisely kept it on the menu. The glaze was so good that I wanted to pick up the éclair and lick it, but I've grown a little more dignified in the past 30 years or so, at least in public.
After all these years I still have a special fondness for the éclair, an untrendy pastry that has lately taken a back seat to the show-off macaron. I feel gratified that Sam, with no encouragement from me (really!), has developed his own passion for the coffee version. Though he is tolerant of my solo trips to Paris, he is having a hard time forgiving me for eating this entire éclair without him.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

La rentrée

After a few weeks away it's always a pleasure to come back to Paris. You might think I would be jaded after all this time, but my first glimpse of the city is inevitably a thrill. This time there was quite a lot to catch up on: the city has made thousands of sleek silver bicycles available at stands throughout the city and there is free wireless Internet access in parks and libraries.
I wasted no time in trying out both, first at the poetically named Bibliothèque l'Heure Joyeuse in the 5th arrondissement, where I enjoyed an inspiring view of Saint-Severin church as I worked. It's a children's library, but French kids have good library manners and it felt much more serene than any café. I tried to pick up the Internet in the Palais Royal gardens today but discovered that not all gardens are equipped with WiFi (I could have gone to Les Halles, which is rather less romantic).
Having mastered the Velib system in Lyon and ridden my own bicycle for ten years in Paris (which I proudly still have in Nice), I couldn't wait to get on a bike. To my amazement this proved simple, requiring no permission letter from my parents or multiple passport photos. I simply punched in a request for a seven-day pass (€5) at one of the stands, authorized a deposit of €150 which would be used only if I failed to return or damaged a bicycle, and helped myself. The bikes are rather heavy in the front and I felt a little nervous as my precious new computer jiggled in the basket - would the insurance cover it if I hit a big cobblestone and it went flying over the handlebars? I decided not to take my computer along for the ride next time.
I'm taking advantage of my time in Paris to catch up on restaurants and the shot above is from Hélène Darroze's new bistro Toustem, whose dining room across from Notre Dame is an odd juxtaposition of heavy beams, gothic doors, orange floors and white chairs. I've never felt completely at ease in her ultra-chic rue d'Assas restaurant, but here her cooking is at its generous best. I loved this dish of macaronnade, penne in a mushroom cream sauce with big chunks of pan-fried foie gras.
If you look carefully you can see Darroze in the background (second from the left in the group of women) - she was not in the kitchen but had dropped in with pictures of her baby girl. What does a two-Michelin-star chef drink on her day off? Diet Coke - so you don't ever have to feel embarrassed about ordering this in a Paris restaurant.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Rediscovering roses

I have never paid as much attention to flowers as I have to food. After all, with a few exceptions, you can't eat them. In my more domestic days - when I lived in a house with a garden - I grew nasturtiums and marigolds to toss into salads and keep away pests, but that was about the extent of my skills as a non-vegetable gardener.
Over the last year or so I've paid too little attention to the flower market that takes place on the Cours Saleya every day next to the food market. I went through a brief period of buying bouquets from the flower market's most popular vendor, whose stall is the first on the right after the food market's central aisle, but by the time I had chosen my vegetables the line-ups were often long and the selection limited.
Then, yesterday, I decided that I wanted a bouquet of roses for my table. Now, roses might seem a little old-fashioned, not the most adventurous flower, but as someone who is named after this flower and likes to wear pink, I think I can justify liking them. I bought them from one of a handful of flower stands in the small producers' area of the market. The seller, who I would guess is over 75 if not 80, told me in his strong Italian accent that he liked my pink T-shirt and had a similar one at home. Sure enough, today he was wearing his pink shirt.

Since I brought these flowers home I have rediscovered the smell of roses. Who even remembers that roses have the sweet, romantic scent of an English country garden, which can't fail to lift my spirits as I sit at the kitchen table typing on my shiny new Mac laptop (which is insured up to its eyeballs, given the fate of the last two)? These days most flowers are bred not to smell like anything, perhaps for the same reasons that Dutch tomatoes are cultivated not to taste like anything.
The other wonderful thing about roses is that you can eat them. I like the soothing taste of Chinese tea mixed with rosebuds, still remember their mysterious flavour in a chicken, tomato, honey and rose tagine which I tasted years ago at the Paris restaurant Le Mansouria, and have often been tempted by the rose-scented salt at the market, which is recommended for use with carpaccio or foie gras. I've also used them to decorate a wedding cake (if you use fresh roses to decorate a cake, be sure they have not been sprayed with an noxious chemicals).
From now on I'll be buying roses a lot more often, and I don't care if some of their petals look a little wilted around the edges. To me, this rustic bouquet looks a lot prettier than one so perfect and symmetrical that it might easily be made of plastic.