Gastronomy

Nick the Greek / El Griego Nick

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Nick the Greek

Sometimes childhood recollection seems stronger than present experience. I know this sounds all very Proustian, only for me today, it is not the smell of steaming madeleines, but rather the tart astringency of my mother’s yoghurt. Mum learnt it from the Greeks. At 25 she was on a ship to Athens via North Africa. Fortunately she turned down the marriage proposal of Nick, the Greek soccer player she met on her way or else this story, as much as its author, would never have come into fruition.

I learnt how to prepare it, and also how the Greeks prepared it. Apparently, every household had a pot that was left at the front doorstep overnight. In the early hours of the morning the milk man would come past each door and fill the pot. By breakfast time, it would be ready for the family to haul into the kitchen from the hot Mediterranean sun.

I could tell by Mum’s tone that she wished we had a milk man to fill our yoghurt pot, as in Greece. I guess she made her own yoghurt out of a frustration with the gelatinous farce that was 1980’s shop bought Australian yoghurt.

I’d drag one of the wooden chairs, with intricate wood carvings in recession, across the wooden floor to the kitchen bench top that overlooked our jungly garden. Climbing the chair to add to my 5 year old height, I’d soon be by Mum’s side as she prepared the milk. She would boil, mix and finally pour it into her brown earthenware yoghurt pot.

In the scorched summer mornings Mum would place the pot, brimming with milk, out on a wooden chair under the sun, wrapped in a tea-towel, to incubate. By dinner time, after a few hours of refrigeration, we would cup our own cool bowl filled with it, scooping it into our mouths as it swum in the mahogany juice of  home stewed plums.

Today, I echoed my mother’s frustrations for shop bought yoghurt. It’s sitting by my window garden now, waiting to incubate while I write at the library. Though ironically, given the Melbourne weather, it’s started to rain.

Oh! For a Mediterranean sun!

*

El Griego Nick

Se que esto puede sonar muy Prusiano, pero algunas veces los recuerdos de la infancia parecen más fuertes que las experiencias del presente. Para mi, hoy no estuvo presente el aroma de las magdalenas al vapor, pero si la fragancia de la tarta astringente del yogurt de mi madre.  Ella lo aprendio de los griegos  cuando tenia 25 años de edad y mientras viajaba por barco desde Africa del Norte rumbo a Atenas.  Afortunadamente rechazό la propuesta de matrimonio de Nick; el futbolista griego que conocio durante su trayecto, de lo contrario esta historia junto con su autora nunca hubiesen sido posibles.

Aprendi a como prepararlo y tambien como los griegos lo preparaban: Aparentemente cada hogar dejaba un recipiente en la entrada de la casa durante la noche, que luego muy temprano en la mañana, el lechero pasaba de puerta en puerta llenandos. A la hora del desayuno, el Yogurt ya estaba al punto debido al calor mediterraneo, asi que esta vasija podia ser  arrastratrada hacia la cocina para la familia.

Por el tono de mi madre deducì que ella deseaba que nuestro yogurt fuese como en Grecia.   Y creo que apartir de su frustracion por la gelatina artificial disponible en las tiendas de los 80’s que dio origen al yogurt australiano, ella empezo a preparar su propio yogurt.

Yo arrastraba una silla de madera, con grabados intrincados en el espaldar, atravez del piso tambien hecho de madera, para ubicarla junto al meson de la cosina que tenía vista hacia nuestro jardin selvatico, al treparme a esta silla ganaba más altura de la normal a mis 5 años de edad, de esta manera podia estar a su lado mientras preparaba nuestro yogurt.  En el proceso ella hervia, mesclaba y finalmente vaciaba la leche en una olla de terracota oscura destinada para el yogurt.

Durante las mañanas calurosas de verano, mi madre sacaba  al sol este recipiente rebosante de leche, previamente envuelto en un paño y sobre una silla de madera para que se aliñara. A la hora de la cena y despues de algunas horas de refrigeracion, ya podiamos llenar nuestras tazas con el producto final, el cual lo degustabamos al mezclarlo con el jugo caoba de los duraznos guisados en casa.

Hoy repreti la frustracion de mi madre por el yogurt comprado en la tienda. Por eso ahora mi propio producto esta reposando en el jardin de la ventana para que se aliñe, mientras estoy en la biblioteca escriendo. Ironicamente pienso en el clima de Melbourne porque ya empezo a llover.

Opa! Por un sol mediterraneo!

Translated by Fabian Rodriguez

Bolero and Ochre

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I have in my possession a little tin jar whose contents, once opened, storm the senses whilst weaving and dancing through my cuisine with the stamp of smoky feet. It burns the floor red and bites the tongue. This little tin receptacle contains pimentón dulce (sweet, spicy paprika) first sourced from a Spanish Vendor in Borough Markets London. I’d spotted it while meandering past the dry and fleshy jamones as they slid and fell into hefty mounds, trophies of the cheeky butchers that carved them in constant secession. 

I’ve learnt that where your pimentón dulce hails from is important. In fact there are even Denominations of Origin for paprika the most esteemed being the southeastern Spanish coastal province of Murcia.

My little tin is old worldly labelled Bolero and boasts a dancing couple posturing with the whisper of ruffling crimson and petticoats. It sits beside me as I write. Admiring its label, I pick it up and with clumsy fingers, drop the tin with a clunk to the floor. Cursing my fate and tendency to drop and break whatever dainty article comes my way, I instead look to my lap and below and there it lies, like vermillion ochre, coating my seat and painting the floor like in ceremonious ritual. I can’t help but breathe deeper, inhaling through my nose as the air grows in dimension- sweet and smoky. I am reminded of paellas and the sizzle of chorizo that claims my husband’s breath after huevos rancheros. There allover the hard wood floor of our little art deco apartment here in Melbourne, lies the earth of Murcia, the ochre of Murcia.

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Loca (crazy) for Mocha

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I take a sip, followed by a gulp. This mocha is good, in fact, it’s superb. I first became giddy about mocha through my near others’ vices. Both my husband and a very close friend swoon over mochas and before I knew it, auditory bombardment of the request, “Give me a mocha please”, soon saw me ordering it. Call me easily influenced, if you so please. But I never realised the implications of becoming a mocha drinker in the big wide world that is the Melbourne cafe scene. Melbournites pride themselves on the state of their coffee and baristas are lauded as the darlings of urban Melbourne.

That aside, ordering a mocha here in an unfamiliar cafe is like Russian Roulette.

Even some of the best cafes in Melbourne have served me the shoddiest of mochas. On entry, I skim the counter quickly to determine the fate of ordering a mocha. If I sight syrup, the show is over and a cappuccino it shall be. I’m skeptical about powder, unless it’s a boutique one from a few establishments. Invariably powder leaves me tetchy and unfulfilled- clumped and sickly sweet it sits at the base of my cup testament more to it’s sugar lineage than any cocoa bean genealogy.
At this point in my epistle it should come as no surprise that I’m overjoyed to have sipped the best mocha in a long time. Right on my window seat at home. We purchased some old school Colombian block of cocoa mass goodness, unsweetened and sourced from Melbourne’s little Spanish supermarket Casa Iberica. Snapping the block into pieces, I plopped a few into our little red saucepan and topped it with milk while the stovetop espresso steamed and erupted it’s aromatic gold crema topped brew. Once the milk bubbled at the edges, it moved from a white tint to a light mahogany, I poured it over the coffee shot and commenced my trip to utopia. The cocoa wraps around the black coffee, caressing it yet not overpowering it. We drink it slowly, contentedly. The aroma of chocolate lingers in our little apartment for the whole morning. Loca for mocha.

Kimchi nights

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My Kimchi

Tonight the icy arctic wind binges in the bay. Whirling and biting, it skews my hat and unsettles my scarf. The air jabs and teases my appetite. I’m hungry.

Maybe my craving for warmth prompts me to reach for the kimchi. So here we sit. Ensconsed in blankets, perched upright against the hardboard of the bed, eating kimchi. The astringent Gochu (chilli) infused cabbage bites my palate as I roll it in steamed rice and barley filled toasty seaweed rolls. Chopsticks move speedily, molding the barley and rice into petite little clumps. I try to assemble a perfect fold with the crisp small seaweed sheets. Perfect and proportionate the serves crackle and flake in my mouth. A basic fare we have pared it down to the staples, well Korean staples that is. Kimchi and rice I conclude is like pasta and cheese- a gastronomical love union, an affair that never grows tired.

Kimchi nights.

The Leviathan in my Bowl

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Octopus out of Focus. Yumiko Utsu
Octopus out of Focus. Yumiko Utsu

He arrives at our table. Short, stout, pristine. Dyed and slicked with shine his jet-black hair glistens and frames an aged face. Almond eyes glisten. English vowels are clipped and chopped to the minutest proportions as he notes down our menu on a fresh, sharp cornered notepad cupped in wrinkled hands.

Near our table sits a Vietnamese couple surrounded by many platters that bely nostalgia for homeland. One platter has been intriguing me even up until the old gentleman stands guard by our table , butleresque. I can’t stop exclaiming to Mr Divageiger about it. Leaves of lettuce, assembled like crispy green clouds almost float off the plate in gregarious ebullience. Mr Divageiger keeps misunderstanding my subtle verbal explanations and I can hardly gesticulate and start pointing. So I give up and instead watch them roll the leaves, expertly. Rolling and dipping, rolling and dipping.
As our order is taken the couple crunch their way through the platter. The old gentleman’s signet ring glints at me. Etched gold with an asiatic image embossed into deep red stone, it grips his right ring finger. Polished. Stately. The fate of tonight’s Phô seems assured.
Chilli infused steam winds it’s way through my nose. I reach for the condiment dish and ladle fresh puréed chilli into my bowl. I load the little porcelain spoon several times until my bowl resembles a red carnelian sea. Bean sprouts are strewn, lemon is squeezed, the Vietnamese mint perspires its musky sweetness as my spoon meets the broth. It’s good to be home. For this is the taste of home for me. Good Asian cuisine served by a gentleman of old school Saigon reminds me of how far I have travelled in a week. Continental Bulgaria is eons away from Melbourne and its little Saigon. I declare we ought too visit Saigon, see it for ourselves, get lost in its French Colonial architecture and not so French smells.
I explore the bowl like an unchartered territory. I’m pincering crab-like with chopsticks chewy balls of seitan suggested to me as a meat substitute by the old guard Mr Saigon and flicking them into Mr Divageiger’s clay pot. Bartering in a sense for lemon grass infused beef morsels. But only morsels, please darling or I feel unfaithful to vegetarianism. Toying with my rice noodles, I spot it.
 
“Corazon, there is a vegetarian octopus in my soup!”
As I retrieve tentacle after tentacle, I laugh raucously. Imagine that…

Sugary Alcove

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Baklava from Vitosha Boulevard
Baklava from Vitosha Boulevard

Beside the tram stop on Vitosha Boulevard there is a little nook in the wall. There, in the alcove trays bend, heavily loaded with syrupy baklava and kadaif (in case you are suprised, the Ottoman Empire did extend to Bulgaria too). There are clouds of fluffy meringues, cedar coloured flat walnut cookies and the sweetest lokum (turkish delight) I’ve ever tried. Everything is sold by the kilogram that the biscuit seller carefully weighs on his retro scale. I ask for a little square of baklava. I choose from the darker tray, from the portions with kanela (cinnamon). As I receive the cube on a plastic plate with fork I muse that only I could know how superfluous it was plating that up. Soon syrup coats my fingers. It’s a good one. Layers of homemade pastry, so fine, yet with a floury grit to them. This is no factory made baklava. The paper thin sheets of pastry symmetrically ooze layers of cinnamon infused sugary goodness. As I eat it I am craving some strong turkish coffee but 2 weeks of insomnia before this singing recording tomorrow eliminate that option. Nevertheless the offering of this little booth leaves me sated. Head spinning with the sugar, I walk onward to my tram.

The Belly of Sofia- Le Ventre de Sofia

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When I first arrive in a new city, I do everything but what a pragmatist would do. I avoid travel guide books, maps and pre-reading. I like to get lost in the labyrinth. I used to carry maps, but they always receive more damage from an over packed clutch bag than from any navigational purpose.

There are little streets I’ll adjourn into so as to pass the things I find beautiful (Ulitsa Solunska for her trees, the book market). Promenades are extended a few hundred metres, just to see a structure I feel an affinity to (Ekzarh Josif for the beautiful synagogue, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre or anything in the yellow paves area).

Sofia Synagogue
Sofia Synagogue

The only other things that will pull me directionally are food items- the Neo-Byzantine Central Market Hall (that looks more like a train station) for it’s brilliant olive shop; a cute Euro style bakery near the end of Vitosha, with the best quiches I’ve ever had (creamy and buttery pastry, fragrant and just the right size to fit in both hand and belly), the gelati cafe with its bright and tart passionfruit scoops that send me giddy (I’ll walk 800 metres past maybe 10 icecream vendors, just to get that), my bread store that I always lose- is it on Knyazh Boris or Tsar Asen??? I still don’t know, but I’d fly from Melbourne for their ancient grainy sourdoughs and after a few weeks, I’ve found my favourite cherry vendors, I’m uncovering who has the best rosovi (pink) tomatoes- almost the size of my head- in the market….

Mentioned Bread
Mentioned Bread
Olives at the Central Market
Olives at the Central Market

It’s more exciting to navigate by delicacies than coordinates.

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As a teenager, I was blown away by Emile Zola‘s gastronomic novel, The Belly of Paris. I mean, Zola was ingenious. Who else describes a cheese shop as a Cheese Symphony?

“A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.”

I recommend it!
I recommend it!

If Sofia were a symphony I can’t decide what is playing. But at the moment I think I hear strains of the most beautiful plump olives sourced from Greece, the tones of robust and gluttonous tomatoes grown in rich Bulgarian soil and definitely the bell song of bright vivid cherries.