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The bride looked amazing, dressed in an extremely pale pink dress, buttoned down the front and with arms and shoulders covered. Of course, the dress was full length, as modesty is expected in Iran.
I was so happy that Aveley had invited me to her wedding, even though I had not seen her for some years, we had kept in touch. The name ‘Aveley’ means ‘pretty as a bird’, and she certainly was!
Flying into the country I was not sure what to expect, even though Aveley had told me the basic rules and how a wedding ceremony and feast would play out.
Persian weddings (and feasts) can go on for several days, with both pre- and post-nuptial celebrations. You can eat until you burst and every day was a different spread of flavoursome foods. Just when you think it is all over, more and more dishes and brought out to the beautifully laid and decorated tables.
The food – OMG!
I had dabbled in what I thought was ‘Persian food’, but what I ate in four days was far beyond any culinary dreams. I shared a house with Aveley and two other girls, and whilst she was an amazing cook, she was more than happy to sit down with some nibbles and watch a movie. My real taste for Persian food came during this time and I am so glad she shared it with me.
Persian cooking is all about balance, flavours, texture (often raw with cooked and hot with cold!) taste and a mixture of herbs and spices that make even the simplest of rice dishes has the same opulence as a Michelin star meal. As poor students, we made good use of rice and flatbreads, which Aveley cooked to perfection, as per her mother’s rules. Crispy rice dishes, such as ‘tahdig’ would often accompany some cheap and cheerful, spiced grilled chicken – but it was what she did with it that made all the difference.
For some reason, I hated aubergines with a vengeance (unattractive, mushy and not pleasant were my thoughts), but that all changed when Aveley made ‘bademjoon’. To call it a stew shows no reverence, even though that is exactly what it is – but with a difference. Tomatoes, aubergine, lemon and grapes never tasted so good. I was converted.
Another dish she would often make was ‘kuku sabzi’ – a sort of frittata so full of herbs and spices, but the centre of it included blueberries! Sounds a little weird, but as we had a farm next door to our house, eggs, herbs and fruit were in plentiful supply – I guess the farmer took pity on the number of impoverished students who had stayed in that accommodation over the years!
The Wedding Feast
Now we are talking! I am not even sure I can do this happy event justice, to be honest. But I will do my best here. Every available female (apart from the bride) took part in making this amazing feast at Aveley’s beautiful home, just outside Tehran. There must have been around twenty women of all ages! The males of the species though, conveniently disappeared!
The ‘Sofreh Aghd’ is the celebration on the actual day of the ceremony. Tables are bedecked with glorious floral arrangements and symbolic items, including a large mirror reflecting the union of the couple. Very romantic!
Persian wedding feasts are all about sharing. I had never seen such a variation of dips and crudites in my life, along with crunchy pickled vegetables and wedges of Persian bread. Everything was so colourful – green (spicy avocado dip and creamy spinach dip), hummus, smoky aubergine and a vibrant beetroot dip with feta cheese and walnuts – yum!
Following this a multitude, or should I say rainbow, of salads appeared. Rice dishes, bulghur wheat dishes (fattoush), herby cucumber, pomegranate salad, roasted aubergine salad with quinoa – I could go on forever!
I guess the highlight though were the hot dishes – several types of tagines and a choice of chicken, lamb or vegetarian. Kebabs or should I say ‘kabobs’ of sumac-spiced chicken and lamb with paprika and mint. Two whole barbecued goats as well!
By this time, I was slipping under the table and my dress was getting a little tight! However, I just had to have space for dessert! There were a lot of fresh fruit platters and cheese, but the aroma coming from the rosewater and vanilla panna cottas was impossible to refuse. I am sure they do not call them panna cottas, but that is what they seemed to be!
Unfortunately, I could not manage the wedding cake, but Aveley’s mother had some pieces cut to have with coffee the next morning. I cannot resist pistachios!
Since 2014, millions of people around the world have been getting on board with Veganuary. Created to promote the health and ethical benefits of a vegan diet, Veganuary requires participants to eat a plant-based diet throughout the whole of January as a taster of this increasingly popular lifestyle choice.
In 2020, it was estimated that less than one percent of the world’s population is vegan and, unfortunately, figures show that four out of five people give up on their Veganuary quest after a few days. While it may take a little getting used to, with a bit of planning, conquering Veganuary can be a piece of (egg-free) cake.
The easiest way to fail Veganuary is to keep non-vegan food and drinks in the fridge and cupboard. Once you have finished the Christmas leftovers, it is a good idea to remove all animal products from your home to be replaced with vegan options.
When embarking on Veganuary, it is tempting to get all ambitious with complex recipes and fancy vegetables. Unfortunately, this can often lead to disappointment for beginners. Instead, start simple with dishes that you are familiar with and know that you like, for example, garlic mushrooms, salad and simple pasta dishes. Stock up with herbs and spices, flavouring is of the essence.
These days, most restaurants offer a comprehensive vegan menu and, while the doors to our eateries may be closed for a while, you can still check out their website menus to see what kind of dishes they are serving up for vegan customers – it is also worth registering with these sites and many send out newsletters which include recipes. See what takeaways they have, that is another possibility to keep you on track and out of the kitchen.
For many people, embarking on Veganuary tends to invite derision from friends and family – and more so if after giving it a try, they end up with egg on their face when they decide that it is not for them. To avoid reactions which can tend to be demoralising, avoid shouting about your Veganuary journey to friends and family and on social media and if you succeed, you can always crow about it afterwards!
I am not going to lie – Veganuary can be tough, particularly if you have had a penchant for meat all of your life. Some people say as soon as they smell bacon cooking, they cannot resist. January is cold and dark, and the celebrations of Christmas and New Year seem like a distant memory. If you find that you do not want to continue after giving it a go, it is not the end of the world.
You can always start to add vegan elements to your diet without going all in and give Veganuary another try next year! Alternatively, try it on a different month, the summer months may be better for some.
So, if you’ve decided to get on board with Veganuary, stock up the fridge and store cupboard with vegan treats, remove temptation and, don’t forget to sign up to MyVegan’s Veganuary Challenge. Let us know how you get on, how you feel after trying it for a month, and how it may affect your health.
Most importantly, do not think of this as a punishment, there are plenty of delicious meals you can make that follow the vegan lifestyle. Veganism is a way of life, and those that choose to adopt it, do so willingly – and by the way, they are not ‘weird’, as some people think!
Maybe the thought of a New Year, new you. It may be the boost to your health that you really need, plus a sense of achievement. Make sensible choices (things that you know you enjoy that follow the ethos), and do not go for the first promoted item in a supermarket that you see. Taking risks with food will not provide the results you may want!
Try these Vegan Vegetable soups recipe here!
Here is just a short list of vegan swaps that you may not know.
Dairy free butters, such as nut butter (almond, cashew, etc.)
Same principle as butters
Only vegetable oils (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil)
Cashew cream for sauces, or full fat coconut (you can whip this) or use it for curries.
Wide varieties available in supermarkets, or try cashew cheese, similar to mozzarella and good as a ‘gooey’ topping
Try vegan substitutes for sausages, bacon. Use mushrooms as a swap for a meaty texture. Beans and lentils for thickening. Yeast extract or balsamic for flavouring.
Chickpea flour for omelettes, frittatas, or tofu in scrambled ‘eggs’. Use soy yoghurt for sponges and baking. Substitute egg whites with Aquafaba to make meringues and mayonnaise.
It must be better than ‘Movember’ – we do not all have moustaches!
It is easy to make magic in Mauritius, believe me. I have only been once and have yearned to return ever since.
The view from the air is incredible as you bank and sweep over the island to land at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport (yes, I struggle with the name!). Stunning white beaches, a central plateau and mountains dotted around the centre, encompassing small villages alongside luxury villas and hotels.
Mauritius is just over 2,000 sq.km, but boy, does this island pack a punch, from the mixture of residents to so many dining opportunities and an eclectic range of cuisines. In most of the country Mauritian Creole is the language spoken, but many inhabitants speak French and English. This is even more highlighted by the food – essentially Creole and French, but once again, there are smatterings of Indian, Chinese and African food. English food, well, not so much unless you bundle it up with American standard food such as fried chicken and burgers, along with a ubiquitous bowl of chips! You can also get the obvious pastas and pizzas, but unless you want a ‘grab and go’, stick to the island delights, you will not regret it.
No visit to Mauritius would be complete without the delights of the capital, Port Louis. A bustling and vibrant town, with fantastic markets and street food, not to be missed. You can very easily spend a whole morning and into the afternoon there (not too late as it does get very hot). Save some time for the beach!
After a day relaxing (long distance travel and I are not best friends and it took almost 13 hours on the plane), we went into Port Louis to soak up the atmosphere of this delightful island. We had a guide to take us round the back streets as well as through the markets and street food stalls that she knew were the best. Experience really does matter.
Sampling the local snacks whilst sitting on an uncomfortable seat is apparently ‘how you do it’. You do not take it away; you just sit and eat. Listening to the locals gabbling away in a mixture of French and I guess, Creole, was intriguing but almost impossible to understand. Being a kindly local bunch, they quickly broke into English and more standard French, which I can also speak. Phew! That was a relief!
Yummy treats awaited us – gateaux piments (deep fried chilli cakes) were crisp and spicy made from chickpeas, spring onions, coriander and very strong green chillies. Our street trader offered us extra chilli sauce which we liberally applied – big mistake! You could say they were an upgraded version of a falafel, but a whole lot spicier!
I love ‘roti’ and this is what we had next. Such an assortment of toppings to dollop on your unleavened flat bread. The trader, a quite large lady dressed in bright colours offered us several topping to taste, but by far our favourite was the ‘rougaille’ – a delicious Creole sauce made from a base of tomatoes, but we were informed that every family makes them differently. We thoroughly enjoyed ours, made from onions, curry leaves, garlic, thyme and ginger – maybe there was some coriander in there too? This was not going to be the last time we tasted this wonderful sauce – we dined in a small beachside restaurant along the coast and sampled their Creole Sausages with Rougaille and Rice. My colleague boldly stated she would have preferred mashed potatoes with it! The sausages were cooked in probably the biggest pan I have ever seen and left to fry off in their own natural fat. The fact that the place was totally crowded means it was good, in fact, excellent.
As you can see, I could wax lyrically forever about Mauritian food, so I will just get to the amazing dinner we had with a local family. ‘Mama Mimi’ as she is locally known was born in Mauritius but moved to France when she was 7 years old. She moved back to Mauritius when she was 20, so she knew her ‘onions’ about French food, as colloquial speak would say. We could not believe the size of what can only be called a banquet – all for five of us!
Dholl puri, butter bean curry, spicy fish balls, fish vindaye (made with indiscernible fish), pickled fish with onions, turmeric and mustard seeds and a garlic and ginger sauce) appeared as if by magic on the huge table outside. It was a vibrant shade of yellow but OMG! How delicious was this?
There were roti, plenty of them to mop up the sauces afterwards. Mimi cooked the roti on a flat griddle called a ‘tawa’. There was no sign of anything that a carnivore would enjoy, but I love fish anyway. It is also one of the staple foods of the island.
Whilst so hospitable and friendly, Mama Mimi would not divulge her recipes to me. I have tried to recreate the fish vindaye many times, have come close, but not quite there. Another trip maybe?
There were so many more dishes we tried on our trip, all with spicy elements, so I was grateful to calm my stomach down with amazing grilled lobster at yet another beachside restaurant.
One thing I learned (rather too late) is to turn down chilli now and again, by saying ‘pah for’ – that means ‘not spicy’. Is this a turn on the French ‘pas fort’ – I still do not know!
Come on guys – lighten up! Carbs are not your enemy!
Carbohydrates are arguably the most misunderstood of the three macronutrients, vilified and restricted in some groups, whilst being favoured and promoted in others.
Carbs, just like any other food stuff, are neither “good” nor “bad”, how they are integrated into our diet determines how healthy they are, not what the internet, media or your favourite reality TV star says.
In this article we’re going to cover the various roles of carbohydrates within our body, why they may be perceived as “good” and “bad” and how you can use carbohydrates to fuel yourself in a healthy, unrestrictive way!
The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide your body with energy, either presently (when consumed), or in the form of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) which can be used when needed. These stored carbohydrates are kept within your muscle but also within your liver too.
Additionally, certain forms of carbohydrate, namely fibre and other more complex carbohydrates, can aid in digestion, with adequate fibre intakes being associated with a reduced risk of obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease.
Carbs may also contribute uniquely beneficial roles for those looking to manage their weight (in addressing cravings, reducing stress, improving satiety etc.).
Whilst carbohydrates are not necessary in our diet (as we are able to create them ourselves), that does not necessarily mean they are not optimal for health.
How they affect our health though is dependent on how we incorporate them into our diet as carbohydrates come in two predominant forms: “simple” and “complex”.
Carbohydrates come in all different shapes and sizes (or to be more precise, lengths) and serve many different functions.
The “simple” carbohydrates are those most often associated with being “bad” whereas the “complex” carbohydrates are those we associate with being “good”. All forms of carbohydrate have a place in our diet.
The “simpler” a carbohydrate is, the more rapidly it can be digested, broken down and absorbed into our system. This leads to an elevation in our blood glucose (sugar) levels which leads to a subsequent rise in insulin secretion. Insulin is a hormone which signals to our cells to take in the circulating blood sugar where it can then be used as energy or stored.
Long term, repeated exposure to simple carbohydrates has been associated with an increased risk of being insulin resistant which eventually leads to metabolic dysfunction and diabetes. Whilst this is certainly a factor, it is not as straightforward as simple carbohydrates can cause diabetes, this condition is the end result of many lifestyle factors (including obesity, lack of exercise, inadequate fibre intakes, poor sleep, hygiene etc.) which likely play a much more important role than carbohydrates themselves.
Additionally, these “simple” carbohydrates are not all “bad” and, again, it is not their inclusion in our diet which is necessarily bad, but rather how we incorporate them into our diets. After all, who could imagine a winter-warming soup without an element of carbs?
Many people will restrict foods which contain these carbohydrates and these highly restrictive behaviours can lead to bingeing/overeating of said foods, which can ultimately contribute to weight gain, as well as poor relationships with ourselves and our diet.
Remember, if you suddenly decide to exercise more than before, these type of carbs will give you energy, which you must have.
On the flipside of the carbohydrate spectrum we have the complex carbohydrates, these do not need much defending as important components of our diet considering what was mentioned previously around fibre, but other complex carbohydrates play important roles too!
Try this Creamy Vegan Quinoa, Chard and Chickpea soup recipe!
They take longer to break down and appear in our blood stream as glucose, and so provide a more stable source of energy for our body. This helps to maintain energy levels throughout the day, conk out our cravings and helps us to concentrate!
Carbohydrates come in a whole variety and to loop them all into being “good” or “bad” is a gross simplification. All carbohydrates are important and it is not what we’ve been told about them that matters, it’s how we use them within our diet that determines how healthy they are.
Carbohydrates, like any other nutrient or food group, should not be restricted. Restriction causes more harm than good in almost all cases (unless it is for a specific medical condition) and can lead to binging, poor relationships with self and food as well as missing out on the experience’s foods can offer and compliment.
You would not have Christmas without some chocolate or Halloween without the candy, right?
As a New Year’s resolution, make carbohydrates work for you. If anything, incorporating them into your diet the right way will elevate everything else in your life!
Yes, really! The Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years and even European countries adopted it some time ago. In recent years it has had a huge resurgence for both economical and health reasons. In Medieval times, no thought was given for a whole pig, cow or deer to be served up and cut up in front of Henry VIII’s guests – in fact, it was considered an honour.
Our prehistoric ancestors (think cavemen and women) were essentially vegetarian, until they managed to catch an unsuspecting beast. This would then be crudely cut up and cooked, generally over a pit of boiling water. Sounds appetising – for most of us not, but there can be some high quality nutritional benefits. This would potentially last them for days on end.
Of course, vegans and vegetarians may throw up their hands in horror at the thought, but if you are going to eat an animal, then why not eat all of it? Maybe you and I do not fancy eating a cow’s snout, or a pig’s tail, but it is amazing how much nutritional value can be gleaned from all parts of our animals. Then there is the ‘oh-so’ glorious broth that can be produced – maybe you do not realise that some manufacturers of canned soups use all parts of an animal to make the basis of their non-vegetarian soups?
Let us get one thing straight. Nobody is suggesting that you eat every single part of an animal – just be more conscious of the fact that there is more you can do with it than just buy the usual steaks, mince and fillet from the supermarket or butcher. The principle is – make better use of the more nutritious parts of the animal than you currently do, but do not eat the parts you do not want to. It is as simple as that. Remember too, that stews are not just for winter and in this day and age, even the tougher cuts of meat can be delicious when slow-cooked. I once ate casseroled pigs cheeks, which were divine – but if someone told me what they were beforehand, would I have eaten them? Sometimes you have to not think too much, maybe.
Did you know that a large percentage of animal fat is sold and used by the cosmetics industry, in the production of soaps and face creams? This is called ‘tallow fat’ – makes for very tasty roast vegetables, particularly potatoes. Recipe developers recommend using goose fat or duck fat for your roasties, but tallow fat is equally as tasty and more economical, as often your butcher will simply throw it away. You probably will not find it in supermarkets, so try to find a butcher that will supply it.
For those of you old enough to remember, mothers and grandmothers would use up every part of a chicken. Once it had been roasted and served for lunch or dinner, the carcass would have been boiled up to break it down and form a basis for a nutritious soup. Many nationalities still do this – in fact, I do, and the remains of a Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving turkey! Bone broth is an absolute gold mine of nutrients and contains around 16 vital amino acids for a healthy body, and particularly your gut. Maybe, when you were a child and having a stinking cold, Grandma would make chicken soup – I bet that this would be based on chicken broth, with some vegetables added! Old Wives Tale? Nutritional advice disagrees that this is a fantasy, and advocates boiling up a carcass then straining it through muslin for a clear broth.
Whilst discussing this topic – do not forget fish. You can make a wonderful fish broth for soups such as Bouillabaisse or add it to a Chinese or Thai dish for a deep and wonderful flavour. It is done in restaurant kitchens throughout the world. Fish heads, fish tail, crab claws, you name it. Give it a try, at least once.
This is not a sermon, nor a soap box speech, but if you are a carnivore or a pescatarian, then eat what you can and make our produce more sustainable. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, that is OK too – live your life the way you want to.
Most of Western Europe is still adapting to the principle that ‘nose to tail’ can only be good for your health and make life more sustainable and economical.
It is that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and things are, generally, just a little slower. Whilst Christmas is just around the corner, and soon homes across the world will be lit up in celebration of the arrival of old Saint Nick himself, the lead up to the festive fun can seem to last an age, with October and November really beginning to drag.
So, instead of shivering as we count down the minutes, hours, days and weeks to the yuletide season, why not revisit that which has always provided some warmth and comfort at any and all times of the year – comfort food!
And what food could be better for the soul, and for your tastebuds, than the ultimate comfort food, homemade mac’n’cheese.
Mac’n’cheese (or macaroni cheese) is a dish of cooked macaroni pasta and a cheese sauce, traditionally and commonly made with cheddar. It can however also incorporate other ingredients, such as spices, breadcrumbs, meat and vegetables, and glorious lobster.
In this article we are going to show you how you can really put the “oomph” into your mac’n’cheese using a range of different types of cheeses as well as a few tips and tricks to really elevate the texture and taste of this wonderfully warming winter wonder dish!
Choosing the right Cheese
Whilst cheddar is most associated with crafting a heart-warming bowl of mac’n’cheese, it certainly does not have to be where our imagination ends. The whole experience of food is not simply in the taste, texture, sights and smells but also in the exploratory nature of trying something new. With so many different cheeses available, it is a ‘no-brainer’.
In one of the classes I teach, I set my home cooks the ‘oomph challenge’, and here are some of the ones they came up with.
Gruyere, a hard-yellow Swiss cheese, can take what is often seen as a dish harking back to childhood to one now reaped in sophistication.
This densely flavoured cheese can bring layers of sweetness and nuttiness to a dush that will change the entire culinary experience. It melts beautifully, creating a thicker, heavier, more dense cheese component to the dish, we are big fans!
The American dreamboat, Monterey jack (hailing from Monterey California) is an awesome substitute for cheddar.
A much milder flavour than most cheeses, Monterey is great if you’re looking to make further additions outside of just changing up the cheese, some finely diced chilli or garlic, maybe a little smoky bacon or even a dash or two of smoked paprika are all fantastic compliments.
Where Monterey really wins though is in the texture. It melts like a buttery dream and the cheese sauce element of the dish becomes this oozing, velvety blanket covering the macaroni. Truly mouth-watering, especially when the smell fills your kitchen and you can virtually taste it before you’ve even finished cooking!
There is indulgent and then there is indulgent. This is one for the cheese afficionados out there. Blue cheese packs a potent flavour profile, as I am sure you are aware. Adding it to a mac’n’cheese dish brings a whole new layer of sophistication.
A tangy yet tasteful option, adding one or two handfuls of spinach or a rough layer of breadcrumbs on top can elevate the texture to match the richness of the cheese and make it a real showstopper at any dinner party!
Once the cheese of French Kings, Brie is another scintillating substitute for cheddar. When melted, Brie creates a cheese sauce which is more buttery, runny, and creamy than you would ever believe. Its flavour ranges from mild to extremely nutty and tangy and it is this unpredictable element that adds an element of excitement to that first mouthful.
This rich cheese promises to instantly take your humble mac and cheese to one of decadence and luxury. It is no surprise that this creamy wonder was once considered only fit for royalty.
Dutch Gouda is a semi-soft cheese appreciated for its smooth, creamy texture and mild flavours. Aged Gouda varieties possess a deeper, more pungent flavour whilst younger varieties tend to be more mellow and rich. When melted it has a firmer texture than brie but is relatively akin to it.
Personally, we prefer the smoked Gouda options. This, with some finely diced shallots and to add even more smokiness some smoky bacon pieces, is simply a wonderous occasion for your taste buds and the kitchen smells are just incredible.
The last of our cheddar cheese alternatives, parmesan. This a cheese with a wonderfully gritty texture, yet with a complex palette of flavours ranging from hints of nuttiness to elements of fruity.
Whilst parmesan is certainly not one of the first cheese types you’d think of when it comes to the perfect mac’n’cheese, we can assure you that once you try it, you’ll never look back.
A dish incorporating parmesan coupled with breadcrumbs, garlic and even, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, lobster is one that would have your friends, family or significant other singing your high praises for weeks!
We absolutely love this one, it takes elements of other classical dishes, infusing it with another and creates a whole new taste and texture sensation. A must try!
Mac’n’cheese is a dish that would be honestly hard to improve. It is, after all, one of the world’s favourite comfort foods. Challenging the existing narrative though could make it even more exciting this festive period.
We implore you to try some of our cheddar substitute suggestions. If you thought mac’n’cheese could not get any better, just wait until you try out these!
I had never heard of the Lagotto Romagnolo breed of dog – but I have fallen in deep and passionate love. Furry, cute, smart and downright lovable – the dog, not me.
To say I am a huge dog fan is a vast understatement – I am obsessed with our furry friends! Please note that I have put Coco the dog first, before the man himself. Was I more excited to see the dog at work than the expert in motion? The answer to that should be obvious!
Giulio has been truffle hunting since his childhood years with his father and his grandfather before. On the surface he seems quite dour and stern, but underneath that he is a soft and gentle man, but he does assert a ‘rod of iron’ when it comes to Coco’s behaviour. In my very bad Italian, I understood when he told me that he must be strict with Coco, in order for him to know what his role was when searching for the delicate truffles and to obey the rules. This is so important to protect the truffles from over-digging or over-excitement, which will ruin the fungi.
Our education on truffles started the first evening, with Giulio explaining what we would be doing for the next three days. It was a lot to take in, to be fair, and some of what he told us was quite astonishing. As he is so passionate about his (and Coco’s art), he related that there were many ‘unscrupulous hunters’, who even go so far as to poison the dogs by putting ‘fake smells’ under the ground. When I asked him about visiting San Miniato, our nearest town if he was too busy to take us, he was quite vocal about ‘truffle rogues’ selling inferior products to trap tourists to pay inflated prices. The result of this was he more or less said he would not allow it without him!
We were up at 6am for breakfast, a wonderful repast of home baked bread, home cured meats and local cheeses. Alessandra, his wife, told us that Giulio ‘liked to get going’ before the sun came up, which was around 7am. Fortunately, as we are early risers, we were ready for our exciting day. Coco seemed to know what was happening and behaved just as a sniffer dog would do – looking forward to his discoveries with anticipation.
After a brisk walk from the farmhouse in light rain, we entered the woodlands for our hunt. It took about 40 minutes before Coco was all but in a state of frenzy and starting to dig furiously into the ground. Giulio shouted some kind of command and Coco started to sniff, rather than dig so excitedly. The next moment, there was a little more shouting, then Giulio bent down and retrieved our first prize, pulling it so gently from the earth! To be honest, I had never seen a truffle so big and so ugly! It seemed to resemble a bulbous, warty nose that you would expect in a Charles Dickens novel. When Giulio wafted it under my nose, I have to say I was somewhat nonplussed – it was earthy, a little stagnant in odour that I wondered what all the fuss was about. Our host was more than happy – it can take a few hours to find your first truffle.
An hour later, and deeper into the woods, we found our next truffle – much smaller and less odious! There was a great deal of ‘tutting and shrugging’ going on, as our host seemed disappointed. He decided that was enough for the day, and that we would go back for a late lunch and try a different area the next morning.
After a delicious late lunch of pasta with truffles and parmesan, we went for a nap, totally exhausted. How do they do this almost every day?
The next morning, I stayed at the farmhouse while my husband ventured out again with Coco and Giulio. I needed a tour of the kitchen and store cupboard and some of Alessandra’s knowledge on what to do with truffles. Primarily, as a food writer, I must know the product and its uses! I was not disappointed, even though we had to use the translation methods on my iPhone! Why do Italians speak so fast?
Alessandra recommended using the truffles they collect in egg and cheese dishes for strength of flavour. She also made truffle oil and truffle butter. Pasta seemed to be the base of most dinners using truffles as it does not overwhelm the flavour.
Our last day involved a visit to San Maniato and the market, where Alessandra often sells some of her products. Before heading to the airport, we stopped and had a pizza at one of Giulio’s friends’ restaurants – that was one hell of a pizza with grated truffles on the top and no charge!
I have tried truffles in the UK since our visit – they just have not tasted the same.
Back in the 1970’s, you really did not hear much about Moroccan food, and we didn’t know what we were missing. This beautifully spiced and exotic dish is a dinner party winner, can be prepared in advance and is so full of flavour.
Tagines, or tajines is not the actual name of the food, it is the dish in which it is cooked – another thing I learned. Today, every market and souk is full of the tagine pots which are made from clay, and the brightly decorated glazed or unglazed dishes are everywhere. The conical lid is almost a trademark of this attractive pot.
I flew into Rabat, the capital, as there was no airport at my final destination, Marrakech, which is where everyone told me to go to. You could spend days just wandering around the main square, Jema el Fnaa, with its intriguing stalls selling everything from clothes, traditional Moroccan slippers, huge ‘buy as much as you like’ local spices and, of course, the clay tagine pots. There were also street food stalls and restaurants dotted around – and my nemesis – snake charmers! Moroccan coffee was another experience to try – thick and syrupy and strong. Served with a glass of water, which you really needed!
Morocco is a country that is relatively self-supporting, and what you cannot get that is grown there, they import from Spain. As well as vegetables, meat and fish, grains can accompany many dishes, even though only 2 percent of the land is suitable for cultivating grains.
Oranges, lemons, apricots (quite often preserved) are abundant, as are strong flavoured greens, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Pulses such as chickpeas are also frequently used, but having said that, if you watch the Moroccan people eating a tagine dish, it is normally with flatbread, to scoop up the juices from the meal. This bread is locally known as khabz’ and resembles a pitta bread, but much softer. One trader showed me how to make a khabz, and I still use the recipe today.
Before I sat down for a taste of my first authentic tagine, I wandered around the market square to see the array of spices on offer – I was astounded at how many there were and I didn’t know all of the names. Some stalls had the names in English, but others did not – so it was very much a ‘that looks like cinnamon’ kind of experience. I was only in Morocco for three days, so I decided to use a guide, and that turned out to be the best idea. He took me to other places away from the main square, where prices were cheaper but still with a great selection.
Do you love chickpea as much as us? Try this Turmeric, Chicken and Chickpea soup recipe here!
Waiting until my last morning (the market opened once the first call to prayer by the muezzin and until very late at night), I purchased literally heaps of spices in huge plastic bags, so I had to buy another suitcase in the market! I was spoilt for choice, but brought back Ras al Hanout (traditional Moroccan spice), saffron, cumin, anise seed and some beautiful plump olives steeped in harissa. I could not resist both their olive oil and their argan oil. Youssef, my guide, told me that his wife used argan oil to cook, but also to put on her face and use as a conditioner for her hair!
In Marrakech these days, there are plenty of traditional cooking schools that serve meals and takeaways – these places are the real roots of Moroccan food, cooked and served by women as a non-profit organisation. Any money taken is used to provide food for the poor of Marrakech. You can join in with the classes or simply eat there!
I was concerned that maybe things would be too hot or too spicy, but the subtleness of the flavourings was on point. With a blend of sweet and sour, fruitiness and light spicing, my lamb tagine was perfection. The lamb melted in my mouth, the vegetables and fruit additions still had texture – quite surprising for the length of time the dish is cooked for (up to 4 hours). Bread was perfect – for me, better than couscous to eat with the tagine.
We finished with some sweet apricot pastries – again, light and fluffy with delightfully sweet apricots and sultanas (or were they raisins, I can’t really remember!).
I can only say ‘go to Morocco’. Yes, it is touristy, but it is an experience you will never forget. Steeped in culinary history, it is a must. I did not have time for the sights, nor a trip into the desert under the stars, but I will next time!
Walking through the door of the first professional kitchen I had worked in, was a terrifying experience! I remember there being an incredible amount of noise, clattering pans, doors being opened and shut and chef shouting at the top of his voice to anyone who was not moving fast enough! There were over forty chefs of all levels in the brigade, but it seemed far more as I cast my eyes around the kitchen.
Even though I had spent two years at chef’s academy, the first lesson I learned was to do everything the head chef’s way, not necessarily the way you were taught! He was an exacting man; you did not argue with him and you certainly did not change his methods.
There was a lot of sophisticated equipment that I had never used before, but the great thing about that was I soon learned what kit I enjoyed working with and what was the most necessary, or labour-saving and needed to be used with respect.
Working in your own domestic kitchen is nothing like a commercial kitchen but following certain methods will always stand you in good stead to become the home chef you want to be. Here are some of my top tips or hacks for a successful and happy kitchen life:
First up – knives, you can never substitute good, sharp knives as an essential in your kitchen. Never spend your hard-earned savings on expensive knives and always try them for comfortable grip before purchasing. You do not need a huge set of them (a mistake many people make), as you will find after a while that you have not actually used some of them – ever!
Really and honestly, this is your starter kit and you can add to it with boning knives, filleting knives etc, when you want to move on with your skills.
Moving on, and depending on the size of your kitchen (and cupboards), I would recommend the following:
I teach children of school age to cook. I have one thing that I permanently remind them of – ‘taste, taste, taste’. It is the only way that your recipe will turn out as you want it to!
Pickling and fermenting could be the answer to your store cupboard prayers, if certain foods become short in the winter months, or a virus such as COVID-19 prevents us from getting our regular stock.
You can make delicious pickles to accompany a cold feast of cheese and meats, with some lovely warm bread. In terms of fermentation, there is a huge health factor that makes fermented food an ideal addition to your diet. With the meteoric rise in popularity, fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, kefir and a multitude of other probiotic additions to improve your gut health, appear on supermarket shelves with abundance. Many people do not realise that sauerkraut, for instance, is one of the ‘in vogue’ foods, with sales increasing at least ten-fold over the past year.
So rather than wasting the glut of vegetables you may have in autumn/winter, make use of them to create some healthy foods! Even small children (such as my grandson) love pickles, particularly the combination of sweet, sour and salty elements — they are not so keen on the bitter! Most children these days also like aromatics and spices, so introduce some to your pickling.
To be fair, the first time anyone tries pickled or fermented vegetables, the reaction is often a shudder, or a grimace. However, the second time and onwards usually produces a miraculous result, and then, they just cannot get enough to wolf down!
Fermentation is more of an acquired taste and can sound quite horrific at the thought of leaving vegetables for a long period of time before eating them, so just don’t tell anyone how they are made until they have finished eating the last morsel on their plates.
Find this Spicy vegan Beetroot soup recipe here!
Pickling must be done using an acid, such as vinegar or acetic acid, in order to preserve the produce. Produce should be left for at least five days before consuming, but once opened, you can store in the fridge for around two months. After that, whilst edible, they lose a certain element of ‘crunch,’ which is part of the joy of eating them!
Fermentation must include a combination of acid and microbes, otherwise it simply does not work. Successful fermentation can take 3-4 weeks — you can store it in a cold cupboard, basement or garage.
You can use fruit in pickling (like a nice apple chutney) but fermented fruit is not recommended, as it can take on a strange taste.
Best produce to pickle:
You can pickle most fruits and vegetables, such as:
Fermented drinks are a great addition to a plant-based diet, as they introduce live bacteria to your gut and keep it in balance.
My top three suggestions are:
How to store homemade produce
Pickles can be stored in your cupboard until they are opened. Once opened, it is best to refrigerate them.
Fermented vegetables or fruit can simply be covered with a cloth, and kept in a place where the temperature is between 8-12°C.
Do try some home pickling and fermenting. It’s good for your health and at least you know there are no hidden ‘nasties’ sometimes found in shop bought products.
My love affair with lavender probably started around the time I was nine years old and used to spend weeks and weeks during spring and summer holidays at my maternal grandmother’s house in Provence. Little did I know that in those early years, just how privileged I was, and what wonderful, lasting memories that this would provide me with forever. I also learnt that lavender was not just something you put in cupboards to make them smell good, but that as an addition to food, it was invaluable.
Having said this, I was introduced to all the flavours and aromas of Provence, and my culinary career in the early days, as a chef, was very much based on this. The lavender season is quite short, probably only around 2 months between June and August. It really does depend on climate and particularly rainfall.
For me, as a pint-sized little girl, their home and ‘estate’ (I use that word sparingly!), seemed huge. As well as lavender fields, there was the most fragrant herb garden, stretching as far as I could see. We grew rosemary, thyme, marjoram, coriander (not so much), basil, sage and mint – an absolute floral bouquet whose scent could be inhaled five minutes before you arrived at home. If ever there was an introduction to Provençale living, this was it in bucket loads.
My grandparents were rich with some of the finest qualities in life – good, fresh food, homemade produce and an atmosphere that made your heart sing. What they could not produce themselves, they exchanged with other families close by, almost like a co-operative – our tables were always full, as were our stomachs. Our social life was never quiet, there was always something going on every day, with people coming and going, meat and fish coming in one door, and herbs, vegetables and fruit going out the other door! Every day was a veritable feast of enjoyment – not just food, but families and characters, some of whom I still know to this day.
One lady, Madame Fouret, grew apricots in abundance, and every week apricot tarts would appear, with crisp sweet pastry and glazed with jam. When apricots were more scarce, she would use apples for ‘tarte tatin’ – how I loved the smell of both of them! Her reward for these would be our home-grown lavender, which was my first experience of tasting it – bread, cakes, lavender sugar and syrup were also what she would return to our home with regularity.
I so looked forward to her visits – not just for her delicacies, but her son, Christian – probably my first flush of teenage love! Both Monsieur Fouret, her husband, and Christian worked around the estate and would be there for our communal lunch, along with a multitude of other workers, chattering at the top of their voices. Christian was allowed wine, and I was allowed a little now and again, watered down! How I loved those long lunches, with tables covered in bread, cheeses, home-cured meats, olives and salads (it took me a while to enjoy the taste of artichokes, however!). Nobody other than my grandmother was allowed to produce the ‘soupe du jour’, which could be anything from the cupboards and vegetable and herb store that was available. This was my first experience of peeling, chopping and other skills that would stand me in good stead for the future – I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t lift the vast cooking pots that were on the stove, empty or full of delicious soup, until I was about 12 years old, but my grandmother used to lift them with so much ease, and she was just shy of 5 feet tall!
Ready for a taste of Provence?
Market days were a source of great excitement for me, getting up early in the Provence sunshine, loading up the truck (Christian was there, so that was always more beneficial) and driving the 15 minutes into the nearest village. We would sell whatever we had, from fresh herbs to dried herbs, goats’ cheese, jarred pickles, marinated pickles and sometimes terrines and pates – whatever my grandmother had time to make. It was always busy – sometimes we would sell out of almost everything, and come home (via a hot chocolate, croissant or similar sweet pastry) to finish off the repast for lunch. Even better, the market traders got to know me well and would always bring a little treat for ‘la petite anglaise’ (little English girl).
One of the most popular recipes my grandmother used to make was ‘soupe au pistou’. This was a rustic but full of flavour soup, and not by any means as traditional as some of the soups described today. But for me, it has a lasting flavour on my taste buds, and I still make it today (link to recipe).
I do hope this article has made you want to go to the Provence region; you will never regret it. Eat with the locals where possible and taste the true flavours of the area.
I was very fortunate a couple of years ago to be invited on a trip to Zanzibar, or ‘Spice Island’ as many visitors call it. As a food writer and journalist, you take every opportunity to expand your knowledge of what food, exotic spices, and culinary wonders that any country can offer you.
Zanzibar is part of the Tanzanian Archipelago, and as such, its gastronomy is a mix of African and Indian, but there is a smattering of European influence, particularly Italian. The capital is Stone Town, a vibrant market town where shops and street traders have an amazing array of spices, vegetables and fruit – some of which I was new to. There is also a plentiful supply of game fish, some so large you wouldn’t believe your eyes! You can avail yourself of bonito, swordfish, marlin, but you won’t find anything that relates to old fashioned fish and chips!
Residents are mainly of the Islamic religion, so cuisine tends to be heavily based on vegetarian foods, but the addition of spices really brings the dishes to life. ‘Spice for Life’ is my motto!
For the best selection, you need to go to Stone Town where the array is far larger than some of the smaller markets dotted around the island. Spices were originally introduced into Zanzibar by Portuguese traders who had ventured to India and the Americas, intrepidly increasing their market. They can now be found widely grown on the island, and you can visit ‘shambas’ (spice farms) to really see, taste and smell the depth of the produce found.
Expect to experience spices such as pepper, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, lemongrass, cinnamon and coriander – coupled with fruits such as papaya, coconut, jackfruit (great for a vegetarian burger), cassava and the ever-present oranges. If you take an official tour, you will be treated to a delicious lunch and a taste experience of how to use the different spices. It’s well worthwhile and delicious at the same time.
But the best experience of all, and totally unforgettable, was taking a cookery class with two delightful Zanzibar ‘housewives’ – personally, having always cooked both professionally and at home using loads and loads of spices, a revelation occurred during the class!
Does turmeric whet your appetite?
The first thing that springs to mind is how spoilt we are in the Western world. Most of us are able to afford labour-saving kitchen gadgets to make our lives easier. Not so here – I must have lost pounds in weight with the effort of making everything by hand! But, I have to say, if you make that effort, the flavours really sing and can be a lot more potent than putting them in a blender or spice grinder. You release so much more flavour from the oils contained.
Our venue was the Mtoni Palace ruins, one of the historical sites on the island. There was no real ‘kitchen’, we cooked in the grounds of the ruin – a startingly new experience for me. No cooker as such, just some charcoal burners placed on the floor. We ground cumin, coriander seeds and crushed lemongrass and turmeric, enough to feed everyone there – and there must have been around 15 people including giggling Swahili watchers and guides. They seemed to find me amusing!
We made a huge pot of Coconut, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup and a Fish Curry (The fish was somewhat indiscernible…). Everything seemed to start with onions and garlic, but that’s ok, I love them both. What I couldn’t quite understand was the length of time everything was cooked for – must have been a couple of hours. Behind us, was a huge basket of fresh limes, which were used to finish off both dishes.
Despite the absence of modern equipment – the flavour of the dishes was absolutely incredible. Our hosts made the accompanying sesame bread. I found myself mopping up the soup and the curry sauce until I thought my tummy would explode!
The next day my hands and wrists were aching from the effort, so a leisurely stroll through the market to buy souvenirs and sit down for another Zanzibar lunch that I didn’t have to cook, was most enjoyable.
Zanzibar and its people taught me that using whole spices and making an effort to grind them down, was infinitely better than powdered, packaged spice. I am sure that once you get used to it, your hands do stop aching.