Inside a Franglish Pantry: Tea

Inside a franglish pantry

A BBC news article came out this weekend that really tickled me. Apparently, the French are ‘rediscovering’ tea drinking. I was cynically unsurprised that it made it sound like a snobbish hobby only accessible to aficionados, as complicated as wine tasting. Can you tell I’ve become a little bit British? I like my tea simple, strong and decidedly populist. Like coffee is for the French. Sure, we’ve all got our preferences, but we are not Japanese geishas upholding a ritual of beauty built upon generations. Our rituals veer towards practicality over beauty, as is the British way. God Save the Queen.

The first and last time I bought tea in France was on a camping holiday and I got the only thing the local service station had on offer, which turned out to be Lipton, a trusted name as far as I thought. I was naive enough to expect to find English strength and quality within but it was far from it. It produced what was possibly the worst cup of tea of all time. Sock juice comes to mind; it was pretty much undrinkable, so weak and tasteless it was. And thus ended my attempts at tea drinking in France. Now I stick to coffee unless I’m at my mum’s, who stocks PG Tips directly imported from the UK in boxes of 200 tea bags.

Tea cups Collage

Tea is the national English drink and there is a knack to producing the perfect cup but it is not quite the elaborate ritual stereotypes would have us believe.

Here are 10 things I have learnt about tea in the nearly 16 years I have lived in England:

1. There are only two occasions when you will find yourself drinking from a dainty china tea cup: you are visiting your grandma and her friends of a certain age, or you are attending a vintage tea party. Otherwise, everyone drinks from chunky mugs.

2. More people put their tea bags straight into their mug than use a teapot.

3. 96% of tea is consumed using tea bags as opposed to loose tea leaves.*

4. There is no special afternoon tea time at 4 pm. Tea is drunk all day long at any time.

5. When people ask you: ‘would you like a cup of tea?’, they usually refer to black tea like English Breakfast Tea.  Common popular makes are PG tips, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley, Twinings and Typhoo.

6. They will also assume that you take milk with your tea. Unless it is green tea or herbal tea, which would taste foul with milk.

7. Other types of tea on offer would be specified upon request, like Chai, Earl Grey, green tea and any other herbal teas (like the fruit ones, peppermint etc).

8. In France, herbal and fruity teas are called infusions and traditionally drunk in the evening before going to bed. I was astounded that my husband’s drink of choice at breakfast is peppermint tea. I was conditioned by my upbringing to think of all herbal teas as lightweight girly drinks. I am learning to overcome my prejudice.

9. If you order a Cream Tea in a tea room anywhere in the UK, you will not be getting a cup of tea with cream. You will be presented with your cup or mug of tea, milk and sugar and, depending on whether you’re in a supermarket restaurant or in Harrods or the Ritz, a variation on scones, jam and clotted cream, finger sandwiches and tiny cakes.

10. And Finally, whilst people in England will have lengthy arguments about the correct order of preparation for tea (milk first/last, sugar or not), everyone agrees on THE ONE IMPERATIVE RULE OF TEA MAKING (French people take note): the water poured over the tea bag or leaves MUST be boiling hot. You can tell that French people don’t understand even the basics of tea making. They insist on bringing you a cup of warm water, with the tea bag on a separate plate, and some hot milk in a tiny jug upon request. The whole point of tea is that it must infuse in boiling water. There are physics involved, and they don’t work if the water is not boiling.

50% of people think I'm doing it wrong

50% of people think I’m doing it wrong

My tea drinking habits have evolved over the course of several years. Whilst my preference now goes towards the very British ‘milk, no sugar’, it wasn’t always so. In fact, I horrified many people when I first came over and asked for four sugars to go in my tea. ‘How French!’, they said. ‘You’ll be one of us eventually and you’ll take none, you’ll see!’ And so I did.

The biggest impact tea drinking has had on my life however, is one of the most surprising and positive of changes. Because people here drink so much tea so regularly, it very soon highlighted how minimal my daily fluid intake really was. I used to be quite unpopular in my first office jobs because I never instigated my turn to make tea for people (yes, everyone takes a turn. There’s often no lengthy ‘pause café’, otherwise you’d be at it all day; instead you keep your mug by your computer and drink as you work). I literally never thought to drink anything. I could go from 9 am until lunch time without a glass of water. But because I couldn’t avoid the regular offers for a cup of tea, I started to drink more and more. And eventually, even a foreigner like me, whose enjoyment of tea had to be acquired, got that most British of simple pleasures: you take your first sip and you go ‘oh wow, I really needed that’. That’s when you know you’ve arrived.

*In looking up these statistics, I discovered the existence of this gem of a website. I give you: the UK Tea Council. Tea is serious business, in case you hadn’t noticed.

If you are a tourist in London and fancy buying serious tea drinking equipment and tea leaves, I recommend you visit The Tea House in Covent Garden. They do a lovely jasmine tea with flowers and my personal favourite, Lychee.

 

Over to you now: What’s your opinion on tea? How do you like to take it? Does tea taste better in a mug or  cup?

 

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Inside a Franglish Pantry: dry pasta shapes

Inside a franglish pantry

I am sure some of you are at least a bit confused by this post title. Why on earth am I writing about dry pasta shapes? What could possibly be French or English about pasta? After all, it’s been a long time since English people believed spaghetti grows on trees, and pasta dry and fresh is a staple dish in most British households.

This is not a post about bog standard every day pasta. Today, I am talking to you about a very special type of pasta that has its own category in France: ‘pâtes à potages’. These are basically teeny tiny pasta that you add to your soups and broths to give them more body.

For some reason, I cannot find these in England in dry form at all, and if I can, I know not where. But if I tell you broth pasta can come in the shape of letters and numbers, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s because they only exist in the one form in the UK, as part of one of these guilty food secrets no one talks about that you’re only buying ‘for the kids’: Heinz alphabetti and numberetti in tomato sauce.

Alphabet and numbers pasta is very popular everywhere because it’s fun, but in England the fun is restricted to the tin cans of questionable cooked tomato pasta. Whereas in France, you can have fun whenever you want. In fact, if you wanted you could just eat tiny pasta for the rest of your life without the nasty tomato sauce. You could eat them with just butter and cheese, or with vegetables, or whichever way you like to eat your pasta. Alphabet pasta need not be a guilty pleasure, it could even be part of a healthy dinner!

dry alphabet pasta

 

The French make Panzani has created a whole range of broth pasta in various shapes, all tiny and perfect for adding to soup. The most classic is vermicelli and the alphabet and numbers ones, but there are also ‘cheveux d’anges’ (angel hair – even more fine and delicate than vermicelli), stars, pearls, and finally Pescadines, which the blurb tells me are a bit bigger, a cross between vermicelli and macaroni.

Last time I was in France, I couldn’t resist buying them for Little Girl, and then we hit a problem. I don’t like soup. Badgerman doesn’t like soup. Little Girl is not wildly excited about soup either. I have had a lot of boring soup, and it’s fiddly and well, where’s the meat? But then I had this pasta, so I had to find a way to make soup fun aside from the pasta.

So I made a basic vegetable broth by simmering the remnants of a chicken stock with a litre of water and some chunky vegetables, added the pasta in the last ten minutes, and chucked in some cubes of cheddar and fresh chives I had kicking about the house just before serving. It was absolutely delicious and confirmed to me that I’m a broth kind of girl. I need to see what’s in my soup so the all mushed-in types are out, whereas I can get excited about this broth (also the cheese was inspired if I say so myself).

veggie alphabet broth

 Am I alone in finding soup boring? If not, how do you make soup fun in your house?

 

Inside a Franglish Pantry: Attempting to make a ‘brioche vendéenne’

Inside a franglish pantry

I’ve wanted to learn how to make brioche for ages but like most people I’ve assumed it was completely out of my reach as a standard amateur home baker (i.e. not suitable for The Great British Bake-Off in a million years). I’ve also fallen for a special kind of brioche called a ‘gâche’, which is traditionally made in Vendée and perfumed with orange flower water or rum. We bought one from a French supermarket during one of our annual summer trips and never looked back. It’s like a normal brioche but tastier. It is made with an enriched dough that contains crème fraîche so it’s not recommended if you’re on a diet but it is so delicious and rich you don’t need much anyway. And again, unattainable outside of France, or so I thought, until one day early in our marriage I decided to try and make one to treat Badgerman using an internet recipe.

So far, the three separate attempts I have made over the last five years have proven that my capacity for making idiotic moves in the kitchen knows no bounds. It is sheer luck that we have been able to eat any of the resulting scraps, but despite their awkwardness, they have been out of this world delicious. Before we get to the recipe, here are some

Lessons You Can Learn From My Kitchen Nightmares

1. Remove all hand jewelry and have friends and family within earshot: during my first attempt, my hands got stuck in the batter so strongly I could not move them at all and could lift the entire bowl above my head by the sheer glutinous power of the dough. I had to shout at Badgerman to come un-stick me and I nearly lost my lovely new rings in the process. He thought it was hilarious of course.

2. Beware to follow the EXACT measurements, especially for the liquids: my second attempt last week resulted in a wet lumpy mess that would not settle into a proper dough no matter how long I worked on it. It is possible that the yeast was not fresh enough but in any case, just don’t think about adding that second spoon of rum for luck (I know, I know… greedy). I had to add at least 200 grams more flour to get it to a manageable consistency and that made the dough lumpy and very dense. The final product did taste and smell delicious but because of its density it was really only three-quarters cooked, so you would occasionally chew on a bit and go ‘mmm, dough’. Not my finest moment.

3. Allow enough time to rest the dough and don’t forget you put it in the oven to prove if you’re going to cook dinner in it half-way through: today was my third time lucky, apart from the fact that I forgot I had put the dough in the cold oven to rise and turned it on to cook dinner. I only realised once the oven was hot. Since I am not going to taste the brioche tonight, only time (AND MY CROWD OF BIRTHDAY GUESTS TOMORROW) will tell.

One Final Word Before We Get On: they say baking bread and making brioche is time-consuming. I used to believe that too. It turns out it is not true. The actual time spent working on the brioche is about 25 minutes. What takes time is the proving (i.e. resting the dough). For this you need to allow at least 6 hours, so do it last thing on a Friday night to eat it freshly baked in the morning.

The recipe I used is provided to you in the original French by Sandra on her blog Le Pétrin. Below is the translation, and good luck.

Ingredients

  • 550g plain flour
  • 125ml milk
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraîche (not heaped)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 110g sugar (I used golden granulated)
  • 110g butter, cut in small cubes
  • Flavourings: 1 tablespoon dark rum + 1 tablespoon orange flower water + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 25g fast acting dry yeast (I used Allinson’s Easy Bake Yeast)

Stage One

All the ingredients should be at room temperature before you start the process.

Mix the yeast in with the milk, add the eggs, crème fraîche and salt then add the flour. Mix well with your hands then start to knead. The dough should be fairly dry and flaky, this is normal.
Add the sugar by letting it fall lightly over the dough (like rain). This will make the dough lighter and give it a better texture. Once the sugar is fully incorporated, add the butter cut in small cubes and knead until the dough is no longer sticking, at least 10-15 mins (once in a while, check that the dough stays fresh and stop kneading if it is warm).

Add the flavourings and continue to knead for about 5 mins until your dough is elastic, doesn’t stick and is soft and smooth. (I’ll be honest, I’ve not once managed to do this yet; it’s always a bit lumpy and I have to add flour to get it to un-stick – still tastes good though, but I am slowly getting there. One day!)
Make into a ball and put it in a bowl, cover in cling film and leave to rest for 6 hours at room temperature.

Stage Two

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and separate into 3 parts of approximately 330 grams each. Shape them into slight oval shapes and put them onto baking trays covered in baking paper.
Paint with sugared eggwash (1 egg and a little bit of sugar mixed together). Leave to rest at room temperature for 3 hours or until the dough triples in size (depends on how warm it is, basically, if it’s a hot summer day, or you’ve got the heating on at full whack, you might only need half the time).

raw gache vendeenne

Stage Three

Paint with more eggwash, make a slight cut at the top lengthwise and put in a preheated oven at 180°C for approximately 20-25 minutes, covering with foil half-way through.

Gache Vendeenne

If this doesn’t make you hungry, I don’t know what will.

**UPDATE AFTER TASTING**: I can officially confirm that the third attempt was another disaster. It tasted fine but was overcooked and did not rise properly so it was dry, crumbly and more like a sweet bread than a brioche. I was just too impatient and should have let the dough rest more than it did (and also not turn the oven on during proving). So until next time, with fresh yeast and the full 9 hours rest for the dough …

Inside a Franglish Pantry: Lentils

Duck breasts recipe

I’m going to start on a slight tangent but yesterday was Valentine’s Day and we had lentils for dinner. That’s right, lentils. Hardly the romantic food of love, you might think, especially when Facebook was exploding with soppy declarations of luuurve and pictures of flowers and chocolate had taken over the newsfeed. Unfortunately, my day started so badly that I didn’t notice there were flowers on the dining room table. My only excuse is that it was 4.30 am at the time and I was making a desperate dash for the toilet. It’s times like these that only having a downstairs bathroom is a real PITA!

When I was finally ready to face the world around 9 am, I did notice all the lovely things Badgerman had left behind and with my stomach finally settled, the Lindt chocolate with strawberry bits did much to improve my mood. It did however take until the afternoon for me to feel ready to think about the lovely dinner I had planned to cook. Last week, we decided not to go out for Valentine’s Day and had a rummage through our more festive recipes for something suitably yummy to indulge in. To my immense surprise, Badgerman turned down the lamb curry I would have placed bets on being top of his list in favour of a duck with lentils extravaganza.

Now onto the subject of this post: lentils. I originally had a different title for this post, it was going to be ‘Hateful Foods from my childhood: Lentils’. I used to hate lentils. I still sort of don’t like them. Like quinoa, bulgur wheat and whatever other pulse you can think of, it’s all been meh to me from the start. I can never look forward to them. I don’t know what child looks forward to lentils ever, but they’re particularly unforgiving, especially when you’ve been expecting couscous instead. Can you tell I’m slightly bitter about this?

Since becoming an adult and holding all the power when it comes to what goes into my mouth, I have stayed very clear off them until a few years ago. I watched a food programme where chef Valentine Warner demonstrated a Duck with Lentils recipe and managed not only to make it look edible but also incredibly appealing. I thought to myself that it might be time to give my taste buds another go at them – in the name of science of course – so I made the dish and to my immense surprise, it was delicious, and was still delicious when I made it another time, so it was not a fluke. Whilst I am not going to ever reach punching the air ‘yeah lentils!’ levels of excitement, I can now feel good about giving my body an occasional health surge, and that’s nothing to sniff at.

Pink but not quacking

Pink but not quacking

The recipe is officially called Wild duck breasts with Puy lentils, chanterelle mushrooms and bacon and can be found straight off the BBC food website but as I’m nice and all, I’m also going to copy it below and add my own comments. I would rate it as easy and can vouch for the cooking time too, which is a rare thing! For the two of us, I approximately halved the required ingredients, which worked fine.

Less than 30 mins preparation time / 30 mins to 1 hour cooking time / Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 175g/6oz Puy lentils (that is, the dark ones, whether or not it specifies ‘Puy’, which indicates the region of France these lentils originate from, just don’t use orange or yellow lentils)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 10 rashers smoked streaky bacon, rind removed, finely chopped
  • 3 shallots, finely chopped (at a push, use a small onion instead, but it won’t be quite as nice)
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 small celery sticks, finely chopped
  • 2 large handfuls fresh chanterelle mushrooms, wiped clean
  • sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
  • dash red wine vinegar
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • small handful fresh parsley, chopped
For the duck
  • 4 wild duck breasts
  • salt
  • knob of butter

Preparation method

  1. Place the lentils and the bay leaves into a pan and cover with cold water. Bring them to the boil, then drain. Refill the pan with cold water to just above the level of the lentils. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until tender. Add more water if the level falls below the lentils.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the bacon and fry until just beginning to colour.
  3. Add the shallots, carrots, garlic and celery and fry until the vegetables are soft and the shallots are golden-brown.
  4. Add the chanterelles and cook for one minute. On the subject of Chanterelle mushrooms, I don’t know about anyone else in England but unless you live somewhere where the farmers’ market is particularly awesome (and I want to know where that is!), you simply won’t find them. It might be a bit easier in France, especially in mushroom season i.e. September/October but even then, I’m not sure. Your alternative options are therefore as follows: dried wild mushrooms, which you leave in a bowl of boiling water for about 30 minutes before using, or good old chestnut mushrooms or any other fresh ones you picked up from the shops – about 6 of them will do.
  5. Drain the cooked lentils, then return to the pan they were cooked in. Add the bacon and mushroom mixture and stir to combine. Season, to taste, with sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper.
  6. Add a dash of red wine vinegar and cook over a low heat for five minutes. I have discovered through bitter experience that the ‘dash’ thing is too vague for me and that too much red wine vinegar will ruin the dish. However don’t use it and you will be seriously missing out. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about it but it lifts the flavour to a whole new level. For 2 people, I used one tablespoon and found it juuuuust right; for 4, it’s safe to say two tablespoons should do. 
  7. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and stir in the chopped parsley.
  8. For the wild duck, using a sharp knife, finely score the skin of duck breasts in parallel lines, then season well with salt. If you are particular about your duck and will notice whether or not it is wild, by all means, get it from your butcher. I bought Gressingham breasts for £8.25 from Tesco and they were very tasty.
  9. Melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the duck breasts skin-side down and place a small plate on top so the breasts stay flat and cook evenly. Cook for 5-6 minutes, or until golden-brown, then turn the duck breasts over and cook for a further 1-2 minutes, or until cooked to your liking. Remove from the pan and leave to rest for five minutes. As for beef, how you like it cooked is really up to you. I personally added a couple of minutes to the cooking time. However I would add my twopence and say that if you don’t like pink meat, you probably shouldn’t be eating duck. This is particularly true of duck breasts; they basically lose all deliciousness if they get brown all the way through. Even a tiny bit of pink is better than no pink at all.
  10. To serve, spoon equal portions of the lentils onto four plates. Slice each duck breast and arrange over each portion of lentils.

Enjoy!

Inside a franglish pantry

Inside a Franglish Pantry: Lardons

Inside a franglish pantry

I was cooking a Boeuf Bourguignon for Sunday lunch last week and the smell of lardons frying in the pan reminded me how much of a staple item it is in France and how frequently I use them in recipes.

Lardons are basically diced smoked bacon, which you can buy in most if not all supermarkets already prepared.

In most cookery programmes I have watched in recent years, chefs will often use the more expensive version of the humble lardon in their recipes, Pancetta. It may make any old recipe sound posh but my view is it doesn’t actually make that much difference which type you use.  I’m not a chef and not quite that precious about my bacon, and it shows in my personal preference, which goes to Lidl’s beech smoked rindless bacon lardons.  They are wonderfully fragrant and are sold in 2 packs of 125g each, making it really easy to avoid wastage, as you can just freeze one of the packs for later use. If you really can’t find lardons anywhere but have access to bacon, you can make your own using smoked streaky bacon. What is most important is that there is a decent amount of fat on them.

Français : Lardons ( porc )

Lardons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said I use lardons a lot, especially in slow-cooked stews like the Boeuf Bourguignon, the humble chicken stew, various pasta dishes (it’s a main ingredient of a Carbonara sauce), on pizza, mixed in with sautéed potatoes (or say to improve Sunday evening leftover feast of bubble and squeak).

For a fantastic video tutorial of how to make Boeuf Bourguignon, I cannot recommend enough the wonderful work of Becoming Madame, who uses a Julia Child recipe. It’s very close to the recipe I used, although mine didn’t require carrots and added mushrooms towards the end.

My Boeuf Bourguignon recipe comes the completely non-chefy ‘2000 recettes de la cuisine française (de la gastronomie française aux spécialités régionales)‘.

The Ingredients:

1 kg of beef (I would recommend a mixture of lean and fatty pieces for tastier results), cut into chunks

100 g lardons

1 large onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

250 g chestnut mushrooms

30 g plain flour

50 g vegetable oil

300 ml water

300 ml red wine (from Burgundy for the authentic taste)

1 bouquet garni (I use shop-bought ones, but you can make your own by tying a sprig of thyme, parsley and a bay leaf together)

salt + pepper

The Technique:

1. In a large heavy-based pan (like a Le Creuset dish), fry the onion and the lardons in the oil. When they start to brown, remove from the pan and set aside.

2. In their stead, turn the pan to a high heat and brown the beef chunks on all sides. You can use two wooden spoons to turn the meat. Don’t put all the meat in the pan in one go, it will be quite difficult to turn and brown properly. Instead, properly brown the meat a few bits at a time.

3. Once the meat is brown, set aside with the onion and lardons.

4. In the leftover oil, throw the flour in one go and turn quickly to make an homogeneous paste. Cook for a minute, then add the water and the wine and bring to the boil, stirring constantly to avoid making lumps.

5. Put the meat, onion and lardons back in the pan with the bouquet garni, garlic, salt and pepper. If you are going to add carrots, this is the time to put them in. Cover the pan with its lid and leave to cook slowly on a low heat for three hours. Add the mushrooms, whole or cut into chunks, 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

6. Serve with new potatoes and green beans.

The Price of Lardons

Available widely in the UK e.g. Tesco’s 200g smoked lardons are £1.95 (their Finest range has some for £3.10 !!!)

In France, places like Auchan do 180g for around 2.28 €. I say ‘around’ because there is quite a lot of choice between smoked/unsmoked, pork/duck, supermarket’s own/big make like Herta, as you would expect.

Enjoy!