Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

While visiting Australia I had a chance to catch up with one of my favorite food history bloggers Janet Clarkson of “The Old Foodie”. We had a great visit, diving into her terrific collection of historical cookbooks, including her latest work: Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year.

I thought it would be fun to cook a historic recipe together and she suggested choosing something from The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs, which was published in 1788. That year holds importance for both Australia and the State of New York, where I live. In Australia, it marks the arrival of the first European settlers at Botany Bay. In New York State, the legislature ratified the US constitution.

Sometimes historic cooking can be complicated and require lots of obscure ingredients. Luckily, we were able to find a recipe where we had almost everything on hand. Queensland, where Janet lives, is known for the superior quality of its seafood, so we decided to make something with prawns (that’s shrimp to us Americans). We headed out to Janet’s local farmers’ market and bought some right from the fisherman.

The prawns were fresh and toothsome, and the sauce is an intriguing mix of spicy horseradish and almost sweet mace and nutmeg. Over all we thought it was quite successful. It goes nicely with asparagus, which we had on the side, and you also might consider sprinkling some freshly chopped parsley or dill over the prawns for a nice green component.

Stewed Prawns

Adapted from From The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs (1788)

1 pound Prawns
1 cup wine
½ cup water
1 blade of mace
1 tablespoon horseradish (or more to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 slices toasted white sandwich bread cut in triangles

Peel the prawns except for the tails. Put the wine, water, mace, salt, and horseradish in a medium saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Add the prawns and cook covered until pink and cooked (about 5 minutes) be careful not to over cook them. Strain the prawns and reserve the cooking liquid, keeping it hot. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then whisk in the flour and stir for 2-4 minutes or until the flour turns slightly blonde. Pour in the hot cooking liquid and continue whisking. Add the nutmeg and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Reheat the prawns in the sauce, and serve garnished with the toast points.


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A 19th Century German Cottage in Hahndorf, South Australia

Traveling in Australia one expects Vegemite, or a burger “with the lot” which includes, depending upon whom you ask, pickled beets, a fried egg, and a slice of fresh pineapple. But a lunch of homemade mettwurst and sauerkraut, washed down with rich German beer, and finishing off with a nice slice of apple struesel? That’s exactly what you’ll find if you visit Hahndorf in the state of South Australia

Most people have heard that the nation of Australia began as a British penal colony when the First Fleet bearing some some 750 convicts landed at Botany Bay in 1788. While the first settlers in the colonies which would become the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria were primarily convicts, South Australia was founded in 1834 as a colony of free settlers. As might be expected, most of these settlers immigrated from England, Ireland, and Scotland. However, there were a significant number who came from Germany.

In the 1830s the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III forced the union of the Calvinist and Lutheran churches and any community which continued the old Lutheran practices found its pastor jailed and its land confiscated. In 1838 a group of 54 families fled this persecution by embarking on the ship Zebra and sailing for South Australia. They negotiated for the use of 240 acres of uncleared bush land about 16 miles outside of the city of Adelaide and founded the town of Hahndorf, which was named for Dirk Meinhertz Hahn, captain of the Zebra.

Hahndorf is the oldest non-British, European settlement in Australia. Other communities with German roots include: Grunthal founded in 1841, Lobethal founded in 1842, and Bethany, also founded in 1842. In addition to introducing some tasty German cuisine to the local, primarily English colonists, the German settlers in South Australia were quite influential in Australia’s burgeoning wine industry. They planted the first vines in the of the now famed Barossa Valley wine region where some of the world’s best Shiraz grapes are now grown.

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Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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The other day one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman, began musing on Twitter about why he cooks. He then wrote a blog post about it and encouraged others to follow suit. Here are my thoughts.

Cooking is a magical window onto other cultures. In particular, for me it is a window onto the past. As L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Cooking is a way of traveling through time and space without leaving the confines of my kitchen.

I remember a foggy morning in France, when a friend and I were standing, tickets in hand, waiting for the gates of a chateau to open. There was a vendor selling fresh, hot croissants so we bought some and had just started eating them when the guard came along with his big set of jangly keys. As he collected our tickets and waved us through into the gardens, he didn’t say bonjour or merci, instead he said, “bon appetit!” It was at that instant I truly understood the place of food in the French heart. I haven’t made croissants myself (yet!), but when I do, I’ll be brought right back to that moment.

Cooking is a time machine. Cooking and eating historic dishes is way to get inside the heads of people who lived well before I was born. What better way to imagine what it was like living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century than by cooking up a pot of Baked Beans? Until I researched and cooked that recipe, I didn’t know the dish was crafted so a Puritan housewife could put it in the ashes of the fire on Saturday night, eliminating the need for cooking on the Sabbath. That’s one of the reasons the recipe contains molasses, it’s an acid which prevents the beans from becoming mushy over the course of their long slow bake.

In October, 2009 a friend generously gave me some some pig offal left over from her meat CSA. I went straight to Madeleine Kamman and her recipe for Grosse Cochonnailles or Coarse Country Pâté. Before World War II, at that same exact time of year, French villagers in Brittany would slaughter their pigs and make a myriad of dishes using every bit. I didn’t have a whole pig but, I got a chance to peep into that world by making the pâté and cooking Fergus Henderson’s Pot-Roast Half Pig’s Head.

Until those geniuses at MIT and Stanford figure out how to make a real time machine, I’ll be here cooking my way through history. I read recently, that we have some 4,000 year old cuneiform tablets with recipes on them from Mesopotamia, how cool is that? Ancient land of Ur, here I come.

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Food Zen


I have a bit of a cold so here’s a little something for you while I recover. I’ll post more about the Oxford Symposium soon.

I like the idea of posting a photo for contemplation; a bit of food zen if you will. This is a pile of crabs we had in August on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at Waterman’s Crab House.

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Coming home to Brooklyn is almost as good as traveling. Yesterday I went for a walk in the sunshine to combat my jet lag and was reminded once again why I love living here, It’s just so pleasant. I know that sounds like faint praise, but wandering through the brownstones on the last day of summer just can’t be beat.

The trip to the UK was fabulous, the highlight being the inspirational Oxford Symposium. I’ve got a headful of ideas and lots of new food geek friends from all over. In the coming days I’ll write more here about the Symposium and the presentations I attended.

The Cotswolds are just as beautiful as everyone says. Most of the buildings are made of a golden stone from local quarries, which when combined with a long late-summer twilight is magical. The food is great too; English cooking has come a long way. We had spectacular Thai in Oxford, elegant, yet relaxed gastropub fare in Sapperton near Cirencester and pitch perfect, contemporary seasonal cuisine at Allium in Fairford, Gloucestershire. All of this, when liberally doused with lots of delicious cask ales and ciders, adds up to the perfect vacation.

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One of the things I’ve been enjoying most about The Cotswolds is the public footpaths. They are everywhere, taking you from village to village often through farmers’ fields. They were created from ancient traditional walking paths which according to English law must remain open to the public if it can be proven they have been used for a long time. Below is a photo of what we found yesterday while walking near Saintbury. Mmmmm…

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I finally found some open WiFi here in Oxford. You’d think there’d be more in a university town. The term doesn’t start until October so maybe that’s why.

I’ve really been enjoying the history and architecture and this afternoon I’m off to the beginning of the Oxford Sympsium with the fund raising picnic based on the Oxbridge luncheon in Viginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Below is a photo of The Angel and Greyhound, a lovely pub where I had some more Real Ale last night. I tried a beer called Iceberg from the Titanic Brewing Company. Cheers!

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I’m testing the iPhone WordPress app to see if I can post from the road. Here’s a photo of a half pint of Fuller’s Discovery Blonde. I drank this real ale at the Red Lion in Ealing. The pub stands right across the street from the old Ealing Studios and its walls are covered with photos of the actors who used to run across for a pint.

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A Cookie Alphabet / photo by Christian Guthier

A Cookie Alphabet / photo by Christian Guthier

In my last post I wrote about the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which I’ll be attending next week.

As well as feeding the mind, the symposium is known for special meals that are created in accordance with each year’s theme. This year on Friday evening, Fergus Henderson, chef of world renowned St. John Restaurant, will cook a meal based on the Diaries of Samuel Pepys. It will be followed by a traditional banqueting course of of jellies (that’s jello to us Americans) representing the Great Fire of London, by Bompas & Parr, a pair of young “jellymongers” who have recently set up shop in London (I’ll try to get some photos, I promise). Saturday night’s dinner will be created by Chef Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saison, a well known French restaurant in nearby Oxfordshire, and will highlight the language of French gastronomy, from the raw to the cooked.

Each year there is also a benefit picnic to raise money for the non-profit organization which runs the symposium. The 2009 picnic will be modeled after the “Oxbridge Luncheon” in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

If everything works out technologically, I will post brief reports from the symposium here on Comestibles and on Twitter, so as they say, stay tuned. I’m also looking forward to Real Ale, classic pub food and ancient British cheeses while I visit the Cotswolds.

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