Francakes make apple fans happy

Many moons ago, possibly around the time people stopped believing that the Earth is flat, I was a Boy Scout. I belonged to one of five Scout troops at my school and we would attend regular weekend or vacation camps at a bush property owned by the school, where each patrol would set up sleeping and kitchen tents, do some hiking and other typical Scout activities, and cook our own meals.

By the time I joined the Scouts, I was already interested in cooking, so I willingly put my hand up to help prepare the meals and, within a couple of years, that job became mine on a regular basis, freeing me from such chores as digging latrines, hauling water up from the creek, collecting firewood and putting up the tents.

So, I have fond and vivid memories of the food we ate during Scout camps, including a dish of apple fritters. We would be given the raw ingredients and a recipe and the rest was up to us – making the batter, peeling the apples and cutting them into chunks, heating the oil for semi-deep frying and keeping the fritters warm to serve after the last fritter had been cooked.

From time to time during my adult years, I’ve had a hankering to relive the pleasure of eating an apple fritter, except for the semi-deep frying-in-oil part. Eventually, well just last year, I came across a recipe, in a blog I used to follow, which solved the challenge by using grated apple. Yes, I know. Blindingly obvious! (I have tried, without success, to find the original recipe, in order to give credit where it is due.)

Here is our modified version of that recipe, producing a moist and flavoursome result, known affectionately in our kitchen as an apple francake.

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
>½ tsp mixed spice
1 egg
½ cup milk
¼ cup Greek yogurt
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 large apple, peeled, quartered, cored and grated

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and mixed spice.
  2. Whisk together the egg, milk, yogurt and vanilla in a smaller bowl.
  3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients with a mixing spoon or whisk. Do not overmix. When the batter is just combined, gently fold in the grated apple.
  4. Warm a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and melt a little butter. Drop large spoonfuls of batter onto the pan and flatten with the back of the spoon.  Cook until golden brown on the bottom, just over 2 minutes, then flip and cook for another minute or so.
  5. Serve with cream or ice cream, to taste.

Just one tip: if the middle of your cooked francakes seems to be a bit ‘doughy’ in texture, you might have put too much batter in the pan, as we have done sometimes. A case of less is more. In the last photo, the base of our pan is about 15cm (6″) wide, so each francake is about 7cm x 10cm; 6 x 9 would have been better.

   

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Fennel-flavoured feed of duck

The weather has been quite wintry since mid-July, when Maggie and I returned to Melbourne from our travels in North America. Even when the clouds have cleared to let some sunshine in, cold winds have made it feel bleaker than it looks.

So, for the last seven weeks, all of our meals have been prepared and consumed indoors. And, in the main, we have reprised some of our favourite cold-weather dishes. Think boeuf bourguignon, chicken cacciatore, beef goulash, spicy pork steaks, corned beef, spag bol, cauliflower & mushroom lasagne, homemade burgers, steamed mussels, minestrone, braised duck marylands, roast quail, fish curry and veal osso buco.

However, we have made room for three new recipes, one inspired by some belt-tightening, the other two by our local supermarket introducing a regular bargain-priced offering of good quality duck breasts and whole quail.

The belt-tightening – a rehearsal for living on a modest, fixed income one year soon – has lead us to use cheaper cuts of beef more often, assigning the more expensive cuts to special occasion dining. Taking advantage of ‘specials’, we have produced enough food to provide us with six dinners each using less than $25 of what is known here as gravy beef; some of you might know it as ‘shin’ beef.

We use this cut to produce both boeuf bourguignon and beef goulash. However, keen to expand our repertoire of cheap-but-tasty meals, we went looking for a third option. The one we found most appealing was located by Googling ‘how to cook the perfect beef casserole or stew’. This took me to one in the regular series of ‘how to cook perfect …’, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. (My good friend Bill introduced me to this column last year and I have gone to it several times since.)

You can read the beef stew column here. It worked well enough but the flavours and textures fell just a little short of what we experience with our two established faves. Still, we might give it another try next year, after we return to yet another local winter from northern hemisphere travels (Scotland and Norway, more news of that another time).

The novelty of nearby access to fresh quail prompted another search. This time, I found something on the Australian recipe website taste.com, for a dish called hunter-style-quail. (That would be quaglia cacciatore in Italy.) The recipe worked well enough but, when we make a second attempt, we will delete the red-wine vinegar – it served no purpose and made the sauce so astringent that we needed to go to some lengths in order to rescue it.

The third new recipe took advantage of the local supply of duck breast. Again, we found it on the taste.com website, one of more than 50 recipes featuring duck breast. Only a few of these recipes appealed as a source of winter comfort and this one struck a chord for us with orange and fennel in the mix of ingredients.

We began to modify the recipe from the outset, made further changes before our second attempt and have tweaked it yet again to settle on the recipe below.

We served it on a bed of basmati rice and mixed quinoa (two parts to one), with the salad as a side dish. The slightly untidy look of the sauce on top of the duck meat is due to the fact that we choose not to strain the fibre out of our hand-squeezed orange juice.

Ingredients

3-4 tsp fennel seeds
4 tsp cumin seeds
generous pinch of chilli flakes
3-4 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp salt flakes
2 duck breasts
120ml fresh orange juice
120ml dry red wine
150ml chicken stock
2 tsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2-3 tsp caster sugar
1-2 whole star anise
1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
1 small or 1/2 a large flavoursome orange, peeled and cut into small segments (remove as much pith and membranous material as you can)
vinaigrette dressing

Method

  1. Place the spices in a small non-stick pan over low heat for 2 minutes. Transfer spices to a mortar and pestle with the salt and crush, then grind to a fine powder. This will produce enough powder for for six duck breasts.
  2. Score the skin of the duck breasts in a diagonal criss-cross pattern (see below).
  3. Using one-third of the spice powder, rub it into the skin and flesh of the duck breasts. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. Remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking.
  4. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat, place the breasts in the pan skin-side down and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook for a further 2 minutes. Turn again and cook on the skin side for 2 more minutes. Remove pan from heat and transfer breasts to a warm plate.
  5. Remove all but 15-20ml of the rendered duck fat from the pan; try to scrape out as much of the gritty spice residue as possible. Return pan to heat, add orange juice, wine, stock, vinegar, star anise and caster sugar to the pan, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced by at least half, to produce a thickish syrup (12-15 minutes). Adjust seasoning, especially salt.
  6. Return the duck breasts to the pan and cook gently for 4-6 minutes, until cooked to your liking. Cut breasts into slices, serve on warmed plates and spoon the sauce over the meat.
  7. Meanwhile, make the salad by scattering the fennel across the base of a dish, add the pieces of orange and spoon some vinaigrette dressing over the top (see photo below).

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Snail mail?

Or is that snail male?

I was so keen to share the images from our recent travels that I forgot to address the small matter of “snail mail”.

ALL the postcards we sent from the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean to family members and friends residing on the western edge took three weeks to arrive. WTF?

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Light posts and snail mail

Maggie and I spent three weeks across June and July on the west coast of North America. First up, we went on a tour that began in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, and finished in the city of Vancouver, including ten days in the Rocky Mountains and other areas of high country. We then flew to San Francisco and spent six days exploring this famous city and its environs, before flying home to Melbourne via Auckland.

I won’t be publishing any posts on this blog about our recent travels; I have too many other pressing tasks that are inhibiting me from writing the slightly earnest type of stories with which regular readers would be familiar. However, I have published a series of lighter posts on a new blog, which I created for the residents of a nursing home to whom I read once each week when I am home.

Three posts about the Rocky Mountains tour begin here

If you would like to see some photos and brief accounts from our time in San Francisco, the first of two posts is here

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Delicious French dining forays, October 2016

In an earlier post, I described a phenomenon, which I call ‘palate-lag’, in which foods that usually please your palate, taste bland for up to two weeks after you return from a foreign country.

If you too would like to experience a dose of ‘palate-lag’, I recommend that you visit the following restaurants in France. We dined at each of these during the fortnight before we flew home to Melbourne.

Amiens

We spent two nights in Amiens during our program of visits to First World War battlefields, cemeteries and commemorative sites. On the first evening, we ate in the dining room of our hotel, the Mecure Amiens Cathedrale. The atmosphere was a bit ho-hum but the meal was very good.

Bistrot du Boucher

On the second night, we dined at a restaurant close to our hotel and only a couple of doors from the famous cathedral. After we had returned from our day of visiting sites, we took a late afternoon stroll around the centre of the city and studied the menus and looks of several restaurants, before settling on Bistrot du Boucher. The menu was biased towards meat-eaters, which suited our appetite. Maggie enjoyed an excellent piece of grilled beef while I tucked into a whole roasted spatchcock. Uncomplicated but delicious. And generous!

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Saumur, Loire Valley

We explored the Loire Valley from another Mercure hotel, located on the small island that stands in the middle of the Loire River in the heart of the town of Saumur. On each of our three nights in Saumur, we dined at a restaurant that was within walking distance of our hotel.

La Reine de Sicile

Our first restaurant was rated highly on Trip Advisor and by staff at our hotel. And the menu read well when we made the short walk there late in the afternoon. Although our meal didn’t quite live up to our expectations, I was happy enough with my dish of Sole meuniere, a dish I had been wanting to try ever since I saw Meryl Streep going into raptures over it in a scene from the movie Julie and Julia.

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Restaurant la Pierre Chaude

This was the first of two excellent evening meals at restaurants that were unpretentious and operated by a husband (chef) and wife (maitre d’). At La Pierre Chaude, we both enjoyed a perfectly-cooked beef steak, accompanied by a generous array of vegetables and even some baked apple, plus a pot of intoxicating sauce (blue cheese in Maggie’s case). The red wine was local, fresh and flavoursome.

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Le bouche a Oreille

We had wanted to dine here on our second night but the restaurant was closed, to give the owners a breather after a particularly busy week, as we later discovered. It was well worth the wait! ‘Madame’ had quite a personality, was a welcoming host but was also protective of the quality of the food and service, so she determinedly turned some prospective customers away on the premise of being fully-booked.

(I was impressed by this. Many years ago, I worked at a fine dining restaurant where the owners were too greedy to resist overcrowding the dining room, leaving me to manage the frustrations of customers waiting for their meals to emerge from the overworked kitchen.)

Although the vegetables on the plates of food were more typical of what we have seen in French restaurants, ie a distant second behind the main ingredient, our three courses were all delicious and, progressively, more eye-catching! In order, Maggie ate prawns and scallops in a cream & garlic sauce; perfectly-cooked duck breast with a plum sauce; and baked figs with mango ice-cream. I had a warm mushroom salad, veal steak with a wild mushroom and brandy sauce; and poached pears with coffee ice-cream.

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Mont St Michel

Le Relais du Roy

We had dinner at our hotel after spending the afternoon exploring both the iconic Mont St Michel and the hamlet that is clustered on the mainland end of the causeway. Our expectations of the hotel’s kitchen were modest – there was nothing about our room or the general appearance of the hotel that hinted at fine dining. This proved to be a potent reminder that you should never judge a book by its cover!

I swear that we had no intention of eating three courses each! -We just got caught up in the moment; the moment the entrees arrived, that is.

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Honfleur

We loved Honfleur. Everyone loves Honfleur. And the old town’s inherent charms are supplemented by the generous number of opportunities to eat well.

We had three very good evening meals, all at establishments rated in the top 20 of Honfleur’s 140+ restaurants by the Trip Advisor community.

Le gambetta

We chose Le gambetta having studied its menu where I found a dish I had been itching to try for many years – bouillabaisse. It did not disappoint! Meanwhile, Maggie enjoyed the fact that we were in Normandy at the height of oyster season.

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L’homme de bois

On the following evening, it was Maggie’s turn for a special treat – lobster! My feed of prawns with a spicy tomato sauce was also delicious.

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Le Breard

Le Gambetta and L’homme de bois were both comfortably in the category of ‘classic French bistro’, with crowd-pleasing favourites on the menu, friendly staff and a cosy atmosphere, including street-side tables to take advantage of the warm weather. But you need only look at our entree plates to recognise that Le Breard was anything but ‘classic’.

We had looked at the menu early in our stay, as its was on our hosts’ short list of recommended restaurants. And we walked past it each day, on the route from our lodgings to the harbour. However, it took us until late on our final afternoon to get our heads around its distinctive menu and reserve a table. Good decision. Very good decision!

The decor is modern – clean and crisp, but not too minimalist. The wine list by the glass is acute and elegant. The service is refined, yet welcoming. And the food? Sublime, taking familiar ingredients and transforming them into delights of of look, texture and flavour.

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Rouen

Gill

When we were making plans for the self-driving part of our 2016 travels in Europe, my father said that he would happily help meet the cost of a high-quality meal on our last evening in France. We gratefully accepted his generosity and investigated options for dining out in Rouen, where we had booked to spend one night in the the city’s old heart, just a few doors from the medieval cathedral, which Monet famously depicted in a series of thirty paintings.

We settled on Gill, a restaurant with one Michelin star and a menu to match that lofty rating. And only s short walk back to our hotel after dinner.

We chose the five-course degustation menu, which was pushed out to seven courses by an ‘amuse bouche’ and a bonus dish by way of apology for a bone I discovered in a piece of fish. (As you might guess, the maitre d’ was deeply mortified.)

Here is a sample of what we ate, culminating in a selection from the stunning cheese trolley.

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Bon appetit!
Rick Grounds

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Honfleur: happy hour 24/7

After our enjoyable afternoon and evening in Mont St Michel, we set off for Honfleur, the easternmost town on the coast of Normandy, where we would spend the next three nights.

On the firm advice of a friend back in Melbourne, we called into Bayeux, to view the famous tapestry depicting the events that led to William, the Duke of Normandy siezing the English throne from King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The tapestry is displayed in a carefully managed environment and is in remarkable condition. It is only 50cm high but all of 70m long, comprising a chronological sequence of fifty numbered sections, divided into nine panels of varying length. The Wikipedia entry for the tapestry provides a useful account of its design and content, including the novel fact that it is NOT a tapestry but actually a work of embroidery.

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We had left Mont St Michel quite early and arrived at Honfleur in time for lunch at one of the dozens of bars/restaurants located cheek-by-jowl around the town’s old harbour. We were to while away many happy hours in this precinct over the next three days.

Honfleur, on the southern side of the Seine estuary, was a significant commercial and military port for many centuries from medieval times onward, but its status eventually diminished due to silting and the development of a much larger, modern port at Le Havre. However, it is still used actively today, mainly by leisure craft, and, if you sit by the water’s edge for long enough, you will witness the raising of the hinged bridge to allow boats to enter or depart.

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The view from our favourite watering hole

As was typical of a medieval coastal settlement, the narrow streets of Honfleur fan out from the three sides of the harbour and then up the slope towards the plateau which overlooks the town. On the western side, the lower parts of these streets are lined with shops and restaurants, the latter being more genteel than the harbour-side throng.

As for the shops, we have never seen such a variety of quality goods to tempt us. Many items were well outside our budget but we were happy to include some window shopping in our wanderings. Besides, there was an ample supply of attractive and affordable gifts for us to buy, mainly items destined for our six grandchildren.

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One of the popular sites close to the harbour precinct is Saint Catherine’s Church, a strikingly unusual building and the largest wooden church in France. It was constructed by local shipyard workers in the 15th century and all of the timber was hewn by axe alone. It’s not the prettiest church in Christendom but it is quite remarkable nevertheless.

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Our lodgings in Honfleur also contained elements of medieval construction, to which additions had been made from time to time. As its name suggests, A l’ecole buissonniere had once housed a school. It was comfortable, only a short walk from the west side of the harbour and the breakfast spread was excellent.

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The entrance to our ‘chamber’

On one morning of our visit, we drove up to the plateau above the town, where the woods maintained a comfortable temperature under the mid-autumn sun. Here we came across the Grace Chapel, constructed 400 years ago. The chapel’s exterior is quite unpretentious but its interior is fascinating, with numerous maritime elements, such as tiles praying to or thanking God for safe journeys, and model ships suspended from the ceiling.

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Just along the road from the chapel, we found the point where a walking trail descends to Honfleur. From here, we had great views of the town centre and across the Seine estuary to Le Havre.

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We had chosen to stay in Honfleur after doing some online research, and we were not disappointed. When we checked into our favourite hotel in Paris a couple of weeks earlier, we told our hosts about our plans and one of them, a woman in her 30s, exclaimed that Honfleur is her favourite place in France and she goes there as often as possible!

So, when I say “happy hour 24/7”, it is not just a reference to the myriad harbour-side bars. It is also a reflection of how many opportunities we found in and around Honfleur for visitors to enjoy themselves. We were sorry to leave and would happily return.

A near-full moon over Honfleur for our last drinks

 

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Must see Mont St Michel

Le Mont St Michel, the abbey-capped island just off the western-most part of the coast of Normandy, is one of the most recognisable sites in France. To me, it is not especially beautiful, nor architecturally brilliant, nor grand. But it is one-of-a-kind, captivating and almost unreachable in its mystery, with a hint of medieval Disneyland thrown into the mix, and made all the more striking by the fact that the adjacent coastline is so flat.

It is also one of the most frequented sites in France, averaging over 8,000 visitors per day. The built form has evolved and enlarged over the centuries – find out more here – but the only changes since I first went there in 1982 have been the crowds, the conversion of several buildings into businesses feeding off those crowds and the introduction of systems to manage the flow and impact of visitors.

The island is connected to the mainland by a viaduct, which is closed to private vehicles. So, visitors have the options of a not-too-strenuous walk; a bus service using vehicles with controls at either end, like a tram; or a horse-drawn carriage. We used the second of these – it was inexpensive and the buses ran frequently.

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A visit to the abbey complex starts to become strenuous, both physically and financially, when you pass through the entrance gate and begin to jostle your way up the slope towards the main abbey edifice. If you are thirsty, let me tell you that the price of a bottle of water is in inverse proportion to your distance away from the entrance area!

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Despite the crowds, it is not difficult to appreciate the virtues of the ancient structures and the views as you make your way to the upper reaches of the pathways. Owing to my bung hip and Maggie’s bung knee, we didn’t go all the way to the top, but a decision to descend via an outer route rounded off our explorations very satisfactorily.

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Our last view of the island was across the sandy fields of the low-lying coastal fringe to the east of the village of Mont St Michel, where we had spent the night comfortably in one of several accommodation premises.

We came. We saw. We were content!

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Next stop: the Bayeux Tapestry, en route to Honfleur.
Rick Grounds

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