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Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Nine years ago, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the most féted chef on the planet, came to London to demonstrate his extraordinary techniques to an invited audience of some 200 chefs and food writers — mostly British but with a fair sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. However, the mood in the hall was somber. It was March 11, 2004, the same morning that the Atocha railway station in Madrid had been blown up by terrorist bombers as commuters arrived for work.
The demonstration theater — a large underground bunker beneath a luxury hotel just up the road from the Houses of Parliament where Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plotters were deflected from a similar purpose a few hundred years earlier — had been converted into a gleaming space laboratory. When our instructor began to speak, it was to request a minute’s silence in memory of the 180 people already reported dead; the final toll was 191. Such moments are hard to forget.
Fortunately for me, as a Spanish speaker, Adrià addressed his audience in Spanish rather than Catalan, with translation into English provided over earphones. Simultaneous translators don’t always deliver the full picture, so I kept my own notes as a reminder of what he said. What follows is an edited version of his thoughts that day.
Ferran Adrià discusses why and how we eat
“Never forget, ladies and gentlemen, that the primary purpose of serving good food in pleasant surroundings is to give pleasure. We are not revolutionaries in the usual sense of the word. We have only one aim in what we do: to be happy ourselves and to make others happy. This is a useful service in a world where unhappiness is not unusual, as today’s terrible events have shown.
“Catalans are, as you must know, an independent people who have only recently been free to speak their own language. We do, however, recognize ourselves as part of the Spanish nation. Our aim is to make Spanish cooking contemporary, starting with Catalonia and moving through the regions applying our new techniques.
“We are inventing these techniques in order to express ourselves. We are not following fashion and we have no wish to repeat ourselves. Which is why I find it extraordinary that gastronomy is the only science in which innovation is not invested in or even encouraged, which is the reason we decided to continue our investigations alone.
“What is essential as a cook is to enjoy eating; if you don’t like eating, how can you enjoy cooking? When you’re at table, you don’t need to know the process by which the food arrives in front of you. But you do need to know how to read a plate. Pan con tomate in Catalonia is the most normal thing, but if you put it in front of someone who can’t read the plate, they won’t know what to do with it.
The first process is sight: This explains what we are about to eat. Joël Robuchon, for instance, explains exactly how to eat by the arrangement on the plate. Next comes smell: We have stopped smelling our food; it’s considered bad manners to put your nose to the plate and collect the odors. Then comes temperature: The contrast of temperature — frozen ice cream to boiling broth — does astonishing things to the palate. Now comes texture: froth, gelatin, asparagus, the mouth responds differently to each.
“At last we come to taste: Dulce, amargo, salado, acido — sweet, bitter, salty, acid — these are the four tastes. Grilled chicken with nothing but salt has neither acidity nor bitterness, but an oyster is salty, bitter and sweet. One person will detect saltiness and another won’t. The Japanese have a low threshold for salt, but among Spaniards it’s very developed because of the salt-cured ham and salty anchovies we eat from childhood.
“It’s all in the mind. There’s no real difference between eating a lamb and a puppy. And when I tell you that I know for sure my mother’s tortillas are the best in the world, it’s the heart that tells me it’s true. As a cook you must be honest. We must use what we know, which is why I share my expertise.
“At elBulli, we are 40 chefs serving 70 covers, evening only. We are not providing home-cooking. No one is going to drive 200 kilometers for a plate of bread and butter. When someone pays 300 euros for a meal, he wants something different.
“We started our experimentation with cocktails and discovered that a frozen margarita in a syringe sprayed with a little salt on the tongue is far more powerful than a whole margarita in a glass. The experience is of two temperatures — hot beneath, cold above. You can produce the same effect for children with frozen orange juice, like a homemade Fanta, though they won’t like it if they’re used to commercial Fanta.
“In 1988 we experimented with caramelizing. If you take a strawberry and dip it into caramel, you have caramelized strawberry. But if you paint it with gelatin and caramelize the sugar with a gas gun, the eating experience is far more thrilling. We made olive-oil caramelos and foie gras and mango caramelos. If you put things that don’t taste good together, the result won’t taste good either.
Adrià discovers delectable air
“In 1994 we started frothing. We made hot chocolate mousse with Campari and served it with an even more bitter sorbet; we served eggy bread with a vanilla foam. In 1995 we began to use air. Air is the flavor captured as a perfume, that’s all it is. When you use a vacuum, the air will raise a liquid. We found that carrot juice has an element which will hold air, so we prepared air with wasabi, air with melon and passionfruit. We were experimenting with texture at the time. So we fried fish bones — salmonete (red mullet) — till crisp and we served them with foam. Next we used a candy floss machine to cover the bones in candy floss. …
“In 1999, we began to experiment with hot gelatin. We discovered that agar-agar, seaweed gelatin, doesn’t actually melt till it reaches 90 degrees (Celsius). So we made a hot jelly with parmesan and squirted it into cold water so that it set into spaghetti strings. The same thing can be done by using agar-agar to set mangoor melon juice: If you shake it into limed water, it sets into little balls like caviar.
“Is it cooking or is it chemistry? It doesn’t matter. It’s no different from what happens when you bake a cookie for the first time. It’s the transformation that makes the magic.”
On July 30, 2010, Adrià’s restaurant on the outskirts of the village of Rosas closed to its paying punters (customers) and is due to reopen in 2014 as a center for creation and innovation. Which, of course, is how it all began.
Top illustration: A group of chefs at work in Barcelona. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Jan. 25 is Burns Night, as anyone with even the most tenuous connection with the land of haggis and whisky (no “e” in Scottish whisky) will scarcely need reminding.
There’s nothing mysterious about the great chieftain o’ the pudding race: The haggis is really just a large fat sausage prepared by thrifty Highland housewives to stock the store cupboard through the winter. The main ingredients are those widely available in the region: mutton and oatmeal. Just the same, liver and lights stuffed into a sheep’s stomach with onions and porridge might not be everyone’s idea of a dainty dinner, but when properly prepared and well-seasoned with pepper and thyme, it’s surprisingly delicious.
Robert Burns, poet of beauty and romance, would have been surprised by the manly shenanigans attached to his annual birthday celebration. As for the tartan dress code, I have it on good authority that those who fought the Battle of Culloden wore khaki-colored blankets round their nether parts, preserving modesty with a leather strap. Chilly but practical.
No Burns Night complete without haggis
No matter. The shenanigans are here to stay, and there’s no reason to let authenticity spoil the fun. The only essential is the haggis (and the whisky of course). To stuff your own, full instruction can be found in F. Marian McNeill’s “The Scots Kitchen” (Edinburgh, 1929), including emptying out the lungs by hanging the windpipe over the edge of the boiling pot and letting it drain. Much of Ms. McNeill’s more esoteric information is credited to Mistress Meg Dodds’ “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual” (Edinburgh, 1826). Mistress Meg is feisty fictional landlady of the Cleikum Inn in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “St. Ronan’s Well”; the author is really Edinburgh housewife Isabella Johnston and a close friend of Sir Walter Scott.
Confused? That’ll be the whisky.
Far better to save your energies for reciting poetry and get your haggis from the butcher, and so much better if it comes in natural casing — ox bung these days, I’m told. Trenching the gushing entrails through a plastic bag doesn’t really cut the mustard.
How to heat a haggis
A ready-made haggis is already fully cooked but needs careful reheating. To serve four natives or six sassenachs (anyone not born and bred in Scotland), you’ll need a 2-pound (1 kilogram) haggis. Allow the haggis to come up to room temperature, then place it gently in a roomy pot of boiling water. Return the water gently to a boil, allowing a single belch, and then cover it loosely and turn the heat right down till the water is barely trembling. Leave to simmer for half an hour then give it a squeeze — when it’s ready it’ll feel squidgy and hot. You can also wrap it securely in foil and heat for 30 to 40 minutes in a oven heated to 250 F (150 C or Gas 2).
The larger the haggis the longer it needs to heat. Once hot (and unpunctured) it can be held in simmering water for at least an hour. Accompany with clapshot — mashed potato and swede in equal volumes — or serve the two vegetables separately as neeps and tatties. On no account waste good whisky by pouring it over the haggis, whatever anyone says. Just smile politely and drink it yourself.
If your butcher has failed in his duty, a haggis mix can be cooked in a pan in much same way as a risotto. The pinhead oatmeal is important — it won’t work with ground or porridge oats. If you can’t find pinhead, give whole-grain oats a quick whiz in a spice grinder — don’t crush to a powder, you’re aiming for pinheads.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound (500 grams) lamb’s liver or heart
3 cups (1 liter) water
1 pound (500 grams) onions, quartered
Salt to taste and plenty of freshly ground white pepper
4 ounces (100 grams) pinhead oatmeal
4 ounces (150 grams) grated suet (kidney fat, ask the butcher)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1. Tidy up the meat — liver or heart — by removing visible tubes or veins. Rinse and pat dry.
2. Place the whole piece in a roomy pan with 3 cups (1 liter) of water and quartered onions. Season with salt and pepper, heat gently and simmer, loosely covered, for 30 to 40 minutes, until perfectly firm.
3. Meanwhile, toast the oatmeal in a low oven until lightly browned or stir over gentle heat in a heavy pan.
4. Remove the meat from the broth with a draining spoon, discarding the onion and reserving the liquid. Grate the meat and remaining onions through the large holes of a grater, or pulse in the processor. Stir the grated meat and onion with the toasted oatmeal, suet, thyme, salt and pepper.
5. Now you have a choice: You can either pack the mixture into a bowl (it should come about a third of the way up), moisten it with 2 cups of the reserved stock and cover the bowl with a cloth tied on with string, with the ends knotted over to give a handle (or cover with foil). Place the bowl on an upturned saucer in a roomy saucepan, add enough boiling water to come two-thirds of the way up, lid the pan and leave it to simmer for 2 hours. Check and add more boiling water as necessary. Alternately, you can cook the mixture in a heavy saucepan, adding hot stock and stirring throughout as you would a risotto.
6. Serve with clapshot.
Top photo: Haggis and whisky, the staples of any Burns Night supper. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Hogmanay, as the last day of the old year is known in Scotland, is celebrated with an enthusiasm unmatched south of the Border in England, where Christmas is the main event of the holiday season.
The midwinter rituals of the cold lands of the north, where the growing season is short and winter lasts about half the year, have to do with lighting fires to encourage the return of the sun so it can warm the earth and refill the cupboard. In Scotland, however, there was also a real need to defend the household against uninvited guests, particularly those wearing cow’s horns on their helmets, which explains the Scottish custom of First-Footing.
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Fear of marauding Norsemen lies behind the gathering together of rowdy groups of merrymakers to knock on doors demanding reward in much the same way as trick-or-treaters at Halloween. Never mind that this now takes place in towns and cities rather than isolated rural households who needed safety in numbers at a time of year when families were at their most vulnerable.
Hogmanay a time to give token gifts as a gesture of friendship
As a token of friendship, First-Footers are expected to arrive at the door with a log of wood or a piece of coal in return for a slice of cake and a dram of whisky. Furthermore, because it’s advisable that the first person to step over the threshold be a dark-haired Celt rather than a blond-maned Viking, any First-Footer with appropriate coloring will find himself bundled out of the door and refused readmission till the year has turned, thereby guaranteeing the household good luck (and absence of Vikings) for the next twelvemonth.
The first Christmas of which I have any memory was spent with my Scottish grandmother. Though she had married and settled south of the Border, she kept Christmas as a strictly religious festival and reserved the fun and games for Hogmanay, when she wore a sash in her own soft green tartan over a long dress as blue as her eyes. And there was music and dancing and special things to eat and drink, most important of which was fruitcake and whisky toddy for the grownups and baked apples and hot lemon barley water for the children. And instead of salt with the breakfast porridge — my grandmother didn’t permit sugar — there was treacle and cream. And on the back of the stove was a simmering pot of cockaleekie, a thick leek-and-chicken soup made with an old boiling fowl culled from her flock of Rhode Island Reds.
But for us children, the fun really started at dusk, when we were allowed to go First-Footing with a lantern around the neighborhood, ringing on doorbells and bothering people we didn’t know for sweets and coins, though we usually had to explain ourselves, this being England. On our return home, the house had already filled up with ex-patriot Scots and there was pipe music on the gramophone, a wind-up affair, and lines of grownups dancing the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow.
The next day, the first of the New Year, we — children and grandmother (no one ever made our grandfather do anything he didn’t want) — gathered up the debris and built a huge bonfire in the garden, warming our hands against the flames while our grandmother told us stories of Hogmanay when she was a girl and lived in a draughty castle in the Highlands at the time when Queen Victoria was on the throne. This wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, she said, because all the wood for cooking had to be fetched from the log pile in the yard and you had to have a bath in front of the kitchen fire and the bedclothes were always wringing wet. In those days, she added, First-Footers had to walk for miles to visit their neighbours, though some of them were very handsome and came because they were courting. We asked whether our grandfather was one of these handsome young visitors.
“Mind your own business,” said granny.
Fortify your First-Footers against marauding longshipmen with this oatmeal caudle, as the preparation is known south of the Border.
1 bottle Scotch whisky
12 ounces runny honey
12 ounces thick cream
1 heaped tablespoon fine oatmeal or porridge oats
2 cups water
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream and whisk until smooth.
2. Stir the oats into the water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.
3. Whisk in the whisky mixture and serve hot. A scraping of nutmeg can be sprinkled on top, and you might care to add a little more cream.
Black Bun, fruitcake batter enclosed in a pastry cake, is traditional at Hogmanay on the East Coast and in the Lowlands, where coal-fired ovens came into general use in the 1900s. On the West Coast, the Highlands and islands where my grandmother lived as a girl, cakes were mostly boiled and came in the form of a clootie dumpling. (Find a clootie dumpling recipe here.) The pastry covering serves much the same purpose as the huff-crust used to protect delicate meats from the heat of the fire when turning on the spit. Old habits die hard.
Serves at least a dozen
For the pastry:
8 ounces plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces cold butter, diced
3 to 4 tablespoons iced water
For the batter:
8 ounces self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
12 ounces raisins
12 ounces sultanas
4 ounces prunes, stoned and chopped
4 ounces crystallized peel
4 ounces blanched almonds, roughly chopped
4 ounces soft brown sugar
1 egg, forked to blend
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 small glass brandy or milk
1. Make the pastry by tossing the flour with the salt and rubbing in the butter with your fingertips.
2. Mix in enough water to make softish dough and work it lightly into a ball — don’t overwork. Cover in cling film and leave to rest in a cool place for half an hour or so.
3. Roll out two-thirds and use to line a cake tin 8 inches in diameter and roll out the other third to make a lid.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4).
5. Meanwhile, make the cake batter by picking over the fruit and nuts and tossing them in a little flour. (This helps prevent the solids sinking to the bottom of the cake.)
6. Beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy — the more you beat, the easier the adding of the eggs.
7. Beat in the egg, stirring in a spoonful of flour if it looks like curdling.
8. Sieve in the flour with the salt, add the powdered almonds and fold gently.
9. Fold in the fruit, nuts and spices and enough liquor or milk to make a softish dough.
10. Spoon the mixture into the pastry case, top with the lid and pinch the edges together with a wet finger to make a wavy edge.
11. Brush the top with a beaten egg and prick the surface with a fork in 2 or 3 places.
12. Bake for 2½ to 3 hours, until the top is well-browned and firm to the touch. If it looks as if it is browning too early, cover with grease-proof paper.
Top illustration: A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Christmas in Provence, that sunny wedge of southern France that runs along the edge of the Mediterranean from the Italian to the Spanish border, follows the Catholic tradition of observing fast before feast.
The traditional replacement for meat on a fast day is salt cod, a challenging ingredient at the best of times, let alone in the depths of winter in a region best suited to the heat of summer. The ingenious cooks of Provence, however, rose to the challenge, and the centerpiece of the souper maigre, the lean meal of the Reveillon, the vigil of the night before, is brandade de morue, a creamy salt cod dip flavored with garlic and rich with new season’s olive oil, one of most delectable dishes ever to grace a festive table.
In medieval times, the pre-Christmas period of abstinence imposed by the Mother Church ran for 40 days, matching the Lenten fast before Easter. These days, the tradition has shrunk to the Eve alone, but salt cod remains on the menu — a symbol of abstinence at a time of plenty. Abstinence has always been relative in Mediterranean lands: The rich always ate more than poor but not necessarily better — and none better than the independent peasantry of Provence, where the feasting of the holiday’s eve runs with scarcely a pause from dusk until dawn.
Christmas in Provence a celebration for all generations
Festivities start as soon as all members of the family, young and old, are gathered round the table. The first installment, souper maigre, a meatless meal washed down with water, is followed by a short pause for attendance at midnight Mass before returning home for the gros souper — roast partridge, pheasant, guinea fowl — after which the wine flows, memories are shared and merrymaking continues into the small hours of Christmas morning.
Regions, towns and villages — even individual households — vary in the rituals and dishes considered proper for the feast. But the traditions I know best are those of Vaison-la-Romaine, a hilltop market town fortified by the Romans where I spent many a merry Reveillon with my young family in the days before my children acquired children of their own.
It goes without saying that a celebration marking the birth of a very important baby is for all the family: No one would dream of sending even the smallest child to bed before he falls asleep on someone’s lap. Which means if you turn up anywhere in the region before midday Christmas Day, you’ll find the shutters up and no one about, even when there’s sunshine to be enjoyed and there might be truffles to be found under the lime-tree walk along the riverbank. Children’s presents must wait till Jan. 6, when the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts.
In Vaison-la-Romaine, the traditional fasting supper is the brandade, often purchased ready-made from the local olive-oil merchant, followed by a thick vegetable soup with ribbon pasta, soupe de lasagnes. By the coast, in Marseilles or Nice, it might be a Grande Aioli, a steaming heap of plain-cooked winter vegetables to be eaten with sea snails and a garlicky golden mayo.
But before these good things can be enjoyed comes the setting out of the créche and its santons, a miniature crib surrounded by little figures of local tradesmen and dignitaries, often unflattering represented in various stages of ursury or gluttony, the work of specialist craftsmen with a new figure every year. Close by are laid out les treize desserts, 13 good things: 12 little bowls, one for each of the Disciples, filled with Christmas treats — fresh and dried fruits and local sweetmeats — surrounding a more substantial offering such as an apple tart or a fougasse, a sweetened bread scented with orange water. The selection varies according to local gastronomic strengths — you’ll find grapes in wine-making areas, melons in sandy regions beside the sea — though the number of dishes and the story they tell is common to all. Supplies are regularly renewed throughout the holiday to provide a kind of open larder, allowing the lady of the house to leave her kitchen and enjoy the company of family and guests.
In Vaison, an area that specializes in orchard fruits as well as the black Perigord truffle (another Christmas treat), no arrangement is complete without its little pyramid of William pears, their stalks tipped with scarlet sealing wax to keep them fresh. Sweet things for children include quince paste, crystallized plums, dried apricots, nougat and little boat-shaped marzipan cookies, callisons d‘Aix. The four begging orders of monks, any of whom might be expected to claim a place among the guests, are represented by bowls of blanched almonds for the white-robed Dominicans, rough-skinned figs for the Franciscans, smooth brown hazelnuts for the Carmelites and wrinkled little currants for the Augustines. And as a reminder of the land of the infant’s birth, imported fruits — oranges, tangerines, dates — are on sale in the Saturday market.
On Christmas Day, early-rising children are expected to creep out of the house to visit grandparents and elderly relatives, leaving exhausted parents to sleep off the festivities in peace and recover from the Christmas day hangover. (To cure, take an infusion of sage and garlic laced with olive oil.)
Brandade de morue (Provençale salt cod purée)
If you can buy salt cod ready-soaked, so much the better. If you buy it in dried form, choose 12 ounces middle-cut, chop into 3 to 4 pieces and set it to soak for 24 hours in a large bowl of cold water, changing the water as often as you remember (at least four times). The inclusion of potato is optional but advisable as it helps form the emulsion.
1 pound ready-soaked salt cod
1 onion, chunked
2 bay leaves
Small bundle dried fennel stalks or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Short strip of dried or fresh orange peel
½ teaspoon peppercorns
For the brandade:
½ pint (1 cup) warm olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons warm cream
1 medium potato, boiled, skinned and mashed (optional)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed
Black olives or a small black truffle
1. Place the fish in a roomy saucepan with the poaching aromatics, cover generously with water and bring gently to the boil. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as the water gives a good belch.
2. Add a glass of cold water to halt the cooking process, leave for 5 minutes to complete the softening process, then drain, skin and use tweezers and your fingertips to find and remove any bones.
3. Start with everything at more or less the same temperature — warmed to finger heat. In a mortar or the processor, pound the fish flesh to a paste with the optional potato, garlic and as much of the oil as you need to soften the mix or keep the processor blades moving. Work in the rest of the oil gradually as if making a mayonnaise, adding the warm cream toward the end, until you have a thick white puree. A processor puree will be smoother and whiter than if you make it by hand.
4. Spoon into individual bowls and finish with a single black olive (a symbol of the darkness to come) or, better still, a scraping of black truffle. Serve warm with toast or baguette, as for a paté. It’s deliciously rich, so you don’t need much. Follow, as they do in Vaison-la-Romaine, with a soupe de lasagnes, a chunky vegetable soup with pasta ribbons with frilled edges to remind the children of the Christ child’s curls.
Photo: Provençale Christmas crib figures called santons. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Rolled-up leaves stuffed with rice, papery phyllo pastries layered with nuts and soaked in syrup — the cooking of the Balkans owes as much to the Ottoman Turks as it does to the Germanic and Slavic tradition.
The Ottomans, descendents of nomadic tribes from the steppes of Russia, ruled the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean for five centuries, reaching into Europe as far as the walls of Vienna. Nowhere is their influence more evident than in the cooking of the polyglot nations of Eastern Europe, where soups and stews still carry their Turkish names and city walls are marked with the scars of siege.
Although I have traveled through the region on several occasions both before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I had found culinary information hard to come by under communism — not least because of serious shortages and the imposition of rationing on staples such as bread. So when, this year, I was offered a late-summer trip as a visiting lecturer on a river cruise ship on the Danube, the invitation was irresistible.
Our journey started 100 miles or so inland from the Black Sea, at the point where the Danube empties itself into the wetlands that form its estuary. Some 180 of us, keen to make the most of the tours on offer, loaded ourselves onto shallow-draft riverboats to make our way down a man-made canal through a vast marshland dense with willow thicket and reeds. Our local guide, Iuliana, explained there had been very little rain this year and this was not good for the birds — or for the fishermen who scratch a precarious living in the region.
Every now and again we passed a fisherman casting a line from the muddy bank. “He is Russian. They are refugees from religious persecution,” said Iuliana. “The men have long beards, and the women have red hair and round faces and freckles. They are Romanian citizens, but they speak their own language and they don’t like to socialize even when their children are at school with us.”
Is their cooking different from that of ordinary Romanians? Iuliana shrugged. “They don’t invite us into their homes so we don’t eat together like we do with the Wallachians, who live to the south of us and are Turks and keep Ramadan.”
Romanian sour soup a traditional dish
So what does Iuliana’s mother like to cook?
“When there are many of us we like to eat sarmale, which is cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice and comes from the Turks. And cheese strudel, which is the German name for a pie. For every day, she makes çiorba, sour soup, which can be made with anything at all — meat, fish, chicken, vegetables — but the best is meatballs with rice, which is the same stuffing as the sarmale. Under communism, we were told to plant rice in the delta but it didn’t grow, so now we import it from China. The çiorba she makes with borscht like the Russians, which is a soured liquid we make with wheat bran and yeast and is special to this part of Romania. I will ask if they will prepare a çiorba when we take lunch in Bucharest tomorrow.”
The next day, after a tour around the exterior of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s enormous baroque palace, the tour buses deliver us to the Hotel Phoenicia, a vast, modern building on the outskirts of the city. In the days of the communist dictatorship, only the tourist hotels were permitted to offer hospitality to visitors, so the buffet lunch with its potato and pasta salads, though far more generous than anything I had experienced before, had a familiar feel.
As promised, at the far end of the table was a white china tureen full of a straw-colored broth in which were floating bite-sized meatballs flecked with grains of rice. Beside it was a bowl of soured cream and a pile of what looked like dark red cherry tomatoes but upon closer inspection were revealed to be chilies.
Iuliana sampled a spoonful of the soup and smiled. “This is good. It is traditional. It is made with borscht just like my mother.” She ladled out a bowlful, added a dollop of soured cream and handed it to me along with one of round, red chilies. “This is very hot, very juicy, very sweet. You take a bite whenever you like. Good for protecting the stomach.”
No stomach protection was necessary, and the çiorba was indeed as good as promised. The flavor was surprisingly mushroomy, umami-laden, with a touch of sweetness and just a little sharpness, as if someone had added a glass of rough country wine.
Borscht for Soup
Makes 4 pints
You can find commercially prepared borscht sold in concentrated form as a soup base in Polish and Russian delis. To prepare your own, all you need is wheat bran, water, a little yeast and patience.
8 ounces wheat bran
1 teaspoon instant yeast (half a packet)
2 tablespoons cornmeal
4 pints water
1. Combine 2 tablespoons of the wheat bran with a cupful of warm water and add the yeast. Leave to froth for a couple of hours, then drain and reserve the bran, discarding the liquid.
2. Put the remaining dry bran and cornmeal in a clean bowl. Boil the water and pour it into the bowl. Mix and leave to cool until tepid, then stir in the yeasty bran.
3. Cover with a clean cloth and set aside for three to four days in a cool place, stirring regularly, until delicately soured. Strain into a clean glass jar, store in the refrigerator and use as required.
4. To start another batch without yeast, reserve a cupful of the strained-out bran and proceed as above, adding the yeasted bran to the new batch at the stage when the bran-and-water mixture has cooled to tepid.
Meatball Sour Soup With Chili and Soured Cream
A çiorba, or sour soup, can also be sharpened with dash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice or a ladleful of pickle brine or sauerkraut juice.
For the soup:
350 grams (about ¾ of a pound) of finely ground beef
2 heaping tablespoons round-grain rice
1 small onion, grated
1 medium egg, forked to blend
1 cup chopped dill or fennel tops
1 cup chopped parsley
2 pints strong beef bone or chicken broth
1 cup shredded lovage or celery leaves
1 pint wheat bran borscht or plain water plus 2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Garnishes for serving:
Fresh red chillies
1. Work the ground meat with the rice, onion, egg, half the dill and half the parsley until well-blended and smooth. Roll into balls about the size of a walnut.
2. Bring the broth to a boil and gently slip in the meatballs. Return the pot to the boil, turn down the heat and leave to simmer without bubbling for 30 to 40 minutes, until the meatballs are tender and cooked through.
3. Strain the borscht into the broth (or add the extra water and vinegar), reheat and bubble up for no more than 2 minutes.
4. Finish with the shredded lovage and the rest of the parsley and dill. Ladle into bowls and add a dollop of soured cream. Serve the fresh red chilies separately, one for each person.
Top watercolor: The round, red chilies traditionally served with Romanian sour soup. Credit: Elisabeth Luard