Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cuba Libre

This is our drink. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we met in Cuba. Or that when we met, we were drinking this or weren't we ? It's all a little fuzzy. But it's our favorite aperitif before dinner.

Pour one part rum & two parts coke into a glass & top it up with ice. Stir well then squeeze lemon or lime juice over & garnish with a slice of lemon or lime. It's served here with cut up pieces of the ham & olive cake that I made the other day.

The next feature would be another Cuban favorite. Do you know what it is ? Leave in the comments if you do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Header Change

Now that the weather has FINALLY turned better
(I hope I didn't jinx it by sayin
g that out loud),
I felt it was time to change the header picture.
Which, by the way, is the view from our terrace.

Old Header

Hainanese Chicken Rice

X & I share a passion for food. I don't really think I could be with someone who doesn't like food. I dated a vegetarian once & needless to say, that didn't last very long. I'm not saying they don't appreciate food, it's just means that for me, a whole spectrum of food is no longer available.

Back to what I was trying to say. Not only do we share a passion for food, we also have similar tastes when it comes to food. There is not much that we, both, don't enjoy. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one - salted fish. Oh how I love salted fish - esp the mui heong kind that my mother would only get from Hong Kong. Okay so even I'll admit that it is quite a stretch to expect a Frenchman to like it.

Which makes cooking so much easier for me. I can cook whatever I like, knowing that he would enjoy it too. This is more so since I cook a lot of Asian dishes - I do that whenever I get a craving which seems to happen very often.

One of our mutual favorites is chicken rice. I'm sure most overseas Singaporeans would have tried to cook this at home maybe because it's probably easiest to find the ingredients that you need (the most exotic is ginger & if you can get ginger, you're good to go). When I first moved to France, this was the first Singaporean dish that I prepared & even now, I still cook this regularly.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cake au Jambon et Olives

In French, what is called a cake is not really a cake, as we know it. Cakes (the sweet type) are generally called gateaux. What the French calls a cake is actually a savory cake. These are not eaten as dessert but rather as a snack. Before a meal, the French would have an aperitif which is an appetiser drink (usually alcoholic) often accompanied by snacks like cake au jambon, peanuts, olives, chips or saucisson.

This is really easy to make. You can substitute with anything savory like sausages, salted pistachios or peanuts.

Cake au Jambon et olives (Cake with Ham & Olives)

3 eggs

150g flour
1 sachet leuvre chimique (baking powder)
10cl oil
125ml milk (warm)
100g grated cheese (I used emmental)
200g ham, diced
75g green olives, without seeds & sliced (I didn't have any green ones left so used black instead)

1. Mix eggs, flour, baking powder, a pinch of salt & pepper
2. Add slowly little by little the oil & warm milk. As you do, mix well
3. Add grated cheese
4. Add ham & olives
5. Pour into an oiled mould or mould lined with baking paper
6. Put it in the oven at 180C for 45 mins.

I told you this is simple.

Building a Wall - not just any wall, a stone wall

We moved to the house a year ago but there are still many parts of it that's not completed (by the way, for those of you coming this summer, you'll be pleased to know that the guest bathroom is now done). One of which being the wall.

This weekend, Xavier's father, Rene (real name revealed cos after this post on the decoration ceremony, he doesn't want to remain anonymous on my blog) and Michel (how do you call someone who is the brother of the wife of the brother of the father of X ? we'll just call him ton ton Michel, like the Girl) are over to help build the stone wall. Not just any wall but a stone wall.

At this point, I should talk about this DIY bricolage here in the French countryside. When I first moved here & X talked about working on this house, I envision painting, sanding, screwing on a bulb or maybe hitting a nail in the wall to hang a painting. That's about as much bricolage that I can muster. We all know what X does for a living so he is not professional but yet he has built the chiminey, laid ALL the tiles in the house, built an entire mezzanine floor (with some help) & done numerous jobs around the house all by himself which I would have considered work for a professional.

And it's not just him, I believe his whole family is capable of building a house from scratch (not that they have done it of course), they all do their own DIY / renovation projects eg. his brother built his own pool. Okay granted Rene used to own a company that supplies construction materials so he knows a thing or two about this, but still you know what I mean, this is pretty awesome.

Anyway, since this is like the major activity going on in our village, all our neighbours, with no exception, have stopped by to check on the progress. Actually at the rate they are going, I think it should be finished in no time.

Just to prove my point, that is our very own cement mixer.
How many people do you know have one ?

Well since I can't really help out. I do what I can - supply them with coffee, pitchers of iced cold drinks & food. So what do you feed les macons - Meat & potatoes, of course.

White asparagus I'd just bought from the market

Caillette & fried potatoes

Let me introduce the caillette - an ardechoise speciality. It is made of minced pork, liver, blette (vegetable not unlike spinach), herbs, garlic & I can't remember what else. We made more than 200 of these during our last charcuterie session, divide them into plastic containers & freeze. Then when we need, just pop them into the oven for 2 hours & they are ready to be eaten. Rene's caillettes are the best. I don't remember ever buying them from the store & I have not tasted any better than his. These can be eaten hot or cold & generally with fried potatoes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Paella a la maison

You didn't think I would post anything else other than Paella after our trip, did you ?

I used to only rely on X to prepare paella or order from a restaurant. Remember I talked about a true test of how much you like a dish - well paella is another one of mine. So I decided that I must learn how to make it. After a few failed attempts, I think I have finally gotten it right. I don't claim that this is an authentic recipe - after all what is ? a google search will turn up a gazillion different ways of making paella. And for starters, I don't even use a paella pan. But it is pretty darn good, if I may say so myself & X likes it too (which is a big plus).

Paella (the way I make it)
serves 4 or 6

1 onion, cut vertically in quarters
1 green pepper, seeds removed & sliced
1 red pepper, seeds removed & sliced
2 carrots, sliced
3-4 chicken leg, cut to bite size pieces
12-15 shrimps, whole & trimmed of whiskers (is that what they are called?)
calamari, cut to bite size pieces
baby octopus, if you can find any
1 tsp saffron
500 ml chicken stock * see notes
1 chorizo sausage, sliced
350g Uncle Ben's rice
olive oil
1.5 cups of white wine or water
1 lemon (garnish)

1. Prepare an oven tray & generously drizzle olive oil at the bottom

2. In a small pot, add the saffron to the chicken stock & bring to a boil. Then simmer. Add salt, if necessary

3. Fry onions, carrots & peppers in olive oil for 5 mins. Then add to oven tray

4. Fry chicken till brown. Then add to tray

5. Fry sausages. Then add to tray

6. Fry calamari, shrimps & octopus - about half know what's next....yup then add to tray

7. Add the rice into the oven tray

8. Pour the stock over until it half covers the tray. If you add too much, the rice will become mushy. You can always add more later.

9. Cover with aluminium foil (to prevent the ingredients from drying) & put it in the oven at 190C for about 1.5 to 2 hours until the rice is cooked. Every half an hour or so, stir up the rice & if the stock is all soaked up, add more stock. I can't figure out how to cut down cooking time cos it seems to take at least 1.5 hours for the rice to be cooked (sometimes even longer).

10. At this point, you must be wondering what about the mussels. Well I don't add the mussels in the beginning cos they generate too much juice & makes the rice really mushy. So I usually steam them first. Bring 1.5 cups of water or wine to a boil, then add in the mussels. Cover till steam is coming out from under the lid. The mussels are now ready. Remove any that are not open. Drain & set aside. When the rice is almost done, add the mussels & return the paella to the oven. Cook for another 5-10 minutes.

11. Serve paella with a wedge of lemon, if anybody wants it.


a. If I have a whole chicken, I will cut out the parts I need & then use the bones to make the stock. If not, use chicken stock cubes. I said 500 ml but I don't really know exactly how much. Just add more until the rice is cooked.

b. The tricky part is to make sure the rice is cooked. You'll need to be patient & make sure the rice is really done. There is nothing worse than paella with uncooked rice.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Espelette, Ainhoa & Ascain

This post rounds up my Basque country report. After the seaside towns, it was time to head inland to visit some of the Basque country villages. When I was looking at the map, one place stood out - Espelette. Of course we have to go there for their AOC Espelette piment.

It is a tiny village - I believe we walked through it in 10 mins. You just can't miss what they are famous for cos there are strings of chillis hanging everywhere. It actually makes quite a decorative statement - going really well with the white & red houses that you find in this region.

Village of Espelette

Don't they look cute

This is what we got - 2kg of Espelette sweet chillis I put the bottle of tabasco just to give some perspective on how huge this bottle is

Next stop, Ainhoa. One of 152 "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" (the most beautiful villages in France of which 2 of them are in Ardeche). The village is tiny but they have some of the best examples of the houses you'll find in the Basque country.

Main street Ainhoa

Church & cemetary

Our final stop, Ascain where we spent the night before heading home the next day. Just outside the village, you can take a little train to the top of La Rhune. La Rhune, altitude 905m, is at the western end of the Pyrenees & is really popular for hiking & walks. Needless to say, we took the train. On the 30 min ride up to the observatory tower, we saw cows, horses, sheep grazing on the slopes & of course, hikers.

The view from the top is magnificent - even of San Sebastian & beyond. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't venture to hike up La Rhune. Then it was back to Ascain to search for a place to stay for the night. We wanted to stay at Chambre d'hote Arrayoa but unfortunately she had just rented out her last room. I was a little disappointed cos the farm looks nice & the owner was charming & helpful. Apparently they are also known for their confit & foie gras. Sigh next time.

But on our final night in the Basque Country, we had a very pleasant surprise. Ascain is another small village & apart from some bars & pizzarias, there weren't many dining options. We ended up in the restaurant of the Hotel de la Rhune. The hotel looked a little run down so we weren't expecting much. In fact, I didn't even bring my camera cos I didn't expect to write about it. But lo & behold, the meal was excellent.

For starters, we had the terrine de foie gras & chipirons (baby squid) which we both enjoyed. For main course, I ordered ttoro which is a Basque fish soup. I want to learn how to make this soup - it is that good. Full of flavor & again using Espelette chillis. X ordered confit de canard & it was excellent, I love the crispy skin. The only disappointment were the desserts - both of ours were drowning in chocolate sauce.

So that ended our 4 day trip to the Basque Country. I would like to go back again - next time staying on a farm, more time in St Jean de Luz & most definitely over the border to San Sebastian.

Le petite train de la Rhune & the views on the way

San Sebastian in the background
& that's where I want to go next

Bayonne & St Jean de Luz

Bayonne is just next to Biarritz so it was a easy day trip. Being the foodie that I am, I wanted to check out the place famous for the Bayonne ham, chocolate & something called bayonnaise - a combination of mayonnaise & Espelette chillis. We actually had nothing to do with food while we were there, instead we found ourselves spending time in the Musee Basque - a small but impressive collection of everything you want to know about Basque arts & culture.

Houses along the Nive with
St Marie Cathedral in the background

Musee Basque in a 17th Century house

Next day, we made our way to St Jean de Luz. It's a complete contrast to the wild waves of Biarritz. The beach is sheltered so the sea is calm. When we arrived, there were already groups of children playing on the beach. The main pedestrain walkway rue Gambetta, runs from the beach to the centre of town. If I thought Biarritz is laid back, well St Jean de Luz is even more so. If we had more time, I would have wanted to stay here at least for one night.

This was taken just before
she fell into the water & got herself all wet

The magnificent church of St John the Baptist

Chez Theo

After eating nothing but tapas for the past 2 days, I was ready to try some Basque food. For that, we had lunch in Chez Theo, just beside the church. A cute little restaurant decorated with typical Basque paraphanelia. Their Axoa - a veal stewed in sweet chilli & espelette - is delicious.

Chez Theo
25 rue de l'Abbe Onaindia

Allez B.O.

This B.O. is not what you are think.

This B.O. refers to Biarritz Olympique, the rugby team.

Little known fact about me - I like rugby. This has not always been the case. It only started 5 years ago during the Rugby world cup when X visited me in NY. It was quite a challenge trying to find bars in the US that would screen rugby games (there weren't any pay per view cable stations broadcasting the games) & more so since they were playing in Sydney but we managed to hunt them down & there in the wee hours of the morning began my induction to the world of rugby. Before that, my only knowledge of rugby was the Rugby Sevens in HK which is more a social rather than a sporting event.

South west region of France is the stronghold of rugby & has top clubs like Stade Toulousain & Biarritz Olympique. On the night we arrived in Biarritz, while buying cereal in the supermarket, we saw a poster that says B.O. will be playing Auch in Stade Aguilera in a Top 14 match (the French rugby national league) the next day. You just know we had to get tickets for the game.

Nothing beats watching a game live - the atmoshere, the fans, the chanting & of course beer & food (sadly unlike the Americans, the French don't have a huge culture of food during games). I still have very fond memories of eating hotdogs, buffalo wings & drinking beer while watching baseball in Yankee stadium.

Anyway, the weather was perfect & even the Girl got into the action waving her red & white inflated batons. Her father was very happy to be able to get in a bit of rugby action during the trip. What a bit of luck. In case you're interested, the final score was 26:3 for Biarritz.

B.O. has quite a few French internationals, one of them, the scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili.

Half time entertainment, the fan club of B.O. made their way to the field for a chorus rendition. At which point, I decided it was time for more beer.

Biarritz - Sleep & Eat

Biarritz - Where we stayed

I'm not one for big chain hotels. I prefer to stay at small boutique places. Luckily enough, Biarritz has quite a few in the town center. We stayed at the charming Hotel Maison du Lierre which faces a public garden & located 5 mins walk to the beach. It feels very homely & I particularly like the breakfast room.

Hotel Maison du Lierre
3 avenue du jardin public

Where we ate

During the long drive to Biarritz, all I could think of was tapas & sangria. Bar Jean came highly recommended & it didn't disappoint. Many of the locals would drop by for a glass of sangria & some tapas before heading off. You can order tapas from the menu or just pick from the selection at the bar. On top of the tapas, we even ordered paella (it was definitely way too much for 2 persons but after a few glasses of sangria, does it matter ?) & it was excellent. This turned out to be one of our best meals during the trip.

Bar Jean
5 rue halles

Casa Juan Pedro

We were actually checking out Chez Albert @ Port des Pecheurs for lunch & even though it's mentioned in all the guide books & the menu looks good, I wasn't in the mood for anything fancy. So we decided to head 2 doors down to the friendly & more casual Casa Juan Pedro instead. The restaurant is run by twin brothers, Jean & Pierre hence the name Casa Juan Pedro.

We had, what else but, sangria & tapas. The food, like the restaurant, is simple & casual. X had a grilled dorade which was excellent. My chipirons a l'encre (a basque speciality of baby squids cooked in ink) could be better.

Casa Juan Pedro
port des pecheurs

Back from the Basque Country

I'm still reeling from the excitement of our last minute trip. We've been talking about going to Biarritz for over a year now & so even though we didn't have much time to plan this (less than a day), we had a great time.

It's a 7 hour drive to the south west. Despite the fact that this is the first time the Girl has been on such a long road trip, she managed quite well with her colouring pencils & snacks. We made a couple of stops & every time, I'm just amazed at how well maintained the French highways are. Of course, we're paying for it with high tolls but the toilets are clean, rest stops are plentiful & even equipped with showers, children's playground & picnic area.

So after we checked into the hotel, we headed to the beach & very soon, we realised why Biarritz is a surfer's paradise. Even before we reached the beach, we could hear the sound of the waves. Granted it was a very windy day but the waves were huge & everyone who walked along the promenade got wet.

See I was not exaggerating about the waves

The wild & rocky coastline of Biarritz

La Grande Plage, the largest beach

The next day, the sea was calmer & we did a nice walk all the way from the Côte des Basques, past the Virgin Rock & Port des Pecheurs, to the Winston Churchill passage from the Hôtel du Palais to Miramar Beach and all the way to the light house.

La Chappelle Imperiale built for Empress Eugenie
which was unfortunately closed when we were there

Musee de la Mer

If you are travelling with children, definitely check out the Musee de la Mer which is housed in a beautiful art deco building. The highlight for the Girl was the feeding of the seals (daily at 10.30 & 5.00). My favorite is the viewing gallery of the seals underwater. In the basement, the aquarium with a small selection of marine life.

I love the laid back feel of Biarritz. I'm sure the feeling will be different at the height of the summer season when it's crazy. Still it's less flashy than Cote d'azur, the people are friendly & proud of their Basque heritage & definitely has a very distinct Spanish flavour. I don't know when but I would like to go back to the region again.