now blogging at www.katesplates.com.au


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Summer Lovin’

I had a short break from posting until yesterday (I have been busy doing other things like writing a book – I feel like this could be a life-long task – and setting up my new blog domain.  But more on that later …).  I dug this out from the start of our summer holidays – hard to believe that was four weeks ago now!!

So where are we in the world?  At the moment, we are in Sanary-sur-mer, a little seaside village on the Mediterranean between Marseille and Nice.  I only discovered this little gem because an Australian friend of mine married a local eight years ago and we were forced (it was hard) to come visit for a week and take part in the wedding celebrations.
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So I’ve been here three times now – I keep coming back.  There’s a certain comfort in knowing what you can expect from a place when you have your family in tow.  This seemed like the perfect first stop on our eight week summer holiday throughout France, Italy and Switzerland, because it is small enough to walk around, big enough to be spoilt for choice with restaurants and pretty enough to entice you down to the harbour for their glorious, ultra-long twilights and enchanting nocturnal markets.  I am yet again gobsmacked by the French’s ability to put so much effort into detail purely for the joy of aesthetics.  Joie de vivre is alive and well here!
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Apart from a drastic change in temperature (the French are calling this heatwave a canicule, but in reality it’s low-mid 30s – weather we should be used to as native Brisbanites), we have had a major change of scenery.  After six months of living in a six-bedroom villa in country South-West France, I must admit I found the first couple of days in our 4 x 6m cabin in a camping ground a bit of a shock!  I won’t even go into detail about the “disposable sheets”!  Yes that’s a real thing.

We left the Villa with a car so full I had to sacrifice taking my market trolley with us.  For those of you who know how much I love the atmosphere of fresh food markets, you know how hard this would have been for me!  So it took me a couple of days to “organise” a spot for everything so that our 2 week stay would be comfortable and that everything could be found relatively easily.   But given how full the car was (I’m talking the kids and front seat passenger with their knees up to their chest to make room for bags at their feet!) it didn’t take us long to notice how the French deal with this problem.  Small cars are the go around here (ours is half the size we had in Australia) and so in holiday season they whip out their coffre de toit.  In English perhaps we call it a rooftop storage pod?  It gives you an extra 400L or so of storage … and so we are onto it.  We will leave this place with a coffre on our roof and happier kids – which is paramount when you are doing a 5 or 6 hour drive in a day!

Thermie came with us of course – this is a luxury when you are glamping, and when you have no oven!  Let’s just say it’s been an opportunity to think differently about meals given my space and appliance restrictions.  I am a self-confessed food snob and so I have a lot of trouble spending 50 euros on a meal out for the family which typically includes loads of trans fats and very little nutrition.  Don’t get me wrong, I am no skinny Minnie health freak over here in the land of cheese, bread and wine, but I just can’t feed my family this rubbish – and spend so much on it! – only to see the effects of poor nutrition on my kids.  Did I mention we’re in a 4x6m space for 2 weeks?  Hyperactive, cranky kids are not fun to hang out with.  Feeding them right is critical.
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So meals have included lots of fresh cut ham and salads  – I’ve found investing in a good quality mango vinegar and olive oil makes the kids LOVE any salad.  The seasonal fruits at the moment (figs, apricots, peaches, raspberries and cherries) make for super tasty and quick desserts (together with 70% dark chocolate which is only 1.20 euro here!!) and of course the luscious cheeses can be added to any meal.  Goats cheese on salad, blue cheese on bread or a brie with olives for a snack is almost too easy.  But I have created a couple of soup recipes that the kids enjoy, which is super easy to do in the Thermie in a tiny cupboard-sized kitchen and is the easiest way to ingest a load of vegies.  Given it’s winter in Australia, I figured these might come in handy for you too!!
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Creamy Sweet Potato Soup (TM31)

This recipe uses a Thermomix but can be easily adapted to your blender or food processor.
Ingredients:
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 leek, white part only, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled, sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp creme fraiche
500gms water
2 tbsp homemade stock paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp butter
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Blitz the leek and garlic on speed 7 for 3 seconds. Add butter and sauté for 2 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Add remaining vegetables, reserving the parsley, and process for 10 sec on speed 6 until finely diced. Add water, stock, salt and pepper and cumin and cook for 20 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Once cooked, add parsley, creme fraiche and remaining cumin (to taste – I like lots) and blend on speed 9 for up to a minute until your desired consistency is reached. My kids prefer it smooth.
Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and crusty bread. Freezes well for a quick meal solution.
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Spending plenty of time around the pool to keep cool has also been a wonderful opportunity to do some serious people watching.  I keep looking for common traits in the French so as to understand them better.  There are certainly plenty of gorgeous bikini clad bodies and perfectly bronzed bare breasts (yes we had to fill our kids in on that one) but there’s also your fair share of tummy rolls, dimply bums and wobbly cellulite.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like the women here in my age group (30-40) are much less concerned about what they look like in swimwear.  They’re not reaching for their sarong to cover up the second they get out of the pool.  They’ll happily toddle around the pool area with their beautiful bouncy bodies on show for all.  There’s an air of confidence about them.  There’s a feeling of body acceptance and healthy body image mentality that I don’t think I’ve seen at home.  I love it!  I feel right at home with my wobbly bits and have felt a new freedom to just “hang out” so to speak.
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Tonight, we’ve booked somewhere a bit special for dinner.  The kids have had a day sleep and we are pumped to celebrate Bastille Day in style!  We’ll be joining the thousands on the Port for fireworks at 10.30pm!

For your next night in, give this soup recipe a try – super easy and packed with 5+ vegies.  And if you can, don’t forget to add a French brie … and maybe a glass of French red!

With grace and gusto,

Kpx

P.S Quick tip: Dan Murphy’s in Australia sells French red wine from the Corbiere region … we highly recommend it!  Great price and even better taste.  Enjoy!

P.S.S I didn’t get back to talking about the new domain … I am changing the name of my blog to Kate’s Plates.  It’s more work than I first thought (of course) but sometime in the next few months I hope, this will be my new writing home.  It’s easier to remember, reflects what I’m writing about and is a nice nod to my passion for vintage French plates.  Stay tuned!  But don’t hold your breath … I don’t want to be responsible for anyone passing out J

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Cooking With Emma

After seven months in France, we took a break from r-gargling and brie bingeing and visited Italy as part of our very brave eight-weeks-on-the-road-with-three-young-kids summer road trip.  Michael and I have been there done that in Rome, Venice and Florence, so we picked a small country village in the hills of Tuscany and a quaint terrace house in Nesso, Lake Como as our Italian destinations of choice.  For six nights in Tuscany, we stayed in an old stone relic of a house with those classic terracotta tiles you wish you could afford in a new home.  They would never look as good as they do in a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years … it’s the scratches, divots and dents and the smooth, worn down steps that give it such character.  I had a quick look on the other side of the ancient door that led to the attic from our enormous main bedroom and decided it could be left undiscovered.  The cobwebs alone put me off!

The big country kitchen with ivory tiled benchtops and an eight seater dining table right in the middle that doubled as a preparation area made me feel like a true Italian Nonna!  I swear when I next build a house, I’ll be installing one of the old-fashioned dish racks hidden in a cupboard above the sink.  A brilliant idea!  The house also came with an Italian coffee pot for making my morning cups of black gold.  My aunt and uncle have always used them, and I know they are readily available at home, but I’d never tried one myself.  Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of an Italian coffee pot that can be used on a gas, electric or induction stove top … had to cover all bases when our holiday means we will use fifteen different kitchens!  It was worth the extra ten euros to ensure my family gets the best version of me each morning.

Highlights of Tuscany: San Gimignano at dusk was a moment in time (so much so that we went back a second time!); the views of the endless hills, dotted with olive trees and old farmhouses and marked by rows of vineyards; and Siena for its surprisingly entertaining Santa Maria della Scala Art Museum (we sheltered from a storm but stayed for a couple of hours exploring the underground hallways and rooms of what used to be a hospital in the 1300s) and equally entertaining and passionate providore in a quaint deli.  This rotund gentleman was full of jubilance and good humour, his walrus moustache following suit.  He looked like an actor from a 1960s street scene – someone who would be the local town butcher.  I imagine him in a black and white photograph, his personality all that is needed to colour the scene.  He over-generously handed out samples of his aged and smoked prosciutto served atop crusty bread and then quickly followed that up with a wedge of sharp pecorino smothered in creamy pesto.  Twenty-six euros later, we walked out of there with snugly wrapped packages of everything we’d tried and more … we justified it by agreeing we didn’t need lunch after all the samples!

But there was one highlight that stood out in Tuscany.  After months of living in Europe as a foreigner, I am almost repelled by the “top ten things to do in …” lists and deliberately go looking for experiences that are usually left for those who attempt to break in to the local circles.  I got wind of a certain neighbour who occasionally offered cooking classes.  I had no idea of her qualifications or if she was any good, but I felt that at the very least, it would be fantastic to meet someone local who spoke my language (both English and foodie!) and could offer further recommendations.  Little did I know my luck would have me meet Emma Mantovani.  She lived just a couple of doors up the (steep) hill and ended up being the person who checked us in as our hosts were called away to England at the last minute.

I booked a 4 hour cooking class and dinner for two with Emma and she very kindly invited the children to come along too and swim in her pool before-hand.  She asked which meat I preferred and I picked pork, but apart from this, I left it all up to her! My afternoon of cooking with Emma started with a surprise visit to a local biodynamic farm to pick up supplies for our evening meal.  It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, a passionate, young farmer fighting against nature and the elements and no doubt her own will, to produce biodynamic vegetables and herbs.  I’m no expert on this type of farming, but I’ve come to understand that very few farmers attempt this approach because the results are so unpredictable which means earning a living from this passion is almost impossible.  However, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie, who is qualified in viniculture and has used her agricultural knowledge to set up her own farm with her boyfriend (I noticed she had family members helping in the fields too!).  She explained to me that it’s a cut above organic and involves the use of many complimentary planting techniques, feeding the plants nutrition from fermented organic matter and the use of spiders and other creepy crawlies to keep away those insects that hinder a successful crop.  She walked me through rows of eggplants, basil, celery, potatoes, onions, zucchinis, tomatoes, cabbages, shallots, garlic, asparagus, carrots and capsicums, and pointed out many failed crops along the way.  This year it is mostly due to the searing heat that swept through France and Italy in June and early July.
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Nonetheless, we left Nathalie with a big, brown paper bag full of zucchinis and their flowers, garlic and basil that had just been picked.  As we drove off up the hill on the rugged dirt track, the echos of many “ciao’s” could be heard behind us.  It felt as if we were leaving another world behind in the valley between two giant hills.
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Back at Emma’s, I was presented with the evening’s menu and my tummy started to growl!  Despite the four courses, the offering was simple, fresh and oh so Italian:

Appetiser: Terrine of Ricotta and Carrot with a Pesto Sauce and Schiacciata all’olio (Foccacia)

First Course: Fresh Pasta with Zucchini Sauce

Second Course: Pork Tenderloin Crusted with Aromatic Herbs

Dessert: Apple and Pine Nut Cake
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As we tackled the baking first to allow plenty of time for proving, I couldn’t help but notice Emma’s classic old school Salter scales.  It made me feel like a pro at the outset! The cake went into the oven to cook first and we paused around 6pm for a glass of Lapillo Amiata 2010, which uses Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese grapes.  It went down very easily with a few slices of Pecorino from Sardinia.  I relaxed into casual chatter with Emma and discovered a little about her life around food.
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She essentially grew up in a family restaurant where she made sure she worked hard to progress from washing dishes, to instead cooking with her aunt, as quickly as possible.  Emma went on to run a bistro in Florence for years and opened an Artisan Chocolate Shop before most people knew and understood the difference between industrially produced chocolate and that of an artisan chocolatier.  All her life she has been sharing her passion for food in one way or another.  These days, she lives in one end of her large home with husband, Giancarlo, and rents out the other end as a 3 bedroom, self-catering B&B.  She is kept busy during the summer months with cooking classes in her own kitchen, using as many herbs and vegies as she can from her own backyard.

I was sent out to the herb garden with instructions to pick sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano for the pork and stood dumb-founded by the views at sunset.  Her backyard is an ideal platform to take in the panoramic views of the Tuscan hills.  I stopped by at the pool for a quick chat with my hubby and kids who had come to join us for dinner, before heading back in to start on the fresh pasta for first course.
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Whilst Emma takes food very seriously, I felt as though I was just hanging out in the kitchen watching my Italian Nonna cook the evening meal.  She has an ease about her that makes you realise that sometimes the glamour and hype over food as a trend, means you lose the true meaning of what it means to really enjoy food.  “You need patience and love to cook well” she told me.  I couldn’t help but smile and think how similar it is to life itself – patience and love with people goes a long way too. It was obvious she had passed on her love of food to Matteo, her 33 year old son.  He was visiting to help with their 600-tree olive farm and was called into the kitchen at about 9pm, challenged to a “rolling pin versus machine” race to prepare the pasta.  He produced his Grandmother’s pasta machine that was purchased in 1967 and got straight to it, chatting enthusiastically with me about how simple food is and how important it is to forget about chasing “the perfect dish” … “because it doesn’t exist” he tells me quite frankly.  Of course it doesn’t.  I agreed with him that chef-reality shows do nothing to encourage ordinary folk to get acquainted with their kitchens.  In fact, it intimidates them into thinking they could never cook dishes that look like Michelin starred centrepieces, so why bother?

By the way, Emma won the competition – the woman is twice my age and I couldn’t keep up rolling that dough at the pace she kept.  I now look at food preparation in a new light – as part of a potential fitness regime!  Matteo did well with the machine but shared the task around with me and the kids which no doubt slowed him up a bit.
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I couldn’t help but ask Emma about the Thermomix I am so fond of.  I was sure she would know of it – it’s a European appliance afterall.  She didn’t let on that she knew of it and all I know is that after that conversation, she decided we would cut everything by hand!  I couldn’t help but respect her even more for pushing me into a “back to basics” style of cooking to help me understand the work that traditionally goes into preparing a family Italian feast.  I’m guessing the certificate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris on the wall may have had something to do with her purist intent as well.
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Despite all this, she produced her blender at the last minute to make the pesto.  She seemed oblivious to my squeals of delight at her original Vorwerk “Bibby 300” from the 1970s … obviously the precursor to the Thermomix we know and love today.  Still in perfect working order but not something she uses often, she assured me.  I could tell – I could see the muscle definition in her forearms!

By 11pm, we were ready to sit down for the appetiser.  The whole family had been involved somehow in the preparation and Giancarlo shared with me, over dinner in the garden, his belief that food is an important part of life and should be something that families take time to do together and share with others.  I could see his genuine concern that this was a dying art.  You see, food and sharing is not only a business for this family but also a way of life.  They meet people from all over the world who come and stay in their little patch of Tuscan paradise.  I have no doubt they all leave richer for having had the experience of sitting down for a meal with the Mantovani family.
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The following three courses were devoured in time and before each one, I was summoned to the kitchen to help Emma present each dish, and picked up little tips here and there that I can now pass on to you. I am a garlic lover and I can never seem to put in too much for my liking.  To me, there’s just no point adding one or two cloves to a casserole.  “Simple!” Emma tells me. “Just add two in the beginning and two just before you serve it.” Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?  Sometimes we get so used to cooking a certain way that a class now and then can really freshen up your thinking and remind you how simple and easy cooking should be.

I was pleased to see Emma wrestling with the fresh pasta and sauce in the pan … I thought it was just me who ended up with all the sauce on the bottom!  She simply served the whole pan to the table and reminded everyone as they helped themselves to dig for the best part … the taste of the biodynamic zucchinis was crisp and flavoursome and the mint that Emma added at the last minute gave the whole dish a fresh twist for summer.   Again, this simple sauce had just four main ingredients but offered up enough flavour to be a stand-alone meal.
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The pork tenderloin will go down in my recipe book as a fabulous cheat dish for entertaining.  We cooked it an hour in advance by simply rolling the fillet in the mix of herbs (I learned all about juniper berries during the marathon chopping task) and searing it in a pan, adding the leftover herbs to form the base of the sauce.  White wine was the only other ingredient together with the meat juices and the sauce was reheated just before serving.  A brilliant way to serve meat hot without having to cook it all while your guests are waiting. The apple cake was moist and caramelised and served with Matteo’s home-made vanilla ice cream (the remaining four slices travelled with us to Lake Como the next day and were enjoyed for supper!).  We rolled down the hill well after midnight with tired kiddies and content tummies.
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Emma is one of those unique humans that can empower you without inflating your ego.  Her no-nonsense attitude and relaxed demeanour meant I walked away feeling inspired.  She made me feel like I had a responsibility to remind others how important good food and simple cooking is to families.  That fresh, locally grown produce is always best and worth the extra effort to source.  But above all, it reminded me that a basic investment of time and love in preparing food and sharing it with family and friends, will always pay life-long dividends.
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If you’re ever travelling to Italy, I can highly recommend Tuscany.  We stayed at Casa Magnolia (we contacted our host Charly via Airbnb.com).  Emma and Giancarlo’s B&B is called “Casa Pietraia”. If you love cooking as I do, contact Emma in advance to book in a cooking class.  She can be contacted on emmamant@tin.it.  Tell her I said “ciao!”