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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Is there any better reason for Christmas leftovers?

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Cailler Chocolate Factory

In my Payerne post I dropped a comment that we were to visit a Swiss chocolate factory, but wrote nothing more. I thought that such a note-worthy, life-changing experience deserved its own post, of course...
I'd been looking forward to this for months, ever since I discovered the location of Payerne, and did lots of internet research. I wrote emails to our contact about how best we could fit in a visit on the way, and polled group members about who was interested in visiting, I even had an argument with the tour committee about whether we should go or not (amazingly there are people in this world who don't like chocolate, and don't think anyone should either. Geez, even if you don't want to eat the chocolate, it's part of the local history and culture!), which resulted in splinter faction group of aspiring chocolate factory visitors devising plans to sweet talk our bus driver into making an unscheduled detour!
In the end our hosts included a visit in our list of official activities. Those who didn't want to go could check out the Roman ruins. Ruins - bah! We saw ruins in Rome! ;-)

The Cailler chocolate factory is about 45 minutes from Payerne, in the town of Broc - very close to the town of Gruyeres, where the cheese is from. It's part of the Nestle stable of companies, based in nearby Vevey, and after we'd arrived, a few people saw the Nestle sign and complained "you mean, we travelled all this way just to eat Nestle chocolate??!" Nestle brand chocolates in Australia are really nothing special. Cailler has nothing to do with that. It has always been a smaller-scale manufacturer that was bought out by Nestle sometime in the past. Apparently only 40% of its production is exported, so it's not very well known outside Switzerland, adding to its allure for me. Unique presents for people back home!

We were running to a tight schedule without time to spare that afternoon, and I had read many accounts of the delights of the tasting room. I'd heard rumours of all-you-can-eat Swiss chocolate. I looked at my watch and tapped my foot at the laggers straggling off the bus. We were given a guide and taken on a tour, which I'm sure would have been more interesting if I hadn't been looking at my watch and tapping my feet. Tasting room, people! Get a move on. Stop asking stupid questions! Yes, yes, precision equipment, yes, yes, proud and noble history of chocolate making, yep, discovery of crushed hazelnuts, no, you don't want to watch the video of historical production techniques, c'mon people, MOVE IT, MOVE IT!!!
I was told later that each time my friends looked for me I was standing the near the exit door looked pained.
Here's a token photo I took before the tasting room. Yes, it's a giant lump of cocoa butter. It's FAT, people. Solid FAT. We could taste bits if we wanted (yes, I want!) and it was not nice. Like scraping your fingernail through lard. We were told that white chocolate is made entirely of this cocoa butter, therefore when you are eating white chocolate, you are essentially eating solid fat. This was imparted to us in a very dispassionate way, but the looks of horror on peoples' faces was priceless.

Here's a lump of solid fat cocoa butter floating in a bucket of cocoa beans. Not for any real purpose. We could also taste the cocoa beans, and they really didn't taste very nice! Turning those beans into the chocolate we eat was a huge process of discovery. Pity I didn't sit and reflect on this magnificence because I was standing by the exit door tapping my foot....

And here we are. It was like walking into dreamland. Into every childs' Willy Wonka dream. Row and rows of chocolate there for you to grab and stuff into your mouth. I was off and at it before the guide even got into the room to give us the low-down, standing in front of me. I tried to looked innocent and smile wihout opening my lips and revealing chocolate stained teeth, nodding my head in sympathy when she described bus loads of people who stuff chocolate into their pockets and run away. Oh! I'd never thought of doing that! (damn). Yes, we could eat as much as we wanted, and we could stay as long as we wanted; they would even set up a camp bed in the room if we wanted (ooh, really? Where do you keep it?), but we were not allowed to take any away with us. They also told us there was absolutely no expectation on us that we would buy anything, which of course made me decide I would.
We only had about 10 minutes, so we were OFF!

On these tables is an example of every type of chocolate Cailler makes, except for the blocks. Each tray carried examples of a certain product or line. Go for it, people!

This selection is known as Femina. They were soft pralines - more nougat than chocolate. I liked these, but I'm not so Femina. I like a bit more dark chocolate and more chunks. I was interested to learn that the Swiss prefer milk chocolate over the bitterness of dark, which is why Swiss milk chocolate is so good. Also, you can only be guaranteed of the chocolate using real milk and cream (no powdered stuff) when you buy Swiss or Belgian chocolate.

These were the Ambassador range. I bought a box of these to bring home, which I posted from London 10 weeks ago, and still haven't received. I hate to think of the condition they'll be in when I get them. This selection had the most amazing flavour I tried - a dark chocolate filled with burnt caramel. Really burnt. It was incredible - I kept going back for more. I recommended it to a friend who immediately spat it into the bin. Evidently strong flavours like that aren't to everybody's taste!

Plain chocolate square which got rather overlooked in the shadow of everything else.
In 10-15 minutes we all ate FAR TOO MUCH chocolate. I can't say I was surprised. We all walked out of the room feeling a bit green and queasy, but what an amazing experience it was! Let loose in the shop, we all stocked up - and found some really interesting blocks with flavourings of green tea, black pepper, orange and cocoa nibs etc. I'd report on those but they're sitting on a ship somewhere in the Indian ocean!!

The view walking out of the factory back to the bus. Picture perfect, n'est-ce-pas?


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dutch Almond Christmas Ring

This is another thing I tasted at one of the baking demonstration classes I sometimes attend. In this case, the description didn't appeal, but the samples handed around certainly did! Also, I'm a fan of traditional European Christmas foods, so that was another pulling point for me.
It's a sweet shortcrust pastry case with a soft filling made of ground almonds, lemon and glace cherries, topped with toasted flaked almonds and lemon icing. I took this one to a function, so don't have any cross-section images, but because I used natural almond meal (ie ground with skins on) it looked kind of like a sausage roll! I have always hated glace cherries, but the ones I bought from the shop are something else altogether. They're more jellied than chewy, and adding them to the filling worked really well. I think I've come around. Although, if you really can't stand them, you can use dried apricots or even those soft raspberry lollies ('though our teacher was not entirely approving!)
I really liked this, and am considering making another for Christmas day. It's not too hard, but there are a couple of steps involved, including making the filling 24 hours in advance. The fact it's non traditional-British will appeal to certain members of my family, who are not big fans of Christmas cake or anything with dried fruit or mixed peel. This is something a bit different, and apparently you can make it into smaller, individual portions if you're looking to give somebody a home-made foodie gift.
If you're looking for something a bit different, I highly recommend it.
Read on for the recipe:
Dutch Almond Christmas Ring (Kerskrans)
Makes 1 large ring or 8 rolls.

200g ground almonds (almond meal)
pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 cup caster sugar
zest 2 lemons
Mix all ingredients together, cover bowl in plastic wrap and place in fridge for 24 hours.
185g plain flour
2 tablespoons caster sugar
25-30mls cold water
pinch salt
125g butter, chilled and grated (like grating cheese)
Mix flour, salt and sugar in food processor. Add butter, process until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add water very slowly as you process until pastry form a ball. Tip pastry onto lightly floured work surface, flatten dough into rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and place in fridge for 30 minutes.
Extra ingredients:
60g glace cherries, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon lemon juice
flaked almonds
Icing sugar

To make ring:
1: Roll filling into a long sausage shape (approx. 60 cm). Set aside.
2: Roll pastry out into a long rectangle measuring approx 60cm x 10cm, trim edges straight.
3: Place the filling along centre of pastry, press chopped cherries into filling sausage.
4: Lightly brush dough with water, wrap over filling. Place pastry (seam side down) onto flat, greased tray. Form into ring joining ends, brush pastry with egg, sprinkle with almonds. Cover with plastic wrap, place in fridge for 15 minutes.
5: Preheat oven Fan forced 180C/ Gas/Elec 200C. Cook for 20-25 minutes until golden.
6: When cool, add lemon juice to icing sugar and drizzle over ring. Decorate with more flaked almonds or chopped cherries, if desired.
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Payerne was the beginning of our Festival Of Cheese. And chocolate. Belinda said she was going to write a book about how to lose weight with cheese and chocolate. Using the choir as a test case. If our cholesterol wasn't higher by the end of our Swiss week, then I'll eat another fondue.
Payerne is in western French-speaking Switzerland. We drove past Montreux and near Lausanne to get there. It's a tiny little place of non-importance, set in the picturesque Broye valley. This is not the Switzerland of mountains. This is the Switzerland of rolling pastures and dairy cattle supplying the milk to the many chocolate and cheese factories around the place. Check out that scenery - can't you just imagine the milk the cows eating that grass would make?!

11th century Payerne abbey
We were hosted by members of a local choir, who were the sweetest people. They ranged from school teachers to farmers, and those of us who weren't billeted with families in town, stayed on working dairy farms, supplying the milk to the chocolate factories! In that part of Switzerland English is not so widely spoken, so most of us got to try out our high-school French vocab. Being hosted gives you such a wonderful opportunity to really absorb the local culture and make new friends, and our time in Payerne was a definitely a highlight of the tour.

There's not a lot in Payerne, but it does have an amazing 11th century abbey, and Roman ruins. Our hosts organised our time, and we started the day touring the abbey and hearing to an organ recital. I kept touching the stones trying to absorb the fact that they'd been there 900 years.

To relax after the recital they took us to the town council wine cellars (do we have those in Australia?!!) for a pre-lunch wine-tasting. Nothing like wine at 11am! My memory is a bit hazy (!) but I believe the wine was local, Broye-valley Swiss wine. Property of the town council. A nice way to start lunch!

Lunch next, in the nearby town of Grand Cours. In the hall of the local primary school, actually. Built 1903, so an atmospheric hall! We walked through another set of winding medieval Swiss streets to get there. Yawn. Yeah, just another set of beautiful medieval Swiss streets....

We had been told we'd be having "some cheese" for lunch. "Some" was an understatement. Having already had cheese for dinner and breakfast, we were in for a lunch of melted cheese. On potatoes. Otherwise known as Raclette. It was very cool! There were long tables set up with many raclette machines, for us to make our own melted cheese. Basically they worked like mini grills. You placed your pre-sliced piece of raclette cheese into the little shovel thing, and placed it under the grill until it melted and then you poured it over your potatoes. Like so....:

Mmmmmm......melty cheese!
Raclette cheese is naturally waxy, and not so nice to eat when cold. It's made to be melted, and it does so really quickly. And we had token greenery too. To offset the fattiness, we had bowls of little pickled gherkins and onions to eat with it, which was actually really appreciated. Just melted cheese on potatoes could get a bit much....

They also gave us local bacon, and in great act-now, ask-later Aussie style we chucked them on top of the machine to grill, like we were making breakfast. We made pretty serious messes on the grill top, before we were told the the bacon usually just gets added to the cheese in the shovels underneath. Oops...
(Belinda took that bacon shot - I really like it)

So, here's a plate of the finished Raclette product. Melted cheese poured over steamed potatoes, alongside a pile of bacon and a few pickles. Knowing we were going to visit a chocolate factory after lunch didn't make us eat any more lightly, to be honest. A light, healthy lunch - not really. Fun - definitely!

After our concert that night the choir members put on a supper for us, in the same school hall, bringing along local specialities they made themselves. Apparently the local food of the Broye valley is The Tart. It was a Tart-a-Palooza! Tarts with onion, tarts with cheese, tarts with bacon, tarts with plums, berry tarts, tarts, TARTS, TARTS!
Beautiful tarts of course, and a lovely atmosphere. Especially when our hosts suddenly broke into local folksongs for us. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house...

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Low fat egg nog cake

Yeah, back on the low-fat delights again. And it's definitely Christmas. I can tell because there's about 3,000 people outside out house, checking out the lights on the street where I live, preventing me from getting home after rehearsal. Aiee! Yes, it's Christmas again.

I thought this cake was another success from Alice Medrich's Chocolate and the art of low-fat desserts, from which I've made a few things. And if you're looking to make something for a Christmas function, but hoping not to totally blow out the calories, this is a suggestion.
It's just a variation of her basic pound cake recipe, adding fresh grated nutmeg, a liquor soak of brandy and rum and an alcoholic glaze.
If you haven't made an Alice Medrich low-fat recipe before, here's a tip: she's totally pedantic and tedious. You'll end up with 4 bowls around the benches and going crazy wondering whether the last blend was on fast or medium speed, muttering to yourself about insufferably bossy recipes. She's a perfectionist, and with low-fat recipes like hers, I guess you need to be. Just be prepared. This is no just-add-water cake mix!
She notes that this cake is slightly moister the next day. I can't vouch for that as we ate it a few hours after baking, but I think she'd be right. It was still a bit dense and a tad dry; the liquor soak was appreciated. But if you're organised, do make it before hand (and then do leave me a comment letting me know if she was right).
PS - Don't use pre-grated nutmeg. That's missing the point! Whole nutmegs are on the same shelves as the other ground spices at the supermarket. Get some of those.
Read on for the recipe:

Low Fat Egg Nog Pound Cake
from Alice Medrich's "Chocolate and the art of low-fat desserts" (out of print)

1 1/2 cups sifted plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 bicarb of soda
3/8 teaspoon salt (I use a pinch)
1 egg
2 egg whites
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (70 grams)
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Liquor soak:
3 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons dark rum
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup icing sugar
1 tablespoon brandy
1 tablespoon rum

Serves 10-12. Best if baked 1 day before serving
1: Preheat oven to 325F (170C). Spray 5-cup loaf pan, or 5-6 cup Bundt pan.
2: Whisk to combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift together. Set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the whole egg with the egg whites. Set aside. Combine the vanilla and buttermilk. Set aside.
3: Cut the butter into chunks and place in an electric mixer bowl. Beat to soften, about 1 minutes. Add sugar and nutmeg gradually, beating constantly for about 3 minutes. Gradually dribble beaten eggs into sugar/nutmeg mixture, beating a medium-high speed for 2-3 minutes. On low speed, beat in a third of the flour mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary. On medium-high speed, gradually dribble in half of the buttermilk mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary. On low speed, beatin half the remaining flour. On medium-high speed, beat in the rest of the buttermilk, always scraping the bowl as necessary. On low speed, beat in the remaining flour mixture until well combined. Batter may look slightly curdled; this is OK.
4: Scrape batter into pan and bake until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, the top is golden, and a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. In a tube pan the cake will bake in 35-40 minutes; in a loaf pan, 65-70 minutes.
5: While cake is baking, prepare liquor soak: Simmer brandy and rum with sugar for 2 minutes. Set aside to cool. Also prepare a glaze: combine icing sugar with the brandy and rum.
6: Cool cake for 10-15 minutes on a rack over a plate to catch drips. If using a tube pan, run a knife around the tube if necessary to release cake. Invert the pan and unmold to cool completely.
7: Plunge a skewer into the cake all over. Spoon the soaking liquid slowly over the cake. Remove the plate from beneath the rack and collect the excess liquid. Replace plate under rack and spoon the liquid over the cake again. Repeat as often as necessary until all syrup has soaked into the cake. Brush the glaze over the top and sides and centre core of cake. Cool cake completely before storing or serving. Cake is slightly moister the next day.

Calories per serving: 171
Fat: 5.44g
% calories from fat: 28%
Protein: 2.96g
Carbohydrates: 28g
Cholesterol: 30.9 mg.
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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Unusual Lindt flavours for Christmas

This is a good one: Cinnamon and coriander. Interesting. Unusual! Seasonally flavoured things seem to be all the go in Europe. Even though I was in Dresden in mid-October, the Christmas spirit was getting into full swing. One day I noticed workers putting up the street decorations for the Christmas markets. Pretty funny, as it was a sunny 24 degrees that day, and I felt like I was back in Australia!
To get to my hotel I had to walk through the main train station - so clean I thought armies of mop-wielding robots were hiding in cupboards - and past a great snack shop, which had a WALL of Ritter Sport chocolate and a WALL of Lindt - in weird and wonderful flavours. We get nothing weird in Australia. Intense Orange is about as unusual as we get. Yawn and bah!
I'm all about the Lindt flavours, and the woman got to know me pretty quickly as the weirdo girl who couldn't speak German and kept buying truckloads of chocolate blocks. They had everything from Intense Pear, to Espresso, to Passionfruit Yoghurt to Strawberry Pannacotta. The Christmas flavours got me though: I tried Lindt cinnamon and coriander chocolate toffee-coated macadamia nuts and caramel apple Lindt balls. Hello - CARAMEL APPLE LINDT BALLS!!!!! Can you GET any better than that?? Why don't we get caramel apple Lindt balls in Australia??! C'mon Lindt management - give us the good stuff. Surely the Australian palate isn't so parochial and nervous. Have some trust in our sense of adventure! At least try some seasonal flavours on us eager chocolate eaters.
Yeah, so none of those caramel apple balls made it back past Prague and I ate the entire bag in one sitting. Yeah, so what?!? But this bar has made it, and is my last block of chocolate from the many I bought back - including the 5 Green & Black's blocks I bought at mega-cheap prices in Wales. Is that stuff amazing, or what!!
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Cherry Clafouti

It's cherry season here now, and incredibly, despite the crazy weather we've had in the past month, from frost and snow to 42 degree scorchers, the cherry harvest has managed to be a bumper one. My grandmother went on an excursion with her old Italian pensioner group to a cherry farm and came home with kilos of the things (I can't wait until I'm retired and can go on pensioner excursions!).
There are a few things you can do with a huge bowl of cherries, besides just eating them, but I was looking for something quick, and cherry clafouti is one of the quickest things. It's basically a sweet batter pudding studded with fruit. The point of using cherries is that the juices explode in your mouth as you bite into them, so you musn't stone the fruit. But you might want to inform your guests of that! I heard a sickening crunch from somebody who missed that announcement...
Not stoning the cherries means the whole thing takes about 5 minutes to make. I used a recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook, but despite the fact I love Hugh and his shows, and find him a bit sexy, I didn't much like his clafouti recipe. The batter came out really stodgy and heavy, rather than the light, pancakey texture I'd wanted. His recipe uses 3 eggs, and mine were very big, so maybe I should have cut down on one? Maybe I shouldn't have blended it so thoroughly (although he even recommends the use of a food processor). Perhaps it just needs a little leavning, such as baking powder??
He's right though, in that it's best served lukewarm or cold, not straight out of the oven. Good if you need to make something to be served later.

NB - Belinda took these photos, as my camera is away being fixed after it exploded in the chocolate factory in Switzerland! Apparently it will take a month to get back, so I've since borrowed one from a friend. Thanks Belinda!
Read on for the recipe:

Cherry Clafouti
Slightly varied from "The River Cottage Cookbook", Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Butter or cooking spray for greasing
450g black or red cherries, washed but unstoned
75g caster sugar
125g plain flour
a pinch of salt
3 eggs, lightly beaten
300ml milk
a splash of vanilla essence
flaked almonds
icing sugar for dusting *
*A 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder might work wonders on the batter.
*A few drops of almond essence could work well also

Preheat oven to 180C. Lightly grease a 25cm-diameter round or tin baking dish, or a rectangular one of similar size. Remove the stalks from the cherries but do not stone them. Toss them with a third of the sugar and spread them in a single layer in the dish.
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the remaining sugar. Mix well, drawing in the flour from the sides, then beat in the milk and vanilla, a little at a time, until you have a smooth batter (you can use a food processor for this). Pour over the cherries, and add a handful of the flaked almonds over the top. Bake for about 35 minutes, until lightly browned and puffed up like a Yorkshire pudding.
Best eaten lukewarm, or cold. Dust with icing sugar just before serving plain or with cream.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Salmon & noodles with mirin dressing....dinner in 15 minutes

I've finally got around to reading the December issue of Donna Hay magazine. It only arrived about 3 weeks ago, and it's not like I have many other pressing concerns stopping me from reading it! But while lazing about in the swimming pool a few days ago, Donna Hay in my wet hands, I noticed a '10 meals in 10 minutes' section about noodles. I don't eat a lot of noodles or pasta, but I do make an exception for soba noodles, which are made primarily of buckwheat (well, should be all buckwheat, but we're talking the ones you buy in supermarkets here!).
I also like salmon and am trying to eat more of it, in place of the red meat I love. It's so easy to throw a steak on the grill, with a few veggies or salad and have dinner ready in 10 minutes. Much quicker than pasta! This meal promised to be ready in 10 minutes, and featured Japanese flavours and salmon; all good things, especially in this sunny Melbourne summer.
It was a quick meal; probably more 15 minutes than 10, and I was very impressed. I made a few changes, in typical style:
-Didn't have soba noodles, but had something similar called 'multigrain noodles'. They also cook very quickly and have similar texture. They had them in the local Asian grocery and I was curious. They're good, but soba are better.
-I doubled the amount of sesame seeds, and toasted them for a minute or so. I wouldn't usually bother doing that, but now realise the difference it makes. Yum!
-Didn't bother taking off the salmon skin, cos I love it. Yes, it makes it fattier, but it's the fish equivalent of pork cracking! Mmmm.....pork crackling...
-Going to the cupboards for mirin, I discovered the bottle I had was no longer there. Hmmmm. Did a bit of Googling, and discovered a substitute for mirin is sake mixed with sugar. I thought that worked really well; for the 4 tablespoons of mirin in the recipe, I used 4 tablespoons of sake and 1.5 tablespoons caster sugar. I'd reduce that to 1 tablespoon in the future, but I don't like things too sweet.

Tastewise, this has a great combination of sweet, tangy and salty. I prefer salt to sweet, so would skew things in that direction a bit more next time. I'd also take my salmon off the grill earlier. I tend to undercook or overcook salmon; one day I'll get it right!!
Don't be tempted to skip the pickled ginger; it really makes the dish. My packet cost about $2 from a random Asian grocery store in Preston. It's easy stuff to find.
Read on for the recipe:

Salmon & soba noodles with mirin dressing
Enough for 2 (or 1 dinner, one lunch for work)

300g (10 oz) dried soba noodles
vegetable oil for brushing
2 x 150g salmon fillets, skin removed (I used 1 large fillet, skin on)
1/4 cup coriander (cilantro) leaves
salt & cracked pepper
Mirin dressing:
2-3 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
2 teaspoons chopped pickled ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons mirin
salt & cracked pepper

Mirin dressing: Place sesame seeds, ginger, soy, lemon, mirin, salt & pepper in a bowl and stir to combine. Set aside;

Place noodles in a medium saucepan of boiling water and cook until ready. Soba noodles are quick, and should take about 3-5 minutes. Drain and set aside;
Brush the salmon with oil and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Heat a medium saucepan and cook salmon to your liking;
Place the noodles and half the mirin dressing in a bowl and toss to coat. Divide the noodles between bowls and top with the salmon, coriander and remainder of the dressing to serve.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Locarno, Switzerland

View of Madonna del Sasso church and the town of Locarno in the Swiss lakes district.
Our first stop in Switzerland was in the south, in the region called Ticino; Tessin in German. Looking at a map, Ticino is a little blip that extends south into Italy and seems unusually out of place; and historically the area was Italian, but it's been under Swiss rule now for hundreds of years. I love the way the locals have retained their Italianness; it's rare to hear any French or German spoken, unless by visitors from the other cantons.
To all intents and purposes it is Italian: they speak Italian, the climate is Mediterranean, it produces good wine, there's spaghetti and pizza on the menus and excellent gelati shops. However, it also has the neatness and order of the Swiss, a few more German and French signs and the cost of living of the Swiss. So, to us, even though we'd crossed a border it felt like we were still in Italy - until we saw the prices. Suddenly everything was 3 times more expensive. Welcome to Switzerland!

The city of Locarno is perfectly situated on a lake (part of the Italian & Swiss lakes district). Our original intent was to stay in Como and look for George Clooney but...helloooo expensive accommodation! Next idea was Lugano just over the Swiss border, but that was booked out. 3rd choice was Locarno and I'm so pleased that it came through as it was definitely a highlight of the trip. Half the town is built up the mountains nearby, and the other part along the lakeside. It has everything; beautiful old buildings, cobbled alleyways, a large piazza (home to the International Film Festival), yachting, a funicular and cable cars up the mountain. And a casino....where we didn't spend any time!

We went for a movie-star walk by the yachts in the lake at sunset and decided to shell out for a nice dinner at a hotel by the lakeside, rationalising that we were being billeted for the next few days and we wouldn't be paying for meals. After quickly eliminating lamb from our choices (do we want to take out a bank loan?!) we noticed that a local speciality seemed to be rotisserie chicken. Served either with french fries or risotto Milanese (!). Compared to what we'd just come from the dinner seemed pricey, but the food was spectacular and the view of the twinkling lights across the lake and into the mountains was beautiful.

Poultry for sale in a butchers. Heads and feathers intact. Pluck your own...hmmm!

Latest Swiss fashions. You really don't want to know the price....

We found an excellent chocolate shop near the entry to the funicular up to the Madonna del Sasso church. I think it was called Attuale, and I think it was a chain. I'm sure I saw one in Bern...or maybe Luzern. You could buy bags of mixed-flavour offcuts, which is great for somebody like me who can't make a decision and wants to try everything. The chocolate was excellent, as you'd expect from Swiss chocolate. Wish we had chains like this in Melbourne!
Belinda bought a slab of curry chocolate to hand around the bus, which grossed everybody out until they tried it. Milk chocolate with curry seeds sprinkled on top; surprisingly very good!

Piles of chocolate truffles from the same shop.

Market, main town square
I don't know if the local market in the main town square is a weekly event, but we happened to come across it in the morning, and spent some time wandering around. They had the usual trinkets, but the food was where it stood out. We tried everything from pastries, to cheese, to deep fried little fish from the lake to.....

...horsemeat salami. Mmmmm! Well, come on, I HAD to try it!! I knew it would scare people, but horsemeat is still eaten regularly throughout Italy and I wanted to have a taste. And, yeah, I was probably taking my health in my hands by buying unrefrigerated horse sausage covered in flies from a open air stand on a hot day, but I just peeled off the white layer -although I did first wonder if I was supposed to eat it- and took a bite. It wasn't bad at all...maybe a little hairy (OK, you didn't want to know that, did you?). It had a very rich, spicy flavour and felt quite fatty. Although it was small it was too much to eat, and after a few bites, mine sat in the back pocket of my bus seat for a few days while I forgot about it. Yeah, you don't want to know what it looked like a week later.....

A more palatable street-side purchase from a patisserie stand. My friend loves all things chestnut, and this little Mont Blanc cake made with chestnut puree was her dream (no warm horsemeat salami for her...) You even get a bonus view of the garish-coloured seats on our Italian bus - wow. This place was a chain and operated from a stand on the footpath. How I wish we had such a culture in Australia!
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On the way from Tuscany to Switzerland we stopped for lunch in Parma to check out the cheese. Witness the big Parmesan cheese on display on the street into the old part of town. I've edited out my friend posing beside it in a Homer Simpson drool. Mmm...big parmesan cheese.

Parma was bizarre. It was a weekday lunchtime but the whole town was completely dead! We only had about 90 minutes, so after a fairly mediocre pasta lunch (bit disappointing, that), we wandered around the streets. The Duomo was closed for lunch and there wasn't a single soul in the square or neighbouring streets. It was freaky, like a nuclear bomb had exploded and taken the entire Parma population with it. In reality, everybody was probably home having lunch and a siesta, but it gave a strange, other-worldly feel to the place. We also discovered it's possible to wander Parma without a map, and still find your way back to the bus.

Despite the fairly mediocre pasta from the cafe near the Duomo, they did a pretty good insalata caprese: tomato, mozarella, olive oil and herbs. Every example of this I tried in Italy was good; their tomatoes are just so much better than what we get here. It's hard to go back to lacklustre tomatoes now, and I do know at least one person who has switched to the expensive, vine-ripened variety since his return, even though it's causing pain in his hip pocket.
Some discussion on herbs: I know some of us were disappointed when the insalate came with dried oregano rather than fresh basil, but I think it's pretty standard. I've had it with dried herbs made by Italian relatives, so I don't think it necessarily means it's a more low-rent version (although in this cafe, it probably was!).

One of our friends decided to wander the local market instead of sitting down for lunch, and found a stall with interesting antipasti being made into rolls. Having had more than her share of bread and cheese in the past few days she waved her arms around and managed to indicate she just wanted fillings, not bread. Her point came across and she said it was one of the best lunches she had on the whole trip. Wish I'd joined her! Check out the other local food speciality: Parma ham. Ooooh yum.

Back on the bus, a few people who decided to sight-see rather than sit down for lunch had a picnic enroute. One guy had bought a container of local parmesan he passed around the bus. I took the shot with my phone to send to envious friends ('I'm in the Italian countryside enjoying local parmesan...such are the travails of my life...') as part of my series of SMS photos of European cheeses...
It was excellent cheese. The guy with the shirt sleeve took out his pocket knife and cut up a few local apples to eat with it. Perfect combination.

Confectionary garnering the most comment on the trip. The baboon's bum cake. Apparently a local Parma speciality that unfortunately resembled the genitalia of an ape. We all took bites of this, and naturally in totally mature, grown up style, have a series of 'bum eating' photos.
It was as sweet and garish as it looked. I have no memory of anybody volunteering to finish it!

Unusual soft-drink of the day: Fanta Chinotto flavour. I'm told it was very good. I love seeing examples of local tastes needing to be represented by multi-national companies. Can't see that Fanta marketing that bitter taste to the Americans!


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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


So, whereas I didn't have the most wonderful time in Florence, I had the opposite experience in Siena. Love it. Interesting, as the day we went was cool, grey and occasionally pouring down with rain. Plus we had to make our own way by the country bus services with drivers who yell at you (I'm Italian, I yell back) and with a lengthy stopover in the highly crapola town of Poggibonsi; a town as alluring as a homeless man's dribbly shirt. Lovely, helpful staff in the tourist office too...ahem! No clothes washing facilities in the town either, though the espresso was good at the bus station cafe!

But, Siena, when we finally got there, was gorgeous. I know it's a bit fashionable these days to rubbish Florence and prefer Siena (especially to people who only visit Florence), but it is the way I feel, and shared by many others in our group. For one thing, there was a total lack of African-immigrant-sidewalk-fake-handbag-sellers, which made it more relaxing straight away. But, also the winding, cobbled medieval streets rising uphill from the huge main square (the Campo, where the horse race is held twice a year) are perfect to wander through, and inevitable get lost in. We spent a bit on phone calls that day trying to locate which alley people had turned down, and eventually decided it was too hard to get everybody together for lunch, so my friend and I finally re-found the place I had had spotted an hour ago, and had been searching for since. All I can tell you is that it was in a small square near the Campo, on the way to the church where St Catherine's shrivelled head and dessicated thumb are preserved! (lovely pre-lunch viewing). And it was called Renzo, and run by quite rude people. We had to fight for a table from the nazi waitress woman who didn't want to serve people, while the locals rolled their eyes and whispered to us that they only come here for the food.

I was really keen to try some local specialities, and had heard about a local soup called 'ribollita' (i.e. reboiled). It's a thick soup full of vegetables, beans and bread. My friend decided to order it, feeling decidedly in need of vegetables, after a few days of cheese & salami feasts. She really enjoyed this hearty soup, but felt it needed to cook a bit longer to get the flavours really happening; it needed salt.

I ordered a wild boar stew, with vegetables and black olives. The olives tasted like not much, sadly. Like the black washers you get on pizzas. The meat was very interesting. I'd not tasted wild boar before, and imagined it would be really strong and gamey. Not at all; I could really taste that it was from the pig family, and it was just a little more strongly flavoured than chunks of pork. I tried wild boar several times afterwards, in Switzerland and the UK and each time the muted flavour was the same. But as stews go, it was really tasty.

I was also feeling the effects of a diet of cheese and bread, so ordered some roast vegetables, which were excellent. Eggplant, zucchini, capsicum, tomato, garlic...Tasted like something I'd cook at home when on a veggie kick, so I was happy.

Panforte and pasta in the Dolce Siena shop
After spending the afternoon being gobsmacked at the amazing Duomo (easily my favourite ever) and the absolutely incredible music manuscript library, with the most colourful painted ceilings I've seen, we wandered the town, watched local artisans making candles and bread, poked around shops and decided it was time for something sweet. At the bottom of the campo is a shop selling artisanal sweets and local produce. If you've been to Siena, you'll know what I mean when I say it's just to the right of the town hall.

Siena is famous for panforte; a sweetmeat made with lots of candied fruit. It's not nougat, but similar. I've had it with coffee before, and not enjoyed it much, but hey, I was in Siena and they were local so I bought one for our middle-of-the-campo-afternoon-tea. Even though it was drizzling and we were under umbrellas we were going to sit in the Campo and eat our sweets, goddammit!!!
This panforte was different. For one, it was chocolate - mmm. Also, it was very fresh. The ones we get in Australia are definitely not fresh; they've gone a bit hard and chewy, but this was soft and the flavours were clean. I loved it. The others were not so keen, so I got to eat most myself...hehehehe.

The others loved this: Siena is also famous for torrone, a soft, sticky nougat, made with egg whites, sugar and honey. This one was studded with huge chunks of chocolate. It was goood. It was also really sweet! I was happy with my panforte. And I was very happy with Siena.
That night we had a picnic in the hotel dining room of the bits and pieces we bought in town; we had everything from white peaches, to mozzarella fillled with fresh cream to local proscuitto to orange amaretti biscuits; a perfect way to end a excellent day.


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