Europe: The Story, So Far (Part One)

Well, Europe has been amazing. And believe me, I’ve been dying to write about it. My poor little blog has been ever in the back of my mind these past few weeks! Parisian streets, Swiss landscapes and Italian shores are, as it turns out, quite an inspiration. It’s just that, well – I’m rather used to having a lot more down-time whilst on the road. As a seasoned solo traveler, I’m pretty accustomed to taking dedicated time out to reflect and chronicle my journeys. This is my first trip with a companion in six years, though, and I’ll be honest: I just haven’t had the discipline to write with another person around. Solo travel allows you to shut off, take half a day and withdraw without much consequence. Traveling with a companion is a constant distractor and motivator, though – and I’ve decided to wholeheartedly welcome that!

Right now, however, I’m sitting by a little river out the back of a guesthouse in Grünau, Austria, and I can’t help but get caught up in a little writer’s whimsy. At this point, I know I’ll be telling most of our Europe travel tales when back home in Melbourne – but I thought I’d at least check in with some photos from the trip so far. Instagram followers will have seen these already, but for those not on the ‘gram – here’s a little glimpse of the adventure so far:

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Melbourne International Airport // Keizersgracht canal, Amsterdam, as seen from our breakfast table at Bagels and Beans // The gorgeous view from our Parisian Airbnb // My first Berthillon ice-cream in Paris

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Jardin des Tuileries on an overcast Paris day // Canelé from the original Maison Kayser on Rue de Monge // Notre Dame Cathedral and Île Saint-Louis from Pont de la Tournelle – a gorgeous view we passed every day // A quiet street in the Marais district of Paris

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A rainy day wandering along the Seine // The most divine éclairs from L’éclair de Génie, Paris // A most handsome Eiffel Tower at night // Croissant, of course: more spoil from Maison Kayser

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Oh, you bet we did Disneyland Paris! // The heavenly ‘Plénitude’ from Pierre Hermé // A crazy, wonderful lunch at La Petite Rose des Sables // Madame Zouzou, our extraordinary host at La Petite Rose des Sables

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The tiniest elevator we ever did see, leading up to our Paris Airbnb // Following The Owl’s Trail around Dijon // Europe road-trip essentials: Haribo Dragibus // The little town of Thun in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland

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The rainclouds follow us to Switzerland… // View from a bridge over the Aare River in Thun // Waiting for the clouds to clear over the mountains at our Airbnb in Thun // New travel snack: chocolates from Switzerland’s Maison Cailler

(Part Two: coming tomorrow!)

Books and Baking: The Swedish Edition

I recently found myself in quite a serendipitous state of baking and bibliophilic harmony. I believe I’d just taken my first tray of Swedish Butterscotch Sea Salt Cookies out of the oven, when I suddenly realised: “Well! This is rather appropriate.”

My copy of Jonas Jonasson’s The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - a delightfully absurd story of a Swedish centenarian’s present and (as it turns out, quite significant) past adventures – lay on the coffee table, the victim of an impending Book Club speed-read. It was in fact the first book of a newly established Book Club – one involving a lovely ol’ bunch of friends from uni, plus copious amounts of cheese and wine. I do highly recommend such an arrangement. Very good for the soul indeed.

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Little Wanderings - Books and Baking 1

And so it became apparent, of course, that I would have to bake another batch of Swedish Butterscotch Sea Salt Cookies for said Book Club. Even moreso, because I left the house and absentmindedly left the first batch out on cooling racks for the rest of the day. Oh, it was a sad, sad moment returning to those biscuits. So recently a glorious, crunchy treat! Now so soft and stale, having been so carelessly denied an air-tight confine. Luckily, upon further baking I can confirm that speedy transferral to an air-tight container after cooling makes keeps biscuits fresh and crunchy for days.

The recipe comes from Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella, and I highly recommend giving it a go – even if you’re not currently devouring a good bit of Scandinavian literature. They’re quite possibly the easiest biscuits I’ve ever made, and the only ingredient I had to duck out for was golden syrup. The simple butterscotch taste, a hint of sea salt and that beautiful crunch make for a devilishly addictive biscuit, mind you. I was seriously unable to eat any less than three at a time. Thankfully they went down a treat at Book Club, and I was only forced to take care of a few leftovers…

A Fork in the Road

Yesterday, I finished reading a Lonely Planet publication called A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure & Discovery on the Road. After having read a slew of particularly bad books lately, I’m happy to report that this one was one rather wonderful. Editor James Oseland (Saveur magazine) opens, “Every traveler has two or three or even a hundred of them: moments on a journey when you taste something and you’re forever changed.” The following collection of thirty-four essays from writers, critics and chefs alike explore those moments – be it an Englishman’s long-anticipated taste of the all-American Twinkie, a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia, or blood soup and maggot cheese in Sardinia (credit to that last one – I’m now not entirely adverse to the idea of larvae-laden cheese). I found almost every story genuine and captivating, and loved the focus on the seemingly small and unexpected.

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A Fork in the Road certainly got me reflecting on those moments in my own travels, and I think I’ve definitely got a few I’m eager to jot down and share. Then again, the book also made me realise how I’ve perhaps too easily breezed through countries in the past and emerged without such tales to tell. Not that a fantastical travel tale can be forced – but maybe youth and blissful naivety sometimes prevented me from slowing down and properly opening up to the possibility, or even just plain awareness of those experiences. I loved the essay A Coffee Ceremony by novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings (The Descendants), who writes, “Time. That’s what it’s really about. Taking the time to realise what you’re doing, what you’re drinking… Food and drink is so much more than food and drink. When we consume them we are engaging in a backstory – the effort and attention, the craft and history, the community and connection, and the ritual itself.”

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And so this book has come to me at a splendid time, in that I shall soon be travelling – and not only travelling, but returning. When I first visited Europe four years ago, I suppose I was a foodie beginner in the sense of an unfocused excitement for ‘European food’ (gelato and tiramisu and croissants, oh my!). I certainly came home with a sudden fondness for many things at which I’d previously upturned my nose. Oh, to imagine a time in which I didn’t like olives, pesto or even wine for godssake! Now I return on a trip pretty much centred on the idea of simply eating my way around the continent. In A Fork in the Road, both Carla Hall’s Leek of Faith and Tom Carson’s A Wedding Feast delve into the theme of such a sudden awareness of food culture, one’s previous naivety and the prospect of adventure henceforth. To be soon going back to Europe with that expanded awareness of food and cooking, I realise, is very exciting indeed.

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That awareness also comes twofold. Most every piece in A Fork in the Road makes reference to the writer’s culinary upbringing- something that, no matter how modest or grand, seems to hold perpetual influence. It shocked me to realise I’d never really given much confidence to the particular food culture in which I’d grown up. Sure, there’s no foreign, exotic or particularly ‘gourmet’ footprint at my family table - but I’ve been careless in thinking that’s a mark of the unexceptional. Last month, in spending Easter with family at my grandparents’ house, I suppose I had a ‘moment’ when my grandpa walked in and placed two fresh figs on the table. Figs! Quite in vogue on food blogs and Melbourne menus right now – I’d only really just started to eat and delight in them – and here my grandpa was growing them in the backyard. My grandma would later whip up half a dozen jars of fig and ginger jam. Just like that.

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There’s an important food culture at home of which I’ve either taken for granted or simply remained totally unaware. My family quite literally revolves around my grandparents’ linoleum-topped kitchen table, and it’s nice to be finally waking up to the craft and history behind that. So long as I care to look for them, there are perhaps as many moments, stories and recipes to be shared from home as there might be from my travels. And that is also a very exciting notion.

Photos taken at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, April 2014.

A Spot of Tea in Sassafras

I’m kinda digging Autumn. A lot. I seriously have to resist the urge to stop and Instagram every gorgeous, fiery tree I see. The incredible colours creeping into the canopies of Melbourne are just magical. I’m not even so bothered by the fall in temperature (though that may have something to do with the semi-smug knowledge that I’ll be in sunny Europe climes for half of winter).  Yes, there’s definitely something about this change of season that actually has me excited to explore the cooler months of Melbourne this year.

My first tip for Wintersome wandering? Sassafras, in the Dandenong Ranges.

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It was an overcast, drizzly Saturday when Mat and I decided to make the trip out to Sassafras. The kind of day you’d not be faulted if entirely spent under a blanket on the couch marathoning Orphan Black. It was a long weekend, however, and we were determined to get and out do at least a little adventuring. We left around noon and within just forty-five minutes the forest of the Dandenong Ranges had closed around us. An incredible mist had settled over the forest; the way the trees sloped away and disappeared into a white fog just metres from the winding mountain road was almost otherworldly. The rain had also given everything the most stunning saturation of colour. I started to think that a trip to this part of greater Melbourne was perhaps even best done on such drizzly days.

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Once arriving in the little town, we beelined for a Sassafras icon: the cutesy Miss Marple’s Tea Room. The old-fashioned English tea house, styled after Agatha Christie’s beloved Marple and her crime-solving exploits, was packed to the rafters and had a lengthy line to wait – so we popped our names on a list and were told to return in an hour.

Turns out an hour goes by very fast in the gorgeous tea shop just next door, Tea Leaves.

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With over 300 tea varieties and blends, coffee beans ground to order and all manners of brewing devices and implements, Tea Leaves is a bounty for hot cuppa folk.  From Black Chilli Cinnamon to Sticky Toffee Pudding, Australia Billy Tea to Gunpowder Mint – we had a blast smelling our way through a heck of a lot of teas. We ended up settling on ‘Blue Mountain’, a China and Ceylon tea blend with a subtle fruity flavour and sprinkled with blue cornflowers. After many a pot of Blue Mountain since, I can confirm it both smells and tastes delightful. With some ground coffee beans and a couple of chocolate freckles to go, our Tea Leaves trip was a fun and fruitful one.

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And so – back to Miss Marple’s. The tea house is quaint and perhaps a little out-dated beyond the theme, but we found it a cosy enough retreat from the weather anyway. To be totally truthful, the lunch items we chose – the fresh chicken, cheese and asparagus fingers, and Welsh rarebit fingers – were ordinary. It would be ‘Miss Marple’s Sundae Best’ that won us over in the end. The tower of vanilla ice-cream, berry sauce, chocolate fudge, whipped cream, toasted almond flakes, strawberries and biscotti that arrived at our table actually prompted an audible gasp from every table around us. It was delicious in a simple, childhood-esque way, and (thanks mostly to Mat) we managed to polish off the whole thing!

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And that was our little Sassafras sojourn. A meandering afternoon trip on a rainy day – and it was kinda perfect. There were no true gourmet finds – perhaps those will come upon return visits. Miss Marple’s was fun to experience, though it would certainly only be that wondrous sundae that would draw us back again. Even their Devonshire scones (strictly no tea included) looked far from the norm (moreso cakey squares cut from a large baked slab) – so next time I look forward to hunting around somewhere new for the famous Sassafras Devonshire tea. This trip was a truly wandersome day – no expectations, just exploring – and we had the best time because of it. It makes me incredibly excited to do more little adventures in and around Melbourne! Not to mention that sunny Europe trip…

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Miss Marple’s Tea Room | 382 Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd, Sassafras, VIC 3787
http://www.missmarples.com.au/
Open | 
Mon – Fri : 11.00am – 4.00pm, Sat – Sun : 11.00am – 4.30pm
No Bookings.

Miss Marple's Tearoom on Urbanspoon

Tea Leaves | 380 Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd, Sassafras, VIC 3787
http://www.tealeaves.com.au/tea-leaves-sassafras/w1/i1004328/
Open | Mon – Sun : 10.ooam – 5.30pm

Fodder for Failure

A couple of weeks ago I came upon the most gorgeous-looking recipe for Oven-Poached Quince from an equally gorgeous Melbourne-based food blog. I was mesmerised. The blogger sang of the riches of seasonal Autumn produce, the heady aroma of simmering spices and the generous ruby-red reward after hours of slow cooking. I was thrilled to try it. I’d not eaten poached quince before, but as a raving fan of quince paste, jam and jelly – I was delighted by the wonderfully arcadian idea of popping a few oven-poached quince wedges into my porridge each morning. I tracked down fresh quinces at my local organic grocer, almost sliced a(nother) finger off cutting them up, and piled my spices and water and sugar into a cast-iron dish. As the apartment filled with the tantalising scent of anise and cardamom, I started to feel mighty proud of myself.

Six hours later, however, when I lifted the dish from the oven and cracked the lid – my stomach fell with that dreaded ‘this definitely does not look like the picture’ feeling. Instead of plump, ruby-red pieces in a vibrant, juicy syrup – I had a thick, sticky mess highly reminiscent of True Blood -esque vampire remains.

My quince caper was a total failure.

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I’ll admit, the whole thing left me feeling very disheartened. For some reason, this didn’t just feel like a stuff-up. It was a failure. There would be no wedges of oven-poached quince in my porridge, and the tentative blog post I was excitedly dreaming up on seasonal foodie adventures was now kaput. I’d spent precious money on fresh fruit and spices, all for nothing. The fact that I’d initially been so thrilled and optimistic now made me feel naive and impostor-like. 

The very next day, I put my apron back on (but very nearly, almost didn’t) to tackle Cupcake Central’s Salted Caramel Cupcakes for the first time as a pre-Easter treat for the Ruby Slipper office. And as I took those cupcakes out of the oven, I felt a little flicker of hope. They looked kinda perfect. I  even took out my camera. Perhaps I’d not lost a blog post after all.

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After making up some salted caramel, my spirits were seriously lifting. I love making caramel – oh, that magical moment when the syrup turns amber, that great puff as you pour in the cream! And what fun it was to cut little cores in the cakes to spoon in hidden caramel pockets, before popping the tops back on. These cupcakes would be my saving grace, I thought.

Moments later, I realised my buttercream frosting had split.

I had no time or ingredients to start again. The frosting was useable – but I couldn’t un-see that ever-so-slight separation of the mixture. And so here it was. Another failure. I did the messiest, most frustrated frosting job I’ve ever done, and poured on some extra salted caramel. As I left home that night for dinner with friends, I messaged Mat – “The cupcakes I made look like absolute arse, I was too frustrated to try one properly before I left so you are welcome to try but the icing is just a giant fail. Not winning in the kitchen lately! :(“

A couple of hours later I received his reply.

“What. Are. You. Smoking. That was delicious. So yum. Yum. Yum. Yum.”

The ladies of Ruby Slipper and friends had rather similar thoughts. Despite my continual apologies for the ugly icing, no-one seemed to care – and in fact insisted I was bordering on delusional. It seemed that while I was determined to sell the cupcakes as a total failure, they were actually a hit. To realise as such was an interesting and perhaps even humbling moment.

Baking blunders certainly aren’t the end of the world. I started this blog as a place to share my explorations and wanderings – but to also share the journey of learning and discovery. Labelling something solely as a failure neglects the importance of the learning experience, and tends to rule out the possibility that something good may indeed still come of it. It’s also an awfully serious way of looking at the world, and I know that’s just not my style. In a world of beautiful blogs and carefully constructed Instagram uploads, it’s easy to imagine that botched quince and split buttercream simply don’t exist. Well, turns out they do. And I’m going to stop beating myself up about it.

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