Books and Baking: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

I know a brilliant book by a very particular feeling. It’s a yearning: I become insatiable, wishing I could force myself awake long enough for just another chapter, or that I could skip my train stop and keep reading until the end of the line and back again. I want to completely, ferociously devour every word. Alas, this yearning is twofold. Where one part of me yearns for the final page, another part pleads to linger in the story. I want to hover endlessly in these incredible, intangible worlds. It is a futile idea, of course. I finish a brilliant book soon enough: wonderfully satisfied, and wonderfully solemn.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is the latest book to make me feel the Brilliant Book Feeling. It joins Burial Rites in the now two-title club of Terri’s Brilliant Books (or, The Precious Few Books To Which I’ve Awarded Five Stars Since I Started Recording My Reading on Goodreads). Like Burial Rites, The Miniaturist captivated the wanderlust in me – but rather than travelling to the dark, bitter cold of 1890s Iceland, this story takes us to Amsterdam, 1686. It is the Dutch Golden Age, a period in which the Netherlands flourished as the world’s foremost trading and shipping centre. Here we meet a young woman named Petronella Oortman. 

Nella arrives in Amsterdam to the door of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who is a wealthy merchant of the VOC (or as we might know, the Dutch East India Company). Johannes remains removed and mysterious to Nella, and she is left to find her own feet in a house of unexpected and not altogether inviting characters. What is more, when Johannes bestows a strange and sudden gift upon Nella – a dollhouse replica of their own house – Nella is enlightened to the even stranger miniaturist, who recreates Nella’s new family in ways that are both extraordinary and frightening. 

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Burton weaves a world rich in history, with characters that are perpetually interesting and surprising. As Nella uncovers the secrets of the Brandt household, so too are readers revealed the intricate design of Burton’s storytelling. Never in one novel have I so often wanted to flip back to page one and re-read all over again with a completely new perspective. Again in parallel with Burial Rites, The Miniaturist also shapes a tale of strong women, their powerful relationships and a discord in their assumed place in society and history. Top that with the canals and cobbled streets of one of my favourite cities in the world, and you start to understand why I’m all a fluster over this book.

There are many sweet treats that pop up throughout The Miniaturist – and indeed sugar itself plays a hearty part in this story – but I knew very quickly the baked good that was to be companion to this piece. At the time of our tale, the VOC had a total monopoly on trade in Asia, and this was synonymous with the all-important monopoly on the world’s spice trade. It is because of the Dutch Golden Age that spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cloves came to feature so significantly in Dutch cooking, and do so to this day. And to me, there is no finer recipe to showcase these spices than the Dutch speculaas biscuit. 

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Speculaas have been a beloved part of my baking repertoire for a solid two years now, thanks to this gorgeous recipe from Irvin of Eat the Love. These biscuits are crisp, beautifully spicy and very, very moreish. I adore them. Speculaas are traditionally made for the Netherlands’ St. Nicholas Day at the beginning of December, and usually stamped with delicate images or scenes. Without a special rolling pin or moulds to make such prints, I’ve opted for my stegosaurus (or what I like to call, the speculaasaurus) or Ninja Bread Men cookie cutters in the past. This time, it seemed only right to put my miniature gingerbread man cookie cutter to work.

Happy reading, folks – and make sure let me know what wonderful books have hit your sweet spot lately. x

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Europe: An Ice-Cream Expedition

From stroopwafels to schmalznudeln, cream cake to corn flakes – I love discovering the different kinds of sweet treats that exist all over the world. But no matter where I go, one pattern remains the same: I eat a heck of a lot of ice-cream. In flicking through my photos from last year’s Europe trip this was outstandingly obvious. I actually think a good percentage of our entire foreign language learning came simply from trying to decipher ice-cream flavour listings (fraise, fragola, erdbeer?).

It seems only right to share my findings of the frozen world, should you wish to blaze your own ice-cream trail across the great continent of Europe.

Berthillon | Paris, France

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There is no point arguing: you simply must have Berthillon ice-cream whilst in Paris. It’s stocked in many restaurants across the city, but you’ll find the original store on lovely Île Saint-Louis – a perfect pitstop if you’re visiting Notre Dame. Mat and I were lucky enough to stay in a gorgeous Airbnb just a stone’s throw from Île Saint-Louis, so we were perhaps destined for a love affair with Paris’ most famous ice-creamery. Founded in 1954, Berthillon built its reputation on stunning fruit sorbets and beautiful, creamy glacés (I don’t think Mat’s ever been quite the same since his first lick of the roasted pineapple and basil sorbet). Believe me when I say it is a perfect sort of heaven to slowly stroll along the Seine on a warm Parisian evening with a Berthillon ice-cream in hand. 

29-31 Rue Saint Louis en l’Ile, Paris | Open: 10am – 8pm Wednesday – Sunday 

Der verrückte Eismacher | Munich, Germany

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Mat and I trekked across Munich to Der verrückte Eismacher based on a quick TripAdvisor search for something sweet. The reviews raved: for extraordinary ice-cream, this is where we needed to go. They weren’t wrong. Translating from German as ‘The Crazy Ice Maker’, Der verrückte Eismacher really is kind of bonkers. It’s styled after Alice in Wonderland and the man behind the store fits very well into the ‘Mad Hatter of Ice-Cream’ role – creating a rotation of fantastical flavours like habanero, asparagus, paprika, and beer (this is Munich after all). Lucky there’s also just plain fantastic flavours like applesauce pancakes, strawberry Champagne, and Bavarian cream. Mat was proffered a relatively pleasant sample of the beer ice-cream, whilst I was instead handed the meatloaf flavour – an interesting experience I’m happy to never, ever repeat. For my purchase I took the safe route with a scoop of the strawberry, basil and balsamic vinegar, and a scoop of the chocolate sorbet. 

Amalienstrasse 77, Munich| Open: 11am – 9.30pm Monday – Saturday, 12.30pm – 9.30pm Sunday

Perchè No! | Florence, Italy

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Perchè No!‘ means ‘Why Not!’ in Italian – and when it comes to gelato, that is a beautiful sentiment indeed. Mat and I were introduced to this gem by Natale (pictured above), who was our local guide for Urban Adventures‘ Florence Foodies Walk one sweltering Tuscany afternoon. We were so happy to skirt the sweaty crowds and explore a few foodie hideaways with Natale, who was particularly passionate about bringing our little group to Perchè No! in the heart of town. Churned fresh every day and made using only the finest natural, seasonal ingredients, this gelato is sensational. The pistachio is a Perchè No! pride, but the watermelon sorbet and berry mousse were also huge hits for us. Florence is a city filled to the brim with gelaterias of vastly varying quality, so it’s definitely worth tracking down a place like Perchè No! for the seriously genuine stuff. 

Via dei Tavolini 19/R, Florence | Open: 11am – 11pm Wednesday – Monday, 12pm – 8pm Tuesday

Gelateria Dondoli | San Gimignano, Italy

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Tucked away in a medieval walled village on a Tuscan hilltop, Gelateria Dondoli has become rather renowned as the winner of back-to-back Gelato World Championships in the late 2000s. I visited on my first trip to Europe in 2010, and that delicious memory made quite sure that Mat and I returned to savour once more last year. The line stretching long into San Gimignano’s main square is enough to suggest: this is a gelato spot you want to know more about. I love the wonderful, inventive flavours like raspberry and rosemary, blackberry and lavender, pink grapefruit and sparkling wine, and saffron cream. A perfect antidote to a day’s trekking in the beastly Tuscan heat (as you see above, my face turns rather red at the slightest physical exertion in hot weather – Gelato Dondoli was a very welcome relief!).

Piazza Della Cisterna 4, San Gimignano | Open: 9am – 11.30pm Monday – Sunday (March – November)

Grom | Venice, Italy 

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Grom was first recommended to us by Cristina and Matteo, our lovely Airbnb hosts in Paris. Mat and I had firm intentions to visit the Paris store just off Boulevard Saint-Germain on our final night in The City of Lights, but it seems we got all too carried away at our local wine and charcuterie bar instead; we arrived at Grom late that night just in time to see the doors close. Luckily for us, the Paris store turned out to be one of many dotted across Europe and beyond. Our time would come in Venice, where we slurped happily at the Campo San Barnaba store every day. Grom’s philosophy is all about organic, natural ingredients, and for me the stand-outs were the cream flavours like Crema di Grom (pastry cream, Columbian chocolate chips and Grom’s crispy cornflour cookies) and Straciatella (Fiordilatte and big chunks of Columbian chocolate).

Campo San Barnaba, 30123 Venice | Open: 11am – 12am Saturday, 11am – 11pm Sunday – Friday (May – September) // 11am – 10.30pm Friday – Saturday, 11am – 10pm Sunday – Thursday (October – April)

Bled Island Potičnica | Bled, Slovenia

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This was by no means an earth-shattering ice-cream experience in itself – but there’s something about rowing (okay, getting your boyfriend to row you) to a tiny island in the middle of a turquoise, glacial lake in Slovenia that’ll make anything taste pretty damn great. From an ice-cream cart outside the Bled Island Potičnica, a little cafe wedged atop Bled Island, I opted for a cup of kremšnita, or Bled Cream Cake (a beloved local dessert) ice-cream. We sat beneath Bled Island’s famous church and looked out onto a vista of lake and forest and even a medieval cliff-top castle. An A+ ice-cream moment.

Bled Island, Bled 

Café Feichtner | Grünau im Almtal, Austria

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Another in the realm of contextual ice-cream greatness comes Café Feichtner in Grünau im Almtal, a cosy little town in the Austrian alps. Above all, Grünau is simply one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. I’ve found my way there a couple of times now at the hospitality of Gerhard and company at The Treehouse, and if you ever have the opportunity to do so yourself I could not recommend it more. It is a haven for the weary traveller. On our trip last year Mat and I discovered Café Feichtner in town – a solace for my sweet tooth in the shape of decadent ice-cream sundaes. A handy thing for a haven to have indeed.

Im Dorf 17, Grunau im Almtal 4645 | Open: 7am – 8pm (April – October) // 8am – 7pm (November – March)

 Now, the all-important question: where to next time? I would love to hear about your own ice-cream discoveries!

Just One Street Over: A Cicchetti & Wine Tour of Venice

Venice really does sound like something out of a fantasy novel. It’s an historic city of small islands in the middle of a lagoon, a pattern of criss-crossing canals and labyrinthine streets. It is a city traversed only by foot or water. You might find Venice swollen with thousands of masked and costumed revellers, or perhaps with the supernatural tides of the acqua alta. Venice is art and music and elegant decay.

Venice is cicchetti, and Venice is wine.

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We met Elisabetta in Campo de la Maddalenna late in the morning along with three other couples eager for a taste of the real Venice. It was clear that Elisabetta was a character; she was perpetually smiling and had a vigorous affection for the city she called home. She promised to show us the side of Venice many travellers miss, imparting a simple philosophy: ‘just one street over’. Yes, the city might seem crowded and touristy to those on the well-worn sightseer’s path – but divert as little as one street over and oftentimes you’ll find yourself in a whole other Venice. 

With that we slipped into this other Venice: cool and quiet streets where Elisabetta revealed her font of local knowledge. She led us to the Grand Canal where we crossed standing in a traghetto – a gondola used by locals simply to cross the Grand Canal when there is no bridge nearby. On the other side was the Rialto Market and here we explored the inspiration for all great dishes in Venice. This is the place where Venetian chefs shop for fresh, local ingredients on a daily basis – except for Mondays, when the market is closed (and this, Elisabetta urged, is why you should never eat at a Venetian restaurant that serves seafood on a Monday). 

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Most of the day’s catch had long disappeared by the time we arrived, but a few stalls still glistened brightly with octopus and crab, squid and scallop. It was precisely this moment in which Mat and I knew that upon next visit to Venice we would most definitely be staying in an apartment with a very well-equipped kitchen. Outside, the produce section was vivid with colour: red radishes and purple plums and more sun-dried tomatoes I’d ever seen before.

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It was quickly time to delve into the part of the tour we’d all been most eager for. Again, Elisabetta led us away from the throng – and yet not so far at all – to the door of our very first bàcaro, a special type of wine bar indeed. Bàcari are the home of cicchetti, Venice’s answer to tapas or pintxos. 

Cicchetti is perhaps the heart of Venetian food culture. Cicchetti bars began popping up around the Rialto Markets as a place for Venice’s fishermen and market workers to finish their day’s work with a quick bite and a glass of wine – no matter that these customers would, of course, be finishing their day’s work still very much in the morning hours. And for this, cicchetti is traditionally a daytime offering, extending to early evening at the latest and often with a closed period during the afternoon. 

Elisabetta magicked us through four different bàcari, each with its own unique history and personality. The cicchetti came thick and fast: little deep-fried sandwiches, toothpicks pierced with cured meats and pickled vegetables, polenta and crusty breads topped with all manner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The cod paste was a wonderfully surprising favourite. You see why we eased into bàcaro life so very comfortably. In these small, hole-in-the-wall bars our little group hovered happily, a piece of cicchetti in one hand and a glass of local wine in the other.

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By two o’clock we’d arrived at our final cicchetti bar, where a sparkling Raboso wine enchanted a stay far, far longer than anticipated. It is indeed the custom to hop from one bàcaro to the next, but it seems we found ourselves rather content to while away the rest of the afternoon in this one. Elisabetta eventually sang her goodbyes, but the cicchetti and wine did not stop flowing at all. I would certainly recommend not planning anything for the rest of your day should you partake in this tour. The lovely folk at this cicchetti bar took care of us very well.

It is a very special kind of bliss to slow down and explore an incredible place like Venice through its food, and even moreso to be guided by the hand of a kind, passionate local. To spend a day learning and eating and drinking our way through the city centre’s quiet little corners, Elisabetta at helm and flanked by fellow foodies from across the world – this was one of those beautiful, perfect travel days that makes my heart swell just to remember. If you have but one day to spare for Venice, honestly – find a way to squeeze this tour in. The cicchetti trail waits for you too. x

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DETAILS:

I booked this tour through Urban Adventures, a wonderful little company that runs day tours all over the world. I have been on several UA tours now (including one in my hometown!) and absolutely adore them.

The Cicchetti and Wine Tour of Venice runs twice a day: 11.30am for the morning tour and 5.15pm for the evening tour. Tour duration is 2.5 hours. The tour does not run on Sundays or during the low Winter season.

Cost of the tour is currently $108.34 (AUD) / $84.80 (USD). Believe me when I say it is worth every penny and more.

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