Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The jolie-laide of fruit

I have been collecting old jam jars for a while now with the vision in mind of, A) growing enough fruit and, b) being organised enough to try making jam. I have failed on both counts. I have never cooked with quinces before but I decided to dip a toe into the jam arena by making quince paste. It is such a nice addition to a cheese platter and the arrival of a visitor with cheese usually results in a tiresome process of me peering around the fridge for the last previously purchased exorbitantly-priced tiny tub of quince paste, which invariably bears about a shrivelled teaspoon.

How exotic, I thought when spied the quinces at the market, to be able to whip out homemade quince paste for visitors. I even had a recipe that my mother had recently photocopied for me.

So I bought the quinces. I think that they are, to use an apt french term, the jolie-laide of fruit. They are kind of ugly but also quite beautiful. After I had amused myself by making some table-scapes and admiring the colour contrast (the fact that I choose to prioritise playing with quinces over actually working on the house and garden is probably a good reason why major progress fails to be made) I was actually a bit torn about cooking them. But I made myself. I did have to get over the fact that quince paste should actually be called sugar paste with quince flavouring. Then there was a small incident involving lost patience and the breakage of a sieve during the straining process, but all in all, it went quite well.

One of the nicest parts of the process is that the quince mixture starts out yellow but over the course of the hours of stirring slowing turn ruby red. It's quite beautiful.

So, I now have more quince paste in my fridge than I have ever eaten in my life and quite possibly will ever want to eat. I have also been so busy that I haven't transferred it from the pan it set in to seal it properly, so it's quite possibly suffering the effects of oxidisation as I type this, and may well be spoiled before I even get the chance to eat it. But, at least I know that for my future potential jam-making exploits, I can mix fruit and sugar and boil it and get it to set. That bodes well.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Plundering the flowers at will

One of my first jobs when I arrive at the country house is to prowl the garden for fresh flowers to cut and arrange, although my arranging skills sometimes leave a little to be desired.

My mother always kept a beautiful flower garden, but I wasn't allowed to plunder it at will. Now that I have my own garden, my desire - suppressed for so many years - to create big arrangements bursting from large vases can be indulged. I am hampered now by my relative lack of flowers.

Here's the flowering quince I picked on the weekend, in the country house kitchen.

And here it is in my apartment in Melbourne.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A beautiful exuberance dampened

I earn the bulk of my living consulting to large corporations about how they communicate.

One of my favourite things about being self-employeed is the luxury of working often from home, where my modus operandi involves a comfortable uniform of cargo pants and t-shirt, and the chiropractically-dubious habit of reclining in bed or on the couch with my laptop on my knees and a beverage close to hand.

Often though, I need to work from a client’s offices - as I did for four days this week.
I’m lucky to have the work and I appreciate it. Like most big companies in these global-financial-crisis-tainted times, this one has laid off many people. The corridors echo with their absence alongside the surreptitious presence of the many contractors smuggled in to do what needs to be done.

When not in meetings, I sat on a discretely navy office chair in a grey partitioned cubicle. The visual stimulation provided by a hot pink folder someone gave me was tempered by my anal retentive dissonance that the holes in the documents were punched unevenly. In an open-plan room containing close to 20 people, the only noise for long stretches of time was the clacking of fingertips on computer keys and the white noise of the air conditioning. Occasionally a phone conversation would break out and expose a glimpse of private life: an exhortation to a child to clean a room, a good bye to a husband tinged more with frustration than love. This corporation has the best art collection I’ve seen outside of a major gallery but even the beautiful exuberance of many of the pieces seemed dampened by their surroundings.

While I’m enjoying the mental stimulation of the work, it was a stark reminder about the aesthetic and sensory deprivation of many modern working environments and the subtly corrosive impact this can have on the soul. I bought the country house provide a way to plunge back into the world of the senses. This weekend I’ll really need it.

Today, I didn’t have deadlines or commitments and although my to-do list is long, my brain is sucked dry, so I abandoned myself to a day of pleasure. I browsed food magazines and blogs to plan for dinner at the country tomorrow night with my friends Tracie and Tim, who are bringing their young twins for the night. Then I went to the South Melbourne Market to pick up ingredients.

Still life with weekend menu planning in my apartment in Melbourne.

I will start by baking oatmeal cookies for afternoon tea (my scones are execrable, which is something that needs to be rectified in future). Tracie is bringing a main dish. As an entrĂ©e I’m going to make celeriac soup (inspired by the recipe in the Australian Gourmet Traveller May 2009 issue) garnished with the remnants of a jar of summer truffles I bought last time I was in Umbria. I’ll bake some bread rolls to have with butter mixed with garlic chives from the garden. (Disclosure: I’m planning to cheat and use my breadmaker to do the mixing and kneading so I’ll just need to fashion the rolls and put them in the oven). For dessert I’m going to use Granny Smith apples fresh from my tree to make Frangipane Baked Apples, inspired by a recipe in the May 2009 issue of my favourite food magazine, Cuisine.