The summer that was…

The time of the year that stretches from May to October has a specific name in Walla’s lexicon –  it’s called ‘The Market Season’: starting on the first Saturday in May we go into high gear and stay there until Thanksgiving weekend. Mixers and ovens go into overtime, bread dough is mixed, pastry is rolled, new products are created such as last summer’s ‘snail,’ a croissant pastry filled with frangipane and rum-soaked raisins, and the ‘accidental’ Boureka made with rye (!) puff pastry, filled with smoked meat and named ‘Pastrami on Rye’.

Rum-Raisin Frangipane snails

Walla’s Chocolate Babka

Giant Almond Croissants

A love/hate relationship has evolved between me and the Downtown Community market, of which I was one of the original founders seven years ago. On the one hand, I welcome the abundance of customers  and the frantic energy around our tent, seeing the expression on people’s faces who for the first time are tasting a salted caramel Kouign Amann pastry or an almond croissant.  By the end of the day this provides me with the immense satisfaction of a job well done and a well-deserved rest. On the other hand, there is the terribly inefficient act of 24 weeks of schlepping back and forth: tables, tents, generator, hot-holding table, breads, pastries, Bourekas, preserves, condiments, signs, baskets, refrigerator, freezer, etc. – all for just four and a half hours of the Saturday market.

Market display

Market display

 

Walla’s presence at the Saturday market and the logistics that are constantly evolving to accommodate new products, can be perfectly executed only thanks to our top-class ‘elves’ who are deeply committed to excellent food. Their work ethic is hard to come by these days and thanks to them, I finally learned to let go of my ‘control freak’ attitude  and to trust their endless resourcefulness and competence. Last fall, on Oct. 3, Sharon and I passed the baton to the ‘kids’ and enjoyed the season’s opening opera live from the MET at the local Landmark cinema – ahh, la Dolce Vita…

Joey the 'Fisherman'

Joey the ‘Fisherman’

Joey, a former Montréal native of Italian descent who recently made the Okanagan his new home, knows good food; his family owns a well-known Italian restaurant in Montréal, and like most of Walla’s employees, he started as a customer. Now he’s in charge of transportation and sales. He used to disappear on the occasional Saturday – “Going fishing” he said, and left us all behind, to face the hoards of customers who would descend upon our tent, appearing like swarms of hungry locusts. And what was in it for us?…Nothing, not even a shriveled sardine tail. . .nada.

And then there’s Dave, the retired geologist and passionate photographer (some of you have seen his outstanding work on our walls) who spends his nights manning the front desk at the Lakeside Resort, and then Saturday mornings congenially handling the logistics and sales at Walla’s tent, while also helping out at Phyllis Jmaeff’s produce stand at the nearby Farmer’s Market. Like Joey, he also hails from Quebec.

Team Walla 2015

Team Walla 2015 – Joey, Adra, Ben, Dave

There’s also Elena who just graduated high-school and is spending her Rotary year abroad in The Netherlands,  and her sisters Madeleine, in grad school for nursing, and Adra completing her studies at U of T.  These young ladies have exceeded my overly-high and often uncompromising expectations for everything that encompasses the ultimate employee: punctuality, responsibility, professional conduct, and higher than average intelligence. I am not easily impressed by human traits, but I commend their parents for raising such fine children (six in total).

Ben and Elena at the market

Ben and Elena at the market

As every summer gracefully fades, it gives way to the warm red, yellow and gold autumn colors that bathe the shorter days and the gentle rolling hills of Naramata in thousands of fire-like  lights. Our seasonal ‘tenants,’ the crickets with their endless song, the hooting owl perched up in the big pine tree, the constant buzzing bees in the intoxicating lavender bushes, the wasps that build their round hives almost everywhere, the little bats that pass above at dusk like a silent shadow, and the birds nesting and raising their chicks in the ‘townhouses’ attached to the shed wall – they leave in search for warmer lands as their ancestors have for thousands of years.

Now is the time to pick the partly shriveled wild grapes that grow unattended behind our home –  ripe, sweet and loaded with wild yeast which happily frolics on. This will serve as the base for the sourdough for the rest of the year. Nature regenerates and is reborn in the form of a plain, nutritious and crusty loaf of bread.

Our Naramata wild grapes

As we reflect upon the summer that was, we embrace the slower pace of life, grey streaked skies, falling leaves and naked trees, and welcome winter’s cold shrouds of snow. 

I come for the food!

When I finally drag myself out of my cave/home and head for a food establishment – which can include anything from a dingy fish’n-chips shack that lies nonchalantly on a wharf and where the food is served in disposable-recyclable-compostable plates and cutlery, and where the skinny, homeless dog wants to share your plate, to a four-course glitzy restaurant, where I am seated by a pompous waiter and looked down upon by a snooty sommelier – I expect only one thing: FOOD! Now, let’s make that clear:  not just any food, but Simple, Excellent and Unpretentious fare!  I’m not terribly impressed with Organic, Non-GMO, Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free, Free-range, Head-to-Tail, Farm-to-Table, Local, Raw, Decaf or any other Voodoo stuff. You know why? Because, and despite all the current mumbo-jumbo, fancy ‘Globe and Mail’ jargon, a meal with all these ingredients can be just as bad as one made with Fertilized, Sprayed, and GMO ingredients.  I also have a hard time understanding geographical lingo, i.e. what is considered local?  Is it Canadian P.E.I potatoes from 6000 Km away, or Washington apples just 10 Km. across the border from Osoyoos?

When attending a meal I do not wish to be distracted by anything except the food; in other words, hold the ‘amazing’ lake-mountain-vineyards views, the loud music and obtrusive noises from other diners, the constantly bored and screaming children who run around and keep banging into my chair. If possible, I would appreciate a windowless, sound-proof room (a bomb shelter, perhaps?). I have left too many establishments with an oath to never, ever set foot again in their door, ‘thanks’ to inadequate service, food, noise, just name it.  I’ve been to restaurants where the food was meager and I left feeling as hungry as when I came.  Others that were extremely expensive for the quality, and yet others where the noise level of the music ruined the experience, so all I remembered was ‘boom-boom, boom-boom.’

I tend to pay attention to the smallest details and then cast the die in favor of returning to a particular establishment – or not. It’s similar to being in a marriage – it cannot and should not be perfect, but in the overall scheme of things, the pleasant and positive experiences should outweigh the annoying and frustrating moments. But here lies the catch:  since I’m unwilling to compromise on food if it means accepting a disappointing meal in return for a ‘breath-taking’ view or a well-played artistic act (or concert), I’m willing, in my full mental capacity, to narrow my criteria to the food only, and anything else I consider a bonus.

It’s said that men suffer in silence, and in this case I’m no different. I do not review local restaurants on Trip Adviser, Yelp, Urban Spoon or any other social media because of conflict of interest – a decision which too often I regret.  I’m not a person who frantically waves at the waiter and lets the rest of the guests hear what he ‘really’ thinks about the food and ‘this place.’  I’m not someone who typically sends the plate back to the kitchen.  However, a while ago we decided to dine at a known establishment in Penticton, and I ordered a New York steak. The moment I sliced through the sizzling and nicely charred chunk I realized that it was a few grades well past beyond the medium–rare of my choice.  It actually looked more like ’50 shades of gray’ and biting into it confirmed my complete disappointment. The waitress was gracious when she realized the blunder and immediately re-ordered it. The second steak was done to perfection however my wife was already 15 minutes or more into savoring her meal, and in this way the magical moments of dining together that particular evening – vanished without ever to return. Obviously, I felt tres, tres, desolequel dommage!  In this case my father would say: “Whatever you do, make it right the first time,” and my grandfather would add something similar:  “Practice makes perfect and exercise makes excellence.”  In his book ‘It Must’ve  Been Something I Ate’, food critic Jeffrey Steingarten writes about Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida that offers eight degrees of doneness after you choose how many inches or how many ounces you wish to eat. I mention this to point out that if one strives for excellence, it will eventually fall into one’s grasp.

I do not believe in the ’bad day in the kitchen’ story. Consistency should be the mantra, day in and day out, or in this case – evening in and evening out. A military-like discipline is needed. No wonder the French refer to the kitchen staff as ‘the brigade’. Unless you (the cook, sous-chef, chef, or anyone in charge of putting out dishes) lie on the kitchen floor with no pulse and your brain registers absolutely no activity – nothing should exempt you from delivering less than a stellar meal. If you are emotionally and mentally incapacitated (your wife just left you for your best friend, took your new Lexus and left behind the three kids, two Great Danes and the one blue-eyed Persian cat for you to take care of) or physically not fit (drunk, tired, cut yourself and bleeding to death, had too much B.C bud so your taste buds are out of tune, or just not focused), please do yourself and your guests a favor: close the bloody kitchen and DO NOT dare put out any food. Is this too much to ask?

“Today’s constraints become tomorrow’s reality and the day after tomorrow’s new norm – and that’s how quality deteriorates over time.”

It was on a cold winter Sunday evening when we decided to go out for a meal at the Naramata Pub. Following a steamy shower and a close shave that would be deemed suitable by an Italian barber, I dressed nicer than usual and out we went braving the cold, just a 5 minute drive away from home. We stopped in our tracks when the waitress delivered the dreaded news that the kitchen had closed at 7:30 pm. because of a lack of customers. Refusing to return home on an empty stomach we headed to town in search of a decent meal and decided to try a fairly new establishment that had created a ‘buzz’ around its thin-crust pizzas.

Sitting close to the entrance, my posterior froze every time the unusually large double doors opened (an air-lock would work magic in keeping the warm air in and the cold out). The server suggested a variety of in-house brewed beers with exotic names, and reluctantly I asked for a sample. Craft beer is not my cup of tea since the large amount of hops makes it bitter.  I confess, bitter flavors actually numb my palate and I definitely don’t enjoy any food accompanied by an extremely bitter overtone . . . MEA CULPA.  As expected, it was quite bitter and I politely declined to have beer with the meal and opted for a glass of wine which proved to be quite expensive. Not even a light Lager on the horizon for consolation, only Ales and IPAs with an ‘in your face’ bold attitude. But hey, what do I know? . . . I’m just a baker. . .

We ordered a large pizza and a large Caesar salad to share. I tend to disregard the common thinking that empty restaurants serve bad meals and crowded ones serve morsels fit for the gods. The place wasn’t crowded, just a few tables were occupied and the order arrived quickly. I have to admit that a strange feeling befalls me every time I visit a new restaurant:  it’s a combination of excitement and anxiety – hope and doom coexisting in a strange harmony that only a quasi split-personality could accommodate.

From here, the situation deteriorated with lightning speed:  at the center of the table was a large tin can that was supposed to hold the pizza tray and which actually blocked the view across the table. All I could see was Sharon’s head popping up and down on top of the tray in a grotesque and gruesome way, resting on a layer of red tomato sauce and surrounded by pieces of Calabrese salami, artichokes and Sicilian black olives. She looked decapitated, yet her head was talking about how bad this Feng-Shui was.  From her perspective I probably looked no different, so we looked like a couple of bobble-heads rolling our eyes and shaking our, yes…HEADS.  I moved the heavy can and the tray to the side, and lo and behold – Sharon’s body was instantly re-attached to the talking bobble-head (she was a ‘babbling bobble head’ – an endearment which I kinda like).

Someone has to pull the Pizzaiolo aside and explain to him that a soggy pizza crust, no matter how thin it is – is a big NO NO, and in some parts of the world, is considered to be a transgression without redemption. Imagine picking up a slice with one hand while the other has to direct the ‘limp’ end into your mouth. At the same time try staving off the rolling olives (yes, whole olives) so they don’t hit your face (since there wasn’t enough cheese to ‘secure’ the olives in place – they were rolling everywhere).

After close observation I concluded that these weren’t merely plain olives, but ‘Siciliana Spiritum Liberum Olea,’ long thought to be extinct Sicilian free spirit or free-range olives.  The importance of this recent discovery of the lost Sicilian species in a small B.C. town is matched only by the unearthing of dinosaur skeletons in Alberta.  I would strongly urge the government to create a breeding program to slowly reintroduce them back into the wild, while Dr. David Suzuki could film an interesting documentary about the day those free-spirited Sicilian olives finally broke loose and ended up on my pizza.

Neither did the Caesar salad do much to improve the mood:  the only resemblance to the traditional was the Romaine. White broken crackers, strangely looking like Matzo (did Passover start earlier this year?) replaced butter-sautéed, plump garlic croutons.  Instead of Worcestershire, garlic, anchovies, Dijon, olive oil, lemon juice, egg yolks, red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar dressing, the order of the day was a beer-based concoction. The food on the plate was disjointed and I felt aggravated. Was it another ‘bad day in the kitchen,’ or was it just me? I was tres, tres, desole again – and somehow it felt like déjà-vu. I kept thinking about the customers who had written stellar reviews about the food and wondered if sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The moral of the story: If you want to break the mould, steer away from tradition, make your mark and boldly go where no chef has ever gone before – go with a bang and make it memorable, for mediocrity is not a trait widely rewarded.

I will end this story with an anecdote about something I learned from one of my customers:  it was two years ago, late on a Saturday in the summer. The Cannery was deserted and no living soul was to be seen. Walla was quiet as usual since everyone was at the downtown market. A gentleman sat at an outside table and ordered an Israeli tuna salad sandwich. He savored it slowly, paid, and left without speaking. A month or longer passed until he reappeared on a Saturday and repeated the ritual: sat at the same table and ordered the same dish. This time before leaving he spoke laconically:  “I just wanted to see whether it was a one-time thing.” Since then he keeps coming once in a blue moon for the Israeli tuna salad sandwich…

There are still a few righteous establishments among the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah, do not fear… . .(to be continued…).

A Day at the Beach

I don’t like air travel, and not because of a fear of flying:  it’s about the noisy children, loud adults, crowded spaces, security checks, lengthy delays, lost luggage, the endless parade of passengers in the aisles, extremely expensive yet mediocre airport food, etc. Otherwise, Captain Kirk’s ‘Beam me up Scotty’ would best suit my discerning lifestyle. However, until such technological feats take place, I’ll have to put up with overbearing and stern flight attendants, and the annoying view of the privileged passengers in the business and Plus classes, their extra-wide reclining seats with enough leg-room to park your check-in luggage, and the complimentary drinks, food and tiny white hot towels they receive from the attentive and smiling, (yes, smiling) staff. Instead, they should be relegated to the back of the airplane so we plebeians could feel more comfortable in our skins. I would prefer spending our vacation at home, reading a book, watching the snow fall and throwing another log on the fire.  However, Sharon doesn’t trust me. She knows that after awhile, I’ll feel the itch to sneak out to Walla where work beckons and there is ‘always something to do.’  She knows . . . women know . . . they always do . . . and then their maternal instinct takes over and they try to save us men from ourselves.  So here I am, twelve days and 6000 km. away from home, standing on a beach in the Mayan Riviera. It’s early morning, the sun is still low on the horizon and the air is cool, but nothing compared to the chill and snow we left behind in Naramata.

After devouring five books and four food magazines in recent days,  I’m restless and start looking for ‘trouble.’ The music in the headset is on ‘shuffle’ mode, gently switching from Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma,’ Maritza’s soulful Fado, to old Hebrew songs that bring back memories of home. The music is at the perfect level, muffling other people’s conversations while letting through the endless ocean sounds.

Pelicanos

The nearby water- sports building bustles with activity, resembling a hive with yellow and black-clad workers who look like busy bumblebees as they refuel sea-doo’s and load oxygen tanks on the large flat-bottom boats. These will carry the men and women dressed in dark wet-suits in full diving gear, who appear like battle-hardened veteran navy-SEALS going out to the treacherous sea, and I wonder if any of them will ever return from the dangerous mission of hmm…swimming with dolphins and sightseeing at the nearby coral reef…

Mercedes Sosa’s Alfonsina y el mar’ sounds more poignant than ever with the gentle sound of the waves breaking against the beach. Once in a while I put down the pen to sip from the tall cappuccino and watch the local beach vendors offering everything from silver artisan jewelry, Cuban cigars, Havana hats, sunglasses and sombreros to hand-woven carpets – all in hard U.S. currency. A few fluffy clouds linger like lost lambs separated from their flock. The beach becomes quiet for awhile; waves gently move, capped with frothy milk-like foam, while cruise ships appear on the horizon, heading towards Cozumel.

The serenity is temporarily broken by another group of ‘SEALS’, leaving for their dangerous mission of ‘Snorkel with Turtles’ or ‘Dances with Wolves’. The brown pelicans finally take off from the wooden structure located about 500 ft. from the beach. They have been perched there since early morning, frozen in different positions as though carved in the wood itself. Slowly gaining height, they flap their large wings and majestically glide in circles, often appearing motionless, suspended in time. The scene looks serene and pastoral but it’s deceiving: their intent is to constantly scan the waters below for prey. Suddenly, they collect their wings in battle mode formation and dive at high kamikaze speed for the catch-of-the-day. This balancing act of precise aerodynamic maneuvers, tactics and pure elegance, is taken no less out of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ They are seafood eaters – but different than their loud, junk-food, beach-crowding winged brethren – the seagulls, the lawless birds that know no limits and are as noisy as their human counterparts; once they discover any evidence of food in your possession your serenity, calm and peace are doomed. You are instantly and constantly surrounded by agitated and screaming flocks, circling around at an alarmingly close distance, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’; lunch is now served!

Ben and gulls

All around, young and not-so-young bodies are adorned in a myriad of tattoos; which begs for the inevitable question – what is the point of having a miniscule butterfly inked on your flabby cheek (which you cannot see), and having to wear a ‘teeny-weenie-yellow-polka-dot-bikini’ in order for others to enjoy the ‘masterpiece?’ But hey, what do I know? After all, I’m just a baker!

The ear catches different languages and dialects. Every person on this beach, lying on the blue toweled chaise long – is here for the same reason: sunnier and warmer weather, different from their place of origin. They lie there like the cold-blood iguanas and bearded-dragon lizards which can be found perched around the pool area, worshipping the Sun-God.

The sun is now at its Zenith and grey clouds gather at the horizon. Sometimes it rains for short periods and then the sun peeks from behind the dissipating clouds – first, hesitatingly as if debating the right of showing its unabashed glory in January. The tropical vegetation and the beautiful gardens appear to be content, since light and water are the quintessence of life. The pelicans gently float motionless on the rolling waves, seriously looking down their long bills, with an air of self-importance. The presence of clouds makes the sky appear somehow lower and conveys a feeling of intimacy. At some point in time, the sounds and visions morph into a spiritual experience and I cannot help but wonder how everything around me, in this flawed world – appears to be so perfect. . .

As times passes, I realize that I have stopped writing and have entered a meditative state, while the story continues taking place in my mind. By now, the sun has set, the beach beginning to empty of sun worshippers, and all the ‘SEALS’ have been accounted for. As twilight descends, another magnificent day at the beach has ended. . .

Omnia

Omnia Bread 2 Sept. 2015

What do you call a bread that has everything?                         

During the bread making process, I always make a larger dough quantity than needed. The idea behind this is to be able to hold back a piece that will later be introduced in the next batch. This ‘Old School’ practice guarantees a deeper flavor profile, because it enhances the sourdough that slowly ferments at lower temperature in the cooler and is constantly fed and nourished by temporarily (three days) being part of the main batch. This ‘extra’ piece is then retired to a bin where it waits for its turn again. Some of the dough in that bin is a continuation of the first loaves I baked eight years ago. With every bite of the crusty loaf baked today, there is a memory of the past when I started my journey as a baker.

The problem is that over the years, the quantity of this extra dough has slowly increased to the point that I now have to use larger bins (eight in total), which occupy much needed refrigerator space. It’s time to clean the cupboard, and since unusual problems call for unorthodox solutions, I have decided for one time only to craft a unique loaf:  I will use this dough made with different modern, heritage and ancient flours and textures to create a loaf that will represent Walla’s pantheon of breads.

What name should this loaf be given, that incorporates wheat, whole-grain wheat, whole-grain organic Red Fife heritage wheat, whole-grain organic spelt, light rye, whole-grain organic rye, whole-grain organic Kamut and organic sorghum? After much thought about a name that would represent the inclusiveness of all these flours and flavours, the name ‘OMNIA,’ which is Latin for ‘EVERYTHING,’ came to me. And then I couldn’t ignore the humorous aspect of the fact that it perfectly rhymes with ‘INSOMNIA,’ which I sometimes experience as a baker.

As I put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, the dough is on it’s final four-day fermentation leg, ending an eight year journey. I’m a bit anxious regarding the outcome, but hopefully it will be a memorable experience (the bread was baked on Sept. 12, 2015).

Fare La Scarpetta

Walla's Beef Bourguignon

Walla’s Beef Bourguignon

Fare la scarpetta is one of those awesome Italian sayings that don’t really have an exact translation in English. With fare, meaning ‘to do’, and scarpetta, meaning ‘a small shoe,’ we get, ‘to do the small shoe.’ What does this all mean you ask?!!

When you are done eating a dish that is made in some sort of sauce, you grab a piece of bread, and you Fai la scarpetta. That is, you drag a piece of bread in the leftover sauce, oil, or condiment that is on your plate: you sop up what’s left. Isn’t that so clever of Italian!? It’s like dragging your bread-shoe over the plate, picking up all that’s left over. Or in English, ‘licking your plate clean,’ but using a piece of bread to ‘clean’ the plate. 

Two months ago, a young fellow walked into Walla and ordered Shakshuka for lunch. He was all excited, and at the end he mopped the pan clean with the bread.  “This is the scarpetta,” he saidas I watched his progress and mopping technique.  Since then, he’s come in religiously at least once a week and slowly sampled Walla’s entire menu, always leaving a shining plate behind.  Last Saturday he outdid himself with the sauce-laden Beef Bourguignon. I would define Walla’s cuisine as sophisticated peasant food, which begs for you to just grab a piece of bread and ‘do the scarpetta.’ I myself regularly enjoy eating bread with a large salad in which the chunky tomatoes, onions and cucumbers frolic happily next to plump Kalamata olives in a ‘sauce’ of green aromatic olive oil, so apparently I have been ‘fai la scarpetta’ for as long as I can remember. . . . It turns out that Joey is from Montreal, where his family owns an Italian restaurant. He hopes to make the Okanagan his home, and is looking for employment in his field as a civil/environmental engineer.  Meanwhile, by bribing him with all the bourekas he can eat, we managed to recruit him to man the front line at Walla’s command post at the market every Saturday starting in May.

Read about Walla Foods in a new book “Okanagan Slow Road”

Okanagan-Slow-Road-book

Okanagan Slow Road book on Amazon (click to view)

Explore the bucolic Okanagan Valley of south-central British Columbia with Okanagan Slow Road. A compilation of the best of the region’s food, drink, and recreation, the book reveals local culinary secrets: crusty double-baked bread, lavender-infused pepper, seasonal vegetables, dark red cherries, sinfully rich double-cream brie, and farm-fresh eggs with yolks so dark they will startle. And of course, the wines. What would delicious local food be without famous vintages from the unique Okanagan terroir? Although not a definitive guide to Okanagan wines, this book is a personal journey from southern desert wineries with their “big reds” through to the northern Okanagan where crisp whites rule, and includes a list of the many wineries worth visiting.

Explore the entire length of the Okanagan Valley, with experiences such as spying a rare canyon wren, cycling the historic Kettle Valley Railroad across heart-stopping trestle bridges or among neatly planted vineyards, hiking through fields of spring flowers, paddling in a protected bay, and climbing on the world-famous gneiss of the Skaha Bluffs. Use the wonderful resource of Okanagan Valley farmers’ markets at the back of the book to guide your shopping in the region.

Eat local, buy local, cook the food yourself, pair dishes with local vintages, and have a lot of fun in the process. Take your time. Slow down. Taste. Smell. Those are the messages of Okanagan Slow Road.

A Rose Garden in Your Mouth

Some time ago, Dr. Tom Jasper discovered Walla and his fondness for meringues. He would show up religiously every Saturday and carefully choose his favourite flavours. Then he would explain to us the unique eating technique that he developed in order to maximize the total savoring experience: ‘The trick,’ he said, ‘is to gently break the fluffy cloud over a bowl, in order not to lose even the smallest crumb – and then, you’re good to go!’ Sharon and I would exchange glances that said – ‘O.M.G, our dentist has developed a sugar addiction!’ Luckily, it looks like Tom is in full control of his cravings, otherwise I would find him knocking on the bakery door long before opening hours.

Being a master rose gardener, with every weekly visit to Walla Tom would bring a beautiful bouquet of fragrant and colorful roses that Sharon would proudly display in a little vase on the counter. By the end of each week the roses would naturally die and I would collect the petals in a basket and allow them to dry. At some point I mentioned this to Tom, saying that eventually I would like to prepare some rose petal jam, the way it was done in my family for generations. He rose (no pun intended) to the challenge, and started to collect the petals from his garden and to store them in freezer bags which he then began to faithfully bring me (he mentioned that his roses are never sprayed with chemicals and can therefore be considered ‘organic’). As Valentine’s Day approached, I began to combine chocolate and roses and to honor these precious, colorful creations from Tom’s garden. The result was a unique flourless chocolate heart with a layer of white chocolate and rose petal ganache, topped with a candied rose petal; and also jars of rose petal jam made with organic sugar and pectin.

Now, after 50 years, I am reminded of my childhood in Romania and my grandmother’s rose petal jam that tasted ‘like a rose garden in your mouth.’ The jam is a complete sensory celebration, involving a vibrant, deep-red color, an intoxicating floral aroma, and the flavour. . . .well, it can’t be said any better: ‘like a rose garden in your mouth.’

A Pleasant Peasant Soup

Vegies 012

Farmer Steve’s Lovage

Farmer Steve from Olalla usually comes by unexpectedly and brings whatever he managed to pick that day. Since both of our roots are in eastern Europe, we often reminisce about the ‘good ol’ days’, where food was ‘real, simple and tasty.’ After our last schmoozing session, when we lingered over childhood memories of Stinging Nettle and Leustean (a.k.a. Lovage), he showed-up carrying a loaded box filled with green Nettle, Lovage, Horseradish, Parsley root, large black European radishes, beautiful beets, eggs and a few other ‘exotic’ items that he manages to grow, including monster- size carrots that spent all winter long deep in the ground getting fatter and fatter.

My childhood in Romania was ‘peppered’ with many fond food memories, including the day when I stumbled into a field of stinging Nettles and returned home with legs covered in rashes. In no time I left home again for my next adventure, where I met Paraskiva, the peasant lady who was living with her family in the backyard of our property. She was toiling over a clay stove in an outdoor kitchen, where a black cast iron pot was hanging above a fire. The wafting aromas stopped me in my tracks; these were no ordinary smells of garlicky beet and potato borscht, or golden chicken soup and matzo balls, but of a new, different, simple and yet complex scent. She explained that it was a Nettle and Leustean ciorba (peasant soup), sat me in her lap and handed me a rough clay bowl filled with green liquid where a few leaves of the dreaded Nettle were gently floating. Eating with a coarsely carved wooden spoon was not an easy task for a five year-old, but in return I was rewarded with new and exotic flavors, never known before in my gastronomic pantheon. The flavors have remained with me ever since, and thanks to Steve’s green thumb I was reminded of my childhood this week as I stood over my soup pot.

Hot Air

CroissantsCroissants… What do the Industrial Revolution, the Titanic, the Orient Express and Croissants, have in common?. . . . Steam, my friends, steam. . . .This magical and mighty energy is released when water reaches its boiling point. Steam has the power to move large industrial turbines, ships and train engines, and also to create flakey croissants. Thus, baking croissants involves having a knowledge of physics and thermodynamics. Hey kids, don’t skip those physics classes – you never know where life will take you: one day you could design a rocket, or. . . . hmmm. . . bake a fancy croissant which is considered to be the Holy Grail of French (Austrian) baking.

The mechanics of a successful croissant involves using cold and pliable butter. The dough and the fat should be as close to the same texture and temperature as possible. Butter that is too cold will crack and break into small lumps, and butter that is too soft will result in a pastry lacking flakiness. While baking, the water and the butter in the layered dough turn into steam that tries to escape. The fat gives the dough the necessary strength and protection to withstand the pressure of the steam, and also encourages gluten development. The imprisoned steam causes the dough to inflate between the layers, and gives volume to the finished pastry.

However, baking croissants is like doing the tango: having the passion and counting the steps without practicing – kills the dance. Unless you spend hours and hours folding and turning the pastry, all your knowledge and desire won’t deliver the perfect croissant, and you will be forever lost in the land of mediocrity, without redemption or parole.

While planning our trip to Paris, I had expressed my wish to spend time in a French ‘Boulangerie/Patisserie.’ Sharon and I fantasized that perhaps someone we knew, might know someone, who would know a baker, who would allow me to go behind the scenes in their bakery. As many of you know, I was on a quest for the ‘ flakiest croissant and the crustiest baguette in Paris…'(This turned out to be very difficult, because the gap between ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ was almost non-existant).

There were three bakeries within a block of where we stayed in Paris. One of them was just around the corner, and was recommended by our friend. We went in on our first day there and while waiting in line, discovered that they had a charming tea room. We ordered, and asked the waitress whether there was an actual bakery on the premises, as they seemed to be in a residential, not a commercial area. She replied yes, and ten minutes later, the owner/baker, Alain Clerardin stood next to our table. In her charming French, Sharon explained to him that I own a ‘petit boulangerie’ in B.C., and his eyes lit up. It seems that 25 years ago, Alain and his wife worked in Toronto briefly, and then returned to Paris to start their own bakery, which has been open for the past 23 years. He immediately offered to show me his operation in the back of the shop. I was filled with excitement, but trying hard to maintain my cool. I thought to myself: “Here is a generous, down-to-earth baker, who, without me asking/begging/pleading etc., offers to take me into the holy-of-holies!”

Clerardin's Patisserie

Clerardin’s Patisserie

On that day I I started to believe in fate! His operation looked like a beehive, with 16 employees manning different work stations, including breads, baguettes, pastries, cakes, sandwiches, quiches, chocolates, and more. He walked me through the various stations and I casually mentioned my interest in the process of croissant-making. He introduced me to the pastry-maker who was in charge of producing all the doughs for the croissants, pain au chocolats, tarts and quiches, and mentioned that he starts work at 4 am. I thanked him and confirmed that I would be there the next day. The next morning, I rang the service bell at Alain’s bakery at 4 am., reporting for my apprenticeship. For the next 6 hours, I witnessed the ease with which French croissants could be made – it was like listening to Pavarotti’s effortless arias. . .I got firsthand experience rolling, twisting and pulling the pastry and I can tell you now, “it’s all in the wrist!”

Alain invited me to come back anytime, and despite the temptation to spend 24 hours a day at his place, I thanked him and declined the kind offer, because I was, after all, on vacation, and wanted to spend more time with my lovely wife.

When I started the quest for the flakiest croissant, little did I know that it would end here at home in my own bakery. Since I returned from Paris, I’ve made two attempts at crafting the perfect croissant. The second attempt was yesterday, as some of you who sampled them know. It was far better than the first batch, but far from perfect. After all, practice make perfect, and exercise makes excellence. . . .

Memories of Paris: A Fungus Feast

Mushrooms in ParisA while ago I invited my friend Chris to go on a ‘down to earth’ food adventure. Not only down to earth, but also down and dirty!

For those of you who don’t know Chris Remington, he is the young, talented and modest chef who moved with his family from Vancouver a few years ago to take the helm at the Hooded Merganser Restaurant at the Lakeside Resort and Casino in Penticton BC. He has recently added a few more hours to his already busy schedule in order to oversee food operations for the whole resort. Anyways, as expected, he was all excited about the plan, which included mushroom foraging, and then cooking our bounty on the spot with the help of butter, garlic, thyme and of course, a white wine. The next step would have been to pile the fragrant fungi on a thick slice of country bread, close our eyes and enjoy the sounds of the forest and the noise of our chewing. This divine plan was missing a minor detail which proved to be a major one: neither Chris nor I had any practical field experience with mushrooms, so we were strongly advised not to attempt to recognize edible mushrooms from their pictures in a book! Well, Chris, this story is for you. . .

Smelly Chevres

Smelly Chevres

Rue Montorgueil is an eclectic street in the 2nd Arrondisement in Paris, which is a ‘foodie’s paradise,’ not only full of fabulous food shops, but also places like Dehillerin for cooking and baking equipment.

We started at Eric Kayser’s Boulangerie to pick up a half-loaf of his famous Pain du Compagne. Next door was a vegetable store with an amazing display of mushrooms including, Chanterelles, Trumpets, Girolles, and many others. My plan was immediately hatched: that night we would be eating mushrooms!

With two hundred grams of Chanterelles at E20. a kilo (Cdn.$30) in our bag, we continued next door to the herb emporium, where we discovered every fresh herb imaginable, including the perfect fragrant bouquet of thyme, still attached to its roots, and covered in soil.Fresh herbs

We also threw in a fresh head of garlic and some baby greens for a salad, and headed over to the ‘Fromagerie,’ which we could smell from down the street. Inside, it was pristine, esthetically beautiful, and had a wonderfully rustic feel. I almost expected to see a cow emerging from behind the counter. The refrigerated cases were full of a huge array of different cheeses, some displaying thick layers of blue and black mold that would make even the toughest Canadian food inspector shiver, knees weak, and question the sanity of his profession. While Sharon got all excited about the different fresh, soft, and very smelly Chevres, I opted for a Vieux Comte, a flavourful hard cheese. Behind the ‘cheese man,’ I noticed two blocks of butter sold by weight, so we included a nice slab with our purchase. For dessert we found a very decadent Napoleon at Boulangerie de Monge – it had three layers of puff pastry filled with a caramel pastry creme, topped with a dusting of almond pralines. We hopped on the Metro and home we went, back to Neuilly-sur-Seine where we were staying with Sharon’s friend.

I headed straight to the small kitchen, sauteed the mushrooms in the fresh butter, garlic and thyme, and at the end de-glazed the pan with white wine. In another pan I whipped up a quick frittata using leftover potatoes and some of the moldy cheeses we’d bought. The salad was ready, the country bread was sliced, we poured some wine, and our dual-fungus-feast began. . . Chris, it was truly a down-to-earth shopping and eating experience. You would have loved it.