Saturday, 23 July 2011

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

I have spent the last week scouring my bookshelves for novels which feature food as a tool of communication, inspiration and temptation. I have also visited my favourite online bookstores - Booktopia and Fishpond -  to see what is new in this genre and of course, bought a few. Oh dear. This week's offering is Chocolat.

Chocolat was first published in 1999 and was made in to a movie by the same name starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. The author has freely admitted that her hobbies include "priest baiting and quiet subversion". The storyline uses the well known temptations of chocolate to challenge "bait and subvert"  faith and morality in a small rural town in France.

"We came on the winds of the Carnival..." p1 is the first hint that change within a small community is afoot. The bringer of that change is the main character Vianne Rocher who is the daughter of a witch who has been taught the art of turning bad luck in to good. She has also been instilled with "gypsy wunderlust" by her mother. Together with her young child Anouk, Vianne arrives in the small town of Lasquenet, in France. It is Shrove Tuesday and a Carnival is heralding in the start of Lent.

The picturesque town is both parochial and patriarchal. Its 200 inhabitants are dominated by the severe priest Cure Renaud, the imposing church and Town Square isolated amidst expansive farmlands. Here, Vianne, a self taught chocolatier sets up a chocolate shop called Le Celeste Praline in a dis-used bakery opposite the church, the gauntlet is thrown and traditonal values are questioned.

"I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints, crash, crash crashing down amongst the hazels and nougatines" p62

The story alternates, chapter by chapter, between the viewpoints of Vianne and her nemesis Cure Renaud who becomes increasingly alarmed and obsessed with trying to keep his flock safe from the temptations of indulging in chocolate during Lent.

Inside the chocolate shop we meet Guillame who is distressed by the priest's view that his dying dog does not have a soul, an elderly woman Armande who rejects the priest's counsel and orchestrates her own passing and Josephine who denounces her marriage vows and leaves her bully husband. As each parishioner moves closer to their own truths, Cure Renaud becomes increasingly more watchful and controlling.

By Easter Monday, the winds have changed once more and Vianne hints at her departure. The Cure has met his downfall and the chocolatier has worked her magic.

Whole paragraphs within the story are devoted to mouthwatering descriptions of truffles, gingerbreads, crystallized fruit, marzipan birds, clusters, seashells and sugared violets. Enjoy!

"... he bought a cornet of Florentines and a cup of chocolate"

Easy. Serves 10

1/2 cup sultanas
2 cups cornflakes
100gm slivered almonds
100gm chopped glace cherries
2 tablespoons mixed peel
2/3 cup sweet  condensed milk
250 gm dark chocolate


Preheat oven to 170C and line two large baking
trays with non stick paper.
Combine all ingredients except the chocolate in a large bowl. At this point you may also like to add optional ingredients such as glace ginger, allspice or nutmeg. 
Place spoonfuls of mixture on to the trays leaving space for the Florentines to spread while cooking OR alternatively press the mix in to egg rings for a more uniform look. 
Bake 10 minutes until lightly golden and leave on a wire rack to cool and harden. 
In the meantime dissolve chocolate in a bowl over a pot of boiling water and when melted spread on the underside of the biscuits and refrigerate. 
If you get tired of filling egg rings with biscuit mix, do as I did and press the mixture in to a lined baking dish and when cooked cut in to squares or fingers.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran

"She lowered the heat on the simmering plum stew and turned to the brick oven. Using a large paddle, she stoked the smouldering logs inside its large belly." p116

In Marsha's second novel The Babylon Cafe - with its red door, purple shutters and wafting smells - is contrasted against the damp cragginess of Ireland. In this story the sisters blossom on their individual journeys of finding love, letting go of the past and finding their futures. A mermaid with a secret, a drunken goat, the local busybody and a deejay priest along with traditions, contradictions, faerie folk and the happy sprinkling of rosewater help them on their way.  The second novel does not include written recipes but it does make reference to many. The recipe below when translated means "green". And green it is! It is light and fruity not thick and hearty like say, an Irish stew.

 Persian Plum Stew Serves 6 -8  Khoresht Gojeh Sabz 
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons tumeric
1 onion diced
3 bunches parsley chopped
3 bunches mint chopped
3 bunches scallions chopped
5 cups of chicken stock
3/4 cup lemon juice
12 unripe plums (prunes)
1 kg chicken or lamb diced

Method: Saute the chopped onions with 1 teaspoon of Tumeric until softened. Add the herbs and saute until dark green. Add stock, plums and lemon juice. Bring to the boil then simmer until the plums are soft - about one hour. (If you are using prunes, plop them in to heat through at the end, once the meat is cooked). In a separate fry pan saute meat with remaining one teaspoon of  Tumeric until browned. Add to the mix. Cook in oven or stove top for one hour. Season to taste and serve with rice.

Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran

"Gush-e fil or elephant's ears, like their fellow fritters, are fried until golden and dripping with all things forbidden." p99 

In this novel three sisters - Marjan, Bahar and Layla - are depicted settling in to the Irish town of Ballinacroagh after their cunning and courageous escape from the turmoil of Tehran in the 1970's. The sisters brought with them their nightmares of the Islamic revolution together with their happy memories of childhood and their quest to make a new life. They open the Babylon Cafe and cook Persian recipes. The food gave the sisters a sense of identity and became the  bridge between the "foreigners" and the suspicious township. Marsha Mehran's writing style is evocative and she guides her readers between her characters' past and present in a vivid way. The fictitious story parallels her own life as her family did indeed escape the Islamic uprising and opened a cafe in Argentina. Marsha was educated in Australia, married an Irishman and now lives in New York. The Persian recipes in her novel include; Dolmeh, Red Lentil Soup, Baklava, Dugh Yogurt Drink, Elephant's Ears (my favourite), Lavash Bread, Torschi, Chelow, Fesenjoon, Lavender and Mint Tea and Pomegranate Soup. Thanks Marsha!

Elephant's Ears. Easy. Makes 15
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup rosewater
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 3/4 cups plain flour
6 cups of vegetable oil for deep frying

Method: Beat the egg in a bowl. Add milk, sugar, rosewater and cardamom. Introduce flour slowly. Once combined knead in to a dough and roll out on a lightly floured board until very thin. The thinner the dough the crispier it will cook and the better your triceps workout will be. Cut circles out of the dough using  a wide-rimmed cup or bowl. A decorative cookie cutter would give a frilly edge. Pinch each circle in the middle to form a bow shape. Heat oil until very hot (test a small piece of dough). Fry each ear one minute or until lightly golden. Remove and drain. Sprinkle with icing sugar and cinnamon. I usually make twice the amount as they are very popular in my household.


One of my earliest childhood memories is hiding under the bed covers, late at night, reading by torchlight. Within this cosy cave I went on adventures with Enid Blyton's Famous Five, laughed until I cried with the mishaps of Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and later fell in love with the romance of the Regency world of Georgette Heyer. My senses were further heightened by the Famous Five picnicking on jam sandwiches, sardines, boiled eggs, chocolate cake and ginger beer. Enid made the ordinary magical - even breakfast was porridge with cream! Likewise, Lucy Montgomery described lush cherry preserves and fruitcake, pudding sauce (without the mouse), currant wine and who remembers Anne's run-in with that infamous raspberry cordial?  Louisa May Alcott had us crunching on russets while Georgette Heyer portrayed dashing gentlemen who drank brandy and fiesty heroines who supped tea from china cups! Today, I still eat porridge with cream, love Pink Lady apples and have a collection of pretty tea cups and saucers. So my novel idea, not new I am sure, is to read a favourite book and cook a recipe or dish from that book to share with you, just for the fun of it.