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Yesterday, at Old St Paul’s, Wellington’s restaurant community farewelled a much loved colleague, Pierre Meyer.  I’m hoping the Dominion Post is researching his obituary as I write this because he deserves to be celebrated as a much loved chef and restaurateur who made New Zealand his home and changed the face of dining in Wellington.

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Pierre’s Restaurant, drawing by Michael Fowler

When his eponymous restaurant opened in the late 70s on Tinakori Rd there were only 4 licensed restaurants in Wellington and all were fine dining establishments. Pierre’s was different. A French bistro housed in a refurbished wooden villa, it was at the forefront of a change to chic but casual dining. He served duck parfait, whole roasted poussin, delicate fish dishes, apple tarts and homemade glacés. It may not seem special these days, when ice cream is flavoured with everything from liquorice to miso, but back in the day Pierre caused a sensation with his kiwifruit ice cream. It must have stayed on the menu for as long as his restaurant stayed open, which is to say for many years.

Not many restaurants retain their popularity for as long as Pierre’s. Its success was as much to do with the man himself and the team he built around him as it was to his food.

The turnout at his memorial service was testament to that. The church was filled with his friends:  people who dined at his restaurant and attended his cooking classes;  people who worked for him, socialised with him and rubbed shoulders with him at food and wine events. His fellow restaurateurs were there too, representing a slice of the capital’s culinary history: Marbles, The Roxborough, City Limits Cafe, Boulcott Street Bistro, Brasserie Flipp, Cafe L’Affare. They were all there, along with one or two of us who used to supply them.

Dan and I owned a fresh pasta business back then. That’s how we first met him. We supplied him with  pasta, and it was typical of Pierre that he demanded the best and he demanded bespoke. I remember having to put our regular production on hold to make very small quantities of saffron fettuccine for him. It was inefficient, uneconomic and a pain in the neck to be honest, but he was so charming and so encouraging it was impossible to say no. And of course we were proud to have our pasta on the menu of an establishment that made almost everything from scratch.

We all had our Pierre stories yesterday. I never knew he was such an appalling driver. And I never knew he influenced a change to our licensing laws when a table of parliamentarians witnessed a raid on his restaurant. Close down Pierre’s? It was unthinkable. Rumour has it the law was changed the very next day. Thank you for that, Pierre. Thanks for everything.

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Muffins Revisited

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It’s been years since I’ve eaten a muffin. I used to like the regular sized ones made with apple or blueberry. On the rare occasions I baked, I would make lemon and buttermilk muffins with a crunchy sugar topping and I even remember making the now defunct bran and sultana muffins. (This was in the days when bran muffins competed with carrot cake in cafes that also sold wholemeal quiche.) But somewhere along the line muffins were given the Big Mac treatment, mutating into super-sized muffin/cakes overloaded with chocolate chips, or with savoury fillings that properly belong in a quiche. 

Ngaire's Muffins

Ngaire with Muffins

I’m happy the monster muffin fad has abated, ‘though why it has been replaced by the trend for tasteless over-dressed cup cakes is anyone’s guess. Anyway, the reason I’m writing about muffins is that I whipped up a batch today, using a recipe given to me by a friend who we visited over summer. Ngaire has a bach in the bay next to ours in the Marlborough Sounds. She invited us over for lunch and with coffee she served some light-as-a-feather retro-sized, retro-styled muffins. They were golden brown, warm and homely and they made me wonder why they had ever fallen from favour.  I got out my notepad and pestered  her for the recipe which turned out to be an amalgam of essential kiwi baking: banana cake + carrot cake + sultana muffin. She gave me her recipe from memory, having more or less made it up, and she generously told me how she achieves a light texture to all her baking. Regardless of what the recipe says, she always separates the eggs, whips the whites and folds them in at the end.

Ngaire’s Muffins

3/4 cup sultanas

1 cup plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

pinch salt

2 eggs separated

2 tablespoons runny honey

1/2 cup neutral oil (eg rice bran or sunflower)

1 banana, mashed

1 cup grated carrot

Preheat oven to 180°C fan bake. Grease a medium-sized 12 muffin tray.

Soak sultanas in boiling water for 10 minutes then drain and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl sift flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt.

In a smaller bowl, lightly beat egg yolks, honey and oil. Add to dry ingredients and fold together without over-mixing. Fold in mashed banana and grated carrot. Whip egg whites to stiff peaks and gently fold through mixture. Spoon dollops of mixture into muffin tins and bake for 20 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out cleanly. Leave in tin until cool enough to handle. Cool muffins on rack. Split and serve with butter.

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I’ve always wondered how people get those photographs of a perfect sunny side up fried egg. My recent food styling course with Denise Vivaldo revealed the secret and left me wondering, for the umpeteenth time during the weekend workshop, how could I have been so naiive? I may be telling all you food stylists out there how to suck eggs (so to speak) but the following method came as a revelation to me.

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Doctoring an egg white

The problem lies in getting a nicely set white with a runny yolk. So here’s what you do. In a heavy pan, on a very low heat, heat oil to a depth of 1 cm. Separate white from yolk and slide the egg white into the oil. It should cook very gently with no sputtering. The egg should be fresh so it stays compact and doesn’t spread too far. When fully set, remove from pan and using a cookie cutter remove a yolk sized disk from the middle of the white and pop the raw yolk into the gap.

Almost perfect. The next bit is more challenging. Inevitably there will be some unwanted craters in the white which need to be filled with – wait for it – denture fixing glue. The glue is just the right colour and consistency to smooth over the holes; vaseline is a second best.

So there you have it. For years I’ve wondered why my eggs don’t look as good as the pictures in magazines. Now I know. But I’m comforted by the thought that the eggs I’ve cooked for the camera have always been scoffed after the shoot and they’ve never got stuck to people’s teeth. However, I do like the picture-book look of my workshopped egg, especially the yolk – notwithstanding the fact that it’s raw.

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My styled egg

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Having just come back from China, where I saw one or two things that would make your eyes water (see my last post), I’m once again having to defend my position on the relatively harmless farming of ducks and geese for foie gras.

The activists who continue to picket Le Canard restaurant in Wellington are now projecting videos into the restaurant in an effort to harass customers while they enjoy an evening out, which may or may not include eating foie gras at a restaurant that specialises in the cuisine of South-West France – cuisine in which ducks, geese and foie gras have a starring role.

The reason I’m writing what is now my third blog post on this issue is that the activists are being very selective about the information they choose to present. I’d like to redress the balance on behalf of Pascal the chef, who is simply too stressed-out to do so himself, and I’d like to apologise to our long-suffering and loyal customers who are being treated as collateral damage in this campaign. Yes, the activists have a democratic right to protest but they have no moral right to harass our customers.

The videos they are projecting through the windows of the restaurant have been taken from the internet. You can goggle them on YouTube. They were filmed nearly 10 years ago, (before individual battery cages were banned by the EU) and they show the very worst of factory farming – practices and conditions that Le Canard has never condoned. This is like showing images of factory pig farming – sow crates and all – to people who buy ethically-raised pork.

They get away with it because so little is known about foie gras in this country. Indeed, the activists admit they have never seen the gavage (force-feeding) process themselves.

The fact is, there are good and bad farmers. Le Canard buy its foie gras from Rougié, a producer in the Dordogne that sources its foie gras from farms like the one shown in this video.

 

I believe we should be supporting farmers like these in the same way we support free-range egg farmers. Good farmers like these hate to be associated with the sort of industrial scale farms depicted in the videos selected by the activists. There is a huge difference.

I’ve visited foie gras farms myself and seen the gavage. The photo below shows the geese on a farm near Sorge. They free-range on grass with plenty of food, grain, walnuts and shade. When the farmer comes into the field they run up to greet him.

Foie Gras Farm, Dordogne

The last 20 days of their lives are spent in a barn where they are kept in family groups and fed maize porridge(3 times a day) from a pipe that’s inserted down their necks into the crop where digestion takes place. The whole process takes less than 5 seconds and the geese remain perfectly calm throughout. Unlike humans they have no gag reflex.

La Gavage, Dordogne

This is a good farm run by good farmers and it produces good foie gras. Farms that maltreat their birds do not.

But back to the activists who continue to say they are not picking on Le Canard. How else do you explain the fact that Le Canard is the only business they are targeting when there are many others who import, sell or serve foie gras and the associated products of force-fed ducks. (Those imported tins of duck confit contain the legs and thighs of guess what? force-fed ducks.) Where is the consistency in this protest action?

It’s strange too that the activists have taken their protest to the City Market in Wellington, not because the market sells foie gras (it doesn’t) but because Le Canard has an occasional stall there. They would force Pascal out of the market even though the terrines and rillettes he sells are made from New Zealand farmed ducks, which are not force-fed. Work that one out.

It seem clear to me that they are seeking media publicity for their cause by forcing a small French restaurant out of business. So far they’ve managed to attract three newspaper stories in which they vow to continue their bullying until the chef bows to their demands and takes foie gras off the menu.

What should worry fair-minded New Zealanders is that they have picked on such an easy target – a 30 seater restaurant in the middle of a recession. Will they be cheering when they put six people out of work?  I’m sure they will.

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More on Foie Gras

I didn’t really want to get into a tit-for-tat debate about foie gras but someone called Sam has left a lengthy comment on my last blog post which I am responding to in the hope it clarifies my point of view.

This is what Sam has to say:

As a share holder of course you are going to side with the restaurant and the practice of force feeding geese , despite not having any real evidence to back up your assertions that this is humane and the geese are all good with it. I dont care how much you gloss it over it is still cruelty and by the way sow stalls will be illegal from 2015 in NZ .
You say these people are “bullying” the restaurant , they have a right to protest and id hardly call standing peacefully with a few placards handing out leaflets “bullying” more like exercising ones right to freedom of expression in NZ. This group have sent letters to two food places in Wellington regarding Foie gras and thats all that was needed for them to take it off the shelves . If they were to protest the french embassy that would have no effect at all and not be informing potential eaters of this product , by the way the French government has made it illegal to even have vegetarian options in their schools so they would be wasting their time trying to lobby the french government.

This is my response:

Dear Sam,

Firstly I don’t say that all foie gras farming is humane and I certainly don’t “gloss over” the appalling treatment of birds in some factory farms. I have in fact, directed people towards YouTube and clips that document what I call the shameful side of foie gras. However, I also know from my own experience (and that is evidence enough for me) that this is not the norm. All the foie-gras farms I’ve seen are tidy humane places where the birds free-range on pasture until the gavage period at which stage they’re penned in groups with lots of room to move. The force-feeding is quick and the birds are not at all upset by it. Ducks and geese are not humans, they are designed to take big lumps of food straight down their necks – have you ever watched a water bird swallow a whole fish? 

My point is that there are good and bad farmers. The anti-foie gras brigade choose to back up their view by focusing on the worst-case factory farms that treat their birds badly.  This is like condemning all beef farming because some operators confine cattle on feedlots, or saying people shouldn’t eat pork because some pig farmers keep pigs in horrible conditions. Why do you think foie gras is any different? Don’t you think that a better response is for restaurants and consumers to support good producers by buying animal products from farms with good welfare and environmental standards – whether it be pork, eggs, beef or foie-gras? This is the policy at Le Canard.  

However, the main point of my blog post was to object to the bullying behaviour of the people who have been protesting outside Le Canard restaurant every weekend for the last six months. You object to my use of the term ‘bullying’. What else do you call the behaviour of people who will not respect the opinions of others and who use intimidating tactics to make the object of their protest behave in the way they see fit? Six months of leafleting customers and waving placards outside the restaurant – not to mention the xenophobic phone calls, and demands that the chef alter his menu – certainly fits my definition of bullying. 

You seem to think that because the activists are not breaking the law by their protest action, it’s OK. Have you considered that there are also no laws against the cyber-bullying that has driven some young people to suicide? Bullying may be legal but it’s not morally acceptable. Clearly, the protestors’ unspoken threat is: take foie gras off the menu or we will do our best to destroy your business. I find it bizarre that you can support the protestors’ right to freedom of expression but not the chef’s right to choose what he puts on his menu.

Anna

 

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It’s hard to believe we’ve been back in Wellington for nearly 4 weeks. Mostly the weather has been dismal but yesterday when the sun came out I spent all day in the garden pruning and weeding. It took me right back to our recent sojourn in France where gardening is quite a different experience.

We always stay in the same area – in the countryside, roughly between the towns of Nontron and Brantome – and we usually rent a very rustic old farmhouse owned by friends who live in Paris for most of the year. This time we stayed with some other friends in their recently renovated farmhouse in the same hamlet.

Hamlet of Laumède, Dordogne

Built in 1867, their house has a courtyard surrounded by herbs, lavender and a few hardy roses. Gardening mostly involves dead-heading the flowers and weeding the cracks in the terrace but this year I also undertook the daily job of hand watering a sorry looking artichoke plant that was suffering from the drought. (I’m happy to say that by the time I left, the carefully nurtured plant had indeed born fruit).

Gardening at Laumède in the drought was easy, the artichoke was the only thing that showed signs of life. In Wellington it’s hard work because everything grows madly all year round and a good deal of it can only be accessed with crampons. The view is different too. At home, when I take a break from cutting back the jungle that covers my vertical slope, I look down on the Karori wildlife sanctuary with its colonial pumphouse. In France, we looked out over a sunny meadow with a neatly stacked woodpile and a couple of apple trees. It’s very rural. Not that long age we were sitting on the terrace enjoying an aperetif when a wild boar trotted across the lawn in front of us and disappeared into the trees that grow by the river.

A herd of cows in Dordogne

Boar and roe deer roam quite freely in this part of France and that’s why I like it. People who have moved here for the lifestyle say it’s one of the last untouched parts of Europe. That’s not entirely true but you do feel that little has changed. The old-timers farm in much the same way they always have. A herd of cows is more accurately described as a ‘group’ – never more than twenty and mostly lying down on the grass in a sociable circle. I realise this sort of farming is supported by subsidies but I like the way the farmers here keep a few rabbits and ducks and mix pasture with small crops of sunflowers, maize and wheat. Everyone who lives here has a potager and a few fruit trees from which they make confiture and eau de vie, and if they have walnuts they’ll be pressed to produce oil at one of the water mills that still offer the service.

My part of France, with canine friend Lola

It’s for all these reasons that I much prefer staying in la France profunde than in the cities or towns. And that, in a very round about way, brings me to the point of this blog post. I’ve written quite a lot about this area, particularly during the year we lived here as a family, and because I’ve given it such a good press people often ask me where they can stay if they happen to be passing through on a road trip. Most definitely look for a gite. The advantage of booking a self-catering holiday home is that you can go mad at the markets and cook the most wonderful food. There are lots on the internet – you can google a gite – but there’s nothing like a personal recommendation so I’m posting photos of two rural gites that are owned and run by good friends of ours in the Dordogne. Both are charmingly renovated farm buildings – very comfortable and beautifully situated – but best of all they are hosted by owners who are très sympathique, know their areas really well and speak fluent English.

The first is near the town of Ribérac, east of Périgeux.

Gite near RiberacLunch at Riberac gite

It’s owned by Ib and Marie, both Danish architects who lived here for several years with their children and now divide their time between France and Copenhagen. The gite is connected to their own home and has a gorgeous courtyard and a private terrace with a swimming pool. It sleeps 8-10. We’ve had some wonderful times here with Ib and Marie and shared some great conversations about the local architecture. A few weeks ago we joined them for a concert at a church in one of the local villages and then a very long lunch under the trees in their courtyard.

Gite near LaumèdeGite near Laumede

Gite number two is a short bicycle ride from our ‘own’ hamlet at Laumède.  I used to cycle up to Gilles and Jean-Françoises’ home most afternoons for French lessons with the ever-so-patient Gilles. The couple have lived here for several years during which time they’ve restored their house and converted their barn into two four-person gites with a shared terrace. The property, which dates back to the 1500s, was a farmhouse when they bought it but it has also been used as a military post on account of its strategic position with views across the whole valley. Their home is House and Garden gorgeous with lovely little out-buildings including a porcherie and a tiny bakery with a bread oven where Jean-François (a fabulous cook) makes pizzas. The most recent addition to their ongoing rennovation, is a very glamorous swimming pool sited at the back of the house in front of a small forest where you’ll find chanterelles popping up in the autumn.

If anyone is interested in either of these gites, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. (And no, I’m not taking a commission!)

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Moore Wilson Ice Installation

The ice installation at Moore Wilson in Wellington is now nothing but a puddle of water, but it was great while it lasted.

Ian Hornblow and Paul Hoather, business partners at the White House restaurant, have been chipping away at it since Tuesday. It was their contribution to the Wellington on a Plate festival, supported by Moore Wilson who donated the produce that was part of the sculpture.

Ian Hornblow sculpts Wellington on a Plate

The blocks were made at an ice factory that does this sort of thing, although usually without the fish, flowers and vegetables that had to be suspended in the water as it was frozen. Apparently the oversized ice cubes are quite tricky  to make because the water has to be de-ionised (or is it de-oxygenated?) so the ice will set crystal clear.

Ice sculpting isn’t something I know much about so, on Ian’s suggestion, I googled it and turned up some amazing images. Wikipedia says the largest ever snow sculpture was made for the annual Harbin Ice Festival in China in 2007. It measured 250m long and 8.5m high and included a sculpture of the Niagara Falls.

Ian and Paul’s installation included a Wellington on a Plate logo complete with knife and fork, a rugby ball, a tropical fish (which was in melt-down by the time I made my second visit) and a muscly torso, which Ian assured me was Sonny Bill Williams. In the absence of the trademark tattoo I find this hard to believe, but maybe that was asking too much of Ian and his set of heavy duty Japanese ice chisels.

Sonny Bill Williams?

According to Wiki, ice sculptors these days often use lasers, which you’d imagine would be a lot easier for intricate work. Ian and Paul do it the traditional way with chisels that Paul brought back from Japan 20-years-ago when he was part of a team that won a gold in the novice section of an international competition.

Ian usually sculpts with wood. He says ice is easier, “softer and more forgiving”. You do have to work faster – it’s a race against time – but he says he likes the transient nature of the medium. “It’s here today gone tomorrow – like the ice cube in your gin and tonic.”

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