A sweet tooth in Zanzibar

Tanzania5

I couldn’t find cookies and cakes in Zanzibar.

And yet, we were not in Tanzania for a cake hunt. We were here to celebrate the high school graduation of our daughter, who would have preferred New York where boutiques lined the sidewalks and the city brims of youthful action. Instead, we offered her a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a country she probably would not have chosen or will ever return, because for most people, a trip to Africa is often dreamt of, imagined until your soles touch the soils that promise safaris, red dirt roads, dishes that don’t resemble our own, magic and mystery, a challenge to your comfort zones, and exoticism with another definition.

On the seventh day of this monumental trip in an East African archipelago where the two hemispheres meet, where the sun and moon have each 12 hours of their own, the gift of cake was omitted.Tanzania12We were in Nungwi, the northernmost tip of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, where sultans and princesses once ruled and where cloves and slaves vied for the highest bidder in the ports that welcomed British, Portuguese, Arab, German, and Persian sailors, merchants and colonizers who survived the crossing of the Indian Ocean. It was easier to find cardamom in farms resembling a jungle of spices or octopuses camouflaged in the colour of sand, struggling to be invisible in probably one of the world’s most beautiful beach.

Sure, this was her gift but why not hitch up my own celebration after graduating (too!) from a three year course from Bread and Pastry School. Those late nights at school, twice a week, four hours on your feet, keeping up with professors and classmates younger than me, merited some rewards. But a trip without a cake?

“Can I live without a cake?” said one postcard, and the line continued “ Yes, I can, but then life would be uninteresting.”Tanzania14Nungwi has a long stretch of breathtaking white sand beaches and a rustic village that relies heavily on fishing. It is a village full of tourists but lacking in amenities: one supermarket the size of twenty British red telephone boxes, a small currency office, and a bakery that sells two kinds of bread, one small, one big.Tanzania7Our afternoon walks have brought us to the ends of this island, admiring anchored dhows and  turtles swimming in a private natural pool and one day, as we walked back to the main road, we stumbled upon an improvised kitchen along the paved highway that cuts across Nungwi. There were no sidewalks and where there was space for one, it was crammed with shops that sold fruits and vegetables, phone cards, handmade baskets, and food stalls. This one had a lady cook crouched in front of an improvised three-rock stove, fueled by sticks of wood and heating a meatless stew of potatoes and tomatoes. I was not sure if it was for a family meal or “dinner for the public,” but the mound of golden brown bread and sugar coated rolls, spread in abundance on coloured newspapers, indicated that food was for sale.TanzaniaThere was a promise of something sweet. The rolls were coiled perfectly like rose petals and coated with crystallized sugar. It was tempting, but at the first bite, proved to be a deception:  tasteless, tough, and steeped of recycled vegetable oil.  I unwrapped the second crumpled, greasy paper pack, hiding the golden brown triangular bread. There was no pretension, just a plain, puffy bread that gave a hint of cinnamon and sugar. I later learned that the locals call this simple fried bread Maandazi or Swahili buns or doughnuts that resemble the Chinese Mantou (steamed, filled, fried wheat buns). My mounting frustrations made me so imaginative, I decided to call them the African virgin doughnuts. One can have them plain for breakfast, dusted with sugar or cinnamon for snacks, and prepared just a bit salty as a side dish for dinner of beef stew and ugali (rice porridge). I decided to buy more…for midnight snack.Tanzania3My love affair with Maandazi started here. And though, it sated my sweet hankerings, I still longed for cake. I realized that if you want a cake, you have to bake it, too. We navigated our way back to the hotel, through pot-holed streets and muddy alleys, passing by the tiny supermarket to buy butter, flour, eggs, sugar and a plastic bag. I had to pay a fortune for the butter and begged for a plastic bag to wrap the dough. They don’t hand out plastic bags in Tanzania so I got a weird look when I asked for one, the cashier scavenging from a pile of souvenir t-shirts. We rushed back to the hotel to keep the butter fresh and I went directly to the kitchen to announce to the young cook that I was going to teach him how to bake cake. He stared at me for a long time, unsure if guests were allowed in the kitchen but was too shy to shoo me away. I ignored his hesitation, began giving out orders, checked the cabinets for baking tools (but didn’t find any), and started to lord it over.Tanzania9I thought of tropical-inspired recipes: banana cake, pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake. The ingredients were easy to find; buy local, eat local. But there was no equipment in the kitchen except an old oven and two rolling pins. This was the greatest challenge as everyone says that baking is an exact science. This required converting the recipes to US measurements, cups instead of grams; estimating the baking time (we gave it minimum 30 minutes for each cake and kept checking every 15 mins), and used whatever utensils were available; corrugated tin bowls, crooked forks, a ceramic mould that we were not sure would survive the high, uneven heat of the oven. The cakes came out nicely done, except for the pineapple upside down which literally fell upside down when we tried to unmould it. By this time, the young cook Ahmed, looked happy, the knitted brows have left his face and a timid smile began to form.

I will never know if they were good nor got the chance to take pictures. I left to dip in the pool while the cakes cooled but when I came back, the cakes were gone. And in the kitchen formed a row of smiling faces, of the cook, the receptionist, the two chamber maids, the gardener and the security guard. They never thought that I could bake a cake and want to eat it, too.Tanzania6The next recipe were croissants and I insisted that the baking will have to be done early the next morning. I taught Ahmed how to knead, how to fold, how to resist eating the dough. The croissants were not perfect, they were tiny, perhaps the proportion of the yeast was not enough or the oven didn’t have the right temperature but they were buttery, crisp, airy and warm for breakfast. I was getting close to pastry.Tanzania10It was time to go back to Stonetown, the old part of Zanzibar where coral stone buildings, reflected a rich influence of colonization yet typically Zanzibarish type of architecture, that earned its title as a World Heritage Site. It’s cultural importance, however, has been embroidered by the fact that Queen’s Freddie Mercury was a Zanzibari.Tanzania door

There were palaces and mansions to visit during the day but the night market at the Forodhani Gardens was the destination for twilight dinners of skewered meat, grilled seafood, local breads, and the Tanzanian pizza, prepared with dexterity from tiny dough balls to flattened, flipped-over, folded crepes. Finally, it looks more like a crepe than a pizza. If they would have put layers of crepes together, that would have formed a cake but this was supposed to be a pizza and not a cake.zanzibar pizza.JPGIt would be unfair to say that there is no cake in Zanzibar. Stonetown was the main city, touristic, with restaurants and cafés that catered to sweet-toothed tourists like me. The narrow, pedestrian streets of Stonetown, prowling around them feels like a mouse in a maze for the much-coveted cheese, lead to some coffee shops where pastries are home-baked, such as the Zanzibar Coffee House in a renovated Arabic house built in 1885.Zanzibar

Tanzania curtain

The interiors were decorated with antique furniture; open windows were lined with colourful, rich fabrics; the aroma of freshly roasted beans emanating from the small roasting atelier at the back, and the refrigerated counter displayed a large choice of tropical-flavoured cakes like the Lime Tart and the Passionfruit cake.  Tanzania19On our last day, we ventured into the market to buy violet beans, spices and a mosquito net. We didn’t find the mosquito net but found a bakery with local cookies, shaped like flowers, palets, squares, oblongs; covered in sugar, dried fruit or chocolate; flat, holed or textured. I took a sample of each but the winner were the shortbreads. They melted in the mouth, smelled of butter, and survived the boat trip, the taxi ride, and the 25-hour expedition on a very, very slow Tazara train that took us to central Tanzania where once again, the hunt for cakes began.Tanzania2

 

 

 

Advertisements

A recipe from a “Lady with no name”

 

P1020853

The eggs delivered that day outnumbered her rosary beads a hundred fold. About four thousand eggs needed to bake cakes, rolls, cookies, pies and the famous ensaimadas, a sort of brioche, so yellow it smelled of butter and eggs.

Hizons4

And while the prices of the ingredients have gone up and “competitors” have flooded the market with reinvented, revisited, recreated versions, from cake-y textures to Red Velvet flavours, she remained stubborn and loyal to the classic recipe her mother left her. “I made a promise at her deathbed, to never change the recipe and never to shortchange my clients,” she said.

Legend has it that while her mother was working then as a sales clerk for the Aguinaldo department store in downtown Manila, a lady with no name (and nowhere to be traced after), handed a piece of paper with a handwritten recipe and said “this will be the secret of your fortune.”

P1020844

It did bring fortune, fame and a family tradition that Milagros, the “heiress” of the Hizon Pastry shop, refuses to change.  Seventy years have passed and the artisanal bakery on J. Bacobo St. in old Manila still “rolls” out the city’s “best” ensaimadas, numbering to about 700 to 900 a day, kneaded in mixers and baked in ovens, imported from America, some of them older than Milagros herself. The machines have a thick coat of patina from daily use and from the constant steam of butter but after the early morning baking, Milagros makes sure the machines are fastidiously cleaned without a trace of a tiny dough drop or a minuscule cake crumb. Quality, tradition, and cleanliness are her obsessions, too much for someone who had assumed the burden of a family enterprise at an early age and with no interested successor among the next generation. Her bakers, sales ladies, extra hands who have been with her since ever and have now become part of the antique tableau are worried sick that the bakery will die with her. Of course, she can well sell the business but Milagros’ dedication is irreproachable, a sense of duty executed without compromises. Inocencia Hizon, her mother  would have been very proud of her today.

Jpeg

Our meeting happened in a strange way. I arrived at the Za’s coffee shop, adjacent to the bakery one early morning on the second Saturday of the month. I saw her come out from a back door, walking as if in a trance, sweeping the room with a worried look and when she passed infront of the bar, she took out a tissue paper and robotically wiped the dustless counter top, looking lost between the chore of checking if the waiters have cleaned it and the 2000 Hail Marys she had to pray that day

P1020858

She glided beside my table, the only one occupied at such an early hour, when many of the windows remained closed, the lamps have not been put on, the first coffee just about to be served to the first customer, who happens to be me. It was eerie but I felt at home and  comforted in the time-warp dark room, reminiscent of the early seventies: wood panels, simple yet sturdy furniture, and a high ceiling with smoked glass chandeliers. Nothing has changed except a collection of Chinese vases that now lined the walls. I instantly knew it was her and yet, I still asked if she was well the owner. “I love this place,” I said, standing up to greet her, unconscious that my eyes started to water, my heart bursting with memories of many afternoons sitting in this room some twenty years ago. All of a sudden, I don’t know how it happened nor understanding why, we embraced as if we were long lost friends finding back each other and ready to spend long hours over cups of coffee with so many stories to tell. So, this is how it feels when kindred spirits meet. No bloodlines, no history, no past. Just a possible future.

I had very little to tell her, except that she nodded in agreement each time I noticed a detail in the decorations, a compliment for the cakes, the alertness of an employee. She didn’t need my approval but seemed pleased that I approved. I have come to this place so often in the past, with friends, with my first boyfriend, by myself. And the thing which kept me coming back was the delight of an authentic ensaimada.

Jpeg

An ensaimada (ensaymada) is a sweet bread, made of “resurrected dough” – letting it rise until it doubles in volume, punching out the air, letting it rise a second time, shaping the dough into rolls or coiled like a dog poo, giving  it another hour for the final proofing until it’s ready for baking. Like the French brioche, it must be light, airy, the interior resembles a honeycomb, a rich and tender crumb, a flaky, golden and shiny crust. The quality of the ensaimada highly depends on the kind of flour, the amount of eggs, the quality of the butter and the patience of the baker. And at Hizon’s, they have perfected this formula: fresh, rich in butter and eggs, tasty, bread-like the way it should be.

Jpeg

I am not attempting to make a review nor a claim nor the error of saying this is “the best” ensaimada in Manila, in the Philippines, in the world, in the universe. For someone to be able to do that, he must have received the title of official taster of ensaimadas, have defined the criteria, have acquired the minimum level of technical know-how, and have tasted ALL the ensaimadas of the planet. I have no pretentions on any of the above, except perhaps, a few technical notes I have learned from a Belgian bread and pastry school that can haphazardly be applied to a Philippine bread (who puts sugar and cheese together as toppings?). The ensaimada was inspired from a Spanish recipe of a brioche but re-invented a thousand ways, the Filipino way….far too sweet, topped with grated Dutch cheese, filled with mungo beans, coiled or rolled, from minis to pizza sizes, and red velvet and nutella for modern flavours.

Jpeg

I’m old school and I don’t like tampering with old recipes at the excuse of innovation. Hizon’s ensaimadas are prepared with countless eggs and tons of butter, mixed in the afternoon, proofed the whole night, and baked early morning. I didn’t get the full recipe but I was made privy to some trade secrets divulged in privileged confidences amidst the sweltering heat of the atelier with steaming custards on the fire and swirling powdered milk cake icings in the beaters.

Jpeg

Hizons6

Hizons5

Hizons3

After we held each other apart, Milagros who became in the next twenty minutes my Aunt Mila, ordered coffee and asked me to take a seat. I chose a table by the window. By this time, the sun had come out, a few customers have arrived, finding their usual spots in this room where it’s still possible to have private conversations.

It was time for her to talk. About her flight to New York as a teen, her “waitress years” in a dining place in Manhattan, the Manila nightlife of the seventies, the dark days in a basement, the court trials and the orange costumes, her fears and sorrows, her solitude. I cannot comfort her, I was a stranger and her stories made me uncomfortably intimate but I didn’t want to leave her with no trace of the lady who came one morning looking for an ensaimada. So, I stayed and listened earnestly. My heart went out to her, I was ready to cry but her smile stopped me. She became radiant talking about her mother, the recipe, her favourite Japanese restaurant, her grandchildren, Dolphy (the king of Philippine comedy who was one of her favourite clients), her trips. We just bonded, an invisible link powered by this sweet-savoury bread.

Mila

My breakfast date, an old friend, finally arrived. He took Aunt Mila’s seat. He came to meet me with many stories to tell, including an imaginary renovation of a future appartment with Dior gray and Carolina Herrera pink. This was going to run all morning, over cups of coffee, which a distraught waiter came to serve.

From where I was, I heard Aunt Mila’s stern commands and some scuffle in the atelier as the “Queen of Immaculate Kitchens” have once again taken control of her kingdom.

The waiter returned carrying two plates of golden brown ensaimadas that just came out from the oven. There was no bill, just a piece of paper with Aunt Mila’s phone number, no doubt, an invitation for more seamless conversations with a new friend.

 

Rhubarb ice cream in a Dutch garden

Jpeg

On a long weekend in May, the weekend when we celebrated Mother’s Day, I dragged a friend all the way to the Netherlands to visit a garden. It was to be found in the city of Dordrecht, on a strip of land where a water tower used to rise above the Biesbosch wetlands. We quickly found it – who would miss a tower?  – after just a little bit of an hour’s drive from Brussels.

For a long time, the water tower was completely forgotten until a group of artists friends, who were already running the New York Hotel in Rotterdam, saw a picture of it taken in the thirties. The aerial view made the water tower looked like a castle, surrounded by a “moat” of water basins and clarification ponds, standing tall and isolated along the Wantij river. To get there, one had to cross a bridge. The 33 meter tower was built in 1882, designed by then the director of Public Works, J.A. van der Kloes, whose building is considered a national monument today. There were several floors in this squarish building: clean water basements, pumping machines on the ground floor, apartments for the operators on the upper floors, the reservoirs and the octagonal towers, one of which was actually a chimney.

The artists friends fell in love with this neglected piece of architecture, though the initial idea was to create an urban vegetable garden and fruit orchard, implementing old pruning techniques. The tower became a hotel, the water basins were covered with earth, equivalent to two football fields, coming from a nearby cabbage plantation and the adjoining pumping station was converted into a restaurant and market. Welcome to Villa Augustus.

augustus 7

We entered the complex on a dirt road that was constructed in 1909, leading to a quay for small boats that takes visitors on river cruises organized by the Villa. We walked through a small gate and found ourselves beside a rectangular pond, an Italian garden and the entrance of the tower hotel.

And since we were there on a “day tour” and were not Sleeping Beauties in a tower, we passed through the reception and walked out to the garden. In early spring, it didn’t look robust or lush, nor teeming with fruits and vegetables ready for picking. Rather, it looked like a post-winter garden where tiny sprouts of potatoes, beans, salads, herbs poked above rows and rows of fresh mounds of earth. At least, there was a profusion of flowers.

Jpeg

We crossed the garden to reach the old water pumping station, transformed into a huge restaurant with recycled furniture, a stone pizza oven, open kitchens, and a shop. The sun was out, the terrace was welcoming, lightweight clothes have finally come out of the closets. But we were tropical girls and wearing no sweaters, the chill drove us inside the restaurant for an early lunch. Everything on the menu looked inviting: fried lamb and asparagus, white bean and garlic soup, north sea crab on ice, lobsters, and a one-choice pizza of spinach, anchovies and egg. I was tempted with the fried goose breast with rhubarb mustard, borlotti bean gratin, kohl rabi and leeks, giving the order to the head waitress who seemed to have woken up at the wrong side of the bed on a Sunday morning. Fortunately, a young charming young man, wearing a blue marine tee like the rest of his colleagues, took over, except that he decided to take a break, and forgot to give our orders to the chef.

Jpeg

Our plates finally came after almost an hour, when my patience had ran out and failed to restrain signs of bitchiness despite an apology and an offer of a free coffee, only to find my goose breast a bit hard, the gratin tasteless, and all these sat on a bed of dying salad rockets. My friend got a so-so steak with blanched zucchinis, again, on a bed of rockets that were halfway in the compost bin. Where are the vegetables of this vegetable garden? Fortunately, the cod croquettes were delicious, with more fish meat than potatoes. But…they were also lying on a bed of near-death rockets.

Jpeg

The view from we were sitting was a rhubarb patch. The crimson stalks looked bright amid  large foliage that resemble tobacco leaves. My husband told me stories of how as a child, he and his brothers tried to roll rhubarb leaves and lighted it to pretend as if they were all grown up and smoking or when they dipped the sour stems on sugar and suck them the way tropical children would do with a sugarcane. The rhubarb cigarettes never puffed smoke and the sour stems gave them mouth ulcers, teaching them early in life, that cigarettes and sugar don’t come from the same plant.

Jpeg

Since I moved to Europe, rhubarb has become my favourite fruit. I’m not sure I can say that because, technically, a rhubarb is not a fruit. Though mostly used for desserts nowadays, the rhubarb is considered a vegetable. I love it so much, its tartness, that I planted many of it in my garden and when one of them flowered last year, I harvested a boxful of seeds (at the expense of losing stems). Every year, I find a new corner in my garden to plant them, short of creating a rhubarb plantation that will most likely evolve one day into a rhubarb city jungle. Rhubarbs need to “hibernate” and are impossible to grow in hot countries, except perhaps, if they were planted in high altitudes where cool weather would allow them to survive. Rhubarbs are the first plant to be harvested in the year. They grow all summer, lose leaves in autumn and totally disappear in winter until a red shaft-like protusion peeks around April to herald spring. I make a hundred jams or freeze them for crumbles and cakes.

So, while we refused the free coffee offered by a distracted waiter, I ordered Villa Augustus‘ rhubarb ice cream. It came in a water glass, had a light pink colour  and looked tempting enough to end a disappointing meal. No matter how red the stems are, the final colour of a cooked rhubarb will be green. I get green rhubarb jams from my red rhubarb plant. A pink rhubarb ice cream is, therefore, dubious.

Jpeg

In between scoops, my thoughts stray to my latest employment adventure. For a long time, I thought the kitchen and I were no longer friends but one day, I got a job offer to work in an ice cream shop. The owner convinced me I was the best person for the job and sold the idea so nicely that I completely forgot how hard kitchen work is except that it was not that, that put me off the freezer trail. I just discovered in time the true colours of my new bosses. I thought they were soft and pink but they were, in fact, green with horns. I was disappointed with their work ethics, the pitiless long hours, the harsh absence of communication. One day, the boss gave me a lashing because I wanted to go home after 10 hours of work, following a ten-day straight duty. And he cut me off when I tried to explain. The next day, the day of the opening, I resigned. That was the shortest job term I’ve ever had. And though the ice cream was really good, I would rather spend my money on Ben and Jerry who want to change the world with their ice cream.

A disappointing job in an ice cream shop. A dubious  ice cream in a Dutch garden.

The ice cream was fine but our visit to Villa Augustus was not entirely for food. I think the place is magical and once you enter the shop behind the restaurant, where the cakes are baked everyday and some irresistible bric-a-bracs are sold, the memory of a mediocre meal fades away. I’m not saying the food was bad. I’m just saying that the food we had that day was far from good.

Jpeg

Jpeg

The market saved our day. Heavy chains, cement walls, an iron staircase, old tiles, and the large windows of the old pumping station built in 1942, create a charming and inviting venue that houses a book corner, an air-conditioned vegetable room, a bakery, a large common table where one can have coffee or wine, and plenty of shelves displaying books, chinaware, kitchen gadgets, notebooks, aprons, garden tools.

I was obviously attracted to the Bakery. Freshly-baked sourdough bread, meringue pies, cheesecakes, apple cakes, cookies. Alas, after that lunch, we didn’t have room for a cake and unfortunately, didn’t have time to wait for high afternoon tea.

Jpeg

 

Jpeg

Instead, we took home some baked goodies, buying freshly-baked bread, slices of chocolate cheesecake and the last three scones available at the counter. And I must say, they were one of the best scones I’ve ever had.

On the way out to the quay, we passed greenhouses for tomatoes and grapes, hotel rooms that step right into the garden, and private nooks among the trees and bushes. There were no cruises that day and we were content to watch the lazy Sunday traffic of the small harbour. Modern buildings have risen on the other side of the river but if you rent the room on top of the water tower, they promise a view of  the crisscrossing rivers and you will probably understand why the play of water and light have attracted so many travellers, artists and painters to these shores, most likely in the same depth felt by the new owners of the “weeping tower” of Dordrecht. But next time, I will skip lunch and come for tea and cakes instead!

 

 

 

When a waffle is not a waffle

 

Jpeg

Dainty. Tempting. That’s how I would best describe it.

My daughter Simone and I stood infront of the window of the Méert Pastry and Confectionary Shop in Brussels, fascinated like five-year olds, eyes unwavering at the attractive display of sweets: vanilla waffles, pink and violet marshmallows, dark chocolates, bright coloured macarons, jewel-toned fruit chews (pâte de fruits), biscuits in a tin, nougats and caramels, candied roses and French pastries in individual domes. Our mouths watered, our resistance crumbled. We were hooked.

We walked in and found ourselves in another era, for once you step into Méert’s, it brings you back in time when old world elegance and sophistication reign, the Belle Epoque, when ladies in long gowns and feathered hats, spent their precious time in détente and good company. The place is fancy, not in a pompous way but you stay rooted where you are, fleetingly forgeting what you initially came for, and instead taking in the handpainted walls and ceiling, the mirrored alcoves, brass and gold in the counters, period lamps and the trompe d’oeil, decorative motifs that are meant to “fool the eye.” And yet, we were just getting a sampling of Meert’s signature ostentatious interior architecture, a sober version of the opulent main house at rue Esquermoise in the old part of Lille in northern France.

Flemish artist and art historian Angèle Boddaert was commissioned for the Brussels shop, drawing inspirations from the masters; architect Charles Benvignat, scultpor Théodore Huidiez and painter Charles Stalars, who altogether in 1839 made the Lillois shop a neo-byzantine palace.

Jpeg

Méert’s pastry shop in Brussels is a sort of a homecoming “to embrace its Belgian origins.” After all, the man who took over the shop 157 years ago and brought the house to fame is a  Belgian from Antwerp, Michael Paulus Gislinus Méert. His sojourn in the colonies, where cocoa, sugar cane, coffee and vanilla were grown, would enriched his sweet concoctions and would spawn the famous thin waffles, filled with buttercream and vanilla. The fabulous waffles, the star product, will make Méert’s shop the most popular paradise for the sweet tooth, bringing into the shelves, onto trays and carts a large assortment of cakes, candies, chocolate and ice cream, attesting to the shop’s culinary 17th century inheritance from previous owners, chocolatier and confiseur Sir Delcourt and the ice cream chef, Modo de Rollez.

As for the Belgian store, what better place to open it than in the Galerie de Roi (the King’s  Gallery) at the Royale Galerie St. Hubert in downtown Brussels, a glass-covered passage and shopping mall built in the 1800s that now houses Belgian luxury brands and chocolate legends like Mary’s, Marcolini, Godiva, and Neuhaus, neighbours that do not seem to rattle an “outsider” whose chocolates are equally good but is set apart with its strange flat waffles, brazenly selling its own version in a country synonymous with waffles.

Jpeg

But I digress. We came here to satisfy cravings. Once in, you are bound to stay. Behind the store is a tea salon with walls painted in shades of plum, cream and sage; oval windows overlooking the shop, velvet chairs and marble tables the size of a handkerchief. Again, this is a mini-version of Lille’s “Family Tea Lounge.”

Meert2

Méert’s waffle is not a waffle by Belgian definition. Compared to the Brussels waffle, rectangle, light and powdered with sugar or to the waffle of Liege (a city east of Belgium), heavy with sugar pearls, both big in size, Méert’s oval, thin, flat and filled waffle is considered a gaufrette. My favourite is Epheméert’s pistachio and cherry, sweet and sour at each bite with the pistachio paste coming in full flavour. You can also get them filled with violets, strawberry, or speculoos. The classic one with buttercream and vanilla from Madagascar is too sweet to my liking and might call for a cup of Lapsang Souchong Crocodile tea, a smoky  brew from the Formosa Islands, to even out the sweetness.

Meert4

We were in good company, my daughter and I, so we languidly took our tea, Simone having chosen “Paul and Virginie,” a blend of Ceylan and Chinese tea with caramel, cherries, strawberry, raspberry and vanilla. Then, we ordered an egg tart and two house creations:  a pastry with a frangipane base,  fresh raspberries, a macaron, and pistachio cream; and a creamy chocolate and raspberry mousse on an almond biscuit base and decorated with a chocolate rose sprayed in red.

Gaufrettes and cakes, two silver tea pots, a porcelain jug of hot water, chocolates courtesy of the house, notebooks, phones, pens, cups and saucers, camera, silverware…these didn’t quite fit in our miniature table, so we ended up occupying the two other nearby tables, which unfortunately were tiny, too, and didn’t leave us any extra space to order the classic French pastries, delivered everyday from the atelier in Lille; the  Religieuse, puff pastry with caramel cream pastry, the Mont Blanc, mascarpone cream with chestnuts and meringue; or the Baba au Rhum, golden raisins soaked in rhum 54%, vanilla cream and whipped mascarpone.

We have made quite a mess in this dainty tea shop and totally ignored the silent dress code, coming in dusty workclothes I wore to work in the ongoing renovations of a future ice cream parlour. Fortunately, it was quiet that day. We definitely did not look like we were part of bourgeoisie but nevertheless, were accorded a warm and efficient welcome, most likely, in the same but less rigid manner they opened the doors the day General Charles de Gaulle walked in to buy French waffles invented by Belgian.

 

Méert
7 Galeries du Roi
1000 Bruxelles

 

 

 

 

 

A blueberry pie at Hobart’s oldest bakery

hobart3It’s the oldest bakery in Hobart, located on a quiet street on top of a hill called Battery Point, a quaint neighbourhood of timber and stone cottages, decorated with wrought iron works, bay windows with stained glass, cute porches, and frontyards teeming with thick rose bushes and robust lavender shrubs. There is nothing sensational to see here, except the Arthur’s circular street of historical, single frontage cottages dating back to the first settlement, the Narryna Heritage museum, and an English-inspired neighbourhood that makes you dream of your retirement home. But yes, there is one address that you must go to, the iconic Jackman and McRoss Bakery.hobart20Jackman and McRoss, bakers of fine breads, cakes and pastries, coming out fresh everyday from the ovens onsite, is a Hobart institution. Some visitors even went as far as referring to this bakery as “the shrine to the old school bakeries” of the past.

My pretty niece Meggy and I woke up early that day, wolfed down a quick breakfast of croissants from a so-so bakery on Elizabeth Street, walked along the waterfront, crossed the Salamanca Place and climbed the Kelly’s steps hidden between two sandstone blocks. On this alley, we saw a violin maker, busy adjusting strings so early in the morning in his tiny atelier.hobart6We were breathless and cold as we reached the plateau of this elevated part of the capital, where battery guns were set up in 1818 to defend the island but is now regarded as a prestigious suburb with historical houses and a privileged sheltered, anti-modernisation lifestyle. That’s the general feel of the island of Tasmania – laid back, slow food, wild nature, gentle folk. And Hobart is lovely, lazy and lingering. In the summer of 2016 when my entire family had to come for a sibling’s wedding in Sydney, Meggy and I decided a sidetrip  in Tasmania, an island south of Australia, where mild summer temperatures and ideal chill requirements are conducive to blueberry growing.hobart12We took a stroll along the sloping, winding streets of Battery Point,  admiring the St. George anglican church, drawing the architectural prototypes of seafarers’cottages in our heads, taking the breathtaking views of Mount Wellington and the Derwent River, and finally, giving in to hunger spells that made us find back our route to Jackman and McRoss.hobart24

It was time for a mid-morning snack. I ordered a blueberry tart, with blueberries looking as if they were harvested that morning, sitting on a cushion of whipped cream, and cradled on a chocolate-lined shortbread crust. Meggy ordered an eclair, which looked like a sandwich of puff pastry and fresh cream, so different from the French version of a pastry cream filling.hobart13On display, the choice was huge: all types of bread, fruit tarts, meat pies and pasties, quiches and sandwiches, and shiny and crusty viennoisserie. And just beside the door, a shelf was filled with Tassie fine food products, jams, honey and tea.

We took a table at the back, near  a huge window and far from the busy take-away counter, sorry to be too early for lunch and sorrier still that we ate those passable croissants for breakfast. The house was full, tourists and neighbours taking a lazy brunch on a weekend. We were full of envy but resisted as we had a full itinerary ahead and a ferry to catch that will take us to MONA, the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art, owned by David Walsh, a math wizard who made his fortune by mastering the numbers and probabilities while gambling in the casino. It took over four years to blast the innards of the rocky hills of Berriedale, once owned by Italian immigrants and was acquired by a genius of modest background.hobart7The special ferry, with a black lounge interior, departs from Brooke St. Pier for a 30-minute ride to bring you to the foot of the hills. Then, it’s a 99 step climb to reach the grounds that is home to a concert park, a tennis court, a microbrewery, the Moorilla vineyard, a five-star restaurant, a cinema, a cafe, a library of 5000 books, and a humongous underground exhibition site that is a maze of a metal, spiral staircase, a dark tunnel, hanging walkways, and rolling pathways.  Walsh has an extensive private collection, with preference for provocative art. hobart18To cap our afternoon, we went up to the bar for a wine tasting which included more than a few gulps of the “White Cloth,” a 110 AUD bottle from carefully selected white grapes and served by a charming bartender of toyboy material. As we were his last customers, he emptied the bottles and charged us half. I guessed, he fell for Meggy’s charm, which got me excited and suited me fine as I didn’t have to pay for the wine. And though my quinquagenarian beauty had been ignored, I was happy to have a reeling head from free Moorilla wines and a fatter purse for more blueberry pies.

Jackman & McRoss
57 Hampden Road
Battery Point, Tasmania

AUSTRALIA

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions over a pot of Hermes tea

Florian8

The backroom was dark and intimate. There were two small tables, each surrounded by three deep brown leather seats that have stories of their own. There was only one lamp that made reading the writing on the wall a bit difficult. It was just about four in the afternoon and there was a lady wearing a pair of beige vintage ankle boots with buttons secured by cream elastics, sitting quietly on the sofa facing the open door.

I took a round wooden table opposite her, but in the other room, just beside the counter and the tea display. She seemed to be enjoying her solitude, listening to jazz music while enjoying a cup of tea. It would have been impolite to impose my presence in the backroom, where it’s cosy if you’re alone but too crowded if you are two.

Florian7

This is the magical nook in the tea shop, Comptoir de Florian in Ixelles, Brussels, the place one would choose for a confession, a forbidden rendezvous, or an afternoon retreat from a day that had gone awry. At past the hour of four, the regular clientele start to pour in, hoping to find the best seat, but a minute too late, have to grumbly accept the second best tables of the house.

Jpeg

I was just curious. Comptoir de Florian, it seems, is one of the best tea shops in Brussels. It has history, an impressive collection of tea, and wonderful cakes. On my first visit, I chose Hermes, an infusion of lavender, thyme, lemongrass, sage,  verbena, and chamomile; and since I decided this was spice day, I paired it with a slice of a tart made of orange, almonds, ginger and cinammon.

I returned a week later with a friend, with whom a chat with, turns into a session of ventilation of our feminist struggles and maternal worries. My head kept spinning that day, a light attack of vertigo, that I couldn’t remember the name of my tea, something that sounded like “a girl from ipanema.” It was so good and girly, a fusion of white and green tea, punctuated with roses, peonies and tea flowers. And since they didn’t have a rose-flavoured cake, I chose chantilly cream and apple pie, in that order. If the cakes were moist and sweet, the service, unfortunately, was dry and sour; and though a warm welcome is the strictest criterion for a tea shop, I just chose to ignore the lack of it and instead enjoy my tea and limit my interaction with my hosts to the strictest minimum.

Florian6

I can understand why the backroom is so sought after. Where we were seating, our conversations mingled with neighbouring tables, the acoustics of preparing the orders in the adjoining counter, and the visits of customers wanting their favourite teas. Not that it was bothersome…just less comfy than the backroom, where the promise of an hour’s rupture from the daily grind is guaranteed.

On the day I came for the first time, when a couple arrived to “inhabit” the tiny chamber, the lady with the vintage ankle boots, stood up and headed towards the counter to settle the bill. In the light, her outfit was flawless, a brown, felt hat worn slightly sideways and a flowing, deep blue rayon dress that fondled the round wooden tables in the front room as she passed by. For a moment, I thought I was having tea with Agatha Christie in some English living room in the twenties. A fleeting vision that Miss Christie would have comforted me with “The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.” (Murder on the Orient Express)

Comptoir Florian
Rue Saint Boniface,17
1050 Bruxelles

 

 

 

A jar of carrot cake in a jam bar

 

Jpeg

He served me a slice of carrot cake in a jar. The young, eager waiter explained that it was too soft and gooey that it didn’t present well on a dessert plate. I didn’t really need to eat a carrot cake. I was quite happy with my own recipe, passed on by a friend many years ago, that I could easily whip one if I so desire. However, curiosity got the better of me and at the excuse of expanding my knowledge of veggie pastry, I ordered one at the Pipaillon Coffee and Jam Bar.

A Jam Bar is probably one of the most original food concepts launched in Brussels these last few years. We’ve seen the arrivals (and the demise) of modish food outlets like cupcake salons and burger grills, but no one thought of a Jam Bar except Pipaillon.

P1020433

But what is a Jam Bar? Well, it’s a place where we can sample and buy jams. At Pipaillon, though the selection is a bit pricey, the jams are far from ordinary and they pride themselves with the quality of fruit (and vegetables) conserved in a jar.

Pipaillon, above all, is a cannery in the heart of Brussels. It lies on a street that was once part of an extended canal, allowing merchandise boats to lay anchor right in the city. The docks were all part of this flourishing distribution center in the 19th century. The canals have long been filled, giving way to a fountain and terraces, and the only reminder of its past are the names of the streets, such as the one where Pipaillon is, the Quai au Bois à Brûler (the dock of firewood). This street leads to the animated Place St Catherine where fish restaurants, a daily fresh produce market, and the Christmas fair have called it their home.

P1020437The cannery brings back the art of conservation – with sugar for jams, salt for capers, vinegar for chutneys, and oils for tapenades. I love their witty labels, jams with names such as Rhubarbra Streisand (rhubarb), Dancing Quince, The Dark Side of the Spoon (Prune-Chai-Yuzu), Miss Figgy, Onion Jack or savoury delicacies such as Little Miss Sunshine tomatoe sauce, Yellow Submarine for lemon confits, or Highway to Plum chutney or rare pots of Brussels honey, Bee Sweet.

Jpeg

We can’t visit the cannery but we can sit at the Coffee and Jam Bar. The place also serves healthy lunches, abiding with the principles of the house: organic, local, artisanal. Catherine Bodson, who created Pipaillon, brings with her food traditions inspired by women in her family, who had at one point in their lives, were involved in food. There is also a strong commitment on buying from local farms – fruits grown in Brussels, Cerfontaine or Vielsalm, vegetables from Fouleng and Sambreville. And anything they need that does not grow on Belgian soil, like capers, lemons and olives, they buy from Sicilian cooperatives.

Jpeg

I always had a preference for citrus-based concoctions and Pipaillon has quite a range to please my palate, though, I still have to graduate from my infatuation of Tangerine Love, a mixture of mandarines, rose petals and cardamon; and Pink Panther, pink grapefruit with pink peppers.

There is free tasting of at least three jams when you come in and sit at the bar, decorated with a sunny yellow wallpaper, touches of Tiffany blue and pink vintage chairs. Sometimes, they put a dollop of jam with your cake or unexpectedly, the young, eager waiter walks around and drops little pots of new, experimented flavours.

Jpeg

I decided to concentrate on my carrot cake in a jar. It was indeed gooey and oozing with deep flavours of spices, mellowed out by the generous icing of yoghurt and salted butter. I scooped until the very last bite, downing it with a raspberry-orange smoothie and then, unhurriedly asked the bill from the young, eager waiter, who despite of the countless comings and goings, has not lost his uppity strut.