Tea and Twain at an English Library

“Shhhh, Shhhh
It’s, oh, so quiet
It’s, oh, so still
You’re all alone
And so peaceful until

You fall in love”

Bjork, 2001.

I was surrounded by the spirits of those I wanted to be with, authors whose names are now scrolled in paperbacks and hardbound editions. Some of them famous, others are about to become famous. And yet, there would still be a few whose names and writings will probably end up in next year’s book sale. I was here to read, quietly, while sipping fresh mint tea. Alone but not lonely.

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The English Library of the Cook and Book complex behind the Wolubilis Theater in Woluwe Saint Lambert, Brussels is my favourite place to have a quiet tête-a-tête, especially if it means having one with one’s self. Considered as one of the world’s 12 beautiful bookshops, Cook and Book is a series of buildings, which houses libraries and restaurants. The English Library is found at the farthest corner of this block, where there are zero passersby and which is accessible by passing through a fancy diner with chrome chairs and shelves featuring cookbooks.

Cook and Book2 copyThis is probably the most quiet public place in Brussels, simply because they don’t play any mood music. Footsteps are muffled by the thick paisley-designed red carpet, no cash registers, no phones, no noise. Even the lady librarian speaks in whispers.

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The red love seats are inviting, which allowed one to intimately share space with a stranger who is most likely here for the same reasons: solitude in silence. I crouched deep in the buttoned sofa, intent on finishing a pocket-size Penguin edition of Mark Twain‘s “The Stolen Elephant” while stifling giggles at almost every page that confirms Twain’s insatiable penchant for humour. I picked up this lightweight pocketbook, lighter than my smartphone, by chance. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend and I was bored. At the English Library, there are books for all budgets, ages, interests. The walls were lined with the classics, non-fiction, self-help and odd-titles such as “The trouble with women” by J. Fleming. But Twain at one euro and fifty, humoured me the whole afternoon with a caricature of police inspectors. I will not tell you if the stolen elephant was finally found. For a euro and fifty, you can well review your classics.

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I stood up, shook my numb legs and moved to a round table, sitting on number 2 by the window. There was extraordinary sunlight and the room was brighter than it is in wintertime, which I prefer, when the dark skies and peltering rain made me feel I was in a cozy sitting room of some isolated castle in the Scottish highlands (except there would have been no fresh mint tea, brewed the Morrocan way). With tea, I ordered a roasted fig shortbread. By the time my pot was empty, I was ready to head home but not before picking up William Sitwell‘s “A history of food in 100 recipes” and ordering Emile Zola‘s “The Belly of Paris,” two foodie masterpieces I exchanged my shoe budget with and hoping, these would be enough to keep boredom at bay.

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Soul kitchens

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On a Thursday night, a balmy one heralding the start of spring, we walked into a former fishmonger’s shop near Brussels’ north train station. White tiles lined the high walls and deep, stainless steel tubs lay empty infront of the windows. A group of men in mismatched outfits, long hair, smoking self-rolled cigarettes, has settled in old couches and wooden chairs. There was a bearded guitar player hunched infront of a series of old clothes, arranged quite neatly on a mobile hanger. And at a corner, where bicycles have been left against the walls, parked a rusty cart filled with blue vegetable crates. If you don’t know this address, you might not want to walk in. It’s dim, crowded and confused and that’s not exactly the criteria we are looking for when we go out to eat in a restaurant on the first balmy night of spring. As soon as we stepped in, we were greeted by a sign, “give what you want.”

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This is the Poissonnerie, a table d’hôtes that serves free meals every Thursday evening. Marie, the white-haired lady chef, gives orders and instructions in a very motherly way to a group of happy, smiling male kitchen assistants, tenants of this address that houses people who cannot afford rent. They are our hosts for tonight’s table. The two floors of this abandoned building have been converted into social lodgings where the space is free and each “community member” shares the costs of the utilities and helps maintain the place clean and in good order. Let’s call it “official squatting.”

The doors opened just before eight but soup was served an hour later. That gave us time to hang around infront of an improvised bar to get organic and artisanal beers, then took a few steps down to a room decorated in recycle art and finally found a table near a burning wood stove.

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The leeks soup was thick and delicious, accompanied by a wide choice of breads. The first ones on the line had them in bowls, the rest had them in cups of different sizes. This was followed by a puree of potatoes and celeriac; a red sauce of black olives, tomatoes, lentilles and onions; and a very garlicky green and tomato salad. Those who marched into the kitchen first, had their meals served on plates. The last ones received them in bowls. There is no service to speak of but rather, we should speak about how Marie and her cooks spent the whole afternoon peeling the best potatoes, removing the dying leaves of a salad, removing the brownish skin of a celeriac, and finally scooping the purees from casseroles onto some 50 plates that evening.  Every now and then, we hear the  tinkling sound of coins being dropped in the donation box.

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We ate in silence until my seatmate said “we know that this was all made with love.” Love and the unsold vegetables of the morning market are the ingredients of this weekly meal. The “Poissonnerie” prepares the meal with vegetables from wholesalers who are ready to throw them away  because of bruises, dried outer leaves, imperfect shapes, dark spots – everything that makes a normal consumer ignore what is still consumable. Poissonnerie’s battlecry is  “sharing, partaking, saying no to food waste, promoting healthy food.” It relies on a community of participation. Two of the young volunteers who were sitting beside us woke up at four in the morning to collect the vegetables and dragged the cart that must have weighed more than 30 kilos. Many came for a “free” meal but most of them wanted to be part of this strange project in a strange venue where hipsters and the homeless mix, where you wash your own plate in a plastic pail brimming with soapy water, and where one can enjoy the jam session that spontaneously rise after the meal. It’s unimaginable that you walk out of there without dropping some coins or bills, knowing that this community would need some funds to buy oil, vinegar, salt, spices, washing liquid and all the rest that any kitchen needs. But then, you can also walk in with donations of plates and casseroles, used clothes and books that anyone can pick up for free, or logs to feed the stove so guests are kept warm while dining in a room with doors leading to the now empty cold chambers. (Poissonnerie, 214 rue du progres, 1030 Schaerbeek)

Sésam’ opened its doors a few years ago to help people in difficulty. Whether it’s to provide an income for those in precarious situations or train people for a professional reconversion or welcome juvenile delinquents who have been required by law to render service to society, Sésam’ has succeeded in meeting its social objectives by running a restaurant that serves very good food at small prices.

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Isabelle, who manages Sésam’ and trains a personnel of all ages, was all smiles when we complimented her with the quality of the food and the service. She looked completely at ease, relaxed as she hopped from one table to the next, getting into small conversations with regular clients while concealing a firmness that have given this social restaurant a reputation of good standing. She also took time to show us an ongoing exhibit of a local artist, one of the many who chose this venue for exhibitions.  Sésam plays host to seniors craft workshops, art afternoons for children and sewing courses for adults. Open for lunch from Mondays to Fridays, students of a nearby university, the elderly of the neighbourhood and those who work in the area come for traditional Belgian dishes like the Flemish beef stew and to discover some exotic recipes from Morroco, Turkey or Armenia. This is in Schaerbeek, one of the cities  in Brussels where a big population of migrants have settled and stayed. Most of the food shops on the street sell flat breads, halal lamb sausages, couscous and lemon confits. But Sésam’ is the place where all cultures meet, that is why it’s also called the “Bouillon de Culture” (the breeding ground of cultures).

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The day I went with a friend, the day’s menu for 7.50 euros was leeks soup and gratin of sea bass and spinach, topped with grated cheese. I skipped the leeks soup and exchanged it for a coffee with a homemade, moist chocolate cake served by a young, shy man who is on some sort of internship. For two euros, I could have asked for a second slice but reason and guilt took over, so instead I took a copy of the week’s menu to schedule another day of a healthy lunch with a conscience. (121 rue josaphat, 1030 Schaerbeek)

 

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The last time I ate there was in summer. It was a Sunday and since this has become a destination of families on weekends, the Estaminet of La Ferme Nos Pilifs was full. All seats were taken in the terrace. In a country where the sun rarely come and stay, any day with a ray of sunshine would have people rushing out for a sunbath in the guise of a happy hour in the terrace. Finally settled near the bar, we placed our order of coffee and crepes on a small paper, legibly marked our table number and waited. The wait was a bit too long but we didn’t mind. We are being served by the best waiters in town, people who have shown us that intellectual disabilities must never be a barrier to social integration.

 

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La Ferme Nos Pilifs, spread over 12 acres, is  a sheltered workplace which “provides meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding work to anyone with a disability.” What they did was to identify chores that are adapted to the employee’s abilities rather than on his disability. Over a hundred workers with disabilities work at the farm;  from baking, handling the bar, acting as the cashier, maintaining the kitchen gardens and poultry, to providing mail services for businesses.

We come here to buy trees, houseplants, gardening tools, seeds…or organic cabbages, fairtrade chocolates, vegan sauces. But there’s a spot that invites us to share our old clothes or books, bring bottle caps and wine corks for recycling, learn the art of cooking with low temperatures.

The farm boasts of a profitable garden center, an organic bakery and grocery, and a restaurant that serves a daily special, a veggie-Thursday, and Saturday brunches. While my husband went to look for an old variety of pear tree to plant in the garden and check out some egg-laying chickens, I rushed to the bakery. I bought two loaves of bread, croissants, and a cream and almond filled buns.

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Back home, I spread a thick layer of boursin cheese on a slice of bread with grains and poppy seeds, took another slice and smeared it with butter and raspberry jam, took a third one….just couldn’t get enough of this cake-like bread, that most likely, have been baked with love. (La Ferme Nos Pilifs, Trassersweg 347 – 1120 Bruxelles)

 

 

 

The day after the Brussels bombings, kneading dough was the only way to ease my sorrow.

Brussels
Wednesday,
23 March, 2 pm

attentats-bruxellesMy immediate reflex was to buy food. I was not sure how long this “war” was going to be. Fifty meters to the supermarket on the other side of the roundabout. Should I dare? Just before turning the handle of the front door, I got a message from my sister in Australia “store food, batteries, water.” What? Am I really in a war zone? Yesterday, two bombs exploded at the national airport at around 8 a.m., followed one hour later by another in the middle coach of a metro line that I take regularly. In the next minutes, we could only hear the screaming sirens of police cars and ambulances, a tv flash with an agitated anchorwoman in jeans and no make-up, and a radio warning that everybody should stay where they are – at school, in offices, at home.

And then, silence.

The streets were deserted. I finally took hurried steps to the supermarket and promised for the first time, to stick to my list: chicken, fruits, vegetables, smoked fish, butter, coconut milk, eggs…and managed to grab a bag of paprika chips before heading to the cashier. There was no sign of panic-buying. Maybe, it was only me.

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(rtl.be)

Throughout the day, the gravity of these explosions unfolded on tv. “What we always feared would happen, finally happened,” proclaimed the Prime Minister. This is déjà vu. In my dreams the other day, I asked whether airport cleaners can actually plant a bomb in the toilets. Or why was I walking the distance of the metro stops instead of taking a ride these last few days? Premonitions or simply not yet my hour.

And while I was in the safety of my home, innocent people lay dead on Zaventem’s glass-strewn departure hall and on Maalbeek’s blasted metro platform. I liked that metro station. It was renovated with simple, big white tiles with large, black stick drawings of human faces. It was pristine until the terrorists coloured it ash gray and bloody red. Those who “survived” came out of these target locations with burnt hair, open wounds, a missing finger, a missing companion….and deep emotional scars that might never disappear.

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(metronews.fr)

I am numb. I have not gone out of my house. I took shelter working in our office at the basement. I have not joined the mourners at the foot of the Stock Exchange building at the city center. I have not shed a tear…until today, when I saw my daughter crying. She just found out that a former schoolmate died in these explosions. I never saw her so affected like this. I can feel her sadness, her anger, her aversion to violence to the point of refusing to watch a youtube video of a puppy left in a canal by a stone-hearted owner.

It could have been her. It could have been me.

How can I comfort her with the untimely death of someone her age, explain to her in non-hatred terms this senseless warfare in the name of religion, guarantee her safety in public places, relieve her this feeling of constantly being exposed to danger, or reassure her that there is still something good in this world? I have no answers. My neighbours have no answers. The Belgian government has no answer. World leaders don’t have the answer. At this moment, nobody has the answer on how to stop this violence. Terrorists are multiplying like gremlins after a rain and have shown to an audience the world over a never-ending horror movie. Despite of our anger, our sadness, our false bravado, we tremble as we witness bloodshed on our streets, in our subways, in our concert halls, in our airports.

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(liberation.fr)

Indeed, we are at war. And the enemy is beside us. They are like moss in my garden, stifling the very little grass that would have made it green and pretty. They are watching us, judging us, feeding us, through their acts, the values they try to perpetuate: hate, fear, violence, intolerance, fanaticism, anger. They take advantage of our inattention, of moments when we let go of our defenses.

And just when we thought there is respite, we take a deep breath only for their human bombs to make it our last.

What can I do? I don’t know about tomorrow but today, I spent hours and hours in the kitchen. I grated lemon for almond madeleines, rolled oatmeal and soaked raisins for cookies, pressed oranges for a polenta cake, chopped carrots and zucchinis for a large quiche, diced tomatoes and cucumbers for a lentilles salad, and prepared a full Indian dinner of cardamom rice, curried chickpeas and potatoes, and chicken tikka massala.

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At dinnertime, I counted my blessings: roof over my head, my loved ones around the table, food on our plates. With such bounty, my thoughts strayed to those who were stranded and didn’t have a room to stay, whose loved ones have yet to be identified in some hospital morgue, and those whose nourishment in their now shattered lives will be our compassion, sympathy and solidarity. I vow to make that my duty. Perhaps…that is the answer.

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I started kneading the bread dough, drowning my sorrow in each movement. They say that your mood and feelings go into whatever you’re cooking. I’m not worried. The room is warm. My dough will rise….long before Easter.

Sartre and the Egg Tarts

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I have finished this piece a week ago, starting with…

Joaquim Miguel Braz de Oliveira Junior greets you with a wide smile as if he has been waiting for you since hours. He looks so happy to see you, then patiently waits as you get indecisive infront of the multiple choices of eggtarts on grandmother’s trays while a long queue; buzzing with excitement behind you, impatiently waits for their turn.  Joaquim serves your order in a dash while taking the time for small talk and then you settle on one of those modern chairs infront of a huge window. There is light, a lot of light and a lot of bustle on the busy Chaussée de Charleroi but your eyes are now locked on the four pasteis de nata you vow to finish in one sitting. Here, temptation is so huge, you order more than you can chew even if this luminous, welcoming, chic café offers you all the time to finish them and to bask in an afternoon of coziness while the huge pile of ironing had been left in one corner at home.      

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But then, I felt something was missing. So I headed off, for the nth time, to Forcado Pastelaria…

Instead of going to the cafe, I sneaked into the small atelier, which for more than ten years was also the improvised shop, more of a counter with a minuscule shelf that housed a no-sweat cash register and cake boxes. I pushed open the door…it was quiet, spic and span, and before me, rows of tiny moulds and a bowl of bubbly cream. I heard someone hollered from behind…”who’s there?” and I answered “I’m sorry, I think I made a mistake.” And then he appeared, Joaquim Fernando de Oliveira, the great Portuguese chef who whips up the best eggtarts in uptown Brussels. I asked if I can visit, explaining that its for my blog that nobody reads. With a big smile, he donned his chef’s vest before he grants me a late afternoon, unhurried chat where I discover a man full of charm, who remains passionate about his work, and so fatherly in his advice that family counts first – far from the “grouch” he was occasionally known to be when pretentious customers and their impertinence exasperate him.

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Very few people know that Forcado is a family affair that began with a chef’s life in exile. Joaquim Senior left Portugal at the height of Salazar‘s dictatorship. His father was in prison and he was scheduled for departure to a former colony, Guinée Bissau “to shoot people who did me no harm.” So at 19, he crossed the borders, found himself in Brussels,  worked in restaurants, learned on his own, rose from the ranks, and finally opened a gastronomic restaurant thirty-two years ago. The original pastry shop, which opened a few years later, was located around the corner on rue Americain, facing the imposing house of Horta, the most important edifice of art nouveau architecture.

There were glorious years; impressive notes from Gault et Millau and receiving “deux fourchettes” from Michelin….and there were difficult moments in the frenetic life of a chef. He sent all his employees away, sold his business, said goodbye to his kitchen, followed the advice of a psy to change his life. But that little fire kept burning and one day, he opened a tiny atelier beside his former restaurant, worked alone and started rolling out hundreds of pasteis de nata from a traditional, convent recipe dating back from 1843, from which he had added his “secrets.”

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I tried to wangle bits and pieces of these “secrets” – temperature shocks that congeal the cream; high-grade margarine that is spread in puff pastry, folded and refolded by hand; a cream mixture that demands the time and patience modern pastry chefs have very little of today. But the loveliness of Joaquim’s pasteis goes beyond the recipe that yields a crunchy crust with a wobbly, smooth and creamy flan. They are simply made with love.

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The café is Joaquim Junior’s project, with a bit of prodding from his father. He admits he is no good at the kitchen, hardly touched the oven. A masteral thesis, however, proved that he had all the ingredients for building an “empire” his father had always dreamt of reconstructing, not for him but for his only child. And while Joaquim Junior is young, ambitious, and highly motivated by family loyalty and gifted with an intuitive sense of marketing, he knows that his ace is still his father’s unparalled pasteis de nata. It has been said that Joaquim’s pasteis are soooo good and are compared favourably to the ones made in Belem, the bastion of pasteis, that they find their way back to Portugal, wrapped in boxes and taken home as precious gifts instead of Belgian chocolates.

Except for the grand array of pasteis….the classic, chocolate, speculoos, lemon, almonds, orange, mojito, porto, muscat, and other delicacies like the Tentugal and the Orange or Almond rolls, and snatches of customer conversations in Portuguese, there is not much to tell you that Forcado is your portuguese café. Joaquim Junior, who I now baptize as JJ for easier reading, refused any clichés that would have made it a “popular” café but instead have opted for neutral and modern tones, only allusions to azulejos in the logo, a collection of heirloom plates on a wall, the cork flooring (Portugal produces half of the world’s commercial cork)….and yet, JJ couldn’t do away with having a Portuguese flag at the counter nor ignore the rambling tramway upfront that reminds us of the city of Lisbon.

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For13In a few weeks, Joaquim Senior will leave his two-room atelier….for a bigger one; the irony of a semi-retirement that will allow him to make his dream cakes, recipes that he had gathered, invented, re-invented but never had the time, the space nor the equipment to realize creations such as the multi-layer and alcohol-soaked “Obama” or “King Philip.”

Back in the café, the eggtarts were gleaming on our marble tabletop. It was time to savor and to share and the stories have wandered from the father and son exploits to my daughter’s philosophy class on Jean-Paul Sartre and his advocacy for constant change. “My teacher said that Sartre thinks one should never be contented with oneself, that we should always strive to be better and not to be afraid to embrace change. And I told him, my mother is like that,” my 18-year old daughter glowed as she recounted. My pride was brimming like the pasteis’ toasted tops and as we devoured the four classic eggtarts, I thanked Sartre and the Joaquims for reminding me that I am the sole “meaning maker” of my life. Now, this could still be in the world of pastry but will probably never compete with a chef, who one day braved the borders to bake Brussels’ best eggtarts.

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Tea at the Emirates Palace

P1020795 At exactly four o’clock, my taxi swerved into the expansive driveway of the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. I stood infront of the massive doors, curious as to what awaits me in this palace built to showcase Arabian culture. But at the excuse of culture, I am here, in all honesty, for tea.

I’m here at the advise of a kind Emirati at the airport after asking him what I can do in an afternoon in this desert city. And aside from the shopping malls and the Ferrari circuit, there is not much for me to visit in this jungle of sleek, imposing, high-rise buildings.P1020792 But the palace is something else. No king, no sheikh, no princess lives here. It was built as a luxury hotel, the second most expensive hotel built in the world. Almost two billion British pounds were poured into construction work but that’s what one would pay for if you find gold and marble in every suite, a private beach and marina, 85 hectares of gardens and lawns, a rugby pitch and a soccer field. The hotel, managed by the Kempinski Group, claims to be “beyond five star.” A self-acclaimed “seven star” could only lead to one’s beating as expectations will be as high as their domes. They did receive the flak for bad service at the café. I ignored the bad reviews, the advise to make a reservation, the dress code that prohibited jeans and just headed off to the Emirates Palace for tea.

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As the valet swings open the door and welcomes you with a bow,  the opulence takes your breath away. The long and wide stretch of marble floorings, an 80-meter high dome dotted in gold, ornate lighting fixtures, and rococo wall fittings with Arabic themes reveal a royal venue. After a languid walk of the hallway, greeted every five meters by costumed hosts and hostesses, you reach the grand Le Café. I felt more like Aladdin than a princess…all that glittered was gold and “iftaḥ yā simsim! (open sesame!)”…all those cakes protected from my reach in a wide glass case.

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People come here for the much-talked about 24-k signature cappuccino with gold sprinkles but I opted for tea and chose the “Jasmine Pearls: a delicate, flowery specialty with tea leaves rolled by hand and flavoured with fresh jasmine pearls.” And to help me finish a teapot good for four, I ordered the signature Emirates Palace Cake, a multi-layer chocolate mousse and fudge cake sprinkled with gold. And gold sprinkles you will find in almost half of the menu, from the 24k camel burger to the golden French fries. Not to mention the gold-snaring bill at the end of this royal visit.

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But I opened my wallet with pleasure because I think its all worth it – the cake and tea were exceptional, the palatial ambiance, Villeroy and Boch chinaware, Christofle cutlery, the shower of gold leaves, and the attentive service (except that the waiters, as per instruction, politely refused to take your picture. Then you have to learn how to take a selfie before your tea gets cold). So, I could never understand someone who thinks being refused additional hot water to further soak his tea is bad service. He should have brought his own kettle.

Just before leaving, I tried to look sad and one of the waiters took notice. Worried that I was unhappy with the service, he asked me how was my tea. And I said “perfect, but I have no selfie.” He hesitated, looked where the video surveillance cameras were, angled himself against a huge pillar, and clicked.

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Thank you, Eliza Jane Rodda

rodda'sSo essential for cream tea but not exclusive to, the clotted cream is one of the best “unhealthy” products. It is said that a 100 gram tub of clotted cream is equivalent to a 200 gram cheeseburger. I’m willing to take this creamy gift from the cow before it was reduced to ground meat. My favourite is no less than Rodda’s clotted cream, a family enterprise that dates back in 1890 when Eliza Jane Rodda gently baked rich local cream in her farmhouse kitchen in Cornwall. Since then, Rodda has become England’s number one ‘cottage industry” manufacturer of clotted cream, ranging from five tons to 25 tons produced in a day.  When I bake scones, it has to be the real cream tea experience so I take the long trip to Stonemanor (an English grocery) where I can find the short-date Rodda’s clotted cream and Wilkin and Sons Tiptree raspberry jam (I never made one!). Rodda’s is creamy, thick, velvety and sinful.  I’m ready to take in 586 kilocalories. Read the vital information at the back of the packaging: “take your scone, add a layer of jam, and then (only then!) a generous dollop of Rodda’s….you get a lot more on that way.” Clotted cream also goes best with apple pie, poach pears, chocolate brownie, pancakes, sticky toffee pudding, etc. I buy several tubs and freeze them. Just thaw in the fridge a day before. If unavailable, I get kaymak, the Turkish equivalent or the Maquee de Brabant, the Belgian half-equivalent. Otherwise, simply mix mascarpone with a bit of sugar and vanilla.

After the Pastry World Cup, I will never look at a hairdryer the same way again…

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Here I was in Lyon, France – one of the world’s gastronomic capitals and yet, have been eating fastfood, greasy hamburgers for the last two days. I didn’t get a chance to eat in one of Paul Bocuse’s brasseries, the very least I could have done since I couldn’t afford a classical menu in his Restaurant Abbey Le Collonges.  If I had taken wine with that dinner,  I would have reprimanded myself anyway for a peacocky meal instead of paying for a nice holiday in another country’s food basket, like Bologna in Italy. I was surrounded by “food of the gods” and got deprived of a single bite. I just didn’t have time.

No tasting of Lyonnais specialties on this trip, where I had been asked to cover, in 48 hours, a huge French food fair and the Pastry World Cup.  The saying “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too” could never have been so appropriate than in my despondent case. All I was allowed to do was to ogle and salivate….because the pastries were so near and yet so far.

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This is the Pastry World Cup – the dream of every pastry chef that some ignoramuses refer to as the Miss Universe or the Formula One of pastries. How can one even compare this prestigious contest with human meat or motor oil? This is the Oscars of Pastries, where gowns are replaced with white, crisp aprons and checkered pants, with toques as accessories and double-breasted jackets simmering with gold, silver and bronze medals. And the winners…speechless and in tears.

So, now you can imagine why my frustration in the last two days have risen to the level of a sizzling volcano. I could see the multi-layered bavarois, almost licked the cream, smelled the intense aroma of melting chocolate, saw how sugar is transformed into an artwork and watched the desserts parade before a long table of international judges. And they poked, forked, chewed, moved their lips, gurgled with sparkling water after each tasting and penned the points that determined this year’s champion.  I was nervous, excited and hopeful and yet…I was just a spectator, though thanks to a press entry, I was able to watch in close range how each team fought to be the best in a marathon of 10 hours. But the reason for the extra jitters and the core of this effervescence was the presence of a Philippine team.

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My heart went out to them. I had to stop myself from cleaning their table tops, removing scattered ice, and pulling the sugar. But no one was alllowed near them. They were the “untouchables,” oblivious to television cameras, to roaming judges, to the screaming contingent of Filipino fans. They were calm, organized and concentrated in their sweet bubble.

I felt like the special guest of Willy Wonka. I was in my planet but this is another universe. The Pastry World Cup has nothing to do with baking brownies on a Sunday. Nigella Lawson, one of my favourite chefs despite of her lapses, would have failed in the first 15 minutes. Her drooling icing, finger-licking antics that my nephew calls “culinary porn” wouldn’t have pass the first test. There is baking and there is pastry. And in between an entire world of gadgets and equipment, years of training and techniques, honed instincts on varying melting points  of chocolate and the talent of synthesizing flavours. When the budget allows it, we see an artillery of equipment from power tools for ice carving, spray guns, high-end mixers, sugar-heating ceramic lamps,  blow torches, electric fans and yes, hairdryers.

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There were 21 teams, each had 3 chefs specialized in sugar, chocolate and ice. Each team had ten hours to finish three chocolate desserts, 3 frozen fruit desserts, 12 desserts on a plate, and artistic creations in sugar, ice and chocolate. Also, each country had to choose a theme:  “The Vikings” for Sweden (how original!), “The Wild West for the US” (how surprising!), “The Wild West for Algeria” (even more surprising!), “Star Wars” for Denmark (that was a darth idea), “Mayan Culture” for Guatemala (love your own!), “Peter Pan” for Italy (forever kids), “Mario Brothers” for Singapore (forever kids 2), and “Cycle” for the Philippines which, like many things in the country, requires sub-titles and in this case, “the hunter and the hunted” (just because a sugar frog was eyeing a sugar dragonfly).

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A panel of judges gave points for work organization, technique, maximum use of ingredients, timing, artistic appeal, originality of recipes, and taste. The teams received bonus points if they used special ingredients from their countries. Tropical flavours were the in-thing with yuzu as the most glamorous ingredient. But they were also judged for cleanliness and order of the atelier, punctuality and team work. It was this “oneness” that earned the Philippines their place in the top half despite of being a first-timer in such a prestigious contest. They had no airs, no diva-attitude, no quarrels of who’s the boss. It was a perfect symbiosis of a team who was determined to show the world their level of excellence, their dedication to the profession.

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All the teams felt that way so there are tears when things go wrong. But no tantrums, no swearing, no fuss. The show must go on as it had to for Egypt, for example, whose two chefs were denied French visas and had to deal with “strangers” who replaced them or Italy who, seconds before bringing out their dessert plates,  broke their chocolate sculpture and messed up all the ready plates. Backstage stories were fascinating: a Guatemalian chocolate chef on a wheelchair who decided that no accident can stop her from this passionate profession; the rumored three-million euro budget for training the Danish team; and the Philippines’ Vincent Cahatol, the wood carver who converted himself into a kitchen artist with vegetable, fruit, chocolate and ice carvings. Cahatol, whose toolbox never arrived, won the best ice sculpture with a borrowed chainsaw, two chisels and an ice clamp.

Quentin BaillyAfter 48 hours, the verdict was: gold medals for Italy; silver for Japan and bronze for the US. Winning is so important but not as important as the lessons learned in such a contest. French master chef Quentin Bailly, the 2013 champion, said the pastry cup experience is life-changing. “Of course, you earn more credibility, it opens new doors professionally. But the pastry cup is a venue of sharing. We learn from each other’s techniques, get acquainted with new equipment, taste new ingredients coming from different countries…but most of all, we build friendships.”

I felt it…this unspoken solidarity among those who knew what it means to be there. Hardwork, perseverance, creativity, passion. At the end, it felt less of a competition. How could it be…when you hear generous compliments from each other or the shared sighs when things go wrong for one team or the unabashed expression of admiration for another’s technique.

Indeed, it’s strange this special sacharine kinship among pastry chefs. And as Gabriel Paillasson (below), founder-president of the Pastry World Cup said, “Welcome to the family of the greatest pastry chefs in the world.”

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