Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Just Call Me Martha

Should you cook brown rice, carrots, broccoli and chicken breast in a lemon and honey glaze for lunch,

And should your children be sick with ear infections, strep throats and a “big auwa in my toof”,

And should they be – for reasons known only to themselves – unable to eat the meal you have prepared for them,

And should this irritate you because the food is bloody delicious,

(You know because you ate it),

Yet you don’t want to eat it all yourself,

And you really, really don’t want to throw it away,

Then slice and dice and julienne it all down to within an inch of its former size,

Douse it with soya sauce,

Stir-fry it in sesame oil,

Serve it in a blue and white bowls with chopsticks,

And call it “Chinese Supper”.

There. That’s all I’m going to say about that.


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Let’s Talk About Food, Baby

It’s clearly autumn. I’ve got visiting owls and the bakery’s got Zwiebelkuechen. When I walked past yesterday and smelt the delicious scent of baked onion, creme fraiche and bacon, I had a vision of all the festivals and seasonal foods that lie ahead of us – the Zwiebelkuechen of harvest time, followed by the pumpkins that may or may not mean Halloween, the November Laternefest and its cakes, and then all the delicious smells and spices of Christmas. In about three seconds’ time, I’m going to be sipping Gluehwein at a Christmas market, wondering what the hell happened to the year. Wasn’t I in Tuscany on the beach, like, yesterday?

Now it’s harvest time and the German new wines will be appearing soon. These are bottled – with screwtop caps – as soon as they reach 4% alcohol, but continue to ferment inside the bottle up to 11%, so they are deceptively strong. Germans serve their Neue Wein with a good hearty Zwiebelkuechen in order to counteract the unknowable amount of alcohol in the wine. We have to be cautious, you know? It’s apparently a very good pairing, if you like Neue Wein, which I don’t. It’s far sweet for me and brings on an instant headache (not the the fun kind that you earn after hours of drinking, but the depressing kind when everyone else is having a blast and you have to go home at 9.15pm).

When I started working in Germany, the first team after-hours get-together I attended was trumpetted as a “Neue Wein und Zwiebelkuechen Party“. The guy who organised it got quite excited about his party theme. You could have sworn he was going to be serving Moet and Beluga caviar, he was so thrilled. (Have you noticed that it’s always the same people who organise parties? Some people are party helpers, other people are party goers, and then there are the special souls who like to organise parties. They don’t seem to spend much time actually enjoying the parties; they are not usually the ones seducing the intern on the dance-floor or arranging group down-down sessions. Instead, they are restocking the drinks fridge, making sure there are enough knives and forks on the table and doing the music. I love party organisers. They provide the excuse for me to make desserts and then do a lot of dancing.) So after all the Neue Wein and Zwiebelkuechen PR from the party organising guy, I got quite excited about these exotic new foodstuffs and was looking forward to trying them. Sadly, they were not great. Zwiebelkuechen turned out not to be some fascinating kind of cake, but Quiche Lorraine (easily found in South Africa) and the wine was sweet, feathery and gave me an instant headache. I was underwhelmed.

However, the Zwiebelkuechen, with its crumbly crust and salty-sweet combination of bacon and onion, has grown on me. Today, passing the bakery, I was lured by its siren smell:

Zwiebelkuechen with feta and pepper salad

Now I don’t drink alone and I seldom drink at lunch-time, even at weekends, but somehow it was not possible to eat Zwiebelkuechen without drinking wine. I’m not so German that it had to be Neue Wein, so instead it was a tiny little glass – really, a tiny, tiny little glass – of rose.

I needed something to help soak up all that Zwiebelkuechen, after all.

And I wasn’t alone. I had three children with me.


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Italy Unplugged

(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.


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The Interview

As a journalist, I spend a good deal of my time interviewing people. I have been interviewing people for 15 years. Last week I interviewed two people, one in India and one in Germany. So when Kit did the interview meme, and offered to interview someone, I was shamelessly jumping up and down, going “Me! Me!” like the most eager kid in class. Finally, I can say, “And now let’s talk about me.”

Without further ado, here is Kit’s interview with me.

Kit: How did you come to make your home in Germany? Is any one of the countries you’ve lived in your spiritual home or are you a natural nomad?

Charlotte: We moved to Germany in 1996 because my husband was offered the chance to work at the head-office of his company, SAP. I had never been to Germany, and like most Anglo-Saxons, I imagined that it was a horrible industrial complex beset with neo-Nazis and beer-swilling, yodelling sausage eaters dressed in Lederhosen. We came to look at Heidelberg one January. I had never been so cold in my life, but I was stunned by how beautiful it was. I knew straight away that I wanted to come and live here, for a while. Now, 11 years later (with a four-year hiatus in England), I have three children who speak perfect German and are deeply attached to this land.

Germany isn’t my spiritual home. I think South Africa is, though the longer I spend in Europe, the harder it gets for me to go home. A few months ago, the 100-year-old grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine was senselessly murdered, and I began to think it would not be possible for me to live in a country where life is taken so lightly. My children are also used to a certain amount of freedom, and it would be hard for me to take that away from them. So while my heart lies in Africa, I will probably always be a nomad. I love travel, I love new places and I like to keep moving.

Kit: If you could make a cocktail of all the best elements of South Africa and Europe, for your children to grow up with, what would you put in it?

I would take South African weather, landscape and spontaneity, and mix it with the relative freedom, the travel and the old, wise cultures of Europe. I would like them to grow up with a German sense of independence and disregard of status, a South African warmth and hospitality, and a European appreciation of art, literature and culture.

Kit: Where do you look for inspiration for your writing? Has blogging changed the way you approach your writing?

Charlotte: I am fascinated by people and what motivates them. I like to understand what makes people tick. I believe that life presents us with opportunities to grow into better versions of ourselves, so I tend to be intolerant of people who refuse those opportunities, who choose to stay the same, locked into old mindsets and prejudices. I like to write about the clash between people who grow and people who stay the same. Those who stay the same get short shrift. Growing up in apartheid South Africa helped to forge such a mindset, because the old Nationalist government tried in every way, legal and illegal, to restrict and contain people, but the positive energy of growth was so powerful and compelling that the society had to change. I love the idea of change and growth that is irresistible.

Blogging has taught me that I can write every day. However, with all the other things I try to cram into my day, I leave myself with little time or energy to write creatively. I am stuck with one story, and one set of characters, and anything I write seems to be about or around them. They are a novel waiting to happen. They are hovering in the stratosphere waiting for me to call them down. I have no doubt that I will finish writing about them and move on to the next story, but this story has to get written first.

Kit: What are the favourite books from your childhood that you still enjoy reading today?

Charlotte: I adored the Narnia books with a passion and have recently started reading them to my daughters. It has been wonderful rediscovering their magic.

Kit: What is your best comfort food?

Charlotte: There are different kinds of comfort food. Chocolate is my anti-depressant. When my husband is out of town and I’ve got a girly DVD to watch, I like popcorn. Soup is good on a cold day, or a salad on a hot one. A cup of tea made by someone else always tastes better than a cup of tea made by myself. For a hangover, I like white bread, thick pieces of cheese, salami and mustard. Because, you know, being a journalist, I get a lot of hangovers.

DIRECTIONS FOR THE INTERVIEW MEME
1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

******************************************************************************************

I have also been tagged by Emily for the 10 Best Compliments meme and by Ms Magic Hands for the Five Things I Do To Raise My Vibe meme. I shall interview myself and report back later. Watch this space.


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Eight Food Things

There’s a lovely food blogger in Seattle, called Tea, who writes the Tea & Cookies blog. She’s done a food meme, which I’m stealing, since I’m obviously not done with making people hungry and wanting to come and live with me. Those of you who’ve requested adoption might look to Tea, who is a seriously foodie food person. Compared to her, I’m an amateur, a dabbler, a mere hobbyist.

Eight Food Things:

What are your favourite foods?

Green asparagus. We recently discovered (thanks to Loren) that this can be grilled on the braai. A revelation! A quick weekday supper, now that we have our electric grill, is a steak each and a pound of green asparagus braaied to perfection. In Baden, where we live, the white asparagus is a kind of white gold, but in comparison to the green, I find it flabby and tasteless. Plus, it requires peeling which is a horrid bore. I’m a green Spargel gal.

Soft fruits – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. I’m eating them by the punnet at the moment.

Avocado, preferably squashed onto nutty brown bread with tons of salt and pepper. Apologies Herschelian, I know you loathe it.

What foods do you hate?

Offal in any shape or form – please no kidneys, livers, hearts or tongues. Don’t do ’em. The only possible exception is chicken liver pate, but only in very small doses.

The mere thought of eel makes me gag. That scary combination of two legless beasts – snake and fish – is too much for me. I’d rather eat grass.

Slimy, pink, overprocessed meats. As my children say, bah!

Foods you like but are embarrassed to admit:

Salty popcorn. There’s tons of it in The Post-Birthday World and it made me salivate. When I was a student, a friend and housemate introduced me to her family tradition of emptying a packet of Smarties into a cinema bucket of salty popcorn. I was immediately hooked on the combination of salt, sugar and chocolate. I won’t countenance sweet popcorn though.

Treats of my childhood: orange chips called Niknaks, Peppermint Crisps, Zoo Biscuits and marshmallow fish. These are things I always buy when I’m in South Africa.

Salami sticks. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Strangest food you’ve eaten and enjoyed?

Warthog and crocodile. Warthog is like pork but better, and crocodile tastes like chicken.

Cooking failures that still rankle?

Nigel Slater’s Demerara Lemon Cake from his Kitchen Diaries. I made it recently in an attempt to move away from the Lemon Drizzle Cake, and it was an abject failure. The syrupy lemon slices that were meant to brown delightfully on top the cake sunk into the middle and the mixture near them remained raw. The whole lot had to be consigned to the bin.

The first meal I ever cooked for my husband, long before he was the husband. I called it Pasta Arrabiata, but it was really just pasta, tomato sauce and whole green olives. Very yucky. Bravely, risking never seeing me again, he told me he couldn’t eat it. I admitted I couldn’t either. We had toast instead.

Ingredients you don’t want to consider living without?

Lemons, olive oil, lemons, limes, lemons, flat-leaf parsley, lemons, chocolate, lemons, basil, lemons, cinnamon, rosemary and lemons.

Cuisine you’d like to know more about?

Moroccan, Iranian and Egyptian. I need to use up my stock of rosewater.

Foods you’ve hated but have grown to love?

Peas! I used to swallow them down with water as a child, or gather them in my mouth and later spit them in the loo. Now I love the little darlings.

Tomatoes – South African tomatoes are watery and floury compared to the firm, juicy, sweet European varieties. Barely a day passes without me eating a tomato.

Underdone beef and lamb used to make me shiver with horror, but now after 15 years of hanging around with my husband’s family I have grown used to pink juices. Especially good with tons of mustard.

Current kitchen conundrum?

Space. My three kids really want to help in the kitchen, and I really want to encourage them, but the kitchen is so small that I feel claustrophobic when one other person is in there with me. One day I will have an enormous kitchen with a farm table, lovely chairs, a sofa, a huge workspace and bookshelves.

If this grabs you, consider yourself tagged!


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Cream the Butter and Sugar

These are my five favourite words in the English language (apart perhaps from “let me take the children” or “you go and lie down”). All my favourite recipes start with these words. I love the action of putting sugar and room temperature butter into a mixing bowl and taking a fork to them. I could use my mixer, but there is something inexplicably satisfying in doing it myself. My kids are getting pretty good at the action too, which does remove some of the fun for me, because then I have to do something dull like sieve the flour or line the tin. I want to be creaming the butter and sugar, kids. You do the boring bits.

I had a bake-a-thon this weekend. First of all, it was raining on Friday and there was a gang of hungry children rattling around the house. I love baking on a Friday; filling the house with good smells before the weekend starts. I made Bindi’s Tangy Yogurt and Oatmeal Muffins. This recipe does not involve any creaming of butter and sugar, but they are so good and packed with such wholesome ingredients that they have the same psychological effect. I love watching the children eat them and all the while I’m thinking “you’re eating oatmeal, oatmeal and plain white yogurt, and you don’t even know it”. It gives good smug. Bindi suggests putting banana in them. On Friday I did plain chocolate chips.

Then on Saturday we were invited to a very South African event – a braai and a rugby match on TV. I was asked to bring a salad but because my salad recipe did not start with my favourite words, I also spontaneously made a batch of shortbread to take, which we ate with fresh strawberries. Shortbread contains no yogurt and no oatmeal, but it does contain a ton of butter, which you cream along with a ton of sugar. I used the recipe from Cook with Jamie, which he describes as the “best shortbread in the world”. Jamie recommends using some lemon or orange zest for extra zing, but I scraped out a vanilla pod instead and made vanilla shortbread. It was delicious.

Today we were also invited out for lunch and I promised to bring dessert, because I knew that would mean I could cream the butter and sugar again. This time I had some “help” and we made our family’s favourite cake – V’s Lemon Tea Loaf. Although V is American, this is actually a British lemon drizzle cake, but a superior version thereof. When the cake is hot from the oven, you spear holes in it with a piece of dried spaghetti (I love that part too) and then pour over a sticky syrup of lemon juice and water. When you eat it, it’s moist, sticky, soft and delicious. We had it with fresh raspberries and cream. I felt both were extraneous. The cake speaks for itself. It requires no back-up.

Having been deprived of creaming the butter and sugar by my kitchen assistants (who sweetly offered to wash up afterwards), I took the chance while they were out of the kitchen to make some biscuits from How to be a Domestic Goddess. There was absolutely no need to take anything more along to our lunch, but because the helpers had deprived me of my chance to cream the butter and sugar, I was forced to get my fix. I chose what she calls “Granny Boyd’s Biscuits”, which contain all of four ingredients – butter, sugar, flour and cocoa. I was able to quietly and meditatively cream the butter and sugar all alone in my kitchen. The biscuits turned out well. As Nigella says, they are dark and smoky and would go nicely with vanilla ice-cream.

So. All that sugar making you feel sick yet? Me too. Let me leave you on a lighter note, with the salad I took to the braai. It’s one I’ve been looking at for a while in Nigella’s Forever Summer and I at last got to make it. The main salad ingredients are feta and watermelon, which you chop into large chunks. You slice a red onion very finely and let it seep in lime juice. Then you pour the onion and its juices over the feta and watermelon, adding chopped fresh mint, flat leaf parsley leaves (not chopped), black olives and some olive oil. It’s scarily delicious and looks beautiful. Eating it on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a winter rugby scene on the TV and wet German hills outside made me think of Greece. I believe they have sugar there too.