The hills are alive

I’ve been to the Austrian mountains before, but usually in the winter time, so this holiday the main thing that struck me was the plant life. All those Alpine meadows full of flowers, mostly in shades of purple and yellow, made the few short hikes we managed all the more pleasant.

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Don’t ask me what any of these are called, as I’ve no idea.

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This is one of my favourite shots and is currently my iPhone wallpaper:

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Naming the dead

This weekend I went to the cinema to see the film Under The Skin. Much to my surprise it was sold out. This film has been out here for several weeks already and, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson, isn’t exactly a summer blockbuster. Forced to decide between just going back home and choosing another film, I looked at the other dozen or so films on offer. I wanted to see Boyhood but that was already half an hour into its showing, and the only other possibility was Tracks. It wasn’t high on my “to see” list, but it was on it, so that’s what I went for.

It tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked alone across 2000 miles of Australian desert with a few camels in 1977. It’s a beautifully shot story of a woman who just wants to be alone in the wilderness, and how hard that proves to be. There are also some interesting insights into both Australian and Aboriginal society, but to be honest the most fascinating part came before the opening credits. An onscreen caption warned “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

Afterwards I looked this up online and found that indeed many Aboriginal tribes prefer not to name or publish images of the recently deceased as they feel that it would disturb their spirit in the afterlife. During this period (which may last between one and a few years) a generic name like ‘Kumantjayi’ is used to refer to the deceased. But it also leads to some problems, as noted on wikipedia:

“This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.”

There’s also a bizarre anecdote on this website about how names given to Aborigines by white settlers were affected.

The one thing that remains unclear to me is to whom, in this specific case, are they referring? I mean, if the real deceased person is portrayed onscreen by an actor, does that still count? Or is it because someone who acted in the film died after filming was completed? I guess they probably mean the post-credits scene where we see photos of the real Robyn Davidson and the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy. Davidson is still alive and attended the film’s première, but I imagine Mr Eddy is long gone by now. Which is a shame because he was one of my favourite parts of the film. It’s worth watching if you get the chance.

But I still hope to see that Scarlett Johansson film some day soon.

Bookalokal: Indian BBQ Class

This week’s bookalokal Indian verification is written by my wife Paola, as I had to spend the weekend ferrying the kids over to their grandparents in Genova. Over to Paola:

We have had various Indian home-cooked meals recently thanks to bookalokal, but this one was different: a BBQ cooking class. When I signed up, I thought we would learn a few useful marinades and then have a BBQ together, but in fact we did so much more. There were eight of us and we prepared (and subsequently ate) seven courses over the course of four very full, and yet fun, hours. Some parts were more hands-on, and at other times we watched Nikki prepare the ingredients, but the mix really worked in getting everything done.

The first thing we did was making paneer (Indian cheese) from scratch, which totally blew my mind: it was so easy! Just bring milk to the boil, add vinegar, let it curdle and strain it:
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Then we left it in the cloth and put a heavy pan on top to get all the moisture out.

While the paneer was resting, we made mint and coriander chutney:

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We then prepared the marinade to rub in the chicken legs for the tandoori chicken recipe:

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Here we cheated. Since both the chicken and the paneer need to absorb the marinade for at least two hours (if not overnight) Nikki had already done it for us the night before. So while we did learn how to prepare the marinade, we actually ate the chicken and the paneer that she had prepared earlier.

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The star behind the BBQ class is, well, the BBQ. Unfortunately the weather turned horrible, so we ended up cooking the food in the oven. Still, it was very nice and in the handouts Nikki did have some useful tips on how to cook the meat both in the BBQ and in the oven for optimal results.

The tandoori chicken went in the oven:

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While the chicken was cooking, we prepared a chickpea and potato salad as well as a tomato and cucumber one (kachumbar). In the process we also learnt useful tips about Indian ingredients and spices and where to source them.

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We made skewers with the marinated paneer, onions and peppers:

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By then the chicken was ready, so we sat down to eat all of this, while the paneer Tikka skewers were cooking.

Chicken leg, kachumbar salad, Indian-style potato salad and spicy chutney:

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Clean plate:

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The paneer is ready! Yummy…

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By this point we were pleasantly stuffed. And Nikki reminded us that we still had to make the Seekh kebabs:

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We all got our hands dirty:

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More grilling:

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And yes, we just about managed to eat a couple of those too (although a few people preferred to take them home instead).

All in all a lovely afternoon and some great, easy recipes that could very easily be made again and again at home. I’ll be back for more!

 

[insert generic slogan here]

There’s an ad campaign in the Brussels metro at the moment for Celio clothing stores. A young man wearing a jacket, t-shirt and bright red trousers leaps into the air, full of joie de vivre. The slogan next to him says “Life, enjoy”.

“Life, enjoy”. What exactly does that mean? Apart from the nonsensical punctuation, what does that tell us about the product, or the company selling it? That I will finally be able to enjoy life if I buy a pair of red trousers?

Similarly there’s a Pepsi ad in the street near my office which says “Live for now”. Silly me, there I was living for last Tuesday when I should have been living for now. Thanks, Pepsi!

Many things bother me about this kind of advertising slogan. Firstly there’s the fact that presumably someone somewhere was paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to “write” this generic piffle. Secondly, it tells us nothing specific about the product being sold: most of these phrases are entirely indistinguishable and interchangeable. And why do they even need a slogan anyway? They’re not telling us anything useful. I guess they feel they’re creating a “brand identity” or some such bollocks but when it’s this wishy-washy and meaningless surely that defeats the object.

It reminds me of the trend a few years back for TV ads which consisted of a selection of beautifully-shot life events (weddings, births, playing with your children, exotic holidays, and other generic scenes of a happy life). They all looked the same, except for the company name and slogan at the end, usually along the lines of “Gribble’s Widgets: for the way you live today”.

 

Bon Bon revisted

We first visited Bon Bon nearly six years ago, and always wanted to go back for a second visit. In the intervening period it gained its second Michelin star and moved to a location only ten minutes’ drive from our house, so now there was really no excuse.

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Compared to their previous premises their new digs were sleek and spacious. You could spend the whole evening watching the staff plating up if you wanted to, and it was possible to eat at the bar if you wanted an even closer view.

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Incongruous among all the straight lines and minimalism was this old fashioned bell the staff rang whenever a dish was ready.

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Our first amuse-boushe was ‘Kiwi en trompe l’oeil”; a crispy sweet tube containing kiwi cream.

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Number two: fennel gaspacho with a curry foam. This being Belgium the curry was pretty mild, but it was still a nice idea.

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Eggs mimosa with smoked eel. Cute egg cup.

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Beetroot macaroon with horseradish.

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Mushroom tartlet.

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Having chosen our menu (five courses, although there was also a seven course option) we received our daily bread, complete with Peloponnese olive oil in which to dip it.

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Our first proper course was “Moscow” potatoes with caviar, chives, straciatella cheese mouse, cucumber, celeriac juice, purple potato chips, shrimp and langoustine, accompanied by a glass of cucumber and Hendrick’s gin.

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Easily the prettiest dish of the evening, but also one of the tastiest.

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Gambero rosso: very slightly grilled but otherwise raw shrimp. The jasmine tea dashi poured on top was amazing.

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Sole with comté cheese and Jura wine. Yes, cheese with seafood can work! Yah boo sucks to the naysayers!

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Lamb with peanut, artichoke, shallots and beans. I was unsure at first about this combination of flavours but it grew on me and by the end I was quite enjoying it. It was introduced as “Lamb: a souvenir of Senegal”, but I’m not familiar enough with Senegalese cuisine to comment on that.

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For dessert we were given three options: strawberry, chocolate or herbs. Intrigued, we both chose herbs, and this is what we got: fresh cheese from Beersel with cucumber, pepper, sorrel and dill. Beautiful. I love light, refreshing desserts and this one definitely hit the spot.
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With our coffee we chose from the petits fours trolley (my dreams of a re-enactment of the famous Victoria Wood sketch were dashed by the disappointingly competent waiter).

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So there you have it. No complaints about the food from me, although a few times we were left with our empty plates a little longer than I’d expect from this kind of establishment (sometimes they stayed there right up until the following course arrived). But considering how close it is to our house I can don’t think we’ll wait another six years before we go back. Bon Bon lives up to its name.

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bookalokal: Punjabi

We’ve become the go-to verifiers for bookalokal Indian meals, it seems. Which is fine by me. This time it was a little different, however, as after several south Indian feasts we were treated this time to North Indian cuisine. Much of this is actually familiar from restaurant menus, as many of the staples of your local curry house (samosas, tandoori, chicken tikka masala) come from the Punjab region. So on the one hand we had a pretty good idea what to expect from the meal, but on the other hand we were keen to see the difference in the home-made variety.

Charan & Viney (who jointly prepared the meal) welcomed us into their home in Vilvoorde and we sat in their comfortable living room for a pre-dinner chat and drink.

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They immediately impressed us with an original and deliciously spicy tamarind cocktail filled with crispy chickpea balls.

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The same liquid was also spooned into hollowed-out crispy dumplings to pop whole into the mouth.

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We chatted about life in Brussels (they’ve been here for 30 years), their home town of Delhi, and, of course, food. Which just made us all the more hungry, so we headed over to the dining table. A selection of starters was served: vegetarian samosas, salad, poppadoms with two tasty sauces (tamarind and mint & coriander), and tandoori chicken drumsticks.

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It was all good: the samosas were spicier than usual and the chicken in particular was very succulent and not as dry as other tandoori chicken I’ve had in restaurants. I had two and was keen for a third but remembered to leave a little space for the main course.

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The main course was equally elaborate: mutton balls in gravy, paneer jalfrezi (fresh cheese and peppers), Punjabi lentil daal, chapati and basmati rice. Our hosts explained that they thought it best to present a selection of dishes rather than just the one plate, of which I’m all in favour as I like to try as many different things as possible. And they were all good, although my favourite was probably the paneer.

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And you can’t go wrong with mango kulfi (ice cream) for dessert followed by a cup of hot chai.

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It was a very pleasant evening of good food and good company. And if you can’t make it for dinner Charan also organises cooking courses so you can learn to make this stuff for yourself.

Brussels Asperatus

It’s been a funny old weekend in Brussels, weather-wise, with hourly alternations between blazing sunshine and angry downpours, thunder and lightning and sizeable hailstones.

Late yesterday afternoon I went out into the garden to check on the drying laundry and saw this:

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Shortly thereafter my wife brought our daughter back from a playdate. She’d seen the clouds on the drive home and insisted that she and I go immediately to the nearby park to take more photos. Who am I to dampen the enthusiasm of a budding cloud-watcher?

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A friend (Hi, Jane) helpfully pointed out on facebook that these are known as Asperatus clouds; a name created by the Cloud Appreciation Society.

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