The “Feed Me!” Files 4: Fat Tuesday

Today is Pancake Day! Or, Shrove Tuesday. So what is it actually for? As with most Christian festivals these days, the real meaning gets a little lost amongst the other, more decadent (fun) concerns. Shrove Tuesday, or mardi gras as it is known in French (meaning literally “fat Tuesday”), is the day of indulgence before Lent starts, which is the period of abstinence between now and Easter Sunday.

Typically around 40 days long, this period is one of religious self-flagellation (not literally…I don’t think), in which you are supposed to give up one vice until Easter. That is why typically back home people overindulge on pancake day, deprive themselves for 40 days, then overindulge again once Easter Sunday rolls along with all those chocolate Easter eggs rolling around alongside it.

This period of denial is supposed to correspond to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert whilst being tempted by Satan. I suppose the equivalent these days would be endless adverts everywhere for chocolate, if that is what you have chosen to renounce. Other typical things to give up are smoking and alcohol, and even (though this probably only ever happens in fiction), sex.

So today I’ll be whipping up some pancakes for my housemates. Real, thick, English ones, too, none of this thin European crêpe business. They will be accompanied by generous lashings of butter, lemon and sugar (though not necessarily all at once), and devoured. This is the English way of celebrating Shrove Tuesday: fattening up, unlike in Brazil. Maybe we should consider shaking off some of the calories with some samba dancing, as they are doing at the carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Last year I tried and failed spectacularly to give up sugar. It’s a real challenge, 40 days! I have similarly lofty ambitions this year, but even I am not really deluded enough to think I can be successful, especially as my birthday falls in this period. Are you going to be giving something up for Lent this year, and if so, what?

The “Feed Me!” Files 3: Homemade with love

What is it about homemade meals that never fails to warm the heart? Maybe it’s that thin but unshakeable strain of Asian in me, or maybe it’s just because I’m a foodophile, but the very act of preparing a meal with one’s own hands for someone else, of nourishing them, is for me the most basic, yet ultimate, form of hospitality.

It doesn’t even matter if the food doesn’t taste good. Naturally I don’t object to a delicious meal, but as long as it’s not actually burnt to a cinder, or poison, I will eat it with joy. If it’s made with love, how could I not like it?!

Living in halls provides abundant opportunities to cook for one another. In my kitchen every Sunday one of us would cook a meal from our respective countries for everyone else; that had a good run of a few weeks before everyone had their turn, but we still try to eat together on Sundays. There’s no greater way of bonding than breaking bread together. Except maybe getting hideously drunk together, but a homemade dinner is more dignified, more practical to do regularly, and better suited to the more moderate lifestyle that comes with age.

Recently a friend came over and made a gratin, which I had never tried before. When I think about what has been cooked for me by my friends and housemates, it really has been a grand culinary assortment. The selection runs from instant noodles to a full blown English roast, not to mention many, many variants on pasta dishes, with the most unforgettable (not to mention unhealthy) being penne pasta, boiled then slathered and fried in margarine (which I never eat, showing how appreciative I was of the meal!).

Equally, cooking together is a charming exercise in bonding. It’s a domestic, mellow and comfortably intimate act, to prepare food and to partake of it together. You wouldn’t do it with somebody you don’t like, or don’t want to spend time with. You’re working together on something that is gratifying, mutually beneficial, and (hopefully) yummy.

If someone has cooked for me, my way of showing thanks is to do the dishes. This has resulted in some literally physical wrangling with friends who (are often stronger than me and) won’t allow me. It might seem trivial, but simple things like this show a person’s hospitableness and kindness, and win me over every time.

As Christmas approaches, with all its associated fêtes, it is the prospect of cooking (whatever the results) Christmas dinner with my friends and all sitting down together and soaking up the Christmas spirit that I really look forward to. Food and friends: sweet manna of life! Une combinaison parfaite.

The “Feed me!” Files 2: Gimme sugar

There’s nothing quite like a sugar hit, is there? And, like heroin, it’s always the first rush that’s the strongest, with every following bite a mere attempt at replicating that initial thrill. If I am guilty of one vice, it is sugar, hands down; and I know I’m not alone. Whether it be for energy to get my sleep-deprived and droopy-eyed self through another two-hour class, a necessary epilogue to a meal, or in answer to a sudden late-night craving, sugar reigns supreme.

So you might venture to say Switzerland, home of Lindt, is the right place for me to be right now – or the worst place possible! In any case, I have wasted no time in trying out the local sucreries – sweet things. From local patisseries and their deliciously fresh (though overpriced) goods, to the impressive sugared bulwark that is every supermarket’s chocolate section, to the mouthwatering treats on offer at the university canteens, there is certainly much to keep a sugar fiend busy here.

Bizarrely, the one thing I have not seen much of is chocolate fondue. Cheese, yes, but not chocolate. I think I’ve just discovered my next mission… In the meantime, have a taste of some of the saccharin surprises I have encountered thus far.

Chocolate – it’s an obvious one; in fact, I’ve started to take it for granted. The chocolates that I am used to seeing in England (Snickers, Maltesers, etc.) are still readily available, with some interesting variations, such as white Kit Kat Chunky, or almond Mars. But of course it is the national brands such as Lindt, Sprüngli and Cailler which hold more interest. You can find some seriously interesting chocolates in the local supermarket, which in England you could only find in a specialist chocolaterie.

Carac – ahh, this most Swiss of sweet treats. When I first got here I was instantly intrigued by this omnipresent green tartlet, and it was only a matter of time before I sunk my teeth into its gooey, chocolately depths. It is intensely sweet; a bit too much for me. To have only when you are braced for a serious sugar shock.

Carac

Image via Wikipedia

Prune tart – On offer in impressively large slices at university cafeterias, dusted with white icing. Not something I would usually go for (probably too close to something “healthy”), but it is traditional, and good for keeping you regular!

Mövenpick ice cream – originally a chain of hotels, this Swiss company has branched out into ice cream, and at 12.95chf per tub, you know it’s gotta be something special. How can I describe their double cream (from nearby Gruyère) and meringue flavour? I don’t even normally like meringue. I haven’t tried any other flavours, and I don’t feel the need to. This stuff is so good I’m kind of too scared to buy it. Thank god for the ridiculous price tag.

Gaufres – or waffles, as we know them. I’m thinking specifically about the ones they sell at Coop. Big, chunky, with little bursts of sugar lumps at intervals; sure they may be from packets but these things are way better than the stuff you can buy from street vendors.

Chocolate truffle cake – get from a local bakery. I don’t even know if this the correct name for these little rectangular slices of heaven, but they are chocolate, with a definite truffle-y texture inside, and again, extremely sweet. A struggle even for me to finish a slice.

Tarte au citron – The nicest one I have tasted so far has been at Anthropole, the university building where I have most of my classes. They have these sort of square-shaped pastry cases, filled with a deliciously thin lemon curd and topped with tiny curls of chocolate. Beautiful.

There’s more; you know there is, I know there is. I just have yet to try them out. I probably ought to be careful though, seeing a dentist here certainly won’t be cheap…

The “Feed Me!” Files 1: Salé/Salty

It’s quite surprising, given the name of this blog, that I have yet to actually blog about food. Anyone who knows me knows how important food is to me. Having Chinese blood puts food as the absolute number one priority. My mother always taught me that you can scrimp on anything else but never, EVER with food.

Trying out new restaurants, and more specifically, trying the weirdest thing I can find on the menu, is one of my life’s greatest joys. I’m unabashedly adventurous when it comes to cuisine; the more atypical the better. It is important to try out “local” fare when I go to new places, too. In my mind, a place is largely defined by the kind of food eaten there, so I don’t feel I’ve really experienced somewhere until I’ve tasted the food.

I present here part one of my foodscapades so far in Switzerland; the salé, or salty, stuff (dessert will require a whole other post). So, napkins on laps and belts loosened in anticipation kiddies: this post is going to be of a highly gastronomical nature.

Fondue – of course I had to try fondue within my first three days here. It was bad enough being in possession of a blog named after this foodstuff for a month or so before having ever touched it to my lips. It’s fun, but I found it extremely heavy and a bit too rich; definitely needs to be accompanied by a side dish to tone it down. Nice, but not nearly as tasty as…

Raclette – It took me two months in Switzerland before I tried it, but boy is this stuff good. (I had had a McRaclette burger in McDonald’s but it doesn’t count, and let’s not talk of that again…) The general consensus seems to be that raclette tastes better, but fondue is more fun. Tip: drink only hot drinks with raclette and fondue, otherwise you risk causing the melted cheese to solidify in your stomach. OUCH.

Stag – that’s a funny one, because I ate this once and I didn’t even know it. I thought it was strangely-textured beef, seasoned with a bit too much red wine. I found out later it was in fact cerf (stag), hence the very strong flavour.

Bambi – as all my friends insist on calling it. Yes, I had deer, it was yummy, and it was a microwave meal. The kinds of meat you find in supermarkets here are very different to what we’re used to in England. For example, last night I made…

Horse steak – ready-seasoned with red curry. It was good. Rather tough, and spicy, though that was more due to the curry than the actual horse meat I suspect.

Wild boar – now this is one I’m really proud of! Sanglier as it is known in French, and eaten in a vibey beer hole in Zürich accompanied with spätzli (a kind of pasta) and red cabbage. It tasted somewhat like pork, but leaner (nicer). It was the beginning of November, hunting season, so what I had on my plate was genuinely hunted wild boar. I felt like an Ancient Roman.

Saucisse Vaudoise – as I’m in the canton of Vaud, I see this stuff everywhere (and there are loads of sausages everywhere anyway). It’s a kind of smoked sausage which you need to boil for about 45 minutes. Well worth the wait though, it’s yummmyy. However the first time I bought one from the supermarket, I didn’t exactly know what it was, and failed to spot the cooking instructions, so I peeled back the skin and started to eat it…raw. I realised quite quickly that you’re not supposed to eat it like that. It’s ok, I was alone, no-one saw me…

Salty crêpes – yes, I was confused too when I first heard about this. To me, crêpes were those overpriced flimsy sweet things which are made even sweeter by adding Nutella and sold from street stalls in England. However, a recent trip to an amazing crêpe restaurant with a Swiss friend (who knows all the good places to eat) initiated me into the wonder that is salty crêpes. They are made of blé noir (buckwheat), and the menu was extensive, because there is a whole host of things you can add. In my crêpe was spinach, tomme (a cheese local to Vaud, so I had to have it) and sausage. It was fairly gigantic, but naturally I couldn’t pass on a sweet crêpe for dessert, which had sweet chestnut paste, a ball of vanilla ice cream, and a shot of liqueur which the waiter poured on top then set aflame. So I had a flaming crêpe.

Rösti – You can’t really go wrong with potato, onion, cheese and (in my case) an egg. A traditional Swiss dish, very hearty and filling.

Phew, I’m feeling rather peckish now… Next up, sweet stuffs from Suisse.

I also realise that my last post promised this one would be about differing national perspectives… you should know better by now than to expect me to be able to predict where the blog Muse will take me!