Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Coffee In Praha ........

The coffee in Prague is wonderful – Strong, black and velvety. It smells like a mixture of roasting coffee beans mingled with melted chocolate and comes with tiny pots of evaporated milk or small chocolates wrapped in silver foil.

Prague is a coffee drinker’s heaven.

However, Prague is also a tourists dream. So with attractions such as the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock, why would someone waste their time writing about the coffee?

Simply put – because I live in London!

Yes, currently I am a resident of her majesty’s capital city, and while London is famous for Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the millennium wheel – she is not known for her coffee – and for good reason.

It’s almost impossible to get a good coffee in London. I can count on one hand the amount of coffee I have had in this city that has rated a positive mention. In London coffee is something that comes in a large take away cup and makes you look cool – like someone out of Sex and the City or Friends. It’s expensive, and in most cases such bad quality, it forces you to accept that you drink it, not because you like coffee, but because you are in fact addicted.

Prague was different. The coffee was excellent, and that only added to the wonders of the city. I put various establishments to the test and was never disappointed. We drank at cafes in tourist central, off the beaten track bars, small pubs near the golden lane and American style coffee houses where the staff spoke perfect English and the décor was fashionable and minimalist – the kind of establishment where coffee is supposed to be overpriced and very disappointing. But we were nicely surprised.

Prague was beautiful and will go down as one of my favourite cities. The steaks were bigger than they are in London, the salads are fresher, the waitresses’ are friendlier. Even the American tourists in Prague seemed quieter… But maybe that’s because I finally got a good cup of coffee – and everything else seemed better as a result!!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The new phenomenon in ‘group entertaining’ is the concept of the ‘Group Pizza Kitchen’. Entertaining enthusiasts no longer have to pine for a modern take on the famed fondue evenings of the 70s – the Group Pizza Kitchen has arrived and is making a big impact on the communal food preparation scene!

We were introduced to the Group Pizza Kitchen by a ‘Visiting Aussie’ on Friday evening, a few weeks ago. As would be the case with many of the events we attend in London the evening started with us rocking up to the venue close to 9, refreshed from the day and ready to eat. When we arrived events were in full swing and the kitchen was buzzing with the momentum of people preparing food.

The plan was simple and appealing

Our starter – served just before 10pm - was a sweet potato soup. Made with Love... and a good helping of Coriander

Our main meal was a series of self-assembled pizzas. The Visiting Aussie had a batch of home made pizza dough - prepared in advance and rolled into shape with the help of a duty free bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. The table was laden with an arrangement of carefully chosen ingredients including chorizo, buffalo mozzarella, peppers, mushrooms, artichokes and Prosciutto that cost far too much when converted into Aussie Dollars!

The idea was that each guest assembled a pizza that would be more delicious and sought after than the next. We worked on a two by two principle – while two were in the oven the next two were being prepared.

The concept was a big hit. The evening was social and fun, spiced with good humoured competition as each guest rose to the challenge of trying to create the most delightful pizza.

The night had it all. There was a chilli stand off that left all in tears and exhausted the milk supply in the house. There was a sword fight... with real toy swords. The Islander girls broke into some sort of a dance that looked like it was half hula half haka and there was a dessert – that, despite it being delivered in the glass pots of GU fame, was largely inedible. (We blamed the 70% coco solid chocolate??!!)

The evening spilled over to the next morning until all the dough was cooked, all the wine was consumed and all the bellies were full.

International Foodie claims to be devoted to Good Times, Good Friends and Good Food and the Group Pizza Kitchen had it all – including a few soul stirring renditions of Billy Joel classics that everyone knew the words to.

The Group Pizza Kitchen reinforced the idea that to share a meal with friends is to share a memory, a moment or maybe just a bloody good time!!

Friday, August 25, 2006

The thing I love about the English is their unashamed love of simple food. Food that provides comfort, food that is designed to fill and dare I say bloat! Food that can be found in pubs and is always served with some sort of potato!

The English love it all - Jacket potatoes, cabbage mash, Tuna and sweet corn, or cheese, onion and salad cream baps (don’t knock it till you try it!!). Even the poshest English lass will get stuck into a plate of fried eggs and Baked Beans after a big night out!!

In the four years I’ve been a UK resident I have not once come across an act of food snobbery perpetrated by a local. Generally speaking the English have a ‘food humility’ that stands in stark contrast to the attitudes I grew up with in Australia. I can’t include my New Zealand experiences in this instance as when you grow up with Maoris you have to accept one fundamental fact about yourself and your heritage…. Maoris eat anything!!

Maybe that’s why I love the English approach to food.

As a Maori growing up in Australia I found many adjustments were necessary. Very early on in the piece I learnt that to stop being teased about your funny accent you quickly had to assume the beloved ‘Aussie Twang’. Likewise, to stop being at the receiving end of school yard taunts over the contents of ones lunchbox one had to loose the ‘I eat anything and I’m proud of it’ attitude.

At my school in Australia to admit that you ate baked beans was to commit social suicide. To have tuna in your lunchbox was to be accused of smelling like cat food. The funny thing was that even as I got older many of my peers still held tight to these attitudes. So I continued to deny the relief evoked by publicly vocalising my true food inclinations.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that to eat well is to eat a variety and to eat good quality. I even like donning the glad rags and spending a fortune on Posh Nosh every now and again too. However I also believe that everyone has room to indulge in a little simple, maybe even filthy, food every now and again.

England has induced a regression back to my childhood food attitudes. No longer do I ashamedly eat beans on toast for breakfast without admitting to my friends that this was the reason I didn’t feel like lunch. Rather I celebrate simple food. I eat it. I cook it. I love it!

I think maybe there is something quite Maori about the English!!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It’s always warm at a Gaskell Road Soirée …………

On Saturday night we went to a party. It was supposed to be a summer soirée, but typically the English summer weather thwarted our plans to saunter in the sunshine and lounge in one of the only private backyards we are associated with in London.

When it became clear that the sun was stubbornly refusing to have a part in the evening’s festivities, our host dispatched a round of ‘rusty nails’* – guaranteed to warm when the sun wouldn’t. By 8.30pm the majority of the party goers were huddled in the kitchen extension eating their canapés and chatting excitedly. Londoners are adept at partying in cramped conditions and adapting to wet weather contingency plans – if they weren't they would never get to party!

However, parties on Gaskell Road stand out. Parties at Gaskell Road are always a mixture of civility and elegance coupled with good humor and a hint of that good ole Aussie yobboism (it’s a word… ask any Aussie!!).

The music is eclectic and the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming. When we arrive our hosts look refreshed and expectant. The lady of the house has her hair up, wears kitten heal shoes and is draped in sparkles and turquoise, she is never ostentatious and always delivered with effortlessness (or the illusion thereof). Lord of the manner, who tonight masquerades as the bartender spiced with a hint of tri-athlete, is freshly showered, with slick hair and a pressed shirt. Their little lady comes dressed as a Ballerina in a pink tulle tutu.

At what age is it that Tutu’s at parties go from being cute to crass?

The Gaskell Road party food is always exquisite but never fussy. At our indoor summer soirée we feasted on an assortment of oriental delights (sushi and rice paper rolls), salami and Rocket wraps, summer fruits, friands and Brownies.

For girl’s only events, such as kitchen tea parties, the table is draped with white linen and covered with glasses filled with sparkling pink champagne. In autumn the table is decorated with miniature crab-apples and flickering candles. Cheese platters with fig jam is served as a fitting expression of appreciation of the most romantic season of the year.

The bartender provided an assortment of liquid goodies that cater for all inclinations. Sparkling or non-sparkling, red or white, alcoholic or beverages for the drivers (or indeed the detoxers!). Generosity is overwhelming as the 15 year old whisky it placed on the drinks table for all to dabble in its delights.

As we leave we make our way to the door by dancing to cheesy disco songs. The bartender jumps up and down in a ‘mosh’esque style and our hostess lures us into a semi-soul train semi-aerobics routine (or was that just me…?). All the while little lady ballerina is tucked up in bed… tutu carefully stored ready for the next soirée!

On the way home I think to myself – 'Warmth always radiates at Gaskell Road …… Even when the Sun refuses to come out and play!'

* Rusty Nail

2 oz Scotch
1 oz Drambuie
Twist of Lemon

Mix both ingredients in a glass with ice, strain into a Whisky Tumbler (My rule of thumb with whisky tumblers is the heaver the base of the glass the more pleasurable the experience!!)

Garnish with Lemon

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Self confessed instant drinker …………

As I stood in my kitchen after a rather lazy Saturday morning’s sleep in I looked at a jar of instant coffee, the contents of which I had begun to shovel into my cup, and thought back to a time when I never would have admitted to drinking instant coffee. Indeed there was a time when I would not have even had a jar of the offensive stuff in my house.

Yes – I was a coffee snob.

In my early 20s I began working for the Australian Public Service in Canberra (Australia’s Capital city) and it was the 'APS' that introduced me to coffee - and indeed sparked what would become a life-long partnership. It was a simple time, a time of innocence. A time I like to refer to as ‘BS’ – Before Starbucks. Cafes were a dime a dozen in Canberra – but coffee houses such as Starbucks had not yet crept onto the scene. In those days a coffee break represented an escape from a life that you were not yet ready for – a life of being a subordinate to team leader and a section manager. A life of flexi time and 4 weeks holiday a year. A life that wasn’t supposed to happen until you were in your 30s and ready for kids and benefits.

I distinctly remember the joy of walking across the road from my office into one of the cafes that did take away and thinking ‘for the next 15 minutes I’m not a public servant…. I am a coffee drinker indulging in the thing I most like to do – drink coffee’. It sounds a bit extreme but let’s face it – it was Canberra in the late 90s – There was no beach to escape to and drinking coffee was about all there was to do at 10 am on a work day!!

And that’s how it started – as my years in the public service progressed and my need for more grandiose moments of escapism grew my coffee expectations scaled out of control until one non-descript day I decided that I could no longer tolerate instant coffee. The words ‘sorry, but I don’t drink Instant coffee’ were soon to become a song I sang regularly.

But that all changed one fateful trip back to New Zealand.

My sister and I had gone back to New Zealand in July 2002. Justin and I were due to move to the UK on September 2002 and this trip was going to be the last trip back to NZ for the foreseeable future. My maternal grandparents offered their place as our base and for the 2 weeks we were there we whizzed around the north island always to return home to Nana and Koro.

One of the first nights in NZ we had been out with some cousins and returned home at about 10pm. Nana and Koro were in the lounge room – Koro reading the paper and nana watching TV. As soon as we walked in the front door, nana leapt off her chair and excitedly asked about our day. As I began to recount the day’s events she put the kettle on and pulled a tray of freshly baked shortbread from the oven (one of her specialties responsible for many of my fondest childhood memories).

As she reached for a cup she asked

‘Tea or coffee dear’

‘Coffee thanks nana’

‘How do you have it?’

‘Just black, no sugar’

‘Oh, Just like me dear’ …… she seemed to like the fact that we had our coffee the same way. So did I.

And then it happened, it could have even taken place in slow motion – all pivotal moments in life take place in slow motions – don’t they?

She reached up and grabbed a jar of ‘International Roast’ from the shelf cupboard and began scoping it into our cups.

‘But that’s instant coffee ……. I don’t drink instant coffee……… especially international roast…..IM A COFFEE SNOB….’ I thought in a panic and almost out loud.

But I couldn’t get out of it – I wasn’t about to tell my Grandmother that her coffee wasn’t good enough for me to drink – so I sat down on the sofa and finished telling her all about our day.

And so the pattern was established and whenever we returned home late in the evening – this was our routine. Nana would make the coffees (sometimes followed by a duty free baileys chaser!!) and get out a plate of homemade shortbreads and we would sit and talk about the day and all our adventures.

In my memory that coffee was the best I had ever had – and maybe that’s because it was accompanied by memories in the making. It wasn’t about escapism or even status, but rather about enjoying the moment with people you love.

When we got back to Australia I bought a tin of International Roast and every morning before work I would make myself a cup and think of how Nana’s face lit up as we talked and laughed.

So as I sit in my front room on what is now Saturday afternoon I enjoy my cup of instant coffee.

My name is Tracey McGarvey-Gilbard
And I drink Instant Coffee