Aachen means christmas to me

A visit to the Christmas market In Aachen, Germany.

Lebkuchen heart, similar to gingerbread

I went on a day trip to Aachen with my parents, just like we always did when I was growing up.
It was one of the highlights of the year for me when I was a child, I clearly remember sitting in the pushing chair covered with one of those big plastic covers feeling cold but enjoying the christmas lights in the dark.
I recall the cold, my frozen feet and my hands being warmed by a little leftover glühwein my parents allowed me to have. When I started to walk, I remember the large people surrounding me, stepping on my new little boots, and the lebküchen heart I was looking forward to picking out. 
Aachen means christmas to me. The scent of spices and chocolate from fresh lebküchen and the smell of anise from the artisan candy maker. Not a year went by that we didn't visit Aachen in the last two weeks before christmas. It just didn't feel like christmas without it.
My parents always tell me a story of them losing me in a shop and eventually finding me staring at the huge christmas tree in the middle of the store trying to get out one of the balls.

I loved the lights, the cosy feeling of going to the christmas market with my parents and the food.
Oh yes, the food.
When I was five or six I was allowed more sips of the glühwein to keep me warm and had Reibekuchen to warm my hands. I remember my face and hands being all greasy by eating those hashbrown like potato cakes, and sticking my hands in the air so my mother could take the grease away. I was well trained, no way was I going to clean my hands on my new wintercoat!
This year all those memories from my childhood came back to me, my mum and dad indulged me by eating Flammenkuchen for lunch, Lebkuchen whilst walking around Aachen and Reibekuchen after we strolled around the christmas market.
My parents asked me if we needed to go and look for my candied apple and even stopped and offered to buy me a Lebkuchen heart, on days like these I feel that they completely understand my love for food.
Mum and dad smiled all day, even though it was raining all the time. I think they were thinking about our trips to Aachen from the past 20 years too.

When we were leaving the market, I stopped to look at a little girl who was sitting in her pushing chair, protected from the rain by a plastic cover, being fed little pieces of Reibekuchen by her parents. She was sitting cosy but cold enjoying the christmas lights and perhaps she will be allowed a little sip of warming glühwein too.

Reibekuchen, delicious with apple sauce

Fagliolini al Fiasco, beans cooked in a bottle

I'm already dreaming of travelling to Tuscany again...

On our first evening in Tuscany I ate a dish with beans. A friend of our hostess told me that dish was named  "Fagliolini al Fiasco" "beans, cooked in a wine bottle".
He told me this is a dish often sold by bakeries who used the leftover warmth of the bread oven to cook the beans in old Chianty bottles. 
The technique was quite simple, the dried beans are dropped in through the narrow neck of the bottle and just barely covered with water, herbs and olive oil. 
In the old days, the bottle was sealed with a wad of muslin and set in a corner of the fireplace onto the smoldering ashes. While everyone in the house was asleep, the beans cooked. Imagine waking up to that.

This dish is also one of the classic "pane e companatico" which means "Bread and something to go with the bread". That something in was very often these beans.

Traditional little cookies: kruidnoten

The feast of 'Sinterklaas' on December 6

'Sinterklaas' is a traditional Winter holiday figure still celebrated today in Belgium and the Netherlands.
He is an elderly man wit a long full white beard. He carries a big book that tells whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. He traditionally rides a white gray and delivers the gifts to the children by riding his horse over the rooftops assisted by his helper 'Zwarte Piet' (black Pete)
Parallels have been drawn between the legend of 'Sinterklaas' and the figure of Odin, an important god to the Germanic people and worshiped in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization. 

For Belgian and Dutch children, it is customary to put one shoe in front of the fireplace on the 5th of december. The evening is called ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (boxing evening).
Carrots, turnips or apples are put in the shoe as a treat for 'Sinterklaas' horse. The next morning the carrot would be gone and the children may find candy or a small present in their shoes.
When I was a child I used to go and choose the best looking carrot and turnip at the market. I always made sure there was a bottle of beer for 'Sinterklaas' helper 'Zwarte Piet'. The next morning, there were chunks bitten out of the carrot and turnip and the beer bottle was empty. How magical!
We all knew there was no Santa but we were firm believers of 'Sinterklaas'. I remember the disappointment I felt when I found out 'Sinterklaas' didn’t exist. I was in bed, trying to stay awake so I could see 'Zwarte Piet' as he came down our chimney. I didn’t see him, I heard my parents whispering about my present and where they were going to put it this year. I was so sad! I didn’t tell my parents "I knew" until the next year when they told me themselves.
In Belgium they say finding out that 'Sinterklaas' doesn't exist is the first disappointment you have in life. After that, you are a big girl or boy.

Chestnut cake from Monteriggioni, Tuscany

A beautiful farmers market in the heart of a fortified town.

It was a sunny autumn morning when we left for Monteriggioni, the fog had slipped away and gave way to a yellow and brown colored landscape.
We changed our clocks one hour ahead that night so when we awoke the dew had already dried up and the sun was giving a warm glow.
We drove trough the rolling landscape of Tuscany to reach the hill where the quintessentially fortified town of Monterriggioni lies.
From a distance the town looks like a giant fairytale castle, as we drove towards it my thoughts wandered off to the Middle Ages when Monteriggioni was at the very heart of the conflicts between Florence and Siena. I imagined large battalions of knights approaching the town and peasants going about their business. The knights have all gone now but the farmers remained and were the reason we were driving here today.

Today was a special day in Monteriggioni because in the heart of the fortified town there was a farmers market going on. It was only for one day and there were no certainties for it to happen ever again. The town square was filled with food stalls, producers were proudly presenting their new Organic olive oil and wines were given to taste generously. There were smiling faces everywhere, from the stallholders insisting we’d try their food to the people who were enjoying the scenery and the sun. It was like at this moment, everyone was happy here. There was no music, no dancing but nonetheless this was a feast, a food fest.
The produce at this market was absolutely beautiful, if I could I would have bought something from every stall. But luggage restrictions bound me to making choices, a choice like this is hard to make. What do I leave behind, the glorious organic chestnut flour or the tasty Boar salami... I decided to leave the Fava beans behind and regret that choice every day since. What if I could have fitted an extra bag in my luggage?
Oh well, you can’t have it all and I went home with a beautiful selection of food. 

Chestnuts roasting

Tuscany in the autumn, a celebration of food.

The view at 7 in the morning...
You know that feeling when something sounds to good to be true?
I had that feeling about Tuscany...
Like so many people, I had fallen in love with the pictures in magazines, travel guides and the tales of good food and wine.
I was very eager to find out if the story's about Tuscany were wildly exaggerated or true.

After arriving at Pisa airport, I took the train to Florence where I would meet two of my fellow food bloggers Zita from Hungary and Karin from Germany. We were going to explore the city and later drive back to to meet our lovely hostess Giulia, for dinner at Trattoria Bel mi’ Colle in Colle di Val d'Elsa. Florence is grand, we had fantastic coffee at Roberto Cavalli, visited David and strolled around town feasting our eyes on all the pastries. When we left Florence it started to get dark, we saw the sun set over the Ponte Vecchio and drove off to Colle di Val d'Elsa in pitch black.
Panforte, a Tuscan speciality   -   Carabinieri   -   Lovers lock at the Ponte Vecchio

The next morning I woke up at 6:30, too early but so eager to finally see Tuscany! I got up, took my camera and opened the blinds on the windows of the house.

The view at 6.30 in the morning.

Chocolate and ricotta spelt cake

Chocolate cake, don't we all need it once and a while?
I do, not even being a chocaholic I do crave chocolate cake sometimes.
But my needs are specific, I don't want it to be to sweet, to spongy or to dry. I want a moist, firm cake with a bitter taste of chocolate and some nuts.
I spent years baking chocolate cakes trying to perfect the recipe, they all came out wrong. Some were to moist, to heavy, to sweet, to salt, to dry, to burned... you know the story.
A few weeks back Zita a fabulous vegetarian food blogger from Hungary I met in the summer, shared a vegan chocolate cake recipe with us, using whole grain and white spelt flour. I love Spelt, I use it for bread all the time but for some reason I've never tried using it to bake this cake before.
I decided I wanted to use Ricotta, because I had cake in our favorite Italian restaurant that had Ricotta in it and made it taste so creamy.  That, and because I just LOVE Ricotta in every way.

The best chocolate cake I ever ate was in a small tearoom in Glastonbury when I was 18 years old, it was the first holiday I went on without my parents.
This means it took me 10 years to create a cake that equals that cake I ate in 2001.
To be fair, I didn't bake for about 5 years. And perhaps the fact that I was on my first holiday alone had something to do with it.
But here it is, my favorite chocolate cake.

Cornwall - a taste of Kernow and wedding balloons

Cornwall, land of moors and mining, of dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches.
A place where the weather can not be predicted and where nature does it's own thing.
Described as an area of outstanding natural beauty it is also the poorest county in the UK. 
Tourism is the county's biggest industry but towns struggle in the low season...
For me Cornwall is a foodie destination, a place where you can eat a crab sandwich in a small village cafe that is ten hundred times better then in a highstreet establishment in ‘The big smoke’.
But Cornwall is also an environmental friendly place being nearly entirely self sufficient with the most beautiful produce you can think of. They have red, white, rose, sparkling and fruit wines. Real Cider, Cider Brandy and ale. Cheeses big and tiny, blue and yellow. Fish straight out of the Cornish waters, giving the word Fresh fish a whole other dimension.
So I can't call Cornwall the poorest county in the UK, they are in financial therms, sadly, but culture- and foodwise they are rich.
That's why I can't get enough of Cornwall, and by going there on holiday you help them with the 'being poor' side of the story but you can enjoy the wealth trough food and heritage.
Cornwall, land of turquoise waters, tiny pittoresque villages and great produce.
I can not praise it enough, I just adore every rock and pebble of it.

On the last day of our time in Cornwall last summer, my sweetheart Bruno proposed to me on a dramatic cliff at Lands End. The engagement ring was a simple silver band, forged on the rocks of the Cornish cliffs by a pirate and his pirate cat, meters from where he had just asked me.
The pirate also forged our wedding rings, bashing them on the rocks leaving them with an imprint of a very special place to cherish. 
This had to be our honeymoon destination without hesitation.
After our little wedding in a Sussex town steeped in history, we drove off to Kernow.
We visited the pirate and his cat and had a truly wonderful time.

On our wedding day in East-Sussex, UK. Pictures by Assassynation

Smoked chicken and a little compassion

I am having a strange feeling of happiness...
It's sunday evening, I'm ready to go to sleep and I m looking back on my weekend.
This weekend was all about a chicken, not any chicken, a chicken that was reared with care and had lived a worthy life.
From the moment the 'Poelier' handed over this *chicken to me I felt like I had the task of giving this animal the send off it deserved.
It might sound strange but I truly felt that it was my duty to continue to care for this animal.
Someone had taken good care of this -very large- chicken, it had been roaming free in the Vogesen in France for at least 120 days. Knowing that the chickens we usually come by have only lived 40 days and sometimes less, this was a big bird.
After I picked up the chicken, my whole weekend started to evolve around it. First I had to clean it, quite a task as it was the first time I had to clean a bird from scratch.
I stood there for a minute, until I came to my senses. If I am going to eat this animal I might as well look it straight in the eye.
If you buy these chickens you get everything, the whole bird. This is so you can see first hand how this animal has lived.
What might be disgusting to some, really made me feel humble.
I wasn't going to let anything go to waste out of respect and gratitude for the life this beautiful animal has given.
This is a feeling we have often forgotten in Western civilization, raising and caring for an animal and then when it comes to the point where it’s going to be eaten, use every part so not one single bit of this animal will go to waste. 

So this is what I made of my beautiful bird.
On saturday I smoked the whole bird for 6 hours and had it for dinner, on sunday we had the leftovers and froze what was left of the leftovers to make chicken pie next weekend and sunday evening I made stock from the bones, smoked chicken stock! So this chicken will be enjoyed for months to come.

For the smoked chicken

1 free range/Organic chicken, mine was a 4,5 kg Bresse* Chicken
(Just try and find the best quality animal and ask your butcher for advice)
1 onion
a hand of fresh parsley
a hand of fresh sage
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
apple juice
1 apple

For the smoker
Wood chips, wood from fruit trees works best. I used wood from old Whisky barrels which gave an extra flavour.
Extra wood, I used wood from old grape vines. As coals do have some glue and/or additives in them most of the time, I think it's best to use wood when the chicken is already in the smoker.

I served the chicken 'old school' with apple compote, carrots and hand cut chips which I baked in the oven.


Clean your chicken if your butcher hasn’t done so yet.
Start by firing your smoker or closed up BBQ
Stuff the chicken with 1 onion, fresh parsley, sage and thyme.
Bind the chicken with some kitchen rope so the stuffing doesn’t fall out.
Rub the meat with apple juice.

Soak the wood chips in some hot water

Prepare a jug with water, add a glass of apple juice, some apple slices and thyme.
When your fire is ready, add the watercontainer to the smoker which you then fill with the water you just prepared.
Just before you put the chicken on the heat, add the soaked wood chips by placing them on top of the coals.

The heat inside the smoker has to be at least 80% to cook chicken.
Now the fire is ready to start cooking the meat.
Close the lid and don’t open it again for at least 4-5 hours.
This will prevent any dropping of temperature in the smoker.

After an hour check on the coals and add some new ones or a piece of wood if necessary.
I found it was necessary to do so, to keep up the temperature in the smoker. (I used the old grape vines at this stage)
After 3 hours we added some wood chips again.
You can check on it after 4-5 hours, but with a 4 kg chicken like ours it took almost 6 hours to be perfect.
Remember the juices have to run clear before it is safe to eat chicken. 

 *Bresse chickens are protected by Appellation d’origine contrôlée since 1957 - the first livestock to be granted such protection. The rules about raising these chickens are very strict, for example, stocks are limited by the size of the farm - with a minimum allocation of 10 square meters for each bird.

Today is world food day, I signed up for Blog Action day #bad11 and that's why I felt I needed to write the next bit:
I haven't had chicken in my country for years and when I did I felt guilty but frankly more sick then guilty.
The cruelty these animals are raised in is just beyond your imagination.
They live -survive- on a tiny spot in a large closed barn until they drop dead or stop laying eggs.
I hate intensive farming, we do not have the right to let an animal suffer to put food on our table.
The most important thing I feel is "think before you eat". You don't have to become a vegetarian or a vegan if you don't want to, just think before you buy your meat.
Try and find an alternative to the meat you usually buy in supermarkets, search for a farm where you can go, so you can see first hand where and how the animals live.

I used to be a vegetarian for 6 years because I didn't want to eat an animal that had a miserable life. I found a farm where I can go and see the animals every month, when it's meat day.
I do not get veal as the children on that farm don't want to slaughter their calves, so I don't eat veal. (and one of my favourite dishes is Osso Buco -veal shank- so I would love some veal)

I don't want to get all 'activist' on you, it's just something I feel very strongly about.
You make your own choices in life. I choose to only eat meat from humanely raised animals.
I firmly believe that happy animals just produce better meat and I know a few chef's and farmers who will back me up on that.

Buying my meat from a farm changed the way I live.
For example, I missed last months meat day (as you have to order your meat a week in advance so the butcher on the farm knows what to prepare) so now I have no pork or beef for two weeks, and I'm fine with it. We only do have meat once or twice a week anyway.
It does take some planning, but to be honest I like it that way.
Does it cost more, no it doesn't. 
Not on a local farm, you are a huge help to them if your buy directly from them. The price supermarkets pay the farms for their meat is criminal, the animals cost more to raise then what they get back from the meat. (not saying it is this way in every country) No wonder some farmers resort to cheaper feeds and more animals in one barn.

The system is just wrong.
I'm not saying it's the same in every country, it is not. 
For example France has 'label Rouge' for poultry and eggs which is very strict, the UK has more and more farms with rare breed animals who are allowed to live longer than other livestock.

But if you want the system to change, you have to change your own.
Once you go directly to the producer, you never go back!
The end.

A few good websites to take a look at:

A dish inspired by my mother's Moussaka

Every time we go for dinner at my parents house, we hope for my mum's Moussaka.
It's a dish that she makes best of all, her signature dish so to speak.
It brings me back to a summer evening when I was just about 3 or 4 years old, my parents and I walked to the park that day so I could play in the playground. It was a very long walk and a hot day and I must have been very tired that evening. We had Moussaka for dinner and I can still remember looking forward to it as the lovely smells came out of the oven.
I was sick that evening and I'm sure it wasn't the Moussaka but the tiredness and the heat that day.
Normally I wouldn't consider a memory like this pleasant, but it's the first memory that I have of my mum's Moussaka so I kinda treasure it anyway.

Mum and me

British cheese - a British treasure

There is something to be said about British cheese.
They are versatile as much as they are delicious.
I've been a keen explorer of these cheeses for a few years now and I am amazed by the variety of cheeses this country holds.

Caraway seed cheese by Crudges - The Cotwolds
Some are huge, some are tiny some have strange shapes but they all have one thing in common: they are a product of love and caring.

I was lucky to talk to a few cheese makers and the most important thing they all have in common is a passion to create an outstanding product.
As you might know already, my heart beats a little faster when I meet people who are passionate about creating their delicious product.
I enjoy to see the smile on their face when they tell me how they made it, the sparks in their eyes because someone is taking an interest and the warmth they share by telling me about it.

Over the last years the small cheese makers are popping up all over the UK.
There are over 700 cheeses produced in the UK so there will be a cheese to everyone’s taste.

A broad public is becoming more aware of the benefits of artisan products and are starting to prefer these product to the mass produced items the supermarkets have on offer.

Lord London by Alsop & Walker - Kent

Pork stew braised with Cider and apples

The comfort of food
Although it was the last week of August the weather became quite chilly, not to speak about the storms we've been faced with.
There's been thunder and lightning every evening for about a week now. At times the weather got so bad a tent collapsed at a music festival leaving utter destruction and fatalities.
I had some friends there who kept themselves safe, thank god for that. But others did lose friends and are now left to cope with the loss. It leaves you with a strange feeling when tragedy strikes a place where thousands of young people are gathered to enjoy themselves and be merry.
Some of the young people's lives will never be the same and others will be strengthened by it but nevertheless the experience will be a part of their lives for a very long time, if not forever.

Food blogger connect 2011 London

The fabulous venue

So there I was, London.
I was very nervous before I arrived at the Hempel hotel for Food blogger connect.
It felt like the first day of school.
Some people allready knew each other, some were newbies but nevertheless as soon as the canapés arrived and everyone hauled out their camera, the ice was broken.
We were amongst our own kind.
We started to review the food and soon tips for making the best falafel were exchanged.
Suddenly the mood had changed from the first day at school to a high school reunion.
Smiling faces everywhere, everyone excited about what was coming.

The waiter looked very nervous with all the foodies taking pictures!

Outdoor cooking - Pizza

I dream of having an Italian woodfired oven in my garden...
I have got a smoker and I found out it bakes a mean pizza and great flatbreads!
So what I do is make enough pizza dough for a few pizza's and then just bake the base for a few minutes, bag and freeze them for a rainy day!

The recipe for 8 pizza bases:
• 250 ml warm water
• 1 packet of dried yeast
• 1 tb of seasalt
• 1tb of honey (the clear kind)
• 300 g of semolina typo 00
• 100 g of plain flour

Ad the yeast to half of the water and the honey. Leave it untill it starts to react.
Ad the salt to the flour and the semolina.
When the yeast is activated, ad to the flour, gently mixing it together and adding the rest of the water when needed.

When you have a nice and smooth ball, put it aside and leave to rise for minimum 30 minutes.
Now knock out the air and form the bases. Leave for another 30 minutes before topping them with all kinds of lovely stuff.

Blackadder Whisky tasting

My dad loves Whisky so when he turned 60 I wanted to do something with him that he would really enjoy. When I found out there was a tasting with Robin Tucek from Blackadder in Antwerp, my choice was made.

Blackadder was originally founded by Robin Tucek and John Lamond who you may know as the authors of the popular whisky book "The Malt Whisky File: The Essential Guide for the Malt Whisky Connoisseur". John Lamond ceased to be part of the company by the end of 1999

Blackadder believes in bottling only whiskies that are completely natural.
Robin's challenge, is to select and bottle only individual casks as naturally as possible. To ensure this they only give their whiskies a light filtration to remove any cask particles that may otherwise get into the bottle. Blackadder Raw Cask whiskies, however, are completely unfiltered. Whisky with the bits still in it as Robin referred to it.

All Blackadder whiskies are single cask bottlings. This also applies to whiskies bottled under all Blackadder International labels such as; Aberdeen Distillers, Clydesdale Original and Caledonian Connections whiskies.

"Cask is King."
Each cask is chosen to represent one of the very best examples of its type and age. No two casks of whisky are ever completely alike, because the type of oak used and the conditions under which it is stored will both influence the ultimate spirit produced.

My favourite!
We had the pleasure this evening to taste 6 beautiful Whiskies:
Aberlour, my personal favourite. An 18 year old Whisky by Clydesdale at 60,3%
Tamdhu, 1987 by Blackadder at 49,3%
Amrut, by Blackadder at 62% amazingly made from Barley grown in the Himalaya.
Clynelish, 19 year old Whisky by Riverstown at 67%
A drop of the Irish, 10 years old by Blackadder at 46%
Smoking Islay, by Blackadder

Eggs for soldiers

Eggs for Soldiers is fundraising in support of Help for Heroes, who provide direct, practical support to members of the Armed Forces who have been injured in the line of duty.  The designs for the new brand have a confident colouring, which delivers strong shelf standout.

"All hens live in a free range life where they can spend their days foraging outside on the range covered in lush green grass and trees. They are fed on a cereal based vegetarian diet made with the highest quality raw ingredients."

Now that's what I like to hear!