5 April 2009

C'est magnifique!

A gentleman named Luke, thirty-four and a half years old, went to Paris (not for the first time), which is good. What is not good, however, is that he did not say a single word on that score to me. (Not that I would pester him to bring me a box full of macarons from Pierre Herme pastry shop, not at all.) I learnt about this gentleman's trip by chance, through his heinously nonchalant text-message that said, ‘I am in Paris’ (in the context of my question about when I could possibly expect him to sent me a new battery for my -- formerly his -- photo camera).

‘What are you doing there?’ I asked.

‘I am living, Anya. LIVING!’ (Author’s note: obviously, living stands for enjoying myself!)
Suddenly, I was made to think of my own life. One thought led to another and I was nigh on at the edge of self-orchestrated metaphysical crisis: ‘I am not in Paris – does it mean I am not living?’ The thought made me restless, hysterical even. I paced about my room, wringing my hands, giving curtains an occasional poke or straightening cushions on my bed. I thought, thought, and thought. I even lost my appetite for an hour. And this -- this – I could not stand any longer.

After a while I finally recalled that I am in Amsterdam, the city I’ve always loved; the city that made me cry (more on this in my future posts); the city that made my heart race – and still does. With that in mind, I said to myself:

‘Dear Anya, why don’t you spend a whole day in town, eating pastries (macarons and croissants), slurping on coffee and hot chocolate, basking in the sun, and sharing a laugh or two with Ernest Hemingway – your hero! Go have your ‘movable feast’!’

I loved my own idea. So much so that I felt obliged to treat myself to a pain au chocolat from a bakery that is 25 mins’ bike ride from my student apartment. The pain au chocolat looked like bullion of gold dappled with melted chocolate and tasted like a fine pain au chocolat should – magnifique! I could not help but eat two.

For my sweet and literary feast, if you can call it that, I picked up a day of Friday (April 3rd), and did what I did. Read on, My Dear Reader. Read on.

The day dawned limpid and warm. On waking up, I saluted the Sun, excused myself from any guilt, and off I cycled.

For a steaming cup of coffee I chose to go to Lanskroon (a fifity-years old dutch bakery and ice-room run by the Dunkelmans, a family that spins 100-years of baking history). I had my morning treat outside, on a lone one-footed round table whose name was Jack. I am not kidding - the name was neatly engraved on the side of the table. I could not help but ask Claudia (a Lanskroon's owner in the fourth generation) what it meant. Jack, I was told, is one of Lanskroon’s loyal customers which are many, as you might guess. I was tempted to give Claudia my name too but then it occurred to me I had yet to earn my reputation.

So standing and drinking coffee at Jack the table, I also caught up with Elizabeth Bishop. I flipped open a book I had with her poems and imagined her recite to me her Paris, 7a.m. The poem was beautiful; the coffee was ineffably fragrant; a golden, flaky, slightly salty and perfectly buttery croissant warmed up for me without even my request - thee will I remember! For a while, Elizabeth Bishop kept pampering me with her poetry . Now it was her A miracle for breakfast: “We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.”

I wish I could stay longer but the sun had steadied its wobbly feet on the streets of Amsterdam by then and I wanted to feel a reassuring touch of the sky luminary on my shoulders. So I closed the book, paid (decently) for my coffee and croissant, leaned on Jack the table once again, and set out for a further walk through the canals that seemed to have finally caught the sun on their surface. The city was radiating with glow.

Before I continue I’d love to mention briefly --just in a few brushstrokes, really – that I am a girl of many interests. I’ve brought it up because I fear you may be wondering if I have any other hobbies and interests which are not revolving around food. To this I’ll say I sure do. I love, love books and therefore call myself a ‘bookslut’, pronounced with dignity and affection (‘bookworm’ does not sound sexy, I find); I am endlessly interested in arts too, among much else. (I once spent a whole day in the Van Gogh museum where a guy named Theo told me that I should appreciate Van Gogh’s arts if I spent so much time scrutinizing his - Van Gogh's - works.) But at the end of the day, I unfailingly get hungry – this makes me predictable, I agree; and turn from an arts/books aficionado into a culinary motor mouth. And this you will have noticed.

That said, let’s go on. I did not have any special route in mind, so I picked up from where I stopped (het Spui) and went down along the Singel (one of a many glorious canal). The weather was exceptionally warm – mellowing and confusing. Take clothing, for instance. Some traditionalists such as myself were seen wearing shoes; others – merry girls and very gay boys alike – were sporting summer flip-flops (!). It was toasty, even sticky at times. There was this guy and his chow chow - both felt appropriate to sunbathe on a balcony of their apartment. The guy was writ large topless; the dog did not have such fortune.

I walked and walked. The old, tall, lean Dutch houses looked like Viennese gentry to me. The gables on the houses reminded me of white, curvy toupees, the ones Mozart, I like to imagine, might have worn. The slanted brick houses gallantly bowed in my direction as I walked by. I felt as if I was moving through a shiny ballroom and each of them beseeched my attention, ‘Look at me, dance with me!’ (I did look at them and nearly got kicked off by a cyclist. O Amsterdam, the city of bicycles!).

Amsterdam is of course not Paris. Yet some Amsterdammers know how to do French things (I am talking about food, all right?). In their France-inspired bakery and lunchroom that's on Nieuwendijk 35, the two brothers Niemeijer (Marco is a chef and Issa is a baker) make exceedingly elegant and memorable macarons (mocca, pistachio, lemon, hazelnut, chocolate), croissants and brioches – what fancy you! O the bread they make (baguettes, paves, boules), there are no words enough to praise each!! To fortify myself, I bought un petit brioche, asked to put it in a brown bag and went further. The city waited for me outside.

The air smelled of apricot trees in their nascent blossom, of vanilla that wafted from the street candy-vendors, of oranges, and also of sour food from Indonesian takeaways.

On a cobblestone bridge, a skinny artist hastily tried to catch onto his canvas the moment of spring, along with the street bedlam. He painted a tall church in a distance. A few steps further, there was a bench and on it sat an old man in a broad-brimmed hat and woolen coat (not your ordinary flip-flops!).

Then there was Hemingway. At last I sat down on a nameless wooden bench and read, read, read his Moveable Feast. Also, I nibbled on my buttery brioche whose crumb was soft, its brown cap so delicately crispy (thanks to its glaze). I savoured it in measured bites together with a ripe pear I had in my bag.
After every few chapters, I stopped and made notes in my notebook. Notes about Hemingway and his wit; about Paris and my wishes to visit the city one day (haven’t been there yet – guilty as charged!); about Amsterdam and how happy I am to be living here, however temporary; about the brioche; and what I would love to cook. At the end of the day, as I said, I always get hungry!


A year ago yesterday I decided to take my father to the cinema instead of giving him yet another stationary piece as a birthday gift (he is a lawyer, so he has this strange penchant for pens, many pens). So after choosing between a vintage fountain pen and a ticket to a movie theater (the events unfolded in Moscow at the time), I decided on the latter. So to the movie did we – my birthday father and I – go.

The film was called A plate (the reason why I opted for this one in the first place), so I anticipated a food-centered cinematic masterpiece as well as a great time with my dad. It was neither. For one, the movie was entirely in English of which my father does not speak a word. He got grumpy and fidgety. I, steadily getting annoyed, refused to translate a single word (snowball effect, don’t you know). In addition, the movie was about the first Australian satellite (hence the name) or some such thing – no food as you see -- which sent both of us to the verge of grumpiness; and, if put simply, things were downright discouraging.

My father, as I wrote earlier, never openly expressed his love for me. His being shy, insecure, too manly – I don’t know what prevented him from hugging me every now and then.
Now as I reminisce of my father, being thousands of miles away from him, I see one image in particular that stings me just as much as it reassures me. Last August my parents brought me to an airport in Moscow from where I would take a flight not only to another country but also from my family (geographically, that is). It was then when I saw my father cry at the sight of me disappearing behind a customs checkpoint. He stood there, a tall man with his glasses on a tip of his nose, hands on his hips, and cried quietly. It was then when I finally understood what he felt all along, this man of a few sweet words, my dear father.

I read somewhere that ‘the only things in life you regret are the risks you did not take’. So every time now that I speak with my father on the phone I make sure I always tell him what I feel, risking being unheard or too vulnerable. We have much better relationship now, my father and I. We say to each other what we really feel rather than what we think alone. And we feel much. Yes, we feel a great deal.

What’s more, I now share his inexplicable enthusiasm about okroshka, a russian cold soup, the one I formerly despised, loathed and all that, the one that I now can’t get enough of, just like my father. A familly legend has it that in his childhood, my father requested okroshka as a special treat instead of a birthday cake! This is definitely not my style. But anyway…

Okroshka (Russian Cold Soup)

Serves 8 or 4 (The recipe can be used as a starter or as a main course)

This soup, being easy to make, nutritious, so fresh and summery, makes for a capital-P pleaser. Honetly, I am ashamed to admit how much I used to hate it as a child, and if truth be known, well into my early twenties.

Note that a few steps such as cooking and preparing the eggs and potatoes should be done in advance.

As the name in russian suggests, the main cutting technique to be used in this recipe is chopping solid ingredients in small cubes/pieces. The name okroshka stems from a Russian verb ‘kroshit’ which means, as you might guess, to finely chop.

And lastly: as with many traditional dishes, every Russian family, it seems, has their own way to make this soup. Below I suggest the way okroshka is made in my family. With one difference, though: I do not use bread beverage (for the sheer lack of the thing abroad) and substitute it with diluted yogurt.

½ long cucumber, chopped in small cubes (make sure to use cucumber with tight, not wrinkly, skin; also, do not deseed or peel the cucumber – you want crunchiness in the soup)
3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1 medium-sized sausage (the higher quality, the better), finely chopped
3 medium-sized potatos, peeled, cooked and chopped in small cubes(choose a variety that does not get too starchy and crumbly when cooked)
2 cups plain yogurt
2 ½ water
juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

1/2 - 1 cup fresh herbs for garnish, finely chopped (traditionally, dill, spring onions or flat-leaf parsley are used; I, however, added fresh basil because, for one, this is what I had; plus the freshness of cucumber combines with that of basil are irresistible, to my taste)

strong mustard for garnish (highly recommendable!)

Cook the eggs. Opinions differ between how many minutes exactly you should cook the eggs in order to have them hard-boiled but without causing a grey-ish ring around the yolks and, by extension, a rubbery texture. Some say it’s 9 mins, others maintain it’s 12. I usually go for 10 mins (a compromise of sorts). Bring the eggs to room temperature (this will prevent them from cracking in boiling water), put them in a small saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. As the water starts to boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover it and let sit for 10 minutes.
Cook the potatoes. Peel and wash them. Put them in a medium saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook until the potatoes are done - they should neither be al dente nor mushy! When the potatoes are ready, drain off the water and set them aside to cool completely.

While the eggs and potatoes cook, chop the cucumber and the sausage.

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, water and lemon juice. Add vinegar and a very generous pinch of salt. Mix well, taste and adjust the taste to your preferences: you may want to add more salt or lemon juice/ vinegar. The final taste should be acidic but not sour.

When the eggs are cooked, place them in a bowl of ice-cold water to stop them from further cooking. Once the eggs are cool, crack and peel them. Finely chop them.

When the potatoes are completely cool, finely chop them too.

Put all solid ingredients in a large saucepan (do not mix) and pour over them the yogurt mixture. Stir gently – do not overdo, you want the crunchy texture in the soup. Check for salt, add more if needed. Season with ¼ tsp freshly ground black-pepper.

Lastly, fold in the finely chopped herbs. Stir carefully and refregirate for at least 3-4 hours, preferrably overnight.

Serve chilled with a small dollop of strong mustard!

The soup keeps well for a few days in a fridge. You may want to add fresh herbs, lemon juice, or salt to spike it up a bit if serving on the next day(s).

*Gebr.Niemeijer's bakery and lunchroom

Nieuwendijk 35, Amsterdam

Opening times:

Tuesday to Friday 8:15 - 18:30

Saturday 8:30 - 17:00

Sunday 9:30-17:00

*Lanskroon, dutch bakery, tea- and ice-room

Singel 385 (close to Spui), Amsterdam

Opening times:

Monday to Friday 08.00-17.30

Saturday 09.00-17.30

Sunday 10.00-17.30


Cinnamonda said...

I am just now green with envy for the lovely Amsterdam spring weather! Your description of your movable feast is just so very catching. And I must add that the sentence "The old, tall, lean Dutch houses looked like Viennese gentry..." is just crying for a place in a story... ;)
By the way, every summer my Dad makes "Russian cold soup" as we call it.:) It is a very nice dish on a hot summer day.

Happu Palm Sunday to you, too!


Anna said...

you really did have a moveable feast! i love it. you know me, mixing poetry in with brioche sounds fantastic!! and, i am touched by the bit about your dad. thank you for sharing, this was a fantastic read!

Toni said...

Anya, your day sounds like heaven! You don't need to be in Paris to be living, or to be in heaven. You have made this perfectly clear!

And the story of your father touched my heart. It can be so difficult for some people to let what's inside of them out. I'm sure your honesty about your feelings is a gift he is deeply grateful for.

And I LOVE that photo of the bicycle shadows!!!!!!!!

Marlina said...

Clearly you are very gifted with word and I am lapping every delicious detail of your day. And thank you so much for the suggestions of where to go in Amsterdam! :)

Cookiemouse said...

Spring has finally come to Amsterdam, after a long winter, although I would have no objections to a bit more sun! Love your story.

Astra Libris said...

Anya, what a beautiful tale of your "Moveable Feast!" Thank you for bringing us along for the journey! Your words are so vivid, I could practically feel myself cycling along!

Your story about your father is quite moving... I am deeply touched by your story...