3 September 2009

Contradictions, or maybe not

Dear Reader, hello!

I’ve got lots to tell you, and to show too, so please pull up an armchair, yes, the one you see in the corner next to a crackling fireplace -- it gets chillier by the day over here, you know – help yourself to a chocolate tartlet, or a scone, or a brioche – don’t be shy, take as much as you want – and let’s chat. Or better yet, I’ll talk and you enjoy the buttery pastries, while a scratched gramophone that in my grandmother’s youth was bubbling up with life is now rasping Edit Piaf’s La Vie en Rose.

All right, where shall I start? Ah yes, in Song of Himself, Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)’. Clearly, he and I we didn’t know each other, but if we did, Walt Whitman would certainly say as much about me, because I always contradict myself. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Anyway, contradictory or not, here is what I do as of lately: I am doing my Master’s programme in English Metaphor with a selective course in Visual Arts and The American Poet, aim to become a professional food-writer, and work part-time in one of my beloved French bakeries in Amsterdam, Gebroeders Niemeijer, as a dishwasher. The last part requires a detailed explanation, I feel, so here goes…

There was a fleeting moment when I thought I wanted to study hospitality (although I had already discovered my enormous love for food by then, my desire to write about food and to study English to write about food better was not yet pronounced.) So after completing my Bachelor degree in linguistics I applied to a hotel school in the Netherlands. Entrance requirements were tough, but I got admitted --with one condition though. I had to gain some working experience in hospitality industry before the studies would begin. I had six months, from August 2007 to January 2008, to accomplish the mission. That is how I found myself working as a server in a restaurant of a well-known five-star hotel in Moscow (I spent a year in Moscow before finally moving to Amsterdam). I only lasted for three months, which nonetheless seemed like ten centuries to me.

The restaurant was high-end, yet I liked nothing about the place. To begin with, I disliked the atmosphere in the kitchen. Expensive food was cooked by people who for the most part seemed to be completely indifferent about what they were doing. It was cold in the kitchen, despite inferno temperatures emanating from the stoves and ovens. In the dining area, the mood was as chilly. Servers competed against one another for tips alone (unlike me, a few people wanted to work for food) and diners were all too snobbish. I felt disappointed; the place had discouraging vibes. As I got back home after exhausting early morning or late night shifts, my feet swollen and aching, I cried. I cried not because of tiredness, but because of poignant frustration about the whole experience. It was a vanity fair. It was soulless.

Eventually I quit, both my gig as a server and my registration in the hotel school. (The admission costs were increased to a level I couldn’t afford, which, as I think now, was only for the better since I am much happier hitting the books in metaphor, visual arts, etc, and aspiring to make food-writing my profession.)

In other words, I vowed I would never want to work in a restaurant kitchen again -- once bitten, twice shy. Since mid-August 2009 I’m in the professional food industry again, this time as a dish-washer. (Do I really contradict myself? Yes, I really do contradict myself, but what the heck.)

Gebroeders (‘Brothers’) Niemeijer is an artisan French bakery with an adjacent breakfast-/lunchroom. It was my first discovery soon after I arrived in Amsterdam a year ago.
Simple, homely, nourishing food, be it a steaming plate of savoury potato soup with Roquefort cheese; or a fresh, breathing with warmth baguette enrobing sweet, dripping with juices rings of chorizo, young green salad leaves and pickled something and sitting on a worn, slightly dented plate with tiny flowers around the rim seemed to tell me about the heartfelt warmth and passion of people who prepared it.

I didn’t know the cooks in person, yet through the food I was enjoying, I felt taken care of. I fell for the place, its food and people including. Hell, on one of my visits I even found myself thinking that if need be I would love to work here, helping out in the bakery, doing the dishes, whatever. The need presented itself in the form of a thinning wallet of mine – we students always seem to be on a cash diet , -- so I wrote the two brothers an e-mail in which I said as much (not about my wallet, but about my infatuation with the their place). A few days later I got an e-mail from Marco, one of the siblings, in which he asked me to come over for a chat. The rest you already know. Like I said, I’ve taken on a stint of a dish washer. I work from Friday to Sunday which means my weekends are my workdays, but I don’t mind. I do tons of dishes, and by the end of the day my feet feel woolen, my back rigid, my pale-pink nail polish crumbled, yet I don’t half mind that either. I think I feel so non-perplexed about the physical inconveniences because of my moments in the bakery. Last Sunday, for example, I pounded on a thick piece of pate sucree (sweetened short pastry) right from the fridge to soften it before rolling it out in an automatic dough sheeter, after which I was shown how to form tartlets. Simply put, you cut circles out of the dough, which you then garnish into oiled tartlet moulds. All this should be done at a lightning speed, because when warm, pate sucree is a royal pain to work -- it gets sticky and too brittle. I, of course, work at a snail pace. I take my time to form a perfect tartlet. Issa, the baking brother, says I should be doing this much faster. So I’m now learning by practice how to make flawless tartlets in no time which, well, takes time. As I said, by the end of the day, my back hurts, but my hands smell of butter, and vanilla, and lemon zest. I feel elated.

The fact that I get to snack on pistachio, mocca, walnut and chocolate macarons, and on financiers with deeply caramelized tops does help as well to combat bodily exertion. Moreover, after the bakery’s closing time I can take as much pastry or bread left unsold as I please.

And please myself I do – I bring boxes of fresh pastries back home. Once in solitude, I unpack the goodness, smell and grin at it, hedonistic smile on my face and a fiery glow (glow can be fiery, I like to imagine) in my eyes. Finally, I eat up the stuff. Moderation? Not lately. Not when a couple of puffy brioches seductively provoke in my mind visions of soft, grassy butter and fruit jam atop each piece.

But note this, Dear Reader: I may sin throughout the day, what with the rich, flaky croissants and all, but come next morning, and I am a virtuous individual again. I have granola for breakfast. And I’ll tell you what, this granola, drowned, if you are a top hedonist, in silky Greek yoghurt, or in milk, if you are a hedonist in moderation, is in fact no less luxurious than all those French pastries altogether. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but still you should believe me it’s very, very good. Actually, this one is the best granola I’ve ever had so far. Luke, this curry man, can attest to this testimony of mine since he ate the first batch I’d made in his kitchen faster than it would take a jet set to fly from, say, Amsterdam to Amsterdam South, which is a fraction of a couple seconds I believe . Deliciousness in question is Granola with Maple Syrup and Olive Oil by Nekisia Davis of Early Bird Foods.

True, the olive oil is somewhat unorthodox in the realm of breakfast cereals, yet it’s fully legitimate here. It lends the granola this savoury strut which, along with sweet flair of maple syrup, wakes up the whole mix and elevates it to a new taste level. Also, this granola doesn’t get lumpy: the oat and coconut flakes, as well as the nuts, are toasted to golden-brown perfection without being glued to each other. And when you push your hand through the cooled down mix and let it sift through your fingers, as you would a handful of silver dollars, it makes this soft rustling sound, like a whisper. In order to have such euphoria for breakfast, just make sure, say, in the evening before, to mix old-fashioned oats, raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds, coconut chips, pecans and a modicum of salt, and combine it all with olive oil, maple syrup and sugar. Into the preheated oven the whole mixture then goes where it sits for about 45 minutes or so, until it’s fragrant and toasted. If I were asked to compare granolas to clothes (what turn of mind somebody should be in to want me to do that, I don’t know), I would say it’s tasteful, elegant and sophisticated (must be the combination of savoury full-bodied olive oil with maple syrup), just like a small classic black dress that every woman should have in her possession. As is the latter, this granola is a must to have too. Later into the day, it is obligatory for us all to enjoy the tartlets imbued with silky chocolate ganache or crowded with toasted gems of buttery walnuts.

(I now think I’m not actually that contradictory. All I do – braving English linguistic science, studying poetry and visual arts, rounding off my internship in the Time Out Amsterdam magazine, and working as a dish-washer – is in fact to become a better food-writer.)

Finally... Granola with Olive Oil and Maple Syrup

Adapted from Nekisia Davis of Early Bird Foods, via Martha Stewart

Yields approximately 7 cups

The recipe has you use 1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar, but I find that amount makes things all too sweet. Not that I mind too sweet, no, except when in granola. Which is why I intend to go with 1/4 cup of sugar next time, or even 1/8.

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 cup raw sunflower seeds, hulled
1 cup coconut chips, or coconut flakes
1 1/4 cup raw pecans, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup fragrant extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
Coarse salt

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degress C).

2. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut, pecans, syrup, olive oil, sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt. Spread the mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake, stirring every 10 mins to ensure even browning, until granola is toasted, about 45 minutes. Doneness can be tested by breaking an oat flake (just be sure not to burn your fingers): if it breaks easily with a subtle crisp sound, the granola is done, even when it still may feel a bit soft; the mix will crisp as it cools.

3. Remove granola from the oven and season with more salt to taste (I think this step can be optional). Let cool. The granola can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 month (although I can hardly imagine somebody may have that ferrous willpower).


Toni said...

Anna! Congratulations!!! Oh, I so understand what you said about quitting when the job was soul-less, and finding yourself wanting to work where you felt nourished - not just physically, but emotionally too. Yessss!!!! You will probably become a baker extraordinaire by the time you leave this job. I'm waiting for the recipes.

Tiina said...

Great post, Anya, and mouth-watering pictures! Are those with pastries from the bakery where you work? You'll make a wonderful food writer one day, I'm sure of it! :)