October 2, 2012
In recent decades, Americans have extended our fructivorous tastes beyond the trusty apple, orange and banana. But the world’s tropical rainforests hold fruits that are far more alien than once-novel mangoes and papayas. The Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm, on the northern tip of the Australian state of Queensland, is a living museum of esoteric produce, from Amazonian ice cream beans to Balinese snake fruit. I stopped by recently while traveling in Australia to find out whether I could learn to love a fruit that looks like it could bite me back.
Farmers Alison and Digby Gotts offer daily fruit tastings and tours of their organic orchards. While the rainforest of tropical Queensland is off the usual tourist tracks, the couple gets a fair number of curious foodies who come to sample such oddities as the rum-raisin flavored sapodilla and the star apple, packed with sticky purple latex.
On the afternoon of my visit, the day’s selection of ten exotic fruits was arranged in a rustic bowl, like a bizarre take on a Paul Cezanne still life. A couple of them were familiar from the novelty shelf at Whole Foods– the gaudy fuchsia dragon fruit and the chartreuse carambola, better known as a star fruit. Others were like nothing I had seen before.
It was with some hesitation that I tried the black sapote, a dark, wizened orb that looked like it was about ready to be thrown away. Leslie Munro, a local dragon fruit farmer who helps out with the tastings, explained that while the black sapote was picked green, it didn’t develop its distinctive “chocolate pudding” flavor until it had softened on the ground for a week or two. She passed slices around, and the tasters nibbled nervously. It took a little imagination, but the soft, dark brown flesh was reminiscent of a Jell-O pudding cup– if you had stirred mashed-up avocado into it.
Taste-wise, the rollinia stood out among the ten fruits I sampled. Its fearsome exterior, yellow with black scales, belied the pleasant, lemon meringue pie flavor of this South American native. Also popular with my fellow tasters was the pomelo, a sweet, juicy grapefruit relative the size of a volleyball.
My pick for weirdest fruit was the soursop, which looked like a dinosaur’s big green egg, or the mutant offspring of a crocodile and a pineapple. It tasted a little like lemonade, but with the texture of a cotton ball studded with big, slippery seeds. It makes good jam, Alison told us.
Exotic fruits are often the subject of health claims, and somewhere on this farm could lurk the next trendy superfood—see the açaí, a Brazilian palm fruit that rocketed to popularity a few years ago for its alleged antioxidant content. Digby Gotts has sent fruit samples away to Brisbane, the nearest big city, to have the nutrition content analyzed, but there is little existing research on their health effects, as many of these fruits are new to science.
Meanwhile, Alison and Digby have struggled to make most of their products marketable. Some trees fail to thrive in Queensland’s harsh environment. Many of the fruits are heavy and delicate, and thus hard to ship. Others are just too weird for the average shopper in Sydney or Brisbane, let alone Peoria. The fruit the couple has had the most luck with is the mangosteen, a dark purple fruit with a sweet white interior.
“They’ve survived the cyclones, they taste fantastic, and people pay good money for them,” Alison enthused.
For now, though, most of the Gottses’ varieties are available only from the farm or at a few grocery stores in the towns nearby. Unfortunately, you might just have to travel to the rainforest to get your fix of a juicy soursop or a divine rollinia.
– written by Amy Crawford
April 4, 2012
Today, Ziplock bags may be our storage form of choice when it comes to cookies, but old-fashioned biscuit tins were once the favored convenience. Biscuit tins may not seem efficient today: They are bulky and occupy precious kitchen real estate, easily come unhinged and aren’t altogether practical. But they deserve a place of honor in the history of food packaging, and they illustrate the evolution of travel and the art of branding.
Double-baked biscuits with a long shelf-life were the food of choice for European voyagers starting in the 1500s. A few hundred years later, airtight and reusable biscuit tins were invented. They allowed their valuable cookie contents to travel easily, stay oven-fresh and not crumble. Credit for introducing biscuit tins goes to Huntley and Palmers, a Quaker firm in Reading, England, which, by 1900, was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, employing more than 5,000 people. In the 1800s, the tins served coach and railway travelers. When cross-Atlantic travel to the Americas increased in the early 1900s, a demand for imperishable food items soared. Biscuits were the rage, whether Garibaldi currant-biscuits (two thin biscuits with currants squashed in between), digestive, or cream-cracker style. For travel-wary explorers, these twice-baked breads were filled with memories from home. And the tins themselves delivered an impression that lasted after their contents were gone.
Huntley & Palmers’ tins came in all sizes and shapes. They were elaborately decorated, from miniature replicas of vehicles to reusable tins engraved with intricate still life tableaux to street-scene designs inspired by impressionist art. Other tin manufacturers rose to fame, each with secured rights to certain designs. The manufactures made sure to feature their names since copycatting was a problem, most famously in this teapot.
Biscuits weren’t a luxury item in the 1800s, but the tins served a Victorian middle class eager to show good taste. The tins became independent objets d’art in and of themselves. For manufacturers, branding gradually took a different tone. The tins came to represent their country, an origin, a pride, an artist’s whim. Occasionally, inadvertently, risqué images slipped into the design.
The tins, like this rare Huntley & Palmers grandfather clock made circa 1929, are hot collector’s items these days and sell at auction for hundreds of dollars. Browse complete collections and savor each tin, a destination in itself.
—Sophia V. Schweitzer is based in Hawaii and writes about environmental issues, energy and food trends.
February 16, 2012
The Canary Islands are said to have the most original gastronomy in Spain. The islands, about 60 miles off the coast of Africa, have culinary influences from Africa, Latin America and the Spanish peninsula, as well as recipes of the islanders’ own creation. There are two “delicacies” unique to the Canaries that every visitor should try at least once—and in the case of one of them, once is quite enough!
The humble potato was brought from Latin America to Europe by Spanish conquistadors, although no one can say exactly when the first one was imported or from exactly where it came. Despite claims that Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake introduced it to England, this appears to be the stuff of legend. Historians believe that the tuber arrived in the latter part of the 16th century. There are records of potatoes being sent from Tenerife, the largest of the seven Canary Islands, to Antwerp in 1565. It is thus assumed that this dietary staple of most of Europe first arrived via the Canaries.
The sweet potato also may have arrived via the Canary Islands; in England it was the most common potato during the Elizabethan years. At that time, sweet potatoes were sold in crystallized slices with sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), a thistle-like plant with a blue flower that grows on sand dunes throughout Europe, as an aphrodisiac. Shakespeare mentions this sweetmeat in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (“Let the sky rain potatoes…hail kissing comforts and snow eringoes”), and the Empress Josephine introduced sweet potatoes to her companions, who were soon serving them to stimulate the passion of their lovers. (Shakespeare also mentioned Malmsey, also known as Sack, an important wine export in the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally produced in Tenerife, the main area of production is now the Canary Island of Lanzarote.)
Known locally by the original Indian name of papas, the Canarian potatoes people dine on today are direct descendants of those said to have come from the Andes in the 16th century. Small, wrinkled and knobbly, black, red and yellow, they have their own distinctive flavor. (You may well hear of two local varieties, Kineua and Otudates—versions of “King Edwards” and “Out of date,” respectively, words said to have been stamped on the sacks when they first came to Spain and were mis-read by the non-English-speaking locals. But this story smacks of a local giggle at the dumb tourists’ expense, given that it was the Spanish who introduced the potato to the English.)
The traditional way of cooking papas is with a large amount of sea salt (they were originally cooked in sea water), the quantity being decided on by putting the potatoes in fiercely boiling water and pouring in enough salt until the potatoes float. They are served in a small dish, with a white encrustation of salt on them and known as papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes). Traditionally they are accompanied by mojo picon, a piquant sauce made from garlic, paprika, cumin, breadcrumbs and wine vinegar.
The dish is an accompaniment to almost any meal or can be eaten on its own, washed down with Canarian wine. Simple and simply delicious, no one should leave the Canary Islands without having tried papas arrugadas con mojo picon.
Few gastronomical products can be used in either sweet or savory dishes, added to white coffee and stews, toasted, combined with almonds and raisins to make sweet sausages, to create a fake ice cream and ersatz crème caramel, spooned into glasses of milk for children’s breakfast, or used as a bread substitute. Gofio is one of them—and whatever you do with it, the net result is usually disgusting.
Endemic to the Canary Islands, gofio is milled grain that resembles wholegrain flour. Once the basic food of the Guanches, the original inhabitants of the islands, every Canarian is brought up on the stuff and cannot understand why foreigners would rather eat deep-fried cockroaches than this exemplar of island cuisine. It was always a vital staple when food was in short supply and was taken to the Americas by Canary Island emigrants, where one hopes it faded away.
Such is the islanders pride in the product that in 1990 they founded the Canary Island Gofio Producers Association, which has “successfully promoted gofio and won it its own quality label ‘Gofio Canario.’” After the first mouthful you wonder why; it is an acquired taste, but one not worth the time and cloggy mouth to acquire.
The following recipes illustrate the wide use of gofio.
Paella de Gofio (Lump of Gofio, according the Spanish translation)
Ingredients: ½ kg of gofio, ½ glass of oil, sugar, salt
- Knead the gofio with the water, salt, sugar and oil until you get a thick paste.
- Form a cylinder with it and cut into slices.
In other words, oily dough with a sweet and salty flavor.
Gofie Escaldao (Scalded Gofio)
Ingredients: 1 liter strained fish broth, 1 sprig of mint, ¼ kg of gofio
Method: Place the gofio in a dish with the sprig of mint and slowly add the boiling broth. Keep stirring to avoid lumps.
In other words, a waste of good fish broth.
Perhaps the best description of gofio is found in Paul Richardson’s excellent book on Spain, Our Lady of the Sewers.
Canarian friends of mine had warned me it was vile, and it is. Mixed with milk, it forms a thick sludge that sticks to your palate and has to be removed by increasingly desperate movements of the tongue. It would be like eating wallpaper paste, except that the cloying pale purée is partly redeemed by the toasty malty taste that could be kindly described as ‘comforting’. On the whole, though, gofio is one local speciality I would cross the street to avoid, along with Tibetan yak-butter tea and jellied eels.
Best avoided by everyone other than those who take a gastronomic delight in day-old coagulated salted porridge with lashings of condensed milk on it.
February 3, 2012
Guest blogger Dana Bate last wrote for Food & Think about Salisbury’s medieval market.
England’s historic city of Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and Roman baths and as the one-time residence of Jane Austen. But the city is also the birthplace of two of the country’s famous yeasted buns: the Sally Lunn and the Bath Bun, both of which have a fabled and dubious history.
Of the two buns, the Sally Lunn has the plainest appearance and flavor: at nearly six-inches in diameter with a soft, domed top, it is like a brioche bun on steroids. But its simplicity belies the elaborate and fanciful story that accompanies its history.
According to the legend, the Sally Lunn Bun was invented by a 17th-century Huguenot refugee from France named Solange Luyon, who landed a job at a bakery in Bath. She introduced the baker there to the French style of egg- and butter-enriched breads, which residents began to call Sally Lunn Buns, in a perversion of her French name. The buns were served at public breakfasts and teas and soon became a part of Bath’s baking tradition. The original recipe was lost in the late 1800s, but (the story goes) the recipe was rediscovered in the 1930s, when it was found in a secret cupboard in Sally Lunn’s former home.
So-called Bath Buns, on the other hand, are smaller and sweeter than Sally Lunn Buns, with a lump of sugar baked into the bottom, crushed sugar sprinkled over the top and, often, currants or raisins swirled throughout. Like many aspects of Bath’s history, this bun, too, comes with a story.
The most popular involves an 18th-century physician named William Oliver, who would treat patients visiting the city’s Roman baths and, allegedly, furnish them with sweet, yeasted treats called Bath Buns, which he supposedly invented. As the story goes, Oliver went on to invent the Bath Oliver – a hard, dry cracker, similar to a water cracker—after the Bath Buns made his patients pack on a few too many pounds.
Unfortunately, both stories are full of as many holes as a fluffy loaf of brioche.
According to British food historian Laura Mason, there is no record of the Solange Luyon story before the 20th century, and, in her opinion, the whole Sally Lunn tale is complete fiction. “People were very fond of making up these kind of stories,” she says, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another source describes the Sally Lunn story as a fabrication by a woman named Marie Byng-Johnson, who bought a rundown townhouse in 1937 and concocted a story about a French refuge and a mysterious cupboard to attract visitors and popularize the site as a tourist attraction.
Some claim the name “Sally Lunn” comes from the recipe for “solilemne,” a rich, yeasted, French breakfast cake popular during the same period, but, while plausible, the connection has never been confirmed.
As for the Bath Bun, the recipe likely derives from the Bath Cake and has no connection to either Dr. Oliver or his overweight patients.
In both cases, Munson says, the cakes likely link to an 18th-century baking tradition of yeast-leavened rich breads, which were popular for breakfast. As for the legendary stories…well, they’re just that: stories. Good for a laugh and not much else.
But whether the stories true or false, the charms of the buns themselves cannot be denied: a sweet, sticky Bath Bun goes perfectly with a hot cup of tea, and a Sally Lunn Bun makes a fine partner for a bowl of soup, regardless of its dubious legacy.
December 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays complete. We’ve read about pizzelles, mystery cookies and mashed potatoes, and today’s essay is about roti, a specialty that comes from Trinidad by way of India, China and Queens. Linda Shiue is a San Francisco-based doctor and food writer who “believes in the healing power of chicken soup.” She blogs about food and travel at spiceboxtravels.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @spiceboxtravels.
Ravenous for Roti
By Linda Shiue
Ask any Trinidadians what they’re hungry for, and the answer will be “roti.” This refers not only to the Indian flatbread itself, but the curried fillings which make Trinidadian roti the best hand-held meal you’ll find. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpouri roti, which is filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. You wrap the roti around some of your curry filling and eat it like a burrito. It’s sold as a common “fast” food in Trinidad (the cooking of the curry is not fast but the serving of it into freshly prepared rotis is) but also prized enough to be served at family gatherings and celebrations. For members of the Trinidadian diaspora, like my husband, the hunger for roti is profound. If you live in New York, it is not too far of a trip to find yourself a decent roti—Richmond Hill in Queens is home to a large Trinidadian and Guyanese community. Trinidad itself is only about a five-hour flight away. But if you are on the West Coast, you’re out of luck. Visiting Trinidad requires almost a full day of air travel. Last time we checked, there was only one Trinidadian roti shop in our area, over in Oakland. It was a musty, dim (as in unlit until customers rang the buzzer) shop, and the owner was equally dour. Even as I paid for our lunch, I felt the need to apologize for intruding. The rotis were pallid, dry and lifeless.
They were nothing like the roti I had devoured in Trinidad. On my first trip to my husband’s home, my future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo. What’s tattoo? Better known around here as armadillo. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of culinary delights I had never imagined. On this trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. I was presented with plate after plate of curried dishes, condiments (including kuchila, tamarind sauce and fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce), pastelles (similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins) and the rice dish pelau. Since then, I’ve learned to cook a pretty mean curry myself. But I have not yet mastered the art of roti making, and this is a cause for sorrow. We make do with eating curry and rice when we are without roti, but whenever we can find time and an excuse to go to New York, we have one mission: procure roti.
There is no such thing as “going too far” to sate the hunger of the expatriate. When it is for something as tasty as Trinidadian roti, a cross-country flight is not considered unreasonable. So we go to New York for a Christmastime visit to my New York-by-way-of-Trinidad in-laws. There is no Christmas goose or ham on the dining table at this Trinidadian Christmas celebration. When we announce our plans to visit, our family knows to make the obligatory run to Singh’s for curry goat and chicken, aloo pie and doubles, to bring it over to my mother-in-law’s for a welcome feast. But they have also learned over the years that they should check in with us for our “to go” order of unfilled roti. We’ll order half a dozen each of dhalpouri roti and paratha, carefully triple wrap them individually, and freeze them overnight to bring back with us to San Francisco. By the time we get back, they are starting to defrost, but they’re the first thing we unpack (and refreeze), because this is some precious loot. The handful of homesick Trinidadians we’ve collected over the years here is always thrilled when we organize a curry night, and there is never enough roti.