Ferret Food From…Germany Saturday, Oct 24 2015 

It’s not that I have spent a great deal of time in Germany. In fact, right now I’m only in the middle of a work trip to Berlin, meaning a lot more time is spent in conference rooms on laptops than out and about. Before this, I only took one weekend trip to Germany, and passed through it briefly during road trips, so all in all, I’ve barely scratched the surface – hardly helped by my general pursuit of the French language, and subsequent greater interest in Francophone countries. So why a food feature on Germany?

I only studied German for two years at school, before dropping it in favour of French. I’d been exposed to French for much longer, and German just felt harder, with the neuter in particular causing more problems than I felt it was worth. But then I went to university to study Classics, which naturally included Latin – and once you’ve studied Latin intensely for a few years, your openmindedness towards things like the neuter is increased, and it doesn’t seem so tricky anymore. So I feel I owe it to Germany to take more of an interest in its language and culture. Plus, German food seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of international reputation when compared to its nearest rivals: Spain! France! Italy! In the hope of debunking this a little, I hereby list, in the tradition of my Ferret Food From France post, my top 5 savoury and top 5 sweet foods from Germany:

  • currywurst

    Currywurst. It’s stodgy, covered in ketchup, completely unsophisticated, and I love it. It’s basically traditional German sausage, sliced thickly, drenched in spicy tomato sauce, and served with French fries. So bad, and yet so good.

  • Bratkartoffeln. Everyone loves fried potatoes, bacon, and fried onions, right? Well, imagine all three of these IN ONE DISH. That’s Bratkartoffeln. The potatoes soak up all of the bacon fat too, so it’s rich and flavourful (and probably quite unhealthy. BUT SHUSH.).
  • Hendl. Whole grilled chicken, marinated with pepper and other spices. What’s not to like?
  • Hasenpfeffer. A stew made from marinated rabbit.
  • Sauerbraten. A beef pot roast, basically, made with vinegar, water, spices and seasonings. A toss-up between this and Pfefferpothast (a peppered beef stew) for my final entry. It’s true that Germany is not a great place for vegetarians! But it’s the kind of food I like: wholesome, filling, and great for cold days.

And as for the desserts, it gets even better! My top 5:

  • lebkuchenLebküchen! Basically gingerbread, but done up oh so prettily, particularly at Christmas (see image, right). Comes in a variety of regional types – it can be dusted with sugar, covered in chocolate, studded with dried fruits… *drools* Dominostein is a worthy related mention: chocolate covered Lebkuchen with a jam and marzipan filling.
  • Stollen. A spiced, slightly bready cake dough mixed with marzipan and dried fruits, and then rolled into a log shape before being baked. Dusted with sugar before serving.
  • Prinzregententorte. A cake consisting of at least six very thin layers of sponge, alternating with chocolate and cream. Like a French Opéra cake or Hungarian Dobostorte, this one is a regal classic.
  • Zwetschgenkuchen. A plum cake. YUMMY.
  • Bratapfel. Quite simply, baked apples. One of your five a day, and so simple to recreate at home – everyone’s a winner!

Doughnuts also get an honourable mention. They are VERY popular here, whether in the form of the Berliner (a basic jam doughnut), Kreple (traditional doughnuts from the Silesia region), or simply the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts has many outlets in Germany. I popped in out of curiosity yesterday (no Dunkin’ Donuts in France!) and suffice it to say that a showdown post pitting them against Krispy Kremes will be coming shortly.

In short, though, donuts aside, I’m not sure that Germany deserves its slightly lower reputation for its cuisine. And with winter drawing in, it’s a perfect time to try out a few recipes to see you through the colder weather.

Ferret food from…France Friday, Jan 3 2014 

Naturally, with him indoors being French, French food is an influence in our household (and indeed our lives). French food is often thought of as being difficult, and sometimes it is: you just have to look in a pâtisserie window to know that it’s true. However, it can also have a delightful simplicity that means anyone can cook French food at home.

So what are some of my favourites? Here’s a list of my top 5 savoury (and, OK, my top 5 sweet) French foods:

  • Bavette à la sauce au poivre. Bavette is simply a flank steak cooked simply and quickly, served with a white pepper sauce made with green peppercorns, beef stock, cream, and cornstarch. Simply fry the steak for 3 minutes on each side, in a mixture of butter and olive oil. Serve with homemade frites 🙂  Popular in French bistros and homes alike.
  • Galettes. Galettes are savoury pancakes, normally made with buckwheat flour (which makes them thicker than crêpes). Try to make them yourself at home, or watch them be made in front of your eyes in moments on just about any Parisian street. The almost infinite range of toppings available means galettes are suitable for just about any taste or dietary requirement.
  • Moules-frites. Mussels steamed in stock and white wine, with just onions and seasoning for extra flavour, is an originally Belgian dish that’s now ridiculously popular in France. So not French, but what many people think of when they think of French food. Chips and/or bread obligatory for mopping up the sauce. Other flavour combinations are also available, but the classic mentioned above is the most popular without doubt. One of my best moments ever was eating this with my sister outside in France only for an accordionist to come along the road playing his instrument, thus fulfilling all possible clichés. Can be prepared at home, but is time-consuming. Eat it in a restaurant and think about the poor sous-chef in the kitchen who’s had to spend hours scrubbing all of the beards off the mussels.
  • Confit de canard. Originating in south-west France, confit de canard is made by cooking duck legs in duck fat for two hours, before it is canned and preserved using yet more duck fat. Scooping it out of the tin and into an oven-dish makes for near-instant dinner. Serve with potatoes (fried in duck fat, bien sûr), and keep the rest of the duck fat for future use. Confit de canard also features in another French favourite, cassoulet, in which it’s served with cannellini beans, sausages, and a rich sauce.
  • Boeuf bourgignon. This hearty French beef stew is perfect for winter and couldn’t be easier. It just needs some long, slow cooking and a little lovin’ (hey, you could even sing to it if you felt so inclined). Get a good Burgundy red wine to drink alongside it and serve with gratin dauphinois if you’re feeling especially naughty).

(The French in-laws also nominated blanquette de veau (a ragout made with veal, which is not browned during the cooking process), raclette – melted cheese served with potatoes and cold cuts of meat – and quiche lorraine. I particularly endorse the raclette mention at this time of year!

In terms of sweet treats, things get even trickier, but I’ve finally narrowed it down to the following:

  • Pain au raisin. Some people love croissants or pain au chocolat in the morning, but my personal favourite is the pain au raisin. Hey, you can even convince yourself that you’re getting one of your five a day with this classic French pastry (as you can with my runner-up, the chausson aux pommes).
  • Crêpes. It’s perhaps a little unfair to include this, given the inclusion of its savoury sister (the galette) above. Nevertheless, it remains an incredibly adaptable, fun dish to make and eat whether you’re at home or away, with endless possibilities regardless of your tastes. I always enjoy a crêpe suzette: a pancake served with oranges, butter, and sugar, and flamed with Grand Marnier.
  • Millefeuille. At a serious pastry crossroads with this one. Millefeuilles have been popular in France for centuries thanks to their textural contrast of crunchy puff pastry and luxurious crême pâtissière, but have only begun to gain popularity in the UK more recently, perhaps thanks to national food competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Bake Off. The mispronunciation of ‘millefeuille’ on British television is a constant bugbear! Thankfully, this isn’t a problem in France (where it’s pronounced mee-fur-y [with the y pronounced as a single letter, sounding like the y at the start of ‘yacht’]). Fêted for its impressive appearance and the numerous complex techniques involved, it’s a dessert for special occasions. Eclairs are a more prosaic pastry treat that I also love, made with choux pastry and filled with pastry cream. Tarte tatin also gets a mention for being generally yummy and for giving you that rollercoaster feeling in your stomach when you try to turn it out of the dish.
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMacarons. Not to be confused with macaroons (the British coconut cake), macarons are delicate delights that are difficult to get right. Their pastel colours are always appealing and suit several occasions, from tea-time to weddings. While it seems relatively easy to make a macaron look acceptable, getting the texture right is far harder (as we’ll see in Ferret Food and Wines’ macaron face-off this year). A good macaron should be crunchy yet yielding, with an ever-so-slightly chewy centre. Definitely should not be powdery or biscuity, and the cream centre shouldn’t overwhelm the macaron.
  • Café gourmand. The best solution ever if you’re indecisive when it comes to desserts. Rather than having to choose a whole dessert, many French establishments are happy to serve you 3 mini ones alongside your coffee. These can include mini marshmallows, mendiants (chocolates embedded with nuts and dried fruit), mini sponge cakes…the list is actually endless. This endlessness means that when you’re making café gourmand at home, you can make your mini desserts according to the needs of your guests, according to the wines you’re serving, and according to the rest of your menu’s theme. (One of the best I made, I think, was a mini apricot cake, a mini honey and hazelnut sweet, and a baby apricot sorbet.) GENIUS. and OH SO CUTE.

Feel free to express your outrage at any of the fabulous French dishes you think I’ve missed out in the comments below :p

Ferret food from…Hungary Wednesday, Oct 30 2013 

So, as you probably gathered, we just got back from a weekend in Budapest.

This was my first experience of Hungarian food and of Hungary in general, and on the whole it built upon my experiences of Germany, particularly in terms of the language and food. While I’m still not loving the German and Hungarian tradition of eating cold cuts and cheese at breakfast, just what were my favourite dishes? And what do I look forward to trying in future?

1. Goulash. This is probably Hungary’s best-known culinary export, and this isn’t without good reason. The combination of meat, potatoes, vegetables and broth could be so dull, but when done well, it’s comforting, flavourful and varied in both taste and texture. We sampled this on our first night in Budapest.

2. Lecso (pronounced letch-o). Basically the Hungarian version of ratatouille, this looks to me like a healthy and slightly different way to jazz up evening meals. The vegetable basis consists mainly of tomatoes, red peppers and green peppers, instead of the courgettes used in the French variant, and naturally, being Hungarian, it uses plenty of paprika. Him indoors had this on night 2 of our stay.

3. Libamájpástétom (pronounced God knows how). This is the Hungarian word for foie gras, made with goose liver, which can be served either fried or in the form of a pâté. My husband and I are big fans (he of the fried version, I of the pâté), but needless to say, this is definitely in treat territory. Hubby enjoyed it fried-style as part of Sunday lunch last weekend.

4. Pancakes. Do the Hungarians EVER love their pancakes! We sampled Kaiserschmarrn, which is a crispy pancake served with jam or fruit compote, popular in several countries (including Austria and Germany). However, we could have also tried many other kinds in Budapest, including palacsinta (filled with walnuts, raisins, candied orange, rum, and hot chocolate sauce) and the savoury version thereof, hortobagyi palacsinta (which is filled with meat, usually minced veal or perhaps Hungarian sausage).

5. Dobos torta. Named after confectioner Jozsef Dobos, this cake is similar to a French Opéra cake, with its many thin layers of sponge cake and deliciously fine chocolate and nut filling, topped with a layer of icing. Simply a MUST TRY if you are ever in Hungary. Not sure if it is a MUST ATTEMPT though, given the mess that would surely result…

Needless to say, we will definitely be going back to Budapest. We only had positive experiences with the food and hospitality that we were lucky enough to enjoy, and if you have any Hungarian faves that you want to share, don’t hesitate.

Ferret food from…Senegal Saturday, Aug 31 2013 

This post is about food from West Africa. But the story actually begins in the market in Les Vans, in south-east France.

This is a huge market that snakes into all corners of the town, and it includes an epic spice stall. (So epic that I forgot to photograph it. DOH. Next time, people, next time.)

Straight away, I couldn’t resist buying some sumac – it’s a meaty, umami-flavoured sort of spice that is nigh on impossible to find in French supermarkets and which goes brilliantly with tomatoes. But then I spotted that they also had some long peppers, which I’d recently seen Rick Stein using in his Indian odyssey. Finally, I spotted some yassa – which I’d never heard of before, and so bought out of sheer curiosity. Once home, I looked it up online to try to find out how on earth to use it.

Yassa is not a spice itself, but is a spice mix originating in Senegal, and it’s particularly popular in the area immediately south of Dakar. It can be bought pre-mixed online, or you can mix your own, but sources differ as to what exactly it contains. At its simplest, it must contain onions, lemon and garlic, and the lemon flavour seems particularly important. However, the Guardian’s recipe contains peppers and chillies too, and the UKTV Food version omits the red pepper, using thyme instead. A possibly more authentic spice mix comes from French spice retailer Ile Aux Epices, with their blend containing not just the traditional onions, lemon, garlic and red pepper, but also black pepper, ginger, thyme and bay.

So how do you use it? According to our good friend the internet, it’s most popularly served with chicken, but can also be served with fish. I decided that the best way forward with this would be to marinade the chosen protein in the spice mix for a couple of hours, and then dry-fry it in a griddle or frying pan. You could, though, I suppose, make a more tomato-based or cream-based sauce and then proceed as if making a curry, which would taste good but not be very traditional. This time, though, we dry-fried the chicken breasts to give the dish colour, before braising in a little bit of wine to keep the meat moist. We then served it atop a couscous, pine nut and preserved lemon salad to complement the citric flavours of the yassa:

yassaI have to admit that before encountering yassa I knew NOTHING about West African food (a very different beast to North and South African foods, I can assure you). Now, though, there’s a whole host of dishes from this region that I want to try. Here’s my top five:

  • Funkaso. This dish from Nigeria is something I stand a chance of recreating at home easily. This is just pancakes made with millet flour, butter, and sugar. It can be served as an accompaniment to a main meal, or just as a snack with honey or chutney.
  • Jollof rice. Popular across the entirety of West Africa, this one’s appealing for its versatility. Its basic ingredients are rice, tomatoes, tomato purée, onion, salt and red pepper – but beyond that, any meat or vegetable can be served with it. Spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cumin and Scotch bonnet are also often added.
  • Kedjenou. Mainly cooked along the Ivory Coast, this is a spicy stew that leaves chicken or guinea fowl to cook in its own juices in a sealed pot along with a selection of vegetables. Again, methods and flavours will vary widely, but a classic base of tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and onions seems to be used frequently. Other spices – such as thyme, ginger and bay – may be added from there.
  • Thieboudienne. Also known as ceebu jen, this is a fish dish which, like yassa, also originates from Senegal. Rice, tomatoes and onions are major components of the dish, with carrots, cabbage and cassava also being important. Again, its versatility makes it popular – any vegetables or fish can be used (although smoked fish seems to be preferred) – as well as its convenience (it’s basically a one-pot wonder).
  • Suya. A kebab-like dish of Hausa origin, it’s also known as chichinga or agashe and consists of skewered beef, fish or chicken. The key to this is yet another spice mix named tankora, which must contain powdered peanuts, ginger, paprika, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. I could see next time I’m in Les Vans if they sell the spice mix required for this celebrated Hausa street food, but the beauty of this is that I reckon I could rustle up the spice mix myself too.

Got any West African favourites of your own? Feel free to comment below 🙂 And don’t forget you still have until September 14th to enter our Hairy Bikers competition 🙂 Spread the word!