28 Jul 2015

My French Summer Beauty

If you tasked some mystery shopper to call at my place, head right to my bathroom and then off to raid the bedside cabinet, they would have to report back that this woman is living her truth for a simple life in harmony with nature's nurture laws. And super beauty oils are a big part of it.

Nuxe, Melvita, Lift' Argan and Caudalie

Gone are the days when I used to believe the hype of high-profile beauty brands with the so-called magic power creams, backed up by an ingredient list with unpronounceable words and aggressive formulae straight out of a chemical plant, only beautified by sleek, expensive packaging, and purported by a punchy media strategy packed-full with supercilious supermodels high on retinoids.

Let's just say that I went through years of the high-maintenance regimen, and the promised results were not quite as expected. Alongside this, the question of animal testing kept nagging me, with no clear answer from those beauty multi-nationals that just like to keep it opaque, I wonder why?

A flurry of French brands with nature at the heart!

Meanwhile after undergoing the high-tech cosmeceuticals treatment throughout the late 1990s to late 2000s, the beauty industry has undergone another revolution, this time over softer, and with caring in mind. It has been revitalised by a flurry of new and exciting brands like Estelle & Thild, REN, Tata Harper or One Love Organics that are organic, plant-based, nature-focused and irresistibly trendy in looks and offerings. They also state loud and proud that they do not test on animals. And that's a thumbs-up from me!

On the basis of less being more, my skincare routine has pared down, phasing out those products with the long lists of incomprehensible ingredients, cryptic formulations, misleading claims and/ or questionable ethics. I have switched to less ingredients, less products, less fuss. My quest for simplicity and honesty doesn't mean less efficiency or less potency, because the products I am now using daily harness the best that nature has to offer, backed by the wisdom and knowledge of our elders and ancient cultures who live(d) side by side with nature.

Borage is rich in Vitamin E, fights free radicals, and keeps skin supple.

Botanists and chemists have dug deeper to understand the make-up (compounds) of those miracle plants, verify their properties and ascertain their benefits, some of which have entered pharmacology. Plant cultivation has increased in line with demand and the renewed interest for natural remedies.

Well then, what are those super beauty oils I wax lyrical about? My numero uno is Nigella sativa. Every morning I cleanse my face, neck and décolletage with Caudalie Gentle Cleansing Milk, before taking a shower. Then I lightly massage pure (100%) Nigella (sativa seed) Oil by Melvita into my face, neck and décolletage, wait 5-10 minutes before applying a 50 SPF sunscreen (the latter only if I am planning on going out). I do not use any face cream because Nigella oil brings sufficient moisture. I am not ruling out face creams for the Winter months though, like the elegant rose-scented Rosa Angelica by Sanoflore.

Nigella sativa

Nigella sativa (a.k.a. Black Cumin, Black Seed) grows wild, mostly in the Middle East, although I have found some specimens in Corsica. When dry, the flowers yield thick black seeds, which in turn yield a sacred, highly-reputed, vitamin-laden (A, B, and C) oil, rich in amino and fatty acids, not to mention calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and trace elements. Taken orally or applied topically, the oil has been used for over a thousand years, since (at least) the Pharaohs, with the emphatic claim of healing 'everything except death'. A bottle of Black Cumin oil was found in Tutankhamun's tomb as evidence of its importance in the immortality process. Meanwhile Cleopatra's legendary beauty was said to be a result of Nigella oil, and that is sterling testimonial to me! Yet beyond the skin-depth of beauty, the medicinal properties of Black Seed and scope of use, from epilepsy to diabetes via asthma and more, backed up by scientific research, are certainly amazing.

In terms of topical use and skin-related properties, it purifies and tonifies skin, clears blemishes, blackheads, dull complexion, and treats skin disorders as varied as eczema, acne, psoriaris, fungal infections... and even skin cancer! My skin feels hydrated, soft, smooth and soothed all at once. A little oil goes a long way. I even used a few drops to moisturise the tips of Tickle's ears that were parched and dry, and this has worked wonders! Personally I love the oil scent, which reminds me of thyme and rosemary. Some users may find it a little overpowering, but this quickly dissipates. So yes, I am sold to the powers of Nigella oil!

More to the French connection: Sanoflore, Cattier and Caudalie

Further Reading:

19 Jul 2015

William Blake's Animal Manifesto

A few days ago, I rediscovered a famous poem by Romantic English poet William Blake (1757-1827), and I was instantly struck by the modernity and vivacity of its author and the modernism of its tone, themes and values. The piece might well have been written today and thus shatters any preconceptions one may hold against poetry that is two centuries old. Now is an invitation to rediscover the great poet, and you might surprise yourself at relishing in the potence of his words and delighting in the message they behold.

Dhara the Indian baby elephant, rescued in July 2012 by IFAW, was a casualty of monsoon season. I sponsored her vet fees, only to be informed 2 weeks later that she had sadly not survived her ordeal.

The poem is called 'Auguries of Innocence', the full version of which (one undivided sequence of 132 aphoristic lines) is a click away at Poetry Foundation. The original manuscript may be viewed at The William Blake Archive. I concede that the poem title might not strike a chord right off the bat, but its exact first four lines somewhat will: -

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

The piece is assumed to have been written in 1803, yet was not published until decades after Blake's death, in 1863. It starts off as an introduction of sorts, a reflection of the wider cosmos into the finite and defined that is a grain of sand and a flower, then themselves imploded into an inner expansion and extension of cosmos into micro-cosmos, and the correlation between the two.

Luna was saved from the dairy industry and now lives peacefully at Mino Valley Farm Sanctuary.

Then the poem develops into a manifesto for the welfare, respect and dignity of animals, and in particular those who share our environment or revolve in its periphery, from cat and dog to horse and hare, via the humble gnat and dutiful spider. It then expands to the different segments of human society. The poem is a cautionary tale of retribution to those who scorn innocence and purity of heart in all their guises. The powerful forces of the Law of Attraction will eventually remedy any wrong-doings - or failing that - chastise the wrong-doers. If you mistreat an animal, expect to be mistreated back: 'You get what you give'. Bad kharma boomerangs back, so beware!

For the purpose of this article, I am only including herewith excerpts. Missed-out parts are identified as "[...]". As for the animal pictures I have included, all have in common a connection to man - good or less so. Now let's get back to our poem...

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

Mondika baby gorilla, Cincinnati Zoo, photography by Mark Dumont, via Flickr (August 2014)

A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr' all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the Hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright
Every Wolfs & Lions howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul
The wild deer, wandring here & there
Keeps the Human Soul from Care

I adopted this lovely little lad, Tickle, from Manchester Dogs Home, in August 2006.

The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife
And yet forgives the Butchers knife
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that wont Believe
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbelievers fright
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belovd by Men
He who the Ox to wrath has movd
Shall never be by Woman lovd
The Wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity

Mendoza canestrinii (female jumping spider), photography by Juraj Komar, via Flickr

He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar
The Beggars Dog & Widows Cat
Feed them & thou will grow fat
The Gnat that sings his Summers Song
Poison gets from Slanders tongue
The poison of the Snake & Newt
is the sweat of Envys Foot
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artists Jealousy
The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent


Esther the Wonder Pig might well be the most pampered pig on earth! (pict source)

He who mocks the Infants Faith
Shall be mockd in Age & Death
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out
He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death
The Childs Toys & the Old Mans Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons
The Questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to Reply
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out

Twiggy was saved from the 'mean' streets of Vigo, Spain. (pict source)

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day

* * *

P.S: Dying to entertain you? The Tyke Elephant Outlaw documentary film exposes the drama and outrage behind performing animals and the abomination and cruelty of the circus industry, as epitomised here by Tyke, an elephant whose spirit had been broken as a calf so she could just follow orders and perform circus tricks on cue. In August 1994 in Honolulu, she snapped. She trampled down her trainer and went on the rampage. She escaped the circus and her prison sentence of a life, but her natural quest for freedom would see her robbed of her life, under a hail of gunfire.

10 Jul 2015

Marching Down the Champs-Elysées

On foot, horse-back, motorbikes, in camouflaged tanks and other combat vehicles, on fighter planes and helicopters short of a supersonic bang, French troops and allies will be marching down, driving past, flying over, and jumping off aircrafts down the Champs-Elysées for their yearly military parade, on 14th July, otherwise known as Bastille Day. The super-mediatised military event packs a punch and raises the goose bumps, but do we still feel grand and patriot in a fractured nation within a fractured Europe within a fractured world?

The foreign legion marches on! (14 July 2013)

First off, here's a little-known fact for our foreign friends: France is only one of less than half a dozen nations in the world to conduct military parades of the sort, alongside Russia, China and North Korea. Sounds a little, ahem, unsettling? Thing is, this is not just a military parade, it is a solemn and orchestrated showcase of our savoir-faire, technological expertise and prowess, and other tools of propaganda and self-promotion flaunted not just to France itself but also to the rest of the world, as a military power and potential belligerent to be reckoned with, alongside being a manufacturer of top-notch military engines, and re-affirming our services as an intelligence consultancy, and other 'peace-keeping' endeavours. Any warmongering undertone is channelled into 'Si vis pacem, para bellum' (If you want peace, prepare war). The Bastille Day send-off is a little like a fashion catwalk for military gear. Foreign nations watch the show, scratch their noses and fill in those order forms. The message sounds clear enough.

Yet not clear enough as to why we need to flaunt such an expensive and lavish operation in times of economic austerity and when so-called European unity dispenses us from any overzealous national pride. In terms of costs, the parade might have worked out at only 5 cents per French inhabitant back in 2013, it still added up to €3.3 million, no less! And the sumptuous firework displays that are partaken with later in the night are not accounted for. Besides I doubt that deep down the military feel like parading past the French president, when the government's cutbacks are drastically affecting their budgets.

La Garde Républicaine (14 July 2013)
Sadly, as grand and respectable as the parade is, I cannot help but see it turn more and more into some obligatory charade, not only because European rule and the worldwide banking system rule out any national spirit and pride and squash in the bud those Free Trade and entrepreneurship values that once gave an individual their chance at making it for themselves and for their nation, but also because what remains of national spirit and pride is either condensed into a national holiday, or channelled by the media into a political rally. It feels almost contrived and certainly out of context, almost discordant.

The irony of the Bastille Day parade goes even further. A few years ago, France landed a juicy military order from Russia: two BPC Mistral warships, Vladivostok and Sébastopol. With the French presidency being nowadays little more than Obama's labradoodle and Merkel's schnauzer, it bowed to the pressure and refused to deliver the goods to Russia in some sort of blackmail retaliation regarding the Ukraine and NATO. Problem is, the warships had been manufactured, they were ready to be delivered, and Russia had paid the bill. The ships are now stranded in a French port and their upkeep alone is costing us €5 million a month, notwistanding the hefty penalty charges. I doubt the US and Germany will help us with that!

Going over(board)? (14 July 2012)
When a government bangs on about employment, and bangs on about cost-saving measures, and bangs on about Bastille Day - virtually all in one sentence, and then in the next refuses to deliver a military order they originally honoured, they find no other response than to promise to create 8500 public service jobs in 2016! Forget about the logic, there is none.

9 Jul 2015

Palomitas de Cúrcuma

Serves 2
Preparation: a few seconds!
Cooking: approx. 7 mins 

Weary of the savoury junk snacks from the shops, I had been contemplating for a while the idea of making savoury popcorn as an appetiser for Summer alfresco apéritifs. Yet I didn't want it plain and was looking to devise a tropical version of popcorn: jazzed up and with a kick to it. I improvised a healthy veg(etari)an recipe out of the blue, using only four simple ingredients: organic popping corn, olive oil, sea salt and turmeric powder. It came out wonderful! The hints of olive and turmeric give it a light sunny taste and hue, with the salt bringing out the flavours.

I had to give this recipe a Spanish name because Palomitas de Cúrcuma sounds so much more mellifluous, moreish and tropical than plain Turmeric Popcorn, don't you think? It just rolls off the tongue in a twist and is a lovely echo to our recent Santa Fe excursion! The Spanish language beautifully captures the sunny undertones of this recipe. And "palomitas" is one of my favourite Spanish words - together with "pastel" (cake) and "estrella" (star).

Please note that I do not have a special popcorn pan. I make my popcorn using a standard medium-sized saucepan and lid. I find it easier therefore to make small batches of popcorn at a time, rather than one big portion in one go. That's why this recipe is for two servings.
  • Half a cup organic popping corn
  • Enough olive oil to generously coat the entire surface of the pan and the maize kernels (i.e. approx 4-5 tablespoons oil)
  • Sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Pour the olive oil into the pan, then add the turmeric and a good pinch of salt. Tilt the pan and swoosh around to ensure its bottom surface is evenly and generously coated. Add more olive oil if necessary. Then add the popping corn, place a lid securely onto the pan and swoosh some more. Heat up on medium heat, keeping an eye on the stove. Shake the pan regularly to prevent the kernels from sticking, and keep the lid firmly onto the pan while doing so.

After a few minutes, you will start hearing the kernels pop. Carry on shaking the pan, keeping the lid on. Then when the popping noises have started subsiding, carefully lift the lid and check. Take the pan off the heat, pour its contents into a serving bowl. Add another good pinch of salt and roughly stir with a wooden spoon (or just run your fingers through). Et voilà! The palomitas are a perfect accompaniment to soft drinks, long drinks and shorts. Let's get the party started, amigos!

4 Jul 2015

Santa Fe Way

When you feel sizzled to a jalapeño on fire, and the colours on your photography have discoloured to a shimmy on the horizon line... When your day is air-conditioned, with a view over next door's dusty empty pool, and the desert heat beats down your windows like vacuumed into the cooling pipes... When Georgia O'Keeffe's desert flowers are as freshly-picked as Heaven on your mind, and Bananarama's Cruel Summer drifts from the radio to you like a whiff of sticky cotton candy from the fun-fair down the road... Somehow my friend, you are heading Santa Fe way.

Source: All photography La Baguette Magique, except (4). From top down: (1) Mr. Tickle prancing on the bed, all "dandified" in his recently-acquired pareo! (2) A handful of dried bougainvillea bracts reveal their inflorescence... and their decorative power. (3) If Piña Colada were to be a candle, it probably would resemble this one, from French retailer Monoprix. (4) 'Rose', oil on board painting by Georgia O'Keeffe (1957). (5) Small ceramic 'Sunshine' bowl by Chehoma. (6) Wild euphorbia, northern Corsica. (7) Ladies, feel fresh and fabulous with 'Jasmin' eau de toilette by French perfume house Fragonard. (8) The Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) in my parents' garden is growing new leaves. They start off soft as baby skin, before going spiky! (9) Set for the beach - and the desert heat - in my stunning 'Capri' Tunic in Coral Woodblock by Stella & Dot! Still packaged up but not for long! (10) "My name is Tickle, not Tiki! Let's just forget about that pareo!" OK, Tick-Tick! Now come on, let's go to the beach!

28 Jun 2015

Inspiration's Den of Iniquity

In December 2012, I came across an article in Brain Pickings about The Daily Routines of Great Writers, and their creative space and process. This got me thinking about my own daily routine (or lack thereof) as a (yet-to-be-published) writer. I remember commenting on BP's Facebook page on the subject, sharing what a 'typical' day was for me as a writer:
"My personal routine as a writer is simply not to have any... I write in a state of distraction and urgency, not to say chaos, in noisy places, on random bits of tatty paper, guided by the guises, quirks and fancies of inspiration, driven by both emotion and rationale. You will never find me locked away in solitary confinement, sat at a desk in a neat and tidy room, writing calligraphic-style on the beautiful pages of a beautiful notebook, within a set timeframe like this is the day job. I may be a writer but never aspire to look like one either."

Brett Easton Ellis' The Typewriter Campaign with Persol

All in all, I couldn't help but be a little taken aback by the lack of creative process in some of those daily lives I was reading about. There was a rigor, a rigidity, a structure, an orderliness, and a predictability resulting from repetitive acts, that fashioned what a typical writer's day was supposed to look like. If anything, it verged on the superstitious, the mechanical and the obsessive, which I found at odds with creativity and untransferrable to a less disciplined character like myself. There is method in my madness though, yet I find that I would be counter-productive if I were subjected to some rigid routine pattern.

For me, imagination, curiosity, observation and inspiration - the intermingled fuels that feed creativity - work hand in hand with the act of creating, a.k.a. the art form. It is a unison work in progress, a symbiosis that accompanies the artist beyond the projects they are working on. It is a way of life. Creativity is very messy and undisciplined - and that is the beauty of it! Inspiration hits you anywhere and at any time, whether the moment is appropriate or not, whether you are in the mood to transcribe it there and then - or not. It is up to you to seize the day as it turns out to become, capture the spark in its blessing, as it twinkles at you for you to translate into creative genius - or just let it peter out, often never to be able to rekindle it again, at least in its very same form.

Christian Dell Table Lamp, circa 1929-1930 (pict source)

Back to the Brain Pickings article, Ray Bradbury was on that same wavelength:
"My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this." - Ray Bradbury
The creative urge is what defines artistic life as a holistic experience. It shatters to smithereens any preconceived idea around the 'typical' working day. It happens and you deal with it - or you don't. Multi-talented chanteuse Lady Gaga goes even further, lending some mystical connotation to the experience:
“The most important thing about creativity is that you honor your creativity and you don’t ever ignore it or go against what that creative image is telling you… Last night I was lying in bed and I had an idea for an outfit and I just made myself get up and sketch it real fast then went back to sleep. I think it’s when you say “I’m too tired I have to go to bed” is when creativity stops coming. If God calls you, pick up the damn phone. - Lady Gaga
Cyphus germari by Michaël Cailloux, via Les Pépins

I have answered that phone in those most incongruous of moments. In the middle of the night, waking up from a dream, or while on the move, in my travels, sometimes hardly prepared for it, stopping my car by the roadside, scribbling away those words on random bits of paper I find in my handbag (if that notebook I have left home), or even texting myself the words. If no paper and no phone, then trying to remember those words and sentences (or just scale down to some trigger words that help me remember the text or poem I have just created 'out of the blue'), and recite them parrot fashion on my way home or to a place where I can scribble them down.

In this spontaneous interchange between inspiration and the receiver (the artist), I fail to find any room for the showroom office, the tidy desk, the neatly-aligned books, comforting grigris and perfectly-sharpened pens, under the solemn time-ticking auspices of the alarm clock structuring your working day. A writer's working day is hardly a 9am-5pm office job. My better half, Roby, who is a published American author, says that his office is only tidy when he is not working. Let us not forget though that no matter how messy and untidy creativity may appear at source, it comes out disciplined and structured once channelled onto paper. Therefore the apparent untidiness of the artist should not define them or their craft.

Bret Easton Ellis For Persol Typewriter Edition from Persol.

Creativity is an on-going process. It doesn't start, it doesn't end. Now you are welcome to that obligatory 20-minute morning walk ritual before you start your artistic endeavours, supported in your task by your favourite songtrack and your loyal artefacts as they tune you in - should you be of the belief that these externals will help trigger your genius onto paper afterwards. For my part, I will not have my creative life regimented to that extent. I do not have a typical day. The only routine I have is imposed upon me because I currently live at my parents' house, and the set meals and other family obligations structure some sort of routine into my day, but this will change soon, when I move out.

I will not push the words either. French author and 2012 Goncourt Prize winner Jérôme Ferrari summed up his technique nicely in a recent interview to a local French newspaper: "I do not search for words, I allow them to come to me." Nothing of a high calibre will come out when creativity is forced out of you, like you are on a tight deadline, with a multitude of other parameters attached. Rules and conditions restrict creativity. They do not expand it.

'Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all - oneself. 
Nobody knows his own frontiers… 
I don’t think I’d ever want to take a road 
if I knew where it led.' - Louis Kahan 

P.S: More from the Persol-Bret Easton Ellis Typewriter Campaign in our previous post.

16 Jun 2015

Inspire Aspire - The Waiting Game

They say that good things happen to those who wait... Well, try saying that to those two pre-Raphaelite muses. On the other hand, the composed couple standing tight at the corner of Woodside, San Francisco, might have more going for them. Stood at the crossroads of life, expectations might turn into realisations once the shrouding fog has dissipated out of their lives and a new day has borne out of night.

Fred Lyon photography
The waiting game is not a game. It's actually not even about waiting but observing, thinking, mulling over, taking stock. In our society of temporary arrangements, on-the-spot results and instant gratifications, the waiting is warped, the sense of observation is shunted to the side. How can you be able to listen to that inner voice and make sense and reconnect and grow when there are so many distractions that keep you on a flatline level of short-lived mild amusement?

'Indulge your curiosity. It's the basis of creativity.' - Fred Lyon

As the mood is atmospheric and slightly at odds with the sharpness of reality, as what seems to be is not exactly what is, as if warped out by Gemini Retrograde or other forces, as night spikes the day, reality morphs into daydream and errs like a vapour over the metaphorical Styx of the mind, Orphée (Orpheus) springs to mind, and a Joy Division soundtrack laced to it is almost de rigueur for that added tinge of melancholia. With artistic form taking on as much a major role as the actual storyline, American film critic Roger Ebert revealed in 2000 that Orphée is "about how art can seduce the artist away from ordinary human concerns". Such is the mirage of life when it becomes entangled in multi-layered realities, via the conduit of the silver screen, and better still, via our own devices, understand our own unbridled imagination.

'Light Rails' light art installation by Bill FitzGibbons, Birmingham, AL (pict source)
Are you losing me or - more importantly - are you finding you? You will find that curiosity feeds on imagination and vice-versa. Both unleash creativity, and the transcription of imagination fuelled by the creative impetus will engender Art. Maybe you should have a go, if you haven't already done so.

'Hollywood', photography by Marcus Doyle
Orpheus : A Film by Bret Easton Ellis from Persol.

Credits: I discovered the great San Francisco photographic legend Fred Lyon via a tribute blogpost in Paris Hotel Boutique. There is also a noteworthy interview by PetaPixel.

P.S: More from the Persol-Bret Easton Ellis Typewriter Campaign in our next post.

12 Jun 2015

Sailing Hermione and Sunken Utopia

I have been following with pride an ambitious and audacious shipyard project brought to fruition by the passion and determination of author Erik Orsenna and a handful of ordinary French fellow citizens who managed to get together a team of expert craftsmen who over the last 17 years painstakingly built a perfect replica of Frigate L'Hermione, in Rochefort-sur-Mer. The beautiful and graceful tall ship was then seen off on April 18th, 2014 to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with a costumed équipage to meet its destiny, like the original frigate had back in 1780 with the illustrious Marquis de Lafayette on board. Our French emissary was to take a decisive part in the independence of that faraway land full of New World promise, and where everything seemed therefore possible and feasible.

USS Mitscher welcomes L'Hermione (pict source)

L'Hermione II has sailed like a bird on her month-and-a-half maiden journey from the old continent to the shores of the founding fathers of America - Yorktown, Mount Vernon and Alexandria - and her awe-inspiring journey along the East Coast is only just commencing. This is not only a historically-charged moment, but also a highly-symbolic one as a delightful and tasteful homage from France to the US in the form of a kind and thoughful yet acutely tangible reminder of our esteemed friendship and diplomatic alliance, despite specks of tarnish over the last 60 years.

As we sail forth to rekindle the past and salute the prowess of the skilled craftsmen in their labour of love and 84 crew members in their dedication, and to experience the expansive cultural outreach while our flags proudly duet to the sea breeze and gracefully waltz together into an embrace, I join in to celebrate our Franco-American friendship.

L'Hermione is welcomed in Yorktown (pict source)

In the context of the looming French Revolution (1789-1799), The French Illuminati (free-thinkers, philosophers, writers, teachers) of the time were purveyors of novel ideas (or inspired by past civilisations) to emancipate mankind and free them from the feodal system and the centralisation of power. Utopic societies were dreamt of, and America was seen as a place where utopia, a Land of the Free, could be borne. On the old continent, the French revolutionary ideas stood out from England's more conservative (evolutionary) approach. Albion, France and America's common enemy, did not sit well with the idea of change. La Fayette embarked upon L'Hermione to help Americans liberate from English rule and build a republic that would be a model for the rest of the world, an ideal. The Franco-American alliance brought victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

L'Hermione's Bordeaux stopover, October 2014 (pict source)

Now we may argue whether America ever had anything utopic that is found elsewhere than in the text of its constitution. For once, a Land of the Free built upon the enslavement and eradication of its indigenous populations and the robbing of their lands and destruction of their culture, is hardly a utopic gesture, but rather a dystopic one. A nation that has turned out to become an economic, political and military bully rather than an ally on the world scene, cannot be a role model, surely. At the sight of a nation that has turned into a militarised police state, the American founding fathers and the French revolutionaries will jointly disapprove, because this was never the future they had envisaged for America.

If utopia there ever was, it was dreamt up in lofty salons and calligraphed together with thoughts and ideas and concepts onto velum. It now is found lying deep off the shores of the East Coast, and there isn't more to salvage from its putrescent self than an idea for a replica. America, I love the idea of you and respect you, but you are only human, hence flawed. And that is your foible as much as it is ours. God Bless You.

Further Resources:

4 Jun 2015

Design Interlude - Candy Pink Palaces

This post is a personal design indulgence of mine and a little vanity project in progress, amongst my many areas of interest. I have a thing for good design and more than a casual appreciation for 'olde worlde' interiors, exteriors, homestyles, graphics and the likes. The last time I did a 'Design Interlude' was over 5 years ago, where I featured sublime Cheshire residential façades from my then neck of the woods (Hale, Bowdon and Altrincham). I had taken snapshots of candy-coloured façades, that looked like they had escaped the confines of a 3-tiered tea-time cake stand, and eloped in their delicious robes of custard cream, buttercream fancy, chiffon cake and marshmallow, taking me down a cottage industry journey of delicate mint cake, lemon truffle, deep caramel, old-fashioned violet and rose creams, candied ginger, strawberry truffle, butterscotch, coconut macaroon and vanilla fudge… Are we under the spell of a sugar high or are we not?

(pict source)

When Wes Anderson's critically-acclaimed film The Grand Budapest Hotel came out and its majestic façade rose upon our screens and graced the glossies in its wedding cake strawberry meringue colourings and piped lettering, I knew straight away that I was faced with an art that I loved. Anderson's quirky formula is sublime in my eye: the nostalgia-ladden cartoonesque naïve art visuals in candy pastel graphics and the surrealist art direction which both celebrate vintage to an artform are a great fit to my all-encompassing design passions. I had to extol this proud and loud in my blog, no matter how long it would take me to get round to it, which ended up being more than 12 months after the movie release (eeek how responsive is that?).

Finally the moment has come to be enjoyed, as I am looking at the façade and imagining the stories and dramas and quid pro quos that lie underneath the apparent sober tranquillity and contained gracefulness of the place. Meanwhile I invite you to go backstage and find out about Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel graphic designer, Annie Atkins, via an insightful article by Camille Styles, or how she met the visual feat challenges raised by such a high-profile project brief for a sought-after dream job!

(pict source)

Talking of candy pink palaces, how could I possibly resist other gems, especially if they are no fiction, but rather a sweet and welcome part of our reality? Hawa Mahal, otherwise known as Palace of Winds (Jaipur, India, completed 1799) springs to my mind, as immortalised herein by Studio Yuki in all its intricate beauty and timeless charm:

Hawa Mahal (pict source)

Some candy pink palaces out there in India are crumbly around the edges, like this one in Benarés. We may nonetheless appreciate its fading glory. The top storey certainly looks well kept and - since we are in a sweet-focused mood - I would say that its ornate décor reminds me of some girlie birthday cake decoration piping. If sweetness is bringing you sickness, we'll steer the façade analogy clear of sugar and steer it towards bejewelling instead.

Benarés, India (pict source)

Anyway if nostalgia tastes like a cream cake from childhood baked with tender loving care, I wonder what a whiff of nostalgia would smell like? I shall dispense with a spray of pure musk from L'Air de Panache, found lingering on a bedside cabinet at The Grand Budapest Hotel. Maybe I'll go for a drop of Guerlain instead.

L'Air de Panache (pict source)

31 May 2015

Gâteau Paris-Brest

Serves: 8
Preparation: 40 mins (choux pastry) + 40 mins (filling and dressing)
Cooking: 20 mins + extra 5 mins + leave in the open oven for an extra 5 mins

If a French pastry ever were to be described as la crème de la crème (in every sense of the phrase), then Paris-Brest would be it. The gâteau is classic in style and celebratory in mood, and a piece of French culinary heritage all to itself that goes beyond anything cream cake. If I wax lyrical so readily about this particular pâtisserie, it is simply because it stands as my all-time favourite!

The Paris-Brest dates back to 1910, which despite making it a centenarian, also brings out its timeless appeal! Its circular shape is in reference to the Paris-Brest cycle race. A pâtissier from the Parisian suburbs, Louis Durand, had been tasked by the race manager to create a cake that would commemorate the event.

So here we have a gâteau whose popularity has surpassed that of the actual race. It is made out of light and airy choux pastry (cream puff dough), and sprinkled with a generous helping of aromatic roasted almond slivers, finished off with a fine dusting of icing-sugar. The filling is nothing less than a dreamy fluffy praline mousseline cream whose nuttiness echoes that of the almonds, and peers out of its fine corset of piped pastry to doom us into sweet temptation some more.

The Paris-Brest might appear daunting to bake, only if you follow some of the eccentric variants out there, that make it sound more complicated than it actually is! The best thing to do is to follow my step-by-step foolproof method, and you'll be coming back for more!

[Recipe adapted from Maxi Cuisine magazine from a few years back.]

Choux pastry:
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) milk (whole or half-skimmed)
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) water
  • 80g butter (1/3 cup), cut in small chunks
  • 140g (1 cup) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 4 middle-size organic eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp white caster sugar
Filling (praline mousseline cream):
  • 1l (2 pints) milk (whole or half-skimmed, but not fat-free)
  • half a vanilla pod
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 80g (1/3 cup) white caster sugar
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) cornflour 
  • 180g (1 cup 1/2) chopped French pralines (a confection of almonds with caramelized sugar)
  • 100g (1/3 cup + 1 oz) softened butter (left out of the fridge)
  • 50g (1/2 cup) almond slivers
  • 50g (1/3 cup) icing sugar

P.S: For baking ingredient conversions, refer to this.

P.P.S: PRALINES-- French Pralines are caramelized almonds. They are sold either whole as a confection, or chopped into a rough granulated texture (see above picture), called 'Pralin' in French. However depending upon which country you live in, French Pralines may not be readily available to purchase. Therefore you may have to resort to making your own, and this easy-to-follow online recipe will do the trick. If you are based in the US, you may want to opt for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans from Southern Candy Makers as your closest shop-bought alternative to French Pralin - and for that little Southern touch... All you will need to do is chop the whole glazed pecans/ praline pecans through a food processor until they turn to a granulated texture.

All in all, please be warned about the confusion between Pralines (as in Southern Pecan Pralines) and French Pralines, despite their common French origins. The Pecan Pralines (described by Southern Candy Makers as "similar to candied pecans, only creamier, [they] resemble a cookie, but are actually a crumbly candy patty [made] from fresh cream, butter, sugar, and Louisana pecans") are not suitable for Paris-Brest. Do aim for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans instead.

Now back to our Paris-Brest. Preheat the oven (200°C/ 392°F). Prepare the choux pastry: In a medium saucepan and on medium heat, combine (without whisking) milk, water, butter, salt and sugar. When the mixture starts to simmer, add the flour in one go. Then for about one minute and on lower heat, mix together vigorously with a wooden spatula so as to dry out the dough without it sticking to the pan, and you should get a thick and smooth consistency.

Then transfer the dough from the saucepan to a mixing bowl. Add the whole eggs, one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each single egg into the dough with the spatula as you mix together, before you add on the next. Carry on until the dough gets elastic and smooth and comes off the sides of the bowl.

Optionally trace a loose circle (approx. 20cm diameter) on a sheet of parchment paper with a pencil. Then lay the parchment paper onto a baking tray and lightly grease the paper with cooking oil. Then spoon the dough into a piping bag and trace a circle onto the parchment paper and then another circle inside the first (right next to it with no gaps), so that you get a one-inch wide circle. Then pipe a third circle to rest on top of the junction between the first two circles.

You may use a teaspoon as an alternative to the piping bag (which is what I did here) and painstakingly spoon one teaspoon of dough at a time onto the paper until forming a full circle of dough (one inch wide). The finished article, once baked, might not be as full and rounded as the classic (piped) Paris-Brest, but this will not impair the taste whatsoever. And eh, who said Paris-Brest couldn't look rustic round the edges? Actually, [purists, look away now!] should you find convention a tad tricky to handle, you may want to adjust the shape of your Paris-Brest to rectangular, as this will neatly fit in the baking tray (which is what I did here too!).

Sprinkle a generous handful of almond slivers all over the choux pastry. Bake in the oven (200°C/ 392°F) for 20 mins. Never be tempted to open the oven during the baking process or the pastry will deflate and never raise again! When the 20 mins are up, turn the oven temperature down to 180°C/ 356°F and bake the cake for a further 5 mins. Then turn off the oven completely and open its door and leave the cake to cool off for 5 mins before taking it out of the oven. This will prevent it from deflating too much. The pastry should be golden in colour when it comes out of the oven.

Only when the cream puff pastry has thoroughly cooled off, should you split it in two equal horizontal halves, carefully and using a bread knife. Personally I find that a serrated grapefuit knife will do the trick nicely, thanks to the fact that the centre of cream puff is hollow.

Prepare the praline mousseline cream filling: A mousseline cream is basically pastry cream (crème pâtissière) to which butter has been added. Note that the cornflour will lighten the cream consistency. However if you have no cornflour handy, then adjust the all-purpose white flour quantity accordingly, i.e. to 50g (1/3 cup OR 2 heaped tablespoons).

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Split half a vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the milk and add the pod shell to it. Bring the milk to the brink of simmer, whisking frequently so as to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Meanwhile combine the egg yolks and sugar into a big mixing bowl and cream until white and fluffy. Then add the combined white flour and cornflour in one go. Whisk together. Strain the vanilla pod out of the warm milk.

Add the warm milk to the yolk and sugar preparation in the mixing bowl. Note that the milk must not be boiling hot or it will cook the egg yolks, which is NOT what we want! Whisk together and then pour the cream back into the pan, on medium heat, until it has thickened up and a couple of bubbles have risen to the surface, indicating that the flour has cooked. Turn off the stove. Add the chopped pralines and mix with a wooden spatula, together with the softened butter, cut in chunks.

P.S: For the purists! Some pastry chefs would recommend that you go the extra mile with the praline cream. Once it has cooked - and before any of the softened butter has been added to it - pour the cream into a mixing bowl that sits in a bigger bowl that is filled with ice cubes. Leave the bowls in the fridge for one hour. When the time is up, take the cream out of the fridge and beat it to unset it. Then deal with the softened butter by creaming it with an electric whisk. Add the creamed butter to the praline cream, a little at a time, so as to get a smooth consistency.

Pipe the praline mousseline cream onto the lower half of the choux pastry circle, or alternatively dollop it with a spoon, and then either smooth the edges with a small pallet knife or shape them with a fork (which is what I did). Carefully position the upper half of the circle (i.e. the cake lid) onto its creamed-up lower half. Refrigerate the Paris-Brest until ready to serve. Liberally sprinkle icing sugar before taking to the dinner table, and just let your guests do all the swooning for you!

Psssst! Do not throw out those left-over egg whites! Whip them into Macaroons, a sweet teatime companion.

21 May 2015

The Artichoke Season - Easy Peasy Kitchen Squeezy!

I have a thing or two for artichokes. They have always fascinated me, as early as my childhood days when I first got acquainted to them through my mum. It is a multi-layered fascination, starting off with their somewhat grandiloquent appellation itself that sounds like 'a choking Archibald' - a mouthful of a word that is more than we can chew, since in all honesty there isn't that much to eat out of an artichoke. You'll have to excuse it but it is a delicacy, and the description befits how it should be treated, daintily like asparagus or wild girolles. Thus if famished you are, and stodge you need, and starch you seek, better make a beeline for a pound of spuds than a heap of 'chokes!

Let's get our facts right. Artichokes are no vegetables. They are in fact an edible budding inflorescence (flower buds). In effect, what we eat is no leaves but petals, plus the base. And this is how far consumption goes, because natural wastage is to be expected from the 'choke.

Artichokes belong to the cardoon family, which incorporates their remote cousin the thistle. They originated in the Mediterranean regions and became domesticated in ancient times, and by the Middle Ages were known to grace gardens across Europe, alongside angelica, chard, boragio, herbs, cress, cabbage, parsnip, turnip, juniper, oats, beans et al - and not a single potato in sight back then! And grace is the word because artichokes add great decorative value to a garden, and I have even seen stalks of them used as part of sculptural floral displays in hotel lobbies and exhibition halls, to great effect!

I love the way artichokes perplex those who are not familiar with them. Yet perplexity shouldn't deter you from experimenting in the kitchen with this great ingredient. As a basic rule, you should go for one big artichoke (or two smaller ones) per person. The sauce that accompanies the artichokes and the temptation of bread to mop it - with fresh baguette slices a must - will sate you. As a personal preference, I find the smaller artichokes easier to deal with in terms of cooking time, taste and tenderness, than the globe artichokes. All the ones pictured here are of the purple medium-sized "Violet de Provence" variety (from my parents' Corsican garden and elsewhere in Corsica).

Artichokes Served with a Mild Mustard Sauce

Artichokes are not fiddly. If you still feel daunted, just follow my easy step-by-step recipe for a basic boiled artichoke served with a no-frills mild mustard sauce.

Bring a large kettleful of water to the boil. Meanwhile shorten the artichoke stalks with a kitchen knife, if necessary (to no shorter than an inch from the base). Rinse off the artichokes, place them in a big saucepan where they will be able to 'swim' about (as per above picture), and add a splosh of cider vinegar to kill off any bug or slug that might linger, and to prevent discolouration from the cooking process. Pour boiling water all over the artichokes. Put on the stove and return to the boil. When the water starts bubbling away, turn down to medium heat and cover the pan. Leave to a soft boil for approx. 20 mins (globe artichokes will take a good 5 mins longer). The best way to find out if the artichokes are cooked is to stick a small peeling knife into the length of the stalk. If the stalk is still hard, leave to cook a few more minutes. Drain the pan and serve the artichokes. Keep additional artichokes in the pan with the lid on until ready to be eaten.

Serve with a ramekin of Mild Mustard Sauce, only two ingredients: pure virgin olive oil and mild mustard! Add as much virgin olive oil as mild mustard to ramekins (one per person) and stir with a teaspoon (or small whisk) until both mustard and oil have creamed into an emulsion. If using stronger mustard, move to a 3 to 1 ratio.

How to Eat: Discard the outer leaves at the base of the stem which naturally tend to remain hard. Then detach one leaf at a time, plunge its fleshy root tip (pulp) into the sauce and insert halfway between the front upper and lower teeth. Then gently close the teeth onto the leaf and pull it off gently, scraping the artichoke matter off the leaf. Discard the rest of the leaf. As you work your way through the artichoke, things will get easier, as the leaves get thinner and melt in the mouth. This is where they are at their tastiest! You can end up actually eating most of the leaves as you get closer to the heart.

When you are left with the peduncle (stem and flower base), scrape off any of the downy matter if any (prevalent in globe artichokes mostly). Roughly slice the peduncle and toss in the sauce. Enjoy the tasty finale!


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