Category Archives: memories

It’s the Berries: Summer Pudding

Okay, enough with the stone fruits! I’ve clearly been on a bent about that category of delicious summertime fruits. For a moment I’ll move along from the peach and plum tones of those juicy treats and give some props to the jeweltone berries.

A few occurrences conspired to put visions of summer pudding dancing in my head over the past few weeks. Random conversations. Memories. What-to-do-with-those-beautiful-berries ponderings. The last straw was when I came across this recipe in Relish magazine a couple of weeks ago. That did it. Summer pudding it would be. Friends coming over for dinner a couple nights later were to be the victims.

I first learned about summer pudding about 20 years ago. At the time I was living in France, working on various book projects with Anne Willan after having graduated from La Varenne. One interesting project had me going over to England with Chef Claude to do some video work, done at the English countryside home of one of the project’s producers. Beautiful setting, warm and gracious people, quiet environs. It was a wonderful few days. A highlight of which was a small dinner party our hosts threw while we were there. The time was late summer, I can still picture the cozy, colorful dining room and lively ambiance of conversations that evening.

Not every detail of the meal remains in my memory bank, but I was introduced to two things that night: sea beans and summer pudding. Sea beans (also known as samphire, among a number of nicknames) will have to wait for another day. But that summer pudding was a revelation: bright and bursting with flavor, despite being made with little more than berries, sugar and bread.

 

Off I went to the grocery store, my wonderful neighborhood West Seattle Thriftway that feeds me so well. This time of year they have a special rack in the produce area, featuring berries from Sakuma Brothers up in the Skagit Valley. Sure, expensive when you compare the price berry-for-berry against the standard offerings. But worth every cent given the mountains of flavor and aroma they offer by comparison. A quart of strawberries, a pint each of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, boysenberries.

Though I always knew summer pudding to be made with everyday white bread–a type with dense crumb and not too soft–I wanted to make mine with brioche for a bit of extra panache, as did chef Ashton in that Relish recipe. There’s a good selection of Macrina breads at my Thriftway but that day the brioche loaf came only in raisined form. Not for summer pudding. So I made perhaps an odd choice and went with Macrina’s brioche hot dog buns. Same product, different shape. Just meant a bit more creative shape-cutting to fully line the bowl.

I didn’t follow the recipe exactly, as is my habit. I used less water, maybe 1/2 cup. I didn’t strain the berry juice from the berries to then dunk the bread pieces in the juice. Seemed an unnecessary step to me, dirtying more tools, when the bread is going to have ample time to soak up all that juice once the pudding is assembled.

So there I was, lining a ceramic bowl with my oddball shapes of brioche buns. I cut off most of the crust and cut the buns in long slices to best replicate normal sliced bread. Gently cooked the berries a bit, then ladled them and their vivid juices into the bowl. More brioche on top. Then the perfectly-sized plate to perch on top, with a heavy can or two to weigh everything down while it chills for a good 8 hours.

It’s pretty phenomenal how much that loose, juicy berry mixture sets up over time. Thankfully, the plastic wrap used to line the bowl gives you some leverage to help neatly dislodge the pudding onto a serving plate. A friend with Anglo heritage swears Devonshire cream is the only ideal accompaniment to a “summer pud” but all I could muster up was some freshly whipped and just lightly sweetened cream.

Perfection. A great way to cap off dinner with a longtime friend passing through town with his two bright, precocious children. And it wasn’t bad for breakfast the next day, either.

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Just Wild About Harry’s

I have got to make a point of getting to Vessel sometime in the next week or so. Just got an email reminder that they’re celebrating one of the most venerable drinking establishment in the world–Harry’s Bar–with signature items from their menu (beef carpaccio was created there, so the legend goes) and the quintessential Harry’s libation: the Bellini.

A trip my husband and I took to Italy in 2007 included two major pilgrimages for me. One to the Via Tribunali in Naples (the street after which this Via Tribunali was named) and the other to Harry’s Bar in Venice. The trip came PB (pre-blog) but I briefly recapped the excitement of cocktails and pizza on my then e-newsletter.

My very first trip to Venice had been back in 1985. It was an amazing, inspiring, eye-opening couple of months traveling eastward as far as Istanbul after a semester of study-abroad in Dijon, France. My girlfriend and I had a budget in the roughly $10-a-day range, stayed in cheap-o pensiones and spending as little as possible on food and other indulgences. “Quanto costa una camera per sta sera?” I’d ask into the payphone at each subsequent train station, checking affordability of a room from a listing found in the Let’s Go Europe book. We got berated by a waiter in some restaurant in Venice, having ordered a pizza that we wanted to share; he made it clear pizza’s were NOT to share, instead we had to each order our own.

But budget or no, it didn’t keep our Venice visit from being magical. Rich is every single traveler who gets to cross the myriad bridges arched over the canals. Getting lost in the small twisty lanes that dead-end to yet another canal. Squinting your eyes in Piazza San Marco and pretending it’s 100 years ago. We watched the sleek, romantic gondolas slip past with a sigh.

That few days did, however, leave me with one lingering desire. One that my husband had heard me repeat a few times over the years when the subject of travel to Venice came up in conversation. My wish was to return some day to the glorious city with two things: a man and a credit card. About 22 years after that first visit, I got my wish. Funny thing is, after all that, we never did invest in the iconic gondola ride. Better ways–it ends up–to spend one’s money in Venice!

On that first trip, Harry’s Bar wasn’t even on my radar. Didn’t register as something to dream longingly about for a future visit. But over the years, I did hear and read about the place, its history, the colorful and iconic characters that passed through that glass-paneled doorway. Though I swear that wasn’t the ONLY reason we chose to book a cruise that began and ended in Venice, it sure was a lovely side benefit of the decision. And it meant I got to Harry’s twice, once on each end of the trip.

Hear about a place like Harry’s Bar for long enough and the image becomes grand, your imagination painting an ever more vivid picture. Lavish decor, sweeping spaces, elegant entryway, shiny and perfect. Alas, winding through Venice, finally coming to the Calle Vallaresso and walking toward its end at the Grand Canal, a small simple door with “Harry’s” etched in the glass panel is all that greets you. But it’s enough. Trust me, it’s enough! (I had very much the same impression when I first visited the original Paris location of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school back in 1984. It sounded like such a majestic, important place, I imagined the school to be in a sort of palace with a sweeping drive, grand columns, high doorway into a marbled, polished interior. Instead I was met with a simple blue awning over a nondescript doorway on a somewhat anonymous street. But still my joy at being there, attending an afternoon cooking demonstration and breathing the same air that Julia Child did some decades before: it was priceless.)

So there we were, slipping into one of the dozen or so tables in the bar, actually at Harry’s. Just as Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Peggy Guggenheim and many others had been. I didn’t care how simple the decor, underwhelming the physical nature of the place. It was a moment to enjoy, feeling generations of characters sitting alongside me.

But I wasn’t about to order a Bellini. For one thing, I never much enjoy a fruity drink. And for another, I hate ordering what everyone else is ordering. I tried to squint while sitting in Harry’s and imagine I was there 60 years earlier with locals and arty expats and nary a tourist in site. But it didn’t quite work. Took so much squinting that my eyes were effectively closed. Truth is, by my count a good 75% or more folks come in, order one very expensive Bellini and head off for one of those even more expensive gondola rides. I opted instead for a Negroni. Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth. Italian, though not from Venice. Far more my speed. Had a couple for good measure. And to justify more people-watching and daydreaming and just reveling in being in such a historic watering-hole.

One item marked “done” off the great life list of culinary to-does. Two when you count that pizza in Naples!

Here’s to a lifelong pursuit of a delicious lift list fulfillment.

Cheers.

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Memories of Chef Chambrette

He was such a gem of a man. Monsieur Fernand Chambrette. A gentleman of small stature, big heart, giant talents and not a small dose of the devilish imp that will be so greatly missed by those who knew and loved him, and certainly those who learned from him. 

We all knew him simply as Chambrette, though addressed him directly with a respectful “oui, Chef!” He was director of 

At the Chateau du Fey circa 1991; notice we're both standing on the same step...

La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris for many years, having joined the school in 1976, the year after Anne Willan opened the school’s doors. From that day forward, Chambrette was an integral part of attending that wonderful school. In her 1981 book La Varenne’s Paris Kitchen, Anne’s profile of Chambrette notes that he is a “study in contrasts. He professes a cynical attitude toward life, yet has to bite his lower lip to keep from laughing at his own jokes.” 

And sometimes he was biting that lower lip to keep from laughing at the awkward, off-kilter, entertaining nature of the wide-eyed students that flocked to France to learn from one of the country’s masters. He was famous for having a particular twinkle in his eye, but when that smile turned extra-sweet and the twinkle turned a little mischievous, it was time to retrace your recent steps and activities and imagine what you might have done to humor him so. But another time, the slightest nod in your direction with a little wink might mean “quick, get over here” as he hands you some trim ends from the foie gras terrine he just unmolded. (If he hadn’t already determined to take it home to his cat.) 

Chambrette was a highly trained chef of the old school style, having started in kitchens as an apprentice at the age of twelve. At the height of his restaurant career, he was chef-owner of La Boule d’Or in Paris, a restaurant that gained two Michelin stars. In the 1950s book, Paris Cuisine, that he wrote with Alexander Watt, James Beard said of La Boule d’Or that “it is charming and unpretentious and both Monsieur Chambrette…and his wife…have transformed this bistro into one of the most attractive restaurants in Paris.” 

La Varenne became something of a second career for Chambrette, an apt way to continue sharing his talents. Though he never played at the image of French cuisine being fussy or pretentious. The chef ribbed anyone and everyone, short of Anne Willan and her husband Mark Cherniavsky (at least I never caught him doing so!). And he loved to shock and provoke. Rather than delicately dip the tip of a finger into a saucepan to check the seasoning of a sauce, he’d dunk 2 digits a couple inches into the pot and pop them in his mouth to sample. And I swear I once saw him spit into a skillet to check if it was hot enough…. 

I remember one very ruddy morning at the school in Paris. Having completed my stagiaire program (rather like work-study), I was a full-fledged student for a six-week course. Some random excuse provoked late-night drinking with pals the night before, I was in a delicate, fuzzy state–which I think Chambrette surmised the second he laid eyes on me. The eight or ten of us sat down around the work block and, without speaking a word, the chef picked up one of those live eels and a heavy meat hook. I swear he stared straight at me the whole time as he proceeded to skin the thing (sparing you all the gory details), testing my bleary-eyed stamina for such things. 

Chambrette had all the French classics securely under his belt, no doubt about it. Seafood vol au vent, bien sûr. A beautiful vegetable terrine layered with veal mousseline. Croquembouche. You name it. But he was not the least elitist about culinary repertoire. He’d be just as happy, as Anne points out in Paris Kitchen, creating something delicious from bits and pieces of vegetables and leftovers in the refrigerator as he would be tackling a beef tenderloin. Happier, probably. 

Chambrette and Anne, from the back cover of La Varenne's Paris Kitchen

He was practical down to the core. Disdain for the food processor? Not Chambrette. I remember a situation when I asked the chef if he wanted me to blend or mince something or other by hand, presuming that showing my knife skills was part of the program. The essence of his response was “why bother? you’ve got a perfectly good tool there ready to do that work for you.” 

I have Chambrette to thank for my confidence and delight in making many things, not the least of which is tarte tatin, the decadent upside down tart made with deeply caramelized apples. (A long overdue blog post about that is in the works, I even have step-by-step shots ready to go!). And I can still hear him telling the class about how he felt that “les Goldens” were one of the best apples to use for that recipe. Not a beloved French heirloom variety the likes of Calville Blanc d’Hiver or Reine de Reinette. But the humble Golden Delicious apple. It was a lesson in things culinary and otherwise. 

I came along to La Varenne in 1989, about a year before the school closed its doors in Paris, at which point operations continued at Château du Feÿ down in Burgundy. For several years, Chambrette would hop the train at Gare de Lyon now and then , making the trip to the château to  teach classes. It was always a treat to have him at the château for a few days, but it was clear that château living was not his style. He always insisted on staying in the smallest room over near the student kitchen, the tiny chambrette (little room) that seemed to fit him to a T, literally and figuratively. And any time we couldn’t find Chambrette, sure money was on him having sauntered down to the guardian’s home at the end of the drive. He’d be visiting with Monsieur and Madame Milbert at their rickety little table in the kitchen, sipping Monsieur Milbert’s homemade calvados and talking about the garden and weather and surely gossiping about all the nutty Americans and English and Australians they find themselves surrounded by. Far more his speed than sitting in the grand salon of the château, chitter-chatting with students and guests over after-dinner coffee and digestifs

I was happy to keep in touch with Chambrette over the years after I left La Varenne in 1991. We’d exchange Christmas cards (written by Madame Chambrette, of course!) and I visited him a few times in Paris on future visits. Outside of the classroom, away from teaching and being “on” with students, he was such a relaxed, mellow character. It’s almost hard to imagine–sitting in his living room sipping tea–that teaching suited him so well. But it did. And I count myself a thousand times lucky that I was able to spend some phenomenal hours in his presence. As noted on a string of email from friends telling of his death this week, “it’s the end of an era.” Indeed it is.

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