I Am Concerned About the Robots.

I am contributing to the wonderful Impromptu Magazine. They have recently launched a platform dedicated to anything from reviews, social commentary, criticism, arts etc – essentially a blank canvas for new writers. It’s run by a very talented pair of editors and I am so happy to be a part of it.

Diverting from my usual subject matter, I’ve gone on a rant about Artificial Intelligence. If you want to hear about why I think robots are taking over the world, have a read.

Currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Listening to Calvin Harris ft. Haim – Pray To God
Eating a jar of Nutella out of respect for the recently deceased Michele Ferrero

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Tutorial: Bûche de Noël

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I am so proud of myself! It is customary every Christmas with the fam for me to destroy the kitchen with my annual pudding experiment. What is extremely fitting is that last year I played with chocolate tempering for the perfect chocolate truffles. Now, after my lucky time spent training with a team of chocolatier apprentices in France (as you do) I can finally put the lessons to practice. I became possessed. I sat for days comparing recipes, visualising and calculating. I am such a child, I was in my element – I even bought a sugar thermometer.

Now I wouldn’t advise you to wing it with proportions. I did this and it led to many complications. I combined aspects of several recipes and recommendations. Below I’ve listed the main components with a handy diagram.

Buche de noel diagramDacquoise. This is a crispy hazelnut meringue base
Praline Feuillete. A layer of chocolate, gianduja and crispy goodness. I just added rice crispies and nutella to melted chocolate. Seriously.
Chocolate mousse. Whilst there are many recipes out there make sure it contains gelatine – sheets not powder – for a good set. I also prefer the pâte à bombe method used in the recipes below.
Praline mousse. You can always use ground hazelnuts folded into a basic vanilla mousse mixture. However I heroically made my own praline just for the crack. I’m not going to tell you how I did it because the hassle is the equivalent to making your own curry paste. Buy a jar it tastes the same. Also it won’t cause your mother a heart attack when she’s trying to cook a turkey and you are standing there with a sack of hazelnuts and a pestle.
Chocolate glaze. Use good quality cocoa powder and ensure there is enough gelatine. This is normally done last minute before the buche fully defrosts so you must ensure it’s cooled to room temperature before pouring and will be thick enough to coat.
Tempered chocolate decorations. If you wish to sell your soul to the devil.

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Now, if you have time and want to save stress, I would suggest you follow this schedule:
Day one. Make inner mousse and freeze. Start chocolate decorations as these will store for a few days.
Day two. Prepare the feuillete and dacquoise inserts.
Day three. Make the outer mousse and assemble all components in the mould. Freeze.
Serving day. In the morning prepare the glaze, pour over, return to the freezer to set. It tastes great either partially frozen or fully defrosted, so it’s up to you, allow two to three hours.

I did it all in less two days which is not advisable on Christmas eve…

Tips for assemblage.
Half a cereal box cut down works well for the inner praline mousse mould – that’s if you are using a rectangle.

Use acetate, or even foil to line the mould. Do NOT use cling film. It is a nightmare to pour the mousse into and falls apart as you try to peel it off frozen. It then leaves an undesirably rugged edge, though this should be hidden by the glaze.

As I said, do not skimp on the gelatine for the glaze, I did a rough guess of powder instead of sheets and found myself standing outside in the cold on xmas morning, stirring and hopelessly waiting for it to thicken (the fridge was too full).

20141225_155219Decoration.
Chocolate tempering is always worth the effort even though it rarely works for me. Some tips here. I want to stubbornly point out that the white smear on the square in the picture above is an experiment with white chocolate, not a bad bloom from tempering.
The tree was made by cutting set sheets of chocolate with a template and hot knife then sealing together. It’s fiddly work but I found it rather therapeutic.
The pine cone was made by piping spattered star shapes on a baking sheet in different sizes. Once set, I would use the tip of a hot knife to stack and glue them on top of each other.
And there we have it. There are endless possibilities of flavours and layers to experiment with. The three recipes that I combined my elements from were Cannelle VanillePatisserie Makes Perfect and La Fee Chantilly (in French). There you can pick your winning combination. Next I’m thinking pistachio or salted caramel?

Home for Christmas: a Blablacar Adventure

From the moment he pulled out of the station car park and stormed mistakenly down a one way street, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride.

After several hitchhiking experiences on my trip, I had never been so bemused by a travel partner. And little did I know that within this six hour rideshare to Paris I was about to speak the most French I had ever spoken in my life.

Turns out Jean used to speak perfect English, until he suffered a severe stroke five years ago. Since then he has struggled with short term memory retention and his knowledge of English is limited to just a few phrases. Now fully recovered, despite the memory loss, he is so chirpy and positive about every aspect of his life. As we recklessly darted from one lane to the next on the motorway (four hours and counting) he described how certain memories from his childhood would be clear as day, and yet bafflingly, he had managed to forget an entire language. It’s truly bizarre how our brain works. He proudly told me about his family, beaming at the wheel (cue another jolt and traffic dodge). I now know everything about his four children, their occupations, favourite food and holiday plans. I know he was in a band in his twenties and he worshipped Genesis.

And yet, later on in the journey, he would start repeating conversation topics, questions and jokes we had already covered. It was quite subtle at first and mostly I laughed it off as I did with most of my awkward French comprehension. But it made me a little sad, that of course things weren’t all right with him still, and I was ashamed that I couldn’t translate my sympathy and understanding across to him.

Throughout the journey, awkward silences and mumbling vocabulary failures were dissolved in an eclectic soundtrack of Brian Eno, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Corrs, B52s, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and a further mix of obscure seventies prog rock bands that I shamefully did not know the name of. And yet we were rather surprised when we both started humming the words to random tunes like Angélique Kidjo’s Batonga on the radio. Of all the unusual favourite artists to have in common, I wasn’t expecting that. It was moments like this that aided our gradual progression into breaking through the language barrier.

That god damn language barrier. But it’s what I have loved most (despite my complaints) about my time in France and everywhere else. A six hour conversation, fuelled by patience, laughs and a little Google Translate. After an exhausting month at the school, practising every day, it took this final leg of the trip to feel as if I had really made that breakthrough.

Like most long journeys I’m always a little disenchanted when I reach my destination – in this case, it was Porte d’Orléans with a roar and screech of brakes. And later that evening, with my first long haul Blablacar complete, I sat down on my hostel bed, admittedly with some relief. What a cool guy.

This is for you Jean:

For those who haven’t come across it, Blablacar is a great way to get around by ridesharing, a less daring route than hitchhiking. It’s very common and safe, particularly in rural France, and you’re very likely to meet some interesting characters.

Lost in Translation

So how many people can say they have confidently walked into a french hairdresser for a trim one day, thinking they’ve got the language down, and walk out two hours later with CORNROWS. Sort it out France.

Cornrows

The School on the Hill #2

Total language immersion is extremely difficult (oh really? no shit). Even one successful conversation in the day fills me with encouragement, but it’s exhausting. I haven’t felt like this since my Erasmus days in Italy, but even then I could actually speak the language. Here it’s a headache to churn out one sentence, a good headache though. Because it’s more than asking for a pain au chocolat or a glass of wine sitting outside the cafe in Bordeaux. You’re speaking with people who know less of your language than you of theirs, and if you don’t make that effort, then you’ve lost the game. Why did you bother coming all this way? What help are you to them right now? Sat in a busy class with rowdy groups of kids who refuse to speak a word of English or finish their exercise, you realise that there’s little option but to stammer out those little conversational phrases you know, screw the hesitance, screw the mashed up tenses. Because one thing I’ve started to realise is that their stubbornness isn’t misbehaviour, it’s the same issues that I’m encountering, it’s their lack of confidence. And once you realise that, things get a lot easier.

If there’s any way to rigorously learn a language: go practice with kids, they are very unforgiving.

What am I reading? Still on Hunting and Gathering
What am I listening to? Painful French language podcasts
What did I eat? More leftover profiteroles and éclairs, oh it’s a hard life

The School on the Hill

By far one of the most challenging experiences to date, I have found myself back within the deep nowhere of France, upon the tallest hill known to man, teaching English. Let’s see how this goes.

The school in Tulle

There’s civilisation out there somewhere

The school I am working in is remarkably different to what we are used to in the UK. It’s an apprentice school for those wishing to become pastry chefs, confectioners, chocolatiers, bakers, butchers, hairdressers and carpenters. A considerable number of students are my age, I even encountered several students in their thirties with families, those who had previously pursued other careers and decided on a change. Often students came from unsettling backgrounds, had done badly in their previous education and came here for a second chance. Here subjects are taught with patience and small doses of discipline. And the aspect that I find most interesting is that students divide their time between paid work and study. Two weeks at their placement, the third at school, and so on. This means that every week I am with a fresh set of faces. I must say, I think we could learn a lot in the UK from this system. Granted, motivation levels in English class are often low, as is normal in many schools, but when I was present in the practical classes, the focus and commitment from the students was remarkable. I was particularly surprised by how ambitious they are:

“What do you want to do in future?” 
“Within ten years I will be the best chocolate maker in France”
“I will be living in America, running my own restaurant.”

Why not ey. If you ask me right now what I want in future, it will go something along the lines of “Erm.. In a position where I can realistically afford a comfy flat in zone 2 and an entire wardrobe from Zara.” But that’s just me and my cotton wool head.

Let’s not forget the teachers, they are remarkable. The only English teacher is a saint, and what’s more, she really, really cares. Every day is a battle to motivate these kids to realise how important their grasp of English needs to be, that (unfortunately) they are unlikely to progress further in their ambitions in the world without it. I shuffle my feet uncomfortably at the side of the class during these moments, with my lazy French conversation skills and memories of GCSEs springing to mind. We don’t really make the effort back home do we?

Oh what a lazy, lazy nation we are.

What am I reading? Hunting and Gathering – Anna Gavalda
What am I listening to? Alvays – Archie, Marry Me
What did I eat? Duck confit, served most days in the cafeteria 😉

Amsterdam

Canals of Amsterdam

I found Amsterdam to be a stunning city. Cute and welcoming, every street corner is lined with tempting eateries and picturesque seating over the canals. Despite being only several hundred kilometres in size, it is very easy to lose yourself as every damn street looks the same. This is no problem at all in the afternoon, however at night, when the brawling, intoxicated British tourists come out to play and everyone is a little worse for wear; it’s often tremendously difficult to stagger your way back to your lodgings. However this is where I digress. Without sounding too much like a teacher (or a hypocrite), I must say I was astounded at the way us Brits treat the place. Every night of the week residents suffer the rowdy, brawling, swaying, stumbling intrusion of every stereotype we have to offer. Mankini-clad stag nights and feather boa donned hen parties brimming across the pavements, leaving piss and vomit in their wake. If it weren’t for the beautiful surroundings, I’d have thought we were in Magaluf.

I suppose by throwing in legalised drugs and prostitution into a holiday it’s bound to have a morphing affect on our behaviour. Politicians love to use Amsterdam as a prime example of why certain drugs cannot be legalised in the UK. In some ways, ok, they have a point. But it’s only a small number of our population that represent us in this way. When a haven is created for such behaviour to be tolerated, of course we will go crazy for it. But put it on our doorstep and I am sure the novelty will wear off soon enough.

So after hearing that London Mayor Boris Johnson recently dubbed Amsterdam as ‘sleazy’, I could only cringe more at the embarrassment my home nation is causing. It made me laugh to hear that Amsterdam’s Mayor, Eberhard Van der Laan, responded with an open invitation to visit the city and witness exactly how the British tourists behave in comparison to local residents. Then Boris can form his opinion. It’s us who bring the sleaze not them Boris! My impression of Amsterdam was a city of tolerance and respect for its inhabitants. Some may call this loose morale and out of control, but I believe we could learn a thing or two from their culture.

What was my favourite place? Stedelijk Museum – check out Marlene Dumas
Where did I eat? Brix – a restaurant near the canal, tucked away from the tourists. I was lucky to be taken here by some old Erasmus friends who grew up in the city.
What did I listen to? MØ – I Don’t Wanna Dance
What was I reading? Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Stedelijk and dinner at Brix

Playing with lego at the Stedelijk and a cosy dinner at Brix