Jan 202017
 

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Today is National Cheese Lover’s Day in the United States.  There are numerous food “holidays” of this sort in the US and I don’t pay much attention to them.  But cheese is worth celebrating. I’ve already given numerous recipes and ideas for cheese in past posts, so today I’ll just ramble on a bit about the outer edges of cheese lore, plus some of my own likes and dislikes.

As a boy I was more or less indifferent to cheese. In both England and Australia cheeses were fairly undistinguished in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic “cheddar” was the main choice. Originally, cheddar was a distinctive cheese originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village contains a number of caves, which provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese. Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century. A pipe roll of King Henry II from 1170 records the purchase of 10,240 lb (4,640 kg) at a farthing per pound (totaling £10.13s.4d). Charles I (1600–1649) also bought cheese from the village.

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Central to the modernization and standardization of Cheddar cheese was the 19th-century Somerset dairyman Joseph Harding who introduced technical innovations, promoted dairy hygiene, and voluntarily disseminated his modernized cheese-making techniques. Harding introduced new equipment to the process of cheese-making, including his “revolving breaker” for curd cutting, saving a great deal of manual effort. Harding and his wife were responsible for the widespread distribution of cheddar including into Scotland and North America and his sons, Henry and William Harding, introduced Cheddar cheese production to Australia and New Zealand, respectively.

During the Second World War, and for nearly a decade after, most milk in Britain was used for the making of one single kind of cheese nicknamed “government Cheddar” as part of war economies and rationing. This resulted in almost wiping out all other cheese production in the country. Before the First World War there were more than 3,500 cheese producers in Britain; fewer than 100 remained after the Second World War. This was the situation when I was born and remained for several decades. I thought Cheddar was just an undistinguished semi-hard yellow cheese (akin to what is called “American cheese” in the US). Not at all. Classic Cheddar made in the traditional way tends to have a sharp, pungent flavor, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm but slightly crumbly.  Delicious – but hard to find.  It is now, once again, made in the region of Cheddar in the traditional manner. The name “cheddar” is not protected by the European Union because the process has been so widespread for so long, but the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has an EU protected designation of origin, and may only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, using milk sourced from those counties. It’s worth finding it.

In my youth, at best, you might find 4 or 5 English cheeses – Cheddar and Stilton were most common, but you might come across Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Wensleydale or White Lancashire if you were lucky, so that by my 20s (1970s) things were looking up.  My father told me of legendary cheeses he knew of before the war, such as Dorset Blue Vinny, but these had long disappeared. Nil desperandum. By the 1980s savvy entrepreneurs and small farmers were starting to revive old cheeses and to create new ones.  Now there are over 700 registered cheese names in England (and Blue Vinny is in there !!). When I visit Oxford I always head for the cheese shop in the covered market to see what is on sale.  They always have something tempting.

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Nowadays in the U.S., Wisconsin is the heartland of cheese manufacture, and after decades of emulating Britain in producing undistinguished cheeses it too is in the business of coming up with new ideas, although it mostly replicates European cheeses.  Fried curds is a local specialty though, which I like, and sampled when I first visited when my son auditioned for a music conservatory in Appleton. Wisconsin also has an annual cheese carving contest, which I won’t say is the best use of cheese, but does produce some interesting works.

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Soon after my brush with Wisconsin cheese I moved to Argentina where cheese production has a long, but mostly unknown, history of cheese manufacture.  I’d known about Argentine green Sardo for many years before I moved to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard grating cheese that originated in Italy but evolved in the dairy lands of Argentina, as did the most popular cheese, Cremosa.  Generally Argentine cheese, like U.S. cheese, replicates the cheeses of Europe, some of quite high quality.  Argentine Roquefort was a favorite of mine for several years.

Moving to China meant moving to a cheese wasteland.  The Chinese are mostly lactose intolerant, so dairy products in general are not widespread. Yoghurt is common enough, but cheese is not very popular.  Generally my Han Chinese students were disgusted by the very idea of cheese — “Why would you want to eat rotten milk?” This from people who will happily gobble down stinky fermented foodstuffs that have been buried for years. Fortunately I lived in Yunnan where the Bai people have been cheese makers for centuries. I can’t say that their Rubing or Rashan cheeses are all that interesting but they kept me going for a couple of years.

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Then I moved to northern Italy and drowned in cheese for several weeks. I live near Parma and Gorgonzola and have made obligatory pilgrimages.  I’m not a giant fan of Italian cheeses, but I always have some mozzarella di bufala and Parmegiano Reggiano on hand, and usually keep odds and ends such as Provolone and Gorgonzola knocking around for lunch sandwiches.

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My recommendation for Cheese Lover’s Day is to wander outside your normal tastes. See what you can find that is new and interesting to you. I doubt that you will stumble on yak cheese (chhurpi), but you never know.  The Nepalese are starting to export it.

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Happy cheese hunting.

Apr 242016
 

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International Sculpture (IS) Day, is a worldwide annual celebration of sculpture on April 24 that was established by the International Sculpture Center in 2015 and is meant to raise awareness, appreciation and enjoyment of sculpture in communities across the globe. During the inaugural IS Day last year, over 50 events were held in 12 countries including Switzerland, China, Germany, England, Australia, Austria, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, and the USA. IS Day events include open studios, demonstrations, workshops, public art tours, open museums, brown bag lunches, sculpture scavenger hunts, book signings, foundry pours, pop up exhibitions, opening receptions, competitions, artist talks, and more. The International Sculpture Center website is here — http://www.sculpture.org/isday/

All my life I’ve lived and worked in places where public sculpture was the norm, and I’ll put a gallery of the pieces that have been an integral part of my life, at various times, at the end of my brief comments. Public sculpture as a fact of life reaches back into antiquity.  For me it’s not a question of promoting sculpture, so much as getting the public to PAY ATTENTION. But, I suspect that is a lost cause. Right now I live in Mantua where sculpture in the historic center is everywhere. Mobs of tourists snap photos all the time, whereas locals just go about their business without much interest in their surroundings. That’s normal. I very much doubt that having a special day devoted to sculpture will do much to change that.

To a large degree the location of sculpture plays a part in its reception and use. Placed in a park or other area of general recreation, it’s likely to attract attention; placed on a busy thoroughfare, it’s likely to be ignored by the majority. I don’t see how we can do anything to change that. Nor should we. What I would say, however, is that I feel better when I am living and working in areas where sculpture is all around me than in places that are generally devoid of public art, even though I am not always explicitly paying attention to it. It’s there.

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When I first arrived on the campus of the College of Purchase, State University of New York, where I worked for over 30 years, I was immediately struck – as is every newcomer – by the Henry Moore (Large Two Forms) at the end of the mall, site of the main academic buildings. It was kinda hard to miss. Students sat on, in, and around the sculpture on sunny days, and it always drew your eye to that part of the mall. It was, therefore, a tragedy when it had to be moved to make way for a new administration building. I’m not bemoaning the march of “progress” – the building was much needed, and the empty space at the end of the mall was the best place for it. But we all felt the loss, like the death of a dear friend. The Henry Moore (as we called it – few knew its name) was an active part of people’s lives.  I don’t see how you can legislate that. Location, size, design etc. all play a part. It is or it isn’t – but I don’t mind celebrating sculpture on this day. Here’s a gallery of a few of the thousands of sculptures I have lived with over the years in Buenos Aires, Eastbourne, Adelaide, Oxford, New York, Yunnan, and Mantua. A rich life !!

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Food sculpture is an important part of my life too, and I have already focused on it in posts in the past. For example, you’ll find my rapture (and recipe) on gingerbread sculpting here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/christmas-is-over/ and the recipe for a Jupiter structural cake here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/gustav-holst/  Have at it.  Here’s a gallery to inspire:

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Your turn !!!

Oct 012014
 

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Given that I am now living in China for a while (Kunming, Yunnan Province), studying Mandarin Chinese, this is the perfect day for a new post. I won’t be able to keep it up, but my faithful readers deserve something fresh. However, you can also go back to last year’s post as well and read about World Vegetarian Day. You guessed it; we will have a vegetarian Chinese dish today.

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-vegetarian-day/

The National Day of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated every year on October 1. It is a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was founded on October 1, 1949 with a ceremony at Tiananmen Square. The Central People’s Government passed the Resolution on the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on December 2, 1949 and declared that October 1 is the National Day.

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The National Day marks the start of one of the two Golden Weeks in the PRC. A Golden Week is a period of 3 days of paid leave for workers and the surrounding weekends are re-arranged so that workers in Chinese companies always have seven continuous days of holiday. These national holidays were first started by the government for the PRC’s National Day in 1999 and are primarily intended to help expand the domestic tourism market and improve the national standard of living, as well as allowing people to make long-distance family visits. The Golden Weeks are consequently periods of greatly heightened travel activity.  I’m very excited to be in the middle of it and especially look forward to the fireworks.

The National Day is celebrated throughout mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau with a variety of government-organized festivities, including fireworks and concerts. Public places, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are decorated in a festive theme. Portraits of revered leaders, such as Mao Zedong, are publicly displayed.

Naturally, food plays a big part in the festivities. Until the late 1970’s Chinese food was largely unknown to Westerners except for a few Cantonese dishes that were pallid versions of the originals – and still very common in Chinese restaurants in the West. But, magically, a few regional cuisines, such as Szechuan, began showing up, so that people outside of China could get a glimpse of the immense variety there was to be had. A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese, Shandong, Jiangsu (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Szechuan. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of ingredients, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle. However, it is also important to realize that just as there are French restaurants in Germany, you will find Szechuan restaurants in Beijing. All provinces feature the dishes of the others, but local styles predominate. Given that I am now living in Yunnan, it seems right to focus on that province, especially because the cuisine is little known outside of China.

Yunnan is in the extreme southwest of China and borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. As such it is ethnically diverse, and this fact is reflected in cooking styles. Yunnan cuisine is vastly varied, and it is difficult to make generalizations. Many Yunnan dishes are quite spicy, and mushrooms are featured prominently. Flowers, ferns, algae and insects may also be eaten. Here’s a little gallery from a recent trip to the local food market in Kunming showing some of the diversity of products, including live bee larvae.

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Two of the province’s most famous products are the renowned pu-erh tea which was traditionally grown in Ning’er; as well as Xuanwei ham, which is often used to flavor stewed and braised foods in Chinese cuisine and for making the stocks and broths of many Chinese soups. The most famous dish is Guo Qiao Mi Xian or Crossing the Bridge Noodles. (You can find the legend of the origin of the dish and a recipe here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/beijing-opera/ )The dish is served with a large bowl of boiling hot broth and the soup ingredients separate. The soup ingredients are served on a cutting board or plate and include raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats. Common ingredients include thin slices of ham, chunks of chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Once added into the broth, it cooks quickly with a layer of chicken fat and oil glistening on top. The soup takes a few minutes to cook, and it is then spooned out into small bowls.

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The noodle used in this and other soups is mi xian. The processing of mi xian in Yunnan is unique, involving a fermentation process. It is made from non-glutinous rice and is typically sold fresh rather than dried. At some street stalls in Kunming you can watch noodle makers at work as I did just yesterday.

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Fresh mi xian smells fragrant, different from other kinds of rice noodle in China and Asia. Mi xian is served in various ways, typically either in broth or stir-fried. When mi xian is served in broth in Yunnan restaurants, it is common for a range of individual condiments to be presented for the customer to add to their bowl themselves. Condiments typically include chile pepper (diced fresh chlle plus at least one or two prepared chile pastes, often mixed with oil), diced fresh chile, cilantro, garlic, pepper (both regular pepper and powdered or whole Szechuan pepper), salt, spring onion, soy sauce, tomato, vinegar and zhe’ergen (a spicy root common to southwestern China). At noodle stands in markets, customers are given bowls and can pick the ingredients they want from a huge array of meats and vegetables. These are then added to boiling broth with noodles. Without doubt, soup noodles in general are my favorite food and Yunnan style is hard to beat. I am really in my element here.

Adzuki beans, known locally as hong dou, have been used in Yunnan cooking for millennia. Here is a modified Yunnan recipe for stir fried adzuki beans and mushrooms. Obviously you cannot get Yunnan mushrooms (he said with a touch of glee) but do the best that you can. I’ve found that quite often I could get a variety of Chinese mushrooms in barrio chino in Buenos Aires, so I am sure you can find something appropriate if you hunt around Asian markets.

Stir Fried Adzuki Beans and Mushrooms

Ingredients:

1 cup dried azuki beans, soaked in water overnight and drained
4 tbps oil
4 green onions (both white and green parts) sliced into two centimeter pieces
1 red or green bell pepper, diced into two centimeter chunks
2 fresh red or green chiles, seeded and diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
15 assorted mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
½ tsp Szechuan pepper (or to taste)
2 tbps sugar

Instructions:

Place the pre-soaked beans in a saucepan and cover with several inches of fresh water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the beans are tender and their skins start to separate. My usual test is to pick out a spoonful of beans and blow on them. If the skins split, they are ready. Drain the water off, and then crush some of the beans lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large wok over a medium high flame. Add the green onions, chiles, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and peppers, and stir-fry for two more minutes until the mushrooms and peppers begin to soften.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the beans. Stir in the soy sauce, sesame oil, Szechuan pepper, and sugar. Simmer until the liquid has reduced enough to make the mixture fairly dry. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Serves 4