Celebratory event for Butterfly on September 15!

So this is coming on September 15th, the fabulous online event celebrating the release of my audio novel for adults, A Hundred Words for Butterfly! Join us to celebrate, with special guests including me, the wonderful voice artist Sarah Kennedy (pictured below, she narrates the audiobook), and the winners and some finalists of the #100Words4Butterfly writing competition. Come along (virtually!) for a super fun night of games, cocktails (including the one below!), readings and more!

Zoom link to come. You can register your interest right now at the Spineless Wonders Facebook events page for it. The event will start at 6pm, Australian Eastern Standard Time.

Interview with designer Bettina Kaiser

Artist and designer Bettina Kaiser created the beautiful cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. Today I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog for a behind-the-scenes interview.

Bettina, tell us about your process in creating the cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. What preparations did you have to make? What stages did the work go through? What inspired you? And what materials/media did you use?

I really enjoyed reading your book. Currently we are in COVID lockdown, and so the timing was perfect to let myself be transported to Basque country through the story. As I was reading it, I was also researching the places online: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a beautiful little town and the place where most of the story takes place. The Camino de Santiago and the rolling hills and picturesque Basque countryside it covers. I then allowed myself to get lost a little in Basque traditions. The colours of the houses and window frames, the tricoloured flag, the beret, incredibly delicious looking food.

I empathised with all three characters in the story as well: Alex walking the trail (I love walking), Helen being the illustrator and loving to draw (a fellow artist), and Tony researching his family (an interest I share).

From there I had a few creative ideas of what the cover could look like. Conceptually, they were based on elements in the story that I found significant: the cobblestone streets, the wayfinding symbols of the Camino, Basque colours and symbols, but also the family photos that you sent me and the more recent photos from your visit there.

The art materials I used were just what I had on hand in the studio: acrylic paint, ink, gouache, paper scraps. From there I put together a few layouts to explore three main concepts: picking up the title, the butterflies, and doing a flat lay with other aspects of the interwoven stories, the cobblestones causing Helen’s fall but also representing the path, the Camino, and the twin sisters, one staying inside watching through the window, the other walking on a path.

What were the challenges? And the pleasures?

As with any book cover, my aim is to capture the essence of the book. I always also need to know that you, the author, are 100% behind it. At the end of the day, it is their book, your book, and I would not want to force the cover design “onto” it or indulge in some design folly that is just exciting for me as an artwork on its own. It needs to fit. But it took me a while to find what the essence is for me in your story.

What has now become the cover was pretty early on my favourite, and the more I tried to work on alternative ideas, the more I was drawn back to the actual artwork that we chose. I re-read passages of the book and realised how the stories of the three characters are so intertwined, and also link each character’s past, present and future. The other (unfinished) artwork concepts simply felt too one-dimensional. In my head I even likened this to one of those pinboards in a murder investigation with all the suspects, witnesses, and places, and the threads joining them. That was what I wanted to have the artwork reflect: old and new stories spanning continents. Stories that touched, overlapped, merged.

Then came a tricky point in the process where I was really loving that idea and artwork (which is almost exactly what we have now), but I laboured over other concepts, as I did not want to present you with just one option in a kind of take it or leave it way. But I really felt strongly about the concept and liked it visually too. So, after a few days of mulling it over, I decided that I will show you this artwork and explain with some images and words the ideas/concepts for alternative covers to see what you think. Well, it sure was nice when you concurred, and only a few hours later your very enthusiastic “YES! This is it!” came back.

Your novella was perfect for my lockdown escapism. I really enjoyed allowing myself to mentally wander into the ancient streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, to dream of faraway places, and to find out more about the Camino and Basque culture. It lifted me up and touched so many interests of mine though the different characters. I really very much enjoyed the video chat we had initially, and you telling me about your Basque family connections and getting to know you.

What do you, as both a designer and a reader, see as the most important things for authors and publishers to consider, when it comes to commissioning book covers?

I think authors in particular need to have a lot of trust to put their work, which they have laboured over for so long, and that often is so personal, into an artist’s hand to create the cover. I encourage authors and publishers to look at previous artwork that a prospective book cover designer has created (a good start is our industry organisation Australian Book Designer Association’s directory) and see if they like the general style and design approach.

While the publisher needs to keep their eye on a certain overarching style and standard for their publications, I personally do love that I can more often than not work directly with “my authors”, get to know them and get them to tell me what their work is about, what matters and where their focus is.

As in many things in life, trust and mutual appreciation is key. Many publishers work with a regular stable of illustrators and designers whom they entrust their publications to. I have been lucky to have worked with Bronwyn Mehan and Spineless Wonders on so many projects over the past decade and to have been given a lot of creative freedom. Plus, I am very happy to have often worked directly with the authors.

My pet hates are design for design’s sake (the self-indulgent kind), style trends in book covers. So, dear publishers and authors, I’d say watch out for that!

Does creating a cover for an audio book differ from that for a print or ebook? If so, in what way?

The short answer is no. It is just a different shape, and many projects that I work on need the artwork to be converted into all kinds of formats, ranging from eBook covers to website banners and more. So it is a style, a materiality and elements that you design, and then it is rolled out to different media. In fact, your story, whilst first published as an audio book (I love that format by the way), will also be available now as an eBook by Spineless Wonders.

You work in a number of art and design fields aside from books. Tell us about some of the other things you do.

I consider myself a “Jill of many trades”.

I like the explorative, conceptual aspects of design, but I do have a lot of bread-and-butter jobs that are layouts, websites, logo designs and the like. But I am also an artist and have a separate practice in my small studio – no screens allowed there – just for my art projects. I recently had an exhibition that featured prints, mixed media works, and installations around the current climate crisis and us humans in the environment.

(Book) cover design is where I work across both disciplines. I love it. I love working with authors, I love books and stories, and I love that each one needs their unique artwork. Often I experiment with materials and collages and photos in my studio, and I sometimes do hand lettering, as I did for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. I then photograph or scan it, bring it together on screen, manipulate it if needed, mix, cut, paste, experiment, tinker with typography. It brings it all together and as I mentioned earlier, I am so grateful to be given a lot of trust and creative freedom.

Websites:

design = www.bkad.com.au
art = www.bettinakaiser.com

Cover reveal of A Hundred Words for Butterfly!

I am absolutely delighted to reveal the gorgeous cover of my upcoming audiobook, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, which will be published by Spineless Wonders Audio in just a couple of weeks: September 13. Isn’t it beautiful!

The cover is designed by the wonderful Bettina Kaiser, and later this week I’ll be publishing a fascinating interview with her about how she went about creating it. Today is all about celebrating an important milestone in the journey of my book: and I’m so thrilled about just how strikingly Bettina has captured the essence of the feeling and atmosphere of A Hundred Words for Butterfly!

The ttoro recipe from my Basque cookalong Live

My Basque cookalong Live happened last night over Spineless Wonders Facebook and Zoom, and it was a lot of fun! I introduced people to the Basque country, or at least our family’s part of it, told stories–about my upcoming book, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, about my family and even told a Basque fairy tale!–and of course, I also cooked! The cookalong was built around creating the delicious Basque fish soup known as ‘ttoro’ (pronounced ‘tioro’) which is both delicious and easy to make, and judging from people’s messages afterwards, with accompanying photos, it was indeed deemed both by those who joined in the cookalong!

I thought today I’d put up my recipe so anyone who missed the cookalong can still make it if they want.

Ttoro soup from St Jean de Luz

(Basque fish soup)

This gorgeous but easy-to-make fish soup originates from the fishing port of St Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country, but is popular all over the Basque coast. You can find it in restaurants and in homes—everyone has their own version. My mother, who came from Biarritz, had her own, and this recipe is inspired by her gorgeous creation. And like all ttoros, it features the ‘magic ingredient’ of the Basques: piment d’Espelette, which comes from the lovely hills farms around the picturesque small town of Espelette, 24 kms inland from Biarritz. This delicious red pepper powder has a unique flavour, both warmly spicy and piquantly sweet and fruity, which is the reason why this traditional Basque spice has its own AOP appellation in France (the peppers can only be grown in the area around Espelette). Its gorgeous colour also imparts a beautiful red to the soup. You can easily obtain it online: in Australia, order from the Culinary Club or The Essential Ingredient. However, if you can’t get piment d’Espelette, use a god hot paprika(non-smoked). It won’ be quite the same, but it will still be pretty nice.

So for two people, you’ll need:

*Two tomatoes, chopped

*One red capsicum, chopped

*One medium onion, chopped

*Four cloves garlic, sliced

*Olive oil

*Salt

*Piment d’Espelette or paprika(as above)

*Two fillets of fish, cut into pieces(your choice of fish)

*Around 8-10 prawns, peeled and cooked

*A bit of any other seafood you fancy: eg mussels, squid, scallops, etc

(To make it really easy you can simply use a good marina mix)

*3-4 cups of pre-prepared seafood/fish stock (home-made with fish heads/prawn shells, quickly fried with olive oil, salt and piment d’Espelette, then covered with water and boiled for about 20 mins, left to stand till used, then strained. Or you can simply use fish/seafood stock cubes)

Method:

In a good-sized pan, fry the onions and garlic in olive oil till starting to soften. Add the tomatoes and capsicum, stir, add salt and half a teaspoon of piment d’Espelette or paprika, and leave to cook for about 5-6 mins with lid on. Then pour in the hot stock, and allow to cook at a simmer for a further 5-6 mins, to absorb the flavours. Then add the pieces of raw fish, and cook for 2-3 mins. Add the rest of the seafood, including the prawns. Cook for about another 2-3 mins, at a simmer. Sprinkle more piment d’Espelette in. Taste, add salt if necessary. Then take off stove, and serve with bread! The soup also keeps well overnight in the fridge—you can eat the delicious leftover soup, heated up, the next day!

Join the watch party for My Basque Country!

At 5.30 pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on my You Tube channel, I’m premiering My Basque Country, a little video clip I made, which is about what the Basque country means to me. It’s linked to my audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly (coming out in September with Spineless Wonders Audio ) and gives you a bit of an insight into the setting of the story and my own strong connections to it.

It’s going to premiere at 5.30, and isn’t livestreamed, but I’ll be online at that time to answer questions and interact in the comments. All invited! Below is the link for the watch party. Hope you can join us!

And if you can’t–well the video will be available to watch on my channel any time after 5.30 pm today.

Fun writing comp, #100words4butterfly

I am absolutely delighted to announce that today Spineless Wonders Audio, who are publishing my audio novel A Hundred Words for Butterfly(which will be out on September 13)are launching a fabulous writing competition linked to the novel. Called #100words4butterfly, it invites people to create ‘100 of your best words’, whether that be micro stories, poems, songs, etc, around four intriguing writing prompts: Pilgrimage; Fork in the Road; Blast from the Past; and Confession. (All the prompts gesture back to themes/motifs in the novel). And there must also be a reference to food and drink in each piece, as that too is a feature of the novel 🙂

The comp is free to enter (via Submittable), and the prizewinners in each category will each win a copy of the audio book of A Hundred Words for Butterfly, while both winners and runners-up will have their work published in a special ebook created for the occasion, as well as being invited to read their work at a fantastic online event celebrating the release of the novel.

Head over to the competition page here for all details. Have fun–and good luck!

Simple Basque food: part 3

Today I’m posting the recipe for the final part of our Basque-themed meal. It’s probably the most famous dessert in the French Basque country, and is known simply as ‘Gateau Basque’. In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters enjoy a slice or two of it more than once!

Rather than a ‘cake’ as such, the Gateau Basque is a pie with a yummy buttery, eggy pastry, filled with a lovely egg custard flavoured with rum. There’s also a less common black cherry-filled version in some areas of the Pays Basque which are known for their cherries. Today, the pastry sometimes incorporates almond meal as well as flour, but it’s more traditional not to use it, as almonds are not a traditional part of Basque cooking. But it’s up to you!

Found on family and celebration tables and in every patisserie across the region (with people flocking to the best examples of it in town and village patisseries and fervently discussing the relative merits of each!) it’s both simple and utterly delicious, a real treat to make and to eat!

Gateau Basque (this recipe serves 6-8 people)

Ingredients for the pastry: 300 g self-raising flour (or plain flour with one teaspoon baking powder), 125 g unsalted butter (chopped into pieces), 220g caster sugar, 3 egg yolks, grated zest of one lemon

For the custard cream: ¼ litre milk, 25 g plain flour, 60 g sugar, 3 egg yolks, one tablespoon rum

Method for the pastry:  In a bowl, tip in the flour, make a well in the centre, add the chopped butter, the egg yolks, and the lemon zest. (Also add in baking powder now if you are using plain flour). Mix thoroughly, working the pastry into an elastic, homogenous whole. (You can add a little water—a very small amount!– if you have trouble making it stick). Let the pastry rest for about half an hour.

Method for the cream: While the pastry is resting, mix the egg yolks, flour, sugar and rum in a bowl. Heat the milk to boiling point. Pour the hot milk onto the egg mix in the bowl, stirring the whole time. Tip the mix into a saucepan, and heat carefully, stirring as you go, till the mix is nicely thick. Do not let it catch. Turn off the heat, let cream cool.

Putting it together: Divide the pastry into two parts, roll out each of them to make two circles. Butter and lightly flour a springform cake pan, lay one of the pastry circles on the bottom, then put in the thick, cooled cream. Put the second circle on top, crimp the pastry edges together so cream is completely hidden. With a fork, score the top of the cake (without going right through), brush with a little reserved egg white and put in a hot oven for 30 minutes.

Serve warm or cold (the cake keeps really well–that is, if you can hold off eating it all!)

Simple Basque food: part 2

In a scene from A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters are in the charming village of Espelette and sit down to enjoy a very classic local dish: axoa (pronounced ‘atchoa’).

Traditionally served on market days, this simple and delicious Basque stew was popularised in Espelette, and in fact in recipe books is often called ‘axoa d’Espelette‘. This dish really highlights piment d’Espelette and in my previous post I indicated where you can easily buy it, but as I mentioned, hot paprika(non-smoked) will make a reasonable substitute (note that sweet paprika is too mild, and smoked paprika really doesn’t taste anything like the piment). The axoa really benefits from cooking ahead and letting it rest—for instance, you could cook it at lunchtime but serve it at dinner time. Even cooking it an hour or so ahead of serving and letting it sit will enhance the flavours. But don’t despair if you don’t have time–it’s excellent even if you don’t have time to cook ahead!

This recipe is my version of axoa, with a twist on tradition. Not only do I provide a vegetarian as well as a meat version, I use green capsicum (bell pepper) instead of the more traditional long pale green pepper (mild variety). Red capsicum however is a traditional part of the stew. And together they look just right, highlighting the traditional vibrant Basque colours of red and green! In the quantities given, the recipes each serve 3-4 people. (‘Axoa’ by the way means ‘chopped’ in Basque, referring to the meat).

Ingredients common to both versions: one large onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1 red capsicum, 1 green capsicum, olive oil, chopped herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf), piment d’Espelette, salt, 200 ml water or stock.

Other ingredients for meat version: 500 g diced veal (the traditional meat for this dish) or pork (which also goes well, in my experience), or 500 g minced veal or pork. Chicken could also be used.

Other ingredients for vegetarian version: 150 g soaked beans. I used black-eyed beans as they don’t take too long to cook (and we grew them!) but you could also use Lima beans (butter beans) or white haricot beans. Also, a bit of extra vegetable stock to cook the beans. If you are making the vegetarian version, cook the beans in stock first till they are at least three-quarters cooked, before adding to the basic mix to cook more.

So, first of all chop your onion, garlic and herbs. Deseed and dice the red and green capsicums. In a pan, cook the onion, garlic and capsicums in olive oil for 15 minutes then add the diced meat or the part-cooked beans, add the herbs, salt, and dash of piment d’Espelette. Reduce the heat and add the water or stock and cook at low heat, lid on, for about 45 minutes. The meat should be very tender but not falling apart, ditto the beans, and the sauce should be thick and reduced. After you turn off the heat, let the stew sit for as long as you can, before reheating, adding another sprinkle of piment d’Espelette, and serving with boiled potatoes or rice.

Simple Basque food: part 1

As I mentioned in my post about the piment d’Espelette last week, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting recipes for some simple Basque food, and thought I’d build it up so you could, if you want, create a whole Basque-inspired meal around it, similar to what my characters in A Hundred Words for Butterfly enjoy!

Today I’m introducing four simple dishes that can function either as snacks, entrees, lunch dishes or even grace a pintxo table if you want (pintxos are the Basque version of tapas). And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that pintxos are ‘Spanish’–they are found on both sides of the French/Spanish border, just like the people who make them, because they are Basque 🙂

I’ve made all of these very recently and the photos are all my own, so you can see they are definitely home-made 🙂 All are very simple, very quick, and and very tasty! By the way, they all include a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette–great if you can obtain some, for example here or here, and I recommend it for that characteristic Basque taste. But you can certainly use good hot paprika if you don’t have any piment handy.

So here are the recipes!

Garlic and egg soup: Garlic cloves (up to 6 for 4 people); stock (chicken or vegetable) olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, eggs(1 per person) salt, piment d’Espelette, slices of bread. Cook the whole peeled garlic cloves in olive oil till they are golden, then add the hot stock. Add salt and a sprinkle of the pepper. Add chopped thyme and the bay leaf. Cook, uncovered, for 30 mins then crack the eggs into the soup to poach them. Fry the slices of bread and cut up to make croutons. And serve!

Simple Basque salad: On a plate arrange lettuce leaves with slices of Bayonne-style ham (Serrano ham is fine if Bayonne ham is unobtainable), and slices of roasted red and green capsicum. Sprinkle a vinaigrette made of olive oil and white wine or cider vinegar over the lettuce, and a small pinch of piment d’Espelette on the ham. For a vegetarian version, you can use sheep’s milk cheese (such as Manchego) instead of the ham, and you can also add other ingredients to the basics, such as tomatoes, artichokes and asparagus. 

Fried sardines: You need fresh sardines for this (can be either whole, gutted and boned sardines or ready-prepared fillets). For 2 people, I used 3 sardines each. You also need an egg and some flour, salt, and you guessed it, piment d’Espelette! Beat the egg, dip each sardine in it then into the flour, making sure it’s all coated, then fry till done. Serve with a sprinkle of salt, the Espelette pepper, and either lemon or vinegar.

Mushrooms with garlic: In the Basque country, ceps or other forest mushrooms would often be used, but field mushrooms are also fine. Simply slice them finely and cook in a little butter for about 2 minutes, add crushed garlic, salt, some chopped herbs—whatever you have on hand (I used basil) and yes, a sprinkle of that Famous Pepper!

The ‘Famous Pepper’ of the Basque country

My audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, is currently with Spineless Wonders Audio in the early stages of preparation for production though due to the current Sydney lockdown, actual recording has not started yet. I’m using the time at the moment to put together some ideas for interesting posts about different aspects of the book, and right now I’m thinking of posts around Basque food. In the novel, you get to hear quite a bit about it–the delicious hams and cheeses and stews and cakes of the region, and especially the aromatic powdered spice known as piment d’Espelette (Ezpeletako biperra in Basque), which is an absolutely central ingredient in a lot of Basque dishes. With its rich, deep, aromatic fruitiness and mild to moderate chilli warmth, piment d’Espelette is made from the long peppers grown in only ten villages, centred on Espelette, in the northern Basque country(ie the French Basque country) . It is so highly prized not only in the region but in the whole of France that it has it own AOP designation(which means it cannot be called or sold as Espelette pepper unless it is made from peppers grown by accredited producers in that small region). The pepper has a ‘confrerie‘ or fraternity dedicated to it and its protection, and it is celebrated in an annual festival that attracts ten of thousands of people every year to Espelette. From the very simplest use, sprinkled on boiled eggs and tomatoes to its pick-me-up presence in unctuous meat stews and rich fish soups or mixed in sauces, pâtés, mustards and even chocolates, it’s a very versatile and distinctive spice.

In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, there’s an important scene set in Espelette, proud home of the ‘Famous Pepper’ as my character Helen jokingly calls it, and in this first post around Basque food I thought readers of this blog might be interested to hear a little more about that celebrated spice. And in future posts, I’ll be putting up recipes for Basque dishes, many of which feature the Famous Pepper.

L to R: brochure about the pepper, me and youngest son Bevis in Espelette a few years ago; and dried peppers in a shop in Espelette.

Originally brought back to the Basque country from Mexico around four hundred years ago, the ancestor of the Ezpeletako biperra thrived in the soils of its new home and over time evolved to develop new characteristics that marked it as unique to that region. At the beginning, it was its medicinal qualities that were celebrated, but it very soon became the preferred spice in many Basque homes, as a substitute for black pepper which was then very expensive. And soon it started to colonise Basque cooking, but it was only in the 20th century that its central culinary and cultural importance was recognised, and its uniqueness protected and celebrated. In France, you can of course buy it pretty much everywhere; but you can also easily obtain it outside of France. In Australia, you can easily buy the ‘Famous Pepper’ powder online: for instance I’ve bought it here and here. It’s not exactly cheap outside of France but it is truly worth getting, if you’re interested in cooking Basque food: you can substitute high quality non-smoked hot paprika but it simply is not the same, and won’t have the same authentic taste.

Typically in the Basque country, Espelette peppers are sown in spring, with seedlings raised under glass in April, and planted out in mid-May when the soil has warmed up. Flowers appear in mid-June and then the fruit starts appearing. It starts off as green and gradually turns a deep red and is harvested from August to October and either sold fresh or kept to be dried. For this, the peppers are harvested with their stalks, which are then pierced to allow for food-quality string to be pushed through–the fruit is then hung to dry. Sometimes a whole lot of peppers are threaded on long ropes which are then hung on the front of houses to dry: you see these in several places in the season in the pepper area, especially in Espelette itself! Against the traditional white and red houses, it looks extremely picturesque. (But though it is still done to some extent, these days many producers dry the fruit in the air, but under glass). Then comes the next phase: making the powdered spice. Basically, once the peppers have dried in the air, they are then dried again in the oven for several hours and then ground to produce a grainy deep red or orangey-red powder. There are strict rules around it: no additive of any kind is allowed, the pepper powder must only be composed of the unadulterated ground dried fruit and as well, there can be no mixing of fruit from different growers: each accredited producer must use only their own peppers. Finally, the powder must be hermetically sealed into jars(this is how it’s mainly retailed) or shrink-wrapped packages(this is mainly for the larger quantities. )

So there you have it: the Famous Pepper! Incidentally, there are five other varieties of peppers which were brought back to the Basque country, north and south, by seafarers returning from the Americas. These include both mild and hot varieties which are rightly celebrated in their own regions. But none has quite achieved the worldwide celebrity of the piment d’Espelette 🙂

From brochure on piment d’Espelette