Word of Mouth TV: an interview with Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills

Today I’m delighted to bring you a great interview I recently conducted with writers–and now TV presenters!–Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills, who very recently launched a book show with a difference. The Word of Mouth TV concept combines some of Kate’s and Sarah’s favourite things: food, books and friendship, to create lively, engaging TV, delicious in terms both of body and mind! The first episode, with authors and husband and wife writing team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, was most enjoyable, featuring great conversation, yummy food, and great literary–and cooking!-insights. I loved it, and am looking forward very much to the next episode. But while I’m waiting, I thought it would be great to talk to Kate and Sarah about why and how they’ve put together this excellent show with film-maker Claire Absolum. Enjoy! (And subscribe to Word of Mouth TV You Tube channel and website–it’s free!)

Photograph of Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills by Claire Absolum.

Kate and Sarah, congratulations on the launch of Word of Mouth TV and the show’s first episode! It’s a fabulous concept–innovative and appealing, with so much scope for fun and warmth, and a great title too! How did you first come up with the idea?

Sarah: It was one of those ideas that took a long time to manifest. The idea struck me about six years ago when I was in one of my aimless dreaming phases. The idea kept revisiting me and I asked Kate about three years ago if she would be interested in doing it. We agreed it was something that the book industry desperately needed because there is so little good news and content serving this industry.

Kate: I thought it was such a brilliant idea, but I didn’t know how we would ever find the time to do it when we had such busy schedules. But we kept talking about it and tossing ideas around. We agreed we wanted it to have really good production values but we didn’t know how we would achieve that when we had no skills or experience in that area. Slowly the idea took hold of our imaginations, though. Once we had our title, it really seemed to come to life.

Sarah: We decided upon Word of Mouth as the title because the Sound Bites that accompany the show involve authors recommending the best books they’ve read lately and their favourite cookbooks – so viewers get their reading tips straight from the author’s mouth.

 Coming up with a great idea is one thing of course: bringing it to fruition quite another!  There must have been a lot of work involved in getting to the launch of the show. How did you get from concept to reality?

Sarah: Yes, well, the idea lay nascent for years because we were both writers and neither of us had camera or video-editing skills. Then former SBS and ABC producer Claire Absolum moved into my neighbourhood and we met through mutual friends. Claire was sitting with me on the day I called Kate: “Remember that idea we were talking about a few years ago about interviewing and cooking with authors? Are you still interested?” And to our relief, she said yes.

Kate: It was complete madness! I had such an intense workload and had sworn I would take on no new projects. But Sarah finding Claire just seemed like a sign from the universe. And I’d actually been thinking about how sad it was that there was no great book chat show anymore.

 Sarah: From there it was just a matter of putting everything together. We all have very complimentary skill sets. Claire obviously has the video production skills, I have creative direction and website production skills (I was a journalist for decades at Fairfax), and public relations, branding and marketing skills, and Kate had the contacts within the industry and styling skills from her time freelancing on magazines. And we are all reasonable cooks. We really liked the idea of three women working together to create the show – there is something magic about the number three. Perhaps we’ll be “Charmed”.

Kate: It just seemed to come together so well – I feel that we’ve found the sweet spot between people who love to watch cooking and lifestyle shows, and people who love to read. We’ve certainly had a great early reception!

The show has very high production values and works really well within its time frame. Not surprising, as you have such a skilled and experienced producer as Claire Absolum on board! Tell us what it’s like actually filming the show.

 Sarah: It’s fun and very tiring. It is only a 10-minute Youtube show but so much ends up on the cutting room floor. Particularly for the first episodes because we were a bit nervous and if it wasn’t one of us making bloopers, it was the other. Or the dog would start whining, or the neighbour would start up with a drill. It seemed a process of endless takes. We are still trying to hone the process.

Kate: We are really learning on the job, aren’t we, Sarah? It took us a while to work out a template for the show, and a balance between the cooking, the eating and the talking. We’ve learnt a huge amount in just a few months.

Sarah: It is also difficult because we all live so far away from each other (about two hours) and we are trying to shoot Word of Mouth TV in our spare time. On the upside, the food is divine and we are collecting recipes for a cookbook at the end of the year. And the champagne … it speaks for itself!

How do you go about choosing books, writers–and recipes? 

Sarah: Kate is plugged into the writing industry so this is her task. We try to interview a mix of authors from all different genres and levels of experience, and Kate is the best positioned to know who are likely to be producing good books.

Kate:  It helps that I have so many friends in the industry, and that I read so much anyway. It means I have a good general knowledge of who is launching new books and whether or not our audience is likely to be interested in it.

Sarah: If we don’t personally like the book, we don’t feature it because we have to review it and we want to be kind in our reviews – we are, after all, authors ourselves. We understand how much heart and soul goes into the production of a novel.

Kate: Our aim is to celebrate books and reading and writing, and to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone. This is after all, one of the great benefits of belonging to a book club.

Sarah: I occasionally suggest books that I think will fit the show too. We also recommend cookbooks on every episode. That process is pretty simple. We both have some well-used and well-loved cookbooks. Then we ask the authors to recommend their favourite books read lately and their favourite cookbooks.

Your motto is ‘food, books and friends’hip: it’s the perfect nurturing combination. What are you hoping viewers will get from it? And what’s the response been so far?

 Sarah: So far everyone who likes books has been really encouraging. We are steadily building a subscription base to the Youtube channel, the website, and to social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook. The authors have been incredibly supportive as well. Mind you it is fun to be wined and dined and have the opportunity to talk about your book, and the subject of books generally, all at once.

 Kate: We hope to become an integral part of the Australian literary scene, a show that bookworms will love and recommend to their friends to watch. The show comes out every fortnight, so that means we are recommending books twice a month – our hope is that Book Clubs will start watching it together, or using it to help them choose books to read, or simply enjoy what we do on a regular basis.

How many episodes are you hoping to make in the series? 

Sarah: The first season will be 12 episodes, seven of which have already been filmed and the remaining five of which have already been scheduled. Hopefully, by the end of that time, we will have a big enough audience, and sponsorship, to continue filming. We really hope this happens as we’ve had more authors asking to be on the show and they are all so fantastic that we want to interview them all.

Kate: We hope there’ll be many more seasons to come!

 Anything else you’d like to add?

Sarah: Well, towards the end of the season, if we don’t get corporate sponsorship, we might run a crowd-funding campaign. In the meantime, it would be great if readers could subscribe to our Youtube channel www.youtube.com/wordofmouthTV000 because we need 1,000 subscriptions under Youtube’s new rules to be able to earn money from the site. If readers want to hear all the latest news, views and reviews, then they can also subscribe to our website at www.wordofmouthtv.com.au We also have a Facebook and Twitter page that we are having a bit of fun with.

Kate: Every fortnight we give away huge piles of books to our subscribers who help spread the word about the show. We want to foster an atmosphere of joy and excitement about the act of reading, and to support as many other authors as we can.

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Childhood Christmas/Noels d’enfance: a bilingual memoir piece for the season

Today, in honour of the Christmas season, I’m republishing a piece which I wrote in English and in French (separately) and which first appeared in the now sadly defunct French Living Magazine several years ago. It’s about the Christmases of my childhood, which were always wonderful and set me up with a lifelong love of this beautiful season. I’m republishing the piece both in its English and French versions. And at the very end, there’s a recipe for the very simple and delicious Christmas log(Bûche de Noël) I describe my mother making, and which has stayed in our family as a staple of the Christmas table.

Merry Christmas, season’s greetings, and a happy New Year to all my readers!

Seeing Santa in David Jones, in childhood. I am at very edge on left, in yellow dress, Camile standing next to me, Gabrielle and Bertrand on Santa’s lap, and Louis at far right.

Childhood Christmas

Christmas! Even the letters of the word to me glitter like the candles that shone on the festive tables of my childhood. My parents arranged our lives to the rhythm of traditional festivals: Easter, Mardi Gras, the Assumption, All Saints: but Christmas was by far the most important festival in our family. It was an enchanting time, a time when fairytales and religious stories seemed to come together in a warm and joyful atmosphere.

In Australia as in France, our parents gave us Christmases both extraordinary and traditional; something that later, as a mother myself, I took enormous pleasure in continuing. Some things my husband and I changed; we didn’t do the ‘réveillon’, for example—but the memory of wonderful childhood Christmases was something I was determined to give our children.

As a child, I would wait for Christmas in a kind of dreamy impatience; every year it was the same and every year I would wait for each predictable yet surprising stage of the great festival. In Sydney, that would start the week before Christmas, on a Saturday, when my father would take my sister Camille and I to David Jones in the city. (We also went with Maman to see Santa with the little ones during the week). First we looked in delight at the beautiful windows with their traditionally festive themes; then we would go onside the shop to choose the beautiful dress that would be one of our presents—the only one not from Father Christmas. Usually, it was with my mother that we went shopping, but here it was my father who enjoyed taking us with him. (Later, our brothers and little sister were taken too before it all ended when we were teenagers.) Lace, ribbons, fine lawns, velvets, vivid colours, it would all be paraded before us then, once the dress was chosen(my father of course had the last word!) we went to the store’s restaurant for lunch, an unusual treat!

The Christmas tree was ordered that week but would only be bought home two days before Christmas. But even before that you had to get out the boxes of decorations, the crystal balls, the satin stars, the little wooden figurines, the little birds with silky feathers and sequinned eyes, etc, to make sure nothing was broken. There again it was my father who was the master of ceremonies—we were allowed to look with wide eyes but not touch. But we were allowed to hand him, if we were very careful, the lovely clay figures for the Nativity scene. That would be prepared a day or two before the arrival of the Christmas tree. First my father would choose large pebbles or rather small rocks, which he arranged in the form of a grotto—his theory being that was what the Biblical stable had been. The whole was placed on the mantelpiece and then twigs and dried leaves were arranged artfully around it to represent the landscape. Mary and Joseph were placed at one end of the mantelpiece, to represent the fact they were journeying towards Bethlehem; at the opposite end of the mantelpiece were placed the three kings or wise men, as they’d be studying the skies before the birth of Jesus, and a little closer, the shepherds would be minding their flocks on a rock which represented a hillside near Bethlehem. Every day, May and Joseph got closer to the grotto; but baby Jesus stayed in tissue-paper in the box till very late on Christmas Eve when he would appear between his parents, now firmly settled in the grotto. At this moment too the shepherds had come close, two angels appeared above the grotto, and in their Oriental corner the three kings began their long journey which would only end at Twelfth Night, Epiphany, January 6, when they would arrive before the grotto to give their gifts of gold and perfumes to baby Jesus. (A day we celebrated with le Gateau des Rois, the King-cake, where there was always a broad bean hidden—whoever found the broad bean was king or queen for the day, and excused from chores such as the washing-up!)

In Sydney, my father worked for a big French construction firm, and several years running, the company director and his wife threw a Christmas party at their gorgeous harbourside home in Point Piper for the children of employees, the week before Christmas. They stopped doing that when I was around 9 (no doubt because of the large expense involved!), but they were wonderful parties. Not only was there a huge and delicious afternoon tea, a gigantic Christmas tree, exciting games with great prizes, and a Disney film to watch in the home theatre, but happiness of happiness, each child had been allowed to request from Father Christmas whatever he or she wanted. One year stood out for me in particular: I’d asked for a bride doll; my younger sister Camille a baby doll. Alas! When she set eyes on my doll, resplendent in her white lace, she was furiously jealous, grabbed it out of my hands and decapitated it, from sheer spite! My beautiful doll Isabelle had to spend Christmas headless and had to go quickly to the doll hospital at New Year..

Christmas time at home was magical. A day before Christmas, the tree arrived at our place. That evening, my father decorated the tree and the eldest children were allowed to hand him the precious decorations: the fragile glass baubles, wooden figures, tin soldiers, silk birds, strings of glass beads and tinsel; the younger children could look but not touch. Once the tree was loaded with its lovely shining burden, we would stay there looking at it in wonder; hardly even hearing Maman telling us to each get a pair of shoes to put under the tree, ready for Father Christmas the next day. But if that day was interesting, the next day was the one we really waited impatiently for. For that day would be the day of presents, and of the réveillon, certain years; we didn’t do the réveillon every year(it depended on how tired our parents felt!) but it is that memory I want to evoke now.

All day, Maman would cook the food for the réveillon meal, and we would help her, or rather, we buzzed around getting in the way. If we were at Sydney rather than France for Christmas(which was more than often the case), Maman would adapt traditional dishes for a summer rather than a winter Christmas. She avoided heating up a house that was already hot with dishes that needed too long in the oven: so, no roast turkey or geese for example but a beef roast cooked rare or other such meat(the main dish varied from year to year)and no hot starters either, but good fresh seafood, oysters, mussels, prawns, crayfish. And though we always had a Christmas log cake, it was a little different from such cakes traditionally served in France; this one was not even cooked but made with crushed sponge finger biscuits, mixed with melted butter, a little sugar, an egg and hot strong coffee, shaped into a log, put in the fridge to set then later covered with melted chocolate and out back into the fridge till it was time to serve it. This antipodean Christmas log has also figured in my children’s Christmases, as I have kept up the practical and delicious tradition of my mother.

So, Christmas Eve went by in cooking and for us children in airing feverish theories as to what we’d find near our shoes under the Christmas tree, in a few hours. As to me, who clung fervently to belief  in Father Christmas and in fairies too till the age of 11 or 12,  I worried that Father Christmas might forget us or might get sick or have an accident in a sky that was so full of planes already! I was determined I wouldn’t go to sleep but would await his arrival that night; but every time, it was the same thing. We children would be in bed by six o’clock that evening; first, I’d not be able to close my eyes; then half past eleven would come, when our parents woke us up to go to midnight mass, and I’d always be surprised to discover I’d been fast asleep. We were allowed, before going to Mass, to have a peek in the living room where the glittering tree, smelling warmly of the forest, reigned, with, at its foot, a pile of presents. No way were we allowed to open them before mass; but what joy to see them there, and what exquisite torture was the wait!

Outside, it was dark, for it was midnight, but the church was full of light, the choir was singing joyful carols, baby Jesus smiled between his proud parents, and soon it would be the time for us to open our presents and to eat the magnificent meal Maman had prepared, which in the light of the candles looked like a royal feast. It was Christmas, really Christmas, a day we preferred even to our own birthdays–for not only did it last longer, but everyone seemed filled with a joyful spirit and all that was ordinary and humdrum and boring disappeared in a beautiful, warm and unforgettable enchantment.

Watching a film at the company children’s Christmas party, aged about 7. I am at far right at edge of pic, chin in hand, blue dress.

Noëls d’enfance

Noël! Les lettres même de ce mot brillent pour moi sur la page, comme les bougies qui brillaient sur la table de fête de mon enfance. Mes parents ont fait vivre notre enfance aux rythmes des fêtes traditionelles; de Pâques, de Mardi Gras, de l’Assomption, de la Toussaint, mais Noël etait de loin la plus importante fête dans notre famille. C’était une période d’enchantement, un moment où le conte de fées et l’histoire sainte se réunissaient merveilleusement dans une ambiance chaleureuse et joyeuse.

En Australie comme en France, nos parents nous ont offert des Noëls à la fois extraordinaires et traditionnels; chose que plus tard, mère moi-meme, j’ai pris énormement de plaisir à continuer. Certaines choses mon mari et moi ont changé; nous ne faisons pas le réveillon, par exemple; mais le souvenir de Noëls enfantins merveilleux est quelque chose que je tenais absolument à donner à nos enfants.

Enfant, j’attendais Noël avec une sorte d’impatience rêveuse; tous les ans c’était la même chose et tous les ans j’attendais les étapes prévisibles mais surprenantes de la grande fête. A Sydney, ça commencait le samedi avant Noël quand notre père nous amenaient, ma soeur Camille et moi, chez David Jones, à ‘la city’. (Nous allions avec Maman aussi avec les petits pendant la semaine voir le Père Noël) Nous nous extasions devant les belles vitrines avec leurs thèmes traditionnels de fêtes et puis nous rentrions dans le grand magasin pour choisir les belles tenues que nos parents nous offraient chaque année —le seul cadeau que nous savions n’était pas apporté par le Père Noël. D’habitude, c’était avec notre mère que nous allions faire les magasins—mais là c’était mon père qui se faisait une joie de nous accompagner. (Plus tard, les garçons et ma petite soeur y sont allés aussi.) Dentelles, rubans, tissus fins, velours, couleurs chatoyantes: tout le matin ça défilait devant nous et puis une fois la robe choisie(mon père ayant bien sûr le dernier mot!), nous déjeunions au restaurant du magasin, chose exceptionelle!

Le sapin de Noël lui-même avait déjà été commandé, mais n’arriverait à la maison que deux jours avant le grand jour; mais il fallait quand même sortir auparavant les boites pleines de décorations: des boulles en cristal, d’étoiles en satin, de petits bonhommes en bois, de petits oiseaux au plumage en soie et aux yeux faits de sequins, etc, pour être bien sur qu’il n’y avait rien de cassé. Là encore c’était mon père qui était maitre de cérémonie—nous avions le droit de regarder( avec nos yeux bien ronds!) mais pas de toucher. Mais nous avions le droit de lui passer, si nous faisions trés attention, les ravissants personnages en argile pour la crèche.

La crèche, elle, se préparait un jour ou deux avant l’arrivée du sapin. D’abord mon père choisissait des gros cailloux dans le jardin, qui, mis l’un sur l’autre, ferait fonction de crèche, ou plutot de grotte, endroit où, mon pere théorisait, l’étable de la Bible se serait plutot trouvée. Le tout était placé sur la cheminée, et puis on arrangeait des feuilles mortes et des petites branches, pour représenter le paysage. Marie et Joseph étaient placés à un bout de la cheminée, pour représenter le fait qu’ils eéaient en route pour Bethlehem; au point opposé, les rois-mages etaient placés, car eux étudaient les cieux avant la naissance de Jesus, et un peu plus prés, les bergers et leurs moutons etaient placés sur une roche qui representait une des collines prés de Bethlehem. Chaque jour, Marie et Joseph s’approchait de la grotte, mais le petit Jesus restait dans sa boite jusqu’a trés tard la veille de Noel, quand il apparaissait entre ses parents, maintenant bien établis dans la grotte. A ce moment là aussi se rapprochaient les bergers, deux anges apparaissaient au dessus de la grotte, et dans leur coin d’Orient au fin fond de la cheminée, les rois-mages commençaient leur long voyage qui ne s’achèverait que le jour de l’Epiphanie, le 6 janvier, quand ils arriveraient devant la grotte pour donner leurs cadeaux d’or et de parfums au petit Jesus. (Jour ou nous célébrons leur arrivée avec le Gâteau des Rois, ou il y avait toujours une fève cachée—celui ou celle qui trouverait la fève serait le roi ou la reine pour la journée, et dispense/ée des corvées telles que la vaisselle!)

Mon père travaillait pour une grande compagnie française de construction, et plusieurs années, le directeur de la compagnie a offert une fête pour tous les enfants d’employés, la semaine avant Noël; cela a cessé quand j’étais encotre trés jeune, vers 8  ans, et je m’en souviens que d’une de ces fêtes somptueuses, et cela à cause d’un évenement particulier. Non seulement y a t’il eu un goûter merveilleux, un arbre de Noël gigantesque, des jeux passionants, et un film de Mickey a visionner, mais comble de bonheur, chaque enfant avait pu demander au Père Noël ce qu’il ou elle voulait (c’était la compagnie qui payait).J’avais demandé une poupée habillée en robe de mariée; ma soeur Camille une poupée-bébé. Hélas! Quand elle a vu la mienne, superbe dans sa robe en dentelle blanche, elle est devenue jalouse furieuse, s’en est emparée et l’a decapitée, de pur depit! Ma belle poupée a du passer Noël sans tête et aller dare-dare à l’hopital des poupées au Nouvel An..

Mais la plupart de temps dans mon enfance, il n y avait pas de fête de Noël hors de la maison. Un jour avant la veille de Noël, le sapin arrivait chez nous. Ce soir-la, mon père décorait l’arbre et là encore les plus grands avaient le droit de lui passer les précieux bibelots; les plus petits pouvaient regarder mais surtout pas toucher! Une fois le sapin chargé de son beau fardeau étincelant, nous restions là tous à le regarder avec émerveillement; n’entendant presque pas Maman qui nous appelait pour venir chercher une paire de chaussures chacun pour mettre sous l’arbre, prêts pour le Pere Noël le lendemain.

Mais si ce jour la etait passionant, le lendemain, la veille de Noël , était le jour qu’on attendait avec le plus d’impatience. Car ce jour là était le jour des cadeaux, et du réveillon, certaines années. On ne faisait pas toujours le réveillon; ça dependait de l’année(et de la fatigue de nos parents!), mais c’est celui-la que je vais évoquer maintenant.

Toute la journée, Maman faisait la cuisine pour le repas du réveillon, et nous l’aidions, ou plutot, nous nous empressions de jouer à la mouche du coche. Si on était à Sydney pour Noël (ce qui était le plus souvent le cas) Maman adaptait les plats traditionnels pour un Noël estival plutot qu’hivernal. Elle évitait de chauffer la maison déjà assez chaude avec des plats qui doivent aller trop longtemps au four: donc pas de dinde ou d’oie rotie par exemple, mais un rôti de boeuf cuit trés vite ou autre viande rapidement cuite(le plat principal changeait tous les ans)pas d’entrées chaudes, mais des bons produits de la mer tous frais, huitres, moules, crevettes, langoustines. Et quoique nous avions toujours une Bûche de Noël elle etait un peu différente des bûches traditionellement servies sur les tables de Noël françaises; celle-ci ne se cuit même pas, mais est faite de biscuits à la cuillère reduits en poudre, mélangés avec du beurre fondu, du sucre, un oeuf et du café fort, le mélange arrangé en forme de bûche, mis au frigo, puis plus tard recouvert de chocolat fondu et remis au frigo jusqu’au dessert du réveillon. Cette Bûche facon australe a fait partie aussi de tous les Noëls de mes enfants, car j’ai gardé cette tradition pratique et delicieuse de ma mère.

Donc, la journée de la veille de Noël se passait en cuisine et pour nous enfants en tout cas en théories fièvreuses sur ce qu’on trouverait prés de nos chaussures dans quelques heures. Quant à moi, qui a cru fermement au Père Noël,comme aux fées, d’ailleurs, jusqu’a l’âge d’onze ou douze ans, je me faisais du souci au cas où le Père Noël nous oublierait, ou tomberait malade, ou aurait un accident, car, me disais-je, il y a déjà tellement d’avions qui sillonnent les cieux..Je me disais que je ne m’endormirais pas, ce soir là, que j’attendrais son arrivée; mais chaque fois, c’était la même chose. Nous, les enfants, étaient au lit à six heures du soir; d’abord je n’arrivais pas à fermer les yeux; mais arrivé onze heures et demie du soir, quand nos parents nous reveillaient pour aller à la messe de minuit, j’etais toujours surprise de decouvrir qu’en fait j’avais bel et bien dormi! Nous avions droit, avant de partir à la messe, de jeter un coup d’oeil dans le salon ou le sapin, étincelant de bougies, de cristal et de guirlandes, et sentant bon la forêt, tronait magnifiquement avec, à ses pieds, un déversement ruisselant de cadeaux. Pas de question de les ouvrir avant la messe; mais quelle joie de les voir là, et quelle douce tourmente, l’attente!

Dehors, il faisait noir, car il était presque minuit, mais l’église etait pleine de lumière, le choeur chantait des cantiques joyeux, le petit Jesus souriait entre ses parents ravis, et puis bientôt ce serait le temps ou on pourrait ouvrir nos cadeaux et manger le magnifique repas que Maman avait preparé et qui, dans la lumière des bougies, ressemblait à des festins de cour royale. C’etait Noël,  vraiment Noël ; un jour que nous préférions même à nos propres anniversaires—car non seulement durait-il plus longtemps, mais tout le monde semblait rempli de joie de vivre et tout ce qui était ordinaire et ennuyeux avait disparu pour le moment dans une féerie ravissante, chaleureuse et inoubliable.

 

Super easy Christmas log (needs no baking, can be made Christmas Eve).
As noted above, this was my mother’s invention, we had it every Christmas when we were kids, and I still make it every Christmas.
Ingredients:
1 packet sponge finger biscuits
200 g unsalted butter, melted
1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)
half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)
Cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.
Crush all the biscuits, add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That’s what you do then–shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can also decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, sugar holly, whatever you feel like!

How working in restaurants inspired Maggie’s Kitchen

Maggies Kitchen Blog Tour posterToday I’m very pleased to be part of a blog tour by writer and producer Caroline Beecham, whose debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen (Allen and Unwin), a most engaging historical novel about a most unusual restaurant, set against the background of World War Two, has just been published. In this interesting post, Caroline writes about one of the inspirations for her novel: and as a bonus to readers, provides a delicious recipe from the book!

How working in restaurants inspired Maggie’s Kitchen

 by Caroline Beecham

 Maggie’s Kitchen’ follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in London during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that develop with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refuge. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep open their doors.

Caroline Beecham pic12Real events inspired me to write ‘Maggie’s Kitchen’; I was intrigued by these British Restaurants that the Ministry of Food set up during the Second World War to help with the food shortages. I felt that there was a story there, but my first thoughts were that it would be too difficult; how would you approach writing about people living on rations and not getting enough to eat and make it appealing? It was my experience working in restaurants while I was growing up that gave me the answer; you become like a family, working as a team, building relationships with regulars, dealing with difficult personalities and daily dramas—even when its not wartime! You become part of a community and I realised that it was through this microcosm that Maggie’s story could take hold.

I still had to keep a check on the food descriptions though; it didn’t seem appropriate to give mouthwatering accounts of the food so I had to restrain myself there, and I hope that I got the balance right. The research for the book took a long time as I read other fiction and non-fiction books, trawled the National Archives in London and visited Islington where the novel is set. Working through the original Ministry of Food recipes was also time-consuming as they all had to be checked and I wanted to make them so that if anyone asked me I could say that I had tasted and tested them all. With the help of friends and family, they were all tried and some adjustments made; there is no powdered egg these days!

One of my favourites is the Crisp Coated Scotch Eggs recipe below. There was a requirement for fast food that could be eaten in a hurry, hot or cold, and the humble Scotch egg fitted the bill. The recipe is also appealing because it evokes the nostalgia of childhood. That’s one of the reasons that food can be so comforting; if it’s a dish we ate often as children then it can take us back. This theme of memory and food, and courage and food, is central to the book. The comforting nature of food is emphasized through Maggie directly nurturing Robbie with food, in the same way that she is able to offer comfort and food to the community through the restaurant.

For Maggie, the simple act of cooking is nurturing for her senses; even when she is trapped underground in the air raid shelter she is: ‘rubbing the sodden dirt between her fingertips, feeling the same cold coarse texture as if she were simply making breadcrumbs for shortbread or the topping for a fresh fruit crumble.’ And again, later on: ‘By the time she was at home in her kitchen and had taken the potatoes from her pockets and washed them, she was beginning to feel more settled, soothed by the restorative act of cooking.’ In a moment of self-doubt, when she is questioning her abilities, it takes Janek to remind her that: ‘In crisis we focus on what is real. What can be more real than providing people with their most basic need?’

crisp coated scotch eggsCrisp Coated Scotch Eggs

Ingredients:

4 eggs

450 g sausage meat

Flour

Breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 200°C/390°F. Hard-boil eggs and coat with sausage meat, moulding them into neat shapes. Dust with flour and roll in bread crumbs. Line a baking tray with baking paper and bake eggs until crispy. Serves 4.

 

·         Maggie’s Kitchen by Caroline Beecham is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

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Maggie's Kitchen Book Cover

More about the book:

Amid the heartbreak and danger of London in the Blitz of WWII, Maggie Johnson finds her courage in friendship and food.

They might all travel the same scarred and shattered streets on their way to work, but once they entered Maggie’s Kitchen, it was somehow as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

When the Ministry of Food urgently calls for the opening of British Restaurants to feed tired and hungry Londoners during World War II, Maggie Johnson is close to realising a long-held dream.

But after struggling through government red-tape and triumphantly opening its doors, Maggie’s Kitchen soon encounters a most unexpected problem. Her restaurant has become so popular with London’s exhausted workers, that Maggie simply can’t get enough supplies to keep up with demand for food, without breaking some of the rules.

With the support of locals, and the help of twelve-year-old Robbie, a street urchin, and Janek, a Polish refugee dreaming of returning to his native land, the resourceful Maggie evades the first threats of closure from the Ministry. As she fights to keep her beloved Kitchen open, Maggie also tries desperately to reunite Robbie with his missing father as well as manage her own family’s expectations. Until she can no longer ignore the unacknowledged hopes of her own heart, and the discovery that some secrets have the power to change everything.

More about Caroline Beecham:

Caroline Beecham grew up at the English seaside and relocated to Australia to continue her career as a writer and producer in film and television. She has worked on numerous productions including a documentary about Princess Diana lookalikes, a series about journeys to the ends of the earth, as well as a feature film about finding the end of the rainbow. Caroline decided on a new way of storytelling and studied the craft of novel writing at the Faber Academy in 2012. She has an MA in Film & Television and a MA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons by Sydney harbour. Maggie’s Kitchen is her first published adult novel.

ministry of war food

 

 

 

Edible art: Anne Spudvilas’ pavlova volcano

anne spudvilasSomething a bit different today!

Anne Spudvilas is an absolutely wonderful illustrator based in regional NSW whose rich, gorgeous work has adorned the books of many Australian authors, including myself. I’m very happy to say by the way that the original painting of the glorious cover she did for my 1993 novel, The Opera Club, adorns one of our walls at home–a very kind gift from Anne herself.operaclub (1)

And today, with her permission, I’m presenting on this blog as well as my A la mode frangourou food blog, another gift, another rich and gorgeous work, this time of an edible kind! It’s the pavlova volcano, and it’s absolutely spectacular!

From Anne:

This recipe brings back memories of two wonderful New Year’s Eve celebrations on the Murray River when i first came here.   Julie Chambers, director of the Art Vault where i did two wonderful printmaking residencies,  makes this as the ‘piece de resistance’ at her long long New Year’s Eve dinner table.

 My version of Julie’s specialty.  

Make three pavlovas. Home made are best and if they don’t look too flash it doesn’t matter.  Break them into large pieces and begin to construct your volcano using vanilla icecream and whipped cream to hold it all together. Add 4 punnets of assorted richly coloured berries.  Pour over two more punnets of assorted berries, pureed with 1/2 cup orange juice and 1 tbspn of liqueur added (i love Cointreau).   

 Ah yes, a million calories but SO delicious 🙂
Annes pavolova volcano

Introducing MenuChef: guest post

menu chef picCross-posted from my food blog.

Our whole family has always had a great interest in food and cooking, and my entrepreneurial nephew, Edouard de Martrin Donos(brother of talented Paris-based chef Alexis Braconnier) has parleyed that interest into a brand-new start up in Sydney with two of his friends: a company calledMenuChef, which offers an unusual new service, turning your home into a fabulous venue for a fine dining experience. To explain the concept, the story behind it, and what’s on offer, I invited Edouard onto the blog. Enjoy!

Introducing MenuChef, 
by Edouard de Martrin Donos

My story
My name is Edouard de Martrin Donos, I’m the CEO of menuchef.com.au.
I am a French & Australian entrepreneur, growing up in a large French Australian family that combined the best elements of a successful family reunion: extraordinary dishes & passionate entertaining dinner.
Food & cooking always took a big part of my life as well as that of my whole family (my brother is a celebrity chef in France). I grew up in a family where everyone knows how to cook and shares the same passion of multi-cultural dishes and flavour explosions to bring the true essence to our plates. We always have organised big feasts for family and friends when great food and animated debates were crucial part of these reunions.
I have built my company with two of my friends, Olivier and Chris, who share the same vision and passion of entertaining at home.
Our concept
We want to share our vision and change the way that people think of dining: why dine-out when you can dine-in?
At MenuChef we believe that professional chefs can get out of their kitchen and give you an exclusive access to their world. We want our customers to experience an extraordinary culinary and entertaining adventure in the comfort of their own venue.
What do we offer?
We offer a private & premium personal chef service where the chef will cook for you and your guests.
Also, we are offering some great culinary experiences to choose from:
  1. Romantic dinner to impress your special someone
  2. Cooking class where the chef comes to you and teach you how to cook your dream dish.
  3. Special events for a unique and tailor-made gourmet catering for any corporate or private function (High Tea, Wedding, Celebration, Seminar, Christmas party, etc..)
How does it work?
We know how tricky it can to host a dinner with the stress of cooking, organising and cleaning. This frees you up so you get all of the the pleasure and none of the pain!
STEP 1: Simply jump on the website, select your menu online based on your taste, inspiration and budget. Book your selected menu based on your selected criteria (cuisine type, chef, menu range).
STEP 2: Your chef will contact you and will do the grocery shopping for you.
STEP 3: The chef will come to your door at the date and time indicated on your booking and will cook for you and your guests.
STEP 4: Your chef will serve you and your guests and clean up before leaving.
How do we select our chefs?
Our chefs are selected based on their cooking skills and professional cooking CVs. We have a strict recruitment process that the chef must follow in order to integrate the menuchef team. The chef’s final selection is done with our critic’s team (Bloggers, critics and menuchef representative will validate the chef during a booking trail).
Once the chef is validated, the chef will establish his/her menus and will set up a profile visible on the website. After a final review, the chef is ready to get his/her first booking for menuchef.
For more details, visit us on www.menuchef.com.au or call us on 1300MENUCHEF (636 824)
Email: valetservice@menuchef.com.au (customers)

Picture That: Illustrators on food 3: Lisa Stewart

Lisa Stewart 4Today I’m featuring the touching, lively and beautiful work of Lisa Stewart, illustrator and musician. Lisa’s illustrated seven books, including five picture books and two illustrated books. And I’m thrilled to reveal that we are collaborating on an illustrated story together, to be published later this year by Christmas Press.

Lisa Stewart 2In this post Lisa tells us a bit about her journey to becoming an illustrator, offers a delicious family favourite recipe devised by her daughter Claire, and shares with us some of her gorgeous illustrations. Lisa’s website is at www.lisastewart.com.au

Lisa Stewart portraitLisa’s story

As a young mother, some 17 years ago, pushing my daughter in her pram to any paper, art supply, card or book store I could find I was instantly attracted to wrapping paper with illustrations by Jane Ray wonderful British illustrator and author). I adored her attention to detail and her animals, trees, water, sun, moon and stars. A new love was born, of children’s picture books and paper.

Later in Germany I sent a CD of mine (I play the violin ) and a letter of thanks to Jane for her artwork. To my delight she responded with five picture books and a glorious phoenix card of hers and a friendship was formed. Lisa Stewart love story 1
My family and I flew to England to meet her. Seeing her studio and her artwork (admired by her husband and her three children) framed and hung throughout their home filled me with joy. My secret dream was to become an illustrator and be like Jane.
The illustrative style I use came about during the creation of a 20 page wordless love story. I began to cut out hundreds of tiny pieces of paper and create images. Friends and family were represented as trees, birds, fish, dragons and whales. A broken heart became thousands of little flowers and the night sky a full moon on black rice paper.Lisa Stewart love story 2
With support form my dear friend Lynndy Bennett at Gleebooks, I sent some publishers a few of the pictures from the love story and had a call from Ana Vivas from Scholastic Press. We met and I got to send in ideas for a book by Kerry Brown called ‘Can I Cuddle the Moon?’ I enjoyed doing some little drawings and to my amazement was chosen to illustrate it.

My dream of becoming an illustrator has come true. Lisa Stewart 8

Lisa Stewart 1

Here is the recipe for  a favourite family dish, ‘Claire’s Nachos’,  that my daughter has been making  from around the age of ten. She is nineteen now.

Claire’s Nachos

Ingredients:
> 1 medium to large brown onion
> 3 tins kidney beans
> 1 tin tomatoesLisa Stewart 3
> 1 small tin corn (optional)
> smoked chipotle in adobo sauce or other chilli e.g. chilli paste
> 2 tsp cumin or premixed Mexican seasoning
> Corn chips
>
> for the guacamole:
> 2 ripe avocadoes
> cumin
> salt and pepper to taste
> the juice of one whole lime
>
> for the pico de gallo:
> 3 to 4 medium tomatoes
> juice of one whole lime
> salt to taste
> chopped cilantro(coriander)
>Lisa Stewart recipe
>
> Instructions:
> Dice onion and fry in vegetable oil of your preference until translucent.
> Finely chop/mince half a chipotle chilli and add it to the onion.
> Drain the beans and fry them in with the onion and chilli until the beans soften.
> Roughly mash the beans, then add the tin of tomato and the cumin.
> Add the corn.
> Stir well and season to taste.
>
> Guacamole:
> halve the avocadoes and scoop out the flesh into a medium mixing bowl.
> Mash with a fork and add the lime juice, salt, pepper, and cumin.
> Mix well. Lisa Stewart 6
>
> Pico de Gallo:
> finely dice the tomatoes, and place in a bowl with the lime juice, cilantro and salt. mix well.
>
> To serve, place bean mix on top of corn chips, with pico de gallo and guacamole on top.

 

Lisa Stewart 5

Picture That: Illustrators on food, 2: Beattie Alvarez

Beattie's rabbit familyCross-posted from my food blog.Beattie's flower fairy 1

Today I’m featuring gorgeous illustrations and a yummy easy recipe by Beattie Alvarez, young multi-talented illustrator, author, editor, toymaker, mother of two lively children, and passionate reader! She is also one of the team at Christmas Press Picture Books and at the beautiful toyshop, Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard.

Beattie portrait

Mi Goreng for the busy reader

by Beattie Alvarez

Too busy reading a book to do the shopping? Just got to the exciting part and don’t want to stop for long, but your tummy is grumbling? Want something hot, simple, and delicious to eat while you’re reading your book?
I have the perfect recipe for you!
Mi Goreng!
Most people have had this delicious noodle concoction, a favourite with students and people on a budget. They’re cheap, quick, and yummy. Most people have also gone to the cupboard in their hour of hunger only to discover that they have RUN OUT! Oh, the horror!
This happened to me yesterday.
It was a quiet afternoon and I was happily reading Harry Potter in the sun when I realised that I was drooling on it as I read about the fantastic feasts. NOT GOOD. Being the day before payday, my pantry was looking sad. What could I make that was warm and cosy and QUICK? I didn’t want to put down Harry for too long.
I found two sad looking spring onions, half a Spanish onion, tomato sauce, and manis (sweet soy sauce). And a ten pack of dry two-minute noodles.
Five minutes later (I kid you not!) Harry was safely tucked under the edge of my bowl as I wolfed down my meal. To be fair, mi goreng is not ideal for eating with Harry Potter. What you need with Harry are pies and puddings, cakes and sweets, hot chocolate, baked potatoes, and all those other fabulously English things. However, my meal was perfectly adequate and (with the right book) would have been perfect!  Beattie's mi goreng

Ingredients:
1 tbsp sweet soy sauce (manis – available from most supermarkets in the Asian food aisle).
1 tbsp tomato sauce
pepper – I used a lot, but some people would prefer less. Start with half a teaspoon and go from there.
Onions of some description
3 packets of dry noodles
soy sauce to taste
oil
egg (optional)

Beattie's goblinMethod:
1. Pick your favourite book. Get it ready for later.
2. Mix tomato sauce, pepper, and sweet soy sauce in a bowl.
3. Boil and drain your noodles
4. Finely chop, and then fry your onions in the oil until they are nice and crispy, but not burnt.
5. (optional) poach or fry your egg
6. Turn the heat off, throw everything into the frying pan and mix, adding soy sauce to taste.
7. (optional, but advised) transfer to plate or bowl.
8. Open your book and read while eating.
9. Go back for seconds if necessary.
NB. All quantities are approximate and to my taste. I don’t like things very saucy (read want you will into that statement!), so I used three packets of noodles. Some people would only use two. I also like quite sweet savoury dishes. If you prefer salty, then add more soy sauce or lessen the amounts of Manis and tomato sauce. And if you aren’t kissing someone later, fried garlic works well too.

Beattie's mushroom

Beattie's strawberry fairy