Saturday, 29 November 2008

Another Czech obsession :-) biscuit baking

If you go to any supermarket in Czecho now, you will notice shoppers, especially women of all ages, shapes, class and persuasion, pushing trolleys piled high with flour, butter, cocoa, nuts, and lots of sugar. Why? Because it's time for baking. No matter how modern, stressed, low or high-flying, and no matter that every year they vow never to do it again, Czech women simply have to spend hours and days baking Christmas biscuits. It's a highly competitive sport: they compete how many different kinds of biscuits they'll make, and how delicious they are. Family recipes are kept secret, and exchanging them is a mark of the closest friendship and trust.
The biscuits have to be made this far in advance, because a/ they do take an inordinate amount of time, and b/ because they need to 'ripen' for at least a couple of weeks before they are eaten. They are stored in containers where they get a moist quality - quite different to the crispy kind of biscuit we like to crunch in Britain.
When it gets to Christmas and people visit their friends and relations, it is always with a container in hand - a ritual of tasting then ensues, comparing the hostess' biscuits with the visitor's, and counting the many varieties on offer, with much oo-ing and aaaah-ing. By the end of the holiday everyone gets to the point of not wanting to see another biscuit ever again - until next Christmas, when it all starts again.
The greatest faux-pas is to come visiting with a bought collection of biscuits. And so even single men often get down to baking - some of the best biscuits I've tasted come year after year from my 60 year old brickie :-)

I've decided to break the taboo and give you a few recipes - starting with my favourite, Vanilla sticks. Very easy to make, and simply delicious:

Vanilla sticks - Christmas recipe 1
200g ground almonds
200g butter (unsalted)
200g flour
200g icing sugar
1 sachet vanilla sugar
2-3 egg whites
lemon peel, finely grated

Mix it all together, do not work the pastry too hard or the result won't melt in the mouth quite so perfectly :-) let it rest for 15-30 minutes, then gently roll finger-thick long 'snakes', and cut them into 3-4 cm pieces. You can leave these pieces as sticks or shape them to 1/2 moon-shapes. You can even gently roll the pastry out to about 4mm thick and cut out biscuits shapes. But whatever shape you make them, they taste simply heavenly!
Sprinkle on a little bit of icing sugar for coating once baked, and while still hot.
Put the biscuits in an airtight box for at least a week before serving.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Krumlov's first snow

This is what we've woken up to this morning: Krumlov is dusted in snow and from the open bedroom window one can hear excited children's voices. There is clearly something magical about first snow, every time. I am sure we all feel it, and carry that childlike excitement well into adulthood - I certainly do. Is it the way the air feels - so clean and fragrant, or the whole landscape - white and still and innocent.. I don't know, some kind of promise of everything being OK, gentle, and sweet. And while one can get snow in Britain too, there it often comes together with grey skies and with wind blowing in from the coasts. What is special about here is that we are far away from the sea, a little country protected by mountains, so there is hardly a breeze and the sun tends to come up straight after the snowfall. And indeed, the sun is coming through as I write and I am looking forward to leaving all work be and getting out, into the fresh air, to walk on the new white carpet and to breathe in that lovely stillness and beauty. Wow. Forgive the eulogy, but it comes straight from the heart, can't help it :-)
ps (added this afternoon) went to Olsina Lake House: seems Winter has set in here too, but the septic tank hasn't yet arrived so it looks like we'll have to wait till the Spring before it gets put into the ground. Unless there is a thaw! But hey, the snow makes everything so pretty, and it was lovely to have a walk around the white shores of the lake, so who cares.

Friday, 14 November 2008

forest house update - windows

Just a quick update - the upstairs windows have been fitted! The carpenter did a good job. Obviously the brickies and the roofers will need to come back to finish the work off, but not much left now before the house can be tucked in for the Winter.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

tree-lined country roads

As I drove to the Lake house the other day I was reminded, by seeing the last apples clinging onto a roadside tree, that I keep meaning to blog about this typical feature of the countryside. While the British roads have their lovely thick old hedges, almost all the minor, and many of the major, roads here are lined by - mostly old - trees. Now roadside trees are not something you wouldn't see in other European countries, but what is so special here is the frequency of them, and the variety. You get the giant lime trees or oaks along the routes that once were linking the important market towns, you get acers and ashes along others. Elsewhere you get liquid gold tunnels of beeches, especially colourful now in their Autumn glory. You see willows holding the road-banks in damp places, or tall poplars shielding the more exposed roads from the wind. But the most touching of all are the avenues of fruit trees that decorate the smaller roads, village to village everywhere: plums, apples, cherries, pears.
It is said that all these trees have a double function: 1/ to strenghten the road edges, and b/ to serve the travellers. Of course, in the days before cars, people used to travel more slowly, in their wagons and coaches, and so many just on foot. To markets, to work, to see the world. And the trees were there to shade their path from the sun, to shelter them from rain, and to provide them with sustenance. To this day, these trees bear their fruit for the travellers, but who needs shelter in rain-proof, air-conditioned cars, and who would eat the fruit polluted by so many passing exhausts? So the trees come to blossom and fruit, mostly to drop piles of rotting, unwanted produce - quite poignant, really. And there are many drivers who would have all these trees cut down. They curse and swear at them, because they slow them down, keeping the road span narrow, having never been intended for such speed. Indeed you see far too many little sad remembrance wreaths on the old tree-giants' trunks along the major roads, where two speeding cars coming in opposite directions had no room to move over and swerved head-on into the tree's arms.
But I do hope that the trees stay. And it seems that some local authorities here, including ours, favour the trees over the 'freedom to drive' too. I was very unhappy to see some giants felled on the road to the Mill but then, just a mile or so, I saw a brand new avenue planted, leading to the village where our friendly carpenter lives. So the tradition is surviving, and long may it live.

... and one more photo for those who may be interested how the Lake house is doing: currently it is a total mess of pipes, but it's progress : soon I hope to be able to report that the bathroom, hall and pantry are at the stage of rough finish. Watch this space :-)

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Forest house yields another treasure

You might find this very interesting, in the sense that I've never seen a picture in the churches here or any museum etc, of this kind of 'icon'. I'd love to know where the original is (does anyone know?) because this must be quite a rare print which was found in the Forest house barn when I was clearing out its attic store, which is full of old beekeeping equipment.
As you may know from my previous posts, Forest house has an abundance of bees, very friendly ones. The previous owner didn't bother about beekeeping (or anything else for that matter) but the owner(s) before him, who left or died in 1973, must have been very keen beekeeper(s) judging by the amount of now frail and rotting hives and stuff in the barn attic, as well as the now rickety empty hive-shed in the far corner of the garden. As you may also already know I have been very keen to make sure the bees are happy in my new garden and made them their big water container to drink from, and generally I came to appreciate them, especially with the news that bees are declining in the world.
That's why I was extremely pleased to have found this picture. It has now been cleaned, restored and framed for me by one of my closest local friends - she is a bookbinder and restorer by profession.
She said that the patron of bee-keepers is St Ambrose, but after researching the web, I don't believe this is Ambrose as he seems more like Christ to me - any opinions on this? I would welcome feedback as I really have never seen this combination of symbols or attributes before.

Forest House news

As you've seen from the last photographs of the insulation installed, the latest is that the roof has been covered with a weatherproof cover as the building-site is now shut down for the Winter, apart from the new upstairs windows that will be fitted tomorrow.
The roof tiles will have to wait till the Spring.
I am now much happier about the end result, as it wasn't easy, especially where the new roofers had to make good over, or joining onto, the timbers that were done by the guys before them. But they did manage pretty well (see this picture):

There are still a few small problems to do with with the aesthetics of the finish (pic)
Other than that, I shall be looking forward to restarting the site again in April. In fact I'd like to get the barn roof done together with finishing the house roof at the same time, just to avoid any further potential problems! The plan is to get the future, bigger, barn roof fit snugly onto the new gable end, which is now at least 4 ft higher and much wider (as you can see from the photo on the top)
Meanwhile I should be coming back here to ski and to enjoy the Winter snow and sun, I hope.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Food - Italy v Bohemia

One of the greastest compliments I ever received was that my 'melanzane Parmegiano' would make an Italian mother in law jealous - this in Italy from an Italian who wasn't trying to chat me up. So speaking as an Italophile who spends time in the Czech Republic I have to admit to having a bit of an attitude problem to Czech food. It's the absense of fresh veg in the restaurants which suprises me because the countryside bulges with fresh produce. Every back garden has fruit trees, soft fruit and a vegetable patch; the small side roads are lined with apple trees dropping their crop into the verges; the forests are full of people foraging for fresh, free food. However, order a salad in a restaurant and more often than not it will be the ubiquitous combination of iceberg lettuce, watery tomatoes and bland cucumber. (We asked a restaurant friend why he never had any of the wild funghi on his menu in autumn. He shrugged and said well, he wouldn't be able to get them all year - try that excuse in Italy! Perhaps it's the menu printing costs, perhaps there are laws regulating what can be offered in restaurants. Does anyone know?)

There are certain dishes which give a glimpse of the potential of this fertile land. There's a garlic soup on the menu of many of the local restaurants, best served in a bowl made from an excavated loaf of sourdough bread. It's a thin broth, probably chicken stock with grated raw garlic added and then immediately taken off the boil, put into the bowl with a generous amount of stringy mozzarella type cheese and a sprinkle of parsley. This is a desert island dish or a last meal for the condemmed, so satisfying you feel you'll never need to eat again - until you get hungry of course.

If you are lucky you'll get with your fire-grilled meat a freshly grated heap of horseradish root and this will satisfy a full weeks worth of fresh veg cravings, and thoroughly clear any sinus problems. There's nothing subtle about this combination, it's a challenge to vindaloo fanatics, and the only solution to the burning sensation from eating too much in one mouthful is to breath deeply through a slice of the sourdough bread (mad but it works and you won't care if anyone is watching). The horseradish cuts through any fatty richness in the meat and seems to aid its digestion. This type of dish usually comes with a small garnish of undressed salad and on this plate it works, no oily dressing to add to the meat fats, just clean, fresh and crisp salad to clear the palate. I've had this more than once at U Baby in Cesky Krumlov, a pile of fire grilled smoked pork ribs, a heap of fresh horseradish (dug up that day from the cemetary according to the waitress, was she smiling?) and bit of plain mixed salad all washed down with a glass of beer. It was one of the most nourishing and balanced meals I've ever had from a restaurant.

I suppose there are many variables at play here, one of them being my own expectations of what constitutes a good, balanced meal and another being the ability to override ones expectations. One person's meat and two veg is another persons zapecene vepřova žebirka

Saturday, 1 November 2008

St Hubert's Hunt

For the Brits, this kind of 'hunt' is nothing like you might imagine. Here it's another of those typically laid-back Czech occasions for a fun afternoon out.
In the stunning setting of the Cerveny Dvur parkland, on a lovely Autumn day, today's programme consisted of an easy but entertaining parcour in front of our audience,
followed by a 'hunt' where we raced off, following the 'fox' through the hectares and hectares of the park, weaving fast through the magical landscape of majestic, ancient trees. Meanwhile the audience, not able to watch the horses, entertained itself by campfires and songs to guitars.
Lastly, and again for the audience's benefit, we did a relay race, and then a final blast of a mad gallop to capture the prize of a fox tail pinned high up in the finishing arch.
The prize fox tail did go to our stable, but that was the part of the event that perhaps received the least notice. Because the Czechs just love any excuse for being outdoors, really. Competition? Ambition? Forget it. Who cares who 'wins', the main thing is the sun's shining, families and friends get to meet up, and everyone's having a good time.

As I was riding, I couldn't take any photos, so I begged a few from the onlookers. I might get some more - meanwhile this as a taster.