We’re about to greet the new year and I want to shout out a G’day from stinking hot Adelaide.
Don’t be fooled by the home-made version of our tree for this year… we’re not in gay Calamiac, we’re down here in Oz. And on the eve of Christmas, our family’s old tree, after 40 years, decided to hang up its boots – so Lilas and I put together a ‘Xmas Tour’! It’s a wonder what you can find in a shed full of old boxes…
And I must say it’s thanks to you, Mum, that we have a ‘tree’ this year. Much to my objections, you put up this tower, festooned with ribbons as part of the decorations for our post-elopement-wedding party. Did I squirm! – wondering what the Frenchies would think… But it was a hit, and thanks to you, it’s come out in full glory again.
One minute you’re here, in a flash you’re there and suddenly and wonderfully, it feels like you’ve never left. The brown grass is the same, the clean grid of houses is the same, Mum and Dad are at the airport to pick us up and cruise us home, their dog is at the door, all the smells are the same, the beautiful trees are the same, the coffee is a lot better than you know where… A lot of things have never changed and I love it.
But there is a weird part to coming back and this part is where you fit in with people. Being away for most of the year means you have to step back and accept the distance from these loved people on an everyday level. Sure, I make calls home and speak to my parents often, but it isn’t the same and I’ve had to sort of ‘train’ myself to endure the distance by allowing myself to let go. It’s too hard for me to keep it up 100% in two places at once. My heart is in both, but I take a step back and act less wherever I am not. Then suddenly, I come back and have to get a handle on my excitement – near-hysteria – over seeing all these adored people in person again. This can be really strange. I act either overwhelmed and vague or like a babbling idiot, wanting to toast every moment with everyone with gallons of bubbles. Not good for the head.
Look, sorry for the blah it’s hard to explain. I’ll try and explain it better later.
For now I want to celebrate having new eyes on home. Images and places I always took for granted seem to be so exotic now! Australia can be so tres chic – and oh so wonderfully tres kitsch. I always knew this I guess about home, but now I love it even more.
I’m starting to get the jitters about the plane flight – but HEY, I’m heading home!
I can’t get there fast enough, with everything that’s been going on… Just can’t wait to hit the ground, feel and smell the dry air and see all those beautiful eucalyptus trees and give my family and friends a hug (sorry for that cringe, but I mean it).
It’s a long long way to get there – a huge, bon voyage – and I’ve been revving myself up with some tunes that remind me so much of home (and hey, don’t get stuck into me that they’re not new – my finger’s not on the pulse anymore out here).
These songs are giving me a great buzz right now… but I’ve gotta say that sometimes some Aussie songs reduce me to a sobbing mess! (as well as all the others: Natalie Merchant, Antony and the Johnsons, Adele et al…). I can be driving in my car, playing the music real loud and suddenly I find myself choking with huge, involuntary sobs – a blithering wreck trying to see the road with tear-filled cloudy eyes. And I love it. I think of home, think of my family and have a great, big, cry. It feels SO good. I’m almost joyous. I’m sort of between happy, ecstatic, thankful and sad, all at once. And would you believe it, I’ve cried to Kylie Minogue and Tina Arena. Eeeewww. Better stop there.
‘Witlof’, ‘Chicory’, ‘Chicon’, ‘Endive’, ‘Belgian Endive’… I’m never quite sure what to call this vegetable. Each country seems to have a different name for it. In Australia for example, we call it ‘witlof’? Here in France it is called ‘endive’ and would you believe it has been grown commercially since only the 1930’s.
Whatever the name for it, since moving to France I have developed a huge liking for this interesting vegetable from the Chicory family. Thanks to Benji and his mum, I was introduced to a beautiful new ingredient and a few recipes that are now family favourites. Even our six-year-old loves eating them.
Endives are so verstile – they make a great salad when served raw with vinaigrette drizzled over it or, the particular family favourite, when braised with white wine and lardons and parsley, over a gentle heat for a few hours (the longer the better, you want them to caramelise!). You can serve this dish on its own or it makes a great side dish to lamb chops, veal or pork.
During the first few weeks of us living back in Australia in 2004, I decided to prepare the family favourite for our friends who we were lodging with. I was so excited to share this newly-loved vegetable of mine. After quite a search, I finally found them in a fruit and veg shop in North Fitzroy. I filled the bag, enough for four people and when I went to pay I nearly fell over. They were so expensive! I concealed my shock and quietly paid the money, vowing never again to buy this vegie in this suburb again. I at last appreciated why Claude (my Frenchie – amazing cook – friend who was living in Western Australia with his NZ wife), when he had yearnings for a good old endive dish, would only use three or four of them in a gratin. Braising them en masse was a complete luxury. Anyway – big sigh of relief – the dish worked out pretty well that evening, but not to be repeated for quite some time!
Here in France however, they are cheap and we eat them regularly, especially around October. A few years ago, I had to prepare a lunch at the last minute for some friends of friends travelling through the area. I added pan-fried chicken thigh fillets and julienned carrots to a pot of left-over braised endives and the result was really delicious. One of our lunch guests, the owner of a well-known bakery in Melbourne (yeah, not much pressure), was keen to get the recipe. High five! I was tres contente. I’ve been adding the chicken and the carrots for many a meal since.
But much to my husband’s relief (I’m someone that could eat the same dish 4 times in the one week if I like it), I’ve branched out and tried a new recipe – the traditional ‘Gratin d’Endives au Jambon’ (Endives and Ham Gratin). Once again, as is usual for all the recipes I prepare, this is pretty simple and easy to make. It is a particularly good dish for the Autumn-Winter months and with today’s maximum temperature reaching six degrees celsius, I think I should get to it and make some.
Here’s the recipe for you… (I should tell Claude I’ve finally made it)
Gratin d’Endives au Jambon (serves 6)
(note: my quantities are always on the generous side – I prefer to have left-overs than not enough!)
8-10 endives (depending on size)
8 slices ham
60g plain flour
200g Swiss Gruyere, grated (the AOC Gruyere ‘Alpage’ or ‘Reserve’ are incredible! – and even available in Australia)
1 litre full cream milk
Trim stems off endives, pull off any discoloured leaves, then cut in half (I do this to help with cooking them through and browning)
Fry the endives in a pan over a low-medium heat with a little olive oil. As they begin to brown (or burn!), you can pour in a small amount of white wine to keep the pan moist. Fry until golden/dark golden and moisture has evaporated
(NB: some like to steam or boil the endives to part cook them but I prefer to fry them as I find there is too much liquid in the baking dish later when serving)
+ Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (about 7 or 8 on my gas oven) +
While the endives are cooking, prepare the cheese sauce (I like to grate the cheese before beginning the sauce so that your hands are free to keep stirring – and ready to be added when needed)
Melt butter in large saucepan
Heat milk in a different saucepan (it helps reduce overall cooking time if the milk is warm)
Stir in flour with a wooden spoon and cook for a few minutes over a gentle heat, stirring continuously.
Once it becomes a golden paste, pour in heated milk gradually, stirring continuously
(NB: How much milk you add depends on how thick or thin you like your sauce – my husband likes it thin and runny but I like it thickish and runny – so you may want to use less or more than the 1 litre. Just remember it will thicken over the heat eventually!)
add salt, pepper to taste
Once it comes to the boil, add the cheese and stir until melted.
Remove from heat.
Oil a large gratin/ baking dish
Gather your endive halves, wrapping two halves inside each slice of ham (as though it’s a whole endive)
Place them in the baking dish and pour cheese sauce over the top – add a little extra grated Gruyere if desired