Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The most important meal of the day

Living away from Melbourne all that time allowed me to adopt a certain anthropological role during trips home, based on an observer-participant model. My field, it must be noted, was limited and specific and chosen after the fact. No preliminary research was conducted, no literature review undertaken, and few conclusions were reached. Despite this, I’m confident in staking my reputation on three observations made in Melbourne cafés between 1994 and the present.

The first is old news – that during the mid- to late-1990’s, Melbourne was gripped by a sticky date pudding craze. People were eating them, making them, talking about them. They’ve not completely disappeared, but have receded to the point of occasional menu item. I’ve wondered if perhaps the inclusion of dates (not your hippest dried fruit) gave the illusion of a healthy, fruit-based dessert? One interviewee conceded however the pudding as primarily a vehicle for the delivery of vast quantities of butterscotch sauce. Given my current Sydney location [ed. last week], it may be worth a quick local survey to see if the sticky date pudding made it this far north, but frankly, it’s too early and too pleasant on this tree-surrounded balcony to venture out.

My second discovery has been made in classic fashion. The pith-helmeted researcher, surrounded by natives, completely blind to all going on around her – that’s me. Admittedly, I’d noticed Bircher muesli on menu boards around town, but I’d dismissed the idea of ordering some brand-named oat-based product that I could easily eat at home. In fact, I remember being given a fancy jar of the stuff as a housewarming gift, which, deaf, dumb and blind, I ate straight out of the jar doused in soy milk. What’s all the fuss? I remember thinking.

I was about to write I said, realising in doing so that had I actually said something, someone might have knocked me on the head and said, Duh. Get with the program. And it is a program: Bircher muesli was first developed and prescribed by Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner for his sanatorium patients in 1887. Kitschenette notes that the original was simply a tablespoon of oats and a grated apple, but Bircher has gotten much fancier since then. I can’t stop eating the stuff, conducting compare and contrast experiments all over town. I almost ordered it at bills, only deciding at the last minute to go with the Ricotta Hotcakes on Miss Honey’s recommendation, rationalising that I may in fact be disappointed by bill’s rendition, so confident have I become in my own.

For weeks now, I’ve been buttonholing friends and strangers alike, asking for recipes, tips and memories of their first Bircher encounters. [My favourite: at a Swiss-run café in Coober Pedy sometime in the early 1990’s. Coober Pedy, for non-Australian readers, is an opal mining town in South Australia, in which the likelihood of finding a Swiss café would seem as remote as its location. Due to extreme heat, a large percentage of the population live underground.] Turns out, I had already eaten Bircher, without realising it at Babka some months back: I remember thinking, this is odd, but didn’t think to question. I’ve become such a connoisseur, that silently, in my own head, I use the proper German pronunciation: Beer-cher. Rest assured: I wouldn’t dare say this out loud.

MY VERSION (at present):

Rolled oats
Roasted almonds (chopped in quarters)
Pecans (sliced)
Sunflower seeds
Dried cranberries
Zest of one lemon
Tablespoon of lemon juice
Dash of vanilla
One grated apple

All this soaks in apple juice overnight.

In the morning, I mix in plain yoghurt, and berries if I have them.

1. I prefer currants to sultanas or raisins, as the latter plump up too much for my taste.
2. Dried cranberries are sold in Australia under the brand name "Craisins." They’re a new thing here, and I’m guessing that a marketing department somewhere came up with the idea to incorporate “raisin” in the name to give Australians some clue as to their use and and an idea of where to find them in the supermarket. Also, they’re crazy good?
3. I mix up a big batch of the dried ingredients every week or so.
4. Haven’t tried this yet, but I’m certain the King Island yoghurts would be delicious. (If you are in the United States, I’d recommend Brown Cow Organic Vanilla. Or Maple. I miss you, Brown Cow.)
5. Likewise, a small amount of berry coulis mixed in.
6. I like the unfiltered organic type of apple juice, the kind Americans call cider.

And finally, my third point of note: friands. They’re everywhere. Why? How? Where can one buy a friand pan? Stay tuned.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

They're called Craisins in Canada, too, but they aren't new here. Recipe sounds fantastic! I'll give it a go.
PS For Canadian readers: Liberty Yougurt. Un. Believable.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Ampersand Duck said...

The Sticky Date infestation was nationwide, and hasn't released it's grip yet. The other cafe scourge is pumpkin soup in winter. When I go to a cafe that has an alternative to pumpkin soup, I buy it on principle, to reward them for their effort.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the last few years of the 1980s seemed to be one soggy profiterole cake after another.

7:19 PM  
Blogger knitabulous said...

I love Bircher muesli too, and will be giving your recipe a go. Did you ever get your bush lemons for the lemon butter?

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And how *were* the ricotta hotcakes? I think it's the butter and bananas that really make the dish.

Also, I've seen friand pans around (but now can't remember where) and have them on my wish list of kitchen items. They don't exist in America. And I think it's the almond mealy goodness that makes them so special. They're denser than muffins or cupcakes, too. I love them.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Di said...

Excellent research- I love the thought of you conducting various scientific trials to establish your preferred Bircher recipe! I may have to give the Craisins a try myself- Mum (who found out about them in Canada) put me onto them recently. And Vanilla too, so indulgent! What a lovely way to start the day :)

And I have to say, I KNOW that Bill's bircher would have been up to your standards- the recipe I use is based on the recipe in one of his cook books, as adapted by one of my friends. So next time you're passing his way, feel free to give it a go. (or you may indeed think, "heck, why pay for it here when I can easily make it myself at home?!")

7:49 AM  
Blogger Kristen Doran said...

Love your observations and look forward to reading more.

7:43 PM  
Blogger lucy tartan said...

I think I've seen friand pans in House - anyway, the eyes will be peeled from this day forward.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SDP reared its gooey head in Sydney in the late 80s. I distinctly remember eating a particularly fine version at the Kellett St institution Dean's Verandah for more than one winter (summer was for grapefruit and vodka sorbet shooters), and I left Sydney in the spring of 1989. I'm not sure if SDP first appeared in Melbourne then - my trips to Melbourne revolved around drinking large amounts of VB and chasing jazz musicians or cowboy painters so I may have not been paying too much attention to pudding (though some overwhelming good mango ice cream at Miettas has stuck in my memory, so maybe it was more a case of never making a trip south in chilly SDP weather).

OK, I'm really pushing blog comment boundaries here, but you've touched on a subject close to my heart ie the bizarre trajectory of food trends, and without wishing to offend, I reckon you're out of your area of expertise.

Friands are, I've always suspected, a Sydney-specific riff on a patisserie staple, the financier. The mixture and the method are identical, the departure point being the shape. Financiers are cooked in shallow trays, and therefore tend to have a crisper crust. They get their name from their resemblence to gold-bars (and that, in turn, I imagine, was itself prompted from the drama of the final step - the incorporation of a seemingly endless stream of melted butter). I have no idea of who begat Sydney's first friand. The name means little savoury thing in French and friandise has a sweet meaning, so the name feels like a bit of a stab in the dark. They were around in the mid- to late-90s, and didn't turn up in Melbourne for a surprisingly long time - at least a two year lag. I know this because I took to DIYing to satisfy cravings between Sydney trips, and at one time considered setting up a business to make them. (You could get financiers briefly at the new Georges in 1998, something I found so exciting I made a special trip 48hours after giving birth to my first child). I ended up sourcing breathtakingly expensive individual tins from a baking suppies store (lovely but a pain to handle and wash). Friands went on to become ubiquitous enough in Melbourne to warrant a mention in the cultural litmus Kath & Kim by 2004. Though they never quite reached the mass adulation (and innovation) they saw/see in Sydney. As far as the tins go, these days you can get them at Target or any local Safeway.

Now just don't get me started on cantucci di prato/biscotti.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Di said...

I want to hear about the Biscotti!!!!!

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ooo, i am going to give that recipe of your a go - i love cranberries particularly! my mainstay has been an adapted donna hay one with low fat yoghurt and orange juice doing the soaking overnight... i'll let you know how i go with yours (my husband will eat it all unless i ration it!!).

10:20 AM  
Blogger Georgia said...

Delurking to say:I know I'm a bit behind (doing that catch up on blogs I haven't read for a while thang), but I loved this post. Sticky date pudding! Yes! Tassie was mad on them for a while too. I haven't had Bircher, but I'm game to give your recipe a go. Thing about being an Aussie living in the US is that I find it hard to get just museli...not the toasted stuff, just the yummy stuff. And friands. There's just something about having a latte and a friand in a Sydney cafe...wonder if they will go the way of the SD pud?

9:22 AM  

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