Archive | October, 2012

Black stuff at Balzac’s

17 Oct

If you enjoy coffee as much as I do it’s always a delight to find a really good coffee shop, which serves great coffee and where you wile away the time, book in hand, or meet with friends for chat and a catch up.  I like a coffee shop where I can order my coffee in small, medium and large, and not a system of three words that all mean large.  I don’t need the barista to address me by name, a friendly smile and efficient service will do, and I’m always up for a tempting great to accompany my cup of coffee; it’s even better if it’s got a home baked feel to it.

So I’ve been particularly pleased to discover Balzac’s coffee roasters, a small chain of coffee shops which was started by Diana Olsen in Stratford, ON, home of Canada’s Shakespeare festival.  Diana’s degree in French literature, time in Paris and common passion for coffee which she shared with the French author Honoré de Balzac (he used to write furiously at night fuelled by cups of coffee) inspired to set up her first coffee shop based on a set of values that prioritises the production of artisanal, sustainable and great tasting coffee.  Now that original shop has turned into seven shops sprinkled around Toronto and Ontario.

I love the idea of a coffee shop inspired by a literary giant and one for whom coffee plays such an important role in story telling.  Reading through Balzac’s works you find that time and again, crucial action is centred around the social niceties of coffee making and taking; for example, in Eugiene Grandet where Eugiene defies her miser father to give her cousin Charles a cup of good sweet coffee before he learns about his father plan to take his own life, or Cousin Bette agreeing to take part in clandestine assignations in order to make sure she has enough money to buy the pure mocha she loves so well.  Coffee in Balzac work is far more than a drink with a pleasing aroma; in all of its social niceties and complexities it’s a  brilliant dramatic tool for revealing character and sending the narrative hurtling in new and unexpected directions.

So far I’ve been to two branches, the one in the distillery district, now an elegant place to shop, eat and enjoy the drama of the Soulpepper theatre co., and the one based at the public reference library.  What could be a better combination than books and coffee?  What I’ve enjoyed in both are the beautiful advertising posters, one to represent each shop and all designed in the graphic style of the 20s and 30s advertising that would have pleased artists like Bawden, Leighton and Nash.

To make me even happier I discovered that Balzac’s serve an almond croissant, which came close to my favourite almond croissant of all time (an honour that is currently held by Maison Blanc).  Balzac’s almond croissant is filled with a rich paste (rather than a crème patisserie which I’m not so keen on), topped with the same paste, so that it crisps in the oven and becomes beautifully crunchy and is sprinkled liberally with flaked almonds and baking sugar.  Almost, but just not quite, as perfect at Maison Blanc’s version.

In honour of this new found delight here are some of Balzac’s characters on coffee:

‘If you will but help me to my revenge,” the tradesman went on, “I will sink ten thousand francs in an annuity for you. Tell me, my fair cousin, tell me who has stepped into Josepha’s shoes, and you will have money to pay your rent, your little breakfast in the morning, the good coffee you love so well—you might allow yourself pure Mocha, heh! And a very good thing is pure Mocha!’ Crevel talking to Lisbeth, Cousin Bette

‘Well, let him have his coffee very strong; I heard Monsieur des Grassins say that they make the coffee very strong in Paris. Put in a great deal.’ Eugiene about Charles’ coffee, Eugiene Grandet

‘just think! they ask you sixteen sous for a cup of coffee alone on the place de l’ Odeon’ The Brotherhood of Consolation

‘The brother and sister poured in the coffee made by Sylvie herself on the table. When Sylvie had carefully prepared hers, she saw an atom of coffee-grounds floating on the surface. On this the storm broke forth.’ The Celibates

‘The pudding is delicious,’ said Genestas.  ‘Then w hat will you say to her coffee and cream?’ cried Benassis.  ‘I would rather hear our pretty hostess talk.’ The Country Doctor

‘Friendships struck up over Flicoteaux’s dinners were sealed in neighboring cafes in the flames of heady punch, or by the generous warmth of a small cup of black coffee glorified by a dash of something hotter and stronger.’ A Distinguished Provincial at Paris

‘Have we time to get a cup of coffee?’ said the artist, in a gentle voice, to Pierrotin.’ A Start in Life

‘It is pleasant to sit down and take a little coffee in quiet.’ The General in The Stepmother: A Drama in Five Acts





The future’s bright, the future’s orange in Toronto

17 Oct


… or at the least the next couple of weeks in this run up to halloween.  For the past month or so the city has become increasingly orange with pumpkins popping up on porch stairs and piled up in vast mounds outside grocery stores.  Each time I walk past these gargantuan displays I never ceased to be amazed by the size of some of these fruits, large enough to make a play-house for a small child.  Rows of grocery store shelving has been given over to treats for trick or treating and Halloween costumes from witches to batman line the aisles.  Some people definitely take their halloween house decorating really seriously, covering their lawn with giant inflatable black cats, spiders and frankensteins that eerily move their heads as you walk past.  This morning I passed by a miniature cemetery, complete with crumbling gravestones and cobwebs, that someone had assembled in their garden.


Now one autumnal bake I’ve never really got on well with is pumpkin pie.  It’s not just that in the UK pumpkins, like thanksgiving and major, all out halloween celebrations, still seem very North American.  I once decided that it would be a good idea to try making my own pumpkin pie as I had an American friend coming round for dinner.  The resulting creation was not a success, resembling a rather sorry meatless sausage roll in texture and consistency.  As my husband points out, using fresh pumpkin to make pumpkin pie often does not produce good results.


So it is with some trepidation that I always try pumpkin pie, despite its often tempting aroma of spices.  After my most recent experience however, I’m certainly going to be more confident about the merits of pumpkin pie.  At a reception at the McMichael Gallery of Art in Vaughan, just outside Toronto, (to celebrate the opening of their Double Take exhibition exploring representations of Canadians and the Cecil Beaton exhibition from the V&A) the canapés included delicious pumpkin tartlets, with a rich sugary crust, delicately spiced filling and a generous but not overpowering swirl of cream cheese frosting.  Not a soggy sausage roll in sight!

Cable Feasting

13 Oct

One of our many Korean feasts; the soup in our bowls is seaweed soup, known as birthday soup since it’s a special treat usually served on people’s birthdays, kim chi is right in the centre, with ggakdugi clockwise next, egg roll, Chonggak kimchi, jap chae and pajeon. 

If ever there was a definition of being well fed it was me in Cable.  It’s a good job that there plenty of opportunities for me to take long walks through the changing fall colours because I probably ate enough to keep me going for a month rather than the two weeks I actually spent in Cable.  For anyone who’s not sure, Cable is a small town in northern Wisconsin which Mr Kim and his parents have been visiting for years.  In fact it was difficult to move around Cable without Mr Kim being greeted at every turn like a long lost brother (it’s not that this is uncommon in other places, but in Cable it was the frequency of recognition which made it stand out).  I had to make do by being recognised in Ashland (a nearby, larger town) by two ladies I’d met the day before.  Mr Kim’s friend loved this story, he now has both of us as the next hot ticket to stand for political office in Cable.

But back to the food, it was pure feasting from start to finish, not least because I was staying with my in laws so my mother-in-law treated me to a banquet of Korean delights (appropriately we were in Cable for Chuseok, the Korean mid autumn festival which celebrates the harvest, when Koreans pay respects to their ancestors and which usually involves a good meal or two).  One of my the features of Korean cooking which I particularly like is the range of dishes on the table at anyone time and usually our dinner table in Cable had at least six to eight dishes.  So many of my favourites were there; ggakdugi (spicy radish), kimchi (fermented cabbage), Japchae (noodles with vegetables and meat) and pajeon (Korean pancakes).  Even better than this my MIL offered to improve my Korean cooking skills so I had a series of masterclasses for different dishes (I’ll share my solo results in future posts).

We were in Cable at just the right time to enjoy the glorious fall of the northern woods; the trees vibrated with intense reds, eyepopping yellows and vivid oranges.  Each day as we walked or drove down our favourite Garmisch Road we were able to see colour change overnight.  By the end of the two weeks the wintry weather had already begun to set in; Mr Kim took me fishing in the snow!  But for the first ten days the weather couldn’t have been better; warm and sunny which was perfect to enjoy a cup of Brick House cafe coffee sitting on their porch, amble around near by Hayward (where we had lunch in a Chinese restaurant), sample the delights of our mammoth maki making session as we picknicked in Bayfield, a small town on the edge of Lake Superior.  Fishing was terrible, much to our disappointment since we wanted to eat all we caught, but we did manage to catch enough fish for two shore line lunches, basking in the last autumnal sunshine.  But other lunches were good too; delicious salads at the Brick House cafe with a fantastic raspberry dressing, crisp and freshly toasted quesadillas at the Rookery pub where we were delighted and surprised we’d arrived just in time to enjoy live music.

The first of our shoreline lunches; perch and northern fillets caught with our own fair hands.

And then there was Cable Fall fest, the annual town event of gathering in which food plays a central role, whether it’s the charity pancake breakfast, the fire dept. chilli taste challenge or the enormous turkey drumsticks offered by the Lakewoods resort stall.  My in-laws confessed that it had taken them years to get used to turkey but we all tucked in heartily to the enormous drumstick; it quite easily fed four of us.  We accompanied it with a delicious homemade lemonade, perfect for sipping in the warm weather, taking in the craft stalls and the vintage car show.

Of course Lakewoods is home to a Sunday brunch which has become something of a Kim-Baxter tradition and since Ned Baxter was up in town there was no escaping feasting on snow crab legs, prime rib and pork ribs (for those feeling less carnivorous there were plenty of salads, but Mr Kim resisted all attempts to try these)

Mr Kim preparing the fine Arthur chicken – thanks Andy, Lisa, Aaron, Logan, Nolan, Devan and Simon!

And for our final Cable meal – what could be better than a hand raised Arthur chicken, kindly given to us by the Arthur family, one of whose many summer project involves raising chickens.  Beautifully succulent and full of flavour; the perfect way to end two weeks of Cable feasting!