Gua bao (steamed buns)

Auckland diners are becoming very familiar with pillowy steamed white dough prised open and stuffed with flavoursome pork and other fillings – the treat known as gua bao.

This is different from a Chinese steamed bun with the filling enclosed…. With the Taiwanese gua bao the filling is added once the plain dough comes out of the bamboo steamer, sometimes put together at the table by the lucky eater.

Taiwanese-style gua bao has the nickname 'tiger bites pig'

Taiwanese-style gua bao has the nickname ‘tiger bites pig’

It is the flagship dish of popular Auckland eatery Chinoiserie in Mt Albert, which produces an endless evening stream of gua bao (they call them ‘milk buns’) filled with pork, Sichuan chicken, tofu, beef and lamb in their delightful and kitschy ex-suburban Chinese takeaway.

It was Korean-American chef David Chang of Momofuku/Lucky Peach fame who made these buns famous in the US. Momofuku in New York call them ‘pork belly buns’: a slab of pork belly slipped into one of these pillows and topped with hoisin sauce, pickles, cucumber and spring onions. Chang says he basically took the flavours of Peking duck pancakes… and swapped out the pancakes for buns and the duck for pork… it’s a combination that people still queue for 10 years on.

The classic Taiwanese gua bao combination has braised pork, peanut powder (made of crushed peanuts and rock sugar – two of Taiwan’s most important crops), along with coriander and pickled mustard greens.

In northern China wheat products are more prevalent than rice, and generally this is where wheat-based buns or dumplings are from (bao is any kind of bun/dumpling). But it was in the cultural slosh-pot of Taiwan that the gua bao was born.

Cathy Erway explains in her book The Food of Taiwan that the most significant migration to the island was in the late 1940s after the Communists ousted the Kuomintang from China. The Kuomintang set up military villages in Taiwan attempting to run a ‘Republic of China’ from the island; more than one million people came from China in just a couple of years. These villages became melting-pots of cuisine from all over China, as well as drawing on influences from indigenous people, crops and from earlier migrants. In the crammed, hastily-built villages, families not only had to live close but, with limited facilities, needed to share the cooking. It was here that bread from the north met southern Fujian (Hokkien) or Hunan-style braised pork from the south, topped with local herbs and peanuts.

According to Robyn Eckhardt on the Wall Street Journal blog, at end-of-the-year celebrations in Taiwan  employers give their staff gua bao – with its overflowing filling resembling a purse stuffed with money. Gua bao has a nickname: hu yao zhu, or ‘Tiger Bites Pig’.

Where to eat gua bao in Auckland 

  • Chinoiserie, 4 Owairaka Ave
  • A few kilometres down Mt Albert Road from Chinoiserie, the Auckland suburb of Royal Oak is home to another standout Asian-inspired restaurant, the Filipino-influenced Nanam (126 Symonds St, Royal Oak). They have a variant of gua bao (they call it tacopao) with small beetroot pink buns served with braised pork.
  • Judge Bao, mobile vendors, also make a super version with free range pork and quality ingredients. They can be found at Ponsonby Street Food Collective


Salted caramel

Tip Top ran a stunt in Auckland recently to promote its new chocolate and salted caramel Trumpet. A company delivery truck “broke down” by the park in New Zealand’s media heartland and Instagram epicentre of Grey Lynn, with the hope of generating some social media excitement about its new flavour.

salted caramel

Tip Top’s new chocolate and salted caramel trumpet

Our biggest ice cream maker needed creative marketing to generate noise – salted caramel, which has been an ascending star of food trends for more than a decade, no longer has the novelty factor to pull on its own. Especially when the mass market version is diluted of its defining feature: the dribble of salted caramel on the Trumpet doesn’t taste especially salty, it just tastes like (perfectly nice) caramel.

What I’m really looking for with salted caramel is a few flecks of ‘fleur de sel’, those crystals of salt that inject a crunchy, salty burst. If you’re looking for a supermarket product that delivers this I can recommend the Lindt chocolate bar ‘caramel with a touch of sea salt’.

Food trends start with an idea at a high-end restaurant or with an unknown ethnic ingredient or dish, and make their way into high-end cooking magazines, mid-upper range restaurants or premium artisan products at farmer’s markets or specialty food stores, into the women’s mags, and finally, plonk, into the mainstream through fast food restaurants or supermarkets. Where they become the new normal, and you stop noticing it. So a pork sandwich isn’t pork any more, it’s always a pulled pork sandwich; caramel isn’t caramel anymore, it’s always salted caramel.

Salted caramels originate from Brittany in France. While sounding like they should be a much older local delicacy they were invented by Henri Le Roux, a Breton chocolatier and caramelier in 1977.

Brittany was one of the only counties in France where butter contains salt. Ancient taxation laws meant salt was traditionally taxed in other parts of France, but not in Brittany (or the Low Countries) so it is only Breton butter that was distinctively salty.

Le Roux opened a chocolate shop and began experimenting with caramels made with salted butter (a signature variety included crushed walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds for added texture), and he topped them with flaky sea salt, like fleur de sel.

He must have got used to refuting that so-and-so’s grandmother made salted butter caramels before him in Brittany, saying he has found no written recipe or record. The French were obviously happy with that, voting his salted butter caramels the French sweet of the year in 1980.

When Pierre Hermé, the Parisian pastry chef, invented a salted caramel macaron in the late 1990s, chefs everywhere went crazy for it, and salted caramel went international.

By 2008, the NY Times was calling salted caramel the flavour of the year, arguing then that it had hit ‘stage five’ – the mass market point for food trends (yes our NZ salted caramel peak is seven years delayed…) 2008 was the year Haagen Dazs released a salted caramel ice cream flavour in the US and when Wal Mart released salted caramel truffles.

That NY Times article attributes a few parallel factors to the ascendancy of salted caramel: the fact Americans have always had a liking for salty-sweet, eg cracker jack popcorn and snickers bars; the South American confection dulce de leche putting caramel back on the Western food map in the 2000s; and the rise of specialty salt flakes like fleur de sel from France or Maldon from England elevating the status of plain old salt, making them a suitable companion to fine sweets.

Feijoas (part two)

It’s been three Autumns since we moved back to suburban Auckland, and discovered we had a feijoa tree. Three years since the anticipation of having our own feijoas was quickly followed by the sense of being overwhelmed by bags and bowls of rapidly perishing fruit.

I think I have managed to bring my feelings in check and a sense of mental order to the annual feijoa fall, and this year at least, we are managing to cook, eat, or share, our daily lawnful. Their short season and poor keeping qualities mean it’s not a harvest you can have hanging around. I now know who will take them with pleasure, and aren’t just taken aback by another offer of feijoas.

I have come back to enthusiasm for this delicious fruit we Kiwis have made our own. Like Christmas, the annual season brings its familiar traditions: collecting the overnight fruit drop dotted with morning dew; cutting, scooping, gorging; leaving in bagfuls at work or on doorsteps, or even outside on the berm “take them!”; baking, chutney-making and recipe swapping. I love how often the word feijoa appears so often in April conversations.

Some streets in Auckland have feijoa trees right along the berms and attract walkers and carloads who come and pick up the windfall.

But while the suburbs continue with their perennial tradition, in the commercial food world the feijoa has finally come of age, or indeed of existence at all. When I was a child the feijoa had little visibility outside the annual season.

But now it is on store shelves year-round. Major alcoholic and soft drink lines seems to carry feijoa variants, from Pheonix and Charlie’s through to the ciders like Old Mout. My grandmother’s feijoa wine was a quirky flavour, but she was well ahead of the trend curve.

A year or two after I moved to London in 2002 a NZ visitor arrived with the best possible gift: a bottle of Feijoa 42 Below vodka. Liquid feijoa after several years without that distinctive smell and flavour (with the vodka a plus) was pretty special.

But the best way to enjoy this short-seasoned, most community-oriented of fruit is to sit down with a teaspoon, a knife and a big bag of them until stuffed.

Black pepper

A friend of mine came back from Cambodia with a gift of peppercorns – some of the world’s best, the product of a traditional industry in Kambot that has re-emerged in the last 30 years as peace has been restored to the nation. Since 2008 Kambot peppercorns have had protected geographical status, like champagne.

Kambot pepper beef dish

Cambodian beef with Kambot pepper and lime

I hadn’t thought about the quality of peppercorns before. Pepper is always there, the P to salt’s S, the lucky spice that escaped the tucked-away spice rack to become an ever-present centrepiece on the dinner table.

Before Europeans stumbled upon chilli (which is not a pepper) in the 1500s along with other delights of the New World, heat in food in Europe and Asia came from black pepper (pipris negrus), which originates from trees found on the Malabar coast in southern India, and with plantings long-established in other hot parts of the world.

Black pepper with its warm pungency, rather than sharp heat, has been traversing the globe for thousands of years. Highly valued, it was sometimes used instead of currency in the Middle Ages, and was even found stuffed up the nostrils of mummies much further back in ancient Egypt. (This is a decent history of S&P, separately and together:

For around 1500 years from the time of the Roman Empire a common trade route went from India through Egypt and onto Italy. The growth of city-states like Venice came from their wealth and power as gateways supplying highly-priced spices, like pepper, into Europe.

In Cambodia black pepper has been grown for around 700 years. Intensive production occurred from the 1870s when the French had colonised the country and demand for pepper in Europe made it Cambodia’s primary export. It was Kambot pepper that was the preferred choice of chefs for classic French dishes like steak au poivre (pepper steak).

Having sampled Kambot pepper, it has floral notes that smooth out the punchiness and leave a warm aftertaste. Even in the dish pictured here with a marinade of chilli, garlic, ginger, soy, fish sauce, lime and other powerful flavours, the cracked pepper stood out (black pepper needs to be chunky).

Kambot lettuce leaf

Lettuce leaf with beef and lime and pepper dipping sauce

Kambot pepper trees are grown in valleys bordering Vietnam and the peppercorns are harvested by hand only when ripe, and sun-dried. During the communist Khmer Rouge era from the 1970s the industry fell away, but over the last 20 years families have been replanting and creating successful businesses again. See this Channel 4 (UK) piece where the hosts visit a plantation and cook with Kambot pepper.

The French and pepper have an interesting relationship. When the classic French cuisine was developing and being codified in the royal courts on the 17th century, chefs like La Varenne were generally chucking out the heavy foreign spices that had dominated French cooking since the Middle Ages, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the cardamom etc – all except for pepper. Despite being exotic, black pepper was given a special place in French cuisine alongside parsley and other local herbs. This was how the tradition of the table pairing of salt and pepper started – seen as two fundamental flavour enhancers.

Not everyone agrees on pepper’s permanent position on the table though – see this Slate article where the author proposes alternate partners for salt:

In my mind there are probably some foods that black pepper is ground over by habit but adds little to, but there are so many that aren’t quite right without freshly ground pepper – especially simpler, almost nostalgic, dishes of fresh produce or meat and fish that can almost speak for themselves, just not quite… corn on the cob, cheese and tomato on crackers or toast, avocado, pumpkin soup, pan-fried fish, roast beef, salmon and cream cheese bagels…

And today I’ve cooked something that celebrates pepper as part of a more complex flavour blend; it’s a Rick Stein Kambot pepper dish that he enjoyed when he was in Cambodia.

What to cook with black peppercorns

Rick Stein visited Kambot for his Far Eastern Odyssey programme, and his Cambodian marinated beef with lime and black pepper dipping sauce can be found here: This is pictured above.

Meyer lemons

Growing up in Auckland we never bought lemons, there always seemed to be one on the tree in the garden – and when ours occasionally wasn’t fruiting, then someone else’s was.

By late winter in Auckland when the city’s suburbs are at their most colourless, trees stripped leafless under overcast skies, it’s the glow of citrus that stands out, laden on front garden fruit trees.

Lemons are forever current in cooking, but they’re also nostalgic. All those hundreds of thousands of lemon trees planted over decades in Kiwi gardens, still fulfilling the same job that they were planted for while home owners come and go, and the world changes around them.

Lemons grow well in our climate with the combination of sunshine, rain and being able to withstand cold snaps. This productiveness has made the lemon a staple New Zealand flavour.


The lemon that reigns among others for me is the juicy lemon-mandarin cross known as Meyer. This super-fruiter is especially prominent in our kitchen heritage: various grandparents of mine put them into baking (madeira cake), preserves (lemon honey), served with dinghy-caught pan-fried snapper, and even turned into wine (yep). I like how the home garden, especially the fruit and vegetables, feels like a connection to my much-loved, industrious war-generation grandparents – all gardeners.

The Meyer originates from China and is named after the US agricultural explorer, Frank N. Meyer, who found it growing as an ornamental pot-plant near Peking (now Beijing) in 1908. At that stage the US Department of Agriculture sent these explorers to every corner of the earth and would then propagate the seeds of their discovery, sending out millions to farmers across the US to see what took. The Meyer did well in California, Florida and Texas. (It’s a key ingredient of California cuisine too, as popularised by chefs like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse – she has a seminal Meyer lemon cake which can be seen here).

Here in NZ, we have our own intrepid personality to thank for the arrival of Meyers to our country– Hayward Wright – who had orchards in Avondale, Auckland, and introduced fruit never before seen in NZ, including the Meyer lemon, the Satsuma mandarin and the Chinese gooseberry/kiwifruit. (Wright was so instrumental in developing kiwifruit cultivars the most common green kiwifruit is named the ‘Hayward’ after him).

An Auckland Star article from 1929 explains the popularity of Wright’s stand at the Auckland Winter Show – people were keen to save money by growing their own fruit, and found his trees reliable, climatised and prolific. (Auckland Star, 9 July 1929)

A NZ Herald article (14 August 1928) describes the emergence of the Meyer, foretelling the way it went on to punctuate our gardens…

“The Meyer lemon has attracted considerable attention during the past two to three years. The amazing fruiting abilities of one and two-year-old trees of this variety have evoked considerable favourable comment…. It seems as though it is merely a matter of time before the Meyer becomes the popular lemon on the market.” (These old newspapers are all searchable on the National Library’s Papers Past site – what an amazing portal into our heritage!)

While Meyers grow fantastically at home, they tend not to often be found in supermarkets (which may be part of their charm). Meyers actually don’t store that well once picked. The supermarkets need something tougher like the yen ben, which is also New Zealand’s main export lemon – it’s more sour, a duller yellow, and less generous with its juice (but to be fair probably has a stronger lemon flavour than the Meyer).


I decided to make my grandmother’s lemon honey because this was such a treat on toast for breakfast when I’d go and stay with her. I have some of her cookbooks as she passed away this June, and I came across a recipe for lemon honey in her NZ Truth cookbook. (The cookbook seems to be from around 1944, so note the wartime eggless version using marrow too – gag).  Lemon honey and lemon curd are basically the same thing, most people seem to use lemon curd these days, but I’m sticking with what Nana called it.


Alphonso mangoes

In London in late spring boxes of Alphonso mangoes begin to stack up around the shop doors in the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi precincts. Pretty tissue paper and shredded silver tinsel provide a nest for the fragrant treasures in each box, which are air-freighted from the sub-continent to be consumed within days if not hours of picking.


The excitement over the arrival of these limited-season “king of fruits” is itself an import from India where quality, price and availability become a national obsession from April to June, especially in Mumbai where the Alphonso is the only variety many locals will bother with as a cut fruit.

The golden flesh is soft, creamy and sweet (unlike many of the more fibrous kinds we’re used to).

So it was a surprise to Indian growers and British fans when the EU put a sudden ban on imports of the fruit from May 1 this year, citing pests in some shipments – no threat to human health but potentially a threat to British glasshouse crops.

The debate has reached the highest levels of Anglo-Indian politics with British prime minister David Cameron receiving a box from British Asian Labour MP Keith Vaz days before the ban, and promising the issue was on the agenda for when he met the new Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (see this BBC article here).

The hope is the ban can be lifted in coming months with the EU sending an audit team in September to examine improved pest containment measures (see this Times of India article here). Devotees like Yotam Ottolenghi, who has produced incredible recipes with Alphonso mango like these ones in the Guardian and his incredible mango coconut rice from Plenty, republished here on epicurious, will be looking out for a win-win.


Ottolenghi’s mango and coconut rice

Mangoes have been grown in India for centuries, cited in Hindi and Buddhist scripts and by European travellers. The Alphonso mango is the result of grafting techniques introduced to India by the Portuguese. There are other similar sweet cultivars in India but its the Alphonso that has captured the collective food psyche in India and abroad.

Here in Auckland, New Zealand, the joy in Alphonso mangoes is alive among the Indian diaspora in Auckland’s Sandringham, a hub of Indian food and culture. Shoppers from the breadths of greater Auckland are happily purchasing several boxes at a time at the bustling Spice Supermarket for $50/box as the season draws to a close.

In fact, it was only in recent years that the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade lifted a ban on Indian fruit and vegetables, allowing New Zealanders to share in international Alphonso mango bounty. Get in before the season ends!




There’s a joke by English comedian Peter Kay that goes like this:

“I’m in a great mood tonight because the other day I entered a competition and I won a year’s supply of Marmite……… one jar.”

As long as Marmite has been around the problem for its marketeers has never been awareness – who doesn’t know Marmite? The problem has been how to sell more of it. Those thin dabs on toast once a day, and the scarcely diminishing jar…. It means that for all the Marmite love, sales in New Zealand are worth, at most, $10 million a year (or less than $2.50 per Kiwi!)

Not surprisingly in post-Marmageddon New Zealand (which was 2 years ago now, when the Christchurch Earthquake-damaged factory meant supply dwindled to a halt), Marmite’s advertisers have focused on diversifying use: imagery of Marmite with avocado slices, Marmite on pizza, in stir fry…. It’s a campaign that’s run extensively over bus shelters and billboards under the slogan ‘Made to Be Messed With.’


On top of this, New Zealand got the “stuffed crust” Marmite pizza tie-in with Pizza Hut, which gained a lot of international social media attention, such as this on Buzzfeed. (Though who knows how many sales? )

Diversifying has worked for Marmite in the UK – certainly in terms of gaining attention. They have produced numerous brand extensions (potato crisps, rice cakes, crackers…) and then poked fun at *spreading themselves thin* by running billboard ads with fake adverts for Marmite shampoo and fabric conditioner. A (real) Marmite muesli bar was promoted under the slogan ‘Have we gone too far?’ with one ad featuring someone gagging as he tried it. Self-parody for a brand with self-assurance.

New Zealand Marmite is produced by Sanitarium, and British Marmite is now owned by Unilever. The two brands have had no link whatsoever for more than 100 years – but they remain the world’s only two official Marmites.

Marmite is an English product going back to 1902; in 1908 a NZ manufacturer bought the rights to sell it in Australia and NZ. It has remained this way ever since. (English Marmite can be found in NZ under the label ‘Our Mate’ – it isn’t allowed to be labeled ‘Marmite’.)

Marmite was invented by a German chemist in 1902, who realised that the yeast extract that was a byproduct of the brewing industry could be made into a flavoursome concentrate.

The Marmite factory was set up just two miles from the Bass brewery in Burton-on Trent in Staffordshire, and this brewery remains a supplier to British Marmite today. (This Guardian article has a lot more history).

And where does the brewer’s yeast for Kiwi Marmite – which makes up 80% of the finished product – come from then? This Marmageddon-era Otago Daily Times piece reveals Southern brewery Speights is at least one source, with spokesperson Jude Waite saying, “We would love to be giving them our yeast again…. Until the factory opens again, all our yeast is going out with the spare grain. We don’t know the exact details, but we understand it is largely used as animal feed in and around the wider Dunedin area.”

Should you be interested in making your own, the inimitable MsMarmiteLover – who blogs about many other things, but also really loves Marmite – managed to elicit some clues from Marmite’s Quality and Innovation expert in the UK. Here’s her recipe (it takes around 10 days and ends up tasting, “different…”)





Bean-to-bar chocolate (new bar on the block)

In 2012 I wrote about the emergence of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in New Zealand – a craft food movement that, similarly to good wine and coffee, is about developing a product that is defined by the origin of its main ingredient.

As an artisan food pursuit, the barriers to entry are steep – from sourcing the cacao beans to building the machinery used in the multiple steps from bean to smooth, glossy chocolate.

So I was surprised when my friend Charlotte from Kerikeri dropped by this summer and her husband, Jamie Andrews, left us two bars of his own-made, beautifully-packaged single origin chocolate.

Capt Pembleton chocolate

Capt Pembleton chocolate

The bars were professional, sleek and glossy, and the chocolate from each (Papua New Guinea) plantation tasted distinctly different: one full of citrus sours and one much more deep and earthy like floral chocolate mud cake. And that really is the point of single origin chocolate.

Here is how Northland’s Capt Pembleton craft chocolate began.

Sourcing the beans

Jamie’s first step in chocolate-making was finding a supplier that would sell a relatively small quantity of cacao beans, and his second was how to get them to New Zealand.

“Normally you have to buy in 5mT (metric tonne) contracts but I only wanted a few hundred kilos. My typical batch uses 5kg, making around 60 bars of chocolate.”

Jamie made a contact through a friend of his sister, who had lived in Papua New Guinea, with Kulili Estates, a plantation on a volcanic island off the mainland. Kulili was willing to sell smaller amounts. The Germans first introduced cocoa to PNG in the late 1800s and this plantation was founded in the early 1900s.

“This supplier warned me at the beginning that I should look into shipping as early as possible – which I didn’t listen to – and that was the most time-consuming part. I ended up contacting a friend who did logistics at my old work. He guided me through the world of shipping acronyms and importing the beans to Auckland.”

Jamie Andrews

Jamie Andrews, chocolate-maker

Flavour profile 

“I knew there would be differences in flavour between beans, but you have no idea what that difference will be until you actually taste them. Seasonal and environmental factors, and the fermenting and drying processes, have a big influence on the final flavour.”


Grinding involves releasing the cocoa nibs down to a liquid form: cocoa liquor. Jamie is an industrial designer, so making smaller versions of machinery that large chocolate manufacturers use was the goal, and he pulled in his retired physicist dad, who happily immersed himself in the second-hand goods world of Ebay, tip shops and computer wreckers in the pursuit of motor and fan parts.


Jamie calls this the biggest challenge of chocolate-making: growing the correct crystals through tempering.

“It is a science but at times seems more of a dark art. Your chocolate might look nice and shiny, but the only way to really know if it’s tempered is to snap the finished bar, destroying what you’ve just made. You don’t have to throw it away if it’s not tempered, but you do have to start again.”

Branding and packaging

“The thing I like about chocolate is its rich history and the fact it is made from beans from far-flung parts of the world, so I wanted the name to evoke that kind of nostalgia and romanticism, but also be a little bit whimsical. My wife and I had a cat called Pimbleton, and we thought the name variation Pembleton fit the bill pretty well. Then the “Captain” just popped into my head…”

“I wanted the packaging to reflect where the beans are from, so I got lots of images from Papua New Guinea. From that I decided to design a pattern rather than a single image, like a bird of paradise, so that it wasn’t an obvious link but more or a vibe.”

Future plans

So what is next for the brand, which is already stocked at stores in Auckland and Wellington, as well as available online?

“Make more chocolate, with more cocoa from the Pacific region, get into more stores and get the idea of single origin, bean-to-bar out there in NZ.”

Southern barbecue

Down-home Americana has become a firm trend in casual dining out. Southern barbecue, in all its slow-cooked, hickory-shrouded glory, is now commonplace across all sorts of menus from the numerous new Mexican/US-influenced eateries to upmarket pub grub. The king of this Southern feast is pulled pork.

Pulling the pork

Pulling the pork

Pulled pork is pig done well. A 4kg shoulder butt, the preferred meat, takes 7 or 8 hours to cook, with joints at some southern barbecues cooking in pits for up to 24 hours.

Pulled pork is pig with tradition. In the southern US states (like North and South Carolina) barbecue is a huge social occasion often at public events with legendary cook-offs. Rumour has it that guardians of the pit during these marathons start the day with coffee, move on to beer and finish off on the whisky as the meat gently tenderises and slowly falls apart in the gulf of sweet smoke.

Any outdoor barbecue celebration can be called a pig pickin’ – the point is meat is first pulled or shredded while a portion is left on the bone to be picked off with the fingers.

Pulled pork bun with coleslaw

Pulled pork bun with coleslaw

American food writer James Villas provocatively states in his book Pig, “Southern barbecue is probably the most controversial and misunderstood subject on earth.”

Villas offers up a few guiding principles so tourists of Southern cuisine don’t get themselves in too much hot water:

  • Southern barbecue is about using smoke and fire for prolonged cooking times. A “barbecue” of flashing meat or sausages on a hot flame grill this is not (in the US, that’s ‘grilling’).
  • Barbecue always refers to a specific food or event – not the metal contraption. (That’s the grill mentioned above).
  • 99% of the time in the South, barbecue refers to one meat only: pig. It involves slow-cooking in a pit or kettle drum. If you barbecue beef, you’re probably Texan.
  • What distinguishes pork barbecue styles is not so much the cooking times but the sauces and rubs that produce different flavours and wet or dry textures. Generally sauces in the eastern mid-Atlantic states are more spicy, vinegar-based clear emulsions and these gradually become thicker, more tomato and mustard-enriched, and sweeter, the further south and west you go.
  • Coleslaw, baked beans and French fries are almost universal as side dishes, and most states have local additions to this.
Barbecue on the truck

Preparing southern barbecue on the back of a truck for a wedding banquet in the US (photo thanks to Kurt Dyer)

The first pig was first introduced to the US by Spanish explorers in 1539. By the first half of the nineteenth century, as meat quality improved through rearing techniques, today’s barbecue traditions of the South were laid down. A barbecue became the primary feature of events such as church picnics and political rallies, and leading up to the Civil War, it was a major symbol of Southern regional identity.

In the racially segregated South, barbecue was a tradition that straddled black and white food cultures.  Plantation owners would hold a pig pickin’ for slaves, a rare festive occasion, and many of the most popular barbecue shacks were, and continue to be, owned by blacks and frequented by blacks and whites – more on the cultural ties of Southern barbecue is available on this University of Virginia history site.

Villas says of barbecue shacks today: “Barbecue houses are the most socially democratic institutions on the globe, and nothing indicates a great one like the presence of pickup trucks parked out front next to expensive Cadillacs and Mercedes.”

When we made this at home we didn’t venture far from the barbecue for 7 or 8 hours. Not too much hardship as the rich smells deepened, the sun shone and the amber ale ran.  We doused our 4kg piece of pig in Villas’ South Carolina sauce recipe and served it simply with coleslaw and buns.

What about this though?  Featured on a Southern food writer’s blog, the “barbecue sundae” consists of pulled pork, slaw and baked beans layered in a mason jar with dill pickle.

Lobster Thermidor

We recently cooked the richly extravagant Lobster Thermidor for a French dinner (and ate peasantly meals for the rest of the week). Our grocery budget liquefied into succulent mouthfuls of lobster, butter, cream and cognac.

Preparing lobster tails

Preparing lobster tails

After all, the cuisine of France wears many hats, and two of them are decadence and a kind of nourishing, rustic frugality.

Lobster Thermidor tasted divine, but it is not something I’ll be making again in a hurry. It’s a dish that has a retro feel these days: full of expensive ingredients, a rigid methodology, and heavy on the butter and cream.

I can embrace calorific overindulgence every so often, but it’s the elitism of French haute cuisine (high cuisine) I find off-putting, no matter how good the food is.

Dishes like Lobster Thermidor were the pinnacle of fine dining through much of the 20th Century. It was invented at Marie’s restaurant in Paris in 1894 and named in honour of a play about the French Revolution, which had opened at a theatre near the restaurant. The play was so controversial that it was pulled after just three nights – 100 years after the revolution the subject was still that divisive.  ‘Thermidor’ is  the name of a month in the short-lived Revolutionary Calendar, which was designed to replace the calendar of the old regime. Lobster Thermidor, very much not a dish of the people, lived on.

The late 19th/early 20th Century was the era of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the chef who redefined French cuisine to see it become the last word on luxury.  He took many French peasant or cuisine bourgeois (middle class family cooking) dishes and turned these into luxurious haute cuisine. For example, he’d take a Provencal dish of potatoes and artichokes, remove the olive oil and garlic and substitute in butter and truffles.

Just how much Escoffier and French nationals before him contributed to the history of gastronomy is extraordinary. Our kitchen language is laden with French terminology because of all the techniques invented and codified in France. The French stopped using sugar throughout the meal, placed it at the end, and called that le dessert, and redirected the sugar to refining patisserie… In culinary terms, France is the motherland.

And yet, part of this legacy leaves me cold: the ruthless obsession with Michelin stars, a patriarchal kitchen culture and starchy waiters all seem rather joyless.

In the 2009 book ‘Au Revoir to All That: Food Wine and the End of France,’ journalist Michael Steinberger argues this culture has dated badly:

“Those [Michelin] stars now seemed more like emblems of a bygone era of fine dining than symbols of France’s gastronomic élan.”

He argues that for the first time in modern history France has lost its place at the pinnacle of cuisine, that Paris is lagging behind other world cities as gastronomic capitals and that France’s chauvinistic chef culture is an anachronism.

The France of cheerful neighbourhood bistros, serving decent steak frites or slow-cooked stews, with music and local wine, or of simple picnics with excellent bread,  cheese and chacuterie, just seems much more alluring to a lot of us.

My Lobster Thermidor

My homely Lobster Thermidor

Despite following my Julia Child recipe, through some sloppy technique, lots of wine and intense Edith Piaf, I think I managed to turn my Lobster Thermidor from haute cuisine to something much more cuisine bourgeois. Nonetheless, lobster, butter, cream, cognac – it’s definitely worth trying once in your life.