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Thursday
Mar312005

Edinburgh Gems: Plaisir du Chocolat

 

It's no secret that quality food can be hard to come by in Scotland. The climate's not very good for growing much of anything, and somewhere along the line local tastes made a mass migration towards things cloaked in fried batter. And when good food does appear, it's usually under the guise of an expensive and somewhat pretentious restaurant meal, the kind that if you live here you can probably only afford once or twice a year. With that in mind, I've decided to profile a few of the places I've discovered over my years in Edinburgh that really stand out, whether for the quality of their food, their ambience, or the strikingly good value they represent in a city with often overblown food prices.

plaisir.jpgFirst on anyone's list of local foodie gems should be Plaisir du Chocolat. This diminutive cafe and pâtisserie, which actually encompasses two locations across the street from each other, is a little haven of France in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. On a bleak winter's day there is nothing more comforting than to spend a few hours lounging beneath the potted palms at one of their iron tables, drinking in the smells of chocolate simmering away in the back kitchen. The decor, with its understated Art Nouveau elegance, along with the slightly aloof waitstaff will leave you feeling like you've been teleported across the Channel - and to complete the illusion they'll even let you pay for your chocolate in Euros.

As the name suggests, chocolate here is the prima donna, but they do seem to make a brisk business of selling real food as well. The food is supposed to be very good, things like salmon quiche and tarte à l'oignon, foie gras terrine and braised rabbit, but it's not cheap, and let's not kid ourselves - the only reason you really want to come here is the chocolate. I was lured here the first time by descriptions of their hot chocolate, which is how I discovered that they also take a lot of pride in their tea. The menu I was given for hot chocolate, in fact, listed nothing but teas for the first forty pages or so, complete with descriptions of the hillside they were grown on, the handwashing habits of their pickers, and the general climatic situation at the moment of their harvest. An impressive collection, I'm sure, but I was more interested in the chocolate. Tucked away on the back page, it's not an incredibly long list, but it encompasses a lot. Depending on your mood you can order a single origin hot chocolate (Venezuelan, Caribbean, or Madagascar?), something called 'chocolate espresso' (a tiny espresso cup of warm ganache), or various liquer-imbued concoctions. They make their hot chocolate from melted bars of high-percentage Michel Cluizel, and they don't dishonor the brown gold by bumping up the sugar content. They do have sugar around, obviously, as I discovered when I made the obvious faux-pas of asking for some to make my 99% Noir Americain a little more palatable (the uncomprehending look from the waitress was enough to discourage me from doing *that* again). If you're in the mood for chocolate in a more solid form, they have a selection of cakes to die for. Just go up to the counter and point at what you want - they're all good.

Finally, if you can avert your eyes from the cakes for long enough you'll see that they also produce chocolate in a more transportablechocolates.jpg form, which is just the thing if you're wondering how to take all this chocolate ecstasy home with you. They sell little ganache-filled chocolates, beautifully decorated and full of flavors which will surely spark some after-dinner conversation. How about hot chili, rosewater or smoked tea? Or maybe whiskey and heather honey? Make sure you read the full list of flavors on the wall before you make your selection - and try to remember which is which, because you will certainly buy so many different flavors that you won't remember when you're home.

Plaisir du Chocolat, 251-253 Canongate, Edinburgh. Tel. 0131 556 9524

Update July 2007: It saddens me deeply to report that due to financial problems, Plaisir du Chocolat has closed! While there appears to be a new chocolate-based business in its place, it is in no way affiliated with the original. Plaisir's website says they are looking for a new address and will hopefully be open in time for Christmas; I'll certainly post it here once I know about it. 

Wednesday
Mar302005

Where do food passions come from?

I have often read with great interest the story about how other people developed a passion for food. Many say they were influenced by their parents or grandparents at an early age, whether through spending time at their side in the kitchen or by simply inheriting their enthusiasm for fresh, wholesome and exciting food. Others had a food epiphany at some point in their lives, maybe while travelling or when cooking for themselves for the first time. I can't seem to fit myself into any of those categories. When people ask me where my interest in food comes from I don't have an answer to give them. I simply can't link it to any particular person or event, or even time in my life - I just know it's been there for as long as I've been making memories. In fact, many of my very first memories concern food, and my family often teases me because my memory for food seems so much sharper than my memory for anything else.

As a kid I loved food, which translated means I loved to eat. Cooking wasn't really in the picture yet, unless you count the time I tried turning my cereal-milk brown with blackstrap molasses in an attempt to make it taste like chocolate. I grew up eating SAG, which is my abbreviation for 'Standard American Grub'. It was relatively healthy, I suppose, but it wasn't terribly exciting. It was quick and based on a minimum of ingredients, and incorporated a variety of melting-pot ethnic elements tamed down for American tastes. My mother hated to cook, and so developed a rota of dishes she could churn out with minimum hassle: chicken noodle soup, mashed potato salad, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, burritos and spaghetti. When she had company to impress, she made chicken curry enriched with bottled curry powder and raisins. I hated it. The one thing I drew solace from was frequent eating out in cheap ethnic places, usually Chinese or Mexican, the latter being my favorite because I was allowed to order orange soda, and because their mantra of 'What dish was that? Never mind, cover it in cheese!' was dearly close to my heart. I have no doubt these joints were somewhat lacking in taste and authenticity, but they sure beat chicken curry.

I helped out in the kitchen from time to time, but it was more a chore for me than a privilege - cooking was just the hurdle to cross on the way to eating. Then something happened when I was about eleven years old. I can't remember the exact moment, but one day I must have been fiddling around in the kitchen, probably having been told to make my own lunch, when it dawned on me that if I was making the food, I could make it as tasty as I wanted! That must have been *the* moment (though I honestly can't remember it) when my life was irrevocably altered. The only problem was that I didn't yet know how to make food tasty. I do remember taking over occasional dinner duty and experimenting with our usual meals, but adding little things to improve their taste. I started with the basics, like herbs and spices. I made all the usual things, but for a month I added handfuls of thyme to everything. Then I moved on to dill, and after that oregano. When I had emptied our dusty spice cupboard, I experimented with adjusting salt and sugar levels. I added so much sugar to one particular can of chili that no one could eat it (but I wisely kept my mouth shut as everyone sat around shaking their heads and scrutinizing the label). Thinking back, I'm amazed my family didn't rebel, but having someone else do the cooking must have been worth eating those dubious results. It was a constant learning curve; by the time I was thirteen and my family was moving from California to Washington, I could cater a four course farewell meal for our friends and neighbors, making my own soup, pasta, fish with herb sauce and chocolate raspberry tart. I was also lucky at that age to have a friend who was just as interested in cooking as I was, and we spent hours poring over recipes in her mother's cookbooks looking for interesting things to make.

And I never stopped cooking after that. My family got luckier and luckier with their meals every night as I got better at my experimentation. When I acquired my first couple of cookbooks I was able to create things I had never even imagined before, and I found myself visiting countless countries and cultures through their cuisines. I found new interests and hobbies, I moved away from home and traveled and learned new skills - but cooking has never relinquished its place at the top, and if anything, has continued to intensify its hold over me since those early days. I can't get through a day without reading about food, digging up new recipes or daydreaming about tastes I'll create. It's like breathing or sleeping or talking for me. I can't live without it.

Monday
Mar282005

Why another food blog?

I'll tell you a story. Believe it or not, until a few days ago I had never even heard of blogs. Well, that's not entirely true - I'm sure I nodded and smiled when people brought them up in conversation, but I couldn't have actually told you what they were. One lazy afternoon, however, while chasing some food-related topic through the bowels of the internet, I stumbled upon what I can only describe as a hidden universe - food blogs. Considering that scarcely an hour of my day passes that doesn't involve thinking about, reading about, cooking or ingesting food, I was astonished. How could something so important have passed me by? Well, conscious of the fact that I had a lot of lost time to make up for, and letting my normal responsibilities tumble forgotten by the wayside, I started reading...and reading...and reading. And I discovered that these little personal web journals are probably the biggest thing to hit the food scene since sliced bread. Amazing! They're spontaneous and honest (not to mention appetite-whetting) and they bring people together who love food and allow us to share our thoughts, opinions and even our dinners in a way previously only highly-paid food writers could. But you know all that.

So... now that the paint is drying on my shiny new blog, let me tell you a bit about why I've jumped on the bandwagon, and what I hope to make of these pages. Basically, I want to create a digital space where I can organise and explore all of the various strands of food-related thought that occupy my head at any given time. I have spent years stockpiling recipes, techniques, impressions and images of food as I have traveled and lived in different countries. I don't know how useful any of this will be to the wider world, but I've realized that if I don't start to get some of it down in written form I will just simply forget most of it. I don't think I'll have the patience to keep a daily journal of what I ate, I don't think I'll be linking to all the latest food-related articles in the press, and you won't find many bite-by-bite accounts of restaurant meals (at least, until I can afford them); instead I want to write about general themes of food, taste, enjoyment and how this varies from place to place. Human beings seem to have an infinite capacity for invention when it comes to foods, and the fusion of edible materials is conceptualized in completely different ways depending on the history, the climate and the society of the people who cook them. In many ways I feel that the best way to understand a culture is to understand its food. I find this one of the most fascinating things in the world, and I hope to share some of this fascination with you through this site. Likewise, I hope you'll take the time to share some of your own experiences, observations, and opinions with me!

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