Friday, 23 September 2011

Taking my camera for a walk in Christiania

I have mentioned before the photowalks run by LINK and the September photowalk was not one to be missed. The destination being Christiania this was an opportunity to stroll through a very special part of Copenhagen and to have a closer look behind the scenes in an 'edgier' part of town.
Tell anybody in this city that you are going to take pictures in Christiania and they will rightly tell you that  'you're not allowed to take photos'. And it's true that along 'Pusher street', the main drag (pardon the pun), next to the stalls openly offering cannabis for sale there are signs banning cameras. Heather (the leader of our photowalk) instructed us not only to put our cameras away but to make sure they were out of sight. This wasn't, as I understood it, at risk of being mugged, but rather an act of deference to the people of Christiania and their request for privacy.
Because we had to put our cameras away for part of the walk, the great thing about the visit to Christiania was the challenge to capture the essence of the place in not just the pictures but through the experience of it too. Far too often new places are only seen through a camera lens!
I had heard about Christiania before we moved to Copenhagen. When we were looking for a place to live we had found a couple of contenders in nearby Christianshavn. Looking at the map and seeing the 'freetown', I wondered whether it was a hippie type place full of artists and free spirits or a more threatening neighbourhood of drug pushing and crime. As an outsider I simply didn't know. One Danish friend did say that with young children we would have nothing to worry about but once the children grew to be teenagers it might be of more concern!
In any event, we moved to the north of the city centre but Christiania continued to intrigue and I was eager to find out more when the chance to visit presented itself. It turns out that the freetown turns 40 this year and during the last four decades it has caused a good deal of controversy.
In summary, it started out as an area of military barracks (including some sites where the executions of world war II collaborators took place) that became home to squatters. The cannabis trade that ensued was tolerated until the beginning of this century. Since then battles have been raging in the courts to normalise the legal status of the 'freetown' and, as I understand it, negotiations have gone back and forth and they continue.
Learning of its history and walking through its heart, I saw in Christiania what I had expected for the most part: an eclectic mix of colours, textures and smells. It was not too dissimilar to walking through parts of Camden in London (except much quieter and, being car free, more 'chilled'). What I hadn't expected was the beauty of the residential areas. Each home seemed to be an expression of individual style and I found myself envying the idyllic settings of the waterfront properties. There was also an attention to detail that caught my eye: colourful timbers, painted murals, bright pitchers on the front porch and flowers in the windows.
It was a wonderful morning and my daughter and I enjoyed the stroll (it turned out to be the perfect space for a toddler to explore - no cars and lots to look at) and, when she napped in the buggy, I had the chance to take photos. That's one of the great things about photowalks - they are all about time dedicated to taking pictures, which is so difficult in the busy-ness of everyday life. If you're interested, Heather is leading a Copenhagen photowalk on Saturday 1 October as part of a Worldwide Photowalk organised by American photographer Scott Kelby. This is open to all and places are available on a first come, first served basis. For more information and to sign up, click here. Maybe see you there...

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Baklava for the beauty of it

If you don't count the calories (and I don't) then baklava is one of the desserts nearest to perfection. The wonderful flavours and sticky sweet texture are mirrored in the aesthetic pleasure of its preparation. Growing up, Middle Eastern sweets were regular visitors to our dining table. My father often made baklava's close relative konafa (known sometimes as kataifi). When we were in Egypt and the fresh hair-like pastry was readily available, he would love to make it for the family and I have memories of keeping him company as he sat at the table patiently separating the delicate strands before painstakingly coating them in melted butter.
Since we arrived in Denmark I've been on the lookout for filo pastry in the supermarkets. It has taken more than six months but I recently found some frozen pastry and so this week I decided to make a tray of the pastries for my family. If I'm honest, there isn't nearly enough chocolate in baklava for my husband and my son picks out the nuts and leaves the pastry in a sticky mess and my eighteen month old daughter is probably a bit young just now for the sugar overload. Yes, the truth is, I wanted to make a tray just for the sheer beauty and pleasure of it!!! I sometimes wonder if such motivations are just heavily disguised pangs of homesickness - who knows...
My recipe for baklava is from Claudia Roden's brilliant Book of Middle Eastern Food. I have the 1986 edition and it is nearly as dog-eared and marked up as the original 1968 edition that lives amongst my parents' cookery books. It's not your usual recipe book - there are no photographs or pictures of the food - but there are pencil sketches that illustrate some of the stories and local folklore that are behind the many authentic recipes and these are set out in some length.
One of the things that does make me laugh about Ms Roden's recipes but is so typical of the way cooking is done in the Middle East (or at least so far as I have experienced it amongst the Egyptians), the quantities of the food are large and there is no concept of a particular recipe serving a given number of people eg 'serves 4' or 'makes 8 helpings'. Each recipe will make enough of a dish to feed a large family with plenty left over for a couple of days. That's the wonderful thing about the Egyptians - they live to eat and not the other way around.
Getting back to the baklava, Ms Roden's introduction to the recipe makes reference to a tale from the time of the Ottoman Empire when such pastries first began to appear in ancient writings. She then goes on to describe the role that baklava and konafa play in Middle Eastern life (it is eaten at weddings and celebrations but also amongst friends with a glass of hot tea) and describes the pastries as easy and cheap to prepare at home.
Of course, nothing in Denmark is cheap and I am afraid I could not find pistachios except in little packets of 55g each costing over £2. The recipe calls for 375g and so this was never going to be a 'cheap' dessert! As I have already mentioned, I was the only one likely to eat the pastry,  so I decided to scale down the quantities.
Some people reading this might wonder why I haven't inherited a recipe for baklava from my Egyptian grandmother or my aunts and cousins. Unfortunately, my grandmother Samira died before I had a chance to ask her about this and many other things. When I spent my summers in Egypt with my cousins, I was up to mischief and for the most part tried to keep out of her way. I had no idea then of the things that I might have asked her to teach me. Such is the ignorance of youth and I hope that, if she was watching down on me this week, my efforts didn't disappoint her too badly.
For her part, Ms Roden swears that the secret to a good baklava is to make sure that the syrup is very cold when it is poured over the freshly baked and still hot pastry. For this reason, I have always made the syrup the night before I plan to do the baking. I leave the syrup in the fridge overnight and then pour it over the pastry as it comes out of the oven. So far, it has always worked a treat.
If you are reading this post hoping for a recipe then I am sorry to disappoint you - it would be unfair to reproduce Ms Roden's recipe without the lengthy narrative that gives the dessert its context. I can however hazard a guess at how my grandmother would have explained it to me if I had asked her: Make the syrup but be careful not to let it turn to toffee. Chop the nuts, add some sugar and sprinkle with orange blossom water. Melt the butter. 'How much?', I would ask her, 'About this much' she would say taking an unquantified dollop of ghee from the big tin in the kitchen. 'Or maybe more'. Then I can imagine her laying each sheet of filo pastry in the sanaaya (a round shallow metallic baking dish) brushing each one with the melted butter, adding the chopped nuts mixture and layering the rest on top. If I asked how long it should bake for, I imagine the answer would be, 'Until its ready'. She wouldn't have had a timer or watched the clock but she would know what a baklava looked like when it was ready. Baking these pastries wasn't something that my grandmother and other Egyptian women (especially of her generation) had to learn from a book, it was in their blood.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Ten years ago today I agreed to meet a man I didn't know...

I was on the way home from work, on the bus, when my mobile phone rang and I knew it was the guy that my friend had been telling me about. She hadn't met him but she knew his sister and they both thought that we should be set up - a blind date.

I was a newly qualified barrister, living the twenty-somthing life in London and working too hard. My career was everything to me and I got up early to start work and worked late. I worked at the weekends and on public holidays. This guy was also working hard. He was a banker and spent long hours in front of screens, taking a break only to go to the gym. We had one thing in common, we both needed a distraction.

I don't remember much from that first phone call but, of course, we made plans to meet and then I do remember that he stalled hanging up and asked me about my day. How lovely of him to show an interest.

On Saturday 8 September 2001, we met for the first time. He had been sent photos of me and I was told he was dark haired and would probably be wearing dark clothing (these were his words!). It was a lovely first date: lunch at Giraffe in Hampstead and a walk on the heath. I was on the way home, on the bus, when he called to ask to see me again.

It was my first (and will likely be my only!) blind date and ten years, four homes, one wedding, two kids, two countries, many laughs (and a few tears) later, here we are. The career that was my most pressing priority is on hold and now I have very different routines filling my days. It feels like we have been through so much together and yet I hope there is much more to come.

If anyone had shown me then a snapshot of our life now, I would have struggled to believe it. So today, as I think back over our time together, I wonder where the next 10 years will take us. Wherever we go, I hope we go together. That dark stranger has become my best friend and that day back in 2001 was the beginning of something very special.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Torvehallerne - a mecca for foodies

According to Berlingske, Toverhallerne has been 14 years in the making. The covered food market, which covers an area of 2400m², is the work of architect Hans Peter Hagens and the doors were finally opened to the food loving masses of Copenhagen on Friday morning. Israels Plads was buzzing with excitement (and packed with bikes) when I got off the bus after only a very short ride from our home in Østerbro.
Between the two massive (and there really is no other word) food halls, there is something for everyone: baked goods, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, chocolate, oils, teas, breads, flowers...
I had arrived with a shopping list hoping to pick up everything I needed for the weekend but I soon realised this would be a hopeless endeavour. Abandoning my list, I fished out my camera and together with my daughter we trailed around stall after stall of culinary delights...
Everywhere we turned there were smells, colours and textures that caught our attention and we stopped to take a closer look. Overwhelming? It would have been if I had tried to form any kind of agenda. Instead, we simply let our senses guide us through and distraction was the order of the day. These pictures are our souvenirs.

We didn't even make it to the second hall, it was, relatively speaking, a flying visit. When we had both reached sensory overload, we left, and almost empty handed too - this was only because with a 17 month old baby in tow, I didn't have enough hands to manage her and my camera and the exchange of money. However, we will be back and at the very least because there is the promise of Torvehallerne being open for business on Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm!!! Hooray!