Time to write about one of my favourite cafés in Brussels: Aksum. Their great coffee, sprinkled with nutmeg, is hardly a secret, and housed in a small venue decked out with vintage ethiopian furniture, they are often busy. Their hot chocolate is perfect, standing strong against the stiff competition in Brussels. But for me, the true star of this café is a cake – the passionfruit dacquoise. A thin layer of crème brûlée makes it perfectly crispy on top, which is followed by a velvety, intense passion fruit cream inside, and finished with a soft and chewy bottom of almond meringue. I cannot get enough of it. This beauty is actually not made by Aksum, but sourced from a local Marolles patisserie called Secret Gourmand (a hidden gem for ordering whole cakes). Apart from the delicious passionfruit dacquiose, they also serve pistachio and cherry cake, lime and almond cake, and a chocolate cake I never had the pleasure to try. But these cakes, coupled with the friendly service, delicious coffee and nice venue, makes it a good place for a Sunday treat.
Should you be heavily into coffee, Aksum is also a good place to shop – they import coffee beans from around the world, which is ground in a lovely old school grinder by the door. If you want to take some home, they have a selection of different beans and ways of grinding them. The Finnish owner gives clear advice about the best kind of coffee (and takes the time to answer emails about it). Finally, a little trivia for the Swedophiles: you might think of Italians first when listing coffee drinking nations, but people in the Nordics are even more crazy about their caffeine.
This is my great grandmother Rut’s recipe, and perhaps my favourite recipe of all time. My grandmother, who would make this on Sundays, was born in a small unpronounceable village called Djurröd in Skåne. Only 84 people live in Djurröd. The centre of Djurröd looks like this, and perhaps the desolate nature of Djurröd explains why my family still eats chicken with plums and apples when other Swedes save it for medieval themed-feasts. But who cares – the sauce accompanying this chicken is superbly savoury, creamy and sweet, and the cucumber pickle goes beautifully with it.
- 1 whole chicken
- 1 apple
- 12 prunes
- Chicken stock cube
- 2 dl cream
- 50 grams butter
- Chinese soy
- Sugar, salt and white pepper to taste
- Boiled potatoes, to serve
Start by cleaning and preparing the chicken. Untangle the wings if they’ve been tucked into the back, cut off unnecessary fatty bits (by the neck and back), and remove any leftovers of feathers. Cut the chicken in half through the filets with a sharp knife, and rub it all over with the salt and white pepper. It’s handy to keep it in a mix on the table as you prepare the chicken.
When you’re done preparing the chicken, melt the butter and some tablespoons of oil in an oven-safe pan on the stove (it’s good if it has a lid, and can be put into to over, but you can also start in a frying pan and move the chicken to an over-proof form later). Add the chicken to the pan, and let it fry gently for about five minutes on each side. Brush it with chinese soy whilst it’s frying. Then add three decilitres of water, one cube of chicken stock, and put it into the oven on 200 degrees. In the meantime, peel the potatoes and let them rest in cold water. Start making the cucumber salad (recipe further below).
After about 30 minutes, take out the pan, prick the chicken and pour the juices from the pan all over it (make sure the filets face upwards). Add the prunes and apples to the pan, and put it back into the oven. Try to push the apples and prunes towards the bottom of the pan, or below the chicken. After another 15 minutes, take it out again to again douse it in juice. Put the pan back into the oven, this time without the lid on. After about another ten minutes, the chicken should be done and ready to take out. Watch the chicken carefully if it’s smaller, as the cooking time may range from 40 minutes to over one hour depending on size.
Remove the chicken from the pan, leaving the juices inside. Let the chicken rest by the side as your prepare the sauce, keeping it somewhere where it keeps its heat. Also remove the potatoes and the prunes and put somewhere else ( they’re not pretty, but you can serve them as condiments to the chicken later on). Sift the leftover juices if you prefer the sauce thin (I never minded random bits of chicken in it), and then carefully scoop out excess fat with a slotted spoon, holding the pan at an angle. Mix in some flour with a whisk, as well as sugar, and let it come to the boil and thicken. Then add two deciliters cream (or to taste, depends on how strong you want the sauce), and spice is more with salt, white pepper and soy according to taste. Remember that the sauce should be a little bit to strong in flavour on the tongue on its own, as it needs to liven up both the chicken and the potatoes. Serve the newly boiled potatoes with the pickled cucumber, chicken pieces and sauce right away.
Pressgurka is a classic component of Swedish traditional food (husmanskost) and can be served alongside most dishes where lingonberry jam would also feel at home. It is sweet and tangy, and contrasts perfectly to salty Swedish dishes such as roast chicken, fried herring, or even meatballs. You need:
- Half a cucumber
- 1 dl water
- 1 tablespoon ättika. Ättika is a form of Swedish vinegar, you’ll be able to get it at any Nordic shop. I haven’t tried making pressgurka with other kinds of vinegar, but perhaps that would work too. The proportions would have to be different, though: ättika is 24% acetic acid, and is therefore very strong and inedible to use just as it is; malt vinegar is typically 3% acetic acid, balsamic vinegar about 6%.
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- A small bunch curled leaf parsley (flat leaf is also fine, as the taste different isn’t huge: however the curled leaf smells more like fennel and dill to me, which is closer to the Nordic cooking tradition).
Making pressgurka is very easy. Slice the cucumber with a cheese-slicer, and squeeze it gently with your hands for about one minute. Mix together the ättika, water, salt, white pepper, and parsley, and put in the fridge for at least one hour. Serve alongside the chicken.
Behold the best tapas I’ve ever had. Two weeks ago I was in Barcelona, and was lucky enough to be taken to Cuidad Contal. Ciudad Contal is the old name for Barcelona, and also a beautiful and popular tapas bar.
Arriving in the afternoon, we avoided the worst queues and were seated rather rapidly after a quick, ice cold beer in the bar (and very cheap at that). The bar had a beautiful display of some of the cold, prepared tapas, and I fell straight away for a beautiful creature resembling a black egg with pink stuff coming out of it. Once seated, Victor managed to decipher my description and ordered fig with mascarpone and jamon (montadito de higo, mascarpone y jamón ibérico, below).
If it’s possible to pick one favourite from the various tapas dishes, this would be it. The sweet, crispy fig mixed with the velvety and rich mascarpone posed a perfect contrast to the salty jamon. It’s no revolutionary dish or combination, but proof that classics are classics for a reason.
Aside from my personal star of the table, a favourite between the three of us was the black rice (arroz negro con sepia). This was also displayed at the bar, steaming and glittering, and quickly vanishing. Just as the other dishes, it was very simple: rice with squid ink and gently cooked octopus, served with a dollop of allioli. It was also accompanied by small pieces of bread rubbed in tomato, olive oil and salt (pa amb tomaquet), which were perfect for scooping the rice. This staple way of making bread has won my heart over, after a long struggle against indulging in olive oil.
We also ordered in some grilled green peppers, doused in sea salt flakes (pimientos del padrón). The grill made them smoky in a mellow way, which contrased very well to the sweetness of the pepper and the salt.
The deep fried baby squid (calamares a la andaluza) was incredibly tender and juicy, perfect with a little dash of lemon. We finished this very, very quickly. Such a simple dish, yet with the added lemon, one of the most bite-friendly things ever.
The seafood at this place was so tender it’s difficult to compare it to anything. The gambas (gambas a la plancha) were no exception. I would assume these were steamed, then quickly dressed before going onto the table. They were too hot to hold when they arrived. Again, delicious.
Victor’s personal choice was a little entrecote on a stick (montadito de solomillo). It was charred in the edges and oozing red inside, absolutely perfectly cooked. Blissful.
All in all this was a near-perfect meal (I’m not sure what could be changed gastronomically to improve it). If you’re in Barcelona, you should ignore the fact that this magnificent place is placed at the bottom of touristy La Ramblas, as well as the fact that it’s packed nearly all the time. You should just dive in, and gratefully accept a cold beer (or three) while you wait for a precious table. Our meal landed at 17 euros each with was a bargain given the high quality of the food, and I simply cannot recommend it highly enough. 9,5 meatballs out of 10.
Last week my best friend and I discovered a little gem in Saint Gilles called Cafe des Spores. It’s a restaurant specialising completely in mushrooms. We thought it sounded quirky, as well as brilliant – we are both mushroom lovers. But we didn’t expect it to be exquisite gourmet food.
The meal began with three little dishes: truffle soup, fried mushroom dumplings and stuffed champignons. The truffle soup was delicious, and as expected with truffle, the smell was divine. The dumplings were nice, but probably my least favourite part of the meal – indeed tasty, but rather simple.
However, the stuffed champignons were spectacular, on many levels. First of all, they arrived sprinkled in some sort of dried fish flakes, which fluttered like butterflies in the heat for several minutes. Marianne and I were so freaked out about it that we had to ask the waitress if part of the food was alive. She just giggled at us. Having overcome our fear, we dug in and were shocked by the taste explosion. Tangy ginger, umami-fishy flakes, rich meaty stuffing and mellow mushroom mixing wildly. Perhaps that sounds weird, and it was, but it was also absolutely delicious.
For starters we had a salad of watermelon, tomato and mushroom (pictured at the top of the post). It was very refreshing as the sweet and sour flavours came together with the dense mushrooms rather unexpectedly. But it was very tasteful, and we scooped everything off the plate rather quickly. We also has mushroom gnocchi, which was mellow and autumnal, tasting of porcini (although, as can be seen from the picture, it was some other sort of mushroom – I’d never tried it before). It wasn’t as sensational as the salad, and the gnocchi were a bit too soft, but it was still nice.
For mains there were two choices: duck with girolles and a salmon dish. As salmon is more staple than chicken in Sweden, we both opted for the duck, especially as it was accompanied by our favourite mushroom. The duck was perfectly pink inside, and the girolles packed with flavour. While it looks like a rather small main, it was just the perfect size at this point.
Since none of us are dessert people, we opted for the cheese with cherries instead of mushroom-infused sweet stuff (which would perhaps be the most intriguing part of the menu). The truffle pecorino was very strong, and tangy to the point where it almost hurt our mouths. It was again something of a taste sensation, and a perfect finish to the meal.
These unexpected taste trips coupled with high-quality house wine, friendly service and nice atmosphere meant it was a lovely food experience, perhaps the best I’ve had in Brussels so far. The bill, which came at 71 euros, felt perfectly reasonable given the high quality of the food. I will definitely be going here again. Nine meatballs out of ten.
This is a rather short post, just a little shout-out to the best herring sandwich I ever had (I wrote about this Swedish delicacy and how to make it at home a while back). Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending my cousin’s wedding in the Swedish mountains, at Hotel Fjällgården in Åre, close to the border of Norway. The scenery is, as might be expected, breathtaking, but being an utter food-pig this sandwich was the star of my weekend. (Apart from the beautiful bride, of course).
This sandwich was more voluptuous than a normal matjessillmacka, as it was much bigger and, frankly a bit excessive. It had all the key building blocs: delicious matjes herring (the best kind, in my humble opinion), Swedish soured cream (gräddfil), red onion, chives, potato, warm sweet dark bread and boiled eggs. In addition, it was sprinkled with small bits of beetroot and capers, which sharpened the salty-sweet scale. But the magic ingredient was clarified butter, which was doused (very generously) on top and gave it a sweet, even caramelised flavour. Hardly healthy, of course, but ridiculously delicious. Not that one passes by Åre every other day, but if you do, make sure to take a trip up the ski slope to Fjällgården, for this sandwich is absolutely worth the hike.
In a few weeks, my MESC brother and bästis in Brussels is leaving Europe for Dubai, to start a life hopefully not too void of cheese. This post is dedicated to him and one of his Spanish dishes: a perfect tortilla. Before trying this potato tortilla I never liked Spanish omelette (as we call it in Sweden), but this is so perfectly creamy and simple that you can’t help but help yourself, several times. In this hot weather, it’s also perfect picnic material, not to mention a good destination for various things you find in the fridge. Key for a successful tortilla is a good pan, so that you can flip it easily and it cooks without sticking too much. You can put anything in it, but my favourite is either simply potato or potato and chorizo. The recipe below is for potato and chorizo.
- 6 eggs
- 4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into slices
- 1/4 chorizo ring, chopped very coarsely
- Olive oil (Jamie Oliver-amounts)
- 2 medium onions
- Salt and pepper to taste
Start by chopping the onions, and frying them in large amounts of olive oil. Stir often so that you can maintain a high heat. When the onions are frying, chop the chorizo, and add it to the pan once the onion has browned properly. Add some more oil, and fry for a few more minutes. Remove the onion and chorizo from the pan and put to a side. Start frying the potatoes, again in large amounts of olive oil. The potatoes should be cooked when you starting putting together the tortilla, so this part can take up to 25 minutes (alternatively, have two pans going to save time – there’s no reason why the onions and chorizo cool down on the side other than that our messy nine-person house has three broken hoovers but only one decent frying-pan). The potatoes are done when they break easily under the pressure of a wooden spoon or something else blunt.
Whisk together the eggs with some salt and pepper, and add the chorizo and onions, as well as the fried potatoes. Pour this into the pan, again preluded by a splash of olive oil, and cook on a medium heat. Both the heat from the pan and the potatoes will make the eggs cook, so this part is pretty quick. Stir the mixture after about one minute, so that the cooked bits from the bottom are dispersed around the tortilla.
After a few minutes, once the bottom and the sides start setting, it’s time to turn the tortilla. This can be a bit tricky. Take a large plate, put on top of the frying pan, and hold it very firmly against the pan as you turn it upside down so that the chorizo lands on the plate. Slide it from the plate back into the pan onto the uncooked side, and cook it for another few minutes. Here’s it’s crucial to be careful that it’s not cooking for too long – you want it to be creamy inside, and not too brown on the outside. The flipping process should look something like this (although smiling like an idiot is not obligatory):
The tortilla is ready to eat straight away, but it doesn’t suffer from cooling down a bit. If you are taking it to the park it’s important to let it cool before you pack it up, as it can get a bit soggy otherwise. It’s delicious with a good tomato and basil salad.
Unfortunately, Sweden isn’t really a cheese country. Moving to the UK altered my relationship with Swedish cheese for good, as I realised that even the English do it much, much better than us. Rather predictably, this alienation has only increased since I moved to cheese-loving Belgium. However, there is one exception to the Swedish cheese rule: Västerbottensost. It’s about the only internationally famous Swedish cheese aside from mesost (a sweet, caramel-tasting soft cheese from the north. I refrain from comment). Västerbottensost is skinny for a cheese, and quite salty. Friends who ate it this weekend likened it to parmesan, but nuttier. And it melts and browns beautifully in a very rich quiche (Västerbottenpaj). I was lucky to have two Swedish friends visiting this weekend to help out making one.
- 300 grams Västerbottensost (one piece is normally about 400 g). It’s an expensive cheese, as supply is limited. Needless to say, they don’t stock it in IKEA, but you should be able to find it in any Nordic food shop.
- 100 grams butter
- Slightly less than 2 dl flour
- 2 eggs
- 2 dl cream
- salt an pepper to taste
Start by chopping the butter, mixing it in with the flour. Once a dough is formed, add two tablespoons of cold water and form to a ball. Put the ball in the middle of round cake-tin, and push it out towards the corners until it covers the entire tin. Prick it all over with a fork, and pre-cook it in the oven for 10 minutes at 200 degrees.
Grate all the cheese and mix it with the eggs, cream and salt, together with some black pepper. Once the quiche base has been in the over for 10 minutes, take it out, and carefully pour the cheese mix into it. Put it back into the oven for another 30 minutes (keep a close eye on the it, but don’t panic it if the cheese goes a bit brown: it’s meant to look rather dark when it’s done). Let cool for a while before you serve it, because it’s best served lukewarm (or lagom warm for this sort of quiche – lukewarm sounds a bit meh). It’s very rich, so it is best accompanied by some other dishes too. Enjoy!