Monday, 18 August 2014

The well-fed pescatarian cooks stuffed courgette flowers

It has always been something of an ambition of mine to cook stuffed courgette flowers, but the opportunity has never really arisen, until recently. On a family holiday to Tuscany that saw three generations of Dodds all staying in a stunning farmhouse in the hills, I spotted the all-important ingredient - courgette flowers.

My mum was buying vegetables at one of the stands during the weekly market in Ponte a Moriano and there in a pile were the freshest and most tempting-looking courgette flowers I have ever seen. If I was ever going to cook this delicacy, now was the perfect time.

I rejoined the rest of the family at a small cafe on the edge of the square clutching my bag full of courgette flowers and not doing a good job of hiding my excitement. But despite the yellow blooms being the vital part of the dish, you also need to have something to stuff inside them, so off I skipped to the local cheese shop.

My Spanish-influenced attempts at Italian helped me establish that the shop did not sell ricotta, but had something similar and I bought the lot. The kind man behind the counter was patient with me, but when I clearly didn't understand something he was trying to explain to me, he called for a younger assistant from the back. He told me in excellent English that I needed to rub the cheese with olive oil to bring out the flavour.

Back at the villa I did add some olive oil and since the cheese was firmer than ricotta, I chopped it up as small as I could, while adding herbs and garlic. Our accommodation had minimal items in the larder, so we had to buy even the simplest of additions for meals. With this in mind, I made a beer batter, as alcohol was something we were not in short supply of!

It is safe to say that stuffing courgette flowers is a fairly fiddly process. First you need to cut off the stalks and remove the stamens from the centre. This should be done carefully so as not to tear the petals, giving the potential for the filling to ooze out. Twisting the tops once they have been filled helps to keep everything in place, then it is just a case of dipping them in the batter and frying them. Eating them hot is a must.

One member of our party is not particularly keen on cheese, so I made an artichoke and tomato alternative for her. We all ended up trying this variation, which was pretty good, although the cheesy stuffed courgette flowers were definitely the favourites.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Discovering my grandfather's 1940s travel album

We are lucky enough to live in a time when many exciting opportunities are open to us, with travel being chief among these. It is very easy to take such experiences for granted and forget just how amazing it is to be able to travel to the other side of the world in a matter of hours as opposed to months and jet off for a weekend in another country for a relatively small amount of money.

All of this was put into perspective for me recently when I came across a photo album of my grandfather's from the 1940s. I cannot describe the extreme excitement I felt as I turned the pages and saw titles such as 'Palestine', 'Cairo' and 'The Island of Masirah'.

My grandpa was a wartime pilot at 19-years-old and such travels as a young man were the result of a terrible conflict, which many would not return from. What struck me about the small black and white images lovingly fixed onto the pages was that they showed a group of friends enjoying the time they had to explore these exotic locations.

This could be due to the huge relief of having time off between dangerous missions and not knowing whether they would survive. It must also have been coupled with the thrill of being in such far flung places, the chances of which to visit never having been opened up to ordinary men from Chingford before. But first and foremost, these were young men in their early 20s having an opportunity to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

There are photos of famous sites and the men in uniform, but also pictures of them posing with an elephant, meeting the Sultan of Muscat and one of them wrapped in towels entitled 'A bathing party'. This sudden glimpse into the life of my grandfather as a young man travelling the world was fascinating.

But the album opened up as many questions as it answered, as the names of places and notes in pencil only told part of the story. The only dates to be found were on a picture of a 1945 victory dinner menu and a round-up of the Miss Masirah 1945 competition. A photo of my grandmother is shown as being voted highly commended!

People did not take thousands of photos in those days like we do today and it is impossible to know over what time frame these events took place. My suspicion is that it is several years and this travel album depicts the high points in what was a very difficult time.

While it is obvious where the pages entitled 'The Fourteen Stations of the Cross' and 'Cairo' were taken, as the book progresses, the clues are harder to decipher. I knew that my grandfather was involved in an aircraft crash in Burma and presumed that the photos taken of temples were in the country.

My research has not come up with a definite location for the place he has called the Putiaram Temple, but the photos taken at the same time are most definitely India. They are of Howrah and Jagganath Temple in Puri. This suggests that my initial suspicions that the pictures are from Burma stems from an over-reliance on context as opposed to the facts.

The Island of Masirah was obviously a Royal Air Force base and looking into it, I have found it was in operation as a staging post from the 1930s up until 1977. Many men have spent time on the island 15 miles off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea and it appears to have been a place of great comradeship, which it is safe to say, can be seen in grandpa's photos.

Another location that seems to hold happy memories for Flight Officer Peter Dodd and his friends is The Gezira Club, which I have since discovered is the oldest of its kind in Africa. Situated on the island Zamalek in Cairo, it was built in 1882 and is still an exclusive club to be a member of to this day.

As well as the main body of the album, slotted into the back are a number of things, including a guide to the sites of Jerusalem - a precursor to the ubiquitous Lonely Planet books of today. This simple folded sheet of paper shows there was an appetite for tourists to explore the Holy Land even then.

After the war, my grandpa continued to travel and always kept his flight log up-to-date. Later entries show the types of aircraft he and my grandmother flew on as they journeyed to holiday destinations all over the world. Always recorded was the pilot's name, alongside the date, time and flight details.