Monday, October 1, 2012

Corsica, France: A WWOOFer's Paradise

Sitting beneath the shade of some old olive trees, munching on freshly made yogurt cake, Anni, the organic farmer I was staying with as a WWOOfer (a volunteer with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) asked me, "So why did you choose Corsica?"

I paused and thought of this scene from the previous week when I was just a plain old tourist careening down narrow roads with my husband in our rented Hyundai:

Corsica is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean, situated west of Italy and southeast of France. The sapphire blue water of the eleven kilometer Strait of Bonifacio separates it from Sardinia - its Italian cousin to the south. With abundant fresh water, fertile soil, and numerous vantage points across the ocean, the island has been a location worth defending since Mesolithic times. I would argue that its stunning coastal scenery...

...and porky inhabitants might also have something to do with its appeal.

Scenery and food. Those were definitely at the top of our list of reasons to visit Corsica. My husband was mostly interested in discovering the best coastlines for swimming and exploring tide pools... well as tasting Corsica's little-known wines made from indigenous grape varieties like Nielluccio, Sciaccarello, and Vermentino.

Almost lost to industrial wine-making, which did not favor local grapes, these native varieties are making a huge come-back thanks to people like Marc Imbert of Domaine de Torraccia and Elisabeth Quilichini of Castellu di Barrici. These heritage winemakers strive to produce quality wines that reflect the flavors of the strong Mediterranean sun and granite soil of Corsica.

But viticulture and oenology are not the only things going for Corsica, gastronomically speaking. The once self-sufficient island also produces flavorful fruits, vegetables, and nuts - like figs, citron, Swiss chard, and chestnuts - that are transformed into rustic dishes that please the palate and soothe the soul. Pungent but deliciously meaty charcuterie is made from the acorn-fed pigs that roam the island, and shepherds still tend flocks of sheep and goats whose rich milk is turned into flavorful cheeses.

With its abundance of stunning scenery, good food, and twenty different WWOOF farms - ranging from vineyards to cheese-making sheep operations - to choose from, Corsica was the ideal place for me to give WWOOFing a try for the first time.

Anni and Philippe, the owners of L'Ortunlinu - the only certified organic farm in Bonifacio, Corsica - welcomed me into their modest home where I quickly adapted to a routine of:

...weeding rows of plants and clearing fields early in the morning...

...dining on simple lunches showcasing the rich flavors of freshly harvested vegetables from their farm...

...enjoying siestas on the beach in the heat of the afternoon...

...and finishing the day by harvesting produce to sell at Bonifacio's farmer's market or the Ortulinu shop front in town.

Thanks to jovial conversations with Anni, Philippe, and other farmers in the area, I learned a lot about Corsican agriculture and experienced first-hand the pleasures of a different rhythm of life spent outside working with the plants we set on our tables every day without even a thought.

Although a recent Stanford University study shows that there is no nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown produce, Anni and Philippe have confirmed for me that there is a taste difference (and I suspect an overall health difference). I believe this comes from the absence of pesticides and fertilizers, healthy soil, and the fact that the produce is harvested right before going to market.

After leaving their farm, where I feasted on fresh, sticky-sweet figs for a week...

...the conventional figs I bought while in transit back to Niger just weren't the same.

L'Ortulinu Yogurt Cake

*This recipe uses the 125 gram yogurt cup as a unit of measure. Perfect if you don't have measuring cups around! It is featured in my article: Corsica, France: A WWOOFer's Paradise

3 eggs
150 grams melted butter OR 6 soup spoons of oil
2 yogurt cups of unrefined cane sugar
3 yogurt cups flour (can be all-purpose, whole wheat, or a mix)
1 yogurt cup
1 packet OR 1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven at 210 C.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar with a wire whisk.
Add the melted butter or oil and beat well.
Add the yogurt and continue beating until well incorporated.
Add the flour and baking powder and mix until you have a smooth batter.
Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan.

Lower the oven to 180 C and place the pan on the middle rack.

Bake for roughly 30 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Kopto (Moringa oleifera): One solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger

My travel companion opened a large Tupperware box and a very pungent, earthy-sour smell with a hint of sugar enveloped our old Toyota Land Cruiser. Her lunch consisted of roasted chicken thighs and some type of cooked leafy green. I turned my head away in a vain attempt to lessen the impact of her lunch on my nostrils and looked out at the dry, sandy landscape rolling by my window. Monoculture and deforestation had clearly taken their toll on the environment in this part of southern Niger. Men with handmade hoes were breaking through the parched earth to uproot desiccated millet stalks, piling them onto rickety wooden carts pulled by beleaguered donkeys. It had recently drizzled in this area of the country, so the farmers were preparing to sow their millet fields. If Niger does not receive an adequate amount of rainfall this year and these farmers’ crops die, the country, like many in the Sahel, will have to address a major food crisis. Desertification coupled with one of the highest population growth rates in the world increases Niger’s vulnerability to the consequences of crop failure - poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.

As we bounced along and my nose acclimated to the odors in the car, I realized that I was smelling something familiar. The greens in my companion's lunchbox were kopto, a type of leaf eaten in Niamey especially during the month of Ramadan. In fact, we were on our way to a kopto farm to talk to the women who cultivate it and to learn more about their proposal for packaging and selling their kopto harvests.

In Zarma, kopto means leaves in the general sense but has come to be associated specifically with the leaves from the tree Moringa oleifera. Zarma speakers also call it windibundu while Hausa speakers refer to it as zogala gandi. Moringa trees are native to northern India but are common throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its ability to thrive in areas with poor soil and low rainfall make it an ideal candidate for fighting against desertification in the Sahel. In addition, its rapid growth rate and highly nutritious leaves and beans present Niger with one compelling solution to chronic issues of malnutrition. Some Nigeriens also believe that this panacea lowers blood sugar levels, making it an ideal food for diabetics.

A niébé field bordered by moringa and papaya trees
The farm we visited was lush and green, unlike the fields we passed to get to our destination. Moringa trees were growing along the edges to demarcate each plot and serve as a windbreak for other crops such as sorgho (sorghum), millet, and niébé (black-eyed peas). In return for their protection, the Moringa trees benefit from the weeding, fertilization, and irrigation of the other crops. The multiple harvests provided by the quick-growing leaves ensure that the farmers have a source of income and food when the other crops are not producing. One of the few drawbacks to this plant is the fact that it requires irrigation in the first months of its life until it becomes established and can survive on sparse rainfall alone.

After showing us their fields, the women took us to see their homes where they dried the Moringa leaves on their roofs. They explained to us that this situation is not ideal because the leaves lose nutrients when exposed to sunlight. In addition, they lacked proper storage and packaging facilities, so the dried leaves were kept piled-up on the dirt floors of their one-room huts until market day. Before leaving the village, one of the women gave me some freshly cooked moringa leaves in an effort to convert me. Although I love the kopto dish associated with Ramadan, I decided to try making a wheat-berry salad with the leaves. It has become a regular side dish at meals in my home, but it could easily be a light lunch since the wheat-berries are filling and the kopto is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and protein.

Granaries along the road.
Crop diversity projects, like the women’s kopto cooperative I visited, benefit rural farmers who are most likely to be affected in a food crisis. By moving away from monocultures, promoting reforestation, and looking to alternative sources of food, farmers can begin to reverse the effects of desertification and improve their resiliency in times of low grain production. Organizations, like the Eden Foundation, are researching which native perennials can be planted amongst annual crops to improve soil fertility, discourage topsoil loss, and most importantly, diversify nutrition for the people. This focus on native plants addresses the issue of irrigation, a technology that is not available to everyone. Other initiatives that are working to better nutrition and food security in Niger are:

Helen Keller International: educating families about infant and young child feeding to reduce malnutrition and give children a better start in life

Africare - Niger: multiple projects addressing issues such as food security, good governance, education, and management of natural resources 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

West African Wheat Berry Salad with Kopto

This original recipe using local ingredients from my home in Niger is featured in my article, Kopto (Moringa oleifera): One solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger.

1 cup wheat berries (available at Marina Market in Niamey, le blé dur in French)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup to 1 cup cooked kopto, rinsed well (available pre-cooked in markets throughout Niamey)
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste

Put the wheat berries in a medium saucepan and cover with about two inches of water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat and allow the berries to simmer until tender (about 30 minutes).

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onions. Stir frequently until soft (about 5 minutes over high heat). Reduce heat to medium. Add the cooked kopto, raisins, peanuts, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook a few minutes more until the mixture is fragrant and glossy. Remove from the heat.

Drain the wheat berries and add them to the kopto mixture. Stir well to thoroughly combine the ingredients. You may want to add more peanuts or raisins. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve hot, room temperature, or cold.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chapalo: Millet Beer, Julia Child... and Hookers

Adamou Idé is to thank for my recent foray into one of Niamey’s red light districts. I was reading a short story from the Nigerien author's Misères et grandeurs ordinaires when I came across a line about getting drunk from “chapalo sold on the sly.” Throw together a mysterious food item with a catchy name and the phrase “on the sly” and you are guaranteed to pique my curiosity.

Paulina, font of all Nigerien knowledge, doubled over with laughter when I asked her to tell me about chapalo. She found it thoroughly amusing that I even knew about the stuff and was happy to tell me all about it. Chapalo is a type of traditional beer that is brewed in many West African countries. It is especially popular in Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. Although you can find it in Niger, it is usually produced and consumed by Togolese, Beninese, and Burkinabé immigrants living in pockets around the capital city, making it a popular target for conservative Muslims who view it as haram, or dirty and strictly forbidden. By the end of our conversation, my gardener had joined in as well. Both he and Paulina agreed that the best chapalo comes from Burkina Faso in terms of flavor and quality. So of course, my next question was, “where do you get it?”

The Burkinabé chapalo “cabaret” is tucked down the narrow alleyways of a residential neighborhood most non-residents would never even notice. From the outside, it looks like any other housing compound fenced in with straw mats tied between stripped tree branches. But once you walk through the corrugated tin door of the establishment, you realize that this place is different. Four large black cauldrons bubbling over hot, wood fires stand in the center of an open-air courtyard littered with large pans, coals, and yellow calabash bowls. A stout woman with her head tied up in a scarf stands watch over the scene. She is introduced to me as the chapalo brew master and proprietress of the cabaret. All Burkinabé chapalo is made by women, who learn the art from their mothers.

The woman explained to me that her chapalo is made from red millet, but that it can also be made of sorghum, or a combination of both. First, she washes the millet in large buckets of distilled water kept in clean, plastic garbage cans before transferring the grain to the cauldrons. These are covered and left to boil for two days, after which the contents are strained through a large, loosely woven basket into a wide, shallow pan.

Once the honey-brown liquid is collected, the pan is placed in the shade of a straw mat hangar that also serves as a bar. Yeast is added, and the chapalo is allowed to cool and ferment for one day before it is poured into old (but thoroughly washed) paint buckets from which the woman’s daughter serves the fresh brew. She uses a half-liter glass juice bottle to measure out the beer into small calabash bowls (150 CFA). For those who want their chapalo to go, she fills up whatever receptacle the customer brings - usually the ubiquitous liter-and-a-half Telwa or Rharhous water bottle (450 CFA). 

The clientele on this sleepy afternoon include students from the local university discussing a text they are leafing through, a group of cloudy-eyed old men speaking in a language that is clearly not Hausa or Zarma, a businessman in a tie reading the paper, and some women who work as housekeepers. Children run in and out of the dappled shade of the bar, stealing a sip here and there from customers who are generous enough to share what is in their bowl. The Burkinabé believe that chapalo is good for the health and begin giving it to their children from a young age. Everyone is either holding their calabash bowl or letting it rest on a hand-made tripod of thin, twisted rebar kept near their feet.

After paying for my liter-and-a-half, I took my fresh find home and shared it with friends, who said they would not trade the popular commercial Flag beer for the sour, grainy flavor of home-made chapalo. Not wanting it to go to waste, I combed through my cookbooks and came across Carbonnades à la flamande, by Julia Child. Having been raised on beer stews, I couldn’t resist the idea of combining French/Belgian cuisine and traditional West African beer. Served alongside a frosty glass of chapalo, the stew and the beer were a success! So much so, that I went back to get more chapalo…

This time, I went a little later in the day, more towards early evening than late afternoon. The crowd at the chapalo cabaret had clearly turned from the family friendly daytime group into a very male-dominated evening crowd who stared at me as I waltzed through the door. The warm, welcoming atmosphere in which I had been introduced to chapalo was replaced by a steely-eyed coldness that clearly told me to buy my chapalo and get out. On my way out the door, I noticed that the street was littered with used condoms.

The culture that surrounds chapalo is multifaceted. While it is a drink that is enjoyed by family members and close friends at a neighborhood “pub” where kids run around and play while adults share stories with whoever happens to drop in (including me), it is also a drink that is associated with prostitutes and having fun in the shadowy folds of the night – a side they don’t want to share with outsiders, much less curious foreign women.

So, curious (but not foolhardy) foreign woman that I am, I will settle for returning to my Adamou Idé novels and his characters, like those in Camisole de Paille, to better understand the world of those men and women of the night whose lives are obscured by the darkness and straw walls of the Niamey chapalo cabarets.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Carbonnades à la nigerienne (beef and onions braised in chapalo)

This recipe is featured in my article: Chapalo, Pimps, and Julia Child

3 lbs of lean beef, sliced 2 by 4 inches across and 1/2 inch thick
2 – 3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 lbs sliced onions
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 cup strong beef stock
2 – 3 cups chapalo (or light beer)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 large herb bouquet (6 parsley sprigs, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons wine vinegar

Heat about 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef in small batches and brown quickly, setting aside each batch on a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium and stir the onions into the fat already in the skillet. Add more olive oil if necessary. Brown the onions lightly, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the garlic.

Arrange half of the browned beef in a slow cooker and season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread half of the onions over the beef. Repeat with the rest of the beef and onions.

Heat the stock in the browning skillet, scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Pour it over the meat in the slow cooker. Add enough chapalo so the meat is barely covered. Stir in the brown sugar. Bury the herb bouquet among the meat slices. Cover the slow cooker and cook on high for about 4 – 5 hours or on low for about 8 – 9 hours (follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your slow cooker).

Remove the herb bouquet. Drain the cooking liquid from the slow cooker into a saucepan, and skim off the fat. Combine the starch and wine vinegar together to make a paste and beat this into the cooking liquid in the saucepan. Simmer for 3 – 4 minutes. Carefully correct seasoning. There should be about two cups of sauce. Pour the sauce back over the meat. Serve hot with potatoes or noodles.

Adapted from: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nathalie's Blinis à la courge: Squash Pancakes

500 grams squash, peel removed and cut into chunks
1 large onion, chopped
2 eggs
1 individual serving container of plain yogurt
25 grams melted butter
75 grams all-purpose flour

Fry the squash and onion in a small amount of oil over medium heat. Add salt and pepper before covering the pan, reducing the heat, and allowing the squash mixture to cook until soft.

Turn off the heat and mash the squash. Allow it to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before draining off the liquid.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Then, add the melted butter, yogurt, squash mash, flour, a dash of nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix well to combine.

Heat a small amount of oil in a small frying pan. Add a ladleful of the squash mixture to the pan and allow it to cook over medium-high heat (about 5 minutes) until the blini is half-cooked. Flip it over and continue cooking on the other side until done. Transfer the blini to a plate and keep it warm until all the batter has been used and the blinis are ready to be served.

Nathalie recommends eating them warm with a salad or cold for a picnic.

Makes 4 blinis about 6 inches in diameter

This recipe is featured in my entry Culinary Safari.

Nathalie's Granité de pasteque: Watermelon Gazpacho

1/4 watermelon
1 small red onion
1 teaspoon powdered ginger

Peel and seed the watermelon. Cut it into chunks. Peel and cut the onion into chunks. Combine watermelon, onion, ginger, salt, and pepper in a food processor and process to create a smooth soup. Transfer the soup to a large bowl and place it in the freezer for 3 to 4 hours. Stir the mixture with a fork every 20 to 30 minutes until ice crystals form and the soup develops a granita-like texture. If you don't have time to freeze it, you may serve it chilled like a traditional gazpacho.

Serves 4 to 5

This recipe is featured in my entry Culinary Safari.

Nathalie's Crème au fruit de baobab: Baobab Cream Pudding

4 Rounded Tablespoons baobab fruit powder
5 Level Tablespoons sugar
400 ml room temperature milk
100 ml milk
3 sheets of unflavored gelatin

Mix together the baobab powder and the sugar in a medium bowl. Slowly add 400 ml of room temperature milk. Mix it well to form a runny batter. Strain the mixture into another bowl to remove excess threads and bits of seed.

Soften the gelatin in enough cold water to cover the sheets. Pour 100 ml of milk into a small pot. Strain the now rubbery sheets of gelatin and add them to the pot over low heat. Stir until the sheets have completely dissolved.

Add the gelatin mixture to the baobab batter and stir well to combine. Pour the mixture into small ramekins. Leave the crème in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours to allow it to set.

Nathalie recommends serving the crème with a bissap or mango coulis. It's also delicious with a mango and pineapple fruit salad.

Serves 5

This recipe is featured in my entry, Culinary Safari.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Culinary Safari

Every time I visit Park W for a respite from the hustle and bustle of life in the big city, I leave salivating for more. Not because warthogs darting between tall clumps of dry grass make my mouth water, but because of the amazing food that is served at the Ile du lamantin Ecolodge. Nathalie, the amicable manager and chef, has developed a West African-French fusion menu that incorporates local ingredients in dishes like Crème au fruit de baobab (Baobab Fruit Cream), Terrine de tchapata (an egg-based dish with local spinach), and Pintade sauce tikadigué (Guinea Fowl with Peanut Sauce). She serves her culinary creations amidst the idyllic scenery of a small island in the middle of the Niger River.
Covered with smooth boulders and towering baobab trees, the Ile du lamantin provides the perfect backdrop for dining al fresco on fresh capitaine (a local fish) with coconut tomato sauce in the company of… bathing elephants. Being a fan of using seasonal, local ingredients, I was keen to learn about Nathalie’s recipes and asked if she would be willing to teach a cooking class. Happily, she agreed and so was born the idea for a culinary safari.

Our edible journey into the Nigerien bush started off with the capture of seven poachers. As we pulled into the park’s shady entrance, we saw rangers in camouflage uniforms hauling off a group of handcuffed, scraggly men with barely enough meat on their bones to satisfy a lion. The charred remains of their haul were left in a fly covered pile in front of the ranger station. I could make out a porcupine paw and red highlights on an antelope pelt. Bush meat is a delicacy in markets along the border between Niger and Nigeria. Animal skins, bones, and horns are also sold as key ingredients in traditional medicines and magic potions. Although some game, like warthog, can be hunted legally outside of the park, Nathalie serves whatever she can find, legally, from the markets and villages in the area. She gets fresh fish from the fishermen who pull large, 50lb capitaine from the river right in front of the lodge, and her staff members buy guinea fowl, ducks, and chickens from the farmers who live along the river.

Getting to the Ecolodge is an adventure in itself. After picking up our guides at the entrance, we jostled our way down the dirt track into the heart of the deserted park. Very few people come to Park W, and even fewer have been making the trek since the kidnappings in Niamey in January 2011. As we drove along, we came across many animals including...

...elephants foraging in a grove of trees,

...baboons lounging in the sparse shade of a dry bush,

...and warthogs running along the road with their wiry tails in the air.

The drive ended at the muddy banks of the Niger River where we loaded into a pirogue and floated down the calm waters to the island. We were greeted by Nathalie who helped us out of the boat and into our cozy thatched roof cabins scattered along a rocky outcropping on the edge of the island. That night, I fell asleep to the sounds of elephants munching on the acacia trees next to my hut, hippos grunting on the bank below, and a lion roaring just across the river.

I had never before crossed the threshold into the small but well-organized kitchen at the Ecolodge and felt like a poacher entering forbidden territory. Nathalie was prepared for our small class of three with Ile du lamantin aprons for each of us and laminated recipe cards in French and English so we could recreate the dishes at home.

She started us off with Crème au fruit de baobab. Nathalie uses baobab fruit collected from the numerous trees that erupt lava-like all over the craggy island. The whole fruit is taken to the neighboring village women who separate the dry flesh from the small black seeds that are found in the hard, furry fruit and pound it into a fine powder with wooden mortars and pestles. This powder is the base for Nathalie’s signature baobab juice and is also used in dessert and jam recipes.

Once the crème was safely in the fridge, we moved on to the Granité de pasteque. This simple recipe is perfect on a hot day, which we have many of here in Niger, and is also a terrific way to use watermelon that might not be sweet enough to eat on its own. The ruby red flakes of ice are also a nice alternative to a more traditional gazpacho- equally satisfying when the sun is scorching.

While we waited for the granité’s ice crystals to form, we began the Bavarois au gingembre. Ginger is very popular here, especially as a juice or syrup that is often served very strong with a bottle of carbonated water so you can mix the two, making your own fresh ginger ale. Nathalie’s bavarois combines milk and ginger syrup, resulting in a pudding that reminds me a lot of anin dofu, a soft gelatin dessert served with ginger syrup in Hong Kong.

The final recipe of our 3-hour class was Blinis à la courge. This savory pancake makes use of the pumpkin-like squashes that are ubiquitous in Niamey, most notably floating in the Niger River by the Kennedy Bridge as they are unloaded from the giant pirogues that bring them from surrounding villages like Boubon (pictured). The blinis, served room temperature with a cool pasta salad, the Granité de pasteque, and Crème au fruit de baobab for dessert, make the perfect lunch for a warm (read blistering) Nigerien afternoon.

Nathalie has kindly allowed me to share some of her recipes from the cooking class on this blog. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Cooking on the Ile du lamantin is a creative and unique souvenir from Niger that will enrich my kitchen repertoire no matter where I’m living. Thank you Nathalie and all of the staff at the Ecolodge!