Scraping Together — an Exercise in (Foodie) Improvisation

While we’re in lockdown with Covid-19, clearly we’re not travelling. During the shutdown of daily life due to this pandemic, we’ve seen photos, too many, of people discovering that food can be cooked from scratch. It brought back memories of various meals improvised while travelling.

Some years ago in New Zealand we spent a week in Lake Taupo on North Island then flew to South Island. We’d bought some groceries and I wanted to bring what we hadn’t used to our next week’s unit to save us buying replacements. Of particular concern was a part-used bag of plain flour. My son-in-law wanted me to bin it, but I was raised to avoid waste.

My son-in-law demonstrated the options by holding out both hands in front of him. “On the one hand,” he said, “there’s the $2 it cost. On the other hand, there’s the concerns of baggage security when they find a white powder in your suitcase. Hmm… $2? Or body cavity search? Decisions, decisions…”

We compromised. I found someone else to give half a bag of flour to.

On South Island we stayed in Wanaka. We’d gone in June but there had been little snow to see. However, at last on our last day in Wanaka it began to snow. The wonder of it all stopped us in our packing to go outside and play. The mad Australians who don’t see enough snow…

Then the snow got heavier. The satellite dish filled with snow and we lost all transmission, so no TV, no movies, no news. We went outside even as the sky got darker. My son and I were playing a game of outdoor chess on a large set in the snow and we realised we should stop when the board kept getting covered with snow. One spectator said to me, “You’re in check from his bishop,” and I had to drag my foot across the board to show that in fact there was not a straight diagonal path for the bishop to attack.

We’d eaten down the larder as we planned to go out to eat for our last night, but the thought of slip-sliding in the dark was too much. We stayed put and resolved to be safe but hungry.

However, as I foraged, I found a few gems. We had some butter, a couple of eggs, and the tail end of some “Maori bread” from a hangi we’d attended a few days earlier. The Maori bread was scone-like and a week old, nobody wanted any. But I managed to rejuvenate it into a sort of Maori French toast, using the eggs, some milk and a couple of sugar sachets from the hospitality bar and pan-frying it in the last of the butter. We scraped together a meal of the rather tasty French toast with some soup sachets and hot chocolate sachets. A campfire dinner, with no electronic distractions, as the snow whirled outside in a flurry of white.

A day or two later, stranded by snow on the road to Queenstown, we found some beautifully fresh produce including fresh yams, which I’d always wanted to try. We still had our tub of butter and I was told to try boiling them and serving them hot with a knob of butter.

We got back to the room. Problem – no saucepan. The electric kettle was one of the old Speedie brand ceramic things with an exposed element in the bottom. I improvised and put the yams in the kettle. It worked a treat!

Trying the local food — home-cooked and local is the best experience.

Fast forward to 2018. When we arrived in Zurich for an overnight stay, we discovered that our hotel was undergoing major renovations which had not been known at the time our travel agent booked. We were, in fact, the last guests in that hotel before they closed for major work. The restaurant was closed. No matter, there was some lovely local food on the street. But breakfast was another matter. The hotel would organise a hamper, they said. Sounded lovely!

Next morning with an early train to catch, our departure time was tracked to the minute by the hotel. We were doing our last bug-out check (where we check each space for anything we may have left behind) when the hotel reception rang. How did we like our morning coffee?

When we got to reception, detouring past newly-installed scaffolding and bypassing closed areas, we found workmen well in residence, unplugging leads, removing ceiling battens and trying to remove the reception desk itself. We saw one over-zealous workman get slapped away by the receptionist who was still trying to print out our bill. The reception staff were lovely, the workmen only had a job to do and we, the last guests, were definitely in their way. There was a sense of relief as they helped us out to the taxi. It was at that point that I was handed the ‘hamper’ through the taxi window. A large paper bag each with unknown contents, plus a very hot cup of coffee (tea in my husband’s case). The paper carriers had paper handles which I carefully threaded over my arm. They waved goodbye to us then went back in to lock the doors and hang up the ‘No Vacancy’ sign.

At the station, we had to juggle five bags, the two paper carry bags and the very hot morning cuppas in paper cups. The taxi driver got us to the pavement. We were on our own from there.

We found our way to a bench seat inside the station where I sagged gratefully, putting down the paper cups and rubbing my almost-blistered hands. Jeff built our cube of luggage then headed off to organise our tickets. I rested my legs across the cube before examining the paper bags which were now soggy and threatening to rip. With all the renovation issues and no restaurant, I had low expectations.

A peek inside the paper bag ‘hamper’. We’d already finished the coffee. Note the stripy boiled egg. They sell them like that in the shops in Switzerland.

Inside each bag, to my delight, was a ham roll, a cheese roll, an apple pie, a very pretty striped boiled egg, a cup of yogurt with fruit, a cup of fruit salad, a small cup of milk for the tea and coffee, a bottle of water, a smaller bottle of fruit juice, an apple and a small Toblerone chocolate. All well chilled. Plastic cutlery, of course, and the condensation from the milk, fruit salad and the chilled yogurt was what had damaged the carrier bags, and also turned the napkins to papier maché. I had my cloth Boomerang Bag, of course, and I transferred the rolls, the eggs, the chocolate, the bottles and the apples to it. When Jeff came back we drank the coffee (now at a reasonable temperature) and ate the yogurt. Getting to the train was easier — being now better organised, we could wheel our bags while I had my Boomerang Bag with our food slung over my shoulder. It took us almost until we arrived in Lausanne that afternoon to finish our breakfast.

Setting up our leisurely picnic breakfast as the train pulled out of Zurich.

At other times when driving through countryside, we’ve often stopped to buy a meal at a small local shop. In New Caledonia we bought a jar of paté in a supermarket which I ate for breakfast with a fresh, warm bread roll bought at a local boulangerie. Jeff preferred the fresh croissants with a pot of jam. We’d buy them and drive to a lookout somewhere, or a beach by the lagoon. At one isolated place we found the resident mosquitoes clearly wanting their breakfast too. We slammed up the windows and slapped the mosquitoes into oblivion while we drove somewhere more hospitable.

To Dijon for mustard — perfect for ham on the breakfast baguette. Interestingly, the shop is on Rue du Chapeau Rouge. Street of the Red Hat. I did not put the hat on just for the photo, honest!

Making do like this for impromptu meals has given us local experiences with food not available anywhere else. We’d stop and buy a local cheese, perhaps a local bottle of wine. It can be hit and miss, but the experience is always worthwhile.

Hot food in preparation on a cold day — pumpkin and chicken soup on the left; home-made chilli oil (made with some Carolina reaper chillis from a friend); the makings of gnocchi for a late lunch.
Fresh gnocchi — little Italian pillows of delight when made fresh with eggs, mashed potato and flour. Served with just butter or here, with a tomato-based sauce. Comfort in coronavirus time.

In my kitchen right now, stuck at home with whatever we can put together, I’ve made a chicken stock by boiling down a reserved chicken carcass from a previous roast dinner, and fresh herbs from the garden. We have a couple of pumpkins, one had a bad bruise on the skin which, if left, would send the whole pumpkin bad. I cut out the bruised part and I’m simmering chopped pumpkin in the chicken stock. I’ve also got leftover mashed potato and some eggs — inexplicably, in wet weather and short winter days, our chickens are still giving us eggs. So I’ll make home-made gnocchi too, for a family member who has had to go to the doctor to get tested for Covid-19. Tonight I’ll use up more eggs and some leftover roast meat and vegetables to make a frittata.

As we eat what we put together from what we have, I’ll be remembering breakfast by the roadside in France with fresh croissants, some sliced ham and Camembert, with mustard from Dijon. Or perhaps that amazing breakfast on the train from Zurich, as we watched the countryside flash past.

Soup selfie. Making do in the moment.

One day soon…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.