Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

el_pas_de_las_mujeresI started reading El país de las mujeres (I don’t think it’s been translated) because I was intrigued by its premise and because I remembered having read and enjoyed La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan feminist writer, and this novel is no exception from her feminist literature. In a fictional Central American country called Faguas, Viviana Sansón and her friends decide to launch a radical feminist party, the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (which abbreviates to PIE, meaning “foot” in Spanish, and so the party’s symbol is a woman’s foot), “Party of the Erotic Left”.

Viviana is a highly successful TV presenter who is on a mission to change the highly corrupt politics of her country. Initially a group of outsiders that relies on political actions mostly designed to attract a lot of attention, they suddenly get help from mother nature: a volcano erupts and its gasses leave the men of Faguas without testosterone. As a result, they become weak, malleable, and lose their will to keep power. Suddenly, the PIE finds itself in power and Viviana is President. She instals a series of measures to change her country, the most radical of which is the removal of all men from government positions.

Men are relegated to the household, while women staff all the ministries, police, the army, and all public services. Of course, some are not happy. As their testosterone levels return to normal, those who have been ousted from power start plotting. The novel opens with their plot coming to fruition: Viviana is shot in the chest at a public rally and falls into a coma. El país de las mujeres runs in two parallel strands of narration, a first in which we witness Viviana’s colleagues and allies dealing with the extraordinary situation, and a second that consists of Viviana’s memories of how she came to power and the developments that led there. She’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death in which she remembers all the significant moments in her and her party comrades up until the shooting.

Intriguing, right? And I did enjoy parts of El país de las mujeres quite a lot. But on the whole, I have to confess that this book left me a bit cold. I wasn’t in the right mindset when I started: I expected a novel, but this is a thought experiment. A lot of the political ideas expressed seemed not just far-fetched, as they would have to with this kind of premise, but more than naive and completely unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many important ideas in this book I wholeheartedly agree with, starting with the premise that the value society attaches to “typically female” tasks such as housekeeping and care-giving needs to be placed on a par with the value of “typically male” tasks. But as a thought experiment I found El país de las mujeres to be a bit simplistic.


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Dinner for Two: Salmorejo and Blue Cheese Cream with Strawberry Purée

dinner42This is the cecina edition of Dinner for TwoCecina is basically cured or smoked meat, similar to ham, but it usually has a stronger taste, and it can be made from meats that aren’t pork. We had some that friends brought us when they came to visit, and this weekend it was time to use it. We were in the mood for something fresh and summery, since the weather has been playing along really nicely. And it’s strawberry season! So we came up with two ideas. Salmorejo is a dish from Andalucía that we became addicted to last year on our holiday in the region. It’s a cold purée made from tomatoes and bread. It’s a bit similar to gazpacho, very refreshing, but since it’s got bread in it it’s more substantial and filling. Mr BBF used this recipe and topped it with some cecina that he briefly toasted in the microwave. We also decided to make a starter (which we later decided to have as desert) of blue cheese cream with strawberry purée, also topped with cecina (no microwaving this time. For this, we were inspired loosely by this recipe, but we wanted fresh strawberries, so I just made a real purée rather than using strawberry jelly. It was simply delightful. We enjoyed our feast with some txakoli and some cecina drizzled with olive oil:   Blue cheese cream with strawberry purée (serves 2-3) Ingredients

  • 60g blue cheese
  • 120g mascarpone
  • about 40ml milk (depending on the thickness of the cheese cream, start out with 30ml then add more if needed)
  • one large handful fresh strawberries
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • cecina or ham to garnish

For the blue cheese cream, cut the blue cheese into pieces and place them in a plastic bowl. Add the mascarpone and the milk and mix a bit with a fork, further crumbling the cheese. With a hand-held blender purée the mix until thick and very creamy. Taste and potentially season with salt and pepper (we didn’t). Also if you like you can vary the blue cheese to mascarpone ratio. I liked it as it was (I like cheese a lot), but Mr BBF would have preferred it with slightly less blue cheese. For the strawberry purée, wash and dice the strawberries, mix them with the 2 tbsp sugar in another plastic bowl. Purée with your trusty hand-held blender until it’s nice and creamy. Layer the cheese cream and strawberry purée into glasses and refrigerate until just before servingNow, I learned a lesson here. Inspired by the original recipe, I put the strawberry purée at the bottom of our glasses. But since our purée didn’t have jelly, it was more fluid than the cheese cream and the layering didn’t work that well. So I would recommend to start with the cheese and then layer the strawberry purée on top. Alternatively, you could spike the strawberry purée with some gelatine to make it less liquid. Refrigerate until serving time. Just before serving, garnish with the cecina and half a strawberry per portion. Salmorejo (serves 2-3 as a main) Ingredients 

  • 800g fresh ripe tomatoes
  • 100ml olive oil
  • 150g white wheat bread, crust cut off
  • 1/2 clove of garlic (this is really enough, just trust us on this one)
  • salt to taste

Warning: this recipe makes a bit of a mess in your kitchen, but it’s absolutely worth it. Peel the tomatoes, either using a very sharp peeler or using the poaching method. Chop them and place them in a large pot, bowl, or in a blender if you have one. Purée the tomatoes, then pass them through a colander to get rid of remaining peel and seeds. Dice the bread and add it to the tomato purée; leave for about 10 minutes to help soften the bread. In the meantime, peel the garlic clove and mince half of it. Add the garlic, the olive oil and salt to the purée and blend until smooth. Season to taste and refrigerate until serving. Cut some cecina or ham into small pieces and pop them into the microwave for a few seconds to make them crunchy. Ladle salmorejo into soup plates and garnish with the cecina. ¡Qué aproveche!


Cheryl Strayed: Wild (2012)

wildThere’s not really a need to tell most people about Wild any more, I don’t think (but I will anyway, because I loved loved loved it! Ha.). Most people have heard of it, possibly because of the film that came out recently with Cheryl Strayed played by Reese Witherspoon. That’s how I first became interested – I’d seen the book in bookshops before but it wasn’t until I saw a review of the film that I became interested. Usually I like to read the book before watching the film, but in this case it was actually the other way around: I became so intrigued by Strayed’s solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail when I watched the film that I wanted the additional depth of the book.

I’m very glad about that, too, because Wild is an absolutely fascinating account of how a woman finds herself (again). Shaken by her mother’s too early death, Cheryl Strayed’s life gets out of hand. Her stepfather, her siblings, her husband – all the relations that have been her social web lose meaning in the aftermath, or people filter out of her life. Strayed had a very special relationship with her mother and losing her throws her completely off track: she cheats compulsively on her husband, races across the US from one temporary living arrangement to another, and even starts doing heroin.

Then, one day, she sees a guidebook of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at a shop, and an idea begins to take shape: can she find herself again by hiking the trail all by herself for three months? And so she starts preparing, sells most of her belongings, and sets off. Wild is a journey, not just along the PCT, but towards becoming the woman she once was.

I loved Cheryl Strayed’s voice in Wild: unapologetic, honest, thoughtful, and smart. I really enjoyed the reflections on her life before and after the watershed of her mother’s death, on love, on what it means to be a daughter, a wife, and on physical and mental challenges. I had expected to like it, but not to enjoy it this much, to be honest. Wild made me want to pack up my stuff, hike out for three months, and see what would happen to my personality. Who knows, perhaps I will, one day. Maybe not three months, but a while.

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Recipe: Cold Avocado Soup with Cucumber and Yoghurt

I haven’t been posting many recipes lately, because I haven’t actually been cooking that much. There have been some culinary discoveries in my kitchen and I’ll share them all eventually, but first I need to tell you about THIS COLD SOUP. It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely wowed by a recipe that I feel the need to get on a soapbox or sing it from the rooftops, or else I might burst. Here’s a bit of context though: spring has officially sprung in this corner of the world, and with it came an appetite for tangy, fresh dishes, salads and cold soups, and lemon, definitely lemon, and also avocados. Browsing through my recipe bookmarks, I came across this beauty, and the stars aligned. (Also… I appear to love avocados even more than I realised, seeing as the last few recipes have all involved this wonderful green fruit.) I didn’t quite follow the recipe to the letter, so here’s my take on it.

 Ingredients (2 large portions)

  • 2 avocados
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 very small onion, or 1/2 normal size
  • small handful of fresh flat parsley (or cilantro as per the original recipe)
  • 150g full-fat or Greek yoghurt
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (really) cold water
  • olive oil

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a tablespoon. Then cut half of the cucumber and one of the avocados into large chunks. Dice the onion and roughly chop the parsley. Place the chunks of cucumber and avocado in a mixer along with the onion, parsley, yoghurt, lemon juice and a good pinch of salt, as well as some freshly ground pepper and a dash of cold water. Process until smooth and pour into a bowl. Refrigerate.

Dice the remaining half of the cucumber and the second avocado. Add the chunks to the avocado paste and add some more cold water until you reach the desired creamy consistency. Refrigerate until serving time. Drizzle with some olive oil just before serving.

Optional: dice a small tomato and top the soup with it. Enjoy!


Edgard Telles Ribeiro: His Own Man (2010)

his_own_manI first came across His Own Man (original title: O punho e a renda) through Guy’s great review at His Futile Preoccupations. A novel about the involvement of a Brazilian diplomat in the dark times of Latin America’s military dictatorship in the 60s-80s? My Latin-America-and-International-Relations-loving heart jumped. And His Own Man did not disappoint.

Brazil, 1968: a young diplomat is approached by Marcílio Xavier Andrade (Max) and asked to lunch. He’s honoured by this more senior figure’s assessment of him as one of few “luncheable colleagues” and quickly joins his social circle. Max has a penchant for surrounding himself with interesting figures, writers, artists, actors etc., and inviting them to listen to jazz. Things take a sinister turn very quickly though and slowly but surely, those with oppositional views disappear from Max’s circle of “friends” as the political environment becomes ever more oppressive.

Max, it turns out, is a careerist chamaeleon, able to adapt himself quickly to any situation and any new “master”. He becomes increasingly involved in the dark manoeuvres of the Brazilian state in Uruguay and Chile, where the country was heavily involved in supporting the military regimes’ rise to power. But Max isn’t just a chamaeleon, he also seems to have a highly efficient non-stick coating. No matter how deeply involved he becomes, nothing sticks, and he’s able to swiftly shift his allegiances post-democratisation:

“There were few among us like him, so readily adapting to the ever-changing conditions of that time with such charm and competence, swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy”

The narrator, who has been following Max’s career, is eager to finally unearth all there is to be known about Max’s real actions during the dark chapters of Brazil’s recent history. As he goes along, he discovers the real extent of Max’s ruthlessness.

His Own Man is an excellent exploration of the inner workings of Brazilian diplomacy over several decades. The issues it addresses affect everyone working in a diplomatic service – mostly to a lesser degree though: to what extent is it possible or impossible to remain true to political, ethical or personal beliefs if your job is to represent your government (no matter what)? What role does your conscience play and when do you have to act on its calls? In other words, is it possible to remain “your own man (person)” as a diplomat? To some degree, a good diplomat is one who is able to make his own judgement fade into the background in favour of his country’s interests. But in the case of this novel’s title, the answer to these questions is ironic, since Max is nothing but “his own man” – everything he does, every acquaintance he makes, even his marriage, has only one goal: to further Max’s own advancement. To achieve his goals, he sheds every morsel of morality and ethics, and seemingly every aspect of whatever personal values he may have held at some point.

The narrator ponders these issues as they pertain also to himself:

“I knew full well that I’d been no hero. I hadn’t criticised my superiors out loud; I hadn’t resigned […] nor had I taken up arms. On the contrary, I’d become part of an orchestra – in which Max was the soloist.”

What’s more, the narrator addresses the responsibilities of any diplomat dispatched to a country under a dictatorial regime. To what extent is it your duty to try and take action against the regime, and if so, how? In what ways are you able to influence the government of a country that isn’t yours and where you’ve been sent as a representative of your own government?

“During my year and a half in Central America, I hadn’t hesitated to dutifully socialise with known tyrants of the region, to whom I was introduced at dinners and receptions.”

His Own Man sent shiver after shiver down my spine. The fact that Telles Ribeiro himself is a former diplomat means that he can explore these issues in an extremely thorough way, drawing on his own experience. This is an excellent political novel.


Bringing Biking Back

Those who have been reading here for a while know that while I lived up in the flat North of Germany, I was an avid bike commuter. Even before that, when I was living in the slightly flatter parts of Southern Germany, I was also an avid train/bike commuter (read: I biked from the train station to my office). Now, I live in a part of Southern Germany that has HILLS. Proof:

While this view from my balcony will almost certainly never get old, I obtain it by living at the top of one of those steep hills, which, as I have mentioned, already seriously humiliated me once.

But I refuse to give up, so today I commuted to the office. It was very smooth in the morning and I’ve never gotten to the office this fast. Of course it was also all downhill, so I just wore my normal office clothes as I knew I wouldn’t break a sweat. The way up, however… required some planning ahead. I took some sports clothes with me and changed in the bathroom before leaving the office.

(I actually did wear shoes while biking)

I also actually paid attention this time and took the designated bike route on the way up. It’s marked quite well with clearly visible signs and it seems like someone actually put thought into finding the least steep way up my home mountain. There was still some serious climbing to be done at the start, but then it levelled out and was fine.

So I’m pleased to report that this worked out well! I worked up a nice sweat and felt really accomplished afterwards. Weather and appointments permitting, I plan to do this about twice per week now, on days when I’m not swimming or doing other exercise after work (kayaking season starts this Friday for me! Yay!).

Bringing Biking Back: a success story so far!