For years and years and years, I’ve spent part of the summer in the south west of France, where the Hérault river and the Canal du Midi tip into the Mediterranean. If I were working for the tourist office, I would tell you this region enjoys more days of sunshine than anywhere else in France. Fat, minerally oysters from the étang du Thau are as cheap as sardines. From the air, dusty terracotta-roofed towns and villages poke out from the ragged corduroy of vineyards.
In all of these years and years and years, I have never visited a vineyard. Not a single one. I have kept secret from my family that I’d rather do almost anything else, as this revelation most certainly damages my cred d’épicure.
This is me: ‘Oh, I’d love to, I really would, but I need to finish my book/make something incredibly complicated requiring reductions and foams for lunch/regrout the bathroom tile. No, don’t let me stop you. You go, GO…Have a LOVELY time.’ Wave, slam door,relax.
In my working life I’ve visited dozens of vineyards, from the vastly vatted to one so adorable that in the movie of her life, the young wine maker would most certainly be played by Juliette Binoche, circa 1998. On these occasions, half a dozen or so crumpled journalists uncrease themselves from air-conditioned mini buses to be greeted by a selection of good vintages, daunting rows of twinkling glasses and sometimes smears of something olive-y on toast or a plate or two of excellent ham. They’re expecting you. They have their game face on.
When people tell me of their holidays in France or Italy or Spain where they, oh, you know, just drive through the countryside, stopping here and there at these tiny rural places, tasting as they go, picking up wonderful cases of a little-known red or white or sparkling, a bit of me twists with embarrassment.
I would no more zip, unannounced, along the rural lane to someone’s house than I’d knock on your door tonight and expect you to give me my tea. What if, what if, what if? What if you’re feeding a dying kitten with a pipette? Making love to someone irresistible but wholly unsuitable? Mugging up on fractions so you will forever remain a genius in the eyes of your ten-year-old? I wouldn’t want my desire for an inexpensive yet versatile rosé to get in the way of any of that so sorry to bother you, sorry, I’ll be going now. Bye. Bye. Bye.
But this summer, a friend who knows about these things recommended a local producer who made a really good muscat. It wasn’t one of these up-a-lane places either, so the risk of a kitten/pipette situation was negligible.
On the last day of the holiday, in between taking the dog to the vet for his €50 pat on the head (seriously, if two minutes on table and a scribble in a book is all it takes to stop rabies, I don’t know what we were all so worried about), buying trays of peaches for jam from the roadside stall and running to the supermarket for cheap sea salt, Marseilles soap flakes and tins of confit de canard, I broke the habit of a holiday and caved in for a cave visit (sorry).
We pitch up in the neat car park of an office building so bland, in England it might have been the headquarters of somewhere selling air conditioning or paper products. It is clear to anyone with eyes that there are no dying kittens on the premises. Fine.
Inside, bottles glisten on glass shelves. A young woman (tight white shirt, tailored trousers, murderous heels, oppressively straightened hair – one of those people who, just by breathing in and out, has the capacity to make you feel grubby) taps at a keyboard. It’s very quiet. The slap-slap of our flip flops on the stone floor sounds indecent.
Murderous Heels Woman looks up but doesn’t move. ‘Can I help you?’
Séan mutters something about muscat.
‘You want to TASTE it?’
Not now, bitch, I’m thinking, but we have set in train a series of events that I realise could easily conclude with me screaming ‘LET’S BUY ALL OF THE WINE. ALL OF IT!’ That’ll show her.
In the end, because I married a good and reasonable man, we bought a single, face-saving case of wine neither of us loved but, as my grandmother would have said, I’m sure will come in handy. And no kittens died which, in the circumstances, is the very best we could have hoped for.
I first read about this splendid and substantial combination of bacon, potatoes and cheese as something which was fed to workers during the grape harvest to keep them going. I scatter a little sage over mine as I love it with all of the above ingredients, though that’s not traditional. If you love it too, add it. If you don’t, leave it out. It makes a great lunch with a salad of peppery and/or bitter leaves – rocket, watercress, mizuna, raddiccio, frisée are all good – and a dollop of French mustard.
Some butter or goose fat
About 300g streaky bacon, unsmoked or a combination of smoked and unsmoked, rind removed
About 600g potatoes, peeled (I used Maris Piper)
About 130g Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
4-6 small sage leaves, finely shredded, optional
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
Rub the inside of an ovenproof frying pan* of about 20cm diameter with some softened butter or goose fat. Line the pan with the bacon, letting the ends fall over the sides and pressing the rashers together so there are no gaps.
Slice the potatoes very thinly with a sharp knife or a mandolin, as for dauphinoise. Rinse them in cold water and pat them dry with kitchen paper or a clean tea towel.
Layer a quarter of the potatoes on top of the bacon. Season and scatter on some sage if you’re using it. Dot with a bit of butter or goose fat and scatter on a third of the grated cheese. Continue with the layers until you’ve used everything up, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pull the bacon up over the potatoes and press everything with your hands so it’s all quite firmly mushed together. Dot a bit more butter or goose fat over the top. Cover tightly with a couple of layers of foil (I put a lid on it too).
Warm the pan for about 20 seconds on the hob over a high-ish heat so the fat begins to render then place the pan on a baking tray and bake in the oven for about an hour. The potatoes should be really tender when pierced with a small, sharp knife. If they’re not, return it to the oven for a bit, checking every 5 minutes or so. Remove it from the oven and let it stand for 15 minutes before turning out onto a plate or board.
*Or wrap a non-ovenproof handle tightly with a few layers of foil.