A plain walnut cake

When we came back from our trip to France two weeks ago, along with the copper kugelhopf tins, bottles of olive oil and plaits of pink garlic, I stuffed into my luggage a plastic bag filled with walnuts – a gift from the man at the brocante from whom I’d bought the cake tins. 

They’ve been sitting in a bowl in the kitchen ever since, a nutcracker poised hopefully on top. I’ve made the odd crack-and-grab raid, snatching one or two as I walk past, or nibbled a few after dinner with some cheese. But I have been longing to make a cake. Not a classic coffee and walnut cake – though I love that – but a very simple thing. I wanted a low, plain cake, one that would allow the creamy lusciousness of the fresh walnuts to shine – at least enough to make the shelling of them worth it.

So on Saturday, I sat in my kitchen, rhythmically shelling 500g or so of walnuts, sending shards of shell onto high shelves and skittering across the floor, much to the excitement of the cat. As I cracked, and picked and extracted the meat from the nuts, I watched the news from Paris on the television. 

I have loved France, the fantasy of it and the complicated reality of it, ever since I first visited Paris with my school when I was 10. I sit here typing and deleting, typing and deleting, finding it impossible to convey my deep affection for a country which has helped form me almost as much as the one that birthed me. What Ian McEwen had to say here expresses it. And this much-shared segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO… well, I was just cheering my head off at this.

‘If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche.’ 

For the cake:

I took my inspiration from this recipe from the very useful site of the French food magazine Marmiton. I love it. I hope you do too. I tried serving it in several ways. With poached quince and quince ice cream after Sunday lunch, with cream and then with thick Turkish yoghurt, but really it’s best with nothing at all, just by itself, with perhaps a glass of sweet wine or rum to sip along with it.

100g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
160g shelled walnuts, from about 500g whole nuts if you’re shelling them yourself
140g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
40g plain flour
½ tsp flaky sea salt
3 eggs
2 tbsps rum

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4.Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin. Line the base with parchment and butter the parchment.

Reserve 8-10 perfect walnut halves to finish the cake – if you like, leave them off if you think this is just far too much adornment. Put the rest of the walnuts into a food processor and pulse until most of the mixture is quite fine (you still want a few small chunks in it). Tip a third of the sugar into the processor and pulse once to blend. It should have the texture of slightly gritty sand. Of course, you can chop the nuts finely on a chopping board with a large knife if you like.

Beat together the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the walnut mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the rum then gently fold in the flour and salt until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the walnut halves on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. It should be lightly golden on the surface but don’t overbake it – you want it to remain soft in the middle. 

Place the tin on a rack and leave the cake to cool completely before removing it. It keeps quite well for a few days in an airtight container.

I give you this on one condition…

Mon petit potimarron.

I will only share this recipe with you on condition you do not use wretched leftover Hallowe’en pumpkin to make it. Yes, I know the world is noisy with magazines and papers and websites telling you, coaxing you, pleading with you – practically ordering you – to use this pitiful gourd in soups, cakes, curries and stir fries right now. But don’t. You’re better than that. Pumpkin ‘Jack of All Trades’, for it often he, is but tasteless, watery misery. His finest hour came when you shoved a candle into its sticky orifice and lit it. Let him go.

Instead, use practically any other small pumpkin or squash. I used a small, heavy potimarron (this would be an excellent name for a proud but accident prone dog), often sold as uchiki kuri or onion squash in England. Crown Prince or butternut squash would also be excellent.

A trip to Pézenas market
Across the vines to the oyster sheds and the sea.

So many beautiful mushrooms.

Gorgeous pink garlic.

If I were ever to be a princess, I would dearly love to be Princess Potato.

There has to be something wonderful about a region that has famous turnips. That’s my kind of celebrity obsession.

I love the colourful Chinese cushions and bedspreads you find on market stalls here. Their bright patterns remind me a little of traditional Provençal prints.


Pumpkin, mushroom and chard gratin
Serve hot, with a salad.

Remember, I’m on holiday so I’ve neither the inclination nor the equipment to weigh anything. These are approximate measurements but I’m pretty good at guessing. Just make sure you have enough crème fraiche mixture to lightly coat the vegetables and enough cheese to cover the top well and you’ll be fine

Serves 4-8, depending on whether it’s the main event or a side dish.

Butter, about 80g
About 600g prepared weight of pumpkin, a good-sized bowlful, peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes of about 1.5cm square
1 medium-large onion, diced
A couple of sprigs of thyme if you have them
The leaves from 2-3 pieces of chard (reserve the white part for another dish), shredded
A couple of handfuls of mushrooms, wiped clean, any tough ends trimmed, and larger ones halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
Some crème fraîche, about 250g
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsps Dijon mustard
About ½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
About 140g gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt a generous knob of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the pumpkin, onion, thyme if using, and some salt and pepper and sauté, partially covered and stirring from time to time, until the pumpkin is softened but still holds its shape. This should take about 20 minutes. Stir in the chard and stir until just wilted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Butter a large gratin dish or Pyrex dish.

In a separate frying pan, warm another generous chunk of butter over a medium-high heat and when it stops foaming, toss in the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt. Cook until a lot of their moisture has evaporated and they start to take on some colour. Add the garlic, fry for a further minute and remove from the heat.

In a bowl, beat together the crème fraîche, eggs, mustard and nutmeg. Season well with salt and pepper. Tip the pumpkin mixture into the gratin dish (remove the thyme sprigs if you’re using them) and scatter the mushrooms on top. Pour the crème fraiche mixture over evenly and give the dish a shake and a tap on the table to distribute the liquid evenly. Scatter the gruyère on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and golden brown on top. Serve hot, with a green salad and some bread.

Pour on the crème fraiche mixture evenly.

Scatter on the cheese.

Remove from the oven when golden and bubbling.

Weightless Cooking Part Two: Not squirrel soup

I liked this cheesy advertising in Beziers.


Beziers is the closest city to us. It’s hilly. Even the water has to climb upward. Beziers is famous for the remarkable Fonserannes Lock, a staircase of eight locks which allows boats to rise more than 20m up the Canal du Midi in the least possible distance, with the least possible fuss. Every August over a million visitors come here to the Feria, the bull fighting festival, just one of the reminders of how close we are to Spain, and that this part of France perhaps has more in common with its southern neighbour than the buttery, apple-y North.


On Friday morning we drove the 20 or so kilometres to town, to do some shopping, have some lunch. We started with the covered market, where we bought two kinds of olive oil and some honey vinegar. We managed to steer clear of the magnificently-flagoned bottle of vinegar ‘de région’ which cost 80€, which, incidentally, is the price of a kilo of pine nuts these days. 


We walked down to the allées Paul Riquet, to explore the Friday flower market. Pierre-Paul Riquet was the mastermind behind the Canal du Midi, and Beziers favoured son. He certainly deserves his eponymous allées and the statue of him which stands proudly in the middle of the boulevard. 


At this time of year, the market’s dominated by fat cushions of chrysanths, traditionally the flower of All Saints Day which falls on November 1. This is when French families remember their dead relatives by placing bouquets on their graves and, for this reason, in France chrysanthemums are associated with death. Tip: Do not take them as a gift for your host when invited to dinner in a French house and expect a warm reception. 

Fat cushions of chrysanthemums, destined for family graves.

Our word ‘pansy’ comes from the French word, ‘pensée’, which means thought, probably because their pretty, velvety petals look like thoughtful little faces.
I like the French phrase for perennials, plantes vivaces.  

 Having previously found them redolent of dusty offices and school art rooms, I suddenly find myself yearning for a spider plant. The heart wants what it wants.

Walking back to the car, Séan lingered by the jewellery shop and then the posh handbag shop we’d passed on the way to lunch (steak frites at L’Orangerie. I highly recommend it). Would I like something, an anniversary present? I clutched the bunch of anemones we’d bought at the flower market and told him no, really, these were enough. I am not a saintly person. I had already ascertained that a puppy was out of the question. But what I wanted in that minute, more than pearls and fine, supple leather, was to lie on our bed with the doors open onto the balcony, to breathe the soft air from the étang until I fell asleep. Sleeping in the day is something I never do at home and it seems such a holiday luxury, I try to sneak a nap in whenever I can. It’s absolutely more precious than rubies. Nothing I desire can compare with it.

Proper coloured chips at L’Orangerie.


My anniversary bunch of anemones.

A couple of hours later, revived by sleep, entrecôte digested, it was time to think about dinner. I had some squid we’d bought in Agde market on Thursday, but I have none of the arsenal I have at home -the hundred or so pots of herbs and spices, the freezer bags of long-simmered stock, and every possible appliance to blend, grate, purée any ingredient to my will. Here I am in a kitchen with no stock, very few herbs, and because we’re only here for a week I don’t want to buy too much. 

This is when it becomes important to sauté the onions properly and for long enough to round out their flavour, to use the skin and seeds of the tomato to profit from their fresh sweetness, to simmer the wine until it’s properly reduced, to season with salt and pepper throughout the cooking, and not just at the end. If you build flavour like this, you can get away with not using stock and it will still taste wonderful. 


I think we can get too hung up on recipes and forget to trust our senses – does it look good, smell good and, most importantly, does it taste good? Does it need to simmer a bit more to intensify the flavours? Does it need some more salt (often it needs more salt – this is one of the reasons good restaurant food tastes so delicious)? Perhaps a pinch of sugar? Use-what-you-have cooking is the very best lesson I know in squeezing every atom of flavour out of your ingredients. And it’s a lesson we can carry into our full-arsenal everyday cooking too.


Things I have learned today:

This is the view from our bed as the sun comes up.
  • The sun comes up between 7.19am and 7.23am, rising swiftly from across the water and the road to Sète, turning the sky from pink to apricot to primrose, and filling the étang with rippled golden light.
  • In the autumn, none of the markets sell baskets, even in Pézenas, possibly the most basket-tucked-firmly-into-the-crook-of-an-arm place on the planet. This can only be because no one shops between la Rentrée and Easter. I am a fool not to know this.


Squid, sorrel and potato soup


When I posted a picture of this on Twitter, half a dozen people tweeted me ‘When I first saw that, I read it as squirrel’, something to do with the SQUId soRREL thing I imagine. It made me think about how we name recipes. I suppose the convention with recipe titles is: most important ingredient first, most interesting ingredient second and then a workhorse ingredient that’s seldom going to be the headliner but puts in a full shift to make it delicious. So there you have it: squid, sorrel and potato. No squirrels were harmed in the making of this soup.


The sorrel adds a deliciously sharp flavour which is terrific with the squid. If you can’t find sorrel, use spinach and finish with a good squeeze of lemon juice.


Serves 4-6


A slosh of olive oil

1 large-ish onion, halved and thinly sliced
A few sprigs of thyme
A bay leaf, if you have one
1 celery stick, finely diced, leaves reserved if you have them to use in the bouquet garni
1 large, ripe tomato, finely diced, skin, seeds and all – there’s lots of flavour in the skin and seeds
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 200ml white wine
About 750ml fish or light chicken stock, or water (I used water)
A bouquet garni of a few sprigs of thyme, some parsley stalks, and a few leaves of celery and a bay leaf if you have them, tied together with kitchen string
1 kg squid, well cleaned and cut into thick slices, tentacles left whole if small (about 750-800g prepared weight)
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
3-4 tbsps crème fraîche
1 bunch of sorrel, finely shredded, stalks and all
3-4 tbsps roughly chopped parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium-large, heavy-bottomed pan, warm the olive oil over a medium-low heat. Add the onions, thyme, bay leaf if you have one, and a good pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are translucent, stirring from time to time, about 20 minutes. Add the celery and cook for a further 5 minutes, until it’s softened slightly, then add the tomato and garlic and stir for 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer, stirring, until it’s reduced by half. Add the squid, then the water or stock – you want enough just to cover the quid by a couple of centimetres or so. Throw in the bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and simmer gently, partly covered, until the squid is tender, about an hour to an hour and 15 to 20 minutes. Add the potato and cook until soft, about 15 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and stir in the crème fraîche, sorrel and parsley. The heat of the soup is enough to wilt the sorrel. You don’t need to cook it further.

Remove the thyme, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, in warmed bowls.

The weightless salad

Autumn: This morning’s haul from Agde market.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Independent on Sunday about my life as a recipe tester and food editor. I described the seemingly endless weighing, measuring, washing, drying, retesting, the tearing of hair and rending of garments (#MyStruggle) in pursuit of the flawless, foolproof recipe for something you might want to make for your dinner. (Or not. There’s a horrifying statistic – no doubt created by an especially sadistic manufacturer of ready meals – that readers never make more than three or four recipes from any book they buy.)

One of the things I love about being on holiday – along with sleeping late, reading a novel in a single gulp, and slummocking about with my hair lazily pulled back into a pony tail – is that holiday cooking is the opposite of work cooking. No measuring, note taking or trying to guess someone else’s intention, just the gentle pursuit of pleasure, inspired by wandering around the market or putting my nose round the cheese shop door and taking a good, life-affirming sniff. 

Today, on the first day of our little holiday, we got up early and made the short trip to Agde for market day. It’s a journey we’ve made many times before, but we’re always here in spring or summer. As we drove through fields of golden-leaved vines, it was almost like visiting a different place. In the market, instead of summer’s peaches, cherries, melons and asparagus there were crates of pumpkins, walnuts and quince. And I bought what I liked, with no idea of what I was going to do with it and no scales to weigh it on when I did, I was cooking by instinct and inclination, changing the recipe as I chopped and grilled. The culinary equivalent of a lie in and a messy pony tail, and certainly none the less delicious for that.

Cabbages and turnips

Pumpkins and chard.

Beautiful dates.

Rose and violet garlic.

My basket of greens and thyme.

After the market, the traditional 10.30am glasses of
beer and wine at the Plazza.
Considerably cheaper than coffee.

From now on, I’m matching my shoes and my vegetables. 
I suggest you do too.

When I’m not cooking, I’m mostly looking out at this.


Stargazy salad, AKA Sardine, black radish and mustard greens
Stargazy salad

As I arranged this salad on the plate, it reminded me of Stargazy pie, the Cornish dish where the heads of the fish poke out of the pastry lid as if caught mid leap. 

I am the very last person to send a salad to do a pie’s job, but if it’s salad you’re after this is a good one. The rich flesh of the fish goes well with the peppery mustard greens and crunchy, fiery black radish. If you can’t find black radish, just use pretty breakfast radishes sliced as thinly as you can.
  
Serves 2-4, depending on how hungry you are and how much bread you might be inclined to eat along with it.


1 smallish black radish, about 120g
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil, not too strongly flavoured  
About 3 tbsps finely chopped parsley leaves
Finely grated zest of a small lemon  
1 garlic clove, minced  

10-12 sardines
A small bunch thyme or lemon thyme  
2 lemons  
The finely grated zest of a lemon plus couple of squeezes of lemon juice
80g pinenuts, lightly toasted, roughly chopped  
A handful of mustard greens, roughly torn
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 

To serve 
Bread and butter, if you like


First, make the salad. Peel the black radish and either julienne it very finely or grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. Dress it with a couple of squeezes of lemon juice and a trickle of olive oil. Toss it with the parsley, lemon zest and garlic, and some salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the sardines.
  
Preheat the grill as hot as it will go (turn it on at least 5 minutes before you want to cook the fish). You can also cook these on a barbecue if you like.
Ready to go under a hot grill

Line a baking tin with foil. Cut one of the lemons into thick slices and arrange them on the tin. Scatter some sprigs of thyme over the top (save a tablespoon or two of fresh, soft thyme leaves to finish the salad with). Place the sardines on top of the lemon and herbs, trickle over a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Grill the sardines until just cooked through – this should take about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on their size.

Dress the mustard leaves very lightly in olive oil. Arrange them on a large plate. Heap the black radish salad in the middle and arrange the sardines around it. Scatter over the reserved thyme leaves, pine nuts and a good pinch or two of flaky sea salt. Serve immediately, with wedges of lemon.
Looks heavenly doesn’t it? 
But I never quite lost fear that seagulls would 
swoop in and steal our lunch…

Learning to love the muscat (it didn’t take long)

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I now discover I really like the muscat. This is the reverse of that syndrome where you drag home from your holidays a lurid liqueur (it’s almost always a liqueur), the drink that was so delicious over five-hour lunches on the terrace, only to find that back home it has all the charm of a Fairy Liquid daiquiri. I think the Ms Murderous Heels sour puss made the muscat taste of ashes in my mouth.
Anyway, I like it now. So that will teach her.

I’m always on the hunt for small cookbooks, the sort sold to raise funds for the church roof or the local sanctuary for tap-dancing owls, the ones with four-line recipes and no glossy pictures. So I was very happy to find Recettes d’un Petit Village en Languedoc. It’s a collection of recipes from the residents of Saint Xist, a little village in the Aveyron, collated by Denis Cristol to raise money for their twelfth-century priory. It contains a recipe by Régine Fargier for a simple cake made with muscat which, along with a bowl of very pretty purple plums, inspired a bit of tinkering about and this is the result. Try it. It’s very easy and looks impressive. If you like, you can serve it straight away, warm, as a pudding with cream, crème fraiche or custard. Or serve it cold. Whichever way you serve it, naturally a glass or two of muscat goes very well with it.


Plum and muscat cake

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This is really good with the plums, but in summer I imagine it would be really lovely made with peaches or nectarines too.


For the plums:
4-5 plums, just ripe, not too soft
3 tablespoons demerara sugar

For the cake:
250g caster sugar, vanilla sugar if you have it
200g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
250g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
A good pinch of salt
200ml muscat

Some icing sugar for dusting, if you like
Serve with crème fraîche or lightly whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Lightly grease a 23cm springform baking tin and line the bottom with baking parchment. Butter the parchment.

Halve the plums, stone them, and cut each half into four pieces. Toss them with the demerara sugar and line the tin with the pieces of plum. Try to cram them as closely together as possible.
Beat together the sugar and butter until pale and light. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl.

In another, scrupulously-clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form peaks.
Begin to add the muscat and flour mixture to the batter in alternate batches, starting and ending with some of the flour (flour/wine/flour/wine/flour), folding in well with a spatula after each addition.
Fold in a third of the beaten egg whites with a spatula to lighten the batter. Then stir in the rest, lifting the batter with the spatula and gently folding it into the mixture. It should be well combined but you want to keep in as much air as possible. Spoon the mixture over the top of the plums, smooth the top with a spatula, place the tin on a baking tray and bake in the oven for about 55 minutes – a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean. It may need a little bit longer. Put it back into the oven and test every 5 minutes.

Place the cake tin on a cooling rack. Run a palette knife around the sides of the tin but leave it to cool for 15 minutes before releasing the sides of the tin and turning it out onto a plate. Gently remove the base of the tin and the baking parchment; serve warm or cold.

All change


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A nice, neat plait of violet garlic, which cost a satisfying €5.


Here’s the thing. As soon as I arrive in France, I transfer a credit card and some nice, crisp Euro notes from my large, London wallet to my small, zipped holiday purse. Within an hour of running about to buy fruit and yoghurt, loo paper, bottles of wine and water, and stopping to refuel with coffee, rosé or Ricard, with a reasonable aim and a little luck that little purse could take out a rhino. It weighs as much as a brick.

I suffer from a fear of change. Not merely an antipathy for altering circumstance (though I confess that I was embarrassingly tearful when our beloved hardware shop closed), but a fear of change, monnaie, coin.

I’ll be standing in a queue with my shopping basket, hopeful that this time I’ll make it, this time I will be able to suffer the patient or impatient gazes of the greengrocer, supermarket checkout man, lady in the newspaper shop, queue of locals snaking along behind me, for long enough to count out €2.87, €4.26 or €1.42. And in this fantasy of coin-based confidence, I will be able to perform these mathematical gymnastics without having to dig my glasses out of the very last, most secret and difficult-to-access compartment in my handbag. Ta da! Watch the amazing counting lady, marvel at her fearlessness.

Let’s forget for a minute the one, two and five cent coppery pieces, which surely must cost more to manufacture than they’re worth (Tip: they make excellent curtain weights). It’s the brassy 10, 20 and 50 cent pieces that push my queuing anxiety into overdrive. They’re of an almost identical size and colour and yes, yes, I know there is some tricksy system of grooves around the edge, a half-arsed attempt to help you to distinguish one from another, but really? Enough of this coin-based parlour game. Europe, please could you be the change I wish to see in the world and make the coins substantially different from one another? Perhaps cover the tens in glitter, make the twenties into a flower shape, the fifties play a happy tune (I suggest Ode to Joy is something we could all get behind)?

Until then, I have two choices. One, take on the habit of the very, very young or the very, very old – fill my hand with change and rely on the kindness, patience and honesty of strangers to pick out what the need. Two, my preferred method, just drag out another note and hope for the best. This works, but like all forms of instant gratification, there’s a price. In this case, a little zippy purse overflowing with a pirate’s ransom of coins.

The other day my mother, who is quite terrifyingly clever, said ‘Oh, I’ve cracked that.
‘What, what?’ I asked, excited over what was no doubt a terrifyingly clever solution.
‘I keep all of my notes in my wallet and five euro coins in my pocket,’ she said.
‘And what about all of the small change?’ I said.
‘That? I just leave all that on my dresser.’
Sometimes Terrifyingly Clever is no help at all.

Roasted garlic

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Roasted garlic. Simply squeeze the softened cloves onto pieces of bread. So good. Don’t forget to mop up the cooking juices with more bread too.


I was very excited to buy plaits of garlic – rose garlic, violet garlic, regular garlic – from the stall in Agde market on my last trip, not just because it’s delicious, but also because they cost a nice, round €5 each. No change.

Roasting whole heads of garlic is so easy and it makes a good starter or easy lunch with some salad and bread.

Per person:
a whole head of garlic, unpeeled but outer papery layer removed
a splash of white wine
a small bay leaf
a sprig or two of thyme or lemon thyme
a knob of butter and/or a splash of olive oil
some salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.

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Place a small bay leaf, some thyme, a splash of oil and a bit of white wine into the bottom of a small dish. Put a head of garlic on top. Place a knob of butter on top of the garlic or trickle on a little more olive oil. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Seal tightly with foil. (My little dishes have lids, so I bung these on top too. Belt and braces.) You can also do quite a few heads of garlic all together in one dish, of course, just make sure you cover it tightly with foil.

Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the cloves. The flesh should be very tender indeed when pierced with a small, sharp knife. If it’s not soft enough, just put it back into the oven for a bit and check again every 5 minutes or so. Remove the foil and lid if your dish has one, and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes. Serve hot.

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I love the papery skins.

On not visiting vineyards

 

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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.
 
Winegrowers’ potatoes

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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.

Serves 4
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.

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Line the pan with bacon.


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Pat the potatoes dry.


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Season, then dot the potatoes with sage and goose fat or butter.


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Scatter with cheese.


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Press everything together and dot the top with a little more goose fat or butter.