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.

A sweet good morning to you

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We always buy too many croissants. I think it’s because whoever’s up first likes the idea of the little excursion to the bakery. But in reality, my father breakfasts frugally on an abstemious bowl of cereal, my sporty brother and sporty nephew like the protein hit of huge omelettes, I eat what I eat at home, yoghurt and fruit, Séan cruises what everyone else is having and picks out what he likes best. My mother dines luxuriantly on the worry that everybody has exactly what they want, that it’s not too hot, not too cold, that it’s just right.

So we often have croissants left over. This morning I made eggy bread, french toast, pain perdu, whatever you’d like to call it, from yesterday’s poor, overlooked specimens. This is so easy it’s barely a recipe, but it does make a very fine breakfast. On that at least we have an early-morning consensus.

Very french french toast

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You could also add some vanilla if you like, or use lemon zest in place of the orange zest.

4 eggs
About 100ml cream and 200ml whole milk, or any combination of the two, or just milk
A few gratings of orange zest
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
4 day-old croissants, halved
A few knobs of butter
Icing sugar, to dust, though I don’t have any here so I didn’t.
Maple syrup or jam, to serve

Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, zest, cinnamon and salt in a wide, low dish. Put the croissants into the custardy mixture, cut-side down, for about 10 minutes.

Turn over and leave to soak for another 5 minutes. Warm the butter in a large, non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the croissants until golden, about 3 minutes per side.

Serve dusted with icing sugar (add a bit more cinnamon to the icing sugar if you like), with maple syrup or jam.

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One for the road

 

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Browned butter biscuits

Tomorrow morning, Séan and I set off on our annual drive to the south west of France. That’s just the 16 marriage-enhancing hours, door to door. It’s a modern Kerouacian romp of shouting at the SatNav and arguing over whether the dog needs a wee.

Service stations are where whimsy goes to die, or at least to stock up on wiper blades and pallid chips, where low aspiration and low blood sugar meet, and weary, glazed eyes seek out sticky glazed doughnuts to fill the hungry gap between now and inevitable Type 2 diabetes. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t say ‘holiday’ to me.

Due to our (my) desire to be on holiday as soon as possible, we don’t stop much. We rely for sustenance on a hastily-scrabbled-together-at-dawn holiday picnic of egg-and-cress sandwiches, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fruit, perhaps some leftover pie or cake, sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car, bottles of water and a huge thermos of coffee.

Of course, some take en route sustenance very seriously indeed. You know when you get on a plane and your neighbour suddenly produces a linen napkin and a beautiful bento box filled with sushi? You never want to sit next to that person. They would be no use at all if there was An Incident. For example, if we were suddenly required in the cockpit to fly the plane, she would be unavailable to take instructions from air traffic control due to an urgent need to remove the wasabi stain from her three-ply dodo wool sweater.

I am a great believer in the redemptive power of the snack, but it doesn’t do to be too precious. Contrary to what many a modern calendar/mousemat/comedy mug/inspirational postcard might have you believe, sometimes it really is the destination not the journey.

Sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car

These are made from browned butter, which gives them a deliciously sweet and nutty flavour. They are a plainish biscuit, which is generally my preference. You can even leave out the rolling in sugar part if it offends your abstemious nature. They’re the sort of thing you can make when the cupboard’s practically bare and they last for ages in a tin. Perfect for a road trip. If you have one of them in your future this summer, you should try them.

Makes about 3 dozen

150g unsalted butter, cubed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
260g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp flaky sea salt
2 eggs, 1 separated
320g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
Golden caster sugar, for rolling

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Roll them in sugar, or not.
It’s entirely up to you.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the solids go a deep golden brown and it has a rich, sweet, nutty aroma – it really will smell delicious. This should take about 6-7 minutes. Hold your nerve. Immediately pour the butter into a medium-sized mixing bowl to cool and stir in the vanilla. Beat in the sugar until well combined and glossy. Beat in the whole egg and one egg yolk.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat into the butter and sugar until you have a smooth, firm dough. Divide the dough in two. Roll each piece into a log about 5cm wide. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate until firm, at least an hour. At this point if you like, you can freeze one of the batches of dough.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line some baking sheets with baking parchment. If you are rolling the biscuits in sugar, scatter and few tablespoonfuls onto a sheet of baking parchment. Lightly beat the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of cold water and brush the dough with the egg wash before rolling in the sugar. Slice the biscuits into 5mm rounds and place on the baking sheets – leave a minimum of 2cm between each biscuit as they spread out a bit.

Bake until firm and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for a couple of minutes on the baking sheets before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep for about a week in an airtight tin.

Lazy tart

Debora's Lazy Tart

When we were here a couple of years ago, I wrote about my rugby-playing nephew Angus who was supposed to eat 4,000 calories a day and seemed keen to derive a fair amount of these from Nutella.

Well – despite a startlingly grown-up beard – he still has a child’s sweet tooth and an enduring affection for the chocolate and hazelnut spread. Last night we needed a quick sweet fix to round off dinner and together we came up with the 5 minute Nutella and peach tart. For a lazy tart, it’s not bad. Not bad at all.

Five minute Nutella and peach tart

Nutella and peach tart

1 circle ready-rolled all-butter puff pastry
A generous amount of Nutella
3-4 ripe peaches, cut into segments
A small handful of hazelnuts, roughly chopped, or flaked almonds (optional)
Some egg wash or milk

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas mark 6.

Line a baking sheet with baking parchment (or use the parchment the pastry comes rolled in) and lay the circle of pastry on it. With a small, sharp knife, cut a border about 2cm in from the edge of the pastry disc, being careful not to cut all the way through the pastry. Brush the border with the egg wash or milk.

Using a spatula, spread a generous, even layer of Nutella within the border and arrange the sliced peaches over the top, cramming them quite close together. Scatter the nuts over the top if using and then bake for about 20 minutes, until the pastry if puffed up and golden and the peaches are slightly caramelised around the edges. Serve warm.

Angus John Robertson & Debora's Lazy Tart

Orage-ously good chicken

Orage-ously good chicken

Agde has been hot – the kind of humid heat that interferes with sleep, melts make up, frizzes hair. On the terrace of the Café Plazza, as tinny, consumptive Peter Gabriel or Police wheezed out from the speakers, locals muttered about ‘un orage’ over tiny cups of coffee and breakfast beers.

Well today the orage came, splashing, running, pelting down from the skies, spilling from the gutters, filling the age-smoothed grooves in the basalt terrace like tiny rockpools. It was a day to remain behind the wooden door.

Rain in Agde

Splashing rain in AgdeRain splashing on the basalt terrace.

Almost the very second we were due to leave London, the car rammed to the rafters with towels and straw hats, proper pillows, paperbacks and favourite knives, the postman delivered a parcel, a birthday present from my sister-in-law. It was Dorie Greenspan’s lovely  Around My French Table. It was my companion throughout our 17 hour journey, especially during the boring bits before you get to Clermont Ferrand where France begins to roll downhill to the south.

I gave the book to my nephew Angus to look at and told him we could make what he liked. He’s going to university in the autumn (biochemistry – what the hell?) and wants to learn to cook a bit. His mother’s from a Spanish Basque family so his heart, appetite and genes lead him to Dorie’s Chicken Basquaise, a colourful jumble of peppers, chillies, tomatoes and chicken, a perfectly sunny dish for an extravagantly rainy day.

Dorie Greenspan’s Chicken basquaise

Chicken basquaise in Agde

If you’re keen on French food, you really need to buy Dorie Greenspan’s book. Probably today, if it’s not too much trouble. In her introduction, she says ‘This is elbows-on-the-table food, dishes you don’t need a Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to make’. ‘Elbows-on-the-table food’ is a pretty good description of the food I love and so many of my favourites are here, a whole banquet of rillettes, gratins, daubes and gougères, but also couscous and tagines, escabeches and ceviches, reflecting France’s more recent influences and passions.

Around My French Table is the kind of book you want to work your way through, devouring every carefully, cheerfully, deliciously constructed recipe. The recipes use American measurements, but you can buy cup measures all over the place now so that’s hardly an obstacle to enjoyment.

Serves four

For the pipérade:

2 big Spanish or Vidalia onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 green peppers, peeled if you like
2 red peppers, peeled if you like
3 mild chillies (or another red pepper)
6 tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2-4 garlic cloves, to taste, split, green germ removed and minced
2 teaspoons sea salt or more to taste
Pinch of sugar
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
¼ – ½ teaspoon piment d’Esplette or chilli powder
Freshly ground black pepper

For the chicken:

1 large chicken, about 1.8kg, preferably organic, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 chicken thighs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup/190ml dry white wine
White rice, for serving
Minced fresh basil and/or cilantro/coriander, for garnish (optional)

To make the pipérade: Cut the onions in half from top to bottom. Lay each piece flat-side down and cut in half again from top to bottom, stopping just short of the root end: cut each half onion crosswise into thin slices.

Put a Dutch oven or large, high-sided frying pan with a cover over medium heat and pour in 2 tablespoons of oil. Warm the oil for a minute, then toss in the onions and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until softened but not coloured.

Meanwhile, cut the peppers and chillies in half, trim the tops, remove the cores and remove the seeds. Cut the peppers lengthwise into strips about ½ inch/1cm wide. Thinly slice the chillies.

Add the remaining tablespoons of oil to the pot, stir in the peppers and chillies, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook and stir for another 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are quite soft.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, salt, sugar, thyme, bay leaf, piment d’Esplette or chilli powder, and freshly ground pepper to taste, stir well, cover and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove the cover and let the pipérade simmer for another 15 minutes. You’ll have a fair amount of liquid in the pot, and that’s fine. Remove the thyme and bay leaf. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or piment d’Esplette if you think it needs it.

If you would like to make the pipérade with eggs (see below), use a slotted spoon to transfer 2 cups of the pepper mixture into a bowl. Spoon in a little of the cooking liquid, and refrigerate until needed (you can pack all of the pipérade in an airtight container and keep it refrigerated for up to 4 days).

To make the chicken: Pat the chicken pieces dry. Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy casserole over a medium-high heat. Add a couple of chicken pieces, skin-side down (don’t crowd the chicken – do this in batches), and cook until the skin is golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook for another 3 minutes. Transfer the pieces to a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and continue until all of the chicken is browned.

Discard the oil, set the pot over a high heat, pour in the wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits that might have stuck to the bottom. Let the wine bubble away until it cooks down to about 2 tablespoons. Return the chicken to the pot, add any juices that have accumulated in the bowl, and spoon in the pipérade. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat so that the pipérade just simmers, cover the pot, and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasonings as needed.

Serve over white rice, sprinkled with basil and/or cilantro/coriander, if using.

Pipérade and eggs

Pipérade and Eggs in Agde

The traditional way to make pipérade and eggs is to heat the pipérade, stir beaten eggs into the mixture, and cook until the eggs are scrambled. Inevitably and invariably the egs curdle, but no one (at least no one Basque) seems to mind. If you’d like uncurdled eggs, warm 2 cups of pipérade in a saucepan. Meanwhile beat 6 eggs with a little salt and pepper in a bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, non-stick pan over a medium heat, and when the bubbles subside, pour in the eggs, Cook the eggs, stirring, until they form soft curds. Spoon the pipérade into four shallow soup plates and, with the back of a spoon, make a little well in the centre of each. Fill each well with some scrambled eggs. Drizzle the eggs and pipérade sparingly with olive oil, dust with minced basil or coriander, if you’d like, and serve immediately, with slices of warm toasted country bread rubbed with garlic and moistened with oil.

French fries

All present and correct

Well the sun came out and, in the fickle way of holiday makers everywhere, I’m grateful for the house’s fortress-like basalt walls which keep the rooms shady and cool. Even on the brightest days, inside you need to turn on a light to read.

June is one of the happiest and most delicious of months in Adge. The market is full of peas and peaches, melons, tomatoes and cherries, everything du region. At one of my favourite stalls, a young man was selling courgette flowers. I bought all he had, about twenty or so, and from another stall enough soft goat’s cheese to stuff them.

Stuffed courgette flowers

Golden and ready to eat

Forgive me, TS Eliot, for saying that I measure out my life in measuring spoons. Quarter of a teaspoon, half a teaspoon, a teaspoon; half a tablespoon, a tablespoon. When I’m developing recipes, accuracy is everything. Measure and measure again. So when I’m on holiday, one of the purest of pleasures for me is to scatter, toss, fling ingredients around with a recklessness that would get me fired in my real life. Here, it just gets me fired up. So you need to forgive me, too, for having no proper measurements in this recipe. But hey, you’re a clever sort, you can figure it out.

Courgette flowers
Soft goat’s cheese
A cup of plain flour
Sparkling mineral water, chilled
Salt
An ice cube
Sunflower or groundnut oil for frying

Carefully peel back the petals of the courgette flowers and remove the stamens. Take a bit of soft goat’s cheese (I was going to say about a teaspoonful, but we’re doing this freestyle, no measuring aren’t we?) and tuck it inside each flower, twisting the petals to close around the cheese.

Stuff carefully

Pour about 10cm of oil into a heavy-bottomed, deep pan. It shouldn’t come more than a third of the way up the sides. Heat up the oil until it measures 180˚C on a thermometer, or, as we’re on holiday, a cube of bread turns golden in just less than a minute.

While it’s heating up, make the batter. In a bowl, mix the flour with a good pinch of salt and enough mineral water to give it the consistency of double cream. I like to throw in an ice cube too, to ensure it’s extra cold. When the fat is hot enough, dip the flowers by their stems into the batter and then carefully drop them into the oil. Don’t crowd the pan – in mine, I can cook about four at a time – and cook until golden, about 3-4 minutes. Scoop the cooked flowers out of the oil with tongs or a spider and leave to drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a little salt.