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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.