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French cuisine: the heart of Europe’s kitchen

Where to start with French food?

This is the country that gave the world hot, crumbly, buttery croissants, to be dipped in mugs of steaming black coffee.

The nation that elevated cheese from a by-product of milk to a super food.

Okay, cheese is not that healthy for your body…but a scoop of pungent, melting camembert on a warm, crusty baguette does wonders for your soul.

The two bibles of cooking: Larousse Gastronomique and Le Guide Culinaire by the great chef, Escoffier are, of course, French.

And eating out in France is always an occasion, whether it is the prix fixe lunch menu in the local bistro, or a la carte in the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

We have done both, the latter only once.

The three hours we spent wining and dining in the Eiffel Tower was a spur of the moment decision more than a decade ago.

We were lucky to get a table; it was a wet Monday I recall.

I wince every time I think of the credit card bill.

But my overwhelming memory is not of the cost, but of the fabulous food and wine, in the most glamourous setting possible.

Oh, and the vertigo when I went to the toilet and dared to look down. Or perhaps the mild dizziness was caused by the large Poire William we had after the meal.

We have no budget for fancy restaurants on this trip, but you cannot spend a few weeks in France and not eat out.

The French approach to food is characteristic; they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature, and for the theatre. Alice B Toklas

When our 3-year-old granddaughter’s and her dad joined us for a week in Valbonne, I took up her cheerful challenge of “eat snails granny!”

They were overcooked, rubbery to the point of almost inedible, but Sofia was impressed. Not enough to try one though.

The best meal of our French tour was in the village of Aups, in south east France, on the day of the first round of the French presidential election.

Aups is famous for its truffles, but the season had passed, so we passed by the restaurants specialising in truffle dishes and opted instead for Sunday lunch in Le Restaurant Le Saint Marc.

Its formule du marche was formidable. Three courses for 27.50 euros, and worth every cent.

I had “egg of the farm poached”, with asparagus and “milkshake of fresh pea” to start, followed by seared duck breast, accompanied by pears “candied in the red wine” and “muslin of celery in truffle oil”.

I finished off with a brochette of pineapple, rum and raisin ice-cream and a final flourish of a vanilla macaroon.

The English translation of the menu may have been a mite flowery, but the meal was simply wonderful – local, seasonal ingredients, cooked with imagination and flair.

And the service was sublime. One woman, in her prime, combined the roles of maître d’hotel, sommelier and waiter with organised calmness and a huge smile.

She answered every question we had about the menu, the wine and the local area with ease, while keeping an eye on the other tables. She clearly loved her job.

France not only loves food, it treats the people who work in the hospitality industry with respect. A lesson there for us all.

Our van only has a two gas-burner hob (the third is broken) and no oven, so it would be nigh-on impossible to recreate any of the dishes that we enjoyed that day in Aups.

And I am not sure my technical skills are up to it.

As we travel round Europe I find a pot of soup or vegetarian stew to be the perfect food for a road trip.

You only need one pot, it lasts for several days (often better on the second day after the flavour mingle), and every country has its own specialities.

So here is a recipe for a ratatouille – a vegetable stew that originates from Nice.

According to Elisabeth Luard, whose book European Peasant Cookery this recipe comes from, no single family in the south of France can agree with their neighbour on what should be included in a ratatouille.

But they do concur that the freshest of vegetables should be used, and that cooking it cannot be hurried, as the ingredients must be cooked separately. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

Ratatouille

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 fat aubergines

4 ripe red peppers*

4 firm courgettes

1 kg plum tomatoes (or two 400 kg tomatoes – the best in the shop)

2 large, mild onions

4 garlic cloves

150 ml extra virgin olive oil

Rosemary and thyme

Salt and pepper

Method

Dice the aubergine, salt slightly and leave to drain in a colander. Peel and finely chop the onions and garlic.

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a frying pan and fry the onions and garlic gently until they are soft and golden – allow at least ten minutes. Transfer to a deep pan or casserole dish and reserve.

Stalk and de-seed the peppers and cut them into strips. Cook them gently in the drippings left in the frying pan until they soften and caramelise a little. Transfer to a sieve set over a bowl to catch the drippings and then to the casserole. Return the drippings to the pan.

*I cheat here and use a jar of cooked red peppers from Lidl. They work brilliantly.

Trim the courgettes, dice and add them to the reheated drippings in the pan. Salt slightly and fry until they take a little colour. Remove, drain and add to casserole.

Rinse the aubergine slices and pat dry. Gently fry in the re-heated drippings, and more oil, until soft but not browned.

At first they will absorb oil like blotting paper, but they release it again as the flesh shrinks. Drain them well after cooking, then transfer to the casserole.

If you are using fresh tomatoes, plunge them into boiling water to loosen their skins. Peel then chop them, taking out the seeds. Add the pulp to the frying pan with the rest of the oil, including that drained from the aubergines and melt down to a rich sauce.

I always use tinned tomatoes, as I have rarely found fresh tomatoes with enough flavour, and when I do, I prefer to eat them raw!

Heat all the ingredients together for a few minutes. Do not cook any further.

Serve the ratatouille on its own with plenty of fresh bread to soak up the juices. Or with eggs, fried crisp in hot olive oil, with the yolks still runny. Accompany with a bottle of red wine from the Rhone.

Bon appetit.

 

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