Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bread and fishes

Food was always going to be a key theme of our trip to the south of France, but not just for the first chance to buy and cook in that country.

We ate in more often than we might have expected – not just full-blown meals, but sometimes just a few slices of saucisson, some cheese, fruit and a bottle of wine. And, of course, bread.

Bread is close to a religion in France. And it's not difficult to understand why. Delightfully, there was a boulangerie two minutes out of the house, just on the seafront. More than once, The Other Half pottered down there early in the morning to pick up a baguette and croissants while I put a pot of coffee on (another French culinary religion). And the bread from the twice-weekly market was even better.

Every town and village in France has, by law, to have at least one proper baker. It was no wonder that Marie Antoinette so upset the hoi polloi with her infamous "Let them eat cake" comment on the bread shortages caused by a shortage of flour (although something has been lost in translation, since it was really: "let them eat brioche", which makes a modicum more sense, since brioche requires less flour to bake than bread).

But the bread is wonderful; crisp on the outside and so tasty, with a glorious aroma, inside. 'Our' local boulangerie opened early in the morning to sell fresh bread and other goodies, before closing. Only to open again later in the day after baking a new batch of bread.

Bread is one of those things that makes me despair about the UK. I wasn't able to buy really good bread until yesterday, when our weekly market has a number of artisan bakers present. Before that, I'd had to make do with a loaf from our local 'baker', the chain Percy Ingle. I wandered in on Monday and asked for a wholemeal bloomer: 'oh, we don't do wholemeal bloomers, just white ones,' came the reply. 'Bread', that is, shipped in by van in large pre-made batches to be baked on the premises – it's really not quite the same thing.

We work the longest hours anywhere in western Europe – and care the least about our quality of life. Bread seems to be an illustration of that, together with a culture (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else) of sitting at my work desk, eating generally poor food for lunch, while we carry on working.

The French, I should point out, are not lazy. Contrary to the implication of the much-touted statement in the UK about the notorious two-hour lunches of the French (accompanied by eye rolling), that doesn't mean they work a much shorter day: workplaces are often open at 8am and don't shut until gone 6pm – even 7pm.

But let's forget that for the time being. It's too depressing.

When we weren't dining in, the restaurants in Collioure presented no shortage of opportunities to enjoy eating out – literally: only twice did we not eat al fresco and that was only because the restaurants in question were full outside at the time.

Collioure is famous for its anchovies – and although they're no longer fished from the little harbour (they arrive at Port Vendre, about 10 minutes away by bus), two factories (Desclaux Ets and Roques Ets) still exist, where the women fillet them by hand before potting them in various ways; some in oil, some in salt, some in brine. I'm not a huge fan of the brown ones, which are too strong for my tastes and generally very bony. The ones I enjoy most are the silver ones, that are served with a Collioure salad.

But away from salads, which I've mentioned in an earlier post, the seafood is the thing that strikes you most.

Once we'd hit our stride with the sun at Plage de Port d'Avall (and after the man who ran the beach café and rented out the sunloungers had decided to close for the season), we hit Plage Saint-Vincent, where the shade stays away for far longer in September days.

Here too, there is the pleasure of Au Casot, an open-sided restaurant at the top of the beach that tempts you from your repose with the enticing smell of cooking fish – in particular, grilled sardines. The sardines are lovely – but I'm a bit of a typically English wuss when it comes to bony fish, so I stick to tinned sardines at home. But there was no shortage of other options to choose on the brief menu when we chose to eat there – which we did more times than we ate in any other single establishment.

While The Other Half stuck to Catalan sausage and Catalan boudin (a blood sausage) with chips, I stayed with the seafood. First up was gambas: six huge beasts, grilled and served with a thick wedge of grilled tomato and thick slices of potato, with lashings of persillade to garnish – the combination of olive oil, parsley and garlic proving a match made in heaven and a perfect garnish for everything else on the plate.

In one of his TV series, chef Rick Stein talks of seeing customers at his Cornish restaurants trying to eat such shellfish with a knife and fork. The Other Half even noticed a couple of people trying it when we were away. It's impossible. One of the reasons I love gambas is the sheer, sensual pleasure of getting your hands messy; of ripping off the heads and sucking them out; peeling the shells from the bodies and then dipping the dense, sweet flesh into utterly gorgeous aioli. Who cares about the mess! There's a reason that they give you a wet one tissue with such a dish.

Indeed, I loved the gambas so much I had them twice, trying the St Jacques – scallops – done in pretty much the same way, in between. Very good – but not quite as good as those joyfully messy gambas.

My last Au Casot meal, though, was sea bass, grilled and then served with a vanilla oil dressing. I'd read about this idea of using vanilla in savoury dishes before, but had never tried it: it was sumptuous – subtle and not overpowering, but a really lovely compliment to a superb piece of fish.

After meals like that – and I usually finished with what instantly became my favourite ice cream combination of coffee (the frozen coffee beans are brilliant) and apricot – it was a case of waddling back to the sunlounger to resume the exhaustive work of the day. If I was feeling really energetic, then after an hour or so (we constantly reminded ourselves of maternal warnings against swimming too quickly after food), I could go swimming – with a variety of fishes gliding gracefully just out of my watery reach, busy nibbling at rocks in search of food.

You'd see dorade – some as big as a dinner plate; your legs would be surrounded by fish that were almost transulcent with a stroke of orange just visible in the shimmering water; long, thin fish, with brown go-faster stripes down their middles, and small black creatures fish, darting in and out of the rocks.

Fish, fish everywhere – and no shortage of the beauties to eat.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sun, sangria and a spot of cooking

If there was one thing that I hadn’t really imagined doing, it was sitting on a beach reading a cookery book. But then again, this was Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, so you could argue that it was part travelogue anyway.

But there I was, happily looking for the bits that would educate me about the food of Languedoc-Roussillon between visits to the market.

Part of that education came in the section on fish. Always a believer in simplicity anyway, David here expresses the view that the best way to cook fish is under a grill. It struck me that I don’t really do that very often and that, indeed, fish is not my strongest culinary point, even though I love fish.

In the months preceding the holiday, we’d talked of popping down to nearby Port Vendre one morning to buy fish at the fish market, but spotting a fish stall at Collioure’s twice-weekly market rendered that an unnecessary journey.

So as I waited for the day when I would buy fish, I boned up on using it. I planned to get something like a couple of smallish sea bass, make a couple of slashes in the sides and “paint them” (as the divine Mrs D describes it) with some olive oil before whacking them under the grill. Okay, I was also thinking of stuffing a load of thyme into them too.

But then, as we stood waiting at the fish stall early one Wednesday morning, The Other Half suggested I ask for some bream – or dorade as it’s known in France. Sure enough, the stallholder had some in his iced boxes. And sure enough, it looked superb. So I bought one – with the realisation dawning that this was not the sort of stall where a fishmonger is going to scale, gut and prep your fish. Presumably, it’s assumed that anyone buying fish knows what to do with it and how. I was going to have to fillet by myself.

Some months ago, one of my best kitchen knives broke. Yup – a very expensive Zwilling Henckels broke. In a number of places – little knicks coming out of the blade when I sharpened it. I assume there had a been a fault in the manufacturing of it.

However, I’d been wondering what to do about replacing it. And at the same time, I started wondering whether the cottage we’d booked for our holiday would have decent knives for my culinary adventures. Putting two and two together, I descended into the basement at Galleries Lafayette in Perpignan on the Saturday morning after our train journey south.

There, to my absolute astonishment, I’d found knives for a fraction of the price I’d expect to see in England – Zwilling Henckels and Sabatiers for around €35. Thinking about what I needed, I bought a long, thin-bladed Japanese knife for a very good €32. The Other Half wondered whether the prices were a reflection of a much bigger market for good knives in France than in England.

Anyway, our holiday cottage had knives and they were fairly sharp. Or at least, sharp enough for the jobs I set them over our first week. But then came the dorade and “fairly sharp” wasn’t really going to cut any ice with me.

A day on the beach and two sundowners of sangria later, I took the knife out of its box and the fish out of the fridge, before introducing the two. They got on well and, for only the third time in my life, I managed to fillet a fish. Easy, really.

I boiled a couple of potatoes, heated the grill, sliced and lightly salted a selection of tomatoes, and then set a pan on a hob to very gently warm through some olive oil, with lemon juice and smashed garlic.

Mrs D asserts that, when grilling fish, start with the pan close to the heat source until the skin has crisped up and then move it lower. That entailed a little manual work of holding the pan close to the heat, since twiddling around with the one moveable shelf, while cooking, would have been a bit of a fiddle.

The book also says that you know when fish is cooked because it takes on a different colour – a different whiteness, really. And it did. So for once, I used that as a judge.

The potatoes were thickly sliced and then drizzled with the warm oil, which also worked as a dressing for the fish. The tomato salad was about as simple as you can get – but wonderful to taste. And a bottle of white Merlot, so sweet that you could almost taste the sunshine that had ripened the grapes, was the perfect accompaniment.

It wasn’t my only cooking success in Collioure, but it was the best.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tell them about the tomatoes

It was the tomatoes that made the first major impact.

We'd arrived in Perpignan after a lengthy, but perfectly pleasant journey south, enjoying the scenery of the Rhône Valley, gawping at the Alps that are visible near Valance, contemplating Jean de Florette while passing through Provence and then gibbering away like a delighted child as the sea made its first appearances, sliding teasingly into view on the horizon.

It was Friday evening and our cottage wasn't available until 4pm the following day, so we stayed there until Saturday. After sleeping late, we ambled up to the Place de la Republique (all French towns seem to have one – French urban planners can't be noted for their invention when naming streets and squares) for croissants and coffee, then wandered and shopped before taking lunch, sitting outside in the sun beside the canal.

We both ordered a Catalan salad, which means, in essence, anchovies, hard-boiled egg, black olives, leaves and tomatoes – a regional version of the famed Niçoise.

But the tomatoes ...

These were yellow, and the taste was mind-blowing. Nothing else of the salad remains in my memory but those tomatoes.

A day later, now ensconced in our cottage, it was time for a first trip to the lovely little market that sets up on Sunday and Wednesday mornings in Collioure's tiny village square.

Wandering around was bliss, picking up superb bread, cheese from Pyrénéen mountain goats, more cheese and a variety of saucisson. Fruit was abundant – melons, figs, apricots and peaches (including flat ones that I'd only ever seen before in pictures); all was ripe and smelt wonderful.

And the tomatoes – more varieties than you could shake the proverbial stick at. I found a stall that allowed you to bag up a selection from a wide range of 'heirloom' varieties, taking particular note to raid for the yellow ones. Like those in Perpignan, these were exceptional. At a later visit to the stall, I picked up some that were a pale green with darker green stripes on them – tangier, but every bit as delicious.

One evening, when I was cooking fish, all I did for a side dish was slice up a variety of these gems and then lightly salt them a few minutes before eating. You wanted – needed – nothing more. It was the start of a process of understanding just what the sun means in this region: what happens to the taste when food has been grown slowly and kissed by the sun.

Tomatoes cropped up in more than a few meals in restaurants too: doorstep-like slices, grilled and topped with parsley, garlic and olive oil, cherry tomatoes as part of a salad. Not that local salads are limited to tomatoes. A Collioure salad has local anchovies, usually displayed in a star-like pattern, with strips of roasted red pepper in between, plus hard boiled egg, black olives and usually some leaves. A Vallespir (my personal favourite) has leaves, melon balls, black olives, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, with sliced baguette, lightly toasted and topped with goats' cheese that has been drizzled with honey before being popped under the grill. Bar de la Marine does this so well – even before you taste anything, the aroma has set your senses aflame.

I can recreate quite a bit of this, but I cannot bring myself to buy tomatoes back home yet. I fully expect anything to be a pale shadow by comparison.

Monday, 14 September 2009

In the beginning ... No: let's start at the end

It was Narbonne, just a stop north of Perpignan, when a couple lumbered into the seats opposite. A vast man, clearly in difficulty, slumped into his seat and hauled open his shirt as his wife pressed a moist paper towel to his forehead. A cleft was visible down his revealed torso as he struggled for breath.

It occurred to me that he was possibly going to peg out between then and Lille, where we departed the train, and it's not possible to know whether connecting Eurostar trains are held up in such circumstances. Eventually, his wife replaced the damp towel with a mask, strapping it securely to his head, before switching on a portable breathing device of some sort. At last, his patent discomfort subsided, only to return a couple of times during the journey. Rank smells drifted across the aisle, with noises like farts as he struggled to breathe.

Behind us, another man – this one kitted out in black cord and velvet – huffed and puffed and kept kicking or knocking the seat in front as he failed to be able to sit still. Later, a Spanish family boarded, apparently secure in the belief that it is perfectly reasonable to keep your children entertained by inflicting the soundtrack of some film or other, played on a portable DVD player, on the entire rest of the carriage.

And later still, leaving the Eurostar at St Pancras, it was to an accompaniment of braying Essex banter.

Yet only 24 hours earlier, we'd been sitting on the main promenade in Collioure, sipping a final, sweet Banyuls, and nearly lulled to peaceful sleep by the the lapping sea and droning cicadas.

Collioure, jewel of the Côte Vermeille, home of anchovies and art. Nestling at the bottom of the Albères – the foothills of the Pyrénées – as they slip gently into the Mediterranean, it's neither completely French nor Spanish, but defiantly Catalan; something different again. Kissed by the sunshine, added romance by a history that incorporates the Cathars and the Fauvists; a part of Roussillon, the southernmost region of France – beyond the Languedoc and beyond Provence, the point at which most Britons halt their journey. Bristling with life and adored by the thousands who visit – and the many who stay – yet still almost a secret.

Collioure; enchanting and enchanted, bewitching and divine.

Let's cast aside that journey back north and remember the south; let's remember Collioure.