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.

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