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.