Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mixing food and art

Autumn, as we've said more than once, has it's own beauty and richness.

Having spent a rather subdued second half of the summer photographically speaking – although that’s partly because I didn’t want to sit inside at my computer, processing pictures, when I could be sitting outside in the garden – I had started thinking in that direction as autumn approached.

What I was particularly considering was my ongoing ‘food porn’ project. This beach almost accidentally back in the spring, with an experiment that turned out to be rather good.

Some of the subsequent pictures have been single items – almost food ‘portraits’ – some have been more complex arrangements. All are photographed against completely black backgrounds, which adds a really rich quality to even the simplest subject.

The first – the experiment – was a group of red peppers, including the odd chili.

Now, I don’t have a studio or any ‘proper’ lighting. For this, I used a small table lamp that I bought for something like £8 in Lidl some years ago. The basic background was a black t-shirt. The result was amazing.

You can click on the picture to see a larger version of it.

One of the things that has surprised me is that I find it easy to 'style' the shots: it never takes long to set things up. It makes you wonder what 'food stylists' get paid ...

After another couple of efforts, I tried something a little bit more ambitious – and I even felt the inclination of giving this ne a proper title: Homage to Mrs David

The only major technical difference here was adding some flash, which I bounced off the ceiling.

The processing takes a while – mostly because I have to ensure that the background is completely black and featureless. So in some ways, perhaps this is more a question of 'making an image' as some photographers describe their work. But the subjects themselves need very little work.

And it's remarkable how well the basic idea can work even with insanely simple subjects.

Take eggs – indeed, take these eggs. It's difficult to think of anything much more straightforward – and how often do you really look at an egg, before cracking it, and see the beauty in it?

In this particular picture, there are the curves and the warm colours and obviously the contrast between the shadow and light.

So what have I planned for the autumn? Well, it's the obvious chance to picture the ingredients for a really warming stew. All those root vegetables – lovely parsnips and onions and carrots. And I find myself thinking I'll have to haul out a rather old and rather battered earthenware pot from the back of the cupboard for such a shoot: it'll add something to any picture.

But in the meantime, here's a little something I prepared last weekend.

Again, it is a really simple composition, but given the detail of the little torn-edged box they come in, there's little I needed to add. I did slightly tweak the position of the mushroom at the top in the picture, simply because I wanted to be able to really capture the beautiful texture, but nothing beyond that. And again in terms of the processing, a little general clarity in Lightroom (which is a lovely piece of software) and then just spending the time to ensure that the background is uniform.

So simple, indeed, that I almost start feeling like a bit of a charlatan!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Joie de vivre at the chateau

Visiting new places has a thrill all of its own. But there are also pleasures to returning to somewhere that you’ve been before; to learning more about it, experiencing more, growing to know it more.

On previous visits to Collioure, we’ve never really come away with any musical impressions. But this trip produced more than one musical experience.

The first came courtesy of Hot Club de Torderes – or at least, three of their full line-up of six.

Lola Lesné (clarinet and vocals), Jacques-Emmanuel Ricard (guitar and vocals) and Victor Badze (guitar and mandoline) were playing at the market on our middle Wednesday.

After standing around to listen for a while, I picked up a CD for €10. They play an enjoyable mix of “jazz/latin/swing” and the disc has been our dining music since our return.

You can find out more at their myspace site, here.

But on our last day, as the holiday seemed to be tapering toward a slightly gloomy anti-climax, we headed up to the chateau, having seen adverts for a day of Catalan music and fun.

We had little idea of what to expect and assumed that it was pretty much an end-of-summer party.

Well, it was to an extent. The event – Els Ben Parits – was also organised in conjunction with Les Restaurants du Coeur, a regional charity as a fundraiser.

Not that anyone was using that as an excuse to rake in the cash. Admission was €10 and you had a stamp on your wrist so that you could come and go as you wanted (it was something like a 10-hour event). We bought souvenir plastic cups with lanyards to hang around your neck – after that, a portion of food was €1 and a half of beer was €2, although the latter was reduced when the man serving it decided that it was getting a little flat.

The food was extraordinary – slabs of bread with tomato on them (a local speciality) and topped with huge anchovies. Massive boxes were repeatedly carried in, full of pissadadiere , the regions own version of a Provencal, pizza-like dish with a doughy base, a covering of tomato and then a diagonal design of anchovies, with some carefully placed black olives; more slabs of bread with local sausages …

You can do fast food without it being junk.

And you can raise money without ripping people off and economically excluding many.

With food and drink, we perched ourselves on a staircase with a decent view of the stage.

After a wait, we were introduced to L’Agram – one ebay seller describes an early album of theirs as “French-Occitan-folk-psych-prog”, which is a genre I can’t say I’ve come across before.

A sizeable outfit with three singers: one, a middle-aged man with a shock of white hair; then a delightfully curvaceous younger woman and a bird of a woman, of indeterminate age, who has bags of energy, dresses in wonderfully eccentric fashion and reminds me of a sort of cross between Su Pollard and Terrence Stamp in drag in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

All had their individual turn at the mic as well as taking singing together on some songs. But it was the latter who most strongly struck me.

In France, chanson simply means ‘song’. In the UK, we tend to think of it as a specific genre, with Piaf as the apotheosis of the style.

My birdlike singer, with her red trilby and her red glasses, can perform just such songs, wonderfully, with an earthy, robust quality.

But my favourite song from their set, which had The Other Half in stitches, was about making aioli, complete with actions to illustrate the stirring required. What a way to celebrate a wonderful regional delicacy!

As the group emerged from the back of the stage after their set, I managed to speak to the birdlike singer and ask if they had any CDs. She didn’t seem sure, so she led me to the front row of the raked seating that had been erected in front of the stage. There, I was introduced to another woman, to who I asked the same question. Helpfully, given my poor French, she could speak English.

She then brought three more women into the conversation. They were utterly fascinated that someone from London would want local music. Which in turn became a four-way conversation about exactly what, of L’Agram’s repertoire, constituted ‘traditional’ local music.

Eventually, the decided that they could get together two CDs and would send them to me. They found paper and a pen for me to write down my address, but refused payment, saying I could send that when the CDs arrive.

They were friendly and helpful – and it didn’t appear to occur to them to be suspicious that someone might not send any cash. Their generosity of spirit was wonderful. I’m looking forward to any post from France – but I know perfectly well that it might take some time.

The next act was Les Madeleines, described on the event leaflet as “ambiance guinguette”. Now ambiance means in French pretty much what it means in English, while guinguette is apparently a small café where live music is played.

Trust the French to have one word to say all that!

Also a large group, they turned out to be a sort of anarchic jazz punk combo, with occasional bits of politics thrown in, led by another small woman with insane amounts of energy and a mad accordionist.

Bonkers. Completely bonkers. And utterly fabulous. For their second song, the woman invited people to dance a sardane, a Catalan dance, where people join in circles. There are proper steps, and it traditionally goes from a sedate pace to a frenetic one. We’d first seen it danced earlier in this stay, when we saw some sort of party taking place in the open.

This was a bit different and turned into something a little closer to a conga, followed by a hokey cokey. Dust kicked up by scores of dancing feet; laughter and an intoxicating sense of community. And the energy; the boisterous good spirits; the sheer joie de vivre ... It was infectious and completely life-affirming.

Where other acts had left the stage when their set time was over, Les Madeleines ignored the gestures of the MC (who looked like a despairing Sgt Bilko) and set off on a crazy, musical whirlwind of an encore that lasted something like 15 minutes and left us feeling delightedly breathless.

And there was no sense of anti-climax left in sight.

To get a bit of the flavour, you can find Les Madeleines on myspace too, by clicking here.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Itchy fingers with a yen to get arty

It seems rather arrogant to think that one can visit a place such as Collioure, with it’s extraordinary art heritage, and even dare to think that one could come away having produced anything that might be called ‘art’.

But for this summer’s trip, I took oil pastels, pencils and pads in response to a developing urge in the weeks leading up to our departure.

It’s a long time since I did any sketching, let alone anything more than that.

There are a couple of pieces on the wall at home that – my material of choice used to be quality colour pencils, used in conjunction with felt tip pens. It was an odd method that I’d developed myself when I was doing art at school, and deployed particularly for my own brand of photo-realism.

It's perhaps rather revealing that, in those days, my aim was to impeccably reproduce a photograph: I couldn't simply let myself go artistically.

I didn’t want to attempt such an anally retentive style in France – that hadn't been what was motivating me. Rather, inspired partly by the vivacity of the place, I wanted to ‘loosen up’ my old, oh-so-precise style and see if I could convey things in blocks of colour and a sense of shape rather than the sort of precise detail that would have days to render.

One morning, I sat down on my sunlounger at Bora Bora (on the front row in the snapshot), pulled out the larger pad, carefully pointed myself to my left, in the direction of the slabs of rock that constitute the Royal Chateau, took a deep breath and began to flex my art muscle.

The subject had appealed even when I was sitting at home in London contemplating such an endeavour, precisely because it is such vast slabs, which seem to rise organically out of the sea.

The initial pencil sketch was not bad – and it was certainly looser. But the oil pastels proved considerably less worthwhile. It didn’t help when I realised that, in opting for a textured paper, I’d made very much the wrong choice.

Muscles lose strength when they're not used for a very long time.

The following week, I tried a small pencil sketch on San Vincent Plage of the lighthouse. That was better, but I don’t think Leonardo need fear yet.

It did illustrate that I struggle to do anything without having massive expectations of myself. In one sense I enjoyed it, but in another, I was frustrated. It’s as though I can never divorce things entirely from a work ethos or from a competitive one – even if the only person I’m competing against is myself.

Fortunately though, the holiday wasn’t entirely without some artistic success on my part – but that was definitely with the camera.

Visiting the chateau on our final night for a local event (of which more in a forthcoming post), I had the opportunity to take a rare shot of Boromar promenade and the iconic bell tower from above and at night.

The camera didn’t want to play. And after attempting to hold it completely still for what seemed an eternity as it supposedly exposed my chosen shot, I waggled it about in frustration.

The result is possibly more interesting that it would have been otherwise. But I shall not bother showing it to my mother, who is stymied by pretty much anything other than the most obvious pictures.

I never really felt that I ‘got going’ with my photography in Collioure this year, although looking at what I took, there are some decent shots. I have some studies, which I took on our sailing trip, of a particularly stony beach that I still need to process and which, as much as I've analysed them thus far, think are pretty decent.

But by and large, the only shot that I think comes close to the project I undertook last summer, is one of a moped, parked around the corner from the Sports Café in the town.

Ideally, I’ve have preferred to shoot this from the front, but that would have meant having the café itself in shot and that, I think, would have detracted.

On the other hand, the lines of the building and the direction that the moped is facing all work together and give the picture movement. It's simple – but it works.

Remarkably, the colour of the moped almost matches that of the wall. It might have been in France, but there’s something about it that could be Italy.

So, it might not be Michelangelo – and the light play shot might not be Jackson Pollock – but I’m really rather pleased with both of them.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Hello Ian!

Just a very brief note to welcome Ian as a follower of this blog.

You can find the link to his blog in the usual place – as you can for a number of my fellow bloggers who are always worth reading. Please do take the time, if you can, to look at their blogs too – they're all interesting and not-quite-mainstream.

At this point in time, I've chosen not to 'monetise' (ie, make money through advertising) my blog. I'd rather people come to it for the content and have no desire to put them off with commercialism. Besides, it'd probably fairly be argued that that would be rather hypocritical of me. So just occasionally – bear with me – I'll promote something myself.

I'm sure that you all understand.

And this is also an ideal opportunity to thank all of you for your loyalty in coming back here and reading, time and again.

Without you, this would be a totally empty exercise!


Poetry and plums

It’s difficult to know why I was surprised, a year ago or so, to learn that Britain is the cloudiest part of Europe. It really shouldn’t come as a revelation.

Saturday proved blustery and gloriously bright (apart from a spell in the middle of the day, when it became overcast). Walking alongside the Regent’s Canal to Broadway Market, the overgrown bushes that push beyond the rusting railings on the non-towpath side are getting heavy with berries. The trees have yet to start turning, but the briskness in the air makes you anticipate the unfurling season.

In my schooldays, I was never a great fan of poetry – and that was made worse at the time by having Keats for more than one course.

But there was one Keats poem, which captures some of the colour and fecundity of the season, that was my exception proving the rule.

Ode to Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

On the market itself, there was a plethora of apples, pears, dusky plums and voluptuous pumpkins.

It was certainly soup weather, but not quite time for a really thick soup, so for lunch, I used a recipe from Clare Ferguson’s Flavours of Provence (which I found in the Gard du Nord Eurostar bookshop in Paris, rather than in the south) for a vegetable broth with pistou – and this week, I used basil instead of last week’s parsley.

It added a real zing to the soup, which included onion, butternut squash, carrot, courgette, cannellini beans and a few fine beans.

While that was cooking, I halved a load of plums and popped them into the same weight of jam sugar in a glass bowl, then covered that with a tea towel and left it overnight.

It was a day when I scarcely seemed to be out of the kitchen for very long – although that was miles from unpleasant.

For dinner, I roasted a bulb of garlic and then mixed it with lightly crushed, par-boiled potatoes, melted butter, olive oil and seasoning and popped the whole lot back in the oven to brown up.

That’s a dish from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook – although she does it with new potatoes. I do too – but it works all year round and not just in the spring and summer.

Referring once more to Ferguson’s book, I halved a couple of large tomatoes that had been in for a week, and de-seeded them. Mixing a teaspoon of caster sugar, a teaspoon of salt, some ground black pepper and some nutmeg, you sprinkle the inside of the tomatoes with this, and then fill them with finely chopped shallot.

Get some olive oil really hot in a shallow pan and then pop in the tomatoes, skin side down. At this point, the recipe calls for garlic and herbs to be added to the pan, but I ducked out of that – I’d added some dried oregano and dried sage to the salt-sugar mix earlier.

Add a tablespoon or so of white wine (or stock or water) and then put a lid on and turn down to the minimum heat. Leave for 10 minutes.

After that, use a spoon and palette knife (a really good hint, this) to turn them so that the filling is face down, put the lid back on and leave for a further 10 minutes.

Very tasty.

With all that, we had salmon fillet, which I baked in a little white wine, covered with greaseproof paper and given 15 minutes on the lowest shelf while the potatoes were browning up.

And as if there wasn’t already enough garlic in everything, I made up some aioli – and taking another hint from Ferguson’s book, added a teaspoon of boiling water right at the end, which helps to stabilise the emulsion.

With a glass of plonk to wash it down – the Domaine Combes 2009 Saint-Chinian mentioned yesterday – that was, I think, very good fodder indeed.

Which brought us to yesterday itself – and jam making.

Now I’ve done some preserving before; or rather, I’ve attempted a jelly to go with meat or fish. It hasn’t been a disaster, but I don’t have the sense of it being an unmitigated success either.

With that in mind, I’d picked the easiest possible plum jam recipe from internet research in an aim for total foolproofness.

Yesterday morning, as I put a wash on and set the coffee going, I tipped the entire bowl of fruit and sugar into a large pan on minimum heat.

It took remarkably little time for the sugar to dissolve, and then it was simply a question of boiling vigorously for 10-12 minutes.

Then, however, it dawned on me that, although the recipe had said that the stones would float free, the skins was still attached and, at present, that would complicate consumption for me.

I should have found a way of separating skin and stones from the fruit before adding the sugar. Doh!

With the mixture beginning to set, I quickly sieved it into a jug and then poured it into sterilised jars (just two – 700g of fruit and the same of sugar doesn’t make a lot).

Now I’d thought it would be sensible to use jam sugar, but that might have been the wrong decision. It has set very firmly indeed – but apparently plums have a very high level of pectin, so perhaps that sugar, which also included additional pectin, was a bit much.

But stiff or not, the taste is wonderful, so it’s certainly not a wasted effort. I do feel, however, that I need to look for a book that is about the basic principles of preserving rather than simply a collection of recipes.

It’s a deeply satisfying thing to do – and there are so many flavour combinations, savoury and sweet, that I can imagine trying.

Later, I popped boulangerie potatoes into the oven for half an hour, which I then topped with a boned shoulder of lamb and gave almost an hour.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t cooked as thoroughly as it should be – even though the timings were considerably beyond that of the recipe (which was in French, from a magazine, so that was something of a triumph).

It raises the perennial problem of every oven being different – and of such dishes really (and traditionally) needing very long, slow cooking, often at temperatures below that to which modern ovens will go (the first time I can see an argument for ranges).

Not that it’s wasted: it’s all gone back in a pot and will be given a couple of hours – on the lowest heat possible – this evening.

But it was a timely reminder that things can go awry even when you think you’ve done everything right.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Don't forget the wine!

Last night, we finished off a very pleasing bottle of Domaine Combes 2009 Saint-Chinian. A Syrah Grenache from the Languedoc, it was purchased last week in the John Lewis food hall, where it was available as part of that store’s contribution to the Sud de France festival that’s taking place in London until the end of the month, as part of a developing campaign by regional producers from the Languedoc-Roussillon to promote their wares.

I decided, before popping the bottle into the recycling crate, to make a proper note of what it was – call it part of an educational project.

Let’s be completely honest: I am a million miles from being a wine expert. But I’d also like to know more than just someone who claims: ‘I know what I like’. I’d like to know, for instance, what it is that I do like.

I can sometimes tell a Riesling and I can spot a Tempranillo. Indeed, five years ago, on our first visit to Barcelona, we were enjoying our first proper meal in the city, a very nice restaurant next to the legendary La Boqueria market on Las Rambla. The waiter assumed that The Other Half was order the wine, and he opted for safety, asking for a house red. When it arrived, it was wrapped in a cloth.

The waiter poured for both of us and, after a sip, I asked: “Tempranillo, sí?” The waiter was impressed; The Other Half was even more impressed. I was rather chuffed.

But that’s about it as far as any claims to wine expertise go.

About 18 months ago, I picked up the Times Wine Encyclopedia at a snip, and have actually made the effort to look at it a little bit.

It was there that I discovered, before last year’s trip to the region, why wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon tastes as it does: that the grapes are left on the wine until they’re on the cusp of shriveling to raisins, full of the sweetness of the sun.

The boeuf à la gardiane in Nîmes was the first time that I can think of when we had such a dish in France: of course it made me wonder what exactly had gone into the sauce, but in particular, what sort of red wine would they use?

When Angela Murrills says, in her excellent and thoroughly enjoyable book Hot Sun Cool Shadow: Savouring the food, history and mystery of the Languedoc (with illustrations by her partner, Peter Mathews), that the dish requires a “sturdy red wine”, I am left wondering exactly what that means.

What is a “sturdy” wine – particularly in the regional context? This is an absolutely Julian Barnes Pedant in the Kitchen moment but, I think, entirely understandable.

I’ve cooked a few classic French casseroles over the last decade, but nothing has come close to that sweetness of sauce. Perhaps a Grenache or Syrah (or a blend of those) from the region? Do I need to ignore the recipe directions, adjust heat and cook for longer, slower?

Of course, in Collioure and elsewhere in France, wine is available everywhere – and is available everywhere and without overtaxing the budget; after all, imagine France without a glass of wine at mealtimes.

Le Petite Train is three carriages and a ‘train’ that’s actually something like a heavily disguised tractor, which takes tourists from Collioure, up through the vineyards to Fort St Elne and then down into Port Vendres and back.

We had done the trip two years ago, but not bothered when we were there last summer. This year, since we were heading to Port Vendres one day as part of our art epic, we decided to take it instead of the bus, and simply get off in Port Vendres. After all, there's nothing wrong with scenic routes – although it's hardly as if the bus journey isn't scenic!

I love seeing the vineyards, with the little huts scattered over the hills.

And the view all around, of terraced fields with the brown earth around, looking so dry, as though it could hardly produce all the fabulous crops that it does.

Unlike our previous experience, we found ourselves in the carriage with the English commentary and, setting aside the rather daft ‘jokes’ (‘it’s time for the ladies to get out and push’ etc), there were plenty of fascinating facts to glean.

After seeing the grape harvest as we chugged up the winding hillsides – and being waved to by laughing grape pickers, who also waved bunches of the lovely fruit that they were harvesting at us – our winding descent came with the commentary revelation that the vineyards in the area were first established in 600BC, at around the same time as Greek sailors discovered Port Vendres when they needed a harbour in storms. And it remains a working port, with a thriving fish market, partly because it's a deep port.

There's more than a bit of a ‘wow’ factor to hearing such information.

And then there are the cork trees, which we’d not noticed before: the bark is harvested every five years – that’s how long it takes to re-grow. How obvious to have cork trees around vineyards!

Well, we certainly enjoyed a pleasant enough local rosé later that afternoon, when we lunched in Port Vendres itself, under a canopy and alongside the water, at Chez Pujol, a very, very good fish restaurant.

I opted for ‘brochette’ – skewers of gambas, monkfish and scallops, with a ‘garnish’ of sweet orange peppers and a quarter of lemon. Such dishes are spectacular to look at. It arrives at your table with the skewers hanging from a long, arched metal hook that also has a metal hoop at the base to hold your plate below it.

I’d seen them before in Collioure itself, but had partly always assumed that there would be too much actual food in a serving to do it justice.

My plate held one of the scallops, the inevitable (but lovely) grilled tomato with stuffing, a neat mound of rice with slivered almonds, and portions of a vegetable dish of courgettes in cream and a dish of sliced potatoes, all finished off with a garnish of dill and squiggles of massively reduced vinegar that were sweet and syrupy.

It’s not neat eating – but it was lovely eating; absolutely lovely.

And since we opted for the house wine, I haven’t a clue what it was – but it was more than acceptable!

Friday, 24 September 2010

The lure of the kitchen

That’s it. It was apparently our final splurge of summer on Wednesday and now, it seems, autumn is well and truly on the way.

Not that autumn is a charmless season – far, far from it. And I’m feeling the pull of those darkening nights and the comforting food.

The ‘Frenchification’ of the kitchen is still a work in progress, but it’s taken nice steps forward this week – and welcome ones, given the changing season – as a raid on John Lewis that produced various useful additions.

There are table mats now, and a new chopping board for bread. There don’t really seem to be specialist bread boards any more and the chopping boards with ridges around the edge for catching gravy (or crumbs) were massive and ridiculously heavy, so I settled on a very attractive olive wood board with paddle handle, which can sit on the table itself.

This proved a popular choice. For some reason that escapes me, Otto and Loki in particular think it’s fabulous and want to make love to it.

There’s a proper bread knife for the first time and I invested in a new knife block – the old one was falling apart and only took fives knives anyway – plus a fish filleting knife.

The food hall at John Lewis provided decent bread – a sort of thick baguette – plus a sweet onion confit and a bottle of Grenache from their Sud de France display.

So on Wednesday evening, with music in the background, we sat down to attempt to replicate one of those help-yourself suppers at home for the first time, with a lovely fennel salami and some delightfully tangy English goat’s cheese from L’eau a La Bouche, plus olives stuffed with anchovies, tomatoes from the Sunday farmers’ market, a glass of rosé and, of course, bread.

Okay, it might not be totally authentique, but it wasn’t far off, and I was quietly pleased that it worked as well as it did. And the kitchen is really coming into itself as a warm and pleasant place to be.

My first aim has been to break us away from the habit of eating off trays in front of the telly. We’ve realised over a number of trips to France how much more pleasantly sociable the alternative is – and you can enjoy the food more too. But this is the furthest I’ve got in terms of initiating it once back at home in perfidious Albion.

Tonight, after a grey day of drizzle and with the temperature having dropped back after Wednesday’s fleeting reminder of summer, we’ll be wanting something comforting.

I’ll make a quick trip to Waitrose after work for various bits and pieces (“good chocolate” is on my list as well as a box of the camomile tea with vanilla and honey that I have become very fond of and some nice bath smellies to really soothe me into the weekend) and then I’ll start work on a supper that will nicely use up a number of things in the fridge (cutting back on waste is another major aim I have for the autumn).

Thinly sliced onion will go into a little olive oil and butter to very gently cook until it’s gorgeously golden and sweet; two dessert apples that are almost past it will be gently reduced to a sauce; some potato will be cooked, until it can be mashed as thoroughly as possible (John Lewis was out of the potato ricer that was on my list earlier this week) and then served with a little drizzle of the best virgin oil I have in the house.

All this will accompany some black pudding that I’ll warm in the pan with the onion when that’s almost ready.

Then, since there is a punnet of plums around, I’m thinking of stoning and roasting a few with some honey, a little sugar and vanilla, to be served with a dollop of cream.

On the subject of plums, I’m going to root around and see exactly what jars I have – and work out measurements for using the liquid pectin I have in for some low-sugar plum jam.

Yes, this is definitely the autumn coming on. And with the project I’ve set myself, I don’t altogether mind.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Nostalgia's not what it used to be


It’s as though my entire childhood and youth is being requisitioned for new audiences; not just requisitioned – remodelled and distorted! Yes, my childhood and youth – it’s that personal.

Just look at this – go on, have a good, long look. This is Yogi Bear. I used to come home after school and watch Yogi and his little friend Boo Boo – but it wasn't just the bears: I loved Hanna-Barbara cartoons, absolutely adored them.

Scooby Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, Wacky Races and all the spin-offs (The Perils of Penelope Pitstop was probably my first introduction to bondage).

It was initially by ability to draw many of those characters rather well that led everyone from my parents to my teachers to assume that I would become an artist myself.

So Yogi and his animated brethren were important parts of my life.

But now look at this. This isn’t Yogi.

Not that it’s the revamping of Yogi Bear that worries me unduly: it’s a question of ‘what are they going to tamper with next?’

In the case of Hanna-Barbara toons, I’m horrified by the prospect of them having a go with Top Cat. I loved TC more than any of the others – it was the first thing I ever saw on a colour TV, and was amazed to find he was yellow with a purple waistcoat. I could draw TC by heart.

But it’s not just cartoons – or even just children’s programmes. Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels, The A Team … the list is growing and growing. For goodness sake – my sister and I had Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul over our beds at one stage (when my mother finally gave in and realised that the Rupert Bear wallpaper that the church had used in the room when we were due to move in was just a tad too childish for us by then)!

So Hollywood – stop it! Find some new ideas instead of ruining the memories of people who still have a few of their own teeth!

There’s a wonderful website out there called TV Cream, which used to be even more wonderful when they had scores of sound files of TV theme tunes.

Many, many moons ago, when my sister and I were small enough to share a bath, we used to hold regular competition of ‘Guess that tune’, humming whatever themes we could think of.

A few years ago, it struck me that I can still remember, in incredible detail, so many of those themes from childhood: Belle and Sebastian, The Flashing Blade, White Horses, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (a particularly lovely theme and remarkably short, given the length of the serial itself).

And it struck me that it seemed that so many of my childhood TV memories were actually of B&W programmes from mainland Europe: even The Singing Ringing Tree was lodged firmly in my head. I really don’t know why those series in particular have stayed with me in such a way, but they obviously had a massive impact.

But at least, on the subject of nostalgia, it was great delight this Monday that I learned (probably one of the last in the country, but that’s typical of me) that OMD have a new album out.

Not just some compilation of greatest hits or B sides, but History of Modern is a brand, spanking new recording of new songs; the first by the original Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark line-up of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries since 1986.

It’s rather odd to think that, somewhere in a cupboard, I think there’s a still a scrapbook around of cuttings about OMD – and Ultravox and Kraftwerk.

So, after getting the disc by the next day, I am now in a mood similar to that last year, prompted by Ultravox’s reunion tour. And yes, I already have a ticket for a London gig in November: I shall go on my own – The Other Half’s expression when he heard that there was a new album out and saw my delight was all that is required to know that he would reject any invitation to accompany me.

I’ve had a couple of listens so far: it’s not as experimental as the seminal Architecture or Morality, let alone Dazzle Ships, but it’s good, poppy synth stuff and I’m happy.

So thankfully, nostalgia’s not entirely gone to pot.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Letting out the internal beach bum

For me at least, a holiday by the beach is not the time to fret about how my hair looks and what I’m wearing. It’s the time to let my internal beach bum out.

I potter around a swimming costume with shorts and football shirt on top – they dry brilliantly quickly, thus making excellent beach attire – a baseball cap to protect my head and a pair of flip-flops. My one concession to fashion is serious sunglasses.

For a substantial number of French women, though, that is most decidedly not the point.

It’s something of a shock to the system to see women turning up on the beach, not simply in designer swimwear and sunglasses, but with hair perfectly coiffed, immaculate make-up and plenty of jewellery.

Not that most of them make it any further into the sea than shin level, where they reveal something else: the gentle French art of posing.

Not, I hasten to add, that the men are immune. And not that it is remotely limited to any age group.

There are three main poses: arms folded, hands behind back or wrists on waist with hands behind. And they make it appear utterly effortless and utterly unselfconscious.

Mind, when they do go further into the water, they have to swim with heads up – which makes my clumsy breast stroke seem so much more proper.

I, on the other hand, spend my time in a constant battle to ensure that my skin gets tanned without getting burned – given a backgrounds that includes a Cornish Celt, I have to be grateful that my skin can even look at the sun without burning instantly (are Celts actually vampires?) and, of course, that I do not have red hair.

However, my skin has required training over the last 10 years since I discovered sunbathing. But this year, daring to apply actual cooking – sorry, sun – oil to my legs in an effort to finally persuade them to change colour, I achieved more of a tan for my work.

Then, instead of hovering around looking glam in the shallows, I like to bathe – actually bathe. I’m not a strong swimmer and even the usually calm Mediterranean waters at Collioure can make me panic quickly, wanting to get my feet down and on to something solid as quickly as possible.

Snorkelling had proved surprisingly easy in the previous two years, but I currently lack the equipment necessary to grip the snorkel properly. So in the event, after seeing another adult with one, I bought a cheap, plastic floatation device (a sort of small board) and then swum merrily back and forth, enough to benefit from the exercise.

But then I had moments of feeling a little like a beached whale: I wanted to move so much more freely and it was as though I were hampered by my fears.

So I did something that I’ve been promising myself I would for over a year: I hired a canoe from Cyril, donned a lifejacket, grabbed a paddle and headed for the sea.

I have never been in a canoe before. Many years ago, on a family holiday, I tried rowing and took to it with ease. I knew I could paddle a canoe – my only worry was actually getting in the thing without making a complete prat of myself or requiring help.

Amazingly, I managed that bit easily enough, and then it was off into the bay – far, far further out than I’d ever been when in the water, with no worries about being out of my depth; confident and comfortable.

You need to be aware that the paddles on the oar are at different angles, but it feels like a completely natural twist of the wrists.

I was able to paddle quite fast when I wanted to or simply putter about with ease.

When I got back to shore (okay, I fell arse first into the water when I got out), The Other Half remarked: “Tres impressive”. Which I took as a compliment. And the experience left me feeling suitably chuffed – and with a real sense of lightness; of being able to move comfortably and well.

Unfortunately, a day later, Cyril told me that they were backing up Bora Bora Beach Club for the year. I’ll have to wait to try it again. So it was back to working on my tan on San Vincent Plage, which has the fabulous Au Casot at the back of the sunlounger section of the beach, a restaurant that serves wonderful fish and seafood. That was the signal to halt picnic lunches and head for a table at lunchtime for the rest of the holiday.

Interestingly, where many of the most obviously touristy eateries in Collioure make a big thing of moules et frites (mussels and chips), Au Casot serves none.

What they do serve, though, is fabulously fresh dishes, cooked simply: I enjoyed the gambas one day (I just love getting my hands messy as I rip the shells off these beauties, and then them in the restaurant’s own aioli), monkfish and dorade. It might not be fashionable, but for ambiance and food combined, Au Casot is perhaps my favourite Collioure eating experience.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The beastly business of art

“We don’t need to buy any art this year,” said The Other Half. Famous last words. And besides, we never need to buy any art anyway. Not that that's stopped us in the last three years.

After all, Collioure is famous for two things: anchovies and art; fish and Fauvism.

"Fauvism", because in the early 20th century, Matisse found his way there, to be joined by Derain and many others of that movement. The former declared the light to be the best in the world. Now I haven't seen enough of the rest of the world to judge completely, but it would be difficult to imagine anything much better: there is a clarity in Collioure that is quite staggering – it almost distorts distances, making the some-way-off seem as near as what is right next to you.

Les Fauves literally meant ‘wild beasts’, with their paintings showing seemingly wild brush work and strong colours, with their subjects simplified and abstracted.

When I was studying A level art, we touched on the Fauvists. I wasn’t deeply impressed at the time. Mind, I had difficulty dealing with anything that wasn’t firmly in the most obviously figurative camp: it was only a little later, when I actually saw some Van Gogh in the flesh (so to speak) that I was overcome with at least a little understanding of colour and texture as being so valuable and so momentous as to reduce the need for total realism.

And with that in mind, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the Fauvists since we started visiting Collioure: it’s not difficult to see what, in Matisse’s many paintings of the place, he was trying to capture and why he tried to do it as he did. The picture above is from 1905.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh – best known as a designer – spent several years living and painting in the area in later life, and there is an increasing recognition of his watercolours of the region (the picture is Collioure Bay, from 1923-27).

Indeed, there have been prints of Matisse's paintings on display around the town for some years, but there are now also some of Mackintosh's works.

And then, of course, there are all the empty frames, looking toward the iconic church, placed throughout the town (and around it) by local artist Marc-André 2 Fugueres, as part of his Erotic Theory of the Collioure Bell Tower project.

But let's now go back to that day we were walking to Collioure from Port Vendres after our boat trip. As we climbed the hill to the coast road, we spotted a building we'd not noticed before: the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Museum. And, even at gone 6pm, the doors were open.

With time entirely our own, I suggested having a look.

In fact, the Mackintosh display was absent, replaced for the short term by an exhibition, Earth, Metal and Wood (in English). In each of the museum's three ground floor rooms was a selection of work by one artist, each of whom had one of the exhibition's theme materials as their own main material.

There were wood sculptures, many inset with glistening metal, by Gerard Genestier. There were bronzes and other metal sculptures by Emmanuuel Kieffer, and then there was the 'earth' section, Moreaux d'architecture as the artist calls them.

These 'pieces of architecture' are, in effect, fragments of the front of buildings, some like chateaux, some like Parisian town houses, some more rustic. But the unifying factor is that the detail is extraordinary. For more, see here).

It turned out to be the opening evening of the exhibition. We were the first through the front door, to be welcomed by all three artists, who were quaffing wine outside the back door of the building, overlooking the harbour. They offered us some, but we refused. We wanted to study the art itself.

The man who makes these amazing objets d'art (I'm stymied as to what else to call them) is Bernard Franck (below, wih his choice piece of the exhibition), who actually comes from Toulouse.

But if you think that the detail is stunning, then the process of making them is utterly stunning – in so many ways, quite utterly and completely bonkers.

He makes the bricks individually, from soil in his own garden and to traditional methods. The same goes for the tiles. The metalwork (some of the pieces have metal roofs) is all done by hand (presumably from sheet copper). He does all the woodwork himself. For those with masonary, he sculpts it himself! Perhaps most amazing of all, he makes the glass for the windows himself.

I loved them. The Other Half loved them. And he particularly loved the one pictured with the blue wooden shutters. So we decided to buy it.

At which point, things took on a particularly French complexity. M Franck had never shipped anything to anyone anywhere – let alone to anyone in another country (I suspect that he's done this as a hobby for years but has only just started doing it rather more seriously).

It was decided that he would work out the costs etc and we would return, early the following week, to clarify this with him, provide the details and pay.

So off we went, delighted with our discovery. Nobody needs art, as I said, but it's certainly nice to have things you like.

The following Monday, we headed back to Port Vendre. M Franck, however, was clearly still having difficulties. He'd brought back from Toulouse a flat cardboard box – the sort removal men use – a massive roll of bubblewrap, sticky tape with 'fragile' on it and two straps with buckles on them. His idea was that we would wrap it up and then we could take it down to the post office in Port Vendres and organise the shipping ourselves.

Well, we packaged, sweating in the humidity. And then we came to the payment bit – only to find that he had no facility for credit cards. So The Other Half made another trip to Port Vendre on Wednesday (while I went to market) to pay, after we'd got the cash together (banks limit your daily withdrawal from ATMs, regardless of account balance). And then, with a bus not due for at least another hour, The Other Half carried it all the way back along the coast road into Collioure!

We had decided that the best option, all things considered, was the carry it home on the train ourselves.

There is a side of me that rolls my eyes at a gallery not having a credit card machine – there were works of art there on sale for four-figure sums. But then I remind myself that that is simply one side of a country that doesn't see life as we do in the UK. It is, I think, simply another result of the sort of things I really appreciate about France. The art is important – not having to play everything as though it's a glossy, corporate game is less so. And I'd always agree with that.

Our fragment of architecture is on the wall now, having made it all the way up France and under the Channel safely. I still can hardly believe the work – the skill; the range of skills – that has gone into it. In a way, that, combined with the rather abstract approach to actual business, is what I love.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A weekend back in London

Back in London, we're sliding gently into autumn. The nights are visibly drawing in and there's a nip in the air in morning and evening. Later, the bedspread will be replaced with the duvet: it's nearly the time to snuggle up on long evenings.

In such circumstances, the first soup of the season was welcome. After our return home last weekend, I spent quite a bit of Monday busily defrosting and cleaning the fridge and freezer. It was a chore I'd set for myself some time ago and, having let the contents decrease, I'd got down to the last two pots of stock. Both survived the defrosting process in a chiller bag, but both were used in the days that followed – one for boulangerie potatoes with pork sausages cooked on top and the other for a mushroom risotto.

So this weekend was always going to mean roast chicken and stock making. That in turn means celery – but as I'm a bit stymied at present in terms of muching on such food, a celery soup seemed the perfect way to use the rest of a big head that I found on Broadway Market this morning.

It was partly a case of mixing ideas. After softening onion and celery in oil and butter, I added just enough stock (out of a bottle, I'm afraid) to cover, and left to simmer for a while. Then I puréed the whole lot, but didn't strain it, so I was still left with some texture. Adding a little cream was all that was required then – although I also blitzed some parsley, garlic cloves and a few pine nuts, adding them to a squeeze of lemon juice and some virgin oil, to make a sort of pistou-style garnish for the soup, which gave it an extra zing and worked really rather well.

One of the things I did in Collioure, on the morning we began our journey back, was to buy a tablecloth – the first tablecloth I've ever owned. This might sounds like a pretty irrelevant thing to do, but it was perhaps oddly crucial to part of my plan to really bring back some Continental habits to little old Hackney. And however daft it sounds, transforming our kitchen in London with little touches from France increases the incentive to go and sit in there to eat instead of in front of the telly.

Last Monday then, I cleared away all our mutual modeling equipment and spread the table for the first time. It looks nice; the cloth is a bright yellow with a design of lavender and olives – a perfect reminder of the kitchen table in Collioure that we sat around most evenings.

Tomorrow night is going to be a Portuguese-style fish stew (basic recipe thanks to George). This starts with onion and some garlic, then stock, potatoes, carrots and some chorizo, the Spanish paprika sausage. Later, you add tinned chick peas and sliced leek late on, and top with a piece of white fish for the last 15 minutes. Easy, cheap, nutritious and tasty. And perfect comfort food for the autumn.

I'm making a couple of tweaks this time.

To start with, since I've made a point of getting some cod in today and salting it, I'm going to use some of that for this dish. And I'm going to garnish it with the remains of the pistou-style mix I mentioned earlier (I might try aioli another time, but the other is already made). I'm also not going to put potatoes in, because we'll have bread instead: Sundays are now another market day, so I go very French and get a fresh baguette tomorrow as well as today.

Indeed, bread is the biggest difficulty that exists in trying to do French-style (or even Mediterranean-style) eating (apart from tomatoes). The best bread I've found over here doesn't compare to what I was eating daily over there. But you do the best you can, and it's not impossible to avoid the tons of sliced factory bread that dominate shop shelves in the UK.

I'll also use Cannellini beans instead of chick peas, partly because the skins on the latter are a bit awkward for me at present. And I'll pop some black pudding in instead of the chorizo, because The Other Half would prefer that.

So, the Portuguese-style stew will become a sort of French-style dish – there are versions of black pudding all over the place and the Catalans do a very nice one. What's interesting from a personal point of view is that I'm increasingly thinking like this – adapting rather than being wedded to specific recipes. It's an enormously enjoyable thing to do.

Otherwise this weekend, it was with great pleasure that my scheme to get a local supplier of Banyuls appears set to work. I brought home miniatures of the lovely stuff – one for Stephane, the co-owner of L'eau a La Bouche, our French deli on Broadway Market – and one for Ed, a young man who works there and who has developed into a real food friend.

Both were delighted – Stephane was frankly astonished and promised to get a supply of Banyuls in. He asked if we'd actually been to Banyuls-sur-Mer and I was able to reply that we had last year, briefly. When I added that, for three summers now, we've stayed in Collioure, his expression – almost one of religious awe – said it all. I assured him that, in the five years since the deli opened – it was its fifth birthday this week – it has helped to revolutionise my eating habits and thus my life, so the present was entirely appropriate. He seemed utterly delighted.

Finally today, something a bit more serious. I frequently mention seasonality: I know I've done so from the point of view of taste countless times here, but I have also mentioned the issue of sustainability and the environment.

Here's a story on the damage being done in Peru by the production of asparagus for all-year-round eating elsewhere in the world.

Growing a crop that needs constant irrigation in a desert area – utterly bonkers. As completely insane as growing carnations, a flower that requires vast amounts of water – in Kenya.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A life on the ocean wave

Sunday to Wednesday passed in blissful warmth on the beach.

But while I’d traveled a long way on the relaxation scale, there was still a vital step to take.

I was half aware of it, but felt a sense of: ‘Don’t ask me to get off my sunlounger: it’ll come’, when The Other Half proposed a trip on Le Treguern, a ketch that sails trips out of Collioure and nearby Port Vendre.

Two years ago, we’d tried a one-hour trip from Collioure – and loved it so much, we’d gone for the three-hour one as soon as was possible. Last year, the weather was such that the skipper had stopped trips from Collioure at around the time we arrived, and we never got ourselves organised enough to take a voyage from Port Vendres.

This year, The Other Half was determined that we’d finally do the biggest trip of all, from Port Vendre to Spain – a day’s outing. So while I felt unenthused by the idea of moving, he booked tickets – or rather, signed a contract with Captain Eric – for the Thursday.

Now we were due to board just before 9am, which sounds such a sensible time. However, the bus to Port Vendres was only timed to give us a very few minutes breathing space. The one before that was for 7.30am.

I admit it, dear readers, I grouched. Not much, but the requisite amount. A holiday, and I was going to have to have to haul my sorry backside out of bed no later than 7am, when the sun has barely risen itself and the bells of Notre Dame des Agnes haven’t even called the extremely faithful to early Mass.

In the event, this left us with time to walk around a very quiet harbour, stopping for coffee and croissants, before ambling on to Le Treguern’s berth. There, although still early, we were beckoned aboard, welcomed by the delighted barking of Aggorah, our old sea dog’s sea dog, who was relishing her role as hostess with the mostess.

When we cast off, there were just three couples, Cap’n Eric, a friend of his who was due to help with lunch later, and Aggorah. With nary a sail in sight, on an overcast morning, we motored out of the harbour and turned right – sorry, something like due south.

Past Banyuls and Cerbere, an absence of cloth tautly fluttering above did nothing to dampen the soothing pleasure of the trip. After passing Cap Cerbere, we learned that there was a tiny patch of coastline that is a sort of no man’s land. Nobody is sure whether it’s French or Spanish. And frankly, it seems as though nobody cares. Which seems like an eminently sensible response.

Rounding the rocky coast, we dropped anchor opposite a tiny, rocky beach. Now we had the option of an hour’s visit to this strip of pebbles, via the ship’s dinghy, or we could stay aboard and wait for lunch.

Everyone was quick to opt for the former – although I was probably least able to see the charms that it offered at that juncture.

Once we’d been landed – Aggorah’s mortified woofing followed us – my five traveling companions slipped off outer clothes and headed into the water, The Other Half with snorkel, mask and flippers at the ready.

As much on the basis of not wanting to appear a complete and utter wimpette and let the side down, I dropped my shorts and shed my shirt soon after, edging myself into the water and sitting on a large rock while the waters tugged at all of me that was submerged.

Once back fully on land – well, stones – and at least a bit dry, I realised that this barren landscape was fascinating, and spent the rest of the time trying to photograph the beauty of it, at one point, dropping onto my belly to set up a particular shot I could see, and feeling all eyes swivel in my direction to see what on Earth I was up to.

And then, as the sun started really burning off the cloud, Captain Eric came back to collect us for lunch. Sat around on the back of the boat, we waited while our host brought out a metal bowl of crisps, together with two bottles – one of water and a large, refilled one of Banyuls, the regional dessert wine – and explained that these were the only options for our aperitif. Nobody opted for the water, as he passed around plastic cups and Aggorah begged crisps from everyone present.

Then came the second course – a salad. This was actually a large platter of largely tinned veg (sweetcorn, beans and white asparagus), with freshly sliced tomatoes, which proved perfectly enjoyable, plus a basket of bread, bottles of white wine and rosé.

We barely noticed our host disappear to the front of the boat, but only the terminally dead could have missed his return, carrying a large plate of sardines, straight from the little fire he’d set up. Then he proceeded to show us as the Catalan way to eat them: pick up by tail and head, suck off the flesh and then chuck the skeleton in the sea.

I have the typical English problem with fish bones, and that includes sardines. But this way worked perfectly for me.

And oh my god … it was a food orgasm. By the time I’d managed to stuff down six and we’d discovered that, when you throw the corpses overboard, beautiful blue fish dart from all around to feast cannibalistically on the remains – and it’s so clear that you can see them from several feet above – another plate had been delivered.

Oh no, I really can’t … oh goodness, if you insist!

Aggorah had her share too, before cleaning up the remains of the salad.

Not that we were finished. Now Captain Eric produced more bread and some cheese; something like an Emmenthal together with a dripping, oozing Camembert. And then there was a choice of ice cream, served in plastic cups.

As coffee was put to brew, my five traveling companions stripped off again and dived off the boat or clambered down the rope ladder into waters that, under the sun and clear blue skies, were now a dazzling, shimmering display of topaz and emerald.

Aggorah, deciding that she wasn’t being left out again, dived in too, despite the skipper’s best efforts. She had to be helped back on board, since nature has not evolved dogs’ paws with ladders in mind.

The Other Half had donned flippers and snorkeling gear again, and was puttering around near the back of the boat. At which point, Aggorah went completely potty.

Barking wildly, she dived in again and swam rapidly toward and then around him, yapping away and eventually, as he lifted his head, putting paw to forearm and not letting him out of her sight until he was back on board (and she’d been hauled up again).

Now since he was the only one doing the snorkel thing, it seems clear that she deeply disproves of silly people putting their faces in the water – well, it is dangerous, as any fool knows – and feels a compelling need to come to their aid.

Thus was The Other Half rescued from a non-certain fate by Aggorah the brave sea dog of Le Tregeurn.

And believe you me, I’m dining off that story for some time to come.

As coffee scented the air, we started back, the fores’l unfurled this time.

It was a languorous trip after the ambience and loquacity of a lunch that could barely hope to be beaten, with sardines to die for.

When we got back to Port Vendres, we stopped for a coffee – and then found that, at just gone 6pm, we’d missed the last bus back to Collioure. So, at my ridiculously relaxed suggestion (and without a single, solitary gripe), we started to climb up to the coast road.

And that was when we met Bernard Franck and embarked on a mini art saga – but that’s the story for another day!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

To marché, to marché, to buy a fat fig

Sunday might have been our first day proper in Collioure, but in our list of priorities, the beach didn’t come first. That honour fell to the market.

Place du Maréchel Leclerc seems to be the heart of the town: often the scene of games of petanque, we’ve also seen it host a children’s puppet theatre and, on Saturdays, the sort of flea market so beloved of the French. Sundays and Wednesdays are market days and it’s crammed full of colour and wonderful aromas.

The first surprise was that Caroline, who runs a cheese stall at the weekend market, recognised me from last summer. I have no idea why she should recognise me from what can only have been two visits a year ago, but I was very flattered – and she certainly sells a selection of gorgeous cheeses, from internationally-known varieties such as Morbier to locally produced ones. I always aim to buy the latter. After all, I can buy the really famous French cheeses at home.

During our fortnight there, I had a real mix, from a mild and creamy blue, to a tangy semi hard to some lovely little goat’s cheeses, which just oozed creamy deliciousness when fully ripe.

The fruit at the market is always a joy: you will find some imported produce (bananas, for instance), but very, very little. It was very late in the berry season, but lovely raspberries were still available freely, while plums and figs were present in joyful abundance.

We picked up serious charcuterie, fresh bread and, of course, tomatoes; gorgeous tomatoes in a variety of colours and shapes, and not all some bureaucratically-ordained size.

We went to the little local supermarket too, for toilet roll, milk, butter and a few other odds and sods to get us going.

My point never is that supermarkets don’t have a place – but that their ‘place’ is not in place and at the cost of absolutely everything else. In the UK, as ‘the big four’ launch everything from financial services to optical services to phone services, that is what they appear to want to become: to use their financial muscle to simply bully their way to total market domination.

In France (and elsewhere on the Continent), there is a balance, which also ends up giving the customer far more choice, far more variety.

If the French shopper wants to shop at the supermarket alone, they can do. If they want to shop at the little corner shop or the market, they can do. If they want a combination of everything that’s available, then they have that choice too. But it isn’t a choice when local shops and markets have been wiped out and only one realistic option remains – even if that offers you a different type of ‘potato snack’ for every day of the year.

But hey – let’s get back to Collioure and not start thinking about perfidious Albion!

We’d arrived with no concrete intentions regarding food: there were no specific plans, for instance, to eat this or that for lunch, followed by that or this in the evening. I suppose I had assumed that everything would be pretty much as it was last year, with a lot of lunches out and then cooking in the evening.

However, as the days drifted by in blissful sunshine, that wasn’t quite what developed.

Until Wednesday, we did lunch at St Elne, a restaurant with a large al fresco seating area right behind the beach, and an unchanging menu – including a vast array of crepes and ice creams – that is clearly aimed at visitors.

But from day one it became clear that after lunch there, we weren’t in any mood for much in the evening. Instead, we started sitting around the kitchen table, helping ourselves to charcuterie, bread, cheese, tomatoes, fruit and wine.

It’s almost Biblical – or simply ancient – to sit around eating like that; it’s certainly difficult to imagine anything much simpler. Or much better. Don’t get me wrong – I love those gastronomic experiences in chef-led restaurants, where each dish is an artistic masterpiece, but this … Well, this was Earthy and real and deeply, deeply sensual.

By Wednesday, we’d bored of the tourist menu for lunch and started using our Thermos bag to take food to the beach.

Fresh bread was available every morning from the boulanger, two minutes from the front door of the house – imagine getting bored of that! So into the bag would go bread, fruit and sometimes olives stuffed with anchovies for both of us, charcuterie and tomatoes (which I need to eat with a knife and fork at present) for The Other Half, yogurt and one of those lovely little cheeses for me.

Not only considerably cheaper than those earlier lunches, but better too.

And more than once we found ourselves wanting little more than the same again – with wine – for supper. Given good produce, you really do need nothing more complicated.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Time for sangria

If the first leg of our journey had started with a couple of negatives, the final leg could best be described as ‘fraught’. Although maybe that’s a little deceptive – and certainly the benefit of hindsight allows a somewhat different hue to be cast over it.

Let’s start clearly: in a straightforward world, Saturday’s journey should have taken us from Nîmes to Perpignan, where we would have caught a smaller train to take us on to Collioure.

In the event, we comfortably made the train from Nîmes. But then that left some 20 minutes late after an announcement telling us that we were waiting for a connecting service that had been delayed. Which is annoying when you’re sat in the train that’s waiting, twiddling your thumbs, but is only fair to people who, through no fault of their own, would have missed a connection. Wow … a properly joined-up train network.

Once off, the train reached the penultimate stop of Narbonne with no further ado. And then stayed put again.

Eventually, we were asked to disembark and change to another train on a different platform. What caused particular fraughtness was not this itself (the change – glory hallelujah – involved no stairs or even lifts) but discovering that our four carriages from Nîmes, albeit lightly occupied, were now to be squeezed into the two carriages setting off from Narbonne – already quite densely occupied! And then, when we set off, it was to the realisation that instead of a case of ‘Perpignan next stop’, there were a further three stops before we hit the town that Dali, being bonkers, once described as a the centre of the world!

It was, as it happened, quite logical. Since our train from Nîmes had been delayed, we were now joining the one that we would have made our own connection with in Perpignan. So in the event, we didn’t have to make another change there (where the passengers thinned out considerably), but simply carried straight on to Collioure, arriving at the same time we’d initially planned – in spite of the delays.

This joined-up thinking lark would never catch on in the UK. And we didn’t even have to pay for tickets from Perpigan to Collioure.

After all that, we drew into the town at around 4pm – just as planned – and began the stroll to the house we were renting for a fortnight. There we were met by Mme Rehmet, who looks after the keys and changeovers while the owner, who is Scottish, spends the season in Scotland.

It was with a great deal of pleasure that we heard that there had not been rain in Collioure since something like 23 June.

Breaking the habit of the last few years, we decided not to unpack straight away, but to get ourselves down to the seafront as soon as physically possible. The sun was calling.

We had a diet Coke, booked transats (sunloungers) for the following day on Plage de Port d’Avall – the nearest beach to where we stay in the Fauberg, the old working-class area of the town. I always think of the beach as ‘Bora Bora’, because the ‘Bora Bora Beach Club’ is based at one end of it.

That may sound exotic, but it’s a small corrugated iron shop on a wooden deck, serving food and drink all day, and looking after, say, 20 double sunloungers with parasols, three pedalos and four canoes.

It’s owned by partners, but with one of them, Cyril, manning it for the most part. His is a busy day, from making and serving food to organising all the renting of the facilities – and dealing with idiots in the pedalos: we’ve seen him hve to grab a canoe and paddle out, at great pace, to sort someone out who had chosen to ignore the few, simple rules he’d laid down when they began their hire period.

Cyril, like so many other people we’ve watched over the years in Collioure, works damned hard – but more of that in a later post.

We strolled around the path that skirts the castle to Boramar beach and found seats at Le Petit Café, slap bang in front of the beach. The iconic tower of Notre Dame des Agnes to our left, the soaring stone and rock edifice of the Château Royal to our right; sky of deep blue, sea to match; bathers by the score enjoying themselves.

It was time for sangria; it was time to relax. Anything else really would just have to wait.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Back to Blighty and blogging

Many thanks to all for your 'happy holiday' wishes.

Unfortunately, my blogging plans rather foundered when it materialised that I couldn't get a signal from the house we were staying in.

However, that didn't mean that I didn't do any writing and, now I'm back in Blighty, I'll start posting tales from the south as soon as possible.

So, here we go ...

London to Nîmes

Friday’s journey from London to Nîmes had its hiccoughs: first, the ordered cab didn’t turn up on a grey, wet morning, and proved, on inquiry, to have not been put in the book. Fortunately, my obsessive need to allow plenty of time when traveling paid off as we made it to St Pancras without panic via the bus.

Then there was security, with The Other Half getting pulled back so that they could examine one of his bags in minute detail – and even run a chemical trace test. The problem hit me as soon as it happened: the small fruit knife that we’d bought in Perpignan a year previously was in the picnic bag that was in his small rucksack. I’d packed it for the journey, thinking it might be useful.

Unfortunately, I’d completely failed to realise that, since the blade opens out and then locks firmly in place (as you require to do something as criminal as cutting fruit), it counts as a ‘switchblade’ and it is, therefore, illegal to carry one in the UK. I think it was my first personal encounter with batty, OTT British laws – the sort that are made on the hoof when the middle classes and tabloids are squealing about some latest incident of something or other.

In this case, it was about knife crime. So a legislative hammer was taken to a peanut and it becomes illegal to carry a fruit knife.

Oh: and we still have knife crime.

It wasn’t the fault of the man who searched his bag – and confiscated the offending weapon: he was most apologetic. But the situation added to my irritation, following the invisible cab and the fact that I was starting a holiday with a case of the sniffles.

But leg one of the journey, London to Paris, went without a hitch (and with a perfectly pleasant breakfast), and the yomp across the French capital to Gard de Lyon was stress free too as, finding ourselves among the first passengers off the train at Gard du Nord, we hopped a cab instead of hunting for a train.

Paris to Nîmes proved no more eventful. Seats downstairs in a quiet TGV carriage took us south through terrain that was, on occasion, almost blotted out by mist and the lowest cloud imaginable.

But the terrain changed and with it, the weather. Cloud lifted and then cleared; fields of sunflowers appeared and the foothills of the Alps rose jaggedly in the east.

We drew into Nîmes in good time and left the train to sunshine and soaring heat. Northern Europe was behind us.

When you’re only stopping for a night in a hotel, there’s no need to unpack. So after a quick freshen up, we were out into a hazy late afternoon in the town itself.

Sitting right on the border of Provence and the Languedoc, Nîmes was, a couple of millennia ago, a Roman centre. And there are still quite a few remains to show for it.

It could be a little galling (or perhaps that should be ‘gauling’ in this context?) to see all this evidence of the Roman empire. We Brits might not take kindly to being invaded, but neither might we take kindly to the thought that our grey little islands were only really a minor outpost as far as Rome was concerned.

The facts speak for themselves: for instance, the Romans did build an arena in Britain. In wood.

The amphi-theatre – or Arènes – in Nîmes was built with rather more longevity in mind; from stone. It’s still there. And it’s still being used after almost 2,000 years. It played host to gladiatorial contests once. Now, it hosts bullfights.

Wandering around it was an extraordinary experience. Look at football stadia today and you see little real difference to how the Romans designed an amphitheatre, with the same concerns evident, from egress and excess to space for food and drink to be sold and consumed.

Mind, the steps were so steep – and The Other Half pretty much insisted that I haul myself up right to the very top, over three or four final ‘steps’ that would have required giants to justify calling them such – that when we got back down to ground level, my knees were trembling, as though I’d just done three sets of 10 reps on a quad machine with an awful lot of weight stacked up. Two days later, I could still feel the effect.

We'd already seen the remains of a rather grand Roman gate were around the corner from our hotel. The famous aqueduct is just outside the town, while one or two other antiquities still stand. We gazed at the fabulously preserved Maison Carrée – although part of it was under scaffolding and tarpaulin for work. Still, there was a Norman Foster building opposite to admire by way of compensation, its slender modern columns mirroring the ancient ones. But I do find myself wondering … as much as I like Lord Norm’s architecture (this was another of his buildings I’ve now ‘collected’), will it be around in even a few centuries?

Then, wandering into a formal garden, we came across the Temple de Diane. Goodness knows why it’s called that, since there appears to be no historic connection to the goddess of hunting. But this rather romantic ruin, which dates from around the same time as the Arènes and remarkably still has some roof left (it only got battered around at all in The Wars of Religion – rather after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire), is fascinating for plenty more mysteries than its name.

It’s covered in graffiti – but not new graffiti; scratchings that date back centuries. And not just names and dates, but Masonic symbols too; set squares and compasses. The earliest one of these that either of us spotted was from the middle of the 18th century.

Now, I don’t want to go all Dan Brown on you, but just what about this particular ruin fascinated Masons so much? We could see no mention of it either on the brief (ever so) explanatory plaque outside the building or in an equally brief tour guide to Nîmes.

My curiosity was further piqued the following morning when, inside a vast shop that sold everything from imitation knights’ armour to art materials, we also saw a selection of new pill and snuff boxes with Masonic symbols painted on them. But still no explanation for this apparent link.

But let’s not pretend that Nîmes is all Roman ruins and Masonic graffiti.

After our Roman wanders, we walked back through the town; a burning sunset behind us, huge dragonflies zipping to and fro, with swifts darting after them in search of dinner, and the clicking of cicadas all around.

We found a small, very plain square with three little restaurants on three sides, all sharing the space around a small fountain in the middle for their clientele to dine al fresco.

Menus were in French alone and we seemed to be the only non-locals. We dined on boeuf à la gardiane, a fabulous dish of casseroled beef – beef, indeed, from a bull minded by the gardians, the local 'cowboys' of the nearby Camargue. It had been slow-cooked with very little except the basics of a sauce, and simply melted in the mouth.

Served with gratinee potatoes and a lovely grilled tomato (I don't know how the French do it, but they make something as simple as a grilled tomato an utter delight) it was simplicity itself and a knockout. And for an utterly unbelievable €12 each for the main course – I tell you, we were robbing them!

The word that sprang to mind, which I have never used before but which was perfect for the food and the setting, was authentique.

And so it was, that when we headed to the station to continue our journey south early the following afternoon, it was with a memory of a wonderful meal – and an intriguing question gnawing away in our minds.