Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Soup, soup, glorious soup

There was a certain inevitability to it all. The calendar might still have been registering August, but summer was little more than a memory in the air.

As the bank holiday weekend progressed, the weather teased relentlessly: just as it seemed to have brightened, with the sun out, blue across the heavens and real heat on the skin, cloud would dive over.

It was hardly an encouragement to sit out. At one point, in a flurry of optimism, I rapidly changed from jeans into shorts and plonked myself in a deckchair with a book.

Barely a few minutes later, the sun had disappeared.

That was probably the moment at which I conceded defeat and admitted to myself that there’s now bugger all chance of an extended summer.

It’s not that autumn has really arrived – I can’t smell the difference in the air yet – but with dark now descending by 8.30pm and the days dominated by cloud, comfort is in order.

On Sunday, I’d nipped up to our tiny farmers’ market to pick up a few bits and pieces.

One of the things I needed was a good head of celery – after all, given Saturday’s chicken roasting exploits, a burst of stock making was in order. And there is no stock without a stick or two of celery to go alongside the carrot and onion.

Which left me with a lot of celery.

On Monday, though, I caved in and made soup. Not something chunky and heavy, but cream of celery.

And as has increasingly become the case with soup in the last few years, no book was required. This was cooking by instinct, by experience and knowledge – perhaps even with passion.

The following will give you enough for two people for a lunch.

Take a large shallot and chop finely. Soften in olive oil.

Add a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves and your celery, sliced. I used six or seven sticks – not the very outside ones and not the very heart either.

Once that’s all sweated down a bit, add a glug of white wine for a touch of acid, and let that bubble for a moment or two.

Add chicken stock to cover and grind loads of pepper into it. Add a couple of bay leaves and then let it all simmer away gently for around 20 minutes or so.

Now, this is the one ‘fiddly’ bit – mostly because it does mean you’ve got a few bits to clean up after.

Strain the liquid into a clean pan. Blitz the vegetables and then stir back into the liquid.

At this stage, check the taste again to see what salt you need to add.

Pop in a generous pinch of finely chopped parsley.

Take it all off the heat again and leave for a few minutes to cool a little.

Add a good spoon of really thick cream, stir in and then gently reheat.

Serve with more chopped parsley and some croutons for a nice bit of crunch.

Okay, it ain’t ‘fast food’, but it’s very good and has a surprisingly complex taste, with the pepper adding a real depth that develops as you eat.

What it does demand is really good celery – organic is the best bet, simply because that way you know it’ll have grown properly and won’t just be sticks of flavourless crunch that render any culinary effort utterly pointless.

And just as two years ago – although that was a few weeks later – when my first response to the call of autumn was a light but fragrant and subtle soup (courgette in that case), this made me feel that perhaps all hope is not gone along with that disappointingly fleeting season.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Chocolate is good for you – some newspaper reports are not

According to the Telegraph, the NHS has finally decided to recommend some ‘superfoods’ to Joe and Joanna Public.

It seems that there might have been some straws and a camel involved along the route to this new approach, as assorted foods and supplements have been promoted to the public as having benefits close to immortality in some cases – and with varying levels of concomitant profit for their producers.

There certainly seems to be some evidence for some of the supplements that are currently popular, as illustrated by the website Snake Oil – the scientific evidence for popular health supplements, which manages to be lovely to look at too as well as very informative.

Also coming in on the matter, another report in the same paper (and elsewhere) claims that chocolate is good for you.

Not that this is new: see the same Snake Oil site above for there being good scientific foundations to believe that chocolate may be beneficial – and that doesn’t even mention it in terms of a mood enhancer.

Indeed, a few years ago, Dutch (I think) scientists produced research collated from a mass of data that purported to show the ‘perfect’ diet.

It was, in essence, the ‘Mediterranean’ diet – with a glass or two of red wine per day and a square or two of proper chocolate.

Much of the advice on ‘superfoods’ will not come as any great revelation to many of us.

But the Telegraph’s report also suggests that you can find these real ‘super’ foods not in your expensive deli, but in the supermarket.

Yes. Abandon your ‘expensive’ deli – which only sells faddy foods, one might assume – and look to ‘supermarket superfoods’.

Why don’t they just go and give the supermarkets a licence to print more damned money?

Not that that’s what the report itself actually says. Miracle Foods and the Media was first published in January this year – and indeed, is dated in February (the pdf address includes this).

No wonder the Telegraph didn’t want to actually provide a link to the report – it’s hardly news and it doesn’t include the supermarket slant.

Not that aren’t issues with health advice in general.

Part of the difficulty today with so many people apparently not eating well is a combination of things, including food faddiness in general and a food culture and heritage so completely denuded by that faddiness and by the supermarkets themselves.

The original report makes some interesting points – but this is bad journalism from something that once actually had a reputation as a decent newspaper.

And it’s odd too politically, since one might have expected the Telegraph to be supportive of farmers and their struggles against the corporate monopoly that supermarkets are close to holding, given their 80% share of the UK grocery market, and the bullying that that enables them to get away with.

In fact, it all simply serves to illustrate what the NHS report was talking about – careless writing.

And by god, the picture of liver at the top of the article looks as though it’s been overcooked into un-appetising dryness.

Food for in-between days

It may still be August, but it's summer in name only. The early promise of sun and heat has not so much tapered out, but generally proved to be a damp squib.

And with the nights seeming to lurch rather than draw in, it's increasingly difficult to play the menu game.

Sat inside, watching rain and cloud dominate the shortening days, instinct seems to demand comfort.

But if simple salads are hardly the order of the day, it's not yet time for chunky soups and hearty stews.

I had Friday off and wandered up to Broadway Market while it was still quiet, sitting down for a latte under cover and debating the food question.

In the end, I tried a Provençal recipe for lunch – red mullet, cleaned but with the liver intact and the scales still on, dampened and then sprinkled with course salt that is patted into the fish.

It's fried (according to my book) in a hot pan for one and a half minutes on one side and then turned carefully and fried for a further two minutes on the other side.

After that, you can sit with it on a plate and use your fingers to pull off the skin, which comes away easy with the salt-encrusted scales. The point is also to eat the liver.

Served with a simple persillade on the side, it smells divine. Unfortunately, the timings were not enough and it wasn't cooked properly below the flesh nearest the surface, so I didn't get to the liver either. But you really can pull the skin right off, easily and cleanly with your fingers.

Remember that I said I'm far from an expert when it comes to cooking with fish? Well, ya lives and ya learns. This is certainly worth trying again sometime, remembering the timings.

Given plenty of time, for the evening I tried something new. Making a bread dough with a little olive oil, it formed the base of a Catalan-style pissaladiere.

In essence, pissaladiere is a form of pizza from Provence, with a topping of onions that have been cooked long and slow, then a lattice pattern of anchovies and olives.

But when we'd had a version of it in Collioure at the end of our trip a year ago, the onion had been replaced with tomato. Which makes regional sense, in that the Catalans on both sides of the Pyrenees eat pan tomate – toasted bread rubbed with a cut garlic clove and then a ripe tomato, seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil and good salt.

Here then was a combination. And I'm pleased to say that, although no recipe seems to exist, it was a success.

The weekend proper left me with further questions. In the end, I bought a chicken and decided that, instead of my usual way of cooking such a bird, à la River Café Easy Two, I'd used another recipe from the same book that the mullet had come from, Flavours of Provence by Clare Ferguson – chicken with 40 cloves.

Now I've done this before, in the past. But not quite like this.

Previously, it had involved a fairly standard roasting, with unpeeled cloves scattered around. Well, that's how I remember it.

This recipe involves scattering a few anchovies in a roasting dish, together with some rinsed/drained capers. The bird goes on top, stuffed with masses of thyme (in my case, with some rosemary too, plus the remains of a left-over lemon and a few loose garlic cloves).

Rub it with a little olive oil (I used that from the tin of anchovies – waste not, want not and so on), season and add a bulb of garlic per person to the roasting dish.

Now Ferguson instructs that you cut the base off each bulb and then pop it into the dish with the rest of the bulb on top. This is a fiddle – not least when the stem of the garlic in the centre is so difficult to cut through that you risk all the individual cloves coming loose.

I made a cut in each to facilitate exchanges of flavour, but didn't try to cut them through fully.

Roast at 200˚C (ordinary oven) for 30 minutes – at which point, Ferguson says to remove the garlic, as it should be cooked. In other words, soft enough to squeeze out and spread on a piece of bread. No chance – well, not in my oven. So after turning the oven down (180˚C) I left it for longer.

The bird – and the author is calculating on one of around 1.5kg here – should then need around 35-40 minutes further. Which seemed to work fine – I even checked the internal temperature just to be sure.

Remove the chicken and garlic to a warm place and, on a hob, add a good glug of robust red wine to the juices and stir well. Add a couple of cloves of the garlic, squeezed from their papery skins and then pulped into the jus.

There's no need to add extra seasoning, as you already have the anchovies and capers. Just skim or drain the fat off and you're ready to go.

Serve – rather obviously – with good bread and the jus on the side.

And very nice it is too. In case you think that that amount of garlic sounds overwhelming, it becomes gloriously sweet and much milder when roasted like this.

For afters, I'd made creme Catalan earlier in the day – a set custard that's lighter than crème brûlée and flavoured with lemon, before being given a burnt sugar topping.

Not quite summer – not quite autumn.

The perfect sort of food for such in-between days.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Store cupboard risotto

Having arrived home yesterday and realised that what I’d planned to cook would, in reality, take too long for a week night, it became a question of store cupboard cooking.

There was no shortage of vegetables available, so after a brief rootle through Valentina Harris’s Risotto! Risotto!, I came up with a plan.

Since our return from holiday, I haven’t quite got the full compliment of essentials back in the kitchen.

I am woefully lacking in decent lemons, for instance. And the small remaining chilis from a packet are a bit wrinkly.

But miraculously, there were two shallots hiding away at the bottom of a salad drawer in the fridge, granting me the proper start to a risotto.

It had to be stock from a bottle, though, since there wasn’t time to defrost the final tub of homemade stuff.

So, into some olive oil went the finely chopped shallot, followed by some finely chopped garlic – that 1kg bunch I hauled back from France isn’t going to last very long at this rate – and then some sliced courgette. All was softened.

The rice goes in next and absorbs all the remaining oil. Then a good glug of white wine and, when that’s absorbed too, you can start adding the stock, a ladle at a time.

While that was going on, a few peas were podded, briefly boiled and drained.

I checked the seasoning. I thought about the flavour. And then the germ of an idea knocked on the door of my mind. One of the little pots I’d bought back from Roque Anchois was a cream of anchovy. This was exactly the sort of dish to add a good dollop to.

And it worked rather well too, adding a remarkably subtle layer of flavour to the finished dish.

All in all, not bad for something that wasn’t planned and was based entirely on what was actually in!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Espresso yourself

Travel, so they say, broadens the mind. It can certainly be an education in more ways than one – and one of the subjects on which we finally got ourselves rather more educated this year was that of coffee.

It’s not that we didn’t like coffee, you understand. More that we have been suckered into over-complicating the subject.

I’d drunk black coffee on and off over the years – usually as a diet thing – it was only six years ago, when we visited France and Spain for the first time that I really appreciated it.

Well, to be accurate, it wasn’t so much a ‘black coffee’ – or a mug of coffee without any sugar or milk added – as it was an introduction to proper espresso.

I remember sitting in central Perpignan, outside a café and alongside the canal, drinking a cup that came with a small square of dark, dark chocolate – a superb double kick.

We returned from that trip with cups and saucers in a Gaudíesque design, determined to continue our new-found delight in espresso.

The old filter machine at home was leaking, which gave us a great opportunity to replace it. Thinking that serious coffee required serious investment, we bought a vast contraption that had deposited the fresh coffee into a large vacuum jug.

The advantage of this was that no further heat was applied, thus avoiding the coffee being stewed if you couldn’t get through four mugs in five minutes.

This, we thought, was being intelligent in the coffee stakes. Now admittedly neither of us have any knowledge about the correct temperature at which you brew coffee or any of the other technicalities that apparently exist.

I do know that you don’t pour boiling water on coffee and that rinsing the dregs down the sink is a good cleaner for the drain – but that’s the limit.

However, on top of that, we picked up an espresso maker. Apparently the smallest on the market, it was a heavy thing that looked like a miniature Imperial walker from Star Wars.

We used it a few times, but regardless of whether we ground our own beans or bought ready-ground ones, the results were never quite what we’d hoped for – from either machine.

Two years ago, on our first self-catering stay in Collioure, we encountered a cafetiere or French press for the first time.

We used the same one last year, when we returned to the same house.

This year, our different accommodation revealed that it seems to be a popular method of brewing coffee domestically in France. The owner had two – large and small. The small, we soon discovered, did us a nice two espresso cups each in a morning.

When we arrived, a previous guest had left the remains of a packet of Lavazza in the fridge – so we didn’t spot it until we’d already bought a packet.

But opting to use that up first, we quickly realised that the small French press required three heaped teaspoons of powder to get a good, strong brew.

Thus was coffee lesson number one learned: we’ve not been using enough beans/powder to made anything that doesn’t (to me at least) taste rather insipid and unimpressive. No wonder I’d rather gone off coffee.

Second lesson – you don’t need to grind your own beans to get decent coffee.

Third – you don’t need some overblown piece of kit to make decent coffee.

As it happens, the filter machine at home has been playing up – which may have had something to do with limescale.

And when we went to try the espresso machine, it refused to even open.

There seemed only one sensible move – and it wasn’t investing close to £2,000 in the most expensive piece of kit that John Lewis sells for making coffee, but going back to basics.

A French press will do just fine – and it even saves me a vast amount of valuable work surface in the kitchen!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

All brawn and no brain?

The worst thing about holidays is that they end. Well, some holidays at least. I can think of one or two where I've been relieved to get home.

A case in point was a fortnight's canal trip around the 'Leicester Ring' in 1999. We had done brief narrow boat cruises before, but this was the big one. This was going to be two whole weeks of getting away from it all.

It rained almost non stop. The Other Half, insisting that the division of labour was traditional, did the driving bit, as this was, apparently, technical. I, as the woman, was assigned the locks.

Over a hundred of the bleedin' things, including a full flight at Foxton, where I had the pleasure of helping to provide the entertainment for the gongoozlers - those people who go and stand by locks and watch others do the hard slog.

In between, I made bacon buttes and mugs of tea, handing them up from the cabin for The Other Half to consume while driving us along. And spent much of the rest of the time sitting inside, away from the grey and the drizzle, trying to teach myself to play solitaire or reading a biography of Robert Kennedy.

The only thing I remember with pleasure was Eiffel 65's hit single, Blue, which was featuring heavily on the scratchy radio at the time.

I cooked in the evenings too, even though this was before my days of culinary please (let alone culinary know how), but this too seemed to be part of the supposedly fair division of labour. For some reason, I retain vague memories of sausages and peeling spuds and boring, bland vegetables.

In Leicester itself - a city I had carefully avoided since being invalided off my degree course some 17 years earlier - it peed down, illustrating how fanciful were the claims of the manufacturer of my kagool to have made something vaguely waterproof.

There I was, standing on the towpath, struggling with a lock that wouldn't budge, getting rapidly soaked and cursing aloud, while the self-appointed skipper told me to calm down.

We had set ourselves far too tight a schedule for a fortnight: there was no chance to spend a day moored up, talking to the teenage ducks and simply relaxing – or going ashore and visiting something – if we were to stand a chance of getting the boat back to the yard on time - which, as it happened, we didn't quite manage anyway.

'No,' I said later. 'Never again!'

Returning from France does not, however, involve the same sense of relief, strangely.

Don't get me wrong – I enjoy my work, I like my colleagues and I absolutely missed the cats.

But riot-torn Hackney sometimes lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. And it's expensive too. For the first time, I've realised how much more it costs for a loaf of decent bread in London than in the south of France.

A quarter of a large, round loaf cost us €1.40 in Collioure. A half cost me well over £3.50 yesterday. For three weeks, I ate the stuff happily; nibbling away and appreciating texture and taste, rarely needing – or wanting – anything on it.

Now even the artisan stuff seems mediocre. So not only can I now not enjoy the fruit I could out there, I have to pay considerably more for a decent version of that most basic commodity, a loaf of bread.

And yet, for all the cost, the reality is the same: in the UK, we spend a smaller percentage of our household income on food than anywhere else in Europe – and still think it's too much. And let's face it, I'm making an effort to buy the better stuff.

But it's not haute cuisine we're talking about here – hell, I can't even get brawn, or 'head cheese' as the French call it. Why? Because it was banned in the wake of the BSE outbreak – that disease caused because profit came before safety, and UK farmers were allowed not simply to feed the remains of sheep to those well-known bovine carnivores, but they were allowed to cook it at a lower temperature, thus making it cheaper, but not killing off the scrapie in the sheep.

But no, the problem wasn't this – the problem was brawn itself, so it has to be on the banned list for us Brits.

As as for the cheese ...

But markets in general are fascinating across the Channel. The produce might be cheaper – but they seem to take even more care over it. The way stalls are laid out, for instance, always delights me.

And just look how beautiful these little cheeses were at the quay side Sunday market in Bordeaux.

Perhaps it's expecting too much for common sense to prevail over brawn – just as it seems to be to hope for a culture in the UK where food is actually taken seriously and valued, and those who do this are not viewed as a wealthy and greedy minority.

Oh well ... I shall just have to knuckle down to an autumn of serious cooking to try to compensate for such joys as the bacon sandwich I had last week for breakfast one day, when my appetite got the better of my common sense and experience: cold, over-cooked bacon, on stale bread.

And people wonder why I rate France so highly ...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Black gold

It wasn't a quick job: picking through almost a kilo of blackcurrants, gently easing off the stalks from the tiny, ripe globes, dark red juice staining fingers.

But eventually, the colander was full of rich, almost-black fruit - almost 970g. Rinsed gently, it all goes into a large pan with a scant amount of water - around 75 ml - and 300g of caster sugar.

Lidded and on a gentle heat, everything comes to a simmer. Stirred once or twice carefully, to make sure that all the fruit and sugar gets a brief cooking, it takes a while.

Once the sugar has dissolved, everything is strained over a jug, pressed through a sieve with the back of a ladle.

Time to taste. It's rich but tart. This is the moment for a decision: if you like something that's a little less sharp, add more sugar, remembering that the freezing process will cut the sweetness a tad.

If your preferred taste is for something with even more bite, add a little fresh lemon juice.

In this case, it stayed as it was.

Allowed to cool, the syrup is eventually decanted into a large, freezer-proof container and then popped into the freezer. It's checked after about an hour and given a whisk to break down any ice crystals, a process that's repeated until it's fully frozen.

The memory of that cassis sorbet in Collioure was with me as I headed to Broadway Market for a first Saturday shop since our return to Blighty.

The big question was whether I could actually buy blackcurrants anywhere. I already knew that Ocado didn't sell any - only blackcurrant products. 

When I was growing up in Mossley, we had a couple of blackcurrant bushes in the garden: there'd be enough fruit for my mother to make a pie or two: that deep stain where the fruit had leaked out onto the pastry around the edge of the enamel tin; the smell as you pushed your spoon beneath the surface; my sister's face, screwed up at the tartness that I loved.

I am rather ashamed to have forgotten blackcurrants - until that sorbet.

A slow, careful stroll up the market saw the realisation dawn that this was not going to be easy. I asked at Chegworth, a stall that specialises in orchard fruits. No likelihood.

Yet around the corner, hunting for herbs that seemed to be almost as elusive this week, something caught my eye outside one of our local Turkish grocers: punnets of blackcurrants from Kent.

With no weight specified, I simply grabbed all nine little plastic boxes that were there and stuck them in a basket, with protective glances over my shoulder. It could have been black gold that I had found.

Why so few places sell this wonderful fruit it's difficult to guess. Browsing the internet, one page proclaimed it a fruit with dessert limits. Really? Pies and sorbets, plus ice cream presumably and compotes - the latter to eat with a creamy, rich yogurt, perhaps. And that's without mentioning jam.

How many dessert possibilities do gooseberries have?

But perhaps it's not as surprising when you think that the most popular blackcurrant product that you can find on supermarket shelves is Ribena, while the French have come up with crème de cassis.

One of the strangest things about browsing for recipes for a sorbet was that several of the ones that came up included egg whites – why on earth would you add egg whites to a sorbet? And I dismissed too those that required glucose. As the recipe above illustrates, you only need the most straightfoward and simple ingredients.

It does take a long while to freeze, but that's hardly the end of the world. And the result is incredibly flavoursome and refreshing.

What a shame that we seem to believe that the best use for such a wonderfully rich, tart fruit is as a child's cordial. As a sorbet shows, blackcurrants are really very grown up and sophisticated.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The ancient simplicity of fish, bread and wine

Week two of a stay in Collioure means a move across the bay to St Vincent Plage, a stonier, but somehow more 'grown-up' beach.

I always feel slightly embarrassed, because Cyril at Bora Bora is brilliant and I feel a tad guilty at taking my custom elsewhere, given that he has been so welcoming over recent years. But even the sun is better - or at least you get it for longer - and there's much better snorkelling.

Since the previous few days had seen pretty high winds - although nothing approaching the famed local tramontane - the local beach club owners had not been putting parasols out. More than one, not planted firmly enough in the sand, had flown past us in a flurry of vivid colour.

This forced us to be more grown up than usual about our St Vincent experience - use sun tan lotion liberally and often, but actually get more sun instead of hiding in shade as much.

The other advantage of this beach move is lunch: specifically, the wonderful Au Casot, which is my favourite Collioure eatery. I like the wait - the anticipation.

It's right at the back of the beach - almost a large beach hut with a canopy-shaded terrace from which you can step right onto the pebbles - and no matter how genteel you might expect the clientele to sometimes make it feel, there is something faintly anarchic at it's heart.

But the food is the real draw - it could be haute cuisine for beach bums and surf dudes.

On our first day, it was so busy that we stood and queued for almost half an hour, without a single grumble, to get a table. I ate baby squid, perfectly caramelised on the outside, tender to the bite, and the tentacles served just crisped.

It tickled our waiter when I commented, with relish, as it arrived, that I'd been waiting a year for it.

Traditional aïoli came on the side, with a jacket potato in foil (never having seen the inside of a microwave) and garnished with cream, plus half of a big tomato, grilled, and a very neat persillade.

The tomato says it all, really: not simply a bit of easy garnish, but something scrumptious in its own right.

To follow, my beloved combination of coffee ice cream and apricot sorbet, learned here a few years since, and combining sweet, cleansing freshness with a pleasing bitterness.

The next day, I perched on the edge of my transat as lunch approached to see when they started unstacking the chairs ready for service. I had no intention of waiting again. And the combination of reading a book about food and the smells that were drifting my way had already set the saliva glands going.

This time around, gambas, perfectly cooked again, with a delicate dressing of pastis - a regional aniseedy spirit, usually consumed as a long drink, diluted with lots of ice cold water - and lemon.

To accompany, a small portion of sliced potato, onion and herb - a sort of light boulangerie - and that obligatory tomato. And the word 'pastis' in thick vinegar on the back of my plate; an unexpected surf riff on posher establishments.

Dessert was a repeat.

Day three, and it was the scallops - a rare menu item in Collioure - tender and creamy, wrapped in Serrano ham and skewered to cook over a gently flame.

Day four, the special: squid stuffed with pork and served in a ragu. The are essentially only two ways to cook squid - either as a fleetingly as the kiss of a breeze on a hot day or for ages. The latter works perfectly for such a dish and again, it had been executed superbly by the female chef, who beavers away, bandana-crowned and laughing, for hours in the tiny kitchen.

It is very simple food and a very short menu that is almost unchanging with each passing year. But more than any other restaurant, I dream of it between visits.

Not that its situation does it any harm: there's the pleasure of sitting in welcome shade after a morning's sun worship has burnished the skin, with a super view from pretty much any angle.

But if the food at Au Casot is gloriously simple - and simply glorious - then it's not quite as simple as food can get in this part of the world.

On our final market day in Collioure, I had been shopping early and, after realising that I was in danger of letting the holiday pass without cooking any fish, picked up two medium-sized dorade (sea bream) for that evening.

Beautiful and shiny, with not even the barest hint of an aroma, they were packaged up carefully and went straight into the fridge when I returned to the house.

Some hours later, I filleted one - The Other Half isn't keen on having a full fish on his plate - and then popped the unfilleted one on a greased tray, around 10cm below a hot grill. Turning it on around seven minutes - I'd timed for five minutes initially, but it needed more until the skin was starting to crisp properly - I added the fillets and turned them around half way through the second cooking period.

Much as I love fish, I'm not particularly good at cooking it - I lack confidence as well as serious knowledge and practice. So this was sort of guesswork, by and large, with a bit of experience lurking in the background.

To serve, there was a slice of good lemon, the smell of which is ecstasy when you cut into it, bread from the boulangerie's afternoon bake, Roussillon sea salt and a bottle of rosè.

Well, however much it was a case of guesstronomy, it worked. The flesh was perfectly cooked and so, so sweet to taste. Not hindered, I imagine, by being immaculately fresh, for which I can claim not an ounce of credit.

Bread, fish and wine: more biblical than ever. Timeless food, in an area where they have fished the seas and grown grapes since before a carpenter reputedly turned water into wine, bade others become 'fishers of men' and fed a mass of people with a few loaves and fish.

In other words, these are foodstuffs that have a deep symbolism and meaning within Western culture. But whether you believe those stories or not, tasting such things in such a way has something of the religious about it - not least when you realise the incomparable glories of things so basic and simple and timeless.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A fishy outing

In a week of erratic weather – ie, some cloudiness and even one spell of rain - we found ourselves exploring things to do in Collioure other than sunning oneself on the beach.

Quite a lot of that, to be fair, involved sitting out on the little terrace at the house we were renting, with books, fags and coffee to hand.

But on one such day, after we'd whiled away a morning in such pleasant fashion, the weather was showing signs of improvement and we decided to be up and out.

One of the things I've been meaning to get around to doing in Collioure for at least the last three years is to visit one of the two anchovy houses that still operate there. 

Both apparently allow you to have a look around, including watching the women who still fillet these tiny, pungent fish by hand.

Have finally sussed where one of them was, we decided to start a general afternoon perambulation by paying a visit.

There was a door quite clearly marked, suggesting that you enter to visit the production area. But I'm still a reserved English person, so I checked in the shop first.

'Of course; go on up - it's the first floor - you can taste the anchovies too.'

We climbed the short staircase. A door stood before us, telling us to enter, but not to knock.

So we did - and we didn't.

In a large old room two women were at work; one filleting, one taking the result and packing them into jars and weighing them.

The only obvious difference from the past, which I'd seen via photographs, was that they wore the regulation hygienic attire and that the surfaces they were working at were stainless steel. Otherwise, this was as old as the hills.

I asked if photography were okay. The woman doing the filleting said yes, barely interrupting her work.

It was fascinating. She had a pile of fresh anchovies next to her and a box for the discarded spines on her knee.

She took a fish and stripped it open and removed the spine with deceptively easy movements, laying each completed half neatly on a paper towel in front of her, just overlapping the piece before.

When a paper towel was full, her colleague then took it, picked a handful of the delicate fish up, overlapping as they were, and started lining the jars, then measuring them on a scale to check the net weight.

The uniform might be new, but this was a skill that dated back centuries.

I was astonished that we could wander around freely. To be honest, I'd expected to be allowed only to see anything from behind glass: but whisper it quietly, this is a Eurocrat-free zone. Concessions, fine - ie the uniform. All-out change - no way!

There, in one, is another reason I love the French. They love rules - but they know the rules to love and those to ignore.

So, for instance, they are close to religious about having at least one boulangerie in every village, no matter how small (there are at least four in Collioure that we know of) and they are serious about laws on democracy and the press that mean that, if you want to stock one newspaper (with one opinion), then you stock them all (with all opinions).

We tasted both types of anchovy - the dark brown ones are very salty and I find them a bit bony, to be honest, but they're still very tasty. The silvery ones are known as boquerones (or roquerones, as they're called by the company in question, Roque Anchois) and they're a tangy mouthful, marinated in vinegar. These have no bones left at all.

Downstairs and back in the shop, it was time for a little stocking up - not on anchovies themselves, which I can easily get in London – but on some of the other products that the company has developed, including small pots of anchovy cream and sauce (one of which can be thinned to use either as a salad dressing or as the base for a soup, according to the absolutely charming woman who chatted with us for some time), plus a jar of monkfish liver, which is a new one on me - and I'm seriously curious - and a little jar of a mustard with Banyuls, the local fortified wine, and honey.

I resisted a jar of green olives, stuffed with almonds, which had been arranged so beautifully in jars that they resembled pineapples, and heaven alone knows how many other tempting goodies, but the bags were already in panic mode at what was already waiting to make the long journey back to England.

The coming months will see some serious experimentation in the Catalan cooking stakes.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Fromage sur le pain grillé

It had been a cloudy morning; cool and with occasional rather half-hearted attempts at rain. So we had stayed put on our little terrace, coffee and tobacco at hand, reading.

Not that we were the only ones. A group of Young People in a nearby house also stayed in. They sounded female and, between fits of giggling, were attempting, somewhat flatly, to sing a range of classics, such as Let I Be accompanied by a guitar that was attempting to outdo them for flatness.

All of which may - or may not - have had something to do with the two plant pots that are living on a low roof at their abode.

They eventually went quiet, presumably having got the munchies and gone in search of Mars bars.

I was reading Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of this lawyer-turned-food-writer's columns, which had been recommended to me over a business lunch a couple of months ago.

The initial thing to bear in mind with Steingarten is that he is American, that his readers are American and that the target of his dry and withering comments are primarily and frequently the faddiness and hysteria of the US food world in particular.

That morning, I had been particularly reading a section of pieces about dieting and the hysterical fear of all fats.

Steingarten appears to have been one of the first people to use the phrase, the 'French paradox', and is consistent in pointing out the appallingly bad and often entirely misinformed advice not just of quack nutritionists, but the US government's own health bodies.

One of his techniques is to write as though genuinely excited by, for instance, the news that a company has produced a new fat - Olestra - that will replace all real fats and leave no impact on the body, not being absorbed, but passing right through.

He describes one low-fat cookery book that, even by the general low standard of such things seemed utterly dismal. Butter Busters was a best seller, but seemed almost entirely constructed of recipes made of the most hideous-sounding artificial, processed foodstuffs that you could imagine.

One assumes that the individual who wrote such trash wasn't intelligent enough to comprehend the links between processed foods and ill health, plus obesity. But then she clearly didn't know - or care - that her ideas of cutting out all fats was downright unhealthy in itself.

Still, where there's money to be made - and the diet industry Is a huge money spinner ...

If one were really cynical, one could imagine that the bosses of the processed/junk/snack food industries and the diet industries sit down to a celebratory feast together every year (with proper food, of course) and toasting their mutual aid in boosting each others already massive profits, as the poor plebs continue on the treadmill of weight worry, diet, weight gain, weight worry, diet, weight gain etc.

Perhaps they're even joined by luminaries from the fitness industries, who presumably find a place like France to be a disaster, since it has never adopted the gym culture with the same frantic, fearful passion as have the US and UK.

Steingarten is very funny, in an extremely dry way and about important issues (the are also plenty of other pieces simply about the joys of food). I had been laughing out load and quoting at The Other Half, who had been very tolerant of this.

But by the time it was around 1.15pm, I was in need not simply of food myself, but specifically, of something that would have offended the so-called 'health' gurus.

Since we had not planned to spend such time at the house, there were limited foodstuffs around. and by now, it was French lunch time, so the local shop would not be open.

There was plenty of food around, but it wasn't what I craved.

The solution, when it presented itself, seemed obvious.

I took two slabs of the day before's leftover campagne gris and popped them on a foil-lined roasting tin under a hot grill. While they toasted, I cut slices from a huge hunk of fantastically mature Cantal that I'd bought the previous day from Caroline at the market.

Mustard ... mustard: there had to be mustard somewhere. A small pot of the grainy stuff was hiding in the fridge.

Underneath the cheese or on top?

I opted for neither, but put layers of the cheese on the toast and popped it back under the grill, deciding that I'd have mustard on the side, which was a good idea, since it turned out to be rather dry.

The Cantal bubbled beautifully and just caught a hint of golden brown before I slid the pieces onto a plate for rapid consumption.

Take that, you joyless, puritanical diet fundamentalists! And if this is anything like our previous sojourns in France, both The Other Half and I will have lost weight by the time we return home. A paradox indeed!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

She's back!

'She's back!' That would have the been the cry of Simon Kelner, the erstwhile sports editor of the Independent on Sunday, with whom I worked for a few months, many moons ago.

I had some Saturday shifts on the sports desk, as part of a team taking all the football stats for all UK games as they came in and compiling them for the next day's edition. Simon himself was a good sport and fun to work with, and one of his methods of keeping a general buzz going around the office was to fire occasional sports questions at one or other of his fellow journalists.

When someone got the answer right, having previously got one wrong, the response would almost invariably be: "He/she's back!"

It was a phrase that I remembered the other day as I waded out of the water, triumphantly holding aloft a delicate seashell that I'd just managed to liberate from the seabed with my toes.

Four years ago, on our first stay here, we'd been surprised to see substantial numbers of children in the sea with snorkels and goggles. Only a short while after I'd taken my own first steps into the water did it become clear why. I looked down and saw fish swimming around my legs. It astonished and delighted me.

We bought cheap kit and tried it ourselves, amazed at the new world that now opened up for us.

When we moved to our second-week beach, the sightings were even better, as that dips quickly to the sort of rocks around which masses of life exists, and being a stony beach helps too, ensuring little cloudiness of the water.

We had a ball, watching shoals of little fishes around the size of anchovies, dorade of various sizes - including some that would have hung over the sides of a dinner plate - fish with beautifully striped and colourful bodies and others, like little catfish, with go-faster stripes and long whiskers, that could be seen chiveying away around rocks for food.

We were both utterly fascinated and entranced, and the following year, invested in quality masks and snorkels - the latter of which were supposed to be 'dry', designed especially to allow you a method of blowing out any water that got in.

Yet personally, I found it disconcerting and difficult. On one occasion, I got into some difficulty only a short way out. The perversity is that for someone who adores being in the sea, I'm not a strong swimmer - or perhaps more pertinently, I lack confidence and panic easily. And when you start getting water in your mouth and you go straight into panic mode, it's too late to be thinking about blowing the water out of some sort of a side vent.

On that occasion, I was lucky enough to spot a large boulder near me and get myself standing on it for long enough to slip my snorkel out, spit the water out of my mouth and get my breathing under control again before starting back to shore.

But I won't pretend that it wasn't scary, even though, before the holiday was over, I made sure to go in again.

However, last year meant I couldn't snorkel at all, with dental treatment meaning that I lacked the ability to bite anything!

Which was rendered even more frustrating when we tried a new, tiny beach nearby, and The Other Half even saw a small octopus hiding in rocks!

So I settled for puttering around in the sea, head above water, clinging to a small plastic float that proved an invaluable aid to dealing with my confidence problems, allowing me to swim around quite a lot.

This year, with the dental programme rather further along the prescribed path, I was both optimistic and curious to see how I'd fare.

The same flash gear was in my luggage, and i planned to combine that with the float - surely such a combination would produce positive results? But my first efforts taught me one thing - the snorkel was still crap. Or I was crap with it. It made no odds which - it just didn't work for me.

I chucked it in a bin and bought the dirt cheapest one from a tobacconist, picked from between the saucy postcards and the inflatable crocodiles.

It was the business of mere moments to discover that I could, once again, lie face down in the water for more than a few seconds and see the world below.

And that was why I could see this intricate shell near my feet, and spend the time to manoeuvre it between my toes before eventually being able to handle it.

As I said when I approached The Other Half on his sun lounger, the only thing to say that seemed fitting, was: "She's back!"

PS: One of these days, I'll find a little I-Spy spotter book for fish of the western Mediterranean - do you think they produce waterproof copies?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fabulous fish and figs

We have never really thought of Collioure as a home of fine dining - well, not in the haute cuisine sense.

Though as I hope I've made as clear as the sea here is, the simplest food, when the ingredients are of the highest quality, seasonal and local, is the finest dining there is.

In our first stay, we ate at Les Templiers, which was good - although I can't actually remember what I had, which usually reveals something - and La Frigate, where detail is again absent.

But as we have gone for simpler and simpler food with each visit, we have not returned to either of the above, and have avoided what is rumoured to be the poshest eatery in town with studied determination.

In some ways, this is possibly a sort of inverted snobbery. But two things happened to change that approach last week - for one day at least.

To begin with, I've been buying whatever publications I can get my hands on about the regional cuisine. These happen to be in French, but it doubles as good language practice and I've managed to cook from French recipes at home in the past.

This trip, I had found a copy of a periodical called Terres Catalanes, which is clearly aimed at the French tourism market and which, in its summer 2011 edition was focusing on "cuisine aux vins", with an added bonus of 30 recipes.

It includes a number of two-page advertorials for top regional restaurants. Within the opening pages, this included L'Arago in Perpignan, where I have eaten (it was the site of my first steak tartare) and later, Chez Pujol in Port Vendres, where we lunched last year, when I enjoyed - very much! - skewers of seafood.

And then, toward the back of the book was a page advert for l'Amphitryon, a Collioure restaurant overlooking the bay and at one end of what we think of as our first-week beach.

It described the cooking as including "fruits de mer" and added that recipes were of the area. The chef, Jean-Pierre, had apparently worked with "Ducasse et Pourcel". Now I don't know the latter, but I've most certainly heard of the former. And that's serious stuff.

During our first week in Collioure, we usually lunch at Brasserie St Elme - primarily because it backs right onto the beach. It's a straightforward, tourist menu. In the first few days this year, I'd actually found it better than I remembered, as I had a steak haché and chips on beach day one, breaded cuttlefish with battered squid the next time, and decent gambas the third.

But then come a goat's cheese salad that had disappointed on a number of counts.

And so there we were the following day, approaching lunchtime and wondering what to do. I suggested ambling over to the side of the bay where we now realised l'Amphitryon lay, just a few metres along from the restaurant we'd heard was good and had been avoiding.

We'd not even looked at l'Amphitryon before; The Other Half dismissing it as attached to a hotel, and me never even giving it even that much thought.

The menu, once examined, looked enticing. While evening booking is advised, we were able to get a table for lunch.

And it was certainly worth it.

I opted for "pavé de morue à l'aïoli et ses petits légumes". Six years ago, the first time I ate in Paris (at the end of my first trip to France), I sat in a very nice brasserie and realised, with delight, that I could understand almost all of the menu. Except for 'pavé', which I had to look up in a phrase book. It's simply a 'slab'. There's been no danger of forgetting it since.

Waiting, I munched a piece of bread that was fabulously crisp on the outside and enjoyably chewy inside.

What then arrived was amazing. A fat pillow of very lightly salted cod, spread with the aïoli on top and finished under the grill, resting on a bed of mixed vegetables, with persilade and thick Balsamic as garnishes.

The fish was superb: big flakes of translucent white flesh simply fell off at the merest hint of a knife. It was fragrant, flavoursome and impossibly soft, and complimented so well by the mild aïoli.

The vegetables too - asparagus, tomato, carrot, mange tout, artichoke and aubergine - were delightful and not simply a garnish or cursory side offering.

Fabulously soothing and tasty.

The Other Half had sardines that had been grilled on a fire, with a mixed leaf salad that he said was excellent, and fries.

It was good thing we hadn't opted for an entrée, since we'd neither of us have had any space left for dessert, and the menu was so far from the formulaic that one was desperate to try something.

In the end, after some umming and ahhing, I ordered "tarte fine aux figues rôties et sa crème d'amande, sorbet cassis".

So that was an individual tart with a sort of millefeuille base, and then two layers of the roasted figs, held in place by something more dough-like. The crème d'amande came in a small glass, with a fruit purée (passion fruit, I think) atop the almond cream.

It had been a very long time since I had had blackcurrants in any form, and I had, to my shame, forgotten just what a wonder of the berry kingdom they are. The sorbet was a jolt of fantastically deep tartness that cleansed and freshened in an instant.

It was all exceptional, but of that sorbet, I could have eaten a bucketful.

We'd just been having soft drinks and water with lunch previously, but the demi of 2010 Chateau de Corneilla rosé went down very well indeed - full of strawberries.

It was an exceptionally good meal, but it was also far from expansive, by comparison with what we had been eating for lunch in the preceding days. Indeed, the bill was almost painfully close to what we'd paid at St Elme the day I'd had the gambas - even though we'd had only soft drinks then.

But it's certainly very pleasing that, even after coming somewhere small for four years, you can still make new discoveries - and top-notch ones at that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Kitchen matters

The first thing to do when you arrive at a new holiday home is to check the kitchen. And I mean really check.

What utensils are there? Are the knives halfway decent? What is the oven like? Does the fridge have a freezer that'll hold more than a few ice cubes?

This year we were in a new house in more ways than one. After two years staying at the same place, that was no longer available. And this one, which we very much picked with the outside terrance in mind, had only been renovated in 2010.

So it wasn't too big a revelation to discover a modern kitchen, pretty well outfitted.

But this trip, another question had been preying on my mind ages before we arrived: would there be a whisk?

'Why,' you ask, 'would anyone be so concerned about a whisk?'

Well the answer is really quite simple. When in Pays catalan, do as the Catalans do - and I wanted to make aïoli while within sight (well, almost) of Canigou.

In the course of our journey to Collioure, that plan had crystallised from the sort of aïoli I've been making for a few years now, with yolk, to the traditional one without, that we'd first come across in Villefranche de Conflent.

So at least I didn't need to get eggs in. There was already a bottle of basic virgin oil here too, and a selection of salts - basic table salt (the stuff I now avoid after discovering that aluminium is added to help it run), a little course stuff in a mill and, in a drawer, three pots of Roussillon salt: one natural, one with herbs added and one with "muscat rubi".

And there was a whisk. Okay, it's a fairly feeble one that looks as though it has seen better days, but it was there, in the drawer, waiting for me.

All that was needed was garlic.

So I bought a stinking big bulb that was gloriously fresh - none of those green bits in the middle (Michel Roux Snr says to remove those as they're indigestible).

Come the hour, I was left with minor quandaries. The woman who owns the house has something like half a dozen chopping boards, but it's not clear what is for what. I didn't really feel I could take the flat of a knife to a load of garlic and salt on one of her boards, since it might leave something of an aroma.

And there was no mortar and pestle, so I couldn't work the garlic and salt that way either.

The solution was in the draw, keeping company with the whisk - or possibly trying to avoid being seen with it: a spankingly big, heavy duty metal garlic press with a brushed steel look.

It did a job, mincing four large cloves into a small bowl.

From there, I added a little of the natural Roussillon salt and used the back of a spoon to get the best emulsion I could. It wasn't bad. And then just a little oil to loosen it.

It was another of our simple suppers. This time, there was a bowl of aïoli to spread on the bread.

It was a little too salty - the Roussillon salt was far stronger than I realised - and it would be smoother if I'd had either board that I could be assured nobody would mind being used for blending garlic and salt, or a mortar and pestle.

But for a first attempt at the regally traditional form of this regional mayonnaise, it wasn't bad - and it did have a real garlicky kick.

Monday, 8 August 2011

To market, to market redux

Around three years ago, we stayed in Collioure for the first time. Two years ago, we made our self-catering debut in the town - and here we are again, doing exactly that.

Indeed, with each passing year, we seem to eat out less and less in the evenings when we're here. Not that the restaurants are bad - I have a couple I absolutely want to make the space to visit again before our return - but simply that eating the way we do in the evenings is such an enormous pleasure.

Well, that and the business of shopping for food locally.

In the little village square where petanque is often played, and where visiting attractions such as a Punch & Judy show set up, a market takes place on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.

I have learnt, with the benefit of experience, that the best time to visit, is as early as possible. In other words, before most of our fellow visitors are out of their beds.

Since we arrived on a Saturday, the first job of our first Sunday was therefore the market. Sleeping later than we'd intended, it was crowded by the time we got there.

But even with queues and camera-toting tourists everywhere, that didn't stop me being recognised at a super cheese stall.

Caroline first recognised me last year - but as she only has her stall there on Sundays, it particularly stunned me. It wasn't such a bolt out of the blue this time around, but it still begs the question of why.

What is it that I do that apparently marks me out from all the other thousands of transient customers that she must have each year that, after just two visits to her stall, she remembered me?

I can only guess. What I do know is that she sells fabulous cheeses, some recognisable from British shops, but many that are made locally.

She had a sort of Brebis this time. Now I've been close to addicted to Brebis Pyrenees - which comes from the Basque end of the mountains - for a while now, as Stephane at La Bouche has been stocking it: this is similar, but local.

Caroline also introduced me to a cheese the texture and look of an Emmental, of which she only had a small amount - really lovely, with a deceptive length.

And then a little carton of a soft ewe's cheese, that I eventually left out of the fridge (remember that there's only me who eats cheese, so this was a week's supply) and allowed to ripen to the stage it could be mopped up with bread.

I suspect that part of why she recognises me is a mix of my being a Brit who attempts to speak the lingo (probably rather funnily - and I have been known to resort to adding clumsy mime to a conversation: more Jacques Tati than Marcel Marceau, I suspect); asking for advice about the cheeses; tasting (Stephane is constantly frustrated because the British simply refuse to understand that tasting something - degustion - is not a commitment to buy) and not blanching at the idea, for instance, of sheep's cheese (I can't imagine why anyone would, but they do).

The latter brings to mind one my favourite films, Shirley Valentine, where our eponymous heroine ends up cooking egg and chips for holidaymakers in Greece who can't cope with the local food. And, of course, there's the magical moment where the bossy woman from Manchester slips into a dead faint on hearing that what she's just eaten was squid.

But after that, it was all bustle - although we did meet an Harlequins RL fan we know who had been over for the match against the Catalans Dragons the previous evening - and who loves the region as we do.

The following Wednesday I was up, if not at the crack of dawn, then very early. And leaving The Other Half to his beauty sleep, I quit the house at around 7.30am and took the scenic route around the castle walls, as the sea gently lap-lapped against the rocks on a still, overcast and humid morning.

Delices Catalans is run by two sisters and a male relative. The women wear tops that are almost Breton-like: cream with blue, horizontal stripes. It could almost be a uniform. They are always friendly, and have gone out of their way to help in the past, but I don't think you'd want to mess with them.

The man was setting out tables and greeted me as though he knew me - although I don't know whether that was anything other than a robust, open friendliness.

I had a coffee and glass of water before pottering the few metres further to the market itself; at that time, almost the sole preserve of local people.

Two years ago, I met a Dutch man there of indeterminate age - indeterminate partly because he'd grown a beard that would have put Karl Marx to shame and who had, some 20 years earlier, worked in the financial district of Amsterdam.

He'd packed it in to live in Roussillon, where he farmed goats and made cheese with their milk.

On this Wednesday market, I spotted a stall that was selling strawberries. They looked wonderful. But over my shoulder, like Jiminy Cricket, hung the figure of Madame Rehmet, who had been the agent for the house we'd stayed in for our first two years self catering.

She always made it plain that, if you hadn't finished all the food that you'd bought by the end of the stay, you weren't to worry and don't throw anything away. Much would be left for the next visitors - just as you'd inherited all manner of things, from oil to jam, salt to ground coffee. But fresh food, she explained, she took to 'the poor'.

When she arrived to take back the keys after our first stay, she opened the fridge and was shocked to see strawberries, since at that time of year they could only be imported from Spain and would have been grown under glass.

If anyone tells you that the French don't really believe in all that seasonal malarky, don't listen to a word they say. They haven't been on the receiving end of Madame Rehmet's disapproval.

But back to this year. There were those strawberries and boy, did they look good. The stall had a certificate to show that the grower was certified as an organic producer. I gave into temptation and asked the man behind the stall if the fruits were French.

Of course they were, he told me - even producing a picture of himself on his nearby land, cultivating his precious plants.

It came out that he was from the Netherlands. Amazed, I commented that the man who ran the nearby goat's cheese stall was a compatriot. That was his brother - although he'd been here three years longer, growing his strawberries and a few other products, including tomatoes, which started a whole new line of discussion, as he asked where I came from and then bemoaned the state of tomatoes in the UK (and the Netherlands too, to be fair).

To start with, he was stunned that we only assumed that tomatoes were red (I was already carrying a bag of red, green, yellow and orange ones). And then we got onto the negative impact of supermarket demands for regulation fruits ... We'd have been there all day, fellow tomato travellers, were it not for other customers arriving.

There was no butcher's van around, so I headed down a nearby street to a fabulous boucherie I've used before. The weather forecast wasn't brilliant for a day or so hence, so I checked whether the boudin Catalan - the local version of French black pudding - would last in the fridge, and then bought one.

Something else caught my eye - a label that said: 'fromage de tete'. Literally, 'head cheese' and, in essence, what the British used to eat as brawn, before politicians got so scared of shrill elements within the media and the safety/hygiene lobbies that they banned it.

I can't remember whether I've ever eaten it. If I have, it's before I'd have given it any thought. I bought a 'tranche', which seemed to impress the woman who was serving me. Again, is such a purchase atypical of Brits abroad or did my pronunciation simply happen to be decent?

Back at the market, I found a lovely yellow courgette to go with the boudin, plus some gloriously black figs.

And then it was time to visit the supermarket, for bog roll, more plain yogurt to go with the rhubarb compote I'd got in for breakfast (delicious) and a bottle of rosé to reduce the danger that we'd find ourselves without any.

At the nearby boulangerie - one of at least four in the town that we know of - I picked up a campagne gris, a butter croissant for Sleepy Head and a little tarte tatin.

I ambled back via the tobacconist, where we have also been recognised, ready to stash my fabulous hoard and put the coffee on. And it was still hardly 9am.

Now don't tell me that such a shopping expedition could ever be beaten by the manufactured, industrialised, impersonal nonsense that is supermarkets!

And the strawberries really were a deam!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

All that nature allows

Swifts darted just above, so fast that in the early morning silence you could hear the flapping of their wings as a little 'wooosh' overhead.

A sparrow scratched in the gutter above and, when spotted, disappeared fast, its flapping wings audible.

We have a tiny terrace here; a tiny, precious space between high stone walls. A haven in the early morning, in the evening and at night.

There are balconies at the front of the house; big enough - just - to sit on and gaze at the foothills of the Pyrenees as they rise out of the Mediterranean, an old windmill on one early rise, Fort St Elme on the next one; vineyards and olive groves all around.

But the terrace offers something special.

I prop my iPad on a fag packet on the table and write, Gauloise between my fingers, glass of wine by my side, even as the stars wink awake in the eternal blue above.

Not far away, near the railway tracks that lead to and from Spain, cicadas hum in the dark.

I remember the first time I heard them; outside the hotel in Perpignan where we stayed on our first trip to France. And then last year, in Nîmes, in the shadow of a ruined Roman temple to Diana, as dusk fell and the swifts dashed around, hunting vast dragonflies in the fire of the sunset.

There was a lizard on one of the balconies the other day. It saw me coming and scooted over the edge. Huge crickets were drawn to the light in the kitchen the other night and hopped around high enough to feature on Record Breakers while The Other Half tried to get them out. Why are they attracted to the light in such a way?

The Collioure ducks are here as usual. I love ducks - on the water and on my plate (in case you were worried I was going to get too pastoral). Some years ago, when we did a canal trip in the UK, we discovered teenage ducks: they're the ones that come over to your boat in gangs at twilight, quacking madly, demanding food, and even tapping the hull with their beaks to make sure you don't try to pretend you haven't heard them.

You can hear Mother duck in the distance, calling them home, but they're a right bunch of dirty stop outs, and stay away until first light - probably having been to duck raves somewhere else.

In Collioure, they're always near the castle, at the end of the storm drain and where the commando training centre at Fort Miradou store their canoes and dinghies. In the last two years, late season duckings have been lost in sudden storms. Last year, we saw the mother going around in a distressed way for days, looking for her offspring.

Never believe that the French can't be sentimental about our animal and bird friends - it made the local newspaper.

This year, there's one late ducking. We check every day as we pass on the way to and from Le Petit Café for our post-beach sundowner, and urge the mother to look after it.

The beach is perfect therapy. There's warmth in my skin now: before long, it will permeate to the bone - and the red will hopefully turn to a tan.

I've worked out that most people who get wrinkled skin because of being in the sun started in their twenties and have totted up a good 30 years plus of damaging behaviour.

Since I didn't convert from the cult of paleness to sun worship until I was in my forties, I don't think I'll fret too much - and that's not to say that I do 't take precautions.

There is time and space to think. No: not just time and space - but quiet.

Even the beach seems civilised in the height of the season, and our neighbours are barely any noisier than us - and all considerably quieter than the people around us in London, where making as much noise as possible would seem to be a status statement.

The older I get - and the more I visit this part of the world - the more I recall the observation of a friend some years ago, who commented that, while the UK has the highest standard of living in Europe, it also has the lowest quality of life.

It is, I think, true - but very sad.

Commentators say that France is going the way we have done; that cooking is a dying art; that Le Big Mac is in the ascendency, even here.

I know it's easy to be all romantic when you're only visiting somewhere briefly, on holiday, but France - please prove them wrong. Keep the faith. Because someone needs to. And because when you have lost what you have, it is not easy to get it back.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Holy simplicity

It was only a matter of weeks ago - though it might as well be light years and a few thousand miles - when I was sitting in a hotel in Manchester, chatting with an acquaintance one evening after work.

Discussing culinary matters - he's considerably more optimistic than me about the food movement's potential wide scale impact in the UK - he was musing on how, if you took just three such basic things as beer, bread and cheese, it was a perfect illustration of just what we have done to our food culture.

It was an observation that stuck. Take the idea of a traditional ploughman's lunch with a pint on the side: with good ingredients, it's a thing to be relished.

But think of how we've ditched our brewing heritage for the ease of cooking lager; think of Chorleywood bread and think of the rows and rows of plastic-suffocated cheese in supermarkets that are terrified to sell the real stuff because they fear the bacteria that is involved.

After a few nights of the very simplest suppers here in Collioure, I went complex: thinly sliced tomatoes and red onion, with salt, a drizzle of olive oil and some basil.

Clean and fresh and utterly satisfying.

To accompany, excellent bread, bought that morning and freshly baked as dawn turned the sky apricot over a mercury sea and the church called out to the most faithful.

There was charcuterie bought at the market on Sunday: a campagne with peppercorns, and a saussicon with figs; both with real depth of flavour, moistened by generous fat that creates a beautiful marbling, and the latter with the added pleasure of the nutty sweetness of the figs.

And of course, a bottle of seriously chilled rosé from the region.

There is a holy simplicity about such eating: you don't want to rush, it demands your time - and that investment is rewarded with something deeply satisfying.

But it is a simplicity that relies utterly on the quality of the ingredients. And here, the ingredients are good; very good indeed.

And when you have that, you don't need to spend hours in the kitchen or submerge inferior ingredients in heavily-spiced sauces to disguise their inadequacies on the flavour front, or sit in front of the telly to distract yourself from food that is merely fuel.

You sit. You eat. You make it the centrepiece of your evening. You are sociable. And you take part, with joy and relish - even if you are dining alone - in something that is timeless and one of the deepest and most profound rituals of human existence.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Stage 7: Villefranche de Conflent to Collioure

The train to Perpignan was due to 2.26pm - or so we thought. But getting back to the station in good time - we had to buy tickets - there was a shock in store.

That departure was on weekdays only and this was a Saturday. We had, in checking the timetables, forgotten to verify such a tiny, but deeply important detail.

The next train, then, was for three hours hence, by which time we were supposed to have already met the agent for the cottage in Collioure and taken possession of the keys.

There was remarkably little swearing. We tried to see, via the internet on our phones, whether there were any buses that did the journey to Perpigan. Nothing appeared.

If we waited three hours, where would we wait and what would we do?

After a few minutes, The Other Half asked what the state of play was cash wise and, receiving a positive answer, rang a taxi firm whose number was displayed outside the station, asking what the fare would be to Perpignan.

It turned out to be acceptable, so he asked for a cab. 'Tout suite' turned out to be a little longer than we might have imagined, but that was probably, in part at least, because we were still at the edge of panic. Or perhaps it was simply that the driver had his lunch to finish.

But after the discomfort of Le Petit Train Jeune the day before, this was welcome luxury: a modern, air-conditioned car that did the journey smoothly - and in less time than the scheduled train, at any time of the week, would have managed.

And as if we were not already aware of just how near the heart of Pays Catalan we were, it also allowed a first glimpse of Canigou, the Catalans' sacred mountain, which soared above as we left the Têt Valley behind and bore across the plains that we're most familiar with, approaching the Corbiere hills in remarkably short order.

Perpignan station - the centre of the world, as Surrealist artist Salvador Dali described it when he managed to find his way out of Figueres in Spain - was crowded. But improvements in the last 12 months meant that we were able to get to our platform without having to carry the bags up or down stairs, as previously.

The train from Narbonne was on time and we joined the game of hustling on board with all the other people making for the coast.

It's just a trio of stops, with the sea tantalisingly just over the near horizon and the foothills of the Pyrenees sloping down to the Mediterranean in front. Elne, Argeles sur Mer and then through the final tunnel that brings you to Collioure.

Standing and with bags ready by then; ready to be off; ready to walk past the tiny arena and down the hill into the town itself. Sights to welcome and to greet once more; a sense of the intervening year simply fading away; sangria waiting by the beach.

We'd made it. We were back.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

History seeping through the walls

When we'd been putting together our itinerary, the part of our trip that had imposed itself least on my mind was the final overnight stop in Villefrance de Conflent.

Paying rather less attention than to our other stopovers, I had a hazy picture in my mind of a Vauban fort on a hill, with a tiny village enclosed within it.

Thus, when we arrived, my thoughts were entirely on how we could visit the fort. That there was a village at ground level and that there would be anything interesting about it had not occurred to me.

In fact, what I'd mentally done was to conflate two things: Fort Liberia, which is indeed high up the mountain side, and was built as part of a strategy to defend the Têt Valley, and the tiny Cité of Villefranche de Conflent, which lies below.

After that welcoming and refreshing beer at the B&B, we headed toward the village, taking the scenic route described by our hostess. At first, it wasn't very scenic at all, being through a large car park that ran alongside the railway station.

But after climbing rough steps to a small bridge and then following a path around the side of the mountain, we caught sight of a bridge leading directly into the village. I say 'directly', but you had to walk through a gatehouse first, which stood opposite a door in the rock.

That was locked at such an hour, but we knew it contained the 1,000 steps that offered one route up to the fort itself - an 'improvement' added by Napoleon III and one that, even given the time, I would have foresworn for the rather older hairpin path that wound its way up the mountain side - and, Vauban being Vauban, would have allowed plenty of opportunities to take out unwanted visitors.

We passed through the gatehouse and then, via gates, over the narrow gauge railway we'd arrived on just a short while earlier; then over the bridge, with its high walls and firing holes on each side.

Now we were within the fortified walls of the Cité itself, and a narrow, ancient street took us to one of the two main streets in this tiny village.

It was, quite simply, astonishing. If Carcassonne is a miracle, then this is even more so - not least because it doesn't attract the numbers of travellers each day, so you don't feel overwhelmed by a crush of humanity waving plastic swords, but have the chance to take it all in.

That night, we ate at a local grill that our hostess had recommended. I had a truly delightful salad, of a local goat's cheese from the nearby commune of Conat, which was wrapped delicately, together with a small piece of ham, in a filo parcel that had been crisped beautifully, just warming the contents, and was dressed with Balsamico.

It came on slices of apple, which in turn sat on a pile of crisp, tasty lettuce.

To follow, I opted for pintade - or guinea fowl - with a thick, marmalady sauce of figs and Banyuls. Lovely stuff.

Ice cream was, as so often, the perfect conclusion.

We ambled back by the shorter route, along an unlit road, over the river Têt, and slept easily in a charming room that, in daylight, offered an excellent view of the fort.

The next day, with plenty of time until our 2.26pm train, we headed straight back to the village, again taking the scenic route. With nobody else around, it was a delight of a photographic expedition.

Those who say that time travel is impossible have never been to Villefranche de Conflent. And yet it is also a living, breathing place, not simply a museum or an amusement park for history buffs.

Not that there isn't plenty of history.

Vauban was the military architect to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and is even celebrated with a statue in Versailles. His influence was not confined to France or even Europe - or even his own century.

I first became aware of him when we started visiting Collioure, as he was involved in a number of the forts that dot the town and the wider area, from a period when there was still plenty of scrapping going on in the region, including incursions from nearby Spain.

We paid the small fee necessary to walk around inside the ramparts - again, unhindered by crowds. It was a fascinating experience, with The Other Half's greater military history knowledge proving an additional guide.

Not that Vauban built the place: its origins go back far further. Indeed, the church is evidence of that, with its simple, Roman lines that pre-date the Gothic. No, Vauban merely reinforced the town, with lines of fire that covered every angle, and the little sentry posts that we recognised from various buildings in Collioure.

We lunched very simply at a local bar cafè that seemed to double as the headquarters of the local firemen. In my case, feeling like little, I opted for a portion of chips, while The Other Half ordered ham and chips. It came with a slice of baguette, toasted lightly and spread with a creamy, almost gel-like substance on, which the cheese-hating Other Half instantly identified as that and handed to me.

Fool that I was, I reported instantly that it was not cheese, but garlic. He grabbed it back. In fact, as I realised a day or so later, it was the most traditional form of aïoli, made from garlic, salt and oil, but no egg yolk.

We popped into a cavernous and quite wonderful local pottery, where I picked up two tiny bowls and little wooden spoons for all the salt I'd bought in Carcassonne, and from which I nearly had to be physically removed before buying loads more pots and bowls and vinegar dispensers.

Our little kitchen in Hackney looks ever more like it's been transposed directly from France.

We enjoyed a drink in the tiny square next to the church and bought the usual pieces of tourist kitsch that I cannot resist (the fridge door at home is a tale of our travels), and then we had to head back to pick up our bags and journey on.

In many ways, unexpected as it was to me, Villefranche de Conflent was all I'd hoped for in Carcassonne and somehow felt was just missing. It was an unexpected treat.

I'd loved to have had a longer stay: there were two nearby grottos with stalactites and stalagmites to be seen, plus the fort itself and even 4x4 trips to nearby Canigou, the Catalans' sacred mountain.

It had been a stunning, all-too-short break. But somehow, I don't think it's the last time I'll visit.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Stage 6: La Tour de Carol to Villefranche de Conflet

Continuing our desire to get decent luggage space on small, local trains, we ambled along the platform with some time to go before departure. And it was high fives when we realised that the doors to Le Petit Train Jeune were unlocked.

Stashing bags, we took our pick of seats and settled down for three and a half hour trip through the mountains and down the Têt Valley.

It was bumpy. Very bumpy. But this isn't just a train for scenery-seekers; it's a vital service between towns and villages at the heart of French Catalan territory.

There are 22 stops - Bolquère-Eyne, at the midway point, is the highest railway station in France.

These are the sort of stations that Dr Beeching would have axed, with little thought for the impact on the communities that were affected.

Instead, tourism helps to maintain the 101-year old line, with many visitors taking a two-hour journey from Villefranche de Conflent and then returning.

Two hours, frankly, would have been more than enough.

After being jolted about as the train twisted and turned around the mountains, and after so many people joined it that it was rammed, upland pasture lost it's allure, the skies greyed and even the fleeting sightings we'd had of small birds of prey ceased.

If anyone fancies Le Petit Train Jeune, don't do more than two hours either way, unless, like us, you're using it less as a sightseeing trip and more as a method of transport from A to B.

I was utterly fazed out for the last 90 minutes or so; hungry (our picnic hadn't been anywhere near enough), uncomfortable and desperately needing to be able to stretch.

Fortunately, the B&B we were staying in was only around 100m from the station - and on seeing our weariness, our hostess instantly offered the most welcome beers of the entire week.

And with that, we settled in for the our brief stay.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Stage 5: Foix to La Tour de Carol

Perhaps surprisingly, given that we might fairly expect that the area we would be travelling through would be the least 'modern' of our trip, this turned out to be the easiest stage of the tour to date.

After spending an hour or two in Foix itself - including a raid for picnic fodder at a small supermarket - we headed for the station, concerned a little to make sure that we could get our bags into decent spaces and find ourselves the best seats possible, since this was to be a two-hour jaunt.

We had no such worries - although the French do seem to like taking as much space as possible on a train, and we had to settle for a pair of seats facing the way we'd come.

Within a few minutes, as we started a noticeable climb out of Foix, I was in danger of getting a crick in my neck. So we were quite relieved, just two short stops later, when enough people departed to leave us a pick of seats, with a big window and the chance to sit back and appreciate the scenery more fully.

And it was worth appreciating, as we moved higher and higher. The architecture was fascinating: a combination of the Alpine and the brightly coloured walls and shutters of Pays Catalan.

We ran alongside the still fast-flowing Ariege, moving nearer and nearer to it's source, marvelling at how clear it looked, musing on how it would be to scoop up a handful and drink.

More gravel industry was visible, together with what seemed to be regular power stations by the running water.

There was a semi-constant sense of 'ohhh' and 'ahhh' as we rounded bends to see spectacular new panoramas laid out before us. The heavily wooded mountains eventually showed signs of a tree line, but the charming upland meadow alongside the tracks remained.

Out of the corner of your eye, you'd glance butterflies fluttering away, while beehives lay dotted around; sometimes singly, sometimes in large groups.

The trip took us within a stone's throw of Andorra and left us, a short while later, at La Tour de Carol, a vast but almost deserted station that is effectively a border halt for France and Spain.

But with Schengen rendering passport checks between the countries a thing of the past, it is a very quiet place that has seen better days.

The platforms were low though, so as had no trouble getting out of the train, and even had the novel experience of having to walk across the tracks to the station building itself.

With mountains all around and the odd, lazy lizard sunning itself, there was something sleepy about the place, as vast old sheds and buildings decayed slowly in the languid atmosphere. 

Le Train Jaune, which travels by narrow gauge to Villefranche, pulled in soon after. But like everything about this part of the journey, it was going nowhere fast.

The solitary station shop was shut until the early evening and no sign existed of food and drink. We were glad for the little picnic.

We had a break of 90 minutes between trains. For me, a wander around the old station with the camera, unobstructed, had its fascinations, and that was followed by time spent writing, iPad propped up on my case.

And so, with a few other travellers and a couple of dogs, we waited.