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.


  1. Lemon in pastis? Never!
    I'll definately be having crispy skinned grilled fish for dinner tonight. With lemon.


  2. ~LOL~

    Hope you're having a great time, David.