Sunday, 12 August 2012

Back to basics

The plan, such as it existed, had been simple: there's a market in Collioure on Sunday and Wednesday.

So on Saturday, our first day, we'd eat out for both lunch and dinner, and then get the first food in this morning.

That started to unravel when we realised that the previous guest must have been a Mrs Hubbard. Because the cupboards were most certainly bare.

Etiquette, we have discovered since starting to self cater four years ago, is simple. People leave what is left over in terms of basics – and you do the same.

So on past visits, we'd found pasta, jam and cereals, plus a wide range of condiments, oils and vinegars. We'd used such as we needed – and replaced and added to the store.

This year, although we were returning to the house we stayed in last summer, the inventory was a tad on the stingy side.

There was a tiny pot of salt – the easy-running stuff that's easy running because it's laced with additives – a similar sized pot of fine-ground pepper, no oil at all. It's the Med, for goodness sake: how do you live here for a day or more without olive oil?

There was a bottle of Carrefour's cheapest own-brand Balsamic, which turned out to be about as much use as dyed water.

There was not even any coffee to get us going. No sugar, only the barest, embarrassed remains of a kitchen roll and only one spare loo roll.

There was, however, a draw full of teas and tisanes. Ten of them. Hercule Poirot would have been in his element.

But whoever had last lived here had presumably it eaten out pretty much exclusively. Our plans were different.

These discoveries were made after we'd been handed the keys, a short while after lunch at the brasserie behind the beach, Le Saint Elme, which we invariably use for the first few days, until I become very bored with the menu touristique and insist we seek out better fodder.

The menu had changed this year. Slightly. Which meant that they no longer do deep fried, battered squid rings – what we know by the generic term of calamari – with frites. And I usually ask for aïoli on the side. But the calamari is now only available as part of a large dish of 'tapas'.

So instead, I ordered a 'duo' of squid and gambas. Which turned up with a 'garnish' of six little mussels. Tempting though it was, since they were sitting there on my plate, I decided not to take the risk. It might have been years since the last 'episode', but it was very unpleasant indeed.

The baby squid were very nice, the gambas okay. The accompanying rice was dry. The half tomato, grilled with a few breadcrumbs and herbs on top, was as such things always are in France – a bloody miracle of a garnish.

A demi of rosé and we were happy – and ready to unpack.

Back at the beach a short while later, conversation turned to the rather obvious fact that we couldn't avoid shopping. So after our first sundowner of the holiday – sangria – we headed for the local Carrefour to stock up on basics.

We were also feeling the warm tiredness that comes from a day starting to unwind, and to be frank, neither The Other Half nor I really fancied going out again for a meal.

So we decided to make do with what we could find in the supermarket.

Carrefour, if you're listening, the till system is a mess. It's all well and good having decided to do away with the three individual checkouts and put them into one row, but it's incredibly cramped, and the layout of the shop means it's pretty much impossible to know who is on what queue for what till.

We found our basics - and picked up a small baguette, a couple of tomatoes, a little cucumber, some spring onions, half a garlic sausage, and the best virgin oil we could lay hands on.

A bottle of rosé had been left at the house for us, on the orders of the woman who owns it. Which was very nice, and it had gone straight in the fridge to chill and await evening.

The tomatoes were okay, the onions were huge but hardly dramatic in terms of flavour, while the cucumber was better than most of what you'd find in such a shop a home.

The garlic sausage was moist and garlicky and pleasant. The bread was fresh and worked well drizzled with a little oil.

I tried a bowl of the same oil with some of the Balsamic in it, but that was the point at which it became clear that better vinegar would be required.

And so to this morning and my first trip to market, currently sitting in the 'canal', which is dry at this time of year, as a little fun fair is occupying the village square for the annual fête – of which much more will follow in the coming days.

First stop, a stall selling soft fruits: strawberries from Elne, with blackberries and raspberries and redcurrants. Only redcurrents didn't make it into the bag. And oh, the blackberries, the blackberries ...

Then one of my very favourite stalls, an organic one, specialising in the tomatoes I dream of between trips. A large selection was joined by a small cucumber and a melon.

Another stall, and a big bulb of rose garlic for aïoli, a vast red onion for salad and some big banana shallots for the same thing.

Heading down the ramp to the canal, Caroline came over to greet me. She has met me precisely six, brief times, over three years – and yet she remembered me the second year we self catered; the second year the market became one of the joys of the holiday.

She had lovely charcuterie as usual: at three saucisson for €10, I picked up a boar one, a 'natural' one and a fig one, plus she recommended a firm goat cheese with garlic and pepper – which packs a lovely punch.

The nearby boulangerie provided a loaf for the day and croissants for breakfast.

Eating this evening, the very simplest of salads, accompanied by bread and wine, with cheese and fruit to follow, it struck me so forcefully, yet again, that if the ingredients are top notch, you really need to do so little with it.

If last night was better than we might have expected – or hoped – then tonight was in a different league altogether.

It was quite simply simple. And quite simply glorious.