A few hours before we set off for France, a colleague, who is at least as passionate about food and cooking as me, asked if I was taking any recipes on holiday.
He seemed surprised when I said that no, nothing was packed.
Three years ago, I did sit on the beach with Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking as reading material, but I didn’t really cook from it.
Indeed, as I explained to the said colleague, I had no recipes with me because we tend to eat out at lunch and then sup on charcuterie, bread, tomatoes and wine in the evening.
He agreed that, given the quality of such simple foods, nobody would want to do much else.
But the best laid plans etc …
That was all well and good when that was still our core eating plan, but partly because St Elme has been less inspiring that on previous holidays, we’ve continued lunching on the beach from Cyril’s café, and then I’ve been cooking more at the house in the evening.
As it happens, I’d bought a small book of Catalan dishes within 24 hours of being in Collioure – and a magazine of seasonal French recipes only a few days later. So I had plenty of material for inspiration.
As it happened, two of the three dishes I’m going to describe didn’t need any magazine – although the third was a pretty accurate version of one (I can read a French recipe, in French!).
On Saturday, heading back from the beach, we popped into the alimentation.
There, at the little butcher’s counter, was a single duck breast. But at almost 400g, it was enough for the two of us.
The duck turned out to be real magret de canard duck – by which I mean that apparently it should be breast from a duck that’s been reared for foie gras.
It was dried with kitchen paper and then the skin scored and salted.
Into a hot frying pan it went, cooked for six minutes, skin side down, with the liquid fat drained off into a deep saucepan.
Turn and cook for a further seven minutes.
After which, it was popped onto a plate, covered with foil and placed into a warmed oven to rest.
Next, a spot of improv.
I deglazed the pan with two miniatures of Banyuls, the local dessert wine, which happened to be in the fridge, and then added a knob of butter – there was no flour in the house, so this thickened the sauce a little as well as giving it a gloss.
Into this went a punnet of blackberries that was also in the fridge.
Cooked down a little, they were crushed into the sauce.
In the meantime, the potatoes were taken out of their vacuum packing, rinsed and drained and dried on more kitchen paper, before being cut into thick slices.
Here, the duck fat came into its own. The potato slices were popped in – ouch! The spitting! – and cooked until just golden, before being served with a sprinkling of fleur de sel that I had found doing its best to hide away in the back of a draw.
These were then served with the duck, sliced in the traditional fashion and with a good portion of the blackberry and Banyuls sauce.
It proved to be a very tasty meal indeed.
And all from a tiny ‘corner shop'!
Chicken breast, bought on Sunday at the boucherie, was marinaded for an hour in minced garlic, the juice of three limes and some paprika.
In the meantime, a dish was prepared with a large halved tomato, and slices of courgette, all spritzed with oil and topped with more minced garlic, combined this time with breadcrumbs (made by hand-chopping Sunday’s left-over bread, since there is no processor here).
Then this went into the oven, with the chicken (and marinade, plus a glug of oil) in its own dish alongside.
It had 20 minutes – and then another 10 because that was required.
The courgette slices were piled into neat heaps alongside a tomato half, and the chicken was napped with the juices it had been cooked in.
The only other things required were the usual rosé and bread, with dipping oil/vinegar.
But my pièce de résistance (so far) was fish again – which is particularly pleasing, given my historic struggles with cooking seafood.
It was the market on Sunday morning. Only one of the fish stalls was present, and it didn’t have a large selection of fish.
More to the point, there was no monkfish.
I’d had this in mind, since we’d been given a big bag of tomatoes by a couple who live across the street (friends of the woman who owns the house).
It was a kind gesture, but left me with a surfeit. So I was thinking of something like monkfish, baked with lashings of tomatoes.
Bearing in mind The Other Half’s fish limits, I was drawn to a fillet of white fish labeled ‘lieu’. I had no idea what it was, but it looked a tad like cod. So in incredibly French fashion, I bought a piece.
Later, Google being my friend, I discovered that it was pollack. Which I have never cooked.
So what to do?
I set the oven to 150˚C and liberally oiled a baking dish.
The fillet was cut into two, laid in the dish and gently seasoned.
On top went a further drizzle of oil, three anchovies and three black luque olives.
And then the dish went in the oven. It had about 13 minutes in total (I checked after 10) and then was served with a tomato concasse – three tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and diced, seasoned and dressed with virgin oil, and garnished with shredded basil.
Of course, there was also fresh bread, with oil and Balsamico to dip, and a slice of lemon on the side.
And, if I say so myself, it was pretty damned good.