It is a mystery – albeit not, perhaps, one of Earth’s greatest – how some people view self catering.
We are, as we have been for the past six summers, in a self-catering cottage in Collioure.
On Saturday, after our overnight sleeper from Paris had pulled to a halt at the little station above the ville, we wandered down into the village, found our abode for the duration and dumped the cases, and headed out to Delice Catalans for breakfast.
A quick stock-up of basics in the little Carrefour followed – water, bog roll, kitchen paper, oil, vinegar, fromage frais and rhubarb compote (the last two combine for my breakfast) – and then it was off to the beach.
We ate out that evening: a pleasant – if not stunning – meal at Saffran Bleu, where we’d first tasted dorade some summers ago.
So why bother with self-catering? There are plenty of reasons: not least, that it is ultimately far more relaxing than having to abide by a hotel’s schedules and, of course, there is the food.
With a twice-weekly market as good as the one here, who wouldn’t want to cater for themselves – at least for part of the time?
Sunday marked this year’s first visit for produce.
First up was the usually grumpy man at the organic tomato stall, who grinned broadly, reached over the orange, green, striped, yellow and red tomatoes to shake my hand and ask how I was.
A bag of these divine fruits in hand – I really do dream about them for 13 months of the year – I headed to find Caro, who sells lovely charcuterie and regional cheeses. Fruit was added, and a campagne gris from the nearest boulangerie.
That done, it was back to the house and, with everything neatly stashed in it’s proper place, off to the beach, where Cyril had transats waiting for us.
Lunch brought with it our second chance to eat out.
This was, as per annual ritual, at St Elme, which is right behind the beach. It’s rather touristy, and I get bored of it very quickly, but for the first few days, it hits the spot.
We had steak haché with a fried egg and chips.
But it was in the evening, after we’d returned from sunning ourselves, that the problem hit: where oh where was there a knife that would cut charcuterie and tomato and fruit?
Last year, we had the lunacy of an electric bin: this year, there is not a knife in the place that will cut anything other than hot butter.
There is lashings of cutlery, a plethora of glasses and plenty of plates – but just two paring knives that could be safely given to a toddler, a small serrated knife that is hardly razor sharp, and a bread knife for ... well, bread.
Fortunately, the oversight does not extend to a bottle opener.
What sort of self-catering does that represent?
That night, we muddled through. On Monday, however, with no obvious kitchenware shop in the village, I headed to a local shop that specialises in knives and the odd samurai sword jobby; so sharp it could split a hair. I even managed a conversation with the man in the shop after he asked if it was for a present, using my pigeon French to explain the situation.
He indicated that it was a similar issue in many of the houses that are let.
Later, The Other Half put it to me that, if I was letting for the summer months, I wouldn’t leave my knives out for just anyone.
“Well no,” I observed. “My Sabatiers and Zwilling-Henckels would be under lock and key. But I’d equally make damned sure that were still solid, sharp knives around, together with something with which to sharpen them, other than a steel or the doorstep”.
I’d also ensure, come to that, that chopping boards were labeled – there’s no way of knowing which one has been used for what in previous weeks and months.
|Just two hobs (and a microwave)|
However, the Opinel allowed us to continue with our simple evening repasts of charcuterie, tomato and bread (plus rosé, of course) with much increased ease.
For lunch on Monday, we returned to St Elme, where I joyfully wolfed a plate of gambas with persillade, aïoli and frites.
On Tuesday, doing so little that the nearest we got to the beach was lunching at the back of one, we hit my beloved Au Casot, where I wolfed baby squid, with persillade, aïoli, tiny tomatoes and wafer-thin slices of roasted potato.
I haven’t relished food so much for a long time – both meals were as perfect as they could be.
And so as it turned out, Wednesday was my first night of actual cooking.
There is no oven, but just two rings on a tiny hob.
I had bought boudin Catalan – the regional, lightly spiced version of black pudding; always a treat – a tin of potatoes, a jar of haricots blanc and an onion.
The thinking was that I could cook the onion in the pan to which would, late on, be added the sliced boudin, while the beans and spuds could be cooked in another pan, in some olive oil.
That, however, had been based on an absurd assumption that a reasonably large saucepan and a frying pan would fit on the aforementioned dinky hob. Fat chance.
As I confided to The Other Half: thank goodness this hadn’t happened five years ago, because I’d have been flummoxed.
The onion thinly sliced – thanks to that rather fabulous Opinel – I let it soften gently in olive oil for some time, before adding some of the haricot blanc, drained and dried.
Heating a generous amount of olive oil in a saucepan, I drained and dried some of the potatoes and then added them to the hot oil.
After around 15 minutes, sliced boudin joined the onion and beans, and was warmed through gently for a further 10 minutes, turning the pudding slices once.
All was served with a generous dollop of sweet, grainy French mustard.
I must say, it was perfectly fine fodder – but bugger me sideways with last year’s Christmas tree, this was cooking as a challenge, in the face of ridiculous obstacles!
So I ask – what do some people imagine ‘self-catering’ means? And this in France, of all places – sacredieu!