Sunday, January 24, 2010

What's in a name ?


In case anyone should think I am permanently attached to a laptop (heaven forbid) my other overriding interest is food – in particular, the sourcing, preparation and consuming of it.

In the winter I dream of warming soups and stews; in the summer I plan meals grilled over a barbecue and served with adventurous salads. By adventurous salads, I mean something more than lettuce, tomato and cucumber, with side orders of radish and spring onions - my mother’s standard summer fare. My mum’s enterprising attempts at livening up the tea time salad might occasionally involve grating a carrot, or reincarnating the lunch time left over potatoes by covering them in a dollop of salad cream (mayonnaise was virtually unheard of). This was as adventurous as it got.

If she could see the wild assortment of ingredients that are melanged into a salad now, she would declare that “folk are better fed than taught”. It was an expression she used liberally, and to this day I can’t work out the literal sense of it, except I think she would have applied the same comment to the avid consumerism that we see in the 21st century. She would have been very contemptuous of such culinary novelties as bean and pea sprouts (Brussels were the only sort she knew, and you didn’t serve them raw, they needed boiling for at least ¾ of an hour)) awabi radish (what was the matter with French Breakfast?) and olive oil ( well that came from Boots in a small bottle and you warmed it up and dripped it into your ears to soften the wax). Our French doctor nearly fell off his chair when I told him that one.

We Brits were quite accustomed to being the butt of our continental neighbours' jokes when it came to food, and I think it gave us an unwarranted sense of inferiority. We can cook just as well as the French, and our classic regional recipes are equally as good as theirs, in fact sometimes they can be better. Where we go wrong is in the name. We are just not inventive enough.

Take the potato. Being half Irish, I adore potatoes. Were the human race to be left with nothing else but potatoes to eat, it wouldn’t bother me a bit. That’s one reason I can’t be doing with low carb weight loss plans like the Hay Diet. I’m sure it’s great, and I know people who swear by it, but I can’t face eating protein without some form of carbohydrate; I love pasta, I like rice, but I worship at the altar of the humble spud. I have yet to find a French potato that comes anywhere near a British one for texture and flavour, but we’ll skate over that.

A natural companion to potato is cheese. Both the British and the French have cottoned on to this , so we both have perfected comforting, warming dishes using these two basic ingredients.

What do we call ours? Interestingly, cheese and potato pie. And the French version? Tartiflette.

The former is mashed potato and grated cheese, beaten together with butter and milk, spread in a pie dish, topped with more grated cheese and browned in the oven. The French variant uses sliced potato, a slug of white wine (comme d’habitude)and a topping of reblochon cheese. But it isn’t common old cheese and potato pie, it’s tartiflette.

It’s a name to conjure with. It elevates cheese and potato to realms far above their station. It’s a cheeky, pert little word …. it deserves to be up in lights - Mimi Tartiflette the Parisian burlesque dancer. Or in the pages of a crime novel – Alfonse Tartiflette, the unorthodox detective from the Quai D’Orsay.

You never see ‘Cheese and Potato Pie’ on a restaurant menu in the UK and yet ‘Tartiflette’ is all over the place in France. You can even buy it in tins, or frozen, in 4- portion bags, if it’s too much effort to peel all those potatoes.

Here in Southwest France we have another cheese and potato speciality that is almost sacramental. It has to be made with a certain type of cheese – laguiole -which is produced in the Aubrac region of the Midi Pyrenees.It involves creaming mashed potato and garlic over a low heat and beating the laguiole cheese into it. This cheese and potato puree has almost mystical qualities and is known as aligot (pronounced al-ee- go) It’s also ridiculously expensive to make because of the cheese that must (on pain of death) be used … emmenthal or simlar melting cheese is a complete anathema to purists - a cantal of a certain age may be acceptable in some regions, but the whole thing is fraught with argument, as is so much in France. Like tartiflette this traditional recipe has been brought into the supermarkets in easy- cook packets; ready to warm up in plastic sachets, or dehydrated (just add warm milk) Surely that’s cheesey Smash? No, it’s aligot.

I have a theory that if we renamed our simple dishes, gave them pretty, or exotic names instead of boring titles like fish pie, or bizarre names like toad in the hole, we might get a bit more international recognition.

Tartiflette is a great lunchtime dish on a chilly day, so here’s the recipe:

I should really say ‘Here is one of many recipes for tartiflette.

For six to eight people you will need:

About 750 gs of potatoes (peeled)
A large onion (chopped)
A 250 pkt lardoons
A glass of dry white wine
A round of reblochon cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

The ingredients are universally accepted as being correct. The method differs from cook to cook, so here’s how I do it.

Cook the potatoes whole, in lightly salted water, for about ten minutes. They should still be quite firm as they are going to be cooked again. Drain and when they are cool enough to handle, slice into not-too- thin slices.

Melt some butter into a frying pan, and fry the onion and potatoes together until lightly browned, add the lardons and enough wine to simmer the potatoes for a few minutes without boiling dry. Drink the rest of the wine… point in trying to put it back into the bottle. That's one of my rules of life.

Gently spoon the onion- potato- lardon- mixture into a large gratin dish. Cut the reblochon in half through the middle, and (this is where there is some dispute) either place the two halves of cheese rind side up or down on top of the potatoes.

Cover with some baking foil and cook in a hot oven (200c) for half an hour or so. It’s an easy-going dish, so timing isn’t crucial.

Next blog ..... France's deep and lasting relationship with cheese and potatoes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Procrastination is the Thief of Time

Well the snow has gone, from the towns and villages at least, although there is still enough on the mountains to keep the skiers happy.

I’ve a touch of the January- post- Christmas blues. January has to be the worst month of the year, although when the sun does put in an appearance it’s got quite a lot of power in it. Unfortunately when you live in an old house, the walls are thick, which is fine for keeping the worst of the cold out, but it also means that sometimes it’s warmer in the garden than in the kitchen.

The kitchen is my writing/cooking/web-surfing sanctuary, consequently I spend many daylight hours wandering from computer to cooker, to coffee pot, but last week it was so cold in there (despite the radiator devouring electricity units at an alarming rate) that writing became a real chore. Cold rooms and writing seem to go together; the most successful writers have all shivered in bed sits, writing in a top coat and mittens. JK Rowling apparently wrote a lot of the first Harry Potter book sitting in a coffee shop because it saved on the fuel bills… she must have made a cup of coffee last an awfully long time. The delightful Marion Keynes writes on her laptop, snuggled up under the duvet. I’ve tried that and it’s almost impossible - the laptop keeps sliding all over the bed.

Not only do my fingers freeze up, so does my brain. I can’t concentrate on serious writing. In an effort to make it look as if I was actually working last week, I decided to spend the time by doing some earnest Googling in the name of research. I’d got several writing requests sitting in my inbox which were going to require some dedicated exploration, and web page clicking wasn’t going to be as bone -chilling as having to relentlessly type on a cold keyboard.

As those of you who try to earn a crust by writing will know, anything that distracts us from actually having to sit down and face a blank Word document is a gift from God. Search engines are both a blessing and a curse, and I really ought to have a parental block installed on my laptop to prevent me accessing internet auction sites, and other people’s blogs.

I decided to have a browse around the camera category of Ebay. I have talked myself into the notion that I really need a camera of my very own, rather than having to struggle with the all- singing- all dancing one belonging to Captain Sensible. There are times when even he can’t make it behave, so what chance have I got?

Anyway I had a lovely afternoon surfing comparison sites, reading camera reviews, most of which went right over my head, and the next afternoon deciding which one I was going to bid on, and the next afternoon clicking back and forth to the Ebay site, to make sure I hadn’t been outbid.

So I actually wasted three afternoons, bought myself a camera, and discovered nothing about black truffles which had been the point of all that Googling.

I’m going to google ‘Perigord Truffles’ when I finish this blog. That will be a disaster, because the devilish Google will lead me off down the path of foodie sites, French truffle producers sites, and any blogs that happen to have the words Perigord truffles buried in their pages.

I’m putting some of Captain S’s photos on this page, just to cheer everyone up and prove that his bells- and-whistles camera can be persuaded to take good pictures when it’s in the mood. We had an autumn break in Pau last year. Pau is a lovely city right on the edge of the Pyrenees. It’s only 50 miles from us- we get less adventurous as we get older! Lots of people only know Pau as a destination on the Ryanair website, which is a shame as it’s well worth a visit, with great views, an elegant castle and some smart shops.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snowed In

Well, at last we have snow. You have no idea the guilt that is experienced down here when we see weather forecasts and news reports from the UK showing snowdrifts and chaos.

Ours arrived on Thursday, we were expecting family but we got snow instead. Gatwick wasn't going anywhere so all the food I had in the fridge is either in the freezer or us.

The village has been a fairy-tale for three days, but somehow snow is wasted on the over- thirties. It looks lovely (from the window), especially this afternoon as the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but I'm so pleased the road is thawing, and the pavements almost clear. The up-side is that all the runs on the ski stations must be open by now, and that's got to be good for the tourist trade.

The forecast is for warmer weather on the way, so I guess by next weekend our snow will be nothing more than a memory and some photos. Which is fine by me. It's not an age thing - I was a complete wimp when I was kid. I hated going to school in the snow. The boys would have always made the most deadly slide in the playground (rivalling the Cresta Run)and it always seemed to be across the school entrance, so impossible to avoid; I hated being hit by snowballs and I hated wet gloves so much I never made any ammunition to fire back. I was terrified of slipping over on the ice on the way home in case someone saw me and laughed ... all in all I was a proper party pooper in the snow.

The saving grace was frozen milk. Free school milk (pre Thatcher) was delivered in crates containing glass bottles of,I guess, a quarter of a pint, with a cardboard top which you normally pierced with your thumb to enable you to stick a straw into the bottle. In a hard winter the cream which rose to the top conveniently froze and often half-pushed the top off ...dead hygienic! To us simple, post-war kids it was just like ice cream(Mr Whippy had yet to arrive). Of course, conversely the milk in summer was either warm, or in a very hot summer,going off. There is an upside and a downside to everything in life.

Strangely I don't ever recall the school closing during a particularly hard spell. I'm sure if it had I would have remembered it. It would have been the answer to a prayer for a snowaphobic like me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A British Invasion

When it comes to gastronomy, we Brits have done ourselves down for generations. We seem to have been quite happy to smile wryly and admit to boiling vegetables to death and making lumpy gravy.

On the other hand, the French have shouted their culinary prowess from the rooftops. Well, in the rarefied atmosphere of Michelin- starred kitchens, that is. Privately, some French food-watchers have been having doubts about France’s hallowed position as the gastronomic leaders of the world.

Tradition is all in France, and when French chefs are invited to share their culinary secrets to the outside world via the tv, to those of us raised on the antipodean madness of the Galloping Gourmet, the dearly missed and totally unpredictable Keith Floyd, or the globe-trotting Rick Stein, French cookery programmes are… well, boring.

The biggest French tv channel, TF1, has realised this, and it’s bought the rights to the Beebs 20 year- old ‘MasterChef.’ And they’re not slotting it into the whiling-away- an- afternoon OAP schedules, it’s going out on prime time. TF1 have, with typical Gallic modesty, described it as the most important amateur cookery competition in France and they’re backing up their claim with a cool €100,00 for the winner.

TF1 aren’t the first French channel to recognise the pulling-power of cookery as popular entertainment. Channel 4’s Come Dine with Me ( or Un Diner Presque Parfait) - which has to be the biggest exercise in culinary one-up-manship even seen on tv - has been a huge success for the French channel M6 - attracting two million viewers for each programme. Believe me, for French tv this is mega audience numbers.

Previously, French cookery programmes, such as Bon Appétit Bien Sûr, have been deadly serious - a cross between Phillip Harben and Fanny Craddock. Fanny would have gone down well with the French, dressed as for a night at the opera, and with just the right amount of contemptuous froideur to traumatise amateur cooks for life.

Now, even a would-be Jamie Oliver has burst onto the French culinary stage. Cyril Lignac presents a show called ‘Oui Chef’, which is loosely modelled on ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’ and the cutely named ‘Vive la Cantine’ which somehow sounds much sexier than ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’.

Francois Simon, restaurant crtic for the iconic Le Figaro has to admit that British cookery progammes are tapping into the need for the French, particularly the younger amateur cooks, to try something more cosmopitan, adventurous and above all simple.

French food, thanks to Britain’s proliference of inovative cooks is being de-mystified.

M. Simon has reservations about one of our chefs going down that well in France, however. Gordon Ramsey, for some reason, would be unlikely to have a fan base in France. I wonder why?