Friday, 29 May 2009

Thank you…


This morning, I woke to a wonderful surprise. Lady P, châtelaine of , has given me a Lovely Blog award. Do go and visit her in her delightful, thoughtful world of colour, cupcakes and whimsy.

I hardly imagined, when I began my blog a couple of months ago, how much fun it would be sharing my recipes. It still amazes me that I can cook something, shoot it, post it and - while it’s still cooling on the counter - I might get a comment about it from places as far away from my North London kitchen as Australia or America. For an instant gratification kid like me, it’s thrilling.

I’m supposed to pass the love around and nominate favourite blogs of my own. I’ll do that in a few days but for now, I was trying to think of a way to say thank you to Lady P. She lives near Seattle so I thought a cup of coffee might be appropriate. This isn’t just any cup of coffee, but the best cup of coffee in London, possibly the world. I’m not kidding. It was made by Gwilym Davies who sells coffee from a cart in our local flower market every Sunday morning and in April he was crowned World Barista Champion in Atlanta. It seems like a suitable gift for a Lady.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

What the doctor ordered

Just spreading the chocolate

Want to know what we had after the squid? Last week, I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Moro which culminated in a slice of the most irresistibly seductive apricot and chocolate tart. I thought about it all evening. I thought about it as I walked the dog the next morning, running through its finer qualities rather as you might after a date with a meltingly wicked lover. It was calling my name and I wasn’t playing hard to get. Back at the house, I’d hardly unhooked the hound from his lead before I pulled my copy of Moro The Cookbook down from the shelves.

My sister-in-law’s visit was the perfect opportunity to reacquaint ourselves. (That little tart and I, I mean, not me and my sister-in-law. We’re quite well acquainted.) Clare is a mountain-climbing-scuba-diving-fell-walking-cycling-to-work-triathlon-training-bastion-of-self-restraint hospital doctor. But I know her weakness and it’s chocolate. Chocolate. Say it, and her eyes light up like her brother’s do on the first Saturday of the football season.

Apricot and chocolate tart

Served with creme fraiche

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee from the melting, buttery shortbreadyness of your crust to the tart-sweet shimmer of your apricot sea. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height your dark, mousse-y chocolate crown can reach. And I shall but love thee better after dinner. (With many, many apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is most certainly spinning in her grave as I type this.)

I was excited to try this recipe because, though I’ve read about grating pastry instead of rolling it out, I’ve never tried it. Also, though it needs a little blind baking, you don’t need to line it with parchment and baking beans first. This was so straightforward and the results so good, I’ll definitely use this shell for other sweet tarts.

Grated pastry

Press down evenly

Ready to blind bake

In Moro The Cookbook, the apricot layer is a simple, concentrated purée but when I ate it at the restaurant last week, it had pieces of apricot in it too. It was a good addition, I thought, so I’ve added a small handful here. You could leave them out if you wish. It would still be heaven.

For the case:
140g plain flour
30g icing sugar
75g chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk

For the filling:
180g apricot leather (see NOTE for alternative), cut into smallish squares
About 8-10 dried apricots, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes or so to plump up and then cut into sixths
4-5 tbsps water
2 tbsps lemon juice
135g unsalted butter
110g dark chocolate, about 70%, broken up into small pieces
2 large eggs
60g caster sugar

Sift the flour and sugar together. In a food processor or by hand, blend the butter with the flour and sugar until you have the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and mix until it more or less comes together. If it looks a little dry, add a tiny splash of milk or water. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Using the coarse side of a box grater, grate the pastry into a loose-bottomed 24cm tart tin and press it evenly around the bottom and sides of the tin. Prick the base with a fork and pop it in the fridge for half an hour or so. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas mark 7. Bake the tart shell for 10-15 minutes until light brown. Remove and cool on a rack while you prepare the rest. Reduce the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.

Apricot layer

Chocolate layer

Finished tart

Place the apricot paste in a saucepan over a low heat with the water and lemon juice and stir until you have a smooth paste. Spread the apricot on the base of the tart shell and leave to cool until it forms a slight skin – it should wrinkle a bit when you push it with your finger.

While the apricot is cooling, place the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water (the water shouldn’t touch the bottom of the bowl). When the chocolate has melted, whisk the eggs and sugar together in a separate bowl until pale, light and fluffy. Fold the eggs and chocolate together, pour into the tart shell and smooth with a spatula. Bake for 20-25 minutes – the filling should still have a bit of wobble to it and a very thin crust on top when you take it out. I’d be tempted to start checking it after 15 minutes as I took mine out after 20 minutes and it was a little firmer than the one I’d enjoyed in the restaurant. Serve with Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche.



Apricot leather or paste - labelled as ‘amradeen’ or ‘kamaredin’ in Middle Eastern or Turkish shops - is a warm, glowing amber with the translucence of a stained glass window. It’s as delicious as it is beautiful and it’s used in all kinds of recipes, from drinks, puddings and ice creams to lamb stews and dishes of grilled aubergine. During Ramadan, it’s sometimes served before and after the day-long fast.

If you can’t get hold of apricot leather, Sam and Sam West of Moro suggest using 180g of dried apricots instead. Simply chop them very finely then tip them into a saucepan with 4-5 tbsps of water and 2 tbsps of lemon juice and simmer for about 5 minutes until very soft. Purée in blender. You want a mixture that tastes slightly tart to provide the perfect foil for the rich chocolate layer.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Love me, tentacles

Stuffed baby squid

Are there any Freudian practitioners in the house? If so, could I trouble you to turn off the meter for a few minutes and not read too much into the fact that I’ve created two consecutive posts about stuffing things? I’m working on the principle that putting one delicious thing inside another delicious thing is a passport to heaven and I promise it goes no deeper than that. (Of course, this theory doesn’t really have legs. Passionfruit with chicken livers, avocado with cherry jam, melon with ox cheek don’t really appeal unless you’re a tiresomely experimental show-off chef stuck in some kind of 1980s gustatory hell.)

My wonderful sister-in-law Clare is down from Yorkshire for the night and we’ve persuaded our friend Sara Ellen to come over and join us too. It’s hot. The cats are passed out on the terrace, gently baking themselves by the pots of rosemary and mint. The dog is binge drinking his favourite sundowner cocktail: dirty water from a bucket rather than the fresh water in his bowl. I’ve pushed open the doors to the garden to give me a little air as I chop and fry and spoon green-speckled filling into tiny, pearl-fleshed squid.

Squid stuffed with spinach and ricotta

Remember to remove the toothpick...

It's all in the stuffing

Serves 4-6

2 tbsps olive oil
A small knob of unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
About 1kg of small squid, cleaned, tentacles and wings reserved
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
A good few handfuls of baby spinach (a 250g bag would be perfect)
250g ricotta
3 hard-boiled eggs, quite finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
75g pine nuts, toasted
1x400g tin of tomatoes or 400ml passata
About 125ml white wine
3 tbsps chopped parsley
About half a dozen basil leaves
A few grinds of nutmeg
A good pinch of chilli flakes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Lemon wedges to serve




And stuff

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and gently sauté the onion until soft and translucent, about 10-15 minutes. While they’re cooking, finely chop the tentacles and wings from the squid. When the onions are done, add the chopped squid and garlic to the pan and sauté for a minute. Next, add the spinach and stir until wilted (you might have to do a handful or so at a time). Put a sieve over a bowl and strain the spinach-squid mixture, reserving the liquid. Let the mixture cool.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, chopped egg, beaten egg and pine nuts. Season well with a good pinch of salt, plenty of pepper, a few grinds of nutmeg and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. Fold in the cooled spinach and squid. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Use a teaspoon to fill the squids’ bodies with the stuffing, taking care not to overfill them as they expand a bit while cooking. Seal each little body with a toothpick. (At this point, they bore a rather striking resemblance to the sheeps’ testicles which are a great favourite at our local Turkish restaurant. I tried not to let this put me off.) Place them in a single layer in a large, ovenproof dish.

Nearly ready for the oven

Purée the tinned tomatoes and mix them with the reserved liquid from the spinach and the wine. Season well with salt and pepper, a little nutmeg, a pinch of chilli flakes and three or four big leaves of basil, finely chopped. Pour over the stuffed squid, cover with a lid or foil and bake for 45 minutes, removing the cover for the last 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with basil and with lemon wedges on the side. We ate ours with roasted asparagus and lots of rice to soak up the lovely sauce.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Get stuffed…

Mini aubergines

One of the most joyful things about being a cook is that the smallest discoveries delight you. A special find can make your day. And these days that’s just as well, with our glorious Mother of Parliaments looking like crack whore, spewing out less than Honourable Members hell bent on venally redefining shamelessness in a way that makes Katie Price look like a particularly devout Amish sister.

As I walked past the little Indian green grocers on our high street, I was thrilled to see a crate of gorgeous, fat baby aubergines. So pretty and tempting, I couldn’t resist picking up a few handfuls, along with a bundle of perky curry leaves. When I went inside to pay, the gently smiling woman at the till explained to me how she stuffed them and baked them and it sounded delicious. Just the thing for dinner.

To be honest, our sharing of this recipe was largely done in the international language of mime and point. And I was delayed in writing it down as my short trip home became rather protracted due to it taking me 30 minutes to pay a cheque into the bank. (HSBC Stoke Newington High Street – one working teller and a seemingly permanently broken paying-in machine at 3.15pm, are you sure? No, I don’t want to buy travel insurance in Turkish, investigate an ISA, arrange to purchase a house within the framework of Shariah law, stock up on travellers’ cheques - I just want to GIVE. YOU. MY. MONEY. PLEASE. I’ve stood in shorter, more cheerful queues when I lived in Soviet Russia.)

So I hope I remembered it accurately. I probably didn’t, but it was good. And - note to Members of Parliament everywhere - I paid for it all myself. You should try it sometime.

Stuffed aubergines

Stuffed aubergines

Gosh, I sound a bit cross today. I’m probably just hungry…

I didn’t have any chillies – an uncharacteristic oversight on my part – and they would have been good in this dish. But given my present state of mind, I probably don’t need the extra heat.

Serves 4 as a main course

3 tbsps groundnut oil
A dozen or so small aubergines
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 onions, halved and finely sliced
2-3 curry leaves
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 mild, green chilli, deseeded and chopped (optional, depending on your state of mind)
A small ‘thumb’ of ginger, peeled and finely grated or minced
3-4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely grated or minced
About a small teacupful of desiccated, unsweetened coconut
3-4 large, juicy tomatoes, grated (see TIP)
A small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few more for garnishing


Spices Cumin, cardamom and mustard seeds

Poppadoms Poppadommmmmmmm

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.

Cut the aubergines from their bases to their tips and cut them again crossways, being careful not to cut all the way through the skin – you want a cross-shaped cut which allows you to open them up a bit. Warm 2tbsps of the oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the aubergines for five minutes or so until they soften and browned a little. Put to one side to cool while you prepare the stuffing.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the mustard seeds for a minute or so until they start to pop. Add the onions and sauté them until they soften and turn a rich, golden brown. (Unlike most European dishes, where we cook onions until they’re soft, sweet and translucent, lots of the flavour in Indian dishes comes from caramelising the onions.) Stir in the curry leaves, cumin, ground coriander, chilli (if you’re not as cross as me and you can take the heat), ginger and garlic and a good pinch of salt. Stir and cook for a few minutes until all of the onions are well coated. Add the coconut and tomatoes and stir until thickened a bit, then stir in the chopped coriander. Taste, and add a bit more salt if it needs it. Stuff each of the aubergines with a couple of spoonfuls of the filling and line them up in an ovenproof dish. Cover tightly with foil or a lid and bake for 50-60 minutes. We ate ours with basmati rice, minty raita and black pepper poppadoms. I feel more cheerful just typing that.

10, 9, 8, 7......My little flotilla of aubergines, about to be launched into the oven

Look, I spend very few unhappy moments in the kitchen, but almost all of them have involved skinning tomatoes. Chopping onions? Mincing chillies? Gutting fish? No problem. Pile ‘em up. But tomatoes. All that cutting of crosses, boiling of water and preparing of ice baths seems a bit too like some kind of arcane pagan ritual to me. I mean, I just want to eat them, not sacrifice them on the altar of gastronomy. These days, I mostly grate them unless I’m doing something very refined. Just press a ripe tomato against the coarse side of a box grater and grate away – you get all of the pulpy flesh and, as you press, the skin is left at the end all ready for you to discard. And what’s a few seeds between friends, particularly on a week night?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Happy birthday Luca, with love from Auntie D x

The birthday cake
The glorious day has dawned. My lovely godson Luca - thinker, bicycle speed merchant, keen gardener and chocolate connoisseur - is no longer ‘Nearly five!’, he’s really five. Every year, I make his birthday cake, a tradition I plan to continue long after baked offerings from his Auntie D will embarrass his cool, adult self.
I’ve just got back from France, so no time this year for elaborate confections of imaginative shape and refined decoration. Instead, I majored on chocolate, one of Luca’s favourite things in the world, along with frogs, cars and water pipes.
I looked for inspiration to Annie Bell’s fab Gorgeous Cakes and adapted her Chocolate Sensation recipe for the occasion, with the creamy filling for her Birthday Angel Smartie Cake in place of the richer filling she advocates for the rather refined and adult original. Also, I love the combination of raspberries and chocolate. I hope Luca and his friends at the Pirate House will too, or I’ll be walking the gangplank by dusk…
Luca’s birthday cake
There are lots of things I love about Annie’s simple-to-make but impressive-to-eat cake. The buttermilk, vinegar and bicarb combination makes it wonderfully light for a start. Also, the easy, pourable icing takes minutes to make and looks wonderfully glossy on the cake. In her grown-up version, she dips amaretti biscuits into melted chocolate for decoration – a delicious and sophisticated final flourish.

For the cake: 180g unsalted butter, softened
450g caster sugar
3 eggs
400g plain flour, sifted
340ml buttermilk
1 ½ tsp sea salt
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
75g cocoa powder, sifted
1 ½ tbsps raspberry vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the filling: 300g mascarpone
130g raspberry jam (I like St Dalfour jams – 100% fruit sweetened only with concentrated grape juice. They’re intensely fruity and taste like the best homemade.)
For the icing: 350g chocolate, for Luca’s cake I used 64%, but for an adult version I’d probably go for something of 70% or more
70g unsalted butter
2 tbsps espresso, or strong black coffee (optional)
For decoration: Smarties, of course
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Butter three 22cm/9in cake tins with removable bases and line the bases with circles of baking parchment. Butter the paper.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer until very light and fluffy – about 6 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition and scraping down the bowl after each egg. Stir in the flour in three stages, alternating with the buttermilk and ending with the last batch of flour (flour/buttermilk/flour/buttermilk/flour). Add the salt, vanilla extract and cocoa. In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar and bicarb – it will fizz quite a bit - then add this to the batter too. Divide the mixture equally between the three tins, smooth gently with a spatula and bake for 20-25 minutes until the cakes shrink from the sides slightly and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the middle come out clean. Leave to cool for 10 minutes then turn the cakes out onto a wire rack, remove the paper and cool completely.
Second coatSecond coat
While the cakes are cooling, make the filling by beating together the mascarpone and raspberry jam until smooth. Chill slightly. When the cakes are completely cool, sandwich them together with the creamy mixture.
To make the icing, melt together half of the chocolate and butter in a small pan over a low heat, stirring until smooth, the stir in a tablespoon of the coffee if you’re using it. Put the cake on a rack and pour over the icing, smoothing it over the sides with a palette knife as you go. Leave it to set for an hour and then repeat with the remaining half of the ingredients, this time pouring over the icing and smoothing it onto the cake as lightly as possible with the palette knife to ensure a nice, glossy coating. Arrange the Smarties over the top and leave for another hour to set. Transfer to a cake plate or board. If you like, you can store the cake in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple of days, but bring it back up to room temperature for half an hour before serving.
Five! The birthday boy.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Cake is my drogue of choice

Yogurt Cake

Ever since we began coming here four years ago, I never feel like I’m really ‘here’ unless - on some pretext, real or invented - I’ve visited the Droguerie Centrale. In part, I’m fascinated by the word, droguerie. Why? And why not the rather beautiful quincaillerie, which also means hardware store. Perhaps once upon a time, in among the carpet beaters, mousetraps, rolling pins, watering cans, fly swatters and bottles of turpentine, there was a corner devoted to medications too? If so, it’s the only thing they no longer seem to stock.

Droguerie, Agde

This year, my pretext is cake, yoghurt cake to be precise - a phrase which, when uttered to any French person, is almost guaranteed to elicit tales of visits to a favourite auntie’s house, after school snacks and many, many suggestions on how to make it. I love its simplicity. A French yoghurt pot holds 125ml (half an American cup measure, I think). Once you’ve measured out the yoghurt, you wash and dry the pretty glass jar and then use it to measure the rest of your ingredients.

So I had my inspiration but what I didn’t have was a tin. A simple question, you’d think, ‘I’m looking for a tin to bake a yoghurt cake in’? It took Monsieur Droguerie Centrale about five minutes to introduce me to his full range. ‘You have the classic, then non stick - here’s a round one, or a loaf tin. Or perhaps the kind with the loose bottom, then you have this one, which is a simple tin but with the insert you can also use it to bake baba au rhum, and this one, you can also use to make a charlotte.’ I followed him around the tiny shop, trying not to trip over a plastic sack of corks the size of a bean bag, a towering Pisa of colourful buckets ... all the time trying to drag French cake tin vocabulary from the baking recess of my brain.

In the end, I decided on a Pyrex loaf-shaped dish because, today, I quite like the idea of fat little slices of cake rather than wedges, and I thought I could also probably make terrines in it too. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Droguerie inside deepDroguerie inside

Yoghurt cake

You can make a plain cake, which will certainly be delicious. But I had some lovely, fat sultanas and pine nuts from the market in the cupboard and I wanted to use them. I soaked the sultanas in some Earl Grey for half an hour or so before adding them, which isn’t essential but I like it. You could also, very happily, use simple vegetable oil instead of the olive oil, but I think olive oil gives it a slightly less sweet, more perfumed flavour which I like. If you prefer, orange zest would be lovely in place of the lemon.

1 pot of whole milk yoghurt
2 pots of caster sugar
3 pots of plain flour
1 sachet (11g) of baking powder
A good pinch of salt
2 eggs
½ pot of good, fruity extra virgin olive oil
Zest of a small lemon
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 pot sultanas (soaked in Earl Grey if you like)
½ pot pine nuts
A little butter for greasing the tin

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Lightly grease a cake tin about 24cm diameter by 6cm high, or, as I did, a Pyrex dish about 30cmx6cmx6cm. Line the base with baking parchment and butter the paper.


I like the way that the sugar came in a ‘milk’ carton. It makes it very easy to measure out the exact amount.

In the mix

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and then stir in the yoghurt and olive oil until well combined. Pour the liquid into the flour mixture, beating gently and thoroughly with a wooden spoon as you go until everything is well combined. Fold in the zest, vanilla extract, sultanas and pine nuts. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for about 25-30 minutes until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. (I overcooked mine a bit. I’m not sure if it was the Pyrex or the strange oven which cooks slightly hotter than mine at home – tant pis, it was still delish.) Cool in the tin for 5 minutes and then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Baking powder

Sometimes, when I’m abroad, I’ll buy ingredients just because their packaging looks pretty. In this case, I actually did need this baking powder for my cake…

Scrap table

I was VERY excited to find this pretty little table dumped by the rubbish outside of a neighbouring house. It’s the kind of modest, distressed little thing which would cost a rather distressing fortune in a London shop. I dragged it into the house, gave it a good scrub and now it’s sitting happily under the window – the perfect place to rest a cup of tea, read a book, write a postcard..

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Market day

Wednesday night, I go to bed with that unsettled, excited feeling of a child on the eve of her birthday, or Christmas, or some much-longed-for trip to the seaside. Tomorrow is market day.

However early I get up, however quickly I shower and dress, by the time I stroll down the narrow lane to the Place du Jeu de Ballon, the market is already busy. The best tables at the Café Plazza are crammed with whiskery men, gossiping over their breakfast glasses of rouge, and brisk women in neat skirts and neater haircuts, full baskets at their feet and small dogs, some kind of Yorkshire terrier or Westie usually, on their laps. Other dogs – rangy, muscly scruffy spaniels, hounds and herding dogs - wander the market with the glint of the hills in their eyes, a reminder (along with the stall selling knives so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at them) that this is hunting country.

A sea of handles Lovely wooden pessle & morters All together now.....

The upper part of the market nearest our house is where you go to buy everything from Marseilles soap to cheap toys, straw bags in a hundred colours, underwear for all tastes and sizes- vamp to vieillarde, huge bottles of bleach, corkscrews, salad spinners, plastic buckets and olive wood bowls. It’s May, so the stalls next to the library are carpeted with trays of geraniums, heliotrope and verbena which, in a few weeks, will tumble down from window boxes like flags hung above the narrow, winding streets. One stall sells pots of tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans and courgettes destined for potagers and, ultimately, cooking pots across the town and its surrounding villages.

Herbs galore Boxed, ready to go

But the most exciting part of the market lies a short walk along the rue de l’Amour to the Place Gambetta. Here, you could gather cheeses, charcuterie, sourdough loaves, sparkly-eyed fish, oysters, asparagus and gariguette strawberries until your basket scraped the ground under the weight of all that deliciousness. And I have done just that - in summers, when we’ve had a houseful - but it’s spring and I have to keep reminding myself that we are but four.

Lots of asparagus Yum, tripe"Who you lookin' at?"

Only in France...

Ok, so this last picture I’m throwing in as my little weekend plaisanterie. The woman who runs the leather purses and wallets stall now has a little sideline in canine and feline fashion, modelled coquettishly by her silky Yorkie, who trots along the stall demonstrating what all the best pooches will be wearing this summer (except mine).

Market mussels with merguez

I had in my head a dish for dinner which involves frying chorizo and clams together but - in the best tradition of market shopping - my plans were thwarted by a lack of clams. And chorizo. I had to make it up as I went along – mussels instead of clams and merguez instead of chorizo. It was pretty good. So good, in fact, we all dived in before I had a chance to take a picture, so you’ll have to trust me that it looked good too.

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
4 merguez sausages, about the size of a long, fat index finger, cut into chunks
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and diced
About half a bottle of white wine
1.5 – 2kg fresh mussels, cleaned
About 80g crème fraîche
1 spring onion, white and pale green part only, finely chopped
1 handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices

In a large, lidded saucepan, gently heat the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the chunks of merguez and fry until they release their spicy, red fat and take on some colour. Scoop them out of the pan and set aside. Add the onions and lower the temperature a bit. Sauté until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for a further minute, then add the tomatoes and fry until pulpy and soft. Pour in the white wine, raise the temperature a bit and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the mussels. Put the lid on the pan and cook, rattling the pan a couple of times, until the mussels have opened (discard any which do not), about 3-4 minutes. Strain the sauce into a clean pan (keep the mussels warm, in their existing pan with the lid on), bring to the boil, remove from the heat and whisk in the creme fraiche until smooth, then stir in the parsley and spring onion. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve the mussels in warmed bowls with the sauce ladled over the top – with lots of good bread to mop up the juices.

The market pictures here are a mere hors d’oeuvre. Séan took lots more so, if you’d like a second helping, he put together a little film which you can view here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The archer, the baker, the vinaigrette maker

Lunch laid out

We’re staying in a house built into what remains of the metre-thick walls of the Twelfth Century town hall. The steep, narrow staircase to the terrace is carved out of city’s ancient ramparts, complete with arrow slits where Languedocien archers kept watch over the plain towards Sète and the sea. In the 1600s, less grandly, it became the stables of the Maison d’Estella, home to the Counts of Agde. You can still see the archway in the kitchen, beneath which the Count’s horses nudged and snuffled. Later still, in the Eighteenth Century, it became a boulangerie.

C18 baker's oven

The Eighteenth Century baker’s oven, from the days when the house was the local boulangerie.

Half an arch

The archway, a reminder that the pretty sitting room was once home to the Counts’ horses.

Candle'd arrow-slit

An arrow slit in the wall on the way up to the terrace.

When we opened up the house, it smelled bosky, musty, slightly foxy, the centuries of damp creeping into the stones over the winter, claiming back the sleeping house. Today, after a couple of days, it smells of coffee and garlic, fried onions and the pot of basil sitting on the kitchen counter. I bought some ‘room cleansing’ incense cones from the man in the market who, when the days are hot and slow, takes a nap behind his stall, his cinnamon mutt stretched out beside him on the warm pavement.

Radish, salt & butter

I haven’t cooked much. I’ve arranged pâtés, saucissons and cheeses on the heavy chopping board, laid out radishes with butter and crunchy sea salt, steamed a bit of asparagus, roasted a chicken, tossed a few heads of lettuce in mustardy dressing. So I’m embarrassed. All I have to offer you is vinaigrette.

Steaming asparagus

Salami & Medjool dates


This is my basic, everyday vinaigrette. Sometimes I mash a small clove of garlic into the salt before whisking it into the vinegar; sometimes – to go with steamed artichokes, for example - I leave the vinegar out all together and use lemon juice instead; often, depending on what I’m serving, I stir in some freshly chopped herbs at the end.

1 tbsp white or red wine vinegar, or cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
A good pinch of sea salt
3 tbsps olive oil

Whisk together the vinegar, mustard and salt until the salt has dissolved - salt won’t dissolve once you add the oil, so if you don’t you’ll be left with crunchy crystals in your dressing. Slowly trickle in the oil, whisking as you go, until you have a beautiful, silky emulsion. When I dress lettuce, I spoon the smallest amount of vinaigrette into the bottom of the bowl and then turn over the leaves gently with my hands until everything glistens with the merest slick of oil. It’s just not very kind to overwhelm sprightly young leaves with too much vinaigrette. If you wish, dress them sparingly and serve extra vinaigrette in a little jug on the table so people can help themselves.

Nearly all gone!

The view from the terrace…

Rooftop View View from the roof

View from the roof

View from the roof

Rooftop Lichin

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