What food is for

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What food is for...breaking bread across nationalities

 

There was an Englishman, a Welshman, a Scotsman and two Dutchmen…

Which is possibly the start to a good joke, but not one I know the punchline to. It’s also the starting point for an informal, impromptu gathering last night, that expanded to include the wives, friends, children and a dog. Not to mention 3 barbecues, some cheap fizz and creme de cassis, quite a lot beer, wine, and a lot of talking and eating.

Nation shall speak unto nation, and over the breaking of bread will find out that they’re really not that bad, or that different. And if food serves no other purpose than the bringing together of people, then that is a good one.

We also found culinary differences. The Dutch children were fascinated by a big bowl of jelly and made huge inroads into it. Who would have guessed? Chocolate bananas were devoured by all. And Ainsley Harriott’s recipes came in for a lot of stick, as by 10pm the dish was still not cooked. May well have been the lack of cheap, thin streaky bacon in this part of France, with the bashed out piece of pork taking a lot longer.

We also discovered, I would guess much to one G Ramsay’s delight, the Netherlanders had never heard of Ainsley. To be fair, they didn’t mention Gordon either, it was all about Jamie Oliver.

So foodie or not, I would urge you to get together around food. There was nothing more grand, Ainsley excepted, than a few sausages, pasta salad and some kebabs last night, but everyone stayed talking and drinking until the most amazing downpour called an end to outside drinking.

Although from some of the quiet faces around the pool this morning, there may not have been an end to indoor drinking. Apparently it is all the fault of the Pineau!

So, back to the Englishman, the Welshman, the Scotsman…

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A foodie tour of La Rochelle

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My favourite market: La Rochelle - great place for a food lover

 

I love La Rochelle, and would happily spend my days here (note to the housesitters, yes, we will be home. Unless we win the lottery).

It has everything you could want, especially if you want good food. You can do everything from fine, Michelin star dining through to just a quick coffee, but it’s all here, and in great surroundings.

My starting point would be a morning coffee, really anywhere overlooking Vieux Port. You could push the boat out and have a croissant too, but you won’t get hurried away regardless of what you have. I would then make my way up to the market. It’s on every morning, and to me it’s what you want every food market to be like. Full of colour, and characters, the best produce of the local area, and you really are spoilt for choice. Get there early, and you’ll be rewarded with the best of the days catch, great fruit and veg, and then inside for the rest of your lunch.

You begin to understand the huge variety of French cheese when you stand in front of one of the counters here and know that this is just from one small part of one region. As long as you’re not dairy intolerant, you will be spoilt for choice. You can move through the various charcuterie products, and fabulous cuts of meat, mainly from local animals. I’ve already described my love of the foie gras pate with preserved figs from one of the producers, but there are all kinds of other pates on offer, of every conceivable combination.

It must surely be heading towards lunchtime by now. I would say you had two choices really: seafood or the best of French high cuisine. For seafood, then Andres is an institution, and is possibly worth the visit at least once. I’ve had a great lunch in there, and I’ve had terribly rude service as well, so I’ve probably done my one visit for this lifetime. For myself, I would go to A Cote de Chez Fred on Rue St Nicholas. Lovely people, great atmosphere, and fabulous fish and seafood.

For fine dining, then one family dominate the town. The name of Coutanceau is over the door of not one but six places at the time of writing and is sure to expand. The original now bears the name of father and son, Richard and Christopher Coutanceau, and has an enviable position overlooking the town beach. This is two star Michelin dining, and deserves the stars. Needless to say, you need to book in advance!

You may get luckier with a walk in at my favourite, Le Comptoir Des Voyages, run by the eldest of the two brothers. This is a more eclectic approach to eating, particularly unusual for France, with influences from around the world. Also unusually for France the wine list is dominated by non French wines.

I’d enjoy lunch, then maybe take a walk around the aquarium, or walk the walls to work some of it off. You could also go to the small but interesting perfume bottle museum. Obviously put together by real fragrance afficionados and lovers, it will only take you about 15 minutes, but will cover fragrances you’ve never heard of, as well as those you have long forgotten.

 

None of this one for all business - ice creams from Ernest

 

All of this is really activity to make sure that I have room for a scoop or two at Ernest, glacier par excellence in my book. If you love ice cream, or possibly only like it a little, this is a must visit, to see just how far you can stretch ice cream from plain vanilla. I’ve not been yet this year to see what is new, but last year I had turkish delight, that was delicate beyond belief, but not dull, or too subtle, with a plain chocolate laced with cracknel and pink peppercorns. A seriously sophisticated taste that I have hankered after ever since.

After that, I’d probably pop into La Belle Iloise from some tinned fish, and go home. Otherwise the temptation would be another coffee, a pre dinner aperitif, and to move onto dinner. Which is no bad thing now!

If you need to get there, then Easyjet and FlyBe fly in from the UK. I’ve always been staying in a gite outside of the town, but for perfect location I would stay at The Yachtman – everything on your doorstep and it has it’s own outdoor pool. It’s also just round the corner from Chez Fred.

Go and discover this beautiful part of France, even for the weekend. You will come back euros lighter, pounds heavier but stress lightened!

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Stocking up on great foodie gifts

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If you haven’t discovered Not On The High Street already, then now is a great time to do so as their sale is on. This is a perfect site for shopping for everyone on your gift list, from young to old, close friends to passing acquaintances, and from style queens to full blown foodies.

I couldn’t do justice to everything on the site, but just looking through the foodie elements of the sale then I would consider putting the following away for when you are in need of a perfect foodie gift:

1. Have to mention this, as I wrote about it the other week, but the Lime Squeezer is in the sale. A gadget you didn’t know you needed, till you had one!

 

Fab Fifi Tea towel
Fab Fifi Tea towel

 

2. You can never have too many tea towels, and they are a great stand by gift (they’re also useful as a replacement for wrapping paper if you are wrapping up things like jams or cakes to give as a gift). There are some gorgeous choices in the sale, I rather like the Fab Fifi Petal and Wave ones, which are just £2.70 each now. You can pay nearly as much for a roll of paper, so worth having a few.

3. I love a mug full of tea, and I rather like the ones bearing the legend “If you can’t stand the heat…” Too true!

4. For a touch of South West France all year round, then “A Touch of Aquitaine” hamper is a good purchase, with some great produce for adding a little flair to regular dishes, as well as a full blown French banquet. I am rather partial to Onion Confit, but also love the sound of the Walnut & Garlic spread. I imagine that on some decent French bread would make a perfect accompaniement to an aperitif, or two.

5. I’m a bit of a Twinings Earl Grey and English Breakfast girl most of the time, but if you’ve got an adventurous tea lover, then how about the Rare Tea Box? This is definitely not your average cuppa, and no doubt needs to be brewed and savoured. It’s an unusual gift and will give them tales to tell for a few cups to come!

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The Saturday Session – Have a BBQ with a difference!

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How to barbecue a mussel - something different for a food lover to get up to

 

 

This week’s Saturday Session is a foodie approach to a BBQ that may amaze your friends. It may also test your patience quite considerably, as it’s all in the prep!

Now you might not think barbecued mussels sounds that exciting, but we were treated to them the other night, and this is not just a case of chucking a few on the barbie!

First, you need to have a piece of well seasoned wood that’s been through the fire a few times. Then the patience to assemble your fresh mussels on the wood, pointed end up. This may be a great dish to do for a few people, as catering en masse will take significant effort!

Now choose your combustible material. We had two selections: vine cuttings and pine needles. The difference was subtle but noticeable in the finished dish. Cover your mussels completely.

The high tech came next, as the material is set alight with a blow torch. This is most definitely not a moment for using fire lighters!

After about 5 minutes, the edges of the wood seemed to get damped down in order to generate some steam, and the ash was fanned off the mussels. And that was pretty much it. The usual rules apply, only eating the ones that are open, and enjoy! It went down pretty well around the table, and was certainly an experience to remember.

Should you not wish to try this at home, then you’ll need to give the owners at Les Salines de Brouage 48 hours notice, and they’ll do this for you. Not to mention the most wonderfully fresh seafood platters. They’re not a restaurant as such, but they grow oysters, and every other kind of seafood is on their doorstep. Definitely not fine dining but most definitely fine eating.

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When is local food not okay to eat?

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We spend a lot of time in the UK saying we must support local food, support long standing traditions, support small producers.

 And we all absolutely support that. All great ideas.

 So what do you do in this part of France, when one of the local dishes is Foie Gras?

 To eat, or not to eat?

 Well in this part of France the answer is most definitely to eat. Foie Gras in all its forms is most definitely on the menu of pretty much every restaurant in this area of France.  This is one foodstuff that divides opinion.

 I’ll stake my colours to the mast here. I enjoy foie gras, preferably in bloc or pâté form. It’s a treat twice a year. Once when we’re here, with my preference being the pâté de foie gras with preserved figs from La Rochelle market, which is amazing. The second time is usually over Christmas, when we break out the bloc de foie gras that we’ve bought on the trip and taken home.

 Yes I know how they produce it, and yes I’m not entirely comfortable with it. But which do I condemn, the ducks and geese, or the traditional producers, particularly the small ones?

 There is ethically produced foie gras being produced, which if more widely available might get taken up. I seem to remember Gordon Ramsay not being over-impressed with it, but can’t say I’ve ever tried it so can’t form an opinion.

 It remains one of those great foodie treats, and one I would think you have to make up your own mind about. If you are going to serve it, then I would suggest it needs nothing more than some toasted brioche and onion confit, and you taking the time to enjoy it. When something has gone through production like that, the least you can do is take the time to eat it properly.

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The spirit of Cognac

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Cognac Summit the drink of summer 2009

 

Before you read this, you might want to mix yourself a drink:

Cognac Summit

Put a piece of lime zest and four thin strips of fresh ginger into a glass. Pour in 2cl of Cognac VSOP. Press lightly 2 to 3 times with the aid of a drumstick (I think my translation may leave something to be desired here, for those with better skills than the dictionary, the word was un pilon).

Half fill the glass with ice cubes, stir for 5 seconds with a spoon. Add another 2cl of Cognac. Add 6cl of lemonade and a piece of cucumber peel. Stir for 5 seconds and serve straightaway.

Now, I am not sure if that is a good use of Cognac or not, but it is the drink of the season from the Cognac trade association! And what an association it is, with some of the most famous names in the spirits trade involved! If you want to give the foodie in your life a trip to remember, without breaking the bank, then I suggest a long weekend in Cognac and working your way round a few of the houses.

Within easy reach from the UK with a number of the cheap airlines, you can fly into La Rochelle or Bordeaux and be in Cognac in a couple of hours if you rent a car. You can almost smell the Cognac in the air as soon as you arrive. As with whisky, they refer to the amount they lose into the atmosphere as the angels’ share.

My favourite tour, particularly with children, is Hennessy, if only because it involves a short boat trip from their modern looking HQ on the town side of the river to the warehouses on the other. There are tours in English, and you will need to book in advance. There are amazing barrels of Cognac from centuries and centuries ago, which you can only imagine how valuable they are, or what the flavours will be like.

Of course, the foodie will be interested in the whole process from start to finish, and also the many evolutions of design of bottles. The good news is there is a tasting at the end of it all! For the nominated driver, there is grape juice, for everyone else there is Cognac of varying qualities, depending on how expensive you wanted to make your trip. The basic trip ticket involves a very acceptable Cognac (this is Hennessy after all) but you can upgrade to something you may never get to buy a bottle of.

But don’t just go and do the visit and leave, as the town itself is glorious. If you fancy an overnight stay, then I would recommend the Hotel Heritage, and even if you’re not staying for the night then I would go for lunch. When the weather is great, then you sit outside on a very pretty courtyard, covered with wisteria, and needless to say have a very relaxed lunch. For little foodies, there is a children’s menu, but don’t go expecting the regular jambon frites option, more likely to be steak and chips.

The rooms are charming, warm and cosy, in feel rather than overbearing temperature, and the bar has a great choice of all drinks, not just Cognac. But as with most drinks, and food, there is something to be said about drinking Cognac in the town of which it bears the name, and generally just enjoying the whole atmosphere.

Cognac makes a great base for exploring the area, or just for a getaway with a difference. If you are flying back through La Rochelle, try and make time to visit the market, which is open every day except Sunday. It is exactly the kind of French food market every foodie dreams of, and is definitely worth the detour.

If you want more background knowledge on Cognac before you go then either check out the official Cognac site, or I enjoy the posts over on Bibendum.

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Salt of the earth

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Panning for salt on the Ile de Ré

 

Moving on from bread, and probably because I am writing overlooking salt marshes, I thought today was a good day to think about this most basic of ingredients, without which most cooking would be an awful lot less flavoursome!

Of course salt has been completely demonised in recent times, leading many people to leave it out completely, leaving dishes bland and lacking in oomph. Like all things, it’s a question of balance!

If I was at home in England, then it would be Maldon Salt all the way, but we are just a few miles from Ile de Ré, which is famous for its salts. Grey Sea Salt is only harvested between late June and early September, with the colour coming from the clay from which the salt pans are made. These are what give the salt its distinctive flavour, making it great for all kinds of cooking, particularly if you wanted to add an extra dimension to something like a salt crusted whole sea bass.

Fleur de Sel is an altogether more delicate creature, skimmed from the surface of the pans, so giving it the pure white colour. This is much better for seasoning food at the table, but for me it is best put to use combined with caramel. Round here, this can be in caramel toffee format, but my favourite is when it’s blended into ice cream. The salty sweet combinaton is just divine. You can also buy jars of spread, which make something incredibly indulgent of a morning croissant.

Round here, I could pick these up in any of the local shops, and will no doubt be importing a quantity back. In the UK, look for it in good delis, and Natoora also offer Fleur de Sel from Guerande online.

I have yet to track down a UK source of the jars of caramel, but will keep looking. If you’re in France this summer, even with the state of the pound versus the euro, it’s worth bringing a jar back. It’s an absolute pairing made in heaven when mixed with apple, so is a great gift of foodie quality that’s absolutely worth the cupboard space. And of course, if you mixed the apple, caramel and cognac…well that’s a weeks worth of desserts in three ingredients!

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More make it yourself kits

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Panasonic Breadmaker - for the best smells a kitchen can emit!

 

After the cheese making kit, I began to think of the other essentials that you could make yourself, and the things that make it easier.

Starting with the basics really, and bread. And we would not be without our Panasonic Bread Maker. The SD255 is one of the most hardworking gadgets in our kitchen, probably second only to the kettle.

The smell of baking bread is one of the best smells in the world, there really is nothing like it. And this little machine turns out great loaves, sometimes very quickly, often overnight. It can add in fruit and nuts, it even copes with gluten free flours. Although sadly even it can’t magic them into a loaf that is like real bread!

And we don’t buy pizzas much any more. Just knock up the dough in this and then create away! With a great tomato base (normally onion, garlic and passata cooked down a bit) your imagination can run riot, limited only to what’s in your fridge or store cupboard. It’s a great activity with kids, and all happens before they can get bored with the idea. From prep to table in under an hour, perfect timespan for cooking with kids.

And of course you don’t need to be limited to plain old white flour. I love the huge variety on offer at The Flourbin, and am still working through my last order. I got a bit carried away, but there are so many different flours you end up wanting to try them all!

And if you need some other inspiration for recipes, then I would recommend Fresh Bread in the Morning, and Bread Machine Magic. More bread than even a French bakery might stock!

Truly money well spent, and each loaf costs less than 50p to make. You won’t get a bread that quality for that cost at the supermarket, so really it’s a cost saving machine, but one that is not dull and will fill  your house with the delightful smell of warm bread. Just don’t time a loaf to cook as you’re going to bed! You won’t be able to sleep!

UPDATE – sadly The Flourbin is no longer trading, great loss

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The Saturday Session – pack a picnic

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Always time for a picnic

 

We’ll be on our way through France when this is published, having already completed a fairly long drive down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry. Which means either running the gauntlet of British service stations, not to mention needing a second mortgage, or taking your own.

Guess which we went for for the first half of the trip?

So for today’s Saturday session, I’ve looked out for some great, interesting picnic food. After scanning quite a few, I came across an amazing selection on The British Larder. This is like foodie picnic heaven, but a lot is also very practical. Although possibly the frozen broad bean creme fraiche might not be!

If I had my choice, I would go for the Beetroot Tart Tatin, the Sesame Toasted Basmati Rice and Broad Bean Salad, Green Chilli Chicken Won Tons, and then following on with Chocolate Salami and the Gooseberry Polenta Slice. Heavenly!

So go on, make a picnic about so much more than picnic eggs and damp sandwiches!

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The Friday Five – great French cookbooks

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This week’s Friday Five has a particularly Gallic flavour, as by now our housesitters (aka Gran & Gramps) will have moved in to tend the house and garden, and we’ll be en route to France. Which of course means two weeks of over-indulging in great food and wine. Although given the exchange rate, we may be cooking a lot more of it ourselves!

 

french provincial cooking

 

1. French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David – a legendary cookery book, but with great recipes that have stood the test of time. Every home should have a copy.

2. Rick Stein’s French Odyssey – this is still one of my favourite Rick Stein’s series, if only out of pure jealousy at the trip he did on the two boats. And the cooking isn’t bad either!

3. Ripailles – a new book, but almost worth it for the photography alone, which is just stunning. Not just French cooking, but the whole way of life, and from simple everyday cooking through to grand dishes. Great stuff.

4. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson – a little more niche, but definitely tastes of France. I once went to a restaurant in Paris that was all about pork. It was the most amazing meal, and I’ve never found the place again. I’ll have to content myself with cooking from this. But if anyone knows of a little restaurant in the 7eme then let me know!

5. Paris Boulangerie-Patisserie: Recipes from Thirteen Outstanding French Bakeries – seems only right to finish with a book dominated by sweet stuff! It’s one of the great joys of being in France to me. There’s also good bread recipes and things like savoury tarts, so you could make a whole meal out of this book.

So we’ll be enjoying our French escape, with more foodie tales and ideas to follow! Just the drive down the coast to contend with first!

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