The Tour de France of food

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The Tour de France passes through the next village to my mum’s in Brittany this weekend, and it’s not too long until we head out there. It’s made me think about the many wonderful food stuffs and meals I’ve had in my many trips out there.

 

This year's haul from France

 

Don’t get me wrong, I love British produce, and producers, and this is no longing for one cuisine over the other, just enjoying the best of everything. I wrote a couple of years ago about the things I stock up on in France, from brioche to Speculoos, and it’s good to see that more things are available more readily here now. And even gone one better in that I’ve never seen the crunchy Speculoos in France, but can get it in the local supermarket here now.

 

Beautiful in every way

 

We’ll be further north than I used to stay, but have to admit that I still hanker after a return trip (or seven) to the area around La Rochelle. A trip to the market and an ice cream from Ernest remain two of my favourite things in the world to do.

 

Channelling Juliette, hoping for Mr Depp

 

I still like to try and channel Juliette Binoche on days I need a little added something, and the older we both get, the more I admire her. That, and that I could rewatch Chocolat every day and not get bored of it. Let’s face it, with Juliette, Johnny, chocolate and beautiful French scenery, that’s a tour you’d never get bored of!

Can’t wait to start my own tour of France, though I shall be steering clear of Lycra and two wheels in any form!

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Getting kids into cooking French food

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I had a lovely afternoon recently with a youngster with a big interest in cooking, working our way through a couple of the recipes in this book, Kids Cook French.

 

kids cook french

Now, it’s an interesting book, as it’s a bi-lingual book. I’m not entirely sure why, because we only read the English side (though I do now know, from a casual glance through, the French for Swiss chard), and I’m not sure if the aim of the book is to teach English or cooking. It at least does one part well from experience.

We worked through the apple frangipane tart, which I guess is a good basic skill, in understanding frangipane, and some good knife skills on cutting all those apples.

 

Uncooked tart

 

The results were pretty darn spectacular, not to mention tasty.

 

Cooked tart

 

The beef bourginon was okay, though my chef had got a bit bored by that point of all that prep work. I have to say, this might be an “authentic” French version, but I’ll stick to my fail safe version from Delia.

This is a very pretty book to look at, with some beautiful illustrations, and lovely stories about each of the dishes. It’s definitely one for older children (my chef is ten), and for ones who are well beyond just chicken nuggets. If they’re looking to learn French, well, there’s some interesting vocabulary but it’s definitely a secondary part of the appeal. Great gift though for kids who want to get more involved in the kitchen.

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So, what do you stock up on in France?

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I love British food, and try to get out, try and support as many British suppliers as time and cash permits. But it’s no secret that I love France, and really enjoy my trips there. And food is not the only reason that I drive there, but having the car brings the benefit of stocking up the food cupboards.

And the wine rack.

This year was no exception, as you can see:

 

This year's haul from France

What was in there? Well, mainly stuff for later and throughout the year, but a few fresh bits made their way in. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

Brioche – one of the ones from the Vendee with a touch of rum. Sliced and frozen, ready to be toasted at a moments notice.

Bloc de Foie Gras de Canard – one of the things that a slice of brioche might get taken out the freezer for.

Confit of figs and grapes – to go with the first two items. And then a big jar of fig confit to go with all kinds of cheese.

Flour – I have two bags from a small mill near Poul-Fetan. One will make brioche, worth a go. The other is called Saveur d’Automne (flavour of Autumn I believe), which is a bread flour mix of wheat, rye and sweet chestnut flours as well as figs and nuts. Sounds definitely worth a shot, need to think of a good cheese match to go with it. I’ve also got a bag of buckwheat flour, inspired by all the galettes we ate. Though looking at the cupboard I need to do a lot of experimenting with it!

Harissa paste – I just like the graphics on this, and a tube format quite handy for this store cupboard essential

Dark chocolate spread – yes, there’s usually at least one jar of Nutella in the cupboard, but this is a dark chocolate variant, so less sweet, and ideal as a filling for a chocolate cake. Or on toast. Or on a teaspoon.

Speculoos – there are two jars of the spread, and several packets of  biscuits. I first discovered this about 4 years ago when I substituted it for peanut butter in my brownies, and we’ve been buying it every trip since. It did appear to make a big leap as a flavour from about that point onwards, so you probably can get it here now too. But best to be on the safe side I thought.

Honey – not a single flower, but a single region. This year’s is from Aquitaine, yet to try it.

Mustard – bit of a boob here. Only the yellow stuff, only bought because MGG loved the Monsters University glass. Will run out of wholegrain long before I run out of this!

Sea salt – always useful, makes a change from the Maldon sea salt. I also bought some lovely lemon sea salt for BFF, perfect with fish I find.

 

Salted Caramel Brownies

 

Salted caramel – another of those flavours that has shot to the top of UK flavour charts since I first fell in love with it about 5 years ago. There’s a small tub of caramels, and a jar of the stuff. Which also makes an incredible addition to a brownie recipe!

Confiture du Lait – literally, milk jam. It’s one for me to experiment with. Any ideas?

Garlic – I already mentioned this in my post about Vannes. I don’t think I shall need some for some time yet!

No tinned fish this year, which considering my previous purchases from La Belle-Iloise and how close I came to their factory is a surprise. Next time! I bought quite a bit of baking kit, which I will write about separately, although sadly no tarte tatin dish. And unfortunately it’s on the list of classes for this year’s horticultural show again.

I always think local foodstuff, whether from overseas or from here in the UK, is a great way of prolonging the holiday just a little longer. Cromer crab and samphire last August meant Norfolk stayed with us a bit longer, which was just fine with me! What have you brought back from your holidays to keep the flavours going?

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Deciphering the menu in France

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Possibly my favourite place in the world to write from

 

I’ve written quite a few times about how much I love my summer trips to France, about great meals we’ve enjoyed, places I would recommend, and be back at in a heartbeat.

And I’d like to write that I am really not at all depressed at the fact that I won’t be taking up residence for several weeks this year, and that I am sure a fortnight in Northumberland will be just as glorious. But I do hate to tell fibs…and the closer it gets to the time to go, the more I wish I was heading over the water!

If I was, and even given that my French is not bad, then I would definitely be taking the Gastronomic Dictionary from Thomas Harmsworth with me. This is the book I have been looking for every year we have been going, for those parts of the menu that just leave me scratching my head, and most dictionaries don’t go anywhere near. I mean, I’ve always wanted to order ptarmigan, but never known the word. There it is: lagopède des Alpes.

Mainly it’s fish that I come a cropper on, and there does seem to be a good variety covered in this dictionary. I also like that it’s a very slim book, so ideal to slip into the handbag, or hide in the menu! And at £3.50, it won’t break the bank.

Unlike eating in France, given the state of the pound versus the Euro. But if you are going, then enjoy and make the most of the great food on offer, by knowing exactly what you’re ordering, or what they’re offering!

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If you’re in Honfleur…a review of Sa Qua Na

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I love Honfleur, and often end our trips to France with a night there. This year I chose to delay my birthday dinner so that we could eat at Sa Qua Na, a stunning restaurant that lived up to billing. Recently awarded its second Michelin star, this was true fine dining, but not stuffy or intimidating. The fact that we had MGG with us should tell you that.

There are only two versions of the tasting menus, you choose the colour and everyone at the table gets the same. Unless you’re 8, in which case you can have the Violet Prune surprise menu.

 

What to choose? Fabulous dinner choices

 

We had the rouge cerise menu, not because we were being tight, but because we thought at the end of two weeks in France we may not make it through all the courses. Particularly as there are a few not mentioned on here. Starting with the amuse bouches:

 

The amuse bouches

 

On here were some truffled choux with sardine and radish, some delicious deep fryed seeded wafers (sorry, they got a little lost in translation) and the savoury meringue sticks. I found these fascinating and delicious, not to mention intriguing in how they were made. A mix of salt and black pepper, with just a very faint hint of sugar, which I guess is what holds the meringue together.

The next surprise: a rather flat Yorkshire pudding.

 

A tasty but rather odd Yorkshire pudding type thing

 

It was not very well risen, but perhaps not intended to be. It was truffled and with chives, with a slightly caramelised top. I loved this. Possibly my Northern roots.

So, the first of the billed dishes, the salmon. I loved this dish, it was so fresh and summery, with the most amazing combinations of flavours. The salmon was cooked mi-cuit, and then the lemon confit just cut through the fish. Combined with the pea coulis, it was a dish I could have eaten again and again. Not to mention it was incredibly pretty to look at.

 

Steamed fillet of salmon

 

The next dish I could appreciate because it was beautiful to look at, and had a succession of textures to play with, but it was my least favourite dish. And that all came down to the seasoning. My dining companion’s had a big hitting salty taste, which I think it should have done, whereas mine was particularly insipid until the last part of it. The cod was a little too soft and flaky for me, but the beef looked amazing, like little jewels, and melted in the mouth.

 

Cod cooked with salt

 

I am not a lover of game, but the next course was sublime, particularly as the flavour combinations were unusual, but worked so well together. Roasted pigeon with peanuts and a tarragon sauce, unlikely to all but the most talented chefs I guess. I loved it!

 

Pigeon & peanuts

 

I almost forgot that this was then followed by a salad dressed with pigeon jus, some crispy bacon and a rather generous number of shavings of black truffle. I have never enjoyed a salad more.

I’m afraid there are no photos of the cheese or dessert. The cheese selection was a stunning board, with great variety from very local to more famous choices like Roquefort. Even MGG managed a sliver or two. Dessert was a passion fruit tart, but distinctly unmemorable. Perhaps we were just overwhelmed by that point. But not too overwhelmed to adore the petit fours.

 

Stylish petit fours

 

Hidden in here were a rhubarb jelly with a hint of aniseed, coffee ice cream with amaretti biscuits, and a coffee cake with a prune and armagnac cream. Truly delicious way to end the meal.

And what a meal. I thought the staff were incredibly charming, and service was efficient but unobtrusive. They were lovely with MGG, and her menu was a tomato salad, roasted chicken with pasta and then strawberries with creme fraiche. Not a chicken nugget in sight.

The wine waiter was knowledgeable and generous in sharing his knowledge. We ended up with a white wine from the Basque region, from Arretxea, which was rich, creamy and rather New World like to me. Overall the bill came to just over 200 euros for the three of us. Of course you can eat for less in Honfleur, you can eat really well, but I rather doubt you can any better.

I think I may move my birthday to be with them every year. I was also grateful for our hotel being a close stumble nearby, with a comfortable night at Hotel du Dauphin just round the corner. Fabulous, fabulous night, I’d go again tomorrow. Except they are only open Thursday through Saturday.

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Celebrating Bastille Day

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Vive la France!

Unusually for me, I’ll still be in the UK for Bastille Day this year, unlike the past four years, and likely to be stuck in an anonymous meeting room most of the day. So my Gallic celebrations will probably be limited to a glass of wine on arriving home, possibly some cheese. Which is why I opted for a French lunch yesterday!

Of course, London has dozens, if not hundreds of French restaurants, and I guess you can experience the very best of French cooking, and the most wallet relieving moments around. Perfect for a special event, but just for an everyday lunch there are some great options around. If I’d had the time to head down Regent Street, I would definitely have opted for Aubaine. I had the best steak frites here that I’ve had this side of the Channel, and wonderful patisserie, not to mention charming service.

I’m not a big Cafe Rouge fan, but I was impressed with Côte in Soho yesterday, and they have a growing number of sites across the UK. I hope they keep up the quality of both food and service, as I had a very passable Steak Haché. And even a Parisian style tut when I ordered a second Kir Royale. Okay, it was instead of pudding, but what the heck?

If you’re doing it yourself, then you could just make it a cheese and wine party, possibly with some good bread. Pong have over a dozen options, or for an authentic, if not entirely gourmet, aperitif then try Apericubes, available here through FrenchClick. I’m going to look out for the Cocktail Bleu version next week, just for the heck of it. FrenchClick seems a reasonable resource for all sorts of French foodstuffs, both fresh and store cupboard type stuff.

So many choices, I think you could now do a supermarket sweep in most places and put together something interesting. But, as always, I would encourage you to seek out smaller stores, likely to be stocking more interesting stuff from smaller producers, and this applies to wine as much as food.  Try somewhere like Naked Wines, which is supporting independent winemakers, or Unwined, also looking at smaller producers.

Vive La France, Vive La Republique! And bring on the food! Fantastic shot of the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day by scorbette37 on Flickr.

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Vive La France! At least for 2 weeks

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I am on a countdown to our annual escape to France, and already hungry in anticipation of the food treats ahead. Not sure if it makes us dullards, or just greedy, but we have been to the same part for the past 3 summers, and still each year we find new places to try, new foodstuffs waiting to be tasted. The area around La Rochelle has done us proud on all counts in recent years, and expecting this year to be no exception.

Whilst I am really hoping for some new stuff, there are some old favourites most definitely worth a visit. If you’ve never been to the area (and La Rochelle is perfect for a quick weekend getaway) then some of my must do’s would be:

* The market at La Rochelle

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Beautiful in every way - the food market in La Rochelle

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Stunning looking building, fantastic produce, and great range. Cheese stall to do die for inside, and the foie gras pate with figs is on my treat list. Ok, so hate me. I wrote last year about when is local food not all right, and foie gras is one of those traditions that still divides. Not my photo, comes courtesy of mksfca on Flickr.

* Ice creams from Ernest in La Rochelle. Looking forward to seeing what new flavours he has this year, although the mojito sorbet is still calling to me

* Lunch at Bistrot du Marin in Saint Martin on the Ile de Ré, especially if the Cote de Boeuf is on. Go hungry.

* Exploring Brouage further. Really interesting walled town, that both happened to be near where we stayed, and got a lot of mentions in the book I was reading, Cod. And there is some terrific eating to be had, from high end to casual. Will be heading back.

* Head a bit inland and go to Cognac. Beautiful place, and almost obligatory to tour on the houses. We did Hennessey and it was great, even a little boat trip thrown in. Then head to Hotel Heritage for a great lunch, hopefully out on the terrace.

* For probably the best meal I’ve ever had at a “tourist attraction” I would head for the restaurant at the Corderie Royale in Rochefort. Fantastic lunch, great children’s menu with no sign of a burger but plenty of fresh fish.

So, those are my treats that I have in mind already, does anyone have anywhere in the area to recommend? I’m thinking this time we should experience the cooking of at least one of the family Coutanceau, as they do rather dominate La Rochelle, but with huge variety between father and sons. Any thoughts or recommendations gratefully received!

Now all I need is the arrival of HSA and HSU, which are my lovely house sitting aunt and uncle. More to follow on the foodstuffs I stock up on for their arrival!

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The Friday Five – Travels with Food

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Everything but the squeal! - a great reading book gift for a food lover on holiday

 

As you may know by now, we’re away for Easter and no, my housesitters don’t extend their duties to blog sitting! One of my favourite pre-holiday preparations is choosing my holiday reading. I always try to have at least one book based in the country or culture I’m visiting, as it adds something in my view if you’re reading it in situ. And, of course, I like it to have a fairly strong food content. So here are a few of my favourites, or hopefully soon to be favourites!

1. Everything But the Squeal – this is my choice for this trip, although it’s a bit of a cheat as we’ll be in Majorca and it’s based in Northern Spain. In fact, I should have had this when I toured that part of Spain, and it did involve a lot of pig derived eating. A very under-rated part of Spain, but this book promises to bring it to life, from both a cultural and a food perspective.

2. Eat My Globe: One Man’s Search for the Best Food in the World – if, by any remote chance, your destination doesn’t have a suitable book written about it, then I would add Simon Majumdar’s book to your suitcase. By the end, you may come to the same conclusion, that Simon has eaten stuff so you never have to. Honestly, I don’t need to eat dog. But do share his admiration for Mrs King’s pork pies. A great read, highly recommend it.

3. Hokkaido Highway Blues – I’ve been really lucky to have several trips to Tokyo with my day job, and this has come with me each time. Whilst it’s based in places I haven’t got to, the culture it describes is familiar, and alien in the way that Japan gets you. Although this is a bit of a road book, then, being Japan, eating also figures high up on the agenda. Not to mention drinking!

4. Confessions of a French Baker: Breadmaking Secrets, Tips and Recipes – not the obvious book by Peter Mayle, but I really love this little tome. Great stories, and great recipes, it really gives you a sense of the work behind your morning croissant or batard. It’s fluffy and not a difficult read, but really enjoyable.

5. Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England – if you’re having a staycation, then Stuart Maconie’s book is a great one to have along for the ride. There are so many laugh out loud moments, and I hadn’t really appreciated from listening to him on the radio that he was a bit of a foodie. Everywhere he visits is measured by its tea rooms and local delicacies. If you’re staying in the North, then buy Pies and Prejudice. Or just go mad and buy both.

So, I’m hoping to have made my way through number 1 some time very soon, and will be working up to some new ones for France and Cyprus later in the year. Although nothing could possibly possess me to reread The Olive Farm, or anything that followed it.

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Channelling Juliette Binoche

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Channelling Juliette, hoping for Mr Depp

 

Today is Juliette Binoche’s birthday, who I think is the most amazing actress. I also think she’s incredibly stylish, not to mention the fact she has that French flair of being comfortable in her own skin, and seems to have avoided the lure of the plastic surgeon.

My favourite, favourite film of hers is Chocolat, probably for many obvious reasons. And then of course there’s the chocolate. And Johnny Depp wasn’t bad either.

You could decamp to France, with the film mostly being filmed in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in Burgundy. As you’d see in the film, it’s a beautiful medieval fortified town, but also turns out to be pretty quiet and still off the tourist trail. Although it is famous for its aniseed balls, which is a little different to chocolate I guess.

I can’t find any hotels in the town, but Le Verger sous les Vignes is only a couple of miles away, and the reviews describe it as a hidden gem. If you want to go a bit more upscale, then the Chateau Les Roches sounds great, with some good cooking at a weekend.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge number of restaurants listed in Flavigny itself. Le Relais de Flavigny has a decent enough menu, with one of my favourites, foie gras with pain d’epices. It is a beautiful part of the world though, and even though there may not be great dining here, a trip to the area would reveal great epicurean delights. I love Alastair Sawday’s books, and would expect that when Go Slow France comes out in April there will be some good recommendations for this area.

There were some fabulous food scenes in the film, with chocolate being used in so many different ways, not just the obvious sweet ones. I’m a big fan of Willie’s cacao, and the savoury recipes in his book are interesting, and always cause a stir when you tell dinner guests what they are getting. So I think I’m going to channel her (I have a new frock from Jigsaw that makes me think of her) and create a chocolate feast. Just as soon as half my friends have stopped giving things up for Lent.

Not that that stopped her character!

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Spring bargains on the foodie front

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Just a quick post on online retailers of good foodie stuff with good offers, in case you need a gift but with some cash left for day to day eating! Here goes:

Kissing Birds Free Gift from Thorntons

1. Thorntons have a free gift on offer for orders over £15  between now and the 14th, so a great one for the one for them, one for you principle. The free gift is the Kissing Birds, which is cute looking, and possibly tasty. I really like the chocolate blocks they have done, colourful and tasty. Enter code THKS at checkout to qualify.

2. I love how Majestic announce their offers: 25% off South Africa. Apparently it does just mean the wines! Great saving though when you buy two bottles. Possibly champagne discounts will follow next week if Valentine’s Day sales aren’t as good as they were hoping!

3. I do like my coffee, but good coffee. If you’ve got a caffeine freak, then how about joining them up to the Coffee Tasting Club from Coffee Cavern. It’s now available for £22.50 for 3 months, rather than £30, for which they will send 4 different coffees every month from single estates and co-operatives, along with tasting notes. A perfect pick you up gift.

4. Natoora is a great source for continental goodies from Italy and France amongst others. If you need to plan a big shop, then right now they are offering £20 off when you spend £80. The offer runs until 28 February, and you just need code HT785KE at checkout. Not sure I know where to start, but I would certainly be looking at their interesting wine and beer selection, and some San Daniele ham for sure.

5. There can never be enough fabulous chocolate in a home, and Chocolate Trading Co is a great source for finding great stuff. Just to ease some of the guilt, there is 10% off everything at the moment with code love, and it’s valid through till the end of this month. Deep joy!

6. If it’s too cold, or there’s still snow, then stay warm and safe and shop at the Virtual Farmers Market. Great selection of all kinds of producers from around the UK, and for all of February delivery is completely free, so got to be worth a go. And worth staying in for! Check out goodies from Gower Cottage Brownies, South Devon Chilli Farm and Upton Smokery amongst many other tasty choices!

Six great choices of places to shop, six great discounts. Happy shopping/cooking/eating!

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