Friday, June 11, 2010

Finding your Culinary Path

I read an article the other day about English people living in France and buying their food at Asda on the internet and getting it delivered cross-channel and that even with the 15% surcharge, they're still better off than if they shopped in a supermarket in France.
Now I'm not disputing the value of euro to pounds; the surge of the euro over the last few years, has left those living in the euro zone and reliant on sterling, a lot poorer than they were before, (ourselves included); but it struck me as being rather sad that you should move to another country and send home for all your groceries.
If you really miss your sausages and bacon that much, maybe you're not the sort of person that should be living in a foreign country. I can understand relishing the odd treat; I myself always have a jar of Marmite and home made marmalade on the go, and always travel back with a large box of Yorkshire Tea and Nairn's Oatcakes; but surely part of the joys of living in another country is exploring it's un-known culinary paths?
Well, it is for me anyway, and one of those paths takes me to the village of Flaux, which is near Uzes. To get there I drive down a narrow twisting road in la Garrigue, (gently rolling scrubland) with its scents of wild thyme, sage and rosemary and, if the myriad of chasseurs seen on a winter's evening dressed in their camouflage outfits are anything to go by, teaming with sangliers (wild boar). Once every two weeks, M.Elena, a retired chef, gives a cookery class in the old Mairie (town hall), a grand decaying building in a large gravel courtyard with shady trees and iron railings, telling of a richer past. He has converted one of the upstairs rooms into a kitchen, complete with two cookers, a fridge a sink and a store cupboard, with two long tables and chairs.
There are 10 people in total with Chef, 6 women and 4 men. The average age is 60+ (which is of course radically reduced when myself and another English woman, who told me about the class, attend!) Whilst laying out the ingredients onto the tables M.Elena tells us what we are going to cook tonight. Everyone takes part in the cleaning and chopping of vegetables, cleaning pans etc. as well as the cooking process itself and all are local, bar myself and a Dutch man. I suspect that the evening is more about having a social soirée away from their spouses than learning how to cook. The women spend most of the time swapping recipes and discussing where to get the best tomatoes, the freshest fish or the best knives. When not sharing gossip about who has had a stroke and is in hospital in Montpelier, or who has tragically died from some rare disease, they are telling lewd jokes and falling about in fits of giggles (why does the female courgette flower have the tail, and not the male? Rocks of laughter!).
The class is from 5.30 - 9 and once everything is cooked we sit down at the dinner table; the wine is poured (organic rosé from the region) and the food is passed around. First we have lettuce and rocket from Chef's own garden, served with Panisse de Nice, which are deep fried batons made from chickpea flour (might not bother with that one at home) followed by courgette flowers stuffed with cod and egg white, a coulis of red and yellow pepper and quick fried grated courgettes with garlic and parsley. As we pass the food round for seconds, more tales are told of family secrets, (seems everyone has one, either a sister or aunt who was born out of wedlock, or a father who is not their real father etc.) and Chef tells us tales about when he had his restaurant. Finally the last of the courgette flowers and coulis are mopped up with the tasty bread (everything is bought locally and bio, organic, where possible) and the plates collected. The women get stuck into the dish-washing and drying, to which the men make no attempt to join in; learning to cook is one thing, but doing the washing-up is obviously going a step too far.
When all is cleared and put away and M.Elena's bags packed with his various saucepans and cooking accoutrements, we each pay him €10, the fee for the evening's lesson, food and wine. Now that's what I call value for money in any currency and way more entertaining than eating bangers and chips with tomato ketchup at home.
Just imagine what our English cuisine would be like today if Elizabeth David had traveled all those years ago through France with a suitcase of tins of baked beans, sliced bread, and sausages.

Now, I have always been of the mind that life is too short for stuffing courgette flowers, but having now tried it, I have changed my mind and though undeniably fiddly, I found them quite satisfying to make. You would not want to cook them for a dinner party for 10, but for a romantic dinner a deux, three flowers each, it is quite do-able and very impressive.
You will need:
6 Courgette flowers, the best and freshest you can find. The males have no courgette attached and the females may have a small courgette attached, you can use either.
150g of cod or white fish (sustainably fished)
1 egg white
100g cream
Salt and pepper.
First whip the egg-white until it is stiff.
Mix the fish and the cream, salt and pepper
Fold the egg-white into the fish mixture.
You will need a large saucepan with a steamer, M Elena used a couscous steamer!
Cut off the stalks of the courgette flowers to about 2cms and take carefully take out the pistil (had to look that one up!)
Then carefully spread open the flower, gently separating the petals.
Spoon in 2 1/2 teaspoons of the fish mixture and then close the leaves around the filling, twisting at the top like a sweet wrapper.
If you have a female flower with a small courgette flower attached, slice this into three so that it will fan out.
When you have filled all six flowers (there may be stuffing left over, if so, you can roll it into balls and cook alongside the flowers) place the flowers in the top of a steamer.
Put a large saucepan of water on to boil and when it is boiling put the steamer over the water and steam the courgettes for approximately 6 - 8 minutes.
To make a pepper coulis boil two red peppers and two yellow peppers for about 45 minutes. They take them out of the water and peel them and whiz in the liquidiser with salt and pepper, the red peppers in one batch and the yellow in another. Then put them in separate saucepan and heat up when the flowers are ready and serve each one on the plate alongside the flowers.

Oh and another topic of conversation was on erotic cooking......