Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Wedding in Provence

A Wedding in Provence

September seems to be the month for weddings, and a few weeks ago we were invited to our first French wedding.  Well it wasn't entirely French as the bride was Peruvian and the groom was half Norwegian, (half French) and the guests a mixture of all of the above including English (us, the Photographer and his Son who were staying with us).
The invitation stated that the dress code was to be 'tenue de soirĂ©e' (black tie or evening wear) which caused quite a lot of anxiety on the Artist's part.  Did he even own a dinner jacket and when was the last time he wore it?   Finally he managed to unearth it and inspected it for moth holes and stains from its last outing and checked that it still fitted him which luckily it did.  Meanwhile, I couldn't find the dress I had planned to wear anywhere!  Was its last foray that good?  I wondered.  I found something else to wear last minute, topped it with a hat, which a friend assured me was what people wore to French weddings (some friend!) and we set off in our finery into the hot midday sun.  It wasn't long before the Artist looked like he'd just come, fully dressed, out of the shower as he sweltered in his wool jacket more suited to English country weddings and I remained the only person wearing a hat besides the groom's mother, who was wearing a headpiece!
The wedding took place in a deconsecrated chapel, which dates back to the 12th century. 
The bride and groom sat in two armchairs facing the altar (or where the altar would have been) with the rest of us sitting behind them on chairs and benches which had been brought in for the occasion. The priest was from the Ivory Coast, and even though there were prayers and blessings, this was not your conventional French Catholic Service.  He encouraged audience participation, throwing questions to the congregation and encouraging clapping and cheering.   It did however go on for quite a long time, and we couldn't understand a word, which we put down to bad acoustics and our bad under standing (the groom's brother however later said he couldn't understand a thing either).  There was much relief, especially from the children who had already wondered out of the chapel, when the rings were exchanged and the register signed to the singing of Ave Maria by the woman soloist.
Everyone filed out of the cool chapel and onto the sun drenched courtyard set amongst the olive and pine trees.  The children threw rose petals over the married couple and everyone else cones of lavender that had been handed out earlier.  A table had been set up on one side of the courtyard and champagne was served whilst the couple posed for photographs and were congratulated with hugs and kisses.  Both the bride and groom were beaming with happiness. 
After half an hour or so, the couple set off in a MG Midget trailing tin cans, with the photographer and his son sitting on the back and all the guests driving behind through the hills of the Allpilles, horns blaring and lights flashing.   Cars driving towards the cavalcade slowed down and hooted back.  After taking the road to Les Baux, the 13th Century city perched on top of a hill, we turned onto the road to Paradou, where we parked our cars outside the family mas and walked through the gates and into the gardens.
We were greeted with champagne and draught beer.  There was a Cuban band playing to one side of the patio; appetisers were passed round, ceviche, prawn cocktail and octopus and the Peruvian cocktail, Pisco Sour.
In the late afternoon sun, with the olive groves to one side and the marquee sitting in the middle of the lawn, the lamb cooking on a spit over an open fire, the band, dressed in white playing their acoustic instruments and people dancing with children weaving in and out amongst them in party dresses, it looked a scene straight out of The Godfather.
As it was getting dark, the Cuban Band put down their instruments and a couple of Djs took over.  We were asked to find our seats under the awning of the marquee.  Once seated, we watched as the bride and groom danced to 'Time of my Life', from 'Dirty Dancing'.  Then a singer, well known in Denmark, apparently, sang Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World' and dinner was served.
It started with a selection of cold meats and foie gras and was followed by mechoui lamb, which is slow roasted with Moroccan spices and herbs over an open fire.
After eating, the speeches began. The best man gave a speech, the bride, the groom, mother of the groom and friends.  Then the father of the groom got up and started to make a speech in English about how he had eloped with the groom's mother when they were both 19, but as it was well into the evening by then, he wasn't making much sense and was dragged off by his ex-wife and daughter before he got to the end of the story.  He had however been telling it to everyone earlier, so most people had already heard it.
Next, just before midnight, we were each handed a silver mask that we were asked to put on as the Hora Loca, (Crazy Hour) was about to begin.  The Danish singer sang 'Wilkom, Bien Venue, Welcome' from Cabaret and then the groom's 5 year old nephew did a Michael Jackson routine to Billy Jean.  After this some more singing and 'Phantom of the Opera' was sung, accompanied by someone doing a routine with a mask on a stick and a long cape and someone in a bird costume encouraging everyone to come up and dance.  This was about when I snuggled down on a nice comfy armchair under the stars, the champagne, wine, good food and sun, having finally got the better of me.  My last memories were of the Artist and the Photographer waving their shirt-sleeved arms to Dancing Queen by ABBA.

The next day we went back to the mas to pick up our car.  We joined other wedding guests sitting round the pool; everyone was very relaxed, out of their party gear and skinny dipping and splashing in the water.   Gossip was exchanged over draught beer and food form the night before.  Apparently the brother of the groom had had his way with the 17-year-old baby-sitter in the pool house, whilst she was meant to be minding the babies.  Meanwhile the mother of the babysitter, allegedly, had been playing footsy with the Photographer under the table!
The wedding had definitely been a good one and had all the ingredients of one the world over; love, joy, inebriation and bad behaviour!

Mechoui Lamb
1 whole lamb 20 - 25 kg
For the marinade
10-12 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
3 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
5 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons finely ground pepper
1 bunch coriander leaves (cilantro) chopped
250 grams butter or olive oil.
Grind the coriander seeds in a pestle and morter or coffee grinder, mix with the other spices and add coriander seeds and buter or oil. Rub over the lamb.
Light a wood fire in a pit and burn for about 3 hours until it is reduced to hot glowing embers.   Tie the lamb to your spit and cook high above the embers, turning the spit handle and basting regularly with the remaining marinade and/or olive oil.
It should be cooked after about 3 hours.
Feeds 40 - 50 people.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Up-Market in September

It’s September.  The kids are back at school, the holidaymakers have gone home and French is once again the predominant language in the market place.  The sun is no longer burning quite so fiercely, the fiery heat of July and August has abated and everything seems to be a bit more mellow.  Even though the summer has not yet altogether gone, there is a sense that autumn will soon be here and we’ll be putting our duvets back onto our beds.   
Meanwhile, what can we do to prolong the tastes and smells of the summer months? It is with this in mind that I head off to the market, with my Scotty dog, Ralph.  
I go to my usual favourite stalls.  I talk to the man from St.Remy and he tells me that he still has plenty of tomatoes on the vine.  They will be good until about November.  I buy some of his large knobbly Tomates Russes. They are large and quite misshapen but absolutely delicious in a salad or even eaten on their own with a scattering of coarse Camargue sea salt, torn basil leaves and a good pouring of your best olive oil.  It may be my imagination, but I feel as though I have never tasted tomatoes as sweet and juicy as these.  I have become quite obsessed with them and serve them with just about every meal.  
I also buy a large quantity of his more traditionally shaped tomatoes.  I quite fancy making some tomato sauce and bottling it for the winter months.  It takes me back to when I was a teenager and spent my summer holidays learning French with a family who had an organic fruit and vegetable farm just outside Grasse.  Some time, towards the end of August, when they had a glut of tomatoes, they placed a huge black cauldron over a fire built in an open shed round the back of the house, next to the pig sty. They filled the cauldron with chopped tomatoes, basil, onions and garlic and let it slowly bubble for hours, if not days.  The wood fire added smokiness to the final taste and when it was finally ready, it was ladled into Kilner jars and stored in rows in the larder, to be used in the winter months when fresh tomatoes (then) were not available.  Even though tomatoes can now be bought all the year round, thanks to the acres of polytunnels all around us, I don’t believe they have as sweet or as full a flavour as those ripened by the sun. 
Of course, I have neither a cauldron, nor a backyard, but decide I will make a quantity of tomato sauce to put in the freezer. 
I buy my basil from another woman in the market who sells bunches of basil that she has grown herself.  The flavour is far more intense than the basil pots that you can buy all the year round.   The leaves are large and firm and the stalks straight and strong, they will last more than a week in a jug of water in the kitchen.  I also buy courgettes from her, red and green peppers and small purple aubergines.  Having written in a previous article, that I was looking for something to cook that was not ratatouille, I have discovered that cooking the same ingredients in the oven with plenty of olive oil and parsley creates a very useful standby dish.  It can be served as a meal, eaten hot over couscous with added chickpeas and harissa, or served cold as a side dish with salad or cold meat. 
I move on to the stall where the man is only selling figs.  He has got two cartons left, and almost before I have agreed to buy them, he is tipping them into a bag onto a fig leaf.  The artist has talked about wanting to make fig jam, but I am going to eat these just as they are, maybe with some Parma ham, but probably just on their own. 
Another stall is selling locally grown grapes, they are small and green, tinged with yellow and taste very sweet.  I am tempted to buy them just for the way they look, but instead I buy a paper bag full of Mirabelles, they look like perfectly formed yellow miniature plums, I decide that they will make up the top and final layer of my Rumtopf.  Next to these are some apples, small, red and perfectly formed.  The idea of biting into a crisp, tart apple after the past two months of eating soft, juicy peaches, apricots and melons, seems very tempting.  Maybe I am, after all, ready to move on with the seasons.
Ralph, for sure is ready to move on, he has seen a bitch he fancies over the other side of the market and is straining at his lead.  Carrying a large basket of food whilst trying to restrain a dog is not one of the easiest things to do and just as I am about to drop everything, I spot the Artist striding towards me. “Just in time,” I say as I hand over the bag and use both hands to reign in my dog.
The Artist is already carrying a small plastic bag with a baguette sticking out of it.
“What’s in there?”  I ask.
“I bought some roast pork.  I’m going to have sandwiches for lunch in the studio from now on.  I’ve decided that lunch just takes up too much time.”
I nod in agreement and we make our way to the Rallye bar where he orders a beer.


3 figs per person
2 slices Parma ham per person
This makes a tasty starter or a light lunch.   The saltiness of the ham compliments the sweetness of the figs.   Just serve together on a plate as you  with a fresh crusty baguette.


2 large onions peeled and cut into thick wedges
1 large or two small aubergines, cut into cubes
1 large red pepper, deseeded and cut into cubes
3 courgettes cut into cubes
1 large handful of parsley leaves, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
425g tinned tomato
Salt and pepper
These ingredients are really just a guide, I use whatever I have in the fridge that needs using up including fresh tomatoes.
Put all the vegetables onto a large baking dish, add the garlic and parsley and pour over the oil and tinned tomatoes.  Combine all, making sure that the vegetables are all coated with oil – I do this with my hands.
Put into an oven at 160c/325f/gas mark 3 and bake until cooked, approx 2 hrs.

Tomato Sauce

800g tomatoes, chopped
1/2 medium onion
1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped
1 small bunch of basil leaves, cut into strips
2 tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and add the garlic and onions.
Cook for a few minutes, until they are transparent, then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook on a low heat for about 30 minutes.  Stir in the basil and cook for another five minutes.  Use immediately or leave it to cool and freeze in zip-lock bags or plastic containers.