Roger Stowell Photography
I’m wearing socks again which is significant as I have not worn socks for seven years. Those years account for half of the time that we have lived here; that half being the warm and sunny half. The coming up and the going down of the socks are as clear a seasonal signal as is the arrival of the first cuckoo or the departure of the last…whatever bird leaves last. I remain full of wonder at the changing of the seasons but I do feel Mother Nature might spin the globe a little faster at this time of year as sock wearing time does seem to go on for an awfully long time and, in all honesty, the Australians don’t need all that sun and summer as most of the place is a desert and could do with a bit more rain. But, with M.Nature remaining deaf, as ever, to my suggestions of seasonal reorganisation, I am left clinging to these last fragile signs of summer. The origin of these strawberries appears to be France and, whatever help has been afforded them by their cultivators, they do taste very good; quite as good as any summer strawberry….which has surprised me…nearly to the point of wondering if I may have been a bit previous in the sock department.
This very pretty tart was inspired by a YouTube showing a very clever and easy way of making crème pâtissière. I made some pâte sablée and baked a case…as I knew you were coming.
Whilst wishing to avoid the inevitable and predictable prurience I have no option but to fling myself headlong into the mire of double entendre by mentioning that my first encounter with moist nuts was on our honeymoon some forty one Septembers ago. The happy event was spent in a beautiful old stone house deep in the French countryside, a different one to that in which we now live, but it was there that among the seeds that were sown, which grew and flourished, was the one that carried my dream of one day moving to France to live in a beautiful old stone house of our own. And there were walnuts: big ones, small ones, none as big as your head. Fresh walnuts, noix fraiches, are gathered from mid September to the middle of October. They feel rare and precious to me; soft and oily with a silky skin that must be peeled revealing the smoothest ivory flesh. Two individual, not identical, fruit are joined inseparably in a protective shell that fits them, and them alone. Only the fracture of that shell allows them to be separated. There never was such a honeymoon fruit.
I can never understand how jam, a confit of boiled fruit and sugar, can be known by the catchall of jelly and yet, in the USA, it apparently is. It’s the lack of care in defining the difference between a thick syrup, laden with morsels of sugar infused fruit and a carefully sieved and clarified confection that surprises me. In the same anodyne fashion the word “cookie” covers the infinite range of biscuits with the added jarring note of an infantile diminutive style… and whence stemmed this etymological rage, Roger ? I’ll tell you. It stemmed from the moment this morning when I took the remains of a good roast chicken from the fridge. All that remained was the carcase, ready for stock making, but that carcase was surrounded by a thick layer of translucent golden jelly which is produced by my assiduous basting of the chicken during its time in the oven. Aside from my immediate thought, that of grilling some bread on which to spread this treasure for a mid morning snack, it reawakened the jam and jelly controversy. What I was hungrily looking at beneath and around the chicken carcase was most definitely jelly and the jar, on the shelf above it, filled with boiled fruit and sugar was undoubtedly a jar of apricot jam. There are indeed some mouthwatering confections of fruit preserves that are undoubtedly jellies and these are the sweet brethren of the savoury jelly that lay beneath my chicken and was about to be spread on my toast. The words sucré et salé, sugared and salted, serve as much clearer definitions of the difference in taste between that which we commonly know as sweet or savoury but words, in matters of taste, will always give way to the defining sensations of the palate. Was there to be an unlabeled jar of this clear, amber jelly on the breakfast table I am sure that I would assume it to be a sugared confection and it would be shortly after that moment that my palate would be examining the unexpected saltiness of chicken marmalade.
On a recent evening, when I was cooking for one, I came across this very simple recipe, whose heritage I was blissfully unaware. I have always advocated simplicity in cooking which does not in any way imply thoughtlessness or carelessness in the preparation, indeed the opposite is true. There is no reason why baked beans on toast should not be a very good dish and they most certainly will be if the beans are twice heated, with a knob of unsalted butter stirred into them, and are then spooned onto a thick hot slice of grilled bread which has absorbed its own share of good butter. The recipe that I found was for a golden potato cake, cooked both in the pan and in the oven, which would then be served with roughly chopped parsley and garlic. A potato cake such as this demands that bit more than beans on toast but is none the less simple and is indeed so good that it travels in very exalted, both monetarily and socially, company when served at the celebrated L’Ami Louis restaurant in Paris. The name of this restaurant has, for some time, been rattling around in the maelstrom that is the back of my mind. Part of that chaos was so deeply under the impression that I had at some time visited the restaurant that I found myself reminiscing over non existent moments that I had enjoyed there, so much so that when I saw the recipe entitled “Potato Cake L’Ami Louis” it was like saying a surprised hello on suddenly recognising a long forgotten friend in an unlikely situation and realising, too late, that you are about to double kiss the Queen Mother*….her face looked so familiar. Having apologised profusely and backed out of the room, whilst retaining a suitably servile and bowed posture, I felt I should research the restaurant with whom I believed I was an intimate. “This is the home of the $300 chicken ” was Google’s opening line by way of introduction to this celebrated restaurant which, it appears, is not only home to the priceless chicken but also to the movers and groovers among whom I do not number. Rich tourists make up the numbers: one of these number maker uppers mentions in a review that, on looking through the wine list, he had had to ask the wine waiter if the prices were in Euros or Francs: I noticed that one could have a good bottle of La Tache for 2,380€…yes Euros, not Francs. Yet my humble potato cake is the “side” that accompanies the $90 côtes de boeuf. That which is even more surprising is that the menu is, to my mind, an ideal list of the simplest, best and least fucked about dishes in the French catalogue: foie gras, jambon pata negra, confit de canard, escargots, st.jacques, asperges vertes, poulet roti, cotes de boeuf, cotes du mouton, rognons, cailles, pigeon, framboises, pruneaux à l’armagnac….incontournable..mais l’experience l’Ami Louis est unique, tordante et ruineuse!. Just love the sheer outrageous bollocks of it but the experience will remain for me as one that is as vicarious as it is affordable. However, I can and did enjoy the potato cake, and could, on reflection, enjoy any of the other dishes at home by just buying the ingredients. There are no ridiculous emulsions, cheffy decorations, or uncomfortable combinations of ingredients that are picked for their novel name, colour or rarity….just the finest, simplest ingredients. The only requirements for enjoying these dishes outside of the rich chicken’s home would be the purchase of ingredients and the care and attention in their preparation…. and some good affordable wine which is not a rarity here . Here is the recipe from Patricia Wells’ wonderful “Bistro Cooking” that has not left my kitchen since I bought it two years ago.
*I know the Queen Mother has been dead for quite a while….I just wish I didn’t keep bumping into her.
“Life is just a shit sandwich” – discuss. There are those of us that read, when seated on the porcelain throne, and those that write. The writers among us seem to choose to do this on walls and only in public lavatories as, to this point, I have never seen any pithy epithets scribbled on the walls of the lavatories in the homes of friends and family, yet those straining scribes must have homes to go to which means that either I don’t know any of them or that it may well be a natural law which prevents the writing hand from creating on home soil (apposite, eh?). I say this in passing (close!) as it was bread that was on my mind this morning rather than coprophagia. On firing up my computer yesterday I noticed that the Google logo featured the “Decrét Pain” which led me to use Google to Google information on that which was decreed in that Decrét and when. As a decree it wasn’t very interesting and, as with the majority of decrees, not heeded or, when it was, not very successfully: which is a shame as bread is a daily pleasure for me and I wish our baker would heed the Lord’s prayer and give me my daily bread as opposed to demanding money for it…another example of an unsuccessful decree. The upshot of the Décret Pain is that, although it’s attempt to stop the inclusion of additives in bread was well meaning and sensible, it appears that it has not been entirely successful in seducing the populace to eat more bread. In fact, the reverse is true meaning that the French are eating less bread which is a shame as they are replacing the snacked warm baguette with gobfulls of the crap that they didn’t used to eat and so, rather than the svelte derrière Francaise that was universally ogled, soon they will sport the fat arse that is the badge of affluent Western society. On the brighter side of the coin there is a surge in popularity for artisan bakers who are defined thus: “an artisan baker is one who is trained to the highest ability to mix, ferment, shape and bake a hand crafted loaf of bread. They understand the science behind the chemical reactions of the ingredients and know how to provide the best environment for the bread to develop”. We have a good baker in our local village who, from the taste of his bread, complies with this description yet sensibly does not have a sign which defines him as a ” boulanger artisanal”. In today’s world of self promotion there is only room for positive superlatives, which makes terms such as the best, the biggest, and the most appear meaningless as there is no comparative, so I’m delighted to go to this small boulangerie that is always running out of bread because the bread is so good. The shop will close at 2.30, denuded of bread, only to reopen at 4.oo with shelves and baskets filled with freshly baked, still warm, breads and pastries. Our daily bread is a twofold operation here in France.
With regard to the opening proposition: It is clear that the more bread one has, the less of the filling one has to eat. As bread is in such short supply for the majority of the planet’s population the proposition remains undeniably true.
Resolve, recant, regret….and the greatest of these three is regret…. but only until the second mouthful if the cake is good enough. We of the human race are generally rubbish (the forgotten R) at keeping our promises to which a quick glance at divorce statistics or any political manifesto will bear testimony. I mention this failing as I regularly resolve not to make another cake, or other sweet toothsomeness, and, with the same tiresome regularity, like a three legged nag, fall at the very first fence or, failing a good fence over which to fall, at the very first sign of a very good recipe. Through monastic self mortification and towering will power I have managed to remove regret from my gamut of emotions unless the cake is crap which, trust me, this cake is not. This cake is rich, round and rewarding….which is as good a template for life as I can imagine.
The recipe is adapted from one of Patricia Wells’ that is to be found in her wonderful “Provence Cookbook” Her chosen title of “Three Pear Cake” is not germane to my humble version which will be known as “One Apple Cake”.
60gms all purpose flour
12gms baking powder
1tbsp vegetable oil
75gms plain yoghourt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of a lemon
2 large eggs lightly beaten
4 apples peeled,cored and cut lengthwise into 16ths
1 egg lightly beaten
grated zest of a lemon
Butter and flour a 9″ springform pan
Heat the oven 210C
1.Combine flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl and stir to blend. Add vanilla, eggs, oil, Calvados, yoghourt and lemon zest and stir until well combined. Add the apples
and stir to coat them thoroughly with the batter mix.
2.Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin and place it in the oven. Bake until fairly firm and golden for about 40mins.
3.While the cake is cooking, in a small bowl prepare the mixture for the topping by combining sugar, egg, Calvados and lemon zest. Set aside.
4.Once the cake is firm to the touch and golden, pour the topping mixture over it . Return the cake to the oven and cook for a further 10mins. At this point cooks will use their own judgement as to the cake’s readiness by testing firmness to touch, using a skewer, etc.
5.Place on a rack to cool. After about 15 minutes, run a knife around the inside edge of the tin to free the cake. Remove and leave the cake on the cake tin’s base where it will be ready for serving at room temperature in wedges.
I blame my abiding prejudice against fresh pasta on the world wide television coverage of the spaghetti harvest of 1957 . The sight of those vermicular strands, hanging limply from the branches in the unusually monochomatic region of the Ticino has remained embedded in the not so dark recesses of my mind. Because of this, on entering a pasticerria, I am immune to the temptation posed by the serried ranks of trays piled high with carefully formed serpentine coils of pappardelle, linguine and tagliatelle, all freshly cut from the tree. The choice between the fresca and the secca is as clear to me as the finely cut edge of the penne in the picture. The penne having dropped, I can now confess to having written this bollocks because I had found a similarity between the nib like pasta tube and a feather quill whilst I was making a particularly good and simple pasta dish with that very same pasta.
This is a comforting dish which is not a comforting term. It is, in truth, a very annoying term as are most terms that describe the pleasure that we take in the taste of good food which is because of our failure to instantly pluck suitable vocabulary from the ether and which is why I so often have recourse to profanity, whose origins are steeped in pleasure, to press home to the reader just how much enjoyment such and such a mouthful has afforded me. I found this recipe on the blog of the food writer, Rachel Roddy; on the day in question the larder was very nearly bare but I happened to have a lone aubergine that was clearly waiting for the opportunity to impress. Even at those moments when my larder is in that state of undress there is always olive oil, tomatoes, onions and garlic…and coffee….so the aubergine had friends with whom it could combine in its efforts to impress. The dish that I made and which features in the picture above is not identical to the recipe that you will find in the link to Rachel Roddy’s blog; recipes such as this are but a guide, not an instruction manual. The flavours of this simple pasta and vegetable dish perfectly complemented the moment when I ate it in the shade of one of our olive trees, laden with fruit, in the early September sun…a sunlight which warms when one is directly in the path of its rays but, should one stray into the shade, it becomes instantly clear that the residual heat of summer sun, to which one has become pleasantly accustomed, has stealthily departed leaving one in no doubt that change is upon us.
Let me be clear, I don’t give a flying fuck if Marie Antoinette said brioche, chelsea buns or if she said bugger all…I’m saying it now…”let them eat cake”. In particular, let them eat this cake. Amaretti biscuits have always been a favourite of mine. If memory serves me well, which caveat is close to an oxymoron, my first encounter with an Amaretti was pyrotechnic rather than gastronomic. There was a time in my life when lunchtime extended from the middle of the day to the end of it and involved very little eating. At some point in the drinking a tired and desperate owner/waiter/manager would bring coffee to the table in the hope that, in some sort of catering Esperanto, we would understand that this signified the end of the meal. What we understood was that the arrival of coffee merely signified a change from the vinified to the distilled. Amaretti biscuits were often delivered with the coffee and, as eating them was of no interest whatsoever, I became very taken with their delicate tissue paper wrappers and even more taken by them when I was shown that, when ignited with a match, they rose majestically from the table like blazing Montgolfiers. It was at a much later period in my life, after I had been shown the apparently more accepted and certainly less tiring version of lunch, that I was to become as infatuated with their flavour and crumbling texture as I had once been with the incandescence of their wrapping. But the story was to take another serpentine twist: we moved to the depths of the French countryside where there were no Amaretti to be had, not even for ready money. The Amaretti free years slowly passed until suddenly, this summer, a bag of them appeared, as if by magic, in the kitchen: the magic of Ryan Air had brought them to me in my thoughtful wife’s luggage. I was envisaging our intimate dinners in the dark winter evenings ahead illuminated by floating Amaretti fireballs when I noticed my Amaretti were naked…not a stitch of tissue paper between them.My upper lip stiffened and I resigned myself to memories. Suffice it to say that soon after this disappointment and just before all the biscuits were eaten I saw this very good recipe for a cake with Amaretti biscuits and raspberries which, as cake goes, is a pretty good combination, and so it proved to be.
“I’ve started so I’ll finish” is a phrase that ticks all the boxes save when referring to coitus interruptus. What phrase could be more fitting as one looks at a still half full bottle of Cote Rotie, the remains of a perfect lobe of mi cuit foie gras or the final few spoonfuls of favourite sweet stuff laying wantonly splayed on the bottom of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. “I’ve started and I’ll go on…fuck finish…I’ll go on until I drop the glass/spoon/plate or until I drop my face in the bowl”. Maybe not the ideal advice for the aspiring…no, Roger, just not ideal advice.