You can take a prune to Armagnac, and you can make it drink….

prunes_armagnac_0021“You can take a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think”. The lusciously sticky prunes of Agen have only to touch your lips to end any token resistance to their sluttishness. It’s not difficult to detect whorish behaviour in a prune and it’s clear that thinking is not their strong suite;  but they can certainly drink and they can certainly give pleasure. Armagnac is very much their tipple, although I don’t think that they would be averse to any good eau de vie and once they have drunk their fill, les pruneaux d’Agen will reveal their soft seductive sweetness as readily as any of les grandes horizontales.

I can’t understand why I’ve never made a dessert with pruneaux d’Agen before. It may be that I have indeed planned to do so but have ended up by eating them all while scanning the pages of cookery books, waiting for a recipe to catch my eye. It may equally be because I very rarely have Armagnac, or indeed any eaux de vie, in the house for the very good reason that if I did have them in the house they would only be there for a very short time. There is a strange anomaly in France in that Cognac and Armagnac are in short supply in the drinks department of supermarkets the shelves of which, rather surprisingly, are liberally stocked with whiskies and rums rather than their own world renowned product. But this is the Vendée and I’m sure that the scene is more favourable to these alcoholic prunes down in their home in the South West. One has the option of buying bags of pruneaux d’Agen either with or without their stones. I chose to buy the ones with the stones still in which, I felt, gave them a better chance of surviving the journey home, uneaten. The recipe I chose is a classic bistro recipe which is eminently easy to make but it it does need a ceramic quiche dish or a truly leak proof tin. There is also the fact that if the pruneaux are left to drink the Armagnac over a couple of days whilst they talk amongst themselves, it and they will be all the better for it.
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Millas aux pruneaux

 

 

Posted in 2015, Armagnac, Baking, Cookery Writers, Cooking, creme fraiche, Cuisine bourgeoise, desserts, Digital photography, Drinks, Eggs, food, Food and Photography, Food photographer, France, Fruit, Humour, Millas aux Pruneaux, Millas aux Pruneaux, Patricia Wells, Photography, Recipes, Sugar, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

take a leek….

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The quality of leeks may not be strained but the quantity of them in my kitchen most certainly is. Such a surfeit of leeks would suggest that I am in the throes of creating a celebratory dish for the imminent release of Julian Assange. But the prosaic truth is that I have been overwhelmed by a glut of neighbourly generosity rather than pricked by political conscience.  Is it unreasonable, the leek being part of the onion family, for me to be surprised by its onioniness? But surprised I am and have been: far too often. My expectation of this handsome, even pretty, vegetable is a melting, buttery softness made savoury by judicious seasoning. My benchmark for a well behaved leek would be its performance in a carefully balanced leek and potato soup which, at its best, should have the the character of a creamy potato soup with gentle overtones of leek. Pommes boulangère, a supper dish that I often make, has leeks as well as onion in the recipe  and I have found that I am happier, when making my version of this dish, that the leeks should remain solely as words in the recipe, shall we say a politely ignored suggestion, One’s hopes may well be similarly dashed by the over bearing onion tones of the first tempting mouthful of a beautiful pale green leak tart which had seemed to promise so much more. Had I been hungering for such a flavour I would have made a pungent onion and anchovy pissaladière . However, rail as I may, I have never lost faith in the leek and, aside from cooking them in olive oil and red wine, have found that they react spectacularly well to the slowest of cooking in much more butter than one could ever deem to be wise; this to be done in a good thick pan, with a layer of grease proof paper over the leeks and with the lid on top. A little seasoning of pepper and sea salt and then just wait until they’re right for you. I put a layer of the butter soft leeks into a small eared dish and covered them with some left over mashed potato, over which I grated some Parmesan ( little lumps of Comté or Cheddar would be very good). All this then needs is to be put in the oven until the potato is nicely golden brown with crisp points. This little gem was found nestling unobtrusively at the end of a chapter in my new cookery book “The Kitchen Diaries II” by Nigel Slater.

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Du.u.u u ck…

duck_orange_0009Duck breasts in marinade

I have a habit of forgetting a particular word. I can’t tell you what that particular word is as I’ve forgotten it but it serves to define the emotions we feel when fondly remembering earlier moments in our lives…I haven’t really nailed that down, so I’m hoping that I’ll remember the word sooner than later. What I was remembering, fondly, was the era of Duck à l’Orange; an era when Duck in Orange Sauce would not have communicated the intended sophistication of the dish to a public who were newly accustomed to going “abroad” for their hols whilst still being firmly entrenched in a previous mindset when Canard à l’Orange might be that bit too foreign and best avoided…if only they had duck on the menu.

( I still can’t remember the fucking word, and I’ve been to the doctor’s since I started writing this which means that I’ve had plenty of time in the waiting room to reflect and it’s still a blank).

I have a very good book, by Simon Hopkinson, which covers the recipes of this era and is aptly called “The Prawn Cocktail Years” but it was not from that treasure trove that I uncovered this uncomplicated little jewel. On second thoughts, I never uncovered it at all; it was uncovered for me, from under the upholstered cover of a well thumbed copy of Stephane Reynaud’s “Ripailles”, by the good friends with whom we had lunch last Sunday. Got it…nostalgia….I was quite close at the doctor’s surgery when I saw a notice about neuralgia and on second thoughts nostalgia does not have to include fondness or thanks for the memory. Now I can clearly state that I never get nostalgic about Duck à l’Orange as all my memories of it, prior to the discovery of the recipe that I have just touched on, are of a repellent, sticky dish of marmalade and poultry.

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In time to come I may well feel nostalgic for the moment that I happened upon this short, simple and successful recipe. Before you launch into this recipe I should mention that I made a couple of changes that worked …for me. I only used two duck breasts ( which, as you can see, were a good size and which fed 4 people) and two large oranges: the zest from one and the juice from one and a half. The remaining half was to be used for segments but I ate it so omitted the segments. You’ll see that M. Reynaud stipulates 200ml of soy which amount I more than halved (50ml). I whisked a great deal more butter into the sauce…quite a lot more. The result was very good. On reflection, mine’s a completely different recipe…..:)

Duck a l'orange

The duck was accompanied by peas and potatoes roasted in duck fat.

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the importance of being honest…

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Cookery writers busy themselves creating and revising the culinary zeitgeist at a faster rate than I can digest. My years of going through the annual charade of nodding in agreement, whilst trying not to nod off, as one was briefed on photography for the Christmas edition with those ominous words that ” This year we’re going to do Christmas with a twist”,  is happily in the past. Magazine food editors and cookery book publishers have applied more twists to the groaning festive board than those applied, as chinese burns, to the wrists of a groaning Tom Brown by a bored Flashman (it’s worth mentioning that the ever creative Flashman added an extra twist by having a go at cooking Tom’s arse on an open fire, which could also be read as a cri de coeur against 19th century school food, invariably served without a twist (pace Oliver), at Rugby School ). The fact of the matter is that there is but a limited number of foodstuffs that are readily available, and palatable, to those of us who cook, as part of living a life, as opposed to those who have chosen to forage for rarities in the wild or to travel in search of wind dried entrails in the souks of Samarkand. No twist will replace the quality of well cooked, well chosen, ingredients. The corollary of this premise is that a mouth watering twist which has been crafted from exotic words and beautiful pictures, rather than good cooking and good ingredients, will most certainly involve eating a pretty, but unpalatable, silk purse rather than a mundane, but very good, crisp sow’s ear. True to the tradition of “Carry On Cooking” I must admit that it was my nuts that set me to writing this piece. The simple walnut tart that featured in my previous post came about through my noticing and buying a big bag of very good walnuts from Grenoble, for very little money, from a nearby supermarket. There is a real pleasure in cracking open a pile of  walnuts and finding that, instead of the contents resembling a dark and desiccated brain from a shrunken head,  each and every one reveals and releases an unblemished golden kernel. I get the same buzz on opening a fat bulb of butter yellow garlic with the heel of my hand or on lifting the saucepan lid to see, through the curtain of rising steam,the orange slivers of fat juicy mussel flesh revealed by the gaping black glossy shells. Nothing replaces good, fresh ingredients…nothing.

As a final caveat, I advise you all to steer clear of adventurous cooks. Ask yourself if you would be happy with an adventurous pilot, an adventurous taxi driver or an adventurous dentist…..Captain Cook was adventurous and that didn’t end well.

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Posted in 2015, Baking, Cooking, Digital photography, food, Food and Photography, Food photographer, Illusion, Mussels, Photographic Prints, Photography, photography course, seafood, tart, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

Dinner for one….

walnut_tart_0039 This morning, during the daily meeting with myself in the shaving mirror, it occurred to me that I have many more failings than I have hairs on my head. With age comes an acceptance of failings and I take full advantage of this licence. W.C.Fields’ expressed sentiment of liking children but not being able to eat a whole one resonates with me and I make this failing quite evident. By dint of this transparency I get to cook for myself on those nights when Jenny is absent, fulfilling her role as a good grandmother. I quite like to cook for myself as it leaves one free to make random choices and to make mistakes without disappointing others. Last night was one such night and, in the cold light of this morning, I’m still of the opinion that I may have eaten my ideal dinner. The arrival of the cat Molly in our lives has brought out the caring side in me that should in truth have already been there for our grand children…but every child needs at least one grumpy grandparent and I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Back to Molly who, as we know, is a he. All advice on feeding Molly centred around dry biscuits and it didn’t take long for me to realise that this cat was a cat who would never be happy with such dull fare. For the good of Molly I decided to roast a small chicken each week that would supplement his diet and provide me, on occasion, with some healthy protein. The success in the roasting of this chicken increases each week. It gets simpler and better. Half an onion and a bunch of fresh sage goes into the cavity and the bird is then sprinkled liberally with olive oil and coarse sea salt together with a turn or two of black pepper. The prepared chicken is then placed on a small rack in a roasting tray, into which I have poured a glass of water, and cooked in a hot oven for an hour, with occasional basting.

Last night, the aroma of chicken roasting had filled the house and I was ready to eat but, nobly resisting the urge to tuck in, I let the chicken settle for half an hour and then served myself some slices of warm, freshly roasted meat together with a handful of mixed green leaves over which, as a dressing, I spooned some of the hot juices from the roasting pan.That’s it. Unbelievably good…so good that it would have been wonderful to have had Jenny there to share the goodness except that she doesn’t eat meat which takes me back to the pleasure of occasionally eating alone. But that which she would have undoubtedly enjoyed was the breath taking walnut tart, from Caroline Conran’s  marvelous book “Under the Sun”, that I made for dessert. I had often thought to make this and only the lack of walnuts in my larder had prevented me from doing so.  Yesterday, there were walnuts in the larder and by the end of play the walnuts were in the tart and the tart was in me. walnut_tart_0040 tarte aux noix

Posted in Art photography, baking, Caroline Conran, Chicken, Cookery Writers, Cooking, Cuisine bourgeoise, Digital photography, food, Food and Photography, Food photographer, France, Humour, Nuts, Olive oil, Photography, photography course, Poultry, Recipes, sea salt, tart, Tarte aux noix, Vegetables, walnuts, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments

Effortlessly beautiful…

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Effortfully is a word that I have only recently encountered and I can’t think why that should be. On reading it, in a novel, the word surprised and charmed me and I thought that it might be the invention of the author. A moment’s research denied him this acclaim whilst confirming my own lack of vocabulary. The word attracted me because its antonym is so often used to describe things that, in truth, require a great deal of effort. To be effortlessly falling through the air is not surprising but the suggestion that someone looks effortlessly beautiful would be to discard the effortful work of hairdressers, personal trainers and the legion of professional beautifiers that bring this effortless state into being. On the other hand, these leeks managed it by having their outer leaves removed and lying in a pan of oil and wine. Very like Cleopatra in a bath of asses’ milk but without the bobbed hair.

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French rarebit…

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It is said that a bad workman will blame his tools for bad workmanship. Not being a workman in any sense of the word, yet today finding myself at hard labour, I was more catholic in my apportioning of blame and included the weather, the day of the week, the place of work and the person or reason that had caused me to be working in the first place. Today I have been lifting, digging and pushing a wheelbarrow full of the heavy things that I had previously lifted and dug whilst the love of my life reminded me of the catalogue of torment to come. Each time that I have engaged in manual labour I have contemplated the adage concerning the satisfaction to be derived from hard work yet my experience of such satisfaction remains unrequited. I warm to Thomas Edison’s observation that opportunity is missed by most people as it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work and few people, outside of our celebrated English sporting heroes, have missed as many golden opportunities as I. The one positive that I have taken from manual labour is that, unlike writing or image making, I can foresee its end. Today the end duly arrived, earlier than was foreseen by my forewoman, but she succumbed to the old Navajo trick of my kneeling, begging and pleading ( pace Woody Allen). Once out of the orbit of self induced misery I was able to activate the basal ganglia circuit, firing up the pleasure neurons which quickly had me making some lunch. I would love to know the recipe for basal ganglia but it must be American as they can’t pronounce basil. Any way, it needed to be quicker than ganglia, so I opted for cheese on toast. Having recently been in receipt of an electricity bill I noticed that we were being charged money for using the electrical appliances in the house so toasting or grilling would not be part of this dish. A pan with some olive oil and enough heat beneath it makes a very good sandwich of melting Cantal cheese which has been piled between two pieces of pain au levain. Nearly worth going to work for…..now for a close up:

 

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who killed coq Aubin?

 

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There are but a few bottles that remain untouched from my wine cellars of yesteryear. I am miserly with them but there is a limit to the wisdom of such miserliness when the object of one’s affection has a finite life span. Had the remaining wine in question been an outstanding grand cru, still in its pomp and with many more years of life left in it, then it would still be reclining on its rack where I could admire and fondle it to my miserly heart’s delight..but it wasn’t. What it was was a very good wine, a 1999 Saint Aubin “Les Castets” Hubert Lamy which had been more than a little compromised by being moved from pillar to post, and indeed from country to country, since it’s purchase in London in 2000, but it wasn’t , by any stretch of the imagination, an “intouchable”.st.aubin_112758 Last weekend I was contemplating what I should  cook for a family lunch to celebrate the beginning of another year of my life. In my case, such contemplation revolves around the bookshelves. Glass of wine in hand, I glance along the spines of old favourites occasionally plucking one out and flicking through the pages to see if some memory is resurrected, some new enthusiasm kindled. The monumental “Ripailles” by Stéphane Reynaud, with its upholstered cover and silk ribbon page marker, is a book that gives me pleasure just to hold in my hands and through whose pages I never tire of rummaging. On this occasion my eye was caught by the words “coq au Chambertin”. Not coq au vin but, gloriously, coq au Chambertin. There is a group of stellar wines, all astronomically priced, that include the word Chambertin in their nomenclature, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, of which the simple Chambertin is not a member: although the right one can be a very good wine indeed. My Saint Aubin was certainly its equal and so the die was cast. Coq au Saint Aubin would be dinner. There are many and varied recipes for coq au vin, and I have tried a fair proportion of them with varied degrees of success. For some reason I had never tried Stéphane Reynaud’s and I can assure you that it is the one that I will contrive to use henceforth. Simplicity in the wording and layout of a recipe seduces me unfailingly. I am aware that there is often the necessity for wordy recipes that involve a series of complicated and appetite reducing operations and like Odysseus, the well known mutton chef*, I remain deaf to their Siren song. Let others graft while I groove.
(*could “mutton chef” be the origin of the rhyming slang ” Mutt and Jeff” for “deaf”)
This is the recipe from the wonderful “Ripailles” by Stephane Reynaud. If you haven’t got the book, get it.

coq au chambertin

 

Posted in 2015, Art photography, Chicken, Cookery Writers, Cooking, Cuisine bourgeoise, Digital photography, Drinks, food, Food and Photography, Food photographer, France, Photography, Poultry, Stephane Reynaud, Uncategorized, wine, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Not dropping my knickers whilst shopping….

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I like to feel that I eat seasonally  but, to be honest, I’m not sure what that means. My knowledge of the arrival and departure dates of fruits and vegetables is, at best, rudimentary and at worst, notional which failing I blame on memory and shops conspiring to confuse a tired old mind by stocking the fruits of all seasons in all seasons; so, on seeing a box of small and perfectly formed purple artichokes in the shop I assumed that the season for such artichokes must be upon us. Sticking to my seasonal ethic, I bought one. I should have bought more but that only became clear later. The one that I bought, destined to be but a photographic model, did not figure on the clearly defined shopping list in my hand,  so to purchase more would have stretched the thin elastic of our budget to the point where my financial knickers would have been around my ankles, which look I have never considered to be a crowd pleaser.

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On the other hand, the purple artichoke is very much of a crowd pleaser. Her good looks are self evident, but her beauty extends far deeper than her skin. The more attention you pay to her in preparation, the more she reveals. What I was looking for in this beauty was more than good looks: I was looking for heart.Elizabeth David  speaks of a famous salad of artichoke hearts and foie gras and her trepidation at the thought of such a rich salad being served as a palate cleanser after a mighty dinner at La Mere Brazier.

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As luck would have it, or as very fine judgement in the kitchen would have it, this was not the case. The dish that came to the table was the simplest salad of a single, warm artichoke heart, on a bed of green leaves, dressed with some olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt. Very pretty and pretty wonderful as I found out for myself, in humbler surroundings, yesterday.

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Eating my words….

“..and the word was made flesh” was a phrase, my education having been charged to Roman Catholics, that I often heard yet understood not at all. Words became my friends early on and they would have been even more welcome had they been edible. Eating had not yet become a pastime in those post war days: food was rationed, eating occurred at scheduled times and I treated food solely as fuel. Getting enough fuel was the problem to which I devoted endless ingenuity. In my pre pubescent years food held sway in my imagination to the point where I remember defacing the title on my Shorter Latin Primer so that it appeared as the Shortbread Eating Primer, which creative editing was thoroughly worth the six strokes of the cane that was deemed a fair punishment for such a flagrant display of greed. As the years passed my mind divided its time between food and sexual fantasy until, by my mid teens, food was totally forgotten as there just wasn’t room for it in my cerebral seraglio. It was not until my late twenties that I was introduced to a sort of  food  which bore little or no resemblance to that which I had previously known. It was a coup de foudre…I was in love. The love of food and cooking is invested with the core qualities of true love in that it sustains those with whom it is shared whilst simultaneously giving pleasure. With words and food in mind I have started to reflect as to how I would overcome the problems of understanding a menu, or indeed shopping for ingredients, in a land whose language was unknown,or at least unfamiliar, to me.

14Lunch al fresco Provence copy

As I count myself among the worst travelled people in the world this has presented me with problems that I had not previously considered. I say “worst” rather than “least” as I have indeed travelled but completely failed to take any notice of  these exotic destinations while I was there. I tended to spend my holidays in the hotel to which I had travelled where I passed my time wondering as to why I was frittering away my money in some far flung fleshpot when I knew I was quite capable of extreme frittering in the comfort of my own home and that without the misery of the airport experience.  Whilst some web sites and businesses may use online translation software there is an abundance of signage, menus and other documentation that suggests that many do not, which omission leads to the most creative examples of nonsense writing, outside of the works of Lewis Carroll. It may be true to say that the majority of translations from one language to another, unless undertaken by academics with a deep and exhaustive knowledge of both languages, are at best loose and at worst comical. This misunderstanding is not limited to places off the beaten track as I have come across hopelessly inept translations even in the cosmopolitan French riviera where, in an Armenian restaurant, I saw some extraordinary translations from French into English such as “let us pepper and mussels” for “moules au poivrons” which is a perfect example of someone misusing a dictionary to create nonsense. It makes me think that “Fritto misto mare” could be translated as “frittering in a sea mist” at which I am very accomplished.

Computer generated translations can be even more arcane as this recent invitation to participate in an auction of photographic prints for charity illustrates: ” As a plastic festival-goer photograph, would you like to take part of this exceptional event and offer one or several of your food photographs to put them on sale? In this capacity, we inform you that this rummage sale is only looking for the emphasis of your work: the auction results of a rummage sale aren’t published therefore your rate won’t be changed in a good or a bad way.” It’s the miraculous fashion by which words, that I recognise, are so rearranged as to be so close to having a meaning whilst avoiding that all important purpose with the aerobatic agility of a fat man, silkily airborne at the moment of slipping on a banana skin, that takes away my breath. It is this verbal prestidigitation that leads me to be more confused by the translated instruction manual for a new TV set, manufactured somewhere such as Taiwan or Korea, than ever with any food situation. Trying to make a machine function according to instructions created and translated by another machine that has been operated by someone with little or no knowledge of my language is too Kafkaesque for most people…and me. Food, on the other hand, can be assembled without resorting to a handbook. It matters not a fig/viikuna/fica/incir/fik or feige what the sign on a box of figs says because you can see the figs/viikuna/ficas/incirs/fiks and feiges in the fucking box: so figs can safely be on the menu and so it goes on. Somehow food can be worked out in whatever language but it’s the other parts of life that are so confusing and so easily translated to mean exactly the opposite of that which was intended. The remarkable Gerard Hoffnung, in his letters from a Tyrolean landlord gives a wonderful example of how the letter written with the aid of a foreign language dictionary can end in tears whilst the following piece, that I found on the internet, shows how a computer generated translation takes us into a world hitherto unimagined by the traveller.

Getting There:
Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests.

The hotel:
This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery. Highly skilled nurses are available in the evenings to put down your children. Guests are invited to conjugate in the bar and expose themselves to others. But please note that ladies are not allowed to have babies in the bar. We organize social games, so no guest is ever left alone to play with them self.

The Restaurant:
Our menus have been carefully chosen to be ordinary and unexciting. At dinner, our quartet will circulate from table to table, and fiddle with you.

Your Room:
Every room has excellent facilities for your private parts. In winter, every room is on heat. Each room has a balcony offering views of outstanding obscenity! You will not be disturbed by traffic noise, since the road between the hotel and the lake is used only by pederasts.

Bed
Your bed has been made in accordance with local tradition. If you have any other ideas please ring for the chambermaid. Please take advantage of her. She will be very pleased to squash your shirts, blouses and underwear. If asked, she will also squeeze your trousers.

Above all:
When you leave us at the end of your holiday, you will have no hope. You will struggle to forget it.”

 

Posted in 2015, Digital photography, food, Humour, Illusion, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments