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Archive for August, 2010

The world is our oyster

After two weeks and a half in France, this is going to be another food and sea related post, no surprise there, as we are mainly travelling by the coast and when not at the beach, we are mostly shopping for food or sharing delicious dinners with friends. La vie est cruelle en France, ah oui!

So to recap a bit, in Normandy, we had the wonderful squid that Marie Astrid fished and then cooked for us and that was quite a special start. Then, inland, we had more meats and charcuterie, nearly overdosing on l’andouillette – a deliciously fragant and tender sausage that you grill on the barbecue.

Things became fishy, though, when we spent several days in Brittany. Ed had been surfing in Morgat in April this year and had found a great spot on the beach where he found a whole bunch of mussels. So when we went back there, his first job was to check on his tasty little friends and he filled a whole bag of them. I had foraged the odd fruit for jams or mushroom before, but seafood was definitely a new frontier, mainly, I have to admit, for fear of food poisoning.

We went back to le camping des Pins in the evening and Ed prepared his booty with what he found in the camper van, the result was quite amazing and the recipe will follow. No food poisoning the day after, so now a new world of foraging started.

We didn’t have to wait too long for a new raid on shellfish. We arrived on Sunday evening in the South West of France, in Les Landes, where Sylvaine, one of my oldest childhood friends lives, in a beautiful restored old farm, in the midst of the pine tree forest. I asked incidentally if there were good fishing spots around and she said we should go for oysters in the Arcachon Basin. Fun prospect, even if I never eat oysters.

So, here we go, on Tuesday morning, ready to be covered in stinky sea mud, as low tide of course is the imperative for this type of seafood collecting. We got there and the first steps in the mud were epic and frankly quite ‘degueulasse’. Mud up to the knee, we went on, not really knowing where to search for or what to look for, there were definitely loads of empty shells around, and finally Sylvaine spotted the first bigorneau – winkle – and soon after the first cockle. Collecting winkles is quite time-consuming, they tend to hide in between long algae herbs and isolated from each other. The French say “cueillir les bigorneaux”, picking, like for flowers or fruits, and it does make a lot of sense.

The guys, meanwhile, went on an oyster mission because we had to divide the party into two for efficiency and also because Sylvaine’s 6-year-old daughter yelled and cried a lot because of the mud and the baby crabs crawling around, and frankly, I can’t blame her, when you still wear tiny pink flip-flops, you are probably not cut-out for this kind of adventures yet.

After an hour or so of bending down and picking, we found ourselves with a couple of kilos de fruit de mer for team bigorneau and as the tide was rising, we decided to go back to meet the boys where the cars were parked. They came back with a big bag of 50 oysters all looking rugged in shape and smelling of fresh seawater. Not an appetizing sight for me, but I was glad the other foodies would make a feast of them.

Dinner time came and Sylvaine prepared the cockles in a wine and onion sauce, winkles in her special bouillon, and cooked the oysters in garlic and parsley butter. Absolutely divine and I finally enjoyed oysters for the first time.

We are staying in Les Landes a few more days, heading to the Basque country next week, and then the south coast of Spain, and then Portugal. It’s too early for mushrooms in the Basque country but I’m starting to wonder what natural delight will be up for grabs when we go.

Sylvaine really enjoyed the experience too and she has decided to make it a monthly routine with her husband and daughter. Holidays, as the mind is in that particular ‘everything is possible mode’, seem to be the starting point of many new habits, hobbies or sometimes careers. For now, it just tells me yet again that the world is our oyster, and to parody Pierre de Ronsard a French poet, who, in a sonnet to his lover, asked her to enjoy the roses of her beauty: cueillez dès aujourd’hui les bigorneaux de votre vie –  pick today the winkles of your life.

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A nation of foodies

We have spent most of our first week in the north-west of France
travelling from one relative or friend’s house to the other and while
we stopped at lunchtime for baguette, paté and cornichons picnics,
nights were all about feasting.
A sentence that the exchange German friends we had when I was a girl
said all the time, started to come back to mind last week and suddenly
resonated: to eat like a King in France. Now with the distance of 11
years abroad, I see France as a massive theme park for foodies who
know how to make food special, so much so that each region has its
spécialité.
When I was 6 or 7, I had a French educational board game meant to
teach each department name, its head town and specialty, e.g. Sarthe,
Le Mans, les rillettes. Here one learns their geography along with the
gastronomy and recite it like one would do with times tables: les
andouilles de Guémené, les calissons d’Aix, les huitres de Marennes,
la Bénédictine de Fécamp, le sel de Guérande, la moutarde de Dijon,
etc.
A lot of cheese and wine simply bear the name of the place it’s produced. In
Normandy, there’s actually a village called Camembert and when you
drive through the region, road signs point to cheese destinations:
Livarot, Pont L’Evêque… When we arrived at the Loire Valley, it was
like reading a Carte des Vins: Bourgueil, Vouvray, Saumur and Chinon.
Last year, meandering through the Bordeaux region was a trip in wine
wonderland Saint-Emilion, Sauternes and Pomerol.
When you cross those lands, you see the produce grow or graze: the
vineyards on the side of the road and the plump healthy cows chewing
greener than green grass, the life blood of the terroir. The
generosity of the environment reflects in the local wealth and the
surrounding bourgeois farms, elegant domaines and villages. People
used to get really rich from feeding and inebriating the nation.
Last Thursday, Isabelle, my cousin Jerome’s wife, treated us to a
feast and her real passion for food was contagious. It was great to
talk with someone who knows her Saint-Nectaire from her Reblochon and
where food comes from. A big part of French identity and pride resides
in knowing your gastronomy geography and to me apart from sharing
wonderful dinners with family and friends, it feels good to be home
because all this knowledge surfaces again. The proud seven-year old
comes out in me and recite the local specialities to Ed everywhere
Budgie takes us: ‘Oh! We’re in Brittany, you gotta to try the Kouign
Amann.’

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When we arrived at Katherine’s we started cooking the squid – see recipe below.
Marie-Astrid tells that it’s not the way people would have prepared
squid in Normandy years ago, as here it’s all about the dairy –
butter, cream and milk, and more cream! – and nobody would have cooked
with olive oil, it’s only new generations who have developed a taste
for the southern French style. The recipe is simple and a great way to
work on three fish  dishes: Provencal squid, bouillabaisse and fish
soup.

for 4 people

1 shallot
1 garlic clove
olive oil
6 big tomatoes
500 gr of slices squid
bouquet garni
chopped parsley

Fry the shallot, garlic clove (both chopped roughly) in olive oil.
Skin the tomatoes by boiling them in water until the skin breaks,
slice them and add them in the pot – preferably a Le Creuset type
dish. Stir and lay the squid on top with the bouquet garni and chopped
parsley.
Then cover and simmer slowly for 1.30h.
The following day you can use the remaining tomato sauce and add
chillies and cook in it some white fish and crab if available and you
have a bouillabaisse. Or you can add chillies and any fish for a fish
soup.

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Marie-Astrid, 40, a friend of Katherine’s who we are staying with on
our first two days in France, is one of the very few fisherwomen in
France and was born after various generations of Normans who
exclusively lived of the sea. She explains how traditionally in her
family, boys were sent to sea and girls worked the fish, cleaning,
selling and preserving it.
Until her father’s generation, one would see lads as young as 13 sent
on Nova Scotia, on trips lasting sometimes up to 9 months. When
parents would say goodbye, it was filled with the unspoken fear that
it could be the last.
Marie-Astrid’s uncle died at sea at the age of 22 and she remembers
well how good-looking he was in the pictures she saw of him.
Life at sea is tough, she says, and people too, no time or space to
dwell on feelings. So all was counterbalanced by the good life and
fishermen, as opposed to farmers, would by nature never become or stay
rich, ‘l’argent leur file entre les doigts’ – money slips through
their fingers – booze, girls, gambling and flash cars, like the
gypsies of the sea.
For women who sold the fruits of the sea, daily life was hardly
romantic either. Her grandmother sold fish and pushed around her
wooden trolley everywhere in town, stopping occasionally for a glass
of Calvados, the old local way of keeping good customer relationship.

Marie-Astrid picked us up at the beach to bring the squid for dinner,
and driving back to Katherine’s she shared her concerns that yet again
there was no fish that day, and this scarcity was barely helped by the
very bureaucratic European regulations. When Katherine asked what her
and her husband would do, she stared blankly at the road: ’I don’t
know’.

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After

near completion

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Before

first stages

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Highgate

I guess very often blogs start because one friend tells you: “you should write a blog about it”. In this case, it was Alice yesterday, over a big bowl of Chinese noodles at Dim T in Highgate, after our leaving party at the Flask. This is the same Alice who said “you should be a yoga teacher”, so I’ve decided again that it was a well-inspired project.

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