Friday, May 21, 2010

Rhythm is a Dancer owes me

Though we all fancied Julian but secretly wanted to be George, poor Anne in The Famous Five didn't have much of a role to play except for a fabulous line in hairbands and her oft-repeated sentence about how food always tasted better outside. Or maybe it was George who said it. Hairbands, gingerbeer, Timmy the dog, whoever... They were right.

I'm in Provence at the moment and here it's all about eating and in fact, doing everything outside. The weather is hot, the markets stalls are laden with food and I'm working my way through some of the region's classic recipes. Provence is a place I return to again and again. After college years spent slaving in restaurants in Antibes and being groped by Calibria's mafia along to Rhythm is a Dancer in atrocius Juan Les Pins Nightclubs, Provence owes me. Big time.

And so I come back again and again. I sit in the sun, I moan about sunburn, I eat and I cook. I even got married here, and tried to pay off the local gendarmes for trying to close down the party at nine the next morning. Provence owes me but I owe it so much more. Its produce is simple and local, it's throw-it-in-the-pan cooking; have a glass of wine, talk with friends while it's happening and a great meal appears from nothing, simply because the ingredients are fresh and local, and the classic combinations of olive oil, basil, rosemary and thyme are things you can rarely get wrong.

Ratatouille is one of the regions best known easy, wholesome dishes and something I cook a lot at home. It's so simple; courgettes, aubergines, peppers, onions, tomatoes, herbes de Provence, and anything else you fancy; slow cooked (if you can get your hands on a flat earthenware Provencal dish pictured above it makes it even better), bung it in the oven for a few hours and eat eat eat. Frying off the courgettes and aubergines first helps the cooking time but anything that will look after itself in an oven is always a favourite of mine. It's a plain, rustic but great tasting dish, and it goes with everything from some grilled mackerel (following a marinade of lemon, garlic and flat leaf parsley), a piece of barbequed beef, or on it's own accompanied by some crusty bread or rice.
Another local dish that's a really easy supper to do at home in Ireland is goat's cheese; (a slice from a roll of goats cheese or an individual small round piece) grilled on a slice of baguette. This is a dish that takes 5 minutes to prepare, but is really lifted by a simple sauce of cherry tomatoes cooked with olive oil and seasoning in a saucepan with a few bits of local ham, salami or whatever you have thrown in. Spoon the sauce into the centre of the plate, on top of it place the grilled slice of baguette with its slightly melted goats cheese, a few leafs of basil and a splash of olive oil. The combination of the tartness in the goats cheese with the sweetness of the tomatoes is mouth watering. It also looks fabulous, a far more impressive dish then the time it takes to prepare.

The Provencal house I am staying in is laden with serious cookery books; Julia Child, Elizabeth David - they're all here. What I especially love about Elizabeth David was her fantastic attitude to life and her cooking reflected this. She used food as a way into understanding how the French lived, and explored different regions of France, and recorded their cooking in a time when women didn't travel alone to small villages chatting to mountainy men about how they killed their lambs. She was a pioneer and being in Provence brings so much of her writing alive. How lovely to be in such a vibrant food culture where cooking is simple, fun, social, and the whole place has pride in its local food without making it fussy. There are so many people doing good things in Ireland with food to put it on the right path again, it's just lovely to sometimes be in a place where it all feels so much easier. And lets face it, the sunshine helps. x

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