Monday, 15 March 2010

Le Parfum de Paris

We are off to Paris  - after two months of dark days, dreary diet and nowhere near enough cake, we are cheering ourselves up with a week of total self-indulgence.

I have visited Paris many times, the first with my parents when we stopped on the way back from one of our interminable car tours of Europe. I was very young and all  I remember is that we spent a hot afternoon in a floating swimming pool on the Seine and that we went to the very top of the Eiffel Tower leaning over the railings before they netted the whole thing in to stop people chucking themselves off.

Years later in the late 70s I revisited Paris with two girlfriends.  We had been given the offer of free accommodation in the apartment of a friend of a friend whom we had never met. We were young, impressionable and impecunious but full of excitement at the prospect.  Even more so when the friend of a friend turned out to be wearing leather trousers decades before Ross made them look ridiculous by getting stuck in them on 'That' episode of Friends.

I hadn't remembered the 'friend of a friend's' name until digging out these old photos.  I had written on the back of this one 'Francis - he said he wore the leather trousers in case he fell off his motorbike!'.  Whatever - it was all terribly exciting and even sleeping on the floor of his small left-bank flat seemed  the height of Parisian glam to us.

 The ingenue below is me - I can't believe I ever looked so sweet and innocent.  I was never sweet.

We did the tourist stuff, the Louvre, Notre Dame and again visited the Eiffel Tower but as I remember I didn't make it to the top this time..

Francis took us to Chartier's - to experience an authentic Parisian restaurant.  Bustling,  boisterous, the bill written on your paper tablecloth and garlic laden food.  I think someone had frogs legs - maybe it was me because my digestive system started rebelling against this onslaught!  We walked back to the apartment along the romantic banks of the Seine, as we approached a bridge I fell back and to ease my discomfort 'let one go'. Unfortunately I must have been up wind because Francis immediately remarked 'The Seine is very beautiful at night - but sometimes it doesn't smell so good!'.

I have since revisited Chartier's with various friends, it isn't great cuisine but it is usually good honest cooking.  What it lacks is made up for by atmosphere and fun.   R has never been so this time we will be going together and it is probably just as well we are used to any of each others unromantic digestive disorders!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Fathers, Daughters, Lobsters

[Note: This post was originally published in August 2009 on my Sea of Immeasurable Gravy blog but it's more natural home is here on Fourth Plate as there will be a recurring theme of lobsters running throughout this blog.]

The Socks visited Padstow during their recent weekend away in the wet West country. Padstow, as well as being an extremely picturesque fishing village is famous for two things, Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant where we were lunching and the National Lobster Hatchery which has a deep significance for me.

My parents were Yorkshire born and bred, moving to Swansea as newly weds when my father was offered a lectureship at the University. Mum and Dad were modern day 'hunter gatherers' combining the thriftiness of their 'waste not want not' northern upbringing with the abundance of free food available on the Gower - designated the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. As a family we lived an active outdoor life and soon found the best locations for the most luscious blackberries, wild damsons, cobnuts, flavourful mushrooms and anything else the countryside had to offer. My mother kept a bucket and shovel in the car boot, stopping what little traffic there was to scoop up horse droppings from the country roads for compost.

The sea at that time was teaming with life and we fished from the beaches for bass, sole and mackerel. Best of all was the cornucopia of shellfish - my parents caught fifty or sixty lobsters each summer and served them up with salad from the garden, or my favourite way with chips and Heinz salad cream. So many were caught and cooked that sometimes I would think "Oh no, not lobster again!". Crabs aplenty too, bartered for free parking at the beaches, swapped with friends for freshly caught fish, the picked crab meat served simply in a sandwich.

The lobstering was done the hard way not with a boat and lobster pots. On the days of the lowest tides, when the sea falls back and exposes the deepest dark holes and mysterious gullies, my parents would arm themselves with hooked poles and nets and stride out in the salt wind to the rocky outcrops of the Gower coast. It would be a real 'man versus nature' battle with a good chance that a canny lobster would refuse to budge from the back of his hole or use another exit route to escape and win the day. Initiated in 'the knowledge' by a local fisherman, within a few years my father had gained a mental map of the coastal rocks from Porteynon to Kilboidy identifying the holes and ledges most likely to yield a seafood supper. He gave names to them like 'Herbert's Hole' where waist high in a rising swell of water he had once fought against the largest lobster 'Herbert' who was reluctant to be dragged from the farthest recesses of the rocky hole by my fathers prodding, pulling hook. The battle lasted over half an hour with the tide rising all the while and the sea swells coming dangerously close to submerging my father. 'Herbert' was eventually wrested from his little cave, his enormous crushing and sawing claws - enough to take a man's fingers off - waving angrily as he joined some smaller catch in Dad's fishing bag.

My mother's speciality was crabbing, no less skilled but somewhat less dangerous as the crabs were most likely wedged under ledges where the water had cleared. I once watched in horrified fascination as an enormous conger eel slid past brushing her thigh as she waded down a water-filled gully. She didn't even bat an eyelid. My brother and I were given the job of prawning, finding the most likely rock pools and scraping our nets under the ledges and seaweed to scoop out fat, sweet prawns. Less exciting was my task of de-shelling the potloads of prawns after cooking - a chore that would take ages and leave my fingers sore and puckered.

My father continued fishing and lobstering throughout his life but sadly, as my brother and I both moved away, the 'knowledge' was never passed down the family. In any event the sea no longer brims with life and what there is will be taken by trawlers. The days of "Not lobster, again!" have gone.

As children we were always encouraged to be independent and whilst we were a close knit family sharing the outdoor activities when young, as the years went on we all did our own thing and any real family closeness or support was lost. The most famous line from the film 'Dirty Dancing' should be not "Nobody puts Baby in the corner" but the more apposite "I'm sorry I let you down Daddy - but you let me down too." I think the time I made my father most proud was when I returned home for a visit and we went fishing together. The evening sun and cloud formations produced a 'mackerel sky', a sure sign that fish would be about and we walked around the headland, scrambling down onto a rocky outcrop to spin for fish. A gentle tug at the line and a flaccid fightless movement would most likely mean the bite of the now popularized pollack, a watery-fleshed fish that we would probably throw back in. I felt a hard tug on the line, something was putting up a fight, thrashing about, churning the water, with rising excitement I played the fish on the line for a while reeling it in gently so as not to lose it and eventually landed a beautiful, silvery, frantically flapping, bass. Later, as we walked back along the cliff path evening strollers asked what we had caught. My father beamed with pride and replied "I just got a couple of mackerel but my daughter caught a bass!"

When my father died a few years ago my mother, with not a lack of love but a typical lack of sentimentality, wanted a fast funeral with no speeches. It was an overly religious service for a man who was an atheist and said nothing about the man himself, his life or his achievements. Neither would my mother let us scatter his ashes in the obvious place, to be carried on the wind over the farthest rocky headlands at Porteynon where he had spent so many happy and productive days. It left me feeling angry, sad and short-changed.

Then it came to me... a fitting tribute. At Padstow's Lobster Hatchery for a small donation you can adopt and name a baby lobster which will be released off the Cornish coast after a few years. Their site gives details of when and where the adoptees are liberated. I sent them a donation and adopted 'John Phillip' who was recently released off Newlyn. It makes me laugh to think "John Phillip swims with the fishes" and also that he may have already ended up on someone's seafood platter. If so, I do hope that whoever has eaten him enjoyed the lobster as much as my father did!

And what would my father think of this? He would no doubt roll his eyes and mutter "blithering idiot" his favourite description of his offspring.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

El Bulli Discovered

We are back in 1997 and this is where we establish our food credentials - we discovered El Bulli  just before news of Ferran Adrià's culinary genius was unleashed on the gastronomic world.

The Gault Millau guide has always been our favoured restaurant reference for France being much more in tune with our way of food thinking than the Michelin.  We had been subscribing to the Gault Millau's monthly magazine, the interesting food articles and recommendations providing a great way to improve our French.  An article about El Bulli had caught my eye, the Gault Millau guide had awarded it 19/20 - an outstanding achievement and one of only a handful of restaurants outside of France to gain a mention (although the fact that it is only just over the border made us feel the French were somehow taking credit for it!) Details of the intriguing and creative cuisine were enough for us to factor a visit to the restaurant into our holiday plans.

For those of you who are wondering what I am rambling on about here comes 'the science bit'.  El Bulli has been voted 'World's Best Restaurant' by the prestigious Restaurant magazine a record five times.  Ferran Adrià has brought a whole new concept in creative cuisine to the world inspiring chefs like Heston Blumenthal in this so-called 'molecular gastronomy'.  El Bulli is only open for part of the year and now, if you want a reservation, you need to join millions of others in a lottery for 8000 places.  The most recent news is that El Bulli will be closing for two years so no-one will get a table before 2014.

But here we are in 1997, slightly bad-tempered and hungover having motored down from Collioure (see previous post) on a hot and sunny morning. We are rather pleased that R is driving a company car as the road out to El Bulli  from Rosas, winding around a scrubby headland, is not much more than a disintegrating track and the jolt to my hangover every time we hit a pothole isn't improving my mood.  All irritation evaporates, however, when we catch our first sight of Cala Montjoi where El Bulli is situated, a small, quiet, beautiful, blue-sea'd bay with just a glimpse of the white walled restaurant through the mediterranean trees and shrubs to the side of the bay.  We pull into the car-park, unstick ourselves from the sweaty car seats and change into our cool clean finery in the back of the car.

When I made our reservation, a month or so previously, I had asked for a table in the courtyard overlooking the bay if the weather permitted.  We were escorted to the best table we could possibly have hoped for - a cool corner where we could observe the rest of the courtyard and views out to the hills and bay beyond. We always love restaurants where they have thought to arrange the seating so that both of us can see what is going on and this is perfection.

Aperitifs are ordered and the menus bought - a tasting menu of more than twenty tapas style dishes for our delectation. (Clic on the menu picture below to enlarge.)

The charming waiter asks us if we would prefer to have any of the dishes substituted for something else. We look at him quizzically and he explains that not all the British like the large clams that form one dish, nor the sheep's brains that are quintessential to another.  We assure him that if the chef believes this to be the best combination of dishes then we would entirely trust his judgement (although I mentally reassure myself that these will be the best sheep's brains ever and not like those my mother served in a mucilaginous sauce!).  In any event with a meal comprising so many courses we can afford to take some chances.

Dish after tiny dish arrives each one a work of art in presentation and taste - some more Daliesque than others but each one exquisite, or exciting, or encapsulating the very essence of each ingredient for us to experience.  Even the presentation is an act of theatre with the waiter advising us how to eat each dish in order to get the most out of the unexpected contrasts of  flavour and texture.   Yet another treat is in store for us when we realise that Ferran Adrià himself is sat in the courtyard at a long table with a group of his students, explaining various dishes to them, how they are composed and what the expectations of each dish should be.  R and I are torn between totally devoting all our senses to the food or diverting some of our attention to listening in on his talk.  As we come to the end of our first set of courses we are presented with La espuma de homo, a small cup containing a white froth.  We are wondering what this can be,  perhaps some sort of delicate foam with a taste of smoked eel... when we hear Ferran Adrià quizzing his students on it.   Finally he solves the conundrum by explaining "It is a joke, a gift, it is just smoked water... it is nothing..".  The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner and in this it has succeeded.

We spend some happy hours grazing leisurely over the succession of dishes.  I remember the kikos con guacamole served on spoons, the paquetitos de sepia al coco et jengibre, the sesos al aceite de carbon, sheep's brains which we didn't really care for although unlike R, I did eat all of mine.  Most of all I remember the selection of desserts pictured below a triumph of tastes and techniques and best of all loads of them!

At the end of our meal we asked our waiter if Ferran Adrià would sign a copy of the menu for us as a souvenir. As we had shown such interest in the food the waiter asked if we would like to view the kitchen. The work area was completely immaculate, not a speck of food or grease or dirt anywhere just the stainless metal surfaces, lots of prep boxes and the sculpture of a ferocious looking bulls head at the front of it. The waiter laughed at our astonishment and explained that every dish was designed to be constructed and heated in only a few minutes. Total efficiency in the kitchen meant that everything was already spotless and ready for the next service.

We had had an extraordinary and unique experience.  It is easy to forget that this was in the days before Heston Blumenthal's kitchen chemistry, dramatic theatricals, and snail porridge, before every would be chef from Brighton to Lands End was producing soapy scummy spumes like the bubbles whipped off the top of the washing up bowl, before the possibility of food being amusing and witty had been introduced into our gastronomic psyche.  Ferran Adrià was the forefather of all these culinary concepts.   Was it the best meal we have ever eaten? Overall perhaps not, we have since eaten fantastic food at some other extraordinary places.  Certainly it was the first meal we had eaten of its kind and one we will never forget.

A year or so later news reached Britain of this 'new' culinary genius and the world was beginning to wend its way to the culinary mecca at Cala Montjoi.  A reporter in one of the better Sunday papers had been given an assignment to write about El Bulli.  Our hearts sank when we read the first paragraph, the woman was complaining that amongst the 'overly adventurous' dishes was a cherry dipped in lard! Another was rabbit and the reporter couldn't possibly eat "fluffy little bunnies".  Why this ridiculous woman was sent to El Bulli rather than MacDonald's has always puzzled us, her review being cliched, facile and unhilarious.  Had Ferran Adrià presented us with a cherry dipped in lard I would have been prepared to believe, that unappetizing though it might sound, he had found some fantastic unexpected taste relationship between the two ingredients.  If it proved not to be to my taste then I would have been glad that I had had the opportunity to try something I was unlikely to be presented with ever again.


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A Surfeit of Anchovies

 It is 1997 and our final destination is Barcelona in pursuit of tapas and zarzuela but there are a few stops en-route first.  We are driving across coastal Languedoc past seedy Sète a disappointing, dirty place which we once left lunchless after seeing patrons at the scruffy portside restaurants eating the local speciality encornets farcis a Sète - stuffed squid. What sounded delightful had looked and smelt like the squids had been stuffed with the steaming mess that the cats regurgitate whilst walking backwards and yowling having too greedily gobbled a tin of cat food.  Past Bouzigues where we had finally lunched at La Cote Bleue restaurant spending the afternoon lazily picking at a seafood platter presented on a basketwork ship loaded with oysters straight from their beds in the Etang de Thau, tellines (tiny clams), langoustines, and the extraordinary and exquisite violets, an iodine rich, soft-shelled sea creature that we had never tasted before nor since.  All washed down with a couple of bottles of crisp, citrussy Picpoul blanc its mineral tones so well suited to the shellfish.
Sadly we have no time to stop there now as we drive on past charmless Gruissan with its outsize beach shacks on stilts where Betty and Zorg began their mad and passionate affair in one of my favourite films, Betty Blue.  There is nothing on these drab coastal plains, with their characterless holiday towns, grid built streets, sorry sandy stretches and boring beaches, that could evoke my passion  -  just the haunting, melancholy music of the film which plays so often in my mind.
Finally we leave this charmless landscape behind and where the Pyrenees dividing France from Spain suddenly crash down into the sea, we reach our destination Collioure and prepare ourselves for a surfeit of anchovies. 

Collioure is a small and pretty medieval harbour village, the kind of place much favoured by artists... and tourists.  As we swing our car around into the narrow streets in search of our hotel our hearts sink at the sight of the ubiquitous Petit Train Touristique.  Whoever designed these white mini-monstrosities must be as rich as Bill Gates. There is not a tourist town in the entire Mediterranean (except perhaps Venice) free of the sight of Petit Trains filled, not with children, but with lazy, oversized tourists in child-sized seats their knees squeezed up into their fat flabby bellies and their dulled, gloomy gormless faces staring sightless at the sights. 
Only families might perhaps have an excuse to transport tired children in this way, although when I was a child I often walked for miles and was better for it.  Luckily our irritation is soothed by the fact that as usual we are holidaying outside of the main season, the town is quiet and the Petit Train is not yet filled with its lardsome load.
We awake to a warm sultry mediterranean  morning and head straight out in search of 'Le Vrai Anchois de Collioure'.   The Société Roque is a shop overflowing with anchovies, anchois au sel, plump salt-cured anchovies bulging in their bottles, anchois à l'huile cured in oil,  créme d'anchois, anchoïade a sweet, salty paste and anchovies marinated in a multitude of mouthwatering ways.  A line of three or four ancient women are sitting side by side at a long table gutting anchovies one-by-one, then throwing them into marinades. We buy various of the latter for our picnic lunch and several bottles of salt-cured anchovies which we vainly hope will survive in the cool-box until we get home.

We have rented scooters for the day and the hire shop manager has given us some smart, brand new ones, presumably in the belief that a quiet, fairly respectable looking couple like us will potter gently around the local villages on them.   But the minute we are out of sight we are outathere, up the mountainside on an off-piste goat track, snaking and scrambling its way to a mountain-top monastery where we finally stop to view the coast below. Further into the mountains following small roads and side tracks pausing for a delightful picnic of fresh baguette and anchovies in a spicy marinade.  Then careering ever onwards and upwards until we reach a hill top viewing spot that for some reason doesn't seem to appear on our map.  I finally have to admit, that despite my amazing map reading skills, we might be a bit lost. Two passing Germans, amidst much ho-ho-ing and shaking of heads over the map would seem to confirm it - they don't know where we are either.   "Right," I say "I think if we just go down this dirt track here and circle back round the bottom of the mountain it will be bound to take us back to Collioure."  Since then R has learnt to distrust my use of the words "just" and "bound to" in relation to distances and route following but at this time he is happy to bounce down the alarming mountain track trying to keep the scooter under control. This is fun but when we reach the bottom of the mountain there doesn't appear to be a way to "circle back around" and we are forced to keep going for some miles in the wrong direction.  Tired, hot and rather thirsty we eventually hit a main road but the signs on it are all in Spanish! The reason I couldn't find our location on the map was because we were in fact some twenty miles out of our way in a different country altogether and not on the map at all.  This unmarked, unwatched and unbordered track had most likely been used by Spanish Civil War refugees escaping to France.  Finally we find the main route and join the heavy coastal traffic back to Collioure.  We dump the battered, muddy scooters outside the hire shop and R rushes in to retrieve our passports before the owner can see that they are in a somewhat less pristine condition than when we started.

We dine on more anchovies that evening a starter of salad of salt-cured anchovies sprinkled with sherry vinegar and served with chopped hard boiled eggs, washed down with plenty of wine to slake our salt-sown thirst and enhance our already exultant mood.  This is perhaps not the best time to ensure a hangover as the next day is an important one, the memory of which will enrich the rest of our lives. It is a memory that will now  be only given to a chosen few.  We are off to El Bulli....