Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tasting France. Part 1: The Artichoke Peril

By: Mr Robot

 In my head, I'm something of a Francophile. 

I think of France as a place we love, my French is only slightly more awful than my Spanish, and it was I, after all, who educated the cheesemonster that is Mrs Robot on the difference between Brie and Camembert, for goodness sake. I like to think I'm a moderately proficient shrugger.

So it was an appalling reality-check to realise our last trip was about 15 years ago. Fifteen years! How did that happen? Resolved to do better, I quickly booked a week in Paris (coming soon) and began my mission to cook my way through The Taste Of France. As already noted, it's a book we've had for years but I don't think have ever used in anger.

Where to start? Mrs Robot's recent dalliance with The Root Canal Man limited my options to fairly squishy stuff, and Riverford had kindly popped a couple of globe artichokes in our vegbox. So with that as my starting point I decided to kick off with an extravagant four-courser.

Le Menu
Artichauts Farci
Omelette a la Piperard
Loup de Mer "Auguste Escoffier"
Creme d'Homere

Stuffed Artichokes

I've you've never tried dismembering an adult artichoke, I urge you to give it a go. Only then will you understand the enormous satisfaction of NEVER EVER doing it again.

I'm kind of wishing I'd videoed it: I have no doubt it'd be a YouTube sensation with lucrative sponsorship deals rolling in from providers of medical supplies and mouth soap.

Suffice to say that after 90 minutes I had two tiny tiny bits of rapidly browning artichoke, a knee-high pile of discarded alien skin, and some excitingly arterial spray patterns across the ceiling.

From there, though, it was splendid. The forcemeat called for a mix of pork and veal, but having not planned ahead I couldn't get the veal, so substituted it with chicken thigh - much as I imagined an Anjou farmer might.

The meats are mixed with mushroom and a little double cream, and stuffed in the artichoke cavity.

This, in a stroke of genius, is wrapped with bacon to hold it all in, before being lightly browned and then simmered in half a bottle of white wine.

The artichoke tastes amazing, despite it all, and stuffing is both delicate and rich. The reduced wine has soaked into everything, bringing acidity and balance. It's real treat. 

I'm not doing it again.

Omelette a la Piperade

I've commented before that egg dishes seem tragically undervalued in Britain.

The Spanish Revueltos makes an art of scrambling, and the French do the same with omelettes. A good Omelette Fine Herbs is an extraordinary, revelatory experience.

This Pays Basque dish is your standard omelette filled with the sunshine: tomato, bell pepper, garlic, chilli, bay and thyme that have gently fried together for a good half-hour.

It's all served up with slabs of fried ham on the side.

I know what you're thinking - I'm buggered if I'm taking half an hour and three pans just to make an omelette. Well you should.

Sea Bass in Lettuce Leaves "Auguste Escoffier"

Yes indeed, we're in the big time now. There's no lengthy narrative or anecdote about the great man here: it just pops up, quite casually, in the pages of Provence between beef in red wine and (god help us) a recipe for artichokes.

It immediately put me in mind of Keith Floyd, which probably has poor Escoffier spinning in his grave, bringing simple things together with booze and cream to make a surprisingly sophisticated and happy dish. 

Incidentally if you're one of those people inclined to pull faces at the thought of cooked lettuce, I'm disappointed in you. Go and eat Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's lettuce risotto, and come back when you've grown up.

So, a stock is made with all the grim bits of fish (I had some langostine paws kicking around too - go me) with your regular stock veg and white wine.

The fish himself is cut into biggish pieces (to fillet or not? I did), dusted with flour and lightly fried for a couple of minutes each side. 

Then the brilliant bit. Blanch the lettuce leaves, wrap one or two around each piece of fish, and simmer really gently, with softened shallots, in the stock, some white wine and vermouth for a few minutes.

Finish with a splash of cream, naturally.

If the gods are kind you haven't overcooked the fish. The lettuce is soft but still light and fresh, and is a great carrier for the rich, slightly sweet sauce.

It's beyond my skill to make this thing look elegant, especially when it's my bloody dinner and the last thing I want is cold fishy lettuce, but that doesn't matter because all the elegance you need is on your palate.

Wine and Honey Cream

We're off to the Languedoc for pudding. At a casual glance I imagined it to be some syllabub-type whipped affair for serving in a tall glass (or possibly a jam-jar with a handle for those in Shoreditch). I still think that's a jolly good idea, but it ain't this.

Instead we have more of a baked custard, the kind of creme you find under a brulee: honey and wine are simply whipped up with eggs, cinnamon and lemon peel and baked on a low heat for half an hour, then left to cool. 

With typical style, I forgot to make a caramel for the moulds so they looked a bit anaemic when turned out, but you can't fault the taste.

I mean, wine and honey - if you're going to quibble with that, all I can do is shrug.

All images (c) PP Gettins

The Taste of France

By: Mr Robot

Over the last couple of years we’ve mainly been trying to expand our cookery repertoire – not least dabbling with Burmese food (largely thanks to MiMi Aye), Vietnamese (Uyen Luu), and Japanese (Tim Anderson), while my subscription with The Spicery is for a World Discoverer box that takes me all over the place (including the odd trip to pastry hell). And though we’d never claim an ounce of expertise it’s exciting and liberating and fun to explore these things.

But for a while I’ve had the nagging feeling that perhaps we’re neglecting classical European a bit, and a recent trip to the new Bistrot Pierre in Bath only confirmed that.

I’ve also had a yearning to properly do one cookbook in full, cover to cover, including all the stuff that makes me dubious or scared.

So in the spirit of a double-bird massacre I’ve decided to go full tilt at The Taste of France by Robert Freson, Adrian Bailey and Jacqueline Saulnier. 

This is a lovely book of proper traditional French fare and when we picked it up about 15 years ago
, it was very much in the foodporn spirit: it has acres of descriptive text and atmospheric photos covering each region of France, though at the time the recipes seemed impossibly challenging.

Looking at it now, there’s little to be afraid of (don’t mention the pastry) and it’s not ridiculously huge - though now I come to count I hadn’t realised it runs to 91 recipes – so meets my current needs nicely. With any luck I’ll be able to pull off a spectacular multi-course feast each month or so and we should be done in, erm, a couple of years.

It won’t be without it’s challenges, not least for ingredients. My local butcher is wonderful but we may have difficulty getting hold of the hare, calves feet, snails and frog legs I’ll need to do it in full – thank heavens for interweb mail order. 

The authors also seem strangely devoted to chervil, which appears to be extinct in Wiltshire supermarkets, so I might have to get my wellies on and sort the garden out.

I can’t say my wallet is looking forward to the Lobster pot-au-feu or Turbot gigot styke and frankly I fully expect the Dried and Salted Pig’s Liver to go to the cat. But I’m going to do them anyway, because that’s what being a Greedybot is all about.