Food And Drink: Think shrimp

Annie Bell Live, squirming crevettes and Jean-Christophe Novelli, too. Beats food shopping in Sainsbury's. Photograph by Benoit Rajau

Sometimes when you are in northern France, it is hard to believe England is so close. My host in Normandy, Jean-Christophe Novelli, has added a converted mill in Cuves to his restaurant empire, so I asked him to join me on a trip to Granville market.

In one corner, boxes of Camembert had the pervasive ammoniacal pong and withered white rind that only the finest unpasteurised cheeses possess. On another stall, Pont L'Eveque sat side by side with a dense rice pudding blanketed by folds of golden skin, and homemade jams just right for dolloping on top. There was Calvados galore. The creme fraiche sold from a tub was thick, yellow and untreated.

Even my French friend found it foreign after a decade in England. Absorbed by boxes of live seafood, ropes of pink garlic, crates of tripe, and more trotters than even he would know what to do with, it brought on a Cantona- esque flight of fancy. "You know what the most important thing is next to the church?" J-C asked. "The market, just think about it." I wasn't sure whether he meant shopping as religion or whether I should look deeper. We walked on.

At the entrance to the market, a broad-shouldered man stood with a basket of tiny silver seafood, alive and squirming. These were crevettes grise - shrimps, which I have never found alive over here. In England, they are always boiled out at sea.

After a brief spell in a pan of salted water, these whiskered dusky pink darlings have a flavour beyond compare. If I am hungry enough, I munch on them whole, so long as there is some bread and butter and a jug of cider to wash them down. Better still is to turn them into a bisque. The flavour is one of pure seashore and dipping into rock pools with shrimping nets. The market had these, too - old-fashioned string ones with wooden handles.

Shrimp Bisque, serves 6

40g unsalted butter

1 large carrot, sliced

2 sticks celery, sliced

1 onion, peeled and chopped

30g basmati rice

800g shrimps, cooked or uncooked, rinsed well

60ml brandy

2 beefsteak tomatoes, chopped

150ml white wine

1.2 litres water

150ml single cream

cayenne pepper

To serve: single cream,

5mm croutons fried in clarified butter

Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and sweat the carrot, celery and onion for five to 10 minutes until very soft and starting to colour. Add the rice and stir it around, then add the shrimps and cook them for several minutes until they release that lovely bisque-like aroma.

You now need to flambee them in the brandy. The easiest way to do this is to pour all but a tiny bit of the brandy into the pan and warm the remainder in a ladle. This will either light of its own accord or else you can take a match to it and pour it into the pan where it will ignite the rest of the brandy. Once the flames die down, add the tomatoes, and pour in the white wine and water. Bring the liquid to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

Blending the soup can be tough on your liquidiser. A succession of quick bursts should do it, the aim is to break the shrimps up to a pulp but this can be fairly coarse.

Press the soup through a sieve into a bowl and leave this to stand for about 10 minutes. Pour it into a clean saucepan leaving behind the last little bit of soup, which may be gritty. Stir the cream into the bisque and spice it up with a suspicion of cayenne pepper; it should have an almost imperceptible bite at the back of the throat. It probably won't require any additional salt. Rewarm the soup without boiling and serve it with a swirl of cream and the croutons

Next week: Caroline Stacey reviews Novelli's Le Moulin de Jean, Cuves

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