French fields

At a wedding in Provence, Mark Hix finds the spirit of liberté, fraternité and ratatouille
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A wedding party is always welcome. But when the knot is being tied at a Buddhist ceremony in the south of France, the groom is Jason Lowe, food photographer for The Independent Magazine, and guests include my predecessor on these pages, Simon Hopkinson, and Fergus Henderson of St John in east London, you really know you're in for a weekend of serious fun and feasting.

A wedding party is always welcome. But when the knot is being tied at a Buddhist ceremony in the south of France, the groom is Jason Lowe, food photographer for The Independent Magazine, and guests include my predecessor on these pages, Simon Hopkinson, and Fergus Henderson of St John in east London, you really know you're in for a weekend of serious fun and feasting.

For some of us it started before we set off. Fergus and Margot Henderson and I had a late lunch of deep-fried tripe and chips washed down with a few bottles of red at St John before heading for Nice via Luton.

The next morning, immediately after the deed had been done outside in a meadow, we got down to the business of preparing the evening's feast. By 11am Simon Hopkinson and I were picking French beans and sampling the local rosé de Provence. Simon's fans won't be surprised to hear that he was pedantic about topping and tailing the beans. If it sounds strange that the guests were put to work, for some of us it was second nature, and a relaxing and sociable way to spend time together and make a contribution to the wedding party.

Everywhere you looked there were chefs and food fanatics surrounded by overflowing, colourfully sun-ripened boxes of courgettes, radishes, peppers and onions, and even more beans, chopping and peeling, smoking and drinking. This may have been the south of France but a paella pan the size of a satellite dish was biding its time for the main course. And a big wheel of Parmesan appeared as if from nowhere. The finest ingredients seemed to be turning up from all over Europe. Jason and his bride Lori looked relieved when food writer Paul Richardson arrived from his home in Spain. He'd lugged over the rice for Jason's paella, plus a couple of legs of pata negra which went down extremely well with the rosé.

Before Jason's massive rice extravaganza proved the highlight of the night, there were 700 fines de claires oysters from Brittany to kick-start the evening's festivities. These had been shipped by Ben and Robin of the Wright Brothers, the relatively new oyster suppliers building up a cult following in London.

If not all the food was local, all around us was produce and aromas to inspire. Just walking down to the meadow meant trampling through wild herbs such as thyme and marjoram. Cooking in the south of France isn't complicated - the best things in life often aren't. And with these herbs and an abundance of tomatoes you already have a Provençale sauce. It's impossible to go wrong, too, when there are olives, artichokes, figs and melons wherever you look.

Even if you're not on holiday in the Mediterranean, drinking the local wine in situ, right now the fruit and vegetables from the south of France are ripe and ready for capturing the spirit of Provence.

Crudités with anchoïade

Crudités are perfect for summer nibbling, as a starter or to offer with drinks. Use any seasonal vegetables that appeal, choosing the ripest, tastiest, tenderest or crunchiest you can find. In the south of France you find baby artichokes - simply peel them and eat the tender hearts - young carrots, spring onions, peas in their pods, radishes and so on. And you don't need to do any cooking.

As a dip for the delicious raw veg, try mayonnaise mixed with chopped black olives, lemon mayonnaise or a classic anchoïade. This is made by pounding a couple of cloves of garlic with a pestle and mortar, adding a drained can of good-quality anchovies and then blending in a little lemon juice or wine vinegar and a little more olive oil. Add more or less garlic and anchovies according to taste.

Ratatouille

Serves 4

Ratatouille (pictured right) comes in all sorts of guises but essentially it is a vegetable stew containing the ingredients below. The vegetables can be cut up small or big, neatly or roughly, but what matters most is the final flavour you get from cooking them all together. Nothing is more redolent of Provence.

4tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 red peppers, seeded and cut into rough 2cm dice
1 medium-sized aubergine, cut into rough 2cm chunks
1 large or 2 small courgettes, cut into rough 2cm chunks or thickly sliced
4 tomatoes, skinned, the seeds squeezed out and cut into chunks
A few sprigs of fresh marjoram, torn
A few sprigs of basil, torn
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook the onions, garlic and red peppers for 4-5 minutes on a medium heat without colouring. Add the aubergine, courgette, tomatoes and marjoram, season with salt and pepper, cover with a lid and cook on a medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring every so often. Add the basil leaves and cook for another 5 minutes with the lid off, stirring occasionally. Re-season if necessary and serve.

French beans with girolles

Serves 4

Ring the changes on a simply dressed green- bean salad with some seasonal girolle mushrooms. The Scottish girolle season is well underway now and if you are near a good greengrocer or food market you may just be able to find some. All the better if you're a mushroom forager and can pick your own. Serve this as a starter, side dish or part of a buffet selection.

200g French beans, topped and tailed
200-250g girolles
50g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, peeled
3tbsp olive oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First, make the vinaigrette. Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and preferably leave to infuse at room temperature overnight or for at least an hour.

Cook the green beans in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes or until just tender then drain. Meanwhile heat the butter in a frying pan, add the girolles, season and gently cook them for 4-5 minutes, giving them an occasional stir.

Put the beans and girolles into a bowl, while still warm, season and dress well with the shaken vinaigrette.

Marrow tart with black olives and goats' cheese

Serves 4

We tend to think of marrows as massive things. But for eating, they're best when they weigh in at under a kilo. Those biguns that competitive British gardeners grow for horticultural and village shows are probably only fit for the compost heap, not for cooking with. Like courgettes, even the smaller marrows can be quite bland, so they need a bit of perking up and after all that practising on courgettes the flavours of Provence are just right for the job.

500g puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
250-300g marrow, halved, seeds scooped out and cut into rough 2cm dice with the skin on
2tsp tomato purée
6 ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped
A few sprigs of oregano or marjoram, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
120g soft goats cheese

for the dressing

10-12 niçoise or any good-quality black olives, stoned and chopped
A few leaves of basil roughly chopped
2-3tbsp olive oil

Roll the puff pastry to 1/3cm thick, leave it to rest for 15 minutes then cut into 4 rectangles, each 14cm by 11cm. Prick them all over with a fork to prevent the pastry rising too much, then put them on a baking tray. From the rest of the pastry cut 1cm-wide strips as long as you can. Brush the edges of the rectangles with the beaten egg. Lay the strips along all four sides, and trim them to form a ridge all the way round. Mark these edges by pressing half-moons all over them with the blade of a knife or use a special pastry crimper. Then brush the edges with the egg. Leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

While the pastry is resting make the filling. Lay the marrow on a tray and sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt. Gently cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Add the marrow and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato purée, tomatoes and marjoram, season with a little salt and pepper and cook on a medium heat for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally until the marrow is tender. The sauce should not be too wet. If it seems a little sloppy cook for another 2-3 minutes. Leave to cool a little.

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C/320°F/gas mark 3. Bake the pastry for 7 minutes and remove from the oven. Turn up the oven to 200°C/390°F/gas mark 6. Spoon the marrow mixture into the centre of the tarts and break the goats' cheese into small nuggets on top. Bake the tarts for 7-8 minutes and serve with the dressing spooned over the top.

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