Food and Drink: I smell the first cheese of summer
Saturday 07 May 1994
This last, I grant you, is a bit queer, and there are those who think they smell a whiff of over-ripening camembert about the old man's brain. Not so. It is simply a visceral connection with the France of my early childhood summers. These - succeeded by a month in windswept Belgian seaports with rainy beaches and afternoons spent learning tennis by being ballboy for my father (then still recently Belgian champion) - took place in Monte Carlo.
Now, the Monte Carlo of which I speak is not that overpriced place that you know and loathe, along with its overweight and oversexed royals, its snotty policemen and its dubious entrepreneurs - the sort of place Britain should have owned and handed on to China - but rather a slightly overgrown and deliciously seedy Italo-French village. No skyscrapers blocked the view from the Villa Something- or-Other (it probably had some dodgy name such as Bien Joli). No diesel yachts with bulging superstructures rode at anchor in the harbour. The pine glade behind the house ran its uninterrupted way up the corniche, strapping Italian girls occupied themselves with my brother and myself and the kitchen, we lived out of doors - tanned, filled out (at least my brother did) - and I swear I can still smell tomatoes hot from the sun and little goat's cheeses that kept cool, under muslin, in the shade.
Both were brought to us by ambulants. Yes. Well, you would not understand, I tell my children. Not by ambulance: by ambulants. In London, ambulants under berets sold onions from their handlebars. In Monte Carlo, ambulants came by to seduce one with a fish fresh from the sea, their prize tomatoes, their little board of cheeses. They also brought bread and bad news: 'Ah, oui, Madame, you didn't know that little lady down the road there, past the mimosa, she did blow her brain out. Oh, quelle histoire]'
The goat's cheeses, yes. Even then, nothing was produced in the Principality of Monaco except stamps and bankruptcy, but the area all around, having been Italian, now being French, produced goat's cheeses, in all sizes, all shapes, all consistencies. It was not popular back then to add a few herbs, a fancy name and then spread goat's cheese on bread. No, goat's cheeses were treated with respect.
They were, for instance, as they still are, bottled in olive oil for three weeks (please, only during the waxing of the moon) and then served on a plate alongside a fat, ripe, redder-than-red tomato. You bit into the one (ruddying the front of your clean Aertex shirt) and popped the other in, pinned to a fork, right after. 'And if you dirty your shirt once more, there will be no glace for you]' Of course the smashing young signorina (that summer's, for they never lasted) did not really mean it. Summer was the one time you were not punished.
Anyway, you have now followed me to my Freudian roots, and I can tell you that as May spreads its pollen here, I long to be there. Not in Monte, God forbid, but somewhere where there are ripe tomatoes and fresh goat's cheeses. I shall go down the street if my gay (in the proper sense) yachtswoman is still in business and have a warm salade de chevre: the lettuce leaves silky rather than crisp, the thin slices of baby squid tangy, the baked chevre tart, astringent, puckery.
Then, for a while, I will gorge myself and fool around with the cheese - there in nothing like long deprivation to stimulate invention. I am packed with ideas. I have a feeling that fresh sardines baked with goat's cheese, fresh capers (or at least, if bottled, well-washed ones) and garlic ought to do very nicely at lunch. Then we must try that pork tenderloin we ate a few summers back: coated in a mixture of fresh, moist breadcrumbs, garlic, thyme and fresh chevre (the sweeter kind), baked, covered for a half-hour, and then browned, uncovered, until a wonderful colour.
I have seen a recipe for something like it in an American book. They want the tenderloin, that delicious, extravagant (but not that expensive) cut, cooked a half-hour per pound. All imbrunire della sera, as the poet says, wonderfully describing the slow fall of the Mediterranean light, with a volume of Mr Leautaud's memoirs before me (special gossip, saved for the summer) and a bottle of Faugeres, too, I shall polish off a pyramide while watching the swallows swarm. There are many pleasures in life. Best are those long anticipated; but most redolent are those redolent of childhood. The Italian writer d'Arzo is right: one may hate oneself, one may hate one's life, but one does not hate one's childhood, its pleasures or its pains.
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