Food and Drink: Summer in France with one's kith and kitchen

I AM far from being the first to note that the French still care so passionately about food - despite the inroads of le quick food among the young - that it remains the main topic of conversation, all else being subject to the vagaries of fashion: la Princesse Di fading fast, politics having long been pas du tout cool (or branche), and the cinquantaine of Mick Jagger coming a poor second.

There is no puzzle about this. It forms part of a traditional French marriage between self-interest and human relations. The table is where you are most likely to see those you most care about, and probably the only place you see your family.

My wife's family vaguely centres its summers in a large, leafy house hard by Grenoble, which has, among its many rooms, two centres: two kitchens. And now that the presiding cooks of those kitchens have both died, there are as many competing meals as there are heirs.

My wife's cousins, and collateral cousins, amis de coeur and just plain friends, have been through Sete in a regular rhythm for the past fortnight. Food has been much talked about and much consumed. Custom has it that each will display his or her talents in the kitchen, and earnest discussions take place the night before, concerning the shopping of the following morning, the availability of ingredients, recipes to be used, who's best at what, the inner balance of tastes and colours.

As most of us are inexact cooks - that is, we tend not to follow slavishly the recipes we use - the three main dishes I describe below cannot be accurately traced to their origins, but they are among the highlights of our holidays; and, again unsurprisingly, they are a product of all that talking and thinking about food, part of a general food culture which may be on its way out but seems to be surviving well in our family.

Cousin Edith's Lotte Mauresque

Down here, the monkfish has two names: lotte and baudroie, the latter being the whole fish, the former the more delicate and prized tail. Almost any firmly fleshed white fish can be used for this recipe.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 3lb (1.3kg) monkfish in filleted pieces

2oz (50-60g) tomato concentrate

glass of white wine

1 large onion and clove of garlic

7fl oz (200ml) creme frache

1 level tbs curry

cognac

butter for frying

Preparation: Gently cook onion and garlic in butter until wilted; add fish, then wine and tomato concentrate and curry. Cook for 10 minutes, then flambe in cognac and remove; strain the sauce as finely as possible (in muslin or the finest sieve you have) and add creme frache at the end. Serve with sprinkled parsley.

Nathalie's French Osso Bucco or Veal Shanks

Serves six

Ingredients: 6 veal shanks on the bone, cut about 1 1/2 in thick and

preferably of the same size

1 lemon

flour

2 or 3 large onions

cognac

2 1/2 pints (2 litres) white wine

1lb (450g) ripe tomatoes, peeled

bouquet garni

2 cloves garlic

zest of 1 orange

1tbs paprika

oil for frying

Preparation: Brown onions in oil; remove and brown the meat, previously rubbed with lemon and lightly dusted with flour. Flambe with cognac. Moisten with white wine; add tomatoes, bouquet garni, browned onions, salt, pepper, pressed garlic, zest of orange and paprika. Cook for 2 hours (until meat is tender and separating from the bone).

Botsford's Lamb with Apricots

We are fortunate to live on the sea, for fish, and with a hinterland that produces splendid lamb. For this dish, the lamb is just about right in age in the late summer; because of the powerful flavours, to use young lamb would be wasteful.

Serves 6

Ingredients: boned leg of lamb cut into chunks about 2in square with as much fat removed as possible

2oz (60g) butter

flour

1 large onion chopped fine

2 cloves garlic unpeeled

about 20 dried apricots

some fresh almonds

12 walnuts, crushed

currants (white and black)

1tbs balsamic vinegar

juice of 2 lemons

1/2 pint (300ml) stock (chicken or lamb)

1 3/4 pints (1 litre) white wine

3 bay leaves

small sprig rosemary

1tbs fresh thyme

1tbs hot paprika

salt and pepper to taste

Preparation: Brown lamb chunks, lightly floured, in butter in which onions have been wilted. Soak dried apricots in water for 1 hour. Stuff them with almonds and add to the meat, plus lemon juice, stock, wine, herbs, paprika and garlic. Turn regularly. When the meat begins to cook add vinegar, walnuts and currants. Simmer, covered, on a low heat for about 2 hours. Check flavouring regularly. The blend of smells and tastes should be both light and 'high' (lemons and wine), and dark, rich and 'low', or earthy (vinegar and currants). Far from rendering this dish sweet, the apricots make it slightly tart.

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