Provencal passions

Food: Let the joy of garlic be unconfined
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The style of food in Provence is something that never fails to seduce me. I am sure it has something to do with the climate and clarity of light of the region - everything looks so lovely and smells so heady.

Ingredients are, generally, indigenous to the region, culled from land and sea, and transformed into essentially simple fare which is eaten with passionate greed. Flavours can be brutally strong. Take aioli, for instance, that famous garlic mayonnaise that is eaten all over the region, almost as butter. Some local recipes insist on 15 to 20 cloves in a bowlful of the stuff, intended to feed only six people, perhaps. Bullish rosemary is massed around legs of local Sisteron lamb and more garlic is shoved deep into its flesh before the meat is fiercely roasted, probably over a wood-fuelled fire. The speciality of Nimes, brandade de morue, is one of the most pungent dishes, almost fetid in its appeal. Salt cod is vigorously beaten together with the fruitiest olive oil (I actually prefer the stronger tasting oil of Provence to the more refined quality of the best from Italy, but I know this is a personal matter) and, yes, more garlic and a little lemon juice. It is an intensely savoury paste, at once both slick and satiny, creamy and warm - the sort of thing you really want to eat a lot of. It is also very good for hangovers.

The vegetables and fruits that grow in Provence are some of the very finest in Europe. Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, asparagus and artichokes; melons, strawberries, greengages, apricots, quince, to name but a few, are of a sun-ripened quality that gives them just the ripest flavour - and properly ripe, picked from tree or plant when ready, not ripped untimely and gassed. This is how it is there, and when one visits the markets of the region, one begins to understand. I remember visiting Arles market for the first time, some ten years ago. It is very large and stretches along the Boulevard des Lices for a good half a mile. It is a good idea to walk the length of it, look at all the stalls and then decide what to buy on the return journey.

Stalls groan with produce. Piles and piles of salt cod in stiff slabs, heaps of green beans, string upon string of pink and purple garlic, olives of every hue in briny tubs, Mediterranean fish, glisteningly fresh, mountains of Cavaillon melons and tons of tomatoes in varying sizes, mostly deformed, and all the better for it - they always taste better, are grown for flavour as a matter of course and not because they have been told to.

Salade Nicoise, serves 4

Personally, I prefer not to include the ubiquitous tuna in a Salade Nicoise. It is not that I dislike tuna, but if the anchovies that you use - and these are an absolutely essential ingredient as far as I am concerned - are of the very best quality (Spanish ones are particularly good), then I would rather up the quantity of anchovies and forget the tuna. And I like to use ordinary lettuce rather than any of those frilly ones, or frisee and lamb's lettuce (which are winter salad anyway). However, a few leaves of rocket can be nice, and some mildly aniseed-flavoured sprigs of chervil and a few leaves of basil will add flavour; chervil used for itself for once and not just flung willy-nilly over everything as a garnish. Ingredients, in general, are a matter for you, and I become tired of people who pontificate over what should and should not be in a Salade Nicoise. For instance, I don't happen to like raw green pepper - a very common inclusion in many versions - so I don't use it.

4 eggs, as fresh as possible

1 round or little gem lettuce

chervil sprigs, flat-leaf parsley, a few torn basil leaves, rocket, etc

one heart of celery, just the tender inner stalks, sliced into strips

a large handful of green beans, topped and tailed, boiled in well-salted water, refreshed and drained

broad beans, shelled, about 4tbs, given the same treatment as the green beans

12 small new potatoes, scraped, boiled and then cut in half. Keep warm in their water until ready for use

4 ripe tomatoes, skinned and quartered

16 small black olives; the tiny Nicoises are best

1 heaped tbs capers

6 small spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

anchovies, fat and pink, and preferably ones that have been packed in olive oil - allow 5 (or more) per person

for the dressing

2tbs red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

175mls/6floz Provencal extra virgin olive oil, and deeply fruity

Make the dressing by whisking together the vinegar, seasoning and garlic in a bowl. Continue whisking, adding the oil in a thin stream until amalgamated. Put on one side. Boil the eggs for exactly six minutes, in fast boiling water, drain and refresh under a cold running tap for five minutes. Peel and cut into quarters. In a large and shallow terracotta or white dish, arrange the lettuce leaves in a single layer. Disperse the other ingredients in a random fashion and spoon the dressing over. Serve immediately.

Brandade de morue, serves 4

You will find pieces of salt cod in good delicatessens, particularly Spanish or Portuguese (in London, Garcia, in Portobello Road, has the very finest quality). When you discover a source, buy plenty, as it keeps for ages. Some recipes call for a small amount of pureed potato, added for bulk and to retain a firmer texture. But I prefer to do without. If made carefully and slowly, the flesh of the cod, once broken down in a food processor, should absorb all the oil and milk, as if making mayonnaise. Traditionally, brandade - and also the aioli - is made in a pestle and mortar, vigorously (usually by Provencal women), with strong arms. So, if that is how you see yourself, then by all means make it that way.

450g/1lb piece, or pieces, of dried salt cod, soaked in several changes of cold water for at least 24hrs

5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

4-5tbs warm single cream

150-200 mls/5-7fl oz fruity olive oil, heated to just warm

juice of 1 small lemon

black pepper - and I like a dash of Tabasco, too

Cover the cod with cold water in a pan, gently bring to the boil, and simmer for about ten minutes. Drain, carefully remove any bones and skin, flake the flesh and put into the bowl of a food processor with the garlic and milk. Pulverise for a few seconds, but do not overwork. Now, with the motor running, start to add the oil in a thin steam, stopping from time to time and scraping down the sides with a spatula. When the brandade looks glossy and homogenous, it is ready (if you have not used all the oil, don't worry, it can still be used in something else). Add the lemon juice and pepper, Tabasco if you are using it, and serve warm, straight away, with some little triangles of bread that have been fried in olive oil until crisp, for dipping.

In Italy, where this dish is called baccala mantecato, chopped parsley is stirred in during the final moments. This is a most agreeable addition and one I would advocate, though it is not practised in Provence.

Courgettes en persillade, serves 4

I made this for lunch once while staying with friends in Provence. I had already bought the courgettes, because they looked good in the market (the only reason to buy anything) and I already had some parsley, breadcrumbs, garlic, lemon and Parmesan - and there was always olive oil lurking. The dish took only a few minutes to prepare, plus a bit of time for the salting. Persillade, in Provence, refers to anything cooked with parsley and garlic, and most usually with breadcrumbs too, to soak up any oil and then turn deliciously crisp and golden.

900g/2 lb large courgettes, peeled, de-seeded and cut into half-inch chunks

a little salt

for the persillade

50g/2oz stale white bread, torn into pieces

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 small bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only

grated rind of half a lemon

very little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper

3-4tbs olive oil

freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Lightly salt the courgettes and put into a colander to drain for 30 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 475F/ 240C/gas mark 9. Rinse the courgettes briefly and dry thoroughly in a clean tea-towel. Make the persillade by putting the bread, garlic, parsley leaves and lemon rind into a food processor. Chop briefly, until the ingredients look like pale green breadcrumbs, but do not over work as the mixture may become doughy.

Now heat 2-3 tbs of olive oil in a roomy frying pan until very hot, and quickly fry the courgettes so that they take on a little colour, but are not at all "cooked". Tip into an attractive oven-to-table shallow dish. Strew generously with the persillade and drizzle over a little extra olive oil. Put into the oven on the top shelf and bake for about ten minutes until the crust is crisp and golden. Serve straight away with wedges of lemon to squeeze over each serving and a little grated Parmesan if you feel like it.

This is a perfect dish for a light lunch, on its own, with nothing else. Well, perhaps a glass of cool Provencal rose might not go amiss...

Comments