The Best of Europe: Cook's tour

Britain's cooking is improving, but you can't beat the Continent, says Simon Hopkinson. He picks a classic dish each from France, Italy, Spain and Greece. Photographs by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The great and good may bang on about how our new appreciation of food has turned us into gourmets, but I, for one, will have none of it. There is good food to be found in Britain but I still get a warm glow when I think of the Channel tunnel. To suggest - as did one misguided food-guest on Dorinda Hafner's TV feast recently - that we now take ideas, ingredients, and dishes from "abroad", and simply "do them all better" is perhaps the most ignorant statement I have heard for some time.

The surfeit of over-designed mini-chain establishments financed by City money - the recent takeover of The Ivy and The Caprice by the Belgo group surprised everyone - really bothers me. At least in Paris, Jean-Paul Bucher - the Alsatian entrepreneur whose group, Flo Prestige, owns an empire of brasseries - balances a love for finance with a passion for a decently cooked andouillette. I doubt the sharp-suited Brits have even heard of an andouillette - let alone smelt one grilling.

Then there is the growing breed of the ego-driven chef; one in particular who seems more interested in a relationship with the press than with making froth in a small cup. The recent fiasco between Gordon Ramsay and AA Gill is one of the saddest moments in the history of British gastronomy. Apart from the fact that Gill knows what actually tastes good, to be used as part of a shoddy publicity stunt smacks of bad taste - especially from someone who has a delicate hand with a blender stick. It's enough to make you want to buy your first single Eurostar ticket.

You see, in continental restaurants, mostly family-owned, where the stoves are old and worn, the food is prepared with little blast, lambaste or pain. They just get on with it. And they know it's good without having to be informed in the tabloid press.

In these places, it is understood that you are hungry, or you would not have decided to eat in the first place. In general, the British are not good at eating out. Even with our countless trips to Europe and our tales of the perfect aubergine a la creme enjoyed at a little auberge in the Auvergne, even though it is now (supposedly) understood that the finest Spanish serrano [ham] is "better than anything Italy can produce" (as one learned gourmand proclaimed recently), the average Wasp has never learnt to eat simply because it is the right time of day.

So it is with fondness and familiarity that I now embark upon a potted tour of my affair with continental eating. With restaurants, I favour the places that survive on convention and habit - monotony at its most exhilarating. If it is simply a dish under discussion, it will be indigenous, traditional and nothing new. Familiarity breeds content.

I now eat in places where I know I will be looked after, recognised as a regular and as someone who clearly enjoys eating well.

With this in mind, I would be happy to have my last lunch - and it would be lunch - chez L'Ami Louis, in Paris, off the rue Turbigo in the third arrondissement. This place is just so far away from that bloody seared- tuna-and-a-bit-of-rocket that it makes me want to take all the clowny- trousered chefs in London to lunch here with me. It would cost me a small fortune, but it would be worth it. L'Ami Louis is not, how shall we say, cheap, but I would rather eat the snails and roast chicken here than almost any other dish I have eaten in my life. The composed desserts, however, are quite dreadful. The sensible option is either framboises or fraises des bois - and a large vessel of creme fraiche au lait cru. I remain chuffed to have introduced Albert Roux to L'Ami Louis.

France

Escargots a la Bourguignonne, serves 2

24 tinned snails, with shells for the garlic butter:

250g unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

25g peeled garlic cloves - as fresh as possible - finely chopped

40g parsley leaves, finely chopped

15g dry breadcrumbs

1tbsp Pernod (not optional, as it makes the dish)

1 level tsp salt

a generous grinding of pepper

4 good shakes Tabasco

Note: if you cook this dish, one assumes you have the appropriate snail dishes and implements to hand. However nicely tinned the snails are, I always re-heat them with more aromatics - a little chopped onion and carrot, a splash of white wine, a squeeze of lemon juice, a little salt, pepper, bay and thyme. Simmer gently for 20 minutes and cool.

To make the butter, mix the eight ingredients together in a bowl, using a sturdy whisk. If you do it in a food processor, fit a plain mixing paddle rather than the cutting blade - the chopped ingredients should not end up as a mush. Put into a bowl and chill.

Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. First, press a little bit of butter into the shells and push well inside the housing. Now insert a snail, pointy bit uppermost, and also push well in, leaving room for a further cap of butter. Fill with a generous thumbful of the butter, smear the opening well, and seal neatly. Place the shells in the dish - their apertures as horizontal as is possible - and bake for at least 10 minutes, or until they are all bubbling angrily, smelling impossibly good and seemingly too hot to eat. It would be ignorant not to serve an especially fine baguette with these buttery gastropods.

Italy

It took me much longer to enjoy Italian cooking than French. As a family, we camped for two weeks on the isle of Elba, when I was 11. Everything seemed to be cooked in tomato sauce, then covered with cheese. Spaghetti was like this, pizza was like this, and meat rarely received different treatment. The latter was almost certainly veal, but it bore little resemblance to Dad's superlative Saturday-night blanquette de veau.

The only pasta I knew about then was Mum's macaroni milk pudding, and it was actually in a French restaurant that I ate my first good plate of pasta. Le Saint-James, in the tiny village of Bouliac, it was, up in the hills outside Bordeaux, in 1981, the day after Diana Spencer married the future King of England. There I was literally drooling over a plate of raviolis aux cepes. I have never forgotten these diminutive khaki pillows, bathed in their ivory cream sauce, so incongruously eaten on French soil. Anyway, here is my favourite spaghetti recipe: no tomatoes, no cheese, just that memory of garlic warmed with olive oil. It goes without saying that we never had it in the summer of '65, we just smelt other people eating it.

Spaghetti with chillies, garlic and olive oil, serves 2

8-12 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

4 tbsp virgin olive oil

200g dried spaghetti

salt

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

Cook the garlic very gently in a small pan with a tablespoon of the oil, until golden and soft. Lift out with a slotted spoon and put onto a small plate; reserve the oil. Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain well in a colander and rinse with warm water. Now take a roomy frying pan (preferably non-stick) and add the garlic-flavoured oil together with the rest; it may seem like a lot of oil, but it is an oily dish. Heat the oil until medium hot and add the chilli flakes. Allow them to splutter briefly and then tip in the spaghetti. Turn and toss the pasta around until well coated with oil and the chilli, then re-introduce the garlic. Turn the heat down a little and then gently keep turning the spaghetti until it takes on a little colour itself; sort of golden and crusting slightly, which gives the pasta an interesting flavour and texture. Turn onto two very hot plates. Eat at once.

Spain

Before we de-camped to Elba, we had first camped, for three glorious summers, on the unspoilt Costa Brava, in Catalonia. I didn't know it was called this then, it was simply a long way from home, sunny and hot, had this ridiculously blue sea to swim in. How lucky to have an adventurous and determined mother, who bullied us (nicely) to travel all the way from Bury to Barcelona, go brown in the sun, drink water out of bottles, persuade my father to say cerveza instead of "A bottle of Bass please" and to eat yellow rice with octopus. The blue-black mussel shells that were sticking out of it I already knew about: always a favourite first course to precede that blanquette de veau ... In Spain, rice is a staple, not in the same way as in India or China - as an accompaniment or source of necessary carbohydrate - but as an all-in-one meal. It is cooked with shellfish when near the sea, or with meat, fowl or game when inland. Snails are almost always included in meat versions, mussels take their place at the seaside. Of course, these are both versions of the dish we are now familiar with as paella, the one Spanish dish that everyone knows. But rice dishes cooked in the traditional cazuela (shallow brown terracotta pot) are also used in Spanish rice cookery. The following recipe uses this dish, allowing all the ingredients to cook together gently to one magnificent whole.

Salt cod and chickpea rice pot, serves 2

350g dried salt cod fillets (soaked overnight in several changes of cold water)

1 tsp saffron stamens

250g passata

4 tbsp olive oil

6 cloves of peeled garlic, thickly sliced

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 small sprigs of fresh rosemary

2 bay leaves

a good slug of dry sherry

1 x 400g can of cooked chickpeas

500ml light chicken stock (better than fish stock, strange as it may seem)

250g Spanish rice (Calasparra is the finest)

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Poach the salt cod in fresh water for 15 minutes. Switch off the heat and leave to cool in the water until warm enough to handle. Lift out the fish and remove its flesh from any clinging cartilage. Place the flakes into a dish and discard the bones. Soak the saffron stamens in a couple of tablespoons of the warm cod-poaching water, in a small bowl. Pour the passata into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and reduce over a gentle heat until thick and viscous.

Warm the olive oil in a terracotta cazuela (or a solid-based, shallow Le Creuset-style pan) and add the garlic. Cook gently until it turns golden and is crisp and sticky. Add chilli flakes, rosemary and bay leaves and stir around as they briefly sizzle. Now, stand back, and pour in the sherry, which will splutter. Almost immediately tip in the chickpeas, juice and all. Stir in, add the stock, steeped saffron and prepared salt cod flakes. Bring to a simmer, check for salt - you should not need any - and stir in the rice. Put in the oven, uncovered, for 40-50 minutes or so, until the top is golden and the rice underneath cooked through. A meal in itself.

Greece About half-way along the tricky E90 three-laner between Thessalonika and Alexandroupolis in Greece lies the town of Kavalla, where the boats sail to the isle of Thassos. We never left the mainland, being happy to reside in the town for the week, revelling in never hearing a word of English. We muddled our way towards translating important phrases such as "How do you manage to achieve such a crisp coating on these tiny fried anchovies?" Or "May I steal some fresh mint leaves from your garden so that I can add them to my homemade tzatziki?" Being utterly dumb in a language can make communication so much more friendly.

Apart from spending most evenings in one of the world's most beautiful bars (the Imaret), enclosed within an ancient Moorish house, set about with palms, hidden alcoves and open to the stars, we ate some good food. Invariably I chose to eat cod from a simple place near the port. This may seem curious on the shores of Aegean Sea, but it was very fresh and ate so well with the stuff called skordalia (a sort of Greek mayonnaise) that I ate much the same thing day after day. The beach cafe lunch included skordalia, too, sometimes eaten with tiny fresh anchovies, but mostly I scooped it up with slices of crisply fried aubergine.

Fried aubergines with skordalia, serves 2 as a first course

1 medium-sized aubergine, thickly sliced

a little salt

flour

olive oil, for frying

50g fresh white bread, in large cubes

150ml milk

1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste with salt

pepper

1-2 scant tbsp white wine vinegar

about 50ml olive oil

Salt the aubergines lightly and put to drain in a colander for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the skordalia. Soak the bread in the milk for a few minutes until spongy. Squeeze the excess milk out with your hands and put into a food processor with the garlic, pepper and vinegar. Pulse this poultice, adding the olive oil in a thin stream until thick and paste-like; try not to overwork the mixture, however, as you want to retain some of the texture of the bread.

Heat some olive oil in a frying pan until hazy. Dip the aubergine slices in the flour and fry for a few minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain onto kitchen paper, serve on warm plates with the skordalia on the side and pieces of lemon.

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