Food always takes center stage at Christmas in this and many other households. This year we departed from tradition by having the Turkey dinner today, Sunday the 22nd. I also took a different path when it came to preparation.
I started with a free-range turkey breast joint. This was marinated in buttermilk with thyme, garlic, star-anise and sage. It soaked in the fridge for 48 hours.
I also marinated in honey, a small cured pork belly. Stuffing was: breadcrumbs, sausage meat, apricots, apple, onion, sage whizzed mixed and put in muffin tins with a drop of maple syrup on top and a base of pancetta.
Some sausage meat was wrapped in the same pancetta to make little pigs-in-blankets also baked in the muffin tins.
Veg was: brussel sprout tops and the tiny sprouts from the top of the stalk, stir fired with ginger. Baby carrots baked with the pork belly in honey and parsnips roasted with the bird.
The turkey joint was slathered with butter whizzed with dried cranberry and chorizo and topped with bacon. The joint was wrapped in foil and refrigerated a few hours before spending and hour and half in a 180 oven. Then finished unwrapped for thirty minutes to crisp the bacon. The pork belly was cooked for an hour in the same oven and basted with honey regularly.
The roast spuds were par boiled and then crisped in the deep fryer rather than roasting. The gravy was made with chicken stock, Marsala wine and a dash of cream.
It felt odd eating the turkey dinner well before the festive day, but it was much enjoyed.
On the day we are going to the sea with a plate-de-mare. Oysters, prawns (or shrimp) of several kinds. Langoustine, lobster, crab and clams and whatever else looks good at the market in Cork city tomorrow.
Or in normal speak: Duck à l’orange. An absolute classic given a little twist.
I steamed 2 sweet potato, 2 red skinned potato called a ‘rooster’ here. I part cooked the duck with a whole orange inside.
Squeeze the juice and pulp. Chop a bit of peel from the cooked orange. Add: some fresh dill, a tablespoon of honey, an egg yolk, a teaspoon of cornflour (cornstarch). Mash with the potatoes and stuff in the duck cavity.
Another sprinkle of Chinese five spice over the skin and a few slices of orange on top.
Then back in a hot oven for another hour. Total cooking time two hours.
The orange sauce was a cup of good smooth fresh orange juice with a big dash of sherry and half a chicken stock cube (or equivalent.) Heat until thickened, taste and add sugar or salt as needed.
Scoop out the mash and serve with steamed buttered Kale.
Tear off the legs and carve the breast from the bone. Serve a few slices of fresh orange on top.
There is a reason this is a classic – it’s supremely satisfying.
This time, two dishes with a Farmed Rabbit. Starting with ‘Brilliant Blattered Bunny Burger’.
I should perhaps explain the Bunny thing. In one of my novels in the Daniel Series, the three main characters Daniel, Lauren and Bonny go to a restaurant called Le Turbe near Menton on the Cote de Azure. Daniel orders his favorite dish, Lapin aux Truffeles.
The text: Lapin aux truffles. Rabbit with truffles seems simple enough but there were depths to this dish that delighted him more than any other he had experienced in a restaurant. As he was about to read the menu, Bonny rather unkindly teased him by saying, “Why waste your time with that when you know you are having dead fluffy bunny with expensive fungus as usual? Listen DD, why not let me loose on garçon. and I will see if I can sweet talk them into letting you go into the kitchen to see their mystery. Put yourself out of your own misery. I’m getting sad listening to you cussing over the pots as you try to reproduce this brilliant buggered-bunny banquet.”
When he had finished laughing, Daniel agreed and Bonny wafted over to the chief-waiter with her charm motor in overdrive. She came back five minutes later looking very serious. After keeping them waiting while she finished her aperitif she said, “OK, that was like pulling teeth, but you are on. I have to come with you to translate and let the chefs ogle my glories and I had to swear ten oaths to the great Gallic God Larouse that you are not in the business and bent on robbing their famed specialty.”
“Praise be to the sainted Larouse, your French and the glories that are your titties, Bonny-Ann. I shall give praise and anoint the glories in humble and craven thanks later at a sanctified place of worship.”
Lauren nearly choked on her
amuse-buche laughing at this exchange. Soon they were all having trouble
keeping their laughter to socially tolerable levels as the giggle infection
As they drove down to Menton after,
Bonny played back the Dictaphone Lauren had given her to record recipe notes
and Daniel sighed and hummed his satisfaction, but typically thorough in his
concern for gastronomic perfection said, “Where the hell am I going to get my
hands on carefully farmed rabbit back home? Maybe I’ll get a few and a hutch.”
“Like hell you will. The children
would adopt them and never speak to you again when you blatter their bunnies to
death and they’d turn veggie on the spot.”
My daughter is
vegan and would be appalled at this recipe, but I am an unreconstructed carnivore
and love rabbit. This uses French farmed bunny, just like in the novel. I made
two dishes with it so extracted maximum value from its sacrifice.
The meat from legs and belly was minced with two pork sausage, a handful of dried apricots, fresh papaya, some fresh breadcrumbs, shallots, a few mushrooms, garlic and fresh sage. This mixture made the patties. I sealed them in pan first, then wrapped them in American style maple bacon and finished in the oven. Served with kale, piped mashed potato and topped with a sauce made with papaya and orange juice.
It was delicious,
even if had no truffles!
Next day the
bones and bits went into a stockpot to make the essential thing for a Spanish mountain
paella – good stock.
This paella uses the saddle of the rabbit, and frozen escargot in parsley and garlic butter. In the Serria Nevada mountain region of Catalan Spain, they use these rather than the usual chicken and seafood. I’ve had it there, but think my version is better.
I cooked it on the little stove and added some scallops and shrimps to the fried rabbit and picked snails. A good splash of sherry was added to the stock. Veg was mushrooms, carrots, peas, broad beans. The pan was left on the heat until the paella rice had formed a good crust on the bottom. It was served with a few glasses of sherry.
We left the Pyrenees behind and returned to the coast south of Biarritz, to the little resort of Bidart. My iPad had been left in a motel there and that was the reason and excuse for the return. We booked three nights in one of their comfortable self-catering apartments, which cost little more than three nights in a camp site – now it was high season and much more expensive.
Next day we headed into nearby Bayonne. What a surprise that was! A delightful medieval city at the confluence of the Nive and the Adour rivers and the largest city in the French Basque region. We struggled to find a spot to park our longish van but found a place under the main bridge on the west bank of the river. The bridge led us into the heart of the old town and I soon sniffed out the market – I do love French markets!
The picture shows me sizing up a charcuterie. I did not pick anything there but found a very small stall were Madame specialised in poultry. (A small Label Rouge poulet was bought here and provided a splendid meal that evening. I simmered it in white wine with mushrooms and cream.)
We wandered the ancient streets and did our usual slow gawping tour, stopping to poke our noses into any interesting corner, building, church or shop. Bayonne was a completely unexpected delight and it was well worth ignoring its bland commercial suburbs to penetrate to the old center.
We ate out one evening in Bidart and found a lovely restaurant serving organic local produce in a smart and stylish way. After dinner and good wine, we walked the few miles to the beach and spent the evening, in the fading light, being mesmerised by the seas restless beauty. My reverie was spoiled by a loud band getting going in a nearby beach surfers bar.
Next day we returned to San Sebastian in the late afternoon and having found a place to park closer to the centre than during our previous visit; set off to explore the old town and the bars serving the famous Basque version of tapas – Pinchos. We peered into a few bars before one took our fancy and then we went mad and picked far too many pinchos. Two or three at most is normal –we had five or six! They all looked so damned good – picking just a few became impossible. Mostly they are served on small slices of baguette, I stay off bread when I can, so picked others things and one in particular was such a triumph, B went back for a portion herself having at first been not keen on the look. They were little tarts filled with elvers. Baby silvery eels. Had I not already had four other pinchos, including a mouth-watering mini steak sandwich topped with ham and fried quale egg, I would have had more of those. We had a few glasses of dry chilled white sherry with the food before moving on to explore more bars laden with tempting treats. When we saw the variety, we realised our mistake in stuffing our faces in the first bar we entered. A tour of different bars with one or two pinchos in each, is the way to do it. We did enter other irresistible bars, and had a few mini snacks. We left the town feeling a little tipsy and overstuffed. No dinner that night!
We headed north to La Rochelle and an appointment with one of the ‘Plate de Fruits de Mer’ that this sea port is renowned for. We found a camp site about ten miles south of the town that had all the facilities but was a typical high season French coastal site – stuffed with families noisily enjoying the extensive water park within. It was hot – meltingly hot –over 110f. We struggled to find anywhere to park the van in La Rochelle and ended up several miles outside the center. The walk down to the port was long and sweaty. We found a cool restaurant on the sea front that was bearable inside and had water misting devices cooling the outside tables that were inexplicably packed. Why do people sit outside in the blazing sun? No, how do they? Out Plate de Mer, featured lobster, crab, oysters, langoustines, prawns and would have had bullot–welks but we refused those as they attack me. We had a bottle of chilled Sancerre rouge and spent a happy two hours peeling and picking. It was much too hot to linger long in the craft market so we headed back. Now I am known for a great internal GPS and never get lost- never except this day when I did. We headed out of town, not the way we came in but: ‘by a more direct route” – said me. We were getting seriously hot and bothered and we could not recall the name of the road we’d parked on so asking directions didn’t help. Nearly two hours later I spotted an area I recognised and we staggered into the van and swallowed pints of water. The van had cooked in the sun and was unbearably hot inside, despite superb insulation. That night getting on the bed was like trying to sleep on a hot grill. Adding to our misery was the itch of multiple mosquitos bites got siting out trying to cool off before bed. Yes we had spray and burned citronella candles but these were determined buggers that got through all our defenses.
Next day we headed to the salt marshes that surround the town, the Marais. We stumbled upon a little town called Marans on one of the big canals that crisscross the marsh. There was a boat hire place there and we hired a little motor boat for a three hour cruise. It was delightful, peaceful and infinitely interesting seeing the area and the waterside houses from a different perspective. B loved driving the little boat and it did have a nice canopy to hide from the sun – however once again our anti-mossies’ spray failed us and we got chewed to bits. Not that we noticed as it was happening – only in bed did the itching and red spots erupt.
We headed north again headed for Le Mont St Michel and a hotel of the same name. We needed respite and air-con and baths to heal from the heat and bites. I’d booked the hotel on line but when we got close we discovered it was on the causeway leading to the Mont and behind a barrier that one needed a code to open. This was new since we’d last visited the area and it nearly got me arrested! There were lines of vehicles waiting to go through and nowhere to park near the barrier. I sent B to walk to the hotel in search of the code. I stopped near the barrier, out of the way and causing no obstruction. Local police arrived and a female officer came and told me to move. I refused, explaining that if I moved B would not find me again. She kept saying I was “causing an obstruction” – “No I’m not, vehicles are passing easily alongside and behind.” She was adamant and I dug my heals in. Clearly she was not used to disobedience and was getting very agitated. French police are armed and as her hand rested on her pistol I decided to give in and move. I drove around in a big circle and came back to the same spot, just in time for a text from B giving me the code. It was worth nearly getting shot, the hotel was lovely, the free bus ride out to the Mont was fun and the food we had in a restaurant in one of the most spectacular locations on earth was average but made splendid by the stunning views.
The drive to Cherbourg and the last supermarket stock up before sailing home was uneventful and only a little sad. B said she wanted to turn around a do it all again. We could not do that but our next sailing is booked for next June and we will have another four week adventure in Rocinante – south of France and Northern coastal Italy is the target – we are counting the days. Consolation will come at Christmas when we fly to Rome for two weeks in a nice little hotel, much walking and gawping. A cheap old-fart high-speed train travel that will take us for day trips to Florence and Venice. We do love to travel with or without Rocinante.
The French wine regions are always a great draw for foodies such as us. We had done Burgundy, Rhone, Provence the Southern Languedoc and Roussillon in past years. On this trip we intended to take in the Loire and Bordeaux. My personal favorite wines all originate from the gravels to the south of the Garonne. So Grave was a target for our travels but first we headed for the Samur region of the Loire.
We had joined an organization called: ‘France Passion’. For a small yearly fee one gets a list of places that welcome motor-homes or ‘camping cars’, as they are known in France. These are mostly vineyards and artisan food producers who will provide a place to park overnight for free. One can of course, taste their produce and perhaps buy some, but there is no obligation to do so. We headed for the village of La-Cune and the domain of Jean-Luc and Jean-Albert Mary. We were given a warm welcome and parked up right beside the winery on the edge of the vineyard. We set up our generator for the first time and were therefore truly self-sufficient. Having spent an hour with Jean-Luc tasting his produce, we bought three six-bottle cases. Two rouge and one fizzy rose. We popped one for our dinner of grilled veal chops. It was a wet evening but we managed a wander round the bucolic and pretty village peering at ancient homes and bemoaning the many high fuck-off walls that spoiled our nebbing and nosing curiosity.
Next morning we went to visit the city of Samur and the tank museum there. I hate war but love machinery – go figure – big boy toys I suppose.
We moved on to a site on the banks of the Loire at Montjean near Angers. Then another further east near Montrechard. The grand chateaux of Chenonceaux was the main event here. I have to admit great houses are not really my thing but B loves them so…
Next stop a nice site 18k from Bordeaux city.
We had a booking at a much vaunted restaurant in the city called La Tubina. This place is renowned for simple regional produce cooked over wood fires. B had a starter of scallops poached in clear and simple tomato broth. It was divine and I was green with envy. My choice of baby squids, and I mean minute little things, was great but didn’t reach the heights of B’s. I followed with a main of crisp coated sliced sweatbreads. (I’m a sucker for offal.) B had simple grilled-over-wood beef fillet. We had a great and very potent 14.5% Grave to wash it all down.
The day was a scorcher 40c (110f.) We suffered on the walk back to the car park and drove only a little out of town before finding a shaded spot to park up and collapse on the bed in-back to sleep off the excess of wine, food and fierce heat.
We headed south through the Grave region and tried without success to visit and buy some of my favored wine. Everywhere was closed! Either for an extended lunch or for their pre-peak-rush break. We added a dozen bottles to our under-bed stash at a few supermarkets that kindly provided a sampling of the Grave that the producers didn’t want to sell to us direct.
Leaving Bordeaux we drove south through the scorched plains of the the Landes heading for the ‘supposedly glamorous’ resort of Biarritz.
I read about food a good deal and love the books of people like Elizabeth David and Anthony Bourdain. Those writers talk food with passion and inspiration. I’ve been thinking about food in fiction and realized that I can think of few novels I’ve read that feature food in any significant way.
There was Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the horny protagonist used raw liver in a wholly new way to me!
Ian Fleming used it in the Bond novels as a crude way to display Bonds supposed good taste. However it tended to major on obviously excessive and expensive consumption. Expense taking precedence over any real worth. Caviar and Bollinger feature a good deal. Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer displayed a certain usefulness with the pans and could do a good omelette. Deighten choose to make him a kind of educated working class hero to Bonds upper class officer type and the choice of food was a great tool in showing that contrast.
I use food in my novels too, all of them feature it. It’s used to give characters depth and in particular it’s used to give men credentials beyond their fists and fighting skills. Food can be a great tool as a wooing aid. Seduction can start with a good meal and if that meal is prepared with care and love by the man and precedes a bout of heterosexual excess in bed or on rug before a fire, that leaves the heroine panting for more, more food and loving – then we have a hero that’s got dimension and depth. Sensuality extends to appreciation of more than one kind of skin. I like a hero that knows his way round a woman’s curves as well as he knows his wines and cheeses. He can wield a knife to fillet a salmon, joint a chicken or the baddy with equal dexterity.
Somehow, good food self prepared rather, than simply bought is more meaningful. My Daniel cooking up a Provencal rabbit and truffle stew before a night of excess with Bonny, is sexier than Bond buying Beluga.
(The image: Hostellerie Jérôme at La Turbie on the Cote-D-Azure serve this: Pigeon(Squab) with foie gras and cepes. I’ve tried to reproduce dish’s like this often.) Continue reading →
Please forgive my indulgence but I am compelled to share my celebration of our anniversary. Both the date we met 2nd April and our wedding date 7th April. No not that soon! A few years past between the dates. It may be corny and it may be romantic but I am proud to share my joy at finding Brigitte and my ever deepening appreciation and love for her.
It is our tradition to share a bottle of Rosé champagne on this day. Our first was on our wedding day and we’ve sought out a new one to mark each year since. They are lined up on high shelf in the kitchen.
An easy aid-moiré for me, who has trouble with numbers or knowing what date it is or what year.
This year we marked out meeting date by going out for drinks and dinner at a local hostelry. Continue reading →
For one of B’s special birthdays recently, I prepared a special meal as celebration and consolation. You can see part of the menu in the first pic but it’s unreadable, so here it is:
Risotto of escargot
Cep in pastry nests with red pepper sauce.
Langoustine and salmon fumé in creamed scrambled eggs
Boned quails stuffed with chanterelle and foie gras served with vegetable aspic
Venison sirloin – slow-gin flambé with braised potato
Special meals have been a feature of our lives together, both home cooked and in restaurants. We often have bed time memory trips to such times and places to ease us into sleep when the stress of life intrudes and brings on what we call ‘the dark puther’. Some of these meals have been reproduced in my novels too. They are a useful vehicle for establishing characters and relationships. Many a seduction in life and literature has begun over a table of fine food and wine.
Not all our memorable food experiences have involved fine-dinning. In Rome at Christmas: A tiny place near the Pantheon.
They served take-away roast suckling pork in a crisp pizza style bread. The pork was infused with exactly the right amount of sage and included soft moist meat and crisp crackle skin. It was perfect. We went back for seconds then sat on a wall in the shadow of the Pantheon and enjoyed a sublime food experience.
piggy – heaven
Another great memory is B’s first taste of the underrated flat fish – Brill. When I first took B to Northern Ireland, we spent some time in around the Mourne mountains. There I showed her the places of my youthful escape. (I used to rent a semi-derelict old farm-house in the heart of the mountains. It had one tap bringing water from a spring, which often spewed out live wriggling leaches! Heating and cooking was be means of an ancient wood or coal-fired range.) We found the old house again, now completely derelict. We peered in at the old rusting range. My big old coffee pot still stood upon it. I recounted how I used to leave this big enamel coffee pot simmering on the range and would top it up constantly and empty it only when the grounds filled it. I would throw old eggshells in to give the thick black coffee a wonderful sheen.
Mournes Silent Valley
After we drove through the Silent Valley and down to the fishing village of Kilkeel.
On the harbour we found a shop selling fish fresh from the boats. I spotted a lovely big Brill and bought it. Later we set up a the picnic-table and gas single ring cooker. The big fish only just fitted in my fry-pan. It was stiff fresh and was, with doubt, the best fish meal we’ve ever had. Crisped butter fried skin, milky white flesh, firm and sweet. Finished with a splash of Sancerre, it was utterly fantastic. B’s still raves about it and when I cook Brill now she invariably says: “It’s good but not at good as the great Kilkeel picnic.”
Memories like these, fuel for the body, feed the imagination and provide rich material for a writers creative efforts. Yes food and romance go hand in soft stroking hand.
As Christmas once more approaches, my thoughts turn once again to gastronomy and feasting. I was browsing one of our photo albums and found a menu tucked in it from Christmas 1999. We had taken the Bristol down to Nice for two weeks intending to get away from the usual family chores. As the person known as the chef; I could rarely escape the cooking duties. If truth be told, I preferred it that way. I was always appalled by the cremated over-cooked dry flaking turkey served up if I didn’t cook. This year we plan to have our indulgence at home alone. Goose is planned. We will have recently returned from a seven-day break with B’s mother in Madeira. I’m looking forward to that. I have no mother in law issues. I get on well with Jean… mostly.
1999 was perhaps out most memorable Christmas holiday. We took the, then new to us, Bristol 412 for its first long trip. We had booked into a modest Nice city centre hotel, intending to spend on eating and travel rather than fancy sleeping arrangements. The hotel unfortunately did not have parking, I was appalled at the idea of leaving the precious Bristol in the chaotic anarchy that passes for parking there. In the event I found a safe place for it, parked up and hired a little crappy Korean runabout for the city battle.
This picture is B outside a splendid Château in Burgundy we spent a night in on the way down.
The main picture here is B at dinner on Christmas day in the Negresco. The menu is reproduced here and is fascinating for being priced in Franks. Remember those? There were about ten per pound sterling as I recall. This menu was 380F. I can’t recall which of these I had but have ideas it was the Capon for main. I do remember being amused and a little appalled by the shocking pinkness of the room, the old ladies in furs that smelled of moth-balls and the shaggy ancient French poodles under their tables!
La Rotonde Hôtel Negresco. Samedi 25 Décembre 1999
Déjeuner de Noël
La Direction et les Collaborateurs de Hôtel Negresco vous souhaitent de merveilleuses fêtes de Noël.
Ballotine de canard, gelée au Porto
Cappuccino de coquillages et croûtons aillés
Six Hutîtres spéciales à l’échlote et vinaigre.
Chapon de Méditerranée rôti, pommes écrasées à la fourchette, persil frit et jus de bouillabaisse.
Lotte rôti, boullion de champignobs des sous-bois, lard croustillant.
Loup crit sur la peau, ragoût d’artichauts au romarin, parfumé à l’orange.
Chapon fermier, gratin de côtes de blettes à la moelle, grosses frites au poivre noir.
Filet de bœuf rôti, gnocchis et cépes poêlés, sauce au vin rouge.
Bûche jivara lactée, créme légére au café
Bûche praliné, créme brûlée aux agrumes du pays
Bûche chocolat, noisettes du Piémont caramélisées.
Food and it’s enjoyment has been a great bond between B and I. She was wooed with food when first we met. Thai prawn red-curry and Tom-yam soup were the first things I cooked for her. As a wooing aid it was wildly successful! Food, wooing, travel and loving are much used themes in my novels. I wonder why that could be?