Yes, I know, you may ask what’s so secret about Périgueux, Dieppe, Troyes, Collioure, Marseille or Cassis, but the object of this book is to bring your attention to some of the best dishes in France, like one containing fabulous walnut oil from the Dordogne, and also to highlight things I discovered off the beaten track in places like Rochejean in the Haut-Jura, where I found a simple bilberry tart.
I’ve had to modify the recipe to use blueberries because it’s almost impossible to get bilberries in the UK, but Alpine bilberries are the taste of the mountains and trust me, to get to that restaurant you’ll need to go seriously off the beaten track.
Or in the village of Trizac in the Auvergne where the butcher and his wife make the most unlikely terrine called pounti, a curious mixture of pork, Swiss chard and prunes, which is very good as part of a lunchtime picnic of cooked meats,terrines, pâtés and salads.
This book is an account of a trip I’ve been lucky enough to make, meandering through the back roads of France, partly for nostalgic reasons and partly to answer the question ‘Is French cuisine still alive and well?’
With a few reservations, I hope you’ll see that yes, indeed it is, but more importantly there’s plenty of evidence in the book that the cooks of the next generation are not standing still.
I finish with a little memory of a restaurant in Languedoc-Roussillon, which you might either love or hate but certainly you couldn’t be indifferent about.
Bar Biquet on Plage Mouret is right on the beach.
It’s built every spring, dismantled in late September, then reconstructed the following spring.
The kitchens, store areas and toilets are made out of shipping containers and most of the restaurant consists of awnings and wooden boards laid on the beach.
Biquet himself is a large, imposing man who is in love with bric-à-brac; the whole restaurant is kitted out in rusty chairs with ripped vinyl.
It looks a bit like a job lot from a provincial airport circa 1963. There are mannequins wearing flying helmets and others of bare-breasted women with gas masks.
The music is loud and on the night I was there the band was fabulous and so was the food.
Biquet kindly offered me a look around the kitchen shipping container – actually it was more than one with the sides sawn off – and it was filled with very young chefs, both boys and girls, cooking up a storm.
When people say cooking is the new rock and roll, this place lives up to that.
The dishes came thick and fast: fried octopus with green tomato aïoli, burrata with heritage tomatoes and tapenade, pamboli (dried bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and drizzled with olive oil) with Palamos anchovies, bourride of monkfish and potatoes, and finally more octopus, this time slow-cooked and served with a rich beef stock and red wine sauce and pomme purée.
Suddenly I thought, ‘How cool. French cuisine is moving on’.
Coq au Riesling
Ingredients, serves 4-6
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 70g unsalted butter
- 12 shallots, peeled but left whole
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 160g smoked bacon lardons
- 250g chestnut mushrooms
- 1 free-range chicken (about 1.7kg), jointed into 8 pieces
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 500ml medium-dry Riesling
- 350ml Chicken stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 thyme sprigs
- 100ml single cream
- 1 egg yolk
- Small handful flatleaf parsley, chopped to garnish
- Salt and black pepper
1. Heat half the oil and butter in a shallow flameproof casserole dish and fry the shallots, garlic and bacon lardons until the shallots have started to colour. Add the mushrooms and fry for a couple more minutes. Transfer everything to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
2. Add the remaining oil and butter to the casserole dish. Dust the chicken joints with flour and brown them in a couple of batches. Put all the chicken back in pan and add the wine, stock, herbs and the cooked shallots, lardons and mushrooms. Season with a teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, uncovered. Pass everything through a colander set over a bowl and keep the chicken, lardons and vegetables warm.
3. Return the strained liquid and juices to the pan and reduce a little. Take the pan off the heat. Whisk the cream with the egg yolk and a ladleful of the reduced cooking liquid, then pour this into the pan with the stock. Place over a medium heat until the sauce has thickened, but don’t let it boil.
4. Put everything back into the pan and let it warm through. Check the seasoning and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with pommes purée or buttered spätzle.
Lentil, Beetroot & Goats' Cheese Salad
Ingredients, serves two as a main course or four as a starter
- 175g small beetroots, washed but not peeled
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 100g Puy lentils, rinsed
- 1 fresh thyme sprig
- Small handful flatleaf parsley
- 1 ripe pear
- 100g goats’ cheese log
- 2 small handfuls rocket leaves
- 4 walnut halves, roughly chopped
- Salt and black pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp walnut oil
- 1 tbsp Banyuls or sherry vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/Fan 170°C. Put the beetroots on a baking tray and roast them for up to an hour, depending on size. They should be tender to the point of a knife when done. Leave them until cool enough to handle, then peel off the skins and cut them into wedges. Set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil in a pan and sweat the shallot and garlic over a medium heat until softened. Add the lentils, 300ml of water, thyme, half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper, then simmer for 23 minutes. You may need to add a little more water, but the object is for it all to become absorbed. Leave the lentils to cool down, then add the chopped parsley.
3. Core and slice the pear, leaving the skin on. Cut the cheese in half horizontally or into 4 slices, depending on how many you are serving. Preheat the grill and grill the cheese on one side. Mix the olive oil, walnut oil and vinegar to make the dressing.
4. Put the lentils in a wide dish, then top with some rocket leaves. Nestle beetroot wedges and pear slices among the leaves and top with the grilled goats’ cheese and dressing. Sprinkle over the walnuts and serve at once.
Fig & Frangipane Tarts
Ingredients, makes 6 x 10–12cm tartlets
- 170g plain flour, plus extra for rolling
- 100g cold unsalted butter, cubed
- Pinch of salt
- 1 egg yolk
- 1–2 tbsp ice-cold water
- 100g butter, at room temperature
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 100g ground almonds
- 9 figs, quartered
- 1 tbsp flaked almonds
- 1 tsp icing sugar, 6 tbsp crème fraiche
1. For the pastry, put the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Transfer to a bowl and add the egg yolk mixed with a tablespoon of cold water to make a smooth but not sticky dough. Add the extra water if required.
2. Put the dough on a floured work surface, roll it out and line 6 loose-bottomed 10–12cm tartlet tins. Chill for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200°C/Fan 180°C.
3. Line each tin with a circle of baking parchment or foil, add baking beans and bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, then put the tins back in the oven for a further 5 minutes.
4. Turn the oven down to 190°C/Fan 170°C. While the pastry cases are cooking make the frangipane.
5. Beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until you have a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in the eggs and almond extract, then stir in the ground almonds and mix well. Divide the mixture between the pastry cases and arrange 6 fig wedges on top of each tart. Scatter with some of the flaked almonds and bake for 20–25 minutes until golden. Dust with a little icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature with some crème fraiche.