For many, this author included, Provence will always be associated with summer, when the sunlight shimmers on the Mediterranean, the lavender flowers open themselves up to the bees, and the weekly markets burst with life: taut aubergines (eggplants) of a dark, rich purple; bright courgettes (zucchini) that break with a snap and a teardrop of sweet juice; a knee-high pile of the finest green and yellow beans; the perfume of a melon heavy with nectar.
The tomatoes, as big as your hand, smell not just of the green of their vines but of a real terra cotta.
On the plate, it’s time for salade Niçoise, for soupe au pistou, for ratatouille, those most quintessential of Provençal dishes.
These are all simple things, but when done well and when there’s a scrap of sunlight to enjoy them in, they sing loudly of summers and suppers beyond the sea.
British summer, as short as it usually is, is a lot of fun. Barbecues are dusted off, picnic blankets shaken out and the country’s mood is lifted. Tally ho! Cucumber sandwiches on the lawn. But, looking overseas, I sometimes feel a twang of envy.
‘Over there’, opportunities to enjoy the weather come easily, and a summer day’s cooking does not necessarily involve a link of sausages grilled in the garden, but rather a carefully curated basket of vegetables in fine health and full season.
It seems somehow much easier to cook simply when the produce is so good: lunch can be some goats’ cheeses, a tomato salad and grilled peppers with basil, then ripe peaches for pudding.
So where do these two summers meet? As much as I would love to shop in sunny village markets, buying direct from the farmers off their beat-up Citroën van, I can’t.
It’s not like I have time, either, to shop only at the farmers’ markets. I’m at work most Saturdays anyway.
Where I live, in Hackney in East London, the best bet is the Turkish greengrocers, who seem to have a solid grasp of what is actually in season, and quality across the board is much better as a result.
It is, of course, harder to buy really good vegetables in Britain, but by no means impossible: happily, we no longer live in times when olive oil must be procured from the chemist.
It’s worth remembering that simple summer cooking only really shines when the cook makes the effort to seek out the best ingredients available.
A dish as simple as a salad of tomatoes and figs stands or falls on whether the former are red, ripe and flavourful, while the latter are black, sticky and smell of the sun. All with a certain je ne sais quoi.
Without this magic in the ingredients, your simple cooking may well lack sparkle.
Irving Davis’s seminal A Catalan Cookery Book is subtitled ‘A Collection of Impossible Recipes’. It’s filled with terse instruction that barely conceals the author’s contempt for anyone attempting a recipe.Fantastic! A taste of the truly authentic, the poetic, the romantic. But what constitutes romance in a recipe?
We are allured, perhaps, by the unattainable. In this instance, this is surely bundled up in the sense of place, and Irving Davis’s cynicism is born out of a respect for what is truly local to the recipes: an indigenous rockfish, an earthenware cooking pot, or a fire made from cuttings from the family vineyard.
I’m sure he would hate the fact that I have cooked from his book. While I could never have hoped to achieve the absolute authenticity demanded on its pages, inspired by the ideal I cooked merrily away; transported, despite my efforts, to the coast of Catalonia.
Best, I would contest, to happily ignore Mr Davis’s protestations. In this modern, globalised age, it is enough to recognise what true authenticity is: to learn one’s lessons, and then, where appropriate, to disregard them.
What does this mean for the aspiring Provençal cook? I, for one, have been seduced by its charms, but it’s important to note that, in reality, the Provence of Peter Mayle, Richard Olney and Robert Carrier exists mainly on the pages of their books.
A visit to Provence, for all but the impossibly fortunate, is bound to frustrate: where can this perfectly rustic cooking be found?
There’s some excellent cooking to be found at the high end of the spectrum, and romance abounds for those who can afford it, but short of knocking on farmhouse doors, it’s difficult to piece it all together. I’ve had some wonderful meals in Provence – some affordable, and some not – but I’ve had a few shockers too.
Better maybe to stick to the books in the first place. Unless one is lucky enough to bag an invite to Richard
Olney’s house for lunch, the reality is that the rustic cooking described by my favourite writers is hard to find. But this matters not.
Authentic Provençal cooking is attainable anywhere.
It requires only a basketful of proper ingredients, a light touch and a healthy pinch of enthusiasm.
ROAST HAKE, SAMPHIRE & TOMATO SALAD
Ingredients, serves 4
- A fat piece of hake or any other flaky white fish, on the bone, weighing approximately 1kg, scaled
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Branches of rosemary, thyme, bay and tarragon, all on the stalk
- 1 unwaxed lemon, ½ sliced into rounds, plus ½ for juicing
- 1 large glass dry white wine (200ml)
- 1 tbsp butter
- 4 juicy large tomatoes
- 100g samphire, washed
- Olive oil
- 1 tbsp each roughly chopped parsley and tarragon leaves
- Sea salt and freshly ground black Pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/ 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
2. Select an appropriate size roasting dish for the fish: it needs to be a snug fit.
3. Drizzle the dish with olive oil andbuild a bed of herbs. Season the hake with salt and pepper both inside and out. Nestle the fish in the herbs, slide a few slices of lemon inside the fish with some tarragon stalks too. Pour over the wine, drizzle liberally with olive oil, then dot the fish with butter.
4. Roast the hake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until the flesh offers very little resistance when pierced to the bone with a skewer. If you can, it’s best to remove the fish from the oven when it is almost cooked as it will continue to steam and cook on the bone while you assemble the rest of the dish. If the wine threatens to boil away during cooking, add a splash of water. Ideally there will be some buttery, winey juices left in the bottom of the dish.
5. To bring it all together, cut the tomatoes into fat chunks, then season with salt and pepper. Fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil. Cook the samphire in the boiling water for only a minute or two, or until soft and succulent. (Do not add salt.) Drain and set aside. Combine the tomatoes with the samphire, while it’s still warm, and dress them with olive oil, lemon juice and chopped herbs.
6. Arrange the still-warm tomato and samphire salad on a serving platter. Flake the hake flesh off the bone in big pieces and lay them just to the side of the salad. Drizzle any buttery, winey juices from the roasting dish over the fish.
7. A crusty baguette would do a first-class job of mopping up the juices, making an impromptu open sandwich.
Ingredients, SERVES 4
- ½ garlic clove, peeled
- 2 small artichokes, outer leaves removed, dark green bits peeled, choke removed
- 1 small, firm cucumber, or half a big watery one
- 12 nice radishes
- 1 white or red salad onion, as mild and sweet as possible
- 250g ripe tomatoes (the most delicious you can find, I like to use bull’s heart)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 150g good-quality tuna in olive oil (such as Ortiz) or 8 salted anchovy fillets
- A small handful of black olives (dark black Provencal for preference), pitted
- ½ bunch of basil, leaves picked
- 2 eggs, hard-boiled for 7 minutes and shelled
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Rub the inside of a serving bowl with the cut garlic. Prepare the artichokes and slice them thinly lengthways. Cut the cucumber and radishes into slices, but not too thin this time.
2. Peel and slice the onion as thinly as possible. Cut the tomatoes into chunks, wedges or quarters depending on their size. Do not to slice them too thinly or the salad may become wet as the juices seep out.
3. Combine the vegetables in the serving bowl. Add the olive oil and red wine vinegar, then season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mix in the tuna or anchovies, olives and basil. Taste again. Cut the hard-boiled eggs into halves or quarters, season lightly with salt and pepper, then arrange on top of the salad. Finish with an extra drizzle of olive oil, if you feel the salad needs it.
TOMATO & TAPENADE TART
Ingredients, makes one large tart (enough for four people for lunch or lots of small squares)
For the tart:
- 4 bull’s heart tomatoes
- 1 x 500g block of pre-rolled puff pastry
- A handful of small Italian plum tomatoes, red and yellow if possible
- Olive oil
- 1 bunch of basil
- Sea salt and freshly ground
- black pepper
For the tapenade:
- 100g black olives, drained
- 1/8 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
- ½ tsp picked thyme leaves
- 1 salted anchovy fillet, washed and patted dry
- 1 tsp salted capers, soaked well, washed and drained
- 1 tsp brandy
- 4 tsp olive oil
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
1. First, slice the bull’s heart tomatoes into thick 1cm rounds. Transfer to a sieve (strainer) suspended over a bowl and season well with salt. Leave the tomatoes for a good half hour to allow the juices to drip into the bowl. This will prevent your pastry becoming soggy if the tomatoes hold a lot of juice.
2. To make the tapenade, put all the dry ingredients in a blender. Blitz well. Add the wet ingredients and blitz further until everything is fully incorporated. The tapenade should be very smooth.
3. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
4. Next, roll out – or simply unfurl, if pre-rolled – the pastry to a rectangle to fit your largest, flat, heavy-based baking tray. Cut a rectangle of parchment paper to the same size, then place the pastry on top. Score a 2cm border all around the edges of the pastry. This pastry border will puff up around the filling.
5. Put the baking tray in the oven to pre-heat for 10 minutes.
6. To assemble the tart, top the pastry inside the scored border with a generous smearing of tapenade. Arrange the sliced tomatoes in a single layer over the tapenade. Halve the small tomatoes, season with salt, and use them to fill any gaps. Drizzle the tart filling with olive oil and grind over some black pepper.
7. Remove the hot tray from the oven, slide in the tart on the parchment paper and return the tray to the oven. Bake the tart for 30 minutes, or until the pastry borders are puffed and crisp, the base is a light golden brown (lift the tart tentatively with a spatula to check) and the tomatoes are soft, squidgy and just started to take on a little colour.