Friday, 27 September 2013

Mellow fruitfulness

'Belle de Boskoop' apples


There are two ingredients that traditionally mark the season of mists in France: the first are rouged apples  from the fields of Normandy, and the other are ceps, boletus edulis mushrooms, from the forests and woods.

Ceps look like the archetypal cartoon mushroom. Their tubby little stalks, topped with a cappuccino hat, make you want to prod them in the tummy like the Pilsbury Dough Man. This cuteness, that in Italy has earned them the name of ‘porcini’ or ‘little pigs’,  belies a flavour that makes them rightly prized for eating, with a price tag to match.

Ceps smell of the earth in which they grow, or does the earth in which they grow, smell of cep? I am not quite sure. Delicious raw, they have a much more stringy consistency than white or brown cap mushrooms  more like the centre of a freshly baked baguette than a mushroom. Their extraordinary flavour is scented with hints of ripe orchard apple and walnut, and leaves the aroma of freshly polished mahogany in your nose.

Cooking completely changes the texture and flavour of the cep. Allow them, diced, to gently sigh in a hip bath of butter until lightly browned, and you have something that resembles creamy scallops. Serve on a slice of toasted bread doused in olive oil and you have the perfect autumn comfort food. Who needs cheese on toast?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Not enough hours ...

I can't believe quite how busy I have been in the last couple of weeks. My plans to try out hundreds of new recipes have not got off the ground yet and I've been falling back on many old (Italian) staples, which is a shame being in France. Having said that, I did cook Coq au vin for Sunday lunch and will post pictures soon. Other projects underway are to create a terrace herb garden which I will blog about later and to perfect my Tarte Tatin. All this on top of settling into a new apartment and country. Crazy!

Friday, 20 September 2013

A piece of this ...

When I was twelve years old, I wrote an essay at school on the origins of the pizza. I invented a creation myth for the dish in which a neapolitan woman took the random contents of her larder, placed them onto a circle of dough and put the whole thing into her wood-fired oven. When admirers asked what the creation was called, she said a pizza, because it was made of 'a pizza dis and a pizza dat!'

This story contains an essential truth about Italian pizza, that the dough is really a vehicle for whatever you feel like eating. In Italy, outside the big tourist centres, people are often surprised that familiar pizzas, such as 'capricciosa', 'quattro stagioni', and 'pepperoni'* are not listed but are replaced either with fantastical names, or shopping lists of the toppings used. The name 'capricciosa' can actually be translated as 'whatever you feel like'. One of the pizzerias close to my farm in Tuscany boasts 100 types of pizza, each given the name of a local hamlet.

The plain cheese and tomato 'pizza margherita' is usually found on most menus, it being one of the only truly Italian pizzas familiar in the English-speaking world. The authentic version, contains red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil leaves, the colours of the Italian flag. The original was named for the Queen of Italy, who made a visit to Naples in 1889, by pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito of the pizzeria Brandi.

Friday night is pizza night in my house and I usually top them with whatever I have left in the fridge. The hand-made pizza dough and tomato sauce are easy to make and can be kept in the fridge until you are ready for action.

Pizza Fantasia


Dough (makes 2 large pizza bases)
1 sachet of dried yeast
300ml tepid water
10g salt
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
10g salt
12g yeast
500g flour

Dissolve the sachet of yeast in about 100ml of tepid water. A good way to test for tepid is to place your fingers in the water. If you can't feel it, then it's the right temperature. Then leave the yeast for about 10 minutes to activate. It should start bubbling. If it doesn't throw it away and start again as your yeast is not working.
Then dissolve the salt in rest of the water and add the olive oil. Place the flour in a large bowl and add the sugar, the yeast mixture and then the salt, oil and water. Bring the mixture together with your hands and then turn out onto a worktop and knead for about 10 minutes. The dough it done when it has achieved a smooth elastic consistency.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for about two hours, by which time the dough should have doubled in size.

Tomato sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion finely diced
1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)
1 tbsp tomato puree
100 ml water or red wine

Heat the olive oil in a high-sided frying pan over a low heat. Add the onion and fry slowly for about 10 to 15 minutes until golden. Cooking the onion slowly will allow the sugars to caramelise meaning that you don't have to add sugar. Do not allow the onion to turn to dark or it will create a bitter taste. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, water / wine,  and sprinkle with salt. Turn up the heat, bring to the boil and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely before using on the pizza. If you want, you can pass it through a strainer, but I like the lumpy bits, which give the pizza texture. This can also be used as a pasta sauce and will keep in an airtight container for about a week in the fridge.


grated mozzarella cheese
toppings of your choice

Heat the oven to 230 degrees. To make up the pizza, divide the dough into two and each piece into a pizza shape using your fingers. Then cover with a layer of the tomato sauce, a layer of grated mozzarella cheese and a piece of this and a piece of that, whatever takes your fancy. The place it in the oven, I would recommend using a pizza stone, and cook for about 25 minutes. Buon appetito!

*A word of caution to anyone travelling in Italy. Order 'pepperoni' and you will be presented with red or green peppers ('peperoni'), the actual Italian meaning of the word. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


My local market
Thanks to Disney, almost everyone now knows the name of this classic French dish, which is one of my personal favourites. As a child, I was brought up on the Italian 'peperonata' which is very similar, but without aubergines and courgettes (US translation: egg plants and zucchini) and is delicious as a hot accompaniment to meat or as a cold salad. Add in what are my two favourite vegetables and we are very close to perfection. 
Ratatouille, (ra-ta-too-ee) has it's origins in the southern, Provence region of France and therefore has cousins in most Mediterranean countries. You will find it on menus hiding behind names such as 'pisto' (Spain), 'caponata' (Italy), 'kapunata' (Malta), lecso (Hungary), and 'briami' (Greece). Even in France, it sometimes masquerades as the romantic 'valentine' or the mouthful 'bohémienne languedocienne'.
Tuesday morning is market morning in my neighbourhood, so I popped out to get the vegetables to prepare it. 


2 aubergines (egg plants)
2 white onions
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 medium courgettes (zucchini)
6 large plum tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
6 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of tomato purée
2 teaspoons of chopped tarragon
1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary
ground black pepper

Chop the aubergines into large cubes. Cover them with salt, and leave them to sweat their juices for about 10 minutes. 
Peel and halve the onions and them cut them into semi-circular slices. 
Remove the insides of the peppers and cut the skin into large square pieces. 
Chop the courgettes into rounds and chop the tomatoes into eight pieces each. 
All your pieces of vegetable should be about the same size. 

Heat the oil gently in a large saucepan or casserold and add the aubergines, onions, peppers, and courgettes. Cook for about 5 minutes and then add the garlic and the herbs. Add the tomatoes and tomato purée, season with salt and pepper. Add a small amount of water and then cover and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the peppers are tender. 

Serve hot as an accompaniment for chicken or meat, as a main course, or cold as a salad. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Give us this day ...

There are many cliches that come to mind when one thinks of France: stripy jumpers and berets, 'oh la, la!', and people wandering the streets with a baguette under their arm. When I first came to France, I was amazed to see that at least the third of these is no cliche, but a daily sight in Paris, where you are never more than 300 metres from a boulangerie. In fact, there is a boulangerie opposite my apartment, and I have made a daily ritual out of the three-minute trip across the road to buy my baguette. 

My boulangerie is a family-run enterprise and is open six days a week «de l'aube au crépuscule». The offending closing day is actually Saturday, which means that Sunday begins with the smell of fresh bread and viennoiserie wafting up from the street below. A sign in the shop proudly proclaims that all their bread is made from Sel de Guérande, salt produced in a tradition manner in the Loire estuary. 

The baguettes themselves are made by hand in the traditional method, crusty on the outside, soft in the middle, going stale in less than 24 hours, which fortunately means a daily trip to the boulangerie and starting all over again.

'pain de la tradition française'

My boulangerie