A few days in France

November 12, 2018

Last week we set off for an impromptu road trip to The Languedoc region of Southern France.
Well, let me start from the beginning. A while ago we had planned a weekend in Alba (Piedmont) to attend The International White Truffle Fair. Visiting Piedmont during Autumn has by now become an annual pilgrimage. The atmosphere in the town of Alba is just fascinating, the food markets almost on every street and square possible, wine bars and the permeating smells of porcini mushrooms and freshly shaved white truffle are so evocative.

The decision to add France to the trip was made just a couple of days prior to our setting off and subsequently we left for France from Rome with a stop over in Portofino in Liguria. We had never been to The Languedoc area before and I was really looking forward to the trip. I was also looking forward to tasting the food as well as sampling the wines that are hard to find here in Rome. The Dégustateur booked us in at a very atmospheric and representative château in a hidden village in the vicinity of Narbonne.

We were stunned by the vast acreage of vines with their splendid autumnal colours highlighted by still very strong sunlight. In fact the area gets 300 days of sun per year.

On the first night we ate the dinner prepared by the owners of our chateau. Foie gras braised in red wine and spices to start with, followed by prawns cooked in Pernod accompanied by comforting ratatouille (a vegetable stew commonly made in France). A dessert in Languedoc found on almost every menu is crema catalana due to its vicinity and the influences of Catalan cuisine. I always use a recipe for this dessert originating from our favourite Spanish restaurant in London, Barrafina. Grated zest of lemon and orange plus a cinnamon stick are responsible for the extra zing that made me fall for this creamy custardy creation. I’ve only recently bought myself a blow torch to caramelise the sugar on top to create a crunchy cover that you need to gently break first in order to get to the heavenly creamy centre.

“Central to most lives here is wine and, after wine, food.” The food is divided between mountain food and the food of the coast. Hunting and foraging play an important role in the area creating its own flavours of southern, simpler and more earthy style of cooking, fairly indifferent to the Michelin styled cuisine of Northern France. Although it is said that the French have lost their way as far as cooking is concerned, here you can still find a deep food culture, perfect execution and a wonderful flavour combination. We enjoyed every single meal we had along with the accompanying wine and I came back with my head full of ideas and meals that I have been wanting to make almost forever.

In Rome the fall arrives on a slightly later date…and only when the rain comes and the temperatures drop I start craving for hearty and comforting food with earthy flavours paired with a bottle of medium to full bodied red wine, already enjoyed and sipped while cooking, which makes the whole experience of slow cooked meals and dark afternoons come together.

There was one restaurant run by an elderly couple that made a highlight of our trip. During low season many places are closed and the choice is limited. I am actually grateful for that find, a perfect example of simple and beautifully made food with love. A simply decorated room with a fire place in its centre (used for grilling steaks) was immediately filled with a very welcoming atmosphere and promising smells escaping from the kitchen. The head chef, the wife, with her perfect english was very happy to share her culinary tips instead of guarding them secretly. Thankfully the menu was reduced during low season because we ordered extra dishes just to be able to taste them, but we finished them all.

Every year when I feel that the autumn is here I make beef bourguignon (a dish that probably everybody has heard of) and its season has now arrived. It is a French staple, based on braised pieces of beef (cheaper cuts are used here that require a longer and slow cooking time) in red wine (the wine that is locally available). This traditional and poor man’s food has gained some finesse over the years and the execution involves marinating the meat first and then adding extra ingredients like bacon (I use pancetta), shallots, carrots, mushrooms and lots of fresh herbs to enhance the flavours during cooking.

I like to start the process of marinating the meat in red wine with some roughly chopped celery, carrots, onions, garlic and a bouquet garni a day in advance. This way the flavours have enough time to permeate and work its magic. I have made many attempts trying to perfect this dish to our liking. The choice of the beef cut for stewing is your choice and if you are not sure about it your butcher should be able to advise (but be aware that the sauce shouldn’t have too much of melted fat therefore choose a piece for stewing that is still fairly lean with some marbling), ask how long it will take for the meat to turn tender and cut off any excess fat before proceeding with the dish. In Italy the way the butchers cut the meat varies from North to South and when I am at my butcher’s I say first what I wish to make (after exchanging a couple of jokes) and according to that a part of the animal will be selected and cut in front of me.

Last weekend I spent pottering in the kitchen. The weather was just perfect, it rained and rained almost all the time. What more could I have asked for. On Saturday (non rainy at that moment and sunny actually) morning the Dégustateur strolled with me (stopping for a coffee at one of the best coffee bars in Rome, in my humble opinion) to the Campo de’ Fiori market where we bought all the missing ingredients for our French inspired cook off weekend. For the side dish for my “beef bourguignon” I made potato purée and another French classic ratatouille, slowly cooked vegetables (onions, courgettes, peppers and aubergine with a few sprigs of fresh thyme) but still retaining some crunch to it. We are spoiled with Italian wines however on this occasion I paired the meal with the wine we brought back from the trip to The Languedoc. In fact, I love matching food and wines from the same region.

There is something atmospheric about the cold weather and watching the rain. In Rome it is a big change this year weather-wise. You just feel like nesting at home and being surrounded by homemade comfort food. I feel like baking a lot more and crave for custardy puddings and desserts. Far breton cake from Brittany is one of those that I have been meaning to make almost forever. You can have it as a pudding or for breakfast gently heated up in the oven. You have to have it warm. It is similar to a clafoutis (click for a recipe here) but it is slightly denser and more custardy. I love the extra kick of cooked prunes in cognac (armagnac or brandy), a process that also makes them softer. Once I tried to use rum instead of cognac but personally I didn’t feel that it created the desired effect.

The best way to find out if my desserts are a success is to hear the Dégustateur say: I could eat them all day long. In fact, there was just one slice of far breton deliberately left for Monday’s breakfast.

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