“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai qui tu es”
In summer it is simple, cool and fresh. Melons from the garden
(cavaillon) with jambon cru (Serrano from Spain, or Bayonne
from France, or Italian proscuitto) and a glass of rosé, chèvre
from the market or a neighbouring mas. The goats produce according
to the season the round moulded cheeses of this region – fresh
or demi-sec, rolled in ash or a small bûche – they are not a brand
or labelled; ‘straight from the producer’ is what we are now
used to. Quince paste accompanies our cheese, or a drizzle of
honey from local bees; the flowers here are insecticide free,
miel from the Pyrénées, renowned for its quality.
The best tomatoes for a salad are coeur de boeuf, when peeled
and cut in slices then sprinkled with sel de Guérande (salt from
Brittany), olive oil and fresh herbs. Nothing more is necessary
to add flavour – the produce speaks for itself and needs no
enhancement, whatever is at its best ‘now’ dictates the daily menu.
As we follow the sun, we feast on olives and Mediterranean fare;
in winter our meals are heartier, yet still using what we have grown
or harvested and set aside, regional specialities that are staples
or ‘peasant dishes’ for slow cooking over the fire. Quinces preserved
in white wine and thyme that are delicious with duck confit; boudin
blanc is baked with sliced apples, from a family tree. Catalan sausages
are grilled and then mixed with white beans – infused with dried
cariolettes and coulemelles (wild mushrooms) rehydrated in water for
the stock, then baked as a gratin; a layer of emmental finishes the dish.
A selection of Catalan pottery is piled high in the kitchen – from tapas
dishes to casseroles we use large plates of terracotta to cook in
the oven. Pork is the base for many of our meals; just kilometres away
there are farms across the border, and olive oil ‘moulins’ – we never
have to go far, and neighbours share their methods – we buy butter
and dairy products in France, meat and condiments in Spain; whether
anchovies, tuna or almonds, it is generally cheaper.
The ‘apéritif’ is a regular ritual and sits well with the pace of life
that celebrates taking time to relax, to discuss and enjoy all the finer
things of life that grace our table. Foie gras on toast or green olives
stuffed with anchovies, slices of dried saucisson, or perhaps smoked
almonds, accompany a glass for a toast to all that is good. Muscat of
Rivesaltes, a Maury or Banyuls, a beer with Picon, or sangria – the
regions traditions are happily upheld as glasses clink santé, and we
look each person in the eyes, in turn.
Dessert is another category that warrants its own page – apricot tart,
or tart with mirabelles, or my favourite, dark chocolate and apple.
And with each festive theme there is a different tradition: now we are
enjoying the galette des rois. Shared amongst friends, family or
community, a golden crown is presented to the person who finds the fève
in their slice – a little ceramic collectable hidden in the centre.
Amongst the regional specialities are Rousquilles; a round circlet of
a biscuit covered in meringue, with a flavour of aniseed. They are
given with oranges at the fête des Rois Mages (Wise Kings) as children
wait patiently to share their wishes for the year and we all receive
a hot chocolate – a delicious cup of a secret recipe, rich and thick,
perfumed and creamy.
Yet with all this and more I would expect to put on weight, in fact
it is the opposite as everything is so well balanced. There is no
excess, just harmony of natural products and flavours.