Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Packing heavy for a trip to Tuscany

15 pounds of carrots
4 dozen eggs
20 packets of cream cheese
5 pounds of sugar
5 pounds of flour
2 1/2 lbs of walnuts
2 1/2 lbs of butter
1 heavy-duty mixer
1 food processor with grater attachment
4 vegetable peelers
A packet of drinking straws
A palette knife

This is just a sample of what I'm taking to Tuscany for the wedding of my friends Kathryn and Tristan on Friday.
Guess who's baking the cake?
And guess what kind of cake it is?
That's right, Rose Bakery's world-famous carrot cake!
I'll be back on Sunday to tell you all about it, with pictures.
Wish me luck...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Georges, the goat cheese genius

At our house the word "Georges" is pronounced with the same reverence that others might reserve for "God."
Georges gives me reason to get up in the morning. On Saturdays, he gives me reason to get up especially early, by 7am without fail.
I first heard of Georges about a year ago, around the same time that I first met Franck Cerutti, chef at the Louis XV in Monaco. After introducing me to his favorite producers, Franck invited me to peek into the back of his small refrigerated van, where a couple of dozen plastic trays were stacked on top of each other.
"I have some extraordinary goat cheese," he said. "Would you like some?"
One taste and I was hooked. I had never tasted a goat cheese so fresh and pure, with not the slightest hint of goatiness. It didn't stick to the palate but caressed the tongue. It made me think of spring flowers and cool mountain air. I knew that somehow, whatever it took, I had to secure a regular supply.
"I don't think I can eat any other cheese," I said to Franck. "How can I get my hands on this?"
He laughed. "I'll have to introduce you to Georges."
A couple of Saturdays later a meeting was arranged at 7.30am in a café near the market. At first, Georges was a little skeptical. Who was this Canadian who thought she was entitled to his cheese? I fell on my knees (well, almost). I confessed that all other cheeses had lost their appeal. And Georges told me his story.
He came to the south of France at age 16 from Portugal to work on a goat cheese farm for the summer. While he was there, the farmer had a mishap with one of his beehives. He was stung so many times that he nearly died, and stayed in the hospital for three weeks. Young Georges had to take over. Upon his return, the farmer thanked him by giving him two goats. Georges knew he had found his vocation.
At that time, in the 1970s, France was reluctant to accept more Portuguese immigrants. But the bureaucrats at the préfecture found they couldn't bring themselves to say no to this young foreigner who loved goats, and eventually Georges married a Frenchwoman.
He has supplied many of the top restaurants on the Côte d'Azur but now sells only to Franck and to a passionate fromager at the Forville market in Cannes. And to me. After that meeting in the café, we agreed that each week he would put aside five little round cheeses for me. Some weeks they are fresh and almost fluffy in texture, some weeks they are developing blue spots on the rind and starting to turn creamy inside. His cheeses become creamy just under the rind, collapsing into a runny mass when they are really ripe.
Georges prefers them fresh, but Franck likes them shrunken with a blue crust, which he believes concentrates the essence of the cheese. It amazes Georges that anyone wants to eat them that way, let alone sell them in a three-Michelin-star restaurant. Fresh, runny or blue, what I love most about this cheese is that it feels like one of the healthiest things I could put into my body. That's not something I think very often about cheese.
When I told Georges I like to eat the fresher cheeses for breakfast with chestnut honey and figs, he looked so horrified that I thought my supply might be cut off. Georges is a cheese purist, which might explain why his cheese tastes so unadulterated. Between late November and March he stops producing cheese entirely to allow the goats to follow their natural cycle. He has never been able to explain to me what makes his cheeses so special, but I plan to find out by visiting his farm one of these days.
I serve Georges' cheese as often as I can in my cooking classes, always with the hope that students will share my cheese epiphany. I haven't been disappointed yet.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Asparagus, new potatoes and girolles

Some days I have to think, and even agonize, about what to cook. And some days the ingredients just seem to leap into the pots and cook themselves, leaving me feeling almost like a spectator. With the change in season this is happening more and more often.
Don't get me wrong, I love the produce that winter has to offer in Nice: citrus fruits straight off the tree, their shiny green leaves still clinging to the stems; big bunches of Swiss chard for cooking in a kind of frittata known as trouchia or adding to a lentil-and-sausage stew; bunches of violet-topped turnips barely the size of a baby's fist. I can even get excited about celery root at a push and one stallholder, Valérie, calls out to me across the market whenever she has raw beets (they are usually sold pre-cooked in France, but I prefer to roast them myself). Even so, winter cooking requires a certain amount of time and thought: the dishes rarely come together as quickly or spontaneously as in summer.
Yesterday, as so often happens, I set out to buy a couple of ingredients and came back with an overflowing basket. From Dominique, a small producer who spends every winter in Nepal, I bought a bunch of slim, purple spring onions known as cébettes, a few zucchini and some big, rustic-looking fava beans. Dominique isn't officially an organic producer, but she explained to me that because she doesn't use any products, chemical or otherwise, on her vegetables they have less bitterness. I tasted the fava beans at lunch, just peeling the raw beans and throwing them into a salad, and sure enough it's true.
From another producer's stall I chose green-and-purple mesclun salad leaves, a bunch of vivid pink-and-white radishes, small, deep-red cherries from near the town of St-Jeannet and a giant bunch of flat-leaf parsley. I picked up strawberries from Carpentras and the first apricots from Provence in the market's central aisle (none of the local producers had strawberries). Just as I was ready to leave, I spotted tiny orange girolles, known as chanterelles in English, at the stand of the mushroom lady, also known as Mathilde.
They were expensive, but girolles are such an unusual sight at the moment that I couldn't resist, especially when I saw that Mathilde also had bunches of deep purple asparagus from Italy. I'd been wanting to try this asparagus for a while and it seemed a natural match for the mushrooms. Back at home, I decided to match the asparagus and mushrooms with new potatoes from producer Gérard, good enough to rival those on the Ile de Ré - or should I say that the vegetables decided what to do and I watched.
The new potatoes demanded that I pot-roast them in my copper saucepan with olive oil and I obeyed. The asparagus jumped into some simmering salted water in a sauté pan. The mushrooms took a brief bath to rinse off their leaves and twigs, then dived into a frying pan with the purple spring onions and olive oil, asking for just a little butter and parsley at the end. I could have served any of these vegetables separately, but together they made a beautiful dish that speaks of the ease of spring cooking.
The plate that you see in this picture, by the way, is from Terre e Provence (7 rue Massena, 04 93 16 93 45), the shop of one of the oldest pottery manufacturers in Provence. Sadly, the shop is closing: it seems that few people want tasteful pottery these days. Everything is 40 per cent off and I bought ten dessert plates and a beautiful water pitcher for €80. If you live in Nice and appreciate good pottery, it's now or never.

Asparagus, girolles and pot-roasted new potatoes
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

12 small new potatoes
Good quality olive oil
2 lbs green or purple asparagus (about 1 kg)
1/2 lb girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms (225 g)
2 spring onions
A handful flat parsley leaves
A knob of butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, at least 1/4 cup. When the oil is hot, place the scrubbed potatoes in the pan in one layer. Cover the pan and leave on medium-low heat for 20 mins without touching. You should hear the potatoes sizzling - if not, turn up the heat a little. After 20 mins the potatoes should be nearly soft and browned on one side. Turn them over with tongs, put the lid back on and cook for about 10 mins, until browned on the other side and soft all the way through.

Break off the hard part of the asparagus stems and discard. Pour about 1/2 inch (1 cm) water into a sauté pan and bring to a boil. Add 1 tsp of salt and the asparagus. Cover and lower the heat so that the water is gently bubbling. After about 5 mins, test the asparagus with the tip of a knife in the thickest part of the stem. Leave for another few minutes if necessary - the asparagus should not be crisp. When it's tender, drain and refresh briefly with cold water.

Brush the mushrooms and wash by sloshing them around in a big bowl of water if necessary (I could get away with doing this as the mushrooms didn't contain much moisture). If you've washed the mushrooms, drain well and dry in paper towels. Slice the spring onions thinly. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and add the spring onions. When they have softened, add the mushrooms and sauté until just cooked. Stir in a knob of fresh butter, the parsley and some salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble the potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms on a plate and drizzle with your best olive oil. Top with a little fleur de sel.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A good chocolate cake

Some days I just want chocolate cake. Not a fondant cake, or a mousse cake, or a runny-centered cake, or even a Carrément chocolat cake from Pierre Hermé in Paris, but a good old-fashioned sponge cake. Yesterday was one of those days. I was entertaining six five-year-olds for Sam's birthday with a picnic in the Parc du Château, and it was in my interest to keep the chocolate/sugar rush to a minimum. Last year I had started tinkering with a recipe in one of my many hundreds of cookbooks to make it just right for such an occasion, so I decided to fine-tune it to create a reliable cake that I could turn to at short notice.
The original recipe, from a book called The Uncommon Gourmet by Ellen Helman (Ten Speed Press) that followed me across the world from Canada, called for sour cream, an ingredient I can't find in France. Crème fraîche works well (when doesn't it?) but this time I decided to use yaourt à la grècque, a creamy, sour yogurt sold in any French supermarket. The closest I can come to unsweetened chocolate is Lindt 99%, which is sneakily sold in packets that contain a huge amount of plastic packaging and a tiny amount of chocolate, so I opted for the brown-paper-wrapped Nestlé dessert, which contains 52 per cent cocoa solids and zero snob appeal. To compensate for the sweetened chocolate, I reduced the sugar and added a little cocoa powder to the recipe. Light brown sugar brings a slight caramel flavor to the cake. The longer I live in France the less I feel inclined to make fluffy frostings, so I glazed and filled the cake with ganache. Ganache, in case you're wondering, is French for "ridiculously easy yet oh-so-chic."
I was pleased with the result: the cake was chocolatey without being too intense for undeveloped chocolate palates, with a layer of cherry jam in the center providing a little fruity contrast. But the real test would be Sam, who traumatized me on his third birthday by declaring the cake that I had so lovingly made to be "a little dry." That was not a risk with this cake thanks to the yogurt and this time he had only one thing to say: "Encore."

A good chocolate cake
Serves about 16

1 cup sour cream or Greek-style yogurt
1 tsp baking soda
3 oz good quality dark chocolate (80 g)
1 cup butter (100 g)
1 1/2 light brown sugar (300 g)
5 free-range eggs
1 tsp vanilla (5 ml)
2 1/2 cups flour (325 g)
2 tbsp cocoa powder (30 ml)
1/2 cup cherry jam (125 ml)
Sprinkles, for the decoration

Milk chocolate ganache:

4 oz good quality milk chocolate (100 g)
1/4 cup whipping cream (50 ml)

Dark chocolate ganache:

8 oz good quality dark chocolate (200 g)
1/2 cup whipping cream (125 ml)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (160 C). As always when baking, I used the convection setting at a slightly lower temperature. Grease and line a 9-inch cake tin with a removeable base, or two 9-inch layer tins.

Stir together the sour cream or Greek yogurt and baking soda and set aside at room temperature.

Melt the chocolate in a heavy pan over very low heat or in a double boiler (if I had a microwave, I might use it here). As soon as it's melted, set it aside to cool.

In a mixer (I used my beloved KitchenAid), beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. You'll need to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the cooled chocolate and vanilla.

Sift together the flour and cocoa, or at least sift the cocoa, which is all I did. Fold the flour mixture and sour cream alternately into the egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. When the batter seems smooth, pour it into the tin(s).

Bake layers for about 25 mins, and a bigger cake for about 45 mins, until the top of the cake feels slightly springy to the touch.

Remove the cake(s) from the tin(s) and set aside on racks to cool.

For the milk chocolate ganache, break the chocolate into pieces in a small bowl. Bring the cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate. Allow to rest for about 30 secs before stirring with a small whisk until the mixture is smooth. Follow the same procedure to make the dark chocolate ganache and set both ganaches aside at room temperature.

When the cake is cool, cut in half if necessary. Spread the cherry jam over one layer and pour the milk chocolate ganache, which should be thick but still a little runny, overtop. Top with the second layer, then spread the dark chocolate ganache all over the cake using a palette knife. It's a good idea to place the cake on a rack over a large plate while you're doing this, to catch the dripping ganache. If you're making this cake for a child's birthday, top with sprinkles or other decorations. Place in the refrigerator until the ganache sets.

There is of course nothing to stop you from making only one kind of ganache, dark or milk chocolate.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Burlat cherry clafoutis

Sam and I might be different in some ways - the Power Rangers aisle at the toy store is not my idea of paradise - but we basically think alike. He loves cakes of all kinds and so do I. Both of us see birthdays first and foremost as an opportunity to eat cake, and preferably more than once. My parents' visit in honor of his fifth birthday later this week provided the perfect excuse for a little extra indulgence.
Since it wasn't the official birthday gateau, I reasoned that any type of cake would do as long as I could stick candles in it. Big, juicy burlat cherries are especially beautiful at the market just now and I know that the Niçois like to make clafoutis, even if this dessert of crêpe batter poured over fruit originally comes from the Limousin region in central France. My fruit producer friend Louis Berthon makes it with tart griotte cherries, but it's also delicious with burlats so ripe they are nearly black.
I've made many a clafoutis in my lifetime, often substituting other fruits such as pears, plums or even pineapple for the traditional cherries (I'm proud to say that my caramelized pineapple clafoutis was once selected for a book on the 200 best American recipes of the year). I only rarely make cherry clafoutis, not because I don't love it but because the cherry season is so short, lasting about six weeks in southern France. This time I used a recipe from the wonderful book Les desserts d'enfance des cuisiniers (Saveurs et Harmonie), in which 60 top French chefs give away the simple recipes that made their childhoods so sweet. Behind every French chef, it seems, there is a doting mère or grand-mère who has a way with the whisk.
This recipe was from the chef Jean Bardet, who runs Château Belmont in the Loire Valley and grew up in the Limousin. Clafoutis was not surprisingly one of his favorite childhood desserts and his mother's touch was to add a little gnôle, a potent eau-de-vie made with black elderberries that would be pretty nasty if taken on its own. My throat-ripping marc de Provence would do very nicely. Bardet says not to pit the cherries, and I know that many French cooks believe they add a pleasing almond flavor to clafoutis, but I decided that my 85-year-old father would probably like to keep his remaining teeth. I got out my trusty olive pitter, which also works perfectly for cherries, and worked my way through nearly 2 lbs of fruit in 15 minutes. The cherries, from producer Françoise in St-Jeannet just outside Nice, were so fresh and ripe that black juice spurted across the kitchen counter as I pitted them.
That little chore accomplished, making the clafoutis was child's play. The only other change I made to the original recipe was to top the clafoutis with little pieces of butter before I put it in the oven and sprinkle it with brown cane sugar when it came out, a tip I picked up from a friend's French mother-in-law. The cake puffed up in the oven and fell a few minutes after it was removed, which is normal behavior for a clafoutis. The five of us devoured it in five minutes flat, barely leaving Philippe time to take a picture. Only later did I see that the recipe claims to serve eight to ten people.

Clafoutis Limousin
Serves 8-10 (hah!)

1 3/4 lbs cherries (800 g)
2 knobs butter
2 tbsp light brown cane sugar or white sugar

For the batter:
3 heaping tbsp flour (2 1/2 oz, 70 g)
2 heaping tbsp white sugar (2 oz, 50 g)
Pinch of salt
2 whole eggs
3/4 cup milk (200 ml)
1 tbsp kirsch or other eau-de-vie
A little sugar for sprinkling

Butter a deep pie dish with a knob of butter. Place the cherries, pitted or unpitted, in the dish and sprinkle with 2 tbsp sugar. Set aside for an hour.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt and eggs to make a thick paste. Add the milk bit by bit, whisking to make a smooth and slightly thick crêpe batter. Stir in the eau-de-vie. Set this batter aside for 40 mins at room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 400 F (180 C). I used the convection setting at a slightly lower temperature, about 375 F (160 C). Pour the batter over the cherries, top with little pieces of butter and place in the oven. Bake for 35-40 mins, until the clafoutis is puffed and golden. Remove the clafoutis from the oven and sprinkle with a little light brown cane sugar or white sugar. Serve warm.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A different kind of farmer

Every Saturday I look forward to visiting Pierre's stand at the Cours Saleya market. Pierre is one of several small producers who come to the market only on weekends. His products are all organic and he describes them with boundless enthusiasm. Pierre is never more passionate about his vegetables than in the summer, when he grows up to 100 different tomato varieties, from the stripy green zebra to a sweet, deep orange tomato with the texture of a mango. He lays them out in a multicolored array and happily expounds on the qualities of each one.
I've learned to start asking Pierre for tomatoes towards the end of June, when they haven't yet appeared on his stall. Since the early harvest is small he keeps it under the table for his most dedicated customers, those of us who show up by 8am on a Saturday. In winter Pierre turns his attention to citrus fruit, producing such rarities as the knobbly, lemon-like cedrat and a mutant-looking citrus fruit known as Buddha's Fingers because of its segmented shape. Nadim, my friend at Oliviera, buys up as much of Pierre's citrus fruit as he can and turns it into an exquisite mixed fruit marmalade.
Pierre has been inviting me to see his farm for a while now and I finally took him up on it this week, making the most of one of the many statutory holidays in May. His farm is in the hills of Bellet, a tiny wine region within the city of Nice that's thought to be one of the oldest in France. Only about a 15-minute drive from the center of Nice, it's a different world altogether, with a jagged mountain rising up on one side. Only the most dedicated farmers and winemakers continue to work in this area, whose steep, terraced slopes make the labor particularly exhausting. Pierre gets help from his wife Anne, one full-time worker and students from all over the world who exchange labor on organic farms for room and board through an association called Wwoof (they are housed in beautiful little chalets that Pierre constructed from discarded building materials). His parents, who live on the property, also pitch in - his elderly mother weeds tirelessly by hand using a tiny hoe.

Greeting us cheerfully in a T-shirt and torn army fatigues, Pierre took us on a tour of his property. Sam, having bonded instantly with the big black dog, Bali, ran off with Pierre's two sons to gorge on strawberries straight off the plants. Pierre is currently battling a pest attack on his strawberries by launching a counter-attack with insects that he orders from England. He resorts to using organic insecticides only when all other means have failed. (As for offensives on his strawberry plants by children, he said there is nothing that can be done.) He grows only Mara des Bois strawberries, a small, deep red domestic variety that tastes amazingly like a wild strawberry. Though I've tasted Mara des Bois at the market many times, there is nothing like picking them straight from the plants, while they are still warm from the sun.

Pierre's land is the antithesis of the perfectly controlled modern farm. There are harmless weeds between the lettuces and artichokes grow around the borders. He plants sunflowers at the end of rows to keep an eye on the insects that might be present - the pests will attack the flowers before they move on to the vegetables. Squash plants climb up trellises, partly to hide the sight of the shopping mall down below.
As we walk through his land, which has been recently extended, it becomes clear that Pierre is no ordinary farmer. He plans to build a greenhouse that will be used partly for farming and partly for events such as exhibitions, tastings and concerts. On the forested part of his land, he wants to construct a treehouse where visitors can sip a glass of wine or stretch out for a nap. In early July he is planning an open house to celebrate the first tomatoes with a poetry reading among the trees.
Farming the old-fashioned way might seem romantic, but it's also full of perils. Because Pierre avoids chemical products he sometimes loses entire crops to pests or disease. Besides selling at the market in Nice he takes part in an organic basket scheme, but his clients need to be convinced to take what's available instead of choosing only the most familiar vegetables and fruit. Fortunately, he works with chefs who are thrilled to cook with heirloom vegetables such as kohlrabi, butter beans and chicory.

After touring Pierre's farm we sat on his terrace sipping chilled white wine from neighboring vineyard Clot dou Baile, whose female winemaker is equally passionate about what she does. As the children frolicked among the fruit trees Pierre's life seemed idyllic, but he has not chosen the easy path. From now on, when I make a salad of his Japanese greens or bite into a slim banana tomato from his farm, I'll think about how much imagination and effort were involved in getting these to my table.
If the idea of meeting people like Pierre while discovering the little-known arrière-pays behind Nice appeals to you, then my "Meet the producers" tours could be for you. With Philippe as the driver, we spend the day visiting vegetable, fruit, olive oil and wine producers, with lunch in a beautiful hilltop village. Visit my Petits Farcis website for more information.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Huîtres plates

I'll never forget my first taste of oysters in France. I had eaten oysters a few times in Canada, but they had always travelled too far to have any life left in them. Then I moved to France and spent a few days in Brittany, where I visited the fishing town of Cancale in the Mont St-Michel bay, home of genius chef Olivier Roellinger. I didn't have the means to eat in his restaurant (and have still never made it there, though it's high up on my list), so found a simple café by the sea with wooden benches and a super-speedy oyster shucker. In seconds a dozen oysters were placed before us with a few lemon halves for squeezing on top.
As the lemon juice hit the oyster it positively jumped, contracting in reaction to the acidity. Now, this might make some people squeamish, but to me this is what an oyster should be: barely out of the sea and fully alive. The texture was silky and the taste like a concentrated and clean essence of seawater. No oyster experience has lived up to that one since - I think Paris is too urban for oysters and in Nice the bracing wind is missing - but last week's oysters on the Ile de Ré came a close second. There were several oyster stands at the market in St-Martin de Ré and the one that appealed to me the most was that of Frédéric Voisin, who is based near the town of Loix. What caught my eye were his huîtres plates, flat oysters that are native to France but have been largely replaced by the creuses, which originated in Japan.
As we bought a dozen of these oysters, Frédéric gave us a few tips. Flat oysters should be opened at their tip, he said, by digging a small knife below the lightly curved shell to cut the hinge. On the Ile de Ré they use a special knife which does not have the traditional metal handguard between the blade and the handle. "When you're opening an oyster it's your other hand that's at risk," explained Frédéric. "With the handguard there is more chance that you will press too hard and cut into your opposite hand." He also told us to empty out the première eau, the first water, from the oyster as we opened it and wait a few seconds for it to release new, cleaner water. "The impurities are in the first water," he said. If bits of shell got into the oyster, he advised rinsing it with mineral water.
Armed with Frédéric's knife and instructions, Philippe skilfully opened the oysters back at the house. If these oysters were not quite as lively as those in Cancale, they did have the clean, pure taste I had sought all these years. Flat oysters are stronger in taste than creuses, but these were by no means overwhelming, just beautifully intense. With pain au levain, salted butter and a bottle of chilled Muscadet, it would be hard to ask for more.
Frédéric Voisin
Le Grouin, 17111 Loix-en-Ré, 05 46 43 51 38.
Frédéric ships his oysters anywhere in France and to several European countries.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

La tarte au flan

A friend of mine, quoting her mother, likes to say, "Never eat anything bigger than your head." Sam appears to be breaking that rule here. Maybe the picture makes the tart look slightly bigger than it was, but it was big enough to make people stop in their tracks and stare as he devoured it just outside his school. Tarte au flan, or flan for short, is Sam's favorite afterschool treat. It's a kind of custard thickened with cornstarch and poured into a sweet pastry shell, then baked until the surface browns. You sometimes see versions in bakeries with various fruits added, but Sam is a flan purist - it has to be plain. This one is from Multari, one of our favorite bakeries in Nice, but we sometimes buy it from the wood-fired bakery Espuno even closer to where we live in the Old Town. In Paris the best flan I've come across is at Poilâne, where the bakers produce a tiny but glorious selection of sweet goods (ah, the flaky tarte aux pommes...). I suppose I should try to make my own flan sometime since Sam likes it so much, but then again, why bother when it's so easy to find and so cheap at less than €2?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Seaweed butter for fish

Students in my cooking classes are often surprised to hear me say that it's hard to find fresh local fish in Nice. Surrounded as we are by the azure waters of the Mediterranean, you would think that fish would be plentiful. Sadly, though, few of the colorful fishing boats moored in the Nice harbor are actually used and I know of only one fisherman who sells his own catch, at the far end of the Promenade des Anglais near the airport. There is also good fish to be had at the Marché de la Libération along boulevard Joseph Garnier, but until the tram is running down avenue Jean Médecin - later this year, with luck - it seems too much effort to weave through the construction work. For the moment I'm relying on Poissonnerie Deloye near the Galeries Lafayette department store and Poissonnerie Tony near the port, both of which sell the small local catch at astronomic prices.
All this to say that the sight of gleaming fresh fish on the Ile de Ré filled me with excitement. On the first two days I bought fish at the covered market in the center of Saint-Martin de Ré, but happy as I was with the quality I couldn't help wondering if there might be other, more secret, sources of fresh fish on the island. Then, as we were riding our bikes into La Flotte, I spotted a garage with a sign outside advertising fish straight from the boat. Later that day, the salesman at the organic supermarket confirmed that this is one place where locals go for fresh fish (the other is a fish shop in the town of La Noue). "There is always a long line-up," he warned us.
We didn't get off to a very early start the next day and showed up outside the garage at 10.30am, a late hour for the serious fish buyer. Fortuitously, though, the doors had just opened and we were fourth in line. As we waited many more people joined us, all of them apparently regulars. Open only from 10.30am-12.30pm from Tuesday-Saturday, this is a no-nonsense place where they won't gut or scale the fish for you, but the prices are relatively reasonable. Sam, an instinctive gourmet, was drawn to the turbot but I settled on the dorade royale, royal sea bream, and some squid for dipping in seasoned flour and frying as an appetizer.
I would have liked to cook the sea bream on the bone but there was no way that three generously sized royal sea breams were going to fit into the kitchen's toaster oven. Instead, I filleted the fish and fried them on the skin side in two pans. The fisherman's wife had told me to leave the scales on and remove the skin after cooking, instructions that I happily obeyed since I never enjoy finding fish scales in my hair. My precious seaweed and peppercorn salt was too coarse to sprinkle onto the fish, so I mixed it into butter with some fresh flat-leaf parsley and served it on top. If you're wondering where to buy seaweed salt, by the way, I have seen it sold by salt specialists at several open-air markets in Paris including the Marché Saxe-Breteuil.

Fish fillets with seaweed and peppercorn butter
Serves 6

6 fish fillets with their skin, washed and dried
Fine sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp seaweed and peppercorn salt
2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Season the fish lightly with fine sea salt. Heat the olive oil in two frying pans over medium-high heat. Cook the fillets on the skin side until the flesh is nearly white on the top, then flip them over and finish cooking for no more than 1 min.

To make the seaweed butter, combine all the ingredients in a small bowl with a fork, crushing the salt.

Place the fillets, flesh-side up, on six plates and top each one with a spoonful of the seaweed butter.

This butter can also be used on steamed new potatoes.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Salt of the earth

It's easy to take salt for granted. That is, until you've discovered coarse gray sea salt and fleur de sel from France's Atlantic coast. I've known for years that the first gets its color from clay and the second floats to the surface of the water, but had never given much thought to how they were actually harvested. All that has changed now that I'm on the Ile de Ré, one of three islands or peninsulas in France that produce the country's finest sea salt. After getting my fill of the gloriously empty sandy beaches yesterday, I went on a little field trip to visit the island's salt marshes, joining some intrepid seniors from the Muscadet region who had come in vintage convertibles and a couple of other curious tourists.
At first there doesn't appear to be much to see, just stretches of orderly square puddles bordered by paths. But our guide Christelle did a great job of explaining the fascinating process of harvesting salt. The technique dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and, like so many medieval inventions, is ingenious. Salt producers, who are called paludiers north of the Loire river and sauniers (after the medieval word for salt) in the south, have used the same tools for hundreds of years, though some of the hoes and rakes are now made of fiberglass rather than wood to make them easier to handle.
Because the salt marshes are below sea level, the seawater comes through a dyke into a large pool. From there, the sauniers (we are south of the Loire) control its flow through a system of canals and dams using simple slats of wood. The water moves through the flats like a maze, with each series of square basins lower and shallower than the last. Harvesting can only take place in the summer, when the sun and wind evaporate the water over a period of ten days to two weeks. By the time the salt is ready to harvest there is very little water left, and the sauniers use rakes and hoes on long poles to scrape it into piles and pick it up. In the winter, their job is to keep the natural clay basins clean so that the unrefined salt will be free of impurities. The saunier's wife is traditionally in charge of gently raking off the fleur de sel, the pure white salt that rises to the top of the water and is prized for its light crunch and delicate taste.
About 100 sauniers on the Ile de Ré produce an average of 2,500 tons of salt per season. Christelle explained that in the past farmers produced salt in addition to their vegetable crops, while now it's a profession in itself. To allow the salt producers to make a living even in rainy years when the harvest is smaller, the cooperative keeps the prices stable (ie high). Many of the young sauniers learn their profession on the Guérande peninsula in Brittany, which is the Atlantic's main salt-producing area (the island of Noirmoutier, which is also famed for its potatoes, is the third).
I had often wondered why the Atlantic fleur de sel tastes better than fleur de sel de Camargue, which is produced near Marseille, and Christelle finally cleared up the mystery. She told me that the hot and dry Mediterranean climate causes the water to evaporate faster, resulting in a bitter-tasting salt that needs to be refined before it can be eaten. The Atlantic coast, it seems, has the right combination of sun, wind and rain.
Before leaving I naturally had to stop into the salt shop, where I bought a big bag of fleur de sel and a jar of coarse gray salt flavored with thyme, three peppercorns and three kinds of seaweed. I don't normally go in for flavored salts but, really, who could resist that combination? Later I saw the same salts at a slightly lower price in the supermarket, which gave me pause. But never mind - the fleur de sel will have a prized place on my table for sprinkling at the last minute onto cooked foods and salads, while the seaweed in the coarse salt will make it a natural match for fish or new potatoes. And next time I throw some coarse gray salt into a stew or pack it around a fish to create an airtight crust for roasting, I'll think about the dedicated sauniers and their medieval tools.
Ecomusée de Marais Salant
near the town of Loix on the Ile de Ré

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Luxury new potatoes

Like the Auvergne, the Ile de Ré has a potato fetish. But here what they celebrate is the spring potato, the sweet and dainty pomme de terre primeur de l'Ile de Ré. It has an official season - from early May to the end of June - and sells in Paris and Nice at the luxury price of around €12 a kilogram (about $8 a pound). What makes it special is the island's unique sandy terroir combined with the seaweed used as fertiliser, which is said to give the potatoes a subtle marine taste.
We were lucky enough to arrive on the Ile de Ré at the start of the potato season, which coincided with the presidential election on Sunday. Outside the polling station on the island's capital of St-Martin de Ré, chefs were serving the new potatoes topped with salmon eggs or filled with cheese and accompanied by the crisp white local wine - reason enough to get out and vote.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on some potatoes at the market, which takes place every day on the island's capital of St-Martin de Ré. The market isn't cheap - St-Martin is the St-Tropez of the Atlantic coast, attracting French celebrities and politicians - but the local potatoes are a relative bargain at €3-€4 a kilo. I bought a couple of kilos and rushed them home, knowing that they are picked fresh every day to prevent their natural sugars from turning into starch (a bit like garden peas or corn). As we were about to leave the covered market I turned back for some thick and creamy fromage blanc from the pristine dairy stand displaying local cheeses.
To preserve the texture and sweetness of new potatoes it's best to bring the water to a boil before adding them to the pot. I threw in some local sea salt mixed with herbs and multicolored peppercorns, which the owners of the house use to flavor everything they cook. These deluxe potatoes need little or no adornment, but I couldn't resist mixing the fromage blanc with plenty of chopped chives to spoon over their buttery flesh. I served them with a whopper of a line-caught sea bass (enough for six of us) topped with a lime and ginger vinaigrette, but they could easily have starred on their own with a green salad. Whether we could really detect the taste of seaweed I can't say for sure, but I like to think so.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Terrific truffade

When I find myself in the Montparnasse area in Paris the first thing I usually think of is crêpes, since this is the area where most of the city's Breton population settled (it seems they got off the train at Montparnasse and never left the area). I know I'll be eating a few crêpes this week as I'm on my way to the Ile de Ré, an island off the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, for a week's holiday. So I was grateful to come across the café Le Plomb du Cantal in rue de la Gaîté, a once-seedy street near the Montparnasse tower that is now lined with theaters, cafés and cute bars like Le Tournesol.
Le Plomb du Cantal is an area in the sparsely populated Auvergne region in central France. The closest I've come to this region is the Lozère, which is just south of the Auvergne's vocanic hills and shares their rib-sticking cuisine. The people of the Lozère turn up their noses at any vividly colored vegetable, preferring to accompany each meal, winter or summer, with a mixture of mashed potato and fresh tomme cheese. This mixture comes in two forms: the smooth, famously stringy purée known as aligot and the chunkier mix called truffade.
At Le Plomb du Cantal nearly ever diner was tucking into a sausage link about half as long as my arm next to an enormous heap of truffade, like a central French take on English breakfast. I was about to order the same thing when Philippe beat me to it, and I realised that his serving would easily be big enough for both of us. I quickly switched to the frisée salad topped with about as much bacon as I would normally eat in a year, while Sam had juicy jambon au torchon - miles away from industrial ham - with skinny frites maison that tasted distinctly of animal fat, which to my mind is a good thing.
In the open kitchen the cooks tossed potato chunks and tomme in huge cast-iron skillets until they melted into a sticky mass and poured this into copper pots. The friendly waitresses then scraped the lava-like mixture onto the plates at the table. I've sometimes seen truffade cooked until it develops a crust, but here it just had nice brown bits mixed in. Surprisingly it somehow wasn't too fatty, though I still think that about once a year is the right frequency to eat this dish. Plomb, by the way, is the French word for lead, which is exactly how the truffade felt in our stomachs for a few hours afterwards (it was worth it, though).
Much later that day, I had recovered enough to treat myself to just one crêpe from my favorite stand on boulevard Montparnasse, Chez Alberto. My only mistake was to eat it at a table inside, which spoils the fun of licking the Nutella off your fingers as it drips out of the hot crêpe. Maybe crêpes were never meant to be eaten with a knife and fork.
Note: Truffade doesn't photograph well, especially once it's out of the copper pot and on the plate. I snuck into the kitchen to capture it in its pot, but later realized that I had snapped aligot instead of truffade.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Salad for Santa Capelina

After a day in front of my computer I'm like a little mouse emerging from its hole, blinking in the sunlight and talking with a squeaky voice. May 1st being Labor Day in France, I forced myself to leave my desk and took a walk up to the Parc du Château (don't look for a castle, it was destroyed in 1706), where I soaked up the spectacular views and felt happy as always to be back in Nice. Strolling through the Cours Saleya on the way back to my apartment I came across a parade of dancing people in hats carrying a paper maché figure towards the sea. It's not unusual to see a manifestation on May Day, when the unions traditionally take to the streets, but this was no ordinary workers' demonstration. Not that I was surprised: people always seem to be parading through the streets for one reason or another in Nice, whether for religious festivals or the two-week Carnival in February.
It turns out that the parade was an annual event in honor of Santa Capelina, the hatted patron saint of workers, which explains the hats (sort of). Each year an association called Batasuna organizes a giant fish soup party on the quai Rauba Capeu, followed by a delirious dance through the streets. To conclude the festivities Santa Capelina is tossed into the sea, signalling the end of winter. I found out only later that my son Sam and husband Philippe were in the middle of the parade, having come across the party on their way back from the park. Sam had improvised a rattle out of an empty plastic juice bottle and some pistachio shells, getting right into the spirit of the event.
To celebrate the end of winter it seems appropriate to offer you a spring recipe. I've been buying a lot of peas lately because they are so satisfying to shell, unlike those pesky little spring fava beans. Last night I had half an hour between coming home from my African dance class with the inimitable Aly M'Baye and watching the debate between the two presidential candidates, but wanted to have something fresh and green rather than the gnocchi with tomato sauce that Philippe and Sam had eaten for dinner. (Sam could eat gnocchi every day so I see this dish a little too often.) This salad proves that there is really no excuse not to shell peas, as long as you can find sweet ones.

Couscous, mint and pea salad
Serves 1

1/3 cup couscous
2 tbsp plus 1 tsp good quality olive oil
1/3 cup boiling water
2 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
A good handful of fresh mint leaves
A good handful of freshly podded peas

In a bowl, toss the couscous with 1 tsp olive oil to coat the grains, which will help prevent them from clumping. Pour the boiling water over the couscous, cover and leave for 5 mins.

Meanwhile, heat a small pot of water for the peas. Shell the peas. When the water boils, add a good pinch of salt and the peas. Boil for about 3 mins - the peas should not be too soft.

Squeeze the lemon juice and stir in a little salt and pepper, being sure to dissolve the salt. Whisk in the 2 tbsp olive oil. Chop the mint finely.

Stir the lemon dressing, mint and peas into the couscous. Adjust the amount of lemon juice and olive oil if necessary.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Star quality cooking

I always enjoy spending time with my favorite French hedonist Annie Poussielgues. She is full of ideas, loves to travel (she and I once went to Japan together and share a special fondness for southern India) and has that innate French sense of style that I admire. The other night she invited me to try a new way of eating that perfectly reflects the modern Parisian lifestyle. Première Etoile, which opened a few months ago in the Marais, is designed for those who yearn to cook but don't have time to shop. Chefs do the work of writing the recipes and assembling the ingredients, which customers take home in a kit. The key lies in the quality of the ingredients: Première Etoile uses the same suppliers as top Paris chefs.
The chalkboard menu offered two sets of dishes: one by guest chef Gilles Choukroun of the contemporary restaurant L'Angl'Opéra and the other by young in-house chef Raphaël Berland. We opted for a Choukroun creation of sesame-crusted perch with a cucumber-soy condiment and roasted eggplant. Main courses cost €8.50 to €11.50 per person, about half of what the equivalent dish might cost in a restaurant. The catch is that you have to prepare it yourself. For this we enlisted the help of Annie's talented companion Olivier, who is also a photographer. Nothing in the bag had been prepped: the eggplant needed dicing and sautéeing ("roasted" was a bit of a misnomer), the cucumber slicing. Though there was nothing too technical about the recipe, it did seem to have a lot of steps. "You have to like cooking to do this," said Olivier, as Annie and I lounged hedonistically on the sofa sipping wine. Within about half an hour he had turned out a restaurant quality dish that would have been perfect except for the fish, which we all deemed to be an unexciting species (either tuna or salmon would probably work better with the Asian elements in this dish). Première Etoile supplied the ready-made desserts of cherry tiramisu — like a cross with a Black Forest cake — chestnut cake and fig tart, all of which were worthy of a good pâtisserie.
I still cling to the idea(l) of lining up to buy each ingredient for a meal from a different small shop or market stall, but if you lack time or find the French way of food shopping overwhelming, Première Etoile could provide just the boost you need to feel like a chef.
Première Etoile
2 rue de l'Hôtel Saint Paul, 4th, 01 42 71 67 78.