29 Jun 2011

Fear and fried chicken

Chicken was something I only ever saw whole. My mother didn’t buy chicken breasts, thighs or wings. Is it possible they weren’t readily available in the 1960s? After all, chicken was the luxury dish back then, before factory farming had kicked into full gear, and reserved for Sundays. Beef was more likely to be the mid week joint, a topside or silverside slowly roasted and thinly sliced. And takeaway food tended to be restricted to chips, fishcakes and rissoles so my first encounter with Kentucky Fried Chicken should have been more rewarding, for its novelty factor if nothing else.

The first KFC opened in Preston in 1965. I’m unsure of its arrival in Wales; perhaps the bearded face of Colonel Sanders and the distinctive red and white stripes had already made an appearance between Swansea and Cardiff but it was the 1970s, and in England, before I got up-close and personal with one.

22 Jun 2011

Summertime. And the living...

1.
We lived 200 yards from a flat, sandy beach in South Wales so, unlike other families who set off for seaside resorts and holiday camps when the summer holidays arrived, we packed up the Hilman Minx, and later the Austin 1100, and set off to rural caravan parks in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. We visited the coast, but our home was among trees, early morning dew on the grass, whitewashed toilet blocks. Watchet, Tavistock, Looe. The names of these towns are a mantra to conjure memories: fishing for crabs on an old stone harbour wall, the smell of plastic rain coats, watching my parents dance in the clubhouse. Round and round they go, smiling and flecked with light from the glittering mirror ball suspended above the dance floor.

Devon c.1969
The texture of summer: the raised bumps of prickly heat on my arms. Its taste: a scone spread with strawberry jam and clotted cream.

2.
One summer in the early 80s, when I was living in Jersey in the Channel Islands, Sue and I piled into her yellow MG, caught the ferry to St. Malo and drove down the west coast of France to La Rochelle. A few miles outside the town the exhaust broke in two but we made it to a campsite and spent a week making jewellery with two gypsy men on the harbour while we waited for the car to be repaired.

La Rochelle 1983
A week later, in the square at St. Emilion, we drank chilled Chateau d’Yquem and learned that some coarse French pâtés had little to do with the word pâté as we knew it but were far less intimidating and surprisingly tasty if we wrapped them in a leaf of lettuce. Or closed our eyes.

The look of summer: dappled light under a canopy of old plane trees. Its smell: Ambre Solaire and Gauloises.

3.
In Antibes summer can sometimes show its face as early as March, but by the end of June the days have settled into a predictable 28 degrees of blue sky and the occasional blustery but warm sea-wind. It’s the season for family and friends to fill our house.

We reacquaint ourselves with the bord de la mer route to the airport and back, knowing already the look on the faces of our guests when they first glimpse the Mediterranean, its shades of turquoise that deepen towards the horizon. Children play hide and seek beneath the terrace of the house. Sand and flip-flops gather inside the front door. The garden is the heart of our home now: the wooden table laid and cleared and laid again as the days and weeks pass. Bread, wine, tomatoes and basil, poulet à la flamme, grilled provençal vegetables, ripe cheese, fresh figs.

The sounds of summer: the rise and fall of the cicadas’ song, laughter.

Rillettes of Salmon - Rillettes au Saumon

Rillettes has the unattractive English translation of ‘potted meat’ so let’s stick to the French as it’s the best way to describe this salmon dish set in butter and cream. It’s what I usually make, a day or half a day in advance, for guests who’ve had an early start and a long day travelling to get here; guests who need a relaxed, easy supper with not much clearing up afterwards. Add some warm new potatoes, dressed with olive oil, sea salt and chives, and you’ll have a more substantial meal.

What you need for 6 people:
3 fresh salmon fillets, between 425 and 450 grams in total
juniper berries
300 grams smoked salmon
150 grams unsalted butter
a lemon
35 to 40 centilitres of heavy, whipping or double cream

What I do:
I poach the fresh salmon in a good splash of white or rosé wine (whatever you have open), a good splash of water and the juniper berries, lightly crushed. When cooked, remove any skin, bones and dark flesh. Flake the fish with two forks and allow to cool.

(I keep the crushed juniper berries with the fish because I like their flavour in the finished dish but it’s a good idea to mention it before people start to eat as they can be mistaken for squashed flies.)
Juniper berries, squashed


Melt the butter and let it cool for 5 or so minutes.

Snip the smoked salmon into small pieces and put in a blender with the melted butter.

Blitz for around 30 seconds to make a paste. It doesn’t matter if some little pieces of salmon remain in the paste… it adds to the final texture.

Mix the smoked salmon paste with the flaked salmon in a large bowl and add lemon juice to taste.


Lightly whisk the cream until it’s thick but still gloopy – you don’t want fluff – and stir it into the salmon until well blended.

Fill individual ramekins or one big serving dish. I once used an elegant salmon-shaped copper mould but had to blast the outside with a hairdryer to get the mousse out and it ended up looking more ‘guppy’ than ‘salmon’ so I’ve avoided anything fancy ever since.

Make it pretty with fresh or dried dill and lemon curls and leave it in the fridge for at least 3 hours.

All you’ll need is French bread, ripe tomatoes and a handful of salad leaves. And of course, the rest of the wine.


Bienvenu chez nous et bon appétit.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about packing for a holiday.
  2. Write about dancing.
  3. Write about a man in your past.
  4. Write about waiting for someone to arrive.
  5. Write about listening to a group of people at the next table in a restaurant.

15 Jun 2011

Entente Cordiale, Appropriation and Apple Tart

Les Belles Rives, Juan les Pins
My French friend, Kate, is telling me about a spat she had with an inexperienced barman at the swanky Les Belles Rives in Juan les Pins who had run up to her with l’addition even though she’d only walked 100 yards away from her table, leaving her bag there, to take a photograph. ‘I thought this was a 5 star establishment,’ she said. ‘In a 5 star establishment the bill is always delivered to the table.’ Kate is all of five foot tall but she can wither someone who crosses her in less than five seconds and the barman couldn’t grovel an apology quickly enough. It’s a good story. But then she goes on.

8 Jun 2011

Market

In the late 1960s Port Talbot council began a regeneration project that would make it almost impossible to recognise the town centre by the mid 1970s. The building of the M4 flyover in the limited amount of land between the sea and the town’s three mountains, Mynydd Margam, Mynydd Emroch and Mynydd Dinas, had already meant the disappearance of a number of landmarks, including Capel Moriah, Vivian Square and Carmarthen Row, and in 1971 most of what was left of the old town was demolished so a modern indoor shopping centre could be built in the neo-brutalism style that scarred so much of the country at that time.

My memories of the town post 1971 are vague even though I didn’t move away until 1978. When I think of the town it’s always the old town that comes to mind: the market building, Oliver’s shoe-shop in Water Street where my mother took me to buy my school shoes, the short cut past the back of the Walnut Tree Hotel to the corner of David Evans on the High Street, the bridge over the Afan into Bethany Square and its imposing stone chapel in shades of blue and brown that I still think is magnificent today in spite of its overgrown steps and boarded up windows and door.

I know that the ever-increasing and problematic traffic congestion through the town had to be resolved somehow, but both reason and emotion tell me that it

1 Jun 2011

Little pieces of home

When you’re away from home, in a different country, is there a food you miss?

Here in France I miss British sausages, a good quality Cumberland or Lincolnshire cooked until the skin starts to crisp and caramelise and served in a hot dog roll with fried onions, ketchup and mustard. Or on a nest of mashed potatoes with onion gravy and peas. Or sliced into a sandwich of thick granary bread with brown sauce. Or cold the next day, snaffled from the fridge and eaten between the kitchen and whatever room I’m heading for.

When I leave France I will miss their unsalted butter, beurre doux, that I like to spread onto French bread and eat without anything else at all so the delicate, creamy depth isn’t lost. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t overpower it is a ripe summer grown coeur de boeuf tomato sprinkled with salt. And I will miss the bread. 

Is there anything you think you’ll miss so much that you pack it in your suitcase when you travel?

My niece and her husband are coming to stay for a week with their two children, Ffion and Iwan who are 6 and 3. Ffion, perhaps like lots of kids, is suspicious of food she doesn’t recognise. She likes strawberries, Bolognese sauce (not too lumpy) with pasta spirals, and chicken dinners.