Holiday Food: Smells, Sounds and Sourires

Food evokes place. Marcel Proust was one who pointed to this when staying in Cabourg, an hour or so westward along the coast from Étretat.

IMG_7064 (476x600)Proust, wonderous yet over-quoted, famously tripped out on his madeleines and yet their home was way out east in the coal mining towns of Lorraine. Search down the original recipe, Madeleines de Commercy and be happy – people still send round-end wooden boxes of these to friends when they passed through Lorraine, en-route to Alsace.  ‘In Search of Lost Time’ stays with us – and soon we publish the new quarterly ‘In Search of Taste’, but sadly no new Proust.

IMG_6500 (450x600)I write this with heavy heart. Our rented address in Étretat these past few years may soon change hands. An era, which began with a small ad in The Spectator, ends abruptly yet on a joyous note. This means finding a new place of equal measure. A chance meeting on the Perrey with a man from Rouen suggests possibilities, but back to food.

Let’s agree that it’s not just because foods like madeleines are local specialities,  it is because the spirit of place brings forward emotions. Sounds evoke too – crying gulls looping overhead, crashing waves shifting the stones below, the scrape of the sea-warped front door at the entrance to Les Roches Blanches, cables rhythmically knocking on masts of moored up catamarans at night and, early morning,IMG_9379 (450x600) Jacquot’s small fishing boat being launched down the pebbled beach with the outboard held high to protect the already battered and twisted propeller.

IMG_6284 (600x450)A man I’ll call Jacquot goes early morning to set and check his lobster pots. His life has always been in Étretat – like his two friends since school who are always there on their bikes to help him pull his boat back up the beach and discuss his catch. Like oysters, lobster only becomes expensive when one pays the restaurant price for having them prepared.

Guy de Maupassant, who spent much of his early years here and later returned to live in the town, said the Porte d’Aval arch reminded him of an elephant drinking from the sea. Once that image is in one’s head, the Porte d’Aval is forever an elephant, still more when frozen in time by Corot, Boudin, Courbet and of course Monet.

IMG_6390 (600x450)He and all the others discovered the then sleepy Étretat and came to the coast from Paris with paint box and easel, most by steam train, for the light, cliffs, and seascapes and, for some, the life. Oscar Wilde said he could be himself when in Étretat. There’s even a loose, little known connection here to Sherlock Holmes.

The town’s train station has long since closed, but the day trippers keep rolling in – most arrive late morning and have departed by early evening. I’m often thinking of Llareggub when I walk through the sleepy town early in the morning.

For us, holidays raise high emotions of the best sort – if they did not then surely something would be missing. Like the sounds described, taste and smell also stir memories.

IMG_6201 (600x450)Rough seas churn up seaweeds and the air hangs rich with the smell of a crop that in past times added much to the town’s economy. Back then kelp was burned all along the pebble beach for use on farm land and in medicine. Courbet painted the scene – or was it Boudin?

IMG_9356 (600x450)Boudin Noir is as Normandy a delicacy as farm cider. I like mine cold and spread generously on bread with a small Pommeau as an appetiser. I see it eaten less and less like this since I first was encouraged to taste fresh boudin on bread in a market bar early one morning in Evreux. The tradition continues when the boudin is artisan made and fresh.

IMG_6214 (450x600) (450x600)Whelks (bulots) taste best if eaten freshly cooked and still a little warm, with a shop-bought heavy mayonnaise and when seated close enough to the shore so as to pick up the roll of waves on stones – after all, the whelk’s shell is too small to be put up to the ear.  That the whelk shells are greener than those on the English south coast means one is in Étretat, not Folkestone, Rye or Hastings.

Steack Haché, made to order with the lean beef fore-quarter in Serge Helin’s shop, cannot be rivalled by a haché bought ready-made. Ours this week were hefty Charolais, but that changes with what’s going through the abattoir.

IMG_6915 (453x600)Setting taste aside, it’s also the sound of the steel handle opening and closing on the small, shoulder height fridge door, followed no time later with the dull metal clack of the pitted, hand operated haché former and finally the clink of coins in the glass tray when Monsieur Serge counts out the change. Another butcher in town has a modern haché maker – all polycarbonate and digital. Je m’excuse, mais ……. with modernity we lose evocation.

Bread is fresh baked morning, noon and evening from any one of the three boulangèries. Étretat’s population is today just short of 1,500 and yet there are three bread shops, three butchIMG_9196 (450x600)ers and one slightly aloof l’épicerie fine (delicatessen cum grocer). One of the baker’s is also a confisèrie selling the most exquisite hand-made individual cakes and gateaux. Each cake is lifted from the cabinet on its own little black tray. The silent sliding glass door is a mark of their arrival.

The butchers each have cabinets of selections of wine and vegetables in glass, mustards, potato chips (crisps) and the mayonnaise. It is rare not to queue at least 10 deep for the bread and half that for meat. IMG_9243 (450x600)One queues for longer to be served the town’s best ice-cream – one of the first shops to make and sell flavours such as Caramel Beure Salé, Tarte Tatin, Pommeau, Marrons (made from Faugier marrons glacé), Camembert, Palet Breton, Speculoos and now Poppy, Violet and Rose. Business is so brisk each summer that their recipes are now made for Le Glacier far away in Annecy.

Thanks be that one can pass over the town’s new supermarket which now occupies where there was a traditional garage until two year’s ago.

Weekly each Thursday the customised camionettes, vans and their trailers roll into the main square and car park to set up shop. It’s market day and the original WW2 air raid siren sounds out with chilling shrill promptly at 09h00 telling that the market is open. IMG_6758 (450x600)Some locals have come, bought and gone by then like cheeky early birds and the worms. Economics come into play for many shoppers as we pick only what can’t be bought from the town’s shop-keepers. Not to value them is to play a part in their demise and that is the supermarket’s gain.

IMG_6702 (450x600)Fruit, vegetables, salad – much labelled as grown locally in nearby Octoville-sur-Mer – then Normandy’s famous butters, cheeses and cream from farm not factory, poultry (chicken, duck and Guinea fowl), mallard (colvert shot the previous evening’s flighting into the Seine estuary) – and now a specially long trailer showing a selection of fish and crustacea that would make Harrod’s famous fish counter look like rationing has been re-introduced.

A customer at the fish trailer  is insistent he wants to serve only female crabs but doesn’t know how to select them – and why would he. The seller turns two over and points out the difference – that is as close as a crab will get to a human, however crabby some humans can behave when they romance about the tourteau.

IMG_6691 (510x600)Summer is the time for étrilles – tiny, muddy, pesky little crabs we use for soup, sauce or just sucking – not to be confused with soft shell crabs of Spring and Autumn.

Toto sold up his fish shop two summers ago, so one can choose fish from the trailer without fear of nailing a local trader’s coffin. Similarly, there is no butcher on the market – not even one selling horse-meat (is that because we are in the land of the horse – surely not because the Chevaline trailer does good trade in other weekly markets close-by?). Toto is the butcher’s nephew.

IMG_6718 (495x600)Toto has moved on to where he started. He’s taken charge of the stoves at one of the town’s best fish restaurants – Les Roches Blanches. In effect, moving from boat to quay to shop to stove was the natural way up for Toto, swoping the cold of a day boat and quayside market for the heat of the kitchen. The town is poorer without his fish shop – Le Dos Plat – but time moves on even in Étretat.

IMG_9339 (382x600)His kitchen is through the wall from ours in the 1950’s building which replaced the elegant half-timbered seafront Belle-Epoque apartments destroyed by in WW2.  We can hear Toto and his brigade joke, jape and curse their way through prepping the morning’s mise-en-place.

IMG_6735 (549x600)Toto is a gentle man we’ve known for 10+ years. He seems acutely aware of his hands having been handling fish for so much of his life – his trade mark hand-shake is to swiftly offer up a strong right forearm.

IMG_6787 (600x450)A Plateau aux Fruits de Mer, if only affordable just the once is still a holiday essential. Placing the order and then the collection at an agreed time are part of the ritual.

IMG_6784 (600x800)Toto is the town’s man for preparing a celebratory fruits de mer – his come in a delightfully kitsch white polystyrene fishing boat. More holiday memories are evoked with the ever popular holiday wine, Picpoul de Pinet – for but a fleeting moment, I am back in Sète, Leucate or Valras in the 60’s and I am a teenager again enjoying oysters from Bouziques.

No Bouziques oysters needed in Étretat, for here we can select those grown all along the Normandy and Brittany coast from St Vaast to Quibèron. If in any doubt, Toto will open one of each to taste and so decide. Oysters stay inexpensive and thus popular when compared to those on sale in England.

IMG_6728 (478x600)Toto is the lucky guy who has found his metier. He and his friends in town assure me he’s never been happier that manning the Les Roches Blanches kitchen working with a patron called Daniel, his father. Étretat is a family town.

Pizza comes with holidays – and in Normandy they are the only ‘foreign’ food – unless we include the ‘Hoa Binh’ Vietnamese restaurant run by a man who came to visit, met a local girl and stayed. That was many years ago and the tiny restaurant continues.IMG_9302 (600x450)

Wood oven pizza is best kept simple – Margherita’s, Marinara’s and nothing too fancy – baked in what seems like seconds not minutes and then taken away to be eaten on the sea wall. The gulls eye you up, but none this time come too close to steal.  This way our pizza, not cut, but torn, is eaten while almost too hot to handle.  Like proper fish & chips bought at the English seaside, as their temperature drops, so does appetite. Anticipation beats satiation.

IMG_9197 (450x600)Knives excite grown men and boys alike. One of the busiest stalls on the Thursday market is always the man selling knives for table, kitchen, chasse and status.

IMG_9201 (600x501)He does little trade, but for sure excites as the males look, handle and discuss what’s on show – some swopping sharp stories like switching blades and menacing butterflies.

Please God forbid I should be blinded, or like my ’68-er friend Yvette’s mother who was deprived by a car crash of her sense of smell. If it were to be, bring me back to Étretat and I’ll find my way around, then rest, cook, eat and stay.

IMG_9199 (498x600)PS We bought four fine bladed steak knives near identical to ones bought down south in Castelnaudary’s market 30 years ago – amazingly their price per unit had changed little, even with Euro’s replacing Francs.IMG_6506 (450x600)

IMG_6193 (450x600)

IMG_6332 (385x600)IMG_6590 (600x450)IMG_6509 (600x467)IMG_6586 (450x600)IMG_9195 (450x600)IMG_6191 (600x450)IMG_6804 (450x600)NOTE: Some names, not all, have been altered. You will find them all in Étretat. But that is only part of the story. Far more to come on the real Normandy, its food, markets and kitchen, in future

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IMG_9317 (450x600)ENDSPIECE: Étretat locals make for Le Maupassant to discuss life and the price of fish, punt on horses and joke spare time away. The Patron is Thierry (real name). He has befriended a sea gull called ‘Chandon’ – as in Mouette et ……..All including the dog relax in Le Maupa’.IMG_9233 (495x600)IMG_9314 (452x600)




Posted in Blue Collar Gastronomy, Chicken, Food travel, Foraging, French Markets, New Chefs, No Compromise Shopping, Oysters and Shellfish, Pork, Poulet, Poulet Fermier, Poulet Fermiers, Sensory Cooking, Simple Food, supermarkets, Techniques, Veal, Wild Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writings on Whiting and Coley

IMG_9126 (600x450)Meeting and handling a large Coley made me realise this is a fish I have rarely eaten and certainly never cooked. The same is true of Whiting. Yet Lieu Noir and Merlan show up regularly on French bistrot menu’s, especially along the Channel coast where both fish are plentiful and pocket pleasingly priced.

IMG_9130 (600x450)The 6 kgs coley, bright eyed and stiff alive, went on sale for £15 – by mid-morning the asking price was £10. What of the whiting I asked Bob Fish? “They’ve gone missing,” came the earnest reply, relayed from the fishermen at Newhaven just hours before. It’s a reminder that real fishermen have to hunt down their fish, each species in its season – GPS may have made this easier, but the old words stay.

Whiting are important to Bob Fish. He moves 50 kgs a week off his Deptford Market pitch – currently £5 p/kg. Most one reads about coley and whiting has them written as ‘similar to cod’ – that’s like the well worn cliché of saying any unusual meat eaten for the first time ‘tastes like chicken’, from alligator to crocodile, rattlesnake to frog’s legs.

Go back to our first cookery writers of the 18th century – Hannah Glasse, Eliza Acton and Elizabeth Raffald – and each has time for ‘white fish’. Sometimes on a gentleman’s table this means turbot or sole, burbot** or brill, but also whiting and coley have their place.

IMG_9158 (450x600)Jane Grigson told us how Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) writes of cooking a whole whiting with Seville oranges, egg yolks and white wine – if Seville oranges are not in season then she proposes the juice of two oranges mixed with that of one lemon.

Eliza Acton (1799-1859) in her 1845 ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ speaks of baking whiting – again a whole fish, or preferably a pair laid heads to tails.

IMG_9148 (600x450)Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781), of whom we are specially fond in the No 19 kitchen, is not species specific, but has plentiful preparations for white fish. In the same section of her amazingly successful ‘The Experienced English House-Keeper’, Raffald talks of pickling shrimps and sturgeon, potting lobsters and lampreys, collaring and pitch-cocking eels, making a sauce for a cod’s head and boiling a pike with a pudding in its belly. All this comes after we learn of how to prepare a turtle of 30 pounds weight.

IMG_9155 (450x600)Her book, first published in 1769, was dedicated to her early employer, Lady Elizabeth Warburton, with the opening words: ‘Permit me, honoured Madam, to lay before you a work, for which I am ambuitious of obtaining your Ladyship’s approbation, as much as to oblige a great number of my friends, who are well acquainted with the practice I have had in the art of Cookery, ever since I left your Ladyship’s family, and have often follicited me to publifh for the inftruction of their houfekeepers’.

Most dishes for fish were specified with longer cooking times than we prefer today. The long walk from kitchen to dining room meant that the gentry would mostly have had a stewed fish made edible only by its sauce. Whiting and Coley are soft textured and so quick frying to crisp the skin and cook the flesh would seem best option.

Hake, the favourite fish of the Spanish, is similarly soft and notoriously difficult to cook to perfection. The Spanish ‘Merluza alla Romana’ where the fillets or loins are floured, battered and quickly fried in olive oil is specially good in a beach side bar when cooked a competent cook. Half a minute too long in the pan and the fish is inedible to all but the stray cats which will certainly be circling.

IMG_8862 (600x450)Research ‘Hake’ and we find Pollack (which is whiting) ‘re-branded’ by Sainsbury’s supermarkets in 2009 as ‘Colin’ – colin being French for hake. How are we to keep up when marketeers attempt to take control.

IMG_9107 (535x600)Just as I was raised by a mother who came from a family where the men were sea captains and so mackerel and bass were never on the menu because, said mother with a quiet tone, “they are scavengers and so eat the flesh of drowned sailors”. Living inland in Wales, this seemed good enough a reason to wide berth both species.

IMG_8855 (491x600)That bass are Loup de Mer in French says much of the fish’s reputation. By same token, coley and whiting were bought on Friday’s only to feed the farm cats.

My experience until today of whiting and coley was of fish on the slab the size of a trout. A big fish had me asking questions of Bob Fish. Bob deals with all sorts – customers rich and poor, most with different ethnic backgrounds which impact to their taste and ways of cooking fish. Africans and Caribbeans seem always to want their fish chopped into pieces – long cooking will follow – or sometimes to be served with a ‘Run Down’ sauce.  

IMG_9117One Jamaican lady was planning to freeze down three whole wild salmon to take them in her suitcase home to Kingston (that’s Jamaica, not on Thames) – asked why, she smiled and told Bob how they don’t have salmon in Jamaica.

The Chinese look at each fish in the box, turn them over and then try and negotiate on price. However much the bargain, the Chinese will always want it cheaper.

Many customers will ask Bob Fish for his way with this variety or that. He knows his fish, from sea shore to stove, and most times comes up with a perfect answer – not the supermarkets’ unanimous suggestion of ‘pan fry with a flavoured butter’.

IMG_8897 (800x233)In a few days we will live on little else but fish – all caught by brave little day boats in the same sea, but on the other side in Upper Normandy. If we remember we’ll ask of what’s best for Merlan and Lieu Noir – then we’ll share. Our battered Elizabeth Raffald will be our travelling companion on this trip.

download (340x101)** Burbot are listed as extinct in British rivers. They are described as cod-like cross of catfish and eel. They are still caught in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnebago. Anglers in Britain murmur about sightings in the Rivers Derwent and Ouse, but none have been landed.

IMG_9159NOTE: The Hannah Glasse facsimile edition of ‘The Art of Cookery’ by a Lady (Hannah Glasse), complete with additional material, now in paperback format (£20,00) from – ISBN 0907325580


Posted in Blue Collar Gastronomy, eels, Fish, Oysters and Shellfish, Simple Food, Spanish Cooking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Nice, Apt and Spying

A gift from Maison Auer and the outbreak of WW1 came linked together through a tale of fruits glacésProvence and a wrongful arrest.

Fruits Glacés – crystallised or candied fruits in English – were first brought to London by two early gourmet adventurers – Matthew Wood of J Petty Wood & Co and James Allen Sharwood of J A Sharwood & Co. The former were based in Southwark SE1 and Sharwood’s in EC1 with his high class grocer’s in Carter Lane, a winding narrow street climbing up from what we now call Queen Victoria Street to St Paul’s Cathedral.

I know less of Matthew Wood than Mr Sharwood, so Sharwood’s tale is the one I share.

sharwood_j_a (287x387)James Allen was well educated and destined for a City career as a re-insurance broker. Somehow this appealed less than a life travelling the world in search of food delicacies and exotic ingredients. Few British families in the late 1800′s were without a relative engaged in the Indian Raj.

Mr Sharwood became one of the first, if not the first, to import spice blends, chutneys and other exotica from India for sale through his City grocer’s. By helping a now nameless French chef working for the Marquess of Dufferin, then 8th Viceroy of India, he gained introductions to the Vencatachellum’s, an already esteemed Madrasee family of spice blenders   He also was a wine merchant, but of that we know less.

His travels were much helped by being a fluent linguist, but this was to get him into hot water on one buying trip to France in the early days of WW1. Travel in those days was by train and he would spend several weeks away from London. His two main destinations were the Ardèche for marrons glacés and then south to Apt in the hills above Nice and the French Riviera.

It was in Apt that he was mistaken for a spy, his spoken French and German being so good. He was held for some days before diplomatic intervention had him freed with apology to continue on his buying mission for the famous fruits glacés said to have been first made in Apt many centuries before. For the record, Sharwood was first to offer a selection of crystallised fruits in the one box – unimaginatively labelled for one so bright as ‘Jasco’.

The process is both simple and complicated as essentially the fruit’s water is slowly replaced with sugar – sometimes sugar syrup and other times honey.

IMG_5468 (450x600)Maison Auer**, the Florentine interior food boutique in Nice, is a place where fruits glacés rise to another level again. Where some commercial producers will use glucose syrup, Auer stays true to the original recipe of cane sugar. This is immediately manifest in price and taste.

IMG_5329 (600x450)Why eat something so special that one takes in such tiny morsels and try and cheapen the deal? Praise be to Maison Auer for upholding a tradition.

IMG_5330 (600x450)If I share that I enjoyed my least favourite fruit as a glacé, then I show how the transformation from fresh to crystallised is absolute. I talk of pineapple – a fruit far removed from Provence.

Figs, clementines, oranges, cherries, whole lemons, prunes, pear, Canteloupe melon and more are sold for €15 p/100g – regardless of your choice. Whole fruits can be sliced to order.

Chestnuts, like fresh foie gras, are only correctly sold in the lead up to the Christmas Feast. The Ardèche, once one of the poorest départments in all France, is the home of the marrons glacés – and Privas is the HQ. The Ardèche was richly graced with the edible Châtaigne chestnut trees – a larger nut often grew in pairs and three’s inside the shell. These large chestnuts are most prized for marrons glacés. There in Privas, Mr Sharwood would stay with the Faugier family, enjoy good food, talk prices and quantities for the next shipment and even exchange recipes.

Once, on a mission to learn more about the man Sharwood, I was sitting in his favourite chair on the terrace of the Faugier family house on the outskirts of Privas as guest of the Faugiers. I was handed a piece of paper with a recipe written in a good hand, yet in pencil. It was for ‘Major Grey’s Mango Chutney’ – a classic recipe from an infamous Indian Raj army officer. Mr Sharwood had hand-written it for my host’s father when sitting in this very same chair. I brought it back for the Sharwood’s archive in London which is sadly no more. It was distressing to learn from a former MD of Sharwood’s that a rooky marketeer was asked to clear out some cupboards and disposed of all the lovingly collected ephemera of +100 years onto a waiting skip. So much for take-overs by soul-less industrial food giants.

As recently as last year I was in touch with Mr Sharwood’s grandson – a retired ex-RAF pilot and himself a man with a strong affection for France.  His strong memory of the man was his visits for Sunday lunch, when after the meal he would slice delicacies such as crystallised fruits with an ivory handled folding fruit knife. There would have been photographs of Mr Sharwood with the same knife in the archive that went on the skip. History can be so temporary when the uncaring take control.

IMG_5463 (600x450)No such sentiment at Maison Auer, where 5th generation Thierry Auer is the man in charge. His family came across to Nice from Switzerland in 1920. Their shop opposite the Nice Opera House is a delight in the Florentine style.

IMG_5429 (500x375)As I was recently reminded by my partner, Nice seems more Italian than French.

Soon we look at the genuine Salade Niçoise, a dish of much debate and arguably settled once and for all by Jacques Médecin, Mayor of Nice (1966-1990), in his ‘Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen’. Médecin was another embroiled in controversy. Unlike Mr Sharwood, he was found guilty and imprisoned, having first been extradited from Uruguay in 1993. Even this can’t take away from a good, authentic recipe that has earned its place in history.

How best to enjoy such fine fruits glacés. The answer is simple – on their own and in the best company you can find, along with a ristretto, iced water and a chilled alcool blanc to suit.

** Maison Auer – 7 Carriera San-Francès-de-Paula, 06300 NiceIMG_5425 (500x375) IMG_5331 (450x600)IMG_5467 (450x600)IMG_5466 (450x600)IMG_5465 (450x600)


Posted in Agrumes, Alcohol, Christmas Citrus, Foie Gras, Fruits Glace | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments