Holidays in France relive so many memories – and high on the list of food nostalgia were seemingly the everyday foods, not the ‘big event’ like your first sighting of Notre Dame, Avignon’s Palace of the Popes, or the Pont du Gard – or insisting on waiting until Montelimar for a petrol stop because they gave you what seemed like handfuls of nougat. Stopping at rough and ready roadside Relais des Routiers, parking the family estate car amid the massive trucks, most bearing the slogan ‘Je roule pour vous’, was the menu starting with inevitable Salade des Tomates, Assiette des Charcuterie, Oeufs Mayonnaise and, further south, various takes on the salade Nicoise. Often there was no menu – you ate and enjoyed what was on offer that days – with huge terrines being past from table to table, likewise tureens of soupe or the cheese plate.
We grew tomatoes at home – both in the greenhouse and outdoors – but never did they eclipse those sun ripened tomatoes that seemed to be on every one of those hand written – in typically curvy French hand-writing and crudely printed, Gestetnered menu’s. This was lunch from around Dijon southwards down the busy, tree lined RN and daily from there until we got to the Mediterranean. These faintly printed menu’s were tricky to decipher – my first steak de cheval was from me mistaking cheval for chervil, chevres or champignons, or something ‘ch…’. As a keen rider, horsemeat wouldn’t have been my dish of choice – and still isn’t although I have since tasted it with a less emotional mind set. Thankfully I just don’t like it.
Back to those tomatoes – big, meaty, mis-shapened and never quite red all over. Firmly textured and smelling of tomatoes as they should smell without plant food – just water and plenty sunshine hours – and the right variety probably grown by farmers saving back seed year after year.
Sliced in rounds, having first removed the hard calix and dressed with peppery (ie cheap) EV olive oil and red wine vinegar, a combination that yelled out for bread and more bread. Lemon seemed only to be used for essential acidity when you crossed the border and looked for a campsite on the Riviera dei Fiori – Ceriale, Albenga and Finale Liguria come flooding back. Sometimes we’d turn right towards the bottom of the RN7 and head for Valras-Plage, Beziers or Le Franqui. The tomatoes played a huge part of the holiday feasting whichever way we went. The rule seemed to be vinegar in France, lemon in Italy.
As big business now dominates and has industrialised the tomato business, it’s harder than ever to find those traditional tomatoes. Hooray, we did just that a few days ago in the market in Etaples. Not the best French market we’ve shopped by a long way, but what was good, was very good. We bought tomates du pays – good enough recommendation for me.
When clothing and underwear outnumber food stalls I’m never happy – our present favourites in Normandy only stray from food for kitchen utensils, hand tools and cheap footwear, mostly workboots and Wellingtons.
Melons are still part of holidays – buying a tray, they scent the car for days afterwards. Wonderful.
Aside from slicing tomatoes and dressing them on the plate in-situ – aged Balsamic is the luxury touch – we finished our ‘tradiozionale’ last night so time to raid the piggy bank for a new bottle. I reckon on a good, genuine Balsamico to last a full 12 months, so each serving is a treat.
Good tomatoes also remind me of them roasted and stuffed in SW France – either Languedocienne with bread and parsley, or with rice flavoured with garlic and the tiniest hint of minced meat or poitrine fume.. I’ve even had them served stuffed with olives, tuna, roasted green and red peppers, but somehow that’s a step too far.
However you view them – tomatoes and melons were the food of long summer holidays on campsites as close to the sea as was possible.
The bonhomie was quite special – French were in the majority, with a few English, German and Belgians. Food united us. Stuffed tomatoes were everyday from the camp kitchen – rotisserie chicken and frites were the weekend speciality. Within reason, no matter what size container you took for the frites the price remained the same.
It was also where I first tasted yogurt – my next post.
As I write looking out on a blustery autumn day, those memories come flooding back and we were close to almost identically replicating the tomato salad only last evening.
Another madelaine moment.