Friday, 24 June 2011

Summertime in Wimbledon

At last the sun is shining again. Well sort of.  It has been a vicious rain lately, cold and blustery, but now everything is green and soggy again, just like an early English summer should be.  Except the cold seems to have done for the bumblebees.  Lots of different bees this year, including the hairy-footed garden bee, no less. A pitch black furry little thing, it was unmistakable, although I missed the hairy little feet.  Lots of honey bees, too - there was even a swarm at the tennis yesterday. But my best is this giant southern hawker dragonfly, two years in my pond, existing on my baby newts, as I understand. But what an exquisite specimen.

Talking of which, Maria Sharapova is back in town.  An amazon beauty, we saw her one morning, jogging along the busy Ridgway with her trainer - she was not trying to hide, that's for sure. Bumped into Pete Sampras at Blockbusters once, too - got his autograph, but he didn't look up.  The best, though, was when my daughter came home from her school tennis courts, and told me about how, "Yana came and said hello to all of us, mummy".  The divine Jana Novotna, famous for her tears at losing in the final, had come off the practice courts and introduced herself to every little girl. How we cried when she finally triumphed that year.  Oh, the stardust rubs off, I can tell you.

It's the year of the strawberry this year, there's no doubt.  I don't eat them generally, but really, they are as sweet as I've ever had them. The early (long-forgotten) sunshine has made for the best harvest in living memory (I made that up, actually). But it is true that this year, halved, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and possibly a little bit of demerara for the crunch, they are a seriously sophisticated and memorable treat.

And not only that. The asparagus is too too divine.  We're mostly having it cold with a spoon of home-made mayonnaise (home being Waitrose, in this case).  But this evening I plan to do a very early favourite of mine: asparagus soup, and definitely having it cold.

So: a bunch of fresh asparagus, hard bits cut off, tips kept for garnish. One onion, or a few spring onions chopped and very gently sauted in plenty butter.  Jamie adds celery and leeks to the onion, but then he also serves it hot. When the onion is quite soft, add the chopped asparagus.  Cover and cook a bit more, then add just under a litre of chicken stock.  Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently until very tender.  Whizz. Add more seasoning to taste (using white pepper if you're a bit... you know) and stir in a nice big glug of double cream. Add the tips and heat gently for a few more minutes to tenderize.  Take off the heat, then when it's cool, chill.  I adore a cold soup, and you can chop almost anything green on top.  Maybe a squirt of lemon?

But how about this from James Martin:  the Jersey Royal potatoes are heavenly at the moment too, so chop a few (left-over) cooked potatoes into hot oil, along with some of the fresh asparagus tips, when just cooked and crispy, take off the heat and add chopped watercress and chives. Season. Divide into four bowls and pour the hot soup gently around, just like a top chef.

On the other hand, Jamie would put a softly poached egg on toasted ciabatta, breaking the yolk just as you slip it into the hot velvety soup..... I can't choose!!

Saturday, 4 June 2011


Everybody loves France.  Sometimes the language can be a little baffling, true, but a short hop from our shores, and the moment you set foot in France you're foreign. My first brush with French was one very early dawn in the mid-Seventies.  We were on a bus from Athens to London.  You took a bus for $60, and for three days and two nights you got distance. This was quite exciting in many ways, the fun Greek students we befriended, the Continent, Italy, Switzerland and France rushing past your window, and the pressure to make time which involved the drivers swapping driving duties while the bus was hurtling down the motorway at seventy miles an hour.  It was about 4am when I heard my brother whisper excitedly, and there it was: in the grey shadows of the early morning light... the Eiffel Tower. We had arrived in Paris, its huge iconic structure forever in the memory of that dawn. We were as far from Durban as it was possible to be.  The bus stopped. Out into the chilly air and into a cosy a little French tabac.  It was a tiny affair, with lots of warm polished wood and one huge glass counter brimming  with fresh golden croissants. The smell of coffee filled the air. Well if this wasn't what it was all about: after a pretty gruelling three days, coffee and croissants in Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The French barman stood casually in his black waistcoat to take our order.  We'd like a croissant si vous plais... he looked at us quizzically.  We tried again.  We'd like a croissant please, inflecting a further syllable.  No.  He had no idea what we'd like. Another of us tried. A CROISSANT, si vous plait.  Never heard of that either.  Sorry. He made us say the jolly word about six times, each time shrugging and shaking his head, even though there was nothing else in the whole cafe!  But our accent was far too much for this Parisienne. Pointing and money eventually did the trick, but he made it quite obvious he had never met a less useful bunch. 

There is always something of that in France.  Never does the written word look less like it sounds.  Last week we took a chalet on the beautiful Cote d'Armor in Brittany.  Just a few days by the sea, and a little bit of seafood somewhere quiet.  The chalet was called Chanson d'Oisseau.  I mean, how would you say that? They kindly let us know at the chalet: "shong-zon dwazo".  It means the Song of the Birds, and it certainly was that.  They woke us up in the fresh morning, and sang till the last light.  Even the cuckoo. And when the tide was low we saw row upon row of short black stakes between the islands: mussel farms. We were in the home of moules. Our best meal, though, was a dish of chicken.  Lunch is just as big a deal in France as dinner, and we stopped at the Restaurant Le Vieux Chateau. Not as pretentious as its name implies - the Chateau is just a ruin opposite. We made ouselves comfortable and a very bleached blonde took our order.  Ahh, Poelet St Jacque...that's got to be chicken!  Oh, we just felt like chicken.  Our plates duly arrived.  Circling a neat mound of rice, ten plump scallops sat, interspersed with crispy green mangetout.  Sweet and perfectly cooked in a dreamy white sauce, it was as delicious as it was unexpected.  Scallops cooked on the stove.  Result.

A rainy afternoon in the Breton city of Dinan would lift anyone's spirit. A vast walled medieval town, perfectly preserved. Breathtaking could hardly describe it.  We stopped for a drink at a particularly picturesque restaurant.   Inside, dominating the dining room, a wide sweeping spiral staircase, huge and black and very shiny, giant ancient oaks still holding after five hundred years. This place had soul. 

But we headed back to the coast for dinner.  In the exquisite pale Victorian splendour of Saint-Cast-de-Guildo, we raised our game.  Not only was this restaurant overlooking the white sands and fading turqoise sea, the handsome young waiter could translate. He read out the specials in perfect English, and we went for bar. Seabass. Cooked to perfection, the buttery sauce on the side was a revelation.   Was it hollandaise?  Couldn't put a finger on it. What, we asked our English-speaking hero, was that sauce served with the bar... "Ahh, he said, with a heartbreaking accent, "that is....butter white".  I've watched the cookery shows, and I know it's called beurre blanc (ber blonk) even in English, but I could have climbed into his pocket I was so charmed. 

And so easy. Here it is: Butter White (ber-tair whet):

Chop 4 shallots, place in a saucepan.  Add 200ml of white wine (Chablis apparently, we always have it...not!) and any or all or none of these: bay leaf / garlic / thyme / parsley. Bring to the boil and reduce by half.  Lower the heat, and cube 200 - 250g of cold unsalted butter. Whisk them in one by one, letting each one melt before the next. Just don't overheat, and keep whisking.  The sauce should be just thickened. Season with salt and pepper, and strain. This will keep warm for a while.  Add the juice of half a lemon just before serving on your delectable fish / broccoli / asparagus / peas / artichoke ....