I have talked before, more than once, about how food is more than just fuel. How it’s a way of connecting with one another, of sharing cultures and traditions and memories. About how it can say everything from thank you to I love you to sorry my goldfish bit your hamster. At the best of times, it can be all of these (except maybe for the goldfish incident, which was unfortunate).
And, of course, it can be simply and wonderfully delicious, and in no need of any further meaning than a desire for seconds and a hope of leftovers.
As it happens, while in France I have been staying with wonderful friends who have not only been the most fun and hospitable of company, they’ve also been excellent cooks who have been more than happy to share their recipes with me. And I have permission to share a couple of those recipes with you, so that you, too, may recreate a little Provence in your kitchen.
Just keep that goldfish away from the hamster, alright?
Firstly, I must point out that the entire trip was not actually about food. I realise that, if you’re following me on the social medias (come and join the Facebook group!), you could be forgiven for thinking that all I did was eat, and … yes, okay, there was a lot of eating. But there was also hiking, and swimming, and bike riding, and even some writing, because one cannot holiday all the time. Or this one can’t, anyway, because it makes her scratchy.
I spent part of my time down in Antibes, on the coast, with my wonderful photographer friend Sophie, who taught me how to make her grandmother’s pasta (so yum!) and her mother’s crepes (equally yum!), and is therefore the reason that I swam three kilometres a day while down there (Sophie, I’m joking). We also watched sunrises from the beach, and ate soca (a chickpea pancake type thing that’s a speciality of Nice) at the Marché Provençal, and wandered the cobbled streets of the old town, and went to an interactive art thing that I was simply not arty enough to understand, but which was very fun anyway. It was lovely and restful and, even in October, warm and sunny and glorious.
The rest of my time was up in the hills above the coast, away from the chaos of cars and the clutter of buildings, at my lovely friend Sylvie’s. She has a wooden house set above the Plaine de Caille, and every night the mist gathers on the floor of the valley, turning it into a wispy lake that collects the light of the moon, while the clank of the sheep bells emerge from beneath it. Sunrise turns the mist gold before unravelling it, and clouds sneak around the peaks on greyer days. In winter the snow can be heavy and picturebook-perfect, but in October it was still warm enough for dozing in the sun in a T-shirt after a mid-hike picnic. It’s the perfect place to hole up and write, breaking the day with a walk across the valley to the village to buy bread, and the weekends lend themselves to long hikes and bike rides and exploring hillside villages of warm yellow stone, followed by veggie-loaded pizza in a local restaurant. It’s also an excellent place to remind myself that my French is still terrible, and that I really need to start learning again.
But eating out is for weekends, and weekdays call for slightly more practical meal choices, and Sylvie was generous enough to share a couple of her everyday recipes with me (and so with you). Happily, they are exactly as vague and adaptable as I prefer all my recipes to be, so feel free to swap and change veggies and play around with the seasoning. It’s all good.
Soupe au Pistou
For the soup:
- Bay leaf
- Chilli pepper (optional)
- 2-3 sorts of beans – white, red, & green. Cook first if needed. (You could also use some tinned beans for this – I think cannellini would be nice)
- Other root vegetables
For the pesto:
- Generous bunch of basil
- A few spoonfuls of pinenuts
- Parmesan-style cheese
- 1 clove garlic
- Coarse salt
- Olive oil
To make the soup:
Dice all your veggies nice and small, so that they cook evenly and are easy to eat (no one wants to have to eat soup with a knife and fork).
Heat a generous splash of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook your onions, stirring often, until starting to soften. Add the herbs and the rest of your veggies and give them a good stir about, then top with your stock, making sure there’s enough to get the veg floating around in it.
Cook until veggies are all soft and the flavours have melded together nicely. Season to taste, and serve with some good crusty bread and a large dollop of pesto on top (bought is just fine, but homemade is better, but either way it’s non-negotiable. The pesto makes it!).
To make the pesto:
In one of those mini-processors, or a blender, or with a mortar and pestle, or whatever you have, chuck in a couple of good handfuls of basil leaves, a generous amount of pine nuts and parmesan cheese (if you’re veggie, you’ll need to find a veggie-friendly variety, or substitute for nutritional yeast for a vegan option), and garlic to taste (I like lots). Blend with a little olive oil, adding more until you reach a spoonable consistency.
Note – You can use any root veggies you want – whatever’s cheap and in season – but if you use a lot of parsnips it can get a bit sweet. Sylvie just counters that by adding some tamari to taste at the table, but she recommends not using them in the first place. I’d suggest lemon juice would be a nice balancer, too, and would likely add a handful of spinach or wilted kale to each serving because I love the greens.
- Handful of dried mushrooms, soaked
- Finely diced onion
- 2 x chopped courgettes
- Around 250g / 2 1/2 cups chopped fresh mushrooms
- 1 – 1 1/2 litres / 2 1/2 pints hot stock made up with a little turmeric and/or saffron, seasoned
- Tablespoon of butter
- 250g / 9 oz risotto rice
- Splash port/marsala (dry)
- Parmesan or similar
Cook onion in a generous splash of olive oil until it starts to soften, then add fresh mushrooms and courgette. Cook until everything is just starting to go soft, then add the drained soaked mushrooms and stir briefly.
Add the risotto rice and fry until beginning to go translucent, then start adding the hot stock. Add a couple of ladlefuls at a time, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t stick. As the liquid is absorbed, add another couple of ladlefuls, not letting the rice get too dry. Somewhere in the middle here slosh your port or marsala in – you’re not trying to get your rice sozzled, just add a bit of flavour, so you can be stingy. Then keep going with your stock, keeping an eye on the rice to make sure you don’t overcook.
You might not need all the stock, or you might need to add a splash more water toward the end. As you start getting to the last couple of spoons, and things are looking cooked (this took less time than I imagined – about 15 minutes), start tasting the rice. You want it to have a good bite (it should not make you think of rice pudding and hospital food) without being oh wait this rice is crunchy. When you’re about there, throw in a couple of generous handfuls of grated parmesan or your veggie equivalent. Cook to a nice gloopy consistency, and taste for seasoning.
And there we go – a little taste of France. If you would like more France, then I’ll suggest you check out Sylvie’s website – she’s a fantastic French teacher, both in person and online, and you learn as much about the history and culture of the country as you do the language. Plus, if you ever get to France, you can even rent the little apartment below her house where I’ve spent the last three weeks watching the colours change on the hills. I can’t recommend it enough for a little breath of peace. And the village shop has really good bread and cheese …