EYGALIERES, PROVENCE: part 1

     So begins two weeks in Provence. We’ve come to the same house for the second year running, a splendid mas, as they call the traditional farmhouses round here, on the outskirts of Eygalieres, a delightful village close to St Remy de Provence. Lavender grows in profusion next to lawns in front of the house, fruit trees run down the middle of a lawn to the kitchen side, giving on to more wood-fringed lawns, a petanque pitch (complete with balls in a big, weather-worn old basket) and then a fenced pool beyond, with horses (that we occasionally hear snorting as we splash about in the pool), in a meadow behind that. There are so many gorgeous platters and bowls, old and much-used wooden chopping boards and carbon steel chef’s knives, not to mention a restaurant standard range of pots and pans, that it is a pleasure to cook in this kitchen. In my last entry (21 July) on My Week in Food Blog (which I’m having trouble using, hence the blog is set up here in Writings for the moment), the Barrister and I had just arrived after a night in Avignon and done a Big Shop. I described our first super-simple supper of veal chop and tinned French peas in the last entry.

Sunday

     We wake to the wind whistling through the enormous plane tree just outside our shuttered windows, the sun streaming through the little gap between the full-length, once-white curtains embossed with someone’s initials and prettily edged with drawn thread work (I know about this, because my school was a convent where we were taught how to do it) that hang from a curl of wrought iron. I fling open the blinds and door that opens onto a small terrace overlooking the orchard and run downstairs to open all the doors and blinds, so the sun can stream into our lovely house. We breakfast on luscious, intensely flavoured peaches and melon, the juice dribbling over our chins.

Although we’ve already done a Big Shop, we need wine and want to buy cheese and tomatoes from local shops in Eygalieres. I’ve also noticed a sign for a brocante sale in the village. First the wine, by which I mean rose. Around here it’s AOP les-Beaux-de Provence, poured from big jugs, (of which there are many in our house) because it’s bought in 10 litre bag-in-the-box (named bladders by the Barrister’s sister) from the shop of Mas de la Dame (www.masdeladame.com). It works out extremely good value and affords a lovely drive through les alpilles, the winding, mountainous, pine forest with fields lined with short, stocky vines and others edged with olives. We park easily and in the shade – it’s baking hot – and wander up to the top of the narrow main road, buying an old coffee pot on the way (one of the missing links – more later – in our wonderful cuisine), then into the cheese shop. As we wander back down the shop and café-lined road, I see a familiar figure coming towards me. No, it’s not Hugh Grant (he has a house here and we spotted him on market day last year), it’s Heston Blumenthal. I haven’t seen him in years but once we’ve greeted (three kisses from H; very French), we blurt over each other: Heston, ‘why have you stopped doing your Times column; I got lots of inspiration from it?’ and me, ‘…do you live here now, is that new restaurant (across the road from us) yours?’. Turns out, Heston’s first serious job was nearby and he’s returned to live here and has already set up a food laboratory, has a restaurant on the drawing board and is about to start filming a new series on Water (Eygalieres is famous for it apparently) for the BBC (you read it here first). We swap numbers and I invite him over to our house, he says next week would be better because he is about to do 3 days filming. More later.

Back home for our first lunch and to get supper plans organised as we have guests arriving any time now. Lunch is egg mayo with anchovy (which will feature often), a big chunky salad of spectacular, ridged tomatoes with feta and basil, saucisson with little black Provencal olives and very good, very crusty bread. And rose. Our dinner menu is planned for make-ahead, ease of serving and requires roasting two chickens with rosemary, garlic, rose, butter and olive oil. It’s jointed rather than carved, served with two-bean salad, of skinny French green beans and Spanish butter beans in a shallot mayo seasoned with lemon, cornichons and flat leaf parsley (recipe coming in Recipes), another tomato salad and then cheese. And rose.

Monday

     Now we are five. The barrister’s sister and son go food shopping for lunch and come back with a humongous bag of huge, juicy prawns which are piled into a bowl, ready to have their heads and tails ripped off, the soft carapace peeled away so the sweet, juicy morsel can be swiped through mayonnaise flavoured with Dijon mustard. Another delight, is a third of a deep, lardon-rich, eggy slice of quiche Lorraine. The pastry is a bit odd but that is easily ignored in favour of a huge tranche of pate maison, a dark brown and gamey slice, beautifully offset with crisp little cornichons and the best tomato salad ever. Such flavour from these tomatoes, sparsely dressed with French cider vinegar and local Maussane olive oil, a crumble of Greek feta and shiny, little black olives. Yesterday’s boule bread – a squashed round loaf with terrific crust and sourdough taste and texture – is revived after 5 minutes in the oven, perfect with an outstanding selection of cheeses. Soft and squishy St Marcellan, possibly the best I’ve ever eaten, was incredibly creamy with noticeable goat milk flavour. Also buffalo camembert, a new one on me and I’m not sure I’d bother to seek it out as it was a touch bland and almost liquid. In fact, it ran away once it was cut and left for a while. Also a delicious slice of firm and nutty Comte. And rose.

     This morning when everyone was out shopping, I diced and marinated two fat pork fillets in olive oil with lemon juice and zest, 2 big, crushed new season garlic cloves and 2 sprigs rosemary from the garden. I left it all day then threaded it on kebab sticks interspersed with 3 big slices of peeled chorizo, ready to barbecue. I also made Piedmontese peppers with big blousy red peppers, halved and the cavity covered with slivers of juicy local garlic and peeled, halved San Marzano-type, slim, long plum tomatoes nudged over the garlic. A splash of olive oil, salt and pepper and then in the oven for 40 minutes at 180C. Transferred to a platter, the peppers are covered with an anchovy kiss and left to cool. I also make tzatziki with thick ewe’s milk yoghurt beaten with olive oil and lemon juice while the Barrister peeled, seeded and grated a cucumber and crushed a fat clove of garlic, pulverized to a pulp with a pinch of salt. Kebabs, tzatziki and Piedmontese peppers is a very good combination, with crusty bread to mop up the juices. And rose.

Tuesday

     Breakfast today was memorably good: dark, ruby cherries, the dense, juicy flesh cut off the stones in big chunks, aromatic small strawberries, chunks of cantaloupe melon and a squeeze of orange. This was very good with ewe’s milk yoghurt.

Lunch was a lovely leftovers clear up. Beetroot was chunked and served with yesterday’s tzatziki as a dressing with mint and flat leaf parsley (thereby creating a new dish: tzatziki beetroot), a particularly good tomato salad made with a mix of different coloured big tomatoes all halved and thinly sliced and finished with brown-flushed cherry tomatoes, small chunks of feta and pitted black Marseille olives. There was the last of the pate, cheese and fresh crusty bread with divine pale, unsalted butter. And rose.

Dinner was a Barrister favourite of veal roast or roti de veau from the excellent Eygalieres butcher. We also bought pommes Dauhinois, popped in the oven at 180C 10 minutes before the veal (cooked for 20 minutes and rested for 10) and left for 10 more minutes while the meat rested, emerging deliciously crusty, far crustier than it’s usually served and all the better for that. Darling little green beans were cooked al dente in boiling water for 3 minutes, drained and returned to the pan into which 2 fresh, finely chopped garlic cloves have been quickly fried in a splash of olive oil and a lump of demi-sel butter. Tossed until glistening and aromatic, they were perfect with the veal sliced beautifully thinly the B. This was a feast. More gorgeous gooey cheese, all now beginning to run, eaten with the lunchtime flute, the crust still perfect. And rose.

Wednesday

     Now we are 4, it’s time for a trip into Eygalieres to the superb butcher for something special for supper. There is always a queue and the chill cabinet has the finest, most tempting displays of meat and another of home made pates, tarts and quiches, carrot rape, stuffed tomatoes, potato dishes ready to be reheated and pan bagnat, plus trays of thinly sliced veal and small pots of tonnata sauce. We bought two huge ribs of beef – giant chops – plus 4 rosti-type potato pancakes, all shaggy and tempting to cook to a crisp in the oven. We buy a pot of tonnata sauce to serve with our leftover veal, easier to carve very thinly now it’s cold from the fridge. The latter was lunch, with another sublime tomato salad, slices of pate edged by cornichons and salty black olives and fougasse bread, the sweet dough baked with a scattering of fennel seed. And rose.

     The Barrister charges the bbq, taking it to the wire of white ash stage, before the steaks are oiled and seasoned with salt and pepper and slapped into position. 5 minutes a side and a 10 minute rest is all they need. Then, the meat is sliced off the bone (how I wish Red was here for them) then sliced across the steaks to make dainty but chunky pieces. Meanwhile, the rosti are cooked to a crisp with a soft, gooey centre we weren’t expectomg. Dijon mustard is the accompaniment. The remains of our cheese stash makes the perfect finale with the last of the fougasse. The mistake was to drink rather deeply on red wine instead of our house rose.

Thursday

     Spent the morning preparing tomatoes for sauce vierge to go with cod fillets bought from the wonderful fish shop in Maussane for tonight’s supper. Also, making potato salad to go with leftover roti de veau for lunch with a crisp salad of chicory, Cos lettuce hearts and watercress with vinaigrette. This was made in the just-finished mayo jar (leftovers stashed in the fridge for the next salad) and so we have another great lunch with another fougasse loaf. How lucky we are with this wonderful house and the shaded garden table where we eat all our meals.

     Rose is poured and supper begins with a lesson in making sauce vierge (see recipe in BEYOND BANGERS AND MASH here in Writings), my go-to favourite dressing for fish or chicken, boiled potatoes, white cheese or sausage meat balls (see Sausage Polpotte with Sauce Vierge and Peas in Recipes). Slivers of juicy local garlic, a splash of red wine vinegar, diced, peeled, seeded tomato and peppery local olive oil, with torn basil at the end. The cod needs pin-boning and the B finds me some pliers in the workshop drawer of a chest in the larder area. Not ideal but they do the job. The huge cod fillet is sliced into 4 generous pieces to roast with salt and pepper, lemon and splash olive oil at 180C for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, trimmed and halved the beans – I always think of Simon Hopkinson when I do this as I don’t remove the pointy ends and that infuriates my perfectionist chef friend. The fish cooking and other preparations are  co-ordinated so beans, fish and sauce (which can be made in advance) are all ready at the same time. Yum, very yum: light, pretty and delicious. Also very easy to prepare. Good with rose.  

Friday

     Super-simple lunch of prosciutto with wedges of melon edged around the platter, plus tuna over giant Spanish butter beans with a dribble of Dijon-flavoured mayo-thickened vinaigrette which was actually made for a crisp salad of chicory and Cos lettuce quartered lengthways with mint. Last of the terrine, eaten with crunchy little cornichons. Made a bean and tomato salad by first finely chopping a couple of shallots and leaving them (covered) in  boiling while I boiled halved green beans for 2 minutes and diced a big, fat Provencal tomato. Added drained shallot to creamy vinaigrette with the beans and tomato. This colourful salad was brilliant after deliciously eggy, creamy carbonara made with quickly crisped scraps of smoked ham and its fat and bow pasta. The essential finely chopped garlic which makes the dish, is added to the hot ham fat and tossed around with the ham and tipped into the drained, butter-tossed pasta with the beaten eggs. It’s all done quickly and dramatically, the eggs stirred very briefly and vigorously in the pasta over a medium heat then off the heat before it turns into scrambled egg. With a handful of finely grated Parmesan and chopped flat leaf parsley, this was a welcome change from all the protein meals we’ve enjoyed. Good with rose.

Saturday

     Last full day for our guests, so another visit to Inter Marche to stock up with background food, more terrine and this and that so we can have a few days without shopping. Ha. Some hope. Shopping in the village is heaven. But it’s hot, very hot. Lunch is poshed-up leftovers with another lovely tomato salad, thinly sliced this time with pitted black olive, basil and a crumble of feta. The rest of the (huge) jar of butter beans with 2 tins of tuna piled over the top finished with finely chopped flat leaf parsley and a few chopped cornichons. This has become a favourite store cupboard dish. With fougasse, terrine and more cornichons this is lunch bliss. And rose.

This morning we bought 4 veal chops to cook on the barbecue with minimal seasoning of salt, pepper and a smear of olive oil. They get 5 minutes a side at white ash stage then 10 minutes rest. To go with, I have par-boiled little potatoes, ripped off the skins and fried them slowly, turning occasionally with thyme and sage, until very crusty and somewhat shrunken. As always you need twice as many as you think because of the shrinkage but also because they are so good. To go with, we have flat helda beans, sliced in the old fashioned way, my mum’s way of preparing runner beans, thin, long and on the slant. We eat the lot. And drink a lot of rose. Natch.