Thursday, 26 September 2013

Northern Food on Tour: Self-catering in France

I really don't have a great deal to say about the things I ate and drank in France the other week. We kept it very, very simple.

Crusty bread

Peasant food, as Jamie Oliver might have it.... 'You see these rural types, dressed in rags, barely a centime to their names, and they'll have been down the marche and bought just three simple ingredients; bread, cheese and wine, from which they'll conjure up the most amazing meal. It's called bread, cheese and wine. Now why can't you do that, you fat English plebeians?' That's how I imagine he'd have it anyway.

Rillettes: food of the Gods

And that's what I ate and drank for most of the week (I say I rather than we, as my better half is pregnant. I tried not to gloat, really I did). Crusty bread, oozing cheese and the unexpectedly good local red. There were a few salads too, with plenty of tomatoes. And not much in the way of charcuterie but loads of rillettes. If you've not had rillettes before think very coarse, extra fatty potted meat. Eat slices of baguette smothered in the stuff and topped with cornichons for added bite. Ooh yeah.

Oozing Perail

The best two cheeses of the trip were both local-ish, being from neighbouring departements (we stayed in a gite in the Tarn region, an hour or so east of Toulouse). Both were of the typical French mouldy rind, oozy paste school of cheese. Perail a sheep's and Rocamadour a goat's, though neither were stridently sheepy or goaty, probably as I think they're eaten very young.

Plus de vin rouge (the finest wine known to humanity)

The best wine? A recycled plastic water bottle filled from a van sporting an assortment of hoses and pipes by a jolly, gesticulating Frenchman at the weekly market in the local town. It was a red from the Gaillac wine region just down the road, and proved an inspired purchase at two euros ten a litre. I'm crap at describing wine, so bear with me here, it was very fruity tasting, actually slightly grapey which is rare, but with none of that overbearing sense of Ribena you get with, say, a mass market Aussie Shiraz. Very fruity but still subtle, dry on the palate but not from a big whack of tannin. I'll stop now. It was very nice.

Need spring onions, honey, game, spices and melons? No problem.

The market in the local town, Realmont, was outstandingly good. There were stalls for literally everything. On the food front alone there were stalls devoted solely to things as wide ranging as salt cod, spring onions and vanilla, as well as the full complement of greengrocers, charcuterers, butchers, bakers and so on. If it hadn't been on the Wednesday morning with only three days of our holiday remaining I'd have gone wild.


It was just so splendidly French too. The sense of locality and terroir and the genuine importance of market day and the relaxed, good life and all that stuff the French are supposedly famous for. Groups of men standing around in berets smoking Gauloises and saying bof! a lot. That sort of thing.

Old and French

I might be gushing somewhat (and exaggerating), but there is something captivating about market day in an attractive country town in France. It seems daft to describe it as really French, it being in French France and all, but take England as a comparison. No town in England is quite so resolutely, so stereotypically English as a French town is French (except perhaps London, which is in the curious position of being by far the most and the least English place in England).

I haven't got a discernible photo of my steak and chips, so here's one of our lovely (French) garden

Enough musing on the nature of Frenchness, and a final word on the food, which I've realised as I write is going to turn into more of the same. We only ate out a few times all holiday, but I really enjoyed it when we did. Not because the food was special or amazing or even very interesting, but because it was done properly. Steak or a duck breast, chips and salad will make most people happy if the meat is singed on the outside, pink within, the chips are thin and crisp and the salad leaves are dressed.

That's all it takes to make me smile anyway, and on this trip it was perfect every time. We could still learn a thing or two about getting these basics right over on this side of the channel (meat somehow overcooked despite having little evidence of contact with anything very hot, mealy chips and undressed salad sound familiar to anyone?).

still French

In summary, having just re-read what I've written, I think France maybe regaining its crown from Spain as my favoured holiday eating destination. If you ever get the chance to visit the Tarn region or anywhere nearby, then I'd thoroughly recommend it. The countryside is all rolling hills and wooded valleys, and the towns are ancient, pretty and sport an interesting architectural style combining bricks with half timbering (imagine Castleford crossed with Stratford-upon-Avon. Or maybe don't).

Beans and sossidges

Finally, one last thing that I've just remembered. Tinned cassoulet is ace. I'm sure it's not quite up to the standards of a home made version, but I wasn't keen on spending my holiday soaking beans and confit-ing duck, so the tin had to suffice. If you liked tinned beans and sausages, you'll like tinned cassoulet. It's like a super premium version where the sausages have been upgraded and a duck leg thrown in for good measure. With bonus duck fat.


San said...

1) Congratulations on the impending fatherhood.

2)Aldi or Lidl (or maybe both) sell potted rillettes in their regular rotating special offers.

3)Both Aldi and Lidl have tinned csasoulet (and Petit Salé) in their regular rotating special offers.

Sorry for the repeated mentions of A & L.

Dave said...

1) Thanks!
2) and 3) Useful tip, I like Aldi and Lidl so will keep an eye out for rillettes etc next time I'm in there.

Anonymous said...

£1.99/300g jar, from today

Not sure about that link, mind.

Dave said...

Anon - thanks, a Lidl mission beckons...

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