Food & Politics Don't Mix

Sunday 12 August 2018 14:08

Who’d have thought my first proper ‘Written in My Kitchen’ blog would kick off with a political diatribe? But it is a fairly short one so please just skip over the next couple of paragraphs if it’s not your thing!

We, (Tam and me) spend much of our time in Burgundy. As the owners of a small house known as ‘the hovel’ in an unlikely sort of place called La Truchère, we do our best to fit into French village life, ever-grateful for the patient way our neighbours suffer the mangling of their beautiful language.

The Saturday market in Tournus, our nearest town, serves the needs of those who live nearby. Most of the stall-holders are local - farmers, fruit and vegetable growers, bread and pastry bakers, cheese-makers and the like. There are few middlemen, so one can talk directly to the people who work so hard to put such fresh and tasty produce on our tables. I stand looking at the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables spread out in front of me and wonder how on earth anyone in their right mind (me) would give up such wonders, to eat instead produce shipped halfway across the world from Africa,  Australia and the US; food which has been primarily grown to uniform shape and size simply for packaging purposes, then fumigated, vacuum wrapped and refrigerated with taste and texture coming well down the list of essential prerequisites. Who would want it; why would you eat it; who could be bothered to cook it.

This is me climbing onto my high horse, railing, somewhat irrationally, against my fear at the possible loss of my way of life in both France and the UK. I love having the best of both worlds, the freedom to move between the two, crossing borders when I want to. I love being European, able to settle and sample life wherever we find ourselves. So I worry a little about the future of people like me and my friends, among whom I number Portuguese, German, Dutch, French, Polish, Austrian, Swiss and Italian. I particularly value the ability we have to come and go as we please, to mix and match as it were. Continental life is so civilised; people understand better the connectivity linking everyone together; they value family and society. At the same time I love the British sense of individuality, our creativity, our eccentricity and our way of looking at the world - but I don’t want to have to choose between the two! And on a more prosaic note I certainly don’t wish to find that all those wonderful seasonal fresh vegetables arriving daily from the continent - the courgettes, aubergines, avocados, peppers and the rest - have disappeared from our supermarkets or cost the earth to buy.

¶ Right - anyone waiting for me to get over it can start reading again -

Today, at last, the rain is falling. It starts while we are in the market and everyone is smiling a bit. We happily queue, making sure that we are moving in the correct direction - people get a bit tense about this - choosing our tomatoes, onions and fennel as we move along. I ask our man if the tomatoes I am holding are ‘ondine cornue‘ and he smiles and nods, pleased, I think, that a foreigner and an ‘anglo-saxon‘ to boot is interested enough to enquire.

We have been shopping here long enough now for the market traders to know us. Many of the sons and daughters who help out on the stalls speak English and enjoy our exchanges. One stallholder, a seller of vegetables who we buy from regularly, makes a point of asking me to speak to his son who is serving us, in English, as he has his ‘bac’ coming up and his language skills are not too good. I’m not sure how knowing the names of various vegetables will help him in his exams but end up buying rather more than usual in an effort to improve his veggie vocab; I ask for spinach (épinards), leeks (poireaux), cauliflower (chou-fleur) and shallots (échallotes) - there is some confusion over this one because he thinks I have asked for Charlottes which are a particularly tasty potato. As a result I take both the shallots and the Charlottes. Finally the exchange flounders into chaos as I ask for chicory when I really mean endives that they call ‘chicons’. He thinks I said ‘chicorée’ and gives me the bitter leafed lettuce they call ‘frisée’ and we call a curly endive! I end up buying both items with neither of us sure any longer what any of this stuff is called in either language. I try to sort out the confusion but the poor lad is left shaking his head, his confidence in his ability to speak and understand English badly shaken and, I suspect, vowing never to serve me again. I end up with a lot of veg.

Never mind, I’ll just have to rethink our meals for the next few days taking into account the unexpected extras.

Baked Eggs with Spinach

Make this in individual oven-proof dishes; the cast iron ones with little ‘ears’ from Le Creuset are the best. One dish per person served with a few rounds of crisp baguette makes a very tasty lunch.

Cook some spinach, squeezing it well to remove excess water and then chop it lightly. Season with salt, pepper and fresh grated nutmeg. (Spinach left over from another meal is fine to use as is frozen). Spread a good quantity over the bottom of a well buttered dish. Make a couple of indentations in the spinach and carefully break two eggs into them. Lightly season. Spoon over a couple of tablespoons of double cream. Scatter with grated Parmesan and dot with a few slivers of butter.

Bake in the centre of a pre-heated oven 180C/350F/Gas4 for about 7-10 minutes. Check that the whites are set. If not give them another minute or two.

Once cooked serve immediately.

Chicken with Fennel, Oranges and Black Olives

This is a great one dish meal and other than allowing a couple (at least) of skin-on chicken thighs per person there’s no need to be too precise when it comes to measuring out ingredients. I like to bake this in one of my big Le Creuset cast iron roasting dishes (sorry, I see that is the second time I’ve mentioned Le Creuset cookware; I don’t have shares and buy mine cheap at their factory Sale of Sales in November) especially as I can then place it on top of the cooker to reduce any excess liquid.

You also need some small potatoes. I like Charlottes for this dish. Ignore all those stupid ads that say Charlottes are only suitable for salad - it’s a great spud for everything and is very forgiving.

Fennel bulbs should be prepared by removing the thick outside stems and then cutting into quarters, or even sixths if they are the large Italian type. Use your judgement and prepare enough for the number of people, and their particular size of appetite, that you are cooking this dish for.

You will also need a couple of juicy oranges, ends cut off and then each one cut into eight lumps with the skin on, and a handful of stoned black olives as well as some unpeeled garlic cloves, orange juice, pastis and some concentrated chicken stock (I use Knorr - it comes in a useful little bottle).

For speed of cooking I first dry off and trim the chicken thighs, salt and pepper them and seal the outsides in a pan, making sure that the skin is just taking on a nice colour. I find it easiest to fry them in a wok - it’s the right shape, doesn’t take too much oil, and the highish sides cut down the amount of fat splattering the cooker top.

Put the fennel quarters in a saucepan, add some salt and pour on boiling water leaving them to parboil for a couple of minutes - just test for some ‘give’ - you don’t want them fully cooked. I do the same with the potatoes which I don’t bother to peel bringing them to the point of being just cooked but still quite firm.

Remove the chicken from the wok, drain, and dry off the vegetables. Mix them all up together in the baking dish, throwing in the garlic, the pieces of orange and the olives. Salt and pepper liberally and pour over a couple of good glugs of olive oil. Mix all the ingredients together with your hands until all are well coated with the oil. Cook for around 40 minutes in a preheated oven at about 200c/Reg6. Check on progress at halftime and give everything a good stir round. Remove from the oven when the chicken skin is crisp, the vegetables are cooked and the orange pieces beginning to singe a bit at the edges. Turn off the oven and decant all the cooked food onto a preheated platter, leave it in the oven while you make the gravy.

Place the roasting dish on top of the cooker over a low heat, add a good slosh of fresh orange juice and a lesser slosh of the pastis. Allow the liquid to come to the boil and reduce a bit. Now add a dribble of the Knorr concentrated chicken stock and taste - you may need to add a little water as well. Once the liquid is a tasty balance of all three, serve onto hot plates and decorate with some chopped fennel fronds, making sure there is plenty of gravy to pour over.

Gratin of Leeks with Parmesan Cheese

I love leeks especially at the beginning of winter when they are at their best. Don’t buy huge fat ones, about a thick as your average thumb is about right. This is good for lunch with just some bread, though we are more likely to have it for supper when I’ll serve up a couple of meaty pork sausages to go with it. 

for four: 

4-6 leeks 

200ml of Béchamel sauce  

200g grated Parmesan or 100g each of Parmesan and Comté 

35g butter 

100g breadcrumbs.

Prepare the leeks making sure there are no particles of grit hidden away between the leaves. Slice into 10cm lengths. Steam the leeks for 8-10 minutes. If you don’t have a steamer put them in a wire sieve and steam over a pan of boiling water with a lid resting on top.

In the meantime prepare the Béchamel and once off the heat stir in most of the cheese. Toss the leeks gently in the butter and season well. Place them in the bottom of a shallow baking dish and pour over enough sauce to cover. Mix the breadcrumbs with the remaining cheese and scatter on top. Grill for 5 minutes under a high heat.

If you have made this in advance -  to reheat and crisp the top, place in a preheated oven at 200C/Gas 6 for around 15-20 minutes.

A Salad of Chicory and Foie Gras with Hazer Baba Apple Dressing*

for four:

3 - 4 heads of chicory** - leaves separated and roughly torn

About 3 - 4oz paté de foie gras - cut up into small cubes

2 medium eating apples - sweet, juicy and crisp - Pink Lady or similar - peeled and cut into chunks about the same size as the foie gras

1 tbsp chopped parsley

for the dressing:

2 teaspoons Hazer Baba Apple Tea

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Olive oil

A little water

Sea salt

Squeeze of lemon

First make the dressing. Put the apple tea into a mortar and use the pestle to grind it down, adding just enough warm water until you have quite a thick syrup. Mix in the mustard. Add olive oil, stirring vigourously with the pestle until you have made a light emulsion. Taste and add salt, lemon juice and a little more water if the dressing is very thick.

The salad is quickly made. Just prepare the ingredients and gently mix together immediately before serving. Dress lightly and turn the salad in the dressing until everything is well-coated. Serve the rest of the dressing separately.

Once made don’t let it hang about. It is excellent as a starter especially if you want to stretch your little tin or jar of foie gras to feed several people.

** Chicory - only buy if the tips of each leaf are yellow. If they are bright green, it means the bulbs have been exposed too long to the light and will be far too bitter to use.

* Hazer Baba Apple Tea:  What a great ingredient this is to have to hand. Not only does it make a pleasantly refreshing drink but I use it make syrups and sauces for puddings, in ice creams and sorbets and in the salad dressing here.

You might find it in a specialist or gourmet food shop alongside the tea and coffee, but more likely you will have to track it down on the internet at British importers are Hider Food Imports Ltd., tel: (01482) 561137/504333 who can probably tell you your nearest stockist. 




  Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017


  ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9  

  240pp, paperback with flaps

  Size: 216 x 138mm

  Price: £12.50 Black & white

Where to find some of my writings:

Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.

PPC 96 August 2012:

      Food on the Move

PPC 99 November 2013:

      Hospital Food - à la française

PPC 101 October 2014:

      The Limejuice Run

PPC 104 December 2015:

      Cabbage Rules

PPC 110 February 2018:

      Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane