The Great French Adventure

The Great French Adventure
Rose Wine, garlic and other stories
            This summer I went on yet another choir tour (well choir tour is a relative term, it was more a cookery holiday with the odd bit of singing). I don’t think you can ask for much more than the gorgeous weather of the south of France, great company and a massive kitchen completely at my disposal. Luckily the choir was one to a part so they were quite lenient when I would spend most rehearsals leaving mid song saying ‘just got to check on the cookies’. (I think the fact they got to eat the cookie dough may have helped a little bit) All in all it was a rather good set up, the four singers (plus 2 extra tag alongs) and our hosts, all welcome recipients of my experimentations (even if they often turned out not necessarily as planned). Plus a huge herb garden, which I’m sure any chef will tell you is one of the ultimate luxuries, to be able to go out and pick anything you feel like adding to the dish. On top of all this we were able to give a little back with a small number of concerts we managed to fit in around the swimming, eating and cooking.
            My mantra in France was garlic, butter and cream, from there you couldn’t go much wrong. I would spend most days getting up and dragging people to the boulongerie/patisserie for some of the best croissant I have ever tasted (well it was France), before getting started on a routine of cooking with intermittent rehearsals. Of course I always had willing helpers (especially on the washing up front which was a godsend), the soprano was particularly talented at chopping garlic, the bass successfully whipped about 10 egg whites before I found the electric whisk and the tenor had a moment of spiritual revelation over whipping cream.  (There was also the time I set them shelling pistachios – I was not popular..) Then in the evening (sometimes following a concert), we would sit down to an aperitif (usually rose wine a la region though thanks to my influence Campari later made an appearance) followed by a three-course meal. Of course I made some obvious choices, the pea pesto for instance, but I also got to have a go at gazpacho (a little heavy on the garlic, what wasn’t) and snails. My favourite dessert I made that week was lemon meringue pie, although I learnt a few things
1.     Let the lemon curd cool completely before pouring in the pastry cases
2.     Don’t forget about the pastry cases in the oven – they will burn
3.     Cook the lemon curd for longer than you think (mine was liquid)
4.     Sage makes quite a nice addition to the curd
Another big fail of the week was the last night beef. We had a concert so I was determined that I would slow cook the beef in red wine, however I had failed to take into account that the cut we had bought had very little fat on it so the beef came out of the oven old and tough, luckily the amount of herbs I had shoved in the pot meant it tasted good even if the texture was wrong – note to self fat=tender.
            Another not so much fail, but definite disaster moment was the fish. There were eleven of us eating so I had bought 3 large fillets of some unidentifiable white fish which after flouring and seasoning, I fried using a large flat pan on the stove. Unfortunately not only did the kitchen fill with smoke which made my turning down of a cigarette earlier in the evening seem pointless, but also I almost set myself on fire several times. Is it bad that my first thought at this point was not ‘I almost died’ but ‘what will they do without an alto’…..
            Two of the more exciting desserts were the rhubarb tarte tatin and the peach clafoutis. The tarte tatin was simple. I made a caramel using about 3tbsp sugar and a knob of butter, 1tbsp of honey, a split vanilla pod, large sprinkling of salt and some cinnamon and ginger. Then I placed raw rhubarb into the pan before covering the whole thing with a sheet of puff pastry. I cooked for about 15-25mins or until the top was brown at 140oC, then I let it cool. I served this with an orange and basil infused custard. Once you’ve made custard you realise how surprisingly easy it is. You can add any flavour by infusing it in the cream that you heat up (here orange peel, vanilla seeds and basil), then you need lots of egg yolks, sugar whisked up and the key when you combine these two mixtures is just to heat it over a very low heat and don’t stop stirring. It will feel like it takes forever and you will want to leave it, but don’t. If you need to go to the loo, turn it off, if you need to check on a cake, turn it off, but whatever you do don’t leave it unattended.

            The peach clafoutis was a new dessert I’d always seen but never made, it’s a sort of giant, thick baked pancake. The key here is not to undercook it, add vanilla extract and lots of sugar on top to brulee the top. To make the pancake mix, you heat 125ml cream, 125ml milk in a pan with vanilla extract/ any flavours you would like in it (here I added a little bay leaf). Beat 4 eggs and 170g sugar together, then fold in 3 tbsp flour. Add the cooled milk/cream mix and whisk together. Halve peaches and place facing up in a dish (they add a lovely sourness within the sweet batter). Pour over the batter and dot butter over the top. Cook for 20mins at 180oC, take out of the oven and sprinkle over sugar, put in the oven for a further 10mins till the top has browned slightly. The custard I served with this was grand marnier flavour. For this I added grand marnier at the final stage, when I was slowly cooking the final product so that all the alcohol didn’t evaporate. Unfortunately at 9 in the morning when I decided to make this some of the alcohol did come off, I don’t advise starting the day steaming grand marnier, especially if you then have wine with lunch….. We also found with this custard that the grand marnier appeared to strengthen with age, when we had the leftovers the next day for lunch it was a lot more alcoholic than it had seemed the night before….
            By the end of the night, we were usually singing loudly (it was a good thing we could all actually sing) a wide variety of pieces. We managed to go from Rule Britannia in four part harmony, to a memorable rendition of you’re the one that I want from Grease complete with dancing, to Bruckner motets. We did ask some of the locals on the final night if our singing had disturbed at 1 in the morning, luckily the immediate neighbours assured us that they had enjoyed it and it was an advertisement for our concert rather than a deterrent. Luckily plying them with red onion and goats cheese tart was another factor in appeasing the neighbours.
            If anything can make a kitchen smell amazing, it is slow cooking caramelised onions. All you have to do is finely slice red onions and put in a pan with garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper, vinegar, butter and sugar and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally till you get a lovely concoction of sweet smelling, sticky onions. Use this to top a sheet of puff pastry and add slices of goats cheese and you have heaven on earth. The French get a lot right.
            In fact other things the French clearly got right as seen from this holiday choir tour.
1.     Garlic (it basically makes you feel better however much you’ve eaten, dunk, sung)
2.     Croissant
3.     Lunch should take at least 2 hours, dinner 4
4.     Even the most basic ingredients in supermarkets should be nice
5.     Butter and Cream make everything better
6.     Baguettes really do make the best sort of bread
7.     Homemade pate is divine, flavours don’t have to be traditional and it doesn’t need to look pretty (e.g fig, chestnut, pepper..)
8.     Wine co-operatives are such a good idea (where anyone who earns a vineyard, donates their grapes to one co-operative, who make the wine and the profit is split. The community then fill up jerry cans from petrol pumps and it is cheaper, nicer and better for everyone)
9.     A little wine at every meal is so much better than England’s binge drinking society
10. If it’s not in season you will find it had to get hold of, even in a supermarket
11. Champagne and macaroons are the answer to everything

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