dimanche 21 août 2011

Once in cooking mode, I might just as well continue

I admit it: I am a devout foodie. Which probably explains why I have chosen to live in France. Few things cheer me so much as when I come up with another recipe that works.

This is important because I almost never use cook books. When I first started to cook, I couldn't make head or tail of them. It seemed so much easier to make it up as I went along. These days I do occasionally try to make someone else's stuff, and I'm not averse to flicking through a tome or two for good ideas.

But I remain, essentially, an improv cook. Give me a few oddments lurking in the bowels of a disreputable fridge, and I love the challenge of seeing what I can come up with. I seem to be on a roll today. Having already scored with the Coquilles St Jacques with basil and pasta, I then turned my attention to some pork.

For some reason, we get periodic gluts of pork chops here in France. You get to buy boxes of 12 at about 2€/kilo. I kid you not; it's ridiculous. I just bag them up and freeze them. However, given so great a surfeit of terminated pig, you really do have to ring the changes to avoid boredom.

Thus I have been toying with the idea of Chillied pork with figs and cider. This intriguing concoction came to mind after some munificent guest presented girlfriend Claire and myself with a couple of bottles of organic cider.

Now it might seem dangerous to stage a head-on crash between the cuisines of northern France and the Mediterranean, but the essential principle is sound: Pork just loves it hot and sweet. So here goes:

Chillied pork with figs and cider

Slash up an onion and three cloves of garlic, fry in olive oil in an iron casserole on the top of the stove.

Add one or two pork chops per person, according to size of chop and known appetites and fry until meat is all white.

Add a mug-full of dry cider, six chopped up dried figs, vegetable stock cube, two bay leaves, chopped fresh basil and oregano, teaspoon of paprika, ground black pepper and chopped hot, fresh red chillies to taste.

I'd say basically the hotter the better, but make sure you can still enjoy it. This is, after all, the point of the exercise . . .

Bring to boil, cut heat to simmer, and add a bit more cider if needed. You don't want the meat to be swimming, but you do need enough liquid for the meat to cook in.

Adjust heat to low flame, put the top on the casserole and cook for about an hour. If necessary, remove lid and simmer to reduce sauce.

You could equally do all the frying in a frying pan, transfer the mixture to a ceramic casserole and cook it in the oven. The choice is yours. Personally I don't, because I've got a crap oven.

We served ours with boiled red potatoes in their skins with chives and fresh butter, plus garden peas. It seemed to work.

Holy Grail? It must be the secret disappearing abbey

You may have gathered that our surrounding countryside is positively packed with serious source material for anything barmy that you care to mention: the Holy Grail, the End of the World, the Life of Brian, etc . . .

Montségur, most famous of the Cathar castles, is usually top tip for the Grail castle, but I have a brand new theory that l'Abbaye de Villelongue, St Martin le Vieil, somewhere vaguely near Carcassonne, is swiftly rising up the charts as a hot rival.

For a start, I'm convinced that the bloody place is a mirage. Every time we try to visit it, something goes wrong. The first time, girlfriend Claire tried to go there with a visiting mate of mine and the car broke down.

Then Claire, the said mate and I tried to include it in another day out, and we ran out of time. Some weeks later, Claire and I finally got there to discover that it closes early on Saturday afternoons.

The staff tried to tell us that we couldn't go round because they were preparing for somebody's wedding, but I think that's all just a front. They've got the Holy Grail; they just don't want to show it to us.

Of course, that could just be my latest conspiracy theory. After all it's stupid enough to hold its own amongst all the other ludicrous theories already circulating in deepest Loonsville, SW France.

Having wasted an hour and a quarter, desperately seeking the elusive Abbaye (12th century Cistercian and quite cute, should you ever have the extreme good fortune to prevent it absconding occultly over the horizon . . .), it's good to know that there's other things you can do nearby to save the day from total disaster.

The pic with fab sky is the village church at Montolieu, a kind of French Hay-on-Wye, and thus replete with an abundance of bookshops. Obviously most of the books are in French, but the
ambiance of secondhand bookshops is always agreeable if you like that sort of thing.

It is indeed a very pleasant village to wander round. We found a decent restaurant and didn't hurry over lunch. There's also La Coopérative, a very classy art gallery in the village's converted wine cave. I'm told that this risks losing its grant aid, so get there quick. Firstly you won't miss out, and secondly, increased visitor numbers will help make the case to keep it going.

Also within shouting distance is le château de Saissac; another tick in your Observer's Book of Castles and definitely worth a visit. France may have its privations, but lack of castles in Languedoc-Roussillon isn't one of them.

Changing subject completely, I couldn't resist the temptation to inflict another recipe on you. This one's for coquilles St Jacques (alias scallops) and it's a complete doddle to make:

Coquilles St Jacques with basil and pasta

Chop fine and fry an onion and two cloves of garlic in olive oil, in a non-stick wok or frying pan.

Add 500g coquilles St Jacques, a vegetable stock cube, chopped basil, teaspoon of paprika, flourish of freshly-ground black pepper and a slosh of white wine.

Bring to a simmer and keep it there for five minutes.

Add three tablespoons of crème fraîche, bring back to simmer for another five minutes.

Whilst sauce is being cooked, prepare enough spaghetti for four people, adding salt, black pepper, a dash of olive oil and chopped basil.

Serve coquilles in sauce on top of spaghetti.

Bon appetit

PS: To get to Montolieu, take the RN113 towards Toulouse from Carcassonne, and turn right onto the D624 after Pezens.