Wednesday, 21 March 2012


I went fishing again on Monday; a pastime that has the ability to make me feel uniquely foolish. In spite of this – or maybe even because of it – I came home with a couple of beauties!

The grey mullet looks like a softy. Seaweed eating, with big rubbery lips, and the nice but dim expression of a clodhopping puppy, it’s difficult to imagine a more benign fish. They are beautifully striped along the length of the body, and look a bit like a divvy version of the American striped bass.

Here in France they have a reputation for being terrible to eat, as they are the fish one sees mooching around the port eating chips and sewage pipe sea lettuce. Fair enough, I don’t think I’d eat one of them either, but my fish were caught, with a bit of bread on a hook, on an inlet, just 100 yards from the open sea. The first was beautiful, with a flavour and texture very similar to bass. Raw, I could taste the seaweed diet, but once cooked it was delicate, with deep white flesh, and really superb. We’ll have the other one tonight! Yum! It will be interesting to see if there is a disintegration in quality of the flavour between the first, eaten before rigor mortis even had chance to set in, and the second, eaten 2 days later, after the rigour has waned (I hope. As I write it’s still stiff – is that bad?). It’s still spanking fresh by the standards of shop-bought fish. I’m sure fish mongers often deliberately store fish before sale. Is this because they develop flavour, like beef? I’m afraid it’s a bit of a mystery to me...

Of course I didn’t actually catch them. Have you not been paying attention? I stood by the water, not knowing what I was doing, doubtless with a particularly amusing choice of bait for the situation. A man who’d been set up nearby came over and offered me a share of his catch – his wife would moan if he came back with too much! Haha! What a nice man. (He must have had his eye on me. Did he take pity because I looked like a tool?) I sheepishly but gratefully accepted. He told me about the bread as bait, and that the mullet puts up a spiffing fight, making the fishing a crack-a-laugh! Combined with their dim-witted appearance, this made me feel a bit sad to be bopping it on the head, slicing through its gills to drain the blood before taking it home in a carrier bag. Not sad enough to not do it, I might add, but still...

I can't not make cevice when I get a bit of fish as fresh as this - lemon, cumin, garlic, chillies, shallots and corriander. I've not tried it with grey mullet before: it worked a treat!

Main course was the thick end of the fillet fried in some bacon fat and served with some simple greens. Briefly boiled brouttes*, dressed with some warm olive oil and softened garlic. Clean and tasty - a top way to welcome the beginnings of spring. 

Two days later: no noticeable deterioration in flavour.

Dot said she fancied ginger. It turns out a ginger mullet can be a winner! A few slivers of chilli, garlic and shallots to acompany the ginger, sandwiched between the fish, which was steamed for maybe five minutes. Plonked on top of some moroccan-style chick peas with olive oil and cumin. We had a little sweet and sour dressing made from white vinegar, sweet soy, a drop of nam pla (fish sauce), a scattering of the aromatics that stuffed the mullet, plus some herbs for freshness - mint, basil and corriander.

All of these dishes would be great with bass, but honestly I thought mullet was at least as good.

I might go fishing more often!!

* Young shoots of cabbage. They are pleasantly similar to purple sprouting brocolli. Yum!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Donostia. A Fiesta of Pescado

A foodist holiday in North-West Spain is a mixed bag. Ours steered clear of the posh places, which, I expect, run the full spectrum from simply wonderful to should-have-been-a-lot-more-bloody-wonderful. One day we’ll go to a crazy, fancy, Basque food-cathedral gaff, but it’s not really what excites me: I’m too stingy. On other trips we’ve been initially wowed, only to be largely let down. Spanish food’s supposed to be cool and interesting isn’t it? The ham is amazing, even the cheap stuff’s really good. Tortilla, the heroic spuddy omelette-cum national crutch, is probably my all time bestestever sandwich filling (especially with a bit of jamón on the side) – but I had to come to Spain to realise it could also be shite. Bocadillo de lomo*! Om nom nom!!! Maybe that’s my favourite... Salt cod is great, hake is great. Any of these things done well, on their own or combined, will make my day. But not every day. Why is it so hard to find vegetables? Pimientos de padron doesn’t redress the balance – fried mini green peppers are tasty, with a little crunch from rock salt sprinkled on top. All good stuff, but where’s the salad, hombre? I want a radish. I’m pining for broccoli, for fuck’s sake...**

With this in mind we booked self-catering in San Sebastián. We would still eat pintxos (the Basque tapas, pronounced ‘pinchos’) and drink beer and have fun, but when we got back to base we could have some carrots.

The pintxo bars were what brought us here. Last year we’d spent the afternoon, and had to drive home after only two little beers and a fantastic plate of pulpo gallega (octopus with olive oil and paprika). The temptation was to stay and drink and eat – and walk back to France... Instead we promised to return. 

The Basques call it Donostia (which, surprisingly, also translates as Saint Sebastian). It’s rather a grand, sophisticated place with an old town, a new town and three spectacular beaches, but also a vague scruffiness that we are always struck by when entering Spain from France†. I quite like a bit of scruff, mind you. We headed straight out to the old town to fill ourselves with ham, eggs, spuds, salt cod, grease, bread and beer!

A good night. I wanted to check out the fish market so at the end of a very lazy morning we bimbled into the Bretxa food hall. It was still very busy and the fish stalls were predictably great. There were exclusively whole fish on display. They were prepared to order by fishmongers wielding big curvy cutlass-type knives. I surprised myself by recognising most of the fish: bass, bream, maigre, pollack, cod, herring, mackerel, monkfish, dover sole, lemon sole, brown gurnard and, my favourite, weever. And hake, hake, hake. They were all buying hake.

All the stalls were exceptional (and dirt cheap) by my standards, but the one that held my attention was like an art installation‡‡. It didn’t have the most spectacular display, there was no snaking queue – the fish looked top notch and it was displayed simply and prettily, but the guy at work behind the counter was mesmeric. I must have peered at the gliding and flicking of his knife for half an hour before I realised I ought to have taken a ticket to be in the queue.  I took one and continued to stare, transfixed. He was a magician: relaxed, unhurried, deliberate, smooth, delicate but effortless. While I watched he must have prepared five hake in exactly the same way, all perfectly portioned and placed ready to be wrapped up for his discerning customers. He was very cool. I think he’s my new hero... When my turn came I hadn’t even decided what to buy. I got what the man before me got (to go with his hake). I thought it was a fresh herring. I’ve only just found out it wasn’t. I also bought raw prawns and a few fancy-looking clams. ¡Gracias señor! Brilliant! Grab some incredibly lovely ham and salchichon, don’t forget the veg, find Dot (by now, almost suicidal), and off home for a luncheon feast! Via a swift cerveza of course!
Scad, or horse mackerel (with broccoli!). Weever cevice. Yum and Yum!

Hake 'bianco', with paprika - so 'rojo'

Merluza con salsa verde - hake in parsley sauce.

*Thin boneless pork loin chops slapped in the middle of a baguette. I don’t particularly like the red stuff that has been marinated in paprika and garlic. Fresh and plain is where it’s at – grilled with plenty of salt and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Don’t overcook it and let it rest in the bread so that you keep all the juices! Om nom nom indeed!  God, i’m starving...

** Broccoli’s for girls. Not purple sprouting – that’s for winners and kings!

Check out the link for a very informative and useful list of pintxo place recommendations. Don’t be a slave to recommendations, though. Follow your nose and try lots of places. You don’t have to stay if it’s not up to much... You might end up getting a little drunk, mind.

† The cake shops are an interesting example of this. Go to a patisserie in France and then into one in Spain. You’ll see what I mean.

However, a bit of internet research, and the herring that I bought turns into a ‘horse mackerel’, or scad. Oh well. Serves me right for allowing myself to feel clever...

‡‡ Not in the boring and pointless sense. Although, perhaps Dot wouldn’t agree...   

Friday, 2 March 2012

A bit nipsville

We’ve had a fortnight of serious cold, which as I sit down to write about warming food, appears to have abruptly ended. The beautifully odd frozen fountain on the 18th century square where we live has melted without me having got round to taking a photo. It grew, splash by splash, as the cold days passed, to a spectacle of ogreish deformity. It was a sight to see... Sorry.

Red cabbage has helped keep us warm. Always cheeringly colourful, it can do sharp, spicy and crisp as a counterpoint to a calm, warming stew; or still spicy but less sour, sweet with apples and a tickle of muscovado – warming on its own, but at its best with the magnificence that is a confit duck leg; or enriched with duck fat and onions, and simmered with wine or beer. Served in a great steaming mound with smoked sausage, spuds and bacon, all cooked in the same pot. A dish to warm like a bonfire on even the most nippy of nights.

The latter is a choucroute for people who don’t like choucroute or sauerkraut, as the germans call it. It is my way of not needing to buy the perfectly white, fermented cabbage from Alsace, which is a strange taste I’ve only recently, gradually, acquired. I served it with some great cheap bits of confit duck at my last cave soirée. Still flavoured with juniper and cloves, it is sweet where the proper choucroute is sour. And, whereas the cooking liquor is traditionally strained off, I like mine, so I include it as a thin but rich and tasty gravy. It's almost garbure, the  thick stew/soup from the Bearn region, made from duck and cabbage. Whatever you call it, it'll warm the cockles of your heart!

Red Choucroute

½ to 1 whole red cabbage, depending on the size and how many you want to feed), thinly shredded
3 or 5 onions

A couple of cloves of garlic

An extremely large dollop of duck fat
1 bottle of cheap, very dry white wine. Or continental-type lager, 750ml.

Some kind of stock, homemade is best, obviously, but a cube will do. Failing that, a bit of water.
A teaspoon of juniper berries, crushed up

A couple of whole cloves
A tablespoon of coriander seeds (if you have them – you can do without)

A bay leaf
Salt and pepper

A firm-fleshed potato per person
3 or 4 carrots

Some or all of the following including at least one smokey thing:

A chunk of smoked or unsmoked pork belly (streaky bacon)

Smoked sausages

A ham hock (simmered separately for an hour or so – in water with a bay leaf, onion, carrot, peppercorns, a few fennel seeds and a bit of garlic. This will make great stock. You can use some of it below, and make soup from the rest)

Confit duck (I use wings and neck -cheap-, but leg is great, gizzards wouldn’t go amiss...)

Just make sure there is enough meat for everyone to have some of everything. Bearing in mind that this is a meal for greedy people.

The long bit is shredding the cabbage. Try to slice as thin as you can, but don’t chop your fingers off... It’s a good exercise in knife skills, actually. If you’re including the ham hock, get it cooking before you attack the cabbage.  Slice the onions similarly, chop up the garlic a bit and gently fry these two in a large, deep pan (with a lid) in much more duck fat than you think is necessary.

When the onions have softened, add the juniper, bay leaf, cloves, coriander and lots of pepper. Give a stir and add the red cabbage. Mix it all thoroughly so that the duck fat has coated all the cabbage. Turn the heat up. Try the wine/beer. If it’s nasty put it all in the pot. If it’s drinkable pour yourself a glass, the cabbage will have to cope with what’s left.

Add stock to nearly cover the cabbage. Nestle in your bacon and ham hock if you are having one, add a little bit of salt if you’re not. Cover with a snug lid, bring to a simmer, lower the heat and cook, ploof... piffle... plip, for half an hour.

Take off the lid and have a nose. Make sure there is still some liquid. Push your remaining meat into the cabbage. Lie spuds on top of the lot, to cook in the steam. Replace the lid and simmer for another hour or so, adding the carrots on top of the potatoes with half an hour to go.

Open up the pot and have a taste. Is it salty enough? The juices should be sweet, spicy and delicious. The cabbage still a deep purple. Remove all the meat and veg to one side. Pile the cabbage onto a giant serving dish, add a bit of the gravy and arrange the garnish on top. Bring to the table still steaming hot and munch, slurp and sloop with plenty of crusty bread and prodigious quantities of wine*.

*Interestingly, both red and white are good. For our wine and food evening we had:
Rully 1er cru La Pucelle 2009 Domaine Jacqueson (white Bourgogne)
Trousseau Grands Vergers 2009 Domaine Gahier (Red Jura).
Faugères Tradition 2010 Domaine Binet Jacquet (Red Languedoc),
The Borgogne won for me, hands down, bringing out the corriander and complimenting the sweetness of the duck and cabbage brilliantly. The reds were quite different, the Languedoc rich and round, with a bit of spice, which complimented the meat and the smokey flavours nicely, whereas the Jura was in direct contrast to the sweetness of the dish, supplying a sharp side to cut through all the richness, and, let’s face it, fat... Anyway, plenty of good choices on the booze front!!