I have a conflicted relationship with France. In recent years, I have foolishly abandoned her in favour of Spain and Italy. It was an accidental drift rather than something premeditated.
I went back to France recently for a quick trip with some friends. I hadn’t been to Provence in 25 years, although Provençal food is something I know well and very much love.
I wanted to eat bouillabaisse, pissaladière and aioli by the bucketful, washed down by as much pastis and rosé as I could get into me. I was determined to live out all the cliches in a short few days. The mistral was puffing intermittently and I was in her lee.
One restaurant in particular piqued my interest. I had been told about it many times . I’d seen the photos of the gargantuan feasts eaten in dappled sunlight. I badly wanted to go.
Auberge de la Môle is the restaurant of my dreams. It has been there for decades, by the side of the road in an old dusty village about 30 minutes inland from St Tropez. An ancient bar tabac nestles in the corner with a simple awning over the generous terrace. Apprently, it's not unusual to see Joan Collins lunching there, as ageless and star-like as ever.
They have two simple menus, €35 or €55 at night time. There is limited choice, and huge portions of French country classics spilling onto the table. They take no credit or debit cards, but considering that the wine list went up to €4,000, how was this approached, I wondered. Did one simply stuff ones pockets with notes, or discreetly ask your minder to hand over the cash on your behalf. Both, I suppose.
I knew the menu by heart. A selection of terrines, rillettes and pates to start. A small choice for main course, duck confit or magret. A heaving cassoulet or a cèpes omelette . There was also wild boar on as special that day.
It was somewhat dull of us, but we all had the confit. It came with sauté potatoes, a green salad and a bowl of eye-watering mustard. It was perfect.
Next came cheese – and that’s the way it should be. Then a rippled trough of chocolate mousse to share, accompanied by a terrine of deep dark crème caramel. Lastly, a bowl of prunes in Armagnac was quietly placed on the table. It was a memorable afternoon.
French food is my first love. Of course it has its regal haute cuisine, but I’m drawn to the simple cuisine paysanne . These recipes are rooted in time, regionality and tradition. If you’re fortunate to eat French food in such a bucolic setting as I did that day, it’s something you will never forget. These recipes are a short and simple homage to a great culinary tradition.
LAMB AU VIN
Good knob of butter
3 red onions, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 packet of smoked rindless bacon lardons
1 packet (250g) chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and halved
250ml red wine
1 chicken stock cube dissolved in 400ml water
A little fresh thyme or sage
Salt and pepper
8 gigot chops
1 Set your oven to 160 degrees, or equivalent. Melt the butter in a casserole and add the onions.
2 Cook over a medium heat for two minutes then add the garlic, bacon and mushrooms.
3 Sweat for three minutes or so, then add the flour, over a gentle heat.
4 After a couple of minutes add the wine, stock , sugar and herbs and bring to a simmer.
5 Season the chops then add them to the pot,making sure as much as possible that they are covered with the liquid. To help, place some greaseproof paper or baking parchment on top and press everything down.
6 Place in the oven for 1 hour 15 minutes, till the lamb is tender and the sauce thickened. There may be some lamb fat sitting on the surface. You can mop this up with some kitchen towel if you wish. I eat it. There's a surprise. Serve with mash.
MY TARTE FLAMBÉ
Serves four, with a green salad
1 packet of ready rolled puff pastry, defrosted
1 onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 packet of smoked bacon lardons
5 cooked new potatoes, sliced
100ml sour cream
A few picked thyme leaves (optional)
A little olive oil for the baking tray
1 Set your oven to 175 degrees, or equivalent.
2 Brush a shallow roasting tray lightly with olive oil.
3 Unwrap the pastry on to the tray then pierce it numerous times with a fork while leaving an edge all round unmarked.
4 Smooth the sour cream evenly almost to the edges. Distribute the potatoes, then scatter on the onions, followed by the bacon and thyme over the top.
5 Bake for 20 minutes, till glazed and golden.
MUSSELS WITH FENNEL AND PERNOD
1 fennel bulb, outer leaves removed, halved and sliced thinly
2 shallots, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
Drizzle of olive oil
1kg fresh mussels
50ml Pernod (or 100ml white wine and two star anise)
1 Prepare the mussels. Immerse them in a clean sink with cold water. Agitate. De-beard (pull the stringy bit off the shell, if it is still attached) one by one, and put the mussels into a clean bowl, discarding any that are open. Clean the sink. Fill with cold water. Re-immerse the mussels. Agitate the mussels once more, then lift them from the water, leaving any sediment behind.
2 Sauté the fennel, shallot and garlic in the olive oil over a medium heat until soft.
3 Add the Pernod and cream. Cover tightly and cook over a high heat, stirring once or twice, until all the mussels are open. Discard any that do not open. Serve with crusty bread.