Tour de France around the North Circular

January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

We’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eve with two other families for a number of years now – in fact over a pre-dinner glass of champagne we worked out that 2010/2011 would be unbelievably our twelfth such celebration.

This year it fell to Shelley and Neal to host the event at their home in North London and the chosen theme was “Tour de France”. This left the dress code wide open and host Neal led the way by sporting slinky black and white lycra…

Fortunately Shelley had decided not to continue in this vein by serving up carbohydrate gels, bananas and a cocktail of hard drugs. We began in a very civilised manner with the silkiest Côte Atlantique smoked salmon mousse canapés to accompany our Laurent Perrier champagne:

Our first course looked to the mountains for inspiration – charcuterie from the Alps accompanied by rustic pain de campagne. The delicious ham was snaffled up too quickly for me to take a photo but here’s the batch of pain de campagne I made earlier – using the pain au levain recipe learned on my School of Artisan food baking course in October 2010.

The race now headed south with bouillabaisse à la marseillaise served en verrine. This was the course Shelley had tasked me with preparing so I’m able to give the recipe below. Verrines (small glass containers for serving food) are all the rage in France so we just had to give them a try.

We continued our tour clockwise with the next stage ending in the Aveyron département of Southern France, home to the limestone caves where Roquefort cheese is matured. Our next course was a crunchy salade d’endive, noix et roquefort prepared by Shelley using a Raymond Blanc recipe:

It was then onwards and upwards to red wine country with Shelley’s deeply savoury Coq au vin, again using a Raymond Blanc recipe:

Next up was France’s favourite English cheese, le stilton – yes I know we departed from our theme somewhat but stilton this good (Colston Bassett from Neal’s Yard (no relation) Dairy) is too good not to serve at a special dinner. And of course the 2007 prologue was in London wasn’t it?

Next we recalled France’s Atlantic coast islands (Belle Île, the Archipel des Glénans and the like) with Îles flottantes, façon Maman Blanc – yes you guessed it, a Raymond Blanc favourite. Janet prepared this technically demanding course involving poached meringue and egg custard thickened without the aid of stabilising cornflour. She also had to handle deftly the caramelised sugar final decoration at close to midnight:

The final stage is always in Paris around the Arc de Triomphe which we recalled in culinary fashion with a dainty plateful of pistachio flavoured macarons parisiens :

As we nibbled on a macaroon at midnight we heard he patter of not-so-tiny feet as 8 children celebrated a real midnight feast – a landmark occasion as they’ve been fast asleep by midnight in previous years.

Happy new year to all and huge thanks to our generous hosts Neal and Shelley once again for a magnificent meal. Now we’re off the tour it’s on to the wagon for my annual no alcohol January semi-detox. Fantasising already about what my first glass of wine will be in February…

To conclude here’s the recipe for bouillabaisse – I know it’s lengthy but it’s really not as complex as it looks.

Recipe for bouillabaisse cooked and served en verrine

I used as my starting point the fish soup and rouille recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and tweaked them to turn them into a refined version of bouillabaisse suitable for serving as part of a multi-course dinner.

Using the kilner jars is not merely a modish presentation but is an easy and stress-free way of gently cooking the pieces of fish in the broth, sealing in all the flavours and ensuring that the delicate fish like bass does not break up when cooked and served.

These ingredients will fill 8 small (12 oz) kilner jars and leave you with plenty of fish soup left over which sets to a gelatinous firmness and freezes well.

Ingredients for the fish soup base

4 oz chopped onions
3 oz chopped leek
2 oz chopped celery (my addition, no celery in Julia Child recipe)
1/4 pint olive oil
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes roughly chopped or 1 tin tomatoes roughly chopped (I used a standard tin of tomatoes – 14 oz/400g including all the juice whereas Julia Child recipe suggests draining the tomatoes)
3 and 1/2 pints water
6 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme or basil (I used fresh thyme leaves stripped from the stalk)
1/8 teaspoon fennel (not sure whether original recipe wants dried fennel, fennel seeds – I used a few leaves of fresh tarragon for a similar aniseedy hit)
A 2 inch piece of orange peel (I used a vegetable peeler to remove this)
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon salt (I added this gradually to taste rather than all at once as salt is a personal thing)
3 to 4 lb lean fish heads, bones and trimmings, raw shellfish remains, lean fish or frozen raw fish.

Note on fish choice

Julia Child, catering for her US and Northern European readership suggests choosing fish from the following list: cod, conger or sea eel, gurnard, haddock, hake or whiting, halibut, John Dory, lemon sole, perch, plaice, pollack, coalfish or saithe, red or grey mullet, rock or sea bass, sea bream, sea devil, frogfish or angler, freshwater trout, sea trout, turbot, weever, wrasse, shellfish – scallops, mussels, crab, lobster. Many will tell you that an authentic bouillabaisse can’t be made without rascasse – by all means add this to the list if you can get hold of it but providing you include plenty of lean bony fish in the soup it will turn out just fine.

Making this recipe in the dark period (in food distribution terms) between Christmas and New Year all that was available at my local fishmonger was sea bass and sea bream bones heads and trimmings. Despite the lack of variety of fish, the soup was nevertheless suitably flavoursome – it need not be an enormous production and can be varied according to what you have. It’s probably best to avoid oily fish such as salmon and mackerel though as these won’t give the right flavour to the soup.

In a large saucepan, cook the onions, leeks and celery slowly in the olive oil for 5 minutes or untll almost tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and tomatoes. Raise heat to moderate and cook 5 minutes more. Add the water, herbs, seasonings and fish to the pan and cook uncovered at a moderate boil for 30 to 40 minutes.

The Julia Child recipe specifies straining the soup at this point, pressing the juice out of the ingredients. I wanted a slightly thickened soup but without resorting to flour so I lifted out the fish bones and heads with a slotted spoon and gave the soup a blast with a stick blender to liquidise partially the soup vegetables. I then strained the resulting soup through a coarse sieve, pressing it through as per the original recipe.

Correct seasoning adding a bit more saffron if you feel it necessary.

Soup can be cooled at this stage until you are ready to complete the bouillabaisse. I froze my soup and took it down to London with me and defrosted it a couple of days later to turn it into my finished dish.

Additional ingredients to turn the soup into bouillabaisse

Purchased from the redoubtable Walter Purkis & Sons fishmongers in Crouch End

6 fish fillets (I used 2 sea bass and 1 sea bream – again all that was available in the intra Christmas and New Year dark period) cut on the diagonal into generous bite-sized pieces
8 giant raw prawns, peeled except for tail and deveined
Sufficient mussels to allow 3 per serving once any duds discarded – scrubbed and debearded
a tablespoon each of chopped onion and celery plus generous glass of white wine for steaming the mussels
generous pinch saffron strands
zest of 1 orange
tablespoon shredded basil
tablespoon pernod

small slices of pain de campagne drizzled lightly with olive oil and baked until crisp plus a bowl of rouille to serve (recipe below)

Set the kilner jars into a deep roasting tin. Divide the fish fillet pieces evenly between the jars and drop in 1 giant prawn per jar, tail pointing upwards for easy removal. Ladle in reheated fish stock to cover. Season each jar with a few saffron strands, a couple of drops of pernod and a couple of shreds of orange zest and seal the kilner jars. Pour boiling water from the kettle into the roasting tin. The jars should be at least half covered. Put the roasting tin into an oven preheated to 125 degrees C and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, steam the mussels for a few minutes in a lidded sauté pan or large saucepan with the chopped onion and celery and glass of white wine until they open. Discard any that do not open. Set aside until you are ready to serve.

Remove the kilner jars from the oven. Using rubber gloves or similar to protect your hands from the heat remove each jar from the water bath roasting tin, flip open the lid and drop in 3 cooked mussels in their shell. Half close lid but do not reseal and place the hot jar on an individual serving plate. Place 2 baked bread croutons onto each plate and serve.

Pass the bowl of rouille separately. Diners can spread the rouille on the croutons and dip into the soup and/or drop a spoonful of rouille directly into their soup once it’s half eaten to enrich the remaining broth.

As this was a party, I decorated my plates with seashells and a few fronds of fennel arranged artfully to look like strands of seaweed on the shore…

Ingredients for the red pepper and garlic sauce – rouille

For about 1/2 pint sauce

1 oz chopped red pepper simmered for several minutes in salted water and drained or tinned pimento
(these days one might bake a red pepper until charred and remove the skin – I cheated as time was short on New Year’s Eve and used a couple of pieces of chargrilled red pepper preserved in oil from a jar)
A small chilli pepper boiled until tender, or drops of Tabasco sauce
1 peeled medium potato cooked in the soup
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 teaspoon chopped basil, thyme or savory
4-6 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pound all the ingredients in a large pestle and mortar for several minutes to form a very smooth, sticky paste. I found it difficult to achieve a smooth paste so went with a slightly rough, rustic paste which was fine. I avoided using a food processor as this would turn the potato into a gloopy paste.

Drop by drop, pound or beat in the olive oil as for making a mayonnaise. Season to taste.

If liked, just before serving, beat in drop by drop 2-3 tablespoons hot fish soup before decanting sauce into serving bowl or sauceboat.

In celebration of Chopin

July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

2010 has been a big year for devotees of the composer Frédéric Chopin as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth. There have been all sorts of celebrations of his music going on all over the world. Last month I was lucky enough to be able to host a Chopin evening at home with my friend Andrew Wilde performing some of Chopin’s music. The format of the evening was for 20 friends to come over for drinks and canapés with Andrew playing a mini-recital for 20-25 minutes. Andrew is a concert pianist and was preparing for his all-Chopin Bridgewater Hall recital.

Given the time of year (late spring) and the weather (glorious), we decided to go for a multi-sensory experience focusing on a high point in Chopin’s life, the seven summers he spent at Nohant between 1839 and 1846. Nohant was his lover George Sand’s country house in the Berry district of central France. Chopin composed some of his finest music there, inspired by the beautiful and peaceful surroundings away from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Here is a picture of the exterior of George Sand’s house at Nohant which we visited last summer:

For our Manchester-based Chopin evening, Andrew would take care of the music but it was over to me to take care of the visual, smell and of course taste side of things. In terms of the visuals, I went for flowers and candles, including some potted hydrangeas outside, just like in the picture. Favourite shop L’Occitane helped provide a subtle hint of cherry blossom room fragrance to help conjure up the rural French idyll.

Now for the menu. I offered the following drinks:

Kir Berrichonne – an unusual kir which is a speciality of the Berry region – it’s crème de mûre (blackberry rather than the more usual blackcurrant) mixed with chilled red wine – a local pinot noir. It sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good. As my friend Vivienne put it, “like a mulled wine for the summer”

Kir Royale – the same crème de mûre but mixed with champagne, after all this was a birthday celebration for Chopin

Citron pressé – the ultimate French café soft drink

Raspberry and rose cordial – one of Belvoir’s cordials – a non-alcoholic version of the kir

Volvic mineral water – the Volvic spring is a couple of hours drive south from Nohant in the volcano country of the Auvergne. We visited the Auvergne volcanoes on the trip to France which took in Nohant last summer. Here am Itogether with son George drinking directly from the Volvic source:

For the canapés, after a little research, I came up with the following:

Rillettes de canard with cornichons on toasted French bread

The classic rillettes du Tours is a speciality of central France and is made from slow-cooked shredded pork belly. The duck version is similar and equally good. The duck shreds very easily with a pair of forks and so, once the long slow cooking in the oven is done, there is very little for the cook to do.

Fresh goat cheese and chives on toasted French bread

Goat cheese can be found all over France but is a particular speciality of the Berry region.

Mini croque-monsieurs – a French café classic. It’s always nice to have something hot when serving nibbles with drinks. I give my recipe for the cheese mixture (in fact a modified Welsh rarebit!) which forms the foundation of a croque- monsieur and instructions for how to turn it into a toasted sandwich below.

Pistachio macaroons and madeleines – it feels good to round-off the evening with something sweet. Dainty macaroons and madeleines seem to marry well with the refined nature of Chopin’s compositions.

Here are several batches of madeleines fresh from the oven cooling on a wire rack. They are quick and easy to make and, though I say so myself, put the Bonne Maman ones to shame. The one thing you have to do is invest in a couple sets of moulds. The flexible silicone ones which are on offer nowadays work just fine.

The music Andrew played that evening was:

Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Opus 35 – 1st movement only
Berceuse in D flat, Opus 57
Polonaise in A flat, Opus 35

It was amazing to hear our modest upright piano transformed at the hands of a virtuoso pianist! I hope that my efforts to recreate the mood of Nohant helped to enhance the music and sense of atmosphere that evening.

To conclude, here are the recipes I promised earlier:

Recipe for Welsh Rarebit

This is a really useful recipe which I discovered in Gary Rhodes’ cookbook “Rhodes Around Britain” published back in 1994 to accompany the BBC TV series of the same name. It makes a very superior cheese on toast, which cut into small pieces makes a delectable and easy canapé to serve with drinks. The recipe requires 1 and 1/2 lb cheese which sounds like a lock, but as the original recipe advises, this is really the minimum for a successful mixture. It keeps well in the fridge for a week or so and also freezes well.


700g (1 and 1/2 lb) mature hard cheese, grated – Cheddar in the original recipe but I used Comté for my French version
150 ml (5 fl oz) milk
25g (1 oz) plain flour
50g (2 oz) fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon English mustard powder (I used 2 tablespoons prepared smooth Dijon mustard for French version)
2 shakes Worcester sauce (I used an alternative flavouring of grated nutmeg and a tablespoon of dry vermouth for my French version)
salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste (very little or no salt will be needed depending on the type of cheese used)
2 eggs
2 egg yolks

Put the grated cheese into a medium heavy based saucepan and add the milk. Slowly melt them together over a low heat but do not allow the mix to boil as this will separate the cheese, a frustrating not to say expensive mistake! When the mixture is smooth and just begins to bubble, add the flour, breadcrumbs and mustard and cook for a few minutes, stirring, over a low heat until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan and begins to form a ball shape. Add the Worcestershire sauce (or alternative flavourings) salt (if necessary) and pepper and leave to cool.

When cold, place the mixture in a food processor, turn on the motor and slowly add the whole eggs and yolks. You can beat vigorously with a wooden spoon instead if you don’t have a food processor but I haven’t ever tried the manual method. Once the eggs have been mixed in, chill for a few hours before using.

Recipe for Croque-Monsieur

A recipe of my own devising based on a Frenchified Welsh rarebit (see above) and memories of many croque monsieurs eaten in French cafés.


For each sandwich:

2 slices good white bread, generously buttered
1 slice cooked ham
ball of rarebit mixture about the size of a small tangerine
1 tablespoon finely grated Comté cheese

Make a ham sandwich with the buttered bread and slice of cooked ham. Take the ball of rarebit mixture and flatten it into a rectangle the same size as the sandwich. Place on top of the sandwich and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C for 8-10 minutes until the bread is lightly toasted and the rarebit mixture has puffed up a little and is golden brown. Trim of the crusts and cut into squares or fingers for a dainty canapé, otherwise just cut into half and serve for a lunchtime snack.

Tartiflette, or, I need another cream, cheese and potato fix now!

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Back home for 10 days now and still pining for the sunny crisp weather and the food of the French Alps.

I decided I could hold out no longer and visited the very wonderful Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury to buy a splendid Reblochon, half to savour au naturel (that is just a wedge of cheese and a glass of wine rather than me eating the cheese in my birthday suit) and the other half to turn into an unctuous Tartiflette, the potato, cheese and cream gratin which is a speciality of the Savoy Alps in France. You can find a link to the Cheese Hamlet’s site in my blogroll/links section in the sidebar. Here it is again just for good measure:

Having picked up a leaflet about Reblochon whilst in Moutiers 10 days ago I feel obliged to show off with a few cheesy facts:

• The name Reblochon is derived from the verb reblocher literally “to pinch a cow’s udder again” because the cheese is made from the more creamy milk of a cow’s second milking of the day.
• Reblochon achieved AOC (now the European AOP Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status in 1958 and is produced in a small region within the département (administrative region) of Haute-Savoie centred around the Aravis massif in the Alps.
• Reblochon is produced from unpasteurised cows’ milk from 3 permitted breeds: Abondance; Tarine; & Montbéliarde.
• The rind of an authentic AOP Reblochon cheese will bear a small edible seal made of the naturally occurring protein caseine; the very special Reblochon Fermier has a similar green seal.

That’s enough of the academic stuff. What you really need to know is that Reblochon is a creamy semi-soft cheese with an earthy nutty flavour and an apricot coloured edible rind which is dusted with a naturally occurring white mould. And if you are in the United States, sorry folks you can’t get hold of it because of your (misguided) countrywide ban on cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. Your loss I’m afraid….

Recipe for Tartiflette

This is my version of this classic Savoyarde potato gratin, pretty similar to the one found in my authentic Reblochon information leaflet. Some ersatz supermarket-derived recipes suggest cubing the cheese or, horror of horrors, cutting off and discarding the rind. No, no, no! When the cheese is halved horizontally and placed rind-side up atop the potatoes, it becomes deliciously crispy and brown when baked in a hot oven, absolutely the point of this dish.

The specified quantity is enough for 2 greedy people. Serve with a simple green salad and a glass of crisp white wine (ideally an Apremont from Savoie). The name of this dish is derived from the Franco-Provençal word for potato – tartifla.

Here’s the Tartiflette ready to go into the oven. The finished dish can be seen in at the top of this post.


1 medium onion finely chopped
70g lardons (I like pancetta lardons – inauthentic I know but still tasty)
750g waxy potatoes such as Charlotte, scrubbed, steamed until tender and thickly sliced
142 ml double cream
half a Reblochon cheese which should weigh approx 250g
salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, a few fresh thyme leaves

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Fry the onions and lardons together until golden brown. Grease a cast iron gratin dish generously with butter. Layer half the cooked sliced potatoes in the bottom. Season then spread over them half the onion and bacon mixture. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, onions and bacon. Pour over the cream and top with the Reblochon cheese, which you should cut in half first horizontally then vertically, rind and all. See picture above.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until bubbling and golden brown.

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