When I lived in France I didn’t really live the culinary dream many expected. I didn’t dine on foie gras or steak frites or cassoulet each day, drink a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy each night, and buy new cheeses and interesting cuts of meat from the market each week. I did most of my own cooking and would sometimes spend 3 days living on porridge, or bread and butter, or pumpkin soup for lunch and dinner. I rarely ate meat, mostly tofu, in fact I practically became a vegetarian.
But there were wonderful meals during trips away to my friend’s auberge, or the confit du canard we treated ourselves to during a cold December weekend in Paris. There was Christmas in Wales with the most enormous turkey and a celebratory New Year’s dinner in Barcelona with Rioja and tomato bread and octopus. There were thick winter stews and a citrus, slightly tangy, cheese-cake strudel dessert at a tavern in Innsbruck, Austria.
Then, towards the end of my travels around France I spent nearly a month living and working with two different French couples in the south-west region of France. For the first two weeks I lived on the outskirts of a small town south of Bordeaux called Pissos with Marie Hélène and Christoph. They live on pancake flat land surrounded by pine forest stretching to the horizons. They have a small river near their property where they catch trout, and make beignets from the blossom of elderflower trees hanging over the river banks. They have chickens and pigeons which cluck and coo all day, fly at the windows and have even been known to come inside the house.
The kitchen is the centre of their home. It is an eclectic kitchen with benches of different surfaces and different heights, apothecary style jars sitting on shelves holding home-made herbal teas and their “pantry” is spread throughout the house in a beautiful collection of old chests and cupboards and sideboards. But the most impressive part of the kitchen, indeed the whole house, is the 180 year old fireplace. It is framed by a stone wall and has a white piece of lace fabric hanging around the top edges. It has a grill nestled in the bottom and a bar above the flames for hanging pots.
I ate very well during my two weeks with Marie Hélène and Christoph; Marie is an amazing cook. I was helping Marie in her organic vegetable garden so everyday we had a an apéro hour of fresh radishes, or peas still in their pods, or baby carrots. We came home from the garden around 1 o’clock for lunch which was nearly always accompanied by a bottle of wine and fresh bread. One day lunch was a whole roast chicken (complete with innards and gizzards….) with home-made fries, another day it was fish baked in the outdoor fire, or roast pork and crispy sauteed new potatoes, or chunky andouillette sausages. Every meal was followed by coffee and, maybe yoghurt. The yoghurt was made in Germany and sold by Marie’s friend at the market; it was the smoothest, creamiest, most flavoursome yoghurt I think I have ever tasted.
Every meal was memorable but one which I can most easily recreate here in my humble kitchen is the lentil salad. One day Marie Hélène rose early to cook a large pot of lentils. Before lunch she mixed through whatever she had on hand and fresh produce from her garden: tomatoes, feta, onions, chopped radish, garlic, fresh herbs and pieces of beautiful, sweet and slightly smoky cured Spanish style ham. We ate it outdoors in the sun at a table with a blue floral pattern cloth.
My lentil salad had a spring twist with asparagus and zucchini sauteed with lemon zest and juice and a pinch of chilli flakes. I used canned lentils and tossed through capers, diced tomato, cubes of Parmesan, though feta would have been nicer, small strips of bacon and slightly caramelised red onion. Shake a dressing together with olive oil, lemon juice, a crushed garlic clove, a teaspoon of mustard, salt and pepper. Then let the flavours mellow and soften together for a while.
My lentil salad was more a topping to go with a leafy green salad but if I added one or two more cans of lentils this could have been a meal on its own. A torn piece of baguette or ciabatta drizzled in olive oil and lightly toasted would have been perfect with it. In the winter add cooked lentils to a warm roast vegetable salad with some spicy chorizo sausage; wonderful for eating seasonally.
Summer is taking its own sweet time reaching us here in Wellington. I may not be able to recreate spring time in France sitting at an outdoor table surrounded by pine trees, blue skies and plentiful wine, but I do plan to coax summer forward with strawberries and Pimm’s and good, good salad.