Thursday, May 27, 2010

Île de Ré…..s’il vous plait

Long golden shorelines empty of people, dunes scattered with long grasses and flat, round pebbles, the sound of the Atlantic crashing onto the beach, welcome to the Île de Ré.

This tiny island, just a few kilometers from La Rochelle, is the darling of chic, wealthy Parisians and touring gourmands. It is blessed with plump crustaceans, a wealth of fat, briny oysters and it’s own hand-harvested, internationally exported delicacy: Fleur de Sel.

This is the place where the beautiful people sit on the quayside of the charmed capital, St Martin de Ré, sipping ice-cold glasses of Chablis, whilst dining on plates of fat langoustines glistening in the hot sunshine, their large Chanel sunglasses perched atop their well-coiffured heads, incurably clean, stripy Breton tops and strappy heels slap their well-toned ankles as they artfully glare at one another whilst sucking out the fat, white flesh from their grilled and buttered crustaceans.

Chic boutiques line the stone clad streets, artfully arranged lobsters, organic breads, gourmet cheeses and fine saucisson array the stone slabs in the covered market. In the small port, gin-palaces adorn the water while envious mortals stare down at the fibre-glass boats as they take long licks of their sweet caramel fleur de sel ice-creams. It is indeed French heaven and all yours for just nine Euros, curtsey of the toll bridge.

In need of fresh salty air and escape from the family head-quarters we flung some trunks, a tent and the children in the car and went in search of our own piece of heaven. At the north of the island we found a small campsite, nestled next to a spectacular beach, seemingly untouched by human hands. We spent several days there holed up beneath some pine trees, the sea just yards away. Every morning and evening the tide went out leaving myriads of rock pools perfect for the children to poke and peer, however the waves were to big for swimming.

On our last day we went in search of the perfect beach and found it in the south, next to the village Le Blois Plage en Ré. Far more gentle, with a long sweeping beach and shallow waters the children up and down the coastline pottered and played well into the late evening sunshine.

Bonsoir Île de Ré.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monthly morsels - May

Eating is like breathing, it is essential to us, allowing the most aspirational of us to put ourselves on a plate and declare – this is me. Nothing could be simpler or more delicious than a crust of fresh bread, dipped in fresh green olive oil (or unsalted butter) and sparsely scattered with fleur de sel.

A fresh langoustine or juicy crustacean is never better than freshly grilled to release its essential briny flavours, eaten with feverish fingers, hands glistening with sticky pieces of white flesh and running with juices. And, perhaps, if you are feeling greedy, or even generous, a blob of fresh aioli on the side to dip your plump prawn into. Pour a cool glass of crisp, delicate rosé to eat alongside.

What about a hand-made, butter pastry tart filled with alternate slices of fresh goats cheese, sweet sun-kissed, fat, red tomatoes and soft Tomme. Pour over a generous slug of olive oil and scatter plenty of freshly chopped parsley, mint, rosemary and thyme – bake until the pastry is golden, the cheeses melted and the tomatoes soft and caramelised – eat with blooming handfuls of soft, green butterhead lettuce.

Finally slice fat slices of gently perfumed rock melon, pull out the seeds and serve glistening to your guests, whose mouths will be watering at the very sight of this orange-fleshed globe of ambrosial summer delight.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vaccum attic

Last week saw the local, Vide Grenier, which literally translates as: vaccum attic, pour down the narrow village streets of our humble French coterie.

Schmoozing and perusing is the name of the game at these wonderful gatherings. The locals come out and display their old plastic toys, moth-eaten wooly jumpers, a couple of broken chairs. Or they stumble gently from table to table having a good nose at each others abandoned family accessories. Many of the professional sellers arrive at dawn artistically arranging their boxes of rusty old door handles, dusty mangles and numerous vintage tools in the hope that some crazed sod will part with E50's for a pair of enamel coffee pots.

The Brits are always to be found at these affairs desperate for a cheap antique, as was I. However the hard core collectors had already torn around the stalls at 7am and taken off with anything worth buying by 7.15.

My purchases on the stalls were frugal, just this worm-eaten trug (minus the flowers) for E2. The crêpe man and the man on the buvette (beer and wine stall) took most of my E20 that sweet hazy afternoon.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Escargot to go….

The pinchers squeezed down to grab something in the long wet dewy grass, what in hell is she doing, I wondered. Dressed in fatigues and clutching a wire basket, the woman appeared in the early morning mist almost as a hunter, but of what?

It dawned on me, as I continued my run around the fields, and kept leaping out of the way of the fat, juicy snails that were taking a cooling, slither along the damp paths: a snail hunter – she was a bloody snail hunter!

Didn’t Elvis eat squirrels? So where do you draw the line, personally my line is drawn well above snails, although as a child my father educated me in winkles, whelks, cockles, mussels, I adored all things crustacean. 

On a Saturday afternoon, when the fishmonger was still an integral part of the high street, my pops and I would wander in and buy a big paper wrapped packet of vinegar soaked cockles and a sack of tiny black winkles glistening in their briny shells. 

We would be salivating as we drove home thinking about pulling out those tiny, curly globules of salty matter with our pins and chewing them greedily, possibly with a thin slice of bread and butter on the side.

Ageing is a strange process isn’t it? Your taste-buds change and develop into new directions. Suddenly sugar-coated coca-cola bottles aren’t nearly so desirable nor are sour balls the size of snooker balls in the least appealing. Although twenty years ago you would have seen me, grasping in my hot sweaty adolescent hand 20p and intent on getting my moneys worth, buying a three-pack of sour balls, enough to last an entire school day and possibly the bus journey home as well.

Yet twenty years on the idea of drawing out that globlet of winkle with the tip of a pin, or chewing on a garlic infused fat French snail leaves me with a slight shudder. A large glass of very dry, cold white wine is appealing, long salty anchovies, hairy and covered in vinegar sing out to me, but sour balls, escargot…non, non, non - no thank you.

But hunting snails – it’s no different to hunting deer, rabbits or wood-grouse or fishing for trout is it? I have great admiration for that snail hunter, she was resourcefully scouring the countryside for a free lunch, she didn’t offer to share it with me and nor would I have joined her but those well-tuned French taste-buds had sent her, on that dewy morning, into the world to forage for a great delicacy.

Image: Simon Howden /