Gasconomy

It’s January, it’s parky outside and nights are either spent (frantically shedding post-gorging-season guilt) in the gym, or rugged-up against the cold and cruising through the mountain of new cookery books. Inspirational – if you are very quiet, you can just about hear the cogs rotating in the food department of the BSG brain.

If there was ever a cookbook that said so much about the author, its Pascal Aussignac’s new book, Cuisinier Gascon. It focuses on the region in South West France from which he hails, its well-established, world-renowned cooking traditions and unrivalled produce – think Armagnac, duck and charcuterie – prunes, truffles, and…Fisherman’s Friend..(not French I know, but I kid you not.)

With regards to its creator, the work is the equivalent of that ubiquitous red book under Michael Aspel’s arm. From the photograph of the path through the woods in his native region you are led into Pierre Koffmann’s introduction, through the now-famous piggy treats, many of his signature dishes and other clever recipes – using honest, top-quality ingredients. There is a whole chapter dedicated to Foie Gras – you don’t see many of those around, do you?

ragueneau 

Gascony is not an officially defined province in modern day France, being more of an area in which culture and tradition are strong. It exists perhaps most famously in stories of swashbuckling, mustachioed heroes, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and d’Artagnan and his Musketeers. A scene in C de B has the expert baker Ragueneau wrapping his marvels in patisserie in sheets of wonderful poetry. Turning to the extensive chapter on cakes and pastries evokes much the same delight in me as in the customers at the fictional bakery. A madeleine tin will be forthcoming.

Pascal’s ode to the tastes of his homeland reads like a memoir, telling the reader exactly who he is, and how he has grown, through food: it’s very clever really. If that isn’t enough, the book is also lovingly illustrated like a personal family album with evocative and beautiful photographs of the places to which he is so devoted – and no doubt thinks about when searching for culinary inspiration. Pascal’s expert, guiding hand is there throughout, as it is in each of his restaurants, from the food to the flowers (he does the arrangements in Club Gascon himself), and sometimes in both of the above combined – stuffed tulip, anyone?

I can’t wait to get down to the florist’s…

Mushrooms on toast The BSG is away this week. Normally the contingency plan for this runs something like:

-Watch as many Gossip Girl and Sex and the City episodes as is humanly possible.

– Buy bag of frozen peas.

– Dine each night on aforementioned peas, with butter, salt and pepper and an illicit dollop of Salad Cream (can food get any faster, easier or, indeed, cheaper?)

However, this week I’ve taken on some extra work – dotting someone’s ‘i’s and crossing their ‘t’s – the grey asphalt of which stretches out before me. Alas, Blair and Serena will have to fight without me this time. The BSG, aware of my plight and being rather fond of cooking has made me a different meal for every night. They’re stacked and labelled, sitting neatly in our freezer – nothing, not even flowers (or a new madeleine tin) could be more gratefully received. Each morning I head to the freezer drawer to discover my feast, in its little Tupperware box, and leave it to defrost for the day; very much like opening a Christmas stocking. It’s a virtual, daily hug, BSG-style. As well as the mandatory cups of tea, these will keep me alert for those fiendish, misplaced semicolons.

squid chorizo chick peas

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A cauliflower ‘ere.

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but amidst all the column miles stretching around the dawn of the new decade, devoted to detox, retox, pretox, botox and all things raw and vegetal, what could I do but reach for Nigel Slater’s squeaky new book Tender in an effort to look interested. This book was a just-because present for the BSG late last year – well, more of a boomerang pressie actually – and he’s I’m enjoying it very much. Before the Christmas festivities really kicked in, I admit that I hadn’t been screaming out for roots and leaves, but now that flurries of January guilt are upon us, well, this ode to vegetables makes so much sense, albeit still freezing outside. Once you are inside and past the leafy cover, even the font employed evokes the tendrils and shoots of spring.

And so it is, and straight to the cauliflower chapter: a pale and beguiling creature that seemed an appropriate focus in an arctic week that promises yet more of the white stuff. On New Year’s Day after a hedonistic banquet, bonfire and bash on the Cornish coast in a house plucked from an Agatha Christie novel, a motley crew of revolutionaries staggered along the cliff path on what can loosely be termed as a walk.

The goal was a cosy pub.

                                            The cosy pub was shut.

    Desperation and hysteria ensued.

    Some tea.

                                         Not to mention the impromptu fireworks.

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In the latter throes of the stagger we’d found ourselves blinking in the midst of a frosty cauliflower field – there they stood, proud and tall, like ceremonial maces. This experience was a first for me, though rather disappointing: they smelt like old cabbages. Apparently (thanks, Nige,) these cranial lobes of white don’t do well with any weather extremes: these had rotted helplessly in the cold and were now gilded brown. There was to be no cauliflower cheese for us that night, but the seed was sown and when I got back home to Tender I had to investigate.

Mr. Slater, my food-prose pin-up, does indeed have a few beautiful words to say about these veggie brains, his recipes stretching beyond their lauded affinity with cheese. That said, I might just venture to the back of the fridge where the last heel of the stilton is languishing. Perhaps a salsa verde and some mild spices, he suggests, and I am reminded how deliciously this vegetable marries with a fragrant anchoiade – very much in keeping with that piece I read on the merits of oily fish…anchovies must count, surely? We also have a pot of Ras-el-Hanout in the cupboard that has been a success with everything we’ve tried sprinkling it on so far. Could we? I am sure we could, with some yoghurt…

Inspired by our fun-packed days in Cornwall, last night’s supper had to be fish. Moreover, it being that fearful first Monday back, supper had to be easy and cosy; a reward for getting through the day. Mackerel fillets, no-fuss and straight from the tin stirred through warm Puy lentils with peppers, tomatoes, parsley, olive oil and lemon hit the spot, and for our raw effort, a chicory, gem lettuce and avocado salad.

Angelic – apart from that last Christmas truffle. Or two.

Also worthy of a mention was our delicious lunch at the weekend at the Gurnard’s Head near St Ives, after a four-mile yomp between the south and north coasts of Cornwall (rather a satisfying result, as walks go, not to mention the views from the top.) A starter of crab linguine – I must remember to add tomatoes to my version – followed by a yielding, sticky roast belly of pork filled all the gaps necessary. This place and its staff are deserving of the highest praise – they fed the forty of us extremely well. Well worth the hike.

house coast