Provence comes to Harrogate
Provençal cuisine is full of colour and flavour. The sunny climate ensures that the foods ripen well. The sea provides glistening fish, deep red crustaceans and many-hued clams. Typical herbs of the region include fennel, thyme, savoury and lavender. Grazing on salt marshes, the lamb and beef have a sweetness and texture you will struggle to find elsewhere and a delicious savouriness that comes from the sea herbs. Almonds are the foundation of much of the region's cakes and pastries, often flavoured with aniseed, oranges, or glacée fruits. It's easy to imagine you can taste the sun and the sea!
This summer, my sister came to visit with my niece. They live in the USA, so opportunities to entertain them are rare. I invited them and my niece's fiancé to dinner one evening, in celebration of a birthday. Without it having any significance, I decided to build the menu around some of those incredible Provençal flavours. Perhaps it was the recent spate of sunny evenings that inspired me. I wanted to avoid stereotypes like ratatouille and salade niçoise, but at the same time provide food that was recognisable as coming from the region. The flavours I decided to showcase were: tomatoes, sea bream, rosé wine, Camargue beef, stone fruits and liquorice. I wove other regional flavours like lavender, fennel, herbs and aniseed through the menu to highlight the sheer breadth and variety of the region's cuisine. Although rosés dominate the region's output, its wine is not as one-dimensional as you might think. Local grape varieties, in the right hands, produce some excellent white and red wines, which I was able to source to complement the savoury dishes.
I'd told the Beloved that I wanted the table to feature the green of olive leaves, the azure of the sea and the intense orange of the walls of Avignon at sunset, then left everything to his creativity.
Since we were celebrating a birthday, I started as any self-respecting host would in any part of France - with Champagne. To accompany this aperitif, I served sliced saucisson and boiled quails' eggs, which we dipped in fennel- and espelette-flavoured salt.
|All images: G Mather|
Like the beef, Camargue cheese is hard to get hold of. I decided in the end to leave Provence altogether and serve a ewe's milk cheese from just up the road. I've written before about Mario Olianas and his Yorkshire Pecorino cheese, and this was a perfect occasion to show it off to visitors from abroad. I drizzled each slice with lavender honey and left it to refine overnight in the fridge. Cheese gives way to dessert in France, and my last course was an ice-cream coupe featuring apricots and liquorice. I'd been experimenting all week to find the right amount of liquorice to give my poaching syrup a hint of that warming sensation in the throat, without becoming too noticeable. With the ice-cream, too, I wanted the flavour to be very subtle, so using black liquorice sticks was out. For both the ice cream and the syrup, I infused the liquid with pieces of liquorice root. Assembling the coupe brought out the pantomime dame in me: ice cream and poached apricots were settled in the bottom of a glass, a rosette of apricot brandy flavoured crème Chantilly piped on and an apricot macaron added; the whole thing was then sprayed with edible bronze glitter and sprinkled with crystallised violet petals. Camp, moi? Perhaps, but it did capture the warm glow of a Mediterranean sunset.
There was one, final, touch of Provence before the end of the evening. Calissons d'Aix and a sweet paste made from almonds and candied melon. I was able to buy some from a confectioner in Birmingham to serve with the coffees and anissette liqueur at the end of the evening.