Provence comes to Harrogate

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how a trip to Nice in Provence had rekindled my love of France and French cuisine. ( I haven't bothered much with Provençal cooking in the past but decided recently to give it a go. Provence is the region where the Rhône meets the sea. The hills are abundant with vines and olives, the plains with tomatoes, melons and all manner of sun-loving fruits & veg. Stretching along the Mediterranean is the Camargue, an area of salt-marshes and lakes famed for its flamingos, horses and the annual Gypsy pilgrimage. It's also the pasture for unique cattle and sheep and the source of delicious, nutty-flavoured red rice.

easyrab, Danse gitane Saintes-MariesCC BY 2.0

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
The first course, a tomato tart, was more typically regional. It comes from Joanne Harris' book of French recipes and is very simple to make. Shortcrust pastry is spread with a mixture of crème fraîche and Dijon mustard, then covered in sliced, ripe tomatoes. A sprinkling of herbs and a drizzle of olive oil completes the tart, which is baked at a moderate heat and served cold. I matched this tart with a rosé wine from Brad & Angelina's Mirval vineyard. There's been a lot of talk about this wine, and I decided to give it a try. Forget the Hollywood connection: this wine is really worth the hype. It's pale, light in body and has notes of fresh red fruits and herbs. This herbal quality (I'd say thyme and lavender) is what drew me to it as a match for the tomatoes, and my guests were delighted with it.

My sister, whose birthday we were celebrating, had specifically requested langoustines for the fish course. Native to European waters, they are almost unheard of in the US. Of course, it's not easy to get hold of langoustines over here, either, in the heat of summer, but I was able to source enough to create a bisque sauce for fried bream, and I grilled the flesh over charcoal for a garnish. I don't think she was disappointed! Some of the Rhône vineyards fall within the administrative region of Provence, so I stretched the point a little with my white wine. I chose a Roussanne-based blend from the southern end of the valley. I'd put fennel and tarragon in the stock for the bisque, and this was matched with similar aromas in the wine.

Both my sister and niece thought the main course was best. Obviously, getting hold of Camargue beef in the UK would be impossible, but I did find a near approximation in salt-marsh grazed beef from Hampshire, which I bought online. I treated this exactly as a French domestic cook would: roast over a few celery stalks and carrots, with a few sprigs of thyme, rosemary and bay. While the beef was resting, I deglazed the roasting tin with beef stock and reduced this to a rich jus. I served the beef with French beans and a pilaf of red Camargue rice. This latter added a delicious nuttiness to the dish, while the beans kept the whole thing fresh and lively. Red wines from Provence are often made with a high proportion of Mouvèdre in the blend, and the Bandol I chose had more than 90%, with small quantities of Cinsault and Grenache. With so much Mouvèdre, it could have been a bit of a tannin-bomb, but it had aged well and was now offering flavours of damson jam, blackberries and hints of leather on the nose.

Image: A Feeney
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, a sweet paste made from almonds and candied melon. I was able to buy some from a confectioner in Birmingham, which I served with the coffees and anissette liqueur after dinner.

Next Time: The amazing Harrogate beer scene


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