Every cooking show I’ve ever watched has told me that France has long been the epicentre of Western food culture. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, but it seemed like a fitting place to begin my quest to cook food from a different region of the world each week for 80 weeks. It’s always struck me that while Italian cooking is renowned for simplicity of recipes and freshness of ingredients, French cooking is renowned for complexity of recipes and perfection of technique. Certainly a cuisine to tackle when I’m still brimming with enthusiasm then! Full disclosure: I decided only after this week was finished that I would be splitting France into two, so northern France will be coming later, and there may be dishes that are not perfectly aligned in either category. I’m sorry, France is too delicious and I was leaving too much behind me, never fear, there will still be 80. So, here are the “southern” French dishes that I started with.
I must confess that, uncultured as I am, the first time I heard of bouillabaisse was in a Harry Potter book, wherein the English characters regarded it with suspicion and general distaste. Fleur Delacour had a penchant for the seafood stew, however, so I felt like it must have attractive qualities. Bouillabaisse comes from the coastal city of Marseille, and was typically made by fisherman. I put a few fresh varieties of fish like cod and mullet in mine, as well as prawns and mussels, cooked in a broth with leeks, onions, celery, fennel, garlic, orange zest, saffron and tomato. The secret ingredient is Pernod, a french liquor that tastes strongly of aniseed, and which nicely complements seafood. I served it with fresh crusty bread and rouille, a sauce of breadcrumbs, tomato, olive oil, and a frankly indecent quantity of garlic. Altogether a delicious beginning!
Confit de canard, cassoulet and roast potatoes
Confit de canard is essentially duck slow-cooked in fat, heralding from Gascony. I don’t think I’d ever eaten confit duck before this. I never minded duck, I just didn’t understand the ecstatic ravings about it that I’d heard from some. “Sure” I would say “it’s nice, but it’s no chicken”. I was wrong. Duck is amazing. This duck was amazing, it awakened a ducky fire within me. After googling how to actually confit a duck from scratch and seeing that it would definitely take longer than dinner time, I set out to buy one in a can, which to my surprise is apparently a done thing and not gross at all (who knew?). I dubiously prepared it in the oven, but after trying the finished product all doubts vanished. But hold on, I still needed to roast the potatoes and make the cassoulet! Cassoulet is a bean stew from Occitan, and is named after the bowl it’s served in. I made it with onion, garlic, tomatoes, bacon, garlic sausage, white beans and bouquet garni, covered with a crust of fresh bread crumbs. Bouquet garni is a bundle of assorted herbs tied together with string, like thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaves etc. It allows herb flavours and small leaves to be infused into a dish, without ending up with the woody stalks. It can also be put into a little muslin pouch if no leaves are wanted in the dish. The cassoulet went well with duck, and would definitely be best for the cooler months.
OK, I’ve never seen the film “Ratatouille”. So not only did I not know the plot of the major English cultural reference to this dish, I didn’t even know what went in it. I think there was a rat on the dvd cover? I hoped there was no rat in it. Wait, wasn’t there a rat/ratatouille joke in Fawlty Towers as well? Fortunately it turned out that the rat/ratatouille connection was more a product of the English predilection to puns than a literal recipe, and it’s actually a nice vegetable stew from Nice (get it?). My good vegetarian friend and superb cook, who has seen the movie and liked it a lot, went to great pains long ago to source the original recipe from a fancy chef that Pixar based the cooking sequence on, and generously supplied me with it. I made a base of thick roast capsicum, tomato and garlic sauce, on top of which I layered slices of eggplant, zucchini and tomato. I liked this recipe because the vegetables got a bit caramelised and crispy on top, which I imagine they wouldn’t in wetter, more stewy recipes.
Goat’s cheese soufflé and Niçoise salad
Whenever somebody is set an impossible cooking challenge in movies, it’s always a soufflé, right? Well, challenge accepted, hesitantly. I followed the instructions to the letter (a rarity for me), hoping to get the fabled “rise”. I think my oven let me down slightly, because only those in the back rose fully, but I was ultimately happy with the texture and result. Niçoise salad was a childhood favourite of mine (I was a weird kid), so I happily put together the familiar boiled potatoes, black olives, tuna, lettuce, red onion, hard-boiled egg, blanched green beans and glorious, glorious anchovies. As a kid I would always quietly pick the discarded anchovies off other peoples’ plates, and egg on my Mum to keep adding more and more to the Niçoise salad. I don’t understand the hatred of them, they are just vehicles of intense salt, oil and umami, what’s not to like? I finished off the salad with a red wine vinegar and dijon mustard dressing, and honestly enjoyed it more than the soufflé. It’s a pretty great salad.