Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Three kinds of bites

Guests are coming to eat with you. Or, perhaps, a crowd are coming for celebratory drinks. You must give them some "bites" to accompany the wine, beer or whatever.

Supermarkets supply such as you might need, but they will have supplied others. So should you have bought some, your guests will know that, as a host, you have not bothered too much. So do the job yourself at a fraction of the price - and in the process gain masses of kudos.

Here are three easy and economical ways of pleasing your friends.

The first is a garlic pancake cut into bite-size pieces.

There may be children coming, and children like pancakes. As for the garlic, you will be surprised how much they will enjoy these bites - even by those who claim not to like garlic.

You will need self-raising white flour, salt, pepper, oil or oil and butter, grated cheese (Cheddar is as good as any), milk, beaten egg, Dijon mustard and pressed garlic.

In a large bowl put the flour, salt, pepper, Dijon mustard and beaten egg. Adding milk, whisk this into a batter to form the consistency of thick cream. Stir in the grated cheese.

As you are preparing the batter, in a frying pan cook the pressed garlic in oil or oil/butter mix, until it becomes brown. On it pour the batter. Cover the pan. Turn the heat down low.

In a while you will see that the sides of the pancake are browning and drying and that the batter surface is bubbling.

Lift an edge of the pancake with a spatula. If the bottom is golden brown, toss the pancake or turn it over with the spatula.

Pierce the brown upper surface of the pancake to allow trapped internal moisture to escape.

When the underside is brown, slide the pancake on to a wooden serving board and cut it into bite-size pieces. Serve hot - or cold.

The proportions used are up to you, but too much cheese will make the pancake greasy.
If the party is a large one, make plenty of pancake mix so that as you are serving one, you can start another.


The next lot of bites involve the use of goat's cheese (but I am sure any other cheese will do).

You will need sliced bread (white or brown), olive oil, goat's cheese (in a small log-shape), salt, pepper, and paprika.

Cut the sliced bread into bite-size pieces. If the goat's cheese is old, cut off the rind. Slice it into discs.

In olive oil fry one side of the bread pieces. Lay them, browned side upwards, on a board. On each place a slice of goat's cheese. Return them to the olive oiled pan and fry the undersides until brown and crisp. You will notice that the cheese is starting to melt.

Place the bites on kitchen paper so that excess oil can be absorbed. Over them all sprinkle salt, and on each put a little paprika for decorative purposes.

Serve on a nice platter, hot or cold.


The last kind of bite is probably the easiest to contrive.

You will need sliced bread (brown or white), grated Cheddar cheese, Dijon mustard, onion or shallot, salt and pepper.

Make a sandwich of grated cheese, smearing Dijon mustard over the inner surfaces of the bread slices, adding salt and pepper, and finely grated or chopped onion or shallot. (A hint of chilli powder will add zest.)

Fry the sandwiches on both sides in olive oil until browned. Allow them to cool on kitchen paper.

When quite cold, cut them into bite-size pieces, discarding the crusts if you will.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dieppe No.3. People (Part 2)

Dieppe is full of shops for women - with, it seems to me, a predominance of underwear vendors.

Now, most of the underwear on display is pretty fancy, delicate and daring - the kind that a flighty girl might employ to good effect. And yet, without I hope giving too much offence to French women, they are, if stylish, on the plain side and rather dumpy. Are all these non-beauties wearing this fancy kit beneath their dowdy exteriors? They must be.

We ate in the centre of town. This place, a restaurant/hotel, was once a fairly murky establishment when I once stayed there many years ago, taking demi-pension.

The place went up-market slowly, then burned down. Now rebuilt, it has turned out to be comfortable and well-appointed. We approve of it.

Around us as we dined was a motley crew. There was a distinguished, red-faced English gentleman with old-fashioned spectacles perched on the end of his large nose. He wore a yellow sweater, a checked shirt in the pattern of a horseblanket and a scarf tied around his neck inside his shirt. His companion looked like a retired all-in wrestler, bald, smart gold watch, and large pristeen white trainers. He ate with his knife and fork in the air.

When a man, who Margreet described as stunning-looking, arrived to join a party, this male couple forgot their food and were transfixed for several minutes by what they saw.

Next to us was about the plainest, middle-aged woman imaginable with a young, good-looking man in tow. On the other side of us sat a couple who, despite their diminutive size (she was nearly a dwarf), ate like giants. Nearby was a Dutch couple (her body had sunk) who were ruddy of countenance. They ate with the manners of peasants.

Then, beside the area designated for mostly single pensionairs, was a crowd of middle-aged Englishmen who must have had something in common (possibly sailing). They were in a jolly mood, enjoying each other's company, and consuming food and wine to the full.

Our meal, with wine available in carafe, was exemplary, and served by a most hard-working pair of waiters who exercised considerable professionalism.

Eating later at a harbourside café, it was appropriate that I chose maqueraux marinée as it was the season for catching them.

Along the length of the harbour/groin/pier/breakwater were some hundred fishermen either casting their weighted lines or reeling in fish. Their bending rods, swishing fore and aft, made a fine and animated spectacle. One fisherman, leaning over the quayside, was exposing a generous amount of nether cleavage.

The bait for mackerel was feather lures, not needing to be replaced after each cast. For a small brown fish, also caught in quantity, hooks were baited with worms.

Mackerel were often beheaded, tailed, and gutted on the spot, with the unwanted pieces returned immediately to the sea. When buckets were full of mackerel in their entire form, heads down, their tails stood aloft like many a modern youth's haircut.

It was a great architectural mistake when extending the harbour wall, not to have included sanitary arrangements for the fishermen and -women. So the combination of defecation and urination in the alcoves at the extremity of the pier, provided the veritable sight and smell of "Old France".

But the pavements of Dieppe seemed to be less cluttered then before with dog mess, though I saw no one bagging it up as is now the general custom in England.

It was when taking our coats to hang them up at the far corner of a restaurant that I passed a family of five sitting at a table. One of the diners was a white dog. As far as I could make out, his table manners were impeccable.

As is often the case, we find that it does not take long to overeat on our brief trips to France.
So, in the evening, after a little shopping and an aperitif, we might retire to our room for a picnic - in comfort and with the huge panoramic landscape before us - sometimes added to by clouds of starlings on their roosting flights.

A typical picnic might consist of baguette with Brittany butter, red wine, fromage tete for me, duck paté for Margreet, and montagne/Pyrenée for us both. Often, our picnics are shared by a large herring gull that stands outside the window waiting for scraps. If it is the same bird each time, it has become, for us, a Dieppe personality. It is an extremely handsome bird, unlike the patronne/waitress at a restaurant tried for the first time, who, despite the excellence of her food, was such a harridan that we will not return.

Gulls are not the only objects flying in the coastal wind. At a kite festival, on the green sward between town and sea, an Indian kite-enthusiast gentleman set up his little kite of a wasp with spinning and buzzing wings, and flew it through kites of all sizes and shapes from around the world - as if to sting each one. His swift-flying kite was so small that possibly only he knew and approved of what he was up to.

Our return journey was once shared with a crowd of Arsenal football supporters. Some of these kept up an incessant flow of hooligan chanting, using often recognisable tunes with recognisably coarse words. Their voices were out of tune and conducted in a slurred, intoxicated way.

The older of the supporters were not chanters, but sat in the ship's saloon pouring endless pints of beer down their throats and into their universally large bellies.

But the supporters' songs were of no avail. Arsenal had lost (2 - 1) to Barcelona the previous evening. God knows what the noise would have been like had Arsenal won.

The journey home is not always straightforward. We have had to go north to Calais by car because of rough weather or ship breakdown. On one occasion, having kissed Christine goodbye at our hotel, we sailed through seas so rough that our ferry was diverted in mid-channel to dock at Portsmouth instead of Newhaven.

But whatever occurs, we enjoy a lovely break in Dieppe, eating, drinking, and watching its people, and returning home well wined and dined, with a car-full of wine and good things to eat, not to mention a fashionable item or two.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dieppe No.3. People (Part 1)

Written without prejudice, this is about the people we meet on our various sojourns in Dieppe. They are mostly regular acquaintances - hotel owners, restaurant proprietors and the like. We meet them regularly and are friends enough to, at one time, take presents of Christmas puddings to some of them. They were not used to the treatment of clients bearing gifts, and did not quite know how to respond. Anyhow, my modest "restaurant French" gave me a chance to have my piece ready about how the 'sauce' was made from a mixture (a mélange as far as I know) of butter, powdered sugar and Cognac. Margreet, who speaks the lingo pretty well, listened to my efforts "maternally".

Our boat was once late to dock on an early winter's afternoon, so, having left our luggage in the car, we went straight to one of our favourite restaurants for a late lunch, with pudding under arm. The patron was 'désolé' that his wife, below in the kitchen, had finished cooking for the rest of their half day. We retreated (avec pudding). Christine, who is now taking over the hotel where we stay, is the third generation patronne. Her grandfather was building the place when I first visited it in the late 1940s soon after the war. Then his son took over. This man, once hale and hearty, suffered first from an exploding boiler and then from a brain tumour. He became a shadow of his normal self - grey of hair and demeanour, quiet and slow. But he lives.

Madame, his wife, whose hair is curled hat-like on top like a can-can dancer from the Follies Bergère of the Belle Epoque, and must have looked much like one in her youth, was unhappy that this time we had booked our room through the internet. It meant that she owed the internet company a good sum for each day of our stay. We assured her that it would not happen again, and that we would book directly with the hotel.

Christine, her daughter, is bouncy, elegant, pretty, all eyes and teeth, dresses just a bit tartilly, and usually ties her blond hair into an unsuccessful and scruffy knot at the back of her head. We are delighted that she will take over as soon as both of her parents have retired. We hope that the young man, who now works with her, is more than just a friend. So we put the luggage in our room, presented our Christmas pudding to the proprietress and ate a fine lunch at a recently refurbished brasserie.

This establishment has changed a lot since the 'old days', when it was scruffier, busier, noisier, and my boys could pass quite a bit of the day happily playing with the pinball machines there. With upgrading, the machines have gone.

A statuesque waitress, dressed in the almost obligatory white top and black skirt, served us on sturdy legs, shod with sensible shoes that seem somewhat too large to go with the rest of her body. Her legs were ideally suited to serving her many customers with speed and efficiency. She was a pretty girl, with fair hair, tied at the back in a manner resembling the vane part of a weathervane.

Madame, on the other hand, stockier of build and with close-cropped hair was dressed in a military-brown tunic and trousers, and looked more like a Belsen warder than a restaurant proprietress. And she acted accordingly, with overseeing eye and authoratative demeanour, making sure that her place was run as it should be - with considerable efficiency. She was much slower of foot than the waitress. When reaching our table she was pleasant enough when taking our order.

To have found good food in clean and pleasant surroundings on a Monday in Dieppe was fortunate - though the excellent choucroute Alsacienne of the past had now been replaced by choucroute de la mere.

With other favourite places to eat still closed, we returned to madame's brasserie for an evening snack. I remarked to her that she had changed the colour of her blouse since the morning. She had done it because of the cold. It was a warmer top.

Breakfast in bed at the hotel is always so good that we are unable to do justice to lunch after it. So we buy a tart or croissant in a bakery to take to a nearby bar/tabac to eat with our grande crème coffee.

The black-moustached waiter of old at this bar/tabac had some altercation or other with the then landlord, left, and graduated to a smarter place (where the bier de Noël was excellent. The old boss, too, had left, to be replaced by an unsmiling, middle aged couple, who, without style, serve drink and take money for papers and cigarettes in a businesslike fashion. But the coffee is good, so we favour the place as our breakfast venue.

At another favourite restaurant, where we always eat at least once, the patron was delighted with our gift of a Christmas pudding, as was madame.

Madame, whose greying hair is cropped at the sides and curly on top, slides around the restaurant doing most of the waitressing, unobtrusively, charmingly, and slowly. It is not a restaurant where one would eat in a hurry. But the food is always excellent - plain, traditional French. Margreet finished her meal with an apple ice covered with calvados. We are now experimenting at home in England with this light, yet formidable dessert.

On leaving, we were presented with a bag of a Bordeaux speciality - little raised sweet tarts, sticky, and tasting of almonds. This was, presumably, in thanks for our gift of a Christmas pudding.

At a warehouse on the outskirts of Dieppe, where you can have your bottles or barrels filled from tanks of 12 percent wine from various regions of France, we enquired if they still sold a wine of our choice, bought at an earlier date. The bespectacled youth in charge, who did not deign to raise his eyes from the computer or his head above the high counter unless he thinks you are about to buy, assured us that we were mistaken in thinking that the wine was sold by him (he was correct). But we did buy six bottles of cheap red from the Tarn, on the assumption that as most of his wines for sale were choice and expensive ones, the Tarn, too, might be good (it was only fair).

Two prominent wine shops in Dieppe had closed since our last visit. Could this be a manifestation of the decline of wine-drinking in France?

In wanting a choucroute in the evening at a corner brasserie, the patronne was apologetic that no food was served in the evening, but if we wanted to eat locally, not to patronise the first six restaurants opposite along the Quay Henri IV.
Their kitchens, she said, were not hygienic, as she rubbed her tummy and made a sour face. But we had already eaten at the first one without ill effects.

We returned to the now open first choice restaurant, a favourite place for plaice and Coquille St Jacques. Our pudding gift was gratefully received by monsieur, whose back is now straightened from bent. Dressed in jeans and a pink striped shirt, he comes from somewhere in France where 'merci' is pronounced as 'meerci', and 'pardon' as 'paardon'.

We have never seen madame, who stays below stairs in the kitchen, receives shouted commands, and cooks each dish as it is ordered. This is another restaurant where one is expected to take time over a meal - and get each dish in perfect condition.

An excellent bistro on the Pollet island, in the middle of town, was started by two gays, who rather dominated the place. Under new ownership the restaurant is more sedate, but just as good. The slightly rotund waitress has been employed there since the restaurant's inception and has a charm and wonderful knack of making you feel very much at ease and at home.

There we eat our favourite Coquille St Jacques, the season for them starting on the 4th of October and ending on the 15th of May.

Soon after we had taken our seats just inside the window of another restaurant, an old cyclist appeared, dressed in Tour de France gear, wearing a brightly coloured cap with upturned peak. He looked not only rather rediculous in it, but also somewhat tramplike.

We, and the patron of the restaurant, watched as he took a long time to chain his bicycle to some boxes of petuneas that were attached to the front of the establishment. He used a rusty iron-link chain, usually seen attached to old-fashioned lavatory systems.

The proprietor looked on aghast at this potential customer whose presence, in or out, might discourage smarter-class clientèle from entering.

But in came the cyclist, who was thoughtfully offered a table in the window next to us - so that he could keep an eye on his bike.

The old codger ordered well, in a squeakily high voice, in French, well accented in English.

Beore we left, we engaged in conversation with him. He had been in public service in England, was retired, 69 years old, and cycled daily for distances from 80 to 100 miles. Cycling was his life - his entire life.

I asked if he had ever ridden in the Tour de France. No, but he followed it each year, cycling with it. When the contestants rested at night, he would cycle on ahead to witness the following leg of the race.

He was a cheery, red-faced man, who had obviously been involved in a dreadful accident, as part of his face had been crushed and his teath did not fit the usual space in his mouth.

He had written much on his sport for journals, but no longer had the time to do so or write a book on his cycling experiences. Being so old and so active would not, he thought, give him the ability or time. He rather wanted do die in his saddle.

End of Part 1

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dieppe No.2. Eating

I do not believe that you can eat cheaply in France, but it is for certain that you can eat very well cheaply. And all the talk about the decline of gastronomy in France is idle talk.

We continue to eat very well in Dieppe because we know where to go.

A few restaurants of old have closed, some have opened (unlike the clothes shops that have burgeoned and upgraded).

For the most part, our favourite eating places remain, with children taking over from parents - as it should be in France and as is the case with our hotel, where the grandfather of the present granddaughter, who runs it, was the first of his family to greet me when the place was being built shortly after the war.

Our favourite eating haunts are decidedly downmarket. One caters for, it seems, old friends and an occasional passer-by. The other, which, thankfuly, has a young son to take over, has as its lunchtime clientèle, teachers, office workers and policemen.

Here the noisy patron greets you from the kitchen or bar with his loud voice and hearty handshake. His wife, charming and mouselike, goes about her business in her own time, eventually taking your order, then eventually delivering the ordered drinks (when one is now very thirsty), and finally coming with the excellent fare - by which time much of the drink has disappeared down the gullet. I suppose that the Americans would call that good business practice, but it is her natural way and the leasurely style of the place.

The nice part about both of these favourite places of ours is that the food is absolutely traditional French. There is no pretence of originality or innovation. You know pretty well what will be on the menu and know what the food that you have ordered will be like.

One hears that places like these are becoming harder to find elsewhere in France - I hope not.

When rumour had it that one of these two restaurants was to close we were crestfallen. But it was only rumour, an unfounded rumour at that.

At one of these two places we eat plaice that has been dusted in the lightest of batter (if you can dust batter) and served with pommes frites. We would be foolish to eat all these delicious chips, for it ruins our apetite for further food. As the first course I choose macqueraux mariné of a mackeral soused, or cooked slowly in a vinagary solution, with a few onion and carrot slices.

Madame's very chocolatey mousse rounds off the meal beautifully. For drinks, the Alsace white and Cotes du Rhone red in pichets are both excellent, but there have been changes in the marques of cider. For years it was akin to champagne, if not better. Then the supplier went out of business and the patron made do with a much inferior brand. Now things are better, but the new variety of this regional and sparkling draught is not quite as good as the original one. So items do change over the years, but not much.

We eat at a much smarter place because we have known the family who have run the restaurant for years, and we like them.

The cuisine went downhill for a while, but a new chef has restored the quality of food once more.

In French restaurants we seldom drink anything but carafe or pichet wine because the mark-up with wine in bottle, though not quite as exhorbitant as in England, is too great, and the wine sometimes not as good as anticipated.

One enormous advantage when eating in France is that tax and tip are included in the bill, with only small change being left as a gesture. This does make paying far less troublesome.

For part 3 of Dieppe I will write (possibly in two sections) on its people.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dieppe No.1. The Place

We have been to Dieppe - again. This seaside town in Normandy has been my favourite foreign destination for years.

Shortly after the war, in the late 1940s, when we were severely rationed at home, and when we were allowed a mere 20 Pounds to take abroad, it was the nearest, easiest and cheapest way of finding plentiful food and winter warmth.

At Victoria Station stood the boat train waiting for passengers, bound mostly for Paris. Then it was one to the main ways for people to reach France's capital city.

The steam engine hissed away, oozing the industrial revolution smells of steam, burning coal, and lubricating oil.

The platform at Newhaven and the dock for the French cross-channel ferries was the same. So we all descended from the carriages and crossed through a shed of customs and passport control to the dock and boat at the ready.

Food aboard was excellent, and lavish compared from that allowed us by ration in war-torn Britain.

This availability of plenty continued in France as if the war had never been.

Most of our passengers disembarked immediately on arrival in the centre of Dieppe, should the crane driver, putting the gangway in place, be sober or not at lunch. The French train would be waiting to take the majority on to Paris. I walked for five minutes to reach my hotel.

To enjoy Dieppe it is best to be a little aware of its history.

When the Vikings arrived they found a gap between high cliffs with the land behind guarded by an enormous barrier of round stones. Through these stones, draining the hinterland, flowed the fast Arques river, navigable with difficulty, except at high tide.

Behind the stones was a quiet haven where their ships could be pulled ashore, mended and provisioned. No doubt a bit of rape and pillage took place, but they, like us today, were customers for the local produce, which must have been sold on market days as it has been ever since.

In the 14th century, a fine castle was built on the cliff at one side of the pebbled shore. The structure remains more or less intact today.

In 1694, the town was razed to the ground by a combined fleet of English and Dutch men-of-war - though no one seems to record just why.

Dieppe then became one of the busiest and largest ports in France, with a fishing fleet, mainly for shellfish, and docks for the import of goods, especially African fruit and vegetables.

In Edwardian days, when seabathing had become popular (it had actually started in the late 1820s), it was the pleasure place of kings and queens, then artists.

The Germans fortified Dieppe in the war and, in 1942, slaughtered a mainly Canadian force from the gun emplacements that are still there to be seen.

The town with its inhabitants recovered quickly from the war and, as a gateway to Paris, it bacame the Dieppe that I visited and have revisited many times since.

Dieppe is a seaside town (with sand only seen at the lowest of tides) that has remained essentially the same over the last 50 or so years - the main changes being the destruction of concrete sheds used as a station, to be replaced by a wide vista of polished granite and stainless steel at the quay for a marina of boats large and small.

The ferry, now a car ferry, docks in the outer harbour, so that to reach the town it is now a five minute drive instead of a few minutes walk.

And one side of the harbour entrance has been extended out to sea, making a sort of pier.

In Part 2, I will describe the town and its food, then its people.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Recipe 1

As the author of two cookery books, I am sometimes asked for a quick and simple recipe that can be cooked on the stove that produces a delicious result. I sometimes offer CHICKEN AND LEMON RICE.

The dish takes but a few minutes to prepare, uses leftover chicken and can be made well before needed. And it only takes 20 minutes to cook.

Chicken and lemon rice has the great advantage of being cooked on the stove during the first course when family or guests have come to the table.

You will need: chicken pieces (leftover, or cooked for 15 minutes in water that will become part of the stock needed), stock, rice, a lemon, onions (and garlic if wanted), olive oil, pepper and salt.

In a saucepan cook finely chopped up onions and garlic in olive oil until they are just turning brown.

On them pour a measure of rice (cup, mug, half pint measure, or other container) over the onion and stir for a further minute or so. Turn off the heat if you are to serve the dish sometime later.

Add pepper and salt, the grated rind from a lemon, and half its juice.

Now add chicken pieces and twice the rice volume of stock (i.e. two measures). The stock can be made of a stock cube dissolved in hot water.

Right away, or later, bring all to the boil and, turning down the heat, cook it slowly (covered) for 20 minutes. That's it.

The dish is excellent when using peeled prawns instead of chicken. If they are added at the beginning - like the chicken - they will be firm to eat, if added shortly before serving, they will be softer.

Aim for fish stock if making this dish with any kind of seafood, though, using a beef or chicken stock cube will do perfectly well.

Use any kind of rice.