Today’s blog gets passionate about tomatoes and a Michelin chef.
It’s tomato time in France; kilos and kilos of the delicious fruit are appearing in gardens and on market stalls. They always remind me of an interview I did many years ago in Toulouse with Michelin chef, Lucien Vanel, for a paper I was writing as part of a university course on French culture. The experience left me as exhilarated as if I’d knocked back half a bottle of champagne.
There’s a great picture of him on the site set up in his honour in 2008, which awards an annual prize (below).
He was a man of passion. ‘To step into the dining room of my restaurant, to see people enjoying themselves, appreciating the food – ‘je suis aux anges,’ he told me in that long-ago interview. ‘I’m in heaven. Cooking is my life. I don’t want to appear narrow-minded (un esprit borné) but I freely confess to preferring the music of my saucepans to that of a great orchestra.’
He was an animated talker, jumping out of his chair and waving his arms about, and his enthusiasm and exuberance were mesmerising, even when he was describing the hard work demanded by his metier. For himself and his team of three apprentices, the day started early and finished late, with a short break in the afternoon. He was up each morning at 4h 30 to visit the famous Marché Victor Hugo, prowling round the stalls, checking out the produce, mentally working out his menus before placing his orders. The true spirit of ‘la cuisine du marché’ – first select your ingredients, fresh from the market, then decide how to cook them.
Was he one of the chefs putting la nouvelle cuisine on the map? He embraced their ethic of simple, healthy dishes without heavy sauces, he told me, ‘but -don’t expect me to banish butter from my kitchen.’ He talked a lot about ‘l’art culinaire’, the art of cuisine; in his kitchen he would experiment, try out new combinations, expand his horizons. I was intrigued by his library of cookery books which contained not just the latest recipes from talented new chefs, but went back 300 years to the original ‘masters’. His greatest pleasure, he told me, quoting Brillat-Savarin, was to welcome guests in a fitting manner: ‘Convier quelqu’un, c’est de se charger de son bonheur tout le temps qu’il est sous votre toit.’ (‘To invite someone for a meal means being responsible for their happiness as long as they are under your roof’ – an apt definition of ‘hospitality’.)
‘What do you do when you’re not working?’ I asked.
‘Then,’ he smiled, ‘I like to be the guest. I like to be invited by good friends, who have prepared one perfect dish…’
He pointed at me.
‘Ecoutez- moi bien – (listen carefully), when you invite me to your house, I would like you to make me a tomato salad. But! The tomatoes must be perfectly ripe, perfectly red, skinned and de-seeded; the hard boiled eggs for the garnish must be perfectly cooked – the yolks must remain ‘moelleux’ (slightly runny), the dressing subtle, but flavoursome. Then I’ll be a happy man.’
This wonderful chef and genial personality died in 2010. If you fancy entering the competition in his honour 🙂 be warned – in 2018/2019, 130 restaurants, 15 hotels and 9 cocktail bars took part in the ‘olympiade gourmande’.
When I was creating the character of Madame Martin in the French Summer Novels, I had Lucien Vanel in mind. The housekeeper of Villa Julia – Thérèse Intxausti Martin, to give her her full name – is a formidable lady who has been running things for the Etcheverria family for years. She’s seen two generations grow up; and is respectfully considered as the true Mistress of the Kitchen, (if not of the entire house- don’t leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor!) In Biarritz-Villa Julia, the final book of the series, her famous tomato salad is the subject of a clash of wills between herself and a newly-arrived guest, Hibiscus (‘call me Hibby’) who is one of those people who has no boundaries and firmly believes her way of doing things is the only way. (Don’t we all know one ?)
Read on for wooden spoons at dawn…
Chapter 7 The Mistress of the Kitchen
‘Do you happen to have any honey, chère madame? Honey? You know, bees?’
Caroline stepped into the kitchen just in time to see Hibby stand on tiptoe and start to zigzag round the table, flapping the sleeves of her purple kimono and making a loud buzzing sound.
Madame Martin was backed up against the sink clutching a wooden spoon.
Hibby stopped in mid-flight, a look of relief on her face
‘Yippee! The cavalry arrives in the nick of time! I’ve been trying out my French on poor chère Madame here. But I’m a bit rusty!’
In the middle of the kitchen table stood a large platter of Madame Martin’s famous egg and tomato salad.
On Caroline’s first visit to Biarritz she’d spent many a happy moment in the kitchen, absorbing the culinary knowhow of Villa Julia’s long-time housekeeper/chef. Her cooking was deceptively simple, limited to a relatively few dishes, but always, unfailingly, sublime. Madame Martin knew every stallholder in the market, had an unerring eye for the best cuts of meat and the freshest fish, and the happy residents of the villa were treated to the overflow from the kitchen garden she oversaw at her own house, tended by her husband, Pierre.
‘Seven minutes precisely,’ she had told Caroline, stripping the shells off the hard-boiled eggs and slicing them, revealing golden yolks perfectly poised between firm and runny. ‘And the tomatoes must always be peeled, even in summer, even though they have just come off the vine.’
The alternating rows of egg and tomato would be arranged artistically on a platter in an overlapping pattern. Just before serving, Madame Martin would pour over her thick, glistening vinaigrette. The simple starter was a perennial favourite, with everyone cutting extra chunks of crusty baguette to mop up the last of the vinaigrette, tomato juice and bits of yellow yolk.
‘I was trying to be a model guest, make myself useful and give a hand with lunch. Donner une main, chère madame?’
Hibby notched up her voice a couple of decibels, articulating each syllable so as to get the message across to chère Madame whose French, she was surprised to find, sounded a bit funny, probably the local accent.
She opened the door to one of the cupboards.
‘Yes! Found it! Tada! Miel de lavande.’
She grabbed the pot with the little bee on the label and advanced on the salad.
‘Lavender honey. Perfect. Just a touch in the vinaigrette to take away the bitterness.’
Madame Martin gave a jerk as though someone had stuck a pin in her.
‘Ah non, Madame! Non non non non non!’
With cheetah-like speed Madame Martin sprang from her refuge near the sink and landed next to the table, interspersing herself between Hibby and the bowl of vinaigrette. Her wooden spoon was raised.
Hibby took a step back. Caroline took a step forward.
‘OK, c’est bon, Madame Martin! Tout va bien!’
She reached out to remove the offending jar from Hibby’s clutch, smiling encouragingly at Madame Martin on one side and Hibby on the other, her head bobbing between the two like a nodding dog in a car window.
‘Sorry Hibby, er, we don’t put honey in the vinaigrette, er, it’s Madame Martin’s special recipe, we never interfere, sorry, I know you were just trying to be useful…’
Hibby, crestfallen, peered out from underneath her orange fringe.
‘Oh dear, I do apologise. I just wanted to help, you know? Je suis désolée chère Madame !’
The Mistress of the Kitchen, still bristling, gave a small nod, took the jar from Caroline and sidled over to the cupboard, her eyes never leaving Hibby. She opened the door wide and stood back.
‘Pe-tit-dé-jeu-ner,’ she said, employing the same syllable-hammering technique as Hibby. ‘Brekkfust!’
She placed the honey next to other jars, an array of home-made jams, all neatly labelled. Apricot, strawberry, mirabelle.
‘Brekkfust!’ she repeated. ‘For put on ze bread, for put on ze yaourt. Yes! Good! For put on tomatoes–’ she sucked in a deep breath–‘Nevvair!!’
Having exhausted her linguistic skills, Madame Martin sagged, turned to Caroline and fell back on the exquisite language of Racine and Moliere.
‘Mademoiselle Caroline, please explain that in French cuisine a vinaigrette is made with olive oil and red wine vinegar. As you know, I use a little mustard–Dijon–to thicken, but that is all. It is however permissible to dribble a judicious amount of honey–’ she stressed the word–‘over a sharp goat’s cheese baked in the oven and served with a crisp green salad. Dressed with a vinaigrette. Not something I care for myself, but allowed, under the rules of la nouvelle cuisine.’
Caroline led a deflated Hibby out of the kitchen.
‘Right Hibiscus, Hibby, why not sit outdoors and relax while I bring you a nice cup of coffee?’
‘So sweet of you, Caroline. As I said, I was only trying to help. Now just let me check I understood back there, no sugar either? In the vinaigrette?’
Hibby’s voice floated into the kitchen. Madame Martin’s eyebrows went up. Sugar? Du sucre dans une vinaigrette? She would have to have a word with Mademoiselle Claudie, take her on one side, warn her what to expect if she got married to Pete and this woman became her mother-in-law. Claudie was becoming a top-class chef, a natural. Plus she knew all about nutrition and these new techniques, molecular-whatever, personally Madame Martin was not yet convinced that chocolate and caviar were a happy marriage, but that was beside the point. The point was that on no account must Claudie allow that woman into her kitchen. She could turn her back for a minute and when she turned round again her mushroom vols-au-vent would have icing sugar and candles on. How was it possible that Monsieur Pete, such a lovely person and such an astonishing chef, had grown up with a mother who put honey on her tomatoes and sugar in her vinaigrette? Maybe that was why he’d gone in for pâtisserie…
The French Summer Novels are all free to read with the Kindle Unlimited scheme on Amazon.
Bonne lecture, bon weekend, bon appétit – and don’t put sugar in the vinaigrette !