Culinary swings and roundabouts

by Simone Sekers

food-simonecherbourgWE’ve just had a swift shot of French life – 24 hours in Cherbourg via the fast ferry from Poole – which reminded me of just how traditional France still is. We stayed in the charming Hotel Régence overlooking the old port, way up under the roof, no lift to help our ageing knees up the twisting staircase, and those light switches which last just long enough to trip you up on the last stair by plunging you in darkness. The staff were charming, the breakfast terrific. Who wants a boutique hotel when you can have all that?

The men went wine-buying, the girls toured the markets, the cars returned loaded with cheap summer drinking, satisfactorily smelly cheeses, the new season’s garlic and we were home in time for a proper cup of tea the following day.

But this time we ate well too, which hadn’t been the case on several previous trips. The brasserie we happened upon for lunch served us homemade terrine de lapin, cod fillets with a creamy lemon sauce and a pile of whitest fluffiest rice, and apple clafoutis. Not haute cuisine but cuisine soignée. Dinner that night was more adventurous – a thai soup, pigeon roasted with dates and balsamic vinegar, touches of the far east coming in everywhere, as so often in this country now too.

Where we differ from France is that we veer wildly from traditional cooking (rare roast beef) to modish slow braised ox cheeks. What happened to the bloody slices of lamb that our fashionable friends insisted was what they had enjoyed in France? I’ve never liked the fact that my roast potatoes turned soggy in the oozing blood – the French got round this by serving their underdone gigot with haricot beans, which were fairly soggy in the first place. Now we have slow roast everything, lamb and pork especially; delicious, and a very good way of dealing with cheap joints, and excellent with crisply roasted potatoes. Have the French embraced this new method of cooking their sacrosanct leg of lamb? I’m not so sure. But they did offer us plenty of vegetables during our short stay, which they never used to, and those vegetables were all beautifully and accurately cooked.

We are less good on the accurate cooking. Taking friends to eat in Hauser & Wirth’s terrific Roth’s Bar & Grill this week, I opted for a plate of their various salads, having seen them being prepared. A familiar taste and texture emerged from the broccoli variant, that of charred, raw greenery. What did it remind me of? The campfire cookery we children attempted during the school holidays, when nothing was ever completely cooked (how did we survive those sausages?)

So the slow roasting method is now fashionable when applied to lamb and pork but not when applied to vegetables unless they are roots, it seems. But green veg needs proper and sensitive cooking and timing and it never seems to be a good idea to char grill a lump of raw broccoli. By the time it is charred it is also still raw, and has failed to develop its delicious broccoli flavour.

My friend Anna del Conte, whose books on Italian cooking have been my bibles for many years, is adamant about cooking vegetables until they are tender and fragrant (her recipe for broccoli stewed with olive oil and garlic is one of my favourite dishes).

Microwaving asparagus until it is hot but still crunchy is not a good way of getting the magical flavour out of this miraculous vegetable. I like to roast our home grown crop in the oven with olive oil and a good sprinkle of salt, until each spear is limp and tender and lightly browned. That’s one thing I wouldn’t swap with France. We bought some of the blanched white asparagus back with us and tried to find out what the French love about it. We failed. We still do asparagus better than anyone – as long as it’s properly cooked. SS

Pictured: Part of the old harbour front at Cherbourg and new season’s West Country asparagus.