Quel Outrage!

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The best of summer requires so little in the way of human intervention on its way to the plate that it often seems, by the end of the season, as if I have almost forgotten how to cook. Tomatoes fall apart under the knife, providing their own dressing to soak into yesterday’s bread; slices of cured fish nestle just-so against piles of freshly-picked herbs; torn pieces of greengage and peach drip down the chin and onto the wrist. I’ve gone for months barely chopping an onion – I’m not ready for the endless peeling and dicing of squashes, roots, tubers and stalks, the slow building of flavour through sweating, stirring and braising.

Although the weather still thinks it’s high summer, however, the garden disagrees, and this time of year demands that you at least show willing, perhaps heating a few things together, boiling this, toasting that, moving slowly back from assembling towards cooking; it helps, in this situation, to have a well-stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer. It’s amazing what you can throw together when you’ve spent the last few months squirrelling things away. If you don’t spend your entire life in either a professional or amateur kitchen, then this recipe will take a little more time – in fact, it will become a whole series of recipes. All of them are worth making, though. Sit down with a bowl of this and a glass of rosé and you will have successfully extended summer by another hour.

FERMENTED TOMATO BOUILLABAISSE

To serve 4, or thereabouts

around 2.5 l of good fish stock

8 fermented tomatoes, plus 250ml of their brine

1 tbsp tomato puree

a long splash of absinthe or pernod

a small wine glass of good olive oil

some fish

Basically, you just put all of these things in a pan and boil them, hard. This is to force by violence the oil to emulsify with the other liquids, and is probably the only fish soup to require this treatment. You want to reduce the whole by about half.

I suppose the fish stock is the thing here. Any Marseillaise or probably any other Frenchman, and certainly anyone who has read Elizabeth David, will tell you that it is impossible to make a bouillabaisse outside of that fair port. The variety of fish is key, this soup originally being composed of the tiddlers too small to go to market; the only essential, we’re told, is that is contains scorpion fish, a peculiarly ugly creature which lends, I believe, a certain gelatinous quality to the broth.

To all this I offer an elaborate Gallic shrug. If the real thing is impossible to make, then so be it; we can do as we like. My stock was made with lobster carapaces (although I didn’t, it is quite fun, when making soup, to smash these up with a thumping pole) and cod cheek trimmings, along with several branches of flowering fennel and of sweet cicely. The cartilaginous frames of the various rays do very well in a stock, replacing, perhaps, the aforementioned horror; fishmongers, who normally sell the wings alone, often have several of these quasi-skeletons knocking around in their freezer. The carcasses of whatever fish you intend to use should probably go in, unless they are sardines, herrings or mackerel. What the hell are you doing, putting pelagic fish in a bouillabaisse? Salmon heads, on the other hand, turn the whole a rather lovely shade of coral. At this stage, you don’t want to boil your stock, and neither do you want to cook it for long – a gentle simmer for twenty minutes or so should do nicely.

That’s that, then. The fish depends on how much of a meal you intend to make of it – perhaps a fillet or two of white fish per person, a handful of mussels or clams, whatever. You have already offended the proud Provençal, you might as well carry on. Stick a whole bloody crab in it.

Oh, and you’ll need aioli, rouille, croutons and cheese. Carry on.

 

Just a Snicket

“Toasted cheese”, moans Ben Gunn, marooned in a lonely paradise; of all the trappings of his lost past, it is this that he craves the most. I, too, have been a stranger in strange lands, and I have always longed for cheddar cheese. Ubiquitous across Britain, synonymous, in fact, with the very idea of British cheese (imagine ordering a cheese-and-pickle sandwich and getting crumbly Wensleydale or aggressive Stilton), a decent or even semi-decent cheddar is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The stuff that some Americans call cheddar would be a joke, if it were funny; as it is, it is horrifying. I spent a year in upstate New York, and though, I think, every single sandwich I ate had cheese in it, not one cheese sandwich did I see. My (vegetarian) father tried to order one once, at a gas station deli somewhere in the Adirondacks, and was met with polite confusion. “Mayo, cheese, yes – what filling would you like?” Your American cheese lacks both the structure and the physical presence to carry a sandwich by itself – with the exception, of course, of the grilled cheese.

The grilled cheese is grilled in the sense that it is cooked directly on a solid flat-top grill, possibly alongside eggs over-easy, fat pancakes and little sliders; that is to say, it is fried. In its platonic form, before the current sourdough-and-raw-cheese reinvention, it consists of cheap sliced white sandwiched around cheap American cheese, the outside buttered or even mayonnaissed and fried or ‘grilled’ until golden brown. The stated ingredients perfectly match the treatment given them; sliced white (I will not call it bread) is of a uniform density which allows for both maximal surface crispness and minimal escapage of the cheese within, which, being so heavily processed, easily melts in the time taken to cook the sandwich. Sourdough is obviously a vast improvement in terms of flavour, but its irregular size and numerous holes present a new set of challenges to the sandwicheer; best, in most cases, to wrap the whole thing in foil and fry within. As for the cheese, I find the hard calcified click of a good cheddar wasted here, unless you happen to have some gratable odds and ends lying around. A classic melting cheese, something like a raclette or ogleshield, seems most appropriate; it is like a reminder of what American cheese could have been.

Personally, I prefer cold cheese; cold cheddar cheese, in malted brown bread. I resist the idea that every sandwich should be toasted – and no-one would argue that all cheese should be fondued. The joy of fresh mountain cheeses, crumbly, soft and sharp, lies partly in their coldness. Like a cucumber, there is something refreshing about their existence, so clean and white. These are also the easiest sorts of cheeses to make at home, which is nice; just sour and salt some milk and drain off the whey – no culture or clamp required. These are ancient things, particular to animal and soil and air; they are born fresh every day, in country, in village and in farm. It would be instructive and, of course, delicious, to do a comparative study of cheese terroir, ranging across all of Anatolia, Greece, Sardinia, Spain, to see the different flavours wrung out of dry slopes and distant seas.

Who could possibly say which is better, a ball of mozzarella cold out of its brine or melted across a scarce few millimetres of dough – the way the former tears into strings, the way the latter pools and glistens? I would rather eat a whole burrata with my hands. In a good pizzeria, I like my dough almost bare, just a few razor-shavings of garlic across the sweet tomato sauce. As the bread gets worse, the toppings pile higher – which isn’t to say I would turn my nose up at pepperoni, hot peppers, olives or even mushrooms, though I draw the line at sweetcorn; that way lies pineapple. To be honest, I have never encountered a pizza or indeed any form of melted-cheese-on-bread that I have truly, viscerally disliked. Even that sliced white grilled cheese, though barely providing sustenance, has a beauty of its own. Nothing else sits so well next to a cup of cream of tomato soup. Still, for all the joy of cheese-on-toast, of Welsh or Italian rarebit, of saganaki and fondue, if you put me on a desert island it is a good strong cheddar, cold from the fridge, that I would cry for in the depths of the night – so long, of course, as there were pickled onions.