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.

 

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.