my first guest blog: a taste of provence, english style
I should perhaps introduce myself. I’m English and have lived in the Luberon in Provence since 1990. I used to blog but I don’t at the moment.
It's not easy being English when dealing with the French and food. They are completely convinced of the superiority of all things French, but most of all French food. They also hold an irrefutable belief; that the English know nothing about food and that all English food is inedible. Twenty four years ago, when I first invited French friends for dinner, jokes were made along the lines that perhaps they should eat first, before coming. Now they ring to tell me they are only having a light lunch so that they're suitably hungry for dinner. Less insulting.
One four year old friend of my Daughter's wouldn't come to lunch because (his mother explained) he had seen carrot sticks in her break box at school and he was worried he might have to eat them too. No amount of explaining that the raw grated carrots he ate once a week as part of his school lunch were the same would convince him. For a long time, I was the wicked English witch - potentially capable of killing meat twice (once at the abattoir and once with the cooking) and then covering it with those dreaded accompaniments 'gelée de groseilles' (redcurrant jelly) and 'sauce à la menthe'. Or possibly serving 'le pudding' (by which they mean Christmas pudding). The French are obsessively repelled by the idea of a boiled fruit pudding with beef fat in it (although described like that, I do see their point) and shudder exaggeratedly at the thought.
Primary school cake sales to raise money for the annual skiing trip were a different matter. The average Provençal housewife does not 'bake' in the way English or Americans do. The range of homemade desserts is limited and for Sunday lunch or birthdays she is more likely to go to her favourite patisserie and buy a cake or tart. Tea as a meal doesn't exist and so there isn't such a varied repertoire of homemade cakes and biscuits. My first offerings were regarded with deep suspicion: 'What's that? Is it English?' but, gradually, my cakes were awaited with impatience and often sold whole in advance of my even getting there. I didn't make anything complicated, it was just different; traditional Victoria sponges sandwiched with strawberry jam, all-in-one coffee sponges sandwiched with strong coffee butter cream and topped with walnuts, slices of cake stuffed with currants, sprinkled with flaked almonds and drizzled with lemon icing, a cherry and almond cake, and so on. Grudging congratulations and furtive requests for recipes followed. The headmaster even admitted (through the crumbs of a large chocolate chip cookie) that maybe not all the English deserved such a bad reputation in the kitchen. A breakthrough!
For five years I had an affair with a greedy Frenchman. Also fundamentally persuaded of French superiority in matters of food, he always found it unbelievably difficult to grasp the fact that I could cook even though I was English. After months and months of eating my food he still continued to stick his fork into whatever I'd cooked, hold up the mouthful for inspection and ask suspiciously 'What is it?' After establishing the principal ingredients he would put it tentatively in his mouth, chew, shut his eyes and say in a surprised tone 'Mmm! c'est bon!', he would then open his eyes and quickly take another mouthful and, with even more surprise, 'Mais, c'est très bon!'. Only after this irritating charade had been played out could we settle down to eat.
Anyway, all that to pass on this recipe which one of my older French friends (a retired Ambassador in his eighties) says is the best almond tart he’s ever eaten. It’s easy to make, keeps well (should there be any left overs) and is as good on its own as it is accompanied by strawberries or a good vanilla ice cream. Personally, I prefer it unadorned. Bon appétit !
You can find out more about Ailie here :
serves 8 but keeps well.
short crust pastry tart base (27cm) baked blind (175g flour, 2tbs water, 75g butter & 25g lard – or 100g butter)
125g flaked almonds
good pinch of fleur de sel de Camargue (optional) or use salty butter
100g caster sugar
1 tbs honey
Heat the oven to 175°C
Melt the butter then add the sugar and honey and blend them while stirring. Add the salt. They should be blended together and the sugar should be fully melted, but don’t over cook, it should be pale gold (yellow) in colour, not brown. The mixture should be homogenous.
Pour the mixture into pastry base and spread it out evenly. Scatter the almonds evenly over the whole surface. Put in oven. Check after about 12-13 mins to make sure it’s not too brown. Cooking time about 20mins. Keep checking. The almonds should be very pale gold in colour. (Don’t overcook at this point or you will endanger your teeth!)
Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature. Good with fruit and/or vanilla ice cream. Can be made the day before.