One of the incentives to walking in Provence is the prospect of finding goodies along the way, a handful of rocket leaves to jazz up a salad, say, or white mulberries from the trees whose leaves once provided sustenance to insatiable silk worms, the basis of many people’s livelihoods here in the late nineteenth century. With summer come more substantial pickings, wild pears and figs and, later on, plums.
A recent discovery was a stray damson tree which we re-visited two or three times. Some of the plums we ate as they were, some got popped into jam pots after fast boiling with sugar, and some got baked as follows, according to Elizabeth David’s recommendations in French Provincial Cooking.
The fruit doesn’t need to be ripe: the amount of sugar can be increased if necessary, along with the cooking time.
To have vanilla sugar to hand, simply keep some sugar in a jar with a vanilla pod. The latter will perform for years and provide a much more subtle perfume than vanilla essence.
Kirsch can apparently replace 2–3 tbsp of water quite successfully (any comments on this would be interesting).
• 1 kg plums of any type
• 4½–6 tbsp vanilla sugar or sugar + a vanilla pod
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 3/170°C.
Wash the fruit and make an incision in each one along the natural divide.
Arrange in a pyramid in a baking dish, says Elizabeth David, but it works perfectly well with the fruit quite tightly packed in a single layer.
Sprinkle with up to 6 tbsp sugar, depending on the fruit, and up to 5 tbsp water (less if very ripe plums) or water and kirsch.
Bake until fruit is soft but has not lost it shape, 30 min – 1 h, and serve hot or at room temperature, in which case a sorbet goes well.
Fish in the Mediterranean is not plentiful, lots of minnows and small fry, respectable-sized grey mullet at some times of year, and notoriously over-fished tuna. However, you can almost always buy, and apparently without a guilty conscience, coley (lieu noir) or pollack (lieu jaune). When British fishmongers’ slabs buckled under the weight of catches, coley and pollack were somewhat despised, the former being known as cat fish. Nowadays they are still around but better appreciated: supermarkets promote them, and they are used for fish & chips in place of cod.
Both have an agreeable texture and taste and provide steaks and fillets of useful proportions, hence great versatility. Fish and potatoes have no need to prove themselves as a winning combination but this recipe for the two baked together has several virtues: it is easy, quick to prepare (though needs a bit of time in the oven), delicious while not demanding many ingredients, and can provide left-overs (they sound more elegant in French – les restes) that make for delightful fishcakes.
The main recipe is as follows:
Baked fish and (new) potatoes
- 400–500 g (new) potatoes
- 2–3 cloves of garlic
- 1–2 sprigs of rosemary
- 1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 400 g fish fillets (e.g. coley or pollack or other white fish)
- ½–1 preserved lemon (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7/220°C.
Scrape or peel the potatoes and cut them into small wedges. Spread these over an oiled ovenproof dish and lightly coat with further olive oil. Add the garlic cloves, peeled but whole, half the rosemary, the fennel seeds, if included, and salt and pepper.
Bake, uncovered, in the centre of the hot oven for 25–30 min, turning the potato over a few times. Now turn the oven down to gas mark 5/190°C and place the fish on top of the potato. Season it with the remaining rosemary, more salt and pepper, and, highly recommended if you can get it, preserved lemon, chopped small. Splash a little oil over the fish, and the potato if necessary. Cook for about 20 min, depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve from the dish. Baked tomatoes go well and can be cooked at the same time as the fish (see Olive Oil, Garlic & Parsley – the book).
For fishcakes next day:
Mash whatever is left over and, if there is not quite enough, boil and add some potatoes. Optionally, half to a whole chopped onion can be worked in as a further binder and enlivener of flavour.
Flouring your hands liberally, press two to three tablespoons’ worth of the mixture into a round flat firm evenly dusted cake, flour your hands again and repeat. Alternatively you can work them together with spatulas.
Brown the fishcakes in hot olive oil, making sure they don’t stick to the pan or you’ll lose the crispy coating that will form.
Serve straightaway, possibly with a sauce rouille and a crunchy salad, green beans with bacon, say, or vegetable, such as carrots with capers (see Olive Oil, Garlic & Parsley – the book).