Cook it, live it – Sud de France

Habitat’s creative director Polly Dickens spent her holiday in Languedoc, cooking recipes from Caroline Conran’s book, Sud de France – The food and cooking of Languedoc.

Caroline Conran has written many successful books, from Poor Cook in 1971 to the million-selling Conran Cookbook, as well as ground-breaking translations of French chefs including Michel Guérard. She was cookery editor at The Sunday Times for 13 years. Sud de France – The food and cooking of Languedoc is about Caroline’s love for the region and its simple, earthy cuisine.

It reflects the decades she’s spent there, getting to know the unique ingredients; its chestnuts, sweet onions, Bouzigues mussels and oysters, salt cod, charcuterie, salads of wild plants, the rose-coloured garlic of Lautrec, wild asparagus and local mushrooms. There are descriptions of places where oysters, truffles, chestnuts or calçots – a giant spring onion, eaten roasted on a fire of vine-prunings – are the obsession of everyone in the community. The book has no photography, it’s illustrated by Caroline, with simple black-and-white drawings of food stuffs and ingredients.

She writes… ‘In the Languedoc, being Mediterranean through and through, everyone enjoys life, food is important, town benches, supermarket and market queues and cafés are loud with both men and women discussing this cheese or that way of cooking monkfish. Even tomatoes are a seasonal vegetable. This is how we all used to cook. Gardening here means growing vegetables and fruit; potagers are found at the edge of every village and town, continuously cultivated since Roman times.

Men love hunting and fishing, women love foraging, two pastimes that go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and the children are fed with the resulting rabbits, wild boar, snails, wild leeks and asparagus and, of course, wild mushrooms; thyme and fennel are gathered from the garrigue and the verges, and everywhere grow the vines that make the wine – nearly everyone has relatives working in winemaking, one way or another.

Tenaciously, in Languedoc, succeeding generations have continued to make use of local produce, and have always, sometimes out of poverty, enjoyed wild foods and dishes that contain just a little meat. And, over time, Languedociens have evolved their cuisine, making use of any small fish or sea creatures and what they call the ‘lower cuts’ (cheap cuts and offal) of beef, lamb, pork and poultry, ending up with their matchless fish soups and comforting fricassées and ragoûts. Everything is cooked in olive oil, goose fat or pork dripping, with considerably more than a soupçon of garlic.’

So what did Polly think of the book?

‘Foraging for local ingredients is a passion on holiday for me. We were staying in a lovely gite near Toulouse in the Languedoc region for a fortnight in July. It is possible to visit a different local food market practically every day from here – from the amazing covered market in Toulouse to the small group of stalls in the next door village of Caylus.

I wanted a single book to take with me for extra inspiration and came upon Caroline Conran’s. It makes a great read, preferably from a hammock by the pool, with its mixture of interesting stories and foodie information combined with a plethora of great recipes. Also included are many good cooking tips, including a way of cleaning girolles which involved plunging them into boiling water and gently spinning in a salad spinner which worked beautifully.

I cooked several recipes on warm lazy evenings with much pleasure and a glass of wine in my hand. I’ve continued to use the book since we got home. The Courgette Pancakes are a simple version of this dish but very delicious either by themselves or beside a juicy veal chop from the barbecue. The Long Pimentos with Goats Cheese is another straightforward recipe which tastes much more than the sum of its parts.

I love salt cod in every possible form and cooked a beautiful piece of centre cut fish from Toulouse market Sète style one hot and thundery evening. The result had a wonderfully deep flavour with sweet onion and salty olive highlights. As Caroline says, ‘aioli can nearly finish you off’, but we managed a generous amount of her version in beautiful golden globs with roast monkfish tails. I am still dreaming of great heaps of knobbly fragrant tomatoes, impossibly perfumed strawberries, splendid artichokes and bunches of mauve garlic.’

Sud de France – The food and cooking of Languedoc by Caroline Conran is published by Prospect Books.

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