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If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.
Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.
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As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.
Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.
At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.
And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.
Octopus salad with oil and lemon
“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”
Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?
The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.
Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune
The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).
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Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”
Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.
Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.
Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.
Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts
Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
2 beef or veal marrow bones
4 slices of white bread
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.
2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.
3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.
4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.
Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts
This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
2 ounces butter
8 large open-cap mushrooms
Salt to taste
8 tablespoons thick cream
1 teaspoon English mustard
White pepper to taste
Bread rounds for serving
1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.
2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.
3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.
4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.
5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.
The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)
The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours
Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish
1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed
1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff
Grated parmesan for dusting
1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.
2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.
3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.
4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins
High in the hills of Provence, France, in early summer, far from the crowds of the Cote d’Azur, when the lavender fields are in bloom and the mountains are fragrant with rosemary and thyme, the markets of the Vaucluse are filled with the products of the region. No one is more proud of their regional cooking than people in the communities of la France profonde — deep rural France. Even the huge hypermarkets are obliged to carry local produce and give space to local growers.
The villages, on the other hand, have been steadily depopulating since the end of World War II. In the 1990s, when I spent a full school year in the region with my family of four children, only the larger towns had any hope of filling classrooms.
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Life is hard up in the mountains. Shepherding and subsistence farming were the old ways, and the children of the war years had no desire to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Thereafter, the drift to the towns appeared unstoppable until the arrival of les soixante-huitants, the 68ers, a wave of young escapees from the university cities, particularly Paris, after the brutal suppression of the student uprisings of 1968.
In Provence, small towns populated by those escaping city life
The young who fought the tear gas of former French President Charles de Gaulle’s riot police with Molotov cocktails retreated to the old communist strongholds — centers of resistance under German occupation — escaping from joblessness (then as now) and the demands of the consumer society. By the 1990s, a new age of disillusionment brought a fresh crop of escapees to join the teenage children of the original good-lifers.
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Village schools reopened, area cafes reclaimed their clientele and young farming families began to replant the old subsistence crops and revive traditional crafts. Among these second-wave escapees was the redoubtable Annie Pacaut, innkeeper at Savoillans in the valley du Toulourenc, who collected old farmhouse recipes and acquired a local following for cuisine grandmere, hearty dishes served without pretension and not a Michelin star in sight. Under Pacaut’s patronage, the village acquired an artisan baker using locally milled flour and a butcher specializing in regional charcuterie.
Her menu was strictly du jour, and she was open Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday for lunch. Main courses were either milk-fed kid with an almond-thickened sauce or shoulder of one of the small mountain lambs braised with epeautre, or spelt, an ancient strain of wheat that appreciates altitude and poor soil.
The hors d’oeuvre was a rough-textured pate-de-campagne with homegrown radishes and home-pickled cornichons. Wine and water came in jugs, and the cheese course was equally unpretentious: a hank of salad (endive or frisée) dressed with local olive oil and vinegar topped with a little disk of goat cheese on a round of toast blistered under the grill. Should you wish for dessert, the baker could oblige (if it wasn’t too late) with a buttery chausson de pommes — apple turnover — and you might care to pass by the butcher on the way home for his air-cured saucisson, a cured sausage, or a second helping of paté.
Roast Kid or Lamb With Almond Sauce
Annie Pacaut’s recipe is for a whole milk-fed kid to serve 30, so I have adapted it for leg of lamb, a lean meat that works well with a rich sauce. Serve with plenty of bread for mopping.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds (1 kilogram) leg of lamb, chopped in thick steaks across the bone
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces (200 grams) whole, unblanched almonds
1 whole garlic head, cloves separated but unskinned
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Check over the lamb steaks and trim off any gristle.
2. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy casserole. Toast the almonds in the hot oil, remove and reserve.
3. Add the rest of the oil, reheat and fry the meat until it browns a little. Add the garlic cloves, parsley and wine and bubble to evaporate the alcohol.
4. Add the water and bubble up again.
5. Turn down the heat, cover and leave to simmer very gently for about 1½ hours, until the meat is tender enough to eat with a fork. (You may need to add a splash of boiling water if it looks like it is drying out.) You can also cook it in a low oven — 275 F (140 C or Gas 2) — for about 1½ hours.
6. When the meat is perfectly tender, pound the reserved almonds to a paste, dilute with a little of the lamb juices and stir the mixture back into the sauce to thicken it.
Peppered Lamb Shoulder With Spelt
Pearl barley is a possible substitute for the hard-grain spelt, Pacaut says. The secret to the flavor is an unreasonable amount of white pepper — white peppercorns are fierier though less aromatic than black. The result should be as hot as chili sauce.
Serves 4 to 6
1 small bone-in lamb shoulder
8 ounces (250 grams) spelt or barley grains
2 pounds (1 kilogram) fresh or canned tomatoes
12 garlic cloves
2 ounces (50 grams) unsalted butter
2 to 3 heaping tablespoons ground white pepper
1. Wipe the meat and rinse the grains through cold water, leaving them damp.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
3. Spread the tomatoes (skinned and roughly chopped if fresh) in a roomy roasting tin. Settle the lamb joint on top, and spoon the grains over the tomatoes.
4. Sprinkle with the garlic cloves, and drop a knob of butter in each corner.
5. Pour a glass of water over the grains to ensure they have enough liquid to swell.
6. Dust the meat with the pepper. Cover tightly with foil so the steam doesn’t escape.
7. Roast in the heated oven for half an hour, then prick the meat so the juices run and add more boiling water if the grains are beginning to dry out. Replace the foil, reduce the oven heat to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4) for 1½ to 2½ hours, depending on the size of the shoulder, until the meat is so tender it can be pulled apart with a fork.
Main illustration: Green almonds. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.
No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.
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All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.
Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme
And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.
As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.
Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring
Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.
Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded
Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chives, chopped
Small bunch dill, chopped
8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops
1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs
For the sauce:
1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber
1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.
2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.
3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
4. Shell and chop the eggs.
5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.
Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)
Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)
1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)
2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)
1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.
2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.
3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.
4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).
Bavarian Chervil Soup
Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded
Salt and pepper
1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.
2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.
3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.
4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.
5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.
6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.
7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.
Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.
Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.
Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.
Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence
In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.
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Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.
Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem, neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.
There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.
The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.
“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”
Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)
A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers.
Serves 4 as a main dish
1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
2 mature carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, washed and chopped
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 or 2 bay leaves
¼ cup olive oil
A dozen peppercorns, crushed
Salt to taste
2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese
1. Drain the chickpeas.
2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.
3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.
4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.
5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.
6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.
Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), was the start in Britain of a short period of carnival preceding the 40 days of the pre-Easter fast — abstention from good things including meat, eggs and butter.
As with carnival traditions everywhere, the festival traditionally was marked by egg games — some versions of which are still to be found as municipal events, particularly in the north of England — and involved competitive rituals and the license to behave badly by young people who had not yet acquired families of their own. Medieval market towns, ever on the lookout for trade, took the opportunity to throw rowdy entertainments such as greasing the pig, egg rolling, cockfighting, dancing on the village green, pancake feasts and general indulgence in as much socially unsuitable behavior as the community was prepared to tolerate. Sometimes the festival took the form of pelting rival gangs with raw eggs and flour bags, and there is mention in Victorian accounts of license granted to choirboys to chuck eggs at senior members of the clergy.
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Similar traditions still exist in the lands of the Mediterranean, where Shrove Tuesday’s specialties were — and sometimes still are — prepared by children and young people, those who do not normally cook, so the recipes had to be simple, and the ingredients, just to add to the general anarchy, had to be begged, borrowed or stolen.
As recently as the 1970s, my own four young children took part in just such a Shrove Tuesday ritual in Languedoc in southern France, disappearing with classmates for the whole day and well into the evening. Afterward they were very mysterious about what they had been up to, and it was not until several years later that they told me they had all gone around the village pinching supplies from unattended larders. Then they sneaked off to an isolated barn and cooked up a gigantic omelet in a huge iron pan. After the omelet had been torn up and eaten (no plates, knives or forks permitted), the event developed into wild, unruly games. And that was as much as they were prepared to explain.
Shrove Tuesday Omelet
This is really a fat egg pancake cooked up with bacon and fortified with potato and onion, though these can be omitted if unobtainable from the larder.
Serves 4 to 6
About 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large mild onion, finely sliced
2 to 3 cooked potatoes (about 1 pound), diced
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a roomy frying pan or skillet, fry the bacon gently till the fat runs.
2. Add the butter and onion and fry until soft and golden but not browned.
3. Add the diced potato and let it feel the heat.
4. Fork the eggs together to blend. When the potatoes are ready, pour the eggs over and around them.
5. Stir over a gentle heat till most of the egg is set, then stop stirring and let the omelet brown a little on the base.
6. Serve in its pan, without turning it out.
Languedoc and Provence, France, like omelets cooked in the Spanish way, as a fat, juicy egg cake set in olive oil rather than the soft, rolled butter-cooked omelet of northern France. Only the leaves of chard are used — the stalks are too juicy and would make the omelets gray and damp as they cool to the right temperature for eating.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks to cook like asparagus)
4 ounces strong cheese (such as Cantal, Gruyère, Emmental, cheddar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous handful of chervil or flat-leaf parsley, amounting to 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons when chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash and dry the chard leaves and slice finely.
2. Grate the cheese and beat it into the eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Chop the herbs and then mix them in with the eggs.
4. Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a roomy frying pan or skillet. Stir in the chard leaves and turn them quickly in the oil till they wilt. (Don’t allow the greens to burn or they will taste bitter.)
5. Tip the contents of the pan into the eggs and stir all together.
6. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. When it is quite hot but not burning, pour in the egg-chard mixture. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat until the eggs are set — 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.
7. Turn the now-firm pancake out, reversing it as you do so the cooked side is uppermost, onto a plate. Slide it gently back into the hot pan (add a trickle more oil if necessary) and finish cooking uncovered on the other side — allow another 5 to 8 minutes. Notice that the cooking is very gentle, which is the style of an omelet in Languedoc and Provence, where culinary habits are closer to those of Catalonia, Spain.
Top illustration: A woman feeding hens. Credit: Elisabeth Luard