French Food In Cheltenham
A. Burchard tracks down French style foods without breaking the bank. crack
Everyone swoons when French food is mentioned but there are a couple of things few people know. Meals to the French are all about socialising, not something to be got over with before going out and drinking with one’s friends. Shopping for ingredients and the anticipation of what it will taste like are part of savouring a meal. I suppose it is a bit like sex, the anticipation of it heightens the senses. So why do the British enjoy food so much when they are in France, but when they return home they revert to chucking boxed factory food into their shopping trolley?
‘’ow long will you be able to stick it out?’ asked Thierry when we first met and he heard I had moved back to the UK from France. He had been working here for five years. I knew he was not referring to the grim, grey weather, but to food. ‘Since I ‘ave bin in England,’ he said, ‘I am ‘maigre comme un clou’ (thin as a nail). ‘It can seem difficult,’ I admitted with some embarrassment, ‘but only if you don’t know where to shop.’ In the UK many people will spend a hundred pounds on clothes, on drink or on their hair, but not on good fish or meat. All too often I hear the word ‘cheap’ as a priority in food shopping. In France, generally, the priorities are reversed – first comes the food, then the rest, which is of course what attracts ‘Les Anglais’. So why can’t one practice the same here? One can and here’s how – without going broke.
There is only one way to prove a Frenchman wrong, I thought to myself – take Thierry shopping with me. The French are careful about ‘la provenance’ (the source of the food), especially with meat and eggs. They want to know where and how a chicken was raised and that it is not full of hormones or antibiotics. Their whole way of eating is very traditional and they have highly strung taste buds.
To cook à la Française Thierry and I needed neither wild mushrooms nor a £300 truffle. One can shop in the regular markets, in the shops on the Bath Road and the supermarkets, but one has to be selective.
Meat and Fish
In the farmers’ markets one can find good quality locally produced meats and fish and you can also order from producers. Their products are not the cheapest, but if we shop on price alone, we encourage the spread of factory farming. A good relationship with a butcher or fishmonger is what every French shopper values above all. Get chummy with your butcher, flirt with him if necessary. Make it clear that you’re after quality, but not necessarily the most expensive cuts - it is in his interest to keep you happy.
Thierry settled for a small organic chicken which had a surprising amount of tasty meat on it.
The ‘organic’ label often serves to bump up the price. Do as the French do, read the labels carefully. Beware of the word ‘free range’ with chickens and eggs. The chicken, being a particularly unintelligent creature, doesn’t like stress and wants to avoid the stampede to reach the outside through a tiny hatch. Chickens stay where they know they’ll get fed – inside the warm building where diseases can spread like wildfire. In the 1970s they were fed fish and bone meal and cheap eggs tasted of fish. The nearest a normal chicken would ever get to eating meat or fish is when it finds the odd worm. Battery hens wouldn’t know a worm if it did the Bossa Nova in front of their very eyes.
‘The best place to go for fish is William’s Kitchen in Nailsworth,’ Thierry had been told. Personally, my work schedules don’t allow me to chase around Gloucestershire for my daily meals. Neither of us was impressed by the fresh fish in the supermarkets, so we went in search of frozen fish. We could have done with roller-blades to skate past endless rows of ready meals. ‘Zere!’ Thierry cried suddenly, pointing to a narrow compartment. ‘Frozen fishe wizout everyssing! Compleetely naked!’
To avoid the excess salts and fats, make your own batter. How hard is it to mix an eggs, flour and a bit of milk with a pinch of salt in a bowl? If really pressed for time roll the frozen fish in seasoned flour and pan fry.
Fruit and Veg
Our first stop was the tiny Thursday vegetable market at the bottom of the High Street, where vegetables are sold loose. Thierry was surprised to get some crisp oak-leaf Rosso lettuce, as well as a head of curly endive or frisée. ‘They’re mostly bought by the ‘posh’ pubs and restaurants, said the stall holder. In the supermarkets tomatoes sport the slogan ‘grown for taste’. What else would a tomato be for? Do books carry labels saying ‘written for reading? Do shoes carry a sticker saying ‘made for putting on feet’? The most absurd label I saw was in Marks & Spencer’s on a packet of carrots. It said : ‘For cooking or salads.’ I don’t know what they thought people do with their carrots, but I don’t think we need to be told that you can cook them. The tastiest large tomatoes on the vine came from Lidl. Thierry planned to cook them whole, with either the flour-coated pan fried fish with dill or with the chicken stuffed with a purée of tarragon soaked in Armagnac. ‘Like zat all the juices are locked in until they’re actually in your mouth,’ he enthused. Next day in the farmers’ market we bought some small, red onions which we turned into a pissaladière (wafer-thin puff pastry and red onion tart).
‘It would be nice if we could grow vegetables?’ Thierry said. Ideally yes, realistically no – not many of us would have the time to get soil under our fingernails and have a full time job. Farmers’ markets are ideal, but there isn’t a proper weekly food market in Cheltenham and supermarkets have extinguished the High Street butchers, bakers and fishmongers. Buy a mixture of green and root vegetables on market days. Eat the green vegetables on the same day and the root vegetables later as they keep longer. In the farmers’ market we also found some crunchy young carrots which had a strong carrot-y smell. Don’t buy vegetables or soft fruit in those tempting, sealed cellophane bags. Do you normally wash your fruit and veg in something very like bleach? Probably not, but these ‘convenience’ vegetables are treated with such products to retard fermentation and mould, and you end up eating the chemicals.
Next we searched for fruit for a typical French apple tart as dessert. Thanks to the supermarkets, many varieties of apples have vanished from the shelves. We were looking for large, sweet apples for our tart, red and yellow in colour with a sweet aroma. Again, Lidl had the best apples. This rather unattractive shop has a large European customer base and much of what they stock comes from central Europe. In the supermarkets we were sniffing bottoms of pineapples and pears like junkies in need of a fix. We attracted the attention of a store manager. ‘Is there something wrong with the fruit?’ he asked as he approached gingerly. ‘Excuse him,’ I apologised in Basil Fawlty mode and pointed at Thierry, ‘he’s from France.’ Luckily, Thierry is not familiar with Fawlty Towers.
In French cooking great flavours in meat, fish and vegetable dishes are achieved in minutes with herbs. Packaged herbs spend too much time in transit to retain their potency. I have successfully grown mint, coriander, flat parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil in one large pot.
If you don’t have any outdoor space, a full size window box will do fine.
Bread, cheese and chocolate
Throughout Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy the variety of bread is staggering. My Frenchman had an unexpected choice of breads at Chaplais and Cheeseworks. The best bread though is sold in Cirencester or in Stroud. It’s worth a trip on Saturdays. You can even get a fairly good sourdough in the French country
style. Buy lots, quarter it and freeze it, then refresh it in a very hot oven for 5-8 minutes.
The British Cheese festival in Cheltenham demonstrated just how much variety there is this side of the Channel. The town was packed with French and Italian enthusiasts. They were amazed to discover so many excellent cheeses. Luckily, both Chaplais and Cheeseworks both offer much on a daily basis. In both shops they will cut as much or as little as you want so there is no reason to buy the sweaty packed varieties.
Good chocolate has been rather harder to find. Chocolate is like coffee – if the base ingredient is low grade, it is very disappointing. After much sampling I found that the best chocolate came from good old ugly Lidl (74% Fin Carré 100g or 70% of the South American varietie, neither of them bitter like Blacks chooclate).
The British are now more familiar with Asian food that with French food. To set you on the road to French flavours there are French restaurants to inspire your cooking. Order the standard traditional dishes or Plat du Jour. The Brasserie Blanc at the side of the Queens Hotel is excellent value and quality with great service at table and always busy at lunchtime. The extremely posh two-Michelin-star Champignon Sauvage which not many can afford, has a waiting list, especially at weekends. In Montpellier there is the Armangnac which I haven’t yet tried. And lastly, I’m not sure I really want to divulge my discovery of the Bistrot Coco in Cambray Place in a basement (opposite Taylors). It opened two months ago and offers authentic French country cooking. From the street it looks like a basement restaurant, but as soon as you are inside there is a wonderful sunny, sophisticated courtyard terrace. ‘In the evening I’,m already always booked out,’ said Marcel Frichot, the owner. More about this very interesting man in an interview.
Last time I bumped into Thierry he said that his new job prevented him from making it to the farmers’ markets during the week. His employer obviously did not understand this starving Frenchman’s food emergencies. I had a vision of a commotion in the market crowd, of a crazed man rushing the queues crying ‘let me pass, I’m a Frenchman!’
So, voilà, Thierry. All your worries are over. With me acting as a personal shopper. Thierry and I meet occasionally and shop, cook and eat till we drop. Aahh! à deux, c’est mieux!