It’s been a bit of a French week: I’ve been upgrading my French Peugeot car to a newer (not new) version; I’ve been enjoying the re-run of Rick Stein’s Secret France on BBC TV in the evenings; and there was a French market in Twickenham on Sunday and Monday.
I had the eldest grandsons – Freddie (7) and Ben (4) – for a sleepover on Saturday night. As has become a sleepover tradition at Nonna’s, on Sunday morning we made our way to Gail’s in Church Street for pastries, babyccinos and a coffee for Nonna. After that, we headed down to the other end of Church Street where a French market was being set up. There were stalls selling clothes and jewellery but mainly food. French food. One stall had huge bowls of olives; another had a paella and other hot dishes cooking in enormous pans. There was a cake stall and a charcuterie stall. And there was a cheese stall … Nonna (perhaps I should answer to Grand-mère to keep the French theme going) cannot resist French cheese: Brie de Meaux, Pont l’Évêque, Camembert, many goats’ cheeses in different stages of age from very new to well aged. My great excitement were the heart-shaped Neufchâtels, which are not easily found here – or not in supermarkets. I excitedly told the boys how when Nonna was on holiday in France a few years ago – before Freddie was born – with Mummy, Daddy and Auntie Nicola, we stayed near Neufchâtel and it was our favourite cheese. So two were asked for – one for the boys and their parents, and one for me. As you can see below, there is only a little left! It is a glorious cheese, soft and creamy but a wonderful deep flavour. It’s one of the oldest French cheeses, maybe going back as far as the 6th century, and while similar looking to Brie and Camembert, its taste is sharper and saltier. We love it!
As I got out my purse to pay, I spied the crottins. Crottin de Chèvre – very often from Chavignol in the Loire Valley where it has been produced since the 16th century and made from raw goats’ milk. It’s a moulded cheese which becomes firmer as it matures and forms a beige rind, which eventually turns blue if left to age further. It is often grilled – as I was to do with it – but is great sliced and eaten just as it is and I’ve often added them to a cheese platter.
The idea of the salad came due to my plans to head into central London in the afternoon. It’s been a hot day and making a salad with the crottin once I got back home would be a quick, easy and delicious supper.
I’ve recently taken up watercolour classes again after a 15-year hiatus with local artist Pat Harvey. Pat kindly invited me to a Private View at the Mall Galleries of the Society of Graphic Fine Art’s annual open exhibition, which included one of her paintings. It was quite a large exhibition with a wonderful variety of art works using different mediums and techniques and I enjoyed looking round with Pat.
Back home, it was warm enough to sit outside for a while with a glass of chilled Provençal rosé, and then I put my salad together.
I took a variety of salad things from the fridge: Little Gem lettuce with its sweet leaves; bitter chicory; peppery rocket and radishes; fresh-tasting cucumber. I put a little of each into a bowl and drizzled over extra virgin olive oil and some cider vinegar then seasoned with salt and pepper. I tossed it all gently by hand. It’s absolutely the best way to dress a salad like this. Then transfer the salad to a serving dish – a shallow bowl is best.
Now we’re into salad season I’m making more use of my Microplane slicer, a fantastic kitchen tool which my son bought me. It’s brilliant for slicing cucumber, radishes, carrots, etc. into salads. Just watch your fingers! I’ve cut myself a few times but am now being more careful.
The original plan had been green salad, the crottin, walnuts and honey. But when I saw the figs I couldn’t resist. I love figs. I can never eat them without remembering that wonderful scene in Ken Russell’s Women in Love when Alan Bates describes the way a fig should be eaten. Probably only people of a certain age will remember it – even I was still at school. You can find the scene on YouTube if you’re interested. Anyway, just look at those gorgeous figs when opened up. They were of perfect ripeness and delicious.
Quarter a couple of figs and lay on top of the salad greens. Break a few walnut halves into large pieces and add those.
Now it’s time to cook the goats’ cheese. I cut the crottin in half across the middle and lay the pieces on lightly toasted sourdough. Then I drizzled some extra virgin olive oil over the top and put them under a hot grill.
Once the cheese was bubbling slightly and browning, I removed from the grill.
Lay the toast and cheese on top of the salad. Drizzle over some runny honey. Te violà!
It was clouding over a little but still warm enough to sit in the garden.
The salad was gorgeous. I ate the warm cheese toasts first with my fingers – sophisticated cheese on toast! And totally fabulous. Then I really enjoyed the salad with its contrast of flavours and textures, especially the crunchy nuts and those soft, sweet figs. A perfect end to a lovely day.