igh summer is a good time to relax into something different. Here is a page from a journal I keep while we’re at home in southern France.
On August evenings, the swallows dip and swoop in nervous arcs as if anxious to protect, or preserve, the close of day in its melancholy stillness. A light hovers over our little village caught in a pale brushstroke of watercolor blue, a wash that holds the houses together as they await an even bluer night. It is no mystery why French painters gathered here and amassed works of wonder. Matisse, Derain, de Vlaminck, Rouault all came, with Braque and Dufy touching in every now and again to have a go at the sea and a pastis in the ateliers of fellow painters.
I knew their colors from art books but knew little of the color-loving Fauves until now.
A few nights ago, the sea was red, as red as the Fauves had painted it, and just touched on the edges by a deep Prussian blue that held the soft pink of the sky on its horizon, perched there as if it were a curtain that would lift and expose eternity.
The wind, the tramontane right now, blows incessantly —“violent” weather my friend Gigi complains about so often. But I love it, the changes in air, sky, and sea. Too much sameness in California has whetted my appetite for this Catalan clime, unpredictable except to the fishermen who know exactly how many drops will fall on a certain day and where they will land, and how long they will stay. They look out to sea with their honed vision and tell you that at 3 p.m. you’ll need an umbrella, or il fait beau pour le week-end, which makes us all happy as this weekend is long.
But, then, most weekends are long because of the French passion for holidays, anytime, anywhere, and lots of them. I strongly suspect that children go to school fewer days than the length of their summer vacation, but I can’t prove it. Still, French children are lovely and polite and have been taught from birth to say bonjour (or something like it), when spoken to.
The main meal in our little town is at midday —fish from the neighboring port, where it arrives daily and is displayed on long counters of cracked ice in our local poissonnerie. Rouget and sardines, the famous anchovies of our region that feel silken under your fingers, skinned eel and polka-dotted sole, turbot, sea bass (loup de mer), salmon and tuna and the ubiquitous and historically famous cod, morue.
I buy it salted, then desalinate it for 48 hours until it still has a bit of salt, then make a paste of the steamed fish, cooked potato, parsley, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Of course, this is just the fish room.
There is, too, another entire room with fish tanks and counters filled with Marenne and Belon oysters, sea snails that one plucks from the shell with a little nail and dips into aioli, tiny red shrimp from Spain, langoustines, lobster, crab, and of course the cockles and mussels. A cook’s heaven, indeed, especially as one can find here the tiny green crab that start off a perfect soupe de poisson avec rouille (fish soup served over toast spread with a mayonnaise of egg yolks, olive oil, roasted red peppers and garlic).
To take a little savory trip to the south of France this is what you can do:
Buy a crab at your local fish market and enjoy most of it for dinner. Also, buy a couple of salmon collars or pieces and a couple of pounds of small rockfish used in soups. Such fish are available in most markets.
In a large pot, put the salmon, all the crab leavings, crushed with a mallet if possible, and any broth you have left over from the crab. Add 2 onions, 2 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, and a small head of fennel, all chopped. Add a half-bottle of dry white wine, then water to cover, 2 chicken bouillon cubes (don’t balk at this, it works wonders!), a thin slice of orange peel, a tiny dried, hot red pepper and a generous pinch of saffron.
Simmer this concoction for 30 minutes or so on low heat, then strain the broth into a new pot. The broth at this point should be savory and rich, and if it is not, cook the broth on high heat for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and put in the chowder fish and cook for 10-15 minutes. Add a cup of rich tomato sauce and cook another 15 minutes.
This soup is better the next day, but you may eat it right away if you wish. Before eating, make the rouille.
— First, make mayonnaise: Put 1 egg yolk into the bowl of a wand mixer with a little salt. Add a cup of olive oil and when the mixture begins to thicken, add a pinch of cayenne and a few slices of sweet red pepper, roasted and peeled, 2 cloves of garlic, a pinch of saffron and a few drops of lemon juice. Add a little more olive oil to thicken the mayonnaise again and taste for seasoning.
(You may also add the peppers and garlic to commercial mayonnaise, but it’s not quite the same.)
— Spread rouille generously on toast, place the toast in a soup bowl and ladle the hot soup over all.