The 14th July, Bastille Day, until the final day of August is the official summer holiday in France. Many enterprises, large and small, close their doors or operate with a skeleton staff for this six week period. Try tracking down a builder, plumber or electrician, and you’re likely to hear a recorded message confirming this accepted fact of French life.
So in homes and restaurants simple food is often the order of the day with plenty of salads, fruit and charcuterie on offer. A popular hostelry in a nearby village specialises in serving l’assiette fraise in the summer, a large platter for each person with 6-8 different components resembling a Mediterranean meze or tapas with a variety of dishes some of them normally served as an hors d’oeuvre during the rest of the year.
During an August heatwave, I’m all for serving chilled food prepared ahead to avoid slaving over a hot stove. And with family and friends to cater for, a selection of favourite dishes predominates; such as French ratatouille with the vegetables neatly diced chef-style, panzanella – the Italian bread and tomato salad, Spanish roasted sweet pepper salad with pine nuts, Greek skordalia, Moroccan spiced couscous salad, Lebanese fattoush salad with plenty of chopped coriander leaves and Egyptian smoky-flavoured baba ghanouj.
To accompany these salads, an excellent local charcuterie provides a wide range of well-flavoured cured meats: terrines, patés, rillettes, jambon persillé, tête de veau, various saucisson secs, plus some vegetarian specialities from the south of France.
And since August is the height of the melon season, I often serve a plate of sliced Charantais melon served with razor-thin jambon cru and a mint vinaigrette. Or a salad of the new seedless water -melons, cubed and tossed with black olives, crumbled goat cheese, a fruity olive oil and freshly chopped basil or dill usually disappears fast.
My family considers a proper meal should include at least one pudding and ideally two during the holiday season. So alongside a bowl of local strawberries – in summer months the variety Mara des Bois has the finest flavour – I often prepare individual dishes of the French classic crème caramel that always receives a cheer.
Crème Caramel with Shaved Salted Caramel Chocolate
Makes 6 x 100 ml ramekins
100 g/ 3 ½ oz caster sugar
75 ml/ 3 fl oz water
600 ml/ 1 pint full cream milk
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
50 g/ 2 oz salted caramel chocolate
In a small heavy-based saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the water over low heat then increase the temperature and heat the sugar syrup until golden brown. Immediately remove the pan from the heat to prevent it turning a dark brown which could give a bitter, burnt flavour.
Pour or spoon the caramel into each ramekin and tilt to cover the base in an even layer. Place the dishes in a roasting pan or deep baking tin. Heat the oven to 180’C 350’F gas 4.
Warm the milk with the vanilla pod cut in half lengthways and stir in the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Check the vanilla flavour and if too subtle scrape some seeds from the pod. Set the milk aside to infuse for 5 minutes.
Whisk the eggs with the egg yolks. Remove the vanilla pod – rinse in cold water and store in a jar of caster sugar – from the warm milk and pour on to the egg mixture. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a jug and pour the mixture into the ramekins. Add hot water to the roasting pan to half the depth of the dishes.
Bake the custards, covered with a sheet of foil, in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until just set. Remove the roasting tin from the oven and leave the dishes to cool for ½ hour then transfer them to a refrigerator where they can be covered with a sheet of baking paper for 24 hours or until ready to serve. Shave curls of the chocolate, using a potato peeler, over each dish just before serving.