Two questions are often addressed to food and cookery writers by readers: ‘Where do your recipes come from? And do you cook them all?’
For almost a decade Felicity Cloake has been answering both these enquiries in impressive style in the Guardian newspaper. She tests, cooks and tastes, then adopts the best workable ideas from other cookery writers – always acknowledged – to arrive at her Perfect Recipe. Described as the nation’s ‘taster in chief’, Felicity carries out this exacting task with a lightness of touch and a witty approach which is a pleasure to read. Her work has been welcomed by many thousands of readers and now Completely Perfect: 120 Essential Recipes for Every Cook has been published in an affordable volume packed with invaluable advice for both novice and experienced kitchen performers alike.
In her new book, One More Croissant for the Road, Felicity abandons her London kitchen and sets out to answer the first question above by researching classic French recipes on the ground, visiting their places of origin. But she does it the hard way: by pedalling on a sturdy English two-wheeler that she named after the legendary cyclist and five times winner of the Tour de France, Eddy Merckx.
The attractive dust jacket of Felicity’s book makes it all look so easy. As her route curves around l’hexagone, Felicity will visit twenty-one places renowned for their gastronomy noting architectural features and memorable meals along the way. And every morning she plans to sample the local croissants by rating them on her 1-10 scale.
Felicity describes her courageous – sometimes foolhardy – adventure with enormous verve. Only a dedicated Francophile with an astounding appetite could make the trip such a success. Brilliantly written with Felicity’s customary acute analysis of people, food and places, the images stay with me weeks after reading the book.
The plastic cow emerging from the ceiling of a restaurant in Limoges; tucking into a 15 year-old oyster in Cancale; an extraordinary menu of ill-assorted dishes that Felicity tackles with bravura that appears not require a handful of alka-seltzers; she discovers a hostelry in the Vosges called the Auberge of the Hard-Boiled Eggs; finds it difficult to track down the source of the famous Tarte Tatin; and encounters unenviable rain-sodden campsites with grotty showers where hungry and alone she slides into her cocoon-like tent, hoping that the morning will bring bright sunshine with a warm, golden croissant that deserves her highest satisfaction rating.
Felicity’s recipe-collecting odyssey is rewarded by discovering the majority of traditional dishes she seeks, served in small local restaurants, sometimes proudly presented with a curious variation on the classic recipe yet still a true reflection of gastronomic France: moules marinières in Normandy; the cassoulets of Carcassonne, Castelnaudary and Toulouse – each hotly defended by the locals; superb jambon cru in Bayonne; tartiflette in the French Alps; fish soup in Marseille; the choucroute garni in Alsace; she enjoys snails in Dijon; and pays homage to my favourite white Burgundy. And there is more, much more ….
The book closes with a nail-biting account of Felicity weaving through the terrifying traffic of the Champs-Élysées on her loyal Eddy, his paniers still bulging, then turning sharply across the lanes, to reach the magnificent Arc de Triomphe, the finale of the annual Tour de France, where a friend awaits with celebratory champagne.
A Parisian busybody reprimands them: “No allowed, velo. You must go.” Fortunately, France promptly rescues its reputation for respecting the integrity of l’original. Two policemen arrive saying, “Wait – not so fast!”
Felicity writes: “First, they want to know what I’m doing, where I’ve been. Brittany? Marseille? The Joux Plane? Really? And with all this stuff? And they congratulate me with real sincerity and tell us to relax, we can stay as long as we like. The quiet one even briefly, thrillingly lifts his cap: ‘Chapeau, Madame.’ And suddenly, I can’t stop smiling.”
Felicity’s One More Croissant for the Road is surely the most entertaining yet also enlightening food book of the year. Highly recommended.
Felicity’s recipe was provided by Evelyne, le Grand Maistre de la Confrérie de la Quiche Lorraine – this is a much abbreviated version but still works.
Make 300g shortcrust with 200g plain flour and a pinch of salt,
100 g cold butter – grated into the bowl – and bound together with 1 ½ tablespoons cold water.
Grease a deep 22 cm tart tin and dust lightly with flour. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to about 5 cm thick and line the tin. Lightly prick the base with a fork than chill the pastry in a fridge for 30 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 220’C /200’C fan/ gas 7 and place a baking sheet just below the middle to heat up.
Cut 200g smoked streaky bacon, thick cut, into chunky strips. In a large jug, beat together 4 medium eggs then whisk in 120g full-fat crème fraîche and season lightly with salt, pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg.
Trim the pastry rim of the tart case and scatter the bacon over the base. Pour in the egg and cream mixture and push down any floating bacon.
Place on the hot baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving.