Postcard From France

Mes Chers Amis 

As a child, family holidays were so rare as to be an endangered species. We had precisely two – one in Wales and the other in France. The French holiday near Albi was a revelation. I discovered Francoise Sagan, Toulouse Lautrec, grenadine, espadrilles, file paper with grids instead of lines, flat peaches, Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy and aubergines.  Apart from the novels of Sagan, an embarrassing teenage aberration, I love them all still. 

I’m in France with two of my oldest friends and our combined total of eight children. Sartre and Lautrec have been sadly thin on the ground, but we’re doing wonders for the local peach and aubergine crop. The recipe I’ve cooked three times already is this one, a feast I first ate on that French holiday all those years ago.  

A bientot

Charlie 

Gloomth

I’ve found a sensational word….. gloomth. It was invented by the Gothic novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1797) to describe a place that was both shadowy and mysterious but airy and sophisticated too. Walpole had a way with fashion as well as words. My favourite outfit of his is a huge and intricately carved solid wood cravat. But I should probably confess that I’d like a solid wood hat and a wooden handbag too.

It strikes me that gloomth sums up this time of year perfectly. Walking through the Tuileries Gardens and then on to the Rodin Museum early on a March morning, I was shrouded in Walpole’s mist and shadow, but there was a palpable sense of spring.

So when my organic vegetable box was delivered, it was pure serendipity (another Walpole word) to find some gloomthy vegetables in there. No more parsnips thank goodness, but one aubergine and six tomatoes.

It got me thinking about a recipe I adored as a child. It was the height of sophistication when I was a teenager, although don’t forget that when I was fourteen, posh food meant Chicken in White Sauce with Tinned Asparagus, and Roast Beef Bathed in Golden Vegetable Dried Packet Soup.

I now realise that aubergines baked with tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs, isn’t a sophisticated dish at all. It’s just plainly, gloomthily, effortlessly divine.

## Gloomth d’Aubergines et Tomates aux Herbes ##

I’ll give you a recipe for 4 – 6 people, but since my single aubergine won’t stretch to a gloomth this size I’ll have to eat mine all by myself…..

  • 3 aubergines
  • Several glugs of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • Two thirds cup of water
  • 4 large tomatoes, ideally the same diameter as the aubergines
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Half cup dry white wine
  • A handful of fresh thyme
  • One cup freshly grated parmesan
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Slice the aubergines about 1 cm thick, discarding the ends. Strictly speaking you don’t need to sprinkle them with salt to release any bitter juice, because the new class of aubergines isn’t bitter at all. But I still like to salt them for half an hour because it will release water from the flesh and make the slices less likely to soak up shocking amounts of olive oil in the frying pan.

Wipe the slices dry and then fry until golden. You may have to do several batches to fit them all into the frying pan without crowding them. Remove the slices and heap them on a plate while you wrestle with the onions. Chop the onions fairly small and fry them in the pan you’ve just used until they’re soft, but not brown. After fifteen minutes of gentle cooking, add the water and continue simmering until you have a sort of onion mush.

In a round dish, arrange alternate slices of aubergines and tomato cut to the same thickness. Heap the onion in the middle, crush the garlic over the whole lot and splosh over the white wine. Season, sprinkle with thyme and parmesan and bake at about 160 degrees C for half an hour. If you can stand the wait, eat at room temperature. If not, hot is also good.

I’m about to eat my Gloomth d’Aubergines in the rain, wearing a thick coat and admiring my spring bulbs. They’re beginning to nose their way out of the soil, the mad, crazy fools.