This time last year, my French grandfather passed away quite suddenly. I’d been thinking for a while the best way to commemorate the day, my grandmother will be holding prayers tomorrow in France but as we can’t be with her I wanted to do something.
Emile was a really gentle man, one who could patiently sit and teach me the cosine rule as well as ham it up with some Bill Cosby-style dad dancing. The first child of a health-conscious mother, I was for a few years banned from eating butter or sugar, so he’d surreptitiously slip me sugar lumps when my mum wasn’t looking, saying ‘you’re a child, you need sugar’. The privations of growing up during the war never really left either of my grandparents, Emile would often snatch the rind of fat from your ham if you were leaving it, and they both passed on an absolute loathing of wasting food to me.
Some of my fondest memories are in their kitchen, watching my papi prepare a delicious steak haché, chopping onions in a vest because of the summer heat. We all still laugh at their insistence on eating fruit even if you’re fit to burst (which was often), because ‘c’est de l’eau!’ (it’s just water!) The first time I went to see them on my own I was five and I cried the whole time on the plane home.
To remember my papi, last night my sister and I cooked up a storm, making some of the favourite dishes we used to eat over in Toulouse. It’s a bit of a bummer, because the raw ingredients you get in the UK are never going to match up to things like Toulouse sausagemeat, or fresh tomatoes, but we improvised and muddled through. The dishes are all family food, this isn’t fine cooking but rather the kinds of food you grow up with and attach strong memories to.
Eating at my grandparents is a very ritualised affair, with certain things at certain times and plenty of courses, of course. I’m not really sure how my French experience matches up with your average French person, I doubt that my generation of people still eat in this ceremonial way but we went for it. There’s something really special about a proper meal, shared round the table and the French seem to be particularly good at it. ‘A table!’ they’ll say, rather than ‘dinner’s ready!’
My sister and I went for martini to kick off the meal, Emile was fond of the very occasional ‘martini gin’, to be sipped at special occasions, sat on the couch with a few bowls of nuts and those weird paprika crisps you get in Europe. The last time I was over he made me a martini gin that knocked my socks off!
Every meal would usually start with a cucumber salad and a tomato salad, peeled of their skins and left to soak up fresh herby vinaigrette it would become this juicy, flavourful thing that is a lovely way to start a meal. Important to soak your bread in the leftover vinaigrette.
Special occasions called for ‘oeufs mimosa’, so much nicer sounding than ‘devilled eggs’. They’re really easy to make, taste great and before you know it you’ve eaten three whole eggs. Oops.
Just scoop out the yolk and mix with mayonnaise and pepper. Put back in the egg and sprinkle with paprika to serve.
We went for two main courses, tomates farcies and poulet aux olives. They’re both quite simple, homely dishes, but they taste really great.
Tomates Farcies (you can use loads of different veg but we just call it that)
Tomatoes (large, and as ripe as poss)
Beef and Pork mince, or really good quality sausagemeat
A little bit of cooked rice and breadcrumbs
Seasoning: onion, garlic, s&p, herbs, stock cube
Mix all the stuffing ingredients in a bowl and pack into hollowed-out veg. We used tomato, green pepper and aubergine as per my grandmother’s instructions. Bung in the oven with a bit of olive oil and voila!
Poulet aux Olives
Chicken (mix of thighs and drumsticks)
Green olives, without stones
Half a lemon
Shallots, garlic, mixed herbs, s&p, pinch of cumin, chicken stock
Fry off the shallots and garlic in olive oil, chuck in the seasoning and brown the chicken. Add the olives and slices of lemon, with a bit of chicken stock/water so it doesn’t catch up in the pan. Simmer with the lid on until the chicked is cooked and you have a gooey sauce. Serve with white basmati rice.
Normally the rest of the meal would go: cheese course, green salad and dessert. Dessert is usually a yoghurt of some drescription (French people are as obsessed with yoghurts and calcium as we are in the UK with orange juice and vitamin C) and deliciously in-season fruit. Melting nectarines, a stinkingly ripe Cavaillon melon and juicy watermelon aren’t exactly ten a penny in the UK, so we just went with a creme caramel and Perle de Lait. Danette would have been awesome.