I always keep my promises. Sometimes I take what seems like a rude length of time to get there, but I always keep my promises. So I promised food and food you will get. I’m no cordon bleu whizz. I’m certainly not a chef … I knew many rather celebrated ones in my Cheese incarnation. I know that chefs are amongst the hardest working people on the planet. And I know they often work in conditions that would have other’s screaming for Elf and Safety. I would never ever dream of aligning my kitchen efforts to them. I am a cook learned at my mother’s knee and my grandmothers table. Almost learned by osmosis the understanding of how to. Shell peas and beans. Hull strawberries. Make apple crumble, fruit cake, victoria sponge. Mint sauce. Roast the meat to go with the sauce …. my French friends still find that unbearably funny. And for the kitchen moments of my adult life there has been ‘Gordon Ramsey Tom’ best friend and best man to be of my daughter’s intended, Tom has fixed many a kitchen moment when I have been about to throw a pot into the yard garnished with a few well chosen and perfectly ripe words. Tom has gone far since working for Gordon but for me that will forever be his handle. Probably best not to tell him.
We are in the mighty grip of a la canicule here in France … that’s a heatwave by the way. It has sweltered for weeks with virtually no rain to be found in my region leaving the mass of massive trees curling at the edges, yellowing, browning. The normal verdant green is fast becoming a memory. We even have a hose-pipe ban … scourge of the English and guaranteed to start a riot of polite tut-tutting there, it is genuinely needed here. The saddest thing is watching the cattle in the scorched fields. Normally they would be ruminating delightedly on succulent green pastures whilst their farmer toils away cutting, turning and bringing in the great cotton reels of hay or bagging them for winter silage. This year, the pickings are lean. Doubtless there will be a rain of biblical proportions soon enough so I am not complaining. But I do appreciate that I am fortunate not to have my living affected. A farmer’s life is never a simple one despite the myths created by town dwellers.
Food has to fit the bill in the heat just as it has to in the cold. I am a pathalogical soup eater. And though not vegetarian eat a heavily veggie diet. So in this weather my mind turns to cold soup. Ice cold soup. And Gazpacho in particular. At this point per-lease feel free to skip my rambling drivvle and scroll to the recipe laid out at the end of the piece. I’m certain you have eaten it in many different guises. I have an almost uncontrollable addiction to recipe books which culminated in my children forcibly packing up 9 crates full and despatching them to a delighted charity shop. The shop which, incidentally, never let on to the children that most of them had come from there in the first place when I was an eager volunteer sorting the donations in the tiny back room. It became a standing joke with the equally tiny and extremely feisty manager’s mum, Pauline who worked with me on a Tuesday, that any cookbooks were mine to peruse for first refusal. Fiesty she was. 72 years old and London born I remember her taking off at a sprint across the near dormant Cotswold town square in pursuit of shoplifters. She bagged them, brought them back, locked the door and called the Police. Whilst waiting she gave them a dressing down any army sergeant major would be proud of which incorporated much fruity language and revolved around ritual humiliation and shaming. I think of her often. So I have no shortage of reference and I do read them all but in the end, as with most things I tend to start with authenticity and work with it to suit my own taste and hopefully those of anyone else sitting at my table. And the references are increasing slowly slowly. I remember volumes and seek them out like a piglet sniffing truffles and eventually hold the cherished volume once more and meanwhile there are newbies on the block which I lust after and hunt down just the same.
Gazpacho. Garzparcho. Gath-pacho (that Spanish lisp attributed to King Pedro Castilla is apparently a myth. I am frankly gutted to have been put straight – I always loved the image of the preening posturing king insisting everyone else speak as he did just because he had the regal clout to insist). However you pronounce it, it’s roots are in Andalucia in roaringly hot southern Spain. Although on my little voyage of discovery for this piece I discovered that there is another stewy soup in la Mancha (where the man of dreamed the impossible dream) also called Gazpacho which bears absolutely no relation to that which the name conjurs up for most. Heavy on fowl (the more species the better and if you have a bunny to boil with them, it’s a even better) and bolstered with unleavened bread. This might well appeal to me in a few months but right now the thought turns me rigid with fear!
No-one really seems to know why it’s called Gazpacho though there are a few rather appealing theories. One is that it comes from the Spanish word that means stuffed. The French verb is gaver so I guess it’s a theoretically a common stem. Since I don’t speak Spanish I actually don’t know what their verb is … I would love to be enlightened since the theory otherwise seems a teeny bit tenuous – sorry Jane Grigson who is in all other respects on my own personal A-list as a purveyor of the delicious! Another thought is that it results from the need to eat from a bowl or Kaz – that’s a very old Moorish word by the way, and I don’t speak Moorish nor any other Arabic either so I really am out on a limb here. To be honest my life is too short to worry why.
Gazpacho is basically salad liquidised and chilled. Leaving aside such fearful thoughts as lobster, mango watermelon or peach (all of which have appeared in my daily recipe selection by email from Journal des Femmes and all of which are doubtless crooned over in 5 star restaurants somewhere), the main ingredients that don’t change are tomatoes, cucumber, some sort of pepper, onion and garlic. The burning issue, that which splits houses in Spain, is the inclusion or not of bread. My own way leaves it out. But if you want to take some stale good (and it must be good not packet pap) bread and soak in water for 15 minutes and then squeeze the water out again and add it to the mix, feel free. It will give a velvety texture. For me it isn’t necessary. I prefer to pass a basket of the good fresh stuff alongside.
Here’s how I made this one which yields a decent amount for 4-6 scoffers:
8 fully ripe preferably vine tomatoes. Big ones but not beefers
1 Green Pepper (deseeded and chopped)
1 Red Pepper (ditto)
1 Cucumber (peeled – I don’t bother to deseed but you can)
1 Red onion (peeled and chopped)
1 small yellow onion but a bunch of spring onions also called scallions would do nicely (chopped)
3 cloves of Garlic (smashed and finely chopped)
Red wine vinegar
Olive Oil (virgin please)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 scant teaspoons castor sugar
I take the tomatoes and cut a cross in their bottoms, put them in a bowl and cover them with boiling water for a minute or so. Then I slip the peels off. Over the weeks, if you choose to follow my kitchen antics you will realise that this finesse is a rarity. My explanation is that it is less of a faff than seiving later.
As the water gets under their skin they will take on an other worldly appearance … retrieve and skin at this point
After skinning, I chop the tomatoes and sling them in a blender and blitz them to a liquid. Then add the rest of the veg in batches. The last batch will dictate the texture of the soup so if you want some bits in it, barely blitz, if you want a slight crunch blitz a bit and if you want it smooth (this is a peasant soup and I’m more peasanty than haute cuisine so I’m not here to make silk) blitz some more. But don’t overblitz or it will all begin to foam … think rabid dog – not a good look. One point here … you don’t actually HAVE to blend this. You don’t HAVE to have the equipment. This soup was made daily for the workers in the fields down in the previouly acknowledge to be scorching south of Spain … the momias and amantes who made it lovingly not to mention the reluctant hemañas, and who carried it out at lunchtime, had no such luxuries. You can chop finely enough with a good sharp knife crushing as necessary with the flattenened blade.
Then season. Start with a tablespoon of vinegar (and sherry vinegar is more authentic, but I’m in France) and 2 of olive oil plus your paprika (and if you don’t like the idea, feel free to leave it out or invent your own twist) and sugar. Pop in the fridge to chill and after a while check the seasoning. It is to your taste … play with it, have some fun it will reward you. If you aren’t lucky enough to have tomatoes that taste really tomatoey you can add a little puree from a tin or bottle or some juice. It won’t do any harm – surely the thing is to enjoy the end result not to be afraid that the Food Police will come knocking at your door demanding explanations!
I make mine in the morning to eat for supper to allow plenty of developing and melding of flavours. And then the fun starts. Spoon into bowls and serve with whatever garnishes take your fancy … chopped cucumber, pepper, onion, egg (hard boiled for the avoidance of doubt), serano ham are all traditional. But chopped olives are a good edge (green please despite what that doyenne of culinary brilliance, Elizabeth David might have indicated … black are too earthy and I think she may have been either having a laugh or a bad hair day, or both) and I love mint so I garnish with it and serve a little bowl of chopped fresh leaves alongside. I don’t do icecubes – they water the soup. And it does freeze. I brought up four daughters and always had a housefull of rabbit’s friends and relations – now I live on my own, mostly. This means there are ALWAYS leftovers. One time I will share my freezing method, of which I am rather proud.
PS: Throughout the writing of this post I have had one image. My second daughter, aged four and deliciously chubby dressed as a Spanish Onion and singing this song at the top of her very enthusiastic lungs:
We are the best of Spanish onions
chosen for our sleek appearance
We are kept in separate places
For we seldom smell too sweet (smell too sweet)!!
The rhythm was Spanish, there were castinets involved and I was enchanted. And I can’t chop an onion to this day (21 years on and she is no longer remotely chubby) without hearing the sounds of those children echoing joyously through the corridors of my mind.