I’m back in France at my mum’s just now, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Le Mans at the beginning of the week. Yes, we all know it’s where the 24-hour car race takes place, but really, there is so much more to this beautiful medieval city.

On my last morning there, I had just enough time to nip down to the marché des Jacobins (every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 7.30am to 12.30pm) to see what the local stall-holders had to offer. Located under the gaze of the stunning St Julien cathedral, it has to be one of the most beautifully located markets ever.

In other respects, it’s a fairly typical market, but, of course, typical rarely means boring when it comes to French produce. This is a funny time of year for fresh fruit and veg – the last of the winter stuff well and truly over, and the delights of spring not quite kicking in. But, still, the market was pretty much busting at the seams with lovely looking food.

Radishes being one of my favourite nibbles, I couldn’t resist buying a large bunch of the crunchy gems, pictured below. Just behind them is a kind of salad called mâche, something you don’t see very often in the UK. It’s one of my mum’s favourites, so a large bag of that was purchased, too. We also bought some dandelion leaves, which were dotted with tiny buds of the flower and had a surprisingly sweet flavour.

As well as the fresh stuff, there were inevitably a number of stalls selling bread. I noticed that a lot of places in Le Mans sold what was called traditional baguette, and when I tried some, I realised it was a kind of levain baguette. And delicious it was, too.

Despite being pretty restrained with our purchases, once Mum and I got home, we realised we did have rather a large amount of lettuce-y type things to munch through. So, for lunch today, I made a large salad of mâche, dandelion leaves, radishes, chicory, celery and cherry tomatoes.

I rustled up smoked salmon omelettes, with herbs from Mum’s garden, to eat alongside the salad, and, with the sun shining and temperatures heading towards 20 degrees, we sat outside for what felt like the first summer lunch of the year. Lovely.

Since arriving in Istanbul, I’ve realised what a huge difference the provenance of ingredients makes to the flavour of a dish. I’ve always been aware of this, obviously – especially when I was lucky enough to be living five minutes’ walk from Borough Market. But it really hit home this week when I made a Tunisian fish tagine, which I first tried back in London earlier this year.

The recipe (by good old Claudia Roden again) has quince as one of the vegetables, but as I hadn’t been able to get hold of any, I had left them out. I had also used mackerel the first time, which, after eating the same dish this week with lip-smackingly fresh sea bass, I realised was completely wrong.

This time, I used the right fish and the right vegetables – bar one. As I couldn’t find the required turnip here in Istanbul, I picked up something that looked remarkably similar…

No, your eyes do not deceive you – that is a radish. And yes, it’s the size of a baby’s head. I don’t know what it is with Turkey and improbably large vegetables, but sometimes I feel like I’m in that Woody Allen film Sleeper, when he discovers the giant vegetable patch.

Anyway, back to the business of cooking…

I simmered all the vegetables – onions, carrots, green peppers and radish/turnip, plus a tin of cooked chickpeas and the heads and tails of the fish in water. Although the recipe didn’t ask for it, I also bunged in a couple of bay leaves and a sprinkling of pul biber.

The stock was left to cook for an hour or so, until all the vegetables were really soft, and the fishy flavours beautifully melded. Then I removed the heads and tails, added the whole sea bass and the sliced quince, and simmered for another half an hour.

Another item this dish is supposed to have, but doesn’t seem to be easy to find here, is couscous. So, instead we had some amazing Turkish flatbread called gözleme, which was stuffed with chopped walnuts.

The bread was a spur of the moment buy, but went so well with the sweetly delicate flavours of the tagine, Suleyman and I agreed, it was a culinary match made in heaven.

L’heure de l’apéro

August 5, 2010

Having felt like something of a whirling dervish over the last couple of weeks (albeit one with the permanent fixture of a glass of wine in one hand), I’m now having a relatively settled week in France with my mum.

Inevitably, the glass of something, um, refreshing is still making a regular appearance. And, being France, an apéritif means there is always something to nibble on alongside whatever it is you’re drinking.

Last night, we sat outside and sipped a delicious cold glass of Muscat, while eating some lovely, rough local pâté on toasted bread from the boulangerie down the road, accompanied by crunchy cornichons and radishes.

The bread I hadn’t seen before over here – it’s called pain de meule and is made with a very finely stoneground French flour. The loaves are very long and sold in portions by weight, which is useful if you haven’t quite taken to the French way of consuming vast amounts of baguette with every meal.

The French way of l’apéro, however, I have taken to very easily…

A big tart

July 14, 2010

The other day I got a marriage proposal. Not from the man currently awaiting my arrival in Istanbul. But from the lovely Lene, my friend whose spare room I’m currently occupying.

We’d spent a very profitable but tiring morning selling off my excess baggage at Chiswick car boot sale, then returned home to make tea for our friend Helen and her two kids, Eric and Agnes.

Despite having got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, we quickly made cake, scones, sandwiches, salads and dips – and it was our impressive teamwork that led Lene to suggest I should not, in fact, move to Istanbul, but stay in London and marry her instead. I told her that if things didn’t work out with Süleyman, I’d definitely consider the offer!

And I’m certainly loving the way we’ve just clicked living together – easily sharing the cooking and household chores, and having someone to talk to when the practicalities of moving to Istanbul become a little overwhelming. In return, I’ll make sure I’m around to cook for her boys when she wants to go out (and to send Dexter to bed before he falls asleep in front of the television with his Xbox in his hand).

Which is what I did last night. Lene, being a bit of a yoga bunny, headed off for an evening of bending into strange shapes, while I fed Dexter (Wesley still making very rare appearances, thanks to a summer of parties stretching ahead of him).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dexter is a pretty adventurous eater (especially considering he’s a young vegetarian), and is always willing to try new dishes. But it’s still something of a challenge for me to come up with veggie meals that he and the rest of us will enjoy.

So, a trawl through my trusty folder of cut-out recipes came up with this delicious-looking French tomato tart, which I’d seen on David Lebovitz’s blog. I decided to buy the tomatoes from Lina Stores, the lovely old Italian deli on London’s Brewer Street, and thought, rather than the French goat’s cheese David suggests, I’d stick with the Italian theme and try some of that country’s cheese instead.

A chat with the lady behind the counter resulted in me buying a nice big chunk of flavourful Fontina, which I thought would be the perfect foil to the sharp mustard base of the tart. (Dexter tried a slice of it while I was preparing the tart, and declared it his second favourite cheese, after brie!)

The beautiful, plump plum tomatoes combined with some fresh herbs direct from Lene’s garden gave the tart a truly summery flavour. So, on the side, I kept it seasonal and made a crunchy radish and gherkin coleslaw with mustard mayonnaise, and one of my all-time faves, cauliflower, fennel and celery salad with a lemon dressing, from Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food. We also ate several slices of my latest loaf of sourdough bread, slathered in lots of butter.

This is the kind of food I could just eat mounds of in the summer – and, luckily, Dexter felt the same. Although, we did manage to leave a few morsels for Lene…