The dinner I had dreamed up proved to be every bit as good as the dream. We began with iced melon, which was followed by the famous brandade truffee, a delicious concoction of fish cooked with truffles. We could quite contentedly have stopped there, but the next course - small bord like a quail, simmered in wine and served on a bed of green grapes - would have tempted an anchorite to break his penance. Then crêpes Suzette, and, finally, coffee and Armagnac.
Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart
I spent last weekend at a wedding, one that was originally due to be held in the South of France. My friends had long hoped for a hot and sunny wedding day (their dream, my absolute nightmare, if I was the one in the white dress), and had been anxious about getting married here in England, with our entirely unpredictable spring weather. But, in the end, they decided to chance it.
Sunday arrived, and we may as well have been in Provence. As they said their vows we had umbrellas raised, not to protect us from the rain, but to shield us from the sun. Over the course of the afternoon, necks, shoulders, and noses turned pink – with wine, inevitably, but also where they were revealed, exposed under the cloudless sky. We sat on the lawn after dinner, watching the sun slip down behind the Cotswold hills. It was a glorious day, a true start to summer.
It’s as if the wonderfully evocative Mediterranean summers in the books I have been reading this week: Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, have somehow manifested in Stroud. The sun is high and bright in the sky, drenching the garden in light. We’ve been hunting for wide brimmed hats and cool, linen dresses, finally packing away coats and tights, until the leaves start to turn again. We’ve picked wild garlic from verdant fields, and have been eating it with everything. And as the sun sets in the evening, we take to the back deck, with cold drinks in our hands.
In all honesty, after a few lovely days, I struggle with the summer months – I find myself quietly looking forward to the arrival of autumn. And so I relish narratives where the summer itself is an inescapable aspect of the story, impacting on the actions of everyone under its influence. I identified a kindred spirit in Madam, Will You Talk?, Louise, who sits in the garden of their Provencal hotel, far too hot, drinking ice cold vermouth, buried in sketchbooks and novels. Her friend Charity, around whom the book is set, heads off instead to explore, and becomes embroiled in a twisting story of murder and kidnapping. I’ll be revisiting this book again – particularly an extraordinary meal that takes place in the midst of a car chase – but I found myself thinking of this meal instead, one that lives up to expectation after an intensely taxing day.
Crêpes (this should make 12 - enough for 3 each)
30g butter + 20g for greasing the pan
125g plain flour
375ml whole milk
50g granulated sugar
150ml freshly squeezed orange juice (from 2-3 oranges)
Zest of 2-3 oranges
2tbsp Grand Marnier
Well-seasoned frying pan
1. First, make the crêpes. Melt all the butter, and set it aside to cool. Measure out the flour in a jug. Make a well in the centre, then crack in the eggs, and add a splash of the milk. Whisk vigorously, then continue to add the milk until you have a batter the consistency of single cream. Pour in 30g of the melted butter, and keep the rest for greasing your pan. If you have any lumps in your batter, pour it through a sieve. Set aside for at least half an hour (overnight, if you prefer).
2. Place the frying pan over a medium heat; the crêpes should be cooked relatively quickly, or they'll be dry and crispy. Brush a little butter around the pan with a pastry brush or piece of kitchen towel. Pour a couple of tablespoons of the batter into the pan, and quickly swirl it around until it covers the pan. If you have too much batter, pour it back into the jug. Cook for 45 seconds, until flecked with golden brown patches, then flip over and cook on the other side. Tip the crêpe onto a plate, and then continue until the batter is used up. Inevitably, your first attempt will be a bit rubbish; just spread it with a little butter and eat it while making the second.
3. To make the sauce, pour the sugar into the pan and melt without stirring until it becomes a warm, golden liquid. Add the butter (it will spit and foam, so watch your hands), and then whisk in the orange juice, zest and Grand Marnier. The caramel will clump at this stage, but keep it over the heat, and whisk until it is melted in. Reduce the sauce until smooth and viscous.
4. Reduce the heat to low, and drop three crêpes into the pan, and coat them with the sauce. If you want to be traditional, you can keep the Grand Marnier aside until this point, warm it in a separate pan, set it alight, and add it to the sauce. Fold the crêpes into quarters, then transfer them to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the crêpes, and serve immediately.