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Bastille day - salade de tomatoes

"Vive la France"

Today is Bastille Day. A massive day of patriotic celebration in France. Which is interesting really because in spite of it being one of the big days - perhaps the big day, of the French Revolution - Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and all of that, the revolution with it's high ideals didn't take long for it to descend into further, and possibly worse tyrannies. First the barbaric bloodletting of the Reign of Terror which sparked dread amongst all the aristocratic régimes of Europe, then Napoleon - a dictator and a bit of a megalomaniac, in spite of all the good bureaucratic things he instilled into the French way of life. Then there were various short-lived attempts at a return to kings and queens and emperors, even a mini revolution, before we reach the democratic but still fomenting country that we have today. The French are notorious for protests and strikes - almost every time we have been there there has been a strike or a protest march of some kind. You would think that people would learn that revolution doesn't always change things for the better. But leaders should remember that if you push the populace too far sooner or later they will cause you grief in some way - even if it's just not voting you back in.

The French are a proud people and that Town Hall in the photo above is just one example of that pride - demonstrated in every little French village. On every beautifully maintained Town Hall - and they all are, however tiny and ordinary you will find the flags and the words. I don't know if they have to but I'm pretty sure they would even if they didn't have to. The flowers are always there too. But the times are changing again - nowadays the French tricouleur is displayed with the European Union flag, and I think the local town flag - in this case - Langon in the Gironde département - a little south of Bordeaux.

Anyway in France today - well what is soon to be today over there - the whole country will be drenched in red, white and blue, as in Monet's wonderful painting of the Rue Montorgueil in Paris in 1878. And you will be able to see some of this tonight if you watch the Tour de France. David has his wine night tonight and the host has decreed a red white and blue night. Bringing a French wine will be easy - such is internationalism today, but red white and blue clothes? It's mostly men who attend this monthly meeting. And will someone have been able to find a wine with a red white and blue label or name? I had a quick Google and couldn't see anything. There is also the danger, of course, that France is not the only country to go for red white and blue - America, Great Britain, Australia ... Wikipedia tells me that in France, white is for the king - see they can't quite let him go - and red and blue are for Paris. So where does that leave the rest of France? If you travel anywhere outside of Paris in France you will quickly find that the Parisians are regarded as foreigners, much like you are. A race apart anyway.

But this is a food blog - so to food. I looked it up and actually there is no special Bastille Day food. The closest I found were various versions of red, white and blue macarons!

Even Guillaume Brahimi in his Plat du Tour segment today is, I see, going to cook Blanquette de Veau, which is very delicious and very easy and so very French, but not a traditional Bastille Day dish and not red, white and blue either. So I decided to 'do' salad de tomates, which as you probably know by now is the first thing I ever ate in France, and possibly what made me fall in love with France. One of those rare taste sensations of one's life. They're red - and garlic is almost white, but there is no blue. Maybe you could find a blue flower and put it on top - rosemary perhaps? But it's such a simple thing.

"For those of us who love cooking, it is easy to get carried away with the complexities of creating flavours and tastes, of cooking slow or fast, of whether we should chop, grind, blend or mince. Sometimes we forget that simplest is bestest." Ganga - A Life(Time) of Cooking

So who do we turn to to tell us how to do it? Elizabeth David of course - I couldn't resist this photo of her from her young actress days - before she became the Grande Dame of French and Mediterranean food. It's not a photo you see very often. More often in the later photos she is looking somewhat prim and a little daunting - like her writing. Here is her recipe, complete with her usual disparaging remarks about the British:

“Slice the tomatoes into thick rounds and arrange them on a large flat dish. Season with ground black pepper, and strew over them plenty of chopped fresh herbs, tarragon, chives, basil, parsley, whatever is available, and a little garlic. Just before serving sprinkle with salt and olive oil. Made in this way a tomato salad is fresh and crisp and aromatic; it is the salting and dressing of tomatoes several hours before they are to be served which makes them watery and clammy, although it has to be admitted that all the precautions in the world can do little to make commercially grown English and Channel Island tomatoes anything but mushy and tasteless.” !!!

Look no vinegar, which I must admit I thought you had to have, and which, indeed, many others add. But I do generally follow her recipe and it is always pretty good.

Below are a couple of attempts from bloggers attempting her recipe. The first is from the lady quoted above in an article which tells you how to make 11 simple beautiful salads à la Elizabeth David. And this is sort of how I remember that first tomato salad, although I'm not sure about the herbs. It was the quality of the tomatoes though and the dressing which really made it zing.

The Life(Time) of Cooking lady is probably quite right in saying:

"We no longer live in an age where the food is not fresh or of good quality and must be hidden with sauces and gravies, spices and herbs." Ganga - A Life(Time) of Cooking

However, I'm still not sure that the quality of the tomatoes is quite the same as what you will find in France and Italy - unless you grow your own of course. We just don't seem to be able to get those huge wrinkly and gorgeously red tomatoes that you can get in France and Italy. These are just some examples that I have photographed along the way:

The ones in the middle can be found here perhaps - I think they appear in the Queen Victoria Market sometimes, and they are gorgeous, but not those huge wrinkly ones. Which is a shame because it is absolutely true that:

"you do need the very best of ingredients for Elizabeth David’s." Ganga - A Life(Time) of Cooking

As to the method I see that not everyone is in agreement with her on preparing the tomatoes at the last minute. Here is Roger Vergé - renowned French originator of La Cuisine du Soleil on the subject:

"To make a good tomato salad, take four firm tomatoes of 120g each. Wash them, remove the stalks and cut each into eight sections. Put in a bowl and season with a tablespoon, yes a tablespoon - of fine salt. Add pepper, and sprinkle with 4 tablespoons of wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Mix well and leave to rest for 2-3 hours. Just before serving, drain the tomatoes in a colander and throw away the juice. Sprinkle the drained tomatoes with 3 tablespoons olive oil and strew with 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley."

I saw a few other recipes with a similar approach, so who's to say who is right> although I tend to go the Elizabeth David route myself. I guess if you go the marinade route, you would lose a fair amount of the juice. Maybe I should try it sometime.

Times they change though. In France you can still get that basic tomato salad, but these days you will often get a carpaccio version in which the tomatoes are sliced very thinly. I know the photo of David is a bit wonky - my friends obviously were playing around a bit when they took it. The place is Beaucaire on the Rhône a little south of Avignon and an amazingly under appreciated little town. I had the same tomato carpaccio and it was just lovely.

The other thing that happens nowadays of course is a riot of different kinds of tomatoes all on the one plate, or additional extras such as the tapenade shown below. Then there are way out dressings - see the Ottolenghi dish, on the right, which not only has the wild variety of tomatoes but also has a dressing that includes fish sauce.

But I'll wind up with Jamie - who is one of the gurus of the current generation - well maybe he is getting a bit old now. I should find out who is 'hot' with the young these days. Anyway I thought that he is a very interesting comparison to Elizabeth David who was very much of her time, just as Jamie is of his. He goes for a hybrid approach - a tiny bit of marinading - but no removal of the juices. I always worry about the amount of salt that these chefs suggest though. I don't generally add much salt - although I always do add some to tomatoes. Sugar seems to be something that some add and some don't. Anyway have a quick watch - it's so very, very typical of today's food which harks back to Elizabeth David et al. but which builds on it - balsamic vinegar, chilli, people - plus the suggestions of all the different things you can do with it.

Final thing. The Italians of course have a rather more accommodating national flag, so that they can have a patriotic tomato salad - the Caprese. Pity about the blue for the French.


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