Postcards from the Pyrenees…again
The Mountains form a natural border between France and Spain, but more than that they traverse the historical regions with their distinctive traditions, culinary and otherwise. To the west on both sides of the peaks is the Basque country, wonderful people who are rightly proud of their traditions, food studded with Pimentón, and an incomprehensible language with lots of X’s and J’s. From the beautiful Atlantic towns to the tiny coves that pepper the northern coastline, semi-sparkling crisp white wines like Txacoli (you see, it is unpronounceable but very drinkable!) and dishes that ooze with the warmth of spiced sausage alongside classics such as bacalao (salt cod).
Moving across the historical regions to Béarn, nestled in the ancient region of Aquitaine, melds across into the rolling hills of Gascony with it’s fields of sunflowers, the heart of Cassoulet country…that is where we can be found.
The region is now known as Occitanie or L’Occitanie (changed from Midi-Pyrenees to by popular demand to reflect the old language of Oc that was spoken across the much of the region in the past). The ancient language of Oc is still present in place names, the region stretches from the edge of Aquitaine across to the Mediterranean coast, with Toulouse as the capital city. The small towns of the east on the French side of the border evoking, as they must, a striking resemblance to those on the other side of the border in Catalonia where the seafood, stews, cured meats and grilled vegetables mirror the reds and golds of the Occitanie and Catalan flags.
This warm spring day with the prospect of some friends popping over for supper, we opted to throw together an old classic from the old classic himself – Rick Stein. We’ve made this fisherman’s stew many times and varied it more often than not to fit the ingredients we have available to us. I’d like to be able to share a picture of the finished dish however I’m afraid, dear reader, we ate it without a second thought!
This is a simple, one pot dish that requires precision only in regard to the cooking of the fish, in this case, Hake. It takes 15 minutes to prep and about 20 min in the cooking, has relatively few ingredients and is packed with flavour.
We sliced a couple of onions, and 3 or 4 garlic cloves and popped them into a pan with some olive oil where there, they softened. Once translucent, we added a couple of teaspoons of paprika and allowed that to cook out a little before next adding a peeled and sliced chorizo sausage. When the sausage had begun to give up it’s oils, turning the contents of the pan a beautiful crimson we added a large handful of sliced padron peppers – a little green pepper from Spain. You could add some other peppers, if you can’t get these, I’d probably add a very few jarred roquito peppers by way of substitute as they would echo the heat that comes from one in every few of the padrons, I’d also add a sliced capsicum in this case.
Next we added potatoes, cut lengthways into 3, you don’t want them so thin that they will break up but not so chunky that they will take an age to soften. We turned the potatoes over to absorb the oils from the pan then threw in a large glass of white wine and a couple of large wine glasses of water. We added some freshly ground black pepper, a little sea salt and cooked on until the potatoes were starting to soften – about 8 minutes. Finally, we seasoned some hake steaks well and sat them aboard the potato stew, at a rolling simmer. You could use any meaty white fish. We closed the pan with it’s lid and left the hake to steam for 10 minutes or thereabouts – until it had just turned from translucent to opaque.
The sun dipped behind the hills, those blonde cattle wandered toward their shelter…village dogs played in the twilight. We lit candles and placed our pot in the centre of the little wooden table in our corner of Gascony, there to share with friends. We broke bread and talked of happy times.