I had thought of suggesting a big plate of cured ham and figs as the most elegant beginning to a summer repast (or even, when served in abundance, the whole meal). But then my memory turned to childhood and the one decent thing about school - weeks and more weeks of summer holiday. Our first family adventure in France involved The First Croissant and the inaugural sighting of fields of globe artichokes. Ah, such good things they are. And, being a Scot, I get a pleasant feeling from putting a family member of our national symbol, the thistle, on a menu. To follow, a tian, a dish that is so often overlooked by the highfalutin whizz-bang-pop of modern cookery. And, to finish, that most sublime companionship of raspberries and cream. The stuff that memories are made of, indeed.
All recipes serve six.
We crossed the Channel from Plymouth to Roscoff, north Brittany (an ugly port attached to a pretty town, as I remember). In the small hours, groggy, bad-tempered and hungry, we drew up in the town square, where the air was rich with the smell of freshly baked croissants and bread. Such is the power of memory that no other croissant has ever tasted so good. Much restored, we headed south. Within minutes, we were driving through great fields of artichokes - there seemed tens of thousands of them in all directions. The magic of that first sight has never diminished, and later that holiday I discovered that they taste as good as they look. Artichoke has remained among my favourite vegetables ever since.
There are many great recipes that require the preparing and trimming of artichokes but, to my mind, artichoke is best just simply boiled and served warm with vinaigrette. It also demands little time in the making - the essence of summer dining.
6 large artichokes
Salt and pepper
3 tbsp very good red-wine vinegar
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
9 tbsp very good olive oil
Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil. Place each artichoke against your chest and, with a hefty pull, yank the stalk from the choke, pulling away the fibrous strands growing therein as you do so. (If the artichokes are very fresh, also cook the stalks, then split them, scoop out the flesh and eat this, too. Discard the stalks if they are tough.) Plunge the artichokes into the boiling water, lay a plate on top to keep them submerged, and cook for half an hour. Test that they are done by removing a leaf from the bottom of one artichoke - if the flesh at the torn end of the leaf is tender, remove the artichokes from the pot; if there is still resistance to the bite, continue cooking until softened, checking every five minutes or so. Place the artichokes upside down in a strainer, to drain. They are ideally served just warm.
Now make the vinaigrette. Dissolve the salt and pepper in the vinegar, add the mustard, then whisk in the oil. Pour into six individual little bowls and serve alongside each artichoke. Place a big plate in the middle of the table for the discarded leaves.
Tian of potato, courgettes and saffron
I adore courgettes, and invariably buy way too many of them, which means I'm often making this very pleasant tian. It can be served as a glorious principal dish in its own right, but also goes well with other foods, particularly fish. I have written about tians before, not least because of the beautiful round or oval earthenware dish that gives the tian its name, and I've cooked many different variations, some of them combining just a few vegetables, others plenty, but I have found that those made with either potatoes or courgettes are the most delicious. Put those two together, as here - flavoured lightly with herbs and saffron, and served with a generous grating of Parmesan - and I'm in heaven.
Larger courgettes should be shunned in favour of smaller, more compact ones, whose flavour shames those great beasties.
1kg small, firm courgettes
1.5kg large, waxy potatoes
1 handful courgette flowers, if available
2 medium onions
1 handful picked flat-leaf parsley
1 small pinch fresh thyme
100ml white wine
200ml chicken stock (or water)
1 big pinch saffron stamens
200ml whipping cream
100g unsalted butter
100ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 big lump fresh Parmesan
Warm an oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Wash the courgettes, and peel and wash the potatoes. Check the courgette flowers for bugs. Peel and finely chop the onions. Roughly chop the parsley and thyme. In a big pan, bring the wine and stock (or water) to the boil, throw in the saffron and turn off the heat. Leave to sit for five minutes, then add the cream and return to the boil for a few minutes.
Thinly slice the potatoes and courgettes. Wash the potatoes, to remove the starch. In a small pan, melt the butter and oil, and brush this around the inside of the tian, making sure you have enough left over with which to brush the finished dish. Place a layer of potatoes in the tian, then courgettes, scatter with onion, herbs, flowers, a ladleful of saffron liquor and a little seasoning. Repeat until everything is used up. Drizzle the remaining butter mix over the top, then bake for 45 minutes to an hour. It is done when the potato offers no resistance and the dish is coloured lightly. Leave to rest for 15-20 minutes before eating - it tastes much better when warm as opposed to piping hot. Grate Parmesan liberally over the top when ready to eat.
Burn'd raspberry cream
I was brought up in the heartland of berry- and currant-growing in Scotland - the Vale of Strathmore, between Perth and Dundee to the south, and the Carse of Gowrie heading northwest into the Highlands - and so take great pleasure in pooh-poohing any rival to the boast that Scotland grows the finest berries in the world. Could there be a finer way of eating these glories than in a pudding of a great pile of berries and a big bowl of cream (or, my own preference, freshly churned vanilla ice cream)? Well, this recipe is the only other thing that comes close. As yet, the horror of the watery, crisp and strangely flavourless strawberry has not yet been visited on the raspberry - let the Sassenachs eat their fill of those (since when did nature intend strawberries to be crisp, anyway?) and I will consume the other during the short season of the finest summer crop of all.
500-600g very ripe raspberries
800ml double cream
100g unrefined caster sugar
Light muscavado sugar
Pick through the raspberries, discarding any with blemishes - under no circumstances wash the berries, as contact with water diminishes them immeasurably. Also, they should be unrefrigerated. In a big bowl, whisk the cream with the caster sugar until the softest peaks form. Tip in the berries, and mix in gently but thoroughly. Scoop the mix into a serving dish and strew with a thin layer of muscavado sugar. Heat a grill until fierce, then place the dish under the heat, shaking it repeatedly and carefully, until the sugar has melted and turned a rich caramel brown. Don't worry: the finish is not meant to be even - some of the cream will bubble into the sugar and form curious whorls and the like. Once done, refrigerate so that the thin crust softens somewhat, and eat within the hour