My husband refuses to eat salad as a main dish. C’est comme ça. In Antoine’s book, if a main meal is served cold, it’s not dinner – even when the temperatures soar to a sweltering 37°C like it did this week in Paris.
The Corsicans have a reputation of being stubborn and as just-as-stubborn a Scot, in our 20 years together, we always reach some kind of a compromise. For a salad, this delicious exception to his cold salad rule is a salade de chèvre chaud, since the goat’s cheese is melted under the grill.
When I first tasted this salad as a student in a Parisian brasserie, it was a far cry from the one I later learned to make in Provence. Alas, many brasseries use the horrid plastic-tasting, pasturised goat cheese which can be pretty nasty.
The best goat cheese to use is Crottin de Chavignol. The French are normally so poetic but when it came to officially naming this cheese, they somehow lost their romantic charm: it literally means goat’s droppings. I’m swiftly passing this part by, as it couldn’t be further from the amazing flavour of this lait cru (raw milk) cheese.
As a student, Antoine introduced me to some of his friends in Provence. I hardly spoke a word, apart from Je m’appelle Jill with the most attrocious Scottish accent. On top of that, their typical twangy southern accents had me even more bewildered: ‘du pain’ is pronounced ‘du paing’, ‘du vin’ is ‘du vaing’, and so on. Even when they swear it has a song to it.
As the men sat around – catching up on gossip on the terrasse – the girls took me under their wings in the kitchen. We didn’t need much conversation: everything was self-explanatory as the most fresh and flavoursome produce lay in front of us on an ancient oak table.
There’s nothing to this salad and it’s not even a recipe, really. (If you would prefer me to write it out, please say, otherwise I’m just leaving it like this.)
The most important lesson I learned from them was to put a simple bay leaf on top of each slice of crusty baguette which had been dribbled with olive oil before laying the slice of chèvre, walnuts, rosemary (or herbes de provence) on top and dribbled with more olive oil before toasting in the oven. What’s the big deal with the bay leaf? Well, when you taste it this way you don’t want your salad any other way again.
Serve on top of a mesclun salad, topped with a good dose of lardons (bacon bits), a dash of fresh thyme and plenty of chopped garlic (don’t forget to remove the core first, as it’s easier to digest) that have been pre-fried together. Toss the salad in some vinaigrette dressing.
Just remember to take out the bay leaf before eating: you’ll see just how it’s all beautifully fragranced; oh-là-là, summer, Provence, and with a glass of chilled rosé amongst friends; and time for the girls to join in the gossip.
This week’s soaring temperatures reminded me of when we lived in Paris, just 5 minutes’ walk from the Eiffel Tower. Being in an apartment that was south facing with no air conditioning was a challenge at times in summer: it’s no wonder we used to just stoodge about in our swimming gear.
Now that we’re out in the suburbs with a house, kids and garden, we can sit out and enjoy the shade of the laurel bay tree – thinking of our next salade de chèvre chaud. But there are still the heat challenges: the metal on our front gate had expanded so much, that we couldn’t get out. Now, that’s certainly a new excuse for being late for school!
After our recent trip to the Loire, I’m craving more goat cheese. This is what I had this week for lunch while it was 37°C – and no, Antoine didn’t have this cold stuff. Roughly chopped cucumber, watermelon, melon de Cavaillon, goat cheese, chives – all tossed in olive oil and lemon juice (or mix olive oil and limoncello for something more adult) and served with a crusty baguette.