Lagrasse, France—23 August 2015
There were two markets on Saturday in Lagrasse, a beautiful commune in the Aude department in southern France. One was in the 17th Century covered market. It was here I went, earlier this morning, in pursuit of vegetables and cheese, only to discover that it was entirely given over to about 20 stalls selling pottery. It was a very jolly, but mildly disappointing sight. The men stall holders had their hair in ponytails and the women all wore long skirts. One of the potters was doing a demonstration. I spent 10 minutes wandering around out of a sense of duty. There wasn’t anything I liked. Pottery markets always make my heart sink a little. When you take home that one little bowl, chosen from dozens just like it, it rarely gets used – too big for granola, the wrong colour for a tomato salad (which should be on a plate anyway), so you put olives in when people come for supper and no one asks where you got it from; then it gets chipped and ends up as the thing you put paperclips and used alarm clock batteries in.
The produce market is on the boulevard up there, said one of the pottery traders, pointing vaguely west, and only briefly looking up from the book she was reading.
As produce markets in France go, this one went very modestly indeed; two stalls selling fruit and vegetables, one selling goats cheeses (the one I bought was delicious though) and a Chinese lady selling spring rolls and crab beignets. One of the fruit and vegetable stalls, however, immediately stood out. It had—how do you say—a kind of ‘we grow everything’ aura about it. After 30 years of loving real farmers’ markets, whether in San Franscisco or Stroud in Gloucestershire, there was no mistaking this stall. And they did grow everything. I learnt that their biodynamic farm was three miles from Lagrasse and that they also raised beef cattle and made wine. On the stall were peaches, plums, apricots, onions, beetroot (of course—all organic growers grow beetroot), garlic, potatoes, carrots, courgettes, tomatoes and… haricots verts. A few handfuls of them at the bottom of a big wooden box.
The rest have been sold – 15 kilos, the woman said. They always sell first. Next time you must come earlier. (It was only 9.15.am.) I bought what she had left, along with peaches, tomatoes, parsley, garlic and the biggest bunch of basil ever for €1.50.
Well, you know what this recipe is going to be anyway. But after I got back to my apartment, I thought I would see what other French cooks might make of this deliciously simple combination of green beans, tomatoes and garlic (this was one of them):
1 grande boite de haricots verts – 1 grande boite de tomates concassées natures – herbes de provences – sel, poivre – huile d’olive – 1/2 gousse d’ail
Only half a garlic clove?! Never mind the tinned green beans and tomatoes… Please don’t do this dish with Kenyan French beans! The beans should be properly–and therefore laboriously–topped and tailed, not just topped (i.e. the stalky end) as is the silly tradition of too many restaurants who are just telling you that they have done them themselves.
Green beans à la Provençale
- 1kg green beans, topped and tailed
- 1kg good, ripe tomatoes, chopped, skin and seeds and all
- 3 cloves garlic, very finely sliced
- Good olive oil
- Salt and pepper
[I am sometimes tempted to put onion in this dish. But years ago, Rowleigh Leigh and a friend and I were having an argument about ratatouille, which I also used to put onions in. Rowleigh said that people who put onions in ratatouille should be burnt at the stake and so ever since I have been careful to leave them out. Rowleigh was right about ratatouille of course; they don’t need them, they are the wrong texture and bring too sweet a finish to the dish. And likewise in this dish of beans and tomatoes, the garlic alone, very slightly browned, will make the other ingredients, and therefore you, much happier.]
Have the chopped tomatoes ready.
Put a generous slug of olive oil in a deep-sided sauté pan or casserole over a medium flame, add the sliced garlic and fry gently until just coloured.
As soon as the garlic is ready, add the chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Taste. It might need a pinch of sugar. This is not sacrilege.
Meanwhile, bring 2 litres of water and 2 teaspoons of salt to the boil, add the beans and cook for about four minutes over a high heat until just past al dente, remove and drain. Add the beans to the tomatoes and continue to simmer until the beans are soft.
Serve either warm (but not hot) or at room temperature with bread as a starter—or with boiled potatoes and maybe some boiled ham or left-over roast chicken.
Barny Haughton is a chef, restaurateur, cookery school teacher and Eco Food pioneer. He has run three award-winning restaurants in Bristol over the last 25 years (Rocinantes, Quartier Vert and Bordeaux Quay).
Barny is best known for his work at Square Food Foundation, Bristol’s Cookery School & Community Kitchen, where he is Director and Head Teacher, teaching people from all walks of life to cook good food from scratch.