The dog days of high summer and the heat is on. Cicadas scream madly from the trees and sunflowers reach for shimmering skies washed of colour.
In the markets meanwhile, colour reigns supreme. Piles of misshapen scarlet peppers and shiny purple and mauve aubergines nudge their culinary partners, the abundant courgettes and vast, delectable Marmande tomatoes; a ratatouille dances across almost every market stall. On the long fruit stands the star of the summer ball is making her flamboyant entrance – the beautiful, fleshy peach. Cherries are over now, apricots are making their bow, but the lovely peach will see us through the holiday months – and for sheer voluptuous pleasure, there is nothing to touch a ripe peach. A private pleasure of course, one wouldn’t want to be caught in the act, it can be embarrassing.
In this little corner of the simmering Quercy, we have just held our own summer ball, The Pink Ball, in aid of Breast Cancer Research and Poor Paws Dog Rescue. The first is of course an ongoing global crusade, represented in our case by the wonderful Institut Claudius Regaud in Toulouse, to which two thirds of the proceeds are going, in order to fund cancer research of all kinds. The second is a much more local enterprise, in constant need of funds, the Battersea of the South. It was exhausting, exhilarating and well worth all the effort. If you missed out this year, you can see a write-up of the glorious event and a few of the many photographs if you click on the article below.
One of the guests at the Ball happened to mention that one of our favourite village bar/restaurants – which you will recognise if you’ve read White Stone Black Wine – has a new chef. Young and eager, I was told, the menu is miraculous. This we had to experience for ourselves, so on Saturday night we took ourselves off to the Bahia in Prayssac and prepared to be impressed. The Bahia is a bar, a typical French village bar, there’s nothing remotely fancy about it. The Amstel beer sign hangs at a drunken angle, plastic chairs adorn the dusty pavement and there’s no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary, good food, perhaps, but not fancy. Think again.
I gleaned my first warning from a relatively new outside seating area. The chairs were still moulded plastic, but the tables were clothed and beautifully dressed and the area was curtained. Hmmm, I thought. More clues were picked up from the menu itself, which though still very short, suddenly looked startlingly chic. The soused herring salad – a staple of this little place for many years – had been replaced with iced Quercy melon soup, or carpaccio de boeuf or some complicated little number involving fat prawns and wafer-thin filo. We took our places and sat back with a pleasant sense of expectation. The waiter arrived with the amuses bouches. ‘A cappuccino of asparagus’, he told us, ‘bon appétit!’
Before us lay a pair of test tubes on a bed of crushed ice, slender black straws showed the way… the beloved’s face was a picture. We sucked our way through the asparagus and it was tinglingly delicious. Our first course arrived fairly promptly and the jaw opposite me dropped a further couple of inches. My carpaccio looked like something out of the gastronomy glossies, as for the prawn thing – it was a work of art. First impressions didn’t disappoint, the dishes were superbly cooked and crafted, and dinner continued as it had begun, stylish and undoubtedly delicious. Through fillet of dorade and the most succulent rabbit, boned, elegantly presented and garnished with flowers we were continually amazed. I concluded my dinner with a flawless fondant, but by that time I expected nothing less.
It was an education, but this sort of thing can happen in France. All the great chefs have to start somewhere and it’s frequently in little out-of-the-way places, where they hone their skills and bide their time, and where a few discerning customers can experience their talent for a lot less than it is worth.
Fancy a taste of a future Senderens or Roux? Try the village bar in Prayssac, you won’t be disappointed.
© Amanda Lawrence 2010
Author White Stone Black Wine