How do you react to those shots – sometimes an advertisement – on your TV screen of a group of Italians eating in a garden under the shade of a vine arbour? The table is groaning under the weight of succulent-looking dishes, as a beaming Mama carries yet another platter of food towards her laughing family. My reaction to such scenes is one of intense envy and fond memories come to mind of a tree-filled garden on the banks of the Rhône, where I spent many months as a child. What a pleasure it is to eat en famille outside and indeed how pleasurable it is to share a prolonged meal with one’s adult family. Sadly, I derive little joy from eating with small children. My experience has been that such meals are transformed into a mini battlefield as parents, seeking to get the little ones to eat and to acquire table manners, face persistent resistance, and invariably both sides emerge seriously bruised from the encounter.
No, I talk here of the meal, where one lingers at the table over a few bottles of wine. My children – long grown up – love such get-togethers, which often generate noisy debates, but also that glow of contentment, which is part of family life. I am fortunate in that I have a very large conservatory full of flowering plants and that is where we eat. I usually do the cooking; they set the table in accordance with exacting instructions and do the wash up. More often than not, we forego a starter, confining ourselves to a main course, pudding and cheese. On high days and very special holidays, the latter might be washed down with a desert wine and, or, port.
The majority of my children insist on the cheese being served with water biscuits. They argue that any accompaniment to cheese must be neutral; nothing must interfere with the flavour of the individual cheeses. My older daughter, who has picked up continental habits, insists on having bread. I favour oatcakes. I love their gentle crunch, their crumbly consistency and that taste of oats and butter. For me, they enhance the pleasure of eating cheese with a glass of wine to hand.
In the 1970s, we lived amongst the French in the South Seas and we sometimes had to entertain them. Have you ever had to do that – entertain the French? It is an ordeal. When served his food, your French guest will nibble it cautiously with his front teeth until he is satisfied that he is not being poisoned. If the dish passes muster, you will hear the sigh of pleasure. Then back teeth come into play in the normal way and the ensuing relief for the stress-filled host/hostess is immense. I recall a dinner party at which my wife served oatcakes with the cheese. There was a murmur around the table of “Ah, ces petits biscuits!”, as if they were little blocks of rat poison. My wife was seriously rattled. Then came the cautious tasting and a chorus of, “Qu’ils sont bons”! My wife beamed down at her guests. They were right of course. Those oatcakes were delicious but sadly I have not been able to find the recipe. However, I have experimented with different ingredients and what follows is the result – the recipe for the perfect oatcake.
(Makes 24-30 biscuits 6cm in diameter)
150g white flour
1tsp baking powder
Mix the dry ingredients together and rub in the butter with your fingers. Add sufficient milk to produce a moist dough. (You may not need all of the 75ml.) Roll out thinly on a floured surface, cut out the biscuits with a cutter or glass and prick them with a fork. Bring the remaining scraps of dough together and knead them into a ball before repeating the rolling and cutting process again. Repeat until all the dough is used. Place the biscuits on a lightly greased oven tray and cook for 12 minutes in a preheated oven at 180°C.
The above recipe can be varied by adding 25g sugar and/or adding a tsp of curry powder and/or substituting the white flour with brown.