Made in Dorset: Ratatouille

IMG_20140921_104138We’re still going strong with homegrown tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines here in Dorset, and with the addition of a solitary, ripe pepper this week (yes, just the one) the whipping up of a ratatouille seems unavoidable.

Now, if Jacques Médecin is to be believed, each of the vegetables should be cooked separately before being combined into the final mélange, and I’m quite taken with the Ligurian tendency to throw in a few toasted pignoli (pine nuts) at the end for added crunch.  I like to sprinkle on a few pitted black olives or a crumbling of fresh goat’s cheese just before serving.

This is a dish that benefits from a bit of sitting around before you indulge.  Let it cool to room temperature and the flavours will marry all the more. Or leave it until tomorrow for the best results.  Serve it cold with a hunk of focaccia, hot with a plateful of beautiful swiss chard gnocchi or as the ideal late summer filling for a vegetarian lasagne.

And what about a wine match?  We’re trying something we’ve never drunk before called Ormeasco – a light, red wine from the Imperia area of Liguria. Virtually impossible to find away from the Riviera, it is also known as Dolcetto in Piedmont, and is widely available outside Italy under this name.  So I would track down a bottle of that if you can.  What do you like to drink with a late summer veggie recipe like this?



IMG_20140927_140312 (1)Ratatouille
Lunch for two or a side dish for four

4 baby aubergines, cut into 1cm discs or 1 large one, sliced and quartered
6 baby or 2 medium-sized courgettes, cut into 1 cm discs
1 red pepper, cut into fine slices
15 small to medium tomatoes or 6 large ones
Extra virgin olive oil (we used a Ligurian oil)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
A few drops of balsamic vinegar
A few sprigs of oregano or basil
Toasted pinenuts, black olives, and / or fresh goat’s cheese to garnish

To kick off, cut a cross into the bottom of each tomato, place them into a pan and pour over boiling water.  The skins will soon start to come away from the flesh and as they do, pour off the hot water and cover the tomatoes in cold water so that you can handle them shortly.  Peel off the skins and chop the tomatoes finely. Set aside.

Sauté the thinly-sliced peppers in the olive oil on a low heat until they soften. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Do the same with the aubergines and then the courgettes, setting them aside when they are soft and lightly browned.

In the same pan, lightly sauté the chopped garlic for a minute or two then add the chopped tomato.  Simmer for up to half an hour until the sauce thickens a little.  Add a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Add the reserved vegetables to the tomato sauce and mix together.

Place this final mixture into a serving dish.  Add chopped basil or oregano and your choice of garnishes.


Wednesday’s Wine: Reporting from the Riviera (part 2)

AltaviapicThe second tasting of our recent trip to the Riviera saw us heading up another steep hillside, this time on the Italian side of the border and high above the medieval town of Dolceacqua.  Altavia Vineyard has been going for eight years, producing the local wine, Rossese di Dolceacqua, and experimenting with grapes from further afield very successfully.

We had tasted the Rossese di Dolceacqua at home in the 2009 vintage and you can see my post on that wine here.  In situ, we tried the 2010 which was much lighter in body and our charming and knowledgable host, Chiara, told us about the local dish of rabbit, coniglio in Italian, cooked with Rossese wine. We wished we could have stopped in the restaurant she recommended down in the town which had this speciality on the menu, but we had to give in to a most persuasive argument from our children who favoured the pizzeria nextdoor. Hopefully there will be a next time.

We loved Altavia’s white wine, Noname 2013so called because they simply couldn’t come up with a name for it.  It’s an exciting blend of the widely-grown local Vermentino grape, and the meatier Rhône grape, Viognier. With herby, aromatic and citrus flavours from the former and an added floral, zingy dimension from the French grape, the resulting wine is ideal for pairing with punchy seafood dishes, perhaps featuring a hint of chilli and spice.

Amongst the reds, we were intrigued by the recently-bottled Touriga Nacional, a grape associated with Portugal and port wine with its propensity to add structure and concentrated flavour and this 2005 single varietal is proof in point. Big, bold, black fruit dominates, but the tannins have softened sufficiently to make it just the thing to go with a hearty winter casserole or roast, preferably in January and not too far from a roaring log fire.


The tasting room at Altavia looks out over the valley with the same idyllic views as can be witnessed from two stone holiday villas on  the property which are available for summer rentals.  Located in the olive groves with vines on all sides and sharing a swimming pool, they offer true get-away-from-it-all stuff.  For more information, check out the Altavia website.

Some of the Altavia wine range is available to buy in the UK at Red Squirrel Wines and the vineyard has an online shop. I was keen to buy some bottles from the cellar door and, despite much muttering from my husband about having to leave a child behind on the Riviera, I did squeeze a case selection into our boot together with some of the property’s extra virgin olive oil made from their own taggiasca olives.  Now being tasted in Dorset!

Black Jam


I’ve been consulting my provençal cookbooks again, this time for jam recipes as there are loads of plums, blackberries and other fruit just waiting to be preserved around here and I thought it would be fun to try something a little bit different this year.  I was intrigued to see a couple of recipes suggesting the use of aubergines.  Apparently they add bulk.  OK, why not?

The Confiture Noire of Provence is typically a mix of whatever fruits and nuts are available locally, including figs, melons, quinces and walnuts, according to Mireille Johnston in her book ‘The Cuisine of the Sun’.  I’m going for black fruit as Clare Ferguson suggests in ‘Flavours of Provence’, and I’m including the aubergine but omitting the nuts.  The result really is black jam and we’re onto the second jar already – it’s a hit with all the family so another blackberry-picking session may follow imminently.


Black Jam
Makes three x 300ml jars

400g black plums, stoned and chopped into bite-size chunks
300g blueberries
300g aubergine, chopped into bite-size chunks
150g blackberries
150ml water
100ml white wine
Juice of a lemon
500g jam sugar
Sterilized jam jars (see note below*)

Place all the ingredients in a preserving pan or sturdy saucepan, and bring to a rolling boil.  Stir regularly for ten minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium and cook for a further 20-30 minutes or until the mixture is dark and sticky.

To test the set of the jam, place a saucer in the freezer for a few minutes. Remove it and pour a small spoonful of jam onto it.  Leave for a couple of minutes and come back to it – the jam should be thick and crinkly, not runny when you touch it.

*To sterilize the jars, you can put them through a hot dishwasher cycle. Alternatively clean them thoroughly in very hot, soapy water.  Rinse them and dry in the bottom of a very low oven.



Tomatoes, cobnuts and rocket – late summer pesto

IMG_20140903_160429It’s full-on tomato season here in Dorset, and hugely satisfying to see so much ripe, red fruit both in the garden and the greenhouse.  We might even be saved from the usual gallon of green tomato chutney this year.   Over the summer we’ve munched our way through successive pickings of wild rocket grown from seed.  The flavour is so fresh and peppery, the leaves so crunchy when just picked so it’s been a delight to mix up simple salads with this come again crop.  Out in the lanes behind the house, blackberries and cobnuts are suddenly ready for picking, but if yesterday’s blackberry hunt with the kids is anything to go by there will be more eaten along the way than brought home for cooking. Anyway, more on the blackberries in my next post.

One of the recent comments that came back when I asked friends and family what they thought of the blog was that I should probably write a bit more about pesto and pistou.  That is the blog’s title after all.  Good point.  So I’m sharing my recipe for oven-dried tomato, rocket and cobnut pesto, a great sauce for late summer and a tasty way to use up a glut of ripe tomatoes. The tomatoes take three hours to dry out sufficiently in a low oven but you could use jarred sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil if you’re in a hurry. Go for pine nuts if you can’t get cobnuts.  Kentish cobnuts are available now in the UK but the season is pretty short.

No need to serve the pesto with anything complicated. Simply scoop a generous spoonful over linguine, add a few rocket leaves and top with a dollop of ricotta or a few torn strips of mozzarella. Why not add a spoonful to a bowl of fresh tomato soup or spread some over a fillet of grilled salmon or chicken?

Let’s raise a glass to all this delicious late summer produce.  Mine’s a soft red to go with the pesto –  a Barbera from Piedmont I reckon and lightly chilled.  Salute!


Late Summer Pesto

For oven-drying the tomatoes:

500g ripe plum tomatoes, sliced in half lengthways
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Place the tomatoes on a greased baking tray, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with the extra virgin olive oil.  Bake in a low oven – 140°C – for three hours but do watch them to make sure they are not burning.  Remove from the oven when done and leave to cool.  NB You can also jar up these dried tomatoes, cover them with olive oil and add a selection of herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary and thyme, and then you have your own oven-dried tomatoes to use during the winter.

For the pesto:
(makes approx. 300g)

The oven-dried tomatoes from the above recipe or 150g sundried tomatoes, drained of oil
25g rocket leaves
50g cobnuts (about 150g before shelling), chopped and toasted (or the equivalent of pine nuts)
50g pecorino romano
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
75ml extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

Place all the pesto ingredients in a blender and whizz until mixed.  Add more salt and oil as required.