Last week I introduced you to Epifanea Tredwell, the Travelling Lady of the Cookbook (A Grand Tour in 20 Recipes) (click here to revisit).
Here is the second recipe …
Merluza alla Vasca
As a rule, Eppy did not do beaches.
xxxNot her sort of thing. For a start, boring. So-so. Pale skin is fine; he doesn’t mind it, much; and it’s healthier. The terrace of a tiny tavern in an old town square or even a bench in a pretty park were far better venues to catch up on some reading. Who needs sand getting everywhere?
xxxAnd so much flesh. Even at home, where weather allowed little sun-worship and convention limited exposure, bikinis and budgie-smugglers were the norm. But here …
xxxThe sight of low-cut tops and off-the shoulder gowns could make her a bit uncomfortable. Acres of bodies in the outdoor equivalent of underwear or less were definitely not where she wanted to be.
xxxShe liked a swim. She did own a bikini as well as a one-piece. But she tried to keep her activity to quiet spots and quiet times and was never fond of lying in the sun for extended periods when the aquatic exercise was over.
xxx“It’s not a ‘body image’ issue …”
xxx“It bloody shouldn’t be, not with your physique. Women half your age would kill for …”
xxx“I know, I know; I look after myself and I’m rather proud … no, pleased, with the results. But I do it for health, not for display purposes, and I don’t like seeing lots of skin on general display. It’s just the way I am.”
xxxSo Mediterranean beaches brought her no pleasures. Certainly not the sea of breasts. Not even the exceedingly handsome and completely naked young man, who gave her a friendly smile as she passed. And though this was the quickest route to the market, she thought she might take the back streets to her apartment, when she’d bought a piece of firm, white fish and a handful of juicy clams.
Why don’t you cook local dishes
Too obvious lol
Just for you I’ll rename it — Nasello alla Basca
xxxGreat fish, hake. But most Brits don’t want to know about anything that isn’t cod or haddock. Plaice sometimes, but that seems out of fashion now. Overfished? Like Mediterranean hake, in fact.
xxxMaybe he was right. It would, she thought, have been more sustainable and more local to have bought the Atlantic version in Bilbao, though that was probably caught off Cornwall. But she wasn’t going anywhere near Bilbao. Not on this trip anyway.
xxxOn vacation many people like to read books relevant to their location. Not just travel books. Hardy in Dorset, Proust in Paris (if it’s a very long stay and the weather is terrible) or maybe Henning Mankell, if in Sweden for a spot of serial killing.
xxxEppy liked to be different. But not just for the sake of it (she insisted) and not slavishly so. She might cook a paella in Provence or read Calvino in Cádiz, but she had to admit that sometimes the best quality ingredients could only be found in the home of a dish, and that some books benefitted from a genuine sense of place.
xxxEven so, she’d abandoned her plan to read The Leopard and was planning her Basque hake over a glass of wine (at least that was a local product) and supporting her shopping list on the book that Karen had thrust upon her before she left.
xxx“You’re having a break from home and work and domestic life — take a break from heavy reading too.”
xxx“But I like what you call ‘heavy’,” she protested. “It ain’t heavy to me; I love long flowing sentences, poetic turns of phrase, deep, meaningful … well, you know.”
xxx“Oh, do lighten up, darling. Some ‘shallow shit’ is very well written you know. And maybe you’d just find you enjoyed something frothy for a change — and a bit raunchy too.”
xxxClams. Eggs. Peas (small pack, frozen).
xxxGarlic. Onions I have, and flour.
xxxWhite wine, of course. Oh and some shellfish bits to add to the stock maybe.
xxxAnd parsley grows in the little shaded garden. And of course there’s already olive oil. Just need a fresh lemon. Or was there a tree in the back too?
xxx“I’m perfectly comfortable with sex, Kat. Why do people think I’m such a prude? I like a good fuck as much as anyone — now it’s your turn to look shocked — yes, I’m quite cool about the word too. Feeling sexy is great; I just don’t think it’s a thing for public sharing.”
xxx“Don’t do it in the street in case you …”
xxx“… frighten the horses. Exactly. But you can do it with the horses for all I care, in the privacy of your own stables.”
xxxThey’d laughed and raised their glasses to sex, glorious sex, and Eppy had accepted the gift of Picnics of Passion. And brought it with her, fully intending to ‘give it a go’. Though, just in case, she’d also packed Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber. She didn’t like to tell Kat that this too had its explicit passages, written centuries before her ‘liberated’ modern pulp.
xxxTake hake steak: bake.
xxxShe smiled at the wordplay in her notebook.
xxxAnother lovely kitchen, though not with much of a view. To look out of her bedroom she had to stand on her chair, and her only reward was a patch of waste ground where the local dogs conducted their unromantic sex lives.
xxxSmall, high windows facing South. So the rooms stay cool in high Summer, I suppose. At least the shared lounge had a view to the high hills North of the town.
xxxMince your onion, said the notes. Forget that, said Epifanea, and chopped it finely. She placed the broad blade of a knife on the garlic clove and smacked down on it with the heel of her hand.
xxx“My dear, no one uses flour in sauces nowadays.”
xxxChatting about recipes was one of life’s great joys, but not with those few judgemental idiots, ruled by fashion and the latest celebrity chef. Yes, thicken by reducing or adding Guatemalan filé powder or whatever is trending in Shoreditch this week.
xxx“Don’t you know that flour just clogs up the taste buds, giving an impression of blandness?”
xxx“Fuck you Celia,” she thought but didn’t say.xxx
xxxShe had already dusted her fish with seasoned flour, and now she started frying it (skin side down, of course) in a little olive oil.
xxxIt only takes a minute, babe, she sang, to fry a hake, to fry a hake …
xxxAnd another minute to fry the other side, before lifting it and draining it and putting it in the warmed earthenware dish. Squeeze some lemon juice over the top.
xxxShe wiped the pan and added a little more oil, enough to soften the onions and garlic. Basques, like most nations, did not share the Italian aversion to using both together.
xxxOf the offensive flour a small spoonful sprinkled, mixed into the oil, then a slow stirring while adding a splash of wine — and drinking some for quality assurance purposes. Once reduced, the mixture turned to sauce by adding the warmed fish stock, prepared earlier and waiting patient in its jug.
xxxIt didn’t take long to thicken. While it was doing so, Eppy added the frozen peas, salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped parsley. The, when the peas were cooked through and the sauce a good consistency, thickened but still fluid, she poured it over the fish and scattered the handful of fresh clams over the top. Then the rustic brown dish was ready for the moderate oven.
xxx“I don’t like immoderate ovens any more than I do immoderate people”, he had once said. It still wasn’t very funny.
xxxSpare me the pictures! he texted now, in his frustrated jealousy. Love letters, yes; blow by blow delicious recipes, no!
xxxUndeterred, merciless, she sent a picture of a hard-boiled egg, its shell half removed. He replied with a rude emoji. She laughed.
xxxThe other guests probably thought her crazy. She rose so early she sometimes met them coming home from their nights out as she set off for her morning run or swim. But her timetable also meant she could make use of shared areas, like kitchens and lounges, at times when no one else was interested. So now she stood dreamy in the living room, wine glass in hand, and watched the hills glowing in the ever-changing evening light.
xxxNot only the dawn is rosy-fingered, Mr Homer.
xxxAlmost in a trance, she suddenly realised that twenty minutes had gone by and the fish needed removing from the oven. With the dish placed on a tray, she could finish the dish by scattering the chopped up egg and a bit more chopped parsley. At home she might have added a boiled potato too, but today she simply tore in half a petit pain (or whatever they called it here) and dropped it on the tray.
xxxWine, bread, merluza alla Vasca — done!
xxxShe ate it at the desk in her bedroom. Well, someone might come back early. She accompanied it with Mozart on her headphones and Katerina’s book propped up against the wall in front of her.
xxxRealising she was not the only pebble on the beach, Janey Gower decided to become a little bolder …
xxxIt was not a promising start. But the fish was delicious.