Friday, 16 September 2016

A Brief History of Breade Sawce

Breade Sawce
Given that bread has been around for millennia, it probably comes as no surprise that bread sauce, a humble and delicious concoction, has been around for a long time also. It is said that the Egyptians used to make it, to apply as a poultice on bunions and to sooth chicken pox spots. The Burgundian Gauls (or Vandals) of East Germany liked to rub it into their long braids and fashion their hair into spikes before battle. And according to ancient manuscripts kept in York cathedral, the Anglo-Saxons were overjoyed to discover that bread sauce could be used in the building of their rudimentary huts; instead of the usual wattle-and-daub to cover woven twigs. Which of course, was traditionally mixed together with soil, straw and seething, hot animal faeces.

However, it wasn't until the Tudor period, with the influx of spices, from along the Silk Road, from the Outta Arabias and Inner Mongolias and across the great Steppes of Euroastrolasia, that bread sauce began to be regarded as a food. Because refrigeration was still in its infancy and indeed, as electricity had yet to be invented, there was often a necessity to cover the foul taste of rotting fowl. In fact, some scholars say that it was Henry the 8th who was responsible for the invention. After loudly proclaiming in royal court, that all he wished for were 'some pretty, sweet ducks to kiss,' he began to fart violently and start to scream for his monks. His poor, beleaguered cook, in a blind panic, stewed some old lumps of bread and onions in milk and using a fist full of cloves and bay leaves, slathered the Kings' ten roasted mallard with this new elixir. But it was too late. By the time it reached the table, Henry was incapacitated by gout, blinded by syphilis and struck down by an exploding ulcer. He died the very next day, without ever knowing bread sauce.

Which was a shame but still, recent research has suggested that his courtiers tucked into that dish, regardless of his impending demise. As some notable historians have noted, they clearly didn't give a flying fudge about the King and because it was so damn tasty, they decided from henceforth and onwards hence, that bread sauce should always accompany some sort of roast bird; such as turkey, chicken, goose or swan. Particularly on a Sunday and especially with rich gravy. It was passed down in law and anyone found not complying would soon be branked, whipped or worse. And so, a legendary condiment was born and forced upon the nation.

You, of course, should always buy the most freshest and most free ranging and organically minded sort of bird, for your Sunday particulars. But if you do and have some leftover bread, rummaging around in your cupboard, you'd be a fool not to make some of this heartwarming and nourishing porridge to go alongside it.

The recipe that follows is actually one of the most earliest recorded and therefore, most original instructions for making bread sauce. Found in that infamous tome of renaissance cuisine - 'A Propre New Booke Of Cokery' - you might find it a bit hard to follow. If you do, you can always refer to Delia's version instead. It's not quite the same but she has been around for a while also and historically, I have always found Delia to be quite reliable.

Unlike this blog post.

Breade Sawce

Tayke a loafe of breade and tye with stryng and hang over a well, fir 10 dayes, until it is harde and undigestable. Breake with bear hands, into pyeces and place upon a platter by the grayte. To make a whyte broth, squeze the uddrs of a female cowe and gather one bucket of mylk. Place on the grayte and add a onion, chopd and a baye lefe, from a baye trye and a dozenye cloves from the Easte. Boyle and leeve fir 2 hours, to steepe. Then take out the baye, onion and clove. Fir the sawce, add the pyeces of breade into the milk and stere it well for quaylng on the grate, until thicke. Add creem if so wish and salte and pepper, but only to marke the daye of St Swithins. Serve with swanne and slopps.

The Foure Stages of Bread Sawce.
This would not have fed Henry the 8th.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Cooking with Sarsons - Porter and malt vinegar rye bread, topped with rarebit

Autumn doesn't officially start until the 22nd of this month but if you are anything like me, you will soon be wanting to get on with the business of hunkering down for the season; in heavy knitwear, thick socks, pipe and leather boots. For there are walks to be had, with leaves crunching underfoot, like nature's own version of Rice Crispies. Berries must be foraged in dying amber low light, to be placed into canvas satchels or jute bags. Tesco's bags always snag and tear on thorns, which is such a waste of 5p. 

Damp will crawl in. Fires will be lit. Smoke will fill the air. And we will take to eating hot chestnuts and small slices of lard, secreted into the lining of our duffel coats, to lay on protective fat. Protection for the harsh winter ahead. Except, in reality, autumn will probably turn out nothing at all like that. We'll still be wearing our flip flops in November, no doubt. I suppose I just like getting into the whole autumnal vibe. Picturing it like a Hovis ad, all fuzzy and nostalgic like. Whatever lies in store, weather-wise, it will be nice to simply having the excuse to start tucking into some rib-sticking food. 

Not that I need one.  

I do hope we get some sort of icy snap this year, just so that some things marry up and go according to plan. Because some dishes are screaming out to be eaten when it is cold, damp and miserable. Like rarebit, or cheese on toast.  

Rarebit, of course, isn't cheese on toast. It's an entirely different animal, that takes a bit more care and attention in its creation. But the really great thing is that once it is done, you can easily keep a batch in the fridge for a week or so. You can wake up, peer through the window and see grey, melancholic skies and immediately cheer yourself up with the knowledge that breakfast, is just one savoury scoop and a spread away from your mouth . Once you've toasted your bread that is. Oh and toasted the rarebit too.

The bread featured in this recipe is also perfect autumn food. Made using rye, this is a heavy, dense sort of loaf, enriched by dark beer and enhanced by, yes, you've guessed it, malt vinegar. This is the last of my recipes commissioned by and for Sarson's and I hope have shown how versatile this fine condiment can be. 

I now have approximately 50 bottles of the stuff left to plow through and whilst, I am sure I could get through a fair bit over the next ten years or so. I am sure I will still have some left over.

So if you fancy a bottle or three, drop me a line.

In some circles, I am already known as the 'Vinegar Baron of Essex'.

Which is fine. I am not going to get all sour about it.

Proper beer and malt vinegar rye bread, topped with a Cheddar rarebit (makes two large loaves)


20gms dried active yeast
750gms strong white flour
250gms dark rye flour
20gms salt
650mls porter (two 500mls bottle will be needed)
100mls Sarson’s Malt Vinegar

For the rarebit

30gms butter
30gms plain flour
1tbs English mustard
4tbs porter
200gms grated Cheddar


To make the bread, make sure that the porter is at room temperature and pour into a bowl and mix in the yeast, until it has dissolved. Add the rye flour, 400gms of the strong white flour and the Sarson’s Malt Vinegar and mix to make a thick batter. Cover and leave for two hours.

Heat your oven to the highest it can go, usually to 250C on most domestic ovens and then add the rest of the flour and salt to the batter mix.

Knead vigorously, first in the bowl and transfer to your counter top and keep going until the dough is smooth and supple and no longer sticks to your hands. This will need perseverance and much sweat but look upon this as a work out. When ready, form into a ball and place back into the bowl, lightly dust with flour and cover with a tea-towel, leaving alone for 45 minutes.

After that time, tip the dough back out (it should have grown in size) and knock back and form into a smaller ball. Pop back into the bowl and again, leave for 45 minutes.

Tip out one more time and divide the dough in two and form into even shaped loaves and place them onto baking sheets, dusted with flour and cover them with a tea-towel. Leave to prove for another hour and a half, or until they have doubled in size.

With a sharp knife, cut a few slashes on the diagonal across the top, mist the inside of the scalding hot oven with a few squirts from a water spray gun and pop the loaves in. Bake for 5 minutes and then reduce the heat to 220C and bake for a further 30 - 35 minutes, until they are rich and brown in colour. When done, they should sound hollow when tapped underneath.

Leave to cool on wire racks.

When you want to make your cheesy rarebits, heat the grill up and slice your tangy bread into four thick slices. Pop a saucepan on to the hob and add the butter and melt until it starts to bubble. Add the flour and stir in quickly, for about a minute or so to cook the flour out. Add the mustard, porter, grated cheese and a good amount of cracked black pepper and cook down quickly, so that it forms into a spreadable paste.

Give your bread a quick toasting on either side and then spread the rarebit onto one side before blasting under the grill again, until it sizzles and browns just slightly. Enjoy with some more porter (if you have any left). But maybe not for breakfast.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Oliver Rowe's Food For All Seasons

'Kevin! I am a very busy man!'
If you ever need a good reason or excuse to wrangle out of an awkward conversation, I think I have finally found the ultimate response:

'Listen, I would love to carry on talking to you but I am actually in the middle of chargrilling some courgettes right now. So I have to stop you there and get back to them.'

Admittedly, this is going to be difficult if you are standing in the street and if you've bumped into an ex or a long lost school friend; one you have absolutely nothing in common with any more (if you ever did). Although, I suppose you could always then go completely silent on them, and start to stare downwards, miming and flipping imaginary slices of squash in front of you. That would get rid of them, pretty damn tout suite.

In my case, I used it recently to bamboozle a Talk Talk 'technician' called Kevin. Who was speaking to me from India and telling me that my 'internets' was under attack and that if I didn't listen to him and do exactly what he said, then my 'internets' would be in 'terrible, terrible trouble.' I get these sort of calls all the time and if I am in the mood, I will play along with it, pretending to go through the procedure of letting Kevin actually hack into my system, before screaming - 'MY COMPUTER! YOU'VE BLOWN UP MY COMPUTER! KEVIN! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!' The line normally goes dead after that and Kevin disappears. For a while.

I should change my service provider really but in the meantime, at least I know that I have one more string to my bow. For fielding malicious phone calls. Chargrilled courgettes, who'd have thought, eh?

This book contains words
The reason for my urging intent to get back to my courgettes was real enough though. I was trying out a recipe from Oliver Rowe's Food For All Seasons and didn't want them to get burnt. Well, not too much anyway. I was just after those neat black lines.

Having cut his teeth at the acclaimed Moro in Exmouth Market, Oliver has been on quite journey; spending time cooking abroad, featuring in his own television series 'The Urban Chef' and opening (and sadly closing) his restaurant Konstam. As a result, his prose-rich debut reads in part as memoir, with astute observations about food and life in general, and perhaps a dash of therapy thrown in for good measure. Not that it sufferers for that. Regarding the recipes inside, the onus is obviously on seasonality, given the actual title of the book. And by and large, they are all fairly straightforward and simple; with very little 'cheffy-ness' on display. Harmony, balance and flavour, maaan, seems to be the key to Oliver's cooking. Although there are few clever nips and tucks in there. Porter ice cream is a new one on me and I quite fancy trying his braised lamb belly with oysters. As well as nibbling on some of Jansson's frestelse. If Jansson will let me.

Food For All Seasons has been out for a few months now and it's been refreshing to actually read a cookbook for a change. One that is woven with proper stories. Opposed to simply gorping at styled plates, on weathered bark and paired with cutlery, all tied up in furry string.  I've spent a good while flicking through the pages, picking up and putting down frequently. A big dipper of a book in other words.

Given that Oliver's month of choice starts with October - 'Not everything starts with a bang' - you'd do well to buy a copy before it that hallowed time arrives, with a cool swoop of dead leaves and spiders, to prepare tummies for Christmas feasting.

Coming back to the courgettes for a second though, I do have kind permission from the author to reproduce it here on the blog. It's very good, especially with lamb chops. But with summer passing, if you this feel like it is already too late that sort of thing, try barking to Kevin that you are too busy making 'cinder toffee apples' or 'parsnip and apple soup with gin' instead.

Oliver's recipes will give you excuses all throughout the year.

Chargrilled courgette salad with ricotta, mint, honey and lemon dressing - serves 4

2 or 3 courgettes - more if they're small. It's nice if you can get a mixture of green and yellow.
5-6 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
100g good ricotta
1-2 tsp honey to drizzle
25g flaked almonds
A good pinch of black onion or nigella seeds
1 small handful of mint leaves.

Scattered mint and nigella seeds

Thinly slice the courgettes lengthwise. When your charcoal or griddle pan is hot, toss the courgette slices in a tablespoon or so and season them with salt. Grill them to colour each side and remove to a bowl.

As they're cooling, crush the garlic and put it in a bowl with the lemon juice and zest. Season with salt, check the balance and then add 4 tablespoons of olive oil. A dash of muscatel vinegar is a nice addition if you have it. Check for acidity, adding a squeeze of lemon or dash of oil if needed.

Toast the almonds in the oven at 160C until light brown (about 10 minutes) or in a dry frying pan over a medium heat. Don't let them burn.

Toss the courgettes with the dressing while still warm, but not piping hot, leave to cool and serve on a platter, with the ricotta dotted over the courgettes, the honey drizzled on top, the almonds and nigella seeds sprinkled over, and the torn mint scattered.

Just add lamb (or eat by itself)

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Cooking with Sarsons - Slow roast chicken with Sarson’s vinegar gravy

There are plenty of inroads when approaching this dish but to do it justice, you may have to drum up a certain amount of bravery, summon a great deal of patience and probably get over a dash of skepticism along the way.

The first hurdle is to try and find, if you can, a good, free-range, preferably organic, chicken. A chicken that still has it's head and feet intact. Like this one.

OK, if you can settle for buying a decent chicken with its own giblets, stuffed inside, in a little plastic bag, then that's fair enough. However, I do find that these days that they are often hard to come by. Even in some of my local butchers, I can go in and find that the vast majority of chickens they sell are, giblet-less. Where have all the giblets gone? I do not know. We've turned, sadly, into a giblet-less society. But for this dish, you will need them, especially the chicken liver. I bought this one from The Ginger Pig at Borough Market, more out of curiosity to see what my children would make of it and their response was fairly muted. Their response was more of a case of 'Bore off Dad, we've seen all of this before.' And I am glad that they're happy to say that sort of thing. A lot of kids and adults will be turned off completely by the notion of a chicken actually coming with a head and feet. If this unsettles you, then just buy a regular, prepped chicken and buy some chicken livers separately. Be brave.

Next, this is a recipe gleaned and adapted from the mighty tome that is the Larousse Gastronomique. Often to be found gathering dust in far flung corners of kitchens up and down the land. You are about to embark on some 'classic' French cooking and when it comes to creating the sauce for this dish, you will most certainly need patience. The stock takes at least an hour to simmer away on the stove and then you've got to get on with the business of reducing the stock and then adding some more ingredients, and then reducing again. You will need to set aside an afternoon of pottering and dithering and the title of 'Slow roast chicken' is a bit of a misnomer really. It's should be called 'Slow Sarson's vinegar gravy.' But that sounds sort of odd. Thankfully, the chicken gets roasted quickly, in a pan. Or should that be fried? Fried and poaching, that's what happens here. You engage in some frying and poaching, or 'froaching' to cook the chicken. It really is a good technique. Although I believe it's called something else.

Finally, and this is where you need to dispense with the skepticism, the vinegar plays an important part in this dish. I mention the livers, well they are blended up and added to the sauce, or gravy, right at the very end. Which sounds all rich and delightful but without the vinegar, it can smack too much of cloying iron and give off a metallic, bitter aftertaste. Adding the acidic, malt brew balances things out nicely, to make warm, slightly tart but very delicious gravy. After adding, don't get your nose too close to the pan at first, otherwise you will blow your nostril hairs off. Trust me.

Serves 4


1 free-range chicken, approx 1.5kg, including giblets (heart, neck, gizzard and liver) jointed into four pieces
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 leeks, white parts, sliced
1 celery stick, sliced
1 onion, whole, studded with three cloves
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, small bunch of thyme and small bunch of parsley tied together)
175mls dry white wine
Salt and pepper
1tps cayenne pepper
100mls Sarson’s Malt Vinegar
30g plain flour
30g butter, plus 20g butter, cubed and chilled
Parsley, finely chopped for garnish
Olive oil, for frying

Vegetables to serve

3 carrots, peeled and julienned
3 celery sticks, peeled and julienned
2 courgettes, peeled and julienned
30gms butter
Salt and pepper

(I've also added parboiled potatoes, which have then been chargrilled)


1. Melt 30g of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the giblets and brown them off for a few minutes before taking out and putting to one side.

2. Add the carrots, leek, celery, onion, garlic and bouquet garni and stir through for about 8-10 minutes, until everything starts to soften and caramelise.

3. Add the dry white wine, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper and reduce for a few minutes and then add the giblets back to the pan

4. Add a litre of water and bring to the boil before reducing to a gentle simmer. Cook for a further hour or so.

5. For your julienned vegetables : Melt 30g of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then place the carrots and celery in the pot and turn them in the butter. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with lid and leave to steam for 10 minutes.  Add the courgettes, mixing to coat in butter and cover with lid, to cook for another 5 minutes. Julienned vegetables should be soft. Keep warm.

6. To begin developing the sauce, drain the giblet and vegetable stock from the saucepan through a sieve into a clean saucepan,  holding back roughly 250mls of stock and pour it into a separate jug. Remove the liver/s and keep to one side. Place the clean pan back on the hob and start to reduce the stock by half.

7. Whilst that is happening, place a large frying pan on the hob with a good drizzle of olive oil, over a medium to high heat and season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. First place the legs in, skin side down and begin to brown for a couple minutes and then add the breast pieces and leave for 5 to 7 minutes, so that the skin crisps up. Turn over and then add the 250mls of stock held back. Reduce to a bare simmer and cook for a further 10 minutes. The idea being that the underside poaches gently in the stock, whilst the top side remains crispy.

8. Go back to your gravy pan and when it has reduced by half, add the Sarson's vinegar and continue to reduce by a third.

7. In a small separate pan heat 30g of butter and once melted, add the flour to make a roux. Stir through thoroughly, making sure the flour has cooked off and then add a couple of ladles of the stock to mix in and then transfer everything back to your gravy pan. The sauce begin will thicken immediately and continue until you’ve transferred all the stock to make a lovely, luxuriant and tangy sauce.

8. Remember that chicken liver? Well now is the time to place that into your gravy and blitz with a hand blender. It should turn everything a bit creamy but if you are worried about any tiny lumps remaining, just pass through a sieve.

9. To serve, joint each chicken piece further into two and spoon a generous helping of vegetables into the centre of each plate, placing two chicken pieces on top.

10. Warm the sauce through, adding the remaining chilled cubes of butter to stir through and add a sheen. Drizzle all over the chicken and around the outside, finishing with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Piccolo tomato and watermelon gazpacho

This post first appeared on Great British Chefs  in June, but seeing as it's still quite hot, this recipe should still go down well.

I think, and I say this tentatively by the way, that now June is here, we can officially declare that summer has arrived. Shoot me down if you like, for even mentioning the ‘s’ word, what with all the usual dreaded association of rain, thunderstorms and force ten gales. However, I do honestly believe that we are in for a good one this year. In fact, we are owed some decent weather and with that in mind, I am hoping to get in at least five or six picnics over the next few months. Because there is nothing better than driving out into the countryside, marching into a field in the glorious sunshine and laying out a blanket and marvellous spread; and then digging in and doing battle with wasps.

What to take food wise can sometimes be a dilemma though, purely because some stuff doesn’t travel well. Sandwiches are good but when the rays are beating down, egg mayonnaise is out of the question. Pies with egg inside and scotch eggs are on the other hand, a brilliant idea. Soggy bottomed quiche I find is not. And simple is always best. A ploughman’s with cheeses, some charcuterie, some cherry tomatoes, some celery, some crusty bread and bang, there’s a great al fresco feast for you. But the easy approach can sometimes be boring and it is nice to present something different for the tartan rug once in awhile.

Which moves me onto this recipe for gazpacho, or Spanish chilled tomato soup. But before I go any further I would like to regale a quick story that highlights the dilemma of not listening properly.

Not to mention how some people pronounce certain words.

So, once upon a time, my family and I were all set to join a circle of friends for a Sunday picnic over at our local park, probably for a birthday and the night before, I got a call from one of the other Dads who said ‘Dan, can you bring your gazpacho tomorrow? It’s looking like it’s gonna be a scorcha.’ After putting the phone down I was both flattered and confused. I may well have served it up a few times at home but I don’t ever remember being proclaimed as the King of Gazpacho before. Still, if my mate wanted it, he could have it. After all, it is very refreshing to  sip on lazy afternoons.

We all turn up and everyone is setting up stall, amid usual scenes of chaos and the Dad in question comes up to me and says ‘Did you bring your gaz-bo?’ To which I showed him a thermos flask and with a jaunty shake, replied ‘I certainly did! And it’s called gazpacho.’

‘No, your gaz-bo Dan, where is your gaz-bo?’

‘What do you mean gaz-bo? What’s a gaz-bo?’

‘You know, what you put up in your garden a few weeks ago at your bbq. So the younger kids can sit and play in the shade.’


‘You mean my gazebo?’

‘That’s it, gaz-bo.’

Instead of laughter, a quiet awkwardness descended upon us after that exchange. Because my mate was fairly forthright about his own elocution and walked off in a huff, muttering what good would some poxy cold soup do us all. Luckily, it went very well down with every else, being just the ticket to soothe parched throats before corks were pulled and popped. And besides, we had plenty of trees to sit under.

When it comes to gazpacho, there are lots of variations. Typically, for a Spanish dish, there are plenty of arguments as to what constitutes as the definitive recipe. Some regions call for green pepper, to add a touch of spice; others insist on specific olive oil or vinegar. Adding watermelon might be seen by some as a travesty but it really does make for a lighter, more buoyant soup, without having to add any extra water. And having won a cookery competition in the past with this gazpacho, the proof is in the pudding. I should add here that I did this in partnership with food writer Rachel McCormack and it was her idea to use watermelon. I do like to think that my excellent chopping and blending also helped though.

Fresh sweet tomatoes, such as Piccolo, are obviously the prerequisite ingredient for this dish but when it comes to making it, the most important thing is to taste and adjust along the way when blending. And of course, to make sure that it is properly chilled.

Which in turn does sound time consuming but it really doesn’t take that long to knock up a decent gazpacho.

Much quicker than trying to assemble a ‘gaz-bo’ in the garden or in the park (if I had got it right) I can tell you that right now.


500gms Piccolo tomatoes, halved
500gms watermelon, cut into chunks, seeds removed
Half a cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
5-6 tbs fruity Spanish olive oil
1-2 tbs red wine vinegar (sherry vinegar is also good)
Slice of stale white bread, broken into pieces
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and pepper

For garnish

Half a cucumber, finely diced


Traditionally, gazpacho was made using a wooden mortar or dornillo but it’s a lot easier to throw everything into a blender or food processor here.

So, first blitz the tomato, watermelon, cucumber and stale bread together and then add a clove of garlic at a time, stopping and tasting in between until you are happy with the level of garlic. I can go for 3 cloves but some people aren’t so enamoured.

Then add the olive oil and vinegar and blend until everything becomes smooth and creamy. But again, do this in steps to your own taste.

Finally, season with salt and pepper and then transfer to a fridge, to cool for at least an hour.

If you are taking on a picnic, a good tip here is to fill a thermos with ice-cubes and water to get it ready. Obviously, empty the flask before pouring the gazpacho in.

To serve, pour into glasses or plastic beakers for children and top with a small sprinkling of chopped cucumber.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Eating Ukrainian, in a junkyard, in Southern France.

As someone who gained a lofty 'F' in GCSE French, it always fills me with trepidation whenever I have to resort to using my numb Gallic tongue. I can normally get in a decent sentence first. 'May I have a beer, please.' 'Do you have a table for six people, please?' 'Excuse me, but where is the library/disco? Please.' But then I am usually left dumbstruck by the quickfire response and with one eyelid batting, often try to work out exactly what has been communicated back to me. The French don't give simple answers you see. They like to litter them with extra dialogue, physical gestures and pepper the air with 'N'est pas!' and 'Mon dieu!' Which might be down to my initial, fluffed inquiry, who knows?

Worse still, when the words disappear out of view, I have a tendency to resort to using English, in a very bad French accent. I did this a lot when we were on holiday in the Pyrenees-Orientales just recently. Think Inspector Clouseau, Gerard Depardieu and Maurice Chevalier, all rolled into one. A caricature of French-ness so extreme, it's any wonder why I don't just simply launch into a full on nasal - 'Haw-hee-haw-hee-haw.' And be done with it. Actually I do know why. I'd end up with a black eye and even looser teeth.

When abroad, it is with great relief whenever someone does finally give me that pitying look, and says 'We can talk in English, if you like?' Although it is a bit weird when the person in question has rather a thick Russian accent. I wasn't expecting that when I first spoke to Lucy, who ran a hotel down in the village. There were plenty more surprises to come but in the first instance, we were just glad to find a place to eat that was local. Well, relatively local. We were staying a couple of miles away, up a mountain and I could have probably lived on barbecues and wine for the entire holiday, all within the privacy of our secluded gite. But seeing as my family, parents included, were tiring of watching me cook in Speedos and flip flops; like I said, it was a good find.

So after a quick leapfrog through several language barriers and with the promise of simple sounding fare and wine from just down the road, we booked ourselves a table for the next night. Lucy also said that she would put us in the courtyard of the ancient winery that was attached to hotel. It all sounded very romantic. My Dad, ever mindful after hearing about the beautiful, neighbourhood vin pays d'oc, also inquired if there was a taxi service we could use. To which the pixie-like Lucy replied - 'Oh, my husband Slava can collect you. He is a very safe driver. He once drove across Russia in two weeks, with no sleep. Just text us your address.' And so the adventure began.

Despite living in the village for a couple of years, by all accounts Slava had never been up the mountain before. I say mountain, it was more of a hill really. But with really, really steep drops. Anyway, as such, Slava was slightly late and arrived in a cloud of dust. Stepping out of the door of his car and through that very cloud, Slava was quite a resplendent chap; dressed in Hawaiian shirt, combat shorts and socks and leather sandals. I mean his socks were very thick. I just could not get over how thick his socks were. His glasses were quite thick too.

In the manner of Star Trek's Chekov, he bellowed - 'Hello, I am Slava! I am so sorry I am late. We have unexpected guests arriving at the hotel and I don't know what I am doing. I mean, I don't know where I am going.'

I shook his hand and looked at my wife to reassure her that this would all be perfectly safe, as we bundled our precious children into the back. The look she gave me suggested that she wasn't quite convinced but we were on holiday. 'Let's live a little,' I suggested, with my bright and widening eyes.

'Am I driving too fast?'

'Ha. Nooo. This is fine,' I replied as we hurtled down the hill, staring down at the black abyss beside me.

'I once drove across Russia in two weeks you know. With no sleep. I average 150km an hour. I also like to climb mountain, with no ropes.'

'That's brilliant. Maybe you could slow down, just a bit Slava?. I think my parents are trying to keep up?'

'Yes, we must not forget your parents, because they are eating with you. I hope you enjoy tonight but we are very busy. I don't know when you will be eating. But it will be soon.'

Thankfully, we made it down to the village safe and sound and after a short wait for my parents, we were ushered into that romantic courtyard. Which in some ways resembled a dump, a mechanics workshop, complete with motorbike and an antique emporium; full of curios, broken statues and random baskets hanging from the crumbling walls. The most impressive sight was a huge, dilapidated wine barrel in the corner, that in it's prime, would have easy held over a thousand litres of wine.

This is what Slava told us by the way, before finishing with - 'Even empty, it is heavy and if it fell on you, it will crush you. But it is quite safe in here. Sit and I will bring you drinks.'

So we all sat, at our plastic table and looked at the surroundings, all feeling slightly giddy and hysterical. What followed was a sort of tempo for the entire night. From a distance, you would hear a mad scrambling over pebbles and then as Slava entered the courtyard, his pace would drop. Attentively too-ing and fro-ing, he would bring wine, soft drinks, water, bread, candles, mats, cutlery, blankets; all in quiet, gentle servitude. Then as soon as he was back out the door, you'd hear him sprint from one place to the other. Like a cross between Fred Sirieix and Usain Bolt.

The wine was indeed good but the arrival of food was very slow. Our courtyard soon became enveloped in darkness and my son started to do that juddery, commuter head jerk at the table, drifting in and out of sleep. Then suddenly, lights came on and bats flew over our heads, which brought everyone to abrupt attention. In the corner, stood Slava, by a switch, grinning:

'I have installed floodlights! And soon, we will do more to this place. But now, Lucy and I will bring your meal.'

Flustered, Lucy came in with plates, decrying that the everything was just so frantic, what with extra guests and all, and that she was so sorry to keep us waiting. At one point, I was worried that she was going to start crying.

To start then, we had a simple salad of ham, blue cheese, tomatoes, leaves and seeds. A great combination that was demolished in seconds, as we were all very hungry by that point. The tomatoes in particular were gorgeously ripe and bursting. Sunshine makes such a difference with this fruit and I could whinge about the fact that we never seem to get the same quality in the UK, as opposed to what you get on the continent. But I won't. Although I think I just have.

Another short spell of inactivity beckoned but then hark, the sound of speedy leather and wool came trip-trapping over and our hosts began to place bowls of steaming hot mushroom soup before us. The smell actually reached us before they did, a heady combination of garlic and earthy fungus, which really got the saliva glands going. Topped with raw mushroom, dill and olive oil, it was probably the most intense bowl of mushroom soup that I ever tasted. It was beautiful. My Mum announced that she normally blanches at the stuff but had to admit this was very good indeed. Again, the sound of metal scrapping at china announced that we had all been still quite hungry. But that soup soon quelled the pangs and the boy was now wide awake.

Flamboyantly, Slava then came bounding into the yard and said - 'Now is the time to light the flame!' And proceeded to open the rusty lid of what I thought, was a defunct gas barbecue, that had been lying listless against the wall. It burst into life, all orange and blue and as it did so, Slava turned to face us and merely raised his eyebrows with glee.

Lucy then came in with a huge platter, with unidentifiable lumps of what I presumed to be meat and she slapped them down nonchalantly on the grill, all one by one.

She then turned and whispered to us, mysteriously -'I must collect the flowers in the dark. I should have done this much, much earlier, but I was oh so...busy.'  And off she skipped into the night, resembling Bjork more and more by the second.

We were left for quite a while then, apart from a quick burst from Slava to bring us more to drink and for Lucy to turn the lumps over with her fish slice.

'What was on the grill?' we all asked ourselves. Beef? Pork? Veal? I was sure it was veal because veal is more typically eaten in France, I slurred sagely to the table.

It was chicken. Chicken breast with potatoes, dressed with more dill and those flowers that Lucy found magically, using her pixie night vision, guided by the fairies. And whilst at first, the notion of chicken left everyone deflated at the table, with a sort of 'Oh, is that all?' it was the most amazingly succulent piece of chicken. It was seasoned heavily but it was extremely juicy and tender and Lucy seemed to have paid it no thought when cooking it. I don't know how she did it really. And the potatoes, oh the potatoes, they had so much flavour. Waxy yet buttery at the same time. Why we can't get potatoes like that in the UK is beyond me but I will shut up about that for now.

Desserts came a lot quicker. Fruit sundaes for the children and lemon sorbet for the adults. Lemon sorbet drizzled with vodka.

'Wow Slava, that vodka was nice on the sorbet. Tasted a bit a like Polish Żubrówka.'

''Nyet. Only Russian vodka is proper vodka,' Slava replied, sternly. 'Same man who first make vodka invented the periodic table. He was a great man.'

To which I had to uncomfortably acquiesce because what did I know.

The mood soon lightened quickly though and before long, Slava and Lucy were sitting with us, more relaxed and smoking and chatting, making me wonder whether we were the only people they were cooking for.

'No, I've cooked for 30 people tonight. Always the same. People, they drop in, ask for room, ask for food, we are just starting out, we cannot say no.'

As more dessert wine was poured (for us, not Slava, he was driving, phew) we found out some more about them. Lucy was actually from the Ukraine and the continuing troubles over there had forced them to move away, to start up a business in a country where they barely understood the language or even knew how to run a hotel. But their plans were big. The courtyard would be smartened up in due course. The wide lids of the wine barrels would be turned into tables. A proper kitchen will be built. They will get help at some point. 

'It vill happen,' said Slava, confidently.

Their entrepreneurial spirit was very inspiring and all in all, despite all the waiting, we had a great and supremely quirky time at Relais de Laval and if by some peculiar crook, you ever find yourself in that region, you should try some of their wacky yet endearingly warm hospitality.

For the four courses, a seemingly unlimited amount of wine and for picking us up and returning us back home, they charged us 25 euros a head and half that for the children. Which was a faintly ridiculous price but we tipped generously and returned for one more night of fun, where the menu was similar bar for a spectacular borscht. Coming from seriously frosty climes, obviously the Ukrainians (and Russians) do know a thing or two about soup.

On that note, when Slava dropped my Dad and I off for the last time (he always took my wife, Mum and children up first, so that we could ..ahem, indulge one more drink) I cheekily asked him about his sartorial proclivity for wearing very thick socks with his sandals.

To which he replied - 'Daniel. We are up in the mountains. It gets cold up here.'

It was a stupid question really.