Joan's salade niçoise avec thon rouge

Salade niçoise avec thon rouge

Budleigh Salterton, Devon 3 December 2006 A near hurricane passed through Topsham in the early hours of this morning. We were awoken at around 4am to the most determined and severe of gales: the wind howled through our tightly sealed, weatherproofed windows, insisting that we wake, while outside the swollen river surged up with the 3.7 metre spring tide in a succession of breaking waves that crashed into our garden wall, throwing spumes of foam and salt spray high into the blackness of the night sky. Fortunately the tides weren't any higher (earlier in the year they had reached levels of 4.5 metres) or else there would most certainly have been serious flooding. Downstairs, our domestic defences were minorly breached when a window in the conservatory was blown open, and rain that must have been nearly horizontal was driven through this slim aperture, soaking our dining table and wooden floor, leaving behind huge pools of water. After mopping up the floor, then having sat vigil until the worst was over as the hour of high tide passed, we returned to bed and tried to get back to sleep, though without great success. I finally gave up and went downstairs in the early hours to watch the final session of the third day of the 2nd Ashes Test Match down under at Adelaide (England are well poised).

By daylight, the skies had cleared, and, though it was still very breezy, the morning was bright, the air very clean and fresh, with a deep blue winter sky and high, white, fast-moving clouds. It was as if the exhilarating power of the raging storm - embodying a force that was powerful, determined and too strong to be contained (like the force of a mother's love) - had passed through, its brief passage serving to blow away the day's (if not life's) storm clouds, the threatening darkness, the black and night-like abyss that we are all sometimes forced to look into.

It was Sunday and the plan was to go to Budleigh Salterton, first to swim in the sea (yes, even in December) and then to have a cook-out on the beach. Our dear friend Joan, had she been with us, would almost certainly have been the first in the water, whatever the time of year, the weather, the temperature. And indeed she would have shamed us all into joining her. Afterwards, we were going to fire up the portable travel Weber, and, on the pebbles of Budleigh beach, cook thon rouge over charcoal and feast on good French bread and olives, washed down with vin rouge.

Thon rouge was a favourite of Joan's that we had enjoyed together many times over the years - we remember in particular just such a simple feast when we'd met up in St Remy de Provence some years back when we were travelling through the South of France on our voyages for our book research. We had toured St Remy's wonderful outdoor market that morning and purchased huge steaks of thon rouge, some cheap vin rouge and also, I recall, a magnificent - and very expensive - bottle of huile d'olive extra vièrge that came from the famous Mas de la Dame wine estate in Les Baux de Provence. This was a very special olive oil and Joan was particularly looking forward to sampling it. We toured the Roman ruins of St Remy that day and returned to their rented gîte to prepare our evening meal. As always, the vin rouge flowed copiously, the first litre bottle soon emptied, another opened.

The thon rouge that night, as prepared by Joan - she cooked it beautifully simply - served with a salad dressed with that exquisite huile, and washed down with that simple, anonymous vin rouge from an unlabelled litre bottle, was as perfect a meal as you could ever have.

Our son Guy was only six years old, Bella just one: for us it was simply great to be in Joan and Gal's company, relaxing, as the wine flowed, while they regaled us with tales of France, stories about travels with their own children, and learning from them important lessons about the most basic and fundamental things in life: that every moment of every day matters; that, like precious oil, you should never waste a single drop.

The sea today at Budleigh Salterton was too rough for swimming, yes, even for Joan. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen it rougher: churned up from the sandstone sea bed, the boiling waters were stained a deep wine red. Huge foaming waves pounded relentlessly onto the steep, pebbled beach, wave after wave. As the undertow drew back, the sound of the rushing, retreating waters over the big, smooth Budleigh pebbles was a constant roar. No, swimming today was definitely out of the question.

Budleigh Salterton 3/12/06

"Too bad," said Jilly, with that beautiful, lovely, cheeky grin of hers. "I
would have held the towels."

But if swimming was out of the question, drinking wine most certainly

"I couldn't bring Gal's whole wine box," said Kevin. "It was too heavy and my tennis elbow has been playing up. It must be 10 litres! So I decanted it into something suitable."

"A special cuvée"

With that he drew out from his bag a bottle of Gal's famous Cuvée Spéciale 'Derrières les Fagots' and poured us all a glass.

Kev does the business

And so, standing on the beach, fine spray from the waves blowing into our faces, we toasted Joan, remembered happy times, and drank deeply.

'To Joan!' (as Jilly holds on to her hat)

We spread out some rugs on the stones and sat down, determined to enjoy Joan's outdoor feast at Budleigh Salterton. But the wind by now had picked up again and it really was bitterly, outrageously cold. I could almost hear Joan's insistent refusal to be defeated. But dammit, there are limits! And just behind us along the promenade there was a splendid beach shelter, gleaming white and deep blue in the low afternoon sun.

"Shall we?" After a moment's hesitation, another throat-rasping gulp of 'Derrières les Fagots', we all agreed: "Yes!" and packed up and hurried to shelter.

That little hut was the perfect spot: protected from the wind, with the low sun streaming in, and just above the pounding waves along the beach. We spread out on the benches with our splendid feast, our bottles of 'Derrieres les Fagots', Bella and Kim laying out the plates and glasses and knives and forks. How terribly, terribly, wonderfully smug we must have looked, in the warmth of that shelter, as all those out for a bracing Sunday walk along the Budleigh promenade looked in on us in envy as they struggled past our special spot!

Joan's hut

As for Joan's thon rouge, I hope all will understand that under such severe, near hurricane conditions, it would not have been possible to fire up the travel Weber. So in anticipation of this, I chargrilled the tuna steaks chez nous while Kim prepared a wonderful salade niçoise, with good Romaine lettuce and mesclun, hardboiled eggs, marinaded black olives, tomatoes, cooked green beans, and a garlicky vinaigrette dressing.

This, then, was our special feast, enjoyed in Joan's hut, in memory of a very special lady and a very dear and much loved friend. Beautiful and elegant, she was powerful, determined, exhilarating, a force too strong to be contained! For us all, we will always feel her presence on walks at Budleigh Salterton beach, in the roar of the waves, in the red, wine dark sea on sunny and stormy days alike.

Joan's salade niçoise avec thon rouge

4 thon rouge steaks
Huile d'olive (the best you can find)
Salt and pepper
Mixed salad leaves
6 hardboiled eggs
Black and green pitted marinaded olives
Cooked green beans
Anchovy fillets

4 parts huile d'olive extra vièrge
1 part red wine vinegar
1/2 clove garlic, finely minced or grated
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Marinade the thon rouge steaks in olive oil, salt and black pepper. Chargrill or cook in a griddle pan as you like (we like our tuna still pink), probably 3-5 minutes per side. Set aside and when cool, break into large pieces.

Make the salad by mixing everything together lightly with the hands. Dress with the vinaigrette. Serve on plates with the thon rouge place on top of the salad. Drizzle a little extra vinaigrette over the thon.

Suggested wine: Cuvée Spéciale 'Derrieres les Fagots' of course. Nothing else will quite do.

Au revoir

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