Saturday 19 October 2019

'Je ne regrette rien' about a holiday filled with cheap wine and tinned food

Sophie White gets nostalgic for the days of cheap wine and tinned goods during a happy hiatus in France spent living in a camper van.

Sophie White

I was always destined to be a camper-van owner, much to my mother's chagrin. It was she, ironically, who inadvertently, 
set me on my path to adventure or, as she saw it, time-wasting.

She got 
the ball rolling on my dream of a 
house-that-rolled when she gave me the best present I have ever received - the Barbie camper van, when I was about nine years old. 

I have a bit of a reputation for notions and, when we were in the first flush of romance, during the early years of our courtship, Himself was so thrilled to finally have a real, live woman to hang around with, he actually indulged me 
in lots of my schemes.

My previous boyfriend had always, to my mind, been a bit of a naysayer. Whenever I proposed a night-time dip in the icy waters of the Forty Foot, or driving three hours to a party in Waterford, he would reject the ideas outright. On meeting Himself, I was thrilled to find an enthusiastic partner-in-crime to support me in my whims.

This is how we came to spend two years in New Zealand when we had just gone for a month's holiday. How a trip to Biarritz became a 2,500km cycling tour and, of course, how we came to be proud owners of a '93 Nissan Urvan.

For our friends and family, the purchase of the van seemed to cement their idea of us as borderline vagrants unlikely to achieve much in life.

The way in which we purchased the van did nothing to help our image either, as we bought the thing, sight unseen, off the internet. Remember, this was in the days before people bought designer handbags and wives, sight unseen, from the internet.

When the idea of the van first came up, it was because I had become obsessed with the idea of alternative-housing solutions and was demanding that we purchase a huge storage container and set up house in the wilds of Connemara. Himself vetoed this notion, which led me to compromise slightly and suggest, instead, a defunct double-decker city bus. As far as he was concerned, this ludicrous idea of mine barely even warranted a response, and I knew when we got the camper van that I had done well to get that far.

In the halcyon early days of the van, we lived on the edge of an idyllic car park, high in the French Alps, stealing electricity from the local commune de municipal and washing down copious pain au raisins with competitively priced petrol wine. La vie en rose.

The one slight downside of our life was that we were sans refrigerator at the peak of the Alpine summer and so, we mainly subsisted on the aforementioned petrol wine - it came in a plastic bag with a tap, which could then be reused, inflated with air, as a travel pillow for post-petrol-wine sleeps. A lot of tinned goods were consumed, as we didn't have the means to store fresh produce.

On supermarket day, this chicken dish was a real treat, as it is full of fresh herbs and great flavour.

Harissa Chicken with Cauliflower Tabbouleh

Serves 2.

You will need:

2 tablespoons harissa paste

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 chicken breasts

1 red onion

1 red pepper

1 cauliflower

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Pinch of salt

Large bunch of curly parsley

Large bunch of fresh mint

2 spring onions

2 tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil

Zest of a lemon

Juice of half a lemon

50g (2oz) feta cheese

100g (4oz) Greek yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 180°C, 360°F, Gas 4. Combine the harissa paste with the red wine vinegar. Score the chicken breasts, peel and quarter the red onion, and de-seed and chop the red pepper, then add all of them to the harissa-and-vinegar mixture. Stir well, thoroughly coating the chicken, the pepper and the onion. Put the mixture on a lined baking tray and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

To make the tabbouleh, remove the stalk from the cauliflower, discard it, and grate the head. Put the grated cauliflower in a non-stick pan and dry-fry it over a medium heat for a few minutes. Stir in the ground cumin and the salt. Transfer the cauliflower to a separate bowl to cool. Finely chop the curly parsley, the fresh mint, the spring onions and the tomatoes. Add these to the cooled grated cauliflower, along with the olive oil and the lemon zest. Mix everything together thoroughly.

In a separate bowl, combine the lemon juice, the feta and the Greek yoghurt to make the feta yoghurt sauce. Divide the cooked chicken mixture and the tabbouleh between two plates and top with the feta yoghurt sauce.

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