In the far south of France just before the Spanish border where the Pyrénées mountains tail off dramatically into the sea is Collioure. A beautiful old town with picturesque buildings, beaches, a waterfront castle, streets full of art galleries and a gorgeous bay. Kirsten Mackintosh, an expat artist in Collioure, bonds with new friends in Collioure over Aïoli, a garlic dish so strong that it ought to be legalized…
Shortly after we arrived in Collioure we received an invitation to dinner. To us it was the Treaty of Amiens. A gesture of acceptance. We had bided our time drinking cheap rosé in questionable bars and for that we had been rewarded. It was the most desirable of rewards – supper in a real Frenchman’s house. I anticipated obscure parts of animals, alcohol and garlic. Lots of garlic. I wasn’t to know just how much garlic…
His name was Nicolas. He was a professor. He spent his time nurturing the brain cells of Toulouse University’s elite while simultaneously obliterating his own via indulgent stays in Collioure. He was rakish. I liked him. For a long, angular man he could meld to the fittings with curious skill. As nights progressed he could be found undulating against the bar like a Dali timepiece. His face was expressive but bore the strain of wives estranged, of children distant. We met in the Piano Bar. He regarded us with casual suspicion. Occasionally he would sing loudly at me and in uncomfortably close proximity. The combination of Gitanes-infused breath with the haunting melodies of chansons past was as good an induction to France as any. I think he admired our undeterred nature. Perhaps he was lonely. Regardless, we had an invitation to dinner. We were in.
He greeted us warmly that night. He had already had a Ricard, possibly two. He was relaxed. His house was small but orderly and he had the most coveted criteria of Collioure real estate: outside space.
It was a late August evening in the Roussillon and we sat on the terrace. He told us he was going to cook sardines on the barbecue. He had purchased them quayside from a guy in Port Vendres that morning. However there was no rush, he would do it later. First there was chilled red wine to be imbibed and breezes to be shot.
There was no indication of the usual palpitant panic which precedes the British dinner party. No menu planning, no last minute dashes for fashionable ingredients. No frippery. It was refreshing. The food was intrinsic, but to Nicolas only one of many factors that contributed to this act of shared sustenance. Eventually he cooked the fish. He had chosen a simple method of execution, which was wise given the volume of alcohol already consumed. That there were naked flames involved was, however, still a cause for alarm.
The sardines were rubbed in little more than olive oil, barbecued, then doused liberally with lemon, parsley and fleur de sel. They were served with Nicolas’ homemade aïoli. Round here aïoli is kind of a big deal. It is the garlicky elixir by which sparse leftovers are transformed into sumptuous feasts. Recipes are fiercely guarded and hotly contested. He produced his with the level of pride normally reserved for firstborn children, for completed theses. I have no idea how he made it but I can only imagine he liquefied large amounts of raw garlic with some more garlic thrown in at the end for good measure. It was ferocious. It cauterised our mouths with savage intent. It was also delicious.
We ate inelegantly, spitting bones, wiping hands and mouths and it was glorious. We reeked of garlic. Any vampiric threat was safely extinguished for at least another month. We talked long into the night and he expounded his theories on life in that self-assured manner that (drunk) Frenchmen of a certain age do so well. Glasses were drained and friendships were forged. It was a fitting prelude to the extraordinary life Collioure would provide.
As for Nicolas, his visits to Collioure became far more infrequent. I don’t know why. I still see him from time to time, singing to strangers at point blank range, his voice blasting into the night air like a dented trombone…
Kirsten Mackintosh is from Scotland. She lives in Collioure with her husband , a winemaker and two children. She has an art studio and a very keen interest in food including a baking complusion/addiction. Kirsten’s website: www.ateliermackintosh.com
See Kirsten’s recipe for grilled sardines and aïoli – the French way.