Earlier this week I found myself engaged in a Facebook discussion about the comparative merits of French and English food and it started me thinking about all the French food I love (I can already feel a flurry of French posts coming on…).
I suspect that most people would think immediately of complex haute cuisine but, for me, it’s all about the simple things; cassoulet, beautiful patisserie, baguettes, crepes, tartiflette and, of course, croque monsieur.
When I was a small child, someone, I forget who, bought me a childrens’ cookery book full of recipes for the usual biscuits and jam tarts and, for some bizarre reason, croque monsieur. I think it was the first time I realised that people in other countries ate different food to us and it seemed incredibly exotic to me. Bear in mind that this was the late 60s, we never ate “foreign” food at home and I had never even heard of a toasted sandwich.
Fast forward to 1989 and our first family holiday in France; 1000 miles of driving, two fractious toddlers, two exhausted parents and a café in Quimper. We sat in the sunshine watching the world go by and regained our equilibrium over a cup of coffee and a croque monsieur. It was divine, every bit as delicious as I had imagined it all those years before; the sweet bread offset by smoky ham, deep flavoured Gruyere and a smooth, moist béchamel sauce. It was instantly apparent that we were no longer in England.
I made this for lunch today and it still has the power to transport me from a cold, wet winter afternoon to a carefree summer’s afternoon in a cathedral square in Brittany. I hope it does the same for you.
Ingredients (for 2)
4 slices of good bread (I like pain de campagne)
25g / 1 oz Butter (plus more for spreading)
20g / 1 oz Plain Flour
300ml / 1/2 pint Milk
1 Bay Leaf
2 generous Slices of Ham
2 oz Gruyere (grated)
2 tsp Mustard
Make the Béchamel Sauce
Pour the milk into a pan with the bay leaf and a good grinding of black pepper. Bring to the boil then set aside to infuse.
Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat. When bubbling, stir in the flour and cook together for a minute or two. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring continually until you have a thick, smooth sauce. Set aside.
Make the sandwich.
Spread each slice of bread thinly with butter. Turn two slices over and spread the un-buttered side with the mustard. Top with half the grated gruyere and the ham. Top with the other slices of bread – butter side up and put the sandwiches in a dry, oven-proof frying pan over a medium heat. Cook until browned and then turn and brown on the other side.
Remove the pan from the heat and top with the béchamel sauce and the rest of the grated Gruyere. Place in a hot oven for five minutes to heat through the sauce and melt the cheese. If the cheese is not browned, pop under a hot grill for a minute or two until browned and bubbling.
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