NOW that the year is a third of the way through and it is still raining, is it any wonder that we start thinking about warmer climes and where to go to escape this infernal weather?

Many of us in the UK will visit the Mediterranean countries.

We tend to think of them as Spain, France, Italy and Greece. There are of course quite a few others, including the North African states along with Turkey and Israel. But this is not a geography lesson, this column is about food.

Mediterranean food has often influenced the menu at Friends, so while thinking about this week's column, my appetite was whetted by the array of ingredients available from the region.

Vegetables are very important in this style of cooking; peppers, courgettes, aubergines and garlic, as well as many others.

Fish and seafood also contribute to what is commonly considered a very healthy diet (and lifestyle).

I cannot be the only one to notice that the inhabitants of southern Spain, Provence and Tuscany generally smile a lot!

The same is true of other Mediterranean countries I have visited.

Pulses and nuts feature frequently on the menu, both domestically and commercially. Chickpeas and haricot beans, almonds and pine kernels all have a part to play.

Olives are grown almost everywhere in this part of the world, producing wonderfully aromatic oils, and herbs are widely used.

There is also the fruit; if you have never cycled or walked past fields of Charentais melons or strawberries in the height of the season you really should, if only once, to experience the heady perfume that hangs in the air.

The approach to Mediterranean cookery is also important.

There is a joie de vivre about the people, so relax (or 'chill' as my boys would say) and try this simple, typical Provence recipe using aubergines:

Daube d'Aubergines

Ingredients (Serves four)

600g aubergines, cut into thick slices

600g plum tomatoes, peeled and diced roughly

1-2 bottle red wine

1 clove of garlic, crushed

2 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 tsp caster sugar

3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

olive oil

salt and pepper

Method 1) Salt the aubergine and leave to drain for 30 mins. 2) Put all the other ingredients together in a pan and simmer for 20 minutes. 3) Dry the aubergines with kitchen paper and fry in hot olive oil until golden brown on each side. 4) Add them to the sauce and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Add the parsley at the end, and season to taste. If the sauce becomes too thick during cooking, simply add some warm water. Serve hot or cold.