In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter and add the onions, thyme and bay leaves with a good grinding of black pepper. Fry gently for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and totally soft. While the onions fry, cut out the stems of the tomatoes and criss-cross the bottoms. Place in a deep bowl and steep in just-boiled water until covered. Leave them here for no more than a minute before draining away the water. Pull the skin from the tomatoes, then discard. Tear each tomato open and pull out the seeds over a bowl so as to reserve them with the juices. Put the flesh into a blender and purée. At this point, stir the garlic into the onion, then add the tomato flesh. Hold a sieve over the pan and pour in the seeds, pressing as much juice through with a spoon asyou can – you have got the maximum out of your tomatoes. Stir all together well and allow to cook for a couple of minutes or so, then turn off the heat.
Cut the squid or cuttlefish in half lengthways down the cone and open both pieces out. Thoroughly dry off any wetness from the seafood with kitchen paper. It must be as dry as possible, as it will fry and colour better. Chop each half into 2cm-wide ribbons. Cut up the tentacles and fins to a similar size. Put all the flesh in a bowl with the oil and mix well so that it is evenly coated.
Put a large frying pan on a high heat. When the pan is intensely hot, throw in a third of the squid or cuttlefish with a really generous pinch of salt. Fry hard, stirring occasionally, until very well coloured. Repeat in batches twice more (including more of the salt and oil). Add each batch to the onions when completed. Be careful to include what I can only describe as the sticky ‘squid toffee’ that will gather in the bottom of the pan. (If it could be turned into crisps, I would eat it regularly.) This is very tasty and will lend a lot to the stew – whatever cannot be scraped up with a spoon can be lifted at the end by diluting with a splash of water.
Return the casserole to the heat and add the water and tomato purée. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Add 100ml of the brandy and put the lid on. Simmer gently for 40 minutes (if using cuttlefish, cook it for a little longer; remembering you may need to add more water) and then another 20 with the lid slightly off, allowing the juices to reduce a little. The seafood should be perfectly tender. Stir in the remaining brandy and the cream and serve scattered all over with the parsley. Add more salt if necessary.
This goes well next to some buttered long-grain rice pressed into a cup and upended on to the warm plate in a perfect mound. Nice!
Note: To make it go further, canned cannellini, flageolet or haricot beans are fab with this, added 5 minutes before the end of cooking.