Sunday, 24 February 2013

A classically-inspired feast for friends

Yesterday I gave lunch to two friends, K--- and V---, at my house. It was a cold, rather bleak day, so I made sure that the conservatory, which contains my six-seater round dining table, was well-heated with both hot air from the adjoining kitchen and an electric heater that radiated warmth this way and that. This heating combination was adequate, although had the sun come out it would have been even cosier. But the sun made no appearance whatever, and despite the daylight it was vitally necessary to provide extra psychological heating, with hearty food and nice wine. But I had planned for that, and gave my guests a carefully thought out menu.

Both adored French food, and in fact V--- is a French lady; so really there was no choice but to shamelessly emulate the great Escoffier, and other chefs before and after him. It's mainly a question of getting one's timings right, so that several things come together at the right time for plating and serving.

Having picked my guests up from the station just as their train arrived - it was persishingly cold and I couldn't let them hang around - it was coats off, a tour of the house, and straight in to an already-opened bottle of red wine and the hors-d'oevres. My main course was doing well in the oven; and the starter and the dessert would only take ten minutes each. All under control, then.

This was the menu that I'd printed out for them, one copy each:


Les hors-d’oevres...
Du pain.
Du beurre.
Du pâté.
Du vin rouge. 

Deux gilbertins Charlotte Corday; avec des oisettes Picardie, un garni M. Guillotin, et des savards piquants. (Salmon with stuff) 

Le plat principal
Un grand-vambon Maréchal Ney, encrassé des fines herbes, et débuissé sur les feux terribles; avec rougeaux ibériques, et legumes de la campagne. (Lamb and veg) 

Le dessert
Demi-pérettes Agnes Sorel, sousades de Joséphine, coquailles au Prince; avec petits nou-nous du Baron Mouchard de Nazardrin, et un jus chinois. (Fruity things) 

Une liqueur
Du café
Du chocolat
Le Can-Can

No, the Can-Can was in there just as a little bit of fun.

The menu was slightly opaque, I agree, but then I wanted to tease and not give the game away. I did, as you can see, supply a succinct English translation for the starter, main and dessert. But that wouldn't have told you a lot. The menu required interpretation, and I thought that my guests might like to puzzle it out while I attended to a couple of things in the kitchen. Some photos may assist. These were the simple hor-d'oevres:

A fresh flute thinly cut, coarse pâté with mushrooms, and red wine. Easy to enjoy. And here's me in cheffing outfit, enjoying myself:

After a while, it was time to prepare the starter for serving at the dining table in the conservatory. Two components (the asparagus and the quails' eggs) needed a little cooking, but otherwise this was laughingly straightforward:

The gilbertins were the asparagus spears rolled up in smoked salmon. I conjured up Charlotte Corday (the girl who stabbed Marat during the French Revolution) to suggest an especially French dish, redolent of high ideals and direct action. I chose the quails' eggs (the oisettes) mainly because they were so pretty, suggestive of birdsong and tweeting from little nests hidden among the salmon-coloured poppies, or the pretty cornflowers, that bloom in summer in the fields of northern France (and hence the reference to Picardy). Unfortunately I boiled them just a little too long, and the yolks weren't molten as planned. Never mind, there were no complaints.

The chopped parsley (demanding a nod to Monsieur Guillotin's invention) was there primarily for the aroma, but, along with the savards (a savard is any big-flavoured savory tidbit, in this case pickled capers) the two garnishes helped to stop the eggs rolling about. Both my guests thought the capers were much more than merely functional: they said they were a jolly good foil for the succulent Scottish salmon.

After a pause (this was a deliberately leisurely meal) I quickly cooked some sweet-stemmed broccoli, and courgettes sautéed in butter. The star of the main course was the grand-vambon, a large boned piece of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary, and tied in string to keep it in one piece. I cooked it in lard, with only the little roast potatoes for company. Solid soldiers' fare - hence the reference to Marshal Ney, Napoleon's best general, who like all generals had to feed his army with whatever might be stolen from the nearest farm and slaughtered, a flock of sheep for instance; and besides, I wished to continue the Revolution/Empire theme. I should have basted the lamb slightly more than I did, but what I did was sufficient: the outer layer of fat was crisp and brown.

The rest of the vegetables had been slow-cooked with slices of best chorizo (the rougeaux ibériques, i.e. the 'red spanish things'). This linked with Marshal Ney again, who had successes in the Peninsular War, and, when things went against France there, fought a brilliant series of battles in retreat. In the pot were also onions, red peppers, carrots and parsnips. All were quickly pre-fried in lard, the spicey essence in the chorizo infusing the melted fat with the particular red of the Spanish flag. I made a rue, and added stock, red wine (lots) and a mushroom essence; then gave it more than two hours, longer than the lamb, but all to be ready at the same time. This was the result, once the grand-vambon was sliced and plated, the potatoes arranged, and the Iberian sausage and vegetables added. The green vegetables I served in a separate dish:

All the time wine was being drunk, and a lot of conversation was going on. It didn't actually snow outside, but as the conservatory got warmer (or was it the food?) we all hankered after a feathery downfall to watch as we ate and drank.

Then it was time for the very easy dessert. I had two tubs of half-melted sorbet, raspberry and mango: I dipped into each and spread the red and orange 'juice' over the plate. If any of the sorbet had been more solid, there would have been demi-pérettes, that is, half-spheres of sorbet, but alas that couldn't be managed. My guests didn't mind.

I added lychees (without juice, the 'jus chinois' now being supplanted by the melted sorbet), blueberries, pomegranate seeds, and coconut chunks.

Agnes Sorel was a name I'd read in a book by P G Wodehouse, one of the Bertie Wooster stories in which his Aunt Dahlia's French chef produces a dish called Nonnettes Agnes Sorel, a dish into which he had put his very soul. But of course Bertie offends him by recommending everyone at the house party to refuse all food - the bright idea behind this being to signal to one's partner that despite having a tiff one was still deeply in love, the plot depending on patching up various romances so that certain good things will flow from the reconciliation. And most importantly, if the engagement of gormless Gussie Fink-Nottle and soppy Madeleine Bassett remains 'off', Bertie, being a gentleman, will have to man-up and marry the said Bassett instead, a dreadful fate. In the end Jeeves his clever and resourceful valet saves him from that, and puts everything right, but not before Monsieur Antoine, the irreplaceable chef, goes into retreat and threatens to leave. Which is all totally irrelevant to my meal really, but I liked the 'Agnes Sorel' name.

The sousades (the coconut chunks) were there to evoke the semi-tropical Martinique background of Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. The Baron Mouchard de Nazardrin was, if you recall, the Nature Baron who, disgusted with the vain and pompous extravagances of the noble way of life, made simplicity his keynote, eating lots of fruit for one thing - much on the same lines as people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and much later, Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame. The blueberries are therefore a healthy gesture at natural goodness.

The pomegranate seeds recall the red fins on the blue dolphin that appears in the coat of arms of the first-born royal prince of pre-revolutionary France, the Dauphin. Red was also a favourite colour of Monsieur François Vatel, one of Louis XIV's favourite chefs - the one who, when a fast rider from the coast brought news that no lobsters had been caught that day for a vital dish to be presented to the King and his important guests, needlessly committed suicide. Needlessly, because very soon afterwards another rider galloped into the courtyard at Versailles to report that, after all, lobsters had been caught. Highly strung, these French chefs! Oh well, I suppose he believed he was facing shame amd humiliation, and possibly death by torture.

This was my own dessert anyway:

It went down well. I was able to gloss over the missing demi-pérettes!

And to prove that we drank some wine, here are the three empty bottles. So there!

But we didn't do the Can-Can.


  1. There are about 550 calories in a bottle of wine! Look like good calories though.

    Next time we visit lets not bother going out to eat!

  2. And probably around 2000 or more for the food! Sheesh how do you keep the weight off? It all looks good and you spent a lot of time and effort, I hope it was appreciated. I'm afraid I'd have chosen the a la carte route though and a lot less of it.....LOL I cringed at the point where you mentioned cooking the vegetables in cholesterol is high enough.

    Shirley Anne x


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