memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for the ‘French cuisine’ Category

12. 12. 12.

12. 12. 12..

12. 12. 12.

Today, coinciding with the unusual and lucky configuration of numbers in the date, has been our annual Xmas «feast»

I’ve lived in Portugal for about a generation but I still can’t completely get my head around the (almost Pavlovian) excitement surrounding the prospect of the traditional fare of boiled cod, boiled potatoes and boiled cabbage.

Albeit somewhat alleviated with either onion-sauce or, for the purists, olive oil, this dish doesn’t do anything particularly for me (apart the excellent nourishment it provides of course).

Part of life’s rich tapestry

And above all, kindly meant

It takes all sorts to make a world, doesn’t it?

Or, as the French put it more succinctly

Chacun son goût

CHACUN SON GOÛT

CHACUN SON GOÛT

And the band played on

Let us anticipate by a couple of months all the brouhaha when the various mediums of communication remind us one morning with our breakfast that the night 14/15 April is the centenary of the sinking of the TITANIC.

THE TITANIC

And the band played on.

If Jesus and his twelve apostles had been on the Titanic on that fateful, misty evening of the 14th April 1912 in the North Atlantic, when that great ship and that great iceberg converged and conjoined in a cold ritualistic embrace and began their last frozen waltz, they would no doubt have travelled First Class, (a suite for Himself and shared cabins for His 12 followers).

They might well have eaten something from the following menu.

FIRST CLASS DINNER MENU – 14 April 1912

Hors D’ouvres Variès – Oysters

Consummé Olga – Cream of Barley

Salmon, Mousseline Sauce, Cucumber

Filet Mignon Lili – Sauté of Chicken, Lyonnaise – Vegetable Marrow Farcie

Lamb, Mint Sauce – Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce – Sirloin of Beef, Chateâu Potatoes

Green Peas – Creamed Carrots – Boiled Rice – Parmientier & New Potatoes

Punch Romaine

Roast Squab & Cress – Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette – Pâté de Foie Gras – Celery

Waldorf Pudding – Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly – Chocolate & Vanila Eclairs – French Ice Cream

 

And the band played on.

Food for the Gods

Does anyone else agree with me that, while Portuguese cooking can be wholesome, healthy and indeed delicious, it lacks a certain (dare I say it) subtlety, a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain finesse? (Probably not: such an opening is doubtless a culinary solecism of the first order and a lesson in how to offend about ten million people with just one sentence).

Butchering in this region is merely a skill (if that), not a science or even an art. Where I live, descriptions of dishes are pared down to a fine minimalism:

–          Excuse me, what’s this?

–          It’s fish.

–          Yes, I can see that, but what kind of fish?

–          It’s Rabinho de Peixe (fish’s bum).

Well, I mean to say! In Portuguese it doesn’t so bad, it sounds like the fish had a kinda cute little butt, but in English it just sounds gross. I mean it’s hardly likely to titivate the taste-buds or get the juices flowing, is it?

With meat it’s much the same. As I sadly contemplate the (savagely hacked) chunk of meat, tubes, bone and muscle, placed in front of me, I ask:

–          I know that this is meat but what I’d like to know is what kind of meat it is.

–          It’s roast meat.

But let us escape from this mundane world and take refuge in literature and film. Let us recollect in tranquility the descriptions of food in Proust, in Joseph Heller’s As Good as Gold or in Tomaso de Lampadusa’s The Leopard. Above all, let us dwell on the foodies’ favourite film Babette’s Feast:

The scene is a remote little village on the coast of Jutland during the last part of the 19th century. The small community is comprised of mostly elderly, simple, plainly-spoken and religious folk who see the good in everything and patiently eek out a living on this cold, bleak, grey shore. Their diet appears to consist of ground dried cod.

The story centers on two middle-aged sisters, the daughters of the pastor who founded this Christian sect. The sisters had hired a French house-keeper some years previously – Babette (played by Stephane Audran, who almost but not quite succeeds in disguising her Parisian chic).One day Babette receives a telegraph from Paris to inform her that she has won 10,000 Francs on the state lottery. She decides to give the villagers a lavish dinner à la Française to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Founder’s death.

The last and most relevant part of the film is the preparation and the serving (by Babette) of an extraordinary feast of royal dimensions, lavishly deployed in the unpainted austerity of the sisters’ rustic home. The film, previously showing mainly winterly whites and grays, gradually picks up more and more colours, focusing on the various and delectable dishes, a feast for the spectator as well.

Although the other celebrants do their best to reject the earthly pleasures of the food and drink, Babette’s extraordinary gifts as a chef de cuisine and a true connoisseur so characteristically French, breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table — thanks to the general elation nurtured by the consumption of so many fine culinary delicacies and spirits.

The menu responsible for their pleasure features Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in a puff-pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); la Salade features Belgian endives and walnuts in vinaigrette, and Les Fromages features Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including  Clos de Vougeot, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu. Babette’s purchase of the finest china, flatware, crystal and linens with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette, who is none other than the famous former Chef of the Café Anglais in Paris. Babette’s previous occupation has been unknown to the sisters until she confides in them after the meal…

STILL LIFE WITH FRUIT - PAINTING - BY THOMAS MILNER

But it’s time to return to the present and today’s lunch. First it was customary thick yellow soup, OK, then blow me down if it insn’t followed by more soup, this time grey in colour and with a slightly fishy odour; oh good, exclaim my two table-companions, it’s Farinha do Pau!

To me it resembled nothing so much as grey frog-spawn vomited up by a giant Bloater. (No thanks!)

Paris in the spring is a movable feast

It was an early spring evening and the lights were starting to go on all over Paris.

John and Emma Sawyer were sauntering along the Pont Neuf every now and then leaning over the parapet to watch a Bâteau Mouche slide slowly past beneath, the brightly-lit tourists, holding their little translation-pods, obediently looking first to the left and then to the right, as directed. Then they would look up and contemplate one the most famous cityscapes in the world, dominated by the elegant and iconic Eifel Tower rising up from the Champs de Mars.

They had been married for about fifteen years, and the first flush and excitement of their early relationship, before and immediately after the wedding, had given way first to settled contentment and then finally to mere habit. But all was not well; tiny grits of irritation and resentment were forming, on both sides. They had no children. At first it was because they both led career-driven lives, and later a reluctance to commit to parenthood and change their well-ordered lives made them pause and finally, tacitly admitting to themselves that they had fallen out of love, there seemed to be little point.

And then there were their respective careers. Emma, the better educated and (dare one suggest) slightly more assertive of the two, after studying Fine Art and Modern Languages at university, had secured a curatorship at the British Museum in the Roman and Etruscan Ceramics department, a job which she found congenial and self-fulfilling. John, on the other hand, had held down a soul-destroying teaching post in an inner-city Comprehensive school, trying to beat English literature into uninterested and recalcitrant kids, for about eight years, before having a minor nervous breakdown. He was now managing an up-market wine-bar in the City which, after the collapse of the financial markets, was in danger of being closed down. It was to cheer up her depressed husband that Emma proposed taking the Euro-Star across to Paris for the weekend.

Emma, through frequent professional visits to the Louvre, knew Paris quite well and organized the weekend, from the moment of emerging from the sleek, high-speed train at the Gare du Nord, to the fast cab ride, down the Rue de la Paix, swooping along the rollercoaster tunnels of the north bank of the river and finally to their smart little hotel on the Isle Saint-Louis, in the shadow of Nôtre Dame. Now they were having a stroll before dinner, drinking in the sights and sounds of the beautiful city on that spring evening. It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t really: a key ingredient was missing – contentment. John was tense and moody as Emma enthusiastically kept her end of the conversation going.

–              I do love Paris, don’t you Johnny! I think that must be Les Invâlides over there, you know, where the tomb of Napoleon is … and oh, do look, in the distance you can just make out the lights of the Sacré Coeur … and as for the Tour Eifel, all lit up like that!

HEARTSICK - PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

Later they had dinner at La Coupole in Montparnasse. The darkly-lit restaurant, once the haunt of writers like Sartre, Hemingway and Henry Miller, was now an expensive tourist trap, full of culture-vultures eager to drink in the air of Bohemian chic. It was a split-level room, with oak railings looking down on the discreet lamps and the white table cloths, lined with shining green leather banquetes – it had oodles of atmosphere, did that restaurant). Emma had booked in advance. As they sat down, she looked around appreciatively:

–              Can’t you just see Hemingway, at that table in the corner, Johnny, scribbling away … perhaps writing the words Paris in the spring is a moveable feast …

–              He’d have been more likely to be leaning against the bar, getting pissed and talking hot air … anyway, at these prices, all that bunch wouldn’t have been able to afford this place. By the way, Em, what made you choose this restaurant?

–              The assistant director of the museum brought me here for lunch on my last trip; you remember, I told you, to celebrate the transfer of those 3rd Century BC Etruscan terracotta bulls? But perhaps you weren’t listening as usual.

–              Perhaps my attention span in 3rd Century Etruscan ceramics is rather limited … anyway what’s he like, this French museum bloke?

–              Oh, you know the type – middle-aged, over-weight – more into management than scholarship; don’t tell me you’re jealous again, Johnny! Anyway, to change the subject, what were you talking about with that strange little chap on the bridge?

–              Oh him, he was peddling souvenirs; he was a tenacious little bugger, I’ll give him that; in the end I bought one of these just to get rid of him.

They both moodily studied the menu; actually Emma had lied about the museum director; Jean-Luc, had been an attractive and charming man with a witty flow of small talk, which made lunch seem to go by in a flash – and her husband had not been deceived by the slight shift in her voice. They ordered costly but simple food and wine, (Huîtres à la Bretagne with a bottle of Muscadet, followed by Escalope de Vaux à la Milanaise accompanied by a bottle of  Chinon). Suddenly John got up abruptly, knocking over a wine glass, and stalked off in the direction of the bathroom and simply vanished. Emma never saw him alive again.

To be continued.

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