A Time to Reflect

This time of quarantine has put paid to entertaining, hospitality and social dining for now, so I've been looking back over my archive of menus and the letters I've written over the years about food. It's been a time to remember influential friends and family and to consider how my culinary heroes have changed me.

I gave my first formal dinner in the last few weeks of my university career, in a flat overlooking the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. I might cringe a little now at the menu (fish terrine, coq au vin, lime sorbet), but it was rather sophisticated for your average student! The sorbet recipe came from a book I’m still using to this day. A Taste of Excellence (E Lambert Ortiz, 1988) introduced a new wave of young British cooks (including Raymond Blanc) who were just starting to move on from the constraints of Nouvelle Cuisine. (By the way, let nobody mock Nouvelle Cuisine: it taught Brits that food should look good!) When I started work, it was at a large retreat centre in St Helens. I had access to a major catering kitchen and trade discount at the local butcher. Since I was also fed, watered, housed and insured by my employer, I had a comparatively generous disposable income to throw dinner parties. My private dining society was born here. Still using A Taste of Excellence, these were the days of chilled fruit soups, fried brie and ceviche.

Foie gras en brioche
My next move took me back to Liverpool, where the first thing I did was throw a kitchen-warming party, a swish little dinner for a couple of close friends. For that evening I taught myself how to bake foie gras inside brioche dough (not easy when you haven’t a recipe and are working solely from a brief mention on a TV comedy!). I also aquired that week a new book, a giveaway with the bottle of Noilly Prat I bought for pre-prandial Martinis. This was Elizabeth David’s magnificent French Country Cooking. If you ever want to know what perfect food writing is, turn to Elizabeth David. She manages to conjure up the sensuous appeal of the simplest dishes and the emotional warmth of the table. I would spend hours in the cookery aisles of Liverpool's Central Library, where I discovered Auguste Escoffier and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Given how sketchy some of Elizabeth David's recipes can be, Escoffier was essential, as his books taught me the theory and technique needed to fill in the details Mrs David can't be bothered to include.

Another change of employment brought me back to my parents’ house, where entertaining might have been more difficult. However, we managed never to be away on holiday at the same time, so every parental absence became an occasion for a dinner party. One (in-)famous dinner turned convention topsy-turvy: every savoury course contained fruit, and the dessert was chocolate-covered cherry tomatoes. This was before anyone had heard of Heston Blumenthal. I continued to rely on the same go-to books for many dishes, and it was during this period that I learnt how to dispatch a lobster, how to clean a pheasant and how much faff is involved in pureeing veg without a food processor!  It was also at this time, that I extended the menus from three to four courses. This is the format I now feel most comfortable with. Its challenge is to create something different each time within the same formal structure. I often liken it to the challenge of writing a sonnet, in which you have a formal structure of 14 lines and a limited choice of rhyme-schemes, and the art is in using that framework to create something fresh and beautiful. Pretentious, moi?

Friends from the dining society decided to take a couple of holidays together in Scotland in the late 1990s. Here, I discovered a love of deep, smokey whiskies and filling breakfasts. We added cocktail parties to our social lives, and so I started to learn more about the art of mixing drinks. A little older, a little more established in a career and growing in confidence as a cook, I was able to use more expensive ingredients, better wines and to top-and-tail every dinner with aperitifs and digestifs.

A suitably grand table for Escoffier
A few years ago, I decided to give a series of dinners celebrating my culinary heroes. In addition to Elizabeth David, Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin, I also paid tribute to Anton Mosimann, the chef who had written the introductionto A Taste of Excellence thirty years earlier. Mosimann was the chef who popularised Nouvelle Cuisine in Britain, stripping all the butter, alcohol and cream from his dishes to focus the attention on the natural flavours of seasonal ingredients. For the Elizabeth David dinner, we shared the relaxed conviviality of her mainly Mediteranean cuisine: quiche, bouillabaisse, salads and cold, sliced pork. Everything was pared back for my celebration of Mosimann. Cleanliness of presentation and flavour were paramont: crab salad and tomato consommé, steamed, truffled guinea fowl and sliced parmesan with fresh pear. Escoffier gave me the opportunity to refresh my technical skills, revisiting each of his "mother" sauces over the course of an elaborate menu that included the famous lobster Thermidor and ice cream bombes. Finally, my celebration of Brillat-Savarin forced me to serve à la française, with a selection of dishes all served together. Brillat-Savarin insists that dining has to be a multi-sensory experience, so we put as much effort into creating an explosion of colour and aroma as we did the taste of the dishes. Never have so many edible flowers been used in a domestic kitchen!

After that series of celebratory dinners, I had the chance to reflect on what I'd learnt. I noted shortly afterwards:
"A common theme across all the writers/cooks I hold in admiration is the importance of taking good ingredients and making them sing, treating them each in a way that brings out what is best, what is unique in them. It is something I [have previously] remarked on in the Italian cuisine I have loved on our travels. Seasonality and local ingredients are vital to this endeavour, something Anton Mosimann insists on, the very thing Mrs David waxed so lyrical about but was unable to achieve fully in the 1950s. [...] Two of the dinners challenged my nerve somewhat. It was a bold step to serve a cold main course at the Elizabeth David dinner, one that I nearly backed out of. The response of my diners, though, was that it was the perfect way to show off her way with simple flavours and made a startling contrast to the hot bouillabaisse that preceeded it. Similarly, the starkness of the Anton Mosimann dinner required nerves of steel to pull off. I learnt that bold dishes must be executed with knowledge and confidence."

Some of my favourite books
Looking forward now, I don't think it's possible to predict what the current quarantine will do to our styles of cooking, eating and entertaining. I'm doing a lot more baking than before, and I'm teaching the Beloved how to make the 5 "mother" sauces from which Escoffier was able to build thousands of dishes. Already, I'm dreaming of menus and dinners to come, and I've decided to experiment with ingredients I've never used before. Central to everything will be the love of friends and family, sitting together around a table and enjoying well-prepared food.

Comments

  1. What a fabulous post. Fascinating to see your journey as you grow as a cook and in confidence. Marvellous.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read and comment. It's good to know people find my writing interesting.

      Delete

Post a comment