A menu that looks back - way back. A movie that does the same. Jamie Oliver's Christmas essential. A new podcast! And of course, more gift suggestions
If you follow food films, you’re probably aware of a new French film that’s all about history. (More about that below.). But as I was thinking about the film, I began reminiscing about one of the most fascinating - and delicious - meals I’ve ever eaten.
My dinner at Dinner
Heston Blumenthal has researched English food of the past to create an edible history lesson; when I first read about the restaurant many of the dishes sounded both interesting and awful. Still, it was my brother’s birthday and I thought he’d be fascinated by the idea of eating history. So despite all the hype about the restaurant (it had been anointed by Michelin, the Fifty Best etc.), I reluctantly made a reservation.
I don’t think we’d been there ten minutes before we all relaxed into the experience. The service was…. wonderful. Enthusiastic. Caring. Welcoming. Endlessly professional. You couldn’t help feeling that everyone who worked there was proud of what they’re doing, wanted you to have a great experience, and would do anything to ensure that. The wine list was filled with stars - 82 Bordeaux abound – but there were also good wines at reasonable prices. And more to the point, a sommelier who helped you find them.
And the food – from the first bite of bread to the last morsel of pudding – was pure pleasure. We were a large family group , we ordered almost everything on the menu, and there was not a single dish I wouldn’t happily eat again.
To begin: Meat Fruit (that beautiful tangerine at the top). This is, believe it or not, liver pâté. It’s a relic from the 13th century, when they loved playing with food, reveling in their ability to make one substance look like another. I’m quite sure it could not have tasted nearly as good back then.
This is what I thought: “I have to start paying attention to oatmeal”. It has as much potential as rice, especially when tangled into garlic, parsley and fennel and topped with frog’s legs.
Rice and Flesh
But then, of course, there was the risotto. A flashback to 1390, it’s called “rice and flesh,” but it was the best rice I’ve ever eaten. Cooked with saffron and red wine, the grain turns into something rich, luxurious, seductive.
Marrow’s become a kind of joke; everybody serves it now. But not like this. Here it was more than a blob of richness lying in a bone. This was chewy - and set against something even chewier. Soft snails underlined the texture, making you consider the nuances. The lovely little pickles on the side cut right through the richness.
Crab and Toast
What is there to say? Except that this was crowned with trout roe.
The original salad from around 1720. According to the current menu,
”This salad is based on a curious dish called Salamagundy that appeared in cookery books from the early 17th century onwards. The name is of obscure origin and appears in various forms such as salmagundi, salamongundy, sallad-magundy and Solomon Gundy. Here the bitter greens were interlaced with chicken oysters – the tenderest part of the bird – salsify and horseradish.
This is duck that had been dry-brined (“powdered”) then cooked sous-vide so it was incredibly tender. On the side, an astonishing concoction of blood pudding and cream, along with ‘umbles – the offal. In this case, fried duck hearts.
Pork with a ruffle of cabbage.
The pork, thank you very much, was the black foot Iberico, fed exclusively on acorns. The sauce was Robert, made from chopped onions cooked in butter, with demi-glace, pepper and a white wine reduction, then finished with mustard. A version of the dish can be found in La Varenne's Le Cuisinier Francois, the first French cookbook to be translated into English. First printed in 1653 the book remained in print, in English, for 250 years.
Really great lamb. With a little rectangle of cucumber heart. That's borage on top, and mint.
An English classic, beautifully done and served with mushroom catsup, which predates the tomato sort. The well-aged beef was gorgeously rare.
The sublime potatoes seemed to be mostly butter with a bit of potato whipped in.
with spit-roasted, rum-drizzled pineapple -a rare delicacy in the past.
Deconstructed and very feminine.
The dessert to dessert, a chocolate and Earl Grey pot de creme served with a rye and caraway biscuit.
I can’t wait for the next person in my family to have a big birthday. As they say in France, vaut le voyage.
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When I was creating The Modern Library Food Series, one of the first books I decided to include was The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff. The book had a preface by Lawrence Durrell, but I asked Jeffrey Steingarten to write the introduction. Who better than the author of The Man Who Ate Everything?
Now the book has been made into a terrific movie called The Taste of Things starring the great Juliette Binoche. Last week I was invited to a screening; it killed me that I couldn’t go because both the actress and the director were there, along with Pierre Gagnaire, one of the chefs I most admire. (Gagnaire was a consultant on the film. )
To celebrate the event, Gagnaire served the following meal.
Our new podcast launched yesterday! Take a listen….
The Kelly family is obsessed with turkeys. For three generations they’ve been breeding turkeys for flavor constantly upping the ante. They’ve received just about every food award the British give out, including an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. King Charles is a fan and Jamie Oliver says “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a KellyBronze turkey.”
Still, when I saw the price of the bird I was buying, I groaned. “This better be some bird,” I thought.
According to the website, these birds are nothing like commercial turkeys. Bronze birds - as opposed to the commercial white sort - are bred for flavor. They roam wild, are allowed to live at least twice as long as ordinary turkeys, have twice as much interior fat as the other kind and are always shipped fresh. Oh yes - and they cook in half the time.
All that turned out to be true: this was, hands down, the best turkey I’ve ever cooked. If you’re a turkey fan, buy yourself a Kelly Bronze for Christmas.
Old Menus Galore
I’ve written about Vintage Menus before – but I still think old menus make wonderful gifts.
If you have a restaurant lover on your list, you’ll surely find something among the hundreds of vintage offerings to make them smile. Even if that’s not the case, treat yourself to a walk down memory lane as you peruse these paeans to the past.
What a Crock
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a donabe. And if it’s not universally acknowledged, it should be: these are fantastic pots and every good cook secretly desires one. Besides you can’t have too many.
Anybody who tries to cook Chinese food knows the magic of oyster sauce. A small spoonful adds richness, umami and depth to just about any stir-fry dish.
The problem is that most commercially available oyster sauces have never seen anything resembling an oyster. Look at the label; you’re buying sweeteners, thickeners and coloring.
But the minute you taste Megachef Oyster Sauce, you know you’ve got the real thing. I buy mine from Mala Market, (the truth is my pantry is filled with products from this wonderful source). If you send this to a friend with a wok they’ll thank you every time they reach for the bottle. Which I promise, will be extremely often.
A friend came to dinner the other night, and as I was opening the first bottle of wine she exclaimed, “Where did you get that wine opener? I must have one.”
It’s a fairly typical reaction, and I have to say, I’ve been using this Chefman electric wine opener for over two years and it has never let me down. Even the foil cutter is still in great shape. I also love the way it sits, quietly glowing, on my counter; a $30 piece of kitchen sculpture.
Nobody on earth is more obsessive than Roy Shvartzapel, which is why Roy’s Panettone is the best I’ve ever eaten. Insanely expensive, it’s dangerous; once you’ve tried it you’ll want it again. (I wrote a long article about Roy here.)
Despite the crazy cost, Roy’s already sold out for Christmas. But if you act fast you can still order one in time for your New Year’s Day brunch.
My idea of a great Christmas dinner is a standing rib roast. And since I’ve discovered Flannery Beef , a family-owned butcher in San Francisco dealing primarily in Holstein cattle that’s where mine comes from. The meat is prime, beautifully aged and quite different than Angus. I wrote about them here.
Here’s Looking at You
Toni Tipton Martin’s Jemima Code was a ground-breaking book. She followed it up with Jubilee, another important addition to the cookbook canon. Now she’s tackled the African American contribution to cocktail culture. Anyone who drinks will be thrilled with Juke Joints, Jazz Clubs and Juice.
One of the easiest ways to add color to your kitchen is by hanging up a few pretty dish towels. Which is why I like the idea of Eat Lucky’s annual artist tea towel series. The towels are all designed by Maine artists, and a new one appears each month. You can order a towel a month for an entire year - or for just a few months.
Ever since I discovered that Nutella is made with palm oil I’ve been looking for an alternative. I’ve tried all manner of hazelnut and chocolate spreads, but I haven’t found any as delicious as this Noisettes et Chocolat Jaguar from Montreal.