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It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.
By Anne Willan
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Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.
This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.
“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?
As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.
Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier
It was my 75th birthday, and I had no idea what to expect. My family insisted it be a surprise. We edged our way through a busy commercial street in Girona, Catalonia, and an open doorway beckoned us into the peaceful, sunlit courtyard of El Celler de Can Roca. “A glass of Cava perhaps?” smiles our server, and so begins five hours of unparalleled feasting. El Celler de Can Roca opened 27 years ago and is run by three brothers: Joan at the kitchen range, Jordì the pastry chef and Josep the sommelier. The three have created a gourmet destination that combines past and future with extraordinary brilliance. This March it was named best restaurant in the world on a website sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
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Within the restaurant, the surroundings are strongly linked to the earth, with trees, pebbles and wood-paneled walls enclosing views on a miniature forest of birch trees, giving a feeling of the outdoors. In any restaurant, what’s on the plate should tell you where you are, and with our drinks arrives a tiny bonsai olive tree, instantly setting the scene. We crunch the hanging olives and our mouths burst with salty sweetness — the anchovy-stuffed fruits have been veiled in a whisp of caramel. What could be more symbolic of the ancient city of Girona in the mountains of northern Catalonia, flanked by olive groves running down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The olives lead into a tour of the world in tiny bites: a tomato and coriander guacamole from Mexico, an explosive ball of ceviche broth representing Peru, and pickled vegetables with plum cream as an echo of China. Visit on a different day and the world tour will be different we are told.
Eager to explore, we opt for the menu of the day, which leads to some 25 eye-catching, palate-teasing tastings, several of them among the most intriguing I’ve encountered anywhere. Just a small spoonful of zarzuela, pungent and concentrated, sums up the essence of the rustic Catalonian fish soup. A single prawn from the nearby port of Palamos provides astonishingly intensive tastes of raw tail, dried feelers, toasted liver meat, and jus from the shell — I would never have thought such a barrage of varied flavors could be extracted from one small beast.
Old and new cuisine combine in the two or three mouthfuls of crisp baby pig belly moistened with a Riesling jus, and the pigeon in a classic salmis blood, and liver sauce spiked with nuggets of candied walnut, a mastery of richness and intensity. Though the tastings are tiny, the ingredients are not treated as playthings (one of the great drawbacks of today’s Modernist cuisine). As the meal progresses, it’s clear that Chef Joan is focusing on regional ingredients — fish such as red mullet and bream, are typical of the Mediterranean, the green and black olives are local, pork comes from Iberian pigs, and game from the foothills of the mountains. Some seasonings hark back to the Arabs — rose water, honey, ras el hanout, saffron and orange.
The cooking at Can Roca has roots, but no way could it have been achieved without an ultra-modern kitchen. On arrival, we had been welcomed backstage to see the banks of buttons, stainless steel and gadgetry. The restaurant has lots of staff, too: 35 cooks in the kitchen and a couple dozen servers for perhaps 50 guests. The staff is as international as the diners, John from Philadelphia had just completed seven months at the stove, and Rocio, our server and guide, was from Valencia in southern Spain.
Among the abundance of dishes, the astonishing truffle soufflé stands out, a 2-inch round of feather-light hot truffle mousse enclosed in discs of fresh black truffle, set on a round of warm bone marrow and served under a glass bell which, when lifted, pervades the air with a hint of BBQ smoke. I like to think of myself as a soufflé expert, but I cannot imagine how this tour de force could be carried from the kitchen to diner after diner with never a hint of collapse.
Are the Roca brothers a successor to their former neighbor, Ferran Adrià at el Bullì? The two restaurants share the same Catalonian spice-perfumed air, the freshest of fish, the olive oil and garlic and warm registers of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin that date back to medieval times, backed up the rust red of paprika brought from the New World.
But Adrià, who creates imaginary images and flavors, the Roca brothers focus on real food on the plate. What distinguishes them from other Modernist chefs is their use of modern techniques against a background of tradition. If this is where the gastronomic future lies, let’s pursue it with gusto!
Guests exclaim in surprise when tasting these salty olives dipped in caramel. They will hold up an hour or two, perfect with a glass of cava sparkling white wine, or a very dry martini.
Makes about 30 to 40 olives
1 cup (about 5 ounces) anchovy-stuffed olives in brine
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1. Drain the olives and dry them very thoroughly on paper towels, squeezing slightly to extract as much brine as possible. This helps the caramel remain crisp. Spear each olive on a toothpick. Set them on a tray lined with paper towels and chill them, uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of hot water, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
2. Mix the sugar and water in a small, deep saucepan. (You will have leftover syrup, but this amount is needed for dipping.) Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring once or twice. Bring the syrup to a boil and boil without stirring to the hard crack, 294 F/146 C on a sugar thermometer. The syrup should be just starting to color. Take at once from the heat and plunge base of the pan into the bowl of hot water to stop cooking.
3. Holding an olive with the toothpick, dip it into the syrup (the syrup sets quicker on cold olives). Lift out, twirl so the olive is lightly coated, let cool a few seconds so the syrup solidifies, and set the olive on the parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining olives. The syrup may start to set, and if so reheat it until liquid and keep going.
4. Transfer the olives to a platter for serving. Serve them at room temperature.
Top photo: Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
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Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
What extraordinary things people eat! Just now we are being urged to switch from meat and fish to bugs to “save the planet.” How about using “fresh roasted crickets” for walnuts in your muffins, or savoring an Australian witchetty grub, grilled for two seconds over the coals and popped, still wiggling, into your mouth? I’ve never been offered a roasted sheep’s eyeball, apparently awarded to honored guests at a Bedouin feast, but an oyster on the half shell, so fresh it shivers when the lemon juice hits it, slides easily down my throat.
I’ve recently been immersed in old cookbooks and, wow, our ancestors had gastronomic guts. In 1450, the banquet in England for the enthronement of an archbishop required 104 oxen, six “wylde bulles,” 1,000 sheep, 400 swans and countless game birds such as bustards (larger than a turkey), cranes, bitterns, curlews and herons. Seals were eaten on fast days along with whale, dolphin, porpoise and thousands of other fish. I suspect carp would have been the nastiest; they were raised in ponds and castle moats that also served as drains.
Noble virgins, leaping jesters
Entertainment was the focus at these gatherings. A stuffed peacock with all its feathers was the highlight of medieval feasting, carried by a noble lady, her hair unbound to signal her virginity. In England, during the reign of Elizabeth I, an athletic display called the Alamain leap called for a jester to soar over the heads of seated guests and plunge into a custard pie “to the unspeakable amusement of those who were far enough bespattered by this active gambol,” remarked a commentator. Most popular diversion of all were the live birds served in giant pies — remember the “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”?
Food continued to be entertainment long after huge feasts with hundreds of diners became out of date. By the 17th century, the number of guests invited for grand dinners declined, but the lavish spread of offerings increased. Platters were arranged along the banquet table in front of seated guests, who were invited to help themselves to the food nearest them, or pass along a plate for a neighbor to do the honors. At the grandest affairs, guests were served by a footman posted behind their chair. Diners must have craned their heads to spot the new ingredients brought back by travelers — turkey, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, tea and chocolate, to mention just a few.
Dozens of different dishes dazzled in gold and silver platters, or in the new porcelain exported from China. By the end of the 17th century in England, it was the custom to offer a different recipe for each guest — 10 for 10 guests, 50 for 50, and so on.
As a modest example, the first course dishes of a June dinner for 10 suggested by the English cook Charles Carter in 1730 were a “pattage of ducklins with onions, an almond pudding, a turbot corbullion [court bouillon] with shrimps and lobster sawce, a fricasee of rabbits, a pottage of squabbs with sagooe [sago], umble [variety meats] pies, beans blanch’d and bacon, and trouts grilliade,” all surmounted by a “grand sallads of sorts” as a centerpiece.
Rabbits and ‘umble pie
The acknowledged king of grand banquets was the French chef Antonin Carême, who in the early 19th century cooked for the czar of Russia and the English prince regent. In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, the French Prince de Talleyrand headed the Congress of Vienna. As his chef, Carême organized official dinners laden with the likes of grilled turbot with anchovy butter sauce, truffled turkey, spit-roast pheasant with gravy and a grand gâteau called the ruin of Babylon — a menu of more than 100 dishes served to 60 to 70 people. Carême never failed to add as “extra” the hot soufflés that were his own invention, and the ultimate chic.
Today we rely on chefs themselves to provide part of a meal’s excitement. A so-called “open kitchen” is the model, though it’s all a bit of a sham, with the noise and smells hidden behind a glass window. I’m always amused the really dirty stuff goes on in the back, the blood and bones and endless peeling of potatoes. However there’s one genius who drew us into the experience of creating fine food right at the table and that was Spain’s Ferran Adrià at elBulli, which closed last year.
My own gastronomic extravaganza there was two years ago when his 37 courses included a flower of steamed rose petals dressed with an extract of artichoke, a “pond” of ice to be cracked with a spoon before the sweet, mint-flavored water beneath was drunk with a straw, and his signature “olive” that collapsed into a rich and puckery liquid essence of olive when it hit the tongue.
In theory, such amusing nonsense has nothing to do with good eating, but it does of course. From sheep’s eyes to stuffed peacocks to olives that burst on the tongue, the very best festive dishes excite the imagination as well as the senses.
Photo: Anne Willan. Credit: C. Siri Bertring
Note on the book cover below: Most famous of all Antonin Carême’s projects is this seven-tiered buffet of 103 dishes from a book written for maîtres d’hôtels. History doesn’t tell us whether the idea was ever executed, but given a minimum height of 20 feet, it seems unlikely.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Anne Willan is the co-author of “The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, the Writers, and the Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook,” published in April 2012 by the University of California Press.