When I started cooking professionally in 1987 in London, there was only one book on the lips of the chefs in kitchens – “White Heat” by the precociously talented Marco Pierre White.
It summed up the food at the time – pretty plates of perfectly formed food, intense sauces and sculpted vegetables.
It was a style emulated in the testosterone fuelled kitchens I worked in at the time – both the food and the temper tantrums! After gruelling services I preferred to lull myself to sleep by reading Elizabeth David’s “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine”. David was a highly respected English born food writer and her first publication “A Book of Mediterranean Food”, printed in 1950, changed the face of cooking in Britain. It invigorated a post rationing society and introduced people to scarcely available ingredients like olive oil, aubergines, figs and saffron. She was a major influence on cooking in post war Britain and books on French and Italian cooking followed. Her recipes were all about the ingredients and definitely not trendy in the late eighties but her food and writing was, and remains, a comforting inspiration to me.
“An Omelette and a Glass of Wine” is an anthology of her writings from The Spectator magazine interwoven with her own stories and recipes. The eponymous omelette in the title referred to one on the menu of the Hotel de la Tete D’or in Normandy. The reputation of the place was built on one menu that was served every day, year after year and never changed. It consisted of an omelette, ham, fried sole, lamb cutlets with potatoes, roast chicken, salad and a dessert. Cider and butter were served on the table and included in the price. The place was queued round the block and tourists flocked for the beautifully light omelettes made solely by the owner Madame Poulard. Customers and food writers tried to explain the magic of her iconic egg dish – she added cream or water only, she had special hens, a specific pan….When she retired she finally confided the secret in a letter to the writer Robert Viel.
“Monsieur Viel. Here is the recipe for the omelette. I break some good eggs in a bowl. I beat them well. I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it and I shake it constantly. I am happy, Monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.”
Over the years my much worn copy of this seminal book, eventually fell apart with over use. One of my Christmas presents in 2016 was a replacement, from my mum, of this much loved book. It’s a beautifully bound, duck egg blue, hard back version with a painting of purple hued garlic, leeks and chives on the cover and published by the Folio Society.
The older I get, the more I long for simpler food. One of my best meals of last year was at a restaurant in Turin where there was no choice at all on the menu. Raw vegetables were served in a basket with a garlic and olive oil dip to start, gnocchi came with a rich tomato and meat sauce followed by rabbit with mushrooms (pot luck on which cut you got) and the feast was finished by their signature apple dessert served there since the second world war. The most important thing should always be the ingredients. That’s as pertinent now as it was when Elizabeth David was first writing. It’s better to have one egg, laid by free roaming hens, than half a dozen of the battery variety.
They’ll cost a bit more but the quality is infinitely better. A soft boiled egg, dipped with soda bread toast soldiers is one of my favourite ways to start the day – naturally it all depends on the provenance of the egg and the talent of the baker!
My resolution for 2017 is to keep thinking carefully about every piece of food I cook with whether its meat, fish, flour or eggs. If you can support a local producer , why would you not?
Additionally we need to make no apologies for using English cheese, Italian olive oil and vinegar or any good quality food from around the world.
The important thing is that it’s the best and free from chemicals and enhancers.
One of my friends spent last Christmas in Italy and goaded me every day with photographs of the food they were eating.
One of the most appetising ones was of Sformato – a dish of potatoes, cooked with egg, bacon and cheese. I’ve recreated it for this week’s recipes and even though it is Italian in soul, it’s the perfect showcase for our wonderful food. Glass of wine or local cider obligatory…..