Friday, January 14, 2011

St. Michael's Mount and Sea Urchin Souffle

 Do you know the story of Brigadoon?  It’s a tale about a place that re-appears every 100 years then dissolves back into the misty moors. The story was based upon a much older German work by Friedrich Gerstäckerabout the mythical village of Germelshausen that fell under an evil magic curse.  I do not know if this qualifies as an archetypal myth shared by our collective human unconscious, but the idea of magical places that appear and disappear through magic or the power of the viewer is fairly universal whether in Scotland, Germany or Oz.  I’ve always longed to be under the spell of just such a place.

 The island of St. Michael’s Mount, (like it’s older brother, Mont St. Michel in Normandy) is one such magical place and I was enamored the moment I set foot on its shores.  Access appears and disappears with the tides.

St. Michael’s Mount at High tide when the way is lost, Circa 1900

Low Tide when you can walk to the Mount.

The Beautiful cobbled way appears when the water recedes

The Top of the Mount

The Island itself begins with a myth of the Giant named Cormoran who lived there and stole the livestock of the village.  A local lad named Jack killed him by tricking him into a pit.  When the Mount was damaged by an earthquake in the 14th century, the grave of an 8’ tall giant was found and whispered to be the giant of legend.  On the Mount today there is a spot called The Giant’s Grave where Cormoron might be buried and the pit he fell in is also honored with a bit of signage.

Giant rocks dropped by Cormoran’s wife, Cormelian

There was a monastery on the site from the 8th to the early 11th century and more buildings were built in the 12th century but the foreign monastery (it was started by a Norman monk from Mont St. Michel) was suppressed in 1425 and sold to the St Aubyn family in 1659.   It has remained in their hands ever since and the head of the St Aubyn family now the titled Lord St. Leven.

If a castle can be called cosy, this is cosy.  The rooms are, for the most part not hugely proportioned. 

The View From the Mount is breathtaking

Mount Dairy -- does the shape look familiar?

Of course a household such as this must be fed.  This dairy building looks like a diminutive version of the kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey(that I wrote about HERE), although it is much younger than the Medieval Abbey version -- probably late 19th century.

I thought what with the beautiful rich cream that the island’s Jersey Cows would have provided the dairy and the Cornish seafood that is legendary… a dish combining the 2 would be the ticket.  I wanted something magical as befitting the place… a dish that would dwell in the mist between sea and land.  Sea urchin and cream… a favorite celestial combination in a soup that lives in my memory was the first thing that popped into my mind and sea urchins abound in the Cornish sea. I have already written of my love for urchin HERE, but then I became bewitched by another dish… sea urchin soufflé, fickle me.

Twenty odd years ago, a book came out called Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics that was conceived by a patrician fellow named... Jeremiah Tower!   You may not know his name, but you really should. He was one of the early chefs of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He applied for the job with no chef experience after eating a berry tart that he liked there. With a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, an encyclopedic knowledge of food, a brilliant creative mind and limitless self-confidence, he did much to shape the legend of Chez Panisse but left the restaurant to go out on his own in ’78. From there he opened Stars Restaurant in San Francisco and launched such chefs as Mario Batali.  He is now enjoying life in Mexico.  I do hope he writes more cookbooks!

I was reminded of this book a while ago and got myself a new copy (where the old one went, I do not know!).  It was as good as I remembered it to be.  One of the recipes that blew me away was one for sea urchin soufflé.  Tower had made it for James Beard the first time he cooked for him in the mid-seventies with great result: “… a wonderful ocean smell began to waft into the kitchen and best of all, the soufflé mixture had risen above the shells, puffy, pink-beige and beautiful.  I rushed them to the table.  Jim tried a spoonful. No word was said.  He looked up slowly, aware of the theatrical effect, rolled his eyes slowly, and said, ”My God, that is the best thing I have ever tasted.”  How could you argue with James Beard… he was not wrong.

This took a few trials. My sea urchin was as good as it gets from Catalina Offshore Products, plump and fresh… it was in the ocean the morning before it arrived!

The original 20 minutes was too long (it was originally cooked in urchin shells… this would be a substantial variable) and the extra egg white combined with the technique of placing them on a hot pan made the soufflés bubble over like a bad chemistry experiment as I hadn’t put collars on them.  I recommend the collars.  The additional egg white made the texture sublime. I read that the addition of a few drops of vinegar and a spoonful of egg white powder would make the soufflé more stable…next time!  The last effort really brought all the flavors and textures together and was exactly what I had imagined… an ethereal cloud of heavenly urchin.   Close your eyes and think of the magical Mount as your spoon glides through the creamed ochre froth of:

Sea Urchin Soufflé based on a Jeremiah Tower Recipe, serves 4

4 large sea urchins from Catalina offshore Products, roe removed (or 16 pieces of urchin) and pureed
2 oz. butter
2 T flour
1 c fish stock
2 egg yolks
2-3 egg whites (3 makes it lighter but less stable- the original recipe called for 2, I liked the texture better with 3)
pinch of cream of tartar
2 drops vinegar

Make the soufflé base by melting butter.  Add flour and cook for 5 minutes on very low heat. Warm the fish stock and add to the flour, whisking frequently for 15 minutes at a very low heat and skimming any scum that may rise.  Cool.

Heat the oven to 400º.  Some recommend a water bath pan of boiling water that comes 1/2-way up the dish as a way to make the soufflé more stable.

Stir the yolks and roe into the soufflé base.  Butter and flour 4-individual soufflé dishes (½ c) and make buttered collars for the soufflé dishes from foil for stability for the rise. Whip the whites with the cream of tartar and the drops of vinegar and fold them into the base and gently pour/spoon into dishes.  Cook for 12-17 minutes (do watch…oven temperatures vary) until slightly brown on top and serve immediately with madeira cream if you want to add a little more luxury.

Madeira Cream

¼ c heavy cream, warmed
2 t madeira

Combine and serve a spoon with each soufflé as you break into them.

Last, but not least, Madeira with Ambergris.  I have wanted to try this since I first tasted the Excellent Negus I made with vintage port and ambergris last thanksgiving (see that recipe HERE).   It was a life altering experience.  The scent from the warm wine and the ambergris was magic. And I thought it would be amazing with the soufflé…yes it was.

Thanks to my sage Madeira guide,  Mannie Berk with The Rare Wine Company , I had in my little paws on a 1900 D’Oliveira Malvesia, redolent of butterscotch, sandalwood, amber and the patina of exquisite old age.  I took a tiny bit, warmed it and grated (microplanes are the best) beautiful ambergris from Ambergris Co. NZ.  over the top.  It was everything I expected and more.   One of the magic qualities of ambergris, as I have told you before (HERE), is that it makes everything it touches a little more of what it is.  The quality of the wine was deepened and polished by the ambergris… the scent was transcendental.  It is like a duet of great artists… each voice compliments the other.  Should you be fortunate enough to try it… remember, the wine must be quite warm for the magic to happen… then stick your nose in the glass, inhale the perfume and glimpse the Empyrean for a few moments before sipping the divine nectar.

Madère d'Ambre Gris  for one

2 oz fine Madeira  ( I used a 1900 D’Oliveira Malvesia--- extravagant I know but do use a great Madeira from Rare Wine Company .  The terrifically priced NY Malmsey from the Historic Series would be good or a 1989 D'Oliveira Malvasia would be superb… with or without the ambergris!).

a few gratings of Ambergris from  Ambergris Co. NZ 

Warm the wine… it should be hot -- food hot, not anywhere near boiling.  Pour it into a glass and give it a lot of space… it is the scent you want to enjoy so only half fill the glass.  As you serve, grate the ambergris over the top.  Inhale for a few moments before you take a sip.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!!


Diane said...

I saw Brigadoon about 3 times I loved each time as much as the first. This is a really interesting post especially as I only knew about the big brother in Normandy! So now I know there is a younger brother in Cornwall :-)
That souffle looks very special, now I must go hunting for see urchins. Diane

La Table De Nana said...

Another wonderful tale..that grotto must hold many secrets..:) Sea urchins abound some days on a beach i frequent in Fl.. I have never tasted them..but what amazing sea creatures they are..

I never knew about this Mount St Michael..I knew of Mont St Michel..

As always.. great lore here!

Unknown said...

Another fantastic post! I always learn something when I come here.
A sea urchin soufflé? OMG, that is something so impossibly elegant, that only you would make it. I wouldn't even know where to find sea urchins!
Wishing you a wonderful weekend ahead.
*kisses* HH

Barbara said...

I loved the story of St. Michaels's Mount. The rooms are smallish I agree, but oh those ceilings! Makes all the difference.

Sea urchin is something I always order when I see it on the menu in a good restaurant. How fabulous that you have discovered a source and could make Tower's dish. I've known about him (and his long-time feud with Alice Waters) and was interested to read someplace recently that he lost his HUGE historic cookbook collection in Hurricane Katrina.
Love this post, as usual!!

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

What a creative idea for a souffle, it sounds decadent and I love sea urchin. I never thought to use collars for souffles, but will try it next time!

Jacqueline said...

Absolutely magical. I must put that on my list of to dos!

Sarah said...

I have been to St. Michaels Mount. Absolutely loved it but would never dare to walk across. Sat at the bus for 1/2 hour and did not understand one word of their English. There are those sea urchins again. I dream about the time I might be able to try them.

Stella said...

Hey Deana! I love magical places and things (smile), and I can totally see how you relate St. Michael's Mount to Brigadoon-both elusive in their own way. Plus, St. Michael's Mount looks like such an incredibly beautiful place. I would love to see that stone dairy in person. Just lovely.
Oh, and if this souffle is good enough for James Beard, it's good enough for this witch. It sounds really delicious!
p.s. Thanks for your sweet comment on my blog. It's so strange how much little things like that can make one feel better:)

Linda said...

Deana...I have never tasted sea urchin, but you have made me want to that is for sure!
You must be so amazing to travel with!
Every time I visit you I learn something so interesting!
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

St. Michael's Mount is such a pretty little island with gorgeous castles and views! And I love the sound of this sea urchin souffle, it sounds incredible! I would love to get my hands on some sea urchins to make quite a few things, hopefully i can soon :)

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

A wonderful story of the Mount. It must be a magical place to visit when the tide is low, walking on the cobblestone path.

I've never had sea urchin and it's amazing how fresh it arrived for you. You prepare some of the most amazing dishes I've seen!

Well done, once again!

tasteofbeirut said...

I always felt the same about Mont St-Michel; wow! I would never dream of making sea urchin soufflé, let alone eating them; I figured it is something I would eat fresh from the sea at some point probably in Lebanon; I used to see fishermen get it when I was a kid and offer it to people fresh from the sea, in its thorny black shell. People would squeeze lemon on the thing and that was the extent of that, slurp and it is gone. You always amaze me with your imaginative creations and the story you broach around them. This Jeremy Towers dude sounds like quite a character.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Dearest Deana,

TALK ABOUT EXPLODE THE MOMENT! SHEESH....I need to do a post on GOING OUT TO DINNER and direct my readers here, for you capture not only the taste, but the mood of the past, the place and the LORE and history of such MAGICAL places. I have been to France, but Mont St. Michel is yet to be one of my memorable visits. CASSOULET? A delightful taste and this post is rich with the oncteux consistency of Jersey cream...oh dear, I am gaining 5 lbs. just talking about it!!!! THANK YOU FOR SUCH KIND COMMENTS and have a great day! Anita

Hearts Turned said...

So glad I found you this morning (through Anita). I was just captivated by your words--so beautifully written. I've always been fascinated with St. Michael' Mount (and Brigadoon!), and loved reading the story here...

I'll be following along. So looking forward to getting lost in your next post as well!

Hope your weekend is wonderful...


Ravenous Couple said...

great post and story-was planning on making sea urchin scrambled eggs so glad that the flavor profile works!

Cubicle said...

So interesting. And, a sea urchin souflee...that looks amazing (and I bet it tastes amazing too)! Now I just need to figure out where to buy my sea urchin!

Jessica's Dinner Party said...

I love your blog! History and food, my two favorites!

Amy said...

Amazing photography! I love Uni! :P

I'm having the very first GIVEAWAY on my blog. Please stop by to submit an entry. Good luck.

Mary Bergfeld said...

Your souffles are, indeed, sublime, as is the history you shared of the Mount. I love to visit here. The company is always excellent and the food delicious :-). Have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

Medifast Recipe said...

Remarkable. An advantageous recipe with spledid results.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I've always wanted to go to Mont St. Michel, so I really enjoyed these photos - good to know there is more than one magical option available. Your sea urchin looks luscious!

Whats Cookin Italian Style Cuisine said...

Love the sea urchin souffle, but your magical pictures are all so wonderful its so much fun to visit this blog! Happy New Year to you!

alison said...

wonderful story and a perfect souffle!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

That looks incredible and sea urchin really lends itself to be souffle-ified! I miss living in Japan when you would find it in the supermarket! And a cozy castle will do me just fine :)

Ken Albala said...

What happened to the torrential squall??

Faith said...

Such a fascinating tale and a gorgeous island. I've never had sea urchin but it is definitely one thing I would love to try! Looks like a fantastic souffle!

Magic of Spice said...

What a magical place...and what an incredible dish, I have only prepared sea urchin a few times and many years ago. Your souffle however would be an amazing meal...

Tasty Trix said...

I never know where to start with your posts, there is always so much to say!! First; Brigadoon ... I went to the most awful local theater production of the musical with my mom when I was little ... St. Michaels's Mount is like Avalon! (Mists of Avalon was one of my favorite books when I was a girl.) Your dish is inspired, as always ... and would you believe I still haven't used my ambergris because whenever I get something nice like that I save it, and save it ... but I really need to enjoy it!

El said...

Once again a truly magical post filled with intrigue. The history is fascinating and it looks like an amazing place to visit. I've never heard of sea urchin souffle but you make it incredible!

Charles G Thompson said...

Wonderful post. Sadly, I've never been to Mont St. Michel in the many times I've been to France. Some day soon, I hope! I'm a good friend of Jeremiah's and know the dish and the book well. Nice to read about your experience cooking what is truly an amazing dish.

Sue said...

Absolutely wonderful Deanna, I am in taste bud heaven! I was reading Annie Hawes books about living in Liguria and she wrote about sea urchin pasta ... and then I read your post!

Dale said...

Your souffles are, indeed, sublime, as is the history you shared of the Mount. I love to visit here. The company is always excellent and the food delicious :-). Have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary