“Cookery is not chemistry.
It is an art.
It requires instinct and taste
Rather than exact measurements.”
Recently fate, serendipity, kismet –– some stellar alignment repeatedly brought Xavier Marcel Boulestin and jambon a la crème into my orbit.
When I read about pre-war British society's favorite haunts and pleasures, Boulestin’s name came up frequently. When I read Jeremiah Tower's autobiography, he praised Boulestin’s contribution to cuisine. Tower knew about it because he knew Elizabeth David well and she loved Boulestin. I had Boulestin's Round-the-Year Cookbook in my library because I love Elizabeth David and she had praised him to the heavens in her great book, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. There they both were, side by side on my shelf, and Boulestin's book was just asking to be opened.
Thumbing through Boulestin's Round-the-Year Cookbook , I found many great things to make but something about Jambon a la Crème made my mouth water – slices of ham rolled in a creamy sauce with a bit of heat and spice sounds too good. It reminded me of a favorite comfort food of mine, chipped beef on toast – love it. Then I watched Anthony Bourdain's program, Burgundy (see it at 10:35), over the weekend. In it, he was taken to a friend's home and the friend's mother made a favorite comfort food for him –– Jambon a la Crème. It looked so incredibly good that I wanted to make it AND I already had the Boulestin recipe. As it turned out, it's easy as could be and great to make either with cold-cuts or left-over ham from a celebration. I can tell you it's great with a poached egg on top as well since that's how I had leftovers.
See, it was destiny –– I was making that ham and telling you about Boulestin this week.
Many credit Boulestin with bringing better food to the masses between the World Wars. Elizabeth David may have made the list of "Most Influential" 60 Brits during Queen Elizabeth’s reign for her contribution to British cuisine, but David thought of Boulestin as her trailblazer –– 365 Recipes for All the Days of the Year was one of her favorite books. His book, Having Crossed the Channel was another David favorite –– she felt it captured a way of life that disappeared forever with WWII.
Boulestin ran one of the top restaurants in London, Elizabeth David recounted, “… the place was crammed night after night with customers from the Savoy, Ritz and Carlton belt, stage stars, artists, writers, royalty and High Bohemia. His prices were reputed to be the highest in London. And still the restaurant did not pay. Boulestin had found, like so many before and since, that in England the price of perfection is too high”. It was terribly expensive but because he was a perfectionist, he barely broke even and had to write his little heart out to stay solvent. Boulestin was terribly prolific.
Boulestin by Leonetto Cappiello, 1899
He was so much more than a chef and food writer. In fact, he had a most remarkable history. I found out much about him from David’s chapter on him in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and from a lovely biography from the new Boulestin restaurant in London.
In a 1932 piece in the New Yorker, writer Donald Moffat says, “Marcel Boulestin, Doctor of the Philosophy of the Table, Culinary Ambassador to the English, intelligent gentleman of France, man of the world, essayist of vigor and charm, and proprietor of the best restaurant in London….” He began his life’s journey intending to study law but veered off the path immediately and began writing articles on on theatre and music. His first book was published in 1899. His mentor was Colette’s first husband, Willy.
Boulestin moved to London in 1906 and by 1911 had opened an interior design store in Belgravia called “Decoration Moderne” that was rather successful. When WWI broke out, he went back to France to serve but returned to England after the war. He opened another design store that sold Modiglianis, etchings by his soon-to-be-illustrator, J.E. Laboureur, and fabrics by Raoul Dufy and Poiret –– this time he wasn’t as successful. As with his restaurant, he couldn’t charge enough for the quality of his goods and had to do other things to make money (he also had trouble with suppliers and couldn't get goods he ordered). After supplying art to a publisher, he talked the publisher into letting him write a book on French cooking for a £10 advance. Even though he was not a chef, Simple French Cooking for English Homes was a hit in 1923 and went on to have many printings.
Seizing the opportunities the book's success presented, he opened a restaurant in 1925 called Restaurant Française. Not being a professional chef himself, he hired Chef Bigorre (formerly of Paillards in Paris) to do the cooking under his direction. It was a hit. He continued to write about food, he gave cooking classes to nobility and did the BBC broadcasts. In all things he was successful save in padding his own bank account. The eponymous Boulestin Restaurant opened in 1927. The food was great and the decoration fabulous. Cecil Beaton called it "the prettiest restaurant in London" with fabrics by Raoul Dufy and splendid murals by Marie Laurencin and Laboureur. Boulestin was a triumph and Marcel a national treasure. The war changed everything.
Misreading the German threat level, he left his beloved England for a French vacation with his literary collaborator and life companion, Robin Adair in 1939. By the time they saw how dire the situation was, the English Adair was ill and couldn't travel to escape the Nazi invasion and so was interned by the Germans. Boulestin wouldn't leave him and stayed in Paris so he could visit him in prison. Although he died in France in 1943 at age 65, he left a powerful legacy on the page and in the hearts of British cooks and restaurant patrons.
Boulestin had definite ideas about recipes, David recalls, "It is impossible, as he was in the habit of saying, to give precise recipes. And certainly precision unless carried to the ultimate degree...can be more misleading than vagueness. Boulestin was impatient of written detail. When he does specify precise quantities or times he is often wrong. Where Boulestin never falters or misleads is in the sureness of his taste and the sobriety of his ingredients even when his recipes are new inventions."
Jambon a la Crème for 2 based on Boulestin's recipe
4 slices ham, rolled
1 t butter
1 slice bacon, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
2 T sherry
¼ c veal or chicken stock or 2 T demi-glace
½ c cream
½ t paprika
pinch of cayenne
½ t dry mustard
a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce
S&P to taste (do the salt last, ham can be salty)
Parsley for garnish
2-4 slices toast, optional
Roll the ham slices and cover.
Sauté the bacon till crisp and then remove. Pour off some of the fat. Sauté the shallot in the same butter/bacon fat till softened and add the sherry. Reduce. Add the stock or demi-glace and reduce to a glaze. Add the cream and spices and reduce to a good, sauce-like consistency, not too thick. Toss the bacon back into the sauce and add the ham slices to the pan to warm or warm the ham slices and pour the sauce over the slices and sprinkle with bacon. Serve on its own or over toast.
Jambon a la Crème from Boulestin's Round-the-Year Cookbook
"Take a good-sized uncooked ham, soak it in cold water changing the water occasionally, according to the age of the ham) for 24 hours. Cook it in water with a bouquet, a little white wine, coarsely broken pepper, and slices of onions and carrots, allowing about fifteen minutes to a pound. When cooked drain it well and braise it in a deep covered pan on a bed of carrots, onions and bits o bacon. See that it is not too well cooked, as it would be, later, difficult to carve. Remove it and keep it hot. Remove also the “trimmings” from the braising dish, and put in a glassful of sherry. Let this reduce well; see that it is well seasoned, add a small quantity of veal stock, a cup of fresh cream, and reduce again, sprinkling with a little paprika. Meanwhile, cut the ham in thin slices and pour over these the cream sauce, which must be well spiced and the consistency of rather thin cream."
Thanks again to my friend Linda at Statewide Marble in Jersey City for the gorgeous piece of stone!