Thursday, February 26, 2015

London’s Café Royal and the Famous Chicken Pie Café Royal

Café Royal waiters by Aubrey Beardsley

Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec to dark magician Aleister Crowley, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence as well as future kings of England –– all of them came to Café Royal.

In late 19th and early 20th century London, it was the center of a universe for those who were drawn to the evanescent talent and wit of its notable patrons (many of today's readers will not have a clue as to the identity of some of the lost luminaries mentioned –– links are provided should you want to explore on your own ––  sic transit gloria mundi).  I've had a soft spot for this crowd since I was a kid.

Richard Le Gallienne, Walter Sickert, George Moore, Henry Harland, Oscar Wilde, Will Rothenstein, 
William Butler Yeats, Aubrey Beardsley, John Davidson and Charles Conder

Artists, writers, composers, performers and wits of all stripes were drawn to the café but also welcome were the demimondaine’s paid girls and their pimps as well as ravishing artist’s models (the term, demimonde came from an 1855 work by Dumas, it means half-world). It made for a rather exciting firmament.  Anything could and did happen with such a volatile company.

In his book Cafe Royal: Ninety years of Bohemia, author Guy Deghy put it well when he said,

Café Royal, Orpen

“But there was nowhere else where one could find a microcosm that, conceivably on the same night, might have blended the verbal soufflés of Oscar Wilde with the nasal patter of bookmakers; the peacock screeches of Whistler with the prattle of models in second-hand pre-Raphaelite costumes; the boom and bluster of Frank Harris with the donnish and disdainful aperçus of A.E. Housman, and the hoarse whisper of con-men; the high-pitched brogue of George Bernard Shaw; the soft precision of Max Beerbohm, and the exquisite savagery of Aubrey Beardsley… and all this against a backcloth of domino-playing petit-bourgeoisie, hopeful lookers-in and connoisseurs form Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green, nervous young protégés hoping to be introduced to Oscar Wilde but praying it would not be tonight.”

William Orpen painting of Café Royal 1912

The café opened February 11, 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago.

It all began when a man took a runner on his debts in France and assumed the name Nichols when he arrived in London, changing it from Daniel Nicolas Thévenon. Born in 1833, he came to London with his wife in 1863 a bankrupt wine merchant with 7 gold coins between them. In 2 short years through industry and ruthless thrift, he was able to move into a restaurant at 15-19 Glasshouse Street in London that he called Café Restaurant Daniel Nicols. Only months later thanks to the newly fashionable French wine and champagne that Nicols knew well (singers were singing songs advertising French wines in music halls), business was booming. 68 Regent Street was also procured and the place was renamed Café Royal. When Nicols died 30 years later at his country estate in Surbiton, he was worth half a million pounds. Café Royal had done very well.

Café Royal, 1915, Adrian Allinson

Osbert Sitwell, recalled the Café Royal’s famous Domino Room’s pre-1914, describing its  ‘smoky acres of painted goddesses and cupids and tarnished gilding, its golden caryatids and garlands, and its filtered submarine illumination – composed of tobacco smoke, of the flames from the chafing dishes and the fumes from food, of the London fog outside and the dim electric light within’. The Domino room was the destination room in the Café.

James McNeill Whistler by Boldini, 1897

The first wit to grace the tables of Café Royal was American James McNeill Whistler, “…who signed with the mark of the Butterfly his bills for poulet en casserole and sweet champagne. Forever in a state of excitement over new finds on the menu, he endeared himself to Lecoste [wine buyer for the café] for his praise of the croûte Mallard.”  It was said "In a second you discover that he is not conversing—he is sketching in words, giving impressions in sound and sense to be interpreted by the hearer.” He must have been a sensational dinner companion.

Oscar Wilde was soon to take over the crown from Whistler, but at the beginning, Whistler and Wilde had been great friends who engaged in brilliant badinage. One famous exchange occurred at a Whistler dinner. Wilde heard Whistler making a witty remark and said, “I wish I’d said that.” to which Whistler responded “you will Oscar, you will!”

George Bernard Shaw said Wilde was the supreme conversationalist of the day and fellow patrons would hang on “Oscar’s latest.” Now-classic remarks would appear in press sometimes hours after they had flown from his lips.

Oscar Wilde, 1882 Photo taken in NYC

For today's audience, Oscar Wilde is probably the most well-known denizen of Café Royal. Deghy devoted many pages to Wilde and his crowd at the Café, noting he was ‘good for business’,  both for the patrons he drew in and his voracious appetite. Arthur Ransome said of Wilde, “he overfed like a schoolboy at a tuckshop with an unexpected sovereign in his hand.” “Each meal for him was an exquisite ritual, and he who had once roughed it on five-shilling dinners would now pour long and lovingly over his choice of the suprème de volaille à la Patti or the caneton de Roven à la presse, the sole Beaumanoir or the turbotin paysanne. At each stage of the meal he would summon the chef for involved instruction, and after each dish would compliment the manager in transcendental terms.” His influence went far beyond his appreciative consumption of Café victuals.

Oscar Wilde

“Apart from the multitude of philistines and would-be artists who came to the Café Royal only to sit and stare, he [Wilde] attracted like a magnet the vast majority of poets, writers and artists of his day. He was, as Frank Harris said, “a sort of standard bearer” around whom they grouped them selves as the personification of their age and more than one celebrity forsook such outposts of bohemianism as the Crown, Kettner’s, the Cheshire Cheese and Verrey’s for his table.”

Oscar Wilde and 'Bosie' (Lord Douglas)

The Café also provided a canvas for Wilde's destruction –– the drama of his relationship with his beloved 'Bosie' and his evil father, Queensbury, were played out there.  His many friends at the Café begged him to let the lawsuit go and withdraw quietly but they were dismissed.  Wilde was sentenced to prison for "the love that dare not say its name" (the scandalous affair even tarnished the reputation of the Café for a time). He died a broken man.

Aubrey Beardsley

Another doomed luminary of Café Royal was Aubrey Beardsley, the Art Nouveau artist.

It could be that the madly talented clerk at the Guardian Life and Fire Assurance Co. was started on his brief but bright career as an artist through associations made at the Café – soon after his arrival there, he was advised to ditch insurance and to go to art school. His association with the notorious Yellow Book may also have been born in the swirling vortex of talent at Café Royal.

I have been a fan of Beardsley since I first saw his work at 13 years old. I didn’t fully understand decadence or pornography or homosexuality at that age but I had that attraction teens have for doomed artists and poets (the giant phalluses of his Lysistrata illustrations and the wild perversity of his drawings for Wilde's Salome were shocking but excitingly so). Beardsley was certainly doomed – tuberculosis had dogged him most of his life and took him when he was but 25 – only a few years after a visit to Paris –– the posters of Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese woodcuts (especially shunga pieces) that he saw there would revolutionize his art.

Beardsley in his apartment

“If Aubrey Beardsley had been in the habit of going to fancy dress balls he could have gone as the Café Royal, so accurately did he reflect the spirit of the old Café that he loved. He was only really happy in three places -- the Pavilion at Brighton, the Casino at Dieppe, and the Domino Room at the Café Royal. This was no mere whim of his vivid mind. All three had this in common: they were unreal, dreamland places for people who lived unreal, dreamland lives. And Beardsley, who lived in a room with orange walls and black doors, needed more than anyone else to live that kind of life. He had been dying of consumption ever since he was a child, almost; and desperately clinging to life, a bizarre, exaggerated life that could only be found in such places as these.”`

The description of Beardsley was striking, “an emaciated apparition of a boy, curiously-colored hair plastered down over his death-mask of a face like a tortoiseshell skullcap, and bony white hands fluttering like butterflies under an X-ray….”

Beardsley illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome

“In the café, among the unholy splendours of the world of mirrors, under the ripe fullness of the garland-infested caryatids, and heavy gold-dust in the air, the weird shapes of Beardsley’s ‘Japanesque’ mood began to form themselves in this mind. There the Beardsley Woman was born. This was his space.”

Prince of Wales

It wasn't just artists and writers who drew patrons to Café Royal. There were the royals, most notably future kings of England and they came for the company and for the food.

The Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) loved good food. “He ate sparingly but selectively; he never touched underdone meat or starch-laden food, but fairly lean lamb and poultry; liked cold dishes in aspic, eggs, and fruit, especially strawberries.”  When he was  not attended by his great chef, Nicolas Soyer (son of Alexis), he impressed  his foreign host's gastronomic advisors "with his profound understanding of the intricacies of their art and with his judicious restraint." He was surrounded by gourmets –– men like Alfred de Rothchild ‘whose household boasted three French chefs as well as a private string orchestra to accompany the dinner’, surgeon Sir Henry Thompson “…contended that eight was the ideal number of guests for a dinner, and called his exquisite stag-parties “octaves”. The Marquis de Soveral, known as ‘The Blue Monkey’ was the Princes’ primary gastronomic arbiter. He encouraged the Prince’s visits to Café Royal as the century came to a close.

Many things changed as the 19th century turned to the 20th. The luster of the Café Royal began to dim.

What remained consistent was the food and the attentiveness of the staff to the customer’s special whims and needs. “Practically all expected to receive preferential treatment, and the head waiters’ Day Book was filled with their dos and don’ts –– what sort of vinegar was to be used for Sir William Carringtons’ salad, how high the grouse should be for Lord Vane Tempest, when the account should be presented to Lord Knowles, or how to attend to those two frequent lunch-companions, Lord Dewar (whisky) and Sir Thomas Lipton (tea). Among the frequent lunchers were two young men both of whom were to be Kings of England –– Edward VIII and George VI. “Always plain food. No Fuss. Call headwaiter at once and notify manager’ was the instruction.”

One dish that remained a favorite from the beginning is Chicken Pie Café Royal. “It has been handed on from chef to chef by word of mouth for who knows how many years? A Café chef who had been there since 1914 said it was a tradition even then. In the 1950’s, Chef Ruette wrote down the recipe. I bet those royal princes would have loved it… no fuss but so delicious. Another fine addition to the What's in a Name series.

Chicken Pie Café Royal

White Surrey chicken, (about 4 lb.); 8 thick rashers of streaky bacon; a medium sized onion; 3 hard –boiled eggs; ½ lb white mushrooms (firm); a goodly sprig of fresh parsley; and 1 ½ lb pie pastry

Clean and singe the chicken, then remove legs and cut a joint of drumstick and thigh. Cut off wings as if carving a cooked bird, i.e. leaving some flesh around the wish-bone and along the breast-bone; then cut across this middle piece between the wish-bone and the lower breast. This will give you four pieces of white meat and four pieces of dark. Cut the hard-boiled eggs in dices; chip the onion and the parsley 9not too fine); wash and slice the mushrooms. Season and mix these ingredients well; then mix with the pieces of chicken to allow as much of this garnish as possible to adhere to them. Stretch out the rashers and roll each piece of garnished chicken in a rasher of bacon, including the maximum of garnish. Make a stock with the seasoned trimmings and the giblets; then leave to cool.

Place the legs on the bottom of the pie-dish, then the white pieces. Add any remainder of garnish on top; then fill up the dish with the stock and cover with pastry. Cook in moderate oven for sixty to seventy five minutes. Serve direct from the over – very hot.

Chicken Pie Café Royal

4 boneless chicken thighs, cut in half, extra fat removed
S+P to taste
4 slices lean bacon cut in half (I ended up using more to get mostly the lean part)
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
3 T chopped parsley, finely chopped
3 T finely chopped onion
6-8mushrooms, sliced
1 c stock
1 T flour
pie pastry for top crust or double crust as you wish

Salt and pepper the chicken, wrap the bacon around it and sauté till the bacon is browned. Remove.

Preheat oven to 375º

Pour off most of the fat leaving about 1 T. Add the flour and then stir till cooked. Pour in the stock, stirring all the while until the sauce is slightly thickened. Roll the chicken in the combined parsley, onion and egg. Put the chicken and mushrooms in the pan and pour the stock over it**. Place the pastry over the pie and seal leaving vents cut in the pastry*.

Put on a foil covered baking sheet. Cook till browned, about 50 minutes.

Serve immediately.

* I just used the top crust but you can do top and bottom for a much richer dish. If you use 2 crusts you can seal it more effetively

**Mine leaked a lot. I might even leave a center hole and only put in half the stock at the beginning and more 10 minutes before it’s done.

Chicken Pie Cafe Royal

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

What’s in a Name, Marie Waleska’s Sole

Greta Garbo as Marie Waleska in Conquest

Last week I ran across a book on my shelf I’ve been meaning to read for a while. It’s about a storied London restaurant that saw the toast of the town reign at its tables for nearly 100 years.

Savoy, London 1907

Fame’s heady vapors gilded the atmosphere of many 19th and 20th century establishments –– it is no wonder that so many dishes have been named after the glorious patrons who provided the glow (and free press). Association with such luminaries gave the restaurants something to crow about and kept their rooms full of happy gawking patrons.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Sadly naming dishes has gone out of fashion. Can you imagine Sole Streep (a multi-national dish as a nod to her facility with accents) or Lobster Lloyd Webber (a Phantom of the Opera lobster with a white truffle mask)?

It got me to thinking it might be fun to take a look at some of the dishes on old menus that were named after famous artists, actors, generals, royalty –– even horses. Thing is, I have often complained that the recipes of the named dishes were mostly lost, what occurred to me is that so many of the famous names are just as meaningless today. Who was the Anna in Pommes Anna or the Tetrazzini in Chicken Tetrazzini (a famous courtesan and a famous singer)? It’s like the dishes are doubly forgotten. So,  I thought I would start a little series exploring the dishes and the people they were named after.  The What's in a Name series begins here.

One of the things I found amusing was that even chefs like Escoffier double dipped with their named recipes. When I saw the ingredients for Sole Waleska it struck a bit of a chord. Sure enough, Sole Verdi is pretty much Sole Waleska with pasta.

I guess a lobster, truffles and cheese sauce combination reminded Escoffier of famous composers and infamous countesses.

Marie Waleska (1786-1817)

First things first –– who was Waleska?

Marie Waleska was known for one thing, she was the mistress of Napoleon from 1806 -10. Marie was married in 1805 to Athenasius, Count Colonna-Walewski at 19, when he was nearly 80. Their son was thought to be illegitimate (born the same year they were married) and the marriage merely one of convenience to give the old man an heir and cover-up Marie’s transgression. She hooked up with Napoleon only a year after her marriage.

Walewska by François Gérard

Much has been made about the affair. Her purported memoirs asserted that she was doing it for King and country to capture Napoleon’s affection so completely that he would help to free Poland from the influence of Prussia, the Hapsburgs and Russia.

This romanticized view has been fairly thoroughly repudiated, although the splendid Garbo film, Conquest, paints a tragic love story with Marie a sacrificing heroine –– a story befitting a Garbo vehicle, accuracy be damned.

Greta Garbo as Marie Waleska in Conquest

No memoirs have surfaced in 200 years. Despite the protestations of her son’s progeny (by her 2nd husband, Count d’Ornano), the 'secret' memoirs may only have been a centuries’ old excuse to gild over her rather public indiscretion and disgrace (more than just an affair, she had a child by Napoleon that her ancient husband kindly claimed as his own).

Aside from illegitimate offspring, Napoleon’s Imperial orbit left many named dishes in its wake –– from the multi-layered pastry Napoleon, to the Belle Helene (a pear and chocolate confection that is out of this world) to Chicken Marengo (with egg and tomato, made on the battlefield for Napoleon who cared not a whit for food), as well as dishes named after his military heroes – like a Marshal Ney (a froth of a dessert with meringue, vanilla custard and marzipan) and of course, Sole Waleska.

Greta Garbo as Waleska and Charles Boyer as Napoleon in Conquest

I am not sure when Filets of Sole Waleska first was served. It seems to begin showing up at the end of the 19th century. 

Perhaps the popular Frédéric Masson 1897 biography of the countess renewed interest in the beautiful heroine and inspired chefs to name a luxury dish after a fabled Napoleonic mistress. It appears in Escoffier’s 1903 masterpiece, Le Guide culinaire and in turn of the century menus (the inspiration for writing this was mention of the dish as part of a 1898 menu at Café Royal in London for the critic of the Pall Mall Gazette (also on the menu, noisette d’agneau Lavallière, haricots verts à l’Anglaise, parfait de foie-gras and caille en cocotte).

One taste and you see why it was used by a restaurant to impress its patrons and honor a famous beauty.  There is something in a name after all.

Recipe from Escoffier’s Le Guide culinaire

Sole Walewska for 2

1 m. lobster tail or 2 small, cut from the shell
1 T D'Artagnan truffle butter or butter
2 large filets of sole or flounder or 4 smaller ones
1 cup fish fumet (stock)
1 T lemon juice
Mornay sauce (use what the recipe below makes)
slices of truffles  (optional, but D'Artagnan has some lovely ones)

Heat oven to 350º. Gently sauté the lobster tail for a few minutes. Lay the sole topped with lobster tail in a buttered baking dish. Pour the fumet and lemon over it and warm slightly on top of stove. Place, covered in foil, in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, and pour off the liquids. Preheat broiler. Then reduce the liquids till thickened. Add the reduced fumet to the Mornay. You can leave the tails whole or slice a large one in 2, lengthwise. Pour Mornay over the fish and broil till lightly colored.

Mornay Sauce

1 c béchamel
¼c fish reserved fumet
½ c grated Parmesan
½ c grated Gruyere

Add the fumet to the béchamel and reduce a little. Add the Parmesan and gruyere and stir till smooth.


1 c milk
1 small shallot, sliced
1 clove
2 T D'Artagnan truffle butter if possible or butter
1 ½ T flour

Heat the milk and simmer while you melt the butter. Add the flour to the butter and stir over low heat till all bubbly. Do not let it brown. Strain the milk. Pour the hot milk slowly into the flour mixture, stirring all the while over a medium heat till all the milk is used and the sauce is thickened. Add the cheeses and set aside.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Norman Douglas, Venus in the Kitchen and a Sensual Oyster Treat

Norman Douglas 1868-1952

It’s Valentine’s week and people are Googling the same old hoary quotes like mad to dazzle their beloveds with the illusion of erudition and corresponding depth of feeling (note: a 5 minute Google search is not the same as a knightly quest for a treasure for one’s inamorata).

I thought I’d go a different direction. I’ve had a book on my shelf that I’ve been dying to share with you –– it’s called Venus in the Kitchen: Or Love's Cookery Book and it’s perfect for Valentines’ Day – well, perfect for those of us who celebrate the holiday with a bit of a wink.

When legendary food writers tell you who THEY admire, food-lovers pay attention. In America, many gaze heavenward and say MFK Fisher more often than not. In the UK, it is often Elizabeth David who gets the treatment. But who did she love? Well, in David’s case, Norman Douglas was a friend and mentor and much admired.

Drawing by DH Lawrence, 1929

Known more for his literary achievements (especially for his magnificent 1917 novel Southwind that influenced a generation), and the joy of his company among the literati of the first half of the 20th century, his delightful recipe collection, Venus in the Kitchen  was published in 1952, the year Douglas died. His friend Graham Greene wrote the foreword. The book had been in the works at least as early as 1929 when DH Lawrence did a rather disturbing drawing for it (sadly missing from the American version) but things went sour between them. David said that “The illustration Lawrence had done for the aphrodisiac book was so perversely hideous, so awful an example of Lawrence’s gifts as an artist that Norman thought it was good joke. He decided to use it.”

Elizabeth David, 1943 (1913-1992)

As you might have imagined from the intro, Douglas was no slobbering romantic –– his advice to a love-stressed young Elizabeth David had no saccharine whatsoever, “Always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damned good Rule of Life. N.” Elizabeth David thought the world of Norman Douglas as a brilliant writer and friend but also as a food lover for he, “was a great epicure in matters gastronomical, and so he was – in an uncommon way; in a way few mortals can ever hope to become. His way was most certainly not the way of the common wine sipper or of the grave debater of recipes. Connoisseurship of this particular kind he left to others. He himself preferred the study of the original sources of his food and wine. Authenticity in these matters was of the first importance to him.”

Norman Douglas and Graham Green (1904-1991)

Truth be told, Norman Douglas was much loved by many. Graham Greene said of Douglas in the preface that “It is fitting I think, that his last book should be as unserious and shameless as this collection of aphrodisiac recipes, to close a life in which he had enjoyed varied forms of love, left a dozen or so living tokens here and there, and been more loved himself than most men…. With its art of scholarship, its blend of the practical – the almond soup – and the wildly impracticable – the Rôti sans Pareil, the crispness of the comments (we only have to add his customary endearments to hear the ghost speak): ‘Very stimulating, my dear,’ ‘Much ado about nothing,’ ‘Not very useful for people of cold temperament,’ with a certain dry mercilessness in the introduction, this book will be one of my favorite Douglases.”

This book is a cult favorite even now. Stephen Fry, born years after Douglas died, was a fan of  Venus in the Kitchen, “Any book that is written with such style, grace and comic sensuality, a book in short that dares be so different and so direct, can only be welcomed.”

From Venus in the Kitchen, picture from HERE 

David revealed the origins of the little book in her An Omelette and a Glass of Wine  “…one night after a convivial dinner, he ‘was deputed or rather implored’ by those of his companions who had been bemoaning their lost vigour, ‘to look into the subject of aphrodisiac recipes and the rejuvenating effects of certain condiments and certain dishes’.” This struck Douglas as mad, for in the end, the book was “an exposition of the absurdities, the lengths to which humanity will go in its search for the lost vigour of youth.’ In spirit it was a send-up, a spoof.” David recommends the book but not for what you might think. “Anyone who hopes that  Venus in the Kitchen is going to provide a roll on the dining-room floor would do well to reconsider. And to buy the book for a different kind of fun. For the fun that is, of reading about the spices and wines and herbs, the fruit and flowers, the snails, the truffles, the birds, animals and parts of animals… which went into the cooking pots of ancient Rome and Greece and of renaissance Europe; for a glimpse, just enough to send us looking for more of the same kind, of the cinnamon and ginger and coriander flavoured games dishes , or creams, the carnation conserves, the gentian and honey-flavoured wines, the Easter rice, the Sardinian pie of broad bean, the rolls of beef marbled with hard-boiled eggs and ham, the fennel and the almond soups which have all but vanished from European cooking.”

Elizabeth David wasn’t over-the-moon about the book, published as it was after Douglas’ death when he couldn't defend his work against misinterpretation. She was particularly miffed by the illustrations that are, cutesy in the extreme and absolutely antithetical to the author’s intent, “Did they hand a typescript or a set of galley proofs to their illustrator? Or did they think it sufficient to commission him to provide ‘decorations’ for what they innocently supposed was a cookery book which would sell on a title and illustration s with an erotic twist? .. Anything more anaphrodisiac than his simpering cupids (in bathing trunks), his bows and arrows and hearts, his chefs in Christmas cracker hats…his lifeless, sexless couples seat at tables for tow, it would be hard to envisage.”

Norman Douglas 1935

Douglas had shared the amusing origins of the little book with her years before.  It seems “…one night after a convivial dinner, he ‘was deputed or rather implored’ by those of his companions who had been bemoaning their lost vigour, ‘to look into the subject of aphrodisiac recipes and the rejuvenating effects of certain condiments and certain dishes’.” This struck Douglas as mad, for in the end, The book was “an exposition of the absurdities, the lengths to which humanity will go in its search for the lost vigour of youth.’ In spirit it was a send-up, a spoof.”

 David recommends the book but not for what you might think. “Anyone who hopes that Venus in the Kitchen is going to provide a roll on the dining-room floor would do well to reconsider. And to buy the book for a different kind of fun. For the fun that is, of reading about the spices and wines and herbs, the fruit and flowers, the snails, the truffles, the birds, animals and parts of animals… which went into the cooking pots of ancient Rome and Greece and of renaissance Europe; for a glimpse, just enough to send us looking for more of the same kind, of the cinnamon and ginger and coriander flavoured games dishes , or creams, the carnation conserves, the gentian and honey-flavoured wines, the Easter rice, the Sardinian pie of broad bean, the rolls of beef marbled with hard-boiled eggs and ham, the fennel and the almond soups which have all but vanished from European cooking.”

The recipes are, for the most part simple. David reflects , “What makes this particular little anthology notable is not the recipes. It is the characteristically irreverent Douglas spirit which imbues them, and the style in which they are presented; a style which gives the impression they were written not with a pen, but with a diamond cutter….” In this spirit of fun, not all of the recipes promise to be scorching hot aphrodisiacs. There’s Cray fish soup (“an approved aphrodisiac”) or consommé viveur (“very stimulating indeed”), frog’s legs (“a noble aphrodisiac”) to provide culinary backup for your amorous adventures.

Many have gentle warming properties, like Sweetbreads à la D’Ayen (“another reliable stimulant”), curried chicken (“a favorite with elderly epicures”), pork in milk (“a good restorative”).

Norman Douglas with Laetitia Cerio

Thing is, food can inspire so many desires and tastes. It can stimulate and calm and soothe as it restores beautiful memories with every taste and perfume. Depending on where you are in your relationship and who you are with, there is a dish to please every lover, from those in search of a serious aphrodisiac to others looking for a sweet reminder that good food is a great companion to love and always has been. It has often been thought that a person who doesn’t appreciate the sensual delights of the table, rarely has much success with passionate love. Imagine someone waxing poetic over the texture of a beautiful fruit or one snarfing down a greasy burger while talking on the phone. Who would you like to share Valentine’s Day with? David put it well, “What Norman Douglas did know about, and better than most, was the importance of the relationship between the enjoyment of food and wine and the conduct of love affairs, and for that matter of most other aspects of life.”

Since it' s Valentine's Day week, I chose to make something from the book with oysters. They have always had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Casanova used to eat 50 for breakfast before an assignation – it has now been proved he was right to think they were powerful aphrodisiacs. Oysters contain a rare amino acids (D-aspartic acid (D-Asp) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)) that trigger increased level of sex hormones, their high zinc content replaces the zinc lost in sex (Casanova also used the act of eating them as part of his seduction, with the woman sucking the oyster from its shell and he playfully kissing it back from her ––  you can see a playful oyster seduction in action in Tom Jones HERE around 2).

For his recipe for said oysters, let me tell you, Mr. Douglas is a genius. This is one of the sexiest oyster preparations I’ve ever had. Putting them on toast is lovely, but I could also see these oysters strewn over beautiful buttered pasta or a creamy risotto minus the cheese or just put back into warmed shells and slurped down as you look into your beloved's eyes. Sounds odd I know but something about the madeira and the cinnamon and those herbs with the oysters is divine and it just takes a minute to make. With its sensual texture and dark warm velvety flavors -- the dish is absolute magic, especially if you use a great madeira like one I used, a special Porto Moniz Verdelho Special Reserve.

Oysters in Wine

Heat the oysters in their shells. Open them, take them out and collect their liquid in a pot. Put the oysters in a pan with butter, a sprig of garlic, mint, marjoram, pounded peppercorns, and cinnamon. As soon as they are lightly fried add their liquor and a glass of Malmsey or another generous wine. Serve them on toast.

Oysters in Wine

*1 Dozen oysters (freshly shucked, straining and reserving the liquor)
4-6 T butter (depending on size of the oysters)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T marjoram, chopped plus more for garnish
2 t mint, chopped plus more for garnish
pinch of cinnamon
¼ t pepper
1-3 T Madeira (depending on size of the oysters) Porto MonizVerdelho Special Reserve
from the Rare Wine Company**
Salt to taste

Melt the butter and add the garlic and oysters over a medium low heat (too high a heat makes them rubbery). Sprinkle with the herbs, pepper and spices. Stir to barely cook the oysters. Remove from the pan and add the reserved liquid from the oysters and the Madeira. Reduce slightly and put the oyster back in the pan. Serve over toast (or over noodles or a simple creamy risotto sans cheese or back in warmed shells).

* make sure your oysters are fresh and briny and plump.  Anything less would be a crime.
** Rare Wine Company historic series is available at many fine liquor stores.  The Porto Moniz Verdelho is available online.

An After Love Drink

Into a Madeira glass pour: a quarter glass of Maraschino, a yoke of egg, a quarter glass of cream, a quarter glass of old brandy. Serve without mixing, seeing that the yolk of egg is not broken. The whole should be swallowed in one gulp. Highly recommended by my friend Baron de M….

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Sundance, New Orleans’ Film Inspiring Brunch and Eggs Sardou

Victorien Sardou (1831-1908)

I am just back from a wonderful week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I went to celebrate the premiere of a film I had worked on, The Experimenter  -- directed by the brilliant Michael Almereyda and starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder.

This may come as a shock, but food was not a big deal for me on this trip. This was a good thing because all the hot restaurants were closed for private parties when I arrived and even at the parties I attended, the hors d’oeuvres were mostly hoovered up before they got to me (on the upside, drinks flowed like water and I was talking a blue streak with other filmmakers –– not a bad thing). Instead, I had Japanese sushi and Thai noodles for dinner most of the time – until one of the last days when I went to a New Orleans Jazz brunch sponsored by the City of New Orleans – a smashing way to encourage films to shoot in their wonderful city.

 Gumbo with potato salad

King cake

Aside from a Bourbon Milk punch that started the day off nicely, there were hush puppies, gumbo, fried oysters, shrimp, steak po’ boys – well you get the idea. It was a great spread.

One of my favorite dishes at the brunch was Eggs Sardou (that I neglected to photograph). It’s a perfect dish for a theatrical crowd with oodles of history to boot. The chef, from John Besh’s NOLA restaurant, presented it brilliantly, in a glass with the layers of goodness showing through. I have no excuse for the years that have passed since I discovered Eggs Sardou till having them again at the brunch. If you have never been fortunate enough to taste this delight, it’s a sublime combination of creamed spinach and artichoke hearts topped by a golden blanket of hollandaise sauce. Sometimes, truffles, ham and asparagus have entered the mix.

I gave a quick look to the history of the dish and then fell down a rabbit hole of research.

The prolific French playwright, Victorien Sardou (more than 70 plays), his stars (most notably Sarah Bernhardt and Gabrielle Réjan) and his plays, (the notorious Tosca, and Thermidor – of the delicious Lobster Themidor) inspired many a grand 19th century dish. It is infuriating that 98% of these named dishes have no recipe or description attached to them –– few people commented on food in those days, there were no restaurant bloggers and what reviews there are that might mention the composition of the dishes rest in dusty archives. As restaurants closed and the celebrities faded from memory, so did the recipes. Who knows what Lobster Réjane and Sarah Potatoes could be these days? Luckily, Eggs Sardou premiered at a restaurant that has remained in the same family for 170 years.’

Antoine’s in the late 19th century (from Antoine’s collection)

The Eggs Sardou myth says that the owner of the famous Antoine’s  in New Orleans named them after Sardou after he made a visit there in 1892 (another article said it happened in 1908, the year he died). I looked and looked and couldn’t find any mention of Sardou ever visiting the US – if anything Sardou rarely left his beautiful estate, Château de Marly, outside of Paris because he was happiest living, writing, even gardening there. It seemed as if he only went to Paris to rehearse his new plays and to Cannes in winter because he did not do well in cold. He explained to an American journalist in The Galaxy in 1874 that he no interest in going to the United States.

A few articles on Eggs Sardou even posited that his 1872 play, L’Oncle Sam, was inspired by a visit to the US. Thing is, it wasn’t. I read in the 1895 edition of McClures Magazine that the play was actually inspired by Sardou’s meeting with an American family in Cannes where he wintered. Sardou was so intrigued by the foreigners he followed them to Genoa. He named the heroine Sarah, after the family’s daughter who had given him so much material. L’Oncle Sam took place in New York and was banned in Paris at first because it painted a rather poor picture of we Americans – a money hoarding, cheating buffoon and comical social climbers were among the character types in the play – all bested by a saavy Frenchwoman. Americans took the play far more lightly than the French President who censored it. L’Oncle Sam was performed with great success in New York the year before it appeared on the Parisian stage after a regime change. It seems unlikely Sardou would hound an American family for details of America had he visited there. Although it is possible his biographer left it out, he put in many accounts of American actors and producers coming to Paris to negotiate with Sardou for his plays. One would imagine there would be an account of an American visit as it would have been rather a big deal given the fact he was world famous.

Sarah Bernhardt, 1880

On the other hand, Sardou’s favorite star, Sarah Bernhardt, did visit New Orleans –– often performing Sardou’s plays and, I read HERE, she even purchased an alligator to add to her menagerie on a NOLA visit (she named it Ali-Gaga and it was said it died after drinking too much champagne). I am of the opinion Eggs Sardou was invented in 1908. Divine Sarah, performing her favorite playwright Sardou's play the year he died would certainly inspire Antoine Alciatoire to name a dish after Sardou –– to honor him, and in so doing, touch the heart the most famous actress in the world with his gallant gesture, n'est ce pas?

The recipe is based on a 1985 NYT recipe by Craig Claiborne, but the truffle butter in the hollandaise is my idea and it is delicious!

Eggs Sardou

2 c hot creamed spinach
8 cooked artichoke bottoms*
8 anchovy filets (optional - I didn't like them)
8 poached eggs, drained
8 T hollandaise
8 T finely chopped cooked ham or 8 truffle slices

Put ¼ c of the creamed spinach in each of the warmed glasses. Place an artichoke bottom on top or sliced on the sides and top with crossed anchovy filets. Put a poached egg on top of that, sprinkle with chopped ham and spoon hollandaise over the top. If you are using truffle slices, put one on top of the hollandaise

Creamed Spinach

1 ¼ lb spinach
1 ½ T flour
2 T butter
1 c milk
salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg and cayenne

Toss the spinach in a pan with a bit of water and sauté till wilted. Cool a bit, then squeeze the water from the leaves. Heat 1 T butter and add flour, stirring. Add milk and spices. Cook till thick. Either chop the spinach or puree and add to the cream sauce

Add 1 T butter

Hollandaise with Truffle Butter

5 T butter, melted, melted
3 T D'Artagnan truffle butter
2 egg yolks
2 t water
1 t vinegar
salt to taste,
½ t cayenne
1 T lemon juice

Combine yolks with water and vinegar and beat over a moderate heat. Add butter slowly. Add seasonings and lemon

* Method for cooking artichokes. Claiborne recommends cooking the trimmed hearts by the “blanc legume” method. For 6 cups of water add ¼ c of flour. I cooked 2 whole artichokes by this method and was pleased with the results. They were light and tender.

Bourbon Milk Punch (NYT recipe)

1¼ ounces Bourbon
½ ounce dark rum
2 ounces milk (use cream or half-and-half for a richer drink)
⅛ ounce vanilla extract
½ ounce simple syrup (see note)
Dash of grated nutmeg


1 In a mixing glass three-quarters filled with ice, pour the bourbon, rum, milk or cream, vanilla and simple syrup. Shake vigorously until chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass. Dust with nutmeg.

To make simple syrup, warm 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temperature before using. (There will be extra syrup; refrigerate if not using immediately.)

Here's the director and cast at the premiere screening

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