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Perhaps only a man beleaguered by a blizzard on his doorstep would venture to enter that terrain so brilliantly explored in Elizabeth David's essay on the omelette, first published in 1959. A daunting lady, she wastes no time coming to the point: omelettes are what you make them, and why should they be shrouded in mystery? After cataloguing the misdeeds of many a food writer (but not all) on the subject, she buckles down to a letter dated 6 June, 1932, from the famous Madame Poulard, the Queen of the French omelette. It seems that a Monsieur Viel, anxious to penetrate le secret Poulard, had inquired for her recipe, and this is it:

"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 them and I shake it constantly. I am happy, Monsieur, if this recipe pleases you."

Yes. There are the following things to be observed: "good eggs", not just any old eggs; "beat them well", and how much is that?; a "good piece of butter"; and "shake constantly". Alongside each, I think, a good exam marker would put his scrawl: "disingenuous". For though an omelette is easy to make (not to speak of filling and delicious), it is surely a mark of deliberate innocence (or of that kind of arrogance in which naturally good cooks specialise) to say that there's no more to it than that.

Take the eggs. Unless you live on a farm (and I don't), you may not know - even in that humblest of dishes, the soft-boiled egg - the total difference between a fresh egg and one that, like the works of Bulwer-Lytton, has been sitting around for a while. As we all know from our own offspring, the sweetness goes with age; the tot grows surly. So it is with eggs. I won't go so far as to insist on fresh laid, but any egg more than three days old is not really up to being an egg; it's wondering when it's going to hatch into a chick.

I place even more importance on the butter. I know that back in the days when French cafes could make an omelette, not only would I insist on the butter being fresh, but I would not think of eating an egg (omelette or sur le plat, fried) without a bit of baguette and sweet fresh butter. I say "sweet" because I have an almost mystical belief that the salt in butter adversely affects those dishes which should be utterly simple. The butter and its salt have long been living in concubinage up on that butter mountain and they are so used to each other that they have become quite indifferent - if I may be so indelicate - to each other's taste and smell. Proper butter has the sweetness of first love.

Elizabeth David then has a little disquisition on pans. With her usual common sense, she says it doesn't matter at all what you use. She insists it must have a perfectly flat and unabraded bottom. Which is true. But only up to a point. If you want to make your omelette life easier, at least have a pan, kept well greased, with sloping sides. This last requirement doesn't matter that much with a plain omelette, but matters greatly if you are putting something into your omelette: say cheese, or mushrooms, or truffles. For then you will want to make sure they are spread evenly and this you cannot do save by tilting the pan this way and that (Madame Poulard's "shake constantly"?), for you must not abrade or lacerate an omelette until it is done.

Now, having her eggs and her butter, Madame Poulard beat those eggs well. How much is well? In some 60 years of attentive eating, I have seen a hundred variations on this theme. Forks have been used, and whisks, and beaters. Science informs us that beating makes air-bubbles; thus your eggs get lighter the more you beat. But the essence of an omelette is not air, but egg, so I am a parsimonious beater. I use an ordinary china bowl (never metal) and a large wooden fork; I try to think nice thoughts, and beat gently, not punish. I doubt that it takes much more than ten seconds.

Now the butter is in the pan. With the butter I am generous. I wait until it sizzles and, like Madame Poulard, pour in the eggs, holding the pan just off the fire and making sure the eggs are evenly distributed. Returning the pan to the flame, I continue to do this, very gently, throughout cooking: also because, unless you want it overdone, an omelette must be supervised.

Unfortunately, it is here that the arguments about omelettes begin. There are people who, perhaps under the influence of the Spanish tortilla (more like a cake than an omelette), or out of invincible ignorance, or out of sheer squeamishness, don't like runny eggs. In the case of some eggs, I agree. But with fresh eggs, to my mind, an omelette must be cooked on the outside just short of a golden brown, just a little more than golden yellow, and definitely loose on the inside: for the good and simple reason that it will continue to cook a little when removed from the pan. An omelette is gently folded from the outside in - for of course it hasn't adhered to the pan - first from one side and then the other, so that it forms a perfect sac with a creamy, buttery, eggy inside.

As Elizabeth David puts it immaculately, this is a pastoral dish, not a concoction. And you can do with it what you will, adding fresh herbs, grated Parmesan and Gruyere, sliced truffles. Oh yes, and then there's the sweet omelette...

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