Readers' digest: How to recreate the great literary dishes
Whose mouth doesn't water while reading about Proust's madeleines, or Ratty's picnic in The Wind in the Willows? Stop daydreaming, says Christopher Hirst – it's easy to recreate the great literary dishes
Saturday 14 May 2011
"My mother ... sent for some of those squat, plump, little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted shell of a scallop ... I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of cake ... a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. Whence could it have come, this all-powerful joy? Suddenly the memory revealed itself..."
The most celebrated nibble in world literature acts as catalyst for the seven-volume exploration of memory in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (published 1913-27). Today, Illiers-Combray, the provincial French town where much of the novel is set, is packed with shops selling madeleines. Yet, according to a 1998 New Yorker article on the town, the hordes of Proust devotees dunking their little cakes in homage may be making a big mistake. Anne Borrel, curator of the Proust Museum in Illiers-Combray, says the cult of the madeleine is "blasphemous". In early drafts of the novel, Melba or even bog-standard toast may have released the flood of memories.
Borrel's book, Dining with Proust, explores his fictional meals, both lavish and humble. For a pallid and sickly fellow, the author had a surprisingly robust appetite. The book includes 60 recipes for dishes mentioned in his great work, ranging from "a bouillabaisse which mustn't be kept waiting" to "leg of mutton with béarnaise sauce – it was done to a turn, I must admit, but just for that very reason I took so much of it that it's still lying on my stomach".
A recipe for the legendary petites madeleines is squeezed in right at the end, filed under "Desserts". They are not hard to make in a larger size (mini-madeleine tins seem not to have made it across the Channel). The result is a moist, honeyed bun. Very pleasant, though it is hard to see how this confection could jump-start a flood of memories. Maybe Monsieur P should have stuck to Melba toast.
Dining with Proust anticipates the discipline of gastro-literary studies. It strikes me as mystifying that no university has had the good sense to incorporate gastronomy, both theoretical and practical, as an essential part of their literature course. Sex is not the only appetite that plays a big part in novels. Moreover, food is almost always better described.
One essential text would be the 1873 novel The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola. Contrasting the lives of rich and poor or, as Zola preferred, "fat and thin", the story is set in the now-demolished Les Halles food market. Occasionally, the author's moral indignation gets forgotten and he is swept away by the tempting arrays of the market, not always visual: "The Camembert had a scent like venison and had won out over less assertive smells such as the Marolles and Limbourgs ... Into this powerful assertion, the Parmesan still periodically added a thin high note as from a panpipe while the Bries kept thudding like damp tambourines".
Sadly, the handsome iron-and-glass structure of Les Halles was condemned by de Gaulle in 1969 (by this time, the market was reduced to meat alone) and the site occupied by an undistinguished shopping arcade. The market moved to the southern suburb of Rungis, where it has yet to inspire a literary masterpiece. The Belly of Paris has recently been issued in a new translation by Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography and The Big Oyster. His tasty rendition is marred by one weird footnote in which Kurlansky explains "langoustine" for American readers: "It has the appearance of a tiny pink and white lobster though the white flesh is not nearly as rich or flavourful". Maybe he has never had the good fortune to taste a Scottish langoustine, the sweetest and tastiest of all shellfish.
Crossing the Atlantic, an early chapter of Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), believed by many to be the greatest of all American novels, is devoted to a single dish. Before embarking on their great voyage, the narrator, Ishmael, and the harpooner, Queequeg, take lodgings at the Try Pots Inn in Nantucket, where the bellowed menu consists solely of "Clam or Cod?". When the landlady, Mrs Hussey, takes the former as answer, Ishmael starts to worry: "Queequeg, do you think we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?".
Though the chapter shows Melville at his most whimsical, the passionate description of the dish suggests he would make an excellent restaurant critic. "When that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt ... surpassingly excellent."
Since clams can be a rarity here and, insanely, we export most of our cockles, my gastro-literary research focused on cod chowder. A few substitutes were required – smoked bacon for salt pork, potatoes for ship biscuits and creamy milk for butter – but the result was most toothsome, if not exactly surpassingly excellent. Utilising the happy marriage of fish and pork, I can't see why cod chowder has never caught on here. Could it be because chowder is French in origin (the word derives from chaudière, a Breton cooking pot)? Or is it because we're put off by fish bones? Their removal is the trickiest part of this tasty, sustaining dish, though Mrs Hussey might not have bothered, judging by Melville's joke: "Chowders for breakfast, chowders for dinner and chowders for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes".
Still in the maritime field, food plays such an important part in the 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, written between 1969-2000 but set in the early 1800s, that an American mother-and-daughter team felt impelled to compile a "gastronomic companion". For their work, Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas cooked their way through such treats as boiled baby (raisin-laden suet pudding), soused hog's face, little balls of tripe (rolled with breadcrumbs and suet then deep-fried), cold crubeens (pig trotters, hot or jellified), dog's body (pease pudding) and sea pie (meat pie with several "decks" of pastry). The dish called boiled shit is not a culinary metaphor but "1oz assorted seabird guano" simmered in a clamshell with rainwater. It was consumed by a castaway. "We made it but we do not claim to have drunk it," admitted the authors. They did, however, tuck into millers in onion sauce (sautéed rat), which proved to be "absolutely delicious, rather like young and tender rabbit".
The spotted dog of the title is another term for spotted dick, while lobscouse is a meat stew that takes a variety of forms. It was so relished by Liverpool mariners that they gained the nickname Scousers. Lobscouse remains a favourite dish in Liverpool, where it is often made with breast or neck of lamb. The dish is also avidly consumed in the Baltic ports. In Jonathan Meades' TV series, Magnetic North, viewers were shown the bulk manufacture of labskaus in a Baltic restaurant. Incorporating beetroot, the result resembled pink porridge but was eaten with relish by Meades.
The recipe given by the Grossmans is a seafaring version based on salted beef and pork bulked out with crumbed ship's biscuit. The latter is nothing more than a baked dough of flour and water. Also known as hard tack, it was often shared with weevils or maggots – hence Jack Aubrey's joke about choosing "the lesser of two weevils". I substituted water biscuits. The result fitted O'Brian's description in his novel The Far Side of the World: "eats very savoury". My wife and I found it acceptable if rather filling, but there again we hadn't spent the day scrambling up the mizzen topgallant.
The heyday for food in English literature was the half-century between 1880-1930. It was often utilised for humorous purposes, though this was scarcely the intention of Thomas Hardy (not generally regarded as a laugh-a-minute author) in his 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, where his protagonist Michael Henchard consumes so much alcoholic frumenty (a sort of wheat porridge) in a country pub that he becomes "brilliantly quarrelsome" and sells his wife.
Frumenty was once so common that the recipe was scarcely ever written down. You need to lay your hands on some crackled or pearled wheat and boil with honey and raisins. The insipid result is perhaps the least exciting dessert I've ever eaten. Promising my wife that she would not come under the hammer, I added dollops of rum and cream. Though the super-charged frumenty was a distinct improvement, as it would be to most puds, the result proved to be hefty fare. How Michael Henchard managed to get through four basins of the stuff is a mystery. If he had, it is more likely that he would fall asleep than become "brilliantly quarrelsome".
Though the protagonists of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1889) were feeling off-colour, they manage to force down "a little steak and onions, and some rhubarb tart" before their great adventure. "I must have been very weak at the time," reflected Jerome, "because, after the first half-hour or so, I seemed to take no interest in my food – an unusual thing for me – and I didn't want any cheese." Victorians were nuts about rhubarb. In Household Management (1861), Mrs Beeton writes,"Relatively unknown till within the last 20 years, it is now cultivated in almost every British garden".
She gives a recipe for a rhubarb tart made with puff pastry. Though some people can't stick the stalk at any price – Jane Grigson exploded, "Nanny food. Governess food. School-meal food" – this sour-sweet construction is in my view among the best of all desserts. The rhubarb remains in meltingly soft pieces below the crunchy crust and its juice soaks deliciously into the pastry base.
The Irish stew that the Three Men in a Boat compound at the mid-point of their voyage reflects the British belief, still strongly held, that more or less anything can be incorporated in this kind of dish. "George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. We overhauled the hampers and picked out all the odds and ends ... half a pork pie and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put them in. Then George found half a tin of potted salmon and he emptied that into the pot. I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked and put those in. George said they would thicken the gravy ... It was a great success. I don't think I ever enjoyed a meal more ... As for the gravy, it was a poem – a little too rich, perhaps, for a weak stomach, but nutritious."
From The Wind in the Willows (1908), Ratty's picnic in a "fat, wicker luncheon basket" is a near-perfect version.
"'What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater...'"
A very similar collation, made perfect by the addition of "a couple of bottles of Bollinger", appears in Very Good Jeeves (1930), though PG Wodehouse inserts a warning about the perils of picnics. "I met a fellow the other day who told me he unpacked his basket and found the champagne had burst and together with the salad dressing had soaked into the ham, which in turn had got mixed up with the gorgonzola cheese forming a kind of pasta ... Oh, he ate the mixture but he said he could taste it even now."
In gastronomic terms, Wodehouse's most renowned character is the chef Anatole, variously described as "God's gift to the gastric juices" and "the supreme slingers of roasts and hashes". Constantly angling for a chance to indulge in such creations of the Provençal master as mignonette de poulet rotie petit duc (fine-chopped roast chicken) and nonats de la Mediterranée au fenouil (whitebait with fennel), Bertie Wooster is referred to as "my hungry young tape-worm" by his Aunt Dahlia, who is Anatole's employer. Such dishes may have had a profound consequence for Wodehouse in real life. His fondness for the "attractively simple restaurants" of Le Touquet is cited by his biographer Robert McCrum as one of the reasons he moved to the resort. Dallying there in 1939, Wodehouse found himself interned by the Germans leading to the faux pas of his broadcasts from Berlin.
Evelyn Waugh displayed even more keenness for including food in his novels. Vile Bodies (1930) includes this rural lunch for two: "They ate hare soup and boiled turbot and stewed sweetbreads and black Bradenham ham with Madeira sauce and roast pheasant and a rum omelette and toasted cheese and fruit". Waugh switched from English fare to Anatole-style haute cuisine by the time he wrote Brideshead Revisited (1945). He admitted that the belt-straining meals that punctuate the book were an imaginative release from wartime austerity: sorrel soup, sole in white wine, caviare aux blinis, caneton à la presse, lemon soufflé...
Though scathingly called Thunderball by Waugh, Ian Fleming shared his obsession with food. Aged around 12, I first encountered Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam and Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade at James Bond's breakfast table. For some weeks, my
poor mother had to ensure my falsetto impression of the spy: "Room service? I'd like to order breakfast. Half a pint of orange juice, three eggs, lightly scrambled, with bacon, a double portion of café espresso with cream. Toast. Marmalade. Got it?". This sounds fine until you encounter Fleming's scrambled egg recipe "for four individualists". It requires "12 fresh eggs and 5-6 oz butter ... Serve on hot buttered toast with pink champagne (Taittinger)". Taken daily, this buttery assault is liable to prove more lethal than Bond's Walther PPK.
If I had to choose an item from the Bond menu, I'd head for the booze. The best of these is not the vodka martini invariably associated with 007 but the Vesper, named after a femme fatale in Casino Royale (1953). "Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said CIA man Felix Leiter, awestruck by Bond's directions in the casino bar of Royale-les-Eaux: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet". Bond's explanation sounds good to me: "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that drink to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made". Kina Lillet, now known as Lillet Blanc, is a quinine-infused white vermouth more widely available since the recent film of Casino Royale. I wouldn't bother with Gordon's gin, which was cynically diluted to 37.5 per cent ABV a few years ago. Plymouth gin (41.5 per cent ABV) should be the tipple for a naval commander like Bond. The result is a clean, highly satisfying cocktail. It's lethal if you have more than the one, but what do you expect from a man with a licence to kill?
Marcel Proust's madeleines
75g caster sugar
90g plain flour
10g clear honey
A pinch of salt
Non-stick madeleine tray
Melt 90g of butter; cool. Beat eggs, sugar and salt in a bowl. Leave for 5 minutes, add sieved flour; stir with wooden spoon. Stir in cold, melted butter and honey. Cool in fridge for 1 hour; return to room temperature for hour. Preheat oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Melt remaining butter; use to brush madeleine tray. Fill moulds two-thirds with mixture. Bake for around 10 minutes; watch for burning. If they spring back when pressed, the madeleines are done.
Patrick O'Brian's lobscouse
500g silverside salt beef (soak overnight in plenty of water)
500g smoked ham sausage
2 bay leaves
3 onions (diced)
3 potatoes (diced)
2 leeks (sliced)
125g water biscuits (pound in plastic bag to make crumbs)
6 juniper berries
tsp ground nutmeg
tsp ground cardamom
Pinch of cayenne
Place salt beef in pot with bay leaves and cover with cold water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer until tender (about 1 hours). Remove beef and discard bay leaf but reserve 400ml of cooking liquid. Dice beef and sausage into 1cm cubes. Heat 6 tbsps of cooking liquid in large frying pan over high heat. Add meat and cook until brown (around 10 minutes). Remove meat. Sauté onions over medium heat in same pan (adding more cooking liquid if required) until soft. Add leeks and cook until onions start to brown. Add potatoes and simmer for 5 minutes. Add meat and cook over medium heat until potatoes are tender (about 7 minutes). Stir in biscuit crumbs with about 200ml cooking liquid. Add spices and several grinds of black pepper. Cook another 5 minutes. Salt to taste, though this may not be required due to salt beef.
75ml Plymouth gin
12.5ml Lillet Blanc
Shake vigorously in mixer with lots of ice cubes. Strain into cocktail glass. The result will be slightly cloudy due to tiny shards of ice, so you might want to strain again with a clean tea strainer. Serve with a twist of lemon peel.
All recipes adapted from the original books by Christopher Hirst
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