Its absolute clarity is beguiling yet its flavour is immense: deep, bosky with the unmistakable delicate savouriness of chanterelle and black truffle (not to mention copious amounts of well- reduced port and madeira) yet exceptionally clean.
It makes me think of strolling in a forest on a ravishing, crisp, blue-skied cold winter’s day. At Pont de la Tour, Tom Cook’s mushroom and black truffle consommé with celeriac royales (small, perfectly formed morsels of savoury custard, an Escoffier classic consommé accompaniment) is astonishingly good. I am not surprised to learn that Cook fine-honed his consummate consommé prowess (believe me, their making is not for the faint-hearted or 15-minute cook) in the kitchens of Escoffier devotee Michel Roux at Le Gavroche. (Hot tip, Michel: challenge your next intake of MasterChef: The Professionals to produce a consommé this good.)
Until a week or so ago I hadn’t tasted an ersatz consommé in years, yet I predict they’re on the cusp of a revival, joining a great tureen of steaming broths under other guises from ultra-traditional game tea (on the menu at Peter Weeden’s new Fitzrovia Newman Street Tavern) to the rush of ramen soup-bar openings. All tick all the January boxes for post-festive, over-indulgence revival and new-year rejuvenation, not to mention warding off evil winter ailments.
Joining Tom Cook in his kitchen, I can appreciate why he says so many of his brigade are scared of consommé. It requires skill and patience, too, especially in the all-important clarification. He’s making a rather unusual smoked-salmon consommé, starting with “the best stock you can make, it needs to have proper intensity”. He “sweats off” finely chopped onion, fennel, celery, leek, garlic, bayleaf, star anise and thyme before adding what looks like a week’s worth of the restaurant’s smoked-salmon trimmings and fish bones, watching, hawk-like and skimming dextrously.
The whole point of clarification is to end up with a crystal-clear soup. He blitzes up some salmon – the protein helps draw up impurities – and adds more of the same aromatic herbs as in the base stock, plus some egg white. The rest of the egg white is whisked to soft peaks before the two are gently amalgamated, added to the stock, brought back to the boil, then immediately turned low to a gentle simmer. What’s technically called “the raft” floats to the top and all the particles of fat and impurities adhere to it. Tom makes a hole in this crust and with utmost care, painstakingly ladles out the stock and passes it through muslin while warning darkly, “if you cook the raft too hard it turns into scrambled eggs on top and the whole dish is wasted”. Presentation is all.
There is a relatively simpler way to clarify, pioneered by Heston Blumenthal and now used by many chefs, though traditionalists prefer to strut their technique. For the “ice filtration” method, the base stock is frozen and then defrosted and left to drain in a tray lined with muslin. The theory is that none of the sediment should seep through. Tim Hughes, executive chef of Caprice Holdings restaurant group, is a diehard consommé advocate, too. Come January, expect consommé celestine, a beef-stock-based consommé with herb crêpe ribbons straight out of Escoffier, on the menu.
Says Hughes, “You’re not a true chef if you haven’t read [Escoffier’s] A Guide to Modern Cookery. I love the fact that Escoffier devotes pages to all manner of consommé additions. I’m tempted to bring back consommé en croute, I love its theatricality and evocation of a grand past era.” The dish involves topping the soup with a soufflé-like crust, ideally infused, Paul Bocuse-style, with truffle.
Another Hughes favourite is Bullshot consommé (traditionally taken in flasks on New Year shoots). It’s invariably on the menu at J Sheekey’s and was regular Noël Coward’s breakfast tipple. A definitive recipe features in the new J Sheekey cookbook, Fish. The Bullshot is a venerable, beefier in every sense, more grown-up alternative to the Bloody Mary using beef consommé to replace tomato juice, plus a good dash of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice and celery salt.
Though I assume a shoot is not on the holiday agenda for most of us, what does appeal is the prospect of dipping vicariously into Downton Abbey lifestyle with a civilised brisk stroll in the magnificent 240 acres of Coworth Park followed by chef Brian Hughson’s take on Mulligatawny – a broth he’s determinedly reviving at The Barn. Explains Hughson: “I’m fanatical about reviving traditional broths and planning an ambitious soup menu. Though Mulligatawny is traditionally made with Indian spices as it derives from the Tamil word for pepper soup and was a staple among East India Company employees, my contemporary version packs even more punch using a mutton-based stock. I use a mix of Indian and Moroccan spices to give sweetness and heat alongside onion, celery, apple and almond.”
Mark Jarvis, of Blueprint Café, takes a more cross-boundary approach, too. He’s remixing a dash of classic consommé and dashi technique for his January healthy menu. Jarvis makes stock using English kombu (dried seaweed) from Cornwall, green tea, coriander leaves and lemon zest, plus roast crab shells and red miso, adding a little xanthan (a natural gum produced by fermentation of glucose with friendly bacteria) to give more body. Jarvis finishes his cross-cultural broth with red mullet and in-house dried Cornish kombu flakes.
In search of greater dashi enlightenment, I recently joined Tokyo-born, New York raised Hiromi Stone on a dashi-making class in her King’s Cross apartment (hiromistone.com). Although dashi is fundamentally an infusion rather than a broth, the similarities with the art of consommé-making are striking. It’s all about striving for clarity and purity plus depth of umami flavour and the more time and care taken the better the dashi and the more immensely cleansing and life-affirming it tastes.
As Stone says: “Dashi is the soul of Japanese food.” To make classic dashi, Stone recommends soaking 8cm square of kombu (buy it from japancentre.com) in cold water for an hour to release much of its iodine flavour (the soaking can be omitted when making a robust dashi base for miso soup when such clarity isn’t critical). Then put kombu and a litre of water into a pot on a low heat. After approximately 10 minutes small bubbles form and the kombu begins to float. Remove kombu. Bring to the boil, then immediately take the pan off the heat and add half a cup of cold water to reduce the temperature. Add 30g bonito flakes and another half cup of cold water and let it steep for 30 seconds. Strain through a sieve lined with a kitchen towel or muslin and reheat gently to use. A stroll through Soho late last Saturday morning affirms that Asian broth canteens have hit the capital and are on a roll – no doubt influenced by the phenomenal popularity of David Chang’s Momofuku in New York, and their efficacy as morning refreshers/soothing hangover cures.
Expect to queue at cult Koya for udon noodle broth, Bone Daddies for ramen noodle broth and Tonkotsu for the eponymous hauntingly savoury Tonkotsu that translates as pork bone stock. As its owner Emma Reynolds explains, presiding over immense steaming stockpots in the open kitchen: “The pork bones and all parts of the pig are slow simmered for 18 hours so that the collagen and fat leach out and turn the broth milky and suffuse it with flavour.”
We feel like extras from the cult foodie film Tampopo as I slurp silky noodles and tuck into soft pork belly and ajitsuke tamago: marinated, half-boiled egg with a soft, fondant-like yolk topped with a drizzle of magu, a Japanese black sesame oil, the authentic finish to tonkotsu while veggie teenfoodie son slurps with equal relish the less hardcore kombu and shitake miso and shimejo mushroom, beansprout and bamboo-shoot option.
Yet, I reflect, fashionable again though they are, there’s a deep cultural instinct about the comfort and restorative goodness of broths. For me, the ultimate bowlful of maternal instinct remains Jewish chicken broth otherwise known as “Jewish penicillin”. Preferably made by my 77-year-old mother with the stripped chicken carcass left over from the Sunday roast simply simmered for several hours with onion, carrot, celery, parsley and white pepper and the amber globules of chicken fat left defiantly floating on the top of the golden broth (sacrilege in consommé terms!). Those lacking the real-deal Jewish mother can take a lesson in making chicken soup and knaidlach (matzo balls) with Denise Phillips (jewishcooking.com).
As Ludwig van Beethoven somewhat bizarrely is said to have quipped: “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”