Toulouse-Lautrec: The art of bacchanalia

He is famous for his art and his outrageous lifestyle, but Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec saved his most lavish hedonism for food and drink: hunting with cormorants and serving heron, squirrel and lethal cocktails to dinner-party guests. Here we rediscover some of the painter's greatest recipes
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You probably know that Toulouse-Lautrec was short. You probably know he painted the Moulin Rouge. You may know that he lived for a spell in a brothel. And you will certainly know what his posters look like, because they are so damned familiar. But I wonder if you know what a dab hand he was in the kitchen, and how much he enjoyed cooking? It is one of the less appreciated talents of the priapic tiddler of Montmartre, and finding out about his culinary skills was among the more pleasant revelations of the film biography I've just finished making about him for Channel 4.

So keen was Lautrec on the mysteries of the kitchen that he wanted to bring out a book of his own recipes, and would have done so had he not died first from a cocktail of alcoholism and syphilis at the absurdly young age of 36. Fortunately, his art dealer, Maurice Joyant, found the concoctions among his papers after the painter's death, and published them. I managed to track down this unlikely recipe book, and have spent many an exciting evening since attempting to cook the Lautrec way. Which isn't easy.

The chief difficulty is sourcing the correct ingredients. One of Lautrec's more ambitious recipes calls for a heron to be grilled over a vine-wood fire, and, as you know, you just can't get the heron these days, not even in Harrods Food Hall. Fresh squirrel isn't easy either. Preparing a whole sheep also proved unrealistic in the confines of my north London kitchen.

For cooking of this magnitude, you need the back-up of a large country estate, which is exactly what Lautrec's family was able to offer him. Actually, they had several. The Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfas were descended from the Counts of Toulouse, de facto owners of the entire south of France, and Lautrec himself was distantly related to Richard the Lionheart. He was actually christened Henry by his mother, in the English fashion with a "y" at the end, in honour of another ancestor, our own Henry III. All of which makes him the highest-born aristocrat ever to become a great artist.

It is these lofty origins, I suggest, that explain the eccentric insouciance he brought to his cooking. One of his favourite summer pursuits was fishing with a cormorant. He'd read somewhere that this is what they did in Japan, so he sent someone off to find him a bird and spent many a fine summer's day moored off the coast of Normandy with the submerged cormorant tied to a piece of string. In the evenings, after he'd rustled up one of his extraordinary fish dinners with the resulting catch, he'd walk the cormorant along the promenade and take him into pubs where the unfazed bird apparently developed a taste for real ale.

Back in Paris, his family would send him a weekly crate from the south of France filled with stuff (omega) they'd shot or trapped or fished. The opening of this tuck-box was one of Lautrec's greatest weekly pleasures and every Friday he would invite his friends over and cook for them. Preserved in the Musée Lautrec in Albi are some of the menus he drew for these notorious dinner parties. As the recipes grew more and more ambitious, so they took longer and longer to prepare, leaving more and more time for drinkypoos. And it wasn't only fine wines they guzzled. Lautrec was one of the first Frenchmen to develop a taste for American cocktails. He'd mix them in a shaker he'd had specially made, and would take great pleasure in inventing new drinks and giving them terrifying names. His most notorious cocktail he called The Earthquake, which consisted of four parts absinthe to two parts red wine with a splash of cognac. Ouch.

Although Toulouse-Lautrec's recipe book contains a few things that are uncookable today, much of it is merely challenging and strikingly inventive. When I interviewed the surviving members of the Lautrec family in the lovely assortment of chateaux they still own, I was delighted to discover that several more recipes that weren't in the book had been handed down in the family. I had a go at cooking the easiest sounding of these - steak à la Toulouse, they call it - in the family chateau at Malrome, near Bordeaux, where, incidentally, they still produce a very drinkable claret.

To make steak à la Toulouse you need a real vine-wood fire and three tranches of sirloin. Smother the steaks in Dijon mustard, then pile them up, one on top of the other, and grill them in unison on the vine-wood fire until their edges begin to blacken. Now take them all out, and throw away the top steak and the bottom steak. Because, according to Lautrec, only the one in the middle will be perfectly cooked.

He was so fond of his own food that he rarely went out to restaurants in Paris. But, as he became more successful and had more shows abroad, he became notoriously choosy about where he would eat. He particularly liked coming to London, where his posters were much in demand, though he always complained fiercely about the number of drunks you saw in the streets. Which was a cheek coming from him.

As luck would have it, his favourite eateries in London are still in business. There's the Café Royal in Regent Street where he'd meet his fellow epicurean and trouble-maker, Oscar Wilde. The Criterion at Piccadilly Circus is still open, too. But his favourite London restaurant was Sweetings, the fabulous fish restaurant in the City, near Cannon Street Station; Lautrec used to eat skate wings in black butter, and write excited letters back to his mother in Bordeaux telling her how good they were. When I popped in, I was delighted to discover they were still on the menu. And still delicious.

'Toulouse-Lautrec: The Full Story' will be shown on Channel 4 on 9 December at 7pm

Cooking à la Toulouse

Lautrec's favourite London eaterie was Sweetings. Chef Patrick Molloy couldn't wait to recreate the artist's dishes

Sweetings has occupied the same spot on Queen Victoria Street in London since 1830 and, aside from a bombed-out window in the war, it looks as it did then. The menu has hardly changed either. Traditional prawn cocktail and Dover sole followed by spotted dick and custard, just like nanny used to make, is devoured by local City boys.

Lautrec is just one of many of Sweeting's celebrity followers, along with Larry Hagman, Philippe Starck and Rick Stein (who calls it the "granddaddy of fish restaurants"). Manager Patrick Molloy has been there since 1986. When he was presented with Lautrec's recipe book, The Art of Cuisine, he jumped at the chance to try it - although, as Sweetings is a fish-only restaurant, he had to call on Porterford Meats ("without doubt the best butcher in the City") for the calf's liver and pigeon. "The introduction to his book reads like a love story to food," enthuses Molloy. "When you read the recipes, you can almost see and smell them. What Lautrec was doing was classic, rustic French, Escoffier-style cooking, all big flavours and rich sauces. This is the way my mother taught me to cook."

Another thing that impressed him was the artist's attention to the appearance of his creations. "I feel an affinity with Lautrec in some ways," says Molloy. "You can't just throw paint on a canvas just like you can't just throw ingredients into a bowl. You can see the way he was trying to bring the colours out - the purples and browns of the liver and the reds, yellows and whites of the fish soup. It's a true painter's palette." (omega)

Calf's liver with prunes

"This is a big, big, beautiful, rich dish. The colours are lovely and the smells of the herbs incredible. Who would have thought that calf's liver and prunes went well together? But, with the added adventure of cognac, they do."

Serves 6

4tbsp butter
2tbsp flour
11/2kg/3lb larded calf's liver (ask your butcher to do this for you)
1 medium onion and 4 shallots
A bouquet garni
2 laurel leaves
2 sprigs thyme
25 prunes
A glass each of red wine and cognac

In a round, earthenware pot make a roux with butter and flour; prepare with great care for half an hour until well darkened. Put in the larded calf's liver.

When the liver is lightly browned, moisten with warm water, add salt, pepper, onions, whole shallots, a bouquet garni, laurel leaf, thyme. Bring to a boil; then cover the pot and let the contents simmer for about an hour.

In a separate pot, cover 25 pitted prunes with the red wine and the cognac and poach for 25 minutes. Put the covered pot into the oven and cook, gently reducing for an hour. You will have a rich and thick sauce. On a white or plain-coloured dish serve the meat over which you poured the sauce and circle it with the prunes.

Sole with white wine

"This is a nice, simple dish. It's light, quick and easy to follow. Use the best-quality fish you can get and make a good fish stock. It would make a lovely Sunday lunch."

Serves 2

500g/1lb whole Dover sole
A knob of butter
500g/8oz mushrooms, sliced
500g/8oz shelled shrimp
6-8 cockles
12-16 mussels
Enough water to steam the mussels
120ml/4fl oz white wine
A sprinkling breadrumbs
A sprinkling parsley
Salt and pepper

In a well-buttered, enameled earthenware dish lay out a handsome sole, belly upwards. Dot with butter. Garnish with mushrooms sautéed in butter, half a pound of shelled shrimp, a litre of mussels, half a litre of cockles - previously well washed, cooked and removed from their shells.

Reserve the liquid from the mussels to boil with the shrimp shells and some water to create a stock. Pour a good glass of white wine over the sole and then cover with the strained stock. Put it on the fire and let it simmer uncovered for 20 to 40 minutes, according to the size of the sole, and let the sauce reduce. At the last moment, dot the sole with butter, sprinkle with breadcrumbs worked with parsley, salt, pepper; use very little salt because of the salted liquid of the mussels.

Bordelaise fish soup

"I loved making this. This is a real old classic French soup with a mix of garlic and cloves in a mayonnaise base. Lautrec chose to add saffron which gives it a fabulous yellow colour as well. It's quite a light soup, not too thick - the fish goes in in large lumps so can almost be used as a main course as well as a starter. But you've got to have (omega) patience with this one. You've got to let it reduce enough to let the flavours come through."

Serves 4

3tbsp butter
2tbsp flour
A couple sprigs of parsley
A handful watercress
Half a fennel, sliced
Half a lemon, chopped
2 laurel leaves
A small sprig of thyme
21/2kg/5lb fish heads and bones, to make the stock
5 aromatic peppercorns
A small pinch of saffron, enough to colour it
2 cloves
A sprinkling of red cayenne pepper
5 litres/83/4 pints water, for the stock
1lb fish, such as turbot, sole, brill, sea bass or haddock
5 or 6 cloves garlic
1 egg yoke
Enough oil to make mayonnaise
Toasted crutons, to serve

In a large marmite make a roux in which you wilt fines herbes - parsley, water cress, fennel, lemon, laurel, thyme. Put in 5lb of common sea fish, with the heads cut into pieces: black conger, hake, whiting, red mullet, plaice, flounder, weever fish, angler fish, red gurnet, stockfish. Add salt, white and aromatic peppercorns, saffron, cloves and red cayenne pepper.

Moisten with water to the height of the fish and boil until the fish fall completely apart. In the meantime, in this boullion you will have cooked, and removed from the pot, a whole choice fish which is to be eaten: turbot, sole, brill, sea bass, haddock. When the bouillon is reduced, throw in the following paste made separately: in a marble mortar crush five or six cloves of garlic; add salt, an egg yolk, and, little by little, two or three decilitres of oil, stirring continuously with the pestle to have a paste of the same kind as mayonnaise.

Let the fish bouillon simmer for another good quarter of an hour, then strain it and pour it into a deep dish over some toasted crutons. Serve boiling hot to go with the choice fish which should be eaten at the same time.

Young wild pigeon with olives

"I know why Lautrec says that this is only good enough for his good, real friends. It's the type of dish I would do myself for people who love their food. It's just a joy."

Serves 4

8oz sausage meat
Some chopped onions
Large pinches of parsley, thyme and marjoram
1 pigeon per person
8tbsp bacon cubes
8 shallots
A small onion
4tbsp flour
4tbsp butter
Bouquet garni
500ml/1 pint bouillon
40 pitted green olives
350ml/12fl oz cognac

Table some young pigeons, empty them, and into the inside put a stuffing of sausage meat, onion, parsley, thyme and marjoram. Tie them up and let the pigeons brown briskly in a heavy, shallow pan. Then put the bacon, shallots and onion into a saucepan and make a light roux with flour. Add salt, pepper, a bouquet garni. Put in the pigeons, moisten with good bouillon. Let them simmer gently for just under an hour with the saucepan covered. In the last 20 minutes add some pitted green olives which have been well desalted and a glass of cognac. Let them braise well and reduce. Serve the birds on a dish surrounded by the olives and covered with the strained sauce which ought to be rich and thick.

Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4 (tel: 020 7248 3062). 'The Art of Cuisine' by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant (Holt, Rinhart and Winston)