Unbeatable: The art of making a perfect omelette
For speed, simplicity and sheer deliciousness, there's not much to beat an omelette. But getting it just right is an art, as Alice-Azania Jarvis finds out
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Thursday 15 September 2011
Elizabeth David included two omelette recipes in her seminal French Country Cooking: omelette aux pommes de terre and omelette aux croutons et fromage. That was six decades ago – the book celebrates its 60th birthday this year. David, of course, knows her eggs: when, some 23 years later, she published an anthology, it was concisely titled An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. That image – of the lone diner settling down to enjoy, as David would have it, "the almost primitive and elemental meal" of a good omelette and a fine vintage – has firmly etched itself on to my consciousness. Childhood holidays in France were characterised by post-ferry stopovers to eat omelettes, days as a student marked by parental advice that they make the perfect cheap supper. I've not always loved them, I have to admit; eggs were a food I had to grow into – unlike, say, ice cream and pancakes. But I do now.
Not enough places serve omelettes, and even fewer serve good ones. The omelette's spot on the menu was replaced, somewhere around 1994, by the now-ubiquitous smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. It is a point of almost ceaseless joy to me that I live near the Boundary development, whose downstairs "caff" Albion sells what are, I rather boringly maintain, some of the best omelettes in London. They come blonde (omelette-speak for uncoloured on the outside), just set, and either plain or filled with a combination of ham, cheese or mushrooms. The outside glistens, perfectly smooth, while the inside oozes when you cut into it.
"I love omelettes – I grew up on them," says Peter Weeden. As Boundary's head chef, he oversees the Albion kitchen and is exacting in what he expects. "In France they learn to make an omelette at chefs' college. It's all about the 'seven laminations'. It's a classic dish and can be a really, really wonderful thing if it's done right."
It's the doing-it-right part, though, that can cause problems. For all the dish's simplicity – just eggs and a bit of seasoning, really, and you've got an omelette – the method of making the "perfect" one has morphed into foodie folklore. David recounts the story of one Madame Poulard whose omelettes assumed such legendary status that all of France speculated as to how she did them. Recipes for l'omelette de la mère poulard began to appear, claiming that her secret lay in adding foie gras or other exotic ingredients. When she was eventually asked for the trick, it was just what one might expect: "I break some good eggs into a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan. I throw the eggs into it and I shake constantly."
Still, the quest for perfection continues – and not everyone agrees with Madame Poulard's method. From the Larousse Gastronomique to Julia Child to Jamie Oliver, variations on the omelette formula abound. Liquids remain a point of contention, some advocating the addition of milk, others a very small amount of water to lift the omelette's fluffiness. Weeden adds water to his omelette – but just a touch; less than a teaspoon for a three-egg dish. "If you have good-quality eggs, it doesn't need milk or anything like that." The key for him comes in the making: when the eggs have been mixed and seasoned and the butter is just past foaming, the liquid is ladled into a pan. When a thin layer has formed, that layer is reincorporated into the mix. Doing "seven laminations" means doing this seven times – by which point, says Weeden, your omelette should be almost done. It simply needs removing from the heat and resting for a couple of minutes before it's out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
So far as fillings are concerned, Weedon is a purist: at home he likes a good brie in the middle, but isn't a fan of the over-stuffed American variety. When I mention a fontina, avocado and shrimp number I had in San Francisco, he practically recoils in horror. Mickael Weiss, head chef at the Coq D'Argent, goes one step further: he passes over fillings altogether in favour of the omelette aux fines herbs, mixing some finely chopped chives into the egg before cooking. "Making the perfect omelette starts with the eggs: the texture, the colour, the aroma all depend on them. You want free range, no more than a few days old." Other factors cited by Weiss include using the right size pan – cast iron wiped with a bit of oil, laid over gas – and a shallow mixing bowl. The one thing he will not countenance is Saturday Kitchen's weekly Omelette Challenge, which sees chefs go head to head to concoct an "omelette" in the fastest time possible: "It's terrible. Terrible! That's not an omelette."
Of course, discussion of the "perfect omelette" only really refers to one kind: the Anglo-French model, eggs cooked quickly and folded into a neat half moon. The generously filled American omelette is a kind of quirky cousin. But elsewhere, variations on the omelette assume wildly different forms. From the potato-stuffed Spanish tortilla to the square Japanese omelette and the puffy, oil-heavy Thai one, getting each of these correct is another kettle of fish entirely.
"I'd say 95 per cent of the world's Spanish omelettes are not good – even in Spain," says Sam Hart, co-founder of the Barrafina tapas bar. Hart is open-minded in what goes into the tortilla but unwavering in what makes a traditional one. "It's just onions and potatoes, that's all. The biggest problem is that people don't allow the onions to caramelise enough, or they don't use enough. It really requires patience."
Just as laborious – in fact probably more so – is the Japanese omelette. It takes Silla Bjerrum, founder of Feng Sushi, around 20 minutes to assemble the boxy, Swiss roll-like dish. But then she's an expert and does, she admits, sometimes take the shortcut of cooking each layer separately. "First you mix your egg mix with some mirin and sake, gently breaking up the eggs – but not whisking – as you go. Then you strain the egg and brush a square pan with vegetable oil." The egg mix is poured in bit by bit: "As a sheet forms in the pan, it is rolled into a block and then another sheet begun. You do about five or six sheets, each time wrapping them around the block. Then you put it in a rolling mat and leave to rest for about half an hour."
When it is eventually ready, the Japanese omelette is served lukewarm, sliced alongside pickles or rice. "Because there is a slightly sweet taste to it, it often comes right at the end of a meal." Bjerrum fills hers with spinach or, less traditionally, red peppers, though nori (seaweed) is also common. As egg-based dishes go, it couldn't really be more different from our straightforward, 30-second meal. Yet it is, fundamentally, the same thing.
"One of the joys of the omelette is its versatility," agrees Weeden. "It is a bespoke dish. You can have it exactly how you want. It is overlooked, I think, because there is this sense that if something's not complex enough, not modern enough, it's not worth eating. But really, the rise of the non-stick pan should herald a revival." I couldn't agree more of course – and hearteningly, it seems I'm not alone.
At the Corinthia Hotel's Northall restaurant, dozens of breakfasts are ordered every day. Head chef Garry Hollyhead is a vocal advocate for well- sourced, home-grown produce, and guests can choose from a selection of British hams, cheeses and field mushrooms as fillings for their omelettes.
It is time, then, to revive the simple omelette? I certainly think so. Though everyone may have their own way of making the prefect one, there's one thing on which almost every chef can agree: omelettes are delicious, fast and nutritious. So while the omelette makes its comeback, I know where I'll be: in a booth at the Albion, wolfing down mine with cheese and mushroom.
Omelettes: the chefs' choice
Peter Weeden, head chef, Boundary and Albion
I'd ask for it runny and would have a camembert or a soft cheese added when it's being folded.
Tom Aikens, head chef, Tom's Kitchen
I would put in mixed herbs, such as chervil or parsley, and then cheese, mushroom or a nice ham. Never, ever tomatoes.
Saipin Lee, head chef Suda
My all-time favourite Thai omelette is made by putting in a little bit of fish sauce, a few drop of lime juice, chopped fresh chilli and Thai sweet basil.
Agnar Sverrisson, head chef, Texture
If you have fantastic eggs – free range, organic – they should speak for themselves. If you wanted an Icelandic twist you could add flavours such as angelica or birch.
Garry Hollyhead, head chef, the Northall
I like a simple cheese omelette, with a nice British goat's cheese.
Allan Pickett, head chef, Plateau
I like some smoked fish in it – that is a real treat. My wife and I will have a light omelette with some lovely Scottish smoked salmon.
Andy Rose, head chef, Boisdale Canary Wharf
I have them either plain or with a little grated cheese, served with a crisp salad and some crusty bread.
Paul Ainsworth, founder, Number 6 Padstow
My favourite is a typical Spanish omelette with chorizo, spring onions, really ripe cherry tomatoes and finished with some manchego.
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