Food: The Olney way

The late Richard Olney knew almost everything worth knowing about French cuisine. Long-time devotee Simon Hopkinson pays homage to the American food writer's inspirational approach

Are you quite sure, sir?", asked the waiter. "Yes, quite sure, thank you very much. Kindly get me the ice bucket would you?" So went the conversation between Richard Olney and the, by then, rather nervous young sommelier I employed at the restaurant Hilaire, in London's South Kensington, circa 1983.

"Chef! Zee gentleman on table four want 'is Lynch Bages in an arse burcket!" he said. "Pascal, you silly frog," said I. "That is the great Richard Olney. He knows everything there is to know about wine and food. Certainly more than you ever will."

"But chef," continued Pascal, "he is un Americain!"

The late Richard Olney was, most certainly, an American, born in Iowa in 1927. But he was not your average, homespun Americain - or average in any way at all, come to that. In 1951, for example, he decided to up sticks and make France his new home. Since 1961 he lived - ultimately dying an untimely death there on 3 August - in a most individual, tiny hilltop house, 20km or so outside of the southern French port of Toulon, in a village called Sollies-Toucas.

Apart from tending to his vegetable garden, shopping daily, cooking his purchases and drinking good bottles from his bunker, it was here that he compiled two of the most important books on the subject of French cookery ever written - and equally important as any penned by his adopted countrymen. The French Menu Cookbook (1970) and Simple French Food (1974) have been a joy and inspiration to me throughout my cooking life. His precise descriptions and inspired advice assumed simply that readers should, at least, be interested. His passages on the breading of a veal chop (reproduced below) illustrate my point exactly.

After that first visit to my restaurant, it was deeply heartening to have Richard Olney return for further dinners and more of that cool red. (He was quite right to demand coolant for Bordeaux "cellared" on the wine rack in a warm London restaurant.) It was during one of those visits that I nervously introduced myself formally.

On one occasion, I could not have timed the intrusion better, as he was enjoying a few glasses of malt whisky. My, he was kind to me, saying the nicest things about the dinner he had so recently eaten, together with some mildly worded criticism. "Well, you know, I'm not so sure you should have used quite so much lemon to bleach these artichokes. A marginally grey artichoke that tastes of artichoke is a far better thing than a pristine- white artichoke tasting only of lemon juice!" I've never ever forgotten that genuinely good piece of advice.

Olney's great skill as a writer lay in just such advice. For me, he remains the one cookery writer one should turn to, in order to be warned off the excessive addition of rosemary in a dish, for instance: "Brought to the kitchen, rosemary turns troublesome and aggressive ... Its greatest virtue lies in the gentle beauty of its smoke - totally different from its green presence - whose caress, when a branch is thrown to smoulder on the hot coals for a few seconds before removing any fish, fowl, meat or vegetable from the grill, is subtle and genial," (Simple French Food, 1974). And so it was, during our genial conversation over the correct way to cook an artichoke's bottom, that I finally plucked up courage to ask Mr Olney whether I might call on him that imminent summer, when I would be driving close by his vicinity on a short holiday. "Lunch is a salade composee and one good cheese, and you would be most welcome," he said, warmly.

He couldn't really understand my stress as I drove up the 1:2 drive to his house a few months later. Richard ambled down to the village and back every day. That morning he had been down to the Sollies-Toucas market to buy little fish for soup. The promised salad, of course, would come from the garden.

The fish soup I watched him make. Never have I seen something considered a chore prepared with such ease. "These little soup fish are not cheap," he quipped. "But then the smallest fish always make the best soup. It's chucking them away, once they have exhausted themselves to the soup, that is never understood by, well, by those that buy the wrong fish."

In Simple French Food, his recipe for "impromptu composed salad" takes up three pages of detailed discussion. Once you have digested this, it soon becomes quite clear that here is a writer and cook who wishes that we should eat very well, as opposed to simply adequately:

"This salad, in the seasonal round of my life, symbolises the happiest time of the year - that which is lived almost entirely out of doors, with the table set daily on the terrace ... Alternating the honours of the summer luncheon table with crudites, it serves sometimes as an hors d'oeuvre; often - preceded by melon or figs with ham, and followed by cheeses - it is the principal course; and sometimes it represents the entire meal."

Richard's "composed salad" that day was as simple and as perfect as salad can be: leaves from the garden, which included rocket, small lettuces, purslane and sorrel, and soft herbs. Once a dressing of homemade vinegar, seasoning and olive oil was worked together in the base of a bowl, salad servers were criss-crossed over the waiting emulsion. The collected greenery was then tumbled into the bowl - suspended until the moment of dress by the attendant servers - and decorated with quartered, boiled eggs. The promised cheese was reblochon, and it ran.

The last meal Richard cooked for me was a pot of tripe, three years ago. "Well, it sits there and simmers. I'd better get some Burgundy." Adieu, Richard, simmer in peace.

Breading a veal cutlet (from `Simple French Food')

The breading process is described in the "Meats and Poultry" chapter of Simple French Food. For me, it encapsulates perfectly Richard Olney's descriptive genius:

"The goodness of breaded veal cutlets is sealed in, the juices (that, freed by other cooking methods, may be transfigured into burnished glaze or fragrant broth) remaining virgin. They, too, should be trimmed free of any fragments of fat, skin, nervous tissue surrounding them and slightly flattened, the muscular structure sufficiently bruised to relax and not shrink during the cooking, but they should not be pounded to paper-thin death. An hour's marinade (in a bit of lemon juice, a few drops of olive oil and either finely chopped fines herbes, including a bit of tarragon, or a pinch of dried herbs, including oregano) will lend relief to veal's bland savour. For sharper but less-delicate relief, the cutlets may, first salted and peppered, be lightly spread with Dijon mustard before being breaded. If marinated, they should be sponged gently dry and then seasoned just before breading.

"A light coating of flour before the passage in egg will greatly increase the adhesive quality of the breading, but the pastiness within the casing is always vaguely unpleasant (not so if lightly floured, dipped in egg, and sauteed without being breaded - the flour then becomes an integral part of the slightly crisp, batter-like surface). I usually dredge them in freshly grated Parmesan instead of flour, but sometimes dip them directly into the egg.

"The spoonful or so of water that is usually added to the egg - beaten only enough to mix yolk and white - is designed to prevent the casing buckling while cooking.

"Finely crumbled stale, but not dried-out, crustless breadcrumbs give a lighter and more delicate result, but with less adhering strength than finely ground dried ones. The cutlets must be handled with great care and, although it is essential to avoid dispersing loose crumbs in the cooking fat, they may never be altogether eliminated with this method. Once the cutlets are breaded (sprinkling more crumbs over and patting them into place with your hand to ensure an even coating), transfer them to a board sprinkled with breadcrumbs and flatten each side, tapping gently with the flat of a heavy knife blade or cleaver to render the breading more compact. Finally, a criss-cross pattern created by tapping each surface gently with the back of a heavy knife blade at approximately 2cm distances will break up the surface tension, reinforcing adherent strength and creating an attractive pattern - the principle is the same as that of lines pressed into pavements to prevent their cracking.

"Deep-fried in olive oil, breaded cutlets are delicious, but a normal 125g cutlet divided into three or four small ones will be easier to handle. If they are cooked in a frying pan, there should be a 1cm depth of fat (olive oil, mixed olive oil and butter, or pure butter), preheated, the heat reduced to medium/medium-low when the cutlets are put to cook. It is probably wiser to clarify the butter first if it is used alone."

Composed salad of mussels and potatoes (from `The French Menu Cookbook')

Serves 4

3-4 medium, waxy potatoes (charlotte are good)

100ml white wine

1kg mussels, scraped, soaked and rinsed in salt water

1 onion, chopped

For the sauce

1 lemon

1tsp chopped dill

1 scant tsp Dijon mustard

salt, freshly ground pepper

1 celery heart, thinly sliced

lettuce leaves

Boil the potatoes in their skins, peel them the moment they are drained, slice them in a bowl, pour the white wine over, and leave them to cool.

Put the mussels and chopped onion into a large pot, pour over the wine from the cooled potatoes, cover tightly and place over high heat, shaking the pot occasionally. Leave them only long enough for all the mussels to open (3 or 4 minutes). Remove them from their shells, put them aside and allow the cooking liquid to settle for a few minutes. Pour it carefully through a sieve lined with muslin into a small saucepan, leaving all the heavy sediment behind. Reduce the liquid rapidly by half. Taste it - fresh mussels often contain a large quantity of sea water and their cooking liquid is intensely salty - and use it accordingly in the seasoning of the sauce.

Mix together the juice of 1/2 the lemon, the chopped dill, the mustard and some pepper. Stir in the cream and add as much (if any) of the mussels' cooking liquid as the sauce can support without becoming too thin. Taste for salt, lemon and other seasonings, and adjust if necessary.

Mix the celery, the mussels and the potatoes into the sauce carefully, so as not to damage the potato slices; then turn out on to a platter or shallow bowl lined with lettuce leaves, and sprinkle with chopped fresh dill or fines herbes.

Moulded coffee custard - creme renversee au cafe (from `The French Menu Cookbook')

Serves 4

For the caramel

50g sugar

2-3tbsp water

For the custard

100g sugar

tiny pinch of salt

250ml milk

1/2 vanilla pod

2 whole eggs and 3 yolks (all large)

250ml very strong, hot, freshly made coffee

almond oil (for the mould) [or light vegetable oil. SH]

Bring the sugar and water to the boil in a small saucepan. Keep the mixture at a light boil, watching it all the time, until it turns a deep honey colour. Remove it immediately from the heat and pour it into the mould, turning it rapidly in all directions to coat the bottom and as much of the sides as possible before the caramel solidifies. When it is thoroughly cooled, lightly oil the sides that remain untouched by the caramel.

For the custard

Combine the sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla pod in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Remove it from the heat and leave it to infuse for a few minutes. Remove the vanilla pod.

Beat the eggs and yolks together in a bowl, then slowly add the milk and coffee, while continuing to beat. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve into another bowl, allow it to stand for about 5 minutes, and carefully skim off all the foam that has come to the surface. Pour the mixture into the mould and cook it in a bain-marie [place the mould in a larger pan, pour in enough nearly boiling water to immerse the mould by two-thirds, and put it in a low to medium oven - gas mark 1, or equivalent. SH] for about 40 minutes, or until the centre is no longer liquid. A solid mould will require a longer cooking time than (say) a savarin (mould).

Chill the custard. Unmould just before serving, first running the tip of a small knife around the edges.

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