Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some Food Writing

Since, most famously, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and, slightly less famously, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière invented food writing in the first quarter of the 1800s, food writers have battered language almost insensible trying to describe the transports of delight that food has wrought upon their palates. Brillat-Savarin famously said "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," in his Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes. (commonly translated as The Physiology of Taste). The Physiology of Taste is available in a plain text format through Sadly, Grimod's Manuel des amphitryons : contenant un traité de la dissection des viandes à table, la nomenclature des menus les plus nouveaux pour chaque saison, et des élémens de politesse gourmande : ouvrage indispensable à tous ceux qui sont jaloux de faire bonne cher̀e, et de la faire faire aux autres (1808) is less accessible in translation (although available in French).

(It is fitting that, as I write this, I've been offered a sample of coffee with instructions to taste it like I would a wine; first the nose, then a slurp and swish to spread the taste over my whole tongue.)

In addition to his mots and aphorisms, Brillat-Savarin dealt with many of the issues that concern us today, such as the globalisation of of food and food culture. He writes:

Gourmandise offers great resources to fiscality, for it increases customs, imports, etc. All we consume pays tribute in one degree or another, and there is no source of public revenue to which gourmands do not contribute. Let us speak for a moment of that crowd of preparers who every year leave France, to instruct foreign nations in gourmandise. The majority succeed and obedient to the unfasting instinct of a Frenchman's fever, return to their country with the fruits of their economy. This return is greater than one would think.

Brillat-Savarin continues on to talk about how food and the businesses surrounding it contributed an extraordinary amount to France's GDP and balance of payments. But he writes about the joys of the table:

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, of alcoholic liquors, of wine, ices, vanilla, tea and coffee, have given us flavors hitherto unknown. Who knows if touch will not have its day, and if some fortuitous circumstance will not open to us thence some new enjoyments? This is especially probable as tactile sensitiveness
exists every where in the body, and consequently can every where be excited. We have seen that physical love has taken possession of all the sciences. In this respect it acts with its habitual tyranny. The taste is a more prudent measure but not less active faculty. Taste, we say, has
accomplished the same thing, with a slowness which ensures its success. Elsewhere we will consider the march. We may, however, observe, that he who has enjoyed a sumptuous banquet in a hall decked with flowers, mirrors, paintings, and statues, embalmed in perfume, enriched with pretty women, filled with delicious
harmony, will not require any great effort of thought to satisfy himself that all sciences have been put in requisition to exalt and to enhance the pleasures of taste.

“[A]ll sciences have been put in requisition to exalt and to enhance the pleasures of taste.” A bold statement, although, considering the state of the hall described, a defensible one.

Brillat-Savarin was writing in the early 1800s, but, in many ways, he set standards that have echoed down the years. In his book Blue trout and black truffles : the peregrinations of an epicure, Joseph Wechsberg writes similarly about the Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne. In what turns out to be a sheer delight of a read, Wechsberg at first resists the pilgrimage to Pyramide:
I objected mildly that I wasn't too much interested in the “show places” of la grande cuisine. France's restaurants are, by and large, the best in the world, I said, and I could see no reason for patronizing fancy establishments when there is such an astonishing number of small restaurants all over the country where one can get a delicious omelet, a succulent blanquette de veau, a fine Brie, and a bottle of honest vin du pays for the equivalent of a dollar and a half.
Of course, cooler heads prevail, a letter of introduction is written, and Wechsberg is off (again) to France where he meets “incontestably the greatest chef on earth”, the Formidable Monsieur Point (the title of the chapter).

Fernand Point, now considered the father of modern French cuisine, seems to have discovered in Wechsberg a man who enjoyed listening almost as much as Point liked to talk. For the remainder of the chapter, Point hold forth about his practise, theory, and beliefs as they concern his overriding passion; food. After an initial interview with M. Point, Wechsberg is introduced to other staff members and tours not only the restaurant, but also the wine cellar (well, one of them. The other, primarily stocking champagne, is mentioned but never visited). Then a lunch is served:
A waiter placed one of the ivory-colored plates in front of me, and another waiter served me the first hors-d'œuvre, an excellent pâté campagne en croûte. French cooks are generally expert at baking an extremely light, buttery dough called croûte, but never before had I eaten croûte that almost dissolved in my mouth. When I had finished, the first waiter replaced my plate, fork, and knife with clean ones, and a third waiter served me a slice of foie gras naturel truffé embedded in a ring of crème de foie gras. The ritual of changing plates and silver was repeated after each hors-d'œuvre—hot sausage baked in a light pastry shell, accompanied by a delicious sauce piquante; a pâté of pheasant; crackling hot cheese croissants; fresh asparagus (which M. Mercier must have bought in Lyon that morning), set off by a truly perfect sauce hollandaise.
A bottle of wine—an elegant, airy Montrachet—was brought in an ice bucket; the waiter filled my glass half full and gave it a gentle swirl to spread the bouquet. It was a great show and a fine wine. The last hors-d'œuvre was followed in person by M. Point, who informed me that I had now completed the “overture.”

“The overture merely indicates the themes that will turn up later” in the meal. Sheer awesomeness seems to be the order of the day. In the end, Wechsberg is reduced to simply listing menus; the ability to describe what he is eating appears to have vanished.
That's a state I can both relate to and aspire to—when everything is so good that you simply don't have words for it. But notice how many of today's concerns are reflected in the meal. Local, fresh, the search for quality and perfection. And Brillat-Savarin takes on globalisation and industrialization of food. There really is nothing new under the (Tuscan) sun.
But Blue trout and black truffles is also a book written after The War To End All Wars and the one that came after it. Wechsberg regularly writes about how things were so much better, so much more elaborate, so much more educated before the wars. I've p posted a copy of the chapter Tafelspitz for the Hofrat in .pdf for those who care to read it. In it, Wechsberg discusses the myriad ways in which beef was cut—much like Bill Bruford does in his book Heat. Both writers point out how there is no one way to cut up an animal. There are as many as there are cultures in the world—each cuts it to satisfy its own appetites. And Wechsberg shows how much of this was lost after the two world wars.
But, in conclusion, let us allow Joseph Wechsberg the chance to once again write his love letter to a restaurant and a chef.
Since then I've gone back to the Pyramide many times, undaunted by distances, borders, and customs guards. Each meal has been a memorable event—one of those rare moments when you know that it couldn't be any better. Repetition has intensified rather than dulled the delight of my first lunch at the restaurant.
Fernand Point is incontestably the greatest chef on earth. His perfection, like the perfection of Toscanini, is a blend of hard thinking, much work, and a dash of genius. At the Pyramide nothing is left to chance. M. Point isn't satisfied to use poulet de Bresse, the finest chicken in France. He "searches" until he finds the finest chicken in the Bresse region, which happens to be near Vienne. He has suppliers all over the fat French countryside who send him their choice products when they are "in season." I've eaten in his house the finest butter, the mildest caviar, the freshest sea fish, the tastiest sturgeon, the juiciest steak, the youngest vegetable, the daintiest woodcock, the ripest cheese, the best-flavored fruit.
Point's craving for perfection is evident at every stage of his work. When, after years of "searching," he finally arrived at his own recipe for mousse of brook trout—he adds a little mousse of chicken livers among many other mysterious things—he wasn't satisfied with the copper sieves that his emissaries had sent him from Paris. Instead he had special, extra-fine sieves made through which the delicate trout meat is strained not once but several times. The cooks in his kitchen work with a degree of perfection I have seen nowhere else outside a Swiss watch factory. When they make a paté of pheasant, they wouldn't think of serving it in a terrine, as elsewhere; instead, they stuff a pheasant with the paté. The "presentation" is no mere stage effect, but is calculated to enhance the supreme enjoyment of the dish. At the Pyramide they bake their own bread and brioches, and make their own sausages, which are served among the hors-d'œuvres. Point uses few spices and almost no garlic: he maintains that one must never make things too obvious. I remember a meal at which he served a special dish. He was pleased as a kid when no one present could accurately define what it was—a mousse made of carp's milt.
In spite of such precautions, many of his recipes have been copied, not too successfully, by imitators. When that happens, Point loses interest in the creation and stops serving it. Instead, he comes up with something new that surprises the finicky palates of France's gastronomes. Not long ago he gave a luncheon to two of France's finest chefs and served them la Croustade de moules sur fond d'epinards et nappée d'une sauce crémeuse. "It was not only wonderful to taste but a symphony of color," one of the chefs remembers. The other one told me, "Next to Point we are merely apprentices."
Point sees to it that his creations are properly appreciated. When he serves a delicate dish, such as his magnificent gratin de queues d'écrevisses, he asks his guests not to wait until all people at the same table are served. This may be bad manners according to the etiquette experts, but in the gastronomical etiquette of Fernand Point, it would be infinitely worse to let the gratin de queues d'écrevisses get cold. Recently he banned flowers from his tables because their scent was distracting. He doesn't approve of ladies who wear too much perfume when they sit down at the table. And he takes a dim view of restaurants that thrive on two or three specialtiés de la maison.
"Every good cook can design five or ten different meals," he said to me once. "But to change your menu every day, and to prepare three hundred and fifty meals a year—that's difficult."
M. Point is a generous grand-seigneur in the old style, who loves the company of enthusiastic fellow eaters. His friends claim that he keeps his restaurant mainly because it gives him a chance to entertain his friends. M. Point is particularly touched by the loyalty of some friends who don't care about his food and come to the Pyramide to see him. One of them, a local citizen, is a heavy though not discriminating eater.
"Il vient ici pour se nourir," (he comes here to feed himself), Point says, with a chuckle. That anybody should come to the Pyramide to eat, instead of to taste, enjoy, appreciate, dream, amuses him no end.
As you come in, you will be offered a glass of champagne. Hold it with forefinger and thumb, at the bottom, thumb up—never by the stem! Raise your glass and drink to the Pyramide. M. Point appreciates little things like that. He has mastered three words of English: "yes, sir," and "darling," and uses them as indiscriminately as a Hollywood producer.
At the Pyramide I've never been offered the same dish twice. Mme Point has an uncanny memory for menus and remembers what you ate there as long as two years ago. M. Point claims that a meal must be "composed and orchestrated" like a symphony. It should start with light dishes and proceed to heavier ones, with the accent on the specialties of the particular season—whatever best fish, fowl, game, fruit, cheese happen to be available at the moment.
Point's closest friends agree that the best day to eat at the Pyramide is Tuesday. On Tuesdays the restaurant is closed, and Point himself goes down to the kitchen to cook for his family and his friends. He makes what he calls a "simple" dish, a blanquette de veau à l'ancienne, or a beef stew in Chambertin (he uses vintage wines for cooking), or his inimitable gratin dauphinois—but it's the simplicity and delicacy of a Mozart symphony. The coffee is perfect, which is rare in France, and there are surprises even when the liqueurs arrive. Lately M. Point has been experimenting with flavors. Last spring he placed an empty glass bottle over a small pear hanging from a tree. During the summer the pear grew inside the bottle, as in a glass house. In the autumn Point took the ripe pear off the tree—by that time it had become too large to be removed from inside the bottle—and added pure alcohol. The result is the finest, strongest pear liqueur that was ever caught in a bottle. The label says: "POIRE EST CELUI QUI N'EN BOIT POINT."
One October day, when the leaves of the chestnut trees in his garden were playing the colors of a Cézanne painting, M. Point composed and orchestrated this lunch for us:
Cramant blanc de blancs 1949
Condrieu 1950
Juliénas 1949 (en carafe)
Moulin-à-Vent 1945
La Romanée-Conti 1929
Pommery 1945 (en magnum)

I never asked M. Point to give me the recipe of one of his creations. What's the use? It would be like attempting to play the cello by watching Pablo Casals.

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