Thursday, 5 September 2013

Once upon a time: a sumptuous banquet of the 1920s ... and how to recreate it.

Once upon a time long ago ...

... There was a raven-haired beauty with sparkling eyes, cherry lips and peachy skin, tanned to olive by the strong sun of her island home. She loved the beach and the surf, and she would go every day during summer in her knitted bathing costume (made to fit perfectly, with the shorts taken up, daringly, far beyond the mid thigh), carrying her sturdy wooden surfboard, to paddle, surf and play. The beauty had a loving father, mother and sisters, and she was extremely happy, because she was set to marry her dashing, witty, beloved fiancee. The year was 1924; the beauty's name was Grace; and she was my grandmother.

To celebrate the imminent nuptials, on the sixth of March, 1924, Grace was taken out to a very special dinner at Phair's Hotel, Melbourne. This dinner was organised by the Societé Française and sponsored by none other than Champagne G. H. Mumm & Co - and therefore the sparkling eyes of Grace and her fellow guests (her fiancé, Kenneth Wootton, and two friends) were matched by some very good French sparkling wines.

The menu for the evening was decorated with a romantic coloured picture of a young man serenading a lady on a balcony; there were eight courses of the most delectable and unusual delicacies; and everything was written entirely in French - no doubt testing the schoolboy language skills of my grandfather (it certainly tested mine).

I was so charmed to discover this - and the meal it documents - that I've decided to take you through it. And then, if you're still with me, I'm going to recreate some dishes from it. (But not all at once, because eight courses is a bit much for your typical dinner in 2013, especially when you're finding it difficult to fit into your jeans.)

Back to 1924 - and a close inspection of the menu reveals a pleasant focus on alcoholic beverages (cocktails secs to start and liqueurs to finish, accompanied - I assume - by Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne at all other times).

With the cocktails came a plate of oysters, tuna and olives. A delicate palate cleanser followed this, in the form of asparagus soup; then the serious food started.

Lobster å l'Americaine led the way (this recipe, with the lobster poached gently in a sauce of tomato, butter, white wine, cognac, shallots and herbs was invented by French chef Pierre Fraysse for the American restaurant Chez Peter's in the 1850s).

Next was an Entrec ote Bordelaise - we'd recognise this as a premium eye or Scotch fillet steak, seared, sliced and served with a red wine jus.

Just in case that wasn't enough, there was a succulent wild duckling to follow (the 'Sarcelle', according to Mr Google, is the smallest wild freshwater duck in Europe). Although there's no indication of how this was cooked, I'm betting on it being either a Magret de Canard (roasted duck breast) or a Confit de Canard (confit duck leg) - these being the two most common and traditional methods of serving duck in France.

There was more duck to follow: a duck liver paté with a Salade Française (perhaps a green salad with a vinaigrette dressing?).

My grandmother enjoyed cakes and sweet things, so I'm thinking she probably would have made room for Peach Melba, and - oh, maybe just one of the petits fours that were served with coffee and Cognac.

Certainly, if she was anything like me, she would  have been able to down at least one liqueur - after the Cognac - and (unlike me) being a lifelong smoker, she would have welcomed an elegant French cigarette to finish.

It sounds like an amazingly special evening - and indeed it seems that Gracie, Kenneth and their friends, Lucie Dupont and Mr Dupont (he of the indecipherable initial) also thought it was pretty special; because they each signed the menu, and my Grandmother kept it all her life.

This ephemeral trace of a memorable meal was kept perfectly preserved amongst a batch of pictures, papers and memories until with a flourish, my father pulled it out and showed it to me - eighty-nine years and three months later.

Now, as I promised earlier, I'm on a mission to recreate elements of this menu. That's the kind of culinary challenge I really enjoy. I'm not going to be prissy about it: I'm going to try to stick to the descriptions, but create my own dishes to fit the brief. Today I'm going to experiment with the first two courses....

Huitres, Thon, Olives 
Oysters, Tuna, Olives)

Tuna, oysters and olives are all brought together by lemon, so that became the central additional flavour.

I bought some lovely fresh Tasmanian oysters. It's pretty hard to improve a good oyster with cooking, so these are au naturel, with a wedge of lemon and a sprinkle of pepper.

 For the thon, I decided on a seared tuna log - with lemon zest and a scattering of finely-chopped black olives with a line of mayonnaise and some lemon zest.

(Secretly, I also sprinkled some soy and mirin dressing over the tuna before putting the mayo on.)

Potage Pointes d'Adperges (Asparagus soup)
In my quest to be all French about an asparagus soup, I found some lovely French recettes online. I then found that my French vocab was not entirely up to the task. I was forced to abandon Mr Google and venture upstairs to fetch the trusty Gasc's Concise French Dictionary.

This was a depressing experience. The first realisation brought to me by Monsieur Gasc was that I need glasses. The second was that 'crabe' does indeed mean 'crab', despite that being a totally unexpected ingredient. I abandoned that recette and decided to make up my own.

 Asparagus soup recette
Makes approx 250ml
(Four servings of 65ml to fill 4 custard cups, as pictured here, with a liquid volume of a short black coffee)

15-16 large asparagus stalks
500 ml vegetable stock
2 tsp double cream
pepper to taste
1 tsp finely diced tomato, to garnish

Cut the asparagus stalks into pieces of about 3 cm, discarding the very ends of the stalks and making sure to trim the heads off neatly (you will use some of these to garnish).

Heat the vegetable stock until simmering and add the asparagus. Simmer for several minutes, then remove and blanch four of the asparagus heads. Slice these in half lengthwise and set aside.

Continue simmering the asparagus in the stock until soft, approximately10 minutes. Set aside to cool for a few minutes, then put the asparagus pieces, with a small amount of the stock, through a blender or food processor until smooth.

Pass this mixture through a sieve to remove the remaining pulp. Test the texture - if it's too thick, add a little more of the stock to thin it down.

Stir in the cream and season with pepper to taste. Serve warm or cold.

When serving, pour the soup into the serving cups or glasses and drop a single tiny dollop of cream into the centre. Swirl this with a fork (above), or garnish with a couple of the halved asparagus stalks and a teaspoon of the cubed tomato pieces.

Now, I know that this is leaving you somewhat in the lurch, but I am stopping here and will be continuing the menu at various unexpected times in the future.

Thank you for reading and please enjoy!

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