An omlette and a glass of wine: reflections on food and cooking
Updated: Jul 20
A perfect 'Omelette de la mère Poulard', famous in the 19th century in Mt St Michel in France, and still served at the La Mere Poulard restaurant there today.
My culinary career has been through several phases over the years. It started as rough husbandry in my bachelor days, frying sausages on a wood stove and opening tins of bully beef and pineapple in a single-men’s camp in the bush. From this raw beginning I gradually acquired the ability to follow simple recipes, using ingredients I had actually heard of … and finally, aged in my 60s, I became an acceptable, if unsophisticated home-chef. Today I am the man of the house who does most of the cooking in the Underwood menage, thus relieving my Everloving of a task for which she grew weary after fifty-plus years of marriage - and especially weary of being the one who had to decide on the nightly menu, let alone cook it.
In this third phase, my repertoire is limited, but I have become capable of producing quite a tasty and interesting dinner for two. My lamb curry, steak and kidney pie and jam tart are up to the mark, and I can make a roast dinner, and bake bread and Anzac biscuits. This is satisfying, but there has been another reward: this was the intriguing discovery of ‘food and cooking literature’. Here I am not referring to the standard and everyday cookbook (like the Golden Wattle Cookbook, my favourite of this genre) which tells me in no-nonsense prose how to make everday things like mashed potatoes and fish cakes. Nor do I spend much time with the glossy magazines picked up at the supermarket checkout, the best part of which are the photographs of magnificent (but un-cookable, at least by me) dishes.
No, by ‘food and cooking litertatue’ I am referring to books about food and about cooking written by people who love food and its place in life and are also superb writers. These books give delicious recipes as well, of course, but that is not the primary reason I read them. I relish them as delicious reading, indeed quality literature – they are written with wit and exuberance, and deal with food and cooking in the context of history, culture, time, people and places.
Glancing through my bookshelf of “foodie literature” the other day, I came upon the classic by Sir Henry Luke called The Tenth Muse - a gourmet’s companion. Luke was an Ambassador with the British Foreign Service who travelled the world, and wherever he went he collected recipes for his anthology, focusing on the indigenous and the local wherever he was posted. Described as “another of the gastronomic ambassadors of the Foreign Service who ate for his country”, Luke was a culinary enthusiast, but also a brave one - he would try almost anything.
The cover of Henry Luke's amazing book of recipes
His introduction to the book sets the scene:
Exotic as some of this collection of dishes are, in so far as their provenance is concerned, they will be found to demand few ingredients not readily procurable in Great Britain. I … offer no recipe for an omelette of ostrich eggs, although I have seen one, by the chef of a former Bey of Tunis. I shall not prescribe “the heads of parrots, tongues of nightingales, or the brains of peacocks”.
I shall not preface any of them … with the injunction ‘take an iguana’, or ‘shell two armadillos’. Sir Osbert Sitwell gives somewhere a description of a roast saddle of iguana served to him in a circle of its own eggs, which he says he found ‘good, very good’, to eat. He goes on, indeed, to admit that the iguana’s appearance is repellent to many; and, as I am definitely ranged among the many, I feel myself absolved from competing.
I am also definitely ranged among the many when it comes to iguana. Elsewhere I have read a recipe for an Iguana and Rice dish which was accompanied by a photograph of the ingredients (let me know if you would like the recipe):
Luke does, however, advise on the Bolivian method of cooking guinea-pig (“if no guinea-pig is available, a cat will do”) and mentions that wonderful recipe from an early Scottish cookbook which begins: “take an ordinary-sized cow and cut it up into joints”.
I first heard about Harry Luke from Elizabeth David, without doubt my favourite writer on food and cooking. In her wonderful book An Omlette and a Glass of Wine, David wrote:
“Sir Harry has the beginner’s enthusiasm and fresh eyes, the collector’s madness … few authors provide the stimulus, the improbable information, the traveller’s tales, the new visions which to me make his book a collector’s piece”.
Many of the dishes described by Luke, especially those from South American countries, sound revolting to me. The opposite applies to Elizabeth David. And of the three books of hers on my bookshelf, my favourite is indeed An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, a wonderful anthology of her culinary and cookery writing stretching back to the 1950s. It was in this book, by the way, that I first read the famous and delightful story about the French provincial cook Annette Poulard, and her equally-famous omelettes. I will recount this story in a moment.
Elizabeth David in her kitchen – a sketch by John Ward RA, taken from her book
But first a word about David. She was an Englishwoman with a passion for French food, and a skilful and witty writer. She is credited with changing the face of English cooking when, during the 1930s, she was the first to introduce the English public to the joys of simple French country cooking. The author Auberon Waugh said of her:
If I had to chose one woman this century who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life, my vote would go to Elizabeth David.
She was not a trained chef and had not even learned to cook when, as a young woman, she set out to study French history and literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Here she lived with a French family and was exposed, day after day, to simple and inexpensive, yet fresh, flavourful and beautiful food. On her return to England she was determined to learn to cook, and then to master the skills of French family and provincial cookery. She also began to write and before long her work was being published in the Sunday Times, The Spectator and Punch. The articles evolved into books, including the classic French Provincial Cooking, published in 1960 and still in print today (a well-thumbed copy of which also graces my bookshelf).
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is a collection of essays, reviews and short pieces mostly originally published in The Spectator during the 1970s, with some additional commentary and notes. It is a book that can be read simply for fun, with no intention of using it to help prepare meals, but which also contains numerous fabulous recipes and menus.
I often sit down at the kitchen table, with a glass of wine to hand, and simply open the book at random. Inevitably I come across a charming and interesting passage, for example:
... it is the last day of October. Here in the south-eastern corner of Spain the afternoon is hazy and the sun is warm, although not quite what it was a week ago. Then we were eating out-of-doors at midday, and were baked even in our cotton sweaters. The colours of the land are still those of late summer - roan, silver, lilac, and ochre. In the soft light the formation of the rock and the ancient terracing of the hills become clearly visible. In the summer the sun on the limestone-white soil dazzles the eyes, and the greens of June obscure the shapes of the ravines and craggy outcroppings. Now there are signs of autumn on the leaves of some of the almond trees. They have turned a frail, transparent auburn, and this morning when I awoke I devoured two of the very first tangerines of the season. In the dawn their scent was piercing and their taste was sharp. During the night it had rained - not much, nothing like enough to affect the parched soil - but all the same there was a sheen on the rose bricks and grey stones of the courtyard. The immense old terra-cotta oil jar in the centre was freshly washed, and over the mountains a halfrainbow gave a pretty performance as we drank our breakfast coffee.
At midday we picked small figs, dusty purple and pale jade green. On the skins is a bloom not to be seen on midsummer figs. The taste, too, is quite different. The flesh is a clear garnet red, less rich and more subtle than that of the main-crop fruit, which is of the verna. variety, brilliant green. Some of the figs have split open and are half dried by the sun. In the north we can never taste fruit like this, frui: midway between fresh and dried. It has the same poignancy as the black Valencia grapes still hanging in heavy bunches on the vines. These, too, are in the process of transforming themselves - from fresh grapes to raisins on the stalk as we know them. Here the bunches have been tied up in cotton bags.
I love the way Elizabeth David writes: first there is the ramble through some enchanting scene, usually provincial France, setting the scene and introducing interesting people. Then comes the recipe, brief, simple, easy to follow and always tasty. I can still remember the first time I made her French Onion Tart (one of our grand daughters was a vegetarian and I was always looking for something to cook for when she visited) and the result was not just a culinary success, but a thing of beauty.
Back to that famous French omelette mentioned above. Elizabeth David explains that:
… once upon a time there was a celebrated restaurant called the Hotel d'Or on the Mont-St-Michel just off the coast of Normandy. The reputation of this house was built upon one single menu that was served day in day out for year after year. It consisted of an omelette, ham, a fried sole, pre-sale lamb cutlets with potatoes, a roast chicken and salad, and a dessert. Cider and butter were put upon the table and were thrown in with the price of the meal, which was two francs fifty in pre-1914 currency.
But is wasn’t so much what now appears to us as the almost absurd lavishnesss of the menu which made Madame Poulard, proprietess of the hotel, celebrated throughout France. It was the exquisite lightness and beauty of the omelettes, cooked by the proprietress herself, which brought tourists flocking to the mere Poulard's table.
Quite a few of these customers subsequently attempted to explain the particular magic which Madame Poulard exercised over her eggs and her frying pan in terms of those culinary secrets which are so dear to the hearts of all who believe that cookery consists of a series of conjuring tricks. She mixed water with the eggs, one writer would say, she added cream asserted another, she had a specially made pan said a third, she reared a breed of hens unknown to the rest of France claimed a fourth. Before long, recipes for the omelette de la mere Poulard began to appear in magazines and cookery books. Some of these recipes were very much on the fanciful side. One I have seen even goes so far as to suggest she put foie gras in the omelette. Each writer in turn implied that to him or her alone had Madame Poulard confided the secret of her omelettes.
At last, one fine day, a Frenchman called M. Robert, interested in fact rather than surmise, wrote to Madame Poulard, by this time long retired from her arduous labours, and asked her for once and all to clear up the matter. Her reply, published in 1932 in a magazine called La Table, ran as follows:
Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs in a bowl. I beat them well. I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs in, and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.
David concludes “So much for secrets”.
Every inch a French provincial cook: Mme. Poulard outside her restaurant in Mt St Michel
Madame Poulard's famous omelette is also mentioned by the great French chef and writer Marcel Boulestin. I have a copy of Elvira Firuski’s excellent book (The Best of Bouliston) and I love Boulestin's anecdotes about French cooks and cooking; I can read his stories and recipes with endless pleasure. Here he is on Mme Poulard:
Even those who talk intelligently about her gifts seem to think that she had, if not a secret, at least special implements and unusual habits. She had, we read, "a frying pan with a handle a yard and a half long" which she used dextrously on an enormous open fire.
Quite so. But this pan is the traditional pan even now of every cook in that part of France and in the south-west where two things only are used for cooking: an open fire for frying and roasting, charcoals for the rest, flames and glowing embers. When baking is required the Dutch Oven is used, or the thing is sent to the local baker who puts them in his large, brick oven when he has finished baking his bread...
... However, it is pleasing to see so many people bothering at all about Madame Poulard's marvellous omelette, and it is amusing to hear that for the first time in history, it is claimed, a monument is to be erected to an omelette. It will be at Mont St. Michel, on the Breton coast, where the late Mme. Poulard's famed omelette is to be immortalised in granite or marble ...
The Mme. Poulard restaurant at Mt St Michel today. The sign shows her holding her enormous frying pan.
Back to Elizabeth David. She goes on to give her own recipe for a good omelette, and it would be remiss of me not to pass it on. The essence of a good omelette, she says, is
“the taste of the fresh eggs and the fresh butter, and visually, a soft, bright, golden roll, plump and spilling out a little at the edges”.
It should be:
gentle and pastoral, with the clean smell of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs”.
David’s favourite was the cheese omelette. The recipe had been given to her by the proprietress of a tiny restaurant in a Provencal hilltop village, whose name she has “ungratefully forgotten, but whose omelette, were there any justice in the world, would be as celebrated as that of Madame Poulard”.
Beat one tablespoon of finely grated Parmesan with 3 eggs and a little pepper. Warm the pan a minute over the fire. Put in half an oz of butter. Turn up the flame. When the butter bubbles and is about to change colour, pour in the eggs. Add one tablespoon of very fresh Gruyere cut into little dice, and one tablespoon of thick fresh cream. Tip the pan towards you, easing some of the mixture from the far edge into the middle. Then tip the pan away from you again, filling the empty space with some of the still liquid eggs. By the time you have done this twice, the Gruyere will have started to melt and your omelette is ready. Fold it over in three with a fork or palette knife, and slide it on to the warmed omelette dish. Serve it instantly.
The cheese omelette is also my favourite, particularly when both the cooking and the eating are accompanied by a glass or two of chilled Pelican Point chardonnay, currently my favourite wine. Having said that, I need to be brutally honest: I can’t actually cook a decent omlette. Luckily the Everloving has a brilliant touch with them (and also makes perfect scrambled eggs, something else that is still beyond me).
It would also be remiss of me not also to mention my other favourite writer when it comes to food and cookery, Jane Grigson. Like Elizabeth David, she is also an Englishwoman with a wonderful knowledge of French and Mediterranean cuisine. She writes beautifully, especially about fruit and vegetables; her recipes are always introduced with a charming little scene-setter, as for example this one for pumpkin soup:
Pumpkin soups in France are often very simple indeed — a slice of pumpkin cooked and sieved, then diluted with milk and water, plus cream and either salt, pepper and nutmeg or sugar. White wine is drunk with it, and little cubes of golden fried bread set off its creamy orange colour. Here is a general vegetable soup with pumpkin predominating, from the Franche- Comte. If you have no pumpkin, substitute little gem squashe, courgettes or Jeruselum artichokes.
It was Grigson who tought me to make mushroom risotto, and who initiated me into he secret of roasting pork so as to ensure both crisp crackling and succulent meat.
For my final word, I thank Elizabeth David for the menu for a Venetian breakfast as described in their 1903 book The Gourmet's Guide to Europe by Algernon Bastard and his co-author Lt-Col Newnham-Davis:
"Begin with a Vermouth Amara in lieu of a cocktail. For hors d'oeuvres have some small crabs cold, mashed up with sauce tartare and a slice or two of prosciutto crudo (raw ham), cut as thin as cigarette paper. After this, a steaming risotto with scampi (somewhat resembling gigantic prawns), some cutlets done in the Bologna style, a thin slice of ham on top and hot parmesan and grated white truffles and fegato all veneziana complete the repast, except for a slice of strachino cheese.
A bottle of Val Policella is exactly suited to this kind of repast, and a glass of fine Champagne and of ruby-coloured Alkermes for the lady, if your wife accompanies you, make a good ending.
The Maitre d'Hotel will be interested in you directly he finds that you know how a man should breakfast".
I have never aspired to interesting a Maitre d’, but perhaps this would be more important if my name was Algernon Bastard.
David, Elizabeth (1986): An omelette and a glass of wine. Penguin Books
David, Elizabeth (1999): Elizabeth David Classics. Mediterranean Food, French County Cooking and Summer Cooking. Grub Street, London
Firuski, Elvia and Maurice Firuski, Eds (1951): The best of Boulestin. Greenburg, New York
Grigson, Jane (2015): The enjoyment of Food. Michael Joseph, England
Luke, Harry (1992): The tenth muse – a gourmet’s compendium. Rubicon Press, London