Monday 7 September 2009

Richard Olney... someone to whom I owe an apology. Several years ago - having known his name for ages, but never actually having read anything he'd written - I finally got round to investing in one of his earlier books 'Simple French Cooking', and was so underwhelmed by the first recipe of his I tried that the book went straight onto the unreachable upper shelves, and I think I wrote rather a scathing blog-post at the same time, in which I consigned him to Outer Darkness.

I shouldn't have done.

The Technical Department recently referred me to an article Olney once wrote on the subject of Bouillabaisse, in which he so perfectly captured the essence of his experience ('memory distilling the limpid blue sky and the intermingled scents of the sea air, the bouillabaisse, and the cool fruit of the wine into an abstract symbol of well-being') that we spent the next half hour reminiscing about lunches of grilled fish and sea urchins consumed in clifftop tavernas, and endless wine-filled afternoons in the Greek islands of thirty years ago, before the terrible influx of cement-mixers and mass tourism.

And so, 'Simple French Cooking' was brought down from the shelves, dusted off, and I gave it another go. Quite apart from the recipes, Olney's writing is a real pleasure...and there's a splendid section on 'improvisation' where he acknowledges the value of recipes committed to print, but at the same time says that the point of understanding the rules of cooking is so that you can make it up as you go along and work, to good effect, with whatever you have to hand (leftovers, that week's bargains in the market, whatever happens to be at the back of the fridge..). Reading between the lines, I suspect that Olney was one of that tribe of bons viveurs who lived on the smell of an oil-rag, but did so with a richness and appreciation of the truly good things in life that escapes many people who have never had to worry about how to pay the next fuel bill!

The reason for my earlier disappointment, it now seems clear, was my own fault - I'd made the mistake of choosing a recipe from his dessert section, and in practice Olney (much like Pierre Franey, and in fact probably also like Dr Pomiane himself) was not a man for desserts. His preference was clearly for some decent cheese and another bottle of good claret, and the grudging and awkward appearance of desserts in the book at all was almost certainly against his better judgement and at the insistence of of a stubborn editor.

An example of his skill can be found in the perfection of his version of scrambled eggs with cheese: 6 eggs, 3 oz grated Gruyère, and 5 fl oz of vermouth which has been simmered with 2 minced garlic cloves for half an hour beforehand, and then strained before being added to the eggs and cheese; seasoning to taste; whisk gently, whilst cooking with 2 oz of butter for ten minutes or so in a double boiler, until it has the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Serve, garnished lightly with chopped parsley.
Not grand, probably not dinner-partyable, but ye gods, is it delicious!

Tonight's Dinner:

Lamb, stuffed with Anchovies; Fava beans à la crème.

Roast Figs and Raspberries in Port.

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