Once upon a time there was a celebrated restaurant called theHôtelde la Tête d'Or on the Mont-St-Michel just off the coast of Normandy. The reputation of this house was built upon one single menu which was served day in and day out for year after year. It consisted of an omelette, ham, a fried sole,pré-salé 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 it wasn't so much what now appears to us as the almost absurd lavishness of the menu which made Madame Poulard, proprietress 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 themère Poulard's table.
Quite a few of those customers subsequently attempted to explain the particular magic which Madame Poulard exercised over her eggs and her frying pan in the 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 special breed of hens unknown to the rest of France claimed a fourth. Before long, recipes for the omelette de la mère 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 to suggest she put foie gras into the omelette. Each writer in turn implied to him or her alone that Madame Poulard had confided the secret of her omelettes.
At last, one fine day, a Frenchman called M. Robert Viel, interested in fact rather than surmise, wrote to Madame Poulard, by this time long retired from her arduous labours, and asked her once and for all to clear up the matter. Her reply, published in 1932 in a magazine called La Table, ran as follows:
6 June 1932
Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs into a bowl, I beat them well, I put in a good piece of butter in the pan. I throw the eggs into it and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.
So much for secrets.
But, you will say, everyone knows that the success of omelette making starts with the pan and not with the genius of the cook. And a heavy pan with a perfectly flat base is, of course a necessity. And if you are one of those who feel that some special virtue attaches itself to a venerable black iron pan unwashed for twenty years, then you are probably right to cling to it.
Cookery does, after all, contain an element of the ritualistic and however clearly one may understand that the reason for not washing and scouring omelette pans is the risk of thereby causing rust spots and scratches which would spoil the surface of the pan and cause the eggs to stick, one may still have a superstitious feeling that some magic spell will be broken if the water is allowed to approach the precious pan. Soap and water, come not near our omelette pan...(Personally, I keep my old iron omelette pan, the surface protected by a film of oil, for pancakes, and use an aluminum one for omelettes and wash it up like any other utensil. This is not perversity, but simply the ritual which happens to suit me and my omelettes.)
As to the omelette itself, it seems to me to be a confection which demands the most straightforward approach. What one wants 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 not be a busy, important urban dish but something gentle and pastoral, with the clean scent of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs, sorrel, chives, tarragon. And though there are those who maintain that wine and egg dishes don't go together I must say I do regard a glass or two of wine as not, obviously, essential but at least as an enormous enhancement of the enjoyment of a well-cooked omelette. In any case if it were true that wine and eggs are bad partners, then a good many dishes, and in particular, such sauces as mayonnaise, Holandaise and Bérnaise would have to be banished from meals designed around a good bottle, and that would surely be absurd. But we are not in any case considering the great occasion menu but almost the primitive and elemental meal evoked by the words: 'Let's just have an omelette and a glass of wine.'
Perhaps first a slice of home-made pâté and a few olives, afterwards a fresh salad and a piece of ripe creamy cheese or some figs and strawberries...How many times have I ordered and enjoyed such a meal in French country hotels and inns in preference to the set menu of truite meunière, entrecôte, pommes paille and crème caramel which is the French equivalent of the English roast and two veg. and apple tart and no less dull when you have experienced it two or three times.
It has always been angelically kind, welcoming and generous. They purveyed some particularly delicious marc de Chamapagne and were always treating us to a glass or two after lunch so that by the time we piled into the bus which was to take us home we were more than well prepared to face once more the rigours of our mistral-torn village. But even more powerful a draw than the marc was the delicious cheese omelette which was the Molière's best speciality. The recipe was given to me by the proprietress whose name I have most ungratefully forgotten, but whose omelette, were there any justice in the world, would be as celebrated as that of Madame Poulard. Here it is.
O M E L E T T E P O U L A R D
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 Gruyère 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 Gruyère will have started to melt and your omelette is ready. Fold over once in three with a fork or palette knife, and let slide on to the warmed omelette dish. Serve it instantly.
With our meals in Avignon we generally drank a local white wine, pink or red, which was nothing much to write home about (the wine of our own village was notable though: the worst I've ever consistently have had to drink) but what I would choose nowadays if I had the chance would be a deliciously scented Alsatian Traminer or a white burgundy such as the lovely Mersault - Genevrières of 1955, or a Loire wine, perhaps Sancerre or a Pouilly Fumé - anyway, you see what I mean. I like white wines with all cheese dishes, and especially when the cheese in question isGruyère. No doubt this is only a passing phase, because as a wine drinker but not a wine expert one's tastes are constantly changing. But one of the main points about the enjoyment of food and wine seems to me to lie in having what you want when you want it and in the particular combination you fancy.
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