Jul 102018
 

Marcel Proust, famed French novelist, was born on this date in 1871 in the Paris borough of Auteuil (the south-western sector of the then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. He was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of his voluminous novel, In Search of Lost Time, concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and La Belle Époque.

Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, studying cholera in Europe and Asia. He wrote numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Clémence (Weil), was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Proust was raised in his father’s Catholic faith, and was baptized on 5th August 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin, and later confirmed as a Catholic, even though he never formally practiced Catholicism. He later became an atheist and dabbled in mysticism.

By the age of 9, Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.) In 1882, at the age of 11, Proust became a pupil at the Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted by his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. Thanks to his classmates, he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.

Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes’ Way, part three of In Search of Lost Time. As a young man, Proust was a social climber and had a reputation as a snob and a dilettante when it came to his writing. Later on, because of this reputation he had trouble getting Swann’s Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. Proust attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust’s childhood friend Jacques Bizet, of Madeleine Lemaire and of Mme Arman de Caillavet, one of the models for Madame Verdurin, and mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whose fiancée (Jeanne Pouquet) he claimed to be in love with. It is through Mme Arman de Caillavet that he made the acquaintance of Anatole France, her lover.

In an 1892 article published in Le Banquet entitled “L’Irréligion d’État” and again in a 1904 Le Figaro article entitled “La mort des cathédrales”, Proust argued against the separation of church and state, declaring that socialism posed a greater threat to society than the Church and emphasizing the latter’s role in sustaining a cultural and educational tradition.

Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he was granted sick leave that extended for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at another job, and he did not move from his parents’ apartment until after both had died. His life and family circle changed markedly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust’s brother, Robert Proust, married and left the family home. His father died in November of the same year. Finally, his mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate. Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In Search of Lost Time is best remembered for its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the “episode of the madeleine” which occurs early in the first volume. This episode begins:

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…

Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dipped in linden-flower tea which my aunt gave me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…

Because of its prominence at the beginning of the novel, the madeleine has become emblematic of Proust’s culinary visions and the relationship between food and memory. I made obeisance to this notion with a recipe for madeleines here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-magdalene/ While the classic madeleine and Proust have become inextricably entwined, In Search of Lost Time is loaded with detailed references to cooking apart from madeleines, and he frequently compares fine dishes with great music or art. There is a slight sense on occasion that Proust is deliberately going over the top in his praise of particular dishes – but it is only slight.

Proust compares Françoise, the family cook in Combray, to an artist, a goddess, a priestess, and a fairy-tale heroine, in his descriptions of her products. In her kitchen she stands “commanding the forces of nature which had become her assistants, as in fairy tales where giants hire themselves out as cooks.” Françoise also has a dark side, like all great protagonists in literature. One summer she makes asparagus every day because she wants to get rid of the pregnant scullery maid who has to pare the stalks, and who is highly allergic to them. Françoise has her greatest moment of glory when Monsieur de Norpois is invited to dinner and she sets out to make a masterpiece, which begins with combing the markets for the perfect ingredients, then laboring endlessly over every dish. The meal she prepares is York ham, jellied boeuf à la mode, a pineapple and truffle salad, and Nesselrode pudding. You can find a recipe for Nesselrode pudding here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/w-s-gilbert/  and I am sure the one that Françoise prepared was gorgeous. Proust compares her jellied beef to a Michelangelo sculpture, which I’d venture to say is getting into the hyperbole zone, but he can be forgiven. He also compares its crafting to his own work crafting words.

Here is a recipe. Boeuf à la mode can be served hot, or cold in aspic. Both are classics of Parisian haute cuisine, with the latter being legendary. Three points need noting. First, the traditional recipe uses at least one calf’s foot in the cooking broth so that it gels naturally. This process can be a little hit-and-miss, however. The broth may not get enough gelatin from one foot to gel properly. One answer is to use two or more calves’ feet. The other answer is to use some commercial gelatin in addition. Second, quatre épices (four spices) mix is usually a blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. In French recipes, bouquet garni is often mentioned with little or no reference to what’s in it. This is because the actual contents of the bouquet garni are cook’s choice, and may vary from dish to dish. It can be made of whole stalks of herbs tied in a bundle, or fresh leaves tied in a muslin bag. For this dish you should use parsley, thyme, and bay leaf at minimum.

This dish is a 48-hour process at minimum: 24 hours to marinate the meat, and 24 hours to cook the meat, mold it, and let the molds set. If you are cooking this dish for Sunday dinner, therefore, you must start on Friday morning. I won’t mince words either. This is not a dish for beginners or even halfway experienced cooks. You must know exactly what you are doing to get the flavors right, AND to make the molded dish look attractive.

Bœuf à la mode en gelée

Ingredients

2.5 kg stewing beef, fat removed
800 ml beef stock
500 ml Sauternes or other sweet white wine
500 ml Madeira wine
250 gm carrots, peeled and sliced
200 gm of bacon or pickled pork, cut in 5 mm squares
100 gm sliced onions
50 ml champagne
40 gm beef fat (or pork fat)
3 whole cloves
2 egg whites
1 calf’s foot, cut in pieces
bouquet garni
quatre épices
salt, pepper

Instructions

Put the beef in a large pot with 400 ml of Sauternes and 400ml of Madeira, so that the beef is submerged in the marinade. Add salt, pepper, and quartre épices to taste, cover, and let marinate for 24 hours.

Remove the beef from the marinade, and let it air dry. Cut slits all over the beef and insert the pieces of bacon in them. Heat a Dutch oven over high heat and add the fat. When it is hot sear the beef on all sides. Then flambé the pot with the champagne. Add the veal foot, carrots, onion, bouquet garni, cloves, stock, the rest of the Sauternes and Madeira, the marinade. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 4 ½ hours.

[You can serve the beef hot at this point. For chilled beef in aspic there are extra steps.]

Remove the beef and carrots from the broth and reserve. Strain the broth through muslin or cheesecloth. Put the strained broth in a clean pot and heat over medium heat. Beat the egg whites and pour them into the hot broth. As the whites cook they will clarify the broth. When the broth is clear, strain it through muslin or filter papers.

Cut the beef in small slices. Pour a small amount of broth into the number of individual molds you are using, or into one large mold. Let the broth set in the refrigerator. Next layer carrots and beef pieces decoratively until you have filled the molds. Pour broth into the molds so that the last layer of beef and carrots is covered. Refrigerate, and let set. To unmold, dip the molds briefly in hot water, invert them over a plate, and the molded beef and carrots should pop out when tapped.

Aug 062016
 

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Today is the birthday (1809) of Alfred Tennyson FRS, poet laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and still one of the most popular of British poets. He was one of the mainstays of my poetry lessons as a teen in Australia – bulwark of empire and British phlegm. A number of phrases from Tennyson’s work have become commonplaces of the English language, including “Nature, red in tooth and claw” ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”, “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” . . . and so forth. However, I sympathize with W. H. Auden’s appraisal of Tennyson even if it is a bit harsh: “There was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.”

Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. He was born into a middle-class line of Tennysons, but also had a noble and royal ancestry. He and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens and a collection of poems by all three was published locally when Alfred was only 17. Tennyson was a student at Louth Grammar School for four years (1816–1820) and then attended Scaitcliffe School, Englefield Green and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. In the spring of 1831, Tennyson’s father died, requiring him to leave Cambridge before taking his degree. He returned to his father’s rectory, where he was permitted to live for another six years and shared responsibility for his widowed mother and the family.

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Although Tennyson and his family were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, they later moved to High Beach in Essex in 1837 until 1840. Tennyson then moved to London and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham. In 1842, while living modestly in London, Tennyson published the two volume Poems, of which the first included works already published and the second was made up almost entirely of new poems, which met with immediate success and secured his name.

In 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death and Samuel Rogers’ refusal, Tennyson was appointed to the position of poet laureate. He held the position until his death in 1892, the longest tenure of any laureate before or since. Tennyson fulfilled the requirements of this position by turning out appropriate but often uninspired verse, such as a poem of greeting to Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. In 1855, Tennyson produced one of his best-known works, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War.

Tennyson initially declined a baronetcy in 1865 and 1868 (when tendered by Disraeli), finally accepting a peerage in 1883 at Gladstone’s earnest solicitation. In 1884 Victoria created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson was the first person to be raised to a British peerage for his writing.

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Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Thomas Edison’s European agent, made sound recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, late in his life. They include recordings of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and excerpts from “The splendour falls” (from The Princess), “Come into the garden” (from Maud), “Ask me no more” “Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington” and “Lancelot and Elaine.” Here’s a video of one of his recordings. The animation is awful, as well as being distracting, but if you look away you can get a sense of the man and his poetry in vivo.

Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Though Prince Albert was largely responsible for Tennyson’s appointment as laureate, Queen Victoria became an ardent admirer of Tennyson’s work, writing in her diary that she was “much soothed & pleased” by reading “In Memoriam A.H.H.” after Albert’s death. The two met twice, first in April 1862, when Victoria wrote in her diary, “very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him.” Tennyson met her a second time nearly two decades later, and at that point the Queen told him what a comfort “In Memoriam A.H.H.” had been.

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With Tennyson being the quintessential Victorian it is no surprise that Isabella Beeton mentions him extravagantly:

But Tennyson has ventured beyond dates, and quinces, and syrups, which may be thought easy to be brought in by a poet. In his idyl of “Audley Court” he gives a most appetizing description of a pasty at a pic-nic:—

“There, on a slope of orchard, Francis laid
A damask napkin wrought with horse and hound;
Brought out a dusky loaf that smelt of home,
And, half cut down, a pasty costly made,
Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret, lay
Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
Imbedded and injellied.”

We gladly quote passages like these, to show how eating and drinking may be surrounded with poetical associations, and how man, using his privilege to turn any and every repast into a “feast of reason,” with a warm and plentiful “flow of soul,” may really count it as not the least of his legitimate prides, that he is “a dining animal.”

Tennyson’s poem leads us effortlessly to aspics (Imbedded and injellied), one of the great bulwarks of Victorian fine dining. First I give you Beeton’s basic recipe, which is perfectly serviceable to this day, although a considerable effort.

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Aspic, or Ornamental Savoury Jelly.

  1. INGREDIENTS. — 4 lbs. of knuckle of veal, 1 cow-heel, 3 or 4 slices of ham, any poultry trimmings, 2 carrots, 1 onion, 1 faggot of savoury herbs, 1 glass of sherry, 3 quarts of water; seasoning to taste of salt and whole white pepper; 3 eggs.

Mode. — Lay the ham on the bottom of a stewpan, cut up the veal and cow-heel into small pieces, and lay them on the ham; add the poultry trimmings, vegetables, herbs, sherry, and water, and let the whole simmer very gently for 4 hours, carefully taking away all scum that may rise to the surface; strain through a fine sieve, and pour into an earthen pan to get cold. Have ready a clean stewpan, put in the jelly, and be particular to leave the sediment behind, or it will not be clear. Add the whites of 3 eggs, with salt and pepper, to clarify; keep stirring over the fire, till the whole becomes very white; then draw it to the side, and let it stand till clear. When this is the case, strain it through a cloth or jelly-bag, and use it for moulding poultry, etc. Tarragon vinegar may be added to give an additional flavour.

Time. — Altogether 4–1/2 hours. Average cost for this quantity, 4s.

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Nowadays, the ready availability of commercial gelatin makes this laborious process unnecessary, but I have reproduced it from time to time because the flavor is unbeatable. Poultry or veal in aspic was a mainstay of the Victorian sideboard, as were luscious fruit jellies. They’re not popular any more, and the few times I have made them they’ve not been winners with my guests. They are simplicity itself, however, and worth experimenting with once in a while. I use a plain metal bowl, grease it lightly with clear oil, then put some decorative herbs in the bottom, pack it with cooked chicken, then pour in a good aspic to cover. It needs to chill in the refrigerator overnight. Then, when you are ready to serve, dip the bowl briefly in hot water, then place a plate over the bowl, invert it and give it a few sharp taps to unmold the aspic. With any luck it will come out clean. Serve the aspic sliced on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens.

Jan 142016
 

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Today is the birthday (83 BCE) of Marcus Antonius, commonly known in English as Mark or Marc Antony, Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire – usually called the Roman Revolution. Mark Antony has shown up in posts here before, particularly as a critical player in the deaths of Cleopatra http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cleopatra-and-the-asp/ and Cicero http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cicero/ The waning moments of the Roman Republic were exceptionally turbulent times with powerful figures rising, then falling, left and right. Mark Antony, friend and ally of Julius Caesar, was the last of the shooting stars to ascend and burn out before Octavian/Augustus ultimately triumphed, making Rome a dictatorial, hereditary empire. This period is, without question, the most studied point in ancient Roman history.

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Antony was a supporter of Julius Caesar, and served as one of his generals during the conquest of Gaul and the Civil War with Pompey http://www.bookofdaystales.com/crossing-rubicon/ Antony was appointed administrator of Italy while Caesar eliminated political opponents in Greece, North Africa, and Spain. After Caesar’s murder by a faction – the Liberatores – led by Brutus and Cassius in 44 BCE, Antony joined forces with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another of Caesar’s generals, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, forming a three-man dictatorship known to historians as the Second Triumvirate. The Triumvirs defeated the Liberatores, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, and divided the government of the Republic between themselves. Antony was assigned Rome’s eastern provinces, including the client kingdom of Egypt, then ruled by Cleopatra VII Philopator, and was given the command in Rome’s war against Parthia.

Relations among the Triumvirs were strained as the various members sought greater political power. Civil war between Antony and Octavian was averted in 40 BCE, when Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Despite this marriage, Antony carried on a love affair with Cleopatra, who bore him three children, further straining Antony’s relations with Octavian. Lepidus was expelled from the triumvirate in 36 BCE, and in 33 BCE disagreements between Antony and Octavian caused a split between them. Their ongoing hostility erupted into civil war in 31 BCE, as the Roman Senate, at Octavian’s direction, declared war on Cleopatra and proclaimed Antony a traitor. Later that year, Antony was defeated by Octavian’s forces at the Battle of Actium. Defeated, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide.

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With Antony dead, Octavian was the undisputed master of the Roman world. In 27 BCE, he was granted the title of Augustus, marking the final stage in the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire, with himself as the first Roman emperor.

Antony features in two of Shakespeare’s plays – Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Julius Caesar, despite its title, focuses on Antony’s defeat of Brutus and the conspirators after Caesar’s murder, with Antony’s funeral oration being the most famous segment. In it Antony skillfully appears to condemn Caesar as a tyrant and praise Brutus as a man of the people, but in reality turns the crowd against Brutus and in favor of his own ambitions as successor to Caesar. Despite a certain degree of poetic license, Shakespeare stays fairly close to historical fact.

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Caesar’s funeral was held on 20th March (five days after his murder). Antony, as Caesar’s faithful lieutenant and reigning Consul, was chosen to preside over the ceremony and to recite the eulogy. During a demagogic speech, he enumerated the deeds of Caesar and, publicly read his will, which detailed the donations Caesar had left to the Roman people. Antony then seized the blood-stained toga from Caesar’s body and presented it to the crowd. Worked into a fury by the bloody spectacle, the assembly rioted. Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, many of the conspirators fled Italy. Under the pretext of not being able to guarantee their safety, Antony relieved Brutus and Cassius of their judicial duties in Rome and instead assigned them responsibility for procuring wheat for Rome from Sicily and Asia. Such an assignment, in addition to being unworthy of their rank, would have kept them far from Rome and shifted the balance towards Antony. Refusing such secondary duties, the two traveled to Greece instead.

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Despite the provisions of Caesar’s will, Antony proceeded to act as leader of the Caesarian faction, including appropriating for himself a portion of Caesar’s fortune rightfully belonging to Octavian. Antony enacted the Lex Antonia, which formally abolished the Dictatorship, in an attempt to consolidate his power by gaining the support of the Senatorial class. He also enacted a number of laws he claimed to have found in Caesar’s papers to ensure his popularity with Caesar’s veterans, particularly by providing land grants to them. Lepidus, with Antony’s support, was named Pontifex Maximus to succeed Caesar. To solidify the alliance between Antony and Lepidus, Antony’s daughter Antonia Prima was engaged to Lepidus’s son, also named Lepidus. Surrounding himself with a bodyguard of over six thousand of Caesar’s veterans, Antony presented himself as Caesar’s true successor, largely ignoring Octavian. So the stage was set for Antony and Octavian to defeat the conspirators, and for Octavian subsequently to turn on Antony.

Here’s a recipe from Apicius that could have graced Antony’s table at some point. Molded aspics are attested in Roman texts as fancy centerpieces. I used to make a chicken aspic as a party piece once in a while when I was much younger. They weren’t very popular, so I stopped making them. The principle is simple – lightly grease a fancy mould with a clear oil. Pour a thin layer of aspic in the mould and let it gel slightly. For my aspic I used a clarified stock plus the requisite amount of gelatin dissolved in the warmed stock. Then put a decorative component on the bottom. Fill up the mould with meat, vegetables, or whatever, so that you have pretty layers – leaving a small gap between the filling and sides of the mould. Then fill up the mould with aspic and let set in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. Unmould by immersing the mould in warm water for a few minutes, being careful not to let the water flow into the mould. Place a serving plate on top of the mould, say a prayer, and invert. With luck it will come out clean. Serve immediately.

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The following recipe is a translation which I have edited. It gives you some ideas for what you might use as a filling. If I were to use this recipe I would place the dressing in the base of the mould.

Salacattabia Apiciana (Apician Jelly)

Put in the mortar celery seed, dry pennyroyal, dry mint, ginger, fresh coriander, seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, oil and wine; crush it together in order to make a dressing of it. Place 3 pieces of Picentian bread in a mould, interlined with pieces of cooked chicken, cooked sweetbreads of calf or lamb, [ewe’s] cheese, pine nuts, pickled cucumbers, finely chopped dried onions, covering the whole with jellified broth. Bury the mould in snow up to the rim; unmould, sprinkle with the above dressing and serve.