Nov 142017
 

Manet

Today is coincidence day – again. My title is deliberately misleading because I am not going to deal with Édouard Manet nor Felix Mendelssohn. Today is the birthday of Julie Manet (1878-1966), Édouard’s niece, and of Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), Felix’s sister. Both worked in areas similar to their more well-known kin, but tended to be pushed aside in their lifetimes in favor of the men in their lives. I am not in a position to do much to redress the balance, but I can set you on the right path.

Julie Manet was a painter, but is better known as a model for the likes of Manet, Berthe Morisot (her mother), and Renoir. She also kept a detailed diary documenting the life and times of a variety of Impressionist artists, and held an extensive collection of late 19th and early 20th century art, in large part because of her association with active artists in Paris.

Julie Manet was born in Paris, the daughter and only child of artist Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet, younger brother of Édouard Manet. Both of her parents by the time she was 16, and so she came under the guardianship of the poet/critic Stéphane Mallarmé and went to live with her cousins. She also received support from the family’s artist friends, Renoir in particular.

Throughout her life Julie posed frequently for her mother and other Impressionist artists, including Renoir and her uncle Édouard. Here’s a small gallery:

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Renoir

Manet began a diary as a teenager; not the usual diary of a well-off girl bound in leather, but a series of memories jotted down in notebooks and on scraps of paper, published in English in 1987 as Growing up with the Impressionists. Of particular importance are her reminiscences of the effect that the Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th/early 20th century had on the art community. The Affair began in December 1894 with the treason conviction of captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent, sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. Dreyfus was later proven innocent, and a combination of military corruption and anti-Semitism were shown to be to blame for convicting him in the first place. But between 1894 and 1906 public opinion in Paris was deeply divided between those for and those against Dreyfus. Many Parisians simply could not believe that the military would fake evidence and falsely accuse an innocent man (which is exactly what they did), and anti-Semitism was rife. Dinner parties were notorious for descending into near brawls if the Dreyfus Affair were brought up.

The art community was as deeply divided and as passionate about their opinions as any other, stating them quite openly. But Renoir insisted on being neutral in public.  He claimed that he was neither pro- or anti-Dreyfus, but was, first and foremost, a Frenchman. Julie Manet’s diary tells a different story. According to her written accounts, Renoir was quite obviously anti-Semitic and argued vehemently in private that Dreyfus was guilty, even though the evidence suggested otherwise.

In May 1900 Julie Manet married Ernest Rouart, artist and nephew of the painter Henri Rouart. The wedding, which took place in Passy, was a double ceremony in which Julie’s cousin Jeannie Gobillard married Paul Valéry.

Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn, later Fanny [Cäcilie] Mendelssohn Bartholdy and, after her marriage, Fanny Hensel, was a pianist and composer, rivaling her brother Felix in both respects. She composed over 460 pieces of music in her short lifetime. Her compositions include a piano trio and several books of solo piano pieces and songs. A number of her compositions were originally published under her brother’s name in his opus 8 and 9 collections, because it was not considered appropriate at the time for a woman to be a composer (including by Felix himself). Many of Fanny’s works were not disentangled from Felix’s oeuvre for decades, and, some are still under debate.  Her Easter sonata, for example, was not shown to be hers, and not Felix’s until 2010, after years of painstaking research by a a doctoral candidate at Duke University, and performed for the first time with Fanny listed as composer in 2012.

Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, the oldest of four children. She was descended on both sides from distinguished Jewish families. Her parents were Abraham Mendelssohn (who was the son of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and later changed the family surname to Mendelssohn Bartholdy), and Lea, née Salomon, a granddaughter of the entrepreneur Daniel Itzig. She was not however brought up as Jewish, and never practiced Judaism.

Mendelssohn received her first piano instruction from her mother, who had been trained in the Berliner-Bach tradition by Johann Kirnberger, who was himself a student of Johann Sebastian Bach. Thus, as a 13 year old, she could already play all 24 Preludes from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier by heart, and she did so in honor of her father’s birthday in 1818. She studied briefly with the pianist Marie Bigot in Paris, and finally with Ludwig Berger. In 1820 Fanny, along with her brother Felix, joined the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin which was led by Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter at one point favored Fanny over Felix. He wrote to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1816, introducing Abraham Mendelssohn to the poet: “He has adorable children and his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.” Much later, in an 1831 letter to Goethe, Zelter described Fanny’s skill as a pianist with what he considered the highest praise for a woman at the time: “She plays like a man.” Both Fanny and Felix received instruction in composition with Zelter starting in 1819.

Fanny showed prodigious musical ability as a child and began to write music. Visitors to the Mendelssohn household in the early 1820s, including Ignaz Moscheles and Sir George Smart, were equally impressed by both siblings. However, Fanny was limited by prevailing attitudes of the time toward women, attitudes apparently shared by her father, who was tolerant, rather than supportive, of her activities as a composer. Her father wrote to her in 1820 “Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” Although Felix was privately broadly supportive of her as a composer and a performer, he was cautious (professedly for family reasons) of her publishing her works under her own name. He wrote:

From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.

Felix did arrange with Fanny for some of her songs to be published under his name, which resulted in an embarrassing moment when Queen Victoria, receiving Felix at Buckingham Palace, expressed her intention of singing the composer her favorite of his songs, “Italien” (words by Franz Grillparzer), which Felix had to admit was by Fanny.

In 1829, after a courtship of several years, Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel and the following year she had her only child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel. Her husband was supportive of her composing. Subsequently, her works were often played alongside her brother’s at the family home in Berlin in a Sunday concert series (Sonntagskonzerte), which was originally organized by Fanny’s father, and after 1831 carried on by Fanny herself. Her public debut at the piano (and only known public performance) came in 1838, when she played her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1846, she decided, without consulting Felix, to publish a collection of her songs (as her Op. 1).

Fanny died in Berlin in 1847 of complications from a stroke suffered while rehearsing one of her brother’s oratorios, The First Walpurgis Night. Felix himself died less than six months later from the same cause (which was also responsible for the deaths of both of their parents and of their grandfather Moses), but not before completing his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, written in memory of his sister.

In recent years, Fanny Mendelssohn’s music has become better known thanks to concert performances and a number of CDs being released.  A sample:

Finding a recipe that celebrates the lives of two very different women who lived at different periods in the 19th century and were born into very different cultures is a real challenge. I figured that a recipe from Auguste Escoffier might be able to bridge the gap if I searched diligently enough. Early in his career Escoffier served in Metz as chef de cuisine of the Rhine Army after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War being one of the factors leading up to the Dreyfus Affair. Although Escoffier is indubitably the founder of classic French cuisine of the 19th and 20th centuries, he took ideas from a variety of cultures, including German, and wove them into his culinary world. So, here’s his recipe (modified) for côtes de porc à la flamande (Escoffier 2921), which would be equally at home in Hamburg as in Paris.

Côtes de Porc à la Flamande

Ingredients

4 pork chops
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
juice of ½ lemon
35g unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375˚F.

Place the apple slices in a bowl, squeeze lemon juice over them and toss them in the juice.

Season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a pan over high heat, and quickly brown the pork chops on both sides. Remove them to an earthenware or ceramic baking pan in a single layer. Cover the chops with apple slices and drizzle them with the butter and pan juices from the searing.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the apples are tender. Remove the dish from the oven, let the pork chops rest for a few minutes, then serve them with mashed or boiled new potatoes.

Oct 282014
 

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Today is the birthday (1846) of Georges Auguste Escoffier, French chef, restaurateur, and culinary writer who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods. He is a legendary figure among chefs and gourmets, and was one of the most important leaders in the development of modern French cuisine. Much of Escoffier’s technique was based on that of Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the codifiers of French haute cuisine, but Escoffier’s achievement was to simplify and modernize Carême’s elaborate and ornate style. In particular, he codified the recipes for the five mother sauces. He was referred to by the French press as roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois (“king of chefs and chef of kings”—though this had also been previously said of Carême), Escoffier was France’s preeminent chef in the early part of the 20th century.

Alongside the recipes he recorded and invented, another of Escoffier’s contributions to cooking was to elevate it to the status of a respected profession by introducing organized discipline to his kitchens.

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Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, which is still used as a major reference work, both in the form of a cookbook and a textbook on cooking. Escoffier’s recipes, techniques and approaches to kitchen management remain highly influential today, and have been adopted by chefs and restaurants not only in France, but throughout the world.

Escoffier was born in the village Villeneuve-Loubet, today in Alpes-Maritimes, near Nice. The house where he was born is now the Musée de l’Art Culinaire, run by the Foundation Auguste Escoffier. At the age of thirteen, despite showing early promise as an artist, he started an apprenticeship at his uncle’s restaurant, Le Restaurant Français, in Nice. In 1865 he moved to Le Petit Moulin Rouge restaurant in Paris. He stayed there until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, when he became an army chef. His army experience led him to study the technique of canning food.

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During the summers, Escoffier ran the kitchen of the Hotel National in Lucerne, where he met César Ritz (at that time the French Riviera was a winter resort). The two men formed a partnership and in 1890 accepted an invitation from Richard D’Oyly Carte to transfer to his new Savoy Hotel in London, together with the third member of their team, the maître d’hôtel, Louis Echenard. Ritz put together what he described as “a little army of hotel men for the conquest of London”, and Escoffier recruited French cooks and reorganized the kitchens. The Savoy under Ritz and his partners was an immediate success, attracting a distinguished and moneyed clientele, headed by the Prince of Wales. Gregor von Görög, chef to the royal family, was an enthusiast of Escoffier’s zealous organization. Aristocratic women, hitherto unaccustomed to dine in public, were now “seen in full regalia in the Savoy dining and supper rooms.”

At the Savoy, Escoffier created many dishes for the famous. In 1893 he invented the pêche Melba in honor of the Australian singer Nellie Melba (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/dame-nellie-melba/ ), and in 1897, Melba toast. Other Escoffier creations, famous in their time, were bombe Néro (a flaming ice), fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt (strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet), baisers de Vierge (meringue with vanilla cream and crystallized white rose and violet petals) and suprêmes de volailles Jeannette (jellied chicken breasts with foie gras). He also created salad Réjane, after Gabrielle Réjane, and (although this is disputed) tournedos Rossini.

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In 1898, César and Escoffier both left the Savoy. Ritz and Escoffier were allegedly implicated in the disappearance of more than £3400 of wine and spirits, but this was never proven. By this time, Ritz and his colleagues were already on the point of commercial independence, having established the Ritz Hotel Development Company, for which Escoffier set up the kitchens and recruited the chefs, first at the Paris Ritz (1898), and then at the new Carlton Hotel in London (1899), which soon drew much of the high-society clientele away from the Savoy. In addition to the haute cuisine offered at luncheon and dinner, tea at the Ritz became a fashionable institution in Paris, and later in London, though it caused Escoffier real distress: “How can one eat jam, cakes and pastries, and enjoy a dinner – the king of meals – an hour or two later? How can one appreciate the food, the cooking or the wines?”

In 1913, Escoffier met Kaiser Wilhelm II on board the SS Imperator, one of the largest ocean liners of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. The culinary experience on board the Imperator was overseen by Ritz-Carlton, and the restaurant itself was a reproduction of Escoffier’s Carlton Restaurant in London. Escoffier was charged with supervising the kitchens on board the Imperator during the Kaiser’s visit to France. One hundred and forty-six German dignitaries were served a large multi-course luncheon, followed that evening by a monumental dinner that included the Kaiser’s favorite strawberry pudding, named fraises Imperator by Escoffier for the occasion. The Kaiser was so impressed that he insisted on meeting Escoffier after breakfast the next day, where, as legend has it, he told Escoffier, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs.” This was quoted frequently in the press, further establishing Escoffier’s reputation as France’s pre-eminent chef.

Ritz gradually moved into retirement after opening The Ritz London Hotel in 1906, leaving Escoffier as the figurehead of the Carlton until his own retirement in 1920. He continued to run the kitchens through World War I, during which time his younger son was killed in active service. Recalling these years, The Times said, “Colour meant so much to Escoffier, and a memory arises of a feast at the Carlton for which the table decorations were white and pink roses, with silvery leaves – the background for a dinner all white and pink, Borscht striking the deepest note, Filets de poulet à la Paprika coming next, and the Agneau de lait forming the high note.”

In 1928 he helped create the “World Association of Chefs Societies” and became its first president. Escoffier died on 12 February 1935, at the age of 88, in Monte Carlo, a few days after the death of his wife.

I do not know which of several recipes for agneau de lait (milk-fed lamb) The Times article is referring to, but here is one for boned and rolled saddle of lamb dedicated to King Edward VII, in the original French and with my rough translation. I’m not sure of the meaning in a couple of places. “Couennes” usually means pork rinds, which are often used as a flavoring in dishes such as cassoulet. I’m also not sure what “son état naturel” (its natural state) means, but I assume you wrap the lamb around the foie gras. The bit about degreasing with boiling water is also a little obscure to me. Given that my French is not up to par, any and all comments are welcome.

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Selle d’agneau de lait Edouard VII

Désosser entièrement la selle par en dessous, de façon à laisser l’épiderme intact ; assaisonner l’intérieur ; placer au milieu un beau fois gras, clouté de truffes et mariné au vin de Marsala.

Reformer la selle dans son état naturel ; l’envelopper dans une mousseline en la serrant bien; la déposer dans une casserole où elle puisse tenir juste et dont le fond sera garni de couennes fraîches, bien dégraissées et blanchies.

Mouiller à couvert avec du fonds provenant d’une noix de veau braisée; ajouter le Marsala qui a servi à mariner le foie gras.

Pocher pendant 45 minutes environ.

Cependant, avant d’arrêter la cuisson de la selle, s’assurer si le foie gras est bien cuit.

La selle étant cuite, retirer la mousseline; disposer la pièce dans une terrine ovale qui soit de justes dimensions pour la contenir; passer dessus le fonds de cuisson, sans le dégraisser, et laisser refroidir.

Lorsque la selle est bien froide, enlever soigneusement la graisse avec la cuiller d’abord, et avec de l’eau bouillante ensuite.

Servir tel quel, dans la terrine, et très froid.

Completely debone the saddle leaving the skin intact; season the inside; put in the middle a nice foie gras studded with truffles that has been marinated in Marsala.

Reform the saddle in its natural state; wrap it in gauze pressing it well; place it in a saucepan where it fits snugly, placing pork rinds that have been degreased and blanched on the bottom.

Cover with veal stock made from ­­braising veal; add the Marsala which was used to marinate the foie gras.

Poach for approximately 45 minutes. Make sure the foie gras is well cooked before stopping the cooking of the lamb.

When the lamb is cooked, remove the muslin; put the saddle in an oval terrine that is just big enough to hold it; pour in the reduced stock, degrease, and cool.

When the saddle is cold, carefully remove the grease first with a spoon, and then with boiling water.

Serve as is, very cold, in the terrine.

Jun 202014
 

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Today is the birthday (1819) of Jacques Offenbach, a German-born French composer, cellist, and impresario of the Romantic period. He is chiefly remembered for his nearly 100 operettas of the 1850s–1870s and his uncompleted opera The Tales of Hoffmann. He was a major influence on later composers of the operetta genre, particularly Johann Strauss, Jr. and Arthur Sullivan. His best-known works were continually revived during the 20th century, and many of his operettas continue to be staged in the 21st. The Tales of Hoffman remains part of the standard opera repertoire. Without doubt his most famous melody is “The Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld, the tune most associated with the can-can

Offenbach was born in Cologne, the son of a synagogue cantor. At the age of 14, he was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire but found academic study unfulfilling and left after a year. From 1835 to 1855 he earned his living as a cellist, achieving international fame, and as a conductor. His ambition, however, was to compose comic pieces for the musical theatre. His first choice was to stage his pieces with the Paris Opéra-Comique, but they were not interested. So in 1855 he leased a small theatre in the Champs-Élysées. There he presented a series of his own small-scale pieces, many of which became popular.

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In 1858, Offenbach produced his first full-length operetta, Orphée aux enfers (“Orpheus in the Underworld”), which was exceptionally well received and has remained one of his most popular works. During the 1860s, he produced at least 18 full-length operettas, as well as more one-act pieces. His works from this period included La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). The risqué humor (often about sexual intrigue) and gentle satiric barbs about French society in these pieces, together with Offenbach’s facility for melody, made them internationally known, and translated versions were successful in Vienna, London, and elsewhere in Europe.

Offenbach was very closely associated with the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, and the emperor’s court was genially satirized in many of Offenbach’s operettas. Napoleon III personally granted him French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Offenbach found himself out of favor in Paris because of his imperial connections and his German birth. He remained successful in Vienna and London, however, and then re-established himself in Paris after the war, with revivals of some of his earlier favorites and a series of new works. In his last years he strove to finish The Tales of Hoffmann, but died before the premiere of the opera, which has entered the standard repertoire in a number of different versions which were completed or edited by other musicians.

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Opinion was, and is still, sharply divided concerning Offenbach’s oeuvre. One contemporary critic wrote, “Offenbach’s orchestral scoring is full of details, elaborate counter-voices, minute interactions coloured by interjections of the woodwinds or brass, all of which establish a dialogue with the voices. His refinement of design equals that of Mozart or Rossini.” Friedrich Nietzsche called Offenbach both an “artistic genius” and a “clown,” but wrote that “nearly every one of Offenbach’s works achieves half a dozen moments of wanton perfection.” Émile Zola commented on Offenbach and his work in a novel (Nana) and an essay, “La féerie et l’opérette IV/V.” While granting that Offenbach’s best operettas are full of grace, charm and wit, Zola blames Offenbach for what others have made out of the genre. Zola calls operetta a “public enemy” and a “monstrous beast.”

All of the obituaries I have read for Offenbach take the same tone – his music is delightful but will not survive to the next generation. They were wrong, of course; their opinion was based on the assumption that the music itself is not great art, and the operettas, being products of a particular time and culture, would give way to newer fashions. The same could be said of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their operettas were full of social satire which is mostly lost on contemporary audiences. But Sullivan, like Offenbach, had a knack for a catchy melody which stayed with audiences, and many of the issues the operettas deal with are enduring – such as, the conflict between one’s dreams and social pressure to conform.

Debussy, Bizet, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov loved Offenbach’s operettas. Debussy rated them higher than The Tales of Hoffmann: “The one work in which [Offenbach] tried to be serious met with no success.” A London critic wrote, on Offenbach’s death:

I somewhere read that some of Offenbach’s latest work shows him to be capable of more ambitious work. I, for one, am glad he did what he did, and only wish he had done more of the same.

I suppose one might sum all this up by saying that whether you like operetta or not, Offenbach was master of the genre. I am not a huge fan of the genre, but I find Offenbach amusing and diverting when I am in the mood.

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In general, Offenbach followed simple, established forms. His melodies are usually short and unvaried in their basic rhythm, although modified from time to time to fit different characters. In modulation Offenbach was similarly cautious; he rarely switched a melody to a remote or unexpected key, and kept mostly to a tonic–subdominant–dominant–tonic pattern. He did, however, switch occasionally from major to minor, also to suit the character. Once in a while he employed conventional operatic techniques, such as leitmotiv, as, for example, when he parodied Wagner in La carnaval des revues (1860), or throughout to accompany the eponymous Docteur Ox (1877).

In his early pieces for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the size of the orchestra pit had restricted Offenbach to an orchestra of 16 players. He composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, piston (type of oboe), trombone, timpani and percussion, and a small string section of seven players. After moving to the Salle Choiseul he had an orchestra of 30 players. With the larger orchestra Offenbach was able to be more expansive, and re-scored many older pieces in revival. When they were available he wrote for cor anglais, harp, and, on rare occasions, an ophicleide (something like a tuba), tubular bells, and a wind machine (Le voyage dans la lune). Offenbach’s orchestration is not always subtle, but it has its moments.

What I believe is of supreme importance is to set Offenbach’s works in their historical context. They are primarily an homage to the social milieu of the Second Empire of Napoleon III – a perfect mirror of the historical amnesia and escapism that pervaded Paris in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848. But they must be understood as more than glittering distractions. The fantasy realms of such operettas as La Belle Hélène were certainly reflections of the unreality of Napoleon III’s imperial masquerade, but they also made a mockery of the pomp and pretense surrounding the mechanisms of power. At the same time, Offenbach’s dream worlds were imbued with a layer of utopian content that can be seen as an indictment of the fraudulence and corruption of the times.

I turn once again to Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire for a recipe to suit the times; something complex, fancy, and delectable. I choose his oxtail soup recipe, which I love. This is taken from a 1909 translation of the original French version. This website provides a good, detailed description (with photos) of the process, although the author strays a bit with the ingredients, and I note some droplets of fat in the final broth which would not have been acceptable to Escoffier. The image here is from the site.

http://alanandpatrick.com/wordpress/personal/2011/01/26/august-escoffiers-oxtail-soup-err-sort-of/

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Escoffier’s Oxtail Soup

Ingredients

1.8kg of oxtail, browned in the oven
900g gelatinous bones, broken small and browned in the oven
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 medium onions
one faggot [a bundle of parsley, bay leaves and thyme, tied together]
butter
2.5 litres ordinary broth
1 litre water
450g lean beef mince
1 leek
½ an egg white
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
arrowroot if required

Instructions

Brown the oxtails and the gelatinous bones in a roasting tin in the oven. Remove and cool.

Garnish the bottom of a small stockpot or stewpan with one finely chopped carrot and two medium-sized onions cut into thin rounds and browned in butter and one faggot.

Add the oxtails. The tails should be cut into sections, each of which should contain one of the caudal vertebrae. Also add the 900g of gelatinous bones, broken very small. Add 2.5 litres of ordinary broth and one of water. Set to boil very gently for 4½-5 hours.

When this is done, strain the broth, which should be reduced to 2.5 litres, and completely remove its grease. Transfer the largest sections of the tails, by means of a braiding needle, one by one to another saucepan. Cover them with broth, and keep them warm for the garnish.

Finely chop 450g of very lean beef. Put this mince into a saucepan with the white of a leek cut into dice and half the white of an egg, and mix thoroughly. Add the broth, the grease of which has been removed, set to boil, stirring constantly the while, and then leave to simmer for one hour, which is the time required for the beef to exude all its juices and for the clarification of the broth.

While the clarification is in progress, cut a small carrot in brunoise [small dice] fashion, or turn it by means of a very small spoon. Cook this garnish in a little water with butter, salt, and sugar.

A few minutes before serving, strain the oxtail broth through a napkin, put the sections of oxtail and brunoise into the soup tureen, and pour thereon the prepared broth.

This soup may be flavoured with port or sherry, but this is optional. Please note: if a thickened oxtail soup is required, add to the broth per every litre of it 10g of arrowroot diluted with a little of the broth or some cold water.

May 192013
 

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Today is the birthday (1861) of singer Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell better known by her stage name, Nellie Melba.  Her father, David, was a successful building contractor and brick maker, and her mother, Isabella, played several instruments, and served as Nellie’s first music teacher. Nellie first sang in public at the age of eight in the new Richmond town hall. She performed in a community concert for 700 spectators as part of the town hall’s grand opening. She sang three songs, accompanying herself on the piano. The audience was enraptured. Local reporters wrote enthusiastically about her performance, saying she was a “gem,” “incomparable,” and “a musical prodigy.”

Nellie went to a boarding school in Richmond, and then as a young lady enrolled at the Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied piano and voice. On her mother’s death in 1880 she left school and moved with her father to Queensland where she met her future husband Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong.  They married in 1882 and she had a son, George. But Armstrong was verbally abusive, and Nellie hated the tropical climate. So in 1884 she packed her bags, took her son, and moved back to Melbourne to pursue a musical career. After several attempts at reconciliation on his part she divorced Armstrong in 1900.

Nellie sang in Melbourne and, later, Sydney, making a name for herself as an operatic soprano. She then moved to London, where she made the connexions necessary for pursuing a career in earnest. In 1886 she began performing in concerts organized by Wilhelm Ganz, a singing coach at the Guildhall School of Music. Though she found some success in London, she was not satisfied with her career’s progress. A patron from Melbourne had written Nellie a letter of introduction to famed German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi, so Nellie traveled to Paris to meet her. Marchesi agreed to take her on as a singing pupil and had a great influence on her career. It was Marchesi who was responsible for convincing Nellie to take the stage name Nellie Melba; Melba deriving from her home city of Melbourne. Nellie made her operatic debut in 1887 as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, in Brussels.

Over time Nellie gained great popularity, singing in principal opera houses in Europe and the United States, most notably Covent Garden in London and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was well-known in high-society circles, and was asked to perform for kings and queens, including Tsar Alexander III, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Queen Victoria. She became the turn of the century equivalent of a rock star, with crowds gathering to see her when she appeared in public.

It was in London, whilst performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie first met the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier. It is fair to say that Escoffier is the father of French haute cuisine.  His cookbook is still the bible for classic French dishes.  Every French chef owns a copy and knows it by heart.  Even I, a humble home cook, own one (though I don’t know it by heart). There was a cooking series on television some years ago where contestant chefs were given the ingredients for a classic Escoffier recipe (without knowing ahead of time what it was), and asked to replicate the dish perfectly, from memory. The judges critiqued the dishes down to the minutest details, also from memory. Bear in mind that there are thousands of recipes in the book.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His meals were known for being elaborate and fancy, sometimes having as many as 11 courses, all heavy with rich sauces. His dishes became the hallmark of fin de siècle indulgence, decadence, and wealth.

Nellie often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants whilst performing in Covent Garden. Escoffier says in his autobiography that he first created an early version of Peach Melba whilst Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. On one occasion Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched on top of a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, that is, Peachy Swan. A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish La Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba in English. Escoffier also created Melba toast for her several years later when she was sick in bed at the hotel and having trouble eating.

Here is the original recipe for Peach Melba, translated into English from Escoffier’s own words. Use the very best vanilla ice cream you can find, homemade if possible, using sugar flavored richly with fresh vanilla beans (you don’t want the vanilla paste directly in the ice cream because for the dish to look attractive the ice cream must be creamy white). High quality essence of vanilla will also work.

La Pêche Melba (for 6)

Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.

To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.

Additional notes:

It is a good idea to put the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water to which you have added 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, and letting them soak for 10 minutes.  Then drain them and pat them dry with a paper towel.  The acid prevents the fruit from oxidizing and turning brown.

Naturally you can cheat and use all store bought materials: canned peaches, good quality vanilla ice cream, and bottled raspberry syrup.  I’ve done it and none of my guests has ever complained. This way it takes minutes to prepare and can be made right before serving.  Just remember to put the can of peaches in the refrigerator the night before.

Obviously you need to pit and slice the fresh peaches if you are following Escoffier’s recipe.

In modern times you can make the raspberry syrup by making a purée of fresh raspberries in a blender or food processor and then forcing them through a fine mesh sieve (fine enough to catch the seeds). I sometimes use a regular sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth.