Cardiac insufficiency. A man is dying because he has not heart enough to support his own passions (food, mainly, and possibly wine). This near-heartless man cares not a whisker about final adieus to his long-suffering wife or steadfast mistress. He has no wisdom to impart to his under-valued children. In the space that his heart should have filled there is only an insatiable longing for one particular food, a flavor par excellence, that he cannot quite identify. From his deathbed, Monsieur Arthens explores his culinary memories from appreciation of his grandmother’s gravy to becoming France’s most revered food critic.
In a lifetime of writing about food the gourmet has entirely missed the point. Food should be relished, not picked apart. In dissecting every meal he has let the heart of it escape. By excluding his family he has turned his back on the most essential of all seasonings. In bite-sized chapters his wife, children, neighbours, employees and protégé each take turns to pour scorn, defend or grieve the dying gourmet. Meanwhile, Monsieur continues his search for a single, elusive taste of…something.
Muriel Barbery‘s Gourmet Rhapsody is a book to make your mouth water. Every single page exudes an aroma of browning butter, or drips a deeply reduced jus, or is stained with a ring of Burgundian wine. It is a delicious book but, like a balanced cocktail, Gourmet Rhapsody has an Angostura bitter note. It brings to mind the very best of food you have ever eaten while at the same time reminding you that you will most likely never experience that food, in the same place and in the same way, ever again.
Sometimes, most times, when we recall a food it is the whole experience that is stamped upon our hearts. Rice pudding with jam by firelight. Mince pies by fairylight. Sausages on a barbecue in a midsummer garden. Red wine at a long table in the dim cellar of a house in the Pyrenees. Tayto sandwiches on the beach and dripping 99s in the car on the way home. Toast in bed at 2AM in a maternity ward. Toast in bed on a Sunday morning with a good book and a frothy coffee. Toast.
I have long sought to rediscover a certain whiskey-orange sorbet. Husband and I were in Co. Clare on our first holiday together. The climax of our week was a meal in a restaurant called Barr Trá. We ate in the conservatory which had a spectacular view of sunset on Liscannor Bay. I can’t remember a single other thing I ate, I suspect there were mussels and I’m certain there was brandy, but that sorbet has taunted me for two decades.
How could I possibly recreate that moment? I can’t get back the perfect ninety seconds, with my foot wrapped around his calf, that it took to let five or six sunlit spoonfuls dissolve on my tongue. I hope, when I am on my deathbed, that it comes to mind.
Once a year or so, maybe even less, I take a fancy for an egg-in-a-cup. That’s the official name, at least in my head. My Granny used to make this for my breakfast along with bread which was first buttered and then toasted under the grill, most importantly, on the buttered side only. Monsieur Arthens has something to say about buttering bread before you toast it:
‘Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our bread until after it has been toasted? The reason the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequalled complicity. The butter loses some of its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own, in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, an becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one’s taste buds with its contemplative delicacy.’
The egg, or two, should be placed in a small pot of cold water and brought to the boil. Simmer for three minutes for a runny yolk. A dear friend gave me a brilliant and fool-proof egg-timer gadget that goes in the pot and changes colour as the egg cooks. You can find one here.
When the time is up, chip the top off the egg with a spoon and scrape the innards into a cup. Add a generous corner off a block of butter and a pinch of salt. Now, use the spoon to whack the egg around the sides of the cup until it has absorbed the butter into itself. You don’t want to liquidise the whole thing, just break it up. The chipping and the scraping and the whacking and the eating are all marvellously satisfying.
I watched my mother make eggs-in-a-cup like this for all my little sisters when they were babies so I can only presume she made them like this for me too. I know that when she handed me the cup to spoon feed a hungry sibling I was as likely as not to eat most of it myself between turns of chugga-chugga-here-comes-the-train. I made eggs-in-a-cup for my own babies and it always made me feel that I was doing my job right.
Unlike the whiskey-orange sorbet, egg-in-a-cup is a blend of many memories. It doesn’t rely upon an Atlantic sunset, a particular whiskey or the added frisson of young love. I needs only a warm kitchen, an egg, bread, butter and a spoon. The bare essentials.
Muriel Barbery has created a book which defies criticism. How could I tear asunder a meal, I mean book, which has so painstakingly been constructed. This is a book to be savoured, meditated upon and remembered. Like the very best of books, I mean meals, there is a lesson in it. Live. Live and love and eat every bit of it now. Now.