Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”
– Isak Dineson, Author, Babette’s Feast
Buenos Aires – On December 1, 1906, the world’s first cinema house opened in Paris, the Cinema Omnia Pathe. Now, in the mind of a reasonably normal chef that would be more or less irrelevant to anything happening a hundred years later. Therefore, of course, it clicked in mine. From the opening of the world’s first cinema, to the the thought of looking at early French films and any food scenes, which on second thought was problematic just to try to obtain them, to early films from anywhere, to hey, how about a French film in general, to how about one of my favorite “food films” that just happens to have some French cooking in it, and there we were at Babette’s Feast. Cinematically beautiful, but at times a bit tedious to watch, and worth it for the food scenes, especially the final feast. So there’s the logical leap process as I went through it, and the menu for this weekend was inspired by the film.
I once made turtle soup. It was December 13, 1998 (yes, I know the date, I keep all my menus…). It was real turtle soup made from a real turtle. It wasn’t some endangered sea turtle, but it was real. It required a trip to chinatown in New York, the only place I could think of that might, possibly have fresh turtle for sale. I looked up the word for turtle, and used what limited Mandarin I knew to ask around if anyone had any. In shop after shop they just shook their heads or rattled off responses in rapid-fire Chinese that I couldn’t remotely follow. Finally someone pointed me to a small shop on Mott Street. And there, a tub with several large turtles in it. Through the young lady at the front, I translated my request to the man at the back, who asked if I wanted to take it home alive or chopped up. I responded that if it went home live with me, it would be a pet, not dinner. This drew peals of laughter from all in the shop, and was repeated to the neighboring shops. Without going into the gory details, which I did watch, I soon had a bag full of turtle meat, on the bone. I followed a traditional recipe for Maryland Terrapin Soup, and we had a delicious course at dinner. But it was a hell of a lot of work. Turtles have lots of small little bones to pick the meat off of. Babette may have been willing, but I think even if I’d have looked for fresh turtle here, I wouldn’t have done it again. Mock Turtle Soup it was. There is, of course, the question of the traditional English version using a whole calf’s head versus the American version of using oxtails. Okay, it wasn’t really a question, I was not about to boil a calf’s head, let alone look for one. The traditional soup is more of a consommé with a bit of meat in it, so after cooking the oxtails down with butter, onions, thyme and parsley for hours, I strained the soup, semi-clarified it (I didn’t have time to completely de-fat the soup), and picked the bones clean. A float of semi-sweet sherry atop the soup and it was, in reality, awfully similar to the way I remember the turtle soup being.
Babette may have moved on to carefully made buckwheat blini topped with a tiny dab of sour cream, a spoon of caviar, and whatever garnishes she used, but that was merely a starting point for me. Having been playing with buckwheat pasta recently, I went through several different ideas, the final one coming to me when I spotted some fresh cod roe in a chinatown market here (chinatowns do tend to tie a lot of my cooking together over the years). I decided to make a cod roe mousse – a very simple mix of lightly poached fish (pez gallo) and the roe along with some cream, onion, salt, pimentón dulce, and shichimi powder – and fill buckwheat ravioli, or panzotti, with it. Rolling out and making sixty round panzotti by hand is a zen-like experience – you have to sort of zone out and just keep going. When cooked and ready to serve, I topped them with a dollop of lightly warmed sour cream, some black “caviar”, and chopped chives. I think this was my favorite part of the meal – but then, I do like my pasta…
Next up, if I got the menu right, Babette served up “quail in coffins” – whole quail baked inside a clay shell which was cracked open at the table. There was foie gras and mushrooms, probably truffles, involved. First off, I couldn’t find any quail. Anywhere. I finally found some ridiculously expensive partridges at a small specialty butcher shop. I simply brined them for a couple of hours and then pan roasted them. The sauce was a reduction of chicken giblets, portobello mushrooms, onions, tarragon, and chicken stock, all pureed with a healthy addition of some foie gras paté. I doubt it came anywhere near the experience in the film, but it was pretty darned good.
Of course, everyone, Babette included, knows that a good French meal isn’t complete without a cheese course – and not some display of half a dozen wedges of cheeses off a cheese board, but a slice of one perfect cheese. Now, my personal favorite French cheese is Morbier, and so I picked up a large section of a wheel. Part of the “art” of serving a cheese is picking its accompaniments, they need to accent the cheese. I don’t know why, but in my mind, fennel popped up. I decided to make a fennel marmalade – which required grating several large bulbs of fennel, the rind of an orange, the juice of that orange and of a lemon, brown sugar, salt, and cooking the whole thing down to the right consistency. It worked. I also tossed some walnuts in a saute pan with a little salt, some fennel seeds, and a touch of cayenne pepper, and then scattered them around the plate. Don’t ask why, I just did. They worked too.
The film’s feast finished, if my sources and memory are correct, with a fig tart of some sort. Fresh figs, alas, are not in season yet here. I decided to make a genoise cake – mostly because it’s about the only cake I really make well. To soak it, I used a mix of fig syrup that I found in a local specialty shop and some of Tapaus’ honey liqueur. To serve it, I topped it with freshly whipped cream and some jarred figs in syrup that the cheese shop where I got the Morbier had – mostly for a little color and contrast. Good, but fresh figs would have been even better – and I’d have probably ended up making something like a fresh fig cheesecake, something that they used to serve at The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, and was worth going there for, oysters aside.
And there you have it, my completely unfaithful reproduction of Babette’s Feast. A good number of the evening’s guests were regular participants from the local foodie forum, El Cuerpo de Cristo, so we’ll just pop over there and see if there’s any discussion of the quality of my Morbier…