Two perfect, soft, unblemished yellow semicircles, smooth and shiny as porcelain. Mr Percy divided them neatly among eight plates, Perrin put a little salad onto each plate and broke the bread with his hands, and we all came to the table.
The Devil's Feast, M. J. Carter
When I first arrived in the UK, I spent a year interning: stuffing tickets into envelopes, formatting scripts, hunting down obscure props, and researching everything from translations of Shakespeare throughout Europe, to the contact details of every youth theatre company in England. At night, I was tutoring a family in West London, and would then head home to write lesson plans for the next day. By September 2010, I was completely worn out, and had started to make plans to move back to Australia if I couldn't find paid work in the theatre. But, to my immense joy, a few weeks before my self-imposed/rent-imposed deadline, I was offered a job at the National Youth Theatre (NYT).
That first week is such a blur to me now, of new faces, of new challenges, and coloured with an overwhelming sense of relief that someone was happy to pay me to do what I wanted to do. But, amongst the blur, I do remember attending the Gala Night of Relish, a play about Victorian chef Alexis Soyer. I remember the girl who played Queen Victoria, dressed in a full skirt made from colanders and spoons. I remember being cheerfully scolded by Ian McKellen, who was auctioning off a painting I was holding (I was completely starstruck, standing next to Gandalf, and just could not manage to hold the frame straight). And I remember Alexis Soyer. I have thought of him often since.
If you wrote him as a character, your audience wouldn't believe him for a moment. A gifted chef, he was born and trained in France before moving to England in 1830. He became one of the first 'celebrity chefs' in London. He was the chef de cuisine at the Reform Club for 13 years; some of his dishes are still on the menu. He revolutionised the kitchens during his time there, introducing gas hobs, ovens with adjustable temperatures and refrigeration. Outside of the kitchen, he wrote books, developed menus for and worked in soup kitchens during the Irish famine, worked with Florence Nightingale to revolutionise cooking in military hospitals, and invented a simple cooking stove used by all British soldiers from the Crimean War into the 1980s. He is unquestionably an extraordinary character.
The Devil's Feast is set in his Reform Club kitchens, following some unexplained deaths at the club. Soyer has a central role, alongside Carter's detecting double-act: Blake and Avery as they work to solve the mystery. The food in the book is truly extraordinary: spiced lobster in crisp vol-au-vents, tiny tarts filled with almond cream and a dark, brandy-soaked cherry, celery with bone marrow.
In a more ambitious mood, I may have undertaken the challenge of the enormous sponge cake made to look like a roast beef, with all the trimmings. Or the terrine with quail and chicken. Or Soyer's famous lamb cutlets. But this scene in the book is the first where Soyer is observed as he cooks; and the description was so perfect that, this week, it had to be this omelette. You can make this, as Soyer does in the book, for a crowd, slicing it up into pieces and serving it with salad and bread. But I find it easier to control when it's made with fewer eggs - I'm much less likely to over- or undercook it. So I'd suggest making smaller ones, and giving each person their own.
I have had, in my life, more omelettes than I can count. Filled with cheese, with spring onions, with sun-dried tomatoes, with salmon, with ham. I have patiently pulled ribbons of egg into the centre of the pan, twirling it around over a low heat so that the gaps fill with raw eggs. I have flipped and folded, and added copious amounts of butter. Nothing has ever lived up to this sort of omelette, the kind made in less than a minute, that still oozes inside.
Omelette aux fines herbes
3 medium eggs
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 tbsp single cream
1/2 tsp chopped chives
1/2 tsp chopped tarragon
1/2 tsp chopped chervil
1/2 tsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp unsalted butter
Knife and chopping board
Small mixing bowl
Omelette pan or non-stick frying pan
Rubber spatula (if a fork will scratch your pan)
1. Crack the eggs into the bowl and give them a really good whisk with a fork, until there are no remaining streaks of yolk or white. Add the cream and whisk again. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Place your chopped herbs, your bowl of egg, your fork (or spatula), and a plate you want to serve your omelette on close to the hob. This will all be over in a matter of seconds, and you don't want to be dashing around trying to find anything.
3. Place your pan over a high heat, and melt the butter in it. Swirl the butter around so that the pan is well-greased, but don't let it brown. Tip the eggs in and leave them for a couple of seconds. Then take hold of the handle and start moving the pan around vigorously on the hob, as you scrape the setting egg from the pan and break up the curds. Keep the pan moving and the fork or spatula stirring quickly, until the bottom layer of egg start to look set, but the top is still liquid. Sprinkle the herbs over the top.
4. Still over the heat, tip your pan at a 45 degree angle, allowing most of the omelette to slip down to one edge. Fold the the thin layer of set egg that is left in the top half of the pan over the bulk of the omelette in the bottom half. Turn the heat off.
5. Grasp your pan handle in your dominant hand, with your thumb on top of the handle and palm below. Hold your plate in the other hand, almost vertically, then bring the pan up to meet it. Tip the omelette onto the plate - the set underside will become the top.
Serve immediately, as described in The Devil's Feast, with bread and a salad dressed with sharp vinaigrette.