Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lièvre à la Royale.

Today, November 29th …

What is required of a dish for it to be claimed as a “culinary masterpiece”? A certain school of culinary thought seems to suggest that complex method, prolonged preparation time, and expensive or rare ingredients are obligatory. It helps too, no doubt, if the dish is clearly too superior for the peasants, by virtue of it requiring a week’s hunting to provide for one meal. Such was the dish featured in what was his usual political column in Le Temps, on this day in 1898, by Senator Aristide Couteaux.

The dish was “Lièvre (Hare) à la Royale”. The Senator described how he spent a week hunting in Poitou for the perfect specimen, before rushing it to his friend the restaurateur M. Spüller for the seven-hour preparation. The method was described by Elizabeth David in ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’, and I refer you to this for the lengthy details. The instructions start by specifying that:

“You require a male hare, with red fur, killed if possible in mountainous country, of fine French descent (characterised by the light nervous elegance of head and limbs) weighing from 5 to 6 pounds, that is to say older than a leveret but still adolescent. The important thing is that the hare should have been cleanly killed and so not have lost a drop of blood.

The other ingredients are: 2-3 tablespoons goose fat, ¼ lb fat bacon rashers, ¼ lb bacon in one piece, 6 oz. of good wine vinegar, two bottles of Macon or Médoc (not less than two years old), 20 cloves of garlic, 40 cloves of shallot, and the usual carrot, onion stuck with a clove, and bouquet garni. And don’t forget the carefully saved blood of the hare, which you may mix with 2 or 3 small glasses of cognac if you so desire.

M.Couteaux explains the necessity for attention to detail. He instructs that “the chopping of the garlic and the shallots must be so fine that each of them attain as nearly as possible a molecular state” because the aim is that “the multiple and diverse aromas melt into a whole so harmonious that neither one dominates, nor discloses its particular origin, and so arouse some preconceived prejudice, however regrettable.”

He finishes by noting that, if properly prepared, it is “needless to say, that to use a knife to serve the hare would be a sacrilege. A spoon alone is amply sufficient.”

There was a recipe for a dish with the same name and equally complex construction, but a completely different style in Henri Babinski’s ‘Gastronomie Pratique’ (1907). His version was in the form of a ballotine, with a garnish of game quenelles and a sauce containing foie gras and egg yolks. Which was the correct form of this classic?

Neither, according to Prosper Montagne, who did not mince words in his ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ under the heading of “Lièvre Farci à la Périgourdine or à la Royale ”.

“This magnificent dish must not be confused with a dish of the same name, which was looked upon for a very long time in Paris as a kind of culinary masterpiece, though it was, in fact, nothing more than a rather mediocre hash strongly flavoured with shallots and garlic. In any event , this dish had no claim to the epithet ‘royale’ which was given to it by certain pseudo-gastronomes at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Prosper’s version of the dish in no less complex for all his criticism, the hare being stuffed with a mixture that included truffles, goose foie gras and the blood of the hare (as well as its giblets), before braising in white wine and finally briefly browned in the oven.

So, we have three experts, disagreeing on details but agreeing on a high level of complexity for this one particular haute cuisine classic.

There is an alternative school of culinary thought that says that simple is best, especially if the major spice is hunger. Such was the belief of the fourth century Greek poet Archestratus who said:

“Many are the ways and many the recipes for dressing hares; but this is the best of all, to place before a hungry set of guests a slice of roasted meat fresh from the spit, hot, season'd only with plain, simple salt....All other ways are quite superfluous, such as when cooks pour a lot of sticky, clammy sauce upon it”

As always, compromise is possible, so I give you a recipe which falls between the two extremes. It is from William Verral’s ‘A Complete System of Cookery’ (1759)

A hare stewed.
Take a young hare (a leveret is another thing) and cut into ten pieces, the two legs, two wings or shoulders, the chine in four, and the stomach and skirts in two, don’t blanch them, but skim your wine &c. well; put it into your stewpan, with about three half-pints of Port wine, two or three onions, a carrot or two, and a bit of mace, and let it stew gently for two hours, take out your hare clean into another stew-pan, and strain your sauce to it, adding a ladle of cullis, and if not thick enough put in a bit of butter and flour, and boil it a minute, and keep it hot till your dinner is ready, fling in a spoonful or two of capers, some minced parsley, and the juice of a lemon or orange, and serve it up with some fry’d bits of bread in the dish and round it.

Tomorrow’s Story …

The Mason jar story.

A previous story for this day …

The story for November 29th 2005 was "Inside Entertaining".

Quotation for the Day …

I want a dish to taste good, rather than to have been seethed in pig’s milk and served wrapped in a rhubarb leaf with grated thistle root. Kingsley Amis.


Sally said...

I agree with Kingsley, I want to taste the dish, not the crap on it. Maybe that's why I'm not partial to "french cuisine"? A sauce can kill a meal, in my opinion. Good post O.F.

Anonymous said...

The last recipe also has the advantage that it can be cooked without needing to hold one's pinkie finger in the air during the cooking process, which is a vital part of the first two recipes, though unrecorded of course.

Much easier for the cook. Those pinkies can get cramped held like that, eventually leading to related problems such as indigestion and/or vision problems that then require obtaining lorgnettes to be able to see even the slightest bit past the end of one's nose.

My own pinkie finger wore out long ago from attempting these feats.

NorseRadish said...

Without wishing to critique the lièvre à la royale recipe, I am obliged to agree most strenuously with Kingsley. Sauce or no sauce, sensing of the flavor (also texture, aroma, and general assemblage) must be quite direct and perceived without resorting to spectrometer analysis.