The death on this day in 1757 of the brilliant French mathematician Bernard le Bouyer de Fontenelle seems a strange start to a food story, but there are two very good reasons for our attention.
The first reason is that he died a few weeks short of his hundredth birthday, proving that his well-known gourmandism did not damage his life-span at all, which is enormously reassuring for those of us who love good food, and occasionally fear that we will pay the ultimate early price for our obsession.
The second reason is that he is the subject of a particularly good food story about asparagus, and I now have an excuse to tell it.
The story says that one day his friend and colleague the Abbé Terrasson (who was also known to be fond of his food) arrived unexpectedly just as Fontenelle was eagerly awaiting a dish of asparagus which he particularly loved, especially dressed with oil. The Abbé however, preferred his asparagus with butter, so the dutiful host ordered his cook to prepare half the dish with oil, and half with butter. Suddenly, before the dish was served, the Abbé fell down dead with apoplexy, whereupon Fontenelle instantly rushed into the kitchen, calling out to his cook “The whole with oil! The whole with oil, as at first!”
The story gives both support and rebuttal to another of Fontenelle’s traits. It was said of him that he was completely lacking in emotion, that he had never truly laughed or cried, that he believed ‘It is the passions that do and undo everything.’
Naturally, I give you a classical French recipe for asparagus today, taken from Alexandre Dumas père’s posthumously published labour of love, his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (1870), as translated by Alan and Jane Davidson in Dumas on Food.
Asperges à la Pompadour.
M. de Jarente, Minister of state when Madame de Pompadour was in favour, left the following prescription to our celebrated gourmand Grimod de la Reynière, a nephew worthy of his uncle.
‘Choose three bunches of the most beautiful asparagus from large young Dutch plants, that is to say white ones with purple tips. Trim them, wash and cook them in the ordinary way, that is to say by plunging them in boiling water. Slice them afterwards by cutting them on the bias near the tip,into pieces the length of the little finger. Use only the best parts, setting aside the rest of the stems. Put the chosen pieces in a hot napkin so as to drain them and keep them hot while you prepare your sauce.
‘Empty a medium-size pot of butter from Vanvre or Prévalais and put the contents in spoonfuls in a silver dish. Add a few grains of salt, a good pinch of powdered mace and a generous spoonful of pure wheat flour; and in addition the yolks of two fresh eggs diluted with four spoonfuls of the juice of sour Muscat grapes. Cook this sauce in a double boiler; do not allow it to thicken excessively and thus become too heavy. Put your sliced pieces of asparagus in the sauce, and serve it all in a covered casserole as an extra, so that this excellent course does not languish on the table and can be appreciated at the height of its perfection.’
Tomorrow’s Story …
Dumplings for Eccentrics.
A Previous Story for this Day …
The story on this day last year was about Funny Fish Bits.
Quotation for the Day …
You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed. Saki (H.H. Munro), who wrote the “Not So Stories” in the early twentieth century.