One of my favourite food stories concerns the origin of the famous dish eighteenth century dish called ‘Epigrams.’ You may not have heard the story – and it is just that, a story, impossible to authenticate but nonetheless utterly charming. Epigrams (epigrammes) are classically made from lamb, but the concept has been expanded to include other meats and fish.
Here is the story as it is related in my 1961 English-language copy of the Larousse Gastronomique:-
“It was towards the middle of the 18th century. One day a young marquise overheard one of her guests at the table remark that when he was dining the previous evening with the Comte de Vaudreuil, he was charmingly received and, furthermore, had had a feast of excellent epigrams. The marquise, though pretty and elegant, was somewhat ignorant of the meaning of the words. She later summoned Michelet, her Chef. ‘Michelet,’ she said to him, ‘tomorrow, I shall require a dish of épigrammes.
The Chef withdrew, pondering the problem. He looked up old recipes, but found no reference to anything of the kind. None of his colleagues had ever heard of the dish. But no French master Chef is ever at a loss. Since he could discover nothing about the dish he set about inventing one. Next day, inspiration came and he created a most delicate dish.
At dinner, the guests fell into ecstasies over the dish before them and, after complimenting the lady of the house, desired to know its name. The Chef was called. With perfect composure he replied, “Épigrammes of Lamb à la Michelet.”
Everyone laughed. The marquise was triumphant, though she could not understand the amusement of her guests. From that moment, the culinary repertoire of France was enriched by a name still used to this day.”
Yesterday’s source, Round the table: notes on cookery and plain recipes, with a selection of bills of fare for every month (Philadelphia, 1876) by Victor Chevally de Rivaz, has a short chapter on ‘Epigrams,’ and want to share it with you. But first, let us explore the word and its meaning, and for that the obvious starting-point is The Oxford English Dictionary.
Strangely, and quite disappointingly, the OED does not recognise a culinary use for the term, saying only that ‘epigram’ comes from Greek via Latin and French, is derived from ‘to write’ and may refer to:
a. An inscription, usually in verse
b. A short poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought, to which the rest of the composition is intended to lead up.
c.Loosely used for a laudatory poem.
d. A pointed or antithetical saying.
The omission of a culinary application of the word by the OED is all the more surprising – and perhaps a little hard to forgive – because one can be found in an earlier English dictionary. Nathan Bailey’s An universal etymological English dictionary ... The seventh edition, with considerable improvements, (1737) includes:
Epigramme [in Cookery]: A particular way of dressing meat.
I understand there is a braised veal recipe with the name epigrammes in La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier François, published in 1651, but the word came to refer to several other cuts and methods of preparation, and eventually became most commonly associated with a dish of thin, breaded cutlets of lamb.
And finally, here is the chapter from Round the Table:
The essence of epigram consists in neatness and the faculty of producing an agreeable surprise. The culinary epigram, and occasionally its literary brother also, present to us “old friends with a new face,” and charm the languid palate with a new and startling combination of well-known elements. And this, perhaps, is the reason why such familiar viands as lamb and mutton, dressed in small
compass and in a fanciful manner, constitute what in cookery are called Epigrams. The mode of making these is by no means difficult, and is what I now propose to describe.
Braise a piece of breast of lamb or mutton in a stew-pan, with some water, onions, carrots, celery, whole pepper, salt, a few cloves, and a bouquet garni, i.e., parsley, thyme, marjoram, in proper proportions, and a bay leaf, all tied up in a little bundle. When sufficiently done to allow it, pull out all the bones, and put the breast, between two dishes, under the heaviest weight you can get, there to remain until perfectly cold. In the meantime, the liquor in which it has been braised should be strained, and freed from fat, either to be used as I shall presently state, or to be kept for other purposes. The breast, being cold and stiff, is now neatly cut up into the shape of cutlets or collops, and these are egged and bread-crumbed; after an interval of at least one hour they are again egged and bread-crumbed ; but this last time there should be a little salt and white pepper mixed with the egg.
When this second bread-crumbing has had time to dry, you must fry your EPIGRAMS a light brown colour, and serve them on a purée of turnips, spinach, turnip tops, &c., as you may fancy, or with tomato sauce, piquante sauce, &c., or lastly, simply with fried parsley.
I can safely assert that epigrams, if properly cooked, are not bad eating; and to my mind they are a better use for the breast of lamb and mutton than are roasting the one with the fore quarter and making Irish stew or mutton broth with the other. The two last-named dishes I by no means wish to disparage; but I like them made with mutton chops or cutlets; and as for roast lamb, heterodox as I may seem, I think the brisket the worst part of the fore quarter.
The only difficulty I can see in producing successful epigrams is in the frying of them. It should be borne in mind that the meat, being cooked, only requires warming, and yet the bread crumbs round it must be browned to the desired colour. The talent consists, therefore, in having the fat or lard in which they are fried — and there should be plenty of it — at the right temperature, and in knowing the exact moment at which to take the frying basket out of the frying pan.
It would be too long to set forth at length the way to make the purées of turnips, spinach, turnip tops, &c., and I will only generally say that the vegetables should, when well boiled, be passed through a sieve, and the puree thickened by being warmed, at the time of serving, in a saucepan in which you have melted a goodly piece of butter and stirred a small quantity of flour; the proper seasoning of the purée with salt, pepper, and spices, not being omitted. To purée of turnips an onion may be added when they are first boiled.
Epigrams, like games of chess, are capable of many variations. One of them consists in this, that mushroom trimmings are added to the liquor in which the breast has been braised, and being well reduced on the fire, then strained, and skimmed of all fat, a liaison of two yolks of eggs and the juice of a lemon is added to this sauce, off the fire. The breast being cut up into cutlets, each is dipped into the sauce, instead of into eggs, in the bread- crumbing process; but the sauce must be applied hot, and the bread crumbs when it is cold.
Another form is to fit to each epigram, before bread-crumbing, a small neck-chop bone, and — having cooked some cutlets in the same fashion — to serve them round some potatoes sautées, in a circle composed alternately of an epigram and a cutlet.
Another way is this: When the breast is cold, instead of being cut- up, it is neatly trimmed, then anointed with butter melted for the purpose, bread-crumbed, and grilled. It is then served very hot, with a pat of butter under it, the juice of a lemon over it, and a good sprinkling of white pepper — those who like it may introduce cayenne.
A simpler way of cooking the breast in the first instance is to put it into the soup or stock pot; but, the instant that the bones can be pulled out, it must be taken out.
Breast of veal also may be treated in the manner detailed above; only, when it has been pressed and is cold, if it is found to be too thick, it must be neatly split in two with a sharp knife, and then cut into cutlets. Epigrams made of veal should be served with a purée of sorrel or of spinach ; a purée of turnips or of turnip tops would not go well with them.
P.S. I gave a recipe for Beef in Epigram some time ago, here]