I recently wrote a post called On the Garnishing of Dishes, my source being Round the table: notes on cookery and plain recipes, with a selection of bills of fare for every month (Philadelphia, 1876,) written by Victor Chevally de Rivaz. The book has some other lovely story ideas and I want to tell you another one today. It is one of those stories, like my other recent post on Edible Epigrams, which is probably impossible to authenticate, but is too charming to dismiss out of hand. Myths can be such fun. And some do even turn out to include an element of truth.
The story is included in the chapter on salads. The chapter is too long to give in its entirety, but I hope I have selected the text well.
Every household presided over by a thrifty housewife boasts of some mysterious preparation with which the mistress of the house compels reluctant housemaids to rub the furniture at stated periods. The object of this operation is to keep the polish bright, and I believe it answers the purpose very well. I could not give the recipe of this wonderful compound, for I do not know it, but I could not better describe it than by saying that in appearance, smell, and peradventure taste also, it closely resembles that other mysterious composition which will be produced in a pyramidal and circumvoluted bottle if you ask for salad-dressing at an hotel or eating-house. In most private houses the same oddly-shaped bottle is the only source whence the salad-dressing is obtained.
Now, the great charm of a good salad is not only that the green meat part of it shall be fresh and newly gathered, but that the dressing or sauce shall be also fresh and newly mixed. The art, however, of mixing a salad-dressing is all but unknown in this country; the operation entails too much trouble, and requires too great a nicety in the apportionment of the condiments, for the broad mind of the British cook to be troubled about it; ask her to mix a salad, and she simply pours out a good allowance of the contents of the queer-shaped bottle over a lot of lettuce, endive, and water-cress chopped up more or less small, and imagines the product to be a salad.
Yet salads are appreciated by Britons, for it stands on record that a noble Gaul — having fled the guillotine at the end of the last century, and, finding himself without cash in this country — contrived to pick up not only a living but a competency by taking to salad-making as a profession. This is how it came to pass: I abridge from Brillat-Savarin.
A French emigre, named D’Albignac, was dining at one of the most fashionable taverns in London, when he was addressed by a party of dandies who occupied the table next to him, with a request to mix a salad for them, coupled with a polite compliment upon the proficiency of the French in this art. D’Albignac, with some hesitation, consented and, being supplied with the best ingredients at hand, was very successful. In the course of the proceedings he entered into conversation with the dandies, and in answer to their questions he frankly avowed his position; consequently they felt justified in insisting upon his acceptance of a five -pound note, which he took without much pressing. The dandies asked for his address, and a few days after he received a request to go and mix a salad at one of the largest mansions in Grosvenor- square. D’Albignac saw his opportunity, and was not slow in availing himself of it. Providing himself with some choice condiments, and having ample time to think over his task, he went, and was triumphant. He was paid in proportion to his success. In a short time his reputation began to spread, and all the people of fashion in the capital of the three kingdoms were dying to have a salad mixed by the French gentleman — the fashionable salad-maker, as he was called. He soon set up his carriage and kept a footman to carry a mahogany case containing choice ingredients to mix salads withal, such as vinegars of various flavours, oil with or without the taste of olive, &c. Later, he supplied similar cases ready fitted with ingredients, and sold them by hundreds. In the end he amassed some eighty thousand francs, with which — the guillotine having been superseded — he retired to his native country, where he lived happy ever after.
… I now come to speak of the ingredients which are used to make the dressing or sauce of the salad. It is in the proportion of these that the great difficulty lies. A Spanish proverb says that, to make a good salad, a miser should pour out the vinegar, a spendthrift the oil, a wise man the pepper and salt, and a madman should turn it — travailler is the technical expression. This may give some idea of the principles of salad mixing; but oil, vinegar, pepper, and salt are not the only things which are used to produce what I should call a good salad-dressing, and to make this it will take not only a wise man but a practical one as well, with plenty of experience in his business. What I have often said before of cooking applies still more forcibly to salad making; for in this you have no action of the fire, which sometimes corrects the mistakes of the operator; it is as in fresco-painting — once you have mixed your salad, there it is, for better or for worse. A sauce or a ragout you may modify, correct, and alter in many ways as you go on; a salad you cannot, without making a mess of the whole thing, when once you have mixed the greenmeat with the dressing. Practice is the only master of whom to learn salad-making. I do not pretend to teach anyone how to make salads, all I can do is to point out, to those who wish to become adepts in the art, how to set about it.
Oil, which plays the most important part in the business, should be of the very finest quahty, but it ought by no means to be the almost colourless and insipid liquid which is, I believe, called Jew’s oil. There should be a taste of olive in it, but not so strong as to be disagreeable. It is a quasi nutty flavour that it should have, and the colour should be golden.
The artistic salad-maker cannot be too particular in the choice of the vinegar to be used in his preparations. The British vinegar of commerce may be all very well for cooking purposes, pickling, &c., but, for salads, vinegar made from wine should be used, and it should be clarified until it is almost as clear as water. The stronger the vinegar is, the better.
… For purposes of salad-making and cooking generally, vinegar is flavoured in a variety of ways. This is done by putting some strong wine vinegar into a wide-mouthed bottle, and adding to it any of the following:
1. A couple of handfuls of tarragon leaves, gathered the day before.
2. Twenty or thirty green capsicums, previously bruised.
3. Four or five cloves of garlic, also bruised.
4. A cupful of celery seed, or more, well crushed in a mortar.
5. The same quantity of cress seed, similarly treated.
The above proportions are for one quart of vinegar.