Back from holiday in the USA and Scotland, to the last few weeks of summer before term time… time finally to get stuck back in to Whistler menus. It is an appropriate moment! For one, a more important online Whistler project (if such a thing can be said to exist) – the catalogue of his paintings – is now online. Check it out!
Also, this is a moment of unabashed fresh food abundance – even as we come back from holiday feeling pretty indulged already. We’ve been gorging on the early season apples (Delcorf) that are the best ones all year, stone fruit is still everywhere (and finally seems ripe). In spite of having neglected it for weeks, our tomato plants are continuing to yield one sweet drop of goodness after another, and yesterday, we set off for the local blackberry patch for the last of the summer pickings (as well as sloes for this another year’s supply of sloe gin). Having been spoiled a few weeks back by the ripe blueberries, raspberries, blackberries blackcurrents and gooseberries on my uncle and aunt’s bamboo farm in Washington State, this is a good consolation.
One hundred forty-two years ago, on 18 August 1876, while he was heavily stuck into the work on the Peacock Room, Whistler had what appears at first glance to be a pretty opulent feast, one that will raise some interesting questions as we go…
Potage bonne femme – Sole frite – Risolles [sic] de canard – Côtelettes de mouton – Filet en boeuf braisé – Saumon en salade – – Tourte aux pommes – Welsh rarebit – Café
I say ‘opulent at first glance’, because as the correspondence notes, the saumon en salade was leftovers from the previous day’s menu. We can discern from his fishmonger’s bill, however, that the soles were fresh, and ordered for the day. (about sole, see here) Upon looking more closely, it seems likely that the duck rissoles were also leftover from the ‘canneton’ (duckling) served the previous day.
Especially given how heavy and un-summery the removes of mutton chops and braised beef fillet seem, attempting the ‘leftovers’ seemed to our modern eyes like a fairly full, and potentially toddler-friendly, meal. But this also raises a question: how common, or at least acknowledged was it to serve and/or leftover meat to guests? Certainly Mrs Beeton has huge numbers of recipes for using remains of roasts and such. In our case, it also raises a practical problem: we had not been feasting on salmon and duck the day before, so Whistler’s frugality was going potentially to end up being a bit more festive than we intended it we weren’t careful…
I confess I had no clue what a rissole was when I took this up, but given it seemed like a French word, and there was duck involved, I figured this was going to be no problem to find. (One thing I still miss from my time working and sometimes dwelling in Paris was the abundance of duck.) It turns out things were not so simple. Escoffier offers many rissoles, but none specifically of duck. The closest it comes is ones featuring fois gras (there are several!) and one (Rissoles de la Reine) that features chopped poultry in a cream bechamel, which did not sound like it would do duck any favours.
A quick google of ‘rissoles du canard’ did not come up with much. Oddly ‘duck rissoles’ was a bit more productive: but nothing that looked even remotely Victorian: instead lots of East Asian spices and flavours which, while they sounded good, would not really be easy to pass off as from Whistler’s table.
But noting that there were more hits in English did remind me to check Mrs Beeton… who mentions beef, veal and potato rissoles. Potato seemed unproductive, veal is a more heavily seasoned affair with bacon or ham, which seemed a bit overkill for duck. But in the beef, in particular, was something to go on…
BEEF RISSOLES (Cold Meat Cookery).
645. INGREDIENTS – The remains of cold roast beef; to each pound of meat allow 3/4 lb. of bread crumbs, salt and pepper to taste, a few chopped savoury herbs, 1/2 a teaspoonful of minced lemon-peel, 1 or 2 eggs, according to the quantity of meat.
What’s that you say, Mrs. B? The remains of a roast? Let’s do this! (for the record, her uses for cold roast duck are a bit more prosaic, eg. “stewed duck and turnips”). She does note that August is the end of the season for duckling – and recommends roasting.
Oh yeah… we don’t have any roast duck.
Plus we’re not in France, so I would have to scour town a bit for someone who would sell me a duck to roast this time of year. But what I can get is duck in a can: namely, a can of confit duck legs, available in the kinda-posh food aisle at my local supermarket for about €13. (I remember a sales clerk in Orly airport asking me incredulously as I picked up a can at duty-free “don’t they sell these where you’re going?” as if they were the most commonplace of foods)
Having been stewed slowly in its own fat, these are ridiculously tender, so easily removed from the bone and minced. Plus, anything we don’t use will keep for quite some time immersed in the fat. So here we have Whistler’s frugality in reverse: I’ll get at least another meal, more likely two from this can – plus abundant duck fat for roasting potatoes, making savoury pie crusts (trust me), or (don’t tell my southern friends and relatives) adding to corn bread.
“Never serve anyone a whole one of anything” – Robert Farrar Capon
So, the recipe:
For 2, generously:
1 confit duck leg, or about 120g roast duck meat
ca 100g bread crumbs
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon thyme (I used dried)
1 teaspoon of chopped parsley
oil for (deep) frying (but see below on alternative fats)
If using confit legs: let the fat drip off, remove the skin, then remove the meat from the bone (you can do this with your fingers).
Chop very finely.
Weigh out the minced meat, and add 3/4 the weight in bread crumbs. (oops, gonna need a bigger bowl)
Add the thyme, parsley, lemon zest, pepper (if using confit legs: no salt! The duck legs more than do that work) and egg. I needed to add a bit more moisture (the stock I was making for the gravy: see below) to make them stick. Form into balls about the size of a rounded tablespoon.
I deep-fried mine at around 160C (a few degrees higher would not hurt, IMHO) in sunflower oil for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. A relatively shallow fry would work as well, but I’m thinking Mrs Cossins would have had to get deep fat going for frying the sole anyway, so using it for the rissoles could have been an economy rather than an extra faff.
Mrs B says “Garnish the dish with fried parsley [about which see under sole frite!], and send with them to table some good brown gravy in a tureen.” For the latter, I fished the few jellied bits of liquid out of the duck fat, and extended them with a stock of onion, carrot, and dried porcini mushrooms. In a frying pan, I then browned some flour in duck fat, and added the stock in parts to make gravy.
They were very tasty – and easily passed the toddler test! The result is tender, if a bit mealy from the bread crumbs. I used basic commercial breading crumbs, uniform and a bit coarser than cornmeal: I am guessing the result would have been different if I’d been actual stale breadcrumbs, which might have changed the texture a bit. The other thing that would probably come closer to a Victorian flavour is a different frying medium: I went for what is now readily available, but would probably have achieved more authentic results from a different fat (I missed a trick not using the duck fat – though I’m guessing few people’s doctors would recommend it these days). In terms of seasoning, I’d thought about using orange instead of lemon – it might reflect what a roast duck was flavoured with, but I suspect that Whistler would have specified on the previous menu if the ducks were with orange. I also found that with the saltiness of the confit duck, you want the sharpness of lemon there.
In what is now become one of my favourite recipe descriptions, Escoffier states that a salmon salad consists of “the same things as salmon mayonnaise – except the mayonnaise” (the French edition comes a bit closer to this than the English).
It’s worth pausing to look at the main ingredient, then: the salmon.
Salmon caught on the Rhine, or Dutch salmon, is generally considered the most delicate that may be had, though, in my opinion, that obtained from certain English rivers, such, for instance, as the Severn, is by no means inferior …
A few things are interesting here. First of all, especially surprisingly to this kid who grew up periodically feasting on the magnificent pacific salmon caught at sea by the same uncle and aunt who now run the bamboo farm (after the Exxon Valdez oil spill wiped out their livelihood as commercial fishers), it mentions salmon as a river fish. It turns out that rivers are where they were primarily caught via a number of techniques into the 20th century. And this is also, as my uncle has pointed out, why agriculture and forestry practices can have a major and profound impact on the salmon catch. Second – less surprisingly – he mentions the Severn, but not the Thames, and for good reason: the Thames was apparently so polluted that all salmon had died by 1833.
This state of affairs had not passed without notice or concern. Whistler’s supper occurred about 15 years after official efforts in the UK to protect salmon fisheries from pollution: the Salmon Fisheries Act of 1861, which stated that “the salmon fisheries of England have of late years been greatly injured,” and sought to increase the amount of salmon available via a vast range of measures. Among other things, the act made it illegal to “knowingly permit to flow, put or knowingly permit to be put, into any waters containing salmon, or into any tributary thereof, any liquid or solid matter to such an extent to cause the waters to poison or kill fish…” It also imposed restrictions on many different forms of salmon fishing, banned the taking of young fish, and above all, set a season in which no salmon could be taken: between September 1 and February 1, though it made an exception for salmon caught with a rod and line between September and November 1. So Whistler’s mid-August salmon would have been late in the season, which is also noted by Mrs Beeton.
Mrs B also offers information on choosing a salmon, noting that one used to be able to judge a good salmon by its red gills, but that this “is not at all to be relied on, as this quality can be easily given them by art.” This almost offhand comment points to the practices of food adulteration that were endemic to Victorian times, that had been exposed mid-century, not least by Arthur Hill Hassall (1817-1894) in The Lancet, and addressed in the Adulteration of Food and Drink Act of 1860. Salmon don’t seem to be addressed directly, there is a worrying and toxic array of red pigments.
But red gills was supposedly not the only issue with the colour red. Mrs Beeton again:
AN AVERSION IN THE SALMON.—The salmon is said to have an aversion to anything red; hence, fishermen engaged in catching it do not wear jackets or caps of that colour.
At any rate, the salmon we were able to get locally was ASC-standard farmed salmon, that happened to be on offer at our local supermarket. From the perspective of historical cookery, I’m curious as to how the flavour of this would compare with the fish Whistler ate. Hype aside, there is some indication that the flavour of farmed salmon does not differ greatly from wild, although tasters note that wild salmon has a “finer grain and meaty texture” – something that might only be found now in ocean-caught (usually Pacific) salmon – though that will also be a different species.
I grabbed a big piece (572g), and promptly cut it down to size for two people, removing about 200g and putting it in the freezer (we’re being frugal here, remember?).
Whistler’s menu from the night before did not say how the salmon was served then, so we had to fake it. I poached ours the night before in a court-bouillon (water, a healthy splash of white wine vinegar, a sliced onion, a bay leaf, a clove of garlic and a healthy pinch of thyme [sadly dried, as our plant died while we were on holiday])
Escoffier’s salmon mayonnaise (from which we should omit the mayonnaise) is as follows.
Garnish the bottom of a salad-bowl with moderately seasoned, ciseled lettuce. Cover with cold, cooked and flaked salmon, thoroughly cleared of all skin and bones. Coat with mayonnaise sauce, and decorate with anchovy fillets, capers, stoned olives, small slices or roundels or quarters of hard-boiled eggs, small hearts of lettuce, a border of little roundels of radish, &c.
‘Ciseled’ lettuce is finely chopped (not something we normall do now with lettuce) – and Escoffier suggests it should be lightly seasoned. Judging from his comments, this would be oil and vinegar (three parts to one) – though he also notes that a cream dressing (essentially substitute “very fresh and not very thick cream” for oil in the above!) is particularly suited to lettuce. Olive oil is considered thoroughly acceptable (and even ‘continental’) by Mrs Beeton, so that’s what we went with. It occurred to me too late that a tarragon vinegar might be nice with the fish, too.
We had come up with two different plans for the garnishes: A) honouring Whistler by trying to make them into the shape of a peacock, or B) letting the toddler do it, as she often loves to help in the kitchen (and is very fond of many of the garnishes anyway). Plan A proved unworkable almost instantly, and as for plan B: well, it had been a long day and attention span was ebbing – as she herself has learned to say: “that’s not gonna work!” She settled down to watch Sesame Street videos and I hastily assembled this:
Together with some boiled potatoes (and, I confess, I couldn’t resist putting some potato into the frying oil for frites), these ‘leftovers’ from the fringes of a meal made a pretty good Sunday dinner.