Ever since I picked up The Gastronomical Me
and read the description of a the meal served up to MFK Fisher by a young servant “almost fanatical about food” I have longed to eat that meal myself. Now through an extraordinary feat of culinary time travel this meal is going to take place at Quo Vadis in June.
It is Northern Burgundy 1936. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher takes a cross-country walk to an old mill, which has been bought by a celebrated chef from Paris and turned into “one of France’s most famous restaurants”. She is hot and dusty. Her parched throat stings with the thought of a drysherry. A sherry she is unlikely to be offered. She makes peace with the thought of the Dubonnet she will most likely be given but in the first of a series of almost miraculous flights of intuition the waitress hands her a dry sherry “chosen in Spain for Monsieur Paul”.
That this is no ordinary meal is signified by the first couple of sentences which one might overlook (but do so at your peril), they describe the servant as “fanatical, “like a medieval woman possessed by the devil.”
This fantastical tale describes an extreme form of dining; one in which the will of the diner is subjugated by the skill of the chef. This (not the homicidal atmosphere) is what I think is worth recreating. This air of exquisite perfection at Quo Vadis will be reimagined with Jeremy Lee's help at a lunch at Quo Vadis.
MFK Fisher is a lover of purity of effect, of the skilfully wrought dish made with the perfect ingredients. Her ability is not to recreate reality faithfully but to offer an embellished version of it (and so can we). She told tall tales about her life, tales in which she became a super sophisticated version of her real self, one who dined on the most sumptuous food and wine; her appeal lies in the fact that the reader is always included, she may be a little haughty but we dine alongside her. In this tale the spirit of perfection is one of the reasons you want to eat this food so much despite the oddness of the waitress.
This is a fairy tale, a fairy tale that takes place in the past but also outside time. Just as is in a fairy tale the narrator has come across an almost deserted palace. Everything is laid out as if guests are expected at any moment but no one is there. The dishes appear almost magically, we never see the chef. Everything about this meal is heightened, the attention of the servant is too much, the cooking is of almost sublime excellence, the courses exceed what MFK wants to eat but she eats them anyway. In this spirit of excess it also seems to be many seasons at once. The end result is that the diner is fed to the gills, her wishes delightfully overridden. MFK Fisher knows she has miles to walk but yet she is powerless to resist. This idea of an exquisite meal that overwhelms you and removes you from the everyday is the ideal here and what I hope will be brought o life at Quo Vadis.
A glass of very dry sherry
Eight Hors d’oeuvres – to include:
Little baked onions marinated in broth then baked in the oven with olive oil and pepper,
Pickled herring “truly the best I had ever eaten, mild, pungent, meaty as fresh nuts.”
Puy lentils with minced fresh herbs, tarragon vinegar and walnut oil,
A sizzling plate of broiled endive
Monsieur Paul’s pâté (made with goose breast, pork, egg yolk and marc “and a suspicion of nutmeg”,
Truite au bleu with new potatoes and a sauce made butter, cream and chives.
& the meal MFK Fisher doesn’t fancy
“shoulder of lamb in the English style, with baked potatoes, green beans, and a sweet.”
Chablis 1929 “well cooled, please but not iced”
Crisp green salad
Terrine of wild duck
The most beautiful apple tart
A glass (or two) of marc