Aspic - a first recipe and surely a dead one?

"Jelly covered piles of carved food are an excellent visual shorthand for absurdly poncey cuisine." Tim Hayward - The Guardian


This first recipe - which is actually for beef aspic - is from the last volume of The Robert Carrier Cookery Course, and in some ways is a fitting recipe to close this particular little burst of Robert Carrier. Because the first recipe is just aspic - sort of jellied consommé - which we have done - I decided to look at aspic in general and his second recipe - Poached eggs in aspic. This is just a picture I found on the net of the dish. I'm not going to bother with directing you to recipes because I know that none of you are actually going to have a go at this. The book was written in 1974, but the most famous version of this dish - in modern times anyway - is from Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking volume 1 which was published in 1961.


This is her version from her later book The Way to Cook, and it looks very similar to the Robert Carrier version - well as he describes it. There is no picture. He talks about cutting carrots into flower shapes. Anyway - pretty I guess although the other Julie - the Julie who cooked her way through her book apparently thought it was the most difficult and most unsuccessful of all of Julia Child's recipes.


It's yet another retro dish but not one that you will find much today. Neither will you find much aspic - other than in English pork pies and various pâtés and terrines. I doubt there is an instagram page for aspic - although apparently there was a craze for gelatine on Instagram. Savoury jellies are very rarely found these days, except in the rarified atmosphere of Michelin starred restaurants.

But in the 50s and all the way into the 70s, and maybe the 80s aspic was big with lots of fancy, over the top things served - as shown in this Jell-O ad. Can you imagine the average housewife doing this, even if it was aspic out of a packet? I read one of Carrier's recipes and the construction involved multiple layers with refrigeration in between.


"It was Carême, the man who believed that cookery was a sub-discipline of architecture, who turned a simple kitchen trick into an art form." Tim Hayward - The Guardian


Not that aspic is a relatively modern invention. It is ancient, being made from boiled down bones - so a waste product from the abattoirs I guess. The Romans are famous for their Larks' tongues in aspic, which supposedly used 1000 lark's tongues. Horrific - it really doesn't bear thinking about. No wonder there are not many larks left these days - they were eaten for centuries and very possibly their tongues too. Larks are not that big, so the tongues must be tiny. Do birds even have tongues?


According to one writer the craze for aspic in the fifties arose from people wanting to show off their wealth:


"We’ve all wondered what the hell could motivate someone to [prepare, serve, and eat so many gel-based foods] — well, it was simply so they could brag about owning a refrigerator. You can’t solidify gelatin without refrigeration, and so you couldn’t serve Jellied Bouillon with Frankfurters unless you were above a certain income level … So people started jellying vegetables, meats, salads, cream, and pretty much everything in their kitchen." The Good Old Days

Which brings me back to the dish of the day, as it were, Poached eggs in aspic - or Oeufs en gelée. According to one blogger they can be found in most charcuteries in Paris - this is an example she gave - one in which the egg is wrapped in ham. The writer - Clotilde - loves them:


"First, there is the simple joy of freeing the egg from its thin plastic mold, running a knife around the aspic, squeezing the supple sides of the cup, and plopping its contents onto your plate. Secondly, you get to cut through the whole thing with your fork, rupturing the yolk and forming a golden puddle that just begs to be dabbed with a piece of fresh baguette. And then, as you eat your way through the egg, each bite reveals clean and fresh flavors, the glistening smoothness of the aspic responding marvellously well to the rich velvet of the yolk." Clotilde - Chocolate and Zucchini


She admits to never having cooked one, but then I guess if they are available in your local charcuterie why would you bother? Robert Carrier is also a fan - but then he is spruiking his recipe:


"one of the most agreeable first courses I know is a simple poached egg set in tarragon - or Madeira-flavoured aspic. The amber-tinted aspic, shimmering and cool, just firm enough to hold the egg; the egg itself, cooked to the point of perfection with its yolk still soft and runny; a design of tender tarragon leaves glinting greenly against the soft whiteness of the egg." Robert Carrier


Mind you there are others who are even more vehement - but in disgust.


" … it was like a big wine gum of pus, only not that nice." A. A. Gill


"Not only did this taste terrible and have a horrible texture, it was also time-consuming. I can now say I have spent the better part of two days making something that I only took one bite of." Laura the Gastronaut


Which is enough to put you off for life and I have to say I don't think I really fancy a cold poached egg. It is an haute cuisine classic though and was being devoured in the first class lounge on the Titanic on the day it went down into the ice-cold sea. The first item on the menu - how do they know that? - was Oeufs de caille en aspic et caviar (Quail Eggs in Aspic with Caviar).


As I said, this is the last volume of the cookery course, and the last of Robert Carrier's books for now. Here he is on the cover looking dapper as always, and about to sprinkle cheese on something that looks like a cross between a quiche, a pissaladière and a pizza. Rather more tempting than eggs in aspic. The other chapters in this book cover Pan-frying and sautéing; Deep-frying fish, poultry, fritters and beignets; Cooking game; Oriental vegetables and salads; Baking with yeast and Ice creams and Bombes. A fine mix of retro and modern. Indeed it is interesting to see which of those categories have thrived - Pan-frying and sautéing, Oriental vegetable and salads, (though an outdated use of words - we say Asian these days, not Oriental - which is interesting in itself). Deep-frying is, of course, still popular and always will be, but I think we are a bit more aware of the bad health aspects of this these days. Baking with yeast - well COVID made us all bake bread we are told. But bombes - a retro thing surely - and game - not very big here - other than kangaroo, but it still is in Europe. He was a man of his time, flamboyant and poncey with some very fussy food suggestions, but he was also a man well-ahead of his time with a vast repertoire of dishes that we still delight in making in this house, and in my children's houses today. Tasty, easy, and often surprising. He is a master.


Jane Grigson is next on the bookshelf. A little later and a little more homely, yet erudite.




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