"Consommé shows skill and panache without shouting, like a Savile Row shirt: crisp, understated, but oozing style and class. Consommé is the Grace Kelly of soups." Hank Shaw - The Atlantic
And as Hank Shaw points out later in his article consommé like Grace Kelly died in the 80s. So why on earth am I writing about it? I mean I have never made it and you are unlikely too as well, and it seems it doesn't even appear in a Campbell's tin as painted by Andy Warhol, on our supermarket shelves any more. I mean it was an 80s icon wasn't it? Like Grace Kelly - well she was probably an icon a bit earlier than that, but an icon nevertheless. Of course why this painting - or screen print - created by Warhol - and yes, this is it - is worth so much money is a whole other area of discussion that I won't go into here.
So why am I writing about consommé? Well because it's almost the first recipe in Volume 2 of The Robert Carrier Cooking Course, and yet again I am uninspired so turning to my writer's block tricks. The first recipe was beef stock - followed by other stocks, but I decided to skip them and go to the first actual soup - which was Beef consommé. My heart sank again. Because consommé is so dead these days that some of you may not even know what it is. I almost flicked further on, but that would really be cheating.
I find it really odd, well just interesting, that in volume 2 of a five volume set, so still learning the basics, we have consommé, one of the trickiest things to make. Even chefs find it difficult.
"I never mastered consommé during my short time at a French culinary school, way back when. This failure still stands out in my mind not so much because of the magnitude of the letdown – there were plenty of others – but because this skill, unlike turning mushrooms, spinning sugar or setting crab in aspic, was one I wanted to acquire. A good consommé has a depth and clarity of flavour that is hard to beat." Yotam Ottolenghi
He is not alone, several others expressed the same opinion. So beef stock - yes - we should all have a go at making that, and even if we don't follow the rather stricter processes that most cheffy recipes include, we can still turn out something that is much better than the stuff you buy in cartons - although I do that too - stock cubes as well. They all have their place. I mean, to make stock you fundamentally just throw some bones and meat into a pot with a few veggies and seasonings, cook it for some time slowly and then strain and, in my case, freeze for use at another time. And before you make consommé (well any soup) you have to have made the stock which is the base for your consommé (or soup), so you do need to learn how to make stock.
But boy is making consommé a process.
"You will need several days to make consommé, but most of the time you can be doing other things, and you can store the broth in the fridge for several days if you get busy. Ideally, you start on a weekend and finish the consommé either during the week or even the following weekend. Sound like a lot of work? It's worth it." Hank Shaw - The Atlantic
You can read a pretty clear (pardon the pun) description of the process in Wikipedia - fundamentally you cook up your stock with more vegetables and more meat. Into this you whisk egg whites and egg shells which collect the solids. The 'raft' is eventually removed, then you refrigerate, take off the fat, warm again and filter. Now do you really want to do all that? Even the most cheffy of chefs, Heston Blumenthal thinks it's all a bit of a faff.
"The problem with this method is that, when you remove the impurities, you take out a lot of the flavour, too. So, in order to build the flavour back up, you have to add more of the meat you're making the stock out of (chicken, veal, pork, quail, etc). This seems to me to be a cumbersome and expensive way of going about things.
But there is a cunning and brilliant way to get a stock just as clear as the classic method, but without any flavour loss and, incidentally, with a great deal less fuss. Don't bother clarifying your stock after you have made it, and instead simply freeze it — in ice cube trays, so you can then take out as much or as little as you need for any particular dish. Then, when you need the clear stock, just take out the appropriate number of cubes the night before or earlier in the day, put them in one of those filters you use for making filter coffee (lined with filter paper, of course), and let the stock cubes melt through the paper. Don't touch it or stir it. Just leave it. And in a few hours you'll have a delicious, clear and concentrated stock." Heston Blumenthal
Which, I have to say sounds much easier. He didn't say how he made the initial stock though.
Then how do you serve it? Well here is how consommé is making a bit of a comeback, although the term 'consommé' is rarely used - brodo maybe - for those tortellini in brodo that seem to be so fashionable.
Or broth. There seem to be lots of elegant and fashionable Japanese clear soups for example. I assume the contents are in a flavoured broth, and not just water.
Consommé itself can be served completely plain, but it is/was often served garnished, and Robert Carrier gives several suggestions. Heston by the ways serve his with a jasmine flower. You put your decorations in the bowl and then pour the broth over the top:
"The ceremony of the serving is half the fun: Make sure everyone is at the table and have the herbs arranged in wide bowls (the shallower the dishes are, the better they'll show off the broth's clarity).
Slowly pour a little of the boiling consommé into the side of the bowl, being careful not to disturb the arrangement in the center. Watch as your guests catch a whiff of the perfume." Russ Parsons - The Baltimore Sun
Fancy food and a long, long way from what we ordinary everyday cooks aspire to. One of those things that looks so simple - so almost nothing - but which is, so they say, divine.
"Serve it to people you love, and take a little pride in explaining to them what you went through to achieve clarity. It can be a religious experience. ... It is that clarity that is so difficult to achieve—in life, in writing, and in soup." Hank Shaw - The Atlantic
Not really what I would have expected so early on in a cooking course though. But then again I guess soup is a basic thing, and if you are doing soup you would include consommé. Well if you are Robert Carrier writing in the 70s anyway.