"According to the great, Michelin-feted chef Pierre Koffmann, oeufs à la neige, as this dish is also known across the Channel, are “a French take on what the English would describe as ‘a nursery pudding’”. We’re reared on suet dumplings and steaming semolina, while the French get “pillowy, airy meringues floating on a velvety bed of vanilla custard”: no wonder the two nations sometimes find it hard to see eye to eye." Felicity Cloake
This began as another post inspired by Le Plat du Tour recipes - this time the classic French dessert called Iles flottantes, but when I started 'researching' I found the above quote from Felicity Cloake - or really from Pierre Koffmann.
However, it rang bells, mostly for the difference, or at least the perceived difference between England and France but also it made me ponder on nursery food - then and now anyway as well.
The England and France thing was particularly pertinent because I have just finished reading Julian Barnes' The Man in the Red Coat, which is a sort of a biography of a Belle Epoque French gynaecologist. I say 'sort of' because, well it's Julian Barnes, and also because it is so much more than a single biography. I guess it's not an easy read but if you are hungering for some intellectual stimulus whilst learning a few things along the way I do recommend it.
One of the things he constantly comes back to is the love/hate relationship that exists between the French and the English - and yes, although he mostly says British, I do think it is mostly the English and sometimes he does specifically say 'the English'. The Scottish/French relationship is rather different I suspect because of history, and the Welsh probably don't think much about the French at all. And it is very definitely a love/hate thing with ridiculous prejudices on either side. Which is odd really because basically and ethnically they are all from the same stock. And yet, so different.
I had never, ever thought of Iles Flottantes in terms of nursery food. I had thought of it as an elegant dessert. One that I was not likely to be very proficient at, because it involves making a proper custard and meringue. I just cannot make meringue. Although having now watched Guillaume Brahimi make it I might give it a go one day. After all, where my meringues fail is in the cooking in the oven, but these meringues are simply poached gently in simmering water. I could do that! Mind you Felicity Cloake had this to say of that process.
"I’d strongly recommend not trying to cook too many at once: these fragile icebergs have a wide turning circle, and an annoying tendency to stick together in the pan if they come into contact with each other." Felicity Cloake
So maybe not so simple after all. Indeed at the beginning of her article she says:
"Those “pillowy, airy meringues” don’t just happen by accident: in fact, I have more than a few disasters with the recipes I test." Felicity Cloake
Guillaume Brahimi, of course, tarted up his Iles flottantes. His custard is a lavender custard, and he decorates it with a lavender flavoured praline. And there's not a lot of custard - more islands, less sea. Nevertheless I don't doubt it's delicious.
Felicity Cloake takes you through the process testing out the best way to do each step and I have to say that her finished version was one of the most elegant that I found.
For it is elegant isn't it? Well I think so anyway. Which is not a term one uses when referring to nursery food. Anyway does such a thing exist these days. Even in the homes of the super rich I doubt that there is a room or an area called the nursery. It would just be the children's quarters wouldn't it? And to me the word nursery also applies to babies and very small children - toddlers, although in Victorian times it would have applied to all children up to teenage I suspect.
The thing that 'nursery food' conjures up is something bland and somehow milky isn't it? And I suppose that Iles flottantes would fit that description. At its simplest it would look something like this one, which is actually not at all simple - it's called Salted caramel snow egg with pickled apple and vanilla crème anglaise! Which is rather a mouthful and not at all simple. It's called snow egg, because the other French name for this dish is Oeufs à la neige. It's an example of how these days the simple is tarted up with flavoured custards and things on top. Because you just can't be that simple. But there is something soothing about bland - chicken soup, rice pudding - I like rice pudding, smashed avocado ...
But if you are truly talking nursery food in terms of very small children, and their very first foods, surely it's more to do with texture than taste. I used to purée things for my first child myself, using my mouli - it was a long time ago - I didn't have a blender or a food processor. And I would purée anything. I remember once serving him sauerkraut and he didn't resist. His very first foods, were, of course, those rice cereal things you get, but once past that stage it was puréed anything. Well basically our leftovers. And I don't think he knocked anything back. Do children in countries that eat highly spiced foods, eat bland foods when very young, or just puréed foods?
Tonight we are not eating bland food or even nursery food but it was cooked with the children so two households are having dinner cooked by the children of the house. It's chicken butter cream. More about that tomorrow. And it was pretty simple.