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Omelette at the Savoy

"There is no reason why this dish should ever change. I can’t improve it" Tom Kerridge

On the other hand Felicity Cloake says that it's

"a magnet for chefs wanting to mess about with it" Felicity Cloake

What am I talking about here? Well it's an omelette but no ordinary omelette which has led me into the byways of an Edwardian novelist, my university days, an English conurbation, the Savoy hotel, smoked fish issues, Gordon Ramsay and foodie websites. Such are the delights of 'researching' anything to do with food. You might start with a particular dish or recipe but before you know where you are you are miles away from your starting point.

The beginning in this case was Delia and her recipe for Easy omelette Arnold Bennett which I came across a couple of weeks ago, when searching for something to cook for dinner from a guru. It was Delia's turn and I settled on that peppered beef fillet. However, I am always looking for post ideas as well as something to cook - and yes sometimes they combine, but not this time. Nevertheless I was reminded of the existence of this dish because of her recipe and since it is related to Arnold Bennett who wrote novels centred on the conurbation of Stoke-on-Trent where I went to university, it also ticked the nostalgia box. It's worth noting however, that even Delia's 'easy' version is really not that easy, because even her version includes a sauce.

So what is an Omelette Arnold Bennett? Well it seems to be an omelette consisting of three layers - the omelette, then smoked haddock cooked/mixed with a mornay, béchamel or hollandaise sauce, then topped with another one of those sauces and grilled with Parmesan cheese on top. And variations thereof of course. Theodora Fitzgibbon in her book A Taste of London in Food and Pictures gives a recipe which is much simpler - beat your eggs and cook your omelette until still creamy, top with fish and grated cheese, then pour over cream and grill. I have no idea whether this is the original recipe or not - indeed I have not really found any recipe that claims to be original. Felicity Cloake in her rundown on making the perfect version, shown below, offers that:

"According to Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s book The Prawn Cocktail Years, the original recipe is topped with a mixture of hollandaise and bechamel sauces cut with whipped cream. Not only does this require an entire battery of pans and take nearly an hour, but, though delicious, the results are so rich and thick that we struggle to finish one between two of us."

Note that 'perfect' does not necessarily mean 'authentic'.

On to the origin story and who is Arnold Bennett anyway? Well he was a journalist, theatre critic, but most notably a prolific novelist of the Edwardian era, scoffed at by many and little known these days. I have never read him but always intended to and Felicity Cloake, for one, thinks he is 'criminally underrated'. Even the origin story varies slightly although the setting is always the same - the Savoy Hotel in The Strand in London. Below are an 1890 photograph of the Strand, but alas not the hotel in Theodora Fitzgibbon's book; a 1900 photo of the entrance and an 1889 painting of the hotel.

The last two photos are interesting to me. I remember passing by the entrance in the photo many times. It's in The Strand and not very imposing - a mere glimpse of a small entrance at the end of a dark and narrow laneway, but as you can see it's a very large building, which actually fronts The Embankment. Needless to say I have never been inside.

Back to origins:

"The story goes that the dish was created for Bennett in 1929 by Jean Baptiste Virlogeux, a chef at the Savoy, during his stay while researching the second of two books he set in the hotel" Felicity Cloake

Arnold Bennett is true, the chef is true, the Savoy is true, but why he was there varies. Researching or actually writing a novel, or merely dropping in after watching the latest play or show in his role as theatre critic; regularly or from time to time; for breakfast or supper? Not that it really matters - it seems to have been made for him. We don't really care why he was there, or how often.

Ever since that time, however, it has been a feature of the menu. The picture at the top of the page is the current version served by the Savoy Grill which is one of the Gordon Ramsay Restaurants, although it is unclear whether it is Gordon Ramsay's recipe or the Savoy executive chef, for Gordon Ramsay doesn't cook there. He merely owns it.

As did Marcus Wareing who also has a recipe (shown here) which is featured on the delicious. UK website.

Indeed when I started looking for recipes it was interesting that almost the entire first page was taken up by recipes from posh restaurants or gourmet chefs, whereas normally the first thing you get is something from a foodie blog. Below are the celebrity chef versions: Dominic Chapman on the Great British Chefs website and Smoked haddock omelette from Tom Kerridge who found that a descriptive title on his restaurant menu was more attractive to his customers than a reference to Arnold Bennett.

Then you really get into the variations with the magazines like delicious. UK offering a posh but different version Omelette Arnold Bennett with horseradish and chives as well as a Quick omelette Arnold Bennett; and then finally I found three foodie blogs with their slightly varying attempts at either being 'authentic' or simple - Lost in Food; The Chef Mimi Blog and Lavender and Lovage.

Extremes? Well there is an Arnold Bennett frittatta from Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay also made an Arnold Bennett soufflé for the Savoy, which seems to have had a lot of criticism which may relate to there being no recipe available. 'Dog food' was one epithet that was offered, although it looks much better than that in the photo.

But that's not all, there are two more things that arose as I wandered the web.

The main ingredient for this recipe - apart from the eggs of course, is the smoked haddock, which is a white fish that has been smoked - not an oily fish like salmon, trout and mackerel. Now you can't get smoked haddock here, but you can get smoked cod instead. However, that comes from South Africa and apparently has lots of chemicals in it. Now why can't we get smoked barramundi or smoked blue eye or any other white fish? These thicker fillets of smoked fish are vital to dishes like fish pie and kedgeree - and apparently Omelette Arnold Bennet. I asked the question and didn't really get the answer. I think there are a couple of small artisan places somewhere like Tasmania, but nothing on a larger scale. The overwhelming response was to smoke your own! Now who's going to do that, even if it is, supposedly simple to do in a Weber with wood chips from Bunnings? Or is that an experiment for the future? Yet another reason for not attempting this recipe I suppose. Or is it a reason for someone to start a campaign or even a business smoking white fish?

Final detour. As I reported, Arnold Bennett came from the five towns of Stoke-on-Trent, Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, and Longton, which make up the conurbation locally known as the Pots - the Potteries. I have never understood why Newcastle-under-Lyme, which is also part of the conurbation is not included. This is where Wedgewood and co. set up their factories to make all of that expensive and wonderful English pottery, that graced Victorian homes. It was a prime example of a Victorian industrial town filled with coal slag heaps, smoke and rows of dingy terrace houses, and the pottery kilns. Which is why this part of the Midlands is called the Black Country.

Which led me into nostalgia for the place, which even then was fairly dingy. In fact in some places, it was so ugly that it was almost beautiful if you know what I mean.

Nostalgia because I went to Keele University, situated on 600 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds à la Capability Brown, on a hill a few miles outside of town. Above it all. This is an aerial view of it now - and it's not all in the picture - there is more at the bottom, and there are, of course, many more buildings scattered around the original manor house at the centre than there were in my time, although the major buildings - the union, the library, the chapel were all there. In fact in 2017 it was ranked first in the world amongst 516 universities in 74 countries for its green setting and infrastructure. Plus it regularly comes out top for student satisfaction in the UK.

I was so lucky to be there. Privileged even. But I won't be eating Omelette Arnold Bennett - and I don't think we were ever served it there either. I wonder if they do now. They have an actual Food Court now, so maybe.

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