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On magic, perfection, mystery, Elizabeth David and Mère Poulard's omelette

"one of life's simplest, quickest and most pleasant dishes." Delia Smith

"Once upon a time" begins Elizabeth David's classic essay An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. So classic that it was chosen as the title of her famous collection of essays from here and there, and in fact it's become a well-known phrase.

So let's begin with magic, although perfection is actually what started me on this, having read an article on the subject in the AFR. But I will come to that.

Fairy stories are about magic and they always begin with "once upon a time ..." "il y avait une fois ...", "c'era una volta ..." And it seems that most languages have such a phrase. So perhaps we all believe in magic - deep down, or maybe even magic that is not so otherworldly because there is everyday magic too - like cooking. Which brings me to the fairytale of Madame Poulard and her perfect omelette:

"Quite a few of these customers subsequently attempted to explain the particular magic which Madame Poulard exercised over her eggs and her frying pan in terms of those culinary secrets which are so dear to the hearts of all who believe that cookery consists of a series of conjuring tricks." Elizabeth David

Well cookery is a bit like magic sometimes - particularly when it comes to things like mayonnaise or cakes, but mostly it's practise as we aim for that perfection.

Madame Poulard lived on Mont St Michel. And if ever there was a magical place that is it - from a distance anyway. When you get up close it's mostly tawdry tourism at its worst.

We visited way back in 2003 and this is the photograph I took - the standard one you will see on all the postcards and in all the guide books. But I took this so it proves that it really is that jaw-droppingly beautiful and magic - from a distance, as I say. There is no photoshopping here. And my 'tawdry' comment is not to take away the magic of the original construction, not to mention the magic of the huge tides that turn it into an island floating in the sea at high tide.

Madame Poulard owned a restaurant called the Hôtel de la Tête d'Or on the Mont St. Michel in the village surrounding the abbey that is perched on top of this rocky outcrop on the Brittany coast. There is still a restaurant there and it still serves her omelette - well what has become known as her omelette at an eye-watering price. It was completely packed out when we were there - but then so was everything.

To continue the 'once upon a time' story though. Her omelettes became famous and everyone had their theories about how they were made. Eventually, according to Elizabeth David, when she had retired, a journalist asked her for the recipe and this is the famous reply:

"Monsieur Viel, Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you. Annette Poulard

And here comes the mystery - a mystery to which I cannot actually find the answer.

Today - the omelette that is served at La Mère Poulard - one of the first restaurants that you come to as you climb the mountain - looks like this. Which is obviously not the simple omelette that Madame Poulard described in her letter, in spite of words like authentic, real and true being brandished at will. The one served today is a soufflé omelette in which the eggs are separated, the whites beaten and folded in. Plus there are all sorts of 'secret' other things. You cannot prise the recipe out of the staff, as American food writer and ex-restaurateur David Lebovitz found. Conjuring tricks come into it too - well a lot of carnival trappings anyway. I vaguely remember you could see them making the omelettes through the window, although I could be wrong there. Performance art anyway, if not conjuring tricks. David Lebovitz does not really tell you how they taste, being somewhat oblique in his review:

"The omelets are garnis rather than farcis (stuffed), to preserve the integrity of the puffy souffléd omelet, and the ingredients don’t get lost in the eggy batter."

and then he adds:

"The debate goes on whether the omelet is worth the price... It’s not an inexpensive omelet for sure, but this is a world-renowned restaurant and experience and I felt it worth sharing with readers."

His comments are indeed a nod to the fact that food is so much more than the food itself is it not? It's the ambience, the people you are with, the occasion, the way it is presented. We did not even try to get a seat for an omelette - besides it was lunchtime and David doesn't do lunch - but I do remember myself thinking that it all looked like a bit of a tourist rip off. The magic moment for David Lebovitz was when he was given one of those beautiful copper bowls. Madame Poulard herself might turn in her grave at it all.

But which is the right recipe? The one she gave to that long ago journalist or the one that is used today to promote her memory? Or neither. Did she take the secret to her grave?

I suppose she could have just fobbed the journalist off with that basic recipe, but when you start to look at modern cooks and their tips for making a 'perfect' omelette you would have to say that they are generally closer to her simple one than the fluffy soufflé omelette served in her name today. It's a bit ironic is it not, that she could be being remembered for something she never made?

Felicity Cloake, will, of course, take you through the most common differences in approach - the picture is her end result. Not that impressive?

Elizabeth David herself goes on to give us a recipe which she calls Omelette Molière from an unpretentious restaurant in Avignon that she used to visit. And they gave her the recipe. (Incidentally The Guardian article in which it is reproduced, also reprints most of the essay An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.) In the introduction to the recipe she says:

"They purveyed some particularly delicious marc de Champagne and were always treating us to a glass or two after lunch so that by the time we piled onto the bus which was to take us home we were more than well prepared to face once more the rigours of our mistral-torn village. But even more powerful a draw than the marc was the delicious cheese omelette which was the Molière's best speciality. The recipe was given to me by the proprietress whose name I have most ungratefully forgotten, but whose omelette, were there any justice in the world, would be as celebrated as that of Madame Poulard."

And unlike La Mère Poulard, they do not seem to have capitalised on the Elizabeth David connection, but then perhaps the French don't know about her. Perfection, though, is an elusive thing is it not? I mean one day a soufflé omelette might be perfect, another, a plainer one. It depends on your mood. And I have to say that Delia's version of the soufflé omelette - a cheesy one, shown here looks much more tempting than the one served at La Mère Poulard.

The picture at the top of the page is also Delia's and you can find the recipe online although the online version is not nearly as comprehensive as the almost three pages she gives to it in Volume one of her How to Cook series.

Delia introduces her recipe thus:

"'Eggs may be dressed in multiplicity of ways but seldom are relished in any form that in a well made, expeditiously served omelette' Eliza Acton

So says Eliza, and things have not changed. She has said everything I want to say. if I can teach you how to master the 'well made, expeditiously served omelette' then I will have served you well, because you'll never be short of one of life's simplest, quickest and most pleasant dishes."

There are three memorable omelette occasions in my life. The first is the magic I felt as a child, when watching the short order cooks making omelettes through the window of Lyons Egg and Bacon section in their tea house in Oxford Street. When I think about it I think that this is the first time I ever thought of cooking as magic. They were good omelettes too. I don't think my mother did omelettes, because I think I taught myself to cook them from Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of the World. In his introduction he says:

"An omelette is perfectly easy to make, and yet so easy to spoil. One false move and the dish is ruined. It takes talent to make it right and you must be on the job every moment it is in preparation, for speed and efficiency count above all."

Which is a bit daunting, and if you do worry about perfection somewhat off-putting. But that's what a search for perfection does to you sometimes doesn't it? The trick is to get the perfect balance between aiming for perfection and not getting too upset if perfection is not achieved. Not that perfection can be achieved. As the AFR article said, from a religious point of view - only God is perfect. You have to try though don't you?

Elizabeth David describes her perfect omelette thus:

"As to the omelette itself, it seems to me to be a confection which demands the most straightforward approach. What one wants is the taste of the fresh eggs and the fresh butter, and visually, a soft bright golden roll plump and spilling out a little at the edges. It should not be a busy, important urban dish but something gentle and pastoral, with the clean scent of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs, sorrel, chives tarragon."

My second memory is of a perfectly dreadful omelette that I ate in France of all places, near the Pont du Gard. It was a Sunday and I think it was the only place open. I can't remember what David had - a microwaved hamburger? Whatever it was it was equally awful. But my omelette was also possibly microwaved, rubbery - or was it soggy? and swimming in grease. A truly awful experience.

The last experience was in Montreux where we had arrived a night early to our very plush hotel for one of those company bonus trips. We and some friends set out into the town to find dinner but rapidly decided that we could not afford anything on offer. Switzerland is like that - very expensive. Eventually, after covering a very large number of places we found a restaurant where we could just get a reasonably priced omelette and that is indeed all we had. And it was pretty good.

And did we have that glass of wine with it? The glass of wine is important to Elizabeth David:

"And although there are those who maintain that wine and egg dishes don't go together I must say I do regard a glass or two of wine as not, obviously, essential but at least as an enormous enhancement of the enjoyment of a well-cooked omelette. ... We are not in any case considering the great occasion menu but the almost primitive and elemental meal evoked by the words: 'Let's just have an omelette and a glass of wine.'

Perhaps first a slice of home-made pâté and a few olives, afterwards a fresh salad and a piece of ripe creamy cheese or some fresh figs or strawberries."

As to the wine that might go with that Omelette Molière:

"what I would choose nowadays if I had the chance would be a deliciously scented Alsation Traminer or a white burgundy such as the lovely Meursault - Genevrières of 1955, or a Loire wine, perhaps Sancerre or a Pouilly Fumé - anyway, you see what I mean. I like white wine with all cheese dishes, and especially when the cheese in question is Gruyère. No doubt this is only a passing phase, because as a wine drinker but not a wine expert one's tastes are constantly changing."

Which makes rather a mockery fo all that precision meal planning I talked about the other day. No magic in that. I notice that one publication of the book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, had a photograph on the cover of an omelette and a glass of red wine! Somebody didn't read her essay! And I also notice that Delia - or her food stylists anyway - have red wine with her cheese soufflé omelette.

"But one of the main points about the enjoyment of food and wine seems to me to lie in having what you want when you want it and in the particular combination you fancy." Elizabeth David

"scrambled eggs held together in a coagulated skin." Auguste Escoffier

"If good scrambled eggs demand patience, a good omelette takes panache."

Harold McGee

Quotes that are not really that relevant to what I have written but I liked them.


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