Magazine article The Spectator

Fit for a King

Magazine article The Spectator

Fit for a King

Article excerpt

Food for thought

Madame du Barry was not as famous a maitresse en titre of Louis XV as her predecessor, Madame de Pompadour (the subject of two current exhibitions in London), but she left a greater culinary legacy. She has a recipe for woodcock named after her, a company (Comtesse Dubarry) selling foie gras in the Gers, and she is for ever associated with cauliflower soup. But I have no idea how Crime Dubarry came to be so called. Did she spoon the creamy liquid into the mouth of the dying king? Or was there perhaps some association between cauliflower heads and the powdered wigs of the period?

In her French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David recounts, from an old French recipe book, how a friend of Chateaubriand and of the fashionable political and literary hostess of early 19th-century Paris, Madame Recamier, would always serve them cauliflower soup when they came to dine, and they would complain if they were offered anything else as a starter.

The soup is usually made by cooking a sliced onion or leek in butter, adding cauliflower sprigs (let's try to avoid calling them florets), then milk and water and seasoning. After simmering for 25 minutes and liquidising, the soup may be thickened with a bechamel sauce and served with chopped chervil.

Cauliflower supposedly came originally from the Middle East, and may not have appeared in Britain and France until the 17th century. It was certainly fashionable fare at the court of Louis XV, and remained so after the Revolution, at least as a soup if not as a vegetable eaten with meat. I was rather shocked to read that Elizabeth David, perhaps taking her cue from the French, had no time for cauliflower unless made into a creamed soup, commenting on its 'normal coarse flavour and soggy texture'. She must have been thinking of the bad old days of boiling cauliflower to a watery mush, and of the description of the vegetable on menu cards at Victorian dining tables as chou-fleur a l'eau.

But I am surprised she did not appreciate cauliflower cooked al dente, with a white sauce and a sprinkling of parsley, one of the best accompaniments, in my view, to roast beef. Though cauliflowers are now continuously available in the shops, the traditional spring-sown varieties are at their best in autumn, and at this time of year are perhaps the best of the brassicas. …

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