Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cooking for a king

Last weekend’s working visit to Brighton allowed me, for the first time, to drop in at the Royal Pavilion.

The seaside getaway for the Prince Regent – later George IV – began life as a small farmhouse in the town in 1786.

Developed a year later by Henry Holland, the Pavilion as we recognise it today was the work of designer John Nash between 1815 and 1822.

But if we’re all familiar with it’s Indian-styled exterior, the inside comes as a shock, as it crosses Asia to China for influence.

Wildly opulent – yet also surprisingly cosy in some areas – it’s a fascinating place to wander around. The banqueting hall is quite extraordinary, and the music room is simply wonderful, with its swags of shimmering curtains in blue and red, held in place by vast, curling green dragons.

Both are housed under vast domes, with massive, extravagant light fittings suspended beneath.

But while this is most certainly worth seeing, what I’d really visited for was the chance to view the kitchen.

Why? Well, because it’s historic in its own right, but also because this was a kitchen in which Marie-Antoine Carême, the world’s first superstar chef and the creator of what we understand as French-style haute cuisine, had cooked.

The Prince Regent, as he still was then, had persuaded Carême to join him in England in 1816, where he stayed for just seven months.

But on 18 January 1817, Carême cooked the most famous banquet of his brief stay: as the Prince hosted the Grandduke Nicholas of Russia, the Frenchman prepared no fewer than 120 separate dishes, of which a quite staggering 40 were entrées.

Otherwise, things seemed to come in eights: eight different roasts, eight soups .... well, until you get to the entremets, of which there are 32, half of those being desserts.

It’s hard to imagine why the Prince Regent suffered from gout.

The banquet also included eight piéces montées – Carême’s famous, architectural table decorations made out of sugar, marzipan or pastry, and which on this day ranged from an Italian pavilion to a Welsh hermitage, via a “giant Parisian meringue” and a “grand oriental pavilion”.

There seems to be some dispute as to how all this was served. Some argue that Carême was a firm believer in the à la française method – whereby all the dishes were displayed at once when diners arrived.

Others claim that the chef had, by that time, switched to service à la russe, which is essentially how we are served today, with the courses in a sequence.

Looking at the dining hall as it is seen now, it’s well nigh impossible to imagine how you’d get all those dishes, plus the sculptures, onto a single table at one go.

And then there was the inevitable issue of keeping everything hot.

At least the kitchen was unusually near to the banqueting hall for the time – the two are separated only by a narrow room in which the food presentation was finalised. It was large, at 1,600 square feet, and also the most technologically advanced of its day.

Not only was there an open fire that could take several joints of different sizes all at the same time, there was also a line of charcoal stoves and, in the centre of it all, a ‘butler’s table’ heated with steam.

The whole room was well ventilated and enjoyed natural light from the high roof that was glazed on all four sides as it rose above the centre of the kitchen.

Not that décor is forgotten, and the dining hall is reflected here, with copper palm leaves at the top of each of the four columns that help support the roof.

Carême had worked as a kitchen boy in a cheap chop house in the capital, receiving bed and board in return, after his parents had abandoned him at the height of the French Revolution.

In post-revolutionary France, as the culinary culture of the aristocracy spread out beyond the chateaus and castles in a democratising of food pleasure, Carême was formally apprenticed to a famous pâtissier, Sylvain Bailly.

He only left there to open his own shop, Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix, which he kept going until 1813.

Although Napoleon Bonaparte was himself not particularly interested in food, he understood its social importance, and when he purchased the estate of Château de Valençay, near Paris, as a diplomatic gathering place, he gave the famous diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord the job of arranging matters.

Talleyrand, for whom Carême had already cooked, went with him.

But after the fall of Napoleon, he was available for hire, and the Prince Regent stepped in.

And so there the kitchen remains – restored greatly after the pavilion was used as a military hospital during WWI. The array of copper pans, for instance, includes many that bear the stamp not of George, but of the Duke of Wellington – which has a certain irony, given his role in the defeat of Carême’s old boss.

It is fascinating to visit – although there are two minor irritants. First, the obsessive notices about no photography. These are highly prevalent in the UK – yet I’ve not seen anything similar on the Continent.

For goodness sake, in Berlin you can even photograph the famous bust of Nefertiti – that’s 3,300 years old and they don’t get hysterical.

One of the few places in the UK I’ve come across where they have a similar attitude is Glasgow’s Kelvingrove – and good for them.

The postcard selection at the Pavilion shop is limited – and here is the second gripe: there was no book about the kitchen itself and the food and Carême and so forth. The general guide was exceptionally limited – I already knew more about the place of this kitchen historically than it contains. And to get a copy of the famous menu, the only option is a poster.

Having paid a tenner to get in (which I don’t begrudge), I didn’t feel any qualms when, on realising that there were no security staff on duty in the kitchen and I was entirely on my own, I could whip out my phone for a few quick shots.

And if anyone from the Pavilion reads this – no, I didn’t touch anything. I entirely understand the reason for ‘no touching’: it’s completely different to ‘no photography’.

Anyway, once outside, there was a need for dinner. So where and what to eat after such an educative visit?

I opted for nearby English’s, which advertises itself as “the south’s leading seafood restaurant and oyster bar”, and is a rather quaint affair, housed in three old fishermen’s cottages.

Seated in the very bijoux Red Room, which apparently “echoes back” to the Edwardian era and includes murals by local artist Marcus Stone (1840-1821), what strikes most obviously is that is most certainly does ‘echo’ Belle Époque Paris, with its suggestions of the can-can and the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec.

Hankering after something traditional, I opted to start with potted shrimps, served warm. Flint Owl Bakery bread, lightly toasted, was a reminder of how good proper bread can be, and the shrimps in their melted butter were divinely sweet and soothing.

My mistake, if you can call it that, was in selecting pan-seared monkfish, with chestnut and sweet potato hash, and creamed savoy cabbage and pancetta, for my main course.

A “mistake” because, like the shrimps, it was also a very sweet dish. And although the constituent parts were all very good, the combined sweetness was close to overwhelming – even the generous half of lemon that arrived with it did little to really cut through all that sweetness.

For dessert, a cleansing lemon sorbet was simply essential.

So, while hardly Carême, nonetheless enjoyable, if a tad flawed.

But then again, who on earth could eat a Carême banquet now?

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