THERE’S A STORY about a Paris chef who used a meat cleaver to guillotine a man who shook salt on sole bonne femme the chef had already seasoned to perfection. At his murder trial he pleaded that seeing his masterpiece destroyed by an insensate clod had driven him temporarily insane. The jury, with a French appreciation of haute cuisine, speedily acquitted him.
I thought of this as 1 sat down to a twenty-five-dollar-a-plate dinner at Toronto’s elegant L’Aiglon Restaurant with forty members of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, which is one of an increasing number of organizations in Canada devoted to gastronomy — a word Webster’s Dictionary defines as the “art or science of good eating.” For there was, I noticed, no salt on the table. There was no pepper, either, and there were no water tumblers — just clusters of thin-stemmed crystal glasses. / continued overleaf
THE NEW GASTRONOMY COlltiflhI('d
Seven courses, three wines, coffee, liqueurs, companionable gourmet talk - a bargain at $25 a plate
There were no flowers, for the fragrance can clash with the bouquet of a delicate wine.
We had no strong spirits before the meal. Instead, we had apéritifs, such as sherry and vermouth, that would sharpen, not dull, the taste buds. Anybody who had dared light a cigarette or cigar until after the dessert would have been exiled instantly to a remote lunch counter.
By an unwritten law we refrained from discussing personal affairs, business, politics and religion so that we would not be distracted from the delights of seven courses, three wines, and coffee and liqueurs.
This was, technically, a diner amical — an informal dinner. At a formal dinner we would have had, half way through, an intermède or pause in which we would have toyed with a sherbet to recondition our palates. There would have been additional wines, too, and the cost would have been higher. The Rôtisseurs have paid up to $47.50 a plate. Yet they get a bargain. If they were to order the same dishes and wines in the same restaurants, as individuals, rather than as a group, the price would be approximately double. In short, it is now possible in Canada to pay fifty to one hundred dollars per person for a meal. What’s surprising — or more surprising — is that there are a fair number of people in our affluent society who do this at least occasionally. L’Aiglon, no more expensive than dozens of top restaurants, lists vintage wines at as much as twenty-three dollars a bottle.
Adieu, meat-and-potatoes man
The Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs traces its history back to 1248, claims to be the largest and most important of its kind in the world, and has baillages, or branches, in more than a score of countries. It and kindred brotherhoods may be ancient elsewhere but for the most part are new in Canada. The first Canadian feast of the Rôtisseurs was in May, 1961. Les Amis d'Escoffier, composed mainly of chefs and hotelmen, had started four years earlier. But, like the Rôtisseurs, Le Club Gastronomique Prosper Montagné, L’Association des Gastronomes Amateurs de Poisson, Compagnons de la Bonne Table, Le Club Gargantua, Les Gourmets du Nord, and
others have come into being in this country in the present decade.
All are a manifestation of the rising popularity of fine food and drink in a nation that, in the not distant past, tended to confuse gastronomy with gluttony. The Canadian had a habit of saying, “I’m strictly a meat-andpotatoes man, myself.” Most of us liked plain stuff. We drank for the wallop, not to savor a magnificent Burgundy or Rhine. If our food was mediocre, that was how we wanted it.
I once introduced a French-born woman, an incomparable cook, to Walter Jones, then premier of spud-growing Prince Edward Island. He was complaining about the surplus of potatoes. “There are half a hundred ways to cook potatoes,” she said. “Why not bring out a book of potato recipes? Mightn’t that boost sales?”
“Half a hundred ways to cook potatoes!” Jones snapped. “There’s one way they’re fit to eat — boiled, that’s how!”
In those days, less than twenty years ago, the average woman felt well supplied if she had one or two cookbooks. Now, the publishers can’t seem to roll cookbooks off the presses fast enough. There’s a cookbook club — Doubleday’s Cook Book Guild — with thousands of members. There are books on cooking with herbs, cooking with wine, cooking with fruit; on French cooking, Italian cooking, Spanish cooking, Brazilian cooking, German cooking, Scandinavian cooking, Polish cooking, Hungarian cooking, Jewish cooking, Irish cooking, Scottish cooking, English cooking, and, for all I know, Hottentot cooking. There is a book on American Indian cooking, a bachelor’s cookbook, a cookbook for single girls, and there are health cookbooks galore.
In Canada’s larger cities, there are the hostess shops in department stores, with roast pheasant at eight or nine dollars a tin, roast grouse at four or five dollars, and truffles at three dollars-plus for a tiny can the size of a pillbox. The same shops have caviar at forty dollars (or more) a pound, and pâté de foie gras in microscopic containers at magnified prices.
Apart from the hostess shops there are the gourmet counters at the supermarkets, cheese stores with more than a hundred varieties of cheese, Italian food stores with their barrels of green and black / continued on page 43
Why the growing interest in food? New leisure, money and sophistication
THE NEW GASTRONOMY
continued from page 18
olives, their waxed and stringbound cheeses and spicy sausages and hams hanging from hooks. There are Polish and Hungarian stores, German stores, Japanese and Chinese stores. In one shop in Toronto’s Chinatown more Occidentals than Orientals buy ginger root, dried mushrooms and other Chinese foods. The shop has two Chinese cookbooks in the window — in English.
Meanwhile, there has been a boom in importing things once unknown in Canada: fresh Dover sole and Scandinavian rainbow trout flown across the Atlantic, hearts of palm, tropical fruits too perishable to be transported by old-fashioned methods.
There has been a corresponding boom, around metropolitan centres, in the raising of pheasants and grouse, particularly for the fancy restaurant trade. It was a pheasant farmer forty miles from Toronto who provided the main course — íe salmis de faisan au riz sauvage — at the dîner amical of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs at L’Aiglon, the luxurious establishment owned by Cliff Missios, a Romanian who, prior to opening L’Aiglon five years ago, had restaurants first in Bucharest, later in Paris. His chef is Coco Svetko, a jovial Yugoslavian who has devoted years to enchanting the palate. Missios also has with him Emile Baldusi, once a favorite waiter of Sir Winston Churchill in London.
The three — Missios, Svetko and Baldusi — are typical of the Europeans who, since the war, have had such an impact on Canadian eating habits.
But there have, as Missios points out, been other factors. The travel explosion has introduced Canadians to the foods and wines of other lands. Canadians have more leisure to linger over meals, more money to spend on them, and are more sophisticated. Certainly, there is a new attitude about cooking. The Canadian husband, whose father wouldn’t have been caught dead hovering anxiously over a stove, boasts about his culinary skill. Eating is less routine, more varied, more adventurous. Canadian wine, which most of us once regarded as a cheap intoxicant for the pathetic creatures on skid row, has — or some of it has — become acceptable to aficionados. And dining out in an excellent restaurant (and I mean an excellent restaurant, not a run-of-themine hash house) has turned into a form of entertainment, much like the theatre, the opera, the ballet or the concert.
Members of the Confrérie and its counterparts are like patrons who buy season tickets to the symphony. And they learn about food and wine, in the same manner that the symphony-goer, if he wants value for his investment, learns about music.
There is no chance that we will return to the gustatory extravaganzas of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, who ate the brains of six hundred ostriches at a sitting. Nor will we re-
turn to the highly caloric Victorian opulence of Soyer, the noted chef, who created a pie costing five hundred guineas (thousands of dollars in today’s money) filled with the noix or choice morsels from each side of the backs of capons, grouse, pheasants, partridges, plovers, snipe, woodcock and pigeons, cooked in green-turtle fat.
But a gourmet dinner, in this age of refrigeration and jet transportation, probably surpasses the feasts of the Romans — and the Victorians — qualitatively if not quantitatively.
What did the Rôtisseurs have at their twenty-five-dollar dîner amical at L’Aiglon? Well, after the apéritifs we sat down to le pâté de foie gras
en gelée — small mounds of pâté with a thin covering of jelly. The pâté was compounded from the livers of the unfortunate geese of Strasbourg, France, which are force-fed until their livers swell and attain a succulent tenderness. The birds, by then, are too fat to waddle or to be sold as poultry, but each liver sells for more
than a whole ordinary goose. In the pâté there were slivers of truffles, those subterranean fungi almost, if not quite, worth their weight in gold, which the Italians hunt with pigs that have been trained to smell them out, as beagle hounds are trained to smell out rabbits.
While the pâté was vanishing, the sommelier was filling our glasses with Huge! Sylvaner I960, a dry white wine, and in the kitchen Coco Svetko’s assistants were ladling out le con-
sommé Célestine au Xérès — consommé with sherry. Jean Zonda, chef of Rideau Hall, the governor-general’s residence at Ottawa, sat opposite me. He thought the magic flavor of the steaming bowls revealed a trace of basil, while I thought maybe it was a pinch of ginger. Both of us were wrong. Coco Svetko told me later. The consommé took him more than ten hours to make. He started with cracked beef bones that he boiled for five hours in a huge pot. He removed the
bones, then, and put in ground meat, celery, carrots, leeks and tomatoes, together with salt, pepper and broken eggs, shell and all. He boiled this another five hours, until it was reduced to half the original volume, and strained it through a fine strainer, and boiled it for another ten minutes and added sherry. While doing this he fried a very thin crêpe or pancake — it exceeded a foot in diameter — and sliced it finer than fine noodles. In the consommé, it looked like noodles,
but had a texture that went better with the clear soup.
In a kitchen like that of L’Aiglon, split-second timing is essential. While we were consuming consommé, Svetko was juggling les buitres Florentine. In this dish, the oysters are scooped from their shells and poached momentarily in white wine with a bay leaf in it. The brief immersion completed, they are set aside and a spoonful of creamed spinach is spread on each shell. The oyster is laid on this green bed and covered with sauce Béchamel, a rich cream sauce. Gruyère cheese is grated over the sauce and the oysters go under the broiler until the cheese has a golden glow.
The waiters, by now, had whisked off the glasses from which we drank the Sylvaner, and filled other glasses with Calvet Graves Dry Select. The oysters, with this accompaniment, were gorgeous, but le salmis de faisan au riz. sauvage, which followed, accompanied by glasses of full-bodied red Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouche 1961, was a gastronomic dream.
Silence for a triumph
Svetko had hung the pheasants in their feathered glory in a cool place for a week, then skinned them, cut them in pieces, marinated them in red wine and spices for days, wrapped them in bacon, and sautéed them in butter. The breasts alone were to be served. He flamed these with brandy, while boiling what was left of the pheasants, with mushrooms, other vegetables, salt, pepper, cognac and red and white wine. This brew, in good time, was forced through a sieve and the pheasant breasts underwent more cooking in the strained mixture. At the last moment, sautéed chicken livers and pâté de foie gras were sieved into this, and sauce demi-glace and slivers of truffle were added, and the pheasant breasts were brought to the table, copper-colored, glistening, exuding a tantalizing scent, and snuggled against wild rice that Canadian Indians had gathered, that Yugoslavian Svetko had cooked with raisins from the U. S., and hauntingly flavored with the products of French vineyards. It was such a triumph that conversation ceased, sentences, even words, being broken off in the middle. (For amateur chefs, who are courageous and willing to work, the salmis recipe can be adapted for Cornish rock hens, squab and duck, and is incomparable if the family hunter bags a partridge or two.)
After the rapture of the pheasant, I guess, anything would have been anticlimactic. True, la salade, de laitue vinaigrette was crisply delightful, le plateau de frontages was as good Stilton as I’ve tasted and prompted Zonda, the French-born chef of Rideau Hall, to confess across the table that the English do know how to make cheese, and la mousse L’Aiglon was, with its aroma of Napoleon brandy, a memorable dessert. Le café was strong without being bitter, and the Remy Martin we had with it is a cognac not to be scorned.
I wandered home thinking that it is no wonder that fine and exotic food and drink are rising in popularity in Canada. What other sport or entertainment do you need when you can eat like the Rôtisseurs? ★
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