Antipasti of Winter ’09 – ’10

         HERE’S A meal for you!  I like Christopher Isherwood’s description of Ingrid Bergman — she was, he says, not beautiful like Garbo but radiantly appetizing, “her presence was like breakfast on a sunny morning: a clean tablecloth, freshly made coffee, rich cream, deliciously crisp toast.” Sounding on a different string, Isherwood that deadpan comedian-documentarian writes of “sandy yellow railway cake,” “roast beef and stewed plums and pink soap-cheese” (this in an English pub c. 1939), and a picnic lunch in Hamburg in the 30s included sausages “of the indecently pink kind, the kind full of lumps and gristle, the kind that looks in cross-section like a very old stained glass window.” No, I don’t think Christopher could have landed a job with the Michelin guides.

        Meanwhile, in another book I’ve been reading, Lord Peter Wimsey the Piccadilly sleuth is dining with a friend at a London club. Time for soup. “Clear?” asks the waiter, standing stiff in his braid, “or thick?” Can you imagine walking into San Francisco’s Delfina and asking for a bowl of thick?

        YOUR CORRESPONDENT has fallen in love with the pumpkin ravioli one can buy in boxes of 54 at the Lucca delicatessen out at 22nd and Valencia, this in San Francisco of course. Pricing and welcome at this deli are, by the way, the best I’ve found among the dwindling fraternity of sausage-pasta-olive oil emporiums in the City. But how to sauce them, pray tell. Especially with 324 sitting just offstage in one’s freezer! Well, I googled the question and found quite a discussion proceeding on the web. Most of us seemed to agree: a simple brown butter and sage sauce is the most appropriate for these rich and scrumptious objets d’art gastronomiques.

        There is a viable alternative, however, an innocent little orange sauce I invented. It’s mostly orange juice, a tumbler-full say, with a half jigger of Marsala for bite, a little butter for body, and nutmeg and rosemary if you have it for punctuation. And golden raisins — these top things off very nicely. Recipe for 2: just boil the lot lightly and pour over 36 ravioli. Bonus: this sauce is marvelous, I think, on salmon steaks done briskly in the pan.

        And the sauce for spinach ravioli? I found it inadvertently by feeding myself a dozen of said ravioli with brown butter and sage and accompanying this lovely minestran mess with a chicken leg I’d baked for 40 minutes in olive oil and a LOT of lemon juice. Result: the tingly drippings from the chicken when poured over fowl and the already lightly sauced pasta created a new and greater SAUCE of wonderful rich flavor.

         BULLETIN!  Like a hot rod with special fenders and ultra-chrome hubcaps, our recipe for Grillade des Mariniers du Rhone (see chapter 9) has been tarted up to advantage. Our new suggestion is you add some sliced potatoes and a bit of bacon to the round steak or ribs-over-onions, then bake the full complement to kingdom come and serve with large cannellini beans warmed in a little olive oil and sage and have some mint jelly at the ready.

         IT’S SCARCELY news to speak of the wonders of the internet in planning a journey when the screen is full of websites devoted to this-that-and-the-other country inn in France, Italy, wherever. Room after room parades before you, 360 degrees of ’em — should I reserve the one with the four poster, the one with the view, the one with the cute eiderdown? And the menus — what shall I order when I visit the Auberge de Watcha-ma-callit six months hence? Surely that Confit Surprise will still be on the bill of fare.

         And this isn’t all when it comes to getting-the-picture of exactly what your trip will be like, presuming of course that defective mattresses or obsessive creakings of the plumbing worthy of a haunted house won’t be part of the deal. For instance you can go to You Tube and for eight minutes or so watch, yes watch, in real time, the Clermont Ferrand-Marseille express tooling down the Allier River gorge, diesel engine put-putting across your computer screen. Or see a picture, from maybe May 26, 2007, of the station master giving the silvery five-car Le Cevenol the high sign to ease out of Villefort station.

         The thought struck me: why, I could save big bucks by staying home and just watching Languedoc roll by on my office screen. But I guess I’d have a little less to tell you afterward. No train strike, no missed connection, no distressed mattress, no Garbo in the corridor. And just how did that confit taste?

         SPEAKING OF travel, I see that I neglected in my account of the years 2002-07 to mention that I traveled by train, three trains actually, from eastern Holland to London in ’07 — anything to avoid Heathrow! It was a mission of some delicacy; I was consoling a dear friend who’d had the misfortune to develop a crush on an ambivalent woman, even following this intermittent fondler via The Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh, where a beastly but perhaps just conclusion to l’affaire platonique on a dreary streetcorner forced him to crash land out of his preoccupation, in a handy Chinese restaurant yet — it wasn’t far from the Robert Louis Stevenson house — a process that took several hours but was apparently totally successful. When I met him at Kings Cross he looked mightily relieved.

         A bonus of this novelistic paragraph in the life of a gastronomical tourist is that I chanced to stay in London at Durrants (accent on the first syllable), that low-ceilinged, much-mirrored hotel of unimpeachable eighteenth century provenance just behind the Wallace Collection. A bit pricey, and more bowing-and-scrapin’ than I require, but good old St. Margaret’s, my Bloomsbury stand, had just closed down — no more “duay boiled eggy” as the Italian waiter would shout, kicking his way through the kitchen door at breakfast — and Durrants proved an enchanting nest.

         The lunch in its restaurant was excellent, even if the only sound one could hear was the click-clack-clink of cutlery politely maneuvered by the three or four other people dining in this elegant tomb, a pinstriped gent over there and in the corner wasn’t that the Duchess of Denver and some satellite spinster chattering with her sotto voce. But best of all were the afternoon scones served in one or another of the many little panelled sitting rooms lined up like enlarged train compartments down the hall from the reception desk where the bowers-and-scrapers hang out. Such scones! Buttery good and just moist enough not to lose their patrician culinary manners, and with nothing more than currants inside. Yes, these weren’t those Gibraltarian rock cakes masquerading as scones in American chain coffee houses.

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