As the second lockdown takes hold, I find myself seeking ways of escaping from our modern troubles and looking back at different times – and a different set of troubles. The recipe below is for sole Véronique, which was invented by Auguste Escoffier to celebrate the British premiere of a new operetta by André Messager at the Apollo Theatre in 1904. The title of the opera was, wait for it, Véronique.
Escoffier had done this before, naming dishes after famous performers such as Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Nellie Melba, immortalised in the form of a strawberry and a peach dessert respectively.
In 1896 he was even able to draw inspiration from a Norwegian rescue mission trying to find the lost American ship Jeanette in the Arctic: he created a dish which portrayed the stricken ship as a chicken breast on a sea of chicken jelly and foie gras. It sounds like something a contestant on The Great British Menu would dream up in a forced and rather literal attempt to add “narrative” to their cooking.
I find the fin de siècle in France, and the corresponding Edwardian period in London, fascinating. I remember reading about the electricity in the air when Oscar Wilde premiered his plays at the St James’ Theatre in the 1890s, but it was an exciting time for food too. The great restaurants and hotel dining rooms of the capital had started to rival the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall and St James’s, both in size and quality.
Their clientele was partly made up of the 4,000 or so households that would spend the “season” – roughly, the winter and the spring. Escoffier’s tables – at the Savoy in the 1890s, until he and hotel manager César Ritz were sacked after a financial scandal, then later at Ritz’s new London venture the Carlton – were the places to be seen.
Escoffier was one of the first chefs to realise the value of looking after his employees, and instilling in them a sense of pride and status in cooking at the top level. Just recently, a lot of high-end chefs have also realised that they need to look after their staff better, and have reduced the long working hours and improved conditions.
Another change during this period was the growing number of women diners. Private dining rooms for couples often provided a chaise longue or even a bed on which to relax after your enormous Edwardian banquet. This meant some restaurants were regarded (rightly or wrongly) as somewhat louche.
A woman dining alone might be presumed to be soliciting, and harassed or ignored. It was in this period that the Dorothy Restaurant opened on Oxford Street, catering exclusively to female customers, in the daytime (though men were allowed in the evenings).
The number of women diners has changed even during the time I have been at The Sportsman. When we opened in 1999, it was rare to see an all-female table, and even rarer to see a woman dining alone. Today, women are often in the majority. I suppose it was the move towards financial equality that closed the gap, though I’d like to think restaurants have become more welcoming places for women, too.
Anyway: if you find yourself getting bored during this second lockdown, I would recommend taking a time capsule back to the 1890s. Stream a performance of The Importance of Being Ernest, tuck a green carnation into your buttonhole and cook this dish for a loved one.
It’s nothing like as heavy as another legendary fin-de-siècle dish with a musical angle, the legendarily rich steak dish tournedos Rossini, which Escoffier may have devised, (though various other superstar chefs of the time, including Marie-Antoine Carême and Alphonse Dugléré, are more plausibly credited with it). But in any case you can always retire to your chaise longue for a bit of a lie-down afterwards.