Tarte au citron
Classic French Lemon Tart
Today's post, a classic lemon tart as sold in patisseries throughout France in the winter months (summer brings berries, autumn is a time for stone-fruit) is in celebration of the life of Michel Bourdin.
Chef de Cuisine at the Connaught for 25 years and founder of the UK division of the Academie Culinaire de France, Maitre Bourdin departed for the great kitchen in the sky on Feb 3rd, where he’s no doubt discussing the state of haute-cuisine with Auguste Escoffier himself.
Last of a long line of classically-trained followers of Escoffier who established themselves in the gentleman’s clubs and great houses of London, faute de mieux, after finding themselves unemployed in Paris as a result of the Revolution of 1798, Maitre Bourdin’s kitchens could turn out a fine steak-and-kidney pudding as easily as an elegant tarte au citron for the dessert trolley.
The article that follows was first published in 1987 in my cookery column for The Field, the UK's hunting, shooting, fishing magazine, after spending a full working day with Maitre Boudin’s permission in the kitchens of the Connaught as an observer (with sketchbook) so I could begin to understand the workings of haute cuisine.
There was a practical reason for my request. That year, I’d just published European Peasant Cookery in the UK and the book was due to be launched in the US with a seven-city author tour. In the US, it bore the less-than-accurate title of The Old World Kitchen for reasons, the publisher explained, of acceptability. In the light of what looked like tacit disapproval, it seemed wise to acquire some direct experience of how the other half cooked. An understanding of haute cuisine as practised in top-end restaurants - direct descendent of palace cooking - would allow me to make the case for what the two traditions have in common: an appreciation of excellence in raw materials, and the need to throw nothing away.
"Michel Bourdin, Head Chef at The Connaught is The Boss. Haute cuisine is alive and well and making everything in-house in a state-of-the-art kitchen in a basement just off Grosvenor Square. No nonsense with boil-in-the-bag and Black Forest gateau: here are Escoffier's classic stock-pots simmering in copper cauldrons, salmon so fresh the sea-lice shine dark on the silver skin.
"Kitchens like those of the Connaught are rare these days, even in France. The remit is not only to provide the hotel's 250 paying customers with a choice of thirty dishes every day, including old English favourites such Lancashire hotpot or steak-and-kidney pie, the kitchens also have to feed the staff of a large London hotel, adding another 250 platefuls to the roster, twice. And it is this, the provision of meals for the staff, says Bourdin, that's the real secret of training the apprentices and commis chefs, who have to prepare varied and delicious meals with the tougher cuts of meat, recycling leftovers and using up vegetables which have passed their peak.
"A Chef de Cuisine in a grand hotel reigns over an empire. Thirty chefs and apprentices, rotating daily, staff the subterranean larders and sculleries, stoves, ovens and marble-slabbed pastry-rooms. There are only three women among the sous-chefs, and they work in the cool of the pastry-section behind glass doors. And after a day in the Connaught's kitchens I know why. You'd need the muscles of a heavy-weight boxer to manoeuvre safely round a crowded kitchen carrying a red-hot oven-tray loaded with twenty kilos of roast bones for the petite marmite.
"Any trainee chef would be grateful to be shipped off to the more tranquil atmosphere of the cold larder, where the meat pies and assembled dishes are prepared. Or volunteer to take refuge, as I did, in the cool calm of the patisserie, where the chef de partie, an Englishman, prepares strawberry mille-feuilles, chocolate eclairs and traditional English desserts - crisp-topped bread-and-butter puddings and raspberry-layered trifles - as well as the open tarts that in French patisseries mark the changing year: tarte au citron in winter, berries in summer, stone-fruits in autumn. Meanwhile the other kitchens send in their salmon couliabiac and mushroom-stuffed lamb fillets to be enveloped in his airy puff pastry or brioche dough.
"At peak serving-time, passions run high. There is less than a second between an omelette delivered perfectly baveuse - moist and frothy within - and a rubbery yellow bolster. Sous-Chef Jourdan Accouche, a Seychellois with the wrists of John McEnroe, is the star of the sauté pan: hands and faces glisten as copper pans are whipped off dancing flames. At one end of the stove, a great pan of simmering tomatoes reduces to a dark sweet essence alongside a stockpot bubbling with a bouillon so thick with minced chicken a wooden spoon will stand up in it.
"Everyone tastes all the time - and chefs really do taste. The acquisition of the Chef de Cuisine's tall hat takes the most talented aspirant ten to fifteen years' hard labour. Shortcuts are not acceptable in Maitre Bourdin's kitchen. A reduction of half a bullock, bones and all, is the only possible foundation for a litre or two of impeccable beef consommé. And the Connaught's famous tarte au citron - prepared in-house with a classic pate sucré in the pastry section by the female chefs - is never less than perfection."
RIP Chef de Cuisine Michel Bourdin, last of the great traditionalists.