This past week has been like wading through a never-ending Chinese menu. You know the sort – with an overwhelming number of dishes to choose from and too many decisions to make, your mind boggles with options and possibilities. If only someone could swiftly order an entire Chinese banquet so that I can just get on with the pleasurable act of eating!
But as the French say ‘on ne peut pas faire d’omelette sans casser les oeufs’ (you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs) and soon my scrambled life will be in order. Boxes will be emptied, the barrage of email correspondence and opportunities addressed, publicity for my new book will be in place and a busy trip to Paris organised. In a month I shall be relaxing at a Paris table casting my eye over a French menu. Stay tuned!
Menus are interesting documents. The best fill your senses with pleasure, and seduce. Taste buds dance in anticipation as you devour the delicious words with your eyes. Revealing a glimpse of what is to come, appealing dishes are half-eaten before you even take that first bite.
Just as importantly, each menu tells the story of a time and a place. I find it fascinating how the course of history can be followed through food, and menus have the ability to show clearly how dishes and tastes change with shifting styles, fashions, and cooking techniques. They become testimonials of an era and its trends and flavours.
Tired of unpacking boxes this week I couldn’t help but smile when I opened my Australian Women’s Weekly Dinner Party Cookbook from the early 1980s to a glossy page featuring a ‘simple, elegant dinner party menu’. At each place setting is an alarmingly-large round of salmon pâté and in the middle of the table, a platter of Steak Diane with the obligatory ’80s vegetables: bean bundles tied with chives, and tomato halves, herbed and baked in the oven. There’s a recipe for toffee strawberries, so in vogue at the time, while a smattering of French words add a touch of sophistication to the pages, and give that elusive je ne sais quoi.
But it was when I came across my grandmother’s stack of menus that she had kept from a trip back to Scotland on the S.S. Arcadia that I really got distracted. The Arcadia commenced service in 1954, the largest of the P & O ocean liners, sailing from London to Australia and NZ and back via the Trans-Suez and India route.
This treasured stack of elegant, vintage menus are also tasty morsels of history, and on opening the box, I immediately boarded a glamorous P & O cruise ship in the 1950s.
Many of the dishes are written in French and feature classic fare from France and the UK as well as a smattering of plates from around the world. Passengers with a sense of adventure could tuck into an exotic Bangalore Curry with Rice, or Sardines Portugaise while those who played it safe could dine on Roast Shoulder of Lamb with Mint Sauce, Yale Pie or Irish Stew.
Desserts range from Cherry Trifle and Gooseberry Fool to Coupe Parisienne and American Doughnuts with golden syrup. Many of the menus finish with an impressive selection of cheese.
Perusing the wine lists I find dinner recommendations for ‘Chateauneuf-du-Pape, red, 1947′ and Chateau Margaux 1951. How much would those same bottles cost on menus now I wonder? ‘Rhone Wine, Hermitage Red, 1947′ is available by the glass for 1/9 (one shilling and ninepence).
The menus themselves are visually striking and on such a long trip passengers no doubt needed variety and intrigue. A series of 12 paintings of ballets grace the front covers of one set of menus while Royal Residences and Australian Birds adorn the covers of others. Sets of these menus were gladly supplied to passengers who wished to keep them as souvenirs.
In the stack are two menus with extracts from the Diary of Samuel Pepys. A young civil servant in 17th century London, Pepys had a large appetite for pleasure and a insatiable craving for new and exciting experiences. His daily journal entries provide a wonderful glimpse into the life and times, with glorious illustrations to match.
Suddenly I’m very hungry. I think I’ll start with the Potage Longchamps followed by Roast Guinea Fowl Anglaise and finish with Queen’s Pudding.