July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
2010 has been a big year for devotees of the composer Frédéric Chopin as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth. There have been all sorts of celebrations of his music going on all over the world. Last month I was lucky enough to be able to host a Chopin evening at home with my friend Andrew Wilde performing some of Chopin’s music. The format of the evening was for 20 friends to come over for drinks and canapés with Andrew playing a mini-recital for 20-25 minutes. Andrew is a concert pianist and was preparing for his all-Chopin Bridgewater Hall recital.
Given the time of year (late spring) and the weather (glorious), we decided to go for a multi-sensory experience focusing on a high point in Chopin’s life, the seven summers he spent at Nohant between 1839 and 1846. Nohant was his lover George Sand’s country house in the Berry district of central France. Chopin composed some of his finest music there, inspired by the beautiful and peaceful surroundings away from the hustle and bustle of Paris.
Here is a picture of the exterior of George Sand’s house at Nohant which we visited last summer:
For our Manchester-based Chopin evening, Andrew would take care of the music but it was over to me to take care of the visual, smell and of course taste side of things. In terms of the visuals, I went for flowers and candles, including some potted hydrangeas outside, just like in the picture. Favourite shop L’Occitane helped provide a subtle hint of cherry blossom room fragrance to help conjure up the rural French idyll.
Now for the menu. I offered the following drinks:
Kir Berrichonne – an unusual kir which is a speciality of the Berry region – it’s crème de mûre (blackberry rather than the more usual blackcurrant) mixed with chilled red wine – a local pinot noir. It sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good. As my friend Vivienne put it, “like a mulled wine for the summer”
Kir Royale – the same crème de mûre but mixed with champagne, after all this was a birthday celebration for Chopin
Citron pressé – the ultimate French café soft drink
Raspberry and rose cordial – one of Belvoir’s cordials – a non-alcoholic version of the kir
Volvic mineral water – the Volvic spring is a couple of hours drive south from Nohant in the volcano country of the Auvergne. We visited the Auvergne volcanoes on the trip to France which took in Nohant last summer. Here am Itogether with son George drinking directly from the Volvic source:
For the canapés, after a little research, I came up with the following:
Rillettes de canard with cornichons on toasted French bread
The classic rillettes du Tours is a speciality of central France and is made from slow-cooked shredded pork belly. The duck version is similar and equally good. The duck shreds very easily with a pair of forks and so, once the long slow cooking in the oven is done, there is very little for the cook to do.
Fresh goat cheese and chives on toasted French bread
Goat cheese can be found all over France but is a particular speciality of the Berry region.
Mini croque-monsieurs – a French café classic. It’s always nice to have something hot when serving nibbles with drinks. I give my recipe for the cheese mixture (in fact a modified Welsh rarebit!) which forms the foundation of a croque- monsieur and instructions for how to turn it into a toasted sandwich below.
Pistachio macaroons and madeleines – it feels good to round-off the evening with something sweet. Dainty macaroons and madeleines seem to marry well with the refined nature of Chopin’s compositions.
Here are several batches of madeleines fresh from the oven cooling on a wire rack. They are quick and easy to make and, though I say so myself, put the Bonne Maman ones to shame. The one thing you have to do is invest in a couple sets of moulds. The flexible silicone ones which are on offer nowadays work just fine.
The music Andrew played that evening was:
Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Opus 35 – 1st movement only
Berceuse in D flat, Opus 57
Polonaise in A flat, Opus 35
It was amazing to hear our modest upright piano transformed at the hands of a virtuoso pianist! I hope that my efforts to recreate the mood of Nohant helped to enhance the music and sense of atmosphere that evening.
To conclude, here are the recipes I promised earlier:
Recipe for Welsh Rarebit
This is a really useful recipe which I discovered in Gary Rhodes’ cookbook “Rhodes Around Britain” published back in 1994 to accompany the BBC TV series of the same name. It makes a very superior cheese on toast, which cut into small pieces makes a delectable and easy canapé to serve with drinks. The recipe requires 1 and 1/2 lb cheese which sounds like a lock, but as the original recipe advises, this is really the minimum for a successful mixture. It keeps well in the fridge for a week or so and also freezes well.
700g (1 and 1/2 lb) mature hard cheese, grated – Cheddar in the original recipe but I used Comté for my French version
150 ml (5 fl oz) milk
25g (1 oz) plain flour
50g (2 oz) fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon English mustard powder (I used 2 tablespoons prepared smooth Dijon mustard for French version)
2 shakes Worcester sauce (I used an alternative flavouring of grated nutmeg and a tablespoon of dry vermouth for my French version)
salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste (very little or no salt will be needed depending on the type of cheese used)
2 egg yolks
Put the grated cheese into a medium heavy based saucepan and add the milk. Slowly melt them together over a low heat but do not allow the mix to boil as this will separate the cheese, a frustrating not to say expensive mistake! When the mixture is smooth and just begins to bubble, add the flour, breadcrumbs and mustard and cook for a few minutes, stirring, over a low heat until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan and begins to form a ball shape. Add the Worcestershire sauce (or alternative flavourings) salt (if necessary) and pepper and leave to cool.
When cold, place the mixture in a food processor, turn on the motor and slowly add the whole eggs and yolks. You can beat vigorously with a wooden spoon instead if you don’t have a food processor but I haven’t ever tried the manual method. Once the eggs have been mixed in, chill for a few hours before using.
Recipe for Croque-Monsieur
A recipe of my own devising based on a Frenchified Welsh rarebit (see above) and memories of many croque monsieurs eaten in French cafés.
For each sandwich:
2 slices good white bread, generously buttered
1 slice cooked ham
ball of rarebit mixture about the size of a small tangerine
1 tablespoon finely grated Comté cheese
Make a ham sandwich with the buttered bread and slice of cooked ham. Take the ball of rarebit mixture and flatten it into a rectangle the same size as the sandwich. Place on top of the sandwich and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C for 8-10 minutes until the bread is lightly toasted and the rarebit mixture has puffed up a little and is golden brown. Trim of the crusts and cut into squares or fingers for a dainty canapé, otherwise just cut into half and serve for a lunchtime snack.