a feast of perfection

provence 1970

Richard Olney was preparing a feast.

 He sat at the kitchen table with a small, pointy knife, painstakingly piercing each large piece of beef stew meat and inserting small strips of pork fat into the incisions. The strips of pork belly had been covered with a paste of chopped parsley and garlic, and would add flavor to the meat from the inside out. He put the larded met in a bowl, poured a bit of olive oil and cognac and then a bottle of dry white wine over it, and left it all to marinate.

 This was the beginning of his daube a la provencale, a slow-cooking and unimpeachably moist and tender stew, with a rich sauce to accompany the macaroni he planned to serve with it. Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford were coming to dinner the next day, and they were bringing their friend M.F.K. Fisher.

 It was late November and raining outside. He was alone in the kitchen. He was happiest at moments like this.

 Now he took on the terrine, a delicate operation. Laid out on the counter were two sole and a large bag of small sea urchins, all from the fishmonger in Toulon. The sea urchins were still alive, their black spines moving. He filleted the fish, and started a stock with the bones, pouring over water and wine. It would cook for hours, until it had thickened to a jelly-like substance he would use to coat the terrine the next day.

 He used scissors to open up dozens of sea urchins, holding the sharp, spiny shells in a folded dish to avoid injury to himself, and spooning out the pungent and slightly spongy roe inside. They smelled of the ocean. He combined the vivid orange roe with a small amount of uncooked, chopped white fish, then pushed the mixture through a fine sieve, one tablespoon at a time. These were the first ingredients in what would become a mousseline, a very delicate foamlike mousse that would be surrounded by the sole fillets.

 This was the sort of dish in which most of the ingredients were forced through a sieve—some more than once. It took time and patience.

 After putting the roe and fish through the sieve, he chopped some pistachios, whisked together some cream and egg, combined everything in a bowl, then spooned the mixture into a heavy terrine dish, which he had lined with the fillets. He folded the sole over the mouse filling to create a loaf, and dabbed more of the mousse around the edges and the top. Now he lifted the dish and banged it on the counter to settle the contents, then put it in the oven, where it would cook gently in a bain-marie, half-submerged in water. When the sole was done, Olney would press the terrine under a one-pound weight as it cooled, then refrigerate it.

 To accompany the sole and sea urchin dish, he had decided to make a second mousse, of sorrel. He sautéed the sorrel greens with jellied meat stock, forced the mixture through the sieve, added whipped cream, and spread it into a mold. This went into the refrigerator alongside the sole terrine, both of which he would unmold some hours before the dinner was to be served.

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