Sunday, 8 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras 7): Roast Smoked Foie Gras With Onion Mousse from Aiden Byrne

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:

The dish: A tranche of foie gras is hot-smoked over wood before being pan-fried until golden-brown and just soft in the center. It’s served alongside a set custard of white onions and parmesan studded with caramelised baby onions, a spoonful of stock, and nothing more.

Why it’s special: This is a dish I enjoyed many years ago at the Dorchester Grill. At first sight this is a traditional hot-foie-gras- with-something-sweet dish. However two things elevate Byrne’s version. Firstly there are the extra little grace notes – smoking the foie gras; using a sweet onion custard rather than the usual fruit sludge. They lift it above the ordinary. Second there’s a certain sense of restraint. Lesser chefs would be tempted to smother it with an extra slick of this or an extra crunch of that. Here the two main components stand alone. It’s a reminder that at the highest levels of cuisine, less is often more.

The chef and the book: Aiden Byrne is possibly the world’s unluckiest chef. After apprenticing in a number of fine kitchens around the UK (Adlards, Tom Aikens etc.) he finally got his big break as head chef at the Dorchester Hotel. Then, just as he was starting to make waves with his snappy modern British food, management decided to install a certain M. Ducasse in the restaurant across the hall, which took our Aiden from flagship to sidekick sooner than you could say “have you nicked my truffles again Alain?” Undaunted he decamped to a gastropub in Cheshire only to find that the locals didn’t really appreciate “fayn dining” (it’s a North/South divide thing). He is now at the theatrical Manchester House, still chasing stars. I wish him well – he deserves a break!

In between gigs he published the wildly underrated Made in Great Britain. This is one of the most delicious, unpretentious chefbooks of recent years. Despite the title, it doesn’t harp on about some ersatz British cuisine like, say, Historic Heston. Nor it is an exhaustive personal story like the Momofuku or Nobu books. It simply presents a dazzling sequence of dishes featuring (primarily) British ingredients.

This is a book which lives or dies by its recipes (some of the highlights shown below). They are what makes it such as great work. A few themes particularly stand out:
  • The first is a certain lightness and freshness, exemplified in a lovely summer Tomato and Peach Salad with Pine Nut Vinaigrette or zingy composition of Chicken Breast with Lemon, Rosemary and Figs. Despite Byrne’s roots in a Liverpool council estate, there is an almost Italian sensibility at play.
  • The second is a sense of restraint – there are rarely more than two or three components on the plate (e.g. the Veal Fillet with Lobster, Apple Fondants and Jabugo Ham). NB this isn’t St John “raw peas on a plate” simplicity; the dishes are undeniably complex but as I said earlier Byrne has the rare ability to sense what not to put on the plate.
  • The third are the flavour combinations. Everywhere you look there are interesting little touches – scallops poached in red wine with scallop tripe, pork chop with pear and hawthorn flowers, vension baked with Polish bison-grass. These are unusual, almost pastoral, pairings but ones which make sense rather than only being included for shock value. Highly recommended.
Coming up tomorrow: One last sweet little bonus!



  1. This was a fun little series. What else do you have in the works?

    1. Thanks yes it was, wasn't it?

      I have been working up a more thorough post on the foie gras cruelty debate; anti-foie gras protesters have had far too much airtime and as a result we have had a regrettably one-sided debate where dissenting opinions do not get a hearing. However I'm getting a bit of foie gras fatigue at the moment (ironically I'm going to Club Gascon for dinner in Saturday) so I may shelve this for a bit. Also this new blog has started to address the issue with much more first-hand insight than I have it is well worth checking out:

      I also want to do a quick write-up of the newly translated book from Mere Brazier (the worlds first six-star chef) which @FTTBYD highlighted. It's a good book and I have some first hand experience of the restaurant from wayback so its worth reviewing the book and revisiting other traces of the Meres Lyonnaises in food literature. This should be a relatively self-contained piece.

      Longer-term I am putting thoughts together for a bigger piece (perhaps series) on the future of cookbooks in an online/new media world. It is clear that over the last twenty years the role of the cookbook has shifted from reference/repository of trusted recipes towards personality/restaurant driven - effectively providing the reader with the illusion of intimacy with the chef. In the online world both these roles are under threat; I find internet better reference for recipes (although some differ on this point - there is a debate to be head around effectiveness of online vs. cookbook curation and discoverability), while Twitter et al provide the celeb/intimacy better.

      Bottom line - the situation is unlikely to stay static and online/new media will provide increasing channel for content previous provided by cookbooks. On the other hand cookbooks are fighting back by promoting the luxe/physical artefact - Phaidon are leading this charge and are a benign or malign influence depending on your point of view.

      There is an enormous amount of potential change here and I am still putting my thoughts in order - any ideas / angles welcome!


  2. I'm shallow and can't contribute much. I was hoping for, say, a couple of posts on Indian seafood-centric cookbooks or a roundup of Burmese cookbooks or a retrospective on Rick Stein's or Madhur Jaffrey's books. Something on cookbooks devoted to a specific Indian or Chinese sub-cuisine would also be great.

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