As March draws to a close so too does my focus on eggs in all their glorious guises. Despite hollandaise disasters and quiches with soggy bottoms, I was hopeful of ending the month on a high, having left the quickest egg dish imaginable – the humble omelette – until last. With the UK on lockdown, eggs have suddenly become a luxury item. Good luck to anyone trying to find a six pack at their local supermarket. The only eggs that remained at Sainsbury’s in Chiswick were two lonely looking boxes of Clarence Court quail eggs, which I nearly bought on a whim to make the world’s tiniest omelette.
I managed to score some eggs at my local newsagent, which was selling them individually from an industrial-sized carton, meaning I had to practically juggle them home. I ended up dropping one on the kitchen floor and nearly cried. The decadence of wasting an egg at this fragile moment in time seemed particularly reckless. The history of the omelette is patchy, though is thought to have originated in ancient Persia. The word ‘omelette’, which came into regular use in the 16th century, is said to derive from ‘alemelle’, meaning knife blade, and was named thus due to its flat shape.
One of the earliest mentions of the dish appeared in Le Ménagier de Paris (The Parisian Household) in 1319 – a lifestyle guide for medieval housewives filled with recipes, gardening tips and advice on how to impress in the bedroom. Napoleon’s first encounter with an omelette came while his troops were passing through Bessières in southwest France. He was so charmed by the dish served to him by his innkeeper, that he asked the local residents the following morning to gather up all their eggs and make a giant omelette for his soldiers. An army marches on its stomach after all…
In the 1920s, while living at The Savoy hotel in London, writer Arnold Bennett had an omelette named in his honour, made with smoked haddock, Parmesan and hollandaise, which remains on the menu at The Savoy Grill to this day. Julia Child is clearly very fond of omelettes, describing them, somewhat suggestively, as “smooth, gently golden ovals that are tender and creamy inside”. As for the cooking of them, Julia likes it fast and red hot. If following her recipe religiously, your omelette should be ready in half a minute, but I opted for a slower, gentler approach.
Three appears to be the magic number when it comes to how many eggs to use. All they need is a quick whisk and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. If you’re adding cheese then it’s better to wait until the eggs are in the pan. There is definitely an art to making omelettes, and a lot of it comes down to practice. The saucepan needs to be non-stick, the butter bubbling and the heat medium to high. Once the eggs are in you need to work quickly, sliding the pan back and forth to coat it evenly with egg. You’re supposed to stir the egg with a fork early on, but too much of this and they start to scramble.
It’s tempting to want to play with the eggs while they bubble away in the pan, but the less you prod them the better. After about 30 seconds it’s time to add the filling – I went for a generous grating of Gruyère and sautéed mushrooms. When it’s ready Julia suggests gathering the omelette at the lip of the pan then flipping it onto the plate. The easier way to finish it is to neatly fold it over and then slide it onto your awaiting plate. For an omelette novice, I was happy with how mine turned out, though I think a lot of it was down to beginner’s luck.
Smooth and golden on the outside, tender and creamy on the inside, with a wonderful earthiness from the mushrooms and a nutty tang from the cheese, it was an omelette Julia would have been proud of. I chose to make a mushroom one in homage to a chilling scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis’s swan song, in which he plays exacting fashion designer and discerning gourmand Reynolds Woodcock, who likes his mushrooms cooked with no more than “a whisper” of butter.
Food plays a starring role in the film and is used as a means through which to manipulate and control. Exasperated by the suffocating precision of his desires, Woodcock’s lover, Alma, cooks him a wild mushroom omelette at their country house in a bizarre act of consensual poisoning, with Reynolds seeking to surrender control so that he can be taken care of by Alma and nursed back to health. “I want you lying on your back, helpless, sweet, open only to me,” Alma whispers as he takes his final bite. It has made me forever wary of mushroom dishes, particularly those cooked by lovers…