Iteration 4: Nick Bramham cooks Richard Olney cooks Lulu Peyraud
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“Nick Bramham really is an excellent chef” Virginia told me yesterday morning as she absentmindedly thumbed Instagram, refreshing it only to be greeted with a picture of an absolute unit of a dauphinoise, as thick and golden as a gilt edge King James Bible, the money shot revealing layers upon layers of potato strata. It’s hard to imagine now, but London has only been getting Nick’s cooking untrammeled by anyone else for only two years: the restaurant/wine bar he is head (and sole) chef at, Quality Wines, only recently became an off-shoot of its larger sibling Quality Chop House. At the time, it didn’t seem like there was much need for another wine bar serving small plates, but we were wrong. Whereas many restaurants try to oversell and under-deliver, his dauphinoise is a distillation of Nick’s approach to cooking which is to undersell , to take something which seems very simple ─ a porcini mushroom, a saffron risotto, a cannolo ─ and then execute it with the utmost technical precision while retaining it soul. He may be a chef’s chef (Feroz Gajia has described his talent as “infuriating”), but ultimately he cooks people pleasing food.
It wasn’t too long before the Olney comparisons started to happen. The history is somewhat disputed, but Virginia reckons it was she who first told Nick that his cooking reminded her of the cuisine Richard Olney conjured up in his books, even if his domain was Provence and Nick’s was Italy. I vaguely remember at the time Nick hadn’t read Olney, but a year later he would be cooking a Grand Aioli from today’s book, and joining forces with Gus Gluck on a food and wine dinner based solely on Olney recipes (this gives you a taste of Virginia’s very specific influencer status, which extends as far to convincing Nick to add candied cedrat to the cannoli).
If you haven’t read Olney before, then I recommend picking up any of the books mentioned in today’s newsletter. He is a one man experiment in how many gratin recipes someone can fit into a single career; a riposte to anyone who who feels that cookbook writers never add enough garlic to recipes. If you try to double the amount of garlic in an Olney recipe you will soon see the face of God. I don’t think it’s a mistake you’re starting to see his influence on the London food scene again; everything is cyclical, what started with Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little and Jeremy Lee is being repeated with chefs like Alex Jackson, Steven Williams, Anna Tobias and Nick. When the pendulum swings too much one way, it needs someone like Olney to reset it: someone who knows the power of a well-executed fritter, a pungent aioli, and “30 good anchovies”.
Nick Bramham cooks Richard Olney cooks Lulu Peyraud
I often feel guilty when writing recipes. To capture what one can of elusive, changing experience... and imprison it in a chilly formula, composed of cups, tablespoons, inches and oven temperatures, is like robbing a bird of flight.
So begins Richard Olney, in his (or is it really his?) 1995 book of recipes from the Domaine Tempier Vineyard. Domaine Tempier is home to perhaps the world’s most famous rosé, but back then it was progenitor of a way of cooking as a sort of assumed Mediterranean lifestyle, practiced and preached by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse (who gives the foreword), Zuni Cafe’s Judy Rodgers and Olney himself.
Raised in the US during the Great Depression, Olney never intended to fall into food writing. He fled to France in his early twenties to pursue painting, hung out with WH Auden and James Baldwin (similarly exiled gay intellectuals) in Paris, before moving to Provence where he befriended his neighbour Lulu Peyraud and wrote some of the most influential cookbooks of all time.
The first two – The French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food (released 1970 and 1974, respectively) – described food that was seasonal, local, un-messed around with. He was exacting in detail but made cooking sound easy, thrown together. The fastidious freestyler. That this was revolutionary at the time and seems par for the course these days is only testament to how many chefs and writers he influenced.
Lulu’s Provençal Table, released two decades later, shares a similar tone but raises some interesting questions. It reads like romanticised reportage, Olney part eyewitness, part fanboy, hovering around the matriarch, Peyraud (the owner of Domaine Tempier), over the course of a year, tugging at her apron strings and badgering her for recipes as the seasons ebb and flow with the evolving demands of the winery – but there’s a built-in ambiguity as to whose recipes these actually are. Are they Lulu’s, or Olney’s, or a bit of both? Are they simply records of tradition?
The book begins with a brief history of the vineyard and the Peyraud family, skips to ‘The Vigneron’s Year’, which covers the quotidian challenges of running a vineyard and juxtaposes nerdy winemaking trivia with Lulu’s typical seasonal menus (Fall: Anchovy Puffs, Sautéed Wild Mushrooms, Provençal Braised Beef, Radicchio & Lamb’s Lettuce Salad, Crepes with Apples). Olney describes a bucolic lifestyle: foraging for herbs and wild mushrooms amongst the woodland garrigue; trips to the coast to purchase live seafood from the day boats; smashing whole heads of garlic in her giant pestle and mortar; a gathering of international guests every night washing down grilled anchovies and seasonal cheeses with glasses of cool Tempier Rouge; all before getting into the meat of the matter – the recipes.
Tapenade, brandade, anchoiade, pissaladiere, bouillabaisse, bourride; six pages just on omelettes, seven on apples, 11 (!) on rabbit. Pretty much every savoury dish contains garlic and what isn’t cooked on the barbecue or hearth is either gratinated or eaten raw. The centrepiece of the book is Lulu’s recipe for (and Olney’s description of) a Grand Aioli – that joyous celebration of garlic mayonnaise. It’s served with poached salt cod, braised octopus, hard boiled eggs and a cornucopia of cooked and raw vegetables. Lulu always prepares three mortars of aioli for the table…
One, relatively mild, for les estrangers (Parisians, Americans etc.); one, generously dosed with garlic, for the Provencaux; and one, overpowering, for Lucien [Lulu’s husband], who likes a ‘bite’ in his aioli (the Parisians and Americans invariably end up wiping Lucien’s mortar clean).
That’s my favourite passage in the book: I love the generosity of spirit in Lulu preparing three separate batches when she needn’t have bothered – her guests fully drinking the Kool-Aid, as I suspect they always did. But nevertheless, when myself and Gus Gluck (my friend, retired sommelier and up-and-coming wine merchant who actually first turned me on to this book) threw our own Grand Aioli celebration at Quality Wines last year, pouring vintage Tempier wines, I prepared the requisite three strengths of aioli. By hand. And every single guest went for the strongest batch.
Olney’s cooking, his writing, his philosophy – ‘respect the seasons’, source the best natural produce and don’t mess around with it too much – may be ubiquitous these days, but nowhere else has it been so beautifully communicated. Via chefs like Simon Hopkinson, and those who cooked under him, it’s likely that his words had inspired me before I’d even heard his name.
What really interests me is food embedded in local tradition. The kind of food that Olney writes about, the kind that Lulu served her guests. That’s increasingly what I look for when I eat out, or when I am lucky enough to travel. I have spent a good chunk of time (and change!) chasing ‘cutting-edge cuisine’ in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world but soon realised that the real pleasure and enjoyment came from peripheral meals at bouchons, tavernas and diners, at family-run joints where the food felt rooted in some kind of shared cultural history and was prepared and served by an actual person (as opposed to sous-vided and tweezered into a trompe l’oeil by a 50-strong brigade). This is the kind of food I try to cook myself.
I’m a bit of a pizza obsessive so for that reason alone I’m adapting Lulu’s (or is it Olney’s?) recipe for pissaladiere, that Provencal pie covered with all things umami – caramelised onions, Nicoise olives and a lattice of salted anchovies. Lulu uses shortcrust pastry, as do most modern iterations, but tradition suggests an olive-oil-rich bread dough, as do I. Most recipes add the anchovies before baking, which is a waste of good anchovies, as they turn into a sort of crisp brackish mush after 20 minutes in the oven. Far better to drape them on just after baking, allowing them to just begin to melt and release their oils and aromas into the warm pillowy bread.
A recipe for pissaladiere
500g strong bread flour
30g extra virgin olive oil
15g sea salt
8 brown onions
About 30 of the best quality anchovy fillets you can afford
A good handful of pitted nicoise olives
Extra virgin olive oil
Make the dough: mix the leaven thoroughly with the water and olive oil before folding in the flour. After half an hour, mix in the salt. Stretch and fold four times over the course of two hours (I’m assuming you’re down with the lingo if you have access to leaven but if not YouTube can explain this process far better than I) and when fully developed cover and pop in the fridge for 24 hours.
Slice the onions and gently cook in plenty of olive oil with a pinch of salt until sweet and lightly caramelised – remember they will continue to cook and darken in the oven – and throw in a tablespoon of thyme leaves and a few cracks of black pepper.
Tip the dough out on to an oiled tray, stretch out until uniformly half an inch thick, and top with the cooled caramelised onions. Dot with the olives at regular intervals, bake at 180c for 20 or so minutes and, when cooked, drape the anchovies over the bread in a lattice effect. Drizzle over more olive oil and open up a bottle of Bandol rosé. Trotters up.
Nick Bramham is the chef at Quality Wines in Farringdon. He was paid for this newsletter. Pictures of the pissaladiere courtesy of the author.