Memories of Gruyere

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Although it was still storming back in 1816 outside of Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati, I returned to my own timeline and into a warm library with a soft, first snowfall taking place outdoors. The pungent smell of Gruyere from Byron’s buffet table was still fresh in my memory.

Those savory little pastries served to his guests that blustery night appeared to be Gougères – delicious, small, hollow pastry puffs made of a rich egg, butter and cheese dough. Byron’s chef had wisely chosen to use Gruyere cheese in his creation.

Seated at my library desk, I began my search for a period recipe for them and reached for the book L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle by Chef Marie-Antoine Carême. This book is undeniably a triumphant culinary work of encyclopedic proportions.

Careme was a legend in his own time and took his celebrity chef status very seriously – cooking for Kings, a Czar and at least one Emperor. As a test to his creativity, he once prepared a years worth of menus using only seasonal ingredients with no repetitions. His cookbook was a fine first choice but a little over the top. I instead decided to explore an earlier work.

I turned to The Art of French Cookery written by Antoine Beauvilliers – a classic of French gastronomic literature written in 1814. Beauvilliers was both a chef and trendsetter, who very cleverly launched the splendid idea of a “restaurant”. His establishment, La Grande Taverne de Londres, opened in late 18th century Paris and was considered very cool; for up until then, nobody had come up with the notion of customers being able to visit a chic dining room and order from a menu what one wanted to eat. Sheer profitable brilliance!

Antoine Beauvilliers was a charismatic kind of guy who really enjoyed his own cooking. He was a savvy dresser and partial to wearing a sword. Charming and also armed with a memory like that of an elephant, Beauvilliers was known for never forgetting a guest who had visited his restaurant. Superb branding actually and his dashing choice of weaponry probably contributed to minimizing guest complaints. Not that he would get any, his food was considered delicious. Jean Brillat-Savarin, the founding father of gastronomy, regarded him as the finest of the early restaurateurs.

I made a note to myself to go back and visit this trendsetting restaurant in Paris one day – I admit to a weakness for elegant eating establishments with full wine cellars.

But now back to my search for a particular recipe, I had chosen my cookbook well. I found exactly what I was looking for on page 221…

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A Bohemian Scene Greeted Me…

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My timing was perfect, although it was nearly dawn, I arrived just after Lord Byron and his guests had retired for the night.

Fortunately for me the candles were still lit, it seemed that the servants were unaware that everyone upstairs had finally drifted off to their beds. Those downstairs would be waking up soon enough for breakfast, no need to rush through their own dreams I suppose.

A bohemian scene greeted me in the library of the Villa Diodati. Silk pillows lay strewn about on a Persian rug in front of the fire. Claret and sack decanters sat haphazardly about and small, half-filled wine glasses teetered on vast piles of books.  A fitting scene for a group of young romantic poets determined to write something terrifying yet witty.

A cat sauntered by me.  As I absent-mindedly reached down to stroke its head, I was startled by a large bird that flew through the hallway across the open doorway. Apparently Lord Byron’s menagerie had settled in comfortably alongside him at the villa.

So, despite the exceedingly dramatic and monstrously electrifying dreams manifesting themselves in Mary’s head upstairs at that very moment, I decided to wander over and peruse the sideboard.

An Unbidden Vision and the Birth Of a Monster

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Mary Shelley went to bed that evening having accepted the challenge to write a ghost story.  Describing her sleeplessness during that stormy night at Lord Byron’s villa she wrote, “…my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.  I saw, with shut eyes but acute mental vision.”

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts knelling beside the thing that he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…his success would terrify the artist.”

The Doctor “…would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken.  He would hope that, left to itself, the spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter. He hoped that he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of that hideous thing.”

Dr. Frankenstein sleeps “…but he is awakened, he opens his eyes, and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains and looking at him with yellow, watery but speculative eyes.”

Mary Shelley’s ghost story had begun and the tale of Frankenstein was born.   Now that her story has been told, I am ready to travel back to that blustery evening at the Villa Diodati.

It will be a dangerous night to travel to, but the food should be worth it.

The Summer That Never Was

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It was a dark and stormy night during the summer that never was.  It is June in the year 1816 and a group of five English free-thinkers gathered together at the Villa Diodati on the edge of a storm lashed Lake Geneva.  Confined inside in front of a fire in the library were Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly, Claire Clairmont and Dr. John Polidori.

All those present were on holiday and visiting Lord Byron at his interim home during his self-imposed exile from England.  A voluntary expulsion, I believe, initiated from a scandalous incident involving his unfortunate wife.

Unknown to them, on the other side of the world in Indonesia, Mt.Tambora had erupted with such fury, that it created a blanket of ash over the Earth so dense that sunspots could be seen with the naked eye.

This is to when I am headed…