Have you read Imperial Palace? Thought not. Its author, Arnold Bennett, wrote it while staying at the Savoy Hotel in London and he is more famous for the eponymous omelette that the chefs there perfected for him during his stay than he is for his novels. Virginia Woolf was not a fan (of his writing – don’t know about the omelette), and more or less the only thing that Wikipedia entry for Imperial Palace tells us is, obliquely, that we’d be better off reading Menschen in Hotel by Vicky Baum. Or watching the movie.
The Omelette Arnold Bennett is a perhaps unlikely combination of flavours that has become a classic – smoked haddock, cheese, and hollandaise and/or bechamel sauce in a fluffy soufflé-style omelette. Good on him for inventing it as it is truly delicious.
Now I like Arnold Bennett’s idea of becoming famous for something other than that for which you should really be famous, and that got me thinking. If only I could come up with a classic recipe for an omelette – the Omelette Gareth Tilley, if you like – then I too could enjoy fame and immortality with much less effort, determination, and talent than would be required to become, say, a QC or a High Court Judge. I mean, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s daughter Chloe already has one (sardine and onion, if you’re interested) and she’s, what, 13?
There are two ways I could go about this. I could leave it to someone else to come up with a dish. That has at least two problems with it. First, I doubt anyone would actually bother – I’m not a famous opera singer or a member of the Royal Family. But moreover, the creation itself may or may not be the sort of thing I want to be associated with (was Dame Nellie Melba really that into peaches with strawberry sauce? What if the Battenberg family didn’t like almonds or the colour combination of pink and yellow?). Alternatively, I could do it myself, like the Tatin sisters, or Caesar Cardini. Which camp Bennett was in, I don’t know. I doubt he was in the kitchen at the Savoy trying out different combos from time to time, but maybe he was telling the chefs what to make him. Or maybe he just kept sending the food back until it came out right. Who knows? (Seriously, who knows? Anyone who does know please get in touch).
Hence the beginning of a new food adventure for me – to find the omelette that will elevate me out of obscurity and up to the level of mediocrity that I deserve. It will be a long process, I imagine, since mainly I make omelettes out of stuff at the back of the fridge that normally don’t go together. (I am sincerely hoping that the outcome of all of this is NOT that an “Omelette Gareth Tilley” becomes synonymous with “stuff approaching its used-by date, with eggs”. But if it does then I suppose it serves me right for my laziness). I will share with you all my stops along the way, and hopefully together we will get there in the end.
My first little experiment was a creation for breakfast last Sunday: an omelette of thyme (left over from making mutton navarin) and pecorino cheese (left over from a cheese board).
2 or 3 hens’ eggs
1 tsp water
About 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, or to taste
About 2-3 tbsp grated pecorino cheese, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
- Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk the contents with the water, thyme, salt and pepper until lightly combined. You can proceed to step 2 straight away but it is better to leave the herbs to infuse for around 15 minutes if you can.
- Heat about a teaspoon of butter in a 20cm non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat. (I use the maximum on my shitty electric hob; I imagine a gas hob would be more powerful so you don’t necessarily want to go completely to the max but it should be very hot. A flimsy pan will also heat to an aggressively high temperature very quickly so if you are dealing with tinny pans just be careful). Wait until the butter is hot and foaming, but not quite beginning to brown. Ensure the butter coats the pan evenly.
- Pour the egg mixture into the pan. Here is the tricky bit. There are many ways to make an omelette. I’m not going to traverse them all here but I find that for an omelette with a light (i.e. non-chunky) filling, a sort of cross between the Julia Child method and the Delia Smith method works best. So leave the mixture to bubble for about 15 seconds then swirl the mixture in the pan so that the cooked bottom gathers up and the runny uncooked top is exposed to the surface of the pan. Give it some help with a spoon if necessary to stop any clingy bits sticking to the sides of the pan.
- When the egg is, say, ¾ set, sprinkle the cheese over the top. Then jerk the pan towards you several times to gather the whole caboodle up in one side of the pan. At this point Julia inverts it all onto the plate but I find that flipping it in the pan first (with or without the aid of an egg slice depending on your level of skill) is better if you don’t like your omelette too runny. If you like your omelette really runny (“rare” you might say), then check out this old Roux Brothers Video for a good method. (Start watching at 6:45. They do go on a bit at the start and I rather disagree with the scrambled eggs method that occupies the first half of the video. Although it’s the painstaking traditional method I find you end up with particles that are too small).
- Slide onto a plate.
- Serve with toast.
Verdict: The problem with this omelette is that it’s not really that original – it’s just a variation on a cheese and herb omelette. I would defend it given that a traditional cheese and herb omelette uses fines herbs (parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon) rather than the deeper, drier, provencale herbs like thyme. Plus, the choice of a sheep’s milk cheese does give it a delicious salty tang and a level of interest a bit higher than bog ordinary cheddar or the like. So, although a lovely breakfast, not quite what I’m looking for. So, onwards!