What would be your final meal? It’s a question that can evoke considered and heartfelt debate as you chew the fat at the end of supper. If you love food then the matter is quite a serious one, the symbolism of that ultimate mouthful being rooted in everything from Communion to Death Row.
At his Dordogne school, Cook in France, chef Jim Fisher has taken the topic’s idle chitchat one step further and added a “Famous Last Suppers” element to his courses. Students learn to cook meals based on such feasts as the final banquets of Pompeii (dormice stuffed with pork and pine needles), Edward VIII’s abdication dinner (four courses, starting with clear turtle soup), Julia Child’s “last wish” menu (duck, brie, crème brûlée), and Elvis’s fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. All these valedictory meals (well, perhaps not Elvis’s) require classic cooking techniques, as I discover.
The school sits among hills where wild boar snuffle, an acorn’s throw away from Périgueux’s truffles, and not much further from Bordeaux. The farmhouse is stunning – a collection of ramshackle buildings that Fisher and his wife Lucy bought as ruins 11 years ago. Where once they found grass growing above their heads, there now lie immaculate gravel pathways. Great briars of herbs line the borders, and bees hum around a vegetable patch that would make most cooks break into song.
The last supper we will recreate comes from the fateful Titanic. It’s an updated version of the banquet eaten in the first-class dining room, which Fisher found in a book called Last Dinner on the Titanic. It’s a brilliant way of engaging a class, in spite of the morbid source material. “People are fascinated by the Titanic,” he enthuses. “Everything was the best of the day – the best meat, the best vegetables, the best chefs – and then, of course, down it went.”
Diners on the Titanic would have enjoyed 10 courses, though Fisher adapts this to a more manageable menu. We start with the last course: Waldorf pudding and ice cream. First we create tuiles – lattices of spun sugar studded with chopped walnuts. Raisins are macerated in port and red wine, apples finely diced and fried in butter. When it comes to making the custard for the “French” (vanilla) ice cream Jim makes a near life-changing revelation. “You don’t need to spend ages stirring it over a low heat. Bring the cream to a rolling boil with your vanilla and sugar, and dump it straight on to the egg yolks, whisking like a maniac. By the time it comes down to 80C your custard will be the right consistency.”
We move on to the main course, a sumptuous middle to the feast of lamb (the Titanic chefs added roast duckling, sirloin of beef, veg, rice and potatoes). “Now, Delia Smith,” begins Jim with a grin, patting a leg of lamb like a farmer would a prize heifer. “Delia would make a nice little incision, push in a wee sprig of rosemary and a dainty sliver of garlic, and it would look perfect. But then it would burn off in the oven and you wouldn’t taste anything.” He holds a sacrificial knife above the gigot. “So we’re going to go all Norman Bates on this fella and actually get some flavour into it.”
He sinks the knife deep into the dark, marbled meat, which will browned and then slow-cooked sous-vide, then thumbs in shards of garlic, rosemary and orange peel, seasoning the lamb with a fistful of salt. He hands the blade to Carol, 64, a diminutive American. Carol’s husband Bill flinches with mock terror.
The bonhomie of the group is, in part, down to Fisher and his teaching style – fun enough to create a laid-back atmosphere, but firm enough to make it worthwhile. As well as the “Last Suppers”, students also learn skills from filleting fish to shopping in the markets.
Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and when the lamb comes out of its water bath it is the most perfect, uniform pink throughout. We eat it with pommes dauphinoise and vivid pea purée. With a mischievous grin, Brad, a Canadian based in the Alps, declares it “a meal to die for”.
The next ‘Last Suppers’ course is in November; www.cookinfrance.com
The Titanic’s final meal
Chef Jim Fisher writes of the 10-course banquet: “The most intriguing thing on this sumptuous menu is the Waldorf pudding, created for the Titanic’s maiden voyage. No recipe has been found so we rely on anecdotal evidence.”
Hors d’oeuvres, oysters
Cream of barley
Poached salmon with mousseline sauce, cucumbers
Filet mignon Lili
Sauté of chicken lyonnaise
Vegetable marrow farci
Lamb, mint sauce
Roast duckling, apple sauce
Sirloin of beef, château potatoes
Parmentier and boiled new potatoes
Roast squab and cress
Cold asparagus vinaigrette
Pâté de foie gras, celery
Peaches in Chartreuse jelly
Chocolate and vanilla eclairs
French ice cream