I had disdained cooking (though not eating) throughout my youth, skimming past the kitchen just fast enough not to be pulled inside. Surely there were people to do that. I was more interested in reading books – far more worthwhile. Luckily, from a safe distance I had picked up a hint or two. On my own I lived on boiled eggs but when it came to entertaining I could pull out all the stops and create an omelette.
It was a Sunday evening at the end of summer and already dark. I was expecting the family after their weekend away. They rented the house as diplomatic representatives and I was the glorious not very foreign au pair. An au pair was expected to do a little light housework and look after the children but luckily they were out at school most of the time. Actors who were “resting” did the hard jobs like cleaning out the oven. For three hours of vacuuming, dusting and ironing in the mornings I was paid £3 a week, with room and board (1969). Princely. The museums were free.
The house was on Warwick Avenue by Little Venice, a peaceful canal system in London. It was owned by the governor of a Caribbean island and was a towering white three-storey corner house with basement kitchen, designed by John Nash, in a street of elegant houses. This makes being an au pair worthwhile. Unfortunately there was a fire station nearby (fortunately for the insurer) but we had to endure constant sirens screaming by the house. Come to think of it, it wasn’t very peaceful.
When I heard a knock at the door I was surprised. The family used their keys. I opened the big heavy double doors of this beautiful 18th century townhouse and looked outside. On the front step stood a small, tired East Indian man, nicely dressed, with a suitcase. Was he part of my job description?
“Hello. Are the B______ family in?”
“I’m sorry, no. I’m waiting for them to come back.”
“I’m a friend. I’ve come to stay. Would you mind if I came in and waited for them?”
I was a bit dubious. I was alone in the house filled with precious antiques and paintings and was responsible for their welfare. I was 22 and far too polite to ask for further details. He noticed my hesitation and, with exquisite grace, explained that he was the Indian Minister of Defence. He told me he had just flown in from India and was tired and needed to rest. I let him in and he settled gratefully into a large pale blue comfy chair in the living room. My best manners sprang into action.
“Can I get you a drink? Are you hungry?” I asked. He looked relieved when we decided on an omelette. He didn’t realize that was the only item on the menu. This version required that you separate the whites and yolks, beat them, spoon them together and cook gently, folding the omelette over only at the end. The omelette looks like a soufflé, so it’s quite a party piece but it’s simple to make. I whipped off into the basement kitchen and began my wizardry. I decorated it with alternate slices of tomato and cucumber and thought I was very clever.
The family came home eventually and welcomed their distinguished guest with cries of delight, to my relief. The next day we all played tennis together and I no longer had to cook, just fend off tennis balls.
The omelette might well have originated in the Middle East, so the books say. I say first find your chicken and the egg will follow. They are just as likely to come from the Far East as anywhere else but of course it depends where you are standing.
Carry your eggs on a camel and they are beaten ready for dinner. In desperation, mix the curdling eggs with chopped herbs, fry and then slice them into wedges and hand them round before you get any nasty looks. Carried on camels, donkeys and horses, omelettes became the health dish of the day with each country adapting the recipe to produce frittata, tortilla, and the proper French omelette. The competition was on!
Napoleon was particularly pleased, when travelling through southern France with his army, to discover a master omelettier. They had decided to rest for the night near the town of Bessières and the innkeeper made such a divine omelette that Napoleon ordered the townspeople to gather all the eggs in the village and prepare a huge omelette for his army the next day. The villagers must have loved him. But getting their photos in the paper? It was all worth it. You know how the Guinness Book eggs people on.
You too can become noted for your fancy omelette of whatever size!
Melt a walnut of butter in a frying pan at medium heat to avoid burning. A nasty smell.
Separate the yolks and whites into two bowls, carefully.
Whisk the yolks with a fork while humming a tune to maintain the chi of the kitchen.
Beat the whites until fluffy and stiff then, holding your breath, add the yolks to the whites, folding them in like clouds of dandelion seed heads.
Pour into the frying pan and cook very very gently. Humming is still allowed but not aloud.
Fold the concoction over to serve and decorate the plate with whatever you have in the house, preferably edible. Provide a fork.
When foreign ministers come to stay, you will no longer be at a loss.