When politicians and railroad barons in late-19th-century New York wanted to dine in elegance, when society hostesses wanted to fête Charles Dickens or Andrew Johnson, they went to Delmonico’s. Founded in 1827, Delmonico’s was the flagship restaurant of a young, confident and increasingly rich country’s cultural capital. And during its heyday its kitchen was in the plump and capable hands of Charles Ranhofer. A Parisian who began his culinary training at the age of 12 and by 16 had charge of the kitchens of Prince Hénin of Alsace, Ranhofer was a chef of the old French school. Equal parts craftsman, artist and military officer, he oversaw a true brigade de cuisine: he knew that mackerel came into season on April 1st but Spanish mackerel not until the 15th; and he understood the difference between American table service and service à la Russe. He distilled this vast body of culinary knowledge into a tome entitled "The Epicurean", published in 1893. It contains 3,715 recipes, beginning with "Burnt Almonds and Filberts", and ending with "Claudius Punch and Wine Punch—Hot".
KEY INFLUENCES Marie-Antoine Carême, codifier (if not inventor) of classic French cooking and service, is a clear presence: this is haute cuisine in its creative phase, with none of the dusty staidness it has today.
TABLE MANNER Intimidatingly direct, yet still somewhat opaque. Ranhofer is writing not for the home cook, but for a trained chef with boundless time and access to ingredients (not to mention a sizeable staff). His recipes come in paragraph form, without lists of ingredients at the top. They demand careful and thorough reading well before lighting the stove. Delia Smith will patiently explain how to boil an egg. Charles Ranhofer commands you to "remove the bones of a breast of veal without touching the gristle" (breast of veal à la Bordaloue), "suppress all the nerves from a good haunch of venison" (roebuck à la Bouchard) or "lard thoroughly a kernel of veal with ham and fat pork; cover it with slices of udder" (kernel of veal with mayonnaise tomatoed sauce).
FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS All of them. When Ranhofer was writing, the seas had not been overfished, cholesterol was yet to be discovered, and obesity in America was a sign of wealth, not poverty. You name the fish, fowl or beast of the field and Charles Ranhofer will tell you how to dress and cook it. With lashings of butter, cream, eggs and animal fats.
TYPICAL DISH Calves’ tongues à la Perigueux begins with francophilic richness, as braised beef tongues are brushed with eggs and covered with creamy soubise sauce. Then it moves into Victorian baroque, with the tongues being sliced and formed into a dome, assisted by a foundation of risotto and decorated with puff pastry. It ends in Edwardian luxury, finished with skewered truffles, truffle shavings and Madeira sauce.
WHAT WORKS Best to catch Ranhofer before he sails into the baroque (terrine of larks, anyone? Perhaps a few sheep’s ears à la Westphalian?) on waves of butter and lard: he is a brilliant saucier. And where plenty of 19th-century sauces have gone out of style, a good sauce brune espagnole never will. Spare a day or four to master his recipe, which calls for cooking beef stock with ham, pork, veal knuckle and beef scraps, as well as onions, celery and herbs, reducing it twice, straining it, and then stirring it into a brown roux...
WHAT DOESN’T Let’s be honest: "The Epicurean" is more likely to wind up in your library than your kitchen. Ranhofer makes no concessions to the home cook, much less a working parent looking to whip up a family meal in less than 18 hours. And with his fondness for creaming, larding and deep-frying in clarified butter, just reading some of the recipes can give you gout.
COOK HIM BECAUSE You like a challenge. You’re hosting an Edwardian-themed dinner. Or because there is no better way to understand the lives of people in a different country or era than by eating as they did.