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More omelets, the Mère Poulard, and mussels a la Normande

January 29, 2010

The one-egg omelet that inspired my last post was a delight that unfolded in an ordinary kitchen on a weekend morning, between a dog walk and a game of jacks. It was a simple, private discovery.

For the French, there is always at the back of the mind a more public, shared reference—a legendary Ur omelet, the omelette of the Mère Poulard.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Mère Poulard was making gargantuan soufflé-like omelettes over a wood fire in her restaurant perched on the Mont-Saint-Michel, which juts out into the surrounding bay. (A century earlier, the omelets’ opulence might have caused consternation amongst the Mont’s abbey monks; in her time, I can only imagine they were warmly welcomed by seamen who rowed in from the mainland, the bay, or the open sea.)

Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, that encyclopedic marvel, makes no mention of the Mère Poulard. Turn to the Larousse Gastronomique, however, and there she is, with her own entry, and a life story as delectable as her famous omelettes:

Born in a regional capital (Nevers) in the mid-nineteenth century, she was transplanted to the Mont-Saint-Michel when, as a chambermaid, she accompanied her architect master there on an assignment to restore the Mount’s famous abbey, which had recently been designated an historic monument (80 years after the last monks left). Clearly seeking out picturesque life details, she married a local baker’s son, and together they managed the Tete d’Or hotel-restaurant, where she began making the omelettes whose reputation spread far and wide—and outlived her 80 years.

Just as a good myth should, the legend of the omelette Mère Poulard contains a portion of mystery. Some trick of alchemy makes the ingredients add up to more than they should. People speculate about the cause of their unparalleled deliciousness.

Is it the fluffy whites, beaten separately? The hammered copper bowl in which these whites rise to foamy peaks? The deft swirling of the long-handled pan? The wood fire over which the pan twirls? Some say it’s the generous helping of sweet Normand butter.

Today, the ensign over the hotel door shows the Mère Poulard in her long skirts, angling her pan over an open fire. She has her own set of culinary pilgrims, who climb up the same cobbled streets that lead to the abbey. And on all sides is the sea.

In her book The Food of France: A Regional Celebration, Sarah Woodward describes the mussels de bouchot that grow clinging to poles thrust into the Mont-Saint-Michel bay for that purpose.

Thinking of all this made me want to try a recipe I’d seen in Michel Roux’s book Eggs. The recipe, which turned out to be delicious, combines two of my favorite things: mussels and omelets. And it seemed fitting homage to my country-woman, making omelets on her briny perch in Normandy. [The recipe follows below.]

Just one more thing, since we’re in the neighborhood:

In solo appearances as moules a la Normande, mussels bathe in a sauce of cider, cream and shallots. An appropriate dish for a region dotted with cows and orchards, where cooking traditions center on the duo of apples and cream; cider and butter.

Some recipes for moules a la Normande call for apples as well as cider; or for Calvados instead of cider; or bacon on top of everything. Below is Sarah Woodward’s recipe from The Food of France.

Both dishes below are wonderful with a good crusty slice of pain au levain.

*     *     *     *

Michel Roux’s Mussel and Chive Omelet

¼ cup dry white wine

1 thyme sprig

16 fresh mussels, scrubbed

3 tbsp heavy cream

1 tbsp snipped chives

4 eggs

salt and freshly ground pepper

melted butter to brush (optional)

Put the wine, thyme, and mussels in a small pan, cover tightly, and cook for a few minutes until the mussels have steamed open. Shell them immediately and place in a bowl, discarding any mussels that have not opened. Strain the juices through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a small clean pan, to eliminate any sand.

Simmer the mussel juices over low heat until reduced by half, then add the cream and let it bubble until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Turn off the heat, add the chives and mussels, and keep warm (but not hot).

Beat the eggs in a bowl, season lightly, and use to make an omelet. Half-roll it, then add the creamy mussels and push them into the middle with a spoon. Roll the omelet and slide it onto a warm plate. Brush with butter if you’d like.

*    *    *    *

Moules a la normande:

6 ½ pounds mussels

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

a handful of flat-leaved parsley, stalks removed, finely chopped

2 ½ quarts dry cider, preferably Norman

freshly ground black pepper

2 egg yolks

¾ cups crème fraiche or sour cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Scrub the mussel shells well under running water and debeard them (that is, pull out the strands that stick out of the side). Discard any that do not close when tapped or that have broken shells.

Preheat the oven to 300°F and put a large serving bowl in to warm. Put the mussels, shallots, parsley and cider in a large pan and add some pepper. Cover and cook over a medium heat, shaking from time to time, until the mussels have opened, 4-5 minutes. Discard any that do not. Strain the liquor from the mussels through a fine sieve into another pan and transfer the opened mussels to the serving dish. Cover with foil and return to the oven.

Working as quickly as possible so that the mussels do not shrivel, whisk the egg yolks into the crème fraiche. Bring the mussel liquor back to the boil, reduce the heat to low, and whisk in the egg mixture. Cook, stirring all the time, for a few minutes, until the mixture thickens sufficiently to coat the back of a wooden spoon (but take care not to boil or it may curdle). Remove from the heat and whisk in the pieces of butter. Check the seasoning, remove the mussels from the oven and pour the sauce over them. Stir well and serve straight away with plenty of bread and a spoon for sauce.

Serves 4 as a first course or 2 as a main dish.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 4:53 pm

    Hi, it’s Emily, from the Wilcox Scribe. I never realized you wrote something like this! I’m very excited. Conor F-B just pointed me to your site and I’m about to start a voracious archive dive, but thought I’d say hello first. I’m at college right now, withering hungrily in the absence of my kitchen and making up for it by reading food blogs like literature. I hope you’re well.

  2. February 25, 2010 5:27 am

    thanks !! very helpful post!

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