‘Who are these boys?’ Sylvie quizzed over Mrs Glover’s surprisingly capricious interpretation of sole Veronique. (September 1923, page 184)
And so my summer cooking challenge begins – see http://frompagetoplate.com/2016/07/23/a-literary-compendium-of-20th-century-english-food/ – with one of the recipes I had not come across before: Sole Veronique.
As its name suggests, Sole Veronique has French origins, but it was actually made for English diners at London’s Carlton Hotel. The dish was created by the great French chef Auguste Escoffier to celebrate the London run of the comic opera Veronique by the French composer, Andre Messager.
Veronique is the pseudonym adopted by a wealthy heiress, Helene, who is to be married to a feckless aristocrat, Florestan. Helene disguises herself as a Parisian shop-girl to test his attraction for her and – after a few mishaps along the way – true identities are revealed and all ends happily.
The connection between the opera and the dish Sole Veronique is not clear, but Escoffier was renowned for his dishes that celebrated female performers: peach Melba and Melba toast in honour of the Australian singer, Nellie Melba; fraises (strawberries) a la Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress, and salade Rejane, in honour of another French actress, Gabrielle Rejane.
Whilst there are variants on the dish, Sole Veronique is basically either dover or lemon sole cooked in a white wine and cream sauce with green grapes added to the sauce at the end. My first thought was that fish and grapes would make a strange combination, but I suppose that the grapes match the white wine and there is something quite sophisticated yet comforting about the final dish.
In Atkinson’s novel the dish – which does not sound to be particularly successful or delicious – is made by the family cook, Mrs Glover, whose culinary skills are somewhat lacking. It is served in September 1923 when Izzie, the children’s aunt, comes to dinner at the Todd family home, Fox Corner.
Izzie represents the new modern woman: pregnant and unmarried at the age of 16, her child is adopted and she lives an independent life, writing a newspaper column under a pseudonym in which she refers cryptically to her ‘two nephews’, the boys in question that Sylvie, the children’s mother, quizzes her about as they eat Mrs Glover’s ‘capricious interpretation of sole Veronique’. On other occasions her newspaper column tackles rising hemlines and the best way to acquire ‘shapely ankles’, and on September 1923 Izzie arrives for dinner with a new short hairstyle: ‘It went without saying that Izzie had bobbed her hair before anyone else they knew.’ She provides an alternative female role-model to the novel’s protagonist, Ursula, strikingly different from her own mother’s role as complaining wife and mother of five. Sole Veronique is undoubtedly Mrs Glover’s attempt to produce a sophisticated dish for the London-living Izzie: a failure, but an honourable failure at that.
SOLE VERONIQUE (serves 2)
2 x skinless sole fillets
100ml good quality fish stock
50ml dry white wine
75ml double cream
100g seedless green grapes, halved
Preheat the oven to 180C / Fan oven 170C / Gas mark 4.
Butter a shallow ovenproof dish.
Fold the fish fillets in half and place in the dish. Dot with butter.
Pour the fish stock and wine around the fish and cover with buttered foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.
Turn off the oven. Pour the cooking liquid into a frying pan and place the covered fish back in the oven.
Bring the cooking liquid in the frying pan to the boil and boil until reduced to approximately 50ml liquid. Pour the cream into the pan and heat it to a simmer. Stir in the grapes and heat through for 1 minute. Season the sauce to taste.
Remove the fish from the oven, place on plates and pour over the sauce.
Serve with new potatoes and green vegetables or salad.