‘What’s for dinner? I’m starving.’
‘Veal cutlets a la Russe,’ Mrs Glover said. (August 1926, page 293)
In my introductory Kate Atkinson post I referred to the veal cutlets a la Russe, one of the dishes appearing in Life After Life that I had not heard of, and I promised that I would come back to it at a later point.
And now is that time.
In Life After Life Mrs Glover, the family cook, serves up the same veal dish – veal cutlets a la Russe – in 1926 in two of the narrative threads. On the first occasion the meal is embedded into a tragic part of the narrative: the protagonist Ursula has just returned from London where she has had an illegal abortion following her rape by Howie, one of her brother Maurice’s friends, on her 16th birthday. As an act of penance she has had her hair cut short, an action which surprises her father: Hugh seemed surprised rather than saddened. …‘Good gracious,’ he said when she sat down at the table to unappetizing veal cutlets a la Russe’ (page 241). The meal – described by Ursula’s youngest brother, Jimmy, as looking ‘like the dog’s dinner’ – is interrupted by the neighbour, Major Shawcross, looking for his daughter, Nancy, who is missing. Later that same evening Nancy’s body is discovered, dumped in a cattle trough.
In the second narrative thread, on her 16th birthday – in February 1926 – Ursula punches Howie when he tries to grab her and the potential rape is averted. This means the Ursula of this August 1926 has not suffered the trauma of an abortion. This time Mrs Glover is described as preparing the veal cutlets a la Russe – ‘thumping slices of veal with a meat tenderizer’ whilst imagining ‘they’re the heads of the Boche’ (page 293). Learning what that evening’s supper is going to be, Ursula goes into the garden with an apple, sits on a bench and begins to drift away. As the words ‘Veal cutlets a la Russe’ drift through her mind she is grabbed by ‘a sudden familiar but long-forgotten terror’. Not knowing what this is a portent of she runs down the lane to the train station, but is none the wiser. On her way back up the lane, ‘still drenched with the nameless fear’ she bumps into Nancy Shawcross and the two girls walk home, passing on their way a limping man who tips his cap at Ursula and mumbles, ‘Evening, miss.’ The meaning is clear to the reader – the murder of Nancy has been averted by Ursula’s reliving her life and recalling – albeit vaguely – the terrible event, all triggered by Mrs Glover’s pronouncing of that evening’s supper, veal cutlets a la Russe.
But what exactly are veal cutlets a la Russe? I had never heard of them and my internet research only uncovered a handful of references which differed quite significantly. In the end I went to that classic cookery book, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Whilst there is no recipe for veal a la Russe in the book, there is one for Bitokes a la Russe (Hamburgers with Cream Sauce). So I made the cream sauce following Julia Child’s recipe, and then served it with the veal – and it worked perfectly. If you do not eat veal – though there is a growing movement by animal welfare campaigners to encourage the eating of rose veal (the meat of calves aged 6-8 months that have been fed a grass diet) in order to prevent the mass slaughter of male calves at birth – you could replace it with pork. I bought my veal from my local farmers’ market: they did not have any cutlets, so I used veal chops instead. Since these have a bone in, they need cooking for longer than boneless cutlets. You could also use the paper-thin escalopes and just cook them very briefly on each side in the pan before pouring the sauce over them.
VEAL A LA RUSSE (serves 2)
2 veal chops or cutlets
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
For the sauce
100ml beef stock
200ml creme fraiche
salt and pepper
pinch of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C fan / Gas mark 4.
Place the butter and oil in a frying pan over a moderate heat until they melt.
Season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper. Pan fry the chops for 2 minutes on each side until they are golden brown.
Transfer the chops to an oven-proof dish and place in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes (if cutlets) or 10 minutes (if chops).
Whilst the meat is in the oven you can make the sauce. Use the same frying-pan you used for the meat but pour away any excess fat. Add the stock to the pan, bring it to the boil – scraping up any cooking juices as you go – until it is reduced to a thick syrup.
Add the cream and boil for 1-2 minutes.
Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon juice.
Off the heat, add the butter and parsley to the sauce and pour over the cooked meat.