A watery omelette with dried herbs was Simon Hopkinson’s favourite meal as a boy. But there are better ways to crack an egg ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
It was my father who first showed me how to make an omelette. His version varied little and, apart from the occasional mushroom, the flavour always came from herbs. In 1960s Britain the only fresh herbs you could find in greengrocers, or the garden, were parsley and mint. At the wonderful Bury market, in the Lancashire town where I grew up, you could buy parsley at the fishmongers, and mint at the vegetable stall—but only when new potatoes were in season. (Oh, that seasonality was still naturally forced upon us, rather than pretending, as we do now, that it is how we are supposed to behave.)
So Dad’s were “mixed herbs”, shaken out from a jar in the pantry in a puff of dust. The eggs were usually very good, golden-yolked and wobbly fresh, erratically bought from Vincent the farmer, a short stroll down the road. Dad would add a healthy trickle of water—to lighten them, he insisted—but also, I see now, for parsimony as much as anything else; Mum used to add quite a lot of milk to scrambled eggs for the same reason.
I enjoyed these omelettes, however pale and watery they may have been. It excited me to watch them begin to set and quietly curdle at the edges of the pan, the golden butter beneath bubbling up and gently sizzling. Dad was a fiend when it came to butter, and probably used far more than strictly necessary (his bread-buttering was a sight to see, the butter almost more of a doorstep than the bread). But the water certainly fluffed the omelette as he swiftly moved it around with a favourite old, well-scrubbed, carbon-steel spatula. The powdery herbs had been whisked into the eggs with the water so that once the omelette was deftly rolled across the pan—and Dad was definitely deft at this point, the magic moment for me—what emerged onto the plate was a pale specked cylinder. I loved this herb omelette because I knew no other. For Sunday supper, I could only see it as a treat.
Today, an omelette fines herbes would be made using freshly chopped parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil. These four “fine” herbs are easily bought year-round from almost any supermarket across the developed world, one of the greatest luxuries of modern shopping. Imagine how even more delicious the omelette of my childhood would have been with these fragrant leaves, verdant aromatic specks rather than the dried-out grey of old. Conversely, the quality and all-important freshness of supermarket eggs has been maddeningly reversed.
Rowley Leigh, the chef and co-proprietor of Le Café Anglais restaurant in London, makes the finest omelettes I have ever eaten. I know the process he uses, and I adhere to it when making mine, but his always turn out that little bit better. It was at the American restaurant Joe Allen, in his early days as a line-order cook, that Leigh perfected the art of omelette-making. The pan, he insists, is crucial: a small, well-seasoned (well-used, in other words), heavy-based frying pan with sloping sides, used for cooking nothing else and never washed, just wiped clean and kept lightly oiled. The nervous cook could use a non-stick pan, but only if they are happy to horrify the purist.
For an omelette fines herbes, it’s essential that the freshest eggs are used, so that they hold a bubbly mousse once beaten. You need three medium-sized eggs per person, and (sorry Dad) no added water or milk. Heat a small knob of best butter to just past the frothing stage, and add seasoning and one loose tablespoonful of the finely chopped herbs just before you add the eggs to the pan. Do this just as the butter is threatening to turn nutty.
Speed is the essence of omelette-making. Take a fork and fold the molten curds of egg together rapidly as they cook, to allow the omelette to cook evenly, yet remain soft and light throughout. Finally, fold one third of the cooked omelette into the middle with a spatula, then tip this fold over the remainder while also tilting the pan towards a warmed serving plate (not too hot or the omelette will continue to cook), so that it lands gently. The entire process should take no longer than about a minute and a half—two at the very most.
Eggs — Try to buy farm eggs as fresh as you can, perhaps from a farmers’ market. In London I use Italian eggs from Michanicou greengrocers in Holland Park.
Herbs — Best fresh from a farmers’ market or home-grown.
Butter — I love pale, unsalted Italian butter, found in Italian delicatessens and some enterprising supermarkets.
Frying pans — Look for pans that are solid-based and, preferably, cast-iron or heavy-gauge aluminium. If you do use a non-stick pan, make sure it is not a cheap, thin one.
Illustrations: Cath Riley