This Chef Tried to Recreate the Outrageous Dinner from 'Babette’s Feast'
Set in 19th century Denmark, Babette’s Feast centres on an extravagant village feast of turtle soup, quail, cheese, and wine. Chef Oliver Rowe took on the challenge of cooking it in 2016 London.
Alle fotos via KinoVino.
The milkshake in Pulp Fiction. The fizzy drinks in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The butterbeer and cauldron cakes from the Harry Potter films. Even the spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp. Sometimes food on film looks so good, you really could just eat it.
That's certainly what Alissa Timoshkina feels. A complete cinephile with a film studies PhD to her name, she's also the founder of a supper club, KinoVino, that brings to life the imagery of the silver screen in food form.
"I love cooking and hosting dinner parties and I thought it would be interesting to combine what I know well with what I love doing, and to find a way to introduce films into food," she explains.
Of course, collapsing in front of a film after eating plates and plates of far too much delicious food is a Christmas tradition. So, in the run-up to the festive season last year and again this December, Timoshkina has recruited chef Oliver Rowe to recreate the food from one of cinema's most celebrated "foodie" movies, Babette's Feast.
For those who are uninitiated in 1980s Danish language films, the story of Babette's Feast centres—as you might imagine—around a single, splendid meal. Babette is a French woman, a chef, who has escaped the French Revolution and settled in an ascetic religious community on the Danish coast to work as a maid to two elderly spinster sisters. To thank the women and the villagers for their hospitality in welcoming her, she prepares a fabulous and extravagant five-course meal.
No spoilers, but of course, there's a twist at the end.
"When Oliver and I met, he said we have to do Babette's Feast. It was the first thing he told me," says Timoshkina. "It's a classic film, a good Christmas movie, and KinoVino is the perfect context to do it. We have one big space split in two by a curtain, so people come in to watch the film and behind the curtain is the dining room and the kitchen. As they're watching the film and seeing Babette cook, they can smell the food as it's prepared, which makes it an amazingly sensual experience."
Rowe continues: "Babette buys in a live turtle, a huge block of ice, game birds like quail, amazing fruit and vegetables, cheeses, and wines, and she hires all this amazing glassware and crockery. By the end of the meal, they're all pissed and telling each other how much they love each other and all their rifts get healed. I get really choked up just talking about it."
If only food had that power at awkward family Christmas dinners. But aside from the emotion the film provokes, it's a chef's dream to recreate.
"It's starkly shot and the imagery has that sense of super-abundance," he says. "You can almost taste things as you see them."
The menu is also very clearly set out in the film, though as Rowe says, "it's not like watching a cookery demo. But you get a sense of her cooking, tasting things, her skill and patience."
The challenge for Rowe and Timoshkina was how to replicate not just the Babette's Feast menu, but the sentiment that the film has.
"I decided quite early on that we couldn't replicate the food precisely. Turtle soup?!" says Rowe. "Plus Babette makes this dish called caille en sarcophage—puff pastry with quail, foie gras, and truffles on top. Then there's all the expensive cheeses, caviar, and so on."
Instead Rowe decided to capture the essence and spirit of the feast through a semi-budget version.
"In the film she serves a dish called blinis demidoff with sour cream and caviar. I made blinis demidoff and used roe fish caviar instead."
Timoshkina adds: "The way Oliver made those blinis, I mean I'm Russian, but I've never tasted blinis that amazing. It's a technically simple dish but they were so perfect, I really was impressed."
And that's just the half-cut version. For the caille en sarcophage, Rowe created a version reduite—reduced, still using quail, but with chicken liver pâté in place of the foie gras and porcini mushrooms with a little truffle oil instead of actual truffles.
"There's quite a lot of artistic licence involved," he admits.
Particularly when it comes to turtle soup. After all, it's not really a standard dish on restaurant menus these days. Last December Rowe took a tangential tack and made "gruel," a nod to the usual eating habits of the abstemious villagers in the film.
"I made a millet porridge and salted fish to serve with it, so it was kind of gruel, but nicely made," he explains.
"He added aged Danish cheese and croutons and made the porridge with beer," Timoshkina chips in. "The ingredients do sound quite odd, but when you pull them together it makes this incredible thing."
I'm curious to know how Rowe might attempt a turtle soup though, rather than sidestepping it.
"Well, in the 18th century they used to make a 'mock turtle' soup as a cheap alternative with various offal ingredients. But I think I'd make a vegetarian version," he says.
A sort of mock-mock turtle soup, I suggest, and Rowe agrees. I can't even begin to imagine how he'd make a vegetarian recreation of a turtle soup via offal, but given his track record with blinis and making gruel tasty, I'll take his word that it's possible.
"The feast in the film is extremely luxurious and refined, but we're pretty much re-enacting it," says Timoshkina. "We couldn't drink the same wines because that would be crazy expensive, but we've got a curated wine pairing for every course."
That way, at the end of the dinner, diners can also be a little bit pissed and ready to have old grievances forgiven—just like in the film.
"It's about making the film not just intellectually or visually creative, but so you can taste it," says Timoshkina. "I think trying to taste film is a really interesting idea."
"Film can portray flavours, but it can't express smell," agrees Rowe. Yet all the guests at KinoVino's take on Babette's Feast will have the advantage of both salivating over the images, smelling the food as it cooks, and then tucking in afterwards.
"The film isn't set at Christmas," concedes Timoshkina. "But the idea of feasting and people coming together, of a magical moment that happens when people share food, and the transformation that occurs when you learn something new about each other—that's a miracle, magical thing. That's what makes it Christmassy."
And couldn't we all do with some of that at the end of 2016? Pass me another ladle-load of mock mock turtle soup, would you?