News & views | The return of the vol-au-vent

News & views

The return of the vol-au-vent

Are we about to witness a revival of that 70s classic, the vol-au-vent? There appear to be sightings. Philip Sweeney reports

Clifton, Bristol, August 2017, yet another new restaurant, Wellbourne, the venture of former employees of Dabbous of London, opens its doors. A reason for excitement if only among one particular sector of the public: flaky pastry enthusiasts.

Wellbourne’s daily menu features the vol au vent, a dish nowadays restricted along with Black Forest Gateau to ironic retro cooking magazine articles, and a few select epicurean addresses such as Quo Vadis of Soho, which had a trout version on the menu only last week. Two vol au vents don’t make a revival, but this is a step in the right direction.

Paris, France, August 2017, the home of the species, is another vol au vent desert. Are they flying at half mast, perhaps, for the passing of Jeanne Moreau? No, the v-a-v is a dish for autumn and winter, therefore absent from the cartes of half the handful of restaurants still featuring it, most of which are shut for the holidays anyway.

The vol au vent is a very traditional dish, neither cheap nor easy, so these are not among the shedloads of caves a manger or taco-vendors currently in fashion, but grand old classics like Drouant, where the Prix Goncourt jury has met since the 1940s, or Benoit, the beautiful Michelin starred bistro de luxe on the edge of the Marais, which still does a vol au vent de sole a la marinière based on a recipe by Escoffier.

Though not in August. Only Le 110 de Taillevent, the cheap (28€ a vol au vent) and cheerful offshoot of the extremely grand Taillevent, is still offering pastry relief, and the chef, Emile Cotte, is happy to comment.

vol au vent at 110 Taillevent

Cotte’s vol au vent (above) is exquisite, served in the traditional manner, the sauce poured over the filled pastry shell at the table, with a small pan of extra filling and a jug of sauce left for topping up. This is a vol au vent a la financière, the banker’s wife bit a reference to the coin-sized dimensions of the solid matter in the filling: lamb sweetbreads, wild mushrooms, poultry wing meat and kidneys, coxcombs, quenelles of poultry, crayfish. Far from some snack-cousin of the sausage roll, but an item of full dress French cuisine bourgeoise.

Vol-au-vents or bouchées?

As you’d expect from its genealogy, usually traced back to the great eighteenth century cook Antonin Carême, who replaced the normal heavy pastry in a tourte with breeze-light pate feuilleté. This was still a full size multi portion pie, until Marie Leszcynska, pastry-loving queen to Louis XV, hit upon the idea of individual vol au vents, or bouchées, whence the bouchée a la reine still found in good neighbourhood traiteurs today. In modern practice, some bouchées are pretty substantial, and the vol au vent is invariably a main course dish, and your dinky aperitif vol au vents are strictly speaking mini-bouchées.

By a stroke of luck, I witnessed the vol au vent in its most ostentatious grande bourgeoise finery only recently, at a dinner for three hundred at the Quai D’Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry, a riot of gilded mirrors, pilasters, cherubs and ushers in white tie and tails.

Alain Ducasse, the most ubiquitous, successful and Macchiavellian culinary wheeler dealer in France, was entrusted with just the main course, a grand vol au vent with all the trimmings, for which he’d demanded his own brigade of 18 extra staff, dozens of silver saucepans for service to table, a huge quantity of black truffles at 750 Euros a kilo and the headgear of flocks of cockerels.

Ducasse’s recipe, which he had sent to me, involves 34 ingredients as opposed to Taillevent’s 16, some of which are themselves complex pre-prepared products like matignon - fondue of vegetables – and calf’s foot jelly.

The creator, a guest at the dinner, sat across the table for me looking about as involved as a bank chairman idly observing the signing of a loan agreement by some of his minions. At the appointed time, a line of waiters queued in the wings like a Broadway chorus line to bring on plates of pastry shells, then spoon into them the filling and finally pour over the rich brown sauce from the silver pans. Bloody good, though cooler and less crispy of pastry than Taillevent’s, due no doubt to the constraints of service en masse. The coxcombs were intact, little pale gelatinous things, unlike Taillevent’s: Emile Cotte minces them up as some clients are squeamish, but insists the taste is worth it.

But back to reality. The traiteur, where you get your take away dishes, rather than the restaurant, is the more common habitat nowadays of the Parisian vol au vent. Though here too the situation is deteriorating, with the traditional traiteurs declining in number and Chinese traiteurs asiatiques taking over their shops at an alarming pace.

Nonetheless, my local traiteur, the Charcuterie de Montmartre, turned out twice daily ovenloads of bouchées à la reine, filled with chicken breast, jambon de Paris, mushrooms, and quenelles de volaille in a white sauce based on chicken stock, for four euros, and the Grande Epicerie on the Left Bank, a sort of superior version of Harvey Nicholls food hall, was selling big tasty square specimens, one chicken and one seafood at just under six euros, while awaiting the new season party list: Saint Jacques and pesto, ecrevisses homardine, ris de veai, volaille and morilles.

And then there was Sebastien Gaudard, actually a celebrity patissier rather than a traiteur, but a purveyor also of highly rated vol au vents in his refined salon de thé on rue des Pyramides. Sorry, no vol au vents in August, announced Gaudard, then taunted me with a description of his specially lightened béchamel filling.

But what about sweet vol au vents?

Apparently Quo Vadis does them. About to leave Gaudard’s empty handed, my eye lit upon a golden puff pastry roundel among the ranks of eclairs and religieuses in a glass cabinet. "It’s a puits d’amour" said Gaudard, "an old Parisian patisserie. Try one". I did; as wonderful as you’d expect of a breeze-light pastry cup filled with crème Chiboust, which is crème patissiere mixed with Italian merinque and caramelised under a grill. And as fascinatingly historic as the vol au vent itself, invented in the eighteenth century by one Vincent La Chapelle, whose original recipe involved not crème patissière but confiture, making the puits d’amour nothing less than a long lost ancestor of the Jammy Dodger.

Vol au vents at Wellbourne

Which brings us back to the Wellbourne. Vol au vents on the diminutive side, served on slates, containing non standard mayonnaise-based fillings. And, provoking sharp intakes of breath around the table, topped not by pastry lids but nasturtium petals. A laudable entry into the vol-au-vent stakes, much to be welcomed, but not quite there yet.

May have to call in Alain Ducasse and his bag of coxcombs for a tune-up, but not till autumn.

Philip Sweeney is a freelance food and travel writer, vol-au-vent aficionado and a regular contributor to The Independent.

What to drink with a vol-au-vent

It's light, airy and the filling is usually creamy. What else to sip with a vol-au-vent but a glass of champagne? FB

Photo ©Packshot @fotolia.com

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