Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Babette's Feast - Food in Films

The relationship of food and cinema goes back since the invention of the seventh art.  Food is extremely sensual and symbolic and it's no wonder that film creators have centered their plots around food.  In Babette's Feast, as the title implies food does not fall short.  The entire plot is centered on the determination of one woman to prepare an exotic scrumptious feast.  It's a celebration of a single meal served to her less than accepting guests whom are truly in need of appreciation of life's simple little pleasure's.  

Babette's Feast is a visually stimulating Danish film released in 1987, written and directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the story of Karen Blixen also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen.  Rightfully so, the film was honored with the 1987 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  The film depicts far more than food and foodways, it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives and it portrays a story of french cuisine by lovingly detailing the many pleasures of food.     

Babette's Feast takes place in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an especially strict Lutheran sect of 19th century Denmark.  The two beautiful young daughters of the founder of the sect reject suitors from the outside world whom if married, would have taken them away from their father, their religion, and their village.  Many years pass; neither sister has an opportunity to marry, so they live their lives devoted to good works and keeping their now dead father's spirit alive.  

The story flashes back several years, depicting the sisters in their youth.  Each sister is courted by handsome young men, one a worldly aristocratic army officer and the other a French opera star named Achille Papin.  

One evening some thirty five years later, on a dark rainy night, a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on the doorstep of the two sisters, who are now in late middle age.  The woman arrived with a letter written by the famous opera star whom had before courted one of the sisters: Achille Papin.  He asks the sisters to take in the woman, a refugee from the civil war that was tearing France apart in 1871.  The woman's husband and son were both brutally killed leaving her with nowhere else to turn.  Babette Hersant, played by Stephane Audran, had lost her family, her country, her language, and as it turns out, her art.  In exchange for taking her in, Babette submits herself to servitude and housekeeping for the sisters.  

The sister's live extremely isolated and simply that they hardly know what to do with a servant.  Nevertheless, they take her in and she soon becomes indispensable to them.  Babette cooks delicious food and brings pleasure to the deeply protestant religious ways of the two sisters whom had grown accustomed to the flavorless, hardly edible fare.  Once good taste is learned there is no return!  The townsfolk appreciate Babette's cooking and attention she gives to flavor and freshness that they give thanks to god for the arrival of Babette.  

The mysterious maid has been happily keeping house for them and the story turns when one day she wins the 10,000-franc French lottery and decides to spend it on one grand meal for her emotionally withholding employers and the needy inhabitants of the town.  The townsfolk had given up all worldly pleasures including the pleasure of good food, taking religious beliefs to the extreme.  As it turned out the sisters had been planning to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of their father's birth.  This celebration comes at a crucial moment: like many other sects after the loss of a charismatic founder, the disciples have fallen to squabbling and backbiting.  The sisters hope the celebration will restore the spiritual harmony of their early church.  Babette, having been very unfortunate her entire life, and now having won the lottery, requests permission from the two sisters to prepare the commemorative feast for the sisters and the community of believers, but she wants to do so on her own terms, as a "real French dinner."  She insists on paying for it and although the sisters are reluctant, they assume this will be the last meal she prepares for them before she returns to France a rich woman. 

Babette orders many of the exotic ingredients from France and they include a gleaming candelabra, silverware, elegant china, and table linens and they start arriving by boat but the greedy sneering townsfolk start "talking" about all the goods parading in the town.  The sisters, being religiously strict and deprived their entire lives, are horrified and they fear the feast will turn into a "witches Sabbath".  The sisters warn the community, begging for forgiveness and set out to meet the presence of "evil" with resignation, with their minds on heaven.  The ungrateful townsfolk decide with the sisters that the nice meal will be "sinful", so they all agree not to enjoy the meal or express anything appreciative about it.  

The dinner brings an unexpected guest, the army officer and suitor of Martine from years before.  As the dinner progresses the officer realizes that the dinner he is enjoying could have only been prepared by the chef of the renowned Café Anglais in Paris.  In the course of the dinner he recounts the story of the extraordinary chef of the superb restaurant who "quite exceptionally" was a woman.  The incomparable chef had the gift of transforming a dinner into a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.

When the guests leave the two sisters, Philippa and Martine come into the kitchen to compliment Babette on the meal and to prepare to say good-bye, but Babette stuns her employers that she will not be returning to France - ever.  There is no place for her there and she has no money.  

Of course, the chef at Café Anglais was Babette, but this is the first time she has had an opportunity to so lovingly prove her culinary artistry, expecting nothing in return form the ungrateful congregation.  She had spent all the money from the lottery winning on the feast that in her mind will redeem the townsfolk from their heartless and cold ways.  Babette will reap one final reward, for the first time, Philippa embraces her servant in an act of love that at once acknowledges the right of the artist to sacrifice.  The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice.  She has proven her skill and art, but most importantly, she has taught the sisters and the congregation the gift of love.  Babette has had a last chance to give of her very best. The power of the culinary art transformed the feasters, even if their expression was silent, their eloquent testimony in their facial expression was captured thru the magic of film and Babette's skill was proof enough that words were not what she needed.  Her satisfaction was the humble and simple opportunity to cook like in the days when she was the star chef and artist at the Café Anglais of her beloved Paris.  

The Menu:

Babette's  scrumptious feast begins with a glass of amontillado, a variety of sherry from the Montilla region of Spain.  Next a bowl of ""Potage à la Tortue" (turtle soup), followed by "Blinis Demidoff au Caviar" (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream).  For the main course Babette prepared elegant "Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine" (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); a salad featuring Belgian chicory and walnuts in a vinaigrette followed by "Les Fromages" featuring blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes, pineapple, and pomegranate.  The grand finale dessert is a sweet "Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruits Glacées" (rum sponge cake with figs and glazed fruits).  Numerous rare wines, including an 1845 Clos de Vouget, along with an 1860 Veuve Clicqot champagne and spirits, complete the menu. Babette's purchase of the finest china, crystal and linen with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette.

To Bring the Feast to your table:

Babette's Cailles en Sarcophage (quail in puff pastry shell)
  • 1 pound frozen puff pastry, defrosted 20 minutes at room temperature
  • 4 quails, boned
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces foie gras, of which is cut across in 8 slices, the rest cut into 2/3- inch cubes
  • 1 1-ounce black truffle, sliced as thinly as possible, at least 12 slices
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup demi-glace (see note)
  • 16 black figs, quartered
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut 4 5-inch rounds from the pastry. Make a 3-inch circle in the center of each round, being careful not to cut to the bottom of the dough. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Carefully lift out the 3-inch round from the center to create a nest with a top. Set aside to cool.
Raise the oven to 450 degrees. Season the inside of the quails with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Lay 1 slice of foie gras in each quail cavity followed by 3 truffle slices and top with the remaining foie gras. Truss the quails. Season the outsides with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet over high heat. Sear the quails, 20 to 30 seconds per side. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Turn the quails and roast for 5 minutes more. Remove and keep warm in a covered dish.
Place the skillet over high heat on top of the stove. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and demi-glace and simmer for 3 minutes. Stir in the figs and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in the 1/4- inch cubes of foie gras and simmer, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sauce is reduced to 2/3 cup. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, put each quail in a pastry nest. Drizzle with sauce, top with the pastry round and surround with the figs.
4 servings


  1. Well you picked the best food film ever or at least it is to me....

    1. I second you on that! It is one of my favorite films centered around food. Have you made quail in this french style?