Fish Fit for a Playboy British King

sole 1Victor Hirtzler amassed quite a collection of recipes in his globe-trotting career as a chef, which culminated in a two-decade reign at the Hotel St. Francis in San  Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. Hirtzler included more than 3,000 recipes in the 1919 edition of the Hotel St. Francis Cook Book.

Which was his best dish? Clarence Edwords, a food writer and San Francisco publicist, asked him that question on a visit to the Hotel St. Francis while gathering recipes for a book he published in 1914, Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants and Their Most Famous Recipes. Hirtzler’s answer: “I shall give you Sole Edward VII.”

A number of the French-born chef’s recipes were named after European royalty. They were mementos of his stints as personal cook for King Don Carlos of Portugal and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and as a member of the staff at restaurants frequented by aristocrats. In all likelihood, Hirtzler personally prepared his favorite sole dish for its namesake, though that probably would have happened before Edward VII became king of England.

Edward VII

King Edward VII

The eldest son of Queen Victoria, Albert Edward was consigned to the role of crown prince for decades before his mother died when he was 60, clearing the way for his ascent to the throne in 1901. By then, Hirtzler was ensconced at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. But during the previous decade, Hirtzler was a chef at the Grand Hotel in Paris, one of the swankiest hotels in the world in its day. During his seemingly interminable turn as heir apparent, Edward gained a reputation as a playboy and all-around bon vivant, who represented Great Britain on ceremonial occasions and on trips abroad. On any trip to Paris, he likely would have stayed and dined at the Grand Hotel, and he may have ordered–and must have praised and reordered–the sole dish that Hirtzler offered Clarence Edwords in San Francisco a couple of decades later.

Here’s the recipe, as recounted in Edwords’ book:

Sole Edward VII

Cut the fillets out of one sole and lay them flat on a buttered pan, and season with salt and pepper. Make the following mixture and spread over each fillet of sole: Take one-half pound of sweet butter, three ounces of chopped salted almonds, one-fourth pound of chopped fresh mushrooms, a little chopped parsley, the juice of a lemon, salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg. Add to the pan one-half glassful of white wine and put in the oven for twenty minutes. When done serve in the pan by placing it on a platter, with a napkin under it.

Source: Bohemian San Francisco:
Its Restaurants and Their Most Famous Recipes

sole 2

mushroom-almond mixture

As is the case with most of the other old recipes that I have reprinted in Vintage California Cuisine, this one leaves room for interpretation. To begin with, the amount of fish is imprecise, to put it mildly. Judging from the fact that the recipe calls for half a pound – two full sticks – of butter, one can surmise that Hirtzler started with a mighty big fish, or else he meant for the finished fillets to be swimming in butter. The recipe implies that the mushroom component of the almond-mushroom topping should be mixed in with the other ingredients in a raw state. The second of the two times that I experimented with this recipe, I sliced the mushrooms instead of chopping them, and I sautéed them in butter before stirring them in with the other topping ingredients.

The result: anyone with aristocratic pretensions in this day and age would surely expect something quite a bit more spectacular that this from a high end restaurant’s kitchen. But it’s a perfectly serviceable, simple fish dish for the rest of us.

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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