Sometimes, in my quieter moments, I like to imagine how the ridiculous dish that is the omelette Arnold Bennett came to be. Bennett, a resident at the Savoy hotel comes down to breakfast one morning, and is, presumably, asked what he fancies from the menu. ‘Nothing!’ says Bennett, in my little fictional dramatisation ‘… but you’ll be familiar with an omelette.’ ‘Of course, sir’, replies the long-suffering and unbelievably polite waiter, pen poised over his order pad, aware of how many other guests he still has to greet. ‘Well, I’d like one of those. But’ – and here Arnold extemporises – ‘can you top it with the richest sauce your kitchen can create, ideally a mixture of several different complicated, classical sauces, douse it in cream, stir a lot of smoked fish through it, and don’t skimp on the cheese… if it’s not too much trouble, of course.’
Perhaps I am doing Bennett a disservice; it may be that he played little to no role in the composition of the dish. What we know is that its namesake was a prolific writer, best known for his novels and short stories. Bennett set two of his novels at the Savoy Hotel in London, and was staying there penning his second Savoy novel when the dish was created in 1929 by Jean Baptiste Virlogeux, a chef at the hotel. Supposedly, Bennett was such a fan of the dish that he would introduce it wherever he stayed, teaching the hotel chefs how to make it (I bet they loved that).
A normal omelette can be pretty rich if you bathe it in butter and stuff it full of cheese (or is that just me?) but it pales in comparison to the richness of an omelette Arnold Bennett. But then, let’s be honest, the omelette Arnold Bennett does not bear a strong resemblance to the classic omelette: it’s not as quick, it has a bunch more ingredients, and it is seriously, seriously rich. It’s not a cheap and easy, student-style meal. It is, however, absolutely delicious. The base is, to be fair, three scrambled eggs, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. That omelette is then topped with an egg-yolk enriched bechamel, made with haddock-soaked milk. Two fillets of haddock are flaked through this, before the whole thing is grilled, with cheese, until burnished and brown-spotted. The omelette should be just set and custardy, and the bechamel molten and melting – spoonable, decadent, but still, somehow, light.
I will level with you: my omelette Arnold Bennett does not stick religiously to the original. In the original recipe from The Savoy Food and Drink Book, the sauce is made from a mixture of hollandaise, bechamel and cream. Now my finding a dish too rich is a high bar, but that combination sitting on top of an omelette and sprinkled with cheese manages to ascend that high bar. I prefer plain bechamel, a roux-thickened milk sauce, and I like to use the poaching milk to lend flavour and depth to the overall dish – it also grills beautifully, spotted like tortoiseshell. Plus bechamel and salty, smokey fish are a match made in heaven: think fish pie, or croquettes, just hold off seasoning the bechamel until you’ve added the fish, as it brings its own saltiness.
Just before serving, a little parsley or chives can be torn over it in a scant nod to health and colour. I like to dunk big hunks of bread into this, but I would imagine if you are more sophisticated than I, you might consider toast points more appropriate.
Omelette Arnold Bennett
Makes: Enough for two hungry people
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 3 minutes
300ml whole milk
½ an onion, peeled
300g skinned undyed, smoked haddock
30g plain flour
25g butter, plus a small knob for the omelette
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
50g mature cheddar, grated
Parsley or chives, to garnish
- Place the milk, half an onion and the haddock in a pan large enough to hold the fish. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan, turn off the heat, and leave to sit for five minutes. Remove from the heat, strain off the haddock, discard the onion, and reserve the milk. Once the haddock is cool enough to handle, flake into chunks.
- Melt the 25g butter in a pan, then stir the flour through it until combined. Cook for a minute or two until it begins to sizzle and smells nutty. Add the poaching milk to the roux bit by bit, whisking it in, until you’ve used all the milk, and the sauce is smooth and silky. Turn the heat down, and whisk in the egg yolk. Gently stir the flaked haddock through the bechamel. Check for seasoning, but go easy.
- Preheat the grill to medium high. Next, take a 20cm cast iron or omelette pan, and heat the small knob of butter in the pan until it begins to foam. Fork the eggs in a small bowl to break them up, and then pour them into the hot pan. Count to ten, then use a spatula to quickly pull the edges of the omelette into the centre of the pan, turning the pan to redistribute the loose mixture. As soon as the omelette begins to set, remove it from the heat.
- Gently spoon the haddock bechamel on top of the omelette, then top with the cheese. Place under the grill and grill until golden and brown-spotted – top with parsley or chives if you wish, and eat straight away.