April 15, 2012 marks the 100-year anniversary of Titanic, the “unsinkable ship,” and the end of her doomed voyage across the Atlantic. It’s a sad and haunting tale. On this historic anniversary I find my imagination drifting through the kitchens of Titanic, visualizing the dining rooms, the delicate china, the refined cuisine. What does that slice of history taste like?
Titanic on her maiden voyage, 1912
In order to truly grasp what a dining experience was like on Titanic, it’s important to know a bit of the culinary history of the time. Food on Titanic was heavily influenced by the style of Auguste Escoffier, a well-respected French chef known for his “haute cuisine.” During the late 1800s, Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His food is known for being elaborate and fancy—what we might describe today as being “typically French.” His eleven course meals were sauce-heavy, often including smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and Beef Wellington. They became the trademark of indulgence and wealth, fitting perfectly within the first class dining rooms of Titanic. Many of his creations were named for the star patrons of the Ritz hotels, including the Peach Melba, named after the Australian singer Nellie Melba. Escoffier’s food was certainly noteworthy, though it was his ability to run a kitchen with respect for the entire staff, a highly unusual trait during this time, which made him stand out from other chefs.
A portrait of the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier
First class passengers had several dining rooms to choose from, and each one was influenced by the cuisine of Escoffier. The most popular was César Ritz’s luxurious namesake “Ritz” restaurant. A typical night of dining in the “Ritz” began with cocktails, which were “all the rage” in 1912, in the reception room. Diners were then called to dinner with a song called “The Roast Beef of Old England” performed by a bugler. The dinner itself began with an egg course that often incorporated caviar and aspics. Aspic, a gelatin-like substance, was often used to preserve foods before refrigeration was available. Once this was no longer an issue (and yes, there were refrigeration units on Titanic), chefs continued to use aspics to prepare visually stunning creations. The egg course was followed by a soup course, a fish course, a palette-cleansing course (often a sorbet), a meat course, a vegetable course, a dessert course, and finally a cheese course. Every course had its own individual wine pairing. Diners who were unable to consume such an extraordinary amount of food could opt for fewer courses. After dinner, most male passengers returned to the reception room for cigars, coffee and port or cordials.
Titanic’s famous Grand Staircase
Other first class dining rooms included the Café Parisien, the Verandah Café, the A La Carte Restaurant and the First Class Dining Saloon. All of these restaurants would have been influenced by Escoffier’s culinary style, the Ritz most directly of course. It is from the First Class Dining Saloon that we have one of the only surviving menus from Titanic – the dinner menu from the night of April 14, the last meal ever served aboard the ship (see the menu below, along with a recipe).
Second class passengers were able to enjoy meals that were more generous than their usual fare. The food represented “a clear marriage of British and American food tastes, plum pudding sharing space with American ice cream.” A dinner included three courses—much fewer than first class—but it was cooked in the same kitchen as the first class meals. It began with a soup course, followed by a choice of meat as the entrée, and a choice of dessert.
Third class passengers onboard Titanic were largely made up of working-class Europeans with hopes of immigrating to North America. Because they made up such a large portion of the travelers on the ship, White Star wanted to make sure they were able to enjoy themselves. The tables were covered with white cloths and stewards waited on the diners. Meals included three courses. Though the fare was simpler than what was available in first and second class, it was a much higher culinary standard than most third-class travelers were accustomed to.
One of the only surviving menus from the Titanic
Here is the menu that passengers in the First-Class Dining Room enjoyed on the evening of April 14, 1912 – the last dinner served on Titanic.
R.M.S. Titanic First-Class Dinner Menu
April 14, 1912
Cream of Barley
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Roast Squab & Cress
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Pate de Foie Gras
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream
Does this seem like a lot of food? Yes, indeed! Today, a Titanic-era menu would seem impossibly filling. At that time dining was considered the most important social event of the day. The ritual of eating dinner often lasted several hours, and the upper classes were well accustomed to course after course of rich food. Add to that a new wine for each course, and… well, have mercy.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s fateful voyage, I decided to recreate the third course on the menu – Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce and Cucumbers. I referenced an English translation of Escoffier’s cookbook Le Guide Culinaire (1907), as well as Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley’s helpful book, “Last Dinner on the Titanic.” Archbold and McCauley offer their own take on how this course might have been served. Between their interpretation and my own research into Escoffier’s cooking methods, I believe I have produced a salmon entrée quite similar to the one that was eaten on the evening of April 14, 1912. I’ve provided the recipe and steps below so you can try it yourself at home.
Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier
The court bouillon (cooking broth) recipe comes directly from Escoffier’s cookbook—the only change I made was to cut the salt in half. The original recipe called for 2 oz. of sea salt, equaling about 1/3 cup. In my experience with court bouillon, it seemed like too much salt, so I halved it. Grey salt is called for in the original recipe—I used French sea salt, which is similar in flavor with a lower mineral content. You can use table salt or kosher salt if you prefer. And of course, if you’d like to stay true to his original recipe, feel free to use the full amount of salt—just know that the poaching liquid will be quite salty. Escoffier calls for vinegar as the acid in the poaching liquid, but you could just as easily use lemon juice or white wine– I personally enjoy lemon juice in court bouillon. The choice is yours. If you’re running short on time, you can make a “fake” court bouillon by combining 2 ½ quarts of yellow vegetable broth with ½ cup acid (vinegar, lemon juice or wine), then salting to taste.
Mousseline translates in French as “muslin,” a type of light cloth. Like its namesake, mousseline sauce (also known as “chantilly”) is light and airy. Unsweetened whipped cream is folded into rich, buttery hollandaise sauce. Preparing a proper hollandaise can be tricky, so I’ve modified my blender hollandaise sauce (ala Julia Child), which has similar components to Escoffier’s hollandaise with the aid and simplicity of a blender method. Poached fish dishes like these were usually served room temperature; you can poach it anywhere from rare to well done. I prefer it well done, though it was probably cooked medium rare (pink in the middle) on Titanic. I’ve given instructions for both amounts of doneness. We can only guess how the cucumbers were served—they were most likely decorative, so I have cut them on the bias and placed them on the side as garnish. I’ve also garnished the top of the salmon with a small sprig of dill– this is optional.
While none of us can know exactly what it was like to be onboard the Titanic, recreating historical dishes like these brings us one step closer to the experience. If you choose to try this Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, be sure to say a toast to remember the victims of the Titanic.
- 8 boneless skinless salmon fillets
- 3-4 quarts court bouillon (recipe appears below)
- 1 1/2 cups mousseline sauce (recipe appears below)
Court Bouillon Ingredients
- 2 oz (1 bunch) fresh parsley
- 6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 quarts (20 cups) water
- 1/2 pint (1 cup) vinegar, lemon juice, or white wine
- 1 lb onions, peeled and minced
- 3/4 lb carrots, peeled and minced
- 2 1/2 tbsp sea salt or gray salt (you can substitute table or kosher salt)
- 1 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
Mousseline Sauce Ingredients
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- 1 English cucumber
- 8 small sprigs fresh dill (optional)
You will also need
- Large saute pan with high sides, paper towels, slotted spatula (for poaching), 7-8 quart pot, 6-7 quart pot, kitchen string, wire mesh strainer or sieve, large spoon (for court bouillon), blender or food processor, 2 small saucepans, spatula (for mousseline sauce)
To Make Salmon
- Make your court bouillon ahead of time-- you can make it up to a week in advance and store it in the refrigerator till ready to use (method appears below). When you are ready to poach the salmon, heat the court bouillon in a large saute pan with high sides till it is just below a boil, so the water is shivering with heat but not quite boiling.
- Place salmon fillets 4 at a time in the poaching liquid and let them cook to desired doneness-- about 5 minutes for each 1/2 inch of thickness when measuring the thickest part of the fillets. Example-- for a 1-inch thick fillet, poach 10 minutes. This will cook it through to the center so there is no pink in the middle-- cut into one fillet to test for doneness. Salmon can be poached less well done (rare in the middle) if desired by cooking for 3-4 minutes per each 1/2 inch of thickness.
- Remove poached fillets with a slotted spatula and place on a layer of paper towels to drain. Allow to cool to room temperature.
- While salmon is cooling, make the mousseline sauce (method appears below). Top each fillet with 3 tbsp of mousseline sauce. Garnish each plate with a few thin slices of English cucumber cut on the bias (diagonal) and a sprig of fresh dill, if desired.
To Make Mousseline Sauce
- Mousseline sauce should be prepared just before serving the salmon-- it takes less than 10 minutes to make.
- Whip the heavy cream with an electric hand mixer till stiff peaks form. Set aside.
- Place egg yolks and lemon juice into a blender or food processor.
- Cut the butter into pieces and place it in a small saucepan. Heat it till it's melted, hot and foamy.
- Cover the jar of the blender and blend the egg yolk mixture at top speed for 2 seconds. Uncover, still blending at top speed, and immediately start pouring the hot melted butter in a thin stream of droplets. (You may need to protect yourself with a towel during this operation.)
- By the time two thirds of the butter has gone in, the sauce will be a thick cream. Omit the milky residue at the bottom of the pan.
- Place the prepare hollandaise sauce into a small saucepan and turn heat to the lowest setting. Fold in the whipped cream till the sauce is smooth and light.
- Use the sauce within 10 minutes. Stir it every minute or two to keep it from developing a skin or deflating. Do not heat it too much-- it is best when served as close to room temperature as possible over the cool poached salmon.
To Make Court Bouillon
- Bunch together the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. Tie together with kitchen twine.
- In a 7-8 quart pot, combine herb bundle, water, vinegar, minced onions and carrots, and sea salt.
- Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer. Let the court bouillon simmer for 50 minutes, skimming foam from the top twice during cooking.
- Add peppercorns to the court bouillon. Let it simmer for an additional 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Carefully strain the court bouillon into another pot, 6 quarts or larger, through a wire mesh sieve. Gently press the vegetables that collect in the sieve aith a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.
- Use court bouillon immediately, or allow to cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator. Court bouillon will keep up to 1 week covered in the refrigerator; it can also be frozen and defrosted for later use.
- Use court bouillon to poach fish; Escoffier recommends this preparation particularly for salmon, trout, and shellfish. For our purposes, it makes the perfect poaching liquid for our Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce.
Recipe and Research Sources:
Archbold, Rick and McCauley, Dana (1997). Last Dinner on the Titanic. Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario.
Davidson, Alan (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, USA.
Gardiner, Juliet (2003). Manor House: Life in an Edwardian Country House. Bay Soma Publishing, San Francisco, CA.
Escoffier, Auguste. Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. English Translation of Escoffier’s La Guide Culinaire, translated by Cracknell, H.L. and Kaufman, R. J. (2002). John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, NY.