Tournedos Rossini

Gioacchino Rossini was a rock star before the term existed. As a composer, he was king of the hill in the early nineteenth century; the world lay at his feet. Then, after a couple of decades of frenetic activity, he more or less completely vanished from the scene.

This article isn’t really the place to discuss Rossini’s merits as a composer and an artist – I’m not musically qualified to do so. But the historical sources tell us that this young composer burst onto the European opera scene with works that critics nowadays regard as revolutionary. Revolutionary even if, on the surface, they look like a so-called opera buffa – a type of eighteenth-century comic opera – especially to those commentators who tend to oversimplify the dawn of nineteenth-century Romanticism that would soon follow.

There’s only so much we can say for certain about Rossini as a man. He was known for his jocularity, but is suspected to have been bipolar, or at least subject to depression. He took his “buen retiro” when he was little over thirty, and disappeared into the ether. Due to health problems, of which he was rather ashamed, he couldn’t fully dedicate his remaining thirty years to his other, very different passion – that of the flesh, in both senses of the word.

We won’t dive further into the titanic figure of Rossini (and he was huge), but I’d like to explore his reputation as a gourmet. His love of food is borne out by his vast correspondence with one of the era’s great chefs, Carême, and by his attentive reading of the French gastronomist Brillat-Savarin. At his peak, Rossini’s fame preceded him, and gained him free access to the most legendary kitchens of the time, much like a food blogger of today. He was equally at home in the company of chefs as he was with his musical colleagues.

Thus was born the legend of the “Tournedos Rossini”. The story goes that Rossini was having it out with a chef who had refused to garnish his fillet steak with truffles, to which the composer was extremely partial. Such was his fury that the chef eventually cowered and turned tail, prompting Rossini to shout after him: “Tournez le dos?” – You turning your back on me?!

But despite its purported Rossinian origins, Tournedos is a classic dish of classical cooking from the classical French school. It’s a classic. For decades, the Rossini fillet has featured on the menus and in the literature of restaurants of the highest level, both those wedded to classical cuisine as well as in more experimental venues, which revisit, allude to or deviate from the traditional dish. It’s always going to be expensive, whatever the form, due to the quality and the quantity of the ingredients used: a generous portion of beef Chateaubriand, a potent slab of fresh foie gras, a sprinkling of highly-prized black truffle, and Madeira wine.

The dish shouldn’t present too many difficulties; indeed, a first-rank chef should be able to do it with their eyes closed. But its richness, opulence and in a certain sense its “simplicity” could test whether the cook has a steady hand or not. The fillet must be cooked to perfection, and the foie gras has to be just singed. The butter-fried bread and the Madeira sauce require a millimetric precision, lest this decadent but refined dish collapse into a sloppy pile of fats. This is why you are only likely to find it in the most prestigious restaurants, who are able to employ cooks that are up to the task.

Tournedos Rossini: all feast, no famine, and deserved fame.

Eating and love, singing and digesting: really, these are the four acts of this comic opera that is called life, and which disappears as quickly as the bubbles in champagne. Anyone who lets it pass without enjoying it is mad.”
[Gioacchino Rossini]