Mouthwatering movies: Mac van Dinther
In Mouthwatering movies, a well-known person from the food or film world tells us about his or her most memorable, sensual or belly-shaking film scene or food film. This week we talk to Mac van Dinther, culinary journalist for the Volkskrant.
"My favourite film scene about food is the dinner in Babette's Feast when the general says ‘Cailles en Sarcophage’. I haven't seen the film many times and it was a while ago, but unlike most films which I quickly forget, there are a number of scenes in this film that I still remember vividly. In particular the facial expression of the moustachioed general when he is served Cailles en Sarcophage: a mixture of astonishment, pleasure, dismay and delight.
As I recall, the story goes something like this: Babette is a Frenchwoman, apparently on the run, although it is initially unclear from what and why. She has ended up in a remote Danish coastal village that is contolled by an ultraorthodox Christian sect. The inhabitants pray and eat porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoying food is sinful and thus forbidden. Babette works as a housekeeper for two elderly sisters. It is a joyless existence.
At one point she receives a letter saying that she has won a huge sum of money in a lottery. She hesitantly tells her employers about the money and asks whether she can use it to prepare a lavish feast for the village. The two sisters, old spinsters, take her request to the church council, a group of wizened believers. This presents a moral dilemma. On the one hand it is against their humanity to deny Babette that pleasure. On the other, enjoying food and drink (Babette also wants to serve wine) is sinful and forbidden. They decide to compromise: Babette is given permission to prepare her meal, but they solemnly promise each other that they won't enjoy it.
Babette is thrilled when she hears that she can go ahead. In the following weeks, the most wonderful things arrive in the village by boat and coach: champagnes, lobsters, hams, wines, oysters. The villagers see it all with growing concern and remind each other of their promise: they'll eat the food but they won't enjoy it. A local noblewoman happens to have her cousin, a general in the Danish army, visiting. They are also invited. The general, accustomed as he is to the delicacies of metropolitan salons, is prepared for the worst. So he is astonished when the first wines are poured. 'This is certainly Veuve Cliquot 1860!' he exclaims, smacking his lips. No one else says a word, much to his surprise. 'Did you know that this is a very good wine?' he says again. No one responds, because talking is also forbidden.
One dish after another arrives at the table. The general almost falls off his chair in delight. The main course is a sort of pasty from which the head of a quail emerges. 'Cailles en Sarcophage!' he exclaims. He has eaten the dish before in a famous Parisian cafe. It was the specialty of one of France's most famous female cooks, who had worked for the aristocracy and so was forced to flee the French Revolution. That cook was Babette. Meanwhile the villagers, overcome with food and drink, begin to enjoy themselves despite their promise. Singing, they return to their homes where the merriment continues between the sheets long into the night. That's certainly not the end of the film, but I can't remember what happens after that.
What makes this film so brilliant is the idea that good food really can change people. The thrifty villagers are compelled to enjoy the food against their will. They can't help themselves. The food transforms their spirits in the best sense, and they experience the pleasure of enjoying themselves. Also poignant is the humility with which Babette initially presents herself and the way in which she blossoms when she is allowed to show her true nature. Through her cooking, she becomes the beautiful swan she really is. That can of course be used as a metaphor for anything, but for me it’s predominantly about food."
Watch the scene here:
About Babette's Feast
Babette's Feast is a Danish film from 1987 (original title: Babettes gæstebud). It was the first Danish film ever to win an Oscar for best foreign film. The scene with the quail pasty has since become one of the most legendary gastronomic moments in film history.
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