Monday, May 14, 2012

Dublin in the rare oul' times...

This book review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in December 2012

In the late Spring of 1967 Jammet's, the grand restaurant which had dominated Dublin dining since the dawn of the twentieth century, served its last Sole Colbert, dished up its final Avocado á la Russe and poured the last few drops of Montrachet. By the end of the year it would become a self-service café and the city had become infinitely the poorer.

Jammet's was not just a great Dublin institution and a benchmark for French haute cuisine and elegant eating in Ireland, it was one of the world's great restaurants. There were few Hollywood stars or international celebrities who had not graced its tables. The well-heeled of the entire nation made it their destination of choice for eating out; the merely well-off used to flock there for special occasions: engagements, anniversaries, confirmations.

I was too young, unfortunately. I was seven when Jammet's went the way of all flesh. And it was not the kind of place that my somewhat frugal and not very well-heeled parents would have frequented. But like many middle class Dublin children of those times I was often told, when my table manners failed to reach the required standard, "you'll never be let into Jammet's if you eat like that."

By the time I was ten, I did get to eat in what had been Jammet's. But by then, with relics of ould dacency tumbling like ninepins, it had been turned into a Berni Inn. I ate, with considerable relish, my first ever duck á l'orange (actually, my first ever duck á la anything at all) in what had been the Oak Room of Jammet's, though I realise that only now.

I have been wallowing in nostalgia for a time and a place I never knew, thanks to the recently published Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967, by Alison Maxwell and the late Shay Harpur (who had been a sommelier in the restaurant in the 1960s). It is a feast of stories, of history and of memories of Dublin when it was smaller, poorer and a great deal more fun than it is today.

Jammet's occupied the substantial premises which now houses the Porterhouse Central pub and Lillie's Bordello nightclub, running between Nassau Street and Adam Court, the little laneway off Grafton Street.

In the good old days, it comprised the main restaurant, the grill room, the oyster bar, the cocktail bar and the back bar, plus two further areas known as the oak room and the blue room. It was an extraordinary operation and was founded by Michel Jammet in St Andrew Street, moving to Nassau Street in 1926.

Michel, originally from southern France, had come to Ireland to work as personal chef to one of the great Dublin distillers, Henry Roe, who lived at what is now Mount Anville in Dundrum. Michel then moved to the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Úachtaráin) and at Dublin Castle under the viceroy Lord Cadogan who loved good food and who entertained on a lavish scale. It is said that Cadogan could detect the absence of Jammet's master touch on the few occasions when he was indisposed and the cooking was delegated to lesser mortals.

On Cadogan's retirement, he encouraged Jammet to set up a restaurant and used his considerable influence amongst the local gentry and aristocracy in order to give the French chef a good start in business.

The aristocracy kept coming, right up to the end. The Hon. Garech Browne, the founder of Claddagh Records and part of the extended Guinnesty, recalls being in the oyster bar at Jammet's in the 1960s with the late Viscount Gormanston when the artist Sean O'Sullivan slumped forward, dead drunk, into his Potage Saint Germain. Nicky Gormanston rushed over and retrieved O'Sullivan's head, thus saving the artist from drowning in the soup.

At Browne's 21st burthday party in the oak room, Lady Mollie Cusack-Smith blew her nose in one of Jammet's fine linen napkins, which horrified fellow guest Brendan Behan. "Isn't that a shocking thing to do?" commented Behan to one of the waiters.

"Oh no, sir," he responded. "That's the sign of true lady."

Myrtle Allen, now the doyenne of Irish food and, of course, the founder of Ballymaloe House, first ate at Jammets at the age of 20, with her new husband Ivan who "knew his way around menus." She was very impressed with how the waiter boned her sole at the table and served it with Bearnaise sauce. "They did things properly at Jammet's," she recalls. And she would often spot ex-Jammet's staff in other restaurants for many years after it had closed, for this very reason.

Her first meal in Jammet's, towards the end of World War II, came to 25 shillings a head which was, as she says, "something of a shocker." That is roughly €3.

Prices had risen, of course, by 1967. The wine list for that year shows Krug Champagne vintage 1959 selling for 53 shillings and Blue Nun for just under 30 shillings. It's curious to think that vintage Krug these days would cost you over €200 while Blue Nun, if you could find it on a restaurant list, would be a little over €20.

Jammet's was all about excellence and this was enshrined in the thorough training of all members of staff (many of whose stories are related in this fascinating book). Strange as it may seem today, floor staff had to spend three years as commis waiters before they were elevated to the status of being a full waiter.

And Jammet's waiters were legendary for their tact and professionalism, combining, as Myrtle Allen recalls, a perfect blend of formality and friendliness. In a city and a time when many customers would have been daunted by the atmosphere and bamboozled by the menu (which was always entirely in French), they expended a great deal of energy in making people feel at home in a distinctly Irish, peculiarlly Dublin kind of way. The children of many customers now fondly recall being called "Master" this and "Miss" that by the staff, making them feel very grown-up indeed.

Jammet's food was clearly very classic. Their ordinary sounding omelette surprise was, in fact, an elaborate form of baked alaska and their specality version involved strawberry and vanilla ice cream and glacé chesnuts enveloped in Kirsch-flavoured meringue. This was then baked and set alight at the table.

Another Jammet's recipe starts with the immortal words "Take one raw boar's head. Remove the ears to cook separately..."

Steak tartare (raw minced fillet steak served with onion, capers and egg yolk) and dressed crab, on the other hand, were as simple as they were, doubtless, delicious.

Jammet's belonged to an age when great food was considered to be French by definition but it was also an era of high standards, stringent training, impeccable service and common courtesy. Jammet's was a restaurant that was vastly important in the life of the great but shabby city that was Dublin and it is good to be reminded that perfectionists such as the Jammet family ploughed their lonely but successful furrow here well before the chattering classes of Ireland ever gave a damn about Michelin stars.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the fact that Jammet's survived 1916, the War of Independence, World War II and the despondency of the 1950s says much, not just about the people who worked there, but also about Dublin. Our capital has always been more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated in the broadest sense, than we sometimes give it credit for.

The story of Jammet's, although forgotten by many, remains an emblem of that.

Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967 by Alison Maxwell and Shay Harpur is published by Lilliput Press. (ends)

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful memories. I have a menu where by the most expensive entree is 20/- shillings. Heady days