bonne femme, à la [bohn FEHM, bohn FAM]
Literally translated as “good wife,” the term bonne femme describes food prepared in an uncomplicated, homey manner. Sole bonne femme is a simply poached fish served with a sauce of white wine and lemon juice, and often garnished with small onions and mushrooms. —The Food Lover’s Companion, 2nd edition
There is something sardonically appropriate about pairing Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac with a dish called bonne femme. For the film is partly a cautionary marital tale of what can befall a man who doesn’t marry une bonne femme. Françoise Dorléac’s character is anything but that. But the thing of it is, it wasn’t my first pick for a dish, nor my second—not even my third.
My first thought was to make, as Dickie (Lionel Stander) does in the film, an omelet. But we never find out exactly what kind of omelet he makes. So I thought, since Teresa (Dorléac) and her paramour, Christopher (Iain Quarrier), catch fresh shrimp between bouts of adultery, I’d make a shrimp omelet. But it wasn’t calling to me. It was like I knew there was something else out there.
My second idea was to do a local dish from Lindisfarne, the island off the northeast coast of England where the film was shot. But as Polanski once recalled of its cuisine: “Tweed salmon is supposed to be the best in the world, but the pub cooks stewed it till the flesh turned to gray mush, whereas the skin, by some mysterious process, became even tougher. The islanders’ staple dish was boiled mutton, and the crew conveyed their opinion of it in a ritual that steadily lost its entertainment value as the weeks went by . . . they returned to the set bleating like sheep.” Okay . . .
My next step took me on a search for a recipe from Lionel Stander (dubbed “the world’s oldest hippie” by the Italian press in the 1960s). He looked like a cat who liked to eat well. In fact, Polanski noted that Stander had twenty pounds of pastrami specially flown in for him to Lindisfarne from the Stage Deli in New York during the shoot. I soon found myself trading some e-mails with one of Stander’s daughters, Bella, and here’s what she shared with me:
“My father did indeed love to eat, and would eat almost anything. I think all he and my mother had in common was a love of Chinese hot-and-sour soup, which they passed on to me. He wasn’t much of a cook, however. I only saw him at a stove when he was acting: first in Cul-de-sac and twenty years later in Hart to Hart. The only food I recall him making was when he grilled steaks in Rome in 1973. Mine was inedible, but his, as always, was ‘WUN-dah-ful!’”
So, another dead end. Finally, I landed on this celebrity cookbook from a Canadian television show, Celebrity Cooks, which includes a recipe from Donald Pleasence. The host of the show, Bruno Gerussi, also starred in the longest-running adventure drama in Canadian TV history, The Beachcombers. I can’t help but note that Celebrity Cooks is also infamous as the answer to the obscure trivia question “What was the last television appearance of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane?” (The episode, which never aired, was re-created in the Crane biopic Auto Focus, wherein he makes “chicken à la Hogan’s Heroes.”)
Asked about the “meaning” of Cul-de-sac, Donald Pleasence told the Times UK in 1983, “The essence of that film is what you read into it, not what the director puts into it by way of fancy cutting. It was a straightforward film in the sense that it could have happened— like Waiting for Godot. The weirdest things are those which bear a resemblance to the truth.”
Truth be told, during the filming of Cul-de-sac, Polanski and Pleasence, while seeming to respect each others’ talents, had a few—shall we call them—“issues.” (Although I’m singling out Pleasence, the time in Lindisfarne turned out to be a pretty whacked experience all around. Every member of the cast and crew seemed at one point to have been driven to the point of madness. Polanski noted that “at the end of the shoot, no one could stand each other.” So this is but one example of the tension that existed on the set.)
Polanski, for his part, wrote in his autobiography: “[Pleasence] had the central role yet seemed to want to upstage everyone else. He hogged the camera in a variety of ingenious ways. Not always an easy man to deal with or be with despite his outstanding talent, Pleasence looked down on the rest of the cast and was subtly mean to them. He presented me with a fait accompli by arbitrarily shaving his head prior to shooting. Although this lent his performance an extra twist, I was annoyed that he hadn’t consulted me first.” Yet, over the years, Polanski has maintained that Cul-de-sac is one of his favorite films.
Pleasence is quoted in Christopher Sandford’s biography of Polanski as saying: “[Roman] was an average, Hollywood-type megalomaniac, an unsentimental, restless young man. He was also about twenty IQ points brighter than most directors.” In another interview, he said, “I think [Cul-de-sac] was Polanski’s best picture. We were very creative together, and although we had fights, a lot of the scenes were improvised on the spot.”
We can only imagine what might have happened had Pleasence only served Polanski his fillet of sole during the film’s production. Perhaps their memories of each other would have been a bit plus bonnes.
Donald Pleasence’s Fillet of Sole Bonne Femme
Adapted from a recipe in Celebrity Cooks, Volume I, by Bruno Gerussi
1 tablespoon butter
4 6-ounce fillets of sole, tilapia, or other firm white fish
2 shallots, finely chopped
½ pound button or white mushrooms, quartered
1 cup white wine
1 cup fish stock*
1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, and bay leaf—fresh or dried—either tied together with kitchen twine or wrapped and tied in cheesecloth)
For buerre manié:
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 portobello mushroom cap, sliced into ½-inch strips
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit over a shallow, stovetop-safe baking dish. Smear butter on one side of paper to cover it. Set aside. Butter the dish and place the fillets in it. Sprinkle with shallots and button or white mushrooms. Add just enough wine to cover fish (you’ll need the rest of the cup of wine later, “but no more than 1 cup all together,” per Pleasence’s instructions) and fish stock. Add the bouquet garni and bring dish to boil. Remove from stove carefully, cover with paper (buttered side down), and bake in oven for 10 minutes.
Drain off liquid from the baking dish into a saucepan. Add the rest of the wine. Keep warm. Make the buerre manié and add to sauce (Pleasence instructs: “Knead the flour and butter with fingers as though you were rubbing fine pastry. Form into small balls and add them to the reserved liquid, stirring well. It will thicken.”).
In another pan, sauté the portobello slices in olive oil and lemon juice.
Pour beurre manié sauce over the fish and garnish with the portobello. Place dish under broiler for a few minutes to brown lightly and glaze. Remove the bouquet garni before serving.
This goes nicely with some roasted potatoes and steamed green vegetables.
*You can make fish stock from scratch by, according to Pleasence, “using the head and bones, etc., or an extra fillet. Put in a saucepan, add a cup of water, and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain. Season to taste.” So I’ll recommend just salt and pepper to taste, and it wouldn’t hurt to toss in a shallot or two.)
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.