Search online for images of aspic – the clear, flavourful gelatin served as a garnish, side or stand-alone mould – and the the stuff that pops up (fluorescent jellied salads, elaborate towers of hardboiled eggs and shredded tuna) is akin to a culinary horror show. This is a shame because, done right, aspic can be revelatory, a shimmering magic trick of proteins and vegetables encased in a complementary broth that melts in the mouth. And it tests all of a chef's abilities. From building and clarifying a perfectly seasoned stock to setting the jewel-like final product until it trembles and glistens at room temperature, the preparation is a time-consuming, admittedly laborious process requiring attention to detail and a sensitive palate.
Perhaps it's all the effort that goes into its creation (not to mention several decades' worth of terrible diner encounters with tasteless, rubbery versions) that has caused aspic to fall out of favour. But it's making a comeback, the latest old-style dish to be resuscitated because of a renewed interest in nose-to-tail cooking and almost-extinct comfort foods. (Rudimentary versions of aspic jellies have been around for millennia, the natural by-products of a chemical process that occurs when collagen-rich pieces of meat – pork skin, pig trotters, calves' legs – are simmered for long periods of time. The process converts collagen to gelatin that, when cooled, solidifies and forms a protective barrier against oxygen.)
"When I was very young in Quebec City, there would be these big aspics out," says chef David McMillan, founder of Montreal's Joe Beef restaurant and a fan of the classic preparation. "People used to do a lot of food that was for show," he says, recalling a cold salmon encased in aspic jelly at a 1970s wedding. In those days, however, "it was never delicious. It was this perverse thing at the tail end of them disappearing. But there must have been a period when it was well done."
At Joe Beef, cooks prepare a variety of both updated aspic dishes (including a foie gras quenelle encased in a gelée of savoury chicken consommé and sweet sauternes wine) and classics (such as oeufs en gelée, soft-centered eggs suspended with vegetables in gelled consommé and served with a side of toasted bread).
According to chef Allan Doherty, the word aspic comes from the Greek word aspis, meaning shield. It was only in the 1800s that French chefs, most notably the famed Marie-Antoine Carême, perfected the art of clarifying and thickening protein-rich broths into clear gelées, which were served to aristocracy, he says. "It is an incredibly luxurious item that has been beaten with a stick so badly over the decades," adds Doherty, a Florida-based garde manger-turned-consultant who spent much of his culinary career preparing cold food items and edible sculptures for high-end hotels and clubs, including Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. "Aspics didn't have a bad name back in the 1950s.
But by the mid-1960s, you had [largescale] food-service operations, hotels and country clubs where food was flying out the window. Everyone was short on staff." The result, he says, was poorly made aspics, stuffed full of scraps of leftover meats and soggy vegetables and hastily encased in tasteless gelled liquids. "The aspic should be a semi-solid that melts as soon as it hits your tongue. Instead, you could bounce them off the wall," he says.
Despite this calamitous recent past, Doherty is hopeful that the budding resurgence of aspics in all their shimmering, classical forms, well, holds.
Key to sustaining the revival, McMillan says, is not only teaching young cooks how to make them, but also re-educating diners in how to properly eat them. "If you put the jellied egg we make at Joe Beef right in your mouth and start chewing on it, for example, you're going to say 'Ew.' But if you take a small slice and put it on your tongue and press your tongue to your palate, your mouth warms up the gelatin, which turns into a broth. It's fantastic."
Rather than fooling around with molecular cuisine, McMillan goes on, young "hipster chefs" should first master timeless recipes, such as Burgundy's traditional ham-and-parsley aspic. "Your liquid has got to be mind-bogglingly delicious. The best chicken noodle soup you've ever made?
Use that to make aspic. The best stew your mom's ever made? Use that to make aspic.
People might have a bad memory of it, but you can make it good again if you're a good enough cook. Just play with it, play with it, play with it until it's delicious and then you can stop and move on to something else."