One of the menus that survived Titanic was from the First Class dining saloon, served on that fateful evening, Sunday 14th April, 1912.
Shortly before midnight the grand ship would strike an iceberg and sink, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 of the 2,223 passengers on board.
While no original recipes survived, the dishes were inspired favourites of the French culinary master, Georges Auguste Escoffier. This knowledge allows historians and chefs to recreate the meal served to the ship's most renowned passengers. It reads as a collection of well-crafted, French-led plates. Food for the Winslets and the envy of the DiCaprios.
First-class gastronomes of the voyage that would have eaten the meal, never knowing it would be their last, included John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor and Ida Straus. The "Unsinkable" Margaret "Molly" Brown was also a passenger. She was an American socialite and philanthropist who, through her marriage to James Joseph Brown, acquired great wealth. In her own words, "I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown".
Molly survived the Titanic's sinking and helped others board the lifeboats, before finally being persuaded to leave the ship in Lifeboat No. 6. Molly would later be regarded as a heroine for her efforts to get Lifeboat 6 to go back to search for survivors.
During a recent visit to Belfast, where the Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff - today, celebrated through The Titanic Experience - I dined at Rayanne House in Hollywood, County Down, where Chef Conor McClelland has meticulously re-created the First Class menu.
The dining room at Rayanne House is small but cosy and looks out across the Belfast Lough, from where the Titanic sailed out. It's a subtle reminder of the ship's maternal home. There's an eeriness when you realise this was the last meal of many who boarded the ship, their sights on New York for new adventures, new opportunities and new beginnings.
"Food on board the Titanic was something unique," says Connor. "It wasn't your average sit-down dinner... there was so much attention to detail in the food that it really was a first-class feast".
Not everyone is aware the great vessel carrier was built in Belfast. Many attribute its birthplace to Southampton, from where it departed on its maiden voyage. Indeed, locals are proud of their H&W shipbuilders (though Harland was actually born in Scarborough and Wolff in Hamburg) and note that the ship was, "Northern Irish build, but English Captain ran," neatly sliding across blame to Staffordshire-born Captain, Edward Smith.
The actual First Class menu doesn't describe the first course in detail, only 'hors d'oeuvres variés and Oysters'. In high demand in 1912, the Titanic carried 1,221 quarts of Oysters. At each course the waiters would circulate with silver serving platters proposing appropriate wines as an accompaniment.
Conor begins by serving classic hors d'oeuvres variés, 'garlic and herb scallop hors'. A plump scallop sits in its moon-arch shell, and there's a well-balanced bite to the garlic and herb mix, with a crusted breadcrumb coating. This is followed by the soup course, 'cream of Barley with Bushmills Whiskey and cream'. The actual First Class menu had a choice of two soups, the other a clear consommé 'Olga and a cream of barley'. This is a traditional French country recipe, topped with a splash of whiskey and cream. Here, the cream of Barley and whiskey soup is dishwater brown with a thick consistency and the finishing-bite of a strong whiskey lick. It's not bad, but remains a simplistic and earthy beginning to a nine-course menu.
From here it's an 'Asparagus and watercress salad with champagne, saffron vinaigrette and roast squab'. The asparagus salad and squab were served as separate courses on the original menu, but work wonderfully as a pair. The name squab is from the Scandinavian word skvabb, meaning "loose, fat flesh". There were over 800 bundles of asparagus loaded on board the Titanic, along with saffron, long the world's most expensive spice. It's a delicious salad, gently lifted by the perfumed saffron. The roasted squab is delicate and tender, adding a gamey texture while managing to maintain the lightness of a salad starter. The asparagus is soft-poached and makes my wee smell.
The First Class menu had one fish entry: 'Poached Atlantic salmon topped with a Mousseline sauce and garnished with sliced cucumbers and fresh dill'. This was also one of the dishes served at the Launch Party in Belfast's Grand Central Hotel in May, 1911. The Mousseline sauce was a classic hollandaise to which fresh cream was added and a dry Rhine or Moselle wine served. Here, it's a strip of poached salmon finished with a pouring of Mousseline sauce. There's a liberal garnish of fresh dill that adds a green vibrancy to the plate, but I hate dill; it's fernlike and aromatic flavouring leaves a taste of caraway bitterness in my mouth that over-powers whatever fish it's an accessory to.
The fifth course is a palate cleanser of 'Rose water and mint sorbet,' something that wouldn't look out of place on a menu today. While this was a refreshing break in 1912, and a sweet cleanser of high-fashion, today its retro-requirement on menus is diminishing, arriving as an unordered course-separator, post-steak and pre-chocolate fondant.
The rose water and mint sorbet of 1912 was served in the à la carte restaurant, with both ingredients first becoming popular in the 17th century. Rose water was a familiar dessert flavour for the Edwardian palate, used often today in the cooking of Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. The best ice-cream I've ever eaten was a rose water and salep creation from Hanna Mitri in the Achrafieh district of Beirut. The rose water gave it a candied, marshmallow sweetness, like getting your gob around a giant marshmallow.
The sixth course was pan-seared 'Filet Mignon topped with foie gras and truffle drizzled Cognac, Madeira and a red wine reduction'. It was outstanding. Served with baby potatoes, creamed carrots and Zucchini Farci, it was an expertly crafted and belly-heavy, masterpiece, with a liberal serving of creamy foie gras crowning the filet.
Desserts range from spiced peaches with Chartreuse jelly to French vanilla ice-cream and cheese and fruit. Before the creation of instant gelatine, a jellied dessert was incredibly labour intensive work. We take this for granted nowadays; able to buy a pack in supermarkets for under a pound, but in 1912 it was the essence of dessert sophistication. The potent Chartreuse, known as the 'elixir of long life' since 1605, is a herbal French liquor made by the Carthusian Monks. It is composed of distilled alcohol aged with 130 herbal extracts. The exact recipe remains secret and is known only to the monks. Here, it's a welcome sweetness and cold-snap of ice-cream after the filet and foie gras frenzy.
The final course is cheese. That means, in 1912, the very last morsel of food First Class diners would put into their mouths, would have been cheese. The full-stop of the meal. If you knew you were going to die, would you wish cheese to be your final meal? It was to become a miserable wreath for cook and consumer. Never to be praised, passed on or discussed in glorification upon the ship. The dénouement of the lavish meal, it would very likely have been served with champagne or a sweet dessert wine, although the ship's manifest shows that 20,000 bottles of beer and stout were loaded onto the ship, as well as 850 bottles of spirits, so one's alcoholic options were considerable.
In addition to passengers' personal stocks, were 17 cases of cognac, 70 cases of wine and 191 cases of liquor.
Rayanne House serve a selection of wines to accompany each course, and I finished up with coffee and petits fours. It's a serious meal, eerily honouring those who lost their lives through the Titanic's demise, while applauding the craftsmanship and painstaking work of chef Conor to source and re-create such an iconic meal. The menu celebrates the world famous liner and the city in which it was build, but there's always going to be an aberrant sense of foreboding with this kind of feast.