FRENCH FOOD AND SAUCES IN HISTORY
When you think of French Food history you must think of sauces for it is the art of stock and sauce making that defines French food history and Gallic chefs. Video recipes are attached to the tabs displayed above. A carefully constructed French sauce is usually developed in several stages and requires attention at each stage to balance all of the components. Some French sauces function to contrast while others help to extend or amplify intrinsic flavors. During the last few decades the American and French food scenes have experienced their most profound change since the agricultural revolution. Never before have there been so many ethnic foodways and cookbooks available not to mention the wealth of mainstream television shows that have turned cooking into food porn. Today’s video technology makes it possible for a cook to showcase an online video of themselves and their favorite construct complete with music and avatars. Monthly web hits for food sites have reached over 50 million and only a third are said to have been clicked by women meaning that there are a lot of male food voyeurs surfing the web daily. Back in the days when I was a young cook, learning about French food, emphasis was placed on producing a classic French sauce or construct and any deviation or embellishment was considered ignorant and presumptive. Today’s chef is praised for his creativity, a commodity that often exists in excess, even though he may not be grounded in the French food classics. Although French food is dogmatic it’s only one stage in the constant evolution of global hybrid cuisine that started with the Persians who were so enamored with gustatory delights that they named their army division after famous dishes and kitchen types …. the bakers, the roasters, the pastry, or fish cook regiments. The early cookbooks of antiquity are limited and usually only describe the dishes prepared for and consumed by the rich while the rest of us lived on the same one or two bland commodities 24/7 and had no cuisine.
Increased knowledge of the world’s other cuisines and cultures has changed the concept of sauces and broadened the global palate. The American culinary renaissance of the 1970’s promoted the elimination of the classic French roux as a universal thickening agent for sauces and brought other methods into the mix. Butter and cream became the new darling of the culinary set and new processing equipment made it easy to construct puree’s and coulis that previously had been laboriously done by hand. Improvisation is undoubtedly an important part of today’s culinary repertoire but is should be grounded in a traditional French architecture to function fully. In the middle 18th century Auguste Escoffier continued to codify, categorize and formulate concepts that had been initiated by Antonin Careme in the previous century and formed the crumb coat for today’s French cuisine.
Due to this codification of terms and standardization of methods Western cuisine took on a French bent that may have also been slightly influenced by the Italians when Katherine De Medici, although there is no record of any cooks in her retinue, came to the court of Henry II in 1553 as his bride. Italian cuisine, beginning with Rome, was influenced by the Persians who were influenced by the Greeks. Although no known Greek cookbook exists in its entirety the portions of those that do cite simple cooking techniques such as frying or open roasting and utilized cheese or oil as a sauce. Our only knowledge of Roman cuisine comes from a gourmet, or a group of author/cooks, writing under the name of Apicus in the first century CE whose advice remained the go to source throughout the middle ages. The most striking common ingredient of the period was a condiment called garum, or liquamen, a fermented/putrefied fish sauce like that of Indo China, along with copious amounts of honey, herbs, spices and olive oil. Some theorize that the Romans, especially towards the end of the empire, suffered from lead poisoning en masse and therefore used culinary amendments to excess so they could taste their food. The Romans used lead to line their cooking and storage vessels, the famous amphora jars used for wine and olive oil transport, and several of the 11 aqueducts that brought over 100 million gallons of water a day to Rome. Granted the theory is conjectural but it certainly adds to the speculative reasons for the empires demise.
These heavily spiced and sweetened sauces were called juices and were often thickened with ground bread or almond paste for body. It is difficult to assess how they might have tasted since no measurements or quantities were given in the Apicus book which probably assumed that, since the cook was more than likely illiterate, the master of mistress of the villa knew how the dish should taste and would supervise its preparation. There was little cuisine during the middle ages and simple survival was the du jour menu for the general population. The one exception during the period were the cloistered monasteries that kept faith, cheese making and wine technology alive until the humanism movement inspired the Renaissance. The cuisine of the late middle age period was influenced by the Saracens, as Muslim were then called, and many culinary archetypes and cultivars were injected into the West by returning Crusaders. The most important new foods were verjuice, unsweetened grape juice along with dried fruits and sugar, which were unknown in Europe at the time, and they slowly found their way into the local diet of dried fish and barley for those who could afford them. During the fourteenth century professional sauce makers did a thriving business in Paris selling a number of sauces the most famous called carmeline along with many other lesser known and forgotten varieties and founded some of the first unions or guilds.
Of course these new foods were not for the poor who had no cuisine until the late nineteenth century and simply survived on the same unchanging diet day after day, meal after meal for their entire lives. Spices were used in profusion by those who could afford them to denote ones status. The Medieval Mc-Castle of the period had no source for on demand potable water and overly salted, read preserved, food was most assuredly a major alimentary problem so the salinity of most foods would have been unbearable to our tastes. Sauces were thickened and “desalted” by adding ground almonds, bread moistened with verjuice, vinegar, almond milk, egg yolk or even ground liver … Yum-O. The viscosity of these sauces was something like smashed bananas because they had to remain on foods that were served on a thick slabs of bread called trenchers, since there were no individual plates, without running off. When the meal was finished you’d wipe your hands, since there were no forks or spoons, on one of the many castle dogs that roamed the dining hall and the trenchers would be collected and distributed to the poor or the house staff. The use of almonds came from the Persians to the Saracens who influenced the crusaders who brought their new-found jones home to Europe. Sugar also came home with the returning warriors and it soon supplanted honey amongst the rich who began using it in everything and centuries later it became a major component of the industrial revolution diet. Newly introduce citrus and vegetables renewed interest in gardening and preservation methods which until then only consisted of drying, salting, pickling or submerging in honey.
During the seventeenth century French food began stressing the natural contrived “provincial” taste of whatever was being served without relying on other flavoring amendments. Local spices and products began showing up on “the menu” in the seventeenth century while the more exotic imported fluff fell into disuse and butter became the fat of choice supplanting lard. By far the most profound French food event of the period was the creation of the roux to thicken sauces instead of toasted bread, ground almonds or rice. At first flour was just sprinkled over the item being cooked and then stock was added to form a sauce. Most western cook even today use a derivative of this French food method when they sprinkle flour into the pan they cooked fried chicken in to make a country gravy or sauce for stew. During the same period intense consommés were made that required huge quantities of meat to produce. The resulted jus, taken in small cups, was asserted to be a health elixir and came to be called a restaurant. A large piece of meat was seared, pierced in several spots and then placed into a sealed vessel that was slowly cooked until all the natural juices were expelled and that broth sold in specialty shops that soon usurped the name of their product ergo the birth of the French restaurant or at least the name. The invention of these stocks and the eighteenth centuries standardization of sauce types allowed a professional cook to work in any location, in any country and still produce the same well-known construct. When mastered these basics made it easy to remember the thousands of different sauces an accomplished French cook was expected to know and execute in his career.
During the beginning of the eighteenth century cookbooks were still written just for professional or the master and mistress of the manor but by the end of the 1800’s they began appearing for the new middle class. During the same period a prolific inventor named Count Rumford, although he was actually an American and you might even have heard of his baking powder, invented a cast iron range whose temperature could be controlled. This was the dawning of a new age for French food since cooks could finally regulate the heat of an oven to roast a joint of meat or bake a cake with out employing and occasionally whipping a “spit boy”, or in some cases a spit dog, to watch whatever was being cooked.
During the latter part of the century the French revolution downsized many a respected chef whose patrons lost their heads to Madame Guillotine and the reign of terror. These unemployed chefs reinvented themselves and opened the first true restaurants so that the new emerging bourgeois middle class could indulge in the trappings, if they had the money, of the recently overthrown aristocracy. Earlier French sauces and constructs had been named for royalty but now they took on the identity of their creators or some famous celebrity of the period. The old cuisine ancienne was, along with it’s benefactors, replaced by the new school of French cuisine classique.
Espagnole sauce, was imported as a celebratory salute to honor Louis XIV’s son, Philip V, in 1700 when he was placed on the Spanish throne. This foundation construct became the primary French mother sauce later joined by veloute, tomato, Hollandaise, white/bechamel and mayonnaise sauces. Carème, arguably the most prolific food writer and innovator of all time, elaborated on the basic concepts of the previous century and developed the concept of mother sauce – sauce meres – and the derivative petite sauce they spurred. The baroque French food of the eighteenth century was soon replaced by provincial cuisine that emphasized the quality and origins of local ingredients and the new tread hit the restaurants of Paris much like the fads experienced in the US during the last few decades. Auguste Escoffier, le Guide Culinaire, recorded and systematized the sauce foundations established by Carème a century earlier. Although many of the reconstructed recipes appear burdensome to today’s saucier they were much simplified over their predecessors of the nineteenth century. Escoffier, chef to Ritz hotels, standardized dishes from location to location much like a modern-day Marriott or large chain would do today and he eliminated many of the tedious construction methods that the earlier mother sauces of French food required.
The twentieth centuries “novelle cuisine” began with Ferdinand Point who used professional techniques to prepare regional favorites and specialties of French food in the 1950’s. The 60’s saw the tread explode; plate configurations changed and sauces became much thinner using cream, butter and egg yolks as the liaison of choice rejecting centuries old flour and fat roux’s. These “new” sauces were much richer and more intense than their predecessors and therefore served in smaller quantity which allowed them to be display in a much more appealing manner on the plates. The 70’s saw the birth of cuisine minceur promoted by Micheal Guerard and this new school soon morphed into the Hollywood inspired “spa” French food rage of no butter, cream or eggs and minuscule portions. Food is fashion and unfortunately our concerns with living forever sometimes prevents us from experiencing one of life’s greatest pleasure. We consumed ingredients we can’t pronounce and know nothing about while we denounce butter, slap warning on wine bottles and drown ourselves in artificially flavored and sugared beverages. We’re we’re all so busy that we have to eat in our cars, or at our desks, or on the way to soccer practice and work and we can’t take time to actually prepare our own food and instead rely on the microwave.
Sauce or topping condiments first appeared in cultures that consumed large quantities of carbohydrates and their effect was to make a boring diet a little bit more palatable. The most intense sauces in the world exist as the soy and fish sauce mixtures of Asia, the curries of India and the chili based salsas of the New World. French food over the last few centuries has had a much broader protein base from which to construct a cuisine and this is reflected by the marked absence of “heat” in their sauces and a preponderance of cream, butter and other animal fats often expressed as “the French paradox”. French food and sauce, with the exception of béchamel, are almost entirely bases on preparing stocks which are also known as foundations, or fonds for the standard mother sauces. Stocks are made by cooking meat, bones, vegetables or fish in previously made stock of the same type; beef stock for beef sauces, fish stock for fish sauce and so on or starting from scratch with plain water.
Stock were originally devised to as a time-saving step in the preparation of integral or petite sauces. Petite sauces are based on one or more, of the French mother sauces that include demi-glace or Espagnole sauce, veloute, béchamel, tomato, mayonnaise or Hollandaise sauce. Embellishing one of these mother sauces creates a petite sauce and the possibilities are staggering. The function of bones in the fond, especially fish and veal, simmered for hours before the addition of any aromatics or meats are added, is to yield gelatin from the collagen of the bones to thicken and enrich the sauce. This preparation is then strained to remove any meat or vegetable solids. These basic stocks are then enriched by adding more meat, poultry or fish and a selected group of vegetables (mirepoix) and seasonings (bouquet garni). Glaces are stock that have been reduced, eg. demi-glace is reduced to half the originally volume while a glace is reduced by up to 90%, to form a thick tar like substance. Glace’s are used as a last-minute addition to numerous dishes to intensify the flavor, texture and color but are rarely outside of the most formal of French kitchens. A Demi-Glace is a starch thickened brown sauce that is used as the basis for almost all brown sauces. A Jus is the natural liquid rendered from the drippings of a roast but since the exuded quantities are sparse an “au jus” is usually prepared using stock and browned meat trimmings. An essence is the vegetable equivalent of a meat stock and they are usually added at the last moment before service to impart just one more nuance into the sauce.
Constructs call for either white or brown stocks. White stocks utilize moist heat to render a consommé from bones and meat by either steaming the items at issue or blanching them in water or premade white stock. Brown stocks are made by roasting or pan searing the meat, bones and vegetables then brown stock or water is added to the pan after it has been deglazed with wine to release the caramelized meat essences that have formed during cooking. The antiquarian beef stock recipe also includes a veal or pork shank for a richer flavor profile and the addition of egg shells to clarify the stock although it’s often forgone in the modern kitchen. The amount of vegetables used in the stock must be moderated so that their natural sugars and flavors will not overpower the meat profile. Double and triple stocks are often used in the classic kitchen while a bouillon cube might stand in for the laboriously prepared classic version in the home kitchen. I often omit any vegetables in my stocks since I looking for an intense profile from whatever consommé I’m constructing. The stock should not boil rapidly but only “smile” otherwise the fats of the meat and bones will emulsify and impart an opaque appearance with a greasy mouth feel and when reheating the stock don’t boil it for the same reason. The higher the ratio of ingredients to stock the more pronounced the flavor but conversely you’ll need a higher ratio of liquid to solid if you’re maintaining a “pot au feu” or perpetual stock pot that some French kitchen claim to have been simmering for over a hundred years. Also it’s important that you don’t agitate the ingredients in the pot or you’ll cloud the mixture with the small particulates that have attached themselves to the bottom and sides of the vessel and for the same reason don’t press the mass when your straining it. Don’t reduce your stock too far or it will become flat and passive in its flavor profile so if you need a pronounced stock use a double or triple. Also be sure to completely degrease your stock before you make a sauce and that’s easily accomplished by putting the stockpot, after you’ve strained the solids out, into the refrigerator where the fat will solidify and the resultant raft can be easily removed and discarded.
No matter what you use to thicken your stock into a sauce it’s called a liaison. You can use a variety of different agents like wheat, corn, or potato starch, cream, eggs, butter or purees. In the case of the classic roux, equal parts of oil and flour cooked to a varying degree of color, the thickening is accomplished by two different starch molecules trapping the liquid between them when heat is applied and the sauce gelatinizes which occurs at different temperatures for different starches. Using corn, potato or arrowroot starch will make a translucent sauce while flour protein will yield a more opaque product and the chemical name for the resulting product is a sol which means the dispersion of solids in a liquid. Today’s sauces are all over the board and can be thick or thin like a broth. Sauces, depending on your choice of starch, thicken between 175 and 205 degrees. Once thickened these constructs will begin to break or thin if boiled, held at high temperatures for extended periods or beaten too vigorously. Since the sauce will congeal as it cools be sure your preparation is thinner than you think it should be or you find yourself serving a thick unappealing mass instead of a light and lithe compliment to your entrée. Flour and other starches thicken at a lower temperature than other liaisons but they must be cooked longer to alleviate their inherent cereal taste and cooking the roux also coats each flour molecule with oil and prevents lumping. Corn starch thickens more efficiently by weight than flour while other starches like arrowroot, tapioca and modified food starches have almost no taste and need not be cooked at length and most of the modified varieties are also freezer stable.
A classic French roux consists of equal parts flour and oil cooked to remove the cereal taste and in some instances add color to the prepared sauce. The longer the roux is cooked the lower its thickening ability and there are white and hazelnut constructs that are cooked very little and will not affect the color of the sauce. Gravies, much favored in the US, are made by dusting the items being cooked with flour and then adding water or stock but unfortunately this method produces a rather coarse textured sauce. The tendency to over thicken can be held at bay if you use only one or two tables spoons of flour to each cup of liquid being thickened.
French sauces can also be thickened by adding eggs, cream, butter or vegetable and fruit purees. Emulsions are another type of thickened sauce that include salad dressing and Hollandaise like preparations but they will not combine if the two components are mixed together too quickly. Typical emulsion are milk which has 4% butter fat to liquid ratio, this mixing you know as homogenization, while butter is 20% water to fat ratio emulsion. These sauces are said to be in a continuous phase when they are not emulsified and dispersed phase when they are. Basically you’re putting in a lot of energy, read beating with a mixer or by hand with a whip, to combine the water and fat molecules. Tiny drops of fat are put between water, or vinegar etc., molecules and this gives the sauce its milk like viscous semisolid consistency. Hot emulsified egg sauces, those of the Hollandaise family, are prepared by whipping egg yolks over heat to form an aerated foamy mass called a sabayon. Warm oil is then usually beaten in – in the form of melted whole (if thickness of the sauce is not a factor) or clarified butter. A flavoring agent known as a gastrique is then added to the mix for flavor and yields sauces like Béarnaise or by adding sugar to create a variety of fluffy desserts know as sabayons that are often then mixed with whipped cream.
These egg based sauces are notorious for breaking if exposed to high or low heat extremes. Egg protein coagulates at 140 degrees so if you exceed that range you end up with scrambled eggs and these constructs are also very hard to rethermalize without almost making them over again so it’s important to keep them warm but not over 140 degrees. It’s also important to use the freshest eggs and keep the mixture acidic by using citrus or vinegar and insuring that no egg white enters the mix when you’re making the sauce. The usual ratio for butter to yolks in 4 to the pound for clarified and 6 to the pound for whole butter, while whole unclarified melted butter can add to the flavor profile is does produce a thinner sauce. Whatever you chose as your flavoring agent it should be added after the sauce has been finished and be sure the temperature isn’t over 140 degrees.
The sauces of the Western world are usually derived from the cooking of protein and then manipulated to their completed state by the additions of complementary ingredients that change with the type of protein being cooked. The sauces of the rest of the world often exist as either a condiment or as an integral part of the dish itself like a curry or a Chinese construct. Today the codified recipes of French food are often tedious and of importance only to the foodie or student of culinary history but the study makes for fascinating reading and helps us gain perspective of today’s food porn. The foundations of Western sauces are based on butter, cream and flour and diners from other cultures who don’t follow the triumphant say that those of us who do reek of dairy products. And just as French was the lingua franca for well over a century so its food became the haute cuisine of the Western world during the period and only began to wane in the latter half of the twentieth century. But French food serves as a modern-day point of reference to today’s fused global style because they were the first modern Western culture to codify and preserve their gastronomic minutiae that made it easily recognizable and a bench mark for other cuisines to follow. The advent of print technology, increasing rates of literacy, the French revolution, the creation of feeding outlets that offered a menu instead of just a seat at the table d’ hote, helped the Gallic pundits of the period make food the dominant topic of conversation and turned Parisian food into a world dominating cuisine.
The latter part of the twentieth century saw the US re-embrace foodstuffs that had left the new world half a millennia before and helped to make French food the most well-known in the world. Today the new chefs of America are helping to create a new global diet, one hopefully that doesn’t rely too much on fast food outlets or processed Franken foods, using ingredients from around the world. Where the French were fettered by geographical boundaries and a much smaller world we have basically no boundaries and food knowledge and diet choices have replaced social class. To paraphrase the famous expression of the epicurean Brillat-Savarin “tell me what you want to eat and I’ll tell you who you want to be”. As foodways change the only culinary memes that survive will be one formed from old country memories using new country foods. The new elephant in the kitchen is a culinary ouroboros; a snake that grabs and feeds on it’s own tail.