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Basically French

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

There are two inspirations for today's blog - a first recipe and this photograph.

The photograph comes from my daily art desk calendar. It's a photograph taken some time between 1858-78 by Charles Marville who in 1862 became the official photographer of Paris. Most of his photographs are of the streets of Paris, before Baron Haussmann got to them, pulled them all down and build Paris as we know it today. It's such an atmospheric photograph.

However, what struck me most about it was the signs on the shop on the left advertising 'beurres et oeufs' - butters and eggs. So basic, so French. How much of French cooking - at least in the north (it's olive oil in the south) is based on butter and eggs? And yes, particularly French cooking I think. And how French to have an entire shop seemingly dedicated to just two simple ingredients. So since I'm being a tiny bit arty:

As I said - basic. The other thing though is that it tied in with a first recipe that I had actually, and guiltily discarded. You see it was from La Cuisine Pour Tous - that I had dedicated an entire post to, not that long ago. Which was one reason to discard it, but also when I actually turned to the first recipe I found that it was for Le jus de Rôti - 'the juice from the roast'. Hardly a recipe at all. Indeed here it is:

"Il est obtenu en diluant avec un liquide chaud (bouillon, eau) le sang caramélisé dans le fond du plat où ont été cuites les viandes. Le jus doit être passé, dégraissé s'il y a lieu et assaisonné"

That's it. I will try and translate.

"It is obtained by diluting with a hot liquid (stock, water) the caramelised blood in the bottom of the pan in which the meat was cooked. The 'jus' must be sieved, degreased if there is a need to do so and seasoned."

So basically - how to deglaze a pan. Note that she only mentions water or stock as suitable liquids to deglaze the pan with. Which is very interesting to me. Because, now that I think of it, I do not think that the French home cooks from whom I learnt, used wine, or cream or anything else either. These days anything is game. And by the time Elizabeth David wrote French Provincial Cooking almost ten years later she also had many more options.

"Deglazing is the process of detaching the juices and all the particles which have adhered to the bottom and sides of a saucepan or sauté pan in which food has browned. This is done by adding liquid, either wine, stock, water, or cream, into which these juices and particles are scraped up and incorporated to form a sauce. This is a good example of those French cookery terms which require a whole paragraph to explain in English."

Today there are a whole host of other options to add to your crusty bits in the pan - from yoghurt to craft beer, soy sauce to pomegranate molasses.

The second recipe in the book is for 'Other ways of preparing the juices from the roast' and is basically what the French call 'jus lié' - amalgamated (thickened) juices and what the English would probably call gravy. Mind you I'm pretty sure the French version - as shown here, would most probably be rather fancier than an English gravy.

I grew up on the Bisto variety of gravy. I think my mother added Bisto to the crusty bits and then poured on the hot water in which the cabbage had been boiled. Sounds gruesome but we actually liked it and honestly it probably meant we got the vitamins that had leached out of the cabbage whilst it was boiled. And yes I'm afraid I liked the boiled cabbage too. Later on I was introduced to the concept of thickening the gravy with flour by my mother-in-law, who actually was not much into cooking. It was she who taught me to add flour to the remaining fat in the pan, stirring until smooth and slightly cooked, and then adding water and stirring until you got gravy. Today I would do the same although I would probably add stock or wine instead of just water. Not that there is anything wrong with water. The taste, after all, is all from what has been left in the pan of course.

So yes some of the very best French cooking - butter and eggs, deglazed roast juices - is often very, very simple. So simple they are not really recipes at all. And yet they can also be very, very, complicated - as in demi-glace - a much more refined, sauce - also called jus de viande. Mastering the Art of French Cooking describes it thus:

"The classic French brown sauce starts out with a long-simmered brown meat stock that goes into the making of an equally long-simmered, lightly thickened sauce base called an espagnole. The espagnole is simmered and skimmed for several hours more with additional stock and flavourings until it finally develops into the traditional mother of the brown sauces, 'demi-glace'. This may take several days to accomplish, and the result is splendid. But as we are concerned with less formal cooking, we shall discuss it no further."

Alain Ducasse - possibly France's greatest living chef has a recipe and a video on the net. I'm pretty sure the commentary is in French, but alas I could not get the sound to work. You can watch though - and the recipe is on the page. Below are the ingredients and the finished sauce.

In passing you will almost always find that a French cookbook will begin with a chapter on sauces. For many French dishes it's all in the sauce and often the sauce is cooked separately from the dish and added at the end. Which is rather different from other cuisines in which the food is cooked in the sauce. Of course the French do this too, but if, for example, you travel from Italy to France you will notice the difference in how the sauce is treated.

So gravy or jus? Well actually I don't think there is much difference. And according to Felicity Cloake who has a go at the perfect gravy, and who, incidentally, maintains that the French don't understand gravy, says that you just need a bit of flour and some good stock. It doesn't look all that different from the posh Alain Ducasse version does it?

"there is no recipe for gravy, nor should there be" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

And it seems the French don't really have a recipe for jus de rôti either. Just pour in your liquid and stir and scrape away until you have something really tasty.


I took these today on my walk back from the shops. The bikes are sort of French and the message - from the mouth of babes ...


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