"everyone loves bread, even in a conceptually questionable form such as a goo."
Ruby Lott-Lavigna - Vice
I seem to have started a mini series on forgotten and not quite forgotten British foods of Christmas, and today I am doing bread sauce. Forgotten in my household, but we did have it at my youthful English family Christmases. I know we had it, but to be honest I really don't remember what it tasted like, and I don't really remember whether I liked it or not. Which probably means that I was happy to eat it, but was more or less indifferent to it. And I'm pretty sure I have never made it.
So what is it and how do you serve it? Well the picture at right is of a typical 'traditional' loaded plate of Christmas turkey and all the trimmings complete with the bread sauce. To me the main problem with bread sauce, is that you have already got gravy - you just have to have gravy - and so the gravy is the sauce. Why do you need a second sauce? I suppose if it's thick enough - and it generally isn't very runny like gravy - then it is a sort of alternative to the stuffing - but then the stuffing is important too. In our house which uses Jane Grigson's celery and lemon stuffing, I sometimes think that the stuffing is the main attraction really. And that's bread as well.
Nigel Slater suggests using it as a base for chipolatas which is probably extremely tasty, and very British, but not really traditionally Christmassy. It's one of those modern things of taking the traditional elements and transforming them into something new and very different. It somehow looks Middle-eastern.
Nevertheless bread sauce has maintained its place in many British households as a vital part of the Christmas dinner. It is truly ancient - dating back to Medieval times.
"In the Middle Ages many sauces were thickened with bread. This wasn't because cooks failed to realise that flour or egg yolks could do the job, but because sauces had on the whole to be coherent enough not to run off the bread trenchers which were used as plates, and to not sink into the trenchers too quickly or completely. With flour, thickening beyond a certain point turns a sauce to glue. With a lot of egg yolk, the sauce turns to custard.. Bread is the thing for an agreeable un-sloppy moistness of texture, providing the crumbs are allowed to retain a certain identity, and are not beaten back into a floury paste." Jane Grigson
There has been no need to cope with bread trenchers as plates for centuries, but the bread sauce obviously wormed its way into the British heart. It's plain, it's thrifty, but it's surprisingly tasty and as always it actually depends on using the very best ingredients - stale but quality white bread and whole milk, flavoured with bay leaves, onions, clove and nutmeg - and care in the cooking of it.
"the sauce stands or falls by its seasoning. Soft, sweet onions or shallots, bay leaves, cloves and plenty of salt and pepper are to my mind essential. Be lavish with them. The watchpoint here is to keep the sauce moving in the pan, if you don’t stir almost continuously it will stick and burn." Nigel Slater
"I couldn't have Christmas lunch without bread sauce: just the smell of the milk, infusing on the hob, giving off that familiar scent of onion, mace, bay and clove, lets me know it is Christmas. The idea of a bread sauce remains intensely baffling, possibly even disgusting, to any person who hasn't been brought up with British traditions, but I have, so far, been able to convert Italians, Austrians and even (admittedly with some condescension on their part) a French contingent. I regard bread sauce as not only my legacy from my mother, but every Briton's sacred and stodgy inheritance. I shouldn't have to say it but, given the kind of bread our nation willingly consumes (and my children lead the way here, eschewing all proper loaves), let me warn you now: do not even consider making this with the plastic, sliced stuff." Nigella Lawson
I think even when I was a child I didn't really understand the concept of bread sauce, and it has apparently, possibly understandably, declined in popularity in favour of wine-flavoured gravies and sauces. And yet the celebrity chefs of England almost to a man or woman are vehemently in favour - even Heston's recipe is pretty traditional and does not involve weird ingredients or esoteric techniques. Delia Smith has her theory about its decline:
"I think it has suffered from either not being made properly or – worst of all – being made from a mix or packet. The real thing is beautifully creamy and the perfect accompaniment to chicken or turkey." Delia Smith
She is probably right about its disappearance - I don't think my sister makes it either, or anybody else that I know in fact. But I just checked Coles online, and indeed you can buy a packet of Colman's bread sauce mix. Why would you though as one of the writers I found said - it's hardly expensive or difficult to make.
"bread sauce is an oddity. Curiously gelatinous and neither fully liquid nor solid, it serves no practical purpose these days," Rachel Fellows - Spectator Life
However, Jamie Oliver has a version and Felicity Cloake includes it in her perfect classic Christmas. Even Robert Carrier in his Robert Carrier Cookbook proffers a version, although Elizabeth David does not. One suspects she would be a bit sniffy about it, but then again maybe not. After all it is simple and peasant like, so therefore perhaps admirable. The interesting thing about all of these versions though is how similar they are and how little they venture into modern enhancements. I think the most radical thing I saw was using some cream in the mix. Hardly very adventurous.
Now I am not hosting the grand Christmas turkey dinner this year, so it's not up to me to decide what will accompany the turkey. I doubt that my daughter-in-law has considered bread sauce, and besides I have never made it for her husband (my son) or his brother, so I do not think we shall be tasting it this year. In fact I shall probably never taste it again, which is a rather sad thought perhaps. But then again maybe not.
I also found that various writers wrote quite eloquently about bread sauce which indicates, to me anyway, some enduring respect for this British oddity. Here are just a couple more:
"bread sauce is a pleasingly medieval sort of condiment whose delicate spicing plays second fiddle to its comfortingly bland milkiness" Felicity Cloake - The Guardian
"bread sauce is the mink stole of a plate (without the moral ramifications): it may not be absolutely necessary but it engulfs you in a sumptuous and supremely gentle warmth for which, once you’ve experienced it, you will forever yearn." Rachel Fellows
Mink is a long way away from bread and milk!