"Anyone who can produce even the few easy sauces described in this chapter and serve them with well-cooked grills or roasts, poached or fried fish or even eggs or sausages, will soon get a reputation for that kind of unpretentious, good-quality food which the French so descriptively call 'une cuisine soignée'." Elizabeth David
Soigné is one of those French words that is almost untranslatable. It's a mixture of careful, with much care and also elegant. High praise indeed. And appropriate that the first chapter of Elizabeth David's wonderful French Provincial Cookery, should be about sauces. After all that is what the French are famous for is it not? Indeed sometimes in a derogatory sense. I do think, however, that it is perhaps one of the main differences between Italian and French food. All of those things that Elizabeth David mentions in that statement above - grills, etc. are served in France with some kind of sauce. Not so in Italy, which makes we two, generally less keen on the main course in Italy, than the glorious antipasti and pasta dishes. I am not, of course, talking about casseroles and stews here. They come with their own inbuilt sauce.
Elizabeth David was very anti 'haute cuisine'. Well I'm sure she ate her share of the best haute cuisine, at least when she became famous, but she saw her audience as being without:
"time, expense, a large staff, an elaborate 'batterie de cuisine', plus a very highly developed sense of taste and a devotion to his work which the cook does not always possess."
A typical Elizabeth David statement that manages to simultaneously, build up and put down her potential audience. Her recipes were also derived in the main from the food that was cooked in ordinary French homes, even if, it has to be said, some of those recipes are actually derived from the works of various haute cuisine chefs, or at the very least, professional small restaurant cooks.
Before launching into her sauce recipes she gives a typically critical and scornful summary of the sauces of haute cuisine and their subsequent bastardisation in lesser establishments - down to the 'the gravy browning and water of the old-fashioned English domestic cook', before giving a brief rundown of the principles involved in creating perfect sauces à la française.
"The first principe is that whenever possible the sauce for a given dish is composed of elements supplied by the main ingredient of that dish itself. That is to say, the trimmings of a joint, the giblets of a bird, the carcase and head of a fish, are simmered to make a broth or bouillon which will entually supply the basis of the sauce. When no such elements are present, as in the case of grilled meat or fish, eggs, vegetables, rice, pasta, and so on, then there are the egg and butter sauces of of which béarnaise and hollandaise are the two most obvious, and the vegetable purée sauces such as soubise (onion), tomato, mushroom. Then there are the sauces of which the juices of the meat or fish itself after it has cooked form the basis, with cream or wine, or stock, and a binding of yolks of eggs or flour and butter (beurre manié) being used to complete it."
Apart from all these alternatives, there is the whole repertory of cold sauces derived either from mayonnaise or more simply from vinaigrette, and all the butters flavoured with herbs and aromatics."
And so we come to her very first, and, of course, basic recipe - Bouillon pour les sauces.
First of all I have to say that this photograph is just a generic kind of photo of a bouillon - I don't even know the basis of this one, but she describes the result as 'clear straw-coloured' and so here is a clear, straw-coloured bouillon. This is what you are aiming for
And here is her recipe, which I have to say is pretty simple, other than sourcing stewing veal - not impossible but difficult.
BOUILLON POUR LES SAUCES
1/2 lb each of lean stewing veal, preferably from the shin, and good quality minced beef; 2 scraped carrots, 2 halved tomatoes, 2 medium-sized onions, washed but not peeled, 2 sprigs of parsley with the stalks; no salt or pepper until a later stage.
Put all the ingredients in a small pot or saucepan which will go in the oven; cover with just over a pint of water. Cover the pot and cook in a low oven for 1 1/2 hours. Strain through an ordinary sieve. Leave in a bowl until the fat has set. Remove the fat. Heat up the stock, strain through a muslin to get rid of any sediment. There should now be about 3/4 pint of clear straw-coloured bouillon ready to make any sauce requiring stock.
As it has been cooked without salt, it can also be reduced to a thick syrup-like consistency, a sort of improvised meat glaze ... in the following manner: put a large soup ladle of the bouillon into a 6-inch frying pan or sauté pan. Let it bubble fairly gently for about 10 minutes, during which time you remove the little flecks of scum which come to the surface with a metal spoon dipped frequently in hot water. When the liquid starts to stick to the spoon and is reduced to about 2 tablespoons, it is done. The flavour is now three times as strong as it was to start with but, of course, had there been salt in it, it would have been uneatable. Pour it into a little jar, keep it covered, and when it is to be used heat it up in the jar standing in a pan of water. Although this has not the deep colour of professional meat glaze, it has the right amount of body to strengthen a sauce, plus a freshness and clarity of flavour unusual in the lengthily cooked, more elaborate confection of the the chefs.
I don't understand really why people say that her recipes are vague. This recipe at least is really very detailed, and explanatory. There are little tips along the way - dip the spoon in hot water frequently - and also the little digs at various things here and there. And it is really very simple, if lengthy. I haven't converted the measurements, but then I don't expect you to make it - but I have included it because it is a really good example of the style of her recipe writing.
And that should be it for a First Recipe post, but it is followed by a slightly weird recipe that I just had to include. It is called Trésor de Cuisine (Kitchen treasure), in which you take a bottle of Madeira, remove a glass full of Madeira, heat up the bottle in a pan of warm water - yes the bottle. When the wine is hot, pour in gradually a wineglass of melted meat glaze (the reduced version from the previous recipe), put the cork back in the bottle and leave in a warm place near the stove for two hours. She describes the result as "a valuable stand-by for adding to sauces, particularly those which are to be served with game, and for all manner of dishes where a little extra flavouring is required." I don't know what you do with the glass of Madiera that you removed from the bottle - drink it? Use it to deglaze the pan you used to cook a steak, or some duck? I think Elizabeth David would have knocked it back. She liked her wine.
Madeira - now there's a blast from the past. I wasn't even sure you could get it any more. But yes, Dan's has a dozen or so bottles available, ranging in price from $10 to $50. It's a fortified wine from, yes, Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa. Interestingly, considering Elizabeth David's comments about salt in her bouillon, Wikipedia has this to say:
"Cheaper cooking versions are often flavoured with salt and pepper for use in cooking, but these are not fit for consumption as a beverage."
Interesting even that versions should be made specifically for cooking. Madeira obviously deserves a post all of its own but I wanted to include this little bit, because it is yet another example of a fortified wine that has almost disappeared from view, at least from a drinking standpoint. The same fate has befallen other fortified wines. No longer do we drink port in vast quantities after a meal or sip on a sherry or vermouth before. However, these fortified wines are extensively used in cooking, often in innovative ways. And cocktails too I guess. And it seems that way back (the Trésor de Cuisine recipe is actually from a book written in 1844), they were being innovative with Madeira. It's sort of weird to add a meat glaze to a heated bottle of Madeira is it not?
So - an Elizabeth David first recipe done - there will be more as I am now in my vintage Elizabeth David section of my bookshelf. It will be interesting to see if she always begins with sauces. She doesn't duplicate though, like Robert Carrier who is sometimes a bit of a cheat in that way.
"there is a world of delicious sauces, fresh and easily made, designed to help the food with which they are served rather than to drown it."