"The topic of mashed potato started a heated debate among my colleagues. Half of them insisted it had to be creamy, buttery and have absolutely no lumps, while the rest preferred a little more texture, some crisp skin for character and, daringly, olive oil instead of butter." Yotam Ottolenghi
I watched the last of Guillaume Brahimi's season of shows on the food of Paris last night, and his last recipe - a nostalgic one for him was this dish of roast chicken (smothered in butter and surrounded by herbs) served with his Paris Mash which is
an extreme version of puréed potatoes. My own nostalgia kicked in of course, both English and French, so I thought I would tackle mashed potatoes. Such a basic thing and not one that I have done before I think.
I should say at the outset that David hates mashed potato with a passion. So I never serve them here. Well sometimes I give him some plain boiled potatoes whilst I mash some for myself - or, indeed I purée them. It's a very curious thing with David though for two reasons. Given the plain boiled potatoes which would be served with something with some kind of sauce, he will immediately mash them into the sauce.
And secondly he really likes Shepherd's Pie which is topped with mashed potatoes (the version shown here is Jane Grigson's) - also gnocchi (sometimes mashed potato based) and fish cakes. There are probably more such things but I cannot think of other examples right now. There would be fish pie which always seems to have a mashed potato topping, but that is something I have never made. It wasn't something my mother ever made. I wonder why? So not a traditional dish that I tried out on David before I knew his likes and dislikes. Now that I know that he is not that keen on fish, and definitely doesn't like mashed potatoes, I haven't ever tried. Maybe I should. I asked him where this dislike of mashed potatoes comes from and he wasn't quite sure, but thought it was school.
And here I will insert a word about Instant mashed potatoes - still available, frozen ones too. A horror that my own mother never descended to, but maybe David's mother did. Maybe that's where the aversion comes from. They were invented in the 50s - in America of course. For the Americans also love their mashed potatoes - apparently Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes. Mashed not puréed.
When it comes to my own personal history with mashed potatoes I see that I could have easily had the same aversion because the mashed potatoes that I was served at my second primary school were truly revolting. It had lumps in it but not only were there lumps I now think that the lumps were fundamentally uncooked or not cooked enough potato. However, that aversion did not blight me forever, even as it made me gag in school, because my mother - and grandmother - made lovely mashed potatoes. I therefore knew that mashed potatoes could be a good thing. My mother and grandmother mashed well cooked potatoes with a potato masher a little milk and some butter and there were no lumps. Although they were not completely smooth, like puréed potatoes. It seems that this is the English way - and probably Irish, Scottish and Welsh way of doing them too. It's a bit obvious really. Officially it goes back to Hannah Glasse:
"In her 18th-century recipe book The Art of Cookery, English author Hannah Glasse instructed readers to boil potatoes, peel them, put them into a saucepan, and mash them well with milk, butter, and a little salt." Mental Floss
However, some seem to think that as early as the 1660s mashed potatoes were being served with gravy. That website - Mental Floss - has quite a detailed history of mashed potato - from an American point of view I think, and not really going into modern times, but it has quite a lot of detail about the early history. As somebody said about how you actually mash potatoes - we suppose you start with a rock - well any hard implement. The potato masher as we know it today was not invented until the 1860s but there were heavy wooden things that you bashed things with - rather like a pestle I guess.
Going back to my childhood experience of mashed potatoes, I guess we mostly had it as an accompaniment to stewy things, if there weren't potatoes in them already, but, of course we also had it with bangers and mash - that most English of English dishes. So English in fact, that in his book Jamie's Dinners - the one he wrote when he was trying to improve school lunches - Jamie Oliver starts with a top ten of British dinners - and number one is Bangers and mash, which in true Jamie style he calls The best sausage and super mash with onion gravy - as shown here. It's actually a very eclectic top ten including as it does, lasagne, hamburgers and chicken tikka masala.
It's a comparatively early version of bangers and mash and over time, even Jamie tarts it up - mostly by making puréed potatoes rather than mashed ones. Puréed with leeks moreover. He calls this later version - Sausages with pan cooked chutney and leek mash.
Indeed you will rarely find a recipe for anything that resembles those early mashed potato dishes unless they are topping something like a fish pie. The other modern thing is to make mashes out of every conceivably possible vegetable, from pumpkin to celeriac and taro - which seems to be big in England. Or you combine your potatoes with another vegetable - and that, as with Jamie's leek mash, doesn't even have to be a root vegetable.
Or you spice, or herb it up - as with Simon Hopkinson's Saffron mash. Today we are very much encouraged to improvise.
Perhaps evolution in England has gone the way of the 'smashed potato' in which the cooked potato is just bashed a bit and then sometimes baked in the oven to crisp it up. with lots of additions of course.
Let's continue with the evolution of mashed potato though - in France. Personally this was another revelation from France, where the potatoes were not mashed but puréed. The potatoes were boiled, and then put through a mouli, which produced a much finer mixture than bashing them around with a masher. Then they were turned into a saucepan with milk - I can't remember whether it was heated and lashings of beautiful French butter - and beaten over the heat for a couple of minutes. The result was beautifully smooth and creamy. That and the evening soup which was also made with the help of a mouli made me go out and buy one for myself on that first trip. Eventually it became a bit rusty after a lot of use making marmalade and I bought a flashy Italian designed one which didn't work - the blade did not come close enough to the bit with the holes. So I continued with the old one for a while until on my last trip to France I bought a genuine ordinary one from the hypermarket - which is splendid and now made in stainless steel. Potato ricers - as they are sometimes called - were apparently invented in the early 20th century - but they didn't make it to England. We continued using a masher - or even a fork.
But back to the original inspiration for this post - what is called Paris Mash, which is an ultra smooth and silky version of puréed potatoes. Here we see Guillaume Brahimi's version. It seems that the late Joël Robuchon is credited with its invention back in the 1980s and you can find his recipe on the Michelin Guide site. Really? thought I and rushed to my early cookbooks. And indeed Elizabeth David didn't sieve twice, but everything else is the same as the Paris Mash described below. And after all I had been served the puréed version back in the 50s. However, now that I have seen a few more recipes I think that perhaps Paris Mash, even though fundamentally the same, is also quite different. I think the differences, are:
boiling the potatoes with the skin on, and peeling them whilst still hot (Elizabeth David did this):
"The trick is to get as much water out of the mash as possible. That's why we boil the potatoes whole." Guillaume Brahimi
Sieving the potatoes twice - once through a ricer, whilst still hot, and then beating with hot milk and butter, then through a drum sieve before repeating the process of milk, butter, beating. Lots of butter. Elizabeth David had lots of beating and also quite a lot of butter, but perhaps not quite as much.
I had to smile at Nagi Maehashi's comments about the drum sieve in her Recipe Tin Eats version:
"We have a drum sieve floating around in the RecipeTin Family and I’ve used it once for Paris Mash – and I’m not sure if I ever will again! In the absence of a team of sous chefs to sieve the potato for me, I skip the double sieve and accept that mine is not quite as smooth as restaurant versions – and that’s totally ok. While you might notice the lumps if you eat plain spoonfuls of the mash, once it’s on the plate and you’re eating it with steak or whatever you’re serving it with, you don’t even notice the minor imperfections." Nagi Maehashi
The thing about Paris Mash it seems to me is that it is so fine, it is almost liquid. So I don't really think I shall be trying it. Maybe I'll just add a bit more butter to my puréed ones.
Continuing with evolution though I immediately thought of Ottolenghi and his various dishes in which he has some kind of purée on the bottom of the plate topped with various other things. So I looked and yes indeed he has seriously tweaked versions of the puréed potato kind: Aromatic olive oil mash plus Three Ottolenghi uses including Riced potatoes with anchovy butter (shown below).
But I can't let the whole mashed potato thing go without mentioning another French dish, which I confess I have never tasted - Aligot:
"If you've never seen aligot before, imagine the perfect fusion of mashed potatoes with fondue, and you'll have just the right idea. When made right, it should be elastic enough to stretch from pot to ceiling without breaking a strand." Daniel Gritzer/Serious Eats
Felicity Cloake will take you through all the different things you can do to make the perfect Aligot, but Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, gives a pretty good explanation as well as to why you should consider making it:
"There's no denying how hearty and rib-sticking this dish is. It's true winter food, best eaten in a snowy landscape. In France, it's often served over sausages and other meats, but if that feels like overkill, you could take a lighter approach by pairing it with roasted vegetables or even drizzling it over a bed of polenta ... Don't overthink it, though. This is mountain fare, and you need your energy for the chilly months ahead. Eat up." Daniel Gritzer/Serious Eats
So not now perhaps.
I just wanted to share this rather extraordinary and beautiful lithograph by Edward Lear of The Owl and the Pussycat fame. He created it for John Gould's massive tome on European birds. Such weird birds owls.
I wonder why they are not eaten? Well probably way back they were and maybe still are in France and other European countries where hunting and shooting is a big thing. When I asked our English hosts at one house we stayed in near the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc, what the locals were hunting. She said "anything that moves really." So maybe owls too.
Owls of course in the past had various mystical notions attached to them. Maybe that's why they never became a common food like pheasants or even swans.