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Quenelles - a forgotten delicacy

"a delicate triumph of French cooking" Jamie Tracey/The Anti-Chef

Last week, as I may have mentioned, we dined at Paris Go in Carlton, with my sister and her husband. It's our favourite French restaurant in Melbourne . For my entrée I chose this fabulous dish of Quenelles de Merlan a la sauce crevette. King Whiting dumplings in a shrimp sauce, is the much less romantic sounding English translation. I chose these because I cannot make them myself.

Well I should explain that they represent one of the major failures in my cooking career. Way, way back in time I was hosting a dinner party, which may even have involved some of David's then customers. (He was, at that time a salesmen with the British computer company ICL.) At the time I was a Mastering the Art of French Cooking enthusiast, and decided to have a go at their Quenelles de Poisson.

Perhaps I should pause here to explain that the etymology of the word quenelles - a lovely, light sounding word is derived they think from the German knödlen which means dumpling. Dumpling sounds homely and even stodgy. Quenelles sounds light and floaty. Indeed if you feed quenelles into Google you get a lot of Iles flottantes - those light as air egg whites floating in custard. But they are not quenelles.

To quenelle is also a technique that I shall come to.

Anyway I made the mixture, and I assume followed the instructions and put it in the fridge. I never deviated from what I was told to do back then. And here comes the quenelles technique as shown here in the first picture next to a later recipe of Julia Child's from her 1989 book The Way to Cook. The recipe (not online) is for Shrimp quenelles in a tomato sauce. It might look easy, but you have to be careful to keep the spoons wet or it all sticks to the spoon. You can watch Jamie Tracey have a go on a Jamie and Julia video. He does manage it, but not quite as smoothly as Julia.

My disaster however, came when I slid them into the fish stock to cook. Maybe it was on too fast a boil. As Jamie shows you, it should be barely simmering. Anyway, for me, they completely collapsed. I just had little bits of the mixture floating in the stock. However, I remembered a little bit of advice at the end of the recipe:

"IN CASE OF DISASTER (the book's capitals - so she must have expected disaster). If by any chance your quenelle paste turns out to be too soft to poach as quenelles, it will taste every bit as good if you declare it to be a mousse. Pack it into a buttered soufflé mould, a ring mould, or individual serving moulds. Set in a tin of boiling water and bake in a preheated oven until the mousse has risen and shows a faint line of shrinkage from the sides of the mould. Unmould and serve with any of the fish sauces suggested ..."

Well you can imagine my panic in the kitchen - and the extra delay whilst I scooped out all those little bits and put them into a sieve to drain off all the liquid - well I had actually tried to poach them my disaster came later than Julia's - packed them into something and recooked them. Then the ultimate disaster as I turned it out onto a plate. It just collapsed into a semi-liquid mess. I had to make a joke of it. Complete and utter failure. I was so ashamed. Which is why I have never tried them again.

"They can be a little tricky to make - the key lies in keeping the mixture chilled." say the people who wrote The Food of France and produced these beautiful looking Pike quenelles. So they too must be expecting DISASTER. Julia said to chill them too, so I'm sure I did as I was told. To this day I don't really know what went wrong. Too much cream, stock boiling too hard - who knows. However, having now watched Jamie of Jamie and Julia have a go I think I might have another go. After all I can make gnocchi and I'm older and hopefully wiser now. At the start of the video he refers to his edition of the book as being BFP - before the food processor, but says that Julia later discovered the wonder of this machine. And indeed she does in The Way to Cook:

"In the old days a fish mousse took several hours of hand labour, and was strictly in the realm of the professional kitchen and haute cuisine. Because of that wonderful machine, the food processor, there is so little fuss to making mousse that it is now a part of plain everyday cooking. But not such plain cooking that you cannot perform remarkably attractive, even lightning speed acrobatics with it." Julia Child

Mousse, because the basic quenelle mixture, as my disaster showed, could also be used for a mousse.

A little bit of history. The dish is a Lyons speciality where it is served with the grandiose Sauce Nantua - a sauce made from lobster. I found two versions online: Salt cod quenelles with lobster stock from the Boralia Restaurant, Toronto and Bistro-style quenelles with a langoustine and cognac cream sauce from The Academy of French Cooking - so both pretty haute cuisine - and expensive.

Jamie goes for Sauce Dieppoise which is a fishy kind of béchamel, but there are heaps of other sauces out there, that could be used. Probably depending on the fish that you use. The original - from Lyon was pike - a freshwater fish with lots of bones, and virtually impossible to find here. Most recipes will tell you to use some kind of firm white fish - like monkfish although Paris Go used King George Whiting which is rather more fragile. Did I say by the way that it was absolutely delicious?

Wikipedia seems to think that it was:

"invented by a chef named Bontemps to deal with the pike's "multitude of long, fine, forked bones".

Another site, however, says it was another chef called Charles Horateur back in 1830. Definitely Lyon though.

These days, that quenelle technique is used for all manner of things from Rachel Khoo's kind of gnocchi Quenelles à la semoule to the coffee ice-cream I was served a few weeks ago at Longrain in the City - a Thai restaurant, so a long way from Lyon.

I searched through my French cookbooks and my old-fashioned cookbooks and found nothing. Quenelles have all but died out, if they even existed back in the 60s and 70s. Elizabeth David doesn't seem to do them. So it was nice to read this from Jay Rayner who, in a restaurant review for The Guardian said:

"Everything you need to know about the Ellington in Leeds can be found on page 862 of the Larousse Gastronomique (old edition). For there, in the finest and most baroque of detail, is the recipe for my starter of Quenelle de brochet à la Lyonnaise, or poached quenelles of pike mousse with a béchamel sauce. And what a thing of beauty that recipe is: the making of the panada (a flour and egg paste for thickening), the filleting and smoothing of the pike flesh over ice, the chilling of the blender for the mixing-in of the eggs and the pike and the panada, and so on. Read a recipe like that and you could be forgiven for shaking your head and sucking your false teeth and muttering: 'Ooh, they don't make 'em like that any more.'" Jay Rayner

No they don't. Well there are a few determinedly traditional restaurants like Paris Go that do - and by the way I notice the chef there declined the quenelles technique - his were rolls. There are also a few Julia Child fans - like Jamie Tracey who do. Watch his video if you have a spare quarter of an hour. He pronounced them delicious and wolfed down the lot - he added a small truffle to his quenelles, at Julia's suggestion - just one of those truffles you sometimes find at Aldi. He thought her other suggestion of nutmeg would not have worked so well.

Or you can try the original Julia Childs' Quenelles on a website called A Kingdom for a Cake which in some ways looks similar to Jamie's.

Call them quenelles though if you do have a go. Not dumplings.


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