Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Classic French Kitchen


The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Japanese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
  CONCLUSION:  Eat and drink what you like.  Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

Seriously though, our obsession with what we eat is as old as cooking itself, which according to the anthropologists, developed with the arrival of the Neanderthals around 75,000BC. The discovery that cooked meat was more palatable and nutritious than raw, paved the way for better health and population growth. Cooking as we understand it, as opposed to just heating meat on a fire, took a few more thousand years to develop. One of the earliest forms, using the stomach of an animal as a pouch to heat the contents is still used today, although some would argue that haggis is not food at all.
"It was the haggis, a brownish lump sitting unobtrusively to one side of the plate, that drew the most riveting attention. ... Some people approached their haggis with extreme misgivings."
Tom Knapp, on a traditional Scottish dinner

Fast forward a few thousand years to the birth of modern French Culinary expertise, and you would land in the middle of the 17th Century. The Venetian Ambassador to Paris in the late 16th century observed, 

“They consume a great deal of meat, which they load the table with at their banquets…. They ruin their stomachs and their bowels by eating too much, as the Germans and Poles do by drinking too much”.

As you can see, stereo types are not a new phenomenon, neither have they changed much.

Plus ça change!!

The changes that were to make culinary history developed over the next 200 years, and these are documented in the next section

Delicious Food
"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."
Fernand Point (1897-1955)
La Cuisine Bourgeois
The move out of the medieval kitchen was marked by the use of a Roux to thicken sauces, instead of using bread, broken pastry or creamed almonds, as had been used in the past. The roux was so simple a solution to many culinary problems; it quickly gained popularity throughout all levels of society.
With the move from Large Banquets where the menu looked more like a passenger list on Noah’s Ark, to more intimate suppers in the Salon, and the introduction of cookery books for the ordinary household (circa 1750), La Cuisine Bourgeoise was born. By the end of the century, cooking had been elevated into food for philosophy as well as for stomachs. Thus began the belief by all Frenchmen, and is still apparent today, that in terms of all things culinary, France reigns supreme.

"Light, refined, learned and noble, harmonious and orderly, clear and logical, the cooking of France is, in some strange manner, intimately linked to the genius of her greatest men."
Rouff (Marcel) French journalist and writer (1887-1936)

In the 19th Century, French chefs were the most sought after commodity for any self respecting Aristocrat, and many famous career came to fruition in this Century, no less a man than the legendary Auguste Escoffier, the Emperor of Chefs. His “Repetoire de la Cuisine” is still the chef’s bible, and his fame lives on in many dishes he created, like Peach Melba. However, he would probably be spinning in his grave if he saw what passes for Peach Melba in the café’s of today.

Stocks and Sauces:

"Bouillon is the soul and quintessence of sauces."
F. Marin, 1739

A stock is a flavored liquid base for making sauce, stew, or braised dishes, as well as soups. There are four main stocks, Brown, White, Vegetable and Fish. Brown stocks are colored by roasting the bones and vegetables prior to adding to the water. Obviously, white stocks eliminate this process. The main ingredients are beef, veal, poultry, game and for the fish stock, white non oily fish or crustaceans. Root vegetables such as carrot, onion, celery, together with herbs like parsley and bay are added in the process. Nothing is wasted in a kitchen, so vegetable trimmings are often added, especially mushroom stalks. Some  exceptions include, but are not limited to starchy or strong flavors such as potato, turnip or rutabaga.
Brown stocks can take a lot of time to prepare, so there are many instant ones on the market. Poultry and Fish stocks take much less time, but are still time consuming for our modern lifestyles.
Commercially available stocks usually have lots of salt in them, which add flavor, but beware, especially if there is a medical reason for doing so. This is true for many ready made products.
"Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting."
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400?)

The function of a sauce is to add a flavor to the dish which is compatible with its ingredients. A French wag once quipped,
“In England, there are three hundred and sixty different religions and only one sauce. In France there are three hundred and sixty different sauces and only one religion.”

Medieval sauces were either hot, or sweet and sour, and very spicy. The modern French sauces which we are referring to and making here, were developed in and around the 18th century. Sauces were defined into Hot and Cold, and the hot sauces further defined as Brown (Espagnole etc) or White (Béchamel, Velouté etc). Cold sauces are usually based on Mayonnaise and Vinaigrette. Like all sauces, there are many derivatives from these basics. As French Chefs worked abroad, they brought back many influences from around the world, not least from their colonies in Asia and the Caribbean.
In a professional Kitchen, the Sauce Chef is a god, and many act like gods too. Woe betide the unwary diner who seasons his food before tasting it.

"A well made sauce will make even an elephant or a grandfather palatable."
Grimod de la Reynière


Stockpots are usually large pans, sometimes with a valve at the bottom to drain off stock. Egg whites and shells are added to a stock to clarify it. The mixture binds with particles in the stock and this crust floats to the top, hence the draining valve at the bottom. Without this feature, the unwanted ingredients have to be skimmed off the top. Alternatively, you can leave it to go cold, and all the fat etc. hardens on the top, and this can be easily removed.

“The wine had such ill effects on Noah's health that it was all he could do to live 950 years. Just nineteen years short of Methuselah. Show me a total abstainer that ever lived that long.”
Will Rogers (1879-1935)

Sauce pans need to be thick bottomed, so as to prevent the sauce from sticking and burning. All sauces need some simmering to get them to the right consistency, and thin bottomed pans require constant attention, which is just not practical. Good pans, like good knives, are worth the investment.

"Nouvelle Cuisine, roughly translated, means: I can't believe I paid ninety-six dollars and I'm still hungry."
Mike Kalin

A sieve, called a Chinois, because it is shaped like a Chinaman’s hat, is also necessary, as many sauces require straining. These usually come with a stand, so that you can use both hands to control the pouring and flow. A spoon is often used to help the passage of the sauce, by pressing it up and down in the sieve.

"Never eat more than you can lift."
Miss Piggy 

Wooden spoons are aesthetically pleasing, but harder to keep clean. There are many alternatives which are just as good.
Knives need to be sharp. You have more likelihood of serious injury with a blunt knife than with a sharp one. The pressure needed to cut is greater, and if you slip, the resulting accident will not be pretty. A Steel will only make a sharp knife sharper. They can not sharpen a blunt knife, so every time you pick the knife up, use the Steel to keep its edge.
There are many different styles/shapes of knives, and they all have their specific uses. The knife blocks by companies like Wüsthof offer great value, especially in the Xmas sales.
Cutting boards vary, but solid wood and polyethylene are the most common. My own preference is for a large solid wood cutting board, which does not move and provides plenty of space to do your work. All cutting boards dull the knife blade, so don’t forget to touch up with a Steel every time you use it. It will be an automatic reflex soon.

"A clever cook, can make....good meat of a whetstone."


·        Au Jus: Served with natural juices.
·        Au gratin: - a term applied to dishes prepared with or without sauce, topped with breadcrumbs or grated cheese or both, dotted with butter and browned in the oven or under the broiler
·        Arrowroot: A starchy powder of a tropical tuber, Arrowroot is used as a thickening agent. Unlike cornstarch, it doesn’t impart a chalky taste when undercooked. Just like cornstarch, arrowroot should be mixed with cold water before being added to hot liquid. It is commonly used to make fruit glazes for pastries, as it is also clear.
·        Beurre blanc: Reduction of white wine and shallots thickened with whole butter. This is traditionally served with either Pike or Chad, and originates from Nantes.

·        Beurre Manié: Equal quantities of butter and flour made into a paste which is used to thicken sauces on the boil.
·        Beurre Noir: Butter cooked to a dark brown, then adding capers and a dash of vinegar.
·        Beurre Noisette:  Butter that tastes like hazelnuts, achieved by melting butter until it turns a golden brown.
·        Bearnaise:  Sauce derived from Hollandaise, with a tarragon reduction added.
·        Bechamel: A rich white sauce made from cream and a blonde roux, with an onion pique (onion studded with cloves and bay leaves.)

"That fellow Béchameil has all the luck! I was serving breast of chicken á la crème more than 20 years before he was born, but I have never had the chance of giving my name to even the most modest sauce."
Duke of Escars, 17th century

·        Bisque: A seasoned shellfish purée flavored with white wine, fresh cream and Cognac. Crayfish was the principal ingredient, but lobster and crab have become very popular.
·        Bouquet garni: - a bunch of herbs consisting of parsley, thyme, marjoram and a bay leaf. Place herbs in hollow of a 2” piece of celery and place bay leaf on top. Tie together with a piece of string and place in a simmering sauce or stew. Put dried herbs in cheesecloth.
·        Brunoise: Cut Julienne into 1/8” squares. Used for garnish or flavour in fine sauces.
·        Coulis: A liquid purée of either vegetables or fruit. They can be used to flavor sauces, or used as sauces in their own right. One of the oldest recorded types of sauce, and one of the easiest to make.
·        Crème fraiche: This slightly tangy cream has a velvety rich texture similar to that of sour cream Crème fraiche is ideal for finishing sauces and soups and it does not curdle when heated.

"Custard:  A detestable substance produced by a malevolent conspiracy of the hen, the cow, and the cook."
Ambrose Bierce, American writer (1842-1914)

·        Crème pâtissière: Confectioner’s custard used for fillings or as a base on which to layer fruit in the classic Tarte au Pomme/Poire.
·        . Deglaze: To add liquid such as wine, stock, or water to the bottom of a pan to dissolve the caramelized drippings so that they may be added to a sauce, for added flavor. Often flambéed prior to adding more stock.
 ·        Demi Glace: A rich brown sauce that has been made by reducing equal quantities of Espagnole, and Estouffade, by half. It usually has the addition of Madeira.
·        Emulsion: A mixture of one liquid with another. Oil and vinegar, or butter and eggs are the classic examples. Emulsifying is done by slowly adding one liquid to another while mixing rapidly
·        Estouffade: Another term for clear brown stock. It is also used to describe a dish that has been braised. Usually beef.
·        Espagnole: A mother sauce. Basic brown sauce made with brown stock, tomato puree and a brown roux.

"I like a cook who smiles out loud when he tastes his own work. Let God worry about your modesty; I want to see your enthusiasm."
Robert Farrar Capon

·        Fond Blanc: White stock made with veal or poultry bones, root vegetables and selected herbs.
·        Fond Brun: Brown stock made with beef, veal or poultry bones, root vegetables and selected herbs. The bones and vegetables are roasted, which gives the stock its brown color.
·        Fond De Poisson: Fish stock made with non oily white fish bones, root vegetables and selected herbs. The easiest and quickest to make (approx. 20 minutes cooking time.)
 ·        Fond De Legumes: Vegetable stock utilizing the same root vegetables, with the addition of others depending on the end use.
·        Jardinière: A cut of vegetables which is 1/4 x 1/4x 1 1/2 inches long.
·        Julienne: A cut of meat, poultry, or vegetables which is 1/8 x 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches long.
·        Jus: Usually refers to the natural juice from meat. See Au Jus.

"I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."
James Beard (1903-1985)

·        Jus Lié: Refers to the natural juice from meat which has been thickened by any thickening agent.
·        Liaison: A binding agent made up of egg yolks and cream, used for thickening soups and sauces.
·        Maître d'hôtel: butter mixed with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, and served with meat or fish
·        Macedoine: 1/4” cubes of fruit or vegetables cut from Jardinière.
 ·        Mis En Place: French term for getting prepared before service. Literally translated as “put in place”. This will mean the difference between organized or chaotic service.
·        Mirepoix: Rough cut root vegetables for making sauces and stocks. Occasionally used for garnish in stews and ragouts.
·        Sabayon: A sauce resembling custard, mainly used for puddings or vanilla ice cream. Sabayon is made of Marsala wine, sugar, and egg yolks.
·        Reduction: To boil a liquid-usually referring to wine or stock-thereby thickening the consistency of the liquid resulting in a thick product with intense flavor.
·        Velouté: A sauce made with veal stock, cream, and tightened with a white roux.

(Table manners in 1530, before the widespread use of forks).
"Be careful not to be the first to put your hands in the dish. What you cannot hold in your hands you must put on your plate. Also it is a great breach of etiquette when your fingers are dirty and greasy, to bring them to your mouth in order to lick them, or to clean them on your jacket. It would be more decent to use the tablecloth."
Erasmus in his Treatise on Manners published in 1530

1 comment:

  1. Now I know where to come to get alllll the information I could ever need :-)

    Ali x


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