Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Sauce for the goose

Hollandaise sauce served over asparagus.  

Talleyrand — Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — claimed that England had three sauces and 360 religions, while France had three religions and 360 sauces.

Maurice Edmond Sailland, the Prince of Gastronomy, better known by his pen name Curnonsky, wrote, in an editorial in Cuisines et Vins de France, “Sauces comprise the honour and glory of French cookery. They have contributed to its superiority, or pre-eminence, which is disputed by none. Sauces are the orchestration and accompaniment to a fine meal, and enable a good chef or cook to demonstrate his talent.”

What is a sauce? Clearly not a bottle of Kissan — or even Heinz — tomato ketchup. According to Guru Larousse, it is a “hot or cold seasoned liquid either served with, or used in the cooking of, a dish.” The word comes from salsus, salt in Latin, since salt is the basic condiment; and the function of any sauce is to add flavour to a dish, a flavour that is compatible with the ingredients. Medieval sauces consisted mainly of spicy stocks based on wine, verjuice, and cooking juices, sometimes thickened with breadcrumbs, and relied on condiments like garum and spikenard, whatever they may be, and were either very hot or sweet and sour.

I think they would have appealed to my palate, but what do I do about the garum etc.? So making the more familiar sauces, like mayonnaise and béchamel, is more realistic. In any case, projecting into the next few decades, I don’t see calves’ heads appearing on my table, so I don’t have to learn how to make the recommended accompaniment, gribiche. I read about it: a cold sauce based on mayonnaise in which the raw egg is replaced by hard-boiled egg yolk. Capers, fines herbes, and the chopped white of a hard-boiled egg are added. Not difficult, just an unlikely pairing.

And the same goes for sauce allemande, banquière, financière, normande, périgourdine, Soubise, supreme, toulosaine, aurore, ravigote, chasseur, Chivry, bretonne, Choronne, matelote, meurette, Veron, Albufera and Saint Menehould. We’re really not likely to cross paths, but the names are worth pausing on because they sound like dancers’ at the Folies Bergère. Bâtarde, Bontemps, Régence, bordelaise, bohèmienne and Pompadour could get star billing.

Of the traditional hot sauces, white and brown, brown is the basis on which many others — espagnole, demiglace and tomato — are derived. The basic white sauces are béchamel and vélouté, and they, in turn, have several derivatives. Cold sauces are mostly based on mayonnaise or vinaigrette, and they too, like the stock on a family tree, have many scions. The classic repertoire of a French kitchen was gradually increased by the influence of chefs who had travelled abroad, and French country produce itself helped create several sauces whose recipes are based on particular ingredients: garlic in aïoli, fresh cream in Normande sauce, mustard in dijonnaise, onions in lyonnaise, wine in bourgignonne. After Escoffier, French cooks started to make lighter sauces using ingredients like curd cheese and yoghurt.

A sauce can be thick or thin; strained or with visible, perceptible ingredients; used to season raw food like tomatoes; it may form part of a cooked dish like gratin à la béchamel; or it may be served with a cold dish like fish with mayonnaise or a hot one like sole normande. Some sauces are part of the dish, as in coq au vin, and with some, also served separately in a sauceboat.

Haute French cuisine is beyond my league. The bar is too high for someone whose talent extends to putting a meal on the table, with some variety and a nod to health. Good sauces demand appropriate equipment and skilled handling.

For cooked sauces, deep, heavy-bottomed saucepans, a bain-marie, a metal whisk and spatula. According to Fernand Point, “in the orchestra of a great kitchen, the sauce chef is a soloist”.

But there are basic sauces that we take for granted. Mayonnaise, which I wrote about in my first column on this page, is easily transformed into sauce tartare or aïoli, and these I can handle.

Similarly béchamel, which I was happy to discover, is none other than white sauce, the staple of my mother’s generation. The most delicious sauce that I’m trying to master is hollandaise.

Years ago Kavita, who has gone on record with the announcement that cooking is not part of her job description, cooked us a special meal. Apart from her table, which was decorated with green pears in a Finnish glass bowl, I remember that she had steamed tender green asparagus and slathered it with Hollandaise sauce. She now claims that this never happened, so, to paraphrase Larousse:

Hollandaise Sauce

(Melted Sunshine)

Pour 1/4 cup water into a pan with a pinch each of salt and ground pepper. Place the base of the pan in a tepid bain-marie (double boiler). Melt 500g butter in another pan. Don’t let it get too hot. Beat five egg yolks with one tablespoon water and pour into the pan containing the warmed water. With the pan still in the bain-marie, whisk the sauce until the yolks thicken to the consistency of thick cream. Add the melted butter slowly, whisking continuously, and then add two tablespoons water, drop by drop. Adjust seasoning and add one tablespoon lemon juice. Strain through a sieve.

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