Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Month: November 2017

The Sad Tale of English Sauces and Condiments


It is a matter of the deepest sadness to the Englishman in me that vulgar mint and horseradish sauce, not forgetting copious quantities of runny gravy, are more or less the only traditional English options open to a cook wishing to complement the flavour of meat and vegetables, and render them succulently moist. And surely the grounds for my Bulldog’s denigration of le French Dunk are considerably weakened by the more than dubious nature of these native English sauces which, let’s be honest, present little inducement to being mopped up.  After all, does the thought of bringing bread into absorbable contact with such a cold, unappealing mixture as vinegar, chopped mint and sugar present a prospect any normal eater could find appetizing? And can dunking such a dubiously-coloured liquid as gravy (so watery that most of it would probably run down your chin) be seriously envisaged?

     Nevertheless, the more resolutely anglophile of our French readers, still interested in preparing these typically English sauces, will be pleased to learn that their questionable nature may be somewhat compensated for by their simplicity of preparation. As indicated above, one of those typically English sauces, mint sauce, an essential accompaniment to roast lamb, is made from just a few spoonfuls of chopped, fresh mint, a dash of vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sugar. Horseradish sauce, traditionally eaten with roast beef, boasts a tangy, mustard-like flavour, and is composed of nothing more complex than vinegar, sour cream, and the grated roots of the plant whose name it bears. And another of those very English sauces, gravy, in its basic form, is simply the juices which run naturally from meat during cooking. These may be further coloured, flavoured and thickened by adding gravy salt (a simple mix of salt and caramel) or gravy browning (gravy salt dissolved in water), and more consistency can be obtained by using an agent such as corn flour. Strangely, the dispensing recipient goes under the name of ‘gravy boat.’ Is it the nautical appellation, along with the hull-like shape which prompts this nation of sea-farers to douse their food with such floodwater quantities of liquid that dinner plates are not without resembling Brighton beach at high tide? But what is even more regrettable is the fact that, though successful preparation of any of these sauces would not tax the culinary skills of an averagely-intelligent eight year-old, few English household cooks are now willing to consent the effort: for concentrated cubes and powders, to which hot water is simply added, are now commonly used to make gravy; and ready-prepared bottled mint and horse-radish sauce, where the only inconvenience is the exertion involved in unscrewing the cap, are usually preferred to home-made versions made from fresh ingredients.

     Whether it is the effect or the cause, an industry has now developed which has made ready-prepared, artificially-coloured and preserved, standardized bottled-sauce concoctions an inseparable part of Anglo-Saxon eating culture. Indisputable proof of this is provided by the shelves of English supermarkets which display an awesome variety of pre-made condiments: sauces, pickles, creams and dressings of every description, the vast proportion of which are totally unknown in France. Many of these condiments, or their ingredients at least, saw light of day in the distant colonies of an Empire bathed in a never-setting sun, and began life in Blighty as an attempt to sweeten the pill at a time when English cooking was an unimaginative, insipid ‘boiled beef and carrots’ affair, and swallowing it was simply something to be got through in order to survive. But, like Dutch elm disease, the bottled-condiment blight, has now gained such an invasive hold that nothing can prevent it from spreading rampantly on; and far too often – unlike home-made, naturally-constituted, often regionally-inspired French sauces, considered to be an intrinsic, complement to a specific dish (and as such containing the same ingredients) – these industrially-produced seasonings represent a standardized, interchangeable accompaniment to almost any dish.

 Hélas, the Gallic in me has to admit that even traditional French sauces are now being threatened by the ubiquitous spread of this type of convenience food: for determined efforts are now having to be made to persuade the French housewife not to succumb to the spurious charms of Anglo-Saxon style, ready-prepared cubed, powdered and bottled pretenders. Needless to say, my Frenchman has every confidence that his compatriotes will resist this mass culinary invasion with the same heroic fortitude as that shown by Joan of Arc and her followers in raising the siege of Orléans, and booting those damned English invaders out of France for good and for all.

    

More French Eating and Drinking Places

Le Bistrot (sometimes spelled ‘bistro’). Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistro is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting and available at most times of the day.

Le Bar. In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually means a small café with a terrace of some description. And you can usually get some kind of snack there, nowadays frequently in the form of standardized fast food. In this case it can be called a snack-bar or simply un snack. In large towns especially they frequently serve take-away food. A bar can even have a small restaurant attached to it, in which case it goes under the name of ‘bar-restaurant’.

La Brasserie. Larger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though they serve all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, choucroute, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries, especially in Paris, can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking is not normally required.

L’Estaminet. An estaminet is a small, rustic, working-class eating and drinking place, halfway between a bar and a restaurant, serving mainly locally brewed beer and where you can eat simple but copious regional specialities. They’re to be found in Belgium and Northern France and were originally places where men of the same working corps – miners, textile workers, metal workers, sailors (and even smugglers) would go to have a drink, a smoke, play billiards and skittles as well as hold meetings to discuss matters of professional concern. It’s said that trade unionism and the right to strike were born in the estaminet.

Le Bouchon Lyonnais. A small, cosily informal restaurant specific to Lyon and the surrounding region (though you can find the odd one in other large towns), serving regional specialities. On the menu you’ll usually find quenelles de brochet (a kind of pike dumpling served with a sauce) and, above all, pork and tripe specialities such as boudin (black pudding), different types of saucisson (a pork-based salami) pigs’ trotters and les andouillettes (a tripe sausage). Traditionally the food is washed down with the local Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône wines which can be purchased by the glass.

Le Salon de Thé. Often known under the English name ‘Tea Room’ the salon de thé is an ideal place for the shopper to rest her weary legs (they’re mainly frequented by women) over a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate or, if she prefers, a cold soft drink (a tea room is not licensed to sell alcohol). It’s also a golden opportunity to sample some of the cakes and sweets from the huge range of delightful French confectionary. The salon de thé can be an establishment in its own right, especially in large towns, but can also consist of just a few tables and chairs in the corner of the larger confectioner’s shops.

 

 

 

French Eating and Drinking Establishments: le Café

Apart from the restaurant which performs a similar function throughout the world (though the French gastronomic version enjoys a unique and deserved international reputation for excellence), France has a plethora of eating and drinking establishments whose various names could create confusion in the mind of the foreign tourist or recently arrived expat as to the purpose they serve and the differences between them – even though distinctions of this kind are becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases the names now used mean more or less the same thing. Let’s start with  le café.

The café is, of course, the best-known of French drinking (and eating) establishments. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village café, usually owned and run by a local who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. But they all provide a place where shoppers, strollers and tourists can have a bite to eat and slake their thirst, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. What’s more, a small-town or village café is an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. And it’s rare to come across a French café which doesn’t have some kind of terrace where you can relax and simply watch the world go by. The larger ones are capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside.
Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night and serve a wide range of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and hot drinks. And you can always get something to eat at any time of the day. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns and villages this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some even serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached.

Sometimes the café is a bar tabac presse : the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagent’s shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy, apart from newspapers and magazines, sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds – and sometimes even bread. Many are licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are usually licensed by the PMU (le Pari Mutuel Urbain), a state-controlled betting organization mainly centred on horse-racing.

Real Camembert?

In a land internationally reputed for both the quality and uniqueness of its traditional food and wine, it’s hardly surprising that the French state should have gone to considerable pains to guarantee that the words printed on the bottle, box or package accurately describe the products contained within by instigating a system of norms, labels and ‘appellations’ which require a producer to respect a certain number of rules and criteria in order to have the right to use a given name. And when it comes to traditional food what could be considered more typically French than such a distinctly flavoured, world-renowned cheese as Camembert?
Now, as all gourmets certainly know, Camembert is a soft cheese with a slightly salted, flowered crust, made using raw, unpasteurized milk drawn exclusively from the udder of a Normandy breed of cow grazing in Normandy pastures, and which has been moulded by the traditional ‘à la loupe’ (using a ladle) method, with a minimum fat content of 45%, and a maturing process lasting at least 21 days in one of the five Normandy départements. These same gourmets might also be aware that the cheese owes its name to the small village of Camembert near Vimoutiers in the region of Argentan in Normandy where it was first produced around the time of the1789 Revolution, and that the beginning of its national and international reputation can be traced back to 1863 when the Päris-Granville railway line was inaugurated, and the Emperor Napoléon III tried it (and found it very much to his taste) during a halt at a station along this line.
As a result we might be excused for thinking that the box labelled ‘Camembert de Normandie’ lying on our local supermarket’s cheese shelf contains a real Camembert – that’s to say one which has been made and matured in strict accordance with the description provided above. Well, we’re sorry to have to inform you that you’d be horribly wrong! For the label ‘Camembert from Normandy’ simply means what it says: that it’s been produced in the geographical region of Normandy with a minimum fat content of 45% – and nothing more! Not only can the milk be either raw or pasteurized, but it can be drawn from the udder of a non-Norman cow which has been grazing in non-Norman pastures in the Jura, in Lorraine, in the Haute-Saône, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the production and ripening process, well, there are simply no requirements at all! Mind you, it’s still reassuring to know that today’s biggest French producer of Camembert cheese is located in the Normandy département of the Orne. What’s less reassuring, however, are the methods of production which have got nothing to do with the original process.
The milk (which, we repeat, can come from anywhere) is first heated to 72° for 20 seconds in order to kill all the pathogenic micro-organisms, and especially the active bacterial flora. This results in what is called a ‘lait mort’ – a dead milk, to which a modicum of life (and taste) is restored by the addition of laboratory-cultivated ‘aromatic’ ferments (yeast, bacteria fungi). The milk is then curdled by injecting an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves, after which everything is immersed in a solution of brine, and finally sprayed with mould! Even though a Camembert produced in this way offers all necessary hygiene guarantees (at least, let’s hope this is the case), can it be guaranteed that the average consumer is fully aware that when he buys a box labelled ‘Camembert fabriqué en Normandie’ he’s buying a cheese which has been made in such a radically different way to that which he’s being led to believe, and that if he wants to have the guarantee he’s buying the real McCoy, the label on the cheese box should read ‘Camembert AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé) de Normandie?’ We’re not so sure. And it’s perhaps significant that the production of real Camembert represents just 4.2% of the total quantity of French-produced Camembert.


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