originally published January 13, 2014
In traditional French haute-cuisine (which is defined as French food that is neither fries nor onion soup nor yellow bottled mustard), sauces are the most crucial part of the dish. If you think of your entrée as Star Wars, the sauce would be John Williams’ indelible score. French food without sauce would be like Italian food without tomatoes, Chinese food without rice, or traditional American hot dogs without anus-meat and scads of unpronounceable chemicals. It just isn’t done.
Any great tradition in gastronomy deserves a semblance of order from which the chaos of creativity may embark. The first man to attempt to reconcile the numerous sauces in which French cuisine was swimming was Marie-Antoine Carême, who was very much a male despite ‘Marie’ being his first name. Carême was a celebrity chef in the early 1800’s who concocted hundreds of liquid pleasures in which he could smother his chicken, beef, or whatever. His kitchen-mate, Dennis Leblanc, summarized Carême’s work into four primary sauces.
The Mother Sauces.
Auguste Escoffier, who rolled into food-fame a full century later, altered the list and proclaimed there to be five Mother Sauces from which all other sauces would derive. Escoffier is the architect behind what we now call French cuisine. He invented a number of dishes, from fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt (strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet, and how the hell did I just type that without drooling?) to plain ol’ Melba toast. But his epic tome, Le Guide Culinaire, left his strongest fingerprint on the edible art of French cooking – those amazing sauces.
Béchamel sauce, named for the marquis de Béchamel, is a white sauce made from a roux of butter and flour cooked in milk. Béchamel was the chief steward to Louis XIV. I don’t know what that means, though I suspect it has nothing to do with bringing him wine or grabbing him an extra pillow from the overhead compartment. It was an honorary title, as the marquis was a successful businessman and patron of the arts. In French society, having a vineyard or a province named after you was alright, but a rich creamy sauce? That’s top-tier respect, baby.
With a bit of creativity, Béchamel sauce has been turned into Mornay sauce (with cheese), Soubise sauce (with butter-sweated onions – and if your onions sweat butter you’re doing something right), and cheddar cheese sauce (with cheddar cheese, Worcestershire and dry mustard – not quite that powdery stuff inside a Kraft Dinner packet). Béchamel sauce isn’t the most fattening sauce you can put on food, but if you rule out chocolate sauce, lard sauce and bacon-fat sauce, it’s up there.
Sauce Espagnole, which translates to ‘Spanish sauce’, has pretty much nothing to do with Spanish cuisine. Louis XIII’s bride had a fleet of Spanish chefs working for her, and when they added some Spanish tomatoes to a traditional brown sauce (pleasing the king and no doubt sparing them the guillotine), the sauce was named in their honor. This one takes a bit of work, beginning with a veal stock roux, browned bones and pieces of beef, then highlighted by a splash of pureed tomatoes or tomato paste toward the end. A reduction requires a heap of time, so I wouldn’t plan on throwing some Espagnole sauce together as a last-minute enhancement for the Pizza Bites you’ll be serving on Super Bowl Sunday, but if you put in the work, you’ll be happy you did.
Throw in some mushrooms and this mother sauce will give birth to sauce aux champignons. Add some red wine and shallots and you’ll have your family tripping over their tongue to pronounce ‘sauce Bourguignonne.’ Mix in the stock of the meat you’ll be serving with the sauce and create a demi-glace – also invented in Auguste Escoffier’s kitchen. One could argue that the brown gravy in which we Canadians drown our fries and cheese curds to make poutine is a distant relative to sauce Espagnole. But I wouldn’t argue that with a French chef. It could get ugly.
The direct translation of ‘sauce velouté’ is ‘velvety sauce’. When Marie-Antoine Carême’s four Mother Sauces were re-imagined by Escoffier as five, the ‘sauce Carême’ was simplified (or ‘muntzed’, if you will) into sauce velouté. Once again you begin with a roux – flour and butter – and blend it with a light stock, either chicken or fish. And once again, the possibilities with this sauce are numerous.
A few drops of lemon juice, some cream and egg yolks will give you Allemande sauce. Since ‘Allemande’ is French for ‘Germany’, this sauce was simply called ‘sauce blonde’ during World War I. It was the French equivalent of the ‘Freedom Fries’ debacle, I suppose. Also, you can make Suprême sauce by adding some cream and mushroom liquor (which apparently exists) to a chicken velouté.
Again, there is no ‘diet’ version of these. So why are there relatively few obese French people? Blame that on quality, non-chemically-treated ingredients. Or maybe it’s all that bicycling and accordion music.
This is easy. Sauce tomate is quite literally tomato sauce. You could easily say that marinara sauce, pizza sauce, or that flavorless red brine in which the pasta-globs swim inside cans of Chef Boyardee products are derivatives of sauce tomate. The French hardly have a claim to inventing the stuff; anywhere tomatoes were eaten, someone figured out that a quality sauce can be made from its inner goo.
The traditional French sauce tomate features a roux (of course), as well as bay leaves, thyme, garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, pureed or fresh tomatoes, onions, and salt belly of pork. This sounds right to me – bacon should have a presence in the Mother Sauces.
Perhaps the most exquisite of all Mother Sauces (though really, that’s a tough call), hollandaise sauce actually has its origins in Dutch cuisine from the 16th century – at least that’s where it was first published. This is one of the trickier sauces to create, despite its simple ingredients list of egg yolks, melted butter, lemon juice, salt and a dash of cayenne or white pepper. This is an emulsion, meaning its ingredients instinctively want to get the hell away from one another. The trick is to pour the liquid butter into the egg yolks slowly while constantly thwacking the mix with an egg beater. It’s an art, but one which is truly worth the effort.
Hollandaise sauce – found on better Eggs Benedict dishes everywhere, though watch out for places like Denny’s that use a powdered mix – can be tweaked into Béarnaise sauce with some vinegar, shallots and spices. Sauce Maltaise is hollandaise with a bit of blood orange mixed in. Sauce Chantilly is hollandaise with some whipped cream folded into its liquidy bliss. Add a splash of reduced sherry with the whipped cream and you’ve got Sauce Divine.
Divine indeed. French dishes – in particular the Mother Sauces – are meant to lure your tongue into a heavenly swoon. They won’t be served through a fast-food window and you’ll need one hell of an abacus to keep track of their Weight Watcher point-counts, but it’s worth the ride. Even if, like me, you’re lactose intolerant. Grab some pills or cancel your out-of-bathroom appointments for the rest of the day. You’ll be happy you did.