Category Archives: French Cookery

Seftons

earl of sefton

The first Earl of Sefton

In my previous post, I gave you a recipe for a basic veal stock, so I thought I would give you another recipe that shows of these kinds of home-made stocks to their best.

The recipe comes from the distinguished French Cook Louis Eustache Ude, chef to the Earl of Sefton. He came from good cooking stock himself, his father was chef to King Louis XVI.

Ude was quite a character, there’s a great story of him being hauled in front of a magistrate after he had been found selling roast grouse on his menu before the 12th of August (the date from which the gamed season begins. See here for a post all about that). He was given a fine and sent on his way.

The next day, the Scottish Laird who had reported Ude to the police returned to Ude’s restaurant to make sure he was abiding by the rules. Pleased to see there wasn’t a morsel of the offending bird on the menu, he ordered Salami de fruit défendu, i.e. Salmi of Forbidden Fruit, which turned out – of course – to be grouse!

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Louis Eustache Ude

There was none of this nonsense when he worked for ,and was handsomely paid by, the Earl of Sefton, except when he left his service because Ude spotted the Earl’s son adding salt to some soup he made. Offended by this, he turned on his heel and left.

This recipe is in essence a savoury custard, and may sound odd, but it is in fact subtle, delicious and light. It could only work with a home-made stock though. I imagine it would be excellent nourishing food for someone that is ill. The little custards can be served in their ramekins or turned out onto a plate.

The recipe below comes from Jane Grigson’s English Food, where she suggests serving it with thin dry toast. A very good idea, I can confirm.

It makes between six and ten portions depending on the size of your ramekins.

 

600ml of good, clear, home-made stock

6 beaten eggs

grated zest of a lemon

¼ teaspoon of ground mace

salt and Cayenne pepper

4 tablespoons of clarified butter

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Bring the stock to a boil and whisk into the eggs as you would with a regular custard. Add the lemon zest and mace and season with the salt and Cayenne pepper and whisk in the butter.

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Place your ramekins in a deep roasting tin and pour the custard into them and cover them with foil. Pour boiling water into the tin, technically turning it into a ban Marie. Carefully slide the tin into an oven already preheated to 180⁰C and bake for 12 to 20 minutes, or until the custards are just set and still have a good wobble on them. Serve straight away.

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, French Cookery, General, history, Recipes

Forgotten Foods #2: Verjuice

Having a crabbed face of her own, she’ll eat less Verjuyce with her mutton

T Middleton, Women beware Women, 1657

Verjuice was a very popular cooking ingredient from the Middle Ages onwards. Many old recipes ask for it and they seem to hit a peak during Tudor times. It is essentially the juice of either sour grapes or crab apples; Britain might not be the best place to grow delicious sweet grapes, but we can certainly excel in growing sour fruit! It took the place of fresh lemon juice in recipes for salad dressings, desserts like syllabubs; it was added to stews, soups and sauces as a seasoning, as well as an ingredient in marinades. It was also believed to have medicinal properties; for example, it was mixed with olive oil and blown up horses’ noses to treat colds! It was basically a necessary piece of kit in any kitchen, seeming to drop out of favour by the end of eighteenth century when lemons became more accessible.


Crushing the grapes for verjuice

The word verjuice comes from the Old French verjus, with ver-  meaning green or unripe and –jus being juice. The earliest written mention of it in British literature comes from around 1302, so we are talking old. It must have been such a useful ingredient in a place where fresh lemons will have either have been impossible to get hold of or terribly expensive.

I expected never to taste verjuice, but then as I was wandering around the excellent Global Foods Market in St Louis minding my own business, I happened upon a jar of it in the Middle East aisle of the shop. Naturally I bought some and thought I’d try some original recipes where verjuice was a main ingredient rather than just a seasoning.

17th century verjuice vinaigrette

In the 1897 volume of Good Housekeeping the subject of using verjuice in salad dressings inexplicably crops up. It takes quotes from the 17th century cook book The English Huswife by Gervase Markham. Anyway, it says that if you want to make a simple sallet then make a dressing of verjuice, sallet [olive] oil and sugar. Use it with sparagus, camphire, cucumbers, leeks, blanched carrots, purslane, with a world of others too tedious to nominate. He must have been in a bit of a mood the day he wrote that part.

It was a pretty brief recipe. Although verjuice is very tart, its underlying flavours are rather subtle so it needed quite a high ratio of verjuice to oil (much more than vinegar or lemon juice dressings).

I mixed together 4 tablespoons each of verjuice and extra virgin olive oil. To offset the sourness, I added a teaspoon of soft dark brown sugar, stirring until it dissolved. Lastly I seasoned it with a little salt and pepper. Easy and surprisingly subtle. Any leftover dressing can be stored and blown up your horse’s nose should it ever get a sniffle.

Sweet verjuice ‘scrambled eggs’ with brioche toast

I recently wrote a post about fruit curds, and I seem to have found a possible source of the preserve when looking for verjuice recipes. There is a recipe in Le Patissier François (published around 1690) that has helpfully been translated into English by Harold McGee where verjuice and salt are added to eggs in order to make them coagulate at a lower temperature, tenderising them:

Break four eggs, beat them, adjust with salt and four spoonsful of verjus, put the mix on the fire, and stir gently with a silver spoon just until the eggs thicken enough, and then take them off the fire and stir them a bit more as they thicken. One can make scrambles eggs in the same way with lemon or orange juice.

It is of Mr McGee’s opinion that a sweetened version of this recipe could be the origin of the fruit curd. Notice that fresh lemons or oranges can be used, suggesting that they are less common than verjuice.

Below is my interpretation of that recipe. I add plenty of acidic verjuice and a large pinch of salt, meaning that the ‘scrambled eggs’ actually end up thickening more like a custard. I have to say it was delicious, so if you ever do come across some verjuice have a go at this recipe:

Ingredients (for 2 people)
A good knob of butter
2 eggs
6 tbs verjuice
good pinch of salt
2 level tbs sugar
2 slices of brioche

Melt the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat. Whisk together the eggs, verjuice, salt and sugar until there is no trace of white left. Pour the egg mixture in the saucepan and carry on whisking over a medium heat. Meanwhile toast the slices of brioche. When the eggs have thickened and are just about to boil, pour them into two small pots and serve with the brioche.

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Potted Chicken Livers

Now I know you’re thinking that I am dressing up something French as British by saying ‘potted chicken livers’ instead of pâté but the British have been potting meats like beef, game and salmon, and also liver, for a long time now. Potting helps preserve meat if covered with an airtight layer of clarified butter and kept in a cool place. I am going to write a post very soon on potting meats as well as some other methods of meat preservation soon; the point of this post was for me to write a little diatribe about how the word pâté has the same roots as pot so I could feel a little smug and say that I was right. You know like those people who say raspberry coulis, when they just mean sauce. It turns out that I was a little wrong: my French is worse than pidgin and I just assumed the two words had the same root. I am blaming Elizabeth David for this gaff: she talks of potted chicken livers as though that’s what everyone calls them down her way.

Pot or pâté? Ms David knew which side of her toast was buttered

So as it turns out that the word pâté has the same roots as the words pastry and pasta, coming from Greek words meaning ‘small particles and fine textures’ according Harold McGee in his tome On Food and Cooking. So potted livers have a fine texture as they are a mixture of butter and liver, and pastry is made up of particles of flour and butter. Actually, pâté started life more as a chopped assemblage of meats, rather than the refined smoothness we think of today. Oddly enough pâté and pie eventually became interchangeable words in medieval times because chopped meat was often cooked in pastry on both sides of the English Channel. As I have said before, the food histories of Britain and France blend so much there is sometimes no point in trying to discern between the two.

Anyway, I have chuntered on enough now so I shall give you two recipes for potted chicken livers. First, a couple of mentions on preparation and storage: in this recipe the livers are fried in butter until pink, about 4 or 5 minutes on a high heat. It is very important that they should be cooked through and only slightly pink, not just seared and bloody and rare. I don’t want you coming down with Campylobacter or some other nasty food poisoning microbe. The other thing is to cover your potted livers with a good layer of clarified butter along with a lid or a covering of cling film, especially if being kept in a cold larder. The butter isn’t necessary if you are keeping them in the fridge, but they should be covered with something; butter is best though as it stops the livers from oxidising and turning from rich brown to muddy gray (oxidising is harmless, they’re still good to eat).

To make clarified butter, slowly melt some butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Skim off any froth or foam with a spoon and then decant the butter into a jug making sure none of the butter solids get poured out with it.

Potted chicken livers with brandy and peppercorns

This is the classic recipe for potted chicken livers, though I find that there is never enough brandy. I use quite a lot compared to many recipes because I like to be able to taste it; brandy is very rich and it can be a bit too much, especially with all that liver and butter too. To counteract this is I add a good dose of piquant pickled green peppercorns which are available at delicatessen’s shops or online. You can of course omit the peppercorns and reduce the amount of brandy if you’d rather.

Ingredients

8 oz chicken livers

6 oz butter

2 to 4 tbs brandy

3 tsp rinsed and drained pickled green peppercorns

salt and black pepper

clarified butter (optional)

Pick over the chicken livers, removing any large pieces of gristle, carefully removing any little green bile ducts that may be left on them. Get a frying pan nice and hot and add 2 ounces of the butter. When the butter stops foaming, add the livers and fry for a total of 4 or 5 minutes, turning them half-way through.

The idea is for the livers to be cooked, but still a little pink, so cut inside one to check after 4 minutes of frying. Tip the livers and butter into a blender or food processor and return the pan to the heat whilst you deglaze it with the brandy. Tip the brandy and burnt bits into the blender along with the rest of the butter and blitz until the required smoothness (I like mine very smooth). Mix in the peppercorns and the seasoning before potting in one large earthenware pot of several smaller ones. Pour over the clarified butter to form an airtight seal.

Potted chicken livers with gin, rosemary and thyme

My attempt at a recipe rather more Scottish in its flavours, which I think works very well. These livers are much more savoury and less rich than in the recipe above: a good shot of gin provides a subtle aromatic bitter hit of juniper, and the fresh herbs mellow it nicely.

The method is exactly the same as the above except 2 teaspoons each of finely chopped rosemary and thyme are fried along with the livers. Of course exchange the brandy for the gin and omit the pickled peppercorns.

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The Duck Press

The duck press was invented in France during the 1800s by a chef called Mechenet to make what is one of the most extravagant and macabre dishes ever created: Caneton de Rouen à la Presse, also known as Duck in Blood Sauce. It was popularised by Chef Frèdèric who was head chef at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent where it became the signature dish. It is reckoned over a million were served there. What is particularly impressive is that the dish was made at the table in front of the guests.

At La Tour d’Argent you are given a card

telling you the ‘number of your duck’

The dish became very popular in Britain during that famously excessive (and thankfully brief) period of history, the Edwardian Era. London’s high society went to huge efforts to appear sophisticated; French cuisine has always been associated with sophistication and the dish Caneton de Rouen à la Presse was one of the best. The Savoy in the 1900s, which then had the formidable chef Escoffier at the helm, regularly served it.

Escoffier

To make the dish you first of all need a duck press which a large metal press usually made of bronze. It contains a spout low down on the press itself so that the blood and bone marrow can be collected easily and it stands on two our four heavy feet so that the whole thing remains stable; you don’t want to cover some count in blood goo unless you can really help it. Some of them have webbed duck feet. If you want to buy a duck press though it will set you back around £1000.

Once you have procured your press you need to prepare your duck. The best for this recipe would be a Rouen duckling, but a mallard would be a good substitute. First of all kill your duck by strangulation so that the blood remains inside the tissues than pluck it. Next day remove the innards, keeping aside the heart and liver, and roast it on the very highest setting on the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Liquidise the bird’s liver and heart. This is the point where the press and the duck are wheeled to the dining table for the guests to watch.

Remove the legs and set them aside for later, then remove the breast meat cutting it thinly and keeping it warm and covered on a serving dish with a cloche. Push and shove the carcass in the press to extract the blood and bone marrow from the bird, collecting it in a jug placed beneath the spout.

Make a sauce by gently warming the blood with the liquidised liver, some duck or veal stock and some brandy or cognac. Lastly, whisk in a good knob of butter to thicken the sauce and make it glossy. Pour the sauce over the sliced duck breast. Serve with a green salad.

The legs are usually taken away and grilled to be served up during the next course.

So there you have it; a simple and affordable family meal. I have to say, I am a lover of rare meats and I don’t find this sort of food scary at all and it is being served in some restaurants today. If I make my millions, I’ll buy a press and get you all round for dinner.

I found this YouTube video of one being used, but if you’re squeamish, you’re best not looking, I’d say.

For more duck history and recipes, click upon this very link.

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A good egg?

We all take eggs a little for granted these days, so to get us appreciating them a little more,  I thought I’d write a post on the humble egg…

Where to start with eggs? They are so integral to our life because of their versatility. Whole eggs can be boiled, fried, poached, coddled, scrambled and baked. Used as an ingredient in pastry, in sauces and soups, they enrich and they bind, then if you separate the white from the yolk, you can make amazing meringues, velouté sauces, mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, sauce Béarnaise and – my personal favourite – custard (please don’t call it crème anglaise!). Twenty-six million eggs are produced per day in the UK. It beggars belief, it does.

Well I think I shall start with the age-old philosophical question: ‘What came first? The chicken or the egg?’ Just as Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat does her amazing book A History of Food. She very interestingly points out that from a culinary point of view it is the egg that came first because chickens were introduced into Europe in the 5th century BC after the Greeks and Italians had been eating the eggs of other birds like geese, ducks and guinea fowl.

Okay, I shall reword our question: ‘What came first, the fowl or the egg?’ Well, from a culinary perspective, the answer is the fowl. Eating eggs was a bit of a no-no because if one ate an egg, you were – in effect – eating a whole chicken, which is a huge waste. Due to this fact, superstitions naturally arose and still exist today. For example, the people of present-day Burkina Faso believe that children that eat eggs become thieves, plus there is a French saying  on a similar vein: ‘He who steals an egg will steal a horse’.

Eggs as food only really took off when chicken farming became common. It unfortunately took off in such a way that the poor old chickens – on the whole – have a miserably terrible time in their battery cages. That said I think there is legislation going through that says that all chickens should get some time to stretch their legs.

In the 1970s and 80s, our eggs were in a right old state – there was intense over-crowding and the chickens were fed a meal made from the carcasses of dead birds. Quality of life, and egg, was very low, and because of the sheer number of chickens in one place, it didn’t take long for disease to spread. In this case it was the bacterium Salmonella enteriditis (SE) that killed many chickens and quite a few humans too. Coupling this disease with the fact that eggs from different ‘farms’ were being mixed up together, the source of the disease couldn’t be found readily.

All this was addressed by the British government in the 1990s – chickens are now vaccinated against SE and with the introduction of the Lion Quality code that allows each individual egg to be easily traced back to its place of origin, so if there is an outbreak it can be tackled swiftly. Only one percent of eggs get contaminated nowadays, and even then there number of bacterial cells averages out at around 10 per egg – you’d have to be pretty unlucky to become ill these days.

I personally, only go for free range; I feel far too guilty about the conditions they have to endure and I can’t bring myself to buy battery. The best eggs are those you can get from farmers’ markets, and are usually pretty cheap too.

The good thing about modern farming methods is that we get fresh eggs all year round. Normally chickens stop laying during wintertime and therefore eggs had to be preserved, usually by pickling, in Britain. I quite like a pickled egg now and again. I often think how we’d cope as a nation if we suddenly had to eat our food seasonally. I reckon it’d be character-building. Eggs were off limits during Lent because they are from animals. No wonder they are so prominent during Eastertime.

The best way to enjoy an egg is to make a simple meal from it, and what couldn’t be simpler than the boiled egg? Actually there seems to be 101 different methods to boil an egg perfectly and it is far from easy to get consistency. It requires a post to itself. However I cannot let this story wait…

Louis XV of France loved boiled eggs and had them every Sunday for breakfast. He was so deft at eating them that the Parisian people would come and watch their king’s skills at work. A crowd would gather, then a high-ranking servant would shout: ‘The King is about to eat his egg!’, and everyone would watch agog as King Louis sliced the top of the egg with one swift stroke of his fork. It’s amazing what passed as entertainment, though I have to admit it’s quite a skill.

Louis XV

There is only one egg dish that ranks highly when it comes to gastronomy though and that is the omelette. Don’t be deceived by the French name; it cannot be claimed by them. During the Middle Ages, the English would tuck into cheese omelettes pretty regularly, though in those days we used the word fraysse. Like much Franco-Angle foods, the exact origins are lost in time.

One final mention about hen’s eggs from a culinary perspective – they are a lot bigger than they used to be. Any recipe older than, say, around 1900, need a little modification and you might be best using two-thirds of the number stated.

Also, there are more than just hens’ eggs available if you know where to look for them…

Quail eggs – these are probably the most common after the chicken egg, though were a novelty in the 1970s. I don’t really use them and don’t see the point of putting tiny fried eggs on food just for the sake of being fancy, I’d rather have a nice real farm chicken egg. However, they do make great pickled eggs.

Duck eggs – these crop up more commonly these days, particularly in Chinese supermarkets. Apparently, ducks will lay their eggs anywhere, so to be safe a duck egg should be hard-boiled.

Goose eggs – I had never eaten a goose egg until recently when I spotted some for sale at Soulard Market in St Louis. They are massive. Naturally I snapped one up and ate is just like Jane Grigson said to: ‘fried in a little butter’. A ‘rare rich treat’ indeed. I can heartily recommend trying one.

Chicken eggs are dwarfed by goose eggs

Gull eggs – the only egg on the list I have not tried. In fact I have never seen them before anywhere. Ever.  I wonder if they are still available. If you know anything about getting hold of some, let me know.

Egg recipes so far:

Custard (general)

Proper ‘pouring’ custard

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Rillettes

A brief hop over the English Channel to France for this post…

I have a great love of potted meats – not the awful ones you get in those little glass jars on the supermarket shelves, but the proper job. Making them is easy and satisfying, but you can’t go too long flicking through the cook books and history books without eventually having to give a huge nod to French cuisine. Pâtés are of course well known and popular, but don’t forget the classic rillettes. They’ve been around for at least six hundred years, yet of recent times they have fallen out of favour in Britain, though they were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian Britain – the heyday for savouries such as these:

Rillettes: A French savoury meat preparation, used for hors-d’oeuvres and savouries

Charles Herman, Culinary Encyclopaedia 1898

See? I told you.

Rillettes are a classic, similar to a pâté in that you spread them on toast and eat them with some nice cornichons, but it is made in rather a different way; long slow cooking with plenty of fat is needed and, rather than being pulverised, they are stripped and potted along with their juices. They are subtly flavoured – the glory comes from the slowly cooked meat and the mild herbs. If I were to be a ponce, then I would say they are sublime. However I am not, so I shan’t.

Any kind of meat, or even fish, can be used to make rillettes but the classics are pork, duck, rabbit and goose. The best rillettes come from Tours and Reins.

 Rillettes de Porc (Potted Pork)

Here’s the recipe I have tried out a couple of times now for rillettes de porc. I can’t wait to get back to England and try some rabbit rillettes (wild rabbits are a rarity in America). There is little variation in any recipe you see, whether found online today or in an eighteenth century cookbook.

Technically you can use any cut of meat as long as it has plenty of fat. I have been using pork belly, but neck would be okay, and for the less squeamish amongst you, the head.

Ingredients

2 lbs pork belly (weight after removal of rind and bones)

2 tbs salt

1 lb back fat

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

3 or 4 sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly ground nutmeg

Around 10 fl oz water

Cut the pork belly into strips around 1 ½ inches wide, place them in a bowl and rub in the salt. Cover and leave for around 8 hours. Cut the back fat into cubes and place it, along with the pork belly, in an ovenproof casserole or similar. Tuck the herbs and garlic under the meat in the centre and sprinkle over a good seasoning of pepper and a little nutmeg then pour over the water. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or foil and bake in a very low oven, 140⁰C (290⁰F), for 4 hours.

Remove the foil and take out the bay leaves, garlic and thyme – they have imparted their flavours. Place a sieve over a good-sized bowl and toss the contents of the pan into the sieve so it can drain.

rillettes before

Next – and this the good bit – grab two forks and start stripping the meat and fat into shreds.

rillettes after

If it is easier, do this in a separate bowl. Pot lightly into jars, ramekins or earthenware pots and cover with the salty-fatty juices. Keep covered in a cool place, failing that the fridge.

Serve with thin toast and pickles.

It is very important that the rillettes are spreadable, so if they are kept in the fridge, make sure you let them get to room temperature before eating them.

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Lenten fodder

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.

“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble  and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!

Fair game: the beever

By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.

In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”

The late, great Brillat-Savarin

Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!

The Palace at Versailles

These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…

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