How sheep's feet changed course of food history!
Food For Thought
With Tim Tibbitts
This Sunday we continue our educational series at Flying Fish with a look at the history and evolution of sauce-making based on the five base (mother) sauces of classical French cuisine.
As a student, this was basically the first month of culinary school: learning the sauces, preparing them and then preparing derivatives of these same mother sauces. Sunday night we will be looking at these mother sauces and how they have progressed over time to sauces we use now.
Before I do that, perhaps we should look at the origins of classical cuisine. All culinary schools in the western hemisphere teach classical cuisine as the basis of all cooking. Obviously, there are many other styles of cooking from Asia including India, China and Japan who have very unique food culture and techniques that are very different from classical cuisine, however, since classical is what we do here, it's what we'll focus on.
Quantity cooking has existed for thousands of years, as long as there have been large groups of people to feed, such as armies. But modern food service is said to have begun shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century. At this time, food production in France was controlled by guilds; caterers, pastry makers, roasters, and pork butchers who held licenses to prepare specific items. An innkeeper, in order to serve a meal to guests, had to buy the various menu items from those operations that were licensed to provide them. Guests had little or no choice and simply ate what was available for that meal.
In 1765, a Parisian named Boulanger began advertising on his shop sign that he served soups, which he called restaurants or restoratives. (Literally, the word means "fortifying.") According to the story, one of the dishes he served was sheep's feet in a cream sauce. The guild of stew makers challenged him in court, but Boulanger won by claiming he didn't stew the feet in the sauce but served them with the sauce. In challenging the rules of the guilds, Boulanger unwittingly changed the course of food service history.
The new developments in food service received a great stimulus as a result of the French Revolution, beginning in 1789. Before this time, the great chefs were employed in the houses of the French nobility. With the revolution and the end of the monarchy, many chefs, suddenly out of work, opened restaurants in and around Paris to support themselves. Furthermore, the revolutionary government abolished the guilds. Restaurants and inns could serve dinners reflecting the talent and creativity of their own chefs, rather than being forced to rely on licensed caterers to supply their food. At the start of the French Revolution, there were about 50 restaurants in Paris, 10 years later there were about 500.
Another important invention that changed the organization of kitchens in the eighteenth century was the stove, or potager, which gave cooks a more practical and controllable heat source than an open fire. Soon commercial kitchens became divided into three departments: the rotisserie, under the control of the meat chef or rôtisseur, the oven, under the control of the pastry chef or pâtissier, and the stove, run by the cook or cuisinier. The meat chef and pastry chef reported to the cuisinier, who was also known as chef de cuisine, which means "head of the kitchen."
All the changes that took place in the world of cooking during the 1700s led to, for the first time, a difference between home cooking and professional cooking. One way we can try to understand this difference is to look at the work of the greatest chef of the period following the French Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême (17841833). As a young man, Carême learned all the branches of cooking quickly, and he dedicated his career to refining and organizing culinary techniques. His many books contain the first systematic account of cooking principles, recipes, and menu making.
At a time when the interesting advances in cooking were happening in restaurants, Carême worked as a chef to wealthy patrons, kings, and heads of state. He was perhaps the first real celebrity chef, and he became famous as the creator of elaborate, elegant display pieces and pastries, the ancestors of our modern wedding cakes, sugar sculptures, and ice and tallow carvings. But it was Carême's practical and theoretical work as an author and an inventor of recipes that was responsible, to a large extent, for bringing cooking out of the Middle Ages and into the modern period.
Carême emphasized procedure and order. His goal was to create more lightness and simplicity. The complex cuisine of the aristocracy, called Grande Cuisine, was still not much different from that of the Middle Ages and was anything but simple and light. Carême's efforts were a great step toward modern simplicity. The methods explained in his books were complex, but his aim was pure results. He added seasonings and other ingredients not so much to add new flavors but to highlight the flavors of the main ingredients. His sauces were designed to enhance, not cover up, the food being sauced. Carême was a thoughtful chef, and, whenever he changed a classic recipe, he was careful to explain his reasons for doing so.
Beginning with Carême, a style of cooking developed that can truly be called international, because the same principles are still used by professional cooks around the world. Older styles of cooking, as well as much of today's home cooking, are based on tradition. In other words, a cook makes a dish a certain way because that is how it always has been done. On the other hand, in Carême's Grande Cuisine, and in professional cooking ever since, a cook makes a dish a certain way because the principles and methods of cooking show it is the best way to get the desired results. For example, for hundreds of years, cooks boiled meats before roasting them on a rotisserie in front of the fire. But when chefs began thinking and experimenting rather than just accepting the tradition of boiling meat before roasting, they realized that either braising the meat or roasting it from the raw state were better options.
Carême was also the creator of four of the five Mother sauces of Grande Cuisine. Velute, Béchamel, Espagnole and Sauce Tomat are credited to him along with many of the derivatives. The fifth Mother Sauce, Hollandaise, was added later by the Godfather of modern cooking Georges Auguste Escoffier. He is a legendary figure among chefs and gourmets, and was one of the most important leaders in the development of modern French cuisine. Much of Escoffier's technique was based on that of Carême, but Escoffier's achievement was to simplify and modernize Carême's elaborate and ornate style. Referred to by the French press as roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois ("king of chefs and chef of kings" though this had also been previously said of Carême), Escoffier was France's pre-eminent chef in the early part of the 20th century. Alongside the recipes he recorded and invented, another of Escoffier's contributions to cooking was to elevate it to the status of a respected profession by introducing organized discipline to his kitchens.Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, which is still used as a major reference work, both in the form of a cookbook and a textbook on cooking. Escoffier's recipes, techniques and approaches to kitchen management remain highly influential today, and have been adopted by chefs and restaurants not only in France, but also throughout the world.
Now nearly 100 years later, Escoffier's food, as well as Carême's, is the basis of all cooking in western kitchens. As a new student, I received a copy of Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire which, shortly following leaving school and moving around, I promptly lost. I wish I still had that book now. I would be using it for our next Supper Club. We'll be going back to the beginnings of classical cuisine and presenting "An Evening In Paris" and reworking some classics by Carême and Escoffier. You won't want to miss that one! Hopefully you can join me Sunday as we work through the histories of sauces and how we get to our new modern versions. Make your reservations now and we'll see you there!
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