Sauces & Saucemaking: When Generosity ought to trounce Parsimony

By Tony Jackman 26 April 2019

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

It’s the badge above the grille of a fine old Studebaker. The funnel atop Cunard’s Queen Mary as she glides regally into New York City. The final flourish of paint on a Van Gogh self-portrait before he signs it. It’s the thing that makes a dish complete. It’s the sauce.

Years spent at culinary college, taking everything in. Hundreds of thousands of rand spent on setting up your restaurant. Hours and hours boiling down the chicken stock, and the veal stock. A lifetime of expertise devoted to making a beautiful sauce, using the stocks you made earlier, boiling it down with wine, and again with Cointreau, then reducing it with cream. And that, Chef – that little drizzle. That’s all the sauce I get?

For all their awards and expertise, some of the top chefs today are really mean with a sauce. I mean it in both senses. They make a mean sauce, in the sense of a killer sauce that’ll have you swooning. For what? For more! Because despite all their laurels, way too many of our greatest chefs are really mean in the generosity department.

A miserly little drizzle of sauce on your plate and the waiter’s off to the next table. My habit is to beckon them back and ask for a small jug of it. A proud chef will not mind this; in fact, they’ll bask in the warm glow of approval. Because there’s nothing like a sauce to set a great chef apart from an also-ran. And they know it.

Why, then, be so mean with a sauce? The answer they love to trot out is they don’t want to “mask” the other flavours. Well, thank you for your consideration, but I’ll be the judge of that. And that’s a very convenient argument, for the chef. Not so much for the diner.

My classicist friend (his favourite sauce is Bordelaise) reminds me that chefs seem to have gone into this ungenerous mode, and become more and more minimalist, “ever since (Paul) Bocuse moved away from the heavy classical sauces of Escoffier”. (Bordelaise is made with red wine, bone marrow, butter, shallots and Sauce Demi-Glace.)

I might add: and ever since restaurateurs became more focused on the bottom line than they are on increasing the girth of your bottom. We accept that you have to make a fair profit, chef, but do not skimp on my sauce.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, in my first GastroTurf column at the end of December, when most of you were busy elsewhere, I wrote about aromatics and my appreciation for the great Richard Olney and his classic, The French Menu Cookbook. It’s not too late to go back and read my column, which you can do here.

Olney, an American gourmand who lived in Paris, spends pages on sauces and things related to them, though no chapter is headed “Sauces” as such. He ventures into sauce territory by first discussing wine in cooking, beginning with the firm admonition that “a wine that is not good to drink is useless in the kitchen”. But he quickly changes course, adding, “but because wines are transformed when boiled or simmered, their original character completely altered, it is foolish to waste a great wine in this content”. For a wine to be used in the making of a fine sauce, he recommends a robust, richly coloured young red or a lightly acidic young white.

A cream sauce made with wine and/or other liquor such as brandy or liqueur can be truly spectacular, but wine can be used much more speedily and highly effectively simply by using it to deglaze a pan in which meat has been roasted, reduced with the scraping up of all the sticky bits at the bottom of the pan, and poured over the meat.

You can whip one up in minutes or spend days making one. Fast or slow, hot or cold, or for that matter room temperature. You could spend a lifetime making a different sauce every day and yet have learnt to make only a fraction of all the possibilities in the world. The Béchamel. The classic French tomato sauce. The Velouté, the Espagnole, the Hollandaise, these five being the French mother sauces.

For a great chef, a sauce may be the final product of many processes. To make Marco Pierre White’s Sauce Diable (recommended for offal), for instance, you’ll need first to have made a good beef stock from scratch, and a good chicken stock, and then make a Diable reduction, which involves reducing white wine and white wine vinegar with peppercorns, thyme, bay leaves and shallots, which is then rested and strained, and only then start to make the Sauce Diable. This requires caramelising chicken winglets in olive oil, cooking them further with shallots and garlic, adding mushrooms, thyme and bay and cooking more, adding peppercorns and the Diable reduction, simmering and then adding the two stocks, simmering for half an hour and passing it through muslin. Then it’s reduced again, to a coating consistency, and then you cook diced shallot in butter, dice more butter, and mix the last two into the reduced sauce. Et voila! – Sauce Diable.

A Marco Pierre White book is a good thing to have, if you’re serious about cooking, because he’s all about the basics, just like Olney is. In my Canteen Cuisine book by MPW, you’ll find the perfect beurre blanc and Hollandaise, the Velouté and the Béarnaise. There’s also your Gribiche (cold sauce of boiled eggs, capers, gherkins, tarragon, parsley and olive oil), Sauternes (a cream sauce made with sweet white wine), and Sauce Aigre-Doux, a sweet-and-sour sauce of red wine and red wine vinegar sauce with garlic and shallots and made with veal stock, and recommended for tuna.

So, the stock is the thing, for very many sauces. And a stock can be frozen, so on those odd occasions when I’ve gone mad and opened a restaurant (it takes a certain kind of madness), I would make stocks for many hours and keep them in the deep freezer. They can be made in large quantities and frozen in portions to suit your needs. Just remember to label them.

If you wondered what a brown sauce was, Olney sets it out beautifully, as ever with a touch of wryness.

Escoffier defines Sauce Demi-glace as an ‘Espagnole brought to the extreme limit of perfection that it is susceptible of receiving, after a final cleansing (dépouillement)’. In today’s kitchens, demi-glace and Espagnole are the same thing except that the latter (like ‘brown sauce’ or ‘brown gravy’), thanks to a long history of careless or mendacious execution, has acquired a bad name, with the result that, no matter what the degree of perfection, a brown sauce is now most often called ‘demi-glace’ in English and French alike.”

Odd word, mendacious, in that context.

Note that Olney was writing this in the early Seventies. “Whatever its name,” he continues, “it continues to be attacked by some on the grounds that it makes everything taste alike. The only possible answer is that, obviously, it should not be used in everything.”

Can’t you just hear the sarcastic intonation in that, the cocked brow and flick of the hair. Those careless, lying Philistines have ruined the tradition of a perfectly good flour-based sauce. Not yet quite finished his takedown of a fiendish and naïve new direction in cooking, Olney detours to remark on what even then was a movement away from flour to thicken sauces.

There is a movement afoot, fancied by protagonists to be purist, to cast flour from the kitchen – it has been pronounced an evil presence in all sauces.”

He goes on to eviscerate the ensuing flourless sauce.

The nouvelle demi-glace is a reduction of stock or braising juices that depends entirely on the liquid’s natural gelatine for its body. The degree of reduction necessary to attain this body falls just short of that for a Sauce de Viande [meat glaze]; the intellectual purity of intent is betrayed by a suffocating concentration of taste and a gluey excess of gelatine.”

Take that! What a delicious condemnation of flourless saucemaking. The brown sauce he refers to, if you’re wondering, is that made by sprinkling flour on the meat and vegetables that have been browned in the pot, deglazed and covered with liquid, and simmered gently until braised, then “strained and cleansed”.

The early Seventies seems to have been a good time for books about sauces. Hamlyn’s Guide to Sauces and Saucemaking, by Sonia Allison, was first published in 1970. Succinctly, she places sauces firmly in three categories.

Almost every known sauce is a variation of a basic recipe and the great classics stem either from Béchamel, Véloute or Suprême (the white group), from Espagnol or Spanish (the brown group) or from Hollandaise and Mayonnaise (the egg group).” Every classic is here, from Maitre d’Hotel (butter sauce for white fish) to Chaud-Froid which “literally means hot-cold sauce; hot Béchamel sauce mixed with cold savoury jelly, such as aspic. When the sauce has cooled and thickened sufficiently to coat the back of a spoon, it is then used to coat cold buffet-type foods”.

Today, though, the cold sauces on your common-or-garden hotel buffet are more likely to have come out of a bottle. And that’s sad. Nothing in a bottle has been made with love. Nothing mass-produced is ever as good, even if nearly, as something made with care by an expert chef. Not even Mrs H.S Balls’ original chutney.

Maybe, in our own kitchens at home, we can make it a project to learn how to make a range of classic sauces, thereby becoming better cooks, better hosts (what’s on our dinner party plates can only improve), and the better we get at this, the better we’ll be able to tell the difference, when dining out, between a sauce that the chef clearly could have cared less about, and a great one. The one that will be drizzled on your plate while you glare at the waiter as he sashays to the next table, to pour the rest of your sauce onto someone else’s plate.

For too long (to borrow from Richard Olney) has there been careless or mendacious execution in the pouring of a sauce. So, be like Oliver Twist and repeat after me: “Please, chef, may I have some more?” But add: “… of your wonderful sauce”. Butter them up. You’ll get more. DM

Tony Jackman will be chatting about food and his book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), at the Karoo Food Festival at The Palms in Cradock at 1pm on Saturday 27 April. There will be an opportunity to buy a signed book afterwards. FoodSTUFF was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]


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