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Behind the Mother Sauces of French Cuisine

Behind the Mother Sauces of French Cuisine

Espagnole, veloute, béchamel, hollandaise and sauce tomate: what are the 5 mother sauces, that form the base from which countless variations can be prepared.

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In 1854, French chef Marie-Antoine Carȇme published L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise au Dix-Neuvieme Siecle, an encyclopedia of French cuisine and cooking that was the first culinary cultural encyclopedia. Carȇme’s influence extended beyond recipes. Starting life as a kitchen boy in a cheap chop house, he worked his way up to becoming an expert patissiere, whose elaborate confections, some nearly a meter tall and modelled on ancient ruins like the pyramids, drew gawking customers at shop windows, before he rose to the status of must-have celebrity chef, cooking for Napoleon, Talleyrand, King George IV of England, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and the Rothschilds. It is thanks to him that we eat our meals in order, one course at a time (referred to as service a la Russe, as Carȇme learned in Russia), as opposed to having all dishes served simultaneously (service a la Francaise). He is also responsible for diverse menus and eating seasonally—his employer, Talleyrand, challenged him to make a year-long menu, with no dishes repeated, and all ingredients both local and seasonal.

Among his many accomplishments, he wrote of what he considered the four “mother sauces,” sauces that form the base from which countless variations can be prepared. Carȇme’s mother sauces were espagnole, veloute, béchamel and allemande. In 1903, Carȇme’s bible of French cuisine was updated by chef Auguste Escoffier, whose monumental Le Guide Culinaire is still required reading for every student of cookery the world over. Born in Nice, Escoffier worked for hotelier Cesar Ritz in Monte Carlo and Lucerne, and brought haute French cuisine to London, when he and Ritz were invited by Richard D’Oyly Carte to run the Savoy Hotel—he would later become chef of the Ritz and Carlton hotels. Part of Escoffier’s modernization was a shift in what he considered to be mother sauces. Allemande, he argued, was really just a “daughter” of veloute, and should be downgraded. But he added two more in its place: hollandaise and sauce tomate. Hollandaise, part of the egg-based range of –aises, I discussed in a previous article, so we’ll set that aside. Because we’ve got another four mother sauces to examine.

Five Mother Sauces: Bechamel

It’s a running joke that just about any traditional French recipe begins with “make a roux,” but the mixture of butter and flour provides unctuous body to anything added to it. Throw some milk into a roux, and you’ve got béchamel. This is the base for scores of “daughter” sauces, like Mornay (béchamel + gruyere and egg yolk) and mustard sauce (béchamel + mustard) and soubise (béchamel + diced onions). It is named after the chief steward to King Louis XIV, though no one knows why, and it first appears in Le Cuisinier Francois, published in 1651. For each cup of milk in the sauce, there is 1-3 tablespoons for butter and flour mixed in (depending on how thick you’d like it).

Five Mother Sauces: Espagnole

Espagnole, aka “brown sauce,” is the mother to hundreds of children, and is more of a starting point than something consumed as is. It begins with a dark brown roux, adding veal stock, bones and pieces of beef and vegetables—a miniature, concentrated stew, with tomato paste added at the end, before the sauce is skimmed and strained. Why it is called “Spanish” sauce is a matter of debate: one source says that it is because the Spanish chefs who came with Louis XIII’s bride insisted on kicking the French sauces for the wedding up a notch by adding Spanish tomatoes, while another says the use of meat in the sauce comes from a French craze for Spanish bacon and ham from Montanches. Take espagnole and reduce its liquidity by half, and you have a demi-glace. Add African or creole seasonings to it, and you’ve got Sauce Africaine. Add red wine and shallots, parsley, thyme and bay leaf, and you’ve got Sauce Bourguignonne.

Five Mother Sauces: Veloute

The so-called “velvet” sauce is made of chicken or fish bones that have not been first roasted (which would darken it), but are rather lighter in color and are mixed with a blond roux. Yes, you cannot escape roux when dealing with French sauces, nor should you. Roux takes a flavor and sauce-ifies it, so we might call roux the proto-mother sauce, since it is the true starting point of the mother sauces. Veloute couldn’t be simpler, and is the starting point for many variations, including Sauce Allemade, which Escoffier downgraded to a daughter sauce, since it is a veloute with the addition of lemon juice, cream and egg yolks. Other daughters include Sauce Ravigote (veloute + lemon and shallots), Sauce Supreme (veloute + cream and mushroom liquor), Sauce Normande (veloute + cream, butter and egg yolk) and Sauce Hungarian (veloute + paprika, onion and white wine).

Five Mother Sauces: Sauce Tomate

Tomato sauce may sound awfully simple, but Escoffier’s is not. Of course, it begins with a roux, but the flavor comes from salted pork belly, onions, bay leaf, sugar, pepper, salt, garlic, thyme and fresh tomatoes. Surely a sauce made just of roux and tomatoes would be more of a “mother,” as Escoffier’s is really quite specific, but he’s no longer around for us to argue. His inclusion of this inherently Italian sauce was progressive, as the French scoffed at the Italians and their so-called “cuisine,” thinking of them as second-class citizens when Escoffier was writing. All manner of daughter sauces emerge, like Sauce Bolognese (with minced meat, carrots, celery and onion), various hot sauces (with your choice of chili and vinegar added), or even more modern concoctions, like the Anglo-Indian favorite, tikka masala. It’s great practice for amateur chefs hoping to hone their skills to try their hand at Escoffier’s mother sauces. You’ll make a lot of roux, then mother sauces, and then take them in any direction you like. Master them, and the world of sauce is at your fingertips. Just be careful not to burn your roux…

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