Posts Tagged Béchamel
Wednesday evening, 7 o’clock. It is cold to the bone today, where Granny lives. This morning, even before breakfast, I chose the menu for my evening meal: Steamed vegetables with chicken doused in tomato sauce with a touch of grated Parmesan and served on a bed of greens.
Though this surely is not a gourmet meal, the very thought of the taste and warmth stayed with me throughout the day, until dinner time. That would be just about now, since I like to write as I savor every bite of my meal. I am, indeed savoring a tasty dinner, but sans sauce and sans chicken. I forgot to take both out of the freezer and since they are stored in recycled pickle jars, speed thawing is out of the question lest I end up ingesting small glass particles as an added bonus.
What a shame. The sauce was a gift, one I had looked forward to opening because I know that everything that comes from the kitchen of the friend who made it is worthy of a spot on the most highly acclaimed restaurant’s menu. It so happens she makes it using the famous Squeezo sauce maker, which she did not know was famous until I told her. She was delighted since she assumed that parts for the one she had purchased at a yard sale (who could part with such a fine appliance?) were not available. “Why didn’t you tell Granny?” I scolded, lovingly, “screens, hoppers, plungers… name it!” At least it was clear that hers had had much use.
As for the pickle jars, as you have surmised by now they are part of Granny’s tendency toward frugal living. They work out fine, if you remember to respect basic thermal laws and plan ahead so that said jars might be moved to the refrigerator a day prior to use. This was not to be, however, not this time. Adaptation to the rescue; instead of fine glass pebbles to add a bit of bite to this now somewhat bland dish, I sprinkled the vegetables with the cashews I had run through the grain mill earlier for another use. Delish! As for the sauce, it was replaced with olive oil, extra grated Parmesan, parsley and ground pepper.
It is a healthy and pleasant enough improvisation, especially with a good hearty bread on the side, but I had my heart set on the sauce so disappointment lingers, as does a nagging question: What is the history of sauce?
Sauces are like stocks with high interest; varieties multiply exponentially. In reality, there are only about five basic sauces, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of variations exist, as evidenced by the selection at a super-market. Here are the five basic sauces responsible for the array of choice:
- Tomato sauce – right here the possibilities are endless… including calling pizza a vegetable, but I digress, a little.
- Brown sauces – made from animal bones, fat and muscle fiber.
- Hollandaise and Béarnaise – basically, two variations of an egg-based sauce.
- Béchamel – this one is milk-based.
- Velouté – white-based, such as vegetable, poultry, or seafood stock.
As for actual origins, guess what? Yup, the Romans, again. In 200 A.D. their feasts of boiled game meats included sauces and seasonings. Their sauces contained thickening agents such as flour and taste enhancers such as honey. At a time when food preservation was limited (the Romans devised means of refrigeration, but clearly not with today’s capabilities), it is reasonable to assume that sauces served as disguising agents to improve the taste of rather aged foods. It is believed, also, that choice seasonings provided an immediate antidote to some digestive concerns.
We owe the only recorded evidence of Roman cuisine to Apicius in the first century A.D. The most repeatedly mentioned ingredient was a condiment called liquamen. It was a fermented/putrefied fish sauce to which were added generous amounts of herbs, spices, honey, and olive oil. I guess that would make it a Velouté. In any case, I dare say the thought of putrefied fish suddenly makes my improvised Parmesan, oil and cashew sauce seem even tastier.
Seasoning and sauces, however, may have served another, less practical purpose, especially at the table of the wealthy elite. To this day, we demonstrate opulence through the variety and eccentricity of the table. Sauces, especially those featuring foreign spices and unique flavor, would have been a statement of wealth and savoir-faire; in other words, a way of impressing the guests.
The word “sauce” comes from old French and “vulgar” Latin. I must smile at this, of course, for if sauce is to be considered an emblem of refinement, then how could it be vulgar? The word, in this case, masks the intended meaning, which is “popular.” Sauce, thus, comes from the language of the people. Fitting, don’t you think? It’s original meaning is “to salt.” Here, again, I must point out an interesting analogy, for one of the most ancient means of preserving foods, especially meat, is with salt.
I love how everything is connected and have almost forgotten about my tomato sauce by now. I finished my dinner, except for the little bits I leave on the plate for the dog. He did not seem disappointed to find the vegetables were not covered with tomato sauce, which he loves. I must remember to approach life with the same sense of carefree appreciation or, as the French expression goes (or a variation thereof), “à toutes les sauces”. Roughly, “adapt to all purposes and circumstances.”
A fascinating Blog article titled, “The History of French Food, Sauces and Stocks in French Cuisine,” explains that, “Some French sauces function to contrast while others help to extend or amplify intrinsic flavors”. Further along, the article continues, “During the last few decades the American and French food scenes have experienced their most profound change since the agricultural revolution… Increased knowledge of the world’s other cuisines and cultures has changed the concept of sauces and broadened the global palate.”
Maybe we notice this more today because of the broad access to an ever broadening scope of resources on the Internet. In reality, however, knowledge of the world’s cuisine, or rather cuisine beyond one’s immediate territory and culture, expanded the moment ancient people began to travel. For example, as points out the article, “Italian cuisine, beginning with Rome, was influenced by the Persians who were influenced by the Greeks. Although no known Greek cookbook exists in its entirety the portions of those that do cite simple cooking techniques such as …utilized cheese or oil as a sauce.”
The history of sauce spans centuries and has seen as many, if not more, transformations than the condiment itself. If you enjoy history and fine cuisine, I strongly urge you to read the above-referenced article. It provides detailed and extensive information that will surely captivate you. I simply cannot do it justice here, but it is well worth your time, I assure you. Perhaps you can savor it along with your very own favorite, home-made Bolognaise on angel pasta with a glass of exquisite red wine (red with red meat, white with fish and poultry).