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On the sauce: French mother sauces

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, Angela Clutton—Cookbook Club host, food writer and author of The Vinegar Cupboard—will be navigating her way through the myriad iterations and uses of sauces. This time: French mother sauces

“England has two sauces and 300 religions; France two religions and 300 sauces”

So—apparently—said early 19th century French politician and Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. His comment isn’t wholly accurate on any front, of course, but his drift was that the French love their culinary sauces and the Brits, well, less so. (Which I roundly dispute.)

There are, in fact, merely five core French sauces. Known as the ‘mother’ sauces because they are the heart from which so very many other sauces then come. In classical cookery they are considered hugely important. But as this isn’t chef class nor (despite the opening line) a history lesson, what matters much more than their ‘importance’ is how useful they are to the modern cook.

And my oh my how gloriously useful they really are. These three, I think, most of all. Get the basics of these down and a world of sauce opportunity opens up. (The other two are espagnole, which is in honesty quite a bit of a faff, and a tomato sauce. Both lovely and useful and worth looking up if this gets you in the French mother sauce mood.)

Hollandaise
This is the one I find most useful, in both its base form and the sauces it gives birth to. The hollandaise is not thickened by a roux (see below) as the other mother sauces are, but by egg yolks. A simple hollandaise is just 2 egg yolks whisked with a little lemon juice and mustard, then set over a pan of simmering water as you slowly whisk in 100g melted butter. It is lustrous and fabulous, and just the best thing for poached eggs and much more besides.

From hollandaise comes mayonnaise. If you have never made it before yourself, please give it a go and discover a) how easy it is to make (whisk egg yolks with lemon juice, mustard, and the oil of your choice); b) how incredibly satisfying it is to make; and c) that it is almost an entirely different thing from bottled mayo. If you have made it before, you won’t need me to tell you all the things it makes more delicious.

Associated to mayonnaise is rouille, which has the added delight of being thickened with bread and pepped up with cayenne. My recipe here serves that spread on toast to accompany a simple fish stew.

Top tips:
—For hollandaise, keep the heat low and the base of the whisking bowl away from the water’s surface to prevent curdling or splitting.
—If your hollandaise threatens to split, whisk in an ice cube for a miracle rescue.
—Have all your ingredients at room temperature before you start and your mayo will never go wrong. I promise.
—Using the best eggs and butter you can get hold of will ensure these sauces have optimum flavour and depth of colour.
—A bain-marie is a useful bit of kit to have if you are going to be making these a lot, but otherwise just a glass mixing bowl that fits well over a pan works just fine.

Béchamel
The base of a béchamel is its ‘roux’—the term for cooking flour with fat. Stir 40g butter with 30g plain flour in a pan over heat, until it become thickly glossy. That’s your roux ready for whisking in 500ml or so of milk, bit by bit. Keep stirring, let it bubble, and it will thicken to something glorious, all ready for you to add seasonings of grated cheese, chopped herbs, cloves, nutmeg etc and serve with fish, meat, or over a whole roasted cauliflower.

Top tips:
—To avoid a lumpy béchamel, don’t add the milk all in one go.
—Be patient! The béchamel is only ready when it coats the back of a wooden spoon, leaving a gap when you draw a finger through it. If you aren’t sure if it’s ready, the chances are it isn’t.
—Using a deep, heavy-based saucepan will ensure even distribution of heat as you make the sauce and prevent burning. There are some beautiful sauce pans around that will earn you significant kitchen kit bragging rights.

Veloute
Similar to a béchamel but using stock instead of milk. Go for chicken, beef or vegetable as suits whatever you are serving it with. Again, stir in seasonings at the end. Some chopped mushrooms can be great in a veloute.

Something similar to a veloute can be made without flour, by just using heat to reduce and therefore thicken the sauce. Melt a knob of butter, add stock, simmer to reduce, then finish with cream and whatever flavourings you fancy. It’s not at all classic in the French mother sauce sense, but handy for those avoiding gluten. And isn’t that the point; that these ideas and ways of making delicious sauces don’t get stuck in time, but evolve to suit modern tastes?

The trick is to not be put off by the intimidating names and just think of these as simple sauces. With just a modicum of skill, some good ingredients and a little know-how on how to fix them if they should go wrong, they can lift all kinds of dishes.

Image: Kim Lightbody