Monday, September 14, 2009

English Sauces.

I thought that it might be fun to have a week of on the topic of English sauces, for no other reason than I will be in the country for a little while longer yet, and the local cuisine is on my mind. I also want to question the idea that England did not (and does not) do sauces well. We are all over-familiar with the variations of the hoary old sayings about the inverse number of religions vs sauces in England compared to France [England has fifty religions and one sauce, France has one religion and hundreds of sauces]. Is it true? That is my question.

All of the ‘experts’ seem to agree: the signature English sauce is made from melted butter:

“Melted butter, we are indeed told, plays in English cookery nearly the same part as the Lord Mayor’s coach at civic ceremonies, calomel in the practice of medicine, and silver forks in fashionable novels. Melted butter is to English sauces what stock is to French soups – melted butter and eggs, melted butter and parsley, melted butter and capers, melted butter and anchovies – it is still always melted butter.”
The New Monthly Magazine, London, 1866.

Mistress Margaret Dods (the pseudonym of Christian Isobel Johnstone), in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, (1832) was of the opinion that there were several basic classes of sauce in England, but the most important were based on butter or gravy.
On English sauces in general.
The basis, or, more correctly the vehicle of plain English sauces, is butter, whether melted, oiled, browned, or burnt; or gravy either clear brown or thickened; also water, milk, cream, and wine or some substitute. A numerous class of sauces is composed of vegetables and green fruits, another of shell fish, and a third of flavoured meat gravy.

Her contemporary, Dr William Kitchiner, in The Cook’s Oracle, (1822) agreed on the importance of butter, and gave his recipe, from which we see that he refers to what is essentially a classic white sauce started with a roux.

GOOD MELTED BUTTER cannot be made with mere flour and water; there must be a full and proper proportion of Butter. As it must be always on the Table and is THE FOUNDATION OF ALMOST ALL OUR ENGLISH SAUCES I have tried every way of making it, and I trust at last that I have written a receipt which if the Cook will carefully observe she will constantly succeed in giving satisfaction.
Melted Butter.
Keep a pint stewpan for this purpose only. Cut two ounces of butter into little bits, that it may melt more easily and mix more readily; - put it into the stewpan with a large teaspoonful (i.e. about three drachms) of Flour (some prefer Arrow Root or Potatoe Starch) and two tablespoonsful of Milk.
When thoroughly mixed, - add six tablespoonsful of water; hold it over the fire, and shake it round every minute, (all the while the same way) till it just begins to simmer , then let it stand quietly and boil up. It should be of the thickness of good cream.
Obs. This is the best way of preparing melted butter; - Milk mixes with the butter much more easily and more intimately than water alone can be made to do. This is of proper thickness to be mixed at table with Flavouring Essences, Anchovy, Mushroom, or Cavice, &c. If made merely to pour over vegetables add a little more milk to it.
N.B. If the BUTTER OILS put a spoonful of cold water to it and stir it with a spoon, - if it is very much oiled it must be poured backwards and forwards from the Stewpan to the Sauceboat till it is right again.
MEM. Melted Butter made to be mixed with flavouring Essences, Catsups, &c. should be of the thickness of light Batter, that it may adhere to the Fish &;c

Quotation for the Day.

In England three are sixty different religious sects, and only one sauce.
Francesco Caracciolo, Neapolitan Ambassador to London, attributed, c1790


Anonymous said...

Synchronicity at work: today I gave some Swiss students an English test; the listening was about the origin of HP sauce!

So after reading today's post, I'm thinking .... if "sauce" includes the bottled variety - HP, Worcestershire etc - that's surely proof enough that the English can sauce up a meal without butter.

The Old Foodie said...

Synchronicity - or great minds think alike! I like (and support) your comment about bottled English sauces - I think the English excel at these - and there is a lot of snobbery about them, although the perpetrators often have no problem with soy and Asian fish sauce. What's the difference with HP and Heinz tomato???

Ashwini said...

TOF - You have a nice site. I would be a frequent visitor from now on. I loveto read about history of Food and your ste has it all. Good job!


Dylan said...

I wonder if, as in the recipe, the "Melted Butter" they refer to is always a B├ęchamel. Flour? Check. Water? Check. Milk? Check. Thickening? Check. Sure, there's quite a lot of butter, but that would just make it *silkier*.

In which case, Melted Butter with eggs? Approximately Hollandaise (Especially given the amount of fat). Melted Butter with Cheese = Mornay. Melted Butter with Onion is Soubise.

So, inkteresting. Unless I'm completely missing the point (I've heard it insisted that stock be used with the milk. I think that's poppycock). So much for "One sauce".

The Old Foodie said...

Agreed, Quadlex. That is one of the things I find interesting - that the name of a dish may may have many different interpretations. You have not missed the point at all - that IS the point! Fun, isnt it?