A mother sauce. One of the first things you learn in school. The foundation for so many classic dishes we remember from our childhood, and even from first forays into fine dining restaurants of a certain time.. Sauce Mornay and Sauce Soubise, Vol au vent, Coquille St-Jacques, Blanquette de veau (ok not quite bechamel but same deal, you know what I mean).. At home, there was Mac n’ cheese, lasagne, moussaka..
Officially dating back to the 1600’s when it got its name in honour of Louis de Béchameil, marquis and domo to Louis XIV, it was certainly made in various versions for many years before. In fact, others jealously claimed propriety afterwards, frustrated that Bechamel became the name for this staple in a cook’s repertory.
Regardless of its storied history, in the eighties and nineties, this poor sauce was condemned to the category of ‘old school’ and out of style, a dinosaur from the backwards cooking of the pre Nouvelle Cuisine era. So it was snubbed by a generation or two of cooks - for most of my cooking life it turns out. Shortly out of school, I learnt that flour didn’t belong in modern sauces; reduction was the key, monté au beurre, a little cornstarch slurry to correct the consistency if need be. This is how everybody made sauces in the new, cool world once you left cooking school.
I happily followed suit, loving the juices and essences of the likes of Girardet and Jean Georges Vongrichton for instance, who was so avant garde here at the time. But I always questioned the proposition that this new method widely used across the board in all chefs’ hands was really all that healthier or even cleaner in taste. So much reduction and butter to compensate for thickener adds another kind of richness that isn’t starch based maybe, but equally heavy, as in deceptively fatty. Besides, sometimes, too much reduction can mar a taste. A certain amount intensifies flavours but after a certain point, aromas are lost. Anyway. What did I know. I quickly learnt to trust my taste buds; I would reduce to the desired yumminess, and for what was missing in body, arrowroot or cornstarch or potato starch (depending on the kitchen) would do the trick. Some butter at the end does really make a sauce, adding that shimmer and mouth feel and balance, but too much is too much. Maybe it’s the girl in me, but I just can’t swirl 10 nobs of butter into a sauce, like so many of my male colleagues over the years seemed to have no problem doing.
I do like a pure jus too, which is more fashionable, but it has to be kick ass, and coat the spoon or the garnish, usually meat. And it depends on the dish. With certain braises and meaty stews, I just feel like they call out for an old fashioned roux. With other quick pan roasts or delicate meats, a lighter reduction seems more appropriate. Even with a lean fish dish and a blandish side of rice and asparagus say, a blond roux based sauce (Bechamel), pumped up with some herbs makes for a major comfort meal. See that’s another thing, the sides make a huge difference. If a rich gratin or starchy side like couscous or polenta is on the menu to soak up some jus, than I say more of a thinner natural broth like sauce is called for. And lots of it. Although an artistic line of measured sauce might look pretty next to a piece of choice protein, a less picture-perfect ladle of sauce on top of the meat always tastes better, whatever the sauce.
I worked in a Cajun restaurant back in the day when I was a waitress and I remember being intrigued by the batches of dark roux slowly roasting in the oven. Not because I was so interested in cooking at the time, but I’ve always been a sauce girl, and Christophe’s sauces were amazing. I wondered if this brown muck was the key. I forgot about it, and my subsequent training all but removed it from my memory. But like the powerfully seductive scent of freshly baked bread, toasted wheat flour and a good sauce can lodge in one’s taste memory forever. I suspect roux is something unconsciously delicious and satisfying to most of us; why ever did we cut it out?
In the last few years, for old times sake (maybe it was for mac n’cheese or chicken pot pie, turkey leftovers, or some such ‘pedestrian’ fare), I got to making a béchamel with the onion studded with the bay leaf and clove, the grated nutmeg - and wow, I thought it was so delicious. From that point on, I have pulled it out on occasion. No longer is béchamel an off switch in my brain, nor a bad or ‘uncool’ word. I’m in. However, I usually go more the route of a velouté, with duck broth instead of milk, for a ‘lighter’, tastier, more complex version, along the lines of that other trusty mother sauce.
I’m just saying, don’t forget about Bechamel or any of the mother sauces - or for that matter, tradition and history in general. In forging ahead with new technology and taste sensations, there is always just as much inspiration and simple goodness to be found in dusty old recipes.