In my next few articles, I will be looking at what makes the difference between a good cook and a not so good one: sauces. Hundreds of thousands of them exist; they represent the gastronomic culture of a continent, of a country. Henry Babinsky, French mining engineer and writer of "gastromie pratique" defined sauces as a flavourful liquid of various consistency that enhance the main ingredient of a dish. August Escoffier, define the making of sauces as an art, and emphasize about the importance of getting the texture of a sauce right. So, as the precepts of these two, one a famous "gastronome" , the other a famous chef always pointed at the word: texture. So, I decided to focus my research about sauces, on the science of thickening, the influence of texture on flavour, the importance of salt, the different thickening agents and how they work. These subjects are going to be at the centre of my next few posts. But, first of all, let's have a closer look at what a sauce is and how they have evolved through history.
The Oxford dictionary of English defines a sauce as a liquid or semi-liquid substance served with food to add moistness and flavour.
The Larousse Gastronomic definition of a sauce is a form of seasoning, more or less liquid which complements or is used to cook a dish.
So, if I got it right a sauce is a concentrate of flavour in a liquid or semi-liquid form that complements a dish. The word sauce comes from the Latin word salsus which means salted. No surprise, there, as salt has been, since the beginning of time, the main source of seasoning in cooking (not to mention salt has been the only means of preservation of food). We are even born with some nerve endings at the tip of our tongue that are especially designed to taste salt.
Europe is only one of the parts of the world that have evolved sauces with large appeal in modern times. Nowadays, many sauces are popular far from their region of origin: Chinese soy-based sauces, thick and spiced Indian sauces, fiery Mexican salsas and chilli-thickened moles. But it was on the old continent more precisely in France that generations of chefs developed and codified sauces to what became a systematic art and an international standard.
Our first knowledge of a sauce-type of preparation comes from the Romans. A Latin poem from 25 BC, Moretum, describes a peasant farmer making a spread of pounded herbs, cheese, olive oil and vinegar, an ancestor of Pesto, that gave a pungent, salty, aromatic savour to his flatbread. A few centuries later, the Latin cook book, De Re Coquinaria, attributed to Apicius makes it clear that sauces played a major role in the dining of the Roman elite. A quarter of the recipes in this book (more than 500) are sauces recipes. It is in this book, also, that the word ius the ancestor of juice or the French jus appears for the first time. Apicius also sets the thickening precepts that are still in use to thickened our modern sauces.: vegetable and fruit purees, nuts, egg yolks - both raw and cooked, bread even pure starch. Flavouring was provided by about half a dozen herbs and spices, vinegar and honey are common ingredients too. Saltiness and savouriness were supplied by a type of fermented fish: the Garum.
Between Apicius time and the Middle Ages not much is known about cooking. The oldest cooking manuscripts that survived were dated from the 14th century. They describe major changes in the techniques used to prepare sauces. Medieval sauces tend to use many spices. They were thickened with bread and vegetable purees, but meat started to be used as a thickening agent. Pure starch was no longer in use, cream and butter still weren't. If the texture agents haven't change much since the ancient time, the flavouring agents have. Fish sauce disappeared and was replaced by vinegar and unripe grape juice: verjus. Thanks to the discovery of new worlds in the East and the Middle-East new spices made their ways into European sauces: cinnamon, ginger or grain of paradise. The introduction of almonds from the Middle-East made it the main nut used as a thickening agent.
The Middle Ages is the starting point of the era of the stock - meat or fish - as the main flavouring agent. By using stocks, chefs have discovered the technique of thickening sauces by concentration, as a result they discovered that gelatin could be a peculiar but quite efficient thickening agent. It is the beginning of the savoury jellies, aspics.
The 15th century, brought another evolution in the use of stock. Chefs started to perfect their techniques of stock clarification: it was the birth of consommés. This century saw changes in the terminology of sauces too. The words sauce, coulis, soup, salsa, gravy, Jus or bouillon started to appear on cookery manuscripts.
It was in three centuries between 1400 and 1700, that the sauces of our time found their roots. Recipes of those time, call for fewer spices. Vinegar and verjus gave their place to lemon juice. The use of bread and almonds as thickening agents were replace by flour, butter and egg emulsions.
Around 1750, Chef Francois Marin incorporated his knowledge of the Chinese flavour harmony concept into his own cooking. Both Marin and a chef I Yin from ancient China, spoke of balance and harmony. I Yin would bind together sour, sweet, bitter, salty and pungent ingredients while the French chef pots would contain meat juices which would generate complexity and harmony. Francois Marin introduced the concept of the sauce as a complement that deepens and integrates the flavour of the main ingredient with the rest of the other dish. The preparation of sauce in those times required a huge amount of flesh that would not appear in the final dish. With Marin started the glorious time of rich bouillons, stocks, consommés, jus and "restaurants" that will last until the years of the "Nouvelle Cuisine" and "Fusion Cooking".
In 1789, came the French revolution, and with it came the diminishment in the standards of kitchens of the French great houses as less wealth meant less staff. It is then that the first fine restaurants appeared, opened by the former chefs of the bourgeois households. The impact of the French revolution was assessed by Chef Antonin Careme (1784-1833) in his book "Preliminary Discourse" to his Maitre d'hotel francais. Careme made a summary of the old, costly traditional cooking. His input to in the progression of cooking and sauce making was to organize and simplify and classify what Marin foresaw.
About 200 years later, French Chef August Escoffier (1846-1935) in its Guide Culinaire attributed the eminence of French cuisine in the rest of the world directly to its sauces. In the hands of Careme and Escoffier the new way of thinking that came out of Marin's kitchen, became Classic French cooking and the cornerstone of fine dining throughout the western world. But for 40 years, Chefs just kept going in round in circles in the rigid classic cooking system. They just kept on reproducing over and over the same recipe.
In the 1960's came Nouvelle Cuisine, led by Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard and the Troisgros Family and later on, Joel Robuchon. This new concept allow chefs' imaginations to flourish and asserted the virtues of freshness, economy and simplicity. The main aspect of the Nouvelle Cuisine was that the food was to served intact instead of the old ways of the food's total dissection. With the Nouvelle Cuisine came a more rational use of the sauce Espagnole that was the cornerstone of Escoffier's era. Lighter sauces, now had a place in cooking, the use of flour and butter thickening agents were to be replaced by light emulsions, dressings, flavoured oils and cooked vegetable or fruits purée.
Nowadays, Escoffier's Guide Culinaire is considered by most chefs as the cooking "Old Testament". Chefs around the world, including myself, consider Le Grand Livre de Cuisine by French Chef named Alain Ducasse as the cooking "New Testament". His cooking represents the next step in the evolution of cooking and sauce making. He has been able to refine even more the old precepts and integrate, flavours from the global village we leave in as well as the new dietary needs of our modern world. I think that he has reached what Francois Marin and I Yin were striving for, many centuries ago: subtleness and delicacy, balance and harmony.
But, it is history in the making, so it is up to you to find who is going to write the next chapter in the history of sauces.