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Let’s rescue the great béchamel sauce

There are many ways of telling a person’s age. In foodie terms it is simple enough.

Ask somebody if they know what a ‘baked dish’ is and judge their reaction. If they have no idea what you are talking about, they are under 30. If they look vaguely confused and say that the name rings a bell, but they are not sure what it is, they are around 40. If, on the other hand, they know exactly you mean, then they are over 40.

 

People of my generation remember the ‘baked dish’ with horror. It was a concoction reserved for upper middle class to rich households comprising what used to be called “English vegetables” in white sauce, baked in the oven. In very fancy households, the dish would be put under the grill so that it could be browned on top.

 

   In many of the households where this dish was served, the Indian food, made by maharajs, would be very good. But a ‘baked dish’ would still be served to show that a) they owned an oven, b) they knew how to make “continental food” and c) they had access to many unusual vegetables.

 

   These vegetables could include button mushrooms canned in a brine that was so salty that the mushrooms tasted like they had been cultivated at the bottom of the Dead Sea. There would be stringy white asparagus. There would be soggy kernels of tinned corn. There may have been carrots, peas and perhaps even artichokes.

 

   All of these vegetables may have been edible once in their lifetimes but had been murdered by the canning process. And then they had been destroyed all over again in the making of the baked dish.

 

   Looking back, I think the part of the ‘baked dish’ that really annoyed me was the white sauce. At first I thought the sauce was cheese. And indeed, cheese was often added to the white sauce. But the major part of the disgusting pale yellow gunk that drowned the dead vegetables was actually white sauce.

 

   Somehow, nobody else seemed to hate white sauce as much as I did. In many Gujarati and Marwari vegetarian households, the ability to make a white sauce was much respected and admired. At every fancy dinner, something or the other would be submerged in white sauce, put under a salamander and given a brown topping. So widespread was this practice that the only French phrase that many rich Marwaris and Gujaratis knew was ‘au gratin’.

 

   I reckon they taught this technique at catering colleges too because, for a while in the 1970s, at any European restaurant run by the Oberoi group, much of the menu would consist of dishes that had been “gratinated”.

 

   I asked chefs what white sauce was made of and the answer was revolting. They took lots of maida, mixed it with butter and then added milk.

 

   Only when I started writing about food did I finally understand what a true white sauce is. And I conceded that perhaps, owning to my bania background, I had confused misadventures in Gujarati and Marwari households with one of the classic sauces of French cuisine.

 

   What our cooks called a white sauce was meant to be béchamel. In classic French cooking, there are a few other sauces from which every other sauce flows. A béchamel is one of them. And in the right hands it can be superbly tasty.

 

   If you are shaking your head sceptically at this, let me ask you a question: do you like lasagna?

 

   If you do, then you like béchamel. The lasagna has three key ingredients: the pasta sheets which are layered with the ragu (the meat sauce) and yes, a béchamel.

 

   Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

 

   How about something comforting like Mac ‘n’ Cheese?

 

   Yups. That is based on béchamel too. Moussaka? Yes, that too. A vanilla soufflé? Indeed. That’s a kind of béchamel. A ham croquette, Spanish style? Absolutely. Can’t be made without béchamel!

 

"Gault-Millau raged against flour-thickened sauces and the chefs listened. Out went the roux though such writers as Julia Child wrote vigorously in its defence."

   The origins of béchamel, the original white sauce, predate the invention of the baked dish by my bania ancestors by several centuries. It was created in the 17th century and became a rage in the 18th century. Chefs sometimes added cheese to it and turned it into Sauce Mornay.

 

   The British stole it from the French and popularised it in Raj kitchens. Their motive was simple. Unlike many French sauces, a béchamel requires no hard-to-find ingredients. You need tarragon for Sauce Bearnaise and good stock for many of the others. But a béchamel needs only flour, butter and milk.

 

   Nevertheless, the sauce fell on hard days in the 1980s, when chefs adopted what was called Cuisine Nouvelle. The manifesto for the new style of cooking was written in 1973 by two food critics called Henri Gault and Christian Millau. They were rebelling against French cuisine and its mother sauces (though not, as is sometimes assumed, against butter and cream. Abolish butter and the French nation will collapse.)

 

   Much of what Gault and Millau said now seems blindingly obvious (use fresh ingredients, don’t overcook the fish, keep the vegetables crunchy etc.) and the excesses of nouvelle cuisine (a very, very large black plate with three tiny pieces of meat and one baby carrot was a typical nouvelle main course) can’t really be blamed on Gault-Millau.

 

   But the main thrust of their attack was on the roux. A roux is a technique for mixing butter and flour. You use this roux to thicken a sauce or gravy.

 

   Gault-Millau raged against flour-thickened sauces and the chefs listened. Out went the roux though such writers as Julia Child wrote vigorously in its defence. Even now, it is hard to find a modern chef who will use a roux for his sauce.

 

   But of course the roux survived. The English thickened their so-called “Indian curries” with a roux. They taught this technique to the Japanese, who continue to thicken what they call ‘curry’ with a roux – one reason why Japanese curries are so revolting. Similarly all Creole cooking is predicated on the roux. The Spanish had their own cooking revolution at the beginning of this century, one part of which was to show an upraised finger to the French. So they use a roux too.

 

   Given how much I loathe white sauce, I should be celebrating the troubles faced by the roux, which is the backbone of béchamel. But honestly the truth is that a good béchamel can be a joy. Nigella Lawson calls it her most essential sauce.

 

   My Eureka moment came in the dining room at Osteria Francescana. The chef, Massimo Bottura, has a dish called the crispy part of the lasagna. He was showing us how the dish should look and talking about the effort that goes into creating his ragu. The béchamel, he took for granted. He just made it the classic way.

 

   So there, in the middle of Michelin-starred hysteria over roux and béchamel, was the greatest chef in the world quietly making the sauce that got French chefs so agitated.

 

   It’s the same with great Spanish chefs. Get past the bread crumbed exterior of their croquettes and you are confronted by a thick creamy roux full of ham, cod, chicken or whatever. Is the roux filling from the same family as a béchamel? You bet.

 

   My second Eureka moment came while I was reading Lateral Cooking by Niki Segnit. I reckon this will be the cookbook of the year but for me it was one line that took me further on my path to reconciliation with béchamel. “A soufflé” Segnit wrote, “is a thick white sauce that has had a big intake of breath.”

 

   She was right. All soufflés are based on a roux, which holds the white sauce together. When you cook a soufflé, all you really do is force that thick white sauce to let enough air inside so that it can be taken on a fragile, partly-solid structure. Soufflés can be sweet or savoury: with cheese, with spinach, with chocolate or with orange. But it’s the texture that matters more than the flavours.

 

   Ever since I came to terms with the fact that some of my favourite dishes, all the way from a soufflé to croquettes, were made with a roux-bound béchamel, I began to reassess my attitude to white sauce.

 

   I still hate the baked dish, of course. But I think béchamel got a bad rap. I sometimes wonder if we could redo the dish and cook it the way it is supposed to be made: with fresh, local vegetables, a perfect béchamel and some high-quality cheese.

 

   Then I stop myself.

 

   We are here to lament the indescribable horror of the baked dish, not to fix it. May it take its maida-heavy white sauce and drowned tinned vegetables and die forever!

 

   And as it suffers its death throes, let’s rescue the great béchamel sauce whose reputation was besmirched by the baked dish. Let’s celebrate the roux.

 

   I admit that my ancestors destroyed the good name of the basic white sauce. But here’s one bania who is trying to make amends.

 

   Soufflé, anyone?

 

 

Posted On: 22 Dec 2018 04:15 PM
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