The GBK Cookbook
The British Food Trust
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Sauce for the Goose
by Helen Gaffney
No eggs or rich fruit in our pudding you'll find
British sauces are as good as the cook who makes them; they can be, and have been in the past, as fine and interesting as any. They may not have been as renowned perhaps as French sauces, or as subtle, but do they deserve their wretched reputation?
You may have heard of the famous French quip, "The English have sixty religions but only one sauce."
Ambrose Heath, in his 'Book of Sauces', wondered which one they meant. Unfortunately we know the answer all too well. Thick white sauce, that heavy blanket, now so out of fashion, was the butt of many rude remarks. One joker excelled himself with his statement that the English kitchen has three taps: hot water, cold water and white sauce.
It is true that a properly made white sauce, or better still its delicate cousin, butter sauce, is a very frequent point of departure for quite a number of British sauces. But what of our delicious greenish-gold apple sauce, sweet-sharp Cumberland sauce, tomato sauce, mint sauce, traditional mustard sauce and creamy thick puréed onion sauce? There are so many splendid recipes, some dating back hundreds of years, that are so much a part of our tradition, that too easily we forget to be proud of them.
In medieval days, when the ubiquitous white sauce had not yet even been invented, the favourite was green sauce, a piquant mixture of bread, vinegar, mint, garlic, parsley and thyme - very similar to salsa verde eaten in Italy with boiled meat.
A white version, almond sauce, was made with almonds, eggs and cream; white flour was a little known luxury then. Geese were eaten with a thick sauce of pounded, cooked garlic or with a dark prune sauce, while lamb was served with a russet rowanberry jelly. Anchovies were used a great deal, particularly with fish, an inheritance, perhaps, from Roman times.
However, when French chefs began to be imported into England by those who could afford such luxuries, an eighteenth-century journal looked back sadly on those days "when our cookery was plain and simple ... now all the earth must be ransacked for spices, pickles ... spoiling a wholesome diet by costly, pernicious sauces".
By the end of the eighteenth century the medical profession was getting worried - they felt that the heavily spiced dishes were 'inflaming' and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, having considered 'the inflammatory nature of rich sauces', pressed the government to lay a heavy duty on pepper, salt and wine, in the hope that by making these exciting ingredients available, morals would be restored. All that happened, of course, was that higher prices were paid. "Another instance" stated Ignotus, a doctor himself and author of a well-known eighteenth century cookery book, "of the obstinacy and depravity of mankind".
Simplicity did return, however, and nowadays returning British travellers, having eaten splendidly in France, come home happily to good, plain British cooking. It is even the case that the French themselves have now realised that much of their beloved - and in all fairness it must be added, delicious - haute cuisine is over-sauced and over-rich.
That does not mean to say that sauces must be abandoned, but only adapted, on both sides of the English Channel. It takes very little practice to be able to make a pure, light, simple sauce that reveals and points up the flavour of the dish rather than disguises it. It is really a question of mastering a few simple techniques, to give that final loving touch to all dishes.