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Sauces

Sometimes given poetic names, or named after people or places, sauces add colour, taste and flavour to dishes. The techniques used to prepare them are often typical of an era, as are the flavours. In the Middle Ages, acidic sauces and spicy sauces made with cinnamon and ginger were extremely popular. At that time, sauces were low in fat and bound together with breadcrumbs. In the 19th century, sauces were prepared with flour, butter and cream.
AL-017-25 Préparation - Saucière
© Shutterstock / Lorena Fernandez - Sauce boat

The composition of sauces from the Roman era to the present day

In Roman cooking garum was a fermented fish-based condiment which featured in every dish. But the recipes of Apicius, contained in a 4th century work, also include many sauces made with herbs, spices, wine, honey and eggs.

In the Middle Ages, the most highly prized sauces were the most acidic. The acidity came from using wine, vinegar and verjuice. The latter is obtained by pressing unripe green grapes. Strongly spiced sauces, particularly with ginger and cinnamon, are also typical of this era. As fat was rarely (if ever) used, medieval sauces were low in calories. To bind the sauces together, cooks mainly used breadcrumbs which had been previously grilled and soaked.

In the 17th century, verjuice and breadcrumbs were replaced by butter, cream and flour, followed by roux, béchamel and mayonnaise. Cooking constantly evolves and is now inspired by classic French cuisine, but with lighter sauces. Modern chefs prefer light emulsions.

The 19th century art of classifying sauces!

In the early 19th century, Antonin Carême, the famous chef, was the first person to classify sauces. He drew a distinction between hot and cold sauces and identified four ‘mother sauces’ or ‘foundation sauces’ from which all other sauces were derived: Espagnole, Velouté, Allemande and Béchamel.

Today, sauces are grouped into four major categories: brown sauces, white sauces, butter-based sauces and oil-based sauces, such as vinaigrette, mayonnaise and salad dressing. Brown sauce is a reduction, possibly bound together with brown stock and enriched with other ingredients (wine, shallots, pepper, roasting juices). White sauce is prepared with a roux base to which white stock and cream are added. Butter-based sauce is a heated emulsion made from egg yolk and clarified butter. Oil-based sauces are emulsions prepared cold. Mayonnaise is the most well-known of these. It is an emulsion where vigorous whisking disperses the oil, in the form of tiny droplets, into the water contained in the mixture. The emulsion is stabilised by the lecithin in the egg yolk.

Examples of sauces through the ages

A typical sauce from the Middle Ages is cameline sauce. This was a hot sauce, bound together with breadcrumbs, and its main ingredients were wine, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. In medieval times, it was sold in the street by sauce cooks and used to accompany roast meat.

Mayonnaise forms the base for many other sauces. It is a cold sauce which appeared at the very beginning of the 19th century. Rémoulade is a mayonnaise with added mustard and chopped condiments such as capers, chervil, chives, gherkins, tarragon and parsley. Céleri rémoulade is a classic dish in Parisian bistros.

Béchamel sauce is a white sauce where the white stock has been replaced by milk. It is a traditional accompaniment to blanquette de veau (veal stew). Mornay sauce is béchamel sauce with added grated cheese and egg yolks. These two examples demonstrate the endless variations of the four basic brown, white, butter-based and oil-based sauces.