It’s not that I am totally averse to following recipes. When it comes to any form of baking I’m happy to do so, in almost laboratory-like detail. But in most other cooking, I’m a bit slapdash (although I like, in my deluded way, to think of it as “instinctive”) and I rarely if ever follow step-by-step instructions when producing, say, a casserole. I suspect that a lot of people are in the same boat: we know the basics, the principles and the rest is easy, using what we have to hand and maybe adding our own little flourishes.
And so it was unusual for me to take a book – Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (the 1972 Penguin single volume edition) – and proceed to…er…follow a recipe in almost forensic detail. At least, that was the idea. But could I break with my old habits? And what would the resulting dish be like? Would it be sufficiently different from my “instinctive version”?
There was a time when “marketing” didn’t mean persuading people to buy stuff that they may not need and don’t want. In the EF Benson Lucia novels (and if you have yet to read them, you have a luscious treat in store) “marketing” is what the women of the town did with their baskets in the morning: going from greengrocer to butcher to poulterer in search of food for the day. I like the idea of “marketing” in this sense. Shopping suggests a list of things that you’re going to buy, whether they are good or not. “Marketing” is about seeing what’s good on the day.
On this occasion, I can’t claim to have been “marketing”. I had a shrewd notion that I would get some excelent rump steak from Bart O’Donoghue in Tallow, and so it proved. But would this be transformed into Carbonades a la Flamande or Boeuf a la Catalane or Estouffade de Boeuf? No. As I browsed Julia’s recipes, the one that cried out to be cooked, on a leisurely Saturday afternoon) was Boeuf a la Bourguignonne (page 342). It has one great advantage over other versions (such as Elizabeth David’s, Elizabeth Luard’s, Hume and Downe’s, Mireille Johnson’s and Curnonsky’s) in that there’s no marinading. Another thing that caught my eye is the inclusion of some tomato puree in the mixture, something that hardly anyone else uses. Curnonsky is a rare exception in this respect; and, rather appropriately, his made-up surname is based on cur non?, the Latin for “why not?”
The first step in Julia’s recipe involves a 6oz piece of streaky bacon; she tells you to remove the rind, slice the meat into lardons and to simmer these in water for 10 minutes.
Well, I’m afraid I fell at the first hurdle. Life, I concluded, is too short, so I substituted a 125g packet of bacon pieces from Lidl. And yes, I can hear the shrieks of disapproval as I write this but wait, wait…
As JC advises, I sauteed the bacon bits in a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy old Doufeu casserole (bright orange and probably the same age as the book) for two to three minutes, removed it with a slotted spoon and set aside. I then ensured that the bacon fat and olive oil mixture was “almost smoking” before browning the meat.
Now, JC calls for 3lb of lean stewing steak cut into 2 inch cubes and that’s what I did when I got my rump steak home. But about a quarter of a pound was lost in trimming. “Dry the beef; it will not brown if it is damp”, says JC and this was to become something of a mantra with her (like “don’t crowd the mushrooms”. Bu it’s absolutely true. The kind of supermarket beef that erupts from its plastic bag with a splash of bloody fluid will be hopeless in this respect. Just don’t bother with it. Go to a good butcher. My rump steak was dry already (and aged a few weeks too) and it browned right away, especially as I did it in small batches. Then I put it with the bacon.
JC then gets you to brown 1 sliced onion and 1 sliced carrot in the same fat/oil – and I did just that. The she says to pour away the fat/oil but there was only a trickle left at this stage.
You now, according to JC, put your browned beef, the bacon and the vegetables back into the casserole and you season them with 1 teaspoon of salt and a quarter of a teaspoon of pepper. I put in exactly that amount of salt (level, not heaped) and ground in enough black pepper to approximate to a quarter of a teaspoon. Then, as directed, I sprinkled over an ounce of flour and tossed everything about before putting in the oven (which is meant to be hot – 230ºC/gas mark 8; our Aga was cooler than that on the day). You’re meant to take it out and toss again after 4 minutes but I gave it 6 to be on the safe side. “This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust,” according to Julia. I’m not sure it really did. Maybe I should have used the electric oven. Anyway, I gave it another 6 minutes rather than another 4 and proceeded.
At this point you take the casserole out of the oven and turn the heat down to 150ºC/gas mark 2. Now comes the wine and I’m afraid I departed from the recipe once again at this point. JC calls for 1 1/4 pints of “a full-bodied, young red wine such as…a Chianti”. (They used to say that you needed a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin for the pot and another for the table, but that would be a very, very expensive beef stew). I used a Nero d’Avola from Sicily and I didn’t measure the quantity; I used all but a small glassful.
In it went, followed by “enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered…” Here was another departure. The stock was, understandably, supposed to be beef stock. The only stock that we had, in the freezer, was duck stock. And in it went. Followed by a tablespoon of tomato paste (puree), 3 rather than the indicated 2 crushed cloves of garlic, a big sprig of fresh thyme in place of the 1/2 teaspoon (presumably dried?) in the recipe and, “a crumbled bay leaf”. My advice is to avoid crumbling bay leaves. If you crumble them you get little hard pieces of leaf that will stick like glue to your palate. And I read, years ago, in the British Medical Journal of all places, that swallowing bay leaves is not a good idea… No, next time I’m going to put in the whole bay leaf and fish it out at the end.
Anyway, all was stirred together and at this stage you are told “bring to simmering point on the top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and place in lower part of the preheated oven.” Actually, I brought it to boiling point because the casserole was going into the bottom oven of the Aga which is cooler than 150ºC, so I wanted to give it a bit of a boost.
As advised by JC, I left it there for between 3 and 4 hours (nearer 4, actually). “The meat is done,” she says, “when a fork pierces it easily.” The button mushrooms (browned in butter but a bit less of them than advised) and the baby onions, softened in stock, went in at the last minute.
Well, it turned out to be the best version of this dish that I ever cooked and the tomato puree, which worried me a little, simply vanished into the dark, intense sauce and worked some kind of magic, albeit not in a tomatoey way. Overall, it was way better than my usual…er…”instinctive” version of this great old French classic.
Julia advises, in that scatter-gun approach to wine that was so common in cookbooks from the ’60s and ’70s, to eat it with “Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Saint-Emillion claret, or Burgundy.” I don’t think the Beaujolais would be up to the job and it would need to be a pretty serious Cotes du Rhone. In the end, we had it with a chunky, nicely oaked Corbieres - not a wine region that would have been on JC’s radar when she was writing her magnum opus because it was widely known then, along with Minervois, for producing oceans of rather nasty, cheap reds. How times change.
This is a terrific recipe. So good, in fact, that I’m now planning to cook Julia Child’s Coq au Vin. It looks like the same procedure, just with chicken instead of beef, which suits me fine. And I might even do as Julia says about the bacon. I’m off to find a 6oz piece which I shall then lovingly de-rind… But I have to say that the Lidl bacon pieces are very tempting.