Chapter 11: Week 8: English cooking

The French are initially surprised to find an English person cooking at all. There’s a famous TV advert here for After Eight chocolate mints which shows a group of BCBGs (French for ‘yuppies’) eating After Eights with their post-dinner coffee and finding them distinctly edible, if not positively quite nice. “After Eights,” the tagline runs, “they’re English – but they’re good!”
Then they start asking about ‘La Cuisine Anglaise’ – English cooking – and what sort of stuff English people cook at home. Well, here we’re leading the French, I tell them – we’ve been buying cooked/chilled ready meals by the tonne and nuking them in the microwave for more than a couple of decades. French people are doing their best to catch up now, I tell them, and then they start talking about the Traiteurs they have – shops where you buy freshly-made (well, normally freshly-made) portions of restaurant classics and, er, zap them in the microwave. And anyway, traiteurs are closing down all over the place because they can’t get the staff and they’re too expensive to run and the supermarkets are filling up with cook/chill dishes…
And then, after a quick detour to laugh at ‘Lamb with mint sauce! Ha ha ha!’ they say Ah! Oui! Légumes à  l’anglaise! Vegetables cooked in the English style means boiling them in salted water. So now they remember that English people boil the crap out of just about everything, usually all in one giant vat-like pan for three or four hours. Which isn’t that far from the truth in some cases – one of the few stories I know about my great-grandmother Loseby was that she used to boil tripe and potatoes in the same pan. For three to four hours.
So today at school we’re cooking Merlan à  l’anglaise, which turns out not to be boiled but to use that other great traditional English cooking method, frying in a pan of oil. Merlan is similar to the English Whiting and American Silver Hake and is a member of the cod family. We use it often at school because it’s cheap – we don’t serve it to customers at the restaurant, although it does feature sometimes in staff meals.
To prepare it à  l’anglaise you have to remove the gills first and drag the entrails out with them through the gill slits, without cutting open the belly. This is easier to do than it sounds, fish turn out not to be very attached to their insides. Then you open it along the spine, rather than along the belly as is more normally done, removing the bones as you do so. Then you fan it out but leave the head in place. The body is coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and pan-fried, leaving the head in place to stare up accusingly at those about to eat it. I can’t see English people ever eating fish like that these days – most think that fish swim around shrink-wrapped in polystyrene trays if they think of fish swimming at all. And normally, I tell my French friends, they eat only the fingers of the fish these days, an idea that amuses French people no end since they, like Americans, eat fish sticks not fish fingers.
By now I’ve done lots of fish at work so I don’t find the whole procedure too difficult; it’s really a way of practising various knife skills, I realise, since this is now a very old-fashioned dish which you wouldn’t see in any restaurant even over here – too much effort to start with and the French, especially younger ones, are starting to not like things that stare back at them from their plates. Many people have real difficulties cutting out the spine and then de-boning the still-joined filets, and end up with something that looks like it’s been given a good kicking by Manchester United fans. Still, that’s why we have breadcrumbs, “Pour cacher la misère” – to hide the misery, as my restaurant chef puts it, normally when he’s surveying something I’ve messed up in the patisserie. Be very suspicious if you buy a pudding in a French restaurant and the sauce/custard is poured over the tart/pie/whatever instead of in an attractive pattern onto the plate around it – it means the patissier has really messed it up and is hiding his errors from you or, more likely, his Chef de Cuisine. Two nice thick coats of breadcrumbs and we’re ready to go.
We also do Petits Pois Paysanne, little peas peasant-style, in which peas are the least of the ingredients – there’s carrots, turnips, baby onions, lettuce and bacon bits in there outweighing the peas two-to-one. Which is fine if you don’t particularly like peas and want to hide them – but then you’d probably be better off cooking the whole recipe and just leaving out the peas.
 After lunch we have our regular fortnightly Hygiène class, this week talking about Glucides – sugars. Which apparently should represent 55% of our diet, particularly from ‘glucides lentes’ – slow sugars – such as those found in pasta and, apparently, bread. As little as possible should come from pure, refined sugar. Glucides, we learn, are where we get our energy from for our muscles and nerves, and we need 100 grammes per day. We also need 15% of our diet to be protein and 30% lipides – fats. 
Right. So I’d better put that pain au chocolat away, then?
We do légumes à  la Grècque this afternoon, vegetables cooked the Greek way, which means slowly in a little water and olive oil after cutting them up into attractive shapes. Artichauts, artichokes first – these confuse many of my culinary student colleagues who end up with something the size of half a ping-pong ball full of fluff. But, again luckily, I’ve done these at work so understand that the idea is to remove the leaves on the outside and the fluff on the inside and put the rest into acidulated water (i.e. with half a lemon squeezed into it and then the lemon chucked in for good measure). Then there’s cauliflowers cut into ‘bouquets’ which just means bite-sized pieces, escaloped mushrooms (cut into quarters on a slant, although even our school chef says he finds this idea impossible to accomplish), diced onions, chopped garlic, a bouquet garni and a ‘sac aromatique’ to prepare. The ‘aromatic bag’ is a bit of cloth with any interesting-looking spices you can find bunged in, which turns out to be a bit of old nutmeg and some peppercorns, being the only things left lying around the school kitchen. And since each vegetable needs to be cooked on its own it means a bouquet garni and ‘sac aromatique’ for each pan. And as there aren’t that many saucepans in the room we have to group our cooking, which is fine by me unless we then have to present a plate to be marked – not everyone turns their vegetables as well as me and I’ve been marked down before for featuring vegetables from someone else on my demonstration plate.
 A la Grècque cooking turns out to be very similar to our teacher’s favourite way of cooking most vegetables – à  blanc, i.e. in a sautoir with a little sugar, salt, pepper and butter. Remove the sugar and replace butter with olive oil, cover with a circle of silicon paper and you’re good to go. 
And in the end there’s no need to make up a plate for service, so my superior English turning isn’t seen by anyone.


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