Chapter 13: Week 10: In the soups

There are, it turns out, rather a lot of soups. Going back to the days of Escoffier and earlier, rather than calling soup with carrots in it, ‘Carrot Soup’, the French call it ‘Potage Crècy’, named after either Crècy-la-Chapelle in Seine-et-Marne, or after Crècy-en-Ponthieu in the Somme. Both claim they grow the best carrots and the best soups, both claim Potage Crècy (and anything else containing carrots) as their own whilst declaiming the others as lesser, impostering, worthless, tasteless, rank rubbish-vendors. The French are never prouder than when boasting about the superiority of their local produce.
I mean, just look at the table we got given today; there are potages where you start with carefully sized vegetables, puréed vegetables, puréed dried vegetables, with creams and cream-liasions, consommés (aka clear potages), bisques, cold potages, regional specialities…”You need to know all the families plus one or two examples of specific soups within them,” says school Chef. So yes, we have to know that split-pea soup is really Potage Saint Germain and not just split-pea soup, that a Consommé Madrilène (served with straw-diced red peppers) is chicken consommé with chopped fresh tomato pulp in it, and that if you really want to start an argument in a room full of Provençal cooks you start telling them what to put into a Soupe au Pistou – man, the guys and gals in class went over that one for a good quarter of an hour. It’s a good job our knives were across the other side of the building in the kitchen, otherwise blood would have flowed. Not least mine for suggesting that, like bouillabaisse (fish stew), it’s really made up of whatever vegetables and herbs you have lying around. Blimey, you’d have thought I’d asked for a well-done steak.
So, over in the atelier we do a Potage St Germain aux Croutons – split-pea soup with croutons, as I think you say in English (I’m remembering fewer and fewer words of your language with each day that goes by. Désolé.) It has the washed and blanched split peas, blanched and fried lardons of bacon, leeks and white veal stock.
Then we do a Velouté Dubarry, which is ‘velvety’ veal stock with cauliflower, cream and egg yolks. With both I learned something I’d never thought of before – after mixing them with the giraffe (the large, hand-held mixer you plunge into the saucepan and which, in our industrial-sized case, is about the size of a decent pneumatic drill) and then passing the mix through a chinois, you should re-boil it again since you can’t guarantee the cleanliness of the giraffe and chinois.
This afternoon – after a singularly unappetising lunch in the school canteen of very wishy-washy cod mornay (we’ve discovered that the stuff we cook on Mondays is usually served on Tuesdays when the school director makes a big deal of eating in the canteen with the plebs instead of in the private staff dining room or the gastronomic restaurant next door where the final-year kids get to cook) – it’s Entremets Singapour. What’s an entremet? Well, the fact that the Larousse Gastronomique feels it necessary to devote nearly half a page to the subject should clue you in to the potential problem here. The word means ‘put between’ and basically, it’s anything served after the meat course. Generally it means puddings, but in big restaurants the entremettier will do savoury soufflés, pancakes and pastries plus sweet entrements like sweet omelettes, rice puddings and ice creams. But then Taillevent reckoned to also include things like oyster stew and almond milk with figs and “swan with all its feathers” in the list of possibilities, although this latter item is apparently not something we’d be expected to produce for our final exam.
Instead, Singaporean Entremets are a Genoise sponge (this is a very international dish) cut into three horizontal layers with crème patisserie between the layers. Again, I have trouble getting my Genoise frothy enough because of my RSI-ed wrists. I must think about having an operation again when the restaurant is closed in January.
Talking of the importance of regional produce, back in the restaurant we had the Frodd Squodd (Frodd is how the French mis-pronounce Fraud) from the Service Veterinaire (which is what the French call the Health Inspectors – no, I don’t know why) the other day. They were checking that our Poulets de Bresse really are from Bresse and not some hut up the road. This is very important in a country where, if your lentils aren’t from Puy, they’re inedible. Well, that’s what French people think, anyway. Same with most things – cherries, almonds, ducks, lamb, salmon (must be from Scotland – you know, that place to the North of England from which no English person would buy salmon any more as it’s all poisoned, apparently), everything has its origin. There’s even the AOC (now IGP) system to regulate this sort of thing – AOC applies not just to wine but butter, milk, olive oil, you name it.
So the Frodd Squodd spent half an hour reading our menus and checking our bills and labels and the contents of fridges and cold rooms, and pronounced us nearly clean. We need, they said, some way of indicating the origin of each mouthful of beef rather than just having a line on the menu saying it could be from France, Holland, Belgium or Germany. A blackboard at the entrance, perhaps, they suggested. Can’t see it happening, somehow. In the same way that Chef refuses to acknowledge their advice on keeping eggs (he keeps them in a kitchen annexe rather than the fridge), I can’t see us erecting a ‘Today’s Specials’!’ blackboard in the dining room.

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