One of the things that encouraged me to take up cooking professionally was Anthony Bourdain’s book ‘Cooking Confidential’. I enjoyed his swashbuckling stories and formulated a plan to learn to cook and travel the world, mixing it up with fellow kitchen workers from Mexico to Mauritius, living out of a suitcase, three months here, a week there…But then this was at a point in my life where I’d declared that I had only two ambitions: either to become a pirate (which I rejected when I realised that having a leg amputated was a pretty permanent career move) or to pick a fist fight with a clown. Neither came to anything (not many clowns live in rural France), and as it happens I didn’t get to travel the world either, instead I settled down in Avignon instead with the love of my life; but I did take other ideas from Bourdain, especially his maxim that ‘You always go to work no matter what’. I was particularly struck by his line on the suicide of Vatel (he killed himself when the fish order didn’t turn up in time for the banquet he was organising which his boss was throwing for Louis 14th): “Vatel punked out over a late fish delivery and offed himself like a bad poet. Somebody had to cover his station the next day.”
So I haven’t punked out, I’ve been at work for the past few weeks with my doctor saying I should at least rest if not check into hospital because I have blood poisoning and a leg and foot of even more elephantine proportions than normal – I’m having real problems getting my cooking shoes on and even more problems taking them off. The Work Ethic has really gotten into me and everyone else here has been regaling me with their own tales of coming to work while fatally injured; the Maitre d’ worked a New Year’s Eve banquet with a temperature of 104 (Centigrade, probably); Chef did two services with a broken finger and carried on working with it set so badly that it’s now permanently bent at 30 degrees to the normal. Stories of stabbings, cuttings and enough blood spurtings to make a decent black pudding abound.
Feh. Cooking is more fun than lying in a hospital bed eating crappy hospital food. Most things are more fun than eating crappy hospital food, in fact, which even Pascal, my school workstation companion agrees with – and he’s one of the individuals responsible for cooking that hospital food in Avignon.
Pascal is a great chap, as slim as I’m not, and as incapable of cooking as I seem to be able; he’s doing his CAP Cuisine (Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnel – the exam we’re taking at the end of this year) so that he gets to tick a box in his professional life, get a bump in his payscale and, in 30 years time, receive a slightly larger pension than he would have if he didn’t spend Mondays and Tuesday mornings in 2005/6 at catering college.
The one thing that Pascal can do better – much better – than me is whip cream and egg whites; 25 years tapping at computer keyboards as a professional journalist have left me with crippled hands and wrists, carpal tunnels furred up like a McDonalds’ straw stuffed with pipe cleaners, nerves swollen to the size of sticks of rhubarb; I can’t whip anything with a whisk manually for more than 15 seconds at a time without having to change hands, and this is after the operations to relieve the pain in my wrists. Pascal, being a ‘fonctionnaire’, a French civil servant, gets 10 weeks paid holiday and a 32 hour week and has never had to do a hard day’s work in his life. Not that I’m complaining, if I could get a job cooking for the French Government and become a fonctionnaire myself I’d jump at the chance; urban legend in France has it that the very, very best place to eat in the whole country is at the Elysée Palace, official home of the French President. No one there worries about the price of raw ingredients and if you want foie gras on your cornflakes, well, Chef will even make it taste nice for you.
So as we were whipping cream I got Pascal to whip up mine as well as his own; I’m turning his potatoes (pommes chateau – each one has to have seven equally-sized and -shaped sides, each potato must be the exact same size as all the others) and de-boning his veal for him, both things I happen to love doing – and he’s happy to find something he can do better than me anyway, so we’re both happy. Until Chef arrives and castigates us for not practising the things we can’t do ourselves; he’s unimpressed by my argument that I will never have to whip anything by hand, being able to use electricity to whip stuff in kitchens (what happens when the power goes out? What if you’re cooking in a mud hut in Africa?) and Pascal impresses him even less by explaining that all he has to do is put gastros into a steam oven for 11 minutes and check the contents are at 73 degrees when they come out (how will you do your exam if you have to debone a joint of veal?). He’s right, but then Chefs are always right. Even when they’re wrong.
Today we’re cooking a blanquette de veau, which I can only translate as ‘veal blanket’. I have to confess that it isn’t one of my personal favourites to eat. The idea is that everything on the plate is completely white – the meat, the sauce, the vegetables, everything. Which isn’t attractive, at least not these days anyway; any cook’s natural instinct is to make the plate look more attractive, add a splash of colour here and a dash of contrast there. Not with veal blanket, it isn’t. You’re not even allowed to put a couple of carrots on the plate to alleviate the snow-blindness.
De-boning the veal shank isn’t too difficult, although I wish now that I’d bought a more flexible de-boning knife when I started doing this cookery course. The one I have has a very solid, non-bendy blade from Spain which is fine for carving stuff, but doesn’t really hack it, as it were, when trying to trim meat off a bone. Chef – restaurant chef – has a much nicer, really bendy knife that works more like a filet de sole, a fish filleting knife but shorter; press the blade against the bone and it just glides along to separate it from the meat. Easy.
When I talk about this with my school Chef, though, he calmly takes my inflexible Spanish boning knife from me and deftly removes half the bone with just a few knife strokes; poor workmen blame their tools in French as well as in English. It’s easy to get hung up on the hardware of cooking, and the chef forums I read are full of starter cooks obsessing about whether they should buy a Japanese or German knife, time that would be better spent using a cheap knife to build up their basic knife skills. But, boys and their toys and so on; what can you say?
A blanquette, we learn, is meat cooked by poaching from a cold start – poché départ à froid. Cold starts allow the item being cooked to warm up gradually so that it’s cooked through evenly from surface to interior – this is why you should always start potatoes off in cold water, Chef tells us, so that the outside doesn’t cook more quickly than the inside and go all mushy and flake off before the interior is done. Makes sense. In this case it also stops the veal taking on anything other than a deathly palor.
This is also ‘cuisson par expansion’ which, not surprisingly, means ‘cooking by expansion’. Not of the meat itself but of its juices and flavours, from the meat out into the poaching medium; the opposite is ‘cuisine par absorption’, cooking by absorption whereby the cooking medium – say, a stock – penetrates the tasteless lump you’re trying to make interesting. School meals in the 1970s, for example (apart from those cooked by my mother, of course). And then there’s ‘cuisson mixte’, mixed cooking where the meat’s flavour expands out into the cooking medium and the medium’s own flavour penetrates the meat, as in a ragout or a daube (mmmm, daube..).
Blanquette de veau is cooked in a béchamel, which I’ve enjoyed making since I was a kid. I learned to cook as a young teenager when my mother became a top school chef – she produced 1,500 covers a day completely from scratch (including making bread), a feat which impressed me not at all then but now impresses the hell out of me. The last thing she wanted to do when she finished work was cook for the family, so I learned to cook in self-defence really; my sister was younger than me, my father isn’t a cook in any sense and so it was down to me. Béchamel I learned because I loved cheese sauce, although back then I had never heard the words ‘béchamel’ or ‘mornay’.
And my restaurant chef has ideas about béchamel too – like, cook it in the oven for an hour. It works, too – after you’ve brought the butter/flour/milk mix to the boil cook it in a slow oven, it makes a really creamy, silky-smooth sauce. If you’ve got an hour and a slow oven to spare, that is.
In school our blanquettes need to be out in time for lunch to feed the hungry staff, so there’s no hour-long baking for my béchamel today.
While the blanquette is cooking we do some white vegetables; turnips and cauliflower ‘glacés à blanc’, white-glazed; this means cooking them slowly in water with a hint of lemon, covered with paper circles. No hints of colour for them.
And, naturally, the whole is served with rice; just plain, white rice.
The assembled plates look, well, boring, but it’s a good test of technique; instead of searing and colouring everything at the highest possible temperatures it teaches us control and restraint, never bad ideas in a restaurant. But it’s not a dish I’d ever serve myself, not without adding a couple of carrots at least to liven the plate up a bit. And a few peas.