French bureaucracy is complicated for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it’s charged with keeping French bureaucracy going. In the UK, 11% of the workforce works for the government in one capacity or another – policemen, nurses, bureaucrats, whatever. In France, the percentage is 24%. Twenty-four percent! A quarter of the workforce which does nothing productive at all, just spends its days providing fodder for the nation’s stand-up comedians and moaners. Blimey.
So today at school we spend an hour learning about the French judicial system which, according to the bureaucrats who organise the French educational system, I need to know about before I’m safe to unleash on the omelette-and-chips buying French public.
Like much of the civilised world, French government is divided into Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches (are you asleep yet? Try reading this in a hot, stuffy, sunlit classroom after getting up at 6 am, working in a hot kitchen all morning and then stuffing yourself with stodge at lunchtime) and the separations thereof “As detailed in the 5th French Constitution of 1958, the fundamental text of the Republic, of the state of law and democracy,” I noted before nodding off. And then I woke up and drew a huge diagram of the French judicial system, the eight tribunals and all the rest of it. Blimey. No really, blimey.
Anyway. Luckily this morning was much more interesting. The cookery we learn at school is very traditional; the recipes largely date back to Escoffier and the early 20th century, some beyond that to Careme or earlier. It’s the basis of French cuisine from which everything since has sprung – this is how Escoffier made a fond de veau, veal stock, no one has found a better method so this is how we do it now is what we are told at school. The French are, quite rightly in my view, very proud that their cuisine is the foundation of most cookery in the Western world and, naturally, insist that theirs is the best version of it available.
In a way it’s reassuring; these methods have been tried and tested by generations of chefs over more than a hundred years so they work and work well; equally it’s discomfiting to realise that, if your recipe doesn’t work it really is your own fault and it’s really you who’s done something wrong.
I am most discomfited by things which are supposed to rise and foam, everything from whipped cream to bread. So today I have the cold sweats as we approach the pâte à brioche which we are going to use to make a favourite snack dish of many French people, the saucisson brioché, sausage in a (brioche) bun, i.e. posh sausage rolls.
Frankly I’d much rather make the saucisson, a process that interests me much more than baking simply because I know I can do it. I’ve already written about how Pascal, the nice chap with whom I share a workstation at school, whips my cream for me while I cut his potatoes into pretty shapes. My inability to make things rise extends to bread too I’m sure, since every time I’ve tried making it myself at home – either manually or in a bread machine – I’ve managed to produce only doorstop-quality lumps of flour and water so unleavened the ancient Israelites would be proud of me. Although if one of my loaves fell on them out of the sky they’d end up with concussion rather than a decent feed. I have no idea why I can’t make bread or decently-risen cakes; I have warm hands, I have acid sweat, I am stupid – all are possibilities and, indeed, true in at least two of the three cases. The fact remains that, in the rising stakes, I’m a non-starter.
So brioche, Chef Garnier assures us, is easy. Anyone can make it. It’s almost as easy as profiteroles, he says. My profiteroles always end up as flat as my Yorkshire puddings, I tell him, and have no reason to think that my brioche will be any different.
We’ll see, he says.
The lesson starts with a discussion of flour types; today we’re using what is known in France as Type 45 or Farine de Patissier, since it is very rich in gluten, the protein which gives it the strength to stay up once it’s risen. “This is very white flour,” he tells us. “Even whiter than English skin.” Har har, who would he tease without an English guy in the class? Anyway, the higher the number the less gluten the flour has, Chef tells us. Right.
So we sieve the flour and form it into two adjacent rings, one large and one small. These are fontaines, which literally means fountains but translates better as wells, to receive, in the large one, the majority of the liquid and eggs; the smaller one takes the yeast dissolved in a little of the warmed milk; the large well takes the sugar and, importantly, the salt. Mix the salt and yeast and the former kills the latter and your dough will not rise. Hmm. Perhaps salt from my sweaty hands is killing the yeast? But then why am I equally incapable of making cakes rise when using levure chimique, baking powder?
Anyway. We mix up the two wells separately for a couple of minutes, adding the salt, sugar and eggs to the large well before mixing the two fontaines together. The mixture, we are warned, must be neither too dry nor too humid; it must have body, Chef says, and you give it body by battering it against the steel worktop, throwing it down and lifting it up like some sort of alien blob, thumping it down to Give It Body. It’s done when it no longer sticks to the counter, apparently, but the fault in the process here is that, until it no longer sticks to the counter, it sticks to the counter. And your hands, clothes, hair, face and anything else it touches. So much for Escoffier’s great recipes.
But eventually I wear my dough out enough so that it gives up (most) of its hold on me, my clothes and the worktop and I add little parcels of softened butter (beurre en pomade en petits parcelles) before leaving it to rise for half an hour at 30-35 degrees. At which point we ‘chase out the carbonic gas’, as Chef translates it (badly) for me before allowing it to rise again.
Roll it out, wrap it round your sausage (Ooh Missus!), paint it with egg yolk and into the oven for 45 minutes or so until it looks just like the ones they sell in the shops. Well, a misshapen version of one they sell in the shops, one which only my mother could love and even she would be caught feeding it surreptitiously to the dog under the table when she thought I wasn’t watching.
Still. Chef deems them all Good Enough to let us out to lunch and we trek off to the school canteen to eat, well, saucisson brioché. What a coincidence. I am careful to choose a slice from one not made by me and quite tasty it is too, if you ignore most of the pastry and eat the bought-in saucisson inside.
And avoiding the stodge is a good idea, it turns out, since there’s that aforementioned class on the French legal system immediately after lunch.
We eventually escape with our lives after a nice nap to spend the afternoon making ‘Chou de ménage’, household cabbage. What?
Household cabbage, it turns out, is a cabbage cut into quarters and then used by Chef as an example of ‘Braiser par expansion’, braising by expansion whereby the delicious taste of the cabbage expands out into its cooking medium (can you spot the fatal flaw in this argument, children? Can you?)
Anyway. Trim your cabbage, cut it into four equal quarters, rinse it in vinegared water to kill the beasties, blanch in boiling water for a few minutes, refresh in iced water, drain, cut off the root which you’d left to hold the whole thing together while it cooked (oops), fry off your Garniture Aromatique (onions and carrots cut into a nice macedoine), add the cabbage wrapped with bacon or couenne (the membrane which surrounds a pig’s stomach – very useful for holding together things which would otherwise float off and do their own thing – pop it into your casserole dish and cook it in the oven at 200 degrees Centigrade for an hour and a quarter. Blimey. All this for braised cabbage? Ah, but the lessons are about braising and wrapping and making a macedoine with everything the same size. It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have learned these lessons on something edible.
Still. We finish off the afternoon with some Pommes Fondants, melting potatoes. The object of which, of course, is not to finish up with melted potatoes. Well, not until they arrive in the client’s mouth that is. We start with large potatoes, 7-8 centimetre jobbies which we cut in two and then turn so that they’re all the same size and with the legally obligatory seven-sided shape and then cook in a buttered dish in the oven, moistening regularly with ‘fond blanc’, white chicken stock (i.e. stock made from unroasted chicken bones – as opposed to fond brun, which is made with roasted bones) so they sit up to their waists in it. Except that, at the end of the cooking time (an hour or so) the liquid should all be just evaporated and your spuds barely coloured. So get that one right or turn your pommes fondants into pommes on fire.