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Long Live 'the Queen'

Not long ago, bechamel sauce was the foundation of fine cuisine. Then it was banished . . . or so we thought.


Escoffier called it "the queen of sauces." In today's kitchens, it's often called "paste." It's hard to think of another food preparation that has fallen so far and so quickly out of favor as the simple white sauce.

At one time, white sauce--flying the French flag as bechamel--was important not only in its own right but as the matriarch of a whole family of sauces. Add pureed onion to make sauce soubise, cheese for mornay, lobster butter for nantua, paprika or tomato for aurore. The list is long, and largely forgotten: cardinal, ecossaise, poulette, crevettes.

In fact, there was an entire monarchy of flour-thickened sauces, all of which are now regarded as about as stylish as the Queen Mum. Still, it wasn't more than a generation ago that the names bechamel, espagnole, veloute and all of their seemingly infinite permutations were part of the lingua franca of every professional kitchen.

Then came the revolution--or, at least, the most recent revolution--in cooking. In the 1970s, flour-thickened sauces, which had survived and even thrived during the previous culinary eras, were banished.

"That word 'roux' should be expelled from the gastronomic dictionary," said Michel Guerard, as Roy Andries de Groot reported in his 1975 book, "Revolutionizing French Cooking."


Jean Troisgros, who also called for the elimination of roux from "our dictionary" was even more vocal: "That eternal and inevitable butter-flour mixture used for thickening everything in sight, which never provided any flavor of its own, has been thrown out of the kitchen window."

What happened?

"Now," Troisgros continued, "we thicken our sauces by reduction, a simple process which not only provides a better body to the sauce but also concentrates and sharpens the flavor--an essence, a magnification of the dish. Finally, at the very last moment before serving, we melt in a small quantity of butter or cream, with no cooking at all, to complete the sauce with a sense of light and simple softness."

In the hands of such a master as Guerard or Troisgros, this is no doubt a nice sauce, perhaps even a major improvement. Unfortunately, all chefs are not masters, and throwing bechamel out the window only opened the door for endless rounds of beurre blanc (essentially nothing more than melted butter), blankets of over-reduced heavy cream (talk about paste!) and oceans of stocks boiled down until they taste like motor oil.

But now, even Guerard, who, with his ultra-light cuisine minceur was probably the chief rabble-rouser in the anti-bechamel revolution, has had second thoughts. As early as 1978, in "Michel Guerard's Cuisine Gourmande," he ruefully admitted: "Handled with finesse, binding with flour is better for you than the enrichment of sauces with outlandish quantities of butter and reduced cream."

And well he might be a bit sheepish, having turned his back on hundreds of years of tradition the way he did. There are recipes for a sauce called bechamel dating at least to the 18th century. Supposedly, the dish is named after one Louis de Bechameil, the 17th century Marquis de Nointel, who skillfully navigated the tricky political currents during the reign of Louis XIV.

The preparation was used well before that. Supposedly, one contemporary of the marquis commented, "That fellow Bechameil has all the luck. I was serving breast of chicken a la creme 20 years before he was born, yet, as you can see, I have never yet had the chance of giving my name to the most insignificant of sauces."

Florentine cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli says, "Though this sauce was given the name 'bechamel' by the French in the 18th century, it probably existed long before that in Italy. The 15th century recipe for crema di miglio fritta starts with a technique very close to this."

Close, but maybe no cigar. Crema di miglio fritta means "cream of fried millet," and millet, lacking gluten, does not form a roux, the basis of white sauce. And if this technique were really just about the same as bechamel, one wonders why the Italians didn't just keep on using their own term instead of adopting the French name (salsa besciamella or balsamella).

The early bechamel sauces were made slightly differently than today's. The recipe of Antonin Care^me, from the early 19th century, is typical. A sauce veloute (stock thickened with a flour-and-butter roux) was enriched with cream. "Pour in . . . little by little, thick cream and then you reduce this bechamel, taking care to stir with a wooden spoon to make sure the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pan."

In a marginal note, Care^me added that you could use reduced milk instead of cream--"if the latter cannot be obtained except the day before it is required, which renders it extremely liable to have a sourish taste."

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