The Delights of French Food

‘It is a French recipe of my grandmother’s,’ said Mrs Ramsay, speaking with a ring of great pleasure in her voice. Of course it was French. What passes for cookery in England is an abomination (they agreed). (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)

Without a doubt I owe France a huge culinary debt. When I recall my cross-Channel excursions, my memories are more often than not food-related: crispy baguettes, pungent cheeses, flaky buttery croissants, rich earthy cassoulets, gently quivering tarte au citron… I could go on and on.

Not only has the eating of French food caused me great pleasure, but so too has the making of it. I’ve had a great time learning to make baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolat and hollandaise sauce at La Cuisine Paris, a cookery school in the heart of Paris by the river and around the corner from the Hotel de Ville – I really need to pay them another visit!  

So I can fully appreciate the pride Virginia Woolf’s creation, Mrs Ramsay, takes in serving a French dish to her dinner party guests, even if her comments about English food – whilst possibly fair enough in 1927, the year To the Lighthouse was published – seem inaccurate nowadays.

Woolf’s fifth novel centres on the Ramsay family and their summer guests at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye and covers a period of twenty years. Across the bay facing the house is a lighthouse, but the visit to it which James, the youngest of the eight Ramsay children, so desperately longs for in the novel’s opening pages has to be aborted owing to the weather. Only in the novel’s final section, when the remaining family members and some of their guests return to Skye – in the intervening years Mrs Ramsay and other characters have died – does the trip to the lighthouse actually happen.

The meal at which French food is served takes place in the novel’s opening section, set just before the outbreak of the First World War. The Ramsays and their numerous guests are gathered together at the end of the day. Mrs Ramsay presides over the meal and, as she does so, through Woolf’s use of the stream of consciousness, she reflects on her guests: their characters, their relationships and her thoughts about and feelings for them.

The dish served is boeuf en daube, which one of the Ramsays’ servants, ‘the Swiss girl‘ brings in to the dining room. Like Mrs Dalloway, whose party I wrote about in a recent post, Mrs Ramsay has not cooked the meal. But she has provided the recipe and she serves the meal to her guests, ‘diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.’ And, as a result, the acclaim for the meal is given to her, not the cook:

‘It is a triumph,’ said Mr Bankes, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked. How did she manage these things in the depths of the country? he asked her. She was a wonderful woman.

Despite my many visits to France I had never cooked – or even eaten – boeuf en daube – before writing this post. And now I realise what I’ve been missing out on: melt in your mouth meat, steeped with the flavours of red wine, thyme and bay – delicious!

According to Julia Child, the cookery writer who popularised French cookery for the American public through her book Mastering the Art of French Cookery, the word daube comes from daubiere meaning a covered casserole, and every region in France has its own version of boeuf en daube. Certainly there is an amazing array of recipes out there, so I thought that, as a novice, I should stick with tradition and follow – more or less closely – Julia Child’s own recipe.

Whilst it is not a difficult dish to make, it’s certainly not one that can be just whipped up on a whim after getting home from work. As Mrs Ramsay reflects, ‘The cook had spent three days over that dish.’ And certainly, when you add up the marinading time and then follow the suggestion that the dish is best served reheated the next day after an overnight stay in the fridge, then three days seems pretty accurate timing.

Ingredients (serves 4)

For the marinade
750g stewing steak diced
120ml red wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme leaves
1 crumbled bay leaf
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced

8 rashers streaky bacon
100g mushrooms, sliced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
250ml beef stock
50g plain flour, sieved on a plate
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Place the beef and the marinade ingredients in a non-metallic bowl. Mix thoroughly so that the meat is coated with the marinade ingredients. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours.

When you are ready to cook the boeuf en daube, preheat the oven to 160C / 140C fan / Gas mark 2.
Remove the beef from the marinade, keeping the marinade ingredients intact. Roll each piece of beef in the flour, shaking off any excess.
You will need a fireproof casserole dish with a lid.
Sprinkle olive oil over the base of the casserole and then line with 2 rashers of streaky bacon cut in half.
Sprinkle half of the marinade vegetables (onion, carrot and garlic), the mushrooms and tomatoes over the bacon.
Then scatter half the beef pieces on top. Season with salt and pepper.
Repeat the layers: another 2 rashers of bacon cut in half; the remaining marinade vegetables, mushrooms and tomatoes; the remaining beef and seasoning.
End with a layer of four rashers of bacon.
Pour in the wine from the marinade and enough stock to just cover the casserole contents.
Bring the cassserole to simmering point on the top of the stove and then cover with a lid and transfer to the oven.
Cook for 3-4 hours, checking regularly to make sure it is just simmering (if it isn’t, you can take it out of the oven and get it going again on the top of the stove before returning to the oven).
Remove from the oven and ideally refrigerate overnight and then reheat the next day in the oven for 1 hour at 160C / 140C fan / Gas mark 2.
Serve with mashed potatoes or rice and plenty of good French red wine.

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