Stirring things up: How to make the perfect sauce

It forms the backbone of the world's finest cuisines, but making it is a dying art in these days of fast foods. Now the chef Paul Gayler is stirring things up.

When Mr Rozelli of The Hague invented his "Travelling Sauce" in 1734, he didn't perhaps foresee the effect it would have on the world nearly 300 years later. His was a potent mixture of either red wine, vinegar or verjuice flavoured with herbs and spices (nutmeg, ginger, dried orange peel, shallots...) and kept in a bottle for up to a year if vinegar or wine had been used, three months with verjuice. Rather in the spirit of taking your own teabags to the Continent to get a decent cuppa, Mr Rozelli's idea was that your homemade bottle of sauce would be "a good companion for travellers, who more frequently find good meat than good cooks".

Sadly, it is now we, the travellers, who can't cook and Mr Rozelli's confident belief that our own sauce will be better than anyone else's doesn't hold true. We've lost the art of sauce-making and manufacturers have compounded our ignorance by taking Mr Rozelli's invention and turning it into a global industry; supermarket shelves worldwide groan under the weight of jars of arrabiata, carbonara, ragu, pesto, mayonnaise, béarnaise, piri-piri, salsa verde, harissa etc.

For, as Mr Rozelli had correctly surmised, sauce is vital; the backbone of French cuisine and an essential ingredient in everyone else's. The Romans were terrific at sauce; liquamen, similar to Worcestershire sauce, went with almost everything, and appeared in gravies and dressings for a variety of dishes such as boiled boar, boiled electric eels, stuffed dormice and boiled parrot. Apicius, who wrote books on cookery during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, had an especial fondness for sauces, once producing a recipe of huge complexity that only in the last paragraph mentioned the main ingredient over which the sauce was to be poured: "In a mortar put pepper, lovage, coriander-seed, mint, rue. Pound, moisten with liquamen, add honey and wine and blend. Dry the hot, boiled pig with a clean cloth and pour the dressing over..." Quite an afterthought.

It's the 19th-century French chefs – Alexis Soyer, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Marie Antoine Carême – however, who rule the world of sauces. Soyer's "simple foundation sauces", i.e. brown or white, would form the basis of much of our cooking today, if we ever did any. And descriptions of how Soyer made his sauces reveal exactly why traditional saucemaking is now almost defunct. You could take up to three days of constant boiling, skimming and straining to produce a brown sauce that would disappear down a Victorian patriarch's throat in 30 seconds. The disappearance of sauces is a dreadful state of affairs, according to Paul Gayler, executive chef at the Lanesborough Hotel, London, and a man who has travelled the world in search of sauces. He has written a book containing 300 sauce recipes, "though it could have been 420, but my publishers made me stop. Look out for sauce two. It's very easy to buy a sauce nowadays," he adds, "but people don't realise how simple it can be to make your own."

Sauce is nothing but a thickened liquid which arrives on your plate in two versions: as an accompaniment or as a coating. All sauces stem from Soyer's original two variations: brown (or espagnole) sauces and white (bechamel). These are called mother sauces and also include velouté (smooth velvet and satiny made with stock – chicken, fish or veal, depending on what the sauce is accompanying – rather than milk), and tomato sauce. The mother sauces give birth to daughter sauces, which are variations on the above. You have the great chef Carême to thank for this rather charming classification.

The West, with its legacy of French cuisine, favours heavy sauces, but as you travel east the sauces get lighter. Gayler's own preference is for "Asian sauces – like nam jim (green chilli and coriander), raita, Indonesian peanut sauce. And I love mexican relish and chimichurri (it looks like a pesto)." His absolute favourite, however, is Reform Sauce (invented by Soyer and named after the club in Pall Mall when Soyer was their chef de cuisine in 1836). "I applied for a job there because I liked it so much and they said 'at the Reform we do 18 different varieties of our sauce'. I didn't take the job." Luckily, as it turned out. Without that monotony to hold him back, Gayler has become a global sauce expert.

"Gremolata is a seasoning, not a sauce," he tells me sternly when I say I tried to make one the other day and insert it into a soup. "I once come across an Italian chef who did that, but I've never tried it," he adds dismissively. "And, talking of Italian chefs, you should always make carbonara with pecorino not parmesan."

Salsa verde? "Sauce and salsa come from salted, made-to-cover foods that were tainted, that's why so many sauces contain anchovies. I've got a 17th-century recipe for salsa verde which uses boiled eggs." Sauce vierge? "It's a simple sauce from France made with virgin olive oil, anchovies, basil and tomatoes. Antiboise sauce is a variation of sauce vierge which orginated in Antibes – put coriander in instead of basil and fresh coriander seed."

Sambal sauce? "You'll find it in India, South Asia and the Pacific Rim. If you have one in Sri Lanka, it'll be milder because of the coconut milk." And red pepper béarnaise: "I first tasted this at the Beverly Wilshire. They hadn't got it quite right, but I've made it work in the book."

Sauce, in his view, is the gateway to good cooking. "Once you've mastered the basics of sauce, you can open up your entire culinary repertoire." His book, like a good sauce maker should, reduces the mystery to a minimum. "I want to make recipes accessible. You should be able to make them from stuff you have in your cupboard. A good homemade custard, for instance (nothing but milk, cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla). No one knows how to make that any more, or realises that if you can produce a good basic hollandaise, you'll be able to make endless variations of the stuff (mustard hollandaise, ginger hollandaise, black truffle hollandaise...). I can show you how... if you're a serious cook, you've got to know how to make good sauce."

Paul Gayler's Sauce Book (Kyle Cathie, £15.99)

Beurre blanc: One sauce, many ways

Makes 300ml

2 shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons dry white wine
2 tablespoons cold water
200g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice

Put the shallots, vinegar and white wine in a small pan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and reduce for about two minutes to about one tablespoon; it should have a syrupy consistency. Over a gentle heat, add the water, then whisk in the butter a little at a time until emulsified. Add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. For a smooth sauce, strain it to remove the shallots

Variations

NANTAIS BUTTER

This first, often interchangeable, cousin of the beurre blanc sauce is made with equal amounts of wine and wine vinegar, giving the sauce a more acidic flavour. Increase the white wine vinegar in the main recipe to four tablespoons and reduce the mixture to two tablespoons. Nantais butter is great with oily fish.

HERB BEURRE BLANC

A lovely, fresh-tasting sauce. Add three tablespoons of your favourite herb: tarragon, chervil and parsley are particularly good. For basil beurre blanc, add two tablespoons chopped basil.

ROSE WINE BEURRE BLANC

The wine adds a lovely red tinge. Use rosé wine and red wine vinegar in place of white. Finish with a spoonful of reduced meat stock (optional).

SOY AND TOMATO BEURRE BLANC

Add one tablespoon light soy sauce and 75ml reduced tomato sauce to the reduction before whisking in the butter. Before serving, strain the sauce through a fine sieve. Wonderful with salmon or scallops.

SAFFRON BEURRE BLANC

Add a pinch of saffron threads to the reduction before whisking in the butter, then proceed as for the basic recipe.

GINGER AND LEMON BEURRE BLANC

Add one tablespoon grated fresh ginger before whisking in the butter, then proceed as for the basic recipe. Finish with one teaspoon grated lemon zest. Great with oily fish, such as salmon.

WATERCRESS BEURRE BLANC

Purée a bunch of watercress and add to the finished sauce, then strain it to give a wonderful, green, fresh-tasting butter.

Other warm butter sauces

BEURRE NOISETTE (brown butter sauce)

Heat 75g salted butter in a frying pan over a medium-high heat for one to two minutes, or until it foams up and becomes golden and nutty brown. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, then pour over pan-fried fish or vegetables.

BEURRE NOIR (black butter sauce)

Prepare as for brown butter sauce (above), but cook the butter for 20–30 seconds longer, or until it takes on a dark colour. Traditionally served with pan-fried skate and capers.

BEURRE FONDU (drawn butter sauce)

Bring four tablespoons of water to the boil, then whisk in 150g diced, chilled, salted butter until emulsified. Finish with a squeeze of lemon. Beurre fondu is most commonly served with asparagus, alongside or instead of hollandaise sauce. It is sometimes also used to reheat vegetables ready for serving.

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