I started my cooking life with certain prejudices and one of them had to do with sauces. When I began having to cook for myself, which was during the occupation of Germany, a sauce seemed to me to serve to cover one unappetising flavour with another. (Stray cats do not a meal make, no matter how hard the times.)
In my next gastronomic phase, which I can only describe as Francophobe, I came to think that sauces existed because the French were really a bunch of tightwads: they served you cheap cuts of meat and buried them in a sauce to conceal their extreme frugality.
It was only considerably later in life that I came to realise that sauces are a branch of cooking in themselves and vital to the art. They are also the most paradoxical branch of cooking, for a sauce is, in its basic technique, extremely conservative and, in its blending of ingredients, positively improvisatory and endlessly inventive.
Raymond Oliver is a wise guide to both aspects. His book Classic Sauces (Robinson, 1989, pounds 4.99) is as full of common sense as it is of general cooking lore. To reflect the conservative nature of most good sauciers, let me quote: 'For a long time,' he writes, 'I have had the impression that sauces could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that if one were able to produce three of them, one could succeed with all the others.'
Mr Oliver's three basic sauces are: mayonnaise, which is a basic emulsified sauce ('not only a mixture, but a noble mixture. Starting from a liquid fatty substance, the sauce is changed . . . the texture being the result of chemical changes'); espagnole, a basic brown sauce with tomatoes; and bechamel, the archetype of sauces blended with flour.
But what a superstructure is raised on this modest base. Think just of the emulsified sauces (the hardest to make well), both hot and cold: among the hot, the hollandaise, the remoulade chaude, the bearnaise (with its variants, the beauharnais, with tarragon, and the paloise, with mint), the mousseline, the bavaroise; and among the cold, sauce verte, the various sauces remoulade, the cressoniere, the dijonnaise and so on.
If you consult your memory and your tastebuds and just imagine those sauces and the ingredients that they accompany, you will quickly perceive the importance of the sauce to any dish; and if, like me, you are given to sudden spurts of enthusiasm, you may come to think that serving a dish without a sauce is rather like wandering out naked into the world.
The innovatory aspect of sauce-making is evident in the huge variety superimposed on the rather rigorous basic methodologies. If most amateur cooks, given the risk of failure involved, eschew the making of emulsified sauces, there are few people who have not tried their hands at a bechamel or a veloute (the difference between these is dead simple: if you substitute the juices in which you have been cooking your dish, or a stock, for the milk, you have a veloute, not a bechamel.) The reason for this universal popularity is that bechamels and veloutes are relatively easy to make, they do not readily fail, and they are infinitely adaptable.
Here again, Mr Oliver is a perfect guide, for there are two ways of making a classic bechamel: one with hot milk, the other with cold. You may (1) start with a light roux (2oz butter, ditto flour, blended on a moderate heat) and then add a half-pint of milk, which should be boiling; or (2), the safer way, you do it in stages, first melting the butter and, when it sizzles, blending in the flour, and then adding the milk (which in this case should be cold) bit by bit until it is perfectly blended and without lumps. (If lumps persist, push through a sieve and reheat.) In both cases you continue to cook on a slow heat until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency. Then season - the usual being salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg,
A bechamel may be saved and refrigerated, and its variations are infinite: with hard-boiled eggs added, with parsley, mushrooms, oysters, shrimps, any taste you fancy. Two things need to be remembered: a 'light' roux is a matter of cooking time, and the longer you cook the butter, the darker the sauce. If you want the bechamel, or basic cream sauce, richer, then stir in the yolk of an egg; a little lemon juice will sharpen it.
I will come back to the subject of sauces but, for the time being, the possible variations on a basic bechamel should offer scope for invention. The true dilettante, says Mr Oliver, is someone who makes a good dish modestly. They persevere 'for the joy of testing, trying, blunting their talents on invisible difficulties; they will try out a dish 100 times to perfect it.'