Food: The magnificent seven

A selection of professional sauces, without any buckets of stock, bones, or effort. Photograph by Jason Lowe

Of all the sauces in all the world I had to taste bearnaise first. Mind you, among all the other magical lotions begging to be licked in my first place of toil it was a close- run thing between this unique yellow ointment and further temptations: sauce marchand de vin, sauce a la creme aux morilles, and sauce canard - this latter a curiously sweet and absurdly rich cider and cream sauce that accompanied "Canard Normandie", perhaps the Champeau brothers' boldest thwack upon the tastebuds of a clientele (circa 1970) that maybe preferred their duck "wi' gravy".

Times have changed since then. The children of the well-to-do Lancashire folk who frequented my place of apprenticeship might today find their duck served up with a sauce of lemongrass, coconut milk and galangal. To give some idea of how things were in the hinterland of Bury in the early 1970s, fresh tarragon (used simply to flavour wine vinegar for the bearnaise) had to be dispatched from London - along with Bayonne ham, dried mushrooms, snails and walnut oil. All these can now be bought from a supermarket. (But why is it that my late-night shop can sell a huge bunch of fantastically fresh flat-leaf parsley for 40p, whereas my local Tesco seems unembarrassed to offer a few sprigs in a packet for a staggering 65p?)

I know I may have previously mentioned my formative years at La Normandie restaurant et bar, in Birtle near Bury, under the tutelage of the late Yves Champeau, but the teachings of that cussed, cantankerous and cherished man will never leave my memory. He was no superstar chef (there was happily no such thing in those days), but he knew how to impress a keen young lad who simply wanted to cook for a living. He also knew how to make a decent sauce.

The following collection of simple professional kitchen sauces is nothing whatsoever to do with kilos of veal bones, buckets of stocks, or hours of simmering. And, furthermore, each is served in its own right, to be spooned over the cooked meat, poultry, fish or vegetable of your choice.

Bearnaise sauce, enough for two fiercely grilled, rare and bloody rump steaks

150g butter

2 tbsp tarragon vinegar

1 small shallot, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 tsp dried tarragon

2 egg yolks

2 tsp freshly chopped tarragon leaves

salt and pepper

squeeze of lemon juice (optional)

Melt the butter in a small pan and remove the froth from the surface. Keep warm. In a slightly larger stainless-steel or enamelled pan (aluminium will stain the sauce a muddy green colour), heat together the vinegar, shallot and dried tarragon until the liquid has all but evaporated. Remove from the heat, cool for a few moments, add the egg yolks and whisk them into the shallot mixture. Return the pan to a very low heat, add a tiny splash of water and continue to whisk until the egg yolks have thickened to a "mousse-like" consistency. Transfer the pan to a surface spread with a small damp cloth (this simply allows it to remain stable as you whisk). Continuing to whisk, introduce the butter in a thin stream - as if you were making mayonnaise - until only the milky residue is left in the bottom of the pan and the sauce is shiny and thick. Note: if you feel the sauce is too thick, you may add a little of this to thin it. Pass the sauce through a sieve into a warm bowl, stir in the fresh tarragon, season with salt and pepper and, finally, sharpen with a little lemon juice if you think it judicious.

Cream, wine and mushroom sauce, enough to smother four small fillets of veal or two escalopes

25g butter

1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped

75g button mushrooms, thinly sliced

pinch of salt and a little white pepper

50ml white wine

2 tbsp dry vermouth

150ml double cream

squeeze of lemon juice

chopped parsley (optional)

Melt the butter in a small pan and fry the shallots until pale golden. Add the mushrooms, season, and stew gently over a low heat until they, too, have taken on a little colour. Pour in the wine and vermouth and simmer until only a smear of liquid is detectable in the bottom of the pan. Pour in the cream, stir everything together and simmer once more until the sauce is unctuous and a rich, pale ivory colour. Sharpen with a little lemon juice and brighten with a flurry of parsley.

Cream and cider sauce, enough to serve with one roast duck

2 cans of sweet cider (Woodpecker is just fine)

400ml double cream

1 sweet apple, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp Calvados

Put the cider in a stainless-steel or enamelled pan. Put onto a high heat and simmer briskly until it looks syrupy and dark brown, and the bubbles have become very small. Do not stir, but do keep a keen eye on the process, as it can caramelise and burn.

Pour in the cream, whisk together thoroughly and add the apples. Simmer once more until custard-like in consistency and the apples are soft. Add the Calvados and cook for a further couple of minutes or so. Tip into a liquidiser and whizz until smooth. Pour through a fine sieve and gently re-heat. Offer separately, in a warmed jug, for each person to pour over their serving of crisp roast duck.

Anchovy sauce, enough to dress eight neat little lamb cutlets or a couple of fillet steaks, both grilled

4-6 anchovy fillets (Spanish ones packed in olive oil are possibly the finest) depending on their size

1 small clove of garlic, peeled and sliced

several parsley leaves, roughly chopped

a generous pinch of dried chilli flakes

1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard

6-8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

a little boiling water (optional)

4 spindly spring onions, trimmed and very finely chopped

Put the anchovy fillets, garlic, parsley and chilli flakes in a mortar. Pound to a paste with the pestle. Add the vinegar and mustard and stir together. Using a small whisk, beat in the olive oil in a thin stream until loosely homogenised (a trickle of boiling water from a kettle can help the emulsification here). Finally, stir in the spring onions and leave the sauce to macerate and mature at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Sauce soubise, enough for grilled lamb chops for four, or to serve with a small roast leg or shoulder

100g butter

3 large Spanish onions, peeled and chopped

salt and freshly ground white pepper

50ml white wine vinegar

100ml medium dry white wine

400ml whipping cream

a few sprigs of fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

Melt the butter in a roomy pan and add the onions. Season, and allow them to stew quietly, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes, or until very soft and melting.

Stir occasionally and be careful not to allow the onions to catch or colour. Add the vinegar and continue to simmer until there is no trace left of any liquid, be it onion juices or vinegar - there should simply be gently bubbling butter and slippery onions. Now add the wine and similarly simmer away, but this time arrest the cooking a few minutes before the wine has fully evaporated. Pour in the cream and stir in the herbs. Finally, bring the mixture to its final simmer and leave to stew for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Once again, don't let the sauce catch; use one of those heat-diffuser pads if you have one.

The penultimate look should be a mass of thickly creamed onions. Now pick out the thyme twigs (their leaves will have fallen into the onions) and bay leaves. Tip the whole lot into the goblet of a liquidiser (a food processor will do the job, but you won't get the velvety smoothness that is achieved using a liquidiser) and puree until extremely smooth. Pass through a fine sieve into a small pan, check the seasoning and gently heat through once more.

Tarragon cream dressing, to serve with cold chicken or salmon, makes about 350ml

2 large eggs

3 level tbsp caster sugar

5 tbsp good quality tarragon vinegar

pinch of salt

250ml double cream

1 tbsp freshly chopped tarragon

Beat together the eggs, sugar and vinegar in the top of a double boiler (or in a stainless-steel or china bowl suspended over barely simmering water) until thick and mousse- like, with the whisk leaving thick trails through the mixture; use an electric hand whisk for the speediest results. Remove from the heat and continue beating until lukewarm. Loosely whip the cream and fold into the sauce, together with the chopped tarragon. Serve cold. Note: the initial base sauce - without the cream and tarragon - can be made in advance and stored in the fridge in a sealed container for a few days until needed.

Sauce Courchamps

I first came across this very special sauce in Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and you may well have seen it before on these pages. Be that as it may, I could not fail to include it once more for you today. Spoon it over freshly boiled English lobster when it comes into season later on in the year. I see no reason to make it before then, do you? There should be sufficient sauce for two 700g hen lobsters, live weight.

2 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 heaped tsp freshly chopped tarragon leaves

2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley

salt and pepper

1 level tsp Dijon mustard

24-30 drops soy sauce

6-8 tbsp fruity, extra virgin olive oil

juice of a small lemon

1 generous tsp anisette de Bordeaux

In a small bowl mash up the lobster coral with the shallots, tarragon and parsley. Add seasonings, mustard and soy sauce. Whisk all together thoroughly and then add the oil in a thin stream as if making vinaigrette. Stir in the lemon juice and anisette. Spoon over the warm lobster

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