Boston Back Bay, boudin blanc, charcuterie, French cuisine, French food, French sausage, Julia Child, Julie & Julia, l'École des trois gourmands, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, saucisse, saucisson, Simone Beck, The Parish Cafe Boylston Street Boston
Shut the cookbook. Now, put it away. I couldn’t believe I was being ordered to discharge Julia Child and Simone Beck from the kitchen. The surviving deux of the holy-trinity, L’école des trios gourmands (The School of the Three Happy Eaters), whose cookbook, I had been studying for months, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, was out of sight. Flanked by cookbooks on either side, I was primed for the Bible of North American home cooks to give up its secrets in honor of our French heritage, my father, the butcher, and me.
In Boston’s Back Bay that spring, at The Parish Café on Boylston Street, my daughter ordered a sandwich created for the café by one of Boston’s famous chefs. A homemade whisky-infused lamb and rosemary sausage with watercress and Mesclun greens on a crusted petit baguette served warm; oozing rich, glistening liqueur with each pierce of the skin. She urged me to taste it, knowing I no longer ate the stuff.
The earthy taste of lamb and herbs, combined with a glass of French white wine, as we soaked up the sun and salty ocean air on that early spring day, was sensational. What was this common food of minced pork, beef or other meat, seasoned and cooked, often made as a byproduct by every butcher from leftover scraps of meat, fat and crumb? And how did this make its way into the scope of famous chefs of Boston?
Artisanal sausage-making was coming from everywhere: young sausage makers, men and women, profiled in the New York Times; immigrant sausage makers whose customers were of Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese descent. Flavors from Chicago, New York, and Pennsylvania: Fresh Thai Chicken & Turkey, French Chicken and Apple, Burmese Curry Chicken & Turkey, Lemon Chicken with Tarragon — holiday selections for stuffing and hors d’oeuvres. It was the late 1990s, and like many of us who cooked most of our way through North America’s beloved “French Chef,” and well before Julie Powell in her book Julie & Julia, I had to give sausage-making a try.
Dad, it’s me, I said over the phone. I’m making sausage. I’ve got everything ready and can’t find the end of the casings. It’s a knotted mess; they are twisted in a swirl like wet spaghetti and still in the salted water in the plastic bucket, just like I bought them. I’ve minced the chicken and veal, and the fatback’s ground with the finest blade; all waiting separately in the refrigerator in plastic-wrapped casseroles. I can’t take a scissor to the mess; the butcher charged me a fortune for buying up his inventory used to make fresh Italian sausages.
How many pounds are you making?
Twelve: six pounds of boudin blanc with Cognac, and six pounds of Jack Daniels whisky-infused lamb and rosemary.
The phone went dead. Hey, are you there? I think he was counting to ten…
Yea, h’llo, don’t touch a thing. See you at nine in the morning. And he hung up the phone.
It was late Friday evening and after I cooked half of the fat over low heat for 4 to 5 minutes until it had rendered a few tablespoons, but not browned, I cleaned up the kitchen, returned the grinder to the back of the cupboard and went to bed.
I’ve never made six pounds, he said, sliding the apron strap over his head and tying the strings at the back.
My apron was doubled up so that the strings would tie from the waist, wrap around my back and knot in front. My needle, threaded with waxed black thread, was slipped into the top panel of my apron and ready for poking a few holes in the casing, especially if there were any air bubbles — but that wouldn’t come until the mixture had been stuffed in the casing and twisted slowly to make the separations, the links.
Julia and Simone’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, was opened to Chapter Five — Charcuterie: Sausages, Salted Pork and Goose, Pâtés and Terrines. “In the best establishments, all the cooking is done on the premises; they cure their own hams, make their own salt pork and fresh and smoked sausages, have their own formulas for their beautiful displays,” Julia writes in the introduction, describing what sounded to me like dad’s butcher shop. She even includes “a butcher’s” few sausage recipes: formulas for the saucisse, primarily a small and thin sausage, usually fresh; and saucisson, the large sausage that is usually smoked or otherwise cured.
The first order was to shut the cookbook and put it away. I was heartsick. I planned to make sausage of the finest ingredients with the most exotic formulas. Not, the Italian, Bratwurst and Summer I ate growing up, which was good, but not the rarefiedtaste I sought.
Can I write it down?
The second order was to fill the sink with cold water and to start with one piece of casing from the middle and gently pull it through the muddled mess. Untangled, I ran a stream of cold water through each opening from the tap to wash it and then let them soak for an hour.
But it was the third order that nearly did me in.
How old are your spices?
One or two weeks old and all bought at the co-op, I said.
Put them all on the counter.
From a drawer, in the corner of the kitchen and away from the heat, I removed the clear glass spice jars and did what I was told.
Now unscrew the caps and put the lids up on a shelf.
Boudin blanc is a Christmas sausage, my father continued. You’ve been to Paris for Christmas. What did it smell like? How did it taste? What was it like there? Hon, recreate it in your sausage.
I knew from my family of cooks and bakers, some professional and some not, that salt enhances flavor and that pepper, a spice, changes flavor. We needed both. I learned that flavoring is a system like an artist’s palette, with an anchor color that you use to build accent colors for contrast and complexity or blended for subtlety, creating a lingering trail of passage.
Without hesitation I first chose my favorite spice, allspice, a dried berry of the Jamaican pepper tree. My mother used to combine allspice in her pepper grinder with black peppercorns and used this combination wherever she used pepper. The berries look like a peppercorn but have a combined flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves with a hint of juniper and peppercorn.
Nutmeg was my second selection. Nutmeg is Christmas and would draw out the wonderful smells and taste of allspice. I love traditional Italian cuisine that uses nutmeg in both sweet and savory dishes.
I don’t like the smell or taste of white pepper, but I couldn’t imagine black specs in this fine, delicate white sausage. Sparingly on the white pepper, I told myself. And balance the pepper and spices with salt.
Earlier that morning before my father arrived, I had cooked the onions to perfectly tender and translucent, a pale cream color. I brought stale white bread crumbs and milk to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for several minutes until the mixture was thick, la panade, sort of soup-like but closer to a stew.
Before the spices, we passed the cooked onions, la panade, pork fat, chicken and veal through the grinder twice and placed it in a large metal mixing bowl, added the spices and mixed well by hand — no spoons — to incorporate the seasonings throughout. We added an egg, egg whites and heavy cream, and my Cognac. (Optional was a 1-ounce truffle, minced into 1/8-inch pieces, and juices from the can. Another time…)
Bring out your cast-iron pan, set it on the burner and turn the flame to high. It’s hot enough when a drop of liquid hits its surface, sizzles and is gone.
He took a small handful of the sausage mixture, flattened it evenly in his palm to the width of a pancake and laid it in the pan, where he left it long enough to say, “God save the Queen,” and flipped it for another second or so. Lifting it from the pan with his bare fingers, he pulled it in half and gave one piece to me and bit into the other. I had seen this before, this smacking and rolling of food on the palate, always an embarrassment at home. But this time I watched and listened as he tasted, his appreciation of flavor sophisticated and discriminating.
Are we ready?
I took a bite, and smacked and rolled it along the roof of my mouth, but with less rigor. Nope. Not Paris. Not Christmas. I couldn’t taste the Christmas air that swelled about my favorite bridge, Pont Alexandre III, an arch bridge that spans the Seine. I couldn’t smell the warmth of Musée d’Orsay and its delicate impressionism and opulence.
Salt! I exclaimed.
A second test: now, delicate and mild leaving a subtle, lingering trail. Perfect with a French Riesling or white Muscadet from the Loire Valley, sautéed or grilled with a Christmas accompaniment of apples or figs. Boudin blanc: the fine-textured white sausage, originally eaten for Christmas in the Champagne Ardenne region of France.
We covered the large metal bowl with plastic-wrap and let the flavors meld in the refrigerator for the next two hours, until it was ready to stuff and form into links. In the interval, we sat on the piano bench at the Steinway and played the songs we knew by heart: schottisches, waltzes, mazurkas, and a polka now and again.
Dad placed three links in the cast-iron pan, heating them slowly, simmering until the braising liquid evaporated and they sautéed in their own fat and juices. The links were browned to a crispy caramel-gold, oozing rich, glistening liqueur from pin-pricks to the skin by my needle, used when the links were fresh and uncooked, now back in its place on my apron front.
You know, Barb, home cooking is about cooking to your moods, to your memories and to the tastes and pleasures of those who are welcomed and dine under your roof. Commercial outfits like me don’t have the same luxury; our formulas and recipes need to be the same today and as they were yesterday, and will be tomorrow.
I didn’t serve the sausages with their traditional Christmas pairing of mashed potatoes. And the traditional seasonings were not marjoram and sage. Nevertheless, it was perfect paired with what I had in the house, Dijon and grainy mustard, and crusty French bread.
“The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.” — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (1825)
Barbara Redmond, publisher of A Woman’s Paris® (AWP), is a long-time Francophile and travels to Paris every chance she gets. Her stories about Paris and France have been published in AWP® and republished, with permission, by other blogs and publications. Barbara has presented programs on French fashion and food, and has been a guest speaker for students planning their study abroad. She serves as an advisory board member at the University of Minnesota College of Design and is an active student mentor. Barbara has been recognized for excellence in art by international and national organizations and publications. Prints of her fine are paintings are in collections in Europe and North America and are available for purchase.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Still, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Bon appétit, Julia! Bethany Olson inspires us with her review of Julie Powell’s book, Julie & Julia, and the film adaptation of the same title. Included are three simple recipes from the cookbooks, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, by Julia Child and Simone Beck.
French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth rising from the steam from her bowl. With the first taste – serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup) from her cookbook, The Way to Cook.
French Cuisine: Cooking schools in Paris founded by women, by Barbara Redmond who writes about extraordinary women who cook: from Anne Willan, Marthe Distel, and Elisabeth Brassart, to “Les trios gourmands,” Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. Including a directory of cooking schools in Paris.
Julia Child: French Cooking for North Americans, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes about the challenge of making a simple birthday cake in Paris, from finding the familiar whipping cream, measuring cups, and spoons to the search for birthday candles to top the cake! Recipe for Yogurt Cake by Sophie Dudemaine, cookbook author and French TV star, from her cookbook titled Les Cakes de Sophie.
Chocolate Mousse — debonair, dark and irresistibly rich! by Barbara Redmond who looks into this crème de la crème of mousses and uncovers the source of the original dish. Mousse as the supreme seducer was first known as “Mayonnaise de Chocolat,” created in the 1900s by French post-impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Recipe included for Mousseline au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse), by Julia Child from her book, The French Chef Cookbook.
Text copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.