A new edition of Le Guide Culinaire published earlier this year has forewords by Heston Blumenthal and Dr Tim Ryan.
“Auguste Escoffier invented veal stock,” writes Jonah Lehrer. “Others had boiled bones before, but no one had codified the recipe.” In his fascinating account (from Proust Was a Neuroscientist reproduced here with permission from Text Publishing), Lehrer explains how Escoffier’s emphasis on the tongue was the source of his culinary revolution and why Escoffier’s basic technique is still indispensable.
“The place to begin looking for Escoffier’s ingenuity is in his cookbooks. The first recipe he gives us is for brown stock (estouffade), which he says is ‘the humble foundation for all that follows.’ Escoffier begins with the browning of beef and veal bones in the oven. Then, says Escoffier, fry a carrot and an onion in a stockpot. Add cold water, your baked bones, a little pork rind, and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, bay leaf and a clove of garlic. Simmer gently for twelve hours, making sure to keep the water at a constant level. Once the bones have given up their secrets, sauté some meat scraps in hot fat in a saucepan. Deglaze with your bone water and reduce. Repeat. Do it yet again, Then slowly add the remainder of your stock. Carefully skim off the fat (a stock should be virtually fat free) and simmer for a few more hours. Strain through a fine chinois. After a full day of stock making, you are now ready to start cooking.
In Escoffier’s labor-intensive recipe, there seems to be little to interest the tongue. After all, everyone knows that the tongue can taste only four flavors: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Escoffier’s recipe for stock seems to deliberately avoid adding any of these tastes. It contains very little sugar, salt or acid, and unless one burns the bones (not recommended), there is no bitterness. Why, then, is stock so essential? Why is it the ‘mother’ of Escoffier’s cuisine? What do we sense when we eat a profound beef daube, its deglazed bits simmered in stock until the sinewy meat is fit for a spoon? Or, for that matter, when we slurp a bowl of chicken soup, which is just another name for chicken stock? What is it about denatured protein (denaturing is what happens to meat and bones when you cook them Escoffier’s way) that we find so inexplicably appealing?
The answer is umami, the Japanese word for ‘delicious’. Umami is what you taste when you eat everything from steak to soy sauce. It’s what makes stock more than dirty water and deglazing the essential process in French cooking. To be precise, umami is actually the taste of L-glutamate (C5N9NO4), the dominant amino acid in the composition of life. L-glutamate is released from life forms by proteolysis (a shy scientific word for death, rot, and the cooking process). While scientists were still theorizing about the health benefits of tripe, Escoffier was busy learning how we taste food. His genius was getting as much L-glutamate on the plate as possible. The emulsified butter didn’t hurt either.”
As you cook that perfect steak or roast for dinner (or even pick up a takeaway chicken if you must), you are doing what comes naturally.
Did you know that it's currently estimated that Homo sapiens (that's us) and our ancestors, connections and offshoots from Homo erectus to Neanderthals have been cooking meat for dinner for around 1.9 million years.
Harvard's Prof. Richard Wrangham in his book, Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, persuasively argues that it was cooking that facilitated our evolution from ape to human. Cooking makes a huge difference to diet and lifestyle - it softens the food and dramatically reduces eating time. Harvard researchers recently calculated that if we lived like our non-cooking primate cousins, we'd spend about 48 per cent of the day eating. But we spend only about 5 per cent of the day tucking into our meals and snacks. So when our ancestors invented cooking,