On my first trip to Paris, I stood in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles staring into the foxed glass. I imagined not my 12-year-old self gazing back, but some be-wigged and be-jewelled courtesan, the weary face of a servant or, who knows, perhaps the Sun King himself? It was as though all the faces that had ever stared into the glass were still captured there and I could see them as long as I looked hard enough. That morning, I felt the flimsy barriers of time and place dissolve.
On Sunday, as I stood in my kitchen, patting fat cubes of beef with kitchen paper, I felt a kinship with my brothers and sisters in spoons. I knew I was not alone. Up and down the country, at that very moment, I knew many of us were slicing onions and carrots, browning mushrooms, enjoying the sizzle as we tipped whole bottles of red into scorching hot pans.
I got an email from my darling friend Richard on Tuesday. ‘I went to see Julie &Julia on this inclement afternoon in the lowest of spirits and came out skipping. I can’t imagine a film that will resonate more with you both, even if at times it is a little sad. But c’est la vie, and that’s what it celebrates – that, and a beautiful, enviable, treasured coupling which, if I know you both as I think I do, it will be like looking in a mirror.’
I’d already planned to see Julie & Julia with Christine and Daphne that evening, but I quickly booked two more tickets for Séan and me on Friday night. I knew he would adore it too. (Food, France, Meryl and Stanley – what’s not to love?) And besides, he’s scarcely left the house for two weeks so he could do with a bit of a cheer up. (A long and itchy story involving an allergic reaction to antibiotics, since subsided, which is a relief to us both as it presented him with the longest ‘get out of washing up’ card in living memory.)
One of my favourite sequences in the film comes when Julia Child’s editor, Judith Jones, pours a bottle of red into the boeuf bourguignon, speckling Julia’s precious manuscript with booze and fat. It’s rather exciting to think of the moment when the recipe that launched a thousand (a million?) dinner parties had its first outing.
What I love about Julia Child’s recipes is that they are so long. The current vogue for short, fast, easy is a deceit, a conceit. Instructions are cut down to the barest bones to give an impression of ease, of simplicity, and the results disappoint because – without a considerable amount of knowledge and experience – the home cook has no chance of reproducing the glossy image they see before them.
There is an elegant, scholarly precision about Julia Child’s recipes and a comforting assurance that if you do as she says, the results will be perfect. Pat the meat dry, don’t crowd the pan, sauté for 2 to 3 minutes…these are the instructions you’d give a friend if you were cooking side by side. She is holding your hand. Peering from a considerable height over your shoulder.
As I did as she said and the ingredients behaved as she promised they would, I felt a connection that ran from her little third-floor kitchen on the ‘rue de Loo’ to mine in North London, on a cool September evening, half a century after the recipe was first written.
Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon
This is from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume One. I really, really can’t wait to make it again.
A 6oz chunk of bacon
1 tbsp olive oil or cooking oil
3lbs lean stewing beef, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 tbsps flour
3 cups of full-bodied, young red wine such as Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhone, Bordeaux-St Emilion or Burgundy
2-3 cups brown beef stock
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 cloves mashed garlic
½ tsp thyme leaves
A crumbled bay leaf
18-24 small white onions, peeled
1 ½ tbsp butter
1 ½ tbsp oil
½ cup brown beef stock, dry white wine, red wine or water
A bouquet of 4 parsley sprigs, 1 small bay leaf, 1 small sprig of thyme tied together with kitchen string
1lb mushrooms, quartered
Parsley, finely chopped
Remove the rind from the bacon and cut it into lardons, ¼ inch thick and 1 ½ inches long. Simmer the rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1 ½ quarts of water. Drain and dry. (Actually, and I hope it isn’t woefully impertinent, I simmered the rind but I couldn’t bring myself to simmer the bacon. I understand the reasoning behind simmering the rind – you make it tender enough to melt into the stew, but my bacon, bought from the Learmonth brothers at our farmer’s market is so delicious and not over-salted, and I couldn’t bear to lose any of its delicious flavour.)
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas mark 8.
In a 9-10inch fireproof casserole, 3 inches deep, warm the oil over a moderate heat then sauté the bacon for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set the casserole aside. Reheat until the fat is almost smoking (you may need to add a little more oil at this point; I did.) before you sauté the beef.
Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.
In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out any sautéing fat. Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set the casserole uncovered in the middle position of the preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to the oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove the casserole, and turn the oven down to 170C/325F/Gas mark 3.
Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato puree, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate the heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2 ½ to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed. To prepare the onions, warm 1 ½ tbsps butter and 1 ½ tbsps oil in a 9-10 inch frying pan (you need to use one with a lid), add the onions and sauté over a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly. Pour in the ½ cup of stock or wine, season to taste, add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet.
(Here is Julia’s note on preparing the mushrooms: Successfully sautéed mushrooms are lightly browned and exude none of their juice while they are being cooked; to achieve this the mushrooms must be dry, the butter very hot, and the mushrooms must not be crowded in the pan. If you sauté too many at once they steam rather than fry; their juices escape and they do not brown. So if you are preparing a large amount, or if your heat source is feeble, sauté the mushrooms in several batches.)
To prepare the mushrooms, warm 2 tbsps butter and 1 tbsps oil (keep the rest back and use it as the pan gets a little dry) over a high heat in a 10 inch frying pan. As soon as you see that the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shale the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their sauté the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove them from the heat.
When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.
Skim fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 ½ cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. The recipe may be completed in advance to this point.
FOR IMMEDIATE SERVING: Cover the casserole and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice, and decorated with parsley.
FOR LATER SERVING: When cold, cover and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the simmer, cover, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.