Having dispensed with holiday treats as something of an amuse gueule in his introduction to January, Grimod digs heartily into meat, with beef at the top of his list. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Paris. Beef plays a starring role in most of the city’s dining establishments, from the humblest café to the most sophisticated restaurant.
The quantities of beef consumed in France have, in fact, declined significantly over the past twenty years. A 2012 study by CRÉDOC (the Centre de Recherche pour l’Étude et l’Observation des Conditions de Vie) estimates that it fell about 15% between 2003 and 2010 alone.
The outbreak of mad cow disease in France in 1996 chipped away at the hegemony of bovine meat consumption. The most notable defector was, of course, chef Alain Passard of Arpège, who had built his reputation as a masterful roaster and who has subsequently retained 3-Michelin-stars with a menu laden with vegetables grown in his dedicated garden.
Nevertheless, Paris remains a beef-loving town. The current population of French adults over 18 is 90% carnivorous and eats red meat an average of over 3 times a week— and that’s counting the vegetarians, who bring down the curve.
Today’s Parisian gourmands must, no doubt, bolster this statistic, as enticed by the seemingly endless supply of beef designed to appeal to every appetite and price range. At the Relais de l’Entrecôte, with three locations in Paris, the only menu question is “how would you like your steak cooked?” If the thicker, more lovingly prepared version at the Tonneaux des Halles seems too hearty one can instead opt for their tartare. More delicate appetites might rather head to Restaurant Le Voltaire for a clear but potent consommé. Or, at the rarified level, Guy Martin keeps an oxtail and truffle parmentier perennially on the menu of the Grand Véfour as a signature classic.
The men (and I’ve never seen a woman there) — especially those who handle the fancier French Limousin, Charolais and Aubrac varieties — butchering sides of beef in the meat hall at Rungis (the world’s largest wholesale food market, which provisions the greater Paris region) exude a confidence that implies they see themselves as the veritable kings of the market.
In Grimod’s opinion, the best Parisian beef came from Auvergne (still famous for its grass-fed beef) and the Contentin Peninsula in Normandy. (I’ll write more on French breeds, etc. when the cows come to town for the 50th anniversary of the Salon de l’Agriculture, opening on Feb 23rd). In his day the cattle marched from the provinces straight into the center of the capital to be slaughtered there on the spot. He compared them to, “stupid youths, whose intelligence does not form and develop, except through traveling,” and believed they did not acquire their true merits except through the long trek that, “caused their fat to melt into their flesh.”
Twenty years before Grimod began his almanac, his one-time friend and mentor Louis Sébastien Mercier penned an impassioned rant against the rivers of blood streaming down the streets of the butchers’ shops.* He deplored the beef-heavy quotidian diet of “three-quarters and a half” of Parisians whom he felt “almost never” ate fish and rarely consumed vegetables because of their excessive prices.
Grimod, by contrast, exuberantly declared, “Happy Parisians! Congratulate yourselves because, if one must believe in the most gourmand travelers, you eat within your walls the most delectable beef in the universe.”
How did he prefer it? – In an utterly simple guise. The very first specific preparation described in the entire Almanach des gourmands is for sirloin steak, “well-pounded, cooked à l’anglais, which is to say rare.” To accompany this he suggests a sauce featuring anchovies and capers that would not seem amiss on today’s tables.
Following this, he writes about boulli, a term literally translating as “boiled,” and referring to a spectrum of recipes based on boiling meat and veg in water. This produces a gorgeous broth, which is usually served first, in addition to cooking the meat and veg, which are served afterwards. The primitive act of using fire and water to cook meat and veg together in a pot is thereby elevated into a sophisticated ritual, in which each element, having lent its flavor to the others and enriched the broth, subsequently regains its individuality.
Grimod suggests making a bouilli from the center of the rump, confessing that his choice reflected greater interest in the flavor of the meat than of the broth. He recommends serving it with a “wall” of chopped cabbage cooked in a dark bouillon, large dividers of plump bacon, and a crown of short sausages. For an even more luxurious version, he advises adding symmetrically cut carrots and turnips. However, he confesses that those on more limited budgets would be perfectly content surrounding the rump with potatoes cooked in a good broth and sprinkled with butter sauce.
In playful homage but contrast to Grimod, I prepared an old-fashioned pot-au-feu, arguably the most classic recipe in the lexicon of French home cooking.
My favorite artisanal tripe/meat/bird man, Christian Neveux —a fifth generation vendor, with a stand at the outdoor markets at Raspail (6th arrondissement), Edgar Quinet (14th arrondissement) and Maison Blanche (13th arrondissement) — sold me some beautiful pieces of Charolais beef: oxtail and cheek, in addition to the requisite marrow bones. Eschewing Grimod’s cabbages and potatoes, I purchased the more traditional carrots, turnips, parsnips, celery, leeks, and onions at the nearby stand of Jean-François Dondaine, who grows them in Billainvilliers.
Also in contrast to Grimod, because I was thinking of the gorgeous broth as much as of the meat, I began by plunking the meat into cold water. After carefully removing the scum multiple times after it boiled, I tossed in the vegetables, which I’d tied in neat bundles for a tidier presentation, together with a bouquet garni.
When it had all bubbled gently for several hours the kitchen exuded an aroma so heady that it steamed up the windows. The marrow bones, wrapped in kitchen gauze to preserve every precious morsel, then went in for the last quarter hour. These I served first with freshly toasted baguette and plenty of course sea salt along with piping-hot bowls of the clarified broth.
Then came the platters of vegetables and sliced meat accompanied by Maille mustard and crunchy cornichons. It made a substantial but never heavy meal, which perfectly suited a chilly January evening in Paris.
*Louis Sébastien Mercier (1740—1814), French dramatist and writer, composed twelve volumes of essays about Paris from 1781—1788, published as Le Tableau de Paris, which touch upon all manner of observations on life in the capital, revealing a love-hate obsession for the city. The essay on butchers occurs in vol 1, chap. XLII. The subsequent comment about the beef-heavy Parisian diet comes from vol 1, chap. LXVII, Les Halles.
(c) Carolin C. Young, 2013.