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  One of the more dominant techniques that began to show up in the kitchens of the 17th century was roux. Seldom has a technique undergone such a transformation in opinion amongst chefs and dedicated home cooks. The common thickening agent used to give a sauce "body" before roux was toasted crumbled bread or crushed almonds. But roux, (known as farine frit or fried flour (!)) began to supplant this. The term roux comes from the French word for "reddish" which indicates that white roux was a later development.

I adopted a sophomore's scorn when I had accumulated "a little knowledge-dangerous thing" attitude in the early 1980's, trotting around in my first set of clogs, brandishing my coveted Henckel knife. I had many grim memories of the woollier years of hitchhiking ‘round the country and working in American restaurants where the pot of roux was eternally at the ready on the shelf over the stove. My bosses would "fix" gravies and sauces with a mock-roux that melted hastily cooked flour with…not butter, (too expensive!), but some cheap commercially produced frying oil. It could tighten up a sauce all right, but it smelled awful and so it was with a sense of betrayal and disbelief when I read of one of my "middle-years" gurus, Jeremiah Tower, using a roux (Quell horror!). Yet I saw the point when a recipe made in the more "nouvelle style" called for a reduction of massive amounts of cream to attain the texture. Such a texture could just as easily be attained with a modicum of roux. Properly made, with flour cooked with butter for an appropriate length of time, roux was more digestible and lighter in the long run.

The battle against roux started as early as the 1830s. The great French chef Careme came to its defense against these "ignorant men" saying roux was as "indispensable to cooks as ink is to writers…but just as a poor scribbler cannot produce a masterpiece simply by dipping his pen into that black liquid, a sauce is not necessarily improved if the roux is made with insufficient care."

Touché Monsieur.

I'm Norman Van Aken and that's my word on food.

Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2001
*Works consulted: "The Oxford Companion to Food", Alan Davidson
 

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