Cooking with copper

Cooking with a copper daubière

VFC

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Congratulations! You’re the proud owner of one of the oddest pans in the French batterie de cuisine.

40cm daubière, “Henry VIII”

Like me, you’re probably trying to reassure yourself that this purchase wasn’t an expensive error in judgement but rather an investment in expanding your culinary horizon. I’m going to cook something in this someday, you are probably telling yourself, your gaze sliding down its gleaming unsullied flanks. Just as soon as I figure out what it’s actually good for!

Well, reader, I beg you to allow me to offer inspiration from a few luminaries of French culinary history.

32cm swing-handled high-top daubièreThe daubière is the modern (that is, late 19th century) incarnation of the 17th century (and earlier) braisière: a makeshift oven for the open hearth. The defining feature of a braisière is a tight-fitting lid with a raised rim that creates a platform on the top of the pan; the cook would nestle the braisière deep into the kitchen fire’s warm embers (in French, les braises) and pile more into the lid. This gentle enveloping heat would — you guessed it — braise the food over the course of hours, softening the meat and melding the flavors.

An education in the application of these principles begins in 1845 with Eliza Acton (1799-1859). Though she is English, her Modern Cookery for Private Families includes not only “what are usually termed plain English dishes” but also “intermingle[s] many foreign ones which we know to be excellent of their kind, and which now so far belong to our national cookery, as to be met with commonly at all refined modern tables.”

Braising meets her threshold of excellence, and so Acton introduces the concept to her English readers in her no-nonsense way: “Braising is but a more expensive mode of stewing meat.” Elizabeth David (herself another similarly no-nonsense voice) names Acton as her favorite cookbook author of all time, and I can see why — this recipe, one of hundreds, speaks as clearly to me today as anything I can find in a modern cookbook:

To braise the inside (or small fillet, as it is called in France) of a sirloin of beef
Raise the fillet clean from the joint and with a sharp knife strip off all the skin, leaving the surface of the meat as smooth as possible; have ready some strips of unsmoked bacon, half as thick as your little finger, roll them in a mixture of thyme finely minced, spices in powder, and a little pepper and salt. Lard the fillet quite through with these [insert slivers of fat with a larding needle], and tie it round with tape in any shape you choose. Line the bottom of a stew pan (or braising-pan) with slices of bacon; next put in a layer of beef, or veal, four onions, two bay-leaves, two carrots, and a bunch of sweet herbs, and place the fillets on them. Cover it with slices of bacon, put some trimmings of meat all round it, and pour on to it half a pint of good bouillon or gravy. Let it stew as gently as possible for two hours and a half; take it up, and keep it very hot; strain, and reduce the gravy by quick boiling until it is thick enough to glaze with; brush the meat over with it; put the rest in the dish with the fillet, after the tape has been removed from it, and send it directly to the table.”

She adds an important piece of advice that we should always keep in mind:

No attempt should be made to braise a joint in any vessel that is not nearly of its own size.

This is good to remember. The purpose of braising is to keep the meat warm and moist. Too much air circulation could dry out the surface and harden it. Daubières come in sizes ranging from 26cm wide (10 inches) to 40cm (15.7 inches) or more, but if you don’t have multiple sizes available to accommodate your recipe, never fear:

A round of buttered paper is generally put over the more delicate kinds of braised meat, to prevent their being browned by the fire, which in France is put round the lid of the braising pan, in a groove made on purpose to contain it. The embers of a wood fire mixed with the hot ashes, are best adapted to sustain the regular, but gentle degree of heat required for this mode of cooking.

Acton leaves us with a stern warning, emphasis in the original:

Common cooks sometimes stew meat in a mixture of butter and water, and call it braising.

Perish the thought.

Our next stop is Alexandre Dumas — yes, he of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. In the last decades of his life he compiled Le grande dictionnaire de cuisine, published posthumously in 1873, a magnificent work appropriate to the scale of this prolific writer. It is not so much a structured reference book as it is a loving remembrance of bygone meals, strategic name-dropping of famous chefs of his acquaintance, and idiosyncratic culinary advice (e.g., “for the love of God never put pickles in a veal liver stew”). He was reminiscing about France in the early to mid-19th century at the early stages of the transformations of the industrial revolution, and many of its hundreds of recipes specify the use of a braisière “with fire above and below, surround[ed] with red coals,” “piled halfway with cinders,” or “with charcoal in its lid” — unambiguous references to hearth cooking. Here are two example recipes, rendered in their original conversational format.

Epaule de veau aux sept racines (Veal shoulder with seven root vegetables)
Prick a boneless shoulder on the inside with bacon seasoned with fine salt, coarse pepper, very fine chopped parsley, two bay leaves, a little well-chopped thyme and four spices; then you roll it lengthwise, you tie it up, you combine in the bottom of a braising pan some bards [slices] of bacon, a few slices of veal, the bones of the shoulder, then the shoulder itself, after having covered with bacon this shoulder, you add onions, carrots and turnips, two celery roots, three parsnips, six Jerusalem artichokes and half a bunch of salsify; you will add coarse pepper, a bouquet garni, you will cover the whole with a buttered paper, then you will cook on a low fire by setting coals on the lid of the braising pan and letting it cook for three hours. Unwrap the shoulder then, place it on an oval dish, ice it, and put around your prepared shoulder, for garnish, all the roots of its cooking.
Terrine de bécasses à l’ancienne mode (Terrine of woodcock in the traditional style)
Prick with large slices of fat, but without emptying them, but after having removed the gizzard, four woodcocks; garnish the bottom of a braising pan with bards [slices] of bacon and beaten slices of beef, add salt, pepper, bouquet garni, onions cut into slices, carrots, parsnips, whole spring onions and chopped parsley, a little basil and spices; lay the woodcocks lightly below; season on the back as you did on the stomach; add slices of beef or veal and bacon bards. Cover the braising pan with hot coals and cook on top and bottom. Put a little ham and diced bacon in a saucepan. Let it brown a little, add parsley, spring onions, chopped mushrooms; pass everything together, wet with juice, or failing that with good broth, and, when everything is cooked, bind the sauce by adding a little veal coulis and ham, or anchovy butter with flour and half a spoonful of capers. When the woodcocks are cooked, remove them from the braising pan, drain them, put them in the terrine and pour over the above sauce; this is called chopped sauce. This is, apart from one detail, the method of the author of Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy.

When Dumas says the terrine de bécasses is à l’ancienne mode, he really means ancienne: the Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy was published in 1834, the posthumous scandalous memoirs of the Marquise whose prodigious memory furnished gossip from the courts of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Napoleon. Woodcocks, indeed.

There’s one more Dumas recipe I’d like to highlight. In the United States where I live, the premier cooking event of the year is Thanksgiving, a holiday in late November that traditionally serves a whole roasted turkey. I am giving serious thought to trying the recipe below (which I have broken into steps for my own convenience).

Dinde en daube (Braised turkey)
— Take a full-grown turkey, and after singeing [to remove the down] and plucking it, re-set its legs, remove the innards, and truss it like a chicken.
— Cut large strips of bacon and season them with salt, pepper, fine-ground spices, pounded herbs, chopped parsley and spring onions. Roll the bacon well in all of this.
— Lard your turkey crosswise and all over, truss it, wrap it in a piece of cheesecloth, sew it, and tie it at both ends.
— Line a braising pan of the size suitable for the size of your turkey with a few bards of bacon and veal scraps, a few slices of ham, and the rest of your bacon; add also, if you want, a veal shank.
— Place your turkey on this base, season it with salt, a good bunch of parsley and spring onions, two cloves of garlic and two bay leaves, two or three carrots, and four or five onions including one pricked with three cloves.
— Baste your turkey with bouillon and a glass of good brandy so that it is bathed in the liquid. Cover it with a few bards of bacon and sheets of buttered paper, leave it, and cover your braising pan with its lid.
— Put it in the hearth with fire above and below, surround it with red coals, and let it simmer for four hours; however, halfway through cooking, uncover your turkey, turn it over, and taste if it is well-salted, and if not, add what it may need.
— Once it is cooked, remove it from the heat, let it almost cool in its seasoning. Remove it on a dish and be sure to let it drain.
— Pass its gravy through a sieve and clarify it in the same way as aspic. Let your jelly cool, unwrap your turkey, dress it and garnish it with this jelly. (Note that you can also serve this turkey hot with some of its stock reduced.)

I love it. “Add also, if you want, a veal shank.” As one does.

All about dovetails

By the time Dumas was published in 1873, the 19th century of which he wrote had already begun its transformation into the 20th. The industrial revolution brought cast-iron stoves that fundamentally altered the form and function of cookware. The braisière began to evolve into the modern daubière form we know today: a sleek box that slides into the snug cave of the oven, freed of its iron feet, the ash-filled parapet around its lid shorn away to leave only a vestigial decorative indentation.

But this was not a sudden change. Auguste Colombié (1845-1920) published La cuisine bourgeoisie in 1906, and it is clear to me that this was an era of transition between hearth and oven because I can hear it in his recipes. Take, for example, his recipe for galantine de poularde, a dish of sliced chicken pressed in aspic, the details of whose preparation extend to three full pages of the book (“This recipe is for cooks who, already knowledgeable, desire self-perfection,” italics in the original). I hesitate to burden the reader with the entire recipe, but what caught my eye was this assertion:

For this cooking, nothing can replace the classic tin-plated copper braising pan, also called « daubière », a very special utensil, oblong, remarkable for its height, provided with two handles, closing well with its rimmed lid on which you can put embers. This excellent utensil was especially much appreciated at the time when stoves had not been invented, when the oven existed only in the large kitchens of diplomats, financiers, and a few old noble families.

Note Colombié’s introduction of a new term: daubière. He is talking about the same tall boxy copper pan we know today, but I would be remiss in my duty if I did not acknowledge that the term means different things to different people. The daube is a Provençal dish traditionally cooked in the hearth in a voluptuous earthenware daubière that looks nothing like the box-shaped copper version. How could the same word be used for such completely different things?

Colombié gives us a clue. His recipe for boeuf en daube à la Languedocienne, redolent with red wine, cognac, tomatoes, and lemon, says,

“Using a small earthenware pot from the Midi or Burgundy is essential here. Copper, being tinned, the acid of the alcohol of the wine and the condiments decomposes the tin and especially the lead, and the sauce has an unpleasant color; the earthenware pot, on the contrary, clarifies it.”

“And especially the lead”: I’ve read that the tin of that era was sometimes adulterated with lead. Science and lead awareness being what it was at the time, this seems to have been tolerated until the lead actually leached out into and visibly discolored the food. Colombié’s galantine de poularde calls for a relatively modest cup of white wine, perhaps not enough to provoke the lead to leach out from a tinned copper daubière, but his daube à la Languedocienne is far more acidic, making the earthenware pot the safer choice. Now, of course, copper retinners use pure food-safe tin so there is no danger and so I consider copper and earthenware daubières to be interchangeable in recipes.

Our final stop for this post is Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). He published Le guide culinaire in 1903, three years before Colombié’s La cuisine bourgeoisie, but whereas Colombié was writing for the waning years of the 19th century, Escoffier is focused firmly on the 20th. According to Escoffier, daubières go into the four (oven) and no mention of piling of embers needs be made. He offers two recipes for country daube in an earthenware terrine, one calling for a bottle of red wine and the other for white wine and cognac. As above, I would consider a copper daubière with its pure tin lining perfectly safe for these two wine-heavy recipes.

Typical daube
1 kilo 500g de culotte [tenderloin of beef or veal] or lean paleron [beef chuck], sliced into thick cutlets.
– Lard the cutlets crosswise with a piece of bacon rolled in chopped parsley mixed with a hint of crushed garlic.
– Season with 12 grams of salt and 2 grams of pepper; sprinkle with chopped shallot and marinate for 2 hours with 1 bottle of red wine and bouquet garni.
– Line an earthenware daubière of proportionate dimensions with bardes [thin slices of bacon].
– Sponge the cutlets, and brown them on both sides with the fat and the pan.
– Place them in the daubière with the marinade (including the bouquet); cover, seal tightly and fill to the top and leave only a very small opening.
– Cook gently for 4 hours and serve as such after removing the bouquet.
Daube provençale
1 kilo 500g of sliced paleron [beef chuck] and gîte à la noix [eye of round] cut into in large squares, pricked as above, and marinated with white wine, 1 deciliter of cognac and 2 tablespoons of oil.
– Line an earthenware dish of the right proportions to contain the stewed elements, with blanched bacon rinds cut into small squares, diced and blanched breast fat, carrots cut into thin rounds, raw mushrooms, chopped onions, crushed tomato, a pinch of garlic, pieces of thyme and bay leaf.
– Place the marinated pieces in the terrine, alternating them with the above garnish and pitted black olives.
– Place in the middle 2 bunches of parsley, each enclosing a fragment of dry orange peel.
– Add the marinade, complete with 3 deciliters of veal juice; close and seal the daubière.
– Baking time: 6 to 7 hours. While serving, degrease the juice and remove the bouquets.

There are many more wonderful French cookbooks from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries with recipes for braises and daubes. (I’ve gathered several of them and posted them for you on my Cooking with vintage copper page.) I have looked at several of them in addition to the ones I excerpt above, and what emerges is a sort of template for a traditional French braise.

  • A large cut of meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, poultry, or shellfish, but never fish);
  • Prodigious amounts of fat (lard) or, more specifically, bacon or pork fat (lardon), either as slices (bardes) draped on top of the meat or needle-like slivers (lardoons) inserted directly into it;
  • Vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery, parsley, or spring onions;
  • Aromatics, such as a bouquet garni;
  • Bouillon, and often also wine, cognac, or brandy.

The size of the braising box should be matched to the quantity of food inside, but if the pan is a little too big, “buttered paper” (I assume parchment paper would be the modern equivalent) can be laid over the food to help contain the moisture.

As I write this in the last weeks of 2020, each morning here in the northern hemisphere is cooler than the one before. This is the right time of year for cooking that warms the spirit and fills the house with savory smells. You don’t need a braising box to make these dishes — a good rondeau, stewpot, cocotte, or dutch oven will do nicely — but if you do have one, I hope this gives you encouragement to try it out.

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2 Comments

  1. How good that VFC doesn’t forget what our beautiful copper pots are actually intended for! My mouth watered while reading and the corresponding smells appeared in my memories. Sometimes I can remember smells as intensely as if they were floating around the room. I am one of the increasingly rare people in my social environment who love all 4 seasons. So I am also looking forward to winter and appreciate the dishes that are typical of our region at this time. In summer I cook less elaborately or like to eat the simplest (cold) dishes such as salads, tomatoes with Italian mozzarella, bruschetta etc. In autumn my season for soups begins, followed by braised meat and other dishes typical of the winter. Every season has its advantages.
    Thanks for the suggestion and stimulation.

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