À la Rechérche de Sainte-Menehould

Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s

I think I came across a vague description of this dish in Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking; there’s nothing about it in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or even in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, which is odd, as this dish is very French and very simple.

Sainte-Menehould is a small town in the Marne region of France and it’s where Dom Perignon of Champagne fame was born. Giles McDonagh tells me that this is where Louis XVI got nabbed, despite travelling in disguise, when fleeing Paris in 1791, but that is neither here nor there.

In cooking terms, according to Elizabeth David, it’s something that you do to pig’s trotters (crubeens, as we call them in Ireland) and to breast of lamb, the only cut of that animal which remains cheap, now that even lamb shanks are the stuff of fashion.

Sauce gribiche is the classic partner (as it is with ham hock terrine these days), a concoction with which I never had any luck until I decided to cheat.

Anyway, here’s a rustic French classic, as cooked by my own fair hand during the week.

POITRINE D’AGNEAU À LA SAINTE MENEHOULD

1 lamb breast
1 small onion, peeled and roughly sliced
1 glove garlic, peeled and sliced
1 stick celery, peeled and roughly sliced
1 small carrot, peeled and roughly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
black pepper
plain flour
sea salt
black pepper
1 large or 2 small eggs
breadcrumbs
olive oil and butter for shallow frying

You need to simmer the lamb until tender and, while you’re at it, to impart some delicious aromas to the meat. The vegetable element, apart from the garlic, should be sliced into chunks that will survive long cooking without becoming mush.

Take a large saucepan and put in it the lamb breast, the onion, garlic, celery, carrot, bay leaf and rosemary. Cover with water; grind the pepper over. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum, reduce the heat and simmer very gently until the lamb is very tender. This may take an hour; it could take a little longer; you have to check.

When satisfied that your lamb has been transformed from a tough sheet of meat, fat and connective tissue into something that smells delicious, is as tender as the kiss you would bestow on a baby and looks quite unprepossessing, drain it and pat it dry with kitchen paper.

Take a big baking sheet or a very large plate and spread out a generous a sheet of clingfilm upon it. You will get the idea in a moment.

Now, when the lamb has cooled enough to handle without actual pain, lay your poitrine (of the lamb, I stress) upon it and cover it with a similar sheet of clingfilm. Place another baking tray or plate on top and apply a heavy weight. I use one of 14lbs, in old money, which is what we used to call a stone. When not helping me to fashion this dish, it does service as a doorstopper in the kitchen.

Place the combination of animal, clingfilm and simple engineering in a cool place; I use the larder. It needs to rest for a good 12 hours, ideally 24.

When the time comes to cook the lamb yet again, you need to assemble a battery of stuff. Reading left to right you will have flour that has been generously seasoned with black pepper and sea salt, then a container of whisked egg and, finally, a trough of some kind containing breadcrumbs.

You’re way ahead of me here. You cut the cold lamb, having released it from the captivity of clingfilm, into batons about 2cm broad and then toss it in the seasoned flour. You’ve guessed it. From there, transfer it to the egg and bathe it thoroughly before transferring to the breadcrumbs. Make sure that lots of these stick so as to create a jacket for the lamb.

Transfer the breadcrumbed batons to the fridge for a couple of hours before cooking. This could not be simpler. I like to shallow fry them in a mixture of light olive oil and butter, slowly and gently, until they are golden and crisp rather than brown and hard.

Drain them on kitchen paper and served immediately with the sauce gribiche, which you have had the foresight to make in advance.

 

Now gribiche, as described in the Larousse Gastronomique is a bugger to get right and the instructions given by the divine Ms David in her French Provincial Cooking, if followed to the letter (and it’s always hard to say what the letter is) produces something weird and not entirely pleasant in my limited (once-off) experience.

The problem with the classic gribiche is that it depends on your being able to emulsify oil and hard-boiled egg. Now, if this is all becoming too much for you, just skip down to the recipe. But, as I was saying, it’s about emulsifying, viz. making a form of mayonnaise, something that’s a bit of a doddle if you use raw egg yolk.

Raw egg yolk, as I learned from Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, is already an emulsion, viz., a perfect blend of liquid and fat. Incorporating more fat, in the form of oil, is easy as the molecules move apart to accommodate it.

When the yolk is hard boiled, the molecules are – as Professor McGee explains it – set in their ways. If you whisk oil into mashed up hardboiled egg yolk you will achieve a lovely mayonnaise-like consistency for about two minutes. Then it separates and becomes all curdled and rather icky to look at.

Anyway, I eventually gave up trying to make classic gribiche. I suppose I could have used lecithin to aid the emulsification process but, to be honest, I don’t keep the stuff around the house.

So I did this...

MA GRIBICHE

1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1 tsp Dijon mustard, at room temperature
250ml grapeseed or other light salad oil at room temperature
2 whole eggs, boiled for 12 minutes and cooled
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp cornichons, finely chopped
1 dsp capers, finely chopped
1 tsp French tarragon, finely chopped
1 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 dsp chives, finely sliced
sea salt
black pepper

You start by making simple mayonnaise. This is cheating, but I don’t care. It works.

A not very successful attempt at sauce gribiche

Make sure everything is at room temperature; otherwise your mayonnaise will almost certainly fail. In a clean bowl, mix the egg yolk with the mustard. Whisking constantly, drizzle the oil in a very thin stream until it has all been incorporated. This takes elbow grease and time. Don’t try to rush it, because disaster lies that way. Drizzle as slowly as physically possible and watch as the oil is magically incorporated into the egg yolk with each stroke of the whisk.

When all the oil has been incorporated, peel the cooked eggs and cut in half. Scoop out the yolks and rub them through a sieve into the mayonnaise. Add the rest of the ingredients and fold them in.

Checking seasoning and, if you think it’s needed, add more vinegar and/or salt.