What could be better in the winter months than a warming bowl of tasty pot-au-feu with a crusty piece of bread? Anne-Sophie Pic shares her recipe for a national dish that has fed peasants and kings – and helped to found empires
Pot-au-feu: a celebrated classic
For centuries, pot-au-feu – a delicious mixture of soup, meat and vegetables – was a staple of the French peasant diet during the colder months of the year. Many households kept a huge pot of it bubbling over the kitchen fire all winter (hence the name), topping it up with ingredients when needed.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that the more moneyed classes cottoned on to just what a wonderful dish this was. Alexander Lee, a historian at the University of Warwick, explains in History Today magazine how, at that time, pot-au-feu proved to be too expensive for many poorer members of society. “As crop failures and epidemics swept France during the Wars of Religion, the poor increasingly found it beyond their means.
“At the same time, it gradually began to appear on the tables of the mighty – many of whom, being hard up, found its simplicity attractive. In 1582, Henri III of France asked his cook either to prepare him some ‘extremely tender meat’ or to give him a good ladleful of pot-au-feu.”
From then on, there was no looking back. More expensive cuts of meat began to find their way into the pot. It was around this time that pot-au-feu earned its reputation as France’s national dish. “It’s the base of our cuisine,” said the writers of the 1867 edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. “It’s thanks to this that our national cuisine stands out from all the others.”
Revolution-era politician and orator Honoré Mirabeau was even more complimentary. “In the common man’s pot-au-feu lies the foundation of empires,” he wrote.
Even modern-day chefs appreciate the importance of this classic – from Anne-Sophie Pic to Raymond Blanc. “The quintessence of French family cuisine, this must be the most celebrated dish in France,” wrote Blanc. “It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike.”
Pot-au-feu with sharp horseradish cream
- Distilled white vinegar
- 4 marrow bones
- 200 g 7oz blade steak
- 200 g 7oz chuck steak
- 100 g 3½oz boneless rib of beef
- 2 litres 3½ pints vegetable stock
- 2 onions
- 2 carrots
- 1 bouquet garni
- 3 garlic cloves
- 3 cloves
- 3 peppercorns
- 1½ tsp coarse salt
- 4 baby carrots
- 4 baby leeks
- 4 baby turnips
- 2 stalks of celery
- 4 potatoes
The horseradish cream
- 150 g 5½oz fromage blanc (quark)
- ½ tsp grated horseradish
- 1 tbsp finely chopped chives
- 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
- Fine salt freshly ground pepper
- Fleur de sel
- Black pepper roughly crushed
- For the beef, fill a large bowl with cold water, add a little white vinegar, then immerse the marrow bones in it and leave them to soak overnight in the fridge.
- The next day, cut all the meat into pieces, put into a pressure cooker and cover with vegetable stock. Bring to a simmer and then skim off any foam from the surface.
- Add the trimmed and peeled onions and carrots, bouquet garni, crushed garlic, cloves, peppercorns and salt.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for bringing the cooker up to pressure, then cook for 45 minuteson the ‘vegetables’ setting. Leave the pressure cooker to rest for 10 minutes, off the heat, before carefully opening.
- To prepare the vegetables, drain the soaked bones and remove the marrow. Poach it for three minutes in some of the beef cooking liquid (from the pressure cooker), then put to one side.
- Peel and trim the vegetables as required, leaving a little of the leaves on the carrots and turnips. Cook the vegetables in boiling salted water until tender, then refresh in cold water and drain.
- Make the horseradish cream, by mixing the fromage blanc with the grated horseradish, chives and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
- To finish off and serve, skim the fat from the beef-cooking liquid, then strain through a fine sieve. Divide the meats and vegetables between four bowls or plates, and add a little marrow and broth to each one. Season with fleur de sel and roughly crushed black pepper. Serve hot with the horseradish cream.
Recipe taken from Scook: The Complete Cookery Guide by Anne-Sophie Pic, published by Jacqui Small.