Sauces were once the domain of French haute cuisine, aristocratic food. This started changing after the Revolution, first in the bourgeoisie, who copied the ways of the former royalty, and eventually in restaurants.
In France, there have always been sauces. Even the Franks and the Gauls moistened their food with a “flavored liquid.”
French cuisine, influenced by Roman cuisine, saw the first sauce recipes using meat jus in the fifth and sixth centuries, and were then called saulce. To the jus was added vinegar, wine, acidic fruits and spices. The Romans had already used ginger and cloves, but in the eleventh century, the Crusaders brought back others from the Levant, including cinnamon, the most commonly used, galangal (or ginger), coriander seeds, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, grains of paradise and pepper. The acidic quality was often given to sauces through the addition of verjus, made from green grapes, which are not yet sweet in flavor and remain acidic, or with other acidic fruit such as apple, lemon or plums. Verjus is still used in French sauces.
Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent (after whom a Paris palace of gastronomy is named), wrote the first known cookbook, Le Viandier, around 1375. Stews and other slow-cooked dishes didn’t yet exist; most meat was boiled or cooked over a spit, i.e. quite plain, so sauces were a way to liven them up. About thirty sauces have been recorded during the medieval period. They of course featured in the cuisine of the well-to-do; most common people were still eating gruel, as they always had.
During the Renaissance, spices dropped out of French cuisine. It was the halcyon days for sauces, which proliferated. Slow-cooked sauces were invented using fonds, mirepoix, butter and flour for thickening. Simple jus and coulis became common. Recipes for green sauces from Italy using new ingredients and herbs were also popular and easy to make since herbs were plentiful and grew wild in even the coldest parts of France.
It was La Varenne in the seveneenth century who started precisely defining sauces and how they’re made and documented roux, which then consisted of a paste of flour and lard for thickening:
Thickening of flowre
Melt some lard, take out the mammocks; put your flowre into your melted lard, seeth it well, but have a care it stick not to the pan, mix some onion with it proportionably. When it is enough, put all with good broth, mushrums and a drop of vinegar. Then after it hath boiled with its seasoning, pass all through the strainer and put it in a pot. When you will use it, you shall set it upon warm embers for to thicken or allay your sauces.—The French Cook, Francois Pierre La Varenne
To the “low-fat” sauces of the Middle Ages were added bread, eggs and cream, making them much heavier, and herbs replaced spices from the Orient. Roux was the thickener of choice. Beurre blanc and hollandaise sauce accompanied pike, a popular dish.
In the eighteenth century, Carême perfected the art of sauce making and was the first to classify the mother sauces: béchamel, espagnole, velouté, and allemande. Auguste Escoffier later refined this list to the contemporary five mother sauces by dropping allemande as a daughter sauce of velouté, adding hollandaise and sauce tomate, in his classic Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903.
Today, French people of all social and economic classes eat sauce. It is not restricted to the wealthy or the aristocrats. Just about anyone can whip up mayonnaise without a recipe.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.