Every culture has its take-out, whether it’s the bread lady at the pueblo or the source of the best authentic Kosher pastrami in New York City or the ever expanding prepared foods selections at Whole Foods.
But, the French have this category nailed, and it’s been that way since the end of the Revolution, when the beheaded aristocrats’ cooks needed a new way to make a living. Some of them engaged in “restauration”, the root of the word “restaurant” where someone cooks and we eat there, and the “charcutiers”, or “cooked meat” specialists who sold their wares to a hungry public to enjoy at home.
The nooks where the original charcutiers worked quickly grew to shops known as charcuteries, and they are a formidable Gallic institution.
When we think of charcuterie, we tend to think of the sausages and smoked meats which are familiar as charcuterie platters, often marketed as shared first courses in restaurants. But there is so much more!
Among the obvious are the sausages which are cooked, and just have to be reheated. These are the myriad shapes and sizes which make an Alsatian choucroute (sauerkraut) garni such a special treat, as well as the boudin blanc (white sausages, usually of veal or chicken) and boudin rouge (blood sausage).
Then there are the raw sausages, which used to be limited to the shops named Charcuterie/Traiteur or Charcuterie/Boucherie, but are now more ubiquitous.
Some delicious French dishes are almost never made at home, particularly in these days of two earner families and no “madame” to watch a pot all day. So, while we American gourmands struggle to perfect our tripe a la mode de Caen (beef tripe, Caen style), our cassoulet (the famous bean/duck/sausage casserole), and our pieds de cochon panes (breaded pigs’ feet), the French cook simply stops by the charcuterie on the way home from l’office and reheats.
One huge change in charcuteries over the years is that highly decorated dishes (of dubious freshness and flavor) used to fill the windows, with a few spare sausages to fill in the holes. While not extinct, these items are decidedly out of fashion. Still sold in the good charcuteries but with less variety and certainly less cooler space, they are like edible show pieces.
Take, for example, oeufs en gelee (eggs encased in aspic with various designs/garnishes). A non-favorite of MyMEGusta, these are perfectly poached eggs, and the gelatin is never sweet, but often flavored with port or other elegant accoutrements, not to mention painstaking decorations. No offense to the aspic, we just don’t like eggs, and, as the old joke goes, “Take my egg in aspic. PLEASE take my egg in aspic”.
If you want to see why this is not something the average French homemaker creates from scratch, check out this somewhat simplified recipe from Saveur Magazine.
Other foods are encased in the gelatin and decorated, destined for fancy hors d’oeuvres, and no French person thinks for one second that their host/hostess had anything to do with this offering other than paying an arm and a leg at the charcuterie.
Another category, which used to dominate the old fashioned French charcuterie, is chaudfroid, a mixture of aspic and cream covering a cooked food. This is often chicken (or chicken galantine, like a chicken skin stuffed with chicken meatloaf) or seafood, which is then elaborately decorated. Culinary students still learn these techniques which are largely limited to competition pieces and fancy buffets.
It all brings new meaning to “Don’t try this at home……”