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Nantes is a city in France, located on the Loire River in the region of Brittany. With a population in excess of 800,000 it is the 6th largest city in the country. Nantes was founded by the Namnètes, a Gallic tribe around 70 B.C. The area is no stranger to territorial conquests and was successively occupied by the Gauls, the Romans, the Saxons, the Franks, the Britons and the Normans. More sordid aspects of its history include its prominent role in the slave trade, internecine civil war during the French revolution, and hosting thousands of executions. Hopefully that's all in the past as Nantes is now a center of commerce, culture, and education, and boasts a reputation for a high standard of living. Nantes is also the credited birthplace, (with a slight caveat), of one of the classic sauces of French cuisine: beurre blanc.
My equivocation about Nantes' recognition in the genesis of beurre blanc reflects the extant contrariety about the sauce's origin. While many explanations exist, a popular one is this: Somewhere in the early 20th century a chef by the name of Clémence Lefeuvre, in a village nearby Nantes, (and thus not in Nantes proper), was purportedly making a béarnaise sauce for fish. Somehow she forgot to include the eggs and serendipitously created a beurre blanc. The new sauce was a hit and a classic was born.
I find that fish story a little hard to swallow, specifically the oversight of the eggs. To understand the dubiousness of this lapse, one must first understand what a béarnaise is. A béarnaise sauce is a tarragon-flavored hollandaise sauce. A hollandaise sauce starts with beaten egg yolks to which cold butter (and seasonings such as lemon juice, salt and pepper) is added. Thus, the eggs are an indispensible first step and building block of the sauce. Trying to make a hollandaise and "forgetting" the eggs would be akin to making pasta and "forgetting" the boiling water.
In any event, whatever the details may be, beurre blanc is a decadently delicious sauce that pairs exceedingly well with fish, but also many vegetables dishes. Moreover, it is relatively easy to make. But be forewarned, it is literally not for the "faint of heart." Beurre blanc is exceedingly rich, cloying with the butter that forms its backbone. So if you’re not cardiac or saturated fat-challenged, or simply allow for occasional indulgence, then grab your whisk and let's hit the stove.
Beurre blanc begins with a "reduction," i.e., a seasoned fluid that is cooked to concentrate its viscosity and flavor. The liquid is usually an admixture of white wine and white wine vinegar, combined with shallots, salt and pepper. Muscadet, a crisp and acidic wine from the Loire Valley is the traditional vino but any dry white wine will suffice. After the reduction is cooked down to a syrupy consistency, begin whisking in cubed, chilled butter, until it is fully incorporated. Some chefs also like to add a little heavy cream which is done just prior to the butter. Salted or unsalted butter can be employed but some prefer the latter in order to control the exact amount of salt to be added. Finally, beurre blanc is usually strained to remove the chopped shallots, unless you desire their textural presence in the finished sauce.
Be mindful of the heat level as you add the butter as excess heat can cause it to break. This means it separates as opposed to becoming emulsified. If you notice the butter becoming oily, rather than thick and creamy, it’s starting to break. To rescue it, immediately remove the pan from the heat and whisk in additional cold butter with vigor. Once finished the sauce can be held for service by keeping it warm, not hot, on the back of a stove, plate warmer, or in a mildly heated oven.
Not unexpectedly there are many variations to beurre blanc aside from the aforementioned choice of wine, use of cream, type of butter and strain or not strain alternatives. The basic reduction can be accentuated with other flavoring elements such as citrus juice, garlic, ginger, and different herbs such as basil, chervil or chives. Indeed, a whole plethora of flavor profiles can be explored based on the target dish, personal creativity, and the chef's whimsy.
At the risk of making things even more convoluted, a cousin of beurre blanc known as sauce vin blanc, is another maze of ingredient and procedural diversity. There are three general approaches to making a vin blanc as outlined in “Cooking Essentials” the culinary textbook of the Culinary Institute of America (1997):
1) A poaching liquid (a seasoned liquid for poaching fish, chicken, etc.), containing wine serves as the reduction and egg yolks are whisked in before the butter. In essence this is a hollandaise sauce built upon a poaching liquid.
2) A poaching liquid combined with fish veloute forms the reduction. Veloute, one of the mother sauces of French cuisine is a "white" (meaning the bones are not roasted first), chicken, veal or fish stock, thickened with roux. Egg yolks are utilized, thus once more producing a hollandaise, only this time predicated on a combination of poaching liquid and fish veloute.
3) In the final vin blanc rendition, a traditional hollandaise sauce is made first, and then a separately reduced poaching liquid is added.
Hopefully I've elucidated all of the nuances of beurre blanc and vin blanc without giving you too much of a headache. Let's get back to basics and make a straightforward beurre blanc sauce:
SAUCE BEURRE BLANC
(yields about a cup)
~ 2 oz. dry white wine
~ 2 oz. champagne or white wine vinegar
~ 3 shallots, minced
~ 3 sticks (12 oz.) butter, plus extra if needed, chilled and cubed
~ Salt and pepper to taste
~ Pinch of cayenne pepper (my optional twist on the classic recipe)
Combine the wine, vinegar and shallots in a sauce pan, preferably a saucier. A saucier has sloping sides, making whisking easier and more efficient.
Cook the mixture until a syrupy consistency is achieved.
On medium heat begin adding the butter, constantly whisking.
When the butter is incorporated add the salt and peppers.
Taste the sauce. If too astringent add more butter and if too flat add a few drops of vinegar, (or lemon juice).
Adjust the salt and pepper to taste as well.
Pour over your cooked fish, vegetables, or more up my alley, a big juicy steak.
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