La Poule au Pot, 231 Ebury Street, London SW1W 8UT, 020 7730 7763
Eating Out

Primary sauces

Lisa Hilton savours a timeless French bistro in Pimlico that displays no timidity with the ladle

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The pace of decline is a relative thing. Lamenting the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, St Jerome wailed, “The whole world has died with one city”. Perhaps it looked that way from the cave in Palestine, but the scholar’s dramatic grief contrasts with other contemporary evidence that despite a decline in material living standards evinced by the quality of pottery and roof tiles, the Germanic rulers continued to repair public buildings, use Latin and generally appreciate a “sub” if not wholly “Roman” lifestyle.

Brown, conventional and superlative: La Poule au Pot

And in the East, the Empire continued for another thousand years. Roman culture did not vanish overnight if only because its sudden disappearance was still being mourned in the sixth century by the British historian Gildas in highly elaborate prose. If the world was indeed as “ruined and unkempt” as Gildas claimed, for whom (and moreover on what) was he writing? 

Whether it was meteoric or glacial, one factor in the fall of Rome on which diverse historians agreed was the nefarious influence of fancy sauces. 

Tacitus approved of the dietary purity of the new Germanic masters of Rome, applauding the simplicity of wild fruit, fresh game and curdled milk. In contrast, Musonius Rufus viewed them as dull-witted carnivores whose souls were darkened by meat. 

Both concurred, however, that sauce oiled the path to decadence, with those who “wallow in the pickles” and complex reductions having only themselves to blame. This view was endorsed by St John Cassian of Marseilles, who observed that an excessive appreciation of sauces inevitably led to fornication.

Like the Roman Empire, it seems that classic French food has been declining and falling ever since Carême (right) identified the five “Grandes Sauces” (Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Tomate and Hollandaise) in the nineteenth century as the components “without which it is impossible to create a good dinner”. 

Adam Gopnik was investigating the “crisis” in French cooking back in 1997, whilst last year the journalist Wendell Stevenson claimed it had declined into “a tyranny of meat in brown sauce”.

French food has had to support an unusually heavy burden of expectation for over a century

Yet might the fact that French chefs still occupy 10 per cent of the World’s Best Restaurants List and the popularity of neoclassical restaurants like Bouillon Pigalle and the newly-opened Bouillon Republique in Paris, which offer (presently takeaway) straightforward, modestly priced renderings of staples such as leeks vinaigrette and boeuf bourguignon suggest that endless handwringing about decline is actually a sign of health? French food has had to support an unusually heavy burden of expectation for over a century, but difference is no more a signal of decline than continuity of success. 

News of the empire’s collapse has yet to reach Pimlico, where the Poule au Pot has been offering the same French menu for about as long as anyone can remember. There are many things to love about the dear old Poule, from the fairy-lit triangle of pavement terrace to the nicotine-tan tin ceilings and the lunchtime candles on the tables, but the food still reigns supreme. Not because it isn’t entirely formulaic and predictable, but because it is. I don’t know what’s going on backstage, but I doubt that nowadays the kitchen is adhering to Escoffier’s hierarchy of the brigade — six ranks of cook and a minimum of eight preparation stations. Nonetheless the dishes remain brown, conventional and insouciantly superlative. 

French food should be what my Great Aunt Ethel used to call “wet”, and there’s no timidity with the ladle at the Poule. Onion soup is intense and acorn-tinged, onion tart a more timid caramel, Sauternes jelly quivers its amber over foie gras, coq au vin, roast guinea fowl, rabbit in mustard sauce, veal in cream and mushroom sauce, an unapologetic symphony from beige to mahogany. It might be fashionable to claim that the road to culinary hell is slick with sauce, but no one round here is complaining.

The food at the Poule remains contentedly delicious, with no place for nostalgia on the menu

Aside from the pan-fried fresh foie gras (avec son verre de Monbazillac, bien sur), my favourite thing about the Poule is the sides. They arrive in cheerful little copper pans, unassuming supporting acts, alert to their own dignity as an old-school brasserie waiter. Creamed spinach, softly-stewed peas with lettuce and pearl onion, supple green beans with flaked almonds and the best pommes dauphinoises in London, all of it creamy, buttery, mostly brownish and much the better for it. Tarte tatin, chocolate mousse and crème brûlée follow much the same principle. 

I have not been able to discover how long it took the conquerors of the Western Empire to rediscover a taste for sauce, but Roman garum was still being used at the court of Charlemagne.

While the “barbarian” kings pottered about amidst the ruins, chatting in Latin and replastering the odd temple, they didn’t know that they were inhabiting a vanished world, since their world was still with them. The food at the Poule remains contentedly delicious, with no place for nostalgia on the menu.

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