I’m listening to Trouble in Paradise, the new album by La Roux, and it has motivated me to pull off the shelf the large clothbound hardcover book inscribed to me by my parents for my 14th birthday. On page 782 I find only what I knew already:
ROUX – Mixture of butter or other fatty substance and flour, cooked together for varying periods of time depending on its final use.
The roux is the thickening element in sauces.
There are three kinds of roux: white roux, blond roux, and brown roux.
It goes on to explain the differences, which consist mainly in the means and degree of cooking: the flour browns variously much.
The book, I should explain, is The New Larousse Gastronomique.
My copy is in English, but I think it would read better in French. I say this because in French the three types of roux would be roux blanc, roux blond, et roux brun. Which mean, respectively, reddish-white, reddish-blond, and reddish-brown. Which are three appealing hair colours but are also three varyingly sensible descriptions of the colours of the flour-and-butter mixtures. As The Oxford Companion to Food explains, the first roux must have been roux brun: “These early roux were made by cooking flour and butter together until a reddish tint was obtained then using this to thicken a sauce or broth.” By “early” they mean in the 1600s; before that, various other things, including bread crumbs, were used to thicken sauces.
The great glory of French haute cuisine is its sauces; to make a proper sauce, you spend days roasting bones, boiling them, reducing them, making a roux, adding the stock, adding fried onions and vegetables and wine, and so on. At the end you have, stored in your fridge or freezer, sauce espagnole, which is the basis for sauce demi-glace, and both are the bases for a myriad of others. A white sauce (béchamel) is more quickly done but also uses a roux and is also a base for many others. (I find simply reading the brief recipes for these sauces in the Larousse therapeutic: “Cook 2 tablespoons chopped onion in butter. Stir in 5 dl. red wine, season, add a bouquet garni (q.v.) and boil down by two-thirds. Add 3 dl. Espagnole sauce, boil down by half and strain. Before serving, add 50 g. butter.” Violà, sauce bourguignonne – version I.)
I cheated on the days’ work of sauce making. I just used liquid OXO plus wine and herbs and the roux – different, I know, but quicker and easier and it pleased my parents well enough. These days I don’t cook French style much. But if I’m going to, I still know that a proper French sauce is made with a proper roux. The roux is at the heart of French cookery.
Which was an epiphany for me as an adolescent. I learned to make gravy from my mother, and she taught me the technique I still use for thickening pan drippings: put flour, cold water, and salt in a plastic container with a lid and shake; add some pan drippings and stir, and then stir the flour and water into the pan drippings. Not nearly as fancy as a roux and not at all buttery, but gravy with a roast is home-style cookin’. (Years later, volunteering in a soup kitchen in Harvard Square, I learned another fun trick: make a roux with flour and oil and, when it’s good and brown, instead of gradually whisking the liquid in so it wouldn’t lump, just splash in the whole lot of water cold and start stirring. Works shockingly well.)
None of this seems to have much to do with electronic dance music about affairs of the heart, which is what La Roux does, but words have the flavour they have and you cook with them as you will. And La Roux cooks, musically. La Roux is really Elly Jackson, who has red hair. Those who know French will know that roux is actually the masculine form, while la is the feminine article; this works with Jackson’s androgynous look.
And what would the feminine form of roux, ‘reddish’, be? Rousse. The proper French family name meaning ‘the red’ is embossed on the burgundy-coloured cover of my copy of the paper heart of French gastronomy: Larousse.