22 February 2011

English-style cooking in French cuisine

In America and in France, boiled dinners have long been classics of home cooking.

In America, we have pot roast (of beef), corned beef and cabbage, or New England boiled dinner, for example. In coastal North Carolina and elsewhere, we used to love boiled shrimp, and Virginia has made a specialty out of boiled peanuts.

In France, there's la poule au pot (boiled chicken with vegetables), le pot au feu (boiled beef with vegetables), la blanquette de veau (boiled veal served in a cream sauce), and la potée (boiled pork and sausages with vegetables) in different styles from several regions.

Now I don't know much about English cooking, never having spent more than a month in England altogether in several separate trips, but in France boiling foods — meats or vegetables — is called cooking them "in the English manner" — « la cuisson à l'anglaise ». I don't know where the term comes from. Two English friends have told me that they don't cook meats, at least, in such a way in England. They roast them — I'm talking about leg of lamb, for example.

I've looked at recipes in the Larousse Gastronomique, Escoffier's Guide Culinaire (I have an American edition, in English), and several other cookbooks, including Ginette Mathiot's Je Sais Cuisiner. All these have, for example, a recipe for Gigot à l'anglaise — boiled, or poached, leg of lamb (or mutton).

Ginette Mathiot's recipe for English-style poached leg of lamb

The difference between gigot à l'anglaise and boiled dinners like the ones I mentioned above is that a leg of lamb cooked "English-style" is not really boiled but, but carefully poached. It's not cooked until it's well done, but finished and served rare — « saignant » in French, meaning that the meat still has blood, a.k.a meat juices, in it when you cut into it.

The Larousse quotes the great 19th-century French chef Carême as saying: « Ce que les Anglais apprécient le plus, c'est que le jus sorte du gigot lorsqu'ils portent le couteau dedans. » —"What the English like the most is for the lamb to be juicy when they cut into it."

Here's a translation of the recipe for Gigot à l'anglaise from the book titled Recettes d'une grand'mère, by a woman named Renée de Grossouvre (1988). It's not very different from the ones in the Larousse Gastronomique or Escoffier's cookbook.
Gigot à l'anglaise
Leg of lamb poached English-style

For those who love rare meat, this is an excellent way to cook lamb.

Choose a leg of young mutton, with very white fat, and round and short in shape (elongated legs are not as good). Insert three slivers of garlic into the shank end. Put some water on to boil and salt it generously with coarse sea salt. Put in enough water so that the leg of lamb will be completely submerged.

With some fine, tightly woven muslin, wrap the leg and sew it up in the cloth, pulling it tight. Then plunge it into the pot of water, which should be at a rolling boil, keeping the pot on high heat until the water comes back to the boil after being cooled down by the roast. You of course must know the exact weight of the leg and look at the time right when you put the lamb in, so that you can let it cook for 15 minutes per pound and no longer.

This recipe is among the best, and lamb cooked this way is very nutritious.
The author says to prepare cream sauce with capers, to be served burning hot at the table with the lamb. Carve the roast on a platter, not on a board, so that you can collect all the blood (which has become a concentrated jus) that comes out of the meat as you slice it. Place the slices of lamb on a warm platter and spoon the meat juices over all, and serve the hot caper sauce on the side.

The translation of Escoffier's book into American English calls the dish "boiled leg of mutton English-style," but as I said, it is really just poached. His recipe calls for cooking carrots, onions, garlic cloves, and herbs in the pot with the leg of lamb. And he says to serve the "boiled" lamb with a purée of, for example, turnips, white beans, celery root, or potatoes, cooked separately or in the lamb broth.

A similar way of boiling or poaching beef — fine, tender cuts like filet de bœuf, not stew beef as in the homey pot au feu — is called « bœuf à la ficelle » — beef on a string. The roast is suspended in boiling water, hanging by a string during the cooking process. It is normally served rare or medium rare. Our friend Martine has written about that way of preparing beef on her blog, Wishing I Were in France. Here's a link to her post.

Mathiot's recipe for potatoes cooked and served English-style

When vegetables are cooked in boiling water — potatoes or green beans, for example — they are also called « à l'anglaise », and the recipe almost always says to serve the vegetables with butter, melted or not, that is brought to the table separately. The vegetables, unlike the lamb, are boiled until they are well done — or whatever degree of cooking that means for specific vegetables and individual tastes.

The Larousse Gastronomique says of « pommes de terre à l'anglaise » that you should peel the potatoes as neatly as possible and cook them in salted boiling water, or steam them. "In England," it says, however, "these potatoes are cooked in unsalted water." The Larousse also describes « haricots verts à l'anglaise » as green beans cooked in salted water, drained, dried in a towel, and then served with butter melted over the warm beans at the last minute.

And her recipe for green beans cooked and served « à l'anglaise »

I think the French cooks and chefs who give these recipes admire the simplicity of what they call « la cuisson à l'anglaise », which calls for very fresh vegetables and meats cooked carefully and served with fresh butter or simple sauces. It's an elegant way of preparing and serving food.

But it may also have led to the French stereotype according to which English food is usually boiled to death and overly bland. I never found it to be that way when I went to England.

I do plan to cook a gigot à l'anglaise the next time I buy a leg of lamb.


  1. I hate boiled lamb that comes out liked dried shoe leather. I went to a Greek restaurant in Seattle once and was surprised to find it cooked like this. I asked why they didn't use the traditional Greek slow oven cooking method, and they said that it was for American tastes.

    Luckily on trips to Vancouver I found the Greek restaurants there had not succumbed!

  2. I'm English and the closest my family got to this poached leg of lamb dish was my mother's lamb stew, very similar in method... pieces of lamb (usually neck) well seasoned, sometimes with garlic also, and very gently simmered for a couple of hours with onions, carrots and herbs till the meat almost fell off the bone, yet was tender and very intensely flavoured. Fresh veg such as green beans were freshly cooked to accompany the meal with boiled potatoes. Wonderful!


  3. Mike, to be good the boiled lamb — poached lamb — has to be cooked rare. Otherwise, lamb needs to be cooked long enough to start falling off the bone, as Sue says, to be tender. Anything in between is not so good. What about Irish stew?

  4. Not just a French stereotype, I think. It is ingrained in the conventional wisdom of the post-rationing generation in the UK that English cooking had degenerated into boil-everything-to-death (hence the old joke about the people who "put their sprouts on in November").

    Pot roasts are not unknown in England now (though it's much harder now to find the salted silverside for poaching that used to be a staple of my childhood), but mostly meat would only be cooked in water in stews or casseroles, or something like Lancashire hotpot (which uses small lamb chops).

  5. My mother cooked ham- I think it may have been a shoulder in water.

    I've not been to England many times or recently, but didn't have much good food there. I must say we were on a budget then.

    The food in Ireland and Scotland was pretty good with plenty of boiled veggies served.

  6. We have a pot roast of beef every so often, that we really enjoy, where the joint (brisket) is cooked gently in the oven in a light stock along with carrots, onions and herbs.

    I don't know of anyone who regularly boils meat, except for ham. Mostly meat would be roasted, grilled or cooked as a casserole, using cheaper cuts of meat, which require long, slow cooking to make them melt-in-the-mouth deliciously tender and full of flavour.

    Pot au feu and navarin d'agneau are two of our favourite French dishes but they're remarkably similar to English beef stew and lamb hotpot.

    We were recently entertained by some French friends in the UK and they served daube de boeuf, which was quite delicious with the orange and olives in it. We will try it ourselves pretty soon - if I can translate the family recipe that our friends kindly gave us from its original French !!

  7. To me these boiled dishes like pot au feu, which I love, are comfort food.

  8. We are having Irish stew for dinner tonight.

  9. The derivations of words is interesting - we in England have the generic "sheep", then we have "mutton" which is a mature animal - this comes from the French "mouton" and then we have "lamb" which is the young animal. "Lamb" is an Anglo-Saxon word. There are may other examples, and perhaps explains why the English language is so rich.
    So in England, we do indeed cook mutton by boiling or poaching, and it is often served with caper sauce.

  10. Here we can still buy cornbeef/silverside or pickled pork. I only cook Salted silverside just this week.
    Price is about $4.98 kg

    Kal’s Corn Beef flavouring
    1 tbsp. Allspice, 1 bay leaf, 2 tbsp. Golden Syrup/treacle, 2 cloves of Garlic peeled with 2 whole cloves in each, 6 peppercorns. Cover with water and cook until tender.
    Cook by your favourite method. [20ml tablespoon -Aus]

    CORNED SILVERSIDE ~ 2kg piece ~ 12 serves of 2 slices each.
    ‘Woolworths’ ~ Cooking instruction from bag.

    Remove meat from bag and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked. Allow approximately 60-70 minutes per kg.

    For a richer old fashioned country flavour, add 1 cup of vinegar, 1 tbsp. brown sugar, some cloves and nutmeg to water and cook as above.

    Serve hot with parsley sauce and vegetables or allow to cool and enjoy with a fresh garden salad.

    As for Pickled pork I never cooked this.

  11. Sorry I didn't put my name on above post.
    Claire M - Brisbane QLD

  12. Can you elaborate more on the difference between poaching and boiling? Is it the amount of water or is it because it's not water but juices? Or is it gentler cooking? Thanks, Ken.

  13. Hi Ginny, yes, poaching is gentler cooking, in water or other liquid heated to just below the boiling point. I remember I used to poach chicken breast by putting them in rapidly boiling water and then turning off the heat and letting the cook as the water cooled down. I think I would cover the pot or pan with a dish towel to hold in the heat. The chicken would come out very tender and completely cooked.

  14. Loved this topic and all the comments. Aside from brisket and corned beef, I have never tried boiling meats. Your blog posts are so thought-provoking!

  15. In France, there is also Boeuf Bourguignon which is very popular. It is usually served on sundays.

    French course


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