Culinary pleasures don’t get much better than a steaming bowl of pot au feu. It’s cheap, easy and gloriously wholesome; it’s the French equivalent of a big woolly blanket on a cold winter’s evening.
The excellence of French cuisine and restaurants has long represented a vital part of French national identity. Even the most modest pot au feu boasts an essence of simplicity at its finest and remains a much-loved comfort food on French tables. In the right hands, this French dish becomes more than the sum of its simple ingredients.
Pot au feu was part of France’s culinary heritage long before Haute Cuisine. Translating literally as ‘pot on the fire’, the Larousse Encyclopaedia of 1867 described the dish as “the basis of our cuisine, because of it our national cuisine is different from all others”.
The French dish is a must on the holiday agenda of tourists, with many prioritising the experience of having an authentic pot au feu during their visit.
So, what makes pot au feu so special? Here is everything about France’s national dish.
The Story Of The Pot Au Feu
It’s much more than just a beef and vegetable soup; the history of pot au feu is soaked in tradition and epitomises French history and culture.
Pot au feu was recognised as early as the 18th century. As it used cheap ingredients and could be prepared in bulk, it was originally a common food for the poor people of France. It is a French staple, and also an edible history composed of the most basic of ingredients: meat and simple root vegetables cultivated straight from the soil.
The popularity of the dish can be traced back to King Henry IV who ruled in France from 1589 to 1610. “I want no peasant in my kingdom to be so poor that he cannot afford to have a chicken in the pot on Sundays.” – King Henry IV.
In the countryside, cheap cuts such as pork and chicken were more commonly used and needed longer to cook. Whereas in the city, beef was more readily available. However, pork and chicken were, in fact, more flavourful. The slow cooking times also meant the meat was deliciously tender in the final dish.
Herbs give the stewed meat more flavour. Vegetables and marrowbone thickens the soup. There was a preference for root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, and onion. Add some black pepper, bouquet garni, and cloves as a final touch and for extra flavour.
Towards the end of the 16th century, France’s poor found pot au feu to be beyond their means. The country experienced crop failures and poverty swept France during the Wars of Religion. Pot au feu switched from a peasant meal to appearing on the tables of the wealthy – the only French who could afford the expense of the ingredients. Economic conditions have thankfully changed in France. Yet the simple cooking style has remained a favourite of the people.
Interesting fact: Culinary experts believe that ‘pho’ was adapted by the Vietnamese after being introduced to pot au feu by the French who colonised the country.
Three Meals In One
What sets this classic French comfort food apart from other cuisines is its versatility. Just about every culture has some form of a basic stew. Pot au feu is unique because it can be deconstructed as multiple meals.
There are at least three different ways to serve pot au feu:
Remove the marrow from the bone and spread it on toast as a starter
Use the broth as a soup
Serve the vegetables and meat with mustard, gherkins, mayonnaise, and horseradish
A Celebrated National Cuisine
As the famous French chef, Raymond Blanc, put it, pot au feu is “the quintessence of French family cuisine, it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike.” Pot au feu is considered one of France’s gastronomic specialties. Almost every French province has its own traditional method of preparing the national dish.
There’s no definitive recipe for pot au feu other than the general inclusion of meat and vegetables. Traditionally, this French dish is cooked in a large stockpot and bone marrow is added to the dish to provide extra flavour. One of the most popular recipes for the dish is as follows:
In a large stockpot combine the beef chuck, oxtail, onion, garlic, celery, and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and season with a pinch of salt.
Bring the mixture to a simmer, then lower heat to maintain a very gentle heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until each cut of beef is tender.
When all the beef is cooked, strain the broth. Discard the thyme, onion, celery, and garlic. Return all the cuts of beef and broth to the pot.
Add potatoes, leeks, carrots, cabbage, turnip, parsnip, and marrow bones. Submerge all the ingredients in the broth with the beef and return to a gentle simmer. Cook until all the vegetables are soft and the bone marrow is fully warm through to the centre.
Serve with pickles, coarse salt, and mustard.
The secret to a perfectly cooked pot au feu is to never let it boil. We recommend that you cook it the day before to bring out all the flavours.
Pot Au Feu Reflects The Spirit Of France
Cooking and eating together remains an irreplaceable pillar of the French sociability and is considered part of their national identity. The “espirit” that inspires pot au feu is the idea that life is at its fullest when experienced around a table filled with delicious food, quality wine, good conversation, friendship, and love.
Pot au feu is a buffet-style dish that friends and family share together. So, gather some good friends together, open a bottle of wine and put a pot on the fire.
Try some authentic pot au feu on your next trip to France! Here are some useful guides for you!