Eggs Benedict is one of my favorite breakfast dishes of all time. Sadly, Regency characters cannot enjoy that delicious dish, since it was not invented until the 1860s, in New York City. Or can they? As far as I am concerned, that which makes Eggs Benedict so scrumptious is the Hollandaise sauce which is spooned over the eggs and ham nestled on their muffins. And Hollandaise sauce did exist during the Regency, though it was not yet widely known in Britain.
A brief history of Hollandaise sauce . . .
The first recorded version of the sauce which would eventually come to be known as Hollandaise sauce was in the landmark cookbook written by the pioneering French chef, François Pierre de la Varenne. In this book, Le Cuisinier françois, first published in 1651, La Varenne describes how to make a sauce blanche (white sauce) which was intended to be served over asparagus, though he gave it no specific name. La Varenne’s sauce was made from egg yolks, blended with melted butter, over low heat, into an emulsion, and flavored with a dash of salt and a splash of wine vinegar. This was a revolutionary sauce for its time, since, unlike the overly spiced sauces handed down from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, La Varenne’s sauce had a delicate flavor which enhanced the natural taste of the foods with which it was served, rather than masking them. A number of fats, like butter, tend to accentuate the flavors of the foods with which they are paired. Thus, butter is an ideal ingredient in sauces meant to garnish foods that have milder flavors.
An English translation of La Varenne’s book, entitled The French Cook, was published in Britain, in 1653. However, it does not appear that much notice was taken of this new white sauce by the majority of English cooks during the seventeenth century. That may have been due to the fact that this sauce was particularly difficult to make. La Varenne had the advantage of having access to a potager in his kitchen. A potager is essentially a brick stove. Bricks were laid in a box shape, to stand about waist-high, and the top was pierced by four to six openings which were heated from below, each with a fire of varying intensities. Using a potager, La Varenne was able to more carefully control the heat over which he made his sauce, thus ensuring it did not become so hot the egg yolks would harden too fast, or so cool that the melted butter would congeal before it was fully blended with the egg yolks. The novel and innovative cooking surface of the potager was not yet widely available in Britain, and it was nearly impossible to make a good egg and butter emulsion sauce over the usual open fire available in the majority of cooking fireplaces in Britain during that era.
Through the latter half of the seventeenth century and into the early eighteenth, a number of chefs and cooks, mostly in France, began to experiment with the recipe for the butter and egg yolk emulsion sauce first developed by La Varenne. He had specified that both the butter and the eggs should be as fresh as possible, and that the butter be unsalted. Later chefs usually used unsalted butter, but clarified it in order to produce a smoother sauce. They also replaced the wine vinegar with lemon juice. Most retained the salt and some added a little black or cayenne pepper to the sauce for a bit of extra zip. For a time, this sauce was known as "Sauce Isigny," named, it is said, after the town of Isigny-sur-Mer, on the coast of Normandy, which produced high-quality dairy products, including very fine butter. This sauce proved to be quite delectable, not only when poured over vegetables, but also when paired with fish.
One scholar of food history has remarked that an entire book could be written about the preference of French chefs for giving foreign names to their greatest culinary creations, especially sauces. Which may well explain why the sauce formerly known as Sauce Isigny became sauce à la hollandaise some time after the middle of the eighteenth century. Once again, the prime ingredients in this sauce may have been the driving factor behind its new name. Holland, a province of the Netherlands, was at that time very famous for the fine quality of its butter and eggs. It is certain that this sauce became increasingly popular in the Netherlands during the eighteenth century, but by that time, it was also becoming popular in the Germanic states and Austria as well. However, it does not appear that Hollandaise sauce had yet to cross the English Channel to become popular in Great Britain.
It is possible that the great French chef, Antonin Carême, who created the extravagant grand banquet for the Prince Regent in January of 1817, may have brought Hollandaise sauce to the attention of the cooks of Great Britain. It is certain that he made multiple vegetable and fish dishes which were served with Hollandaise sauce during the several months he worked for the Regent, between 1816 to 1817. Curiously, it is recorded that Carême regularly called for fresh butter from Isigny when he prepared this special sauce while he was master of the Regent’s kitchens. It is entirely possible that some of the guests who enjoyed the meals created by Carême in England may have then requested similar dishes from their own chefs or cooks. There were also a number of top chefs in Britain who were keenly interested in the great chef’s recipes and techniques. Any number of them may have copied Carême’s special sauce recipe in order to expand their repertoire as well as to impress and delight their own employers.
Later in his life, after he had returned to France, Carême decided to document his culinary knowledge and he wrote several books on cookery. It was during this time that he recorded his concept of four "mother sauces." He believed that these four grand sauces, béchamel, velouté, espagnole and allemande, formed the foundation for the majority of French haute cuisine dishes. It is not clear why Carême did not include Hollandaise sauce as one of his mother sauces, since he is known to have used it in many of his most popular French dishes. However, that oversight was corrected in the early twentieth century, when another prominent French chef, Auguste Escoffier, dropped allemande sauce and added both Hollandaise sauce and sauce tomate, thus updating the list to what is now the five mother sauces of French cuisine. In the twenty-first century, Hollandaise sauce is still considered one of those five French mother sauces.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, Hollandaise sauce was known and made by many chefs on the Continent, though it does not yet seem to have become widely used in Great Britain. However, many in the British aristocracy and upper classes preferred to hire a French chef, and it is highly likely that most of those chefs were aware of Hollandaise sauce and may have prepared it for their employers. The celebrity French chef, Antonin Carême, is known to have prepared dishes with Hollandaise sauce even before he came to Britain in 1816, and he made it many times while he was cooking for the Prince Regent. Therefore, it is perfectly within the realm of possibility, for at least some meals in Regency Britain, to have included dishes served with Hollandaise sauce. In most cases, those would be either fish or vegetable dishes, both of which would be enhanced by that light, smooth and tangy yellow sauce.
Hollandaise sauce would have been even more of a challenge to make during the Regency than it is today. It could only be made successfully over a heat source which could be closely controlled. The egg yolks would have to whipped together and placed over a low heat. The melted clarified butter would then have to be added, a little at a time, and thoroughly stirred into the egg yolks in order to emulsify the ingredients and create a thickened sauce. If the sauce was over heated during preparation, it would "break," that is, the egg yolks would curdle and the melted butter would puddle amid the curds. If the sauce was not warm enough during preparation, the butter would harden and could not be properly blended into the egg yolks. Once the melted butter and whipped egg yolks were successfully blended, a splash of strained lemon juice and a dash of salt would be added. Some cooks also chose to add some black or cayenne pepper for a bit of zing. Prepared correctly, Hollandaise sauce was a light, lemon-yellow color, smooth and creamy, with a slight tang. It was intended to be served warm, and had to be served soon after preparation order to be enjoyed at its best.
Though Hollandaise sauce was known and relished by at least a few people in Regency England, it was unlikely that any of them would have been able to enjoy my favorite breakfast dish of Eggs Benedict. And not just because that dish had not yet been invented. Hollandaise sauce was difficult and labor-intensive to make during the Regency and was only served with dishes intended for the dinner table. Typically, Hollandaise sauce was only poured over dishes served at dinners which included invited guests. In Regency England, Hollandaise sauce was not a simple sauce that anyone could whip up any time, it required the right equipment and a thorough understanding of the ingredients, as well as good control of the heat source over which it was made. Therefore, it was something of a tour de force and would usually only have been served at a meal intended to impress.
Dear Regency Authors, will a dish garnished with Hollandaise sauce find a place in one of your upcoming romances? Or, might the making of it play a part in the story? Perhaps the heroine, now working as a governess for a snobbish family, has spent time in France, where she learned to cook some haute cuisine dishes. Will she offer to help the family cook when the snooty mistress of the house, after overhearing a high society matron tell a friend about a dish served at Carlton House, demands her own cook make a dish with Hollandaise sauce? Or, might the heroine and her hero be brought together when her parents are trying to poach his parents’ chef because the chef knows how to prepare Hollandaise sauce, among other French dishes? How else might Hollandaise sauce garnish a Regency romance?