Pot-au-feu, Pot-au-feu, what a nice and easy phrase to say! Much like the simplicity of my rhyme, simplicity is foundation which has grounded this dish as a hallmark of French cuisine.
It is often rare to come across a national dish that isn’t insinuated with the complexity of culture and local produce. Specialised techniques of cooking and unique ingredients often allow national dishes to withstand the course of time. Pot-au-feu however is remarkably the opposite. When one wonders how could a dish with the same number of ingredients as the words in its name become so iconic and celebrated on a national level, we must accept the historical significance and the less than humble beginnings from which Pot-au-feu comes from.
A stew comprised of meat, vegetables and spices essentially describes what Pot-au-feu is. Inexpensive cuts of beef alongside root vegetables such as celery, carrots, onions and turnips represented the standard ingredients available since the 17th century of France.
In 1600, King Henry IV of France declared, “I want no peasant in my kingdom to be so poor that he cannot have a Poule-au-pot [a variant stew cooked with chicken] on Sundays” and nowadays, the dish has followed this declaration as what has been described by chef Raymond Blanc as “the quintessence of French family cuisine … honour[ing] tables of the rich and poor alike.”
The simplicity of the recipe has allowed leeway for regional variants such as the Soupe-au-aard of Lorraine with involves the use ingredients native to Northern France (bacon and rassache) and the Bouillabaisse which is a provincial fish stew of Marseille.
Interestingly, elements of Pot-au-feu permeated into cuisines outside of France in unexpected ways. Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup has strong influences of Pot-au-feu with its rich beef-based broth with onions and spices.
Ferguson’s article “Writing out of the Kitchen” gave me a deeper understanding about how pot-au-feu was an integral part of careme’s cooking books – the dish highlighted his desire of simplifying French cuisine. The use of inexpensive, widely available ingredients exemplifies the point of Pot-au-feu being fit for the masses rather than aristocracy which renders it suitable as a national dish.