Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pâté ain't what it used to be

I was mildly relieved to see a recent comment thread following a post about a culinary expert who's cooking technique might benefit from a stint at Culinary Boot Camp, develop into a discussion of culinary nomenclature.

Things can become very nasty very quickly when someone criticizes an other who has achieved "expert" status (no matter how ill-deserved that status might be) and I have learned to expect to be verbally beaten about the head whenever I take the unusual (for me) step of pointing out that somebody's emperor is buck naked and doesn't seem to know or care that his prosthetic phallus is dangling down there for everyone to see.

The point at which the thread in question turned away from a discussion of the merits of my argument for regarding the "expert" as technically inept (I doubt that I could ask this guy to fry an egg and expect him to get it right the first time.) came when Scotty questioned the expert's use of the word pâté (pr. pah-tay) when referring to a dish of molded pureed chicken liver. Scotty claimed that the expert's pâté was not really pâté because it was not covered or enclosed in a crust. This lead me to disagree and make the counterclaim that it was pâté. But my argument ended up falling apart because I neglected to add accent marks. Anyway, what followed was kind a mess so I thought I would try to sort it out now. Here goes

In old-school French gastronomy pâté (literally paste) was usually a meat, poultry, game, fish or vegetable dish (or some combination thereof) covered or surrounded by a pastry crust and baked. The the meat (or whatever the main ingredient was) could be ground, chopped, pureed, layered (or some combination thereof) and was often highly seasoned. If the dish was baked in an earthenware mold, it was pâté en terrine. The truth of this becomes especially obvious when you look in French cookbooks published prior to World War II. After that, it changes.

Nowadays, pâté can refer to any meat/vegetable/game/poultry/fish where the main ingredient is ground, chopped, pureed, layered (or some combination thereof). Often the modern pâté is baked in a mold, but is can also be precooked and molded. When a modern pâté is topped or surrounded by pastry crust it is called
pâté en croûte (croûte = crust). Whether the modern pâté has a crust or not, if it is baked in or poured into an earthenware mold it is called pâté en terrine.

In old and new school French gastronmy the word pâte ( pr. paht; also literally "paste" but inflected to suggest kneading /squishing -thanks Linda) usually refers to dough (as in pâte a choux, puff paste & pâte nouille, noodle dough) but can also refer to various preparations of chocolate and other sweet and savory paste like concoctions.


Scotty said...

Was the discussion really a mess, or was it enlightening. I for one, while focusing on the difference between en croute and en terrine, had overlooked the fact that there is just a pâté (accents included) that is more of a meat pie or cornish pasty, than what I thought of as en croute.

Thanx for the hat tip though! ;-)

Jessika said...

A mess or not what you had thought it would be? I thought it was a nice discussion. We seem to concur, not all of us perhaps on the simplification and poor technique, and the nomenclature has something to do with it as well :)

Jessika said...

And in any event, blogg commentary live their own lives. We can have a new discussion on technique but leaving out french ;)

IdahoRocks said...

I liked the discussion very much. It pushed me to research, and to really focus on understanding the history behind the sometimes very technical terms used in cooking. To me the history of a food technique, or of the myriad ways in which a food can be prepared (depending on geography and culture) is intriging. It's like the differences, historically and culturally, of butchering pig in France, the US, and different parts of Asia. And some of this comes from the sheer exasperation of trying to get the local USDA butcher to save me a lamb breast without the bones.

Speaking of such things, I will never understand why my local,rural grocery store carries beautifully cleaned pig's feet all the time and the local USDA butcher will only sell me uncleaned pigs feet. Well, at least they do sell pork jowls (I am now addicted to homemade guanciale), beef cheeks, and beautiful white pig fat.