Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Susan Pinkard: French Food History Savante

Susan Pinkard


Serves 4

In his list of dishes suitable for Good Friday, the strictest fast day of the church year, La Varenne mentions “bette-raves au beurre blanc” (beets in white butter). Sadly, no recipe is included with the listing. However, in an earlier chapter on entremets suitable for fast days, he described a dish of beets sauced with vinegar and fresh butter that suggested the thickened butter sauces that he used for fish. Pairing such a luscious sauce with the earthy beet seems slightly odd nowadays, but it is delicious. Because beets kept well through the winter, they would have been a welcome addition to the Lenten table, when the growing season was just beginning in the region of Paris. The rich, elegant sauce, creamy but balanced by the acidity of the vinegar, would have provided relief from the general austerity of the fast day menu. Note: If you use red beets (as La Varenne recommends), their powerful color will turn the portion of the beurre blanc with which they come into contact into beurre rose!

Equipment: A large pot for boiling the beets or, alternatively, a shallow pan in which to roast them; a colander (if boiling the beets); a small, sharp knife; a saucepan; a whisk; and a serving dish. For peeling the beets: some cooks use rubber gloves because red beets stain skin.

1 1/2 pounds beets without their tops, well scrubbed and trimmed
Olive oil or neutral vegetable oil (if roasting the beets)
2 Tb finely minced onion
8 ounces (2 sticks) butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1/4 cup wine vinegar

  1. La Varenne says that the beets may be boiled or roasted on the fire. To boil the beets, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; add the beets and cook for about 15–20 minutes (depending on their size) after the water returns to a boil. Test to see if they are tender when pieced with a sharp knife; if not, return to the heat for a little longer, and then drain. To roast the beets, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Rub the scrubbed beets with a little oil, put them in the roasting pan, and roast 30–40 minutes until tender. Remove from the oven and set aside.
  2. As soon as the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them, using a small, sharp knife. Slice the peeled beets into rounds, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and keep warm in the serving dish while making the beurre blanc.
  3. Over a medium flame, heat 2 Tb of the butter in the saucepan, add the minced onion, and sauté for a minute or two until the onion is translucent and tender. Add the vinegar and boil until the liquid is reduced by half to 2 Tb.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in 2 pieces of butter until they are almost entirely melted. Return the pan to very low heat and continue beating in the butter one piece at a time. If you sense that the sauce is getting too hot, lift it off the heat for a minute and whisk vigorously. As you add more and more butter, the texture of the sauce should become dense and creamy. Taste and beat in salt and pepper, if needed.
  5. To serve: top the warm beets with the beurre blanc and serve at once.

About The Author

Susan Pinkard

Susan Pinkard is author of A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650–1800 (2010). Pinkard holds a Master's degree and a Ph.D. in Modern European History from the Un...

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