Food Facts & Lore

Sauces… Tomato and Otherwise – Part 1

jpd - 1203 - sauce 2

It is often said that all you need for a well garnished meal is a good tomato sauce. As you might imagine, we agree wholeheartedly. Sauce makes or breaks a good meal.

There are only about five basic sauces, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of variations exist, as evidenced by the selection at the super-market and, most significantly, by the creativity of chefs. Here are the five basic sauces:

  • Tomato sauce – right here the possibilities are endless… including calling pizza a vegetable, but we digress, a little.
  • Brown sauces – made from animal bones, fat and muscle fiber.
  • Hollandaise and Béarnaise – two variations of an egg-based sauce.
  • Béchamel – this one is milk-based.
  • Velouté – white-based, such as vegetable, poultry, or seafood stock.

As for the origins of tomato and other sauces… Yup, the Romans. In 200 A.D. their feasts of boiled game meats included sauces and seasonings. Their sauces contained thickening agents such as flour and taste enhancers such as honey.

At a time when food preservation was limited (though the Romans devised means of refrigeration), it is reasonable to assume that sauces were used, at least in part, to improve the taste of rather aged foods. It is believed, also, that choice seasonings provided an immediate antidote to some digestive concerns. Tomato sauce, it turns out, is at the top of the list for digestibility, even in spite of its acidity.

jpd - 1203 - apiciusMarcus Gavius Apicius – 1st Century A.D.

We owe the only recorded evidence of Roman cuisine to Marcus Gavius Apicius, in the first century A.D. Food historians frequently refer to Apicius as a gourmet and lover of luxury. This choice of words portrays the character of one who might fully embrace a good meal.

The sauce of the day was a condiment called liquamen. It was a fermented and putrefied fish sauce to which were added generous amounts of herbs, spices, honey and olive oil. If you don’t like anchovies on your pizza, then by all means, politely decline.

Seasoning and sauces may have served another, less practical purpose, especially at the table of the wealthy elite. To this day, we demonstrate opulence through the variety and eccentricity of the table. Sauces, especially those featuring foreign spices and unique flavor, would have been a statement of wealth and savoir-faire; in other words, a way to impress dining guests.

The word “sauce” comes from old French and vulgar Latin. This sounds funny, of course, for if sauce is to be considered an emblem of refinement, then how could it be vulgar? The word, in this case, masks the intended meaning, which is “popular.” Sauce, thus, comes from the language of the people. Fitting, don’t you think? It’s original meaning is “to salt.” Here, we must point out an interesting analogy, for one of the most ancient means of preserving foods, especially meat, is with salt.

Speaking of language, a French expression comes to mind: “A toutes les sauces”. Roughly translated: “Adapting to all purposes and circumstances.” Good material for a future installment in our Fricassee of Words Segment.

Sauces… Tomato and Otherwise – Part 2

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