For the first time in my 30 years, I shall be forsaking the usual British Christmas for my boyfriend’s South African one. And in swapping Canterbury for Cape Town, it’s not just the warm weather I’m going to have to get used to, but a whole set of new traditions. Oh, there’ll still be a turkey, but done on the braai rather than in the oven. There will still be midnight mass, though I won’t need to cocoon myself in wool in order to venture out for it. And there will still be carols and presents and family arguments and marzipan fruits and a good few buckets of wine (rather decent stuff, at that). But there is one thing that there shall not be: bread sauce.
As a Brit, I cannot conceive of a roast chicken, turkey or goose without also imagining a hearty dollop of that pleasingly gloopy white stuff on the side. But, as a Brit, I must also admit that bread sauce is an oddity. Curiously gelatinous and neither fully liquid nor solid, it serves no practical purpose these days, whatever its origins, and any attempt at justifying its existence thus descends into juvenile whines of ‘It’s just not Christmas without it’. Honestly, try and explain bread sauce to a foreigner and you will be met with incredulity at best, scorn at worst.
And yet there is nothing that could cause me to renounce this quintessentially British quirk. Because, you see, bread sauce is the mink stole of a plate (without the moral ramifications): it may not be absolutely necessary but it engulfs you in a sumptuous and supremely gentle warmth for which, once you’ve experienced it, you will forever yearn.
Stemming from the Medieval practice of thickening sauces with bread, the modern incarnation calls for milk infused with onion, cloves and bay leaves, and then a generous dose of butter and seasoning. It is comfort food in the extreme, like a savoury sort of rice pudding masquerading as a condiment to earn its place on a plate when we already have gravy for moisture and potatoes to fill us up. It adds flavour without detracting from the main event (the meat) and can nonetheless be enjoyed on its own – a most considerate companion.
And for all that, it is cheap as anything to make. Indeed, it is an excellent use of stale bread that might otherwise go to waste since the bread really does need to be dried out, or else it doesn’t meld properly with the milk and you get a pappy sensation in the mouth.
Sachets, for a similar reason, are absolutely out of the question. Much like buying ready-mashed potato, they are a ludicrous expense for something you could more cheaply produce yourself and never as good as the fully homemade version.
The joy of bread sauce is precisely in that sense of home and homeliness. It is the thing your mother puts you in charge of to ease her load when cooking a roast whilst not relinquishing control of anything that could genuinely go wrong (it is practically fool proof unless you burn the milk so a helpful tip is, simply, don’t). The soothing richness and soft texture provide an undeniably childlike satisfaction, for moments when our taste buds don’t want to be challenged so much as cossetted.
Like the warm glow of a fire, bread sauce is a cosy facet of cold, British winters. So I shall simply have to make myself a bowl or two of the stuff before I jet off to those warmer climes because, while Christmas may not be Christmas without bread sauce, bread sauce only really has its place here at home.
To make your own, try this basic recipe…
Serves: 4-6 people, as a side dish
Takes: Approximately one hour (or however long you need it to; can be prepared in advance)
8-10 slices white bread, crusts removed
1 pint full fat milk
50-100g unsalted butter (or to taste)
1 white onion
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
1. Make the breadcrumbs by grating the dried-out bread, or placing it in a food processer (a coffee grinder also does the job exceedingly well).
2. Peel the onion and cut off the root, creating a flat base.
3. Stick the bay leaf to the onion with one of the cloves, and stud the rest of the cloves evenly around the onion.
4. Place the onion in the middle of a saucepan and cover with the milk.
5. Warm over a very gentle heat, stirring occasionally, for 30-60 minutes or however long is convenient whilst cooking the rest of the meal.
6. About 30 minutes before you wish to serve, remove the onion and tip in the breadcrumbs, turning the heat up to medium.
7. Stir in a good few knobs of butter, and salt and pepper to taste.
8. Continue to stir and taste, amending as necessary. You may need to add more milk if it becomes too stodgy, or to loosen the mixture if you’ve had to keep it warm.
9. Serve in a warmed bowl or gravy boat.
Or track it down at one of these well-trusted restaurants in London…
The Game Bird
As the name would suggest, the recently relaunched restaurant within The Stafford hotel celebrates all things game in time-honoured style. Their roast grouse is not only served with bread sauce, but game chips, paté and brioche. 16-18 St James’s Place, London, SW1A 1NJ
The Jugged Hare
Right by the Barbican, this popular pub is well worth visiting for the food alone, particularly in the winter. The rotisserie chicken comes with bread sauce and stuffing as standard, as does the roasted red grouse currently on the menu. 49 Chiswell Street, London, EC1Y 4SA