The gastronome Brillat-Savarin is probably best known for his adage, Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are, which is often referenced today as You are what you eat. Indeed, if Brillat-Savarin were still alive and asked his fellow Frenchmen what they eat, certain foodstuffs would help signify their origin. A prime example would be where he gets his fat from, because French food is defined by its fat sources. In the North, the fat is butter; in the Southwest, it is goose or duck fat; in the Southeast, the fat is olive oil.
This recipe is for my mothers Boeuf Bourguignon, which is, essentially, a beef stew hailing from the Burgundy region of France. This region is renowned for three foods: wine, beef, and mustard. The first two are the two most essential ingredients in the stew, and define it as Burgundian. Yet, as Waverly Root notes in The Food of France, The most refined professional Burgundian cooking never gets far from the soil in which it is rooted.
This is a stew that embodies not what it means to be French, but what it means to be Burgundian. Of course, there have been a few liberties taken; you could even say this is inspired by Burgundy Beef. I imagine that a French person would yelp Mon Dieu! at the notion of using Bovril in his stew. I, too, was very skeptical when I heard this. But Bovril actually enhances the taste significantly, and who really cares, anyway? As the French themselves would say, cest la vie.
6 Tablespoons butter
2 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2 cubes
3 Tablespoons brandy
1/2 pound pearl white onions, peeled (about 12 small onions)
1/2 pound small fresh mushrooms
2 1/2 Tablespoons potato flour
2 1/2 teaspoons Bovril (do not substitute any other meat extract or paste)
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cup red wine from Burgundy
3/4 cup dry sherry
3/4 cup ruby port
1 can condensed beef broth, undiluted
Pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
1. Melt 4 Tablespoons butter over high heat in a Dutch oven or other large pot.
2. Brown the beef cubes slowly and do not crowd the pan. If the beef does not all fit in the pan at once, brown in batches and then return to the pot after all is browned.
3. In small saucepan, heat 2 Tablespoons of brandy until vapor rises from the pot. Ignite (be careful with this step, and use long matches if possible), and pour over beef. As flame dies, remove the beef cubes; set aside.
4. Add 2 Tablespoons of butter to the Dutch oven and heat until melted. Add the onions, and cook until slightly browned. Then add the mushrooms and stir for three minutes. Remove from heat.
5. Stir in flour, meat paste, and tomato paste until well blended. Add sherry, red wine, port, and beef broth.
6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
7. Bring wine mixture to boil, stir, then remove from heat. Add the beef, pepper and bay leaf. Mix well.
8. Bake, covered and stir occasionally; at least two hours or until beef is tender, adding the remaining brandy, little by little.
NOTE: This recipe is better prepared the day before, refrigerated and reheated slowly before serving.