Pass the hot brown thick sauce please…
A distinctive characteristic of the many meat dishes you will find in Germany, is the glistening pools of thick brown gravy that covers the meat. When I see it illustrated on a German packet of gravy mix, I think: Ah, Bisto – a gravy mix that makes a reliably smooth and dark gravy in minutes. I mention this gravy not to scoff: but to wonder. I wonder at the consistency, thick and translucent; do they use cornflour as a thickener? I wonder at the taste, it has a certain ‘cup-a-soup’ taste about it; a taste that’s only possible with a touch of msg and other powders and chemicals only available from a food laboratory. I wonder about the colour – somewhere between a dark umber and a rich amber; do they use caramel, mushrooms, a dark roux or aged balsamic? In short, I wondered how I could make it.
I decided to have a go, using gravy from a packet as a reference point. I’m confident that most German restaurants make this brown gravy using commercial mixes. This is not to say that they could not make it from scratch, but it seems that Germans prefer to make their sauces and many other sweet or savoury emulsions from a packet. Pop into a German Deli and you will find shelves and shelves of neat little packets for gravy, sauces, creams, desserts and many other foods.
I visited my local German deli and was browsing through the gravy packs. I quickly became confused by the numerous options. My German ‘proprietor-cum-interpreter’ was none-the-wiser. I chose one that – as my interpreter offered helpfully: goes on ‘pig’.
I made the gravy at home. It tasted as I suspected; it had a ubiquitous, generic ‘brown’ flavour. I then made my version of the gravy, which was more of a French construction. I added extra flour for thickness, and browned the roux, I did use mushrooms and balsamic vinegar, but none of my browning techinques achieved the colour of the gravy on the illustrated packets. I finally decided to use a commercial browning liquid to give depth – and make it brown.
There are many firmly held views in the food world on the matter of gravy and its thickness. I like it thick, my wife likes it thin. Ask around and you will get a different response every time. Ask in Germany and I suspect most will include the words, ‘thick’, and ‘brown’. You may also hear the word ‘sauce’. And this is the word that helps me to understand the German gravy, because a German gravy is like a sauce, a quite thick sauce – as in the consistency of Hollandaise, or Crème Anglais. It wraps around their cutlets, roasts and dumplings like a comforting blanket. I believe this helped me to make a dish that felt quite authentic – instead of gravy, I smothered my dish with a hot, thick brown sauce.