In the summer of 1969, I decided to leave college for a while and pursue other activities. To make a living, I worked as a draftsman for an architectural and engineering consulting firm. One of the engineers I worked with, Larry, became a close friend. I’d spend my off hours at his house enjoying many glasses of wine, watching sports on television, and listening to opera—all at the same time. One week, he and his wife made a beef burgundy stew that took them two days to prepare and me two minutes to devour. I wasn’t doing any serious cooking in those days and I didn’t consider recreating what, at the time, was the best stew I had ever eaten. (It was certainly much better than the bowls of tough, grayish meat chunks suitable for a Dickens novel that I cooked in Boy Scouts. That was called stew, too.) I did make a mental note of the source of the recipe—a cookbook by a lady with a high, squeaky voice who was then on television. She called her program The French Chef.
Jump forward in time about fifteen years. While searching through used-book stores for Chinese cookbooks, my interest at the time, I decided to spend $13.50 on a used copy of the 23rd printing of the 1973 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.1 This is the cookbook with the beef stew I had loved on that single occasion years earlier. Only then did I find out the name was really bœuf bourguignon. I prepared the recipe once or twice, but I made so many modifications that my version barely resembled the original. And I don’t think it tasted as good as I remembered. But now I had my first French cookbook—which, I was to learn years later, was really designed, when it was first published in 1961, for an American audience as an introduction to cooking “authentic” French-style food using locally available ingredients.2
One evening, some time later, I needed a sauce for some meat I was cooking. I don’t remember exactly how much later or what the meat was. I searched through a number of cookbooks but decided to try a sauce from that “French” cookbook out of which I had cooked only the bœuf bourguignon until then. I chose a brown mustard sauce called sauce Robert. It tasted pretty good, so I made it a few more times. But when I started to cook French food seriously a few years later, the recipe for sauce Robert didn’t make the move from my binder of miscellaneous recipes to my binder of French recipes.
I didn’t think much more about sauce Robert during that period. I was busy learning all sorts of new recipes from my various French sources. In 1999, I purchased the millennium edition of the Larousse Gastronomique.3 While thumbing through all 1215 pages of this massive tome the evening that it was delivered to my house, I ran across a version of sauce Robert that looked worthwhile. Indeed, it was. Here was a sauce worth making over and over again. I later published my re-creation of the recipe in my first article on sauces, in January 2002.4
When I published that sauce Robert recipe, I already was aware of the fact that the sauce had a history several centuries old. I enjoyed telling dinner guests that the original recipe had its roots in the 16th century, although I had read only one reference telling me so. Later, when I was researching the history of blanc manger5 in 2004, I noticed that sauce Robert kept showing up in the sources I was gathering on that subject. While I was spending most of my effort to learn about blanc manger, each time sauce Robert appeared in a reference I made a note to go back to it later.
Besides providing a recipe for sauce Robert, the Larousse Gastronomique also includes this short two lines: “The name of a sauce based on white wine, vinegar, and mustard. It is a classic accompaniment to pork chops and other grilled meats.” But there is nothing about who Robert was. In the previous French-language edition,6 the description is much longer. To the first two sentences is added: “It is wrongly attributed to a certain Robert Vinot, a cook from the end of the 16th century, but Rabelais, in le Quart Livre , mentioned ‘Robert, inventor of sauce Robert, a healthy and necessary addition to roast rabbit, duck, fresh pork, poached eggs, salt cod, and many other meats.’ Besides, le Grand Cuisine (1583) mentions a sauce Barbe Robert, the recipe having been previously published in Viandier7 as ‘taillemaslée’ (fried onions, verjuice, vinegar, and mustard) for roast rabbit, fried fish, and fried eggs.” The first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, written about 50 years earlier, states that sauce Robert “was invented by a certain Robert Vinot, who, according to the legend on a print which bears his portrait, was a celebrated sauce maker at the beginning of the seventeenth century.”8
The Rabelais quote is taken almost word for word from Emile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, originally published in 1859 and 1872.9, 10 The version of the Viandier mentioned is a manuscript in possession of the Vatican that is believed to have been scribed in the first half of the 15th century. Taillevent, the supposed author, is believed to have died in 1395—long before Robert Vinot is believed to have lived.
(Allow me a personal observation: it seems to me that most French dishes named after individuals, at least when the individual is a man, use the family name in the title rather than the given name, unless the honoree is of royalty and goes by one name only. There are exceptions, but these seem to be rare.)
Although sauce Robert is my favorite sauce, apparently that’s not the case with anyone else. I can’t remember ever seeing the sauce listed on a menu. When I brought up the subject with a couple of chef-friends of mine in France, they hadn’t heard of sauce Robert. And I’ve gone through my modern French cookbooks without finding a single recipe for sauce Robert, except in the books already mentioned. But it wasn’t always this way.
As I’ve mentioned, there is one recipe for sauce Robert in the most recent Larousse Gastronomique. So let’s use this recipe as a baseline and look back in history to see how recipes for the sauce have evolved. Here it is: