The story behind the classic French dish boeuf bourguignon

Once maligned by the French, this beef and red wine stew has arguably become the national dish. Chefs the world over have embraced the Burgundian classic — even if they don’t always agree on the recipe.

Monday, August 24, 2020,
By Felicity Cloake
Photographs By Ant Duncan
This beef and red wine stew, hailing from Burgundy, has arguably become the national dish of ...

This beef and red wine stew, hailing from Burgundy, has arguably become the national dish of France. 

Photograph by Ant Duncan

If the French have elevated cookery to an art form, boeuf bourguignon is perhaps the most prized of their national collection — beef cooked slowly in fruity red wine until so soft, sticky and deliciously savoury that to call it a mere stew feels almost insulting. 

This classic of provincial French cooking was described by the great post-war British cookery writer and Francophile Elizabeth David as ‘the domain of French housewives and owner-cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs’. These days, however, the boundaries between home and haute cuisine are less strictly drawn, and you’re as likely to find it deconstructed in one of Burgundy’s many Michelin-starred restaurants as you are at the kitchen table. 

Bourguignon, of course, means, ‘of Bourgogne’, or Burgundy, a region in eastern France between Lyon and Paris best known for its wine. Indeed, along with Champagne to the north, and its great rival Bordeaux to the south west, it can fairly claim to be one of the most famous production areas in the world. It’s here the traveller will pass road signs bearing names more often spotted towards the bottom end of the wine list; places like Mersault and Nuits-Saint-Georges — pretty villages lapped by a green sea of meticulously tended vines. 

Read Felicity Cloake's boeuf bourguignon recipe

Burgundian food is often said to mirror its wine; lighter, more delicate cooking in the north, where flinty chablis reigns supreme; heavier, richer fare in the south, where buttery whites and fuller reds predominate. The region also produces perhaps the world’s most renowned chicken, in the form of poulet de Bresse, declared ‘the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings’ by the 18th-century gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (for whom the cheese was named). But southern Burgundy is also said to produce some of the best beef in France. Travel east from Mâcon, and as the landscape flattens out, those vines give way to pasture dotted with the distinctive white Charolais cows, celebrated for their tender, generously marbled meat.

Unsurprisingly, then, alongside mustard (the region’s capital, Dijon, has been the centre of the French trade in it since the Middle Ages), beef and wine are key ingredients in the Burgundian kitchen, making boeuf bourguignon a dish truly of its terroir. However, as ‘à la bourguignon’ simply means cooked in the Burgundy style, expect to find everything from eggs to eel served in a red wine sauce with mushrooms, baby onions and bacon lardons. 

Beef has long been the most famous version: Pierre Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle (‘Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th Century’), first published in 1867, defines ‘bourguignon’ in culinary parlance as referring to ‘many things cooked in wine’, but gives beef as the sole example, making this the first recorded mention of one of France’s most famous dishes. Far from being an ancient local favourite, however, ‘boeuf bourguignon’ doesn’t appear on lists of Burgundian fare until well into the 20th century. As late as 1928, Marie Ébrard writes in her classic cookbook, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E Saint-Ange, that ‘despite the name, this is not a regional speciality’.

The first mention of anyone actually eating the dish comes in an 1878 Paris travel guide, Baedeker’s Paris and its Environs. It claims only the plump waitresses at a Bouillon Duval chain restaurant make the boeuf bourguignon acceptable, which, as French food historian Jim Chevallier observes, makes it apparent the dish ‘did not enjoy a great reputation’. One clue as to why this might be comes from a contemporary recipe recommending bourguignon as a good way to use up roast meat; possibly diners were tired of being served up stringy, dry leftovers ineptly disguised by a heavy, wine-soaked sauce. 

‘True’ boeuf bourguignon, according to the legendary French cookery writer Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec, is made ‘housewife-style’, by layering the meat and vegetables (classically baby onions and mushrooms, although carrots are now also common) in a pot, pouring over the wine and stock and leaving it to bubble away while you get on with feeding the chickens or darning the socks. 

Photograph by Ant Duncan

“A young red burgundy is best for this dish, but you can substitute any fruity, fairly light red — after three hours in the oven, you’re unlikely to notice the difference. ”

By the 20th century, though, recipes began to appear using fresh beef — often a whole joint, rather than the smaller pieces commonly used today — making the dish less like a stew and more akin to the classic pot au feu or an American pot roast. The meat was often marinated for a day in red wine before cooking — a practice perfected by the late Lyonnaise chef Paul Bocuse that persists in some quarters. Michel Roux Jr, however, isn’t a fan, arguing that ‘this makes for a gamey flavour that’s not entirely true to the original’. Also, he insists, the longer meat spends in an acidic liquid such as wine, the drier it becomes. 

A young red burgundy, naturellement, is the traditional choice, whether you’re marinating or not. The region’s lucrative wine business is centred around four main grape varieties: pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay (the one used to make beaujolais) and aligoté, although in practice, the first two so-called ‘noble’ varieties account for about 80% of plantings. Red burgundy will thus be pinot noir, unless otherwise stated, while white will be chardonnay.

The cut of beef needs to be suited to long, slow cooking; this is no place for fillet or sirloin, but equally, what’s commonly sold simply as stewing or braising steak has a tendency to be too lean for the purpose. Unappetising as it might sound, a certain amount of fat and connective tissue is vital; given enough time and gentle heat it will break down to enrich and thicken the sauce with deliciously sticky gelatine, while the meat itself will become beautifully tender. English food writer Simon Hopkinson suggests ‘well-hung, sinewy beef — chuck, shoulder or shin, perhaps’; Gordon Ramsay prefers shin; featherblade was Anthony Bourdain’s choice, while Michel Roux Jr opts for cheek. In her meat-focused tome Carneval, British chef and cookbook author Harry Eastwood argues cheeks are ‘perfect vehicles for a bourguignon since they absorb all the flavours in the pan and the meat surrenders completely’.

‘True’ boeuf bourguignon, according to the legendary French cookery writer Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec, is made ‘housewife-style’, by layering the meat and vegetables (classically baby onions and mushrooms, although carrots are now also common) in a pot, pouring over the wine and stock and leaving it to bubble away while you get on with feeding the chickens or darning the socks. More modern versions tend to brown the meat and vegetables separately first, giving the dish yet another layer of flavour, and some particularly cheffy recipes finish the dish by reducing the gravy to a rich, thick sauce, helped on its way with a generous dollop of butter. Some even suggest adding a glug of cognac — although, as a product of Burgundy’s great rival, Bordeaux, this probably wouldn’t go down well with a home crowd.

Of course, these aren’t the only ways boeuf bourguignon has evolved over the years; even Elizabeth David allows that a dish of this nature doesn’t have a ‘rigid formula, each cook interpreting it according to her taste’. And mon dieu, they do: Anne-Sophie Pic, the French chef-owner of three-Michelin-star Maison Pic, adds tandoori spices; French chef Yves Camdeborde chocolate and orange zest; and at Miznon in Paris, boeuf bourguignon has in the past been served in pitta bread. The French edition of Grazia has recommended making boeuf bourguignon sushi rolls as a clever mix of French and Japanese cuisine, while Jamie Oliver’s website has featured a vegetarian version using mushrooms in place of beef.

Whether such reinterpretations fill you with hope or horror, boeuf bourguignon isn’t about to go out of fashion anytime soon — in fact, in a 2017 survey, the French overwhelmingly voted it their top national dish, seeing off the likes of snails and frog’s legs.

In a 2017 survey, the French overwhelmingly voted it their top national dish, seeing off the likes of snails and frog’s legs.

Photograph by Ant Duncan

Timeline

1847 Antonin Carême’s L’Art de la Cuisine Française au XIXe Siècle has a recipe for eel in a sauce ‘a la bourguinotte’.

1867 The first mention of ‘boeuf bourguignon’ appears in Pierre Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle.

1878 The first evidence of boeuf bourguignon being served in a restaurant appears in Baedeker’s Paris and its Environs.

1885 The first printed recipe for the dish, in M Butler’s La Bonne Cuisine pour Tous, recommends using leftover meat.

1894 Swiss chef Joseph Favre’s Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique has a recipe similar to the dish we know today.

1907 A translation of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire features the first recipe for a bourguignonne sauce in English.

1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) popularises the dish in the US. 

2017 Boeuf bourguignon is the winner in a Toluna Institute survey to find France’s top national dish. 

The images in this piece were styled by Amy Kinnear.

Published in Issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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