Steak au poivre, and how conventions are established.
Adapted from: the French bistro staple.
Pepper has always occupied a lot of real estate in my heart. From a spicy cacio e pepe to the pepper gravy at La Banquise in Montreal, I have always welcomed the spice in overdose. The limit does not exist. And if I’m not eating it, I’m wearing it—a few years ago it was Balmain Ambre Gris, then Comme des Garçons Black, then my friend Dana’s beautiful tribute to Otis Redding, Otis & Me. Last week I bought a sample of Atelier Materi’s Poivre Pomelo at H Parfums in Montreal, and for a minute my seasonal affective disorder felt entirely surmountable.
Despite this penchant for pepper, I’d never had steak au poivre, although I’d always assumed I would love it. This theory proved to be entirely accurate, my tastes wholly predictable: the peppery sherry-cream sauce was such a potent dopamine booster that I considered licking my plate clean. It transformed the everyday spice—all too often taken for granted, wrapped into a thoughtless seasoning ritual these days—into something ambrosial.
But pepper wasn’t always quotidian. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, pepper was considered a luxury good and a status symbol. “In parts of the world, people paid rents, taxes, and dowries with the spice,” writes Kamalika Mukherjee for Food52, “So popular was pepper that it earned the monikers ‘black gold’ and ‘king of spices.’”
And when did salt and pepper cement their status as the iconic tabletop duo? (This is, of course, only from a Westernized perspective.) According to this Gizmodo article, we have Louis the XIV to thank (or blame):
Louis the XIV was a notoriously picky eater and preferred his food as lightly seasoned as possible—he considered seasoning a vulgar act. In fact, he banned outright the use of all eastern spices beyond salt, pepper, and parsley (deemed more wholesome and exquisite than ruddy cardamom). Black pepper's spiky, pungent flavor provided just enough kick to the King's meals without overwhelming the taste of the underlying foods to satiate his needs.
There is no consensus as to the origins of steak au poivre itself. On her blog Four Pounds Flour, food historian Sarah Lohman traces the practice of heavily peppering steak all the way back to the early 18th century, with a pepper-crusted venison recipe from Martha Washington. As for the recipe we know today, it emerged a little later. According to Taste Atlas, “the dish originated in the 19th century in Normandy's bistros […] Numerous chefs claimed the invention of the dish, the most famous of them being Émile Lerch, the owner of Restaurant Albert on the Champs-Élysées, who stated that he first made the dish in 1930.”
The first time I made the dish was in 2021. And I suspect I will every year, just to remember what pepper can be.
Molly Baz’s Strip Steak au Poivre (from Cook This Book)
Most steak au poivre recipes, it would seem, call for pressing the steak directly into the freshly-cracked pepper to create a pepper crust. I prefer the way Molly Baz has done it here, which is to season with S&P, and leave the cracked pepper to do its job in the sauce. The Maillard reaction crust formed on the steak is a beautiful thing, all on its own.
• Julia Child’s Steak au Poivre, which includes a mix of peppercorns and the addition of beef bouillon, via Cooking with Julian;
• Alton Brown’s Steak au Poivre, which keeps things simple (no shallots or thyme).
Is there another dish that highlights pepper differently? Tell me all about it.
Until next time,