Pepper steak, or steak au poivre, has been part of the French kitchen and then the world kitchen for generations. Unfortunately “has been” has become “was”, as this quirky dish seems to have disappeared from even the most traditional of French restaurants; I can’t recall the last time I was offered it at home, or away.
You don’t need a Thermomix to bring this great dish back to the forefront, but you do need TMix+ to remind you of its brilliance, particularly in this issue celebrating much of what will always be great about the food of France. It’s also something that can be produced in a flash—10 minutes maximum from go to whoa.
Clearly you need to be a fan of an excess of black pepper to love this dish, but also have a sense for retro French cooking, when cream-based sauces were de rigueur. There are recipes that don’t use cream, but not this one! Pierre Franey, the long-time cooking writer for The New York Times wrote, in 1985, of steak au poivre as “a gastronomic curiosity, for its flavours seem to contradict the accepted rules of seasoning. Preparing a genuine steak au poivre involves what seems to be an unconscionably large amount of coarsely ground pepper. Use a proportionate amount of pepper in almost anything else—a tomato sauce, a soup or casserole, for example—and the dish would almost certainly be written off as a casualty.”
What fascinated me while searching for the beginnings of this classic was a reference to the dish as an aphrodisiac, courtesy of a 2007-dated reference on saveur.com. Saveur noted that “According to French steak specialist Francis Marie, steak au poivre originated in the 19th century in the bistros of Normandy, where noted figures took their female companions for late suppers, and where pepper’s purported aphrodisiac properties may have proved most useful.” You’ll find references to M. Marie’s purported research all over the internet (all linking to the Saveur yarn), but try as I might I could not find any bio for this giant of steak research nor any sense that a good dose of pepper will assist your after-Thermomix, after-dark twists and turns in the cot.
That wonderful resource on all things horticulture, the Kew Gardens website (kew.org) does make reference to black peppers as an aphrodisiac and also as a remedy for colic courtesy of Unani medicine: “A preparation called ‘jawa rishai thurush’ is composed of pepper, ginger, salt, lemon juice and the plants vidanga (primrose family) and mint. It has been prescribed to alleviate indigestion and stomach acidity”. Unani medicine, I have since learnt is practised through parts of India and Asia, but I could find no references to it drifting into Normandy during the 19th century.
The concept of food as aphrodisiac has always bemused me, or perhaps I am a confirmed sceptic, or too much in love to need that extra frisson that comes from a bevy of food items? Whatever; for those who do need recipes that enhance sexual pleasure, TMix+ is no help but the web is replete with advice on what to eat via classic clickbait lists. Reader’s Digest leads the way with “19 aphrodisiac foods proven to spark romance”.
It goes on to challenge any scepticism with this kicker: “Sample these aphrodisiac foods with your sweetie and see if the science holds true.” Amazingly, given the professed wisdom of M. Marie and generations of Unani docs, black pepper is not on the RD list of oysters, chilli peppers, avocados, chocolate, bananas, honey, coffee, watermelon, pinenuts, rocket, olive oil, figs, strawberries, artichokes, chai tea, pomegranate, cherries, pumpkin seeds and whipped cream.
The reality is that it’s not about what you put in your mouth that can get the blood rushing, it’s about how you put dinner together that will do the job. Try this: candlelight, soft Baroque music, a bunch of roses, a couple of glasses of sparkling wine, and this perfectly cooked steak, doused in the sauce of generations. Just make sure that the work in the Thermomix is done early in the evening; the sound of those swirling blades and its ding-ding finale will surely diminish any burgeoning inner fervour.