Friday, October 3, 2008

You Say Pâté; I Say Terrine

Last evening, after eating a couple of slices of my lamb terrine flavored with dried pears and red wine, a customer asked me exactly what a terrine is. I'm afraid that may have launched me into a mini-lesson on charcuterie at his table. I hope I didn't overwhelm him with details. Some people love to bake breads, others love to do desserts, me, my passion is for charcuterie. I'm not a big meat eater, so go figure.

Charcuterie (from the French chair cuit, cooked meat) is that branch of cooking that in modern times embraces sausages, meat pies, hams, smoked and cured meats, terrines, pâtés, galantines, ballotines, and so forth. These are dishes that I love to cook from the humblest Cornish pasty or albóndigas to the most elegant truffled pheasant galantine, and you will see them on the appetizer menu from time to time.

Like the customer last evening, most customers and my staff are really confused about the terminology. They are not alone: most professional chefs have no clue either. And a lot of the information that I read on the web is just wrong.

The basis for most (but certainly not all) charcuterie is a forcemeat (farce in French from farcir, to stuff), a mixture of ground meat and fat. When cooked, this forcemeat is called pâté, from the French pâte (paste). There are further subdivisions of pâté based on how you make the forcemeat, but that's a subject for a technical book and not a blog post.

In this post, I want to examine four different ways of cooking a pâté that form the basis for the nomenclature on my menus.

If I encase the pâté in pastry (called, oddly enough, pâte à pâté, pastry for pâté) and bake it, and then fill the voids between the pastry and the cooked farce with aspic, I have made a classic pâté en croûte, pâté in a crust. If I call something a pâté, that means in my lexicon that I have encased it in a crust.

If I cook the pâté in a mold called a terrine, from the French terre via the Latin terra, earth, formerly an earthenware baking dish, I have made a pâté en terrine. This form has been shortened to simply terrine. Here is a photo of one of my terrines, the industry standard cast iron model from Le Creuset. I own many more terrines in various shapes, but they are earthenware models and I keep them at home, lest my dishwasher beat them up.

Both pâtés and terrines are chilled, unmolded, and served cold. Beyond this similarity, I think many of us chefs make a distinction in terminology based on the fineness of the forcemeat. When I make a pâté en croûte, I use a very finely ground or mousseline forcemeat. When I make my workaday terrines, I use fairly roughly ground forcemeat. So there is a tendency in the industry to reserve the term pâté for fancy presentation work and terrine for quotidian work.

If I take a whole bird (usually a chicken, pheasant, or guinea hen), skin it, bone it, stuff it with forcemeat, and roll it back in its own skin, I have created a galantine. I would then poach it and cover it in an aspic or aspic-based sauce such as a chaudfroid (French, literally hot-cold: you pour it on hot and it solidifies as the gelatin cools). Then I would decorate the opaque chaudfroid with designs made from vegetables such as leek leaves and poached carrots and seal the deal with aspic. This is a major work of art, perhaps the epitome of showpieces, and if I ever make one for you, I like you a lot!

More often, I will bone out a bird and prepare it as for a galantine. Then I will bake it so that the skin browns very prettily and serve it warm, without further decoration. This is a ballotine.

That's enough for one blog post. Certainly this is only the tip of a very large iceberg: I have dozens of books on the subject. Maybe someday I will get up the energy to talk about mousses, mousseline pâtés, quenelles, and so forth.


  1. No, the customer (me) didn't mind at all. The food was excellent, and hearing about it was fascinating.

    Are pates/terrines ever served hot? That's how I'm used to having my meat :)

  2. I'm glad to hear that I didn't bore you.

    By those names, I am not aware that pâtés and terrines are served warm. They'd be very difficult to slice. Cooling them congeals them into a solid mass such that you can slice them.

    And, if we served them warm, we'd have to call them meatloaf, right?! Pass the ketchup. ;)

    Of course, most meatballs are served warm in sauce.

    Ballotines are mostly served warm as are quenelles, which are gently poached bits of forcemeat, essentially poached meatballs.

  3. I'm curious: when you were talking in the post about forcemeat, you said "when cooked, this forcemeat is called pate..." So are there times when it wouldn't be cooked?

  4. No, I simply meant that it is called forcemeat until it is cooked. After that, the cooked product is called pâté.