Sole Thermidor

A recipe derived from a calendar, a massacre, a play, and a political dinner.

Lobster and crayfish thermidor at The Cow Shed by, on Flickr

Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than that. Let’s start at the beginning–and I promise, I’ll keep it short (because I’m in NYC again today).

In 1792, the French Republican government was busy trying to bury the past and celebrate its Enlightenment-inspired theories on how to operate a society. As most weights and measures had some kind of royal connection (either hypothetical, as in the length of a foot, or practical, as in defining volumes to be taxed) and were somewhat arbitrary, the Republic introduced decimal-based systems. The system of measurement was pretty successful and eventually became the metric system.

The new calendar was not as successful. For twelve years (1793 until it was abolished by Napoleon I in 1805), France used the French Republican Calendar, which had twelve months, each of which had three ten-day weeks. The months were given names derived from roots with a connection to the natural world, like Germinal (derived from the Latin for harvest), Frimaire (from the French for frost) or Thermidor (from the Greek for heat).

In the early years of the revolution, there was a great deal of fighting between different factions. While Robespierre and the other leading figures maintained control by brutally murdering political opponents in what came to be called the Reign of Terror. In 1794, on the 9th of Thermidor (or 27th of July), that reign ended in the Thermidor Reaction, when Robespierre and 21 others were executed.

About a century later, in 1891, Victorien Sardou wrote a series of plays set during the revolution. One of those plays, Thermidor, dramatized the executions. The play opened in 1894 (at least, according to most sources) at the Comédie-Française, a state-operated theater. In honor of the play, a restaurant near the theater named Marie’s created lobster thermidor. This recipe is, at least in theory, the same concept as the lobster version, but using sole.

The classic thermidor has egg yolks, cream, butter, and brandy or cognac, but many chefs do something more along the lines of what’s here, with a broiled cheese crust and a fortified wine instead.

From a box sold in Martinez, California.

Sole Thermidor

2 lb. sole fillets
2 T. butter, melted
1 t. salt
1/2 t. seasoned salt
1/8 t. pepper
1-1/4 c. milk
3 T. butter
3 T. flour
1 c. grated cheese
3 T. sherry

Brush one side of each fillet with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt, seasoned salt, and pepper. Spray 9×9 glass baking dish with nonstick vegetable spray.

Roll up each fillet and place seam side down in baking pan. Pour 1/2 c. milk over fillets. Cover and bake at 350 F. for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt remaining 3 Tbsp. butter. Stir in flour; gradually add milk. Continue cooking, stirring constantly until thickened. Reduce heat; stir in cheese and sherry. Spoon off liquid from cooked fillets, reserving 1/4 c.

Add reserved liquid to cheese sauce; blend well. Pour cheese sauce over fillets. Sprinkle with paprika. B[r]oil for 1-2 minutes, or until cheese sacue is slightly golden.

Makes 6-8 servings.

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