La ou les quenelle(s)?

I first discovered ‘quenelles’ when we moved to Lyon many years ago. A specialty of la cuisine lyonnaise, the quenelle is a sausage-shaped delicacy made of dough and finely minced fish or meat that is covered in sauce and baked in the oven until it blows up to twice its size and splits open, browning and bubbling in its dish.

Among the choices on the menu when we first began exploring the ‘bouchons Lyonnais’ — restaurants so small they were named after the cork in the wine bottle — the quenelle was certainly among the safest. Pigs’ trotters and tripe sausage were not for me.

I remember ordering, in my careful French, the quenelle only to have the waiter repeat: “Laq’nelle?” He had a twinkle in his eye so I’m not sure if I was missing out on a joke or he was just showing off the local lingo.

Later I discovered that quenelles could be found in most major supermarkets in France. The dish soon became a staple. It was a go-to dinner when the kids were small. Easy, quick, delicious. One that I’d forgotten about for some years in my drive to eat fewer prepared foods. Last week, though, on a cold night, I rediscovered les quenelles. Quelle joie!

It’s a simple thing, really, and typical of the humble origins of Lyon’s cuisine, yet the quenelle can be so delightfully flavoured and sauced that it rises — literally and figuratively — above its grade.

What I do is buy a better grade of quenelle, i.e. not the cheapest ones that are the most industrial looking but an artisanal brand. One with brochet or pike is my preference. Sometimes they’re called ‘délices’ as they’re not allowed to use the term ‘quenelle’ unless it meets certain criteria (yep, this is France!)

I then laid them out in a shallow baking dish and while the oven preheated, made a sauce. I can manage a fair Béchamel sauce, even using skim milk. I made it fairly thin (not too much flour) as the quenelles need to soak up lots of liquid in order to puff up nicely. But I added a couple of handfuls of grated comté cheese at the end for richness. The result was delightful. And accompanied by fresh wilted spinach (straight out of the bag, for time’s sake) sautéed with a bit of onion, the meal felt reasonably well-balanced.

You should be aware that ‘la quenelle’ has a dark side, however. The term became known in the last decade for a gesture popularized by the comedian, Dieudonné. He is known for his politics as well as his (questionable) humour and thanks to him, ‘la quenelle’ came to be known as a kind of reverse Nazi salute. I’ve heard it explained many different ways, as a subversive sort of ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, in reference to a sexual act (you don’t want to know) and, most disturbingly, as an antisemitic gesture.

To avoid any confusion, we generally refer to ‘les quenelles’ as the dish and ‘la quenelle’ as the gesture. I know which one I’ll have!

Have you ever had quenelles?

25 comments

  1. francetaste · February 20

    I also had les quenelles for the first time in Lyon and also found them to be fantastic. Haven’t made at home yet.
    As for other, subversive meanings, it also refers to a body part. Dieudonné knows being shocking is a path to fame when one doesn’t have other talent.

    • MELewis · February 21

      My mind is often in the gutter but I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before! 😳 I will never eat quenelles with quite the same insouciance! They are so easy and fun, it’s almost a comfort food.

  2. phildange · February 20

    To be utterly fair, we must not forget that in his first years on stage Dieudonné was a funny pleasure to hear . Either alone or twinned with his mate Elie Semoun (“Elie et Dieudonné”) we really appreciated his humour .
    This deserves to be remembered now after his staggering fall into stinky abysses which a kind of demonic whirlwind dragged him into . For me, and for all my friends of this time, this sudden madness was – and remains- an absolutely inapprehensible shock .

    • MELewis · February 21

      Yes, shocking and all the more so as Elie Semoun is Jewish! I read that he also found the shift in his former partner to be ‘incompréhensible’. Unfortunately my French was not at a level to have been able to get the humour back then, so I’ll have to take your word for it on DD’s talent. I do like Elie and in fact enjoy some of his jazz singing. Probably not your thing though as I believe you are a hardcore rocker! 😛

      • phildange · February 21

        Pardon me, I love blues rock far more than hard rock, and when I discovered jazz in NYC in 79 I became a perennial jazz lover .

      • MELewis · February 21

        To your credit! 🤩

  3. midihideaways · February 20

    This sounds wonderful – I’ve not yet tried quenelles, but will give the ready made ones a go when I next go to a big supermarket.

    • MELewis · February 21

      Yes, do! Another easy way to try them is to slice them up and sauté until crispy. They go nicely on a salad that way.

      • midihideaways · February 21

        I like the sound of that too – makes a really quick lunch or supper!! 🙂

  4. Ally Bean · February 20

    These are a completely new-to-me dish. They look delicious, and I like how you balanced them with the spinach. I’ll look in our grocery but I’m betting there won’t be any there. Still if there are, I’ll try them.

    • MELewis · February 21

      I’d be surprised if you find them outside France to be fair. Let me know if you do! Better yet, come to the land of quenelles! 🇫🇷

  5. chezperrier · February 20

    I love quenelles! My husband comes from close to Lyon. The first time I tried quenelles was in Lyon but his mother also makes them at home and they are incredible. Truly a regional specialty!

    • MELewis · February 21

      I’ve never actually tried to make the quenelles themselves, as I’m just too lazy and they are pretty good even store bought. Lucky you to be able to enjoy your belle-mère’s home-cooked version!

      • chezperrier · February 21

        My belle-mère often whips up more labor-intensive dishes. I love her courgette soufflé and her cold poached salmon. 🙂 We have ordered premade quenelles with Nantua sauce from a local San Francisco French-owned company, but it doesn’t come cheap. Good to know that the store bought ones in France can suffice in a pinch. 😉

  6. Dale · February 21

    And to think all this time I thought quenelles were merely a way to shape cheese or meats or ice cream or… (into a football shape)

    • MELewis · February 21

      I know, eh? Some information I could live without, ha ha! I suppose you have to take the good with bad. And they are very good! So I guess not really available in your local supermarchés?

      • Dale · February 21

        Never seen any!!!

  7. paul · February 21

    You said the quenelles have a dark side Could it be that one a got a bit burnt.underneath and the taste went . Maybe, someone out there associated the lack of taste with Dieudonne “jokes” .and that’s how the gesture got its name. Just a thought 🙂 . I have never tried one but they sound delicious although not that healthy. but I will never the less risk it on my next trip to France.

    • MELewis · February 21

      It’s a small risk, and one well worth taking! Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts…definitely associated with the bad taste of Dieudonné!

  8. paul · February 21

    I’ll tell myself the spinach makes it safe

  9. margaret21 · February 21

    Gosh, I don’t know these at all, and I think we need to put that right. But I know all about pigs’ trotters. I was brought up on them. And jolly good they are too, well prepared.

  10. Garfield Hug · February 22

    A delicious share indeed. Thanks!

  11. awtytravels · February 22

    This is THE stuff! Hell knows why Dieudonné had to tarnish the Quenelle’s name.

  12. CompassAndCamera · February 27

    I love your posts. I always learn something new! Merci!

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