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?